How Do I Write? Part 1

Handwriting, boredom

Every fiction author develops a unique recipe for making diverse ingredients—characters, plot, setting, language, and theme—emerge from the creative oven as a whole creation. A work of wonder. A novel. I’m often asked how that happens, though I feel I hardly know and can only speak for myself.

Last Saturday, at the Hoboken Library Festival, I gave a short talk that answered some of the questions readers often ask: how do I put a book together and what do I hope they will get out of it? Starting with the end product in mind, I held up my crime thriller, Architect of Courage, and said my hope with it was to give readers an exciting adventure that, along the way, shows the risks in making assumptions about people, the meaning of loyalty, and the ability of an ordinary person to find ways to accomplish extraordinary things.

You’ve probably heard that fiction writers divide roughly into two camps. The plotters—those who have dozens of 3×5 cards or different colored post-its or Scrivener index cards noting every scene and major plot development. They shuffle these around until they achieve what they believe will be be the most effective, compelling, reader-aware sequence to get to the end they have in mind.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the “pantsers,” so called because they write by the seat of their pants. They start writing (not always in the right place, but that’s what revisions are for) and find the story developing before them. They go where the story leads them.

Suffice it to say, neither camp understands how the other one works—or can work!

Truthfully, although most authors probably are in mainly one camp or the other, they often try the other approach too. I find I write a chunk (say 20,000 words of what will turn out to be a 95,000-word manuscript), then take stock. At that point, I might make myself a map of who the main characters are, their conflicts, their strengths and weaknesses, their alliances and antagonists, and look for new ways they might come interact. Arrows all over the place. That sets me up to write another big chunk. When I finally see the end coming, I do have to be more organized to make sure that when I get there, all the story questions have been answered. (Like, how DID Charles know Adeline was allergic to peanuts? Or where DID the money to buy the lake house come from?)

I keep a running list of story questions as I go along. Since, as in real life, some questions are unanswerable, the story must recognize that that particular element is beyond reach. I show that the characters may not know the answer, but they (and I) haven’t forgotten the question.

Another way I stay organized is to put a table at the head of the long Word document that’s the novel. The table lists chapter number, 2-3 words describing the main action, who’s the point-of-view character, date the action takes place, word count. That table lets me easily navigate around the document. It was a godsend when my editor suggested shortening the timeframe of the novel. If I hadn’t known the exact dates when events happened, I would have been lost. That revision necessitated another table column, “New Date.” I know Scrivener automates this kind of thing, but I stick to my homegrown approach.

How Do I Write? – Part 2 tomorrow

Myths about Writers & Writing

A few months ago, Emily Harstone wrote an entertaining post “14 Myths about Writers” for Authors Publish. “False assumptions, clichés, and myths” abound when it comes to the writing profession. The half-empty glass of bourbon on the desk, a pall of cigarette smoke. How many of these myths do you believe? Here are some of my favorites t:

1. The Muse – Although sometimes a writer is suddenly struck by a great idea, bringing it into reality (words on the page) doesn’t happen solely by inspiration. She quotes Pablo Picasso, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”

2. The Day Job Is the Enemy – yes, a job can take time away from the writing (as well as put food on the table), but it also exposes how people relate to each other, what the dynamics of a workplace are, and maybe even immerses the writer with content background that feeds the writing. Alafair Burke writes compelling courtroom dramas because she is a former Deputy District Attorney and teaches criminal law and procedure. Work experience informed the office environment for my suspense novel Architect of Courage, and readers who know the world of architecture found the interactions completely believable.

3. Writers are eccentric. Harstone says people believe writers “can say strange things and get away with it.” I actually have never gotten away with it. My family makes sure of that. Writers aren’t hermits, either, though sometimes when cranking away at a particularly troublesome juncture in a work-in-progress, we may shut the office door and put the phone on mute.

4. Writers have perfect grammar and never make mistakes. One read of a contemporary novel published by an editor-free small press will disabuse you of that idea. Even bigger publishers, sometimes. A thriller I read last year, published by a company claiming six editorial staff, was burdened by careless phrases like “about him and I.” Shudder.

5. “Everyone has a story, they just have to get it out.” Harstone says this is one of the most enduring of the myths. It isn’t just telling the story, it’s doing it well. Learning how to write takes time. I’d always done a lot of writing on-the-job, but I was writing fact-based reports and policy papers. When I started writing fiction seriously, I had to learn to write all over again.

6. Writers don’t “just make it up.” This isn’t in Harstone’s list, but I hear it a lot. It’s as if the author has total freedom. So not true. A story has to seem real to readers; characters must act believably (note: not “rationally”); plots have to make sense; descriptions of places and actions have to make sense; and it all has to fit together to fulfill the story’s purpose. Even fantasy and science fiction, in which the author is dealing with a completely unfamiliar world, actions and descriptions follow an internally consistent path. “World-building” it’s called, and it’s a lot of work!

And, apropos of the photo at the top of this post, it reminded me of a favorite line from Marge Piercy’s poem, “In Praise of Joe”: “All my books are written with your ink.”

Writing Tips: 38 Ways to Improve

Click-bait headlines like “The Six Grammar Mistakes Almost Everyone Makes” or “Ten Rules for Writing Mysteries” lure me in every time, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when a savvy friend forwarded me a blurb for The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes by Jack Bickham. It was originally published in 1992 and reprinted in 1997. Anyone familiar with this book or him?

Amazon lets me take a look at the table of contents, and it’s charmingly aggressive: Chapter 10, “Don’t Have Things Happen for No Reason,” (so unlike real life, then); Chapter 16, “Don’t Let (Characters) Be Windbags,” (no BOGSAT* here); Chapter 28, “Don’t Worry What Mother Will Think”!; and, something every writer needs, Chapter 37, “Don’t Give Up.”

I have a shelf full of writing-advice books and some are really excellent. And some are more excellent at some times than others. A lot of this advice kind of passes over my head, but when I’m faced with a particular story problem, even one I can’t quite define, the same advice I’ve read many times before finally hits the bulls-eye. A book organized like Bickham’s would at least help me focus on what I think is the problem, though I may be wrong!

While a lot of story constraints and possibilities have changed since 1997—social media, cell phone ubiquity, as examples—the fundamentals of character development, plot clarity, and scene construction stay pretty much the same, unless you’re writing experimental fiction (which I find generally unreadable).

Bickham, who wrote and published more than 90 novels in various genres—crime, espionage, westerns—and under various names, died in 1997. He’s was a University of Oklahoma professor and was awarded the university’s highest honor for teaching excellence. I think that comes through in the down-to-earth approach he takes in this book. If you find you like The 38, he’s written five other books on such craft specifics as scene and structure, short stories, and the like.

If you know this book, tell us whether you found it useful.

*BOGSAT: Bunch Of Guys Sitting Around Talking

Image by Markus Winkler for Pixabay.

Fiction as “the Humanizing Act”

Author KL Cook began his writing career as an actor, unlike so many of us who always knew we wanted to be writers. When he finally began to write, he immediately recognized that his theater training was perfect for fiction writing. Perhaps it’s the practice in taking on different characters’ personas in a deep way, figuring out how each one relates and reacts to the others, learning to put oneself inside the story—being not an observer, but an “experiencer.” He’s said, “I think of writing as performance—something that ideally enchants, haunts, and persuades through the senses.” This is a strategy all writers can practice. If you were your character on stage, how would you be? relate?

From his theater background, which included studying and performing the works of Shakespeare, he found the kind of complex characters authors strive to achieve. “You can never reach the bottom of them,” he says. Hamlet, Iago—they contain mysterious contradictions. It would seem that the struggle to try to understand them is what prepares writers for creating their own story characters.

Cook’s principal character in the award-winning novel, The Girl from Charnelle, is a sixteen-year-old girl. He says that while writing the book, he sometimes felt as if he were such a girl. But he had some false starts. He wrote the whole 400- page novel in the third person, then rewrote it in first person and wasn’t satisfied with the result. The narrator had to look back at her sixteen-year-old self make some judgments and interpretations that took some of the tension out of the story. So he switched it back to third person, in what must have been a tear-your-hair-out decision! Revisions, revisions, all along the way. The message here is that even changes that require some massive amount of work like these, help you get inside your characters and understand their stories better. Whatever, it worked, and gained great acclaim.

Having made that switch myself in one novel (which has multiple point-of-view characters, only one of which changed) and one short story, I can attest that it involves much more than switching pronouns.

Writing a character very different from yourself requires seeing the world in a different way—part of the challenge and the fun of it! “The only limitation is imagination,” Cook has said. This sound like a more controversial point of view than it once was, now that we’re in the era of sensitivity readers. At the same time, I believe, as Cook has said, that “Access to other lives is why fiction is such a great humanizing art.” People different from us.

Inhabiting characters different from oneself requires giving them their due—making them neither cardboard cutout villains nor perfect specimens. You find out in my novel, Architect of Courage, that the main character has been having an affair. Worse, when he finds his lover dead, he panics and does a very human thing—he panics and runs. But how to make that situation real, not cliché? I tried to make his situation believable in the first chapters by clearly describing his wife and his lover, who were totally different in personality, appearance, and behavior. Neither was a bad person. No bitchy wife or scheming younger woman. It had to be plausible that he could, as he eventually realizes, love them both, independently.

KL Cook’s award-winning books span genres. His first book Last Call, is a collection of linked stories and a novel about the lives of a Texas panhandle family (and I should read them, because that’s where my grandparents lived!). He’s published other short story volumes, a book of poetry, and essays on fiction-writing titled The Art of Disobedience. Sounds like another worthy read. He’s an English professor and co-director of an MFA program at Iowa State University.

Imagining Holmes’s Place in History – Guest Post by Richard T. Ryan

Where exactly is Sherlock Holmes’s place in history? Well, if you’re a writer the answer to that is rather simple: It’s anyplace you care to put him—within reason.

Like so many other pasticheurs, I enjoy placing Sherlock Holmes in situations that are grounded in reality. In other words, I think of my works as a blend of history and mystery. I like to think of it as Conan Doyle meets Dan Brown.

With a background in the medieval and early Renaissance periods, I’m always seeing various connections that span the centuries. As a result, druids figure prominently in one of my works, The Druid of Death, as does the ogham system of writing, used hundreds of years ago by the Irish.

In another work, I focused on the plique-à-jour style of jewelry-making, and was fortunate that the best example of this technique—The Mérode Cup—happened to be housed in the South Kensington Museum (which became the Victoria and Albert Museum some years later) and shown here.

An article about Fabergé eggs, and the discovery that Consuela Vanderbilt, Duchess of Marlborough, had commissioned the Pink Serpent Egg served as the starting point for my novel The Merchant of Menace. Also worth noting is that the Duchess was the first person outside of Russia to own one of these masterpieces.

Sometimes an event sends me scurrying down the research rabbit hole. I was intrigued when I learned that a group of Scottish students had stolen the Stone of Scone on Christmas Day in 1950. They pilfered the artifact in an effort to attract attention to the cause of Home Rule for Scotland. In The Stone of Destiny, I changed things a bit to suit the history of Holmes’s times and had a group of Irish separatists abscond with the stone in order to delay the coronation of King Edward VII.

In my most recent book, The Devil’s Disciples, which is due out later this year, I once again examine the question of Home Rule for Ireland. This time I focus on the Fenian dynamite campaign that plagued London in the mid- and early 1880s. Among the targets was the London Bridge, followed a few weeks later by the Tower of London, the House of Commons, and Westminster Hall—all on the same night!

At that point, Holmes is contacted by Her Majesty’s government and tasked with bringing the bombers to heel. This is a more in-depth look at the question of freedom for Ireland, and I touch on such events as the potato famine; the support for the movement in America, specifically from a group called the Clan na Gael; and one particular individual who shall live in Irish infamy forever.

The challenge in my books is to insert Holmes into these events without disturbing the line that is history. Sometimes, it’s fairly easily accomplished, but at other times it can be a real struggle. And, of course, I also have to find a place for Dr. Watson, so in some instances it is doubly tricky.

If you’d like to check out The Devil’s Disciples, this link will take you to its page on Kickstarter, and you can see part of the cover and check out the various rewards. Right now, we are at 94 backers, if we get to 100, everyone will receive $50 worth of free Holmes ebooks as a bonus.

The Mérode Cup photograph is licensed by CC (view license here).

Criminal Justice in Indian Country

Good news for Walt Longmire fans! David Heska Wanbli Weiden says the portrayal of law enforcement in Indian Country that you may have absorbed from Craig Johnson’s books or the (terrific!) television series, are on the money.

A Zoom presentation arranged by the Southeast chapter of Mystery Writers of America this week featured Weiden. He is a lawyer, member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, and author of the 2020 crime novel set in Indian Country, Winter Counts, which won numerous awards. (I’m still thinking about the recipes using indigenous ingredients the new casino chef was trying out!)

Weiden reminded viewers that the 577 Native American nations in the United States are exactly that—sovereign nations, and enrolled tribe members have dual citizenship. In any enterprise involving humans, of course, differences arise, and tribes have varying approaches on how to determine membership. So, if you’re writing a story that involves Indian Country, you’ll have to ask questions. While some laws apply across the board—for example, tribes do not have the right to prosecute felony crimes that take place on their own lands—other variations in criminal justice policies and practices do pop up.

In a felony crime, the tribal police must involve the FBI. In the case of Weiden’s home reservation (Rosebud), two FBI agents are assigned, yet are located a hundred miles away in South Dakota’s state capital, Pierre. Agents assigned to reservation work are not necessarily native; he gave the impression they are unlikely to be. These are not considered plum assignments, and agents rarely stay long enough to learn, appreciate, and respect the culture they are policing. Equally important, tribe members don’t develop a relationship of trust with the agents. And, of course, these situations play out against the backdrop of a difficult, neglect-filled history.

Even if the FBI makes an arrest, prosecutors may decline to pursue the case. In fact, Weiden says, they decline to prosecute as much as half the time or more, even in cases of murder and sex abuse. By contrast, outside Indian Country, only about ten percent of cases are unprosecuted. These enforcement and prosecution patterns are one reason private vigilantism has arisen. The protagonist of Winter Counts, Virgil Wounded Horse, is just such a vigilante, with all the dangers such a path exposes him to.

Mistakes, I’ve Made a Few

Architect of Courage accompanied me to the Princeton Public Library’s Local Author Day. I sat with friend and awesome fellow thriller-author Kevin G. Chapman, and the crowd was impressive. The library’s community room included dozens of authors, a number of whom publish children’s book, who decorated their tables with stuffed animals, princess crowns, and the like. One of Kevin’s book covers includes a knife-blade dripping with blood. And his titles include words like Assassin, Dead, and Fatal. We passed on having an appropriately themed display for our table.

Another local author visited with us and spent an excruciatingly long time at our table after telling us he doesn’t buy books. Instead, he re-reads favorites from decades ago. He then had a long—very long—rap about how, unlike Kevin’s Assassin, Dead, and Fatal covers, his bloody knives and corpses, the cover of Architect of Courage doesn’t signal “thriller.” I’d heard that before, but filed it in the category of “can’t do anything about it, so why worry?”

Kevin laughed when the next person to stop at our table said, “Oooh, I love that cover!” But she didn’t realize the book is a thriller. Of course. So, too late to reprint, I did finally take these comments to heart and ordered see-through labels that read “International Crime Thriller” to affix underneath the title of the copies I have, and I created a graphic that does the same. I’ve replaced the book cover photo on my website and used the new one in an ad I’m running this summer. So, that long diatribe we suffered through was actually helpful! Big smile.

Now I’m all set for The Flemington Summer Book Fest May 28, the Burlington County Book Festival June 3, along with pals from the Central NJ Chapter of Sisters in Crime, The Passaic County Book Festival June 10, and, later this summer, the Public Safety Writers Association annual conference! Hope to see you there!

Debut Authors’ Struggles

It turns out that the thrill and satisfaction of a rocket launch is rarely replicated in the launch of books by debut authors.The Bookseller, a London-based magazine about the book industry, reports on a survey of debut authors regarding their publishing experience. These findings may strike a chord with debut authors everywhere. More than half of the survey respondents said the ordeal negatively affected their mental health. Less than a quarter described an overall positive experience.

Most of the 108 respondents (61%) wrote adult fiction, and 19% wrote non-fiction. About half used an independent (that is, small) publisher, while almost half (48%) were published by one of the four majors. It seems to have made no difference which type of publisher an author used, as the negative effects on mental health were between 44 and 47% for the two groups. Statistically, the two percentages were probably about equal, especially given the rather small number of authors in the survey.

Perhaps dissatisfied authors were more likely to respond to a survey like this, but at least they also identified specific problems that publishers might be able to address. Chief among them were lack of support, guidance, and “clear and professional communication from their publisher.” Often authors didn’t know whom they should take a problem to. Googling staff directories is hardly ideal. Said one author, “it felt like a parent/child relationship with a lot of gaslighting and fake conversations”; and another, “infantilizing,” “opaque answers wrapped in praise and flattery.”

Still, there were bright spots. Comments from authors who reported a positive experience judged it a “great collaboration” (suggesting effective communication in that instance) or a good relationship (ditto).

About half of the debut authors organized their own launch events, though in one apparently unusual case, the publisher offered to pay part of the cost. Again, authors expected more support—public speaking training perhaps, and more information about events they were booked to speak at.

In many cases, support simply disappeared after publication of the debut or dwindled with each subsequent book. A few authors reported they were dropped without explanation (another example of poor communication). These longer-term problems may be heightened by significant staff turnover at publishing houses. Authors who have good, responsive agents may be able to get help from them on problems of sustainability and continuity too.

All told, not a pretty picture.

Oldest Female Debut Novelist Tells All

Guest Post by Bobbie Jean Huff

I was twelve when I wrote my first novel. It was four pages long, and in it Martha, the butt of bullying by her eighth grade classmates, graduates top of her class. Not much else happens, but with the novel’s completion I had accomplished a major life goal.

Nearly sixty years later I started another novel. For two years I basically lived in the quiet room of the Ottawa Library, and then another year in the Princeton Library, ignoring cracks from my sons about posthumous publication. That novel was published a year ago.

Writing it, I discovered, was actually the easy part of the publishing process. The next step was finding an agent.

I’d been warned by my editor. She told me that as an older author I might have trouble finding an agent. She knew a Canadian agent who prided himself on never taking on a debut novelist over the age of 45.

The reasoning behind this: first novels typically don’t sell—or so I was told. If a novelist is to succeed, it’s usually the second or third book that pushes them over that hill.

In view of all this, I thought it best to hide my age. My Twitter profile pictured an older lady, her white hair done in a braid. My name was beneath it. My Facebook profile showed that same lady holding a newborn who was clearly a grandchild—or worse.

I needed to get younger, and fast, so I called my niece and suggested lunch. A few days later, if you checked my profile pictures, you would have seen a young woman with her blond hair piled on top of her head with a purple claw clip.

And so, the younger me proceeded to search for an agent. This took time: multiple query letters, various extracts from my novel (fifty pages to this one, the first chapter to another, the full manuscript to another). Persuading an agent to even take a look at your finished manuscript is nearly impossible for a debut author, whatever her age. You might as well send it to www.themoon.com

But an agent did respond. The upside of the pandemic: she suggested a phone call instead of a meeting, and courtesy of contemporary hearing aid technology, phone calls to my phone go directly to my ears (providing I remember to charge the hearing aids each night).

People say I have a young voice. When the agent said, “Tell me about yourself,” I told her that I moved down from Canada to New Jersey a few years before, to be near my four sons. And that when I was in Ottawa, I had written and published essays and poems and short stories. Also, I said, I played church organ. Then I quickly changed the subject to the writing I was currently doing.

Here’s some of what I left out: My sons are all over forty, I have five grandchildren, and some of my organ playing has been for the funerals of close friends.

I signed with her. There then followed a month-long nerve-wracking process: submission of the novel to publishers, the offer, the negotiation of a contract, the unbelievably lengthy period of time that passed before signing, and then, yikes; a request from the publisher for a photograph!

No photo, no publication? I panicked. Then I recalled an author photo I had seen years before—was it Margaret Atwood’s? That picture featured a lone hand holding a pen. I contemplated doing that, but then decided no, I was tired of all this. I’d send the damn photo, but before that I’d do The Big Reveal. I called my agent and said, timidly, “There’s something you need to know.” And then I told her, fully expecting that as soon as those two awful words—seventy-four—were out of my mouth, she would gracefully bring the conversation to a close and I’d never hear from her or the publisher again.

That night I called my third son. “Of course they knew your age,” he said. “They only had to type your name into Google.” I tried it and discovered he was right. Google even knew my birth date. But superstitiously I waited until publication day to replace the photos of my niece with pictures of the old lady with the white braid.

British novelist Martin Amis was once quoted as saying, “Octogenarian novelists on the whole [are] no bloody good. You can see [them] disintegrating before your eyes as they move past 70.” (It should be said that Amis’ most recent novel, Inside Story, was published in 2020 when he was 72.)

Then there was Simone de Beauvoir: “A novel is the least suitable form of literature for the elderly writer, because they risk simply repeating things and are past imagining new possibilities.”

When The Ones We Keep was published last year, it occurred to me that at 76 I might be the oldest traditionally published female debut novelist. I’ve spent some time searching “oldest debut female novelists” and the same names keep popping up: Laura Ingalls Wilder, 65 when she published the first book of her Little House series, Mary Wesley, 70 when she published Jumping the Queue, and Harriet Doerr, 74 when Stones for Ibarra came out. Then there is Delia Owens, whom everyone thinks is the oldest female first novelist. But Delia was only 69 when she published When the Crawdads Sing. Compared to me, Delia was just a puppy.

Now, once again, I am searching for an agent and a publisher. By the time The Ones We Keep was published, I had another novel ready to go. My agent loved it and submitted it to my publisher. Early indications were good, and I was told that the editorial staff were over the moon about it. But the sigh of relief I heaved was premature. To everyone’s shock, Sales and Marketing gave it the thumbs-down.

I was crushed.

That rejected novel has now been paused. My agent told me that, based on its rejection, another publisher would only wonder why my own publisher didn’t want it. Instead, I have a third “slim” novel (aka novella) ready to go. My job now is to find a publisher who will like it enough to take the risk of publishing an “older” author. If I succeed in finding that publisher, all well and good (and I will continue the sequel I’ve already started to The Ones We Keep).  But if I don’t? I will never know whether it’s because I am, as de Beauvoir put it, “past imagining new possibilities,” or just, according to Amis, “no bloody good.”

Regardless, I no longer try to hide my age, which is now 77. After all, anyone looking at my book jacket can figure that one out.

Bobbie Jean Huff’s essay, originally published in Bloom, has created a stir in the Author’s Guild community, whose members have set up a pair of meetings to discuss it further. Good job, Bobbie!

The Long Creative Life

Hong Kong (now U.S.) author Xu Xi has published essays, appeared in and published anthologies, and novels, including The Unwalled City: A Novel of Hong Kong. In sum, fifteen books. In an interview, she shared some thoughts about the creative life that would encourage authors, both aspiring and experienced. “Being a writer is also an issue if you’re not published” (or, perhaps, not published where you want to be). And it’s hard to break into U.S. literary journals, short story publishing, “never mind selling novels.”

Xu found that living in New York City, enough people were trying to be an artist of some kind—musician, painter, actor, novelist—that made life easier. They understood her. They understood her day job was just a way to put groceries on the table. This is a heartfelt validation of the importance of “community.” Some of us find it in groups of other writers. Some find it in groups outside the writing community.

Still, Xu had to reach a point where the daily demands on her were not primarily about relationships, family, and work, in order to be free to write beyond herself. She quotes Confucius’s description of the various decades of life, which culminate at the point that you can “follow [your] heart’s desire without overstepping the line.” Alas, the Master said that point comes when you reach an advanced age, which maybe is why we hear about authors (like me!) whose first book is published after age 50. Not that that’s a piece of cake, either.

Xu, who is past 50 herself, says she thinks of writing “as fate, destiny, the thing you were born to do but didn’t know how to go about or weren’t quite ready for when you were younger.” Interestingly, in her day jobs she was considered a quick study, but she finds the process of writing, “incredibly slow.” Nevertheless, she finds pleasure in learning how to improve, which is long-term and yields incremental improvements. It’s fulfilling in a deep, “things are right with the world” sense, which more quickly mastered accomplishments often lack. How many times are authors pitched on “this book,” “this course,” or “this software” that will lead them down an immediate and short path to success?

International artists who write in English, Xu believes, are one way for readers to better understand both the universal aspects of life while appreciating differences in human experience and building empathy with people whose perspectives are different. This comes to the fore in her writer’s guide and anthology, The Art and Craft of Asian Stories.

At some point Xu realized she “could waste an enormous amount of creative time and energy on all kinds of ‘okay’ things, and, as well, produce work that might actually prove more readily publishable.” That choice would mean other work would suffer—work that require a deeper examination of our interior selves to reach for the fundamental, rather than the superficial. Such works don’t demand that you stretch your writing muscles. Xu is willing to do this and thereby is, she believes, writing to the future of the English language.

Xu Xi is the Jenks Chair in Contemporary Letters at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.