I’m Just A Teenage MailBag Baby

Hive Mind: Young Writers Ask Questions About Creating Stories

Figure 1. Pablo prefers an audio book over the e-Reader.

Figure 1. Professor Pablo Will Answer Your Writing Questions Now


Today I taught a short class for teenagers at The Loft on solving problems in fiction. Not shockingly, we didn’t get to all the questions posed by the students, so I’m going to list them here in case yall want to take a crack at them in the comments. Also, I’ve got a couple of writing prompts, a list of books we talked about and some helpful places to go for good character names.

Books Referenced

Confessions of a Sociopath by M.E. Thomas
Under the Wolf, Under the Dog by Adam Rapp
The Story of Owen by EK Johnston
The Dark Portal by Robin Jarvis
A Great & Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
On Writing by Stephen King
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
The Doll People by Ann Martin
The Ascendants trilogy by Jennifer A. Nielsen
The Modern Faerie Tales series by Holly Black

Writing Prompts For Exploring Your Own Story

Excerpt from p. 312-318 of 1975 Pocket Books edition of ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King. Read excerpt, then write a similar version using the setting of your story.

More exploratory sentence openers:

SETTING:  In (name of place), there are many secrets. One of them is…

CHARACTER: What (character) knows that (another character) does not know is…

PLOT: Something that is going to happen soon in the story is ____________, which will affect characters in following ways….

Character Name Resources

Seventh Sanctum Character Name Generator
Popular Names by Year via Social Security Administration
Surnames & Meanings

Class Questions

  1. How can I learn to write characters that are much different than me?
  2. How do I make sure all my characters have different personalities (all their personalities are blending together)?
  3. Where do I find helpful research on Russian contract killers from the Cold War?
  4. Should my protagonist be a psychopath/sociopath to start with (and he’s just hiding it) or should he slowly be convinced that this is what he is by the contract killers he meets?
  5. How do I rewrite something to revolve around a different character (without doing a big plot change)?
  6. How do I make a plot out of nothing but scene fragments?
  7. Can relationships between characters move a story forward?
  8. I’m really into one character’s head but everybody else falls short. How can I get into the other characters’ heads a bit better so I can accurately show their actions and desires while still keeping one foot planted in the first characters head?
  9. I don’t know what my villain wants. How can I find out what he wants? Also name suggestions would be nice…;)
  10. How can you improve describing a process better e.g. characters cross a long rickety rope bridge over a steep chasm?
  11. How does my main character react to the sudden change in environment from the mundane world to a magical world? I want it to be unique or at least not another knock-down, drag-out slushy mess: ‘I must be dreaming/hallucinating/losing my mind!’
  12. My main character has the ability to notice details – constantly. There is no on-off switch. It begins when she gets to the magical world and I’m not sure how to present the overwhelmingness of that. How would it feel to constantly notice everything? How would someone react to that?
  13. How do you publish a book?



I’m Just A Teenage Mailbag, Baby: Even More Student Questions


Figure 1. Sometimes you just need The Rust Cohle Lip Curl

Figure 1. The Rust Cohle Lip Curl. Which can encapsulate some reader reactions to your story’s ending.


Student Question #3

How do you create a resolution/ending that you and the reader are content with?


Short Answer:

Hell if I know. *sighs for 15 minutes*

Long Answer:

Well, depends on if you have one reader who likes the same kinds of stories you like. But in reality, if you publish a book, you’re going to have lots of readers. And not all of them will love what you do with the Fake People.

(ASIDE:  I kinda of quit writing when I don’t know what else happens. Like, I’m just done thinking about my Fake People. I don’t actually know what happens to them in the rest of their lives. My imagination just gives out.

When readers are like, “Does Evan get together with Baker after the end of Sex & Violence?” I’m all, beats the hell out of me. That’s what fan fiction’s for.)

I suppose the main thing I should stress is that above all, you should be content with the resolution/ending. It should feel right to you, whether it’s happy or tragic or ambiguous or whatever. You should think about YOU while you’re writing and try to be honest about who these Fake People are. Consider what makes the most sense for the story you’ve made. Reflect upon reality as you understand it, or upon the reality you’ve engineered, and your story’s relation to that.

I think the answers can also be found in the first chapter. What in the first chapter links back to the last one? You might want to rewrite your first chapter to create a nice link. That’s not cheating, by the way.

The first chapter’s like a suitcase you pack the reader to take on your trip. That’s what Andrew Karre explained to me. Though I think he forgot that he said that.

So the last chapter’s when you look in that suitcase and see what’s in there. More stuff? Less? What did my Fake People gain and lose?

Clearly, this is not a science and it’s really quite a messy problem. A delightful, messy problem, of course, if you’re into that kinda thing. But remember:  you’ve got lots of chances to solve it, so don’t think you have to hit the mark when it comes the ending on the first draft.

Want to read more Teenage Mailbag questions? Go here.



I’m Just A Teenage Mailbag, Baby: More Student Questions

Figure 1. Norman Reedus, being his beautiful, excellent self. This has nothing to do with writing.

Figure 1. Norman Reedus, being his beautiful, excellent self. This has nothing to do with writing.


Student Question #2:

How do you handle writer’s block?


I don’t like the phrase “writer’s block.” It comes off as a magical affliction.

Instead, I see having problems with getting started or continuing or feeling stuck as part and parcel of the job of writing things. So, telling yourself you have ‘writer’s block’ isn’t a diagnosis that will help you.

What you need to do is accept that sometimes writing is hard and doesn’t go smoothly.

Sometimes you don’t know what should happen next in your story.

Sometimes you don’t want to go forward because you’re concerned what you’ve already written is wrong somehow.

Sometimes you need to think a little bit more about what you’re doing or what you have already done.

Sometimes you are tired or stressed-out or sick or you  hate the assignment you’re working on or you’ve fallen in love and just want to be dreamy and distracted about your beloved or you’re really into a new book you just got or your friends want you to come swimming and you just feel like splashing around in the water and having fun and and and or or or…





So, face it. Give up. Get up from your writing space. YIELD to the fact that things are not going well.


— Turn on the television. Play a game. Text someone. Take a shower.
— Have you eaten lately? Have some lunch. Drink some water or coffee or whatever.
— Go outside. Stretch. Sit in the shade and stare at things.
— Take a walk. Go running. Swimming. Hiking. Cross-country skiiing. Hang-gliding. Snow-shoeing. Move your carcass around.
— Get on your bike and roll around the streets, coasting, letting your brain wander without worrying about what it’s thinking about.
— Call a writer friend up and complain. Or email. Either way.
— If you’ve been typing, try writing long-hand. If you’re writing long-hand, try typing.
— Make a list of things that aren’t going right in the writing.
— Listen to music.
— Get in the car and drive somewhere. Go do some dumb errands.
— Read a book. Read a magazine. Go to the library and wander around the stacks.

Actually, you can pretty much do anything besides sit at your desk and angst. Give yourself a time limit, though. Maybe you need an hour. Four hours. An entire day? But set a limit for how long you’ll need.

Probably, you’ll get an idea before the limit is up anyway. Because the act of giving up, removing yourself from the situation, will solve it for you. Writing is brainwork and our brains are mysterious creatures. Sometimes you just need to let your brain take a little cigarette break, you know?

When Matilda was in kindergarten, her excellent teacher would compliment students by saying, “Oh, good job! Kiss your brain!” And the kids would kiss their hands and tap them on the top of their heads and it was pretty much the cutest thing ever. And I don’t think it needs to stop once you finish kindergarten, either.






I’m Just A Teenage Mailbag Baby: Student Questions

Figure 1. Norman Reedus, being his beautiful, excellent self. This has nothing to do with writing.

Figure 1. Norman Reedus, being his beautiful, excellent self. This has nothing to do with writing.


Yesterday was the last day of a class I taught at the Loft Literary Center called Real Problems, Fake People. It was a super fun class and as usual, it whoooooshed by before I could catch my breath and do all the things I’d hoped to do.

Our last day, I had students ask questions about writing and publishing and anything else that they wanted to know and of course, we didn’t get to all the questions. So I will do a few of them every day here in order to atone for Time’s Winged Chariot and all that.

Question #1

How do you get organized enough to make writing a daily priority?

This is a two part question.

You have to make space for it. Physically, I mean. Find a place. A desk. A corner. A treehouse. Whatever.

Then stock that space with things you need. Your favorite pens and notebooks. Your computer. Your iPod or music source. I like to have lipbalm around when I write as well as something to drink. If you want to be serious and organized about your writing, then act the part. Set up the stage for the performance to begin. And the fun part of this is that it can be customized to all your likes and needs and superstitions. Put up inspirational quotes or poems or pictures. Get a file cabinet to store all your drafts in. Hang up fairy lights and arrange some candles if you want that kind of ambiance. Surround yourself with the books you love. Maybe a dictionary or a Thesaurus, too? It’s really your deal.

Here are some famous creative people’s work spaces, in case you need some inspiration.

(My own office is boring. A desk, a chair, a file cabinet, a bookshelf. Yawn. But it does the job okay.)

Now. It’s nice if your writing place/space can have a door, so you’re not disturbed and distracted, but that’s not always possible.

If that’s not possible, then you’ve got the second part of the question. Which is, once it’s all set up to your liking, how do you do the writing itself?

There’s no one way to be a writer.

You need to understand your own personality and habits. Night owls write at night. Early birds at the crack of dawn. Some people need music. Some people need light. Some people need silence. Some people like to work in a busy cafe. This is why ‘I don’t prescribe to writers any advice beyond LEARN ALL ABOUT YOURSELF OKAY.

The other part that might be helpful is this quote I keep by my own desk:

“Basically, I no longer work for anything but the sensation I have while working.”  – Albert Giacometti, sculptor

The reason people persist in writing, despite the difficulty making a living and the world being full of distractions and awful rejections and criticisms and publishing being in constant turmoil and nobody is reading unless they’re reading shitty books and people are idiots and sometimes I just want to lay on the beach and fool around and why is everything so haaaarrrrrd

Figure 2. Don't cry, baby. Oh, honey, really. It's okay.

Figure 2. I can’t even…


…is because for these people, writing is fundamentally enjoyable. For these people, nothing feels better than writing. Time stops and you forget yourself when you’re writing. You can’t stop thinking about what might write next.

If that describes you, then I say, be motivated by pleasure. We only go around once here on this Earth. Find a way to feel good while you’re here.

If writing’s your Feel Good Thing, let that guide you.

Life is fundamentally a time-management hassle. Writers must work to fit their Feel Good Thing into that equation.

(Note: our culture doesn’t really value Feel Good Things. Sucky, but true. But prioritize your writing anyway).

If you make writing a priority, the people around you will learn to respect that. But they won’t respect it unless you do first.

Now – go make a cool writing space! Send me a picture if you want! And then figure out how you do your best work. And go do that, too.


I’m Just A Teenage Mailbag, Baby: Reader Question #1

Figure 1. Norman Reedus, being his beautiful, excellent self. This has nothing to do with writing.

Figure 1. Norman Reedus, being his beautiful, excellent self. This has nothing to do with writing.


Because I’m having all these annoying writing problems today and am waiting for some genius answers from this lady, I think I will take a minute to write about an inquiry I had recently from a reader named Bre.

Bre read Sex & Violence and is recommending it to her school library, which is obviously nice, in my opinion, and quite lovely of her. She also professed so much love for the character of Baker Trieste, which warms my icy heart so much! Baker gets no love because people are usually busy hating Evan’s guts, so that is especially nice to hear. But when she wrote to tell me this spectacular stuff, she also had a good question, one I get a lot from my students:

I’ve read plenty of advice on writing a story after coming up with an idea, but my trouble is coming up with one. Do you have an advice to give about this?

So, normally, I’m a little wary of writing advice. Giving it, taking it. It can be helpful or it can be horrible. And often it’s presented as gospel, when really the whole point of this writing thing is figuring out how it works for the individual, not becoming some acolyte of someone else’s process.

But anyway. Maybe this will help someone? Who knows. Here is what I told Bre: Read more →