I’m at home, staying safe. Newborn life. Staying up really late, sleeping in. It feels a little like summer break to me, honestly, and it’s resulting in something of a regression. I’ve been playing lots and lots of computer games (Witcher 3, Dead Cell, Enter The Gungeon, and Frostpunk are some of my latest faves). I’ve been re-watching Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine and Rick & Morty. I’ve been listening to the Mrs. Pollifax mystery / thrillers, which are delightful! So warm and kind! And I’ve been slowly rereading MIDDLEMARCH, which is incredible: why do the rest of us even bother writing when Middlemarch already exists?
My writing has been…happening? Writing is very painstaking, exacting work. What I’ve come to realize is that the market doesn’t really impose any standards on the work. When you’re starting out, you want to write something that’s ‘publishable’. But that’s kind of a meaningless term. You can write something quite good that never gets published, and you can write something bad that does. Moreover, the things one cares the most about in one’s work are often things the market doesn’t demand.
For instance, I care very much about structure. I like things to fit just so. It’s hard to make character, theme, and relationships all work together in a satisfying way with a minimum of plot scaffolding. But in the reaction to my latest book, I’ve realized this reads to some people as the book having no plot or no story. No no no, it does. It really does. Most novels and movies, to me, have very bad plots. They have WAYYYY too much plot, and the plot isn’t at all germane to the themes (think the vampires who always appear in the third act of every Twilight novel and kidnap Bella, they have nothing to do with her essential problem, which is her loneliness and anomie). So this is something I care about a lot, but publishing and readers don’t care about it.
I got a little depressed the other day about the reception to We Are Totally Normal, and I started listening to the audiobook, just to reassure myself that it was good. Within minutes, I was like…this is great…this is fun and carefree and charming, it’s exactly what a YA novel should be. And yet the book doesn’t connect with YA readers. If it connects with anyone, it connects with adults. And yet it is so manifestly a YA novel in its structure and aims. That’s the problem. I wrote a book that corrected all my issues with the YA novel, but the absence of those things reads to many people like a mistake or an oversight.
But in the process I made what I think is a really good YA novel, and that’s all that matters. I think with all my works in progress I reach a point where I’m literally just writing it for myself. I’ve blown past the point where agents, readers, or editors are demanding something, and I’m pushing for something that I think is missing in the world. It’s a very weird feeling! I guess I’ve never thought of myself as pushing the envelope in any way. I aspired to push envelopes, but that was always a project for the future. And yet here I am, spending days and hours thinking about the pieces of my work-in-progress, trying to make sure everything is weighted out and that all the parts really sing. It’s frustrating work, but it’s also very satisfying, almost mathematical in the level of abstraction involved, and when it finally snaps together, as it did with We Are Totally Normal, the result, to me, is a very elegant and beautiful object.