Chasing Dreams, Literary Magazines, and Why Not Now?

maybeToday I’m thinking about chasing long-held dreams and finally stopping all the excuses and the, “I’ll do it tomorrow.” Or “Next year.” Or the vague but still hopeful “One day.” You see, this is a thing I do to myself, and have been doing for years. I have dreams of writing certain novels. Of moving somewhere new. Of so much more. But I keep putting them off. I keep getting overwhelmed, and making excuses, and lately I’ve felt a shift inside me. There is a sense of urgency that I can’t explain. It began after the election aftermath, and the fearful depression that landed on me (and so many of us) afterward. It broiled under me all these months as it seems like the planet is falling apart, disaster after disaster, all around us. I’m sorry to be so negative, but for me it all starts there.

Recently, I was a part of a group of publishing people—authors, agents, editors—who banded together to create an auction to help raise money for hurricane relief in Puerto Rico. It came from a sense of shared helplessness and the desire to do something. We came together in a matter of hours one night, and in days the auction grew and grew. We called ourselves #PubforPR and held the auction earlier this month and ended up raising (as of today) a total of $206,550 that went direct to local charities in Puerto Rico.

Through this experience, I discovered something: We don’t have to be helpless, especially when we work together and put our hearts into it.

I also discovered something more personal. For one, I miss working together with people under the pressure of a deadline (that heated excitement I remember from my production editor days).

And two, I don’t know how much time I have left and I can’t keep saying tomorrow, next year, one day.

So I did three things: I removed my social media from my phone, logged out, and will not have to log in to those accounts until winter except if/when there is news to share.

I started a new novel I can’t talk about yet.

And I reached out to a friend to see if she wanted to do a project with me that I have been wanting to do for years.

What is that long-held dream?

It’s to create a literary magazine. Yes, it’s time.

This is a dream I’ve had since college, when I used to be a work-study student at the Antioch Review. My job was to open the mail—stories were sent snail-mail back then!—and type up the submission details on an index card on an old electric typewriter. I then filed the card in a library card catalog and put the story in the piles to be read. Sometimes, very rarely, I got to read some of the slush. Through this job, I discovered and fell in love with Aimee Bender (one of her early stories, “What You Left in the Ditch,” was published in the Review in the fall of 1997, I read it as a submitted manuscript and about died from awe). That was my first introduction to literary journals, and I’ve worked on and interned for a few more since, including co-editing the one in my MFA program, COLUMBIA: A Journal of Literature & Art, my second year in the program. (When it was my turn to choose the issue’s theme, I chose “fairy tales,” and solicited—and published!—a short story from… Guess who? Aimee Bender.)

So here’s the thing: If you know me and know me well, you know that my first deep and true love as a writer was short stories. Writing them. Reading them. Collecting them.

I’ve considered, as a YA author, pitching and editing a short story anthology, but it seems like so much of that is curating a group of named authors and I knew that you don’t often see the pieces before the anthology is sold. (I’m a contributor to three YA anthologies, with a fourth about to be announced, and never did I have to write the story ahead of time.) Which means the part that I loved the most—the discovery moment of finding a gorgeous short story in slush that we end up publishing—isn’t a part of it. And I want that back again. I remember finding the most amazing short story in the giant slush stacks at Zoetrope: All-Story, when I volunteered as a reader in their New York offices and rated stories for four-hour stretches on the beanbag chairs in the loft. I rated that story the highest score I could—I think it was a five?—the score we were told to rarely, so rarely use unless we were SERIOUS. I was serious. The editors ended up passing on the story, but I remember seeing it published soon after in my favorite litmag Tin House, so I see that it landed on another reader’s desk (or beanbag chair) who must have given it the highest rating, too.

I remember my first short story acceptance. I was in my twenties, still a student. When I was sending out short stories on submission, I would give a PO box as my address, so the rejections wouldn’t come to my house and ruin my day without warning. Whenever I visited the post office to check the box, I steeled myself… and told myself one day I might hear a yes even if today it was a no. That day, I got the envelope out of the box and didn’t even open it right away. I remember I was on the subway platform up at 110th Street, where I lived then, and I opened the envelope while waiting for the train on the way to work. It was a yes. My first-ever yes. The first story I ever published appeared in a litmag called Gulf Coast in Texas. I’d never been to Texas, but I remember thinking, I LOVE YOU, TEXAS! That story was called “Mars, New York.” I’ll never forget the incredible feeling of knowing someone was going to publish it.

As a reader, I loved short stories so much that I collected them. I’ve confessed this before, but I used to photocopy stories I loved from anthologies and magazines and keep them in binders. I have about ten binders stuffed full of stories. I called them my “anthologies.” Sometimes I go back and reread them, and I love seeing what struck me then. One day, I’ll edit a litmag of my own, I told myself. One day. And the years passed, and I did nothing, and here we are.

So you can see, I’ve been carrying this dream around for a long time.

Once I became a YA author, the dream shifted and focused to YA.

I’ve been talking—to friends, in sighing updates on Twitter—about wanting to start some kind of online literary magazine focusing on YA short stories for years. You may have heard me talking. You may have rolled your eyes. You may have been curious. You may have been intrigued.

I last talked about this online a week or two ago, so if you heard that and wondered what came from it…

It’s happening.

For real.

In my opinion, the YA world needs more venues for short stories—we have so few. So guess what? There’s about to be a new one.

I have a wonderful partner, someone who’s wanted to do this for a while too, and who is just as committed to this as I am. (I’m not sure if she’s said anything publicly, so I won’t reveal her name here just yet!) We’re making plans. We’re going to reach out for volunteer staff and content soon. We’ll be announcing more details when we’re ready, so I am not going to say a specific thing about it except… JUST WAIT, IT’S GOING TO BE AWESOME. If you’re a YA writer, I hope you’ll consider sending us a story when we’re ready! If you’ve emailed or messaged me about wanting to help, I have your name on a list and will be in touch.

But as the concept takes shape and the plans get more and more detailed, I almost want to pinch myself.

I dreamed this a long time ago, and I’m tired of telling myself now is not the moment to attempt it. Now can be the time. Why not?

So that’s my little dream gaining traction and becoming more and more solid with each day. What’s yours? And if you haven’t tried to make it happen yet, what’s stopping you?

The Great Slasher Girls & Monster Boys Giveaway

Slasher_Comp_2All this talk of short stories, and did you know after a long drought in the short-story department, I am having one published? And it’s freaky and bloody and twisted? You’ll find it in the Slasher Girls & Monster Boys horror anthology forthcoming from Dial/Penguin this August.

It contains stories not just from me but from Leigh Bardugo, Kendare Blake, Marie Lu, Carrie Ryan, Megan Shepherd, April Genevieve Tucholke, Cat Winters, and more more more!

And now we have ARCs… so we’re holding a giveaway!

The lovely—and absolutely twisted—April Genevieve Tucholke has just posted the details

Enter! Scare us! Enter! Freak us out! Enter!


(US-Only, ends Monday, May 18)



We want to see you at your creatively slashiest. Show us your macabre side and post a pic of something scary to Instagram or Twitter, under hashtag #SLASHERGIRLSARC 


1. Hold a seance

2. Read a horror story in a cemetery

3. Recreate a horror scene from film/tv

4. Play light as a feather, stiff as a board

5. Say Bloody Mary 3 times in a mirror at midnight

6. Show us your Slasher boyfriend/girlfriend/platonic friend–Pinhead, Freddy, Xenomorph Queen…

7. Draw a chalk outline of a body on a sidewalk. Possibly yours.

SUPER SPECIAL ENTRY: Dig your own shallow grave. Anyone who goes to this much trouble will

be placed in their own pool, i.e. your chances of winning are extremely good. Shallow grave

guidelines: Be safe about digging. We’ll not be responsible for bodily injury due to spade

mishaps, digging near power/gas lines, or digging on a too hot day, etc. Keep it safe, keep it

shallow. On a beach, perhaps. Or in your garden.

Enter the giveaway as many times as you want (but dig your grave only once).

The Special Pool entries will be given priority.

And don’t let us hinder your slashy creativity. If you have other ideas, let’s see them! Tweet us

your fave horror quotes! Show us your…scary dogs? Just keep it legal. And don’t forget to RT and use


(US-Only, ends Monday, May 18)

Filling the Well

the well

I hear this advice often—I think I read it first from Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, one of the books I borrowed from my mother’s bookshelf way back when. Artists need time to “fill the well,” or replenish our creative resources, especially after we’ve completed large, all-encompassing, energy-draining projects such as novels that have taken huge chunks of our hearts, heads, and souls to get on the page.

How do you fill the well? You take in inspirations. You let yourself ponder and wonder and think. You take a look at the world and collect (people, ideas, fragments, overheard conversations, images, notes, pieces, pebbles, seeds).

So maybe this post is about this need and this process.

Or maybe this post is about that moment after you’ve published a book and the pressure that comes to write the next book.

And how this moment can expand into days. Weeks. Months. Years? (Help me, I’m quoting The Walls Around Us—that’s how connected I am to that book still and proves it’s been hard to move on and let go.)

This is me: I just published a new book. My fourth. I’m proud of it. It feels complete. There was the fear of what would happen when people started reading it, and I survived that, and the nerves of what would happen when it got published, and if it would change my life (we writers, no matter how realistic and jaded we get, still hold the secret hope that the next book will be the one to change our lives), and I think it did, in an internal way that feels very personal and wonderful, but I don’t necessarily think it did in the splashy ways most people ask about or expect.

This is a two-book contract, I should add. And the second book on the contract is a whole new novel, completely unrelated to Walls. It’s a creation from scratch. And it’s due.

This winter, after a short stint at an artists colony, I turned in a very wobbly and paper-thin first draft of my next book, and then got feedback, and was set off on a course to rewrite and reimagine it. I agree with the feedback. I know there is a lot of work to do—I love hard work. But even as I knew all that, The Walls Around Us was coming out, and there were promotional things to do, online and in-person, and I kept going away to conferences, and I kept telling myself I would really dig in deep when I got home, and I slipped in work in between things and time kept passing without much progress made.

What I needed was for time to stop. I needed permission to take a little break from trying to get the novel into shape and just close my eyes and let the shape nudge itself together in the darkness.

Lately I’ve been thinking about all of this. And I discovered something:

When forcing yourself to hit an arbitrary word count every day doesn’t help… And when guilt-tripping yourself into a stupor doesn’t help… And when comparing yourself to the productivity and publishing schedules of other authors doesn’t help… And when effectively tying yourself to your desk chair doesn’t help…

Know what helps me? Doing something tentatively connected to writing that has nothing whatsoever to do with this novel.

The first thing has been my teaching and the private manuscript critiques and mentoring I’ve started doing. I love working closely with other writers, and digging in deep to their novels even when I’m feeling faraway from mine. Somehow that’s helped.

The second thing has been a project I’ve been doing for the month of May, or Short Story Month. I’ve been reading a short story every day—if you want to see which stories, here is the list I’m keeping updated. Pressure-free reading. It’s working wonders on my head.

The stories don’t take long to read. And most of the stories I’m choosing to read are not YA, so I don’t have to think about the industry. I just have to absorb. Admire. Experience. Fill the well, I guess.

It’s been a wonderful experience so far. Inspiring. I feel lighter. I feel happier. I feel less tied to my author-self and more connected to my writer-self, the one who just loves words.

I’ve learned this about myself: I need time in between books to not be writing the next book. I always need this time, and I always fight against needing this time. I always feel bad about myself. I always force the work, and this takes me on detours, and ends with me having to undo what I forced.

If this always happens, you’d think I’d have this figured out by now, but I’ve also learned that I’m a work-in-progress and still learning.

Next time, I would like to remember this and give myself the well-filling recovery time I know I’ll need. Now I’ve had it, these new ideas are percolating and my heart is beating fast again and I can see the end of this novel glimmering in the distance and I want to run to it. I have the energy, once again, to run.

A Story a Day for Short Story Month


I’m in need of some untainted* inspiration… maybe you are, too?

(*Untainted by industry noise and book worries and life stresses. Just something simple, and sweet, and able to get the blood pumping and the fingers moving on the keys.)

One thing that does this for me is reading a good short story. I love short stories, as I’ve confessed before here.

So I was delighted to discover that apparently May is National Short Story Month, and one of my favorite authors, Sara Zarr, is taking on a beautiful project: reading a short story a day for a month, and tweeting about it. If I can get it together, I am going to join her, starting tomorrow. You can, too—just comment on her post, or let her know on Twitter at @sarazarr. There’s also a project in which you can write a short story every day, but that, my friends, is way too ambitious for me, when I’m working on a reinvention of a novel.

My intention is this: To read a short story every day* for the month of May (*Um, every day I am able to. I’m bad at every-day promises, so I can promise there will be at least a few days when I break it.) And I’ll talk about the stories on Twitter, to share what I’ve read.

I’ve decided to use the month to reread some of my most favorite short stories—many of which I have collected in a series of binders I call my “anthologies.” I used to photocopy stories I loved and admired from collections, magazines, literary journals, and anywhere I could find them and collect them in these personal anthologies. I stopped doing this years ago, but I still have about eight or nine volumes of my anthologies that I can dip into this month, not to mention some new books I have on my shelves and links I’ve collected online and a Best American or two I haven’t finished reading yet. So there will be some brand-new-to-me short stories to read, too.

If you have a favorite short story you’d like to suggest, please leave it in the comments below or tell me on Twitter at @novaren.

Tomorrow is May 1, the start of this fun project. I already know what tomorrow’s story will be… but I’ll wait to tell you until the morning. It’s a long-time favorite, and one I haven’t read in more than ten years. I can’t wait to rediscover it.

Keeping track of the stories I read here:

May 1, Story 1: “The Bloody Chamber” by Angela Carter. Favorite moment: a mother’s intuition. Also this moment: “I caught sight of myself in the mirror. And I saw myself, suddenly, as he saw me, my pale face, the way the muscles in my neck stuck out like thin wire. I saw how much that cruel necklace became me. And, for the first time in my innocent and confined life, I sensed in myself a potentiality for corruption that took my breath away.”

May 2, Story 2: “Lucho” by Patricia Engel. Favorite moment: the idea of love. “…I didn’t even know I loved Lucho till that second. But I did. Because so what if he was a little smelly and weird. He came looking for me back when I was invisible. And when he was with me, he acted like I was the only thing he could see.”

May 3, Story 3: “The Pelican Bar” by Karen Joy Fowler. Favorite moment: the idea of humanity, and, well, basically everything. This story is new to me, and I loved it. “There were tourists everywhere on the beach, swimming, lying in the sun with daiquiris and ice-cream sandwiches and salted oranges. She wanted to tell them that, not four miles away, children were being starved and terrified. She couldn’t remember enough about people to know if they’d care.”

May 4, Story 4: “Fear Itself” by Katie Coyle. Favorite moment: all the waxy weirdness. And the truth in this statement: “‘…He needs to know what he’s dealing with—otherwise he’ll do whatever he wants to her. That’s how older guys are,’ Ruthie explains with a sigh. ‘They underestimate you. They assume you’ve got no one looking out for you. They assume you’re nothing.'”

May 5, Story 5: “Miss Lora” by Junot Díaz. Favorite moment: voice and all voice. “Sometimes after you leave her apartment you walk out to the landfill where you and your brother played as children and sit on the swings. This is also the spot where Mr. del Orbe threatened to shoot your brother in the nuts. Go ahead, Rafa said, and then my brother here will shoot you in the pussy. Behind you in the distance hums New York City. The world, you tell yourself, will never end.”

May 6—I messed up and didn’t read a story today. Does it help to tell you I had a book event that day and was distracted? 

May 7, Story 7: “The Fisher Queen” by Alyssa Wong. Favorite moment: a whole new view of mermaids. “Mermaids, like my father’s favorite storytale version of my mother, are fish. They aren’t people. They are stupid like fish, they eat your garbage like fish, they sell on the open market like fish. Keep your kids out of the water, keep your trash locked up, and if they come close to land, scream a lot and bang pots together until they startle away. They’re pretty basic.”

May 8, Story 8: “The Saint of the Sidewalks” by Kat Howard. Favorite moment: the concept and every word. “That was how saints were made. Some piece of strangeness happened, and it hooked itself in the heart of someone who saw it, and called it a miracle. Once they decided that’s what it was, people tried to reenact the miracle’s circumstances. They ritualized its pieces. They named the person at the center of it, gave them an epithet, something memorable.”

May 9, Story 9: “Kindness” by Yiyun Li. Favorite moment: The loneliness and isolation of this narrator. The strength of memory… This story is just extraordinary. You can find it in the O.Henry anthology from 2012. “I never showed up in her dreams, I am certain, as people we keep in our memories rarely have a place for us in theirs. You may say that we too evict people from our hearts while we continue living in theirs, and that may very well be true for some people, but I wonder if I am an anomaly in that respect. I have never forgotten a person who has come into my life, and perhaps it is for that reason I cannot have much of a life myself.”

May 10, Story 10: “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” by Karen Russell. Favorite moment: the mood, so melancholy and peculiar in all the best ways. “Most people mistake me for a small, kindly Italian grandfather, a nonno. I have an old nonno‘s coloring, the dark walnut stain peculiar to southern Italians, a tan that won’t fade until I die (which I never will). I wear a neat periwinkle shirt, a canvas sunhat, black suspenders that sag at my chest. My loafers are battered but always polished. The few visitors to the lemon grove who notice me smile blankly into my raisin face and catch the whiff of some sort of tragedy; they whisper that I am a widower, or an old man who has survived his children. They never guess that I am a vampire.”

Bonus weekend story, which catches me up to Day 6: “The Map” by William Ritter, a Jackaby (Doctor Who meets Sherlock in YA form) short story that is coming out online this summer, before book #2. I don’t think I should quote from it since it’s not available yet, but expect all the sense of classic mystery and excitement you’ll remember from the first book in this little teasing taste… (Full disclosure: We share a publisher, Algonquin Young Readers!)

May 11, Story 11: “White Angel” by Michael Cunningham. Favorite moment: This story was a time machine—I remember reading it many years ago, and a distinct and emotional memory of reading it followed me over the years. Returning to it made me cry, at its end, again. Helps that I actually did live during my formative years in Woodstock, New York—it’s not what they hoped it was. “‘You and I are going to fly, man,’ Carlton whispers, close to my ear. He opens the window. Snow blows in, sparking on the carpet. ‘Fly,’ he says, and we do. For a moment we strain up and out, the black night wind blowing in our faces—we raise ourselves up off the cocoa-colored deep-pile wool-and-polyester carpet by a sliver of an inch. Sweet glory. The secret of flight is this—you have to do it immediately, before your body realizes it is defying the laws. I swear it to this day.”

May 12, Story 12: “The Girl on the Plane” by Mary Gaitskill. Favorite moment: This story is profoundly disturbing. Upsetting. Gutting. Complicated. It was very difficult to read the first time, years ago. I think I  had to close the book before finishing and come back to it later. This time, I knew what was coming. It hurt to read. I needed to read it. I think everyone should read this story. “A stewardess with a small pink face asked if they’d like anything to drink, and he ordered two little bottles of Jack Daniel’s. Patty’s shadow had a compressed can of orange juice and an unsavory packet of nuts; their silent companion by the window had vodka straight. He thought of asking her if she was married, but he bet the answer was no, and he didn’t want to make her admit her loneliness. Of course, not every single person was lonely, but he guessed that she was. She seemed in need of comfort and care, like a stray animal that gets fed by various kindly people but never held.”

May 13, Story 13: “It’s Just a Jump to the Left” by Libba Bray. Favorite moment: Memories of Rocky Horror, but beyond that the sex and longing and rebellion and confusion, the heart. “She couldn’t say why it felt so very necessary to be angry with her mother all the time, but it did. She would walk into a room where her mother sat reading or grading papers and be consumed with a sudden need to wound that would be followed moments later by a terrible guilt and an equally ferocious longing to be forgiven and comforted.”

May 14, Story 14: “Ramadan” by Mona Simpson. I am not actually sure if this is a short story (it later became a part of a novel?) or an essay (it seemed at first to be published in Granta and then as an essay?) or that amalgam of both that turns into semi-autobiographical fiction (?), which I find so fascinating, the way fact and imagination combine to form a whole new truth that distorts the memory forever after. Favorite moments: Truth is, this story upset me far more on second read than it did years ago. I am thinking about why that could be. “His skin stretched and spread taut wings from his neck to his top chest bones. I remembered that he was young, probably younger than twenty. I wanted to hear his name. I didn’t want it to be Atassi. He could have been. My father might have come back. Then I remembered my father telling me around the old kitchen table, ‘If I went back, I’d be running the country. I was the John F. Kennedy of Egypt.’ Well, he wasn’t running the country. I read the newspapers. I knew those people’s names. He said so little to us that I saved every sentence. I could lift one up like a bracelet or strand of pearls from a box.”

May 15, Story 15: “Call My Name” by Aimee Bender. Favorite moment: the sadness and entitlement to happiness that never comes. I don’t have to “like” this character to feel and appreciate her sadness. “The men are pleased when I come on the subway because I am the type who usually drives her own car. I am not your average subway girl, wearing black pants and reading a novel the whole time so you can’t even get eye contact. Me, I look at them and smile at them and they love it. I bet they talk about me at the dinner table—I give boring people something to discuss over corn.”

May 16, Story 16: “So You’re Just What, Gone?” by Justin Taylor. Favorite moment: when I realized this was going where I thought it was… the perv was a perv. “The Mark thing will make so much less sense out loud than it did when she did it, or even than it does now as she goes over it in her head. That’s the most unfair part. Everyone will have their own version of ‘What were you thinking?’ and ‘Why did you do that?’ Like her life is some book she needs to write a report about, identifying key themes and meaning, when, really, texting Mark was like peeking in the doorway of a bar or the teachers’ lounge—someplace you could get in trouble for going into but were curious to glimpse the inside of, just to be able to say that you knew what was in there. And maybe someone had dared you to do it and maybe you had had to dare yourself.”

…a gap of space and lost days in which I get very busy, do a little traveling, have a book event and a school visit, get home, meet two deadlines, and feel guilty about all the stories I missed, so I start again…

May 22, Story 17: “Apollo” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Favorite moment: a memory that transports us back in time. This story was filled with regret. Moving, perfect. This connection over Bruce Lee movies: “I stared at Raphael with the pure thrill of unexpected pleasure. ‘I watched the film in the other house where I worked,’ he said. ‘Look at this.’ He pivoted slightly, leaped up, and kicked, his leg straight and high, his body all taut grace. I was twelve years old and had, until then, never felt that I recognized myself in another person.”

May 22, Story 18: “The Snow Queen” by Karen Brennan. Favorite moment: the sadness and the disconnect. “In those days I would have done anything to protect my son. If I were to encounter him now—in an alley, say, covered with snow—I would not be able to melt his heart.”

May 23, Story 19: “Distant View of a Minaret” by Alifa Rifaat. Favorite moment: The calm at the end and everything that says and contains. (Reading the Wikipedia page about how this author’s husband would “allow” her to write and publish, and then take that away, gives me a complicated feelings; I need to read more from this Egyptian writer.) “As often happened at this moment she heard the call to afternoon prayers filtering through the shutters of the closed window and bringing her back to reality. With a groan he let go of her thigh and immediately withdrew. He took a small towel from under the pillow, wrapped it round himself, turned his back to her and went to sleep.”

May 24, Story 20: “Use Me” by Elissa Schappell. Favorite moment: going back in time—this was a story from a book I loved as a young writer in grad school, and I haven’t read it since. I’m such a fan of this writer, even still, years and years after. This paragraph shows some of her power… “I would be lying if I said that I hadn’t fantasized about appearing in one of his books. I imagined how he would see me. I would be young, my blonde bob would be long and red with a shine like patent leather. He’d mention my breasts, which were really nothing special, comparing them to dollops of fresh white cream. My legs, elongated, would cut through space like scissors. I would be smart, but not too smart. I would be naive. Maybe he’d widen the gap in my front teeth. He would rewrite all his parts so he was obviously the one with the upper hand, and invent poetic dialogue fraught with tense and subtle metaphor. In that way I was sure he wasn’t honest. But I would be different. Like a man. I’d have him, and I would leave him. He would put me on the page, but I’d live outside it. I’d live longer than he.”

May 25, Story 21: “The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado. Favorite moment: This story was incredible. Just incredible. Read it right now and you’ll see what I mean. “I once heard a story about a girl who requested something so vile from her paramour that he told her family and they had her hauled her off to a sanitarium. I don’t know what deviant pleasure she asked for, though I desperately wish I did. What magical thing could you want so badly that they take you away from the known world for wanting it?”

May 26, Story 22: “Mothers, Lock Up Your Daughters Because They Are Terrifying” by Alice Sola Kim. Hot damn! THIS STORY. The past two days of stories rocked my world. Favorite moment: Just look at how this story begins with this gem of a first sentence… “At midnight we parked by a Staples and tried some seriously dark fucking magic.” p.s. You can find this story in the anthology Monstrous Affections.

May 27, Story 23: “What the Dead Know” by Manuel Martinez. Favorite moment: Whenever the dead come back to life, you know I am there. “But they didn’t die. They walked out of the hospitals with their families and went to dinner. They went home and coaxed their spouses and lovers to bed. They told everyone that they had died and come back, that they had been given a second chance. They tried to explain that this was different from the type of near-death experience we hear so much about, when the heart stops beating and valiant surgeons are able to start it up again. They told us that this was true resurrection, but we couldn’t, or wouldn’t, understand.”

May 28, Story 24: “Nobody’s Business” by Jhumpa Lahiri. Favorite moment: Returning to this story after many years (this is another one from my anthology). “Sang had been laughing at him, but now she stopped, her expression pensive. She looked up at the house, a balled-up comforter in her arms. ‘I don’t know, Charles. I don’t know how long I’ll be here.'”

…a lost weekend…

May 31, Story 25: “Light” by Lesley Nneka Arimah. Favorite moment: I was taken in by the first lines, straight off… “When Enebeli Okwara sent his girl out in the world, he did not know what the world did to daughters. He did not know how quickly it would wick the dew off her, how she would be returned to him hollowed out, relieved of her better parts.”

There. I write this on June 1. The month has reached its end, and I somehow forgot to read some Alice Munro, which I shall rectify very soon. There were 31 days in May, and I only reached 25 stories, but just imagine a month full of 25 stories… it was 25 times richer than it would have been without.

Turning Points: Guest Post by Elana K. Arnold (+Giveaway)

This guest post is part of the Turning Points blog series here on distraction no. 99—in which I asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? Here is Elana K. Arnold revealing hers on the eve of her debut YA release, Sacred

Guest post by Elana K. Arnold

SACRED will be released tomorrow, November 13, by Random House/Delacorte!

It was the summer of 2009. My little family and I were staying at a KOA camp just outside of Astoria, Oregon. I watched my kids play in the pool—an indoor pool, because of Oregon weather. The whole room was wet with steam, and kids’ screams reverberated off the walls.

There were lots of families, but one mother caught my eye. Her children were a little younger than mine, also a big brother with a younger sister. I liked the way she spoke to her kids, the way she looked into their eyes, the way she smiled.

Making friends as an adult woman involves a wooing process. You make eye contact, you smile, you try not to get too much into her personal space, you compliment her children the way a young suitor might compliment a lady’s hair, or her dress.

I saw this woman and I wanted to be her friend. I had friends back home, but the thing was, I didn’t plan to go home.

* * *

Back up four months. I stood in my kitchen, stirring something in a pot, waiting for my husband to get home and listening to my kids screech on the trampoline in the back yard. It was a beautiful yard. Even though it was in Santa Ana, California, we had chickens in it. For a while there had been a pig named Igor.

Everything I had was poured into that home, that yard, and those two children. Their childhood was magical. I had made it so, along with my husband’s pretty significant salary and a job that may have been slowly draining his vitality.

It might not have been that very evening, but it was an evening like that one when Keith came home, sort of a wild look in his eyes.

“How was your day, Honeyman?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, “I got laid off.”

He could have gotten another job. We could have kept the beautiful house. The yard. The chickens.

* * *

BURNING is forthcoming June 2013 from Random House/Delacorte.

Back up another month or two. There was my husband, alone in the garage, smoking another cigar. At first it had just been once in a while; now he was up to two a day, maybe more. I hated the way he smelled. He worked long days. It seemed to me that he spent his evenings hiding from us—from me—in the garage, in the smoky cloud of his cigars.

He was not a happy man.

“I don’t care what it takes,” I told him. “Buy a boat. Have an affair. Do anything. Just get happy.”

So when Keith announced that he had been laid off, we did the math. It was simple math. We could pay our mortgage for two months. I remembered what I had said—Get happy.

I had meant what I said. And I continued to mean it—with most of my heart—as I watched my husband come back to life in the three months that followed, as we finally finished the kitchen remodel and put the house on the market, as we sold it for a price that would allow us to pay the bank what we owed but would eat up all the money we’d put into it, as we sold or gave away nearly everything we owned, as Keith built a bonfire in the backyard, whistling, happy, and burned our scrap wood and broken chairs and sandbox frame.

And then we were away, away, and my children and I were by turns ecstatic and scared and free and lost. Keith was pretty steadily ecstatic.

I think that when I saw the woman at the pool, I heard in the way she spoke to her children an echo of how I hoped I spoke with mine, even as I’d uprooted and displaced them.

I introduced myself. “I’m Elana.”

“Cheryl,” she answered. We shook hands, maybe. I don’t really remember.

She asked me what I did. I answered, without hesitation, “I’m a writer. I write Young Adult novels.”

Now, the truth was, I had never written a Young Adult novel. I’d never written a novel, not really. But the words came out, and they didn’t sound like a lie.

“I’m a writer, too,” she said. It turned out, she’d sold a novel, published essays, was working on a memoir. She was, I thought, a real writer. Her name was Cheryl Strayed.

What had brought me to that moment, that introduction of myself as a writer?

I had written for most of my life, off and on, though all I’d published was a couple of short stories in obscure little journals. I’d studied writing in school, I’d survived graduate workshops. But I’d never introduced myself as a writer. It would have felt presumptuous.

I always intended to one day write a book, but in the years since conceiving my firstborn, it was like I had amnesia. All my creative energy was poured into gestating, into nursing, into nesting. I didn’t seem to have time for writing, or a need to.

But now that the house was gone—and with it the pots and pans in every size, the never ending cycle of washdryfoldputaway, the rearranging of toys, the painting of walls, the machinations of housekeeping—now that I lived with my children and my husband and my dog and a ferret in an ugly brown RV… maybe it felt like I didn’t have the right to claim motherhood and housewifery as my job, anymore.

I didn’t leave the KOA and magically write a novel. We parked the RV not too much later in Corvallis, Oregon, and I got a job teaching at the university—first ESL, and later composition. We rented a house on Roseberry Lane. Keith got to be a stay at home dad. I slogged through stacks of papers.


I got sick. We moved home to California, living first with family and later in a rented house that may or may not have been possessed. I got better. Keith got another job, and I was home with my kids again. I set up house. We were back where we’d started, in a way.

But it was out there—those words. I’m a writer. And though motherhood was still beautiful, though it still filled me up in a way nothing else could, I wanted to make the words true. So I wrote.

Maybe it was because the bad thing had already happened—we’d already lost the safety net of a good job with health benefits, the furniture and the pictures on the walls. Even the walls. Maybe it was because I’d met a woman who was both a mama and a writer, who was beautiful and strong and seemed so sure of who she was. Maybe it was just time.

I don’t know exactly the ratio of what caused it to happen, what brought me to say those words. But that day in Oregon, with the clouded-over sky and a whole world of possibilities to choose from, when I opened my mouth to define myself, I named myself a writer.

Elana K. Arnold completed her M.A. in Creative Writing/Fiction at the University of California, Davis. She grew up in Southern California, where she was lucky enough to have her own horse—a gorgeous mare named Rainbow—and a family who let her read as many books as she wanted. She lives in Long Beach, California, with her husband, two children, and a menagerie of animals. She is represented by Rubin Pfeffer of the East/West Literary Agency. Sacred is her debut novel.

You can find her online at and on Facebook and Twitter, too.

Watch the book trailer for her debut YA novel, Sacred:


The winner of a signed finished copy of Elana’s debut novel, Sacred is…

Claire C!

Congrats, Claire! Thank you so much to everyone who entered—and to the author for providing a book for the giveaway!

There’s more in the Turning Points series. Catch up with any posts you may have missed here.

“Louis,” or The Scorpion and the Frog: What Scares Timothy Braun

What scares you? That’s the question I asked for this blog series. Stay tuned for interviews and guest posts as authors visit and reveal their frightening—even surprising—fears.

Today’s guest is writer and editor Timothy BraunWhat scares Tim? He’s written us a Halloween fable to tell us…

Guest post by Timothy Braun

Nova has been kind to me over the years. She allows me to write what I want for her blog (inside a theme), and I respect her and her audience. Recently, my past blogs on Distraction No. 99 have been republished on another site, but I’ve decided to write something only for Nova and her fans this time around. For the theme “What Scares Me,” I’ve written a short story with a monster, wild animals, poison, a bookstore, Thai food (I know Nova likes Thai), and a great deal of fear. This will not be reposted on any other websites. This one is just for you…

“I don’t like the way you are talking to me.”

It was Halloween and Louis didn’t appreciate much. He spoke down to his boss at the bookstore, because his boss wouldn’t let him read on the job and made him shelve the children’s stories. “Bitch” is what he called his boss. Louis was getting older, grumpier, and all he had in the world was a dog and a Thai takeout menu. He had worked at the bookstore for fifteen long years and saw it as a prison. He saw his life as a prison, the world as a prison, and he had days when he just wanted it all to go away. Louis could be mean to people, and thought he had every right to speak the way he did to them.

When Louis got home he had not eaten all day. He had no food in the fridge or the cupboard, just a bottle of clear alcohol in the freezer. He yelled at his dog, Monster, who wanted him to scratch his tail when Louis got home, but Louis drank from the bottle in the freezer instead to drown his sadness. He turned on the television and watched romantic comedies. Louis always watched romantic comedies on Halloween. Louis needed food, and he didn’t want to order pad thai for the third night in a row. The grocery store is only two blocks away, he thought. And I’m not drunk yet… But he was. Monster needed dinner too, but Louis would feed him when he got back.

Louis got into his car and swerved down the hill. He missed his turn and pulled over when he saw flashing lights in his rearview mirror. “Son, have you been drinking?” asked the police officer. “Dick” is what Louis said to the police officer—as if he was better. He took three sobriety tests and was placed in handcuffs and taken away.

Louis didn’t think he belonged in jail and thought it was a dream, but it all became real when he took off his clothes and put on the black and gray stripes the police gave him. Louis was put in a cell at the end of the hall, with a rubber bed and a metal toilet. “We’ll get you when your bond clears.” He was there for twelve hours. For the first three he slept, then he did push-ups, sit-ups, and sang to himself. He pretended his cell was the information desk at the bookstore, something he was familiar with, and then a great fear kicked in. Was he always so mean? Would he ever get out of jail? The room felt small, like it was shrinking. Louis had never been so scared.

Louis was called to a plastic box. On the other side was a lawyer. “Am I going to lose my job?” he asked. “No,” the lawyer said. “Will they take my dog?” Louis asked, scared. “No, this is a misdemeanor. Think of it as a warning. Stay calm. I’m doing my best to get you out.” And Louis was taken back to his cell.

Attempting to stay calm, and not knowing what else to do, Louis recited children’s stories to himself. He recited “The Scorpion and the Frog.” A scorpion said, “Hey, froggy, can you take me across the water?” The frog refused. He was afraid of being stung during the trip, but the scorpion argued that if he stung the frog, the frog would sink and the scorpion would drown. The frog agreed and began carrying the scorpion, for what reason Louis could not recall. Midway across the river, the scorpion did indeed sting the frog, dooming them both to a death of drowning. The frog asked why the scorpion would do such a thing and he said, “It’s in my nature, baby.” Some creatures are just irrepressible, no matter how they are treated and no matter what the consequences.

Louis thought about this while he was in jail, and wondered if animals could change. That is what jail is for. An hour later Louis was released on bond. The city moved fast and needed the cell for more souls. Louis took a cab home and found Monster waiting for him at the door, as is a dog’s nature. Where have you been? I’m hungry! Monster said without speaking, jumping on Louis and licking his face. Louis had never been so happy and never felt so loved. He fed Monster and took what was left of the bottle of clear alcohol and poured it down the kitchen drain. Louis kissed Monster on the nose, scratched his tail, and thought about the frog and the scorpion once again.

Louis wondered if the frog forgave the scorpion, and decided he did. He hugged Monster and turned on the TV so they could watch romantic comedies together. When Harry Met Sally was on. Louis liked this movie. He told Monster how inspiring Harry could be when he took responsibility for his actions. Louis called his boss at the bookstore. “I’m sorry for the way I spoke to you yesterday. I had no right. It will never happen again.”

And it never did.


Humans are social animals, and Halloween is a social night. This year appreciate what you have, kiss the thing you love most on the nose, and when no one is looking forgive that scorpion you come across, especially if that scorpion is looking at you in the mirror. And think when you drink—otherwise you might end up in a bookstore.

Thank you for writing us this Halloween story, Tim! (And for slipping in some Thai food, my favorite.)

Timothy Braun is a writer living in Austin, TX, with his dog, Dusty-Danger. He teaches at St. Edward’s University, the University of Texas at San Antonio, and is the Editor-In-Chief of New and Social Media for Fusebox. He is a fan of the Indianapolis Colts, and George is his favorite Beatle.

Visit him online at

Follow @timothybraun42 on Twitter.

Here’s what you missed so far in the What Scares You? series:

And come back tomorrow for more… The next writer to share fears with us is: Kendare Blake, author of Anna Dressed in Blood and Girl of Nightmares!

Series art by Robert Roxby. Email to contact the artist directly.

Turning Points: Guest Post by Shannon Messenger (+Giveaway)

This guest post is part of the Turning Points blog series here on distraction no. 99—in which I asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? Here, less than a week before her middle-grade debut Keeper of the Lost Cities comes out, is Shannon Messenger revealing hers…

Guest post by Shannon Messenger

Coming October 2 from Simon & Schuster / Aladdin!

I didn’t want to make the same mistake again.

By mistake, I mean jumping headfirst into a career I knew absolutely nothing about. Like when I switched to a film major, even though I had no idea how Hollywood actually worked (or even what being a film major meant—but that’s a whole other story altogether). A few years later I had a degree I never planned to use, interning experience for jobs I didn’t want, and a whole lot of pride swallowing to do when I made the terrifying decision to leave LA.

But that’s not the turning point I’m here to talk about.

I’m talking about the after.

The part where I realized I’d lost something when I set aside my dreams of writing for the silver screen. I missed sinking into another world and falling in love with the characters and getting swept away in all the excitement as the plot unfolded. I still had stories swirling around in my head—but now I was fighting them, snuffing them out, and the loss made me ache in ways I didn’t fully understand.

The more I missed it, the more I started to wonder if I should try writing again. But not a screenplay—never a screenplay again.

A children’s book.

I had an idea for a middle-grade fantasy series that was refusing to be ignored. And while I knew zero about writing novels, I’d spent years studying screenwriting. Surely everything I’d been taught would still apply. Screenplays couldn’t be that different, could they?

I quickly discovered that yes, yes they were. Of course there were overlaps—but when it came down to it I had no idea what I was doing. And after a few months of dragging embarrassingly bad files to a “deleted scenes” folder on my laptop, I started to wonder if I should just give up on the whole idea.

But the real problem wasn’t my inexperience with novel writing.

I was struggling to put the proper effort into polishing my craft because the whole thing felt like a waste of time. It seemed pointless to really invest my energy into writing a book if I wasn’t going to try to have it published. And pursuing publication felt too much like chasing another crazy Hollywood dream—and I knew how that had worked out for me. I wasn’t going to commit to something like that again. Not without knowing what I was getting myself into this time.

I tried to do my homework by reading articles and blogs—anything I found that told me about the book business. But none of that could show me what it was really like to be an author. How it would affect my life. And that was the crucial piece of information I needed before I could decide.

So when I heard about an event called Project Book Babe, where a group of children’s authors were teaming up to raise money for a book buyer friend battling breast cancer, I begged my husband to let me buy tickets. Yes it was expensive—and yes it meant driving to Arizona for something that he did not think sounded nearly as exciting as I did—but it was for a great cause, and he agreed it was a perfect chance for me to meet authors at all different stages of their careers and hopefully figure out if this was something I should do with my life.

A few weeks later we made the five-hour trip to Tempe, Arizona. And I’ll confess, I spent most of that drive watching the barren desert landscape whizz by and wondering if I was losing my mind.

I’d walked away from Hollywood because I absolutely did not belong. The constant networking to get ahead. The inescapable competition. It just wasn’t me. All I’d wanted was an outlet to tell my stories. I’d never had any hunger for fame—and the longer I was around it the more I realized how incredibly destructive fame could be.

But being an author was a level of fame too. A smaller, quieter one. But still—fame. So I didn’t see how publishing could ever be a right fit for me.

Until I got to Project Book Babe.

Poster from the Project Book Babe event

As I sat in that high school auditorium listening to the amazing authors talk about what inspired them and how they felt about their characters and what they loved about writing, it felt like they were speaking for me—not to me. Like they were channeling everything I’d ever thought about storytelling and what I wanted from a career and broadcasting it straight back to me. And the event was about as un-Hollywood as you get. No red carpet or paparazzi. No special spotlights for the authors who’d sold more books or won more awards. Just ten people at tables with poster-board signs, answering questions and auctioning off items they’d donated to help raise money for friend—and not because that friend was some uber-powerful publishing mogul who might help further their careers. They were helping her because they cared about her and she’d been an awesome cheerleader for their books and because she deserved it.

These were my kind of people.

And I knew—right there, right then—that this was it.

I was so sure I remember leaning over to my husband and whispering, I can do this. 

This was me. This was a career that fit. And I suddenly wanted it more than I’d ever wanted anything. Even though I had a lot to learn. Even though I knew it would be hard. This was it—the dream that was finally worth chasing. And I was going to race after it with everything I had.

I left Project Book Babe armed not only with that newfound determination, but also a new way of approaching my draft. One of the authors had talked about writing everything the character did to get from Point A to Point B—even though it meant throwing lots away at the end—because they discovered amazing things along the character’s journey. It was the exact opposite of how I’d been working, with my rigid outline, and the first day I tried it I had a breakthrough. A new character popped into my story—one who quickly wormed his way through the entire series—and with him in my arsenal the whole plot finally started to come together.

It still took me two more years and twenty drafts (yes, really) to finally tell my story the right way and make it good enough to sell. But all that work paid off. Keeper of the Lost Cities will be published by Simon & Schuster this fall. And I hope it will be the first of many books to come.

Shannon Messenger graduated from the USC School of Cinematic Arts where she learned—among other things—that she liked watching movies much better than making them. She also regularly eats cupcakes for breakfast, sleeps with a bright blue stuffed elephant named Ella, and occasionally gets caught talking to imaginary people. So it was only natural for her to write stories for children. KEEPER OF THE LOST CITIES is her first middle-grade novel, launching October 2, 2012. LET THE SKY FALL, a young adult novel, will follow in Spring 2013. She lives in Southern California with her husband and an embarrassing number of cats.

Find her online at

Follow @SW_Messenger on Twitter.


The winner of a signed finished copy of Keeper of the Lost Cities… plus the Project Book Babe poster signed by Stephenie Meyer, Shannon Hale, Brandon Mull, Laini Taylor, Dean Lorey, Chris Gall, Janette Rallison, James A. Owen, Jon S. Lewis, P.J. Haarisma, and Frank Beddor is…

…Ren White! 

Congrats, Ren! I’ll email you for your mailing address. And thank you so much to Shannon for offering up this generous prize and to everyone who read her post and entered!

There’s more in the Turning Points series. Catch up with any posts you may have missed here.