Marking Time

When I was in high school, I was a proud, happy member of the marching band. Every summer for four years, in the dead heat of August (and once during a hurricane that reached into the mountains of Pennsylvania), we were on the field, learning and practicing basic marching skills and the half-time show for the fall’s football games. One of the skills that we practiced and used regularly was the concept of marking time. Marking time is when the band is standing still but music of some sort is still playing, sometimes just the percussion, to keep the beat and to keep the feet moving. Instead of standing perfectly still, like you would at attention or parade rest, to mark time meant that you continued marching in place, keeping the rhythm moving so that you are ready to continue marching when instructed. It is quicker to continue marching from mark time than from a dead stop. You maintain movement.

It occurs to me that marking time in band is similar to the querying process.

I have been querying my current manuscript for a while now, and the waiting is killer. You wait for feedback on your query letter, you wait for responses to your initial query, you wait for responses to requests for partials or fulls, and you wait again after that if you manage to land an agent while the agent is trying to sell your work. It’s a lot of waiting. It’s easy to sit back and bite your nails, just hoping that something sticks, that something works, that you’ll have an offer and a publishing deal eventually. It’s also easy to think there’s absolutely nothing you can do in the meantime.

But that’s not true.

While we are waiting on our queries, we can be marking time. We can be actively working during the waiting so that we are prepared for what comes next, just like in marching band. We can keep our momentum. But how do we do that for writing?

  1. Keep polishing your query materials. I know this can seem like a waste of time and it’s so easy to sweep under the rug once it’s “done,” but your query can always use improvement. If you see a contest for a query critique, enter it. If you have a writer friend, have them read your query and offer input. I recently read that advice that if you do not receive at least a 40% request rate, then your query could use some work. Keep moving forward!
  2. Be proactive about any feedback you receive. If you do hear back from an agent, that’s great! But it may be that they want to see something a bit differently. Consider those opinions and know that as the writer, it’s up to you to change it, but these are industry professionals who know what the market needs and wants. If you need to keep polishing that manuscript, then break out the polish. The work isn’t over once you hit submit to those first few agents.
  3. Keep current on the market. Whatever genre your book is in, whatever age category, keep an eye on the current trends. If you wrote a vampire book and vampires are going out of style, your query might be harder to sell. But if you wrote something that’s just gaining popularity, then you might have an easier time. Make yourself an informed client. Keep researching new agents and looking for what agents may be searching for your book. It doesn’t stop with your first list.
  4. Don’t let the rejections get you down. There are so many agents out there. Hope is not lost. If you keep trying, you will find what is best for your book, even if it’s not an agent. Rejection isn’t the end of your manuscript, and every author faces this. It could simply be that your manuscript will fit better into an independent publisher or through self publishing. So don’t give up!
  5. And most importantly, keep writing. Agents like to hear that you have more projects in the works, that you’re not just a one-trick pony. Write other things, submit short pieces to magazines or online blogs. If your current manuscript isn’t right at the moment, perhaps your next work will be. You always want to be refining your craft, and the best way to do that is to write!

The querying process can be daunting and full of discouragement and disillusionment, but there is so much that you can do while querying that can refill and energize your creative spirit, the dreamer within you.

So don’t get discouraged, friends. Mark time, and when the order comes, you’ll be ready to march.

Advice for Aspiring Writers

  1. Claim your name. If you write, you are a writer. The longer you call yourself an “aspiring writer” instead of a writer, the longer you keep yourself from the pride and inclusion and knowledge that you are, indeed, a writer.
  2. Get serious about your craft. This means making time to write every day or almost every day. Writing out of habit and commitment will get you closer to finishing your first book than waiting for inspiration.
  3. Start even if you don’t feel ready. Because I’ll give you a hint: no one ever actually feels ready. The longer you put it off, the longer it will be until you feel like a writer.
  4. Make some writer friends. Talk to writers online. Talk to writer friends in real life. Just connect with someone who will be able to discuss the finer points of writing with you and inspire you to keep working for your dream.
  5. Read up on your craft. This includes blog posts from other writers either on Tumblr, online blogs, or, where I found most of my beginning knowledge, Pinterest. Read some classic books on the craft of writing like On Writing by Stephen King or Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.
  6. Learn how to write. Commit yourself to learning the rules so you know how you can break them in ways that make your writing stronger.
  7. Just Write. This is the key to being a writer. Write when you don’t feel ready. Write when you’re not sure. Write even when you don’t feel like writing. Write because you’re a writer and you must. Just write. For this is literally the only way you can actually improve your writing.

How to Write a Fairy Tale Retelling

Fairy tales have become very popular lately, particularly unique retellings of fairy tales such as The Lunar Chronicles series, Ella Enchanted, Hunted, the ACOTAR series, and many, many others. In fact, the small publisher Rooglewood Press has been hosting a fairy tale retelling contest for a few years now, and they just recently announced this year’s (sadly the last): Snow White. If you’re interested in that, I’ll include a link to the contest page and previous winners below.

If you find you’re one of those people (like me) who is just a sucker for fairy tale retellings and want to try your hand at writing one, how do you going about doing that? Well, there are a few simple steps to make it the best it can be.

  1. Pick something new. Personally, I am tired of the “classic” fairy tales like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. Everyone and their mother retells those. What about other classics, like Donkeyskin and the Little Match Girl? I love the story Donkeyskin, but very few authors choose to retell it. Just by picking something lesser known or with fewer popular versions, you will immediately create something that stands apart from the crowd of retellings. In a world saturated with fairy tale stories, that’s a good thing.
  2. Start with the source. Go back to the source material, those first recorded instances of the story. Read the base story before you dive into creating your own version. How can you make a retelling if you don’t know the original? And no, Disney absolutely does not count!
  3. Expand to variations of the source. Look at different variants of the same story. Did you know that many fairy tales have versions in a number of different cultures? A couple years ago, Sleeping Beauty was the theme of the Rooglewood contest, and I hated how passive the heroine was. Turns out, all I needed to do was find a different version, and there she was! My active participant from a Middle Eastern version of the story. Dig around, and it will almost definitely give you ideas and inspiration.
  4. Look at other retellings. Find other, more recent versions of the story you want to tell. Look at how other authors approached the story, what they changed and kept, how it influenced the themes and plot. But don’t stop there! Look at reviews from bloggers and readers of the story. See how the audience reacted to the retelling, the elements they liked and didn’t like. Use this knowledge to your advantage!
  5. Make it recognizable. One of the most important parts of writing a retelling is making sure enough elements are present that the reader knows what story you are retelling. Otherwise, it’s just another story, not a retelling at all. Recognition is key.
  6. Make it new. We are all familiar with classic versions of stories. What readers want is a new take. Maybe there’s something different about the hero and the villain. Maybe the setting is in outer space instead of a woodland. Give your plot twists that may not have been present in the original. Maybe even mix several fairy tales together, like in the Lunar Chronicles. Whatever you decide to do, make it your retelling, not just a copy. Your readers will find it far more interesting that way.

For more reading on fairy tale retellings, you can check out this post from Ink and Quills and this post from Lianne Taimenlore. And if you have any suggestions for writing these kinds of stories, be sure to comment! I’d love to hear your input!

Rooglewood Press 2017 Contest: Five Poisoned Apples
2015 Contest: Five Magic Spindles
2014 Contest: Five Enchanted Roses
2013 Contest: Five Glass Slippers

Friends in Creative Places

A while back you may recall my post titled “The Demons of Discouragement.” Well, after reviewing that post recently, I realized that the discouragement I was feeling has been somewhat alleviated. So I started thinking about why that might be, and I have come to a conclusion: I found the right creative friend. This isn’t to say my other support hasn’t been phenomenal, and I love my friends and family for their support every day. But it’s quite different to have a creative friend doing the same work as you.

Back toward the end of summer I had joined a local writing group that met in the Barnes & Noble closest to where I lived (I still attend every meeting!). About the same time I started going, another woman near my age also began attending. Like me, she had written a book. Like me, it was fantasy. Like me, she was ready to query. Unlike me, she was vocal about it.

So we gravitated together at and around these meetings, talking shop and gushing over our books. She began pushing me to do things I would have avoided out of my introverted, shy nature or because of the cost. With her, I attended a writing workshop in Philly in April. I went to a Sarah J. Maas book signing and discovered that she lives pretty close to me. I traded critiques and reviews of synopses and query letters and drafts.

And you know what? The query process is going so much better. I got a request for my full manuscript at the workshop. I have six queries out in the world, shining in their new and improved status. I feel more confident in what I’m doing, not like I’m just flailing in the dark and hoping to hit something.

But you know what’s even better than all that?

I’m in love with my writing again. Because of her, I’ve had professionals tell me I was talented and skilled (a huge boost for the discouraged writer!). I’ve had a passionate friend who loves fantastic worlds as much as I do. I’ve had opportunities to meet people and grow not only as a writer but also as a person.

And because of her, I’m back.

So what about you? What have you experienced or done that has fueled your creation and your passions? I’d love to hear about it!

Scientific Misconceptions and Misrepresentations in Writing

Hey there! Sorry it’s been so long, but life has been crazy! Let’s dive right into a topic near and dear to me: science, scientists, and common scientific misrepresentations in fiction.

Many writers want to include an element of science, either by writing a scientist character, focusing on science fiction, or creating a system of rules for how magic in a fantasy story may work (hey, logic! I use science in my fantasy writing all the time!). For ease, I’ll break this into two pieces: myths surrounding the people involved in science and myths around the science itself. For many of these, I will also give you a way to approach these myths to improve your writing.

Myths of the Scientist

Myth #1: All scientists work in labs at universities. This is just plain untrue. While some scientists remain in academic environments, the funding and lack of tenure-track faculty positions, not to mention the simple fact that not everyone wants to stay in academia, means that a large number of scientists go elsewhere. In fact, most scientists are not tenure-track faculty. They may be found in government work, private companies (scientific or otherwise, believe it or not… people like people who proved they can think), scientific writing and publishing, ethics, consulting, or a large number of other positions. WE’RE EVERYWHERE.

Another reason this is untrue is that it focuses on biomedical-type science. Remember there are ecologists, psychologists, sociologists, geologists, archaeologists, etc. Every field in science is different, and many of them include field work. Take some time and talk to one of them, even if it’s by email. HINT: Scientists love talking about what they do.

Myth #2: Scientists are all stuffy old men in lab coats. Also false. While it is true that this is still a largely male-dominated field, and largely dominated by white men at that, there are tons of women, young scientists, non-white individuals, and jobs without lab coats. Would a consultant wear a lab coat? Maybe, but not always. When writing scientists, keep these things in mind. Make them a diverse bunch. And yeah, scientists can be quirky and awkward and arrogant. But remember that a stereotype is nothing but a perceived image and isn’t always true. Choose your representation of these folks carefully and deliberately. They are not cardboard cutouts, so don’t treat them that way. They still have their own personalities and lives and hobbies outside of their profession. But chances are good that if they are in science, it’s because they love it.

Myth #3: I don’t know enough science to worry about good science in my story. This may be true for you, but don’t let it stop you. Consult. Talk to people who know what you don’t. Writing isn’t solitary. You can ask to visit and shadow, ask them to look over your logic or give you the right knowledge. Even a student can give you basic information. If you don’t ask, the answer is no, but you may be surprised. And if you get a no, don’t let it discourage you. If one person doesn’t answer or is too busy, try someone else. Look on university and college websites for email addresses, and give it a polite, enthusiastic try. Even something as simple as “Hi, I’m a writer and I wanted to talk to you about your research” can open so many doors. Believe me, the readers (and scientists) will thank you for taking the time and effort to do your own research.

Myth #4: Scientists are not religious people. Again, take a step back. Scientists are first and foremost people. Within science, you will encounter both religious and non-religious individuals, just like in the general population. For example, I have been studying and working in science (biology, no less) for over 8 years and am a steadfast Christian. There are also a number of scientists with beliefs in any other religion (or non-religious viewpoint) found anywhere in the world. In fact, a 2005 survey observed 48% of scientists had religious affiliations and 75% believed that religion is important for conveying certain truths or ideas (see this page for more questions and answers). Don’t be afraid to make your scientist a person of faith (whatever faith that may be). Be true to the character, not the stereotype.

Myth #5: Scientists are not superstitious. While once again this depends on the person, I can say from personal experience and interactions that many scientists are very superstitious people. But not like you’d expect. What I mean is that because some experiments can be so tricky or finicky, if it works one time a scientist may choose to keep everything the same so it works again. Not just the procedure. Simple, unscientific things like not putting away a solution until a certain point in the procedure or doing a dance while an instrument is collecting readings (I knew someone who did this). And yes, we know it doesn’t make sense and isn’t logical. Yet…

For further reading on the public’s idea of the scientist, check out this page from the National Science Foundation (NSF). And remember, this is how they are perceived, not how they are. To read more about scientist portrayals in Hollywood, read this post from Euroscientist.

Myths of the Science

Myth #1: Humans use only 10% of their brain. False. False false false! I can’t tell you how often I see this in books and movies and it ticks me off every time. We use all of our brain. Maybe not all at the same time. But there’s nothing there we don’t use. End of story. So no excuses just so that you can write a character with special superhuman abilities. Find another way that doesn’t perpetuate a myth.

Myth #2: Antibiotics are good for getting rid of any infection. Nope. Antibiotics will only be good against bacterial infections… for viruses, you need an antiviral, and for parasites or fungi you need antiparasitic or antifungal agents. BUT also remember that use of antibiotics can lead to superbugs… those organisms that are not killed by a certain antibiotic, or are resistant. In fact, prescribing antibiotics for viral infections could also be contributing to antibiotic resistance of bacteria. If you’re interested in the major implications of antibiotic overuse, I recommend looking up information about antibiotic overuse and the post-antibiotic era. Scary stuff.

Myth #3: Hair and fingernails keep growing after death. They don’t. The body dries out after death, causing the skin to pull away from hair and nails so that it merely appears they have grown. They haven’t.

Myth #4: There is a dark side of the moon. Not really. This myth may come from the fact that on Earth we can only ever see one side of the moon. This is because the Earth and moon are what is called “tidally locked”, a case in which the rotation of the moon around its own axis is the same as its orbit around Earth, causing only one side of the moon to ever been seen by Earth. However, there is no dark side of the moon, as the sun hits every part of the moon at one point or another.

Myth #5: Brain cells (neurons) can’t regenerate in an adult. This is a myth that even scientists believed up until the late 1990s. It was thought that a person was born with as many neurons as they would get in their adult life, but in fact there are new neurons born all the time in a process called neurogenesis. There are particular regions of the brain where this process occurs regularly, such as the hippocampus (the region of memory).

Myth #6: People are left-brained or right-brained. This one isn’t true either. Whether an activity is creative or logical, both sides of the brain show activity. There is no such thing as a left-brained or a right-brained person.

I hope this gives you a place to start for your own writing. But I warn you, this barely scratches the surface. I encourage you to look at some other resources, including those listed above as well as other lists of scientific myth and fact such as on Alternet, Dan Koboldt (who discusses genetics myths in fiction), Listverse, IFLScience, and again this page from Berkeley. However, I encourage you to research any scientific idea you want to use in your writing. Doing the extra work now adds to your credibility and the enjoyment of your story by your readers!

My credentials to prove I know what I’m saying: BA in biology, MS in neuroscience, working in science industry since 2015.

This post first appeared on Paper Cranes Writing.

The Transformative Power of Snow

Last night I had the first significant snowfall of the winter season.

My parents and grandparents already got to experience this, but because I live in southeastern PA, I don’t get to experience the same mountain weather as they do farther north.

There’s just something about the snow that makes winter seem a little more bearable. I was born in winter, but I can’t say it’s my favorite season (actually, fall is my favorite). It gets cold and miserable. There’s not much daylight to enjoy, which is a big deal to someone who already has low vitamin D from spending so much time in the lab. Everything looks gray and bleak and sad.

Until it snows.

Suddenly instead of gray and bleak and dark, everything is bright white and blue. The snow mutes the sounds, making the air peaceful and calm. The cold isn’t just miserable anymore; it’s crisp and fresh and invigorating. It’s like having a snow day as a kid all over again, and all I want is to watch the snow fall and make soup and hot chocolate and watch Disney movies, cuddled up on the couch with pets and loved ones. It’s filled with comfort and joy and excitement.

And all it took was a single snowfall.

I have been struggling to get back to work on my once-regular writing schedule, around my day job, relationships, and other obligations of course. And seeing the snow takes me right back to the last time I was obsessed with my stories, to another snowy season when my mind was entirely consumed by writing with every free moment.

I was still in grad school, and I lived close enough that every day I walked to and from the lab. Unfortunately that meant that no matter the weather I could make it in. So I would bundle up, pull on my tall boots, and trudge through the un-shoveled snow that was at least up to my knees.

But the whole time, I got to feel the crispness of the winter air, to enjoy the quiet that comes with snow. And let me tell you, that’s a rarity where I had lived. Few people were out and about, cars were scarce, and there was no pressure, since no one was waiting on me to get to school. And it was exactly the inspiration I needed for my work in progress at that time.

I was working on a story that involved a very snowy clime, and being in the snow made it easier to imagine being with my protagonist. Every step I took was another thought she had, another event she encountered. The snow was my inspiration and my encouragement to continue.

And now that I have snow again, I feel that familiar itch of creation. I want to create and write and build worlds and art and beauty. I want not only to write but to paint and draw and be consumed by creation. To be truthful, I don’t know how long it will last or if this will be what I need to get back in my groove. But for now, I’m going to run with it.

I hope the snow can push your inspiration, too.

The Demons of Discouragement

There are few things in life and the creative process that can stop you as dead in your tracks as discouragement. It dries up your wells of creativity, telling you that you’ll never get to where you want to be, asking you why you even bother trying. It keeps your head filled with lies about your ability and capability. It pushes you down in the dirt, even if others try to encourage and build you up. Not much creativity happens when you’re faceplanted in a ditch in your own head.

Discouragement can have a lot of causes. Maybe it comes from a lack of inspiration, that feeling that maybe you’ve just lost your spark. Maybe it’s waiting for the thirtieth reply that isn’t coming, ever, from a publisher or agent. Maybe it’s your health or state of mind that is setting up blocks, setting you up to fail. Maybe it’s a combination of things that started small and grew until you couldn’t stop it anymore. Somehow, the cards are just stacked against you. You get discouraged, and your creativity falls asleep.

But notice what I said. It falls asleep. It doesn’t die. It isn’t stolen. It doesn’t fade from existence. It’s taking a break.

I must admit that I’ve been stuck in that rut of discouragement lately. I’m tired, I’m feeling uninspired, and I feel like no one will ever want anything I create. I feel like a failure and a fraud in my creative life.

And then, while I was just starting to feel a little bit discouraged but willing to keep trying, life hit me in the face. I got a boyfriend (who I love dearly and wouldn’t trade for anything!), so my time to create slowed down as I started reorganizing my time and how I spend my evenings. I had to learn how to still do the things I love while spending time with him. Then my family dog died just a little bit before Thanksgiving, very unexpectedly, which has been hard on all of us, especially since it’s the holiday season. And I’ve had personal demons to cope with as bits of my depression resurfaced as a result of all the lemons life has been lobbing at me. Let me tell you, lemon juice in a wound does not make it feel better.

So I stopped. Everything just stopped. I spent endless hours watching TV or scrolling Facebook for no other reason than I simply didn’t want to do anything else. I started feeling guilty for doing nothing, for ignoring my dreams, for letting my blogs stagnate, for not creating or reading or being Selina as I know her. And I hate that.

But I’m not done. My muse didn’t die, she just took a nap. And while I still feel guilty for the things I’m not doing (sorry guys, I promise I don’t want to abandon you), I also know that maybe it’s time to slow down a little, put a bit less pressure on myself to be productive. I need to let myself take it easy and simply create for the joy of creating, to remember why I love to read and write and draw, to lose myself in the process of creating. And I know getting back into it will be hard, especially since I’ve been pretty sporadic and unscheduled since my final year of grad school. But I dearly miss having my writing schedule, thinking 24/7 of my story and characters, plotting as I’m doing everything else. I miss the excitement I felt waiting to come home so I could lose myself in the world I had made, to experience my own story in a new way. I want to be the artist I know I am.

I know it’s going to be hard. And if you’ve ever felt this way, I know you understand. It’s in these times that we must trust our own dreams and desires, that we trust the people who love and support us, and that we trust ourselves.

We will get through it.

We just can’t let ourselves give up.

The Importance of Being Artists

Hey guys! So I was doing a lot of thinking over the past few months, encouraged by a couple of life groups in which I was involved (Bible study groups) and today’s sermon at church. The idea is the importance of art and the calling of the artist. Before those of you who are no religious run away, let me say that what I am talking about here applies to everyone.

The first book I read that started this thinking was Unlocking the Heart of the Artist by Matt Tommey in Fall of 2015. A lot of this book focused on claiming the name of “artist” and addressing the things that keep us from fulfilling that role, such as past trauma, present circumstances, and future anxieties. This resonated with me so incredibly. I truly felt like someone was reading back my own feelings. There is something to be said for interacting with people who share passions and personality traits (such as being creative).

One of the things Tommey says in his second book, Creativity According to the Kingdom, is that art bypasses all of the normal thought and logic and cuts straight to the heart and emotion of the audience. He says it a little differently, but that’s the gist of it.

Art is powerful. Art is what makes us who we are. There is art everywhere we look, in music, in books, in poetry, in paintings and drawings and nature and life itself. Isn’t it incredible that we get to contribute to that legacy?

Whether you believe it or not, whether you are professional or not, whether you have been creating your entire life or for just a little while, what we do is important. And not everyone has the passion or ability to create. Embrace the gifts and skills you’ve been given and which you have worked so hard to develop.

Art is an integral part of life. It is emotion, yes, but it is emotion with substance.

Keep creating, fellow artists. No matter the audience, even if you create for yourself alone, don’t give it up. I promise you, what we do is so important.

Personal Legends and the Writer’s Journey

I recently (finally) got around to reading Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. And let me tell you. Wow. I really truly believe that this is the book to read for anyone with a dream. And don’t worry, this post will be spoiler-free!

Coelho spends  a lot of time in this story discussing the idea of the Personal Legend. This is a person’s one true purpose in life, that one task or livelihood or ultimate goal that drives a person. In the story, the universe will work together to help a person achieve their personal legend… but only if they are actively working toward it and don’t push it off until you miss your opportunity. We also meet and hear about various people who had a Personal Legend and put it off until they simply fell into a pattern of complacency, forgetting their one true dream.

How true is this for us? When we are young, we dream big and imagine meeting our goals and dreams, never questioning that we will reach them. As we get older, reality hits us, and we often let our dreams falter under the pressure of demands like work, family, school, and everything else that can so easily take up all our time, energy, and money. We become those complacent people who give up or forget what our dreams are, what our true purpose is. We so often let ourselves be defeated by life.

I think anyone who had a childhood dream (which is everyone) should take a few hours and read this book. It’s short, but its ideas are eternal. Take a few minutes and remember what your dreams are. Rediscover your Personal Legend. Figure out how you can make real strides toward it, whether it’s taking a class, dedicating ten minutes a day to pursuing it, doing some internet searches, or making some big changes in your life.

Keep yourself moving forward, whether you are succeeding or failing (because really, those terms just describe how you look at it… even failures can be successes and steps in the right direction. Watch Disney’s Meet the Robinsons for some good inspiration there). Just keep taking steps in that direction. The speed doesn’t matter as long as you are moving.

Whatever you do, fight complacency. Fight the drudgery of reality. Follow your Personal Legend.

So, it’s your turn. What are your Personal Legends? What has kept you from pursuing them? How can you change that? Tell me in the comments below!