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Monthly Archives: August 2014

Should You Name-Drop Bands in Your Fiction?

Should You Name-Drop Bands in Your Fiction?

(Ironically, today Burlesque Press posted my poem in which I quote Nirvana lyrics.) 

I’ve been on a Francesca Lia Block bender ever since I read The Rumpus’s recent interview with her.

First I reread her 1989 classic, Weetzie Bat, a book I absolutely gushed over at twenty-three. Ten years later, I still love the fast-paced fairy tale of misfits in L.A., but it didn’t entrance me quite the way it did before. It was like re-watching a movie you loved as a kid:  it holds a place in your heart, but now you see its flaws.

Next I read Violet & Claire, a YA book from 2000, which was fun and cute and clever but bordered on overly-sentimental towards the end. And then I found myself somewhat annoyed with The Elementals, Block’s adult novel from 2012, which still seemed like YA to me.  I haven’t given up on Block by any means, but I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve outgrown her.

FLB:  Francesca Lia Block, queen of lyrical, fairy-tale YA.  photo credit

FLB: Francesca Lia Block, queen of lyrical, fairy-tale-inspired YA. photo credit

But this post is not a review FLB. She has dozens more books that I haven’t read, and I don’t pretend to be an expert on her body of work. I do admire her and think she holds an important place in literary history because she was writing edgy and lyrical Young Adult fiction before the YA genre was really a “thing.” But that’s not what this post is about either. Instead, I want to use her novels as examples in order to pose a question: should you use real band names and song lyrics in your novels?

Let’s take Violet & Claire as an example. Main character Violet has a fling with the hot lead singer of super cool rock band. Instead of making Violet have a fling with a specific star who would both date the novel and alienate readers who don’t find that musician particularly hot or his band particularly cool, Block creates a fictional band and a fictional rock star:  Flint Cassidy, lead singer of Spent Pleasure. Readers can imagine the hottest star and the coolest band — whatever that might mean to them.

In Violet & Claire, Block uses both fictional and real band names in her prose.

So it’s strange that, after making up a fictional band, Block then proceeds to name-drop real ones. Violet and Claire listen to PJ Harvey and Tori Amos, which helps to characterize them, I suppose: angsty, artsy, alterna-teen girls…but I knew that without the music  references, and I worry that both PJ Harvey and Tori Amos are a little out of date, even for the year the book was published. Still, I was willing to forgive the quoting of Tori Amos songs… I, too, was once a teenager who wrote my favorite lyrics all over my notebooks and jeans and best friend’s bedroom walls… maybe mentioning bands and songs is good thing for the YA genre?

Tori Amos, queen of the angsty teen girls of the 90’s

It wasn’t until I started reading The Elementals that I couldn’t handle Block’s band name-dropping anymore. I wanted to shout, “OK, FLB, enough with the Tori Amos already!” Ariel, the overly-naive narrator of The Elementals is constantly listening to and quoting from Tori Amos songs, and since I don’t particularly care for Tori Amos, it made me even more annoyed with Ariel than I already was.

Ariel’s favorite band, however, is a fictional one: Halloween Hotel. Why, I wonder, did FLB give Ariel a fictional favorite band, but then mention Smashing Pumpkins and Tori Amos and other bands that peaked in the mid-90’s and (in my opinion) tend to make this current novel seem dated?

I don’t know. But I have some theories.

I think writers name-drop real bands in their fiction for a couple of reasons:

1. Short-hand character description. If a character listens to the Sex Pistols, or Vivaldi, or Justin Bieber, we instantly form some opinions about who they are as a person. This could be good or bad, I suppose, but you do run the risk of stereotyping.

2. To seem cool and/or current. Some of the goodreads reviews accuse FLB of this. A reader named Leah said:

Block seemed to shout at the reader, “I know what’s cool! Hipster boys and Tori Amos! I’m still relevant!” I love Tori as much as the next alternative girl who grew up in the 90s and early 00s, but I don’t need her songs constantly referenced in an apparent attempt to seem contemporary. It will cause the book to become outdated quickly.

3. Because they themselves love the band, and, like teenagers who wants to write lyrics all over their notebooks, they can’t help but want to include their favorite bands in their own fiction. I have a feeling that THIS is what’s going on with FLB. I bet she is a big Tori Amos fan herself.

4. Because it adds to the story or helps illuminate a character in an important way. So I’m not saying you shouldn’t mention bands — it could be a good thing.

Rock on, man.

Rock on, man.


The bottom line is, you have to be very careful with mentioning bands in your fiction.  Not only might it date your work, but people tend to be very opinionated about music, and you can’t expect readers to share your opinions about what constitutes good or bad or cool music. Band name dropping in your fiction can also come off a little bit like it does in real life:  like you’re trying to sound cool and impress people.

On the other hand, I personally know writers who use bands, songs, and lyrics in their fiction, and it works for them. Stephanie Kuehnert, who I recently interviewed, named her first novel (I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone) after a Sleater-Kinney song, and the opening quote of the book is from a Social Distortion song. Mentioning real music helps set the scene and explain the characters in this realistic-fiction novel.

Lish McBride, who I interviewed a few months ago, also uses music in her fiction. In Hold Me Closer, Necromancer (a play on Elton John’s “Hold Me Closer, Tiny Dancer” — a witticism that took me nearly two years to get) and Necromancing the Stone, McBride names each chapter after a song title that also has to do with what happens in the chapter: Another One Bites the Dust; Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting; Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car. I think it’s pretty clever and fun, but I grew up in the same era as Lish, and I know these songs; I wonder if her younger readers get the joke. On the other hand, if teen readers don’t get the references, it’s not a big deal because they’re only chapter titles.

In the end, my question is this:

When should you use real band names in your fiction, when should you make up fictional ones, and when should you abstain from specifics at all (for example, writing something like, “she listened to punk rock bands from the 80’s”)?


If I were going to name-drop a band in my fiction, it might be the Rockcats, pictured here.

If I were going to name-drop a band in my fiction, it might be the Rockcats, pictured here.

Dirk and Duck played guitar, My Secret Agent Lover Man bass, Valentine and Raphael drums.  Weetzie and CHerokee and Witch Baby and Ping sang.  They performed “Ragg Mopp,” “Louie-Louie,” “Wild Thing,” and their own songs like “Lanky Lizard,” “Rubber Chicken Strut,” “Irie-Irie,” “Witchy Baby,” and “Love Warrior.”   – From Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block

Selfies, Swifties, and a Spiritual Writing Exercise

Selfies, Swifties, and a Spiritual Writing Exercise

I’m getting ready to move from Seattle to Minneapolis, and hence this weekend was been about organizing and packing and discovering things in random places that I had I forgotten I owned (like some Puss ‘n Boots temporary tattoos), and then trying to decide if I should throw these things away, or take them to a new location where I will most likely forget again that they exist.  (And am I really going to use the Puss ‘n Boots temporary tattoos one day?)

During one such bout of organization, I came across several old notebooks filled with thoughts I had scribbled down and promptly forgotten about. Reading these sorts of things is always fascinating. It’s my handwriting, so I must have written it, and yet I find myself thinking, “did I really write this?”  It almost seems like it came from someone else, and I start to ponder the mysteries of my own identity.

Anyway, in one notebook I had written a bunch of Tom Swifties using my own name:

“My antiperspirant really works,” Eva said drily.
“Would you like me to press that shirt?” Eva asked ironically.
“Did you eat that entire block of cheddar cheese?” Eva asked sharply.
“Let’s get some ground beef and make burgers,” Eva chuckled.

I’ll spare you the rest of them, but let’s just say, I probably have enough for a coffee table book of Eva Swifties.

*  *  *

Speaking of useless books, were you aware that Kim Kardashian is publishing a book comprised entirely of selfies? Unfortunately it’s true. Art book publisher Rizzoli will publish Selfish, a sleek book of 352 photos Kim took of herself and/or her own butt.

Sort of makes you depressed about the current state of book publishing, doesn’t it? Sort of makes you wonder if people’s egos should be allowed to get so inflated.

Kim Kardashian's selfie book.  Read about it here.

Kim Kardashian’s selfie book. Read about it here.

Speaking of egos, recently my finance’ and I were reading about the ego in Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions. Hinduism says there are four paths to actualizing human potential, but all of them involve a distancing of the self from the ego. Because, Hinduism says, this body of ours (even one with a fabulous, famous butt) will one day be gone, and this mind of ours (even one that writes clever Tom Swifties) will one day be gone, and the only way to find enlightenment is to move beyond the confines of our own, small selves and embrace what is large and eternal– call it God if you want.

Hinduism gives several practical approaches for how to practice distancing oneself from the ego. One exercise that Paul and I especially liked was to start thinking of yourself in the third person, not only during meditation but during daily life.

Instead of “I am walking down the street,” she thinks, “There goes Sybil walking down Fifth Avenue,” and tries to reinforce the assertion by visualizing herself from a distance.”… Thinking of oneself in the third person does two things simultaneously. It drives a wedge between one’s self-identification and one’s surface self, and at the same time forces this self-identification to deeper level until, at last, through a knowledge identical with being, one becomes in full what one always was at heart. – From The World’s Religions

Pretty cool, huh?

Also a lot easier said than done.

Still, Paul and I have been talking about how we should try to sometimes think of ourselves in the third person. And then I had an idea: I should write about myself in the third person!

I’m not doing it now, obviously, but I think this could be a fun and informative writing exercise…

Drawing by Eva!

Drawing by Eva!

SPIRITUAL WRITING EXERCISE (Inspired by Hinduism; Created by Eva):  

Imagine yourself from a distance and describe what you look like, how you move, the things you do.  Listen carefully to what you say to others, and examine the thoughts that move through your mind. Write about yourself as if you are a character, not yourself.

I suppose writing a story about oneself could be seen as egotistical, but I think it could be a good exercise, both in writing and in spiritual life.

Sometimes I find that writing in itself is a way for me to distance myself from myself (if that makes sense) and explore what is larger and more eternal. Sometimes, when I read old stories I have written, I am surprised to think that they were written by me at all.

I wonder if, years from now, when Kim Kardashian is packing up to move to the nursing home, and she finds her Selfish book in an old box of things she’d forgotten existed, she will be surprised that she is that sexy girl in those photos. She will be distanced at last from that part of herself.  By this time, her body will be old and failing, her famous ass sagging, and she will realize that she is not her body, or even her mind, but something else that lasts forever, even longer than a coffee table book of her own face.

Eva Langston

I am guilty of taking selfies sometimes, too.  But I’ve never taken one of my own butt!

“I need inspiration for my writing,” Eva mused.

Interview with Zine Queen Stephanie Kuehnert: YA Author and Memoirist

Interview with Zine Queen Stephanie Kuehnert: YA Author and Memoirist

Stephanie Kuehnert got her start writing bad poetry about unrequited love and razor blades in eighth grade. In high school, she discovered punk rock and produced several D.I.Y. feminist ‘zines. She received her MFA in creative writing from Columbia College Chicago. Her first YA novel, I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE was published by MTV Books in July 2008, and her second, BALLADS OF SUBURBIA was published in July 2009. In addition to writing novels, she is a staff writer for ROOKIE, an online magazine for teenage girls. Her work at ROOKIE and her zinester past inspired her next project, a zine-style memoir to be published by Dutton in 2016.

Stephanie lives in Seattle with her husband and two cats. She works full-time in the English Department at Seattle University and also teaches fiction writing at Hugo House, which is how I was lucky enough to meet her. (She was my teacher for a YA Novel Workshop class.) Stephanie was so kind as to answer a few questions for me about her new memoir and her writing in general.

You recently sold a “zine-style” memoir to Dutton Children’s Books, who says it will chronicle your transformation “from geek to grunge to goth to grrrl.” What else can you tell us about the memoir?

The idea for the memoir sprung out of my work for ROOKIE. I’ve been writing for the site since it launched in 2011, and a lot of what I write about is my own teenage experience. (I also get to make playlists, write recommendations for everything from music to candy, and talk about how much I love soap operas and cemeteries).

It was cathartic [writing honestly about my past], and the more I thought about collecting and expanding essays, and illustrating them to make it feel like a zine, the more psyched I got. It was the kind of project I’ve been dreaming of since I was sixteen.

My memoir is going to be a chronological collection of illustrated essays that form the overall story of my life from about thirteen to twenty-four. I’m writing about things like depression, self-injury, bullying, the emotionally and sexually abusive relationship I was in at fifteen, and my addiction issues in my late teens. It’s pretty intense stuff, but it’s also about identity: all those phases I went through, the bands and fashion I loved. I plan for there to be pages that look like fanzines for certain periods of my life.


How has the experience of writing this memoir been different from writing novels?

I sold the memoir on proposal, which is how non-fiction is generally sold, so I have a rough idea [of what it will be like], but in working with my awesome editor, Julie Strauss-Gabel, I imagine things will change.

The novels I’ve written, especially BALLADS OF SUBURBIA, dealt with some of the things I actually struggled with, like depression, addiction, and self-injury. I was DESPERATE to read about those things when I was a teenager, so that’s why I wrote my novels. It was a bit scary to make the transition from fictional characters working through those things to writing about my own actual history, but from the comments and emails I’ve gotten, I know that I’m helping readers with my honesty.


How did you get started writing zines in high school? How do you think being a part of that culture shaped you as a person and a writer?

I discovered punk rock around eighth grade/freshman year and riot grrrl during my sophomore year. I discovered zine culture in those scenes and started making my own the summer after sophomore year. I went through an abusive relationship sophomore year, so punk, feminism, riot grrrl, those were my ways of surviving the aftermath. I was inspired by Bikini Kill, Babes in Toyland, all these zines about feminism that I was mail-ordering. Some of them were so raw, and I felt that raw—reading those zines gave me permission to express that.

This was also around the time my family got the internet… AOL! And I found this whole community of grrrls online. We traded zines, we poured our hearts out over forums and listservs. I would not be alive without that, honestly. And getting that permission to write about my bloodiest most awful feelings definitely shaped me as a writer. My fiction is usually described as raw, honest, edgy—all of that started back in 1995/96 when I was writing zines. Also, that punk D.I.Y./ “do it yourself” ethic has always stuck with me. It’s shaped how I’ve written my books, how I’ve promoted them. With this new book, I haven’t really seen anything like it, but I was like, I’ll find some way to make it happen.


I found on Zinebot this cover of Kill Supermodels, a zine you wrote with some friends in high school. Do you still have copies of your old zines?

Kill Supermodels Issue #3 by Stephanie and friends.

Kill Supermodels Issue #3 by Stephanie and friends.

Oh my god, wow! I didn’t realize that was online! Yeah, I have all my old zines—even the poetry zine my friends and I did, Crust, which was a play on Crest, our high school literary magazine that I thought I was too punk rock for — haha!

We did four issues of Kill Supermodels, which was a straight-up riot grrrl feminist zine that I did with my three best friends. The whole thing was about killing the concept of the supermodel—the tall, thin, white girl beauty standard—not about killing actual supermodels. I made sure to explain that every time because I didn’t want to promote violence against women… but I wanted a really attention-getting title.


What sort of things did you write about in your zines?

We wrote about sexism and homophobia—stuff in the national news at the time and stuff that was happening in our high school. We wrote poems to our female heroines like Amelia Earhart and diatribes about not shaving our legs. We wrote about music we loved and hated.

I also wrote these angry, intensely personal things about having rumors spread about me, and as I started to realize my relationship had been abusive, I started writing about that. Soon I started doing personal zines, and they were deeply, deeply personal. They were about the abuse, about my struggle with cutting, about being bullied, my relationship with my dad, everything.

I did three [personal zines]: Goddess Defiled, Hospital Gown, and Do Not Go Quietly Unto Yr Grave. Hospital Gown was featured in Hilary Carlip and Francesca Lia Block’s book ZINE SCENE, which I was super proud of, but Do Not Go Quietly was the most artistic, and it’s my favorite.


Will your memoir include pieces from your old zines? 

Yes, it will. There will be pages from both Hospital Gown and Do Not Go Quietly for sure. In the essay that I wrote about the abusive relationship, there were certain parts that were best told by the girl who had just gone through it. I might be able to write more articulately now, but the stuff I wrote then was totally from the soul.

Stephanie (on right) and friends visit Aberdeen, WA in 2004 to pay tribute to Kurt Cobain.

Stephanie (on right) and friends visit Aberdeen, WA in 2004 to pay tribute to Kurt Cobain.  You can read an essay about the trip here.


Is there anything you wrote back then that embarrass or surprises you now, 20 years later?

There’s definitely some Kill Supermodels stuff that embarrasses me, mainly because I was so angry about so much that I never took a step back, and I was publicly shitty to some people who I wrongly blamed for things. I was also really black-and-white back then. Like about what made you a sell-out or a poseur. I was a judgmental little asshole sometimes, but hey, I own it now. That’s part of growing up.

The level of my pain is the surprising part and the scary part. I hurt so badly back then that there are some things I don’t remember happening or writing or feeling because I must have blocked it out. That’s hard to revisit, but again, I own it.


You often write about music, and the zine scene of the 90’s was closely tied to music. What bands did you listen to back then? How does music still inspire your writing?

I went through a few phases. I was really into bands like Nirvana, Hole, Alice in Chains, Screaming Trees, Mudhoney, and L7 in eighth grade and freshman year. Nirvana is still my all-time favorite band. Reading interviews with Kurt Cobain was how I discovered so many other bands and musicians, like PJ Harvey and Bikini Kill.

Sophomore and junior year, I got seriously into Bikini Kill, Babes in Toyland, 7 Year Bitch, The Gits, Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy and Excuse 17, which were Corin and Carrie’s bands before Sleater-Kinney. Sleater-Kinney was a band I discovered at the very beginning, and god, they were totally my band—hence I ultimately named a novel, I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone.

I was also really into punk bands like Rancid and Social Distortion, early Green Day, all the Lookout! Records bands. I still listen to a lot of those bands. Mark Lanegan from Screaming Trees, his solo albums are like the music of my soul.

Music is my biggest inspiration for writing. I make playlists to tease out the themes and emotions in my stories. The music I listened to as a teenager, especially bands like Nirvana, Bikini Kill, and Sleater-Kinney are what gave me the strength to use my voice, and today music still powers it.

Stephanie might appreciate this picture I took while on the way to Aberdeen...

Stephanie might appreciate this picture I took while on the way to Aberdeen…


It seems like writing for Rookie magazine has been like getting back in touch with the zine-writer you were as a teenager. Would you say that’s true? What would you like to tell us about writing for Rookie magazine?

Definitely! I responded to Tavi’s original call for submissions for her Sassy-inspired mag for this generation of teen girls BECAUSE it fulfilled my teen zine-writer dreams.

Writing for Rookie is incredible. The community of readers is like no other. It’s the only place on the internet where it is safe to read the comments because they are all smart, insightful, and completely heartfelt. It’s a dream come true to write for our readers AND to work with such incredible writers, illustrators, and editors. I cannot express how amazing our editors are. I like to say that it’s been part two of my MFA program because that is how much they’ve taught me. I’ve become a much better writer because of Rookie.  I’ve become better at analyzing my own thoughts and feelings as well as more culturally aware and informed. Every day I read the site and am in awe. I’m seriously lucky to be a part of something so real, so smart, so beautifully executed. Rookie is Literally the Best Thing Ever.

According to Stephanie Kuehnert, Rookie Magazine is Literally the Best Thing Ever.

According to Stephanie Kuehnert, Rookie Magazine is Literally the Best Thing Ever.


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

Ah, there is so much great advice out there. I constantly have to remind myself that it’s okay to write shitty first drafts. Also “butt in chair” and just WRITE is essential. It’s so easy to get derailed even by social media, promotion, etc., but the key is to JUST FINISH THE DRAFT. And then rewrite!


What’s one piece of advice you would have given your teenage self?

The advice I’d give teen me or an aspiring writer me is something I wrote on one of my group blogs a couple of months ago (just four days before I learned I sold my memoir, actually) and that is to embrace the fact that nothing will ever go as expected. Not life. Not any novel I’ve written. Certainly not my writing career. As a planner, this KILLS me, but those derailments—dropping out of my first college, changing plot points in a story, starting to write non-fiction—all brought me to this awesome place I’m in now. So yeah, nothing will ever go as planned and that’s okay. It will give you new stories to tell.

Stephanie Kuehnert

Stephanie Kuehnert

The “I like my books like I like my men” CONTEST — Win books! Have fun!

The “I like my books like I like my men” CONTEST — Win books! Have fun!

*Check out my post on mistakes writers make on the Carve blog!*




My man and I sometimes go to Jet City Improv in Seattle, and this contest is based on one of our favorite line games. The way the game works is that a suggestion for an object is taken from the audience, like, say, “hamburger.” The improvising actors step forward one at a time and say things like…

“I like my men like I like my hamburgers – big and beefy with a nice pickle.”
“I like my women like I like my hamburgers – with hot buns.”

My man and me.

My man and me.


My contest is similar. The way it works is this:  choose one of the openings below and fill in the blanks.

I like my books like I like my ______________ — explanation 

Writing is like __________ — explanation

Here are some examples:

I like my books like I like my men – they keep me up all night.

Writing is like a unicorn vomiting rainbows — magical, but messy as hell.



The top winner will get his/her choice of a helpful book about writing.  Either the 2014 Writer’s Market Deluxe Edition, or Writing & Selling the YA Novel by K.L. Going.  The second place winner will get whichever of those books the first place winner didn’t choose. And first, second, and third place winners will get their entries published here, on In the Garden of Eva.

Prizes -- helpful books about writing!

Prizes — helpful books about writing!


Submit your entry below by AUGUST 27th, 2014.  (That’s right, people.  You only have 8 days to write one sentence, so you’d better get cracking.)  Give your name and email address, and type your entry in the comments section below.  You can enter as many times as you wish.  Good luck!  Get creative!


Hiking Mt. Rainier & Learning to Pause like a Yogi

Hiking Mt. Rainier & Learning to Pause like a Yogi

*Check out my interview with Jeni Stewart on the Carve Magazine blog!*

The past two weekends, my finance’ and I have gone to Mt. Rainier National Park, a two and a half hour drive southeast from where we live in Seattle.

The first weekend we saw crystal-clear Mowich Lake, the spectacular Spray Falls, and wildflowers blooming in Spray Park. Last weekend, we went to the northeast entrance and saw stunning views of The Mountain and the aptly named Frozen Lake.

Mowich Lake

Mowich Lake

On our second trip, Paul and I had plans to hike the Burroughs Mountain trail, but instead we consulted the map and decided to take the Wonderland Trail from White River Campground to Frozen Lake.  It seemed like a good idea on the map, and we even had plans to continue on after Frozen Lake if we weren’t tired.

So we started hiking uphill through the mossy forest of cedars and Douglas firs. We were the only people on the trail, which surprised us since the parking lots had been jam-packed. But we enjoyed the solitude and the chipmunk sitings as we huffed and puffed our way up one steep switchback after another.

Soon, it became apparent why we were alone on the trail: it was really freaking hard. For two miles did nothing but climb; my thighs and lungs started to protest.

“Let’s take a break for a minute,” I said, pointing to a log. But no sooner had we sat down and pulled out our snacks, the bugs began to attack, trying to drink our salty sweat and dive into the whites of our eyes.

“Do you think you can walk and eat at the same time?” Paul asked. “I’m getting bitten up.” So we continued on without a rest.

“I really hope we get to something soon,” I said between heaving breathing. “A lake, or a view of the mountain, or something.” The old growth forest was nice, but at this point it wasn’t doing much to motivate me up the steep grade.

“I think we’re getting close to something,” Paul said. This was the third or fourth time he’d said this.

But this time, he was right! We came around a bend, and suddenly, there was the mountain, looming beyond the trees. Paul and I stopped for a moment to admire her, but then the bugs found us, and we continued on.

Mt. Rainier

Mt. Rainier

Earlier, on the way to the park, I had been reading out loud from Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions. We were on the chapter about Hinduism, and I was reading about yogis. (Real ones, mind you, not cougar moms toning their abs.)

One of the eight steps to raja yoga, or the art of finding god through psychophysical exercise, is “mastery of respiration.” When a yogi does a cycle of sixteen counts inhaling, sixty-four counts holding, and thirty-two counts exhaling, I read, “there is a stretch during which animation is reduced to the point that the mind seems disembodied. These are cherished moments for the task at hand.”

“Well, yeah,” I joked, “because of lack of oxygen to the brain.”

But it reminded me of something one of my yoga teachers had said recently: “After you breathe out, stop for a moment,” she instructed. “Don’t be in such a rush to inhale.”

I’m always in such a rush to do the next thing, even when I’m breathing. I never stop for a rest between activities. And as it turns out, it’s nice to pause after an exhale; it makes you appreciate the inhale even more.

On the trail from Shadow Lake to Frozen Lake.

On the trail from Shadow Lake to Frozen Lake.

I was not mastering my respiration at all as Paul and I climbed the dusty path towards Frozen Lake. At this point, we had hiked over four miles, with an elevation gain of about 2,500 feet. We were above the tree line now, and despite the eighty-degree temperatures, there were patches of snow alongside the trail.

“Oh my gosh, we’ve got to be almost there,” I huffed. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it to Frozen Lake, even though some hikers coming down had told us it wasn’t too much further.

“At least it’s going to be smooth sailing going back,” I said. “I can’t wait to go downhill.”

We climbed one last hill, and then we were there: Frozen Lake. We sat on a rock, eating apple slices and drinking warm water from our plastic bottles. It was one of the first times during our hike that we’d actually been able to stop and rest. Every other attempt had been thwarted by bugs or blazing sun.

On another rock, a group of hikers cracked open cold beers, and I thought about how good that would taste, and how the alcohol would soften my aching thigh muscles. I looked forward to stopping somewhere on the way home and ordering a beer. Then I reminded myself to appreciate the present moment and stop being in such a rush to move on to the next thing.

“It’s getting late,” Paul said. “We should head back.” As much as I thought we should continue appreciating the place we’d worked so hard to get to, he was right.  We had 4.5 miles to hike, followed by a two and a half hour drive. And it was already late in the day. So I took one last picture, and we started down the trail.

Paul at Frozen Lake.

Paul at Frozen Lake.

I used to think that when I finished writing a novel, I would stop to relax and congratulate myself — maybe take a little writing break, but instead I find that every time I finish a novel (because I’ve written several at this point), the next day is nothing special. I move on to the next thing: writing another novel, or revising an old one. Sometimes I’ll even think things like, “I can’t wait until I finish this novel because then I can start on my next idea.”

I rarely take the time to pause between exhale and inhale — literally and figuratively. And I don’t always remember to enjoy the present moment, because I’m already thinking about the next place I want to go.

As Paul and I hiked back down to White River Campground, the going was pleasant… at first. After a couple of miles, though, the bugs found us again, and descending got to be nearly as hard on our legs as the ascent had been.

“I can’t wait to get to the car and sit down,” Paul said.

“I can’t wait to take my boots off.” My feet were throbbing. I reminded myself to appreciate the present moment.  “I mean, I’m enjoying the present moment and this hike,” I amended, “but I’m also going to really enjoy the moment I take my boots off.”

We finally arrived in the parking lot and sat down thankfully in the car. I groaned with pleasure as I removed each dusty boot and peeled each sweaty sock from my swollen feet. Maybe I don’t always take the time to pause, but at that moment, I was thinking of nothing else but how delightful it felt for my toes to be wriggling free in the (somewhat) cool air.

Mt. Rainier Take 2 048

It’s not always easy to do nothing. Nagging thoughts begin to swarm like bugs, and the heat of the day urges you to hurry up and go on to next thing, and then the next.

But sometimes, when the trail has been hard, and it’s the end of the day, you can finally pause and find a restorative stillness in yourself. It’s something I have to remind myself every day: living a good life doesn’t mean I must always be moving. Taking breaks is important, too, and so is appreciating the heights I’ve reached, even if they aren’t as far as I thought I’d go.  Besides, the best views of The Mountain are usually found when you’re standing still.

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The light of a lamp does not flicker in a windless place. — (Bhagavad-Gita VI:34)

How to Save the Life of Your Story

How to Save the Life of Your Story

Do you remember the frame story of One Thousand and One (Arabian) Nights? It goes like this: A king is bitter because his wife was unfaithful, so he starts marrying virgins and having them executed the very next day (before they have a chance to cheat on him.) Just as the kingdom is running dangerously low on virgins, a clever girl named Scheherazade offers herself up as the next bride.

On the wedding night, Scheherazade begins to tell the king a most incredible tale, but she goes to sleep before the story is finished. Dying to know what happens next, the King keeps her alive for another day. The next night, as soon as she finishes the story, she begins a new one, and the king, eager to hear the conclusion of that one, postpones her execution again. And on and on for 1,001 nights, and those tales comprise the bulk of the book.

By the end of the 1001 nights, the king has fallen in love with Scheherazade and decides to keep her around.

Just one way that story-telling can save your life.

Scheherazade tells the king a story.  photo credit.

Scheherazade tells the king a story. photo credit.


In his high-brow classic, Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster say that we are all like the Arabian King in that we are curious to know what will happen next. “That is universal,” he says and that is “why the backbone of a novel has to be a story.”

Lyrical language or hilarious dialogue or poignant symbols: these things are wonderful accessories, but they aren’t going to save your novel. Only a story can do that.

Forster says a story can only have one merit: “making the audience want to know what happens next.” And it can only have one fault: “making the audience not want to know what happens next.”

It seems pretty simple, but I’m surprised by how many novels I begin reading and never finish because I don’t care what happens next.

So the question is, how do we make our readers care about what happens next? After all, we’re not all writing mystery or thriller novels.

Here are basic some ideas:
1. Make things happen (i.e. make your characters do stuff.)
2. Give your characters wants and needs.
3. Increase the stakes.  (What will happen if characters do/don’t get their wants and needs?) 

But, alas, even following these three guidelines is not always enough. I’ve read the first chapter of novels in which the characters are driving around in stolen cars, shooting people or being shot at, and the stakes are life-or-death, and still I don’t care what happens next. Why? Because I don’t care about the characters.

So is the path to a good story is via the characters?  That’s certainly what I was taught in my MFA program.

Question:  How do you make your readers care about your characters? Answer:  By making them do stuff.

Ahh!  It’s a Catch-22:  Readers don’t care about what the character is doing unless they care about the character. But they don’t care about the character unless the character is doing something.

Hey, I never said writing a story was easy.

Find balance between character and action.

Find balance between character and action.  (It’s not easy.)

As with everything, the key is balance. As you’re writing a novel, blend together the “getting to know the character” and the action of “what happens.” And remember that one of the best way to reveal character is through action itself. What your character does tells us who they are.  

If you keep these two aspects of the novel (character and action) in balance, you will create a suspenseful story, and hopefully your readers will continue eagerly flipping the pages, or at least decide to postpone your execution for one more day.

Snow Emergencies & A Minneapolis Apartment Search

Snow Emergencies & A Minneapolis Apartment Search

Paul and I are moving from Seattle to Minneapolis at the end of August for Paul’s job.

The only thing that really scares us about Minnesota is the cold and snow, but that scares us a lot. The Twin Cities have the coldest average temperature of any major metropolitan area in the nation, with the snow starting in late October and often refusing to melt until mid-April.

Two weekends ago, when Paul and I flew there to look for an apartment, we had already decided we needed a two bedroom with a garage for our cars, and preferably something connected to the “Skyway” system so that in sub-zero temperatures we could scurry like hamsters through the heated tunnels of downtown to get to the grocery store and Target.

Unfortunately, it turns out that when an apartment building is connected to the Skyway, the rent automatically doubles. And those garage spots? They are, on average, an additional $100 a month per car.

So we broadened our horizons.

Heated “tubes” connect the buildings of downtown Minneapolis, forming the “Skyway System.” photo credit.


We went to look at a red brick row house apartment on the edge of downtown. It looked super awesome in the craigslist ad, but in person it was a little bit shabbier and sketchier than I’d imagined. It did, however, have high ceilings, large rooms, and a cute (but nonworking) fireplace.

“How old is this house?” I asked as we traversed across the sloping kitchen floor.

“Built in 1868,” the owner said proudly.

“Wow.” It was an interesting place, although the neighborhood was questionable, and the downstairs neighbors were what Paul called urban hillbillies, lounging on the back deck, smoking and drinking, with bellies exposed.

The apartment was in our price range, though, and it was only a few blocks from the Skyway system.

“I have to ask,” I said, looking at the rickety, single-pane windows, “how hard is it to heat this place in the winter?”

“Oh, it’s not too bad. It can get pretty toasty in here,” the owner said, but I wasn’t sure if I believed him. He was a hefty, red-faced man who probably had his own, built-in heating system.

“What about the parking?” Paul asked. He was concerned about our cars, having seen a few rusted-out vehicles parked on the street out front. A long winter of snow and salt is not kind to automobile undercarriages.

“Everybody parks out back,” the owner said, pointing to a gravel lot. “Off-street parking. And in the winter Billy Bob* downstairs takes care of digging out the driveway every morning.”

Every morning?! I thought.

We said thank you and headed to our next appointment: an apartment in an Elliot Park triplex. There were sunflowers blooming in the front yard, and the laid-back owner, with a toddler-in-arms, led us around back, showing us the garage for bike storage and the adorable garden complete with a porch swing , bird feeders, and a small koi pond. A woodsy oasis in the middle of the city.

*Note:  Billy Bob was not his real name.  

The front yard of the Elliot Park apartment.

The front yard of the Elliot Park apartment.

Inside, the apartment was cozy and unique. The kitchen was a cheery blue, the dining room was painted red. There was a sunporch that would have been nice, were it not overlooking the Interstate.

“I find it soothing,” the owner said over the roar of the cars. “Like people-watching, only better.”

Paul and I exchanged glances.

He showed us the small “master” bedroom with a tiny, over-stuffed closet, but then he showed us the second bedroom. It was painted green and overlooked the back yard. It was quiet and lovely, and I got the sense that I was standing in a tree house.

“This could be my office,” Paul said.

“Or mine,” I countered. I could totally imagine sitting in this room, writing novels.

Back in the kitchen, with the owner’s adorably-pregnant wife, we asked about parking. “Well, it’s street parking,” the owner said. “But it’s not a big deal. Just get yourself a good snow shovel and an engine heater and you’ll be fine.”

“And make sure you move your car during snow emergencies,” the wife added.  “So you don’t get those hundred dollar tickets.”

“Snow emergencies?” Paul and I repeated. “What are those?”

“Oh, it’s not a big deal,” the owner said. But at our hotel later, Paul and I did some research, and it seems that it IS a big deal.

Here are some pictures to explain why:

We decided right then and there that we needed the garage. And the Skyway. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to drive at all in this snow-blasted city.  (In fact, I’ve decided to sell my car.)

The next morning, Paul and I went to see an apartment downtown. I liked the location of it (only one block from the river and connected to the Skyway), but the two bedroom on the fifth floor was too expensive and had a depressing view of the side of the post office.

“We also have a one bedroom one bath for a couple hundred less,” the property manager told us. “It’s on the nineteenth floor.”

We decided to take a look. The three of us rode the elevator up and walked down the hall. When we stepped into the apartment, something in me just knew. This was it.

Even though it was only 800 square feet, it didn’t feel small. And the view… It was a corner apartment with huge windows overlooking both the Mississippi River and the pretty part of downtown Minneapolis.

Paul and I walked around saying, “we could make this work,” and “this is definitely do-able.”

There was no washer-dryer in the unit, only one bathroom, and only one garage parking spot, but it felt right. Even though we kept looking at places for the rest of the day, deep down, Paul and I had already decided.

*  *  *

Apartment searching is so hard. There are pros and cons about every place, and you’ll never find somewhere that’s perfect.

Plus it’s sort of like online dating. No matter how awesome the place seems on craigslist, you have to see it in person to really understand.

And despite all pro-con lists you make, despite the fact that that another apartment makes more sense because it’s larger and cheaper and has a washer/dryer, at the end of the day, it’s about the unmistakable feeling you get when you step in to an apartment and, despite it’s flaws, you want to call it yours.

It’s probably the way agents feel when they find a book they want to represent. It’s the way people feel when they find someone they want to marry. It’s the way I feel about my writing career every single day.

I wrote two novels this past year in Seattle.  I look forward to writing two more in Minneapolis.