Monthly Archives: September 2014

in which I smell like an adult woman

When I was in high school, I had an iconic woman in my life who worked with our high school drama department. I thought she was basically greatest person on earth1. She frightened me a little the first time I met her, as all people worth knowing do, and she was smart, practical, a little sassy, and always looked like a million bucks. Seriously, immaculate. And, as a result of her doing a lot of costume work for us that put me in close proximity to her as she pinned up dresses and tunics and once a weird giraffe costume, I knew for a fact that she also smelled great. Like seriously the best smelling person I’d ever met. I finally asked her what her secret was. How do you go through life with such an amazing aroma wafting off you?

Perfume, she told me. My idol wore perfume. This blew my mind in a way it should not have, and I thought to myself, Successful iconic women must wear perfume. In that moment, the two became inexplicably intertwined.

I should preface this by explaining that I was raised by a low-maintenance woman whose idea of getting dressed up was putting on mascara and matching socks, so normal woman things like wearing makeup and nail polish and pulling hairs out of your eyebrows never occurred to me as things people did. Perfume was not a word in my vocabulary until this day I realized maybe people did not naturally smell amazing, but actually had some help2.

“It’s Dolce and Gabbana Light Blue,” my idol told me, and I nodded like I knew perfume came in more than one kind before just that moment.

So the next time my mom took me to the department store to buy jeans3 I snuck over to the cosmetics section. It was a frightening place—all those makeup counters and giant faces printed on display stands and strange beauty devices that looked like medieval torture implements and women in black with very intense painted-on eyes. But I forged through this strange land, located that little blue box4 of Dolce and Gabbana perfume with every intention to buy it and smell as beautiful as my idol.

Except I didn’t realize until that moment that perfume was expensive. That one bottle was more money than I was spending on anything as a teenager. More money than I spent on my prom dress. Probably more money than I’d spent all year combined. I gingerly put the bottle back and resigned myself to giving up that dream of smelling like a beautiful, successful adult woman.

But then I put a squirt from the tester bottle on my wrist and sniffed. It smelled so good, and I just wanted it, in a way I had never wanted anything that wasn’t books or theater tickets. The smell that to me was growing up and being something, someone worth looking up to. Being someone I could admire and be proud of.

So right then and there, I made a vow. I would come back for this perfume when I had done something worth smelling that good.

I don’t remember how many times since then I have snuck into department stores to spritz myself with testers and then run away before anyone figured out I wasn’t going to buy it, or how many knock off bottles of this perfume I purchased at sketchy European markets, or when the vow I made morphed into “I will buy this perfume with the money from my first book advance.” But somewhere along the way, I promised myself that with the money from my first book sale, whenever that came or however much it was, I would buy myself a bottle of this grown up, successful woman perfume.

Friday night, Marx and I went to Macy’s.


There it is! The little blue box, and inside that box is a little blue bottle! And in spite of the fact that I look like I am going to eat it, I did not5! It is mine and I am wearing it now and even though it still seems like an exorbitant amount to pay for a bottle of perfume the size of my fist, it feels like a weird milestone. In book life, and adult life, and smelling-good life6. One step closer to being like the people I admire.

  1. She’s still pretty high on my list.
  2. I’m guessing this is about the point in the story where you are starting to wonder to yourself, “Where’s this going, Kenz?” Hang in there.
  3. I cannot emphasize how low maintenance we are.
  4. Most magical things come in blue boxes.
  5. Though if it tastes as good as it smells, I would.
  6. Yes, I am wearing it right now and yes, I do keep smelling myself. And I smell GREAT.
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in which I am anachronistic

As a writer of historical things, anachronisms terrify me.

I think they terrify anyone who creates stories in a historical context, especially since we now live in a time where anyone can google anything and call you on your mistakes really fast.

I recently watched a YouTube video compiling anachronistic phrases in Downton Abbey, and it freaked me out because none of the phrases they were pointing out sounded anachronistic to me. I didn’t realize I’m just saying was a phrase that people haven’t been using for forever. That was not even a phrase that was on my radar1 to be aware of. I wasn’t even aware that was really a phrase—I thought it was just a thing we said and had always said! Isn’t there a story about Paul Revere riding through Boston, crying “The British are coming! The British are coming…I’m just saying.” Or that famous line from the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…we’re just saying.” Those are things, right?

This is why anachronisms freak me out: because what if they are in my book and I don’t even realize it?

Correction: I know they are in my book, and I don’t even realize it.

Ah, the ultimate Downton Abbey anachronism, the water bottle mantlepiece ornament.

Ah, the ultimate Downton Abbey anachronism, the water bottle mantlepiece ornament.

My writing is primarily historical fantasy, so that second word gives me a little leeway on the anachronism front. There are things in my book that are completely and unapologetically anachronistic because hello steampunk. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t accidental anachronisms that I missed2. An example: fairly late in the revision process, I realized I made a passing reference to a city by a name that it was not referred to by until the 1900s. My book is set in 1818. So that didn’t work. I chastised myself for such stupidity and immediately corrected it, but honestly, how did I expect myself to know that3? When I was writing about said city, it never occurred to me that it once might have been called something other than what I know it as, so why on earth would I even feel the need to look it up?

So what do you do about these sneaky anachronisms that you don’t know are anachronisms, but some eagle-eyed reader inevitably will notice and point out in their Goodreads review?

And what do you do when something that is historically accurate seems wrong anyways? The phrase affectionately known today as the F bomb has been used in that crude manner since medieval times, but it would be strange and anachronistic to hear a character in the 1500s say “F**k off.” The utterly lovely writer Elizabeth Wein mentioned on her blog that someone got after her for using the phrase Blonde Bombshell in Code Name Verity, which maybe doesn’t seem accurate to WWII, but surprise—it was!

Or what about when being historically accurate compromises your writing? Because sometimes there are terms and phrases that are common to a period that would make no sense to modern readers, but it would be clunky and strange for a character to explain what it means. Imagine someone in the future is writing historical fiction set today says something like, “I pulled my iPhone, a small, square device with a screen used for sending textual communications, out of my pocket.” None of us think that way because we all know what an iPhone is and that would be weird. So do you use the anachronistic phrase for clarity’s sake, or go with a historical but inscrutable one?

And what about characters with modern attitudes? Sometimes it can be really hard to relate to historical characters simply because, as a result of living in a very different world than us, their worldviews just don’t seem to make sense. And what about dated cultural attitudes? Casual racism and homophobia that would have been the norm in a certain period and thus give a more accurate picture of a time period might totally turn a modern reader off from that character. Girls who wanted nothing more than to settle down and get married aren’t super fun to read about, but probably way more historically accurate than those who wanted to set sail with pirates and have adventures4.

So what do you do? Write modern characters in a historical setting, or hard to love ones that are true to their time?

I’m asking all these rhetorical questions because I honestly don’t have answers, by the way. Lest you start thinking I am clever and calm about this whole subject.

Anachronisms are one of the many tough things about writing historical fiction, and often they stress writers out to no end5. I get into fits of intense concern that saying a character’s buttons were brass instead of tin will keep someone from loving my book. But let’s be real—have you ever stopped liking a book you were loving simply because the character had the wrong sort of shoes or uttered an idiom not common until two years after the book is set?

If Downton Abbey is any indicator then the answer is no, because everyone is still watching it. I’m just saying.

  1. Speaking of being on my radar, I was recently going through a first draft of mine set in the Dutch Golden Age and found the phrase “Flying under the radar” somehow snuck in. Because they were doing a lot of flying, and definitely a lot of radar-ing in 1637.
  2. This entire post is a result of me reading a historical fiction book earlier today and in the middle of it, realizing that someone in my manuscript wears a style of hat that went out of fashion years before my book is set. Don’t worry, I’m just panicking.
  3. This sounds like I’m making excuses for myself….but really, how was I supposed to know that?! I slept through my AP European history class! …that is probably not something that is giving me a lot of credibility as a historical fiction writer.
  4. Why yes I have been reading a lot of the extraordinary and occasionally anachronistic Jacky Faber books, why do you ask?
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in which dead authors meet

My friends tolerate me.

That’s really the best way to explain it.

I’m sure they must find at least a few redeeming qualities in me because they’ve stuck around this long, but if you hang out with me long enough, you will start to realize that I am that person who will interrupt a totally lovely and normal conversation with an out-of-the-blue phrase like, “Guys, we should take mushing lessons1!” And then they all sort of pat me on the head and say, “Yes, Mackenzi, that’s a great idea,” and then go back to their totally lovely and normal conversation.

So when I sent out an email a few weeks ago telling everyone that another friend and I were having a joint birthday party and I wanted them all to show up to my apartment dressed as a dead author so we could have a literary salon, I expected them all to say, “Bless your heart,” then show up with the food but not costumes, and definitely not be on board for the whole literary salon thing.

So imagine my surprise when a parade of my lovely friends arrived at my house dressed as dead authors and were totally game to play along with my weirdness. I was very pleased by this. I was even more pleased when David Foster Wallace and JK Rowling2  discovered they went to the same elementary school3.

Lately I’ve been feeling like everyone is leaving me and I’ve been sort of glum about this. Most of my friends stem from my MFA program and since most of us have graduated, people have begun to disperse across the country to start their respective lives post Simmons. But having a night of hanging out with people who both tolerate my crazy and embrace it because they apparently sort of like me made me sad and happy all over again. I’m so glad to have had a group of people in my life who will show up to my house dressed like Jane Austen and Edward Gorey just to humor me, even if they inevitably abandon me for their respective lives. I will try not to hold that against them.

  1. This is a real thing. I am still on a campaign to get someone to take mushing lessons with me so I can fulfill a lifelong dream of being a musher in a dog sled race.
  2. Who is not dead, but we made an exception because my friend’s boyfriend looked so smashing in Marx’s wizard robes.
  3. Where they did a lot of flu powder
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The Road Thus Far: Turning in the Book

Hello, I’m back, and trying something new. I’ve been thinking a lot about how when I was a pre-book deal writer, I was always curious about what happens between the ‘being offered the book deal’ and the ‘seeing shiny new hardcover on bookstore shelf’. The whole process seems very secret, but really it’s not! Well some things are, but mostly I think what happens should be talked about rather than shrouded in mystery. So this is a start of a new series I’m calling The Road Thus Far, in which I will chronicle with as much honesty and transparency as I am able the process of getting a debut novel published by a large house. Feel free to ask questions in comments, and I will do my best to answer them!

So, first and foremost in today’s publishing-related news, I turned in my book1!

It has happened! After editing like mad since my book sold in June, the final manuscript is sitting in my editor’s inbox! And while the journey is far from over, the manuscript itself is now basically out of my hands2 and will soon be off to people who will make it more book-shaped and do things with it that I couldn’t do by myself, like inserting commas in the right places and spelling laboratory correctly3.

Don’t worry: I’ve already thought of at least five things I should have done differently. And it’s only been a few hours since I turned it in. 

This was essentially my last chance to change anything with the manuscript. Okay, sure, there will be copy editing changes because I’m a nightmare of a grammarian who did not realize until a few months ago that suit and soot are two different words, and as I’m reading over those, I will probably find some sentence I just can’t stand and beg them to let me rewrite it, but really the big stuff is now solid and fixed. And after tinkering with this book for basically a year and a half, this is terrifying.

Because what if I’m wrong? What if there were better choices for the characters, or more realistic turns for the plot? What if my world-building just makes no sense and I never realized it? What if my writing is interchangeable with that of a third grader? Or what if my writing is actually worse, because most third graders know the difference between soot and suit, don’t they? And I know you have to trust your editor, trust your agent, trust your critique partners who would have told you long ago if these things sucked. But those voices are so quiet compared to the ones in my head that tell me I have done everything wrong and will probably regret letting other people read this weird thing I wrote. It is so hard to trust myself, and almost harder now that I know people are going to be reading it at the end of all this.

Because really, books are never done, are they? We could all keep tinkering with our manuscripts for the rest of our lives4. So is this version I’ve ended up with really the one that I want to put out into the world?


Some celebratory coloring after I turned in the book.

For a long time, I told myself the lie that as soon as I got a book deal, I would feel like a Real Writer. Maybe even (gasp!) an author. All my anxiety would go away and I would feel confident in my skills and the choices I made for my book. Spoiler alert—that didn’t happen. In fact, sometimes I feel like more of a fraud now because I have tricked everyone into thinking I’m good enough to be published when I’m really not. As a writer, I don’t feel any different than I did the night before I got my book deal, or the week, or even the month. I don’t feel competent or qualified. Writing is still hard, and still makes me anxious, except now I think about other people reading this thing that is hard and anxious for me. And then I want to throw up.

But something sort of remarkable also happened during this process of sweating out my final draft. Somewhere, in the delirious Diet Coke-fueled haze that comes with doing final edits on your debut novel, I started to feel okay about what I’ve written, and started to remember why I’d written it in the first place. I started to love my characters again, and thinking things like, “If people don’t like these choices I made, who cares? I like them!” There were a few places I actually felt good about what I had written. And even one moment when I thought, “Hot damn, some genius wrote this!” Though admittedly, when I thought that, I was reading the Frankenstein quotations that appear in the manuscript rather than something I had actually written. But still.

And then these stupid little things keep happening that send me into fits of delirious joy, things like my editor sending me the flap copy that will go on the inside of the book jacket, and asking me to write my bio, and giving me the name of the person who will be designing my book. These little things that didn’t happen when writing was just me, my computer, and my anxiety. And as frightened as I am to release this monstrous thing I have created into the world, it is infinitely more exciting, and I am trying not to run from it and instead let myself enjoy it.

Have questions about my road to publication thus far, or what happens to a debut novel after it sells? Leave them in the comments! Just please don’t ask a question that requires me to answer with the words suit, soot, or laboratory.

  1. I feel like I need to admit that I am actually writing this days before I turn in said book, though by the time it hits the blog, it will have actually happened. But I do sort of feel like I’m taunting myself by writing those words without actually having accomplished them yet.
  2. Unless something went horribly wrong and my editor hates all the changes I made.
  3. Which, in spite of the fact that I’ve been writing a Frankenstein book for a year and a half, I still can’t do.
  4. And some of us do. I’m looking at you, Tolkien.
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