Definitely wish writing books involved more, like, typing

I’ve fallen into a pattern with this book where I write for a few days, then feel a slow cessation of desire to write, which, as I have learned, is usually because I’ve subconsciously detected some sort of problem in the text. Then I stop writing, and I mull. There’s a few days of total confusion and despair. Then a solution appears. But…and here is my innovation…I don’t immediately start writing. Instead I wait for some days (or even weeks) as the solution builds, and as that solution reverberates through the text, forming connections and sticking to other pieces of the narrative, solving other problems. It sounds cool and fun and easy, and I suppose it is those things, but it’s also slow and frustrating. I kind of miss the days when I’d just bang on the keyboard every single day. Yes, they were ultimately unproductive, since I’d follow a half-baked conception of the story and sometimes even produce an entire draft before I realized what was wrong. But that at least felt like progress. This does not feel like progress. It feels like doing nothing.

Writing doesn’t seem like it needs to be this hard. Ideally you just create a bunch of characters with opposing desires and set them free to interact. The problem is that when you do this, you inevitably create large, dramatic stories, focused on outsized people and event. And that’s because, frankly, interpersonal conflict is not a major part of ordinary life. Peoples’ conflicts, in life, are of the smaller, more mundane, diffuse sort. People are beset by creeping anomie and loneliness and self-destruction and by the persistent, yet sourceless and blameless, attempt of society to destroy them and people like them. It’s inherently undramatic and, hence, rather a hard thing to dramatize. Modern society doesn’t have heroes or villains, only victims, and it’s very hard to write a story about victims.

I think that’s why, in my storytelling, I have to work so annoyingly hard. Because the natural tendency, for my characters, is to not come into conflict. I have to continually refine my stories to discover those rare situations in which these subterranean conflicts are brought to the surface, but in the process I don’t want to distort or enlarge them, I want them to remain just as small and persistent as they are when they’re still underground.

It’s not an easy task! The continual tendency of my characters, when given their own way, is for there to not be a story at all: for them to split apart and to go their separate lonely ways. It takes a lot of artifice to knot them together even for a week or a month, much less a year, so as to produce something that can be visualized: concrete scenes, with dialogue and action and conflict and stakes. To put it differently, Virginia Woolf didn’t just show us ‘a day in the life’ of Mrs. Dalloway: she showed us the very specific day when she is reintroduced to not just one, but two, of her former lovers.

Of course Virginia Woolf wrote Mrs. Dalloway in a year, and I’m on my third year of working on this book. But we can’t all be Virginia Woolf!

In any case, I sometimes undershoot my target, producing work that’s tedious, but I also sometimes overshoot it, producing work that’s sentimental and needlessly dramatic!

What I dislike most about this way of working is that the characters don’t quite come alive in my mind in the way they do if I work more organically. Each character contains a kernel of life–a tendency–but it’s something I refine as I go. Only in the final drafts does each character become the thing it always should’ve been. What I carry most throughout a book is the voice: sometimes the voice of the characters, but more often the voice of the narration. I used to think that voice was all that matters and voice sells books, and that’s true, but only if you pair the voice with a plot that uses attention-getting devices to propel the reader through the book. But if the story you want to tell is antithetical to those plots, then you need to work much harder.

It’s not unpleasant. I’m having fun, I think. And it’s honestly not a lot of work. But what does grate on me is the pointlessness of it. Nobody wants this kind of book. To me it constitutes the merger of realist and romantic fiction: it’s about taking the larger-than-life qualities from characters in stories–the qualities we all aspire to embody–and putting them into realistic situations. I don’t think that I write reality as it is; I write reality at its best, when it’s peopled by human beings who’re trying to be good and honest and struggle to achieve something. But it’s not something anybody really wants or admires, especially because when it’s done well all the strings disappear, and you feel like you’re reading something that’s not constructed at all.

When I think about the purpose of my books, I just think…the point is to give people hope. The life that we lead, on a day to day level, does matter, and it does offer scope for human connection and heroic action. You don’t need a radical break from the world to live well. You don’t need to stand in front of a line of tanks or leave your wife or become a whistleblower exposing corrupt practices. You don’t even need to help other people. You just need to know yourself and to pursue your own deeply-held desires. I really do think that we all have our struggles, and that there is honor and value in those struggles, and that’s why I write what I do. I think if my fiction had no connection to ordinary life, as lived by people like me and those I’ve known, then I’d be too depressed to write. But ordinary life, while full of joy and honor, just isn’t dramatic! Sort of a difficult problem, and my solution, which is to use all my craft and knowledge of storytelling to eke out another few pages of the reader’s interest, is inherently unsatisfying. But whatevs, that’s life.

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Not gonna lie, I’ve been feeling really bummed lately. People are like, “Is it the baby?” No, it’s not the baby. She’s fine. She’s totally cool.

It’s the coronavirus, mostly. I hate being cooped up. Our little family doesn’t have it at all bad. We’ve got a beautiful home, some entertaining pets (the cat has gotten REALLY clingy since the baby came), and each other, but I just need more excitement in my life.

For me, excitement is meeting and talking to new people. Over the course of the last ten years, my writing has become much more inflected by the things and people I encounter in ordinary life. I just enjoy hearing peoples’ stories, gossiping, listening to what’s bothering them. All that feels kind of gone these days. I mean there’s the telephone, it’s true, and that’s been good, but sometimes it feels hard to have anything to say to people when you’re all stuck at home.

But we’ll live. My writing has been going extremely well. I’m rewriting my book for adults, The Lonely Years, and I’m debating whether it’s a work of genius or just really good. No, just kidding, it’s not either of those things yet, but it’s getting better. With each draft, it’s getting better. Writing has turned into such a funny experience for me. There’s the drafting part, and then there’s the part where I look back and see what I have. That’s the part where I consciously choose which parts to emphasize and which parts to discard. What I love most is making these subtle tweaks in the starting conditions of the book, which then reverberate through the entire novel and make the whole thing so much tighter and more compelling. I’m just talking little stuff, very hard to describe, about what people think of each other and what their history was or has been.

Most days I’m in the slough of Despond, of course. Having a truly good writing day remains unusual. But they’ve been happening. It’s nice to have a book. Nice to work on a book. Even if the book doesn’t sell, you don’t get that many books in your life! When you’ve got ahold of one, it really feels like a gift.

In terms of my reading, I re-read Middlemarch for the first time since, I think 2011 or 2012. It’s so good that it makes you wonder why the rest of us even bother. George Eliot makes it all look easy. You just put together a mismatched assortment of characters and watch them make poor marriage decisions. I love everything of hers that I’ve finished (which is to say, I love MM, Mill on the Floss, and Scenes From A Clerical Life–I gave up on Daniel Deronda halfway through, because it was so utterly tedious). What impresses me most is her fine eye for extremely minute differences in social class. British literature (and culture) is famous for the great seriousness with which it treats the class system, but there’s no other author who can make quite so much hay out of the tiny difference in social station between Rose Vincy–the daughter of a well-off manufacturer–and Tertius Lydgate–the poor nephew of a provincial squire. Their entire plotline, essentially, is constructed from Rose’s desire to take one ever-so-small step up the social ladder.

As America becomes a more class-bound society, I think we’re going to see much more of this kind of thing in American literature, by the way. Our contemporary language and storytelling really struggle to capture all the class distinctions that we very clearly can perceive. For instance, people always try to make out young Bernie supporters as spoiled young kids or as college kids who want welfare, but what they really are is de-classed. They’re kids with middle-class social markers who have living situations traditionally associated with the working class. The entire American socialist movement lives and (mostly) dies over its attempt to build solidarity between the working and middle class. An attempt that’s failed largely because of a lack of class consciousness in our society. Something we can rectify with literature!

(No, I’m just kidding, literature has no social relevance, and we all know it. But that’s okay. It’s not like Middlemarch started any revolutions either.)

Kind of nice to not have a book under contract anymore

I’m at home, staying safe. Newborn life. Staying up really late, sleeping in. It feels a little like summer break to me, honestly, and it’s resulting in something of a regression. I’ve been playing lots and lots of computer games (Witcher 3, Dead Cell, Enter The Gungeon, and Frostpunk are some of my latest faves). I’ve been re-watching Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine and Rick & Morty. I’ve been listening to the Mrs. Pollifax mystery / thrillers, which are delightful! So warm and kind! And I’ve been slowly rereading MIDDLEMARCH, which is incredible: why do the rest of us even bother writing when Middlemarch already exists?

My writing has been…happening? Writing is very painstaking, exacting work. What I’ve come to realize is that the market doesn’t really impose any standards on the work. When you’re starting out, you want to write something that’s ‘publishable’. But that’s kind of a meaningless term. You can write something quite good that never gets published, and you can write something bad that does. Moreover, the things one cares the most about in one’s work are often things the market doesn’t demand.

For instance, I care very much about structure. I like things to fit just so. It’s hard to make character, theme, and relationships all work together in a satisfying way with a minimum of plot scaffolding. But in the reaction to my latest book, I’ve realized this reads to some people as the book having no plot or no story. No no no, it does. It really does. Most novels and movies, to me, have very bad plots. They have WAYYYY too much plot, and the plot isn’t at all germane to the themes (think the vampires who always appear in the third act of every Twilight novel and kidnap Bella, they have nothing to do with her essential problem, which is her loneliness and anomie). So this is something I care about a lot, but publishing and readers don’t care about it.

I got a little depressed the other day about the reception to We Are Totally Normal, and I started listening to the audiobook, just to reassure myself that it was good. Within minutes, I was like…this is great…this is fun and carefree and charming, it’s exactly what a YA novel should be. And yet the book doesn’t connect with YA readers. If it connects with anyone, it connects with adults. And yet it is so manifestly a YA novel in its structure and aims. That’s the problem. I wrote a book that corrected all my issues with the YA novel, but the absence of those things reads to many people like a mistake or an oversight.

But in the process I made what I think is a really good YA novel, and that’s all that matters. I think with all my works in progress I reach a point where I’m literally just writing it for myself. I’ve blown past the point where agents, readers, or editors are demanding something, and I’m pushing for something that I think is missing in the world. It’s a very weird feeling! I guess I’ve never thought of myself as pushing the envelope in any way. I aspired to push envelopes, but that was always a project for the future. And yet here I am, spending days and hours thinking about the pieces of my work-in-progress, trying to make sure everything is weighted out and that all the parts really sing. It’s frustrating work, but it’s also very satisfying, almost mathematical in the level of abstraction involved, and when it finally snaps together, as it did with We Are Totally Normal, the result, to me, is a very elegant and beautiful object.

Having a baby has not proven the shock I thought it would be

I continue to be a sheltered-at-home baby-haver. She’s my baby, whom I have, and I can kiss her cute little baby head whenever I want. For the past few days the sleep deficit has caught up to me. Even though I’m getting more sleep than my wife, it’s still only about five or six hours a night, and I’m used to something more on the order of eight or nine. At first it was okay, but it added up after two weeks to a constant weariness. Today though I finally got a long stretch of sleep, and I woke up feeling good!

Even before today, I’d been surprised that this having-a-baby thing wasn’t the total, abrupt shift from not-having-a-baby that I’d been expected. A friend told me that there’s sort of a ramp up, so eventually when you get to two years old and they’re running around screaming at everyone and throwing things, you’re like, oh, I got here by stages.

My book is out. That’s good. Happy people are finding it and reading it. If you’re my friend and haven’t bought one, then please buy one. If you’re a fan of my blog and haven’t bought one, then you could also buy one. Just generally buy my book. You don’t need to read it, buying it is more than enough. If you’re buying a paper copy, consider buying it from my local bookstore, Alley Cat Books. Amazon is offering zero discount on my book right now, and Alley Cat is offering ten percent, so it’s even cost-effective.

Work continues apace on my novel for adults, The Lonely Years. I am loving this revision. I’ve actually been able to write during this period: I think I was just in such a good place, creatively, before this quarantine that not even Covid and a baby could keep me down! It’s a hard thing to work on a book in the best of times, never knowing if it’ll actually see the light of day. I started We Are Totally Normal almost exactly four years ago, in April 2016, and it’s only just now coming out. I started The Lonely Years two years ago, in January 2018, and at best the book won’t come out before 2023.

To take control of my creative life a little more, I’ve also begun work on an exciting self-published product. While I was looking for an agent to represent The Lonely Years (an effort that didn’t quite succeed, hence my current revision), I took out some of my anxiety and frustration by writing my own guide for newbie writers: The Cynical Writer’s Guide to the Publishing Industry, which is all about how to pitch and position your book so it gains the excitement of traditional publishing. The book is excellent. It’s absolutely unlike any book on publishing that you’ve ever read. I’m thinking of self-publishing it in October of this year (since it wouldn’t be fair to the publisher of We Are Totally Normal to be marketing two books at once).

I’m now working on a second book in the series, The Cynical Writer’s Guide to Literary Stardom, which is all about how to make it in literary fiction.

What qualifies me to write such guides, you might ask? Well…nothing, to be honest. But they’re mostly written as entertainment and as therapy for the frustrated writer. As the books themselves say upfront, you should take their advice with a grain of salt.

Since my last post, I’ve had a baby, my book has come out, and an unprecedented pandemic has shut down the country and the world

Life is good. Can’t complain. As I write this, my twelve-day-old daughter, Leni, is sleeping on the couch next to me. She’s secured in this little dock-a-tot dealy that stops her from rolling off, though apparently she might suffocate if her head gets wedged into the plush bumpers. For creatures that really like to push their tiny little faces into small crevices, newborns are surprisingly prone to suffocating. But I’ve got an eye on her, don’t worry.

She’s pretty cute. It’s been a learning curve, but hasn’t been too terrible as of yet. One thing I hadn’t fully understood until I had a baby was that breast-feeding puts an intense strain on the birth parent, and the non-birth parent simply doesn’t have the same experience of raising the child as the birth parent does. I mean, my wife is physically at the mercy of this baby for a significant portion of the day. For me, it’s really not the same. Also, bottle-feeding is so much less time-consuming than breast-feeding. But whatever, we’ve heard that unless you breastfeed your baby will become a career criminal, so I guess we’re stuck (JUST KIDDING, we’re doing it for the immune system benefits. My wife is an immunologist.)

So yes, I’m sleep deprived, but it’s very bearable. Right now, having a baby feels less like parenting a tiny human and more like we have some very exotic and very needy housepet. The main pleasure that one seems to get from a baby at this stage is sensual. You can kiss them and cuddle them and stroke their widdle tummies and let them wrap their fists around your fingers. It’s pretty cool. Also you can put them in adoorable outfits. And they make really cute, fluttery stretchem motions. Babies are basically the cutest thing in existence. There is nothing cuter than a baby. I’m already sad for the day she won’t be a baby anymore.

Also, my book came out today! It’s been an incredible journey for We Are Totally Normal, and I’m pleased as hell that it’s out in the world. It’s an odd thing, by the time a book comes out, it’s been out of your hours for a year or more. I once read an interview with a band, where they’re like, “Does this album reflect any of your personal struggles?” And the band was like, “Err, it reflects the struggles I was having three or four years ago.”

That’s how I feel. This book not only taught me quite a bit about writing, it also led directly to me becoming a better friend and to a re-evaluation of my gender presentation. But I also feel a little distanced from it.

People have been like, “Maybe this is the perfect time for your book to come out! With the Coronavirus, people will be doing lots of reading.”

That’s not insane. I’ve read like ten books in the last ten days, and I’ve bought most of them at full price. Something about this quarantine makes money just run through my fingers. But it ignores the economics of the book business. My book is printed. It’s shipped to bookstores. Right now, there five or ten thousand copies of my book sitting in the back rooms of closed bookstores. Many of those bookstores will be out of business by the time this quarantine ends. The ones who reopen will probably be more interested in stocking whatever that month’s new releases are. Books are only fresh for a pretty short period of time: they tend to move the most copies in their first three or four months. By the time this is over, my book’s time will be done, and it’ll never recover that ground.

But…it’s okay. It’s really okay. People are dying from this thing. Others are losing their homes and their businesses. People are terrified. I am terrified. My mother-in-law is staying with us, and I keep worrying I’ll somehow bring home the virus and infect her. It’s a lot of stress!

Against this backdrop, I feel thankful that I and my wife are financially stable and that the book is coming out at all. It’s true that things would’ve been better if the book had come out three months ago, but I bet at some point a lot of books will get canceled because of this thing. I’m just happy that my book exists in the world. A book that’s in print can eventually find an audience, but it’s very, very possible for books to fail to come out, to be cancelled on the eve of release, and to simply never see the light of day.

I think I’d be more upset if I had really high hopes for this book. I do feel a little sorry for the debut authors and for the people whose books were being positioned to be the next big thing. I mean somewhere out there is an author who was supposed to hit the New York Times bestseller list this week. Now, because the bookstores are closed, maybe it won’t happen. Or if it does, they won’t be able to capitalize on it. Their whole career and their life trajectory is different.

Mine isn’t. This book, if it was going to be a success at all, was going to be a slow burn. And to be honest, I wasn’t expecting it to be an immense success. The negative reception from so many reviewers and goodreads types has been a drain, if I’ll be honest. With my first book, I sort of understood why so many people didn’t like it: the main character was entitled and dishonest. I didn’t agree with their assessment–I thought her virtues outweighed her flaws–but I understood it!

With this one, I’m a little baffled. I don’t see anything particularly terrible about the characters in this book. If anything, the boys in this book, even the worst of them, are much, much, much kinder, more thoughtful, less violent, and more honest than the boys I went to school with (I went to an all-boy’s school). Honestly, I think a lot of people out there are just so used to getting a relentlessly idealized version of human nature that they’ve forgotten about the full panoply of human emotion and motivation. Oh well, more fool they.

I know you’re supposed to just write what you write and not let the reaction bug you, but it honestly frightens me. If I was trying to write terrible people, I’d understand the reaction to my books. But when I look at the world, I mostly see a lot of weak, passionless, colorless, thwarted, anxious people. I write characters who are larger than life and who are better than life. I wish more people were like my characters. Writing a book is such an odd thing. You can walk through this world, you can make friends, you can talk to people, and you can convince yourself that you have a lot in common with everybody else, and it’s only when you sit down and put everything you know into a book that you realize, wow, my worldview and my experience of life are extremely different from the average person’s.

OH WELL. It’s not some grand tragedy. And if I ever feel sad I have an adorable little baby to snuggle with.

If you dislike my novel, you’re really not alone!

For a book that has amongst the worst Goodreads ratings of any 2020 YA novel, has gotten mediocre-to-scathing trade journal reviews (Kirkus called it “frustratingly long-winded and rambling”) and which has already caused a flash-in-the-pan Twitter controversy due to people finding its content offensive, my book is really generating a lot of excitement amongst readers!

It’s kind of astonishing. My debut novel, Enter Title Here, was a lead title for Disney. They put a fair amount of money and effort into publicizing it, and I thought, at the time, that the efforts had worked. The book seemed to be getting mentioned everywhere. But it was nothing like this! Harper has done okay by the book. I actually have no idea what they’ve done. Maybe they’ve done something? But the end result has been incredible. Basically ever since the cover got released last August, people have been so hyped for the novel.

This is not something I was expecting. Because of the trade reviews, I sort of thought it’d just fade away. Now I don’t know if that’s gonna happen. I think people are going to at least attempt to read it.

Unfortunately, when those people do read the book, a lot of them do not like it! I had a call recently with Harper’s marketing team, and I wanted to joke that we should stop sending out ARCs, because I’ve seen so many people online go from: “One of my most anticipated 2020 releases” to “this book was a huge disappointment.”

That happened with my first book too. My worst review on Goodreads came from an ARC I handed personally at a conference. Definitely was like, wut, why am I even doing this?

With my first book, I stopped reading the bad reviews, because they just made me feel terrible. With this book, I’ve read them all! And none of them have particularly bothered me. When it comes to any book, all bad reviews tend to mention only a handful of things. With my first book it was: a) unlikable characters; b) plot was all over the place; and c) the ending was too abrupt.

With this book, it’s: a) the book has no plot; b) the characters are unlikable; c) it’s not a romance; and d) its depiction of bisexuality is problematic. None of these criticisms bother me, because I don’t agree with any of them. Bad reviews are the worst when they come with an element of shame: you know the reviewer is right, and you wish you could’ve fixed the problem. Here, all of these issues are a result of intentional choices I made. I think my only regret with this book is that I should’ve made it more explicitly about transgender identity. I was just starting to come out as trans when the book was finishing its edits, and I decided not to mess with it. On an aesthetic level, the ambiguity is great! It’s not a book about finding yourself, it’s about losing your shame at not knowing yourself. On a marketing level, well…it’d probably do better as a trans book.

But whatever!

The other interesting thing about the book is some people LOVE it. They’re like, this book is me, I’ve finally been seen. That’s awesome. I expected that. There’s never been a depiction of queer sexuality, not just in YA but in any novel I can think of, that’s quite like that in We Are Totally Normal. Things I spent fifteen years learning have been put into a 70,000 word novel, and it makes me really happy that those lessons are useful to other people.

I didn’t write the book primarily to “help” kids. I don’t really write my books for kids. I just write books, and then I try to sell them as best I can. But I do think that the right kids will really love this book. And I’m hoping that somehow, amidst all the hype and hate, that those kids get ahold of it.

What’s so odd is that I’ve written exactly the right book at the right time. YA romantic comedies are blowing up. There’s a huge demand for m/m romances with people of color as leads. I’ve written exactly such a book. If I’d just done a paint-by-numbers portrait of bisexuality, people would’ve loved this book. But oh well. Instead it’s something different.

Some of my friends have been like, “The book isn’t being marketed well! It’s being marketed as a fluffy rom-com, and it’s not that!” To which I’ll say, “I participated fully in the marketing of this book! In fact I suggested marketing it as a fluffy rom-com! In my mind, it’s extremely fluffy. ” But, secondly, there’s no market anymore for issues-based LGBT YA. Whole market is taken over by romances. If there’s anything I’ve learned from my first book, it’s that there’s no percentage in releasing a book that people don’t think they want.

People want the thing that they think my book is, and that feel great! Most of them will be disappointed, but along the way, some people won’t be! And those people have already written some incredible, passionate, insightful reactions to the book. My book might be amongst the most detested 2020 YA releases, but for that very reason, it’s also amongst the most beloved.

Oh, by the way, I have a ton of ARCs of this book. So if you’re a book blogger who’s ever experienced any brand of questioning of their sexual or gender identity, shoot me an email at rhkanakia@gmail.com, and I’ll see about maybe sending you a copy!

Look at these two cuteys! Don’t you just want to imagine them giving each other handjobs?

Hey blog readerssssssssssss! I still love you

Sorry it’s been a while since I’ve posted. I’ve been working on a different non-fiction project: a series of essays on the publishing industry that I’m planning to self-publish. It just feels good to be writing, to be honest.

Otherwise I’m counting down the days until We Are Totally Normal launches on March 31st. It’s insane that after four years this book is finally going to be out in the world. I feel quite happy and proud about it, and I’m excited to see what’ll come of it.

Feeling a little free-er to speak my mind these days

For my entire online life, I’ve tried to avoid controversy, because, to be honest, it makes me anxious. There’s no other reason. I don’t think controversy is bad. I don’t think it needs to be stopped. I do think some aspects of call-out culture are absurd, but it doesn’t seem to really hurt people (other than their pride). I also have little desire to call people out, because nothing anyone has written or said really makes me that upset.

But I do have controversial thoughts of my own, and I have suppressed them! Like remember when Michael Vick went to prison for running a dog-fighting ring? That was absurd. They’re just dogs. They say pigs are smarter than dogs, and we eat those. And we also hunt animals for sport. And we also force animals to race each other. It’s ridiculously contorted to create one tiny variety of animal cruelty that for some reason is punishable by YEARS in prison, when all the other kinds are perfectly okay.

That’s the kind of scintillating opinion that I’ve kept from the world for all these years.

Or remember when there was the Rachel Dolezal thing? And people were all like how is being trans-black different from being trans-gender? And trans people were all offended and shit? Well I had inklings then that I was trans, but I wasn’t out, so I couldn’t say what I thought, which was…millions of people had to die, get beaten up, lose their jobs, lose their families, to get to the place where the world had to accept that being transgender was a real thing. If a million people did the same for trans-blackness, then we’d probably accept that to. Or, as the famously trans-friendly comedian Dave Chappelle put it in a recent comedy special, “The difference between trans people and Rachel Dolezal is that I believe trans people.”

Yes, I watched three of his recent specials! Two of them had lengthy sets of jokes about trans people. WTF. Kind of makes me wonder if Dave is trans himself. I did admire the artistry of the jokes. He tells bigoted transmisogynistic jokes to an audience of white college-educated people and gets laughs. Not that easy to do. He tells an anti-trans joke about as well as it can be told these days. And in ten years his specials will be unwatchable because of it (they’re almost unwatchable today). What a weird hill for him to choose to die on!

The point is, I’ve got controversial opinions. I think Joe Biden is gonna win the nomination and the presidency. There, I said it. Sometimes this shit happens! I mean, Macron won. Neoliberal centrists win sometimes. I’m still not gonna vote for him in the CA primary though. I will say one thing: that dude’s been in my house. He’s definitely a person who has set foot in my parent’s house, and I was living in it at the time, and that means the future President of the United States has been in my house.

I think those might be all the controversial opinions I have. Michael Vick, Rackel Dolezal, and Joe Biden. Wow, it’s been tough keeping that in.

Balancing gratitude and entitlement

Authors are terrible people. I feel sorry for those who need to deal with us in a professional setting. Even authors who are perfectly nice in their personal life become extremely anxious when it comes to issues related to their career. For instance, every author I know feels annoyed that their publisher didn’t ‘do’ enough for their book. This is one gripe I’ve never had, to be honest. Like, shit, with my first book, that thing was everywhere. Tons of people had heard of it! They just didn’t like it. If people had liked the book, it would’ve done a lot better. (Note, I still love the book, just saying it didn’t exactly click with the market).

And with my current book, I’m like shit, this book is everywhere! People are tweeting every day that it’s one of their most anticipated books for 2020. I’m like how do you even hear about books like mine? Jesus, I have NO idea which books are coming out this year, and I am an author! But somehow they do. I mean I don’t think the publisher has done much to make them aware, but they seem to be hearing about the book okay.

But I still have anxieties. I have written A LOT of books that haven’t sold to publishers. And each time I’m like, “But whyyyyyyyyyyyy???? The book is so much better than the crap you normally publish!”

I’ve also written a lot of books that my various agents have not wanted to put on sub. Each time I’m like, “But yyyyyy?????? If it’s not salable just let the editors decide!”

It must be unbearable.

See, the thing is, I completely get it. If you are on the outside (or, I suppose, if you’re a successful author, but I’m not friends with too many of those), you have no idea how brutal the book business is. Editors are getting fired all the time. And as for agents? They’re all the time putting projects that they really believe in on the market and seeing them not sell! There are so many books out there looking for homes, and there really aren’t enough readers for them all. I mean my first book was an example! Both the publisher and the agent (and myself) thought it was going to be a breakout hit, but once it got onto the market, people were like…but I don’t like this character. Reading this book does nothing for me. It brings me no pleasure.

Now I was reading Enter Title Here the other night, and I have to say, this book is amazing. It’s so good. I love this book. And yeah you could be like, the book didn’t find its readership. But…sometimes…the readership just isn’t there. I think we’ve found that the YA audience isn’t really looking for anti-heroes. (Maybe that’s because the YA audience is mostly girls? I dunno. Although actually I never thought of Reshma as an anti-hero, to me she was just a hero, but I am literally the only person in the world who has that reaction to her. Even my wife hates Reshma! Although she does love the book).

I definitely feel like the book should have been a hit. I just don’t see how it could have been a hit. I don’t think the publisher can actually manufacture hits where no hit-potential exists. But I still feel like the book should’ve been a hit! I think it’s really hard for authors to face the fact that sometimes the readership isn’t there*.

This is what I mean about authors being insane.

Writing wouldn’t be nearly so infuriating if the books that got published weren’t quite frequently so terrible! Like, when I was a baby author, I just assumed terrible books were published because they’d run out of good books to publish. Now, as a grown-up author, I know that good books go unsold so that terrible books can be acquired. And then those terrible books often become hits. It’s madness, but what can you do?

Even writing these sorts of thoughts often strikes people as entitled. In fact, much of the whining that published authors do comes across, even to me, as pretty entitled. Like…nobody owes you the publication of your book. Nobody owes you awards. Nobody owes you their attention or their readership.

And yet…on some level, I have to admit, I do think that great books are owed all of those things. Maybe this is the impetus behind English department curriculums. You just feel like people ought to somehow be educated into loving all the things that nuanced and complex and beautiful.

But to what end? Ultimately, it’s okay for people to not read stuff. It doesn’t really hurt anybody. And the people who want good stuff have plenty of it they can find.

Which is where gratitude comes in. I am honestly grateful just to be in print. As I learn more and more about this industry, it strikes me as even more of a miracle that my books sold in the first place, and I’m extremely happy that my second book is gonna be unleashed on the world in a few months! I haven’t lost the hope that it’ll be a hit. It’s not entirely impossible! But I think that the people who need to read my book will manage to get ahold of it, and that makes me happy. There are so many books that need to be out there–books that could make a huge difference to one or ten or a thousand readers–which will never get that chance.

*On a sidenote, sometimes authors complain because their books are exactly as bad as the books that did become hits, and they’re like, “My book is exactly like the popular stuff; why didn’t it get picked?” I wanna be all like, err, that’s not something to be proud of, but I keep quiet.

The definitive guide to getting over writer’s block after just two or three years of agony

Yesterday I spoke to two authors who were in the throes of writer’s block, albeit in very different situations. One is trying to think of ideas for a follow-up series or standalone book after finishing a trilogy that did pretty well in bookstores. The other has been trying for years to write a second novel; her first, which was an extremely good book, went out on submission to a number of publishers but never found a home.

I am an expert at writer’s block. After I sold my first book, Enter Title Here in May 2014, I started to experience difficulty writing. I managed to force out a middle grade novel that summer, but after that it took me two years to write another book, and it wasn’t until 2019 that I’d consider myself fully recovered.

During this time, I would constantly google “Cures for writer’s block” and I found nothing! There are no cures! Nobody knows shit! In fact, the internet is full of these smug, self-satisfied writers, both published and unpublished, who are like, “Uhh, I never get writer’s block.” To which I always want to reply, “Yeah, but your books are also not very good; of course writer’s block isn’t a problem if you don’t care about quality.”

Sophomore novel writer’s block is extremely common. I’d say my unscientific opinion is that about half of all debut authors fall prey to it. When a debut sells a series, usually it doesn’t hit you on the second or third book of the series: it hits you at the start of your next series or next unrelated book.

Not infrequently, sophomore novel writer’s block is career-ending. The second book simply never comes. Or when it comes, it’s extremely bad and doesn’t sell. Or it sells and flops and you never sell a third.

This writer’s block usually doesn’t involve staring at the blank page. Usually the writer is writing constantly: reams and reams of stuff. But they feel that all the work is terrible!

The typical advice is to ignore that self-critical feeling and keep writing, even though you suspect the work is really bad. This is not good advice. The problem is that the work usually is terrible. You’re accurately responding to its badness.

So the real question isn’t “How do I feel better about my crappy work?” it’s instead “How do I make work that I don’t need to feel better about?”

Because while it’s true that all first drafts are bad, there’s a difference between ‘bad’ and ‘boring’. A first draft ought to contain the kernel of that thing that makes you excited about the book. You can see the part of this draft that is incredible and world-altering, even if right now that part is mostly obscured by all the cliche, trivial, or just-plain-weird stuff that you also threw into the draft.

When the draft lacks even that element of greatness, you’re not gonna like it, and no matter how much you write or rewrite it, probably nobody else will either.

Ultimately, we all know both the reason for this writer’s block and the route to get out of it. We get sophomore-novel writer’s block because of fear. The first book was really good! It got an agent. It felt special. It often flowed relatively easily. Or at least it carried some element of destiny.

You don’t know how to replicate that. And now there are expectations. What if you give your agent or editor this book and they hate it? It’s even worse if the book didn’t sell or didn’t get an agent, despite being a perfectly good book. If you feel like you did your best, and the book didn’t sell, then it’s hard to do your best again.

The publishing industry conspires to deepen writer’s block. Publishing tends to view books as commodity. Where does this book fit into the market? And agents and editors frequently try to intervene in books even before you’ve finished writing them. in the young adult space, authors are encouraged to run their ideas past their editors so their editor can weed out any that aren’t ‘worth’ pursuing.

Some writers can work like that, but many can’t. Once you’re interjecting other peoples’ voices and other peoples’ opinions into the drafting process, it becomes very difficult to find what you really want to say.

The most infuriating thing about this is that what publishing ultimately wants from you is the thing only you can do! Which means that all through your writer’s block time, your agent and editor will say, “Give me the book you’re really passionate about! Give me the book that’s deepest and most critical to you! Give me the one you’re afraid to write!”

The problem is that if this book isn’t marketable, they will reject it. Your books must exist at the intersection of your aesthetic interests and the marketplace. When you’re a new or less-developed writer, this isn’t as scary or frustrating, because you don’t know the market place as well, and you don’t know your own interests as well either, so there’s always a feeling that, well, these two things will converge somehow.

But when you get more experienced you realize…that’s not guaranteed to happen. You can very easily write a book which you think is perfectly good, but it doesn’t sell, not because it’s bad, but because it’s literally unsalable. It’s simply outside the general purview of what editors consider acceptable within the genre. This is even true for literary fiction. There are lots of literary novels that cannot be sold. For instance, if you want to write literary novels that are mannered and cold in the extreme, in the style of the French nouveau roman, you probably can’t sell them to mainstream publishing, even though this is a perfectly fine way to write a novel. That’s an obvious example, but there are plenty of less obvious ones. Historical fiction about stuff nobody cares about, for instance. Or, more generally, fiction that falls into that vague space between “women’s fiction” and “literary fiction”, where it feels too smart to be women’s fiction but, for whatever reason, not smart enough to be literary fiction (where ‘smart’ is entirely a matter of appearances, of course). The point is, your novel is dead in the water the moment you conceived of it, and yet you wrote the stupid thing anyway!!!

It’s this realization that causes writer’s block. You start to evaluate your own work through the eyes of the publishing industry, instead of through your own aesthetic interests.

This basic problem–“How do I write books that are both marketable and interesting (to me)” is not really solvable, since they tend to be at odds. The more your book is like other books, the less you’ll be into it. And the more different it is, the less publishing will be into it. I think a lot of authors succeed in having long careers simply through luck: their own interests happen to coincide with the mainstream of their genre. In not a few cases, this is because the author is extremely basic in their own reading tastes.

But the problem we’re trying to solve here isn’t the above, the problem is “How do I keep writing books even though I know that getting ‘better’ (in my own eyes) might mean making my books less and less publishable?” Its this realization–the idea that, after a certain level, quality is decoupled from marketability that causes you, paradoxically, to choke up and start writing terrible books!

Because, say what you will about books that don’t sell, the fact is: at least you wrote them! And if you wrote the book, then you accomplished something, you did something. And, moreover, if you’re writing then you can at least have some hope that something will hit, something will happen, and eventually you’ll break through.

Whereas when you’re blocked, there is no hope. Anything bad can happen to a writer, but it’s bearable so long as they’re writing. Once you stop being able to write, you just feel like a fraud. You lose that sense of hope.

Okay, so that’s the problem? Now what’s the solution?

I don’t know! It’s like asking what the solution is for depression. There is none. Depression is completely logical. Everyone should be depressed all the time. And yet life isn’t livable if you’re depressed. When it comes to writer’s, everyone should be blocked. This conundrum, the idea that you can write a good book that nevertheless can’t ever be sold, is crazy-making!

My solution came in stages. First, I stopped writing proposals. It was profoundly debilitating to go to all the trouble of thinking up an idea, only to have it shot down. That’s not how I work. So then I was at least at the stage of needing to write an actual novel, instead of just a proposal. But that novel was still extremely difficult to write, and it took many drafts. I think, however, that my writer’s block lifted most substantially when my agent fired me sometime in 2017. It was extremely depressing, of course, but I almost instantly felt a sense of freedom. I was finally in control of my own career again! I could write a book and query it to agents, and nobody could stop me. I had returned in some sense to the situation of before I had sold a book, when it was just me and the keyboard.

I also had the experience of taking my YA novel, the one I had written on-spec, without a proposal–the one both my agent and editor told me was unpublishable–and, essentially, twisting it into a more marketable form. Basically, I took the homosexual subtexts and turned them into text. I made it a more explicitly queer romance. And now, with a firmer place in the market, it was not only vied over by agents, but it sold in the first round of submission to a larger publisher than my old one.

I think that was the final nail in the coffin for my writer’s block. I realized that there is often a way, at least for me, to turn my book into something that is superficially marketable. This might not actually be true–I’ve since suffered the ‘this isn’t marketable’ or ‘this doesn’t fit the genre’ problem with other novels I’ve sent out–but it’s my own personal delusion. I persist in believing that no matter what I write, there is a way to make it look or seem marketable. And that if one book doesn’t work, there’s always another that will. Moreover, I’ve made peace with the idea that most things I write won’t sell.

I am serious. When I write a novel, I fully expect it not to sell. But I don’t think that nothing will sell. I have hope that somewhere, something in my arsenal will sell. I decided, very explicitly, during my two years of writing proposals that my editor didn’t accept, that I would much rather write books instead of proposals. Because at least if a book doesn’t sell, you have something, you’ve discovereds something, and you’ve improved along the way.

But my solutions won’t work for everybody, unfortunately, because my solutions are, at their core, pretty insane and delusional. And, moreover, I don’t need to make money from my writing. Some people do. They literally can’t afford to write (as I have) nine unsalable books. They need their next book to sell.

For these people, I can offer no solutions; you’ll have to find your own. But I can guarantee you one thing, whatever that solution is, it won’t be reasonable one, because when it comes right down to it, writer’s block is the very logical end result of living in a difficult and cutthroat world.