The three things that cause stories to stall out

Am stalled today on writing, because there’s just this one thing I don’t know. I have these two characters interacting, and I don’t know how it turns out. The thing is, you can always just write down some crap. One pulls out a gun and shoots the other one. They break up. They’re mean to each other. There are ten thousand solutions.

But the real question is: what is the right solution?

The main thing I’ve learned from all the movies I’ve been watching lately is the importance of dramatizing action. When you strip away the emotional responses and the thoughts and the exposition, what does this actually look like? Frequently I find myself picturing my book as if it’s a movie (a very dimly lit and indistinct movie), and I’ll try to put myself right there in the room with them.

Ideally, the characters and the action should snap into place so intuitively that you can’t imagine it otherwise. The best action movies are like this: You cannot imagine Rambo taking place in any other way. It is inevitable that this man, walking through this place, is going to end up involved in a countywide man-hunt. There’s a sense of inevitability to the action that allows you to ignore the constructedness of the story.

But usually when you’re just drafting a book, that doesn’t happen. Both characters and action have, through many drafts, a sort of unfinished quality, and as a result things happen more or less arbitrarily. For me, the writing process involves finding these arbitrary places (usually I recognize them because I can ‘envision’ a novel right up to this point, but afterwards my vision is a total blank) and slowly altering one thing and then the other until they fit together better.

I usually begin by imagining really simple solutions. What if…instead of doing what they do, they just do the opposite? Then I’ll move onto really drastic solutions, what if I combine these two characters into one person? Then I’ll come up with a medium solution, and I’ll get excited, and I’ll halfway alter the entire draft, only to realize it doesn’t work. Then I’ll go back and do this all again. And eventually there’ll just be a click and suddenly scenes start appearing in my head beyond the stuck point.

Oftentimes the click is really simple. It might be a change of dialogue. Or to alter a really minor plot point a ways back. Frequently it involves tinkering with the characters in really subtle ways so that they fit better into the situation I’ve envisaged. And I’ll think, wait a second, this was so easy, why didn’t I start off with this solution?

But really what happened was that all of the little changes I made all of them combined to get me past this point. There was a sanding-down and reshaping of the characters and the situations to make everything fit together.

Usually the stuck place resulted from a combination of three things: a) lack of knowledge of character; b) failure of inventiveness; and/or c) wrong technique.

You never know everything about your characters. In fact, I find that I often know remarkably little about them. To my mind, if you know what a character wants most in the world, you’ve basically got the core of them. But sometimes you don’t exactly know that. Or there’s something else about them and their relationships that’s unclear to you.

Failure of inventiveness has always been a bugbear for me. A person can have their Rambo, but if they don’t have their intolerant North Carolina town then they don’t yet have a novel. I have trouble oftentimes thinking of situations where interpersonal conflict arises naturally (one reason why writing about teens is easier for me; their lives are more bounded). Thinking of the right situations is a perpetual struggle, and oftentimes the only solution is to just try and discard hundreds of situations until one fits.

To me, the most interesting failure is the failure of technique. We all have certain things we know how to do. And sometimes a stuck point comes from using your favorite tool in a situation where it’s completely wrong. This is where reading widely comes in very handy. It teaches you all the different ways that exist of telling a story. Failure of technique really encompasses some pretty broad terrain. Most people would think of ‘technique’ as being the more technical parts of story construction. Using flashbacks or frame narratives or a three-act structure–that’s technique. I would say, however, that it’s more helpful to think of technique as the ways in which you think about and shape your material in order to form a story.

For instance, many science fiction writers will read the news and think, “What if?” And they’ll write a story about, I don’t know, a world where pockets of sentient radon gas seep up out of our basement to try and make friends and kill us in the night without understanding that it’s their very existence that’s inimical to us.

In a realist novel, a technique might be a way of twisting a relationship. Maybe your technique, whether you know it or not, is to re-imagine all relationships as family relationships. So in your work, bosses and teachers often have fatherly relationships with their employees and students. Or perhaps your technique is to always look at the money, a la Balzac or Jane Austen, and think, how do they afford this? How do they live?

But sometimes those techniques aren’t the right ones. Sometimes you need to be like, well, this isn’t that story. People in this story aren’t worrying about money. Or maybe you’re like, well, usually I don’t care about money, but in this story, money needs to be a major element. Or maybe technique is, literally, technique, and you’re like, well in my story the writing has to be very sparse and lyrical. Or you’re like, well, this story needs to include lots of geeky Neal Stephenson-style mini-essays all over the place.

If you read widely, you absorb other authors’ techniques, and they come to you in your moments of need! Of course usually the techniques that are wilder and more different from your work-in-progress aren’t helpful, but sometimes a weird influence will seep in there and dissolve up the blockage.

“Writing for yourself” doesn’t mean ignoring all criticism…just most of it

Am borrowing a friend’s house in Nevada City so I can get away this week and do some writing. It’s pretty incredible. I generally have few enough responsibilities, but it’s nice to have absolutely zero. Trying to make some progress in my writing. Did a fair bit today, so I’m feeling good. But there’s always more out there to be done.

Sometimes I get depressed, when I write, at the thought, “Oh, here’s another character that people are going to hate.”

When I wrote my debut, Enter Title Here, I never imagined people would have such a negative reaction to my protagonist. I always sympathized with her wholeheartedly, and I still do. I’ve never fully understood why people abhor cheating in school SO much. Because the fact is, most people have cheated at least a few times. Whenever I’m standing around with parents or teachers, and they’re like, oh, plagiarism in school is such a problem, I’ll ask, “Didn’t you guys ever cheat?” And inevitably around half of them admit to having done it at least a time or two (and those are just the ones who admit to it!)

And I think most people understand the difference between cheating in things that really matter (like your profession or your creative work) and cheating in school, which is nothing more than a bunch of meaningless assessments designed to sort you out into strata that ultimately are correleted less with intelligence and skill and more with parental education and income.

I think these opinions of mine came through pretty clearly in the book, and I don’t have much in the characterization that I’d change. All you can when you write is be honest. In fact, one thing I’ve learned over time is to make characters exactly as bad as they truly are. It’s very tempting, if you’ve got a character with anger issues, for instance, to make them go around hitting people. But there’s really no need. You can show them speaking sharply to people instead. Or just getting visibly defensive and flustered. I find that the lightest possible touch is the best, because that’s the truest.

If anything, authors have a tendency to weight the scales against their characters, because they can’t tolerate ambiguity. But, ironically, this often works out for them, because it’s harder, usually, to sympathize with the character who speaks sharply to their friends or their spouse, because their lack of force betrays a certain hesitancy and insecurity in their character, and this hesitancy feels too real to us. It makes us confront our own powerlessness and the ways in which we ourselves can be villainous.

That’s why audiences can sympathize with characters who engage in vigilante killing or who steal millions of dollars, but not with a character who cheats in school.

 

I’m speaking too generally, of course. Many people sympathized with my main character in Enter Title Here, and I’m sure many will sympathize with my character in the new book. But I also know that lots of people won’t like him. And not for anything he does, either, because he really doesn’t do anything even as bad as cheating in school. If anything, he’s much better than most guys. But they won’t like him because he’s selfish sometimes (just like we’re all selfish, when it comes to love). There’ll be a feel to him that we won’t enjoy. Something in the texture of the narration. Most fiction is full of elisions and little lies, particularly when it comes to teenage boys. Young adult fiction pretends we are so much better than we are. That’s one of the reasons I loved Emma Cline’s The Girls. The book was, at least in small part, about how difficult it is to love a teenage boy and about how many concessions girls need to make to keep that fantasy alive. But because of these elisions in typical YA fiction, any book that breaks the illusion comes across as disturbing.

 

What I don’t want to do is seem entitled. People are allowed to like whatever books they want. Certainly I have books that others love which I don’t like. What’s interesting, from the writer’s standpoint, is how you deal with these issues. It is hard to write when you know that most of the audience is not going to approve. That if you went against your deepest instincts and your sense of what’s true, the book would probably be more critically and commercially successful.

I’m also well aware that this is exactly what really shitty novice writers say when you try to tell them that nothing is happening in their book. They’re like, well, it’s not like all that other crap out there. My book is doing something innovative and new.

Sometimes they’re right, of course. I read so many books that are not written the way I’d have written them, but which are still very successful. I’m thinking of Proust, for instance, which strikes me as so overwritten, with so many relationships that parallel each other and situations that recur over and over. But his book is a masterpiece, and it was the product of a singular vision, and, most importantly, it’s given me about as much pleasure as anything I’ve ever read.

That’s the problem. Your instincts usually lead you down wrong pathways in addition to the right ones, and both good and bad end up so inextricably mixed that it’s hard for you to figure out which is which. Usually the result is interesting, at the very least to yourself, but there’s no guarantee that what is interesting to you will be interesting to anybody else in the world. Peoples’ comments can give you information about how the book is being read, but they can only go so far.

When it comes to revision, I am incredible. I mean it, I’m a great reviser. This wasn’t always true. I used to never revise. But nowadays I’ve gained this ability to re-envision my work and figure out ways of setting aside what I’ve actually written and thinking of ways to simplify and streamline it. In some ways I’m a very cerebral writer. I do actually think, explicitly, about themes and character arcs and how the different strands of a story play out against each other. And my books change radically through the revision process.

And yet I’m also not a huge believer in this idea that revision can turn a hater of your book into a lover. When people love or hate a book, they’re usually responding, in my opinion, to its core. For instance, I just read an early work of Asian-American literature, John Okada’s No No Boy. This is a book about a Japanese-American boy who refused to fight on America’s side in World War II and was sent to prison as a result. After he gets out, he wanders around Seattle frothing with wordless rage and getting into fights with Japanese-American men who’ve recently been demobilized from the army.

It is…not well written. Everything is repeated so many times. The themes and thoughts are stated so baldly. The writing is purple, but not lyrical, and the character development is very slow and fitful. And yet I really liked the book, because its core was the protagonist’s deep ambivalence about his own actions. He took this highly principled stand, but he feels like a coward. He wishes, on some level, that he’d been able to go abroad and fight, and yet he’s angry with those who did. His relationships are so complex.

And people who hated the book are also, usually, responding to this core. They thought it portrayed the Japanese-Americans in a bad light and gave support to the white people who had called for internment.

The book would’ve been improved immeasurably by greater revision, but I don’t think any number of rounds would’ve turned those haters into lovers. Both they and I ‘got’ the point of the book, we just responded, because of our own history and propensities, in very different ways.

So when I revise, it’s not really with an eye to the critics. Instead I revise with an eye to the people who are going to love the book. When I revise, I think, “How can I trust my audience more? How can I surprise them and delight them more? How can I give them more to remember? How can I quicken their pulse and heighten their sense of longing?”

And, most importantly, I think about the integrity of the book itself. “How can I make this book more perfect? How can I better express the essence of what it is?”

Because that’s ultimately what it’s about. I think it’s very possible for your own ego to come between you and the book you’ve written, and criticism, when it’s useful, is only useful for me in that it reminds me that the book has a soul of its own that’s totally separate from any thoughts and desires that I or my agent or my publisher or my fans or all the reviewers on Goodreads might have for it.

 

It is a strange thing: this phenomenon of characters getting away from you

I just wrote a scene where the characters did exactly the opposite of what I’d planned for them to do. And this is a very normal occurrence when you’re a writer, but I still think it’s such an odd thing.

We still don’t know exactly what happens when we write. People like to be all blase about it and say, “It’s a craft, just like any other.” There are so many books on deconstructing plot and so many classes and college programs in how to write. In some ways, teaching people to write is almost as big a business as writing itself (certainly it seems to keep many more people employed).

But this thing that happens when your fingers hit the keyboard…it’s insane. There’s no real way to get a handle on it or manage it. Writers have gone crazy or taken to drink or killed themselves when faced with the simple truth that there does exist such a thing as inspiration, and it can’t be turned on at will.

During the first five or six years of my writing career, ideas came pretty easily to me, but for the last, well, almost the last ten years, I’ve had an increasingly difficult idea coming up with ideas. I’ve written so many words that were totally worthless–millions upon millions of words that literally have zero worth, because they didn’t contain even the ghost of inspiration.

I am extremely aware of what it feels like to be forcing it.

And I’m not even talking about the novels that I finished but which never got published. Most of those at least had a modicum of inspiration behind them. I’m talking about the rest of it. Sometimes I look back on my writing career, and I feel that almost the entirety of my time at the keyboard has been spent producing false starts and half-drafts and little scenes or fragments that never showed any threat of cohering into a real story.

And I still don’t entirely know how a person gets away from producing stuff like that and moves towards producing work that is inspired. But I have developed a few rules of thumb over the years.

  1. Don’t write the boring parts – Write only the parts of the story that hold your attention. This is why I stopped writing action scenes of any sort. By and large I’m only interested in extremely fine social movements–I’m talking about the little undercurrents that pass between two people who want something from each other.
  2. If something feels like it’s wrong, then it probably is — This is probably bad advice for you, but it’s great advice for me. Time and again, I’ve heeded the instinct to slow down, stop, or throw away something, and each time I’ve been right. I think that the essence of writing is the fine-tuning of your ability to tell the right words from the wrong words.
  3. Be wary of repeating yourself — This is the hardest one to follow. Many times when I’ve had a good idea and brought it to completion, my next few dozen ideas will be variations on the first. I mean they’ll have similar characters, conflicts, and plots. Sometimes as I pursue these ideas, they diverge from the original and become something new. But I have noticed that the best sign of an idea worth pursuing is if it’s substantially different from anything I’ve written (and completed to my satisfaction) before. Of course, many of my ideas are rehashes of old failures, but that doesn’t count. If I’ve failed before to write something, then maybe now is the time I’ll succeed.
  4. Be wary of too much complexity — Oftentimes I’ve tried to solve problems in my writing by generating a lot of froth. I’ll fracture the timeline or tell the story from an outside narrator or I’ll have a lot of running back and forth and very complicated plotting. Always I’ll have some reasonable explanation for why the story needs these things, but I find that too much complexity (for me) means that intellect has taken the place of instinct. Whereas when an idea is really working, the resulting story is generally very simple (my first book, Enter Title Here, is a notable exception here. The plot is wayyy too complex.) Similarly, I find that new writers’ response to critique is often to add new elements to a book, whereas they should really be thinking more about taking things out. When I revise, I know a revision is really working if it smooths out or eliminates some knot that previously existed in the draft. Oftentimes you’ll find that your unconscious mind has created these shortcuts or easy solutions within the story, and all you need to do is to see them.
  5. If I opened this book, what would I want to see — This one is sort of corny, but sometimes when I’m stuck, I imagine I’m a reader who’s opening this book to the first page (or to whatever page I’m on), and I think about what I’d want to see. It doesn’t begin with words, it begins with the shape of the paragraphs. Does it begin with a long paragraph or a short one? Is there lots of dialogue? Then I trace through these lines a little bit, and I try to follow this line of reasoning–what is compelling here? What do I want to read? I’m not saying that this leads to any dramatic breakthroughs, but it is helpful sometimes for me to connect to the book as a reader.
  6. Am I willing to reread this book a dozen times? – As a practical matter, if you want to sell a book, you need to be willing to re-read it A LOT. I mean more times than you can imagine: at least a dozen times, but most likely two or three times that many. If I’m souring on a book, sometimes I’ll go back and reread the beginning. If I can’t bear to reread it, then I’ll think “Do I really have the stamina to reread this book a dozen more times?” And usually the answer is no, so I’ll shelve it.
  7. Is this the book that I’d write if I was dying – As I remarked recently on Facebook, I once upon a time spent all day writing a bucket list, only to realize, the following day, that I had ZERO intention of actually doing any of the things on the list. I didn’t want to learn a new language or travel the globe or go skydiving. All I wanted was to read and write books. And sometimes I think, if I found that I was dying, would I spend my remaining time trying to finish this book? Or would I abandon it? This means: Is this the book that only I can write?; and Does this book get at the things I’ve spent my life trying to communicate? Usually the answer is “No,” and to me that too is very clarifying.

I’m not sure any of these techniques will work for you. They’re my own answers to the problem of “Is this the real thing? Or am I just faking it?” But I do think the essential lesson here is useful for anyone. And that lesson is, “How do I get at the heart of my own experience of life?”

Note, I’m not saying, “How do I get at the heart of why I want to write?” Because for most people that heart doesn’t exist. People usually don’t want to write because they’ve anything particular to say. They usually want to write simply because they love books, admire writers, and want to live a meaningful life. In fact, new writers often search for many years for their subject matter.

What I’m saying is something different. It’s more like, “Given that I want to write, what do I have to write about?” It’s similar to “Write what you know?” (which, I have to say, is not a terrible adage), but it’s more like, “What compels me?”

The weird thing about writing is that your writing is fueled by everything you’ve thought and felt outside of writing. It’s fueled by every story you’ve read or heard. It’s fueled by all of your desires and longings. It’s fueled, most of all, by your sadness and your thwarted dreams. I don’t mean to say that all writers have to go to war or tame wild horses or do any of that crap, all I mean is that in your writing, you have to get somehow at the essence of things, and those ‘things’ are inevitably going to come from your own experience of the world.

Now at this point my huge audience of speculative fiction writers are going to go, “But how can I write my secondary world fantasies? Obviously I have no experience of using a swords to fight a bunch of monsters.”

To this my response would be that all novels are fantasies. No novel portrays the real world. I mean, think about it, have you ever read a book that felt anything like the experience of being alive? No. All books are dreams. When you write secondary-world fantasy (or science fiction) you’re still in that dream-space, and I think the question of “What about this is compelling to me?” still applies.

What function does fantasy serve in your life? Where does it take you? Why do you need to go there? Your stories exist somewhere in the interaction between fantasy and your own deepest desires. And, again, this isn’t something you’ll be able to come up with through reason alone. Like take Dune. Obviously this book came from some very deep place inside of Frank Herbert. I mean look at the images he uses: the spice worms, the Fremen in their still-suits, the Spacer’s Guild, with its big fishy navigators inside cannisters of spice.

There is some deeply evocative shit going on in there. And it takes a lot of courage and insight to harvest those visions from inside yourself. Which, ultimately, is what we’re all doing. Just harvesting our own visions.

Writing is going really well, I feel pleased

Not sure what else to report in this space, but I do feel bad going more than a week without posting something. I’m writing. It’s going well. Writing usually doesn’t go well. It usually goes poorly. So I am always pleased when that’s not the case. Every night, I tell Rachel, “Writing was good today, but it’ll probably fall apart in the morning.”

Sigh, it’s so exciting to be in the midst of the act of creation. Really it is. This feeling that there was nothing, and now there’s an entire living world. What I like best is the feeling that anything can happen. No, I mean, even more than that, the feeling that I am excited to see what’s going to happen–the feeling that this story is something so incredible, and I just can’t wait to see the end.

That thing, though, that sense of life, that feeling that I’m telling myself a story–you’d think it’d be something very easy to conjure up–what I mean is that you’d think after awhile it would come more easily, and I’d be able to conjure it up whenever I sit down to write–but the opposite is true–that feeling becomes harder and harder to capture–and yet when you do–when you actually grab hold of it–the feeling is so astonishing, because it really is nothing like reading a story. Reading a story is a dream within a dream compared to the writing of a story. There’s just something so real about a story that you write yourself. It lives inside of you in the way that no other story can.

In a way, it’s almost nice that I have lower expectations for future fame and success, because before when I was in the midst of something, I’d always think, “Oh, this is going to be a best-seller; it’s going to win awards; it’s going to…etc, etc,” and that’d take me out of the reality of the thing itself. Now I hardly think about that stuff.

It’s something you can’t explain to writers who haven’t put out their first book yet–the way that you become more and more focused on the writing itself and less focused on the publishing aspect–oh well, if people are lucky, they’ll eventually find out for themselves.

Taking a rebuilding day

Everything I know about sports comes from reading the sports page and watching sports movies. I don’t think I’ve ever sat through a sports game that I wasn’t for some reason being forced to watch. But I still use sports metaphors because this is America, and I can do what I want.

For the last few days I’ve lost a little steam on my writing. Today I woke up and realized that the rest of what I needed to write just hadn’t quite come together in my mind. Normally when writing is going well, the next few scenes sort of knit themselves together as I go, and I can hear the dialogue and feel the action. This time that wasn’t happening. Oftentimes this means I need to go into what I’ve already written and re-work things. But today I wasn’t quite sure how to do it.

In sports franchises, there’s this concept of a ‘rebuilding year.’ I think this is an effort by coaches, owners, and GMs to lower expectations: “We’re not going to win many games this year, they’ll say, but we’re developing the players that’ll help us win in future years.” This is the same thing I say to myself on certain days, just to lower expectations. “I won’t write anything today, but I’ll do the thinking that’ll let me write a lot in the future.”

The thing is, when you write the focus always has to be not just on what works, and not just on what the audience will love, and not just on the needs of the market, but, most importantly, on your own heart: Where is my interest; What is compelling to me. There are lots of potential answers to any problem in a novel, but the book doesn’t need an answer–it needs your answer.

This is something I’ve been guilty of forgetting in the past. It’s very easy to think and write and think and write and write and think and think and think and think until you finally come up with a plausible solution, but in all the thinking, you’ve gotten too deeply involved in the craft of it and forgotten the art. For me, I often get bogged down in the plot and forget about what the characters really want–the stuff that’s truly motivating them. So I need a rebuilding day to remove some of the pressure and let me see things more clearly.

 

 

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In Enemies of Promise, Cyril Connolly quotes Samuel Butler: “Any man who wishes his work to stand will sacrifice a great deal of his present audience for the sake of being attractive to a much larger number of people later on.”

For my part, I wouldn’t put this quite so categorically. I think there are many books, popular in their own time, which have lasted. And I think a few books that are popular today will still be popular in the years to come (the one coming most prominently to mind is The Corrections, which I continue to maintain is a work of genius). But we do often forget that many things we read were not at all popular when they came out. Or if they did achieve some acclaim, the amount was mild in comparison to the honors and applause heaped on books that are now forgotten.

In general, I’m not really worried about my literary reputation after I die (although given the perpetual copyright regime and low returns to labor that seem likely to predominate in neo-feudal Pikettyian, it’ll undoubtedly be quite a god-send for my heirs if my books continue to sell).  But mostly I’m like, ehh, well, I’ll be dead. In the quote above, Butler goes on to say: “The world resolves itself into two great classes: “those who hold that honor after death is better worth having than any honor that man can get and know about, and those who doubt this; to my mind those who hold this, and hold it firmly, are the only people worth thinking.”

Translated away from these somewhat-foreign Homeric terms, the modern version of Butler’s ideas would be about integrity. There are people who hold strongly to ideals and those who don’t. In my case, I’d have to say I’m one who doesn’t. My ideas tend to change in tandem with those of my social set, and the only idea of which I’ve ever been absolutely certain is that there is no afterlife. (Which kind of takes a lot of the pressure off.)

I have noticed, though, that I find it very difficult to compromise in my fiction. This is going to sound absolutely awful and self-important, but I can’t put it another way: I find it difficult to write things that I don’t believe are true. And the more and more that I read, and the more sophisticated my thinking becomes, the deeper is my skepticism about many of the truths that commercial fiction tries to give us.

In some ways, it’s a godsend that I write fiction, because skepticism is at the core of storytelling. You don’t need to come down on any side when you write a story. In fact, when you write, the author often vanishes entirely. This is true even when there are omniscient, intrusive narrators. I’ve read more Trollope than I’ve read of many other authors, and he’s a very political writer, with decided opinions on a number of topics. These obviously come through in his writing, but in his best books, it’s very difficult to tell which is the right side. I’m thinking of The Warden, where he aptly portrays the kind and humane Mr. Harding…and he describes how Mr. Harding lives a wonderful, comfortable life on a bequest originally meant for the benefit of the poor.

You see this skepticism in many of the great works of literature. I was talking with a professor at Hopkins recently about the part of the Iliad where Achilles sits by the river and reflects that if he stays home, he’ll live a long life and be a great king, and his grandchildren will remember him, and maybe their grandchildren will as well, but then they’ll be forgotten. Whereas if he goes to Troy he’ll die young, but be remembered for a thousand years.

And what gives that scene such power is that the argument is so finely balanced. This is Homer, and the lesson people have taken for centuries is that glory matters above all, but there exists in the text a deep skepticism about whether or not to seek that glory.

But that’s the kind of thing that unsophisticated readers often don’t want. I visited a classroom recently and when speaking to the class, the teacher asked if I liked Star Wars (she loves it). I told her honestly: “I loved it when I was a kid, but nowadays all I can think is…this is a lie. Han and Leia and Luke aren’t special. They’re just lucky. There were a hundred thousand other people who set out to topple the Emperor, but they got killed by laser beams during the first scene. The only thing that sets our heroes apart is that the beams happened not to miss.”

I don’t think Star Wars will last for a hundred years, because it doesn’t contain any skepticism. (Note: I don’t feel this about all popular fiction. I think of the Hulk, for instance, whose anger both blinds and empowers him. Or Sherlock Holmes, who contains less humanity and passion than any of the criminals he pursues.)

What I find fascinating is that people who write not-very-complex stories don’t feel their stories less intensely than people who write more complex ones. Most of these stories are not potboilers: they are somebody’s passion. And maybe someday somebody will say the same thing about my books! They’ll say, wow, he really thought a lot of these books, and he wrote so intensely about the process of creation, but…they’re not very complex, and there’s not a lot there.

That’s why I don’t believe in posterity. I don’t know. I don’t know what survives. I don’t know what’s good and what’s bad. I’m pretty sure if I’d never heard Virginia Woolf’s name and someone handed me Mrs. Dalloway I’d be like, “This is all over the place.” Hell, I’m probably wrong about Star Wars. I don’t know. I just don’t know.

Really feeling excited about reading and writing again

Don’t have much today that’s important to say. I am sick and it’s Friday, so, you know, it’s a free day of sorts. My dad bought me the Aaron Sorkin Masterclass a year ago, and I’ve finally gotten around to listening to it. There’s good stuff here and there, but the part I liked best was where he was like…it takes me about eight to twelve months to write a script, and most of that time is not spent writing. Most of that time, I get up, go through the day, and go to sleep, and I have not written anything. I spend more time trying to write than actually writing.

That was sort of a relief! Nice to know that not everybody out there is just this productivity machine.

I also recently read Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise, in which this critic, writing in 1938, attempts to analyze the things that stop a person from fulfilling their initial promise as a writer. And the thing he identifies as being the most pernicious is success.

And I think this is so true. I mean I think of the other YA authors in my debut year who had big successes in their first books, and because of that their publishers put them on the one book a year treadmill. And of course you don’t actually get a whole year to write the book, because what happens is they spend four months deciding on or editing your proposal, and then you get three months in which to actually write the first draft of the book. Then the publisher is just always holding the whip to them, trying to keep up their sales momentum, and of course the quality of the books is never what it was with their debut book.

The result is that their debut book, which should’ve been their worst published novel (because obviously you ought to get better the longer you write, or at least during the first decade or two of your career), ends up being their best novel, and although they might publish for a long time, they don’t ever get their feet underneath them for long enough to produce the work they’re truly capable of.

Unfortunately, if you want to earn a living by writing, this book treadmill is the only way (aside from having one book that becomes a perennial seller so that you just make fifty thousand dollars a year, every year, no matter what you write). Otherwise you’ve got to teach, and although teaching is great, I think I’m with Cyril Connolly in saying that it too is an ‘enemy of promise.’ I think here the evil is more subtle. It’s just that unless you write a very particular kind of book, teaching is inevitably going to take you away from your source material.

For instance, if you write beautiful books about life in the Mississippi bayou, your reward is that you end up getting a job, probably, at Michigan or Iowa and never see the bayou again! For some writers–those whose work already instinctively breathed the air of academe–this isn’t a problem. But for others I think being cut off from your source material ends up, after a few years, killing off some part of your creativity.

But what can you do!? People need to live! They have to eat!

I don’t know. There’s not an easy answer. Having a non-writing-related day job and laboring in obscurity avoids several of these traps, but then there’s the issue of time. Can you really take the time you need to write when you’re doing something else for most of the day. Also, people write because they love writing. Ideally they’d like to do it more of the time. If they loved selling insurance, they probably wouldn’t need to write. So there’s always an impulse to find some way to make this your job.

Anyway, I am lucky, in some sense, that I escaped the book a year treadmill (see: the three and a half year gap between my first book and Winter 2020 when my next book will come out). I got to take my time to write a book that I really loved, and I feel very grateful for that. Of course, nobody ‘gave’ me that time. It was just a natural interval caused by me not being a runaway success and hence my publisher not feeling too stressed about getting another book out of me. But nonetheless it was valuable.

Maybe someday I will be a runaway success. That would be awesome! But for now I do treasure the way I still have a normal life. I’m still in contact with my source material. Most of my friends are non-writers. I live in a very unintellectual city, where I frequently encounter people who have very different values from me. This is good. I like it. Money isn’t the least complicated thing about my situation, but I’ve so far made it work (my book advances have helped a lot with this!)

I don’t know. We’ll see. I’m slowly learning the value of taking my time and of tolerating failure. I used to think of all my many, many, many false starts as failures. Now I just think of them as getting me one step closer to a beginning that will actually work. It takes time though. An incredible amount of time.

Nothing in my life has been more rewarding than reading books from the canon

Last week I was in Baltimore, giving a reading at Johns Hopkins, where I got my MFA. Although I was sort of dreading it–I don’t know, I wasn’t really sure what I had to talk about with my old professors–I actually had a great time! In fact, one of the things that I found most charming, as I interacted with people from the Writing Seminars, was the mustiness and austerity of the program.

I know lots of people hate this about English and/or Creative Writing departments, and I’d probably hate it too if I had to make my career within one, but I like how committed Johns Hopkins, in particular, is to the classics. Because, okay, I just don’t know if there’s a politic way to say this, but…if you’re in the business of studying how to be a great writer, you should probably start by studying great writing.

There is this myth that the stuff being written today is basically as good as the stuff that was written in the past, and you can pretty much level your gaze on any genre or any time period and find more than enough good writing to last you a lifetime.

This myth is both true and untrue. What’s true is that people were not better writers in the past. There are novels coming out this year that are the equal of House of Mirth or Mrs. Dalloway or The Sorrows of Young Werther or whatever other book you might care to name.

The thing that’s untrue, though, is that you’ll be able to find those novels. Because, regrettably, we seem to be completely unable to look at contemporary art with any sort of sense of perspective. I mean, the Pulitzer committee doesn’t set out every year to pick the year’s biggest flash-in-the-pan, forgotten-by-tomorrow book, and yet somehow, nine out of ten years, that’s exactly what they do. And it’s not their fault! You or I would probably do the same thing. I mean when The Goldfinch came out, I too was like…this book is legit. I enjoy reading it. Now, five years later, I’m like…nobody’s life is going to be changed by TheGoldfinch. It’s just sort of an okay novel.

The thing about great literature is that it often changes our definition of what’s good. Which means that when it comes out, lots of people read it, and are like, “This book is not very good.”

The thing about good literature, on the other hand, is that it often conforms very well to our definitions of what’s good. Which means people read it and they instantly think, “This is a great novel.”

Your taste isn’t special. You’re probably not going to be able to recognize all the books coming out in a given year that are truly world-changing, which means if you only read contemporary books, you’re going to read a lot of good novels that are masquerading as great.

It seems absurd to me that in 2018 a writer should need to defend the classics. Possibly it seems absurd to you as well. After all, the classics have basically all of the power of the State behind them. In some metaphysical way, the classics are books that are backed up by authority. If you cannot graduate high school without studying Pride and Prejudice (as is true in a public school I just visited), then Pride and Prejudice, no matter how wonderful a book it might be, has become a tool of social control, and it’s very difficult to love a tool of social control.

So I very much understand if high school or even college students don’t love the classics. Were I they, I’d hate them too. In fact, when I was in high school, I did hate and resent the classics. What I didn’t like was how they made me feel stupid. I was a person who loved books, but because I didn’t love Pride and Prejudice I somehow had terrible taste? I was somehow not a very thoughtful person? What bullshit!

I don’t think people are bad if they don’t love the classics. Nor do I think you need to read the classics to lead a moral or well-rounded life. In some sense, I think rebelling against the classics is healthy. It certainly is aggravating to be forced to read Pride and Prejudice in high school, and I think only a very tenuous case can be made for the book’s educational value (ironically, it’s assigned largely because teachers think it’s one of the few 19th century novels that the average teenager might be able to connect to).

But I do think it’s sad when I meet young writers who dismiss the classics. In my mind, I’m like…what the fuck are you doing? Why even bother to read if you’re not going to read the best that literature has to offer?

If you hate the classics because they’re all men, then fine, read Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, Lady Murasaki, the Bronte sisters (even Ann, I think she had a lot to say), Jane Austen, Shirley Jackson, Elizabeth Gaskell, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Flannery O’Connor, Patricia Highsmith, Nathalie Sarraute, George Eliot, Aphra Behn, or any of a bunch of other amazing female writers. In fact, this is a particularly unfair criticism for a reader of English to make, because we’re unusually blessed (compared to, say, French, German, or Russian) with a number of incredible 18th and 19th century female British authors.

Similar lists could be made of canonical queer authors (Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, Henry James [yes I’m including him!], Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein, John Cheever, William Burroughs, Evelyn Waugh) or canonical non-Western authors (Natsume Soeseki, Junichiro Tanizaki, Yasunari Kawabata, R.K. Narayan, Chinua Achebe, Luo Guangzho).

But I also have to say that I don’t think reading the dead white men is a terrible idea either. It would sadden me if somebody eschewed the ancient Greek and Latin writers just because they were white men (if ‘white’ can even have any meaning at a remove of two thousand years). Antiquity is such a different place from the modern world that it seems absurd to say, “Because I want diversity in my reading, I’m not going to read these works that are incredibly different from anything that people write today.”

I was going in this article to make a case that reading books from the past opens you up to structures and forms that nobody adopts today. You get something from older books (and from translated novels) that you literally cannot find in modern English literature. And that’s true, but only to a point. For instance, Knausgaard is basically the same, formally, as Proust’s novel. And The Goldfinch is basically a Dickens novel, both in terms of style and structure. All of these influences have been so deeply internalized that they’re still around in today’s literature.

More and more, I think the case for the classics is the simplest one. They’re just some of the best books. I’m not saying that there aren’t greater novels than Anna Karenina, but…what are they? If you have any ideas, please let me know, so I can write them down in a list, discuss them with other people, and maybe get them added to college syllabi

(Although actually I don’t think Anna Karenina is taught very often in college, because it’s too long. It’s actually astonishing how few of the ‘classics’ ever get assigned in class, precisely because they’re too long. Most American English majors will graduate without ever having to read Middlemarch or David Copperfield. And if you want statistical proof of these assertions you can find it here.).

I know that the canon isn’t just a list of amazing books; it’d be absurd to pretend that the classics are not a tool of institutional power. There’s a reason that nobody recommends that young Americans go out and read the Quran, even though it’s an incredible literary achievement that kind of does make you believe, at least for a little bit, in the possibility of divine revelation. It’s because reading the Quran doesn’t really do any good for any powerful people in America. It doesn’t sell books. It doesn’t create jobs. It doesn’t make the reputation of any literary critics. The Quran is something fundamentally not under the control of any white people, not even in a local sense (the way that, say, Edward Seidensticker could be an American expert on Genji), and thus there’s really very little constituency, within letters, for the Quran.

So I admit that. But still, I mean, can’t we also stipulate that IN ADDITION to being a tool of social control, the canon IS ALSO a collection of amazing books?

I know I love novels, but I’m not sure why

Recently I’ve had friends ask me why I don’t try to write for games or television or the movies. Ignoring the most obvious answer, which is that getting into those things is really, really hard and I don’t feel like making the effort, I think the real answer is that none of those things really do it for me. I don’t know. I mean…I love TV and movies and even electronic games, but at an early age the novel captured me, and that’s simply where my heart lies.

Having said that, I have to say I don’t have a very heroic vision of the novel. Nobody has ever satisfactorily proven to me that it’s in any way superior to other forms of narrative media. Nor do I think that consuming narrative media (in any form, but let’s restrict this discussion right now to the novel) is a particularly meaningful or revelatory act.

Authors sometimes talk about how deeply some book makes them feel, and when that happens, I’m like…really?

I mean I know why books make us feel deeply when we’re young: it’s because everything makes us feel deeply then. It’s not any inherent virtue in the artist or in the media. If that was true, One Direction would be the greatest band of all time, because they clearly have inspired the greatest amount of feeling amongst all the bands in the world.

But now, as an adult, I can’t say that books make me feel particularly deeply. In fact what I’m struck by is how insubstantial they are in comparison to real life. If there was any message I could go back and give to my younger message, it’d be Saul Bellow’s “People can lose their lives in libraries.”

There used to exist, amongst authors, a strong vein of suspicion about the real worth of the written word. Unfortunately, that feeling kind of ended up feeding into the mysticism and anti-intellectualism of fascism, and many authors who strongly questioned the written word ended up becoming fascists. But I don’t think this means the idea was wrong. If anything, fascism is itself a response to the sense that intellectual life doesn’t really have much to offer for a person who wants to feel deeply.

For me, writing books–the act of creation–sometimes provokes deep feelings. I live more vividly within my own imagined worlds than I do within anybody else’s. But I don’t expect my books to do that for other people. I primarily see them as, I guess, very sophisticated entertainments for people, like me, who are too jaded (or we could call it discerning) to enjoy most books. Those people can pick up my books, read them, and be like, huh, I haven’t seen that before. That’s interesting.

That, to me, is all books, pretty much. When I think of the books I’ve read in the last five years that’ve really stuck with me: House of Mirth, The Magic Mountain, Revolutionary Road, Middlemarch…the feeling I got from them was no more than that…”Huh, this is interesting. My attention is engaged.”

And that’s it, then it’s over. There’s nothing more to it than that. Some people spend their lives streamlining inventory flow management for Toyota, and I spend mine writing these books. They’re of limited value, but their value isn’t nothing, and there’s a non-zero chance that one of your books will blow up and become really popular and then you’ll make lots of money.

I read in Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy that times of societal decline lead to the popularity of quietist, inward-looking philosophies (hence the popular of Stoicism during the Roman Empire). Similarly, I think it’s sometimes worthwhile to notice the smallness of human endeavor. When I write a book, I do think of myself as adding some sort of DNA to the world of literature. But I don’t know how that DNA is going to be snatched up, recombined, or discarded by the forces of chance and necessity. But whatever ultimately happens to it, the result is going to be pretty minor. But still…it’s pretty cool to have left something behind.

 

The role of doing nothing

The Olympics are still going on, I think, and every year during the Olympics we’re given grisly insight into the training regimens and schedules of a bunch of teenagers and twenty year olds. These are people who’ve worked every hour of every day since they were like three years old. They are so focused and so precise. They can’t make any mistakes. They can’t let any chance slip by them.

Stories of famous musicians are also replete with examples like this. Not just the classical musicians of the world, who are infamous for their level of practice, but Malcolm Gladwell also tried to make the point, in Outliers, that the Beatles, I guess, had practiced a lot more than other bands. In literature, there are stories about people like Balzac, who wrote in eighteen hour stretches. Or Proust, who was so utterly painstaking in writing every sentence of his novel. Or Flaubert, who said, “I spent all morning taking out a comma and all afternoon putting it back in.”

Within the realm of popular fiction, the stories of hard work are usually about titanic, prodigious output. The writer who has three careers going under three pseudonyms. The self-published author who puts out twelve novels in one year. The working mother who wakes up at 4 AM every morning to write. The author who writes on his phone during his morning commute. The message is always the same. Every instant counts. You can’t waste a single hour or day. The competition is so fierce and so intense that if there is anything you won’t do, then you’ll lose, because somebody else is always willing to do that thing.

And yet, within my own writing career, I’ve found that working very hard doesn’t have quite as much relation to the quality of the output as I’d like it to have. For the first five years of my writing life (roughly corresponding to my senior year in high school and my four college years), I wrote not so much (maybe 60,000 words a year), and those years were admittedly not characterized by much success. After that, there was a ramp-up period where I was like, “Holy shit I need to get serious about this,” and I wrote 150, then 300, then 500, then 600 thousand words in a year. Somewhere in there I had about four years where I wrote every single day. This was the period during which I wrote my first book Enter Title Here.

Then, sometime during my MFA, I was just like…this isn’t working. After ETH, I wrote three novels in a single year. My agent didn’t like two of them, and the third went on submission but didn’t find a home. I found it harder and harder to be productive, so I would often write for an entire day and then wake up the next morning and delete it all.

Part of the problem was that Enter Title Here came to me in a flash of inspiration. The main character’s voice leapt fully-formed into my head during the summer of 2012. I lived with that voice for about four or five months, and then during December-January I poured an entire draft onto the page. There was editing, admittedly, but the hardest part had already been done. With this kind of example, it was very easy for me to believe that you just sit down every day and dip your bucket into the well of inspiration and it’ll come.

When it didn’t come, I wrote anyway. Sometimes I finished those books. Sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes I revised the books I finished. Sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes I had the awful overpowering sense that the books were bad, but I persevered anyway. Sometimes I didn’t feel that they were bad, I just felt ‘meh’ about them, and I still persevered anyway. One summer I worked for months on a book that I abandoned, convinced it was bad, only for me to pick it up two years later, re-read it, decide it had potential, work on it for six more months, and abandon again when I decided that it wasn’t something I felt justified my time.

Sometime during all of this, I stopped being so aggro about the amount of time I worked. I kept doing a few things (waking up early, working mostly in the morning, turning off my internet while I worked), but I stopped setting goals and obsessively tracking my word count. I have no idea how many hours I wrote for during 2017. I didn’t finish a book, I can tell you that. In fact, sometimes I wonder what exactly I did do during 2017.

I do know, however, that if the goal is to produce words that will be put into books that will eventually be published, then eighty-five percent of my writing days are failures. These statistics are entirely made up, so bear with me, but I estimate that on roughly 20% of my writing days I have an entirely blank slate: I’ve no idea what I’m working on, usually because I’ve just either restarted or abandoned a project.

On 40% of my writing days, I’m working on adding words to a novel that I’ll eventually abandon (I count here any book that doesn’t go on submission). The number of novels I’ve abandoned has become so immense that I don’t even keep track anymore. It’s something that happens to me all of a sudden. I’ll just realize that this whole approach is worthless, and I’ll transport the entire draft into the DRAFTS folder of my Scrivener document. Then I’ll either table the novel or start writing it anew. Usually after I’ve gone through anywhere from five to eighty openings (which usually have between 1,000 and 50,000 words in them) I’ll decide the novel is unwritable. Note that none of these ‘openings’ ever constitutes an entire first draft. Sometimes I don’t toss away an entire opening before restarting. Sometimes I’ll realize that I need to change my approach, and then I’ll go back and rejigger things without ever throwing the opening away entirely.

On 20% of my writing days, I’m working on revising books that’ve gotten at least to the first draft stage. This at least feels purposeful. Here I count the entire process, from finishing a first draft all the way through to final copy edits.

And on 10% of my writing days–that magic ten percent–I’m engaged in the process of writing a book that’ll someday (at the very least!) go on submission. What’s funny is that these books are created using the exact same process that results in all the books I abandoned. These books too tend to have lots of false starts. These books too contain thousands of thrown-away words (sometimes hundreds of thousands) in the DRAFTS folder. But somehow these books sustain my interest, at least enough that I finish them. Note, at least two thirds of the time, these books don’t sell (or even go on submission) either!

The amount of time I’ve spent, in the last four years, working in any way on things that have been or will be published (including projects I can’t tell you about yet) is, I’d estimate, less than 15% of my total writing time. And this includes edits on Enter Title Here.

For awhile I found this to be a rather depressing state of affairs, but now it just feels so normal. Every day, Rachel asks me how my writing went, and my answer is almost always “Got nothing”, “Meh”, or “It went well, but the book’ll probably fall apart in the morning.” In fact, one reason I don’t tell her what I’m working on is because in a month she’ll ask “What happened to that squirrel wizard book?” And I’ll be like, “Umm, that fell apart almost instantly. I’ve gone through like ten new books / reconceptualizations by now.”

(For me the line between a new ‘opening’ and a new ‘book’ is very tenuous. Sometimes my new openings are so different from the previous one that only I would ever be able to tell that the two are connected. Honestly, it’s just tiresome to keep opening new scrivener files all the time.)

Now I’m aware like this account makes it sound as if I’ve put in rather a lot of effort into my writing in the last four years. And I suppose that’s true. I’ve certainly exhibited a greater than average amount of determination. But as for effort? I’m not sure. To be honest, I’ve become a little blasé about effort.

I used to believe in striking while the iron was hot. I believed if you had hold of something, then you wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. Now I don’t know. I find that things often fall apart, and if you write a lot of words then you’re usually just writing more words that you’ll throw away. Oftentimes I’ll write a moderate amount, and then I’ll knock off early, thinking “That felt really good, but let’s see how I feel tomorrow” and when I come back tomorrow I’ll realize I need to delete everything I wrote yesterday. The thing is, I don’t think that realization would’ve come sooner if I’d written more the previous day. In fact, I think it would’ve come later.

As someone who’s spent months and years chasing down books that never turned into anything, I’ve seen the way that effort turns into the sunk cost fallacy. You think because you’ve put in so much time, then there must be something here. But what matters isn’t the effort but the output.

I know lots of people are very productive, but if the output isn’t good, I’m not that impressed. Some productive writers are great (Shakespeare, Trollope, Dickens, Stephen King, Agatha Christie, Jim Thompson). Others are at least very good at being themselves (Orson Scott Card, Mercedes Lackey, David Weber, C.S. Forester). But a lot of the writers who are producing a book a year are just writing to formula. Most of the writers I actually like are taking at least a few years to write a book, and I’m starting to realize that it’s going to be really hard for me to write a book in less than two years. Not because I can’t write the book, but just because of all the false starts I need to leave time for along the way! Once I have the first chapter, writing and revising it takes six months. It’s finding that first chapter that’s hard!

Of course, lots of literary writers take their time in writing. I mean Eugenides and Franzen and Tartt are taking ten years between books nowadays. But there’s this implication that this sort of time comes because you’re paying alot of attention to the words. And I don’t do that either. What’s the point? I can spend a lot of time worrying about sentences, but if my approach isn’t right, I’m still going to throw it all out tomorrow.

But I don’t know, maybe that’s wrong. For me, the biggest difficulty is finding my way into the voice of the piece. This voice represents the implicit logic of what you’re creating. You can’t write by using the intellect. You’re channeling something deeper inside of you. And I don’t think we really understand how to reliably get into that place. Maybe focusing on the prosody would get me more reliably to that place. I will say that almost always when I feel like I’ve ‘gotten into’ a book I’m writing, it’s because there’s something unique in the prose itself. And if I don’t have that, then no matter how well the book feels like it’s going, I often feel meh about it.

The problem is that I think sentence-level editing is ALSO governed by the intuition! It’s impossible to know whether one word is right or another word is right unless you are being guided by the implicit logic of the piece. So, for me, something like ‘getting into the words’ as a way of finding the voice seems inherently tautological.

Sigh!

I don’t think anyone has developed a good way of finding the place, deep down inside, that stories come from (Robert Olen Butler calls it “the dreamspace”). Authors have developed their own techniques, but those techniques seem mostly just to work for them. There’s a lot you can say about the dreamspace, of course. For me, finding it involves a certain amount of integrity: I need to understand whether this is the book that I want and need to be writing. Which means that finding the dreamspace is mostly a negative action. I fish for some words, then I bring them up and am like, “Nope, not the right ones” and then lower my bait again (no, I don’t practice catch and release–the Fish and Wildlife people probably have a bounty out for my head).

And that’s fine, I suppose. You do what you do, and if someone came to me, I’d say, “Well, that sounds like a process. Trust in it.”

The real problem, and I know it’s taken me 2100 words to get here, is that only that thirtyish percent–the part where I’m deep inside a book that I really know–actually feels like writing. And, since some of that time (maybe most of it) is devoted to writing and revising books that I’ll complete but which aren’t really right for me, the actual time that I’m in my dreamspace feels very, very small, compared to the amount of time I spend trying to get into it.

This feels unfair. I can’t help but feel that some people just slip into their dreamspace with no problems. And, moreover, it makes me question: is not-writing also part of my process? Is abandoning work a part of my process? Is writing bad words, that I get from god knows where, and put into bad novels (that I’ll never finish), also a part of my process? How does this help me? In what way does this constitute ‘effort’ or ‘training’?

Today is a great example. I wrote fifteen hundred words, then I hit a block. I had some notion of where the book could go next, but it felt a little bit wrong. I often feel this sense of wrongness when contemplating a book. Things are for whatever reason not as elegant or as simple as they can be. And I’ve come to believe that it’s somewhat pointless to put down more words when the book is like this.

Sometimes this is where the book breaks down for me. Other times I think of an approach that takes me to where it really needs to go.

I don’t know. Personally, I don’t think of the writing–the typing of words–as being important in itself. Rather, I type as a way of testing out my vision. Sometimes the vision breaks apart almost instantly. Other times it takes ten or fifteen or twenty thousand words for the cracks to show. But the process of writing isn’t the process of putting words on paper, it’s the process of refining that vision.