takeaways from the nebulas

Switching things up a bit and adding a little variety to our Wawa Wednesday series, here’s a list of things I learned while attending the Nebulas this past weekend.

  1. Do your research on naming conventions.
    If you plan on writing a character with a non-Western name, it’s often not as simple as picking a given name and a surname. Some cultures have different naming structures (e.g. Thailand, India, Russia) that require more research. If you plan on basing a fantasy culture or nation after a real-world one, study how people and places are named. You can make up names that sound close to the inspiration culture but aren’t quite real, or you can google names (movie credits are great for this) from those cultures.
  2. It’s never too early to get ready for taxes.
    It’s probably not going to save you any money on taxes if you incorporate as an author before you’re earning ballpark $100k/year on average, but when you do you’ll probably want to do it either as an S-Corp or an LLC (ask your accountant). When you start publishing your taxes are going to get harder, so getting an accountant if you don’t already have one may save you some trouble down the line. It’s also never a bad idea to start saving receipts for writerly business expenses like conference fees, travel, office supplies, books, etc. Even if you can’t deduct them or choose not to early in your career, it’s good practice for when you have to separate your writer expenses from your personal expenses.
  3. At the heart of almost every conflict, people want to feel respected.
    I went to a panel on conflict resolution and it was insanely helpful, both for managing character conflicts as well as real-life ones. Respect permeates a lot of our interactions: you can tell a lot about characters’ relationships with each other, who respects whom, on the small ways they either show they respect each other or not.
  4. 2k to 10k by Rachel Aaron
    I just downloaded this a few days ago on the suggestion of one of my excellent new friends from the con (thanks, Karen!), and I’m already in love. Highly recommend, especially if you’re like me and struggle most with the drafting process. I’ll definitely be using this on my next project.
  5. More trans guys in fiction, please. Also, more incidental transness. 
    We’re not seeing a lot of trans men in stories. Granted, we’re still not seeing a lot of trans characters, period, and often when those stories are told the gender of the character is still used as the twist or the central issue of the piece. What about all those trans princes or trans wizards having adventures?
  6. It can almost certainly be shorter.
    Flash fiction is a great way to practice writing concisely. In all forms, from flash to short stories to novels, you can probably cut your word count by 10% without losing much. Some people have done a flash piece a day for years (this is awesome, it also sounds really hard). Flash also makes for nice bonus #content for newsletters, rewards, or your blog.
  7. Any big project can be broken into smaller parts.
    This may seem kind of obvious, but this was a huge revelation for me. Clearly, drafting a book can be broken down into the smaller tasks of writing 2k a day, but revising a book is harder to quantify. Still, you can break it into tasks that you can accomplish in a few hours or over the course of a day, like fixing a scene, changing a character’s name, etc. The smaller you can break down your to-do’s, the more you’re going to feel in control of your project. Give yourself tasks that you can complete in a day and you will feel so much better about how revisions are coming along versus just nebulously attacking the whole project for hours.
  8. Just talk to people. It will be fine.
    General con advice: probably the person you’re standing next to at the elevator is just as nervous as you are, and you might make a really cool connection. Be polite about it, obviously– if they look busy, it’s clearly not a great time to approach. But if they’re just chilling, introduce yourself. You never know.
  9. Sometimes you need a distraction and this is okay.
    You will actually work better if you take a break and recharge after a job well done instead of running yourself into the ground.
  10. Noise is a thing.
    I tend to do a lot of my writing in cafes listening to music. Some also people really like ambient noise, and this was a mixer people recommended. Apparently it works extra well if you listen to it with this playlist at the same time.
  11.  Ask, “what will I cry about not doing by the end of this week?” and prioritize your tasks based on that.
    One of my favorite organizational tips from the con, because directly combats the problems I usually have in prioritization: ask what’s going to make you feel awful in the future if you don’t get it done. What is going to be something you’re going to have to scramble to pull together if you don’t do it early? What’s something that you’re going to be upset at yourself for not making progress on? Make yourself consider the possibility of not doing it and how much that would suck, and then do it.
  12. A lot of markets really like flash fiction.
    It’s short, easy to tell if it’s working or not, and editors can often afford to buy more flash stories than short stories. Check out the Submissions Grinder for markets that accept flash (also this is a great resource for short story markets too!).
  13. Study what you love.
    Last but not least. Look at the stories, games, films, any media that you are incredibly invested in and ask yourself why. How does the story work with the form? Are there tropes or aspects that you keep coming back to? Do you like particular types of characters or plots? The stuff you’re passionate about is going to be the stuff you tell the best stories about– research it and know how it works. Engage with it as an author and not just a reader.

And that’s a sampling of my thoughts from the con! Hope this helps, and as always, if you like these weekly tips, definitely leave me a comment and let me know!

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un-purpling prose

Hello and welcome back to Wawa Wednesday, more properly known as Writing Advice with Alex, week two edition!

Anyway, this week I thought I’d tackle the dangerous dramatic darling of writing world: purple prose. *mood lighting comes on, there is a bongo in agony somewhere, you cannot find it, trust me I’ve looked*

A few years ago, I was working as an intern for a literary agent. This was really cool and I learned a lot before I queried (if you get the chance, definitely apply for these remote internships when they come up). The agent I was interning for also set up a private forum for us to discuss craft and therefore help us identify promising queries faster, and one of the very first topics we discussed was purple prose. So, in keeping with that fine tradition, it will also be one of my inaugural topics.

Purple prose is, most generally, an overblown or overdramatic description of something. It can be a little easy to get trigger-happy here and say that any long description is purple, when this isn’t necessarily accurate– purple prose is more like, you’re trying so hard for an effect you don’t realize when you’ve achieved it and when you’re running the poor metaphor or whatever into the ground.

(Aside: sometimes it’s tempting to say that writers from previous centuries have purple prose when they’re describing scenery for pages or farming techniques or hats, etc. It’s more like, the audience’s tolerance for description has just shifted to preferring smaller, pithier details than a full-blown dissertation on Russian farm culture or cetalogy, interesting though both of those things are.

That’s more to do with knowing your audience though, which we’ll cover sometime in the near future here. Back to actual purple prose. *bongos out* )

My goal when writing descriptions is to always either talk about a new thing or some new feature of an old thing.

If I’m just saying the same thing as the last sentence over and over, chances are that I’m just searching for the best way to say a single thing versus actually describing multiple parts of a thing and adding depth. (Sorry this is so vague, I’m trying to make this apply to as many situations as possible.)

Let’s have an example.

Meillin’s gaze drifted to the clocktower. His eyes were twin lavender orbs, lilac spheres glinting like daggers in darkness. This was a killing gaze, the same he trained on assailants, almost as though he wished to murder time itself. He smirked.

What doesn’t work here ?

  • The orbs. Okay, this is a personal bias, mostly because I read and wrote fanfic as a Youth™️, and back then one did not suffer the word “orbs” to be used for eyes. Same deal with purple eyes and heterochromia. Unless you had a cool and new take on it, it just made you look like an amateur. Maybe it’s different now; maybe you have a cool use for it, fine, go for it. I’m never using it, ever, because it makes me feel dumb and I think when you write you need to feel awesome. Anyway and more importantly,
  • The repetition. Right? Like, man, do I super have to tell you about both the lavender orbs and the lilac spheres? No. This is you as a write subconsciously trying to find the best way of saying this. Pick your fave, or find another way to do it. Same with “killing gaze” and “the same he trained on assailants”– it’s saying the same thing about his eyes, aka that he can look like a Real Bad Dude when he’s being attacked.
  • The not-so-subtle metaphor. Murdering time! Well, gosh, I wonder what this guy’s personal conflict is going to be about.
  • The lack of action. Okay, granted, sometimes you’re going to have to slow stuff down to get some good details in, but if you’re just having our guy pause and look sadly at this clocktower so you can describe his eyeballs, rethink. Your prose should be pulling at least twice its weight almost all the time. That is: you should always be looking to accomplish multiple things at once with any sentence/paragraph/chapter.

Okay, so what’s the root cause of purple prose? If we can see what some exemplars of it are, can we go for the jugular and identify the root cause? *koolaid man voice* Oh yeah.

You’re not trusting the reader.

The reason why people repeat stuff over and over is because they don’t think you’re listening. Same deal here: the writer is repeating the eyeball nonsense because they’re secretly worried that the audience is going to miss the fact that this guy has purple eyes. Same deal with the time thing. The writer risks being heavy-handed in order to assure that that metaphor is signed, sealed, and delivered.

And the thing is that your reader is usually going to be paying enough attention that this stuff isn’t going to just slide right by them. When in doubt, my professional opinion is to err on the side of “my reader is smart.”

So, let’s try to rescue this thing.

The clocktower struck midnight and Meillin’s purple eyes glinted like daggers in the darkness. His gloved hand found purchase on the slate tiles of the tower and he hoisted himself up gracefully until he reached the massive clock face. Threading his body through the wrought iron numerals, he waited until it was 12:15 and then pulled himself up on the minute hand. He smirked. This would be the greatest heist in history.

Obviously this isn’t the only way to do it–maybe you thought the part about the killing gaze was better than the daggers in darkness, that’s also fine! The idea is you choose your favorite of the ways you’ve come up to describe a thing, and you go with that. You have extra space to add more stuff: look at all the junk I added about what he’s doing. Instead of just getting a picture of his eyes and whatever, we see him interacting with the environment and sort of have to augur his goals more from there.

Exercise:

  • Choose a character or a setting of yours. Write a paragraph (let’s say 4-5 sentences, more if the spirit moves you) describing one of their features. Think about describing different aspects of that feature with each sentence. For example, here’s mine:

The flat was really just the attic of a coffeeshop, and countless roasts from the store below always made you feel awake when you entered it. The only way up was a trapdoor that always got stuck in the up position that needed to be yanked, firmly but not roughly, for it to open. On the back wall, a modest bed was pushed up by the room’s one window, and along the sides were various discarded shop ephemera: old houseplant, bags of beans, tools for fixing the faulty wiring, and several dead siphons. An ancient cathode ray tube television took up most of the space on the single table, and the threadbare sofa was covered in dust.

(Yes, I’m obsessing about Persona 5’s protagonist’s awesome room, but that’s beside the point.)

As always, feel free to post your attempts in the comments– I love reading them.

the one narrator to rule them all

One thing I’ve really wanted to do for a while is a weekly post about writing. So, without further ado, here’s the first installment in Writing Advice With Alex (affectionately abbreviated as Wawa Wednesdays, because I live too far away from the sandwich empire not to miss it).

A good question one of my freelance clients had for me a while back was about tense and POV, that is, who’s doing the narration and how in a story. There are three main choices you have here:

  1. Tense: Past or Present?
  2. POV: First or Third? (Okay, yes, you could also go with second, but as that’s a tricky kettle of fish I have not attempted yet I feel less qualified to speak on that.)
  3. Scope: Omniscient or Limited? aka the bounds of perception: how much information do(es) your narrator(s) have access to? all of it or selected bits?

Tense, for me, is most useful for immediacy of action. I really love present tense for action scenes, especially for stories where I have some really slick lines planned (I guess I usually think in present tense? I have all these post-its with phrases or one-liners that I know belong in a certain story, and usually they’re in present tense). When I was writing fanfic hard-core in high school, I would always write all the battle scenes in present tense (even if I was writing the rest of the fic in past, this was a really annoying habit to break) just because it felt that much snappier and dramatic to me to have the battle happening in real-time. There’s a desperation that comes from writing in the now.

On the flip, past is really helpful for descriptions and setting up stages. NB: just like you can still do action scenes without a problem in past tense, you can still describe things perfectly well in present. Sometimes past tense will make a story sound grander and lend the 20/20 of hindsight, and sometimes the uncertain present can keep the pacing tight. It just depends on your goals for a project.

For example, if I know I have to build a lot of world in a project, say like a fantasy, I might look at past tense and see if that would make my life easier than trying to do it all in present. If I’m working in the real world– like, contemporary YA or modern day fantasy– I might go with present, because my reader’s already going to know a lot about the world and while I’ll obviously still describe junk I also don’t have to tell you about Houses and foreign dynasties.

Likewise, POV or point of view tells me who’s narrating: is this a third person perspective or a first? Some people advocate for writing YA in first person because of the close psychic distance (you as the reader are right there with the character as they experience their greatest triumphs and deepest humiliations, art imitating teenage life), but this isn’t the only way to write it, by any means. There’s a big difference in how SIMON VS THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA handles first person YA and how Leigh Bardugo’s SHADOW AND BONE or Megan Whalen Turner’s THE THIEF does. It’s definitely not like third person YA doesn’t sell, though: tell that to SIX OF CROWS and THRONE OF GLASS. There really isn’t a category or even a genre standard here– it’s just whatever’s right for the story you’re telling.

Another example if YA fantasy’s not your jam: you usually see regency-era historical (or alt-historical) in third person, since part of that genre is this idea of polite distance– dry humor also requires some room for its sleight of hand. Right now I’m reading Zen Cho’s SORCERER TO THE CROWN and loving how much gets communicated in these quiet turns of phrase as well as how easy it is to miss something scandalous because someone’s maneuvered the conversation to avoid it extremely politely. It’s not like you couldn’t write this in first (see the hilarious KAT, INCORRIGIBLE middle-grade books by Stephanie Burgis), but you might have to come up with another way to channel that style (Kat, for example, is a wit but certain things do sail over her head as she’s younger), since it’s something that we look forward to in this type of story. Also, the word reticule is fantastic.

Scope is all about perception and what boundaries you impose on it, if any: in short, how much does your narrator know? If they’re a regular person, probably it’s limited. Limited means the narrator don’t know everything that’s going on, i.e. they’re limited to being in a single place at a single time, only seeing events from a single perspective (their own). You can have multiple limited third person narrators (e.g. SIX OF CROWS) or a single one. You could also have omniscient narrators who can see all the players’ hands.

You can pull some truly epic shenanigans that subvert your readers’ expectations by playing around with narration.

Like, first omniscient. We are lucky enough to be living in a time where Ann Leckie is one of our contemporaries and her masterful Imperial Radch books exist. If you convince the reader that the narrator has certain skills and limitations (in this case, Breq’s perspective, as she is/was/is still occasionally a ship) we’ll follow you through these wild set-ups and believe you when you say that our narrator friend knows what’s going on effectively everywhere.

So much of writing is just getting the reader to be willing to suspend their disbelief. Sometimes you do this through detail and sometimes you do this through crafty world-building.

So, Aesop-style, what’s the moral of the story?

There is no tense that is “right” for all stories in a particular genre. I’ll be blunt: anyone who says you have to write YA in first past or whatever’s in vogue these days to sell or get agented is silly. The type of narration you should use for your work is the one you think you can write your project best in. The more comfortable you are with different tenses, POVs, and scopes, the more tools you have in your writer toolbox to do some damage with. If you only really prefer writing in one narrative style, that’s fine too! You’re probably really good at it!

The other moral (this is our inaugural post in the series and therefore is a two-for-one moral occasion) is that you can do any damn thing you want, as long as you can pull it off. At the end of the day, your reader has to be able to follow you and be on board with your fanciness. I’m not talking about every single reader ever, since that’s impossible, but you should have some type of ideal audience in mind and write to them. More on that later.

And now, because I always loved these:

Exercise:

  • Write a short story or a scene in a narration style you’re less familiar with. Maybe that’s second person limited in present, maybe it’s third omniscient past, etc. See what’s easier and more difficult for you. For added zest, take a scene from your WIP and write it in a different POV and tense. To get the best effect on this, open a separate Word doc or Scrivener dude or what-have-you and type that sucker up afresh. What changes for you when you’re writing, besides the obvious flipping verbs and pronouns?

Feel free to ask questions or comment with your exercises! Shocking as I know it will be to you all, I love talking about craft and analyzing stuff and am totally down for chatting in the comments. Obligatory self-promo outro: if you’d like to hire me to read over your manuscript or query, I also offer freelance editing services here.

 

 

apogee

In light of all the sadness happening lately, I thought I would offer a cheering anecdote from my childhood. This is only tangentially about teaching and likewise only tangentially about Character and Endurance, and much more about the utterly bonkers things you convince yourself are necessary to do in junior high.

This is the story better known as That Time Alex Fell Down a Mountain.

It was sixth grade and I was kind of an idiot. I mean, I’ve already given it away: I fall down a mountain in this one.

Climbing Mt. Monadnock was a tradition. Some schools went to battlegrounds; we climbed this giant peak in New Hampshire. All the sixth grade classes before us did it and I imagine that if no one’s stopped them by now all the sixth graders after us will do it as well. The mountain’s actually not that giant, you can make a day trip out of it, and that was exactly what we did, all 64 sixth-graders and handful of homeroom teacher chaperones.

This number included my homeroom teacher, who taught French and was amazing, the art teacher (who was decidedly less amazing, for reasons not worth exploring in this story), several others who were just fine, and the drama teacher.

In the Austenian tradition of tastefully obscuring the identities of people one tells certain anecdotes about, I’ll call him Mr. B—. I will do my utmost to pass no judgement, to merely present the facts and invite the reader to draw their own conclusions.

Mr. B— and I had a somewhat turbulent student-teacher relationship. In his defense, sixth grade was not one of my most friendly and effervescent incarnations. I’d just transferred into a new school (my fifth), accidentally messed up some cliques (oops), and mostly lived in the school library during lunch and recess teaching myself how to draw (which honestly felt like a very positive arrangement at the time). That is, however, all the defense he’ll have.

In our first drama production, my character was a seasick delinquent aboard a cruise ship. (It was a student-written play.) The day of our performance, I’d clamped a hand over my dog tags so they wouldn’t clink and make too much noise as I, in full punk costume, got into position behind the curtain. I secretly did want to be a good actor, as any good consulting detective worth their salt could act, and my dream was to either become Sherlock Holmes or marry him.

Imagine my surprise when I slipped behind the curtain to await my cue and found Mr. B—  talking to a few of my classmates about me. Now that I’ve become a teacher, I’m still unclear on the finer points of why you would talk about another student’s failings to their classmates but since he, in this story, still has more years of teaching experience than I do as of the writing, I’ll allow him the benefit of the doubt of seniority.

The facts are these: Mr. B— told my classmates I was antisocial, he did not realize that I was standing there listening, and I lit into him just before my cue to go on stage.

I forget exactly what words were exchanged (my wit had certainly not peaked in sixth grade, so I probably just repeated “antisocial?” back at him like some demented adolescent parrot dressed in a much-beloved albeit very holey Commander Salamander black tee and sporting a fake nose ring) but I do know that I still had to perform afterward– we had a live audience waiting, after all. I angrily fake-vomited over the edge of the pretend ship that night with special aplomb.

All this is to say that by the time we got to the Monadnock trip, tensions were high and certain lines had been drawn. Mr. B— and I were in different groups, this was amenable to all, and I was prepared to have a great time chatting French and hanging out with Mme S— as we trekked up the mountain and reflected on nature.

The hike up was uneventful, and three hours later we ate our lunches at the peak. Mum had even drawn me a great picture on my lunch bag. My family, like most people in New England during that time (and likely even more now), were very into saving the environment so while we did have reuseable lunch coolers and used them often, I’d specifically requested a brown paper bag because I loved seeing my mom’s drawings on it.

The teachers talked about appreciating nature’s majesty and told us to be careful on the way down. Mr. B—, who I guess had had just enough of his students leaping around on the ascent, said that we all better be careful climbing back because he was definitely not carrying any of us down the mountain if we fell. I sniffed, finished my lunch, and folded up my delightful lunch bag for safekeeping.

As mentioned earlier, I had an obsession with becoming Sherlock Holmes. I trained myself in mirrors so my everyday movements would be more graceful and rewound Jeremy Brett on tape or on DVD doing the same, subtle wrist flick over and over until I could mimic it proficiently. Like all things I loved, grace became an object of study.

And oddly enough, there were a lot of avenues for practice. People are always in motion, and learning to carry weight in different parts of your body is a skill–anyone who’s attempted to pass as different genders on different occasions can tell you there’s a quiet change in the way you walk, how you hold yourself. This also factored nearly into my thirst for being the Best at Disguises, one of many necessary subgoals for becoming Sherlock Holmes.

So, I was doing pretty well, leaping gazelle-like from rock to rock, practicing for when I would escape my own Reichenbach Falls, when–not half an hour out from Mr. B—‘s lunchtime comments–I made a crucial miscalculation.

Possibly this was because I was still too smug about all those idiots who fell down mountains, possibly it was because I wasn’t paying attention and accurate depth-perception was hard, or possibly it was just because I was twelve and no longer completely in control of what my body did anymore.

I fell.

It wasn’t a big fall, maybe only eight feet. While I was ambitious as a detective gazelle, I was not stupid. I made the first rock but misjudged the second and landed on my ankle at a bad angle.

I cursed myself because I knew I looked stupid picking myself up off the ground, and I gamely walked on like normal. It didn’t bother me much at first.

One thing that is very useful to remember right about now is that it took us roughly half the day to reach the top of the mountain. We started around nine, summited and ate at around noon, and so would need about three hours to reach the buses waiting for us at the base.

An hour after I twisted my ankle, I began to realize that the pain was not just background noise. I ignored it and pushed on for another half hour, going through brush and rock trails. Actually telling a teacher that I had done the stupid thing and fallen down the mountain was unthinkable.

I had to hide it.

However, there is only so long you can do this with non-minor injuries before you have to make a decision: you either keep up the stiff upper lip and risk seriously hurting yourself further because you are too stubborn to admit you did wrong, or you alter your behavior and risk discovery in order to stop exacerbating the problem.

I opted for the second. Sure, I was dead stubborn, but the biggest goal was to make it down the mountain under my own power, and I knew if I hurt myself more I really wouldn’t be able to do that. So, with halfway left to the base, I let myself limp. Most kids did not notice– I think if you’re quiet enough about it, sometimes people in junior high are more inclined to play an injury off as a ploy for attention or you faking it for sympathy, and their best strategy is not to pay you any attention so you understand that what you’re doing is both not cool and not working. This worked well enough for my purposes.

Mme S— asked if I was okay, because she noticed and knew I would not keep this up for an hour without a great reason, but I said I was fine and not to worry.

But, then maybe half an hour from the promised land of humid leather bus seats and my ankle spending some quality time with my lunch’s cold pack, the terrain became rocky. My ankle wasn’t as taxed as it had been thanks to the limping, but after trying to maneuver over the rocks and nearly falling again, I was at an impasse. I could not get down the rocks as I was.

Mme S— had quietly alerted the other teachers that one of her students had had an accident on the mountain and was limping, but didn’t feel comfortable asking a teacher for help directly. And probably all the other teachers had discussed among themselves who would be the best suited to carry me, which logic dictated would have to be the youngest and spriest of the guy teachers. But being able able to figure all this out on the fly did not provide much comfort.

Because in true climactic fashion, Mr. B— came racing down the trail from above, calling out not to move, that it would all be fine and he was going to carry me.

And truly, in that moment, I understood what Candide had felt like when he wondered if he really was living in the worst of all possible worlds.

I was faced with an impossible decision: be the cautionary tale of the idiot who fell down the mountain, the idiot who had to be carried and would never live it down, or hurt myself proving a point, which would be equally stupid.

As Mr. B— rushed to my aid, I chose the third option.

Reader, I crab-walked away from him.

As it happens, crab-walking is a fairly effective means of traversing rocky terrain, especially when you don’t have full use of all your limbs. My hands got a little torn up and while it may not have been the most elegant mode of egress, one thing I will say was that it was quick. I crab-walked right on out of there.

Mr. B— did catch up with me, because it is unfortunately not hard to outpace a twelve-year-old doing the three-legged crab down a mountain, but I held my own. No, I said as I crab-grappled a rock, I did not want or require his help. This anti-social kid was doing just fine.

And that’s it. I crab-walked and limped the rest of the way down Mt. Monadnock. I think my parents kept me home a day after because, surprise! I’d sprained my ankle and no one wanted me walking on it for a while. Emails were exchanged, but that is another story entirely.

Was this dumb? I mean, probably. The third option was not that much better than the original two. And yes, as an adult, it’s easy to say, “well I would’ve just asked for help because there’s no shame in that.” And that’s true, there’s not. But coming at it as a kid who was already having a hard time at school and just wanted to make it out of this with her dignity intact? I can’t say I would have done much different besides, you know, not fall down the mountain in the first place.

But even that was okay, because my twelve-year-old self clued me into a valuable lesson: when faced with two unacceptable situations, it is sometimes completely within your power to crabwalk the fuck out.

You just have to be creative about it.

And as far as sixth grade stories go, the ones where you end up looking like an idiot no matter what, I’m pretty okay with this one.

 

scion

As Father’s Day winds down, I keep coming back to one of my favorite stories about my dad.

My dad is an engineer. Often, this meant that when I was younger he would go on a lot of business trips for company projects, sometimes to domestic locales, but sometimes to more exotic places. And I remember a lot of trips where Mum and I (and sometimes later my little brother) would go to O’Hare to pick him up.

O’Hare is one of my favorite airports for a lot of reasons. One, I grew up in Chicago and it inevitably feels like home, an old friend that I’m always traveling back to see when I pass through. Two, it contains the Moving Walk, a place elevated to near-divinity by childhood fascination and awe that I still make every effort to take it when I can.

And three, because I was always coming back to people I missed in it.

This story is like many of my childhood airport reunion stories: we made welcome home signs with washable markers, drove to O’Hare, and waited for my dad’s flight to come in. What made it different this time was that there had been a delay–weather, perhaps– I was too young (maybe five or six) to know exactly what it was.

But apparently it was a big enough deal to bring down some reporters from Chicago’s local news stations to cover it and interview people. A reporter spoke with my mother briefly before my dad deplaned and made it over to us, and then came back for another round once we were all together.

My dad has always gotten us presents when he traveled. These days, it’s so ingrained in me that as an adult whenever I go places I wonder if I’ve bought enough gifts for my family. I collected necklaces and rings from Tel Aviv when I was older and Dad traveled farther abroad, but on this particular day I got what turned out to be my favorite gift, a grow-your-own-crystals kit.

I loved these things. I think I’d grown several sets with my parents at home already, smashed all manner of geodes, and I’d stare for ages at those fast-growing crystalline structures that balanced precariously like skyscrapers in their petri dishes. As Mum was being interviewed, Dad, right there in the middle of the concourse, unzipped his suitcase and pulled out a massive, new crystal set. I was elated.

Eventually, after talking with my mom and dad about airlines and delays, the reporter asked for my thoughts. I, ever-mindful that these, truly, were my fifteen minutes of fame, said something like, “Look at the great crystal rocks my dad got me!”

And I think it’s hard as a parent, wondering what things your child is going to immortalize, what gets through and what doesn’t. I applied to tons of universities, decided on his alma mater. He quietly hoped I’d transfer into engineering; I built race cars out of carbon fiber and became a mathematician instead. He got me and my little brother educational CD-ROMs like Treasure Mathstorm and Logical Journey of the Zoombinis; I was the kid who worked chores to afford her first GameBoy to play Pokemon Blue and then spent days on console-based JRPGs as a teen.

My dad traded in his two Porsches for two kids (happily, both children grew up to purchase fast cars of their own), he, in grad school, owned two Afghans named Sasha and Misha who required meticulous daily brushing (and later caused me no small amount of consternation as I wondered if I’d been named* after a beloved hound**), and he very nearly let the crab cakes my now-six-foot-four little brother and I shipped him as a Father’s Day gift sit out on by the front door overnight.

Once, he had a two-sided chalkboard in his parents’ house that he drew out transforms on, and when done with one side’s worth of material, he’d flip it over and lay back down on his bed to commit the fresh side to memory. He’s also one of the few people I know who has lived through the twin feelings of relief and frustration when your parents occasionally rescue you during your graduate years– relief and appreciation because thank god you have a working car and your family loves you, frustration because you’re old enough that you ought to have your life more in order and not rely on people who love you, damn it.

We chatted about the Near Crab Cake Fiasco a little before Father’s Day (the crab cakes, alas, had too much of the element of surprise going for them, but ultimately everything was fine), and one thing that came up was how much he’d been away for work when we were kids. “Sometimes I wonder if I did enough,” my PhD-having,  multiple patent-achieving, world-traveler father said. “Or was there enough.”

I am a doctoral student, preparing for exams deep into the summer, who wakes up at the crack of dawn every couple of days to write a magnificently weird coup de maître featuring magic rocks and crystals.

“You did just fine.” I said.

As a preteen, I used to get really mad that I’d used up five of my fifteen minutes of fame talking about a gift in O’Hare. In retrospect, I doubt the fifteen minutes thing is true anymore or if it is, that it even matters that much. It’s less scrambling to prolong your fame and more what you do when you’re pulled into the spotlight.

And somewhere, in the blurry 90’s archives of a local Chicago station, a starry-eyed kid clutches a deluxe Magic Rocks set to her chest, ignores all of the interviewing reporter’s questions, and just goes on and on about how excited she is that she and her parents are going to make these tonight, now that her dad’s finally home.

* Sasha is a diminutive of my given name.
** I am not actually named after Sasha, though Sasha was a very good dog.

cello

I have had a somewhat tempestuous relationship with the cello.

Let me explain.

Back when I was a little kid, I had a single, relentless endgame: I would grow up to be a rock star. Period. Everything I did was geared to further this goal. I did all the stuff you were supposed to do, like informing your teacher in kindergarten of your life choice (she said that she hoped I’d send her tickets to my show, which I took very seriously as a five-year-old), listening to a lot of songs on the radio and analyzing them, and cultivating a rebel aesthetic. I even took dance classes (first ballet, but then I quit and just did jazz because ballet did not work with the punk aesthetic) so I’d know how to tear it up on stage.

It was about when I was eight that I figured out it would be good to actually learn an instrument or something, because while ace rock star carriage and dancing were important, I surely couldn’t rocket to stardom on leather cuffs and an impressive knowledge of pop stations alone.

Also, I liked electric guitars, and at that point I still thought an electric guitar meant you were literally playing electricity. That sounded very rock star. Another thing I liked about electric guitars was that they were loud. When you played, people paid attention.

My parents thought it was great that I liked music, so one day after a classical concert they took me to something called an instrument zoo.

An instrument zoo sounds even less interactive and more dangerous than an actual zoo (“no, you can’t touch this because if you break it and it’ll cost thousands of dollars!”), but in reality it was the opposite. There were different stations you could visit, and musicians let you try out a tester instrument, show you how to get the sound.

At first blush, this perhaps seems counter-intuitive. I’d wanted to be a rock star, not an orchestra musician–had something gotten lost in translation? But no, as my parents explained, the plan was threefold: Stage 1) I’d get my footing, learn to read music and play a classical instrument, Stage 2) I’d transition over to acoustic guitar when I was ready, and from there, Stage 3) move onto electric. There would even be amps, they promised.

And so I had a great time trying out instruments. Deep in my heart, I inexplicably wanted to play the flute. I don’t know why this was, other than the flute looked hard. And it actually was hard, because as much as I tried, I couldn’t get any sound to come out. I blew on that thing for at least five minutes until the instrument zoo flute-keeper looked at the giant flute line behind me, patted my shoulder, and recommended the oboe instead.

As it turned out, I was able to coax sound out of the oboe, but no, if I couldn’t have the flute I wanted nothing to do with the entire woodwind family. Initially I was curious about the violin (because my other giant childhood life plan was to become the world’s greatest consulting detective and as we all know, all the great ones played violin) but my parents were already talking about getting my little brother violin lessons, and thus an intense sibling rivalry killed that option.

But there was another member of the string family and strings, thank god, were fairly easy to make music with. So, I selected the cello as my Stage 1 Rock Star Career Instrument. My dad told me that cellos were great for holding a baseline in songs, and kept flicking through radio stations on the way home until he found one with a cello.

“Do you hear that?” He’d asked. “Right there, that’s a cello.”

I just heard the melody die off and then something low and grumbly fight through the static before the brass drowned it out.

An unexpected consequence of cello was that it taught me a lot about loss.

My parents arranged lessons for me with the same person who taught my brother violin. It was perhaps not surprising to find that cello often played second fiddle to other instruments, but having to play back-up to my six-year-old sibling during seven variations of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” really drove it home.

Eventually I worked through enough of the Suzuki books that I was starting to hit the interesting stuff, minuets and etudes, things that were no longer beginner small fry but actually sounded half-impressive. Around that time, my teacher announced that he was leaving for a music conservatory, and as I still held ever relentless to my dreams of being a rock star, my parents found a new teacher.

(My brother, of course, quit violin and I think at this point took up drumming for about a year.)

Ms. Sheila was the first adult who’d asked that I call her by her given name. I was ten and this was unthinkable. I certainly did not call my teachers Patrica or Susan at school, and I did not see why instruction in cello should be different. Ms. Sheila insisted, though, so I found a compromise: her first name was Sheila and that was what she wanted to hear, I needed a honorary prefix, and the rest is history.

Fun fact: I still have trouble with this, even as an adult: it is actually one of my 2016 resolutions to get comfortable calling my PhD advisor Paul. (He has been my advisor for over a year now.)

Under Ms. Sheila’s tutelage, I worked through the higher Suzuki books and perfected my form. In cello, your bow is supposed draw down on the strings in the space between the fingerboard and the bridge. You’re supposed to imagine a little house (or a woman with a baby stroller) on the corner of the fingerboard and pedestrian traffic on the bridge. You are driving the bow, which is a car in this metaphor, and you must not run over the bridge pedestrians or the little house. (Usually people bow too close to the fingerboard; I did it too close to the bridge, and Ms. Sheila always wondered why I kept endangering more imaginary cello-people that way. I said it was because I placed more value on the individual than the group, but really my form was just bad and I was eleven and felt like being contrary.)

Two or three years after I started as her student, our lessons were cancelled more and more frequently as Ms. Sheila went through cancer treatment. Then there was one last ride up the steep Haverhill hills to her house, where all my lessons had been, this time without my cello, where my mother and I said goodbye and she gave us a list of recommendations for a new teacher.

I was not a stranger to death at that point– my father’s parents had died when I was about four, and I’d gone with him through their house and their things. My first dog died when I was eight. But Ms. Sheila was the first person where there had been a certain formality and dignity to the loss.

It was a different changeover than losing my first teacher had been– perhaps he thought he would hear about me again later as an accomplished cellist, perhaps he just figured me for another kid whose parents were already looking to beef up her college applications.

This hurt.

Of all my cello teachers, Elena is my favorite.

I started taking cello lessons with her in a room of an old church whose graveyard had this fantastic stone arch that looked like it could be a pathway to the underworld. In the fall, I would just stare at it: the bright New England leaves crimson and gold against slashes of granite and damp moss.

Elena certainly did not start as my favorite, though. I was twelve or thirteen when we began lessons and had more or less begun to realize that this cello thing was a sham. I flipped out at my parents when I saw them letting my little brother play their acoustic guitars: that was mine, that was my goal, that was what you promised me, he quit, and look at how hard I’ve been practicing!

Stay a little longer on cello, they said. You’re so good at it. We’ll think about guitar next year.

A lot of people say that high school is the worst time of your life. I disagree. I had a comparatively easy high school experience compared to middle school. The details aren’t relevant, but the point is my sixth through eighth grade were a living hell. I entered high school with a chip on my shoulder, impressive drawing skills from lunches and recesses spent alone in the library, and an unshakeable distrust of people who did yoga.

All this time I was also trying to learn cello. Elena met me at one of the two angriest times in my life, and I think our first lesson together I barely even spoke to or looked at her as I played. In retrospect, I don’t think I was handling Ms. Sheila’s death particularly well, and school had made me doubt the intentions of anyone who was as friendly as Elena was. To top it off, I dreaded cello lessons because it reminded me of my rock star failure.

Still, it is a fact universally acknowledged that it’s hard to learn music if you don’t talk to your teacher.

As I kept coming back to that church with its rad arch, I talked more. My mother would also sit in on my lessons, and she and Elena became fast friends. I think I started calling Elena by her first name because I was feeling ~*rebellious*~ enough to drop the prefix, and it stuck.

And things got better. I was stoked when I learned my first gavotte, not only because I had always wanted to play a gavotte, but also because Elena was the first teacher who took me off the Suzuki books. I began playing real music. I was placed later and later at recitals, until I was the last student playing.

If you are unfamiliar with recitals, it is often the established thing that you have your younger or newer students playing first (often little kids are pretty ansty and not great at waiting, so if you get their performance out of the way, they can either chill or their parents can jet with them if they melt down mid-someone else’s sonata) and then progress to the older, more experienced musicians. To play last, to be the one who ends the night, is an honor.

Because cello necessitated pants, on recital nights I always had to wear this red cummerbund that my grandmother had made me to dress up my slacks. My parents brought me roses and flowers, told me that they were proud of me, and on those nights, when I bowed at the end of my concertos, I finally felt like I was doing something right. Like here I could just excel and all the people in the audience knew it. Things were melting down elsewhere, but for fifteen minutes in a slowly emptying room I had total mastery, cummerbund and all.

And it may not have been rock and roll, but it was close.

In high school, my parents tried to sell me on the idea of electric cello. They’d seen an experimental performance at the pops, and they’d fallen in love. “Look,” they’d said, “you could do this!”

I did not buy it. This was before I was fortunate enough to hear Geographer, a kickass band that does indeed feature an electric cello. My idea of a rock star lifestyle was picks, microphones, and electric chords. Treble clef. Sure, yeah, you could hook a cello up to an amp. So what? I wanted to rock out standing up. That was not something a cello could promise.

So I just forgot about it. My mother and Elena were great friends, I kept on taking cello lessons and opening up more. Another good thing about cello is that you get less afraid of making friends in a new high school after you’ve played Vivaldi to a room full of people older than you. I was surprised when Elena told me at the end of a lesson that she was so happy with today because it had been the most I’d ever talked to her in one sitting.

Eventually, I figured, hey, whatever, I’m a teenager, and all the rock stars have already gotten their guitars. The cool kids had already been chosen, alae iacta est, and maybe there were just some people who would never be ready for Stage 2: Acoustic Guitar.

This is something I have learned about art: it is a one-or-zero endeavor. You either devote yourself to it, or you don’t, but once you make the choice you don’t get to complain anymore. This is a tough lesson to learn. For a while, I’d kind of wanted to be the victim, the girl whose parents hadn’t let her play the guitar, whose stadium dreams had been squashed by bass clef.

But the thing about wanting something is that when you want it badly enough, people telling you no are never absolute. It’s just not yet, wait a bit, try again later, another way, or convince me. If I had really wanted to learn electric guitar, then why hadn’t I asked my parents to practice on their acoustics like my brother had? Why didn’t I write it on a piece of paper or in the ridiculous amounts of diaries I wrote at the time?

Before I went off to college and my family moved from the northeast back midwest, I had my last lesson with Elena. We’d been working on Saint-Saens’ The Swan from the Carnival of the Animals, which remains one of my favorite pieces. It is gloriously sad, magical, and breathless. It’s also a pretty good approximation for how quitting an instrument feels: the triumph of skill to hit the harmonics, and the knowledge that this is your swan song, that it’s over.

In college, I met a lot of people with acoustic and electric guitars and amps. They had started garage bands for a time, found drummers and vocalists, made a flash-in-the-pan go of it. I said I’d played cello but did not bring up the rest of the dream.

Because by then it had become a question I did not like finding the answer to, but there it was: had I not wanted it enough?

Last night, I went to a chamber music open mic night at a Chinese tea house.

I had not thought I would be kind of person who would go to chamber music nights, let alone ones at my local tea house, but a friend in my department had invited me. A cello player pizzicato’d and hit the high harmonics and the group I was with thought he was the coolest. I hadn’t played cello in eight years, but I still smiled when his bow hit the sheet music on someone else’s music stand because man, have I been there.

It’s easier now for me to hear the cello in these pieces, both at tea houses and on the radio. It’s the baseline, the steady undertone that carries you through. It may not get the harmony, but maybe you don’t always want that. The cello can be the saddest or most resilient instrument of all the strings, depending on how you play it. You just have a deeper voice than the others.

During my time away from cello, I have become the kind of person who trawls through indie sites for new songs, who wears headphones at least a few hours a day, and who has to have music playing to write or drive long distances. On one of my trips home, I asked my parents if they were disappointed that I’d stopped playing. They said no.

“You just didn’t have time,” my dad said, which was and wasn’t true. My mom said: “Honey, we never expected you to play cello forever.”

Had I gone through those ten years for nothing?

“What we wanted,” she said, “was for you to always have music in your life.”

It is August 2015 and I am visiting my best friend in Miami. I have not met her husband before, but she’s still at work and so I’m chilling with him at their house for the hour before she comes back. It is a sink or swim situation and things have become truly dire, so I do the thing that anyone does when they seek to ingratiate themselves with their best friend’s new spouse: tell them about your wacky childhood dreams.

“And you never learned to play guitar?” He says, like this is the worst ending ever.

“Well, no. I’m very good at air guitar, though,” I say, wondering how to explain middle school and siblings and also death in a two-minutes-or-less, new-acquaintance-friendly kind of way. “There was just a lot of cello, and Stage 2–”

“We have two guitars right here. Hold on.” He leaps up from the couch and their two dogs trail after him. “We’ll start right now.”

He shows me how to do a basic chord progression and I mess up a lot, because my fingers want to curl around the instrument’s neck differently, like a cello’s, even though it’s been almost seven years since I last practiced. It’s embarrassing and the guitar feels too huge, but it’s not bad. My best friend has said her husband should be a high school guidance counselor because he makes people feel at ease about doing stuff like this, and I can see it.

“Do you have a teacher?” I ask him.

“What, for guitar? Nah. You just look chords up on the internet and teach yourself.” He swaps his guitar for a tiny ukulele and we jam until my friend gets home. “They sell acoustics on Craigslist and other places for cheap. You can practice between studying and stuff. If you feel like getting one.”

“You know,” I say, “I should.”

track and field

One of the things that high school me got roped into freshman year was cross country. I still don’t understand the logic even ten years later: I hate running. I don’t hate it in the way that I don’t think anyone should do it, as I feel about other things, but I don’t find the necessary joy in it that I need to do it regularly.

The real reason why I did cross country in freshman year was that I’d been varsity field hockey goalie for all three years of middle school (ask me about my letter jackets) and the high school I ended up at didn’t have a team. I think they’d had a team at some point, but the teacher sponsor gave up on it. They did have an impressive Latin program, though.

My parents hounded me gently about needing a sport to round out my college applications (and if you’re surprised kids start worrying about building college apps freshman year of high school, ahahahaha), and I chose running because I really liked how lithe and thief-like everyone’s builds were.

I know, I know. I was young and foolish and, surprising no one but myself, I was terrible at cross country.

Like, we’re talking eleven-minute-mile, wheezing through the course around the baseball fields bad, coming in last at every meet but being so stubborn about trying to improve that you’d board the bus for an hour there and back anyway. We’re talking the level of stubborn where the kids who came in first or second shake their heads at you and wonder why the hell you’re wasting your time when you are just not getting better, but the coach is so kind and encouraging you end up doing track in winter, too.

The stuff I loved about cross country was basically everything to do with it that wasn’t running. I liked the numbers we pinned to our jerseys on meet days because I liked paper and finding patterns. I liked the dumb jokes and how people called the fastest dude on the team a horse and meant it as the highest compliment. Most of all, I liked the places we ran. I got to run backwoods around gigantic courses outlining lacrosse fields, through towns and cemeteries, even through parts of a zoo, all as part of our meets. My favorite was running through the streets of this city by the sea, sidewalks and streets roped off for us, the scenery always changing when you took a turn, always keeping you not quite sure if you were heading to the beach or back into the woods or the downtown. I still have dreams about running and they’re almost all like that: going at a comfortable pace through a foreign city on a marked off course as buildings and vistas shift.

But cross country is not track, and track is different. One of my friends threw javelin in track. There are no projectile weapons in cross country, or at least there aren’t supposed to be.

My high school built their nice athletic and arts addition after I graduated, so while I was there there wasn’t really a designated place for us to run when the weather got cold. We had a course of our own, sure, but it gets damn frigid in the winter in Massachusetts (also, icy) and no one was going out there. We had an arboretum (that one of the priests used to smoke cigarettes in), but no indoor track. Go figure.

What we did have was a hundred-foot straightaway in the fourth floor hallway.

One thing I really admired my high school for was that while they didn’t have a lot of money for things, they MacGyvered like nobody’s business. When I’d been touring prep schools with my parents and interviewing places after lengthy tours of grounds and facilities, it seemed like every secondary school in the northeast was a mini-university: fancy dorms, state of the art athletics, art wings that were as big as public schools, the works.

I did not get into any of those. This was probably for the best.

Another feature of my high school was that my locker was on the fourth floor underneath a giant mural that spanned the entire corridor. It was vaguely religious, but mostly had student-painted pictures of trees, earth, animal and plant-life, the occasional saint. If you were lucky, you’d get a cool design over your locker to help you remember where it was. Me, I had a naked, faceless angel arching his back in ecstasy with an arm thrown over his forehead (or about the vicinity of the forehead– again, he was without facial features). I don’t know how anyone okayed this, but there he was. High school me was a Romantic with Victorian ideals of love and courtship, so I was all shocked and bothered but I reasoned, whatever, one year with the slightly lewd celestial being, no big, I’d change lockers next September. Seniors had lockers on the second floor, freshmen had the crap ones on the fourth where I was, and as you become more of an upperclassmen, the closer to the convenient lower-floors lockers you got. At the end of my freshman year, though, the administration said it would be too much hassle to switch locker assignments again, so you guessed it: I was indeed stuck with the suggestive angel for all four years of high school.

So I’d run track stampeding with the rest of the team through this fourth floor corridor, past my racy seraphim (some people actually commented on it! “man, how hilarious would it be to have that locker” and I’d just go all Stoic Face and pray my drama club training held), racing through the same place where teachers would yell at you during school hours for walking too fast. I maybe hated running, but this part was fun.

It was also fun watching the people who were good at track being really good.

There was this group of three Vietnamese friends who just excelled at track. They were always top of their events, and I always wondered how they did it. Sometimes our coach would have them practice sprinting down the corridor (we really did a number on that building–one time I was on the third floor asking a teacher about something and I forgot it was track day and was shocked when the lights were shaking) and we’d all just watch. At first I thought that they just ran with coins in their pockets, typical teenage dude: gotta sound cool, always carry change so people think you have car keys (or better, keep the car keys on a lanyard hanging out from your uniform khakis), but a few weeks into practice I found out it wasn’t that at all.

One of the guys fished into his pockets and handed his friend piles and piles of weights.

This guy was fast running normally, and by that I mean, not only was he faster than I was, but he actually won things like medals. He practiced weighted down– he also ran with weights cuffed around his ankles, but like the keen natural observer I was, I did not spot this until he’d stooped to remove them.

People got out stopwatches, counted down, and he was off.

It was the fastest I’d ever seen a human being run in real life.

It’s also just cool, seeing how people train themselves when they’ve gotten good at something. It’s not enough anymore to just do the meter run in a decent time; you have to do it weighted down if you want to improve. You’d don’t just want to finish the workout, you want to shatter your PR. You can finish and revise a manuscript, but now you want to write something you’re not sure you’re capable of.

I am probably at my best when I’m writing fantasy. I grew up on Diana Wynne Jones’ everything and Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic, and pretty much if it didn’t have magic in it I wasn’t interested. So it’s been weird writing a contemporary book, something void of magicians and lords and hierarchies, but it also forced me to re-evaluate a lot of techniques– why could I skate by in fantasy with this and why was it falling apart when I did it in the real world?

Back then, I watched that kid take off down the hallway and was instantly envious. I wanted that. I did not want to put in the time to get good enough at running because surprise! I hated running, but I wanted that feeling of training hard and getting frustrated and learning to be excellent even with a handicap and then taking the weights off. I wanted to know how that felt.

The past few days, I’ve been taking a break from my contemporary manuscript and returning to an old fantasy story of mine with houses and cities and magic, all the things I loved as a little kid mashed together. There were places in it that I knew I was messing up, and after having worked so long on the contemp and seeing those problems stark and isolated without the veneer of creative worldbuilding, I knew how to fix them.

And reading through the first chapter, getting back into the characters, the setting, the swirl and swing of the language, I finally understand how that kid felt when the coach yelled three-two-one and told him to go.

You take the weights off and you fly.

16 writing tricks for 2016

Since this is getting to be a tradition, here are 16 of my favorite writing tips and tricks from the last year. Some are oldies but goldies that I’ve gained new appreciation of in my last year as a freelance editor and newly agented writer, and some may be new! Either way, hopefully they help you as much as they’ve helped me.

1 :: imagine it like a movie

One of the best tricks I learned when I was interning under retired agent Mary Kole was to pretend that your manuscript was a movie and you were its director. This helps you make sure that the characters are always doing something and not like, thinking for ages inside their heads or spending too much time explaining things to the reader.

Actors like projects where they have to communicate information by acting— see Mad Max: Fury Road for a great example of this. If all your stage directions to your book actors are “sit on bed, look sad, and think” that’s hard to get your reader engaged. If your instructions are instead “sneak out of house, silently bribe younger sibling, and steal parents’ car” then that’s something we’re going to be more interested in.

2 :: adverbs cost extra

You shouldn’t cut all of them, but you should make damn sure that you’ve tried really hard to cut all of them and have come up with a compelling reason not to for the ones you keep. Imagine that all the words in your book are groceries and you’re on a budget. You can totally buy some expensive stuff, like adverbs, but you can’t buy them with everything. Make sure that the places you’re purchasing adverbs for are the ones that actually need them for you to get the meaning. For example:

Dominic says jovially. can just be Dominic laughs. But you might want to keep the adverb in something like Dominic certainly was not a part of that. because the “certainly” is a part of the character’s voice and tells us that he’s just a little bit affronted you thought that about him. As long as an adverb is pulling its weight in multiple ways, it’s probably okay.

3 :: swears are like spices

On a similar tack, the same can be done with swears. If you find yourself using a lot of curses in your manuscript, especially all in one scene or very early on, think about swear words like sriracha or ghost peppers. If you throw a lot of them at your reader at once, their tongue’s going to get burnt or their mouth will go numb and they won’t really be able to taste any more spiciness.

When you throw a lot of these at a reader in short order, it sets a tone. If a lot of your characters are swearing at the story’s climax, then that’s likely okay– you want it to be shocking for everyone! But if it’s the first scene and everyone’s losing their junk, then that’s not going to leave you with a lot of ammo for the higher intensity scenes later.

4 :: cut thinking/perceiving verbs

I have linked to this article from Chuck Palahniuk so many times in 2015 it’s unreal. It’s honestly some of the best advice I’ve heard about taking my show vs. tell game up a level.

He’s not kidding when he says this is going to be a long process. Months is not an overestimate. It’s annoying as hell when you catch yourself doing it (and once you see how common thinking/knowing/perceiving verbs are, you can’t unsee them) but if you’re serious about becoming a better writer, read this, work through it, and meet me on the other side. It’s worth it.

5 :: KB’s list of ten

These next two are courtesy of one of my CPs and fellow freelancer-in-arms, Kate Brauning. I love them both so much that I have stolen them from her, and I am shamelessly including them in my favorites list.

Don’t know where your plot is going or why a character is even doing a thing? Make a list of ten reasons why they’re doing it, why your worldbuilt world is the way it is, why the villain hates the protag, etc. The first three will probably be boring or the ones that everyone thinks about. 4-6 will be harder to think of. By the time you reach 7-10, you’ll see the cool ideas come out and play.

6 :: KB’s start on the day that it’s different

Another great one from Kate: when you begin your story, make sure you start on the day that it’s different.

This is solid gold on a several levels. For one, beginning when things change means that you start with the action. “The day that it’s different” can also mean that everything is normal, slice of life time until this defining incident that turns things on their head for your protagonist. So if you’re very tricky, you can not only establish how things normally are, but then also show them falling apart and start the book off at a gallop.

7 :: your main character is always choosing something

This article has been tremendous help to me in my most recent revisions. Like, as in, I still have it open in a tab.

What makes a compelling story? When your main character drives the action instead of weathering all these things happening to them. How can you make them do that? By forcing them to make a choice each scene that either brings them closer to or farther from their overall goal.

8 :: post-it walls for plot and tension

I don’t have a picture of it because I am still on vacation, alas, but post-it walls are how I keep plot and subplot threads straight. I use different colors when I can for different timelines, and then follow how each of my subplots advance (each chapter gets a column, and if I see a subplot falling off the map at any point, I know I have to go back and bring it more to front). Granted, this is somewhat challenging to do in a studio apartment, but there are always doors, floors, and ceilings.

9 :: print it out and color code for subplots

I recently read Cheryl Klein’s book on editing, Second Sight, and I loved this trick. This was part of what made my post-it wall go so well: I went through my printed out manuscript, took all these different highlighter colors, and highlighted when a subplot came up. (You can also just use Word’s highlighting feature for this too.)

I’m someone who likes to be able to see the whole of a project at a glance, so doing this and the colored post-it method together was aces. I could look over from my desk and go “oh, there’s not enough green in this middle bit, I should up the election subplot here” and then voila, problem solved. Just remember to update it as you revise.

10 :: only tell your reader what they need to know to get the scene

Infodumping, the bane of literally everyone during first drafts of fantasy. Especially when you’re still figuring out where the story needs to go, it’s hard to know how much or how little to tell people. But when you’re revising and you’re realizing that half of your scenes are, perhaps, your main character sitting on their bed thinking how terrible obscure trade routes have gotten, you start to realize that maybe not all of this information is necessary.

Leave a little room for your reader to fill in the blanks themselves. This is true even in YA contemp, and I can tell you that from experience: hint at other stuff at the edges, but you don’t have to describe it all in detail. I also think of this as the here’s-where-readers-could-expand-on-in-fanfic tip– people are actually really good at imagining the rest of the picture for you if you provide them with some interesting sketches of the major buildings.

11 :: dying/survival isn’t necessary the best stakes

This was actually a hard pill for me to swallow. Like, why not?? IT’S LIFE OR DEATH, HOW IS THAT NOT STAKES? But for conflict and stakes to be effective, they always have to be choices that I don’t know a good answer to as your reader. “She must either give up her rough life or her loving family” how is this a choice? We already know the answer. Granted, some of my favorite stories are the “protag must choose between death and saving people” ones, and that’s also (often) an easy choice. It’s all in how it’s done.

We’re interested more in the stakes if it’s a lose-lose situation: “he has to choose between his bright future and avenging the girl that he loves.” If he doesn’t avenge her, then he lives well but regrets it always. If he does avenge the girl, then he’s ruined his life. What does he choose?

12 :: cut 10% each draft

This one is, again, very Alex-specific and your mileage may vary. I overwrite, often because I figure out where the story needs to go by writing through all the possible options. Oddly enough, almost everything I’ve ever written is over 100k (sometimes over 200k, I know, but no one reads/slays those monsters but me) during its first or zero drafts.

Cutting down not only helps me improve pacing, but if I know go into revisions being like “okay I need to try to get it under 85k this time” then it forces me to look at each word and see if it’s pulling double its weight or just taking up space. If it’s just taking up space, nix or rewrite something else to do its job.

13 :: agency agency agency

This dovetails on 7 from before about characters making choices. We’re interested in following a main character around when they are the ones driving the action. If all these things are just happening to your protagonist because they’re the chosen one, it’s harder to like them because of their choices– outside forces are steering the ship more than the person we’re stuck with!

Especially if you find that your protagonist spends more time waiting for things to happen to them than actively going out and changing things, consider making them more active, more desperate for change that they become its agent. There’s a reason that the Call to Action is part of the Hero’s Journey– it’s terrifying sometimes to realize that you have to be the one changing things, but ultimately a lot more interesting things happen when you start actively moving toward your goals than just getting swept along in the current.

14 :: each image tells me something new

The funny thing about purple prose is that usually the people doing it are trying really hard not to. They want to make their descriptions fresh and new, or relate this emotional response so accurately that it hits you right in the gut.  And usually what happens is that people just go overboard: either describing the same aspect about same thing over and over, or unpacking too much in too little time.

What I try to do when I revise is to look at each descriptive phrase or image I use and evaluate if it tells me something new about the scene or object. If you find yourself restating the same detail but with different words, cut.

15 :: lists of ten, redux: first impressions

Ha! And you thought we were done with lists of ten. NOPE this one is another gem from Cheryl Klein: list out the first ten things that your main character does. This is going to be our first impression of them as readers.

This can be really humbling, especially as the author. Like, you know these characters really well! You’re sure the audience will have the same picture in their heads as you because you’ve totally done a great job, and then you do the list and you’re like wow, my protag is coming off as super whiny and also kind of a jerk to his family.

First impressions set a baseline for how your character acts. Make sure that the first things you’re showing us (they should be a mixed bag of good and bad, as always) are things that you’ve curated.

16 :: you can do anything as long as you do it well

Still my favorite, because everyone has that one piece of writing advice that they just can’t stand. You should know what the rules are, but as long as you break them convincingly no one’s going to mind. How do you learn to break them convincingly? By learning why they’re in place, what disasters they avert, and learning how to write obeying them really, really well.

It’s once you understand what a rule does for you that you become capable of breaking it well– you’re going to have to make other things hang together more tightly because of the rule you’re breaking, and if you don’t know what the rule does for you, it’s hard to tell where the things you need to patch up are.

As always, happy 2016–and happy writing.

travel writing

(image credit: Lucy Cross)

It’s probably not surprising that I like to travel. Place tends to be integral in my work, and when readers tell me that they see the setting as its own character, it’s one of the highest compliments I can get.

My parents’ shelves had books on travel– and not those little brochures written by tourism departments, but hefty, novel-length efforts chronicling an individual’s progress through a foreign or unfamiliar land. Around the time I first visited a good friend in Miami for a week, my mother would update me on her quest to get through a travelogue by a man trekking across pre-WWI Europe, and how amazed she was by his perfect timing. He was able to record, in detail, what the places he’d visited in Germany, Austria, and dozens of smaller countries that ceased to exist after the World Wars were like.

What about travel writing now? These days, it seems like everything important has been documented already, stored, and protected. It’s weird to think of places becoming history, and not just in the literal way, but the figurative one as well: being so annihilated that the only way we can get to them is through secondary sources.

I visited Miami for the first time in 2012, on spring break. My friend had a two bedroom apartment with a nice kitchen, floor-to-ceiling mirrored walls in the dining room, and ocean-facing balcony (supposedly where you could see manatees from but we never did) that she shared with a fellow student in the creative writing program. In contrast, back then I lived in a miserable apartment in South Carolina by myself with a balcony too small to use and littered with my neighbor’s stray cigarette butts and cigarillo mouthpieces.

My friend was pursuing her MFA, and although our spring breaks didn’t align we hatched a brilliant plan: I would pretend to be considering MFA programs, specifically hers, so I could hang with her as she was in school. We went to the beach, read, and one day we went to the department interviewing a potential new faculty member.

It was a sort of lecture-audition: as part of her job interview, she had to give a seminar so that the grad students and faculty could observe her teaching style. The small room was packed, and the speaker talked about the necessity of living in a place eight months before you could begin to write about it.

I took notes religiously. Yes, of course you had to actually live in a place to get to know it. Of course that took time. Eight months sounded like a commandment.

But three years later, ask me what I know about South Carolina. I can tell you about stray cats sleeping on steam tunnel covers in the early hours before class starts, how mold chokes up the library’s columns by the lake. I can talk a big game about boiled peanuts and meat-and-threes, tell you how gameday traffic snarls every highway even remotely close to campus, how you better slow down if you have northern plates. I can even tell you how it is completely not uncommon to go into a bathroom and find out that some jokestore has installed the bathroom stalls or the cabinets upside-fucking-down and no one’s fixed it because effort and that’s just the way it is.

I can tell you all this but not much more. I lived there for a year, and the better part of the city, the sports, the slang, all that’s stuff I never got to.

Miami, though, is different.

I went back earlier this year to visit the same friend, and more than ever it’s just a place that I like: the wide, bright expanse of Calle Ocho with its restaurants, car dealerships, lines and lines of celebratory palm trees opening toward the sun, the terracotta roofs and little lizards skirting over stucco, brick walkways, and Spanish still too quick for me to keep up. Storm clouds puff themselves up into sky-scraper battleships around four to five in the afternoon, parade over the highways when you go home and then morph into lilac-blue-pink soft-core clouds over the bridge to the keys at sunset.

(This is to say nothing of jellyfish season and man-of-war season, which are different, how the trick is to have friends with keys to their relatives’ private beaches, that there is really no good way to keep sand fleas off you, even at a classy lakeside restaurant, and that yes, you really do need sunglasses.)

The city speaks two languages, dipping back and forth as easily as you shift your weight walking. You can still move places fine using only one foot; it’s just easier with two.

During my last night there, my (now graduated) MFA friend and I hung out on a soft sand beach, watching planes and shooting stars in the clear night, and talked again about her old program. She mentioned that another applicant had been hired instead of the travel writing speaker.

“I didn’t like her very much,” she said. “That eight month thing was a load of bullshit.”

I didn’t realize until she said it how much I agreed.

Sometimes living in a city is like a marriage. Some people settle in places for life. Some people move a lot, divorce their places; some nomads can visit the old places and others need for it to be a clean and final break.

Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of living in a place and getting to know it. Sometimes you have to be creative. You follow local instagrams, blogs, and news accounts, you go through all the local state school’s online orientation prep that you can find like you’re about to be a freshman again, and watch 45-minute monster tours through the French Quarter someone’s posted to youtube. You work backwards and it works.

And on the flip side, sometimes you hate the place you’re living so much you don’t want to commit any of it to memory. You want to obliterate it, to strike off its letters from the annuls of your life so thoroughly that no historian would be able to reconstruct it.

You do the best with what you have, because sometimes you have to call bullshit when people tell you “write what you know.” Because really, it means less “write only things you have experienced” and more “find likenesses in the things you have experienced and the things you haven’t, and use those to write about the latter.”

Travel writing isn’t easy, and maybe that’s really what the speaker meant when she talked about eight months as a necessary minimum. You have to find an affinity with your chosen place. Because hey, I may not be a native, but if I can fool you when I write to make you think that I am, that’s enough.

body of work

I’ve always wanted to write a how-I-got-my-agent post– one, because it would imply that I had an agent (woo!), and two, because I liked reading them as a querying writer. They helped prepare me or at least give me ideas about what was normal and what to expect.

Now it’s official: I’m so happy to have signed with Bridget Smith of Dunham Literary, and I can’t wait to see where our partnership goes. And now I get to tell you how it happened, though my post’s probably a little different than the ones you’re used to seeing.

My goal as a writer is to produce a body of work.

Securing representation took me a year and a half, from first query to first call. The process can be long, and I even had a friend wish me a happy “query-a-versary.”

And here’s a dose of real talk, behind the scenes: of course that can be discouraging. If this project hadn’t panned out, I would have switched to querying my adult fantasy later in the fall. Persistence doesn’t mean an unwavering belief this and only this manuscript going to succeed in full NYT bestseller style, #1 or death. It means being persistent with respect to your career. If this isn’t the one, then so be it– finish the next book, dust off your knuckles, and try again.

Probably the biggest thing I learned querying is that there’s honestly not a lot that you can control beyond the quality of your work–agents are busy, editors are busy, sometimes it’s a bad day, sometimes things don’t click. So for this post, I’m not going to share how many queries I sent or the number of fulls requested or offers I received. That’s between QueryTracker and God. (And me too, I guess.)

So what am I going to share?

I’m going to tell you is how much I had to write to get an agent.

As a ~Millennial~ who grew up on Word docs, LJ, and fanfiction, teenage and undergrad me has an ungodly amount of her writing floating around. I’ve always kind of wondered how much exactly I’d written because I’d heard–a la Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hours– it takes about one million words to achieve mastery. So I’m going tally that up, the sum total of everything I wrote beginning when I started taking writing seriously up until I got an agent.

A few caveats:

I’m not counting revisions here– only total, threw-out-the-previous-draft-ugh-started-over rewrites. It’s too hard (at least hard in that I cannot find a good solution as quickly as I want to post this) to figure out how to count revised wordcounts, so I’m just going with final draft counts (underestimates since I tend to overwrite, as you will no doubt soon see).

Your experience may be different in part or completely, because this is 100% not a benchmark you have to hit as a querier. It’s just something that I liked knowing about because it made me feel more in control. I couldn’t guarantee any agents would request or offer, but I could always write more words and get better.

And so that’s just what this is: How Many Words Alex Yuschik Had to Write Before Getting Signed, nothing more, nothing less.

Fanfic: 262,271

Oh yeah. I wrote a ton of fanfic in high school and early college, and this is spread out over several accounts (because my tastes were still evolving and I grew out of the usernames or got too embarrassed by the old stuff).

Fanfic irrevocably shaped my writing and revision style: when I draft, I tend to finish small chunks and revise on a chapter-wide basis as I go. You can’t be boring or waffle too long in fic because your audience has like, ten zillion other options out there getting to the good stuff faster and better. Sometimes you get terrible flames, but mostly your reviewers are incredible cheerleaders who wait on your next chapters and write all-caps squee-reviews or (and this always hits me right in the kokoro) quote their favorite lines back at you.

So it’s probably not surprising that the very first full-length project I completed was a fanfic (I think around 60k), or that it remains one of the proudest achievements of my teens. (not-humble-at-all brag: I actually won second place for it at my local indie bookstore’s fanfic contest. #preen)

It was the first time I set myself a huge writing goal and met it, and that gave me the confidence to produce and finish my longer original work.

Longhand notebooks: (230 words/page * 3346 pages) = 769,580

I know someone’s going to look at that number and think I goofed on the math there (ha), so I’m also posting a picture of the notebooks involved in this undertaking. 196 pages/notebook, except top three which are 202. There’s also an unpictured/unfinished notebook that I’m currently working in that picks up a few pages.

body of work

BEHOLD, MY BEAUTIFUL DARK TWISTED FANTASY

After years of doing NaNo and developing a harsh stream-of-consciousness bent to my style I was eager to remove, I started drafting longhand in January 2011 during my senior year of college, after my parents got me my first fountain pen for Christmas. I wanted to shift away from the instant transmission of brain to keyboard for zero-drafting (the draft before the first draft, the exploratory one), and handwriting forced me to go slow.

I also use longhand writing to solve drafting problems. Don’t know what the characters are going to do next? Go through all the options! See what works! Pick the best one and then type it up and go from there.

Plus, I get this huge surge of accomplishment when I finish an inkwell. It’s so great. Strong affinity with ink in casa de Alex. Added bonus: those notebooks made the most satisfying sound when I plopped them all on the floor for this picture.

Drafts on laptop: 634,983
Argent: 62,139
Endymion: 52,516
Cal I: 152,916
Cal II: 115,171
Cal III (wip): 47,798
Hazard I: 50,000
Hazard II: 70,403
S&A: 84,040

Okay, the final arena. Again, the ones with Roman numerals are all rewrites, not revisions. I figure out where the story’s going in the longhand zero draft, and then I rewrite when I digitize.

This is not counting all the poetry, essays, blogs, or the newspaper articles I wrote in college. Weird fact: I wrote over 40 diaries across high school and middle school (my parents were very hopeful I’d metamorphose into Anais Nin but equally relieved when they no longer had to figure out how to store more of those suckers, bless them); they also do not appear here.

Here’s the final breakdown:

Fanfic: 262,271
Longhand: 769,580
Laptop: 634,983

Grand total: 1,666,834

And there you go.

So many things are out of your hands as a writer. You can’t force people to have a faster turnaround time reading your work, even if you’re the greatest writer ever. You can’t make people request or offer on things that may not resonate with them. The one thing you can do is get consistently, relentlessly, ruthlessly better at writing.

So go ahead and do that! Don’t make yourself nervous because you’re at x queries and haven’t received y number of fulls, or that you just always get R&Rs and never an offer. That stuff’s out of your control and–spoiler alert– in the big picture, it doesn’t matter. No one’s going to ask you how many fulls agents and editors requested when your book’s in a store. What matters is that your writing is good.

And maybe it takes a while. That’s fine. I mean, hey, it took me over 1.6 million words to write the 83k that attracted my agent. Learning to do something well is a long process, and that’s totally okay because the goal has never been to get there the fastest.

The goal is to produce a body of work.