Wrapping up 2021

Hey friends, typically at the end of the calendar year I do a series of wrap-up posts. I think I started because I read lots of other writer blogs, and I enjoyed their wrap-up posts so I was like…why not mine! I also used to collect reams upon reams of yearly stats about how many words I’d written, how many submissions I’d made, how many rejections I’ve gotten, etc, so there was a lot to share.

But ever since I stopped collecting those stats, nigh on four or five years ago, I’ve lost a little steam when it comes to wrapping up. Still, it’s not the worst exercise, and it’s nice to look back upon the year and such. So I thought this year I’d do it all in one.

Publishing (Agented)

I imagine virtually everybody who reads this blog does so because they are a writer of some sort, whether published or aspiring. So let’s start there. When it comes to writing, I think it’s most fruitful to divide it into two subcategories, publishing the work and writing the work, because they’re very different, and they occur at different times–so you’re often attempting to publish work that you wrote last year.

In this case, I also want to divide publishing between agented, unagented, and self-publishing. In the agented category comes my young adult novels, but also everything else I want to write for big presses.

Last year I parted ways (amicably, as they say) with my agent, and I spent much of the year looking unsuccessfully for a new one. During this time I queried primarily with my literary book (along with a crime novel that I also wrote). And…it was depressing. I got a lot of rejections. Literary fiction is a hard market! (Crime fiction, at least of the sort I wrote, is even harder).

But I had an epiphany around this time last year. I thought, “Why not just focus on everything I can write and move forward without an agent.” And that led me to writing poetry, stories, essays, and a novel proposal for my editor at Harper. I didn’t think I could sell another book in YA, or even that I wanted to. But I got a good idea, and was like, what have I got to lose?

Around February, my editor indicated the book was going to acquisitions, so I went back out to agents (those who still had my literary manuscript and a few who I resubmitted to), and of course I immediately got four offers. I was most concerned with making sure my agent knew I really want to sell a literary novel. I had also rewritten the first 100 pages of my book, in order to give it more plot and heft (it completely changed the voice and tone of the book), and one agent who’d come close with the last version said this one had hit the mark! I did my due diligence, which entailed emailing 20-30 clients, current and former, of each agent who offered, and the moment I started hearing their testimonials, I cut short the beauty contest and went with him. I dunno, the fit just seemed really right.

I am hesitant to say anything too good, since things often turn sour on the second or third manuscript, but so far it’s been great! I love Christopher. He’s excellent. He does things I’ve never heard of any other agent doing, like reading my previously-published books and reading, un-asked, a first draft of the book that’s under contract with Harper. So far, many thumbs up.

Anyway, the book sold to Harper, which was great, and I spent most of the year writing it, and just turned in a first draft. I have to say, they still could hate it and the deal could fall apart, but it would definitely sell somewhere else if they did. Also, it was nice just to work. I woke up each day and worked on the book. I was like…is this what it’s like to have a job? This is nice! The stakes felt now enough, since I’d never expected to sell the book in the first place. Oh wait, but now we’re going into writing, shoot. So let’s move on:

Publishing (Unagented)

This covers everything else. I forget exactly what’s sold this year and what’s sold in the last. I was asked, I know, to be part of two anthologies. One is a YA sports anthology edited by Dahlia Adler and Jennifer Iaccopelli, and the other is a YA LGBT spec fic anthology edited by Saundra Mitchell. So there’s those two. But I think that’s all I had short-fiction-wise.

I placed a poem in Vellum and another in Cherry Tree, which was fun. And the big thing is I placed my first essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books, followed shortly by another in The Chronicle Review. I’ve long wanted to get into literary / cultural criticism, and for a while I did book reviews, but here’s the thing: book reviews are boring. They’re boring to write and to read. So I’ve been wondering how to write and place more expansive criticism–the kind of thing that Lionel Trilling did.

But that’s kind of a closed guild! It’s very hard to know who takes what and what you can place where! I wrote a few pieces that nobody seemed to want. I have a phobia of pitching unwritten articles, because it just seems, like, I just don’t like how editors can commission something and then if they don’t like it, they can just not pay you! Or make you do a bunch of edits, round and round, until you quit. So I was like, I’m only going to pitch things I’ve already written. I developed a technique where I go in with a pitch, and then I follow by being like, “The essay’s already written, see below.”

I sent stuff to LARB a bunch of times, and I got ignored, or people said they’d left the journal. Then finally someone forwarded me to the Editor in Chief, Boris, and he took my piece, and the rest is history. From this, I will note, I’ve developed the theory that it’s always best to pitch the top of the masthead, rather than below.

This is something I noticed with agents too. You’re much more likely to get a response, or at least I was, if I pitched the senior agents, rather than the young’uns. I think this is for a simple reason: young agents might not be the best at their jobs. They simply might not know how to stay on top of their queries. They also sometimes are a little high and mighty: it’s the narcissism of small differences. Because their status is only infinitesimally higher than the people who are querying them, they set very strong boundaries. Whereas people at the top get fewer queries, oftentimes, because they seem less approachable, but they have also turned hungriness into a rule, and they’re instinctively on the hunt for what seems salable. Moreover, if they like you, they don’t need to clear it with anyone or ask permission.

So there you go, query the top rather than below, and that goes for editors too. I put this most of the way down the article so only the real fans will get to it.

Anyway, that led to a spate of essay-writing, and I’ve since had essays accepted (I think) at LARB and LitHub too. It’s hard to tell whether something is accepted, since people are like, “This looks interesting, we’ll send edits later.” I’m like…and then you’ll publish what I write? But I don’t say anything, because I too am genteel.

Also under the technical heading of unagented writing is my poor, very-much-lamented sexy trans woman assassin novel. I pitched this to a bunch of small presses at the beginning of the year, and the only person who responded was Charles Ardai, from Hard Case Crime (it’s clearly wrong for him). I still think the book is good, but there’s just no market for action-thrillers by and for women, particularly with diverse or queer themes, not even in the small press, annoyingly. But I just re-upped on my queries, so we’ll see what happens.

Writing (Self)

Also this year I published my Cynical Guide To The Publishing Industry. This is a book I wrote for fun–sort of a labor of love–while I was looking for an agent last year, and just as Truman Capote needed his subjects to be executed before he could publish his book, I needed to find an agent before I could publish mine.

This book contains many, though not all, of the insights I’ve gleaned about the publishing industry. Here’s the thing: most books about writing, and most writing advice in general, are geared towards the average writer. And the average writer isn’t very good. The problem with their manuscript is they simply haven’t worked hard enough on it, or written enough in their life, or read enough stories, so the manuscript is childish and boring and unpublishable.

But I don’t write advice for that person: what’s the point? They need to write more, until their writing gets good. I write for the person who’s got something that’s genuinely worthwhile. Now you might ask, how do I know if my writing is worthwhile? Well…I don’t know and I don’t care. I simply assume that it is. I’d rather give encouragement to a hundred lunatics than to turn away one person who could really use the advice that I give.

So my book isn’t about how to write a book, it’s about the barriers that prevent good books from being published. And that’s a perspective you’ll rarely see. It’s also pretty funny.

Now my father asked, “Was it worth the time you spent to write it and the money you spent promoting it and getting a cover designed?” The answer is, on a financial level, probably not. I don’t think it’s sold more than three hundred copies. But it’s nice to have something I can hawk with an easy heart. If someone likes my writing or my blog, they can purchase that book with the knowledge that they’ll get more of what they like. It’s sort of like having a patreon: it’s a way of converting fandom into money. And it’s a way of letting people buy in to me as a writer.

I also think the book is just genuinely the change I want to see in the world. I really do think its viewpoints and ideas will seep into the publishing world, especially its outer fringes, where people are still confused about what’s happening inside, and it’ll have some positive effect.

Finally, it was fun to put out something that was totally unmediated. I wrote it, and now people can order it and read exactly what I wrote.

All in all, I was pleased with the process, and with how much the result looks like a real, actual book.

Writing

There are always ups and downs. In the case of 2021, I think the toughest thing was revising my literary book. I wrote a draft, and I sent it out to friends, got their advice, and essentially rewrote it, producing two drafts of this book in one year. I felt at times my enthusiasm for the project start to wane, and I’m not sure I can do one more total rewrite.

I also spent a lot of time trying to apply my own advice to the book and to anticipate every possible criticism someone could have and build defenses into it. As a result, the book is a lot more thematically dense. I put in a bunch of race-type themes into the book to make it more salable, but they came out rather well (I didn’t say anything I don’t believe).

There was a lot of wailing though, and a lot of wondering if I’d ever get to the end.

The YA novel, in contrast, was a more pleasant writing experience. I think it took about two months, once I really got going, and while I thought at first I wouldn’t feel that personal connection to the book and to the characters (since I’d written the proposal first, and since the book was under contract when I began to write, I thought that the added pressure would hamper the emotions). But in the end, that didn’t happen. I really enjoyed the world of the book, and the places it took me to, and I think it’s the best young adult novel I’ve ever done!

I also wrote various shorter pieces, most of which were under a thousand words (aside from the essays, which tended to be more in the 2000-3000 range).

In terms of the words themselves, the biggest change has been more attention paid to the acoustic properties of the text. I hear the writing more in my mind as I write, and I’m practicing a lot more alliteration, assonance, and rhyme. I have no idea, to be honest, how it reads to you, and I worry it might be overdone, but it makes the writing a lot more fun for me, and it creates a strong incentive to find more unique, or at least different, combinations of words. The problem, of course, is that this makes revision into quite a chore, because changing the words breaks up a lot of the rhythmic effects, so rather than going back and changing a word here or there, it often makes more sense to rewrite the whole thing. (For instance, I originally ended this paragraph by saying “rewrite the page entire”. And then I was like, huh, no that’s too archaic for a blog post, people will think I just misspelled ‘entirely’. But then I tried using ‘entirely’ and it really didn’t work–the rhythm was entirely off. So I had to rewrite the line).

That change in my writing style is due primarily to my increased reading of poetry (which began last year), and in particular to Middle and Old English works.

Reading

I started seriously reading poetry in February of this year. And I think the impetus was pretty simple. I was looking for a new challenge, so I picked up Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. And I started reading it, and I was like, Yes, this is dense, but I can understand it if I make the effort.

But then I was like, why should I make that effort? You know what would be more rewarding? To make that effort to understand poetry!

So I made a reading list, bought some books, and got going. Contemporary poets I’ve really likes this year have been:

  • Kay Ryan – Okay, so the main critique of Kay Ryan is that she’s glib–her poems have no heart, and they’re not really about anything. But her use of rhyme is superb. She finds rhymes you can’t believe (I literally have a list of them, like “fifty fifty” and “brutally” or “oasis” and “missed”. It’s incredible! I think her ability to reinvigorate the English language has affected my writing more than any other contemporary poet.
  • Sharon Olds – Brilliant confessional poems. Hard to describe what makes them so good. They just seem to cut right to heart of life. I even memorized one, about a daughter coming home after college to her mom. It begins, “When she comes home, from college / I will notice the skin of her arms / It is cool, matte, glossy / She will hug my soupy old chests / to her breasts, and I will smell her hair.” She’s great.
  • Diane Wakowski – I wouldn’t call these poems confessional, so much as extremely angry. The poetic narrator is simply furious that she’s alone and unloved and ugly. Her poems are also more maximalist in style, exhibit much less control, than Olds and Ryan. I think my favorite of hers…shoot, let me find it…is a poem whose name I don’t have recorded, that’s in part about her fury over the state of her life.

This beautiful moonstone of a girl
read a beautiful moonstone of a poem
in which she identified with a famous woman poet who was famous for being
hypersensitive and who suffered from giving poetry readings
and who in fact had recently died by her own automobile exhaust

And I think of the lady in question,
who did not in fact have to give poetry readings
who was in fact moderately wealthy, who had
in fact won many honors in the stingy world of poetry
and who could only have had one reason for doing something so painful to her
that it made her kill herself
and that reason is one that I,
wearing my daily mask of horror,
will never understand / perhaps
if you are born beautiful
you are allowed to be
a fool?
And even win prizes for it?
while those of us
in our round-mouthed, deep-eyed masks
must survive,
because actually, no one would care
if we did not

But I have to say, the poets that had the great impact on me were the old ones. The REALLY old ones. Of these, the biggest impact, by far, were Chaucer and the Pearl Poet. I will say one thing, if the same person really wrote all the poems in the Pearl manuscript (a 14th century manuscript containing four poems, including Gawain and the Green Knight, that survive in no other form), then they are the greatest writer in the English language. Gawain alone is an incredibly complex, rhetorically inventive alliterative poem. But the Pearl, about a person mourning the loss of a woman, “my precious perle withouten spotte” is more affecting and beautiful. I loved both of them.

This year I learned to read Middle English, I think after I listened to a lecture in a podcast about Chaucer, and I was like, hey…I like how that sounds. It’s really not that hard, you just learn to reverse the great vowel shift in your mind (so you pronounce wife as “weef” and age as “ahge”, etc, etc, and you learn to pronounce a lot of sounds that we don’t pronounce anymore, like the k in ‘knight’. In some ways, it’s easier than modern English, because in Middle English they still pronounce all the letters. So if you see the word ‘roune’ in middle English, you’d know it was pronounced something like ‘ro-un” or “ro-un-ay” with the vowels blending into each other.

Basically there’s this app called General Prologue where one of the guys from Monty Python reads Chaucer’s general prologue aloud, and I just listened to that a bunch of times until I had it.

Anyway, Middle English works I read include:

  • “The Pearl” and “Gawain and the Green Knight”
  • The Canterbury Tales – Long, and intermittently quite dull. Definitely skip the prose sections, which are awful. But many of the tales are really fun! Particularly the ones that deal with ordinary or clerical life. Also, the writing and the rhyming is incredibly inventive. Took me a few months, but was worth it.
  • Havelok The Dane – One of the earliest Middle English songs, it bears a lot of resemblances to old English, and although lots of people find the writing to be really basic, I loved having the old English cadences.

I also spent a lot of time with Old English. Not sure exactly why I picked it up. I think that I thought, well, if I’m learning Middle, I can just go back further and learn Old.

And I think that’s pretty sound. I mean Old English is a very different language, with different word order, and with many more conjugations and senses for the words. It’s a different language on the page too: verbs tend to be preceded by clusters of verbs indicating subject and object, which means you’ll come upon a string of prepositions, articles, and pronouns before you get to the verb. Old English is also strikingly humorless. The thing that’s most fun about English literature is its lowness, its lack of seriousness. Even Gawain and the Green Knight is about some dude constantly being tempted to sleep with his host’s wife! I think that’s because Middle English comes from more like what the commoners were speaking. Old English doesn’t have that. It’s very serious.

I spent a lot of time with Old English poetry. My favorite, as I think I’ve written before, was “Dream of the Rood”, where some guy dreams that the Cross upon which Christ was crucified is speaking to him. It was surprisingly moving! I also read the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle from time to time. And I’m still making my way through the Old English translation of Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy, which I have to say is a very wise book. In it, Boethius tries to argue to himself that worldly felicity (or, in the Old English, woruldsaetha) isn’t worth having. It’s really funny to imagine some Anglo Saxon, from the 9th or 10th century, reading a translation of a work by an Italian nobleman who lived in the 5th century (assuming Boethius actually wrote the book, which, to be fair, we don’t actually know).

Anyway, that was poetry. Oh, I also read a collection of Japanese taka poems that was excellent and a collection of Renaissance English poetry that really helped me to contextualize Shakespeare a lot more than I otherwise could’ve.

Other reading kicks I got into:

  • Podcasts – I got deeeeeeeeeeeeeeep into podcasts this year. It started when I listened to a book by the guy who did the History of Rome podcast. That got me into the History of Rome podcast. Then I started listening to his Revolutions podcast. I started listening to other history podcasts (right now I’m listening to ones on the History of Africa, History of the English Language, History of England, Neolithic and Bronze Age History, and History of Philosophy). I also got really into The Great Courses, which are basically college courses that got taped. I listened to so many of these that it’s absurd, including courses on Athens, Medieval England, Medieval Europe as a whole, Ancient Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, Financial Crashes, the Italian Renaissance, Central Asia during the Islamic Golden Age, and a history of steppe invasions. At some point I was like…I can learn it all. I can learn ALL OF HISTORY. Needless to say, that didn’t happen, but I did learn a lot of lit.
  • Philosophy – Weirdly, although the year began with me rejecting Kant, I on a whim a few months ago ordered the Norton Introduction to Philosophy books, which come in two volumes, one discussing the Analytic and one discussing the Interpretative tradition. I started reading both, being like I’ll just do five pages a day, and then I’ll know philosophy! But both books take Kant as their starting point, so I was like let’s read him. I finished Critique of Pure Reason recently, and it was certainly the hardest book I’ve ever read (except maybe for Ulysses). But I was impressed at the way he solves, at least conceptually, certain philosophical problems raised by Hume. The only problem was if you’d never read Hume, you wouldn’t have those problems in the first place! Indeed, the more philosophy I read, the more it comes to seem like a mere thought exercise. But I am still impressed, and I want to read more. It’s definitely helping me to develop my own ideas of what I believe and to hone my argumentation. Although mostly, it makes me think, “Unless I have six hundred pages to define all my terms, what’s the point of arguming about anything?”

Alright, we’re almost at the end of not just this section, but of the whole blasted wrap-up! Can’t believe I spent an hour and a half writing this dumb thing. Other random reading kicks I got into: Fredrik Backman (his stuff is smart, nuanced, and delightful), rereading David Weber (I love Honor Harringon, what can I say?), and just a bunch of even more random stuff. I got into book podcasts, and I started taking the recommendations from book podcasts. So I read a bunch of books by the romance writer Tessa Dare, which was great until it wasn’t. And I read Peter Heller’s thriller The River, about two guys who come across a wounded woman during a rafting trip.

Personal

Excellent! Well, except for the blood clot I developed a few months after starting hormones. I had to go on blood thinners and then they did tests to show I have a genetic predisposition to blood clots, and then I started a different kind of estrogen that supposedly doesn’t cause blood clots. It was hugely depressing. I went to the ER a bunch of times to get random aches and pains ultrasounded (was convinced they were clots). But starting estrogen again was great! I’m starting to think this trans thing might be real! I’ve been really, really, really, really, really, really, really happy.

I cannot overstate how happy I’ve been. I’ve been so happy. And so productive and so enthusiastic about life. I’ve just been thinking better, and I’ve been more interested in things. I’ve lost weight, because I’ve been less hungry (and less interested in food as balm for my woes). I have been more tired, but given that I’m using my awake time more productively, it’s a fine trade-off. I’ve been more emotional and had various physical effects from the hormones. And of course it’s sort of a bummer that I don’t really pass, or even get read as a woman, most of the time. I need a ton of prep work to be read as a woman: makeup, dress, etc. And even then it fails half the time. If I just roll out of bed and go on an errand, I just look like a man.

But you know what? That’s just my fate. I mean, it might improve after a few years on hormones and after surgical interventions, but it might not. I’ll always be 6′ 7″ and balding. And it’s a bummer when even close friends and family slip up and misgender me. I sometimes want to be like, hey, you can’t just try to remember to use the right pronouns–you should actually flip the switch and adjust your perception of me, and be like, she is a woman now. But I am not a hundred percent certain how to write that.

I do still feel dysphoria sometimes–feel like I’m not what I say I am, or I’m not how I’m seen–but it’s okay. Very manageable. And generally improving.

And I have the best little cuterest little baby in the world, and she does lots of adorable things. I’m kind of the laissez-faire mom, so when I take care of her (which is most of the time), she pulls me from room to room, and then I watch her pull things off shelves and make messes. I’ve learned to distinguish between good messes (I can clean them up in a tenth of the time it takes her to make them) and bad messes, where the ratio is reversed. For instance, pulling the kleenex out of a box is a good mess, because I can stuff them all back in there in ten seconds. But upending a pack of cards and letting them all spill out is a bad mess, because she can do it in a few seconds, and it’ll take me a minute to clean up.

I feel like, you know, she’s a baby, she can’t really talk: it’s her right to explore her environment as best as she can. It’s not really reasonable for me to expect her to just sit quietly and conform to my own understanding of what ‘play’ should be. It’s nice that she doesn’t require active engagement from me all the time though.

In general I would give parenthood a positive rating. I don’t think it’s necessary in order for life to be complete, but it’s not unpleasant as an occupation, and it definitely brings couples together.

We’re not posting pictures of the baby online, but she is the world’s most adorable baby, trust me. She could be a movie star of a baby. If I posted photos of her, your reproductive organs would explode.

And Rachel continues to be the best spouse in the history of spouses. She loves and supports me. WE have conflict at times, mostly over things related to her working too hard and too many hours, but we get through it. It’s been lovely to have her as a partner during the pandemic. Weirdly, I like talking through serious things with her, and having her around when we make serious decisions. Even though she constrains and sometimes opposes my choices, she’s just…like…a good partner. She’s the best person I have ever met. I mean that literally. She is the smartest person person I know, certainly, and she is also one of the wisest, in a lot of ways. I can’t believe I picked so well! I don’t have the world’s best judgement in a lot of matters, so I definitely could’ve picked a much worse spouse: nobody would’ve been surprised! But instead I picked one of the best ones around.

Over the last two years her position at UCSF has gotten a lot more secure, so it looks like we’re in SF for the long-haul. It is weird reaching middle-age though, because I’m like, welp, Rachel, only 25 years until you retire! And then who knows what?

But for now I love SF. I never thought I’d live here: I always felt much fonder feelings towards Berkeley. The distinction between Berkeley and SF is obviously completely meaningless for both of you: it’s like saying I hate New York, but I love Hoboken. But they’re different places!

SF is great. It’s breathtakingly beautiful. The diverse assortment of little picture-perfect houses, the trees, the murals, the flowers. And it’s very easy to just walk around and see and do things. I even have some friends’ places I can walk to. Or at least see with only a short drive. One pays ungodly sums of money to live here, and it’s hard to see how it’s really worth the price, but if one must live somewhere due to one’s spouse’s work, SF is great.

Also there’s the pandemic and all the bad things that happened in the world. They were very bad. I don’t want you to think I wasn’t upset about the bad things. I was. But they didn’t affect my life as deeply as did the other things in this post, and for that I’m grateful.

THE END