A Self-Interview Guide for the Writer

A Pen In Each Hand

By harpspeed

Over the years, I’ve been asked some interesting questions about the writing life. Attending social gatherings can be fun but they can also feel more like a job interview than a party. I personally try to avoid the subject of writing especially when in the company of strangers. Yet, sometimes the questions cannot be avoided, especially when I am introduced as “my friend, the writer.” So, get your pens out and whip up some quips for the next holiday gathering—interview yourself. Keep in mind that you never know whom you may meet at a backyard barbeque. Here are some questions to get you started. Feel free to leave a comment if you would like to share any additional writerly questions.

  • Are you a “real” writer?
  • So what exactly do you write?
  • Where can I read your work?
  • Do you have a day job?
  • Have you published anything?
  • Don’t you want to be published?
  • Does your family know you do this?
  • How do you find the time to write?
  • Where do you write?
  • Are you one of those people I see at Starbucks?
  • What’s your biggest challenge as a writer?
  • What is your creative process?
  • Do you have a good luck charm?
  • I got this great idea for a novel. Maybe you could—you know—ghostwrite it with me?
  • Do you write about people you know?
  • Can I be in your story?
  • What writers do you read?

Not Your Average Writer’s Block

Absolute Blank

By Shelley Carpenter (harpspeed)

Attention Deficit Writing Dilemma, noun, a writer’s behavioral dilemma characterized by a high volume of creativity followed by an overwhelming lack of writing focus and stamina, disabling the writer from completing a single piece of fiction or non-fiction prose.

In case you didn’t know, this is not your average writer’s block. This is something different. Writers who suffer from this tragic dilemma have not fallen out with their muses. They do not have minds that are at an “absolute blank” or lack writerly ambitions or aspirations or scholarly ideas. They are frustrated, like writers suffering from the conventional writer’s block, but for the opposite reason. Their frustration is the result of an overactive muse (not an absent one), of creative energy in overdrive that leaves the writer feeling mentally breathless, exhausted or overwhelmed.

Often, these particular writers are very prolific. They may have dozens of great ideas and thoughts constantly flowing in their heads, vying for their attention and brain space in which to grow. It may sound like a writer’s heaven, but it isn’t. (Trust me. I know this from personal experience.) The end result is still the same: No copy.

Background Image: Saad Faruque/Flickr (CC-by-sa).

Background Image: Saad Faruque/Flickr (CC-by-sa).

Does this sound familiar?

The crux of this writerly dilemma lies not in the ideas or thoughts themselves, but in the ability to stay singularly focused on one, avoiding distraction from all the other great ideas that keep arising.

“Hey, Writer! I’ve got a new word for you to try on: fug.”

“Yo writer-dude, that new character has like no purpose. Get rid of him.”

“You said you were going to write an essay on BBQ customs.”

“Equity and The Importance of Cat Licenses in a Dog-eat-Dog Society.”

“Here’s the perfect ending for Chapter 7…”

“Psst… Why not write a book review for Toasted Cheese?”

People who suffer from Attention Deficit Writing Dilemma often have a difficult time finishing their writing projects. Because ideas are always present, these writers are great starters and are frequently working on several projects at once. Unfortunately, instead of finishing any one of them, these writers just move on, abandoning one writing project to jump to the next with promises to return later. And much like their characters they may be stuck in several climaxes that are too dizzying for them to sort out, contemplate, and complete.

In essence, these writers are like air traffic controllers who are solely responsible for the safety of a dozen or more planes in the air and on the ground. They are the ultimate jugglers. For the writer, each of these planes represents one of their written works in progress.

Can you juggle?

This is what it looks like: One or two stories are taxiing down a runway—Go writer! Two are in a circular hover pattern, waiting for the writer to finish that last chapter or piece of dialog. Wait. There’s more. Some new works have just arrived and have no writing space. Others have run out of fuel. One older piece of work is being diverted to another place—not over the rainbow or into cyberspace to a stream of agents or publishers, but sadly to the bottom drawer that is already half-filled with abandoned stories and crashed essays.

What’s in your bottom drawer?

With all the fiction and non-fiction in the air and on the ground the writer can be very stressed. What’s more, in most cases there is no OFF button for these folks. If there is, then it is frequently stuck. They can’t tell their muses to take off because often they have several muses who seem to work even harder than they do. Even if one were to go away, there still would be a crowd of them hovering around the writer, inspiring the writer to, of course, write something else.

Sound like anyone you may know?

Most writers are constantly writing even if they do not fully realize it. They are list-makers, leaving behind trails of Post-its on various topics that need to be addressed by them at some fuzzy later date. They are bloggers, chatters, journal-writers and diarists. They are the writers of letters—from the old-fashioned friendly note to business letters, editorials, queries, and more. And no surprise, they often write outside of a single genre: Horror and Essay, Chick Lit and Sci-Fi, Mystery and Memoir…

The same may apply to their reading. These writers perhaps read two or three books at once, also in various genres and platforms. They often annotate their personal books and are the ones who tear articles out of magazines in public waiting rooms when no one is looking—for later.

The trick is to find balance, dear writer.

Because there is always something to write about, these writers don’t know the meaning of boredom. In fact, many have interests outside of writing. Their bodies are constantly in motion almost mirroring their minds. It’s surprisingly therapeutic. Some writers find that physical exercise silences their muses. Others find meditation helpful. They practice yoga, calming their bodies with the breath, or they channel their energy through volunteer work. Another set like to use their hands to build and create things like backyard projects, gardening, knitting and cooking, sculpting, and painting

And these separate interests allow for some mental rest that these writers crave. Writers who live with friends or families have an added perk: Their significant others tend to be great interruptions and often provide distraction. The same may be true for pet owners. My dogs require frequent daily attention, especially the new puppy that is not fully trained. Having a job helps, too. A paycheck is non-negotiable for most. Although it may provide fodder for writing, a job is still one of the best mental kill switches for many writers mainly because it pays for paper, pens, and PCs and, of course, the other necessities of life.


There you have it. Attention Deficit Writing Dilemma. An invisible and disabling predicament that perhaps has been distressing you or someone you know at one time or another. If the family and friends, the various hobbies and the paycheck do not work, then you might also consider trying the A Pen in Each Handexercises that accompany this article. They may provide some relief and assist in navigating all your writing projects to their ultimate destinations, as well.


Tips for Writers with Too Many Ideas

A Pen In Each Hand

By harpspeed

Here are some tried and true tips and time management tools I use that may help ease the symptoms of Attention Deficit Writing Dilemma:

Calendars: Keep an at-a-glance monthly calendar in plain sight with all your projects recorded on the days you plan to work on them. Choose the same day each week to write out the coming week’s day-to-day writing activities, breaking down specific tasks for each project for the particular day you plan to work on them. It is advisable not to plan too far ahead. (A one-week notice is sufficient for the muses.) The calendars are comparable in importance as the outline might be to the general writer.

Sticky Notes: Keep a Post-it or two inside the cover of current books that you are reading in order to jot down ideas that come from the Book Muse. Some electronic readers have note-taking features.

The Pensieve: Keep a notebook. This is Writer’s 101. Having a pen and pad of paper close at hand to jot down those wonderful ideas that come flying at you in all weather is key to focus and feeling in control. Or if you are not the pen and paper type of writer, try using a notebook app that can be found on most smartphones. One of the worst things in a writer’s life is having a great idea and then having it drop off the radar. Notebooks are our memory keepers. (It worked for Professor Dumbledore in the Harry Potter novels.)

Recording Device: Speak into a recording app. This is similar to the pensieve, but for the auditory-processor writer. It is a great hands-free tool to use while walking, biking, driving, skydiving, etc.

End Goals: Set end goals. Since creating goals isn’t the issue, use highlighters to mark specific end dates on your calendars. You may want to break down your end goals into smaller increments such as chapter end goals, etc. It may also be more realistic and productive to have a floating final deadline that becomes permanent at a later date. Caution: Before you set your end goals, be generous with your time-expectation because life will get in the way. And remember to review these end goals frequently during your writing; adjust accordingly.

Writing Groups: Join a community of writers or start one. Your writing peers will keep you motivated to finish your writing projects because there will be a huge incentive for you to write particularly when you are held accountable for copy and someone else’s time. It is like having a boss (maybe several) and a boss’s expectation of proper time management (deadlines), as well. Also, belonging to more than one writing group might be keen for those writers who write in several genres. It may be easier to manage your many projects if they correspond to a particular writing group. Be advised that this added feature on your calendar may require more of your time management skill and time away from writing as you will have more meetings to attend and more bosses to encourage your output and demand feedback for their work, too.

Forums: Participate in an online forum. Your fellow Toasted Cheese writers, forum hosts, and editors would love to hear from you and/or see what you are working on. And the perks of the online forum venue is that one never has to worry about apparel or leave one’s comfort zone in order to attend.

Practice: Keep in practice. You know what they say about practice… If you would like to test this theory out on a small scale, why not try writing an article, a poem, a story or, perhaps, a review for Toasted Cheese? The journal is quarterly, which allows for a generous amount of time and space to write something truly wonderful—a professional and published piece that you can share with all your family, your friends, and your colleagues who may not even know that you are a writer. The editors at Toasted Cheese will support you with advice and encouragement along your journey, cheering when you submit.


Note: These A Pen In Each Hand exercises can be used individually or together, depending on need. There are no instructions on frequency. However, they each contain one important feature not mentioned in their descriptions: Consistency. They must become habits in order for the writer to extract their benefits. For when a writer is constant in habit, whether it is keeping to a strict calendar or schedule, being prepared for inspiration to strike, or regularly attending a writing group, that writer becomes a constant-writer who writes consistently and as direct result, produces finished copy continuously.

Finding Forrester: A Film Review and Quandary About the Writing Craft

Absolute Blank

By Shelley Carpenter (harpspeed)

I recently watched the film Finding Forrester (2000) directed by Gus Van Sant. I saw it years ago and revisited it only this time with my writer’s lens. The film is about a fictional author named William Forrester (Sean Connery) who writes the great American novel and then disappears from the literary world like a Salingeresque legend until he is “found” by edgy teenager Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown), whom Forrester catches breaking into his Bronx apartment.

There inside the top floor apartment overlooking the basketball courts, Jamal discovers a writer’s haven as Forrester’s home is filled with books, typewriters, file cabinets, stacks of papers, and artifacts. Jamal, who meant no harm to Forrester, whose escapade was done on a dare, scrambles out of Forrester’s door forgetting his backpack and inside it, his writing journals. Consequently, this unexpected encounter leads to a cat-and-mouse game of words that aligns the two characters in purpose and, later, in friendship.

Finding Forrester: A Film Review and Quandary About the Writing Craft

What I like the most about the film are the short discourses the pair have concerning the craft of writing that often end in disagreement and argument. The chemistry between the two very different and likeable characters is amplified by Sean Connery’s magnanimous presence that made me almost believe he was William Forrester. They are archetypes: the wise master and stubborn young apprentice. Classic.

One such exchange concerns the usage of conjunctions. Forrester believes the use of a conjunction to begin a sentence is sloppy, egregious writing. Jamal disagrees and very eloquently defends its usage:

“It was a firm rule,” Jamal explains. “Sometimes if you use a basic conjunction at the start of a sentence it can make it stand out a little bit. And that may be what the writer’s trying to do.”

Forrester raises his eyebrow. “And what is the risk?”

“Well, the risk is doing it too much. It’s a distraction and it could give your piece a run-on feeling. But for the most part the rule on using and or but at the start of the sentence is pretty shaky even though it’s still taught in too many schools by too many professors. Some of the best writers have been ignoring that rule for years—including you.”

Beyond their relationship and the journeys these characters face is another theme just below the surface, one I recall hearing about several times in my undergraduate classes and in conversations with fellow writers. It is a common question that can be applied to many subjects, a quandary much like the chicken-and-egg riddle tailored to the writing craft: is talent in writing something a person is born with or is it something that can be taught? A gift or an education?

It would seem that Jamal’s character fell into both categories. From the beginning one can see the burgeoning writer. His writing is both meaningful and cathartic. Jamal behaves like a writer, hungry to learn and disciplined. He carries a journal and often pauses in his day to record his thoughts. It is Forrester who makes the connection. He is the one who recognizes Jamal as a writer regardless of Jamal’s young age or social status in the community.

Jamal’s self-awareness of himself as a writer is also notable. He wants to be better and is humble enough to know that his writing would improve greatly under Forrester’s guidance. He is also ambitious and pursues Forrester relentlessly for it in the film. He baffles school administrators, teachers, and professors alike with his intelligence and talent. Some believe in him and award him with opportunity while others don’t, and call him out for it: Jamal is accused of plagiarism.

Is writing a gift or is it something that can be taught? The film, Finding Forrester, is metaphoric in this quandary. Writers are indeed driven by desire beyond self-improvement, the heart of which is simply the love of the craft—the absolute joy in making meaning with words, putting those words into sentences and forming paragraphs and pages until there is no more to be said. It’s a love affair that we are born into, a gift we inherit, pursue, and enjoy all our lives. And that is something that just can’t be taught.

Yet there are other facets to the craft such as ambition. Like Jamal, many writers possess that personal ambition—an overwhelming desire to be better at what we do best: write. Writers may identify with the young Jamal but how many of us have a Pulitzer Prize-winning mentor like Forrester? Instead, we seek out our own “Forresters” by learning about the craft from a variety of resources: books, undergraduate and graduate programs, author talks and lectures, fellowships in various writing communities, etc. So, yes, there is some education to the craft. And that education serves a dual purpose: improving the caliber of one’s writing and creating new sources of inspiration to draw from.


Quandaries and Insights

A Pen In Each Hand

By harpspeed

Toasted Cheese
Candle-Ends Forum
December 2013

Dear Writers,

     Below is a list of films in a variety of genres—biography, comedy, drama, mystery, thriller, horror, etc.—that are about writers or about writing in general where a writer is the star. Curious. It seems that writers are a favorite protagonist in books and films. Why is this? We do have a natural curiosity that may lend itself to the darker genres such as crime dramas, mystery, thrillers, and horror like in the book and film version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, where we see the rise of the “curious” female detective—and the typewriter, as well!

     Still, curiosity isn’t always a good thing. It often “kills the cat” and sometimes tries to knock off the all-too-curious writer, too. Such is the case in the book and film version of Stephen King’s Misery, a psychological horror story about a romance writer and his dead darling. It’s a story that one might also consider a cautionary tale to writers about how the stories we write belong to our readers, too.

     Writers, indeed, do have a different way of looking out at the world. We have a special lens that is unique to us. Perhaps that is another reason for our protagonist popularity. Writers possess that acute sense of humor and wit that also transfers quite nicely into drama and comedy alike—as in a certain Will Farrell movie on my list.

     Do you have a favorite film about the writing life? If so, think about using it as inspiration for a future Absolute Blank article. Your own quandaries and insights can come to light from the big screen.

     Do you know of any films that didn’t make my list? Visit the Candle-Ends forum and tell us your film recommendations on the subject of writing. Do let us know if a book inspired the film. Some of the best stories were read before they were scenes. (Pun intended!)

     In the meantime, if you find yourself home sick or stuck indoors on a rainy day, park yourself in your favorite chair, with your favorite mug, a bowl of comfort, and the remote, and start streaming… then be sure to tell us about it.

Kindest Regards,

Harpspeed’s Favorite Writerly Films
In No Particular Order :

  • Finding Forrester (2000)
  • Capote (2005)
  • Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
  • The Hours (2002)
  • Adaptation (2002)
  • Wonder Boys (2000)
  • Misery (1990)
  • Deconstructing Harry (1997)
  • Almost Famous (2000)
  • The Ghost Writer (2010)
  • Finding Neverland (2004)
  • Freedom Writers (2007)
  • Miss Potter (2006)
  • Factotum (2005)
  • Becoming Jane (2007)
  • Julie and Julia (2009)
  • Secret Window (2004)
  • Ruby Sparks (2012)
  • The Words (2012)
  • Being Flynn (2012)
  • The Man from Elysian Fields (2001)
  • Stranger than Fiction (2006)
  • Inkheart (2008)

Fish and Ships: An Interview with Traci Chee

Absolute Blank

By Shelley Carpenter (harpspeed)

Traci Chee began her writing career in fourth grade, writing and illustrating and experimenting with characters and story-building games. Today, Traci Chee is a middle school teacher, as well as a freelance writer. She holds a degree in creative writing from San Francisco State University. Her writing has appeared in Prick of the Spindle, Thieves Jargon, Abjective, Able Muse, The Big Stupid Review and Toasted Cheese. When she isn’t teaching, Traci Chee may be spotted on the Golden Gate Bridge, mentally mapping her stories and crafting characters as she sits in traffic. She likes fish and ships. (Maybe bridges, too.)

Toasted Cheese: What were you like as a kid?

Traci Chee: My family would tell you that I was bossy as a kid. Tyrannically bossy. They would be right. But I’d also like to think that I was already a burgeoning storyteller. My two best friends and I had a series of three or four games that we would cycle through every couple months or so: Lemmings, that awesome nineties video game in which you try to save as many lemmings as possible but inevitably sacrifice some to stompers and chompers and being blown up; Stuffed Animals and My Little Ponies, which were pretty much what they sound like; and Dogs.

This is how Dogs went: Two of us got to be the dogs, wandering around on all fours, wagging imaginary tails, and begging for treats. The remaining person had to play all the human roles, including the cruel, capricious pet store owner, the kind new owner who buys the dogs, and the boarding school trainer, who now that I think about it was pretty much the same character as the pet store owner but with a whip.

The story was always the same: Pet store owner is mean. Dogs are sad. Kind new owner adopts one dog, then the other a day later. Dogs misbehave. Kind new owner gets fed up and takes dogs to boarding school to be trained. Drive to boarding school is the best part because you pretend the road is really windy and there’s a lot of leaning crazily and bouncing around on imaginary bumps. Boarding school trainer is mean. Dogs misbehave and try to get the best of the trainer. As far as I can remember, we never got to the end of the story because then it would be dinnertime and we’d stop the game to go eat. Yes, it was formulaic, but it became this shared storytelling experience between the three of us, knitting us together, even after months of being apart.

TC: You and your young friends were creating scripts—one might even say that you were child playwrights. When did you make that leap from playing stories to actually writing them?

Chee: I made my first conscious decision to make writing a huge part of my life when I was in high school. I had been playing a lot of video games, all role-playing games with a big focus on story, and I had gotten into writing fan fiction, taking someone else’s characters and expanding or retelling their stories in a way that seemed right, at least to me. However, I quickly realized that fan fiction was too confining—I wanted my own characters, my own world—so I quickly expanded into writing original fiction… and some pretty terrible poetry.

However, when I look back a little farther, I realize that I’ve been writing, seriously writing, with revision and editing and everything, since I was in fourth grade. My best friend and I had this old computer program called Storybook Weaver—released on floppy disk for Mac!—that allowed us to write and illustrate these sprawling stories. Our first effort was about a dragon who rescues a princess using a bomb shaped like a chili pepper, and our second was this epic never-finished story called “The Haunted Castle,” which featured every single one of our classmates as either monsters of the castle or as victims of it. We spent hours mapping out the castle, developing the characters, and plotting each event. Because we kept adding new characters, we had to keep revising the beginning, and we never really got anywhere past the middle of the story. Still, I feel like that was my first introduction to storytelling, and it really stuck with me.

TC: Who are your favorite authors and books?

Chee: My favorite authors are the ones who surprise and delight me with their work, ones that show me wonderful things I never knew existed, or ones that show me things I always knew existed but never had the right words for. Books like this include: Cosmicomics and Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie, and poetry. So much of poetry does this.

I also like books that are about books. They are curious, powerful objects that can do many things with many media, and I’m interested in the way that the form of the book (electronic, print, codex, fan, etc.) shapes the format of the book (margins, font, font size, etc.) and the content of the book (characters, plot, themes, motifs, etc.). Books like this include: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, and a lot of work by Jorge Luis Borges crosses both of these categories.

TC: In your short story collection, Consonant Sounds for Fish Songs, there are many themes and motifs, some repeating such as water and music. Where do your ideas come from?

Chee: Music has always been a huge part of my life. On long road trips, my mom used to play “Classical Kids” in the car. It was this series that told stories based on the lives and works of famous composers like Beethoven and Bach, introducing classical music to kids in this really engaging way. I begged her to let me take piano lessons when I was little, and with a bit of help from my grandmother, she bought a piano and I started lessons with a piano teacher who lived down the street. Playing the piano is hard! There were so many times when I didn’t want to practice, didn’t feel like I was getting any better, and wanted to quit. But my mom didn’t let me, and I’m so glad, because I stuck with the piano well into high school, and did a little flute, guitar, and choir along the way. Music is such a wonderful, universal way of communicating. Sometimes I feel like it picks up just as we lose the words to express ourselves, which is why I try to work it into my writing, hoping that some of the tones and rhythms will help to capture a story or character or theme.

TC: Yes! Music is so evocative in expressing unspoken emotions and feelings. And song lyrics can also fill in those spaces. Some of the stories in your collection have this added layer.

Chee: A lot of the stories in Consonant Sounds were actually inspired by songs—and not fancy-shmancy classical songs either. If you take a look at the back of the book, there’s a big list of music that has influenced the writing of the stories. While I was working, I would be listening to one of these songs and I would find inside it the kernel of a story: a character, a scene, an emotion. Then I’d put the song on repeat and write and write and write until the character or scene or emotion had become this fully independent creature, with just hints of the music inside it. Sometimes the song is obvious, as with “To Keep Me Awake and Alive,” in which the narrator recites “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel in a desperate attempt to convince himself that he is still alive. Sometimes it isn’t so obvious, like with “The Fisherman,” in which I tried to capture some of that sense of melancholy, and small everyday things, and breathing, of Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek.”

TC: Also, for this reader, your stories had a heightened sense of being in “the moment.” Was this a craft effect that you created purposefully or did it happen in an organic way, spontaneously?

Chee: One of my favorite things about writing is that readers will notice themes, motifs, and arcs that you never—quite—intended, but that are somehow so perfect and so fitting for what you were trying to accomplish. I hadn’t intentionally tried to create a sense of “being in the moment” in these stories, but I love that it feels that way. Some BIG IDEAS in the collection revolve around dealing with death, searching for God, and being in love—sometimes two of them at once! For me, these tend to be “in the moment” sorts of actions: that blind grasping after the death of someone you love, that feeling of smallness-yet-total connectedness you might get at church, or in a concert hall, that sucker punch of young, stupid love. There’s not a lot of dwelling on the past or fretting about the future in moments like that; it’s more about that feeling of being right here, right now, experiencing this.

TC: What is your writing process like? Do you aim for a set amount of words each day? Do you have a special time or space to write? Do you belong to a writing group?

Chee: Have you ever read an interview where a super-established real writer gets this question, and s/he says something like, “Oh, I write eight hours every day on an antique typewriter that used to belong to my great-grandfather.” Or: “Oh, I write in a studio with a bulletin board on which I post all of the ideas that will for sure become award-winning pieces of literature.” I wish I could give you an answer like this.

The embarrassing truth is that my process is very fluid. I think this developed out of necessity. When I was in college, my writing options changed almost daily. Sometimes I’d write in my dorm room. Sometimes in a coffee shop. Sometimes outside on the grass. Those days, I listened to music. These days, only occasionally. Sometimes I need to type. Sometimes I need to write longhand. Sometimes I need to draw. Other times—and these are really frustrating—I can’t write a word—well, not one worth keeping—because the ideas and characters are still developing in my mind, still slowly taking on form and shape and color.

The trick to this process, I think, is learning to listen to myself. This means learning the difference between the times when I’m feeling lazy and the times when I really do need a while to ruminate over a scene. This means pushing myself to keep typing, even when my hands are cramping and my wrists ache, because the characters are taking a story where it needs to go. This means that some days—especially those really exhausting ones during the school year, when I’m so burnt out from planning and teaching and grading—the only “writing” I get done is mentally developing a character’s history while sitting in traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge.

TC: I like that image of you on the Golden Gate writing your stories.

Chee: I can’t advocate this process for everyone, because it feels very fickle and sometimes makes me feel a little like I’m just posing as a “Real Writer.” But I think it’s important to figure out how you work best, and go with that for as long as it keeps working. I suspect that my process will continue to change as I come to different points in my life. Maybe one day, when I’m ready to settle down in one place, I’ll have a settled-down process to match, one in which I sit at a desk for five hours every morning and three each afternoon. But for now, this is what works for me.

TC: So, what are you working on now?

Chee: Currently, I’m working on what I can best describe as a young adult literary fantasy novel. Unsurprisingly, it features fish, ships, and a girl with the only book in her entire world.

TC: What an interesting premise. I also like the idea of the novel being literary as well as a fantasy story. I look forward to reading it one day. But in the meantime, I have a burning question: Will you please tell us why you like fish and ships?

Chee: It sounds cool, right?

TC: Curiously cool.

Chee: For some reason fish keep showing up in my work without invitation. A goldfish appeared in “The Flying Fish and the Frying Fish,” then another in “Philematophilia.” Then Jeff, the main character of “Fish Songs,” decided that turning into a fish was the only way for him to cope with the loneliness of being human. Bear fought a shark in “No Place.” I didn’t plan any of this out beforehand, but I’ve realized that fish, and ships, and the ocean are all wonderfully rich metaphors. There’s freedom, and joy, and anger, and wildness, and that feeling of being very, very small but very, very connected to something vast and unfathomable.

Honestly, though, I get terrible, terrible seasickness. My family and I once went whale watching in the Monterey Bay, California—it was just a bay, not even the open ocean—and I was so headachy and nauseous by the end of the first hour that the best I could do when we found the humpback whales was video it for later and try not to throw up. I wonder if maybe my very incompatibility with the sea makes it appear in my work, as if by writing about it I’m trying to understand it, or to bring it into myself—an impossibility in real life.

TC: You mentioned earlier that you are a middle school teacher, how have your colleagues and students responded to your success?

Chee: I told my students at the beginning of the school year that I was also a writer. I don’t think they really believed me until fairly recently, within the last month or so, when one of them Googled me and found out I take up the majority of the first eleven pages of the search. Apparently, one of them posted this Facebook status: “that awkward moment when you realize your English teacher is famous.” Which I’m pretty sure prompted a bunch of other students to Google me, too. Within a day, students were coming up to me saying, “Ms. Chee, you have a Twitter account!?” and, “Ms. Chee, Imma follow you on Twitter!” Naturally, my response to all of this was to tweet about it.


Then it really exploded because someone took a screen cap and put it on Instagram, and they are all little Instagram fiends, so at that point pretty much the entire middle school knew and it became a running joke. Except I’m always serious about studying vocabulary.

TC: Funny! What other advice can you give aspiring authors, young and old?

Chee: I was trying to think of what advice would have sounded relevant and witty to my younger self—you know, maybe go for a metaphor or something cool—but I think writing, for me, comes down to two things, and while they’re not particularly clever, they are what gets me through.

First, hone your craft. For me, this means taking classes and studying with people who are better writers than me and getting criticized—harshly and justifiably—and criticizing back. This means looking at the shape of a book, looking at the shape of a sentence, or listening to the sound of a single word. This means reading books about writing and books about books and books that I would never read again and books that I will always read again.

I think the point is to never be satisfied, and to know that your writing could always be better, sharper, clearer, and to keep grasping after that. Or maybe the point is to always be learning something new about the way words can be put together. I don’t think everyone needs to take classes to hone their craft, but I do think that sharpening your writing until it cuts the paper is something we should all be after. Getting so fine an edge that it’s difficult to say whether it’s beautiful or devastating.

TC: And the second piece of advice?

Chee: The second piece of advice is obvious: Write. I mean, I guess it’s built into the first, but after all the learning and the striving and the refining, it really comes down to just doing it. Putting that pen on paper. Banging out that sentence on your keyboard. Write because you want to. Write because you have to. Write because the stories are a current of electricity running throughout your body and even when you aren’t working on them, they are always there, humming in the back of your mind, waiting in your forearms and fingertips. Write when it’s easy, and especially write when it’s hard. Write when people say that no one reads anymore. Write when people say that the publishing industry is dying. Write when you don’t get published. Write when you do get published. Write when your internal editor is looking over your shoulder and telling you that everything you do is cliché and overwrought. Write about the things that are inside of you, that are desperately trying to find their words.

TC: Those are great reasons to write. Yet, has there ever been at time when you didn’t write—maybe even avoided writing for any reason?

Chee: I make so many excuses every day, every hour, not to write. “I’m hungry. I’m tired. I’m burnt out.” Sometimes I believe the excuses, and I don’t write. This is because writing is hard, and watching TV and checking Facebook and eating are much, much easier. But I write because the writing is inside me and if I don’t write then I become a grumpy, shriveled up shell of a person. Writing fills me up. Writing makes me whole.

TC: How can readers discover more about you and your work?

Chee: Hooray! This one’s easy.

Blog: HELLO MY NAME IS TRACI and this is my blog
Twitter: @tracichee
Facebook: Consonant Sounds for Fish Songs

Final Poll Results

Time Management for Writers

A Pen In Each Hand

By harpspeed

Three hands-free writing activities that you can do while you are stuck on a bridge or in a traffic jam of any sort.

Sitting solo in traffic can be lonely. Why not invite your character(s) to come along for the ride? Get to know them a little better. Spend some quality time with your characters by further developing them. While you are at it, don’t stop with your main character. Supporting characters may also need a lift or a tuck to keep them round, some extra depth. This applies to protagonists and antagonists alike. Here are a few exercises to try:

  1. Describe your character. I mean really describe your character like you are looking right at her. In fact, pretend she is sitting next to you. What is she wearing? Did you see any distinguishing features that you haven’t noticed before like a star-shaped mole on her neck or pointed ears that Spock would be jealous of? A receding hairline or skunk-like color line? Is that a scar or a tattoo on her arm? Is she right-handed or left? Does she look a little like Beyoncé? Maybe not. Is she missing a few teeth?  Now that you can see her, what is she doing right now? Is she going through your wallet? Is she fiddling with your radio stations? What kind of music is she surfing for? Can she hold a tune? Oh no! She just spilled her coffee everywhere! She’s a klutz.
  2. Create a habit or something unique to your character(s). Maybe it’s an annoying habit. Does he snap his gum? Does he spit in public? Is he smoking in your car? Does he wear the same tacky shirt all the time? How about deodorant—is he a user? Or perhaps he’s a little quirky. Does he have a crazy handshake or embarrassing greeting? Does he steal pens and hotel key cards? Maybe it’s time you go through his pockets or see what’s in his man-purse.
  3. Now take that habit and write a backstory about it. Tell yourself her story like you are telling someone else. For example:

    Daisy loves to buy nose rings and she is obsessed with being personally clean. Today she wasn’t wearing her diamond nose ring and she is moodier than usual. This is why: Every night she takes off her nose ring and puts it in a paper cup filled with soapy water. Last night, Daisy couldn’t find a paper cup so she put her nose ring in a glass and left it on the kitchen counter. Her brother came home late with a friend named Chris. (Both were a little drunk. Okay. Maybe more than a little.) Chris decided to pour himself a glass of juice. He saw the glass on the counter and didn’t notice the nose ring soaking in it. So, Chris poured some OJ in the glass and drank the OJ along with Daisy’s diamond nose ring. The next day, Daisy went looking for her nose ring and found the glass empty in the sink. So she asked her brother if he had seen it. He said he hadn’t but Chris, who was standing next to her brother, had a funny look on his face, Daisy thought. The next day, Daisy’s brother gave her a ride. While they drove, Daisy’s cell phone rang. He noticed that she had a plastic grocery bag. When she finished her conversation, He asked Daisy what was in the grocery bag. She told him that it wasn’t hers. It was for Chris. The brother thought it strange since they hardly new each other. Daisy told him to mind his own business when he asked another question. He was curious so he peeked in the bag when Daisy’s cell phone rang again and saw jug of orange juice and large brown bottle with a label on it that read: cod liver oil. The next day, her brother picked Daisy up at her workplace. As she climbed into the truck, he saw that she was wearing a smile as well as her diamond nose ring once again.