It’s the spookiest time of the year again, and Halloween means Halloween short story contests. As I pondered ideas for a suitably spooky story, I quickly thought through classic Halloween characters and elements: ghosts, haunted houses, zombies, vampires—the list goes on.
I decided on witches, a personal favorite of mine as well as many others. The sheer number of movies, books, TV shows, and other forms of popular culture featuring witches proves their timeless popularity. The same can be said for the other Halloween classics previously mentioned. They pop up time and time again in ever evolving forms.
But does this create a problem? Is there an extent to which recycling these tropes puts a damper on creativity? Should writers branch away from these classics entirely?
Completely regurgitating an existing story certainly does not emphasize creativity, but using a trope or—in particular—putting a twist on that trope allows ample room for imagination.
There’s a reason witches, ghosts, and zombies fall into the category of Halloween classics: people love to see them again, and again, and again. The key is the twist. Each writer, director, or artist creates a new version of the classic idea. The witches of Hocus Pocus do not resemble that of Harry Potter, or Howl’s Moving Castle, or Beautiful Creatures. They each look different, act different, use different magic, and sometimes exist in different worlds entirely. Although they all cast magic, their similarities often end there.
Using such classics shouldn’t dampen creativity. Often times, it’s a perfect spark for creativity.
One way to brainstorm a story is to start with one base element: a witch or a ghost, for example. Then build your own unique story around that timeless classic. What makes your witch or ghost different? Do they exist in our world or another? Are they scary or nice? What is their purpose? Next thing you know, you have a story blooming.
Don’t shy away from recycling a Halloween classic or other tropes. Sure, they’re sometimes overused, but they can be great sources of inspiration as well as practice for story building. People have plenty more stories to tell about witches, and I can’t wait to hear them.
What are your thoughts? Do Halloween classics and similar tropes have a place in new popular culture?
Last week, I suggested 7 Ways to Productively Pass the Time While Awaiting an Agent’s Response. Sooner or later, that agent—or editor, literary magazine, etc.—will send a response, and often times it will be a rejection.
What happens then?
Being a writer means facing rejection again and again. Unless you are one of a select few lucky people, you will send countless queries to agents before securing a deal, and then start the process of pitching your projects to publishing houses, which offers another opportunity for rejection. It’s a major part of a writer’s career, and it certainly stings every time it occurs.
Rejection always hurts, but you control how much you allow it to hurt you. There are ways to redirect rejection towards a more positive state-of-mind, and I suggest finding a way to do so if you plan to stay strong for the long haul.
After spending countless hours on a short story, or months to years on a manuscript, it’s only natural to feel disappointment each and every time the industry turns you down. Take a moment to acknowledge that disappointment, and then redirect it in a positive way. If you allow a rejection letter to discourage you, then you hold yourself back from your own dream.
Instead, find a way to turn it around.
A few days ago, one of my professors and her husband spoke to my class about their experiences making it through graduate school and searching for jobs in academia, another incredibly competitive field. Each time one of them received a rejection from a school they applied to, they would both light a giant sparkler, and then run back and forth across their front yard, yelling about why they didn’t want that job anyways.
This habit turned the sting of rejection into an opportunity to laugh and be silly, which almost made my professor look forward to the rejections as opposed to dread them. She and her husband redirected the negativity of rejection into a positive activity.
I strive to learn from this example, and I hope you will too. I encourage you to find a way to handle rejection in a positive manner. Pick an activity to do anytime you receive a rejection, whether it be as simple as watching a beloved TV show or as silly as running around with sparklers. Print your rejections and cut them out with patterned scissors to turn them into a collage. Make it a contest—how many rejections can you receive before you find success? It doesn't matter what it is as long as it turns the rejection into a reason to smile.
Most importantly, don’t give up. If you really want it, keep trying and keep pitching until it works out. For blunt and humorous advice about making it through the tedious process of seeking representation, take a look at Chuck Sambuchino’s article “Don’t Give Up Until You’ve Queried 80 Agents or More” on Writer’s Digest. I had a good laugh, and I’m sure you will too.
What are your thoughts? If you have advice for redirecting rejection, be sure to share.
If you’ve submitted queries or other materials to literary agents in the past, you likely know how long it can take to receive a reply. Some agents will respond in a matter of days, while others take months. Considering the high number of queries received by agents on a daily basis, it makes perfect sense why it takes a while to sort through the slush pile, especially if they choose to respond to each query.
But what should we do while we’re anxiously awaiting that response?
Here’s seven ideas:
1. Write and Submit Short Stories
Short stories can be a great break after spending a length of time on a manuscript. If you want to explore a new idea, character, or genre, consider doing so in a short story. It’s also great practice for being concise and clear with your story elements despite a smaller word count.
If you do take the time to write short stories, you should also submit those stories to literary magazines. Publishing a short story will give you extra experience in the industry, and you can advertise that experience in your query letter to a future agent.
If you’ve queried agents, then you’ve clearly spent a lot of time working on your manuscript. Now take a break and read some books.
If you’re a writer, you should be a reader too. The more you read, the better you’ll understand how to tell a story. The more I learned about the craft of writing, the more I saw it in use while reading, and the easier it became to use it in my own writing. It’s a cycle that breaks only when you stop making time to read.
Not only is reading a relaxing and enjoyable way to pass your time, but it’s also important for a career as a writer. You should know your genre and stay aware of what’s currently on the market; that way, you know where you might fit in that market, and you can make that clear to potential agents.
3. Go on an Adventure
Although you might write stories while sitting on a couch or at a desk, your stories probably don’t originate in those locations. The world around you is an inspiring place, and if you want to make use of that inspiration, you need to interact with it.
You don’t have to travel to Cambodia or New Zealand to go on adventure (although I’m sure that would be inspiring). Go outside, take a walk, do something outside of your usual schedule. These moments push your brain off of its normal thinking track, and that might be just what you need to think of the next story—or at least distract you from thinking about agents.
4. Find More Beta Readers
Hopefully you found beta readers before you queried an agent, but it’s never too late to get more opinions on a manuscript. Ask new friends or family members that you didn’t think to ask before. Join a writing group or attend a conference in search of other writers willing to read your work.
Stretch beyond your original circle of comfortable readers. You can’t submit to every person’s opinion, but it’s worth seeing how your story comes across to a variety of people. It will help you grow and improve in the long run.
5. Check Your Email for the 50th Time
6. Make a List of Other Agents
There are plenty of fish in the sea, and the first (or tenth or fifteenth) agent might not be the one for you. That doesn’t mean you should give up! Querying is a very subjective process. You want to find the agent that loves your story enough to give it the attention you want it to have, and that might take some time.
Research other potential agents and start making a list. You can find agents through Query Tracker, MSWL, Twitter, and Writer’s Digest, to name a few sources. Find agents seeking your genre and save their names for the next time you send out a round of queries.
7. Write a New Manuscript
Here’s the most important—and time consuming—activity of all.
Don’t wait around to hear about one manuscript. Work on another. You should always be honing your craft in one way or another, and starting a fresh manuscript is a great way to do that. This way, when an agent asks if you’re working on something else, you have an answer for them.
After all, most agents want to see a career path for writers; they don’t want a one-hit-wonder. Let your previous manuscript rest for a while and put your creativity back to work.
I completely understand the impatience involved in waiting for an agent’s response. You might stalk an agent’s twitter or read through their website a dozen times for any clues of how long you might be waiting. But there are far more productive ways to pass the time.
Give literary agents a chance. They have a lot of work to do. In the meantime, hone your craft and open yourself to inspiration. Start a new story.
What are your thoughts? Do you have any other ideas for productively passing the time as a writer? Do you know valuable resources for finding agents? Let me know.
"Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?"--Queen, "Bohemian Rhapsody"
We’ve all read the disclaimers at the front of novels confirming that all names, characters, places, etc. are the product of the author’s imagination or are used in a fictitious manner.
But do we really believe that? More importantly, does it matter?
Let’s face it: some things can only happen in real life, and they are the perfect fodder for fiction.
I completely understand concerns about pulling inspiration from real life events and relationships. You probably shouldn’t write a story detailing every aspect of your failed relationship, academic frustrations, or workplace mishaps, keep the names the same, and call it fiction. If you do, you might have a few angry people after you, regardless of your success.
Now, if you detail every aspect of a failed relationship but change the names, shift the location, and add an interesting twist, you can rely on that second part of the disclaimer—you’ve used your real life in a fictitious manner.
These are extreme examples. Pulling inspiration from your own relationships and profound life events can be great, but these aren’t the only sources of wonderful inspiration for your fiction. Whether you are writing a contemporary YA or an Adult fantasy, you have a variety of content surrounding you on a daily basis, from the smallest of details to the strangest of situations.
I have never directly created a fictional character based off of someone I know in real life (so far). But that doesn’t mean I haven’t stolen bits and pieces from the people in my life: names, hobbies, quirks, preferred flavors of ice cream. Most of these go unnoticed—some of them don’t. Regardless, I don’t see it as a weakness or a crutch. It’s like seasoning my fiction with a sprinkle of reality; it can’t all come from thin air.
Beyond gathering traits from the people around you, the prime source of inspiration arises from the crazy and unexpected events of life—because there are seriously some things that you can’t make up, but that doesn’t mean they can’t spice up a work of fiction.
Have you ever read a book that made you laugh out loud because of the sheer hilarity of an event depicted? Obviously I contribute that to the skill of the writer, but sometimes I also have to wonder if the event had an origin in reality.
Years ago, I read the book Fame, Glory, and Other Things on My To Do List by Janette Rallison, and to this day I remember the opening scene in which Jessica, the main character, accidentally gets into the wrong car and then thinks the owner of the car—Jordan—is trying to mug her. I find this scene so funny not only because Rallison does a great job with the set-up and dialogue but because I have personally climbed into the wrong car before and spent a long moment realizing my mistake. My real life incident wasn’t quite as dramatic as Jessica’s, but it certainly allows me to relate to her predicament.
The other day, my roommate’s pet snake got herself stuck through the handle of a mug and we had to spray her with olive oil in order to wrestle her free. Never in my wildest imagination would I think up that particular scenario, but that’s exactly what greeted me on a normal Thursday night. Will I ever include that strange detail of my life in a story? I have no clue, but I certainly hope so.
Don’t be afraid to mix a bit of reality into your fiction. That’s what makes it relatable. Sure, you should probably protect yourself, especially if you choose to write some sort of exposé. (Next time your friend or significant other jokes about you using your shared experiences as inspiration, consider having them put it in writing). But if you’re trying to name a minor character and coming up short, think about who sat next to you in your senior English class and move on from there.
What are your thoughts? Does reality have its place in fiction or should we leave the work to our imaginations?
Also, we freed the snake, and she’s perfectly okay.
I finally ordered Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl after seeing it a few times on shelves and hearing enough mentions of it. It is a New Adult contemporary, so it features a main character going into her first year of college (if you want to learn more about New Adult, take a look at my earlier blog post).
Although I went into the story expecting a light-hearted, humorous read, I instead found the humor surrounded by serious content. Rowell’s story of a fangirl finding her place touches on a variety of real-life situations, including family trouble, dating anxiety, and the struggle to embrace college life, and the representation of these struggles might help soothe anyone who can relate to them.
Fangirl follows Cath, a girl whose life primarily revolves around writing fanfiction about her favorite book character, Simon Snow. When her twin, Wren, decides she wants to branch out on her own in college, Cath faces an onslaught of anxiety about her first year of college without her usual crutch to lean on.
Instead she winds up with a tough-as-nails roommate named Reagan and Reagan’s ex-boyfriend, Levi, who is all smiles all the time. Through her freshman year, Cath faces a falling out with her sister, worry for her unstable father, a reminder of her painful past with her mother, a confusing crush on Levi, and the possibility that she doesn’t have what it takes to go beyond fanfiction.
Fangirl felt a little slow at times, but keep in mind I read it directly after a high-stakes fantasy series. It did not meet my expectations for light-hearted humor, but I do recommend it for anyone interested in a thoughtful contemporary novel featuring a college-aged main character and hints of fandom elements. Cath isn't necessarily likable all the time, but she does feel real, and that's important.
If you've already read Fangirl or are unopposed to spoilers, read on for my more detailed analysis of the relatable content.
Fangirl contains a variety of potentially relatable content.
In some ways, I found Cath very frustrating. I couldn’t relate to her attachment to fanfiction, and many of her actions were incredibly self-destructive, particularly her abandonment of school assignments. However, Cath represents a very real personality, and many of her struggles reflect realistic sources of anxiety for someone experiencing her first year of college.
The Battle to Embrace College
Some people embrace college from the first moment they step on campus—others struggle a lot longer.
"Every freshman month equals six regular months--they're like dog months" --Levi, Fangirl .
When I started Fangirl, Cath’s reaction to college seemed extreme. She avoided the cafeteria for weeks and barely interacted with anyone besides an occasional meal with her sister and forced interactions with Reagan and Levi.
But then I thought back to my own freshman year in college and realized Cath’s reactions are grounded in reality for many students. I remember the first time I ate in the cafeteria and thought of the same concerns that keep Cath away for so long: How do the lines work? Where do you get the plates? Where do you put the plates when you’re done? It seems laughable after years of eating in that same cafeteria, but that first night, I grabbed the quickest and easiest source of food I saw—a corn dog—and got out fast.
Cath’s concern about the cafeteria sparked the first connection between us, but several situations throughout the book speak to anyone who has struggled to embrace college from the start.
“She lifted her chin up and forced her forehead to relax. ‘I’m the Cool One,’ she told herself. ‘Somebody give me some tequila because I’ll totally drink it. And there’s no way you’re going to find me later having a panic attack in your parents’ bathroom. Who wants to French-kiss?’” --Cath, Fangirl.
While Wren seemingly lives the high life at college parties every weekend, Cath actively avoids them. She doesn’t scorn the other characters for drinking—although she does express concern for Wren’s health—but she has zero interest in participating herself. I find it important that Cath does not compromise this aspect of her character by the end of the book; her journey is not about learning to fit in at a college party, but rather about feeling comfortable with who she is in a new location and around new people.
“It’s just . . . everything. There are too many people. And I don’t fit in. I don’t know how to be. Nothing that I’m good at is the sort of thing that matters there. Being smart doesn’t matter—and being good with words. And when those things do matter, it’s only because people want something from me. Not because they want me”--Cath, Fangirl.
Cath’s attempt to leave her college halfway through her freshman year reflects very realistic feelings of anxiety and concern. Many students have likely felt this way after their first semesters of college, and it’s important that a character like Cath serves as a source of relatability. Not only can she show that people have these feelings, but also that it’s possible to turn the situation around, as Cath eventually does.
Levi and Romance
“I don’t think I’m any good at this. Boy—girl. Person—person. I don’t trust anybody. Not anybody. And the more that I care about someone, the more sure I am they’re going to get tired of me and take off”--Cath, Fangirl.
Cath’s romantic relationship with Levi isn’t as prominent in the story as I expected it to be, but it still depicts a realistic struggle that many novels for young people do not. Although Cath feels attraction to Levi, she does not jump straight into a physical relationship with him, even after they begin dating. In fact, weeks pass before she feels comfortable enough to kiss him again. Her anxiety about physical contact—despite her simultaneous desire for that physical contact—could be very familiar to many readers. Unfortunately, this level of anxiety is not often shown in fictional relationships, and it should be.
“She’d always thought that either people could read or they couldn’t. Not this in-between thing that Levi had, where his brain could catch the words but couldn’t hold on to them. Like reading was one of those rip-off claw games they had at the bowling alley”--Cath, Fangirl.
Levi also stands out compared to many male love interests because he has a learning disability. Although he can read, he doesn’t process the information well, and this forces him to go to much further lengths than other students to pass his classes. I appreciate Rowell’s inclusion of this disability because—just like Cath—many readers might not be aware that people in real life struggle in a similar way to Levi.
“Have you ever heard sculptors say that they don’t actually sculpt an object; they sculpt away everything that isn’t the object? . . . Well, I’m writing everything that isn’t my final project, so that when I actually sit down to write it, that’s all that will be left in my mind”--Cath, Fangirl.
Cath has many relatable thoughts about writing. Although she loves writing fanfiction, she also faces the sheer amount of work involved in writing stories—particularly when it comes to her own fiction rather than fanfiction.
“When I’m writing my own stuff, it’s like swimming upstream. Or . . . falling down a cliff and grabbing at branches trying to invent the branches as I fall”--Cath, Fangirl.
I love these descriptions of the trials and tribulations of writing. Even as I write this blog post, I feel like I’m swimming upstream. I know in general what I want to say, but I have to find a way to actually say it. Sometimes writing comes easily and sometimes every word is a battle. Although Cath loves the ease with which she writes fanfiction, writing her own fiction seems nearly impossible to her.
“Everything starts with a little truth, then I spin my webs around it—sometimes I spin completely away from it. But the point is, I don’t start with nothing”--Professor Piper, Fangirl.
As Cath must learn, the difficulty of writing her own fiction shouldn’t hold her back. She learns from Professor Piper that she needs to find her foundation, and build from there. This lesson applies to many struggles in life. Sometimes looking at the bigger picture only serves to psych you out. If you find a more comfortable place to start, the situation might be much easier to overcome.
Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl turned out to be a much heavier read than I expected, but I appreciate the realistic depiction of anxieties concerning college, romance, and career paths. Clearly Cath does not represent a majority of freshmen in college, but it is important to have such portrayals in fiction for those who do struggle in a similar way. If you want to pick up a copy of Fangirl, head to your local library or bookstore, or find it online at Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Also be sure to check out Rainbow Rowell's website.
What are your thoughts? If you've read Fangirl, feel free to share your own opinions.
I write YA fantasy and contemporary fiction. This blog is dedicated to thoughts and advice on writing and publishing, as well as various interests related to the world of Young Adult.