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I remember one time taking a class from a very well-regarded author (I still think his work is incredible) and being very impressed with his erudition. I was only 20 at this time, and I’d read primarily science fiction and fantasy for the last decade, and I was awe-struck at how this person seemed easily able to call upon trenchant and apt quotations from sources ranging from W.H. Auden to Plato. I thought, “This is who I want to be someday.”

This person was very into the post-structuralists (which, as far as I can tell, nobody cares about these days) and when I began my junior year of college, I checked out a bunch of books by Roland Barthes, who I still believe to be the most accessible of the bunch, and went on a bit of a reading spree. To be honest, I didn’t really get it, and I eventually lost interest in literary theory, but the experience has left me with a lingering feeling of inadequacy when it comes to literature.

It’s a very odd feeling to quite literally be unable to understand a text that’s written in English. But to this day whenever I encounter most works of literary theory, I can’t make heads or tails of them. Now, it’s not that I’m stupid, it’s that generally speaking, you don’t just sit down and read an author like Barzun or Lacan or Barthes. You study them. In a class. Or you read an annotated version. Somebody explains them to you.

Which of course leads one to wonder: why can’t we just read the explanation and skip the text itself?

I have a private suspicion that, just like the texts they purport to analyze, most works of literary theory are themselves subject to a plenitude of interpretations. It’s not a question of understanding the text at all; it’s a question of what you come to understand after reading it. This, to me, seems like a much kinder way of saying that much of it is somewhat nonsensical. But of course this is the view of the outsider.

Thirteen years after my class with that extremely erudite writer, I’ve come to realize that his quotation-dropping was a mark of intellectual insecurity. He didn’t graduate college, and he acquired his literary knowledge primarily through voluminous reading. Like me, he didn’t have that firm grounding in the language of literature and academia, and so he felt the need to constantly reestablish his bona fides by pointing out all the big, important, difficult works he had read.

(None of this diminishes his worth as a writer by the way. This author was truly one of the greats. And in conversation he was scintillating and full of insights.)

It’s the curse of auto-didacticism. You know a lot, but you don’t know what you don’t know. And one of the things you end up not knowing are the subtle signs and signifiers that mark you as an expert. Because of this, there always exists a persistent sense of wrongness when the auto-didact discusses any subject (but particularly the humanities) with people who come from an academic background.

One of those absent or incorrect signifiers, by the way, is the auto-didact’s focus on “the classics”. An interesting thing about academics is that they often seem singularly unconcerned with master texts. Because their education is more concerned with grounding them in patterns of thought, they tend to have somewhat of a scattershot approach to the classics. And while they will be absurdly well-versed in their chosen field of study–to the point where they’ve read, for instance, Gothic novels that nobody aside from academics has read in the last hundred years–they might have significant gaps in adjacent areas. For instance, it wouldn’t be terribly surprising to meet an academic who’s never read, for instance George Elliott, or Dickens, or Balzac, if their research interests didn’t mandate it, while most autodidacts usually get around to these authors before burrowing down into more obscure ones.

I do wonder what role there is for autodidacts when it comes to conversations about books. I mean, I do think we serve a purpose. Because, let’s face it, literature isn’t entirely, or even largely, about examining power relations or figuring out deep structures that hold together semiotic systems. It’s about having your consciousness expanded by great writing. And autodidacts tend to approach books in exactly this experiential way. But…you still don’t want to turn it all into a bunch of book reviews. That seems equally pointless. I mean the doofuses who review stuff on Amazon can do that just fine without our help.

Writers usually don’t make great critics. We read in a very different way. And we read very different texts. Although there is a creative writing academia, and it does have its own little canon (mostly of mid-20th century short story writers) that it likes to push, the way CW academia talks about texts tends to be a little facile, and as such most MFA-holders–even those who went to highly academic programs, like I did–tend to graduate mostly untouched by any formal approach to reading and writing.

So we end up being good at talking about books with other writers, but I’m not sure we’re great at communicating with other people.

As an aside, many writers are not very well-read! It’s sort of astonishing. I’d say the bulk of writers primarily read in the genres in which they write. If they write science fiction, they read science fiction. If they write contemporary literary fiction, they read contemporary literary fiction. Obviously nothing could be less astonishing than this. It’d almost be odd if it wasn’t the case. And yet the lack of interest many writers evince in the classics does continue to be a source of wonderment to me. Maybe we simply don’t like being reminded that acclaim is evanescent, and that only a very, very, very few books will survive the lifetimes of their writers.

When to stop writing for the day

Generally speaking, I don’t do any writing after five PM. That’s a rule mostly for my own sanity. I don’t want to spend every hour feeling like I really ought to be writing. And, let’s face it, writing is not a very time-consuming activity. The number of writers who do more than two hours a day at the keyboard is shockingly small, and even those two hours can sometimes be too much. If I have no idea what I’m doing, it’s better to do no writing rather than spend two hours banging on the keyboard without producing anything worthwhile.

But every day I do face the task of determining a proper stopping point. This is actually a somewhat rarefied problem, since most of the time I’m blocked and unable to write. So there’s a natural tendency, on good writing days, to keep on typing. After all, when the inspiration is really flowing, I can write two thousand words in under two hours. If I kept going at that rate, entire novels could be written in ten days (this is something I once did, although the novel didn’t sell).

Still, after two thousand words I usually think it’s better to knock off for the day (on fiction writing that is. Paid freelance work is something different). I can’t quite explain the thinking here. At the time it always feels like laziness, but I usually find that a day or two of thinking about the book makes me realize that my intended direction wasn’t quite right. Oftentimes a pause gives me the time to consider the draft and save myself from trouble.

Very close to the end of this draft

I always knew that this draft of my novel would be about six chapters and fifty thousand words long (yes, it’s short, but this is within the realm of acceptability for a literary novel). This is one of my talents. I generally know, to within two or three thousand words, how long my books are going to turn out to be.

Coming to the end of a book is a bewildering thing. For so much of the book I’m worried it’s going to fall apart. Then suddenly it becomes easy. The number of options closes down. Everything has an air of inevitability. In fact there’s a mathematical precision to every scene. It’s simply the firing of each gun you’ve placed on each mantle. If a character hasn’t been seen in awhile, then it’s time for them to come back. If a thread has receded into the background, then it must be foregrounded (however briefly). You cannot introduce new characters or new elements. The most you can do is juxtapose characters who’ve never previously been seen together.

When I come to the end of a novel, I’m always struck by what a momentous achievement it is. A novel is fucking immense. It’s an entire world, created, nurtured, and brought to fruition. What’s most interesting are all the things that a novel leaves out. My current book contains no mention of the main character’s family relationships. They exist. She has them, but they have no relevance upon the plot. Nor does she fully describe her rather substantial history with the other characters. All of these people have so much life, and yet they exist so briefly and in such a limited fashion.

A friend and I were recently discussing why we write. I said that maybe we write in order to connect with other people. But she commented, correctly, that when people actually come up to an author and want to discuss their work, it’s almost always pretty uncomfortable for the author. Moreover, most readers, even fans of the book, tend to have only a shallow appreciation for its subtler and more impressive accomplishments.

For instance I’ve been reading domestic thrillers, and one particularly good one was Michelle Frances’ The Girlfriend. I went online and read several interviews with the author where her interlocutor was like, “OMG did you hate these characters as much as I did?” And you can almost hear the sigh on the part of the author, who’s like, “Actually, no. I liked and sympathized with them both very much.”

Which, to me, is obvious. She clearly loved these people, and that’s the main accomplishment of the book. But readers often don’t get these things. Perhaps on some level they’re responding to the book’s intricacies, but they rarely understand them.

So if it’s not to communicate, then maybe we write simply for the pleasure of it. Those very few days when the writing is going very well are definitely quite pleasurable. But I don’t know that this encapsulates it.

I think some people just enjoy the daydreaming aspect. I like to create stories. The characters do, to some extent, come alive. I can hear them. I can feel them moving around and trying to do things. But they’re never really my friends. Even the briefest of my acquaintances is more real, to me, than any character I’ve ever created.

For me, at this late date, my purpose in writing (aside from the wish for fame and fortune) is that I know things which nobody else seems to. In some ways, they’re very simple things, but I can’t summarize them in a few words. Mostly I think that I simply tackle the stories that other people tend to always mess up. For instance, I’ve for years wondered, What happens if a young woman moves to the big city, and doesn’t find an intimate circle of friends? What if she remains forever on the outside?

When other authors write this story, it always turns into a tale of dangerous obsession. But that implies that loneliness is either a result of pathology or inevitably causes pathology. And yet that is simply not the case. Looking at the world, one can see that the vast majority of lonely people simply learn to bear their situation. They grit their teeth and survive. This is something we all know, but it’s very difficult to write a story about it, in part because such a story is inherently lacking in drama and in part because the protagonist of such a tale is usually in this situation in part as a result of her own weakness. And if there’s one thing a reader can’t forgive, it’s weakness.

But because of the mechanical difficulties of constructing such a novel, writers often find themselves taking the easy way out. I don’t do this. And it hasn’t been easy. To create a situation that is natural, dramatic, and complex is beyond the resources of many writers. Either they resort to contrived situations, they create boring stories, or they simplify the inherent complexities of the situation. In some cases, they do all three.

For my part, it’s dishonesty that I really hate. For instance, if in modern times, someone has no friends and no community, they generally bear a certain measure of blame for the situation. They want something, but they’re too weak to go out and get it. They are afraid of rejection. And it’s totally understandable. People armor themselves with self-deceit, but an excess of rejection either destroys that self-deceit or requires so much additional self-deceit that it propels you into another world entirely. So a person needs to carefully manage their rejection levels.

But on the page, this rejection-management reads as weakness. Yet how can such a basic part of ordinary human life be a weakness? These are the sorts of conundrums that have occupied literally years of my life.

I think that if there’s any reason I write it’s because somebody needs to solve these problems, and very few people seem to even be trying. In fact, the status quo, where the heroes and heroines of most novels find themselves dealing with problems that are utterly dissimilar to those of any normal human being, doesn’t even seem to be a problem for most people in the publishing world.

And this is not a matter of genre. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing Bridget Jones or Luke Skywalker, the essential problem of life is still: how can I find the strength to survive? And if you simplify that problem, you might create a gripping or iconic story, but, to my mind, you’re abrogating your duty as a storyteller.

I still read quite a bit, but I almost never post about it

I still read quite a few books–more books than ever, actually–but I almost never have the urge to post about them. Partly this is because I have, for whatever reason, been drawn to more mediocre books lately. I’ve been reading a number of domestic thrillers: entry after entry after entry in the genre that arose in the wake of the success of Gone Girl and Girl on the Train. Many of these books are not very good. Their view of human nature is simplistic, and in their attempt to be ‘shocking’ and ‘thrilling’ they throw realism out the window.

(Nonetheless I persist in reading them. I’m drawn to the promise of the genre. I love to read about people who are riven by longing, and I love reading stories about ordinary people. Domestic thrillers provide both.)

But I also have read some serious novels that are more than worth posting about. I’ve been working my way through The Story of the Stone (also known under Dream of the Red Chamber and a half-dozen other sobriquets). This is an 18th-century Chinese novel–a comedy of manners about the decline and fall of a great aristocratic house. Although similar in some respects to other sweeping novels of manners (Buddenbrooks particularly comes to mind), the book’s micro focus is upon the scion of the family, Bao Yu, and his relationships with the three dozen maids, aunts, and girl-cousins who make up his household.

It takes a while to warm up to the book, which is extremely long (the Penguin Classics translation by David Hawkes covers five volumes), but there’s something quite sweet about Bao Yu. His interest in the girls is relatively non-sexual. He idolises women and girls and goes out of their way to placate and cater to them, without recognizing that, as the master of the house, they’re actually all trying to keep him happy.

Bao Yu strikes me as the very portrait of somebody who, today, might think of himself as a trans woman. He at several points wishes openly that he was a girl, and he not infrequently denigrates his own sex. He also seems to have a horror of puberty and of growing up, and when the various women in his coterie are married off, it’s like something forever shatters in his world. I think there’s something sweet and ineluctably true here about what it means to grow up as a man and to be slowly forced into a role that you didn’t choose and don’t want.

Nonetheless I haven’t posted much about the book. Even the above I only wrote so you’d understand what I was talking about. The thing is that I sometimes wonder if I have anything to add to the Internet’s book discourse.

It seems to me that most people who write about books on the internet come from one of three traditions of criticism: academic; fannish; or pop-culture. An academic writer would be someone like Matt Cheney at Mumpsimus, who writes extremely smart things about books, using words and concepts I’ve never heard of. A fannish writer would be someone like my friend Becca, who writes about her bookish loves and does an amazing job conveying the enthusiasm they arouse in her. A pop-culture writer might be Abigail Nussbaum, over at Wrong Questions, who combines a knowledge of technique and impact with some sense of the work’s role in the current palette of what people are watching and reading.

I don’t feel very at home in any of these traditions. The academic tradition is entirely foreign to me. I just don’t read or think that way. I don’t like or respond to books the same way that fans do. And maybe I’m just not a rigorous or serious enough thinker to react to things the way a pop-culture critic does.

For most of the lifetime of this book, I’ve free-associated about books. When I read a book, certain ideas occur to me, and then I use the reading of this book as an occasion to write about those ideas. Most of the time, those ideas have nothing to do with the book in question. I’ve noticed, actually, that my ideas tend to be more negative than positive. They’re all things I’m against, rather than things I’m for.

I am deeply suspicious of books and of culture in general, and I try to resist the impulse to valorize them. I also don’t trust heroism. Not just the prevailing mode of heroism, where a white man breaks the law in order to save us all, but even the broader idea of heroic action: the notion that one person can or should make a difference. I’m suspicious of all humanistic or rationalist systems that purport to provide some meaning for life. I’m suspicious of friendship. I value it quite a bit, but I think it’s much weaker than most people would like it to be. I’m suspicious of Critical Race Theory and its offshoots. Not that I don’t see the value of critiquing systems of power relations, but the critique has become too facile, too simple, and too automatic. It’s time to figure out other ways of talking about art. I’m suspicious of the aristocratic impulses that many artists have: the sense that there’s a certain elect who’re capable of appreciating beauty–it’s too easy to draw a line between these ideas and fascism. I’m also suspicious of democratic impulses in art: the idea that what is popular must be good, and that art needs to or ought to be accessible to the masses. It’s too easy to draw a line between these ideas and fascism.

I’m full of suspicion, is what I’m saying. But it’s very hard to figure out what I am in favor of. Moreover, without the backing of some school of criticism, it’s hard sometimes for me to understand if the things I’m saying are either brutally obvious or completely off-base.

I think books, for me, are a private island. I relate to books in my own way. And, like, most people, I’ve built up a system of referents that I return to again and again. The authors I think about day-in and day-out are Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, Willa Cather, Thomas Mann, Euripides, Yasunari Kawabata, Jorge Luis Borges, Dashiell Hammett, Anthony Trollope, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens, Emile Zola, Honore de Balzac, and a few dozen others.

Interestingly, I’ve been most likely to find kindred spirits amongst writer and professors of the older generation: writers who are in their sixties and seventies and eighties, and who are considered out-of-touch even by other Boomers. With them at least I feel able to communicate. If you meet someone who loves these authors, then you know something about them.

I think, despite the atomizing impulses that power my skepticism, I still believe in the novel as a vehicle for saying fresh and true things about human relationships. This is why I have a hard time, honestly, getting into a lot of contemporary fiction. It’s too deeply situated in the personal. It’s about moment-to-moment experience. There are too many images and not enough conversations, not enough summary, not enough telling.

Most writers in the modern day seem to feel a sort of exhaustion. They retreat into the embodied world–into the world of sensation and images–because it seems infinitely varied. When it comes to social novels, the terrain seems to be exclusively in the possession of multi-cultural writers. But even here there’s a sense of exhaustion. When I read a book about Native Americans in Oakland, I don’t see anything in it about human relations that wasn’t common currency in Emile Zola’s time. Modern society destroys people, in party by systematically creating incentives for families to desert and sacrifice each other.

When multicultural novels succeed, it often feels like they succeed simply because they describe sights and sounds we’ve never read before, or they use cadences we’ve never heard.

But I think so many stories have not been told. There seems to be such a dearth of novels that describe human relations as they actually are. When I read books about love and sex, for instance, it’s not that they haven’t yet adapted to the 21st century…most of them haven’t even adapted yet to the nineties! The story of modern times is not the story of libertinism. It’s not the story of successive semi-serious monogamous relationships. Peoples’ lives are not like Friends. Most people I know are or have been single for long stretches of time. They have had few sexual partners. They have off-beat sexual preferences that are sometimes best satisfied through masturbation. And they read these books, and they’re like “What’s wrong with me?” When the real answer is Nothing, you are so normal.

But then these same people sit down and write a book, and it’s like fucking Friends. It’s all about some chick deciding between two men. That’s so dumb! Modern life isn’t deciding between two men. It’s deciding between zero men. Or between men and women. It’s not deciding between a boring guy and a dangerous one. It’s deciding between the dangerous one and nobody. Or the boring one and nobody. There is a remarkable reluctance, in modern fiction, to face up to the mute fact of loneliness. And this is so true that the few books and films which actually do acknowledge loneliness become classics almost through fiat, not because they’re any good, but simply because they exist.

It’s so shocking to me that in this world where it seems like everybody is writing stories and everybody is making art, nobody is able to see to just see things as they are. Another example: men are full of violence. It’s not just some small portion of men. It’s most men. Not that most men will be violent, but the rage and hatred that creates violence is inside almost all men. But you could read novels all day long and never realize this to be the case. It’s almost a conspiracy of silence. Women don’t know the truth. In their novels, they portray violent impulses as something erratic or pathological. And in our books men go along with this fiction–when we have protagonists who are violent or angry, we pretend that they’re sociopaths or troubled individuals. But they aren’t. We are all violent. Every man, and most women, know this to be the case, yet it’s completely absent from our pop culture. The only difference between a violent man and most men is the fact that the violent one at some point realized he could get probably get away with it, so long as he chose his victims carefully.

I could go on and on and on. It seems to me that there is so much unexplored terrain in fiction. Luckily, television is filling in some of the gap. The novel is at this point almost the little brother of television; it’s only relevance comes through the influence that novels have upon TV. The power of novelists come not from any inherent power of the textual medium, but through the structural freedom involved in our art. Novels don’t require ten million dollar budgets to come to fruition. Although a novel needs buy-in from several major corporations in order to hit the shelves, that still, in practice, means that a novel only needs one or two determined supporters, as opposed to the hundreds or thousands that a TV show needs. As such, it’s possible for a novel to make statements that a TV show cannot.

So go out and make them! And maybe then I’ll be able to write about books again.

Had that feeling last night that I’m probably going to finish this book

Still working on my book for adults (tentatively titled The Storytellers). I find that with novels, they tend to fall apart in one of four places: the second chapter; midway through the first act; the end of the first act; and one chapter into the second act. The most upsetting and confusing of these points is the final one. Because at this point in the book I’ve often put in a lot of work–anywhere from a few weeks to a few months–and I’ve introduced all the characters and conflicts. I’ve often plotted out the entire rest of the book, and it all seems good to go. But instead I find myself procrastinating. When I write, I just end up spinning my wheels. Weeks or months pass without anything happening.

Usually the problem is that for whatever reason the first act of the book just doesn’t have enough. The problems aren’t big enough. There aren’t enough characters. Or I haven’t really defined what kind of book this is. Essentially the logic of the book hasn’t cohered. At this point I either need to rewrite the first act, or I’ve got to give up on the thing.

But the corollary is that if I don’t lose interest by this point, then I’m probably going to go ahead and finish the book.

Was thinking yesterday that this is an awesome accomplishment. A novel is such an immense thing. It’s not just a story; it’s an entire world. And to finish a novel means spinning up a universe out of nothing. No matter how intense the feeling of transport is for the reader of the book, the feeling for the author is even greater. When I finish writing a book, I’ve come as close to actually being there as I am capable of coming. It’s day-dreaming, but taken to a new level.

Sometimes I think about writing, and I’m like…I could write about literally anything. I could write about depressed black holes that fall in love with sentient funguses. But I don’t. Because the truth is you can’t actually write about anything at all. Only when the story comes from deep inside are you really able to give it that spark of life.

Finding intimate, life-long friends

I have to apologize. A few years ago I got really excited about writing this series of articles on how to make friends, and I wrote up this whole huge outline and planned a big series of posts and rebranded my entire blog and even wrote many of the posts, but then I stalled out and drifted away.

The problem, I think, was that while I knew a lot about the topic, I didn’t know quite enough. The thing I was missing was the final ingredient. Not how do you make friends, but how do you make best friends. How do you find the people who will offer you succor in your darkest times? The people who will loan you money, give you shelter, lie for you under oath, and ride out, sword in hand, to avenge your death.

To be honest, I wasn’t entirely certain I had friends like that myself. Although I think highly of friendship, at times I feel like Proust, who repeatedly, in Remembrance of Things Past, talks about how friendship is mediocre and narcotizing: “The whole effort of [friendship] is directed towards making us sacrifice the only part of ourselves that is real and incommunicable (otherwise than by means of art) to a superficial self which, unlike the other, finds no joy in its own being, but rather a vague, sentimental glow at feeling itself supported by external props, hospitalised in an extraneous individuality, where, happy in the protection that is afforded it there, it expresses its well-being in warm approval and marvels at qualities which it would denounce as failings and seek to correct in itself.”

The problem with friendship is that there’s a sort of glow that comes from being around other people, and this glow is rather pleasant, though not overwhelmingly so, and it encourages us to look outward, to turn away from ourselves and from our own deepest concerns, and to, essentially, turn off our brains for hours at a time.

Relationships with other people are sustaining. And, as with Proust, they provide most of the raw material for my work. Friendship, more than romantic love, is one of the main themes of my fiction, and perhaps because of this I’m aware of its paradoxes. Most friendships are weak and easily broken. Most conversations are banal and repetitious. Hours upon hours can pass with your friends and yet disappear instantly, even from your memory, without leaving a single trace. And most of the good feelings we have towards our friends are shallow. Friends abandon each other at the slightest provocation, not even because one has imposed on the other, but merely because one is afraid the other might impose.

Two way exist for closing the loop on friendship and creating something of durable worth. One is the mystical ‘best friend.’ Your ride-or-die friend. Your one true pairing. The person you would call if you needed help burying a body. I believe this person exists. And I have thoughts on how to find them. But it’s a hard thing. The route from here to there is pretty circuitous, to be honest.

The other way is through community. I’ve always been struck by how people in the Indian-American community will go to great lengths to help out other people they might not even like. Indians will think nothing of asking almost total strangers to put up their kids while they’re in college in America or write them recommendations or loan them money or co-sign a mortgage. And oftentimes the other person will actually do it! There’s a sense of solidarity there that’s almost mystical. There’s a feeling that well, I’ll do this because other people will do it for me.

I’ve observed this within the science fiction and fantasy community too. People in SFF will help each other out. They’ll read each others’ books. They’ll blurb each other. Recommend agents. Even when some total goober comes up to you, and you’re like, this guy is never gonna be a real writer, you treat them nicely and invite them to sit with you and try to tolerate their presence, because that’s just how it is.

Whereas within the community of young adult writers, it’s not like that. People are in it for themselves. There’s a perpetual status-consciousness at play, and unless you’re on the up-and-up, people don’t have time for you.

Which is not to say that there’s no status-consciousness within the SFF and Indian-American communities! Far from it! There is perpetual kow-towing within both worlds. But there also exists a sense of responsibility that’s somewhat absent in the YA world.

I can’t speak to what makes some communities strong and other communities weak. It’s not about liking. To be honest, I tend to like the YA community much more than I like the SFF community: the former is full of cool, sophisticated women, while latter is primarily comprised of people who make cringe-inducing jokes about the TARDIS (from Dr. Who) every time they’re in an elevator. But I recognize the YA world’s deficiencies, and that’s why I maintain my ties to SFF.

So the search for ride-or-die friends, seems, at times, to be a mirage. If you want true support, emotional or otherwise, you’re better off finding a strong community to be a part of.

And yet…one does desire that intimacy. And I’ve spent the last several years slowly developing thoughts on how to find it. Which is why I’m posting here again.

Writing a novel these days feels like a relentless and slow grinding of gears

Been working on my novel-for-adults (provisionally entitled The Storytellers). I’m quite excited about the book. But it’s also been slow. Te novel is very short, 30k words in its first draft and probably 45k in the final draft, and I’ve been writing and rewriting the first two (of six) chapters. I always spend a lot of time on the first act. To my mind, the first act is usually the most exciting and interesting part of the book, and it’s also the rocket that blasts the book into space. Whenever I hit the end of the first act, I have the same question, “Do I have enough propulsive power to get to the end? Is there enough conflict here? Are there enough characters and threads?” Because if you run out of material in twenty thousand words, you can’t just invent stuff: you need to go back and put more stuff into the beginning.

It’s hard. I use the word ‘cerebral’ to describe my writing process these days. Whenever I encounter a road block, I do a lot of thinking and a lot of diagramming. And it’s always the same two questions: What is currently in the book? And what wants to be in the book?

Each book has an internal logic that’s dictated by the situations it tackles and the effects it’s trying to achieve. The logic of a book cannot be directly altered; only the book’s contents can be altered. So whenever I run into a problem with the logic, I think, What needs to change in order to solve this problem? Quite frequently, the answer is that something within the book is vague or unelaborated. In the current case, it’s the central antipathy born towards the protagonist by her boss. I had some vague idea of what drove the antipathy, but when I ran into problems writing, I realized that the nature of his hurt was too vague. That meant that in different situations, I allowed it to be different things. In the absence of definition, my mind chose expediency rather than clarity.

Other times the answer is that you’ve made concrete decisions, but they don’t fit within the logic of the book. Essentially, you’re trying to force it, trying to create a false situation.

It’s a bit punishing, trying to make sure the book seems complete and logical, and it often isn’t very rewarding. The logic of the book is something that only a very few readers are able to appreciate. It can also feel hopeless or frustrating at times. It takes a lot of faith to delete what you’ve written and to keep working, in the belief that you’ll eventually discover that logic. You’re searching for something that might not exist. And you don’t have to do that. It’s very tempting to ignore the glimmerings of logic and to just push forward, finish the thing, and send it out.

But it’s also fun to work on a book. It’s fun to think. It’s fun to watch the characters slowly come to life. It’s not fun all the time, or even most of the time, but some fun does exist. And I guess that’s why we do it. And also for the money. And the fame.

I’ve “read” an absurd number of “books” in the last ten weeks

The new year is ten weeks old, and I see from my stats that I’ve read sixty books in the last seventy days. Of course, thirty-nine of these were audio books and seven were graphic novels, so I’m not sure in what sense I can say I’ve been reading.

I went through a huge number of thrillers this year. I’ve been on the domestic thriller band-wagon from the beginning. Gone Girl was a huge favorite of mine when it came out, and I’m always down to see the twisting tendrils of madness as it manifests within the typical American yuppie couple.

But I have to say, a large number of these domestic thrillers were pretty disappointing. I think the problem here is The Girl On The Train and, to a lesser extent, Gone Girl, which both went to extreme lengths to keep you guessing about key aspects of the narrative.

But this is not usually good storytelling. I mean, generally speaking, people tend not to be uncertain about whether or not the things they’ve experienced in the recent past actually occurred. Like, let’s say I had a person rent a room in my house. Then I see my neighbor murder them. Almost always, I’m going to be pretty sure that this person actually existed. First of all, it’s unlikely that nobody else would have EVER seen them. I don’t care how huge an agorophobe I am: there’d be some evidence of their existence. Secondly, I could prove their existence if I needed to. Maybe they left something behind. Maybe they gave me something. Maybe they had to sign a lease. Maybe I ran a credit check. Maybe they rented through AirBnB. Now I’m not saying you always have all this evidence, but generally speaking, the facts are relatively clear.

Similarly the protagonist is insane, then usually it’s equally clear, to the outside observer, that they are insane. They’re like, this boarder came to my house, and she brought an alien with her, and they were working with the CIA. There’s not a lot of edge cases when it comes to visual hallucinations.

Which is not to say that you can’t have people with delusional beliefs that aren’t disprovable (people who believe they are, for instance, Jesus Christ), but that actually be a pretty concrete thing. Because if I’m reading a story about someone who believes they’re Jesus, I know that I’m dealing with an inherently ambiguous unresolvable situation (unless they perform miracles, in which case it’s unambiguous in a different direction).

Now if you’re gonna muddy the waters and try to make the reader believe that a relatively simple situation is actually ambiguous, then you’re gonna end up writing a book that’s pretty sweaty. Like, you simply cannot spend four hundred pages obfuscating whether or not someone actually exists.

Sometimes I get very disappointed with the writers of plot-driven fiction. Because it feels like they believe that it’s easy. All you need is to throw some crap at a board and then contort all logic to make it work. Like, oh alright, we’ve got a murder. But nobody is sure that the person actually existed in the first place! Wouldn’t that be a mindfuck? No.

It’s gotten to the point where I just won’t read any book if the plot summary contains more than one plot twist. Like, here’s an example, is the plot summary of Riley Sagar’s mega-hit Final Girls:

Ten years ago, college student Quincy Carpenter went on vacation with five friends and came back alone, the only survivor of a horror movie–scale massacre. In an instant, she became a member of a club no one wants to belong to—a group of similar survivors known in the press as the Final Girls. Lisa, who lost nine sorority sisters to a college dropout’s knife; Sam, who went up against the Sack Man during her shift at the Nightlight Inn; and now Quincy, who ran bleeding through the woods to escape Pine Cottage and the man she refers to only as Him. The three girls are all attempting to put their nightmares behind them, and, with that, one another. Despite the media’s attempts, they never meet.

That is, until Lisa, the first Final Girl, is found dead in her bathtub, wrists slit, and Sam, the second, appears on Quincy’s doorstep. Blowing through Quincy’s life like a whirlwind, Sam seems intent on making Quincy relive the past, with increasingly dire consequences, all of which makes Quincy question why Sam is really seeking her out. And when new details about Lisa’s death come to light, Quincy’s life becomes a race against time as she tries to unravel Sam’s truths from her lies, evade the police and hungry reporters, and, most crucially, remember what really happened at Pine Cottage, before what was started ten years ago is finished.

Now “Serial killer targets the survivors of other serial killers” is pretty absurd, but I might read that book. What I won’t read is “serial killer targets the survivor of other serial killers, AND it turns out he was connected to the killings that they all survived…” That’s one plot twist too many! I mean trying to imagine how that would work (or why anyone would do it) can ONLY lead you to ridiculous places. There is no reasonable novel that can be constructed from such a premise.

What I prefer are books where there’s some sort of concrete conflict that flows organically from characters who have different needs. For instance, my favorite of this crop of thrillers was Michelle Frances’s The Girlfriend, which is about a clingy mother who’s afraid that her son’s girlfriend is a gold-digger. She’s not wrong, but she’s also not right (incidentally, this is same premise as that of Henry James’s most readable novel, Washington Square). That’s a good novel. I’ll read that shit all day.

But coming up with a premise this simple is HARD. You can’t just churn out something like that year after year (at least not without repeating yourself). And that’s why it’s hard to find good thrillers. Somebody might write one or two great ones, but eventually either the pressure of the market catches up to them, and they start churning out crap, or their pace of publishing becomes glacially slow and they try to cross-brand their books as “literary thrillers” (which is a bit of a meaningless term, to be honest).

Letting go of your work

I’ve gotten more and more revision-oriented as my career has progressed. Lately, I’ve been heavily rewriting my novel for adults: The Storytellers. I liked the previous draft quite a bit, but at the same time, nothing in it was working well. The novel didn’t have the sense of expansiveness that I like. I couldn’t live inside it. And the characters felt bland; I like to have the sense that there’s much more going on here than what I could put on the page, but in my draft, I always felt like they were struggling to find things to say to each other.

I say that I’m rewriting the book, but it’d be more accurate to say that I’m not rewriting it. For the first time in years, barring the five months between being dropped by Disney and finding a new publisher at HarperTeen, I am not under contract. Moreover, I have a book coming out in a year, so I’m even free from the sense of stasis or the feeling that my career is going nowhere. It’d be far from accurate to say that I feel hopeful, but the nimbus of shame and dread that normally surrounds all thoughts of writing is at an all-time low.

As a result, I’ve felt a bit more able to relax.

I think when people talk or think about writing, it’s usually with this sense of painstaking craft. Every sentence needs to be examined and labored-over. And the longer a book takes to write, the more effort that’s been expended on it.

But I’ve never felt that direct correlation between effort and output. The truth is that writing is an act of imagining, and it’s not exactly the kind of thing you can work at. All my career, I feel as if I’ve been learning how not to work. How to look past all the things I’ve read and all the things I want my book to be, and to look instead at the essence of the story I want to tell.

With this book I’ve been consciously pulling back, consciously not writing, because I think some of the problems I’ve had with my work recently have come from feeling too anxious about output–too anxious to put down the first thing that comes to mind. Instead what I’ve been trying to do is to live with the characters: to feel them walking next to me; to imagine their problems; to hear their dialogues.

Hopefully it leads to something in the end, but in the meantime it looks a whole lot like not working at all.

Going to more fully embrace audio for my popular fiction reading

Lately I listened to several Georgette Heyer novels on audio and quite enjoyed them. Now, long-time readers might remember that I have a love/hate relationship with Heyer’s Regency romances. On the one hand, the characters are lively, and I love the humor. But on the other hand, she uses period slang that I find unnecessary and incomprehensible.

Unsurprisingly, the slang problem completely disappeared when I listened on audio. Instead of puzzling over the unfamiliar words, I just caught the sense of them from the intonation (“oh, it’s an insult” or “oh, it’s a sporting term of some sort”) and let the narration carry me onwards.

Lately my response to popular fiction has been much, much better if I’ve listened on audio. I devoured the audio versions of the entire Red Rising series, for instance, whereas I’ve bounced repeatedly off of the written versions.

I’m not sure what it is. Audio is simply less demanding. The story just unravels around you. It’s simpler to visualize and simpler to hold onto. It’s almost like watching TV, to be honest.

This is both good and bad. I’ve tried to listen to more sophisticated books on audio and had mixed results. Henry James simply wasn’t doable. A third of the way through The Ambassadors, I had to switch to a text version. But Remains of the Day, perhaps because it was so voice-driven, worked extremely well on audio. And, of course, the quality of the narrator matters a lot. Some narrators are very good at understanding the difference between acting and telling you a story. I can’t quite explain it, but there’s something about the way a skilled audiobook narrator speeds up and slows down and subtly alters their voice for different characters. It’s pretty incredible stuff.

I’m a bit surprised that there’s such a difference between different listening modalities. After all, in both cases it’s the exact same text. I know some people also claim to perceive a difference between print and e-book, but that’s not something that’s ever been perceptible to me. Here, though, the difference is night and day. Audio feels like a completely different experience. I feel like when I listen to a book, I’m coming much closer to actually living the story.

My woo-woo friends will say that there’s something much more primitive and atavistic about oral storytelling. Hearing a story activates different parts of the brain. It’s older than writing–as old as speech–and much more natural. Generally I take these mystical explanations with a grain of salt, but in this case I think the New Agey types might be on to something.