How to write a novel

This is NOT how I write. But you get the idea.

No, I don’t recommend cigarettes and booze.

Certainly, this is more difficult than writing an essay. You will envy those youthful writers who not only did it in their twenties (or earlier) but got published—and famous. To keep from becoming too discouraged, you’ll have to look for writing icons who didn’t blossom until later in life.

Now that the envy is under control, on to the practical.

First, it seems obvious that you must begin with an idea. But this assumption isn’t so apparent as you might think. There are as many ways to begin a book as there are Myers Briggs personality types (sixteen, in case you’re wondering). You could begin with an idea, but you could equally well begin with an image, a character, or a setting, or in a dozen other different ways.

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Why Donald Trump needs to read poetry (and get a cat)

This is not a political blog post per se, although when I’m done you will probably be able to tell on which end of the political spectrum I fall. Nor is the title deliberate click-bait, though I wouldn’t mind if it attracted a few additional readers. It’s not even specifically about The Donald, but rather politicians in general.

So, why do politicians need to read poetry? Let me count the ways.

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1-2-3-4-5: How to write an essay

First, you must obtain a topic. They are not hard to come by. They are everywhere: in the cafés, on the sidewalks, in the muggy offices of bureaucrats. If you lack one, your taskmaster will supply it for you in the form of a piece of literature to which you must respond.

Next, formulate your thesis. A thesis says “This is what I am setting out to prove,” as if all truths were immutable.

Then, if you are a student, you begin the five-paragraph essay. Pay no attention to the words themselves. This is about the container, the scaffolding on which you hang the words. Learn form before content; don’t break the rules until you know what they are. These are the beliefs upon which the delicate scaffolding of pedagogy rests. Upon that, civilization balances.

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Carry it home with you

Less than a week has passed since I returned from the Sonoma County Writers Camp, organized by two amazing writing teachers—Ellen Sussman and Elizabeth Stark—with an appearance by Angie Powers and panels of writers and agents. It was held at an equally mind-blowing location: The Occidental Arts and Ecology Center in Occidental, California.

While there, in the company of 23 other mostly fiction writers, I got down to business. Lots of writing, workshops, exercises, lively discussions, and information. I’ll save those for another post. Here I want to share a bit of the magic, in the form of daily writing, and my plans for bringing the magic home.

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The water’s fine but we are not

On vacation, my mind inevitably turns to dark topics, as my posts from last summer prove (“The Nihilist on Vacation” parts one and two).

This summer, I sit contemplating the sparkle of the pool. There is nothing quite like the color of swimming pool water. Ridiculous, since water has no color. But somehow this does, and it is chlorine incarnate.

Razzle dazzle.

Razzle dazzle.


How pleasant to sit here. Pleasant to drink a Diet Coke (one of two or three I consume each year) and eat Smartfood popcorn (stupid: it’s no better for you than chips) and catch up on my New Yorkers. How perfect this afternoon seems, reminding me of other perfect times, like Continue reading

The novel, reduced to absurdity

Unless you’ve been living in a cave or atop a Himalayan peak, you’ve probably heard the news that humans now have a shorter attention span than goldfish. (Eight seconds, in case you’re wondering.)

I got 8 seconds guys... ok, done. [By Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (Lmbuga) Copyright: GFDL (GNU Free Documentation License]

I got 8 seconds guys… ok, done. [By Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (Lmbuga) Copyright: GFDL (GNU Free Documentation License]

This revelation translates, for writers, into a series of eminently logical commandments:

  • Write shorter sentences.
  • Use shorter words.
  • Construct shorter books.
  • Use bullet points.
  • Write flash fiction.

No more 150K word opuses; stick to 70K or fewer. Above all, keep your readers constantly engaged—at every moment, on every page—or risk losing them to a more enticing pursuit.

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Growing up, take 2

When you have kids, you become a kid again yourself in many ways. Some of these ways are fun—you can jump in mud puddles, drink hot chocolate, lounge in your jammies, read silly books. Others are not so much fun. Like going back to school.

After re-enduring 13 years of public school, I am happy to report that neither I nor my son will ever have to go through that again. (Unless the same phenomenon occurs with grandchildren? Somehow, I don’t think so.)

Here is a piece of short fiction* in honor of the accomplishment of high school graduation and the decidedly mixed feelings it brings for parents. I originally wrote it for the upcoming MASH Stories Competition (hence inclusion of the words pizza, selfie, corruption). But I decided to publish it here instead. I’ll have to come up with something else for Mash.

* This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.


By Audrey Kalman


He doesn’t respond to my voice. I stand in the doorway. His body, still as a post, spans the length of the twin mattress beneath the blanket.

A soft ping from the microwave in the kitchen tells me the coffee is ready.

“Eli.” More urgency this time.

He keeps the mini-blinds down all the way. I squint at my watch. Close to nine, I think. The practice is at ten.

The room teems with demons and I must walk among them. I step over the threshold and kneel beside the bed. The blanket is the same one I picked from an online catalogue six years ago. Royal blue, covered with cat hair.  My hand hovers above his shoulder.

This cannot be happening.


Demon the First arrived on his third birthday and was named Defiance. Morning till night, Defiance occupied Eli’s sweet body, stabbing the walls with colored markers, throwing the pizza crusts on the floor, dropping the blocks in the toilet.

“He’s such a boy,” my mother said, as if that could help.

Demon the Second arrived during second grade and was named Provocation.

“Eli is very bright,” Mrs. Smitty told me at the parent-teacher conference. “But he needs some help managing his anger issues. Is everything all right at home?”

I’d be angry too if you stuck me in a chair all day and expected me to fill out stupid worksheets.

“Home schooling,” my friend Trisha suggested. But I was incapable of that much love and dedication.

Demon the Third arrived on the cusp of his fourteenth birthday and was named Rebellion.

Rebellion’s sentence was suspended. No time in juvie, no listing on the sex offender registry. “Because he’s a minor,” the judge said. “Because he has no priors. Because he seems remorseful.”

“Jeez, mom,” Eli said. “It was just a selfie.”


Last year he painted over the multicolored alphabet I stenciled on the walls of his room. Next year at this time the room will be empty.

I could let him sleep through the graduation practice and the ceremony later and the collection of the diploma and the party and the sneaking off after midnight to get drunk with his friends. I could keep him sequestered in my heart, away from the corruption of the world, forever and ever, amen.

“Eli,” I say a third time, even more loudly, and begin shaking him.


Have you lived vicariously through a family member—willingly or not? Had to let go of something? Do share.