Guest Post From Sarah Beth Durst: Music and Writing

photo of Sarah Beth DurstToday we have a guest post from Sarah Beth Durst, whose new book, Chasing Power, is out now!  Sarah has written in a variety of genres.  Her books include Vessel, Drink Slay Love, Ice, and my personal favorite, The Lost.  You can find an interview she did with Geek Girl when The Lost was published here.  

I have tried to write in silence. Also on beaches and mountainsides. And in coffee shops, where writers are supposed to sweat over words while guzzling lattes.

Doesn’t work for me.

Wish it did. I like coffee shops. And beaches. And mountains. But there’s too much glare on my laptop screen outside, and as for coffee shops… I’m a terrible eavesdropper.

And as for writing in silence… nope. I can last a little while. Sometimes, I might do a really focused bit of revision that requires it. But most days, if there’s too much silence, the words freeze up. I start listening to the hum of refrigerator or the tick of the clock. Or worse, I start listening to that little critical voice inside every writer’s head that says, “Those words aren’t good enough.”

Sometimes that little voice is useful. You need it in revision. But when you’re still finding the story… you need a way to shut that voice up so you can get some actual words on the page. For me, that way is music. The critical part of my brain is easily distracted by music. Guess it likes to sing along, because once the music is on, then I am free to think and write.

I often choose music that matches the mood of my stories. For my epic desert fantasy, VESSEL, I listened to a lot of Native American flute music. To write DRINK, SLAY, LOVE (my vampire girl and were-unicorn novel), I had a whole playlist that included “People Are Strange” by The Doors, “They” by Jem, “Ramalama Bang Bang” by Roisin Murphy, and “Walkin On the Sun” by Smash Mouth.

For my newest YA novel, CHASING POWER, I didn’t use a specific playlist. CHASING POWER is an Indiana-Jones kind of adventure about a girl with telekinesis. Kayla is sixteen years old, uses humor as a defense mechanism, and has a loose grasp on the concept of personal property (in other words, she uses her telekinesis to pick pockets and shoplift). She listens to whatever music is on the radio. So that’s what I did.

A few of Kayla’s favorites:

“Best Day of My Life” by American Authors

“Cups” by Anna Kendrick

“Another Postcard” by Barenaked Ladies

“Bad Day” by Daniel Powter

“Carry On” by Fun

“La La La” by Naughty Boy, featuring Sam Smith

And here’s what I wrote while listening:

Thanks so much for listening/reading!

cover of Chasing Power



The Bay Area: A Suburbanite Dreams of the Big City

San Francisco at nightI live about two hours from The Bay Area, that is to say, the area around San Francisco. I live in the suburbs. I get my writing done while I help my child with her homework and I get my reading done in the parking lot during field trips. If my life were Orphan Black, I’d be Alison, without the substance abuse. If my life were Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I’d be Joyce. I’ve always said I was Tara, but it’s a lie. I’m clearly Joyce. So although I live a life of great privilege, it’s not surprising that I sometimes long for a little escape – some adventure, something fresh and hip, something like…Life in the Bay Area.

We all idealize cities. Paris is where poets drink café au lait and eat croissants. The entire population of Paris consists of poets who are eating croissants as we speak. New York is full of women in their twenties who worry about clothes and who can’t pay their rent. Also, there are taxis. But the Bay Area – oh, my dear readers, the Bay Area is Where It’s At. Here’s my version of the Bay Area. I know it’s not real, don’t worry. But it’s my version, nonetheless:

Everyone in the Bay Area is either a genius or a poor, misguided soul who thinks he is a genius. Everyone is some kind of artist or some kind of scientist, or both. Literally every single author in the world except me (*sobs*) is at the same party in San Francisco right now, drinking wine and saying sparkling witty things. Even the poets from Paris fly in from time to time.

Everyone in the Bay Area has a day job that is glamorous. They usually work in publishing or for Google or a science start up that is developing faster than light travel. Of course some people work in restaurants but only to finance their artistic careers – spend 4 years as a waiter and you are guaranteed a book deal or a starring role on stage. It’s in your contract when you sign on.

No one in the Bay Area has children. This is the land of arts and sciences. It is not the land of cleaning up the bodily fluids of small loud humanoids. They are present in the daytime of course, at parks and museums, but they are bussed in. Likewise, there are a few park benches around the city at which loving elderly couples sit, holding hands. They are also bussed in for the day, to provide ambiance. You can rent a black Labrador Retriever to play with on the beach but other than that no one has pets, although many people have modern, sleek lots with improbably large aquariums that clean themselves. Supervillans (and there are a few – they live in the Transamerica building) are allowed to own sharks and white cats.

At night, everyone goes to a party or other group event. EVERYONE. It’s mandatory. The nature of the party is optional. It could be a grungy rave, a dinner party, posh cocktails and canapés at a loft, a poetry reading in a basement, or a fight at a bar, but no one is at home eating leftover pizza and watching Oprah, unless they are doing it ironically as part of a living art installation.

Everything in The Bay Area is within a 20-minute radius. No one drives. They teleport. Or take BART, which is always clean and convenient unless it’s being used for a music video about the sordidness of urban life.

In the daytime, the weather is sunny. At night, the skies are clear. At dusk and dawn, there is cinematic fog and it is cool enough to wear trench coats and nifty hats. At regularly scheduled intervals, there is a downpour of rain in which people passionately declare their love for one another and kiss on the sidewalk. It can be inconvenient if you’re just trying to walk down the street, but hey. That’s the price you pay for living in The Bay Area.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Between the Lines Book Club: The Orphan Master’s Club and Science Fiction

between the lines book club logoThe Orphan Master’s Son has been classified as a literary fiction, thriller, political commentary, love story, and dystopia.  It has characteristics of magical realism and although it is set in the recent past, tonally it matches science fiction dystopias like 1984 and the film Brazil.  This makes sense given the setting of North Korea, a mysterious country about which everything we know seems stranger than fiction.  Adam Johnson fills unknown spaces with details that feel at times otherworldly, as when Jun Do listens to transmissions that seem to come from beneath the sea before he realizes that they actually come from the International Space Station.  Other details feel futuristic, such as the autopilot machine invented by the interrogators of Division 42.

photo of Adam johnson

The speculative fiction tone of this contemporary piece also makes sense given that Adam Johnson’s previous work was science fiction.  His book, Emporium is an acclaimed collection of short stories in which a diverse cast of characters struggles to find meaning and connection as they deal with violence and imminent disaster.  His novel Parasites Like Us involves an anthropologist who inadvertently brings about the end of the world.

cover of Emporium

Finally, it turns out that the science fiction genre has allowed writers a little bit more freedom in North Korea than other forms of writing.  Science fiction has always been able to tackle taboo topics because authors can use metaphor to make their point.  According to Benoit Berthelier:

After a speech delivered by Kim Jong-Il in October 1988 called for the development of science fiction on a larger scale,[2] the number of sci-fi works grew significantly. From space travel to immortality or underwater exploration, sci-fi stories cover a wide range of subjects within settings that usually exceed the national boundaries of North Korea. If the country remains the central point of most plots, foreign characters–both positive and negative–are much more common than in traditional fiction.

According to Berthelier, everything written in North Korea has to send a message that the leadership desires.  In North Korean science fiction, there’s no individual genius science – science only happens when everyone works together as part of a hierarchy.  There are a lot of robots and no aliens, because of “the lack of scientific proof of a developed extraterrestrial life”.   But there are more foreigners than in most other North Korean fiction, and a wider range of settings and plot types.  While North Korean science fiction carefully toes the line of what’s acceptable, it gets to wiggle its toes a bit more than other genres do.

illustration from Explosion in the 3rd Dimension

Illustration for Explosion in the Third Dimension, by Han Seong-ho

Even though The Orphan Master’s Son is not science fiction, it uses the SF trick of metaphor to convey the unspeakable.  In an interview in the 2012 paperback edition, Johnson says that he didn’t want to write about all the horrible stories he heard of the atrocities in labor camps so he replaced them with forced blood donations.  This served as a straightforward depiction of atrocity but also as a metaphor of the state sucking the life out of its people.  Similarly, the persistent rumor in the book that there is no retirement village at Wonson and that retirees simply disappear is not based on fact (there’s a beach resort at Wonson but no retirement homes and no claim of retirement homes) but it serves as a fantastic metaphor for a dead-end – the idea that there is no possible happy ending and no escape.

Wednesday Videos Love How We Look

WednesdayVideoThis story by Micaela Blei had me in tears, but some of them were happy tears.  Go do what you like, y’all.  Be radiant.

On a similar note, here’s a link to a lovely essay by Bridgette White about the importance of being in the picture and seeing yourself the way you’re kids do.  It’s at

My Great-Grandmother-In-Law insisted that I include photos of myself in packages of photos of my husband and daughter, and that’s why I did not completely vanish from my daughter’s childhood.  Now that I’m spending more time at conventions doing public speaking, there are photos of me all by myself,  I’m learning to see past the height (short) the weight (over) the glasses and a certain appalling lack of fashion sense and see the excitement and joy of a woman coming into her own.

selfie at SDCC

My camping all night for San Diego Comic-Con Hall H selfie


An Interview With Laura Garwood

photo of Laura GarwoodToday we have an interview with Laura Garwood, a fellow writer from my town.  Somehow Laura and I never hang out despite the fact that we live in the same area, have at least one mutual friend, and have kids at the same school.  I’m not completely sure that she’s real – it’s possible that I hallucinate her into being whenever I need to read a Facebook post about how to remove nail polish from a keyboard (hint: learn to live with the nail polish).

A simpler explanation might be that Laura is crazy busy.  A single mom of three young children, she has a thriving career as a writer and editor.  Of all the moms and dads who I’ve interviewed who juggle writing and parenting, Laura writes most prolifically about this topic, and she offered to answer some questions about time management and about how parenting has changed her work.  You can find her at A Short-Winded Blog.

You wear many hats in your job – writer, editor, and advisor.  Can you tell us about what you do?

My work is divided among several hats. I run my own editing business and subcontract for various colleagues. In this arena, I largely edit book manuscripts, performing everything from big-picture developmental edits down to final proofreads. I also edit various other materials, such as essays, resumes, marketing materials, query letters, and academic works. I also do a lot of technical writing and editing for a private environmental firm in Sacramento and Sacramento State University. I teach a bit too, on writing and editing. In addition, I write essays and pen Short-Winded Blog, a humor/parenting blog. My most well-known post, “So You Think You Would Like to Have Three Children,” has had well over a million reads (to my complete surprise), and my work has appeared in local and national publications like a Chicken Soup for the Soul book, the Oregonian, and UC Davis magazine.

My writing and editing have been oddly social for me, and I really enjoy collaborating with other writers. I see my editing work as a collaboration, not the scary, corrective process some writers fear it will be, and my blogging has created a bit of a community around me, between supportive and kind readers and groups such as Writers Who Wine and Sacramento Bloggers.

If you could only give one piece of advice to a new writer, what would it be?

Hmmm, maybe hang in there? Writing is darned hard work. Starting a piece is hard work. Revising is hard work. Sending out queries is certainly hard work. It is well worth it to express yourself and share your works, but sometimes I watch people grow discouraged.

On your blog, you talk about being a single mom of three children.  How has motherhood changed the content of your writing?

Motherhood has radically changed my content. I never thought I would be here, but the vast majority of my writing is non-fiction/essays, even though I used to aspire to be a novelist. I have found my voice in sharing about my life, my family, my community, and my struggles. Writing essays comes more naturally to me than other kinds of writing. I still write poems and articles and I would enjoy writing some fiction, but I’m primarily a woman who writes about the stuff of daily life. Some of where I have ended up has been a fluke–I started writing again in much more earnest after my motherhood essay was accepted into the Listen to Your Mother show, and I submitted that essay after barely writing anything for myself for several years.

As an incredibly busy person, what time management tips do you have for us?  What does your average day look like?  

Oh, man. Welcome to the biggest struggle of my life–balancing time, energy, demands, and priorities. I am a fairly structured person, and I find it important to maintain that structure and pretty specific boundaries in my life as a businesswoman. I work working hours–and when I “cheat,” I try to avoid sending emails so that clients don’t begin to think I am on call. I learned that the hard way. I also try to stay in the present with my children and friends, and stay present in my work when my children are in school. I don’t want to waste my working time when they are gone and then have to work when they’re actually here. And I also need and deserve rest, so when I’m tempted to catch up on that deadline after bedtime, I try to resist when I don’t actually need to. I’m a single mom, and I need my energy to be a good editor, a good mom, and a happy person.

Most of us have a lot of balls in the air.  What are some of the things you think people can let go of?  How do you bring balance to your life, or is there such a thing?

There is no balance. There is simply prioritizing and letting things go. I try to focus on each thing in its own time, rather than cleaning when I should be working and working when I should be visiting with my relatives. I drop the balls sometimes, and it’s tempting to beat myself up when I show up at an event without realizing it was potluck or when I discover my child’s lunch in the refrigerator partway through the afternoon. As a small-business-operating single mother of three young children, I am mostly in it for survival. I need to go to the gym even if I feel guilty because it helps me manage anxiety. I don’t go as often as I’d like, however. I need to get enough sleep because I need to be functional, patient even, and I can’t catch up on rest later. I need to keep cultivating my friendships, because they are what have kept me afloat thus far. I need to take the time to focus on things that are more important than tasks, like relationships–even when it stresses me out a bit! And when my kids are available as helpers or people offer me help, by gosh, I take it because I need it. Fold the clothes wrong or put the dishes away in the wrong place? Who cares! I was able to sit down or read a story to my kid for fifteen precious minutes because my mom unloaded the dishwasher.

What do you wish writers knew about publishing?

It’s a world of possibilities, and the different routes are perfect for different goals. If you just want to share your work with friends and family, blog or self-publish and enjoy having control over your content. If you want a best-selling novel, try pitching your novel to an agent working with traditional publishers. If your work has a specialty niche, consider self-publishing or working with a small, specialized publisher. But as someone with a master’s in publishing, I hate to see people not make the most of the path they’ve chosen. Hire a professional to walk you through the self-publishing process if you are overwhelmed by choices or not very tech-savvy. Hire indie professionals to edit, format, and proofread your work, not some kind of built-in service that doesn’t really connect you with the people working on your book. Do your homework. Ask people their opinions.

Between the Lines Book Club: The Orphan Master’s Son and the Real North Korea

between the lines book club logoThe Orphan Master’s Son describes the life of a North Korean,  It was written by an American, who did extensive research on North Korea and who visited North Korea in preparation for the novel.  Still, the author took a great deal of artistic license in the story – filling in some of the many gaps in what we know about North Korea and inventing some details to increase the atmosphere of dread.  He also omitted some stories because he felt they were simply too awful.  In various interviews, Adam Johnson has emphasized that his goal was less to portray a factually accurate North Korea and more to create an emotional true story of living under oppression.

By Eric Lafforgue

Photo by Eric Lafforgue

In an interview that is included with the 2012 paperback edition of The Orphan Master’s Son, Johnson talks about how he chose what to fabricate and why:

Since I wasn’t allowed to speak to, except through a minder, the people I met in Pyongyang – museum docent, chefs, bus drivers – I really wanted to bring a citizen of Pyongyang to life.  Hence I created the character of the interrogator, a person who could show us the apartment buildings and subways and night markets of the capital.  I faced many challenges in building this portrait, though.  People in Pyongyang tend not to defect and therefore don’t bring their stories to the outside world, so how they live is a greater mystery.  And very little is known about the North Korean secret police…I drew on as many sources as I could, and while this character’s sections may not be as grounded in fact, I felt that emotionally it was the truest portion of the book in terms of how self-censorship and paranoia could corrode the bonds of family, even between a parent and child, until all was distrust and fear, until the very poles of love had been reversed.

Later in the interview, Johnson says:

I felt I actually had to tone down much of the real darkness of North Korea, as in the kwan li so gulags…that I invented the blood harvesting as a less savage stand-in, one that was simple and visceral, for the ways that the Kim regime stole every drop of life from citizens it had sentenced to an eternity of slave labor.

Photographer Eric Lafforgue visited North Korea six times.  In this collection of photos printed in Business Insider, he says that he likes capturing the real emotions of people: “They’re not robots”.  Johnson shares similar sentiments in the 2012 interview, saying, “The people there are just as human as we are, driven by the same needs and motivations.  They have many rules to follow, but as long as they are careful and cautious, a fairly normal life can be lived”.  Here is a video of Lafforgue talking about one of his trips to North Korea, and how he is able to get pictures of privilege and privation.  I wasn’t able to embed it but the link will take you to the video.

Photo by Eric Lafforgue

Photo by Eric Lafforgue

Much of what we know about North Korea comes from refugees who speak about their lives there.  The organization Liberty in North Korea works to draw attention to the people who live in North Korea, making it a more immediate human issue rather than a political one.  They do a lot of work with helping refugees leave North Korea and China (most refugees end up in China, where they live illegally and can be returned to North Korea if they are discovered) and resettle.  This is a long video (about half an hour) but well-worth watching – it’s about a young man who escaped from North Korea as a teenager.  Warning – there is some graphic, violent footage.

Ultimately, as Adam Johnson says in the 2012 interview, “The reality is we’ll know the try way to write a novel set in North Korea when North Korean novelists become free to tell their own stories.  I hope that day comes soon”.

Some writings about North Korea are:

Escape From Camp 14:  One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Hardin

cover of Escape from Camp 14

The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, by Chol-hwan Kang

cover of Aquariums of Pyongyang

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Citizens in North Korea, by Barbara Demick

cover of Nothing to Envy