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

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.



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?