Learning from the Masters: The First 250 Words


I’m still struggling with getting the beginning of my novel just right, so it’s time for another installment of this. (Installments 1 and 2 here and here).

I’ve been getting more and more into YA contemporary. Jandy Nelson, Stephanie Perkins, Robyn Schneider, Gayle Forman, Rainbow Rowell, and David Levithan are all recent faves.

But I’d argue no one has mastered this category as well as John Green.

I came to John Green a little late–the first book of his I read was The Fault in Our Stars, though I was relatively early to that one, pre-movie hype. I was hesitant (kids with cancer=depressing) and almost passed on it, but it was really the first couple of pages that convinced me that I might actually enjoy reading this book. Let’s see why:

Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.

Whenever you read a cancer booklet or website or whatever, they always list depression among the side effects of cancer. But, in fact, depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying. (Cancer is also a side effect of dying. Almost everything is, really.) But my mom believed I required treatment so she took me to see my Regular Doctor Jim, who agreed that I was veritably swimming in a paralyzing and totally clinical depression, and that therefore my meds should be adjusted and also I should attend a weekly Support Group.

This Support Group featured a rotating cast of characters in various states of tumor-driven unwellness. Why did the cast rotate? A side effect of dying.

The Support Group, of course, was depressing as hell. It met every Wednesday in the basement of a stone-walled Episcopal church shaped like a cross. We all sat in a circle right in the middle of the cross, where the two boards would have met, where the heart of Jesus would have been.

I noticed this because Patrick, the Support Group Leader and only person over eighteen in the room, talked about the heart of Jesus every freaking meeting, all about how we, as young cancer survivors, were sitting right in Christ’s very sacred heart and whatever.

Why does this work?

There’s one main reason:


Hazel has the best voice. Like she, too, understands how depressing a cancer novel can be and is mocking the genre, and herself, along with us.

Sarcastic, depressed people can be annoying–but not Hazel. Mainly because in spite of all the talk of cancer and dying, this beginning is funny. Hazel is hilarious. The part just a few sentences past this, when she starts talking about Patrick, had me actually laughing out loud. They’re not in the first 250 words but I’m quoting them anyway:

Here he is, a full-grown adult in a church basement in the 137th nicest city in America, divorced, addicted to video games, mostly friendless, eking out a meager living by exploiting his cancertastic past, slowly working his way toward a master’s degree that will not improve his career prospects, waiting, as we all do, for the sword of Damocles to give him the relief that he escaped lo those many years ago when cancer took both of his nuts but spared what only the most generous soul would call his life.


Along with her humor, Hazel is real. I thankfully can’t claim to personally know much about dying young of cancer, but there’s something about her attitude that just comes through as incredibly realistic.

The voice of your narrator–especially if you’re writing in the first person–is so important. If the reader doesn’t like the voice of your story, they’re not going to like your story. And the first 250 words of your novel should give your reader a definitive feel for that voice.

A fantastic voice is really all it takes for me to be sucked into a novel. So a fantastic voice is what I need to ensure is coming through in the first 250 words of my own novel.

 Image found somewhere on this Tumblr

Friday Things


I recently took one of those Buzzfeed quizzes–I think it was the one that tells you which Harry Potter book you are (I got Deathly Hallows, and I am fine with that). One of the questions asked what magical device you would want. I picked Time Turner, because I wish I could redo every day I spend at work and spend it writing and reading instead. So I’m sorry I got no writing/reading posts done this week–I was just too busy! (Though in retrospect, I’d have more free time if I stayed off Buzzfeed).

Here are 3 things that made my week:

1. This is the best, most concise article on writing EVER. Read it. Bookmark it. Read it again.

2. A map that shows you, hour-wise, how long it takes to get between European cities by train.

3. There’s a massive critique giveaway happening on one of my favorite writing blogs. Enter, but if you win and I don’t, we’re in a fight.

Reading: On The Road: The Original Scroll. Confession: I’m not a huge classics fan. Nearly every time I’ve attempted to get into a classic novel, I end up abandoning it (hi Anna Karenina). But Kerouac is just enough of a word genius to keep me reading, despite the fact that this entire novel is one big run-on sentence. I’m about a third of the way through and I believe I’ll reach the end, at which point I expect to be motivated enough to finally quit my job and embark on an epic road trip.

Watching: I haven’t watched anything new this week. But I was recently talking to someone about amazing movies you never want to see again; you know, those movies that are beautifully shot and acted and written but are just so horribly depressing you know you’ll never buy them, because you don’t want to see them, ever again. For me, those movies are Requiem for a Dream, American History X, Mystic River, Monster, and Boys Don’t Cry. How about you?

Listening to: Coldplay, particularly this song. It’s lovely.

Image found here. This is my dream house, btw

The Best Attitude for Traveling: Why Not?

Spire editedA few years ago, I spent a couple of weeks backpacking through eastern and western Europe with some friends. We planned our whole trip out, booked our hostels and various methods of transportation (trains, buses, and ridiculously cheap flights) as well as made lists of the top things to do and see in each city. The plan was four cities in two weeks: Berlin, Budapest, Vienna, and Prague.

We stayed entirely on schedule for the first week. Then when we arrived in Vienna, something interesting happened. At our hostel, we struck up a conversation over some cheap beers with some Australian guys. “We’re going to Bratislava tomorrow,” they said. “Yous wanna come with us?”

We just got to Vienna, we said. We can’t leave for another city right now.

“Why not?”

Excellent question.

Two of us elected to stay behind and see Vienna as planned. And two of us decided to wake up at the crack of dawn the next day and hop a bus to Bratislava, a city we’d barely heard of, much less researched, with three boys we’d just met.

Guess which group I was in?

We got to Bratislava with no map, no currency, and no idea how to even say “hello” in Slovakian. We bumbled around for a little while, but eventually managed to find the tourists’ office, some money, and a restaurant.

I then proceeded to have one of the best days of my life.

It was the true definition of “wandering”. The five of us–strangers less than 24 hours ago–had a delicious meal together, saw some beautiful buildings, stumbled upon some pornographic statues, discovered a castle, drank some decent beer. Then we parted, promising to stay in touch. My friend and I got on the bus back to Vienna and continued on with our planned trip.

The weird thing is? Thanks to social media, we did actually stay in touch with those guys–one of them has passed through New York a few times since then and we always meet up for a beer. Another met up with my friend when she was back in Europe a couple of years ago. And every time we see each other we say the same things:

“Wasn’t that so random?”

“Wasn’t that the best day ever?”

The next time you’re traveling, don’t ask yourself “why”.  Ask yourself: “Why not?”

Castle Gates edited

Images taken by me in Bratislava, Slovakia, February 2007.

Friday Things


I like being drunk. On booze, on fiction, on writing, on love, on beautiful sentences. Maybe that’s why I’m so discontent on a daily basis; my day job can be quite sobering most of the time.

At least it’s Friday. Here are my 3 things for the week.

1. I adore Tumblr. Have I mentioned that? Nearly everything good I find on the internet (like the image above) either comes from or has some point been on Tumblr. What’s more, people are nice to each other there. Come join me: there’s my personal Tumblr, where I blog photos, quotes, and a mini-journal. Then there’s the Tumblr I started just to record all my favorite sentences.

2. This article on why it’s important for writers to talk about where their money comes from really spoke to me.

3. I admit I don’t read fanfiction but I know how big a thing it is (I am on Tumblr, after all). I even downloaded Wattpad to look into it more. But … I just can’t find anything I want to get into. The problem is that I like my writing polished and my prose beautiful, and Wattpad is full of first drafts. Also, when I read poorly written fiction, it tends to seep into my own writing. Am I being snobby? Is there good stuff on Wattpad? Anyway, this article is really helpful for those who are curious on the entire phenomena.

Reading: I just finished The Beginning of Everything and I have mixed feelings. I just started Isla and the Happily Ever After and I’m already sure I’m going to love it as much as Stephanie Perkins’s other two novels. If you’re looking for light but well-written, romantic YA, pick all her books up immediately.

Watching:just started watching Sherlock on Netflix. I have no idea what took me so long.

Listening to: Radical Face. It’s lovely and haunting.

Image found here

On Getting Out of a Bad Mood

tumblr_ngmtvpBUHz1t1cy7no1_1280New Year’s Day, 2011: I am tired, obviously hungover, stumbling home in last night’s clothes, feeling like the unhappiest person in the entire world.

It was my last New Year’s as a single girl, but I didn’t know that yet. I was fixated on my bad night–being hit on by guy after guy, only for them to reveal they had a girlfriend, but could “promise me a good time” if I’d just give them a chance–and seeing it as a harbinger of the rest of my life. And instead of placing the blame where it should have been placed–on the guys–I was trying to figure out what was wrong with me. 

As I stumbled down into the L train stop, my eyes on my sore feet in my too-high heels, I passed a homeless person with a cup in front of him sitting on the ground. Not an uncommon sight; it is NYC, after all. If I have a dollar or some change somewhere easily accessible to me, I tend to give. If I don’t, I keep walking.

I glanced into my bag, saw all I had was a twenty-dollar bill, and kept walking.

But then I stopped.

The guy–boy, really, he couldn’t have been older than twenty–looked the way I felt. He was slumped over his cup–which only held coins–not sleeping, not looking up at people begging, just staring at the ground. Like there was nothing left in the world worth seeing. His clothes and hair were dirty, he had tattoos across his face–far be it from me to judge what anyone else puts on their body, but he was so young I worried he hadn’t really thought the whole face-tattoo thing through.

What happened to him to bring him here?

I thought about it for probably about thirty seconds. Then I pulled out my twenty and dropped it into his cup.

He looked at it. Then looked up at me. In disbelief.

“Thank you,” he said. His eyes filled with tears, then overflowed, dripping down over his face tattoo. “Thank you,” he said again. “Thank you so much.”

“You’re welcome,” I said.

The train arrived. I got on it and never saw him again. I don’t know if my twenty dollars did him any good.

But something weird happened. I walked home feeling like the biggest person in the world. My bad mood was completely, entirely gone.

So this is my secret for when you’re feeling down: help someone. A person on the street, a person on the internet, a homeless dog. Just someone. No matter how crappy you feel, I guarantee there’s someone out there who’s feeling worse. And if you’re sitting here reading blogs on your computer or phone, chances are you’re in a position to help them.

Lately, I’ve been feeling down (boring day job, but where else should I work? I don’t belong in NYC, but where else should I go? + I’m still not a published writer. Rinse and repeat…) So I decided to do something I’ve been thinking about for a long time: sponsor a child. I decided to go with Children International–it’s not religiously affiliated and it has a great reputation. I just signed up, so don’t have a ton of insight as to how it’s going to go, but even if I make just a tiny difference in the life of someone who really needs it, I will be satisfied.

So if you’re having a crappy day/week/month/year, give my method a try. I think it will help you. And more importantly, it will help someone else.

Image found here.