New Books and New Rates

So there’s this part in Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art (one of my favorite creative practice texts) where young Steven is all “I finished writing my first book!” and his mentor says “Good for you. Start the next one today.”

I had planned to take a good long break between getting the draft of NEXT BOOK, aka A COINCIDENCE OF DOORS, aka THAT BOOK I SPENT FOUR DAYS TRYING TO EXPLAIN LAST WEEK, and writing, like, any fiction.

Since I’d just spent seven months working on a novel that I was pretty sure, even three months ago, would become one of those “trunk books” but I wanted to finish just to make sure-sure-sure and also for finishing’s sake.*

And then the next day I started another one.

And… well… it’s like I suddenly had all of this creative energy, and I was doing the thing where you grab every extra five minutes to throw a few more words in the draft, and waking up early because you can’t wait to start writing, and this past week is probably the happiest I’ve been in months because writing this book is so much fun.

It’s a mystery, probably because at least two of you commented that the opening paragraphs of A Coincidence of Doors read like the beginning of a mystery, and that made me think “I bet I could write a mystery,” and then it made me think about how the most interesting parts of Coincidence were the parts where Ellen was trying to solve puzzles and race against time and break into old Midwestern mansions, and then I plotted the entire book and set it up with the cliffhangers and the reverses and the obstacles, and, you know, OFF WE GO.

More on that later.

Next up: after sharing this month’s finance update and thinking about what I wanted to do with my increased freelance income, I’ve decided to raise the rates I pay freelancers for guest posts, from $50 to $100—because, as I mentioned yesterday, that is how capitalism is supposed to work.**

If you have already written a guest post for me and want to write another one, please pitch again. (You’ll get paid twice as much for the same amount of work!)

If you have not written a guest post for me and you’d like to, here’s a quick overview of what I’m looking for and a list of previous guest posts for you to read.

One more thing, while I have your attention: I put the ads back on my blog because it’s finally getting enough traffic to make the ads worthwhile, and because one of the other ways capitalism is supposed to work is the part where I don’t leave money on the virtual table.

Do you hate them? Do you even notice them? (Ideally you should notice the ads just enough to make the companies happy but not so much that it ruins your experience on this blog.)

Let me know what you think, because it’s not a huge amount of money and I could just as easily go ad-free. ❤️

*Technically, I didn’t finish A Coincidence of Doors. There are a few scenes in that draft where I literally typed “I’LL WRITE IT LATER.” But I finished it enough to count, for me.

**Or, at least, one of the ways in which capitalism might work.

All the Problems With NEXT BOOK, Part 4 (of the Last One)

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

So here’s what Ellen learns, very quickly:

She is in a parallel universe, but this Earth hit its climate change crisis roughly a hundred years earlier.

This parallel universe is the source of much of our world’s portal mythology. They were the fairies that swapped babies in the night. They were the alien abductors. They did a lot of untoward, nonconsensual stuff to humans in the name of SCIENCE (and then they had to take a huge pause for about 75 years because they were focused on NOT DYING FROM CLIMATE CATASTROPHE) and we can already see why that is a huge problem for me as a writer because now I have to make several members of this world sympathetic.

Our Biblical creation story hinges on two people eating an apple, seeing things as they were, and getting kicked out of Eden. Their creation story hinges on two people consuming a plant that allows them to see the multiverse and finding a way to cross into another world. (Does that same plant exist in Ellen’s Earth? I’m not sure yet.)

You can only cross between worlds at the “coincidences,” i.e. the points in which the two parallel universes are absolutely identical. These are rare, and have become even rarer following 100 years of climate-change-related war and destruction. This is why the Banner House is the only house Ellen can see, in this parallel world, that’s still standing.

But then she wanders around until she finds a giant geodesic dome, and figures out a way to get inside, and goes through a decontamination process and meets up with Robin and he tells her all of the above.

And she gets angry with him because she feels tricked, and Robin’s all “I never said this was a fairy kingdom, you assumed all of that,” and then Ellen says “but your name is ROBIN,” and Robin is all “yeah, I chose it because my one job was to bring an Everton daughter who likes Shakespeare into our world” and THAT PART DEFINITELY FOR SURE NEEDS TO BE REWORKED. Maybe Robin’s name is just a coincidence. Maybe he has a different name. We’ll never get these two to fall in love if Robin was raised as a kidnap machine.

But at least they don’t steal children anymore! They wait until they find genetically compatible women who are already pregnant and ask if they’d like to see another world, it’s all about consent now, but IT’S STILL CREEPY, RIGHT? THIS WHOLE BOOK HINGES ON THE CREEPIEST OF ACTIVITIES.

Anyway, that’s how Ellen learns that her mother is in the parallel universe (you saw that coming) and that she has a third sister.

The sister was originally named Diana, but I decided against even implying… well… that. Also, they don’t have Elvis or Amelia Earhart. Everyone always asks.

So Ellen is all “I would like to leave now and never come back,” except Grace wants to stay long enough for them to see their mother. That’s when we learn that you don’t get to pick and choose between universes; once you start eating their food and drinking their water, your body begins to adapt. You go through a period of “adaptation sickness” which is basically Super Montezuma’s Revenge, and then you’ll be fine—but you can’t go back to the world you came from (for more than, like, a few hours at a time) because you won’t be able to adapt in the other direction.

Ellen, who has a backpack filled with water and protein bars because she thought she might have to spend the night in Chicago, agrees to stay just long enough to see good old Mom. Whom she is furious with, btw, and can’t understand why Grace isn’t.

The three sisters (Ellen, Grace, and Mya-formerly-Diana) gather in a videochat room to videochat with their mother, who holds huge political power in the gigantic geodesic dome that serves as the nation’s capital. After the polite conversation in which their mother does not once apologize for leaving them is over, Ellen says “okay let’s GO,” and Grace says “I think I want to stay, can you go back to my hotel in Chicago and get a bunch of my stuff and then bring it back here?”

This is where the plot starts to fall apart.

So Ellen gets Grace’s stuff, and when she picks up Grace’s phone she sees a text from Charles to the effect of “we can try a separation if you want, I’ll still financially provide for the baby,” and then she starts looking through what she assumed was a baby book but is actually Grace’s pregnancy diary and realizes that Grace is both very insecure and very unhappy. (Also, Charles has been cheating on her forever.)

Before taking Grace’s stuff back into the other world, Ellen stops by the assisted living home to tell Grandma Trudy that parallel universes are real, and Grandma Trudy says “take me with you, I want to see it.”

So Ellen, who has to sneak around her own hometown because she’s supposed to be in New Zealand, gets Trudy out of the assisted living home and into the other world. She also brings in a suitcase’s worth of food and water so none of them have to get adaptation sickness, except Grace has already decided to adapt.

When Ellen apologizes for reading Grace’s diary (she only read a few pages, but still feels super guilty), Grace tells her to read the whole thing, along with the new diary she started keeping in the two days she’s spent in the parallel universe and GAAH THIS IS TERRIBLE I SHOULD JUST WRITE SOME OF THIS BOOK FROM GRACE’S PERSPECTIVE.

Anyway, there are a bunch of diary entries here, and they’re all bad and bring the book to a cliched and screeching halt. The only part worth noting is that Grace loves living in the other world because it’s like being part of a theater company. There are 132 people in this geodesic dome (of the roughly 6,000 humans left alive in this universe) and she’s already started to make friends.

Then I have a bunch of scenes with no connective matter:

They do another videochat with their mom, where Grandma Trudy is all “Hello, daughter. I bet you thought you’d never see me again.” It is DELIGHTFUL.

Ellen has dinner with Robin/Mya/Grace/Trudy (she eats her own food) and asks a bunch of logistical questions about the coincidences. Can you copy a structure in one world to create a new coincidence? (Yes.) Has anyone ever tried copying an airplane runway, or a giant gate that hundreds of people could pass through at once? (No.) Has this world ever successfully traveled to any place besides Ellen’s Earth? (No.)

Mya shows Ellen the room where they track the Known Families (the Hayward descendants, the Estrada descendants, and so on). They can connect to Earth’s internet at the points of coincidence, which is why they shoved Robin out the door as soon as they saw a pregnant Hayward descendant within 5 miles of the Banner House (but Grace, as you remember, stayed in the car). This is also why they didn’t try to pick Grace up from her actual home on the West Coast; in this universe, that whole area’s underwater.

Ellen asks why the parallel universe people don’t just go to Earth and live there. They say “we don’t want to go through all of that climate change stuff again, it’s going to be horrible for you.”

Ellen asks why they can’t bring more people from Earth into the parallel universe. They don’t have enough resources for everyone, and are trying to grow their population slowly BY INVITING PREGNANT WOMEN FROM THE KNOWN FAMILIES TO JOIN THEM, I GUESS THIS WAS THE BEST THING I COULD COME UP WITH.

Ellen has a conversation with Grandma Trudy about love.

Ellen has a conversation with Grace about love.

Ellen has a conversation with Robin where he starts off by showing her how the geodesic dome produces food (it’s just The Land, from Epcot) and then shifts to being about love.

Ellen goes back into the Banner House secret room so she can call her father (while still pretending to be in New Zealand). The nurse situation is working out really well, and her father wishes the nurse could stay but they probably can’t afford it long-term.

Ellen decides to fake her own death and stay in the parallel universe so her father can have her money to put towards her stepmother’s long-term care. She does a bunch of research and planning.

When Ellen tells Grandma Trudy about the plan to fake her death, Trudy talks her out of it. Trudy offers to stay in the parallel universe instead, and they can use her money to put towards Ellen’s stepmother’s care. (Ellen says “so I have to fake your death?” and Trudy is all “No, I’m not dead yet! Just tell the home I decided to move out.”)

Ellen realizes that for Trudy and Grace to stay in the parallel universe full-time, she’ll still have to do a lot of caregiving and logistics management. She’ll have to do their taxes, for starters. Everything’s better for them but it’s still the same for her.

Ellen insists on meeting her mother face-to-face. Ellen’s mom says “this is what I chose, if you want to have a relationship with me in the future we have to start from this point and not try to make up for the past.”

Ellen goes back to her world and tells her dad about the parallel universe. I haven’t finished this scene because I don’t know what to do with it yet. I know that Ellen’s dad will decide to stay on Earth with Ellen’s stepmother. He truly loves her and he’s glad she’s getting the care she needs.

Ellen has a conversation with her younger sister Mya where we learn that Mya grew up under the Chosen One narrative (“you are the special child, from the special land”) and she hated it. She also wants to go to Earth, and as soon as she said that I was all “NICOLE, NOW YOU HAVE TO WRITE ANOTHER SECTION OF THE BOOK FROM MYA’S PERSPECTIVE.” Which… maybe? Do we need that?

Ellen finally talks to Millicent Banner Hayward, where we learn that she sent George Hayward back to his own world after his extensive philandering, not knowing that it would cause his death. We also learn that she and George found a different parallel universe in a Midwestern cave THAT I REALLY SHOULD HAVE MENTIONED EARLIER IN THE BOOK.

Ellen goes back through the secret door, finds Robin, tells him about the third parallel universe, tells him that there must be a world out there that can support everyone from both of their universes, all they have to do is find it. Then they kiss.

Ellen announces that she and Robin are going on a world-finding mission. She’ll be back in time to do their taxes, she promises—and then Grace says “I can take care of that, I’m still capable of crossing between worlds for a few hours at a time,” and that way Grace can also check in with their dad and etc. Maybe she can even show Mya what Earth is like, we’ll see.



Oh lord.

I can see the ways in which I could make this better—the thrust of the second half of the book could be “Ellen confronting her mother,” for example, and I could put a whole bunch of obstacles in her way (like having to travel to the government center with Robin, and maybe the solar vehicle breaks down, and maybe the government dome won’t let them in, and so on).

I could make it actually about plot, instead of “Ellen has a bunch of conversations with people.”

But at this point I feel like I need to do nothing with it for a while, because I’ve tried doing so many things with it that it’s stopped being interesting…. except for just now, when I wrote out the story for you. It made the draft seem like it might still have some possibility left, if I want to put in the work of working on it.

Thanks for reading. ❤️

All the Problems With NEXT BOOK, Part 3 (of Many)

As you are probably aware, I’m telling you the story of NEXT BOOK so I can identify all of the problems with it and figure out if the project is worth reworking/rewriting.

Here’s Part 1.

Here’s Part 2.

SOOOOOOOO we pick up with Ellen having agreed to go with Robin to the world on the other side of his mysterious door, but first she has to take care of a bunch of responsibilities on Earth, like:

  • Telling everyone she’s taking a two-week vacation to New Zealand to do the Lord of the Rings tour she was going to do with her college friends (but didn’t end up taking because that was when her mother disappeared)
  • Photoshopping herself into LOTR Tour photos and scheduling them to post online while she’s gone
  • Hiring a nurse to care for her stepmother while she’s away (her dad provides evening/weekend care but they need someone during the day)
  • Making sure her grandmother has everything she needs for the next two weeks
  • Seeing Grace perform in Winter’s Tale in Chicago, because Grace rarely does theater close enough to make the trip and Ellen wants to show up for her

So Ellen drives her dad’s car to Chicago with the goal of getting there and back before the POLAR VORTEX kicks in, and she texts Grace to meet her at the stage door but SURPRISE SURPRISE it’s Robin at the door instead.

And he’s brought Ellen a jar of oatmeal, as requested. (Because she can’t eat 90 percent of foods and she wants to make sure she’ll be able to eat in the Other World.)

Except Robin is all “I’ve heard of women having food sensitivities when they’re pregnant,” and Ellen’s like “um I am not pregnant,” and Robin is all “oh, do you not know? We were told that a Hayward descendant was pregnant, congrats,” and Ellen’s “yeah, that’s my sister,” and Robin’s “but you’re the only Everton daughter” and Ellen’s “YEAH SHE CHANGED HER NAME.”

This, by the way, is absolutely devastating for Ellen, because here she was thinking that Robin liked her and now it turns out that he really wanted her sister all along.

And then Ellen realizes she can’t let Robin figure out that Grace is in the building, and there’s some delightful dramatic tension as he starts to put it together and she tries to mislead him but he figures it out anyway and goes backstage and then a stagehand won’t let Ellen follow him and then she sits down to watch the play and send a bunch of texts to her sister saying “DO NOT GO WITH THIS MAN, HE IS BAD NEWS” and then the houselights go down and then the PA does the thing about turning off your cell phones and then a different voice says “Tonight, the role of Perdita will be played by Berenice Ning,” and Ellen is all SHIT SHIT SHIT SHIT, GRACE WENT WITH ROBIN.

Because of course she would. It wouldn’t take Grace 30,000 words of agonizing and photoshopping herself into Hobbit holes and asking Robin about his world’s social hierarchies. Grace would UP AND GO.

So Ellen up and leaves the theater, bumping past twelve knees until she gets to the aisle and the door and the car and the highway, and it turns out the polar vortex started early (true story, I checked the weather, also I was there for it the first time) and so she’s driving back to rural Iowa in a storm, and then she drops the car back in her dad’s garage (because he’s going to need it while she’s gone, Ellen is nothing if not thoughtful) and begins biking towards the Banner House, and then the roads get so bad that she has to walk her bike, but she finally gets there, and the doors are locked, so she has to climb up the tree that the docent told her the kids used to get in and out of their second-story bedroom, and really this is the most exciting part of the book, and Ellen finally makes it in and opens the secret door and stands in the secret room and then opens the secret door from the other side and… nothing.

And she does that a few times until she realizes she’s supposed to eat the oatmeal.

And then… WHAM, Ellen can suddenly see another world on top of her world, and she opens the door and walks out into a slightly different version of the Banner House, and as she gets further away from the secret room she sees less of Earth and more of the Other World until she finally walks out of the Other Banner House front door, ready to enter what she thinks is some kind of fantasy fairyland, and…

It’s an absolutely devastated landscape. Cracked asphalt, foundations stripped to their pipes, heat and dust and insects everywhere.

It’s also a very familiar landscape.

“This isn’t fairyland,” Ellen thinks. “It’s Iowa.”







But the next section starts to get really really weird and complicated, which I will explain tomorrow in THE FINAL INSTALLMENT of this story. ❤️

All the Problems With NEXT BOOK, Part 2 (of Many)

As you might remember, I’m telling you the story of NEXT BOOK so I can identify all of the problems with it and figure out if the project is worth reworking/rewriting.

Here’s Part 1.

Sooooo after Ellen refuses the call to adventure, she and Grace are off to their next stop: the assisted living home, to visit Grandma Trudy. Grace is uncomfortable with the whole old-people-situation but she cheerfully announces her pregnancy; Ellen mentions that she met a guy at the Banner House who said there was a room that nobody had ever seen and Grandma Trudy re-tells the story about how her mother always said she came out of a fairy door.

There’s a bit of a problem with the Grandma Trudy character, who was a computer back when women were called computers and might have been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum if she had been born in the 2000s instead of the 1930s. I made that choice to hint at the theory that the changeling myth developed as a way to explain autism, and… um… since Trudy is in fact going to turn out to be NOT COMPLETELY OF THIS WORLD, you can already see the “bit of a problem” with this.

(Remember how you’re just supposed to write what you think are good ideas at the time and figure them out later? THIS IS THAT. I tried to reference the way we tell stories about fairies and ended up implying that autism comes from a supernatural/otherworldly source. WHICH IS ALMOST AS BAD AS SAYING IT COMES FROM VACCINES.)

Anyway, before Grace and her husband get on the next flight out of town, Grace tells Ellen to go find that museum guy and date him already, and then Ellen’s friends on Slack (who act like a Greek chorus because WHY NOT) say “at least figure out if he’s a creepy weirdo,” and surprise surprise Ellen can find no record of Robin on the internet anywhere.

And then she calls the Banner House and they have no idea who he is either.

So she goes back. Pays for another tour, sneaks up the Dream Staircase, we’re all set to see Robin again but WHOOPS HE’S NOT THERE, so Ellen is about to leave when Robin suddenly appears in the foyer and suggests that they hide in a closet so they can have an emotional connection that is aided by darkness and get excited about accidentally touching knees and wait for the docent to start giving the official tour before they sneak off to Robin’s secret room.

The secret room is your standard stone goblet, iron sconce, bearskin rug deal, and Robin is trying very hard to be suave and mysterious except he keeps screwing it up because he’s a huge dork and this is my favorite thing about him. He invites Ellen to eat some of the nuts and chocolates that are tastefully arranged on the table, but Ellen has food sensitivities and declines. (BTW I didn’t mention this yesterday, but he offered Ellen a squashed mangled chocolate from his pocket when they first met. It was adorable.)

After a couple paragraphs of Robin failing to charm Ellen in any of the traditional ways (except for the part where she’s totally falling for him because of who he is naturally), he’s finally “hey would you believe me if I told you that there was another world on the other side of that door?”

And Ellen is all “you mean that secret door installed perfectly into the wood paneling that we just walked through because you knew the exact right place to tap to get it to open?”

And then Robin is like “yeah, that door, also would you believe me if I told you the world on the other side needs you?”

At this point Ellen starts laughing, because she’s like THIS IS SUCH A CLICHE, “IN A WORLD WHERE ALL BLORGS ARE ZORGS, ONLY SOMEONE WITH THE POWER OF FLORG CAN SAVE THE DAY,” and then Robin is all WHAT’S A BLORG, and this is ACTUAL DIALOGUE FROM THE DRAFT, and then Ellen figures out Robin is serious. His world is dying, and he needs her.

So she tells him she can’t go with him because her world is also dying and too many people in her world need her, and then she leaves.

And then she goes to the library.

Ellen knew her Dewey Decimals better than most, but she didn’t know whether to look under the 200s, for Religion, or the 800s, for Literature. The question of concern, both to herself and Melvil Dewey, was whether fairies were considered real. Or, at least, as real as Jesus. She did not want to ask the librarians if they had a book on whether fairies really existed, because she already knew what she’d find: folklore encyclopedias detailing what fairies were called in different cultures, academic texts analyzing how fairies were presented in Shakespeare and Grimm; first-person testimonials with titles like I Believe in Fairies and narratives as glossy as their covers. 

Plus those girls who hoaxed everybody. With the photographs. 

She made it through three shelves of books, scanning titles on faith healing and how to live like the Buddha and ten tips for Christian women who wanted to find true love, before she gave up. There was a console, at the end of the aisle, where Ellen could have entered any subject or keyword she wanted; an app on her phone where she could have done the same thing. She did not. This felt like something where she shouldn’t leave a record. Like something she should forget about, because she’d already told Robin no. 

Because it wasn’t real, anyway. 

It couldn’t be. She had been telling herself it wasn’t real ever since she left the Banner House, but she wasn’t listening to herself very well. Her brain said go back go back go back and she almost did, and then her father called to ask where she’d put the soft iced grocery cookies that Carolyn liked as a snack, or if they’d run out, but he thought he remembered seeing them yesterday, and then it turned out Carolyn had put them in the freezer. When that was over, go back go back go back had changed to you can’t you can’t you can’t, and then Ellen went to the library instead, because books about things were almost as good as experiencing them.

Then we have a bunch of interesting plot stuff that I don’t really have a problem with, so I’m just going to speed through it:

  • Ellen remembers that fairies aren’t supposed to be able to touch iron, yet the secret room was full of iron.
  • Ellen goes to visit Grandma Trudy, asks her to tell her everything she remembers about the fairy door story, and Trudy reveals that she really believes that the whole thing was a cover for an affair her mother had with a man named George Hayward, who later married Millicent Banner Hayward before helping her renovate the Banner House.
  • Ellen almost visits Millicent, who also lives in Assisted Living, but chickens out and does a bunch of internet research instead. She finds an old newspaper article about a masquerade ball at the Banner House. There’s one photo of George and Millicent (in masks) opening a secret door on the first floor (not the one Robin opened on the third floor). There’s another photo of all of the party attendees, unmasked; George is standing next to Ellen’s great-grandmother and his face looks exactly like hers (Ellen’s, not her great-grandmother’s, you know what I’m hinting at).
  • Ellen goes biking by the river where they found her mother’s car (which isn’t a big deal, people die, that shouldn’t prevent her from riding on the trail by the river, it’s the only damn trail after all) and then Robin shows up on a rented bike and says “I need to talk to you” and Ellen’s all “I know about George Hayward,” and Robin’s like “no, you don’t.”
  • Robin is a terrible cyclist and Ellen offers him a drink from her water bottle and he drinks and then pukes into a bush.

Okay. Back to more problematic stuff. So they’re on the bike trail, and Robin explains that George Hayward is from his world and the reason his world needs Ellen is because she is a Hayward descendant, and he’s all “please let’s just sit down and talk,” and Ellen says “I have to go take care of my stepmother but we can meet in a few days,” and then another check-in with the Slack Chorus and then THIS:

Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which meant her father had a holiday from work and Ellen had a holiday from caregiving. The temperature had dropped overnight, flurries not quite sticking to the ground, Ellen’s weather app warning of an upcoming polar vortex. Ellen tapped another app on her phone, just to check: the Banner House was closed. 

No matter. There were a few more questions she needed to ask Robin, and a conversation she needed to have with her father, and she probably should go see Grace in Winter’s Tale, she’d already bought the ticket because Grace never bothered to save her a comp—“don’t you have, like, infinite money?”—and then… well, there were a few more questions she needed to ask Robin, and a conversation she needed to have with her father, and Ellen listed the tasks she needed to complete as she grabbed her thick orange bike gloves that were designed to protect her hands in even sub-zero temperatures, smashed her thick, graying hair under her helmet, wheeled her bike out of her apartment, and rode east.

The roads weren’t too slippery, though it would probably be worth it to take her bike to the bike guys this week and get swapped for fat tires. Unless she decided to go to Robin’s fairy kingdom instead. It would save her $65, and that was something. Unless it wasn’t. That was the first question she was going to ask, after she locked her bike to the Banner House Visitors’ Center sign and waited for Robin to find her. 

It took a good fifteen minutes of pacing the Banner House wraparound porch—she’d pulled one hand out of the warmth of its glove long enough to start and finish a NPR podcast that could have been over in five minutes, nothing new, the government was still shut down, the entire country still waiting— before Robin opened the front door. 

Ellen smiled without thinking. Would have blushed, if there had been any skin left on her face that hadn’t already turned pink, from the cold. She slipped inside, her body brushing past Robin’s as he pulled the door closed, quickly, furtively, delightfully. He smiled back at her, all teeth, his eyes bright. He thought he knew what she was going to say.

“Let’s go,” he said, and together they ran up the stairs, side by side, Ellen thinking so this is what magic feels like. It was like the dream she’d had about Robin, and all the dreams she’d had about this staircase, and the one time in college she got invited on a date by this graduate student, the excitement of getting in his car and then driving to a family-style diner in the suburbs and then him telling her that he’d have to keep her a secret, that she’d never be able to tell anyone that they’d spent the past twenty minutes making out in the backseat. That was when it stopped feeling like magic.

In this case it stopped feeling like magic after Robin had touched the whorled panel and opened the secret door and led Ellen inside. It stopped feeling like magic when Ellen said “Wait.”

“Yes?” Robin said, still standing, almost quivering with excitement. 

“I have a few questions for you.”

“Questions,” Robin said. “All right.”

Ellen did not sit down either. She found it easier to talk to people when she wasn’t looking at them, so she began walking, around and around the table. 

“How is your world dying?” she asked. “Is it dying like ours? You must know what’s going on here. We don’t have seasons anymore. Well, two: cold and hot. Last year we had snow until April and then it was 90 degrees the next day. And of course floods, because all the snow melted and we had four weeks of rain. But we’re doing better than most because we’re not on a coastline. They’re getting hurricanes like we’ve never seen before.”

She paused. “They say it won’t even take twenty years to know how bad it’s going to be. How many people will die. How many wars this will start.” She looked at Robin. “So what’s the deal with your world?”

Robin looked away. “Our world is dying because there aren’t enough of us to keep it going.”

“Can’t you just ring some bells or something? Get some babies to laugh?” Ellen began pacing again. “So I’m guessing that when you all disappear, your world disappears. A lost civilization. Which, since most of us didn’t know you existed in the first place, or literally assumed you were the stuff of fairy tales, wouldn’t be a loss on our end. But it would be on yours.” She glanced at Robin, over her shoulder. “And you’d want me to contribute to the next generation?” 

“Not beyond what you’re already contributing,” Robin said. “Not unless you wanted to.”

“You do realize how old I am, right?” Ellen asked. “I am, at best, a one-punch ticket. Plus I’m twitchy and weird. But I’m also a Hayward descendant, and your blood runs in my veins— you know there are Tumblr posts about this, by the way, but you don’t know what Tumblr is—so you want me because I’m, like, extra-super-genetically compatible. Which is why you aren’t opening your doors to my world’s refugees. I’m assuming.”

She stopped and stared Robin down. “Right?”

Robin seemed a little overwhelmed. Nervous. Intimidated. “That’s roughly correct.”

“Next question,” Ellen said. “How does money work, where you are? Would I be able to bring my money— I mean, that doesn’t even make sense, but I have lived a very frugal and specific kind of life for the past twenty years so I would never have to take a job just for the money. So I’d be able to help my family. I have enough money to last me for the rest of my life, assuming the markets continue their historic rate of growth, and… okay, I know I’m going on and on, that’s what I do, welcome to it, but I want to know if I’m going to have to, like, start over.”

“I don’t understand.”

“If I wanted food,” Ellen said, “how would I get it? Would I have to spend ten hours working, doing what someone else told me to do, following orders, before I’d be allowed to eat? Do some of the people in your world go hungry or sleep outdoors because they haven’t spent enough time earning money or tokens or gold pieces or however it works where you are?” 

“We have enough food for everybody,” Robin said, “and enough places to sleep. We work together to make sure everyone has what they need.”

“Ah, you’re a utopia then.” Ellen paused. “An utopia?” She kept walking. “I’ve read about those. There’s always something terrible, some secret, that they don’t tell you.” Then she stopped. “I’m sorry. I’m being rude. I want to go. I just want to make sure I’m not making the wrong choice.”

“I want you to come with me,” Robin said, and Ellen thought that it was very strange that she wanted to go with Robin more than anything, considering how little she’d known him. How little she still knew about him. But she could come back. He’d said she could always come back.

 Robin had taken a step forward and Ellen had stopped walking and now they stood, nearly eye-to-eye, Ellen a few inches taller. She reached up and pulled at the hair tie holding her bun in place. She felt her hair land against her shoulders. She wanted Robin to see it. She wanted Robin to see all of her. To know what he was getting. To want it.

“This is my last question,” she said. “Do you have oatmeal?” 

“Yes!” Robin said, delighted to have been able to provide the right answer.

“Then I will ask a favor of you,” Ellen said. “Bring me oatmeal, because I have food sensitivities, I can’t eat rich foods, or, like, wheat or dairy or nuts—really, I’m a huge liability, I don’t know why you want me— and promise I can come back to my world if I choose, and I’ll go with you.”

“I will,” Robin said. “Just wait.” 

“Not right now,” Ellen said. “I have this play on Saturday. In Chicago.”

“All right.” Robin smiled. “I’ll find you.”

“I’m sure you will,” Ellen said, and she almost reached for Robin’s hand, but instead she blushed under the candlelight and turned and fled. She felt like Cinderella, running down the stairs, although that was the wrong story.











All the Problems With NEXT BOOK, Part 1 (of Many)

Remember how I was going to spend the last two weeks of summer doing a second round of Jami Attenberg’s 1000 Words of Summer? Wellllll… I ended up writing 4,228 words before realizing that there were so many problems with my current draft that the only way to address them might be to rewrite the entire book.

From the beginning.

But before I do that, I’m just going to tell you the story of the book. Spoilers and all.

Because… I want to find all of the problems in it, and decide whether the story I’m trying to tell is worth rewriting the book to fix all of the problems.

So here we go.

We begin with an outstanding first seven sentences, which I put together using Maggie Stiefvater’s First Seven Sentences method and will reproduce below:

Grace never came home for Christmas, not even when she was still Julia. She traveled to Thailand, played a gender-bent Feste in Twelfth Night, married Charles. Now she and Charles took one of the two flights into the tiny municipal airport on January second, or on the third if there was snow, and although their presents were under the tree—all the presents, for Grace and Charles and Ellen and Carolyn and their father—they didn’t want any of it; they’d had a week with Charles’ family at the ski lodge, with the carols and the hot chocolate and the champagne on New Year’s. They didn’t want another Christmas dinner, another gift that Grace would whisper to Ellen to ship them later because their suitcases were full. 

They wanted to sit, and rest, and tell stories about Charles’ aunts and cousins, and let Ellen take care of them. They still thought of family as a place where you are taken care of, even if it’s a place you don’t necessarily want to be and are only going out of duty because it’s Christmas—or it was, over a week ago.

Ellen thought of family as a series of actions.

VERY EXCELLENT ESTABLISHMENT OF CHARACTER AND THE CENTRAL CONFLICT! (What, did you think this would be about portals? It’s always about family. Or relationships, anyway.)

After this opening, we learn that Ellen’s series of actions involve caring for her stepmother, Carolyn (who is in the middlish phase of Alzheimer’s; capable of doing “activities of daily living” like eating and toileting but likely to wander off if she is left alone), and acting as a medical advocate for her grandmother, Trudy, who is in an assisted living home.

Right away we have a problem, because these two characters could very easily be truncated. I wanted to keep them separate for a few reasons; first because a lot of people are caring for multiple aging relatives at once, so it’s realistic, second because it’s a commentary on healthcare in America (Ellen’s dad has to keep his job so he and Carolyn can have health insurance; Ellen quits her job, starts freelancing from her father and stepmother’s living room, and gets on the ACA), and third because Trudy also functions as the mentor in the classic Hero’s Journey structure.

But they could very easily be ONE CHARACTER, and it would still address the core family dynamic: Ellen quits her job and moves back home to help her father because two decades ago, when Ellen and Grace were both in college, their mother disappeared. Presumed dead; Ellen assumes suicide.

So Ellen takes some time off from college to help her dad deal (also sell the family house and all her mom’s stuff and most of their childhood stuff and move Dad into an affordable sad apartment which he lives in for maybe six months before announcing his engagement to Carolyn), establishing herself as The Person Who Shows Up When People Need Care. Grace goes in the completely opposite direction, expressing her feelings in theater camp and launching herself on a path that will eventually lead to a name change (for Equity reasons, also so she’ll be perceived at least five years younger than she actually is), a strategic marriage to a successful tech guy who didn’t blow his sold-a-startup money, and the kind of eclectic, artistic career you can build when you don’t have to support yourself with the income, establishing herself (at least in Ellen’s mind) as The Person Who Receives Care From Others.

(Remember, I explained it all in the first seven sentences of the book.)

PROBLEM NUMBER TWO. Grace’s story is way more interesting than Ellen’s. I could solve this problem by writing from both Grace and Ellen’s perspectives, but I wanted this to be a book about Ellen moving from STUCKNESS to POSSIBILITY so I gave it a very limited focus (also I set it in December 2018 so I could parallel Ellen’s stuckness with the government shutdown, which seemed like a good idea at the time). Later in the draft I try to solve this problem by having Grace give Ellen her diary to read, which is a completely ham-fisted way of getting around it.

Anyway, it’s Christmas, and after writing this scene where Ellen does a Solstice ritual because she wants some small part of the holiday for herself that doesn’t involve caring for other people (which NEEDS TO BE CUT because it DOESN’T GO ANYWHERE and THERE’S NO PAYOFF and even though I wanted to show that ELLEN IS INTERESTED IN THE POSSIBILITY OF SOMETHING BEYOND HER CURRENT REALITY because that sets up the PORTAL FANTASY, I could also just have Ellen do what she nearly always does whenever she gets a minute of free time, which is READ A LIBRARY BOOK THAT FEATURES A WOMAN ON THE COVER RIDING A HORSE WITH A SWORD IN ONE HAND AND THERE’S ALSO A MAN IN THE BACKGROUND THAT SHE FALLS IN LOVE WITH), Grace and Charles show up and they’re all “how’s the rural Midwest, we brought you a box of fancy jam and cannot wait to leave.”

Also Grace is pregnant, and Ellen’s first thought is you get that, too. (Even though Ellen doesn’t want kids, in part because her mom disappeared before they had a chance to resolve their fractious adolescent-and-perimenopausal woman relationship. Even though Ellen knows, now that she’s older, that she and her mother would probably have been able to form a better relationship as adults.)

Soooooo Charles magnanimously offers to watch Carolyn for an afternoon so Grace and Ellen can do some sister bonding time, and Ellen’s first thought is that they should go visit the BIG OLD MANSION built by a SOYBEAN MAGNATE that has BILLBOARDS ALONG THE HIGHWAY because it holds the WORLD RECORD FOR THE NUMBER OF CHRISTMAS TREES PUT INSIDE A MIDWESTERN MANSION because they did it once when they were kids and Ellen has dreamed about the mansion on the reg ever since. And Grace says “sure,” but when they get there she is feeling extra first trimester pregnant and she asks if she can take a nap in the car instead.

(If you’re wondering BUT IS IT NOT THE DEAD OF WINTER, I based all of this on the actual weather in Iowa in December 2018/January 2019. Sleeping in the car would be totally doable, at least during the first week of the year. ALSO HEY THIS BOOK IS ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE BUT WE HAVEN’T GOTTEN TO THAT PART YET.)

Ellen decides to take the tour on her own, and while the docent is busy checking other guests in, Ellen decides to walk up a staircase to see if it really does match the one in her dreams. Look at Ellen, making all of these decisions! THAT’S HOW PLOT HAPPENS, EVERYBODY.

At the top of the staircase is a man. Dressed in clothing that Ellen can’t quite place, except that it isn’t a Hawkeye sweatshirt and jeans. He introduces himself as Robin and asks Ellen if she’d like to see a part of the house that nobody has ever seen before. She “well actuallys” him on “ah, but someone would have seen it at some point, duh,” and that turns into adorkable flirting, and she is just about to go with him when the docent’s bell rings and she’s like “um, I should probably take this tour that I paid for, also now I feel weird about following some guy I just met into a spooky old mansion that I dream about on the reg.”








An Excerpt From the Novel I’m Drafting That Is Totally Relevant to This Week’s Discussion

So… after yesterday’s post about experiencing imposter syndrome in relation to your career/life/finances/achievements, and Lucy Bellwood’s comment that our relationship to money and success changes as we grow older and/or more successful, well… it made me think “wait, I just wrote about that.”


I’ll present it without context, except to say “it’s supposed to be a Slack conversation.”

Here you go. ❤️

ellen.everton: omg that is the cutest sono ever

heidi.brinley: thx I made it myself

heidi.brinley: just the fetus not the sonogram

heidi.brinley: or did li’l feety make itself?

heidi.brinley: I don’t have the brain to wrap around that

ellen.everton: how are you doing?

heidi.brinley: PREGNATE

heidi.brinley: no starch masks yet though

heidi.brinley: honestly this is very weird

ellen.everton: adult life is consistently very weird

ellen.everton: they did not teach us this in school

mona.tiedeman: it took me until this year to understand that adults go through developmental phases just like children do

heidi.brinley: did you not read your ERIK ERIKSON

heidi.brinley: the man so nice they named him twice

mona.tiedeman: not just integration vs. despair or whatever it is, though

mona.tiedeman: everyone I know who’s entered their 50s in the past few years has changed in the exact same way

mona.tiedeman: and my dad decided to stop drinking when he turned 40

mona.tiedeman: and now I’m thinking that when I move, I’ll stop drinking too

mona.tiedeman: just establish myself in this new place as a non-drinker

mona.tiedeman: and I don’t know why except I just got tired of it

mona.tiedeman: the way it made me feel

heidi.brinley: you are ON TREND tho

heidi.brinley: it is a Millennial thing, we’re all teetotaling, I read an article

heidi.brinley: no wait I meant we’re totally teetotaling, that’s way better

heidi.brinley: and Tasha’s teetotaling the sosh meeds, she literally sent me A CARD last week

heidi.brinley: the Millennials are giving up

mona.tiedeman: see that’s exactly what I mean though

mona.tiedeman: it’s not a Millennial thing, it’s a “we’re exiting our 30s and our bodies are starting to hurt and suddenly we’re becoming obsessed with our health” thing

mona.tiedeman: just like my parents did when they were that age

mona.tiedeman: my mom got really into yoga

mona.tiedeman: so in your late 30s you try to change everything while you still can, and then in your late 40s you realize you can’t change everything and so you shit the bed

mona.tiedeman: my parents spent at least two years just screaming at each other

ellen.everton: my mother

mona.tiedeman: sorry I should have thought

ellen.everton: no, I think you’re right

heidi.brinley: my baby book is full of phases but then it just stops

heidi.brinley: there should be, like, the boy band phase

heidi.brinley: the friendship bracelet phase

heidi.brinley: (that one comes first)

heidi.brinley: moms should know about these phases

ellen.everton: and we should also know about our parents’ phases

ellen.everton: it would help us understand them more

On Killing Your Favorite Ideas

So I subscribe to James Clear’s newsletter, and this morning’s edition included the following insight:

Qualities that lead to increasing intelligence:

1. The curiosity to experiment and explore.
2. The honesty to observe the world as it is, not as you wish it to be.
3. The humility to kill your favorite ideas when you learn something new.
4. The consistency to repeat this cycle for life.

The whole “kill your favorite ideas” thing feels particularly relevant right now because I’m in the middle of asking myself whether this NEXT BOOK draft I’ve been working on will actually turn out to be anything.

I mean, beyond the fact that I’ll have completed and done at least one revision pass on another novel, which is not nothing.

But I keep vacillating between “this book has some really interesting bits in it” and “this book has a lot of problems,” in part because I’ve set myself up with a character who, as soon as she realizes there’s a portal to another world, starts asking herself how she’s going to do her taxes.

That isn’t the big question she asks herself; that’s still a spoiler. But it’s like, if you were an adult who were given the opportunity to disappear from Earth, you’d either be the person who hops on through without thinking twice—and that person is a character in the story—or the person who asks herself whether she needs to successfully fake her own death or figure out how to keep her life and relationships and finances running while she’s gone.

When I did a tarot reading on what might happen with this book, the cards suggested I’d finish the writing process by the end of the summer, celebrate what I had accomplished, and then either drastically change or kill the project. (Yes, I drew the Death card again.)

I am planning to do another 1000 Words of Summer as soon as I get back from Fincon in September, because the first 1000 Words of Summer was very effective in helping me get stuff on the page without letting my mind get too much in the way, and I have a few gaps in this story that I’m hoping that kind of writing can solve.

Summer doesn’t really end until September 23, after all. I have time.

And then I guess I have to see where I am with the project, or maybe send it to a few people to read, or find a writing workshop or course designed for people who have a finished draft, or put the whole thing in a drawer for a while. (Perhaps it won’t turn out to be death at all. Just sleep.)

I’m not going to quit before I’m done. But I am curious if this particular “favorite idea” of “what would realistically happen if a contemporary adult found themselves in a portal fantasy” will turn out to be something that I need to let go, once I’ve written it all down. ❤️

Another Very Brief Excerpt From NEXT BOOK

I wanted to share a second excerpt from NEXT BOOK, still tentatively titled A COINCIDENCE OF DOORS, because when I was doing my first revision pass this little segment of conversation absolutely floored me. I’d forgotten I’d written it; it had come out during one of those 1000 Words of Summer days when Jami Attenberg was urging us all to write down the truest and toughest stuff we knew.

Reading this won’t spoil the plot, if you’re curious. Nor does it really need any introduction. ❤️

“Is that what you want?” Grandma Trudy asked.

“Family isn’t about what you want,” Ellen said. It had been something her mother had said to her, during the years when Ellen had wanted to sit with her book or play on the computer or simply be left alone. “It’s about what’s best for the family. For everyone.”

Grandma Trudy looked unconvinced. “Anyway,” Ellen said, “I’ll still be able to read. It’s all I ever wanted to do, anyway.” 

“December 2, 1984,” Grandma Trudy said. “You told me you wanted roller skates for Christmas because you wanted to feel like you were flying. You were wearing a blue sweatshirt with snowflakes on it, and jeans with a hole in the knee. From playing, not reading.”

“I never had any roller skates,” Ellen said. 

“Well, your sister was a baby and your mother wanted you where you couldn’t move fast enough to get away,” Grandma Trudy said. “She called you Mommy’s Little Helper.”

“I sort of remember that,” Ellen said. “How old was I, three? How would I have known about roller skates?”

“You read a book about them,” Grandma Trudy said. 

“I remember when I got invited to a roller rink birthday party,” Ellen said. “I went out onto the rink and it was like I really was flying. And then Mom told me I had to stay with Grace, who was still clinging to the wall.” 

“Your mother did the best job she could,” Grandma Trudy said. 

Ellen let out a single exhale; not quite laughter. “That’s what she always said about you.” Then she said “Grace doesn’t think love is a thing you can do. She said it was a result of something someone else did. So you can do what you think is a loving action towards someone, but they won’t receive it that way.”

“That makes sense,” Grandma Trudy said. “People need different things.” Her hands grabbed fistfuls of her blanket, then let them go. “It’s hard to understand what people need. I used to keep a tally, on a little pad of paper, of what made your mother happy and what didn’t. That was when she was young, when it was just the two of us. The marks never came out the same, two days in a row.”

“Well, she was a toddler, right?” 

“But they’ve never come out the same, whether I’ve kept them on paper or in my head, for anybody. Even you. It used to be that you’d be happy if I gave you a book, and then one year you told me it was a book you’d already read, so I started asking your mother what books you were reading at school, and she said you read more books than she could keep track of, and suddenly trying to do the same thing that had worked before had made two people angry with me.”

“I don’t think I was angry.”

“Maybe not angry, then. Irritated. Frustrated. The grandmother that had gotten something wrong. The mother who was asking her grown daughter for one more thing when she already had too many things to do. The extra trip she had to take, so you could return the book and get one you hadn’t read before.”

“Dad took that trip,” Ellen said, remembering. “And after that I gave you a list.”

“It’s different for fathers,” Grandma Trudy said. “Especially when it’s not their mother that made the mistake.”

What Baba Is You Taught Me About Writing

So I beat the puzzle game Baba Is You this weekend, after 72 hours of moving text blocks around to create sentences that would allow… well, here’s the trailer, this game’s kind of hard to explain:

Anyway, there was this moment yesterday afternoon when I realized exactly how all of the words and elements on the screen would be manipulated to solve the final puzzle (which I’d been working on for about four days at that point, since you had to solve a bunch of smaller sub-puzzles to get access to the movable components of the large one), and I was like ooooh this is a great ending, it was invisible until just this moment but it makes perfect sense.

Which is kind of how you want to construct a story, right?* With an ending that isn’t so obvious that you spot it right away (because otherwise it’s less about interacting with the words and more about already knowing where they’re going to go, so you might as well get through them as quickly as possible) but also fits perfectly with everything you’ve experienced thus far.

Invisible and then inevitable.

So… I mean, of course I’m thinking about how to apply all of this to NEXT BOOK, because at this point the revision process feels very much like playing a video game, in that I’m solving the puzzle of “how do I make this scene communicate what it needs to communicate” and then I’m instantly checking the walkthrough to make sure I didn’t miss anything important (or, in some cases, to help me figure out where to go next).

Right now, for example, my to-do list includes “revise Lovelace scene” for Monday (which I did), “revise Trudy scene” for Tuesday, and “review/rework plot doc” for Wednesday. From there, I’ll figure out which scene (or puzzle) to approach next.

This may be because I’ve set this book up to have a handful of BIG MOMENTS where PIECES GET PUSHED INTO PLACE and CHARACTERS UNLOCK NEW INFORMATION, like, I’m not saying that all books have to be written this way, but for better or worse I’ve started writing a book that begins with a character finding a door that leads into another world and ends with something that I hope will be invisible for most of the story and then inevitable.

I am still not sure, by the way, whether this book will be any good. But if I end up putting five hours a week of writing time into something that only turns out to be practice for the NEXT next book, that’s still fine.

After all, I just put 72 hours (over the past three months) into a puzzle game, and even though you could call that “wasted time,” it ended up teaching me something new. ❤️

*Yes, I know that we also come to stories because we know how they end and we want to experience the emotions the story engenders in us. In this case I’m referring to stories where we don’t already know the plot—and yes, that includes all of us going into something like Oedipus Rex completely blind, PUN INTENDED. (Yes, “everyone in Greece knew the story of Oedipus which is why it’s a perfect example of Aristotelian catharsis” or whatever, but they still had to hear the story for the first time at some point.)