The (Microscopic) Difference Between Good and Great

All of us – whether readers or writers, artists or fans, chefs or diners, producers or consumers or critics – have asked ourselves the question of what divides the good from the great.

What divides that novel you trunked at 18 from the one that got you an agent? What’s so different between your favorite fan artist and the animators who gave us Young Justice? (May it rest in peace.) What’s the difference between the Royal Red Robin burger and the Black Label Burger at Minetta Tavern?

I would argue very, very little.

But it’s that “very, very little” that’s the most important of all.

(Note: this post is not taking personal choices – such as self-publishing or unwillingness to work for a corporation as an animator – into account. I am speaking purely in general terms. No need for outrage.)

For the purposes of this examination, I’ll just be looking at books and manuscripts. (Alas, food and art must wait!) I spend a lot of time around books and manuscripts. I read hundreds of queries every month for DMLA. I read amazing books for pleasure. I beta read and CP for friends. I read and edit my own manuscripts as well as my less-serious fanfics. The question of what divides the good – solid, enjoyable, nothing technically wrong with it – from the great – OMG, I WOULD LITERALLY FOLLOW THIS AUTHOR INTO HELL TO GET THE NEXT BOOK – is always on my mind.

It all starts with the first draft. For me, first drafts are skeletons that I gradually add more and more to, so I’ll use the metaphor of the human body throughout.

If I want to build a novel the same way I would a human, I’ll start with the skeleton. I’ll make sure all of the bones are present before I add the muscles, internal organs, skin, and hair. For modesty’s sake, I might even add some clothes.

Voila. I have what most people would consider to be a complete human being.

That’s not enough.

And yet this step is where so many people stop. The “good enough” stage. The “I followed the directions and checked all the boxes and made it look exactly how the manual said it should look” stage.

Query letters, synopses, pitches, and oftentimes even my own brain – so many say, “My novel is complete, follows your MSWL perfectly, and checks the following boxes: [insert list here].” And then they (or “we”, let’s be honest) get upset when the novel isn’t picked up for representation or publication.

Completing a novel is amazing, but it’s only the beginning.

Think for a moment if you want to be a movie star. Or a model. Or a CEO. Or an artist. Or a chef. Or anything really. Would you present your credentials as “I am a human being with skin over my muscles and bones and clothes to cover some of my skin”?

Gods, I hope not.

Taking things from good to great is not merely a matter of following the diagram exactly.

What makes people or a manuscript interesting? Above average?

This answer will be different for everyone, but in almost every case, it will be a tiny thing that makes a HUGE difference.

Let’s go back to our “build a human” metaphor. Personally, I find flawed humans to be the most compelling. Some of the most interesting and above average people I know don’t fit the “perfect human” model at all. They don’t have all of their limbs – or the ones they do have don’t work quite right. Or their minds don’t work the way the majority of people’s minds do. Some of them have that gleam in their eyes that tells you they know something you just have to know too. Others have a magnetic pull to them, an invisible aura that draws you in.

In all cases, there is an X factor, if you will. A spark that cannot easily be replicated or manufactured or described. Something beyond a mere checklist.

Consider this:

A cross-dressing thief pickpockets a world-jumping magician, not realizing the item she steals could destroy worlds. 

A girl out for vengeance – armed with only a story and an iron will to protect her – marries a man who kills his brides every sunrise .

A princess discovers she is more than what she seems when Death himself chooses her for a bride.

A group of (cinnamon roll) teenage thieves team up for an impossible heist that will most likely get them all killed. (Please, gods, Leigh, have mercy.)


If I tried to write any of these books, no matter how EXACTLY I followed the plots and checklists, I would never come close to writing anything as good or as right. Each of these books has an X factor that makes all the difference.

I might – MIGHT – be able to reproduce their skeletons. But could I ever reproduce the feeling of “outsider”, of “not belonging”, and the razor-sharp observations V.E. Schwab makes about humans?

With the table, Kell could show him. Let Rhy see the other Londons as he saw them. A selfish part of Kell wanted to share them with his brother, so that he wouldn’t feel so alone, so that someone else would see, would know. But the thing about people, Kell had discovered, is that they didn’t really want to know. They thought they did, but knowing only made them miserable. ( A DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC)

Or the simmering tension that ripples and burns beneath every word Renee Ahdieh writes?

“What are you doing to me, you plague of a girl?” he whispered.
“If I’m a plague, then you should keep your distance, unless you plan on being destroyed.” The weapons still in her grasp, she shoved against his chest.
“No.” His hands dropped to her waist. “Destroy me.” (THE WRATH AND THE DAWN)

What about Roshani Chokshi‘s prose that Laini Taylor deemed as being “like a plate of jewels that you can eat”?

I wanted a love thick with time, as inscrutable as if a lathe had carved it from night and as familiar as the marrow in my bones. I wanted the impossible, which made it that much easier to push out of my mind. (THE STAR-TOUCHED QUEEN)

Or the unmistakable voices Leigh Bardugo gives to each of her precious cinnamon roll murderers and thieves?

Kaz leaned back. “What’s the easiest way to steal a man’s wallet?”
“Knife to the throat?” asked Inej.
“Gun to the back?” said Jesper.
“Poison in his cup?” suggested Nina.
“You’re all horrible,” said Matthias.

Jesper knocked his head against the hull and cast his eyes heavenward. “Fine. But if Pekka Rollins kills us all, I’m going to get Wylan’s ghost to teach my ghost how to play the flute just so that I can annoy the hell out of your ghost.”
Brekker’s lips quirked. “I’ll just hire Matthias’ ghost to kick your ghost’s ass.”
“My ghost won’t associate with your ghost,” Matthias said primly, and then wondered if the sea air was rotting his brain. (SIX OF CROWS)

What’s the point of all of this?

You tell me.

For me, it was the realization that I needed to find my X factor and not simply think a book was done or publishable simply because it had a skeleton and skin and muscles and internal organs and all of the other checklist items.

It’s not enough in this industry to be average. Something must set you apart. And only you can discover what that is.

Tl;dr: It’s not enough to merely have a completed manuscript with no mistakes. The best books always have something MORE that only they can give. Find yours, and get to work.




The Professional Impostor

I’m sad to say it no longer surprises me when many of my favorite authors – all of them incredibly smart, successful women who write damn good books – still struggle with Impostor Syndrome. It seems to be rampant, especially among us neurotic artist types, no matter how successful we get. I’m certainly no stranger to it.

But I realized something the other day from the oddest of sources.

I’ve been trying to find a new day job. (The husband got into a grad program all the way across the country.) Most of my applications have been dead ends.

I’m used to feeling inadequate in my art, but not in my professional life, especially since I now have a degree. Yet all of the jobs I’ve tried to apply for want more experience, more degrees, or more something than I’ve had.

Finally, I threw my hands in the air and yelled, “WHAT THE BLOODY HELL?! I’M NOT GOOD AT ANYTHING ANYMORE!”

And that’s when I realized it.

I am good at something. I have worked hard to get good at something.

I don’t have the years of experience in “real” jobs … because I’ve been throwing myself into writing. Hours and hours spent writing and editing and perfecting and agonizing and researching.

Spreadsheets. Folders. Documents.

Not to mention five multi-day conferences in the last three years, three of which I’ve actually presented at.

Think, for a moment, about how that much work (and research and time) would translate into any other job.

At a recent signing, Renee Ahdieh was asked what job she’d have if she wasn’t a writer. Her response? “I think I’d be trying to become a writer. Words are the last thing I think about at night and the first thing I think about in the morning.”

I sat up straight in my chair at that. That’s how she felt about her job.

The same way I felt about this thing I’d been feeling so impostery about.


Lady Problems

On this International Women’s Day, I can’t help but fondly *cough* recall my junior year of college; I’d just been diagnosed with debilitating endometriosis and fibroids and was unable to work a job while I had surgery and recovered.

The first counselor was a gentleman in his 60s, pleasant enough and very patient, however VERY unqualified to deal with my particular problem.

I showed up to the session wearing business casual dress and makeup — the first time I’d worn anything besides sweats (or attempted to put on makeup) in four months — in the hopes that it would make them take me more seriously.

That shit backfired.

He looked me up and down and pronounced that I “didn’t look sick enough to merit financial aid.”

I kept my cool and explained my situation thoroughly — my husband and I were both full-time students, newlyweds with less than 10 dollars in the bank, and I couldn’t pay my tuition since I’d just lost a full-ride scholarship due to my illness.

“But, Rae,” said the financial aid counselor with a quizzical brow, “it doesn’t REALLY matter if you get your degree — you’re just going to be a stay-at-home mom for the rest of your life, right?”




“Um, no,” I replied with an equally quizzical brow. “My condition makes it very unlikely that I can have children.” Not that it’s any of your business, sir.

“Oh, marvelous! You can adopt! Let me regale you with a twenty minute story on how my son adopted a bunch of kids. And then I’ll tell you some more about how you don’t qualify for financial aid because of your lady problems.”

Yeah. It went on like this for about an hour. I left in tears.

After sending a scathing letter to his superiors, I made an appointment with a different counselor, a fabulous Tongan woman named Kalisi Palu.

About five minutes into my session with Kalisi, the first counselor busted in. Yes, he actually OPENED THE CLOSED DOOR and entered my private session.

“Rae, dearest,” he stated, “you’re one of MY students. You should be in a session with me.”

“No, sir,” said I with a voice like icicles. “I am not. Get the f*ck out of my session.” (Okay, it was BYU, so there was no swearing. But I sure thought it.)

It took a few minutes, but he finally left. I was shaking.

Kalisi listened to my story, even teared up a few times, and swore she’d do everything in her power to help me. She sent me out with a list of materials she’d need from me and a huge hug.

Less than two weeks later, she emailed me with the news: she’d presented my case to the panel of financial aid people . . . and managed to secure me a full scholarship.

When I graduated, the first thing I did was pick up a huge bouquet of flowers for that woman.

Dearest, darlingest Kalisi, I never would have made it through college without you.

Oh, and stupid financial aid counselor #1? I’ll be thinking about you when I get my hysterectomy next month. Hugs and kisses, boo.

Valentine’s Day with Mad Queen’s Chess characters


Your blood is red

Even if you claim it’s blue

Get between me & my king

And we’ll see if it’s true

– Mad Queen Li of Dinari

You asked me what I’d

Give up to have you.

Body, heart, soul, and crown:

Are these things that will do?

– King Andonel of Dinari


di Nael roses are white

and our crests are gold

All the better to kill you

If you don’t do as you’re told

– Duke Nicovan di Nael, head councilman of Dinari


I’ve never loved you

So don’t even try

To manipulate my heart

With those lovely clever eyes

– Duke Sherek di Nael, junior councilman of Dinari


Dinari is dull,

Aelæo flat as its sea.

You both need some action

How about I just invade, oui?

Malika Regine Anais, queen of Talois





2nd Biggest Day EVER (or “How I Got My Agent”)

This story starts, as so many YA stories do, with an angsty teenage girl.

An angsty teenage girl who had just lost her best friend to the claws of a predatory fellow teenage girl who’d been committed to ruining first teenage girl’s life since 8th grade.

You guessed it. It was 2006, and I was the teenage girl (16, of course) who lost my best friend, a smart senior guy who composed amazing music, to the clutches of my arch-nemesis.  What can I say? She liked to smile and bat her eyes. I was still in my Anakin Skywalker phase.


So I did what any heartbroken teenage girl would do. I listened to Evanescence. I sobbed and played “I’m Not That Girl” on the piano. And then I began writing a book wherein I could destroy my nemesis in fiction and win back the love of my young life.

(If you’d like to skip the origin story and pretend the 10 years of angst and 2.5 years of querying/hard work is a training montage and simply find out who the agent is, just scroll to the bottom. I promise I won’t judge. Honest.)

I poured my little sixteen- and seventeen-year-old heart into that book — or half a book since I never got past about 45K. And, like the 12 “half-books” before it, I abandoned it as just another childhood fantasy.

Flash forward to Spring 2013.


I’d been married a year. I was a junior in college, just shy of twenty-three years old. And I was absolutely miserable.

I’d had six life-altering medical diagnoses. I was in a major I hated. I was working a job I was barely well enough to attend. I was poor as a churchmouse. And I hadn’t written seriously in four years.

Like so many “would-be” authors, I’d been telling myself I simply didn’t have the time, that I’d start writing again next week, next month, next year.

“I’m too busy. I’m too sick. I’m out of practice.” The usual excuses.

I might have stayed this way forever except for my wonderful and supremely wise husband, Justin. He took me by the shoulders, looked deep into my eyes, and said the most romantic words I’ve ever heard.

“Either start pursuing your dream, or quit whining about it.”

I’m very happy to say I took his advice.

I finished the book. I devoured everything I could find on querying. I met the amazing Brenda Drake, who introduced me to the world of publishing. I wrote one of the worst queries ever known to man, and I sent it out.

150 rejections — and two pretty crazy rounds of edits (triggered by two amazingly concise, but insightful rejections from the legendary Suzie Townsend) — later, I was a dejected little mess of a girl with a little mess of a book. I hadn’t learned what “editing” really meant, you see. The book was still a 16-year-old’s work that just happened to be edited by a 23-year-old.


Eventually, I got over myself and wrote another book. Agents liked it, but felt there was no market for it.

With some distance from teenage-book, I realized that if I wanted to truly make something of it, I had to rewrite the entire book from scratch.

So I did. Leaner. Meaner. And so much more badass.


I started pitching the newly-rewritten book at a conference in late May 2015. Agents were excited. I was excited. Heck yes, right?

I was conservative this time. Unlike in my very first round of querying — when I sent out twenty queries at a time like a newb — I kept it to small batches, making revisions between each round. By November, rewritten book had been hit with a few R&R’s, two months’ worth of rewrites — including one where I rewrote the first ten chapters of the book — and a whole lot of “this is awesome, but just not for me.”

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That’s when I remembered an agent I’d queried twice before — both times with really terrible query. An agent I was terrified of embarrassing myself in front of again, especially since I’d just found out she’d helped get one of my FAVORITE authors her agent. Especially since I was pretty sure she didn’t particularly care for SFF. Besides, I was already more than one-third of the way through a new book. I’d just about written my poor, battered little book off.

Luckily, I ignored those little nagging doubts and sent a query off anyway. The LAST query.

A week later, the day before Thanksgiving, said agent requested the full.

December 31st came and went. I read gloriously happy posts about what an amazing year it had been for some. Others had been as battered by 2015 as I felt. My dream of getting an agent in 2015 died a sad, quiet little death.


Little did I know, I’d only missed the goal by five days.

On January 3rd at 12:41 AM, I got the notification that THE LAST QUERY agent was opening up my full again. I tried to shrug it off and not get excited. Everyone in the query trenches knows that feeling where they try so very hard not to get their hopes up.

The next morning, I noticed that it’d been opened a LOT.


Then I got the notification that I had a new follower.

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The assistant to the lit agent who kept opening it. And then there was this tweet, timestamped at the same time my full was open.



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I won’t lie. I freaked out. I grabbed my CPs and freaked out to them. I freaked out to my parents. I told myself I was being silly, but that didn’t stop me from freaking out.

The next day, my blood pressure skyrocketed.

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This time it was the agent posting. Which was nuts. I told my CPs there was no way it could be mine because the assistant would have had to flail at the agent and tell her to drop everything and read it.

It was only a day apart. No way it could be mine.


The next day, January 5th, made my heart absolutely sing.  mandy3 - Copy.PNG

The same agent wrote this fabulous status that made me absolutely glow. In my query, I’d mentioned that I’d queried her previously with a much different version of the story. (99% new prose, 85% new plot)

Little did I know, she’d gone back — all the way back to 2013 — and found my old material. (More on that later.)

By this time, I was having feelings. LOTS of feelings. And, of course, feelings require good food. I made up my mind to get Afghan food. Since my car was in the shop, I decided to leash up my dog and walk the two miles to my husband’s work to borrow his car, then drive downtown to grab said food.

When I arrived at the restaurant, they had no record of my order. I pulled out my phone to show them the confirmation . . . and noticed I had an email from the agent I’d been freaking out over.

The restaurant staff had me stand aside while they tried to figure out an order for a table of FORTY.

1/5/2016 8:29 PM – I opened the email and skimmed it for what I was sure was a very polite rejection–

–and saw the words “offer of representation.”

I closed the email and put the phone in my pocket.


I stumbled up to the counter and finished ordering my fesenjoon.

For a good five minutes, I stood there like an idiot, still not quite sure what had happened.

The restaurant staff finally took pity on me and let me sit down. After a few more minutes of nervous, semi-crazy laughter and staring, I called my husband.

“Love . . . I think I have an offer.”

He could only talk for a few seconds. (His job’s kind of crazy.)

I called my mom. She didn’t pick up.

I called my dad. I told him it was VERY important. He went to my mom’s office and waited for her to get off the phone with a client. I have no idea how long it took, but I’m pretty sure it was something like a year.

Finally, they were both there and on speakerphone.

“I have an offer.”

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Stunned silence, then shrieking. My mom demanded to know every last detail of what the email said. I told her, still very much shell-shocked, that I hadn’t read it.

They shrieked again, begging me to read it to them. Unfortunately, the restaurant was filled to the brim, and I told them they’d have to wait until I got home with my lukewarm food.

A seven-minute drive was made into twenty minutes because of construction. Also I got lost. I even had my poor little black lab crying in the back of the car.

When I finally got home, I read the letter to my parents between huge shovelfuls of fesenjoon — the first food I’d eaten all day.

My favorite paragraph had me swooning.

“As you can see here I have cc’ed my assistant, Lindsay Mealing. A couple of days ago she started IM’ing and then emailing me her thoughts on MAD QUEEN’S CHESS. She’s read many manuscripts for me, but I could see immediately your book was THE ONE. She was over-the-moon in love and urging me to read it ASAP. I dove in yesterday, and could immediately see what had Lindsay gushing.”

A few minutes later, I received this email from Lindsay.

“As (agent) said, I am MADLY in love with your manuscript. My tweet about staying up all night reading the other day? Yeah that was MAD QUEEN’S CHESS. I had jotted down my own MSWL on a scrap of paper a couple weeks back and on it I wrote “TUDORS but fantasy”. And then I found MAD QUEEN.”

Everything went so ridiculously quickly after that.

I scheduled a time to speak with Lindsay and the agent-yet-to-be-revealed (three whole days after — an eternity!). I emailed everyone who still had material. I gushed to my siblings and CP’s and shoveled more cold Afghan food into my mouth.

I was still very, very numb.


Friday, January 8th. THE CALL.

I always thought I’d be nervous, but everything just . . . worked. Every answer was exactly what I’d hoped to hear. Every minute put me more at ease. And Lindsay and MysteryAgent quickly became my new favorite people on the planet.

(I reserve the right to call Garrus and people with the last names of Kira and Skywalker my favorite people NOT on the planet.)

Anyway, MysteryAgent later said she was blown away by how much Lindsay and I clicked. When we talked about edits, we had nearly identical visions for scenes. We’re both gamers. We both love The Tudors and intrigue and fantasy and danger. The fact that we all live in the same state certainly didn’t hurt.

Oh yeah, and there was this little gem, too.

“As it so happens, we’re in search of that perfect first project for [Lindsay] to begin building her own list, as I’m in the process of promoting her. She’s been my assistant for a year, and impressed me since day one. 

I really enjoyed the read, but I think my enthusiasm and passion pales in comparison to how Lindsay feels about it.

 We would like to offer you representation jointly.”

. . . . . . .

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Yeah. Just let it sink in. I know I still am.

If you ask me what it’s like to get your dreams, I’ll tell you it’s not at all what I expected.


It’s WAY better.

That’s why I’m overjoyed to tell you all I’ve signed with the amazing Mandy Hubbard and Lindsay Mealing of Emerald City Literary Agency.



The real work begins.


Stay fiery, peeps.


P.S. Just to give this a dash of poeticness — it’s also the 5-year anniversary of the day I met my husband. ❤ Ain’t life grand?


Invisible Illnesses: Fibroids and Endometriosis

I mentioned in my last post that I wanted to do a few profiles of the invisible illnesses I wished I saw represented more in the world. This week, I’m tackling one two that are very near and not-so-dear to my uterus. (I would just do one or the other, but since I have both — and since 90% of the symptoms are nearly identical — there’s no way for me to sort out which is which. Package deal!)

Fibroids and Endometriosis

Note: This is NOT a diagnosis guide. This is NOT being written from a medical perspective — I have a degree in Public Health with an emphasis in women’s health and chronic disease, but I am NOT a doctor. I’ve provided the links above to explain these diseases, but please DO go see your gynecologist if you think something like this may be wrong with you. Lastly, this is not a symptom list, nor is it exhaustive, okeyday? Bien.

In middle school, if you’d started your period, you were basically a woman already — more mature and lucky as heck. Well, “lucky” for me, when was 12 years and 5 months old exactly, thank you very much, I started my first period in gym class. (Insert every stereotypical awful middle school experience here.)

My mom was over 2000 miles away. I was the oldest child (not to mention the oldest girl). My dad wasn’t too keen on discussing the whole affair.

Little did I know, that would set the stage for the next 10 years of my life.

My first period lasted 31 days. I wasn’t too happy about that, as one can imagine, and the whole thing hurt like bloody hell — pun intended. My mom took me to her OB/GYN, but they told us everything was fine. First periods CAN last a long time, after all.

The cramps were terrible, but sometime around the middle of my 14th year, all hell broke loose. For starters, I’d bleed so much that I’d have to change my super-plus tampons multiple times an hour. That meant getting up and leaving class multiple times — something my teachers were not fond of.

And then there were the cramps.

When I say “cramps”, usually people nod sympathetically and tell me how sucky it is to have this little pain annoy them for a day or two. That is NOT what I mean when I say “cramp”. My cramps felt more like someone sticking a red hot wire umbrella inside of me, opening it up, and dragging it back out. (One of my characters described it as having her uterus wrapped in red-hot barbed wire and then having it dropped into a volcano, if you like that image better.)

I would down 4-6 Motrin when I woke up just to take the edge off. It would only work for 2 hours at most. One time, I asked to my frosh English teacher to be excused during my final exam. The school counselor (who was dating said English teacher at the time) found me curled up on the bathroom floor, sobbing, nearly 2 hours later. Needless to say, she sent me home.

I wasn’t always so lucky. Sometimes I’d nearly pass out from the pain and be on the verge of vomiting, and I’d call my parents and beg them to pick me up. The usual line was “Get over it — it’s just your period.” So I’d hide out in the nearest bathroom and cry until someone either dragged me back to class or sent me home.

I never slept while I was on my period. I’d stay in the shower (I didn’t have a bathtub) until all of the hot water in the house was gone. Sometimes I lay on the floor screaming for hours, curling up on the rug and begging God to just kill me because it had to hurt less than the pain did.

As I got older, everything got worse. My periods were nonstop — I never stopped bleeding. (Imagine a period that lasts an entire YEAR. That was my life.) The cramps ranged from a dull ache to a pain that would be considered torture under the Geneva Conventions.

When I was 18, I stayed in bed for 3 months rather than face the pain. By the time I was 22 and married, I was skipping weeks of class and work at a time because I couldn’t wear clothes — even loose ones — long enough to go anywhere without the pain overwhelming me. Still, the doctors told me it was all in my head.

Finally, after watching me live with this for months, my husband insisted I go to a specialist. In October 2012 — exactly 10 years after I first started my period — I got an ultrasound which picked up some fibroids. I was scheduled for surgery for Thanksgiving week. When I woke up from surgery, they told me they’d discovered widespread endometriosis patches all over my torso — about 13 or 14 of them. The surgeon got rid of the ones he could find, but warned me the patches would probably grow back — and that he definitely didn’t get all of them. A few months after my surgery, I had a Mirena IUD inserted to try and keep the patches away for as long as possible.

So fast-forward to today. Next week marks the 3 year anniversary of my surgery — and the patches are definitely back. Here’s a status report on my general “day-in-the-life”:

My pain is better than before — thanks to the IUD and some diet changes (wheat sets off endo pain like nobody’s business for me). I only get super painful days 3-7 times a month instead of 10-20 times a month. This lets me hold down 2 part-time jobs; I still can’t work full-time hours for more than a month or two. And, honestly, that’s considered relatively mild amongst girls with endo. Several of the girls in my support group have to be oxy or some other super strong painkiller 24/7 just to function.

(Quick note: One thing a lot of people don’t realize about endo girls is that we base our wardrobe choices entirely on what hurts the least that day. I wear jeans or other “nice pants” once or twice a month. The rest of the time, it’s yoga pants and sweats — if I put on any clothes at all that day. Whatever puts the least pressure on the abdomen = best.)

The pain from endo/fibroids also means I spend an inordinate amount of time in the shower/bath. If the pain is bad, I can take up to 10 baths a day! (No, I don’t have a cleanliness thing 😛 The hot water just temporarily takes the edge off.)

All joking aside, the worst part of my endo/fibroids is that they’ve taken something exceptionally dear to me. I can’t have sex without severe pain and bleeding for 2-5 days afterward. You can’t imagine the number of times I cry about how f**king stupid and unfair that is. I’m still ambivalent about having children, but chances are, I probably can’t have any of my own. That isn’t to say it’s impossible — the statistics just aren’t on my side. (Btw, if you do know somebody with fertility problems, PLEASE don’t bring it up unless they do. I’m perfectly fine talking about it, but I know MANY women who are very much NOT.)

This is probably the most important thing to note if you ever write about a character with endometriosis: we’ll never be cured. Hysterectomies can HELP and pregnancy can TEMPORARILY relieve symptoms, but endo will never go away entirely. People suggest home remedies all the time, and they’re always full of what they believe are helpful suggestions, but I’ll say this one more time: THESE THINGS CANNOT BE CURED. Whatever miracle you’ve heard about, we’ve probably tried it or ruled it out.

In conclusion, the best things you can do for a friend or family member who has endo/fibroids are . . .
1 – Do NOT diminish their pain. Give them a gentle hug and tell them you know it sucks. (I beg you, don’t give them health advice.)
2 – Be flexible with their scheduling. Pain can strike out of nowhere; just because they were okay to come to dinner this morning doesn’t mean they’ll still be fine 12 hours later.
3 – Know their favorite foods that don’t set off cramps. A well-timed bowl of pho or bottle of cranberry juice can turn my whole day around.
4 – Love them. I can’t stress this enough. Just love them, and you’ll be doing them a world of good.

If you’re still with me, thank you for reading this! I hope you learned something or understand something better. If any of this resonates with you, know that I’m sending you gigantic (gentle) hugs and praying the pain isn’t bad today for you.

Stay fiery, peeps.

But You Don’t Look Sick: Invisible Illnesses

There’s a huge push right now in literature to expand readers’ understandings of POVs outside of their own experience. (THIS IS A GOOD THING.) Thus, many people are now actively seeking out stories and perspectives they might otherwise not even know existed. (THIS IS ALSO A GOOD THING.) And so, in the spirit of that, I wanted to add my tiny little voice into that chorus and talk about a perspective that’s not as apparent to the outside world as race or gender or ethnicity or outward handicaps.

Invisible illnesses

These illnesses can take many forms. Some of them are mental. Others are chronic. I happen to have a few of both. Of course, if you saw my profile pic or passed me on the street, you’d never know about either. And why should you? People I’ve known for years still don’t know. But should you wish to take a glimpse into what’s beneath my “normal-looking” exterior — hey, maybe even write a character with an invisible disability or illness! — I’d like to tell you a little about living with my disabilities.

(Quick ground rules: I [obviously] do NOT speak for all illnesses, disabilities, or conditions. I can only speak for anxiety, bipolar 2 disorder, Asperger’s, endometriosis, fibroids, and a small assortment of others including food allergies. If you want to learn about a specific illness or disability not listed here, you should probably talk to someone with that. Okay? Here we go.)

1. People will usually assume I’m not actually sick.

This is just a fact of life, folks. If someone can’t see something with their own two eyes, they usually don’t believe it at first. Telling people about one (or all) of my illnesses usually goes something like this: denial (“What? Nooooo, you look so good/normal/other-words-that-don’t-mean-sick!” or “But you’re so YOUNG!”), confusion (eyes darting to face, trying to find some sign of “disabledness” that they missed), and then maybe a little “Oh, so THAT’S why you do that?” or “Hey, I think my cousin’s aunt’s husband had something like that!” which culminates in one of the following reactions.





Oh . . . uhhh . . .

Oh . . . uhhh . . .



The answer is always yes.

I’m okay with most of these reactions. Obviously I don’t like it if telling someone about disabilities drives them away, but hey, now I know I didn’t want them in my life in the first place. Problem solved. The reaction that infuriates me is when people want me to prove it and start asking trivia questions. (NO, I said BENIGN tumors, not cancer.) If they’re legitimately interested in learning more, I’m totally down for answering questions. What I’m not down for is an interrogation in which they try to catch me in an insidious lie because I am OBVIOUSLY faking to try and get out of doing things.

One of the worst reactions I ever had was in my 2nd year of college. I was so sick that I couldn’t hold down a job and was barely making it to half of my classes. I’d already worked out things with my professors, but I needed the scholarship they had taken away (ironically BECAUSE of my illness) reinstated. I spent an hour getting ready — makeup, hair, nice clothes — so that the financial aid counselor would take me seriously. But as soon as I walked in the door and told him I was there to ask about disability benefits, he looked me over and said, “What? You don’t look sick enough to receive those.” Cue 2-hour interrogation . . . followed by life advice. (“You’re just going to be a housewife anyway; wtf do you need your degree for?”)


Yeah. That.

2.  There are good days and bad days.

This is true for every single one of my disabilities. I can be the life of the party one day and want nothing more than to hide under the covers for eternity the next.

I can do an intense workout at the gym and feel like a total badass one day . . . then be screaming in pain on the floor the next day if my endo starts flaring. (But seriously. I used to get sent home regularly from school because I’d collapse on the bathroom floor. A few times, I actually prayed for death because it would hurt less.)

Some days I can run miles. Some days I can’t walk.
Some days I can talk to anyone for hours. Some days I can’t even make eye contact.
Some days I’m so restless I just want to go out and do ALL the things. Some days the idea of setting foot outside my house gives me a panic attack.
Some days I laugh at the hand I’ve been dealt. Some days I can’t stop crying.

Circumstances are tricky things. If you see someone with a “disabled” parking sticker and you don’t think they look disabled, please just give them the benefit of the doubt. Yes, there are unscrupulous people who lie to get those, but oftentimes people with invisible illnesses get them so they can still go grocery shopping even when their legs decide not to work or their joints ache like nobody’s business.

If you have a friend with a chronic illness — or really any invisible disability — please don’t judge them too harshly if they keep having to cancel plans with you. For a lot of us, there is literally no way to predict when we’re going to have a good day or a bad one, and the symptoms often strike without warning. (Oh, and it’s not limited to just “days” — sometimes we have bad months. I’ve had to stay in bed for up to 3 months before. Not pleasant.)

Please just do this instead of calling us flakes. Pretty please.

Please just do this instead of calling us flakes and liars. Pretty please.

3. No matter how long it’s been, I still get overwhelmed sometimes.

When I was first diagnosed with my various maladies, the first thing I felt wasn’t so much fear as it was relief. Finally, FINALLY, I had an answer to what was wrong with me. I’d been called a hypochondriac all my life. I’d had teammates and classmates and doctors and even family members insist that it was “all in my head” and that I was “doing it just for attention.” Hell, I’ve even had a reader tell me one of my characters was “a bitch for bitching about her period all the time.”

(Fact: endometriosis and fibroids flare most often during menstrual cycles, FYI. And the pain has been called “comparable to labor pains.” So yeah. People with endo and fibroids are going to “bitch” about that.)


During my darkest moments — which often come out of nowhere — I just collapse on my bed and ugly cry. I can still survive quite well most days, but sometimes survival isn’t enough. Sometimes I just scream to an empty room about how unfair it is that I’m in pain all the time and can’t trust my own damn mind because it’s effing broken and I’m the most pathetic creature in the whole damn ‘verse because everything I have is incurable and I’ll never be able to do basic things like have sex without pain or eat food without getting sick or sleep without waking up and thinking I just killed someone or cheated on someone and AAAAAAAAAAAGGGGGGGGGGH!

“Look, I’m sure you don’t mean anything by it, but I’ve had enough of being studied by shrinks. And people in general. Seriously, people think mentally ill people are so interesting until they get hurt by one.”

Oliver’s shrink voice returns as he picks up a notebook. “Would you care to elaborate on that, Mari?”

Heat rises in my face, and I narrow my eyes at him. “Yeah, I would. And I’ll make it simple for you. You have no idea what it’s like to be me.” I gesture vehemently down to the useless wreck of illness-ridden body I’m stuck with. “How do you think I feel being trapped like this, unable to trust my body or my brain? I used to actually do things. I used to be a star employee, a student athlete, a freaking valedictorian!”

I shouldn’t care this much. Those things weren’t really me. They were never me. But I don’t know what’s me or not me anymore.

Tears well up in the corners of my eyes, but I stubbornly squash them. I shouldn’t cry over this. I’ll never let Oliver see me cry.

I take a deep, shuddering breath and go on the attack again. “So now I hide in bed all day because half the damn world gives me a panic attack, and the other half thinks I’m repulsive. People hear ‘bipolar’, and suddenly, I’m a stranger. I’m no different than a wild-eyed homeless guy living in the subway. I’m just as scary.” My voice comes out choked, but hard. “And you know what? They’re probably right. I’m a walking freak show. How could you know anything about that?”

“Mari, I understand you’re frustrated, but—”

I don’t want his pity any more than I wanted Jason’s. I’m not that pathetic. “And you know what’s even worse than being someone like me?” I cut him off as my voice rises. “Living with someone who’s worse than me. You have no idea how it breaks you a little at time when someone who you care about rips you to shreds every time they lose it.”

(I know. Dramatic, right? I let one of my characters describe how that freakout feels above — believe me when I say it all feels very overwhelming and scary and effed up as hell in the moment. I was going to put a “freaking out” gif right here, but I can’t make that funny. I just can’t.)

But then there are the other days, days where I actually consider myself lucky. Many girls in my endometriosis support group don’t have good days at all — they have to be on oxy and other prescription painkillers 24/7 just to cope. Some people with severe mental illnesses are completely consumed by destructive impulses and can’t take care of themselves. Others, like my late grandmother, spiral deeper and deeper until they believe suicide is their only way out.

Have I been suicidal before? Yes.

But I’m still here, and I’m not going anywhere.

4. It’s not who I am

I’m not “the bipolar chick” or “the chronically ill character”. When I think about myself, words like “dancer” and “teacher” and “chef” and “writer” come to mind. Do my illnesses shape my world? Undeniably. But do they define me and how I fit into that world? Hell. NO.

There’s no magic pill or treatment that will cure my conditions; I’ll likely have them for the rest of my life. But I sure as hell won’t let them rule that life.

So . . . yeah. That’s a basic rundown of the most common aspects of living with an invisible illness. Obviously, it’s not even close to exhaustive, but I’d love to do a series that goes into depth on the details of specific illnesses. Maybe I’ll just do it so I can get it all out there. Talking about this is really therapeutic.

Stay fiery, peeps. Try to look beneath the surface.

(And if you want to read more, hit up Marieke Nijkamp and Ava Jae. They have some good posts about this shiz.)

DON’T DO THIS (Or: The “Shortcut” That Made Me Gasp Aloud in Horror)

Uh, guys. I just read an article that had this very alarming thing to say:

“A new route to getting a traditional book deal has recently emerged – one that avoids all that endless uncertainty and stress. This new route is not only much faster, but also means you start earning money before you secure the deal too…The Solution: To Get A Traditional Publishing Deal, E-Publish Your Book First.”

Yes, that is a direct quote. No, it was not taken out of context. A person purporting to be a bestseller was giving this as advice to prospective authors. “Want to get a traditional publishing deal? E-publish and then sell it again later, totally bypassing the agents!”

I know most of you wonderful people are savvy individuals who would never buy this crap, but just in case anyone needs reminding . . .


Please. I beg you. For the love of burning things with fire, PLEASE don’t listen to this. If you want to self-publish or go small press, more power to you. That’s a legit career choice if you know what you’re getting into. But DO NOT publish a book online thinking that you can get a traditional publishing deal out of it.

No. Just no. Back away from this ludicrous “shortcut” and put in the work. “Faster” and “stress-free” = BULLSHIT. Trust the process. Don’t listen to crap.

Stay fiery, peeps.

On Wrath, Wings, and Golden Dawns

This is not like my usual posts. I will be (gasp!) waxing poetic about one of the most breathtaking books I have ever read.



For over a year, I have tried to put into words what Renee Ahdieh‘s masterpiece of a book makes me feel. Books have different feels, different souls to them; this is common knowledge. But WRATH felt different in a way few books ever have.

Reading THE WRATH AND THE DAWN can only be compared, in my mind, to being Icarus.

This book lets you soar on wax wings. But more than that, it entices you ever closer to the sun. And why shouldn’t it? For all its danger, the beautiful, golden, burning fire in the sky is a tempting and alluring target. And the nearer you draw to the danger, the more you crave it.

Somehow, your wax wings do not melt.

Thus, inevitably, you will be burned.

At times, WRATH burns open your heart and thrusts a hot ember inside. But not in the way that cripples you or dissuades you from flying again. In the way that hurts in the moment, but that makes you long for the next dawn’s golden light all the more.

Her agent, Barbara Poelle, once told me “if I could bottle [Renee] and sell her, the streets would RUN WITH GOLD!”

That is what THE WRATH AND THE DAWN offers you. Intense, burning, 24K golden light of the finest sort.

Read this book, my friends. Dare to be Icarus. Dare to fly toward the sun.

Writers and Mutants

Can I just say how much I love the writing community today?

For me, being a writer and discovering the online author community felt a lot like being a mutant and discovering Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters.

One fine day a few years ago, I was miserable, alone, and feeling like the biggest weirdo in the world.

Then I discovered Twitter.

The next thing I knew, people were coming up to me, and saying, “Oh hai! You know that weird thing you do that you’ve always done that people made fun of you for your entire life — or at least gave you weird looks for? Well, we all do it too! Let’s be besties and fight evil TOGETHAH!!!”

You guys rock.

That is all. Mutants 😛