Seven Sentences with Maggie Stiefvater

It has long been a dearly-held dream of mine to meet Maggie Stiefvater, and last weekend it finally happened.

Maggie and Courtney Stevens hosted a workshop called Seven Sentences that took place in a beautiful lodge on a lake outside of Nashville. Chris and I had stayed the night before up in Nashville due to a mini family reunion on his side that coincided perfectly with the seminar I’d signed up for months ago.

The things is… I was totally dreading it.

When you envision meeting your heroes, you imagine you’ll do it as your best version of yourself. Going into the workshop I felt like the opposite of that. My depression was better but still kept me quiet and dull, due to the emotional eating I’m not at a weight where I feel great about how I look, I hadn’t written anything new in a month, and I don’t even have the credibility of being signed with an agent right now. Even so, it turned out pretty good, and I’m glad I went instead of bailing, as I was tempted to do.

Maggie and Court were insightful, hilarious, and their presentation was incredibly well-prepared. They showed slides of their pictures from childhood, detailed examples of their own writing, and fun demonstrations of all the concepts we learned.

The theme of the workshop, of course, is that the first seven sentences set the reader expectations for the book. They are both hook and thesis statement, inciting curiosity and forming a connection with the reader instantly. But the workshop wasn’t so much about composing those seven sentences. Instead it was about getting in touch with our individual emotional expertise as a writer, how to frame scenes and plots to communicate a defined message, and the biggest lesson at all — that it’s okay to fail, and start over.

These are my favorite of the things we learned:

The Wheelhouse

In our workbook we were challenged to identify our personal Wheelhouses. What are the subjects you are an expert in? These subjects come in a variety of topics, including Relationships, Settings, Characters, Genres, Stories, Experiences, Moods, and Skills. It was totally awesome to see Maggie and Court put up their own personal wheelhouses. Here’s Maggie’s:

From here we explored what this really means, and how getting to the core of our expertise can translate to other stories. Here’s an example from Maggie:

In this way you can identify the emotional truths underneath your expertise and apply it to your stories.


This lesson totally blew my mind.

Apparently each sentence addresses the reader through one of seven different lenses, from Stranger (presenting facts only) to the Character themselves (intimate personal experiences). Adjusting the lenses adjusts the tone, and even the speed at which a book can develop (Stranger is fastest, Character is slowest).

I loved this activity because a) it was an entirely new concept and b) it showed me that I often focus my writing between Best Friend and Character. I have conflated the creative, descriptive intimacy of Character with ‘good’ writing. Something to think about for the future.


During the entire presentation, a large stack of boxes arranged in a 7-foot tall Jenga tower waited ominously in the front of the room. I’d heard of this tower from one of the MadCap Retreats (in 2016 I think), and Maggie and Court frequently joked about how they’d encouraged attendees to pour their hearts onto the box… only to burn them on the final night.

Our demonstration was not nearly as fiery.

Instead, at the end of the seminar audience members were invited to come up and literally play Jenga. But the boxes were different sizes, and it soon became difficult to create the tower and keep it standing. Finally the tower grew so large that even when standing on chairs the other writers in the room weren’t able to get the boxes to the top.

“Do I have a tall friend in the audience that could help us out?” Court called.

My entire row looked to me. I knew my time had come:

As any long-time readers or friends know, I’m 6’2 and then some. After only two rounds of this the tower grew so unstable that with Court’s urging we let the tower lose a few levels, then she and Maggie knocked the whole thing down.

“What is the point of Jenga?” Court asked the audience. “To knock down the tower.”

We were so concerned about preserving the integrity of the tower, but nothing bad happens when it falls down.

The lesson?

It’s okay to fail when writing. Nobody dies. No one gets hurt. Don’t take it so seriously, and have fun.

I met several lovely, friendly, supportive writers, to whom I gave my apologies for not being my usual upbeat self. They were very kind and sympathetic, and have my gratitude <3

Also, I got to meet Maggie.

We were outside in the courtyard pictured above, many attendees already heading out. I wore my heart shaped sunglasses and she wore her aviators.

“The Raven Boys changed the trajectory of my writing,” I told her. I still clearly remember that moment in The Raven Boys when the gang enter Cabeswater for the first time. My whole body lit up with goosebumps. “This is magic,” I thought to myself. “I want to make magic like this.”

I have read The Anatomy of Curiosity, a book Maggie and her two friends wrote dissecting how they construct a story. I’ve seen Maggie deconstruct some scenes from The Scorpio Races. I never felt ready to enter that level of analysis with my writing, relying on my same old tricks of instinct. But now, after this seminar, I feel ready to take my writing to the next level.

Just a few more things to edit on Shotgun Girl, and it will be ready to send out into the world.

I’ll let you know how it goes ;-)



The Psychic

“Let me just tune in here,” she said, and I waited for one silent second on the phone. “You have stomach pain,” she said.

“Yes,” I affirmed.

“You really need to give up caffeine.”

I gave an exaggerated sigh. “I knowwww. Ugh. Fine. I will.”

For my birthday, I bought myself a session with the same psychic I visited in Seattle in 2013. Obviously, as I am in Alabama and Darleen is many hundreds of miles away, we did the reading over the phone. The first thing she did (after a lovely prayer) was a body check in, where she highlighted areas on my body that were hurting, or that I was ignoring were hurting. The biggest takeaway was a truth I knew, and just needed someone to definitively say: My espresso habit is giving me more trouble than it’s worth.

cafeAnd the tough part is that it’s worth a lot. Espresso is a magic potion, y’all. Look, I work full time and I’m taking four classes. I exercise after work and cook and want to spend time with my husband (still weird to say). This means my lunch breaks are sacred writing time. I go to the cafe, I order espresso mixed with green tea and cream (if I drink regular coffee my stomach will hurt, but somehow ‘hiding’ the espresso in the tea won’t give me full on stomach cramps), and it supercharges me to get work done.

But I knew it wasn’t good for me. I’m happy to report in the last month I’ve managed to give up caffeine except for an occasional cup if I run out of decaffeinated green tea.

After the body check, Darleen moved on to astrology. I was very excited for this part because the last time I visited her she brought up some recent friend-trauma I’d experienced, and gave me some tools that quite literally changed my life. I was able to let go of the hurt and resentment by learning to ‘send love’ to people instead of wishing them ill.


Forgiveness is not for the other person. It’s for ourselves. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying that hatred is like drinking poison and hoping the other person will die. It only affects us, so why should we subject ourselves to that?

Thankfully my life is in a really great place right now, and I didn’t come to the table with any seeping wounds or self-delusional behavior (except for the espresso!) As a result there weren’t any huge life lessons or new tools to receive, but that wasn’t really the point of this call.

I wanted affirmation. Sure, I enjoyed the thrill of someone telling me things about my life they couldn’t possibly know, but I also wanted to hear I’m on the right path. Whether psychics are frauds or not, whether movements of distant stars can influence our lives at all, I wanted someone to tell me things are going to work out.

And they are.

Chris and I were married on a day and time that speaks well of longevity (not that I had any doubts). A project I’d launched recently left my hands under a bad moon, and wouldn’t be successful, but from my own Tarot card readings I knew that already. Darleen advised I’d be entering ‘the cave’ soon — a place of intense focus and dedication to working.

She was absolutely right. On Saturday 6/18 I wrote 11k and finished my latest book, code named Shotgun Girl.

Yes, you read that right.




And because I’m a sucker for charts and statistics, I tracked the entire process and have these nerdily wonderful charts to show you:

SG stats

As you can see, it was an absolute whirlwind. The project was conceived at the end of April in 2013. I planned and plotted for THREE YEARS, sometimes regurgitating fully-formed chapters in the middle of the book, sometimes spending weeks just brainstorming and fleshing out characters or plot. After all that time the story and characters were so real in my head.

I love this book and the characters (Ellie with her dour sensibility, Jackson with his smirking craziness) and wanted it to be perfect, so I kept putting off writing it. I didn’t want to start too early and take a wrong path and stall out, as is very common in my process. I wanted to get it right.

And then things leaped entirely out of control:

I couldn’t stop writing. Just the first paragraphs, I told myself. Only since I came up with the perfect sentence to start it. Oh, and this description I just thought of is amazeballs, too. Wow, this is really working. How about I just introduce the first conflict, and then I’ll stop?

I did not stop. I averaged 900 words per day, not counting the outlier of the last day. As we speak I’m in recovery mode, taking the week off to relax and recharge, then diving into edits this Saturday. Holy cow was Darleen right about ‘the cave!’

Something else she told me has stuck with me, and I’ve been picking it over for the past few weeks. “You have a big perfectionist streak,” she said.

I was surprised.

I’m not a perfectionist, was my first thought. Aren’t perfectionists the people who can’t let stuff go if it’s not to their exact specifications? Isn’t perfectionism a symptom of anxiety, of low self-esteem, of OCD, of neurosis? I see so many writers online boldly and courageously speaking up about their mental struggles, particularly with anxiety and depression. I am so lucky that I have a lot of spoons now, and don’t suffer from those things. I know it makes my life easier, and I recognize that privilege.

So I didn’t want to claim the title of ‘perfectionist.’ I’m great at letting things go! My INTJ brain understands that ‘done’ is better than ‘perfect’ and I constantly compromise in my work and personal life, accepting that we’ve gotten close enough to vision to execute. Otherwise you just stay stuck in prep mode, too afraid to send something out into the world.

I still don’t think ‘perfectionist’ is the exact right word for me. It has too many connotations with a certain type of behavior or action that doesn’t really describe me. I’m fine with not being personally perfect. My house is frequently a mess, I don’t wash clothes as often as I should, I know where everything is but that doesn’t mean its organized, and sometimes I go to the store in my pajamas because I can’t be bothered to put on pants.

believe in this picture:


I believe in imperfect selfies. In making goofy faces and posting them. In letting stuff go, and not worrying about it, and being yourself.

But with writing… It’s a little different.

Perfection isn’t the right word. Obsession is.

I am obsessed with creating amazing writing. I’m constantly reaching, trying to ascend the heights my favorite authors are at. I want to give someone the gift those books gave me. And I want to have the wisdom, the insight, the knowledge to get there. This year I’ve been studying books on craft, and studying my favorite books to see how they’re formed. I constantly compare my work to the work of my heroes, and that is where my perfectionism lies.

I fixate on my weak points. Sometimes I flounder. I get frustrated, I get terrified that I’m just repeating the same literary tricks over and over. I second-guess myself. I wonder what critics would say. Ultimately I can remember that ‘done is better than good’ and call something finished, but I don’t believe it’s good enough.

Because I want this, more than anything. I want a writing life, and to make amazing, heart-stopping, gut-punching, plot-obsessing books that people can’t put down. I don’t want you to see my seams. I want you to experience magic. My magic. To care about the characters and emotions that make themselves in my head, as much as I do.

“Yeahhh,” Darleen said in her breathy, excited way. “You have a lot of publishing in your chart.” Apparently my birth date and time is just chock full of creation and publishing. “Focus on staying positive,” she told me. “You have to believe in the work you send out into the world.”

I guess I’m a little prone to a defeatist attitude, as well. Telling people I look forward to my rejection letters, because they always say nice things, and at least it proves I’m out there, making it happen.

Well here’s an entirely new thought: I am done with rejection, Universe. Do you hear me? My projects are worthy, and I am worthy, and it’s going to happen for me. Soon.

“You have a big heart,” Darleen also told me. “You have so much potential to help people, especially families.”

I hope she means the family of my writing community and readers, because that’s where my heart is. Writing is so entwined with my journey through life as a person. I love sharing the lessons I learn, and hope the sharing can help others grow in their personal journeys, too.

So that’s where I’m at. Darleen made a few other cool predictions, which have come true. An influx in finances (Chris got a new job!), a big party in August (we’re going to Las Vegas for DefCon!), and two other predictions related to family I’ll have to wait and see about.

If you’re interested in a session with a psychic, I highly recommend her. Treat yourself to the full hour!

Wishing you all the joy your life can stand right now!



Defining Yourself by Work, not Success

These tidbits from the February 2016 Nelson Literary Agency Newsletter (not my agency but their newsletters are great!) really struck a chord with me:

Your Writing Should Not Be Your Main Source of Validation For Who You Are as a Person – Kristin Nelson

I think this can be the most debilitating mistakes an aspiring writer can make. There be dragons if you start down this mental path.

But here is the reason you need to start thinking like an agent and less like a writer when it comes to submitting your material. If someone passes on your work, that rejection is not a commentary on your qualities as a human being. In a lot of instances, it’s not even a commentary on your ability or talent as a writer!

No matter what an industry person’s response is to your written work, your writing is only one facet of who you are as a human being. Don’t make it everything, or you may lose your joy of writing and find the whole business very depressing indeed.

Ms. Nelson’s article is inspiring and reassuring, but I have a different perspective on her ultimate conclusion. Writing absolutely defines who I am–but my writing career does not, and the difference is an important one.

I used to define myself by my ‘career.’ Ever since I decided in fourth grade I was going to be a writer (abandoning dreams of ‘flying’ as an astronaut), I judged myself by my talents. For many years I was thankfully blind to my faults due to the attention I received from friends and English teachers. I say ‘thankfully’ because if I knew how bad I truly was I might not have written so much or dared to dream so big. And in high school it was fairly easy to shine–I even had an article published in TeenInk which bolstered my cockiness significantly, not to mention the medium-sized but sincere following at Fictionpress for Nameless.

Although it hurt my ego not to have a novel published while still a teenager, like my imaginary rival Christopher Paolini, I did sign with my agent at age 19 and that was a comfort. But even as my understanding of my weaknesses increased, so did my expectation that my worth was defined by my ‘success.’ And for the first year of having an agent, that was good enough. But selling a book just sort of… kept… not… happening. Around me, friends and colleagues were signing deals left and right. But it didn’t happen for me.

I’m on the far side of my twenties now. Still a baby, to most! But my perspective is a lot different than when I was on the other side. At the time, it seemed like there was no tomorrow. If I didn’t catch the debut circles of 2009… 2010… 2011…2012… Then I’d miss the boat entirely. No writing career. No success. Thanks for playing, goodbye.

Maybe it’s because I truly joined the industry in those years, and thought the writer circles I was aware of would be permanent and unchanging, that the big names of 2010 would be the big names for all time. That the incredible frenzy of debuting would always surround the new writers I’d come to know and admire.

But it doesn’t.

And slowly, my awareness expanded to realize that despite how it felt, writing isn’t a race. It’s a marathon. And you’re not really competing against anyone but yourself. Sure, you can see the other runners’ times if you want to, but the only marker for success is the one you place for yourself. Look, I’m 6’2. I weigh 200+ pounds. I’ll never be able to sprint along at an eight minute mile for miles at a time. But when I ran a single (12+ minute) mile without stopping for the first time in my life I was as proud as if I’d completed a full 26-mile marathon. For me, for my journey, that was a win.

Writing is the same. As Maggie Stiefvater put it, it’s not Maggie versus other writers, it’s Maggie versus Maggie. I’m not trying to keep up with anyone else anymore, I’m simply trying to do the best I can in comparison to myself. The market–that’s out of my control. You know what isn’t?

Writing. I can’t stop telling myself stories. I can’t stop imagining new situations, characters, heartbreaks, exchanges. It’s part of who I am. I don’t have a book deal, but that hasn’t stopped me from working on the novels clamoring to break out of me. I would keep writing books my whole life even if I never sold one, because that’s me.

And I think it’s okay to define myself like that. I’m a writer. I’m not an author–yet–but you know what? That word never really did it for me. Writing is exciting. It’s a personal journey with a magnificent destination at the end. It’s a way to share the things that grow inside my mind–A truly bizarre concept, by the way. Why on earth do I feel the need to express these made up scenarios just to describe a fabricated sense of emotion I’ve never felt in real life but want to synthesize because it’s fun? No idea. But having the kind of mind that creates those abstract things, and honing my skills so I can better express them–that’s an irrevocable part of who I am.

As I learned more about yoga and meditation last year I realized that writing is my spiritual practice. It’s expression and self-improvement rolled into one. It is the art that compels me to improve myself in all aspects, and to pursue wisdom about life and being human.

Writing is the garden I work in. Bearing fruit will be satisfying, but that’s only a few minutes of sweetness. Do you think any reasonable person would put in all those months of labor just to eat a single, consumable piece of fruit at the end? No, they’d trot down to the store and buy it instead. But I’m not laboring for the moment of fruition. Not really. I’m doing it for the work itself, for the deep satisfaction of growing something, especially because sometimes that something is me.

And yes, part of my spiritual practice is to keep my eyes on my own paper and focus on writing the best book I can, and to not worry about the rest of it.

Savannah versus Savannah.

Savannah is winning.

As long as I keep writing.

BIG MAGIC by Elizabeth Gilbert – Read this book!

bigmagic_gilbertThis is the best book about writing since Stephen King’s ON WRITING.

You guys know I don’t post book reviews that often. Something has to really blow me away to be worth blogging about, but when I was reading BIG MAGIC I wanted to contact every single person I knew and make them read this book.

It’s not actually about writing per se, but as a writer of course every nugget Elizabeth shared I directly related to my writing life. BIG MAGIC is a non-fiction sort of self-help book about creativity — how to find it, get it, keep it, and drastically improve your happiness.

I wanted to pull a quote off of practically every page. Eventually I couldn’t stand it anymore and got my notebook out and started actually doing so.

Some of the best quotes and takeaways:

  • The insistence that art does not have to mean suffering, and in fact the suffering artist is probably not creating to their full potential, let alone living a fulfilling life.
  • An AMAZING anecdote about how a novel premise she abandoned jumped into the head of a friend that will have you believing in true magic.
  • The radical notion that the creative spirit is not within you, but a separate entity, one you can address and court and form a partnership with. The idea that you have to show your work you want it, not just hope it wants you. It’s a little hokey but I’ve been using the concept for Cobworld edits and wow — things are clipping along MUCH faster than usual.
  • “You can measure your worth by your dedication to your path, not by your successes or failures. You can battle your demons (through therapy, recovery, prayer, or humility) instead of battling your gifts — in part by realizing that your demons were never the ones doing the work, anyhow.”

I read this book a few months ago and my writing life has been much improved ever since. That kind of long-term improvement is pretty rare, right? Read this book. Results not guaranteed of course, but you’ll have a great time trying.

<3, Savannah

To Live Up to the Spirit That Is In Me

to live up to the spirit that is in meThis image has been the cover to my Pinterest board about life and writing ever since it was created. Some people have boards about life advice, and some people have boards for writing, but for me the two are so interconnected I didn’t want to separate them.

I’ve been thinking about this quote a lot these days. I’ve been looking over my past posts, and particularly drafts of posts chronicling the long journey towards publication. I’ve had a lot of internal ups and downs, and when I’m finally able to make that exciting announcement about a book deal, I want to be able to share with you how I felt in those moments of hope or despair.

These days, however, mostly what I feel is calm. It’s taken a lot of hard work to get to this point, and today I’d like to talk a little bit about that journey.

When I stepped down from Pub Crawl two years ago, I felt lost. I knew I needed out–out from the cycle of talking about writing instead of actually writing, out from the hamster wheel of social media, out from the sense that I was failing, stagnant, unwanted. I didn’t know it then but I’d reached a plateau with my writing, and the only way I knew how to fix it was to go back to my roots. I needed to be alone, to break my habit of watching TV instead of reading, to focus on me and my writing journey instead of constantly comparing myself to others.

Continue reading “To Live Up to the Spirit That Is In Me”

Revealing Secret Project: NaNoWarmUp!!

Kat Zhang and I have been cryptically tweeting about a project we have coming up, and today is the launch! Introducing…


Kat and I love NaNoWriMo, but kicking out 50,000 [usable] words in a month is really tough considering we both have daytime commitments. We decided to use the month of October as a warm up to NaNoWriMo, with the goal of writing 25,000 words (or roughly 800 per day) by the end of the month, and we want you to join us! Remember how much fun we had during the LTWF Word Wars? It’s going to be like that, but ALL MONTH!

Come check it out by clicking the link above! I can’t wait to write with you :-)



PS: I just spent the weekend with Kat and attended the launch of her second book, Once We Were, at the uberly amazing Little Shop of Stories. One of the coordinators was telling me about all the project camps they run for kids, and the awesomeness literally made me tear up. If you’re in the Atlanta area, definitely check them out!

Songs to Get Your Mojo Back

Feeling less than confident? Use these songs to get pumped back up and remind yourself that you are CAPABLE and CONFIDENT, and on the right path towards success.

Heartlines, by Florence + The Machine

Song rating: G

Key lyrics:

Just keep following the heartlines on your hand
Keep it up, I know you can
Just keep following the heartlines on your hand

Superstar, by Lupe Fiasco

Song rating: PG (one mention of a ‘sexy lady’)

Key lyrics:

If you are what you say you are
A superstar
Then have no fear
The camera’s here, and the microphone
And they wanna know

Touch the Sky, by Kanye West

Song rating: PG-13 (a handful of swear words)

Key lyrics:

You gonna touch the sky, baby girl
Come up in the spot lookin’ extra fly
‘Fore the day you die
You gonna touch the sky 

212, by Azealia Banks

Song rating: X (seriously, the lyrics are pretty explicit, but the chorus is PG-13 and will blow your socks off. If you want to skip straight to it just forward the video to 1:46)

Key lyrics:

What you gon’ do when I appear?
Wh-wh-when I premier?
B**** the end of your lives is near
This sh** been mine, mine!

Bonus anti-laziness bridge:

Hey yo
I heard you ridin’ with the same tall, tall tale
Tellin’ ’em you made some
Sayin’ you grindin’ but you ain’t goin’ nowhere
Why you procrastinate, girl?
You got a lot but you just waste all yourself
They’ll forget your name soon
And won’t nobody be to blame but yourself


 What songs would you recommend adding to this list?


PS: The five days at home with my sister was wonderful… I added over 9k to The Cobworld story, bringing us up to almost 20k! Here’s some of the guest audience that attended these writing sessions:

<3, Savannah





On Not Giving Up

One of my favorite industry blogs is from the Books & Such Literary Agency. I look forward to their posts every single day, and love all the wisdom and commiseration that comes from them. Today they posted this article, which discusses 9 reasons to give up on publishing. The very last reason was this:

You think anything else—anything—might make you as happy as writing does.

Let me share with you another list:

  • HR Director
  • Police Officer
  • FBI Agent
  • Boutique Owner
  • Lobbyist
  • English Professor

These are all careers I have seriously considered. Those are diverse positions listed, but all of them appeal to some of my core desires: to do right and good, to create and uphold beneficial rules, and to use my skills and ethics to help others. I’m the type of person that easily develops loyalty and only with great force manages to let go of it. If I clamped onto another career it would become my passion in life, and I would mold myself to fit around it.

The problem is I already have a passion in life. Sometimes I wonder where I would have ended up if my parents hadn’t read to me so much, or if I hadn’t discovered such wonderful books in my childhood that I felt driven to create work as amazing as they were. Sometimes I find myself reading about the hypocrisy of those in public servant positions and long to be the systemic change that brings about improvements.

Each time I feel my heart extend towards some ideal, only to withdraw once it realizes I’ve already found my calling. Rachelle Gardner put it perfectly: You should quit if you think anything, literally anything at all, would make you happier than being an author.

And the truth of the matter is that, for me, nothing else would. The pursuit of telling stories, and making a career out of it, is an inherent part of my life. I don’t even feel the overwhelming impatience of nothing happening yet anymore. Because there will never come a point where I’ll say, “That’s enough.”

That’s the final rejection. That’s the final chance. The final manuscript sweated and bled over.

I will never give up because there’s nothing to give up. Writing is part of who I am.

So to the fearful reader who thought me tweeting that link and highlighting #9 meant I was considering giving up–

Never. Never. Never.

<3, Savannah

5 Books That Formed Me As a Writer

I love reading the books my friends say helped form them, as either writers or people. Just recently in fact I read a friend’s ‘most favorite book of all time’ and was stunned by how similar it was to my friend’s current work, in terms of theme and style. Like looking at a child and then seeing their parent’s picture at the same age. It was a very, very good book, for the record, and I think if I’d read it when I was younger it would have had a strong impact on me, too. Clearly that book spoke to something inside my friend, showed her what rang true for herself, and had been a touchstone since that time as she developed as a writer.

Sometimes books act as our mentors, our guides. Sometimes they’re the distant point on the horizon we want to reach one day. I thought it might be fun to talk about the books that formed us, and of course since this is my post I’ll go first :)

Lanterns and Lances

My 8th grade English teacher had this book in her personal library from which students were allowed to borrow, but after reading this one I never returned it (sorry Mrs. Koonz!). James Thurber showed me what it was to play with language, and provided my first inkling into the minds of other writers. This book made me fall in love with my craft — not just with the work itself, but in discussing, sharing, and analyzing writing. I remember my chest aching with laughter and swelling with pride as I read this book, because James Thurber made writing hilarious and self-righteous and brilliant. It was just what I needed in a time when I felt so alone as a writer.


This book came from that same English teacher’s library. Beloved introduced me to Toni Morrison, and became the standard of beauty against which I measure all my works. The combination of lyricism, tragedy, and horror left a deep mark on me. This was the first book that made me ache, that taught me what it was to ache for a story. I have tried to give my stories the same ache ever since.

For a book that looms so large in my mind, I realized after writing this post that Beloved actually has the shortest description. I guess I just want to say it’s probably the most important book to me on this list and my brevity in discussing it is not from lack of love, but probably inability to describe just how intensely I feel about it. This was the one that started everything, that made me think, ‘I want to write like that.’


Rant was the first Chuck Palahniuk book I read — yes, even before Fight Club. The Assistant Manager of the store I was working at was reading it, and found it utterly strange and incomprehensible. I borrowed her copy and consumed it.

Rant is, in my opinion, Palahniuk’s best book, and one of the best books I’ve ever read. No book has haunted me more than this weird, time-traveling, venom-addicting, car crashing, futuristic entertainment jacking, absolute heartbreaker of a book. Beloved inspired me; Rant haunted me. Rant is complicated and multi-layered, and I had to read it about five times before I really understood what was going on, and honestly I’m sure there are parts I’m still missing. I don’t desire to write like Palahniuk, but I strive to attain this level of awesome. Every day since I read Rant has been a day spent in waiting for the sequel to appear. I hope to one day have as unique ideas as appeared in Rant’s pages.

The Silence of the Lambs

The name can be intimidating, I know. Of course the movie captured me first, at an age when I was probably too young to watch it. The first time I read the book I felt like I was savoring pulling apart the petals of a fresh rose. Or undressing a mannequin swathed in couture. Or tasting, bite by bite, the most delicious, thousand-dollars-a-slice hot fudge cake there ever was. Harris wrote an amazingly descriptive and yet cuttingly sparse work that was, to me, a thing of minimalist beauty to behold. His blend of stark language and poetry (how do you like your blueeyed boy Mister Death?) taught me how emotions can be communicated by the stakes involved, not adverbs. I remember dialogue Clarice must have screamed, every nerve aflare and all her convictions quivering, that he left on the page with not even an exclamation point. The power of that communication shook me, and I aspire to that level of telepathy.

Furthermore, I have never had such a transportive moment as when I read this line from Red Dragon: “Francis sat silent at his place, opening and closing his hand on the memory of an eye blinking against his palm.” Perhaps it was growing up on a farm and knowing what that chicken blink felt like, but Harris took me away in that moment, and I’ve always remembered.

What exactly I took from Silence of the Lambs outside of these specific examples is hard to communicate. Originality, perhaps. Maybe motif, or mixing soft and hard. A touch of psychological horror, so much more real and dangerous than the fantastical horrors of Stephen King. King shows us the fears of our subconscious. Harris showed me the fear in my conscious mind.

Finnikin of the Rock

This is honestly an odd choice for this list, and I’ll tell you why: I read it just a few years ago. The other books I read before I had an agent, when I was still in my early formative years as a writer. Finnikin was the first book I read as a mostly-formed writer that changed how I viewed my writing. Finnikin showed me how to build passion, and how to demonstrate the closeness of family in ways I’d never seen before. It definitely threw down a gauntlet I’ve been working towards matching ever since.

Later came Melina’s other work, and then Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, which showed me most clearly what I desired my own writing to be like. But these five books… these five listed above are the ones whose ingredients can be tasted most strongly in the stew of my own work.


What books formed you, as either a reader or a writer? Careful, I may read them and then know all your secrets :-)

On Growing Ideas From Inspirations to Novels

A long-time reader and friend (who wants to one day perhaps venture into novel-writing) asked me to write a post detailing how an initial inspiration becomes an entire novel. Therefore, in this post I talk about where ideas come from, how to get them, and how to turn some of them into full-fledged, novel-length stories.

“Where do you get your ideas?”

It’s the question writers are asked over and over, and the answer is inevitably the same: Everywhere! (Further delineated into: Dreams! Conversations! Books! It popped into my head!) But what does ‘idea’ really mean? What happens after the initial idea is found? Why do some ideas become novels and others… don’t? Here are my thoughts:

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