Backgame, Revisited

The author and queer activist Claudie Arsenault wrote an important, interesting post on an unfortunate trend in representation of asexual characters in fantasy: linking them with death. Especially in the THE books that everyone recommends as asexual representation. It doesn’t take much of a stretch to see why, especially for aromantic readers, a link with death is a negative connotation: frankly, done wrong, it’s a bit dehumanizing.

In 2013, I wrote a story about an aromantic asexual Necromancer set in a fantasy city of the Middle East (a bit of Damascus, a bit of Jerusalem, a bit of Antioch) raising a fellow wartime magician — their best friend, a trans man — in a city under siege, specifically to grant him a second chance at life in a body without the interruption of dysphoria. In 2015, after several near-misses, I submitted it to the Myriad Lands anthology and it came out in 2016. I got a paper check (which I still have!) and my authors’ copy of both beautiful volumes, and I danced around, because I was ecstatic to have a prose story out in the world, especially an ownvoices story with both asexual and non-cis representation and 0 white characters (it was not diversity bingo, but getting that clearly across to the reader took some editorial work).

Other things were published in 2015 and 2016 too. They were, maybe, not so positive about death, or the power of friendship enduring beyond death, or friendship being a powerful enough bond to be the humanizing sustenance to keep two embattled people living, not just alive, in a terrible place and time.  And into that soup of representation went Backgame. While all reviews of Backgame itself have been positive about its representation and the story itself, it doesn’t exist in a contextless vacuum. In the greater picture of searching story after story for asexual aromantics and finding only death, death, and more death, that representation which, in 2013, was radical to me as an asexual-spectrum person, came to be a bitter pill for other people.

While it is posted at Claudie’s blog as part of the ongoing conversation as a reply, the formal apology I wrote to aromantic readers who are disappointed that Backgame contributes to a sense the world sees them as lifeless and dead is copied here for posterity. If you like friendship stories about dead people getting happy endings and second chances, you’ll probably like Backgame. But this is about people who need something else from their representation, who look at an aro-ace character named “the Necromancer” and go “ugh, really?” For you guys: I’m sorry.

As the author of the short story mentioned in this post (“Backgame” in Myriad Lands) I wanted to issue an apology to any aromantic readers who feel it contributes negatively to stereotypes of aromantics and asexuals in fantasy literature. When I wrote the story in 2013, I had no idea putting a theme of huge personal relevance to me in an own-voices story as an asexual, writing about the kind of friendships that sustain people and my own complex feelings about death, would end up contributing to a harmful pattern of associating aromantics and asexuals with death and lifelessness because of its release date. At the time I wrote it, there WAS no significant canon rep of which to speak, so I edited the story to make asexuality a more explicit theme.

I can’t speak to the aromantic experience, but I can imagine how harmful and disappointing it must be to pick up my story and find the aro-ace character is a necromancer and yet again this is a story about death. If my story left you feeling wounded instead of healed, please accept my deepest apologies. I will try to do better by you next time, aromantic readers, by continuing to write non-romantic humans with full, vibrant relationships and networks as part of my writing. I appreciate all of you who discuss how these themes and archetypes make you feel, and I’m listening & learning from part of the asexual experience I don’t have. Thank you for speaking out, and refusing to settle for less than excellent representation.

Special thanks to Claudie for discussing this trope and the other thought-provoking comments it sparked. I intend to reexamine some of my unpublished work set in the “Ethical Necromancy” universe as that had also been intended to be asexual representation — but maybe that’s not the right place for that particular marginalization, at this exact moment in publication. Maybe when we have more, better asexual and aromantic stories, a few necromancer buddy cop stories won’t hurt. I’m not aromantic (I used to believe I was, but I am not) and it’s more important not to do harm than to excuse my work as different or special because I used to ID that way. Asexual spectrum characters frequently appear in my work, and one is a point of view character in the first of (hopefully many) adventures in the universe of Azemur and Garnatah. I intend to keep writing  asexual and aromantic characters– and more importantly, to do better with the next one.

In unrelated news, our Patreon has risen over $90 and we are preparing some of our monthly updates and rewards now to be ready for February. Check it out if you haven’t! Patreon readers will be the first to get to see, well, pretty much everything. One-off tips via PayPal are much appreciated and, like Patreon support, are time spent writing instead of working.

Thanks for reading, and for all your support, and special thanks to those doing the hard work of holding me accountable each and every day.

Essay: Why “Diversity” Is Like A Mix Tape

On Twitter some time ago I wrote a tweet thread about “diverse” characters and writing people who are different from you. I wanted to expand it into a post because several people asked me to. And then life happened: Acute health issues. My spouse continues to have mobility problems. Orlando. A family tragedy. The draft of this post sat unfinished. But it’s time, now, to explain why writing stories about people different from you should be like making a mixtape for a crush.

Full disclosure on why I am writing about diversity, if you’ve never seen me before: I am a queer non-cis chronically ill disabled mixed-race Filipino-American (don’t let the name throw you). My adoptive grandfather was a Mexican, my grandmother was white-passing mixed race Cherokee by way of New Mexico and Oklahoma. I am formally converting to Judaism after discovering a heritage connection, and I have Muslim family by way of Pakistan and Egypt, so when it comes to Bad Representation, there’s a lot of fuckups. As a Filipino-American, there’s also a lot of, well, nothing. I have Strong Feelings about representation.

First of all, I have a few things to say about “diverse” writing. One is that it’s absolutely crucial. Western English-language writing has been dominated by cis, able, heterosexual white men for a long time. Adding cis, able, heterosexual white women did not diversify it very much. If you are any combination of those, that’s no shade — but publishing is VASTLY dominated by these voices at every level, especially when it comes to who makes decisions of what gets published. These experiences and voices are overwhelmingly “centered” in publishing, pushing everyone else to the edges of the field — commonly called “marginalizing” them or making them “minorities”, or, as I prefer, “decentering” them.

A word about why this language: marginal, marginalized, the margins, comes from the concept of a book. Every life is a page in a book. You, your life, is at the center. The things that directly impact your life are the circle around you. In circles, slowly moving outwards, are people you know, things you’ve seen, the global news, issues you care about but don’t directly impact you. If you’re a cis white heterosexual person, the Pulse shooting in Orlando isn’t center and forefront of your life experience the way it is for a gay or trans Puerto Rican living in Orlando. If you’re a white middle-class Brit, the life of an immigrant of color to Australia is going to be so far on the edge of the page as to be just a tiny blip, unless you’re very close to one personally. The farther from your life experience a thing is, the less centered it is to your reality, until you hit the edges, the margins of the page. The page is only so big and eventually, things don’t fit on the page at all — the average reader of my work has never been to Abkhazia, for example (and is probably going to google it right now). But flip the page. Another writer — a disabled bisexual immigrant multigender Muslimah living in a rural southern US town (example is drawn from my circle of friends. This is not a theoretical person. Identities are as my friend uses them.)– is now the center. The last page, suddenly, is on the edges. This lived experience puts the other two experiences on the edges of life knowledge, learned about through film and book– set up as normative, even, but never experienced.

The need to diversify publishing at every level is hugely important, and involves involving disabled, trans, LGB+, asexual and aromantic, and non-white people of every culture, class and religion at every level of publishing. The OwnVoices hashtag coined by YA speculative writer Corinne Duyvis, took preexisting conversations and gave it a convenient hashtag: the idea that people of “marginalized” or, as I prefer, “decentered” writers can, and should, write about their experiences, and that their own voices should be supported, promoted, and generally prioritized over that of people centered by publishing who are, ultimately, GUESSING what it is like to live with an oppression as part of daily life. This is not without conflict of its own– two people with identical labels will have different experiences and points of view, but that’s an inside discussion. OwnVoices is a way for writers to assert over their own work: “this story is about my world, my lived experiences,” without constricting that to pure autobiography.


To those white/able/cis/het/western & otherwise traditionally centered writers, I have two pieces of advice:

Do not try to write an Issues Story about an experience you don’t have. What do I mean? If you’re a white cis woman, don’t try to write the coming out of a black trans woman. If you aren’t a gay Latino, don’t try to write about the struggles of a gay man trying to be accepted by his immigrant Brazilian family. These pieces are often called “Identity Stories” because they focus so heavily on the struggles of the main character to reconcile their identity to the mainstream culture that alienates them, and there is really only one set of people qualified to write them: the people who live these experiences of identity. If your story totally falls apart without you explaining what it’s like to be an X, and you’re not an X, (a somewhat famous non-speculative example: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, about intersex identity and gender transitioning written by a self-identified cis man) this story is not your story to tell. You are guessing, based off things you’ve read, people you’ve known, twitter threads, sociology textbooks — if you did you research, which many authors don’t. It is possible to write an “Identity Story” that isn’t terrible (parts of Middlesex genuinely moved me as an intersex person who was wrongly assigned at birth), but “isn’t terrible” is a low bar and you should calmly, quietly, clear space for identity stories that reflect actual lived experience and do your best to root on people who have stories to tell of their own.

That said, you should, by all means, write people different from you in your stories. To do this, though, provokes incredible anxiety in many writers — often, the anxiety of doing harm. Good, you should be anxious about that if you are historically centered by publishing, your literary forebears have historically hurt us a lot with your portrayals of us as recently as yesterday (JK Rowling, ahem). Awfully, sometimes, the fear is of criticism and bad book sales if representation is wrong, rather than fear of harm. To that end, I have written a checklist to help you determine if you are ready to write a story about or featuring a marginalized person (hopefully persons, plural, we tend to travel in groups, belong to families, have friends, know people, it is weird to have The One Gay Friend or the Token Latinx in your story). If you are afraid of criticism, this post is not for you. If you are afraid of harm, keep reading.

  1. Are you friends, or have you been friends, with a person from your decentered character’s background or who shares in their marginalization in a significant way?
  2. Are you writing the book or story with the desire (whether possible/advisable or not) to give it to them or someone like them with pride to say, with excitement and a little anxiety, “hey, I wrote a character for you!” with the hope of a reaction of “wow! I never see people like me in stories!”?

If the answer of either of these questions is “no”, you need to go change your book or story idea or friends circle until the answer is “yes”.


I know this is a huge statement. Let me explain.

  1. If you are not actual friends (internet friends count if you actually talk to each other — one-sided following of someone you’ve never had a private convo with does not) or family with someone you want to represent on the page, you are not close enough to the subject to EVER research it enough to be true to life if you are trying to represent a modern culture (even in a historical time). Where would you even begin to understand what’s inherently offensive, what stereotypes are exhausted, what’s untouchable, what’s not for outsiders, ever?
  2. (More important, really.) If your primary imaginal audience is a person who is just like you, your representation will not center the people you are writing about — it will Other them. We will become objects of the Othering Gaze, as you explain how weird and different from your presumed audience of Normal White(/Cis/Straight/Able) People. You will not mean to do this. But it will seep into every part of your story and word choice and plot concepts and it will hurt your readers who ARE that demographic, because we will see ourselves through your eyes, and your eyes will be fixated on Difference, and we will feel alienated and objectified.

I do not write exclusively OwnVoices stories. I sometimes write characters who do not share my religion, or who are from a different part of the world than my family, or have a different disability or gender or sexuality. I often do this and give them a struggle of my own simultaneously, because writing straight up about myself is not a thing I enjoy doing (if I did, I’d write autobiography). But I write them with someone in mind: a specific reader who is from that demographic. The goal, my goal, is to theoretically give it to that reader and say “I wrote this character for you”. Not based off them or a copy of them! For them to read and see someone like them — with their sexuality, their gender, their skin color, their cultural heritage, their disability — as a good person who they can identify with or who somehow reflects their reality, who exists in MY imaginal world, a place they can see they exist in. When you are decentered constantly, you want to exist, somewhere, without something Fucking Awful happening to you like a plot-contrived reason your girlfriend has to die. In reality, you do not maybe want to give your lesbian romance to your Desi aunt who is a conservative Christian (maybe you want to give it to your bi friend dating a Desi girl you’ve met twice, instead), or don’t talk to that friend anymore for one reason or another — but the idea of your character causing them emotional distress should upset you enough to be determined to do the best you can.

Your feelings, when writing a story containing someone who is decentered or marginalized, should evoke the anxiety of making a mixtape for your crush. You want them to know how you REALLY feel about them — and that feeling should be “you are wonderful and I am happy you exist”. If you want to include decentered people for any other reason– just stop. If you want to do it for money or because it’s a trend or ANY reason other than love of SPECIFIC humans who you feel would be completely remiss if they were absent from your book because they’re in YOUR world, stop and write an autobiography. You should do things you think will make your specific, real, actual human reader happy; even if they NEVER READ THE STORY or you are telling a story they wouldn’t want to read anyway, you should treat your act of representation as compiling that mixtape you are going to give to your crush to show how much you like them and how well you know what they like to listen to.

If there isn’t a real actual human in your life past or present you would be anxious about reading your story and worry about causing feelings of hurt by what you wrote, you are not close enough to the subject to write it. Every act of representation should be an intentional gift to SOMEONE from that group — because if it isn’t, you will inevitably, by default, end up writing about your idea of what life is like for that group for readers Just Like You, with your prejudices, biases, and preconceived ideas about what that group is like. And you will be wrong, and we will be hurt, and sad, and wonder what the fuck. 

This “WTF” isn’t a theoretical response and isn’t limited to things like Nazi romances or anti-hero leads who belong to hate groups or books that misrepresent marginalized religions, or the trend for murdering black lesbians on TV (though all those things contribute). It happens pretty much constantly, because the decentered subjects of a story are not considered the audience.

I won’t name the story or venue, but an author who does not ID in public as disabled wrote a story about losing a limb and acquiring prosthesis. A disability story! I thought. Until I read it. The dream prosthesis functioned perfectly, replicated a lost limb perfectly, caused no pain, and was acquired in a way without trauma. As a person with severe pain issues, that sounded like a fantasy I could only hope for. Instead, this was framed by this able author as a horrible, monstrous, terrible loss and an alien pathogen on their character’s body. Prosthesis as dehumanizing. Amputation as monstrosity. My stomach sunk. How had the editors let this side? Couldn’t they see how offensive it is? I have friends with prosthesis (and use assistive devices). A prosthetic limb that works exactly indistinguishable from a real one and causes no pain is a dream come true for an amputee. But this was a horror story. The horror of amputation– a disability that in no way altered the life of the main character– that centered people afraid of becoming disabled as the primary audience. This is an Issue Story gone horribly wrong — an actual amputee would have quite different feelings about such a prosthetic, which, at the time of writing, still exists only in dreams, because prosthesis aren’t like Star Wars; they hurt, they’re uncomfortable, they take time to learn, they never duplicate having the limb back. The whole piece was about the horror of a perfectly functioning prosthesis which mimicks a limb in every way– not about the frustrations of bad prosthesis, not about the difficulty of life with imperfect technology, not the traumatic events of the loss: simply the premise that prosthesis is horrifying and alien even if it is perfect. I felt sick for days and couldn’t stop thinking about this story for all the wrong reasons. Why hadn’t anyone else seen how offensive it is? Why didn’t the editor stop them? But none of the editors publicly identify as disabled, either, and clearly did not think how amputees would feel reading such a story about their bodily trauma that turned it into a dehumanizing and alien experience that made them less human and alien in the text.

To take another example, a famous magazine published a horror piece about Haitian Voudou that replicated basically every old stereotype about Voudou from the 1800s, including brutal, cruel Haitians and violent dangerous “gods” who were framed as monsters. How could such a prestigious magazine have accepted such a piece? The author admitted they had never been to Haiti, did not know any Voudou practitioners and had never met a Haitian person. I can only presume none of the other editors had either — or they would have been ashamed to have any part in a story a Vodouisant or Haitian might read. Jesus Christ Vampire Blood Sucker is clearly offensive, or Murder Buddha, and if you aim to offend, well, that’s one thing — but it was clear no one had intended to publish a controversial piece. If anyone had been thinking of Haitian readers at all, that story wouldn’t have existed, period.


When a decentered reader picks up a story that promises representation, we hope for a couple of things. We hope to exist in a way recognizable to us. We hope not to be disappointed by stereotyping. We hope to be fully realized people and not Issue Characters. Many of us hope for happy endings, or at least, not to suffer inexplicably more than the centered characters of the text (don’t believe me this happens? Watch a horror film sometime and see how many black people make it out alive with all their family. Watch any 2016 TV show with lesbians and watch them die like fruit flies in a vinegar trap, often in cruel and sadistic ways.)

If you love the idea of your story but you don’t have a specific ideal reader in mind, someone who twists your stomach into knots at the idea of reading it and hurting, maybe put that story on the shelf. Maybe bring it closer to home and see if you can change aspects of your decentered characters to reflect the people you ACTUALLY know. And always, always, ask yourself: is this a story that someone else should write, because they live through the things in it every day, and I’m just watching from the sidelines and guessing?


Speculative fiction is about the possible and what we can dream of. Trans astronauts and black dragon-riders and disabled knights can be written respectfully and thoughtfully by cis and non-black and abled people. But if you really want to avoid harm, if that is truly your goal, write them in there out of love for fellow humans. Take extra steps to make sure you aren’t hurting people like asking for (and paying) sensitivity readers early in your process. Your stories are a gift to the world, and representation is a gift to the communities you represent. That should make your stomach flutter a bit in a nervous way. You would go out of your way to give your best friend a present that reflects their actual tastes and wants and desires. You wouldn’t buy them a present your annoying racist auntie would like. Don’t write about us like you’re writing for Aunt Gertrude to avoid a holiday fight. Write FOR us, the readers you are choosing to represent. Or write something else for people like you, leave us out of it, and clear some space for us tell our own stories. Honestly, we’d like to spend more time writing than we do telling other writers why they’re hurting us.


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Free poem: “Columbus”

(Trigger warning: violence, blood)

I do not usually give away my poetry for free, because my poetry has value and I think there is a value in poetry-publishing venues that pay. Today, because it is Indigenous People’s Day, because the United States has off for a day celebrating Christopher Columbus and it is also my birthday (and I am a hobbit, who gives presents on my birthday), I am making a small exception.

I wrote “Columbus” over a year ago. I wrote it in a state of blind, panicked angry. When you write about yourself and you are a marginalized person, sometimes people use details of your life or your family history for things you did not intend when you shared them. My family history is complex; a story of assimilation and imperialism and resistance, of refugees and forced migrations, of fake names and fake papers, and it does not lend itself to easy stories about What It Means To Be American, or what it means to be anything else. It offers no answers about anything, except to say that perhaps surviving a rigged game is hard, and you make hard compromises. But sometimes people looking for stories that satisfy their own inner narratives “discover” us, repurpose our lives, our families, our traditions, for their own needs. This has happened to me a few times, most painfully in spaces where I am the only brown person, being asked to educate white people. The healers in my family become magical witches; our syncretic religious traditions validate ideas about the “evolutions” of religion; my family’s hard choices with passing and assimilation become part of a dozen narratives I do not choose about what I “really” am and how racism “really works”. I am reinterpreted, over and over again, my ancestors and their cultures are reinterpreted, to support narratives about me, about us, that do not involve us. We are objects to be interpreted; we are not experts on our own lives and experiences, and our own words only matter if they can be quoted out of context for validity.

Among constant questions about whether “diversity” is necessary, if it is necessary for non-majority people to talk about themselves  or if we should be glad to be spoken for; do not think you can speak for me. I can, and will, speak for myself.

I am still awake when the thief holds a scalpel to my heart
and looks for the choice parts to cut out for her plate.
“Do not take my grandmother from me,” I say,
but she clamps my tongue down and will not hear me.
She pores over my secrets like a jeweler, looking for the biggest stone,
a war-trophy for her conquest of the country I have loved.
Will she take the dead who came before me, who lay in my ribs in uneven rows?
Will she take the words of my grandfather’s drunken mumbled humming?
She has already taken my father laboring in the kitchen under the secret weight of history
for the soup course and side dish of the next dinner party.

The pain is worse than I had imagined: she cuts out my whole heart, all my family
and slices it piecemeal, throwing the remnants back at me.
She only wants what looks good on paper; early deaths and women unhappily married.
She does not care about the details; she cannot even spell the city we came from
or the saints to whom we silently prayed.
She takes my tongue, too, to learn to speak the words only I should know.
“I only want to borrow it,” she says, butchering the language of those who love me.
She leaves me broken-ribbed and wordless, her blood-stained mouth singing my grandfather’s song.

The fragments of my family lie in ribbons around me, when I claw my chest closed.
My mouth will take years to patch together into a familiar shape.
The slivers left of my ancestral tongue can yet form words among the blood
and though I am swallowing myself to speak, I whisper every name that was not taken from me.
The dead, already rising up before me, will return to claim their fragmented bones
and I will call my heart back to me, piece by bloody piece.
I will not go quiet into the unmarked grave still incomplete.

On Small Writing

There is a lot of writing advice out there that is tantamount to “you are your own worst enemy when it comes to writing”. I presume this advice is useful for a lot of people; it certain is very common. Writers famous for their productivity assure us we are our own worst enemies, that the thing getting between us and word count is our ego, or our self-doubt, and the best way to keep going is to push ourselves, hard, to reach our limits and not accept excuses from the self.

I am sure that is good advice for some people. It is horrible advice for me.

Writing has a high opportunity cost for me, like it does for a lot of poor and disabled writers. Specifically, writing has an opportunity cost of about $8 an hour (sometimes more), which is what I could be making if I was doing work for my freelance job instead of writing. It has an opportunity cost of a different sort, too, one that can’t be calculated in dollar signs but is much more expensive for me; it costs energy I cannot spend doing something else. Like many disabled people, I have really limited energy. If I am writing, I am not cleaning the house, buying groceries, reading a book, spending time with my husband relaxing. I literally cannot fit in all the things I would like to do in a day. I am too tired. The more tired I am, the more money it costs to do things like staying fed, since I have to buy convenience food when I am too tired to do my own prep work. This is one of the difficult things about being disabled.

Here’s the thing though — I love to write. I’m willing to lose money on projects I might never get paid for, because I love to write. I am okay wearing myself out choosing writing. I have written since before I could spell. I have always written. I hope I will always write. Writing is a thing I do for pleasure. But sometimes. Sometimes, even though I love writing, writing is not easy.

When I am at an intersection of pain and despair, writing is hard.

When I am busy, and used up all my spoons buying groceries,  writing is hard.

When I haven’t really slept, and something emotionally demanding is going on, writing is hard.

When I really just want to do something with no pressure whatsoever, writing is hard.

Sometimes, despite my best attempts, despite the encroaching deadline for a magazine I really want to submit to, I sit at the keyboard and I stare and I swear just thinking about a story will make me sweat blood and all I want is some ease.

What I am saying is, despite what famous, successful authors who write for a living tell you, writing is actually quite hard. Like everything worth doing, writing is difficult. It is not impossibly hard, usually, but it is already not an easy task that is made progressively more difficult by any remotely challenging life circumstance, and if you’re a person for whom writing already has a high opportunity cost, the stress of writing compounds.

And yet, we write.

Sometimes, you hit a project or have a day (or a week, or a month) where writing is full of ease — the words come quickly, whenever you sit down. The words are always pressing up against you waiting to be written down. You are in love with your project and you have a whirlwind affair. And when you’ve had days like these, especially if you used them to finish a whole project, you tell yourself this is what writing is supposed to be like, the true state of the author, how real authors write. This is the glorified Inspired State, where writing is finally easy.

For me, such projects are increasingly rare. There are still occasional days where I write 2000 words in a single sitting but they have high costs associated with them — I don’t get a lot else done. I just can’t afford to have that many days like that. Most days I am struggling against pain, against tiredness, a lack of time, a need to conserve my energy for things that can’t be put off for my own basic survival. I can’t put off eating to write. I can’t put off going to the doctor to write. Even when I want to write, the needs of my body invade, take up my attention, my energy, my time. Only so many functional minutes in a day, and not all of them are mine to spend how I want.

Often, a few days pass where writing is not easy, and I don’t have time to write, and when I make time, words themselves are hard, and, well, I’d rather do something else. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I forgive myself, and I say, you know; not today. Today, I am going to make a nice dinner and play video games. Today I am going to just hang out with my spouse and talk instead of hastening to write more words. Today I don’t have the energy.

There are days, though, I really want to write. I need to write. But the wall between me and writing is a hundred miles long, and I need a boost over the wall into the Kingdom of Words. For these days, I set the smallest goal I know: I will write 100 words.

Specifically, I will write 100 words in 5 minutes, and if I do anything after that, it’s all gravy. I will write 100 words on any project I want, or no project at all; wherever those 100 words appear, they are golden. They are good. If I do not keep those 100 words for any project, that doesn’t matter. The point is to have written anything at all.

100 words takes me about a minute and a half. If I begin to write when the countdown begins, and don’t spend those 5 minutes staring at twitter or typing in gchat, I WILL write 100 words. More than likely, I will write 200, or 300. But that’s not really the point. The point is that 100 words is such a small goal, and 5 minutes is so much more time than I need to do it, I can’t fail at it. I will, in fact, probably exceed it.

There is a weird magic in setting a goal and exceeding it. It gives an immediate experience of ease. I can spit out 100 words, even if they are bullshit. I can write one paragraph. 5 minutes is not such a long time to focus — it is about the natural length of my attention span, even medicated, even in pain, even when despair chokes at me thick like summer fog at dawn. I often find I have boosted myself up over the wall in five minutes. I tally my words — sometimes they are three times the goal I set, which feels great. Sometimes it’s barely over 100, but it’s done. I ask myself: would I like to write for another five minutes? Could I add another 100 words in those five minutes?

Sometimes the answer is no. No, I don’t want to write, after all. I haven’t got anything to write about, I’m just not ready, internally, to do any narrating. I’m too tired to get all cylinders firing, to do this story any justice. And I put thoughts of writing to rest, knowing I wrote 100 words, and go play a video game and eat some chocolate and focus on recharging so that tomorrow I’ll be able to write again.

But often the answer is yes. Yes, for another five minutes, I’ll see what I can write. And the five after that. Often I am trying to get close to a thousand words, but if that’s your goal, you get bogged down fast, mired in how long you have to sit and pay attention and how unnatural that flow can be. But 100 words? I can write that. Sometimes, I can even write that ten times.

And on days where the answer is no? That’s okay too. Not all writing is word count. In fact, for my process, the majority of writing is not word count. It is thinking. I spend a lot more time thinking than I do sitting and putting words down. I tend to write quite lean drafts, without too much flailing around, because I tend to know the story I am telling by the time I get around to writing it. I find many people who front load the thinking portion of writing — whether that’s in the form of making outlines, or talking about their ideas, or just spending lots of time day-dreaming in between actual writing sessions — write fairly complete first drafts. We are writing, even when no words are being written. When we think, and rethink, a scene, without putting a word down, we are drafting. When we ax a plot idea and change our minds, that’s a redraft. When we chat about our characters, we are getting to know them well enough to write their unique voices. When we read and consider our relationships to other people’s writing, or puzzle through themes and subjects and how they impact us, we are doing the hard preparatory work that shows invisibly in theme and message.

What I am saying is: you are writing, right now. When you make dinner and think about what food your characters would eat, you are writing. When you zone out while commuting and imagine what your characters talk about off-screen, you are writing. When you stare at Tom Hiddleston on tumblr and memorize the movements of his mouth (whether or not you lovingly describe them later as the romantic lead smiles at his future boyfriend), you are writing. You should count all your thinking, because the thinking is what enables you to write anything at all. And 100 words is as important as 1000, as huge and important a milestone on a day where you almost didn’t write at all. 100 words is 10% of the way to 1000, by the way, no mean feat. You should be proud of the small acts, because they definitely count.

It’s easy to fall in love with the writer you SHOULD be. You SHOULD be the sort of person who gets up early every day to write for two hours. You SHOULD have the kind of attention span where you love to do that sort of thing. You SHOULD produce perfectly lush, ready-to-read drafts on the first go. You SHOULD like to write as much as you like having written. Nothing should disrupt the perfect flow of your priorities, and if you don’t put getting words on paper front and center of your day every day, if you don’t love writing enough to break up with your significant other so they don’t cut into your novel-writing schedule, maybe you don’t deserve success or to call yourself a writer or–

But all the “shoulds” of Real Writers is bullshit. You are a writer right now, because you have stories you are trying to tell. You will not be a real writer someday when you have met some magical production speed, or published a certain number of the “right” stories, or made a certain amount of money. You are a writer right now. And you should be proud of the little steps, as well as the big ones. Every journey is full of small steps. You don’t take any big steps without small ones first.

And still, sometimes you’re so desperate to prove to yourself that you’re a real writer that you have to write something, anything, just so long as your word count for the day isn’t zero.

For such days, put on a timer. Aim for 100 words on paper in five minutes. If that number sounds too big, try 10 words. A sentence. The smallest unit. Write. And if you don’t have anything to write after that, call it a day. You’ve got this. Tomorrow the wall will be a little easier to climb over. Tomorrow you’ll have done a bit more thinking. Maybe you’ll have two 5-minute sessions in you tomorrow. It really doesn’t matter how many you have. All that matters is, when staring down your own doubt, you know you can jump that hurdle, that the story lives in you, and someday, you will get the damn thing out.

(Special thanks to EP Beaumont, who encouraged this piece into existing, and who is often my writing buddy, five minutes at a time.)

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