The writinginginginginginginging

I’m not even attempting to talk about the stuff I’m reading or watching anymore. Although my media consumption continues unabated (in fact, might even have increased, now that I’m playing games again), my attention is mostly occupied with these revisions!

Last night I finally had this moment where I was like, “I really like the revised version of this book.”

This is also probably the last time, before it gets published, that I’ll be able to really pull the book (my second YA novel, We Are Totally Normal) apart and put it back together. I’ve done this now five or six times to this book, and each time it’s gotten exponentially better, but at some point enough is enough. However this version I think is much closer to the right one. It’s so much cleaner than the previous versions, and all the conflicts and relationships fit together way better. We’ll see what my editor thinks though.

I’ve learned quite a bit in the two years I’ve been writing this book, and now I’ve a much better idea of the kinds of stories I want to write and the tools I have for writing those stories. Actually I’m feeling pretty creatively energized, and in addition to this book I’ve been working on a variety of other projects. Probably tomorrow my creative sphincter will be shut up tight and I’ll be moaning about how I have no ideas for anything, but today I’m feeling good.

How much work is enough?

One common thread that runs through stories about really successful people is how hard they work. Now it’s possible to overstate this. There are plenty of successful people who do not work hard. We’ve had at least three presidents in the last thirty years who didn’t seem to work very much at all, and whatever else you might say about these individuals, if you’re President of the United States you are definitely a success.

But I think that really successful people tend, more often than not, to display inhuman levels of effort. Which is something I always knew, but which I didn’t really understand the reality of before I met my wife. She’s a researcher, and she is, like me, in a very self-directed job, and she works ALL THE TIME. It’s so impressive. Nobody works harder than Rachel. If she’s not with me or her friends, she’s working. She just likes to work. It’s often stressful, but for her it’s also fun and exciting.

I, on the other hand, do not have this relationship with my work. For the first five or six years of my attempting to write for publication, I didn’t enjoy it at all—writing was actually painful for me—and although in the last six years I’ve been able to find more joy in it, I’m usually more happy than not to quit writing for the day.

Which leads me to ask myself, “How much work is enough?”

I’m still not entirely sure. On most days, the answer is simple: you can’t force creativity, and if you sit down at the keyboard and stare at it for awhile and nothing is happening, then there’s no point in continuing. Instead I try to figure out ways to get directly at the well-spring, whether it’s through working in other media or through walking in circles and day-dreaming.

But on days like today when I am in the thick of a project—today I’ve worked for three hours and have written 2,500 words—I wonder whether I ought to keep going.

Usually I don’t. Usually when I’m having a hot streak, I’ll leave it until tomorrow. And part of it is just wanting to have a life. I want to read. I want to take walks. I want to see my friends and wife and cat. I want to (nowadays) play on the XBOX. But the other part of it is that in my life I have thrown away so much more writing than I’ve ever used.

On the current project alone—my second YA novel, We Are Totally Normal—I have eight discarded drafts in a folder in Scrivener, and in total those drafts contain 230,000 words. That is years of typing. And there’s two ways to think about this. One is that I needed to type through those words in order to get to the right ones and the other is that I could’ve more easily found the right words if I’d slowed down to think.

The answer, as always, is somewhere in the middle. Writing a novel is a journey without a map. You get there by whatever route you can. Sometimes you follow a river and find that it leads nowhere. Other times you seek high ground and try to survey the surrounding terrain. It all depends on the specifics of where you are in your head with the project right at this moment.

I think too often ‘hard work’ can be a talisman. If you work hard enough, you’re destined to succeed, people think. And it’s a lot easier, in some ways, to work hard than it is to work thoughtfully. Because ultimately the only thing that matters is the outcome. If working hard helps you write the right book, then great, and if it hurts you, then that’s bad.

Generally I’d say “When in doubt, work harder.” Amongst aspiring authors, too many authors don’t seem to be doing much. Like if you’re in an MFA and all you write each year is the three stories per semester you need for class, then…what the heck are you doing? I don’t get it.

My productivity is way beyond many authors I know. Starting with Enter Title Here in 2013, I’ve written eight novels (and sixty-ish short stories) in five years. But only two of those have sold. And most of those novels didn’t really deserve to sell. They didn’t have the thing that Enter Title Here had. They didn’t have the spark, the fire. For the last five years, I’ve been trying to find and bottle the fire, and it hasn’t been an easy or simple process.

I’m proud of the way I work, and I wouldn’t have done anything differently over the last five years (creatively speaking, I mean. On a business level there’s so much I’d have done differently). But in the end I’m still a guy who just knocked off work at 2 PM.

On the other hand, I just realized today is a national holiday. So maybe that says something too, I don’t know.

Revisions revisions revisions revisions

My mood continues to bounce all over the place in accordance to how my revisions are doing on any given day. Today I’m doing well, but that’s mostly because I haven’t really started yet. Sigh. Avoidance behavior. I’ve learned over the last year though to pay attention to my avoidance instincts, because they usually indicate that there’s something which I know is wrong, subconsciously, with the draft, but that my conscious mind has glossed over the problem. It’s very easy to have a “plan” for what comes next, but for your plan to be boring. Not sure if that’s what is happening right at this exact moment (I still experience normal procrastination too), but it could be!

Revisions are due on August 1st, and I’m anxious to turn this around and get back to other projects. I have a novel for adults I’m working on. I’ve also toyed with the idea of writing a screenplay. I’ve never been a fan of the idea of writing for the screen simply because it exists or because it’s a more popular form; I’d only write for the screen if I thought I’d have something to say. And since my interest with novels has primarily been with voice, which is generally pretty lacking in screen- and teleplays, I’ve thought that the screen had nothing to offer me. But in the last year I’ve watched ALOT of movies (sixty since July 1, 2017), and I’ve started to become more interested in the blankness of the screen–the way that you don’t know why things are happening or what the characters are thinking.

I don’t know. It’s a thought. Attempting to have a career in writing for the screen is even more punishing than attempting to have a career in the writing of prose fiction, but I just think it’d be fun. In some ways, the remoteness of ever actually selling anything is freeing and makes it easier to work.

Every time a friend of mine sells a book, I kind of sigh, because I know that for them writing is going to become much harder, at least for awhile. It’s almost inescapable. The transition from writing purely for yourself to writing within the marketplace is so punishing. I think this, more than anything else, kills writing careers. It just stops being fun. And if you’re getting paid, that’s one thing, but usually you have to struggle to make money too, so if it’s not fun, and it’s not remunerative, and you’re not particularly proud of your work (because pride in your work falls when the fun-ness falls), then why do it?

think I’ve overcome this hurdle when it comes to prose fiction, but you can never fully return to paradise. After you sell a book, you’re never again as free as you were when you were unpublished.

Reading IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE

Apparently sales of Sinclair Lewis’s book It Can’t Happen Here have skyrocketed since the election of Donald Trump. This is a book, written in 1936, fascism’s first heyday, about a homespun politician’s rise to the Presidency and subsequent institution of German-style fascism in the United States.

I feel like a little bit of a hipster about Sinclair Lewis, since I liked him long before he was cool. Main Street is one of my favorite novels, and I read Babbitt, Elmer Gantry, Arrowsmith, and Dodsworth in a great big rush about six or seven years ago. I’m pretty sure I wrote about them on this blog at the time (omg this blog is ten years old, it’s absurd), but I’m too lazy to dig up the posts right now.

What strikes me most about the book, however (which I’m currently listening to on audio) is the primary parallel between it and Hitler that Trump has not followed. Both the rise of Buzz Windrup, the politician in It Can’t Happen Here, and the rise of Hitler were facilitated by the creation of paramilitary forces that quelled dissent by extralegal methods. Windrup’s ‘Minutemen’ occupy Congress after he declares a state of emergency, and Hitler’s SA was used, after the Reichstag fire, in a similar manner to arrest all opposition and to intimidate the Reichstag into giving him dictatorial powers. In the latter case, the SA, which had about two million members, was by far the largest armed force in the country (the army only had 100,000 members) and was literally unstoppable. From the moment that Hitler took office as Chancellor, there was no longer anything that the citizenry of Germany could do to stop him.

Right now, for all the parallels between Trump and Hitler, there exists no such paramilitary force. I’m not saying one couldn’t be created. Given the degree to which law enforcement and the military and the various gun-owning persons in this country tend to be pro-Trump, it’s not impossible that he could create such a force in relatively short order. But as of this moment, it doesn’t exist.

Which is more of an accident than anything else. I think the thing that Sinclair Lewis did not predict (and he predicted a lot) is the sheer ineptitude of Donald Trump. It’s something that we, as Americans, really don’t have an easy time understanding. He has a certain low cunning that enables him to stop other people from having victories–nobody is ever able to claim victory in a deal w/ Trump, because he’s always willing to pull the rug out from under the them, even if it hurts the country as a whole–but he’s just not particularly organized, and he’s not great at delegation or at leveraging other peoples’ talents.

Our nation is in pretty rickety shape right now, and if our democracy endures, it won’t be a testament to anything we did, but rather to all the things that Trump failed to do.

Revisions continue apace

After several weeks of not feeling good about my revisions, I am unexpectedly, today, feeling much better.

The problem I think is simply that I’ve grown a lot as a writer in the year since I last worked on this book. The book isn’t at fault. The book is still good. I mean it got me an agent, and it sold to HarperTeen. The book still contains so much of what I wanted to say and do and feel.

But in the last year I’ve learned a lot about storytelling. And what I mean by that is the simple mechanics of aligning character, plot, and image so that they’re all working on the same level and working with the same themes. Right now the book is sort of all over the place when it comes to the actual events on the page. Although the essence of my story is still buried in there, it needs a lot of work to really come out. In this revision, I’m essentially doing what I’ve done with every revision to this book: I’m pulling back, making it less dramatic, more character-oriented, making the characters less powerful and less sure of themselves, less archetypical and more complex. The characters were already, even in this draft, much more complex than anything you’ve seen in YA before, but in the next draft they’re going to be so human.

Over the last year, in the interval when I was waiting for this book to sell and waiting to get comments back, I worked on a novel for adults–tentatively titled The Storytellers–and in that book I really pushed myself to write only about the things that mattered the most to me. And I think it’s that experience, in which I learned to recognize and follow the heart of longing, that’s now influencing this book quite a bit.

I’ve been writing and submitting for fifteen years. For at least eight of those years I’ve been writing novels. And this is the tenth novel I’ve written, the fifth to go on submission, the second to sell. And I’m still learning. Although maybe it’s safe to say that at this point I’m not so much learning “how to write a novel” as I’m learning “how to write my novels.”

Anyway, for right now, at this moment, I am happy with how the work is turning out.

 

In other news, I’ve been reading a lot of John O’Hara lately. I started with Appointment in Samarra, his most famous work, which was good, despite its rather severe flaws. John O’Hara was a novelist of manners who wrote in and about the 30s, 40s, and 50s. He is most often compared to F. Scott Fitzgerald, but I’d say he’s more of a realist than Fitzgerald. O’Hara was quite famous in his lifetime and had a very high opinion of himself–every year he stayed awake on the day they were announcing the Nobel Prizes because he was positive that a call was coming. Nowadays his books are still in print–I’ve been reading them in Penguin Classics versions–but I think it’d be fair to say his literary stock is rather lower than it was.

This is, to my eyes, largely due to fashion. From any era, only a certain number of writers can remain well-known, and the writers who remain known are largely the ones who, to our eyes, embody the literature of the time. O’Hara’s time, at least in America, was the hey-day of modernism, which frequently involved conscious experimentation with form and language. As a result, the survivors have been Ralph Ellison, Faulkner, Hemingway, Salinger, Mailer, Shirley Jackson, Nabokov, Kerouac, Capote, Flannery O’Connor, etc. John O’Hara, in contrast, is writing wonderful, highly-polished, highly-mannered novels that would not have been too out of place at the turn of the century. He’s more the heir to Edith Wharton, early Henry James, Sinclair Lewis, and the realist half of John Steinbeck. I venture to say that if he’d written either fifty years later or thirty years earlier he’d be a lot better remembered. Instead, like other realist writers of his era–Louis Auchincloss comes to mind–he hasn’t fared as well.

I like his work a lot though. The novels of his that I’ve read BUtterfield 8 and Appointment in Samarra have been marred, to my eyes, by an insistence upon the dramatic. Appointment in Samarra involves a half-baked gangster subplot and BUtterfield 8 ends in a nonsensical suicide. Both books are best when they dwell on the simple minutiae of their characters’ lives and desires.

His short stories, in contrast, especially in the volume I read (The New York Stories) don’t have this defect at all. They almost never outstay their welcome. Nor do they do this modern thing of hitting the ending too hard. They slip out quietly at the end, trusting to the narrative to do the work. I’m thinking, for instance, of the janitor who wins an office pool, fifteen dollars, and instead of taking it home to his wife, uses it to buy baseball tickets for himself and his son. It’s a quiet story that focuses on very simple and human dramas: it’s a story that elevates an ordinary day in an ordinary life.

Many of his stories feature female protagonists, and most of them were quite good, but seeing all of his female protagonists lined up end to end was a little exhausting. They were universally either beautiful women or fading beauties, coasting on the past. Too many of them were actresses or singers. In aggregate, the stories felt a little bit too much focused on the effect these women had upon men.

Oh, but I forgot to mention the most interesting thing about the collection. I listened to it on audible, and the audiobook has an incredible cast! The stories are narrated by a diverse set of film and TV actors. About a third seemed to be voiced by Dylan Baker, a character actor with a slimy drawl that is perfect for these stories. Jon Hamm makes a surprise appearance as the narrator of one story. And I particularly liked Gretchen Mol, who narrates many of the female parts.

This is going to sound middlebrow, but I have a preference for celebrity narrators (over work-a-day voiceover artists), and it’s because I find they tend to give the performance a little more personality. The problem with professional audiobook narrators is that in their career they need to voice alot of books, so they can’t be too distinctive. You can’t think, every time you listen to a Grover Gardner book, “Oh, here’s Grover Gardner again.” But that means their narration tends to be quite workmanlike and efficient (They do tend to be a lot better than the stars at doing all the disparate voices in piece however). Whereas TV and film actors are only going to do 4-5 audiobooks, so they’re free to be themselves. Thus, if you listen to Jeremy Irons narrating Brideshead Revisited you are definitely gonna be listening to a voice that’s unmistakably Jeremy Irons. But that’s fine, because Jeremy Irons is great!

Revision is very important, but I don’t think it makes books more likely to sell

Have been feeling a little stir-crazy at home, so I’ve done what I hardly ever do, and I’ve repaired to a local cafe (the Atlas Cafe on 20th and Florida, in case I’ve any stalkers) to drink coffee and try to get some writing done. But then it turned out that my computer was out of batteries, so I am writing this on my phone. I don’t often go out, simply because, well, my home is spacious and light-filled and the coffee there is free, but there’s been something in the air lately. I think just because it’s been so windy–when the windows at my home are open there’s this howling sound, and when they’re closed the place feels very airless.

Currently I’m working on revisions for my second book, We Are Totally Normal, which is due out from HarperTeen sometime in early 2020. My editor gave me a stunningly long lead time on the revisions, and I’ve been taking advantage of that time.

I am a good reviser. That’s a part of my identity. I’m pretty good at setting aside what I’ve actually written and analyzing the book de novo (really hope I’m using ‘de novo’ right) to figure out how it can be put together better.

With revision it’s important not to rush into anything. For any problem there are a thousand potential solutions that sound good in theory but would wreck the novel if put into practice. The trouble is to not lose sight of the heart of the novel. If you make revisions willy-nilly, simply to suit the taste of the market or of a certain set of readers, you’ll end up with a mess.

Ultimately the point of revision isn’t to make the book sell more copies, it’s to revise the book so that it better fulfills its own artistic aims. You revise–or at least I revise–so that the book will be the best possible version of itself. With some editorial feedback, especially if it comes from agents or editors, adhering to their guidance would bring the book further from its artistic aims, and its in these cases that a writer faces his or her most difficult test. It’s easy to say ‘stick to your guns’ but almost always the better choice is to figure out what things are truly worth fighting and which are not.

Luckily, with both my editors and both of my publishers, the edits I’ve gotten have been more or less copacetic, so that’s one writing difficulty, at least, that I’ve been spared.

However even with editorial suggestions that you agree with there remains the issue of incorporating them carefully. You can’t just edit to please your editor; you need to internalize their advice. You need to see what they see.

I generally start off revision very carefully. I digest any editorial suggestions. I reread the book. Then I think, “What is at the core of these suggestions?” Because oftentimes when you read a critique or an edit letter, you’ll see that all the things they’re pointing out are the result of one or two deficiencies in the text. Sometimes these deficiencies aren’t even things that they themselves necessarily noticed or called attention to. Nobody knows your book and your vision better than you do, and for that reason nobody else can really understand the parts of the book that are inessential and the parts that are exactly what they need to be.

It’s usually my objective to revise by changing as few elements as possible. By that I don’t mean that I make small changes, all I mean is that I identify exactly what I am going to do. Usually, I find, the changes are, at their core, changes in character’s backstories. People are their histories, and if you change what’s happened before the story starts (i.e. the stuff you haven’t written), then you change a character’s entire outlook on life. You change their desires, their objectives, and their relationships. Sometimes too I contemplate changes to the setting. Oftentimes I imagine changes that are very large, and then I realize that much smaller changes will do.

I prefer, though, if my revisions make the book simpler. Ideally, I prefer to eliminate things, rather than add them. I also often find that a change, when it is right, serves either to better utilize or to completely eliminate a previously ancillary part of the story.

In early drafts of a book, you put lots of things in without knowing exactly what you’re going to do with them. Later on, these things become your tools. They’re guideposts for you; they are hints as to the real emotional core of the story. I think it’s very easy to revise by adding things, by making the story bigger and more complicated, by in my opinion this is how you ruin books. I always like to either change something or eliminate something.

Oftentimes, the current draft of a book contains, somewhere within it, the form of a much better book, and the purpose of revision is to find that form.

Anyways, I am a big believer in revision as a necessary part of the artistic process, but, oddly, I don’t believe it much impacts the commercial or critical success of the book.

When you revise, you often eliminate elements that are sentimental, untrue, overwrought, or false. But it is precisely these elements that many audiences respond most deeply to. In a revision, you might decide that your damsel, rescued from a monster by a knight, would be too traumatized by her experience to easily trust again. You might decide that they cannot, as you originally wrote, fall in love. You might decide that the best that they can hope for is an uneasy trust. And the hard decisions you put into the book might ultimately, to the sophisticated reader–the one truly on board with your vision–make your knight and your damsel into truly unforgettable heroes who forge a unique and honest relationship. But oftentimes audiences don’t want that. Oftentimes they respond most deeply to the illusion. They want to believe that trauma doesn’t scar. They want to believe that chemistry always turns into true love. They want something that feels like other things they’ve liked. For this audience, your unrevised version would probably do better.

On a less cynical note, I think audiences usually respond to the emotional core of a book. And it’s this core which is usually present even in the very first draft. Nothing you do in revision is going to substantially alter this core, so nothing is really going to alter how audiences respond to it. Thus, revision, to me, is something you mostly do for the benefit of yourself and of your best and most sophisticated readers.

Frustrated with the way so many authors play it safe when it comes to questions of morality

Recently listened to a book, The Wicked Girls, that to me is clearly based on the real-life story of the novelist Anne Perry, who along with another girl, killed a woman while a teen (also the basis for the movie Heavenly Creatures). Perry’s story, assuming she hasn’t killed anyone as an adult (which seems a safe assumption to me), gives rise to questions about the nature of evil, cruelty, and rehabilitation. Some of these same questions are tackled by this thriller, which is about two women who meet again, twenty-five years after committing and being prosecuted for a murder as eleven year old girls, and find themselves entangled in a serial killer’s rampage. To be honest, I found myself wavering considerably on this book. To me the whole thing hinged on the construction of the murder that they committed as kids, and this is precisely the issue that the novel spends most of its length trying to obfuscate. What makes Perry’s case so disturbing and interesting is that the murder she committed was quite premeditated. Her friend’s mother was going to take her friend away, so they killed the mother in order to stay together. The killing was not quick or simple; it required twenty whacks on the head with a brick. And now the person who committed this crime is free, and she walks around as easily as you or me, writing books, giving interviews, and living a very normal and, to all appearances, quite matronly existence. That is fascinating. The story told in this book is much less so.

However, I understand why Marwood wrote it this way. This is the third book I’ve read recently which featured a character who had acts that the reader was meant to think are vile or morally gray. In one of those books (unnamed because this is a spoiler), it turns out that the murderer actually killed another guy in order to stop him from raping and killing a girl in a war-zone. And in Jeff Zentner’s Goodbye Days, a kid is ostracized because he sends a text message and his friend’s attempt to reply, while driving, result in him crashing and all the passengers in the car dying (note, the protagonist of this book isn’t in the car, he’s just a guy, somewhere else, who sent a text message). In both of these cases, the act is so far from being morally ambiguous that I threw up my hands in frustration. Like, we all agree that killing in self-defense or defense of another is okay, but if you want it to be even _more_ okay, then surely it’s alright in a warzone, where there is no law, and where your victim is a soldier who is abusing his authority. Similarly, there is nothing wrong about sending a text to someone who is driving. If there’s any culpability, it’s in the person who engages in texting while driving, not the person they’re texting with.

The problem, however, is that if these books were written in a way that was actually morally ambiguous, they would’ve been taking something of a risk. In Zentner’s book, the obvious solution would be if the protagonist had been the driver of the car and if he’d been the only person to survive. Texting while driving is not good, but it’s also something lots of people do, and yet it’s only when you crash that suddenly you’re a murderer. That would be a classic examination of moral hazard and of hypocrisy. But if that’d been the story, people would’ve hated the protagonist, and they would not have enjoyed the book. Which is absurd, because literally three quarters of people have texted while driving. It’s sort of an Emperor’s New Clothes situation (similar to, say, underage drinking or using illegal drugs or cheating), wherein a massive percentage of the population is doing something–if it’s not you, then it’s your father, your mother, your kids, or your husband–and yet we pretend it’s somehow beyond the pale.

 

I don’t think it’s impossible for a book to succeed commercially if it contains ambiguous morality. I mean, it’s especially true when we have thrillers. Gone Girl contained some terrible people. The protagonist of The Girl On The Train was a terrible and terribly self-absorbed alcoholic. But in general, and this is entirely my own unscientific impression, it seems that the authors of most commercial hits have tended to play it safe when it comes to moral questions.

Thoughts on books I’m currently reading

Been awhile since I’ve posted, and I apologize for nothing! It’s now two years since my last book came out, and it’s almost two years until my next book will come out, and I feel like I’m not really blogging to attract or impress anybody. In general I’ve gotten a lot more sparing with my words, both here and in my writing, and a lot more interested in following the flow of my own interest. In my work, this means cutting out, even on a micro level, the sentences that don’t interest me. I won’t have somebody open a door and walk into a room, unless that interests me. I won’t write a conversation just because the information needs to be in the book. I won’t even include white space, unless it serves a purpose. Probably this does the work no favors, but I don’t care.

With this blog, I too sometimes have ideas, but writing them out bores and tires me. For instance, I’ve little interest in writing descriptions of most of what I’m reading. I am beginning the third and final volume in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and each volume has been better than the last. It’s really less about the Roman Empire and more about the development of Western Civilization (which includes, essentially, everything west of India and north of the Sahara) between the death of Marcus Aurelius and the fall of Constantinople. It’s an incredible work, and all the more incredible for having been written in the 1700s. I mean, it’s pretty racist, too, but not as racist as many things from that era can be. Also, many of the racial prejudices are somewhat quaint, for instance, the characterism of ‘Oriental’ (i.e. Persian and Egyptian and Asian Greek) people as being addicted to despotism. I think the author genuinely finds himself confused, at times, over how to reconcile the modern (i.e. 18th century) prejudices against Middle Eastern, Italian, and Greek people with the fact that, well, historically speaking, those places were the center of all that was civilized. Most authors treat the Mediterranean peoples from antiquity as if they were completely different from those of the modern era, but since Gibbon is dealing with that very transition from Late Antiquity to Early Modern, he has trouble performing this leap of imagination.

Anyway, it’s good. Each volume is about as long as five regular novels though.

Simultaneously I’m reading The Dirty Girl’s Social Club by Alisa Valdes. I was intrigued after reading her description of her relationship with Junot Diaz, which also contrasts the difference in the acclaim their novels received. I think that writers of commercial fiction who write realist novels that are essentially modern comedies of manners find the system of genre distinctions particularly perplexing. It’s not per se obvious why Diaz’s book should get the Pullitzer Prize while Valdes’s would never even be considered for it. Where writers of science fiction and fantasy can at least say, “Oh, the system discriminates against non-realist fiction” (not entirely true, but at least it’s an easy explanation), the writers of romance novels, women’s fiction, and chick-lit face an even more arbitrary distinction.

Anyway, reading The Dirty Girl’s Social Club and contrasting it, in my mind, with Oscar Wao has been an illuminating experience. I’ll leave it to other people to more directly contrast the two books’ quality, but I’ll note that Valdes’s novel has many virtues, not least of which is an honest examination of mores. I really liked the woman who’s in love with a social worker but is upset, essentially, because he’s cheap and poor. Or the other woman who’s really turned on by this drug dealer she meets. This all feels very real to me, and it’s not something I’ve encountered in other novels.

I think the worst part of the system of genre classification is the sexism that’s at its core. But the second-worst thing is the way it impoverishes literary fiction of realistic depictions of desire, of friendship, and of relationships, and I think that if you want those things nowadays you’re almost required to read commercial fiction (or to watch contemporary television). Which is a little sad, because depictions of manners are at the core of what novels are about.

Writing is going really well

I’m experiencing that loss of motivation that comes whenever the writing is going really well. It’s such a rare event that I want to slow down and enjoy it. Was just thinking today that right now I’m working on my eleventh novel. That’s definitely something. I wouldn’t say that I have absolutely no idea how to write a book, but I do feel I know very little. It’s a bit astonishing to me, still, that I’ve sold two of them. Actually, I’m more astonished today than I was when I first sold Enter Title Here (almost exactly) four years ago. Back then, it felt like an inevitability. I’d worked hard, served my apprenticeship, gotten better, written a great book, and now, of course, it was getting published.

But I’ve learned that this is far from a normal course of events. The writing world doesn’t reward hard work. And it doesn’t even necessarily reward the writing of a good book. There’s so little upside to publishing any given book that you sometimes wonder why these companies even bother (I think they often wonder the same thing themselves). As a result, the writing world has a genteel aspect, but it also ends up feeling very random. When you sell a book to a publisher, all it means is that an editor decided, for some reason, to use their capital, within the company, to attempt to buy your book.

Hopefully, that also means that they loved it and that the company loved it. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes books get bought simply because this is the sort of book they feel they ought to be buying.

It’s such a strange world.

I try not to beat myself up over procrastination

Some of the things I write about here are more advanced-stage writer stuff that might be dangerous in the hands of an apprentice or journeyman (journeyperson?) writer, and this is perhaps one of those topics. Because I know that people often procrastinate for years, or even a lifetime, when it comes to writing. In the science fiction and fantasy world, they procrastinate by developing complex worlds or strange fictional languages instead of writing. People procrastinate by saying, oh I’ll write the book when I retire, or after I sell enough short stories, or when I finally get an agent or a book deal or…or…or…

I’ve done my fair share of procrastinating in my day. But usually what would happen (I’m talking ten years ago, when I was in my early twenties) is I’d set some wildly ambitious goal, fail to meet it, and then, through guilt and shame, shove writing out of my mind entirely for months at a time.

A key part of beginning to write was to set more manageable goals. I didn’t need to write a story a week. I didn’t need to write a novel in X number of days. I just needed to do a little bit each day. Once I started setting limits on how much I needed to write in order to feel like I’d done something, I. paradoxically, became much more productive. Some people’s way of becoming productive is to say, “I will just work all the time.” And more power to them. But that’s not my way.

Rather, at each stage in my writing career, I’ve learned to relax. First I stopped keeping track of word count. Instead all that mattered was how many hours I spent at the keyboard. Then I stopped keeping track of that too, because I found I was just spending many hours writing nonsense or writing stuff that I’d never used.

It’s taken me a long time to quiet down and learn to listen to the work. This is not something that people emphasize in commercial fiction. Whether it’s YA or science fiction, there’s an assumption that you just write, write, write–that you can crank out novels as if they’re widgets. And that’s an assumption that I imbibed for a long time, with both positive and negative effects. On the positive side, I’ve written a lot of books. I’ve experimented with a lot of things. And out of all the writers working at my level (in terms of quality of the work), I’m probably on the faster side when it comes to productivity.

But the focus on productivity also made me lose sight of the work itself and lose sight of the thing in the work that makes it compelling. I gradually came understand that to be good a novel needs “the heart of longing.” But I was working so fast that if the heart of longing didn’t come immediately, I had no time to find it. And that’s how you produce work that might be competent, but which has no soul.

Nowadays I’m able when I work to listen for the heart of longing. And I don’t try to sort of find it or to approximate it–I either hit the heart of longing as close to dead-center as I’m able, or I don’t write at all.

This means I pause a lot in my writing. It means I spend a lot of time thinking. It means sometimes I stop writing after an hour or two. It means I scrap projects that seem to be going fine. It means I go back and rewrite a lot, and it means that I sometimes take many days off from a project without quite knowing why.

Procrastination has become, for me, a very valuable tool, because it’s often a sign that my plans for the book are almost but not quite right. Sometimes I think I’m procrastinating out of laziness, but during the hours or days of idleness I realize my conception of the book is wrong. Sometimes I have an epiphany about a new direction for the book, but I procrastinate about going to work, and a few hours later I realize the epiphany was glib or shallow and that I need to think harder.

I think ideally writing should be exciting, and that when I’m really hitting the heart of longing, my urge to write ought to more than outweigh any natural torpor I have. And when the torpor wins out, it’s often because there is something fundamentally unexciting in the work.