Every revision has been an exercise in pulling back

Getting extremely close to sending out my book! Very excited. It’ll probably go terribly and turn into a miserable experience, like everything else related to writing and publishing fiction, but right now I am excited. I am particularly excited with the revisions I’ve made. I think this last revision really pulled the book together.

What’s interesting with this book is how in every revision I’ve pulled back and made the book smaller, less plot-focused, and less dramatic. That’s not normally where you go, but in this case it felt right. The core of the story is in the main character’s sense of longing for a particular kind of connection with other people, and that’s a longing which gets blown up when there’re too many high-stakes events going on.

It’s been fun! If no agent picks up the book, it’ll probably be the end of my fifteen months of working on it, but they won’t have been wasted. I do feel much more able now to write the sort of books I want to write. Although I still love science fiction and fantasy, and I think my writing is much more exciting and high-stakes because of it, I do think I’ve needed to unlearn some habits I picked up from writing adventure stories.

Not that I think adventure stories are bad, it’s just that I don’t want (right now) to write them. I want to write books that focus more on the interior and on the prosaic, and you can’t really do that if the police are showing up and people’re being kicked out of school and all this craziness is going down.

Feeling quite anxious about sending out my book

I’m doing line-level edits to It’s Probably Just A Phase. The book is currently at about 78,000 words, and I’ve found that it’s generally possible to reduce a book by at least 10% simply by going through and tightening the language. I am also going to try to inject some beauty into the language.

In general, I’m not an amazing prose stylist. I have an okay ear, but my eye isn’t very good. I can’t see things in a new way, and if you can’t see well, then it’s difficult to write well. However I have come, over the years, to have a better opinion of my own line-level writing, simply because I leave out most of the bullshit that people often put into books when they’re flailing around and trying to write something that sounds like a book ought to sound, rather than relying on their own sense of aesthetics.

I’m not against description. I’m not even against wordiness. My sentences tend to be pretty long, and I think the right detail in the right place is a beautiful thing. Two of my favorite writers are Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust for Christ’s sake. Although it’s not the main thing I enjoy in a book–I prefer books that depict complex social relationships–I do love it when a writer can make me feel like I’m living somebody else’s life: seeing what they see, smelling what they smell, walking where they walk.

But if you can’t do that, don’t try to snow me over. I’m basically talking about any book described as having “lush prose.” To me that just means this book is describing the greek friezes on the lintel, and grandma’s collection of elf dolls on the bookshelf, and the smell of the jacaranda that’s climbing the trellis. God save me from the jacaranda. When a book is really dense and full, nobody describes it as lush. Nobody’s going around saying Virginia Woolf is lush, because prose is lush when it seems excessive or overgrown.

Anyyyyyyways, I’m editing my book. It’s frightening. I mean I haven’t done this in four years! And it seems very possible that nobody is gonna want the stupid thing. I believe so strongly in this book, but that’s not really a guarantee. And I am getting terrifyingly close to the day when I will need to send it out. Because after I do this line-by-line tightening there’s no more revisions left. I’m not gonna go back and rewrite a bunch of scenes. The book at that point is done, at least until an editor or agent has their way with it.

Oh well, better get to it.

Getting ready to get myself all married and such

I and my fiancé, Rachel, have been pulling things together for our wedding on July 30th. Mostly everything is pretty set, but there’s always little stuff. We’re chasing down everybody’s meal preferences, making a playlist, etc. It’s sort of tedious, but I am excited to be married. Mostly because of the healthcare! Rachel informs me that we don’t need to pay any premiums, and that I’m gonna get dental and vision coverage! Holy smokes. Right now I pay $300 a month, and I have a $4500 deductible.

There are other reasons besides healthcare for a writer to get married. But healthcare is really all the reason that you need.

I’ve read so many Westlake novels in these past two weeks. They’re kind of like candy, but they’re not mindless. Each one is very specific, and each one contains such detailed and intimate portraits. The Parker novels, in particular, have a very keen eye for psychology, which is surprising because the protagonist, Parker, seems to have very little psychology of his own. He just wants the job to go well. That’s all he cares about. I’m getting into the later Parker novels, where he displays more of a human side. He helps one of his heist buddies, Alan Grofield, out of a jam, and later on he falls in love with a woman, Claire, and brings her along with him. It’s not a terrible thing, I suppose, and Parker has always contained within himself some yearning for more humanity, but I don’t know…

Am working on revising my second YA novel (formerly called Tell Em They’re Amazing and now retitled It’s Probably Just A Phase). There’s been a (relatively amicable) parting of ways with both my publisher and my agent (yes, the passive voice was carefully chosen there), so the book will be going out in a few weeks to agents. Kind of nerve-wracking to be querying agents for the first time in four years, but this time I know a lot more about the industry and about what I want.

Been reading so much Donald Westlake. He is so good.

You’re probably so cool that you heard of Donald Westlake, like years ago. He sure does seem to have a lot of books out, and he does seem to get mentioned sometimes in the same breath as Elmore Leonard, Charles Willeford, Jim Thompson, etc. Which is to say, he writes crime novels. Not detective novels. Novels in which people commit crimes.

I have read ten of his books in the last eight days. They’re that good. He’s got two major series. I started with the Dortmunder novels, which are about a hard-boiled thief whose capers always go ludicrously wrong. In one novel, for instance, they conduct a heist in an office building, only to discover that the megacorporation that’s based there is in the middle of an orientation session for the army of private mercenaries they’ve hired to overthrow the government of a small Latin American nation.

His other major series is the Parker novels, which’re about a hard-boiled thief who’s an emotionless monster and who always wins, no matter what the odds are. Apparently the Dortmunder books were Westlake’s humorous take on the Parker novels, and they bear a lot of similarities. It’s like they take place in slightly askew universes.

Weirdly, given how much I tend to like comedic novels, I actually enjoy the Parker novels more. They’re shorter, and they tend to be much more high-concept. For instance, in the one I just read (The Seventh), a heist goes awry when an angry ex-boyfriend stumbles into Parker’s hideout, trying to settle a score with the girl that Parker’s sleeping with, and ends up killing her and making off with the money. The whole novel is Parker’s focused attempt to throw off the cops and find the ex. Another, The Outfit, is about Parker trying to fight an entire organized crime syndicate that’s decided he’s crossed it. In the current book I’m reading, The Score, Parker assembles a group of twelve men, and they rob an entire town in North Dakota.

Parker is so terrible. He’s a sociopath, but he’s not even cruel. All he wants is money. During most of the year he picks up a woman and goes with her from resort town to resort town. When he runs low on money, he gets involved in these heists and steals more. He doesn’t kill except when it’s the best solution to his problems (this tends to be unfortunately often), and he’s willing to torture and kidnap people too (there hasn’t been any rape yet, and I don’t think there’s going to be). He’s chillingly evil, but a very different sort of evil from what we’re used to. He’s the sort of evil that is greedy and has no moral code of any sort. If he had different appetites, like an appetite for fame or for dominion over other people, he’d be a real monster. But since all he wants is money, he’s sort of tolerable.

The books are great though. And Westlake does this thing about halfway through each one where he cuts for a few chapters into somebody else’s mind, and these are my favorite parts, because it’s clear that he’s writing Parker this way because that’s how the character is. Westlake himself is capable of broad range and a lot of nuance (although let’s be real, his female characters are infrequent and thin, though the Dortmunder books are better on this than the Parker books, and I’ve literally only seen one nonwhite PoV character in the course of these ten books). Anyway, I highly recommend.

I really liked Wonder Woman

JL_Wonder_WomanSaw Wonder Woman last Thursday. Was pleasantly pleased. The other DC Universe films were so bad that I had pretty low expectations, but this one wasn’t terrible. The pacing was good. The story sort of held together. And the character arc felt at least a little bit fresh and interesting.

I also thought it was interesting to have a romantic subplot that felt a little bit less shoe-horned than normal. I’ve become so accustomed to action movies that don’t have the slightest hint of chemistry between the male and female leads that I guess I’d even forgotten what chemistry looked like. In this case, it honestly did feel like Steve Trevor and Diana actually, you know, were interested in each other. And when they kissed it felt a little bit less perfunctory than normal (a little bit).

Also was interesting to see a female hero who is so much more powerful than her romantic interest. I mean it’s not that Steve Trevor can’t handle himself in a fight, but she repeatedly saves his life. She’s a semi-divine, and he’s merely human. It’s sort of the sit-com trope of the very competent wife and the bumbling husband, but it’s not something that often gets plunked into action films. Honestly, I couldn’t believe how rare it is for there to be a female superhero movie, especially when it seems like the audience out there has been very receptive to Wonder Woman.

I won’t go overboard in praising the film. It does feel like we’re sort of grading on a curve, both because DC’s other efforts have been _so_ disappointing and because we badly want a female superhero movie to do well. The movie had plenty of flaws. The action sequences, aside from the no man’s land sequence and the alleyway fight, felt a little lackluster. The villains weren’t really that menacing, and the movie didn’t feel very high-stakes, somehow.

Hmm, when I have to say what made the movie stand out or make it worth watching, I guess it’s just that Gal Gadot and Patty Jenkins kind of started to sketch out what a fantasy by, for, and about women might look like. In some ways, the fantasy is disquieting: Gal Gadot is thin, she’s white, she’s beautiful, and she’s innocent. She also quite frequently doesn’t wear very much in terms of clothing. But in some ways that feels like the flipside of male superhero movies. I mean, Chris Hemsworth is white and blonde and handsome and rugged and stoic. His Thor is an aspirational figure for men, created by men, but that doesn’t mean he’s not toxic.

In this movie, too, Gal Gadot becomes one of the boys. She does this by accepting and understanding their attempts at flirtation, by slogging it out with them in tough encounters, but by also maintaining a sort of den mother appeal and seeing to all of their various psychoses and neuroses. In this she sort of replicates what a lot of successful women do (and need to do) in the workplace. They have to become one of the boys, but not too much so. I mean how many sorority girls have played den mother to a pack of frat guys in exactly the same way? How many female management consultants or doctors or lawyers have performed the same function in an otherwise male workplace? The way that Wonder Woman becomes a leader of this group is subtle and clever, but it’s also open to criticism, because it’s so tied up with her beauty and with traditional gender roles.

And yet…I don’t know…she’s a fantasy. There should be other fantasies, I agree, but I think that the desire to have a perfect body is always going to be a part of our fantasies. It’s just that for women the desire to have a perfect body has these gross connotations: why do I want this? who do I want it for?

I think with Wonder Woman, and with movies and shows like it, there can be some effort to unpick that and to create an action-heroine aesthetic that’s more for women than for men. But obviously there’s a long way to go. And, equally obviously, I’m not a woman, so I can’t really opine too much further about this matter.

(Thinking about another recent release, I think part of the appeal of Robin Wright in House of Cards is that she’s beautiful, and she’s sexual, but she’s not entirely given over the male gaze. There is a severity and a coldness to her that is the opposite of Wonder Woman, and that she would I think be written very differently if the show wanted to make her fully available to men. In House of Cards, she’s sort of a femme fatale, but unlike Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep, the show makes it clear that she needs a lot more from the world than a slap in the face and a hard kiss.)

Been writing stories again

I forget if I’ve mentioned it on this blog, but I’ve taken to writing short stories again. Honestly I just got tired of trying to write another novel. I figure maybe one of my stories will turn into a novel. Maybe I’m trying to trick myself by telling myself they’re stories. I don’t know. What I do know is that I’ve been relatively pleased with the stories. They’re fun. Not only fun to write, but fun to read, too. They’ve got a playfulness that feels missing nowadays from my attempts at novels, which all feel doomed and leaden. I think it’s just that before I can clench up and destroy everything, the story is over.

Have sold two stories recently: “A Coward’s Death” to Lightspeed (my second there) and “Weft” to Beneath Ceaseless Skies (also my second). I’m pretty pleased with both of them, but I’ve written others recently that I like even more, and I’m hoping those will also sell eventually.

I do think sometimes that for the last five or six years I’ve been waiting for the moment when “the time” comes. You know, the moment when I find the thing I want to write about and when I produce my mature work. But it’s never felt really felt like that. When I wrote Enter Title Here, I thought, this is fantastic, but I also thought…this is a good start. Now I don’t know. It’s hard to say what comes next. Maybe these stories are my mature work. Maybe this is all there’ll ever be for me.

Oh well! It’s not so bad. Nice at least to write and to have the work out there (and I do sincerely mean that, since I know it’s not something one can take for granted). The rest is up to fate.

Sorry for being out of touch

This is not a “sorry for not blogging” post, because I swore I’d never write one of those. It is, however, a “sorry for not talking to you lately” post to my friends and family. I’m not depressed or withdrawn, but for some reason I’ve been feeling lately the need for solitude. I don’t know why. All I know is that for the last few weeks whenever I’ve seen anybody, there’s a part of me that’s felt like I was distracting myself from something I need to do.

In my case, this need for solitude has also extended to Facebook and this blog. I’ve been posting less and the quality of my posts has also gone down. Sorry about that! It’s just something that had to be done. I can’t say that I’ve been necessarily on a roll with my writing. I’ve been trying to work on a novel, and I’ve thrown out tens of thousands of words in this time. Today I wrote five thousand words, and I’m almost positive that tomorrow I’ll wake up and realize they weren’t quite right.

And yet…in the past I’ve posted on here, I know, that I was missing the sense of longing that needs to power all fiction. “The heart of longing” is what I called it. And right now I have that! For some weird reason–and this has never happened to me before–I’ve caught hold of the heart of longing, but not of anything else. I don’t have a character or a story, all I have is pure and unadulterated longing. Now, trying to stuff this longing into a novel has proven to be very difficult, but I feel like I am closer to getting it right than I have been in years.

And for me, for right now, staying away from other people has proven to be the best way to keep hold of this feeling. So that’s where I’m at.

Went reading through my own backlog today

Because I’ve been writing so many stories lately (and because I just sold a recently-written one to Lightspeed!!!) I became somewhat interested in my own ouevre. After all, I’ve written 225 stories (out of which 51 have been or will be published). For most of my writing career I put these stories into two categories: a) genius (i.e. anything I’d published or which I was working on right now); or b) trash (i.e. anything over a year old that hadn’t sold.

However now that I’m thirty-one, I’ve started lately to wonder what it is that I stand for as a writer. Do I have anything to say? Do I have a style? A subject matter? I mean I’m a nobody short story writer, but I meet all of this up-and-coming writers who’re like, “Wow you’ve sold to all these places.” Once I even fielded an offer from a small press publisher to put out a short fiction collection (I declined, because I didn’t think I had enough good stuff to fill one).

And now I’m like…does any of this mean anything? Does it amount to anything?

So first I went through some of my trunked stories (i.e. the unsold stories I’ve given up on submitting). There are approximately 160 of these, so I obviously couldn’t read them all. But the very first one I read, from 2011, was surprisingly good! This is a story I’d never submitted, evidently because I thought it had too little plot and structure. But I found it to be lyrical and inventive. I was like omg what if this archive is full of GOLD!!!

That did not prove to be the case. Most of the other stories I read were not very good. I mean they weren’t terrible, but even I had no desire to read past the first page (and I wrote them!) Often they had the hallmarks of journeyman fiction: a certain lack of immediacy, specificity, and stakes. It’s hard to explain, there’s just a certain line-level lack of density that makes a reader immediately go: “Nope!”

It’s not anything you can revise for. You just need to write a better story!

Keep in mind, though, that most of the trunked stories I read were from 2011, 2012, and 2013, which were years when I was ALSO (albeit infrequently) selling stories to pro magazines. So I was like, wait, were the stories I sold really so much better?

So with that I delved into my own short fiction bibliography (link), and I started randomly looking into stories that I thought might be not terrible. The first few I read weren’t amazing. “Tomorrow’s Dictator” had, from the very first paragraph, this feeling that this was just the sort of story I wouldn’t normally bother to read (published in Apex, this is about a cult leader, and master of brainwashing, who’s recruited by the human resources department of a large corporation). I mean it felt both broad and shallow. A story that was punching below its weight class, basically.

“A House, Drifting Sideways”  was a lot better (published in GigaNotaSaurus, this was one of my MFA application stories; it’s about a near-future Paris Hilton type who believes that without her partying the fabric of society will fall apart). It at least had voice and hints of something interesting, but again it felt like it was lacking a certain element of…I don’t know…fun? The story seemed too slow. I was like…why do I even care?

So I was definitely feeling a little bit down on my own output, but then I read the third story: “The Days When Papa Takes Me To War” (originally published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, this answers the age-old question: “What if Hemingway had fathered a daughter, during the waning days of World War II, with a gigantic ant?”). And I found myself genuinely intrigued! I didn’t really remember how the story turned out, and though this is one of my longest, I kept reading, anxious to find out. So go me!

Satisfied that I have, in my life, written at least one good story, I ended my quest.

However this did remind me that for reasons I don’t really understand Strange Horizons did a one thousand word review of this story! I never read it, because I don’t read my own reviews, but I figure now enough time has passed so I’m gonna go check it out!

Oh no the review is negative!!!!!!! Except that reading it made me like the story more. I was like, “Yes, I am subtle and brilliant! And yes, I do leave these questions open-ended because I am amazing.” Also, I had way less sympathy for Ernest Hemingway than, apparently, this reviewer did. Which is just par for the course with me, sigh. I am so misunderstood: everybody likes my villains and hates my heroes.

Sometimes loneliness can be really good

Ironically, right at the moment when I started to write this blog series, I also started to feel like maybe I was too connected. I also write fiction, as you might know, and I’ve been trying for years to write a book about loneliness. I spent yesterday wandering around the Mission District, just sitting in cafes and watching other people, and something about channeling my own loneliness felt really productive. Sure, I could’ve dispelled it by making a few calls. And the feeling was certainly not pleasurable. It didn’t feel like solitude. It didn’t feel life-affirming. I felt disconnected. But those are the feelings that I need to write from. Anyway, just wanted to leave a note on here saying it’s not all bad!

The easiest, and often best, way to make friends is to befriend an “includer”

Okay, I almost hesitate to write about this topic right now, because I know a lot of you are gonna read it and be like, “What the fuck? He’s basically telling us it’s all luck.”

But I want you to read carefully and see what I am and am not saying. I do think having a vibrant social life involves a lot of luck, but I also think that if you know what you’re looking for, then you’re gonna be able to maximise that luck.

As I was saying yesterday, in my brief time writing this column, I’ve heard from others who have built strong and vibrant social lives out of nothing, and the same sort of stories keep cropping up: one woman met someone seven years ago on OKCupid, went out with them, just as friends, to a barbecue, and she’s still friends with some of the people she met at that barbecue; another woman found a friend on livejournal in 2001 and became friends with that person’s entire friend circle, such that even now, after the original friend is largely not around anymore because she’s had a child, my respondent is still friends with the remainder of the circle.

In my own life I’ve experienced this in pretty dramatic ways. I lived in DC for two years after graduating college, and even though it’s the place I grew up, and it’s a place where I still had plenty of high school (and college) friends, I never really built any kind of friend circle. I saw people one-on-one or in small groups, but it was always at an interval of a month or a few weeks, and it never turned into anything bigger.

Then I moved to Oakland, CA, where I knew precisely one person: my former college roommate, B. He’s a person I was very close with in college, but whom I hadn’t spoken much to in the intervening two years.

However I immediately began handing out with him five days a week, just chilling in his living room, shooting the shit. Gradually I became close with his two roommates as well (they more or less had to start liking me, given the amount of time I spent in their house), who were also his close friends. His one roommate had a circle of close college friends who all lived nearby: I got to know all of them. B also had a circle that included a lot of his coworkers, and he took me out to their Friday happy hours. I became close with them, friended them on Facebook, and they started inviting me to events. B was also part of the local folk music scene. I went out to a number of house shows with him, and I became familiar with people that way.

Now, five years later, I can look at my wedding invite list and see a whole slew of people I wouldn’t know if it wasn’t for B. Some of them he didn’t even know well: I was introduced to them as a second-order, by people B knew. It’s gotten to the point where sometimes somebody will ask how I know someone else, and instead of saying, “Oh, they’re the business partner of the husband of the roommate of my former college roommate,” I’ll just go, “Ehh, just through the Oakland scene.”

And I have numerous, though far less dramatic, stories like this.

General Principle #4 — The best way to find a social circle is to befriend an “includer,” somebody who finds joy, whether they know it or not, in integrating other people into their friend group.

The point I’m trying to make here is that not all friendships are equal in their fertility. Most friendships won’t make you part of something larger. Even if the friend does belong to some bigger social scene, they’ll often, largely for reasons of comfort or lack of confidence, fail to integrate you with that scene. Whereas a minority of friends are includers, and these are the people you need to know.

But that’s a general principle. Let’s get back to our lonely person sitting in a room. How can they use this advice?

Well we’re talking about social opportunities, and I’d say the number one social opportunity is an includer. If you befriend a person, and they start inviting you out to gatherings, brunches, potlucks, etc, where you don’t know anybody else (esp. ones where they’re not the host) then you’re probably dealing with an includer.

Now, I’m not saying you need to use this opportunity. Often you’ll go out with this person and find, well, you don’t actually like their friends. In that case, you don’t need to keep doing it. Just because somebody’s an includer doesn’t mean they’re including you in something you necessarily want to be part of.

But consider it.

And when you survey the people you know, think about who might be includers. I find that includers often fold in people from their work, and befriending a coworker who’s also an includer is often the best way to segue from a work-based social life into something broader.

(Note: you can’t turn someone into an includer. Believe me, I’ve tried. It’s just something that’s part of their normal psychological makeup. They derive some joy from including people. So if you’re friends with someone who’s not like this, don’t try to force it.)

Alright, so befriending an includer is the easiest and most common way of generating social opportunities, but let’s say you can’t do that. Let’s say you have just moved into town, because, umm, your partner has a job here. And you’ve no job. And you’re not into geeky stuff or some other social grouping that’s easily penetrable by outsiders.

In my next post, we’re gonna talk absolute rock-bottom basics.