Friday, July 31, 2015

Writing Communites Take Infinity

I know all three of us have waxed poetic about critique groups and creative communities before, but I'm going to do it again. Because my critique group surprised me again last night. Like they do.

I had sent pages for the short story I wrote about being stuck on last week, then decided I wanted to scrap it and re-start from scratch, so I told them not to read it. Two of them had already read the pages by the time I sent the second email and last night they spent quite a bit of time telling me how funny the story was and how I should continue it.

And that's one of the awesome things about critique groups and community--the encouragement, even when we're looking at our work and thinking "wow, this is terrible." The total surprise and faith when we're at rock bottom. It's a huge help, and I think it's totally underrated in this hermit-y artsy profession.

So, yeah. If you haven't yet, I still highly, highly recommend trying to find a trusted critique group or creative community. Despite the introvert-struggle of dealing with people, it's totally worth it.

Emily is constantly struggling with the see-saw of dealing with other human beings, but she couldn't ask for a better community around her. You can't have them. They're all hers.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015


I grew up working at conferences and conventions. I never really enjoyed it. It wasn't a negative set of feelings, it was just something I was used to. That was life for me. And the first time I got to work a conference that interested me as a possible attendee, my view on cons changed. No longer was this a job where I worked, got satisfaction from that, then went on my way. I wanted more. I wanted to attend other cons that taught me interesting things. That engaged the parts of my life that got me excited.

Now, every chance I get to go to a con, I want to take it. We've been to three as part of Beyond the Trope, and it's super exciting to engage with listeners. To talk to the people who share our interests enough to listen to us for 20-60 minutes a week. And it's especially exciting to bring in new friends and listeners!

More importantly, it's great to have a chance to geek out about movies, comics, books, and all of the other cool stuff that happens at cons. And to geek out with other enthusiasts. I don't always get into the con's theme as much as the other people around me (I don't cosplay or collect...well, anything), but the enthusiasm is infectious! I love it. When people get excited about something and they come over to our table to tell us about it, even when I'm not feeling well, I love to experience their excitement.

So go to a con. It's fun, educational, and you get to learn new stuff and meet awesome people. Like Aaron Michael Ritchey.

Giles is going to be at the RMFW conference this fall, and he'd love to talk to you if you're there. Say hi if you see him.

Monday, July 27, 2015

What You Should Read This Week

While hanging out with some soccer teammates yesterday, the conversation (inevitably) turned to YA book series. As the resident YA nerd, I had to tackle this awful question: “Are there even any good series out there?”

Ugh. I hate this question. It is so subjective. A few people mentioned how they’ve read Hunger Games and Divergent and, in the end, were disappointed with either plot decisions or writing styles. The question wasn’t posed by literary snobs who don’t read the market. It came from people who read YA and keep feeling jilted.

So how do you even go about answering the question? Something I really liked – such as Marie Lu’s Legend series – might not appeal to someone who adored Twilight. As a friend pointed out, Hunger Games and Divergent (and Legend, come to think of it) are all written in first person. As I hear of more people who didn’t like these series, I wonder if their brains simply aren’t trained to think in first person – whether it be present or past tense.

While it’s true that a good first person present tense book can be hard to find, I don’t think that should keep people from exploring great YA series. If you need some ideas, here are a few gateway books you can try (they aren't all first person. Just awesome):

Daughter of Smoke & Bone – Laini TaylorMonsters, angels, and a girl with blue hair. Karou helps her adoptive father gather teeth for a mysterious magical purpose. She grew up wondering who she is, but in reality she should have asked what.
Legend – Marie LuWhen June’s brother is murdered, supposedly by wanted criminal Day, she wants nothing but justice and vengence. But Day isn’t a murderer, and the two form an unlikely alliance to protect their loved ones from a sinister government.
Graceling – Kristin CashoreKatsa is graced with killing, and Po is graced with fighting, yet their special powers are often taken advantage of. As the thug and the prince become friends, they learn the truth of their graces.
The Raven Boys – Maggie StiefvaterBlue falls into friendship with three boys on a quest to find an ancient king. But she has to be careful, because friendship often leads to love, and Blue has always known that her fate would be to cause the death of her true love.
Etiquette & Espionage – Gail CarrigerSophronia never knew she wanted to learn to curtsy and kill a man in the same day, but then again, she never knew that finishing school was for spies and proper table manners, either.
Tithe – Holly BlackKaye’s life is normal until she finds herself mixed up in the fight between two faerie kingdoms.
Steelheart – Brandon SandersonSuperheroes have become dictators, and only the Reckoners have the guts to stand up to the tyranny and kill Steelheart, the Superman-esque tyrant of Chicago.
Bloody Jack – L.A. MeyerMary doesn’t think twice before changing her name and becoming a cabin boy on a ship of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy. Can she make it to fame and fortune without anyone learning her secret?

This week Michelle is reading John Green's Paper Towns, which is another great YA book, yet regrettably not a part of a series. 

Friday, July 24, 2015

For When You're Stuck

I'm stuck. I've been invited to contribute to an anthology, and I love the concept for the story I've come up with. I just can't figure out how to write it. I've tried five different beginnings, the last of which is...well, okay, at best, but still painful and not exactly the tone I'm looking for. 

So, naturally, I started whining to talking it over with my lovely co-hosts (because they understand my pain). And I figured I'd share some of the things they reminded me of during our conversations:

  • You don't have to start at the beginning. If you're struggling with the opening of your story, consider jumping to the middle, or writing the ending first and working backwards. Sometimes, non-linear writing is what you need to jump-start your brain.
  • Power through it. You're not doing anyone any favors starting something over and over again and not getting any further than the first scene. Like Anne Lamott suggests: get the shitty first draft out and then go back and fix it.
  • Having a support system for your creative endeavors is invaluable. No matter what you're dong, having someone (or a group of someones) to help keep your feet on the ground when you're hating everything you're making really helps you keep things in perspective. Whether this is family, friends, a critique group, or a group of former strangers on the internet doesn't matter--as long as they're supportive and kick your butt when you need it. 
I still feel stuck on this piece, but I'm working through it, and that's what's important!

Emily is eternally grateful for the support of the rest of the Beyond the Trope crew and all of our great listeners! She seriously has no idea what she'd be doing without all of you. 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Real Challenge

Writing is easy. I'm doing right now, sitting at my computer, hands on keyboard, putting words on the screen. See? THAT is easy. Anyone who disagrees is, obviously, wrong.

Writing WELL, expressing complex thought and emotion, THAT is hard. When people say "writing is a challenge," they're trying to put more value on what any successful first grader can do. And, yes, there is GREAT value in understanding language and reproducing it in the written form. But putting words down is not complex task (when compared to the challenge of computing a drone landing on Pluto, for example).

The real challenge, as I said, is expressing complex thought and emotion in a manner that gets the reader to connect with it. MAJOR difference, right? (Hint: the correct answer is, "right.")

To an extent, I'm being intentionally provocative. But think about it: what's the difference between a properly spelled/grammatically correct Facebook post containing a poor argument and a novel that makes you happy, angry, and sad (to the point of tears!)?

It's the ability to express yourself! THAT is the challenge. Are you getting this?

The reason we cry at the end of Harry Potter has less to do with Rowling's ability to write and more to do with her ability to EXPRESS EMOTION. To create subtle descriptions of her characters that make us, the reader, BELIEVE that they're real people.

That's the challenge I'm facing as I move forward with my writing, and I think I'm starting to wrap my head around a handful of concepts that will help me overcome that challenge. It's going to take a lot of work, though. I can string a handful of words together on the page and tell a story. There will be a beginning, middle, and an end. Maybe even a touch of excitement. But if I stop there, I'll be another ham-fisted writer meat-pounding my way through a story that no one wants to read.

So when someone who's never tried writing a book says, "Oh, anyone can write," nod in agreement, because it's true. Then add, for their benefit, "But can they CREATE real people?" If that confuses them, explain. And show them the difference between someone who puts words on paper in no particular order and the heart-wrenching power of a novel that sent you into a downward spiral for more than a week because it destroyed everything you ever hoped for.

Yep, Giles is a person. He writes for Beyond the Trope. Any questions?

Monday, July 20, 2015

Art for the Intellect

Words can be everything from gorgeous to deadly, and crafting them into something resembling a novel or a poem is emotionally taxing. Emotionally taxed people tend to need encouragement, but encouraging writers can be tricky. If you’re not a writer, maybe this can encourage you, too. Some things are worth loving and working for, and art is one of those things.

Here's line from one of my favorite poems:
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved, in secret, between the shadow and the soul.
from “Sonnet XVII” by Pablo Neruda

I keep this excerpt on my desktop at work, along with lines by ee cummings and "The Old Astronomer" by Sarah Williams*. Sometimes when I think I can’t look at another “real work” job, I’ll open up the sticky notes app and stare at them. Neruda’s words are simple, but I love them.

I love you as certain dark things are to be loved…

These words whisper of the chocolate I hid in my dresser while studying abroad. The guilty pleasure Netflix shows we all binge on. Romeo and Juliet sneaking kisses on balconies. I think we’ve all had something delicious that begs to be hidden from other people, if only to keep it ours. We humans have a strange capacity to love that which is not entirely in the light, but not necessarily evil.

…in secret, between the shadow and the soul

When I hear these words in my head, I picture a soul in a pretty gilded box, resting in the silky darkness of a cave. Something is between the soul and the rest of the shadows in that space. The idea mesmerizes me. What could possibly fit between a shadow and the thing it’s next to? It would have to be so small, or at least theoretical. Maybe it’s not even something we know is there.

So. Feeling discouraged or uninspired? Read some sonnets. Remember that words are art for the intellect, and every time you write, you have a chance to create something that someone else loves so much they write an entire blog about it. #lifegoals, right?

Here’s the sonnet in its entirety, which is a wonder to behold:

I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.

I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way

than this: where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.

These musings have been brought to you by Michelle, who generally hates hashtags unless they can be used ironically or for other humor. 

*To put your curiosity to rest, those lines are:
“Love is the voice under all silences, the hope which has no opposite in fear; the strength so strong mere force is feebleness: the truth more first than sun, more last than star...”
― from “Poem (being to timelessness as it’s to time)” by ee cummings

Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light / I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.

― from "The Old Astronomer" by Sarah Williams

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Steam Powered Giraffe

(First off, sorry for being late! I keep having troubles remembering what day of the week it is and, thus, forgetting that it's Friday. Now it's Saturday and, well, better late than never, right?)

Earlier today, I got introduced to another new-to-me nerd rock band: Steam Powered Giraffe. SPG is a steampunk-themed pantomime band--basically, while performing, the band is in character as a troupe of musical automatons. Their music is great (seriously, The Spine's voice is incredible and he has a huge range), with steampunk-inspired lyrics, and catchy tunes. I might have spent most of the morning watching all of their music videos.

I'm apparently late to the SPG party, but I'm in nerdy music love. The band concept is so much fun, 'the bots' do all their own makeup (take a look at it, it's pretty intense), and all of the performers are so dedicated to their characters. I'm seriously hoping they'll come to AnomalyCon one of these days (if they haven't already and I've missed it) so I can nerd out with them.

So, if you like nerd rock, automatons, great vocals, and awesome aesthetics, check them out!

Emily is always looking for great nerd rock and might get a little too obsessed when she finds a sweet new band. If you've got any suggestions, leave them in the comments or on our Facebook page!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Book Review: Prudence by Gail Carriger

Yes, it's finally time for me to review Gail Carriger's most recent book!

As regular listeners are aware, we had a chance to interview Gail a few months back. Not long after, she did a promotional book tour for Prudence, and one of her stops was in Denver. Granted, that was a while ago, but I've been eager to read and review this book ever since it was announced.

This book starts out with a different voice and tone. Far different from The Parasol Protectorate and Finishing School series. In fact, it caught me so off guard that I didn't initially enjoy what I was reading. The writing is still very strong, perhaps even stronger than her other works. This issue was all in my own head simply because I went in with pre-conceived notions.

Then I remembered how different Finishing School is from The Parasol Protectorate. I reordered my thoughts, set aside any expectations, and dove in. It was not in ANY way disappointing. Except when it ended. Because I didn't want it to end.

Carriger crafted a shining world, once again, in the pages of her book, more fully-formed thanks to the work she put into her other books. In Prudence, the narration follows the adventures of Rue, the daughter of Carriger's first protagonist, Alexia. But rather than sticking with a single character who orchestrates a brilliant solution to the world's problems, Carriger gave Rue a team of experts, equally capable as herself, on whom she relies throughout the story.

While the POV (third-person close with occasional omniscient glimpses) follows Rue through the whole story, it's clearer than ever that Carriger can create an ensemble cast who are each fully-formed and capable of handling an entire plot on their own.

The story itself doesn't conform to a traditional "formula," and whenever the characters arrive at a new location, especially one that's made up specifically for this world rather than something we're all familiar with because of the history books, she takes the time to describe it with color and empathy, rather than just telling the reader what everything looks like. As a result, the images in the pages come alive, complete with the noise of busy marketplaces, the stifling heat of the jungle at midday, and the noisy engine room of a dirigible.

The only lines I chose to skim rather than reading as in-depth as the rest of the book were the descriptions of clothing. But I understand that those brief images are there for Carriger's more fashion-curious readers, and even they (while more than I personally needed) add color and life to the story. More detail than I look for, but I know many of her fans love it.

All in all, Gail Carriger delivered once again. A roaring success that makes me wish her next two books were out.

Giles loves reviewing good books, mostly because a book that gets a review from him generally makes him excited to read. No need to trash books he doesn't like, so only positive reviews here!

Monday, July 13, 2015

$*#@ Query Letters

Query letters are like diet sodas. In theory, they’re a great idea. Lower calories, pretty cans, same great taste. And with enough distance, writers can even forget how much we hate them.

But one sip and we remember: these stupid things are the bane of our existence.

For me, the number one problem with query letters is that I always feel like I’m missing something. It’s as if some small part of me is convinced there is a magical query letter algorithm which, if I could only find it, would make my writing life work like a dream. No more aspartame aftertaste – just sweet, sweet cane sugar.

Here’s what I’ve gathered from my research about a good query letter (not even a great one. Just a good, yeah-sure-that-works letter):

No matter how perfect it is, if the agent isn’t in the mood, it’s a no-go.
You could write a terrible, awful, no-good letter, happen to stick in one gorgeous sentence, and make it through the slush pile.
Everyone hates them.

The query letter is just another gatekeeper. Agents and editors want to know that we know what our story is actually about. If you can’t describe your book’s central conflict in a couple of paragraphs, the entire novel might not be focused enough to sell.

There isn’t much room in a one-page query letter, so you have to be picky. You want to put your voice and spin on the words, but that can be hard to juggle with a hook and multiple plotlines. I’m struggling through my own query letter right now, and everything I write seems to be marred with blah-ness*. I’ve written five different intro sentences, all of which could work…but none of which say PICK ME PICK ME!

I guess it’s back to the drawing board. Er, I mean, keyboard.

Do you have any special tricks you use when writing query letters?

Michelle watched a musical last night instead of writing. *gasp* 

*This is an extremely technical term meaning “absolute crap”.  

Friday, July 10, 2015

Dungeons and Drafts

Yesterday, I took the hike with two out-of-town friends up to Fort Collins to check out Dungeons and Drafts. We talked to the founder of this awesome nerd pub at Denver Comic Con this year (you can listen to the episode by clicking here) and all of us Beyond the Tropers were super excited for the idea. I'm sorry I betrayed Giles and Michelle by going without them.

For those of you who haven't listened to the episode yet (what are you even doing with your life?), the general premise behind Dungeons and Drafts is a "sports bar" for geeks--a pub inspired by a medieval tavern from decor to food, complete with nerd jokes on the menu, a huge library of board games, and a friendly atmosphere.

Basically, I wish it was down the street instead of an hour away. The game list is long and diverse, including some of my favorite games (like Tsuro, Takenoko, Smash Up, and Pandemic), and some I'd love to play (like the Firefly game and King of Tokyo). For each game on the list, they describe how tough the learning curve is, how many people can play, and what type of game it is, and the staff is more than willing to help you figure out a game, if necessary.

And the food! The menu itself is pretty small, but the names are wonderful and geeky, and it was absolutely delicious. Even if you don't drink, take a look at the cocktail menu and its nerdy references--you won't regret it.

Basically, Dungeons and Drafts was everything I was hoping it would be from our interview--awesome! If you get a chance to stop in, I highly recommend it. Maybe I'll see you there sometime!

Emily is letting her nerd flag fly and geeking out about all the incredible games she could have played. Too many games, too little time.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

My Favorite Serials

This week's episode is all about serialized stories, and I figured I'd recommend a couple of my favorites.

Check out Questionable Content (it's an AWESOME web comic) and Penny Arcade (also a web comic, and probably my favorite).

Seriously, instead of reading this, you should go read those. Go on, get reading!

Giles LOVES those two web comics. To the point where they take up part of his morning routine.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Break Away From Normal

I just returned from a five-day writing hiatus spent in New York City. Growing up in/around Denver, I thought I knew what a city was. We have skyscrapers, right? Isn’t that what a city is? Ha. New York goes for miles and miles, and if you haven’t spent much time there, you are constantly amazed with just how huge it is.

While it was strange to not bring a laptop and pound out words every day, it was refreshing. Whenever I’m at home and I skip a writing or editing day, I feel guilty. I’m sure many of you know the feeling – we’re writers. We write. All the time. But sometimes we need a break, even from the things we love, so we can gain a new perspective and maybe even a new approach.

I think I needed a new perspective. I love Denver/Colorado, but it’s just so normal to me. There’s something extraordinary about sitting on a subway and hearing people speaking in Portuguese, French, and German. This world is not a single swipe of paint across a modernist canvas, but a masterpiece of impressionism.  

On Saturday we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a place I could have spent weeks in. I spent about ten minutes each gaping at Picasso’s Woman in White (Femme assise, les bras croisés), then  Domenico Guidi’s Andromeda and the Sea Monster. Maybe it’s weird, but paintings and sculptures make me just as excited to write as reading Frankenstein or Sabriel. So much creativity, passion, and time has gone into these works of art, and I like to think that as writer, I might contribute just a tiny bit to that world.

Today I feel invigorated, like January through June was a warm-up, New York was time to stretch, and now it’s game time. Let’s do this, my brain is saying. It speaks like a toddler hyped up on sugar, but that’s probably because of the coffee. LET’S DOOO THIIIIIISSSS!!!

I have a lot of writing friends who have felt discouraged lately. And I get it. I spend some days in a panic, wondering why in the world I ever thought writing was a good idea. If you’re worried or feeling blue, or if you just can’t get those words down, maybe it’s time to remind yourself why you’re doing this. Sometimes we need to let ourselves off the hook, go stay in a hostel, and celebrate the Fourth of July with a bunch of New Zealanders, just so we can break away from what’s normal and re-discover all that’s awesome in the world. 

Random traveling fact: Hostel bunks get more comfortable every night you sleep in them. Weird, I know. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Where to Begin

"Start at the beginning, and when you get to the end, stop." ~ Lewis Carroll

If only the caterpillar knew how hard that really is for writers. Folks who know me through Facebook or twitter know that I'm making some really great progress on my writing. For the first time in a couple years. But despite the fact that I'm moving my story forward, this first draft is still filling me with dread. Yes, I'm aware that I'm overthinking some of this too much, but there's a real problem with this story.

I don't know where to begin. Along with the fact that there are actually several stories in this book that are "trying" to be told, I don't know where this story starts. Since it's science fiction, it requires a touch of world-building, but if it doesn't directly effect the plot, I don't want to waste the reader's time. It may deepen the world, but I've found that it's the little things that the characters can interact with that enhance the world more than the intergalactic politics that play no part in the structure.

So where do I begin? Ten pages before the inciting incident? Twenty? Fifty? How much back-story do I fill in later? How much is important? Which of the stories needs to be told, and which of them can just be set aside or completely ignored?

Really, what is this story about? I've never had this problem before. Usually, I have a full arc that takes up two thirds of a book and I need to throw in a flavor arc that ads to the universe and character development to turn it into a full novel. This time, I'm dealing with disjointed pieces of stories that are screaming at me and vying for attention. All of them excite me, and all of them would fit in this book.

But if I write all of them in, the book will be terrible. The pieces don't fit together. Not all of them, anyway. And regardless of what anyone says about writing to the market, I AM constrained by word-count, since this is Young Adult. I won't waste anyone's time trying to pitch a 150k YA novel. In fact, I won't pitch a YA book longer than 80k until I have a reputation that gives me some clout.

So where do I begin? At the beginning. How do I find out where the beginning is? Maybe I have to write the whole book.

This is one of those times where I wish I had a mentor to help talk me through this stuff. Someone with WAY more experience who could also calm me down in these freak-out moments. My partners are all awesome, and so are the members of my critique group. The fact that they enjoy some of the stuff that I've written means a lot, but the experience of someone with a longer track-record would be reassuring at times.

I can see that I'm rambling, now, so I'm going to leave it here. Keep in mind, all of you venturing into a new book, that where a novel begins is actually important. Too early, and you'll bore the reader with unnecessary information. Too late, and they'll be confused. The fact that I know this is part of what keeps me from getting super excited about the project overall, even though I rejoice every day that I hit my writing goal (in 30 minutes, no less!).

Giles has a lot on his mind, and now that life has settled down again, it's weighing on him. Distractions help, especially when they're productive. But today isn't a distracted day. And that's what inspired this post.