Category Archives: Fiction

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.

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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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Understanding the A**hole

To paraphrase my high school drama teacher: “Nobody thinks they’re an a**hole.”

We were in rehearsal for the spring play, in which I was playing the part of the villain. Ms. Quinn was a standard issue Bitter Betty: middle-aged, single, sour and dour, and went out of her way to squash other people’s joy. As far as I was concerned, she was plain old mean for the sake of being mean.

asshole hatI was not exactly thrilled to have been cast in this role, a fact which must have been clear to my drama teacher because he took me aside and told me that in his many years in the theater, he’d loved playing villains most of all. The trick, he explained, was to get to the heart of a character, to understand his or her motivations, to view the world from behind his or her eyes. “Nobody thinks they’re an a**hole,” he said. “Ms. Quinn feels completely justified in her behavior. And it’s your job to figure out why.”

His words stuck with me. Long after I’d decided that terrible heartbreak and betrayal in Ms. Quinn’s youth had turned her into a serious killjoy, I was eager to tip my psychoanalyst hat at friends and enemies alike. Why did that bitch Stacey pick fights with girls who were smaller than her? Perhaps she was bullied at home. Why did Joanna sleep around with so many loser guys? Clearly she wasn’t getting enough attention at home, and also her parents provided a terrible model for relationships. I was drunk with understanding for these people’s bad behavior! But it didn’t take long for me to realize that just because I understood (or thought I understood) their behavior, I still didn’t like it.

Two weeks ago at my last writers’ group meeting, one of the members made this comment on the chapter I had submitted: “I feel sorry for Alice and I’m glad she identified her problem, but I’m still not crazy about her. She’s fundamentally selfish and I don’t really expect her to change. At the same time, I don’t think I need to like Alice. She’s interesting, which is at least as important.”

I’ve never been so pleased to hear that someone dislikes one of my characters! While Alice is not a villain, she is a certainly a complicated person with a lot of character flaws. There are of course many legitimate reasons for these flaws, which is part of the reason why I love her so much*. But, as evidenced by that feedback, like her or not, Alice is interesting and genuine enough to evoke an emotional reaction. And isn’t that what we strive for in our writing? To create characters – a**hole or not – that are compelling and believable?

To this day, I spend a lot of time trying to figure out why people behave they way they do. Unfortunately, this includes a few real life a**holes, and one in particular who will remain unnamed. And I still don’t like them (him), even if I understand that his passive aggressive behavior and accusatory tone is rooted in profound insecurity. (Clears throat).

Perhaps the a**hole in question will turn up in one of my novels some day. In the meantime, I will strive to keep the a**holes in my life on the page.

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*Also, I love her because I created her. So there’s that.

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“Inspired By A True Event!”

There’s a saying that goes something like this: “Memoir is 90% fiction and fiction is 90% memoir.”*

While I’ve never plugged a real life experience “as is” into a work of fiction, my experiences absolutely inform my characters and story lines. For instance, I recently dug into my own life for inspiration, and struck gold with a shower scene that received rave reviews from my writers’ group.

Let me explain.

Do you see the faces? Two dogs, and duck for good measure.

Do you see the faces? Two dogs, and duck for good measure.

I’ve been struggling to establish attraction and intimacy between two of the characters in my novel-in-progress. The consistent feedback from my beta readers is: “I’m not totally sure what they see in each other”. The triumphant shower scene was inspired by the time my boyfriend and I spent ten minutes in the shower spotting dog faces in the granite pattern. I’d done this in private for years, and was oddly exhilarated to share it with him. It was a small moment, but it brought us a little closer.

Most writers reflect on their own experiences for inspiration, but what about when we are inspired smack dab in the middle of said experience?

Just this past weekend, my boyfriend and I were dancing (badly) to bossa nova music – in my living room and in our underwear. We giggled as we stepped on each others bare feet, fully aware of how ridiculous we must look. And as I snuggled into him, I thought, “You know, this could be a good scene to show more intimacy between Alice and Patrick.” But then it hit me: I wasn’t in the middle of a “scene”. I was in the middle of real life. And I was missing it, buried in my thoughts about my novel.

So I snapped myself back into the present, and tucked away that nugget of inspiration for later. Stay tuned on that account.

And in the meantime, I will leave you with that short but sweet shower scene “Inspired by a True Event!”

—————-

I’d always found showering with someone else a little awkward, taking turns washing shampoo out of your hair, standing there naked in the bright bathroom light. The first time I’d showered with Patrick, I stood with my arms across my chest, shivering, until he pulled me under the water, pressed his wet skin against mine.

“Do you see the faces?” he asked, pointing to the granite walls. “In the pattern of the stone. See, two eyes, a nose and a mouth,” he said, tracing the shapes with his finger. And right before my eyes, the indistinct forms came together into a woman’s face, complete with long wavy hair. “And here’s a dog’s face,” Patrick said, pointing to the left of the woman. “And a cat over here.”

I’d showered every day in that bathroom for two years and had never once noticed the faces looking back at me. But now they were everywhere.

“This one looks like a horse,” I said, my eyes searching over the granite. I’d completely forgotten to feel awkward. “And this one looks like a walrus, if you tilt your head a little. And here’s a bear!”

It was such a dumb thing to get excited about, but I couldn’t help myself.

We spotted faces in the granite until the hot water ran out. And from then on, every morning when I showered, I looked for new faces so that I could point them out to Patrick the next time he was over.

If we were going to break up, I was going to have to move. How could I ever shower in my bathroom again?


* Percentages are approximate

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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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The Golden Goose

Once upon a time, I called up a friend who worked at a big New York publishing house to ask for some professional advice. I was nearing completion of the third draft of a novel and had yet to dip a single toe into the murky waters of agents and editors and publishing deals (oh my!)*. My friend inquired as to my novel’s subject matter, length, and genre. When I told her I thought it fell under the category of Literary Fiction, she audibly sighed.

“Literary fiction is a hard sell,” she said. “Genre fiction is much more marketable. And if you really want to get published, Chick Lit is HUGE these days.”

I just about choked on my tongue. I knew my friend meant well, but I would have rather abandoned writing all together than pen some vapid romance novel disguised as female empowerment, one where the core conflict centers around who the spunky young heroine should date: the sweet but shy guy at work, or the hot asshole at the bar.

Fifteen years later, my feelings have not changed. For the last two and a half of those years, I have toiled away at yet another literary fiction novel; this is not out of some sort of pride or obstinacy, but because I cannot write a story that I do not love. But of course, there are many shades of love.

Next month, some friends and I are going on a week-long creative retreat to an Internet- and television-free cabin just outside of Yosemite. I am excited to spend time with dear friends (and our dogs), to meander through the wilderness and lounge by the lake, but I’m extra jazzed because I’ve decided to use this getaway as an opportunity to take a break from my current novel-in-progress and work on another project for a little while. The only trouble is that I’m having a hard time deciding which of two projects to dust off for the occasion.

Project No. 1: The mostly complete second draft of the accidental** young adult novel (working title Sooni Greene) I wrote four years ago. It has some good things going for it – interesting characters, important social themes, and conflict well beyond dating matters – and I have always planned to revisit it at some point.

Project No. 2: A quick and dirty first draft of a ‘tween book (working title The Burnt House) that I wrote about a year and half ago. Missing persons, neighbors burning down their houses, and tears in the space-time continuum…what more could you ask for in a mystery/coming of age story?

Golden-GooseAs I pondered my options, my publishing friend’s words echoed somewhere in the back of my mind: “Genre fiction is much more marketable.” At present, I have two genre novels to chose from: Tween or Young Adult***. Instead of instinctively selecting the storyline that feels the most compelling to me right now, I caught myself contemplating which of the two would be more likely to get published.

So does this mean that I am finally on the trail of the Golden Goose, that elusive “marketable” novel that I can both love and publish?

____________________________

*Sadly my knowledge in this realm has improved only marginally since then.

**Accidental in that I did not set out to write a young adult novel. But it’s interesting what you discover when you vomit out 70,000 or 80,000 words in a short period of time.

***And wouldn’t it be ironic if my first published book was for the under-eighteen set?

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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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Long Live the Editor!

Over the past week, I’ve spent a good chunk of time reading a 300-page manuscript for my writers’ group. The novel is a work in progress for sure, flowing well in some places, meandering in others (in fact, I just made a note to cut Chapter 10 all together). But this is precisely the point of having others read your work; often they can see what you cannot. This is why all writers need editors.

Not all writers agree with this. I’ve perused a fair number of literary agents’ blogs and submission guidelines, and have picked up on a common message: Do not send your first draft. Or even your third. I’ve also heard that many agents and publishers dread the month of January, since it routinely brings with it an onslaught of slapdash National Novel Writing Month manuscripts.*

Editing an English language documentBut what about those writers who have “outgrown” editors? There are a number of authors who have attained enough popularity and status as to make them almost untouchable. For instance, while I can’t know the intimate details of Stephen King’s writing process, the epic length of his books points in the direction of “less is more” when it comes to editing**. Stephen King is big money. If he tells his publisher not to change a word, his publisher won’t change a letter.

Tom Wolfe is another one. For years, I’ve heard what a great writer he is, and his sales numbers appear to reflect that popular opinion. However, when I picked up I Am Charlotte Simmons a while back, I was surprised by his dull characters and rambling narrative***. Worst of all, Wolfe’s then 70-something-year-old voice repeatedly bled through the narrative of this story about college kids (my favorite was when he explained the drinking game of “quarters”, which he set off with quotation marks each time). I barely made it through 100 of the 800-page book before I set it aside, shaking my head and thinking, “This is what happens when a writer gets too big for an editor.”

While I shrugged off Wolfe’s novel, I was crushed to have a similar realization about an author I actually really like, an author who I have in fact praised more than once on this very blog. Wally Lamb’s first novel, She’s Come Undone, is everything I aspire to in my own writing: Sometimes distressing but always compelling. Redemptive, but not in a Hollywood ending sort of way. Genuine. As is standard practice with a first novel, I imagine that his publisher had him work very closely with an editor on this book, and to great effect.

But a spot on Oprah’s book club and a few bestsellers later, that editor was noticeably absent in Lamb’s most recent novel, We Are Water, which examines a number of touchy subjects including gay marriage, interracial love, and sexual abuse. I will say this: the characters are complex and many layered, and the storyline is intriguing and topical. But the dialogue feels forced and unnatural, at times more like a series of speeches being delivered to the reader than a conversation between two people. In clear violation of the golden rule of writing – Show, Don’t Tell – most of the back-story is delivered in the form of monologues that go on for pages and pages without a single scene or exchange. The opening chapter is a stilted Q&A session between an awkward journalist and an elderly artist, neither of who are significant characters in the book. And don’t get me started on the overuse of ellipses to signify that someone is about to have a flashback…

It’s heartbreaking when a good book goes bad. We Are Water had so much potential, but left to his own devices, Lamb failed to transform his characters into real people and their stories into real lives.

Everyone needs an editor. Period.

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*I wonder if November – the month when all the NaNoWriMo’s are hard at work – is actually the best time of year to submit.

** This is not to talk smack about Stephen King, who is actually a pretty darn good writer when he puts his mind to it.

*** To Wolfe’s credit (or his editor’s), his grammar and sentence structure are beyond reproach.

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A Visit to Bluebird Park

I admit it: I quite enjoy writing in the voice of a pissed off teenage boy. My character, Nate Chapman, is more real to me than a lot of people I interact with on a daily basis. Nate and I share many youthful experiences and emotions, which makes perfect sense because I made him up. He is part of me, just as I am part of him. Deep, eh?

I am more than halfway through the third draft of my novel-in-progress and well into the book’s third section, which is told from the viewpoint of my teenage friend. I gotta say, I’m going to miss this kid when it comes time to revise the fourth and final section. Until then, I’ll treasure my time with him, and hope that you will like him too. Happy reading!


Small Legends Part Three: Nate, Chapter 12

Me and Kevin didn’t hang around as much by our senior year of high school. He got this girlfriend named Summer and that was sort of it for him. She was okay, I guess. At least she wasn’t annoying like a lot of girls in our year, girls who got drunk at parties and ended up locking themselves in the bathroom, crying about how some guy – usually some guy right in the next room – had used them for sex or weed. Summer didn’t get drunk but she did have this sorta power over Kevin. Power of the Pussy, we’d say. What she said was how it was, and Kevin would’ve sworn that the sky was fucking green if she’d told him to. That’s how it was.

But sometimes when Summer went to visit her sister off at college somewhere, or if she was out with her friends, Kevin’d turn up at the park or at my front door, asking what I was up to, and if I wanted to go down to Telegraph Ave and look for used CDs. And if I wasn’t doing anything, I’d say sure. And we’d go.

Over spring break, Summer went to Palm Springs with her family and suddenly Kevin was like a barnacle on me. I couldn’t shake him if I’d tried. Not that it was so bad, just that there was a girl on my mind, the girl who’d been on my mind ever since that first time in Bluebird Park. Cassandra had already graduated but she still hung around in the park sometimes, and I was on a mission to at least get a hook up in before I left for college. But it was really hard to get in with her while Kevin was hanging around. So instead, we spent a lot of time smoking weed at the park with a couple of guys from school, Tim Wheaton and Dave Carter.IMG_3462

I’d known Wheaton and Carter since junior high but we didn’t really hang out, mostly because trouble seemed to follow those two wherever they went and it was best to stay out of the line of fire. They’d both done some time in juvy for possession and public intox, and word was that Wheaton once forced some girl at a party to suck him off. Also, they were assholes. But they usually had good weed, so I could put up with them for a little while if it was worth it.

That night at the park, Cassandra was hanging around with this fucktard junior kid who kept putting his hands on her knee, and then on her thigh and then up near her cooch, like he was playing chicken or something. She didn’t seem too bothered but it drove me fucking nuts.

Wheaton and Carter were scoping out some freshman girls. They were newbies to the park for sure, their squeaky voices and endless giggling giving them away to the predators hiding in the weeds. I’d just pinched out a joint when Wheaton turned to me, stroking the pathetic scruff of hair on his chin and sweeping back his long white-boy dreads, which stood in sharp contrast to Carter’s dark skin and shaved head. For some reason, Wheaton always smelled like Vaseline.

“Hey Chap Man, I saw your sister coming out of the 7-11 the other day,” he said, throwing a grin in Carter’s direction. Carter grinned back, wisps of smoke escaping from his crooked mouth. “How old is she now? Fourteen? Fifteen?”

Teen-potI glared at him, certain this was going nowhere good.

“Thirteen,” I said, “and if you so much as look at her, I’ll rip your eyeballs out through your asshole.”

Wheaton leapt back in mock fright, throwing his hands up in the air in surrender.

“Relax, Chap Man. All I’m saying is that she’s growing up real nice, turning into a pretty girl,” he said. “Too bad she got all the looks in the family.”

My fists were clenched and I was about a second away from clocking the guy when I felt Kevin’s hand on my arm. He wasn’t trying to restrain me, just trying to calm me down.

“Dude,” Kevin said to Wheaton, “uncool.”

But Wheaton had found a sore spot, and like assholes all across the universe, he couldn’t help but keep poking his dirty hippy fingers into it.

“Relax,” he said. “She doesn’t even have tits yet. But maybe, in a couple of years…”

I looked over at Cassandra, who was still over by the swings with that horny fucktard. All I’d wanted to do that night was come to the park and see if I could get her to make out with me. And now I was going to have to hit Tim Wheaton and hope that Kevin would come to my aid when Carter jumped into the mix. Wheaton was pretty scrawny and I was sure I could take him, but Carter was built like a linebacker and easily had 30 lbs on me. And I’d seen him take down guys much bigger.

“I mean, she might not even be your sister,” Wheaton went on, his voice getting louder and making the giggling freshman girls tturn around and look. “I mean, you two don’t look anything alike. Maybe when she’s got her tits in, you can– “

image-3-for-paper-pics-22-02-2011-gallery-25587119Outside of a couple months of karate classes in the fifth grade, I’d never actually taken a hit at anything other than a punching bag, so I was completely unprepared for how bad it fucking hurts to grind your knuckles into someone’s face. Wheaton, who by all accounts had been hit in the face on numerous occasions, seemed more surprised than pained as he staggered back a few steps, nearly falling into the sand moat.

“What the fuck, Man?” he spat out, along with a mouthful of blood.

Kevin gripped his hands firmly onto my shoulders and tried to steer me in the opposite direction.

“Let’s go,” he said.

I knew I should listen to him and split before everyone clued in to what was going on, before Carter knocked out my teeth with one hit. But I was pissed off, and feeling reckless. So I pulled out of Kevin’s grasp and went back in for another on Wheaton, who barely dodged my second punch. This time it was Carter who grabbed me by the arms, and try as I might, I couldn’t wriggle out of his grip, so I planted my feet as best I could and tried to brace myself for the beating I was about to take.

When a few moments passed and none came, I looked up at Carter. So did Kevin, and even Wheaton. We were all watching him now, waiting to see what he was going to do. But he just shrugged and let me go.

“You get one,” he said, “but that’s it.”

He looked over at Wheaton, whose jaw had dropped open like a cartoon cat.

“You talked shit about his sister,” Carter explained indifferently. “You know that ain’t cool.”

71916198Wheaton was too dazed to respond. By then, several curious onlookers had gathered around, obviously hoping for a fight.

When Kevin leaned in and said, “Let’s go,” I didn’t protest.

We were almost to the gate when Cassandra caught up to us.

“Hey, are you okay?” she asked, her voice a little breathy.

“He’s good,” Kevin responded, not stopping.

“Those guys are assholes,” Cassandra said, gesturing back towards Wheaton and Carter. “Tim tried to rip me off on some ecstasy last year. Fucker.” When neither Kevin nor I responded, she went on. “Hey, so Nate…are you staying around over the summer and everything?”

This made me stop. Four years I’d been coming to the park and I still wasn’t sure if Cassandra knew my name. I felt an involuntary twinge of pleasure located somewhere below my belt.

“I’m moving down to L.A.,” I said. “In July. Probably won’t come back for a long time.”

Cassandra reached out and touched my arm. Her warm little hand on my skin was enough to bring on a very unwelcome boner, and I thanked fucking God it was dark out and that my jeans were on the loose side.

“We’ll have to hang out then,” Cassandra said, “before you go.”

She was at least half a foot shorter than me and I could see down her tank top. She wasn’t wearing a bra.

“Yeah, that’d be cool.”

Kevin was shifting around uncomfortably nearby, like he wasn’t sure if he should wait it out or just walk away now.

“Well, see ya,” Cassandra said, taking her hand back.

I wanted to reach for it, reach for her. Maybe put my hands on her bare legs like that fucktard back at the park. But I was too late and she was already walking back to the park.15rfd-image-custom3

“See ya,” I called back.

“Holy shit, Dude,” Kevin said as soon as we were out of earshot. “I guess the nature shows are right.”

“What do you mean?”

“The females are always hot for the alpha males.”

“I don’t know if hitting Tim Wheaton makes me an alpha male. Maybe just stupid.”

“Being alpha is all a state of mind anyway,” Kevin explained. “Half the time when animals fight, they’re just putting on a big show to impress everyone. Besides, it’s not like you could let him say shit about Alice and get away with it. I mean, if some guy looked sidewise at my sister, I’d have to kick his ass just on principle. It is weird, though. I guess I never thought about it before but you and Alice don’t really look alike, do you?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess I look more like my dad. And Alice looks like…“

I was about to say she looked like our mom, but that wasn’t right. They had the same eyes, sure, but that was about it. Alice was already as tall as our mother, and she was the only one in the family with blond hair, except Aunt Margaret but I don’t think that was her real color. Alice’s nose was different from our mother’s, than any of the rest of the family. But then again, she was still practically a kid. Who knew what she would look like when she was older.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess she’s still growing and everything.”

Kevin shrugged. “Yeah. Probably. Hey, so do you think you’re going to nail Cassandra before you leave?”

I glanced back over my shoulder to make sure no one was around. It was barely 9 o’clock but already the neighborhood was quiet, the houses dark except for blue flickering TV light. A light breeze shook the trees, their newly leafed branches creaking slightly.

“I’m sure as hell gonna try,” I said.

Kevin grinned.

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Life is Unfair. Keep Writing Anyway.

When I was 16 years old, I won first place in the short fiction category of a very small, very local writing contest targeted at teenagers. The prize was $50. This was the first and last time I received payment of any kind for writing fiction.

I figure I’m up by $50 on a lot of writers out there.

Many writers never make a penny off of their work. And those who do often supplement this income with day jobs or less fulfilling freelance work. Some rely on their spouse’s or partner’s income to pay the bills.

A small number of writers were born into wealth and can dedicate their every waking moment to crafting their novels.

Life is unfair. The end.

But of course this isn’t the end.

Last week, Salon.com ran an article by Ann Bauer titled “Sponsored” by my husband: Why it’s a problem that writers never talk about where their money comes from. And like any thing on the Internet that features a comments section, the response was immediate and fierce.

WritingSome commenters applauded Bauer for coming clean that – although she is a published writer with a decent list of credits to her name – her income from writing alone doesn’t come close to a living wage. Others raged against her for calling out two unnamed writers for what she saw as a lack of disclosure regarding their inherited wealth and connections. One example: An aspiring writer asked one author how he had paid the bills during the 10 years he spent writing his latest novel. The author – who comes from a very wealthy family – responded that it had been difficult, but that he’d also written a number of magazine articles during that time. The implication was that 1) he was struggling to get by, just like the rest of us, and 2) writing a few magazine articles will pay enough to support your family while you craft your masterpiece.writer

The commenters’ vitriol ranged from Fuck the 1%! to How dare you point fingers at the “privileged” when your writing is largely funded by your husband?  But I didn’t feel that Bauer was suggesting the author was obligated to discuss his personal financial information, or that she was simply bitter he was born into money. Rather, I felt that she was calling him out for being disingenuous, for suggesting to the aspiring writer that his success was based almost purely on drive and determination.

But whether the author has billions in real estate or $37 in his checking account, he has to write. A lot. He has to work damn hard to develop his craft. Just like the rest of us.

writing officeWriters, like any artists, create because it is in our blood. It is a compulsion. It is part of who we are, whether we write late at night in our pajamas while the rest of the family sleeps or once the nanny ushers the kids off to school. The vast majority of us would continue to write even if we were 100% sure that we’d never earn a cent from it.

Does the billionaire have a distinct advantage over the working mom? Hell yes, he does. But like I said, life is unfair. There is no bliss, no inspiration in resenting someone for having more time, more money, or more connections than you do. And at the same time, there is no value in feeling guilty for having money, or because your spouse or partner brings home the bulk of the income, so long as the two of you made this career/lifestyle choice together.

What troubles me is seeing writers turn on one another (and at times, themselves) rather than coming together to call out the increasingly flighty publishing industry, as well as the general lack of value our culture places on creative professions. Writing is hard work, much harder than most of the paying jobs I’ve held in my life.

And after all, we are all in this together.

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PS. For the record, I strongly dislike the term “sponsored” as it suggests that the writer is being supported by a parent or a Sugar Daddy/Mama, not his or her spouse or partner. And I find that not only condescending but also sorta icky.

PPS. I was not born into wealth and I am my only source of income. One could argue that I was born into privilege because I grew up in a middle class suburb and had parental support through college. Then again, one could argue just about anything if one sets his or her mind to it, which is evidenced by the comments section on just about any thing posted on the internet.

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It All Starts with a Good Idea

I’ve just returned from a visit to London, the land of winding cobblestone streets, tea and biscuits, and dimly lit, creaky-staired pubs with twelve different lagers on tap. It is a place of centuries old, half-bombed out churches standing alongside modern glass facades and Wi-Fi-enabled phone booths. It is the home of outdoor markets that bustle even in the dead of winter, of bangers and mash and beans on toast.

Oh, and Harry Potter, of course.

I’ve read the Harry Potter books and watched the films more times than I can count. I’ve quoted the wise Professor Dumbledore on multiple occasions, and have referenced both Patronuses and Dementors in casual conversation. Without question, I am a fan.

I couldn't help myself.

Looking over my shoulder for nosy Muggles.

But while I was well aware of the global phenomenon that is Harry Potter, the scale of the thing didn’t really hit me until I visited Harry Potterland, which is housed in an enormous warehouse-type structure just outside of London and is actually called The Making of Harry Potter.

I spent nearly four hours on the self-guided tour, which featured full-scale sets from the films, original costumes, literally thousands of props, behind the scenes footage of how certain special effects were achieved, and a gallery of magical creatures ranging from Acromantulas (giant spiders) to Thestrals (scaly winged horses), not to mention what may be the largest gift shop of its kind. While the collection was impressive beyond my expectations, the thing that struck me the most were the quotes from the author herself, J.K. Rowling, well-placed throughout the museum. Her name was all over that place.

Most writers are thrilled to be published at all, and those whose books are turned into movies are probably grateful to get a Based on the novel by credit. Writers are not film stars, or the lead singer in the band. They are not talk show hosts, or YouTube sensations. Writers are not often in the public eye, but exist behind the scenes, and spend most of their time alone with their laptops, surrounded by dirty coffee cups.

But J.K. Rowling has not only made a household name for herself, she has built an empire. She managed to not only have her books published, but to negotiate her way into the production of the films, of the museum, video games, amusement park rides, fan websites, and billions of dollars worth of merchandising. She is either a genius or mind-blowingly lucky, and probably both.

The first book was published in 1995, and the first film was released in 2001. In 2014, Forbes estimated the Harry Potter brand to be worth over $15 billion, and J.K. Rowling’s personal fortune at over $1 billion. And to think, this all started 20 years ago when Rowling had a good idea for a character whilst on a train ride to London.

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