Category Archives: Helpful

View from the Slushpile


I’m the Fiction Editor at Kartika Review, and I take great pride in sifting through KR’s slushpile (I personally read the whole slushpile) and connecting with the work of other writers. In fact, great friendships have come out of the slushpile; I keep in touch with them to this day, and hang out with them at AWP and online on twitter.

But the slushpile is not without its gripes. And I decided to tweet about some of the things I experience each time. I tweeted in real time, and I hope the advice is well received. My friend Elizabeth Stark aggregated them on a blog post at Book Writing World a few days ago.

Here is part of the list…

1) Reading thru @KartikaReview slush pile. Do NOT start ur story with 3 pages of ITALICS. No. Just, no. nonononononooo.

2) Reading thru @KartikaReview slush pile. Do NOT start ur Asian-themed story w mentions of rice paddies/kohl/silk/lotuses/etc. NO. nonononono.

3) Reading thru @KartikaReview slush pile. If ur NOT Asian, I do NOT want 2 hear abt ur travels thru Asia fucking prostitutes & smoking opium. (Don’t wanna hear if you ARE Asian, either–but so far, it’s not a trend for writers of Asian descent to write the above, thus the specificity).

I am considering tweeting about manuscript protocol, too…

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Filed under Fiction Editor, Helpful, literary magazines, Publishing, Writing

Turning Point as a Writer

Tree limbs like legs

This is a reprint from my post up at Nova Ren Suma’s blog from last December. I answered the question, “What was your turning point as a writer?” Thought I’d reshare here, especially as I return to my novel from a year away from writing due to pregnancy, childbirth, mothering, and postpartum depression.

I have had many turning points as a writer, some more dramatic than others, each bringing a unique encouraging message.

I remember my first litmag acceptance from ZYZZYVA for the first piece of fiction I’d ever written; it was a sign for me to pursue this long-subjugated dream.

I remember my first novel workshop with VL, the one in which I began writing my novel. I wasn’t sure I had a novel in me, but by the end of the semester, I had 100 fresh pages. I’ve thrown out all 100 pages since, but the core of the idea remains and flourishes years later.

I remember JD who doesn’t pull punches telling me, “You should be proud. You’re almost there” after reading the opening chapters of my novel-in-progress this past summer. The ensuing discussion made it so I could see the light at the end of the novel-in-progress tunnel. I was so inspired. I got my second wind.

But no turning point has been so life-changing and incredible as the time during which I had zero writing achievements, when I was unable to write fiction, let alone read a novel for two years. It was then that I knew I would do everything in my being to be able to write again, and that I would never give up on my novel.

I had a stroke on December 31, 2006, at the age of 33. Amidst the festivities of New Year’s Eve, no one thought much of the fact that I appeared quiet and spacey. I’d had the weirdest migraine of my life earlier that day in the parking lot of a South Lake Tahoe shopping center; the world tilted 90 degrees and every object doubled. If I were to write an imagist poem about that moment, I’d write about the twinned red snow blowers lined up in the snow outside a hardware store.

My husband says I complained of an enormous migraine-level headache, but I don’t remember pain. I remember disorientation and wonder and sudden exhaustion. What was happening? I should say something, but what is it I could say? What were words? What was language? I felt like my Self was buried under a thousand layers of cotton blankets.

It wasn’t until we got back down from the mountains a day later that we realized that something was seriously wrong. I couldn’t remember my way home from the neighborhood grocery store and I couldn’t process the labels on the shelves of the store and I couldn’t remember my husband’s phone number when I decided that perhaps I needed to go to the hospital. I wondered what the phone number for 911 might be.

At the hospital lying in bed my neurologist told me that I had had a stroke.

My stroke didn’t affect my body—I didn’t limp and my face didn’t slide like melted wax. I looked completely normal. My stroke had occurred in the left thalamus, the mysterious “hub” of the brain, and it among other things, the stroke affected my short-term memory, my coping mechanisms, and it affected my ability to retrieve memories, spin language, and weave stories.

In short, I was Dory the Fish in Finding Nemo.

My doctors told me to keep a journal as my memory bank—to write every happening inside the journal and to timestamp each entry. It was my physical short-term memory repository (and it worked a lot better than tattooing things on my body a la “Memento Mori”).

That Moleskine journal saved my life.

I was determined to “come back like Lance (Armstrong)” and I wrote my feelings and happenings in my Moleskine every single day. I often slept 20 hours a day. My waking hours felt like what healthy people feel like in the first few minutes after waking up in the morning; hazy and not quite present. In the first months, it took me two of my four waking hours to compose three paragraphs. But I wrote them.

I was convinced that if I kept writing, my brain would heal and make me a stronger writer. That I’d come out of this better than before. That somehow the synapses in my brain would synthesize a new and better writer. (Cue Six Million Dollar Man theme music).

Several months into my recovery, I was well enough to comprehend my situation. And yes, I cried. Yes, I got depressed. I would pick up books, and find myself reading the same paragraph over and over and over because by the end of the paragraph, I’d forgotten what had happened, so I’d keep reading and forgetting.

At around the year mark, my doctors told me “I was cured.” I was not cured, I told them. I couldn’t write fiction. How was this cured? Most of my doctors and therapists shrugged with a shadow of pity behind their eyes. My neurologist said I would keep improving, but this was, he said, as far as most doctors would go.

I was functional. I could hold a conversation. I couldn’t balance a checkbook, but I could get money out of the ATM and I could pay for my purchases. I could read People magazine, and I could even read a short story by then. I could go on drives and remember where I’d parked my car and find my way back home, but I couldn’t yet read a novel.

My stroke helped me to realize that the one thing I wanted to do more than anything else, was to write. My marker for “being cured,” was not what the doctors designated. It was not being able to function in life. It was not what my friends designated, which was to appear normal and be able to participate in discussions. My marker for being alive was to be able to write fiction again. To write my novel.

It took two years before I could look at my novel, and imagine worlds again. Two years before I stopped flipping homonyms in my writing. Two years before my prose became more than pedestrian.

I’m not sure if my brain, as I’d hoped, formed new synapses such that they made me a better writer—but I’m most certainly a more determined writer. And that has made all the difference. There is a black spot in my brain now, and it will always be there, near the center of my brain. And I consider that my writing birthmark.

It took years before I could remember this experience as a cohesive narrative. And while most writers don’t have strokes at the age of 33, I don’t think my experience is all too unique, because many of us have been kept from our writing in one way or another in our crazy writing lives. It could be a year away from writing as you raise a new baby, or a year away from writing as you immerse yourself in financially-necessary work, or a year away from writing because your writing just breaks your heart and you just can’t look at it anymore. Maybe you were really sick and couldn’t write. But sometimes, it is that very time away that forms the negative space around your identity and determination and your writing. When you come back, you know who you are, more than ever. And who you are is a writer to the core.

—Christine Lee Zilka

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Concrete slide at Cordonices!

I have a number of mantras, many of which I picked up when I needed a few words to guide me through shark infested waters. Let me share some with you.

Like “take responsibility for your own happiness,” told to a 20 year old miserable me, waiting to be saved. And realizing only I can save myself. When I am miserable (because misery happens), I know that I am the one who has to pick myself up off the floor and save myself each time. And I am the best person to save myself. And do. I recently did so when I suspected I had postpartum depression–no one told me I had it, no one held me and said they were worried about me. I woke up one day and realized I couldn’t take it anymore and I wouldn’t be alive for another month. So I picked up the phone and started calling my doctors. I kept calling until I got a return call.

Or “find lessons,” told to me when I was recovering from stroke. Without lessons, stupid things like having a stroke at the age of thirty-three are just…stupid and meaningless. I searched for lessons and learned them. I learned about myself. I learned who my friends were. I learned how to come back from adversity. I learned what was really important to me in life. My writing.

Or “have no regrets,” told to me when I was suffering heartbreak and wondering where to go from there. I was twenty-four. I was reeling from a engagement that had been called off. I was without a compass. And then a good friend told me, “Whatever you do, have no regrets.” And it was an amazing mantra that dictated my behavior through very tough times. And it still does. It helps me keep my head high and helps me be healthy and make good choices. No regrets.

Or “fuck it,” when I need to let go of all rules and go for it. (I realize that “fuck it” could be in direct conflict with “have no regrets”–but really, it is a subset of “have no regrets”). This one? This one helps me have a little fun. It helps me explore. It helps me get unstuck.

Or “if there are two people in a situation, it’s best if both can be happy. but if only one can be happy, let the happy one be you.” My mother-in-law told me this, many times. She knew I had a habit of prioritizing others over myself. This one gives me permission to choose myself.

And now, “being happy *anyway* is the biggest middle finger to adversity.” When the shit hits the fan, and all seems lost, hold onto your happiness. Even if you don’t even have an ounce of happiness, if you just have a fraction. Hold onto it. And grow it. Ride some slides at a playground. Swing on the swings. Eat your favorite food. Breathe the air. Maybe it’s only 30 seconds, but that’s 30 seconds that adversity did not take away from you. Be happy. As much as you can, in the face of adversity. Adversity wants you to crumble and die–it wants you to suffer and die slowly. It cannot win.


Filed under Helpful, Life, The Personal

What Works For My Writing


This morning, Nova shared a list of things that work for her writing. It was so inspiring that I decided to mull over what works for me–so that I could concretize what it is that works for me…and I could possibly inspire you, in turn.

It took me a long time to figure out what works for my writing. For years I tried to write in bed but eventually I learned that the only things I can do in bed is sleep, watch TV, read, and that-other-thing-I-won’t-type-because-G*d-knows-what-the-search-engines-would-bring-me. I also tried NaNoWriMo, and from NaNoWriMo, I learned that word counts don’t work for me.

Even so, my needs my novel’s needs change from time to time. Sometime my novel needs Bon Iver, other times Jonsí, and other times Tchaikovsky. Sometimes my novel requires tea and other times decaf coffee and other times a hot drink or a cold drink.

But in general, I’ve found that this is what works for me/my novel:

Writing Partners
A large chunk of my writing occurs when I have a writing partner–and by writing partner, I mean a good writer friend with whom I sit down and write. We will sit down at a dining table and write for a few hours in silence. Or at a café. Or even virtually. And I’ll let my writing partner know my writing achievements for the week. When we write drafts, we encourage each other and hold off on critique until requested.

I’ve had two writing partners over the span of my novel, and they’ve made all the difference.

And here’s the thing: for all my love of writing partners, writing groups do NOT work for me. There is nothing that will shut me down so much as three or more of us sitting down together to write. I can’t do it. Even though I often work at The Writers Room where writers sit in quiet, working, it’s just not the same as a writers group.

I can write in silence if there is really silence. As in, a house up in the woods. But if there are people around me, or if floorboards are creaking upstairs, or other writers are whacking tapping loudly away on their keyboards (i.e., every other writing situation), I need music. The music varies (for the last year, I’ve written almost exclusively to Jonsí, and the year previous to that, Sigur Ros, and for months previous to that, Mozart’s Requiem)–but music is pretty much a necessity.

I normally do not like headphones, but this past year, I found a pair of in-ear headphones I really like, and they’ve saved me and my writing in 2011.

Beverage and No Food
Sometimes tea or iced tea or decaf latte or juice…but I’ve gotta have a beverage by me while I write. If marathoners need beverages to run, why wouldn’t a writer need one while revising/writing a novel?

Also, if I eat anything substantial, the magic ends. I can eat as much a KIND bar, but that’s it, just like training for a marathon. So I’ll write until I get lightheaded.

Writing In the Morning and Early Afternoon
For the reason stated above (not being able to write on a full stomach), I mostly write in the morning through the early afternoon. (Kind of a bummer when I was working a fulltime day job).

But I also write in the morning through early afternoon for a reason that I don’t often mention. I was able to return to my novel a couple years after my left-thalamic stroke, but I would lose steam in the afternoons. My brain would just go KAPUT. Halt. Protest. Like, to the point where I wouldn’t know how to add 2+2. Anything important had to happen earlier in the day before my brain would poop out. So I wrote as soon as I woke up, and I still do.

Wearing Something as Close to Pajamas as Possible
I used to have an ugly ugly oversized LLBean plaid robe that I wore while writing. One year, in a moment of weakness, I was convinced to throw it away. (It was really ugly). Dammit.

But in general, I wear pajamas while writing–and because I can’t always write at home, I have to wear something as comfy as pajamas while writing in public. Sometimes I look around in the Writers Room and I see this gorgeous woman wearing what must be very binding skinny jeans and feet-pinching stiletto boots and I wonder, “How can she write?”

Because if I am wearing boots when I get here, I pull them off. I pull my socks off. And I put on a pair of bumble bee slippers I have in my locker just for the purpose of comfort. If I could wear pajama bottoms here I would. But in lieu of that, I’ll wear the comfiest pair of jeans I own, or exercise pants with a nice pajama-esque elastic waistband.

The 7 Train
When I get stuck on my novel, I will take a few hours and ride the 7 Train. For obvious reasons, this is only possible while in NYC. The 7 train’s noises remind me of my early childhood spent riding the 7, and in turn, I think it hypnotizes me and connects me to my subconscious. And it makes me happy.

Allowing Myself to Write Badly
I’m a perfectionist. I don’t like to admit I am, and I spend a lot of my conscious energy telling myself, “There is more than one right way,” when I see someone doing something in a way I’ve never seen. There are good things about being a perfectionist–I’m an idealist who always wants to make things better.

But when it comes to drafting a novel and then revising a novel, perfection doesn’t happen in one fell swoop. Each step is incremental and imperfect. I’ve got to get the words on the page before they can be made perfect. Once, I even made a sign that says, “Allow yourself to write badly,” and put it up at my writing desk.

It helped me get over a writing slump.

Blogging for Voice and for Clearing My Head
When I took piano lessons as a child, my teacher made me do Hanon exercises. These were variation on scales, with the purpose of warming my fingers up. Blogging is the same thing for me, especially if I’ve come back from vacation and I’m having a tough time finding my way back to my novel.

Blogging helps me find my voice, and refine my writing voice, and it helps me clear my head, and it helps me warm up my writing muscles.

But if my writing is going well, I blog less.

However, my piano teacher always made me do the Hanon exercises.

Journaling for Therapeutic Writing
I know that I bring a lot of my personal experience to the page–but I don’t need recent, undigested personal experience brought to the page (or blog). For that, I barf into my Moleskine journal.

I have really messy handwriting. Good luck reading what I barf into my Moleskine.


And then there’s the flip side–things that don’t work for my writing. There are SO many things that don’t work for my writing, but I’ve decided to share just a few with you here.

Word Counts
I start doing word counts, and I can literally hear the screeeech of brakes.

Heat/hot weather
Ah summer, you slay me.

My husband anywhere near me while I write
He is the biggest distraction. And when I’m at a tough point in my writing–believe me, I’d rather hang out with him than face the pain.

Writing in anything but an empty house
I wish I could write at home, even when people are milling about, but I can’t. My novel is selfish. It wants the entire house to itself.

Also, I’m convinced that the Muse is shy and won’t visit me unless I’m by myself.

Writing anywhere but at a desk/table
I have to be in a chair with a writing surface. Facing away from a window. With no direct sunlight (foggy or cloudy days are fine near a window).



Filed under Helpful, Writing

What Inspires You?

(Design & illustration by Robert Roxby–I snarfed this theme image off of Nova’s blog)

My good friend Nova has a month-long series on “What Inspires You”over at her blog Distraction No. 99 It is, needless to say, an inspiring series of well-timed guest posts during the month of NaNoWriMo.

There are many more posts forthcoming in the series, but already there is such a range of talk: about failure, daughters, and music as sources of energy and creativity.

And today my post on what inspires me is up at Nova’s blog. It’s kind of dark and twisty. I really wanted to write about bunny rabbits and puppies, I really did.

But I didn’t. I wrote about Darkness instead. It’s one for the Dark and Twisty folks, my fambam, my people. Go read it.


Filed under Helpful, Writing

…we interrupt regular programming…

to bring you this special message:

RADAR Productions has a Lit(ish) Auction on eBay. It’s tremendous! There are manuscript critiques by Michelle Tea and Justin Chin…and I’ve personally got my eye on Margaret Cho’s item (she will record an outgoing voicemail message for you).

Only one day remaining on this auction.

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Literary Auction to Benefit Team Jender

spectrum in the sand

We are holding an auction on eBay to benefit the leader of Team Jender, otherwise known as Jennifer Derilo, who is currently kicking Hodgkin’s Lymphoma’s arse (does Hodgkin’s even have a butt? Well, we’re kicking its fictitious butt, then).

The community around Jennifer (aka “Team Jender”) includes some amazing writers who have, out of generosity and a recognition of her fight, offered up some unique items. These items include manuscript critiques and signed books and signed galleys and artist books, all of which are listed below at the bottom of this post. Even if you don’t know Jennifer, the items are of incredible value!

As of September 9, 2010, we have more amazing auction items up for bidding! They are listed as follows:

(manuscript pages are to be double spaced, 12 point font, with 1 inch margins).

I do want to take a bit of space here as to the beneficiary of this auction…(the LA Times Book Blog featured our auction and cause the other day):

Remember your 20something and 30something years? (And if you’re in your 20s and 30s, think about all that you’re up to right now, about all your hopes and the freedoms you have).

Now think about having Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, which is a name for cancer of the lymphatic system, which is part of your immune system, which means something very important in your body. Think about how scared you might be, how you would have to brace yourself for the arduous fight for your life. Think about what kind of strength you would need to fight for your health, something you’d taken for granted uptil then, something that 30somethings aren’t supposed to normally confront.

And now think about having to wage this war without medical insurance coverage. Think about not having any savings to fall back on. Think about kicking off your early 30s with a massive debt.

My friend Jennifer Derilo is in such a situation.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, and find her name familiar, it’s because she contributed to the Literary Blog Relay here, writing about her battle with Hodgkin’s. She is a talented writer, one we need to save and help.

I know you might be busy, that you might not have the funds…but I am hoping we can collectively help defray some of her medical costs. I am hoping you will still say yes, you can help.

Please check out the eBay auction! And please spread the word about this auction.

If you would like to make a direct donation via paypal, the fundraising account (aka Jennifer’s account) there is teamjender AT gmail DOT com.

If you need to EMAIL us, please do NOT use that account, as that account was created purely for paypal account purposes and is not checked regularly. Leave a comment here instead. 🙂



Filed under Helpful, Life, Literary Auction, The Personal, The World