A Great Writing Workshop

I was lucky enough to attend a workshop taught by Jack Skillingsted and Nancy Kress over the weekend about “Writing in Scenes”. Nancy is renowned in SFF-land as being a gifted teacher, and Jack should be as well (as far as I know, he has done less of it). It was the excellent kind of workshop that balanced advice, concrete craft knowledge, great exercises, and lots of insightful asides that I doubt made it into their workshop notes but really enriched the day. The Clarion West One-day class (which, full disclosure, I am the administrator for), had a range of writers in different parts of their writing lives, and that got me thinking about how writing, in this deep way, never reaches a point where you stop learning. I think that is one of the intangible rewards of writing or doing any art: it is something you can sink into, give your all to, and never get bored of. It is also, of course, something that drives me bananas about writing. In any case, here were some things from the workshop that I found super useful:

1. The tension spine: Jack had this brilliant way of describing plot as this spine of tension that runs through the skeleton of your book, ever rising until the climax. As someone who can get really hung up the nine step method and the three acts and the heroes journey (etcetera to infinity) this was a more useful metaphor for me. Also, I am working (so hard!) on having more tightly plotted stories, so this was an excellent tool for evaluating my works in progress.

2. How important beginnings are: I know this, you know this, your mom knows this, but also it’s really good to remember that for a short story editor, you have maybe three paragraphs to catch their attention. For a book editor, maybe three pages. Polish and rework and polish and is it amazing yet? Make it even more amazing.

3. Sharpen your sentences: One of the delicious parts of reading is coming across fresh metaphors that crystallize some hidden meaning you’ve never been able to talk about. The job of the writer is to delight and engage the reader, and this can and should happen on the sentence level.

4. Sharpen your paragraphs and scenes: A scene works best when it has a good combination of dialogue, exposition, thoughts, and action. Get all that in there and make it awesome. Easy? No. Good idea? Yes.

And for any writers who are reading this and wondering if writing workshops, either short or long, are worth the cost, from my experience they can really shorten some of the time you spend bumbling through the woods on your writer’s journey, but at the same time if you don’t have the funds or time or convenience of geography, they are not fundamental to writing.

More Things to Read

It will shock precisely no one when I say that I read a lot of books, sometimes two or three at a time. In the past three years I’ve been on the Andre Norton Award jury, which means I’ve been tasked with reading a glorious amount of teen speculative fiction. It was amazing and extremely informative about what kinds of narratives are being published right now and what kind of books drive me bananas in all the right ways. Anyway, I’m done and having a YA palate cleanse (though I’ll be back, rather soon I expect) and reading widely. It turns out there is a whole world of books that aren’t about the trials and tribulations of being a teenager in the middle of the apocolypse/multiverse/troubled utopia. Who knew?

Usually, I come to books with some knowledge about what kind of books they are and what people think of them, but I’ve been entirely grabbing random books from the little free libraries that populate my neighborhood and seeing what I find.

Some gems!


1. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

So, why didn’t everyone tell me to read this when it came out? It’s so good, and circus tales are deeply in my wheelhouse. It’s fascinating, from a writer’s perspective, how much every character’s inner life is left off the page and this evokes that wonderful reading experience where it lives as much on the page as in my head. Wildly delicious.


2. Fanny at Chez Panisse by Alice Waters

Charming, charming, no one is shocked that Alice Waters is charming, right? But this is such a tidy book told from a little kid’s perspective about restaurant life and a love of food. I loved reading it and I’m looking forward to reading it to my kids when they are older. Really loved that child’s sense of wonder about how food is made, how bread works, and the love of garlic. Also, such a score at the free library. Thanks, neighbors.


3. Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay

I’m in the middle of this one, but liking it a lot. This is not my first rodeo with Mr. Kay, and I’m enjoying dipping back into his writing which I find lush and romantic in ways that work for me. Historical fantasy can be a hard sell for me because then I’m left wondering about true histories and wishing I was less of a fiction hound and would just read a brick on the Byzantine Empire, but this one feels well researched and immersive.

Happy reading to all, and hope you are finding great books as you wander around the world.



Right Livelihood


I was just listening to Rachel Maddow’s podcast and wow is she a geek about elections. Politics and what you think of her slant of things aside, she is living some right livelihood. She is a huge and ecstatic nerd about all the beltway and campaigning minutiae, and her excitement is infectious. You can almost imagine her being that kid from Wet Hot American Summer spending all summer doing a radio show even when the mic isn’t plugged into anything.

I also happen to watch a lot of Curious George episodes (don’t judge) and one of the surprising and joyous aspects of it is that everyone from the doorman to the scientists to the restaurant workers are utterly gonzo about their jobs and love whatever it is they do. The show imagines and presents to kids this reality where all people love what they do and no one is denigrated for their labor. It’s a bit of a quiet utopia that I adore and wish was more prevalent in the real world.

Today I got to take a long walk on a rare sunny day through the quietness of my South Seattle neighborhood full of all kinds of small beauties and crumbly houses next to brand new ones. Spring was budding out and popping up everywhere, and I ended up at this Mexican bakery run by a family that flawlessly makes tamales, quiche, bagels, and flan. I got an excellent almond croissant and settled into a corner with my laptop and a scene from the urban fantasy series I’m working on which I might describe in three words as “Modern Medusa Mayhem” though that leaves out all the devils in my details. I wrote fast and hard as I do whenever I get to have a walk before writing: it somehow helps my subconscious even if I’m not thinking about my story. I had some excellent ideas that had that ineffable feeling of being true, which is odd since I’m obviously making it all up. Then I walked home and stepped into my other kind of mayhem which is the happy chaos of my family and all the pushing and pulling and meeting needs or not which happen on any given day.

All of which is to say I’m so lucky to have my right livelihood which is wrapped up in a lot of levels of both privilege and sacrifice, and I hope whoever might be reading this has a right livelihood too, or is on their journey to getting there.

All Quiet on the Sparrow Front

I haven’t been posting much on this site because I have been having some technical difficulties. But, all things seemed to be solved so please to be expecting some exciting posts in the near future about writing, books, writing books, and other human related activities.

Parenting and Productivity


(Obligatory cute picture of the first kid and me.)

I wrote a guest blog over at Kiki Cares about being a parent and getting stuff done:


And here’s what I wrote:

First off, thanks to Kiki for letting me do a guest blog on her lovely site! I had the pleasure of talking with her about nannying and loving kids over this Christmas break, and it struck me what deep and profound work it is taking care of little ones, whether you are a parent, a nanny, or someone else important to a child. Today, I wanted to say a couple of things from the parent side of life.

Before I had kids, I thought parents were such drama queens. I thought they were like those kids in high school  who loved to go on and on about how they’d only had two hours of sleep last night and oh my gosh, my life is so hectic and exciting. I felt sure parents were like that. It couldn’t really be that hard, right?

Then I had a kid and realized, holy hell, those parents were underselling it. My days filled up from dawn to dusk with the exhilarating, tedious, and lucky work of getting to be with my kid.  And then I had another one and that wall of work? It just got more frenetic and full and have I mentioned I love being a parent? But it is also the most difficult thing I have ever done, especially because while I get to be a stay-at-home parent, it is not the only work I do. I also do fundraising for a non-profit, am the administrator for a monthly writer’s workshop, and write a lot of young adult and adult fiction. It’s a great plate and a full plate.

What I have learned in the last five years of doing all this? What I want to tell you, and what I want to tell myself? We are not going to get everything done.

We just aren’t. Every day I have things I want to do that I don’t get done, and sometimes that thing should be so easy, like taking a bath, but it just doesn’t happen.

I want to frame any of these moments not as a failure, but the truth of life at this moment. And life at the moment is a bit messy, definitely chaotic, and has more heart and laughter than ever before.

So, here’s what I think we should do. Make a list of all the things we aren’t getting to. Super fun, right? But go ahead and make the list and put every damn thing on it small and big.

Look at this list. Sigh at this list. Blow kisses at this list and the idea it embodies of an organized and gentile life. Then look at your kids and make yourself cross three things off that list. Three things you are not going to care about and are vowing to not get done. Things for today, or the week, or the month that you are not even going to try to tackle.

Then go play with your kids. Crawl around on your floor while you all play the “magical unicorns who can turn into other animal and now we are crabs and now we are kittens” game, or whatever ridiculous and fun thing your kids want to do. Because in the span of your life? The kids will be grown soon and you can get back to all your things. So if you can, if you are able, right here and now? Let things slip and slide. Let them get messy and stay messy even if it drives you a little mad. Forget to send out holiday cards. Let your hair grow long and frumpy. Build that duplo tower that goes all the way to the ceiling and when they knock it down? Laugh and start all over again.


(Obligatory cute picture of the youngest and me.)