From Gamer to Writer

Often, as creators, we take inspiration from the myths, legends, or work of those who came before us – game developer Ziba Scott has taken that to a whole new level with the game Elegy for a Dead World, available on Steam (a gaming platform that any serious computer gamer should have).

Elegy for a Dead World visualizes for us the end-of-world poetry of three British romantic poets – Byron, Shelley, and Keats. We, the player, are immersed in the worlds of these lost civilizations and are instructed to keep a diary that we send back to the homeworld (a communal archive of sorts on Steam that other players can see) with our observations – in the form of stories, poetry, songs, etc. We can choose if to tell ‘their story’, ‘my story’, or keep a ‘scientific journal’. The game itself guides you through these worlds as you explore via constant side-scrolling motion, and can prompt you to construct various literature. You can edit your prose before sending it to the homeland for good, to make sure it’s as cohesive and stunning as possible. Other players can view your entry and rate it – and you, in turn, can see if others saw the same story that you did in these ancient worlds. No rush, however, to ‘publish’ your work; the game never requires you to make your work visible to other players unless you wish to.

The game is different from the typical gaming experience in almost every possible way – there are no levels or quests, no time limits and no way to be wrong or lose. But Elegy for a Dead World could be the kind of alternative gaming experience many would enjoy as an introduction to creative storytelling, by prompting them with gorgeous imagery based off of the work of three master writers. It seems like a great way to combat writer’s block and a great introduction to descriptive, imaginative writing for those new to the craft and unsure of what to write about. I can’t wait to get exploring when I have some free time myself!

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Missing NaNoWriMo

Graduate school. It’s killer.

Unfortunately and fortunately, graduate school is everything I was told it would be. Stress and anxiety are overwhelming, your research builds up to the point that you feel like you can never finish it, and the teaching/coursework load is a force to be reckoned with all on its own. All of this has left me with very little time to write. Truth to be told, I’ve written two poems and two blog posts since the middle of September, and hardly had time for those. I’ve stopped submitting my literary work (thank goodness I got so much done this summer!), haven’t had a chance to read more than two books since August, and my writing project with my brother has fallen off the edge of my mental map. When there’s hardly time to sleep or cook, something has to give – and your health, mental or physical, shouldn’t be it.

I hope that I’m ‘honoring my reality’, as Pereira would say. I hope I’m not just making excuses to not write – I certainly don’t feel like I am. I have projects I’m interested in, books stacked up ready to be read, and blog post and poem ideas gathering dust on my Habitica. And, perhaps the thing that I am saddest about missing this year – NaNoWriMo. National Novel Writing Month, for those of you not as into the writing world, where you write 50,000 words in 30 days (the entire month of November). It sounds impossible, but the time I completed it, it was the most rewarding writing moment of my life.

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My coverart for the book I finished, NaNoWriMo 2011

The only novel I ever finished was during NaNoWriMo my senior year of high school, November 2011. Together with two other young NaNoers, I drove to the library each Saturday and wrote for three hours in the glass atrium listening to Black Veil Brides, Honkytonk, and Classical Strings (depending on who was controlling the music for the hour). The book, with all of its horrible plot holes and sad attempts at character development, seemed like magic to me; it seemed to write itself. Something about that environment – the sun shining through the glass, the lack of any other responsibilities for those three hours, the hot cocoa machine down the hall where I could throw in some quarters and get a dreamy, hot cup of chocolate to complement the cool, NY fall days – made me feel a sort of freedom with writing I’ve never been able to replicate since.

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Me, making a mess of my grad school work station.

I was hoping to get to write again for this year’s NaNoWriMo – perhaps foolishly. I moved to a new city, started a new and stressful job, and am struggling with the myriad of ‘adult life’ problems for the first time. In addition, the stresses placed on me by others as I try to help them sort out their own problems are beginning to erode my own emotional capacitance – we each have only so much stability and positivity to give. We are all struggling, the first years in my grad program; we are all struggling, my peers of the millenial generation; we are all struggling, America after this horrific election season. I feel the burdens of these groups weighing on me, making my heart race – not good when my own work is already giving me anxiety.

In the midst of this, I want to write. This post, despite its length, flew from my fingers because they’re itching to be let loose, even as my mind tells me it can’t handle the idea of another project, another way to split and divide my attention. My relationship with my writing is suffering; we are falling away from one another as the distance grows. And part of that missing is this five year long ache to NaNo again – I want back the confidence in my writing ability that it gave me, the freedom from the world I felt during those weekend hours, the love I developed for the plot and the characters. It has been far too long and yet it feels like my reality is always preventing me from achieving this dream; I’m struggling to determine if it’s my reality, my insecurities, or my excuses.

For those of you who are writers and have never NaNo’d, I highly recommend it; for those of you that are currently NaNo-ing, awesome! You’re almost there – I hope you made your goal! Great things are in store for you and, hopefully next year, for me too.

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A Guest Post with Katie Bockino

I’m so excited to welcome back the amazing Katie Bockino, MFA fiction star at NYU and fellow Geneseo alum, for a guest post after her interview earlier this month. Below, Katie fills us in on her MFA experience so far – and goes deeper into the conversation we’ve been having on this blog about impostor syndrome. Take it away, Katie!

Photo taken from Katie’s website and ‘About Me’ page, November 2016

Now that I’m more than halfway through my first semester at NYU’s Graduate Creative Writing Program, I realized I have days where I love being here, and others days where I feel almost too overwhelmed to even make morning coffee.

Let me back up. I love being in New York City. However, this past summer I did have a few moments of panic thinking that NYC wouldn’t be a good fit for me. I visited Boston in July, and as usual reawakened my love for the city. I always pictured myself in Boston (as did a rather sketchy psychic I once paid $10 to), and was worried that NYC would be too big/scary/hectic for me. Thankfully, I was wrong.

For all the clichéd reasons, I love being here. I love walking a block to get Dunkin’ or iced tea. I love walking home and not having to drive. I love selling my soul to see a Broadway show, going to Washington Square Park to read, and meeting so many amazing writers.

And I want to say that I don’t have any qualms about my MFA. But that wouldn’t be quite true. The dreaded “impostor syndrome” has me by the throat.

I used to joke that NYU let me in by mistake, but sometimes I do think, “How did I get here?” Everyone else is so talented/smart/funny/great. And then there’s me.

Yet, even as I write this I want to slap the side of my head. Yes, I did get into this school. I did work hard for months upon months on my personal statement and creative writing sample. I want to be a writer. No. I am a writer.

So how have I been dealing with impostor syndrome?

 

  1. Writing Everyday: I told my (awesome) professor about this anxiety I’ve been feeling, and she told to find a journal (or buy one) that I’ve never used. Then, every morning before I make coffee, shower, or even leave my apartment, write three full pages. Write fiction, nonfiction, a stream of consciousness, poetry, anything. My pen can’t even leave the paper! Finally, once I have filled up three pages, close the journal. Don’t even look at what I just wrote. I’ve been doing this everyday for a little while now, and it’s actually helping a lot. The idea that no one, not even myself, has to read it is therapeutic. There is no pressure, no “stakes,” and I can do anything. This has definitely relaxed me.
  2. Meditation (Of Some Sort): While I hadn’t ever really meditated before, I have started doing daily breathing exercises and relaxation exercises. And no, I don’t mean just watching Netflix. I’ll put on some soothing music, close my eyes, and push everything away. All of my stress, worries, and anxieties fall away for just a few minutes. Afterwards, I feel like I can do anything.
  3. Healthy/Realistic Sleep Schedule: I’ve never, ever been good with this. However, I have been making sure I get 7-8 hours of sleep each night (even if I haven’t finished something yet), and I don’t sleep in. Of course, the weekends I allow myself a little leeway. Why does this help? Because I’m at NYU to learn about the writing life, crafting stories, great literature, magazine experience, and many more things. It’s a waste of time to just stay in bed! That isn’t learning, that isn’t writing, that isn’t healthy. Instead of “wallowing,” I force myself to get up and face the day – even if I am scared.
  4. Reading Different Types of Literature: A lot of the reading I have been doing is from one of my classes, but reading different types of literature is eye opening and educational. Learning different ways sentences are constructed, how different books keep the plot moving, and simply reading something by someone from another time/place is beautiful. This helps with my writing, and allows me to learn. It also gets me excited to try out other methods in storytelling!
  5. Talking to People: At first, I felt like I couldn’t admit that I was having doubts. I thought that since I worked so hard to get in here, I couldn’t admit that at times I was struggling. I thought, “Would that make me ungrateful?” Yet, once I realized how silly that was, I started talking to family and friends about some of my tougher days. And you know what? They got it. They understood and sympathized and shared some of their own stories. I realized it’s normal to doubt oneself. While this might sound obvious, I really do believe people worry that if they admit everything is not, “amazing” others will look at them differently. But your true family and friends will never think this, and appreciate you opening up to them. Just saying the words out loud, “This is hard,” made me feel better.
  6. Accepting, and Actually, Accepting Criticism: Even though I was in writing workshops at SUNY Geneseo, I wasn’t prepared for how much more pressure I feel in graduate level workshops. For many reasons, I feel more nervous and less excited for my work to be reviewed. The first two times, it was hard. I felt like I was having an out of body experience. However, during the third time (and perhaps with the help of the steps above), it wasn’t as bad. Instead of thinking, “OMG everyone hates this” I thought, “If I could write a perfect story, I wouldn’t be here. Please, help me!” That thought helped me, and I made sure I felt present while everyone discussed my story.

While I still have my doubts, everything I listed above has truly helped me become more confident! Meghan’s amazing blog posts on impostor syndrome also inspired me, and assisted me in creating this list.

I really want to thank Katie for sharing her experiences – particularly, ‘If I could write a perfect story, I wouldn’t be here’ resonated with me. If I could craft a perfect experiment, or write a perfect research article, I wouldn’t be in my PhD program! Science and writing in graduate school are all fundamentally about making mistakes and getting better – something “impostors” need to recognize, in order to move forward and improve. Check out more about Katie and her work here, and thanks for reading!

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There’s No Such Thing as Good Writing

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Photo by Bianca Moraes entitled ‘Writing’ (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic), link through photo

One of my favorite things is hearing/reading authors talk about the process of writing; it amazes me how we all struggle with this beast, this art, so differently. Grace Burrowes is a romance novelist who sends out emails about craft once a month – they pop straight into my inbox. Last month’s email hooked me; Burrowes begins boldly, telling her audience “There is no such thing as good writing”. This quote was stolen from Robert Graves, which Burrowes acknowledges, but it certainly got me to open the email!

What Burrowes is really talking about is the difference between writing and re-writing. She asserts that the first draft will always be rough – less than spectacular. But it’s what you do with that draft that matters. The writing process is really all about your dedication to re-writing and revision. And, of course, to revise you must finish that first draft. Something that, with longer projects that have no definitive deadline (i.e. a contract, an academic due date), I really struggle with.

Burrowes makes the excellent point that, after finishing that draft, you should immediately move on to another project – giving yourself the time and space to get over your first draft. When you return, refreshed from working on something different, you’ll have a new critical eye for your own work. This is a great idea although I see this working against me all the time; I work on a project for about 35,000 words, get busy, move on to something else, get too much space from the first project, and when I come back to it, all I want to do is revise those 35K instead of finishing the overall draft! I’m an eternal editor, it seems.

It’s so hard for me to believe there is no good writing – mostly because I hate failure, and want it to be perfect the first time. I struggle with revision because it feels like a waste of time; while I intellectually understand that you only get to the great writing by writing really… bad… stuff first and then searching through the muck for gens and starting over, it doesn’t mean my heart won’t break every time I scrap 10,000 words. Or more. All those “wasted” hours (actually just practice), writing 10,000 horrible words.

But after reflecting on Burrowes and Graves’ words, I really do think there’s a point to be made with this sentiment. Don’t expect something good to come out of your first try. It’s somewhat freeing – and also terrifying. Freeing, because it means I shouldn’t be frustrated by my very, very imperfect first attempts. Terrifying because it acknowledges that the hard work of the first draft isn’t even the worst of the work to come!

Do you believe in ‘good writing’ or only ‘good re-writing’? Do you prefer the process of revision or writing that original draft? Let me know in the comments!

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How to Read an Academic Article

Dense, jargon-filled paper about ants.

I recently stumbled across a pair of articles over at Science that resonated with me as a first year grad student taking a ‘Readings in Cellular and Molecular Biology’ class. The first article by Adam Ruben (a bit sarcastic) opens with “Nothing makes you feel stupid quite like reading a scientific journal article”; I recall my social insect seminar, junior year of undergrad, where we read at least one primary research article a week and were asked to develop questions about it. My most frequent question, my persistent frustration, “what is this even about?” It amazed me that I could read a scientific paper (sometimes several times) without even coming close to understanding it.

Step ten of Ruben’s satirical ‘ten step process for reading a scientific paper is: “10. Genuine contemplation of a career in the humanities. Academic papers written on nonscientific subjects are easy to understand, right? Right?”. Interestingly, as an English major, I can tell you that they really aren’t; it’s just a different kind of incomprehensible thinking.

Academic articles, scientific or otherwise, are known to be dry, confusing, and wordy; this may be one reason why we have so much trouble getting a lay audience to read, believe, or report on the facts (but that’s a discussion for another time). While Ruben laments the nature of scientific articles, Elisabeth Pain takes on tips for reading them in her follow up article in Science where she compiles advice from other scientists. I’ve summed it up here, succinctly:

  • Read the abstract and conclusion, and study the most important figures first (this will tell you if it’s even a paper you’re interested in for your research). Then go back and try to understand the dense verbiage of the paper.
  • As you read, take notes of important sentences/ideas in whatever note-taking format works well for you. Then make comments on this document (or the paper itself) with your questions and other information that you think is relevant.
  • Take shortcuts – for example, skip the methods unless you feel there’s something vital in there for you. Skip the intro if you’re really familiar with the field already. Etc.
  • Pause immediately to look up words you don’t understand; write in the definition so you don’t forget if you need to come back to the paper…
  • OR only look up words if they’re critical to your understanding of the work; otherwise, don’t waste your time on all the jargon.
  • Go to a colleague for help if you’re overwhelmed and don’t be afraid to use lay-audience sources (Wikipedia, blog posts) to get a feel for your area of study.

I recommend, if you have time, reading through the advice in Pain’s article – there’s a lot more in there about identifying the scientific rigor of the paper which I chose not to deal with here.
Coming at this topic from a dual background, and particularly as a poet, I thought I’d share with you my method for reading scientific papers:

  • Making the paper a found poemfound poetry is poetry that was ‘discovered’ or ‘uncovered’ from another source. To familiarize myself with the language and very general ideas of the paper, the first time I read through, I pull out beautiful words and write them into a notebook for the potential to make a found poem later. This allows me to peruse the poem with no scientific understanding in mind, to get used to the writing style and to look up any words I don’t understand without being too frustrated to apply that definition.

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    My word bank for the article ‘Mushroom Body Volumes and Visual Interneurons in Ants: Comparison between Sexes and Castes’
  • Highlight, make notes, find the stories – The next time I read, I take notes on the paper itself through highlighting and comments/definitions in the margins. I also use symbols to tie together a particular ‘story’ of the experiment – often, a study worked towards several different goals and the symbol notation lets me follow just one goal at a time.
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    My notebook for found science poetry… every writer has to have their tools!

    So if the paper is answering three questions, I mark each paragraph with the relevant one to three symbols, allowing me to read just to understand one of those three questions. This also makes sure I understand what the questions actually are that the paper is addressing.

In the end, the real trick seems to be time – you must spend time with the paper in whatever way works for you, be it found poetry or note taking or reading it fifteen times until it makes sense.

Do you have to read academic work – scientific or otherwise? Do you have tips or tricks for getting through your reading with your sanity intact? Share them in the comments below!

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An Interview with Katie Bockino

katiebockinoToday I have the absolute pleasure of introducing you to Katie Bockino, a Geneseo alum and amazing writer currently working on earning her MFA. Katie took some time out of her really busy MFA schedule to tell me a bit about her experience as a writer and at NYU.

Hi Katie! Thanks for doing this interview. Can you tell me about your writing life before going to get your MFA (where you earned your BA, magazines you worked with, etc.)?

Hi Meghan! First, thanks so much for “having” me (I sound like I’m on a talk show right now).

Since third grade I loved writing stories, and telling tales. After reading out loud this Halloween inspired story I wrote to the class, I remember thinking, “Oh man this writing thing is EASY.Laughs. I wish I still thought that! But really it was at a rather young age that I knew I wanted to pursue writing in some way, shape, or form.

In high school I continued to write (and read), and even was a Features Writer for this online magazine called Portrait. When I started applying to colleges I officially decided I wanted to pursue English.

I attended SUNY Geneseo from 2012-2016 and studied Creative Writing and Business Studies. I’m the type of gal who constantly loves to be stressed (just kidding). But I do love to be heavily involved so I joined Geneseo’s literary magazine (MiNT), the English Honor Society’s executive board, became a tour guide, and joined a sorority where I took on a few leadership positions. Of course, anything involving the English Department made me especially happy.

I always wrote in my spare time, and continuously had a story in my head. Even if I wasn’t getting my MFA I would still would be writing as much as I could.

Can you tell me a bit about your decision to go get your MFA? Are you concentrating in a particular area of writing?

For a while I wanted to get my Ph.D. in literature; then, I was sitting in class one night two years ago and having a “revelation”  that there was no way I was ready to pursue that type of degree. For a while after I was terrified, since that’s all I had thought about for a very long time. But it made me realize that my true passion always was writing, so why not directly try and pursue that?

I also have always been that person who didn’t want to stop after her BA. So when I took a Ph.D. off the table, I did research on how I could continue to learn – hence, finding out about MFA programs. My professors at Geneseo were wonderful and gave me great resources once I told them of my plans.

The biggest question was if I wanted to take some time off before applying to MFA programs. As I said, I always planned on earning another degree in something, so I figured why not apply now and see what happens. I thought, if I don’t get in anywhere or like my options, I’ll take that as a *sign* to take a gap year or two. However, I ended up getting into five different MFA programs, and chose NYU!

I’m concentrating in fiction right now at NYU, and am currently still in my first semester. I am also taking a “craft” class, where we read different types of books, discuss/analyze them, and even map out the book’s structure.

Can you tell me more about your MFA journey – what have you done so far and how are you liking it? What have been the biggest challenges? What does the rest of your program look like (i.e. what will you being doing between now and earning the degree)?

So far I have been work-shopped (as in my class reviewed/gave feedback on my writing) twice. I took similar classes in Geneseo, but the stakes feel higher here. And I won’t lie, that’s challenging. I feel that I need to prove myself to someone. That yes, I am here for a reason. That’s been the biggest challenge for me personally. I want others to know that I didn’t get in here by chance (even though I have thought that…).

I’m also one of the youngest in my classes/program, and while I had a feeling this would happen, it’s still daunting. I worry that I’m not on the same level as some of my cohorts, but I have to keep telling myself that I wouldn’t have gotten in if NYU didn’t think I was ready.

Between now and when I (hopefully) graduate in May 2018 I will be taking two classes a semester (one workshop, and one elective), teaching an undergraduate creative writing class, working on the Washington Square Review, and then working on my thesis.

Can you tell me about your writing process?

I need to have a coffee and at least one baked good in arm’s length before I sit down to write! There’s nothing like writing a few pages and then taking a bite of a tasty muffin. But in reality, before I write I usually have daydreamed about a story and have thought through a few major points. As I fall asleep I love to envision myself as each character and think through their minds and see what they see. A lot of times my dreams will revolve around this. However, I don’t normally draft things very far out in advance. I like to just have a few ideas in my head, and then sit and see where it all takes me. During revisions I do more mapping/planning, especially if I don’t like where it is currently going.

What are some of the writers that inspire you to keep reading and writing? Some lit journals you just love and why?

When Karen Russell read at Geneseo last year I was in awe. I loved her creepy, unsettling stories and the way they bend genres. Since then I’ve devoured almost all of her stories. I also really do enjoy Young Adult literature, and love Sabaa Tahir’s books. I think she is currently one of the best YA writers out there, and she definitely inspires me.

I love Gandy Dancer (the SUNY wide literary journal), One Story, Washington Square Review, and Glimmer Train! Geneseo’s English Department had some of these in their office, and I loved reading them and finding new writers who give me chills.

What’s your proudest writing moment to date? What are your biggest writing goals for your future?

My “proudest” moment so far was when I was selected as the Washington Square Review’s (NYU’s graduate literary journal) new Assistant Managing Editor. I felt like I put my heart and soul (and a few sleepless nights) into that application, and almost cried when I found out I was selected! So I’ve been working there for the past month.

For my biggest “writing” goals, it’s funny, because I thought about the MFA for so long and how I would get into one, that I never really stopped to think about what will happen to me after the MFA (laughs). I have a few novel ideas I have semi fleshed out, so I would love to actually write those and have them published. But being published is what every writer hopes for! I would love to continue to write for magazines after I graduate, or even teach at the university level.

What advice would you give other writers who are just starting out and considering an MFA program? What should they look for in a program?

First, I would say apply when you want to apply. If you feel ready to go right after college, then apply. If you want to take one, two, or eight gap years, do that. There is no “perfect” age to get this degree. When you feel ready and excited, then you go. I feel like I heard so much conflicting advice about this. I heard one needs to take a year off, or that one has to apply every year until they get into their “dream” program. That’s silly. Do what feels right to you, and when you know you’re ready to commit to your writing.

I would also say make a list of what your “ideal” program would be: what size, how many classes do you take a semester, location, how many years, what type of funding do you need/want. Then, throw that out the window. Just kidding. But know what you want, then apply to schools that are closest to meeting those criteria. Then apply to some schools that are close, but perhaps not “perfect.” I say that because you might get an amazing package from a school you initially didn’t think about, and end up loving it.

Finally, apply to schools that are not just on “the list” of best programs. There are so many awesome programs out there, and I feel like I didn’t know about many of them until my professors at Geneseo mentioned them to me. You can get an amazing package, learn from remarkable faculty, and be in a pretty great location from so many schools that aren’t in the “top ten.”

I’d like to end with something that brings us cross-genre – can you tell me about your favorite science topic, class, piece of writing, moment, etc and why?

Oh man great question! This is hard!

Favorite science topic: space. Anything to do with space, black holes, wormholes, other dimensions that could be out there, how small / insignificant earth really is…anyway.

Favorite Piece of Science Writing: Contact by Carl Sagan.

Thanks so much for joining me for my interview with Katie! You can find out more about Katie and her work here, at her website; look forward to a guest post by Katie later this month.

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Great Projects for the Creative Collaborator

Recently, the amazing people over at Storm Cellar Quarterly brought my attention to a project called Wikipoesis. According to the Wikipoesis website,

“Wikipoesis is an experiment in collective creativity. This project asserts a participatory aesthetic that promotes process over product, flux over finality. Wikipoesis emphasizes the communal construction of poetic significance.”

It’s a fascinating document already; the project works via people dropping off poems, or snippets of poems, and others coming into the collaborative Google doc space to edit, change, etc. the poetry that’s there. There are some trolls and jokers (as with any online project) but, for the most part, the project is run by a random, anonymous group of poets who want to collaborate and are working hard to make art together. There are over seventeen pages of poetry on the document already with a wide variety of styles, subject matters, forms, and more.

I’ve only been following the project a few days, but it does seem to be an active site – many of the poems have changed every day that I’ve checked them. It’s always a thrill to see someone else’s anonymous ghost-typing when you’re in the space; I find myself imagining who they are and what they’re doing, all the way across the world (or perhaps in my backyard) working on this poetry with me.

The overall project was launched in February of 2014, and is due to be presented this coming year at AWP. There’s n
ot a lot of background information out there (that I could find) about the project, so I don’t know if they ‘refresh’ the document every year around AWP time and put all the poems from that year ‘in the vault’ so to speak, or if all the current poetry is the collective effort since 2014. Poets often have such unique styles, so it will be really fascinating to see what can come of this kind of collaboration.

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Photo by Lunbox Reed entitled ‘frankenstein’ (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic), link through photo

Another project worth mentioning if you’re interested in collaborative efforts is a new literary journal just started by a college friend of mine, called Frankenstein’s Review. The premise of the review can be summed up nicely on the website, “In a way, the name “Frankenstein’s Review” says it all. Like the monster of Dr. Victor Frankenstein, this magazine will be forged from the fusion of various bodies (of art!). These component parts may be submitted by anyone and consist of roughly anything.”

It’s an ambitious and (in my opinion) ingenious project. Art pieces will be matched with other pieces of multimedia art and ‘blended’ with the permissions of all involved to create something new that accentuates each individual piece. The good news is – there’s still time to submit to the first issue! Submissions close November first, so you still have time to send in some of your best work for Frankenstein’s Review to fuse with other cool stuff. And while you’re at it, join me in heading over to Wikipoesis to try your hand at a collaborative poetry initiative too.

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DIY MFA Part 6: When Ideas are Cheap

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Photo by Pimthida entitled ‘idea’ (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic), link through photo

Welcome to another discussion of DIY MFA material; this week we’re talking about one of my favorite quotes from Gabriela Pereira’s book:

One of the biggest mistakes writers make is to hoard their ideas. They come up with an amazing idea, but instead of getting it down on paper, they hover over it like Gollum with his ring, hissing, “My precioussss.” But ideas alone are not all that special…great ideas are worthless. They’re vapor. They’re air. They mean nothing until you put them into action.

Followed by another great quote:

We’re not born with amazing ideas, so we must train ourselves to generate them on demand…Creativity is a process with logical, repeatable steps.

Once again, Pereira hits a young, naive writer (that’s me, guys) in the face with such an obvious, oddly invisible truth – good ideas are generated by everyone and they’re not once-in-a-lifetime-struck-by-lightning events. Of course creativity is not purely driven by luck or chaos or “artistic insanity” or genetics. Of course it’s something you can develop like any other skill with practice and determination; of course it’s something average people (instead of just drunken, bitter hermits) can develop. The more I read of Pereira’s work, the more I seem to understand that the message is very similar to most other self-help or how-to books: work hard, practice often, don’t give up. 

Part of me wonders if this is just the mantra of the successful, the only ones allowed to write these books, because it happened to work for them, or if there is a kernel of truth in it. Given Pereira’s seven or eight year journey to this book, I feel like there might actually be a kernel of truth; you can see the evidence of her hard work in the blog posts and her word nerd community.

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Photo by Daniele Marlenek entitled ‘Idea’ (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic), link through photo

So how do we come up with all these worthless great ideas? Pereira is the queen of acronyms; her idea generation acronym is IDEA. Inspiration, Development, Evaluation, Action. Inspiration is really all I’ve ever thought of as part of the creative process – how can I inspire great ideas within myself? Being a scientist, I typically go on crazy research dives to get my inspiration fix (hence all the science poems…). Pereira gives several tips in her book for idea generation on demand, but again insists that idea generation is a muscle to be developed; it is something that is earned by consistent attention and practice.

I want to finish up this post talking about Evaluation – the step before Action (where you actually sit down and DO the writing). In our new perspective, ideas are cheap – but the time to flesh them out fully is expensive (I’m talking novels, not poems). So how do you decide if an idea is worth pursuing so that you don’t split your attention between 13 different ideas and never fully bring one to completion?

Pereira suggests that you begin by writing a short story – a standalone piece from your major work. You can get to know your characters, their motivations, their world all from the comfort of a five pages instead of 250. Give this short story to a few readers – you can even send it off to journals for publication and develop a ‘fan base’ for the story – and apply the feedback you receive to your project.

And, just as important, is to consider if the idea is marketable. Look at other recent works in your genre; you don’t need to try to imitate the market, but looking at what’s fresh will help you get a sense for how your work jives with current readers. All in all, Pereira says that “This is your goal: having someone read your book. Don’t lose sight of that”.

Do you have any tips for generating ideas on demand? How do you decide if an idea is worth pursuing? Let me know in the comments below!

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Weariland Review: YA Fantasy

Weariland Blog Tour October 16-23, 2016
Click the photo to be taken directly to the Merge Publishing webpage for this book!

A quick thank you to Merge Publishing for the book copy – there’s currently a giveaway for this book happening here. I’m honored to have this opportunity to review this work.

The best word to describe Mary Shotwell’s recent young adult novel, Weariland, is particularly apt given its cast of characters; that word is ‘(re)imaginative’. Shotwell, a Biostatistics PhD hailing from Ohio, takes a childhood favorite, Alice in Wonderland, and pushes the boundary of Carroll’s original colorful tale to take us somewhere new, grey, and, in the current favored style of young adult readers everywhere, Dystopian.

Shotwell jumps right into the action from page one with the gruesome and suspenseful murder of our beloved Alice, letting us know right off the bat that this will be very different from Carroll’s wonder-filled tale of wide-eyed and innocent exploration. Shotwell also uses these early pages to introduce some of her own creations – Lason, Alice’s granddaughter and the intrepid (if reluctant) protagonist, and the villain’s cronies, the tarmals, which play a big role in pulling Weariland’s dystopia into our own world. Shotwell builds suspense early by jump-starting the story with Alice’s death, and also uses this plot point to show us that Carroll’s story may be the origin of her tale but certainly will not control its course.

This book’s interesting premise – a complete 180 on an old classic that we all know and love – is one of its biggest strengths. Whenever there’s a progenitor of a work, the new author has to distinguish their work from the predecessor – Shotwell does this with ease through her complete re-imagining of Wonderland (without taking away any of the essentials; say, the White Rabbit).  I appreciated a lot of the little details she threw in – for example, the Rabbit’s “new” time-keeping device; these inside jokes for readers of Carroll’s work abounded, and I appreciated Shotwell’s dedication to working within Carroll’s world while simultaneously exploring brand new locations and beings in her Weariland with zeal. Imagination is not lacking in Shotwell’s vision for Weariland. It was exciting to watch the work come alive as new creatures, people, and places were unveiled in each chapter.

While the general content and premise of Shotwell’s book are to be praised, I did want to dedicate a small portion of this review to an honest remark on the book’s biggest weakness – poor dedication to craft overall. YA can understandably have a lower writing quality than many other genres given that YA readers are generally less interested in craft than content (and there’s nothing wrong with that). However Shotwell’s work here could have used more red pen and another draft. I think the lack of dedication to improving these elements, particularly dialogue, character consistency, and pacing, hampered the book’s storytelling as we waded through the middle towards the very haphazard ending.

Dialogue was flat and often meandered; there were detailed scenes constructed that didn’t push the plot or characters forward in development – if they had been cut, more important scenes near the end could have been given more prominence. Particularly, more time was needed to show, rather than tell, us about Lason’s mental shift from ordinary girl to extraordinary heroine. Characters were not always consistent in their relationships with one another (Lason and her mother, especially) or even with their own internal motivations. The inclusion of so many unnecessary scenes and so much messy dialogue in the middle meant that the book’s pace slowed down dramatically after the beginning, and then felt rushed at the end when we got to the more meaningful action (this also created the problem of plot holes as important details were left out when too many small details and characters had been given to us earlier, and had wasted our time). A reader of Weariland should be informed that the lack of attention to these various craft elements does not ruin the book’s commendable creative energy, but it certainly does not enhance the reading experience overall.

I will say that there were some great, shining lines sprinkled here and there – for example, “Food wrappers taking a break from their journey to the trash competed for desk space with stacked folders and papers”. With a truly unique premise, a leading lady I think many young adult women could identify with, and a good setup for future novels, Weariland has several of the elements necessary to be a successful YA novel.
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Five Tools for Writers and Scientists

The commonalities between what I do as a scientist and writer are so omnipresent it’s astounding. For two fields that are ‘so different’, there is so much overlap. Recently, I was talking to my Uncle about a note-taking app called ‘Evernote’, something new I’ve added to my arsenal of tools to help me stay organized with all my various research, and I realized I was using it for both science and writing purposes. So behold, a list of five free applications you should know about whether you’re a scientist or a writer, to help you achieve all your goals!

Habitica: Motivation and Organization, but actually Fun

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*Not this kind of pet

I recommend this app for everyone, everywhere. You can do pretty much everything on the app for free and the PC and phone versions are both easy to use.

Habitica is an organize-your-life, motivate-yourself tool that helps you make goals, form good habits, and get things done. The tool is actually set up as a game – you become a fully customizable character that can go on quests with other players to defeat mythical beasts, earn coins to buy cool armor, and feed/hatch/collect pets*. You lose health when you don’t do your dailies and gain experience (to level up!) and gold when you complete tasks.

Mendeley
Why yes, I am a blue teddy bear wield dual hooks riding a bee wearing garden armor with a phoenix pet. Is there something wrong with that?

The Dailies tab lets you set up things you want to do every day (though you can customize these to appear only certain days of the week). The To-Do section allows you to set up a list of tasks to be accomplished. The Habits section allows you to change small habits you do each day (Take the stairs? give yourself some points! The elevator? Lose some health).

As a writer, I use this to set a daily ‘write something’ reward and use the to-do section to set smaller research/community building goals. As a scientist, I use the to-do section to reward myself for completing work in the lab or remind myself to finish various assignments, order supplies, etc. It allows you to break down your life into small, simple goals and then gain no-cost-to-you rewards for getting things done, turning your stressful life into a fun game. One of my friends once suggested using Habitica to get over impostor syndrome and feelings of failure; she put ‘fail at something’ as one of her habits!

Freedom: Free Yourself From Distractions

As a human being, I am a chronically distracted person – email and social media are by far the worst of my distractions. With Freedom, not so! Freedom allows you to block certain websites for an amount of time you set (minutes to hours). When you try to access that website, you get one of those funny ‘not able to access the server’ messages and are reminded, sheepishly, that you should be working on something else instead.

Freedom also blocks apps, so don’t forget to put it on your phone to block Candy Crush from ruining your productivity.

Pacemaker: Set Personalized Writing Goals

Lichelle Slater, an author-friend of mine for almost ten years, recommended this one to me and boy am I grateful!

Pacemaker is the perfect website for a scientist working on a dissertation or potential publication or a writer trying desperately to scratch out a novel/writing routine. The website allows you to create a personalized writing plan based on the amount of work you want to finish (words, lines, worksheets, pages, etc are all options for measuring your completed work!) and the date you want to complete it by. Using these variables, it pops out a number of words/lines/pages/etc that you’ll need to finish each day to make your goal on time; you can then add your progress each day and it will adjust future days accordingly.

strategyBut what really makes this website great is that you can customize it so heavily; for instance, I have it set to ‘light’ writing on Friday (because I have class) and no writing on Tuesday (same reason). You can also have it give you a heavier workload on weekends/weekdays and reserve free days for you at the end… just in case. It also allows you to pick a writing strategy (see photo) so you can best plan out your writing needs. I have mine on Valley so that I can write less when grad school is most intense.

All in all, it’s a great tool for planning out any longer work of writing by turning it into small, achievable goals that you master day by day, according to the constraints of your own schedule.

Mendeley: Organize Your PDF Research

Oh Mendeley, how I love you. Before Mendeley I would download 600 PDFs and hope that my personal labeling system would work and that I would be able to find the paper if I needed it again. While folders upon folders are great, and headache-inducing computer searches are also lovely, Mendeley is a far better way to go. I know scientists generally download more PDFs than writers, but don’t worry writer-friends, I have a tool for you too, below!

Mendeley

Mendeley inputs all the details of your papers automatically upon downloading them and very rarely glitches. You can set keywords for each article so that when you search Mendeley by those words, the articles you tagged will pop up (instead of needing to search 300 different folders on your computer). You can also use a traditional folder structure for them, within Mendeley, but because it’s all in Mendeley it’s still easy to search the whole collection by author, title, etc. Also, because Mendeley is all synced up with your online account, moving all your research from one computer to another is a breeze! You simply log in on the new computer and Mendeley downloads all your files! No more lost research for you.

As I mentioned before, Mendeley inputs author, title, publication, and year as the PDF downloads, which leads to the best part of the whole application (besides the sweet relief of always finding every article you need). But the best part (for research articles) is that Mendeley will automatically do the citations for you (yes, you heard me write. That 200 page works cited can be done with a click of a mouse) making storing them in Mendeley and not on your desktop worth your while.

Evernote: Better Organize Your OTHER Research

Evernote does everything – you can make to do lists, organize receipts and bills, take notes, organize documents, set reminders, and (my favorite function) ‘clip’ and attach different things from the web so it’s all in one place. Gone are the days of 3000 bookmarks where you search tiny, 9 pt font in 500 different folders for the one link you need. I’m pretty new to Evernote, but so far I’ve found it easy to use and easy to find what I’ve clipped. Because it has a little ‘clip’ button that goes on your bookmark bar, it can clip things for you with just one click! Plus, just like Mendeley, this syncs to all your different devices so you’re never without an important link, document, or list while on the go or switching to a new computer.

I hope these tools help you organize, motivate, plan, and achieve goals! If you really like one in particular (me with Habitica) consider throwing a subscription in the bag; while it might not give you too many additional features, it’s important to support our developers – they’re hardworking, creative people too!

 

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