In which I recall that I have a blog

Right, so, it’s been a while. I’ve kinda been seeing a lot of Twitter lately. Over there, on the right? Insightful, pithy, meta-editorial stuff. And also cat photos and gentle complaints about the state of everything.

I am updating some things here and there on the site, such as the Services page. Basically, I’ve adjusted my fee schedule, but if we’ve worked together before, or if you were referred to me by someone with whom I’ve worked (thank you, referrers!), the same rates apply. It’s like 2015 all over again for you guys.

As always, I try to divide my time equally among technical work, academic projects, and fiction, and yes! I am still offering students a discount. But don’t wait too late, kids; I get busy around submission times.


Dog Days Discount!


We are deep in the dog days of summer (historically—don’t start with the astronomical shift). To make life easier, I am offering a 20% discount on editorial services for book-length projects through August 11. Authors—if you’re prepping a manuscript for submission in the fall, take advantage! Grad students and postdocs—that’s 20% off my already discounted student rate.

Beat the heat, save some cash, and start September with a shiny, polished manuscript!

Wet your lungs with wine: the dogstar, Sirius, is coming round, the season is harsh, everything is thirsty under the heat…

—Alcaeus, Fragment 347 (trans. Campbell, Vol. Greek Lyric I; c. 7th–6th BCE)

How do I do this thing?

Send me an email describing your book-length project (literary fiction, genre fiction, memoir, other nonfiction, academic article, doctoral dissertation) by August 11. Include a sample of approximately 10 pages. Mention Dog Days Discount so I know you learned about it here. If you saw this on Twitter, I would love to know that too.

I will edit your sample and return it to you. If we decide to work together, I will subtract 20% from the estimated total fee. For most projects, the standard rate is 1.5 to 2.5 cents per word. For students, the rate is 1 cent per word.

Do I have to send in the completed manuscript by August 11?

Nope, just the initial inquiry, although it should be ready for editing, or nearly so, at that time. There’s no point in paying for copyediting if you’re still wrestling with revisions or waiting on feedback.

But when Orion and Sirius are come into mid-heaven, and rosy-fingered Dawn sees Arcturus [i.e. in September], then cut off all the grape-clusters.

Hesiod, Works and Days 609 ff: (trans. Evelyn-White; Greek epic c. 8th–7th BCE)

Let’s make something intoxicating together.


Hey, authors and editors, I will be on vacation from Sunday, July 3, through Thursday, July 7. I will be checking email when I’m in range and would love to hear from you about upcoming projects, but I won’t be able to receive or return documents during that time.

Thanks for your patience! Now get back to work.

Eat the Big Frog First: A Letter to My House

If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.
—Mark Twain

I hate your aluminum spiderwebby window frames no one sees but me. Webs be damned, they let in wasps, delicate monsters sipping from glasses. I hate your pipes that offer water grudgingly and that one broken tile in the pantry. I hate the layers of paint in the kitchen defying removal, winning a war of attrition.

The plants in your yard mock me with their fecundity and shame me in their unruliness. They were garden once. The grapevine over the door discourages visitors but welcomes raccoons with succulent fruit.

Not my actual house.

Not my actual house.

House, your southeastern side resembles the shacks people abandoned in the Dust Bowl in search of a better Bakersfield. Your boards show too much weather; your bricks not enough. Jasmine and honeysuckle in overplus, but will it cover over your nakedness? Not enough, not enough.

The poorly executed addition you cast off like a failed transplant, every earthquake driving a wedge. How is anyone supposed to get writing done under a ceiling crack like that? Why, house, did you not fight back harder when unscrupulous contractors came to graft it on? Why do you fight me at every turn?

House, if you were someone else’s story I could fix you, edit and polish every little part until all that was unnecessary and nerve-jangling and cross-purposed was gone. All mouse holes closed, windows and walls as crisp as a fresh page. I could see the meaning and the verbs and rearrange them into history, into what happens now. I don’t know how to work with paint and chisels and wrenches. My tools don’t do much of anything to anything that is.

Tell all the truth but tell it slant should not apply to your roofline. Tell me a different truth than that one.

It’s true that you were once a whole and perfect structure, back in 1930-whatever. I was like that too, at birth. I am truly sorry for all the abuse you have endured and would undo it if I could. People occupied you carelessly, taking you for granted or trying to make you into what you are not. But that is no reason to invite water into your basement while miser-hoarding it from the showers. The peril of the stairs; that’s not fair.

I regret removing your gracious, outward-flung windows to keep my children from tumbling into the sky and blackberries and fennel, but I can’t put them back now. The children, they will get out one way or another, but flying is not the preferred way. Parents like doors.

The lathe and plaster, bone and flesh—it had to go, because it was rotten. That happens when you let the rain in for dozens of years. Sealed up in the walls we found relics: a jump rope, a doughnut in a paper bag with a handwritten receipt. What artifacts will we leave behind for the time-travelers to come?


Is there future tense for you, house? Will your end be fire or flood or greed? Or will you stand on, unseemly and shored up, wrong incoherent things hammered on, defying all attempts to make you clean and safe and curated? What is your long game? Do you shake us off—or issue a challenge? Is this a three-refusal kind of tale, a hero’s journey of tests and wrong turns? Do I eat the biggest frog and move on to the next and the next? If I fix you, will you let me work in peace?


The Real Freelancers of Contra Costa County

Work from home? Tired of all those chirpy articles about how to maximize your productivity written by thought leaders and lifehackers? Read on.

So you might have noticed I have the Twitter now. (I know, I know—just pretend I live in some remote, picturesque nation where tech innovations, social media, and the hot new TV shows are not allowed.) Since I started tweeting, I’ve been getting dozens of links to articles about how to work from home effectively. Now, maybe you’re a freelance writer or editor who finds the advice in these articles helpful, and if so, that’s great. You can skip this post and get right back to prioritizing your to-do lists in your business-casual pants that probably don’t even have any cat fur on them.

For everyone else I have the following to offer, gleaned from many years of working at home and actually getting paid for it. Forget about keeping regular hours, dressing for success, and any other rules that make you wonder why these people bother working from home in the first place. The key to a successful freelance career is to find a routine that works for you and ignore the lifestyle fascists who want to shame you for it.

Take a shower every day

And then put on something you can wear in public without having to explain to everyone you meet that it’s laundry day. This won’t make you any more productive or organized, but it will increase your self-confidence if you have to open the door to sign for a package.

Breakfast is the most important meal

This is absolutely true, and it doesn’t matter what time you eat it or what it is, as long as it’s not beer. Alcohol for breakfast will seriously inhibit your page count; even Hemingway knew that.

Screen everything

Your phone, your email, your front door—breaks are essential, as I will discuss next, but they need to be on your schedule. Unless you’re expecting an important call/email/visitor, ignore everyone while you’re working.

Take breaks

Take a lot of them. You cannot give fair treatment to any manuscript if you’ve been staring at it for hours. Every ten pages, every chapter—whenever you come to a natural stopping point, stop. Get up out of your crouch and move around. You don’t have to go to the gym (you’re welcome), but you do have to reacquaint all the parts of your body with blood flow.

  1. Enjoy some bonding time with the animals or plants in your home.

    They will appreciate it, and so will you. Bonus points if you can do it outdoors.

  2. Make a snack.

    Nothing good to eat in the house? Take this opportunity to go shopping. You have to do it anyway, and the middle of the day is the best time to go because almost everyone else is at work.

  3. Spend 20 minutes on household drudgery.

    Almost every article about home-office productivity counsels against letting yourself get distracted by housework, but I say they are dead wrong. First—once more, with feeling—you have to do it anyway. Second, mindless, repetitive tasks like folding laundry, putting away dishes, or pulling weeds allow the creative part of your brain to roam free. A good writer never passes up an opportunity to daydream.

  4. Catch up on electronic ephemera.

    Now you can check all the email, tweets, and whatever else you’ve got going on, but watch your time, and don’t let anything derail your goal for the day. Did we talk about goals? Right, we didn’t, because your goal for the day is to get stuff done. If whatever you’re doing on social media or email will take you longer than 20 minutes and does not qualify as an emergency by adult standards, stop doing it. Because your goal for the day is not “Read all of the Internet, solve everyone’s personal drama, and cure ignorance.”

Switch rooms

Sure, I have an office. It’s that place where the printer and the hard-copy style manuals live. As far as the IRS is concerned, that is my place of business, but I don’t do any actual work there. Moving to another room can help you see your work with a fresh perspective, and not just because the sun was in your eyes in the kitchen.

Reward yourself

It’s how everyone from CEOs to SAHMs to those dogs that dig people out of earthquake rubble keep it together. Had a great day? You deserve a treat. Had a crap day? Yep. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, and you can use the 20-minute rule for rewards, too. Lately, I’ve been streaming episodes of Portlandia and 30 Rock (see previous statement about backward nation, three to five years behind on TV) to get me through some long projects. Regardless of your genre, you can learn just about everything you need to know about timing from talented comedy writers.

Whatever you use as a motivator, enjoy it. Give it the same guiltless focus you bring to your work, and when it’s done, get back to the salt mine.

You will be deleted.

You will be deleted.

A word about to-do lists

Use them if and however they work for you. Some love paper organizers with a near-pornographic intensity; others are happy with scratch paper. I like to keep lists on my phone and on the Sticky Notes program on my laptop. Something about not just crossing off completed tasks but deleting them like a cranky Cyberman appeals to me.

The lists can get you into trouble in two ways. One is if all your tasks are monumental or depend on someone else getting something done. Try to narrow the list to items that you can complete in one day. Break items down into reasonable, non-terrifying microtasks if necessary. The second is if you aren’t using the list as a focus for the day’s efforts but as a repository for memoranda. Put that stuff somewhere else, with the understanding that, if you have to write it on a list to remember not to forget about it, it’s probably not all that important.

Possibly the best part of working freelance from home is that you don’t have to behave the way you would in an office full of other people. Instead of wasting time trying to recreate the office environment at home, bring that energy and creativity to your work. Wear what you like, eat when you like, keep the volume level where you want it. And delete the bossy purveyors of lifehacks from your Twitter stream to make room for something useful, or at least fun.


Everything You Need to Know about Success

…as explained by musicians on a red carpet

Last night, for entirely professional reasons, I was fact-checking quotations from people on the red carpet at the Grammys. Just for you, writers, I am repeating two of them here because I think you need to read them.

You have to make sure that you have a reason for why you do things. You can’t just do things just because you want people to know your name.


Don’t know who Zendaya is? Me neither. Go look her up; it’ll help her hit count. The point is a solid one — if your sole goal in pursuing a writing career is to become famous, you have missed a turn somewhere. And if you are approaching any writing project with that intent and no other, it will fail.

Believe in yourself, and don’t let nobody throw you off your game.


Yes. Listen to Timbaland. He knows. And he wrote a book, so he can stay the course in multiple genres. Also, the group of people you need to prevent from throwing you off your game, I’d like to add, includes yourself. So believe in yourself, but don’t listen when that self is telling you that you suck at this and should probably have just gone to law school like your mom and your college advisor suggested.

So why are you writing that thing that you’re writing (or thinking about writing, or taking just the teeniest little dance break from writing)? Figure it out. It will help. And then get it done, believing that it needs to exist as a completed work, and nothing can replace it, and no one can create it but you.

Need some visual affirmation too? Here you go.

If it feels like this

Strong Gip - Rock Climbing Series

or this

swimming man in ocean water

you’re probably doing it right.

The Study of Here

or, How Setting Makes a Story

Editing a good dissertation is like auditing a class, and as a person who was deported from the land of academia for taking four years to obtain a two-year master’s degree, I love that. Last Thanksgiving I expressed my gratitude for the grad students who hire me to polish their dissertations. Not only do they provide an income stream, but they bring me new ideas, lofty academic stuff that I don’t run across in my day-to-day. Bonus: I get the best of the class without having to leave my house or listen to That Guy who monopolizes every discussion. You remember That Guy.

Anyway, this year’s student introduced me to Félix Guattari, Marxist poststructuralist psychoanalyst, and his three ecologies: those of mind, society, and environment. He’s involved with the deep ecology movement, but that’s not what I’m interested in right now. Reading this student’s research made me think about the importance of setting in any narrative.

Let’s break it down freshman style: ecology derives from the Greek roots oîkos, meaning “house,” and logía, “the study of.” It is the science of where we are now and how that affects us. Biology and environmentalism are generally where people go with that, but we can transfer the concept to storytelling.

Ecology is more than just this.

Ecology is more than just this.

Creator of Worlds

For me, the hallmark of a good story, fiction or nonfiction, told with print or film or stage, is that it creates a world that lingers in memory long after the story has come to an end. A key element of this world building is setting. One could argue, and I do, that setting is as important if not more so than characters. In a sense, it has to be a character in whatever narrative you are telling. The audience needs to understand its backstory, its traits, and why it reacts in predictable or unpredictable ways as events unfold.

To use a negative example, have you ever watched episodes from original Star Trek or early Doctor Who in which the characters are trapped in some featureless landscape or a tiny room? This may have been edgy in the 60s, but now it qualifies as blunt force trauma. It’s claustrophobic, tedious, and more or less unwatchable unless you’re a hardcore fan. This is what happens when you subtract a sense of place that is connected to an individual (mind), a group (society), and a physical location (environment).


How do I make my setting (and story) unforgettable?

So glad you asked! Setting needs to have a connection to character and events. You can’t just toss your characters into a primeval forest or an overgrown building in Chernobyl or an underground factory in a dystopian future or a ratty apartment in the Lower East Side in the 30s—not without knowing why they are there and why this is either the best or the worst possible place for these characters to be at this time. Note that last word, time. When is part of where. It gives dimension to setting.

Frequently characters arrive in a writer’s brain with their time and place fully intact. If not, you may need to chat with them for a while, observe them as you would strangers in a train station. What are they wearing, how do they speak? What do they carry? Urban, rural, wealthy, poor, from the past, from the future? Sheltered, worldly, street smart? Are they comfortable wherever they find themselves? Are they fish out of water no matter where they go? Do the distinct places from which two characters come create a conflict between them, a disconnect?

If you are working in the genre of fantasy, you have both immense freedom to invent ecologies and immense responsibility to create the perfect place for your story because the limits of our space and time don’t exist. Use your powers wisely, and don’t trap your characters in a box when you have the universe at your disposal.

Giant Graffiti On The Abandon Building In Thailand

A Little Bit of Not-Here

A final note on setting: no matter how bleak their current surroundings, characters must all carry some piece of sanctuary, some memory or talisman or dream of a better future to represent the hope they have of getting out of there. That idea or item signifying a better place creates contrast with the present; without it, the setting is flat and offers no connection to the audience or the characters. Just as you need ebb and flow in the steady rise of emotional engagement, there needs to be variety in setting. When you build your house, give your characters light and shadow to play in.

A Good Problem to Have: Weighing Multiple Agent Offers

Looking for a literary agent? Ever wonder what might happen if more than one of the agents you queried wanted to represent your book? Hey, it could happen, and it did for today’s guest blogger, Mike Chen. Mike is a very talented writer of sci-fi and someone you will be hearing more about soon. Check out his website and drop him a tweet @mikechenwriter.

Cork, Ireland - June 20, 2008: Old Fashioned Balance Beam Scale

When I started querying my latest manuscript, my critique partners told me that this was THE ONE. I didn’t believe them. After all, there was no practical reason why this would work out for me. Surely it’d result in more disappointment and heartache, along with the consolation prize of “Well, at least I learned a bit about plot and character.”

I was wrong. And they were right. I thought I wouldn’t even get one offer. I got multiple agent offers.

After getting over the shock of “this is really happening,” a new question took over all of my thoughts: how could I possibly choose?

Never, ever, ever in my wildest dreams did I think I could get multiple offers. Not only did I have multiple offers, several of them were from my top tier of agents. Turning one of those down seemed like something universally wrong, like eating nachos without jalapeños.

But I had to pick. And I had committed to a one-week turnaround to figure this all out. Here are the steps I took to whittle down my choices. To whoever is reading this, I hope you have this dilemma as well. It’s a pretty great problem to have.

Step 1: Consider your long-term genre plans.

First, I thought about the long term. I write cross-genre stuff, essentially commercial stories in a sci-fi setting. That led me to withdraw from one agent who was still reading, as she was purely a commercial agent with no sci-fi background. Another agent had cross-genre experience, but his primary strength was in literary fiction. Again, no pure sci-fi in his repertoire, and I knew that at some points in my career, I planned to dip more into genre elements. That crossed that agent off my list.

Step 2: See if you get along.

That left me with only agents with strong sci-fi backgrounds. I interviewed all of them and felt like I got along with each of them, so I couldn’t cross any off based on them being a jerk! All had good sales records; all worked for reputable agencies.

Step 3: Weigh their feedback on your manuscript.

So I went deeper. I looked at the non-SF material they represented and read. More importantly, I considered the different feedback they provided. I like to think I keep an open mind to all feedback, and during interviews, I made a point to not question or get defensive with any of the feedback, even if it didn’t feel right.

For the most part, I agreed with each agent’s feedback, and there was a significant level of overlap among them. But there were a handful of moments that made me scratch my head or didn’t sit right with me. I wound up weighing all of the different feedback, considering what mattered more and what was essentially a lateral move from my original vision.

That whittled the list down to two agents.

Step 4: Find the right fit.

This is where background and preference came into play. Outside of SF, the first agent worked with romance and cozy mysteries—two genres I didn’t read and certainly didn’t plan on integrating into my writing. The second agent used to work at Quirk Books, which supported SF crossover work, and as a published writer, his biggest influence is Nick Hornby—the same writer that had the biggest influence on my work.

Taking that into account, I was able to make my decision—those few things gave the second agent the advantage. And after a few days of pondering my decision rather than thinking about my real-life responsibilities, I accepted an offer of representation from Eric Smith of PS Literary Agency.

Now that we’ve gotten deeper into revisions, I can see that this was truly the right choice. Eric’s notes provide smart feedback while demonstrating a clear understanding of what I’m trying to do by blending commercial and SF. The fact that we can also talk about video games and being Corgi owners is just a bonus.

Could I have found success with the other agents? Quite possibly. However, by carefully weeding through deeper factors, I was able to hitch my work to an agent who understands both my influences and my future aspirations. I couldn’t have asked for a better fit—and it took a lot of careful consideration to get there.

Recently Published: Depressed People Make Me Sleepy

Depressed People Make Me Sleepy

Depressed People Make Me Sleepy—My Curriculum Vitae is the intensely personal memoir of a psychologist attempting to unravel her patients’ emotional and mental health issues while confronting (or avoiding) her own. Psychologists, therapists, and grad students in the field—you will want to read this book. You can get it here.

Chase the Words

It’s been busy around here, which is why I have neglected the blog. And then there was the annual vacation in early July, back from which I traditionally come inspired to break out of the money-driven confines and do some creative work. I do want to get to that, and also I have some things to say about some of the more esoteric, Talmudesque entries in the Chicago Manual of Style, but that is for another day.

Today, I want to consider the tardigrades, microscopic animals also known as water bears or moss piglets. These tiny critters have survived the five major extinction events in our planet’s history; they can withstand temperatures from close to freezing to higher than the boiling point of water. Atmospheric pressure six times greater than that at the bottom of deep ocean trenches, the vacuum of space, radiation lethal to humans—no problem; they can handle it. They can survive for ten years with no food or water and then get right back to the business of eating and reproducing as soon as they are rehydrated.

A testament to perseverance, yes, but when I heard about water bears, the first thing I thought of was not the gorgeous flexibility and tenacity of terrestrial life, but the poor grad students whose job it was to go into the lab every day and try to kill these little buggers. Science is a bitch, sometimes.


a water bear: evolutionary superstar

What would I know about it, you are no doubt asking. I sit around with a laptop all day reading books. Either the books are good, and I am entertained, or they are abysmal, and I enjoy a deep, satisfying schadenfreude over that. Well, no. (OK, there is a dark sort of joy in exposing and expunging ignorant usage, like “per say”—dude, I know.)

The task that has been wearing on me lately is the repeated exposure to mediocre manuscripts. They are of poor quality not simply because the writers lack vision or talent, but because they have got hold of some idea that all it takes to be an author are several thousand words strung together in a file and a few thousand dollars to PayPal off to a self-pub factory.

This is not a new idea, and people all over several industries have been decrying the self-pub revolution for ages. I don’t care about the dilution of literature so much; no one is reading this deluge of poor fiction, so it doesn’t matter. What concerns me is the attitude, the hubris, that makes fact-checking, revision, the numinous, and honest hard work seem irrelevant. It’s sweatshop work versus craftsmanship.

I recently watched a documentary about this guy, which was well done, but I was most impressed with his use of the phrase “chasing the music.” In music, as in writing, it’s not just daily practice that’s important, or even amassing a body of work, it’s the chasing—the relentless seeking after solutions, hunting the elusive, trying to take down the seemingly unkillable.

I look nothing like that thing.

I look nothing like that thing.

Want to write a book? Do it, I implore you. Put the sum of your experience and intelligence into it. Never stop chasing the images and characters in your head. Never give up, and by that I don’t mean the trite advice to push on past naysayers and doubt. When I say never give up, I mean your work isn’t done until it’s polished and awe-inspiring. Write it, fix it, fix it some more. Ask kind souls to read it, and then fix it again after they tell you what’s wrong. If they say nothing’s wrong, get some more truthful readers.

Care about your work. Bring a thoroughness to the job that would make a water-bear-murdering microzoologist proud. No one is going to care about your project the way you do, so put all your passion into it before you unleash it on the world. If you prefer the self-pub route to the agonizing pilgrimage of traditional publishing, that’s fine. Just don’t sign off on something that reads like self-pub, like you wrote it on your phone over your lunch break.

Give your dreams the respect they deserve. Follow your bliss, pursue your excellence, and never stop chasing the words.