Category Archives: Editing

Tough Love

image_tough-love-a-lifelong-giftI planned to write about my struggle with the query process this time around, but something happened this week that bumped that topic* from the roster. Tuesday night, I had to give a healthy dose of tough love to one of the members of my writers’ group. And now I’m wondering if either a) she will actually absorb some of what I said and be better for it, or b) I will never see her again.

It’s been building for a while. This member, I’ll call her Shelly, joined our group about six months ago and since then we have been reading the first draft of her manuscript, which purportedly comes in at a whopping 150,000 words and still doesn’t have an ending.

Prior to joining our group, Shelly had only shared her work anonymously on writers’ support websites, and she was clearly uneasy when she submitted her first chapter to us. It’s hard to put your work, and ostensibly yourself, out to be judged. But we all loved her first chapter. It was dark and mysterious and utterly intriguing. She seemed heartened by our praise and our desire to read more.

As the chapters kept coming, we noted issues of plausibility, repetition in scenes, unnecessary details, and other things that I absolutely expect while reading a first draft**. Submission after submission, we gave her the same critiques, the same suggestions, but none of our feedback ever seemed to make it into subsequent chapters. There may be some selfish interest at work here, but it’s a bit frustrating to critique into a vacuum. After all, hadn’t she joined the group in the interest of improving her writing?

During our meetings, she readily acknowledged that her novel needs work, but repeatedly made statements such as “But I don’t know how to fix it” and “But I need for [insert random scene] to happen that way”. When we questioned the plausibility of certain plot points, she responded with complicated explanations as to how it was actually possible. The real issue was that she listened to five people express the same concerns, and instead of making a note to address the problem, spent five minutes essentially telling us why we were wrong.

But the real topper came along with her last email:

Yeah, just think of these [two chapters] as a rewrite of the last. Or if you have a really bad memory, you can think of them as new… You guys ever seen Groundhog Day?

I actually rolled my eyes when I read this. She was essentially warning us that the next two chapters would be exactly like the last. So why the hell was she submitting them?

This week’s meeting was much like those in the past with one exception: someone finally spoke up. One of our members, Gus, ended his critique with the following statement: “In this group, we are here to help each other in whatever capacity is most beneficial to the writer. I’m not sure what your process is, but as a reader, I would like to see a lot less repetition of the same issues submission after submission.”

BOOM!

Shelly looked like she’d been slapped in the face. I tried to soften the blow but also back him up.

“I’m not sure how beneficial it is for you to hear the same comments with each submission, so perhaps it’s best if you take some time to revise before you share your next chapters.”

This only seemed to make matters worse. “But I can’t revise until I finish the book. I can’t go back, and also I don’t even know how to fix it.” I pointed out that she is currently sitting on about fifteen chapters’ worth of our feedback, but she shook her head. “But I can’t go back. I have to write the ending first.” 

Gus suggested she write a synopsis of the ending, that way she could start revising from the beginning in good conscience. “But I can’t,” she insisted. “I have to write the ending.”

We went around in circles for some time, with each suggestion met by an adamant “But-“ or “I can’t-“. Then Shelly said maybe it wasn’t even worth finishing her book since clearly none of us like it, since we’re always pointing out how many problems it has.

Finally, I had to level with her.

“For the last fifteen minutes, everything that has come out of your mouth has been negative and self-defeating. You can’t do anything until you finish your book but you don’t know how. You know you need to revise but you aren’t going to do it until you finish the book and anyway you don’t know how to fix it. You have already decided that there is no hope and you immediately dismiss any suggestion we make. Why are you so determined to self-sabotage?”

This got her attention.

failureOf course I already knew the answer. We are all afraid of failing. We are also afraid of succeeding, and in some ways, even more afraid to let ourselves believe we are actually capable of success. Shelly is essentially telling herself – and now us – that she is going to fail. Don’t get your hopes up because this is going to suck!

Words matter. A lot. The words we read, speak, and hear inform who we are and how we see the world. And when you tell yourself that you are a failure, you will believe it.

I leaned in toward her, pointer finger extended. “Stop telling yourself that you can’t. Stop shitting on yourself and your work. Stop it!”

I’d like to say that in that moment, Shelly had a huge life-changing realization and we all hugged and everyone left much happier. In truth, I did see the shock of recognition spread over her face, if only for a moment. I had called her on her shit and she was temporarily without words. Alas, deeply ingrained destructive habits aren’t so easy to break, and she responded with, “But that’s my M.O. I don’t know how else to be.”

On our way out of the café that night, I told Shelly to call or text or email me if she wants to talk more after she has time to think about our discussion. Because I get it. I have spent a fair amount of time in introspection and therapy to finally get the “worst critic” voice in my own head to shut the f*ck up. Mostly, anyway.

Our next meeting is scheduled for the week after Thanksgiving, and I hope to see her there. But it’s in her hands now.


*Although believe me, the struggle is real.

** Which is why I generally do not let anyone read my first drafts.

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These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

A couple of weeks ago, I co-presented a stimulating session entitled “How to Write a Cover Letter that isn’t Boring”* as part of a day-long marketing boot camp. When the program organizers requested that I discuss “writing tools and resources” as part of the presentation, I got to thinking. What are a few of my favorite things? And since I’m a giver (not unlike Oprah minus the $10,000 refrigerators and $500 face cream), I will share them with you here.

Wordle.net (free) Wordle creates a visual representation of the most used words in your text. Businesses often use this as a tool to delve deeper into a client’s vision and mission statements, assuming that the most often used words are of particular value to the company. But I use Wordle to determine which words I use too often. For instance, I was horrified to find that “like”, “just” and “little” are among the most common words in my novel. There is no excuse for such lazy writing. I did a search for each instance and weighed out the necessity of each word in context. Of course, now that I’ve cut back on those pesky qualifier words, I may find something even worse lurking around the corner.

Small Legends Wordle

Like? Just? Little? Back? WTF??

 

Hemingwayapp.com (free) I use the Hemingway App more often for business than creative writing, but it is handy for both. Simply paste your text into the site and receive a color-coded critique to rival that of your high school English teacher. The app highlights sentences that are difficult to read, use passive voice, or include the most dreaded of all writing faux pas, the adverb. It also determines the grade level for overall readability. The app does not suggest how to “fix” these issues, but leaves it up to the writer to make a judgment call. After all, we need not all write like Hemingway.

Hemingwayap

What’s so bad about adverbs anyway? And so what if my sentences are hard to read? Maybe I don’t want anyone at less than an eighth grade reading level to read my book! Harumph!

 

Visualthesaurus.com (paid but trial subscription available) Visual Thesaurus is a nifty tool that creates interactive word maps, building off of a root word to offer related words and meanings. The sidebar provides definitions by: nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs. While the tool doesn’t perform miracles beyond those of a regular thesaurus, the interface is easy to use and fun for us word nerds.

Visualthesaurus

I’m surprised it doesn’t branch to “procrastinating” or “pulling out ones own hair”.

 


* A rather boring title that I promptly subtitled “Always Judge a Proposal by its Cover Letter”. Total marketing nerd humor.

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Readers vs. Writers

The Reader

The Reader by Dorothy F. Newland

I workshopped my novel through my writers’ group for over a year – revising as I went – before handing over a fresh draft to my first pool of beta readers. And with one exception, my beta readers were just that: readers, not writers.

When it comes to critiquing a story, writers can spot a “missed opportunity” a mile away, and can always point to at least three things they would do differently. If given the chance, a passionate writers’ group could tear the works of Hemingway, Dickens, Austen, even Shakespeare to pieces.

But readers – at least the ones I roped in for this round of reviews – appear to take more of a 30,000 foot approach to novel critiques, and I’ve found it both illuminating and entertaining how different the feedback has been from these two groups.*

For instance, my writers’ group expressed concerns about the believably of the relationship between two of the central characters. Pam and Keith are so different from one another, with completely different backgrounds. What drew them together? What kept them together?

However, when I asked my beta readers if Pam and Keith’s relationship felt genuine and believable, the answer was a unanimous yes. One reader said, “I’ve met too many seemingly mismatched couples to think this is unbelievable or uncommon.“

On the other hand, while my writers’ group praised my ability to create distinct voices and personalities for each of my four central characters, my beta readers were less sure about this accomplishment, and several commented that they could hear my voice coming through the characters. It is important to note that, with one exception, my beta readers are close friends and family. My writers’ group members are not. One friend summed it up this way: “I think I know you too well to be able to answer this question.” Fair enough.

Last week, I saved a copy of my novel, this one entitled Small Legends V4. And one of the first items on my list of revisions is a common comment among both the writers and the readers: “The ending was very satisfying, but it was all resolved a little too quickly.”

Clearly I have some work to do. Time to get back down to business.

 


*In fairness to my writers’ group, they did read the novel a few chapters at a time over the period of a year, so it does make sense that they would focus more on the nooks and crannies than the overall story.

 

 

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Even The Meanest Human Beings in the World Need Books

My middle school years were fraught with uncomfortable hormone changes and psychological torment from other girls. During the first week of sixth grade, a girl I’d never met before called me a slut. “What are you looking at, Slut?” she sneered.

I didn’t actually know what a slut was, but understood that it must be something very bad. When I got home from school, I looked the word up in the dictionary and was even more confused. I’d never kissed a boy. I’d never even held hands with one. Why was this girl calling me a slut?

rude-tweenFor weeks, I avoided the girl and yet she always seemed to find me. “What, are you scared of me, Slut?” she taunted. 

Eventually, she grew tired of me and presumably found someone new to torture. But this was just the first of many utterly perplexing and completely devastating incidents of girl-on-girl emotional violence. So I would have never predicted that, 30 years later, I’d write a book for ‘Tween girls, who are very possibly the meanest human beings in the world.

But even the meanest human beings in the world need books.

While I’m certain I tried my hand at the Mean Card more than once during this terrible age, mostly I read books and listened to music and wrote bad poetry about how mean everyone was. I’d outgrown Judy Blume but wasn’t yet ready for J.D. Salinger. At the time, what I enjoyed most of all was a good mystery with coming-of-age characters and enough of an “adult” theme to keep it interesting. And this is what I endeavor to achieve in my ‘Tween book.

My ‘Tween book started off as a National Novel Writing Month exercise two years ago, and has been collecting dust ever since.  Last week, I decided to pull it out and get down to work. I mean, I should do something productive while I wait for my beta readers’ feedback on my grown-up novel, right?

And to kick it off right, I’ve included below a short excerpt for all the ‘Tween novel lovers out there. Or perhaps just for those of you who are kind enough to indulge me.

 


 

The smoke was so thick that Molly pulled her shirt up over her nose and mouth. She looked over at Lauren to see that she had done the same. They squinted at one another, their eyes burning from the smoke, but they didn’t stop running, even when they heard the sirens coming up behind them. First the fire truck then the engine sped past them, and they ran even faster into the gray haze. By the time they’d covered the three additional blocks to Molly’s street, the firefighters were already directing thick streams of water at the burning house.

“It’s Mrs. O’Reilly’s house!” Molly called out, at once excited and relieved. Her own home was safe. For now.

“Do you think it’ll catch the other houses on fire too?” Lauren asked through her t-shirt.

Molly’s was four houses over from Mrs. O’Reilly’s, and it seemed unlikely that the flames would travel that far, but Molly still felt a pit of worry in her stomach. What if the firefighters weren’t able to contain the fire? What if it spread and ate up every house on the block? Everything that she had known her whole life would be gone, just like that.

It was the staggering figure of Mrs. O’Reilly herself that snapped Molly out of these thoughts. Mrs. O’Reilly was dressed in the same blue housecoat she’d worn as long as Molly could remember, but she looked madder than Molly had ever seen her before. Her hair was wild, and singed in places. Her face and neck were streaked with soot, and one of her bare feet was bleeding. Molly wondered if she’d barely made it out of the house alive.

Mrs. O’Reilly yelled something toward the house but her words were swallowed up by all of the commotion. Molly inched closer, cupping her ear and listening hard. Then she heard it.

“Burn! Let it burn!” Mrs. O’Reilly shouted, but the firefighters weren’t paying any attention to her. Until she rushed toward the burning building, and then one of the firefighters blocked her path, but she fought against him, still shouting. It took two firefighters to hold her back, and then two police officers took over, forcing her into the back of a patrol car. She fought them the whole way.

Lauren’s eyes were wide despite the smoke. “I think she’s lost her marbles.”

“I don’t think she had many left to begin with,” Molly said. Mrs. O’Reilly had always been odd and unfriendly, and without being told Molly knew it was best to keep clear of her. Of all the houses on their block, Mrs. O’Reilly’s was the only one Molly had never set foot in.

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So Now What?

Over the holiday break, I finished the third draft of my novel. And by “finished”, I mean forced myself to turn off the computer and walk away. This week, I will distribute the manuscript to my beta readers, who will then spend the next six to eight weeks reading it and preparing responses that I desperately hope will be lovely pairings of accolades and useful notes for improvement.

And in the meantime, I will spend my free time doing…what?

drumming-fingers

My nails have never looked this good.

Possible answers include: finish watching Game of Thrones, start watching Mad Men, crack open one of the unread novels piled up on my nightstand, put away the Christmas decorations, repaint the hallway, do more yoga, plan a vacation, and clean out my closets. And so many others.

I can also use this opportunity to…write something else. For instance, that essay about the all genders bathroom sign. Or about my hoarder former housemate. Or the really funny story about the time I saw the guy who  broke my 18-year-old heart (Spoiler Alert!) making balloon animals at Ghiradeli Square. Or I could begin to revise the forsaken first draft ‘tween novel I cranked out and set aside two years ago.

Or I can pick a few items from each list. Where to begin…

(As I have just now finished writing this blog post, I will reward myself with the new episode of Downton Abbey. Cheerio!)

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Just Hit Send

For more than a year, I’ve workshopped the third draft of my novel through my biweekly writers’ group. At long last, we’ve come to the very last chapter. I am both excited and a little nervous. Whether a novel’s end is happy or sad or somewhere in between, the most important thing is that it is satisfying. Many a time, I’ve torn through a great book only to be disappointed when the ending comes up short, leaving key issues unresolved. Even worse is when the final chapters tie everything up into a tidy little unrealistic and uninspired package. And I do not want my novel’s ending to fall into either of these categories.

send-buttonI’ve spent the past several weeks fiddling around with the last few paragraphs of my final chapter. Tweaking a word here or there, and then putting it back. Alternately congratulating myself for my cleverness and questioning whether the members of my writing group will even understand the ending.

Of course, one of my main goals in joining my writers’ group was to get constructive feedback on my novel – both what is working and what is not. And if my novel’s current ending doesn’t work, the group will help me to identify the trouble spots and then I can improve them. Simple as that.

But I so desperately want them to love it! And this is why I have yet to hit the Send button that will thrust my final chapter out into the waiting inboxes of my writers’ group.

UndoIn the past week alone, two friends/soon-to-be beta readers have asked when my full manuscript will be available, and each time, I felt a little stab of panic. I explained that I’d planned to read through the manuscript again before sending it out, but clearly I am trying to buy some more time. I want my novel to be as good as it can be before my beta readers take it on. I want it to be DONE.

But that’s the point: it’s a work in progress. It won’t be done until it’s in print. And even then, a book is never really done. I recall several years ago attending a reading by the author Melissa Bank, who admitted that even as she reads passages from her novels on book tours, she nearly always changes or omits a word or two. Even as she is reading her book aloud, she is still editing it!

As writers, our work is never done. At some point, though, we must move on to the next unfinished project.

And it’s time for me to just hit Send. Woosh!

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The Kill Pile

Scrap. Scratch. Leftovers. Tidbits. The Drawer. All writers have a name for the file where they stash the beloved but ill-suited lines, scenes, and even entire chapters they have cut from a story. For my novel-in-progress, I named this file The Kill Pile.

Most of the time, I quite enjoy deleting unnecessary or out-of-place text from my work. It’s like cleaning out your closet and then admiring all of your favorite clothes without the distraction of that shirt with the oil stain or the adorable pants that no longer fit. But then there are the pieces that are hard to let go of, even if they border on unwearable. For instance, I have a pale pink sweater that looks great with my skin and has these cool little flower appliqués that are feminine without being girly. However, my sweater also has a decent-sized hole just below my right boob. Months after discovering this, I continue to wear the sweater and pretend to be surprised each time someone points out the hole. I just can’t seem to get rid of it, even though I know I should.

Deleting a great line or scene from my novel is 100 times more painful than giving up my sweater. But no matter how much I may love a particular turn of phrase or exchange between characters, if it detracts from the story, it’s gotta go.

edit

From Echohub.com

 

While I rarely revisit my Kill Pile, I find comfort in knowing that it’s there. And as I inch closer to the completion of the third draft of my novel, I thought I’d take a moment to honor just a few of the many lines that otherwise may never see the light of day. Perhaps it’s also time for me to stash that sweater in the back of my closet; out of sight but still there if ever I should want it.

 

* * *

I am sitting on a cushioned wood chair in a warm kitchen. My feet don’t touch the floor, but it doesn’t matter because I’m eating an oatmeal cookie. I love oatmeal cookies. The old woman is at the stove, humming what sounds like cartoon melodies. Bugs Bunny songs.

If I close my eyes, I can see her lemon-colored sweater, the beaded chain on her glasses, the few remaining streaks of deep brown hair on an otherwise white head. She smells like wax paper and roses, and her fingers are short and stout, the backs of her hands perfectly white except for a sprinkling of light brown spots, like freckles that have been smudged.

She pats me on the head, like my Nana does sometimes. She drinks tea out of China cups patterned with blue flowers while I play with the marshmallows in my hot chocolate. She calls me Sweetie. Would you like some toast, Sweetie?

* * *

“My aunt got in a car accident on her way to the airport one time,” Alisha said. “Just a fender bender but they had to pull over and exchange insurance and everything, so she missed her flight. She was all pissed off, because she was on her way to some important work thing. BUT as it turned out, the airplane that she was supposed to be on caught fire mid-air and went down over the ocean somewhere and everyone who didn’t die on impact ended up drowning or being eaten by sharks.”

“What a crock of shit,” Sara grumbled. “I saw that in a movie once or twice or a hundred times. And pass me the fucking joint if you’re just going to sit there.”

“Can you actually crash into water?” Marisol pondered, picking at a small hole in the knees of her jeans. “I mean, you can crash into dirt or cement or a mountain, because they’re solid. But water isn’t solid. So wouldn’t you just sort of sink into water?”

“At a fast enough speed, the water is as hard as cement,” Alisha said. “And depending on what angle you’re coming from. Like if you dive into a swimming pool headfirst rather than doing a belly flop.”

Sara shook her head. “I still say its bullshit regardless of the angle of the plane.”

“Anyway I thought planes were designed to float now,” Marisol said. “In the event of a water landing. The plane is supposed to float long enough for everyone to get out onto the boats.”

“It depends on how fast it hits the water–” Alisha started.

Sara groaned. “Can we kill the physics lesson for now? You know there’s a reason why I’m an art history major.”

“Because you like to get high and play with finger paints?” Marisol joked. Sara made a face but didn’t argue the point.

* * *

When I got home that evening, a little drunk and burping up wasabi, I found that my home had been exorcised. All of his jeans, t-shirts and underwear were missing from the shelves. His five million wrinkle-proof shirts had disappeared as well, as had his razor, toothbrush, comb, and shaving cream. Everywhere I looked, there were gaps left behind like missing teeth.

* * *

In a family full of teachers, Patrick had chosen to go to architecture school. “I’m kind of like the off-white sheep of the family,” he explained.

* * *

How to Stay Awake During Long Solo Drive to Los Angeles:

  • Three double cappuccinos by noon
  • Open up all of the windows when passing through Coalinga*
  • Whatever you do, do not listen to pubic radio

*slaughterhouse capital of the West

 

 

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Readers!

I’m in the home stretch on the third draft of my novel! With just a few chapters left to revise, I’ve started to prepare for the next phase of the process: identifying my non-writer Beta readers.

To clarify, I’ve already had several Beta readers in the form of my writers’ group, who – over the past year and change – have given me both encouragement and valuable feedback. And of course there’s my BFF and uber-talented artist/writer Mari, who is my trusted First Reader for every novel, essay, or story’s initial exposure to the world outside of my head.Love Reading

But non-writer readers are a different story, and identifying the right ones can be tricky. It is crucial to select readers who: 1) enjoy reading 2) enjoy reading your genre 3) will be forthright and detailed in their critique while never forgetting that your writing is an essential part of you, like your lungs or your liver. Insensitive or dismissive comments can be hurtful, but even worse, they do nothing to help improve the work.

Our natural inclination is to reach out to our loved ones. They already adore us, so of course they will also adore our writing, right? Maybe, maybe not. I once made the apocalyptic-scale blunder of asking my then-boyfriend to read an early draft of my novel. Not only was he was not a novel reader by nature, he was so unsure of his own ability to provide useful feedback that he simply avoided the whole exercise*. As my manuscript gathered dust on his bedside table, my faith in both my writing and my relationship took a major plunge. If the man who was supposed to love me had no interest in my work, then who would??

These days, I make sure to communicate my needs and expectations to my readers (as well as to my boyfriends). My ultimate goal is to write a kick-ass novel, one that all kinds of readers can enjoy. But I’m going to need a little help.

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* For the record, we were in our 20s and had not yet mastered the fine art of clear communication. Actually, I’m still working on that…

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Little Victories

A few weeks back, I set off on a week-long creative retreat in the Sierra Foothills with four friends and four dogs. No phone, no Internet, no cable = no distractions, right? I dusted off the mostly complete draft of a young adult novel I wrote in thirty short days four long years ago, excited to take a break from my novel-in-progress and revisit what I remembered as a rough but fairly clever storyline and interesting, layered characters.

After the packing and the driving and the first night of food and drink and socializing, I got down to business. For about half an hour, anyway. Barely one chapter in, I was bored by my own story. In my defense, I was lounging on the deck with my feet up, surrounded by sunshine and dense woods, dogs and friends – of course, I was distracted! And anyway, it was just the first chapter.

How was I supposed focus on my laptop screen with this view?

Tucked away in the trees. How was I supposed to concentrate while surrounded by this view?

But as the days went on, I spent more time dozing on the deck or trying to rally my friends to go wine tasting than reviewing/editing my novel. Was it the quiet natural setting? The fact that I was overdue for a vacation? Or perhaps my novel and its characters simply weren’t interesting enough to keep even my own attention.

It was a rather depressing thought.

But then halfway through the novel and mere minutes away from setting aside the “creative” part of this retreat, I read the following chapter and felt—if not fully redeemed—at least encouraged that my novel wasn’t a total snoozefest. I’ll take the little victories where I can get them.

The setting: College dorm party the last night before everyone goes home for the Thanksgiving weekend. Sooni is our heroine, along with friends Anne and Gretchen, and boyfriend William. Gretchen is planning to visit her boyfriend Marc, who is studying in London, over the Christmas holidays.


Sooni Greene (Working Title)

Everyone was in good spirits, except perhaps for Anne, who wasn’t as excited as the others to be going home for the long weekend. Although her mother and younger sister had invited her to join them, Anne had declined in favor of a pre-cooked meal and football with her father.

“The last thing I need is to have the two of them stare at me all day,” she said.

Gretchen, on the other hand, was too busy counting off the days before she left for London to notice Anne’s mood. “I can’t believe it’s less than a month now,” she said, beaming.

Sooni thought she saw the expression on Anne’s face turn sour as she finished her third beer and went in for another. Shortly after that, Anne left the room without a word.

Gretchen and William were chatting animatedly about 1960s menswear, a topic that Sooni had nothing to contribute to. William was detailing for Gretchen the exact cuts and fabrics of the wardrobe he had inherited from his grandfather, who apparently was quite the dresser in his time. Sooni did not participate in this conversation, but was pleased that her boyfriend and her friend were getting along so well. She sat back in her chair and looked around the room. She recognized several of the attendees as Gretchen’s neighbors, but did not know most of them by name.   A short girl with what seemed to Sooni like a larger than normal chest caught her eye, and then meandered over to where Sooni was sitting.

“Hey Sooni, how’s it going?” she asked with a beer-soaked smile. “Are you going home for the weekend?”

Sooni nodded, sipping from her beer to try to buy herself time to remember the girl’s name. It was something like Katie or Cathy or- Katrina. It was Katrina and she was in her U.S. History class.

“I’m going home tomorrow,” Sooni said. “What about you?”

Katrina grabbed a nearby chair and sat down next to her. She talked happily about her family’s plans for the weekend, which seemed to involve a great deal of both pie and football.

“Because my brother’s at Berkeley, you know. On the football team,” she said. “By the way, do you know where Anne went?”

Sooni was a little thrown. She didn’t know that Katrina and Anne knew one another, had never seen them exchange a word. She glanced around the room for Anne, but couldn’t locate her among the crowd.

“I don’t know,” she said. “She was here just a little while ago.”

“Oh, okay,” Katrina said, half rising from her chair. “I’ll see if I can find her.”

That was odd, Sooni thought, watching her go. Sooni turned back to Gretchen and William, who were now talking about their favorite old time movie stars.

“Hey Gretchen,” Sooni interrupted. “Is Anne friends with that girl Katrina?”

Gretchen grinned slyly. “I wouldn’t call them friends, exactly,” she said. “Katrina has been following Anne around like a lovesick puppy ever since they hooked up after that art show a few weeks back.”

Sooni furrowed her brows, confused and also a little hurt. Why was this the first she had heard about it? Anne usually had no problem sharing the most intimate details of her sexual encounters, but she had said nothing.

Gretchen seemed to pick up on her thoughts, because she quickly added, “It was the night that you guys went to the planetarium, remember? Anne dragged me to this terrible art show because she didn’t want to go alone, and then ended up drinking a bunch of the free wine and making out with Katrina. To tell you the truth, it was sort of a nightmare.”

William, who had been quietly gazing out into the crowd, spoke up.

“Anne is quite the handful sometimes, isn’t she?” he said. Gretchen’s face fell slightly. “I mean, she’s witty and interesting and all,” he went on. “But she’s also a bit of wild card, no?”

Sooni knew that this was true. She’d had similar thoughts. But Anne was her friend, and she wasn’t going to trash talk her.

“Anne’s all right,” she said, a little louder than she had intended. She cleared her throat. “She has a big personality and all, but she’s…well, she’s an artist.”

William burst into laughter.

“I swear, Sooni,” he said, “you should major in International Relations.”

Gretchen laughed at this, and then Sooni couldn’t resist joining in with a smile of her own.

When Gretchen left to go to the bathroom, Sooni and William scootched closer to one another, holding hands and watching the party. They often did this, whether at the DC or on the lawn by the student union; they could sit in silence for twenty minutes at a time, watching people go by.

When Gretchen returned, she looked tense. When Sooni asked her what was wrong, she shrugged her shoulders.

“Anne,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“She’s drunk. And not in a good way.”

Sooni was about to ask what had happened, but then Anne appeared in the doorway and sauntered into the room. Her mouth was smiling, but her eyes were hard. She focused right in on Gretchen.

“Didn’t mean to run you off,” she said. Her voice was quite slurred now, and Sooni wondered how much she’d had to drink. Or if she’d had something else, in addition to the beer.

Gretchen did not respond, or even look at Anne. She kept her eyes resolutely focused on the two girls across the room that were trying on each other’s shoes.

“Oh, are we pretending that I’m not standing right in front of you?” Anne said, her smile spreading but her eyes growing colder.

“What the-“ Sooni started, but Anne talked over her.

“It must be hard for you,” she said, in a mock concerned voice. “I’m sure you get lonely with your loyal boyfriend thousands of miles away, but no one’s stopping you from having fun in the meantime. And I don’t hold people up to the same high standards as you do.”

Gretchen narrowed her eyes but still said nothing.

Sooni watched this interaction, completely perplexed. She couldn’t imagine why Anne was goading Gretchen on this way.

“Anne,” Sooni said sharply. “What kind of thing is that to say to someone?”

She felt William stir beside her, but did not look over at him. She fixed her stare on Anne, but Anne waved her away with one flailing hand.

“You’re not part of this, Sooni,” she said.

Before Sooni had a chance to react, Gretchen was up on her feet.

“I’m going to bed,” she said, looking only at Sooni and William. “I hope you both have nice Thanksgivings.”

And then she turned and walked out the door, completely ignoring Anne, who watched her leave.

Then Anne screwed up her face and clutched at her stomach, like she was in terrible pain. Sooni and William were on their feet in seconds, their arms around Anne, leading her out of the room.

“I think I’m gonna-“ she said, but she was too busy throwing up on the linoleum in the corridor to finish her sentence.

“Looks like she had the pasta for dinner,” William said as he and Sooni attempted to hoist Anne back up into a sitting position. Sooni ignored this comment and concentrated on getting Anne’s hair out of the line of fire.

Anne threw up twice more, and then looked up at the audience that had gathered.

“Oh fuck me,” she said, attempting to stand up on her own. She looked at Sooni with heavy eyes. “Get me out of here. Please,” she pleaded quietly.

“We will,” Sooni said, “but we’ve gotta clean up this-“

“I’ll do it,” William said. “You get her back to her room before the RA sees her and kicks her out of the dorms. I’ll clean this up.”

Sooni stared at him, feeling both gratitude and a little shock. “Are you serious?” she asked.

“Go on,” he said. “I’ll come by later.”

Sooni wrapped her arm around Anne’s waist and helped her onto her feet. It was sort of like being in a three-legged race with a one-legged partner, and it took Sooni several tries to get Anne to walk in sync with her. Finally, they made it down the elevator, out of the building, and into their own. Maria had already left for the long weekend, so Sooni dug the keys out of Anne’s pocket, used her shoulder to push the door open, and then dragged Anne to her bed.

Once she had Anne situated and placed a trashcan next to her head in case of further vomiting, Sooni closed the door and collapsed onto Maria’s bed.

“Why do you do these things, Anne?” she asked, exasperated. “I mean, why the hell were you trying to pick a fight with Gretchen? It’s just plain bitchy.”

Anne looked at her through half-closed eyes. “Yelling at me isn’t going to make me feel any better,” she said in an uncharacteristically small voice.

“Well, I’m sorry but your feelings are not exactly on the top of my list of concerns right now,” Sooni exclaimed. “Do you even appreciate the fact that William is back in Stanton Hall right now, cleaning your puke off of the floor? Just because he’s a nice guy?”

It was the first time Sooni had ever raised her voice in anger around Anne, and even in her inebriated state, Anne seemed to pick up on the significance.

“I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “I just…I just…”

And then she did something so unexpected, so completely out of character that Sooni’s annoyance instantly dissipated. Anne started to cry.

Sooni sat next to her on the bed, and put her hand on her shoulder. “Why are you crying?” she asked.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Anne asked through her sobs, covering her eyes with her hands.

Sooni thought for a moment. She knew Anne was less than thrilled about the holidays coming up and all the particular familial tension that came with them. But something else must have triggered this meltdown. Anne’s mood seemed to darken when Gretchen was talking about Christmas and going to London. And now that Sooni thought about it, she could remember other times when Anne had reacted similarly, getting bent out of shape whenever Gretchen talked about Marc. The look on Anne’s face would go from annoyance to resentment to- jealousy?

“Holy shit,” Sooni breathed. “How long have you been in love with Gretchen?”

Anne did not respond but crumpled into renewed sobs. But suddenly everything was making sense to Sooni: why Anne hadn’t wanted to be roommates with Gretchen, why she roundly abused the notion of long distance relationships, or relationships in general. Was this why she so often got drunk and picked up on random girls when they went out, to try to make Gretchen jealous? Or was it to distract herself from the fact that she was in love with a straight girl whom she could never have?

“Wow,” Sooni said aloud. “Does she know?”

“God, I hope not,” Anne said into her pillow, her voice muffled and slurred. Then she suddenly sat upright, and Sooni had to draw back not to get hit in the face by the side of her head. “And that asshole Marc,” Anne said, tears still streaming from her swollen, mascara-ringed eyes. “She talks about him like he’s a fucking saint and a poet, but he doesn’t love her. He treats her exactly as what she is to him, a cute girl to fuck when he comes home from college for a visit. Whenever she’s not around, he sticks his dick into anything that stands still long enough, and Gretchen has no fucking clue.”

“Are you sure? How do you know this?” Sooni asked, shocked.

“Because he tried to fuck me,” Anne replied. “And at least three other girls I know of. He is a complete and utter scumbag.”

“When did this happen? And why didn’t you tell her?”

Anne shook her head. “Don’t be naïve,” she said, although not unkindly. “No one wants to hear that shit. And I’m sure as hell not going to be the messenger.”

“Poor Gretchen,” Sooni sighed. “And she’s so excited to see him.”

At this statement, Anne lunged toward the trashcan and proceeded to throw up again. Sooni quickly reached over to pull her hair out of the way. After a moment, Anne rolled onto her back and looked up at Sooni imploringly. Her face was streaked with tears and eye makeup.

“I feel like shit,” she said. “Do me a favor and kill me now.”

Sooni had to stifle a laugh. The situation, although far from funny, struck her as so bizarre, she almost didn’t know what else to do.

“I’m not going to kill you,” Sooni said, stroking Anne’s hair gently, her fingers lingering over the purple streaks that never seemed to fade. “But I am going to get you some ibuprofen and a glass of water.”

After she had rinsed out the trashcan and watched as Anne dutifully swallowed the ibuprofen, Sooni took off Anne’s shoes and jacket, and pulled the covers over her.

“You know, I wasn’t so sure about you at first,” Anne mumbled. “When Gretchen brought you around. But you’re a good friend, Sooni.”

And with that, she passed out.

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One Tough Character

From the start, I knew I wanted to write my current novel-in-progress in four sections, each told from the viewpoint of a different family member: the mom, dad, brother, and last but not least, the daughter Alice. While I was excited to develop all of these characters, I most looked forward to telling Alice’s story. I felt that the 30-something year-old commitmentphobe would be the most compelling character in the bunch, with the clearest voice. I also relate to her on a personal level, having faced a few of my own commitment issues over the years. She is a little like me, so therefore should be the easiest to write. Right?magical-weave-mirror

Wrong. I have struggled with this character more than any other, in large part because she is a little like me. How am I supposed to resolve her conflicts even as I struggle with my own? But perhaps through her redemption, I will discover some of my own.

I am deep into the fourth and final section of the third draft of my novel. Next step, beta readers, which both excites and unnerves me. In celebration of getting this far (and to encourage myself to keep going), I’ve shared below a pre-beta excerpt from Part Four, Chapter One, and the first glimpse at the world from Alice’s point of view. Thanks for reading!

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Why I Hate Working in Offices:
1. People talking to me when I have my earbuds in
2. Having to listen to people talk to each other over the stalls in the bathroom while they pee
*Unique to this office: the bathroom is located next to the kitchen and it always reeks like whatever anyone puts in the microwave. Fish, popcorn, leftover Chinese. Bathrooms should not smell like food!
3. Close talkers
4. People touching my monitor
5. People touching my keyboard
6. Supervisors “checking in”, “reaching out”, and “touching base”
7. “Dialoging”
8. Having to comb my hair

“Hey Alice,” Shareen said, leaning over the edge of her cube and into my airspace.

I could smell her gum. Grape.

“A little bird told me it’s your birthday.”

Shareen smiled. Her eyes looked even bigger than usual due to the ring of peacock blue liner that circled them.

I was pretty sure I knew who the little bird was. Danielle, the receptionist, was almost clinically nosy. She peppered me with questions — where was I going for lunch, did I prefer waxing or plucking — nearly every time I passed by her desk. She also had a habit of complimenting my shoes or my purse or my earrings, but with her lip turned up just enough to make it clear she wouldn’t be caught dead wearing any of it. I’d taken to responding in kind: Love that color of lipstick on you, I’d say and then wink.

I ignored Shareen and kept my eyes on my monitor.

“Are you doing anything fun to celebrate?” she asked. “Is your boyfriend taking you out somewhere nice?”

“I’m on deadline, Shareen,” I said, still not looking up.

“Oh. Cool,” Shareen said. “Later.” And she disappeared into her cubicle.

I’d decided three years earlier that I would not take another contract job that required me to work in an office. I explained to my potential employers that I was much more productive working at home, and since they were paying me hourly, this would actually save them money in lost time due to non-project related activities (i.e., pointless meetings, over-the-cube-chit-chat, etc.). Most companies were happy to take the discount, but MediaBlitz apparently had money to burn. It’d been nearly a month since my last contract had ended, and my savings was starting to take a hit. MediaBlitz offered me a three-month full-time contract at a ridiculously high hourly rate. The only condition was that I had to be in the office from 8:30am to 5:30pm Monday through Friday. I was backed into a corner. I relented. And I had regretted it ever since.

“How are you coming along on the Emerson Winslow copy?”

This time it was my direct supervisor Janet leaning over the wall of my cube. She was always doing this — popping up behind me, ninja-like — as if she expected to catch me playing Minesweeper.

“Almost done,” I said, still not looking up.

I find it’s best not to make eye contact with suspicious people. Far from reassuring them that you are telling the truth, it only seems to make them think you feel guilty. Best to keep your eyes on your work as if you can’t bear to be parted from it.

“I’ll have the final draft to Proofreading before lunch,” I said.

Emerson Winslow was a huge law firm and Janet was their account manager. I couldn’t decide which was worse: copy editing for the world’s most boring ad campaign or working for Janet, who clearly saw it as her job to look over everyone’s shoulders. She was barely five feet tall and almost perfectly round in the middle, yet didn’t make a sound when she crept up behind you. She always wore black, not in a gothy sort of way but more like a mime. She pulled her hair back into a severe ponytail, a move that gave her face a stretched appearance, like an iguana.

I could feel her standing behind me, could feel her eyes on my monitor. My skin prickled and it was all I could do to keep from whirling around and shouting, How am I supposed to get anything done with you breathing down my neck?

But I didn’t, because that’s the kind of thing that gets you fired. Or at least, the kind of thing that got me fired in the past.

“Can I help you with anything else, Janet?” I asked. Janet didn’t say anything, and when I chanced a glance back over my shoulder, she’d disappeared like a puff of smoke.

Shareen was right. It was my birthday. 31 years old. I disliked birthdays. Not because I was afraid of gray hair or saggy boobs, but because birthdays and their associated celebrations had always been a source of anxiety in my family. I’d enacted a strict No Celebration rule years before, but this time around had agreed to let my boyfriend Patrick bring over take-out from my favorite Burmese place, as long as there was no singing or candles. My boyfriend. I was still getting used to that word. We’d been together for one whole year. My longest relationship ever.

I was dating a few different guys when we met. Well, dating wasn’t exactly the word for what we were doing. More like drinking and screwing. They were the kind of guys who had their jeans back on and a reason to leave before I had a chance to ask them to go. Which was fine with me, because the last thing I wanted was to wake up and find one of them still there, expecting breakfast.

But then I began to notice a curious pattern: whenever I went out with Patrick, not only did he end up in my bed but he was still there at 2am, at 4am, at 8am. And he didn’t once eye his discarded clothing longingly, didn’t look at the clock and comment on the lateness of the hour, the fact that he had to visit his mother in the morning, or meet a friend for breakfast. Patrick was solidly present and his attention was 100% on me. Until he fell asleep.  And even then, he cuddled into me, his arms and legs wrapped around mine. It was both comforting and suffocating. I wanted him to leave but I didn’t want him gone.

That first morning, he woke me with a kiss on the forehead, despite my plaintive groans. When I opened my eyes, his face was warm and sleepy. Peaceful.

“Why are you looking at me?” I asked, squinting into the light.

“Because I like seeing you in the daylight, Vampire,” he teased. I was too surprised to have time to recoil.

He smelled like vanilla beans, and when he kissed me, I felt spikes of lightening shoot through my body, like static electricity but much better. After he stayed the night, I could still smell him on my sheets the next day. It drove me wild.

Over the next few weeks, I stopped seeing the other guys and then it was only Patrick knocking on my front door with a bottle of wine. Only Patrick pulling my underwear down and sliding his face between my legs. Patrick fumbling with the coffee maker in the morning, inviting me to lunch, to meet his best friend from college.

And in this way, he covertly became my boyfriend, a word I had not used since high school.

“Don’t be late tonight,” Patrick said the morning of my 31st birthday, as we departed from my apartment and went on our respective ways to work. “I’ve got plans for you.” And he raised his eyebrows up and down in a Groucho Marx sort of way.

“Wild horses couldn’t tear me away,” I sung out to him as I walked backwards toward the bus stop.

It was a Wednesday in early February, the skies were gray and gloomy, and the temperature cold as hell. One of the downsides of a winter birthday is that you can pretty much count on bad weather. A real birthday present would have been to stay home, to avoid the rain and the irritating people at work, and instead spend the day curled up on the couch, watching my fish. Electric yellow cichlids, green cobra guppies, neon tetras, harlequin rasboras, and red cap oranda goldfish swam around the tank like colorful little gangs patrolling their territories, occasionally putting on a show of dominance to impress their respective posses, but never pulling out a switchblade or tire iron. Their movements seemed choreographed, like characters straight out of Westside Story. I could watch them for hours.

Patrick didn’t understand my fascination with the fish and had started campaigning for a cat. I tried to explain that just because cats were allowed in my building and not his wasn’t reason enough for me to get one. Anyway, my neighbors’ cats were always streaking down the hallways, scaring the shit out of me and practically knocking me down the stairs. I already had plenty of cat interaction without all the shedding and the shitting-in-a-box business.

The next time he brought it up, I suggested that a peppered cory catfish would be a nice addition to Little Puerto Rico. I thought it was a pretty good joke.

After the tenth or one-hundredth time he brought up his childhood cat Smokey and waxed nostalgic about how the flat-faced Persian had curled up in bed with him every night until the day it died of a respiratory infection, I knew I had to address the issue head on. I did not want a cat, I explained, because they shed everywhere and scratch the furniture. I did not want a cat because I did not want to be beholden to a small furry creature for 15 years. Patrick retaliated with the rewards of caring for another living creature, the comfort of a sleeping cat on your lap, the soothing sound of purring. He quoted research that suggested people with pets tend to be happier, less stressed out.

“But the fish make me happy,” I explained. “Easier than meditation and cheaper than therapy.”

“You’re impossible to reason with, you know?” Patrick said, for perhaps the millionth time. He was fighting back a smile. It was so easy to make him laugh, and this had quickly become my best tool to diffuse any brewing storm.

“What fun would life be if you could reason your way through it?” I said. I knew this didn’t make any sense, but Patrick smiled just the same, shaking his head at me in mock bemusement.

“The thing is,” he started again, his tone thoughtful now, “as much as I’d like to have a cat, I want you to want it too.” And then he looked at me with his big brown Bambi eyes, and I felt both a swoon of affection for him and a strong urge to leave the room.

He had this way of saying things that made the room contract, the air thinner around me. He had this way of saying things that made me want to diffuse the moment with a smart ass remark although I understood that to do so would be unforgivably cruel. So I did the only thing I could on such an occasion: I leaned in to kiss him. First on his forehead, then each cheek, then his chin, the tip of his nose, and finally his lips. At first he wouldn’t kiss back, but then I would feel the pressure of his lips on mine. His hands would wander up over my hips and onto my ass and before I knew it, desire would take over, blocking all other thoughts for the time being, and soon we’d be screwing on the couch, the bed, the living room floor.

I had a cat once. Or I think I did. It’s hard to keep the murky visual details of childhood straight. Maybe the cat belonged to a neighbor, because my brother swears we never had a cat. Anyway, I remember a cat. It was gray and black and somehow had both stripes like a tiger and spots like a leopard. Maybe it was two cats and my amorphous brain blended them into one for the sake of simplicity. Regardless, there was at least one cat. I remember the sensation of it butting its head up against my hand, its wet little nose grazing over my skin. I remember the sensation of its whiskers tickling my face when I tried to kiss it on the head.

I can’t remember the cat’s name and I have no idea what happened to it, but I always feel a little sad when I think about that cat. Or any cat, really. One time when I was twelve or thirteen, I spotted a gray and black striped cat in the window of a second story apartment; the cat was poised on the back of a sofa, gazing out the window like a sleepy feline neighborhood watch. And without warning, I started to cry. Not full-on sobbing or anything, but I definitely teared up. There was something so beautiful about that cat watching the world go by from behind glass.

I didn’t tell Patrick about the cat in my memories. I wasn’t nostalgic about my childhood the way he was.

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