Revising A Book by Exploding It In My Mind

Hey friends, thanks to everyone who has bought and read my Cynical Guide To The Publishing Industry. It’s really nice to finally have it out there! I’ve heard from a bunch of people about it–only good things, obviously, because what kind of psycho contacts the author of a self-published e-book to tell them negative stuff about it?

If you’ve read and enjoyed the book and haven’t written a review on Amazon–it would be really nice if you would. Thanks for taking the time!

ANYWAY, I am in knee-deep in novel revisions. God knows how anybody manages to write or revise one of those things. When you read a book, especially a good book, it seems so simple, as if they just sat down and put some characters on the board, and the story just happened, as simple as a kid acting out the tale with her dolls. For at least one of my novels, [Enter Title Here], it did happen just like that.

ETH has a bit of a confused plot, but I don’t think it really bothers people. Stuff happens, and you go with it.

However, it’s never again been so easy. Nowadays, I always need to do tons of rewriting, and with each revision, the book gets simpler, more elemental, and becomes more like itself. The conflicts sharpen, the pitch becomes more comprehensible, and the character arcs become more powerful and archetypal. It’s kind of a pain!

Lately, I’ve been revising the first half of this book over and over. Usually, unless a book needs a total rewrite, what happens when I revise it is the book kind of explodes in my mind, and I’m able to pick apart the pieces that need reshaping. If I’m lucky, when I explode the book, there’s an empty space that screams out to be filled–a place where something is underimagined or underrealized, and I’m like oh, I’ve just been handwaving this question and now I need to finally answer it. But sometimes it’s not like that, and you really have to move the pieces around and start questioning your original assumptions in order to make things work.

For me it’s helpful to return to three questions:

  1. What is actually happening on the page? – It’s very easy to write something in the text like, "They were best friends!" But sometimes the problem is that they’re not actually best friends. They just don’t seem like, feel like, or act like best friends. The temptation here is to wade in and start forcing stuff into place, writing scenes where they swear eternal friendship, but the thing to do is first to just notice what is going on: What are the conflicts? What are the relationships? Not what do you want them to be–instead, what have you actually written?

  2. What, specifically, is creating this effect? – I’m a big believer in the idea that a story is composed of specific things: events, settings, motivations, relationships. People aren’t "friends" in the abstract sense: they’re golf buddies; they’re workplace acquaintances; they’re cousins. Their relationship is structured by the things you’ve written for them: how do they get together? How do they talk? When do they hang out? What do they talk about? This is also the case for everything else in the book. Everybody and everything is embedded in a web of other things, and those things exert influence on the part of the book you’re working on right now. Oftentimes, what you need in order to fix the part you’re working on now is for some of the other things to be different.

  3. Why did you write it how you did? – Your unconscious throws up the events on the page. And it throws them up, oftentimes, for a reason. Now, this isn’t always true. Sometimes you just goofed, or gave in to a cliche. But oftentimes, on some level, you wanted there to be the tension you’re talking about. Like, maybe they’re not friends because they’re workplace acquaintances, and your protagonist changed her job. Now you could fix that by making them roommates instead, but do you want to? Maybe the weakness of the relationship–its lack of stability–is exactly what you wanted!

  4. Can you keep the good, remove the bad, and heighten the conflict? – But you also can’t just throw up your hands and be like "I meant it to be this way!" It takes a very talented writer to make a tale out of feelings that are wishy-washy or not-specific. And, largely, you don’t want to write those stories. You want to write stories that, even when they deal with anomie, are brutal in their sense of longing. And that means strong feelings need to enter in somewhere. But strong feeligns pervert a text, because, unless there is a countervailing force, a character will tend to follow the source of strong feeling, and that will lock the text into place. So oftentimes to make the story work–to have conflict at all–you unconsciously undermine your own characters. A perfect example of this is the first Star Wars sequel movie: The Force Awakens. In that movie, Finn and Rey are constantly trying to evade their responsibility to fight the Empire–there is simply no reason for them, given their personalities, to want to fight–so they struggle against the narrative. And that’s what the writers wanted: they wanted reluctant heroes. But if they had ever given either of the characters strong personal stakes when it came to fighting the empire, the characters just would’ve done it, and the story would’ve been over (emotionally speaking). So they undermined the story by never really giving them that reason to fight (Finn, in particular, only ever fights because he’s friends with Rey and wants to save her). Whereas, if you look at the Mandalorean, he is also a reluctant hero, but he has a reason to fight (Grogu) and also a reason not to (his own character and the overall impossibility of his task). They changed the terms of the story–the Mandalorean constantly has to recommit to his quest, precisely because it is so difficult, and yet because he loves Grogu, he’s constantly willing to do it.

  5. What specific elements should I alter? – The specific thing that they did in the Mandalorean that made it work so much better is that they left him without a clear source of guidance. If he’d had a General Leia to constantly give him concrete tasks, it would’ve been harder, structurally, for him to appear reluctant–and in that case he would’ve needed a weaker link to Grogu or some more concrete reason for betraying his charge, and that would’ve undermined the whole narrative. Because then he would’ve been more unlikable, and they would’ve needed to show his face more, give him more concrete connections. Essentially, they made choices in telling their story that made their central conflict sharper, and because of that they didn’t need all these deus ex machina effects like they just happen to run into Han Solo, who just happens to lead them back into the heart of the conflict with the First Order.

Anyway, so after you’ve realized what story elements you’re going to change, you usually get back to writing, and then you realize, whoops, now some other stuff is out of alignment. So you make more changes and sort of pat the story into place. It’s a process.

But the main thing I want to communicate is that brute force revision doesn’t help the work. I’m talking about Save The Cat style patches where you’re like, "The hero is unlikable, let’s have them save a cat in Act One." I mean, that stuff works in that unsophisticated audiences buy it, but it harms the integrity of the work. Good revision incorporates these conflicts and ambiguities, it heightens them, and it brings them into the core of the story: Why is the hero unlikable? What elements are making them seem that way? Why did you put in those elements? Can we structure the story such that their good qualities and their bad qualities are in opposition? Can we find the perfect conflict, or symbol or relationship, that cuts right to the core of their being? Or will we use tricks and short-term fixes to obscure the heart of the text?

The thing is, there is absolutely no reward for good storytelling in this way. It’s not highly in demand, even in Hollywood. Television shows, honestly, are most likely to have it, because their stories are primarily about relationships, and they can modulate and alter the relationships over time (like they did with Walter / Jesse in Breaking Bad or Don / Peggy in Mad Men). But it’s still a worthwhile exercise, at least in my opinion.

wood bird people garden
Photo by Lisa on

Out today: The Cynical Writer’s Guide To The Publishing Industry teaches You how to build excitement for your manuscript without compromising your integrity

The day has arrived! No longer do you need to take my word for it about what’s in the book. You can click through, look at the sample, and see for yourself. At its core, this is a book about how to generate excitement within the industry for your manuscript.

It’s an underrated skill. To a large extent, authors do it accidentally–they internalize the values of the industry so thoroughly that over time their imagination goes down the tracks that are likely to be more productive. But if you learn how to harness that ability–to write and pitch to the market–then you can sell books without compromising your creativity (too much).

I used to be like, oh I’ll just write whatever I want, but I ended up with too many manuscripts that simply had no place on bookshelves. It’s taken me a long time to learn these lessons, and it took that time to a large part because writers and agents and editors are invested in the idea of the business as a meritocracy. A writer said to me the other day: "If the manuscript is good enough, someone will take a chance on it."

The problem is, "good enough" only tends to be determined after a book’s marketability is determined. If your book isn’t marketable, no one will read it, and if they read it they won’t like it, because liking the manuscript would just entail the laborious task of selling a reading public on a book that they don’t really want.

This book is about harnessing some of the energy that in this industry is so often used to boost bad books to the top of the pile, and instead using it to get your good book acquired!

On a personal note, I am immensely proud of this book. It tells a concrete, coherent story. None of it is cribbed from my blog. I wrote it on my own time, on spec, and the book makes me about as happy as anything I’ve ever written. If you read it and like it, please post a review! It’s only available on Amazon, so Amazon reviews matter a lot. Once it has a core of good reviews, I’ll probably pay for some advertising to promote it on the site, but there’s no point if that’s just going to draw a bunch of randos in to trash the book.

Thanks for your help! Now that the book’s out, I’ll stop being all Cynical Guide all the time =]

For writers it’s all business, for editors and agents…not so much

In an online group, a writer asked “How do I turn down an agent who I’ve decided not to go with. I’m worried about offending them!”

Predictably people were like, “Don’t worry, they’re a pro, they know it’s just business!”

LOL. It’s never just business! That doesn’t exist! The business world would collapse if people only made decisions for reasons of pure self-interest. And publishing is even less of a business than other businesses. People take stuff so personally! During my most recent round of querying I sent out a query to an agent whose offer I’d turned down once, and they sent back a super-snarky response refusing to even see my manuscript. I kind of respected them more for it! At least my book had mattered to them. It hadn’t just been a commodity.

In a similar vein, I’ve never again been given the time of day by an editor whose offer to publish my book I refused. And when I encountered the program director of an MFA program I’d turned down (they offered half the money Johns Hopkins did), he was so terse: he acknowledged me, clearly remembered me, but barely said three word (last time we’d met, we’d talked for two hours!)

You know for whom it is just business? Aspiring authors. If you have no power, you can’t hold a grudge. My current agent rejected my manuscript the first time I sent it to him. No rewrite request, nothing. I’ve been published by editors who’ve rejected over a hundred short stories of mine. You can’t afford to hold petty grudges. Writers get that it’s hard out there. But other people in the business don’t necessary feel that way! They kind of get used to the position of being gatekeepers, and they feel like if they put in the time to read your book, then they’ve given you something, and if you didn’t accept their offer, then you’ve almost stolen that time from them.

So no, it’s not just business, and there will frequently be hard feelings. There are of course lots of real pros who get it, but they’re not the majority (although they do tend to be overrepresented amongst the upper echelons of any profession). It’s true everywhere. Like if your boss lays you off without notice, that’s just business, but if you take a job and leave him without notice then you better not ask him for a reference, because you left him in a lurch! Never mind that he harmed you personally, by taking away your livelihood, whereas all you did was slow down some project he was working on. Doesn’t matter! People have no sense of perspective.

OH WELL. There’s nothing to do about it, except this. Whenever you’re in a position of power, remember that it is just business. If you’re an editor and someone pulls a story from you because it got accepted elsewhere, well…what, where they supposed to do you a favor? If your nanny quits at the last second, well what…was she supposed to work someplace she didn’t like? If your advisee wants to switch labs, well guess what…it’s just business. They’ve got to do what’s best for them.

My personal feeling is it’s dumb to say it’s “just business”. Instead people should look at the combined good that arises from a decision. Like if you switch jobs, leaving your boss in a lurch, they lose little, but you gain much. Whereas if you’re the boss who refuses to give that person a reference, you gain little, but they lose much. Just have a sense of perspective!

But of course, the system works exactly the opposite. The powerful consider only their own needs, which forces the less-powerful to account for those needs as well. However let’s at least not lie about it! For the people above you, it’s never just business.

And of course here’s the obligatory plug for my book! You can preorder The Cynical Writer’s Guide To The Publishing Industry here! It’s coming out in two more days!


Hello friends! My cynical guide to the publishing industry is coming out this Thursday! If you’re at all interested in ever getting a book published, you’re gonna want to read my guide. The advice is way fresher than anything you’re likely to read online. Preorder it here!

As an example, I recently joined a Facebook group for writers looking for agents. Not to publicize my guide, I just joined because giving unsolicited advice about publishing has become like a drug to me. And someone asked about what questions you should ask an agent when they offer representation.

Now there are a dozen blog posts out there with advice on this subject, but I’ve never seen someone use the approach that I use. First of all, the call with the agent isn’t that important. During the call, focus on their plans for your book. But everything else, like, "What’ll you do if you don’t like a subsequent book?" or "How do you prefer clients to communicate with you?" isn’t really that useful, because you won’t know how to interpret the answers. In fact, a lot of what agents tell you is essentially in code. And usually first-time authors are so committed to fooling themselves that they can’t interpret the code. For instance, if an agent says, "I just really want to find the right editor" then that means they don’t think it’ll be a big book, and they’ll be happy to get one offer (which is totally fine! Just telling you the code). If an agent says "This just needs a little revision" then that means you’ll only be rewriting a quarter of the book. Whereas "Might need a little work" means you’ll be rewriting half the book.

But anyway, you likely won’t understand the code, so don’t worry about that. I have found, in my three agent searches, that the number one most important thing to do is contact their former clients. You want to go on Publisher’s Marketplace, scroll down to the bottom of their list of deals, and start contacting their oldest clients first. The real pay-dirt though comes from two kinds of clients: former clients and clients for whom they haven’t sold a book. To find former clients, looking at the oldest PM deals is good. You can also search google books for their names, to see who’s thanked them in acknowledgements in the past. And you can look up old interviews online to see what authors they mention themselves as repping who they no longer rep. If they list clients on their web page, you can also use to grab an old capture of their page to see who used to be on it.

Getting clients for whom they haven’t yet sold a book is trickier. But I usually search for their name followed by "my agent" or "represented by". This often pulls up people who’ve listed them on their author website.

Then just sit down and email every single one of the people you’ve found. Don’t leave any out. Write "AGENT NAME" as the subject. Ask if you can ask them about their experiences. Offer to talk on the phone if they would prefer.

Then when you’re talking, there’s only one question that matters. "I know you probably like them, but if there was one thing you could change about your relationship or their style, what would it be?"

That’s the question that gets you the fly in the ointment. Authors will almost always say nice things about their agents, even their former agents. But almost no author is entirely happy with their agent. What you want is to elicit that one thing they do or have done that’s been a problem. Usually there’s something. They are slow responding to emails. Not aggressive in submitting. Don’t seem to have the best contacts.

Keep in mind, you’re going to be having this conversation 30+ times (almost all the people you contact will reply). And over time some sort of picture will build up. You’ll get a sense of who they are and how they operate and what problems, if any, people tend to have with them.

This is also the moment to practice some emotional intelligence and listen to how people say things. It’s hard advice to give, and I wouldn’t give it if we weren’t writers, but we ought to be able to pay attention to little details and to the nuances in a person’s statements.

I once got a testimonial from an author that was literally the most lukewarm recommendation I’ve ever seen. It was like, "They send emails for me. Sometimes editors answer. But they sold my book, so I guess it worked out." Three weeks later the author emailed back being like why didn’t you go with my agent. I was like, "Your email was a huge part of it!" The author had no idea. They were like, "Wow, you discovered something I knew without knowing that I knew it."

After all this, you’ll probably discover that all the agents have their upsides and downsides. The sole exception is my current agent, who is perfect. I couldn’t find a single person who had a bad thing to say about him, even out of the five or six former clients I tracked down (in almost all cases they’d left because books hadn’t sold or their career had changed directions). But generally speaking you won’t be so lucky.

Then, after doing all this work, just go with the agent who seems most excited about your work and who seems to have the most contacts in and experience with the field in question. After all, almost every agent will do a great job with the book they sign you with. And with subsequent books it’s hard to say what’ll happen. But at least after doing your due diligence you will know how they operate. You will know what parts of the relationship are typical and what parts are unique to you. I’ve never once, with any agent, been surprised by what they did. In every case, they treated me just like they tended to treat their clients. Don’t assume you’ll be an outlier.

Oh and this is just personal preference, but don’t sign with an agent who promises you the book will sell or that it’ll sell big. Nobody who is ethical ought to make such a promise. The most important thing in an author / agent relationship is trust, and it’s very hard to know who to trust to have your best interests in mind, but a trusting relationship doesn’t start with lies. No matter how much the agent loves your book, nobody can know for certain that a book will sell. Even the best agents fail to sell books all the time.

Still really happy I never did the required reading in school

Hello friends. I am so sleepy today. Not sure what’s wrong with me. I’ve been doing a lot of writing on the bed these days, because, what with the baby, space is a little limited in the house, and I think all this lying prone can really take it out of you.

I’ve generally been feeling cheerful. My last book, Enter Title Here sold like 5x more copies in hardback than it did in paperback, presumably because a lot of the sales were driven by school and library collections (they tend to purchase in hardback). But We Are Totally Normal has been doing well in paperback! Overall I’d say the book has met or exceeded overall sales expectations, esp since it came out right at the beginning of the pandemic and most copies of the book, I imagine, sat in closed bookstores for months. I mean the book didn’t set the world on fire, but it didn’t flop either, and this is something that a person learns to appreciate. Get your copy of the paperback here!

I do wish I had more energy though. I’m sure if I ate better, slept better, worked out, I wouldn’t feel so worn out. I’ve never been that person though. How did everybody get so healthy??? I’m not the first person to note that there is something of a class marker here. At some point in the nineties all the upper middle class people got the memo that you need to devote yourself to health and exercise. Even when I was in college, a significant number of my classmates engaged in optional exercise, which still strikes me as absurd. I mean it’s one thing to be thirty-five and exercise, but to be 20 and regularly going to the gym? Just doesn’t make sense. Somehow people knew, though! They were like this is important! Silly go-getters. I have to say, there are things that other people did that I am glad I never did, like study hard in college, get good grades, apply myself to my work, and do the required reading for classes.

Letting other people determined how you expend your emotional energies is no good. Like, yes, do the work, but don’t care about the work. If you work too hard at other peoples’ priorities, you get halfway through life without ever figuring out who you are. I have to say, I am especially down on required reading. It seems antithetical to the spirit of the classics to read them and then immediately have some learned professor explain them to you. What’s the point? You might as well just not do the reading and just listen to the explanations instead. The writing world is full of people who got all their opinions about literature from their undergrad professors, just like the political world is full of people whose political opinions are a direct cribbing on the New York Times editorial page.

Life is so much more luxurious when you indulge yourself. Having your own opinions about things is a form of indulgence, in that it’s not good for you, the opinions are frequently incorrect and indefensible, and it feels so good. A friend today forwarded me these two Elif Batuman12 essays about how terrible MFA programs are. I loved them obviously, as I love everything that slags MFAs and the MFA system. But these aren’t fresh takes, they’re simply eloquent ones. You’ll never find a person who defends the MFA system in its entirety, nor will you find someone who says that American letters is healthy and producing tons of interesting work. The bias is obvious here. In one essay Batuman reads The Best American Essays and then she reads a Chekhov story collection. She doesn’t read Best Russian Stories of 1885. If she did, I imagine that she would find plenty that is second-rate (although it is true that at perhaps no other time and place in history was so much first-rate fiction written as in 19th century Russia).

But it’s fun to hate MFAs. Writers are wonderful at developing hypotheses about things. But we have a terrible time proving them. Almost everything that people say is wrong. Human brains aren’t particularly scientific. We hardly bother to define what we’re talking about, much less the conditions under which we might consider that thing to be true. And to go the step further and actually test the hypothesis is something that is beyond almost all people, and in most situations can’t be done. So we’re wrong, most of the time. And when we’re not wrong, it’s because someone else did the work of figuring out the truth. But what’s the solution? To simply not think? Not say? To withhold judgement? That’s no fun whatsoever.

Exercising your own mind isn’t particularly good for you–nobody thinks more for themselves than a conspiracy theorist–if you’ve ever spoken to one, you’ll find them impossible to defeat in an argument, not because their arguments are true, but because they’ve simply thought much harder about their position than you have about yours. They have facts upon facts to prove 9/11 was an inside job, and what do you have? Just a vague sense that, well, it probably wasn’t. But you are still right, and they are still wrong. A person’s rightness or wrongness has nothing to do with how smart they are and everything to do with how willing they are to trust the authority of mainstream scientists and researchers.

But that doesn’t leave much for you to do, does it? Where is the residue? Where is the space for the individual to make some kind of contribution? I think this is one reason I don’t do much discussion of politics on this blog. I have opinions, obviously! Half my conversations these days are about cancel culture, and the benefits or dangers thereof. Anybody who is in the business of producing culture has to think about whether their work is racist or sexist or homophobic. It’s onerous. The criticisms can be boring, humorless, and a bit reductive, but they’re a part of life.

For many people, the question of whether or not a YA novel is racist seems to be deadly serious and on par with climate charge, the carceral state and the endless war on Terror. For other people, the overreach of cancel culture is an existential threat to free speech. My god, these kids are going to destroy independent thought!

It’s hard to even begin to analyze the truth or falseness of these opinions. Both sides can be supported with argument. But largely we just don’t know. There are claims here that can be tested empirically, but the test is so difficult as to be in practice impossible. What is the effect of a book? Even if a book is racist, what harm does it do? What harm does it do to suppress the book? How do we create a peaceful and equitable society? These aren’t questions of values–we all want political and economic equity–they’re questions of fact–what means will lead to the outcome we all desire?

I just don’t know. Nobody does. And all the chatter back and forth about the topic leads us no closer to finding the real answer. But it’s not without its pleasures.

Am not sure I’ll ever be a Very Important Writer

Hello friends. I’ve been feeling a disinclination lately to read books, probably because I’m deep inside another novel project. Amazon sends me emails literally every other day telling me too make sure the file is in order for immediate delivery on May 6th to those who’ve preordered the Cynical Writer’s Guide to the Publishing Industry. Makes me kind of anxious! I think it’s looking pretty good, but who knows? Excited for it to be out!

I’ve finally given in and admitted to myself that I just enjoy thinking about, gossiping about, and giving advice about the publishing industry. For a long time, I felt like this was vaguely disreputable: I ought to only care about the books themselves, not about the industry! But it’s just so much fun! It’s gotten to the point where even the ridiculous things the industry does–its prejudices and indignities–just seem vaguely comical.

I know that quality isn’t entirely divorced from publishing industry success. There is some level of correlation. The better a book is, the more likely it is to succeed. But the correlation is so weak that from the individual author’s standpoint it might as well not exist, and it’s better to think of performance as being almost entirely a result of factors besides the artistic quality of the text.

Ironically, this makes it a lot easier to exist within the system. When people succeed, it’s less a cause for envy and more of a matter of interest: how did this happen? How did the sausage get made?

This is true of myself too! My books are uniformly excellent of course, but for each of them I can point to the specific factors that attracted publishers to them, and none of it had to do with my writing or storytelling.

I don’t know. For many writers, this business is a matter of extremely high stakes: either literal or figurative life and death. They need to succeed, either for financial reasons or because their entire self-worth is based upon succeeding. That’s no longer true for me.

In fact, I have so much fun thinking about and writing about the publishing industry that sometimes I even wonder if I want to keep writing novels. The work I do with my cynical guides seems so much more incisive and necessary to me than my novels–its a place where I can see my voice is really needed–and afterwards going back to writing a novel, about a bunch of fictional people, seems sort of minor.

When writing fiction, one has to constantly return one’s focus to what’s most important. What is the core of this book’s appeal? Why am I writing this? What need or longing does it fulfill? That, even more than questions of craft, is the most essential part of the process. Without that, you might produce a salable work, but to what end?

In my fiction, I think the core of my interest has always been this idea of heroism in the real world. Given that most people seem rather conservative and set in their ways, what prompts someone to stand out? What makes someone act differently? Of course these ideas are deeply submerged in my writing, and I don’t think I’ve yet written a book that expresses them in the way I want, but they’re one reason I keep writing.

At the same time, I’ve grown more interested over time in just telling a good story. I used to think all you needed in a book was to have a compelling voice, full of barely-suppressed longing, and that would be enough to carry the reader through the book. And it is, more or less, but very few books pair that voice with a story that’s really firing on all cylinders. Over the last four or five years, I’ve gotten very interested in how voice, character, plot, and theme can all support each other, so the end product has a unitary quality. To me, that’s a substantial component of what I’d call the ‘beauty’ of a novel. It’s not necessarily the thing that makes a novel timeless, but it does make the novel a pleasure to read, and it helps the novel say whatever it has to say.

But is any of this really that urgent or intense? Are these the motivations that would keep someone writing late at night, on an empty stomach, even as they cough blood into a handkerchief? No, probably not. It would be very nice to feel that terrible urgency! I mean I definitely felt it when I wrote my first published novel Enter Title Here and when I wrote the book before that, which got me my first agent. In both of those cases, I felt like I had a responsibility to myself to put this perspective out into the world. And for a long time after selling my first book I was stymied by the feeling that writing wasn’t worthwhile unless it was urgent in that way.

But you can’t manufacture that feeling. You can’t will it into being. It’s a result of everything going on in your life. I’ll never again be unpublished, with something to prove. I’ll never be twenty-seven again (the age when I wrote the first draft of Enter Title Here).

When I was younger, I was so certain I’d be a leading literary light someday–that I’d be an Important Writer. That’s still something I’d dearly love to be, and it’s not the most unlikely prospect in the world (I’m still working steadily on my literary novel in the background). I’ve lately felt much more confident in my style–in the line-level writing itself, which, although not ornate, is rhythmic and dense. But the title also means less to me. I mean it’s all written in the wind anyway. Very excited though to be sharing my cynical guide with you soon! Preorder now to get it on the 6th!

Could not possibly feel lazier this week

Can’t believe it’s already Thursday. I’ve been feeling so lazy. We’ve had workers in the house all week installing air conditioning. Yes, we’re fancy. Last summer there was a month when it was both fiendishly hot and really smoky, and I swore if we got through it then we’d get air conditioning. Anyway having people in the house sent the cat, dog, and baby into a tizzy, so had some managing to do.

Got my writing done. It’s going well, I think. Novels are a lot. They’re a lot to juggle. Lots of characters, moving pieces. I’m trying to do two things with this one: the first is to continually raise the tension, which basically involves making sure something actually happens in each chapter. And I’m trying to vary the locations too. It’s not entirely realistic: life is more like TV, where things happen in the same locations, over and over, than it is like a movie, where the locales change constantly. But on the other hand switching up locations really spices up the book and helps in the never-ending quest to provide varied images.

And…that’s what I have to say. I really have been so lazy. But the writing is continuing. It’s happening. I wish I could be more productive, I suppose but you’ve got to forgive yourself. And then I do also remember to enjoy the times the writing is going relatively well, because they don’t necessarily last.

The thesis of my Cynical Guide is: When selling a book to a publisher you need to convince them that it has a chance at being a bestseller

I am beyond excited that the Cynical Writer’s Guide To The Publishing Industry is coming out soon (May 6th). It’s really odd, I’ve never felt the need to really get out there and shill a release of mine before, and I think that’s because I never really felt like my novels were, you know, unmissable. Like, they were good books. Great books, even. But most people, most of my readers, even, aren’t necessarily in the market for novels, much less for YA novels, and given that they could read literally any novel in existence, it’s hard to really make a strong case for reading mine.

I don’t feel that way about the Cynical Guide. For the first time, I feel as if I’ve written something that people are going to want to read. There is both a market for and a need for this book.

Now, I keep thinking that I ought to post more excerpts from the guide, but today I had an epiphany: excerpts aren’t really in the style of the guide. The guide is all about sitting down, forming a direct brain to keyboard connection, and explaining something as reasonably and straightforwardly as I can, using just supposition and induction, without any real recourse to evidence–it’s about putting something out there and letting people see how they feel about it, letting them test it out to see if there’s any truth there.

The guide springs from one simple fact: you cannot sell a book just by saying it’s a good, high-quality book.

As writers, we understand what constitutes a good book. It’s not only good storytelling and an engaging voice, it’s a spark of genius, something absolutely new, something impulse or insight that we will maybe spend our lifetimes trying to put into word.

But the publishing industry doesn’t get excited about those things. What the publishing industry wants to know is: “Could this book be a hit?” And the more excited you make them about its hit potential, the more likely you’ll be to sell the book. Moreover, if they do not sense that hit potential, they will not buy your book. They won’t request it, they won’t read it, and if they do read it, they’ll read it with an eye to rejecting it, rather than an eye to accepting it.

So the Cynical Guide has two objectives: one, it’s to build the above argument in a convincing manner; and two, it’s to reverse-engineer the industry’s own expectations and figure out what gets them excited. To this end, I write the book in the exact opposite way that most writing manuals are written. I don’t start with the manuscript, or even with the writer at all. I start with the acquiring editor: the human being, probably working in New York City, who is going to be deciding whether or not to try and buy your book. I look into her incentives. I look into what she needs the book to be. This is where I make the case that editors need books to be hits.

Then I go backwards: your agent, what do they need to get excited about a book? What makes them think a book can be pitched to editors as a potential hit? What gets them excited?

Then I write about the pitch: how can you look at the landscape and craft a pitch that will excite people–that will have them reading to accept, rather than reading to reject.

Then I write about the manuscript: how can you subtly revise the manuscript so that it pays off on the pitch, without losing the core of what interests you about the manuscript. Because the cynical guide is all about preserving your voice, your interests, and your integrity. It is not about writing to market: it’s about finding the intersection of what you can write and what the market will buy.

And finally I have a section about the writer’s life, and about how to hold onto your own voice and your own creativity.

What I lay out in the cynical guide isn’t a simple program. It’s not a worksheet. It’s not a set of steps. Instead it’s a worldview. A way of approaching your writing career so that you don’t experience the pain and disappointment of finding that your manuscript simply has no place in the market.

I genuinely think that writers need to hear some of this information. And I think the best and most creative writers need to hear it the most. Because when I was starting to write, people always said, “Just write. Focus on craft. Write the book you need to write.” There was no understanding of the market. And the problem is that every writer you’ve ever heard of obviously managing to find a place in the market for their writing. You never hear about the far greater number of writers who wrote good books whose chances were nil, right from the get-go, because the market had no room for them (or at least no room for them as they were pitched).

ANYWAYS, that’s what the Cynical Guide is. If you’re at all interested: you can preorder it on Amazon. I’m already hard at work too on a companion book, The Cynical Writer’s Guide To Literary Fiction, which is a book about what I’ve found to be the murkiest, most sought-after, and most inaccessible region of fiction publishing.

The literary fiction book is, if anything, going to be even better. When I told my wife about it, she said But you haven’t even publishing a literary novel yet. But it doesn’t matter. I know things. Moreover, I’ve started to understand how literary reputations are made and what determines which books get published and which don’t, which get acclaim and which don’t. Prestige publishing is, like the prestige ends of all business, extremely complicated, and it deals heavily in the murky territory of important peoples’ egos, but I think for that reason it’s all the more fascinating and worthy of explication. I’m making good progress and hope to have that out in six months!

The Cynical Guides are definitely a labor of love. I enjoy the cynical voice quite a bit. I also enjoy the relative freedom. Unlike with this blog, I can develop my ideas in seclusion, and I can develop them at length. I have ideas for future entries in the series as well, but we’ll see if I can maintain the momentum.

(Meanwhile, I am obviously still working on my fiction. That’s my main priority. The cynical writing remains something I do in the afternoons, as a sideline)

How much work is enough

One perennial topic on this blog is “How much is enough?” When have you written enough, when have you worked hard enough, when can you stop pushing yourself and leave the rest to get done some other day? My strong belief is that enough is enough: there’s only a limited amount of creative work you can do in a day.

But on the other hand, the idea does exist of capitalizing on hot streaks. Maybe when the writing is going really well, you should keep writing. This is exactly the opposite of what most people do. They force themselves to write when they’re not feeling it, but then when the writing IS going well, they give up after doing an hour of work, because that’s all they needed to hit their wordcount goal.

On the third hand, I also think the words you get while pushing yourself through a hot streak aren’t always the best. After all, sometimes you wake up the next day and realize you’ve found an entirely new direction and need to throw out the old stuff. I can’t count the number of times I was thankful I stopped when I did, because in the morning I realized that although what I’d written yesterday was fine, I now had an entirely new conception of what needed to come next.

I believe in letting the unconscious mind do most of my work! Which is just to say, I feel like one or two solid hours of writing is enough. But then what to do with the rest of the time? I find it hard, personally, to formally give up on the writing day and start reading, so I often fritter my time away watching TV and browsing the internet after my writing is done. One reason I’m liking the Cynical Guide project is that I can basically write infinite words in the Cynical voice without any effort. Yesterday after finishing the day’s main writing, I wrote three thousand words on The Cynical Writer’s Guide To Literary Fiction! Now this one is gonna be smoking hot. There is essentially nothing like it on the market: a book that looks at how the marketplace finds and elevates all these wunderkind literary sensations. It’s gonna be great! Probably be out in six months? Hard to say how long this stuff takes or will take.

Cynical Guide To The Publishing Industry Coming May 6th!

Hello friends. I broke out the old electric type-writer for this one. My major news is that I’ve uploaded the complete draft of the Cynical Writer’s Guide To The Publishing Industry and it’s been accepted by the Amazon censors (they had initially objected to my title, for arcane reasons). Am very excited to be sharing it with the world soon! I think it’s all-in-all just an entertaining reading experience, and it’s my hope people can read it in the spirit in which it’s offered: as a salve, a balm, and a work of entertainment. It’s not gonna give you the secret to getting published, but it will tell you a whole bunch of stuff you haven’t heard elsewhere. And some of that stuff will even be true!

I’m not gonna do the cover reveal. Figure I’ll just share the Amazon link when it’s available. But the cover is beautiful! It’s priced at 5.99, and I’m hoping to get some reviews in from favorable reviewers and fans before it gets subjected to the hordes.

As I’ve mentioned before, I reread the book with an eye to "What would an unfriendly reader think of this?" And there is a considerable amount to object to! If the book becomes popular, it might provoke hot takes. I think the book is really fair to everyone: it goes deeply into the incentives that make the industry how it is. But people aren’t great readers, and they’re not interested in being fair (this is one of the themes of the book!)

We will see though! It’s really really exciting. I mean this is an entire book-length work that I made! Like, I made this. All by myself! It’s kind of a rush. I totally get why people self-publish.

I’m already thinking about upcoming volumes in the series. I am thinking of two: a guide to the world of literary fiction, and a guide to structuring a book so that people will feel compelled to read it even if they don’t like it.

But I don’t know if I can write them in less than a year. As a stopgap, I’m thinking of taking some of my more cynical columns from thirteen years of blogging and putting those out as a Cynical Pamphlet. We will see!

Other than this, I’ve nothing going on. I’ve been proofing the Cynical Guide for days, and I had a childcare interruption, so I was also taking care of our baby. This means I haven’t done any original writing in a while. I need to get back to it today. This blog post is really just a way of procrastinating on that. It’s always scary to go back to writing. You just wonder if anything will happen. Sometimes it doesn’t! But I have high hopes.

I continue to only read my work email once per day. It is very hard. I am frequently tempted to break my fast. But it’s been so good for my mental health to concentrate all that worry and rejection.