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The Help Desk: Sometimes, humiliation is a team sport

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

Not so long ago, I went to a reading. It was an author who, back in his prime, used to be a bestseller. I still think of him as a big name. Unfortunately, only three people showed up for the reading. Including me.

He was visibly crestfallen when he went onstage to the loudest applause we could muster, and the Q&A session was brutal. It was so awkward that I haven’t been back to a reading since. Was there any way to defuse the situation, do you think? I just felt so bad for the guy.

Jasmine, Fremont

Dear Jasmine,

You experienced someone else's public humiliation. Author readings are often death by a thousand public humiliations, followed by short Q&A. This isn't a bad thing. I would argue that you shouldn't have done anything to defuse the situation and really, there's nothing you could have done.

Several years ago, a man I was pretty smitten with dedicated a song to me on his local radio show. I don't remember the song – it didn't matter – what mattered was he knew I was listening and he did something that no man had ever done for me before: he gave me a public declaration of affection.

When our odd relationship was on its deathbed and I was locked in a losing battle with myself to prove he had cared about me once, I brought it up to him, this moment that I had cherished for over a year. His response was this: "I never dedicated a song to you, I would never dedicate a song to you, that's psychotic."

Before that moment I did not know you could be physically petrified by humiliation. A friend of mine witnessed that moment – when someone broke off a piece of my heart and chucked it into the trash, and then took a shit on top and lit the whole mess on fire – and her response was this: "Damn, that's raw. Nothing will fix this, in fact alcohol might make it worse, but that's about all I can offer, aside from an alibi if his house gets torched for some reason."

My point is this: the popularity of social media and memoir-writing has left us with a pretty stark dichotomy: people who overshare the highlights of their lives and people who overshare their own bottoming out. Either way, the scenes and emotions are curated for an audience. Much less common is what you witnessed – that raw moment when our carefully curated realities are dickslapped by actual reality and we wish to Jesus Prom King Christ that whatever vengeful god had led us here would just finish the job and swallow us whole.

We need those moments to flex our emotions and remind us that life always what we make it, it isn't good or fair or controllable. The best thing you can be in these instances is an empathetic witness and offer alcohol if the situation calls for it.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: Secret romances and sexy pirates

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

In your opinion, what movie adaptation is better than the book it’s based on and why?

Caroline, Matthews Beach

Dear Caroline,

I'm currently loving Black Sails, which is not a movie but a pirate-themed series based on historical figures and characters from the children's book Treasure Island. It inspired me to re-read Treasure Island, however, I abandoned it after a few chapters because there was not enough fucking.

Kisses,

Cienna

P.S. I just asked a woman on the bus your question and she said "50 Shades of Grey." Just in case you wanted two terrible opinions.

Bonus Question!

Dear Cienna,

I read romance novels on my Kindle on the bus. Nobody needs to know what I'm into, right? But then, every now and again on my commute I’ll run into a coworker who wants to make small talk about what I’m reading. I'm terrible at lying. Can you give me some good snappy comebacks?

Dahlia, Lower Queen Anne

Dear Dahlia,

Tell your coworkers that you are reading "erotic C-SPAN fanfic," "Bible limericks" or "fresh pet obituaries." Those are three collections of words that no one wants to hear slide out of a coworker's mouth. But if you're not as comfortable making people uncomfortable as I am, you can also say, "I don't know. I'm not really reading it, this Kindle is just a prop to discourage bus folk from making small talk with me." And then smile real nice.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: A trip down mammary lane

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

Help me to not be a boob! I'm a dude and a writer and every time I go to describe a woman I write something about her rack. I know this drives women readers crazy, and for good reason.

But! I'm queer. Boobs to me have about as much sex appeal as cow udders. This isn't about male gaze (I don't think?), and sometimes a woman's breasts tell a story — like an old Russian lady with really big ones who is very modest and keeps that shit locked down tight. There's obviously some kind of management there that helps define who she is, right?

Or my sister talking about how big her “tits” (her words) got when she was pregnant — that's not a character trait per se, but it is something honest worth mentioning, right?

I'm a guy, but I don't want to be THAT guy. Is there a rule of thumb to help me here?

Bottle fed, Burien

Dear Bottle fed,

Being gay doesn't inoculate you against sexism, just as being a cultural latina (olé!) doesn't make me incapable of racism. As you noted, there are times when writing about breasts helps inform the reader about a character or the narrator. There are also many times when writing about boobs is lazy shorthand for a woman's sexual appeal, which in turn is lazy shorthand for her worth in the world.

So here are a few questions to consider the next time you begin fixating on a character's breasts:

  1. Are these boobs central to the scene taking place right now?
  2. What am I trying to convey by focusing on these boobs?
  3. Is this the best way to impart that message to readers?
  4. Are these boobs that I'm describing the boobs of a female character?
  5. If so, why the fuck don't I ever write about male boobs? Men have chests, too, and many men even have boobs and sensitive areolas.

Here's another exercise you might try: Take a few descriptions of your characters, swap their pronouns (or remove pronouns altogether) and re-read the descriptions aloud. It will help you identify the crutches you rely on and gender biases you may have.

Kisses!

Cienna

The Help Desk: Even in an age of Trump, writers should be paid for their work

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

I’m a poet. I’ve been published here and there, in a magazine you’ve maybe read. Like most creative people, I’m pissed about Donald Trump and so I’ve written a few poems about current events. I read one at a group reading last week and I was approached after the reading by someone who’s putting together an anti-Trump anthology. The good news: he wants to include my poem!

The bad news? It doesn’t pay. Now, a portion of the proceeds are going to the ACLU and other charities, which is fine by me, of course. But it’s only a portion, which to me indicates that he’s taking some of the money for himself. I’m sick to death of people publishing my work without any compensation, and it seems like he’s exploiting the moment and the outrage to make a few bucks. It’s not really about the money, it’s the principle. Should I just politely decline, or should I raise a stink?

Nora, Auburn

Dear Nora,

Throwing oneself in front of a Arc bus seems like a slightly more effective "get rich quick" scheme than conning poets out of poetry, but I'm with you: artists should be compensated for their work. When my biological father died, I passed out candy necklaces and to-go bags of his cremains to all the eulogists. Their response to my thoughtfulness was visceral.

It's perfectly reasonable and not turdish at all to email this person and ask for a breakdown of which charities will benefit and how the proceeds will be split. Ask outright: Are you keeping any of the proceeds for yourself? From there, follow your heart – or the potato you call a heart, if you're like me. Remember: We're barely into month two of this administration. I suspect there will be plenty of time to participate in anti-Trump anthologies in the coming years.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: My bookstore wants to carry books by a racist monster!

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

As a bookseller, I was jealous of the San Francisco bookstore that refused to carry or order Milo Yiannopoulos’s book for customers. My bookstore won’t do the same, no matter how hard my coworkers and I plead to the owners. In fact, it’s not even that they won’t ban the book; they want to have a couple copies on the shelf for people to browse!

A bookstore is a platform, and we make decisions every day about the books we do or do not carry. This is no different. We don’t want to provide a platform for that kind of racist, hateful BS, but our owner thinks it’s more important to “support free speech” — and maybe make a few bucks off a racist shithead.

Who’s right?

Sheena, Tukwila

Dear Sheena,

You and your coworkers are right. Before the internet ruined the economic value of words and chains of bookstores sprawled across our great nation, people like your boss could maybe argue that they had room on their shelves to reserve for hateful ideas written by bigots. But now more than ever, the allure of bookstores is their curation of great authors and ideas promoted by passionate staff.

Moreover, your boss's fallacious "free speech" argument is offensive to people with working brains. I could staple my Groupon for "single gal's anus bleaching and chin hair removal" to a turd and call it feminist poetry but that doesn't mean you're obliged to stock it on your shelves. You know this, I know this, your boss knows this – even if he'd rather act against the best interests of his customers and business like a milk-fed buttboy of the alt-right movement.

But being right won't get those books off your shelves. So here's what I suggest you do: write up a few bookmarks explaining what a racist shithead Milo Yiannopoulos is, recommend that no one ever support his hateful ideas by reading or buying his books, and then stick them in his books.

If the owner ever discovers them, tell him this: "A woman with pocketfuls of spiders came in the other day hawking feminist poetry turds – actual turds with poetry stapled to them – that she wanted us to stock. When I refused, she cursed us for stifling her free speech and then spent a long time flipping through Milo's books. I think her name was Cienna Madrid."

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: Your one-stop shop for advice on plagiarism, pince-nez, and spider blood

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

The other day at the eye doctor’s office, I found myself considering a pince nez. Would this make me look like a total ass, or is it time for FDR’s preferred eyewear to make a comeback?

Stu, Bellevue

Dear Stu,

There are two instances in which I could see this look working on a contemporary face: if you were to pair your prince nez with a reptile contact lens, so that you had one large, freaky snake eye, or if you were to poke your non-prince nez eye out with a fork. All other alternatives are unacceptable.

Kisses,

Cienna

P.S. Speaking of lenses and history and such, go read Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher.

Dear Cienna,

Settle a bet: is there ever a time when plagiarism is morally justified?

Evie, Port Townsend

Dear Evie,

Considering that I have used stories of my alcoholic father's suicide to score free drinks in bars, take my views on morality with as much salt as you wish: No, plagiarism is never morally justified.

Kisses,

Cienna

P.S. Speaking of immorality, go read Insane Clown President.

Dear Cienna,

I just want to know more about the spiders, please. The way you talk about them makes my stomach feel funny, and I’m not sure yet if it’s good or bad.

Shelob, Pioneer Square

Dear Shelob,

Did you know that female black widows can store sperm in their abdomens for up to two years? Or that spider blood is blue? Or that their silk is five times stronger than steel – in fact, it's so strong and elastic that scientists cannot replicate it?

Or that the two things you never, ever want to do on a Friday night with your spider friends is draw a bubble bath or play "light as a feather, stiff as a board" because both will end in horror?

Kisses!

Cienna

P.S. Go read The Private Life of Spiders.

The Help Desk: Portrait of the author as a total hottie

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

I kind of have a crush on a writer. She’s funny and smart, and her novels are great; they make me think differently about the world. She’s the only writer who’s ever inspired me to want to write a fan letter. But I’m a guy, and I think it would be weird if I wrote a mash note to someone I didn’t know. Is it weird, too, that I can’t seem to separate my infatuation from the quality of her writing? Like, I should be able to appreciate a woman’s writing for her writing, and not because her author photo is cute. (But her author photo is adorable.) Should I write the note? I don’t want to be creepy.

Edgar, Tukwila

Dear Edgar,

Write your fan letter, praise this woman's brain and talents, but don't mention how cute she is. Having a crush on someone is one of the most wonderful, thrilling, and privately selfish acts we engage in. Crushes are fantasies – your highest hopes for an individual you don't really know – superimposed on an unsuspecting person.

Have you ever read Lolita or Great Expectations? If not, I suggest getting acquainted with the long literary tradition of the male gaze.

Theoretically, it's flattering to be an object of someone's affection – we all want to feel wanted. I can be flattered at the idea of a wolf spider admiring the moist caverousness of my belly button but the moment she breaks that fourth wall, winks half her eyes, and suggests dropping her eggsac there so she can winter behind the water heater kid-free, I'm repulsed.

My point is, most women resent being objectified for their appearance.

Kisses!
Cienna

The Help Desk: How about some dystopia to go along with your dystopia?

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

Everybody is always complaining about post-apocalyptic fiction, but just look at where we are now? Kind of prescient, aren’t they?

Do you have any good recommendations for someone who's gone through the most popular YA versions of the genre? What are the deep cuts, here?

J.T., Seward Park

Dear J.T.,

What a topical question. Given that our doomsday clock just ticked closer to global catastrophe, and our new climate of alternative facts suggest global warming is God's blushing pride in our Dear Leader and rape whistles are dinner bells for hot plates of pussy, we're about one loaded sneeze from the post apocalypse.

What do you read to prepare for that?

I don't have the stomach for post-apocalyptic fiction right now – it seems like an unnecessary bummer, like learning that the imprisoned killer whales at Sea World have developed body dysmorphia from working with dolphins for so long – so I've been reading a lot of old Far Side cartoons.

But I do have recommendations for you. First, if you'd like another reason to thank toga-wearing Christ you're not a woman, try reading José Saramago's Blindness. The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi is pretty damn fascinating and much closer than post-apocalyptic – it covers what happens when the southwest runs out of water. I've never read Megan Abbott's The Fever but I've heard really good things and finally, Dies the Fire by S.M. Stirling is a rustic survival guide set in the northwest and punctuated with tolerable levels of romance and gore that I enjoyed.

But before you read any of those, I would recommend reading The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. This is the era we live in, this is the true horror that many of our citizens live out, and it's everyone's civic duty to understand how our penal system persecutes people of color. Especially now.

Kisses!
Cienna

The Help Desk: Stop me before I troll again

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

There’s a local writer I hate. You’d know his name. He’s awful. Sometimes I have to get into the comments and tell him how much I hate his writing, and sometimes I know I go overboard. I don’t threaten him or anything, but I do make some rather dramatic claims about parts of his anatomy. It’s awful. I’m awful. I don’t troll anyone (or anywhere) else. I even surprise myself sometimes with how much I love to troll him.

I try to ignore his writing, but he’s on a site with other writers who I love. I’ve blocked him on Twitter and Facebook, but I still encounter him on a regular basis, and I hate what my hatred for his self-satisfied prose is doing to me. What do I do?

Bob, Mountlake Terrace

Dear Bob,

You're looking at your hatred of this writer the wrong way. Who we hate says more about us than the object of our attention; these individuals represent qualities we despise, qualities we see in ourselves (that we despise), or qualities we envy. For instance, I tend to despise emotionally dismissive drunks, liars, cowards, hairy spiders with enormous pedipalps, and people who thread toilet paper the wrong way on the wheel.

So stop for a moment and appreciate this man as a foil for all you find good and right in the world – perhaps you dislike him because he uses his platform to singularly write about himself or his few navel-gazy interests, or he never has anything insightful to contribute to public discourse. Pinpoint your specific irritations with this man, and then, when you happen to come across his writing, privately pity him for his shortcomings.

Trolling is not only toxic, it's pretty ineffective. Most people who've worked on the internet and social media for any length of time have learned to dismiss trolls – it's the only way to do your job and stay sane. Harassment barely registers; pity is the arrow that strikes the heart.

Kisses!
Cienna

The Help Desk: What can writers do to fight Trump?

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

Some of my writer friends have gone off the deep end on Facebook, posting novel-length rants about the state of the country. It’s misplaced energy — they’re just dumping content into a void. I want to ask them to do something else with their time and energy, but a lot of them work multiple jobs already so volunteering is straight out and I know they don’t have any extra money to donate. Is there something that a writer can do to fight Trumpism that nobody else can? Preferably something that doesn’t involve Facebook?

Dan, Crown Hill

Dear Dan,

I understand your friends' need to vent. What was once a diverting sideshow in the freak tent at Barneby's Human Marvels, otherwise known as the Republican primary, has become another credentialed nightmare embodying America's worst impulses: racism, greed, serial narcissism.

The next four years will feel like a punishment for many people. It will be a punishment, and because life isn't fair, it will be shouldered primarily by those who are too demoralized, too poor, too busy feeding their families to fight back.

What would I recommend your writer friends do to combat the era of Trump? First, I would tell them to read this exhaustive Atlantic piece on the psychology of Donald Trump. The Andrew Jackson comparison gave me comfort that our country has weathered this brand of egomaniacal leadership before. Then I would ask them to stop ranting for a bit and take some time to do what writers do best – observe and record. Talk to people. When Trump and our Republican Congress implement new policies, find out how those policies affect their coworkers, family, friends, people in bars and on the bus. Write about that – even write about it on Facebook (sorry, I know that's not what you wanted to hear).

We need those records because this administration won't last anywhere close to forever; midterm elections are two short years away. Having those stories – not rants, but fact-driven anecdotes – will be important in proving the harm this Congress and president-elect have caused in our communities, and the people most vulnerable to harm often need help getting their stories out there.

That's my advice. My other advice is for you to host parties. The weather is taking a continual shit on our heads while the tannest man in the nation takes over the whitest house on the planet, and to top it all off many species of spider are in hibernation so my friend pool, at least, has been cut in half. Take care of your human friends: even the busy ones need to eat and everyone needs company at a time like this.

Kisses,
Cienna

The Help Desk: Reading out of heartbreak

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

I just got dumped. I need some inspiration — what’s the greatest love story you’ve ever read? One friend gave me a book of Leonard Cohen poems and I almost killed myself.

Heath, Wallingford

Dear Heath,

I'm honored that you are turning to me for advice – and your timing is impeccable. Over Christmas I was sharply criticized for gifting my teenage sister a copy of the mortician's bible, Corpse Makeup for Beginners, because I thought her face could use some humanizing. This has caused many to question whether I am indeed an empathetic human being qualified to dole out free advice, or whether I am simply a lipsticked Chupacabra who enjoys fucking with strangers and attends family gatherings for the free taquitos.

I am eager to redeem myself.

First off: Why are you torturing yourself with love stories? Your heart and liver are allowed to wallow at a time like this; it is your brain's job to try and distract your other squishy human organs – all of which I can name because I am definitely human – from grieving too hard.

Here is what you need to read: Flannery O'Connor's Good Country People, followed by Voltaire's Candide. Good Country People illustrates how flawed our judgment can be when it comes to evaluating other people and their motivations, and Candide is a good antidote to all your friends who will tell you, post breakup, bullshit like "there's a perfect someone out there waiting for you" and "everything happens for a reason."

I'm sorry you were dumped. Whenever I have been dumped by my human boyfriends, or when my mailman asks to be reassigned because he finds my weekly orders of goat's blood and human magazines to be excessive, I remind myself that I wouldn't want to be around anyone who doesn't think I'm tops, and I move on. I encourage you to do the same.

Kisses,
Cienna

The Help Desk: Locker room talk and the arts

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

I’m writing because a loudmouth white man has too much power. (Not THAT loudmouth white man, though if you have any advice on surviving Donald Trump’s administration I’d love to hear it.) I’m talking about a guy who holds a very high position in a Seattle arts organization.

The problem is his locker room talk. He’s never to my knowledge made unwelcome advances on a woman, but he’s prone to making jokes around women that make them feel uncomfortable. This has happened more than once, and I hear he’s been reprimanded for it, but he’s still in a position of power that affects local writers, and we can’t really ask him if he’s stopped making sex jokes, so there’s no way to know if the coast is clear. Everything has happened behind the scenes, and there’s never been any public acknowledgement.

Like I said, there’s no groping and no smarmy come-ons, but the sexual nature of the jokes make it very difficult to deal with him. I don’t know if I want him to lose his job, but I do know of at least one artist who won’t work with that organization because of the way he made her feel in the past, and he’s made no attempt to reach out to her.

I guess I’m hoping for some fictional scenario in which he sees this question, realizes it’s him, and cuts it out forever. But barring that miraculous outcome, what do you think I (and my friends and fellow artists) should do?

Sorry if this question is too vague.

Cait, Capitol Hill

Dear Cait,

Your letter reminds me of an old friend – a human one – who often says things that are so inflammatory and sexual my shoulders cramp from cringing. When in the company of this friend and strangers, what I typically do is make excuses for him: most of his close friends are women, which I believe in his mind is proof that he is harmless, and like all of us, he is cultivating an image of himself – that of a loudmouth, boundary-pushing dude adrift in eye-contactless, passive aggressive Seattle. He's fond of locker room talk but unlike Trump, he's no pussy grabber.

In fact, that is why we became friends. He is a man with whom I could joke about naming my next abortion "Lezbo" in order to offend everyone equally.

But that doesn't excuse his behavior, just as it doesn't excuse the behavior of the man you speak of. It seems this man has failed to acknowledge that his ambition is paying off – instead of being just another 20-something arts employee that people could ignore at will, he now holds a position of power. His words and actions carry weight. Cocking off at work, or after work with coworkers, artists and interns, is no longer even marginally socially acceptable.

You say it's been all talk at this point and he's been reprimanded for his behavior; it has cost him influence and professional relationships. I would hope that he has learned from this. But if I'm wrong, you should encourage those he's offended to go public with their grievances. The best way to affect institutional and social change is to address problems openly. It's also the only fair way to give the person you've accused of wrongdoing a chance to respond.

And if he still seems oblivious, I will meet you at University Book Store, where together we can purchase a copy of Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas, wrap it in the book sleeve of Who Moved My Cheese, and beat him across the face with it.

Kisses,
Cienna

The Help Desk: Follow your heart, drench your liver

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

After a long string of rejections, I’m happy to report that a short story of mine has finally been accepted. Unfortunately, it was actually accepted at two literary magazines, neither of which allow for simultaneous submissions. I was having such shitty luck that I decided to ignore the rules and cast a wide net, and my decision came back and bit me immediately.

One of the publications is more prestigious than the other, but I’m more likely to build a relationship and be published again at the less-prestigious publication. I’m pretty much burning a bridge no matter what I do, here. Which publication should I turn down?

Jackie, Tulalip

Dear Jackie,

Congratulations, that is great news! Not to shit on your great news with some of my own, but an investigative piece I wrote about the physical effects of teetotaling called "Sleepy Liver Disease: America's Silent Scourge" was recently accepted for publication as well. I was inspired to write it after noticing sober people forgo fishbowl sangria – a basement specialty of mine – at parties. Not only is it unhealthy to keep your liver out of work for too long, studies show that sobriety can make nearby livers feel sleepy, too. And you know what they say: sleepy livers lead to uppity spleens and rational thought.

Here is how you solve your quandary: Head to PetCo, buy a lap-sized aquarium, and fill it with four boxes of red wine, a bottle of cointreau, and one daintily sliced apple. Insert a mouth straw into the mixture and drink as you ponder: is it more important for you to have bragging rights about being published in a prestigious journal or to build a relationship with a smaller journal who might nurture your talents, offer feedback on your work and publish you again in the future?

A fully employed liver is the moral compass of the heart. An aquarium or two from now, it will know what to do.

Kisses,
Cienna

PS. If your liver fails you, my liver says to go with the smaller one.

The Help Desk: a twofer! NaNoWriMo hangovers and teenage (heart) kicks

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

I hate it. I wrote it in November, all 50-fucking-thousand words (and change, I made good time, thanks to bowing out of Thanksgiving with my fuck-you-we-won-you-beta-liberal relatives). But seriously, this is the biggest pile of dreck that’s ever been pushed out of a mind-hole in a full-moon’s measure.

But the idea is good, and some of the characters are…not bad? And, there were a few times, just reading it again, where I actually made myself laugh. I guess my question is: what the hell do I do now? I feel like I went and bought all the materials to make a house, like in an old Sears Catalog, and they showed up all jumbled and without the instruction manual.

Jackie, Montlake

Congratulations Jackie,

You have completed an activity that, like childbirth, is completely voluntary and when executed improperly can lead to vaginal tearing. What do you do now? Put your manuscript in a drawer and forget about it. Buy yourself a steak (or whatever the bulgur wheat equivalent of steak is, if you're into that sort of thing), cook it medium rare and eat it with your bare hands in a hot bath while fist pumping. Pay no mind to all the blood — that is what the bath is for!

Three months from now, take your manuscript out of its drawer and give it another read. This time, highlight all of the sections that make you laugh, think, or generally make you proud of your brain. Take these pieces out and discard the rest. Now grab an old-timey pen and paper and head back to the bathtub (dry this time). Hunker down, crinkle up your knees, and start asking yourself questions: What is the setting — what does it look, smell and sound like? Are the rules different in this world? Who are your characters, what hierarchical place do they inhabit and what are their motivations? What task are one or more of them trying to accomplish and what is blocking them from reaching their goals? What is the conflict? Is it time sensitive? How will it be resolved? Are your characters reliable narrators or are they liars? Do you have enough to say to write a novel-length piece or is this more of a novella or strong short story? Who do you imagine your audience to be?

Once you have the answers to these questions, start drafting up a detailed chapter-by-chapter outline. This will provide you with a loose roadmap to follow while you work on your second draft. If you find that you like the writing process when it's not as needlessly stressful as sexually-charged gunplay (gun-charged sex play?), consider joining a writing group or sign up for a writing class. No one knows how to write a book until they write a book, but having people who are willing to read your work in progress and offer feedback certainly helps.

Kisses,
Cienna



BONUS QUESTION

Dear Cienna,

I am totally crushing on this girl and I saw her in class looking at this website and so I went and looked and saw your column and thought maybe she likes books and maybe if she saw my letter in your column she would know who it was from and then maybe she would talk to me and we could maybe go to a bookstore or something. Or like maybe you could just tell me a good love poem to write on paper and give to her.

Jack with the purple hair, the library

Dear Jack,

Maybe you could just try saying "hi" sometime? Ah, what the hell, here's a poem for you:

You seem to like books
And I seem to like you
If I plagiarize your favorite love poem
Perhaps you'll like me, too?

Kisses,
Cienna

The Help Desk: Perfection is overrated

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

This is not strictly a NaNoWriMo question, but maybe it will apply to some of the folks writing their novels this month: When I'm writing fiction, I can't let go of a sentence until it's perfect. I'm physically unable to move on and fix something in edits. It sometimes takes me a month to write a paragraph. And it's always a spectacular paragraph, if I do say so myself. But at this pace, I'm not going to finish my first novel until I'm 68, and I'd rather not do my first book tour as a retiree. Any tips on moving past the imperfect to get to the good?

Needs Perfection, Woodinville

Dear Needs Perfection,

I have the same problem when I'm penning therapeutic revenge limericks about my enemies – although in my defense, it is extremely difficult to capture the insult of a friend stealing Les Schwab tire coupons from your home in anapestic meter, especially when that friend's name is Verdiana. What the fuck rhymes with Verdiana? Nothing, that's what.

We are in a rut, you and I. A rut that in my case was caused by driving on bald tires (Verdiana, you cow). You can't let go of a paragraph until it's "perfect" and I can't let go of a limerick until it ends with someone being metaphorically beaten with a tire iron in perfect rhyme.

What we both need is a change of approach. I'm assuming you typically write on a computer – try writing with pen and paper instead. I've found that it's harder to fixate on words on a page because editing them is such a messy process. Writing on paper feels like more of a first draft; our brains have been conditioned through years of school to know that writing by hand is both spontaneous and incomplete.

Here's another trick that will put your obsessive perfectionist tendencies to better use: Work on creating a detailed outline of your entire book instead of creating perfect paragraphs. You must realize that much will be cut in the editing process, so why waste your time ensuring they're perfect now? Get the structure in place and then spend your time filling in the details.

As for me, likely I will have to give up on my limerick and resort to an old-fashioned form of revenge: stripping Verdiana's car of everything of value and donating the pieces to Jalopy Jungle. Perhaps after that, I can find it in my heart to send her an "I forgive you" limerick, instead:

You stole my coupons, you cow

An insult I cannot allow

In lieu of wishing you dead

I stripped your Ford Taurus instead

Great news: I forgive you now.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: As a writer, how do I get into another person's head?

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

I've done NaNoWriMo a few times and I have this one problem: My characters always turn out to be me, and it's boring the shit out of me. Last year, I tried to make the main character do some fun stuff: get into bar fights, go on a trip to the Middle East — I even tried to make him an undercover spy. But in the end, he snapped back to the same boring guy working at the same boring office. Why can't I engage my imagination? Am I cursed to always write what I know? Should I give up fiction forever?

Jeff, Magnuson Park

Dear Jeff,

You are in luck, as this is the perfect week to begin practicing escapism, much like my spiders do every time I try to contain their orgies to shoe boxes. Reading and writing are excellent ways to help people forget, however briefly, the practical (or carnivalesque) horrors of their daily lives.

You want to know how to write about someone other than yourself. I have two exercises for you:

1) Swap the gender of your main character – make her a woman, or LGBTQ, basically any type of person on the sexual or gender rainbow other than yourself. Instead of making your novel plot-driven, make it character driven. Explore how the world you've created perceives your character, how they navigate that world, how they interact with other characters you've created. (Tom Wolfe did this with the 2004 novel I Am Charlotte Simmons, which I personally thought was dull but other people went crazy for. I am confident you can do better than Tom Wolfe.)

2) Think of someone you personally know whom you actively dislike. Make them your main character, and, like the previous exercise, make your novel character driven as opposed to plot driven.

Both of these writing prompts are exercises in empathy. The best writing helps readers relate on some level to characters they don't understand or are even repulsed by. If you want your writing to resonate with an audience – or if you simply want to stop boring yourself – challenge yourself by writing about people and situations that make you uncomfortable.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: I'm writing a novel this month. Does anybody care?

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

I'm finally doing National Novel Writing Month this year. But I need your guidance on this one point: should I tell my friends I'm doing NaNoWriMo so they can offer moral support and shame me if I fail? Or should I not tell anyone I'm doing NaNoWriMo because I don't want to have to explain what my novel is about over and over again? The only thing worse than keeping a secret from my social circle is talking about fiction, which seems about as exciting as talking about my dreams, only possibly more embarrassing. Help me decide?

Dina, Bitter Lake

Dear Dina,

You are correct: Listening to any person talk in detail about the plot of their NaNoWriMo novel is on par, entertainment wise, with reading their dream journal. Or listening to them brag about their children. Or watching a snail take a shit.

But that doesn't mean you shouldn't tell your friends about your NaNoWriMo goals – you absolutely should. Here's how you build accountability for yourself while giving your friends a vested interest in your writing: promise that for every day this month that you fail to meet your word-count goal, you owe them one pitcher of beer. This will ensure they're checking in often to see how much beer you owe them.

Of course, it also means they will ask you about your novel because they are probably polite and undoubtedly adore you. If you're self-conscious talking about it, try crafting a one-sentence elevator pitch in advance that you can spit out and be done with.

Here are a few examples of my past (failed) NaNoWriMo efforts for inspiration:

  • It's a coming-of-age story about spiders – like Charlotte's Web but more overtly sexual.
  • It's about a man whose mother named him Fetus because she was a bitch.
  • It's about a death-row psychopath who writes morality fables for children.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: Rules for writing in books

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

How do you feel about writing in books? I mean, jotting notes in the margins and highlighting and all that crap. I read somewhere that doing that is supposed to make you smarter, but it just seems like defacing the book to me. And even if it kills the resale value (eh, who cares), why would I want my thoughts plastered all over, I dunno, Anna Karenina or whatever. That’s what diaries and journals are for. God, I’ve seen some pretty stupid shit written in books. Then again, I’m not really that smart myself, so maybe I’m missing out on something.

Bertrand, Greenlake

Dear Bertrand,

I never write in books for the same reason I have never kept a journal or a diary: I don't want to give the government yet another means of reading my thoughts.

But yes, I'm generally fine with other people writing in books – in fact, I enjoy reading anonymous people's opinions as they clash or agree with the text. In that way, books are like bathroom stalls and comments are consensual voyeurism (my favorite kind of voyeurism!). I kind of wish all of my books came with anonymous, thoughtful dialogue but as I read in a book somewhere, if wishes were horses we'd all be eating dog food for dinner.

There are rules to writing in books, of course. They can be summed up as follows: always write in pencil, ditch the highlighters and never obscure the text for the next reader.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: Will no one rid me of these troublesome novelists?

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

It's almost November, and soon the seats at Bedlam will be taken up with wannabe novelists instead of the usual wannabe screenwriters. I just really don't get this "NaNoWriMo" thing. No, more than that; I'm kind of offended by it.

Oh, you wrote a novel? In thirty days? Good for you, slim. Here's an idea: why don't you spend more than thirty days on it, then hire an editor, then send out some query letters, then get it published, and then maybe you've written a novel. If I was a derrickman on an oil rig, I'd be plenty pissed if someone half-assed their way through thirty days on the job and gave themselves that title. You're a novelist? The fuck you are, buddy!

It's keyboard masturbation. Sure, people can write whatever they want in thirty days, and that's great, but isn't calling the resulting spew a "novel" really presumptuous? Real, actual writers are toiling to make real, readable books, and they deserve your money, not your me-toos. Is there anything a person can do to discourage this dumb internet fad?

Steve, Belltown

Dear Steve,

First: Who doesn’t like masturbation? (Answer: Catholics and men with hooks for hands.) Second: Here are three current fads more dumb than NaNoWriMo: artisan salt, people in their 20s writing memoirs, clowns who linger.

While it’s kind of you to clutch your pearls on behalf of published authors, I doubt many NaNoWriMoers actually consider themselves to be novelists any more than I consider myself to be a Trump supporter after grabbing my own pussy. (I wanted to see how the other half lives.) Writing 50,000 shitty-but-coherent words in a month is pretty hard. As you noted, writing an actual readable novel in a month is nearly impossible. Only a fool wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

In general, marathon activities like NaNoWriMo (or running actual marathons) should be viewed as a trendy new take on self flagellation. These trends serve a greater purpose: they help mediocre people better appreciate the hard work that goes into producing something truly great.

But that doesn’t address your question, which was: Is there anything a person can do to discourage this dumb internet fad? Yes, Steve, there is. Any time someone brings up their NaNoWriMo novel in your presence, grab your pussy and start talking about the memoir you wrote in college.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: Steampunked

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

Can you explain steampunk to me? I have no idea what the hell is going on there.

Danielle, Capitol Hill

Dear Danielle,

Admittedly, I've never read a steampunk book. I do know the genre incorporates the more playful totems of the 19-century industrial revolution, such as goggles and gears and steam-powered gadgets, while ignoring the less romantic aspects of the era, like child slavery and cholera outbreaks.

I like speculative fiction – American Gods is fantastic and Neuromancer is an all-time favorite – but I have a hard time getting enthused about books that play off nostalgia for bygone eras, and here's why: the 19th century sucked for most people – especially immigrants, women and children. Did you know, Danielle, that U.S. women weren't legally allowed to have bank accounts or take out lines of credit on their own, without a male co-signer, until the 1960s? Did you know that it was "recommended" that children work no more than 12 hours a day during the Industrial Revolution? Those are the kinds of enraging facts I think about when somebody mentions how cool Victorian bustles and top hats and pocket watches are. (This is also why I'm terrible at chit chat and a turd to bring to parties.)

But, again, I've never read steampunk because of my own personal bitchy biases. Like you, I don't get the appeal. But I'm willing to learn. Steampunk lovers, please send me recommendations for your favorite books. I promise to read them and report back.

Kisses,

Cienna