Notes on how to write a best-selling YA Fantasy

I’ve been researching YA. Here are basic 27 YA writing tips. I won’t mention the obvious stuff, like “write believable characters”. These are notes about how to write plot-driven fiction.

1. The most basic rule of heroic fiction is that we want to read about someone that we would like to be. Make your heroine impossibly cool and that’s half the battle.


2. An adventure story is simply about some obstacle and the alacrity and struggle necessary to overcome it.

3. What is needed above all else: an evil villain. The more wicked the better. A great villain is unique and often seductive enough to steal the whole show. think of Darth Vader.


4. Stupid henchmen are entertaining.

5. Oh, how the human mind loves to imagine action scenes! Sword fights, explosions, and chandelier swinging never gets old. (Or is that just because I’m a guy?)

6. Cliffhangers 101. Find all the points of biggest tension and put chapter breaks there. That will trick the reader into staying up all night to read just one more chapter.

7. Cliffhangers may be resolved by Dues Ex Machina, or big dumb coinkydinks, doesn’t matter, a cliffhanger is a cliffhanger.

8. Often what separates a genre novel from a literary novel is just the sheer amount of plot happening in an adventurey page-turner. In order to keep the pages flipping fast the author must sometimes get clumsy, sacrifice grace to speed. E.G. characters having conversations that are obviously just to serve the purpose of providing background information to the reader. It is often done clumsily but gets the job done. Of course this is necessary in a fantastic world, but it is best if the reader doesn’t pick up on it happening.

9. Know the shoulder that you stand upon. For example Bartimeaus does a nice job of grafting the Harry Potter “boy wizard in training” plot onto the Hunger Games “revolutionaries foment rebellion against the rich tyrant class” trope, currently all the rage.

10. One thing that has changed since I was a young adult reader, background characters seem to get killed with much more regularity. Worth noting, that’s all.

11. As the plot gallops along from chapter to chapter, it is always a pleasant feeling for the reader if they can piece things together (what is really happening) a bit faster than the main character. That way there is a nice tension between what the reader knows and what the hero/heroine thinks they know. So we can shout at the page “No, don’t open that door!”

12. YA is often about the young versus old, of course.

13. Clichés became clichés for a reason. Clichés were ridiculously entertaining the first time around. The trick is to make your dragon, your wizard, your magic ring etc. new. Make it new.

14. What happens next? That’s always easy: out of the frying pan, into the fire.

15. Another simple recipe for a novel: two characters POV back and forth, through escalating and more harrowing trials, each providing a different perspective on the larger paracosm.

16. Any scene is easier to describe for the reader if it is already a familiar set piece– The mansion party, the bustling kitchen full of cooks and waiters, the rowdy pub, the snowy forest etc. Of course this must be balanced with original innovations. Consider the “planets” visited in Star Wars are simply the desert, the arctic cold, the forests of Pacific NW etc.


17. People love reading about disguises.

18. And food. People looove reading about food.


19. If you want to paint a group of people as unlikable don’t forget to make them rich, decadent, and rude to their servants.

20. Nothing should come easy. The longer it takes the hero to achieve something, the more believable it is. Of course the stakes must be convincing or this is boring. By convincing I mean they must feel believable and important. Ask this of every page: who cares? And, really

21. Humor. Action. Suspense. Character development. If a page doesn’t provide one of these four it is useless.

22. Gear. We want to know what gear the characters have. Cool swords, clothes, hair, etc. People love unique gadgets. But it must be original, for example it will be very hard to pull of a female who is an ace with a bow and arrow as long as people know who Katniss is.


23. Systems of magic that are rich and believable are almost always based on actual old systems and beliefs of magic. Summoning, conjuring, necromancy, runes etc. Readers are very savvy now-a-days with the sort of stuff that once was only known by geeks who played D&D.

24. Is anything cooler than flying? No.

25. Use lots of smells. New science shows that when we read a description of a smell: Coffee, leather, strawberry, etc. It triggers the same activity in our brains actually smelling the thing. Every book is a scratch and sniff book.

  1. A paracosm is a detailed imaginary world created inside one’s mind. This fantasy world may involve humans, animals, and things that exist in reality; or it may also contain entities that are entirely imaginary, alien, and otherworldly. Commonly having its own geography, history, and language, the experience of such a paracosm is often developed during childhood and continues over a long period of time: months or even years.

27. Of course the best writing tip is to simply write the book that you would like to read.

Jack Kerouac’s 30 great writing tips, because you’re a genius all the time.


Belief & Technique For Modern Prose

1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house
4. Be in love with yr life
5. Something that you feel will find its own form
6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
7. Blow as deep as you want to blow
8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
10. No time for poetry but exactly what is
11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time

15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
19. Accept loss forever
20. Believe in the holy contour of life
21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
22. Dont think of words when you stop but to see picture better
23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
29. You’re a Genius all the time
30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven

Weird things people googled to find my blog

When you have a blog you can see what searches people Googled to land on your page. A lot of them are about what you would expect. Sometimes it is surprising. A post I wrote awhile back that talked about cave paintings has been the most searched for thing on my blog for a while. The internet is hungry for essays on Cave Paintings, who knew?

But my favorite stuff are the searches that just make me bewildered, either because I’m surprised people are into it, or I don’t remember ever writing about it. Here are some of my favorite random searches that people used to land on this blog.

“what you do if you had to pretend to sell a book you didn’t like”

“philosopher skull on desk”

“anthony alvarado murdered” (!)

“david bowie foucault” (!)

“it is time to take a nap”

“naked people cave art”

force feeding medicine to rats”

we dont need shampoo?”

the function of the artist is not to translate an observation but to express the shock of the object on his nature; the shock, with the original reaction.”

“bourbon alvarado”

“end of the world shopping spree”

“alternate reality poets”

“hypnotism for squeamishness”

“secret portland”

“what do i do as a creative person surrounded by practical people”

“elvish rap and forts”

“the more we are grateful, the more happiness we get”

“can ears be magic”

“i feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people”

“coffee makes you poop”

“artists with hard to spell names”

“is it cool to be cool”

“you getting sleepy ,very sleepy”


The Flanuer


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Hey guys, here is an interview I did a while back with James Yeary, as research for DIY Magic.

Talkingwith James Yeary a poet, and a friend of mine; James does a project called “My Day”, where he takes long walks around town for an entire day and creates poems based on the walk. James, care to introduce yourself and how you came to the role of flâneur?


Hi Anthony, I’m so happy to be here talking with you. That’s an interesting question. I’m pretty sure flâneurs are born, not made.  I’m inclined to say that it’s a role any black sheep might be thrust into. I think for various reasons I’ve felt like an outsider in the community I grew up in, and still even where I live today. Like “on the outside looking in.” You suggest the peripatetic aspect of the flâneur, but I think the character you’re describing is much more complicated than someone who walks.


What exactly is a flâneur? Is there more to it than just going for a stroll?

My understanding is that the flâneur is someone engaged in the spectacle of modern life. And it is a two-way street. The prototypical flâneur, I think, is the impressionist painter. I am thinking especially of Degas and Manet. These painters (so very likely to use each other, the other Impressionist painters, as subjects), even their subjects are the city life, the shop windows, people of cafes, etc. They have a moving eye, and to some degree I think you can see that moving eye that is framing their portraits and scenes. And as that subject, the flâneur is also a bit of a dandy. A bit of a spectacle. The flâneur wants to exchange glances with you. It’s sort of optically sexual.


Put it another way: What is the essence of the flâneur?

Anthony, so I’m giving you very paraphrased answers, but I want to talk about Benjamin for a minute. Walter Benjamin was sort of the first person to look back at the emerging world of the early-to-mid nineteenth century, and declare that there was a new aspect to the visibility of the world. This was epitomized in the Arcades of Paris; great halls of commerce and spectacle, by and for the middle classes, importantly; places to be seen as well as to see. They weren’t much more than cafes and shops. Benjamin wrote thousands of pages about them, an encyclopedia of the auras of things like the shop window and the poodle and the hat, as well as the characters that were experiencing it at the time, people such as Baudelaire, the Symbolist poet of ennui.

This is sort of roundabout, but in a way, the hipster, as we’re sort of describing or failing to describe them “today” (because I think thirty and forty years ago the persons being called “the hipster” were something different), the hipster is a sort of grandson, or goddaughter of the flâneur. Not very different, though they’ve taken on this sort of wretched character. I mean the hipster is sort of universally despised (this may have been the case with the flâneur, too — look at Baudelaire, truly wretched…). I actually think it’s terrifically interesting, because they have the same sort of basic trait, except, and I’m not sure this is even an exception from the flâneur, it’s very clear that today’s hipster is completely obsessed with kitsch. I think that mutation on the flâneur is something interesting that’s maybe eschatological, because the flâneur is a profoundly middle class thing, historically speaking. And tomorrow there isn’t going to be a middle class. So the hipster sort of is wearing all this end of the world shit hanging from his bullet belt.

That’s obviously a tangent, but I think the essence is actually something that glows like that. I think the flâneur is someone obsessed with the feelings that radiate from objects, in a nostalgic sort of way, like Degas and his ballerinas, or hipsters with ninja turtles. I don’t think it’s actually that shallow; in the end, it’s, you know, all about death.




I’m interested in the idea of the flâneur as a sort of activity that pretty much anybody can just get up and go do; let’s say a reader asks you “How can I go try this out today?”

I think a flâneur is a sort of character that people end up becoming as per their interest in the world about them. It is particularly and peculiarly urban, in my mind, or I think that is what the term “flâneur” refers to, walking in and of the spectacle. But that’s not to say that being a flâneur is not a part of something wider. I’m not even sure that it is possible to be a flâneur. I’m not saying it isn’t, but today’s flâneur is not the flâneur of 19th century Paris. Perhaps the gesture is the same, but when I am out investigating the suburbs, I am investigating decay. Maybe it isn’t different. I’m sure the decay to me is just a lichen that will prove more generative for the later generations, and maybe I’m being totally hypocritical, because I’m generating pages of texts trying to take them all in. I’m sure I am. You can call it what you will, but to be aware of the world around you is a philosophy and a way of life, both absorptive and generative, and one that can begin and end in practice.

Most of my work, and I’m not talking about the “my day books”, is catching myself thinking something. Cocteau said the most important thing about being a poet is having an ear, as opposed to composing anything. I like to aspire to a Cagean ambience too, if I can go there; though I don’t really use true “chance” or aleatory, I like to write poems that represent the clouds of sound we actually move in.

Objects outlast their ages, and magic comes in to our world when we stumble upon an object that doesn’t make sense in our own time. A fossil is the most important thing in the world because it resists death. And when you hold a fossil you know it is the only resistance against death, in the irony that this world is the afterlife of objects.



“The only time you’re truly happy is when you’re just being” a short interview with Christopher Messer


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Here is an interview I did with Christopher Messer, the co- founder of Float On, a floatation tank center in Portland Oregon. I did this interview as research for my upcoming book DIY Magic, and somewhere I have the full transcript which is much longer, and will probably put that up at some point too. Christopher is a real visionary and a lot of fun to talk to.


Does the law of diminishing returns apply to floating?

It’s an endurance thing. The longer you float the more you’re in Theta waves. And the more lucid you’re going to get. This is the same thing the Buddhist monks are trying to do. But this is it without falling asleep and getting the rap on the shoulder with a stick. When there is no external stimulation, the internal mind has to take over. I’ve done a 13 hour float, and it just keeps going and going. Thought goes away, identity goes away. It’s about effortless doing.

I hate technique. The tank is all physiological. Your autonomic nervous system takes control. 98% of everything you think about is repetitive anyway. You don’t need it. If you were on a deserted island for long enough, thought would go away. The minute thought stops, presence takes over. The tank kills thought without effort, without technique. Our whole culture is based on technique.


So thought just becomes unnecessary, like flippers on land?

Thought knows that the minute it stops, presence takes over and thought dies. And thought will do anything to stop that. That’s why the tank is so perfect. You can’t directly get rid of thought. It has to leave without effort. It’s like a surrender, but don’t make it into a technique. Our whole culture is about becoming — you gotta get to the next level, “I got to get the degree, I got to get the house . . . .” Well good luck with that, ‘cause it’s just made up anyway! The only time you’re truly happy is when you’re just being.


What would a culture look like where everybody floats?

That’s my dream. Our culture is about change from the outside in. But you change it from the inside out and it’s going to work. It’s funny, remember the Skylab in the 70′s, after the Apollo missions? They had these Americans out there floating in space, and they’d have Russians come out. But sometimes guys would be alone for weeks at a time. And mission control would call them and tell them to do stuff. Well, mission control found that they would do the tasks slower and slower. And then mission control would tell them to do stuff and they wouldn’t want to do stuff. And then mission control would call them and tell them to do stuff . . . and they would turn off the intercom!

You get space happy. It’s called break off point. Same with the U-2 spy planes. They’d be up there on the edge of space. Close to zero gravity.  And they would just lose interest in earthly things. They would stop believing in nationalism and just say – oh, well there’s the planet.

The floatation tank is still a fairly new device. Do you think people are going to come along and try to attach different techniques and codified ideas to the experience?

Well, it started out very scientific. But it very quickly became a mystic experience.

So yeah, people have used different techniques with floating: cyber vision, listening to learning tapes, holosync stuff. You can add on things, but personally I don’t like that. There’s nothing better than nothing. It’s so simple.

For millions of years we were just hunters and gatherers. We are not built for all of this. Language and time and self. That’s all brand new phenomena. When thought first came in, people thought they were hearing voices. Language started as a way to warn people. “Hey! There is a mountain lion behind you!” This evolved into language, but somehow along the way identity got involved.

Once you have language you can create an external analog of everything.

Yeah ­– I’m separate from everything else. I’m better. Then you’re getting into counting, keeping track of stuff, counting what you own. And the rest is history. I think once we got into agriculture that’s when we took a wrong turn.

So it’s New Year’s Eve. What’s the future of floating?

Consciousness just wants to become more consciousness. This is what the tank is doing. There are areas that were once unconscious, and consciousness is saying — I want to be here. We used to be in the Information Age. Now we are in the Communication Age. Consciousness is expanding itself. And the float tank fits that perfectly. Floating is just a way to get back to your natural state.







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