I was at a birthday party for one of my colleagues this weekend, and when editors get together, even not at work, we end up talking about books.

I asked one friend how her novel is coming along, and she gave me a look.

“I’m forty thousand words in,” she said, “and I’ve hated it for the last twenty thousand. Actually, I’ve hated it from the start.”

I’m confident it’s a solid first draft. I’ve read some of her previous work, which is excellent. She’s done tons of research. She recently signed with a great agent, and good publishers are considering her completed manuscript.

And yet I’m also confident that “hate it” is exactly how the drafting process feels for her right now, because I’ve been there too.

I’m kind of there right now, actually. At this point I’m accustomed to hating every manuscript, draft, and edit I’ve ever written at about the one-hundred-page mark; that milestone is just cursed for some reason. But at any other stage of the writing process, feeling discouraged or frustrated with the manuscript isn’t terribly surprising either. I recently crossed two hundred pages in my current edit, and instead of feeling accomplished or texting writer friends excitedly, I just felt . . . unaffected.

My current manuscript is a big book, so two hundred pages isn’t even halfway. Ever overly optimistic about my writing goals, I’d hoped to be done with this edit by the end of the year. At this rate, I’ll be lucky if I’m done by summer. And all the time I’m working on this manuscript, I’m not editing my portal fantasy manuscript, which I’d love to start sending to agents in 2020.

Unsurprisingly, I could offer myself the same encouragement that was ready to hand for my friend. For where my colonial fantasy manuscript is, as a second draft in progress, it’s very solid. In the meantime, I have a completed manuscript under consideration with several agencies I would be thrilled to sign with. I have another manuscript I’m itching to get back to because I happen to like it a lot and think it has promise.

And yet I feel discouraged about my writing these days. Like every other writer waiting for their breakout, my friend and I traded opinions about books we’d read recently that we weren’t impressed with, with the inevitable question, Why are these books getting picked up and published when other solid manuscripts aren’t getting a look? And of course the question behind the question is, Should I really be spending all this time writing when there’s no guarantee that my books will be published and I’ll have a chance to share my stories with more people than just my friends?

At the same time, though, it was reassuring to talk to my friend about our novels. It was good to remember that my discouragement isn’t unique, that many others have trouble seeing their own writing objectively and working at it even when it isn’t fun or exciting anymore.


I haven’t written a word in my novel manuscript since Wednesday. Usually I would find this disheartening, but I’ve learned through trial and error that I actually get less frustrated if I don’t expect to write anything over holidays. I’m also better able to focus on friends and family if I don’t have a daily word count gnawing at the back of my mind. I still don’t feel entirely myself when I haven’t done any writing in four days, but I know it’s a temporary situation and I will get back to my novel and its characters in good time.

In the meantime, with no particular thoughts about my creative or editorial processes, it seems appropriate to use this space to talk about some of the aspects of writing I’m thankful for:

  • I’m thankful that writing can open up imaginary worlds. I’ve read a lot of children’s books over the past four days, and though I may prefer David Wiesner’s Tuesday or Alexander and the Dragon to the Berenstain Bears, I’m glad all of them lead young readers into spaces of imagination. I think it’s important for readers of all ages to imagine beyond what they’ve been told are the limits of possibility or realism.
  • I’m thankful that writing can create communities. Again, the simplest example I’m thinking about is reading books to children, but reading takes place in other groups too. I read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight every Christmas, and often different family members join me and read aloud. In broader ways, whole fandoms and communities grow up around books like A Song of Ice and Fire and Harry Potter. The stories, characters, magical objects, and dilemmas become touchstones that we use in everyday conversation to help make sense of our own lives (Sorting Hat quizzes, anyone?).
  • I’m thankful that writing can transcend time, place, and culture. Through books I can explore Victorian England or medieval Mesoamerica or ancient China. I can engage with how different people have lived and thought throughout thousands of years of human history—or how different people around the globe see the world. Writing is one of our most profound tools for communicating and empathizing with others.

There are plenty of other reasons I’m thankful for writing and creativity in general, but these three points are certainly high up on the list for me.

Jojo Rabbit

Back in 2016 I stumbled on Hunt for the Wilderpeople on Rotten Tomatoes. It was highly rated, it was foreign, it was a buddy comedy—it all sounded right to me. And it was. In fact, I became evangelical about the film. I started recommending it to people and showing it to anyone I could. It’s easily one of my favorite movies.

So I was excited and curious when I heard that Taika Waititi was making Jojo Rabbit, a historical satire about a ten-year-old German boy who is a member of the Hitler Youth and imagines that Adolf Hitler (played by Waititi, who is partly Jewish) is his best friend.

I went to see Jojo Rabbit earlier this week, and unsurprisingly it’s a trip. Especially in the opening sequence when the boy, Johannes, goes to a Hitler Youth camp, the satire comes so fast and thick that I was laughing many times even when I was cringing and wondering if I shouldn’t be laughing. (Is it actually funny that a camp leader is teaching all of the young girls that their sole purpose in Nazi Germany is to make beautiful blond-haired children? Even if the acting and framing make it abundantly clear that the filmmakers think this is absurd?)

As in Wilderpeople, the humor is zany, awkward, and occasionally culturally loaded, so the comedy certainly didn’t disappoint. But also like Wilderpeople, Jojo Rabbit balances its hilarity with real danger, grief, and character growth. Waititi isn’t afraid to gives his characters traumas to overcome (it goes without saying that the traumas of World War II were legion), but it’s the careful chemistry of humor, loss, and hope that I find so appealing about Waititi’s work. In many ways it reminds me of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, which at their best put crazy episodes of love potions gone wrong side by side with scenes of emotional turmoil or even the death of beloved characters.

I continue to be impressed with the child actors in Waititi’s films, and the dynamics between the child and adult actors. Perhaps because there are so many children in my family life, this somehow makes Waititi’s work more “realistic” to me. In a similar vein, I enjoyed seeing Scarlett Johansson playing a normal human being, not a sexy-voiced robot or a leather-clad superspy. Her role is still larger than life in many ways, but her character is hopeful and playful and sad all at once—complicated in a good way.

Of course I trawled the Wikipedia page after seeing Jojo Rabbit, and I do have to agree with the criticism that the film is in places too light. There are too many nice Nazis. Their living conditions, clothes, and food are too nice. I was reminded of a book I read when researching my own Wold War II novel, Frederic Tubach’s German Voices: Memories of Life During Hitler’s Third Reich, which detailed German civilian life during the war. In many ways, Jojo Rabbit doesn’t reflect the realities of World War II, and with such a devastating and traumatic world event, erring on the side of flippancy can be problematic. At heart, though, I think Waititi’s project is one of hope and empathy, and there’s plenty I can learn from his work in how to show the good and the bad, the funny and the serious, together in one place.

Not My Own Voice

While sending out my alternate history World War II novel, I’ve noticed that a lot of speculative agents are looking for #ownvoice stories. This has given me some pause, as the three point-of-view characters in No More Hiding are a Slovakian Jewish woman, a gay German man, and a teenage German socialist. I’m not Jewish or gay or German, but I figured I could mostly get away with it. I’ve read books on Judaism and kabbalah and my own religious tradition shares a lot of sociocultural background with Jewish thought, and I’ve taken graduate seminars on queer theory and have a close sibling who is gay. One of the first agents who asked to see more of my manuscript was a Jewish agent, so I figured my depiction of Anya couldn’t be horribly off base.

With my current pirate fantasy project, however, I’m starting to feel like maybe I’ve stepped too far behind my own experience. It’s basically set during the age of sail, and the main character is half Spanish and half Native American. In the section I’m now editing, she’s visiting with her mother’s tribe, so the cross-cultural conversations and relationships are getting lots of close airtime. And by the end of the book, there are some seriously complex social and political situations between the colonial and native characters.

Obviously, one tries to be sensitive. Although we’ve opted not to align the mother’s tribe with any specific people group in the real world, we’ve done the research to try to make the characters and town feel “authentic” to their time and place. We’ve asked the questions: What kind of houses would they live in? What would they eat? What’s the social structure like? How would they actually think? That is, if it’s even possible to get outside of my own conceptions about what people hundreds of years ago from a foreign culture would think and feel?

There’s also the question—as there always is in fantasy and science fiction—of whether to try to imagine an idealized version of reality, or whether that’s sugarcoating reality. For example, we’ve consciously decided to make our fantasy world less patriarchal than our world was during the age of sail, so it’s not uncommon for women to inherit property or lead armies or rule kingdoms. That’s an area where we’ve allowed ourselves to imagine optimistically. On the other hand, we’ve chosen to maintain a high level of racism in the world, which means characters that I otherwise like and want to succeed are often making biased misjudgments and ugly choices.

At the end of the day, perhaps it’s a good thing that I’m uncomfortable creating thoughts and feelings and dialogue for my native characters. Our world, after all, has a long and terrible history of Europeans or people of European descent making up false and hateful stories about Native Americans. And maybe I’m simply not in a place where I should be attempting to write such characters at all. In my head, part of the essential power of fiction is that it allows all of us—the writers and the readers—to imagine what it would be to live other lives and have other experiences, and through the magic of story to become more empathetic people. But perhaps whether stories truly led to more understanding and empathy depends on who’s writing the story and what the story is.


This week I finished editing the first major magic/action sequence in my colonial fantasy novel. The bones of the scene were excellent (my sister wrote the first draft of it), so I was mostly going through to tighten up the pacing, clarify the point of view, and fill out some missing transitions.

Unlike the stories I wrote in my teens and early twenties, which were full of dragons and fire spells and overpowered wizards, I’ve been working in fairly magic-lite worlds more recently. My alternate history World War II novel has zombies, for example, but they aren’t flashy or pretty, and the “magic system” only works against the protagonists instead of for them. The zombie bacteria also has sinister origins and clearly defined rules, so it is rarely surprising and leads readers straight back to real atrocities during World War II rather than giving readers an escape from reality.

The other book I’ve worked on in the past couple of years is a portal fantasy, so the magic works in more traditional, almost fairy-tale ways. The magic is wondrous to the main character; dragons and monsters roam the world; inexplicable good things happen that can only be attributed to magic. But the magic is in the world and never in the people. There are no wizards, no spells, no fireballs, nothing splashy like Dumbledore and Voldemort dueling in the Ministry for Magic.

Somewhere in the middle of editing my portal fantasy, I remember texting my brother: “I kinda miss working on trashy high fantasy.”

So it was exciting and strange, yet familiar, to edit through a traditional fantasy action sequence this week, complete with ghosts and shape-shifters, pistols and cutlasses, magical animals and spirit light, saints and goddesses. I plugged in a trusty playlist of suspenseful music (heavy on Steven Price’s soundtrack from Gravity) and worked as closely as I could on visual spectacle, movement, and clarity, trying to walk that line so it’s tight without being choppy, in the moment without being confusing, detailed without getting bogged down.

Apart from a few high-drama action scenes, though, most of the magic in my pirate fantasy novel is more in line with my recent magic-lite work. A lot of the magic is more “real world,” adjacent to things that happen (or people claim happen) in our world. One of the characters, a priest, speaks with saints and ghosts or occasionally foresees future events. The magic of one of the native people groups is interwoven with the social and religious practices of the tribe, including magical rituals and sacrifice. Different regional saints and gods patronize and protect the local people.

I can’t say that I definitely enjoy working with one type of magic system better than another. Lighter magic systems demand that more of the plot stems from the characters and their mundane problems and desires, but heavier magic systems often come with more spectacle and excitement. I suppose that’s why I waffle back and forth from book to book.

Richter X Jonsí & Alex

A couple of weekends ago I was lucky enough to see both Max Richter and Jonsí & Alex live in Chicagoland. As fate would have it, they played their sleep albums (Richter’s From Sleep and Jonsí & Alex’s Riceboy Sleeps), although they each performed an additional album as well (The Leftovers season one soundtrack and All Animals respectively). Needless to say, as a longtime fan of these artists, I. Loved. It.

The two concerts were vastly different experiences, which for some reason surprised me. I’d listened to the Leftovers soundtrack before, but I’m much more familiar with some of Richter’s other work (Memoryhouse, Four Seasons, Three Worlds). But the emotional distance from the music was actually helpful, as I didn’t have as many preconceived notions of what the music “should” sound like (more about this when I talk about Riceboy Sleeps . . .).

Richter performed with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble and soprano Grace Davidson. There were only seven people onstage—not all of them necessarily playing or singing all the time—so I could see and hear exactly what each person onstage was doing at any given moment. The clarity, precision, and synergy between the musicians was beautiful and allowed each instrument to take on a distinct role and personality.

Perhaps most striking to me was Richter’s use of repetition throughout the concert. In a TV show, repeating a character or plot theme can be helpful and even necessary, but I’m not used to repeated pieces at a live show. Some of the repetition was (as far as I could tell) verbatim, as in the same song played again later in the suite.  Other repetitions were the same melodies played by different instruments or arranged differently. Still other repetition is built into the musical structure of postminimalism, as the musicians and singer would often play short ostinatos over and over that were then layered over one another.

As an editor, I’m often keeping an eye out for repetition and trying to weed it out of my writing. I already used the word “river” in this paragraph—can I use “water” instead? I already used this tic to show that the character is nervous—can I use a different action or just delete the sentence? But watching Richter perform, and feeling the emotional resonance of the melodies and musical passages change over the course of the concert, I’ve been thinking more about not just removing repetition from my writing but thinking more constructively about how to use repetition to create moods, themes, and narrative structure.

Sigur Rós has been my favorite band since college, and I listen to Riceboy Sleeps probably at least every week. So I was thrilled to see Jonsí & Alex live, especially backed by an orchestra and choir. As I mentioned, I had a little trouble getting over my fanboy impulse that the live performance “should” sound exactly like the album, but the different live interpretations gave me a new appreciation for tracks like “Chapter One” and “Daniell in the Sea.”

In stark contrast to the clarity and intimacy of the Richter show, Jonsí & Alex performed with probably fifty people, the sweeping dreamscapes of their music coming from indefinable places onstage, wavering in and out of colored lights and fog. A clear piano line or Jonsí’s signature falsetto improvising over the melody would occasionally break through, a spotlight helpfully guiding the audience to its source.

While the Richter show felt like a “character piece,” Jonsí and Alex were pretty much the only clear characters at their show, existing in a musical landscape of lush, expansive choral and orchestral movements. More abstract, it felt almost too big to get my arms around. In writer’s terms, I suppose I might call it a rush of warm, embracing description without much plot, but it’s beautiful and so quietly joyful that you don’t mind one bit.

The Popol Vuh

I stumbled across the Popol Vuh on Wikipedia of all places. I was editing a manuscript that partly takes places in Guatemala, and the American main characters come across people speaking K’iche’. I had never heard of the people group or language before and went online to do some basic fact-checking. Fifteen minutes later I had ordered a copy of Michael Bazzett’s poetic translation of the Popol Vuh from Milkweed Editions, and a few days later I had the book in my hands, complete with a handwritten thank-you note from a sales associate. (From one indie publisher to another, I have to say that it was a nice touch.)

The Popol Vuh, which means “book of the people” or “book of the council,” has a complicated transmission history. The K’iche’ original has been lost, and we only have the text because of Dominican friar Francisco Ximénez’s eighteenth-century translation into Spanish. Understandably given book burnings and European violence against Native American literary cultures, many critics have distrusted the accuracy of Ximénez’s translation. But recent archaeological discoveries of ancient stone murals depicting scenes from the Popol Vuh have helped solidify its reputation, and it’s a fascinating glimpse into a time and culture very unlike and yet very like our own.

Like any translator, Bazzett had to make compromises in rendering the text in poetic English, but he is open about them in his introduction. Most notably, he has excised the kingly genealogy at the end, which links the mythical figures of the Popol Vuh to the dynasties of historical K’iche’ leaders. Without this section, Bazzett’s Popol Vuh divides nicely into a creation narrative, where the gods frame and shape the world, and a heroic narrative of the twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque, whose deeds prepare the way for the very first dawn. At the end, the Popol Vuh leaves Hunahpu and Xbalanque behind to tie up the cosmic story of the world’s first humans and the first sunrise.

I picked up the Popol Vuh for research, to add some ground and depth for the made-up native tribes in the pirate fantasy novel I’m writing. And culturally the Popol Vuh was eye-opening and far different from the cosmic narrative of creation and redemption I’ve lived with my whole life (which is Middle Eastern in origin). I’m not used to creation stories including mosquitos biting gods, or houses full of jaguars, or great macaws pretending to be the sun. The foreignness reached a peak for me when the lords of the underworld got upset because One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu were making such a racket above them playing ball, so the lords of Xibala sent their demon owls to invite the brothers down to hell to settle the argument over a ballgame.

The writing style itself feels bare and almost alien to me as a contemporary reader, and probably wouldn’t fly in twenty-first-century prose. But a lot of the basic human questions posed by the text—why are people here? What do we do in the face of pride and misplaced power? How do we reconcile ourselves to the loss of our loved ones?—still resonate deeply. The literary structure is a complex weave of themes and wordplays that require additional notes for the English reader to understand, but the way the story comes full circle through multiple generations of demigods and how this leads to the dawn of the first day shows a delicate layering of character arc and plot climax that does feel very modern. I suppose it’s a pretty deep human impulse to want stories of completion, justice, and forward-looking hope.

Deleting Words

I’ve been cutting whole scenes from my manuscript lately. 500 words. 1,000 words. 2,000 words. Dragging my cursor across several pages and deleting them with a single click.

In planning out our edits for the second draft, we made some significant changes to the setup of the story. We moved some major reveals. Changed some character motivation. Foreshadowed some plot points more clearly and removed others.

So now that I’m a good 140 pages into the edits and past the inciting incident, I’m running up against scenes and conversations that are outdated. Characters are reacting to and processing events that no longer take place. They’re skirting around difficult questions that have been thoroughly answered. They’re arguing over issues that haven’t been broached yet.

Deleting material can be bittersweet. I worked hard for every one of those words, carefully kept track of them during the initial drafting to meet my daily and monthly goals. But with all the extra scenes we’ve added in the first act, the draft has ballooned well past 450 manuscript pages. We always intended an epic story line, but we also want the thing to be publishable. So deleting thousands of words at a time is reassuring, must surely help with the pacing and the shape of the manuscript as a whole.

Of course there are the details, the sentences and paragraphs, that I want to keep. This description of Father Arias’s magical insight into the well-being of a family house. That telling exchange of dialogue between a young adventurer and his mother before he left home. For the most part I’ve tried to keep these, copying and pasting them to other places in the manuscript where they might also work, where I could transplant them without noticeable disruption.

Still, cutting scenes often comes with a little sinking feeling. It’s the rare scene that I can remove without having to replace it with something else. And drafting new material is always slower than editing something that already exists. The new words inevitably sound less formed, less supposed to be there to my ears, because I just made them up, and they weren’t already on the page. And even though I remind myself that readers won’t know where all the stitches are—where I added words, cut them, smoothed out the transitions—I know where they are, and I’ll still see them when I work through the manuscript next time for copyediting.

I’m still learning that it doesn’t pay to get caught up in the feelings of cutting scenes, whether I’m congratulating myself for being a tough editor on my own work or feeling sorry for myself that I’m going to have to write something new and make less progress today than I wanted to. Neither helps me make the manuscript better. And at the end of the day, I’m still a little further than I was yesterday. Slowly, I’m still getting closer to having an edited manuscript on my hands.

My Name Is Michael Holbrook by MIKA

Earlier this month British pop singer-songwriter MIKA dropped his latest album, My Name Is Michael Holbrook. I’ve been happily singing along with MIKA hits since 2007’s Life in Cartoon Motion, and my brother and I have threatened friends on multiple occasions that we’d do a karaoke duet of “Grace Kelly.” I also have fond memories of singing “Rain” at the top of my lungs with my sister and brother on our way to or from the airport one night. Somehow I completely missed The Origin of Love (2012), but No Place in Heaven (2015) was my soundtrack for driving to my summer internship at a publishing house. Needless to say, I was excited about MIKA’s newest release and have been listening to it moderately obsessively.

I will leave it to the good folks at Pitchfork and Riff for all the musical analysis, from the nods to Queen in “Tiny Love” to the rapid stylistic morphing from Euro lounge in “Sanremo” to dreamy orchestral in “Tiny Love Reprise.” For me, what I have always enjoyed about MIKA is his ability to capture whole stories in very small spaces, and his well-exercised vocal and emotional ranges—all of which are on display in his latest album.

When I think of MIKA’s storytelling, songs like “Blame It on the Girls” and “Good Wife” come to mind. Apparently MIKA must be prone to people telling him their sob stories, and in just a few lines of verse, he can give me a strong image of a man grieving his divorce or complaining about the tiny problems in his first-world life. My Name Is Michael Holbrook is full of these quickly drawn stories, though nowadays MIKA seems to be a participant rather than an observer in the stories, such as the Italian getaway in “Sanremo” or finding his sister (“Paloma”) after she fell out of a window and was badly injured.

The emotional and sonic range of his latest album delivers as well. In the gentle piano and strings of “Paloma” and the stripped-back “Blue”—which features MIKA’s voice barely accompanied by pads and harmony lines—MIKA explores disappointment, sadness, and trauma. But he sings just as comfortably on the bombastic “Platform Ballerinas,” a female-empowerment dance anthem, and “Stay High,” the penultimate track which turns the meditative lyrics from opener “Tiny Love” into an insistent, upbeat promise of forward progress.

At the end of the day, my two favorite tracks are “Dear Jealousy” and “Tiny Love Reprise.” In his open letter to jealousy, MIKA discusses jealousy’s destructive force on his personal and professional lives (“I can’t even write a song / If you’re standing over me”). I’ve been becoming more and more conscious of envy in my life lately, so this one hits me personally, never mind that the song is slinky and catchy and features, near the end, an apocalyptic-sounding background choir. “Tiny Love Reprise” is the track that blows me away, though, deftly tying together the relational and emotional themes of the album in just over four minutes. Featuring his sister, a sweeping strings section, and an adorable British boys’ choir, the final track leaves listeners with the assurance that the love we each experience in our lives, no matter how insignificant it looks to others, is enough.

Paradise by Toni Morrison

I listened to the audiobook of Toni Morrison’s Paradise (1997) while road-tripping last weekend up to Mackinac Island. Morrison read the audiobook herself, which added a layer of intonation and timing to the prose that I enjoyed. But the text is dense enough—with nonlinear storytelling, complex POVs, and lots of allusions—that I’m pretty sure I also missed some things because I couldn’t reread passages. I checked the plot synopsis on Wikipedia afterward, which confirmed that I hadn’t caught everything (someone painted a black-power fist on the oven in the town square?) and that some of the questions I hadn’t answered aren’t supposed to be answered (the reader is never able to learn which of the women staying at the convent was white and not black).

I read Morrison’s Beloved years ago, but honestly at this point I don’t remember much except that the book is amazing. I didn’t remember, for example, how economical Morrison is with her storytelling. Paradise only takes six and a half hours to read, but it contains a broad range of characters with many interrelated story lines. In keeping her narrative distance from any one character and moving fluidly between them, she’s able to cover a lot of plot in a little time. She also isn’t afraid to straight-up tell the reader important background or interior thoughts and feelings, though she does linger over significant scenes, painting vivid detail for readers.

Morrison’s narrative control is enviable as well. The plot is nonlinear, and she moves freely through the story’s events, working forward and backward through time, offering one character’s perspective and then circling back to that moment later from another character’s point of view. She allows the reader to see that she’s withholding information from us, but she slowly feeds it to us if we are willing to trust the story and hold on to the facts we do know. In some ways it reminded me of films like Christopher Nolan’s Memento, and I would be curious to reread Paradise sometime to better see how carefully Morrison foreshadows the book’s fallout and themes from the very beginning.

As a speculative fiction writer, I was curious to see light fantastical elements throughout the book. Beloved, famously, features the ghost of Sethe’s daughter as a central figure. In Paradise, Lone DuPres teaches Consolata enough magic that she is able to resuscitate Soane’s son after a fatal car crash, and Consolata in turns performs some magic with the women at the convent. Unlike a fantasy novel, where the magic would permeate the book and play directly into the (positive or negative) resolution of the book, however, magic doesn’t solve any of the narrative’s problems. Magic is relationally important for several characters, but that’s it.

The other potentially fantastic element is that readers aren’t sure whether Mavis, Grace, Seneca, and Pallas really meet up with their families at the end of the book, or if they are merely ghosts or visions. Morrison doesn’t feel any compunction to tie things up neatly at the end, which makes me uncomfortable but certainly leaves me thinking. The intersection of racism, colorism, and patriarchy that leads to the brutal attack on the convent women that both begins and ends the book is clearly traced throughout the book, but the last word given to the women themselves is unclear. Did they survive? Are they forging their own paths now? As a reader, I’m not sure.