This blog, it is a’changin’

Grab a towel and don’t panic – I’m not planning any massive divergence from the stuff my 200+ readers, followers, and friends have already come to expect. This blog has been and always will be a place where I can be myself, talk about my own journey, and express my opinions.

I’ve never claimed to be a blog for “writing advice”, as I strongly believe that we all have our own writing philosophies that work for us. It would be wise of me not to imprint my methods on other people, although I do like sharing what works for me in the hope that people can try it for themselves and see if it helps. Additionally, haven’t we ALL heard about showing and not telling? Haven’t we ALL heard about adverbs and dialogue tags by now?

However, I do update kind of sporadically, my blog is the opposite of SEO optimized, the theme needs a bit of a makeover, and I want to return to the targeted and opinionated content that got me a lot more interaction when I started this blog two (!) years ago. Like “Stop Whining About Book To Movie Adaptations” and “Can You Use Real People As Vectors For Characters?” None of this is advice – they’re conversation pieces meant to get the audience thinking topics that don’t get much attention, particularly from an unusual perspective. I have an inherently contrarian personality, and a background in film. Unlike most of the reading community, I don’t smell books, scorn movie adaptations, or feel that I’m better than people because I read.

So that’s all. I’m hoping to update a bit more frequently, and to target my posts with a question or topic in mind instead of just posting updates about my productivity/progress. I’d like to invite a bit more conversation here, and write stuff that people could perhaps reblog or share or link to with a firm “what she said!” or even an outraged, “who does this person think she is?!” Haha. As always, I’m inspired by whatever creative stage I’m going through, and at the moment it’s 1) finishing the final edits on Paradisa, 2) querying for the first time, 3) a bit more about filmmaking, and 4) trying to publish short fiction/write more short fiction.

TLDR – Same Aether House you love, only MORE! :D

It’s true what they say about darkness and dawn

Let me take you back three years. On May 11, 2013, I graduated from the College of Charleston. It was a Saturday, and I was set to start my first chemist job that Monday. It wasn’t the best job in the world, but it was something. And only one month before, I had been in a very hopeless place.

Job hunting is never easy, but it’s especially difficult when you have no experience. And it seems that no matter how much you apply and no matter what you apply to, you never strike gold immediately. It takes a long haul of hard work and grim rejection. Then, everything starts to work out.

In April of 2013, I had spent 4 months applying to nearly 60 jobs. I only had one interview for a real job, and one interview for Disney World. But within the span of two weeks, I was given a windfall of good news. I was offered jobs from both Disney and that other job. I was offered an interview from MUSC. I was offered an interview from another chemical company called MeadWestvaco. I was given the opportunity to apply for the job I have now.

That cliché about “when it rains, it pours?” Yeah. I learned three years ago how true that is.

But there’s something that dawned on me today as I not only secured my first paying gig for my video company, but a second lit mag offered to publish a piece of mine (yes – two in one week. I’m as surprised as you are). It’s not just a fact that good news tends to show up all at once. It’s also true that good news seems to show up when we need it the absolute most.

I’ve been submitting to magazines on and off since last July.  I did this idly, just to say that I’m putting myself out there. I was not hurt by rejection. I was a little bummed to see that – as of now – my work has made it to the “final round” of judging on five separate occasions but still no dice. Still, I knew that my submissions attempts were largely sidekick to my novels and other large efforts.

And then, as time passed and outside forces weighed in, my anxiety started again. I’ve been pretty open about it these past few weeks. I’ve had acute moments of “what if this isn’t any good?” before, but I can’t remember having a full month or two where I really worried for my future. This is probably the darkest things have gotten for me, even pushing me to the thought of “maybe I should give up writing.” I thought, mind you, that I have never had before.

Then the good news showed up.

When I think back to 2013, my final semester of school was equally dark. I worried for my future then too. I wondered what I would do without a good job – or any job! – to support myself. I needed to move out on my own. I worried what would happen if Austin and I ended up in different cities. There was so much fear bred by uncertainty, and that fear only bubbled the closer I got to graduation. And by April, I was a nervous wreck. I only had a few short weeks to get my life in order and nothing was working out.

Then the good news showed up.

It’s almost as if it waits in the shadows for those lowest moments. It tests us, asking us to keep hope even when things are most dire. Could things have become worse for me had the good news not intervened? Perhaps. With enough rejection, maybe I would have given up writing. But back in 2013, and now, there seems to have been an ebb and flow to my concerns. Just when I start to think “I am seriously worried”, the tables turn.

I don’t need an explanation for it, but I thought I’d offer it as an uplifiting observation. That if you’re at a low point right now – in a place of anxiety and rejection – good news may be fast approaching. Like I said before, persistence tends to get results no matter what order you do things in. If you do something long enough, you’ll be impossible to ignore.

Cinematic Writing: Avoid or Embrace?

My second beta round draws mostly to a close today with…mixed success. 1 beta fully read the book and responded within the initial window, and with incredibly thoughtful comments (thank you Millie Ho!). 1 dropped out due to disliking the style (more on that in a bit). 1 got back to me last night after having read half of it.

The way things have gone, I think I can expect No Response from 4/11 of my chosen betas. Eek. Maybe I should have written a better book?

However, what I want to discuss today is a feature of my writing that all 3 of the responders – including the one who dropped out – mentioned. It’s something I’ve heard all my life, it’s something the readers of Beta Round One mentioned, and it’s something I find myself in a mental war over: my book feels like a movie.

I used to embrace this without a second thought. I am a filmmaker. I love film just as much as I love the written word – perhaps even more. I have been fascinated by movies and the moviemaking process since childhood. I am in love with non-linear editing in particular, and I will defend the merit of film to pretentious literary types until I’m hoarse. So, I used to think this was a good thing because it’s a reflection of who I am.

And others, throughout my life, have seemed to feel similarly. The beta I spoke to last night said, “I liked that it read like a movie; it was very visual.” Millie commented a lot about the visual storytelling in her critique, and that she could tell I had a cinematic mind. But on the flipside, the beta who dropped out did so because “it read like a script for an anime” and he couldn’t get past 10% before having to give up. My father, last year, also critiqued it for being cinematic, saying “it’s a book, not a movie. Write it like one.”

Now I have pause. Maybe Dad is right? People go into books expecting books, right? Sure, you can’t please everyone. But maybe I’ve been pleasing the wrong people.

So I’m on a quest to discover what makes my writing cinematic, and if that’s a good thing. Most writing purists would say “no.” They think that literature should not resemble film, that film is a lesser art form, that fiction should envelop all five senses instead of just your sight. These people usually say “the book is always better” when confronted with any movie adaptation simply because books have more details (which I have entirely separate rant about, by the way.) I do think there’s something to be said for this – literature allows us to look into a character’s head and experience things beyond a mere picture. Characters are undoubtedly easier to understand and relate to in print.

But let’s give pictures their due: the adage “a picture is worth 1000 words” is true, and there are plenty of things in Paradisa that would be much easier to establish if I only had a camera, some editing software, and the London Symphony Orchestra. I imagine Paradisa as a movie in my head, with full production value – and putting it on the page always feels like a shade of what I’m really imagining. I have to emulate “background music” in other ways – describing the general mood and emotion that my intended music actually pulls out of me. The psychic camera can be manipulated by choosing what to describe – start with an “establishing shot” of setting description, a close shot of our character’s exterior description, then an extreme close-up of his actual thoughts. And so on.

There are two features of my writing which are easy to pinpoint as cinematic though, and they are scene breaks and present tense. The present tense provokes a reader’s visual mind a bit more naturally. (I have no fancy, deep reason why I write in present tense aside from my dislike of the word “had”). Scene breaks are somewhat unusual, as most novels follow characters in a nonstop, single shot with a few “the next day, I…” or “I went to sleep and woke up a few hours later…” transition sentences to establish a new scene. I love scene breaks though, because they’re a great way to build momentum. Each scene break can end in a bit of a cliffhanger, or a note of resonance. If you do it all in one take, your resonance can only really appear at the end of a chapter. Also, I have 2+ POV characters in the book, who require new scenes to establish that we’re in THEIR head.

But is there something more to my writing than two stylistic choices? Is there something inherently cinematic about the pacing, or the action? Is there something inherently cinematic about beautiful fantasy settings? Is it how I think of my characters like a cast of actors that I am only here to direct, rather than to control? Or the story being told itself – its themes, its characters, its plot and climax? The scene breaks have to stay, but I am considering converting my book to the past tense in order to make it more marketable – would this ruin the cinematic appeal that so many have complimented? Or would it still be cinematic in past tense; I would have just made my book infinitely more marketable without detracting any of its positive aspects.

Or, on the other side of the coin, should I embrace the destruction of my cinematics? Should I embrace making my book more like a traditional novel? Surely that will help it sell better. And that’s all I really want, of course. I’m of the mindset that most agents have the same taste – as most of them give the same advice – and that becomes even more true when you zoom into a particular genre. If most say “don’t write like a movie,” that might as well be all of them. No use playing roulette looking for the one agent out of 1000 with unpopular tastes that match yours. The stars would have to align to find both an agent and an editor/publisher who would all see eye to eye with me, the author.

I’m wondering what game to play here, because “being true to yourself” is not always the right answer. There is a difference between an artistic choice and bad writing. And I’m starting to wonder if my cinematic roots result in what most informed gatekeepers would call bad writing. It would hurt like hell to change my entire style to fit the norm. I’m not even sure I could do it aside from giving up novels altogether and writing screenplays instead. But as they say, “kill your darlings,” right? Maybe this is one of those times.

Any thoughts? Are there merits to this writing style, or is it kind of amateur? Should I try to be more marketable or hedge my bets with what I’ve already written?

NaNoWriMo Begins Sunday….But Not For Me

Few things are as divisive among writers as the mere concept of NaNoWriMo. You either embrace it wholeheartedly as a fresh kick to your muse, or you think it’s an abysmal experiment for people who aren’t “real” writers. I have always been very pro-NaNo, because I think it’s a good ceremonial event and rite of passage.

A lot of anti-NaNo people take it a bit too literally, as if us pro-NaNos think we can only write a novel during November. Or that we only consider ourselves “writers” in November, then forgo writing the rest of the year. Are people who run marathons only capable of running 26 miles the day of the event? Of course not. They train for months. They run a lot of marathons in their own time, with only themselves to notice. But certainly doing it in an official, public way makes the accomplishment all the more real. And accomplishment aside, isn’t it fun to cross the finish line with other people too? Likewise, you don’t have to participate in a public event to be considered a real writer/marathon runner either. 26 miles, or 50k words, is an accomplishment regardless.

But I will be sitting NaNo out this year, because it simply doesn’t jive with 2015’s interests. I do have my next book in mind. I have it fully outlined. I have some early drafts of it, which I may or may not pull from. But 2015 needs to be the year I finish Paradisa, and I am fully invested in getting it ready for a copyeditor by the new year. Sure, it probably won’t be ready to query until May, but at least the meat of it can be finished by January. At least most of 2016’s work will be proofing, polishing, query-writing, and agent researching.

As for the next book? I’ll probably write the first draft in January-March. I’m not going to kill myself trying to do it all in one month, as I have some other endeavors to focus on. And with any luck, this one will reach the finish line a little faster than Paradisa, as it’s a memoir and I can’t change the plot too much ;)

I probably will return to NaNo next year, as I already have my next NaNo idea in mind. For the rest of you – good luck, stay strong, and reach whatever goal you’ve set for yourself!

If You Can’t Summarize Your Book, Maybe It’s Missing Something

Summaries suck. Few come easy to us, and condensing a 300 or 400 page novel into 200 words, especially when you’re dealing with dual protagonists, sounds insurmountable. But even complex stories, like The Hunger Games, can be summed up in just one line if you know what to focus on –

Katniss Everdeen, an impoverished teenager living in the cruel dictatorship of Panem, volunteers for their deadly Hunger Games tournament in order to save her sister’s life.

Notice I didn’t bother with Gale, or Rue, or Haymitch, or the fact that she has to pretend to be in love with Peeta. I didn’t mention the main antagonist, President Snow. I didn’t mention that Katniss shoots arrows or even what the Hunger Games are. I instead focused on who Katniss is – A poor and probably selfless teenager. What does she want? To save her sister. What is the conflict? She volunteers for the deadly Hunger Games.

So what are the Hunger Games? That’s where you can ask your readers to pick up the book and find out.

But try as I might, I had nothing but trouble summarizing Paradisa. Do I open with the world/premise of universal myth? Do I open with character and what Connor wants/who he is? Should I include Clara in there too, as she’s a co-protagonist? Do I name drop specific deities who make an appearance? Do I focus on the external conflict of saving the world from monsters, or the internal conflict of Connor’s inability to trust people?

This was particularly hard in previous drafts because all of Connor and Clara’s goals and obstacles were internal. They learned some crazy stuff, basically volunteered to join the plot for no real reason, and became heroes in a loose, manufactured sort of way. This is why my book was hard to summarize. While I had life and death stakes, my characters were still not the ones leading the story. My story was not about them. And because it was missing this key element, my summary was only ever a rundown of “stuff that happens.”

With this previous rewrite, Connor is forced into the story, forced to choose between a rock and a hard place, forced into facing his demons. His agency leads the entire plot. Something happens that is beyond his control in the opening chapter, and from there, he has to choose between running from monsters forever or becoming a servant of the gods. And that comes with a host of consequences all its own.

Suddenly, my book is easy to summarize. I can open on Connor. I can describe who he is and where he is in life. I can describe how he is viciously ripped out of his comfort zone and forced to be a part of the plot. I can describe a situation that tests his character, and even leaves the audience in a wee bit of suspense (although most people can realize that without Connor joining the gods, we don’t have much of a story!)

If I was to expand past one line, I would also reduce Clara’s role in the summary, as her arc is more of a subplot. I want to focus on the main character, and his conflict, and his stakes. I don’t need to get into the nitty gritty of the antagonist’s motivation, or even his name – I just need to show that conflict is happening and there are forces that want to challenge my hero. I don’t need to run down a name list and description of all my protagonist’s allies – “his sister, an angel, and two Greek gods” would suffice.

Pick the most important thing your story is about and run with it. Hopefully, that thing is character. But even if that thing is a concept or a premise, you should be able to articulate it. If not, perhaps your story isn’t about what you think it is. Or maybe you need to do some retooling to better connect character to plot.

My Experiment With A Writing Journal

No, not a blog, my friends. Not a composition notebook by your bedside table where you jot down ideas that strike in the middle of slumber. Not a list of “Cool titles I might use one day” or “writing prompts” or “neat character names.” A writing journal can have all of those things…but what a writing journal should be is a foundation for what it means to be human. A way to store all the emotions you feel on a daily basis, reflect on them, and then summon them at will when you want to use them in a character. A place where you keep progress of your work in order to keep yourself accountable. A place where you work out the chaos in your head by simply turning it into an alphabet.

I haven’t kept up with my writing journal for very long, nor have I reached the habit where I write in it every day. But already, I see why it’s beneficial. Pouring out the bad emotions and weird thoughts and worried delusions and speculation of my future is a great way to encapsulate my humanity – a humanity that, often when I’m writing, I wonder if I really have. I’m not frequently emotional. I worry that my work is often bland and shallow and devoid of character because I don’t pull at the reader’s guts every other page. I’m a commercial writer, I admit, but I appreciate a blend between commercial plot and loveable, heart wrenching characters a la Doctor Who.

I have that journal in front of me and I can go back to a day where I felt fully in love, or inadequate, or fat, or useless, or uneasy, or lucky, or curious, I can relive what it means to be those things. I can use my prior self as a vector and fill in my character, or whatever plot thread I’m trying to twist.

On a less personal note, I can write down all the weird “what if?” thoughts I had throughout the day, thoughts that both disturbed or elated me or struck my curiosity. I can write down funny anecdotes from work, funny things Reggie said that I might use later in a character like him, or amusing people I saw at dinner. I can talk about news stories that angered me, scared me, or made me shake my head. I can log trends in the universe that I observe as a way to predict what’s next in fiction. I can write about books I’ve read, movies I’ve watched, and games I’ve played to dissect what I loved and hated about them, and why the story worked or why it didn’t. I can count my submission response letters and make note of journals who were particularly kind or helpful in their rejections. I can preserve – in ink, in something tangible – the moment when I actually get accepted to something.

When I first read about the habit of keeping a journal, I thought, “I don’t need to do that – I have a blog.” Or, “I don’t need to do that, I have a plot bunny journal.”  But after giving it a try, I see why this is different. Because the writing journal is not a place where you wax about your writing philosophy, as my blog is. It’s not a place where you simply tinker with ideas, like my plot bunny book. It’s a place where you can keep track of experiences that are so important in building authorial maturity. It’s a place where you sketch out who you are, and that identity will define what you write about.

And let’s face it – it would make a mighty fine auction item if you ever became famous one day ;)

Seven Habits of Highly Effective Writers

For the past month, I have lived by a grid telling me what to do each day. For Type B people, this may seem ludicrous. But since graduating from college, I’ve been winging it and have almost nothing to show except one long suffering manuscript and no progress on other endeavors. I wasted two years that I could have been building my film portfolio. Two years I could have been freelancing my graphics skills. Two years I could have been writing and publishing short fiction.

I’m not wasting time anymore.

But a schedule means nothing without discipline, and that discipline is something I have to grow. I don’t meet all my goals every week. I barely meet my goals every month. But I do reach 70-80% of them, and it gets easier every day. By the end of 2015, I hope these goals will instead be habits. And since the point of this blog is to share both my progress and philosophies so that they may help other writers, here are a few tips to transform ideals into real habits:

Multiple projects. I wasn’t always a supporter of this, mostly because one project tends to overwhelm my brain at a time, leaving no inspiration for other things. In some ways, this remains true – I still can’t write two novels at once. But a novel and a short story? That’s okay. A short story and a website? That’s cool too. Spreading your projects across different mediums is a great brain hack, because I think we all have a set of muses instead of just one. You can fire all of them up at the same time and work steadily on everything, rather than burning out “the novel muse” before you’re even done with it.

Meditation. You know how the best ideas come to you in the shower, or on the ride to work, or as you’re about to fall asleep? There’s a reason – those moments are when your mind is most relaxed (assuming you’re not driving in D.C. traffic every day!) Stepping back and letting your mind wander is like instant inspiration. I swear, half the plot twists for Paradisa were born in the bathroom. You could try setting aside 15-30 minutes every day to physically meditate, but I personally haven’t made time for that yet. Instead, I harness my brain’s natural meditation cycles by keeping a small memo pad close by, and by using my smartphone’s voice recorder app. Like dreams, a lot of ideas and writing envisioned during this period can be fleeting, and I don’t want to forget them!

Schedules. Again, some more. Sorry, but they’re essential for me. I have road marks for all of my mediums going all the way through 2020! But some things, like my ambitious feature-length mocap project, actually take that much preparation. When you’re trying to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for something, you need the luxury of time and a multi-year game plan. And for anyone trying to be an indie anything, you need time to build a platform before you can expect to be successful.

Another thing about schedules – they ensure all months have a fairly even workload. I have allowed myself a hiatus on most things during months where I’ll draft a new novel. Similarly, during months where my novel is in beta, I focus more on non-novel things. I don’t want to reach March and realize all my deadlines have converged at once and I’ve given myself an impossible workload (only to be followed by a month where everything is slow and I’m basically wasting time).

Know your limits. In my prime, I could write 2000 words/hour. That seems like a fantasy now, because I no longer live alone and I have a much earlier bedtime. In fact, I didn’t really have a bedtime two years ago and constantly showed up to work bedraggled. In exchange for getting 8 hours of sleep every day, barely drinking caffeine, and being a decent live-in girlfriend, my maximum daily word count is about 1000 words.

When setting goals, don’t pretend you’re someone you’re not. Remember that sometimes you have sinus headaches, sometimes you want a nap, sometimes you have to work late, sometimes you want to marathon Lost on Netflix. If you schedule yourself like some kind of creative workhorse, you’ll burn yourself out if you meet your goals or you’ll be disappointed if you fail them. Or, like me, you’ll end up at the chiropractor for six months because being hunched over a laptop like a machine crippled your back. >.> Books like “How I Write 10,000 Words A Day” are tempting to emulate, but remember that those people are usually professional writers whose sole job 8 hours a day is to write fiction. For the rest of us working stiffs, especially those of us who want some semblance of a social life even if it’s just with our partner, that’s simply not realistic.

And even with a mere 800 words a day, I’m still writing more than I would have otherwise. It looks like I will complete Paradisa Draft 6 in two months, when it took me 7 months to do the same amount of work on Draft 5.

Priorities. Sleep is now a priority for me. Giving my partner attention is a priority. On the other end of the spectrum, I try to prioritize my art over playing video games and watching TV (which is a shame, because I love Fallout 3 and wish I had time to play it!) But now I’m talking about prioritizing your actual projects. Right now, Paradisa Draft 6 comes before anything else. It’s what I spend the top chunk of my energy on because if everything else fails, I still want a completed manuscript of this book to show for it.

Then there are bonus goals that do not have immediacy behind them, and do not have any particular external deadline (like an anthology reading period) or self-set deadline to meet. I work on these second.

Taking A Day Off. Unfortunately, I did not design a day off into my schedule, which has so far been a terrible idea (as a side point, I’d like to stress that schedules and goals are organic things. Too many people see organization as a prison. It’s not. It’s entirely in your control, and you can make the variables be whatever suits you). When I get the chance to reorient things, I am definitely leaving Saturdays free of responsibility. I never accomplish anything on Saturdays as it is, and I need a day to recharge from the combination of my full time job and the creative work. It’s tempting to shove all your creative projects onto the weekends, but personally, I get a surprising amount done on weeknights. Which leads me to…

Treat writing like it’s your job. Ideally, I will treat Sundays as if I’m a work-from-home writer. Austin works on Sundays, so I have the whole house to myself. I rarely have responsibilities on Sunday aside from household chores and making dinner. So that leaves me 7-8 hours to sit in my office and, for one day every week, pretend like this is my job. I’ve yet to do such a thing – probably because I haven’t given myself Saturdays off yet ;) This is my ultimate goal by the end of the year though, because imagine how productive one could be if they devoted a whole day to writing and creating?

Hope this helps some of you who struggle to find the time or motivation to complete your projects. One of the most admirable methods of creativity that we don’t utilize enough in America is focusing on what you can do with the resources you have rather than aspiring towards goals that are beyond your scale. Time is a resource. Energy is a resource. Find out how much you have of both and work within those limits rather than pretending you have more of either. If you simply commit to working on something – anything – it’s pretty amazing what you can build.

Lesson Learned: I Wrote About Space X and I Didn’t Publish It Fast Enough

Allow me to explain what I mean by this title: a few years ago, I was a NASA intern. Part of my internship involved visiting private and public aerospace factories, which included Space X. As you might have heard, Space X’s Falcon 9 rocket exploded two minutes after launch this weekend. No astronauts were onboard (I’m pretty sure Space X has not had any manned missions to date), but most people saw it as a pretty sobering blow to the private industry’s shining star. And in 2012, as soon as I stepped foot in to Space X’s lobby, I saw this coming.

The following is excerpted from my Michelle-In-Space blog, which was a Livejournal I kept documenting that summer….

Finally, it was the long haul to Space X. Traffic didn’t get us too badly, but it still took nearly two hours to get across town to Hawthorne, where Space X and Boeing Satellite Systems were located. It is a surprisingly mundane part of town. Our tour of Space X got some mixed results, with people either loving it or hating it. I think I can’t talk about specifics, but I can give you a general gist of the place. Most of my peers will scoff at me for my blasphemy, but I honestly hated it. There was a disgusting level of unprofessionalism displayed (I lost count of the amount of F-bombs dropped by our orientation presenter and our tour guides – I’m not a prude, but keep it out of the workplace), a lack of anyone there over age 30 (aka, lack of any experienced wisdom and mentoring), and the sheer negligence that was being displayed with flight hardware. I mean, absolute negligence. I had more than a few raised eyebrows watching people work carelessly on stuff that is supposed to fly into space.

I love that the space industry has gone private, and I can certainly understand why someone would want to avoid the government-style red tape that comes with working at NASA proper. But this is the one company I’ve seen this summer which openly admits to skirting the edge of safety to save a buck, and then puffs out their chests in arrogance because of it. It actually baffles me how anyone could ignore that, especially since no one who fell in love with Space X has actually explained to me why they do – they’ve just looked at me like I’m psychotic. Personally, I am heavily dissapointed, and even a bit heartbroken by what I saw there. I was expecting amazement and a glimpse of the future, and instead I walked out with dread. Of course, I am happy we went, because it was very eye-opening and informative to see – I merely think the Dragon may as well be named the Icarus.

As a writer, I was immediately struck with the urge to “sound the alarm” on this inevitable tragedy though fiction. In 2013, I charted out a script outline for an indie film called Goliath, which tracked industrial espionage and quality negligence between a Boeing-like company and a Space X-like company. I eventually reduced this into a short story called “Goliath,” which was a 3000 word mock interview between a reporter named Sofia Morgan and the reckless Elon Musk-lite CEO of Goliath Aerospace. In the interview, the CEO takes Morgan on a tour through the facility and it strongly mirrors what I myself saw at Space X, heard from the tour guides, etc. At the end of the article, Morgan recounts the devastating explosion that occurred two weeks later on Goliath’s launchpad, and how all the signs of imminent failure were foreshadowed – but their hubris was too high to see it.

I submitted it to one anthology last summer, it was rejected, and I shelved it. I was hoping to revamp it this summer – next month, even. In fact, Sunday morning, I even wrote it on my to-do list. Then I heard the news.

I’m not sure if it’s a story that needs to be put out there anymore. I think I missed my shot. That’s not to say it can’t be enjoyed anymore, but now I think it’ll come off as reaction rather than foresight. Predicting trends is always more impressive than following them.

The moral of the story? If you see something coming that no one else does, write a story about it! And get it published! Your window will come and you’ll be ready. But if you write it when the event has passed, you may have missed the boat.

My Summer of Short Stories!

I went to ConCarolinas two weeks ago and was simultaneously reinvigorated and sobered. On the plus side, I met an awesome author named Josh Strnad. Josh was actually a guest at my convention, AtomaCon, last November – but I barely got to meet him then! I was too busy helping run the con. But his book Pantheon – about Greek Gods in the weird Wild West – captured me from the get-go and I remembered that I wanted to buy a copy.

So I chatted with him a bit, and he gave me great advice about building a publishing portfolio via short stories. This is stuff I somewhat knew, but I’ve been so focused on Paradisa that I’ve neglected any other writing. Now that I’ve reached one of the most major roadblocks yet with Paradisa, I’m setting it aside for a bit and focusing on my short works. Plus, Josh put it in a way that made it seem accessible – just write about 5-6 different things, and send them out to anthologies/mags that might like them. It doesn’t need to be a constant battle of writing a different story for every different publication out there.

And to my surprise, I actually have a lot of stuff in my archives. Some of it, especially the poetry, isn’t bad (poetry isn’t something I normally lean towards, but when I *do* write poetry, it’s quite fun. I love crossword puzzles, and rhyme schemes/poetic forms are somewhat similar. I love metaphor and wordplay. Maybe I should be doing more poetry!) There are also a few drabbles and shorts I’m going to send out into the universe too.

Then, there are anthology calls and contests. Some of these require me to write something new, be it Catholic fiction, personal essays, horror shorts, or fairy tale reboots. So, I have a lot of ideas on the pipeline for this summer. Hopefully I’ll have a few paid writing credits on my resume by the end of the year, and that’ll better equip me to pitch a novel when the time comes.

And now, the sobering note: I participated in a live action slush fest with the opening page (or, one of them) of Paradisa. For reference – and your benefit, should you want to learn something about what not to do –  I’ve excerpted it below:

Death is familiar to Connor Bishara, but he’s not sure when it became so. Perhaps it comes from a few years of stepping over mangled bodies on a battlefield, or from seeing the love of his life spread across the satin lining of a coffin. Regardless of when his heart hardened, plenty of others have left his life since – grandparents, old friends, coworkers. Connor is used to watching these losses as if through glass, accepting this grim world without a twitch.

His father’s death is different. 

As he watches Malik Bishara’s coffin descend into the Tunisian earth, blood boils beneath Connor’s skin. Not quite sorrow, or vengeance, or even fury – just chaos.

The panel stopped around this point, citing that they didn’t like present tense and that the POV felt too distant. Too “over the character’s shoulder” rather than inside his head. They did not get a sense of voice, character, or conflict.

I don’t necessarily disagree with them, as I think what they said is factual  – I’m just a bit disheartened that these things were apparently dealbreakers. I already knew that present tense was controversial, but I didn’t think setting a scene from outside the character was a killer, especially in the third person. I consider Paradisa to be third-person limited anyway, so yeah…it was surprising to hear that it isn’t limited enough. Although, upon skimming Paradisa later, I’ve noticed this is a constant problem, so I guess I’ll have to keep an eye out for that. And maybe consider changing it to past tense too. Just a little disheartening overall, because they’re basically saying that my style is a dealbreaker, and that’s pretty much the worst – it’s not just an error or a technique I can cut or tweak or really fix.

But hey, adapt or perish. On the plus side, I didn’t make any amateur mistakes like starting too early or opening on the weather, or waxing on about the landscape for two paragraphs before getting to the character. I also think one of the major takeaways from the workshop is that novels should offer a clear image of “This is the type of book this is going to be.” Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone opens with the night of James and Lily’s death. It does NOT open with a chapter full of Harry being abused and not doing much of circumstance. That initial dip into the magical world with Hagrid and Dumbledore, even though it does not follow the main protagonist, is a key opening that sets up the entire book.

So I’m considering opening on a supernatural character and jumping to Connor in Chapter Two. Or if it’s written in past tense, I can open with a  broad statement about the adventures Connor will go on before flashing back to ~before~. With my current opening, NO reader would expect a mythological fantasy about saving the world! Even if all the style stuff was fixed, that would still be a major problem.

Alas. No rest for the wicked. I’ll keep you posted on my short submissions and I’ll let you know where you can pick up my writing should it actually get published anywhere ;)

Dear Teenage Me – Writing Advice

Dear Michelle at 16,

Congrats on those half a million words you’ll have by the time you finish high school. I wish I could say that you’ll keep it up that pace in adulthood, but you’ll never have more free time than you do as a teenager. Either way, it’s cool that you spend it writing every day, pumping out a novel, one or two novellas (20-30k words) and multiple short stories (<10k words) a year.

Here’s some advice to you, and all the other teen writers out there, that might make the road a little easier –

1. Don’t feel bad about writing fanfiction. Fanfic teaches you about the basic elements of storytelling – the three act structure, plotting, conflict, dialogue, character motivations, tenses, POV, building suspense. Yes, a lot of that sandbox is built and there’s no world-building or character creation. But world-building and character creation are two of the hardest parts about being a writer. I don’t see any issue in discovering your voice, and how to tell a decent story, with fanfiction first.

2. Don’t feel bad that what you’re writing isn’t and/or won’t be published. Even if you wrote original stuff, it wouldn’t have been the Great American Novel. Sorry.

In fact, you’re going to look back on 90% of your current stuff with disdain. But if you write enough, and make the most of your time, that last 10% will stand the test of time. The first 30% is almost unreadable, the middle 30% has redeeming traits, the third 30% is enjoyable even if it’s dated or not publishable, and that last 10% is where you’ll say “dang. I was good. What happened?”

3. Once you get to that 10% area of good writing, the worst thing you can do is stop. That’s what I did, and now I’m back to that 55%-65% area. You’ll lose your skills if you don’t read or write for a few years. It’ll be hard to keep up with your talent in college, but make it a priority.

4. It’s not just about writing quality though. You don’t know this yet, but a lot of your work is ignorant to how the real world operates. That isn’t your fault. It’s just part of living in a manufactured bubble of public school and no bills. A lot of your opinions are just regurgitated from peers and elders, and a lot of your understanding of how the world works is rather elementary. No, the economy cannot be fixed by simply printing more money – and so on.

5. It’s not all bad – you can still write what you know and you do know a lot. You know one thing in particular that adults always seem to forget: how teenagers think, write, and behave. Really, your piece of work, pre age-18, that has held up the best is  The Outcasts. The one about teenagers doing teenager things. Not the political thriller or the high fantasy or the surrealist comedy. You weren’t ready for any of those others yet, so not much can be done with them now. Ignorance of politics makes thrillers nearly impossible and I think a good sense of humor needs some age on it too.

6. Tumblr and WordPress don’t exist for you yet, and you know you’re writing about copyrighted properties anyway. So you’ll never have to hear “teens can’t write anything worth publishing.” I see a lot of teen writers hear this now though, in 2015. I think it sucks. I get where the critique comes from, and I can offer my own interpretation of it – but the last thing you should tell a writer is “what you’re writing doesn’t matter.”

7. Publishing at 22 or 52 is just as impressive as publishing at 18 or 15. Don’t bother chasing an arbitrary deadline to publication just because Christopher Paolini did it. People can hardly believe Veronica Roth is 24, so you still have plenty of years left to impress people. Even still, no one cares how old you are when you do it. Age is kind of gimmick in that way. Just write a good book, no matter what age you are, and publish it when you know it is finished.

8. It was a good idea to graduate early from high school and major in chemistry. To this day, that choice  I made at 16 is probably the best I’ve ever made. You won’t end up a pharmacist like you intend, but you’ll still have a solid career that allows you freedom, money, and time to pursue all your dreams. Don’t let anyone tell you that majoring in creative writing or film is the only way to follow your heart. No one ever did amazing things by following the expected path – think outside the box and make your own fate.