writing-1149962_1280Dear Nikki:

Thank you for sharing your new short story, “Oops I don’t have a title haha,” with the class. I look forward to discussing it in workshop. I read this story as an exploration of the narrator’s excitement and disappointments during a rock-climbing trip with a group of friends, and as a meditation on the drinking games and truncated sexual encounters that followed.

In many ways, this is an improvement over your last piece. Last time, we discussed the difficulties of creating a seven-tiered magical realm with a cast of hundreds in the span of a ten-page short story; limiting yourself this time to five main characters and a more approachable setting has paid off. I have a much clearer sense this time of what’s going on, who is human, and how many suns there are. Well done!

You deploy some vivid imagery in your descriptions of the characters’ expensive camping gear and the drinks they mix. For instance, when you write that “Blake was mixing together Captain Morgan and coke,” I knew exactly what drink was being made. (At least I think I did. Should “coke” be capitalized here? I’m not entirely sure what you all get up to these days. I’m starting to doubt myself.) You’ve also finally tried out some figurative language (hooray!): “It was hot as ass,” “We were tired as hell.” These images could perhaps be pushed a bit farther, but it’s a nice start.Continue Reading

What is Your Writing Routine?


What is your writing routine? What does it look like when you sit to write? Any special rituals?

I am so glad you asked. It’s really pretty great. I sit at my computer, and I check Facebook for, like, ten minutes. Okay, haha, twenty minutes. And then I write. Sometimes I outline, sometimes I do research. Once, I bribed myself with M&Ms to get through my edits.

Julia Alvarez keeps a bowl of water on her desk when she writes. Can you tell us about your own writing routine?

Yeah, huh. I’ve been getting this question a lot. I mean, I just… I sit there. And I write. I don’t even listen to music. I mean… Wait, don’t look sad. I’m sorry. Listen, you don’t actually believe that about the water, do you? Next to her computer? Come on! Sorry, wait, I’ll try again. I, um, I’m there at my desk. And I have—wait, this is interesting! I have some postcards on my desk! Of places I like!

Hemingway wrote standing up and claimed to be done by noon and drunk by three. How about your writing routine?

I understand that you want a window into my brain, I get that, or maybe you want some special trick, like something I do before I start writing every day, and if you do that thing too, all your problems will be solved. As if I know what I’m doing. I just… I don’t know what to tell you. A movie of me writing would look like a person sitting at a desk and writing. It’s like, What’s your email routine? You just sit there and answer email, right? Listen, I don’t mean to be cranky, because I’m flattered that you care. I just feel like I’m disappointing you.Continue Reading

The Next Eleven Literary Scandals


So it’s your New Year’s resolution to go off social media, is it? Well, good for you. You’re only going to last a month, but you’ll get some good reading and writing done. You’ll exercise. You’ll remember that you have a dog.

But aren’t you worried you’ll miss all the latest book world gossip? I’ve got you covered, because these things are cyclical, and also I’m psychic. Here are the next eleven big literary scandals. Hop back on the Facebook train in February, and speak with confidence about these events, just as we all forget them and move on:

1) On January 3rd, some guy who was heretofore teaching 7th grade English will get a seven-figure advance for a 3,000-page debut novel about horse racing and drugs and prostitutes and Kant. And there will be a lot of think pieces about whether these advances are just publicity stunts, and each of these think pieces will make an average of ten thousand new readers aware of this novel.

2) There will be a major prize where all the finalists are men. Or maybe it’s that only one of the ten finalists is a man, but that’s who wins. Or maybe people look closely at the finalist books and realize there’s not a single character in any of them that’s not a straight white man living on the Texas plains and polishing his shotgun. Like, every single scene in every single one of these books is just this old guy sitting in his armchair, polishing his shotgun. This will happen on January 7th.

3) On January 10th, Joyce Carol Oates will tweet something completely baffling, and everyone will be like “How did my loopy aunt hack this Twitter account?” And everyone will spend five days retweeting it and coming up with witty responses, during which time JCO will write an entire novel, so who wins here really?

Continue Reading

Dear Advice Person Lady: Advice for Writers

Writers are neurotic. Are we more neurotic than other artists? Definitely. And it’s time we had our own advice column. A Dear Abby for our literary breakdowns. And if I have to volunteer to be that person, so be it. The letters have been pouring in—which is weird, because how did you know I was going to do this?—and here they are.

Dear Advice Person Lady:
I’m in an MFA program, and there’s this famous writer I kind of have a huge crush on. I’ve never met him, but he’s coming to campus next week, and I don’t know if I’m going to be able to control myself around him. I mean, he’s not only talented, but he’s sooo beautiful. How do I keep from acting like an idiot?


Dear Smitten:
Oh, honey. I promise he’s not as attractive as his author photo. Like, I’ll bet you six hundred bucks. Have you seriously not met a writer before? Problem solved.



Dear Advice Person Lady,
An interviewer said she loved my book, but all the questions she sent me were based on the acknowledgments at the back of the book. And the questions were stupid—she clearly hadn’t read it. When I write back, can I say something snarky like “I hope you do enjoy the book if and when you get a chance to read it”?

AnnoyedContinue Reading

I Have a Favor to Ask


Is there anything more head-smackingly awkward than asking favors of other writers? You might never have experienced writer’s block in your life, but sit down to compose a 200-word email to the friend you need something from, and find yourself twelve hours later with nothing but a vacuumed carpet.

And yet it’s totally necessary. And anyone you’re writing to has definitely been there, wondering how they could possibly ask something so huge from such a busy person, and wishing they’d been to that one magical conference that would have hooked them up with all the contacts and favors ever. You know, the one everyone else went to.

Lucky for you, I’m here to help. Simply use the following form, and you’ll never be pen-tied again.Continue Reading

Sounds Like Your Next Story!


SOUNDS LIKE YOUR NEXT STORY!: a short play with infinite scenes.

Well-Meaning FRIENDs and FAMILY


Lights up on the WRITER and a FRIEND, having coffee.

WRITER: I forgot to tell you about the date. The guy literally asked the bartender out right in front of me, and so—

FRIEND: Hey, at least you could get a great short story out of that! You could give him a really stupid name!

WRITER: Ha, yeah. Well.Continue Reading

Depressing Graphs for Writers

Remember this series of graphs from last month that depressed the hell out of everyone? The one that reminded us that no book from a woman’s point of view has won the Pulitzer in the last 16 years?

We could cry about it, or we could look at some more depressing statistics and then cry about those. Let’s!

graph 1Continue Reading

Was This Review Helpful to You?

one star

Oh, where to even start? I wanted so badly to like this book. The New York Times called it “a trenchant masterpiece,” and it has blurbs from three Nobel Prize winners. So I had sky-high expectations. I anticipated a book that would change my world, that would help me lose twelve pounds and make clear the meaning of life and cure my husband’s erectile dysfunction. This book, while excellent, did none of those things. Threw it across the room on page 20. Ugh. Will not be reading this author again.

one star
The paper was rough to the touch, and after just three weeks the back cover ripped. Also, the book was “like new,” not “new.” Regret ordering from vendor BookXPress314. Do not recommend!!

one star
The author, a known Liberal, has a clear agenda here in including an African-American neighbor and a “lesbian” boss. I read to be entertained, not to have someone’s politics shoved down my throat. I was going to pass this on to my sister, but instead I recycled the book.Continue Reading

Erotica for Writers

sexy pen

Here in Chicago, we have a series called Naked Girls Reading. No joke. I know what you’re thinking. You’re either asking yourself why this would be a thing, or why you don’t live in Chicago, or whether there isn’t a Naked Boys Reading series. (Only in London, apparently, and can we please fix that?)

If you aren’t lucky enough to make it to one of these events, don’t worry! Here is some porn for writers. Eight porns, to be exact. Writers are a varied lot, so I’ve tried to include something for everyone. Well, almost everyone. Some of y’all are sick.

Porn 1: You know when someone is reading your manuscript, and they like something, how they put a checkmark in the margin? You know how sometimes there’s even a double checkmark? Well, what about a triple checkmark? Quadruple? Now we’re talking. Pentuple. It’s possible. Yeah, baby.

Porn 2: Misplaced commas, bother you, don’t they? Do they, bother you a lot? How much, do they, bother you? What about apostrophe’s? I bet you want to fix that, don’t you? Well you can’t, because you’re handcuffed to the bed.

Porn 3: Grainy lighting on a small workshop room, six cardiganed writers around a conference table. Saxophone. The workshop leader rises and plucks a stack of papers from his briefcase, tossing it on the table. It’s your short story. Yes, it is.

“This work,” says the obnoxious girl in the corner, “it makes me want to quit writing forever. It’s that good. If I can’t write this well, what’s the point?”Continue Reading

How to Win AWP


I’ve always felt that AWP* could be livened up by a conference-long game of Paintball Assassin. Until that happens, here’s some other stuff to try:

The Book Fair Bartering Game:

Start with free swag. Something cool, like a box of matches with a chapbook cover on it. Find the bored grad student tending another booth. (A booth with better swag, preferably swag that costs something. Like magnets. Magnets always cost more than you’d think.) Trade the matchbox for a magnet, then trade up your magnet for a hat, and so on. There is at least one booth with a bottle of bourbon. You win the game if you get the bottle when it’s still half full.

The Start-Your-Own-VIP-Party Game:

You don’t have to be a VIP. You just have to convince all the VIPs that the real VIP party is in the back room of Potbelly’s. Then you lock them in there and don’t let them out until at least five of them have written you blurbs.

The Intentional Misidentification Game:

Approach any writer who is clearly not Junot Diaz but could maybe, in a dark alley, pass for him, and excitedly shout that you loved Drown. You win the game when someone goes along with it. Bonus points if he signs your nametag as Junot Diaz.Continue Reading