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!

awards eligibility 2017

I’ve been kind of quiet this year, mostly due to dissertation research and manuscript revisions, but I do have one (1) SFF short story eligible for awards! 2017 marked my first pro sale, which I am very proud of, and that means 2018 will be my first year of Campbell eligibility.

Short fiction:

“Texts from the Ghost War” (Escape Pod, June 2017) A mecha pilot and an heir text each other in a city filled with violent, sky-scraper tall ghosts.

Thank you for your consideration! It’s still kind of surreal making an eligibility post, and I’m incredibly grateful to the fantastic people at Escape Pod and everyone who’s read/listened to and enjoyed this.

takeaways from the nebulas

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

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

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

un-purpling prose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s have an example.

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

What doesn’t work here ?

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

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

You’re not trusting the reader.

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

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

So, let’s try to rescue this thing.

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

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


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

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

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

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

the one narrator to rule them all

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now, because I always loved these:


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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I fell.

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

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

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

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

I had to hide it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader, I crab-walked away from him.

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

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

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

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

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

You just have to be creative about it.

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You did just fine.” I said.

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

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

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


I have had a somewhat tempestuous relationship with the cello.

Let me explain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This hurt.

Of all my cello teachers, Elena is my favorite.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Had I gone through those ten years for nothing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you have a teacher?” I ask him.

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

“You know,” I say, “I should.”

track and field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You take the weights off and you fly.