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Writing, Community, and the Alpha Workshop

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

Last July, Justine and I taught at the Alpha Workshop for Young Writers, a science fiction, fantasy, and horror writing camp for people 14-19. It was tons of fun (pic here) and we learned a lot. So when Alpha asked me if I would lend space for their fund-raising and young-writer-recruiting blog tour, I said yes.

So here’s a post by Sarah Brand, an Alpha alum, talking about how workshops and the communities they form help us all to become better writers.

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In the summer of 2006, I attended the Alpha SF/F/H Workshop for Young Writers for the first time. As I boarded the plane to Pittsburgh, easily the farthest I had ever traveled on my own at that point, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Being a somewhat anxious, awkward girl, I didn’t know whether I would make friends. But maybe I would learn more about writing, or how to get published. Maybe Tamora Pierce, who teaches at Alpha every year, would look at my novel. (I had brought a printout of all 300 pages just in case.)

I was right about some things, and wrong about others. I did learn a lot about the craft and business of writing, enough to recognize that my novel still needed a lot of work. (Tammy didn’t look at it, which was definitely for the best.) And though I was anxious and awkward, and though minor disasters kept happening to me—getting stung by mysterious bugs, making my parents worry by forgetting to call home, and the like—I felt completely at home with the workshop’s staff and the other students. Something magical was happening.

After ten days, the workshop ended, and I went home. But something was different, something that had never happened to me after any summer camp before: I kept in touch with my fellow Alphans, regularly, via LiveJournal and email. We commiserated about school and traded drafts of stories for critique. Even months after the workshop, I felt as close to some Alphans as I did to other friends I had known all my life. Maybe geography had cruelly scattered us from California to New Zealand and everywhere in between, but we were united by our love of making stories happen, and bringing strange new worlds to life.

In 2009, after I had returned to Alpha twice more—once as a second-year student and once as a staff member—fellow Alpha graduates Rachel Sobel and Rebecca McNulty founded the alpha-crits community, which soon became the way many Alphans stayed in touch. In addition to trading critiques, we celebrate each other’s writing accomplishments and publishing successes. For four particularly memorable months, the moderators ran the “700 words a day or shame!” thread, which resulted in Alphans collectively writing 875,799 words in that time. Also, every year as the deadline for the Dell Magazines Award approaches, eligible Alphans frantically write and revise stories for the contest, and everyone pitches in to give critiques with an extra fast turnaround time. (A couple of months later, we all join in the nail-biting until the finalists are announced.)

Importantly, the members of alpha-crits encourage each other to write things and send them out, continuing the time-honored Alphan tradition of treating rejections from agents and editors as a badge of honor. (Rejections, we have all learned, mean that you are writing things and sending them out, and that is always a step forward, even if it doesn’t feel like it.)

Even if I had never attended Alpha, I think I would still be writing. The entire course of the last eight years of my life would be different, sure, but in the end, telling stories is part of who I am. But being part of a community of such fabulous writers—not only brilliant and talented, but also uniformly encouraging and kind—has made the journey much easier, and a lot more fun.

And lest you might think I’m the only one who feels this way, I reached out to other Alphans to get their thoughts. Alpha graduate Marina Goggin had this to say: “One thing I hear a lot that I would never expect out of a two-week workshop is that Alpha changes lives. This is absolutely true…  Being part of Alpha makes you a part of the writing world—even if you haven’t been published yet, someone you critiqued probably has been. Someone you know just got an agent, or a job at a publishing company. While I’m working to improve my writing, I’m encouraged by the fact that other Alphans have already been through the same process and are there to help me through it in turn.”

“I have a whole community of writer friends who I can go to for advice or encouragement should I ever need it,” added Alphan Mallory Trevino.


If you are between the ages of 14 and 19 and love writing science fiction, fantasy, or horror, you should apply to Alpha! This year’s workshop will be held July 25-August 3 in Pittsburgh, PA, and applications are due March 2. Everyone else: if you like the sound of Alpha and want to help the workshop, please consider donating to our scholarship fund, which helps students who couldn’t afford to attend Alpha otherwise. All donors receive a flash fiction anthology, written and illustrated by Alpha graduates, as a thank-you gift.

Sarah Brand attended Alpha in 2006 and 2007. She writes young adult science fiction and fantasy, and her fiction is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

Uglies Is Free in the UK

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

If you live in the United Kingdom, you can acquire the e-book of Uglies for the low cost of FREE from iTunes.

[Alas, this offer is no longer.]

Hope all your NaNoWriMoings are going well. Today’s NaNo hint is: Don’t forget that visual aids can help you organize your novel!

Here’s my Action/Tension plot from the first few chapters of Behemoth. Each index card represents one chapter. I add the chapter description, the Action/Tension labels, and the color-coded POV pushpins (red for Deryn, blue for Alek). This is all really easy in Scrivener:

Screen Shot 2013-07-12 at 9.35.27 PM

Rather than software, some writers use physical objects to help organize their novels. Here is Lauren Beukes’ “murder wall,” which she used to keep the serial killings in The Shining Girls straight:

photo credit: Morne van Zyl

Image ganked from this interview in Zola Books.

I can just imagine the South African police busting into Lauren’s home on an unrelated matter, seeing this murder wall, and being all, “Check the basement.”

Diana Peterfreund also uses a physical medium for plot tracking, color-coded sticky notes!


Her blog post about this “plot board” is here. This one is for the book Rampant, which I blurbed.

Those of you with more monochromatic tastes should check out Justine’s post about How to Write a Novel, which includes this spreadsheet for word-count and POV tracking:


Of course, it doesn’t matter what combination of yarn/software/post-its you employ. Whatever helps you visualize your novel’s structure, and gets your eyes out the trees so you can see the forest, is awesome.

Just remember, a good novel isn’t just a piece of text; it’s a terrain, a country, even a world. As its ruler, you should probably have a map.

Take a Writing Class with Me

Thursday, January 31st, 2013

Writing boot camps are workshops where you live for a week (or several) and focus completely on the written word. It’s a very intense experience, one that can change your writing style, your relationship to books, and even your life. Some famous camps like Clarion list many famous writers as their alums.

The most well-known SF and fantasy writing camp for teenagers is called Alpha, and takes place every July in Pittsburgh. It’s ten days altogether (July 10-19 this year) including eight days of workshops and two days of attending Confluence a literary sf convention nearby. You have to be age 14 to 19 to attend.

I’ve blogged about Alpha before, but this year, I willl be teaching there, along with Tamora Pierce and Theodora Goss. If you want to apply, submissions are open now.


To quote Alpha:

We’re looking for enthusiastic, talented young writers who have a strong interest in science fiction, fantasy and/or horror and a passion for writing. Students from anywhere in the world are welcome. In the past, students have attended Alpha from Canada, the United Kingdom, all over the United States, and even as far away as New Zealand.

Learn about writing and publishing. Meet other teens who share your interest in writing speculative fiction. Talk about short stories, novels, and films. Have your submission story critiqued. Brainstorm new story ideas, write a first draft, receive feedback, and rewrite. Attend readings by the authors. Do a public reading. Learn about submitting for publication, and send off your story at our manuscript mailing party.

2013 will be Alpha’s twelfth year. Previous attendees have placed in the Dell Magazines Award and Writers of the Future contests, and have sold stories to Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Fantasy Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, Cicada, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Nature Futures, Pseudopod and more.

Workshop tuition is $1100 and includes all workshop-related costs, but does not include transportation to and from Pittsburgh, or hotel/meals at the Confluence Convention. A limited pool of scholarship funding is available for students in need of financial aid.

Here are some testimonials from previous students.

Click here for more info and to apply.
Click here to donate to Alpha.

I hope I’ll be seeing some of you there! It’ll be great to meet you in person and talk about writing for a few days.

(Also: I will be more blogging soon, including some Uglies movie news.)

Goliath Word Cloud

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

Back in 2009 I blogged a word cloud of Leviathan as a NaNoWriMo tip.

Word clouds (made easy by the lovely and clever people at Wordle) are graphic representations of which words appear, and how often, in your novel, blog, or whatever. The words are sized, of course, in relation to how many times they pop up.

Word clouds great for spotting words that a writer uses too often, like my terrible habit of people frowning before they say something, or my once-rampant obsession with the word “effulgent.”

They’re also kind of fun for creating quasi-spoilery anticipation. And with that goal in mind, I offer you the Goliath word cloud five months before the book comes out!

Click here to see the full-size version. You know you want to.

Your sharp young eyes will no doubt note that I had to remove one word from the results. It was just too spoilerizing, and rather big as you can see. But the rest remains unaltered.

Of course, certain words that are missing (or quite small) can be just as spoilery as the ones that are there. So don’t look too close unless you want to suffer from S3krit Knowledge You Cannot Forgetz.

For my own purposes, I’m glad to see that “frowned” is very wee, and “effulgent” nowhere to be found. Sadly, “barking” is smaller than I thought it would be, and “perspicacious” totally missing! (But don’t worry, “Bovril” is happily medium sized.)

Best of all, the dreaded “just” is either not there or too tiny to see, so that’s another bad habit of mine expunged. Yay.

If you’re a writer, this old NaNoWriMo post of mine will give you a few more hints how to use word clouds in your own work.

See you on Fan Art Friday!

Writing Excuses

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

Hey, sorry it’s been so long since I’ve blogged. I plead tour exhaustion. But here are things for you to listen to and look upon!

For the listening, while on tour I did two long interviews with Writing Excuses, a weekly podcast on the craft of writing.

The first interview is appropriate to the Leviathan series, because it’s all about the visual components of writing. Maps, diagrams, character sketches, floor plans, and full-blown illustrations—all those things writers create to help them visualize the world of their books. (And for those of you who are visual learners, or who hate the sound of my voice, here’s the transcript.)

The second interview is more generally about steampunk, the subgenre of which I am now the resident expert/bore (but not high priestess, waah). Listen here or check out the transcript.

And now for things to look at. As I’ve toured, I’ve talked a lot about the books that inspired me to make Leviathan series illustrated: the 1910s-30s teen novels that had cool pictures in them. But I didn’t make a point of showing examples to my audiences, and I haven’t put any here on my blog. This seems like an oversight.

So here from my research bookshelf, recorded by my iPhone with craptastic lighting, are a couple of these inspirations.

First is A Trip to Mars, both the cover and an interior illustration:



And here’s the cover and illustration from the glorious “boy’s own adventure,” A Trip to Mars.



Note the similarities and differences from Keith’s work. Some of the stiffness of Edwardian illustration is visible in these, and the caption on A Trip to Mars could totally go in Leviathan. The spilling off the frame isn’t present here, and these are in color, which is interesting. But the spirit of them is, I think, the same.

Also, you can see that Keith is much better than these old-fashioned dudes. Seriously.

But I will admit that, whether they’re pen names or not, Captain F.S. Brereton and Fenton Ash are the most awesome author names in history. Evar.

Okay, I’m about to transit hemispheres, so there may be another long pause in my blogging. But thanks for dropping by, and thanks again to all of you who made my tour so much fun.

Ciao for now.

Nano Tip #27: Word Clouds

Saturday, November 28th, 2009

We all have words we love too much.

Maybe for you it’s something fancy, like “effulgent” or “apodictic,” or something sillier, like “smellypants.” And because we love these words, we will use them too often, until our readers begin to snicker quietly at us.

But those big, obvious words are easy to spot. We’ll whack them in the second draft. And even if we fail to do so, our friends will probably slap us the fiftieth time they encounter the word “prognosticate.”

It’s the little overused words that kill us, that quietly undermine our text without us ever noticing.

My big overused word was once “just,” as an adverb. “He was just happy to see you.” “She was just standing there.” It cropped up everywhere. After this was pointed out to me by a wise editor, I went through an entire novel, deleting it everywhere it didn’t completely change the meaning of the sentence. That cured me.

But how could I be sure that there weren’t other overused words mucking up my manuscript?

Then I discovered the word cloud.


“Word clouds” are graphic representation of the words in a text, scaled by how many times each word occurs. You’ve probably seen then in blog sidebars and Amazon listings. They’re software-generated, and therefore reveal common words that humans might overlook. (Though the software ignores super-common words like “the” and “a” automatically.) They’re also a great place to start when you begin work on your second draft.

This is what the word cloud for my latest novel, Leviathan, looked like after my first draft:

Lev wordmap
generated by the excellent software

As you can see, my two main character names, Alek and Deryn, are the biggest words by far.

Now, you can use word clouds to check relative importance of character names in your text, but I’m not interested in that here. (Alek is a bit bigger, but only because Deryn often goes by other names, like “Dylan” or “Mr. Sharp.” So no surprises there.) So let’s check for any overused little words.

The first thing that seems to be dominating is “eyes.” That may mean I’m relying too much on eyes for emotional cues, which could get boring. I definitely checked that as I worked on the second draft.

“Looked” is also a bit big, and got some scrutiny, I’m sure. If your characters are spending a lot of time looking at things, you probably got lazy at some point.

I also would have taken a search-pass on the word “voice,” which is often used as a shortcut to convey emotion. Too many phrases like “said Scott in a strained voice” is not a good sign.

“Feet,” “head,” and “hands,” are all big, but they’re all equal, so that doesn’t bother me as much. It’s a very physical book, after all, with lots of jumping and grabbing, and whacking of heads.

Note that I’m also ignoring interesting words, like “engines,” “walker,” and “hydrogen.” Those are just part of the world I’m writing about—airships and walking machines. I’d be worried if some cool words like that didn’t show up big.

See how it works? One glance at a word cloud can make all the difference.

To create your own word cloud, just copy and paste your entire text into this text field here at Enjoy!

That’s it for today. Don’t forget to check out Justine’s Nano Tips on the last two remaining even-numbered days. See you on the 29th with my final entry!

Nano Tip #25: Read It Backwards

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

This is my ante-penultimate Nano Tip, so you must be nearing the end of your fantabulous NaNoWriMo novel. Soon you’ll need to read the whole thing over with an editorial eye, polishing every sentence for sparkling clarity.

But how to concentrate on mere clauses and word choice while your amazing story is sweeping you along in its wake? How can you focus on all those pesky details when your characters are bleeding heroically onto the page?

Three words: Read it backwards.


Reading through a novel in reverse order is an old trick used by many writers. It’s like when an optometrist covers up one of your eyes to test the other. You’re covering up your “story eye” to bring grammar, spelling, and sentence structure into focus.

So what do I mean by “reading backwards”? Do you literally read the last word of your novel, then the one before that, then the one before that until you get to the beginning?

Well, that depends on what you want to concentrate on. Reading in reverse word order would bring spelling errors into sharp relief, but would probably also break your brain. No one I know does that.

A more feasible strategy is reading in reverse paragraph order. That serves to isolate sentences and word choices, without the drama of the scene pulling you past mistakes. On the other hand, if you read in reverse chapter order, you’ll be focused on the structure of individual scenes.

See how it works? The larger the unit you use for your reverse reading, the more “pulled back” you are from each level of writerly technique. But it’s up to you to discover which kinds of reverse reading are helpful for you.

Another reading-out-of-order technique I’ve used is to look at all the scenes in which a certain character appears, just to make sure they stay consistent.

Warning: if you start to get a headache, stop for a while before continuing. But don’t worry. It’s just like your first non-flipped manga; your brain will adapt eventually. That’s what it’s good at.

That’s it for today! Don’t forget to check out Justine’s Nano Tips on the even-numbered days of November. See you on the 27th.

Nano Tip #23: Change Your Brain

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

So . . . you’re more than two-thirds done with NaNoWriMo, and maybe you’re starting to crumple a bit. Your dialog sounds forced, your action scenes are flat, and your plot twists have all turned to spaghetti. What can you do to break out of this slump?

Here’s my tip for the day: change your brain!

“Um, what now?” you may ask. Allow me to explain . . .


This tip was inspired by a recent article in the journal Brain and Cognition, about how traffic levels between the two hemispheres of your brain affects thinking. Researchers found that any activity that promoted neural cross-talk in test subjects also promoted creativity.

In other words, if you can get the two halves of your brain talking, you’ll be more likely to find inspiration. And it’s easier than you think.

(A quick note before I go on: most of the right-brain, left-brain stuff people repeat is total rubbish. There isn’t a “creative lobe” on one side of your head and an “analytical lobe” on the other. Both sides of your brain perform both analytic and creative tasks. The key here is to make them talk to each other.)

In this study, the subjects moved their eyes back and forth along a horizontal axis, like when you’re watching a tennis match. (Or a really boring game of Pong.) After thirty seconds of eye exercise, the subjects gained about ten minutes’ worth of improved scores on various creativity tests.

So if you need a quick hit of creativity, try looking from right to left for thirty seconds and see what happens.

Of course, you can’t move your eyes back and forth every ten minutes of your writing day. That would be dizzying and tedious. So how do you keep your creativity levels high for, say, all of November?

Luckily, there’s evidence that you can improve cross-talk levels (and thus creativity) on a permanent basis, simply by pretending that you’re left handed.

Here’s the thing: left-handed and ambidextrous subjects had no benefit from the eye movements in this study. In fact, in some studies lefties and ambies seem to get stupider after cross-talk exercises. Many scientists think that’s because lefties and ambies already operate at an optimal level of cross-talk, generated by the fact that the world is designed for right-handed people.

That’s right, all those rightie-baised scissors make lefties more creative.

Or to say it another way, being challenged by the world wires your brain for creativity!

So here’s my exercise for you today: Pretend you’re left handed. Open doors, eat, and mouse with your left hand for a day or so. You’ll be promoting cross-talk in your brain, and rewiring yourself for creativity. It may feel weird, but it should give your creative juices a boost.

And for those of you who are already left-handed or ambidextrous? Hey, you don’t need my help. You’re already creative geniuses! (Or rather, you’re already operating at optimal cross-talk levels, so you’ll have to find some other trick to make yourself smarter. Sorry!)

That’s it for today! Don’t forget to check out Justine’s posts on the even-numbered days of November. See you on the 25th.

Nano Tip #21: Writers Re-read

Saturday, November 21st, 2009

Being a writer should change your daily life. You should scan the newspaper for story ideas, deconstruct old fairy tales in the shower, and eavesdrop shamelessly in the name of dialog development.

And being a writer should also change the way you read.


The next time you read a scene that makes your socks roll up, make yourself stop and learn.

Even if it interrupts your readerly pleasure, take a moment to wonder. How did the author just make you cry? Which elegant phrase or shameless trick jerked those tears from you? At what point in that action scene did your heart start pounding? What was the exact moment that you went from hating this character to liking them?

One of your jobs as a writer is to take novels apart and see how they work. Don’t go for the easy enjoyment of letting the words wash over you. Instead analyze and nitpick. Get your hands dirty.

Writers re-read.

Okay, I’m off to NCTE in Philly, so that’s it for today! Many amazing writers and I will be doing a benefit for the Philadelphia Free Library summer reading program while we’re there. Please come and support your local library!

Sunday, November 22 1:00-3:00PM
Laurie Halse Anderson, Jay Asher,
T.A. Barron, Sarah Dessen,
Steven Kluger, Justine Larbalestier,
David Levithan, Lauren Myracle,
Jacqueline Woodson and me!
Children’s Book World
17 Haverford Station Rd.
Haverford, PA

Don’t forget to check out Justine’s Nano Tips. See you in two days!

Nano Tip #19: Read Out Loud

Friday, November 20th, 2009

If you ever take a linguistics class, you will hear this catechism from the first day on:

1) Speech is primary.

2) Speech is universal among human cultures, and separates us from other animals.

3) Speech is innately acquired-–-unlike writing, which is a skill that must be learned.

4) Therefore speech (not writing) is the primary material for linguistic study.

Yes, dear NaNoWriMor-ers, writing is important. But speech is the bee’s knees. So when you want to measure your burgeoning novel against a basic human yardstick, read that sucker out loud.


Every week or so, Justine and I read aloud to each other the last few chapters of whatever books we’re writing. We like to entertain each other, but we do have one important rule: the reader is allowed to stop at any time to fix a lousy sentence, even if it leaves the listener hanging.

We’ve found this practice extremely useful for the following reasons:

1) When you read aloud, pacing issues become readily apparent.

2) It is physically impossible to read a crappy sentence without flinching.

3) Reading dialog aloud prevents unintentional hilarity.

3) Drafts are easier to share when no one can see your crappy punctuation and spelling. (In early drafts, you often don’t care about such details yet.)

5) Non-verbal responses like laughter and gasps are invaluable.

6) Novel writing is a lonely process with extremely long lag-times for feedback. Storytelling has the advantage of instantaneous feedback.

7) Loving to tell stories is why we got into this racket.

So the next time you’re stuck, consider finding a friend and reading aloud to them. Surprisingly, a stuffed animal works almost as well, because it’s not the listening that changes everything, it’s the talking.

Speech is primary.

You can still read my chat with Naomi Novik here at Don’t forget to check out Justine’s post from yesterday, about avoiding stereotypes, and her new one tomorrow. See you in two days!

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