18 writing tricks I learned in 2018

In what has now become my traditional yearly post, here’s my summary of some of my favorite pieces of writing advice I came across or learned in 2018.

  1. We love progression. 
    You want the inside line to my heart as a reader? Show me someone slowly getting better over time. That’s it, that’s the whole thing. I want the squire learning to slay dragons. I want the long-shot freshman practicing on the field after dark, changing his diet, going from last-ditch quarterback to taking his team to the state championship. Incremental change is believable and adds up over time. This is the big romance everyone carries on with years ending and beginning– it’s a convenient way to measure where you start and finish with respect to your goals. Even if it’s just a side character or a setting, I love the hell out of it when a fictional cafe changes with the seasons or expands into a second location, when things change as time goes on. It makes us as readers feel like we helped somehow, maybe just by being there, to make these things happen.
  2. Sometimes you have to go it alone.
    Sometimes your critique partners will not be able to read for you. Sometimes you will have a crisis and every reader or person you trust will be busy, and it’s not because they don’t care about you or anything like that; it’s just because they have lives too and sometimes everyone’s crisis points stack up. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t get help from other people because obviously you should! But when your usual system breaks down, you’ve got to have a back up plan and know you can finish things if all you have to rely on is yourself.
  3. No one cares about it as much as you do.
    The good news: no one agonizes over mistakes and imperfections as much as you do, so you can’t be too down on yourself. The bad news: no one is going to push yourself to be better more than you. When I first came across this, I was kind of appalled– there are so many people involved with publishing that everything feels so much like a team effort. This is still true, and everyone on your team will be likely be enthusiastic, talented, and incredibly helpful. It’s just that at the end of the day, it’s going to be your name on the cover, not theirs. No one is going to have the same kind of personal investment in it as you do, and that’s okay. Learn to ask a lot of yourself in your work, but also get a good sense of what reasonable expectations are from the people working with you.
  4. The rule of three.
    If you’re not sure how much description is enough/too much, pick three different things as touchstones to set a scene or describe a feeling. Sometimes you’ll feel like you should use more or less–it depends a lot on how important the feeling/person/place is to the story!– but if you’re wondering if you’ve done enough, generally focusing three different aspects to talk about is pretty sufficient without being overwhelming, and you can always cut back or add more when you revise to suit the scene.
  5. Just finish it. 
    Perfect is the enemy of done. You have to be able to give your very best, and then be satisfied with it. It’s brutal and I get it– it’s hard as hell to learn to walk away and say a project is Done, especially when you’re convinced a few more months will make it better. But that’s the eternal problem: of course a few month whatevers is going to make it better, because you’re always improving. Eventually, you will need to let it go, and that’s okay. My goal is to be able to confidently say I fixed everything I knew was wrong at the time, and then head on to the next adventure.
  6. You don’t have to write daily; you have to train so you can turn it on when you want.
    I think about this like a tap. Like as in, literally, a sink faucet. When you first start writing with the goal of being professional, sometimes you turn the faucet on and nothing comes out. Sometimes actual, potable water comes out and it’s awesome. Sometimes gross, grunky water comes out and you’re like eugh, what the hell, and you have to take out the wall and uncrust all the pipes. Your goal is to make it so that whenever you sit down to write, it’s just like turning the tap in the kitchen sink: clear water comes out (you may still need to install a filtration system, aka edit, to make it drinkable, but that can be for later). Daily writing is a good way to do this, but also it’s not the only way. It’s more about treating the act of writing as training versus divine intervention. There is no muse, only the tap.
  7. Plan for the next steps of your career. 
    If you fail at any stage of your career, that’s relatively easy to handle: you keep on working hard until you succeed. But if you succeed, what then? Sketch out how you’re going to take on the new challenges that leveling up will bring you: will you need an accountant? Would opening an additional bank account help so that you can put half your advance away for taxes and not think about it? Follow and read up on how other people a step or two ahead of you in the process handle things, and make a battle plan so that after the euphoria has worn off you have an idea what you need to work toward next. If you have an agent or editor you’re working with, they’re also great resources to consult on planning ahead for next steps.
  8. Establish a ritual. 
    This is part of the tap thing– often it’s really helpful to have things you can do that get you into a creative mindset. Perform the ritual, get in the zone, and then write. Mine is music. If I have my headphones on and a song from a project playlist going, chances are I’m into it by the first chorus. Some people have very elaborate rituals depending on places or time of day– I used to wake up super early and write before dawn (also highly recommend) at a cafe– but it doesn’t have to be any fancier than what gets you to write at the drop of a hat. If I can have it, I’d love a high stool by the window watching the dawn come up in a rainy city with a latte, but I also know the only real essential for me is music. And okay, I even can do it without that, but it’s hard and I don’t like it. Experiment and learn what you need to get you in the right mindset.
  9. Once you know the heart of the story, all you have to do is make your work resemble that.
    I like this one because it makes it sound easy to know what the heart of a story is. I usually have no idea what the hearts of any of my stories are until after I’ve written at least the zero draft, and honestly probably not until I’ve gone through a few revisions. Sometimes I’m revising and I have to stop and just look at the ceiling and really figure out what my character wants and what this means for the story I’m telling. Sometimes I try to write with the heart in mind from the start, and then I get it wrong anyway.

    One way to get at the heart of a story is to ask what you want to evoke in the reader. And not just like “a sense of hope for a better world” because that is too nebulous and unhelpful, but approach it like a reader: what were the stories that resonated with you emotionally? What did you take away from them? When you settle on what you want your reader to come away with, build the heart out of that: make it essential to the main arc (chances are, it already is so emphasize it), make the growth stages more emotional, have the climax bring everything to a head, and then the resolution echo it.

  10. Suffering is currency.
    You buy readers’ emotional investment with how willing your characters are to suffer for their goals. We judge someone more on their actions rather than what they say, and showing us not only someone working toward a goal but being willing to go through discomfort for it will convince us how badly they want it.
  11. Detail is king.
    Research is crucial in literally everything. The more I write fantasy and any kind of fiction, the more I appreciate nonfiction. I like learning about new things, because I also learn about why our world is the way it is and what would change if I shifted up stuff in worldbuilding. Detail is also how you buy a reader’s faith. We believe more that you’re an authority on something if you can prove that: it’s one thing to tell us that a character is a master swordsman, but it’s a whole other level to talk about the tang of a blade. A reader is going to put their trust in a storyteller who knows what they’re talking about–and it makes sense: you want to listen someone you think can tell a good story. To become that person, you’re going to need to either be well-versed in what you’re writing about already, or do some legwork.
  12. You are an idea factory, act like it. 
    If you have an idea, use it. Sometimes there’s this worry that “oh, if I use this secondary character idea now, I’ll never have any other cool secondary character ideas in the future” or whatever like your brain is something finite. You’re always going to think of new things. You’re always going to think of ways to use old things in new ways. There is no end to this. Use whatever you have that you want to use, because the more media, art, and life that you encounter, the more your creative side will make new ideas for you. Go all out.
  13. Can you take a class in it?
    Disclaimer: there are obviously some varieties of lived experience that you cannot participate in or get firsthand experience with in a short amount of time, and here sensitivity or expert readers should be your go-to. However, if your protagonist has a certain skill, it may be helpful to try experiencing doing that in real life. Like, if they make candles for a living, maybe you can sign up for a session to pour some candles. If they kickbox, try out a kickboxing class. It’s fun (who doesn’t want to act like their protagonist or characters for a day), but it’ll also help you be aware of new things about the skill that you maybe wouldn’t have been before. Again, it all comes back to detail and belief.
  14. Voice is hard, but immediately compelling.
    A lot of what draws me into a story is character. Plot is cool, but if I’m sold on a character I will follow them forever, plot or no (this is probably why I have had to rip up various projects multiple times to fix plots). The hardest thing for me in my own writing is voice. I think there is a huge gulf between voice and style, and I may love one and hate the other in the same book. When both work together, though, it’s something else. Voice can be overwhelming and intrusive (who wants to hear every second of someone else’s thoughts), it can be robotic and spare (does this narrator not have feelings), but when done well it’s electric and makes us want to keep going, because it’s like our best friend is telling a story and we just want them to keep talking to us forever.

    How do you do voice well? That’s the million-dollar question, and I think it depends on the project. The easy answer is that you have to know your narrator and their arc extremely well. The hard answer is to read through a chapter and ask if you feel exhausted (or even just not excited, honestly, because if your reader isn’t hype, they’re not going to keep going). If so, then the voice is wrong. In my case, it meant I needed to cut things and stop slowing down the action– you may also need to add things in.

  15. Different characters need to sound different.
    Sounds easy in theory, more difficult in practice. If you have multiple POV characters, you should be able to read a page (ideally, even a paragraph) from anywhere in your book and know who’s narrating. People have different styles of talking (this also parallels to dialogue, but I feel like a lot of people miss this in exposition) and, unsurprisingly, different ways of thinking about stuff. As a reader, I love dual POV romance but I also get a little nervous when both POVs sound super alike– clearly the ways in which both characters interact with the world aren’t the same! What are their obsessions, what are their unique perceptions or quirks that come through? For exampole, if I have to walk back the same way I came, I make a circle instead of retracing my steps. A friend thinks this is hilarious because he just walks the same route back. He’s thinking about efficiency; I don’t want to retrace my steps because it feels like I’ve messed up (and a circle…doesn’t make me feel that way, I guess).  Even simple decisions can be influenced by different perceptions.
  16. Learn from everything.
    Sit at the feet of many masters. Read widely. Do you write YA? Awesome, read romance. Write romance? Read SFF. Write SFF? Read mystery novels. Read fiction and nonfiction. When you have an idea and need to flesh it out, read like a maniac. Right now, I am devouring nonfiction on the NFL. One of the key solutions to fixing my WIP came from a cozy. Follow your obsessions and push yourself outside the genre(s) you write in. Observe movies, shows, books, everything, and ask “what story is this telling and why is it telling it the way it is?” You may not end up using the information immediately, but it’s going to be useful eventually.
  17. Revisit the stories you loved and ask why you loved them. 
    On a similar track, study the things you love. I feel like there’s often a huge emphasis on reading new books all the time, but I have the learned the most as a writer by reading and re-reading the stuff I’ve loved and asking myself how the author achieved certain effects. And I get it, it can be nerve-wracking to revisit a beloved story and fear that it may not hold up, but I’d much rather understand why I love something than leave it a mystery or doubt my past self’s taste. Usually I find that I like the story more because I see more of the work involving in it. And if it really is something that hasn’t held up, I can at least analyze why my younger self liked it and what parts of it I wasn’t seeing or didn’t pay attention to. Sometimes that’s even more valuable, because it tells me what tropes I love so much I literally ignore bad or sloppy storytelling for.
  18. Remember why you love the work. 
    Whenever things get hard, revisit the good stuff. When I had to go scene by scene and rip out the lymphatic system that was the voice in my WIP, it sucked. I was excited about my new idea for the voice, but rescuing scenes felt like pulling them out of molasses, gross and kind of unwieldy. When you’re feeling tired and still have a lot of hard work ahead, read back through the good stuff– prove to yourself that the changes you’re putting in place are worth it. If you’re drafting and frustrated, remind yourself how awesome the climax will be to write.

    The best advice I know to help you produce something you’ll feel proud of is to enjoy doing it. Writing is talking to other people, and people are excellent at reading emotion. Make sure you’re coming into it with positive ones and it’ll translate.

And those are the top things I learned in 2018! I might try to elaborate more on a few of these in craft posts to come, so let me know if you have any faves. 🙂 Happy 2019!

17 writing things I learned in 2017

Since I haven’t posted about writing advice in a while, here’s what I learned from 2017!

  1. Clarity super omnia.

    Probably the most important thing for me to remember in my writing: at the end of the day, no one cares how beautiful the prose is if it’s not communicating what you need it to effectively. The audience needs to understand what you’re saying or else they won’t know what’s going on in the plot (was the protagonist just injured? what happened to the dog in that scene?) or they may not understand a character’s actions (what are they even doing in this scene, what’s happening?).

    And sure, sometimes you want that ambiguity: I love confusing the reader when my characters are injured, out of it mentally, or acting in extreme distress. Playing around with how you narrate is great fun and can be super useful for showing how dire/extreme a situation is.

    Still, there’s always the temptation to make every sentence this glittering bauble. And I love it, do not get me wrong: I didn’t choose baroque prose, the ornate life chose me.

    But okay, more seriously: if your metaphor or description is getting in the way of the reader actually understanding what’s going on, then it’s not working and you need to revise it. It can be really annoying, because sometimes you’ll have this great idea for how a sentence should sound and you might have to compromise on it to make sure the reader gets the action (that is, if your first goal fails and you can’t figure out how the make the sound work and be clear at the same time). Ultimately, clarity takes priority most times.

  2. Some work is better than no work.

    I almost always feel better when I work a little bit on a project per day. Some days it can feel like I’m not getting enough done unless I have a big win–revise a few chapters, solve a major plot problem, etc– and some days it can feel like it’s not even worth it to spend time writing if I don’t have the time to do something that will have that kind of large impact.

    At the end of the day, though, a manuscript is made up of a lot of tiny changes. Sometimes you can devote hours and hours to fixing Chapter 14. Sometimes you’re only going to have time to set up the romantic arc for Chapter 14 and that’s fine. Sometimes you fix one paragraph in Chapter 14, but it’s the right one. As long as you can cross a few more items off the to-do list you have for the revision (or even figure out what needs to change! another big thing that often gets lost when when we talk about revisions: actually figuring out where to begin) you’re coming out ahead.

    Other people may like to put things on hold until they have huge blocks of time to work on them, and that’s also fine. I think the most I keep my head in the project, the more my brain’s going to work on it when I’m not looking, and then more I’m going to know how to attack it the next time I pick it up.

  3. Balance information relevance & a sense of being lived-in in worldbuilding.

    So we all know about the dangers of info-dumping: no one likes to sit through years of paragraphs of stuff that’s not relevant and is honestly kind of boring when we could be in the main action. Sometimes it feels like writers can also go the other way too, where the only information about the world we get is the stuff that’s innately tied to the plot. It feels kind of mercenary: okay, this bird is mentioned once as a legend here, so clearly one of the characters is going to be the reincarnation of the sparrow deity.

    I don’t think that every single piece of information about the world has to be relevant to the plot. I like hearing the random stuff. Like: “oh, this? it’s a spell I messed up as a little kid and now this corridor’s always like that, sorry” or “this is how we get food in this city and it’s not going to be exploded or relevant to the plot, it’s just how it works.”

    The key is balance. Too much random stuff and the throughline of the plot gets lost (also, see above, no one cares). Too little random stuff and it’s like a murder mystery where it’s too easy to spot the murderer. You need enough likely-seeming information to give the world depth and breadth, to make it feel like it’s something lived in, to make me not sure where the story’s going to go next, even as you’re laying the foundation for things to get cracked wide open.

    My general feeling about a world, especially in fantasy/science fiction literature, is that I want to feel like I could tell stories in this place, whether writing fanfic or pretending that I lived there. There’s enough of the place/time/general vibe down on paper that I get a good idea of it without it being overwhelming or sparse.

  4. Even (and sometimes especially) if you didn’t like a book/movie/show/art/piece of media, you can still learn something from it.

    Usually when I DNF (decide not to finish) a book, it’s because I know why it’s not working for me. It’s surprisingly hard to condense into a single sentence why you dislike something! (And not just saying, “it’s bad, ugh” but breaking it down into a critical argument like “this is not how I think cat-and-mouse arcs should go because I want the detective not to be a buffoon/source of comic relief but actually present a real threat to the phantom thief–there’s a lot of missed tension here.”)

    It actually becomes a fun game: why the hell do I hate this thing so much? What precisely has this creator done wrong? How would I fix it? Or, in what way does their choice advantage them versus what gains do you get from doing it my way? I may not always agree with the way that people tackle problems, but I gain an appreciation for a creator’s choice (unless it really is just a stupid one) and learn more about what to do or not to do in my own stuff.

  5. Don’t be precious about your process/work.

    This is actually something I realized about myself when I was in the digital art scene: I have no patience for muses. None.

    It’s hard not to have an emotional connection with your work– the emotional connection is what makes it so damn good. It’s what inspires you to keep working on it even when it sucks or you’re doing tedious stuff, and it’s what’ll compel people to pick it up and read it.

    But I also think that if you deify inspiration or say that a particular project is your child, it’s only going to make it harder to revise or take feedback on it later. If inspiration becomes this thing you’re constantly waiting on to ring the doorbell, you’re wasting valuable hours of your own time. You’re also taking power away from yourself: if the reason you’re good is because you were inspired to be good versus earning your skills through sweat and blood, then that’s not saying a boat load of complimentary things about the human condition. You’re not born talented enough to write a book. It’s not a gift, not an inheritance, not a divine or demonic calling. One of my favorite Leigh Bardugo lines of all time: steel is earned.

    What’s holy isn’t the final draft or the idea that made you start: it’s you, sitting at your desk for hours, putting in the work to translate the item in your head to those words on paper.

    Earn your steel.

  6. On the flip, don’t be too cynical/gritty about it.

    Idk, it could just be that I also have no patience for assholes but no one likes this. Of course writing is hard. Try writing for an hour straight; it’s probably going to be hard (if it’s not, what are you doing, go back to that draft and ride out this wave out because you are clearly in the zone).

    We’re never reading industry posts or writing advice columns because we need to be reminded out how hard it out there for a dude. Assume your audience has taken a few punches, that they have a basic idea of the shape of the jungle and its dangers. We’re reading because we want hope.

  7. Map it out (story maps).

    2017 was also the year when I admitted to myself that I am actually pretty bad at holding an entire novel’s worth of structure in my head. Previously on Alex Yuschik Does the Thing, I had used post-it notes to help me get a sense of the main arcs in a project. This is still useful, but I’ve also found that making a story map in a notebook has also been effective.

    This is one of those your-mileage-may-vary deals, but I thought I’d share since it’s literally helped me figure out a short story that I have been stuck on since 2016.

    As its name suggests, it’s just a map. You need to know where you’re starting (boy in dorm) and where you need to go (boy offering himself up to tornado) and then you chart out the intermediate steps needed to get there. This personally has been super helpful not just for figuring out the action, but for figuring out what scenes I need to show the reader and which points I can fuzz over in the exposition.

    Next time you’re stuck, try it out and see where you go.

  8. You can tell a reader anything, but you make them believe it through detail/evidence.

    I love this one and it’s totally one that reader!me learned, which is why the old adage about “read like an addict” really works for authors– some things are just easier to see from another point of view.

    As a writer, you can tell me anything. Whether I take you seriously or not as your reader is another story. If you tell me that someone loves another person, then okay. I have one line telling me this information and I have no idea what kind of love this is– the true, unending kind, or the half-love that is going to mostly be okay until it’s not and everything shatters. It’s really non-specific and it can feel kind of tacked on there.

    The way you make a reader believe you is by building a case. You present the evidence and allow them to draw the conclusion. He knows how to make his best friend’s favorite kind of tea. He knows this guy would never wear a tie and so gifts him cuff links instead. He destroys a computer he spent hours building so his friend doesn’t get in trouble.

    You never have to say a word about love, but you can tell that there’s a strong emotion present there. (also, it’s more fun to drive the reader crazy suspecting it.)

  9. Organize things to streamline them (email labels, submissions tracking).

    On the business side of writing, organization makes your own life easier.

    I use flashcards to track my poetry/short story submissions: each card is a piece and it lists the places and dates I’ve submitted it to on the card. If the piece is accepted anywhere, it gets pulled out of the box and put into a different box. You can also do this for query tracking; it makes your life so much easier.

    Another thing I highly recommend is using filtering and inbox labels. If you use gmail like I do, you can color-code your email or tell gmail to assign certain labels to emails from certain people. The search function is pretty good, but if you want to pull up all the emails from a certain group of people or falling under a certain category for easy reference, like queries or agency emails or submissions, labeling makes it a hell of a lot easier.

  10. When you’re stuck/uninspired, try attacking from another angle.

    If you’re not feeling excited to write a scene, no one on god’s green earth is going to want to read it either. Something that’s been a game-changer for me is keeping a scratch notebook/practice notebook around– it’s literally just a notebook that I can treat as a sandbox and play around in. Sometimes I use a spare Word .doc for this– you just have to get yourself in a place where you’re not writing in the main draft and you don’t have that pressure on you.

    Maybe you try attacking from another POV. Maybe you try writing it from a different point in time– is it more useful to show the aftermath than the actual fight? Maybe you try another structure for the character entirely. You have to get back to what makes you hyped up to write: why did you decide to write this scene to begin with? Was it because you were stoked to include this one interaction between characters, or was it because you felt like you needed this scene here?

    If you have a point in the scene you’re dying to write, focus on that! If you don’t, look at ways that you can restructure things so that something fun for you to write is happening. Otherwise, evaluate whether or not you truly need this one.

  11. The MICE Quotient.

    I don’t want to say too much and not have people read the post, so I’ll just also recommend the Writing Excuses episode on this, as it is excellent.

  12. Voice is hard to balance with action.

    This is one of those “this is why the hell that thing is so hard for me” light bulb moments from earlier in this year: what is my problem with voice?

    It’s not so much that I dislike voice– there some books that I love because of the voice! Meg Cabot’s Mediator books were like my ideal as a teen reader– but there are books that I either find the voice too grating and kind of infuriating, or books where the voice overwhelms the story. It’s a safe bet to assume that we’re reading for character, but a good voice doesn’t mean that every single action is commented or snarked on.

    Sometimes it’s okay to just have a character say something straight-up (“it’s a bus”) without pronouncing judgement on it (“it’s a sad little dumpster on wheels”). Especially meaningful to me in the case of a snarkier narrator is when they take things genuinely. Humor can be a defense mechanism, anything to keep them from having to be serious and open to being hurt. When you show them being open and not dissembling about something, that can say a lot.

  13. It is a long game.

    I think about it like you’re building a city. Each project you complete is a new building. Maybe it’s a small house that only a few people know about or a project that only a few people read. Maybe it’s a huge skyscraper that people want you to construct more of. Maybe you’re building on the structures that you had before, taking things from older projects and resurrecting them into something bigger and newer.

    It can get frustrating to feel like you’re not doing anything, or that it’s taking a long time for things to happen. A lot is out of your control in publishing, except for the things you make. So, get passionate about creating stuff. You have your whole life to build a city; it’s okay to start small. On the flip, it’s also okay to build a ton of huge things and see what happens. You have a lot of time to devote to learning how to do this well.

    And there’s a ton of stuff to learn– you don’t just want to build the same thing over and over, it’s more exciting and looks cooler when you’ve mastered a variety of styles. It can be easy to obsess about the business side of things, but ultimately you remember more why you’re in the game when you remember why you love creating stuff.

  14. Emperical evidence: track revision hours and words per day.

    The more you know about your process, the better you can get at estimating how long things will take you. Granted, sometimes things are just going to go wrong or be more difficult than anticipated, but having a baseline is a good place to start from.

    Another helpful thing to do, especially if you’re reading for others, is to track how long it usually takes you to read a friend’s manuscript. If you know you can do about two or three manuscripts per month (while still managing your own life responsibilities and writing goals) then you’ll be able to keep commitments better for your friends and CPs.

  15. It’s always better to finish things, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking about stories as widgets/commodities. 

    Forward momentum is important, and it really does feel good to get a story to a state where you can be proud of it and okay with other people reading it. However, it can also be easy to feel like you need to constantly be turning out new projects. Generally, I learn more from the projects that I get stuck on and spend a ton of time on rather than ones that I cranked out for NaNos and other one-per-month story events.

    Everyone’s process is different, but from time to time examine how you’re doing things. Is it difficult for you to finish stuff because you give yourself too much downtime (or is your life just kind of in a difficult place to finish stuff quickly)? If life stuff is going on, usually you just have to wade through that, unfortunately, but if there’s something you can fix, maybe look at that.

    On the other hand, are you whipping out a lot of projects and feeling like they’re all kind of the same? One of the reasons why I really detest beat sheets is because they can make a story feel formulaic and boring if you rely on them too heavily. Each story is different, even if you’re following the same structure– challenge yourself to look deeper and see where the emotional resonance is in the story for you.

  16. You’re always going to win me over with the emotional arc.

    Wow, what a segue.

    I like sparkling prose and hilarious characters, and I’ll be happy if I can find a plot that surprises me, but the one thing that makes a book truly great to me is a satisfying ending. Sometimes I feel like the emotional arc is the hardest thing to nail down: you need to know where the plot is going (something I usually discover in the zero draft), you need to know what your characters look like, and you need to have an idea of what internal struggle the protagonist is going to need to overcome (which is not as easy as knowing who they are and what bad guy they have to beat at the end makes it sound).

    Everything in the book contributes in some way to the emotional arc. For example, usually I’m fascinated by the concept of strength. You tend to see my protagonists approaching strength and power from different angles– a power-thirsty warrior sent to another dimension to cool her jets, a fallen heir taking back his company, a boy out for revenge when his girlfriend is killed.

    Sure, there are external obstacles preventing my protagonists from achieving their goals, but there is also necessary internal growth that the audience sees. They are not the same person as they were at the beginning.

    One of my favorite things is seeing a protagonist succeed at something at the end that they either failed at or would have failed at before the story/at the beginning. It’s like, wow, look, hanging out with this guy for four or five hours actually did something! We read this whole book and now they’ve gained this new ability/perception, awesome.

  17. You never truly leave the training grounds. 

    Once upon a time, I was really into digital art. Like, I saved up and bought my own extremely economical tablet for drawing (I still dream about getting a Wacom someday, maybe after grad school), would devote time to it during the week. There was a site I loved going to (does anyone else have fond memories of Oekaki Central, aka the One True OC to me), and they had you draw in different rooms depending on your image content and skill level.

    I thought this was the literal coolest thing. If you wanted to draw hot guys, you went to the Stove. If you wanted to draw cute girls, the Jewelry Box. Outdoor landscapes? Check out the Garden. General 2-star stuff was in the Patio. Want to practice your colorist skills on premade lineart? Coloring Book it was. General 3-star stuff went in the Living Room, and so on. There was a star system– if you were a beginner, you were 1-star, if you were intermediate you were 2-star, if your work could be accepted into magazines you had 3-stars. Most rooms were 2-star and above, but if you were a determined 1-star like me (or someone with a higher star level who wanted to experiment) you could practice and get better by drawing in the Training Grounds, the general 1-star room.

    I used to get so mad because I’d practice my everliving ass off and I still wouldn’t be good enough for the 2-star rooms. I’d always have to go back to the Training Grounds, work on my stuff there for a few weeks, and try again. I just wanted to be a Cool Artist and not have to swim in the kiddie pool all the time.

    But if there’s anything that experience taught me, it’s that there’s always going to be something that you have to learn and you have to be okay with that. Admitting that you need practice isn’t a bad thing and it doesn’t make you any less of a creator to spend time learning how to do something properly. It’s an ars longa, vita brevis kind of lifestyle and that’s actually kind of awesome. You’re never going to run out of stuff to learn.

    And it may seem kind of annoying, not always churning out 2-star or 3-star work, but there’s a whole lot of expectation that comes with that. Giving yourself the space to practice, and more importantly to fail, can really help you move your craft forward.

    So, I think that’s what I’m going for in 2018: be clear and fail boldly, then fix it all in revisions.

    And on that note, happy new year! 🙂 Let me know what your favorite writing tips from 2017 have been!

track and field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You take the weights off and you fly.

body of work

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what am I going to share?

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

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

A few caveats:

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

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

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

Fanfic: 262,271

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

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

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

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

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

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

body of work


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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the final breakdown:

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

Grand total: 1,666,834

And there you go.

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

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

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

The goal is to produce a body of work.

state of the writer

I really want to do something summing up 2014, but because of the usual ~holiday madness~ and also Desperately Trying to Read All the Things before it becomes 2015 it’s been hard to collect my thoughts.

So, when my good friend L.S. Mooney (follow her and check out her stuff–she is rad) tagged me in a thing, I figured it was a great opportunity to forever memorialize and otherwise less illustriously record where we’re at as a writer at the end of 2014.

1. What are you working on right now?

NA Urban Fantasy: Constantine, but if Diana Wynne Jones was writing it. It’s really fun! I’ve known all these wackadoo characters since like, high school? I wrote it once before in 2009, then edited that version in 2011, and then came to the slow but accurate realization that I needed more practice before a fresh attempt could be made early in 2013. Now it is 2014 and while we are not yet done slow-drafting this one, I am much more proud of it.

2. What is your preferred writing program/word processor/etc.?

Word. I have Scrivener on this machine, I know it works, I have actually typed words into it even, but I still gravitate back to Word. My fanfic background has taught me to just type words anywhere and has given me a special fondness for shoddy text boxes. I also used to type all my essays in Word during high school and college, so knowing that this derpy little page on my laptop could someday become a book makes me feel all kinds of nostalgia~

so yeah Word basically I am a dinosaur.

3. Are you a rule breaker? (AKA do you love or hate adverbs?)

I am an experimentalist. I believe that you should be breaking rules (because how else are you going to do Startling New Things) but that you should know damn well what you’re breaking before you break it.

Adverbs are usually crutch words– they’re ways for you to be lazy with a lexicon, for a writer to get away with using a weaker word when a stronger one is better. In a first draft, fo sho, adverb it up. It’s like writing margin notes to yourself–pushing but with more muchness! But in a final draft, it’s got to be– I am using this word for a specific purpose. Do I need to use one of my adverb flares here or can I do this better with a different construction? That’s when you cross out “walked awkwardly” and write “stumbled” or replace “touched gently” with “caressed.”

Some you keep, because wow yes some do just sound better with the adverb. And that’s cool. But you know this because you have tried damn hard to get the same feeling without the adverb and you can’t.

4. If you could write anywhere, where would it be?

A coffeeshop (because I like ambient chatter, the feeling of anonymity in a crowd, the City) with affordable but excellent drinks (and yes not so much coffee because I am Naturally Excitable but chocolate- or tea-based drinks are A+), where no one would steal my stuff when I got up (important) and my headphones never made my ears feel tired (because how can you write without hip tunes).

5. Share one of your favorite lines/scenes that you’ve ever written.

I am just one more Shibboleth heir in a dress shirt and slacks, and this lets them forget all the other things I am. (SEVEN DEADLY)

Shelley Summers was a city map he’d cut into himself, and if he ventures too far from shore the old lines slice open again. (SLINGS AND ARROWS)

6. Do you prefer writing from the 1st or 3rd POV?

I crave facility with both. Right now, 1st is the harder one for me so the project I’m currently working on is in 1st person. 3rd tends to be my strongest, since most of my fic in high school was in that.

7. When did you start writing?

I’ve been telling myself stories for ages. Like, probably the moment when I knew that I wanted to write long stuff (as opposed to shorter stories or essays) was when I started filling up this notebook with my own ~Pokemon Adventure~.

It pretty much was everything you could hope for from a nine-year-old with a box of colored pencils. All the Gym Leaders decided to chill with me and be my friends, except that Brock was my best friend, because I had a crush on him and also because he was awesome.

8. How do you feel about short stories?

They’re fun. I have written exactly one short story (“The first time he wore eyeliner…”) and then I think I eviscerated the correct draft and left the crappy one on my laptop, so it’s currently Not That Extant. But, I found the hard copy print-out I had of the good version on my desk a few weeks ago, so maybe I’ll look at it again.

9. What is your favorite thing about your life as a writer?

I like that it’s a sort of a secret thing, this Other Job that I do between math research and teaching classes. It’s like a changeover between the Narrator and Tyler Durden, like oh you’re feeling sleepy? sweet, bro, hand the reins over and let’s make some magic.

10. What are your top do’s and don’t’s of writing, for yourself and others?

Okay, settle yourselves in for a bit of an Answer because I am eating some peppermint bark and feeling evangelical.

Always be learning. This is my biggest one. It’s very easy to assume you know everything when you tend to be the most well-read individual in your group of friends/people you talk to regularly.

Come at things with the attitude of a beginner. Ask yourself how the book or manuscript you’re reading can help you learn– pay attention to how the author is making the characters interact versus how differently the story is going from what you’d do in their place. I guarantee you’ll learn more by being like “okay writer-bro, take the wheel I will ride with you and we’ll see where we go” versus nitpicking a story.

Most of all, be humble. Humble never hurts. Your notes don’t have to be pedantic, you don’t have to have solutions for every problem you spot. Part of being a professional is acknowledging that you do not know everything, and that this is okay. This is why you’re learning and why you sometimes ask for help.

You are not as good as you think you are. This sounds all kinds of rough and sad, but let me explain. There are days when I’m like THIS MANUSCRIPT IS THE SALT OF THE EARTH THE VERY SALT I TELL YOU and hearing back from people that yeah okay, it’s decent, holds together well, but here are some areas where improvement can happen, that sort of sucks.

Thinking like your whole manuscript is perfect as-is is dangerous. Because yes, agree, there are some parts of it that are perfect already.  They are probably the parts that made you think that the whole thing is great. But there are always parts that can be stronger, and thinking that the book is finished means that you’re cutting yourself off from those learning opportunities.

Give yourself a policy, like, okay, I’m going to read through this one more time before sending it. Chances are, you will find an area where you can tighten things up. After that, send.

But you’re also not as bad as you think. The fact that it hurts means you have skin in the game. You want this. You see the gap, as Ira Glass so excellently says, between the art you want to produce and the stuff you are producing.

The first thing that I ever got serious about was drawing. I had sketchbooks that I carried around with me everywhere in 7th grade through high school. The thing is that you really do have to make a lot of art before you start getting good. I have sketchbooks filled with really bad drawings and I’m like what even is this but it’s a solid foundation for my skillz now.

Maybe this is not the story that gets published, or the story that gets you an agent. Okay. There are still beautiful things in it. You are better as an artist for having created this piece. Never stop learning, never stop filling up notebooks with stories or typing words into docs. Stay humble, sure, but don’t run yourself into the ground.

You are getting better and you are making things. That’s all you need. Period, full stop.

See you in 2015.

spreading threads of thunder

When I was eight years old, I went to Nantucket with my family and my best friend’s family. We took a boat, and on the trip she took out a yellow GameBoy Color, started playing this game you maybe have heard of called Pokemon Blue, and let me try it.

Everything changed.

I’d gotten really bored with television– I hated (and continue to hate) episodic series where any order is as good as any other (I’m looking at you, Nickelodeon). The way kid me described it was that I wanted a movie that I could push along at my own pace. When I started playing that Pokemon game, I’d found what I was looking for: a story that I made happen only through my effort.

My parents were not gamers. They were actually pretty against games, and I had to work my ass off convincing them I’d still do all my homework, agreeing if I fell behind on any chores or assignments or showed signs of being irresponsible that they’d take the game away. They also wouldn’t buy it for me– part of the deal was that if I wanted it so badly, I had to earn it myself.

Which was actually pretty awesome, because it was one of the best and earliest lessons in responsibility I got as a kid: if you want something, you have to work to achieve it and plan how you’re going to fit it into your life once you have.

It was $70 for the GameBoy Color, $20 for Pokemon Blue, so $95 total. I did odd jobs around the house, weeded, dusted, cleaned bathrooms, etc. It took around three or four weeks from the time when me and my parents drew up the agreement to when I finished earning the money for it. Now that I’m older, I think maybe they were banking on the fact that I tend to be very ambitious and start lots of stuff, only finishing the ones I was serious about.

But I was serious about this one. I wanted to have stories whose fates depended on my active input, movies whose endings rested on my shoulders instead of being drawn to some inevitable conclusion. I wanted to be the one who made the endings happen.

And so, that’s what I became.

This isn’t to convince you that I’m a legit gamer. Personally, I think that “legit gamer” status is bullshit– if you play a video game and enjoy it, congrats! Yer a gamer, Harry.

I’m telling you this because I want you to see that this has been a large part of my identity since I was a kid. It’s integral to how I write and how I develop magic systems and build worlds. Part of the reason I do math is that I also see it as a type of game.

And still, I wasn’t going to post this. It’s more exhausting writing about something you dislike than it is to just say “nope, you know what, we’re not going to go there because that is one whole-ass mess of crazy and I’d rather play Animal Crossing and have fun than buy a slice of that, thanks.”

But then I read stuff like this on my timeline:

and I’m like, welp, how can I be silent when it’s exactly what those GG guys want?

My speaking out about stuff like this doesn’t reach a large number of people. I know that. In the long run, writing this post will probably make me more uncomfortable than it will anyone reading it. But that’s okay, because I think I’d be disappointed in myself if I didn’t state this publicly at least once.

I’m a girl and I play games. And it bothers the hell out of me that my mostly kickass video game culture (because hey, we’re humans and there will always be some level of douchebaggery everywhere) is having such trouble reconciling that people like me exist and both impact and deserve to impact that culture.

And the thing is, I love games and the fantastic worlds within them too much to stop playing. I am going kind of nuts trying to figure out whether I want to buy Pokemon Alpha Sapphire or Omega Ruby first (also lol, you have no idea how hilarious it’s been talking about ye olde GBC instead of the 3DS). I’ve already warned my family that around Thanksgiving I’m going to be making my yearly pilgrimage through Persona 3, and I’m forever going to fawn over every member of the Namco Tales series (even though yeah Legendia was kind of odd).

I’ve gone through packs of AA batteries like an alkaline junkie. I barbaric yawp’d and scared the neighbors when my handheld consoles finally switched to chargers. I got asked to beat all the hard levels for my little brother, which I did because I’m good at puzzles and half-decent at being a sibling. I’ve delayed more family dinners with “I’m not at a savepoint yet!” than most people sit down to in a year.

I’ve loved these things since I was eight years old and tromping around on a chilly boat supposedly watching whales, actually watching Charmander fight Brock’s Onix in Pewter Gym.

I’m in it for the adventure and the stories, and that’s not going to change.

But the next time you see that hashtag pop up and you wonder if you really know anyone affected by all this madness, if any of us are biting our nails and delaying pressing post as long as humanly possible because damn it’s gotten terrifying to even identify as a member of this community if you’re female or if it’s all just conflated SJW nonsense, then: hi.

I’m a girl, and I play games.


5am is my favorite time of the day.

It’s that half-lit time between night and morning, stupidly early before the rest of the world wakes up. And I’m in a coffeeshop, working on a manuscript.

Once when I was in undergrad, one of my poetry professors said that he only submitted to literary magazines whose titles intrigued him (I have tried to follow his example, because it’s nine million times more fun to say “oh yes, I’m in Print-Oriented Bastards“) and he said that he and some friends worked on and called one 5AM for the similar reasons: because if you’re awake at 5am, you’ve got to have a reason for it– you’re either out too late chasing the wild party, or you have a very specific job.

The latter group is the one I most often roll with, and it’s where the protagonist for this new story falls. This is a thing I started writing in high school, finished a draft of in college, and that I’m rewriting for the first time since 2012.

My last manuscript, SLINGS AND ARROWS, has a whole lot to do with ghosts. (Spoiler: it’s a Hamlet reimagining, and the main character’s girlfriend becomes a ghost.) I’ve always just liked ghosts, and they tend to pop up somehow in pretty much everything I write.

This WIP takes place during the fall, from late September to a few days in November. Leaves start falling, it gets colder, people put out pumpkins and paper ghosts in windows–it’s the part of the year when, across cultures, we reconnect with the dead, the damned, the lost souls. It’s a liminal time between seasons, and so too is 5am between days.

And we build up this mythology about it, like it’s when the ghosts come out.

I don’t have many delusions about writing (at least, god, I hope I don’t or else this is going to get wicked pretentious wicked fast)– I do it daily, or when I’m not zombie-puking in a bathroom from sickness and exhaustion, I outline in my head and plan, I use a sticker system to keep on track, I listen to music. I treat it like a career.

But somehow I keep ending up in this Starbucks at ass o’clock in the morning like it’s a ritual, all so I can write this first-person narrative about a guy who says things like I’m just one more heir in a dress shirt and slacks, and this lets them forget all the other things I am.

First person is my worst POV. I don’t write it because it’s way too easy to tell when it sounds artificial. And when I do, I ramble. I stumble into anecdotes. I make novice mistakes and I mess up.

But here I am again, nursing a coffee and typing and un-typing until I get something that doesn’t sound like crap. It’s the book that has already taken me the longest to write, and I don’t even have a serviceable draft of it. But it’s fall again, like every year, I get the urge to return to this story.

And this is the year that I’m doing it. 5am is my favorite time of the day because it’s here, hunkered over this table with some dude who’s pretending to read his paper but is actually just flicking glances at my screen, that this story is getting written.  It is 5am and I’m awake and I have a very specific job.

Because books, in some ways, are also ghosts. They’re impressions of people we knew, places we visited, things that happened to us ages ago and feelings we had. They’re impressions of who we were when we wrote them.

I like ghosts because I know what it’s like to be haunted, whether it’s by an idea or a person that you miss. I like the concept of leaving a part of yourself somewhere. It works well with the Tragic Bro thematic element I’ve got going on across my work.

So yeah, that thing you’ve been wondering if you’re good enough to write yet? Write it. Give it a shot, and even if you can’t pull it off all the way, there’s always next year. You’ll get better. There’ll be another fall, more 5ams in Starbucks, steadily and quietly sampling every damn thing on the menu and in the pastry case.

The point is, it’s worth it to start. It’s a pain messing up the story that is probably the book of your heart, learning to write in a perspective you flounder in, and dragging your sorry ass out of bed and through a cold side street so you can go through your silent, existential terror in the company of sleepy strangers and baristas too tired to remember to turn on the radio. It’s the best you’ve ever felt, watching garbage men sling rain-wet bags into the mouth of their truck as the sun scrapes over the edges of your city, even if it can also be the worst.

But more than anything, it’s fall. And that’s when the ghosts come out.