Book Review: All Systems Red
All Systems Red by Martha Wells is a scifi novella that starts the Murderbot Diaries series. Series is made of nine novels, novellas, and short stories. All Systems Red won the 2018 best novella Nebula and Hugo awards, the American Library Association's Alex award, and was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award. It's also frequently cited on agent wish lists for its voice.
The main character of the series is a security unit (SecUnit) who calls herself Murderbot. She was able to disengage her governing programming which would essentially keep her obedient so that she can watch space soap operas in her free time. She's still excellent at her job though; she's in charge pf protecting a team of scientists and surveyors who are exploring part of a planet. However, when they realize their maps are missing data and they were lied to about the planet's dangers, things quickly take a turn.
I see why this novella won so many awards and is big for agents. The unique perspective of Murderbot was funny and snarky without coming off as mean. The world was well built and the action was super clear. It's exactly the kind of scifi that I hope I'm writing!
Downside was my complaint for every novella: I wanted more! It felt like it wrapped up so quickly and easily to fit into the size of a novella.
You'll like All Systems Red if you enjoy funny/quirky scifi like Scalzi, or if you enjoyed the voice in Gideon the Ninth. It's not for you if you are looking for a novel length read (although with so many other entries in the series, you could just read more).
Have you read any (or all!) of the Murderbot Diaries stories? Let's discuss in the chat!
Mood Board 101
Recently while querying, I've noticed more agents asking for optional things like links to mood boards, playlists, or Pinterest boards. There's even a whole pitch event on Twitter around mood boards. I thought I'd take some time to help anyone struggling to figure out what mood boards are in relation to writing projects and a couple (free!) resources to make them.
What is a mood board?
A mood board is a collage of images, which can include minimal punchy text, which conveys the mood (or as the youths say the vibes) of your story. This includes setting, tone, a sense of character(s), genre, and important visual elements/motifs. If including a quote, it should be short and encapsulate the theme of the novel. A mood board can be a Pinterest page, or you can arrange images into a collage that's a single JPEG using free sites like Canva.
Why make a mood board?
A mood board is good for more than just pitching on Twitter or sending to the rare agent who asks for it in their Query Manager form. The mood board can help you as the author get back into your story between writing sessions. The process of creating one also forces you to think about the important elements, characters, and places in your story. If you've never thought about tone or theme, it may even bring one out of your subconscious.
Where do images come from?
If you're making a mood board for just you, and never plan to use it for marketing (or perhaps even pitching) then don't worry too much about copy written images you find on google. Go ham. If you plan to use it for any type of marketing (or pitching) it's safer for you to stick to royalty free images. I like using Unspalsh, but there are other options as well.
If building your board in Pinterest, obviously you're only able to use that. The board then stays on Pinterest, which can be fine if using it only for yourself, but tough if your goal is to build one for a pitching event.
You can layer text over an image in an editing site like Canva to create a background to match your chosen quote.
It may be a struggle to find exactly what you're using for, so change up search terms and feel free to get creative in finding the right matches for your project. Collect more images than you plan to use, then select your final choices later.
How do I make them a collage?
If building a collage, you can use a free site like Canva. Choose a template that puts 5-9 images of various sizes together. Choose your template wisely, since it may dictate portrait vs landscape oriented images.
If you're not a fan of online graphic design options, there's always good old fashioned Microsoft Paint.
What are some tips and tricks?
One major trick to a mood board is keeping your eye on color. You don't want a ton of competition, and you want it to look cohesive, suggesting your story is cohesive. Choose no more then 3 main colors to include. Ideally, you'll have some muted tones and one that pops. The exception is if color is a huge part of your story, for example if it takes place during Holi, or if color is associated with specific nations (like Avatar: The Last Airbender.)
Another tip is to focus one the main character(s) or setting, don't try to include every subplot, side character, or place. You want someone to walk away from your board with a general impression of your story with minimal words. Confusion is killer.
Don't focus on finding perfect matches in the photos. You'll never find just the right stock model or angle or city for your fictional characters/world. Instead, go for the emotional impact of the image.
Have fun with it! Even if using it for a pitch event or in case an agent asks for one, the mood board's main audience is you.
Example Mood Board
Let's do an example for something everyone is familiar with: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (aka the original). I searched for images as if Star Wars doesn't already exist, so no cheating by searching for droids, stormtroopers, etc. Let's pretend this is a whole new concept and none of those are options so that you SFFH writers know how to get the concept of your vivid fictional creations across without having to do visual effects yourself. (Or you can commission an artist.)
Some stock images I searched for were: space, desert, red laser, hair buns, moon, explosion, black hallway, robotics, fighter plane. Many more terms generated nothing useful including glowstick, duel, robe, telekinesis, epic, hope, and hero.
Here's what I collected:
You can see there's a lot of red, blue, black, and white. Since the blues are pretty soft, I can get away with using all four colors if red is the one that pops. I wanted to make sure it's clear Star Wars is SciFi, so I kept the robot and stars, and lost the fighter plane. I kept the explosion to show action, and the guy looking up at the moon to show Luke's desire to go on an adventure--that's a mood right there. Either the hallway or the moon would be good to put a quote over, but I felt the moon a little more. I cut Leia's hair buns, because while accurate to the story, they didn't fit the adventure vibes of the other images. The red Star sign glows like a lightsaber, but it didn't get across the idea of a lightsaber, and the word star might be too on the nose. So it didn't make my final cut either.
I went to Canva and searched for collage templates. I chose one that had 7 images, uploaded my images, and arranged them. I decided to place my two red images in opposite corners, for balance. I also searched for iconic quotes from Episode IV, and chose "That's no moon..." because it had an ominous, dangerous, and clearly SciFi feel. The other images ended up where they did purely based on orientation that the template dictated, and I'm okay with that. Last, I changed the background to black, because it looked better to me. Your mood board is all about your taste, so follow your gut.
Here's my example mood board:
Does it convey Star Wars: A New Hope perfectly? No. It's missing a ton of characters, events, and technology. Does it capture the idea of a SciFi story about a guy wanting and then having an adventure, which includes some twists? I think so.
Obviously, this isn't something I was deeply invested in making perfect, so when I make one for my own stories, they tend to have a little more nuance/insight to them. However, I hope you found this mood board tutorial helpful or inspirational and maybe you're tempted to go make one for your own project.
Have you made a mood board for your writing? Was it helpful, or was it a major challenge? Do you have more resources for other writers making their own boards? Let's discuss in the comments!
Book Review: Arsenic and Adobo
A very cute cover. Can't forget the little dog, a staple in cozies!
Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P. Manansala is a cozy mystery centered around Lila and her family who own and operate a small Filipino restaurant. It's a fun read and includes recipes for most of the dishes in the back. It's the first book of the Tita Rosie's Kitchen Mystery series, which also include Homicide and Halo-Halo (2022), and Blackmail and Bibingka (2022). Arsenic and Adobo won the 2022 Anthony Award and 2022 Agatha Award, both in the category Best First Novel. The author was a 2017 PitchWars mentee, which shows just how powerful that program was in launching authors' careers.
When Lila's toxic ex dies at her family's restaurant, Lila is a suspect. Knowing her innocence, she tries to solve the murder before her family restaurant has to close forever. In the process, she learns there's more than just murder happening in their small town, and every restaurant has been a victim.
I liked this story a lot. It flowed smoothly and was a fast read. While I didn't know any of the foods at the family restaurant, there was enough description to keep me oriented. There were also a couple love interests that made things exciting beyond the mystery. I could tell this was the start of a series, but it still had closure at the end.
My list of dislikes is pretty short. Mainly, as with many cozy mysteries, I didn't understand why Lila went rogue to solve this alone. Yes, she's a suspect who wants to clear her name, but she wasn't taking any advice from her lawyer, and all the evidence she would would have been inadmissible in court. However, this is my main complaint with almost every cozy, so perhaps it's just a trope I need to let slide when reading this genre.
You'll like Arsenic and Adobo if you like cozy mysteries, books with recipes for the food it describes, and a dash of (PG) romance. It may not be for you if you prefer detective mysteries or expect a higher spice level with your romantic subplots.
Have you read Arsenic and Adobo or the other books in the series? Have you read other novels by PitchWars alums? Let's discuss in the comments!