Only have half a day of childcare today, so need to get my procrastination in early

I was looking at my blog’s stats recently, and I noticed that I had just thirty posts last year! This is in comparison to, I think, 2013, when I posted literally every day (330 posts). That was excessive, I think the happy medium is somewhere in between. But now that I’m less active on Twitter and Facebook, I am finding myself with more desire to write here.

The election fills me with dread, as always. It’s looking highly likely that on Election Night Donald Trump will be ahead in the electoral college and that the election will be decided by mail-in ballots counted after Election Night. What a mess!

The thing that frustrates me is that although my opinion probably counts for something, the fate of the Republic really lies in the hands of Republicans. If there are exist Republicans who care less about winning than they do about the fate of our democracy, then we will be okay. But it just feels like anyone who cares about that shit is already voting for Biden. I don’t believe in the existence of Republicans who will vote for Donald Trump on election day, and then a week after the election will turn around and say, “Okay, well we lost, fair and square.”

I mean, to be honest, it’s not like Democrats are thaaaat much better. In 2016, I was a person who really wanted the electoral college to refuse to elect Trump–a hope that in retrospect seems laughable–because I regarded Trump as an existential threat to the country. The problem is that I was right, he is an existential threat, whereas Republicans who feared the same about Biden would be wrong. There’s no equivalence.

Whatevs. I don’t know. Writing continues apace. I only have a half-day of childcare today, so I’m trying to get in gear and get to work a little earlier.

I continue to read learned articles. It’s interesting. I think I’ll probably get a little tired at some point of a few of the tics that the various literary publications, in particular, tend to evince. For instance, many of the articles in the New York Review of Books seem to have a bit of an axe to grind. I just finished reading one about this survey of Wagner’s influence, and the reviewer started talking about whether the writer had proven whether or not genius is real, or whether a work’s aesthetic qualities are created and understood through the act of criticism. All seemed a little beside the point. I suppose that’s the charm of the publication: someone gets to give you a long and interesting opinion about a book you’re not going to read and probably will never read. And the articles are by and large very compelling: oftentimes I start one thinking I have no interest in this subject, and then I end up reading an entire article about Goya or something.

I just have two wishes. The first is that the articles evinced a little more humility. If you go off on a long tangent, then that’s your tangent, that’s your hobby-horse, don’t put that on the author and pretend it’s some flaw in the work. And the second is that in many cases, it’s clear that the works being reviewed are not particularly good or substantive. Why waste all this space in the magazine reviewing or talking about books that aren’t good? Surely you could write a long, interesting article about a book that’s actually worth that treatment. But I suppose that’s an outdated view of criticism: the point of a literary review isn’t to identify good books, it’s to practice the art of criticism, and there’s a certain mode of criticism that doesn’t work very well when the book in question is very good.

Well we’re all screwed

Today is the second day in a month when San Francisco has had breathable air. And I’m getting back into the swing of writing. Working on revising Death Trap, my assassin book. It’s looking fairly good. I don’t think it’ll require as much work as The Lonely Years did. This is a book that appeals directly to the id. So long as it’s sexy and dangerous, it should work out fine. It’s a good book; exactly the kind of book I’m always looking for.

My commitment to reading learnéd articles rather than tweets has continued. But it’s a little depressing. I’ve subscribed to a bunch of magazines and book review type journals, including two conservative ones. One of the conservative journals had a LONG paeon to Viktor Orban, being all like, yeah whatever, he rewrote the constitution, but it’s what the people wanted! And some of his supporters have bought up all the country’s newspapers, but wait…he ALSO stopped the refugees! And took a stand against ‘cosmopolitan’ elites. They were like, we need an Orban here in the US. A competent nationalist! It was appalling. Reading the conservative papers has made me realize, democracy is gone. We can’t go back to the American consensus, when the parties worked together to do simple stuff like…pass stimulus bills or increase the deficit cap or make routine judicial appointments. Or, rather, Democrats are willing to do that for Republicans, but Republicans won’t do it for Democrats. The inevitable result is increasing Presidential power, rule by executive order, and, eventually, a President who takes and keeps all that power. Maybe we’ve already reached that point, or maybe it’ll come in ten or twenty or thirty years. Maybe Trump is Julius Caesar or maybe he’s only Sulla. Either way, Augustus is coming.

The other review I read was of this book, Six Degrees of Warming? We’ve had one degree of global warming. All of the current chaos–fires, storms, droughts–is the result of that one degree. We can expect three degrees of warming (if not more) over the course of the 21st century. The results will be horrific. Maybe civilization will survive? I think it will, but I genuinely don’t know. Either way, large sections of the planet are going to become uninhabitable; other sections won’t be survivable for a portion of the year without AC. And every year, millions of people will lose their homes to natural disasters. It’s pretty depressing, but again, what can you do? It’s going to happen. Not to be fatalistic or anything, but I genuinely don’t see any way that I, personally, can alter these outcomes by one iota. The time to ‘do something’ has passed. The time when we can even mitigate these outcomes is also on its way out.

My mom would say that once upon a time people thought overpopulation was going to destroy the Earth. They saw it as a demographic inevitability that India, Mexico, China would run out of food and billions would starve to death. Instead the Green Revolution substantially increased crop yields around the world. Maybe something similar will come along to avert the climate-related doomsday scenario. All I can imagine is that at some point opinion will change and then, like a shot, within just five years, everything will be converted to renewable sources and emissions will drop precipitously. That won’t avert global warming, but maybe it will stop worst-case scenarios. I genuinely have no idea.

But on the other hand, I’ve got a great novel about a sexy assassin to sell you!

I’m a fan of political novels. Most aren’t very good. DEMOCRACY, by Henry Adams, is a good one

I read Anthony Trollope’s entire Palliser series. It was great. The Duke of Omnium and Lady Glencora Palliser are top-notch creations, and their marriage was glorious and complex. I love how he can eke the maximum drama out of relatively little things. But…although the entire book takes place at the center of British politics, and many of the characters are MPs, I still have almost no insight into the British political system (unless it happened to be true that being an MP was a total status thing and nobody cared one whit about the public welfare, which seems a little dark for Trollope).

The point is, politics is both easy and difficult to dramatize. At its core, it’s simple: it’s a sphere of life with high stakes, where people must have impeccable private lives, and where ultimately winning is a zero-sum game. Politics inexorably brings people into conflict.

But on the other hand, I think it’s very hard to write a political novel that’s more than merely a soap opera. Politics isn’t just scheming and wheeling-dealing and cover-ups. It’s also about doing (or not doing) things that you, presumably, think are for the best interest of the nation. And that tension between principal and expediency, ambition and idealism, is one of the hardest things to dramatize.

Probably nobody is better equipped to write a political novel than Henry Adams: the great-grandson of John Adams, the grandson of John Quincy Adams, and the son of Abraham Lincoln’s ambassador to the United Kingdom (Henry accompanied his father on the posting and acted as his secretary). But when I first started reading Democracy, his satirical novel about political life in 1880s Washington, I was like…this is just another soap opera. A well-off widow, Madeleine Lee, gets bored of New York society and decides to see what Washington is all about. She gets mixed up with a cast of characters: an Ambassador from Hungary; an intellectual looking for a diplomatic posting; a Virginia lawyer; and a US Senator from Illinois who came within three votes of being the nominee for President. And they fall in love with her and compete for her affections, and it feels like just another comedy of manners.

But around a third of the way into the book, the situation gets more complicated. The incoming President, an Indiana politician who is political rival of one of her suitors, Senator Ratcliffe, enrolls Ratcliffe in his cabinet, and Ms. Lee becomes witness to some of Ratcliffe’s machinations and to the inner workings of the DC government.

At this point, a number of themes start to come together. For one thing, there is the persistent influence of the Founding Fathers. This is 1880, and the founders of the country remain within living memory. Contemporary politicians both crave and dismiss the comparison to George Washington. They ask whether Washington could’ve survived in contemporary Washington. They wonder whether they embody his ideals, or whether even he embodied his own ideals. There is a persistent tussling with the past, especially during visits made by the protagonist, with her beaux accompanying her, to Mt. Vernon and to Arlington.

Ratcliffe knows that Ms. Lee isn’t quite in love with him, but he thinks he can ensnare her by appealing to her sense of duty: she can make him a better person. And in turn she wonders whether her duty to her country doesn’t require her to become involved in its governance in whatever manner she can.

And lurking through it all is the question of principle: Does Ratcliffe believe in anything? Why is he in Washington? Is he corrupt? Or, rather, is his corruption within reasonable bounds?

Ratcliffe is a very recognizable Washington figure: not an intellectual, not entirely educated, and quite self-absorbed, but very crafty, with a gift for figuring out what people want and how to manipulate them. He resembles Joe Biden in some ways. He’s able to voice high sentiments when it suits him, but are they real? Or is it another trick in his repertoire? Does he even know? Or is sounding high-minded simply such a natural part of being a Senator that he’s lost interest in the distinction between his own self-interest and that of the nation?

I’m not sure! I’m not finished with the book yet! But I am excited to find out.

Only doing a So-So job at not being anxious

Well my plan for combatting my anxiety re the agent search was threefold: surrender the illusion of control and put the agent search out of my mind; focus on the things I can control, like revising my assassin book; and, finally, when I’m searching for distraction, try to read magazine articles and books instead of scrolling Twitter.

On day one, the plan has gone…okay. This morning, unlike in mornings past, I didn’t check querytracker or hover over my email. I read a really excellent article in N+1 about our relationship with Iran. On a sidenote, I’ve always wanted to be an n+1 reader, but was stymied by their paywall. It’s only recently occurred to me that I can just, like, subscribe to things.

You know, it seems like every article these days in every liberal journal always talks about ‘capitalism’ and ‘imperialism’ and how the problems of the world are driven by the demands of ‘capitalism’…and I dunno. I agree, I guess, that large corporations do a lot of harm, and that certain goods ought to be highly-regulated and perhaps publicly-controlled. But I don’t know…did we invent some alternative to capitalism when I wasn’t looking? The socialism that many young American liberals advocate isn’t really an alternative to capitalism, it’s merely the divvying up of the economy into a massive public sector and a smaller private sector. But since we already live in an economy with a huge public sector (healthcare and education each make up twenty percent of the economy, and much of those expenditures are public), it’s really only a matter of degree. Our government is already quite large. Increasing its size by fifty percent wouldn’t exactly destroy capitalism.

I just hear all this criticism of capitalism, and I feel as if I missed a memo someplace. What’s the alternative? Statism is attractive in many fields, and it may provide better results, but even there one would want there to be some market-related pricing mechanism to create more efficient allocations of resources. The things that are built and created must in some way be controlled by how much people want them, and although under capitalism that pricing power is distorted because the people don’t have the economic resources to ‘vote with their feet’ and demand construction or provision of things they need (i.e. it’s not economically advantageous to provide those things), the problem there isn’t with capitalism per se, but with the distribution of income and of wealth. Let me put it this way, I’d rather live in a world where poor people had the money to rent the housing they wanted, rather than being forced to live in housing projects. I’m pretty sure that’s the world that poorer people want themselves.

It’s only a rhetorical strategy. When you dig down into liberal, or even radical/progressive, proposals, you often find that they’re not particularly anti-capitalist. Dramatically increasing the number of Section 8 vouchers, for instance, is in no way incompatible with private ownership and construction of housing. It was a program designed for the support of landlords, and it’s frankly a lot better and more popular than public housing proposals.

Oh well, the sky isn’t red today, but I’m living with literally the worst air quality in the world. Global warming will soon destroy everything. Maybe we need statism because it’s the only way to quickly reduce consumption of fossil fuel. I do not know. Sometimes I am very, very glad that I am not the person responsible for fixing the world’s problems.

As you can perhaps tell, I have not done much writing today.

Proud of this blog

Hello old friends. Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time looking at my blog’s states on Google Analytics. Most people who read this blog do it through Facebook, or WordPress, or RSS, or through direct email subscriptions, so the number who actually click through enough to register on my site stats is pretty small. Of those who do, the vast majority come here through googling random stuff.

I dunno, I’ve been writing this blog since August of 2008: twelve years. It has upwards of, what, I dunno…twelve thousand posts? A fair amount of them are linked up above, through my compilation of all the books I’ve written about (at least through 2016). But most of my personal posts, my posts on writing or weight loss or sobriety, aren’t linked. People stumble into them at random. I like it.

The literary world has really turned me off lately. It just hasn’t been nourishing at all. Too petty, too small-minded, and, frankly, too cruel. I’ve stepped back from Twitter, and I haven’t posted as much on Facebook either. The blog is qualitatively different. It’s my voice only. It doesn’t really exist in community with other blogs: if I’d wanted a readership I should’ve been out there linking to other people and reading their stuff, but I never found many other sites that resonated with me and felt similar to what I was doing.

It’s okay. More and more, I think of the writing community and the literary world as something that are separate from me. I’ve been trying to recover my identity as a mere reader. It’s working! Nowadays when I open the NYT book review and hear about some young phenom who sold her first book for $2 million, I don’t burn with envy: I just think, that book sounds interesting?! Or that book doesn’t sound interesting. Either way it doesn’t affect my self-respect.

It’s hard to read. Not just because I’m a mother now, and because of all the disasters, and the election. It’s just hard to concentrate, to find the time. I’ve been watching more TV and playing more video games than ever before. I bought a Nintendo Switch Lite, and it’s been great: it’s small and casual enough, so I can pick it up and put it down–don’t have to open up my huge honking gaming computer or sit myself in front of a TV–and it’s got enough power to play some AAA games: I’ve gotten back into the Witcher 3 in fact! I’d gotten bored because it’d become too easy, but I imported my save from the PC (It was genius of them to allow cross-platform saves), and I decided to stop using the really cheap power that gives you a shield that makes you invulnerable to all hits. And now it’s slightly more interesting.

But that’s not the same as reading. Even graphic novels haven’t proven as interesting. Have had Adrian Tomine’s latest book The Loneliness of the Long Distance Cartoonist sitting on my shelf for ages: he’s one of my favorite artists in any genre. But I haven’t even opened it.

Lately I did read Juvenal’s Satires. I’m not entirely sure that they have that much to say to the modern consciousness, but they were fun. Written during the late Flavian and early Nerva-Antonine Dynasty, they’re a harangue on social decay in all of its forms, with frequent emphasis to sexual immorality: men who dress like women come in for frequent criticism. My wife asked me why I would read something like that. I could only shrug. It appealed to me at the time.

The Lonely Years, my literary novel, is out to agents, which is what’s gotten me all panicky and anxious. But I’ve got other things cooking. My sexy assassin novel, now tentatively titled Death Trap, is going through revisions. And I’m gestating a fantasy novel about a sorceress who wants to conquer the Earth, but who will lose all her powers if she falls in love. It’s hard to concentrate on that too. Every morning I intend to get all kinds of work done, but I get distracted wondering if I’ll hear from an agent, and the day slips past.

Have decided to focus more on things that are durable and less on the ephemeral. So instead of tweets I’m going to read magazine articles. This week’s New Yorker had a great profile of Susannah Clarke: the author of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (who is coming out with her second novel soon). Apparently she was struck down with a mysterious illness shortly after Jonathan Strange came out, and for fifteen years she’s been intermittently bed- and house-bound. Reading the book made me think of two things: one, her success is so much a product of the science fiction and fantasy writing world that I know. She meets her husband at a week-long workshop. She sells an early story to Patrick Nielsen Hayden at Tor. Her husband is friends with Neil Gaiman, who’s an early supporter. And, moreover, in her interest, in her introversion, in her hopes and desires, and in the reception of others to her work, she very much reminds me of people I’ve met at sci-fi conventions over the years. It kind of gave me a very warm feeling. I still remember the summer when I read Jonathan Strange. It was 2006, I was home after my junior year of college. I found a copy for free in a bookcase in the break room at the US Holocaust Museum (where I spent the a summer volunteering). And I read it the whole way through, but not carefully. So when I reread it, almost ten years later, in 2015, it was like reading a story that I’d only dimly heard about before.

The book is so good. It is a classic. People will be reading it in a hundred years. Which is odd, because it is, to some extent, a pastiche, not just of Jane Austen (although that’s an obvious influence) but of other nineteenth century novelists that I’ve never even read. It’s like if someone in 1860 was to write a contemporary book, in a world where there were magicians. The characterization and the world-building are superb. The plotting is tight (in fact that’s probably the major evidence that it’s not really a nineteenth century novel), and it really struggles with the line between the Romantic and the realist. What a book. Oddly, the profile was more concerned with Clarke’s illness, and with its relationship to the subject matter of her second book, than it was with discussing her work on its own terms. But whatever, it was arresting enough, and I was happy to learn more about her. Shocking to think that 1992, when she began work on Jonathan Strange, is almost thirty years in the past. What a different world that was.

Every writer needs a friend who’s more successful and who’s willing to validate their own bitterness

I have a friend whose first book did much better than mine, and who got much bigger advances for both their books, and I love complaining about the writing world to this person, because they’re always like…yes, it is terrible, yes it is difficult, yes it is all luck.

I have another friend whose first book was brilliant, was fought over by agents, but which never sold, and they love complaining to me, because I’m like, wow, your book REALLY deserved to be published. You have been so hosed. You deserve to be profiled by the New York Times, sitting on the steps of brownstone, wearing a sweater, talking about your influences.

People like me and my more successful friend aren’t as common as one would want. Many writers have fully bought into the values of the system, and they jealously guard their own prerogatives. I understand the practice of policing the boundaries of our little garden: oh, I’ve sold a book, so I have more status; I have an agent, so I have more status; I’ve sold stories to major publications, so I’m legit. We’ve worked hard to get where we are, and we want to feel like it means something. But the fact is that if anything should confer status in the writing world, it’s not your success, it’s the quality of your work, and quality isn’t necessarily correlated with publishing success. Nor, for that matter, is quality necessarily perceptible to any given reader. I might read something and think it has no merit, and only later realize that there was a lot going for it.

I understand why other writers don’t feel this way, because it would be exhausting, but to me every writer–published or unpublished–is a peer until proven otherwise. On the one hand, this is just good sense, because as you progress in this career, you’ll meet lots of people who start off unpublished and rapidly become more successful than you. But it’s also just, I don’t know…it’s just common courtesy.

When I was first starting out as a writer, I’d go to conventions, and I’d feel like, well, I’m nobody, and nobody respects me, nobody wants to talk to me, and I used to leave with my eyes burning, thinking, I’m never going to come back here until I’m somebody. Part of that was social awkwardness–I was shy and wasn’t good at talking to people. But now I do carry some kind of status. I’ve published books. I’ve had stories to the right magazines. Sometimes I still feel like the low woman on the totem pole because I haven’t won award or achieved material success, but I know now that to the extent that feeling is not just in my head, it’s the problem of the people putting it on me.

But anyway, back then, I swore to myself that when the time came, I would be better. I wouldn’t make assumptions about people. I wouldn’t be inclusive toward everyone, because, obviously, I’m not going to get along with everybody, but I’d judge people by their talent and by how well we got along, and not by their level of success. And I would not stand on my own tiny bit of status, but I’d willingly give it up to anyone who deserve it. And I think that is a really, really important thing one writer can give another. I think it’s one thing to know that you have a lot to learn, but it’s also a not uncommon experience to know that you are doing good work, and to know that you’re writing publishable–or even awards-worthy–fiction, and to feel frustrated that the world still treats you like a wanna-be. And as perceptive and sensitive readers, who’ve walked this path ourselves, it’s our job as writer and colleagues to ease some portion of that hurt for our friends.

Sorry, it’s early, and I’m tired from being up with the baby, so I fear this blog post isn’t as coherent as I’d like it to be, but that’s what I had to say on this morning.

Books I’ve Read Lately

Haven’t done one of these in literal years

Lee Child, PersuaderYou know, in theory, I enjoy suspense thrillers about implacable killers who wander the world writing wrongs. But I’ve never been able to get into Jack Reacher, and, honestly, that remains true. In this one Jack gets involved in an improbable plan to write a wrong from his military police days, and it involves hanging out in a big house with some arms dealers and basically just fucking around doing nothing for page after page.

J. Courtney Sullivan, Friends and Strangers – Sullivan is so underrated, and she’s only gotten better since her first book, Commencement. She writes subtle, nuanced comedies of manners about, well, people who are exactly like me. This one is about the friendship that springs up between a college student and a young mother who’re both at turning points in their lives. The relationship is just on the other side of the realistic: the kind of thing we’d like to exist, but usually doesn’t. Some very well-drawn people interact in surprising and interesting ways. Also the young mother is a blocked writer, working on her third book. For me, very relatable =]

Francoise Gillot, Life With Picasso – Memoir by a young painter who was Picasso’s lover for twelve years and the model for many of his works. At times got tedious, but I liked it for two things: the description of how a person with, well, mediocre looks and personal charm could win over and ensnare a young woman, as much through his pity as for his own sake, and, as she watches with bemusement, all the while thinking she’s above this relationship and can escape at any moment, manages to cut her off from her family and pull her deeper and deeper into his clutches. Oh, and his thoughts about art are interesting too.

Have been feeling a little hopeless lately

Sometimes when I’m feeling down these days I’m like, well, this is one of the hardest moments in human history. That does help, a little bit. I mean obviously it’s no black death or Genghis Khan conquering half the world. But it’s not great!

The other thing I tell myself is that, when it comes to writing, the true pleasure is to be able to produce something you’re proud of. You know, I’m an inveterate Wikipedia browser, and when I browse the pages of directors, I’m often saddened by how long it takes them to get their passion projects made and how much bullshit they need to put up with. Being a director (or at least being an auteur director, rather than a hired gun) requires you to be something of a flim-flam artist. You need to know how to sell your vision to a lot of different people. You need to figure out how to get producers and production companies on board. There’s a lot of moving pieces. And the end result is that most directors don’t get to spend very much time directing.

Being a writer isn’t quite the same. I write (almost) every day, and I put a fair amount of time into it. Even when I’m not writing, I’m visualizing and dreaming. But being a writer still requires skills that’re orthogonal to producing good work. You need grit, and, quite frankly, you either need a sense of what sells, or you need to be lucky enough to have native sensibilities that’re in line, at least for the moment, with what’s selling. My sensibilities are inherently uncommercial, and it’s taken me years to learn how to put a candy-coating on my projects so that editors and agents (if not the public) will like them.

That has nothing to do with being a good writer. Even grit and determination have nothing to do with being a good writer. You don’t need grit to produce good work; grit and a sort of insensible, unyielding toughness are just as beneficial to bad writers as they are to good ones. In fact, I sometimes think bad writers have an advantage when it comes to enduring the writing life. They’re more sure of themselves, and they require less inspiration to work, so they can work even when they’re depressed. Not to mention they have an easier time tailoring their projects to the market.

The point is: being a published writer has almost nothing to do with creating work that’s really unique and worthwhile. And, like the auteur direction, the writer who’s determined to create something lasting needs either to be extremely lucky, or she needs to master a lot of skills that have nothing to do with what they’re truly interested in.

But the point isn’t merely to sell books; the point is to sell a book you’re proud of. And the first step is to sit down, do the work day after day, and write something you’re happy with. I’ve done that. The Lonely Years needs a lot more work, probably, but I really like it. I don’t know if it’ll light the world on fire, but the book is more or less what I wanted it to be. And that’s a blessing that you don’t always get.

I do feel bad that where this blog used to be more or less a book review (or at least book impression) blog–you can see up top a bibliography listing all the books I’ve ever discussed on the blog–it’s now almost entirely about a much less interesting topic: the emotional journey involved in writing novels. I’m still reading, although a lot less now that the baby’s born, but I have less to say about it.

Recently I read Wallace Stegner’s The Spectator Bird, which was a really impressive book. Not just structurally–it uses the weakest possible hint of tension to get you to read an entire book that’s basically just an old man’s grumblings–but also for its meditations on integrity and aging and the role of traditional, conservative values even in the face of the hectic go-go shifting mores of the 1970s. At a certain point I did get frustrated that the author, a retired literary agent, spent so much time grumbling and bemoaning things, but Stegner wisely provided the character of his wife, Ruth, who was used to puncture the protagonist’s pretensions and call him out. High recommend.

I find myself without the same desire to seek out new books. I own about two thousand books on my Kindle–largely accumulated during two dollar sales–and I’ve been scrolling through more or less at happenstance, looking for books to read. You come across some weird ones that way! Anyways, we’ll talk later, nerds!

You’re going to end up doing the work now, or later, or maybe never

When you’re an unpublished writer, the incentives involved in writing a novel on spec (i.e. writing it and then trying to sell it) are simple. You write the best novel you can, you work on it as much as you can, and then you send it out to agents and subsequently to publishers, and it gets rejected. You repeat this ad nauseum until something sells.

But when you’ve published, the incentives are slightly different. Because now you know the publication process. You know that if you get an agent, they’re going to want edits, and if the book sells, the editor will want even more edits. So it’s a little hard to polish the book and make it perfect before sending it to your agent and/or editor, because you’re like, why not work with them to make it better? Why do all this work on your own?

The problem…is…and I don’t know how to put this delicately…once the book is out of your hands, anything can happen. For one thing, the agent and/or editor can be like, “This is crap” and reject it summarily without giving you another chance. And, just as likely, they’ll form some snap judgement of your intentions and then for the rest of the book drafting process you’ll need to try and make sure their vision isn’t affecting yours.

So there’s an incentive to finish it up to the highest degree of polish before sending it out. But when you’ve sold books you also realize that…sometimes no degree of polish can make a book sell. It’s simply not the right time for this book. Moreover, and this is something few people don’t talk about, but there’s also a degree to which being less-finished actually makes a book more likely to sell. Many agents and almost all editors like to put their stamp on a book, and they often won’t buy a book unless they have some editorial vision for it. They want to come in with some sense of how they can make it better. Moreover, because the public often responds better to messier, less-finished books, because they are (paradoxically) an easier read, a messier book can seem more marketable and feel like it has mass appeal. And then there’s the final factor, which is, the more work you put into a book, the clearer it often gets, and that very clarity can sometimes make it unpalatable. If you’re trying to say something difficult and unpopular, then in early drafts, you might only make tiny nods towards that difficult thing. But in later drafts, the difficulty might be unavoidable. All of this is to say, it’s sometimes better to send out less-finished work.

Moreover, there’s just the opportunity cost. Finishing a book to your fullest satisfaction can take three or four years. While finishing it to just the level needed to get a new agent or sell to a publisher might only take six months. Either way, you’ll do two years of revision with the agent and/or publisher, so if you send out the less-finished book and it sells, you’re saving many years of your life (as opposed to sending out a more finished book that doesn’t sell).

There’s not an easy answer to the conundrum of how hard to work on a book. I think it depends on your experiences as an author. If you’ve had the experience of putting in four years, writing a book that you’re proud of, and having it not sell or even get an agent, then you’re unlikely to do that again. But if you’ve had the experience (as I have) of sending out underbaked work and having it be poorly-received, or of feeling like it doesn’t find quite the right home, then you’re likely to put in more work.

Still, it’s difficult. I just did another complete draft of The Lonely Years, and the temptation to send it out to agents is extreme. I do think the book could get representation. And that agent will want edits, so I could do all this work after I get someone. But…I don’t know. I like working on my own. Ideally I’d have an agent with whom revision is more of a dialogue: a sophisticated reader who trusts me and my own aesthetic judgement. But you don’t always get that. I want to spend as much time as possible with my book before allowing other voices to influence me.

Anyway, what I tell myself is that I’m revising the book not just to sell, but to last. There’s a level beyond which a book is salable, but you want more than that.* You want the book to do things nobody asked it to do. For myself, the thing I like best in a book is for it to be exquisitely constructed: for me to have the feeling that every part has a purpose. The downside of this is that books can end up feeling overdetermined, where the same themes are being hammered in by every character and situation. But to me good construction means you barely even feel the way all the parts fit together, and sometimes things don’t even feel like they fit. This is not the sort of thing an editor or agent can really do. I mean, generally speaking, there’s a lot that they can’t do. I strongly believe in the value of comments and criticism–to date I’ve had something like ten people give comments on this manuscript–but I also believe that you read the comments once or maybe twice, and then you put them aside and don’t refer to them again. But that’s not a luxury you have when it comes to criticism from the people in ‘your’ corner. In fact, once you get published, it can be very hard to recover that feeling of freedom, and it’s only once it finally comes back that you realize how precious and fleeting it can be.

*The problem, of course, is that a book might be salable, but still not sell. You could do all this work, write a book for the ages, but nobody ever publishes it. And there’s really no way of avoiding this fate. It’s entirely out of your hands. Personally, the books I’m proudest of are the ones that sold, but I’m very aware, from the example of my friends, that selling isn’t guaranteed. And I, personally, have been on submission three times with three different manuscripts that didn’t sell, so believe me I know what it’s like to hear only crickets.

Wrote a book that I think will Probably sell

Hey nerds (Rachel informed me that the salutation she objected to was actually ‘hey jerks,’ and that she doesn’t find ‘nerds’ to be combative at all, so there we go. But I mean Dan Savage could start all his columns with Hey, faggots, for eight years, and to most people I know he’s a freaking hero, so whatever. Maybe I should start my columns with ‘Hey, trannies!’…but that’s a project for another day).

So, as I was saying, hey there, nerds.

Things’ve been going okay here. I finished my sexy assassin book (working title: DEATH TRAP, and if you understand how offensive that title is, then I tip my hat to you).

This is the book about a trans woman assassin who relies on her feminine wiles lure her targets to their deaths, however she runs afoul of a league of woman assassins who’re highly offended by her lack of technical assassinating skills (she knows zero martial arts, rarely exercises, and throughout the book she’s always doing shit like forgetting to check if her gun is loaded), and when she’s awarded a big job by a prominent mob boss, the league of assassins puts out a hit on our heroine and tries to snake her job. So for the first time she’s got a foe that she can’t seduce, and meanwhile she’s also got the biggest contract of her life. Oh, and the book is set in India.

I wrote the first draft in something like eighteen days, and it was a lot of fun. I’ve always admired Anthony Trollope, who wrote his books straight through, without stopping, doing X number of pages per day, and if he finished a book before finishing his quota of pages, he started a new one that day! And when you read his books, you can see how these techniques work: he just has a bunch of characters with different goals, and then he sets them loose to have conflict with each other.

For years I’ve been like, why isn’t it just that easy? Well in this case the whole story did proceed rather organically. At times my efforts to get my hero out of her problems bordered on the fantastic, but the whole conceit of the book is that there really is no such thing as a super-soldier or a super-assassin. The business of killing people is inherently chancy, and even the best are more lucky than they are skilled.

Incidentally, I’m thinking of using this speech from the movie Miracle as an epigram:

Great moments are born from great opportunity. And that’s what you have here tonight. That’s what you’ve earned here tonight. One [job]. If we [fought] ’em ten times, they might win nine. But not this [time]. Not tonight. Tonight, we stay with them. And we shut them down because we can! Tonight, WE are the greatest [assassins] in the world…I’m sick and tired of hearing about what a great [assassins they are]. Screw ’em. This is your time. Now go out there and take it.

–From a speech that was originally about hockey, but really should’ve been about killing people for money

The insane thing about the book is that, it’s good, it’s definitely good, it’s the sort of book I want to read and I want to exist in the world–but it’s nowhere near as ambitious as any number of other books I’ve written. And yet, precisely for that reason, I’m certain the book will sell and be published. You might never read my sad, sensitive literary opus, The Lonely Years, but you’ll mostly likely read this one.

Anyways, this felt really good. Was nice to just open the computer and have fun for once. It hasn’t been like that for me in a long time. Not since I sold Enter Title Here, really. Not that it hasn’t been fun, but it’s taken a lot of work. Not this time!

I’m also in the process of revising The Lonely Years. Remember that potentially insoluble problem I wrote about before? Well I’m pretty sure I’ve solved it. So we’ll see what happens with that.