Friday, October 30, 2015

Why I'm Not NaNo-Ing

I can't really wrap my head around the fact that November starts on Sunday. My brain is convinced that Anomaly Con was last year and we still have a lot of 2015 to go, even though we don't. It's kind of tough facing the fact that we're heading into NaNoWriMo and holiday season.

For the last month, I've flip-flopped on whether or not I want to try my hand at National Novel Writing Month again this year. I used to do it like clockwork every year while I was in school, but I think I'm going to sit back this time.

The thing I've noticed about myself is when I'm focused on sheer numbers and an 'enforced' deadline, I get sloppy. Not just inconsistencies and 50-word-sentences sloppy, but sloppy in the "I'm going to write as much ridiculousness as I can just to hit my word goal" kind of way. That often results in fourth-wall breaking, thinly veiled fanfic sections, and a jumbled mess of words that doesn't make sense as often as it does.

That works for some people, who can go through and pick out the gems and polish them up into something usable. But I have yet to find a way to fix a NaNo mess that I've created. I re-read the stuff I desperately wrote in that month and cringe and spend days trying to figure out what story I was telling. Not exactly the best kind of editing out there, and it's always more frustrating that it's worth.

If you can create something polishable from a NaNo piece, I salute you. And if you're participating this year, good luck! Keep writing!

Emily is currently wishing her fingers would warm up so typing wasn't such a problem. She's looking forward to not stressing about hitting an imaginary deadline and taking her time with the story she's working on. Once she finishes the short story that's on actual deadline, of course.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Book Review: Vampire Vic by Harris Gray

Yesterday's episode coincides with my review of the book, Vampire Vic, by Harris Gray.

The story follows Victor Thetherson, a late-middle-aged accountant with a weight problem, receding hairline, and aversion to blood. He's also a vampire. I didn't know what to expect from this book when I started out, but I found myself laughing at the jokes, cheering for the hero, and cringing every time the clumsy villain appeared on the page. The characters I was supposed to like, I connected with in a good way. The characters I was supposed to hate made me want to punch someone. Specifically, those characters.

As I said in our interview with the authors, the writing reminded me a little bit of John Grisham. If Grisham wrote vampire humor novels instead of courtroom dramas. The pacing and suspense kept me intrigued, and I found myself up late several nights to find out what happened next.

All in all, Harris Gray crafted a solid story with a satisfying conclusion, which is a daunting task for many writers (including myself). I'm impressed with how much effort they put into the project, and next book (which I'll review next week) is set up well by this one, though Vampire Vic could stand alone (a key requirement, in my opinion, for any book that begins a trilogy). I'm curious to see what Harris Gray comes up with next!

Giles loves finding great books, and in his constant quest to read more, he is stumbling across all kinds of gems.

Monday, October 26, 2015

3 Reasons Mile Hi Con Rocked

Emily, Emily, and I* hung out at Mile Hi Con this past weekend. Though my brain is running primarily on the fumes of creative passion and a giant caramel macchiato, I’m going to attempt to explain why it was worth every ounce of exhaustion.

Let’s begin with surface-level facts. First, nerds provide FANTASTIC people watching. Mile Hi Con focuses on sci-fi and fantasy, two linked genres that attract some of the most interesting people around. One minute sitting at a fan table can show you children in fairy dresses, teenagers dressed as anime characters, people in nerd shirts and brainwave cat ears, and incognito geeks dressed in street clothes. It’s right up there with playing “Who Are They Waiting For?” at the airport.

Second, Mile Hi Con is people-friendly. This is different from being family-friendly. Some cons are full of snobby jerks who just want to prove they know more about a fandom than you do. But at Mile Hi Con, entire families come to enjoy the programming, and no one would ever tell you that you’re not nerd enough to attend. There are some cons I’d feel obligated to dress up for, but Mile Hi Con doesn’t suffocate you with that kind of pressure. They don’t need you to prove that you’ve memorized every line of Battlestar Galactica or have Pokémon tattoos – they just want you to geek out with them.

That leads to my third and final reason to be a fan of Mile Hi Con: geeking out. Maybe I’m biased since it was a literary convention and therefore provided a lot of book nerdery**. My favorite panels were about writing violence/fight scenes and breakthrough technologies à la Star Trek (and other sci-fi flicks) that we can expect to see soon. I’ve been researching quantum physics, so it was awesome to hear a discussion of basic quantum mechanics and nuclear vs. chemical propulsion systems. My physics brain got SO EXCITED that, 24 hours later, I’m still enthusiastic about what I learned.

If you’ve never been to a con, and even if you think they’re weird (which is, incidentally, how I felt about them before I started attending with the podcast), I sincerely encourage you to try one out. The small ones can be a lot of fun if you go with the right people.

Yes, you read that right: Michelle is studying quantum physics. DID YOU KNOW that binary information can only be stored as a 0 or a 1, BUT quantum bits (“qubits”) can be both a 0 and a 1 AT THE SAME TIME? So, theoretically, if you can convert regular binary information into qubit information, you can TELEPORT it. They’ve already done this with photons and certain spins using diamond entrapment (electrons trapped in diamonds so you can measure and transfer the spin from one trapped electron to the other). It’s unreliable and mind-boggling but SO FRICKIN COOL.
…now you know how Emily and Emily felt all weekend while Michelle studied.

*I highly recommend collecting friends who have identical names. Not only do you get to have amusing exhaustion-induced realizations (“Oh, my gosh, you guys, together our names say MEE!”), introducing yourselves to new people is insanely easy (“Those are the Emilys. I’m the Michelle.”)

**TOTALLY a word, no arguments allowed.  

Friday, October 23, 2015


Today, we're heading out to MileHiCon! Well, Michelle, Producer-Emily, and I, at least. Giles decided to go to class instead. Which I guess I can understand. Maybe.

Anyway, we're thrilled to be attending MileHiCon for the first time this year. We'll have a space with the fan tables where you can come bother us, tell us jokes, hear our terrible jokes, and pick up Beyond the Trope stickers. They're pretty sweet. Just saying.

We'll also be at the Writer's Networking mixer tonight, so come stop by and buy us beer hang out with a bunch of other awesome writers, including Patrick Hester of the SF Signal, Betsy Dornbusch, and probably Aaron Michael Ritchey. Basically, it's going to be a late-night blast.

If you're coming to MileHiCon, come say hi! I promise we don't bite. Much.

Emily is already exhausted, so this convention is going to be a fun, loopy ride. She's slightly disappointed she's missing the Avistrum events this weekend (Enigmus pride!), but is certain she's going to have a blast forcing stickers onto everyone who stops by our table.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Back To School

I'm making personal strides. That's right, I'm going to school. I started last spring, took a few small classes, and I'm finishing up a certificate this fall semester.

I know our episode this week is about writing education, but that's not where this is going. As a general rule, I think it's important for people to continue to seek out education, no matter what they want to do with their lives. Yes, it's a cliche, but when we stop learning, we start dying.

At my day job, this is helping me get a leg up on my future opportunities. For a while, it appeared that we here at Beyond the Trope were going to have a few other opportunities, as well. That may still happen, but I don't want to spoil the surprise (or brag about something that may not happen).

This may be a short post, but that's because it's a quick point. Go back to school. Either by picking up a book at the library, taking podcast courses (or iTunes U!), or finding YouTube/Netflix seminars. Even if it's not something directly related to your life right now, it could open up real opportunities. And even if it doesn't, what do you lose from learning something new?

Giles isn't short, but this post is. Because he's working on too many projects and forgot to post until late in the day. Don't tell Emily or Michelle. It's secret between the two of us. And the internet. So definitely a secret.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Lies Writers Tell Themselves

Writers might be professional dealers of BS, but readers aren't the only one who end up believing in fairy tales. Here are a few lies writers tell themselves...and the truths they probably need to believe instead.

Lies Writers Tell Themselves:

  1. I will totally write 1,000 words after I watch an episode of [insert TV show here].
  2. This. Is. Gold.
  3. I am never, ever, ever going to finish this manuscript.
  4. It’s so perfect I don’t even need an editor!
  5. This. Is. Crap.
  6. Agents and editors are scary.
  7. I’m the only one who needs to understand what I mean.
  8. Just one more round of edits and it’s done.
  9. My computer will never crash while I’m writing the final chapter.
  10. I’m going to be rich and famous!

Truths Writers Should Tell Themselves:

  1. If I watch more than one episode, chances are I’ve given up on writing for today.
  2. My critique group is going to have fun with these pages.
  3. Maybe I should start writing according to a word count calendar.
  4. I need an editor. Two editors. ALL THE EDITORS.
  5. I need encouragement, a walk, chocolate, and a puppy. Also, my critique group is going to have fun with these pages.
  6. Agents and editors are people.
  7. If this confused people, I should rewrite it.
  8. If all I do is edit, I’ll never move forward.
  9. Backup. Backup. Backup.
  10. I’m going to make enough money to buy a movie ticket once a year!

Michelle is sick, and this tiny post is the best her addled, exhausted brain could come up with today. 

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Woeful Tale of a Pantser-Turned-Plotter

If you've listened to our Writing Processes episode (which came out what feels like forever ago), you know that I'm more or less a pantser, in that I'm most comfortable writing "by the seat of my pants." What you might not know is that a I'm also notorious in my critique group for not finishing anything beyond a few short stories. Just to give you some perspective on that: we've been critiquing together for four years and they haven't read a single longer finished piece from me.

Obviously, this is a problem. How can I possibly expect to be a writer if I don't finish the things I'm working on? So over the last year or so, in between writing short stories, I tried to turn myself into a planner. I wrote a full outline for one story and a relatively detailed synopsis for another. I convinced myself it was a great feeling knowing where the story was going to go and that I could still change it if something felt wrong while I was writing it.

Neither of those stories went very far. I'm not entirely certain if it was the time spent on planning or taking pages to critique too early, but I lost interest in/got frustrated with both of them very early on. But I was still convinced I needed to try something else, since I haven't finished anything.

Last month, I gave up on planning for now and went back to pure pantsing for a new story I'm working on. I'm not entirely certain how long it's going to be, or what the actual central conflict is, or how any of my worldbuilding is going to come together into a coherent piece. But that's okay. That's what a shitty first draft is for, right? All of those things (and, you know, the tone and voice) can and will get ironed out once I have a better feel for the story I'm actually telling here.

And, you know what? I'm actually having fun writing again. That's the important part.

As of this blog, Emily is 6,000 words into her new story, which is further than she's gotten on something longer than a short story in over a year. She's quite proud of this fact, even if all of those words are total rubbish. At least they're words on the page.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Blacklist vs. S.H.I.E.L.D.

A few years back, when The Blacklist and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. premiered, I was excited for both of them. Super excited. Lately, I've been catching up on last year's season of The Blacklist, and I thought about JUST how awesome that show still is. Which broke my heart because SHIELD fell so far short of what it could have been from the outset.

Disclamer: I gave SHIELD three episodes to hook me. If a show fails to grab me the first two weeks, like SHIELD did, I'll give it a third, just to make sure the creators aren't trying something new that will pay off. But with my limited time and all of the awesome shows I could watch, that's all they get. I've heard (from some fans) that it's much better, now, though many of my friends who binged their way through the first season have said that the second season kept them going for a little while, then fell flat again. For that reason, I think this post that originally appeared on my other blog a few years ago is completely relevant. Still. Because The Blacklist is still SUPER AWESOME!

I was as excited as anyone when I heard Joss Whedon was creating a TV show based on Marvel's S.H.I.E.L.D. I've never been huge into comics, but I love heroes, adventure, and ensemble casts with great chemistry.

The Blacklist has all of that. There's a clear protagonist with a supporting cast of sidekicks, a mentor, the armorer, bodyguard, and obvious antagonists. Agents doesn't have one clear-cut protagonist to attach to as a viewer. Yes, we're supposed to cheer for the team, but why do I care about the team? Sure, they are "the protagonist," but what makes them special? Aside from the fact that they work for a secret organization that's trying to save the world?

In The Blacklist, the stakes are clear from the get-go. For that matter, it was the same with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, and even Dollhouse. And I guess Agents has clear stakes, but they're not enticing enough. Save the world, but from what? Or from whom? Villain of the week isn't good enough for a story of this magnitude.

The first episode was quite a letdown, too, because in the previews we saw someone with "superpowers." And then the creators specifically told the audience that this show wouldn't be about superheroes. So right off the bat they told us, "This is going to be awesome, but it's not what you think." And the one character with real stakes, the one the audience wants to get attached to, is sent on his way.

I hope you're following me on this, and if not, I'm sorry that I'm not being clear. But let me make another example from Whedon's most successful show: Buffy. We have Buffy. A vampire slayer chosen by the Powers That Be to kill vampires and protect the world from invading evil. She has a backstory, complex emotions, and friends who support her in all of her efforts. It's the same with The Blacklist. But the only character in Agents is someone without any discernible personality. He's bland, dry, deadpan, and not at all engaging. Despite the fact that he got stabbed in Avengers. The ONE person we have ties to is the hardest to connect with. And the rest of the characters so far have so little going on that it's nearly impossible to care.

To turn this to a writer's perspective, when creating characters, make sure they have several important traits that make them engaging. Not necessarily likable, but engaging. And give them friends. Foils to enhance and reflect their personality. No lone-wolves with a secret past.

Now, I'm not sure if I'm in the majority here, so I'd like to hear everyone's thoughts. Discuss!

Yes, Giles recycled two articles this month, but why rewrite what's already been said? He's using resources well, that's all. Not being lazy. No, just making himself responsible with his time.

Monday, October 12, 2015

4 Things I Learned From the Coolest Women in Literature

There are very few literary heroines with whom I feel a real connection. I know that sounds lofty, but just think of how nice it is to read about a protagonist who thinks like you. I rarely identified with what characters looked like, but I definitely felt a kinship with the nerdy bookworm girls. No joke: I grew up feeling an actual friendship for Jo March because something about her approach to life made me want to be better. Even the mundane things she did sounded cool.

In fond tribute of a literary heroine who made me think that even I could be a writer, here are a few kick-butt literary women who taught me a few things about life:

“I'd have a stable full of Arabian steeds, rooms piled high with books, and I'd write out of a magic inkstand, so that my works should be as famous as Laurie's music. I want to do something splendid before I go into my castle--something heroic, or wonderful--that won't be forgotten after I'm dead. I don't know what, but I'm on the watch for it, and mean to astonish you all, some day. I think I shall write books, and get rich and famous; that would suit me, so that is my favorite dream.”

“Oh, comply!” it said. “. . . soothe him; save him; love him; tell him you love him and will be his. Who in the world cares for you? or who will be injured by what you do?” Still indomitable was the reply: “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation. . . . They have a worth—so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane—quite insane: with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs.

Beauty: You called me beautiful last night.
Beast: You do not believe me then?
Beauty: Well - no. Any number of mirrors have told me otherwise.
Beast: You will find no mirrors here, for I cannot bear them: nor any quiet water in ponds. And since I am the only one who sees you, why are you not then beautiful?

Beatrice. Good Lord, for alliance! Thus goes every one to the world but I, and I am sunburnt; I may sit in a corner and cry heigh-ho for a husband!
Don Pedro. Lady Beatrice, I will get you one.
Beatrice. I would rather have one of your father's getting. Hath your grace ne'er a brother like you? Your father got excellent husbands, if a maid could come by them.
Don Pedro. Will you have me, lady?
Beatrice. No, my lord, unless I might have another for working-days: your grace is too costly to wear
every day. But, I beseech your grace, pardon me: I was born to speak all mirth and no matter.

You can find Jo March in Little Women, Jane Eyre in Jane Eyre (duh), Beauty in Robin McKinley's Beauty, and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing

In addition to talking to Jo March when no one else was around, Little Michelle used to build secret horse barns* out of woodchips, designed toga dresses, and build blanket forts that covered the entire basement. In short, Little Michelle was frickin’ adorable.

*Secret because she hid them in the backyard, where she thought Mom and Dad couldn’t see she was messing with their landscaping. Yeah…they totally never noticed entire piles of woodchip mulch being moved and glued into structures big enough for Grand Champions horses…

Friday, October 9, 2015

Appreciating Talent

This past week, I finally took up blogging for my day job again. I wrote a quick little opinion piece for the business blog and my boss/father wound up raving about how well-written it was all night. Which was news to me, since I literally slapped it together in like fifteen minutes. Shhh.

My self-depreciation about this little blog post wound up leading to an interesting conversation about talent. It's easy to think of something you're good at as being easy, or unworthy of praise, or any other number of things that allow you to sweep it under the rug. It's easy to look at something you made and find its flaws, then use those to try and convince other people that the thing is absolutely awful. I think creative types in particular do this a lot.

But maybe we shouldn't.

Maybe we should all take a step back from whatever it is that we've made--a little blog post, a big novel, a song, a painting, whatever--and look at it from the point of view of someone who doesn't have the skill set we do. What would someone who isn't aiming to be a professional writer think? What would someone who doesn't have a fine arts degree think? Can we find the shining bits as easily as they could?

Looking at your work like someone else, trying to find the bits beyond all the flaws we immediately see, can help us not hate our own work so much. We as creative people tend to be entirely too hard on ourselves when, sometimes, we really need to actually take stock and appreciate our own talent and hard work.

Emily has a really hard time thinking of herself as 'talented,' but she's trying to get over that and bolster her ego a little bit. She's also in the midst of working out ideas for a new cosplay, because reasons.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Real Beginning

[This blog post originally appeared in the RMFW Monthly Newsletter in the March, 2015 issue]

“Make your first pages shine.” Everywhere I look, it seems that writers, agents, and editors are talking about how crucial your first few pages are. “Without a solid hook,” they say, “you’ll never keep a reader’s attention.” A lot of emphasis is placed on those opening pages, and with good reason. They hook the reader, draw them in. Get them to commit to your story. But once you convince them to invest their time (and money), they want satisfaction. Those first pages make a promise, and a believable ending that fulfills that promise is crucial to getting readers to go out and buy the next book.

I cannot emphasize this enough, so let me repeat it: without a good—no, make that great—conclusion, you’ll never get readers to stick around. Yes, the good opener gets the reader to invest in your book. But if you want them to buy the next one, and the one after that, you need to finish the story well!

Without the drive to read more of your writing, they’re unlikely to tell their friends about you. And word-of-mouth is still one of the best ways to expand your audience. If I read your book, and I like it, I’ll tell my friends. For every friend I tell, you might gain a new reader.

The problem is that readers who feel ripped-off by a poor ending will definitely tell their friends. And while good reviews spread one-by-one, bad reviews travel by the dozens. If a reader feels like they wasted their time on an unsatisfying book, their angry opinions can be as devastating to your career as a wildfire to the face of a mountain.

As an example, I read a duology a few years ago that seriously hooked me in. Great writing, engaging premise, solid prologue and first chapter (both of which I read in the store). My wife bought the books for me for my birthday because I was so excited about them.

By chapter two, the writing got tedious. Universal rule-changes appeared at random so the author could advance the plot without sticking to their formula. Info-dumps and setting description littered each chapter, but without any character engagement to make it meaningful to the reader. And the relationships were all cookie-cutter clichés, put together with throwaway lines like, “At that moment, they knew they would be friends for life.”

I stuck with it, though, because the hook was so good. I genuinely thought it would wrap up in a way that would make me feel rewarded for following through.

Nope. Seven hundred pages later, I reached a conclusion so far out of left field that I won’t read another one of that author’s books. Ever. Not a single one. I gave that person two chances (because it was a duology), and they failed to fulfill in either book.

So what is a solid conclusion? As I’ve said before, it’s an ending that fulfills the promise of the book. With the exception of certain book series (not all, mind you) a book needs to wrap up the obvious loose ends. Sure, a few books can get away with leaving a question or two unanswered, but they’re the exception. As a general rule, every story question and promise set up in the narrative must be answered and fulfilled. It doesn’t have to happen specifically the way the reader expects. In fact, that can be almost as disappointing as failing to follow through.

Now think of your favorite book. How did it end? How did it begin? Follow the plot in your mind, all the way through. Does the ending have anything to do with why you love that book? Or did you hate the ending? If it had ended differently, would that ruin the story for you?

If you want readers to stick with you and pick up more of your books, you can’t forget to make your ending fantastic. After all, if it’s your first novel, or the first one a reader picked up, it’s not really the end, is it? If it’s done masterfully, that’s just the first beginning.

Since this week's podcast episode is all about endings, Giles decided to post this. It summarizes his thoughts perfectly.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Writing Emotional Scenes

Every once in a while, when I have a really crappy week or when something goes horribly wrong in my life, I hear a well-meaning acquaintance utter these words: “Well, at least you can use this in one of your stories!” I don’t know if they think that will make me feel better, but I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Their words make me wonder if my writing really would be better if I had a personal experience to go with every scene I write.

I’ve never accidentally killed my own sibling or watched my best friend go insane. I also haven’t lit a fire with my mind or practiced talking with dragons. Yet these are scenes/plotlines I’ve used in my own writing, and without the appropriate emotion, I know they would fall flat. Creating a compelling story means putting my brain into actress mode and empathizing with the pretend people in my head*.

Just because you haven’t lost a loved one or fallen head over heels in love doesn’t mean you can’t write about characters who do those things. The problem may not be your writing style or what you’ve made your characters say/do – it could be that you’ve missed a more universal way of dealing with elation or grief. Readers don’t expect what you describe to exactly match what has happened to them. But even the smallest comment or action can remind them of their own past joy or pain.

The emotions from losing a job, seeing a dead dog on the side of the road, going on a first date, and winning a gift card can all be elevated or decreased to hit exactly the tone you need to write an emotion-packed scene. And, yes, in case you were wondering, everything you write should have some kind of emotion in it. Without emotion, no one will be able to connect to what you’ve written.

That being said, don’t forget that writers fake emotions all the time, and being able to use personal experience in a manuscript isn’t the best way to feel better about something sad. If someone tells you to be happy about a situation because you can use it in your writing, feel free to smile and say, “Or I could just use you.”**

When these tactics don't work and the emotion in a scene just isn't working, Michelle turns to movies and film scores to get in the right mood. 

"The villain is coming!" = score from Princess Mononoke
"I love you" = The Holiday
"Intense fight scene!" = scores from the Dark Knight or the Bourne series
"I'm brokenhearted" = anything from Éponine's lips in Les Misérables

*Writers be crazy, man. Writers be crazy.
**Evil chuckle optional but recommended.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Trunk Novel Call!

If you've listened to us for a while now, you know that we try to do a trunk novel segment now and again. This basically means that someone sends in a few pages from an old story they've abandoned (put in the trunk), then we read and critique it into the mic. Not only is this a hilarious reminder of how bad we all once were, it's also a great learning opportunity. Every story has its own problems, after all, and the best way to learn how to spot them is by reading (or listening) to them in different contexts.

But we need your help! Michelle, Giles, and I all have lots of trunk novels we can go through, except that we know it's boring to hear our words over and over again. We want to record a trunk novel segment during our recording session tomorrow and, if you don't want to hear another one of ours, you need to send us some of yours!

We already read a fantastic (or horrible, depending on your point of view) trunk novel from Veronica R. Calisto, and we want to read more from listeners. Take the first few pages of any old story you've written that hasn't seen the light of day in a couple of years and send it to us at beyondthetrope (at) gmail (dot) com with permission to read it on the air, and we'll help you dissect it. Who knows, you might even figure out how to fix all of its problems! And don't worry about it being the worst thing anyone's ever written in the history of stories--we all have that one book, and some of us have shared it already.

Emily is really looking forward to reading all of your trunk novels instead of another one of hers. She's also quite excited about Fall finally beginning to show up, but that's a completely different story.