In a continuation of my out-of-order impromptu series on creativity, I have a brief rumination that came out of the AI discussion from last week.
Should AI/robots be restricted to doing only things that are dangerous and undesirable for humans to do? I’m thinking repetitive and easily replicable tasks, mining, idk—things that have a high likelihood of killing or maiming a person, or things that would be made much more productive by the use of a robot.
To me, even that looks like lost jobs and livelihoods for the people who do those jobs. The argument, then, is that not having to work those jobs would free people up for more creative endeavors. To which I respond, “But most people don’t get paid a living wage for their creative endeavors.”
In Viola Davis’ book, Finding Me, she said something like 95% of actors don’t work and only 1% make more than $50,000 per year. That’s not a living wage for a family in Los Angeles or New York, where most acting opportunities are. The same goes for writing, art, you name it. And we are living in an age where people want to consume art, but they don’t want to pay for it. Most creators can’t make a living on their creativity alone. They might work on freelancing or commissions; many, even non-writers, turn to writing (like here on Substack) to supplement their income.
Of course, this is where a universal basic income might come into play…if we, as a society, were progressive enough and valued our citizenry enough to guarantee that everyone living under our umbrella wouldn’t have to worry about going hungry or choosing between back-breaking labor and personal and intellectual fulfillment. I don’t see that happening, at least in the U.S., anytime soon.
What do you think? Is there a future for us where creators and our creations are valued?
I’m a little shook about AI at the moment.
I’ve seen different reactions around the internet and IRL about the latest AI writing technology. Some are amazed, others are nonplussed, many are entertained. And it is entertaining, especially when you read my friend Alex Dobrenko`'s experiments with ChatGPT in Both Are True.
But it’s also terrifying. A friend of mine tried out a few prompts, and they looked like the kind of vanilla thing I would have turned in for a high school (or college, let’s be real) writing assignment. No, the prose wasn’t beautiful and artful. But it was coherent enough to get the point (Yes, but whose point?) across, and unless I had personal experience with a person’s writing beforehand, I probably wouldn’t question it if they turned it in as an assignment.
My daughter, in fact, wanted to write an essay about humans’ impact on the environment over break (for fun, so if you were wondering if she’s really mine, you can rest easy), and she stumbled across an AI writing website. She didn’t know what it was, but damned if the computing machine didn’t write the whole thing for her.
“That’s not your writing,” I said.
“But I don’t know any of these things,” she said.
“That’s why you research and learn those things!” was my reply. She did end up researching and writing her own five-paragraph essay, which was pretty impressive for a nine-year-old, if you ask for my perfectly unbiased opinion.
But, not so secretly, I’m worried this kind of thing will become commonplace. Don’t forget, technologically speaking, AI is still in its infancy. It’s still learning, and I have no doubt it will learn to be more poetic, more coherent, and more undetectable.
Writers like me sometimes take jobs writing for companies’ websites. A business will post a request for a blog post about, for example, different kinds of snowboarding equipment, and hire someone to write it (usually for not much money, but some writers cobble together a decent income writing for many different websites). If an AI can generate an 85% usable post instantly, for cheap, complete with search engine optimization, why would a business pay for an expensive, potentially unreliable human to do it? I actually see this as a pretty big threat to the writing gig economy, which is one of the only ways beginning writers are able to make an income.
As far as novels, I have to assume people would rather read one written by a human than a robot, but you never know.
“My kids don’t need to learn to write anymore,” said a friend of mine, but I think it’s much worse than that. Artificial intelligence can already replace some forms of writing. But, for kids growing up with AI, it has the potential to replace deep thought.
And that scares me.
Writing is so easy. You just put words on a page, and as long as they sound nice next to each other, you're doing great. If it sounds good and makes sense to the reader, do you really need to do anything more?
Yes. Yes, you do.
Because there is a big difference between intelligible writing and good writing.
I come from a science background. While I apparently used to write a whole lot when I was in middle and high school, most of the writing I did after my frontal lobe developed was in the form of lab reports and... well, more lab reports. I can string words together with the best of them, but I wouldn't call myself creative.
As an adult, I've written things like school handbooks and student spotlights and even website copy, and I've done a fine job. I've even been complimented on my writing, which is funny because I'm basically just talking onto a computer screen.
But it's one thing to detail the materials and methods for a science experiment or detail the varied accomplishments of a ninth grader. Writing words that evoke emotions and get readers invested in your story is an entirely different thing. It's the difference between grabbing a magazine, reading a paragraph, and tossing it back on top of the stack, and rushing home after work so you can cozy up on the couch with a blanket on your lap and your book in your hand.
I don't know if I've ever finished a magazine article. There are books on my shelf I've devoured in a handful of hours.
Best I can estimate, the difference comes down to description. How the writer describes the setting, the events, the character's feelings and reactions, makes a huge difference in the way we connect with the writing.
Am I reading a list of details, or am I experiencing them the way the character would? Am I reading the way the character felt, or am I feeling it for myself? The closer I can get to experiencing exactly what the character does, the more connected I feel to the story and the more likely I am to finish whatever it is I'm reading.
I wrote an essay recently for entry into a competition. I spent a good deal of time on it. It was good. I got really great feedback on it from my beta readers (read: a handful of friends who are gracious enough to read my drafts and encourage me through all my self-doubt). But I knew there was something missing. A writer friend and my favorite editor of all-time gave me the push I needed. "It needs to be more vulnerable."
How do I do that? I bring the reader along with me.
Instead of telling the reader I felt frustrated, I needed to describe the feeling that frustration gave me: "Rage sweeps through my veins and it’s only because of the effort it took to get three children to sleep at a reasonable time that I don’t explode ten years of frustration all over the room..."
Rather than telling the reader how anxious I get leaving my kids with someone while I work, I get specific: "Do the kids have all their school supplies? Is the baby crying too much? Eating too little? When there’s an issue with one of the children, or with the babysitter, I leave and come home."
I didn't talk about the cold leather sofa where I was sitting. I used details of the sofa in my story to bolster the emotional resonance I was describing: "I blink, and tears roll down my cheeks, soaking into the blanket I’ve wrapped around myself. Worn leather stretches between us in a gulf so wide we might as well be on opposite sides of the world."
I watched a video from one of my favorite writers and humans, Rachael Herron, yesterday, that aligns pretty perfectly with this aim: Get Rid of the Word Felt. When you're telling the audience how you (or a character) felt (or what they thought, realized, smelled, tasted, etc.), you're increasing distance and decreasing empathy between reader and character.
"I smelled chocolate" might become, "I inhaled great gulps of the aroma from the nearby chocolate factory every time I surfaced for a breath."
"Lucinda felt a sharp crack at the base of her skull" could instead be, "A sharp crack at the base of Lucinda's skull sent her vision into darkness."
You get the picture.
Readers, don't think about this too hard. I'm famous for ruining reading with all my talk about writing craft, but I don't want that happening to you. However, if you find yourself immersed in someone else's writing, I can bet part of the reason is that they've allowed you to get nice and close with the character.
Writers, think about this quite a bit. If you're writing something other than a scientific paper, I am willing to bet your work could benefit from a quick pass for closeness. A few small tweaks might be all you need to take your reader by the hand on your journey rather than making them sit in the audience.
As always, I would love to know your thoughts as readers and writers in the comments below!
(Oh - did I mention, that essay won an award? Casual.)
Oh, do I have a treat for you today. One of my favorite authors is joining us for a Q&A session!
Meg Elison is a multiple award-winning novelist, essayist, and badass woman. Some of my favorite works of hers are Hysteria (for obvious reasons, if you've been reading this blog for any length of time) and The Book of the Unnamed Midwife (affiliate link). Find her on on Twitter and Instagram (her feed is gorgeous and worth following), and at her website.
It was amazing chatting with Meg. I found myself nodding along to so many of her answers, as she has a way of putting to words things I think but don't know how to say.
I'm going to hand it over to Meg. Enjoy!
Q: Who are you? If you're meeting people for the first time, how do you introduce yourself? What can people tell by just being in the room with you?
I always say I'm a writer, and I always tell people to call me Meg. I'm Ms. Elison to nobody. Being in the room with me, people know I'm very fat and very fashionable. I'm highly social and shockingly verbal. I talk fast, make jokes, and I love getting people to tell me their stories.
Q: We already know you're a fantastic writer. What else do you enjoy doing?
I love dancing! I take dance breaks when I'm writing. I also sing-- catch me at karaoke at almost any convention. I love museums; I would totally run away to the Met like those kids in that book. I'm a mean cook and I make drinks that'll knock you on your ass. I go to a lot of literary events, when there isn't a plague on. I love readings and poetry and panel talks. I get to four or five every month.
Q: What comes to you first when you begin a writing project? Is it a specific character? A world? A mood?
I think of a new story like a tent. What I have first are the poles that hold it up: the big points, the turn, usually the ending. The expanse of fabric between them can come slowly, as long as I get those posts set first. I focus on events first, and from there character is very intuitive. I arrive in a moment and I look around to see what kind of folks are there. Then it's drape and stretch until we can't see the stars anymore.
Q: Your award-winning novel and series, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife (The Road to Nowhere), is not a zombie story, but it did explore some of the same themes as The Walking Dead. Was this a conscious influence? What other work has influenced the kinds of writing you do?
I was influenced by The Walking Dead, for sure. We were at the height of the zombie craze when I started working, and I remember watching 28 Days Later over and over, as well. I don't find zombies compelling, but I find the struggle of people to survive in their own ruins very compelling indeed. I also couldn't get over how the actresses in these perilous places had perfect eyebrows and somehow shaved their legs. That seemed awfully telling to me.
Q: You write science fiction as well as feminist / cultural criticism essays. To some people, these might seem far apart, but I've come to see how connected they can be. How did you come to this orientation in your writing?
I started off as a journalist, which is a fine place for a writer to begin. You have to get in the middle of things and ask questions to be good at it; you have to be a talented observer and a transparent eyeball. That background disposed me to writing essays in opinion and arts, of course. The columns are longer and you get to spread out a bit. All writers have opinions about the world they inhabit and the art they consume. Some of us can keep quiet about it, but I rarely can.
Q: We've both written about artificial wombs becoming commercially available. What do you think the barriers would be to us achieving this sort of reproductive evolution as a society? What about the benefits and drawbacks?
The barriers to this kind of technology are fascinating and a total self-own. Gynecology and obstetrics are primitive medical sciences and research into the kinds of bodies that can get pregnant has always been low priority-- we didn't even have a full model of the clitoris until 2005. It's left off many medical diagrams of the vulva. We are decades or centuries away from being able to develop the artificial womb, because we don't know shit about the one we started with. The benefits could be amazing, allowing people without a uterus or with a disorder or who simply do not want to carry a pregnancy to do it with an adaptive aid. It could also help us decouple the idea of 'woman' and 'pregnancy,' not to mention taking a big bite of the gender binary as we go. If people regardless of gender can gestate a baby in a closet, if we stop defining childbearing as a gendered trait, how might we see ourselves? Would people seeking hysterectomy or oophorectomy have an easier time? Would birth control become less contentious, or abortion? The possibilities are endless. But we're gonna be on Mars before we have an artificial womb. Just look at how we treat those two things in research and the answer is clear.
Q: I've been focusing on designer babies and nursery wombs for 3 years, and I truly think some version of these will exist in the next hundred years. What other directions do you see human reproduction going?
I've been thinking that we're going to see more outsourcing of pregnancy and birth to the global underclass. This used to be something only the very wealthy did, but as agencies and private actors reach out into countries where surrogacy can be achieved at a fraction of the cost, it's becoming more accessible to the American middle class. Imagine if rich people never had to have their own babies. Many people have an intrinsic drive and won't be dissuaded from carrying their own, but many will opt to miss out on the risks, the permanent changes to the body, and of course the setback in career trajectory. Historically, feminized labor trickles down every time white women with money gain a little more power. This is the ultimate feminized labor, and I'm betting it goes the same way.
Q: As I observe the world, I've come to think dystopia is in the eye of the oppressed. Do you see any dystopian elements in today's society, and what do you think we can do about them, knowing there's a large group of people benefiting from maintaining the status quo?
Hell yeah we're already living in a dystopia. In several, in fact. Disabled people lose reproductive autonomy all the time and it's all sanctioned in our courts. People in two dozen states have no meaningful access to abortion care. Crisis pregnancy centers exist-- that's a whole Dick novel right there. People have been sterilized against their will and sometimes without even their knowledge by our state and other states, mostly for reasons of racism and eugenics. This stuff has all happened in our lifetimes, all happening right now. What can we do? We have to fight all the time. Every day. We have to fight to vote and keep the vote. We have to march in the street when nothing else gets us heard. We have to cough up money and volunteer time to escort people at Planned Parenthood. We have to stand up for the rights of trans and queer people, in person and in policy. We have to call our reps and demand they do better, vote them out and choke off their donors when they don't do better. We have to write books that make people think about this shit, and see it in the here and now. Look at how the repopularization of The Handmaid's Tale has opened the way for us to talk about all this. It opened up doors for women of color to point out that everything depicted in that story is old news to them; it radicalized white women to look at the churches and structures built on their backs and think about standing up. Art is part of the fight, too.
Q: Tell us about your favorite thing you've ever written.
This is hard-- I'm not the kind of writer who hates and cringes over their catalog. I like most of my work, and I'm very proud of most of it. For ease of access, I'll say it's this Shimmer story I wrote about a heaven for writers. It's elegiac and indulgent and makes RPF of some of my favorite writers. Come for history's first novelist (a woman) and stay for the polyamorous queers of English literature.
Q: How about your favorite thing you've ever read?
This is also hard, bordering on impossible. I read "The Fifth Sacred Thing" at exactly the right moment in my life. It showed me who I wanted to be: where I should live, what fight I should be fighting, what kind of people I wanted to surround myself. It's also radically nonviolent in a way that I want to believe can be real. I still hold this book close to my core, even as I become disillusioned in every way.
Q: What are you working on right now that really excites you?
I am working on a horror novel about evil dentists, and I am incredibly into it. I've been thumbing my own memories of dental horror and asking for people to tell me theirs. It's a deep well of bloody water.
Q. How did you get into writing and what was your first piece?
I won an Arbor Day poetry contest in fourth grade. I got published and my poem was read aloud to the student body. I felt like King Kong on cocaine and I have been chasing that feeling ever since.
Q. How do you see your own character arc and growth as a writer?
This one I'm saving for my memoir-- it's a whopper.
Q: Vampires or werewolves?
Vampires all the way. I like the aesthetic and an adherence to blood having its way with us all more than I like inconvenient dogs.
Q. Do you have any advice for writers on staying motivated at all parts of the process, from drafting to editing to querying and publication?
The thing that has always motivated me is reading the mediocre say-nothing horseshit that gets published all the time. The thing that cranks my motor is looking at stuff that got a deal, that made money, and knowing that I can do better. Spite keeps a writer alive.
Q. How would you fare in a zombie apocalypse?
I'm a planner and I tend to see the writing on the wall before it goes up in ink. I know how to get to an island not too far away, and I'm a good shot. I won't die in the first wave. However, if my survival ever depends on running a mile in less than ten minutes or climbing a rope, I'm zombie snacks.
You can probably see why I thoroughly enjoyed this interview. In addition to being enamored by her writing, I've really enjoyed getting to know Meg as a person.
How about you? Would you be zombie meat? Would you use an artificial womb? How do you beat the disillusionment that beats us over the head on the daily? Who would you like to hear from next? Tell us below and don't forget to join the club for extras and exclusives!
I've never been good at poetry.
I know, I know. I write poetry. I have notebooks full of it from back in high school. In college I wrote some painfully heartsick poems. Even today, I dabble from time to time. But just because I write it, as a way to work out my creative muscles, doesn't mean I'm any good at it. And, as mediocre as my poetry writing is, my ability to read someone else's is a million times worse.
Sometimes, I will come across a beautiful poem, and know it's beautiful, and know why. Meg Elison's Modern Promethea, for example, is one I immediately connected with. My supremely talented friend, Barbara, shared a poem with me recently that just made me smile and tear up all at the same time. But far more frequently, I get a few lines in and my eyes glaze over.
My friend Steven is an amazing poet. And I ... well, sometimes I just can't read his work. I either don't understand, or I have to read the same line fifteen times to try and figure out what it means, and then I need to read the line before and the one after to try and figure out how they connect to each other, and go back to the beginning and read the whole thing again to try and see the bigger picture. It's not because he's a bad poet. He's a brilliant poet. It's because I'm a bad poetry-reader.
I feel bad even saying it, because isn't poetry supposed to be so beautiful and artful? As a writer, am I not supposed to understand and appreciate writing in its many forms? I devour literature of all types, all the time. Why is poetry so hard?
A while ago, I started giving poetry a try again. There's a truckload of it around. Instagram poets, poets on Medium.com, writer friends of mine with their haikus and chapbooks. Seeing it all over the place made it easier for me to bite off small chunks, and I started thinking in stanzas when I noticed especially beautiful or depressing things.
So, of course, I wrote my own poem.
I asked my friend, Jun, for advice. At the time, Jun was writing a poem a day, and she gave me the most useful piece of advice I've ever heard regarding poetry. "It's all about blended metaphors," she said.
That's when it occurred to me why poetry is so difficult for me to understand. The same reason I didn't know what a pun was until I was 30. The same reason that, when someone tells me they got a thousand birthday cards in the mail, I visualize their mailbox overflowing with the cards that surely wouldn't fit inside.
I have a very literal, concrete mind. Numbers were always my thing. Math, even when it got more abstract, still only had one answer (or a set of answers that could be derived by applying a mathematical rule). Interpretation and figurative language is not my thing.
A lot of poetry is just too abstract for me. The idea that there could be more than one interpretation to piece of writing made me very uncomfortable. I want to know exactly what the author was thinking when she wrote it. Even with music, which I have loved since I can remember, I will take the most literal interpretation as fact without ever questioning other possibilities.
Jun's advice made me realize that I had used some metaphors unintentionally in my first attempt at poetry. I also became aware of metaphor use in my future writing - poetry and otherwise. I realized when I was mixing metaphors, and started looking for ways to weave the same metaphor through a piece - subtly, without overdoing it.
Soon, just by being made aware of this use of figurative language, I found poetry easier to read (though still not easy) and began planning my poetry around a metaphor rather than just writing pretty words that seemed to go together. There's more to it than that, obviously - all kinds of literary devices are at work in good poetry, and I need more practice to hone my skills.
Even with this newfound knowledge, my poetry remains pretty concrete. It's nearly always clear to the reader what I'm talking about and what I was thinking and feeling as I wrote it. But actively working on specific things like metaphor has tested my creativity and made me a better writer.
How do you feel about reading poetry? Do you prefer to read poetry that's more concrete or more figurative? Do you have a favorite poem? I'd love to know - just comment below to share!
A few weeks ago, I told you about a cache of writing I found from middle and high school. Mostly it was poetry, but there were a few stories in there. I called them short stories, but since not a single one of them was finished (some things never change), I can't be sure what my intent was when I began them.
I only ever remember wanting to write books. Sure, I wrote the poetry as an outlet for my teenage angst, but I also wrote chapter upon chapter of young adult suspense stories, imagining myself to be the next Christopher Pike. In my mind, fiction equaled novels.
When I started writing the stories that are beginning to see the light of day, I intended for them to become books. There was no other option in my mind. But there's one problem with that.
Writing a book takes forever.
Even if you write full-time and can churn a book out in a month or two, writing a novel isn't just churning out the words. It's revising them, editing them, proofreading them, working with an agent to sell the book, working with a publisher through another million rounds of edits, designing a cover, and I'm sure I'm forgetting some steps in between. (And most of these still apply if you're self-publishing your book.)
And then there's marketing the book. Which, according to conventional wisdom, is supposed to start before you've even finished with that crappy first draft I talked about before. And herein lies the dilemma.
How's an author to market a book that's not finished yet? And even after the book is finished, but before it's released (which also takes forever), how's the author supposed to generate buzz about the book, if all she's got to share is the book, and she can't share the book?!
One way to do it is to release deleted scenes - which for The Other Women are fortunately plentiful since I wrote like two-and-a-half novels to chisel out what ended up being the final product - and other fun teasers. But another way is to write and share other fiction.
Now, I know I said writing a book takes forever, but as I was reminded when I started on this journey, books are not the only form of fiction. Of course, we all know that, but for some reason my stubborn mind just wouldn't let me see it until I started needing to find shorter ways to share my work with readers that didn't take three-plus years in creation.
Though I've always gravitated toward novel- and series-length fiction, I have read some short stories. What I'd never heard of, though, was a category of fiction called flash fiction. Flash fiction can be one word, six words, 280 characters, a hundred or a thousand words. The line between short stories and flash fiction can get a little blurry up in those higher word counts, but anything that's very short but still has plot and character development is flash fiction.
I don't consider myself creative enough to write a one- or six-word story that still has plot and character development. I have seen people do it, and I am humbled and impressed every single time. I just am not at a place in my craft where I can do it myself. I have, however, sat down to write a few pieces of short fiction and flash fiction. It's actually a fun and useful exercise to take a story idea and collapse and expand it into the different forms. It's a good way to showcase my work without giving away the entire novel, and it sure is more efficient than writing an entire 85,000-word book.
From time to time here, I'll be sharing some shorter fiction that stands alone. I'm opening up my Short Stories page this week with the first short story I wrote when I began writing full-time. It's called I Will Follow You, and I hope you love it as much as I do. (You might want to grab a hanky, though.)
Do be sure to join the exclusive reading club, so you can get a behind-the-scenes look at this story delivered right to your inbox.
I'm on a walk, pushing my son ahead of me in the stroller. At barely a year old, he doesn't say much, and I don't feel guilty about not talking to him. After spending his entire life inside our house, just seeing the trees and houses, the spring flowers and the cars passing by, is quite enough stimulation for him.
I've left my headphones at home. The baby only slept for 30 minutes and, naptime being my only guaranteed work time, I feel compelled to do something with my brain as I walk rather than passively consuming a podcast or audiobook or even some chilled-out music.
I do this sometimes. It's something I started in my early days as a teacher. Burnt out from a dozen hours in front of a computer or my spiral-bound lesson planning book or a group of enthusiastic five-year-olds who all spoke my second language, I'd close up the book, power down the computer, and pack my materials into my backpack. "I'll think about this on the drive," I'd tell myself, or "I'll figure it out while I swim." The habit quickly became unhealthy, interrupting my sleep and leaving me unable to truly enjoy my relationships for a couple years. I managed to rein it in with a combination of therapy, growing into a better teacher, and a shift in expectations.
But I don't idle well, and sometimes it comes back.
As I'm driving to visit my parents, I think through the backstory to a book I'm writing. On my bike ride, I outline an article or think of metaphors that would make good poetry. Today, as I walk, I'm not sure what I'm looking for. Inspiration, I guess. I keep my eyes open and let my thoughts drift and rush, climbing over each other and surfacing, then sinking to the bottom again.
To my right is tree like I've never seen before. It stretches tall and straight, its canopy beginning high above the house behind it. The entire trunk is covered from bottom to tip-top with a thick cushion of ivy. I keep walking.
Ahead of me a woman walks on the grass next to the curb. She holds a baby, a warm bundle wrapped in a soft yellow blanket. Next to her, a toddler - older than my son, but not by much - weaves from side to side. A blue SUV approaches. The little girl reaches the curb and when her mother calls out, she angles herself toward the grass before taking a sharp turn and wading back into the street. The woman rushes over and reaches down awkwardly, squeezing the girl's elbow through the puffy purple coat and pulling her back up onto the grass. "Sorry!" she mouths at the driver of the SUV as it crawls past her. The driver smiles and waves at the mother, then curls her fingers and waves at the little girl. I keep walking.
At one house, there is a collection of ride-on toys lined up neatly along the edge of a driveway and a half-dozen brightly-patterned cups sitting abandoned on the front landing. A few steps ahead, an older woman and a little boy of about two peer over the edge of the road into a creek trickling below. I keep walking.
Between noticing all these details, I begin to ask myself questions. I begin to find my inspiration.
What if the tree were home to a little gnome? What if it were larger and some kids made a clubhouse inside? What if the ivy were a creature whose job it was to protect the tree and the property upon which it sits?
What if the driver of that SUV had been checking her phone, or tuning the radio, and she hadn't slowed when the little girl stumbled out into the street? Or what if, instead of smiling and waving, the driver had yelled at the woman, or at the child? What if she'd swerved into a light pole?
What if the children belonging to those ride-along toys and colorful cups had just disappeared as they played? What if they were transported to a magical dimension with cotton-candy grass and trees with licorice trunks? What if they were given to new families, in some other dimension, or on some other planet? What if the woman and child, who appeared so innocent craning their necks to observe the creek, had something to do with it?
For me, this is where inspiration comes from: A series of questions. What if this? What if that? If this happened, what might have caused it? What would happen as a consequence? In effect, this is how my stories are made. With few exceptions, all my fiction ideas come from this place. The answers to these questions build the world and tell the story.
When The Other Women gets closer to publication, I'll share with the cool kids what questions went into creating the story and what questions I'm asking as I start outlining the sequel. (Yes, you read that right!) Are you a cool kid? If not, be sure to use the form on this page to sign up! You'll get a free deleted scene the second you subscribe, but you'll also be first in line for a ton of other goodies and fun stuff.
What are some what-if questions you think would make a good story? Let me know in the comments!
I got a little lost the other day.
I was reading on the couch when my daughter came in and asked me if I could buy her a particular book, which had been recommended to her by a teacher. My eyes lit up. "Be right back," I said, dashing out of the living room. I hastily pulled down the attic stairs, swatting stray bits of insulation away from my face as they drifted to the floor.
The moment my head surfaced in the attic, I saw it, tilted sideways in a clear storage bin as if presenting itself at my daughter's request: Wayside School is Falling Down. "Yes!" I exclaimed, pleased that, for the first time, one of the objects I hoarded as a child "so my kids can use them one day" was actually going to be used by one of my kids.
I climbed the rest of the way into the attic and unclasped the blue plastic lid for the first time in years. Must and childhood wafted up into my nose. My hand slid down the side of the bin, past Babysitter's Club and Christopher Pike books, one-off teen dramas from the Book Fair and even some Saved By The Bell fan merch.
I plucked the book out and moved to cover the bin once more. As I picked up the lid to replace it, though, a worn navy-blue binder caught my eye, its unassuming matte cover contrasting with the glossy paperbacks. What's this? I thought. Here I was going through a bin full of other people's books, but inside the binder must be something of my own. I hunched over for a better look, careful not to smack my head on the rafters above. Some white Avery labels, hastily written with markers and rolling up at the corners, advertised a school council election long past. Eddie 4 Treasurer! Courtney 4 President! Frayed cardboard peeked out from where the seams had split.
I opened the cover with a thumb and forefinger, half-expecting to find nothing more than a bunch of notes from math or science. More things I saved, in case they became useful later, and never looked at again. But the stack of papers that confronted me was much more than mindless class notes.
I recognized the handwriting as my own, though there were at least a half-dozen different styles. I could identify my curlicue phase, my small-print phase, and the unusual every-letter-is-the-same-size phase. Pages and pages that, despite the fact that I wrote them, I didn't recognize at all.
"Here," I called absently down the stairs, tossing the Wayside book onto the floor below. Scurrying steps approached and then faded.
I lowered myself to the makeshift plywood floor and took a paper in my hand. "Hello, my childhood / I'm leaving you today," it began. I picked up another, titled A Single Tear: "Tracing the path of your existence / a river through your soul..."
There were poems, unfinished short stories, semi-autobiographical narratives, and one story with multiple chapters that looked like it might have been a collaboration between me and someone else. Curiously, there was also a completely intact notebook with nothing inside but handwritten lyrics to entire albums by my favorite artists: Toad the Wet Sprocket, Green Day, Gin Blossoms, and so on.
I only found dates on a few of the pages, but best I can put together, the work ranges from grades eight through ten. The poetry was pretty depressing. I shook my head as I read my words from a quarter-century ago - stories of lost love and self-harm, of resentment and a desire to escape - straining to remember what was precisely true, what was embellished, and what was pure fabrication.
The prose was much more interesting. I produced a lot more writing than I ever remembered doing, and I was impressed at how teenager-me used foreshadowing, multiple points of view, and unexplained events to create a feeling of suspense. The last line of one page read, "And so began his obsession with Samantha Keller," and I flipped to the next sheet, disappointed to see a different story in different handwriting. What happened with Samantha Keller?! Now I need to know. Another story used dreams to connect two different characters: what happened in one character's dream manifested in the other's reality. I might even pick that one up again some day - seems like a fun premise.
I spent an hour sitting there, old and tattered binder splayed open in front of me, poring over words I'd forgotten I'd ever written. When at last I sealed the bin, I realized that, along with the scent of home that still lingered in my nose, there was also a feeling at the pit of my stomach - a mix of nostalgia, restlessness, and validation. I don't miss those days, but it was as if all the hours I spent writing as a young person were preparing me in the background for what I would eventually do.
Storytelling is storytelling, I realized, no matter the age. When I was younger I wrote about a boy who fell in love with a girl jumping rope at recess, or about what I called love but what was actually an attempt to figure out where I fit in my little microcosm within my tiny hometown. Now I write words that help me and others try and make sense of the world at large. Commentaries on beauty and fitness and other issues affecting and connecting people around the globe. The content is different, the scope is different, but the craft remains the same.
By the time I swung the ladder back up into its hiding place in the hallway ceiling, my daughter's nose was buried deep in the Wayside book. I slipped past her room, hugging the binder to my chest, and put it on the shelf next to my desk, a reminder that I've been a writer longer than I've been pretty much anything else.
And maybe, one day, when I'm short on ideas, I can pick it up for some inspiration.
I've been meaning to do this for a really long time.
Ever since I started writing what would eventually become a full-length novel, I knew I'd need a web page. Books are a product, after all, and in order to sell products, it helps to have a website.
But there's no book to buy - not yet, anyway. While I'm hopeful that soon I'll have an agent and a publication deal, so far I have neither. And even if everything follows according to my most optimistic fantasy, it could be 2023 or later before my books will assume their place at libraries, bookstores, and book clubs across the country (or around the world, since we're in fantasy mode). That's a long time to wait.
Why bother with the website, then, if I don't have anything to sell? Simple. So I can connect with you. Yes you, the eventual reader of my first book, The Other Women, and hopefully all the subsequent ones, too. And this blog is the way to do that. Nothing much else will change about my site - I've settled on a theme I like, a color scheme and font palette that fit the vibe I'm trying to go for. All the other sections are likely to stay static. But this blog - this is where we can hang, just me and you.
I've known all this for quite a while now. The what and the why have been crystal clear to me. I'm bought in. So why didn't I start before today? Because the how kept escaping me.
How do I connect with you? How do I create a world that offers you something you want? We already know I don't have a book yet. And creating fiction is hard work. I'm not likely going to be able to write short stories with any kind of regularity. So I had to figure out what else I had to offer. And, finally, I think I've done it.
I've been reflecting on the kind of writing I do, the kinds of elements and themes that appear in story after story - from books to short stories to personal essays. They're all so different - addiction, supernatural forces, grief, cross-dimensional travel, reproductive autonomy - but they all have one thing in common: Connection.
A parent and a child, separated but able to communicate across unimaginable expanses of space-time. A boy, abandoned by those who are supposed to be most connected to him. Lovers, connected despite one partner's sudden and unexplainable death. A girl and her childhood dog whose relationship endures across the decades. Reflections on women's relationship to the society that gives us life and then abandons us at our most vulnerable. The connections that bind you to me as a human, even if we've never met before.
These last few years of writing, I am realizing, has provided a window through which I can examine connections and relationships I'd never seen or considered before. And that is what I can offer you.
It might be in the form of a book list, a reflection on a current event, or a short story. I might offer a poem, a photo, or a story from my childhood. But as I present these gifts to you, these tiny musings from within me and without, I will be thinking about connection. How our family units are inter- and intraconnected. How you connect with me and with your fellow readers, how we're all connected as humans, the relationship between our feelings and actions and the society that brought us up.
Looking at it this way has given me a ton of awesome ideas. I think I've finally figured out the how.
Thank you for coming with me on this journey; I'm excited you're here. See you soon!