They’re turning Wordpress into Medium

Wow, they really changed the WordPress interface, now it’s a lot like Medium’s. I approve of this blatant stealing. It reminds me from a quote by the guy who was running Netflix, “Our goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.” This amuses me.

Got a good response from my editor on my book! Feeling pleased about this. Was walking with Rachel the other day and was like, “Oh my god, I’ve been operating on the assumption that this book is never going to be published, but now it seems like it might actually happen.” 

I am so pessimistic about publishing stuff. Advances are typically split into 2-4 parts, only one of which you receive upon signing, and I mentally write off all advances until they’re actually deposited in my bank account. This book is going to be a good one.

Still working a bit on other projects. Sold a story to Asimov’s after fifteen years of trying (and 55 rejections), which has inspired me to get more short story submissions out there. Working on the book for adults (though progress on that has been slow). Exploring some other genres. And of course working on revising the YA novel. Been trying to read more. Not that I don’t read a lot, but lately I’ve been feeling the pressure of all the books I’ve never read. It’s stupid, for all I talk about how living your life is more rewarding than reading books, I still largely choose to spend my time, even when the weather is absolutely beautiful like now, sitting in my apartment and reading books. I guess the human commitment to ephemera just runs really deep. At least it’s better than playing video games, I suppose.

If you’re bored by it, don’t write it

I was going to write today’s blog post about how to organize your reading life. I had some trenchant observations to offer, apropos of my reading a few books of literary criticism. But instead of writing that post, I sat here staring at the blank screen for fifteen minutes.

Lately I’ve learned to listen to my own disinterest. Because there is no point in putting more words out there just for the sake of entertaining an invisible audience that may or may not care. I’m not saying my post on the reading life would not have been interesting, or that you wouldn’t have gotten something from it. But, for me, that is not enough. There has to be something more.

I’ve also had many thoughts lately on skepticism. Recent replication failures, particularly in the field of social psychology, has me questioning much of the stuff I thought I know in the social sciences. It turns out that even scientists aren’t amazing at determining even the correlations between things in the human world, much less the direction of causation. It’s very difficult to know anything, and I’ve begun taking all arguments about patterns, particularly those patterns that are created after looking at the data, with a lot of skepticism.* But, again, everything there is to say about skepticism has already been said. My opinions are just David Hume mixed with Thomas Kuhn mixed with Daniel Kahneman. These ideas exist pretty readily out there in the world, and anyone can find them. So what’s the point?

More and more I feel like writing the things that only I can write, and I really don’t think I’ll ever contribute much that’s new to the world of ideas. Sometimes I read essay collections, and I’m like, “Wow, this is so organized and so interesting. Maybe I should write an essay.” But then I think about all the research that’s involved, and I get exhausted and depressed. It’s only an hour or two later, that I’ll be like, “Wait a second, I don’t have to write an essay. I don’t have to write anything. I can have my own thoughts, for my own elucidation, and never write them down.”

I can’t be the first author to have thought this. Last night I was skimming Edith Wharton’s memoir A Backward Glance, and in the chapters about Henry James, she writes that it’s a pity nobody ever recorded his conversation, because he was one of the most thoughtful, interesting, and witty people she had ever met. She said this entire side of him, the joking side, never came out in his published writings and only rarely in his letters. Now…Henry James wrote alot, and it’s pretty staggering to think he was able to use language in ways he never put on paper. But the man was also a genius, and maybe he realized that while he was funny, his humor in no way matched what he was able to do in other arenas (now if you come back at me and say that Henry James’s writing is funny, I will have to disagree with you. There exists humor within it, but jokes? there are almost none).

The practice of following the thread of my own interest is one I’ve been using a lot this year. I think it’s hard when you’re used to school, where you have to write on assignment, or freelancing, where you write for money, or genre fiction, where you write under contract, or the workshop, where you write because you’ve a slot to fill. Following the thread of your own interest doesn’t come easily, because, especially early in one’s writing career, you essentially have nothing to say, or at least no idea how to say it, and so ‘following your own interest’ would more or less mean silence.

Nor is that thread a very strong one, especially at first. Usually when you tug on it, the thing snaps. And sometimes this is good. Maybe I wasn’t very interested at all. But before I learned to listen, the voice of my own interest was a very quiet one, and it was easily overpowered by the voices of fear and of ambition. It takes a lot of quietness to listen to your own interest, because it’s not very insistent, and it’s extremely willing to be overruled.

In my current work-in-progress, I had one situation that repeated itself (essentially, two different characters, in two different chapters, did something that was very similar). And it was very easy to convince myself this was a stylistic choice. Whenever I felt a sense of dissatisfaction, I was like, “But I’m doing it on purpose!”

It took faith to go back and delete the repetition and search for another answer. But the moment I had done it, I knew that it was the right decision. Similarly, in re-reading the book, I’ve noticed places where I get bored: situations that are perfectly well-drawn, but which simply don’t cut to the heart of what I’m interested about. Cutting these parts will leave gaps in the story that I’ll have to fill, and I won’t be able to say precisely why they’re being cut, but it’s still something that has to be done.

Following the voice of my own interest means, most often, not writing something. So many times over the past year, I’ve looked at the opening lines of a story or a novel, and I’ve said, “This doesn’t work for me.” Which is an easy thing to say when it’s just a line or a paragraph or a scene, but about when it’s an entire concept? What about when it’s something you’ve had in your idea box for years? What about when you haven’t finished anything in a month, and you sit down every day, and nothing comes out right? At that point there’s a very strong temptation to just force it. And I think if you’ve a very good sense of narrative structure (a much stronger sense than I), then that forced result can often be published and perhaps even acclaimed.

But the biggest damage there is not to your career or to the public, but to your own sense of what you’re interested in. I don’t know, I shouldn’t phrase this in the second person. Authors all have their own ways of finding inspiration, and many of them (including a few great ones, like Anthony Trollope) seem to profit from just churning stuff out. But there are entire years in my life (I’m thinking of 2014 to 2016, the years right after selling Enter Title Here) when I was completely unable to get in touch with my own inspiration, and once you’ve gone through a period like that, you don’t ever want to risk losing touch with yourself again.

*Human beings, when we look even at random data, can usually assemble some sort of pattern from it. For me to even come close to believing in a person’s assertion, one of two things must be true: i) they must have tested it in some way, using protocols and methodologies established before data collections; or ii) it has to fit with my preconceived biases =]

I recently read a paper book

I can’t recall the last time I read a paper book cover to cover (I think it was a Kent Haruf novel given to me by a friend six or twelve months ago), but recently I wanted to read Keigo Higashino’s Naoko, and it was only available in paper, so I purchased and read it.

The tactile quality of the paper book was undeniably pleasant. I enjoyed the feeling of pages flying from my right to my left hand. Progress through the book was a physical adventure, and I seemed to pick up momentum as I got through it. With each page, I could see that I was completing a greater and greater portion of the remaining text, and my subjective feeling was that I completed the book faster than if I’d read it on the Kindle.

Reading in artificial light was difficult. I felt like no matter how many lamps and overhead lights I turned on, the paper was still dimly lit. But reading in daylight, even with just the light from a partially-blinded window, was extremely simple and caused no perceivable strain. This was true even though the type on the book was much smaller than I’m used to on the Kindle. And I was put off by the difficulty of highlighting passages or looking up terms in a paper book. Since Naoko was set in Japan, it would’ve been most helpful to have been able to look up the various place names and cultural references.

I’m often told that people experience some form of sense-pleasure, often attributable to nostalgia, when they hold a paper book. I don’t believe that this was the case for me, but the human mind is a strange thing, and perhaps there was a deeply submerged element of that emotion within me.

All told, I was pleased by my paper book adventure. In fact, in the interim time I was inspired to inspect my wife’s bookshelves to see what other paper books I might read, and within the course of a few hours I read Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, in which I also experienced the same feeling of motion that I think is perhaps a peculiar attribute of the paper book. I am sure this sense of motion could be replicated in electronic format, but since it’s directly related to the bulk of the paper book, whereas the strength of the e-book is in its weightlessness, I think these two qualities will forever remain opposed.

I am still not certain in what situations a paper book is superior to an e-book. Sense of an Ending and Naoko are very different books. One is somewhat meandering literary mystery, the other is a metaphysical thriller, but both are quite short. I think reading a longer book in paper format would be difficult for me. The last time I tried was with Herman Wouk’s Youngblood Hawke. The book was excellent, but the print was quite small, and by the time I was done I had a splitting headache. Lately I’ve had back troubles however, and I did enjoy that the paper book can be read in a greater variety of physical positions than can the e-book, and I think perhaps for this reason a longer book would be more comfortable to read. I just wish they didn’t make the print so small (and yes I know about large print books, but the problem is that it’s the longest books that have the smallest type!) In any case, I will soon experiment further.

Getting sort of tired of all the oppression-based critique of narrative art

Have been feeling a little disenchanted lately with the literary world lately. Every book and every movie and every television show seems to get judged according to the same analysis of power relations. If a book has an orthodox (for the reviewer) view of all the possible power relations (i.e. it acknowledges every form of oppression inherent in its storyline) only then does the reviewer bother with assessing its aesthetic worth. Obviously this is only my subjective view of the current state of affairs, and I won’t seek to prove for you that it’s true. If you don’t believe me, or if you think this sort of critique is only a minority or an exception, then you’ll only find this blog post useful as a view inside the mind of a very politically misguided person.

I don’t disbelieve in oppression, and I don’t think it should be ignored. If there’s something ‘problematic’ (the most common term for when a work seems to be ignoring an oppressive power relationship) in a work then I think it should be pointed out. But while I don’t object to the political aims of oppression-based critique, I find myself somewhat in the position of a liberal from the 1930s who dearly wants to love social realism and hate the fascism-tinged Modernism, but who just can’t do it. Because although oppression-based critique might be good in political terms, I think it’s harmful to the aesthetic worth of narrative forms of art.

In my opinion, narrative art exists because mere ideas are insufficient to quantify the experience of being alive. An idea is a limited thing, it’s a set of relationships that have been fully expressed, while a good story is inexhaustible. It contains a set of relationships that can always be mined for new meaning.

I was recently talking to someone about The Iliad, and I think what makes the Iliad truly great is that you can read and reread the work and still not be sure what to think about the concept of heroic virtue. People in the story live by the adage of death before dishonor, but they also suffer for it. Achilles could’ve lived a long and happy life as King of the Myrmidons, but instead he goes to war, knowing he will die young. Although in later years its often been cast as a story about the folly of war, The Iliad is a tale that will challenge both militarists and peaceniks, fascists and socialists. The tale simply cannot be made to say what you want it to say.

And if I was to subject the Iliad to an oppression-based critique, there’d be so much to say. Achilles is a rapist, for one thing. You know Bryseis didn’t fully consent to being taken by him. And that might be fine if he was portrayed as wholly evil, but he’s clearly the hero of the piece, and even though he has epic flaws, most notably his petulance, he’s obviously also a role model. And what am I to think about this war? How can there be anything right or heroic about a war fought for such a trivial reason?

These critiques are mostly contained within the Iliad itself–though I’ll admit the book doesn’t spend much time thinking about the fate of Briseis (those sorts of musings would be left to Euripides, who truly did have a modern take on war and is astounding in every possible way)–but it’s easy to imagine an Iliad that leaned further into those critiques. It’s easy to imagine an Iliad in which Achilles was wholly a monster, perhaps one with admirable physical virtues, but otherwise clearly portrayed as evil, while Hector was portrayed as clearly his moral superior.

That’s where I fear an over-reliance on oppression-based critique will lead us. This sort of critique doesn’t have any concern for nuance. If a work doesn’t perfectly adhere to the political orthodoxy of this moment, then it’s worthless. But then what’s the point? Why bother to even open a book if I know it’ll tell me that racism is bad and that queer people just need to accept themselves and elderly people are just as capable of being heroes as young people? There is no room here for thematic nuance. Because in narrative art there is room for a complexity that we don’t have when writing an essay. When you and me are talking, we can only say “Racism is bad”, but in narrative art, there is room to write about the mayor of a small town who sees his community’s very strength as coming from its exclusiveness. There’s room to talk about a confused teen who maybe has sex with men but doesn’t know whether he’s gay or not. There’s room to talk about an older person who’s lost her mobility and can’t go out running on the beach every day like people do in commercials. This isn’t philosophy. It’s not ethics. It’s just a story.

There is a reason that so many of the stories we love have “problematic” elements, and it’s because those elements are part of what makes it good. Yes it’s terrible that villains are so often queer-coded, but why do fans love those villains so much? Isn’t it partly because so many of us associate queerness with rebellion and individuality? And yes it’s bad to use a foreign country as a mere backdrop for a white character’s personal growth, but we all travel don’t we? Isn’t there something very real about those travelogue stories? Don’t they capture exactly the way we do use foreign countries? Maybe the thing that makes you feel uncomfortable with, for instance, Lost In Translation, isn’t a problem with the work. Maybe it’s a feature.

I don’t think this is universally true. There are problematic elements in fiction that I think they’d be better off without. The Chronicles of Narnia would probably be better if Susan didn’t get banished for using lipstick or if the evil God wasn’t a thinly-veiled Allah. Many problematic elements have no aesthetic worth. My concern is not for those. My concern is for the readers and viewers who already think they know all the answers before they even open the book, and who, because of that, are missing out on the entire purpose of reading books in the first place.

For myself, I find very little in the oppression-based discourse that’s interesting. Again, not because I think it’s wrong or bad or harmful. In many ways I think this sort of discourse probably helps to cure exactly those wrongs that it’s devoted to recognizing. But to me that kind of discourse simply has very little to do with creating the satisfying and intelligent stories that are my ultimate goal as a writer.

The flip side of the heart of longing

As I think I’ve mentioned here before, the number one thing I need in order to write a book is the heart of longing. I have to feel a sense of desire in the skin on the back of my arms. Maybe it’s not something I can put in words. Maybe it’s only a set of images or a single image. Maybe it’s a memory or a song. But somehow a book has to be actuated by the kind of desire that makes people do insane things.

That’s only half the story. The other half, which is equally as hard though perhaps not as necessary, is to find their power. You know how there’s all this talk about making characters likeable? Well this is the part of the character that makes me like them: the thing that makes them bigger than life. Their power is the way that they differ from other people: it’s their sensitivity or their ruthlessness or strength. It’s the things they will do that nobody else would. It’s the wish fulfillment aspect of the book, essentially.

Pairing a character’s desire with their power isn’t an easy  process, and it often doesn’t happen until the story is pretty well fleshed out. Usually this is because any desire is, generally, pretty achievable for a powerful enough character. So you often either need to tone down their power, increase their desire, or increase the opposition to their desire. I’m making this sound like something very mechanical–something you could distill into a worksheet that’s on a perforated page in the back of a screenwriting manual–but it’s not. This is probably not something anybody else other than me could do, and even I don’t think about it in a straightforward or logical way. It’s more of a post facto assessment. “Oh, why am I having trouble writing this character? I think it’s because I haven’t yet found their power.”

Right now I’m cooling my heels, trying to put something together for my novel for adults. I keep trying to work on one of the viewpoint characters, but I just don’t have his power yet. I have his desire, but not his power. I’ll get there, but it’s a little frustrated, since sometimes it feels like if I don’t have both sides of the equation locked down, there’s almost no point in writing.

Been playing a lot of Borderlands, and Borderlands 2, and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel

A few days ago I finally beat Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, which is the latest iteration of a series of first-person shooters that feature cooperative gameplay, interesting loot mechanics, a zany sense of humor, and a really striking cel-shaded graphical style. I’ve been dabbling for months with the second game in the series (the pre-sequel is the third), but TPS turned out to be significantly easier than Borderlands 2, and I beat it within a few weeks.

Of course with these games, as with Diablo 3, beating the game for the first time is only the beginning of your journey. Their aim, by using increasing difficulty modes and endless different types of equipment, is to keep you playing forever. I don’t think I’ll be doing this (who’s got the time!), but I did want to put a shout-out in here for the storytelling in the game. Obviously the story isn’t the key point here, but I did find the primary plotline, which follows the villain of the second game (Handsome Jack) and his slow descent into sociopathy, to be moderately compelling. In this game, Jack starts as a middle manager at a large corporation. His space station comes under attack, and he’s forced to recruit a team of mercenaries to defend both it and the planet below from a bunch of insane mercenaries.

As a storyteller myself, I know that it takes a lot of work to make a story that’s this simple and elegant. The recent Han Solo movie attempted a similar sort of revisionist history for Han, but they were unwilling to commit to their story. In order for Han to end up as the cynical bounty hunter of the first movie, we needed to see him go from idealistic to cynical, and they just couldn’t do it.

By the mid-point of this game, we actually sort of like Jack–he’s an everyman who’s thrust into a difficult situation, and he displays flashes of heroism at times–so it’s a shame when he becomes more and more ruthless in his efforts to retake the space station and come out on top. He’s a little bit too much into scatological humor for my taste, but it’s a video game and the target demo is 13 year old boys, so I guess I can’t complain too much

Turned in my revision yesterday. It’s a complete rewrite. Feeling trepidation

Yesterday I turned in the revision on my book. Now that I’ve (sort of) hit my deadline, I feel free to reveal that even though my editor gave me five months to do this work, I spent the first three finishing a novel for adults, so I’ve only been working on this revision for two months. I know, my wife was kind of horrified as well, but in my defense…these revisions just keep on coming, and if you don’t find ways to do other work in the meantime, you’ll never get anything done.

However when I finally turned seriously to this book two months ago, I was a little bit disturbed to find that I had serious problems with the draft that’d sold. Previously I’d just been reading my editor’s comments, which, it seemed to me, could be fixed with a substantial amount of revision, but wouldn’t require more than a month or so of work. Once I waded into the book itself (which I hadn’t looked at since the book had gone on sub last September), I found myself appalled. The manuscript was a mess. I liked the characters quite a bit, but the plot was all over the place. It was just a bunch of stuff happening because this was a book and things need to happen in a book. I literally was unable to bring myself to fully reread the manuscript. Instead after about five or six chapters, I was like…I need to rewrite everything.

So I did what an author facing a tight deadline always does in these situations. I wrote nothing for two weeks as I pondered exactly what changes to make. I don’t think of this as procrastination, I just think of it as being part of the ‘visioning’ process. In this case I knew what I wanted was to boil the book down to the essentials, and over those two weeks I thought I figured out what those were. I am a big believer in the idea that a book isn’t just words: it’s composed of concrete elements. This is why when a book is translated into another language or turned into a movie, the result is often a work of art that produces an emotional reaction which is similar (though not exactly the same) as that of the original. What I wanted was to figure out which of the elements in my book needed to be altered in order to create the emotional responses I wanted.

Ultimately, what I decided was that I needed to make my protagonist less mature, less certain, and more confused, and I needed to make the deuteragonist more mature and more certain. By bringing these two characters more evenly into line with each other, I would make their romance more believable, and I’d give my protagonist more to do, plot-wise. The plot could be driven by his wishy-washiness.

Simultaneously, I drew back on all the other plots in the book. I saw this as being primarily about a struggle occurring within my own protagonist. He himself would be the source of most of its conflict and most of its drama. There wouldn’t be an antagonist, as such, and although other characters would have their own motivations, those motivations would be deeply backgrounded within the text.

After about two weeks, I felt ready to start the rewriting, and it was not a simple process. I did have to go back a few times and alter what I’d done, and a few times I got lost in the text and had a hard time figuring out what I was working on. It’s not easy to completely rewrite a book (I’m talking about starting from page one and just typing out a new book), because a book operates on so many different levels. In this case, I was simplifying my book and making it less complex, removing extraneous elements and subplots (it’s about 20k shorter than the previous draft), but it’s still hard work to make progress on every single element simultaneously.

Normally the experience of revision, for me, is the experience of working so intensely on one element of a book that I forget the rest of it exists. For those few weeks, all I care about is one relationship or one subplot. But in this revision that wasn’t an option. I needed to make progress with the whole. Probably I’ll find, in the next revision, that I dropped a lot of balls, and I’ll need to go back and look at some of the things that were only briefly sketched out in this version. Already I’m wondering about some of the secondary characters and wondering if, in this draft, their motivations are really there.

But anyways, the editor has it now. Hopefully they like it. Editors generally want more revision than authors are willing to give (authors are generally pretty willing to put things into a book, but they’re loathe to take anything out), so I’m hopeful that my rewrite (which was inspired by my editor’s comments) will be well-recieved. But there are reasons for trepidation. Much of the voice of the original is lost. That character was very cocky and sure of himself, and that naturally translated into the voice. It was impossible to retain that self-assurance and also make the changes I wanted. The new character feels like he has less voice. He feels more submerged in the story. And part of me mourns for the old voice. I think the revision has been good, but it did come at a cost. And maybe my editor and publisher won’t like that. Sigh! We’ll see.

Callooh Callay

Turned a corner on the revisions. Now it’s just some polishing up and then sending it off to the editor. I had some very important thoughts on writing, but now I can’t remember–oh yeah, okay, here they are.

I watched both Sorry To Bother You and Blindspotting recently, which are two recent indie films set in Oakland, with black protagonists, by black film-makers, and about race issues. I liked both, but of the two, I found Sorry To Bother You a lot more  sure-footed, because it let its images and situations do the talking for it.

Blindspotting was littered with conversations about political issues, about race, about gentrification, about police brutality, and it culminates in a powerful speech act. Personally, I think there’s a place in the world for smart narratives that are explicitly about ideas. I mean, look at Anna Karenina or War and Peace, these are two of the greatest novels ever written, and they both contain relatively earnest discussions of all kinds of issues, whether it’s rural farming methods, political reform, or whether the ballet is sinful and stupid.

But I think the number one requirement when you’re explicitly discussing these things is that your take has to be thoughtful, interesting, and transgressive. Tolstoy’s ideas are still, even now, so far outside the mainstream that it’s just a pleasure to hear his characters voice them. If you’re not doing this, if you’re voicing ideas that embody the (or at least one possible) conventional wisdom, then I think it’s better to do it the way Thomas Mann did it in The Magic Mountain, where he had Naptha and Settembrini (his stand-ins for the fascists and communists) spout a powerful mix of nonsense that gives the emotional and rhetorical effect of these philosophies without going into the ideas themselves.

In Blindspotting it was like, yeah, we get it, you have a black and a white character, and they experience the gentrification of their hometown very differently. You really don’t need to spell it all out for us by having them argue about it. That theme was at least sustained by the film, though, and in that case the explanation was simply unnecessary. It’s even worse in cases where the theme is not sustained throughout, but only comes up in dialogue, which was my feeling about, for instance, the climax of the film.

I think writers have a tendency in their work to overvalue speech, because the form itself encourages the idea that words are powerful. In this case, the medium really is the message. If words cannot, by themselves, change peoples’ lives, then there’s no reason to write books. But in work that purports to mirror life, I think we need to acknowledge the fact that peoples’ actions, or even their thoughts, are rarely changed by speech.

Watching movies has encouraged me to focus more closely, in my writing, on images. How can I convey my themes through the juxtaposition of elements? Settings, in particular, while always important to me, have become a larger part of my work, particularly on the scene level. I find myself paying more attention, in my mind, to the lighting, to the furniture, and to whatever natural surroundings there might be. This has also taken some of the weight off of the gesture, which I’ve traditionally over-used in my writing. There’s only so much that you can do with the movement of the hands, the eyes, and the face. Sigh, but I’m still not completely there yet. I’ve had a lifelong battle with the image: I’m primarily a textual thinker, and my mind’s eye is really not what it should be.

Reflections on finishing an open world game.

After almost a year of playing, I’ve finally beaten Fallout: New Vegas. This is a bit of a personal milestone for me. The Fallout series was one of my faves as a kid (I almost never beat computer games, usually getting bored of them and moving on, but I finished both Fallout 1 and 2 multiple times). Fallout 3 was the last game I played before I quit gaming for about five years. And New Vegas was the game that came closest to tempting me back into the fold during those years.

Well my friends’ gift of an XBOX ONE for my wedding has finally born fruit. I’ve eighty-five hours into the game, and I’m confident that I’ve completed about 80-90% percent of it, including going through the entire end-game. I eventually decided, for those who care, that what New Vegas needed was to be independent under my command. Caesar’s Legion was obviously a no-go. I almost went with the New California Republic, figuring that they’d be a strong, stabilizing, democratic influence, but I switched sides again after one of their commanders made an off-hand remark about how they might wipe out a local tribe if they needed to, and I realized that if I gave up power to them, then I’d no longer have the ability to affect the fate of the Mojave. (After completing the game, I realized though that in my time I’d done things much worse than wiping out a tribe, including blowing up the Brotherhood of Steel bunker just because my mechanical second in command was worried that they’d someday pose a threat. But c’est la vie.)

The game was a pleasant diversion. I liked the exploration element. The graphics were pretty mottled and ugly, and the environments weren’t nearly diverse enough (so many caves, so much desert, so many ruined left-over shacks), but it was always nice to go somewhere new and snoop around for a skill book or a unique weapon. Some of the little capsule stories (usually delivered through audio logs or found emails) were diverting as well. I particularly liked the tale of Vault 11, which eventually broke down over the institution, by the central computer, of a “The Lottery” style human sacrifice system.

The early parts of the game had the most character, of course: Goodsprings, Novac, Primm, Nipton, Camp Golf. Although ostensibly open, the game sneakily funnels you through these areas in a set order. And always it’s the same, you hit town, talk to everybody, collect a zillion quests, get plugged into the central narrative of the place and slowly go about solving all their problems. Later parts of the game, particularly Jacobstown, North Vegas, and the Westside, didn’t feel nearly as complete and alive. Here my presence didn’t feel quite as necessary.

Lately, after all the Gamergate stuff, I’ve realized that there are lots of people, mostly young men, who take gaming really seriously. To them, games are art. They debate over the qualities of different games the way people might debate about their favorite novels or television shows. If I hadn’t become a writer, I might have turned into one of these people.

The most interesting thing about gaming was the way that I recovered all those old bits of myself. I remembered, oh yeah, when I was a kid, I really wanted to be a game designer. Like, that was a huge ambition of mine. I spent so many hours fooling around, creating half-baked mods that were way too ambitious and that never got finished (one of my smaller efforts, Rahul Kanakia’s Potion Quest, has had an incredible after-life as part of the Baldur’s Gate 2 Quest Pack. Best three days I ever spent.)

There’s no question, to me, that games are art. But are they good art? Playing through New Vegas, I continually asked myself, “Does this experience have any aesthetic worth? And, if so, where does that worth lie?”

The problem with gaming is that the writing is generally not very good. At least FNV keeps things terse (I played another game, recently, Pillars of Eternity, where the writing was both incredibly verbose and not that great), but it’s still the rare character that displays the sort of multi-faceted personality that would make me empathize in any way with them. Throughout the entirety of New Vegas, I think maybe General Hanlon, Samuel Cooke, Caesar, the Misfits, and Dean Domino and Ulysses (from the downloadable add-ons) stood out as having any depth. Probably there are a few others, but they’re genuinely not coming to mind right now.

In an open-world game, the developer has no control over pacing, all they can control is the moment-to-moment experience of the player. You, as the player, are like the protagonist of a police procedural, dropping into the on-going drama of these people. What’s nice about FNV is that the dramas are on-going. You’re not central to the action. You help, but these people have problems that predate you and will persist long after you’re gone. But, I don’t know, in order for these mini-stories to be great, they need to go somewhere new, and they need to be as good, not just as the best games (FNV far surpasses most games in the quality of its storytelling), but also the best movies, television shows, and books. I wanted more genius in the characterizations. I wanted more characters that really pop. More characters who feel deeply and are torn by heroic passions.

Games are about more than storytelling though. In fact, games aren’t primarily stories, they’re primarily games. The games that, for me, have come closest to art are those that’ve created a great atmosphere or torn. They combine gameplay, art, music, and writing to make you really feel something. Fallout genuinely did make me feel excited about exploring the Wasteland. I loved chasing down those little hollow arrows and seeing what new stuff might be out there. I remember the holy shit moment of finding Vault 11, in a place I thought I’d already thoroughly explored. Or of going to Camp Golf or Camp Forlorn Hope and seeing a whole new hub of missions. Or of looking at the big fresh untouched maps of the add-ons (particularly Old World Blues) and feeling that jolt of excitement. There’s something to that. There’s really something to that. It’s definitely an aesthetic experience.

Now…whether this aesthetic experience enriches or enlivens one’s life in any way is the subject of another post. But to be honest, I’m still very torn about that question even when it comes to the great books, movies, and TV shows.

Coming down to the wire on revisions

The next draft of my book is due to my editor on August 1st. I am working hard and expect to make the deadline. It’s been a long process, but I feel guardedly optimistic about these revisions. They’ve made the book smaller and more personal, refocusing it on a handful of relationships, and I’ve been pleased with what’s come out of the process. I don’t know how well it’ll be received, but that’s always a danger with every revision. I had a friend whose book deal was pulled after her editor disliked the direction of her revision, and that’s an ever-present danger when it comes to the editorial process. You need to proceed with courage and confidence despite the knowledge that sometimes your best judgement will possibly put you at odds with people whom you desperately need to be on your side.

This is sort of the mystery of writing. A book can only come from inside the author. The moment they start trying to please other people, they’re lost. And editors, agents, and critics know this. You’ll frequently have the spectacle of an editor saying, “Just do what you feel is right; stop trying to just make me happy.” And yet if you don’t make them happy, your book will not come out.

That’s why the publishing industry is such a chewer-up and discarder of people. In order to succeed, you need to fall into the very narrow aperture created by the overlap of your own tastes and the tastes of a variety of gate-keepers (including, ultimately, the readers). And many–perhaps most–writers simply cannot find that sweet spot. Usually they tilt too far onto the side of the industry, struggling to create works that the gatekeepers will like but that the author themself, in their own heart, knows to be lacking in soul. I think that’s a very difficult place to be. Selling out is hard enough–it completely saps all the joy from the process of working–but what’s harder, and what I see far too often, is when a person tries to sell out and finds that nobody is buying.