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How to Get Gumption When You’ve Lost Your Agent, or, Back to the Drawing Board

How to Get Gumption When You’ve Lost Your Agent, or, Back to the Drawing Board

Today I’m going to reveal something that I haven’t wanted to talk about on this blog: I lost my agent. To make a long story short, he quit his job and started working elsewhere – he is no longer a literary agent. He did this for personal reasons, and I certainly can’t fault anyone for quitting a job for personal reasons, having done so myself numerous times.

Except that it sucks. For me, personally.

Because he was about to submit my middle-grade novel to editors. He had the list drawn up; he showed it to me. Random House, Scholastic, Little, Brown, Puffin, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Bloomsbury, Macmillion — editors from all the major publishing houses were on there. He was actually going to send my manuscript to New York hotshots!! But he didn’t. Because he quit his job and is no longer a literary agent.

Which means that I’m no longer on the cusp of getting a book deal. Now I’m back to the drawing board. I have to, once again, begin the arduous and soul-crushing process of finding an agent.

Back to the drawing board. (I drew this!)

Back to the drawing board. (I drew this!)

I’ve been trying to look on the bright side of things. Maybe this was meant to happen. Maybe now I’ll find the agent I was truly meant to have. I’ve started querying again. While I wait to hear back from agents, I’ve been trying to let go of my disappointment so I can focus on finishing an adult novel I started a while ago.

But things have not been going well. First of all, because I’ve gotten rejected by a few of the agents I queried, which is depressing. (Others are taking their time getting back to me.) Second of all, because I’ve been hardcore struggling with this adult novel and unable to figure out how to finish it.

The other day, I shared the premise of the novel with my friend Daniel, author of the blog The Incompetent Writer. He pointed out some major flaws to the underlying structure of the story. And the thing is, he’s right. I knew about these problems, but I didn’t want to admit to them to myself because it meant a major revision. It meant scrapping most of what I’ve written so far and starting over, which I didn’t want to do.  But now I can no longer deny it… It’s back to the drawing board with this novel.

So that’s where I am with all of my writing projects: slumped at the drawing board with a stubby pencil and a heavy heart.

Me. (I drew this, too!)

Me. (I drew this, too!)

I kind of hated reading the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig (here’s a post I wrote about it), and I’ve forgotten much of it by now, but one part that resonated with me was the chapter about gumption.

Pirsig says that gumption (a spirited resourcefulness) is vital to the success of a task, but “gumption traps” can drain a person of their motivation (and thus their gumption). He suggests two types of traps: external setbacks and internal hang-ups.

Losing my agent was an external setback that drained me of some gumption. But now I’m also suffering from internal hang-ups. Getting rejected by agents and struggling to finish my latest novel… these things have made me worry that my writing is not good enough, that maybe it never will be good enough. Maybe I’m not smart enough or creative enough; maybe I’ve lost some muse or spark I used to have. And I worry that until I have a published book, I’m going to be seen as a fraud. Pirsig might say I’m suffering from the hang-ups of anxiety and impatience. And these hang-ups have zapped me of even more gumption, so that I often feel I’m lacking the necessary motivation and excitement I need to sit down and work on my writing.

*   *  *

Pirsig gives several suggestions for dealing with gumption traps. They can be summarized in the following way: slow down, organize first, take breaks, use the proper tools, be modest, and let go of the pressures of time.

Good advice, though it’s easier said than done, particularly that last one. Plus, Pirsig warns that understanding gumption traps and how to prevent them isn’t enough to guarantee flawless motorcycle maintenance.

But there’s one thing that Pirsig doesn’t mention as a way to refill your cup of gumption: talking to friends and getting advice. Even though Daniel confirmed my suspicions that there was something wrong with my novel, it was also incredibly helpful and motivating to discuss my story with someone else. Hearing his thoughts triggered new ideas, and even though I’m still feeling low, talking to him gave me a  shot of gumption.  I also started thinking about new projects I might work on while I put this novel on the back burner, and it’s been helpful to discuss these ideas with friends as well.

Daniel and Eva.

Daniel and Eva.

I’m also motivated by the following quote from literary agent Claire Wheeler-Anderson, on writing: “If you have a whale of a time doing it, you’re probably not doing it right. It’s supposed to be hard work. Rewarding hard work, but hard work.”

This advice really comforted me. It’s nice to know that perhaps the fact that I’m struggling is not a bad sign.

And so, while I sit at the drawing board, I will do other tricks I know to increase my gumption:  read, take walks, talk to friends, free write, and remember that there’s really nothing else I’d rather be doing.

This is what a lack of gumption looks like.

This is what a lack of gumption looks like.

P.S.  Interested in reading more about gumption?  Here’s a post I wrote about it 3 years ago.

Google Poetry, Predictive Text, and Kids These Days

Google Poetry, Predictive Text, and Kids These Days

Story is…

Story island.

Story is king.

Story is everything.

Story is a state of mind.

Story isn’t over yet.


The above is my Google poem, “Story Is.”  In case you’ve never composed a Google poem, it’s pretty easy.  You just type something into the search bar, and the autocomplete suggestions form a poem.  This idea is nothing new, but since Google suggestions are updated constantly, and autocomplete differs depending on the version you’re using, Google poems are always changing.  According to Sampsa Nuotio, who runs the blog Google Poetics, if you find a great poem, you should be sure to capture it right away with a screenshot.  When I type “story is” into the search bar tomorrow, I might get a different poem.

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 3.15.49 PM

Autocomplete and predictive text are changing the way people type, write, and perhaps even think.  The other day, I was tutoring a sixth grade student who was writing an essay about The Giver by Lois Lowry. He was typing this on his iPad, using two fingers to hunt and peck on the screen keyboard.  “Do you want to use the computer instead?” I asked.  “So you can use a real keyboard?”

“No.  It’s faster for me this way.”

As I watched him type, I realized why.  He only typed the first few letters of each word before looking at the autocomplete suggestions and picking the word was looking for; then he’d move on to the next word. That’s when it hit me:  kids these days are typing in a totally different way than I do.

I’ll refrain from saying that my way is better, although I do think there is a certain grace to having your fingers poised on home row, and a certain music to the clackety-clack of a typist who can reach each key with only a slight stretch of the proper finger.

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 3.17.45 PM

Nietzsche once said, after noticing that switching from paper and pen to a typewriter changed the nature of his writing, that “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts” (Carr).  So I wonder how predictive text might affect the writing process.   If kids are used to typing something halfway and then getting suggestions for the rest, might it be hard for them to write something creative and original?  Will they be waiting for suggestions to appear?  Will they not know how to finish their own thoughts?

Every generation worries that, because of newfangled inventions and technology, the younger generation will become bereft of smarts or ability or creativity.  (See that whole part in “Is Google Making Us Stupid” by Nicholas Carr about how the development of writing, and later the printing press, had scholars of the time concerned about the future of brainpower.)

And when it comes to creativity, there are many writers of previous generations who would turn up their noses at the thought of writing stories or novels on a computer, and yet that is how I compose most everything I write, and I think I’m doing okay.  Heck, maybe the next great American novel will be written by someone hunting and pecking on an ipad.

This is pretty much what my brother, Deven Langston, looks like. Just in cartoon form.

This is pretty much what my brother, Deven Langston, looks like. Just in cartoon form.

The other day my younger brother, the extremely creative and talented Deven James Langston, was talking to my mom about his career.  Deven is a Computer person with a capital “C.”  He was a kinetic imagery major in art school and creates artwork through computer animation, moving graphics, electronic music, and digitally-enhanced photography.  (To see some of the amazing monthly photos Deven and his girlfriend have been making, go here.)

Deven was talking to my mom about starting a youtube channel, which, to be honest, I didn’t realize was a viable career choice, but apparently it is.  I was born in 1981 – a bit too young to be considered Generation X and a bit too old to be a Millenial.  I’m at that age where, although I use technology, I’m a bit intimidated of it.  Deven, on the other hand, is definitely a Millenial —  he not only understands new technology, he loves it.

I look at Deven, and at the awesome art he creates in his free time, and I realize that, as usual, we old fogies have nothing to worry about.  Kids are going to be smart and capable and creative, no matter what technology they grow up with.  Finding a creative outlet seems to be part of human nature, and Google won’t take that away.  Another human instinct:  story.  I’m pretty sure that we will be telling them – in some way or another – for a long time to come.

And besides, if people are finding poetry in the Google search bar, and kids are still reading The Giver, I don’t think we have too much too worry about.

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Middle School Trickery, or, Show Up and Wait

Middle School Trickery, or, Show Up and Wait

One of the many part-time jobs I do to support myself before I make millions with my writing career (ha, ha) is tutor middle school students at a local school. I tutor in a room that is allegedly called The Learning Lair, but no one actually calls it that, so I usually tell kids, “I’ll meet you in that room in the basement,” which sounds a lot creepier than it is.

This basement room is where I always meet students, even if we end up going somewhere else because the Learning Lair is occupied. Which is why I was surprised last week when I was waiting for my 4 o’clock student to arrive and got an email from her mother saying, Suzie* is looking for you, but she can’t find you.


I wrote back immediately, I’m here! In the basement of the middle school! I’ll stay put. Then I waited. Kids these days have cell phones, and Suzie had been cc’ed on the message, so she should now know where to go. Why she was confused? This was where we always meet. Perhaps I had gone to the bathroom at 3:59 and missed little Suzie stopping by, but you’d think she would have waited for a minute or two instead of leaving to wander about the school grounds in search of me.

When Suzie didn’t appear, I sent another email: Still here. In the place where we normally meet. But Suzie never showed. Apparently she had already been picked up by her nanny and was on her way home.

I have a feeling I know what happened. After all, I was a middle school girl once. And middle school girls are sneaky. Take, for example, when I was in the sixth grade and didn’t like riding the school bus because the other kids were mean to me. I would walk really slowly down to the bus stop, see that the bus wasn’t there at that exact moment, and then walk really slowly back up the hill to my house. “Mom!” I’d yell. “I think I missed the bus!” She would then have to drive me to school, and this happened so frequently that eventually we got my friend Amanda’s mom to start giving me a ride every morning.

My mom never found out about my trickery because middle school girls seem very sweet and innocent. I’m pretty darn sure what happened with sweet little Suzie was that she didn’t want to have a tutoring session that day, so she used the old, “I can’t find my tutor anywhere” trick. I know all about that, and I won’t allow it. Not on my watch.

No more middle school trickery!

No more middle school trickery!

Which was why I was really annoyed on Monday when it happened again, with a different student. I had been tutoring from three to four in another classroom and arrived back at “The Learning Lair” at 4:00 pm, or perhaps 4:01 at the latest. But my 4 o’clock student, little Jane*, was nowhere to be found. Soon I got an email from her mother that Jane had “looked for me” but “couldn’t find me.”

I was outraged. This was starting to make me look bad, as if I was some drifting, invisible tutor who could never be found, when in fact I had been sitting, clearly visible, right smack in the middle of the Learning Lair for the past fifteen minutes. I’m here in our normal meeting spot, I wrote to Jane’s mother. I was in another room from three to four, so it’s possible I wasn’t here at 4pm exactly, but please tell Jane to wait for me next time! If I’m not here when she arrives, I’ll be here soon!

These middle school girls, I tell ya. Poking their heads in the Learning Lair, seeing I’m not there, and immediately assuming/pretending, “well, Eva’s not here today. Guess I should just go home.” Obviously they should have waited for me. Or checked back a few minutes later. Instead they made a big show of “looking for me” and told their parents, “oh, it’s not my fault, the tutor must not have showed up today.”

Trust me. I always show up.

Angry tutor face.

Angry tutor face.

There are a lot of quotes about “showing up” for writing, even when you don’t feel like it or don’t feel inspired. Author Isabel Allende says, “show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”

Too often, we writers act like sneaky middle school girls. We open our laptops, but when the writing doesn’t come immediately we think, “oh well, I guess I should do something else today.” We move on, make a big show of “looking for inspiration,” pretend that the lack of writing isn’t actually our fault.

So I have something to add to Allende’s writing advice: show up, show up, show up, and WAIT. Don’t just poke your head in, see that nothing is there, and go on home. Ideas don’t always arrive on a schedule. Writing doesn’t always flow right away. Don’t just show up to your writing desk for a few minutes to say that you were there. Show up and then give it some time.

Trust me. The muse isn’t as punctual as Eva the Tutor, but it will be there eventually.

*  *  *

Luckily, I was able to reschedule with little Jane. We’re meeting today at the Learning Lair, and she knows that if I’m not there at 4:00 pm exactly, she should wait for me.

Woody Allen once said that eighty-percent of success is showing up. Maybe the other twenty percent is being patient enough to wait.


*Names have been changed to protect the (somewhat) innocent

Gimme Gimme I’m Worth It, or, The Gender Gap & Getting Paid to Write

Gimme Gimme I’m Worth It, or, The Gender Gap & Getting Paid to Write

The other day I was jamming out to that catchy song by Fifth Harmony, “Worth It.” You know the one: “give it to me I’m worth it, baby I’m worth it.  Uh huh I’m worth it, gimme gimme I’m worth it.”

“What do they want to be given?” my husband asked, “money?”

“Yeah, probably.”  I was about to say something about how the song was crass, but then I changed my mind. With all the recent talk about the gender pay gap, shouldn’t women be singing about their worth?

"Worth It" by Fifth Harmony. See the video here.

“Worth It” by Fifth Harmony. See the video here.  photo credit.

I recently started doing manuscript consulting. When I told my friends what I was thinking of charging, they were horrified. “Eva, you are worth more than that. You have an advanced degree and years of experience. You need to value yourself more.” They suggested a different, higher number, for me to charge.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I feel bad asking for that much.”

But why?

Daniel and Eva. Daniel writes the blog The Incompetent Writer.

Daniel and Eva. Daniel writes the blog The Incompetent Writer.

Recently, my friend Daniel Wallace, who writes the excellent blog The Incompetent Writer, started a Patreon page so his readers can support him monetarily. Right now he’s up to six patrons for a total of twenty dollars a month, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s pretty exciting since, for years, he’s been doing this for free.

“Eva, you should consider doing a Patreon page for your blog,” his wife, Jeni, told me.

“Nah.  I would feel weird asking people for money.”

After all, I write this blog because I want to, not because I expect to be paid for it. This is the same reason why I write novels: because I love it, because it’s the only thing I want to do with my life. Of course, I am hoping to one day make money from my writing…


The other day, my friend Cari Mollen posted something on her facebook page that I thought was really powerful:

Early in my career I was being paid 60% of what my male coworkers were making, and I had no clue. I’m grateful to this day that over drinks one evening they shared what they were being paid. Without their openness, I would not have realized I was underpaid and likely would not have had the very difficult conversation with my boss that ultimately resulted in a substantial raise.

This is a complicated issue. I don’t believe that my employer was intentionally paying me less because I was a woman. In fact, I was satisfied with my salary until I found out how much less it was than others. Why should my employer have paid me more if I was willing to work for less? Of course, once I had the right information, I wasn’t willing anymore.

[My friend] recommended the excellent book Women Don’t Ask by Linda Babcock to me when I was dealing with this, and it was immensely helpful to me. Yet I still struggle with negotiating and asking for what I want. It feels uncomfortable. I worry about how I will be perceived (and I don’t think it’s a baseless worry – women are judged differently from men for the same actions in the workplace). And sometimes I wonder, why does it seem like the narrative is women needing to learn to be more like men instead of the other way around?

I have full confidence that we will continue to move toward a time when there will be no gender gaps (pay or other). More transparency is a key step in getting us there.


This struck a chord with me. Not so much about the gender pay gap (although I’m sure that exists in the publishing world, just like everywhere else.) Instead it was the idea of being willing to work for less. Of not knowing your own worth. Or not believing in it.  And of course, the title of that book:  Women Don’t Ask (which I now want to read).  It’s true — I have trouble asking for what I want, especially when that something is money.

Money is a complicated topic, especially when you’re doing something that you want to be doing anyway. I am writing for free already, so why should someone pay me to do it? Well, because I’m worth it, that’s why.

To be honest, I’m still not ready to ask for money to write this blog, but this is something for me to ponder, especially now that I’m getting paid to teach writing classes and read manuscripts.  I need to believe that I’m valuable and deserve compensation for my time — even if it’s something I already enjoy doing.  Then, once I believe in my own worth, I need to work up the courage to ask for what I want.

“Give it to me, I’m worth it.  Uh huh I’m worth it.  Gimme gimme I’m worth it.”  But maybe not in those exact words.


There Was No Weaving, or, What We Do Before We Write

There Was No Weaving, or, What We Do Before We Write

The other day I was tutoring a seventh grade boy I’ll call Kevin, and things were not going well. Kevin was slouched in his chair, an oversized baseball cap pulled low over his eyes. I was trying to get to the bottom of this math re-test I was supposed to be helping him prepare for, but according to him he had no review sheet, no notes, no textbook, and his teacher had already left school. He responded to each of my questions sullenly, shifting his body further and further away from me.

“So what can you remember about the test?” I asked. “What sort of problems are going to be on it?”

“I dunno.” Kevin shrugged and pulled his cell phone from his pocket.

“Kevin, put the phone down.” I felt frustrated. I’m a get-things-done type of person who loves efficiency, and I wanted to report to Kevin’s mother that I’d fully prepared him for the test.  Yet here we were, ten minutes in, and I didn’t even know what material was on the test. I also didn’t know Kevin very well – it was our first real session together — and I was starting to think he was uncooperative and impossible.

“Could we go to your teacher’s website? Maybe there’s something about the test there,” I suggested.

“There’s not,” Kevin said. “I already checked.”

I knew that how I handled this situation was going to affect the relationship between me and this kid for the rest of the year. Should I discipline him? Reason with him? Offer him a reward?

Put that phone away so we can do math!

Put that phone away so we can do math!

“Look, be real with me for a second,” I said. “Obviously, you don’t want to be here. I get that. But I’m not going anywhere, so let’s talk about it. What’s up? You won’t hurt my feelings. Just tell me why it sucks so bad to be here.”

“Because,” he said.

“Why? Tell me all the reasons why this is the worst. Let’s list them out.”

He sighed.  “Because I’m tired.”

“Makes sense.  Okay, that’s one.” I held up one finger. “What else?”

“Because I don’t need help with my math.” Kevin’s voice trembled, and his eyes started to water. He put his elbow on the desk and shielded his face from me. “My mom thinks I do, but I don’t. I understand it.  The only reason I got a bad grade was because I made careless mistakes.”

He wiped away the tear that was rolling down his soft, middle-school-boy cheek, and the annoyance I’d felt for him melted into affection. All his sullen “nos” and “I don’t cares” had been a tough guy act to mask his frustration and a bruised ego.

“So you really do understand the math you just made careless mistakes?” I asked.  (The old repeat-back psychology method.)

“Yeah.” He sniffed, and I dug into my purse for a tissue, passing it to him silently.

“That does suck. You must feel really frustrated,” I said. “What would you rather be doing right now?”


“Like what?”

“Hanging out with my friends.”

“Yep.  That’s more fun that tutoring. What else?”

“Playing soccer.”

“Oh yeah? What position do you play?”

I knew if someone walked into the classroom at that moment it would seem like I wasn’t doing a very good job tutoring. It would seem like I was wasting  time, talking about soccer when we could be going over math problems. But if I was going to get anywhere with Kevin, we needed to first build some trust.

“So look,” I said after we’d chatted for a while about soccer and baseball, “let’s just relax for a minute, go to the bathroom, get some water. When you’re ready, you can show me some of the math that’s going to be on the test. Show me what you know so I can tell your mom that you really did understand it, you just made careless errors. And then we can talk about strategies for helping catch careless mistakes on the re-test. How does that sound?”

Kevin shrugged, but when he got back from the bathroom, he sat down and we did a few problems together, and I showed him a strategy for organizing his scratch work. We didn’t have time to do a ton of math, but in the end I was pleased with how things had turned out.



Recently I came across an anecdote from The World’s Religions by Huston Smith:

At one point the art department of Arizona State University decided to offer a course in basket weaving, and approached a neighboring Indian reservation for an instructor. The tribe proposed its masterweaver, an old woman, for the position. The entire course turned out to consist of trips to the plants that provided the fibers for her baskets, where myths involving the plants were recounted and supplicating songs and prayers were memorized. There was no weaving.

I love this anecdote, not only for the ironic punchline, but because this is something we often forget in our fast-paced world of get-it-done: that sometimes you should postpone the thing that needs to get done while you lay a foundation and gain a deeper understanding.

My tutoring session with Kevin was just that.  We had to postpone the math in order to establish and connection and an understanding that will hopefully make our future tutoring sessions more fruitful.

And I think the basketweaving anecdote is an important one for me to remember in my writing life as well. Some days, there is no writing.  But I am reading, I am observing, I am learning about writing, or simply learning about life. These rituals may not result in novels right away, but I am laying a foundation for my future writing.   What we do before we do the thing that needs doing — these trips and talks and prayers and thoughts — are perhaps as important as the weaving itself, whether we’re talking about creating a basket, a story, or a relationship between a teacher and her student.

Worry-Wart No More, or, Six Unfounded Fears About Writing

Worry-Wart No More, or, Six Unfounded Fears About Writing

My husband is something of a worry-wart. He is afraid of nonstick pans because he thinks they release chemicals into food. He is also afraid of breathing in chemicals, which is why he wears a respirator mask when he cleans the toilet. He’s afraid of germs, getting in trouble, eating day-old food, and he once said he was afraid I might get abducted at the library.

He’s also afraid of anything and everything getting stolen. When we were driving cross-country, he brought his deconstructed 3-D printer (which comprised wires and pieces of metal and plexiglass) into the hotel room each night because he was afraid someone would steal it out of the car. “Babe,” I told him, “no one wants that. It looks like a bunch of crap. No one will even know what it is.” (Later I had to apologize for saying his 3-D printer looked like a bunch of crap.)

I’m not saying all of Paul’s concerns are unfounded, but in my opinion he spends a little too much time worrying.

Paul is very concerned about safety.

Paul is very concerned about safety.

And in my work as a manuscript consultant (for more info, see here), I have noticed that some authors let themselves get bogged down with unnecessary worries, which takes time away from the actual writing. In this case, I’m not talking about the fears that plague most creative-type people from time to time: Will I fail? Is this any good? What if I lose my ability to be creative? Those worries are harder to banish. But take a look at the concerns below – these are unfounded fears you can forget about… and use that worry-wart energy instead towards your writing.

What Not to Worry About When Writing A Novel

  1. Someone might steal my idea!

Quit your worrying. Like I told Paul about his printer, no one wants your idea (they have their own!), and besides, they wouldn’t know what to do with it if they did steal it. Even if someone does write a book with a similar premise to yours, they won’t do it in the same way. The Twilight books and the Sookie Stackhouse series are both about mortal girls falling in love with handsome vampires, but they are drastically different books. Your book is going to be yours, and you don’t need to worry. Just write.


  1. I need to get my work copyrighted!

This is something Paul was worried about before I set him straight. No, you do not need to get your work copyrighted, and in fact, this is often seen by agents as both amateur and pompous. As soon as you write (or type or tweet) words they are automatically copyrighted to you and fully protected under U.S. copyright law. Here’s what author Victoria Strauss has to say on the website Writer Beware:

Many authors have an unreasonable fear of theft by agents and publishers–but good agents and publishers won’t risk their reputations this way, and in any case it’s easier just to work with you than go to all the trouble of stealing your work and pretending it belongs to someone else. As for bad agents and publishers…they aren’t interested in your work at all, only in your money.


  1. Is it okay to use real place names? Should I make up fake business names for a real city?

When writing fiction, it can be easy to get tripped up on minutia such as this. For example:

I’ve set my novel in New Orleans, and I have a scene at St. Joe’s Bar. But what if they sue me for using their name? Should I make up a fake name, like St. Joesphine’s? What if someone who lives in New Orleans reads my book and says, “hey, St. Joesphine’s isn’t a real place! This author doesn’t know s*&t about New Orleans and I’m boycotting this book!” OR, what if I use St. Joe’s as the name of the bar, but I get something wrong – like my character orders something they don’t serve there? Maybe I need to get online and look at drink menus for different bars. Maybe I need to fly to New Orleans and spend two weeks drinking in bars as research…

See how this can throw you off track? Well, quit your worrying. It’s fine to use the names of real places. Unless you’re saying something terrible about the establishment (that’s called libel) or making something dreadful happen there (like a murder) then no one is going to sue you. In fact, chances are no one is going to sue you no matter what you write. No offense, but unless your book becomes a best-seller, the owner will probably never find out (nor care if they do) that you used the name of his/her business, and in general, businesses appreciate publicity. Maybe, one day down the line, you could even do a book reading there as cross-publicity. And as far as getting things “wrong,” if it’s something little, like your character ordering a type of beer that St. Joe’s doesn’t carry, no one is going to notice/care. If you’re worried you might make a bigger mistake, then maybe you should make up a name. You’ll have more wiggle room that way, and you don’t have to waste time researching a drink menu.

So yes, it’s totally fine to make up fake names, even in real cities. When people read fiction, they expect that things are going to be made up. If they are reading your scene set at St. Joesphine’s, it’s true they might wonder if this is a real place in New Orleans, but they’re not going to discredit your book if they find out it’s not. So use the real name or pick a fake one and move on to the actual writing of your book.

Paul says, you only live once, so get to writing!

Paul says, you only live once, so get to writing!


  1. I just realized there’s already a published book with the same premise as mine!

See worry number one. Just because it’s the same premise doesn’t mean the author has done it in the same way as you. It doesn’t hurt to read the similar book so you don’t go in the exact same direction, but chances are your book is totally different.

Now, when it gets to the stage of submitting your novel to editors, your agent may not want to submit your manuscript to the editor of the book with the same premise as yours (often editors don’t want to have “competing” projects that are too similar), but that’s something for your agent to worry about. Your only worry should be writing the book and writing it as best you can.


  1. I have a letter/email/newspaper article in my novel. Should I use italics? A different font? Different indenting or spacing?

It doesn’t matter. Do whatever you want for now. If your book gets picked up by a publisher, your editor will decide about all of that later. This is not your concern. Quit your worrying and write.


  1. This first draft isn’t as good as [insert best-selling/prize-winning book here]. Should I give up?

Well of course your first draft is crappy. It’s a first draft! That’s why first drafts are (rarely) published (thank goodness). Let the manuscript sit for a while then come back to it and start revising. Don’t worry, your book will get there. Give it some time and some tough love.


Now that I’ve said all of this, I will admit that there are some things you should worry about.  (How to make money while you’re working on your novel, how to properly query an agent, etc.). But the six concerns listed above only waste your energy and resources. The key is to cast aside those irrational worries so you have more time to focus on what’s really important: your writing.

Because of Paul, I now wear a bike helmet. Because of me, Paul now eats leftovers. It's all about finding a balance.

Because of Paul, I now wear a bike helmet. Because of me, Paul now eats leftovers. It’s all about finding a balance.

Girl is a Bum & Your Idea: Go Big or Go Home

Girl is a Bum & Your Idea:  Go Big or Go Home

I’m still trying to find a good yoga studio here in my new home of Silver Spring, Maryland. My new idea is to join the neighborhood fitness center two blocks away from my apartment. You can’t argue with convenience, and in addition to yoga classes they have barre, Pilates and Zumba. I signed up for a free five-day trial, and last night I went to the barre class. It was okay, I guess. Except it was too easy! When I go to barre, I want my legs to shake and my abs to scream. I want to feel the change in my muscles afterwards. Otherwise, what’s the point, right?

On a separate topic, lately I’ve been trying to organize my computer files, which has proved both overwhelming and impossible. I have hundreds of half-finished or barely-begun stories on my computer, each occupying its own Word document. I have about twenty versions of about twenty different novels, none of which made it past page 100. And perhaps most frustratingly, I have an abundance of Word docs that contain a single phrase or a handful of sentences each. I thought I’d come back to the idea later, but never did.

The other day I decided to go through some of these old documents from the past twelve years and see if there were any awesome ideas I had forgotten about.

But much of what I found was disappointing. In one document labeled “ideas,” I had typed, 22-year-old woman who is involved with a married man and a teenage boy. That was literally all this document contained. Was that the extent of my idea? Did I really think this was such a stunningly great premise that it warranted being stored in its very own document?

Then there was another document labeled “girl is a bum.” In this document I had typed, Girl decides she doesn’t want to work. She likes reading, sitting in the sun, taking walks, etc. and that’s all she wants to do with her life. So she lives like a bum, and an uptight man falls in love with her. Hmm. This was my entire idea? Sounds more like a life fantasy I was having at the time.

Eva with a hobo stick.

Eva with a hobo stick.

I began to notice a pattern with my ideas and half-baked novels from my twenties: they were too small. Either the idea itself was too small (a lot of my early novel attempts were along the lines of “a shy girl becomes friends with an interesting girl”), or the idea was good but the execution of it was too small.

Take, for example, “girl is a bum.” That’s an idea with potential – a character who chooses to be homeless ala the parents in The Glass Castle – but I didn’t go anywhere very interesting with it. An uptight man falls in love with her. Yawn. I mean, fine, that might create some conflict, but we need something bigger to really give this story oomph. These days there are so many books and wannabe-writers out there, you’re not going to get the attention of an agent or publisher or reader unless your story is bigger and better than the rest.

As agent Mary Kole says in her (awesome) book Writing Irresistible Kit Lit:

Most books fail to create emotional resonance because the writer hasn’t built in enough conflict… We want to read about events and days that are life-changing. How many truly core-shaking moments have you engineered for your characters? …If you can’t put your finger on the page and show me where all of these emotional hot-button issues happen, I’m guessing you don’t have a big enough story (37).

I mean, what is the major conflict in this pretend-bum-girl’s story? What does she desperately want? What does she need to learn? What twists and turns and crazy events are going to happen that take her from point A to point B?

In this Word document, I should have brainstormed ways to make a bigger story with more intense conflict and life-changing events. At the idea stage, I should list every possibility, even the totally outlandish ones (the man is actually a vampire who feeds on the homeless?), because, as John Truby says in The Anatomy of a Story, “one of the biggest reasons writers fail at the premise stage is that they don’t know how to spot their story’s true potential (18).”  And when a story doesn’t reach it’s true potential, it runs the risk of being too small of a story.  People don’t want to read about a girl sitting in the sun reading, no matter how beautifully the prose is written. They want a story in which extraordinary, challenging, and life-changing events happen.

Extraordinary, interesting, emotional, compelling and LIFE-CHANGING events... that's what makes a novel!

Extraordinary, interesting, emotional, compelling and LIFE-CHANGING events… that’s what makes a novel!

I now work as a manuscript consultant (for more info on that go here), and I would say that smallness is one of the most common problems I see in the manuscripts that come my way. Either nothing much is happening, or what’s happening isn’t big enough. Why should I care? What’s making me turn the page? What’s the major revelation?

I think a lot of beginning writers are afraid to go big. They are afraid that their story will seem unbelievable if they make extraordinary, life-changing events happen. They make things too easy for their characters.  And sure, writing something that will allow your readers to suspend their disbelief can be tough.  But that doesn’t mean you should play it safe and small.  That just means you need to practice writing big stories that your readers both believe and care about.

After all, what I look for in a book is similar to what I want in a barre class.  I want to shake with emotion, I want my heart to scream. I want to close that book at the end and feel that the characters have changed… And so have I. Otherwise, what’s the point, right?

Maybe I will find a better barre class soon!

Maybe I will find a better barre class soon!


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