Reading Tolstoy’s book of late-period fables

Hello friendly friends! Just wanted to throw out there that there’s now a paperback version of the Cynical Guide. It has a few (three) little formatting niggles that I don’t love, and I will hopefully somehow figure out how to fix, but it looks shockingly like a real book. I mean, compared to the average micropress book, you pick this one up and you’re like…this is a book. I am extremely proud of it!

It’s honestly been surprising how much joy I’ve gotten from putting out the Cynical Guide. I always used to think people were just putting a good face on things when they talked about the satisfaction they got from micropress or indie publication, but today I was thinking that I actually want a photo of my cynical guide next to my two big five books. It’s possible I value the cynical guide even more than I do my novels, because: a) I think it offers more concrete value to the reader; and b) it doesn’t have a whole sales ecology devoted to giving it love, all it has is me. It’s like loving the runt of the litter. You love it because it’s going to have a much harder time in life.

ANYWAYS, I’ve been sick since at least Sunday. Nothing too serious. Either a cold (most likely) or a breakthrough COVID infection (unlikely, since I tested negative on our home rapid test and am vaccinated). A pretty gnarly cold though! Bad cough, chills, lots of congestion, fatigue: it didn’t feel great. I haven’t really been sick since COVID started, and it was a weird experience. I was like…if I’m ever well again…I’m gonna live life to the fullest.

Today I’m not exactly well again, but I’m not exactly living life to the fullest either. It did suck though. Kind of makes you think. Rachel’s old roommate left behind her book collection, and we’ve dutifully carried it from house to house (although I’ve pared it down only to the books I might conceivably want to read), and the other day I picked up her Penguin Classics copy of Tolstoy’s laaaaaaate fables. You know the ones I’m talking about: the stories from his “What Is Art?” period, late in his career, where he had disavowed all art that wasn’t explicitly moralistic and in touch with the people. Stories like “How Much Land Does A Man Need” and “What Men Live By”. Definitely the stories to read when you’re sick with a bad cold. Tolstoy really is a genius. Nobody else in the universe could write a story about an angel coming to earth and being sentenced by God to live on Earth until he figures out the reason for human suffering and…it’s a good story. It’s a really good story. At the high point of the story, the angel discovers the titular truth “What Men Live By” (hint, it’s other men’s kindness, people think they live by their own concern, but really they only live because everyone else has kindness and concern for them).

I also read a story about two peasants who get into a fight over a stolen egg, and the dad of one of the peasants keeps being like, “It doesn’t matter who stole the egg! Just apologize, jesus! This is gonna go too far!” And then it goes toooooo far.

And in one really enigmatic tale, two peasants go on a pilgrimage to the Ukraine, but one stops in at a hut for a drink of water and finds everyone in the hut is starving to death, so he stays and spends all his money to get them on their feet, and eventually he’s like welp it’s too late now, so he turns back and goes home, and the other peasant continues and goes on the pilgrimage, and nothing bad happens to him, really.

The morality of the tales isn’t in the least ambiguous or complicated. I’m not sure why Tolstoy is able to pull off stories that no other author could. I mean, they’re not really his best. They’re not even to the level of Ivan Ilyich (where, despite his epiphany, the titular character still must suffer and dies screaming), but there’s a simplicity and compassion in them.

I have to say though, as I was reading the story about the angel, which begins with a cobbler taking in the angel even though the cobbler himself hardly has enough to eat, I was thinking of a book I read about the Great Famine that hit North Korea after the collapse of the Soviet Union. During that famine, one survivor remembers “The good died first.” People who shared their food or tried to help others ended up dying. The people who thought only of themselves were more likely to survive. There is a reason that scarcity makes us vicious. I remember in that book, there’s a haunting story about a schoolteacher who watches her favorite student slowly starve to death over the course of a few weeks of class, and later on, whenever she sees someone in need, she thinks, “If I didn’t help my favorite student, why would I help this person.”

It’s a flaw. It’s a flaw with Tolstoy in general. I think it’s a flaw he always struggled with. His philosophy, to the extent it can be concretely explained, is simply not true. It does not explain the world. Simple peasant lives do not have an inherent dignity, nor are they inherently more satisfying. Nor is wealth inherently corrupting or enervating. Tolstoy was always trying to find some truth that would crystalize everything, and the reason it never came is because…well…it just doesn’t exist.

But that doesn’t mean he can’t make you believe in it at least for the span of a story. Reading his stories while I was sick, it really made me think. At another point, the angel is asked by a rich man to make a pair of boots, and the rich man keeps insisting that the boots must last for a year. And the angel smiles, but doesn’t tell anyone why.

Turns out that the angel could see his friend, the angel of death, standing behind the rich man. And the angel was thinking, it’s so strange that this rich man is thinking about next year, when in reality he’ll be dead before the day is done.

I mean, we all make plans for our lives, but we could be dead before the day is done. And we all bewail our fate, but really our fate is to die. The idea of fate has been making a lot more sense to me lately, especially in the context of the publishing world. A friend of mine is a literary writer and a PoC, and it feels like they’re always telling me about encounters with white people where the white person is like, “You’re so lucky that you’re brown, that’s all that publishing wants these days.”

And the truth is that…for a certain narrowly defined range of possibilities, it is an advantage to be brown. If you’re brown and you’re willing and able to write a multiculti book, then you have an easier path to publication than a white person who’s writing something people don’t want, like a historical novel about Ancient Sumeria.

But in other situations, being brown is a disadvantage. Like if you’re brown and writing brown characters, it’s a lot harder to sell a domestic thriller (unless you’re black, in which case a category is getting carved out as we speak). On a macro-level, we can talk about right and wrong, just and unjust, but on a micro-level, we just have our fate. And to a certain extent, all unsold books fail to sell for the same reason: publishers see no place for them on the shelves. If we take out the 80 percent that have no place because they’re poorly written or structured, then it’s just hard to say, well, you couldn’t sell this book because you’re white. What’s true is you couldn’t sell it because it has no hook, and if you were non-white, that could, in some cases, be a hook, but that ignores the fact that books aren’t widgets. It was your fate to write this book. This book that exists. You wrote it because it’s important. And sometimes your fate is to write a book that simply doesn’t accord with the dictates of the publishing industry. You could drop dead today of an aneurysm. The idea that we have any control over anything is a bit of an illusion. The idea that being white is a disadvantage is an idea that can only arise in the context of the meritocracy: if you write a book that’s good enough, then it’ll be published.

But meritocracy has little to do with writing and publishing books. It’s not about that at all. Writing is about inspiration and influence. Publishing is about fashion and trends. The intersection of the two will always be a matter more of fate than of merit.

Okay that was a bit of a ramble. I’m sort of hopped up on cough syrup right now. Buy my cynical guide!

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Hello friendly people. Haven’t written much for my next YA novel, Just Happy To Be Here, in the past week, because I’m trying to conceptualize and reconceptualize a few things. I’ve got a fair amount there—the entire first act—but want to shape the material and set up the conflicts more before I set up everything else.

But life is good! My Old English studies continue apace. I’ve been memorizing words, reading flash cards. Last night I successfully read a poem, “Dream of the Rood”, where a dude has a dream in which the cross, on which Christ was crucified, starts talking to him! I was like, wait a second, is this really the premise of the poem? But it was surprisingly affecting. I liked these lines the best.

Bifode ic þa me se beorn ymbclypte. Ne dorste ic hwæðre bugan to eorðan

feallan to foldan sceatum, ac ic sceolde faeste standan.

I won’t bother with an exact translation, but essentially the cross is saying, “I embraced the man. I dared not bend to the earth, fall to the ground. I needed to stand fast.”

It’s so sweet! The cross doesn’t want to fail in this task it’s been given. It has to suffer with Christ while he dies, and then it has to suffer alone when Christ is taken, and then they take down the cross and bury it in a dark pit all by itself, but then, miracle, the followers of Christ take it out and adorn it in gold and gems and take it up to heaven, and you can come to Heaven too, if you just use the savior’s intercession!

I like Old English—it’s not quite like learning a new language. The words are about half unfamiliar, and even when they’re familiar at their root, they often look weird on the page (like ‘ymbclypte’ for ‘embraced’), and the word order has the potential to feel unfamiliar, it’s definitely a bit like Latin, where you’re like, oh I’ve got to spot the verb first in order to know what this sentence means. But on a deeper level, it’s very much English. Like, if you see a word that ends in “lice” you know it’s an adverb (same as ending in -ly in English) and something that ends in “ost” is gonna be the greatest, the sunniest, the coldest, etc. You don’t really need to learn the conjugations and declensions because they’re the same as what you’re used to from english (or fake old-timey english). Like if you see something that ends in ‘eth’ (or, rather ‘eð’) then you know it’s first person present tense. And even the irregular verbs are often irregular in modern english too. So, like ‘holdan’ (hold) has a past tense of ‘healde’ (held). So simple!

I got really interested in where all this ancient English literature comes from. Like, how do we have it? And it turns out that the Dream of the Rood was in this book, the Vercelli manuscript, that this dude who visited England as a papal legate in 1216 brought back to Italy, and it just kind of sat there (because obviously nobody there could even read it) until a German guy found it on the shelf in the 19th century! And this is the source of a significant portion of all the Anglo-Saxon poetry and prose that exists!

As far as I can tell, all the manuscripts containing anglo-saxon poetry date from around the year 1000 AD, when the English monks (who typically were more interested in copying Latin works) got briefly interested in their own culture. They copied out a bunch of books, maybe copying from earlier books or maybe not, and then the Normans invaded and suddenly nobody was interested in Anglo-Saxon culture again until the 13th or 14th century.

What a lineage! We’re pretty lucky that someone out there was like…let’s spend many hours copying out this weird Cross poem into a book. And then someone in 1216 was like, this book looks cool…

It makes me wonder if there are other books lingering on other shelves…

How I come up with my ideas

Hello friendos, nothing to report. Happy that my third YA novel, Just Happy To Be Here, is finally announced, so I can tell you all that I’ve been working on it. I’ve been working on it! And it’s going well. Rachel has also been reading the latest draft of my literary novel (now entitled The Default World), and she says it’s pretty good. Since she’s read two previous versions, no one is better able to judge than she is. Everyone who’s read this version says it’s completely different from the previous (this is the version I also sent to agents most recently, and which got me several offers of representation). I don’t think it’s that different! But Rachel is like, everything but the names of the characters has changed.

Whatever! Nobody understands me! I can still see the throughline. But yes, reading it through her reactions makes me remember, oh yes, the plot of this version is totally different from what’s come before, and the characters are different, the conflicts are different. Whatever, definitely hope that book sells! I’ve written at least…five novels, I think, that I intended for the adult market, and none has ever been on submission with publishers—I never had an agent who was willing to put them out. This one will most likely go out, but that’s no guarantee, so we’ll see what happens.

Anyway, I’m writing this young adult. It’s going well. A lot of feelings from my own teen years are surfacing, which is always a good sign. I have a few months to do this draft, and I’m moving at a deliberate pace, which is to say that if I feel some resistance, I back off and examine the book—it’s proven to be a good choice.

I’m also starting to toss around ideas for another book. I dunno, it’s weird. Enter Title Here hit me like a bolt of lightning—I heard the voice in my head for some months before I started writing, and after I wrote the first draft, not much changed before publication. We Are Totally Normal and The Default World were much more unformed, starting as rough lumps of clay that I slowly moulded into shape. But this third YA novel began as a proposal, and so far I’ve been sticking relatively closely to the proposal! Really weird to have a book begin as an actual idea.

I think if I continue to write YA novels, I’m going to need to write them on proposal. I was loathe to do this again, since I had a bad experience with my last publisher. But I think I understand the business better now. I understand how to write a proposal that can generate excitement, and I understand how much it’s possible to deviate from a proposal. And if you want to stay at the same publisher, writing on proposal is key, because it makes them feel like they’re part of the process of baking the book, almost like they’re your co-writers.

The key problem is I’m still not entirely sure what makes me want to write a proposal. What draws me to a character and a set of material and makes me think I can write it? And where is the interaction between those desires and the market? I know that I want to write about trans women or people who might someday identify as trans women. And I want to write about Indian or Indian-American people.

That by itself is a limitation. I’m unlikely to sell a romance or mystery or thriller for adults starring an Indian-American trans woman. I mean, it’s not outside the realm of possibility, but I prefer to write for the center of the market, rather than for its fringes. Science fiction and fantasy are doable. Literary is doable. YA is very doable (obviously). Within YA, my brand is contemporary, in that liminal space between “issues book” and “romantic comedy” and “thriller”, but I could probably get away with writing a fantasy or even a science fiction novel. However, again, writing to the center of the market rather than the fringes, I’d prefer to stick with contemporary stories when it comes to YA. The nice thing about contemporary is it’s a little less cyclical too than other forms of YA, because the prejudices of the school and library market means someone will always be there to buy contemporary books.

So, within those bounds: YA contemporary, literary, adult sci-fi / fantasy, what interests me? And what would interest other people?

Hard to say! Of course I probably couldn’t (and wouldn’t want to) sell a literary or adult sci-fi / fantasy novel on proposal, and I couldn’t sell another YA novel on proposal until after final delivery of this one. But I’m also not really starting another project now, I’m just kicking some ideas around a bit.

When it comes to generating ideas for books, I often start either with a setting, a character, or a conceit. For a while, I used to generate ideas for YA novels by thinking about characters nobody else was writing about (a bro’ey guy or a grades-obsessed grind), but the problem is there’s a reason people aren’t writing about them—the YA market doesn’t necessarily want to read books about the people they most dislike at their school. So now I try to think a little more about natural sources of conflict. In a contemporary setting, conflict is a little thin on the ground—I mean what problems do people really have? Well, other than the grinding meaningless and drudgery of everyday life, which is kind of difficult to dramatize. The problem is a little easier when it comes to teen stories, since the natural constraints of kids’ lives—they’re essentially immured each day in a loosely-supervised prison full of other hormonal maniacs—make conflict easier to come by.

Anyway, my latest brainstorm is that novels work a lot better when you have villains, because the villains can drive the conflict. They provide something that stymies the hero. I still prefer a hero who’s active and who actively seeks things, but in earlier books, I would often need to generate conflict through my hero’s own mistakes, which made life unnecessary difficult. If you have a villain, they can do stuff, and then your hero can do stuff—there’s no need to, like Persephone, have you hero unpick each night what they’ve woven during the day.

But where do you find villains? Especially in a contemporary school setting? They’re kind of thin on the ground! I personally like making teachers and principals the villains. Early in my YA writing career I was advised to tread carefully here (good advice!) because many YA fans actually like school. They’re the kind of kids and twentysomethings who enjoyed school and found it a refuge. Moreover, reviewers, awards juries and book buyers are often teachers and librarians themselves, so you don’t want to piss them off.

Buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuut school sucks. I don’t know how this can be controversial. I know some people like it, and I’m not saying that I entirely disliked it as a kid, but it was also quite frequently pointless and inane. And yeah yeah teachers are heroes, but they’re also prison guards. That’s just part of being a kid: people make you do stuff you don’t want to do, and then you rebel against that stuff and write angsty songs about it that eleven year olds sing loudly in the back of the minivan during carpool.

I also don’t like a story idea to be that complicated. You don’t want to be explaining to everyone the conflict in the idea: you want them to just intuitively get it. Ideally, the book should write itself in peoples’ minds. You want something simple and iconic.

Anyway, so then I just brood and brood and brood and brood and brood and brood and roughly once every five years I think of something. The rest of the time, the idea comes more organically, rising up out of whatever I’m writing, but that’s a different process.

Late posting this on my blog, but I sold a third young adult novel, JUST HAPPY TO BE HERE

Hey everyone, this hit Twitter and Facebook last week, but I sold another YA novel. In classic writer-blog fashion, I’ll post the deal blurb here:

I feel good about it. More surprised than good, actually. I never assume I’m ever going to sell a book again. My sales are pretty solidly in the midlist, in that I’ve never really underperformed expectations, but that also means, as you’ll know if you’ve read my Cynical Guide To The Publishing Industry, that there’s no particular compulsion to buy another book by me. That means with every idea I’ve got to create the notion that this might be my breakout book. Anyway, this one is pretty good. I’ve been writing it—the book is good—you’re gonna like it. The characters are just very…sweet. Of course this is the Naomi version of sweetness, which probably means the rest of the world will be like…are they sociopaths?

It’s been interesting to work on a book that’s on proposal after spending basically my entire career writing on spec. It feels a little…ho-hum. Like I get up, make my coffee, start writing the book, and it’s fun and everything, but I’m like, yep, this is definitely the book I was going to write! Not that there aren’t surprises, but I’m not surprised by the surprises. It’s so weird. Is this what it’s like to have a real job?

I feel intensely grateful to still be in the publishing game for at least another two years! What a shock! Ever since my debut year (2016), I’ve routinely had the thought that this year will be my last. It’s a gift. Not from the gods of publishing, but from the fates. Although honestly in this case my editor, Steph, had a ton to do with it. Someday I’m sure they’ll fail to buy a book from me, or they’ll move on or retire or whatever. Maybe it’ll even be the next book. But they didn’t have to buy this one! They’re definitely one of the good ones.

Okay enough mushy stuff. I’m sure I’ve mentioned, but I’ve gotten really into old and middle English lately. Middle English is relatively simple. The biggest trick is just learning how to pronounce everything. I’m not the best at it, but I’ve listened to a bunch of recordings, and I’m starting to internalize it. The key is that all the vowel sounds are different. Like ‘different’ in Middle English would probably be dee-fah-RAYN. The tendency to heavily emphasize the last or second-to-last syllable in the word really makes rhyming easier by the way. Like early in the General Prologue Chaucer rhymes ‘Courages’ and ‘Pilgrimages’. You couldn’t do that in modern English, but if you pronounce them coh-RAHJ-es and peel-grim-AHJ-es, then you can. This really frees up the text and allows Chaucer to write the whole thing in rhyming couplets without it ever seeming dull or too elevated.

I’ve also, just for reference, started reading Shakespeare. I read books about The Plantagenets and The War of the Roses, and afterward I was like wow I could probably understand Shakespeare’s history plays if I wanted to. It’s really fascinating to read Shakespeare after reading so much Chaucer and old English. Because my tendency before was to assume that Shakespeare was so ornate because that’s how people wrote back then, and that’s true…sort of.

Basically my understanding is that sometime in the early 16th century everyone in Britain started reading Petrarch, and they were like THIS IS IT, THIS IS THE WAY TO WRITE—we need to be making extremely elaborate metaphors about everything. And Shakespeare, although he is working in a more refined and nativist version of this tradition, is kind of in that vein too. That’s why his language is so figurative. Not that old English doesn’t have that, but an old English metaphor tends to be very compact, and it’s often within the word itself. Anyway, it’s not important—the point is—Shakespeare’s style is definitely a style.

I am not entirely certain the style is totally to my taste. I read Henry VI parts 2 and 3 the other day (not his best, I know, but not his worst, either!) and it’s often tedious. Like whenever there’s a battle, do they always have to reiterate how much they hate each other for killing each others’ dads? That’s like half of both plays. But the characterizations are also incredibly complex. I loved Henry VI himself. I wanted more of the man. His followers hate him for being weak-minded, and in life he actually had fits of catatonia (he once didn’t speak for eighteen months), but he is also very gentle. He’s always trying to give away his kingdom. He just doesn’t want to fight and doesn’t want to be king. Margaret of Anjou is also one of Shakespeare’s classic villainesses. She comes off better in part 3 than part 2, because in part 3 she’s not fomenting discord out of pure ambition—she’s defending herself and her rightful throne! I really like when she torments Richard, Duke of York, and says: “Alas but that I hate thee deadly / I should lament your miserable state.”

That’s a really fancy way of calling someone pathetic. And that’s the thing about Shakespeare: he finds really fancy ways of saying pretty simple things. But there’s some value in the fanciness. I do think Shakespeare’s example inculcated the idea that this is the core of writing: putting plain thoughts into complicated writing. And I think that’s done harm to the language. But that’s not his fault. And anyway it’s his language to do harm or to help as he pleases. We’re just borrowing it.

Lately I have gotten really into Old English

Lately I’ve gotten really into Old English (i.e. Anglo-Saxon i.e. Aenglisc). I bought a book on it and an old English reader, and I’ve been haphazardly working my way through a bunch of texts. I think the impetus was that I downloaded this app General Prologue, where an actor, Terry Jones, of Monty Python, reads out Chaucer using a Middle English actor. I’d always struggled with Chaucer before, but hearing it read aloud, I was like, this makes perfect sense. Some words are unfamiliar, but when its spoken it’s easier to comprehend. Furthermore, a lot of the poetic techniques come out much more clearly.

I also found it quite beautiful and moving. I love the rhyming couplets, and how the old accent makes rhymes out of unexpected words, and I love the frequent alliteration (a remnant of Old English poetry) too. So as I was making my way through Chaucer, I thought, what if I could understand Old English too!

Well…it’s a lot harder. And Old English poetry is even harder than prose, because it uses lots of archaic, figurative, borrowed, or made-up words. But it’s still a beautiful and moving language. For the past few weeks I’ve been puzzling Rachel by randomly saying stuff like “Sumor aest hate an drygge” Can you hear it? Can you hear what I’m saying? I’m summer is hot and dry!

It’s pretty cool! Hearing it out loud is essential though. Luckily a lot of old english texts are read aloud by enthusiasts on youtube. Sometimes they’ll even put the poems to song. Some of the enthusiasts have worse pronunciation than others. I found one who was pronouncing the “ge-” prefix (meaning an action is completed or in the past) with a soft ‘gee’ sound instead of as more of a ‘yeh’. Rookie move, bro!

I’ve never been terribly into languages. I took seven years of Latin and three years of Spanish in grade school, and in college I took a year of Spanish and a year of Arabic. But lately I’ve been trying a different approach from what my teachers used on me. First I’m narrowing my focus: I’m only interested in reading and comprehending. I don’t need to speak the language. Second, I want, ideally, to not be translating in my head. I want to get a sense of the language as it’d be heard by someone who understands it. So I’ve been reading the texts in the original and just letting the words flow without trying to understand every sentence. Then I’ll read a translation, and I’ll go back through. It’s fascinating, oftentimes you can see places where the translation is really not literal. Old English also has a different word order from New English, which really changes how it reads, even if it doesn’t change the literal meaning.

A lot of Old English poetry is quite mournful, especially compared to, say, Chaucer or to Elizabethan poetry. Probably this is the Germanic strain in the language. I remember reading the Elder Edda (in translation) and being haunted by the doomed quality of the mythology, how they’d say over and over again that the Fenrir wolf will be unleashed, and the bifrost bridge will break, and the world will be inundated, and so on and so forth. All of this is not in the past, but in the future.

In Old English poetry, there’s a lot of focus on ruins–after all they had Roman ruins all around, and on the collapse of civilization, and on loneliness and wandering. My favorite poem so far is “Deor”, where the poet describes a bunch of mythical and historical misfortunes and then says “Þæs oferéode, ðisses swá mæg” (i.e. “Thaes over-eo-de, this-ses swa may”, “That passed away, and so may this”). See…you can sort of hear it, right? Right? That’s pretty cool

landscape landmark summer building
Photo by Simon Gough on Pexels.com

Working hard isn’t worthwhile unless you’re gonna work REALLY hard

Hello friendos. Don’t tell Rachel, but I decided to take the week off. I had an epiphany the other day: working hard is no good unless you’re willing to work really really really hard. It’s kind of like grades. Getting good grades is really useful in life, but they have to actually be good. People aren’t impresseed by a 3.5, they’re impressed by 3.9’s and above (unweighted). So if you’re working your life away to get a 3.5, then why bother? You’re just using up all your time, and you’re using it inefficiently.

It’s like the 80/20 rule. The idea that it takes eighty percent of the effort to get the last twenty percent of the output. The fun thing about the 80/20 rule is you can keep running it over and over. So out of that twenty percent of the effort, it takes twenty percent of the time to get the first eighty percent (16 percentage points) and eighty percent of the effort to get the lasst twenty percent (4 percent). That means it takes 64 percent of the effort to get the last 4 percent of the output. Run the calculation one more time and you get the 50/1 rule. Fifty percent of your effort goes to achieving that last percentage point in performance.

People use this as a justification for perfectionism. They’re like, oh yeah you might think it’s good enough to get 99 percent, but the person who gets 100 percent is actually working twice as hard as you. There are lots of people who are almost good enough, but few who are truly excellent, because most don’t realize how much effort it takes to go from good enough to excellent.

This is absolutely true, but I’ve always had the opposite thought, which is jesus christ, there’s no point in working hard unless you’re going to work extremely hard. Getting to ninety-nine is difficult, but it’s nothing compared to getting to 100. And that’s why ‘almost good enough’ is meaningless.

Whereas intead you could dial down the effort to twenty percent, be content with your eighty percent, and use the rest of your time more productively.

My feeling is that there’s no point in engaging in any form of head to head competition. It’s just a pointless rat race. Like, look at all the people out there working to get straight A’s so they can get plucked out of some application for some prestigious job. Instead, they could just go out, make some influential contacts, and get the job much more easily. Because in the latter scenario, you’re not competing with a hundred other people.

Obviously very little of this applies to the arts, where performance isn’t really measurable. But I have always felt that my role as a writer isn’t to perfect my sentences, whatever that means (I’ve never understood this concept of the perfect sentence, to be honest–it just seems like hokum that people have invented to self-aggrandize). My role is to work smart, not hard. Of course, I have no idea what that means, in practice.

One might easily say, however, isn’t the point of writing to create something that meets your own aesthetic standards? All this talk of performance and percentages seems besides the point.

It’s a fair notion. Once upon a time, writing manuals and writing instructors used to emphasize a thing called ‘finding your voice’. The most important part of writing was to find the thing only you could do–your subject matter, your particular syntax and diction. Then for some reason that stopped. Ambition fell out of fashion and started to seem quaint and even self-indulgent.

Now people don’t talk about finding your voice. Instead it’s about taming your voice, subsuming it to existing models. Your originality will always shine though–the point is that you also have something in there for the reader, so they can connect to and appreciate your original voice.

I am not sure whether this is true or not. All I know is that it takes absurdly little these days to be considered original or unique. Even a hint of ambition will do it. Any more than that, and people start to feel uncomfortable with the text. So from the perspective of having a satisfying literary career, it makes little sense to nurture your own creative ambition.

But the pendulum will probably turn at some point. From the perspective of a person sitting down to write, the objective is always the same: splash blood onto the page. But what does that look like? How can I shape my unique concerns and turn them into something?

I dunno. But I am inclined to say that too many people think the answer is ‘by being a grind’. To me, the thing that authors are often missing is playfulness–a sense of fun–a feeling that you’re reaching without straining. A sense of fun comes out in the text in a number of ways. But often it manifests in a sense of abundance: the idea that there is more in here than you can see, that there is an aliveness, that there are more stories that you’re not being told.

You can’t work your way into a sense of fun. Just like you can’t think your way into originality. It’s a kind of divine inspiration. It may or may not come.

clear light bulb placed on chalkboard
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Odds and Ends, incl a great new transFem novel!

Hello friends! I know I’ve been slow in posting lately. I do have news though: after several phone calls and emails, my Cynical Guide is back online at Amazon. This also prompted me to upload it to other ebook stores, where it has thus far sold checks notes one copy. But that’s three dollars and fifty cents I wouldn’t otherwise have, so I say not bad.

I am also getting together a paperback version. I don’t expect anyone to buy it, but having a paperback gives you an air of legitimacy.

Writing is going exceptionally well. I hope to have good news for you soon! My reading life is going less well, I’ve had a very difficult time concentrating on words lately, but I’ve listened to a lot of stuff. First of all, a warning, I must rescind my "Not Intolerably White" label from Dan Carlin’s history podcast. It’s pretty white. I have a higher tolerance for that than most of my audience; a lot of you probably wouldn’t like it. The podcast is almost entirely military history, and there’s just…a whiteness to it. Nothing wrong with that. White guys have their culture just like everyone else. And part of that culture involves wondering whether the Assyrians could’ve beaten the Macedonians in battle and/or pondering what exactly made Alexander and Genghis Khan such fearsome conquerors. I went to an all-boys school, so there’s a part of this that’s still appealing to me, unfortunately.

I’ve also been listening to some literature podcasts, and I’ve been listening to some of the recommendations when there are audio versions available. Most notably I listened to Gerard Reve’s book The Evenings. It’s a book about a young man who lives at home and how he spends the ten evenings before New Year’s. He’s pretty insufferable, and he reminds me strongly of the main character from [Confederacy of Dunces], but the focus on interstitial time and the passing of time sets the book apart. Most famously, it’s a book about boredom, tedium, ennui, annoyance, all the small feelings that make up the greater part of one’s day.

I also read Anton Myrer’s Once An Eagle, which is an odd duck–an extremely long novel about the career of an officer who fights in WWI, stays in the army during the interwar period, fights in WWII and eventually dies while on a mission in Vietnam. The book had its high points, and it was stirring at moments. But I was most compelled by the human cost of a military career–the toll it takes on relationships–and by the conflicting motivations that career officers have. The main character longs for glory, at times, but increasingly hates the stupidity and waste of war. Don’t necessarily recommend the book, especially when you could read the much superior [Caine Mutiny], which has a similar feel and covers similar ground.

I’m also reading Jeanne Thornton’s Summer Fun. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about this book over the next month, but it’s so good! It’s nuts! It’s such a weird novel! It’s told as a series of letters from a trans woman living in a trailer in New Mexico to a reclusive rock star who is definitely Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys. I first met Jeanne at the Lambda Literary conference in 2015. She was working on this book even then, and at the time I was like…this is one of the most random books I’ve ever heard of. This resembles literally nothing else in the world.

And that is true! But it comes together. That’s the crazy thing. TRUST THE BOOK. IT COMES TOGETHER. In my own writing, I am big on storytelling–I like everything to fit together neatly–even when there are ambiguities, I like to know what the ambiguities are. But that does mean I don’t leave room for that wild bolt of inspiration that has you going wow I didn’t know books could do this!

And now that I know the publishing world better, believe me when I tell you that you are lucky to be getting this book. Publishing doesn’t like what it cannot understand and neatly package, and this book is that. It’s also just fun and compulsive and terrifying and warm-hearted. Strong recommend (though it’s not out yet). Jeanne has told me she’s narrating the audiobook, which sounds incredible. Maybe get that =]

Okay I was completely wrong and there’s no need for my guide to be exclusive to Amazon

The good news is that after several people clued me in, I realized my guide does not need to be exclusive to Amazon. The bad news is that I’m trying to get people to take publishing advice from a moron (can we still say moron?)

So now I’m pleased to report that my book is available at a bunch more stores:

Cynical Guide temporarily (I hoped) unavailable from Amazon

There’s good news and bad news. The good news is if you’ve managed to purchase a copy of my Cynical Writer’s Guide To The Publishing Industry, then yay, you have a collector’s item! The bad news is that it’s unavailable from Amazon right now, and since it was only uploaded to Amazon, that means there’s no place you can buy it.

I know, it’s kind of a bummer. I have no idea why it’s been taken down. I’ve been on the phone with Amazon’s tech support twice. They’ve each time been like, we have a special team to deal with them—the team has no phone support and you can’t email them directly, so just sit tight and wait for them to get in touch. It’s only been since Thursday, so not an excessively long time, but it is sort of a bummer! The whole impetus behind self-publishing was so I would have more control, but ultimately I’m still at the mercy of an immense corporation. In some ways I have even less power than before, because there’s no way to talk to anyone who’s in charge! I don’t have an editor who I can bother. I can’t even get a straight answer.

Oh well! Good thing I didn’t leave traditional publishing behind entirely (and probably this will be resolved soon anyway).

As for why it’s only available on Amazon, well that’s because Amazon will give you much higher royalty rates if you make a book exclusive to their platform. Since my impression is that they’re the vast majority of the ebook marketplace, the gain per copy (for me, it’s on the order of an additional two dollars per copy) far exceeds the potential profits from selling books on Smashwords, B&N, Kobo, iBooks, and Google Play. But of course it gives Amazon an immense amount of power. Very annoying.

So yeah it’s kind of depressing, but I’ll manage.

In other news, I spilled coffee on my computer, and I got it repaired, but the repair was no good so the keyboard craps out periodically. It’s no big deal, everything is backed up, but the upshot is I’ve been using one of these fancy iPads (with a fancy keyboard attachment) as my main computer for the past two weeks, and it’s pretty good! I mean, it definitely has its advantages. Fewer distractions, the software works better, and the typing experience is essentially the same. If iPadOS had a better file structure there could be a case to be made for eschewing a computer entirely. As it is, I’ve been able to write A LOT on this machine. Just have to be careful that dropbox sync errors don’t end up destroying it all.

I’ve also been listening to lots of history podcasts. I finished the entire of the History of Rome and Revolutions podcasts, both by Mike Duncan, and I’m listening to Hardcore History, by Dan Carlin, and The Industrial Revolutions, by….somebody. I forget his name.

The thing about history podcasting is it is SO WHITE. It is like the distilled essence of being a white guy. I mean this isn’t surprising. I’ve met many white guys who are really into history (often military history). So when you start a history podcast, there’s always this moment when you hold your breath and you’re like, will this be intolerably white? Or will it be whiteness with perspective? So far all of the above are great.

I know it rankles some people when I say something is super white. To be honest I am not fond of the nomenclature myself. Something has to be really white before I notice. Like, my MFA program (all-white faculty) didn’t seem intolerably white to me. I’d say the threshold where something tips over into ‘too white’ is when I feel like there isn’t even the slightest awareness that a person of color might be listening or might have a different perspective. The first environment I was ever in where I was like…this is too white was ReaderCon, a sci-fi convention in Massachusetts. I don’t know what it is. I think ReaderCon’s combination of snootiness (we’re the sci-fi convention that cares about LITERATURE) and its overwhelming whiteness struck a discordant note. Like, if you’re super white, you can’t also claim to be excellent or representative.

Trying to think if I’ve been somewhere more white than ReaderCon (and this was more than ten years ago, so even ReaderCon might be less white now). Hmm…not sure, I’ll have to get back to you on that.

Cynical Publishing Advice: If you’re a brown writer who’s writing brown characters, you can’t afford to ignore race

I was talking to a friend recently about the curious fact that any book which is by a brown writer and is about brown characters will naturally be read through a racial lens. That is to say: readers will pick it up and read it primarily for what it has to say about race.

On its face, this doesn’t seem like it needs to be true. One can easily imagine a brown writer who writes stories about brown characters that don’t really have weighty themes. Maybe they write mysteries or romances or science fiction novels that just happen to star brown people.

Yes, you can imagine such a writer, but readers cannot. People who just want to read a good story without weighty themes tend to read white writers. People who want to read a good story with weighty themes that are not race-related tend to read white writers. The only people reading brown writers are people who care about race. The exception, if one exists, might be the audience of general fiction readers who happen to be black, and who’ve created a category of best-selling black commercial authors (most notably Terri McMillan). But generally speaking, this will not be you.

It’s easy to decry this state of affairs as being racist. Unfortunately, the very editors and readers who are doing the decrying are the same ones perpetuating the problem. People who care enough about race to want there to be a market for PoC books that aren’t about race are also the people who tend to read books through a race-related lens.

The answer is that if you’re brown, you must put race-related themes into your book. There is simply no avoiding it. Yes, you can eschew this, but the editors and agents who are trying to sell the book are going to studiously do their best to read race-related themes into it, and if the readers who buy it will also try to read race-related themes into it. And if those themes aren’t overtly there in the text, they’ll stretch really hard to find them, but ultimately it’ll be unsatisfying: they won’t know why they dislike the book, all they’ll know is that they do.

So do them a favor: somewhere in the first three chapters, just put in an explicit race-related reading (“Once again, it fell to a brown person to clean up the mess…of an alien invasion”). Just do it and be done with it. The alternative is not being able to sell your book.

P.S. If you want more such advice, check out my Cynical Guide to the Publishing Industry