I'm a published novelist and freelance writer, editor, and audio tech. Check out my journal for creative writing tips, short stories, and news. To learn more about my books or my services, navigate using the links above. 

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The Ballad of the Pleather Jacket

Last week, Seth and I made a killing at Goodwill, dragging home a big bag of cheap fashion finds. On the way home, we talked about how we used to feel like we weren’t “cool enough” to wear the clothes we really liked. We talked about the different ways we came to embrace the idea that we were “cool enough” to finally wear the fashion we loved, because “cool” wasn’t a matter of what others thought of us at all--it was a choice we each made, to wear fashion confidently until that confidence seeped out of the clothes and into us.


In that spirit, as I was getting ready to go see Seth perform with Maryjo Mattea that night, I took out a white pleather jacket I’d bought five years ago, but only worn out once before. I’d liked the jacket too much to give it away, but I’d been too afraid of how bold it was to wear it often. Many, many times I’d tried it on over an outfit only to reject it for something more conservative. But that night, I loved how it contrasted with the flowy blouse I wore, and it didn’t seem too over-the-top after all.

Then I started noticing the flakes. At first, I thought just a small patch on the shoulder was peeling, and I’d be able to fix it up. Then I went to the bathroom and noticed that the entire back of the jacket was peeling, too. My plans to salvage it went down the tubes, and I realized that the second time I’d worn this jacket in five years was going to be the last.



That made me really sad. I realized that even though I’d come a long way in terms of confidence and self-expression, I’d still been so afraid to wear a really cool jacket that I actually liked a lot, that it had literally rotted away in my closet without ever seeing the light of day.

We let that happen to creative ideas, too. I’ve had many students who’ve told me about the ideas they’ve been sitting on for years, afraid they aren’t good enough writers to tackle them yet. I’ve also been approached by many friends with story suggestions, when I can tell that the reason they’re suggesting these stories to me is because they’re afraid to write them themselves. I also help a lot of students deal with a crippling self-consciousness that holds them back from writing with the kind of abandon they dream about, resulting in stories that feel stunted and unsatisfactory to them. And then there are the people who quite simply don’t think they’re “cool enough” to pursue art at all. We all have a lot of cool pleather jackets moldering away in our creative closets.

Sometimes I’m afraid I sound manic when I share all the ideas I have swirling around in my head--events I want to organize, stories I’m writing, collaborations I’m pursuing. But I’m learning not to be afraid of sharing my ideas anymore, because I don’t want to let any more pleather jackets turn to dust before I get a chance to wear them out. It sounds like a superficial problem, but losing that jacket hit me hard, because of all that it represented to me.

This applies to participating in a creative community, too. It can be hard to approach other people with our work, because it opens us up to criticism and humiliation. The criticism is hard enough to deal with, but at the heart of the humiliation is the fear that people will look at our work, or listen to our ideas, and think, “Oh, you really thought this was good enough to put out there? That’s pretty foolish.” So we let our ideas rot in the closet, because of this contradictory fear that we are not cool enough for the jacket, and the jacket itself isn’t cool enough to wear out of the house. It’s a really efficient way to never make anything.

But if you’re a maker, you have to find the courage to fully commit to it. I’m not talking about quitting your job or getting into debt to pursue your dreams. I mean it in the emotional sense--you have to be willing to take those ideas out of your closet and wear them around, because they won’t get better by sitting in there forever.

Every Wednesday, I share action-oriented tips for building arts communities. View all the community-building posts here.


Letter to Students: Giving In and Giving Up

Every week of Writing Games class, I send an email to my current students with a few extra thoughts on writing and the themes or techniques we explored that week, plus take-home exercises and more. The Letters to Students blog series collects highlights from some of these emails. To sign up for a Writing Games class, visit my Events page.

image via freevintageimages.com

So, this week we just had an intro to Writing Games and the ideas and techniques we'll explore together. We focused a lot on the idea of quieting the voice in your head that says, "Don't write that, that's stupid." We also talked about lowering the stakes, so that when you write you aren't freighted down with self-imposed expectations. Trying too hard to prove that internal voice wrong is really just another way of giving in to it--that's how we sometimes get that feeling of "charlatanism." If anyone in class has practiced meditation, they may be familiar with the idea of not being for or against a feeling, but simply dwelling with it. That's sort of what happens when we stop trying to prove the "stupid voice" wrong, and simply ignore it instead (like an annoying yappy dog), focusing all our attention on writing what makes our hearts sing, and not what sounds good or smart or unique or edgy. If you do that long enough, that voice of inhibition will shrink to a tiny whisper.

Whether you're an aspiring career writer or just having fun, I highly recommend this article by Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, on his writing life:  

Artists frequently hide the steps that lead to their masterpieces. They want their work and their career to be shrouded in the mystery that it all came out at once. It’s called hiding the brushstrokes, and those who do it are doing a disservice to people who admire their work and seek to emulate them. If you don’t get to see the notes, the rewrites, and the steps, it’s easy to look at a finished product and be under the illusion that it just came pouring out of someone’s head like that. People who are young, or still struggling, can get easily discouraged, because they can’t do it like they thought it was done. An artwork is a finished product, and it should be, but I always swore to myself that I would not hide my brushstrokes.

...The most defeatist thing I hear is, "I’m going to give it a couple of years." You can’t set a clock for yourself. If you do, you are not a writer. You should want it so badly that you don’t have a choice.

Even if you're not looking to start a career in writing, I like what he points out about "hiding the brushstrokes." I think there's a general impression of writers, that true geniuses nail it on the first draft. Nobody nails it on the first draft. Let's just remove that expectation right up front.

For those who are interested in a career in writing, I think the second paragraph I quoted is very powerful. While I don't agree with him later on in the article when he says you shouldn't get too good at your day job, I do agree that if you set a deadline for writing success (however you define it), you are already resigning yourself to failure. You're basically paying out the time until your deadline, which, face it, is much less frightening than going for what you really want and dream about.

To view all the Letters to Students,click here. 


The EASIEST Ways to Leave Amazon Reviews

If you're friends with any writers, or follow any of your favorite authors on social media, you've probably heard about how important Amazon reviews are to us. And it's not just writers--musicians, filmmakers, and anyone who distributes their work on Amazon depends on reviews for visibility.

Not only do reviews make our works look more appealing to potential audience members, they also enhance our search ranking and visibility on Amazon, making it easier for new people to discover us! Reviews don't have to be long or detailed in order to help--just a star rating and a quick sentence about how much you liked the work is a huge help. For a lot of us, your support directly enables us to continue creating the content you love.

But let's be real: sometimes, leaving a review can be a pain in the butt. It doesn't sound like much, but how many of us ever think to do that when we're just hopping on Amazon quickly to buy something else?

I totally get it. So I thought I'd make things easier for creators and potential reviewers alike by sharing a few shortcuts that allow you to leave reviews quickly and efficiently--and have fun in the process!

1) Jump to your recent purchses by using your Shopping History right on the navigation bar.

If you hover your mouse over "Shopping History," which appears in your navigation bar, you'll see a list of all the products you've viewed recently. Use this if you just purchased a book within the last day or two; with one click, you can be right back on that book's page, leaving a review! No need to hunt down the book page via a search.


2) Batch review your recent purchases.

Click "My Account" and scroll to the"Personalization" section at the bottom; then click "Your Reviews."

You'll be presented with a list of all your recent purchases. You can click the stars to leave a rating, and you'll be presented with a text box if you want to leave a review as well...all on one page! In five minutes, without ever having to search for a product or navigate away from that single page, you can batch review all your recent purchases.


Sometimes, it'll even prompt you with helpful questions about the book--all you have to do is click your answer!

3) Creators, give as well as you get!

This one is specifically for creators. Sometimes, we can get so obsessed with asking readers to review our work, that we forget to review our friends' work. We've all been there; self-promo is an exhausting grind and it's easy to lose track of whether you gave a few stars to your pal's recent release when you're busy promoting your own. But, by growing a community, we can lift each other up, and help everyone reach more readers. Here's a simple trick that I'm trying out, to help me remember to pay it forward: every time I post a request for reviews, I'll head to Amazon and batch-review any books that I've read recently as well.

I hope these tips help you and your readers--please share, so we can all enjoy easier and more convenient feedback! (And don't forget to review Queens of All the Earth and Bulfinch while you're at it!) Happy reviewing!

Every Wednesday, I share action-oriented tips for building arts communities. View all the community-building posts here.



Letter to Students: Suspense (Part 2)

Every week of Writing Games class, I send an email to my current students with a few extra thoughts on writing and the themes or techniques we explored that week, plus take-home exercises and more. The Letters to Students blog series collects highlights from some of these emails. To sign up for a Writing Games class, visit my Events page.

image via freevintageillustrations.com

Suspense doesn't have to be cartoonish, nor is it solely the realm of thrillers, horror, and mystery. Virtually every well-told story involves some degree or type of suspense--it is the essence of what makes any book "unputdownable." And, as I said in class, I also think that making an effort to build suspense is one way that writers can show respect for their readers. It is something we are creating forthem--because we pull the strings, we will never feel suspense in building our own stories the way readers do when they consume them. It also shows that the writer cares about whether the reader is interested or not, an acknowledgement that the vast majority of us read to be entertained, even when we're also reading to be enriched and enlightened.

Even though I said that suspense is present in all literature, I keep coming back to horror because I've always loved a good ghost story, and thinking about why is what led me to create some of the games for this class.

But I didn't just want to understand why on a technical level, by thinking about the kinds of tools writers can use to build suspense. I wanted to understand why suspense is so appealing to us on a human level. I'm still chewing on that one, but I've come to think that it's partly because suspense, in addition to putting us directly into the world of a story in an interactive way, also gives us something to believe in. Because suspense isn't only the product of surprise--because it also depends heavily on inevitability and convention--it allows us to believe that events make sense, that the wonderful or strange is possible (but in a way that's structured and not too frightening), and that the events of a life can fit a neat story arc--that it's all going somewhere. Like Mulder, we all want to believe.

I often urge students to learn the rules before they break the rules. There are a couple of reasons. First of all, learning how to work within the rules--such as the rules of suspense and world-building that we practice in class--can demonstrate that writing "conventionally" doesn't have to be conventional at all--there's lots and lots of room for invention.

Secondly, when I teach "the rules" I try not only to talk about the conventions of writing, but the human reasons behind them. If you can understand why readers crave suspense, it can help you decide whether you really want to deny it to them, or if that would go against the emotional affect you're trying to achieve. It also encourages a respect for your readers: instead of viewing writing conventions as a shortcut for lazy writers and readers, it opens you up to greater empathy with your readers and why they crave the things they do.

Those things lead to the third reason to learn the rules before you break the rules: if you know the rules, you can break them in a more deliberate and masterful way, in ways focused on your emotional or artistic objective. Some of the most conventional and hackneyed writing is a result of trying to "break" the rules (or exploit them) without fully understanding how to use them in the first place, or why we use them.

For my part, I think I'll continue to explore suspense--even in its conventional forms--in my own writing. There have been few things more enticing to me than a good ghost story, and I won't stop tinkering until I figure out why.

To view all the Letters to Students, click here. 


Building an Arts Community Using 3-for-1


image via www.freevintageillustrations.com


It's all over our social media feeds: please like, please share, please rate and review, please sign up, please come, please make my artistic dreams come true.

I love it, but I can also get discouraged when I see so much asking. I want my friends and acquaintances and the wide circle of artists I know to succeed, but sometimes I wonder, "Who's listening? Are we reaching the elusive New Audience Member, or are we all just talking at each other?" Especially when I see an artist I love with a Facebook post that only has one or two likes, or a great book on Amazon with a single-digit number of reviews.

Like my friends, and thousands of aspiring artists online, I've spent plenty of time wondering how to make my own "ask" more appealing. But lately, I've been trying something different; instead of focusing on what I'm asking for, I'm challenging myself to answer others' calls more often.

It's a very simple system: every time I ask something of my audience, I take that moment, while it's fresh on my mind, to check in on some of my favorite emerging artists, and answer their latest call. Whenever I urge my readers to leave an Amazon review for one of my books, I'll take a moment to rate & review the latest things I've read. Whenever I post something to my Facebook page, I'll hop on my friends' pages and like or share their latest posts about their creations. Every time I seek new followers/subscribers, I'll make sure I'm following the latest artists I've discovered, so their numbers swell too. I try to do three-for-one: at least three "answers" for every "ask" I make. I'm not trying to create a sense of pressure or obligation; I'm just trying to practice what I preach about supporting each other.

I know I'm not alone; here in DC, I've enjoyed the vibrant community of writers, small businesses, musicians, and visual artists who all support each other. But it can be overwhelming to try and support our friends. In the midst of all the content they share, it's hard to know where to start--and, lacking a starting point, all too often we can find ourselves getting distracted before we actually follow through on our resolutions to help out other artists. It's hard to keep up with a busy feed and manage our own pages, too. The three-for-one system makes it part of my existing routine; whenever I make time to post something online, I add in five minutes to do a quick sweep through the artists I follow, and find something to like or read or rate or share.

Three-for-one is just one way that artists can support each other and expand everybody's audience. In the coming weeks, I'll be sharing more tips and ideas on community-building in the arts every Wednesday. Next up: the thorny issue of how to encourage Amazon reviews. Stay tuned, and read all the blog posts on building artistic communities here.


Letter to Students: Transitions

Every week of Writing Games class, I send an email to my current students with a few extra thoughts on writing and the themes or techniques we explored that week, plus take-home exercises and more. The Letters to Students blog series collects highlights from some of these emails. To sign up for a Writing Games class, visit my Events page.

A photo posted by @hannahsternberg88 on Jun 25, 2015 at 4:26pm PDT

I think transitions vex writers so much because they can sometimes be the enemy of good pacing. Transitions aren't just difficult to write because of the difficulties we face in inventing incidents to describe in them; they're also just plain annoying because they slow us down when we really want to get to the next good bit. The answer, I found, is that many times you can really dispense with the transition completely. I encouraged everyone to imagine their story as a movie. In a movie or TV show, every scene doesn't end with a slow fade out; sometimes they end with an abrupt cut. It's okay to use a "hard cut" in your writing, too. Especially if you're really stumped by a transition in one particular part of a story, see what happens if you just put those three magical asterisks in a line (indicating a scene break), and then move on. Have you lost anything?

Not that there's no place for the fade-out in literature. But sometimes when we attempt to write a "fade out" for every scene -- a detailed description of what our characters are doing that leads us right into the next scene or brings us to a real-life stopping point, like bedtime -- we're not contributing a lot to the story, we're just padding it because we're not quite sure where or how to cut things off. Go ahead and use fade outs or "cross dissolves" when the additional information you include in this longer transition contributes something to your story. If you think you could take it out without any great loss...please absolve yourself of the duty of writing a long, difficult, torturous transition and just cut to the next scene.

To view all the Letters to Students, click here. 


Join me (and one of my heroes) at the Literary Hill BookFest!

Who are the authors who changed your life?

For me, one of many answers is Louis Bayard. About ten years ago, my mom convinced me to read his category-defying literary horror mystery tribute, Mr. Timothy, a re-imagination of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol in which Tiny Tim grows up to rebel against Uncle Scrooge's cloying charity, moves into a brothel, and solves murders. Every Christmas after that, my mom bought me the latest Louis Bayard release, if one was available, and we read it together, often finishing it in a matter of days so the other could gobble it up and we could talk it over.

Bayard is what I'd call a "discouragingly good" writer--someone whose mastery of language and story and emotion leaves me in awe as a reader, but slightly scared as a writer, fearful that I'll never rise to his level of talent or skill. As I've grown as a writer, I've realized that I don't have to be intimidated by his craft--instead, I can trust my own ability to learn as much as possible from the great example he sets of world creation, narrative creativity, and emotional intensity. I have a long, long, long way to go to catch up to my hero, but I'm no longer afraid of the journey or tentative about my steps on it.

Which is why the latest news I've received has made me so excited my hands are shaking. I've been invited to participate in the 2016 Literary Hill BookFest. Also in attendance, as a featured author? My hero, Louis Bayard. I am actually appearing, as an author, at an event headlined by one of my heroes. It's been hard to get this email out because words failed me when I saw the list of authors in attendance.

I'm not sharing this news, in this way, because it's a brag about having "made it." I have a long, long, long way to go before I'm Bayard material. And I'm just holding down a table and making chitchat with passerby while Bayard (I assume, given his status) will likely be a featured speaker or similar keystone of the event. But...just to be included in an event that features him is...I can't articulate it. I guess I really do have a few more things to learn about wordsmithing.

The Literary Hill BookFest is all day on May 1 in the North Hall of Eastern Market in Washington, DC. Stop by to pick up my books on sale, come early for some special freebies I'm lining up, and stick around to meet Louis Bayard. Learn more about the Literary Hill BookFest here.


Letter to Students: Suspense (Part 1)

Every week of Writing Games class, I send an email to my current students with a few extra thoughts on writing and the themes or techniques we explored that week, plus take-home exercises and more. The Letters to Students blog series collects highlights from some of these emails. To sign up for a Writing Games class, visit my Events page.



A photo posted by @hannahsternberg88 on Oct 5, 2015 at 1:18pm PDT


A thought on suspense: while suspense is present in virtually all genres of fiction, it's most commonly associated with thrillers, horror, and mystery. In these stories, suspense is so palpable it's virtually another character in the tale. A while back, I reflected on why these suspenseful stories appeal to us so much. (My most favorite holiday in the whole year is Halloween -- case in point, I just bought some Halloween decorations this week -- and I often wonder what's at the root of my obsession with ghosts, witches, and generally creepy stuff.) Some people say it's because our modern lives are bereft of excitement, so we seek a vicarious thrill, but I don't think that's it. I know active military members who read thriller novels while on deployment. I don't think they're hankering for a sense of danger that's missing from their lives. But what those books do give them is a sense of order. As I discussed in class, most suspense also depends on consistent rules and world-building in order to help the reader suspend their disbelief and sink into a sense of anticipation and wonder, even in the absence of direct foreshadowing. (In other words, if the rules of your world are consistent, you don't need to drop obvious hints about what's going to happen in order to develop a sense of dread and inevitability in the reader.) Even in the violent and supernatural worlds of horror fantasy novels where the good guys sometimes lose, order rules. Actions have direct consequences, monsters have consistent weaknesses, and everyone has a theory on what will happen next.

We like these books because we want to believe in something.

We want to believe in something fantastic.

We want to believe in something that follows rules, because our own world really doesn't.

Suspense fans have a direct line to one of the defining features of being human, and it isn't the craving for excitement.

To view all the Letters to Students, click here. 


Letter to Students: Restraint

Every week of Writing Games class, I send an email to my current students with a few extra thoughts on writing and the themes or techniques we explored that week, plus take-home exercises and more. The Letters to Students blog series collects highlights from some of these emails. To sign up for a Writing Games class, visit my Events page.

Last week, we discussed restraint. I defined restraint as the ability of a writer to create the desired image, feeling, or impression in a reader's mind without directly describing it. I think this is an important part of literature; it invites the reader to become a part of the storytelling experience. Mystery novels are so fun because you can try to guess whodunnit as you read along, using the author's clues; but this principle is at work in far more fiction than we realize. When you guess a character's feelings without being told what they are, when you connect the dots between two scenes and understand how scary/pathetic/romantic/sad/joyous they are in combination, you are benefiting from the author's restraint.

Don't mistake this for restraining your imagination, however. Restraint doesn't mean holding back on what you want to convey; it means holding back on how you convey it, so the reader can be part of the process, instead of being spoon-fed everything you want them to imagine, think, or feel.

We played with two methods of restraint. One was choosing an unusual angle from which to describe something. The game we played used the example of senses; writers often default to describing what a scene looks like, but the other senses can be very evocative, so we practiced describing a set of scenes using only one sense at a time: scent, sound, touch, or taste. When you describe something from a less-obvious perspective, you give the reader the opportunity to fill in the details you leave out, while still experiencing a fresh take on a familiar setting.

I also compared this method to using a referent to describe another referent. My example was "Going to the beach feels like Halloween," something I said to my boyfriend last week. Given context (he knows me and how much I love Halloween), he knew exactly what feeling I was trying to convey, without me having to put it flatly. That process also invited him to consider how it felt, rather than passively receive a description of the feeling.

The second method of restraint we explored was strategic omission. This is more like the mystery novel example: giving readers enough clues to start guessing what it is you're leaving out, without directly saying it. To play with this idea, we each came up with a writing prompt, and then our neighbors challenged us by giving us an important detail/twist/surprise that the original writer had to indicate indirectly in their story, without directly describing it.

These are all concepts we can explore not only in our writing, but in our lives. As you talk about your day with friends, or allow your mind to wander during walks or your commute, list out alternative forms of description for common sights, or see if you can build suspense and participation in a story you're telling to friends by strategically omitting an important detail until the end. Are you at risk of turning into that weirdo who can never just say "The sky is blue," but is always saying stuff like "The sky is like the top bunk at Grandma's"? Yeah. But I never made any promises that this class would make you more normal.

To view all the Letters to Students, click here.

Image courtesy of www.freevintageillustrations.com


Letter to Students: Relationships and Art

Every week of Writing Games class, I send an email to my current students with a few extra thoughts on writing and the themes or techniques we explored that week, plus take-home exercises and more. The Letters to Students blog series collects highlights from some of these emails. To sign up for a Writing Games class, visit my Events page.


Granddaughter sandwich

A photo posted by @hannahsternberg88 on Sep 8, 2015 at 5:27pm PDT


This week, we talked about how the three types of relationship most often featured in writing (friendship, parent/child, and romantic) can be used to add dimension and conflict to what we write. But we explored these themes by getting very personal, and examining our own relationships. This was no accident. Relationships shape not just what we write, but how we write -- who we are as writers. Literary history is full of famous authors with infamously abrasive personalities and explosive personal lives. I think this often leads people to believe that in order to be a great writer, you have to be larger than life -- specifically, larger than life in a way that may alienate or offend other people, to be a burner of bridges.

Everybody's different and everyone will find their path to writing in a way that works for them, but my personal approach is to be a builder of bridges. Art, like relationships, is a way of connecting with other people. If you want to be a better writer, maybe start by being more conscious of your connections with people. Don't take them for granted; start noticing and appreciating all the little details. Empathize, and experience relationships, don't just blow through them in a quest for bigger, louder, splashier things to write about. The way I see it, at the very best this technique will make you a more nuanced writer. At the very least, it will make you a better person and the world a slightly nicer place to live in. It's a win/win.

To view all the Letters to Students, click here.