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January 2018 • Volume 131 Number 1
Should a writer
ever write for
Writers, editors, and teachers
speak out.
The hero of
the story
Disabled protagonists in
children’s and YA literature.
On the road
with David
After a dozen books, what’s still left
to know about this best-selling
humorist’s life?
In a word: Plenty.
Setting the tone
From promising
to polished
Use these revision tips to make your
picture book manuscript irresistible.
Making progress
How to handle voice in your fiction.
Writing is hard. Writing a full-length
manuscript is harder. How can
authors stay motivated to reach the
finish line?
Is your home office causing
From the Editor
you pain?
Learn how to set up your
home office in the most
ergonomically-friendly way.
Take Note
Featuring Lilly Dancyger and
Natalie Bober.
42 Markets
Beyond the backdrop
47 Classified advertising
Why setting leads to richer
characters and deeper plots.
48 How I Write
Julie Buxbaum: “It’s important to
write about things that matter to
you and scare you.”
This new magazine for young
girls aims to make science
Wordcrafters Writers’
Writers both young and old
come together to talk craft in
beautiful Eugene, Oregon.
Put our free e-mail newsletter
to work: Check out our weekly
newsletter, which offers highlights
from our website and the
magazine, and directs you to more
articles about craft from The
Writer’s vast archive. Find the
“Newsletter Signup” box on our
home page, enter your e-mail
address, and you’re in business.
Cover: Team Oktopus/Shutterstock
thewritermag • The Writer | 3
Senior Editor Nicki Porter
Contributing Editor Melissa Hart
Copy Editor Toni Fitzgerald
Art Director Carolyn V. Marsden
Graphic Designer Jaron Cote
here are two kinds of people in early January: the resolutionmakers and the resolution-haters. And I understand both
camps, I really do. On one hand, who wouldn’t relish the
opportunity to stop and seriously reflect on how we can be
better people, spouses, employees, friends, working members of society? On the other hand, why wait until Jan. 1 to effect change in your
life, especially via a too-lofty goal half of us will forget by February?
But if there’s a goal for the next year that we can all agree on, surely
it’s to be better writers in 2018. Need help making your setting come
to life? Sarah Van Arsdale has tips for making fictional places come
alive on page 10. Got a children’s book manuscript in your drawer
begging for some fine-tuning? Anica Mrose Rissi’s revision primer on
page 32 will get you started. No matter if you need help with finding
the right voice for your fiction (page 22), building a healthy home
writing space (page 8), or just finding the motivation to finally finish
your novel (page 34), we hope this issue primes your writing life for
success in 2018.
As for me? Well, while I admit I’m not much of a resolution-maker
beyond a few loosey-goosey mantras (Travel more! Whine less!), this
year I’ll be seriously meditating on Lilly Dancyger’s advice on page 5
for sharing personal narratives in an era so weighted with violence,
tragedy, and an appalling lack of leadership. I believe being born with
the gift of words means we must use that gift for the greater good. We
must keep writing. We must not become jaded, listless, fearful of
speaking our truths.
If nothing else this year, if you don’t make it to your thrice-weekly
kickboxing class, eat more whole grains, or call your mother once a
week, make a tremendous effort to pick up the pen as often as you can
in 2018.
Your words matter. Your stories matter. They matter more now than
ever before.
Don’t be afraid to share them.
Keep writing,
Nicki Porter
Senior Editor
4 | The Writer • January 2018
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good essay must have this permanent quality about
it; it must draw its curtain round us, but it must be a
curtain that shuts us in, not out.” —Virginia Woolf
in the
Trump era
Why personal essays
matter more now
than ever.
s a writer and editor of personal narratives, I’ve
been having a bit of an existential crisis since the
2016 presidential election. I’ve been wondering if
there’s space for the personal and internal in a
world so politically fraught; with people having their rights
stripped away in new and horrifying ways every day, what
place do I have reflecting on the past traumas, joys, and
humiliations of my own life? As an editor, I’ve been more
selective than ever when reading first-person submissions, as
most of the conflicts feel petty, superficial, and meaningless
in the face of ongoing national tragedy. When Jia Tolentino
wrote for The New Yorker that the fluffy, self-as-spectacle
style of personal essay died with the election, I nearly
jumped out of my seat to shout my agreement.
But as the months have rolled on, I’ve realized that while
the superficial and self-indulgent no longer deserve a seat at
the table of public discussion, the vibrant, meaningful personal narrative is in fact more needed now than ever before.
The personal is political, and it always has been. Individual, human representation is one of the most valuable tools
for educating and creating empathy. My Jewish father began
teaching me about the Holocaust from a young age, but the
atrocities were abstract and beyond my grasp until I read
The Diary of Anne Frank when I was 8 years old. Through
the story of one real girl, all of the terror of those unfathomable facts became tangible. Anne Frank’s words serve as a
lasting reminder so that we may do our best to uphold the
Jewish vow of “never again.”
And we need this kind of personal narrative tied to the
travesties that are happening in our own era as well. One of
the greatest challenges of the Trump era so far has been the
effort to fight off emotional fatigue; waking up and reading
the news every day takes more fortitude and deep breathing
techniques than it should. It would be so much easier to
shut it out, to surrender to apathy and decide to accept that
the world we live in is a terrible place. It’s much harder to
take that second step of not just reading the news, but also
looking for ways to fight against each new horrifying
announcement. To stand up for the refugees who, like Anne
Frank, are being denied access to this country, and for
immigrants who grew up here and are now being told to
leave, for survivors of sexual assault who are being told to
quit school if they don’t want to share a campus with their
attackers, and for scientists who are trying to convince an
oblivious administration that we’ll all be drowned and
burned soon if we don’t start fighting for the environment.
We need personal narratives so that we can carry with us
every day the lived experiences of the marginalized people
who need advocates more now than they ever have. To
remind us why apathy isn’t an option. If we’re going to continue to fight, we need art to fuel the fire.
“[Storytelling] can validate and affirm the experiences of
those whose stories are otherwise ignored,” says Aiyana
Knauer, an organizer of the Brooklyn chapter of Shout Your
Abortion, a campaign to end abortion stigma by sharing
personal abortion stories. “Another power of storytelling is • The Writer | 5
that it puts a human face on
things we may otherwise just discuss in abstract. People often
respond better to the story of
someone they know if they’re
trying to understand the struggle
of an issue they don’t think
affects them – like when they
remember they have a gay friend
or a trans friend.”
I wondered at first whether
personal narratives would have
this same impact in the Trump
era. I wondered what the point
was of sharing personal stories
in a world where so many people
see the basic human rights of
marginalized people as extravagances they don’t have time to
concern themselves with; the
rights of LGBTQ people who
face discrimination as a superfluous distraction, the desire to
shelter undocumented immigrants as un-American, where
even condemnation of Nazis is a
partisan issue. In a world where
an attempt to express our personal experience to others, to
share where it hurts, is met with
taunts of “snowflake” and barely
coherent tirades about participation trophies.
Storytelling can humanize, but
what do we do when the opposition knows we’re human and just
doesn’t care?
Maybe the answer is that this
art is not for the enemy. Yes,
sometimes art is about changing
minds, about opening up your
world to people who would not
otherwise see you. Sometimes
art is to provoke, to challenge, to
force confrontation. But sometimes art is for ourselves, to feed
and nurture and show others like
us that we’re here. We may not
be able to reach into the dark
hearts of those who gleefully
watch Trump and his cronies
6 | The Writer • January 2018
strip us of our rights, who barely
bat an eye when a Black man is
shot in the street but get ruffled
by a Nazi getting punched in the
face. We may never convince the
bigots to care about our humanity, but we can still share our stories with each other, and in
doing so make our resistance
more united through empathy
for each other, even if we can’t
get it from the opposition. Only
by sharing these experiences of
our own can we let others who
are struggling know that they’re
not the first.
And, just as stories that
humanize the most pressing
political issues can give us the
will to keep fighting, personal
narratives that are totally disconnected from the political can give
us much-needed respite. It’s not
sustainable to spend every second
of every day being angry and
fighting. Once in a while, we need
to stop and recharge, to reclaim
our own humanity and our own
lives. And what better way to
hold onto humanity than by
indulging in a beautiful, contemplative, human story? By having
the audacity to find our own stories worth telling, we make ourselves real. We remind ourselves
and each other that there’s more
to life than the constant doom
streaming out of Washington. We
remember the value of connecting with others and remember
that we’re not just fighting
against, but for.
—Lilly Dancyger is the Deputy Editor of
Narratively, where she oversees the
memoir section. She’s written personal
essays for Psychology Today, the
Washington Post, BUST, the Jewish Daily
Forward, and more. Her debut memoir,
Hunted: A Memoir of Art and Addiction, is
forthcoming in 2018. Find her on Twitter at
Is it necessary to indicate who is
speaking for every line of dialogue?
Sometimes the “he said” and “she
said” seem repetitious.
Dialogue tags, those phases before or after
dialogue that indicate who has spoken, can
help the reader navigate a scene. Still, they
are not necessary for every single line of
dialogue. Exchanges between characters
can be written so that some lines of
dialogue are easily attributed without a tag.
In Jennifer Egan’s “Found Objects” in A Visit
From the Goon Squad, Sasha is on a first
date with Alex. On their way out of the hotel
where they have dinner, a woman follows
them. She’s desperately looking for her
wallet, which Sasha has swiped from her
purse earlier in the evening. Alex has this
exchange with the woman:
Alex turns to the woman. “Where did
this happen?”
“In the ladies’ room. I think.”
“Who else was there?”
“No one.”
“It was empty?”
“There might have been someone,
but I didn’t see her.”
Alex swung around to Sasha. “You
were just in the bathroom,” he said.
“Did you see anyone?”
Egan uses only one dialogue tag, and the
exchange is clear. Each new paragraph
indicates a different speaker, and that is
enough for the reader to easily follow this
back and forth. Egan also uses action in the
narrative to indicate the speaker. The
exchange starts with Alex turning to the
woman, and the reader knows that the
dialogue immediately following is his.
Using a variety of techniques to signal
which character is speaking allows you to
keep exchanges revealing, fluid, and clear.
—Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and
reading fiction at Gotham Writers Workshop.
biography can be more personal than fiction,
¾ “Iandthink
certainly can be more expressive.” —Peter Ackroyd
Natalie Bober
Natalie Bober is an awardwinning and critically
acclaimed biographer and
historian. She is the author of
eight books of nonfiction, most
recently Adventures of a
Biographer. Her book Abigail
Adams: Witness to a Revolution
was the winner of both the Boston Globe/Golden Horn
award for nonfiction and the Golden Kite Award. Her
biography Thomas Jefferson: Draftsman of a Nation led to
her consulting for and appearing as a historian on the PBS
documentary Thomas Jefferson. In addition to publishing
biographies for adult readers, Bober has also written
them for young readers, including Papa Was a Poet, about
Robert Frost, and Marc Chagall: Painter of Dreams. Bober
currently lives and works in New York City.
As a biographer, I have learned to write nonfiction that is
absolutely accurate yet reads like a novel and keeps the
reader turning the pages.
Since I stumbled into the role of biographer quite by
accident, writing lives – and the research it entails – has
been an exciting adventure. As I read, interview, travel,
and study the work my subjects produced – be it paintings
or poetry, personal letters or the Declaration of
Independence – trying to build bridges into their minds
and their hearts, to see and hear and feel what they did, I
never know what I will discover. I must study the past with
a revealing searchlight, all the while looking for details.
Like a hog digging for truffles, I’m always after those dark,
hidden morsels.
For a writer to breathe life into people who lived a long
time ago, she must eavesdrop across the centuries to find
the details that give the past a pulse and that help the
reader see it and understand it. It’s the search for these
details that is often the most interesting part of the
process for me. Indeed, it is the challenge of recreating a
life from details and making a story out of the chaos of
reality that has kept me on a perpetual treasure hunt.
I have learned to think of myself as a portrait painter,
but a painter whose palette is words. The painter
recreates on canvas the visual appearance of a person. A
fine biographer sets her subject against the canvas of
history and makes the reader feel the presence of a real
person behind the great artist or statesman. The story
becomes, then, not simply the life of a subject, but the
portrait of an era as well. In this way, biography becomes
a prism of history. In fact, biography has been described
as the human heart of history. The biographer, then,
becomes a historian as well as a portrait painter.
But the biographer must be a storyteller as well – a
storyteller whose facts are accurate. Research and
documentation must be thorough and meticulous. A good
biographer is under oath to interpret the material she has
gathered honestly, for if I paint a picture colored by my
priorities, it is a false one.
I must be careful that the biography I am writing doesn’t
become just a dull list of facts. The personality of the hero
or heroine must shine through. This is where the art comes
in. I must select and arrange the details I have gathered in
my research into a story that draws readers in and keeps
them turning the pages as though they were reading a fine
novel. Good writing not only conveys information, it has
balance, form, and grace. It becomes a work of art.
In writing, I am constantly bewitched by the rhythm
and sound of the words, and by the interaction of their
sound and sense. I always read my work aloud. It is only
then that I can tell if it’s alive.
I have learned, too, that in my biographies, I was better
able to describe certain aspects of my subjects’ lives as
they related to my own. For only when a book is written
out of passion will a reader respond with passion. I think
of Robert Frost, who said, “No tears in the writer, no tears
in the reader.”
—Gabriel Packard is the associate director of the creative writing MFA
program at Hunter College in New York City and also the author of The
Painted Ocean: A Novel, published earlier this year by Corsair/Hachette.
Make a list of 10 New Year’s
resolutions for each character in
your novel. What do they hope
to achieve this year? What have
they struggled with in the past?
Finally…how good are the odds
that they’ll actually keep these
resolutions? Use their perceived
goals and desires to propel your
plot forward. • The Writer | 7
Is your home office causing you pain?
Learn how to set up your home office in the most ergonomically-friendly way.
8 | The Writer • January 2018
Got a laptop? Get an external keyboard and monitor
It can be tempting to work solely on a laptop. For one, doing
so means that wherever you go, you have all of your files.
But when you use a laptop, a whole host of ergonomic problems can arise. Not only are your elbows often elevated from
where they should be, but also your screen is often too low,
causing you to either slouch or angle your head toward your
screen, putting pounds of pressure on your neck and spine.
Tamara James, assistant professor and ergonomics division
director at Duke University, says “laptops are really designed
for short-term use.” She adds that they’re just not ergonomically designed for long-term applications. With a laptop,
everything (trackpad, keyboard, screen) is usually stuck in
the position it comes in. This means if you set up camp at the
breakfast nook, your arms are likely tilted up and your back
hunched as you try to adjust your body to the device in front
of you. Instead of doing this, invest in an external keyboard
and monitor – you still get the benefits of working on just one
or a writer, the home office can be the birthplace
of many stories and books. But it can also be the
place where carpal tunnel starts, muscles become
strained, and back pain turns into a chronic,
undeniable problem. Perhaps one day a writer sits
hunched over the breakfast bar in her kitchen or the next
she sits at a desk, with her head hunched forward, peering
at her too-close screen. A day of strain in itself probably
won’t cause a permanent problem, but having a setup that
works for you in your home office can make a huge difference in how you feel.
If you work full time, you spend over 2,000 hours at your
desk each year. Setting up a workplace that supports your
body and fosters productivity takes just a few minutes. So,
grab a cup of coffee (or tea, or milk, or wine), take a step
back from your workspace and adjust it so it works for you.
It’s about time your desk did something for you other than
give you aches, strains, and headaches.
system, without the physical drawbacks
of working on a laptop alone.
The best position for your monitor
is almost level with your eyes, says
Janet Peterson, an ergonomic consultant in the Seattle area who holds a
doctorate of physical therapy. You want
the top of the monitor about 1 to 2
inches above eye level. This is a neutral
position that won’t strain your back.
Meanwhile, you want your keyboard
just above lap level. This will create a
90-degree angle at your elbows. Most
people sit with their elbows about 25 to
27 inches from the ground, says James.
However, most desks are 29 to 30 inches
off the ground. This discrepancy causes
pressure on the wrist.
So what do you do? Look for a desk
with a pull-out shelf, invest in a short
desk, or consider purchasing a desk
that you can adjust the legs on, such as
cutting them down to size.
Adjust your seat
So, what about your chair? Can’t you
just get a tall office chair that will put
your elbows at the right height instead
of investing in a short desk? Sure.
However, in doing so, you may create
new problems. For instance, your feet
may not reach the floor if you get a
chair that is too high. If that’s the case,
you can adjust by getting a box or
other footrest to put your feet on.
Reaching the floor means you can sit
straight in your chair – the best posture
for your back, shoulders, and wrists.
Lighting matters
As a researcher and professor at Duke,
James has looked specifically at lighting in workspaces. In her research, she
has found that people naturally contort
their bodies to adjust to overhead
lighting. If you’re working with a document, James says, the best thing to do
is to use a task light to specifically illuminate the document on your desk.
Don’t move your body to see your document; move your light so you can see
Try these exercises to
help relieve tension.
1. Windshield wiper
Stand up. Gently tilt the top of
your head left toward your
shoulder. Move it back to center. Do the same on the right
side. As you move your head
left to right you should make a
motion that resembles a windshield wiper. Repeat five times.
2. Leg lifts
Hold on to the back of your chair
or another similarly tall object,
like a couch. Lift one leg directly
backward, keeping the knees in
both legs straight. Return leg.
Repeat with other leg.
3. Back scratcher
Stand up. Reach one arm back
so that your hand is resting
squarely on your back, like if
you were to scratch it. Use
your other hand to grab the
elbow of the first arm. This
should mean one of your
elbows is pointed directly up
and your other elbow is pointed
to the side. Gently pull your
upwards elbow with your opposite hand. Count to five. Repeat
with your other arm.
4. Overhead stretch
Reach up. Interlace your fingers.
Position your palms toward the
ceiling. Push up and slightly
back. Count to five. Repeat.
Exercises courtesy of the Duke
Occupational & Environmental
Safety Office.
it from a comfortable position.
As far as working on a computer,
she says she’s noticed that people who
work with overhead lighting often turn
up the brightness on their computer to
compensate for the bright lights above
them. “Turn it off,” she says, explaining
that natural light is your friend when
working from home. “It’s actually better to work in lower light levels when
using a computer.” Excess brightness
can strain your eyes.
Listen to your body
The No. 1 thing you can do for yourself
if you work from home is listen to your
body. A sore neck or kink in your back
is a sign that what you’re doing is wrong.
James advises, “If you feel pain or discomfort when you’re doing something,
you need to change what you’re doing.”
Usually changing your chair position,
keyboard position, or monitor position
should clear up any issues, and the effect
should be fairly noticeable soon after
you make an adjustment, says Peterson.
However, she says, it may take more
time for symptoms to lessen if you’re
making adjustments to fix a more
chronic, long-term problem. “Since they
usually come on gradually, they will
decrease gradually as well,” she says.
Still stumped? You may want to
consider consulting an ergonomics
expert. Many consultants will do a
one-on-one in-home evaluation of
your workspace. If you hire a consultant, Peterson says one thing to ask for
is if the specialist has an affiliation with
a vendor. You shouldn’t feel obligated
to buy from a particular company, she
says. “There are nearly always options
for the same type of equipment from
different vendors.”
Melissa Haskin is an Oregon-based food and
health writer. Her work has appeared in Men’s
Health, Cooking Light, Oregon Healthy Living,
and various other national and regional publications. In her free time she enjoys eating, eating
more, and bicycle riding. • The Writer | 9
Beyond the backdrop
Why setting leads to richer characters and deeper plots.
10 | The Writer • January 2018
United States. In the story, a young
man comes home after serving in the
Army. The story is told from the
point of view of his younger brother,
who is unsure what to make of the
changes in the older brother he’s idolized and missed during his absence.
The story was almost working, but
there was some deeper underpinning
that was missing.
I couldn’t see where the story was
taking place. I knew it was in a house,
and there was a driveway where the
older son’s truck had been parked while
he was away. I knew there was a lake
nearby, because there’s a scene where
the brothers go swimming. But is the
house a tidy ranch with a neatly mown
lawn, or a ramshackle farmhouse comfortably in need of repair? And that
Team Oktopus/Shutterstock
iction writers often think of
setting as a backdrop to a
story, something sketched in
just to make it clear the characters aren’t floating aimlessly in outer
space. But it can be much more than
that: The particular time and place of
the story can help the story to evolve
and offer insight to the writer about
the plot and characters.
It isn’t enough to simply decide on
the setting and airlift the characters
from the writer’s imagination to Arizona, Paris, or a ship at sea. The choice
of setting – both time and place – will
inform everything that happens in the
story. And by fully describing setting,
the story builds a foundation that
proves integral to the plot; this foundation helps to form the characters.
One example of using setting to create story is the brilliant short novel by
Stewart O’Nan, Last Night at the Lobster, set on closing night of a Red Lobster restaurant crouched at the edge of
a shopping mall parking lot. Corporate
headquarters have ordered the place to
close. It’s near Christmas.
And there’s a blizzard. This setting
note gives the story its extra dose of
tension and drama. The blizzard allows
O’Nan to ratchet up the feeling of isolation and loneliness that are central to
the story; the restaurant is an island in
the blizzard; there is no crush of holiday diners. Anyone who has lived in a
wintry climate knows that what happens during a blizzard is different from
what happens any other time.
I recently had a very talented graduate student, Kelly Grogan, who was
working on a short story set roughly
in the present day, somewhere in the
driveway: Is it a long dirt drive running
from a country road up to the house,
shaded by elms or maples? Is it identical
to the others on the block? Or is there a
grand, sweeping turnaround at the top,
by an ancient willow tree?
As I started asking about the setting, I saw other places where the
writer could not only help the reader
see the story but also where she could
gain more information for herself
about her story and its characters. The
older brother sleeps late on his first
morning home, then appears in the
kitchen after the parents and the
younger brother have finished breakfast. I wondered what was on the
breakfast table – a box of Cap’n
Crunch cereal? Granola and fresh
fruit? Maybe the father had made
French toast for everyone.
And why does this matter? Because
the reader will imbibe information
about the family based on what they’re
eating. Some of this will be assumed
information: Granola and fresh fruit
may be taken to indicate a family with
liberal, anti-war leanings. But this
thought led me to the next thought,
which was that perhaps what was missing in this story was the second storyline, the one that expands a story from
the inside out and gives it a second
dimension. The second story, or the
understory, could be that this family
had been virulently anti-war, but the
older son had, for his own reasons,
decided to enlist. That made me more
interested in the primary story of the
relationship between the two boys.
All this leads to “show, don’t tell.”
How do you “show” that a family is
anti-war? Maybe the kid’s pickup truck
is sitting next to a Volvo with a “EndLess War” bumper sticker. The topic of
the war doesn’t have to be directly
raised in this family, but the reader can
see the tension from the outside,
through the setting details.
If you want to use setting to help
you steer your way into deeper story
and character, you have to start with
detailed description. Consider all the
aspects of setting, including both time
and place, from the macro level (what
is the decade? what country are we in?)
to the micro level (what time of day is
it? what kind of house? what room in
that house?) Choose a day of the week;
think about whether there’s a holiday
near. Choose the weather. And then
describe it in detail.
You’ll likely find that as you
describe the setting, you learn about
your characters. Put a character in a
rainstorm without an umbrella. Shift
the story from a Monday to a Sunday.
Give a character an ancient VW
instead of a late-model Prius – the VW
could very well break down, and that
will create action. (The Prius also
could break down, creating a different
kind of action.)
The very best stories are those that
touch our common humanity, regardless of where they’re set. Chimamanda
Ngozi Adichie’s Half A Yellow Sun is set
in late-1960s Nigeria, and much of the
story could only happen in Nigeria; it’s
that setting-specific. The feelings of the
characters, their struggles and triumphs, are universal, and yet that universality can only be achieved by
providing very specific details, many of
which are about setting.
Our lives are lived in setting; we
remember important events by the way
the light played on the water or the
glitter of the falling snow. It’s the setting that gives our lives – and our stories – their shape, and that allows the
reader to enter fully into the fictional
worlds we create.
JULY 11-15
“If you're dreaming of becoming the
next J. K. Rowling, we've got the
perfect place for you—the Southampton
Children's Literature Conference.”
– School Library Journal
“I signed with my #1 Choice Dream
Agent, and I attribute that 100% to
the Children's Lit Fellows program.
Thank you!” – Jake Rideout, 2014 Fellow
Stony Brook Southampton
239 Montauk Highway
Southampton, NY 11968
Sarah Van Arsdale is the author of five books,
including the novels Toward Amnesia (Riverhead, 1995) and Blue (winner of the 2002 Peter
Taylor Prize for the Novel). Her most recent book
is a narrative poem with her illustrations, titled
The Catamount. She teaches in the Antioch/LA
low-residency MFA program, at New York University, and with Art Workshop International. • The Writer | 11
By K. L. Romo
hether we should ever write for free is a hot topic in the writer community.
Is it ever OK to put our own projects and careers ahead of the greater good? Does it
depend on whether we need the money to pay our bills or whether we’re just starting out?
Does it matter if we rack up bylines without pay while journalism outlets still make money from our
hard work?
Personally, I believe there are times when it’s OK to write for free. If it’s your own blog or website,
you probably won’t get paid (unless, of course, you have a huge following and are able to make money
from ads). If you’re just starting out, need bylines for your resume, and can’t find any paying gigs without clips, go for it. If you feel passionate about a topic or situation and want readers to become aware of
it for the good of society, by all means. If you want to donate your time and talent to a nonprofit organization or cause, write away. But otherwise…writing without pay just to get a contract is probably not
the best way to help the industry and would be detrimental to those freelance writers who depend on
paychecks from their articles and essays to pay the bills.
But that’s just my opinion – what about the rest of the writing community? Nearly every person I
contacted was more than happy to put in their two cents on this controversial issue. Here is what more
than 20 writers, editors, and writing instructors have to say in answer to the question: Should we write
for free or not?
k I usually tell people not to write for free – I
think it’s a dangerous trend that devalues all our
hard work. But once in a while, it makes sense.
For example, right after a new book of mine
came out a few times, I’ve given away excerpts to
get publicity. I’ve also done blogs for Huffington
Post and Psychology Today to try to reach a bigger
audience, which seems to have worked. But I think
a millionaire who got rich from a divorce settlement shouldn’t make more money from a website
that doesn’t pay her writers while hypocritically
pretending she’s helping other women thrive.
k There are a couple of circumstances under
which writing for free are understandable, like if
you’re just starting out as a writer and have zero
clips, or if you’re contributing to a nonprofit
project that you feel really passionate about. But
in general, the practice of agreeing to work for
free, or for that insidious nothing compensation
“exposure,” only contributes to the cycle that
allows outlets to exploit the labor of creatives
who have been brainwashed into thinking that
having their work published is a compliment for
which they should be grateful.
—Susan Shapiro, writing professor and NYT best-selling
author/coauthor of 10 books, including Unhooked, Lighting
Up, and Only as Good as Your Word
—Lilly Dancyger, deputy editor, Narratively
k If a publication isn’t offering payment, I
think you need to figure out what you’re getting
out of it and if it’s worth it. Exposure can be
worth a lot or a little, depending on the publication. If apprentice writers want to break in that
way, or if professional writers want to promote
their other work that way, it’s up to them.
k I agree with Samuel Johnson that “no
man but a blockhead ever wrote except for
money.” So, in general, authors should never
write for free. That said, if you’re starting out,
you need to publish frequently and widely. If
that means doing things for little or no money at
first, then by all means. But don’t get caught in
that trap for long. Believe in the worth of your
work, and ask for that worth in payment.
—Daniel Jones, Modern Love editor, New York Times
—Mark Sullivan, author of Beneath a Scarlet Sky • The Writer | 13
k I think writing for free can be valuable in
certain instances. For example, a debut author
attempting to establish herself might want to take
every opportunity to put her name out there, particularly on literary websites or print issues that are
reputable and well read, even if they are unpaid.
Certain places can’t afford to pay, and, for a new
author, it is still a great opportunity for exposure. I
do think at a certain point, a writer should be compensated more often than not, but even that is not
always accurate or feasible. It is true that some
writers don’t know how to go after and expect
being paid for their work, and they should go after
it and expect it. But not everything valuable pays,
so it is not a hard and fast rule. So, I think a writer
should go for a balance between the two, sometimes being unpaid for a quality article and sometimes only accepting paid assignments. This
includes speaking engagements, too.
—Taylor Larsen, author of the novel Stranger, Father, Beloved
k Everybody’s different, of course, but it
strikes me that it depends where you are in your
career. When you’re starting out, most any publishing credits are good, but after you’ve been
around for a while and have enjoyed the feeling
of getting paid to write, you get more choosey.
There’s only so much time, you know? It’s tough
enough for a writer to make a living, so you
gotta be strategic. If your goal is to build a literary reputation, submitting stories to leading literary journals, which pay either little or
nothing, [this strategy] is smart, and can pay off
down the road, with book contracts, teaching,
or speaking gigs and the like. If your goal is to
write movies or video games with stories, you
write scripts on spec. I write my blog for free
every week, and I haven’t directly monetized it
yet, but meanwhile, it helps me connect with
readers and friends. The final judgment: Can
you justify free work because it a) could lead to
paying work, or b) is a worthwhile promo/marketing strategy? If yes, maybe you do it. If no,
get something else going that will work for you
14 | The Writer • January 2018
both artistically and financially.
—Elizabeth Sims, author of nine novels and dozens of articles on the art and craft of writing and story writing instructor at Ringling College of Art and Design
k As a professional writer, my first response
is no, no, no! What do editors think we live on,
air? Plus, it’s also an issue of respect. I have
worked hard to learn how to write well. I make
sure to deliver quality content and meet deadlines.
Why, then, shouldn’t I be afforded the respect of
getting paid for supplying my prose to the publication? All that said, I do make exceptions – if the
publication is new or a literary journal, and I
appreciate its mission; if someone I like needs a
favor; or if I have a story I am eager to see published in a media outlet with national scope. But
even then, if that site doesn’t pay, I hesitate. This
situation just happened about two months ago,
when I had an essay from a new book I’m working on accepted at a major online publication. I
know all about how selling individual essays from
a book-in-progress is supposed to enhance my
platform and boost my author profile, and goodness knows I need help in both those areas. But
I’ve yet to sign the contract the editor forwarded
to me because I’m stuck on the fact that I won’t
see any payment for this essay that took me several months to write. And while it’s only a secondary point, what goads me further is knowing the
publisher is ridiculously rich, the publication is
quite profitable, and it touts the quality of its content. Hmm? All that said, I wouldn’t be having
such a rigorous internal debate about signing that
contract if I was a newbie writer. If that was the
case, I’d be much more receptive to writing for
free to accrue bylines and experience. Regardless,
I still caution writers, don’t give too much away.
Don’t drink the Kool-Aid about the benefits of
exposure. Exposure is good, but sooner rather
than later you deserve to get paid for your work.
—Joni B. Cole, essayist and author of the new book Good
Naked: Reflections on How to Write More, Write Better, and
Be Happier
k For me, it comes down to two issues. What
do I intend to accomplish with that writing? Does
the publication truly respect its writers? The article I wrote for the WFWA Write On! [e-zine] was
free. Pay didn’t matter because WFWA [Women’s
Fiction Writers Association] is a nonprofit support association. Helping my friends and the
organization I love was my primary intention.
Many people feel the same way about literary
journals. They’re willing to accept payment in
copies because those publications celebrate literature that wouldn’t be published elsewhere. When I
went looking for homes for a personal essay, I
only approached publications that paid.
—Michele Montgomery, writer and screenplay analyst
k Writing for free makes sense…IF there’s
potential value. For example, when I moved to
Sarasota in 2008, I sent out letters to all three glossy
regional mags. By way of introducing my work to
them, I offered to do one piece gratis. SCENE magazine asked me to do a 1,000-word advertorial on a
local travel agency. They loved the piece and asked
me to write two for the following month. At that
point, I explained what my professional rates were.
Now here we are, seven years later, and I cover my
mortgage (plus some) by writing two columns and
two to three other pieces per month for SCENE.
Was it worth giving two hours of my time for free
back in 2008? You tell me!
—Ryan G. Van Cleave, author of 20 books and professor at
the Ringling College of Art and Design
k The bulk of my writing is writing I do for
pay. And I always go into every project with the
expectation that I will find a home for it that will
pay me. But sometimes that doesn’t work out, and
if I feel like I’ve pitched that project or essay or
short story to the best of my capability, then I’m
happy with wherever it lands. (My debut novel’s
publication came without an advance, for instance,
although the royalty scheme is generous and my
publisher has provided incredible value.) There’s
also a complex, as-yet-to-be-fully-clear system of
balances in my head: IF I have placed a story or an
essay somewhere for pay recently, say, THEN I
“get” to submit someplace else “for free.” No telling
what tips the scale. I also do a large amount of pro
bono work for the disaster-relief agency I volunteer for. When we deploy to areas of disaster, we’re
expected to send home news stories and reports,
but that’s kind of a given: When we’re deployed,
our time and whatever work we generate there is
on behalf of the agency, so that’s one bucket. But
the other bucket is fundraising strategies, letters,
and work on behalf of the agency, and that can
easily go above and beyond my strict remit as an
in-field volunteer and fundraiser.
But your question was: is it OK? Yeah, it’s OK,
within reason. Does your eco-system, your personal eco-system, allow you to write for free? To
wit: Have you earned enough this month for the
necessities? Do you want to call yourself a professional writer? Are you at a point in your craft
where you can afford to publish for free? (There is
a difference in the editing process, sometimes,
between publications that pay and publications
that don’t pay.) Do you know about what it actually means to work with the editor of a paying
publication? If you’ve never worked with such an
editor, that’s something you should know about
and try. Working with an editor can up your craft
game by untold levels – not to mention the professional experience you’ll gain. At the Tahoma
Literary Review, for instance, when I go into editing, I am keenly aware that the magazine’s bottom
line depends in part on the success of that piece,
and that we are paying good money for it, so that
adds yet another layer of urgency to the editing.
But, ultimately, there will be opportunities
that come your way that will not pay. Maybe it’s
a volunteer gig that’s close to your heart. Maybe
it’s a place to publish that you just really want.
Maybe you’ve pitched the hell out of this story;
you love it the way it is; you want it to go Somewhere, and you don’t care where, and anyway,
publishing in that venue would be a real feather
in your cap. Then, yes. Do it. But be responsible • The Writer | 15
about it. Writing is a business. It can be your
business, if you want it to be. But it won’t be
without cash inflow – and output. Your work is
the output, your commodity, if you will. What
would you like your input to be?
—Yi Shun Lai, author of Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu and nonfiction editor for the Tahoma
Literary Review
k It depends on where the writer is in his or
her career, and where the writing will appear. For
instance, if one is just starting out and needs
clips, writing for free may be a good solution.
More established writers may want their work to
appear in a literary journal, or [some] other outlet that doesn’t pay, in order to raise their profile.
This could be a strategic move for writers hoping
to land an agent or book deal. [And] sometimes
a writer may simply want their work in a certain
publication, for whatever reason (status, personal goal), and that’s a very good reason to
write for free. However, those examples aside, I
am dismayed by how many outlets (HuffPost, for
example) make a lot of money off the backs of
writers working for free. Rates for freelance writers have gone down drastically in recent decades,
and part of the reason is that so many writers are
willing to write for free. I think it’s OK if the
writer gets something out of it, if the work is a
stepping stone to a goal, but otherwise I always
advise writers to try and get paid for their work
before giving it away.
—Jaimie Seaton, freelancer for more than 20 years in
numerous publications, including the Washington Post and
O, The Oprah Magazine.
itable profession. This is untrue. James Joyce
sold tweed jackets to fund his career. William
Faulkner worked as a postman and power plant
manager. Ken Kesey worked as a night cleaner
in a mental hospital. While our civilization has
clearly benefited from these individuals using
words to express human behavior, our reality
demonstrates that this is not always financially
compensated. These men needed outside work
to create their words. Is the market of unpaid
freelance work subverting writing into an
uncompensated vocation? Or could it be creating more vehicles for exposure in a field that has
never been directly linked to financial gain?
History has me siding on the latter.
—Nancy Kidder, writer based in Washington, D.C., and
adjunct writing professor at American University
k I’m not going to say every writer “should”
work for free, but there’s no getting around the
fact that every writer I know – including myself –
did. I know countless best-selling authors who’ve
started out by writing the book that made the difference in their spare time because they worked a
full-time job. Every media outlet I have written
for as a professional freelancer expects to see a
“clip file” or portfolio of previously published
work. I can provide that now, but, yeah, I started
out writing for free. Not because I lack self-respect
or didn’t know what I was doing, but because I
knew every byline and blog post was a stepping
stone to bigger and better things. I didn’t see it as
not getting paid, because it was more than that. It
was about getting the experience I needed to get
to where I wanted to be.
—Pauline Campos, writer
k The recent growth of online publications
has allowed for more writing opportunities and,
unfortunately, a larger number of unpaid writers. Many in the writing community are concerned that this is impacting a writer’s ability for
financial independence. However, this posits the
notion that writing has been a historically prof-
16 | The Writer • January 2018
k When I write articles or blogs for free, it’s
intentional to build my personal brand and give
back to the writing community. However, it’s
important to weigh the opportunity costs of doing
so. I consider writing a profession, a business.
When we give it away too often, we diminish the
marketplace value of our work for all writers.
—Nancy Johnson, author of an essay (as a paid contributor)
for O, the Oprah Magazine and complimentary pieces for the
online literary magazine Women Writers, Women Books and
the blog Thinking Through Our Fingers
k I have written for free – a blog about life
in Beirut that was a public way of sharing how I
felt about life in Beirut – aimed at friends and
family, but I was happy to share it with a broader
audience ( And I have written
a couple of pieces that I posted on Medium about
refugees, because it is a topic dear to my heart,
and I wrote them because I hoped that others
could also take actions to support refugees.
—Amy E. Robertson, freelance writer and editor
k Generally, I think writers should always
be paid something for their work, but there are
times when the benefit to the writer is not monetary, like when it results in exposure. For example, I recently wrote a guest blog post for a
writing web site that was unpaid but resulted in a
wave of new email subscribers, so that was well
worth it. I’m just starting out with my blog and
mailing list, so I would have preferred the exposure to the monetary payment.
—Sarah Bradley, freelance writer and founder of Pen to
Paper Creative Writing Services
k I also write for free on topics I’m passionate about and want to get the word out on. For
example, I wrote a piece on family biking for a
local smart growth blog because I wanted people in that community to think about it. I see
that sort of thing as a form of volunteer work.
—Shannon Brescher Shea, science, environmental, and parenting writer
k I think there’s a case for writing for nonprofit
organizations’ blogs for free and sometimes for tak-
ing unpaid writing assignments for practical reasons:
promoting a book or other project, for instance.
—Christine Ro, writer
k I have written for free on a number of
occasions but rarely do these days. However, I did
once recently on a subject that I was really passionate about, and that was not a mainstream
topic that I was sure where to place, and I wanted
to get the word out there as quickly as possible.
—Kate Orson, author of Tears Heal: How to listen to our
k A lot depends on what kind of a writer you
mean. A freelance writer who makes a living that
way – probably not, except…as a way to begin,
learn, then shortly move on. But a writer primarily
interested in building publication credits in order
to query agents for a novel or memoir – different
story. In that case, pubs in non-paying literary
journals/sites make sense. So much depends on
what the writer wants or needs out of it.
—Lisa Romeo, author of the forthcoming memoir Starting
with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love After Loss and
member of the Bay Path University MFA faculty
k My first publishing experience after my
personal blog was as a contributor for a small
online magazine. I wasn’t paid, but the site’s editors workshopped every single piece with me.
They encouraged me and supported my voice.
After six months, I was ready to move on, but I’ll
always be grateful to Rosewater Magazine.
—Rebekah Vineberg, writer, civil servant, and mother of two
K.L. Romo writes about life on the fringe: teetering dangerously on the edge is more interesting than standing
safely in the middle. She is passionate about women’s
issues, loves noisy clocks and fuzzy blankets, but HATES
the word normal. Her historical novel, Life Before, is about
two women separated by a century who discover they’ve
shared a soul. Web: or @klromo. • The Writer | 17
David Sedaris
After a dozen books, what's still left to
know about this best-selling humorist’s life?
In a word: Plenty.
David Sedaris, the best-selling author and essayist whose
stories about his family and travels have delighted audiences
since his appearances in the early ’90s on NPR? The author
of a dozen books, Sedaris released his latest, a collection of
diary items titled Theft by Finding, in 2017, but he has three
more books coming out in the next year or two, including a
collection of the art from his diaries;
Calypso, a book of recent short stories
and essays, most of which take place in
Emerald Isle, North Carolina; and the
second volume of diary items, A Carnival of Snackery, which will recount
Sedaris’ life from 2003 until the present.
The author is also unique in that he
reads his often hilarious, sometimes
poignant stories in public, doing
around 100 dates a year at theaters throughout North America, UK, the Europe, and Australia.
Before a performance at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Virginia,
the gifted humorist sat down with me to talk about his performing life, his writing career, and why you should never
admit to getting an author’s work for free.
Ingrid Christie • The Writer | 19
You’re a very disciplined writer, as your most recent
book of diary items well demonstrates. Have you
always been that disciplined about your writing?
Yes. When I started writing, I started writing
every day. I sign books a lot, and I’ll meet people
who say, “I want to be a writer.” And I’ll say, “Do
you write every day?” And they say [dreamily],
“No, when I get in the mood.” And I think, “Well,
sorry, you need to wake up every day in the
mood.” I still think about that.
I think it was Philip Larkin who said something like, until you have children of your own,
you’ll always be your father’s son. I’m a son in a
way that my brother’s not. I saw my father yesterday, and it can be tricky with him, but it was one
of those times when it was just heartbreaking to
see him…He was much more frail than the last
time I saw him. I thought, “Why couldn’t I have
learned to play the piano?”
To please him?
music or literature, and not just get it free somehow, which makes sense given what’s going on
with books and authors. The culture of all content
being available for free is getting pervasive.
That’s been such a change in recent years. I think
that there are 500 places online where you can get
my book for free. My publisher will close one
down and another one pops right up. A guy
wrote me and said that he got a Kindle, and could
I send him a list of books to read. I sent him a list,
and then he said that, “I got all of them free
online.” And I said, “What? I wouldn’t have sent
you that list if I thought you were going to do
that.” People have no problem doing that.
Though I would say it’s a little unusual to tell the
author himself.
I just got an email from people who I offered to
give free tickets to for a show in London. And
they said, “We saw you at the BBC and that was
free, and then you offered us free tickets to London, and then we got your books for free, and so
we haven’t paid anything.” I wrote back, “You
Just to see the joy on his face. Nothing would
have made my father so happy. That’s what I
think about when I listen
to music. The other day, I
I sign books a lot, and I’ll meet people who
was watching a television
say, “I want to be a writer.” And I’ll say, “Do
show, maybe it was Fargo,
and a song of Lambert,
you write every day?” And they say
Hendricks & Ross was on
[dreamily], “No, when I get in the mood.”
it. And I thought, “Why
don’t I have any of their
And I think, “Well, sorry, you need to
music on my computer?” I
wake up every day in the mood.”
downloaded one of their
albums, and it had Night in
know, I would not have told me that. And I hope
Tunisia on it. I was walking around Emerald Isle,
that maybe when you do come to a show in LonI bet I listened to that song 30 times in a row that
don, that would be a really good opportunity to
day, imagining it was me playing the saxophone
buy my new book, and I’d be happy to sign it for
and my father’s in the audience, and he would be
you.” Why would they tell me that?
so moved, and he would be so joyful.
I thought, “Why couldn’t I have done that?
The genre of memoir has exploded in the last
Why couldn’t I have made him happy and proud
decade or so. While working on your diaries, did
in a way that he understood?” He doesn’t underyou go through a period when you were reading
stand writing. He said to me before that some
diaries or memoirs?
neighbor of his has a 24-year-old daughter who
I always liked biographies, even when I was a kid.
wrote something but hasn’t written anything
I love it when they’re a kid and they don’t know
before, and could I get it into The New Yorker. I
they’re going to be famous, and you’re saying to
said, “No, The New Yorker is a magazine for writthe book, “Don’t worry about it, you’re going to
ers.” He said, “Well, you’re in it.”
be famous.” They don’t know. They’re just chopOne thing that I admire about you is that you
ping wood, they don’t know what’s in store for
always want to pay for the work, whether it’s
them. But it made me think, that could be me.
20 | The Writer • January 2018
And I don’t know it. I’m just chopping wood.
What do I know?
Well, it’s interesting, because I could say that I
could write your biography, but everybody knows
your story already. What’s left to tell?
You don’t really know yourself. They could go to
people around you. I talk about this agent I had
in New York. He was old when I met him. We
went out for lunch, and he said, “I was with Jerry
Salinger, and we’re in the Village, and we’d go
hear Billie Holiday and then…” The stories. “I’m
representing Lillian Hellman because she’s doing
this production of Little Foxes in Russia.” You’re a
young man, and you’re with this man, and everyone knows his name, and he’s telling you these
stories, and you don’t know that he’s going to be
telling these stories over and over again. That’s
my story about my agent.
But there was an agent before that, who I let
go of because he got me a contract with a small
gay press, and it wasn’t what I wanted. I was
going through with it even though it wasn’t what
I wanted. And then the press went out of business. Somebody from Little, Brown called me
and said, “Do you have a book that we could
publish or that we could look at?” I thought,
“Well, they called me.” So I brought them the
book, and then when they said they would take
it, I went to the agent and said, “I’m going to go
with somebody else for this.” Because I didn’t
want to be tied to him, because I didn’t feel anything for him. If someone were writing a story of
my life, they could talk to Mark Silverberg, who
would say, “Oh, he’s an asshole, and he screwed
me over.”
Ingrid Christie
You could probably make that list yourself – the
people you don’t want to be interviewed about
yourself. I’m guessing we all have that list buried
in our subconscious.
Then there are people who you didn’t even think
about. You’ve forgotten about them, but they
remember you. When I first moved to New York,
I did this reading, and there was this guy who
read as well. It was nothing, really, what he read.
And he came up to me and said, “So I heard you
told so-and-so that you were the best one on
stage that night.” And I thought, “Yeah, I was. But
if you can’t see that, well, I don’t know what I
could do for you. Did you really think…” But it
does sound like something I would say – that we
did the reading last night, and I was really the
best. I don’t like to admit it, but I can hear myself.
Well, you know the difference at this point.
When you get your ass kicked, you think, “Wow, I
have a lot to [work on].” I was saying to Hugh
earlier, that 30 years ago if I had this show
tonight, I would have stayed up all night last
night. I’m grown up now, so you don’t really write
a brand-new story in one day. You can do a draft,
but it’s not like you’re going to get up and read
that in front of 2,000 people. I worry about that
sometimes, because 30 years ago I would have
stayed up all night. Now I’m like, I have that one
new story and I’m still worried about it, but…
How do you prepare to read for a show like this,
with thousands of people waiting for you? Do you
isolate yourself?
I think part of it is…you have to trust your
instincts. You can put a playlist together but
know well enough that when you get up there,
I’m going to go with Plan B here. Don’t stick
with Plan A just because you have it written
down, because it’s not necessarily going to work
every night.
Lee Mergner is a Content Director at Madavor Media and
oversees JazzTimes and BirdWatching magazines. • The Writer | 21
the TONE
How to handle
VOICE in your
22 | The Writer • January 2018
In real life, we often speak of tone of voice:
“What’s with that tone of voice?” Perhaps because it
sounded impertinent or disrespectful; we picked up
on an attitude we didn’t appreciate. At any rate, we know that
the way words are said matters just as much – if not more –
as the words themselves.
In fiction, as in real life, we listen carefully for voices: both the
author’s and the characters’. The authorial voice is the voice we hear
when we’re reading the author’s prose, whether it’s exposition, narration, or description. Think of the difference between a Hemingway narrative and a Faulkner one: Hemingway’s prose is lean and stripped
down, whereas Faulkner’s is intricately and richly embellished.
Characters also clearly have distinctive voices that establish personality, attitudes, and disposition. Think of Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield,
Moll Flanders. A character’s voice can be apparent in both thought and
speech. And speech in fiction, as in real life, clues us in to a character’s
take on self, others, and the world at large.
As a writer, you may have been urged to find your voice. The idea is
that once you do this, something “clicks.” You’ve found the right voice
for your narrator or your protagonist. Maybe initially your voice
sounded amateurish, bumbling, uneven, wrong for the story or wrong
for the characters, but now it’s got authority, it’s just right, it’s tuned in.
But how do you find that voice? And what about from project to
project: Should you work toward creating a consistent voice, one that
readers will recognize as uniquely yours?
Walter Cummins, former editor of The Literary Review, emeritus professor at Farleigh Dickinson University, and a short story writer, points
out that a voice’s sound is created by such elements as “sentence
rhythms and patterns, word choices, enunciations, syntax, and pauses.”
Voice must work in tandem with key features of a character or story:
“In addition to sound, the details that a writer chooses to note imply a
distinct worldview. There’s also an attitude toward people and places,
situations and events that emerges.” • The Writer | 23
It’s a complex process, says Cummins, especially since
fictional voice consists of both the basic authorial voice and
the occasional, or contextual, voice, which depends on the
particular story elements. “I consider the voice underlying
the occasional voices [to be] one that develops unconsciously, but a writer can be more deliberate about adjusting
that basic voice to one that suits the narrative situation,” he
says. For instance, in his own work: “As far as I’m concerned, I just write in a manner that’s natural to me. But
people have commented on what they find are distinctive
sentence patterns and rhythms, a voice I hadn’t intentionally
planned and didn’t realize I had.”
Consider the opening of his short story “Someone Else,”
from The End of the Circle:
“You’re traveling alone, aren’t
you?” she said.
Mark nodded at the large young
woman standing over him in the
train aisle, then turned back to
watch people move in and out of
the station. He hoped that was the
end of it and she would go away.
But she dropped her backpack and
sat on the seat facing his. He pretended to be intent on searching the crowd, as if
expecting someone. The woman’s image reflected in
the window of the coach, flat and transparent, a double exposure over the great mountains surrounding
the town.
“Look at them all running around like idiots.” She
gestured with an abrupt sweep of her hand.
“Who?” Mark followed her pointing to see if she
had noticed something unusual, but nothing seemed
to have changed, just people hurrying with luggage
and knapsacks.
“Like they’re desperate to get to someplace that
mattered.” Despite the insistence of her words, her
voice was toneless, a straight line on a graph.
We feel a restless need on Mark’s part to be free of this
woman who has imposed herself on him. “I see certain tics
of mine, a tendency to add on phrases after commas, an
uncertainty in the protagonist, metaphoric analogies, seeds
of an as-yet unstated tension,” Cummins says.
While these techniques have now become unconscious
or subliminal in his writing, Cummins has deliberately
adjusted his voice to the narrative situation. So the language
itself, the rhythms and the use of figurative language, all
help create the restive voice of his protagonist.
Robert Garner McBrearty, author of several story collections, likens voice to the style of a good actor. “Somehow
with the great actor, we’re feeling not only the acting style
but the ‘voice’ of the actor,” he says. Everything about this
24 | The Writer • January 2018
actor’s performance, says McBrearty, reveals an authentic
style/voice: “The delivery of the lines, the facial expressions,
seem called forth from some deeper, authentic place, as if
the actor has become the character rather than simply pretending.” In fiction, a distinctive style and personality must
come through as well. McBrearty goes for the comic mode.
In the following passage from “The Hellraiser,” from A
Night at the Y, he presents Scooter, an aging troublemaker,
at once humorous and sad, at odds with his old friends, who
have settled down and given up the youthful fast life:
It’s New Year’s Eve and I’m raising hell. I’ve driven my truck into
town and tried to call the boys
together. But each year there’s
more guys settling down, getting
married, dulling out, and this year
I’m down to Leon and his tag-along
little brother Sam.
And, a bit later:
All afternoon as I was driving in from Irving, I was
getting in a crazy mood, wearing my hat with the
deer antlers, honking my horn at any girls I passed on
the highway. Sometimes the girls would laugh and
wave. It seemed to take the chill out of the day. For a
while. I was thinking maybe I’d meet a girl at a roadside park, a gas station, the Stuckey’s, the Colonel’s
Kentucky Fried, you never know. But mostly it just
seemed like the cows were watching me, standing
behind the barb-wired fences, wondering if they were
going to get rained on. Cows always look depressed
and lonely and like they’re hoping you can do them a
favor. I grew up in the country. I hate the country.
While certain elements here are outright comic – Scooter’s wearing a deer antler hat and honking his horn, laughing
and waving, meditating on the psychology of cows –
McBrearty plumbs his character for a deeper voice, one that
is “primarily a plaintive, sad one.” It’s the deeper layers where
we discover the real character, says McBrearty: “We know
that Scooter isn’t really happy, even if he pretends to be. The
real Scooter, the deep down plaintive Scooter, is where I
hope his ‘voice’ comes through.” For McBrearty, it’s essential
that voice, whether it’s first person or third, convey this
deeper level.
The voice that suits Alex Cavanaugh, a sci-fi novelist, is
also a comic one, well-suited to readers who aren’t into the
technical side of science fiction. He goes for “light humorous passages, especially those with a more rapid-fire delivery.” The following scene from CassaFire, the second book
in his CassaSeries, reveals this fast pace, which helps create
a snarky voice, typical of Cavanaugh’s fiction:
Byron peered into the cockpit.
Athee now sat in the co-pilot’s seat,
her harness in place and eyes scanning the control panel. Concerned,
he entered the cockpit. She looked
up and smiled.
“Your controls still amaze me,”
she said, her eyes reflecting childish wonder. “So much information
to process.”
Hesitating, Byron grasped the back of her seat.
“You’ve been in a shuttle before?”
“Of course. The previous shuttle pilot even gave
me a ride over the valley.”
I bet he did! Byron thought, staring at the attractive young woman. “Well, you need to go take a seat
with the other passengers.”
Athee tossed her hair aside and eyed him expectantly. “I thought I’d ride in the cockpit with you.”
“That’s probably not a good idea.”
“Why not?”
“That’s the co-pilot’s seat.”
“Do you have a co-pilot?”
“Well, no…”
“Then this seat is open.”
As we encounter these two characters in their backand-forth, they come alive for us, each with a distinctive
voice – the woman off-handed, the man cautious and concerned. Cavanaugh’s tone creates a light-humorous voice
nicely suited to his space opera readership.
For author Joanna Campbell Slan, voice is “the humanity
behind the words that connects the reader to the character
on a personal level.” Consider the following passage from
her cozy mystery novel All Washed Up, illustrating how
voice comes through in the language of the first-person narrator as well as in the dialogue:
Poppy raised a caterpillar-shaped
eyebrow at me. “That’s where I
gotta trust Binky. If she says they
can hold out, I gotta believe her.
That’s how come we call people
like her ‘assets.’ They got experience and smarts, and they aren’t
just warm bodies. They’re experts.
A human asset to the intelligence
My head was beginning to hurt, and the wet fabric
of my jeans chafed my skin. “I’m not sure that’s your
decision to make. Or hers. As a mother, I can’t imagine putting my child at risk. Sure, you say that Binky
has it covered, but what if she’s wrong?”
“She ain’t.”
The two voices here are those of Poppy and his granddaughter, Cara Mia Delgatto. The two have just come back
from a stakeout where they waited for a signal from a
retired CIA agent, Binky, who has been captured along with
her grandson. Poppy’s sentences are clipped short, says Slan,
because he’s “not concerned with feelings or emotion.” The
only reason he’s talking to Cara is that “she’s worried.” But
Poppy, says Slan, “isn’t.” The voice that comes through for
Poppy represents his narrow-minded thinking: “Everything
with him is black and white, like it or be damned.”
For historical novelist Stephanie Cowell, voice has to do
with capturing the deepest recesses of her characters’ emotional and spiritual lives. Her protagonists are people with
great stature, with profound artistic potential. What are
the wellsprings, the inner life, of a character like Monet,
fiercely driven by his art? In the following scene from
Claude and Camille: A Novel of Monet, Cowell tried to capture the voice of her protagonist following a fight he’s had
with his wife. Notice how Cowell reveals his deep passion
for painting:
Outside, he turned away from
the sea toward the farms inland.
He walked down the road resolutely, his scarf blowing, slowing a
little. The field in front of him was
covered with snow, as was the
dark wood, rough-hewn fence. He
set up his easel, fixing the canvas
to it. A few lines in charcoal marked
his boundaries. The snow was so
many shades of white.
Now that he painted he could breathe a little. It
didn’t matter that it was cold.
Damn the cold.
The fence was no longer empty. A single black
magpie huddled there, contemplating the field. Claude
painted it swiftly. It might have taken a few minutes or
more. The bird turned its head and stared dark-eyed,
then leapt into the air; it took flight and was gone. Yet
now as he finished, painting a bit more slowly, a calm
returned to him he had not felt in weeks. He had told
the canvas what he could not tell her…
Cowell says she wasn’t conscious of herself, as author,
when she wrote this passage. What drove this scene was her
visceral sensing of Monet’s great need to be off by himself –
and to paint, which gives his life substance and meaning.
Notice how she captures his emotional state: “He walked
down the road resolutely, his scarf blowing, slowing a little.”
The word “resolutely” suggests his anger after his fight with
his wife, his stiff-necked bearing. “Damn the cold,” because
he will paint, regardless of the weather. Having found solace
in his art, he begins to calm because his painting has allowed • The Writer | 25
him an audience that his wife could
not. The voice of this passage connects
us with the deepest feelings of Monet,
and it’s handled with the characteristic
subtlety of a literary novel.
So how can you find your own voice in
a particular work?
Cavanaugh believes if you want to
find your voice, you must discover a
unique way of telling your story. This
may take years of practicing the craft.
One problem beginning writers must
overcome, he says, is the tendency to
write with “proper language,” making
one’s work “correct” according to the
rules of formal grammar – but if you
write like a schoolmarm, your fiction
will be lifeless. Cavanaugh says it’s best
“to just throw it out there with no inhibitions.” With practice, “eventually your
personality will start to come through.”
In her own work, Cowell wants to
be sure that the personality that comes
through is her character’s only, never
an authorial voice. “I’ve never really
tried to find my voice because I’m not
in the story, except that I am making
the characters come to life on the page,
but I never feel they are mine. I feel
they come to me as a child is born to
you, and you do your best to shape that
child to go into the world.”
Slan says finding your voice takes
trusting your abilities as an author. She
recommends writers do a lot of reading and have plenty of life experiences.
“It’s a maturation process,” says Slan.
And then, at some point, you’ll experience an “‘aha’ moment when you find
your voice.”
“I like to think of a musician tuning
an instrument with a tuning fork,” she
says. “Until the pitch of the instrument
and the fork matches, there’s a discordant vibrato. When the instrument and
the fork are perfectly in tune, they create one pure, unwavering sound. That’s
what I aim for, creating a pure sound
that resonates with my readers.”
Like Slan, McBrearty also suggests
reading a lot. “Notice when you find
something distinctive about the
26 | The Writer • January 2018
Within a given genre,
you can maintain a voice
that is relatively consistent,
and hopefully one that
comes natural to you.
Always remember:
writing voice,” says McBrearty, something that makes it sound “authentic.”
Whenever you’re in the midst of the
creative process, he recommends “getting in touch with your deepest
thoughts and emotions, even if they
are never directly stated on the page.”
In fact, he says “what is unsaid” might
be “what is authentic.”
Authenticity is equally important to
Cummins. As a professor of writing students, he says, “I get a sense of an inherent voice from my first readings of their
work. Yet they haven’t shaped that voice
at this early stage. They may even want
to emulate someone else’s, a successful
writer they admire. But while they can
learn elements of craft that way, they
can’t force a voice that isn’t inherently
their own.” Finding their own voice
comes, says Cummins, from “pruning
excess, developing scenes and characters, finding the hearts of their stories.”
Once writers improve and understand
the writing process, they will gain confidence. “Then their true voice will start
to emerge,” says Cummins. It’s a misconception of voice, he believes, to
think of it as something separate from
everything else in a story. “It’s one
aspect of a whole, one revealed as a
writer finds how to master other aspects
of story writing.”
How many voices can a work of fiction
have? And what about the voice of the
authorial persona versus the voices of
the characters?
“The most obvious multiplicity is
found in dialogue,” says Cummins,
“whether the basic telling is in the first
or third person.” And “characters
should be distinctive when they speak,”
he says. “But if the story is conveyed by
one narrative voice – typical of most
stories or novels – that voice must be
Cowell believes a work of fiction
can have many voices, but “I think all
the voices must be used to expound
one major theme or plot.” She uses her
novel Marrying Mozart as an example,
where she has a total of six different
voices: “the 21-year-old Mozart, the
four pretty unmarried Weber sisters,
and their controlling mother.” This
novel consists of “variations on a
theme,” with each character’s distinctive voice related to the central issue of
the novel: the marriage to Mozart.
Slan also strives for a unifying voice
in a given work of fiction. “By my definition, there will always be one authorial voice within a book, unless the
book is an anthology. However, just as
each character has an arc within the
arc of the book, so does each character
have his/her own voice within that
over-arching voice of the author.”
What about continuing voice from
story to story, or novel to novel? You
don’t want to sound like Stephen King
in one work and John Grisham in
another. Readers can know you by a
voice that is consistently one voice. But
how important is consistency in a
writer’s voice?
“A distinctive voice that carries
from one book to another gives readers a sense of familiarity,” says Cavanaugh. “They know what to expect. It
will grow and develop over time, and
changing genres alters it some, but I
think authors should focus more on
overall voice.”
He suggests practicing to maintain
a consistent voice. “A good exercise is
to take one written page or passage,
and write it completely different. The
more times you rewrite it, the more
possibilities you’ll see – and the more
voice will begin to develop. You’ll
start to recognize what is comfortable
and natural for you. Plus, you’ll learn
how to maintain that natural style
even when the subject matter and
genre change.”
Cummins encourages adaptation.
“A writer can and probably should
modify his or her essential voice to
suit the tone and circumstance of a
particular book,” he says. Yet there are
limits, he points out: “I recall meeting
a British writer who had a successful
first novel but felt a need to write in a
totally different manner in his next,
with a voice closer to that of another
writer he longed to emulate. He
shared part of that attempt at a public
reading, and it sounded strained. It
wasn’t him.”
When adapting your voice to suit a
particular work, Slan suggests listening
to recordings. “When I wrote my Jane
Eyre books, I listened to snippets of
Downton Abbey before settling down
to write. This infused my thinking
with the cadences of the British
accent.” As to changing genres, she
points out that your voice must be
adaptable if working on vastly different
projects: “When I wrote a textbook,
my voice was more professorial and
removed. When I wrote nonfiction
about scrapbooking, I could be more
friendly. When I write about Jane Eyre,
I have to be more formal and erudite.”
And her other fiction? “When I write
about Kiki Lowenstein, I’m very much
a figure in mom jeans, but when I
write about her friend Cara Mia Delgatto, I have to think like a businesswoman. These are all facets of my
personality, revised and weighted to
shape the message I want my audience
to receive.”
It’s true that certain genres call for
certain kinds of voices. Wouldn’t it be
misguided, absurd, even, to adopt your
James Joyce style in a company memo?
One has to remember audience and
purpose. But within a given genre, you
can maintain a voice that is relatively
consistent, and hopefully one that
comes natural to you. Always remember: If you force it, it will sound forced,
not authentic.
How do you pitch your voice to the
subject matter? According to Slan, “To
select the proper variation of your
voice, you must first put yourself in the
place of your reader. What does he/she
expect? Then go on to ask yourself,
‘What does the genre demand?’”
But how can you be sure it’s effective? Beta readers can help, says Slan.
But do be careful, she cautions: “They
must be fans of the sort of work you’re
hoping to create, or they won’t be able
to discern a misstep.”
Cummins sees the matter differently – in fact, oppositely: “The voice
should come first and drive the way
the subject is handled rather than the
subject dictating the voice.”
“Shakespeare wrote comedies, tragedies, and histories with very different
attitudes toward his stories, and yet
the voice behind them is always
Shakespeare’s. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote
The Great Gatsby and the social satire
fantasy story ‘The Diamond as Big as
the Ritz.’ He made both approaches his
own. That’s the point,” he says.
Whichever comes first – voice or
subject – the tone of a story can be
way off. “I mean, if you’re stuck with a
style where all the world is light and
happy, [that] voice will not do to
describe a brutal murder,” says Cowell.
And so, if that’s your usual style, it
behooves you to pick your subject,
genre, and characters well. What’s
your temperament? What’s your general take on the world? What kinds of
characters suit you?
For example, “I choose mostly very
sensitive characters,” says Cowell. “I
think I would not be good at describing the deeds of a serial killer! I have a
gentle, sensitive style. It would not be
good for thrillers or mysteries or traditional romance or science fiction or
fantasy or whatever. It is me, and it
suits what I do.”
Sometimes it’s possible to take
advantage of a discrepancy between
voice and subject matter, such as in
black humor or farce. “If you are writing comedy, it’s that unexpected fillip
that makes us laugh,” says Slan. “If you
are hoping to surprise the reader or to
keep the reader intrigued, a disparity
between voice and subject matter can
create interest.”
An interesting, compelling voice is the
engine that moves readers from sentence to sentence, from paragraph to
paragraph, from page to page. A flat
voice will cause us to close the book.
With practice, you’ll discover a voice
that is true and authentic to you, and
it’s crucial in your journey as a fiction
writer. After all, finding your voice in a
work of fiction is finding its core, its
center, the heart of it.
Jack Smith is the author of four novels, two
nonfiction books, and numerous articles and
interviews. He writes regularly for The Writer. • The Writer | 27
Disabled protagonists in children’s and YA literature.
by Melissa Hart
28 | The Writer • January 2018
Beth Vrabel remembers sitting in the bleachers at her son’s baseball game when an
unforgettable email appeared on her phone. A young girl with albinism had just
finished reading her middle grade novel, A Blind Guide to Stinkville, the story of a
12-year-old with albinism and resulting vision impairment. “All of my friends are
convinced that you wrote it about me,” the girl emailed to Vrabel, and went on to
explain how thrilling it was to come across a protagonist like herself.
“It’s a moment you could almost lick the back of and stick to a wall,” Vrabel
says. “It’s going to be stuck in my memory forever. There I was, sitting at a baseball game and crying because the letter meant so much to me.”
The inclusion of protagonists with
disabilities in children’s literature is,
overall, a relatively recent development. Nonprofits such as We Need
Diverse Books and websites such as
Disability in Kidlit emphasize the
importance of all children getting to
see themselves represented as a story’s
main character. Authors of books for
young people have called upon their
experiences as parents of children with
disabilities, and on volunteer work or
extensive research, to create characters
who reflect the physical, emotional,
and developmental challenges that
readers and their peers may face.
Vrabel and her husband often tell their
two children, “Everyone has a challenge,
and everybody has a story. Your story is
so much more than your challenge.”
Their daughter, Emma, is a person
with albinism and mild vision impairment. “If you meet my daughter,
you’re going to see an incredibly
vibrant, passionate person who happens to be visually impaired,” Vrabel
says. “It’s something you tack on at the
end when you meet her – it’s not first
and foremost.”
When she was 12, Emma asked her
parents for help in finding a book
that featured a child who happens to
be visually impaired. “We did a
search and couldn’t find such a book,”
Vrabel explains.
She describes the books they did
find: teenage horror stories about albinos taking over the world, graphic
novels in which people with a visual
impairment are mystical or evil. “To
see vision impairment become the centerpiece of every story, or to get that
sense of albinos as ‘the other,’ is just
devastating,” she says.
In the end, Vrabel ended up writing
the novel her daughter requested to
read. SkyPony published A Blind Guide
to Stinkville in 2015. “Most kids do
have challenges – one aspect that sets
them apart,” she says. “There’s a stark
need for awareness and shared experiences within the stories we write. But
the challenge isn’t the center of a character’s life – or it shouldn’t be. Too
often, we make it so.”
She followed up Stinkville with a
companion book, A Blind Guide to
Normal (SkyPony, 2016), which also
features a middle-grade character with
a vision impairment. Both books are
very, very funny; at one point, her protagonist’s glass eye rolls across a cafeteria floor.
“Everyone has their own way of handling things,” Vrabel says. “My approach
is to incorporate some humor. Kids
have such a unique ability to transition
from serious to silly in a moment. If
you’re going to write for that audience,
you need to embrace this. Humor can
get you through anything.”
Her latest novel, Caleb and Kit
(Running Press, 2017), is a story about
the friendship between a neglected
tween and a boy who has cystic fibrosis. This time, Vrabel found herself
inspired by her son who has asthma
and underwent testing as a toddler to
rule out the disease. With a journalism
degree and seven years of professional
work in the field, she began to research
cystic fibrosis with the goal of creating
an authentic character.
“I must’ve read dozens of articles
about cystic fibrosis, and watched YouTube videos and talked with people
about their experiences,” she says. “I
put out a call on social media and got
wonderful responses from people who
opened their hearts and didn’t shy away
from answering painful questions.”
Some of these people became good
friends. “The closer I became with
them, the more imperative it became
for Caleb to be authentic,” she says.
“This isn’t a book about the disease. It’s
about people first, about Caleb and his
story. I’m happy to turn the tide in any
small way that I can toward great stories about characters going through • The Writer | 29
real-life experiences, who just happen
to have something else going on, too.”
As both a reader and a writer, Rachel
DeWoskin is eager to experience the
world from someone else’s perspective.
Before becoming an author and professor of creative writing at the University
of Chicago, she spent a decade in
Shanghai as the star of a Chinese soap
opera – an American woman surrounded by a culture very different
from her own. “I accidentally modeled
otherness in a very explicit way,” she
says. “I’m always interested in questions of insiders and outsiders, of people on the peripheries.”
Her young daughter’s obsession with
the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, and her
own horror at how the little people were
portrayed, inspired her to write Big Girl
Small (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).
“The ‘munchkins’ are dressed in rompers and licking lollipops, playing something like babies, even though they’re
dignified, professionally trained actors,
and they have no names in the movie’s
credits,” she says. “My daughter – who
was a tall 4-year-old – effortlessly identified with Dorothy, and I couldn’t help
but wonder what her life – and aspirations – would be like if she were in a
different body. If she were a Little Person, she’d still want to be Judy Garland,
not a ‘munchkin.’” For her 16-year-old protagonist who
stands 3 feet, 9 inches tall, DeWoskin
interviewed dozens of kids and read
medical books, novels, and social histories about little people. She also reached
out members of the nonprofit Little
People of America for their perspectives
and attended one of their conferences.
“People told me their stories,
showed me photos, talked about what
childhood and high school were like.
They showed me tools – the raised
pedals in their cars, grabbers for reaching cereal on the top shelf at Trader
Joe’s,” she says. “They were very gener30 | The Writer • January 2018
“Finding books that give us insight
into experiences that aren’t ours,
that offer more than one vision of
ourselves in the world, is essential
to being a 3-D human being.”
ous about sharing their lives.”
Most of the fan mail she received
after the publication of Big Girl Small
came from little people thanking her
for making Judy Lohden the protagonist. “She isn’t a prop or best friend or
sidekick in the patronizing and unfair
way I’ve seen so often – she’s not a
‘mini-me’ – what even is that?”
DeWoskin notes that the novel
became a story about any girl in trouble, regardless of her size or shape or
ability. “It’s about girls on the margins –
in other words, anyone who has ever
felt she isn’t normal,” she explains. “So,
every girl.”
Her most recent novel, Blind
(Viking, 2014), grew out of a discussion she had with her children about
Menena Cottin’s picture book The
Black Book of Colors (Groundwood,
2008), in which all of the pictures are
invisible, but children can feel them on
raised lines and read image-based
descriptions in Braille.
“It’s a deeply empathic portrayal of
the perspective of a little boy who isn’t
sighted,” she says. “My daughters and I
got into a profound conversation about
blindness and what it would be like to
read that book as a sighted reader and
then lose your sight and learn to read it
with your fingers and other senses.”
DeWoskin spent a year and a half
learning Braille while working on her
manuscript about a 15-year-old girl
who loses her eyesight in an accident.
“I also spent a lot of time thinking of
what it would be like,” she says. “The
terrible fear and frustration of having
an accident that alters your perspective
so dramatically that you have to recalibrate literally how you’re going to see,
how you’ll make meaning of the world.”
These days, she finds that many
authors of books for young readers are
attuned to the importance of including
protagonists with disabilities. One of
these is R.J. Palacio, author of Wonder
(Knopf, 2012), the story of a 10-yearold boy with a severe facial deformity.
DeWoskin and her older daughter
chose Wonder for their mother/daughter book club. “That book lovingly and
thoughtfully gives them Auggie’s point
of view, so when they encounter kids
in the world who look different or have
some sort of disability, they think of
him as someone they know,” the author
says. “That book trained my girls to
think, ‘That kid looks different and
might be having a tricky day, so I’m
going to smile and look her in the eye.’”
She urges authors wanting to
include protagonists with disabilities to
craft complex characters and involve
people with first-hand experience who
can make sure the story is nuanced
before it goes to print. She hopes that
young people with disabilities will continue to write as well.
“It’s time for us to amp up the diversity both of our protagonists and our
authors,” she says. “Finding books that
give us insight into experiences that
aren’t ours, that offer more than one
vision of ourselves in the world, is
essential to being a 3-D human being.”
Brian Tashima is the author of the Joel
Suzuki sci-fi/fantasy series. His protagonist is a teenage boy on the autism
spectrum in a world where autism
becomes a superpower. Tashima’s son
is on the spectrum; at 12, he requested
a book written just for him.
“I’ve been a musician and a songwriter my whole life,” Tashima
explains. “I’d never written a book
before. But I’m glad he asked me.” He
plans 11 books in the series, with the
goal of giving children with autism a
relatable and empowering literary hero.
He’s found that books tend to portray autism as an obstacle that the
character needs to overcome to achieve
his or her goals. “I wanted to flip the
script,” he says. “My character being on
the spectrum is a source of magic and
power. Even though my son has his fair
share of challenges with communication and interpersonal skills, he does
amazing things. He taught himself to
use a computer before he could speak.
He can memorize long strings of numbers. That’s an incredible power.”
He notes with gratitude the increase
of characters on the spectrum in literature, in television programs such as
The Good Doctor and films such as the
newest installment of the Power
Rangers series (the Blue Ranger is a
superhero living with autism).
“I want them to just come out and
identify as on the spectrum, and then
back off and show that the character is
just a person,” Tashima says. “We all
have individual differences – there’s no
need to single us out. Have your character do something unexpected, which
will not only break down stereotypes
for the good of the community but help
your story to feel fresh and different.”
Tashima is on the board of directors
for the nonprofit Autism Empowerment, which does programs and provides community services for people
with autism. “It’s really important to
me to make sure my characters are a
respectful and accurate portrayal of
people on the spectrum,” he says. “To
that extent, I immerse myself in that
world for my writing and my son.”
He also shows the rough drafts of
his manuscripts to a “sensitivity
reader,” someone who can vet the work
for authenticity of voice and experience. Tashima’s reader is the executive
director of the nonprofit – a woman
who is on the spectrum. “She gives me
her feedback on the characters, and if
I’m missing the mark, she’ll let me
know by saying, ‘I don’t think they
would react like this,’ or ‘Your usage of
this word isn’t appropriate for the community.’ If the disability you’re writing
about is not something that you yourself live with,” he advises authors,
“make sure you consult with someone
who is personally affected by it before
you complete your manuscript.”
Tashima describes his work as an
adventure series first, with a hero
speaks to young readers regardless of
ability. In classrooms, when he visits to
talk about his books, students thank
him for writing stories that make them
feel better about themselves and being
on the spectrum.
“Kids who aren’t on the spectrum
read it and say things like, ‘Now, I
understand my classmate more. I
understand why he acts the way he
does.’ I love hearing that. I’m promoting acceptance in the community.”
Corinne Duyvis cofounded Disability
in Kidlit ( four
years ago along with New York Times
best-selling author Kody Deplinger,
who was born legally blind. The site
offers themed book lists, recommended
reading, an excellent searchable database, and numerous book reviews.
Duyvis is the author of On the Edge
of Gone (Abrams, 2016), a YA sci-fi
novel about a teen with autism during
the apocalypse. Diagnosed with
autism herself, Duyvis is hesitant
about books with disability as a major
theme written by non-disabled writers. “Non-disabled people get to determine the entire narrative around
disabled people in real life, in fiction,
and in other media; people typically
never consult us, or only as an afterthought or curiosity,” she explains.
She believes research and sensitivity readers like the one used by
Tashima are completely essential when
writing about any character with a disability. “We’ve spent four years putting
together all kinds of advice for authors
who want to write disabled characters,” she says of Disability in Kidlit.
“Our reviews can be especially useful
if people are interested in seeing how
disabled readers perceive existing disabled characters.”
Vrabel agrees with Duyvis that writers wanting to incorporate characters
with disabilities into their own stories
for young people need to find a personal connection and do plenty of
research. “Don’t just throw in a disability to add depth to a character,” she says.
“That’s going to fall flat, and readers are
savvy enough to know the difference.”
Contributing editor Melissa Hart is the
author of Avenging the Owl, a middle-grade
novel with a character who has Down syndrome,
based on her brother. Web: • The Writer | 31
Use these revIsion tips
to maKe your
pICTure BoOk manuscript
by Anica Mrose RissI
So, you’ve written
a picture booK
Now it’s time to
revise, revise, revise,
and revise some more.
but where to start?
The best picture-book texts entertain and delight children, hold up to
multiple readings, and make use of elements unique to the format, such as
frequent page turns and visual storytelling. A good picture book can make
writing one look easy, but of course it is
anything but. Whether you’re a picturebook pro or brand new to the genre,
here are some tips, tricks, questions,
and approaches to keep in mind as you
play and experiment with your draft.
Cut, cut, cut
Many beloved classic picture books
have upwards of 1,000 or even 2,000
words, but in today’s picture book
market, your manuscript is more likely
to sell if the word count falls within the
400- to 800-word range. Like every
rule in publishing, there are exceptions, of course – but one of the joys of
writing picture books is finding and
using exactly the right words, and only
those words. Challenge yourself to tell
the story as economically as possible.
Simplify where you can, and choose
words that are vivid and impactful.
necessary to the story. Trust your
future illustrator and leave room for
her to expand the story in ways you
might never have imagined.
Rhyme for a reason
Time after time, we see picture books
that rhyme, and that’s fine (see what I
did there?), but in the current market,
most picture-book editors prefer nonrhyming manuscripts, unless the
rhymes are especially clever and inventive, or employed for a specific reason
important to the story. If you’ve written your draft in rhyme, ask yourself:
Are the rhymes necessary? Have you
used rhymes in place of either plot or
emotional stakes? Are the rhymes
you’ve chosen truly fresh and unexpected? Try rewriting the manuscript
without rhyming – or using rhymes
only in select moments, such as for
humor, surprise, or emphasis – to test
whether the story can (or perhaps
should) stand without them.
Repeat with care
Repetition is a useful device in the picture book writer’s toolbox. It can be
used not only for humor, rhythm, and
comfort, but also for building expectations in the mind of the reader or toppling them. It also can get annoying.
Employ repetition well and wisely, but
don’t overuse it. Like with rhyming, you
might be overusing repetition if your
story wouldn’t work at all without it.
Super Cat/Shutterstock
Leave room for the visual story
The words in a picture book tell only
half the tale, at most. As you revise your
manuscript, ask yourself: Are there
pieces of the story (descriptions,
actions, moods) you’re currently including that could be told in the pictures
instead? If yes, consider cutting them. A
strong picture book text leaves lots of
space for the illustrator to get creative.
Bonus tip: Keep art notes sparse,
including only those details that aren’t
obvious in the text but are absolutely
Use those page breaks
Picture book writers often think in
“spreads:” sets of two facing pages that,
as the book is read, will be viewed
simultaneously. Each spread should
ideally build toward the climax and the
eventual resolution of the plot. Do all
of yours? (One way to test this is by
asking yourself, “what’s new in this
spread?”) Consider, too, how the page
turn – a built-in pause and moment of
anticipation between each spread –
might be used for humor or to build
tension or suspense.
Raise the emotional stakes
Most great picture books don’t merely
entertain and tell a good story; they
also pack an emotional punch. Does
your story contain something for the
kid reader to care about, relate to, or
root for? What are the emotional
stakes related to your plot, and how
can you augment those even further?
Build expectations…then subvert them
From page one of your book, where
might readers expect the story to go?
(Yes, the first page should contain some
hint of this.) How can you build those
expectations and then top, twist, or
subvert them?
Read, read, read
Picture books are meant to be read
aloud, so read your draft to someone
else. Read it to your pet. Read it to a
friend. Then ask a friend to read it to you
(or, in a pinch, use computer dictation
to read it out loud). Are there sentences
your tongue trips over? Do the rhythm
and pacing still sound and feel as right
as they did in your head? Reading and
hearing the draft out loud will help you
identify beats and lines that aren’t
working – and also which ones are.
Hide it in a drawer
Feeling good about your revised draft?
Terrific! Now put it in a drawer (or
close the document), walk away, and
forget about it. Yes, really. Don’t even
think about those words or that story
for at least a week, preferably longer.
Once you’ve stayed away from the
manuscript for enough time that you
can no longer recite the words on the
page, return to it with fresh eyes and
revise, revise again.
Anica Mrose Rissi is the author of The Teacher’s Pet and other books for kids. • The Writer | 33
is hard.
34 | The Writer • January 2018
Writing a
is harder.
How can
authors stay
motivated to reach
the finish line?
Yi Shun Lai • The Writer | 35
hen I first started freelancing, I got a
piece of advice I’ve never been able to forget.
“Write off everything,” said the successful, seasoned freelancer who was my mentor at the time.
“Going to the movies? Film research. Developing film?
Photo research. Eating out? Socializing with writers.
Write it all off.”
He was talking about taxes, but he created a monster: Twenty years later, you can name any activity and
I’ll carve out some kind of way to relate it to writing.
Meandering through the grocery store? Research for a
character who’s an amateur gourmand. Perusing notebooks in a stationery store for 45 minutes? Same character needs a specific notebook to jot down very specific
ideas in. Re-reading mystery novels? Wanted to get an
idea of how genre writers keep readers turning pages.
Eating cookie dough from a frozen log in the freezer?
Hey, that tweet the day I ate most of that log won me
five new followers: Building platform.
Looking back, it’s no wonder it took me so long to
finish my debut novel. And even now, with some experience under my belt, I’m looking desperately for the
finish line on a complete draft of my second novel, a
challenging historical fiction utterly reeking with
potential for distraction. (What did they eat back in
Victorian England, anyway? How long did it take for
women to get dressed? Surely YouTube can tell me.)
In the end, I had to go back to grade school, or,
really, preschool, to find the thing that would ultimately save me from myself and allow me to finish
my novel: I made a progress chart. We’ve all grown up
with something like this, whether it’s the growth
chart your parents etched into the doorframe for you
or the thermometer chart your third-grade teacher
made for your class when you did that fundraiser for
the end-of-year festival. Either way, this is a chart that
denotes progress. And who doesn’t love that?
My own progress chart isn’t exactly a giant
thermometer-shaped piece of plywood; it’s seven or
eight pieces of regular photocopy paper, demarcated in
thousand-word increments. Every five thousand
words, there’s a reward built in, and some kind of goget-‘em platitude. To wit: “New pair of socks!” and
“Wow! Great job!” or “You won a day at the aquarium!” and “Really cooking now!” (I admit I could have
done better with my rewards this time around, which
might explain the stalling.)
I completed the final draft of my first novel, the one
I took out and shopped to agents and publishers, in a
few months. This one’s taking way longer, and weirdly,
having rewards to look forward to is only kind of doing
the job. What I really look forward to, at the end of
each day that I can log in my progress, is the act of coloring in the blank spaces next to the word count. I
wondered why. Is it the visual manifestation of the
work I’ve done? Is it the pretty colors? Is it something
else altogether?
I went poking around: There are plenty of programs
out there that help us to eliminate distractions. These
programs lock you out of social media sites; some just
help you to manage time. There’s even a program that
starts erasing words on your screen if you don’t keep
typing after a certain period of time.1 And there’s a lot
of business-based common knowledge that says we
work well for rewards, which is what I thought got me
through my first novel (and yes, I admit, I was pretty
excited when I could finally re-up my stock of personalized stationery when I reached 50,000 words this
time around).
But it turns out, despite all of these tools determined to help us be more productive, there’s a ton of
research that proves the way we’ve historically used
incentives to bolster productivity doesn’t work. As far
back as 1949, in fact, researchers were theorizing, and
then proving, that people would solve puzzles for the
sheer joy of solving puzzles and playing games over
rewards. And those same study subjects did worse
when presented with rewards. Somehow, that solid
research, and the many similar studies with results
pointing in the same direction, got swept under the
rug in favor of workplaces and management theory
that favored incentives and monetary rewards.
But in our profession, it’s especially important for
us to pay attention to what analyst Daniel Pink has
aptly termed “the [Tom] Sawyer effect,” based on that
character’s capability to turn the act of painting a fence
into a desirable task: Work, as Mark Twain writes in
the novel, “consists of whatever a body is OBLIGED to
do, and…play consists of whatever a body is not
obliged to do.”
I asked several writers how they motivated themselves, or kept themselves going, whether the project
be a long one or a shorter one. Some, predictably, said
that deadlines were a great motivator. But when I dug
deeper, something else became apparent: Writers who
love the process struggled the least. Novelist and English professor Ned Huston wrote that he learned the
What? You want to know where to find it? Okay, but I’m not
responsible for any results:
lesson from an artist. “If you become product-oriented, and all you care about is producing the product,
then you will hate the process because it only gets in
the way. And producing product becomes a kind of
torture,” he said.
Across the board, this seems to be the case. Writers
who write to deadlines probably have some kind of
monetary motivation to finish projects and a manager
to answer to, but when they’re working for themselves,
they feel like they can really shine. Novelist and
voiceover actor Petrea Burchard said, “I’m especially
motivated when I am in love with the story I’m telling.
This isn’t always possible in doing work for hire. But
when I get to write a story, for, say, a competition or a
publication that’s more open topic-wise, I can’t wait to
get to work.”
Middle-grade novelist Clark Parson
echoed this sentiment: “From past experience, I know that I’ll really love [writing]
once I get into it. That’s what gets me
through the nasty, sticky, painful parts of
a project.” And writer Michael Bland put
an even longer lens on the hard parts of
writing. “It’s a combination of not being a
procrastinator – when I take on a task, I
become stubborn to finish it – and the
great sense of accomplishment I feel when
I finish something.”
Some of that sense of daily accomplishment must be what’s keeping me
chugging along. It definitely wasn’t the
promise of a shiny new tube of lip balm that had me
rocketing past the 45,000-word mark. In fact, there is a
school of thought that says rewards only serve to highlight the inherent negativity of a task, as if it has to
come tied to a reward in order to get anyone to do it.
But that’s not the way writing works. Anything
that’s creative is meant to be rewarding in its own
right. That’s what the research and anecdotal evidence
says, anyway. Artists, whether literary or visual, are
more creative when they make things for themselves.
And we also know that tasks that are right-brain
focused – you know, like writing creatively – can be
actively hindered by such mundane things as rewards.
One 1970s study involving preschoolers rewarded
some of them for drawing with a blue ribbon. One
group was told they would get the reward; one group
was awarded after a certain time period with no expectation of reward; and one group was not rewarded at
all or even told about the reward. The group that was
told they’d get a reward lost interest in drawing way
earlier than the groups that were rewarded unexpectedly or not at all. (See? It’s true. Everything we ever
needed to know we learned in preschool.)
We all know that creativity is the wellspring of our
passion for writing. And, it turns out, maybe setting
rewards for myself isn’t the answer after all. Because I
confess there’s one thing I’ve left out of this description of my progress chart success: I’m a longhand
drafter. Each day, I open up a dedicated notebook and
write, by hand, the first draft of the novel. So when I
get to the actual typing of that draft into my word processing program, I’m effectively working on my second draft. And that’s when the word count really
begins to pile up, when I’m revising the first draft on
Writers who write to deadlines probably
have some kind of monetary motivation to
finish projects and a manager to answer to,
but when they’re working for themselves,
they feel like they can really shine.
the fly, adding details to make the characters shine,
and polishing actions and scenes so they really count,
and add causality to each other. And when I get
through each longhand-drafted page after copying it
into the word processor and adding to it on my computer, I take my pen and I cross out the longhand
page, with great gusto and cheer and a totally outsized
sense of accomplishment.
So when I finally get to filling in my chart with that
day’s word count, the hard work’s effectively been
done. The reward? It’s after the fact, icing on the cake
of the process, although that cake was a bitch to bake.
At least I got a tube of lip balm and some new stationery out of it.
Yi Shun Lai is a novelist and editor. Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu is available at booksellers everywhere.
Find Yi Shun at,, and on
Twitter @gooddirt. • The Writer | 37
This new magazine for young girls aims to make science fabulous.
cientist and educator Sarita
Menon believes that in order to
inspire kids to love science, you
must provide them with colorful graphics and a bag of marshmallows.
Menon launched S’More, a comic
book-style science magazine for girls
ages 7 to 12, in 2017. A mother of two,
she runs a science enrichment program
for young students in Houston, Texas.
“Any project we do, we always incorporate marshmallows,” she says. “I can
never have too many marshmallow
towers or design too many marshmallow shooters.”
A magazine lover as a child, Menon
wanted to produce a scientific publication for girls that was both informative
and entertaining. “Magazines and
comics are great for reluctant readers,”
she says. “Kids like to read things that
are not too lengthy, and they like color
graphics. If it’s fun, they will listen, and
they will read.”
girls involved in science, space flight
and exploration, the latest relevant
news, and trivia and jokes. The “Science Like a Girl” section highlights the
women who’ve used science in unexTone, editorial content
pected ways. “She could be a worldConcerned about the lack of women in class chef and use her food science
scientific fields, Menon hopes that
degree to do something,” Menon says.
S’more will inspire girls to
“We take away the notion
get excited enough about
that it belongs in a uniSTEM subjects that they’ll
versity or institution, and
pursue them in college. “I
explain that you can
want to showcase female
incorporate science in
role models,” she explains.
designing clothes, learn“Maybe if they see a
ing ballet, knowing
woman who’s become an
where you’re going, cookastronaut, they’ll know
ing cool stuff. Tech and
they won’t be out there on
science are part of everytheir own even if they’re
day life.”
Sarita Menon
the only girl in their comUpcoming issues of
puter science class.”
S’more include a profile of a femaleThe magazine’s sections include
owned fashion design company that
simple experiments, profiles of teen
uses 3-D printing to make clothes and a
38 | The Writer • January 2018
story about an engineer who’s attempting to grow bones in her laboratory.
Contributors to the debut issue of
S’more include science communicator
Amanda Baker, graphic designer Olga
Gonina, and scientist John Zakour.
Clark Newman, aerospace engineer at
NASA’s Johnson Space Center, wrote a
piece for Issue #1 explaining how scientists launch a satellite into space. “He
teaches kids in middle school about
math and science, so I knew he was a
good candidate to write this article,”
Menon says.
The debut issue also features fisheries scientist and educator Allison Sayer’s “Meet the Mushroom Messengers,”
a lively, illustrated explanation of the
relationship between trees and mushrooms. Menon and educator Sarunas
Girdauskas wrote and illustrated
“Penicillin: a story of a cure from clutter” about Alexander Fleming’s discovery of the world’s first antibiotic.
Advice for potential contributors
Menon notes that it can be tricky to
write science-related material for children. “It’s a challenge to break down a
concept and provide an analogy or an
example that’s simple enough that a kid
can completely understand a concept,”
she explains. “It really hones your writing skills, though. If you can explain
something to a kid, you’ve understood
the topic really well.”
She looks for writers who are excellent at crafting stories that hold a
child’s attention. She’s particularly
interested in profiles of women
involved in science – pieces that give
insight into the vast amount of work
and the determination and passion
that fuels their research. The second
issue of S’More includes stories by
women engineers and scientists about
the challenges they’ve overcome to
work in a particular field.
“When girls read stories like that,”
Menon says, “it opens up their thinking,
and they become more willing to try
new things. We’re making science fabulous enough that our younger generation is going to sit up and take notice.
“It’s good to know how the world
works,” she concludes. “They’re going to
inherit it tomorrow, and they need to
figure out how to face the challenges.”
Contributing editor Melissa Hart is the
author of the middle-grade novel Avenging the
Owl (Sky Pony, 2016) and two memoirs. Web:
“Created so that curious girls
everywhere continue to stay
interested in science and
grow up to be confident,
brilliant, and successful
women in science and
PRINT/DIGITAL. Bimonthly, $50 print,
$30 digital.
Genres: Profiles, nonfiction science
Reading period: Year-round.
Submission format: Online through
Contact: Sarita Menon, S’More. • The Writer | 39
Wordcrafters Writers’ Conference
Writers both young and old come together
to talk craft in beautiful Eugene, Oregon.
he office for Wordcrafters
in Eugene sits below Skinner’s Butte on Oregon’s
Willamette River – a picturesque setting in which to plot stories
and share tales of the writing process
with like-minded people.
“There’s a reason the word ‘craft’ is
in our name,” explains Executive
Director Daryll Lynne Evans. “We
really want to focus on craft and not
on the frenetic business of publishing.”
Each year, the organization puts on
a three-day conference with a specific
theme and a combination of speakers
and shared meals. In 2018, it will offer
“Fight or Flight,” an event for writers
and fans of young adult action and
thriller novels. Teens themselves are
encouraged to come for the conference
and stay for the vibrant and eclectic
city that boasts One Flew Over the
Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey as a
former resident.
“It’s a very literary city,” Evans says,
and “we love having young writers in
the audience. At our last three
40 | The Writer • January 2018
conferences, their parents have
attended alongside them. It’s really cool
to see parents supporting the things
that their kids are excited about.”
What you’ll learn
Award-winning science fiction and
fantasy author Fonda Lee presents on
Friday night and again on Saturday.
“She did this amazing talk a couple of
years ago on the importance of making
your action heroes vulnerable,” Evans
says. “When it’s Superman you’re reading about, you’re not worried that he’s
not going to win – you have to give
him vulnerability. That’s critical in
action writing.”
Lee, who is also a martial artist,
will talk about the physiological
responses that characters experience
during a fight and how to get those
details down accurately in writing for
young adults.
Participants will learn how to delve
laptop. There will be so many opportunities to take good notes and do writing exercises. Be ready to learn a ton of
deep information about the craft of YA
thrillers and action stories.”
She urges attendees to take time to
appreciate the scenery outside the
conference walls. “Oregon is a beautiful state, and Eugene is a unique town
with a lot of interesting arts culture,”
she says. “Many of the great science
fiction and fantasy writers are drawn
to the area. There are world-class
murals, arts cinemas, fun and funky
restaurants. It’s got all the appeal of a
big city, in a smaller city close to
nature. No wonder so many writers
live here.”
Wordcrafters Writers’ Conference
Oct. 12-14, 2018
$199 early registration
Eugene, Oregon
Conference coordinator
Daryll Lynne Evans,
into the psychology of their characters
and how to use elements of science to
manipulate readers in a thriller novel.
They’ll also learn about the power of
immersing oneself in police ridealongs and other visceral experiences
to add authenticity to their fiction.
Featured presenters
Aside from Lee, presenters include
April Henry – New York Times bestselling author of mysteries, thrillers, and
YA novels – and award-winning author
and psychologist Stephanie Kuehn,
who will talk about crafting stories for
young adults.
Young adult mystery writer Bill
Cameron joins YA adventure novelist
Jeff Geiger to talk about how real-life
experiences have shaped their fiction.
The latter found himself inspired –
after his car broke down in a remote
location – to write the YA adventure
novel Wildman, about a 17-year-old
valedictorian stranded after a breakdown at a rural roadhouse in the
Pacific Northwest.
On Sunday, he and other featured
presenters offer workshops for young
writers. “These authors are their writing heroes,” Evans explains. “It’s invaluable to meet a professional writer
whose work you’ve read and found to
be important. It adds connection to the
writing and so much excitement.”
Contributing editor Melissa Hart is the
author of the middle-grade novel Avenging the
Owl (Sky Pony, 2016). Web:
Advice for first-timers
Evans notes that Wordcrafters conferences take place in a casual, relaxed
atmosphere. “This is Eugene,” she
quips. “Birkenstocks are regulation.”
She urges people to leave their fancy
clothes and anxieties about publication
at home.
“Just bring the tools you need to
write, whether that’s a clay tablet and a
stylus, or pen and paper, or your • The Writer | 41
What’s in a fellowship?
Sad but true: Money often stands in the way of a writer finishing the
next best-seller. And it shouldn’t. There are many opportunities,
including awards and grants, to get extra cash in order to quit your
third job and devote more time to writing. Another option, a fellowship, is a bit more unique and intense. Here are some fellowship fast
What is it? A fellowship is a short-term opportunity to develop a
work-in-progress while being provided a financial stipend and, typically, a workspace.
How long? Depending on the program, fellowships can last for a few
weeks, a semester, or an entire year.
How much? Relative to the duration of the fellowship, a stipend can
be delivered monthly or in full. While living the high life may not be
an option, meeting all of your daily living expenses should not be a
Where can I find one? Many educational institutions offer fellowships, including colleges and universities, libraries, and writing workshops. Some literary journals and national writing associations also
provide opportunities. Check local organizations as well as ones far
from home.
What’s the catch? Though you should read the terms and conditions
of each fellowship carefully, in general the biggest commitment you
are asked in return will be to teach a class or do a reading. Otherwise,
fellowships are about digging in and concentrating on your work.
The grants, fellowships and awards here are a sampling of what the
industry has to offer. For a complete listing, visit
Information in this section is provided to
The Writer by the individual markets and
events; for more information, contact
those entities directly.
Subscribers to The Writer have online access to
information on publishers, publications,
conferences, contests and agents. Go to and click on Writing Resources.
F = Fiction N = Nonfiction P = Poetry
C = Children’s Y = Young adult O = Other
fellowships for writers and journalists
42 | The Writer • January 2018
producing imaginative works dealing
with pre-20th-century American history. Fellowship projects include historical novels, poetry, plays, screenplays,
magazine or newspaper articles, and
nonfiction works of history designed
for general audiences. Deadline: See
website. Entry fee: None. Prizes: $1,850
stipend and a four-week residence at the
society, located in Worcester, Massachusetts. Contact: American Antiquarian
Society, 185 Salisbury St., Worcester,
MA 01609. 508-755-5221.
BOOK AWARDS Recognizes works
that contribute to an understanding of
racism and an appreciation of diversity.
Submit five copies of a book published
in the previous year. Self-published
books and Ebooks are not accepted.
Deadline: Dec. 31. Entry fee: None.
Prizes: $10,000 awarded to both the fiction and nonfiction categories. Contact:
Karen R. Long, c/o Anisfield-Wolf Book
Awards, The Cleveland Foundation,
1422 Euclid Ave., Suite 1300, Cleveland,
OH 44115. 216-685-2018.
grants to women in the arts whose work
in progress focuses on women. Submit
maximum of 20 pages of a writing or
mixed genre sample by online submission manager. See website for full guidelines. Deadline: Fiction and mixed
genre Jan. 1-31, 2018; Nonfiction and
poetry Jan. 1-31, 2019. Entry fee: $25.
Prizes: $500-$1,500. Contact: Money
for Women/Barbara Deming Memorial
Fund, Inc., P.O. Box 717, Bearsville, NY
an American citizen age 39 or younger
at the time of application. Applicant
must have at least one published book
and a project in progress. Deadline:
June 15. Entry fee: None. Prizes:
$30,000 and appointment as writer in
residence at Bard College for one
semester. Contact: Bard Fiction Prize,
Bard College, P.O. Box 5000, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY 12504. 845-7587087.
AWARD Recognizes a rising talent who
has published a first novel within the
previous 12 months in the U.S. Selfpublished novels and books only avail-
able in Eformats are not eligible. Submit
three copies of the book by regular mail.
Deadline: Jan. 14 for books published
July through December of previous
year, Sept. 14 for books published January through June of current year.
Prizes: $5,000 and travel to Virginia
Commonwealth University for a reading and reception. Contact: VCU
Cabell First Novelist Award, Dept. of
English, 900 Park Ave., Hibbs Hall,
Room 306, P.O. Box 842005, Richmond,
VA 23284.
to any U.S. writer in English with at
least three books of fiction published.
Seeks “fiction considered by America’s
largest publishers too challenging, innovative or heterodox for the commercial
milieu.” Submissions may include a collection of short stories, one or more
novellas, or a novel of any length.
Works that have previously appeared in
magazines or in anthologies may be
included. Translations and previously
published or self-published novels and
collections are not eligible. Electronic
submissions only. Deadline: See website. Entry fee: $25. Prizes: $15,000 and
publication by FC2. Contact: University
of Alabama Press, P.O. Box 870380,
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487. 773-702-7000.
Open to authors whose first novel was
published between Jan. 1, 2017, and
May 15, 2018. Book must be set predominantly in the American South.
Self-published books accepted if they
have an ISBN number. Books available
only as e-books are not eligible. Deadline: May 15. Entry fee: $35. Prizes:
$5,000 and a free glass of wine every
day from Crook’s Corner bar. Contact:
Crook’s Corner Book Prize, 313 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514.
have published at least one full-length
collection of poetry. Seeks poets who
are at an artistic and personal crossroads. Deadline: Check website. Entry
fee: $28. Prizes: $2,000 and a twomonth residency at The Frost Place in
Franconia, New Hampshire. Contact:
The Frost Place, P.O. Box 74, Franconia,
NH, 03580. 603-823-5510.
PRIZE Open to writers who have published a novel, a book-length collection
of fiction, or a minimum of three short
stories or novellas in commercial magazines or literary journals with national
distribution. Self-published and digitalonly publications not considered. Submit unpublished manuscript of short
stories or novellas. Deadline: June 30.
Entry fee: None. Prizes: $15,000 and
publication by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Contact: Drue Heinz Literature Prize, University of Pittsburgh
Press, 7500 Thomas Blvd., Pittsburgh,
PA 15260.
DESERT WRITERS Provides funding
for a writing project that “combines an
engaging individual voice, literary sensibility, imagination, and intellectual
rigor to bring new perspectives and
deeper meaning to the body of desert
literature.” Encourages emerging, midcareer, and established literary nonfiction writers to apply. Deadline: Jan.
15. Entry fee: None. Prizes: $5,000.
Contact: Ellen Meloy Fund. Email
from website.
FELLOWSHIP Provides new writers
with tools to launch professional writing career. Deadline: See website. Entry
fee: None. Prizes: Seven-month fellowship, a series of master classes, public
readings, and a $1,000 stipend. Contact: PEN Center USA, P.O. Box 6037,
Beverly Hills, CA 90212. 323-424-4939.
Annually awarded to an emerging African-American author for a book of fiction published during the previous
year. Deadline: See website. Entry fee:
None. Prizes: $10,000 cash. Contact:
Ernest J. Gaines Award, c/o Baton
Rouge Area Foundation, 100 North St.,
Suite 900, Baton Rouge, LA 70802.
Email from website.
Seeks writers who demonstrate “much
more than ordinary intellectual and literary gifts.” Fellows are selected more
“for promise than for performance.” Deadline: See website. Entry
fee: None. Prizes: Recipients receive
$79,000 stipend each and a yearlong
residency at Princeton to pursue an
independent project. Contact: Lewis
Center for the Arts, Princeton University, 185 Nassau St., Princeton, NJ
FELLOWSHIP Awarded annually to an
American author of a first-novel-inprogress. Submit via regular mail or
online submission form. Submit a twopage (maximum) outline of the entire
novel and the first 50 pages. Deadline:
March 15. Entry fee: $30. Add $3 for
online submissions. Prizes: $10,000
first place, $1,000 for two runners up.
Contact: James Jones First Novel Fellowship, c/o MA/MFA in Creative Writing, Wilkes University, 84 W. South St.,
Wilkes-Barre, PA 18766. • The Writer | 43
Offered to poets in support of a second
book of poetry. Only manuscripts
already under contract with publishers
are eligible. Deadline: May 15. Entry
fee: None. Prizes: $5,000 cash prize,
weeklong residency at The Betsy Hotel
in Miami Beach and distribution of
book to Academy of American Poets
members. Contact: James Laughlin
Award, The Academy of American
Poets, 75 Maiden Ln., Suite 901, New
York, NY 10038. 212-274-0343.
PRIZE Awarded annually to a woman
who is a U.S. citizen and who has published a book-length work of prose fiction (novel, short stories, or
experimental writing) in the previous
year. “Particularly interested in calling
attention to the work of a promising but
less established writer.” No self-published books. Publisher must submit
entries. Deadline: Jan. 15. Entry fee:
None. Prizes: $7,500. Contact: University of Rochester, Janet Heidinger Kafka
Prize, Susan B. Anthony Institute for
Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies, 538 Lattimore Hall, RC Box 270434,
Rochester, NY 14627.
two-year, post-graduate residential fellowships at Kenyon College. Recipients
will undertake a significant writing
project, teach one semester-long class
per year, assist with The Keyon Review,
and attend Kenyon College cultural
events. Applicants must have an MFA
or Ph.D. and professional teaching
experience in creative writing and/or
literature at the undergraduate level.
Deadline: See website. Prizes: $35,150
yearly stipend plus health benefits.
Contact: Tory Weber, The Kenyon
Review, Finn House, Gambier, OH
43022. 740-427-5391.
44 | The Writer • January 2018
Awards women and trans artists in the
Delaware Valley region who write for
social change. Deadline: May 15. Entry
fee: None. Prizes: $15,000 divided
among winners. Contact: Leeway
Foundation, 1315 Walnut St., Suite 832,
Philadelphia, PA 19107. 215-545-4078.
PRIZE Recognizes the most outstanding book of poetry published in the U.S.
in the previous year. Self-published
books not eligible. Submitted by publisher. Deadline: See website. Entry fee:
$75. Prizes: $25,000. Contact: The
Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, The
Academy of American Poets, 75 Maiden
Ln., Suite 901, New York, NY 10038.
York, NY 10017. 212-755-6710.
FELLOWSHIP Awards fellowships
based on writers’ artistic quality and
creative ability. Open to legal residents
of Massachusetts. Deadline: See website. Entry fee: None. Prizes: $12,000
for fellowship, $1,000 for finalists. Contact: Massachusetts Cultural Council,
10 St. James Ave., 3rd Floor, Boston,
MA 02116. 617-858-2700.
Awarded to writers living and working
in the state of New York. Writers may
be at any stages of their professional
career. Genre rotates every year. Deadline: Jan. 24. Entry fee: None. Prizes:
$7,000. Contact: New York Foundation
for the Arts (NYFA), 20 Jay St., Suite
740, Brooklyn, NY 11201.
Provides Minnesota residents with an
opportunity to work on their writing
for a concentrated period of time. One
award in children’s literature alternates
annually between writers for children
under the age of 8 and writers for
older readers. Four fellowships alternate annually between writers of
poetry and writers of creative prose.
Applicants must have published a book
in their genre or published at least five
pieces of original work in no fewer
than three literary journals. Deadline:
See website. Entry fee: None. Prizes: 5
fellowships of $25,000. Contact: The
Loft Literary Center, Open Book
Building, Suite 200, 1011 Washington
Ave. S., Minneapolis, MN 55415. 612215-2575.
FELLOWSHIP Open to residents of
one of the five boroughs of New York
City. Applicants must be in the early
stages of their careers and have not published a novel or short story collection.
Deadline: See website. Entry fee: None.
Prizes: $5,000, access to The Center’s
Writers Studio, opportunities for readings, and mentorship. Contact: The
Center for Fiction, 17 E. 47th St., New
grants in prose (fiction and creative
nonfiction) and poetry to published
writers. Enables recipients to set aside
time for writing, research, travel, and
general career advancement. Fellowships in prose and poetry available in
alternating years. Deadline: See website. Entry fee: None. Prizes: $25,000.
Contact: Literature Fellowships,
National Endowment for the Arts, 400
7th St., SW, Washington, DC 20506.
Awards books published in 2017 that
represent Pre-K-grade 3, grades 4-6 and
grades 7-12. Deadline: Feb. 1. Entry
fee: None. Prizes: $500 in each category. Contact: Maria Mazziotti Gillan,
Executive Director, The Poetry Center,
Passaic County Community College,
One College Blvd., Paterson, NJ 07505.
produced or published in 2016 by writers living west of the Mississippi River.
Categories judged for fiction, creative
nonfiction, research nonfiction, poetry,
young adult literature, graphic literature, translation, drama, journalism,
screenplay, and teleplay. Deadline:
Check website for deadlines. Entry fee:
$35. Prizes: $1,000 and a one-year PEN
Center USA membership. Contact:
PEN Center USA Literary Awards, P.O.
Box 6037, Beverly Hills, CA 90212.
DEBUT FICTION Awarded to a first
novel or collection of short stories published in that calendar year. Self-published books or e-books are not eligible.
Deadline: Dec. 1. Entry fee: $50.
Prizes: $25,000, a fellowship at the
Ucross Foundation in Wyoming and a
residency at the University of Idaho’s
MFA Program in Creative Writing. Contact: PEN New England, The
PEN/ Hemingway Award,
MIT, 14N-221A, 77 Massachusetts Ave.,
Cambridge, MA 02139. 617-324-1729.
CENTER Awards a new nonfiction
journalist or essayist whose work “combines warmth, humor, wisdom, and
concern with social justice.” Submit at
least two articles, published or unpublished, maximum 30 pages. Deadline:
Check website. Entry fee: None. Prizes:
$5,000 stipend and month-long residency at the Blue Mountain Center, a
writers and artists colony in the Adirondacks. Contact: Richard J. Margolis
Award of Blue Mountain Center, c/o
Margolis & Bloom, 535 Boylston St., 8th
floor, Boston, MA 02116. F N P PHILIP ROTH RESIDENCE
IN CREATIVE WRITING Open to fiction and nonfiction writers working on
a first or second book. Awarded to
poets on alternate years. Deadline: Feb.
1. Entry fee: None. Prizes: Four-month
residency at Bucknell University’s
“Poets’ Cottage” and a stipend of
$5,000. Contact: Stadler Center for
Poetry, Bucknell Hall, Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA 17837. 570-5771853.
Offers emerging writers of any age and
background a fellowship to finish a significant writing project. Open to writers
of literary scholarship, fiction, drama,
education, science, and the media. Residency in the San José area during the
academic year (Sept. 1 – May 20) is
expected. Deadline: Jan. 2. Application
fee: None. Prizes: $10,000 stipend.
Contact: Steinbeck Fellows Program,
Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies, San José State University,
Room 590, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
Library, San José, CA 95192. 408-8082067.
Awarded to individual writers with
families. Applicant must have at least
one child under the age of 18. Preference given to residents of the San Francisco Bay Area. Awarded biannually to
fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and play
writers. Deadline: See website. Application fee: $15. Prizes: Awards of
$5,000 to 20 artists and writers in each
round. Half go to artists and writers of
color. Contact: Sustainable Arts Foundation, 1032 Irving St. #609, San Francisco, CA 94122. Email from website.
to a poet who has not published a
book-length collection of poems. Submit 48-100 pages of poems. Online
submissions only. Deadline: See website. Entry fee: $35. Prizes: $5,000,
publication by Graywolf Press and an
all-expenses-paid six-week residency
at the Civitella Ranieri Center in the
Umbrian region of Italy. Contact:
Academy of American Poets, 75
Maiden Ln., Suite 901, New York, NY
10038. 212-274-0343.
Two prizes awarded biennially for
newly published fiction and nonfiction
books. Encourages original, innovative
work from new or emerging writers.
Book must have been published during
2017-2018. Self-published and electronic books are also eligible. Submit by
regular mail. Deadline: Jan. 29. Entry
fee: $50 Prizes: $5,000 Contact:
Administrator of The Saroyan Prize
Committee, Stanford University Libraries, 557 Escondido Mall, Stanford, CA
94305. Sonia Lee. 650-736-9538. • The Writer | 45
Writing contests are a great way to
keep writing and hone your craft.
And the earlier a writer starts, the
better. Here is a roundup of 10 writing contests for young people. Share
it with your favorite child writer.
F = Fiction N = Nonfiction P = Poetry D = Drama S = Screenplay
up to three poems, three 500-word stories,
or one 5,000-word (max) story. Submit via
regular mail. Ages: 13-19 years old. Deadline: See website. Entry fee: $20 CAD ($25
CAD for poetry and fiction combination);
$20 USD for entries outside Canada.
Prizes: In each category: 1st prize: $1,000
CAD; 2nd prize: $600 CAD; 3rd prize: $400
CAD and publication. All entrants receive
a 1-year subscription to The Claremont
Review and will have their works considered for publication. Contact: Annual
Writing Contest, The Claremont Review,
Suite 101, 1581-H Hillside Ave., Victoria,
B.C. V8T 2C1, Canada. Email through
AWARDS Submit a 60- to 75-page portfolio containing three of the following
genres: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, drama/
screenplay. Ages: 18 or younger as of Oct.
1, 2017. Deadline: Feb. 18. Entry fee:
None. Prizes: $10,000, $25,000, or
$50,000 scholarship. Contact: Davidson
Institute for Talent Development, Reno,
NV 89521. 775-852-3483 ext. 435.
prize goes to the best student-created story,
which will be featured in the “for teens, by
teens” section of the Story Share library.
Ages: 18 or younger. Deadline: December
31. Entry fee: See website. Prizes: $200.
46 | The Writer • January 2018
Contact: Story Shares, 2450 17th Ave. #225,
Santa Cruz, CA 95062.
FESTIVAL Submit an original play on any
subject that runs under 30 minutes. No collaborative works, adaptations, or musicals.
Ages: High school. Deadline: January 15,
2017. Prizes: Up to four plays will be chosen for play development workshops during the festival, culminating in a reading in
front of an audience with talkback. Contact: EdTA, 2343 Auburn Ave., Cincinnati,
OH 45219. 513-421-3900. Email through
POETRY CONTEST States may submit
10 top poems in each division; individual
students may also enter. Ages: Grades
6-12. Deadline: March 1. Entry fee:
None. Prizes: 1st place: $75, 2nd place: $50,
3rd place: $40, 4th place: $35, 5th place: $30;
5 honorable mentions: $10 each. All winning poems will be published in the Manningham Trust Poetry Student Award
Anthology. Contact: Budd Mahan, 7059
Spring Valley Rd., Dallas, TX 75254. 972788-4944.
AWARDS Open to high school and college students. Submit creative nonfiction
or poetry up to 15 pages, depending on
age group. Ages: High school and college.
Deadline: Check website. Prizes: $2,500
or $5,000, depending on category. Contact: National Council of Teachers of English, 1111 W. Kenyon Rd., Urbana, IL
61801. 877-369-6283.
F N P D SCHOLASTIC ART & WRITING AWARDS Presented by the Alliance
for Young Artists & Writers. Submit in 11
writing categories: critical essay, dramatic
script, flash fiction, humor, journalism,
novel writing, personal essay/memoir,
poetry, science fiction and fantasy, short
story, and writing portfolio (seniors only).
Ages: Grades 7-12. Deadline: Dependent
upon region. Check website. Entry fee:
$5-$20, which can be waived under certain terms. Prizes: Scholarships and prizes
up to $10,000. Contact: Scholastic Art &
Writing Awards, 557 Broadway, New
York, NY 10012.
HONOR AWARDS Recognizes works
that promote multicultural, international,
and nature awareness. Prose under 1,000
words; poems under 30 lines. Non-English
and bilingual writings welcome. Ages: 7-17
years old. Deadline: See website. Entry fee:
$5, which can be waived under certain
terms. Prizes: 10 winners will receive a certificate, a subscription to Skipping Stones,
and five nature and/or multicultural books.
Contact: Skipping Stones Magazine, P.O.
Box 3939, Eugene, OR 97403. 541-3424956.
Founded by Stephen Sondheim, hosts
under 21 and all-ages play contests. Ages:
All ages. Deadline: See website. Entry fee:
None. Prizes: Varies. Contact: Young Playwrights Inc., P.O. Box 5134, New York, NY
Applications accepted in creative nonfiction, novel writing, play or scriptwriting,
poetry, short story, and spoken word.
Ages: 15-18 years old. Deadline: Check
website. Entry fee: $35, which can be
waived under certain terms. Prizes: Cash
up to $10,000. Contact: National YoungArts Foundation, 2100 Biscayne Blvd.,
Miami, FL 33137. 1-888-970-2787.
READERS should use caution when entering into any
legal contract with a literary service offering agentingtype assistance; publishers who charge, rather than
pay, an author for publication; publishers who require
a purchase before publication and contests that charge
high entrance fees. The Writer also recommends
requesting a list of references and submission
guidelines before submitting a manuscript. If you have
any concerns regarding the advertiser’s commitment
or claims, please contact the advertiser and make
certain all questions are answered to your satisfaction.
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Email: or website:
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Julie Buxbaum
Legal training
As a lawyer, you’re trained to use as few
words as possible. You’re not allowed to
get flowery. You stick to the facts, the
bare bones. That’s helped to make me
ruthless when it comes to editing. I
think that discipline I learned as a lawyer translated into my novel writing.
place. It’s less efficient than outlining,
but it keeps it interesting.
I approach YA the same way I
approached adult novels. The process
is the same when you’re getting into
the head of a character that’s 40 or 22
or 16. I feel like being a teenager has
changed dramatically in some ways,
such as social media. But the underlying feelings, like you’re on the cusp of
adulthood and the world is about to
explode open but it feels closed – those
are universal feelings. I can’t remember
details from that time, but I can
remember the feelings so vividly.
Starting point
It’s different with each book. Usually, I
have a character and a voice in mind,
and a theme I’m interested in exploring. Sometimes it’s obvious from day
one, and sometimes I’ll look back and
realize that I was obsessed with something. When I’m in the thick of it, I
don’t necessarily see it. I’m not an outliner. I trust the process will take the
book where I need to go. You have to
really believe you’re going to get to that
48 | The Writer • January 2018
esting to write about the balance
between the hardest and the best
things in life.
Inspiration from real-life suffering
I write to make sense of the world.
Writing is a how I process what I’m
feeling. I write as a form of therapy,
and I’m much less happy when I’m
not writing. It’s important to write
about things that matter to you and
scare you. Grief and loss have been a
huge part of my life and make me the
person I am. I actively try to avoid it,
but it shows up in my work. It’s inter-
What’s great about YA?
While the process is similar, the community is different, and the responsiveness of readers is very different.
Readers weren’t as easily accessible
when my first novel came out. Teenage
readers are smart and engaged, and it’s
fun to travel and meet them.
What’s next?
I’ve had multiple full drafts on my next
book, and this one has been a particularly brutal revision process. This is one
of the harder ones, but I was due for one
because What to Say Next flowed for
me. This one has a story that is highly
specific. It’s about something that happens to one person, and the specificity
makes it more of a complicated story. I
want to make sure readers relate to it, in
spite of and because of the specificity.
It’s also rooted in history.
Allison Futterman is a freelance writer based
in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Indy Flore
ulie Buxbaum, a Harvard Law
School graduate and former lawyer, decided to step away from
her legal career to pursue a career
in novel writing. Her first adult
novel, The Opposite of Love, was
published in 2008, followed by
another, After You, in 2009. She
eventually made the switch to YA in
2016 with her smash hit Tell Me
Three Things, which became a New
York Times best-seller. Her highly
anticipated second YA novel, What
to Say Next, was published in 2017
and was met with much praise.
With realistic and well-developed
characters and interesting plots, Buxbaum has a gift for creating YA novels
that are immensely appealing. She is
masterful at capturing the teenage
experience with poignancy and humor.
Buxbaum’s next YA novel, Picture a
Blue Sky, is scheduled for release in May.
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An unprecedented event: Kit Lowell
just sat down next to me in the cafeteria. I always sit alone, and when I say
always, I don’t mean that in the exaggerated vernacular favored by my
classmates. In the 622 days I’ve
attended this high school, not a single
person has ever sat beside me at lunch,
which is what justifies my calling her
sitting there—so close that her elbow
almost grazes mine—an “event.” My
first instinct is to reach for my notebook and look up her entry. Under K
for Kit, not under L for Lowell,
because though I’m good with facts
and scholarly pursuits, I’m terrible
with names. Partly this is because
names are random words completely
devoid of context, and partly this is
because I believe names rarely fit the
people they belong to, which, if you
think about it, makes perfect sense.
Parents name their child at a time
when they have the absolute least
amount of information they will ever
have about the person they are nam-
ing. The whole practice is illogical.
Take Kit, for example, which is not
actually her name, her name is Katherine, but I have never heard anyone
call her Katherine, even in elementary
school. Kit doesn’t in any way look like
a Kit, which is a name for someone
who is boxy and stiff and easily understandable with step-by-step instructions. Instead the name of the girl
sitting next to me should have a Z in
it, because she’s confusing and zigzagged and pops up in surprising
places—like at my lunch table—and
maybe the number eight, because she’s
hourglass-shaped, and the letter S too,
because it’s my favorite. I like Kit
because she’s never been mean to me,
which is not something I can say
about the vast majority of my classmates. It’s a shame her parents got her
name all wrong.
I’m a David, which also doesn’t
work, because there are lots of Davids
in the world—at last check 3,786,417
of them in the United States alone—
and so by virtue of my first name, one
would assume I’d be like lots of other
people. Or, at the very least, relatively
neurotypical, which is a scientific, less
offensive way of saying normal. That
hasn’t been the case. At school, no one
calls me anything, except the occasional homo or moron, neither of
which is in any way accurate—my IQ
is 168 and I’m attracted to girls, not
boys. Also, homo is a pejorative term
for a gay person, and even if my classmates are mistaken about my sexual
orientation, they should know better
than to use that word. At home my
mom calls me son—which I have no
problem with because it’s true—my
dad calls me David, which feels like
an itchy sweater with a too-tight neck,
and my sister calls me Little D, which
for some inexplicable reason fits just
right, even though I’m not even a little
bit little. I’m six foot two and 165
pounds. My sister is five foot three
and 105 pounds. I should call her Little L, for Little Lauren, but I don’t. I
call her Miney, which is what I’ve
been calling her since I was a baby,
because she’s always felt like the only
thing in a confusing world that
belongs to me.
Miney is away at college, and I
miss her. She’s my best friend—technically speaking, my only friend—but
I feel like even if I had friends, she’d
still be my best one. So far she’s the
only person I’ve ever known who has
helped make being me a little less
By now you’ve probably realized
I’m different. It usually doesn’t take
people very long to figure that out.
One doctor thought I might have a
“borderline case of Asperger’s,” which
is stupid, because you can’t have a
borderline case of Asperger’s. Actually, you can’t really have Asperger’s at
all anymore, because it was written
out of the DSM-5 (the fifth edition of
the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual
of Mental Disorders) in 2013, and
instead people with that group of
characteristics are considered to have
high-functioning autism (or HFA),
which is also mis- leading. The
autism spectrum is multidimensional,
not linear. The doctor was obviously
an idiot.
Out of curiosity, I’ve done my own
reading in this area (I bought a used
DSM-4 on eBay; the 5 was too pricey),
and though I lack the necessary medical training required to make a full
diagnostic assessment, I don’t believe
the label applies to me.
Yes, I can get myself into trouble in
social situations; I like order and routine; when I’m interested in something, I can be hyperfocused to the
exclusion of other activities; and, fine,
I am clumsy. But when I have to, I can
make eye contact. I don’t flinch if you
touch me. I tend to recognize most
idioms, though I keep a running list
in my notebook just in case. I like to
think I’m empathetic, but I don’t
know if that’s true.
I’m not sure it really matters if I
have Asperger’s, anyway, especially
because it no longer exists. It’s just
another label. Take the word jock. If
enough psychiatrists wanted to, they
could add that to the DSM and diagnose all the guys on the Mapleview
football team. Characteristics would
include at least two of the following:
(1) athleticism, especially while wearing spandex, (2) unnatural ease with
the concept of strapping a hard cup
around your penis, (3) being an asshole. It doesn’t matter whether you call
me an Aspie or a weirdo or even a
moron. The fact remains that I very
much wish I were more like everyone
else. Not the jocks, necessarily. I don’t
want to be the kind of guy who gives
kids like me a hard time. But if I got
the chance to make some sort of cosmic upgrade—switch David 1.0 to a
2.0 version who understood what to
say in day-to-day conversation—I’d do
it in an instant.
Maybe when parents name their
children they do it from the perspective of wishful thinking. Like when you
go to a restaurant and ask for a rare
steak, and even though there is no universally agreed definition of the word
rare, you hope you get exactly what
you want.
My mom and dad ordered a David.
They got me instead.
In my notebook:
KIT LOWELL: Height: 5 ‘ 4”. Weight:
Approximately 125 lbs. Wavy brown
hair, pulled into a ponytail on test days,
rainy days, and most Mondays. Skin is
brownish, because her dad—a dentist—
is white and her mom is Indian (Southeast Asian, not Native American). Class
ranking: 14. Activities: school newspaper, Spanish Club, Pep Club.
tines, not just me. But still. It was
nice. Except for the glitter. Because
glitter is uncontainable and has
sticky properties, and I generally
don’t like uncontainable and sticky
3. Eighth grade: After math class, she
asked what I got on my math test. I
said: 100. She said: Wow, you must
have studied hard. I said: No, quadratic equations are easy. She said:
Um, okay. (Later, when I reenacted
the conversation for Miney, she told
me that I should have said that I had
studied, even if that meant lying. I’m
not a very good liar.)
4. Tenth grade: Kit smiled at me when
only our two names were announced
as National Merit semifinalists on
the loudspeaker. I was going to say
“Congratulations,” but Justin Cho
said “Damn, girl!” first and gave Kit
a hug. And then she wasn’t looking
at me anymore.
Important Characteristics
1. On cold days, she stretches her
sleeves to cover her whole hands
instead of wearing gloves.
2. Her hair isn’t curly, but it isn’t
straight either. It hangs in repetitive,
alternating commas.
3. She’s the prettiest girl in school.
4. She sits crisscross-applesauce on
almost all chairs, even narrow ones.
5. She has a faint scar next to her left
eyebrow that looks almost like a Z. I
once asked Miney if she thought I’d
ever be able to touch that scar,
because I’m curious what it feels like,
and Miney said, “Sorry, Little D. But
as the Magic 8 Ball says: My Sources
Say No.”
6. She drives a red Toyota Corolla,
license plate XHD893.
Notable Encounters
1. Third grade: Stopped Justin Cho
from giving me a wedgie.
2. Sixth grade: Made me a valentine.
(Note: KL made all the boys valen-
Almost everyone, but mostly hangs out
with Annie, Violet, and sometimes
Dylan (the Girl Dylan, not the Boy
Dylan). Common characteristics of
friend group, with the exception of Kit,
include flat-ironed hair, minor acne,
and larger than average breasts. For five
school days last year, Kit walked the
halls holding hands with Gabriel, only
occasionally stopping to make out, but
now they don’t do that anymore. I don’t
like Gabriel.
Additional Notes: Nice. Miney puts her
on the Trust List. I second.
Of course I don’t open the notebook in front of her. Even I know better than that. But I do touch its spine,
because having it nearby makes me
feel less anxious. The notebook was
Miney’s idea. Back in middle school,
after the Locker Room Incident,
which is irrelevant to this discussion,
Miney decided I was too trusting.
Apparently, unlike me, when most
people talk they aren’t necessarily telling the truth. See for example the Test
Lie suggested above. Why lie about
whether I studied for a test? Ridiculous. Quadratic equations are easy.
That’s just a fact.
“So your dad is dead,” I say, because
it’s the first thing that pops into my
head when she sits down. This is new
information that I have not yet added
to her notebook entry, only because I
just found out. I’m usually the last to
know things about my classmates, if I
ever learn about them at all. But
Annie and Violet were talking about
Kit at Violet’s locker this morning,
which happens to be above mine.
According to Annie, “Kit’s been, like,
a total mess since the whole thing
with her dad, and I know it’s been
hard and whatever, but she’s kind of
being, I don’t know, mean.” I don’t
usually listen to the other kids at
school—most of what they have to say
is boring and feels like bad background music, something clanky and
harsh, heavy metal, maybe—but for
some reason this seeped through.
Then they started talking about the
funeral, how it was weird that they
cried more than Kit, that it’s not
healthy for her to keep things bottled
up inside, which is a ridiculous thing
to say because feelings don’t have
mass, and also they are not doctors.
I would have liked to go to Kit’s
dad’s funeral, if only because he was
also on my Nice List, and I assume
when someone on your Nice List dies,
you should go to their funeral. Kit’s
dad, Dr. Lowell is—was—my dentist,
and he never complained about my
noise-canceling headphones getting in
the way of his drill. He always gave me
a red lollipop after a cleaning, which
seems counterintuitive and yet was
always appreciated.
I look at Kit. She doesn’t look
messy—in fact, she seems better
groomed than usual and is wearing a
man’s white button-down shirt that
looks recently ironed. Her cheeks are
pink, and her eyes are a little wet, and I
turn away because she is breathtakingly beautiful and therefore very hard
to look at.
“I wish someone had told me,
because I would have gone to his
funeral. He used to give me lollipops,”
I say. Kit stares straight ahead, doesn’t
respond. I take this to mean I should
keep talking.
“I don’t believe in heaven. I’m with
Richard Dawkins on that one. I think
it’s something people tell themselves
to make the finality of death less
scary. At the very least, it seems
highly unlikely to me in the angelsand-white-cloud iteration you hear
about. Do you believe in heaven?” I
ask. Kit takes a bite of her sandwich,
still doesn’t turn her head. “I doubt it,
because you are a highly intelligent
“No offense or anything, but would
you mind if we didn’t talk?” she asks.
I’m pretty sure this is not a question
she wants me to answer, but I do anyway. Miney has put the expression no
offense on the Be Wary List. Apparently bad things usually follow.
“I’d prefer it, actually. But I’d like to
say just one last thing: Your dad
shouldn’t have died. That’s really
Kit nods, and the commas of her
hair shake.
“Yup,” she says. And then we eat the
rest of our sandwiches—mine peanut
butter and jelly since it’s Monday—in
But good silence.
I think.
I don’t really know why I decide not to
sit with Annie and Violet at lunch. I
can feel their eyes on me when I pass
right by our usual table, which is at the
front of the caf, the perfect table
because you can see everyone from
there. I always sit with them. Always.
We are best friends—a three-person
squad since middle school—and so I
realize I’m making some sort of grand
state- ment by not even waving hello. I
just knew as soon as I came in and saw
them huddled together talking and
laughing and just being so normal, like
nothing had changed at all—and yes, I
realize that nothing has changed for
them, that their families are no more
or less screwed up than they were
before my life imploded—that I
couldn’t do it. Couldn’t sit down, take
out my turkey sandwich, and act like I
was the same old reliable Kit. The one
who would make a self-deprecating
joke about my shirt, which I’m wearing
in some weird tribute to my dad, a silly
attempt to feel closer to him even
though it makes me feel like even more
of an outcast and more confused about
the whole thing than I was before I put
it on. Just the kind of reminder I don’t
need. Like I could actually forget, for
even a single minute.
I feel stupid. Could that be what
grief does to you? It’s like I’m walking
around school with an astronaut’s helmet on my head. A dome of dullness as
impenetrable as glass. No one here
understands what I’m going through.
How could they? I don’t even understand it.
It seemed safer somehow to sit over
here, in the back, away from my friends,
who have clearly already moved on to
other important things, like whether
Violet’s thighs look fat in her new highwaisted jeans, and away from all the
other people who have stopped me in
the hall over the past couple of weeks
with that faux-concerned look on their
faces and said: “Kit, I’m like so, so, so
sorry about your daaaad.” Everyone
seems to draw out the word dad like
they are scared to get beyond that one
sentence, to experience the conversational free fall of what to say next that
inevitably follows. My mom claims that
it’s not our job to make other people feel
comfortable—this is about us, not
them, she told me just before the
funeral—but her way, which is to weep
and to throw her arms around sympathetic strangers, is not mine. I have not
yet figured out my way.
Actually I’m starting to realize there
is no way.
Certainly I’m not going to cry,
which seems too easy, too dismissive.
I’ve cried over bad grades and being
grounded and once, embarrassingly,
over a bad haircut. (In my defense,
those bangs ended up taking three
very long awkward years to grow out.)
This? This is too big for woe-is-me
silly girl tears. This is too big for
Tears would be a privilege.
I figure sitting next to David
Drucker is my best bet, since he’s so
quiet you forget he’s even there. He’s
weird—he sits with his sketchbook
and draws elaborate pictures of fish—
and when he does talk, he stares at
your mouth, like you might have
something in your teeth. Don’t get me
wrong: I feel awkward and uncomfortable most of the time, but I’ve
learned how to fake it. David, on the
other hand, seems to have completely
opted out of even trying to act like
everyone else.
I’ve never seen him at a party or at a
football game or even at one of the
nerdy after-school activities he might
enjoy, like Math Club or coding. For
the record, I’m a huge fan of nerdy
after-school activities since they’ll be
good for my college ap- plications,
though I tend toward the more literary
and therefore ever-so-slightly cooler
variety. The truth is I’m kind of a big
nerd myself.
Who knows? Maybe he’s on to
something by tuning the rest of us out.
Not a bad high school survival strategy. Showing up every day and doing
his homework and rocking those giant
noise-canceling headphones—and
basically just waiting for high school to
be over with.
I may be a little awkward, sometimes a bit too desperate to be liked—
but until everything with my dad, I’ve
never been quiet. It feels strange to sit
at a table with just one other person,
for the noise of the caf to be something
that I want to block out. This is the
opposite of my own previous survival
strategy, which was to jump headfirst
into the fray.
Oddly enough, David has an older
sister, Lauren, who, until she graduated last year, was the most popular
girl in school. His opposite in every
way. President of her class and homecoming queen. (Somehow she managed to make something that clichéd
seem cool again in her hipster ironic
way.) Dated Peter Malvern, who every
girl, including me, used to worship
from afar because he played bass guitar and had the kind of facial hair
that most guys our age are incapable
of growing. Lauren Drucker is a living legend—smart and cool and
beautiful—and if I could reincarnate
as anyone else, just start this whole
show over again and get to be someone different, I would choose to be
her even though we’ve never actually
met. No doubt she’d look awesome
with bangs.
I’m pretty sure that if it hadn’t been
for Lauren, and the implicit threat that
she would personally destroy anyone
who made fun of her younger brother,
David would have been eaten alive at
Mapleview. Instead he’s been left
alone. And I mean that literally. He is
always alone.
I hope I’m not rude when I tell him
I don’t feel like talking; fortunately he
doesn’t seem offended. He might be
strange, but the world is shitty enough
without people being shitty to each
other, and he has a point about the
whole heaven thing. Not that I have
any desire to talk to David Drucker
about what happened to my father—I
can think of nothing I’d rather discuss
less, except for maybe the size of Violet’s thighs, because who cares about
her freaking jeans—but I happen to
agree. Heaven is like Santa Claus, a
story to trick naive little kids. At the
funeral, four different people had the
nerve to tell me my father was in a better place, as if being buried six feet
under is like taking a Caribbean vacation. Even worse were my dad’s colleagues, who dared to say that he was
too good for this world. Which, if you
take even a second to think about it,
doesn’t even make sense. Are only bad
people allowed to live, then? Is that
why I’m still here?
My dad was the best person I knew,
but no, he wasn’t too good for this
world. He isn’t in a better place. And I
sure as hell don’t believe everything
happens for a reason, that this is God’s
plan, that it was just his time to go, like
he had an appointment that couldn’t be
Nope. I’m not buying any of it. We
all know the truth. My dad got
Eventually David slips his headphones on and takes out a large hardcover book that has the words
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of
Mental Disorders IV on the spine. We
have almost all our classes together—
we’re both doing the junior-year AP
overload thing—so I know this isn’t
school reading. If he wants to spend
his free time studying “mental disorders,” good for him, but I consider
suggesting he get an iPad or something so no one else can see. Clearly
his survival strategy should include
Mapleview’s number-one rule: Don’t
fly your freak flag too high here. Better to keep the freak buried, inconspicuous, maybe under a
metaphorical astronaut’s helmet if
necessary. That may be the only way
to get out alive.
I spend the rest of lunch mindlessly
chewing my sad sandwich. My phone
beeps every once in a while with text
messages from my friends, but I try
not to look over to their table.
Violet: Did we do something to
hurt your feelings? Why are you sitting over there?
Annie: WTF!!?!?!?
Violet: At least write back. Tell us
what’s going on.
Annie: K! Earth to K!
Violet: Just tell me the truth: yay
or nay on these jeans?
When you have two best friends,
someone is always mad at someone
else. Today, by not texting back, I’m
basically volunteering to be the one
on the outs. I just don’t know how to
explain that I can’t sit with them
today. That sitting at their table, right
there in the front of the caf, and chatting about nonsense feels like a
betrayal. I consider giving my verdict
on Violet’s pants, but my dad’s dying
has had the unfortunate side effect of
taking away my filter. No need to tell
her that though her thighs look fine,
the high waist makes her look a little
My mom said no when I begged
her to let me stay home from school
today. I didn’t want to have to walk
back into this cafeteria, didn’t want to
go from class to class steeling myself
for yet another succession of uncomfortable conversations. The truth is,
people have been genuinely nice. Even
borderline sincere, which almost
never happens in this place. It’s not
their fault that everything—high
school—suddenly feels incredibly stupid and pointless.
When I woke up this morning, I
didn’t have the blissful thirty-second
amnesia that has carried me through
lately, that beautiful half minute when
my mind is blank, empty, and untortured. Instead I awoke feeling pure,
full-throttled rage. It’s been one whole
month since the accident. Thirty
impossible days. To be fair, I’m aware
my friends can’t win: If they had mentioned this to me, if they had said
something sympathetic like “Kit, I
know it’s been a month since your
dad died, and so today must be especially hard for you,” I still would have
been annoyed, because I probably
would have fallen apart, and school is
not where I want to be when that
inevitably happens. On the other
hand, I’m pretty sure Annie and Violet didn’t mention it because they forgot altogether. They were all chatty,
sipping their matching Starbucks
lattes, talking about what guy they
were hoping was going to ask them to
junior prom, assuming I just had a
bad case of the Mondays. I was
expected to chime in.
I am somehow supposed to have
bounced back.
I am not supposed to be moping
around in my dad’s old shirt.
One month ago today.
So strange that David Drucker of all
people was the only one who said the
exact right thing: Your dad shouldn’t
have died. That’s really unfair.
“You’ve been back two weeks
already,” my mom said over breakfast,
after I made one last plea to ditch.
“The Band-Aid has already been
ripped off.” But I don’t have a single
Band-Aid. I’d rather have two black
eyes, broken bones, internal bleeding,
visible scarring. Maybe to not be here
at all. Instead: Not a scratch on me.
The worst kind of miracle.
“You’re going to work?” I asked,
because it seemed that if I was having
trouble facing school, it should be
hard for her to put back on her work
clothes and heels and drive to the
train. Of course my mom was aware of
the significance of the date. In the
beginning, once we got home from the
hospital, she was in constant tears,
while I was the one who was dry-eyed
and numb. For the first few days,
while she wept, I sat quietly with my
knees drawn to my chest, my body
racked with chills despite being
bundled up in about a million layers.
Still, a month later, I haven’t managed
to quite get warm.
My mom, however, seems to be
pulling herself back together into
someone I recognize. You wouldn’t
know it from looking at her on the
weekends, when she wears yoga pants
and sneakers and a ponytail, or from
the way she looked right after the
accident, shattered and gray and
folded up, but in her working life my
mom is a hard-core boss lady. She’s
CEO of an online-advertising agency
called Disruptive Communications.
Sometimes I overhear her yelling at
her employees and using the kinds of
words that would get me grounded.
Occasionally her picture is on the
cover of trade magazines with headlines like “The Diverse Future of Viral
Media.” She’s the one who orchestrated that video with the singing
dogs and cats that at last count had
sixteen million hits, and that great
breakfast cereal pop-up ad with the
biracial gay dads. Before entering the
throes of widowhood, she was pretty
“Of course I’m going to work. Why
wouldn’t I?” my mom asked. And with
that she picked up my cereal bowl,
even though I wasn’t yet finished, and
dropped it into the sink so hard that it
She left, wearing her “work
uniform”—a black cashmere sweater,
a pencil skirt, and stilettos. I considered cleaning up the shards of glass in
the sink. Maybe even accidentally-onpurpose letting one cut me. Just a little. I was curious whether I’d even feel
it. But then I realized that despite my
new post-Dad-dying-imbuing-everysingle-tiny-thing-with-bigger-meaning stage, like wearing this men’s
work shirt to school, that was just
way too metaphorical. Even for me.
So I left the mess for my mom to
clean up later.
Excerpt copyright © 2017 by Julie R. Buxbaum, Inc. Published by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC,
New York.
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