Monday, May 30, 2011

trouble is on the road again

About a year ago, a very nice group of bloggers e-mailed INTERN asking if she would like to participate in a "where I write" thingy where you send in a photo of your writing space. At the time, INTERN was feeling very Secretive and declined in what she hopes was a gracious and not too paranoid-seeming manner. However, INTERN currently finds herself in a time of great reflection regarding living and writing spaces. Here, therefore, is INTERN's belated answer.

For most of the past year, INTERN lived and wrote in a 1985 Toyota pickup truck with a fiberglass camper on top. After a three-month sojourn at a friend's cabin, INTERN and Techie Boyfriend returned to their van this week:

Yes, it's beautiful. Here is a picture of the inside:

INTERN's relationship with her van is complex. Like some sort of vehicular monkey's paw, it's come to represent a host of different things to INTERN, a lot of them tied up with her convictions and fears about being a writer. If you want to talk about universal themes, here are some of INTERN's as regards her writing space:

Pride: INTERN bought her "home" with a chunk of the advance for her first book. That little flare of hope and pride she felt in being able to support herself as a writer/editor (even if it meant living in a van) was a precious thing.

Despair: Sometimes, INTERN sees the van as a symbol of her failure to succeed in the "real world" and a reminder that her last three attempts at holding down "real jobs" to pay the rent ended in embarrassing psychiatric kersnarfles.

Freedom: Living like a nomad has given INTERN the freedom to survive as a writer/editor, and provided a context in which her mental quirks don't matter nearly as much as they do in a "normal" context.

Trappedness: The longer you live like a nomad, the harder it becomes to find your way back into a more stable existence. Suddenly, the prospect of finding a place to live and paying rent feels like an outlandishly difficult proposition.

Determination: INTERN and Techie Boyfriend are determined to find a life in which they can write and create and dream and spend 99% of their time together, even if it means enduring the occasional existential freakout on INTERN's part.

On more than on occasion, INTERN has issued bitter ultimatums regarding the van: INTERN cannot live in that thing, INTERN cannot write in that thing (as it turns out, INTERN both finished a novel and signed with her agent while living in or out of “that thing” which indicates that in fact, INTERN can.) If the van has taught INTERN one thing about writing, it's that you can't be precious about it. You won't always have an "acceptable" writing space, or power for your laptop, or a stable environment/life (conversely, if you have a job and family, you might not have as much time as you want). If you want to write, you have to do it anyway.

As INTERN and Techie Boyfriend head off on their next adventure, INTERN returns to her Toyota writing room with a mixture of excitement and wistfulness. The future is more than cloudy—it's completely friggin' opaque. Writing (and writing this blog in particular) are the one constant. And that makes all the despairing moments completely worthwhile.


INTERN wants to know: where do you write? What does your writing space say about you? What's the weirdest place you've ever slept?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

ship 'o' scripts

From INTERN's personal dictionary of literary terms:

The Athenian Manuscript Paradox: What happens when you replace every #%$% detail of your story so many #^@%# times you can hardly #^$%# recognize it any more.

The ship manuscript wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete their first draft had thirty oars chapters, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks scenes as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber writing in their place, insomuch that this ship manuscript became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship manuscript remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.
—Plutarch, Theseus[1]

Over to you: at what point are you still revising the same story, and at what point have you ended up with a completely different book? INTERN wants to know!

Monday, May 23, 2011

thirteen reasons why (it's hard to find the right critique partner)

Why INTERN’s mom is not her critique partner:

“It's a neat story, but is it realistic? I mean, YOU weren't doing those things when you were seventeen—“ *blushes, looks fretful*
“—were you?”

Why INTERN’s dad is not her critique partner:

“Great story. Given any thought to law school?”

Why INTERN’s sister is not her critique partner:

“The second letter in the main character’s name is the same as the third letter in my middle name AND YOU PROMISED YOU WOULD NEVER WRITE ABOUT ME.”

Why INTERN’s grandma is not her critique partner:

“Can you print this again in a decent type size?”
“Like how big, grandma?”
“72 pt.”

Why INTERN's grandpa is not her critique partner:

*sets manuscript on fire by using it as an ashtray* *shoots rifle at ceiling* "Thieves! Vandals!"

Why INTERN’s best friend from college is not her critique partner:

“Du-u-de, the first two pages were so-o-o good, then I lost the manuscript on the beach when I was skimboarding.”

Why INTERN’s highschool English teacher is not her critique partner:

*sighs* “Well, it's not The Sun Also Rises.”

Why INTERN's kindergarten best friend is not her critique partner:

*twirls hair* "Can you make it be about a princess?"

Why that creepy guy on the bus is not INTERN’s critique partner:

“You’re the bomb, baby. Can I touch your hair?”

Why Techie Boyfriend’s little sister is not INTERN’s critique partner:


Why Harold Camping is not INTERN's critique partner:


Why INTERN's eerily smart baby cousin is not her critique partner:

*drools on manuscript* *writes 20-point editorial letter analyzing manuscript's flaws from a post-Lacanian perspective*

Why the People In White Coats are not INTERN's critique partners:

"You do know that writing obsessively is a sign of mania? Let's get you on Depakote, shall we?"*

*happy mental health month and happy monday!


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

thoughts on universals

If INTERN has been rather absent from the blogosphere over the past week or so, it's because she has been deep in her basement Book Laboratory conducting experiments and pondering the notion of universals in literature. What does it mean for a novel or memoir to have “universally relevant themes” or for a character to be “universally relatable”? These are terms that pop up pretty frequently in agents’ wishlists for the perfect manuscript, but they can be pretty mystifying until you get the hang of them. If you're not sure what's universally relatable about your story, how do you find out? And what can we learn about universal themes from books that already have them?

INTERN is no Donald Maass (for one thing, her grin is much toothier), but she’s found it helpful to boil down the first question to the following theme-finding formula:

“Not everyone can relate to x, but most people can relate to y.”

Actually, here’s an even better way of putting it:

“Not all readers can relate to (specific thing), but most readers can relate to (general thing).”

Here are some examples:

Not everyone can relate to being a blind ballet dancer, but most people can relate to the struggle to overcome adversity.

Not everyone can relate to being a spaceman with a troubled past, but most people can relate to the yearning to atone for past mistakes.

Not everyone can relate to being a widowed painter who falls in love with the town fire chief, but most people can relate to the bittersweetness of learning to love again following a heartbreak.

See what INTERN means? No matter what your novel or memoir is about (growing up on the prairie, solving international murder mysteries, being a teenage runaway, etc.) you can always rephrase it in its most general terms, otherwise known as its themes.

Think about having a beer with your best friends. Best Friend A is thinking about quitting her job to become a stand-up comedian. Best friend B just found out his girlfriend’s pregnant. Even though your life is completely different from theirs, you can relate to their feelings of uncertainty, hope, and facing big decisions. These are universal feelings that can be applied to a million different specific situations.


Once you’ve identified the elements that make your novel or memoir universally relatable, how can you tell if your novel has succesfully brought these themes out?

Again, INTERN is no expert, but after a couple weeks of experimentation she has developed the following Theme Test:

When you’re reading through your manuscript, are there places where you could pull out a sentence or two that would still be deeply meaningful if you encountered them outside the context of your manuscript?

Or put more simply:

Are there any sentences in your manuscript that a reader would want to scrawl on her bedroom wall or get tattooed across her back?

Here are some examples:

In One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, we can pull quotes like:

"Man, when you lose your laugh you lose your footing."


"If you don't watch it people will force you one way or the other, into doing what they think you should do, or into just being mule-stubborn and doing the opposite out of spite."

If you’ve never read One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, these quotes still convey a powerful message. They stand alone, even taken apart from the specifics of the story. They’re universally relatable.

Now, go back to your own manuscript. Can you pull out any quotes that are absolutely intrinsic to your characters, but are also somehow able to stand on their own? If not, you probably need to strengthen your manuscript’s themes.


That’s it for today! INTERN will now retire to her secret underground Book Laboratory to ponder some more.

Edit: Techie Boyfriend points out that this post makes it sound like the key to Universal Themery is to insert lots of Deep Quotes throughout your ms. INTERN is horrified to think that this might be the message that came across in this post! All INTERN meant to say is that *one* thing she has noticed (out of many, many factors that go into the making of strong themes) is a pattern, in some books, of character thoughts/dialogue that are intrinsic to the story while somehow being able to resonate outside the context of the story/book.

INTERN is a total spazz case right now! Hope this clears things up!

PS: For more thoughts on theme (and examples from several books) see this post by Sarah at the Greenhouse Literary Agency.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

the curious incident of the RATTLESNAKE in the night

CAUTION: Do not read this post if you are squeamish about snakes or the ingestion thereof. Thank you.

INTERN has not written much here about her life at the ranch, but last week there was an Incident so utterly...unusual...that INTERN cannot help but share it here. Also, because she has been telling you about rattlesnakes and she wants you to know she's really not exaggerating.

INTERN always suspected the cabin wasn't snakeproof.

Then one night, her suspicions were confirmed.

In case you are wondering, that is a diamondback rattler. On INTERN's kitchen floor*.

Alerted by INTERN's cries of OH FUCK calm demeanor, the Ranch Hands rushed in and dispatched it**. In case you are wondering, that is the rattler's actual HEAD. (it's dead in this picture).

Now, the rule at the ranch is if you dispatch a wild creature, you're not allowed to waste it. Next thing INTERN knew, she found herself in the middle of a chicken-fried rattlesnake cook-off. INTERN shits you not.

It was the grossest thing ever. And also kind of bad-ass. And even though INTERN is not a meat eater, it made her feel better to see that snake go to good use after it was dead.

Since then, INTERN has seen at least one snake every single day. But she is a little less afraid of them now.

*Full disclosure: INTERN took this picture after the rattlesnake was already dead. When it was alive, she was too busy having a heart attack to grab her camera.

**INTERN is not generally in favor of dispatching wild creatures, but the Ranch Hands do not share her qualms when it comes to kitchen snakes.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Week 'o' Critique Part 2: How to Revise (When You'd Rather Just Drink)

In Monday’s post, INTERN talked about the 14 stages of Critique Acceptance. Today, she’ll focus in depth on #6: paralysis.

Getting a critique of your work-in-progress can feel a bit like getting your plans for your dream house torn apart reviewed by your architect friend. OK, so you always had a feeling that putting a spiral staircase from the bathroom to the balcony didn’t really make sense, but now here’s this outside person telling you that you also need to widen the doors, raise the ceilings, and put in a chimney to go with that fireplace.

How the hell are you supposed to build your house with all these new constraints? How do you even get started? Will it still look even remotely close to the house you envisioned?

Maybe you are a person who picks up a pencil and gets started. Or maybe you find yourself circling the drafts again and again as your brain threatens to explode from the sheer complexity of the task ahead.

Eventually, however, you have to do something. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck with a cramped, dark, smoke-filled hobbit house and no one will come to visit.

With that in mind, here is INTERN’s secret strategy for dealing with paralysis, listlessness, or Work Avoidance of any sort:

Focus on what you can do.

If you’re feeling too paralyzed to even think about revision, take out a highlighter and highlight all the pages, paragraphs, or individual sentences that don’t need revising. Easy! Fun! It’s just like coloring!

If you’re too afraid of screwing up to start re-writes, make notes. You can’t screw up notes, can you?

If you’re too daunted to think about the high-level issues, go through your manuscript and fix the continuity errors. Or the screwed-up days and dates. Or other nonthreatening, fixable stuff.

If you’re too stumped to write scenes, write sentences. If you’re too scared to write sentences, write words.

There’s always something you can do.

Yes, all you’re doing is avoiding the real work.

Or are you?


Special Ed-sounding tasks like highlighting your good sentences might sound like a waste of time. But the point of these tasks isn’t to make Crucial Advances. The point is to get the ball rolling.

For INTERN, these dumb, easy tasks are like a gateway drug into the real work. Scribbled notes have a way of turning into scenes, and the process of fixing superficial errors has the pleasant side effect of sparking Real Insights.

So that’s INTERN’s secret for getting over paralysis. What’s yours?

Monday, May 9, 2011

Week 'o' Critique, Part 1: The 14 Stages of Critique Acceptance

1. Anticipation

“Critique is finally here! Oh yesh oh yesh oh yesh.”

2. Dread

“Wait a second. What if Critiquer thought my manuscript was A CHEESY OVERWRITTEN TRAINWRECK and was pretty much just embarrassed for me?”

*bites fingernails, hovers mouse over critique document without opening it*

3. Elation

*scans first few lines of critique. notices words like “heart-wrenching” and “brilliant.”*

“Oh yesh oh yesh oh yesh. I am a pretty bird. Oh yesh oh yesh oh yesh.”

4. Dread

*skims down a little further to the body of the critique. starts noticing words like “confusing” and “unconvincing”*

5. Panic

*starts skimming faster. notices words like “cut” and “rewrite.”*

6. Paralysis

*sits at computer. gazes blankly at screen. for six and a half hours.*

7. Avoidance

"Critique? What critique?"

*bakes lots of cookies, goes for walks.*

8. Rededication

*sits down at computer. stares at critique. stares at manuscript. plays Eye of the Tiger on iTunes.*

9. Grim determination

*cuts hard-won chapters. rewrites scenes. finally gives in and starts book in a different place just like beta readers were saying all along.*

10. Surprise

*sits up in her chair and realizes that manuscript is actually getting better. a lot better. like, whoa.*

11. Second-guessing

*wonders if this feeling of great betterness is all in her head. wonders if all she’s doing is making things worse. wonders if maybe old beginning was better after all. bites fingernails.*

12. Wonder

pushes through doubts and keeps revising. starts to realize that the betterness is no illusion. starts to wonder how she ever thought her manuscript was publication-ready before.

13. Dread

sends revised manuscript to agent/critique partner/friend. lies awake in bed worrying that manuscript is still a cheesy overwritten trainwreck and agent/critique partner/friend will think she is some kind of hopeless case.

14. Elation

gets e-mail back from agent/critique partner/friend. a/c/f loves new ms and thinks it’s ready.

“Oh yesh oh yesh oh yesh. Oh yesh oh yesh oh yesh.”


INTERN wants to know: Have you ever gotten a critique or revision letter from your agent or writing partner? Which stage of critique acceptance are you at right now?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

thoughts on plots

This afternoon, INTERN is pondering plots. Particularly, she is thinking about how funny it is (and how perplexing) that you can write an entire novel (or even several drafts of a novel) and only realize at the very end that—oops!—you forgot to give your story a plot.

Before INTERN delves into this conundrum, an anecdote. Perhaps two:

INTERN was eighteen or nineteen years old. She had just finished writing a "novel" (in quotation marks for reasons that will soon become apparent) and was flogging spiral-bound copies of it for ten dollars a pop on a street corner in downtown Vancouver, wearing her then-standard uniform of hiking boots, aviator sunglasses and a blue polka-dot dress*. Within a few minutes, she had sold three copies and made a small fortune in ten-dollar bills. She stuffed the cash in her purse and made a swift getaway on her bicycle.

A few days later, she got an e-mail from the editor of a small press in Vancouver. He had read the manuscript and enjoyed the writing style. “If it only had a plot,” he wrote, “I would seriously consider publishing it.”

This e-mail knocked around in INTERN’s teenaged brain like a handful of shiny but mystifying foreign currency. “A plot,” mused INTERN, knitting her formidable unibrow. “A plot.”

At the time, this notion of having a plot was a fascinating but ultimately inscrutable enigma. INTERN put the project aside and spent the next few years writing experimental poetry and the requisite number of failed semi-autobiographical novel sketches (plotless, of course) that fizzled out after a chapter or two, never to be heard from again.

A little while ago, INTERN’s friend who had recently completed an MFA program sent her his novel manuscript. After reading it, she found herself telling him the same thing as the small press editor told her so many years ago: “The writing is beautiful—now, if only it had a plot!”

His response (more or less): “But it does have a plot! My character gets a job at a restaurant. Then she gets in a car crash. Then she stares at an ancient redwood tree and has deep realizations about the fickleness of human nature.”

All of which is a long and convoluted way of getting to INTERN’s point in writing this post: What is a plot, anyway? How can you tell if you have one or not? And how can a book that has lots of events—even lots of action—still be said to be lacking a plot?


As far as INTERN can tell, plot involves some combination of the following elements:

Cause and Effect: What happens in Chapter 3 has an effect on what happens in Chapter 10. That car crash on page 78 doesn’t happen in a vacuum—it creates ripples throughout the story, ripples that need to be resolved in a satisfying way.

A sense of interrelatedness: Characters and events are connected in meaningful, intriguing, and satisfying ways. If you drew a diagram of the connections between your characters, it would look like a dense web (everybody has some kind of connection to everybody else) not a snowflake (the main character is connected to a bunch of completely unrelated characters). That wise old barback we meet in Ch. 1 doesn’t drop off the map the minute she’s delivered her big speech—instead, we discover that her son died in the same car crash as the narrator’s sister.

Similarly, that transcendent experience under the redwood tree doesn’t stick out like an overdetermined thumb—it’s the mirror image of another scene that takes place under a monkeypuzzle sapling, and part of a greater theme that gets developed at an even pace throughout the novel.

Extended Conflict: The MC has an overarching goal or problem that takes a whole novel to resolve.

Yes, you have a car crash and a fight scene and a breakup, but unless these events are interconnected parts of a larger goal, you don’t have a plot—you have a series of events.

This is where a lot of manuscripts fail (including INTERN’s rogue street-vendor “novel”). It’s like being taken for a long, aimless drive and having various landmarks pointed out to you. The historical houses and whatnot are interesting at first, but eventually you get restless and want a burrito.

On the other hand, imagine your karate master has 24 hours to live and you need to drive across the country to receive her final words of wisdom before she dies. Suddenly, we’re going somewhere. The detours matter. If we stop at all, we’re stopping for a damn good reason. And you can quite your whining about that burrito.

Other Stuff: INTERN doesn’t want to get into structural stuff (rising action, climax, denouement etc.) because there are a zillion different ways of writing a great plot and they don’t all follow a classic pattern. Suffice to say that a plot generally involves a series of conscious decisions on the author’s part—the order of events (and the events themselves) are carefully titrated to achieve maximum emotional impact and intellectual satisfaction.

This is why “autobiographical” novels about your college road trip are so hard to pull off—because real-life events don’t necessarily happen in such a way as to deliver the kind of emotional/intellectual impact or sense of interrelatedness that novels require in order to be satisfying. Something to think about next time you feel like writing a bestseller about your unforgettable spring break in Tijuana.


INTERN is certain that she hasn’t taken every element of Good Plotmaking into account, and she hopes that you, her beloved reader- and writer-friends, will help fill in the gaps in the comments. Have you ever realized your novel was lacking a plot? And how did you go about teaching yourself to create one?

*Yes, she looked insane. People probably crossed to the other side of the street to avoid her. But INTERN wonders with some wistfulness if she will ever have the gleeful self-confidence required to pull such a stunt again.

PS: A parcel of Tumultuous Life Events have swooped in on INTERN and Techie Boyfriend all at once (novel revisions, rattlesnakes, and impending hobo-ness being only the tip of the iceberg) so posting will be erratic and/or increasingly deranged for a while until things get a little more settled. Rest assured that INTERN will check in whenever possible and will avoid sleeping in WalMart parking lots unless strictly necessary.

Monday, May 2, 2011

on the quest for the perfect writing cabin

INTERN and Techie Boyfriend's residency at their mountain hideaway is swiftly coming to a close as the owner prepares to rent out their cabin to more lucrative and slightly sinister-sounding Summer People. As a result, INTERN has been spending a lot of time on craigslist looking for a cheap place to live.

"Just a little cabin tucked in the woods somewhere," thought INTERN. "A quiet place to finish those revisions. It doesn't even need indoor plumbing."

With this fantasy in mind, INTERN looked at postings for dozens of cabins and apartments advertised as "perfect for a writer or artist."

Well, it turns out landlords have some pretty in-ter-esting ideas about what writers are looking for in a writing cabin. Here are the features, taken directly from craigslist posts, that no writer can live without:

“on demand hot water”

You read that right, people—hot water's on DEMAND. That means no more formal application process for taking a shower.

“extra-large walk-in closet”

Perfect for storing all those designer shoes writers are constantly buying. No wait, it’s for storing all those bulky manuscripts writers are constantly printing. Or for hiding all those bodies writers are constantly axe-murdering. Or some combo of all three.

“includes satellite TV”

For keeping the writer's significant other entertained while the writer does yet another round of revisions. Because lord knows writers' partners don't have a life calling of their own.


BWA-HA-HA-HA-HA. Oh West Marin, you are too funny.

“single individual ONLY. no guests”

Because writers hate nothing more than OTHER HUMANS.

“stunning spiral staircase”

So when people ask the writer when the writer's book’s coming out, the writer can distract them by saying, “Look, it’s a spiral staircase!”

“plowing EXTRA”

Plowing extra? Plowing extra what? Are we talking wheat fields here? Snow? Will the writer be snowed in with her manuscript if she can't afford to pay extra? Would you leave the writer to starve or freeze, her fingers still poised over the keys?

“BIG dogs welcome”

From what INTERN can gather, this means NYT bestselling authors only, unknown poets need not apply. Snooty, no?

“Previously tenanted by the retired editorial editor of The Providence Journal!”

Come on, writers—that’s, like, second only to living in Jack Kerouac’s house.

“am looking for “normal” couple to live here”

Does that mean Techie Boyfriend can’t wear a dress?

“wood burning fireplace”

Don’t you mean, rejection letter-burning fireplace?


Suffice to say, INTERN has not found the perfect writing cabin yet. If anyone is skimming the classifieds and happens to see one, please pass it along.*

*but no plowing of any kind. please.