On Writing Prequels: discovery, recovery, and the art of knowing.

This summer, I was given a challenge: write a prequel story to my new novel in three parts, to be run on three different blogs, one week apart from one another. This challenge I blithely accepted, asking myself what could possibly be difficult about this?

Nothing, I thought.

Everything, I discovered.

So I started writing somewhere around eight stories, all of which were utterly, utterly terrible. After living with these characters for so long, after knowing the timbre of their voices and the exact shape of their eyes, and the touch of their hands as they slid into mine and held on tight – I felt like I couldn’t find them when I sat down at the page. I felt like I was standing in the middle of an enormous cavern – damp, cold, and completely dark. I called their names – Ned! Aine! Sister Witch! Ott! Bandit King! Madame Thuane! Even that ridiculous Brin! – and nothing called back. Only the echoing sound of my own voice, over and over and over.

And I wondered: How do fanfiction writers do it? Seriously how do they? Because that is what I was writing. I wrote fanfiction to my own durn story. And it was hard. Writing a novel is ever so much the process of discovery – we find each character fully fleshed and formed and we just write down what we see. We meet them; we get to know them; we love them like family. But writing a tie-in story was much more the process of recovery. I had to take what I knew of these characters, make assumptions, ask questions, and dig. It was like reconstructing the personality of a recently-deceased grandmother, based on some newly-discovered letters.

Actually, that’s exactly what it was like.

Anyway, eventually I figured out which story was going to work out of my pages and pages of fits and starts, and I found my way through. And I liked it. I liked it a lot, actually. And I got to meet new characters. Interesting characters. And I got to look at the world that I lived in from a completely new direction – like discovering cool neighborhoods in a city where you used to live that you had no idea were there at all. And I was able to learn things about my characters that I did not know before. And that is the best part of my job: digging, sorting, discovering, making connections, collecting artifacts, finding new ways of knowing. I love it, really.

The nice folks at Bookshelves of Doom, Jessabella Reads and My Friends are Fiction were generous enough to host the three sections of my story. I have compiled all three sections into one page and put it up on my website: here. I hope you enjoy it.

The Anxiety Quilt – and other brilliant innovations

cool quilt

I was having coffee with a writer friend last Tuesday who is in the process of forcing herself not to write her agent. This can prove difficult. Especially when one is waiting on submitting books. Indeed, I was impressed that she was capable of making sentences – I certainly could not when my book was sitting on the desks of very nice editors.

“He called me yesterday and said that he was so impressed with my sense of calm because he hadn’t heard from me. I didn’t tell him that I have written tons of anxiety-ridden emails that go on for paragraphs and paragraphs, that I just delete and don’t send.”

“It feels good to write it down, doesn’t it,” I said. “Just to get it out and separate from you.”

“It totally does.”

And that got us thinking.

Here’s the thing about this business. It’s worrying. It’s anxiety-provoking. It’s a one-way ticket to cuckoo-bananas-loonyville. I have always been wired for being – how shall we say – a little nuts, but since I’ve been in this work, I am, and I don’t mind you knowing it, super nuts.

Anyway, the thing is? The deleted emails that feel so good to write but you never ever send because god forbid that the people we work with ever get a good glimpse at the depths of crazy that exists in our heads – well, wouldn’t it be fun to do something with it?

I said: “What you need to do is get a printer that will print it all out on bits of fabric and make something with it. Like a worry doll or drapes or a computer cozy. Or a crazy quilt.”

“No,” she said. “Not crazy. An anxiety quilt.”

Unfortunately, I can’t sew worth a damn (or any kind of crafting, really. The only D I ever got in my life was in Home Economics). But I love this idea. That the language of worry transformed into something cool and lovely that can be thrown over the back of a chair or warm the toes on a cold Minnesota winter night. I like the idea of our worries being separate from us. I like the idea that the little knot of anxiety that lives in the gut or the head – all barbed wire and acid and expectations and knives – can transform into something else. A blanket. A doll. Fire in the hearth. A piece of art. A long, thick thread, knotted into a pair of socks. A string of beads fastened around the throat.

Transformations are powerful, after all. If a magician can turn a tin can into a flying dove or an empty hat into a fuzzy rodent – poof! – then really, it should be no trouble at all to transform anything into anything. Your worries could become a flying castle. Or chain-mail coat made entirely of paper clips. Or a dragon so small it could fit in your pocket. Or a post-it note golem. Or a bird made of stars.

When my daughter was little – around five – she struggled with some pretty serious anxiety. One of the parenting tricks the doctor told us was to teach her to have specific times when we talk about our worries. So, when she would start to fall apart, we would say, “I can see this is a really big worry. Let’s put our worries in our pocket for now and then we’ll talk about it at Worry Time.” It was work – you could see it on her face – but she could usually do it. Largely, it was an opportunity for us to teach her how to take her anxiety out of the driver’s seat of her life – to acknowledge it, but to not leave it in charge. At Worry Time, we’d snuggle up with her with a blanket and an ancient, horrible stuffed chick named Bubble, and she would list all the things that she was worried about. Bubble, as it turns out was a wonderful listener.

“It makes me feel better,” she used to say, “just knowing that Bubble knows.”

Bubble became her worry surrogate. Her secret keeper. A transformation from something overwhelming and consuming and amorphous to something with a fat belly, ludicrous orange feet and a flap of felt posing as a beak. Bubble with his glued-on eyes. Bubble with his sour smell from too many nights in a child’s bed. Bubble with his matted feathers that weren’t actually feathers at all.

Maybe it’s the artist’s curse to be naturally wired toward worry, but I don’t think so. I know a lot of writers and many of them are anxiety-prone, but certainly not all of them. Still, I wonder what their anxiety quilts would look like. I wonder about my own.

Here is a patch in the shape of a star with the name of the book that I had to give up on.

Here are sixteen patches in the shape of a heart for the sixteen times my heart was broken. If you press your ear to their soft centers, you can hear them beating.

Here is a patch in the shape of a mouse. That is for a character that I had to obliterate in order to make the novel work.

Here are patches with numbers on them – numbers I like: three, for example. And fifteen. And zero – but only if you say it with a Spanish accent.

Here is the patch for the career setback. Here is the patch for the financial hardships along the way. Here is the patch for the conflict at school. Or the conflict with friends. Or the conflict with other members of my large and complicated family. Here is the patch for the pregnancy that turned scary. Here is the patch for the sleepless nights in school.

Here is my challenge for you, dear readers: embrace transformations. Think about what is worrying you. Think about it transforming to something else – something beautiful, something strange, something with clear eyes and a strong mind, and flying away.

On resolutions, intentions, and the lack thereof.


I don’t like New Year’s resolutions. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I recently don’t like New Year’s resolutions. This is partially due to the fact that I typically don’t actually keep resolutions, which in turn is due to the fact that my resolutions are often wildly optimistic. (I have not, for example, won a Nobel Prize, nor have I summited any mountains, nor have I learned any new instruments, nor have I become Suddenly Good at Math.)

I prefer the term intentions. Resolutions are grim, static, imposing. They are good at guilt trips. They glower. They wag fingers. They reek of disappointments. Intentions, however, are different. They are the whisper in the ear, the nudge at the side. Intentions are rooted in a place of kindness. They are forgiving. They are prayerful.

Making a list of intentions for the coming year requires a person to reflect on the year prior – what worked, what didn’t. What fed the soul. What depleted the heart. With these intentions, I would like to find ways to offer myself to the world. To make the people around me happy. To make strangers happy. To make me happy too. But to really get at what I intend for the year to come, it’s important to also identify what I do not intend to do. My Non-Intentions. For example:

  • I do not intend to run a marathon. Yes, I just turned forty, and yes, it does seem like it’s the sort of thing that people do when they reach a milestone birthday, in a “Hey, look at me, I am still young and strong and can OUTRUN DEATH if I feel like it” sort of way. Here’s the thing: I’m a runner. I love running. I do my best writing while I’m running. I like running around lakes and along rivers and down wooded trails and endlessly on lonely, prairie roads that connect my feet to the edge of the sky. But a marathon? Nawp. I don’t even like to drive twenty-six miles. An eight mile run does me just fine.
  • I do not intend to keep my house perfectly clean at all times. There was a time, a few years ago, when we had a bit more extra cash sitting around to allow me to have a little help with the housework. That time, alas, has passed, and our spare pennies are going to boring things like college savings accounts and orthodontics. I put a lot of pressure on myself to keep the house dust-free and dog-hair-free and clutter-free. I do not intend to do so this year. We will not live in squalor – I couldn’t abide it if we did – but I do not intend to give myself guilt trips about it. So there.
  • I do not intend to abide by strict word counts. There have been times when I have done this. Two thousand words a day or four thousand words a day or ten thousand words a day, or you are a TERRIBLE PERSON. This is crazy-making. And not helpful, because as one who is a serial/obsessive eraser, it meant that I was killing myself just to go backward. I write two thousand words, I erase another two and a half thousand. I write four thousand words, I erase five. I have been known to erase sixty thousand words in one sitting. And yes, there is a rip-the-bandaid-off-in-one-go sort of feeling to it, I can’t recommend it as a long-term strategy. This year, I have felt like I was turning my wheels. And I’m ready for a new strategy.
  • I do not intend to finish every book I start. This is a big one. Maybe it’s the teacher-pleaser that never really left my psyche, and maybe it’s the Puritans whose ghosts walk the varied byways of this country and remind us that if it’s unpleasant IT MUST BE GOOD FOR US, or maybe it’s the fact that, as a writer myself, I know how very hard it is to haul a book from idea to word to page to publication. Still. I find that by forcing myself to slog through books I hate in a Sir-Edmund-Hillary-BECAUSE-IT’S-THERE mentality, it damages my relationship with reading and my relationship with books. From now on, Books? I give you a hundred pages. And then I walk.

So. Those are my non-intentions. Here, instead, are my Intentions for this year.

  • I intend to rethink my relationship with social media. I’ve done this before, of course. And it was useful. Social media is, unfortunately, a necessary utility for writers. I say “unfortunately” not because there is anything inherently wrong with it. There isn’t. And, in fact, I take a great deal of pleasure from my deeply felt interactions with people online. I love the conversations, I love the connections, I love the humor, I love the abundance of knowledge and learning, I love the cocktail-hour feel to it. I love it a lot. And there is an incredible amount of joy in the crafting of a well-turned sentence, or a bi-tonal tweet, or a Facebook update that hits those notes of humor and rage, for example, or pathos and silliness, or analysis and rumination. But that’s just the problem. Because writers need to be doing all those things in the quiet of their desks, separate from the world, and utterly alone. Which, of course, is lonely. So it makes sense that writers would, perhaps, be more prone to addictive and obsessive behaviors online. Because it makes us feel wonderful. And the manuscript that we labor over in secret can never give us the kind of instant feedback and thumbs-up validation that we get from a tweet that gets re-tweeted a hundred times in a day. It’s like the Meth version of writing – awesome for a while, but it can up-end one’s life. I spend far too much time on social media, and it eats away at my writing time. So I’m going on a two month break, and will likely keep doing so. I want to experience the fullness of the conversation without the conversation driving the rest of my work. Family comes first, work comes second, and the conversation needs to be way down on the list. It’s just the way it is. So, I closed down my Facebook account, and blocked Twitter from my computer. I’ll still tweet occasionally, but only from my phone, or the automatic posts that WordPress makes every time I post something. In any case, it can no longer interfere with the tools of my trade, as it were. Because I need those tools.
  • Short Fiction. I made a resolution last year to write one short story per month. This, alas, was wildly optimistic. I only wrote three. Four if you count the unpublishable novella, now standing at 30k. Uff. What was I thinking? Still, short fiction feels really good, and it allows me to explore territory that I likely won’t explore in my longer-form fiction. It is a much darker place. Edgier. With sharp teeth. I enjoy the work, and would like to plan for a reasonable increase in volume. So. Five. I intend to write five short stories this year. We’ll see if I can do it.
  • I intend to stop erasing this year. I had a bit of a Coming-To-Jesus moment this year, when I realized that I erased more words than I had in any form in my manuscripts. Like, by many, many, many times. I write; I erase; I re-write; I re-erase; over and over and over. And it’s not useful. And it’s indicative of something else, too – a fear of finishing, a lack of honor in my work, a gap in kindness toward myself. So, step one. No more erasing. If I don’t like something, I make a new document. This is the new rule.
  • I intend to do yoga every day, even if it’s only ten minutes. This has been awesome so far, actually. Because it really has only been ten minutes every day, and even that has huge benefits for me. I have a tendency to live within the confines of my brain (I know I’m not alone in this) and it’s not always the best place for me to be. Not only that, it is not an honest way of assessing how we typically live, you know? Our bodies are the interface through which we experience everything that is wonderful about being alive. One of the things I love about yoga is its insistence that mindfulness is not just the brain. Our skin is mindful. Our spine is mindful. Our intestines and lungs and shoulders and ankles and toes are mindful too. When I can fill my entire body with good, pleasurable feelings, when I can quiet my mind and slow my heart, when I can turn my focus away from the whirling dervish of my brain and focus instead on the flow of air in and out and in and out, it makes my work on the page far more fluid and easy and real. It’s remarkable, actually.
  • I intend to cuddle my kids and my husband and my dog every single day and tell them how much I love them. Actually, I already do this. Every single day. But it is nice to say it out loud. And write it on my blog for posterity.
An important question.

This is a typical moment in BarnhillLand. But with kids instead of cats.

How about you? What are your intentions? And what are your hopes for 2014?

Saturday Sharing Time – lets see some bits from your WIPs (c’mon. you know you wanna.)

It’s been quite a bit since I’ve asked you people to share bits and pieces from your hidden pages, and I think it’s high time to do it again. Because it’s fun! I’ll start:

(and this piece – called “The Unlicensed Magician”, will likely never see the light of day. It is a novella – and where the heck do you publish a 30k novella? Nowhere, alas. Ah well. Maybe I’ll self-pub it someday. After I fuss at it. Endlessly. For years.)

The Minister had never counted on the wind. He built his tower higher and higher – a wobbly, twisty, unlikely-looking structure, uncurling like seaweed toward the shimmering limit of the sky. Dark stones, blackened windows. Impossible without magic. And now it was higher than any structure in the history of the world. The Minister knew the history of the world. He had all the history books. The ones he hadn’t burned, anyway. And while the books told of impressive structures, they never mentioned the winds.

The wind, at the top of the tower, once nearly sent him careening to his death, which would have been unfortunate seeing how long –how very long – he had spared himself the unpleasantness of dying. Falling off his own tower? The very idea! He started binding himself with straps to keep him in place as he gazed at the sky through his stargazer, and watched for the first glimpse of the Boro Comet.

Four times a century it came. The Minister had seen it more times than he could count. And now he would see it pass by once again – and so close – but he still would not be able to catch it. Not yet, anyway. How many more magic children would he need until his tower was tall enough? Ten? Hundreds? Thousands? How many enhancements would he require before he was able to pluck the comet from the sky and carry it in his pocket forever? It sickened him, of course, this business with the children. But the sickness in his heart didn’t interfere with the surety of his purpose. Besides, that first, singular act of cruelty made the thousands that followed infinitely easier.

There were large red flowers growing along the edges of the walls defining the rooftop patio – a gift from one of his magic children, right before she died. “To help you breathe,” she said kindly, before she breathed her last. Her lips were pale; her eyes were the color of milk, her hair had fallen out months before. He usually did not learn the names of his magic children – or anyone, really. People die so quickly when they are not enhanced, and only the Minister is enhanced. He has seen to that. But the magic children. They die quicker. Best not to know them.

This one, though. This one he knew. Not her name, of course, just the fact of her – that inscrutable bit of the Self that cannot be drawn or recorded or named. And after all these years, he still mourned her. A raw, painful, immediate feeling of loss.

Red flowers, his heart whispered. Red, red, red, red.

He picked a flower, breathed deeply, and felt a tightening in his throat. He inserted the flower stem into his lapel and returned his gaze to the stars, as the taste of sweetness and promise – and magic, always the taste of magic – lingered on his tongue.

Got any bits – a sentence? A paragraph? A page or two? Post it in the comments!

The Art of the Talisman

rocksIt happens sometimes, that a book grinds to a halt. In my experience, this is the rule and not the exception. I will be, for months and months, on firm ground and with a clear path. I will be surefooted, bright-eyed, brave. The story stands around me like an unshakable fortress, a cunning edifice, a cozy den.

And then it collapses. And I am struggling with falling beams and crumbling plaster and illogical plans. Without tools. Without power. In the absolute dark.

This is where I am currently. I have been here before. I have erased and recomposed and erased this book more times than I can count (it is a method of writing that I do not recommend). I have promised the manuscript to my agent, to my writer’s group, to everyone. But it is in pieces, and I am heartsick.

(As I said, I’ve been in this place before. I reach in the darkness and brace a joist to a stud. It holds. I check the footings. They are sound. I move forward. Slowly, slowly.)

It helps me to have something physical that I can hold on to. Something that I can touch, hold in one hand, and then the other. When I was writing The Mostly True Story of Jack, I had a map of the town of Hazlewood that I kept in my back pocket. It was a rough thing (I suck at drawing, after all), scribbled on lined paper. I drew stick figures and inane symbols. A church here. A college there. And look! A park. And look! Clive and Mable’s house. And Frankie’s house. And the place where Wendy beat up Clayton. And the Grain Exchange. And Mr. Avery’s house. And the place where the sinister members of the Knitting League knotted their wicked plans. (Those ladies did not make it into the book, alas. They will show up eventually.) Every day, I would take my map out of my pocket and flatten it out on my desk. I would scribble and erase, scribble and erase. Then fold, and slide the thing back into my pocket.

And it helped. Through all the erasing and fretting and re-doing and undoing. It helped to have something to hold onto.

In Iron Hearted VioletI had a leather bound book. To start out with, it had the first draft of the book in there. I would carry it from the park to the doctor’s office to the creek behind my house. I wrote the entire first draft longhand (it was considerably shorter than the final version), and, since I wrote much of it during the summertime, and my kids were home, it meant that it had to come with me as I hauled them from program to program, and it had to come with me as we were camping for six nights deep in the belly of the Boundary Waters, and it had to come with me when we went to movies, or when I was getting my oil changed or sitting at the DMV or whatever. I scribbled on that thing constantly.

When I got to the end, and began piecing the story back together on the computer, I used the remaining pages to write notes and to draw sketches about the history, physiology and psychology of dragons. I drew organs and bones. I drew timelines and diagrams. I wrote speculations and lectures and bits of history. When I ran out of pages, I used notecards.

And again, it was something to hold. Something to ground me.

The book I’m writing now is called The Boy Who Loved Birds, and I like it very much. This is how it begins:

When she arrived at the Dough Lady’s house, Mara carried three heavy stones in her left hand pocket. She’d throw them if she had to.

The stones – all from Lake Superior, near Mara’s home – were smooth and oval and cold. They curved into the heat of her hand, cooling her down. If she brought them to her nose, they would smell of iron and storm and smoke.  If she brought them to her lips, they would taste like the sky. The weight of each stone felt as precious as breathing.

And so I have stones.

Photo on 2013-01-24 at 11.29I keep them in my pocket almost all the time now. Because even when the story is stuck, and even when I go in like a vengeful angel and smite text with sword and fire, even when I erase everything, the person of Mara remains. Her indomitable self. Her sadness. Her rage. Her mistakes. Her slow path to forgiveness.

I love her. She infuriates me, but I love her anyway. And I keep her stones in my pocket as a talisman, as a physical thing that connects me to her, her story to the world. And they keep me sane.

For those of you in creative work, what are the things of the world that you bring with you as you sally forth into the uncharted waters of the the imagination – the dark heart of the Unknown? And for those of you in any kind of work, what are the things that allow you to keep doing what you’re doing? What are your talismans?

In Which I Attempt At Wisdom (and largely fail)

I believe I mentioned before that I have, for the last six weeks, returned to the teaching of adults, through a literary arts organization called The Loft Literary Center. It’s a great organization – one that has been incredibly supportive of my work over the years – and I love being a part of it.

It’s been a while since I last taught grownups. Normally I teach children. I get kids; I get how they think; I get their humor. Hell, in my soul, I think I secretly am a ten-year-old boy. Named Harold. I don’t have to think a lot about reaching my audience, because I am my audience. So, I approached my teaching of grownups with some amount of trepidation. Also, I spent the summer in a rather dark place when it came to my work and general self-efficacy, so I was rather skeptical as to what I actually had to offer these grownups who may or may not show up for my class.

(Or who may, in a fit of annoyance, leave my class in a huff. Or attack me with spit balls and paper airplanes.)

And I was surprised – no shocked – to see that my students actually enjoyed my class. Called it useful. (I have never been called useful before.) Called it illuminating. (How can I illuminate when I am standing in the dark?) Anyway, it was good for my ragged spirit. And my paper-thin soul.

So today is my last day for my class entitled Navigating The Treacherous Terrain of the First Fifty Pages Of the Middle Grade Novel (A Survivor’s Guide). Because, whatever. I like long titles. And I feel like six weeks isn’t long enough to give them what they need. And I feel like six weeks isn’t long enough to spend in the company of such a capital group. And I want to leave them with stuff they can use – bits of materials and instructions and know-how. Maps. Translations. Magic runes.

So I wrote them this – a Q&A of sorts. And now I turn it to you, dear readers. What more should I include? What will be useful for my collection of students who are either done with their novels, or well on their way? What pieces of wisdom do you have.

This is what I have so far. Please add your thoughts in the comments:

Questions and Answers for the In-Progress Novelist

1.    What now?

Oh, my dears and darlings! I wish I could tell you for sure. These are the things that must happen, though, before you can even consider sending your work into the world – finish the draft; let it sit with you for a bit; read it over with fresh eyes; revise; let someone else read it; listen to their comments; really listen; revise; read it again; revise; drink tea; love your families and give them gifts of appreciation and apologize profusely for your distinctly odd behavior while in the process of novel-making; read great books that challenge you and make you want to write better books; revise again.

2.  Do I need a writer’s group?

Not necessarily, but you should have readers. Usually we call these beta readers, and they are the trusted folks who will generously give their time to read your stuff and tell you – without reservation – what they think. You do not need to follow their advice. What you do need to do is notice the spots in your manuscript that give your readers trouble. And you need to recognize that the weak spots in your story are, in fact, opportunities to dig in, crack the thing open, examine the innards and mechanisms and structures, and to make your work stronger – complete and whole and separate from you.

3.   So where do I find these readers? (And by the way, my Social Anxiety Disorder prevents me from making direct eye contact or meeting new people.)

Fear not! The world is filled with writers! Obviously, the Loft is a great resource, and you can connect with classmates or fellow scribblers in the coffee shop or folks who show up at readings or whatever. If face-to-face contact scares you, fear not! The internets exist! Places like absolutewrite.com and critique.org are wonderful places to find critique partners. The Verla Kay boards are incredibly helpful as well. Also, for those of you who are not scared of by Twitter, there are several weekly chats that happen in the twitterverse that create spaces for people across the industry – the pre-published, the just-published, the oft-published, as well as agents, editors, publicists and hangers-on – to connect and exchange ideas surrounding pre-set topics. There are three that I participate in from time to time (when bedtime doesn’t get in the way): #kidlitchat happens on Tuesdays, #yalitchat is on Wednesdays, and #mglitchat is every Thursday – all at 8pm Central time. I have made very strong connections – and even friendships – with other writers that way. I’ve exchanged manuscripts with people and have gotten beautiful feedback. But mostly, this job is hard. And it’s lonely. And tribes exist for a reason. We need to find people who honor what we do, who see its value, and who give us shoulders to lean on when things are tough. We need to find people that we can be kind to – with whom we can share our own knowledge and experience and expertise. In the end, community matters, and it’s good to be part of one.

4.    Do I need an agent?

Yes. Well, not necessarily. But holy smokes, do they ever make things easier.

5.    Can you elaborate?

Sure. And let me clarify – if your intention is to go at this via the independent, self-publishing route, then you do not need an agent. If you only want to finish the novel, make some nice copies of it and share them with your friends and loved ones, then there are approximately nine million avenues to make that happen – Lulu.com is the first one to come to mind – and enjoy! There is nothing better than sharing stories with people you care about. If you are planning on writing a series of fast-paced novels (maybe three or four a year) and selling them as e-books, keeping the lion’s share of the revenues for yourself, that is a fine option as well. Lots of people do this; a goodly sum of them do it for the love and couldn’t care less about the money; a small-but-growing number break even, or make a modest profit; and a very small number are able to pay their bills with what they sell independently. Like traditional publishing, it’s a bit of a crap-shoot. But none of us are in this business to get rich. Heck, even the folks on the NYT Best Seller List aren’t getting rich. It’s just the fact of the matter.

HOWEVER, if your intent is to eventually get your books on the desks of editors who work for the large publishers, then YES you need an agent. Even many of the small publishers require agents these days. Your agent is part critique-partner, part business-analyst, part guru/spirit guide, part money-manager, part pit-bull, part suave-savvy-deal-maker, part career-mapper, and part publishing-speak-translator. I would be lost without my agent. Lost!

6.    Can we talk about money?

Of course we can, but alas, it’s not very useful. (Unless ranges like “from 0 to infinity” can be described as useful. In which case, awesome.) We could talk about averages and outliers, but in the end, publishers make decisions about the advance based on what they think they can recoup from that individual book, or what they think they can make back from that particular writer over the long term. Sometimes, a higher advance is a publisher’s way of signaling what their intended marketing and packaging budget will be for the book, but not always. There are writers who come out of the gate with six-figure advance deals. These are not typical. A typical first-time author will, if they are very lucky, land a book deal that stands at around $5-30k. But the thing is? This is not money you can reliably depend on. Because even if you’re getting 100k – that’s a lot, right? But then 15% goes to your agent (because without them you wouldn’t have had that money to begin with), and then there are self-employment taxes (did you know that self-employed people get taxed at a higher rate than other people? Well now you know.) and health insurance costs, and office incidentals, and then there is the fact that money comes in huge chunks that do not respond to your other bills, and can be delayed for reasons totally outside of your control (your editor goes on maternity leave, your book gets moved to another list, your publisher merges with another publisher, thereby putting your book’s very existence in question, etc.) . This is money you cannot depend upon. This is an unreliable way to make a living. It is much, much better to consider this a side-job, OR to have a spouse whose income is reliable, and accept your role as a kept man or woman. In my case, both my husband and I are self-employed and are accustomed to this life that we have built on a complicated DIY structure made of duct tape, cast-off lumber, a bit of twine, wire, papier-mâché, and gum. It is sometimes possible, but just because it’s possible doesn’t mean it isn’t hard. And it isn’t for everyone. It’s better, and recommended,  to maintain a consistent income, and to use the revenues from writing to buy some freedom from time to time (sabbaticals, and what have you).

7.    Do I have to be on social media?

You do not have to be, but it does help. When you are in the process of querying, the first thing an agent will do (assuming your work is compelling enough to justify the time) is to see what bits of you exist online – on twitter, on a blog, on facebook, on Pinterest, whatever. Part of this is just to see if you’re setting off their Jerk-O-Meters (because no one wants to work with a jerk). Part of this is to see what kind of potential readership you already have (again, you don’t need this, it’s just a thing that’s good to know). Part of this is to see what your potential vectors are for book promotion. Now, that being said, the purpose of social media – regardless of type – is for communication, collaboration, and creative community-building. If you have a blog that is entirely dedicated to the pictures you snap on your daily walks, or the prayers that you offer to the universe, or pictures of your kids, or your own artwork, or surrealistic and post-apocalyptic newspaper articles from a 25th century human colony on Mars, or whatever, that is fine. If your whole social media profile is limited to transcribing the fart jokes your neighbor kid tells you onto Twitter. That’s fine too. No matter what, it should be natural to you, it should be fun for you, and if you try to force it, it won’t work. Try it. If you like it, great. If you don’t, don’t sweat it.

8.     How do I find an agent?

Great question! Have you heard of Google? That’s not really a question, but it is part of the answer here.

No matter what, you want to find an agent whose interests and literary proclivities mirror your own. You want an agent who loves your work. This is important. So make a stack of books you love and find out who represents those writers. To do this, you can either take a look at the acknowledgement page, as many writers will thank their agents there, OR you can find the author’s web page (as most have one these days) and you should be able to find it some place on there (usually on the Contact page), OR you can simply google the phrase “Who represents _______?” or “Who is ____________’s literary agent?” and something should come up. I get about ten of these search terms coming to my blog every day.

Another great resource is Agentquery.com, which allows you to search agents to represent specific genres. They also show a sampling of a particular agent’s other clients to give you a range of their representation, and links to their websites and submissions pages.

But here’s the thing – and I cannot stress this enough: the query process, I feel, is a blunt and unwieldy tool, and it is not representative of the relationship that you are attempting to enter into. Agents work on behalf of writers and in cooperation with writers, but they do not work for writers. They are independent, savvy, and highly communicative individuals with broad and nuanced relationships with lots and lots of important folks in the industry. They can read people very well, and are incredibly perceptive when it comes to tastes. You want to partner with someone who has a profound and passionate understanding of your work, who is someone you trust as a reader, who will protect your interests, who has a clear vision of what your career can be, and – most importantly – is someone that you like. So how do you figure that out? Again, Twitter can be helpful. Lots of agents tweet. Not all do, of course, but for those that do, it can be an insight into their interests and curiosities, their humor and their passions, their politics and their reading lists. Another thing: blogs. Lots of agents blog. If you are considering querying them, make sure you have read it. And third, agents usually appear all over google. They will be mentioned in their clients’ blog posts, their bios will appear on writer convention presenter lists, they will have done interviews or Q&A’s, they will be pictured at a SCBWI event, or whatever. Do your research. Know before you query. Talk to them if they are interested in your work. And ask yourself, “Do I want to be in a productive, creative relationship with this person? And how would that work?”

9. Ummmm. How do I write a query letter?

Don’t stress the query letter. Keep it short, keep it snappy, give enough of a hook to draw your potential reader to the page, and then be devastating and original in your actual fiction. Most agents ask that you include five pages with your query (typically pasted right into the email, because agents are skittish of attachments as a general rule). These pages don’t just have to be great – they have to be amazing. Be amazing. This is your new rule.

Now, if you are still stressing the query, there is help online. Miss Snark has long since stopped blogging, but her archives are still up. Google her, read everything. And you’re welcome.

If you are interested in getting your query critiqued, hop over to Queryshark.blogspot.com. Note: read the blog first. It is not for the faint of heart.

And again, it’s good to read agent’s blogs. Many have written excellent posts on what they are looking for in a query, and what they are not. Also, be sure to read the guidelines obsessively with each agent you query. Follow the dang directions. I cannot stress this enough.

10. Any more thoughts?

Write. Every day. Finish this book. Revise this book. Write the next book. And then another. And then another. Accept the fact that I know lots of writers with first and second and third novels living quite happily in a drawer somewhere, never to see the light of day. This is normal. If you could write one novel, you can write two. Your second novel will invariably be better than your first. If you can write two novels, you can write ten. Challenge yourself. Insist on getting better. Write vigorously, prodigiously, brutally, and with great love. Be expansive. Be sly. Be amazing.

And, as with any great thing, keep a long view. Your speed in initial publication has no bearing on the number of books you produce over the course of your lifetime. Just write the damn books. The rest will come in its own time.

All right, folks. What am I missing?

Again, with the Zombies. (Also, gratuitous camping cuteness from the BWCA) (and some thoughts about writing too)

My son has, apparently been infected with some kind of zombie virus, which he did not catch after being burned, drowned, struck by lightning, falling into latrines (likely on purpose), boiled in oil, attacked by cougars, or any number of disasters that could – and have – befallen the Barnhills in their excursions into the woods. Still: he has been zombified, and I have proof:

And then it happened to Cordelia as well:

 Zombification aside, it was, in truth, a magnificent trip. Not that the weather was perfect (it wasn’t) or the condition ideal (are they ever?) but still. Here’s the thing about camping: even what it sucks, it’s still pretty awesome. We faced rain and wind and cold. Bee stings. Busted thumbs. Sore backs. But there’s nothing like carrying a canoe on your shoulders for 3/4 of a mile, lowering it back down onto the rocks without a scratch, and then hiking back down the trail to shoulder your 80-pound duluth pack just to do it again. And there’s nothing like filling a bunch of empty bellies with a bunch of fried dough  or curried rice or pesto on shell noodles. And there’s nothing like watching the space station cruise through a star-ridden sky and seeing every constellation you’ve ever heard of, and inventing some new ones of your own.

There’s nothing like it at all.

Also, there’s nothing like the process of letting go, either. The BWCA is utterly off the grid. Even if you got all fancy and had one of those waterproof solar collectors to shove sunlight into your i-phone, it wouldn’t do you a speck of good. No cell towers. No signals. No phone calls. No email. No tweets. Nothing. This is good for me because social media – while incredibly fun for spending hours and hours dorking around on the internets, are kind of the crack of writing: it feels like writing; it looks like writing; it requires the same attention to language and diction and subtlety that writing does. The composition of a tweet, say, uses much of my skills that I’ve honed as a writer – we make deals with our readership, don’t we? We compose tweets that begin like hello and end like goodbye. We play with words and build with words and suck on words like hard candies. And then we are rewarded with retweets and comments and funny reparte, and whatever.

Social media gives us what our manuscripts cannot.

But it’s the manuscript – not the twitters or the books of faces or the things with pins on them or any other one of the nattering pixellated heaps of ones and zeros that clutter our brains and our screens and our limited thinking – that pays the bills. That feeds the soul. That pulls us toward something large, something beautiful, that brief, ephemeral glimpse at truth. The manuscript can be a jerk sometimes. It can be witholding. It can be prickly. But it’s the important bit.

This is why I like to go into the woods. To get back to the important bit. We turn off. We tune out. We slink away from the endless, meaningless noise (recognizing our own part in it), and we recalibrate.

I wrote thirty longhand pages while in the BWCA. Despite the ache in my back in and twinges in my knees and the endless cricks in my neck. I wrote another fifty since coming home.

It was a good trip. Maybe I’ll go back.


(All of these photographs were taken by this guy. Beloved friend, and darling of my heart.)




Like Steampunk?

Me too!

Have you ever wondered what an alternate Minnesota would look like? A steam-powered world of intrepid explorers, polished locomotives, bustles, spats, strict adherence to tea time, automatons and teleautomatic robot servants, and high altitude dirigibles? A world where every child knows the name of Nicola Tesla and has his daguerreotype image framed above their pillows? What would our state look like in a steampunk world?

Wonder no more!

This Saturday is Teen and Family day at the Minnesota History Center. The theme: Alternate history – Steampunk, Science Fiction, Magical Realism and other disruptions of the space-time continuum. And it’s gonna be awesome! There will be an interactive Steampunk mystery with the Red Ribbon Society, a steampunk fashion workshop with Leonardo’s Basement, and Bad September will be playing.

And I’ll be there too, along with writers Lyda Morehouse and Kelly McCullough for the Ask-A-Writer panel.

Grab your goggles and top hats, button up your duster jackets, tighten your corsets and be sure to holster your Vapor Particulator Ray Gun. It’ll be fun!

What I Write About When I Write About Magic

I didn’t mean to be a writer who writes about magic. I have, though, lived my life assuming the possibility of magic. The world, after all, is wondrous and strange. It is incongruous, grimy, chaotic and odd. And that oddness permeates the air that we breathe, and the things that we touch and learn about, and even our very skin. It is the oddness that I cannot ignore and I cannot shake. It draws me again and again, to writing stories.

For example:

When I was a little girl, I had a recurring dream that I turned into a fish. In my dream, I wandered towards the nearest lake, and waded up to my knees, then my hips, then my chest. In my dream, my skin greened, then cooled, then became shiny and slick. I slid into the water, and, with a flick of my tail, swam away, leaving my abandoned nightgown floating midway between the surface and the sand. In my dream I thought fishy thoughts and sang fishy songs and dreamed fishy dreams. When I would wake up in the morning, my nightgown – quite damp – would be in a heap on the floor, and my lips would be rounded, holding an imagined bubble midway between my mouth and the air.

Was I a girl dreaming that I was a fish, or was I a fish dreaming that I was a girl?
Did I truly wade into the green water and slip away in a glint of fin and scale?

Was it enough to believe that I was a fish in order to be a fish?

I used to think it was. We believe a thing, and it is, you see. There is, I feel, a poetry to believing. And I believed then as I believe now. I was a poet from the first.

A few years ago, I started writing a book that would later be called The Mostly True Story of Jack. I was not intending to write a book about magic. Indeed, I was not intending to write a book at all. Instead, in my daily writing practice, I encountered – quite unexpectedly – a boy and his mother in a rental car, hurdling down a narrow road in rural Iowa, watching as the land stretched and rippled from the road to the sky, like a great, green quilt.

The land is magic in Iowa. This is common knowledge. Ask anyone you like.
The boy in the car, though, was an arrestingly singular fellow – his dark hair, his wide, sober eyes, his mouth pressed into a thin, long line – and I couldn’t look away.

“Who are you?” I asked.

“I am no one,” the boy replied. And he meant it too. This intrigued me. How could it not?

The boy was alone. (And oh! How I knew what it meant to be alone!)
The boy was invisible. (And oh! How I knew what it meant to be invisible!)

I had no interest in writing a novel, but compassion made me pause. I cared about this boy, you see. I cared a lot. So I built him a world.

I wrote about Jack. I observed him and followed him. And Jack, in turn, followed me. I saw Jack as he was, and Jack saw me, as I am. (And, quite frankly, I think at times he wasn’t impressed.)

There is a strange thing that happens to people as they slog through that arduous process of novel-making. The skin of the world we live in presses against the skin of the world we create. I built a world to act as a home for Jack. I created a story to give him people to love him, a place to hold him, an opportunity for heroism. Jack, in his way, turned his magic on me, and all sorts of strange, and odd and wondrous things started happening in my life. Things that I did not expect. The world I built permeated the world in which I live. And magic abounds.

When I write about magic, I write about belief. When I write about magic, I write about possibility. When I write about magic, I write about hope and courage and philosophy and faith and friendship and this great, teeming, beautiful, unknowable Earth, this boundless universe, this beating heart. I write about all of these things together.

When I write about magic, I am more fully in the world.

We live in a world that is tricky, sinister, inexplicable, gorgeous and wonderfully, wonderfully odd. Aren’t we lucky?

(This essay originally appeared in the Little, Brown Book Buzz e-newsletter. If you’re interested in subscribing, click here.)

On Entropy, Accretion and Exploding Novels


There was a time in my life when I was a lot tougher than I am now. And though I was strong enough to break a man’s nose (and did once, but that is another story) that time in my life was marked – no, defined – by terrible, terrible fear.

When I was a teenager and early adult, I never feared death – which can partly explain the ridiculous risks that I took with my personal safety and well-being (walking alone through sketchy neighborhoods late at night, fist-fights, jumping off bridges for fun, dating boys who liked punching things, and etc.). I didn’t fear death at all. Now, I will heartily admit that I was (and I really and truly admit this) a certifiable idiot, which accounts for at least some of my…..misguided behavior. I was an athlete and very fast and very strong, and I somehow equated that with invincibility, with deathlessness, with indomitability.I was intoxicated with my body’s ability to preserve itself.

It wasn’t death that I was afraid of. It was decay. It was entropy. That my strength would ebb, diminish and fail. That my skin would stretch and fold and hang, that my eyes would dim and my ears would clog and my brain would muffle and cloud and fade. But mostly, I was terrified that, one day, after I had coughed and shuddered and stopped breathing forever, that every cell in my body would disassemble, disassociate, dissolve.

It was, at the time, a terrifying thought.

It wasn’t death that scared me. I knew that everything that breathed would stop, and that alive and dead were just two different sections of that same long road. I was pretty sure there was a heaven, and I was mostly sure that God had enough of a sense of humor to let me in. No, it was the corruption of the body that gave me the creeps. And kept me up at night. And haunted my dreams again and again and again.


For a long time – for much of my twenties and into my thirties – this notion of entropy of dissolution – defined much of my understanding of the world. Entropy increases, I told myself. That is the nature of living: We form; we complicate; we undo; we fade; we blow away. We don’t just fall apart; we become food.

And I accepted it, and was okay with it, because it is true. Mostly.

Last year, I participated in a yearly workshop called Launch Pad, a program funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation. I wrote about the experience here. Now, after listening to lectures for eight hours a day and looking through telescopes at night and reading textbooks until the wee hours before finally falling asleep in a desk chair, waking with a crick in your neck, and heading out to do it all again – for an entire week….. well, it leaves an indelible mark on a person, I’ll tell you what. I felt the metaphors upon which my understanding of the world was organized start to shift, wobble and reform.

We are all made of stardust, our professors told us. Every atom in your body, every atom that surrounds you was once part of a star. That star exploded into dust. That dust became a new star, a new system, and everything began again. Indeed, our universe, being about 13.7 billion years old, went through some pretty dynamic changes along the way before morphing into the images that we’ve all seen and loved from Hubble and other beloved telescopes.


The first stars that formed in that primordial soup of dark matter (about 100 million years or so after the Big Bang) and glowing plasma were hot and bright and brief. Live fast, die young, indeed. They exploded, sent their matter across the universe, and their atoms bound to other atoms, and more, and more until they accreted into stars. And then those stars exploded and the process started again.

The point is that the atoms that made me were not just in one stars, but more likely they were from many. And from everywhere.

I tried to explain that to my son. He thought about it for a while, and said, “You mean when Buzz Lightyear said, ‘To Infinity And Beyond’, he was talking about me?”

“Yes,” I said. Leo was thrilled.

And while the central bulge of our galaxy was formed while the universe was still very young, our own star is under five billion years old. How many other stars were born, lived and died before our own emerged?


And billions.

A star explodes and becomes dust. Another star explodes and the shock wave incites the dust to become stars. Such is the nature of things.

And I bring this up because I’m working on a book.

A book that I destroyed.

A book that I exploded.

A book that became dust, ash and wind. That became plasma and fire and energy. That was given over to the universe as an offering. A book that fell apart, bloated, liquified, decayed, jellied and became food. A book that I left for dead.

A nebula is the dusty, gassy, dissolved remains of an exploded star. It is also the dynamic womb for a forming star. It is both. I like things that can be both. There are entire universes in both.


The thing is, as far as my process goes, this is nothing new. I start books in a flurry of heat and light. They are all I can think about. They are all I can do. And then they collapse. And I need to learn to accept the collapsing. I need to learn that entropy is part of my creative process. Hell, my book that’s coming out this summer, The Mostly True Story of Jack, ground to a halt no less than twenty times while I was writing it. My book that’s appearing next year – Iron Hearted Violet –  had to sit and wait for an entire year before I could finish it.

I start books; I create universes; I foment stars, and then I blow them up and leave huge clouds of dust behind.

Last year, I’ve been suffering from an increase of entropy.

Or, it isn’t so much that I have experienced the entropy, but the book did. I shouldn’t be surprised, not really. This is how I make books. I wrote The Firebirds of Lake Erie last year. Wrote the end. Hated the end. Erased the end.

Then I erased the last third.

Then I erased the last half.

Then I left it for dead.

Recently, I felt a shockwave. A jolt. The energetic pulse of an exploding supernova, half a universe away, and it knocked me out of bed and onto my knees. The book was in pieces. It was subatomic. But the tiny bits were starting to coalesce. They were starting to stick. And I think I know what to do now. The thing that was dust is becoming book. And it was good.

This makes me happy, because the other book I started last fall – Witless Ned and the Speaking Stones – suffered a similar implosion in February. So now I just have to trust that the undulating cloud of dusty novel bits will one day shudder, tremble and live. And the best thing I can do for poor Ned is to leave him be.

Change exists. Matter recombines. The Universe reinvents itself again and again and again. There is no death. There is no destruction.  There is only formation and history and newness and memory and structure and pattern and arc.  And, deep in our souls, is the unshakable knowledge every atom within us gleams with the memory of stars.



I told my son that all the matter in his body was formed when the universe was formed, and that his atoms are as old as the Big Bang. He thought about that for a while.

“You mean that I’m the same age as you?” he asked.

“Yup,” I said. “In a matter of speaking.”

“Well,” he said, “next time you do something naughty, I’m totally going to send you to your room.”

A year buds, swells, blooms, dies.

All things considered, I really dug 2010, despite its rather inauspicious beginning at which I learned that my book, originally slated to slide into the world in the fall of 2010, was to be delayed until 2011. That was a blow, and a crushing one at the time. Looking back on it, though, I don’t disagree with it and am actually pretty happy about how things have turned out. In the meantime, I was pretty productive this year – finished some projects, started some more, met some good people, tended my family, read some books, and generally had a pretty nice time. Here is a list, in no particular order, of some of the things I managed to get done this year.

1. Wrote two books. One will come out in 2012, the other I have no idea.

2. Sold a short story collection.

3. Caught a fish. My first one. Likely my last.

4. Learned a bunch of cool stuff at an astronomy workshop in Laramie, WY.

5. Hung out with lovely, amazing and ridiculously smart nerds. Will love them all forever.

6. After a lifetime of longing, I finally loaded the family into the car and headed northward to Canada and the Winnipeg Folk Fest, where I spent five glorious days in dusty squalor listening to an amazing array of musicians, and my kids managed to delight all who saw them with their dancing prowess.

7. Sent my baby to Kindergarten. Cried a lot.

8. Sent my other baby to Middle School. Cried even more.

9. Grew bushel-loads of vegetables in the garden. Ate very, very well.

10. Camped on an island in the middle of the Boundary Waters. Saw the Northern Lights reflected on the surface of a windless lake.

11. Showed the children how to find Jupiter. Listened to them gasp as they located it with their binoculars, seeing that bright red spot winking like a ruby in the dark night sky.

12. Welcomed a Brother-in-Law into the family. Learned of an impending Sister-in-Law.

13. Swam in the ocean. Did not get eaten by a shark.

14. Saw wolves. Two of them, and they were huge and wild and wonderful. They haunt my dreams.

15. Met more writers this year than I ever have in my life, thanks to Launchpad, Kidlitcon and World Fantasy. This is good, because the disparate jobs of writing and mothering makes me sometimes feel very alone in my work life. Or that my world life must always happen in the margins. Or something. In any case I just have never had a lot of opportunities to connect with other people in the same work as me – the people for whom the building of stories is a daily vocation, the people who sweat and groan under the construction of sentences, who mine words like precious stones. It was astonishing for me; a revelation. It’s nice to have colleagues, even if you only see them once a year. It’s nice to know we’re not alone.


As for 2011 – this year I become a novelist, and while that thought makes me so nervous that I think I might barf with these incessant jitters, I’m very, very pleased as well. My little book! After fits and starts, revisions so severe that only a sentence or two survived, after begging, pleading and ultimate despair, my book will finally live. Grant you sure feet, my book. Strong legs. Clear eyes. Feathers. Wings. In the end, our books really are like our children: we conceive, we nurture, we labor, we tend; and in the end they fly away. Grief, pride, relief. Is this normal? I hope so.


In any case, hello 2011! Welcome. We’ll do our best to make you beautiful.

Want to save Literature? Support small presses.

I’m not kidding around. For all the bellyaching lately about the Endless Deathknells of Literature (and Life!) as we know it (yeah, Garrison, I’m talkin’ to you), not nearly enough attention is being paid to the vigorousness and vitality abounding in the small press world. The small press world is populated by millions of profoundly brave souls who deeply care about books. They stake their futures on books and leverage their livelihood on books and sometimes even mortgage their children’s future on books. And it is this willingness to risk everything that has fueled a renaissance in literature – one that’s happening right now –  that is recharging, re-invigorating and resuscitating the Book.

It’s the small presses, the independent booksellers, the indie zines, and the micropresses who are pushing boundaries in literature. For those of us who are constantly on the lookout for books that inspire us, challenge us, books that push language and concepts and ideas into uncharted territory, we know better than to search out the old standbys on the bestseller list. Instead, we look to the vanguard – where books rethink and recreate the world.

I’m thinking about this right now, because I have a new story up on Shimmer’s website – one that you can read for free (did you say free?) for just signing up for their newsletter. Now, this is something that we should be doing anyway – because we can’t always afford to buy every book we want nor can we subscribe to every journal that we think is awesome. But, what we can do is stand up and be counted. We can say, yes! I value this! I support books and thinking and language and image. I believe that literature is a living thing, a world unto itself, one that expands and greens and fertilizes all who touch it. I believe in the power of stories and the power of great books.

Anyway, if you feel like reading the story, head over to Shimmer, and show your support. And in the meantime, here is my question for you folks: Who are the small booksellers and book makers that are currently revving your booklust currently? For me, PS Publishing, Subterranean Press, Graywolf Press, and Small Beer Press get my vote.

What are your favorites?

More Stories from the Ever-Awesome Clive

I love Clive. Millions and millions of love. Now, I know it’s very wrong of writers to pick favorites among their characters – much like parents pouring love onto particular children and ignoring the rest. And while it’s true that I love all of my characters equally, and I take their lives and their stories very, very seriously, there is something special about Clive Fitzpatrick – Professor of Literature, Expert on Ancient Texts, Practitioner of Magic, and Defender of Good.

Clive gets me.

Without Clive, my book would not have been finished. He has been my muse, my support and my swift kick in the pants.

Anyway, in the many revisions of the book, I had to remove several selections from Clive’s scholarly, philosophical and folkloric works, and each one was like ripping a piece of my soul away. Clive, when he appeared in my dreams, or in my conversations with him on the page was much more even tempered about it. He has an easier time letting go. Well, bully for him. I can’t let go.

I’m thinking more and more about taking my little selections and expanding them into actual stories. I may even try to publish it under Clive’s name. Because I think he deserves it. Not that he’s my favorite or anything. He’s just……special. Extra special. Here’s a bit from one of his stories:

Once, there was a boy who looked like a boy and spoke like a boy and thought like a boy, but was not a boy at all. His parents, unaware of the non-boyness of their beautiful child, strapped shoes on feet that were meant to be bare and tethered him with baby carriers and swaddling and five-point harnesses to keep him from flying away.

You are our little boy,” his parents cooed as they buttoned his jacket, although the buttons turned to bugs, which turned to butterflies, which flew prettily out the open window. They pretended not to notice. They closed the window, and the shades, and the drapes.

You are our little boy,” his parents sang as they strapped him into a pram, which sprouted flowers, grass, and a crystal spring. They told the neighbors it was a garden ornament. They entered it into a neighborhood beautification contest and received an Honorable Mention.

The boy resisted. He fluttered, he heated, he trembled with magic and rage and frustration. But eventually came to love his parents and his home and his life. And eventually, he believed he was a boy, and called himself a boy.

But the boy would grow. And with growing comes knowing. Even a child knows that.

Tales from Nowhere (or Everywhere), by Clive Fitzpatrick

Much Like My Inability To Walk and Chew Gum……

I can’t write while I teach. Like at all. I’ve attempted to do it before – some feeble stabs at a story over here, some anemic excuses for a poem over there. Nope. Not at all. It’s as though, by standing in front of a classroom, my body becomes a conduit between the creative well beneath my feet and the waiting brains in the desks before me. When I teach fiction, all of my training from teacher school about constructivist classrooms (“Don’t be the sage on the stage,” intoned my professors. “Be the guide on the side!”) gets thrown out the window. When I teach fiction, I employ the Personae Dramatis theory of education. I allow every ounce of passion, every discrete unit of energy, every thought, every feeling, pour through my body, and let it fill the room. It’s exhausting, both physically and mentally, but it’s worth it. And honestly, given the sheer amount of writing that I require from these kids, there’s no other way that I know of to get them bought in.

But, it’s problematic. The more I teach, the less I write. The more I teach, the farther behind I fall on my deadlines – both self-imposed and editor-imposed.

Today, I got my last round of notes from my editor for my novel (the one that has, up to now, been called Jack Be Quick, but will now, I’ve learned, be called something else – though I do not yet know what) and I can’t even look at them. And even if I did look at them, there’s nothing I can do for my book. I’m in teaching mode. I couldn’t write if I tried. Fiction, I mean. Writing fiction requires a reserve of creative energy that is different, I’ve found, from any other type of writing.

And honestly, I think it’s better this way. If I held back from my students, if I toned down what I offered them every day, I would be doing them a disservice. The whole point of the residency is not to teach writing, but rather to allow the kids to experience writing. To have that moment of utter excitement and thrill as a story unfolds -quite of its own accord – on the page. I give them my passion for the art of fiction because no one else has done it for them yet. I want them to feel it.

And I think they do. And they seem to dig it. And anyway, the sound of thirty two kids, all bent over their pages, breathing through their mouths, their pencils scratching furiously against their pages….. Well, there’s no better sound on earth, I’ll tell you what.

Still, I keep on thinking about how I could do my job better, and how I could add…..just that little something special to bring me just over the top, so I turn to one of my teaching heroes – Mr. Russo from Freaks and Geeks. Enjoy!

Dorkus Interuptus

Here’s my post that I put up on The YA-5, the group blog of fabulous writers that allows me to play in their sandbox. Feel free to comment here or there:

So, I’m just going to come right out and say it: I, Kelly Barnhill, am a total dork. I was a total dork in Middle School; I was a total dork in High School; and now, at venerable age of thirty-six, I am a performance artist of dorkdom: I ooze dorkiness, radiate dorkosity. In Platonic terms, when humanity sees the shadows on the wall – the flickering hints of the Essential Forms that exist outside of our universe, then I, ladies and gentlemen, am the Platonic Ideal: I am the Essential Dork.

Now, the question is this: Did my history and identity as a socially awkward, self-conscious and terribly shy outsider kid shape my current identity as a fiction writer? Or, to put it more plainly, can dorkiness be of use in terms of life paths, career choices and possible success in either? Or, in more specific terms to you, dear readers: If Kelly was able to put her Inner Dork to good use, could I, possibly, do the same?

The answer is yes.

But before I explain why, let me back up a bit. I want to explain for a minute why and how I came to write fiction, because I certainly didn’t start out in that arena.

I started out as a poet. And I loved being a poet – and not so much the writing of poetry, you understand (though I loved that part too), but I loved calling myself a poet. I loved being a poet. I loved my torn black jeans and my combat boots and the nicotine stains circling my fingers like rings. I loved writing love poems for the boys that I loved, the transmutation of passion and longing into rhythmic sounds resting on the tongue and rattling the teeth.

I loved being a poet because being a poet gave me permission to be an outsider. It gave me permission to be strange. Poetry does not require a specific social sphere: Poetry is its own social sphere.

I had spent my entire school career slightly out of step with my peers, always three moves away from acceptance. I had friends who appreciated me, sure, but only after I first unnerved, then exasperated them. After a while, they shook their heads and just got used to me. I was…..odd, you see. But, I was the person they could count on, the person who would listen, the person who wouldn’t judge them. Hell, it was conventionally impossible for me to judge anyone. Everyone knows dorks don’t judge.

Poetry justified my oddness.

Poet, I decided, was just a fancy word for dork. It was a paradigm shift and I ran with it.

The trouble was that poetry, with it’s images so sharp you cut your fingers on them, and an economy of language so spare you feel like the world is holding its breath, wasn’t providing me with the voice I needed. I needed expansion, nuance, multiple voices and perspectives. I had spent a young lifetime out of step, outside and out of synch: I was close enough to see in, but just outside enough for some perspective and distance. I had been, you see, collecting stories on the sly. Catching bits of personalities and histories and filing them a way the way an entymologist catches and catalogs dead butterflies. And while the label of “poet” gave me all kinds of leeway in my own personal oddities, I was ready for something more. I was ready for narrative.

I started writing stories. They sucked at first. Actually, they sucked for a while. Slowly, though, they got better.

And really, I don’t think that the stories that I write would have been possible without my dorky past nor my dorky present. I was a lonely kid; a bullied kid; a strange kid; and sometimes an unlikable kid. My loneliness made me observant: I spent years watching the kids whose social circles were simply weren’t expansive enough to include someone like me. My status as a bullied child made me compassionate: I learned how to watch for infinitesimal alterations in behavior and mood, to see who was hurting and who was looking to hurt.

I learned how to put myself into the self of another. I did this partially out of self-preservation, and partially out of a need for community – if there were other bullied kids anywhere, I knew how to find them, care for them, seek solace in numbers. And yes, I was strange, and sometimes unlikable. And both of those play out in my fiction now. I delight in the Strange because I am strange. I delight in unlikeable characters because I was once unlikable?

Is all fiction ever writing simply the efforts of the Dorks of the World to find ways of justifying themselves, of finding a place where they belong? Is Literature simply a Dork Cabal?


Perhaps all writers are, were, will always be dorks. Perhaps we do what we do to finally achieve some kind of acceptance or approval or love. Or, maybe, in order to make art, in order to really see the world around us, we have to be out of step. Maybe we chose to be dorks. Maybe I chose. And, just maybe, by choosing loneliness, by choosing to be odd, strange and choosing to not belong, it allows us to create the things that make us all belong to one another: a story, a poem, a painting, a song.

Sometimes I think there is no inside or outside when it comes to art. It unifies. It claims us. Art makes us belong to each other.


(Oh my god, someone whispers. Did she just say that? What. A. Dork.)


Amptuated Novel Bits

So, here’s another section of the book that ended  up facing the knife. Removing characters from a narrative is an unbelievably tricky operation, because it alters not only the motivation of the characters that remain, but it also raises the issue of the rate of revelation – if I had planned the order and method by which my main character would encounter the facts on the ground that had the potential to change – or end – his life, and then the mechanism to bring those facts to life simply vanishes, what do I do with the rest of the novel? In my case, it involved a massive amount of rewriting, rethinking and re-imagining, which was a gigantic amount of work. And despite the lost sleep and the tears involved, it was well worth it.

Still, I do love my Ladies of the Knitting League, and fully intend to bring them, in some capacity, into another book. Or maybe I’ll give them their own book – give the Evil Henchwomen their day, as it were. We’ll see. Anyway, here’s their chapter.

From a chapter previously called “The Rock”

“The darkness, of course, is crucial. The hero looks for guidance but will find none – or he finds guides who turn him, subvert him, lure him astray. Only by descending into the darkness, does the hero find the true path. Only by not knowing, does he achieve Knowing.”

-“On Heroes”, by Clive Fitzpatrick

Jack told himself that he was not interested in figuring anything else out about the town. Instead, he decided, he would work on gaining speed and confidence on the board, to feel as though he was flying across the wide, black road bisecting the broad, flat farms. This is what he said. And yet, he still shoved the map into his back pocket (don’t want to get lost, he told himself), he still brought his notebook (in case I feel like drawing, he insisted) and he still slipped Clive’s book into his backpack, (after all, he decided, I promised Wendy that I’d read the bit about her brother. If I didn’t, it wouldn’t be very friendly. And it isn’t every day that a person makes a friend.) With these explanations firmly in his mind, he kicked the board to a smart start and flew down the street.

Though it was hot and the sun beat mercilessly down on the cracked asphalt cris-crossing the town, Jack skated quickly and easily, enjoying the sensation of his own breeze cooling him off. His arms and legs were red and raw from his constant itching and scratching while he was standing still, but in motion, the itching eased and his skin seemed to soothe itself and calm.

Hazelwood’s streets lay in a general grid along one side of the gentle bluff, which made it easier to find his way around. He had decided to follow the roads east and west until they spilled into the far fields or flowed into quiet country roads. Back and forth he moved, practicing he told himself, but he now skated with such confidence, and grace, that the only thing left to learn was speed. By the second street, he could outpace a bicycle. By the fourth, he could outpace a car.

He supposed that he should be surprised by this growing ability – his way of zipping up a hill without even needing to kick anymore – but for some reason he wasn’t. It felt right somehow.

He came to a large, square building at the far end of Main Street, with strange and detailed carvings in its limestone face. Jack stopped, kicked the board up and under his arm and stared. The carvings showed greenery and flowers and farms and abundance. But there was something else – the shape of a person, a woman maybe, that was untouched by any decoration. It was as though a figure from the picture had simply decided to get up and walk away, leaving only the impression of her body behind. It was, he decided, so curious and strange that it only made sense to make a copy of it in his notebook and show it to his uncle Clive. He may know the story behind it, and who knows, it might make an interesting addition to his study on Hazelwood.

But before he even had a chance to open his backpack, the doors flew open, and a small, nervous man hurried down the steps and onto his bicycle.

“Oh god,” the man whimpered to himself. “Oh god oh god oh god.” After a few wincing wobbles, the man pedaled down the street.

It was, Jack realized, the same man he saw in the yard, and the same man that Gog and Magog attacked. Jack looked up at the limestone building. The words, “The Grain Exchange and Trust” stood tall above the main doors, their letters cut mercilessly in stone. Jack shivered. He dropped his board to the ground and sped off after the man on the bicycle.

So accustomed to streaking freely down the street, Jack found it difficult to slow down enough to keep a far pace behind the small man, in case he should need to duck behind a shrub or tree. To make it worse, the man stopped from time to time to blow his nose and wipe his eyes, and in that last block, he pedaled down the street at a crawl.

Finally, he pulled up in front of a large, white house with a wide front porch. Jack hid behind a wickedly prickly raspberry bush and peered through the branches. Three women sat on the porch, knitting. The fabric hanging from their needles caught the slanting light in a sheen that set Jack’s teeth on edge. The sharp points clicked and whirred in their hands, pulling each thread tight as nooses. Jack gulped and had half a mind to cover his ears to block out those horrible clicks, if it weren’t for the fact that he actually wanted to hear what was going on. Next to him, a warm soft weight leaned against him and began to purr.

What are you doing here,” Jack whispered. Two pairs of enormous, yellow cat-eyes stared back, blinking twice before turning back to the scene on the porch. Their tales lashed back and forth and the hair on their shoulders bristled upwards. Jack shook his head. “Crazy cats,” he said.

“Well,” the first knitter said.

“Our dear Reginald,” said the second knitter.

“On time, for once,” said the third.

The small man trembled and squeaked. He mopped his brow. His skin took on a ghastly gray color and his chin seemed to disappear into his neck.

“G-g-g-good afternoon, Ladies,” the man choked.

The three women didn’t look up from their knitting. They pulled shimmering thread from their basket and wound it around their fingers. Even their faces had a shimmer to them, and Jack wondered if it was a trick of the light. How, he thought, can they go from looking young to old to young again? The alterations were subtle, so much so that they didn’t appear to change at all, they simply were old, then they were young. Jack had never seen anything like it.

The man swallowed hard, thrust his hands into his pockets and began again. “Mr. Avery is in agreement. He says that you will meet him this evening at the usual location. He says,” the man stopped, bit his lip and trembled some more. “That is to say,” he whispered, “he requests, that you will do your best to maintain timeliness.”

The needles stopped. Jack stood up to get a better view. The stone in his pocket began to warm and heat, slowly but noticeably.

“He would dare,” the first knitter said.

“To insinuate,” the second said.

“After the blunders and missteps that bungling fool managed,” the third stood, her yarn spilling on the ground. She pointed her needles at the small man who fell to his knees and began to cry.

Sit,” the first knitter said to the third. She turned to the man on the ground. “Stand up Mr. Perkins. We have no intention of removing anyone’s soul this afternoon,” she turned to the third knitter and gave her a hard look. “Not that we could with yours anyway. It’s been claimed.” Mr. Perkins whimpered again, but did as he was told and stood up. “The remaining issue, of course, is the house itself, as its fate must be delicately handled, I understand.”

“Indeed,” Mr. Perkins said. “We have the first set of orders from the governor currently, and have sent – ahem – incentive monies to the permitting agencies. We should have it dismantled within the next few days, while both Lady and Other are sleepy and pliable.”

Jack wanted to hear more, particularly since the phrase Lady and Other sent a strange shiver across his skin – something that felt a little like joy and a little like fear, but the stone in his pocket spiked, sparked and smoked in his pocket, burning his skin. He stood, jumped and screamed.

“Ow! Ow!” he cried. “Get out!” He threw the rock on the ground.

The three knitters stood, dropped their knitting and trod on it as they scurried down the porch steps.

“You!” said the first knitter, pointing a needle at Jack’s heart.

“Eavesdropper!” said the second, pointing a needle at Jack’s head.

“The Portsmouth!” screamed the third, pointing a needle at the rock on the ground.

Jack would have said something in reply, perhaps making an attempt to talk his way out of any trouble he might be in with these three strange women, but three things happened at once:

First, Mr. Perkins screeched, covering his face with his hands. Lancelot, appearing out of nowhere, bore down on the man, knocking his glasses to the pavement, before swooping to the ground, grabbing the rock in its talons and flying out of sight.

Second, Gog and Magog leapt out of the raspberry bush, hurling their weight on the chests of the first two knitters, causing them to stagger backwards, hitting the third.

And thirdly, Jack’s skateboard yanked itself out of Jack’s arms and began rolling away.

“Come back,” Jack shouted. He ran after it, hopped on and sailed out of sight. Somewhere, between the sweat mopped off his brow and the terrified panting, he heard one of the women call to him. Her voice was soft and sweet and sharp.

You won’t know whom you can trust,” she said.

Yup, Jack thought. That’s about the truest thing anyone’s said all week.