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Thursday, July 30, 2009


James asks: What is good job interview technique, and what should I do to make the right impression on a prospective employer?

I am glad you have come to me with this one, James. Perhaps you may think of me as a dashing author-about-town,* but I was not always gainfully employed as a writer. Like many scribblers, I have had many, many jobs, and I am pretty much an expert on how to get them. I have been, in rough chronological order: a Burger King employee, a snack bar attendant, a telemarketer, a nanny, a sandwich-maker, a writing center consultant, a barista, a school secretary, a ball-pen and climbing net supervisor, a caterer, an administrative assistant, a literary manager of a theater company, a bartender, a waitress, a waitress in a haunted house themed restaurant (which is different from just being a waitress, trust me), a fake employee, a rehearsal room and costume attendant, a PowerPoint presentation expert, a speaker’s aide, an in-house dramaturg, a research assistant, a freelance writer, a freelance editor, a layout editor, a writing instructor, an editorial assistant, an “education specialist,” and an editor.

I think I’m missing a few, but that’s about the size of it. I have had a lot of jobs, some good, some bad. Hey, I worked here. And remember the time I told you about this?

Clearly, I know how to get a job. And now, I will pass some of my wisdom on to you. This is a tough economic climate, and I want to make sure that YOU are gainfully employed. Because if YOU are not gainfully employed, YOU cannot buy my books, and I have to go back to one of those other places. And trust me, I am not going back here, even though I still have my nametag.

Now, everything I am about to say only applies if you are trying to get a job where you have to wear a nametag (or a nametag equivalent, such as a themed t-shirt or hat). If you are applying to become, say, the head of cardiothoracic surgery at Boston General, the rules may be different.

I am going to tell you something very, very important—something most people will not tell you. This lesson will save you a lot of time and will help you score the job you are after.

There are only two kinds of bosses.

Type one (kind of rare, but not so rare that you won’t encounter them): people so into the job that they are just hiring because upper management has told them that hiring people is part of their job so they will do it with GUSTO!

Type two (most bosses): people who want someone who will do their job for them. (When I was a boss, this was my type.)

You may think that there are other kinds of bosses, but you would be wrong. There are only two. There are certainly a lot of subcategories like:

- clinically insane boss
- chemically dependent boss
- accidentally promoted boss
- son/daughter of the boss boss
- distracted by personal drama boss
- terrified that people are about to discover his/her incompetence boss
- applying for another job as we speak boss
- involved in an illicit relationship with someone at the company boss
- on the wrong medication boss
- unaware of his/her own ineptitude boss
- thinks you two will be great friends and so keeps telling you things you don’t want to know boss
- suspicious of everyone boss
- sarcastic for no reason boss
- does over of everything you do boss
- actual spawn of Satan boss

Oh, and sure, the occasional good boss.

These are all very popular kinds of bosses, but trust me . . . they are either type one or type two, and everything else is just FLAVOR. You need to figure this out early in the interview. Everything depends on it. I have complied the following list of conversational clues that will help you determine which you are dealing with.


In the interview, this kind of boss will tell you a lot about him or herself and his or her management style and background. You will not have asked, and it will not be relevant. In fact, it will be incredibly awkward.

Let’s say you are applying for a job at a coffee place. A conversation with a type one boss might go something like this.

So, you want to work at my branch of Snarlbluck’s? Well, let me tell you a little bit about what kind of store I run. I’m a really hands on manager. I’m really good friends with all of my employees.


YOU: Oh . . . uh . . . great! I like . . . friends.

(not listening) And I know how to run every single piece of equipment behind that counter. I can do every job. I’ve been with the company since . . . oh, let’s see, since 2006 . . . and I can make every variation of every drink.


YOU: Oh, uh . . .

TYPE 1: I’m the kind of manager who expects people to tell me how things are going, and . . .


TYPE 2: So you want to work at Snarlbluck’s. Why?

See the difference? The Type 1 boss is off to the races with the personal resume, and the Type 2 boss wants to know, correctly, why in God’s name you would apply to work in this place. And all they want is . . . someone who will do their job for them.

You have about one minute, maybe two, to figure this out.

If the boss in question is a Type 1, getting the job is actually really easy. All you have to do is pretend to listen VERY, VERY INTENTLY to what they are saying. This interview is not about you—its about them. Don’t treat the interview like a job interview—treat the meeting as though you were meeting a foreign dignitary at an embassy . . . someone charming and wonderful. This isn’t about anything so crass as getting a job. No. This is about meeting someone worth meeting. Your application? Let’s not even waste time discussing it. Let’s get back to what’s important. YOUR NEW BOSS.

If you must speak, make sure to pepper your conversation with references to them. Say things like, “You seem like a great person to work for.” “Do you REALLY know how to make every kind of Coffeecino?” Even better . . . quote them once or twice. Ask for clarification on something that they said. “So what did you do when you ran out of large mugs?” you ask. And make your expression mirror theirs. Smile and nod when they talk about their huge success getting corporate to send three extra boxes of promotional hats. Look grave when they tell you the story about the time the credit card swipe on the cash register broke during Christmas season.

If you play your cards right, this will not be the last time you hear these stories!

But if your boss is Type 2, you are going to have to prove yourself. And what you need to prove is that you are both ready, willing, and able to do their job for them. Because anyone with a grain of sense would rather spend the day talking to friends, reading, or watching cat videos online. They have done their time in the trenches.

It’s a fickle business, this part. Let’s get right to what your new boss is after.


This is question #1. Your application probably doesn’t have much information on it aside from your name, your address, and your school. They are looking at it just to see if you have filled in the right words in the right places, and not, say, drawn pictures of unicorns or pineapples or pineacorns or uniapples. You should get through this part just fine.


With very few exceptions, experience is completely irrelevant in most nametag jobs. This is awesome news for you! Don’t work yourself into a teeth-grinding frenzy worrying whether or not those three months you spent working in the copy center will be enough for the high-flyers at Snarlbluck’s. It all goes back to the all-important “Are you an idiot?” question. If anything, they will ask just to make sure you weren’t fired for being an idiot. If you did get fired because you made some goofy mistake which you now regret, you sweep in with a “I had to quit because of schoolwork” or somesuch. This will show that while you have been an idiot in the past, you have fixed it now, and you know to make smooth cover statements.

Now, I am not saying YOU should do this, but I got at least six of those jobs on my list above by . . . well, lying is such a harsh word, and as I have told you many times, I do not know how to lie. I do, however, know how to spin a compelling narrative.

I mean . . . here’s a for instance. When I moved here, I was told that it was VERY HARD to become a waitress in New York City and that to get hired you had to have New York City waiting experience. “But how,” I asked myself, “do you get New York City waiting experience unless someone hires you?” It was like that time my mom told me I couldn’t get my learner’s driving permit until I had more practice. The system was against me!

Obviously, I realized, what they were looking for were people who could creatively think themselves around this problem—this minimum wage Schrödinger's cat scenario. Obviously, what they wanted me to do was construct a resume of experience that was LOOSELY BASED on reality, full of references in another country that I knew they would be too cheap and/or lazy to check. Had I worked as a waitress before? Not in New York, but in London (true!). How long? Oh . . . a while. You know, like how long Edward has been seventeen. Where? I had prepared a well-organized paper full of places and addresses and phone numbers. Preparation! I was not an idiot. Did I actually work at those places? Were they even real? Come now. Let’s not get ourselves all wound up over nothing.

And was a good waitress? Yes! Did I return a large roll of cash I found on the floor, completely as I found it? Yes! Did I steal them blind like everyone else was doing? No! Did I scrupulously check every check to make sure it was accurate? Yes! Did ever rip off a customer, even for a single dollar? A single penny? No!

I was one of the only honest people in the building. All I had to do was convince them to hire me. These are the kinds of paradoxes you have to wrap your head around in order to achieve JOB SUCCESS!

And in several other jobs, when asked if I could do the things I was being asked to do . . . well, in some of those cases, I didn’t even know what those things were and had to Google them as soon as I left. But my answer was always, “OF COURSE I CAN.” And I said it like I meant it. Does this mean that I once almost blew up an entire magazine because the only working copy was kept on the server and could be changed by anyone, at any time (who would do this?) and I did a “change all” and basically blew up the typeface and made the layout explode? Perhaps. Perhaps I did. But I provided ADDED VALUE in many other ways, I assure you.

So, what I am saying? I am saying you must be confident when you are asked what you are capable of!



There’s usually some question in an interview that goes something like, “Why do you want to work at ________.” Unless you are crazy, or deep undercover, or are stalking another employee, the only reason you would want to work at _________ is because you would like to earn some money to buy books and feed your hamsters. And while you’ve considered selling your own organs, a job seemed like the best way of getting that money.

This is why I suggest that you shouldn’t seem CREEPILY EAGER for the job. You should seem practically eager. You should radiate: “I am a normal, non-idiot who wants this job for all the reasons you might expect. I will do it well. But I am not a freak.”

You don’t want to convey, for instance, the impression that you are just someone who really likes to fold sweaters and is just thrilled that there is a place where you can actually get paid to do it, because you have been going to all your friends’ houses and folding their sweaters for years even though they have asked you to stop! And maybe you can just fix that collar? Because your collar is just sticking up a little on the left and it is kind of freaking you out—ha ha!—and you won’t be able to concentrate until the collar is fixed so can we just stop and fix the collar before this goes any further?

This kind of thing puts the interviewer on edge.

Yes . . .but are you normal?

I hope this has been helpful! Now get out there and GET A JOB! Feel free to use me as a reference. I am a wonderful reference. Employers love to talk to me!

And remember to buy my books, because a lot of people are counting on you to keep me from coming back to their places of employment. Don’t let them down.

* Though other descriptions might spring to mind.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009


I am incapable of lying, but I admire the ability in others.

Yesterday, on Twitter, I challenged people to tell some lies about me. I’m not sure what made me do this. Perhaps I was thinking of my friend Justine Larbalestier’s new book, Liar.* Perhaps I was just thinking about how ACCURATE everything is on the internet. In any case, I threw down the challenge. To the winner, I promised a shiny new ARC of SCARLETT FEVER, months before the release of the book.

I have always known that you are exceptionally clever, but I got a powerful reminder of that when I read the entries. It took me quite a while to read them all and to select just 25 of them. In fact, I BROKE MY TWITTER trying to access replies, there were so many of them.

Now, for your consideration are 25 LIES ABOUT ME. Like its predecessor, Zombie Idol, LIAR IDOL will be judged by YOU.

Here are the rules:

Vote in the comments. You may only vote once. This is an honor system. (And if you sign in anonymously, please put your name on your comment.)

Throughout the day, I will count the votes. The winner will be called at 5 PM, New York time.



1. @NinjaFanpire If @maureenjohnson says your going to die at a certain time and place, you'd better get there and you'd better already be dead.

2. @susie130 Guns don't kill people; @maureenjohnson kills people.

3. @JayOrDan23In the event of a water landing, @maureenjohnson can also be used a flotation device.

4. @itokro The Pope reads @maureenjohnson, and broke his wrist trying to re-create a Spencer stunt.

5. @livin4hymn Amy Winehouse isn't addicted to drugs, she just experienced too much of @maureenjohnson at once and hasn't been the same since

6. OSUBrit They say @maureenjohnson never blinks, and that she roams around the woods at night foraging for wolves...

7. @creativemachine Kids check under their beds for the boogieman. The boogieman checks under his bed for Chuck Norris. Chuck Norris checks for @maureenjohnson

8. @sophienotemily If you need to find the nearest @maureenjohnson... there's an app for that.

9. @lalibrarylady86Top Editor at Us Weekly Departing http://bit.ly/vvgdH because of @maureenjohnson Editor's final quote: "That woman will put me in my grave"

10. @granbookpub @maureenjohnson shocked to find the opening sentence of SCARLETT FEVER won the Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest. @realjohngreen submitted it.

11. @pumpkin0core@maureenjohnson walks into a bar. Now laugh.

12. @omgitsoml14 Always be sure to use protection when having @maureenjohnson

13. @pumpkin0core In the latest Mortal Kombat, @maureenjohnson is an unlockable character. Not even the programmers know how to unlock her.

14. @lunar321 @maureenjohnson has a whole poe statue, @realjohngreen only has a bust. and since poe was a guy, his bust is miniscule.

15. @calliebeth The Bible as a collection of written works was entirely authored by @maureenjohnson. This explains the immense popularity

16. @granbookpub Every fall @maureenjohnson stops writing & tweeting for 2 days straight to try for tickets to Oprah's Favorite Things! She's not giving up!

17. @digitalcable @maureenjohnson was once on "Cops" 3 times in the same episode; cocaine is a hell of a drug.

18. @firecracker704 @maureenjohnson is the hooker that beat up Vince.

19. @MasonWinsauer @maureenjohnson has been determined to be the cure of 99.6% of the worlds ailments. However, she is too highly volatile to mine safely.

20. @NinjaFanpire On her birthday, @maureenjohnson randomly selects one lucky child to be thrown into the sun.

21. @SpinachPuffs Prior to becoming an author, @maureenjohnson auditioned for a part in the Lord of the Rings movies. She was in the top 3 choices for Gimli!

22. @WordsLikeRoses @maureenjohnson has taken all her followers souls and sewed them into curtains. Tough luck for us.

23. @worldgirl84 In the original line-up of the Spice Girls @maureenjohnson was going to be Creepy Spice

24. @rhondastapleton @maureenjohnson invented the Internet, tight-fitting chinos, the color yellow, and the concept of leap year.

25. @jrg1990: @maureenjohnson steals plot from @realjohngreen! Read all about it!


YOU have spoken, and while the competition was FIERCE, #25 emerges as THE LIAR IDOL. All hail!

* I am interested in lies out of artistic curiosity. Justine is interested in lies because she has no morals.

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Thursday, July 16, 2009


I have conveyed my hatred of graduation speeches before, but there was one graduation speech I heard that actually meant something to me. When I was at the School of the Arts at Columbia, the great philosopher Bill Murray came and spoke to us.

The gist of his speech was: “Look, people thought I was going to be a huge failure, but then I got kind of lucky and made it. And I had and have lots of amazing friends, and we’ve seen each other’s careers go up and down. Take my advice: don’t go comparing yourself to other people. You will go insane. It’s pointless. Your fortunes may rise and fall, depending on all kinds of things you have no control over. Keep your friends. Never compare all the outward markers of success. Do what you love, because that’s all you really get and that’s all that matters and that’s all that will ever really work. And don’t be an as$h&^e.”

It was the only useful graduation speech I’ve ever heard. And it was much longer, funnier, and more nuanced than that—and it was specifically geared to us, because we were the School of the Arts. So this was advice to people about to go out and try to become actors, directors, musicians, visual artists, filmmakers, and writers . . . which is a little like addressing a group of swimmers about to do the 500 meter shark tank event.

Getting into the writing game can be kind of hard, and it’s an arena where you’re often judged by things that either you can’t control or things that have very little to do with your book itself. How your book will sell, what people will think of it, what cover it will get, what money will be spent to place it in prominent places in the bookstore . . . it's generally out of your hands. You will get unexpected bursts of luck from unlikely corners, and at the same time, people will slam you sideways in scathing reviews. All par for the course.

Nothing you can do about any of this.

If you are following the advice of Mr. Murray, the thing that matters is quality. It’s the only thing you can control. And quality is a slippery, slippery eel. For example, some people think that if something is popular and sells well, it must be kind of bad. There are other people who think that if something is popular and sells well, it must be kind of good. Neither of those things is universally true. Good things sometimes become popular, sometimes they don’t. Bad things can become raging successes, and sometimes, they slip back into the ooze. You must write the thing you love, and then you hope. You can play your cards smartly, but there’s no way to determine the outcome.

But we do live in an age of RANKING! Of POPULARITY! Editors sometimes buy books out of sheer love, and other times, just because they think they might sell. This has caused some people to worry (rightly) that we’ve entered a blockbuster mentality—where the trick is just to throw everything you have at a book if you think it might generate some sales.

And the truth is, when a publisher decides to put its chips on a book (and they usually do for one or two a season), that book is probably going to do well, and probably make the bestseller list. If they buy ads, if they spend loads on shiny promotions, and if they throw down some serious bank to buy premium space in stores . . . then people are going to see the book, see the shiny, and perhaps buy it.

This is the reality I personally live in, and I respect it. It’s the game I chose to play, because this is the game that allows me to write. And I’m not immune from it. Good sales mean I can do more writing! And I have causes to fund, like my Institute for Disco Studies and my Home for Wayward Hamsters** What defines good? Well, for me, anything that allows me to continue with these grand plans of mine.

But in general, I stay away from the numbers. Most of the writers I do the same, and these include some people who are pretty massive bestsellers. They avoid it because they know the numbers make you crazy in the coconut, and they distract you from the important things, like writing things you love, reading awesome books, eating snacks, and spending time with friends. Sometimes I hear of people who have a book about to come out who get a little nuts about looking at numbers. I can understand how this might happen. But, if you ask me (and I am fully aware that no one did): don’t do this. Because then your life will become about the numbers, not the books. And they are two very different things. And trust me, there are enough people looking at those numbers for you that there’s no reason to drive yourself up a wall about it.

Now, perhaps you are thinking, “But mj, I am not an author. I see what you are saying about the books, but what about ME? What about MY LIFE?”

Fair enough. Once again, you’ve dazzled me with the way you bring me back to the point.

I get a lot of e-mail (which you know I love, even though I sometimes have trouble replying). Some of you write to tell me about the books, but some of you write just to tell me about your lives, or your desire to become authors, or things that are happening to you in school. And the one thing I have definitely noticed is that you are not immune from these kinds of pressures.

There are a lot of numbers out there. Your SAT or standardized test scores. Your GPA. Your number of Facebook or Myspace friends or Twitter followers and whatever comes next. For some people, like the characters in Wintergirls, it’s all about the number of the scale or in that snack you want to eat. I know sports people have all kinds of numbers of their own, but I know nothing about sports, so you have to fill all that info in here.

The numbers all have a kind of meaning within their own realm, but when spread out over the world, they lose a lot of significance. The number on the scale tells you how much you weigh, not what you are like or what you are worth. Your SAT score tells you how good you do on that particular type of standardized test, and sheds a certain degree of light on your current skill level in math and English, right now, given all of your current life conditions. If you’ve been raised in an affluent household where academics are considered important, you’ll probably do better than someone who didn’t grow up under those conditions. Maybe you worked hard. Maybe you’re just good at standardized tests. Maybe you got lucky. Maybe you were sick, or upset. Your number of Facebook friends probably reflects the amount of time you spend on Facebook.**

You have to do things because you want to do them and because you love them (or at least LIKE them). The numbers themselves are innocent, merely offering a measure of whatever it is you wanted to know. When you stay obsessively focused on them, you tend to miss the bigger picture. You may end up like this:

“Okay,” you say, “I do that a little, but not NEARLY as much as other people I know. In fact, they are obsessed with EVERYONE ELSE’S numbers. What do I do about them?”

I know who you mean. You mean the person who comes up to you in the hall after some test you know they’ve aced and they ask you, all sweetness, “So, how did you do?” And you say, “I got an 83.” And they say, “Oh, that’s too bad. I got a hundred. Oh god. You must feel so awful.”

Obviously these people have problems, and a quick punch in the throat would probably be very educational for them . . . and while it is always tempting to perform a public service like that, forget about it. Life has a way of sorting these people out. Yes, it’s true. Some of them get to be rich and successful. But if they keep that up, no one likes them. Period. They do not live on the fun side of the street. They have their own kooky ranking system for the world, and they cling to it, and if the slightest thing goes wrong, they go insane. I HAVE SEEN IT HAPPEN! Have faith, friends.

It’s like Bill Murray said, the one thing you can’t do is start obsessing about how other people do—as if the successes of others somehow diminish you.*** Of course, there are all kinds of things that annoy me. There are people I have wanted to see go DOWN. But I’ve noticed that every time I dwell on this, I go radically off the path and down the bumpy, sure-death side of the mountain. And for what? This stuff never matters for long, if it matters at all, which it usually doesn’t. When others do well, celebrate! When they are down, help them up. If you follow the opposite of that, then you are probably an as$h^&e. Which means you should go back to the beginning of this entry and re-read Bill Murray’s final point, “Don’t be an as$h&@e.”

And love what you do.

* So why not buy a few copies of Suite Scarlett today! Do it for the hamsters.

** Twitter numbers, however, reflect your worth as a person so please follow me on Twitter immediately.

*** Unless that person is someone like Hitler, in which case you must absolutely worry about their successes and thwart them wherever possible. I’m just saying that you have to make a pretty clear distinction between “Actual Evil People Who Keep Freeze-Dried Orphans In The Basement” and “Other People Just Living Their Lives In Close Proximity To Yours.”

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Monday, July 13, 2009


Has it really been THREE WEEKS since I blogged last?

But soft . . . I should explain where I have been. Or rather, where I AM, for I am still there, in the place where I am. I am in England. I’ve been here since the 24th of June. I come here a lot, as you may know if you have read this blog over time.

What have I been doing on this particular trip? Well, seeing a lot of people. There was the London Gathering. I’ve also been working on the SEQUEL TO 13 LITTLE BLUE ENVELOPES, and another project for AFTER that. I’ve been spending a lot of time doing research around London. And I will be going to Ireland later this week, if I ever get around to making the arrangements. I’ve also been watching Torchwood and have eaten some cookies and had some tea and got a tan in the hot English sun.

But I wasn’t always busy, friends. Which brings me to today’s question.

Kira902k asks: How do I survive this entire summer doing NOTHING?

Kira, I know your pain. When I was in high school, I had a few summers of such excruciating boredom that when I even think about them, my teeth begin to strike together and my shoes get too tight. It was horrible.

The reason for this was a complicated matrix of badness. Thusly:

- I went to school in the city, and thus, lived kind of far from my friends. (And I went to a girls’ school in a convent for the rest of the year.)

- I didn’t drive in high school. This was partially because I was kind of young, and because car insurance was expensive, and I generally wasn’t allowed to get it even though I wanted it more than I wanted anything. This was a great divide at Chez Johnson, one we don’t even talk about TO THIS DAY, and I am totally grown up and everything. Bottom line: I was never allowed to do ANYTHING.

- So I was totally stuck in my podunk suburb. This, remember, was BACK BEFORE THE INTERNET . . . or, at least, it was back before there was anything good to do on the internet. I am sure it was AROUND. So all I had was the phone and friends with cars who would rescue me as often as they could. Which wasn’t often enough.

- Compounding the problem was the fact that for my junior and senior years (from when I was 15 until I was 17), my father’s job transferred him around the country, first to Louisville, Kentucky (where we knew no one) to Houston, Texas (where we knew no one).

I will never forget my 15th summer, simply because it was so excruciatingly boring that it seemed to warp time and space. I sometimes wonder if that summer isn’t the reason I tend to write books about summers. Suite Scarlett, for instance, is about Scarlett’s 15th summer. Perhaps I am on permanent redo on that one.

That was the summer my dad was in Kentucky, and it was about 105 degrees every single day, with a heat index (that was the summer I learned what a “heat index” was—it means “how much you will actually suffer”) of about 115. We had to go visit my dad for six weeks, so I couldn’t plan to do anything else that summer, like get a job, or give myself up for medical research, or sell myself as a child bride. We flew to Kentucky, and we spent SIX WEEKS sitting around in my dad’s apartment. SIX WEEKS.

I could have been doing so many other, more useful things.

It was too hot to spend any time outside. Seriously. Your lungs would just explode. Not that we knew where to go, or had anyone to see. We were Philadelphia people, and this was a new, strange place. We had my dad’s car during the day, so my mom and I just went to bookstores, often used, where we would buy up huge piles of books, crank through them, and then resell them at the end of the week. I know I read a lot that summer . . . but for some reason the only books I clearly remember reading are the entire Fletch series up to Fletch and the Man Who. Somewhere in there, I also remember reading The Great Gatsby for the first of what would be about 200 times. So that was a summer romance that LASTED. And I think that’s probably when I read Roughing It by Mark Twain, to try to give my westward journey some exciting context. There were a lot of books, but a strange proportion of them seemed to be Fletch-related.

And I wrote. There was that.

When not reading, we baked cakes. One week, we baked a cake every day. We didn’t even want the cakes. We just baked them because it was something to do. I remember my mom saying, “I have never been so bored.” And my mom has 105 Cat’s Meow decorative houses, if this gives you any idea of what she can withstand.

Throughout it all, I missed my friends. To quell the pain, I would bake YET ANOTHER cake and put it with the others, which we lined up on the kitchen bar, using the same display method used in olden times, when countries used to line their architecture with the severed heads of their enemies to send a message. Our message was: we are bored.

What I’m saying, Kira, is that you have come to the right person. I understand. But you know what? It’s almost impossible to do NOTHING. I feel I came pretty much as close as I am (hopefully) ever going to come to doing nothing during that summer, and in retrospect, I was doing things. They just weren’t the things I necessarily wanted to be doing at the time. But all of that reading and writing . . . it paid off! There is something to be said for dealing with this nothing. Creative acts come out of the quiet—when you simply must make something.

What I am saying is, if you spend the summer doing nothing, you will end up EXACTLY LIKE ME! Think about that!

Badhandwroter asks: I have a lot of ideas for stories that I'm currently working on but I can't seem to buckle down and work on just one and fully develop it. What are some ways to keep my focus on just one idea?

We writers have a saying, Badhandwroter. Well, not a saying. More of a commonly accepted idea that has yet to be assembled into an easy-to-carry quote. I will attempt to correct this now: “There is nothing so appealing as the next thing you want to write.”

When you first start writing something, it is all sweetness and joy, because you are skimming those awesome ideas of the top of your brain—that delicious sweet cream. Sometimes it’s an idea for a first scene. Sometimes just one character. Sometimes you get a cluster of ideas: a location, a bit of dialogue. Some people ride high on just a title and a mental image of a cover.

Oh, it is a fine drug, this “first idea” stuff. The unwritten story or book is always SO GOOD. Sure, when you flip the pages in your mind, you can’t actually SEE ANY WORDS, but you know when you fill them in, they will be like NECTAR.

Thing is . . . once you actually start writing, you have to live up to that Shangri-La in your brain. So you sit down and start working, trying to produce that wonderful, shimmering stuff. And while it may go well for a while, you are probably going to reach a point where it DOES NOT, and you have NO IDEA what is supposed to come next, and you take a DIM VIEW of what you’ve done so far, and it’s all HOPELESS and you are TERRIBLE.

This is usually when the new shiny thing comes into your mind . . .

Your innner LOLcat comes out.

This is also where the writing BEGINS. This is precisely the point where you press on. You can jot down the note about the other shiny thing, but if you want to write, you keep going.

Now, you may ask, “But mj, don’t some ideas just die because they have no legs?”

Some ideas are maybe a little shaky. That’s true. But stories are like Cootie. Ever play Cootie? That game where you get the plastic body of a Cootie bug, and you have to keep playing until the thing has eyes and a mouth and antennae and legs to stand on? The more you work on a story—the more you press on—the more you’ll find that you get new parts. New ideas will grow.


But your question is: HOW? HOW do you keep focus and press forward?

My friend, I feel your pain. It’s hard. But the only way is JUST TO DO IT. The most useful technique, aside from flat-out discipline, is to be accountable to someone. Joining a writing group, for instance, where you have to produce a chapter by a certain date for the others to read. More hardcore people might chain themselves to their desk using a time lock or deny themselves showers or food until they have met their daily writing quota. These are also very effective methods.

And then, when you are done your story or book, you get to TAKE IT APART and MAKE IT COOLER. Because now that you’ve made it once, you can get a good look at the thing and see where improvements and changes are necessary. Then you enter into another time-honored writerly period, the opposite of your first problem: namely, the endless revision . . . which is sort of the literary equivalent of projectile barfing.

Trouble ahead and trouble behind, Badhandwroter! Happy writing!

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