On Christopher Columbus’ Illegitimate Son & the World’s Greatest Library

The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books

by Edward Wilson-Lee

Scribner/Simon & Schuster, 2019

Hardcover, 401 pages, $30

A lesson given often in primary schools—perhaps, if later, at the university—is that historical realities can be interpreted for generations in different ways.

Some realities are interpreted as true to their objectivity as possible, even while it remains the case that no historical reality can be known in all its detail and complexity.

Other interpretations of reality will stand untrue to what happened, even if those who receive these interpretations may not know of their untruth, including the one who narrates them.

Certain accounts will be derived from clear, broad, empirical sources, while others will be derived or created from within the imagination of the one who writes any given account.

Caption from the book: The only existing likeness of Hernando Colón, younger and illegitimate child of Columbus, curator of his father’s legacy, and builder of the greatest library of the Renaissance.

Before us, in professor and literature expert Edward Wilson-Lee’s The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, lies a complex, multi-threaded history, integrated with an entire spectrum of key historical, visual artifacts. He writes of Christopher Columbus, “Admiral of the Ocean Sea,” as well as Columbus’ illegitimate son, Hernando Colón, who lost his father at eighteen and fought for paternal legitimacy “by showing himself to be his father’s son in spirit.” Wilson-Lee writes of the imperial and oceanic politics of the sixteenth century and, against their backdrop, Hernando’s single-minded pursuit to maintain his father’s legacy.

While Hernando was born in 1488, and lived until 1539, Wilson-Lee reports that his “earliest recorded memory is characteristically precise. It was an hour before sunrise on Wednesday, the twenty-fifth of September 1493,” as he and his brother Diego observed the messianic ships upon which their father traveled as conqueror of the Americas.

Exposure to this participation in Columbus’ travels, along with an eclectic combination of experiential and intellectual data, underlay the introduction of Hernando to “a bewildering variety of people and things but also to a world of complex and often contradictory ideas. He would have attended lectures by the great scholars recruited to train the aristocracy at court, probably from an early age…” Intensive cultural exposure of this kind soon manifested in Hernando’s “genius for ordering” books—and thus a race to grow the world’s largest library of written and visual artifacts, then followed by a love—even an obsessive one—for the collection and ordering of artifacts that reveal the stories of the people and places from whom they come; he would be known as a maker of lists.

The making of lists, among an array of other brilliant mental exercises, proved easy for Hernando “in part because [his] mind moved ceaselessly from event to system, from a single thing to a general framework into which it could be fitted.” In his collecting, he demonstrated respect for those who deeply appreciate the systematization of thought and data, of historical information, and thus of artifacts which serve as vehicles for storytelling and knowledge-giving. As a symbolic parallel, one acute example of a deeply-appreciated statue includes that of Moses, “who sets the history of the world and the peoples of Israel in order, telling of their genesis and exodus, compiling their genealogies and the tables of their law: Moses, the maker of lists.” What Hernando did not expect to realize in his work is that ordering requires intense formation on behalf of (i) those who create the categories by which objects are listed, as well as (ii) those who come to understand and apply these categories to their own learning and searching. In a special way, therefore, Catalogue is written for those with sheer adoration for books, libraries, bookstores—for paintings and other visual artifacts, galleries, museums—and prompts the memory of how one came to relate to any of these objects or spaces in the first place.

Caption from the book: Abridged: Thomas More’s Utopian alphabet, designed to convey the perfect language.

Imagine stepping into a library, not knowing beforehand the categories you must know to find the book most appropriate for the question that you have undertaken. Imagine, also, not realizing the way you are conditioned into choosing from the categories that have been given to you by your parents, your teachers, your librarians, and otherwise—and not knowing to think outside of those categories to expand your own research and the pursuit of a new or wider context for the data provided before you. Wilson-Lee writes that, “…once the hierarchies are written into the tools we use to navigate the world, this step [the consciousness and selection of an item from within the pre-imposed hierarchy] becomes even harder to undo. Eventually, in fact, we often forget the hierarchy was imposed in the first place and no longer see anything other than a natural, inevitable, timeless order, from Alpha to Omega.”

Over the course of the book, Wilson-Lee tracks multiple key conceptualizations and historical unfoldings that complete this story which so captured his imagination. In addition to building lists and categorizing libraries, Hernando supported the development of map-making theory, adding “lines of latitude and longitude and then dividing those squares with lines at every mile of each degree. The concept was so new…that Hernando had no name for this kind of grid.” It was later deemed important because the “numbered line implied the world portrayed was in the realm of mathematical proportion, scale, and measurement, and not subject to the blurring effects of human experience.”

Beyond map-making, Hernando supported the development of revolutionary printing models, hunting down international texts to then work “with the great printers of the age to make them available in robust editions.”

Finally, amid dozens of other revolutionary, brilliant contributions which Hernando made to his fields, Wilson-Lee includes Hernando’s fight toward the end of his life over the nature and structure of his father’s reputation—given that, on 27 August 1534, the Spanish courts “issued the Sentencia de las Duenas, stripping the Columbuses not only of their right to the title of viceroy of the Indies but also of any right to a share in the gold other goods of those lands.” For Hernando, the playing field for this debate became the artifacts collected, and it is no surprise that that the questions of Columbus’ international primacy as traveler and discoverer remains today “the focus of many modern biographies: it would not do for the great achievements of a celebrated figure’s life to seem to come from random happenstance…” With this focus and commitment, Hernando’s own contribution, in an implicit way, to theories of history and storytelling becomes manifest.

Of the purpose and structure that underlies The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, three things can be said: First, the very historical concept here introduces readers into a previously unexplored dimension of an otherwise muchly-studied era. Most persons know Columbus; very few know his illegitimate son, and even less likely is the chance they know this son’s creative project. Second, Wilson-Lee demonstrates himself once more to be a nuanced, visual thinker, with a broad capacity for collecting and integrating layers of historical data in a beautiful narrative about the chosen topics, themes, and time. (Catalogue follows Wilson-Lee’s trade non-fiction debut, Shakespeare in Swahililand, which treats of African leaders who adopted into their lives and culture Shakespearean genius.)

Finally, I note only that, due to its complexity in terms of integration, there is some degree to which the book could have been more efficiently framed to help readers dive into and consume the story. Multiple layers coordinate here—both the historical timeline of Hernando’s life, from a to z, as well as the more broadly conceptual and thematic set of claims that Wilson-Lee argues to about the nature of knowledge, the construction of theories and categories, and the self-selection and discarding of data points. He uses Hernando as a case study to “argue into” these claims. To some extent, a clearer preference for either the historical data of Hernando’s life versus the conceptual claims about the collecting that Hernando undertook would have helped clarify for readers new to some of this form of intellectual study the structure of his integration.

Either way, however, a reader comes away from Catalogue bearing a fleshed-out introduction to an angle of this time period that is oft not included in history books. Beyond it, the intelligence and cleverness of the angle Wilson-Lee chooses to undertake—this single library, the largest of the Renaissance, its prowess now so deeply overtaken by the development of technology and ease-of-transport of written and visual artifacts—helps concretize the uniqueness of both the man and his mission. I highly encourage its reading, completion, and consideration.

I am grateful to the University Bookman for the provision of a copy of this title.

On the Obligation to Perfect One’s Craft

Imagine two spheres, of a different color, interpenetrating each other.

This is the writer. Writers are instruments of craft, and that craft comes to manifest in two distinct spheres of being.

The genius writer, when s/he writes, writes essentially from two different modes of being: one that which makes writing sheer art, and the other which makes writing sheer science; in the best fiction, there is no writer who is without both of these dimensions, actualized to their full potential, in their own, distinct way.

I wanted to introduce this distinction here, and leave writers with a bit of a challenge, moving forward, as I do when I teach classes on plot and pacing. (See resources available from those classes here.)

I begin with this radical but absolutely vital distinction between the art and the science of writing:

  • the first, on one hand, is that never-teachable spark of sheer genius (the same way that Mozart has genius before music, and da Vinci genius before the visual arts, and Michael Flatley and Jean Butler genius before tap dancing, and Benedict Cumberbatch before acting, and Steve Jobs before tech/entrepreneurship, and Stieg Laarson before thrillers);
  • the second, on the other hand, is the rigor of coming into possession of the knowledge of technique with its theory, as well as the practice that underlies learning to bridge theory (i.e., the three-act structure with notions of pacing with notions of world-building) with your writing as it manifests on the page itself.

Not all writers will bear the first spark, and there is a huge spectrum by which this kind of giftedness can manifest: giftedness in prose, in imagination, in the study of the interior (say, with a gift for empathy), and more. This is not a problem, though I would without hesitation argue that these are the writers who deserve primacy of publication, of space on the bookshelf, and of attention.

Writing deserves to be magical, and to be considered as such. Poor writing changes tastes, and it ought not to, and so we ought to build communities with a taste for magic and genius in terms of that which the best writers bring to the turf.

All writers should bear the second quality.

I will admit that many genius writers do not have, necessarily, a theoretical formation given to them, but that theoretical formation they come to organically, in reading and picking up on patterns, as well as by deep intuition. To be a storyteller by nature is to possess a particular form of a gift, which then translates into learning to structure stories. Note that we exist in a culture built, in deep, historical ways, upon stories told by spoken word.

The great gift of consuming theories about craft is that these theories, when received from another, give you language and models for thinking through the different structural elements of plot, and so therefore, they ought to, in those who are thinking deeply, intentionally about their writing, elevate the work of their own intuition. Intuition, I’d say, only goes so far, or goes so far in a particular way, unless it’s working against an objective framework for quality.

(Experimental fiction and rule-breaking fiction only goes so far before it starts to tear apart the experience of the one who reads it; where good fiction should work on the heart and affect, should give life, should spark curiosity and wonder, sometimes the rule-breaking in fiction stifles imagination, gives rise to depression, and detracts from an engagement with reality. More could be said.)

I’ve been reading queries and manuscripts, and 90% of the time, the feedback comes down to something simple: You need to learn to write. To write as putting words to paper is not the same as creating magic with purpose and intention on paper, and the writer’s job is universally the latter, the difference being the genre with its set of rules, its audience, its pre-determined focus or purpose, and otherwise.

One of my top-notch secrets (except not, given that I break this in my rejections, revise and resubmit requests, and in my conferences) is to ask clients to do rigorous homework about craft as they learn to write, and write better, with the simple project being this one: Make every novel that you write, literally, better than the one that preceded it.

The space of experience underlying these two modes is its own, separate question, and as with others, I hope to reflect on this later–but there is no genius that can be made manifest without experience and practice, and there is no maturity in craft that can be made manifest without experience and practice.

Learn to not be afraid to experience, and to take the time to measure the quality of your experience against theoretical frameworks that will help you to apply your experience to the creation of a new experience in the space of the novel. See some incipient resources on these questions through the resources link above.

On Functional Scaffolding

In my free time, which is really time not spent working on strictly agenting-related things, I love to read and do research. One of the lessons I learned a long time ago was the worthwhileness of doing research about one’s own person, and one’s own mind–how I work, how I function–in order to elevate the quality of one’s own life: how I live, can live, ought to live.

Here’s an abstract for an academic, heady article that I stumbled upon, once upon a time, doing some basic research in psychology, on “Functional scaffolding and self-scaffolding,” published in New Ideas in Psychology:

Models of the nature of representation and cognition ground and constrain models of the construction of representation in learning and development: models of what is being constructed ground and constrain models of the processes of construction. Insofar as the notion of scaffolding is intended to refer to particular kinds of supports for learning and development, it too will be variously enabled and constrained by underlying assumptions concerning representation and cognition. I will argue that action based models of representation, which have their own powerful supports, also make possible a functional notion of scaffolding that, in turn, makes sense of processes of self-scaffolding as a central field of development.

A basic translation (in its utter, kindergarten-level basics): Scaffolding is a tool for representing and understanding content learned, through theoretical models to capture and process that content.

One of the most basic examples of a self-scaffolding is a to-do list, but even more specifically, the categories that a person might use within their to-do list. A parallel concept for it is a mind model, or a theoretical framework that is developed to help a person think about the content and set of observations before them about any given question. (An acquaintance of mine once sent me this link to describe a range of ‘available mind models.’ I thought this was the coolest tool ever.)

With to-do lists, a person sort of self-engineers or self-creates a mind model to think about the necessary components of the tasks that stand before them: the content, the deadline, the structure, the framework for engaging in a range of different kinds of conversations that need to move the necessary theoretical pieces, etc.

For example, my to-do list (to be transparent, of course–except not, because I’d have to give you a whole existential spreadsheet if I were to break my to-do list in public!) looks something like this:

  • D4EO/Clients
    • Client Name
      • Client Project/Deadline
    • Client Name
      • Client Project/Deadline
    • Client Name
      • Client Project/Deadline
  • D4EO/Networking
  • D4EO/Market Research & Tracking
  • Non-Profit Support/Accounting
  • Academic Work/Research
  • Academic Work/Writing
  • Book Reviews/Reading
  • Book Reviews/Writing
  • Travel/Misc.

Certainly on the non-fiction writing end, mind models and scaffolds are terrific tools for aiding comprehension, as they are tools for scaffolding in the classroom. (Scaffolding is a classic pedagogical tool.) You can find some links to a few relevant pieces, for some guidance on what this kind of a scaffolding exploration might look like, here: one, two, three, four.

In fiction, a lot of scaffolding work can be done to tier in the release of plot or pacing-related information, such as in really solid thrillers–those clues planted, then pulled together/integrated, etc. The same thing goes for scaffolding out history of the characters and the world, as well as world-building. You want to give just enough for the reader to wrap their mind around the essentials, and keep in the rest of the information until it’s necessary. The author should always know and understand more about what’s on the page and evolving than the reader.

Beyond this, scaffolding aids your own life, and I’d encourage checking out some of these pieces, personality profiles (Myers-Briggs, Greek personality tests, enneagram tests), IQ tests, and otherwise, in order to then do the more important, practical project: figure out how you work, and figure out what best form of self-scaffolding aids your time.

Sometimes, I shock people with the amount of work that I do, editorially, agenting-wise, and writing-wise, but rather than it be a sort of shock to the system, it honestly is for me a project of systematic scaffolding and re-scaffolding, self-learning over and over again, playing with different mind models over something as simple as my inbox and categories for emails received, and otherwise. It’s a good, healthy, and totes existential project.

On Writing Memoirs: Short Reflection #1

On Writing Memoirs: Short Reflection #1

I love a good memoir.

Memoirs run a wide gamut. They can be, on one end, very platform-based books–which means that the person who is writing them, either himself/herself or with the support of a talented ghost writer, has a significant marketing powerhouse to back them. The nature of this marketing powerhouse depends entirely on the type of figure we are discussing, but can involve the institutions to which they are affiliated and the public value of their name, developed over time, with money, public exposure, wide-scale impact made through programming or otherwise, etc.

Think Brittney Spears and Michelle Obama-esque figures.

On the entirely opposite end, memoirs can be books with a very high concept–written by an individual without a platform, but are still compelling in some kind of essential ‘hook.’ The story organically captivates the hearts of readers, especially in the realm of particular forms of experience. These experiences can be deeply personal, or professional, or somewhere in between (i.e., ‘how an addict heals from addiction,’ ‘how an orphaned girl discovers her family,’ or ‘how a businesswoman’s career takes off under impossible circumstances’).

In either case, the best memoirs operate from within something like a novel’s structure: because you are not telling about a subject but about a life, and are thus telling a story, for no life can be explained without the story of the life, there needs to be an organic arc that arises from within the memoir’s premise or concept. An organic start, middle, end; an organic tension or problem or arc-in-experience .

Non-platform-based memoirs need tight work at the structural level, to tighten and to frame the individual chapters and scenes that operate along the story’s “arc”–to not just tell a super linear/horizontal series of events, that reads more like a timeline than it does a story, but something more vertical in its nature. This might mean that you the actual manuscript for the memoir begins in the heart of the story, the heart of the experience, and in working forward, works to integrate the background and history of the start in this setting in layers.

In may seem silly, but I think it’s a requirement for writers of memoir to read literary agent Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel (and/or anything else that he’s written, especially with an eye toward the tools he gives to teach structure and craft).

It should be a relatively easy book to read and apply–where memoirs are not writing something fiction, they already have the key story elements: the main characters, and the setting. They should always work to identify what is the sort of plot-like mechanism in this (as this is what will drive the love of the memoir–readers’ investment in the writer, and the story, and the stakes, and the nature of what the writer discovers and learns and has to share), as well as build out scenes to have a stronger beginning, middle, and end around their key ‘tension points’ and ‘focal points.’

Besides this, I think it’s important to read memoirs, and to answer these questions: How is the story structured? How are the scenes structured? What does the writer do in each individual scene? Where do they start and end? What keeps your interest? When is essential historical information introduced, and how does a plot-like or tension-related movement develop from within the early parts of the story? How much is related to voice–how the writer speaks, in telling the story–and how much is related to concrete external events or triggers that shape what happens?

I am actively open to memoirs, and love them, and entrust this as round #1–over what I hope will be many rounds–of some thoughts on memoir-writing. I did not have the opportunity to represent one in my first round as an agent, and hope to discover something that I respond to and believe in this time around.

Results: September’s Operation Awesome Pass or Pages Agent Panel

See my feedback here:

W’s Pass or Pages Feedback

This may help answer the question: What’s going on when an agent reads your query and pages?


I love the opportunity to participate in little contests or critiques of this form, and was grateful for the chance to review queries and pages for submissions of Young Adult Fairy Tales, Folktales, or Myths, retold with diverse characters.

The submissions were published on the Operation Awesome blog, and I’ve hyperlinked the entries here (entry one, two, three, four, five).

The translation to blog content didn’t capture all of my feedback, so I’ve also included a PDF version above. All writers submitted their queries and ten pages with the green light for critique.

On Human Emotion & Affectivity

On Human Emotion & Affectivity

A common weakness, in terms of the writing quality that appears in my slush pile, lies among writers who tell us about their character, world, and plot with its unfolding, inciting incidents–rather than show us. (One simple example: Jonathan recognized Mary’s sadness, and her sadness angered him, instead of, Mary’s eyelashes fluttered close, casting a net over her face, stripped thin of its light. Jonathan stood back, and grit his teeth as a flash of heat curled into his heart.)

Even those writers who aren’t writing an immediately commercial, cinematic novel–the writers most literary in commitment–have to build out scenes that, in their structure, organically grow out arcs of plot, tension, and character development; arcs that happen from within the story rather than happen to the story. A reader should not feel the author imposing upon the story that he or she is telling; should never be awakened to the structural dimensions of the novel by a feeling of breaking–that feeling of something natural and organic breaking because of an author’s structural choice.

One common dimension in which this happens is the emotional or affective one–the interior reactions and processes of the characters in any given story, and the affective content that colors their experience of reality, including all those events that happen to them. How many of the best scenes, the most important ones, rotate around profound experiences of anger, rage, grief, lust, sexual attraction, or love, among others? This interior drive or awakening to an object–to a goal, to another character, to an action–drives the human dimension in fiction and memoir; without this dimension, fiction and memoir could not do the work for which they are intended.

To study one’s own experience, and to observe the experiences of others, is one way by which the writer educates himself in the affect–what is it that happens, what is that we actually feel, when emotion awakens in us? How? From where? To what end? What is the difference between a healthy emotional life and one that is less healthy, disordered, traumatized? How do we sift through the differences in these experiences?

And how do we then use external triggers, events, and encounters–along with their parallel and corresponding interior reactions and processes–to develop our characters and shape the events that drive our plots? These are immense questions, and answers to them require formation on different levels: deeply abstract, structural tools, on one hand; the study of one’s own experience, and the search for correspondence (how do these tools, these categories, explain my own experience and emotional life?); and the study of others’ experiences, those experiences which are not ours in a causal sense–they did not happen to us–but which we can enter into by observation and, most importantly and epically, a deep empathy that can be learned, practiced, and tested.

One book that I would encourage all writers to pick up–it’s a little gem I discovered, once, via a friend, and which has revolutionized the way I edit and write–is J. Brennan Mullaney’s Authentic Love: Theory & Therapy. It’s a rare book of psychology, and unlike anything in the field that I’ve ever read (and, I guarantee you, I’ve read v. broadly). He provides a rare “structure” to the interior life of the human person, examining the emotional dimension by proposing a structure to the human heart–including those ways by which everything from objectively “neutral” external sense experience to deeply, subjectively “value-based” emotional experiences leave their imprints on different dimensions of our beings.

My mom, Bożena, and me, in April 2011, a month before she passed away after years of ovarian cancer, liver failure, and internal bleeding.

This book answered questions about certain experiences of my own, including the depth of grief that overwhelmed my life following the death of my mom, in a way that I have never seen in another book–and, as a result, I encourage all writers to pick it up and to examine it, for a structural framework and conceptual language to aid their writing. As an agent, I–and I would hope this is a widespread commitment on behalf of readers, agents, and editors alike–look for fiction that expands my understanding of the world, challenges my assumptions as well as confirms them (fundamentally, challenges me to be open to all reality and all bodies of experience), and aids my understanding of my own person as well as others in my life.

You will be shocked by the book. Before applying it to your own writing, I encourage using it as a framework to process your own life. There is an obligation, to some extent, for novelists to be aware of and take responsibility for the degree to which their own experiences shape the first principles and worldview in their novels. Have we not all had the experience of being deeply broken by, formed by, healed by, shocked by a work of fiction–and an author’s capacity to forever mark us, in one way or another?

If you have a chance to read it, let me know–as I’d love to hear any and all thoughts.

Additionally (and these are books I will further explain in other posts, but writers eager to do their research shouldn’t hesitate), I would highly encourage Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly and, where romantic love, sexual love, relationships of that form, and marriage are concerned, Sue Johnson’s Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Human Relationships and Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.

From Weronika’s Archives: On Compactness

Below is a diverse array of excerpts from novels of diverse kinds in the young adult (YA)/teen genre.

This post was originally included in the 2011 WriteOnCon faculty series. The online conference is no longer hosted.

Disclaimer #1: As with any discussions on plot and pacing (see one here), the suggestions made in this post are not all-encompassing.

Disclaimer #2: All conference attendees whose excerpts are pasted here gave permission by posting to a specific thread on the WriteOnCon forums.


Writers are often surprised when I tell them that I don’t read query letters and instead jump straight into the enclosed pages. My reasoning? Even the best queries won’t persuade me to sign novelists whose writing needs work, and 94% of the fiction in my query inbox isn’t ready. Another 4% is good but not right for me; another 2% I request. I offer to represent even less.

Among qualities such as strong voice, plot and characterization is, of course, good writing, which can be defined by an array of different elements—lovely, lyrical imagery; conciseness; originality; pitch; pacing. Whether it’s the overall storytelling (a blend of characterization and plot) or the language that is more important to the writer, one quality remains consistent in determining what is well written: compactness.

Compact writing manifests when the writer puts words on the page with courage, direction, and intention; when every word is critical to and organic in the building of the scene, and ideas are introduced quickly without overwhelming readers. The best writers layer each of their scenes, considering the framework of their chapters, and then they undergo harsh line edits to rid their works-in-progress of all unnecessary components. Compactness is not a matter of words alone, of each sentence having purpose. It’s also a matter of storytelling—the rise of events and tension in each paragraph, scene, chapter, and part, and in the novel as a whole.

Compactness is tough to teach outside the sentence level. It’s the writer’s vision that matters—the tightness to the story as it plays out, with practice, reading, and more practice as the main reasons behind these writers’ successes. Like with all things writing-related, to teach is to spend a lifetime discussing.

For this post, I’ve taken the route that makes most sense to me: I’ve analyzed what I hope is a wide array of examples, both published and unpublished.

I hope that readers will see similarities to their own work—and will self-edit—or will be inspired to try new frameworks as they rewrite and revise. Remember that I do not know the context for any of the unpublished novels, and you are the master of your own work, so take this feedback with a grain of salt. My critique is not meant to reflect upon ability, but rather the compactness of the excerpt in relation to what I suspect comes next.


Pretty much every single one of the published excerpts I’ve included here still blows me away, leaves goosebumps on my skin, sucks me right back into the story and the minds of characters I adore—so be prepared.


Excerpt from FORBIDDEN by Tabitha Suzuma (Simon Pulse/Simon & Schuster, 2011):

I gaze at the small, crisp, burned-out black husks scattered across the chipped white paint of the windowsills. It is hard to believe that they were ever alive. I wonder what it would be like to be shut up in this airless glass box, slowly baked for two long months by the relentless sun, able to see the outdoors—the wind shaking the green trees right there in front of you—hurling yourself again and again at the invisible wall that seals you off from everything that is real and alive and necessary, until eventually you succumb: scorched, exhausted, overwhelmed by the impossibility of the task. At what point does a fly give up trying to escape through a closed window—do its survival instincts keep it going until it is physically capable of no more, or does it eventually learn after one crash too many that there is no way out? And what point do you decide that enough is enough?

Wow, wow, wow. Wow. Wow, wow, wow—you know?

This first paragraph (162 words) from the novel FORBIDDEN shows an incredible ability to write compactly. Suzuma first establishes a connection to the real world by showing readers the dead flies lying along the windowsill, and then packs an entire philosophical idea into the same paragraph: What does it mean to live? To fight for survival?

She has complete control over her writing. While the sentences are long and complex, there is a purpose here, a sense of urgency. As a reader, you can’t stop. She pulls you forward; the current threatens to wash you away. Absolutely not one word is wasted. The primary reason that we’re able to process all of these ideas without being thrown for a loop is the relative simplicity with which the paragraph grows; Suzuma gives readers room to breathe, and then takes them in the direction she considers best. That direction is logical and the pieces connect.

I don’t know how you can read the paragraph and not buy the book.

Excerpt from THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE by Jandy Nelson (Dial Books/Penguin, 2010):

Gram is worried about me. It’s not just because my sister Bailey died four weeks ago, or because my mother hasn’t contacted me in sixteen years, or even because suddenly all I think about is sex. She is worried about me because one of her houseplants has spots.

Gram has believed for most of my seventeen years that this particular houseplant, which is of the nondescript variety, reflects my emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being. I’ve grown to believe it, too.

Across the room from where I sit, Gram—all six feet and floral frock of her, looms over the black-spotted leaves.

“What do you mean it might not get better this time?” She’s asking this of Uncle Big: arborist, resident pothead, and mad scientist to boot. He knows something about everything, but he knows everything about plants.

Nelson is an equally talented writer. In this excerpt (137 words) from THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE, she has introduced three main characters and their ever-quirky characteristics. More importantly, she has opened multiple doors into conflict—we are first drawn forward by these characters, who charmed me right off the bat, and also by a sense of curiosity and tension regarding Bailey’s death, the potential for sexual promiscuity on Lennie’s part, Gram’s health, and Uncle Big’s existence.

In other words, Nelson has layered magnificently. Notice how each topic is compact—just a few words here and there to establish conflict and character—and notice how the transitions are completely natural, as if this scene were written in stone before Nelson put pen to paper (or fingertips to keys). Nelson doesn’t expect readers to process huge, unfamiliar details—everything that she includes is common sense in this world.

I loved this book, too, heart and soul.

Excerpt from ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS by Stephanie Perkins (Dutton/Penguin, 2010):

Here is everything I know about France: Madeline and Amélie and Moulin Rouge. The Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, although I have no idea what the function of either actually is. Napoleon, Marie Antoinette, and a lot of kings named Louis. I’m not sure what they did either, but I think it has something to do with the French Revolution, which has something to do with Bastille Day. The art museum is called the Louvre and it’s shaped like a pyramid and the Mona Lisa lives there along with the statue of the woman missing her arms. And there are cafés or bistros or whatever they call them on every street corner. And mimes. The food is supposed to be good, and the people drink a lot of wine and smoke a lot of cigarettes.

I’ve heard they don’t like Americans, and they don’t like white sneakers.

Perkins charms readers in a different way than Nelson—in this 149-word excerpt from her debut ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS, she has totally established Anna as a silly but real character. Her choices as a novelist both make the character and compactness, as every single sentence introduces a fresh idea, a new element of France; a new connection to Anna, the main character. It’s a list, so it’s easy to follow, but the meaning of the list is what creates rhythm and interest.

In general, Perkins is one of the most compact commercial YA writers I’ve ever seen—each of her sentences sings with humor and depth and fun. It’s impossible not to fall in love with Anna, if you’re open to characters—people—like her.

This is another book I love dearly.

Excerpt from PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ by A.S. King (Knopf/Random House, 2010):

The pastor is saying something about how Charlie was a free spirit. He was and he wasn’t. He was free because on the inside he was tied up in knots. He lived hard because inside he was dying. Charlie made inner conflict look delicious.

The pastor is saying something about Charlie’s vivacious and intense personality. I picture Charlie inside the white coffin, McDonald’s napkin in one hand, felt-tipped pen in the other, scribbling, “Tell that guy to kiss my white vivacious ass. He never met me.” I picture him crumbling the note and eating it. I picture him reaching for his Zippo lighter and setting it alight, right there in the box. I see the congregation, teary-eyed, suddenly distracted by the rising smoke seeping through the seams.

Is it okay to hate a dead kid? Even if I loved him once? Even if he was my best friend? Is it okay to hate him for being dead?

The voice here—oh, god, the voice. The laugh-out-loud, pitch-perfect-in-its-grief voice. The emotional arc and primary conflict are established in a snap of the fingers in this excerpt (157 words) from PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ. And all the details—from the McDonald’s napkin, to the Zippo lighter, to the note and the attitude—capture readers’ attentions. I think in this situation it was probably easier for King to structure a shorter chapter than a long, drawn-out scene, as her goal is to offer this information in a way that raises questions and garners sympathy; she didn’t push the scene development.

This novel is amazing—and the rest is as compact, as considered, as well paced as this.

Excerpt pulled from the thread (2011 WriteOnCon Forums, now publicly archived):

Hilltop Manor Nursing Home wanted to kick my grandma out for biting a nurse on the arm.


That’s why I found myself inside the lobby of the two-story nursing home in downtown Detroit the last week of my Christmas vacation. I could be eating pizza rolls and watching old Christmas movies with my best friend, Silvia Nunez. I would’ve sold my soul to lie on her bed and paint my toenails. And I hated painting my toenails. But no. I stood next to Mom as she smoothed the creases in her pants for the millionth time that morning.

The linoleum in the hallway shone under the fluorescent lights as a breeze from the heater lifted the end of my ponytail off my neck. I wrinkled my nose. Though the janitor had tried to mask the smell of the place with some lemon-scented disinfectant, it hadn’t worked. There were layers to the smell.

Lemon. Pee. Lemon. Old people.

At 158 words, this is a great example of an almost-there YA—I have a sense of conflict and voice, tension and family dynamics, in a small space, without any confusion. I really enjoyed it, and I’d keep reading. I do think that the writer is letting a few details distract from the flow of events forward, though—remember how in all the excerpts each sentence matters, each detail contributes necessary information.

My suggested revision, which brings the word count down to 125 words:

Hilltop Manor Nursing Home wanted to kick my grandma out for biting a nurse on the arm.


That’s why I found myself inside the lobby of her two-story nursing home the last week of my Christmas vacation. I could have been with my best friend, eating pizza rolls and watching old Santa movies. I would’ve sold my soul to lie on Silvia’s bed and paint my toenails. And I hated painting my toenails. But no. I fidgeted next to Mom as she smoothed the creases in her pants for the millionth time that morning.

Though the janitor had tried to mask the smell of the place with some lemon-scented disinfectant, it hadn’t worked. There were layers to the smell.

Lemon. Pee. Lemon. Old people.

Do we lose any critical information? I don’t think so. As with any other shared excerpt here, details could have drowned the basics, the voice, the pace—but they didn’t.

Always cut what isn’t quite necessary.

Overall, this was good—the writer is giving us basics setting-wise, and likely moving readers forward in the next few paragraphs.

Excerpt pulled from the thread (2011 WriteOnCon Forums, now publicly archived):


My elbow whacked Chris’s forehead for the fourth time that day. He grunted and caught me before I hit the ice. Though I’d skated over half of my nineteen years, I’d never had so many collisions. Of course, until a year ago, I’d never skated with a partner.

I cringed and touched Chris’s sweaty brow. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay.” He brushed his hand through his thick dark hair. “A little head trauma never hurt anyone.”

I laughed wearily and arched my neck, stretching the sore muscles. The cold air radiating from the ice wasn’t helping to loosen them. Looking up, my eyes honed in on the red, white, and blue banner above the rink:

Emily Butler and Christopher Grayden–2000 National Silver Medalists

Only four months had passed since Chris and I placed second at our first national championship, but it seemed like a lifetime.

This excerpt (147 words) needs a bit more focus, and as I read it, I thought more than once of the excerpt from ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS—Stephanie Perkins introduces an entire topic, an entire country, objectively. With a sport like this—and with an additional layer, that of dancing with a partner versus alone—the writer is introducing a lot of elements that are tough for readers unfamiliar with them to process, especially in context of the occurring events. It’s too much.

S/he has also introduced background information already without quite hooking us onto the activity.

The challenge, I think, is to take this piece by piece, making sure readers grasp onto one aspect completely—or without having to question it immediately—and then move onto another piece.


Excerpt from MILKWEED by Jerry Spinelli (Knopf/Random House, 2003):

I am running.

That’s the first thing I remember. Running. I carry something, my arm curled around it, hugging it to my chest. Bread, of course. Someone is chasing me. “Stop! Thief!” I run. People. Shoulders. Shoes. “Stop! Thief!”

Sometimes it is a dream. Sometimes it is a memory in the middle of the day as I stir iced tea or wait for soup to heat. I never see who is chasing and calling me. I never stop long enough to eat the bread. When I awaken from my dream or memory, my legs are tingling.

This entire excerpt from MILKWEED (96 words) makes up the first chapter in Spinelli’s wonderful historical set in Poland. While I think the second paragraph could have been a tad more specific in setting, it works just right the way it is written—we know that the narrator dreams he is a thief, and this creates tension, a physical kind of awareness for him (“my legs are tingling”). Spinelli introduces more concrete tension in a small space than most other writers I’ve included by hinting thrugh an action shot of a villain beyond the character’s immediate control. Again, no words are wasted, and while there are unknowns, there are no confusions.

This is a highly recommended historical.

Excerpt from CHAINS by Laurie Halse Anderson (Simon & Schuster BFYR/Simon & Schuster):

The best time to talk to ghosts is just before the sun comes up. That’s when they can hear us true, Momma said. That’s when ghosts can answer us.

The eastern sky was peach colored, but a handful of lazy stars still blinked in the west. It was almost time.

“May I run ahead, sir?” I asked.

Pastor Weeks sat at the front of his squeaky wagon with Old Ben next to him, the mules’ reins loose in his hands. The pine coffin that held Miss Mary Finch—wearing her best dress, with her hair washed clean and combed—bounced in the back when the wagon wheels hit a rut. My sister, Ruth, sat next to the coffin. Ruth was too big to carry, plus the pastor knew about her peculiar manner of being, so it was the wagon for her and the road for me.

I adore Laurie Halse Anderson’s historicals, and this excerpt (146 words) from CHAINS is evidence of why—we are introduced to the setting (in such a beautiful, beautiful way), local myths, multiple characters, and the current actions of those characters. There isn’t a huge sense of tension just yet, though first-time readers are surely grasping for further information regarding the clues offered here (“sir,” the pastor, the time period).

Most importantly, there is forward movement. Despite the introductions of the more general, overreaching concepts, Anderson makes sure that the characters are doing, making decisions, interacting. Every sentence contributes to knowledge that is necessary, to information that plays a role in the remainder of the scene—just look at that remarkable compactness.

This is just a fab, fab novel.


Excerpt from THE HEIST SOCIETY by Ally Carter (Disney-Hyperion/Disney, 2010):

No one knew for certain when the trouble started at the Colgan School. Some members of its alumni association blamed the decision to admit girls. Others cited newfangled liberal ideals and a general decline in the respect for elders worldwide. But no matter the theory, no one could deny that, recently life at the Colgan School was different.

Oh, its grounds were still perfectly manicured. Three quarters of the senior class were already well on their way to being early-accepted into the Ivy League. Photos of presidents and senators and CEOs still lined the dark-paneled hallway outside the headmaster’s office.

But in the old days, no one would have declined admission to Colgan on the day before classes started, forcing the administration to scramble to fill the slot.

This is a wonderful beginning to a commercial novel. The first sentence is pitch-perfect, and I like that we’re starting with a “big picture,” which I think is easier to nail—and often more powerful—than starting in the middle of an action scene.

We get a great sense of voice (“Oh, it grounds were still perfectly manicured”—love that line!), and the last line in this excerpt (128 words) of THE HEIST SOCIETY raises so many questions and tensions. The entire Colgan community is characterized, and now we want to know who the book is about, and what the main character’s role is in context of the school as explained above. Again, not one word is wasted, and the set-up is very easy to follow.

THE HEIST SOCIETY is such a fun, smart novel.

Excerpt pulled from the thread (2011 WriteOnCon Forums, now publicly archived):

The woman ran through the dark woods in nothing but a white towel – definitely the wrong outfit for outrunning a homicidal maniac. She tripped and crashed to the ground. The killer stood over her and adjusted his grip on the machete. He raised his arm. She screamed as he swung the blade at her head.

Something bumped my arm.

I yelped and dropped the remote. I glared at Maximus, my seventy-pound mutt taking up more than his fair share of the couch next to me. “Geez, Max, you tryin’ to give me a heart attack?” He gave a soft woof that sounded suspiciously like a yes and pawed my arm again.

“Please don’t tell me you have to go out.” His answering whine was a definite yes.

“Can’t you hold it? We’re almost at the best part.” The woman was about to turn all badass on the freak.

I don’t this is as compact as it could be—we don’t get a sense of voice until the last line, really; everything else exists in the middle, and the first paragraph especially is very toneless. Refer to the example of PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ here—instead of saying “Charlie died, and the congregation missed him,” King digs deep into the personalities of those involved. We sense both voices, both characters, as if they were real people.

To make the most use of the space here, the writer should pick apart the scene—possibly even cut it entirely—and let us process the film clip by clip, increasing the character’s tension, especially since this is narrated in first person and we as readers need to follow the character’s emotions as much as possible. Include only what is necessary, and notice that none of the published examples included herein spent more than a phrase on day-to-day references.


Excerpt from LIPS TOUCH: THREE TIMES by Laini Taylor (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 2009):

There is a certain kind of girl the goblins crave. You could walk across a high school campus and point them out: not her, not her, her. The pert, lovely ones with butterfly tattoos in secret places, sitting on their boyfriends’ laps? No, not them. The girls watching the lovely ones sitting on their boyfriends’ laps? Yes.


The goblins want girls who dream so hard about being pretty their yearning leaves a palpable trail, a scent goblins can follow like sharks on a soft bloom of blood. The girls with hungry eyes who pray each night to wake up as someone else. Urgent, unkissed, wishful girls.

Like Kizzy.

This is another one of those excerpts that blows me away. How can you not want to read the entire book after this prologue-like introduction (109 words) to LIPS TOUCH: THREE TIMES, a trio of novellas?

It is compact, compact, compact like few fantasy introductions are (it helps that there isn’t an immediate alternate universe): The entire concept as it is executed here tells me more about the world than paragraphs of poor exposition would—goblins exist and goblins want particular types of girls (the contradiction between the two types is so spot-on—it feels familiar, immediately). The writing is drop-dead gorgeous but never, ever extraneous. It has a sense of mystery and melancholy that raises tension and captures readers’ hearts, and never pushes information. Taylor maintains a bit of a distance, feeding us the scene before we delve further into the stories.

Fantastic. I can’t wait for her next.

Excerpt from THE KINGDOM KEEPERS by Ridley Pearson (Disney-Hyperion/Disney, 2009):

He found himself standing next to the flagpole in Town Square, in the heart of the Magic Kingdom. In his pajamas. How he’d gotten here, he had no idea. His last memory was climbing into bed—it felt like only minutes earlier.

Gripped by a sense of panic, awed by the sight of the Cinderella Castle at night, Finn Whitman briefly recalled that he’d had other, similar dreams recently—always in the Magic Kingdom, always at night. But in his thirteen years, none so real, so vivid as this: he felt a breeze on his face; he smelled the wet earth of a flower bed not far away; he heard the distant whine of traffic and the buzz of a motorboat on the lake behind him.

In a way, this excerpt (126 words) from THE KINGDOM KEEPERS reminds me of a comment I made above, regarding the first chapter of MILKWEED: It wouldn’t have hurt to be slightly more specific. But specificity doesn’t quite matter in an example where the writing is quick and engaging, and the scene comes alive. Immediately readers are placed in the setting, in their pajamas, with the sounds buzzing around them.

While it’s not quite sympathy that we feel for the main character (yet), we are intrigued by his interpretation of these events, and are eager to see what happens next—eager to see what the heck is going on. Again simplicity is key—there is no confusion, just what we’ve been told.

Another really fun novel.

Excerpt from EAST by Edith Pattou (Graphia/Harcourt, 2005):

Ebba Rose was the name of our last-born child. Except it was a lie. It should have been Nyamh Rose. But everyone called her Rose rather than Ebba, so the lie didn’t matter. At least, that is what I told myself.

The Rose part of her name came from the symbol that lies at the center of the wind rose—which is fitting because she was lodged at the very center of my heart.

I loved each of her seven brothers and sisters, but I will admit that there was always something that set Rose apart from the others. And it wasn’t just the way she looked.

She was the hardest to know of my children, and that was because she would not stay still. Every time I held her as a babe, she would look up at me, intent, smiling with her bright purple eyes. But soon, and always, those eyes would stray past my shoulder, seeking the window and what lay beyond.

This is an example of an epic fantasy beginning.

In the above excerpt (164 words) of EAST, Pattou doesn’t complicate the scene with world-building elements. She lets it grow organically from framework that is important to her theme and novel, and maintains the scene as universal and accessible. We have sympathy for this father, who very clearly loves his daughter—Pattou is sure to establish that—and we also feel a twinge of sympathy, mystery, and foreshadowing when this darling little girl—with purple eyes!—looks past him to the shoulder. Oh, man, oh, man is this well done.

This is one of my favorite novels. Very highly recommended.

Excerpt pulled from the thread (2011 WriteOnCon Forums, now publicly archived):

Chrissy was porting as Joel walked into the bar she asked him to meet her at. It was great for Chris that the whole city of San Francisco was wired to port at anytime now. She used to have to narrow her choices of where they drank, ate, or peed to places that had access. Chrissy was one of the addicted but that didn’t matter to Joel, she was hot and he would do whatever it took to be with her.

Joel slowed and let himself drink her in as he walked to the corner booth she had secured for their meeting. Her short red hair was sticking up all over the place, probably an accident of neglect but it suited her. She had her ice blue wireless port plug implanted into her temple and her pink button lips were moving furiously commanding code and building worlds for her to play in until she became bored. Then she would sell the experience or just delete the world. Chrissy was a perfectionist and a destroyer of worlds.

This is an example (176 words) of a beginning that needs to be completely reworked because it lacks significantly in compactness and fluidity. The writer is introducing a bunch of unfamiliar elements without describing any of them, without showing them work, and so whereas there is a lot of information being produced within space, very little of it makes sense, and very little of it involves the readers and lets them fall in love with the story.

We also are told versus shown an array of dynamics between the characters without being emotionally involved by either part—rather, it’s unclear which of the characters is supposed to be the narrative focus in this scene, which makes it even more confusing, and further contributes to a lack of grounding.

Excerpt pulled from the thread (2011 WriteOnCon Forums, now publicly archived):

My best friend watched me in the mirror. Like all the other times I’d seen her in these past three weeks, tears streamed down her once beautiful face. Shivering, I closed my eyes, willing her to disappear. I wanted nothing more than to wipe those tears from her eyes, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t help her—no one could.

Rainey was dead.

A knock sounded from the bedroom door. “Karina, we should leave soon. Are you up?”

I tentatively opened my eyes. Relief washed over me. I was alone. I took a calming breath. “I’m coming, Mom!”

After an uncomfortable breakfast, we rode in silence to school. I glanced at my mother. Her forehead was so wrinkled it looked like tiny waves rolling across it. The thing was, we’d been through this time and time again.

I didn’t want to go back to school yet—possibly never.

This excerpt (148 words) also needs some work in terms of compactness—way, way too much happens here. Notice how the published excerpts I’ve included here do one of two things: 1) spend approx 150 words discussing a single topic or 2) cover a lot of ground generally (ground that can be covered generally because the specifics don’t matter).

The writer here is trying to cover a lot of ground that needs specifics, that needs to be drawn out—it’s a matter of pacing what is important. I don’t think death can be discarded so quickly—see the PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ excerpt—unless it is deeply contextualized within a framework that makes it relevant but not the sole focus of the scene—see the THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE excerpt.

I also worry that this kind of one-by-one “seeing the dead best friend” element might be a bit cliché, a bit tiring. Writers should always consider what unique approach they can take to add a unique flair or execution to their text, keeping it compact and accelerating.


Main Rules For Compactness*:

  1. Never waste a word. (Line edit like a banshee.)
  2. To prevent waste, frame the novel top-down, whether in outline or in revisions—think strategically about the arc, as well as each scene, paragraph, and sentence. What is the purpose of your first scene? Your second? Is there any way to connect their roles into one scene?
  3. Effective forward rhythm—story acceleration—is key to connecting various ideas within one scene.
  4. Consider pacing and the role of a particular plot element—the introduction of a paranormal twist, a character, a conflict, a question. Spend time on the smaller, subtler aspects of your novel if they are important. Consider the role these various elements play within your text versus they way they are typically portrayed or paced in the genre or sub-genre. Why do you want to move past a particular event quickly? Not so quickly? These answers and the execution will determine how successfully compact your writing is—whether everything is portrayed just right.
  5. Voice—even in plot-driven stories—is your savior. You can spend time on explanations or introductions even when they’re not typical if you can make them interesting. Just keep them tight and specific.
  6. Don’t be afraid of shorter scenes. Start scenes as late as possible and end them as late as possible—if you have something that needs to be said, say it. Introduce it. Frame it. (Look to the LIPS TOUCH: THREE TIMES excerpt—that is one scene, one introduction to the remainder; it is brief but informative.)
  7. Keep in mind your reader: What does the typical reader know about the topics you’ve chosen to include in your story? Is it necessary to introduce them at all? If so, how early do you need to do it? What is the minimum number of details you need for explanation?
  8. Try not to include any backstory—or very, very, very minimal backstory—in your first chapter. Think, Forward movement, forward movement; acceleration.

* Rules always have exceptions.