Friday, August 29, 2014

Pendulum Swings

Creativity is a fickle thing. Or maybe it's the creators who are fickle. All I know is how many writers/artists swing on this giant pendulum between "all my work sucks and should never see the light of day" and "I'm the best at what I do ever and everyone should adore me."

I know I have those crazy swings. I had one just recently (that the marvelous Michelle helped me through). The past two weeks or so, I've been struggling with my storytelling--I felt like all of the stories I wrote were just series of scenes of people talking, with not much of anything else going on. I felt like all of the beginnings to short stories I've started recently were just poorly crafted, or weren't headed anywhere, or otherwise just needed to burn. I would stare at one for fifteen minutes without doing anything except self-loathing before moving onto another story and repeating the process.

But I didn't delete any of them. One of my favorite authors, Gail Carson Levine, talked about keeping everything you write in her book Writing Magic, and that's stuck with me since I read it. I'm completely paranoid about keeping every scrap of writing, including the play-by-post RPGs I'm part of and short stories I hate in the moment.

I'm glad I do keep them, too. Looking back over the beginnings of the shorts and the 15,000 words of novel I was ready to trash, I can see now that they're not as bad as I was afraid they were. Partially it's a product of time, partially the amazing support of my friends and critique partners, and partially learning not to be so hard on myself.

The most comforting thing about all this, though? I know I'm not the only one who goes through it.

What about you? Do you have pendulum swings about your own creations? How do you deal with them?

Even on bad days, Emily tries to be creative somehow. Her first published short story, "Colfax Kitsune" is currently available in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Crossing Colfax anthology and you should totally buy it. 

Find her procrastinating on Twitter @EmilyKSinger

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Short Post on Short Stories

We're talking about short stories again because our podcast guests this week (Warren and Angie) all share space in the same anthology with our delightful Emer.

When I was young, I didn't read many short stories unless they were assigned to me at school. When I sit down to read, I want the biggest, fullest story that consumes days or weeks in my brain. Now that I'm older, helping to run a podcast, write a blog, put together a writing career, and work a full-time day job (not to mention making sure that I show my wife as much love as I possibly can), I've found that I have less and less time to read.

I'm trying to make more time to read, but I've found that the lack of story that comes about as a result of not finishing as many books leaves me wanting more. Always. So I'm turning to short stories to get my fill. Much like snacking on a day when I don't have time for lunch. It's a great way to get a lot of story (entertainment and inspiration) without having to invest nearly as much time.

So go read some short stories. Get yourself into a world with lively characters, a recognizable plot, and then move on to the next story when you have free time again.

Life is too short to make excuses NOT to read, so Giles is investing time in stories, no matter where he can. Not as often as he should, but he's getting there.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Music + Words

I dislike listening to the radio. I don’t use an iPod while I run or work out. Sometimes I write for hours without remembering to turn on music. And yet I can’t imagine a world without lyrics and harmonies.

It’s funny – my entire family has a musical streak. A singer, a flautist, a pianist, and a drummer/guitarist. Then there’s me, the one who quit piano lessons because she hated not being perfect right away.

Music plays a huge part for other writers, too. It doesn't just create background noise to help us concentrate – it jump-starts our emotions, fuels our creativity, and sets the tone for the scenes we write. I don’t want to listen to Hans Zimmer’s Batman score while writing an adorable love scene. For a long time I wrote almost exclusively to Hayao Miyazaki’s score for Princess Mononoke because it was one of the few things that had a song for every feeling I wanted to write.  

As I work on WE ARE MONSTERS, I hear music in my head. At first it was all film scores (what I generally listen to while writing). Then one  of my awesome friends told me that she kept hearing Ms Mr’s Hurricane while she read my book.

I can’t lie: When she told me, I gave her a “Oh, that’s nice” response because I had no idea what she was talking about (see above statement about the radio). But then I got curious. So I opened up the first pages of the manuscript, found Hurricane online, and was blown away. That song fits so perfectly I almost feel like they were made for one another. Since then I have continually looked for songs that fit the feeling of the story. It's like building the soundtrack to a movie, but for a book. I can’t stop.

How do you fuel your creativity? Is it with music or something else?

Michelle fuels her creativity with Pandora internet radio, hard cider, and a headband made from tapestry scraps.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Pantsing Through Life

In this week's episode, we touched on the Plotting From Characters approach that Angie Hodapp taught as a workshop for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers early this year. As I mentioned, I took the workshop and it's definitely helped me look at how I tell stories and experiment with plotting.

But, honestly, deep down, I'm a pantser. I have a full story outlined using this method, but about 15,000 words in, I realized I had written a quarter of a YA novel in which, basically, nothing happens except a lot of talking and a kidnapping scene that probably doesn't even make sense. I tried to use a shortened version of this plotting method for a short story, but got so caught up in trying to make the outline make sense that I didn't actually write the story (and it still doesn't really work as a plot).

There's nothing wrong with that. Everyone writes or creates differently and we all have to find what works for us as individuals. Giles loves his outlines. I have mixed feelings. Part of me really likes knowing where the story's going to go, but they don't necessarily work for me, because my stories tend to evolve more organically and insanely as I'm writing them.

Where do you stand? Do you prefer planning, pantsing, or somewhere in between?

Emily tried planning this blog post before writing it, but it didn't work out and she wound up writing it off-the-cuff after all. Follow her disorganized adventures on Twitter @EmilyKSinger.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Losing the Plot

This week's episode is about (among other things) Book Planning. A couple of months ago, I tried to write a book without using an outline. I just started thinking about a character and wrote what came to mind, following that character through life until...I got bored. Too many easy resolutions to plot problems.

I gave up on that project (though the concept will probably get revived some day), and now I'm working on something new. I got about 10k in, following an internalization of general direction for a potential plot, then hit a wall. I didn't know where to go. What needed to happen next. Or what my character's motivation was. I lost the plot. Literally.

So now, after a great experiment that got me SUPER excited about writing again, I'm back to outlining. I'm not going to do the over-the-top outline I did for my last book. Instead, I'm going to stick with a paragraph for each section (splitting it into 5 acts, as usual), and then I'll get back into the book.

When planning a book, it's important to find out what works for you, and what doesn't work needs to be thrown out. If outlining in-depth works, stick with it. If it doesn't move to a different method. It'll keep you from losing the plot. Probably.

It did for me.

Giles doesn't always lose the plot, but getting back into it is typically a challenge. Stay tuned to see how he recovers.

And follow him on Twitter at GilesHash, and follow Beyond the Trope at BeyondTheTrope

Monday, August 18, 2014

From Star Wars to Murder Mysteries

I’ve always wondered why the first book I ever tried* to write was science fiction. As a young reader, my books were mostly comprised of the likes of Nancy Drew, the Chronicles of Narnia, and Indian Captive**. Then again, like many people of my generation, I also grew up on Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate, and Robotech (lots of stars, apparently).

It’s amazing what influences us writers. I love to write weird/twisted things: the fairy tale princess with a voice in her head; a young woman who disintegrates any living thing she touches. These ideas aren’t just dreams fed by spicy lamb rogan josh and dark chocolate – the seeds had to come from somewhere, and I’m betting many of them were from the entertainment I consume.

It doesn’t bother me to know that my ideas come from more than just myself. In fact, it makes me want to create more and do more in the field. Who doesn’t love Have Spacesuit Will Travel or The Thin Man? These works of art can be daunting, sure, but I hope the shadows of the greats never keep me from reaching for my own sunlight.

I have two dreams that have been germinating in the back of my mind ever since I decided to be a writer. The first is to tackle a sci-fi comedy. The second is to write a quirky murder mystery. I know it might not sound like much, but these two dreams actually kind of scare me. Years of critique groups, classes and seminars have taught me that good things take thought and great things take back-breaking work.

Even though my first attempt at sci-fi failed, I want to write another. Maybe I’ll take that same idea from 15 years ago and make it shine. Or I might just come up with a new, even crazier idea and see what happens when I throw it into outer space. I could even combine the sci-fi comedy with the murder mystery! Who knows? Let’s just say the goal will be to write a book that makes you go WHAAAAAAT and OHMYGOD and NOWAY all in the same sentence.

Dreams that become goals are the best, aren’t they?

Michelle loves writing in hipster coffee shops because all the weirdness hangs in them like fruit ripe for the picking. Also because they have dirty chai lattes. And regular chai lattes. Really just anything that has “CHAI” written on it.  

*It was/is awful. Terrible. Hilariously painful. Stick around and in the next few weeks you might get to read a few snippets for yourself. 
**Ermahgerd Indian Captive. You guys. If you've never read this book, you need to. Seriously. Mary Jemison is taken by the Senecas and Lois Lenski (the author) is AMAZING. Plus it's a super quick read and absolutely precious. It's the only book I've ever read twice in the same year. Three years in a row. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Agony of Carrying On

Since Michelle and Giles have covered both rejection of success this week, I figured I'd take a look at what happens in the middle--the agony of actually having to sit down and do the work that will eventually either get rejected or accepted, either fail or succeed.

Don't get me wrong--I love doing what I do, and I love creating, whether it's writing or something else. But sometimes I feel like I'm the embodiment of the quote "I don't enjoy writing; I enjoy having written."

The act of creation is difficult. You're pulling something from midair, from the collective unconscious, from your own brain, or whatever, and you're making it into a solid, tangible piece. There's nothing easy about going from a vague idea to a full story, or sculpture, or painting. Every step of the process is difficult.

But that doesn't mean it's not rewarding. Like I've said before, the human brain is wired for art--we're meant to tell stories, to see patterns and images. It's part of being alive.

So, yes, rejection sucks. Yes, sometimes we feel guilty for our own successes (even when we shouldn't). But those pains tend to be relatively minor and fleeting. The agony that lingers is the one we have to work through on a daily basis in order to get anything made.

Then again, sometimes that pain can be agonizingly sweet, too. It all depends on how you look at it.

Emily is currently stuck in the absolute terror of trying to finish something but getting distracted by the shiny new idea. She's trying to get better about it, but it's still painful.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Sting of Success

Monday, Michelle talked about the pain of rejection, and it got me thinking: first, rejection sucks. It happens, and most of the time, it sucks. Period.

But on the other hand, all of that rejection make any small victory feel so much better! Over the course of three novels and several short stories, I've racked up almost two hundred rejections. I'm getting better with each project, and I know of a couple of authors who are creeping toward a thousand, so I know my numbers aren't abnormal.

With that being said, Michelle and I entered the same contest this year. I entered the same book last year, too, and scored similarly to Michelle's submission this summer. But this year, my book scored WAY better than last year's version. I know there are many reasons why that could be the case, but overall, the book is better. I guarantee I wouldn't have scored so much higher if I hadn't improved the book over the past twelve months.

This was a hug success for me. Last year, I didn't break the minimum score to be considered a finalist. While winning is always the point of entering a contest (and if you're doing it for any other reason, check out Gusto Dave's post over at Chiseled in Rock), my target was actually to break the finalist point threshold. I did it! I need 130 points, and I got 137 (out of 160).

This is a success because, even though there were AT LEAST five other authors who did better than I did (they're the finalists), I accomplished a goal. No, I didn't win. But I did well enough to feel good about my accomplishment.

Why the sting of success, then?

I feel bad for my fellow writer. She worked hard on that book. It's really well-written. And while the judging notes on her pages make a lot of sense, I had high expectations for her work. I mean, it's really good!

I know it's absurd for me to downplay my own achievement to avoid reminding other people of their struggles, but both of my co-hosts are also my friends. I mean, I don't feel bad about myself because Emily got into an anthology. I shouldn't expect them to feel bad about my positive feedback. But rejection sucks. And it's easier to handle rejection (in my experience) when someone's going through the same thing at the same time for similar reasons.

The overall point I'm trying to make is: don't downplay your own success. But be sensitive to other people, too. Enjoy your progress. Don't be arrogant and throw it anyone's face.

And if you disagree, let me know in the comments.

Giles is still happy about his minor achievement. It's one of the best things that's happened in his writing career, so far. He's also getting ready to open himself up to rejection in the next few days. So next week's post could be another celebration or an echo of Michelle's Monday post. Stay tuned!

Monday, August 11, 2014


Rejection and criticism are two of the most frustrating and painful things a writer ever experiences. We can live through up-and-down sales, short-lived bouts of fame, and multiple false starts on works-in-progress. All-out rejection and blunt criticism, on the other hand, feel like getting stabbed in the heart with a splintery wooden spear.

I’ve stood in front of a classroom and had 24 of 28 students blatantly ignore me. Employers have pulled me aside and told me that the way I finished a project wasn’t good enough. People have questioned my motives, told me I was too fat, and rolled their eyes when I walked in the room. Yet nothing, nothing, compares to the feeling of getting a contest entry back and seeing that you didn’t make the points you needed to succeed.

Some say that I just need a thicker skin. Others declare I should be glad of the rejection, because it shows that I tried something. Even failure is an accomplishment, right? But knowing that and being confident I will do better next time does absolutely zilch for the tight, empty, sickly feeling of “I suck” that follows every writing flop.

I don’t think I’ve ever met a writer who doesn’t struggle with feelings like these every once in a while. It’s inevitable. Being a creative person is like carving off a piece of your soul and showing it to strangers. When they don’t like it, or if they don’t think you carved it the right way, it hurts like all heck.

The one thing that keeps me going is the knowledge that if two people didn’t fall in love with this tiny piece of a book, there are two others somewhere who will think it’s the shiz. That and, honestly, another round of edits couldn’t hurt. So I guess there are really many things keeping me going. Besides, if I stop now, what was the point of any of the struggle? I could be mere inches from the finish line and not even know it.

I’d rather push harder now than let rejection hold me back.

Michelle prefers whiskey for all post-contest blues, but will gladly accept gifts of money, home-made cards, and/or terrible puns.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Why Do We Art?

Writing is hard. There's no two ways about it; it's hard. Creating anything is hard, no matter your medium. So, why do we even bother with it?

There are some people who use art as therapy--get out whatever's going on in your head and turn it into something beautiful or symbolic. Work through fears and concerns and traumas by putting it into a poem or a painting or a series of photographs. I've never been able to do this, but power to those who do.

Some people use art as an escape from the real world. Creating time is sacred and placing yourself in a world of your own creation can help you get away from life for a while. I probably fall into this camp more often than I'd like to admit.

Then there are other people who just want to make pretty things, and the obligatory sell-out who sees a money-making opportunity in the artistic realms (good luck with that, buddy). There are people who want to express their souls, their truth, and art is the only way to embody something so vast and incomprehensible. There are people who use art as a way to slow down and reconnect with the world around them.

There are people who make art for basically any reason you can imagine.

We make art for a variety of personal reasons and one universal reason: it's part of the human experience. We've been telling stories and painting on walls since before we were true homo sapiens, and we haven't stopped. The art we make has only grown more elaborate and more varied, and I think that's beautiful.

This musing on the nature of art and why we create it brought to you by an intrepid halfling cyborg named Emily who can be found on, on Twitter @emilyksinger, and in the upcoming Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers 2014 anthology.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

How to Write a Book and Never Get Sick of It!

I have ONE secret to writing a book that you'll love EVERY time you have to go through it. But first, a story:

Years ago, I learned how to edit a novel. I took beta reader feedback, combed through each and every page, and made the prose as elegant as I possibly could. Then I freaked out because I "knew" I was done with it, but I had no idea what to do next. So I went online, learned how to query, and sent the book out. Months later, with nothing but rejections, I went through the book again. I liked it, but I didn't love it anymore. For some reason that I couldn't put my finger on, it wasn't quite right. Something was off. But I still thought it was great.

Months later, I went over it again. And again. And again. Until I was so sick of the sight of those characters, that story, and the elusive "bad" element that, like a piece of fish that fell under the refrigerator decades ago, just wouldn't go away. I wanted to throw the book out of the window.

At that same time, I knew that it was as good as I could make it, so I kept querying and wrote a new book. By the time THAT book was done, I realized the previous novel (which I'd abandoned) was just filled with bad, passive, telly writing. Clumsy internalization with caricature reactions to almost everything. Plus contrived plot sequences and a story arc that fizzled and popped like a shuttle powered by fireworks.

The second book: I liked it. I didn't love it as much as I KNEW I would love the sequel, but this book had to get published before the story I REALLY wanted to write could get put on paper (side note: that is a sure sign that the story is going to be problematic). By the time I abandoned that novel, I wasn't sick of it, but I knew it wouldn't work. Not as a YA, anyway, and the effort to turn it into a middle-grade novel wasn't worth it. Like I said, I liked the book, but it wasn't THAT good.

Now to my secret: to write a book that you'll love every time you read it, you need to write a book that you'll love EVERY TIME YOU READ IT. Deep, right?

Okay, I'll expound on that. Learn to write well. Learn the ins and outs of fiction, the parts of story-telling, plot structure, characterization, action, drama, etc. that make a book FANTASTIC. That's what I did with this book that I'm pitching to agents right now. I don't know how it stacks up to other novels, but I like it at least as much as the first Harry Potter book. Maybe more because I read it more often.

That's why I write, too. Not just to tell stories that other people will enjoy, but to tell stories that I'll love. If it's not a book I want to read, chances are I won't write it. I can't say that that will always be the case, but right now, that's the only thing really pushes me forward. I love what I write and I write what I love.

Giles is a writer of stories. A lover of stories. And someone who will not waste a lot of time on bad stories. If he writes something that smells like old fish, it won't last long. And if he reads something like that, it'll probably end up in the same place as the fish.

To his credit, though, he'll be as kind (while honest) about the writing/author if he ever talks about them. No need to be mean.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Exclaim. Exclaim!

I’m shopping for real estate agents, and I’ve found that I will use just about any excuse to cross people off of my mile-long list of potentials. Bad website? See ya. No About Me page? Adios. But the number one thing that has helped me wade through this list of Realtors?

Exclamation points.

I know. I laugh about this because it seems so ridiculous. An exclamation point or two should not annoy me. But I'm not talking about one at the end of a sentence every once in a while. I mean those sentences that end in hordes of exclamation points. I just don't understand why you would need more than one at a time. 

Exclamations certainly have their place in literature. But rarely, if ever, do you need more than one in a row, or more than eight in a paragraph. You may think I’m making this up, but I just read through a 300-word About Me page in which the person used exclamation points in groups of three and placed them after every other sentence. I pictured them as a tiny Chihuahua barking all their accomplishments at me. It was painful.

I’m a firm believer that if you need more than one exclamation point to get your point across, you need to edit or rewrite. In fact, I think twice and thrice before using even one exclamation point. If I can’t communicate the feeling of shouting or surprise with the rest of my words, what kind of writer am I?

What do you think? Am I being too judgmental or is my pet peeve justified?

This nitpick-y message was brought to you by Michelle, lover of sweater weather and double-sided tape.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Finding Plots

If you listened to this week's post, you probably heard about my epic Tolkien ripoff of a first novel. I didn't write it specifically as a rip-off, but looking back on it now, it was basically Lord of the Rings in a different universe, written more poorly, and with a far less epic scale. It had a reluctant, peaceful protagonist who had to go on a quest to destroy some sort of magical object that the antagonist badly wanted, with elves and wizards and other ridiculous things along the way.

Giles and I have said a few times that a lot of fantasy writers begin by ripping off Tolkien's ideas and, for me, it was because it gave me a great chance to explore world building on my own. I used an established, successful fantasy plot, but plopped it into my own world and had to decide how that world worked and what I wanted to do with it. It was definitely my gateway writing drug.

But Tolkien isn't the only fantasy author out there (nor is George R.R. Martin, if you're gateway drug was the more recent Song of Fire and Ice series). In fact, there are a wide variety of plots--both fantasy and not--available to pick and choose from, or to twist to our own desires. And that's why it's important to read as widely as you can, in lots of genres and lots of mediums.

Seriously, pick up a book you wouldn't normally read, or check out a graphic novel from the library. Pay attention to how to author does their thing, how they craft words and build their world and put their characters through their paces. See what new tricks you can pick up from something outside your comfort zone, and play around with it in your own work.

I can pretty much promise it'll give you more material to work with!

If you're curious about Emily's first terribad novel, keep your eyes open for an upcoming episode in which we're going to discuss trunk novels and read a few pages from them. In the meantime, check out her website at and follow her rambles on twitter @emilyksinger.