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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming down to the wire on revisions

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

The three things that cause stories to stall out

Am stalled today on writing, because there’s just this one thing I don’t know. I have these two characters interacting, and I don’t know how it turns out. The thing is, you can always just write down some crap. One pulls out a gun and shoots the other one. They break up. They’re mean to each other. There are ten thousand solutions.

But the real question is: what is the right solution?

The main thing I’ve learned from all the movies I’ve been watching lately is the importance of dramatizing action. When you strip away the emotional responses and the thoughts and the exposition, what does this actually look like? Frequently I find myself picturing my book as if it’s a movie (a very dimly lit and indistinct movie), and I’ll try to put myself right there in the room with them.

Ideally, the characters and the action should snap into place so intuitively that you can’t imagine it otherwise. The best action movies are like this: You cannot imagine Rambo taking place in any other way. It is inevitable that this man, walking through this place, is going to end up involved in a countywide man-hunt. There’s a sense of inevitability to the action that allows you to ignore the constructedness of the story.

But usually when you’re just drafting a book, that doesn’t happen. Both characters and action have, through many drafts, a sort of unfinished quality, and as a result things happen more or less arbitrarily. For me, the writing process involves finding these arbitrary places (usually I recognize them because I can ‘envision’ a novel right up to this point, but afterwards my vision is a total blank) and slowly altering one thing and then the other until they fit together better.

I usually begin by imagining really simple solutions. What if…instead of doing what they do, they just do the opposite? Then I’ll move onto really drastic solutions, what if I combine these two characters into one person? Then I’ll come up with a medium solution, and I’ll get excited, and I’ll halfway alter the entire draft, only to realize it doesn’t work. Then I’ll go back and do this all again. And eventually there’ll just be a click and suddenly scenes start appearing in my head beyond the stuck point.

Oftentimes the click is really simple. It might be a change of dialogue. Or to alter a really minor plot point a ways back. Frequently it involves tinkering with the characters in really subtle ways so that they fit better into the situation I’ve envisaged. And I’ll think, wait a second, this was so easy, why didn’t I start off with this solution?

But really what happened was that all of the little changes I made all of them combined to get me past this point. There was a sanding-down and reshaping of the characters and the situations to make everything fit together.

Usually the stuck place resulted from a combination of three things: a) lack of knowledge of character; b) failure of inventiveness; and/or c) wrong technique.

You never know everything about your characters. In fact, I find that I often know remarkably little about them. To my mind, if you know what a character wants most in the world, you’ve basically got the core of them. But sometimes you don’t exactly know that. Or there’s something else about them and their relationships that’s unclear to you.

Failure of inventiveness has always been a bugbear for me. A person can have their Rambo, but if they don’t have their intolerant North Carolina town then they don’t yet have a novel. I have trouble oftentimes thinking of situations where interpersonal conflict arises naturally (one reason why writing about teens is easier for me; their lives are more bounded). Thinking of the right situations is a perpetual struggle, and oftentimes the only solution is to just try and discard hundreds of situations until one fits.

To me, the most interesting failure is the failure of technique. We all have certain things we know how to do. And sometimes a stuck point comes from using your favorite tool in a situation where it’s completely wrong. This is where reading widely comes in very handy. It teaches you all the different ways that exist of telling a story. Failure of technique really encompasses some pretty broad terrain. Most people would think of ‘technique’ as being the more technical parts of story construction. Using flashbacks or frame narratives or a three-act structure–that’s technique. I would say, however, that it’s more helpful to think of technique as the ways in which you think about and shape your material in order to form a story.

For instance, many science fiction writers will read the news and think, “What if?” And they’ll write a story about, I don’t know, a world where pockets of sentient radon gas seep up out of our basement to try and make friends and kill us in the night without understanding that it’s their very existence that’s inimical to us.

In a realist novel, a technique might be a way of twisting a relationship. Maybe your technique, whether you know it or not, is to re-imagine all relationships as family relationships. So in your work, bosses and teachers often have fatherly relationships with their employees and students. Or perhaps your technique is to always look at the money, a la Balzac or Jane Austen, and think, how do they afford this? How do they live?

But sometimes those techniques aren’t the right ones. Sometimes you need to be like, well, this isn’t that story. People in this story aren’t worrying about money. Or maybe you’re like, well, usually I don’t care about money, but in this story, money needs to be a major element. Or maybe technique is, literally, technique, and you’re like, well in my story the writing has to be very sparse and lyrical. Or you’re like, well, this story needs to include lots of geeky Neal Stephenson-style mini-essays all over the place.

If you read widely, you absorb other authors’ techniques, and they come to you in your moments of need! Of course usually the techniques that are wilder and more different from your work-in-progress aren’t helpful, but sometimes a weird influence will seep in there and dissolve up the blockage.