travel writing

(image credit: Lucy Cross)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miami, though, is different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

body of work

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what am I going to share?

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

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

A few caveats:

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

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

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

Fanfic: 262,271

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

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

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

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

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

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

body of work

BEHOLD, MY BEAUTIFUL DARK TWISTED FANTASY

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the final breakdown:

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

Grand total: 1,666,834

And there you go.

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

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

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

The goal is to produce a body of work.

stage magic

A craft post after an eternity of no craft posts, oh man.

Recently, I was talking on twitter using #betatips about what it means to be a good beta reader and critique partner. One thing I touched on particularly bothered me in a way I didn’t feel like I could sum up in 140 characters: how people are convinced that reading books critically will affect their ability to read them for pleasure.

I understand that, for sure. I used to feel that way, worried that if I poked around too much in something I liked that I’d analyze the magic out of it. It’s a very real fear: you’d much rather not mess with the TV if learning about how to take it apart means you’ll destroy it forever.

So, let’s talk about stage magic.

DEM HANDSMy favorite movie with Real People in it (my favorite of all time is, of course, animated and also Spirited Away) is The Illusionist. I love a lot of Wes Anderson films (and someday want to write a book like a Wes Anderson film but hey that’s a goal for later) and yet none of them have as of 2015 made me fall as in love with them as The Illusionist. Clearly Edward Norton is transferable, so I bet if I ever do shift favorites for the Real Human category, it will involve him somehow.

Norton’s character in The Illusionist is a stage magician named Eisenheim. I won’t spoil it too much for you if you haven’t seen it, but it’s got ghosts, tragic love, subterfuge, a cat and mouse game, detectives, dexterity, heirs apparent, stage magic, and an orange tree.  Also it is set in Vienna. Throughout the movie, an inspector attempts expose Eisenheim as a fake, to figure out the trick behind his shows.

Reading is a lot like stage magic. As a reader, you’re in Eisenheim’s audience. You see the trick performed and you’re like whoa! how did he do that thing? The author is performing on stage and you’re along for the ride.

Reading books as a writer is where it gets more complicated. You’re a magician sitting in on another magician’s show. You have now become the kind of person who wants to know how the trick is done. And sure, you know how to do some tricks, not all of them, and while you can still shift back into watching the spectacle as a member of the audience, there’s also this curiosity in you: you want to be able to make people vanish, throw birds into the air from nothing.

throws birds helloThe first rule of stage magic is to never do the same trick twice.  You don’t want to make it too easy for your audience to figure you out. You want them to be mystified enough to wonder about it on their own (which is relying on the fact that your audience/reader is smart, also good to keep in mind).

When you’re reading as a writer, though, you’re an apprentice stage magician. You need to see tricks multiple times. This is how you learn, watching the pros perform over and over until you see the sleight of hand and then can work to master it on your own. Reading is an essential part of writing development– how else are you going to acquire new skills?

But that brings us back to our original problem. You took the TV apart, you couldn’t put it together for hours, and after all the sweat and possibly blood and possibly also tears, you did it and for two minutes it felt like a miracle. The TV turns on, it even gets cable, and now you know about the switches, the cathode ray tube, the wiring, what constitutes high vacuum. It’s no longer just pressing a button and presto for you. But then you kind of hated it and hated it viscerally, all those working parts, for not being as magical as you thought they must be.

And that’s your worst fear: you learned the trick and the wonder is gone.

ghost vanishIs that the price of knowledge? Sadness, eternal cynicism? Does Art have to be this forever-mysterious capitalized word that you analyze at your peril? Yeah, sounds terrible, no thank you. Some people say art’s like wild magic, like a horse: once broken, you’ll never be able to get it to go as fast as it was untamed.

I disagree. I think there are many types of magic, and the one I subscribe to is the one born from technique. I’d rather have a magic school over a muse any day. Repetition and constant study give me control, and it’s control over the magic, over the writing that I want.

But what about the wonder?

I didn’t really have a good answer to this until I started teaching and had to present on a daily basis: most of what you’re doing is acting.  When I teach calculus, I already know how the triple integral needs to go. But to connect with my audience, aka my students, I have to remember the intimidation of all those integral signs, the points where it’s easy to mess up, the tips and mnemonics I used when I was learning the first time.

It’s same in writing. As you revise, you’ve known from the very first sentence where the characters are going to end up, what cosmic inevitabilities await them.  But you pretend you don’t to build the show for the reader and draw them in. You pretend that the tricks you’re doing really are some crazy power you have– you believe the illusion to make it real.

You learn to cultivate this weird split-headedness, sort of like separating yourself into characters or into an author and an editor but also a little different. The best way I’ve heard to describe it was an author’s character teaching someone to do magic: you have to believe something to be true, absolutely true, even when you know without a doubt it’s false, and you have to believe both things completely at the same time.

orange treeThere’s a part of you that knows exactly how the trick works, and a part of you that fiercely doesn’t, that’s convinced you’re performing real, actual magic and is in love with it as much as your audience is. And that’s why I love The Illusionist: it says magic isn’t something that gets lost when you understand it. Watch any of Eisenheim’s movements, and you can see that this is a person who’s just as into it as his audience.

That’s what storytelling is: performance. It’s lying to yourself and believing it 100% because you know that if you don’t your audience never will.

And when you get there and you study another writer’s work and see the trick, it doesn’t make you sad anymore. The TV for you now exists in two worlds: as the magic box and the logical array of parts and you revel in it. Because you got it, you figured it out, you got tricked and now you see the magic and you’re so damn excited to make it your own.

ORANGE TREE omgThis is how you do stage magic.

This is how you write.

peripatetic

i. You wake up to a dim rain. Somewhere, people are working in their 5am cafes but today you are not one of them. You think blurrily about proofs and strategies but mostly you just curl tighter into the blanket against the air conditioning and retrace the last threads of dreams.

ii. You wake up and your hands feel slick. Your 3am brain processes for a minute before realizing it’s ink, damn it, and it’s on your pillowcase, too.  You cap the pen and pretend you’ve seen the last of those summer nights where you have to work until you exhaust yourself.

iii. You wake up and you are surrounded by cow femurs.

iv. You wake up to the thunder and whistle of trains thrumming across the tracks at 6am, 7am, 8am. Beyond the window, egrets, whooping and great, their necks tucked into their chests like they have taken offense at something but are too upset to share what, dip in white handkerchief shapes between the mirror-clad planes of skyscrapers.

v. You wake up several times and keep falling back asleep. Outside the door, someone powerlevels their high elf sorcerer in Elder Scrolls and a cat meows impatiently for you to come out.

vi. You wake up and you have one more bed than you need. Little kids clamor at the mini golf course in the courtyard below your window, banners flap, and a firepit cackles into the mid-morning. Pipes in the walls wail, and you pretend you’re being haunted instead of going to a wedding.

vii. You wake up and it is early. It’s the time in summer where the sun just barely lags behind you and turns your whole room blue through the windows you do not yet have blinds for. You drink water from a glass jar and count the lights turning off and coming on before going back to sleep.

viii. You wake up to pancakes. You mainly eat eggs for breakfast now but pancakes have been your favorite breakfast food since when you were a kid and your mom unfailingly makes them when you visit. You put your contacts in, finish writing down the sketches of your dreams, and wake up for real. Your dogs still do not grasp that no dead things are allowed in your bed, but that’s okay. Some things take a while to learn.

i, vii: Pittsburgh. ii, iii, viii: Cincinnati. iv: Dallas. v: Columbus. vi: Bordentown.

philately

The postman probably thinks you’re insane.

They probably also wonder why you do this, why there are so many letters going out when so few come back in, why, when letters, letter-writing, and the post office are all supposed to be dying, you refuse to let them die in peace with all your myriad correspondence. They probably think you are the sort of vigilante hipster who only writes with artisanly sharpened pencils.

And chances are they deliver your incoming mail as well as manage the outgoing, so they probably observe several things: there are some addresses that write you back, there is a home address that unabashedly sends you packages with stickers and pictures on them, there are cards from distant relatives, and postcards with inside jokes.

And then there is that one address you write to, less frequently, that never writes you back.

You are five or so, and your dad has taken you to work.

You get to play with the expo markers and the whiteboard, and while you like that, it’s not quite your favorite. The board got erased before you came in, will get erased again, and you dislike working with such impermanent materials. You learned this fact young, and this was why you took to the walls with markers when you were younger still: walls lasted. Your parents, of course, flipped out and plied you with other materials, and you are now more interested in sheets of printer paper.

But only used printer paper–one side blank, one side printed on– you’re only allowed to draw on that kind (because to only use one part of the animal is wasteful and also your dad needs the blank ones for work). There are no windows in the office (it will be the last one of your dad’s offices like that) though there is a ficus (there will always, relentlessly be a ficus).

On the way out, you hold your dad’s hand and someone wheels what seems to you a huge cart of recycling past.

There are moments that make you think your heart is a magnet and that you can feel the world shift as it shudder-swings toward a pole. When you become an adult, you will be able to count these moments on one hand.

And this is the first: this anonymous man pushing a cart piled with mountains of used paper, one side printed on, the other side clear, still so much blankness aching to be filled up.

When you got to fifth grade, your school did an invention fair. Your job was to invent something within two weeks and you couldn’t think of anything that hadn’t been done before.

What you ended up making was disappointing: a portfolio with all the necessary amenities for correspondence: pencil holder, clips, paper, envelopes. But hey, you were nine, maybe ten. What could you have done?

Then, you saw the girl with the stamps.

Why do stamps have to taste gross? She’d asked. She made little scraps of paper with different flavors of adhesive on the backs, so they’d be more fun to lick than the regular kind.

You were in awe. You hadn’t even thought about making an extant thing better, and now it seemed so obvious. Here, finally, was someone who had had an Idea.

You and your friends traded stamp flavors among yourselves so you could have the full flavor experience (the girl has signs posted saying explicitly Not to Do That because germs but you were nine and reckless). Banana was gross, even to someone like you who actually liked banana flavor, but the others, cookie dough and chocolate and strawberry, were good.

You walked off with your friends and your collectively licked scraps of paper, faith in your peers restored and convinced you had caught a glimpse of the future.

Years later, it really surprised you when the post office made stamps self-adhesive instead.

This is the third post office in southern Ohio you and your mother have visited, because you are trying very desperately to pick up a few more sheets of the Lunar New Year stamps. Your mother has been a real champ about this, because you are sometimes unable to explain why you are drawn so powerfully to purchase what are effectively stickers for grown-ups, but she humors you. Drives you, even.

You ask the nice postal worker there about the New Years stamps.

“Oh yeah, those,” she says, and pulls out at least one hundred sheets of the stamps you have been chasing across the city in a sheaf. She flips through it, nonchalant. “How many did you want again?”

“Three.” You watch her fan them out like cards in a deck, thousands of gold-edged puzzle pieces, blue and gold.

“These are really pretty.” She counts out three, and then laughs when she catches you staring. “You sure you don’t want another?”

You end up getting four, and leave with your waxy envelope full of ram stamps. Collection has always been important to you: things too sacred to use, like the snake, dragon, and horse stamps you have at home. Some day, eight years from now, you will finally have a full zodiac.

“I like having goals.” You tell your mother.

“You’re philatelic.” She unlocks the car so she can drive you both the fifteen minutes back home. “The one for coins is numismatist, which I always remember because it sounds so great.”

“Yeah.” You agree, buckling your seat belt. “Like you’re an arithmancer or something.”

Save a stamp! entreats the lettering under the a square outline on the return envelope. Then: Electronic service requested, starkly and snarkily, as though you’re the one being difficult by not paying your bills online.

Don’t you care about the stamps? You worked so hard to collect them, went to so many post offices to find just the right ones–doesn’t it make you sad, using up all these nice pictures you have on crud like credit card payments?

Look, here’s a simple way to save your precious stamps: don’t use them. Conserve and preserve. Aren’t you philatelic? Shouldn’t you be trying harder?

Doesn’t it bother you, using them all up?

The thing about magic is that it always comes with a cost.

Stamps are their own kind of sorcery: stick the appropriate charm on the envelope and it will go where you tell it to. You used to dream about the department of lost letters, magics gone wrong, letters that ended up in limbo for years, slowly finding their way to the descendents of the addressees.

The thing about stamps is that they are created to serve a purpose. They’re useful. Take away their use and they cease to exist.

It’s like asking someone to cancel their newspaper subscription for the sake of their paperboy. Sure, you’re saving someone a trip to your apartment through the early AM streets, but if enough people are that considerate, there won’t be any newspapers left to deliver and the kid’s out of a job.

It’s fine to talk about conservation when the thing you’re trying to save has lasted perfectly well on its own without human interference, like certain animals or coral. But when it’s man-made, it’s different.

It must be used to survive, or else you destroy the thing you mean to save.

Truth be told, it’s bad letter-writing etiquette using both sides of the paper and you know this, but you do it anyway. Call it a bad habit.

There’s just a lot to say, and if writing on both sides is too informal for etiquette then whatever. You write close, speak in slangs, all spiked, slanted capitals, lowercase g’s with sinister hooks, and the recipients of your letters know what they’re getting into before they slit the envelope.

This is the cost of magic: the postmark, the ink laser printed over something beautiful to nullify it. Sometimes when relatives send you birthday cards you trace your finger over a foreign stamp and get sad, but you’re old enough to know that you can’t have rarity without sacrifice.

So you tear open the envelopes and the double envelopes, make your replies, and keep waiting for that black hole address to cave. You are as relentless as a windowless office ficus and this is your magic: sheets and sheets of commemorative stamps, some squirreled away in wax envelopes and others carrying letters to their destinations, spells in effect.

And does it bother you? The writing beneath the stamp square asks. Doesn’t that make you a bad collector, using them like that?

You stuff the return envelope into the post box and walk off. Because, no, it doesn’t.

You wouldn’t want something so bad if it was so easy to keep it forever.

vehicle dynamics

It’s a question that people keep asking and I never know how to answer. Social media usually just wants a location– in the current sense: where are you now versus where you’ve been– and my apartment’s zip code is enough to handle most trivialities, where to send the bills, the magazines, the letters from home.

It’s just that eternal filler for the dead space in parties that trips me up, that last question on the online form for which I can’t provide a satisfactory answer.

your profile is 90% complete: where are you from?

Place and I have a complicated relationship.

I moved around a lot when I was younger. Despite my love of all things naval, I’m not a military brat, just the kid of an upwardly mobile professional chasing a career across the States. I stopped memorizing streets and maps when my family moved to Boston from Chicago, then had to learn Cincinnati to help my parents navigate.

Sometimes in dreams I find myself back in places in foreign towns and countries: the Winner’s Pizzeria in Reading that had the best Cajun fries I’ve ever had in my life; the main stairwell of my high school, four floors of soft glass spiraling upward–first is ground floor, second is the chapel, third is classrooms, fourth goddamn it finally is where my locker is, and in front of everything is this three-story cross; the short drive from my house in Illinois to the Jewel; running through small town streets along the coast for cross country meets.

The one place I never dream about, though, is South Carolina.

My first word was “car.”

This was probably a little disappointing to my poor parents, who must have spent ages and hours hovering over their firstborn repeating sounds and listening for something to stumble out that resembled their names. Instead, they got me: small child getting very excited about going on grocery shopping trips in our silver Volvo.

Despite this illustrious first edition to my lexicon, I didn’t get my own car until post-college. I’d been so adamant about needing to live in a city and, hence, not driving, that it was only my parents gifting me driving school lessons for Christmas that I actually started.

Enter Belial.

My family names all our cars, except for Dad (we name his for him anyway). Mum’s first Volvo, the silver one that was my first word, was named Ogla, and the one I learned to drive on’s Lars. My younger brother has driven Jaeger and Valkyrie (both of which met sad ends) and will soon add a new car to his pantheon. My mother calls my dad’s truck Rex.

Belial was a 1998 BMW 328i I purchased using my $800 of graduation money–I’ll give you a moment to blink because, yeah–thanks to aforementioned brother’s unreal charm and haggling technique, also thanks to an opportune ice storm. Hail-damaged and with an inside dotted with foil star stickers that I am still continually discovering more of, Bel was the sort of thing I never expected to own but was perfect.

My first post-undergrad apartment, job, and school were all in upstate South Carolina, which, if you’re not familiar with the geography of the region, is in the upper left corner of the sideways triangle that is the Palmetto State. It’s about two hours away from everywhere, though if you go about twenty minutes in any direction you’re nearly guaranteed to hit a boiled peanut stand.

So you either stayed in town, or you took the highway.

US-123, or Calhoun Memorial Highway, has a speed limit of 70mph. Driving in the rural South is a little different from up North. People joke that I-85 is so named because the speed limit’s 85, and while it might not be entirely legal, that’s about the going speed of traffic.

At least twice weekly, I’d find myself on 123 late into the night, no cops, hardly any light except for headlights, and forests tall enough to scrape the stars.

You go fast, and there’s not enough people around to force you to slow down. You swing around turns and perfect cornering, and maybe you get such a rush that you sign up for a vehicle dynamics class, because suddenly you want to know how this is possible. How, in a world where so many things are so easily terrible, you still have this one thing to wonder at, this empty road with the occasional pin-prick twins of taillights up ahead.

You’ll learn a lot about camber and slip angle, but you won’t be able to nail down why driving so fast late at night makes everything feel like breathy strands of electric guitar, impossibly grand.

And that’s why you keep coming back.

“So where are you from?” A friend’s friend asks me one winter break. I’m back up North again, back in some bar/restaurant in Pittsburgh, and I’ve tried dodging this question already, but the guy wants an answer. My date is curious, too, the kind of noninterest you feign with elbows on the table, leaning in close enough to pretend we’re already casually intimate, that you don’t care that much about the answer, but actually do.

“A lot of places.” I say. I tell the table about Chicago and Boston and Cincinnati. I give the cliff notes version of South Carolina. “And now I’m here again.”

“So…?” The guy across from me trails off. He wants a conclusion to the story, an easy ending to an ongoing exodus, one that I’m not sure I know myself. “Where’s home?”

And I’ve had it. I’m tired of people asking me this damn question and tried of never having an answer. My mom insists that home is where my family’s house is, but Cincinnati’s a place I spend fragments of months in, not my daily life.

I’m done.

“Nowhere,” I say, finally. “I’m not really from anywhere anymore.”

“You can be from here.” My date says and takes a sip of his unsweetened sweet tea. He doesn’t live here either; he moved out a while back and is just visiting for the holiday. The conversation shifts to other things, like home-redecoration and kayaking, but someone gets it and that’s, I think, all I want.

Except it’s not.

My long commutes now are mostly I-70 to I-75, visiting my parents. I drive early in the mornings, sun soft over flat prairie, bean crops and corn fields, and, my perennial favorite: the “Where Will You Spend Eternity? HELL IS REAL” signs.  The highway is silent and sparse, this Saturday sort of divinity where you can find good songs on the radio that come in clear.

One time I sat in on a seminar on travel writing in Miami, and the speaker said that, in her experience, you had to live in a place for at least a year before you knew it well enough to write about it. And I think part of why I keep moving places is that.

I’m from everywhere and nowhere, and to be one requires the other. It’s nomadic and occasionally lonely, but hey, whatever–sometimes you’re just an object in motion, wheel to pavement, memorizing the exit numbers for as long as you can until some new place aligns itself with your coordinates.

Some nights you are going to be so exhausted and drained, you’ll fall asleep with your face mashed into the section on driveshafts in your textbook. But other nights you’ll be on the highway again, listening to how the sounds in your car shift up as it goes from 60 to 80, hoping the rain will hold off until you get home.

tips for finding a CP

No one said finding a good CP was easy– in fact, it’s probably one of the harder things you’ll do as a writer. So why invest the time and energy into finding one or several who really click with you?

A CP gets you experience having your work read by someone else who’s well-read in your field. You also get to read and write editorial letters, or use Word’s Track Changes (depending on which, or both, methods you two decide to use). Both of these are tools that editors in the industry use when they give feedback to their authors, so getting familiar with them early on is a definite plus.

You may also discover cool new tools. One of my CPs raves to me about how awesome Scrivener is and fields my weirdo questions with it. Another one suggests great YA reads to me so we can both keep on top of where the category is going. A CP’s usefulness doesn’t end when she finishes your manuscript: this is a person who is with you for the whole ride, from querying to agented to published (or any other paths that end in published, really).

CPs and beta readers are often mentioned together, but the terms tend not to be interchangeable. Usually, a beta reader reads manuscripts on more of a book-by-book basis. Maybe you want a second opinion on the setting since you’re not from the area your book is set in and you want to make sure that it’s done right. There’s less of the inner circle aspect that you and your CPs develop, but also less of a time investment. If you’re still figuring out who you want to CP with or if you don’t have the time to commit to a CP relationship, finding a beta can be a good option.

So, how do you find CPs?

My biggest advice here is to just put yourself out there in as many ways as possible. I found one of my CPs through How About We CP, a super useful tumblr maintained by a literary agent. Other people use Maggie Stiefvater’s CP Love Connection to great success. My CP and I started emailing and we discovered that we were just awesome wow much write and it’s been shibes and manuscripts ever since.

Another CP and I met over twitter when she asked for publishing intern bloggers and I offered to help. Not only did she get me a running start with blogging, but we also stumbled into being each other’s CPs along the way.

Most other people whom I exchange work with I’ve met through twitter (if you’re not on that platform, or less active over there, step it up!).

Okay, so let’s assume you’ve discovered a few people who sound cool/interesting, they like you as well, and you’ve decided to swap first chapters. Here are some questions to determining who might be a good match for you long-term:

Do you write in/have familiarity with the genres and categories the other writes in? This is kind of the big one, so I put it first. Familiarity with the genre and category your manuscript is in is indispensable.

Do you have similar goals? Like how we asked this in the agent blog, do you and you potential CP also want to get traditionally published and agented, or are you exploring different paths? Obviously there’s no embargo law saying NOPE IF YOU WANT XYZ PUBLISHING PATH YOU CANNOT CP WITH THIS ABC PERSON, but it’s sometimes helpful to have a CP with same goals as you.

You can ask each other about querying (and omg exchange chat hugs, party, etc depending on how that goes), whether the agent who’s offering rep is a good choice, should you accept this publisher’s contract, etc. Likewise, if you decide to go indie, having a CP who’s been down that path can be a huge help both with setting deadlines for yourself, locating formatters, editors, and cover artists, and budgeting time and costs.

How long do you plan to be in this game? Similar to career goals, how committed is your potential CP to staying in publishing? It’s not like you guys need to make a blood pact to be PUB BUDDIEZ 5EVA but it sucks when someone whose work you really liked and who you jived with as a friend decides that they’ve had enough after the first book (or gives up during querying). One thing you should discuss with people is contingency plans– will you continue to write and attempt to get published even if this manuscript doesn’t sell or does poorly?

How slow or fast a writer are you? Sometimes it’s hard to read and crit two of your partner’s manuscripts while you haven’t even finished your own. Do you need someone who writes more at your pace, or are you okay with helping out a faster/slower person revise? Most CPs tend to work this out on their own if they’re not evenly matched– like, for example, the faster CP may promise to give the slower CP’s work priority over her other manuscripts for a quicker turnaround time.

How brutally honest do you want critique? Chances are, if you’re seriously looking for publication you want as honest feedback as possible. Make sure that this is something you and your potential CP agree on– no one has to be mean about things they find that need work (mean/deprecating honesty is nowhere on the scale), but you do have to agree that you’re ready for whatever the other finds.

Are you writing things that your potential CP is okay reading? Let’s face it: really no one can predict everything they want to write/will write ever. Writers and their tastes change. But, if you know off the bat that you want to write edgier YA, perhaps with more explicit sex scenes, maybe consider checking in and making sure they’re still up for reading that.

In general, if you and your CP like the same type of books you’ll probably find that you have similar tastes for how edgy or dark you prefer to write.

Is their critique actually useful to you? Is your potential CP about at your level of writing or are they providing you comments that you value? Your time is important– once you start writing professionally and getting on deadlines it will become even more important.  If someone is just not getting your manuscript or gives you feedback that doesn’t jive with your vision, they may not be the best match.

And that’s fine! It doesn’t mean you can’t be friends if you don’t click as CPs– it just means that you’re both mature enough to know what you need in a critique partner, and that you respect each other’s time enough to move on.

Are you willing to commit to a CP relationship? This seems kind of silly– obviously you wouldn’t be reading this page on finding CPs if you weren’t somewhat willing to put in effort–but it’s important to recognize that you are making a commitment to another person by agreeing to be their CP. It varies person to person– I have some CPs I speak with almost daily (and whom I am 100% there for any time of day) and others who I have a more relaxed relationship with, either over twitter DMs, occasional chats, or email.

No matter what kind of CP relationship you have, if it’s high-involvement, medium, or low, make sure you’re willing to put the time in. If it’s going to take you a while to get to a new manuscript from a CP, let them know. Put in your best quality work on notes, and be available to celebrate or mourn when something goes awesomely or catastrophically.

While you can’t share everything with the writing community at large, you can with your CP. I know they’ve helped me improve my writing and made my work the best it could be. Good luck!

15 ways to be a better writer in 2015

1. Write, a lot.

The first rule, the one true precept. You get better by doing, so therefore make sure that you’re out there making things happen. Maybe this is the year you finally attempt the sticker method (do it, it is so useful for keeping track of things and giving you a visual representation of how much you’re putting out each day). More than anything, the sticker method has helped me learn to…

2. Set reasonable writing goals for yourself.

If you know that you’re consistently able to produce 1k words that you don’t hate a day, then good! If you feel like you can get a better handle on your draft by writing more words, then write more words a day. If you feel, like I do, that you need to go slow and make sure that the words you do write each day are words that you’re mostly proud of, then cool, do that.

A resolution to write more is never going to stick if you make it exhausting to accomplish each day. Break down your goals: so you want to write one book, or two, or three. Figure out a basic word count (lit agent Jennifer Laughran’s post here is a good resource) and then determine how you can meet that writing your optimal– whether it’s big or small– number of words each day.

3. Read, a lot.

One of my favorite pieces of advice was that you should always be reading more than you’re writing. This sounds so haughty when you first come across it, like how dare you random internet blog I read what I want. But if the mind is a storehouse of furniture for you to use in your stories, then books are the shops and wholesalers you get the cool chairs and hip rugs from. That way, you have the luxury of choice when you want furniture for your own stories.

4. In fact, learn from many masters.

The way you get stuff in your stories that is new or different is to read a lot of different things. Diverse books, non-fiction books, poetry, even things that aren’t books. Watch anime, TV shows, play video games and analyze the stories, re-write newspaper articles to be more interesting, write an epic fanfic for that crack pairing that may or may not be your OTP. The exercises you can make for yourself are endless.

The thing is that you are constantly, actively or passively, thinking about story.

5. Realize it’s going to take a while.

Sometimes it won’t, but it’s always nice to be surprised pleasantly than unpleasantly. Sometimes you are going to feel like your writing life is either a comedy of errors or an epic tragedy. Your friends or people you consider your peers may already have agents or contracts, and you will look at your empty hands and wonder what god you left unappeased for this to happen to you.

But, hey, one: publishing is slow. Two: the people you’re comparing yourself to probably put in a lot of unseen work/time– it only seems like things are moving faster for them. Three: your hands aren’t empty– you have a lot more experience and manuscripts than you did before.

6. And find a way to relax.

Everyone tells you to go on social media and read up on the industry– which is great! don’t stop doing that!– but an equally important thing is to know when you’re being driven too insane and need a break. Find an activity that you can do that calms you down, whether it’s reading not on your laptop, walking the dog, crafts, welding, etc. For me, it’s drawing.

7. Commit to fixing one thing you don’t like about your writing at a time.

Do you know how long it took me to wean myself off of using telling verbs and onto showing verbs? (Hint: a long time.) Your writing is never going to get better unless you are actively trying to change it, unless you can identify a thing you don’t like or feel is clunky and then get to work fixing that. Don’t like your beginning? Read a lot of book’s beginnings– more specifically, read the beginnings of stories you love and study how those authors draw you in.

8. Don’t be afraid to imitate.

Obviously this goes with the slight caveat of DO NOT PLAGIARIZE but one of the ways you get better at telling the stories you want to tell is by doing it with training wheels on. Sometimes writing fanfiction helps a lot– you can write through a scene a different way than the author/creator and see why they chose to present it the way they did. You can do character studies, or you can practice description or thematic arcs.

Even if you don’t write fic, you’ve probably reaped the benefits of imitation. One of my earliest stories was this half-drawn, half-written thing that I am more or less sure was a rip-off of Akira, but it also taught me a lot about character archetypes and worldbuilding. Two years after I stopped working on it, I’d more or less realized it was terrible but it also provided me a more solid foundation to work on my next story, and the one after that.

9. Experiment.

Especially if you write YA, you’re in a great place to try something new. Push your boundaries as well as your readers’– I guarantee you that you’re going to feel like you’re jumping off a cliff writing a POC or LGBT protagonist for the first time if you’re a cishet white person, but ultimately you’re doing both yourself and your readers a service. You’re learning how to be a better writer by telling more stories (and also learning how to research culture and lifestyles like a bamf) and you’re learning to be fearless.

Will you mess up? Yeah. But you’ll also learn to…

10.  Ask for help.

Whether it’s having someone beta read for your character with a mental illness or you finding a critique partner long-term, one of the greater truths in publishing is that this whole thing is very rarely done alone. Traditional publishing usually means you and your agent (and your editor) will all be on your team helping to make your work the best it can be. There are tons of critique partners and beta readers out there who want to help you depict their culture/illness/faith/lifestyle, etc accurately.

Realize that writing is a big job. You do not have to go it alone, and no one’s going to shame you for having CPs or hiring a freelancer or checking your work. They’re probably going to think more highly of you for it.

11. Always be learning.

Maybe this falls into a few of the categories above, but it’s important enough to also stand by itself, too. Always be bettering your craft. Read, challenge yourself to improve your writing, notice what your CPs are doing that helps give their scenes extra sparkle, make a list of things you want to change about your writing this year and cross them out one by one. No one is ever done learning– ars longa, vita brevis, yo.

12. But also realize your contemporaries are not your competition.

Hemingway had this great thing; when people asked him who among his contemporaries were his greatest competition, he said he didn’t think about them that way. Instead, he thought being a writer was more fighting the people who came before you, the established classics, and trying to be better than them.

I dig. It forces you to concentrate more on bettering your work so it can stand against some of the greatest storytellers of all time versus trying to take down your fellow ~students of the craft~

13. Make lists of ten.

One of my other favorite things from Kate Brauning, CP and good friend, is the list of ten technique.

You ask yourself a question: why doesn’t this adult C– like crowds? And then write up ten different answers to it. Your first three will probably be pretty run of the mill (his mother lost him once in a crowd and he felt helpless, he hates people, the city is suffocating) but as you go on to #5-7, your ideas will get more original (maybe he saw a crowd stone someone to death and has no faith in humanity). #7-10 will likely be the trickiest but also your most creative.

14. Be the consummate professional.

Publishing is both a slow business and a small one: relationships are forged gradually and can be destroyed quickly. It is almost never in your best interests to act on the spur of a moment (if it’s a good or a bad thing). Read your contracts carefully, return your critiques in a timely manner, and always always thank people for their time.

Neil Gaiman said in one of his keynote speeches that there were three things that you needed to make people want to work with you again:

People keep working, in a freelance world, and more and more of today’s world is freelance, because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don’t even need all three. Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. They’ll forgive the lateness of the work if it’s good, and if they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as the others if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.

15. Last, always be writing.

Always have something in your backpocket, another trick up your sleeve. Publishing is in many ways a long game. You’re in this because you love it, and that means loving it beyond the lifespan of a single project. If you’re serious about writing, then you’re not just in this because you have one single book you want to publish. You have hundreds.

The key is to develop a system, whether it’s draft-> revise -> query -> repeat, or draft -> revise -> send to agent -> sub -> repeat, and just keep going. More and more what I’m seeing of publishing is that its problems are stones that you have to wear away over time. Steady work will wear the stone down, but you have to be putting in that work even when you’re not seeing a visible reward.

Happy 2015, and happy writing!

state of the writer

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

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

1. What are you working on right now?

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

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

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

so yeah Word basically I am a dinosaur.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. When did you start writing?

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

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

8. How do you feel about short stories?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in 2015.

christmas photos

Your family has just always had this tradition.

It has become a December ritual, like hanging garlands around staircase railings, your dad perennially wrestling globe lights around your house’s tiny boxwoods, and your mother trying to convince him that no, dear we really don’t need a eight-foot tree this year when a four foot one will do, but somehow ending up with a huge one anyway.

You and your family’s likenesses, from ages eight to eighteen, have been captured for time immemorial by the photo attendants at Sears and dear god, you gave them hell for it. Someone was always shutting their eyes, and your little brother never smiled enough past age seven.

(You always thought this was terribly unfair, since he never had to have braces and you did– for four years, too– and yet somehow you manage to whip up a metallic grin as he stares tight-lipped at a lens.)

The whole process of family photos was also mutually exhausting to your parents, but they did it anyway. Your dad kept them in his wallet and your mom sent them out with the Christmas cards. Your mom was a bit disappointed by your wardrobe during your teenage years, because “you looked so good in tights and your velvet dresses!” but you managed to outgrow both tights and velvet dresses in the same cataclysmic moment and have not worn them since.

As a bribe to please smile, damn it, your parents would take you and your brother out for dinner at a restaurant called Bugaboo Creek, conveniently located near the Sears where you’d make the ritual walk between bright red Craftsmans and patio furniture, then up the escalator to where the photographers hid out before it became the clothing section.

The moose was your favorite animal at the restaurant, mostly because it was a moose and you’d had a moose stuffed animal as a little kid and therefore felt a special kinship with it, and also because the moose was the most awesome talking animal head there.

Somehow your family has decided that this year it is you who must take the annual Christmas photo.

You’re not sure why. Your mom says it’s because you’re the best at taking pictures and you have the best phone. Also it was your idea to do Christmas plants as the theme.

Your dad–who, after years of camcording you and your brother (the first time you realized how strange your voice sounded out of your head) has more experience than you and took family photos the last three Christmases– is benignly silent. Your little brother has the newest phone in the house and spends more time on instagram than you but just smiles and shrugs.

So here you are, squinting at your cell phone camera. You are taking pictures separately this year, because your mom is holly, you’re amaryllis, your dad is poinsettia, and your brother is mistletoe and damned if you can fit all those plants into a single frame.

The lighting is too bright and your dad insists on having holly bowers in his poinsettia picture, despite the fact that your mom is holly and the dogs are trying to eat the berries.

You take pictures and tell your parents to smile.

A few days after you drive back to your apartment in another state, you and your mom have a phone call.

“You’re lucky, you know that?” She says. “You haven’t really experienced loss in your life.”

You remind her that your first dog died when you were eight. You’d stopped believing in god after that, but you don’t tell her this part. You also don’t say that sometimes losing someone close to you when they’re still alive hurts like a motherfucker, because you’re sure she knows this too and you don’t need advice, don’t want it.

You tell her instead that you remember your dad’s parents before they died.

“I wasn’t sure you did.” Her voice turns contemplative. “You were still young.”

And you hate it, that you were five or six, because you were still young and the clearest memory of them you have is in their attic after their death, going through things with your dad, just you and your dad because your kid brother was still an infant home with your mom.

Your dad had unearthed a metal bank shaped like a cash register and another shaped like a silver rocket. He’d said that these were toys from him, his brother, and his sister’s childhoods and would let you choose one and give the other to your brother when he got old enough for it.

You chose the cash register, because it was red and because you liked cash registers. And like a total asshole, a few months later you jammed it trying to put two nickels into its coin slot at once. It had worked with dimes and quarters, so why not, right?

As it turns out, you have never really forgiven yourself for wrecking the only thing you have from your dad’s parents.

As is customary, the family photo devolves into merry chaos.

Your mother made the hilarious decision to give your brother a kissing ball for his photo with his girlfriend of seven years, and in between takes he’s been singing “kissing ball, kiss my balls” in his loud tenor. His girlfriend smacks him but laughs, even though in half their pictures he is still not quite smiling right and has one eyebrow comically raised.

Somehow, your parents find a red fedora of your brother’s and everyone remains convinced it must feature in at least one photo. You don’t really like it, but considering you were the one who glued feathers into it so it would be a suitable hat for your Red Death costume one Halloween, you can’t really veto it.

Your dad is trying to be the poinsettia, but maybe the lighting’s wrong because the hat makes him look older than you know he is. You have him take it off, stop sitting on the floor between poinsettia plants, do something else instead.

Your mom actually wears it better, your brother tells her she looks good in his pimp hat, and you get the best picture of her in her holly garland boa, vogueing in a fuzzy, feathery red hat.

Your parents are getting older, and this year you are taking the Christmas photos. Your dad will stitch them together on his laptop into a four-way window of plants and people that will join the past four years of goofy family pictures you guys started taking since you graduated high school and your family decided it had had enough of torturing the photogs at Sears.

Those photos are still around, still in the box in the living room cataloguing your family over the years. They have gotten stranger, sure, but the ritual remains. There are even some of your family when it was just you, your mom, and your dad, before your brother was born. And there are some of your grandparents, people who appear unfailingly in a long string of pictures and then, one year, drop off.

So maybe this is the year that you bust out your mini-Craftsman, decide you’re half-good with tools by now, and figure out how to get two nickels unstuck. When you stop being so ashamed that you ruined the one nice thing you had to remember your grandparents by, and you start fixing it instead.

Because you’re old enough that you’re okay with being lucky.

You are telling your parents to ham it up for the formerly serious, always dramatic, annual Christmas photo. Your dad is a bit too hidden by his three massive poinsettias and inexplicable holly to actually be the poinsettia, your mom is trying to prevent the dogs from all dying by berry ingestion, your kid brother is crooning lewd things to this house of dorks, and you are lucky.