Friday, February 27, 2015

Out of the Comfort Zone

I think it's easy for creative types to get stuck in a rut. You call yourself a fantasy writer, so all you write are fantasy stories. You like landscape photography more than portrait photography, so you only take photos of landscapes. You only like musical theater, so you don't even audition for a straight show.

Raise your hand if you've found yourself doing this! *Sheepishly raises hand*

For a long time, I only wrote stories set in one world where magic and technology were sort of on the same playing field and there were lots of fantasy creatures to play with, and multiple cultures to explore. I was comfortable there and it was great starting point, but I think it eventually started to stifle my creativity.

There's this tendency to cling to what we find comfortable and easy, but that isn't really where good art comes from (whatever your definition of 'good art' is). Art comes from pushing our comfort zones, experimenting, trying new things that scare us. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don't, and that's okay. What matters is that we try and we learn from the attempt.

It's scary to put ourselves out there and try a new genre or medium or whatever. It can be downright terrifying! But I think it's important that we all try to stretch ourselves when we can. This podcast wouldn't exist without the three of us jumping in and trying something new!

So take some time and explore a new art. If you're the fantasy writer, try writing scifi or steampunk or mystery. If you're a landscape photographer, grab a friend and ask them to model for you and look at the interplay of light and how the model can interact with their surroundings. If you're the musical theater person, look around for some good ol' Shakespeare in your area.

Take the risk. Try something new. You never know--your best work might come out of it, or you might find a new passion!

Emily is doing her best to take this advice and is writing and reading things she wouldn't have even considered a few years ago. It's scary, but she's trying!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Book Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

I started this book on the plain ride to London for my honeymoon over seven years ago. When I first started it, I loved it. A ton! For whatever reason, I didn't finish it. Newlywed, working a consistently busier job, and going to school just got in the way, and I lost track.

So I picked up the audio book last year to finally finish it! As much as I loved it when I first started reading it, I loved it even more now that I'm seven years older and more experienced with nuanced fiction and well-crafted writing.

I gave this four stars on Goodreads only because that extra star could have been earned with a few tweaks here and there that, individually, aren't a big deal, but if those tweaks were present, it would have been easily one of the top ten books I'd ever read.

As it stands, I think anyone who likes magic, historical fiction, fantasy, or anything nerdy should read it. Period. I cannot recommend this highly enough, it's an amazing book!

It's about two English magicians in the early 1800's and their quest to restore English magic to its ancient greatness. It's filled with a world of magical history (developed by Clarke for the novel) and quoted seamlessly and with a lot of effort through the use of footnotes.

There are other side-stories, too, and each of them weaves into the main plot so smoothly that it's hard to tell where one begins and the other ends. Not in a muddled way, but the way a tapestry's threads make a bigger whole than a single string.

The visuals are masterfully crafted. Sensory descriptions made my nose curl at unpleasant smells, my mouth water with savory flavors, and my ears pop with the noise of war as England fights off Napoleon's army.

If you want a great book and have time to dedicate to a 1000 page novel (yes, it's VERY long), I recommend this. Seriously, go get it.

Giles loves magic, especially magical realism that makes the real world seem more real with well-crafted rules to magic that may never have existed in reality, but exists in the minds of readers everywhere.

Monday, February 23, 2015

How a Crazy, Over-Achieving Kid Like Me Gets Any Writing Done At All

I remember I have a problem every Monday morning when I first sit at my desk at work. I turn on my computer, eat breakfast, and pull out a pen and a giant pad of extra-wide sticky notes.

After a few seconds it looks like this:

See? I’m waaaayyyy too organized for my own good. I’m not joking – I’m the kid who kept (coughkeepscough) all of her colored pencils and crayons organized by rainbow order even while using them. I believe in color coding and labeling and to-do lists. My life would be a giant ball of electric stress if I didn’t have a way to fit remodeling a house, working 9-to-5, freelance work, family, friends, my dog, editing a manuscript, podcast duties AND chilling out into something resembling a finished puzzle.

I know my way won’t work for everyone, but if you’ve been struggling with finding time to write, getting homework done on time, or simply remembering to do things, it just might help. And seriously, you guys. If I can do it, you can do it. So here it is: How To Manage Your Time Like You’re a Crazy, Over-Achieving Kid Like Me.

Step 1:
Grab a calendar, a blank piece of paper, a hoard of stickies – whatever you know you can keep track of – and get it ready for your notes. I operate from Monday to Saturday and leave Sunday to fend for itself, but you can pick as many or as few days as you want to get started.

Step 2:
Think about what you have to do and how long it’ll take you to finish. If a project will take more than an hour or two, spread it out over several days. Honestly, that’s the key to everything: knowing yourself well enough to be able to break up your duties into bite-size chunks. Spread things out over your week so you don’t overwhelm yourself on any single 24-hour period.

Step 3:
Leave time for a night (or two) when you realize you just don’t give a flying rat’s butt about getting anything done.

Step 4:
Incentivize! Some people (like yours truly) guilt themselves into getting things done before they fall embarrassingly behind. I’ve talked to some people who reward themselves with Netflix every time they finish a task. Find a way to encourage yourself to get things done.

Step 5:
Practice. It takes 21 days to develop a habit, which is a nice euphemism for an addiction. Once you’re addicted to getting things done, you’ll be unstoppable!

How do you motivate yourself to finishing your to-do list?

On the nights Michelle decides she doesn't care about the to-do list, you can find her eating Girl Scout thin mints and watching Fred Astaire movies. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

Avoiding Scams

With our talk about publishing contracts on this week's episode, I've been thinking about an issue that should be on the minds of all creative types--how to keep ourselves and our work safe. Now, the contract we went through with Susan Spann isn't the worst out there at all, and it might be great for some authors.

But there are a lot of people out there who are more than willing to take advantage of naive and beginning authors, and this is your reminder to be aware and keep yourself safe! How? Do your research.

Preditors and Editors is one of the most recommended sites to make sure you're working with a legit agent or editor. They even have a nifty section of general guidelines and tips to avoid scams, which are all great things to keep in mind, no matter which stage of the publishing game you're at.

AgentQuery has another great page on avoiding scams, and a huge database of agents you can search through, if you're looking for one.

And, of course, Writer's Market has a huge list of agents, editors, and publishers accepting non-solicited works (but they do charge for that on their site, or you can buy every year's new edition of the book, I guess).

Basically, do your research when you're looking at submitting or publishing a piece, whether it's a short story, or a novel, or poetry, or whatever. If you feel like something's a scam, stay away. If you're unsure, ask people in the industry or a lawyer. And always have someone comfortable with law-speak look over a contract to make sure you're not signing away any rights you don't want to lose!

Emily has recently realized she has about a zillion things on a her creative plate and is working toward sorting through them. Which might require a lot of random thoughts on her Twitter profile @EmilykSinger, and even more chocolate and tea.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Writing Lull

I've been in a bit of a writing lull lately. After NaNo, I was excited to get back into the routine of creating stories. But then life happened, I decided to go back to school, and writing got shuffled around to a place where I simply had to try to make time for it rather than keeping it a part of my regular routine.

This has been discouraging for me, especially because I love stories so much. It's a tough thing to admit, and I hate the fact that I'm not getting up at 6 every morning to create stories. On top of that, I've committed to so many things through the end of March that I feel like I can't wrap my head around the best way to schedule my time while making sure I stay rested. Getting sick a couple weeks ago definitely dented my motivation, too.

Don't get me wrong, though. I'm not trying to make excuses. I actually took time last Saturday to sit down and write. I left the house, got away from the TV, and got real work done. This is something I'm going to do more and more, too. Not sure how, yet, but especially when the semester is over, I'm refocusing. I don't like this lull. And I AM excited to write a new book. I even like the ideas that are dancing around in my head. It's a story and world that, even after I've started outlining, I still enjoy. Which is important.

There's a lot to do, but if I don't lose focus (which means asking for friends and family to help me stay focused), I may be able to get another book ready for submission by the end of this year. Or by next February.

Giles isn't a quitter, but he's struggling to figure out what to do next. While his job is fulfilling in its own way, he'd rather be writing. But with the increase in scheduled requirements, he's forced to reevaluate his schedule. He's working on it. Keep an eye out for more news along those lines.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Finish All The Books!

When I think about 2nd grade, a small handful of things come to mind:
  1. The class snake escaping and being found with his tongue stuck to a roll of Scotch™ tape.
  2. Playing “court” during recess and always wanting to be the lawyer.
  3. Smuggling in a toy horse from home to keep me company during the day.

 But most of all I remember that in 2nd grade, I didn’t finish a book. *GASP*

I don’t remember the title, but there were Indians and settlers and some kind of trouble. It was dull. I read the first chapter, make a “What?” face, and put the book back on the shelf.

The next week, I could have sworn that book was giving me the evil eye. It just sat there, all lonely on the shelf, wondering why I didn’t want to finish it. Yup, you’ve got that right – little second-grader Michelle felt guilty for not finishing and loving a book. 

To this day, the thought of not finishing any book right away makes my skin feel all creepy-crawly. Except for that book in second grade, there’s only one other book that I have never finished, and – big surprise – I can’t remember the title of that one, either! There was a hero, a fantasy world, an epic adventure to go on…and I just didn’t buy it.

So that’s it. In my life, I have permanently put down a grand total of two books. Two. I used to think this was normal until I talked to other voracious readers and discovered that most people actually don’t do what I do. I think they’re weird, they think I’m weird. It’s a great relationship.

Now, the real question is this: WHY the heck do I make an effort to finish every single book? For one, I’m curious. I want to know if the author tries anything fresh or exciting. There’s another part of me that is incredibly stubborn and gosh dangit if I open it I’m going to read the whole dang thing. So there.

But most of all – and this is a sentiment that has mostly surfaced in the past few years – I want to be able to craft a well-thought-out, logical review. When someone asks me what I didn’t like about a book, I don’t want to say, “Well, the first chapter was boring so I didn't give the rest a chance.” I like pushing through, then looking back and knowing exactly what about a book worked for me and what didn’t.

How about you? Do you finish every book you begin?

You can find Michelle writing reviews for every book she reads on Goodreads, but if she’s not there, she’s probably sitting in her car and listening to the last few seconds of her latest audio book addiction.   

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Importance of Hobbies

If you listened to this week's episode, you know we talked to the incredible Susan Spann this week, about writing historical mysteries and what she does in her free time--raising seahorses and breeding corals. Not exactly the type of hobby you'd expect from a publishing lawyer and mystery writer, right?

Well, that's the entire point of this post! I think it's easy for us creative types to get so absorbed in what we're doing that we forget to do anything else. We take our creative hobby--writing or painting or photography or whatever--and work toward making it 'big' in our field, pouring all our effort into that creative thing. That's not necessarily bad, until you realize that your hobby has become your full-time obsession and you don't have any unrelated hobbies at all!

I think people need breaks from their creative work, especially if they're aspiring to 'make it big' in one way or another. I think we all need some hobby that's completely unrelated to our creative lives and wishes and research. You know, those things you do to relax at the end of the stressful day. For me, it's video games, comics, and text-based roleplay over the internet. Because I'm a nerd. For Susan Spann, it's corals and seahorses.

What are your non-creative hobbies and how often do you actually make time to enjoy them?

Emily is running out of witty, amusing bios for this section, so she'll just leave you with some links to her website and her Twitter account.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Yay! Book Recommendations

As many of you have probably heard before, I love mystery. It's what makes writing awesome, in my opinion. Even in romance, the unknown that will be made known is what gets me excited with stories.

This week we talked with Susan Spann about her Shinobi Mystery series. We interviewed her a month ago, and I haven't read the books, yet, but I'm super excited to. In my younger days, I was obsessed with Asian cultures, and media that lets me explore those cultures well is something that I still like to see every now and then.

But more importantly, I don't read enough mysteries. I need recommendations on good books, but what drew me to the Dresden Files was the mystery element (along with all of the other nerdy stuff that's in there). Life is too busy for me to grab stacks and stacks of books to peruse and hope they turn out well. This is why I was SO excited to talk to Susan.

What else should I read? I'm looking for a LIST!

Giles is always on the lookout for new recommendations, and even though he's not obsessed with the Asian cultures as he used to be, he would still enjoy a great book set in Korea, Japan, or Vietnam.

Monday, February 9, 2015

From Racebent Hermione to Monsters in Mirrors

Early last week I ran across an article about racebent Hermione. I had to click on it. Hermione rocks. And racebent Hermione? I was intrigued. I've heard a lot recently about diversity in the entertainment industry – everyone seems to have an opinion about what all our fictional characters should look like.

Before I go much further, let me give you some background to my perspective. I’m about half a foot taller than the average woman. I’ve spent my whole life reading stories about doll-sized, pretty blonde girls who saved the world and fell in love. That makes a lot of stories about girls who could be my friends, but who were not (and never could be) me. There are some out there who say, “Oh, come on, you’re still white; it’s not the same.” No, it’s not exactly the same. But I know what it’s like to be at least partially cut out of the collective imagination. It sucks.

Having a diverse cast in books and movies isn’t just about being politically correct. It’s not about re-imagining the kids from Captain Planet for every cast of characters. It’s about reflecting the people – our family, friends, and neighbors – who live around us.

About halfway through that Buzzfeed article about Hermione, you’ll see this quote (emphasis by your truly):

You guys know about vampires? … You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, ‘Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?’ And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.

When I first read that, I sat back and just thought, “Wow. That’s brilliant.” Read it again. That part about denying monsters a reflection hits home every time I read it. It’s so true; when you don’t see yourself in the culture around you, you feel like an outsider. A monster.

No more monsters -- let's reflect the faces of the people around us.

What do you think about racebent Hermione and the call for more diverse characters in entertainment?

Michelle likes green apples, dislikes sun tanning, loves peanut gallery comments, and hates disorganized sock drawers.  

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Pros and Cons of Creative Multi-Tasking

We're gearing up for another great recording session tomorrow and I, for one, am so excited! We have three incredible guests lined up (they're still secrets for now, sorry), and some great topics to talk about. I was going to turn this post into a behind-the-scenes look at what we do on recording days, but I did that in April last year, and the process hasn't changed all that much since then. I'm going to take that as a sign that we're doing something at least semi-right.

So, what am I going to ramble about today? The pros and cons of taking on more than one creative project at a time. Because I'm slogging my through trying to polish a novel manuscript for a contest and simultaneously writing a brand new short story for a content call, in addition to podcast work, and trying to make time to dabble in painting again. Basically, I'm a master of taking on maybe a little too much work.

So, let's start with some of the cons of multiple projects: 
  • Making time for all of them can be really difficult 
  • Your to-do list feels completely intimidating 
  • It's really easy to accidentally get your projects mixed up and, say, start writing a character or voice in the story they don't belong in
But it's not all bad and overwhelming. There are some good points to having multiple projects, too:
  • You can bounce from project to project when you're bored or frustrated with one (so you're still getting stuff done on your 'breaks') 
  • You have more to research and jump-kick your creativity, especially if your projects are completely different from each other 
  • Being at different points in the process (getting feedback on one piece and writing a rough on a second, for example) can be a really great creative exercise 
Multi-tasking creative projects isn't for everyone. And a lot of people say it's actually terrible for you and your projects. But I've always been kind of weird, and I find I tend to get more done when I have two or three stories in the works.

Emily doesn't like to brag, but she has about four zillion stories she's started this way and never finished. But she's got great friends to kick her butt and make her get things done now, and it's helped a lot. Follow her procrastinating struggles on Twitter @EmilykSinger.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015


My brain hasn't been working over the last few days. Almost a week, really. I got sick over the weekend, and even as I sit and type this, I'm wondering what the post will actually be about.

I'm working on a new project, which is exciting. But as I sit down and outline, I'm not sure if I want to make the story go the direction it's going. On the other hand, I'm super excited to see that this book ISN'T about what I thought it would be about. (Ignore the poor grammar of that sentence.)

As we discussed a few weeks ago, writer's block (which is basically what my brainlock is) is largely psychosomatic. The proof? I'm typing and coming up with stuff to talk about for the blog.

Anyway, I'm going to have a chance to workshop this new project with some other people before I sit down and do my in-depth outline. A process I've never really done before. I'll workshop at times to get some basic ideas, but it's mostly throwing thoughts at my friends and seeing what they think about them. This is going to be much more formal. And I really like that.

Workshopping stories is one of my favorite parts of writing. That initial stage of planning out what a story is going to be, all the way up to finding out what that story actually IS. It's like discovering a person. First their just an embryo, but over the course of many, many years, they develop and change until they become someone with complexity, hidden depths, and personality. Sure, a book isn't a person, but at times, it feels like it has a life of its own. The story, how it changes, even through the brainlock, is special.

And even though this is quite a rambling post, I'm going to leave it there. I'm sure if I were to try to develop this more, the addled part of my still-sick brain would just turn it into mush.

There's mush between those ears. Ignore it. Brain will be back next week to spew forth something more meaningful.

Monday, February 2, 2015

New Addictions: Web Comics to Make You Happy

For those of us who have to work every day but need something to remind us that there are lovely, good things in the world (like art and words), I've found some new addictions for you: awesome web comics that tell stories. 

Points for: Adorableness. Storytelling. Superpowers.
The low-down: Our favorite DC heroes and villains are in elementary school. ‘Nuf said.

The artist isn’t affiliated with DC, but it doesn’t even matter. His work is exquisite and full of comedic moments (the Flash as a kid…you can’t help but laugh) and some serious stuff, too.


Points for : Art. Art. Art.
The low-down : In the future, 15 year-old Ava Ire is haunted by a demon. And then her life gets worse.

I never get tired of looking at this comic. Sometimes I go back to the beginning and just stare at the first few panels. They are that awesome. The expressions are fantastic – so much emotion in between panels! The story is unique and pulls you in from the very first view.


Points for: Korean mythology. Gorgeous design. Fantastic dialogue.
The low-down: Seoul in the 60s. An ancient Korean fox demon steals the body of a priestess’ sister. The priestess teams up with a Christian missionary/military vet to hunt down the demon.

You tell yourself you’re just going to look at a few panels, and then you blink and you’ve spent half an hour reading through as much as you possibly can. It’s that pretty.  


Points for: Magic. Quirky stylized art. Cool protagonist.
The low-down: The earth is stuck half in day and half in night, and the night creatures are starting to creep into the day. The only people who can stop them are casters, but not all of them are the most talented...

One minute you think you’re looking at a master…and then you realize that he’s kind of not the best at his job. In fact, he tends to make things worse. It leads to some awkward/funny/cool situations. Also there is a dead guy who talks. Yeah, I know. Pretty sweet.


Hey! Do you have any web comics to add to the list?

Michelle judges comics by art first and then by words, which is flip-flopped from how she judges pretty much everything else in the world. She’s very judge-y. Judgy? Judgey? Ugh. Nevermind.