Feel free to just summarize the parts that bore you

You know what’s awesome about novels? You can just write, “They had sex, and it was awesome” Or “then they fought with swords, and the bad guy died.” Or “Three weeks later, he’d climbed down from the mountain.”

In fact, you can even skip MUCH longer or more uncertain processes. You can write, “He was rescued by a kindly shepherdess, and by next fall they were married.” Just that line. There’s absolutely no problem with that. People will often talk about things in a story being “earned” or “unearned.” But what that refers to is emotional effects. You shouldn’t be trying to make your audience feel shit unless you’ve set it up appropriately. Like if in your next sentence, the shepherdess gets killed by the bad guy and sends your dude on a killing spree, then that’s sort of dumb. But you can absolutely skip or summarize things if you want! It’s soooo easy.

It took me a long time to realize I could do this within a scene. I didn’t need to write “Hello!” / “Hello!” I could write “they exchanged greetings.” Later on, you can expand and contract the amount of detail in the narration even without shifting focus from the interaction of these two characters. It’s pretty cool, and there’s no real analogue in film or TV, because in fiction it happens so deftly and subtly, whereas in visual media it needs to be accomplished with slow fades and quick cuts and other intrusive crap that nowadays is anyway not really in fashion.

After I took this to heart, all kinds of scenes became much easier to write, because I didn’t need to write the entire thing: I could focus entirely on the thing about the scene that actually interested me.

 

 

Until the voice is solid, the plot doesn’t matter

Still doing my thing where I work on a number of projects simultaneously (it’s possible I’ll one day refer to this as my ‘really stupid way of working’ period). Anyway on one of the projects I was spinning my wheels, trying to figure out the main character’s backstory, but ultimately I realized that the problem was that the character’s longing wasn’t really coming through in the voice.

Longtime readers ought to remember that I’ve always been very concerned with the problem of how to capture longing. The first step is to figure out the longing you want to write about / with, but the second, and equally difficult, step is to put it somehow on the page. In this case it wasn’t happening.

I’d say that this is where the art lies. Because there is something in the texture of the words that conveys longing. It’s in the diction, the punctuation, the rhythm, and the cadences. It’s in the way the camera’s eye notices detail and conveys information. The progression of sentences in a novel is also the leading edge of a consciousness, and unless that consciousness is animated by powerful concerns, the novel falls flat.

Now how do you, as the author, work on creating that effect? Welllllllll…I don’t know. But it usually involves a lot of trying and a lot of failing.

I still don’t really understand the Revolutionary War

51XWuULSWdL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Okay, so after finishing the Grant biography, I started two books about the Revolutionary War. One’s a biography of Washington (also by Ron Chernow) and one’s a history of early America by Robert Middlekauf. I’m halfway through them, so I’m getting a little more insight, but I have to say I’m still a little confused about why the Revolutionary War started.

Like, I totally understand the Civil War. The abolition of slavery was a direct attack on the source of the wealth of the Southern elite. If there was a political party today that made, say, owning stock illegal, then there’d probably be another Civil War! (Obviously I’m against slavery, just saying that the South had a strong economic incentive to secede.)

But the Revolutionary War makes much less sense to me. The war was led by upper-class farmers and merchants, people like Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Hancock, who were rich! The British weren’t trying to take away their wealth! In fact, the Revolutionary War, in many cases, hit them much harder in the pocketbook than any taxes would’ve done.

Furthermore, the British taxes weren’t really an existential threat to Washington and Jefferson in the same way that, say, a bullet is an existential threat. I don’t understand fighting and dying for the cause of, what, a bunch of tea merchants who were worried about being undercut by the East India Company?

I mean many of the things that Americans cite when talking about the Revolutionary War: the Stamp Act (a tax on all legal documents) and most of the Townshend Acts (a number of other tariffs) were repealed in response to American pressure! So really what was left was a tax on tea. It was the confiscation and destruction of this imported tea that led the British government to close the port of Boston and suspend Massachusetts’s self-government (which is what directly led to the Revolutionary War).

What’s more, the Revolutionary War was obviously one that had a large base of popular support. It wasn’t just the elite who were coercing everybody else into going along. Washington’s army was an all-volunteer force. So far as I know (I haven’t finished either book), there was no conscription during the war. So not only was Washington willing to die, but so were tens of thousands of other people!

I’m reading the Declaration of Independence right at this moment, and when you read that document, Great Britain certainly does seem tyrannical, but in practice, many of these things were based on isolated and rare instances. Yes, the King did dissolve legislatures, revoke charters, make arbitrary laws, etc. But, overall, the hundred and fifty year history of the American colonies was, up to that point, one of being left more or less alone and being allowed, more or less, to rule themselves.

And that fact is probably the key to the rebellion. The American colonies were founded, oftentimes, by people fleeing from Britain. They found in America the freedom to order things in the manner that they pleased. And they came to think of themselves as more or less in charge. But when Britain started to constrain them a little more and remind them a little more of its power, they felt this as an erosion of their liberties. People are much more likely to respond to the loss of something than they are to the prospect of gaining it.

This also, perhaps, explains why the white people of Canada and Australia never (successfully) rebelled. Canada contained a large subjugated population, the French-Canadians, who didn’t necessarily expect better treatment from the British than they got. And, similarly, Australia started as a penal colony. Again there was no expectation of freedom.

Furthermore, Washington didn’t know how history would turn out. He didn’t know, first of all, that the British would rule their (white) colonists with a relatively light hand (well except for South Africa…okay maybe I shouldn’t generalize). In retrospect, it’s surprising that Britain didn’t oppress America much more than it actually did, given America’s lack of representation in Parliament. Washington and the other Founding Fathers had good reason to fear that someday Britain might try to enrich the homeland at the expense of the colonies.

And, finally, the French and Russian revolutions hadn’t happened yet. I think that those two events (as well as the subsequent history of the 20th century) have given elites a deep, deep fear of popular revolution. If they’d possessed the example of the French revolution, I’m not sure if Washington and the rest would’ve dared to rebel. Even in their own time, they feared the power of the mob, but they hadn’t yet seen the havoc it could truly wreak (of course they did have the example of the English Civil War, but in that case the lessons were of a different sort).

Oftentimes, a work-in-progress will contain an empty space that you’ll later need to fill

This is a difficult idea to articulate, but I’m going to give it a shot. I’m in the process of revising a novel right now, and I’m in that part of the revision process where I sit back and try to figure out what exactly I need to change. It’s a pretty holistic process: once I decide that a book needs to be revised, everything becomes up-for-grabs, and I’m willing to make the most drastic changes I can imagine.

But oftentimes I don’t need to, because the novel itself is telling me what I need to change. Over and over again, I find that works-in-progress contains weak spots: placeholder characters or scenes or objects that I need to flesh out in order to complete the book. It’s not that I purposefully left a blank in the book when I was drafting, it’s just that a book, in order to be complete, needs to have a certain shape, and my subconscious, sensing this, put in something that’d make it so the book had more or less the right shape.

For instance, in the current draft, one of the characters has a boyfriend character who’s sort of hanging out, not doing much. But meanwhile I needed to figure out something to create tension between this character and another main character, and I was like, oh wait, the boyfriend: he doesn’t like the other main character. That’s it, that’s what he’s doing.

Now the boyfriend has been in the book since the first draft (written literally years ago), and he’s never really had much shape or pulled any sort of weight, but I knew he needed to be there, in order to represent whatever it was that kept this character tied to the real world (this is a fantasy novel).

I’ve also had this other amorphous character–a villain who was defeated long before the start of the book–called the Goddess’s Daughter, and in my recent revision thoughts, I realized that I can use her to provide a backstory for another character. The point is, she always needed to be there, but I didn’t always have exactly the right use for her.

Which is not to say that you don’t take things out. It’s just that I’ve noticed that, overall, the process of revision ought to make the book less complicated and more elegant. Revision is where the book starts to feel like, oh wow, the author was planning this all along (even though he wasn’t). It’s also where I start to think, “What’s this story really about? Where does the thematic weight lay? What is each character’s arc?”

Oftentimes in early drafts, the book is propelled forward by pure longing, which is to say that what I’ve successfully created is a need in the heart of the character. But that need is itself an empty space, and in later drafts I need to flesh out the nature of the need: where did it come from and why is it still unfilled? (Of course this is all lies, since real life human beings are, in truth, rarely so uncomplicated that our needs can be clearly explicated, but still, fiction requires these lies).

This book is unique in that I didn’t really know what my ending was going to be (except in broad strokes). Part of this was because I hate all that nerdy world-building stuff, especially the part where you have to explain the magic system. In my view, the magic system is that it works by magic. But that poses problems when you need to finally wrap things up. Because of this, I finally need to go back and think a little bit about how things work. It’s just as intensely boring as I always thought it would be, and as a result I’m thinking about what ending I really want. Originally I’d intended a whiz-bang magical ending, where the hero conquers some external obstacle to defeat the bad guys, but I’m thinking that’s not where my interest lies, and now I’m pondering ways to sap some of the drama from the third act.

Paradoxically, much of my progress as a writer has been about reducing tension, reducing excitement, and slowing down the pace. I know this doesn’t sit well with some editors and some readers, but most of my favorite books take place at a more human scale (to put it bluntly, nobody gets shot in Pride and Prejudice), and I sort of can’t tolerate the adventure story, since, to me, the entire narrative hinges on chance: the hero is the hero simply because an arrow doesn’t hit them in the chest. If an arrow did hit them, they’d be dead and ergo not the hero. But we know, from real life, that no amount of confidence and skill makes you immune to arrows.

(As an aside, I’m listening to the audiobook of Ron Chernow’s biography of Ulysses S. Grant, and what I love the most about it is the role that chance plays in Grant’s life. In private life, he’s a terrible businessperson, and in his personal nature he seems to be somewhat diffident and retiring. It’s only the chance that puts him in the right place at the right time that allows him to shine as a general. This biography is rare in that it doesn’t downplay its subject’s virtues, but it also doesn’t exaggerate them. Grant is, above all, a lucky man. It makes me see my own world differently. If the clerk at the tannery in a small town in Illinois could, in the right circumstances, become a successful general and, eventually, the president of the United States, then who’s to say my plumber couldn’t have been a great novelist or that my hairdresser might not’ve made an excellent Emperor. The world is a far stranger thing than we can imagine, and whether you call it chance or you call it fate, outside factors have a much bigger influence on our lives than anything we’re able personally9780525521952.jpeg to do.)

On men’s contempt for women

1000x747.jpegFor the past two days I’ve been reading my friends’ “me too” posts on Facebook. I’m not particularly surprised by the number of stories, but the rawness and depth of emotion has been very affecting.

Like most men, I recognize myself in some of the stories, but most of them are way worse than anything I’ve done in my life. I think men tend to have two reactions to stories like this. They either feel defensive, or they seek absolution. Neither of these are particularly productive, and if that’s all I wanted to do, I wouldn’t bother to write.

As I posted a few days ago, I think a lot of men would act like Harvey Weinstein if they had the power that he did (a lot wouldn’t, however!) I’ll go further today, and I’ll say that I think most men can recognize in themselves the hatred and contempt for women that leads men to cat-call, grope, sexually harass, or rape. Now I don’t think this is universally true. I’m sure some men are free from that complicated relationship with femininity, but I do think that a contempt for women is a secret part of the character of many men.

There was a time when I thought I was uniquely monstrous because of the way I felt, and I’m sure many men still do feel like monsters. Men don’t talk about our feelings, and we especially don’t talk about the darkest of our emotions. But men often say things that, to me, only make sense if they too feel a secret anger against women.

For instance, the guilt that many men feel during times like this is completely out of proportion to anything they’ve actually done. Like, bro, most of these stories are about legit sexual harassment. The time you asked a girl out again after she said ‘no’ was sort of shitty, but it’s not remotely what people are talking about. But men don’t feel guilty about what they’ve actually done, they feel ashamed, instead, of all the things they’ve thought about, wanted to, or considered doing.

Similarly, men often have a need to minimize, reduce, or mischaracterize what people are saying. Like there’ll be a Harvey Weinstein type story and men will be like, “But am I not allowed to ever ask out any woman I work with???”

To which the reply is: Err, like, yeah, dude, that’s not what happened here. He wasn’t ‘asking out’ a coworker, he was luring subordinates into situations where he could sexually assault and rape them.

But the man’s reaction makes sense if you realize that we men know, in our hearts, all the times that we’ve crossed the line and put untoward pressure on women, and we feel a deep shame for those times as well.

Or when there’s statistics about campus rape, men will be like, “Women are saying every time they have sex while drunk was rape!” And it’s like, err, no, go read the questionnaires. The questions that lead to statistics like “1 in 5” aren’t about alcohol or fuzzy consent. They’re about forcible penetration. If anything they’re an underrepresentation of the truth.

But, again, men know about each time they’ve had sex with somebody who didn’t really want to have sex with them, and when they hear forcible rape being condemned, they think about all the things they’ve done or would have done.

Similarly, lots of my female friends talk about how they’ll be dating these guys who “don’t like to talk about their feelings” or “have a hard time connecting with people.” Several of my female friends have dated guys who called themselves “sociopaths” or “emotionless.” And I think women feel like guys are just blocked off. We feel the things women do, but we think it’s girly to talk about them.

But when you really put everything together, you realize what guys are saying is, “If you understood the depth of the hatred and violence inside of me, you probably wouldn’t love me anymore.”

 

What’s struck me so much about all the ‘me too’ stories is that while women are saying, “This is why I fear and distrust men,” what we see, when we look around at our society, is not an overabundance of women who fear and distrust men! Rather, we see the opposite: we see that women tend to give men too much benefit of the doubt. We see that women bend over backwards to see men in the best possible light. Women, despite all of these experiences, are anxious to find men who’re worthy of their love and respect.

If anything, in this society it seems to be men who fear and distrust women. And I don’t really know why that is. Even being a man–even feeling that emotion inside myself–I can’t describe this thing or where it came from.

What I can say is that men feel, I think, a longing for femininity. Men need it. Not just for sex–I think that’s a minority of it, actually. Rather, without femininity, we’d have nothing in our lives that was free or expressive or unguarded. I say ‘femininity,’ rather than ‘women,’ because I think sometimes we provide that femininity ourselves. What I’m struck by most often, when I see some of the most toxic guys, is the way they are drawn to the feminine: they wear pink, they hug and say ‘I love you’ and ‘bro’, they pamper themselves, they care about beauty and style and design.

I saw a photo earlier today of somebody making fun of bath bombs that were shaped like grenades, and the caption provided (this was, like, a Buzzfeed article) was something like, “When you’re a man’s man, but you still need a bath bomb.”

And I thought, that’s interesting. If men really only hated femininity, this bath bomb wouldn’t exist. Men just would never buy bath bombs and that’d be it. And if men had an uncomplicated relationship to femininity, men would just buy ordinary bath bombs, and then too the grenade-bombs wouldn’t exist. But the existence of this product is a testament to the push and the pull: the love that’s paired with contempt. In some essential way, the contempt is a byproduct of the desire for femininity, but I don’t know why.

I think it’s easy for people, men especially, to reduce it all to sex. Men want sex. Women won’t have sex with them. So they’re angry at the women.

But that doesn’t feel right. Because although there exists the incel, Elliot Rodgers-style rage, there’s also the casual contempt of the frat guy. No matter who you are, our society produces a form of toxic masculinity that comes in your size. And yet I do think the contempt is somehow a byproduct of being drawn towards women, because I know that when I was exclusively dating men, I loved how free I felt from this emotion.

Gay male culture has its problems, but sexual and romantic relationships between men are so much blessedly simpler than relationships between men and women. When I identified publicly as gay, my friendships with women were also a good deal simpler in some way that I can’t define, because it wasn’t just that they felt more comfortable with me, it’s also that I felt more comfortable with them.

(Not that gay men don’t have their own issues w/ objectification and contempt for women. Plenty of gay men think they have right to touch women whenever they want, although I’ll note that many women also feel the same way about gay men’s bodies!)

I do believe it’s our society that produces this terrible hatred that men have for women. It’s not something that’s inherent in our gender or our biology. It’s something else.

It’s easy to say, too, that it’s in the way we’re socialized as kids, but again I don’t know. I went to an all-boys school, but I acted in plays and musicals at girls’ schools in the area, and I remember my relations with them being relatively free and easy. None of my friends were dating, and I really almost never thought about sexual or romantic relationships. In fact, I remember feeling that girls were just like me.

But literally the moment I stepped foot on a college campus, the anger and contempt for women flowered within me. I mean it happened within weeks. There was something in the air. And it wasn’t necessarily in the way people spoke either. It was in the environment of college, which perhaps was just the environment of my own mind, where I felt suddenly like women were a currency that I needed to possess.

Paradoxically, it was at that same time that my longing for femininity increased. As a teen, I only cared mostly about boy-oriented things: space opera and military SF, video games about lone adventurers, etc (although I did also love musicals and Sailor Moon =). But in college, I got more into teen dramas and sit-coms and novels about, like, relationships between people.

Somehow at that time this division between the feminine and the masculine was created in me, and I’ve been, to greater and lesser degrees, trapped in that morass ever since.

I don’t know where to go in the future. I think in the short-term “trying to be better” is a good plan. Let’s try to be better and to teach our boys to be better. In the medium-term, I think the solution must be societal. There is a large subset of boys and men who’ve learned a secret: they will not be punished for crimes against women. Let’s make it so that’s not true, okay?

But…in the longest-term, I’d like to think that someday the root cause of this (and, as I keep mentioning, is in my opinion that root cause is the anger that men, for some reason, feel towards women) will be eradicated.

I don’t think that violence is an essential part of human nature. I especially don’t think that violence for the purposes of dominance or sexual coercion is something that we are unable to overcome. And, for me, women are proof of this. It’s become a dreary truism to state that 95%, or something like that, of murders are committed by men. But it’s still a little bit shocking to me. I mean, women face all the same problems that men do (more, even!) and yet they rarely resort to murder.

The easiest and most tempting thing to do is to put this down to an essential difference between the genders. But I’m wary of such explanations, because it seems that people are always trying to say “The situation right now, at this moment in history, is due to an essential part of human nature.” A hundred years ago, people would’ve said that homosexuality (they might’ve called it ‘inversion’) was essentially sick and that no homosexual relationship could be anything other than toxic. Now we know that’s untrue. Five hundred years ago, people in the Western World might’ve said that women were, by nature, unsuited to literary endeavor. Today, the pre-eminent literary form, the novel, is one that was pioneered and is dominated by women. We are always trying to say that some facet of our nature is set in stone, but I still feel, at least intellectually, the same way I did as a kid, which is that boys and girls are essentially the same, and that the differences between us are, if anything, more a proof of the elasticity of human nature than they are of the opposite.

In the shadow of disaster, we find out new facets of ourselves

There exist two really simplistic views of human nature. The first is that people have a certain essential character that tends to shine through no matter the situation. If someone is polite to waiters and gives up their subway seat to pregnant ladies, then they’re probably also honest in their business dealings and heroic when faced with calamity. In this point of view, there’s room for conflict and imperfection, of course, but that conflict is something deep inside the soul, and one tends to see this fissure in all sorts of subtle ways throughout the person’s life.

This is the point of view that tends to be adopted by most fantasy novels, for instance. For instance, Daenerys has a great well of pity for the oppressed people of the world (probably because she herself was oppressed by her brother), but she is also a conqueror who lusts for power. And these warring impulses come out on both the macro scale (conquering Slaver’s Bay) and on the micro scale (deciding whether or not to forgive Jorah for his treason).

The other simplistic, though perhaps more accurate, point of view is that the different parts of a person’s life have nothing to do with each other. This is the view that’s taken, for instance, by many historians, who’ve tended to observe that human beings often behave, when under extreme strain, in ways they’d never behave in private life. For instance, a man could run a concentration camp, but he’d never kick a dog or cheat on his wife. A man could pick up a machete and hack his neighbor apart, but he’d never give short change to that same neighbor if the man came by his market stall.

In many ways, this latter conclusion is difficult to avoid, whenever we look at genocides. Look at Rwanda, for instance, which was a genocide perpetrated on an intimate level, by ordinary people, oftentimes using machetes and clubs. If the fabric of society had never broken down, most of these people never would’ve become killers.

Furthermore, it’s oftentimes not the worst people, in ordinary life, who become killers or scoundrels during times of calamity. There are exceptions–people whose natural sadism or sociopathy was given freer reign by a disaster or by an authoritarian state–but these do feel like exceptions, and oftentimes when you look into the biography of people who commit atrocities, they don’t seem to have exhibited antisocial behavior in their private life.

I’m reading a book right now about private life in the Soviet Union, The Whisperers, and what’s striking is how often peoples’ friends and families turned on them once they were arrested or denounced. Sometimes this came from honest belief–“If you were arrested, there must be a reason”–but usually it was expediency. Children were left to wander the streets or to enter state orphanages by their own siblings or grandparents or uncles or aunts, who were themselves afraid (not without reason) that they’d be purged if they took the children in.

And yet some people weren’t. Some relatives took that risk. Some friends and strangers did too. In several cases, Moscow- or St. Petersburg-based relatives took in these children even though they were informed that if they did so it would mean they’d be exiled to Siberia.

There was no predicting who would be honest and who wouldn’t. Who would help and who wouldn’t. In some ways it felt like a mystery.

On a much different scale, I think this is what leads to literary critics who are reluctant to engage in “bio-crit”: the use of an author’s biography or psychology as a way of explicating a text. We, as readers, have simply observed too often that authors are frequently pretty ordinary people. Oftentimes, they’re not even more intelligent or insightful than the average educated person. Frequently they’re less so. Authors aren’t titanic, overweening individuals, they’re just human beings who sit down every day to write, rather than sitting down to cast accounts or to design computer chips, and frequently they live rather ordinary lives, no different from others who don’t produce great works.

And researchers have found that human beings have situational ethics. We believe in different ethical codes for different areas of our lives. This is why Donald Trump, somebody who seems to have the worst possible impulse control, can eschew alcohol and drugs. This is why someone who cheats on their wife isn’t necessarily more likely to cheat their business partner. People draw distinctions between various theaters of behavior that we, as outsiders, might not necessarily perceive.

As I said, though, this notion that the different parts of a person’s character are entirely unrelated oftentimes seems, to me, to be pretty simplistic as well.

I think partly that’s because I am an author, and I see that although what I write does come from somewhere mysterious and almost-inaccessible, it’s nevertheless true that the work is a reflection of me. When I write something, it seems an answer, in some ways, to questions I didn’t know I was asking. My work is deeply related to my own needs and desires.

In the same way, I think the way people act in a crisis also, obviously, comes from within them. People don’t just pick up a machete and slaughter somebody without thinking about it. There is some need or desire that’s being fulfilled there.

To me, I think the answer is that there’s far too much focus, in a lot of our thinking about other people, on the outer life. We see their actions and their words, and we create, in our minds, the simplest possible figure who’d be able to do and say these things, but we forget that so much more is happening inside them. People have immense parts of themselves that they never reveal to the outside world.

There is a dream life that we all lead. A life of fantastic and unrealized desires. And during moments of crisis, I think this dream-life often comes to the forefront. It’s in these moments that fantasies of omnipotence or of heroism crawl out of the realm of dreams and seem, in some way, realizable.

For some, the thing they realize is that they value their own lives too much. We all say that there are things we would die for, but is saving your sister’s kid really that thing? Because the risk existed: people were shot because they aided the children of ‘enemy of the people.’ You are a person with your own hopes and dreams. In most cases, you’re never required to make the philosopher’s choice: ‘What if realizing your ambitions required murdering two children?’ But during times of crisis, it does.

But for other people, the crisis is an opportunity. Their lives had been dull and untoward. And now it can mean something. They can stand up and be counted. They have, in some sense, been waiting for this moment. So they do what it takes to become larger than life. In some cases that means hacking their neighbor apart, and in other cases it means saving their kids.

On a slightly more specific level, this means that some huge percentage people would, if they lived in Nazi Germany and were assigned to Police Battalion 101, would go out and shoot innocent jews in the forest (not all of us, but roughly 90% of us). Some huge percentage of us would, if exhorted to do so, go out and kill our neighbor. Some huge percentage of us would, if we were Vikings, rape and pillage the castles and monasteries of innocent people. Some huge percentage of us, if we were rich antebellum white southerners, would own slaves. Note, not ALL of us! In all these times, there were people who were like, “Err, that’s not cool.”

But some huge percentage.

Similarly, when we read about Harvey Weinstein and his sexual harassment, we know that this behavior is really common amongst men in power. And if you’re a college-educated man, then you know that there’s no essential difference between you and the men in power–the only difference is that you happen to not be very successful. So you know, I mean come on, you know, that if we were powerful, some huge percentage of us would act the same. Not all of us! And it wouldn’t necessarily be the ones you think. But it would be some huge percentage.

For a novelist, that’s really interesting. I am happy to explore what separates the people who do from the people who don’t.

But from a policy standpoint, we shouldn’t expect people to be good, we should engineer systems that punish misbehavior. If Harvey Weinstein had known he’d get caught and lose control of his company, he wouldn’t have done this shit. But instead he lived in a consequence-free world. So, like, yeah, to me, from a public policy standpoint, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a good person or not, because barring some major change in your circumstances, I can’t really ever know the answer to that, what matters is if you support systems that make misbehavior more uncommon (and in this case public shaming is one of those systems, but that’s another blog post).

Writers should stop being so uptight when people tell us they’ve always wanted to write

Was reading the Kindle preview of this memoir, Breakfast At Sally’s, which is about a prosperous guy who becomes down-and-out and homeless, and it begins with this anecdote, which happens when the author, Richard, who’s attempting to write on a typewriter while sitting in a park, encounters another guy, Michael, who asks him what he’s doing. Richard says he’s trying to write a book, and Michael says, “Always wanted to write a book myself,” he said. “Maybe about cars. But it takes a lot of talent and time to write a good book, you know? Not everybody can do it.”

 

Richard chats with Michael a bit, and then Michael goes on his way.

Anyhow, I bought the book, because I was like, this is a perspective I want to see. There’s a quiet humanity there, in its description of Michael, that you often don’t witness when writers talk about other aspiring writers.

I think writers can sometimes get bitter. Not just about the publishing industry, but about the general public. You see so many older writers talking about how people don’t read, or about how stupid people are, or how they don’t have any taste. And I understand that. It’s hard to put something out into the world when, really, nobody wants it or is asking for it. There’s a metaphor, in here, about life. How people are only valued when they do what other people want, but whenever we attempt to live for ourselves, and for our own values, we’re met with indifference. And, on some level, that’s appropriate. I mean, why should anybody else care about what you’ve written? Why should they give even an ounce of their time to you? And yet…you think…I worked for this. I slaved away in my room, for hours and for years, to dream this up for you, and I know for an absolute fact that it would enrich your life.

So I understand how it’s embittering to spend your life trying to give away your riches, only for them to be like, meh, I don’t want that shit.

It’s thoughts like these, I think, that put writers into a defensive crouch, and that make us jealous of whatever little amount we’ve managed to receive. If you’ve sold a book, you’re like, 99 out of 100 people who write a book never manage to sell it. If you have an agent, you’re like, well, my agent gets 500 queries a month and they decided to sign me. If all you’ve done is completed a novel, you’re like, well, most people who want to write novels never manage to start one.

To bring up an overused term, it’s a very bourgeois way of thinking. Because, like the bourgeois, most writers are trapped between the aristocracy, who have all the power and wealth, and the proleteriat, who have nothing. And because of this, most writers are, like the bourgeois classes, very keen to assort themselves into hierarchies that prize extremely minor points of social difference.

Because the truth is, it genuinely makes no difference if your book is published or not. It doesn’t make you a better human–we all know that–but it doesn’t even make you a better writer! I’ve met aspiring writers, unagented and unpublished, whose work, when I read it, was as good or better than my own. And even if somebody is a worse writer than you, it doesn’t stand to reason that they’re going to be worse tomorrow or next year or in ten years.

I actually think one of the major stumbling blocks that people in middle age find in their careers is the moment when people younger than them start being promoted above them. In small fields, this is the moment at which you either are punished or rewarded for how you’ve treated your subordinates in the last twenty years. Some people are never going to rise again, because their former assistants and direct reports just don’t like them, while others will always find a helping hand in unexpected places.

In this case, Richard has literally just started to write his book, and he’s meeting somebody who has never tried to start, and this is exactly the situation in which people tend to get snooty and be like, well, how dare you compare your vague wish to write a book with my sitting-down-and-actually-doing-it!

But why get into such a huff about it? What purpose does it serve? I think writers forget how privileged we are. Writing is the one creative art where people can perform at the highest level without a lifetime of training. You don’t see a lot of successful painters or musicians who began after age 40. In acting, it’s a little more common, but still not very. Whereas in writing, particularly in commercial fiction, it’s almost the rule that it’s something people come to later in life.

And to a large degree, I think, this is because writing is rooted in the faculty of language, which is something that every human practices every single day. We are all constantly using our words to tell stories: to ourselves, if to nobody else. And in some of those people, these stories might be spectacular.

Now I know somebody out there is gonna be like, “But I practiced every day for ten years and wrote ten novels before I sold a single one.” Well…okay, that’s cool. But when did you start? Did you start at age 4, like a violinist? Did you have to rack up tens of thousands of dollars in fees for instruction, like a dancer? Did you need to move somewhere to LA and work a low-paying job with flexible hours, like an actor?

Writers benefit immensely from the accessibility of our art. Not just because its low barriers to entry mean that we–that you and I–could actually get into this thing, but also because those very same low barriers are the reason why writing has such a privileged position in people’s minds. I mean think, for a second, how insane it is that millions of people–literally millions–in this country want to do what we do?

And in a lot of people that dream is linked to the desire for fame and ease, but so what? It’s linked to that desire in my mind too! Writing is connected to so many dreams. It’s about working for yourself, rather than other people; producing what you want, rather than what other people tell you to. Writing is awesome, and I’m not at all surprised that lots of people want to write. They should want to!

Now I’m not suggesting that you give more of yourself than you can. I understand why people put limits on their time and energy, but at the very least, in your own mind, if nowhere else, you should be nice.

You know, I think a lot of writers can point to moments in their own history when just a few encouraging words meant a lot to them. “That’s a good idea” or “You should write that” can go far.

I honestly don’t have a lot of memories like that. I’ve been writing for almost fourteen years, and in that time what I can mostly remember is authors who were uncharitable. Writers at conventions who didn’t have the time for me. Instructors who played favorites and begrudged praise. Authors–acquaintances of mine–who dropped me after their books got big. Journal editors who rejected me in condescending ways. I’m not saying it was everybody. Like most people, I’ve had good teachers and good interactions with authors. But I’ve noticed that even when people in the literary world help those below them, they always want to help a rising star. People get help if there’s a perception that they don’t need it.

That’s not the fault of our world, it’s simply human nature. Once I went to two parties in one night. At one, I was relatively new to the scene, and when I talked to strangers, I could feel their wariness and disdain. At the other, a group of friends gave me a big greeting when I walked in, and at that party when I talked to strangers they were immediately open and welcoming. It is the rare person who can break through all this bourgeois bullshit and even attempt to see the human being that’s underneath all the social posturing.

And I know there are reasons for wariness. Women, in particular, often find themselves saddled with guys who are simply awful, and for this reason they sometimes learn to ignore and shut out strange guys. But these excuses only go so far, because most human interactions are between people of the same gender. And this is particularly true in the writing world, where most of the writers and readers are women.

I don’t know. It exhausts me, the level of inhumanity and indifference in the world. People spend so much time worrying about the victims of some natural disaster or some foreign war, and then they shit on and shut out the person who comes to them, hoping to be told, “You can do it too!” We so often ignore the differences we can make in this world, and to be honest I’m often no better than most–I can recall so many times when I’ve failed to extend an open hand. But at least I try to be better.

I think I’ve found the exact point where early-period Henry James transitions to middle-period Henry James

Was recently reading The Princess Casamassima, which is Henry James’s attempt to write a serious, naturalistic book about the emotional and physical life of the working class. Now I know some people are laughing at that sentence, but I don’t think it’s bad! The man is a master of psychology and characterization, and in this book he writes some characters that are truly deep and interesting, whether its Millicent Hemming, a beautiful shopgirl who thinks she’s sort of on top of the world, to Hyacinth Robinson, a bookbinder and anarchist who’s slowly swayed by the lure of the upper classes.

The first two thirds of the book were riveting. I loved the characters being introduced and the deepening and complication of their relationships.

But the last third was a slog! And as I was reading it, I was like…hmm…I remember this slog. It’s exactly like Henry James’s middle-period book What Maisie Knew, where the book turns into all this arch, sideways commentary between and about the various characters, and it feels like you’re lost in this labyrinth where everything is implied and never said.

And then I looked up when Henry James had written this book, and I realized he’d written it right after The Bostonians (one of my favorite of his books) and a few years before What Maisie Knew, and I was like ahah, I’ve found it! The exact moment where Henry James was like…screw this typical comedy of manners stuff, I am a master of this, and I can do it in my sleep. I’m gonna try something different.

Working on multiple projects at once

Hey blog readers! I’ve come back from my honeymoon feeling really creatively energized. I’ve got a bunch of stuff, in a bunch of genres, cooking at once. I’ve realized that often when I hit a stopping point in a project, it’s because there’s something I need to work out, and at that point the best thing to do is to step away and let my subconscious hammer away at it.

But then what do I do for the rest of my allotted writing time???

That’s why I’ve decided to work on multiple projects in a day. I have the projects prioritized in my mind, and I start with the one that I most want to make progress on. Then I write until I hit what I think is a stopping point, and then I’ve been moving on to a second project, and sometimes even a third project.

My second project is really interesting! It’s a YA fantasy novel I was working on in the summer of 2015. I got more than halfway through the book, but then I had some issues and started to feel like the book was really shitty. But I went back and reread it and was like No! This book is good! It contains the heart of longing!

So I picked it back up. I saw exactly why I’d stopped where I did: one of the plot strands had completely lost all momentum. But I went back and revamped it so it was thematically more attached to the rest of the narrative. And now the whole thing is humming along really well! It’s nice to be working on long-form speculative fiction. This book is an epistolary novel (very much inspired by Dangerous Liaisons, which is what I was reading that summer) about a non-magical boy who keeps trying to sweet-talk his way into a Hogwarts style wizarding school.

My tertiary projects vary. The other day I spent a bunch of time submitting stories. I’ve worked on revising some short stuff. Have tried my hand at some things I might self-publish. We’ll see! It’s nice to keep busy, though.

The strong can afford to play it safe; the weak need to gamble

TheRiseandFalloftheThirdReich.jpgSuddenly, for some weird unaccountable reason that has nothing to do with recent political developments, because obviously fascism is totally in the past and has nothing to do with our current post-racial post-nationalist utopia, I’ve become interested in the history of totalitarian regimes. Earlier in the year, I read quite a bit about Stalinist Russia (from which my takeaway was that it was astonishing how non-cynical and genuinely idealistic so many of those communists, including the leaders, happened to be–at times they would’ve achieved much better outcomes if they’d been a little more realistic), and now, over my honeymoon, I’ve made my way through William Shirer’s immense Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich.

In some ways I don’t know that this book is that great as an actual analysis of the reasons why Nazi Germany rose and developed the way it did. The book was written in the 50s, and it relies very heavily on the diaries and other communications by/from Germany political, military, and social leaders. As such, it tended to be more of a history of things people told themselves, rather than of things as they actually were.

However, I still was incredibly fascinated by all the little facets of Hitler’s rise that I wasn’t familiar with. Shirer begins with Hitler’s birth and upbringing, and he goes through to the establishment of the Nazi Party, and then his consolidation of power. There was just so much great stuff. All through our honeymoon, I kept going to Rachel and being like, “Wow, Hitler is doing some really insane stuff!”

For instance, I think one of the most fascinating things is that, after the abortive Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler transformed the Nazi Party into a genuine political party: one that contested and fought elections. They used strong arm tactics, it’s true, but they actually campaigned and won real elections, in which the terms were largely set by their political opponents. But then, the moment Hitler became Chancellor, and I mean literally on that day and on that week, he systematically dismantled his country’s democracy! I mean this is like if Donald Trump had, within his first year in office, said that there were gonna be no more state governments–the states would all be under the direct control of the federal government–and no more elections–and no more uncensored speech–and established a single party state–and created a secret police–and–and–

It was an astonishingly nimble maneuver. I would think, just sitting at home in my armchair, that organizations designed to contest elections would, necessarily, be democratic, and that they would be unwilling to accept this sort of totalitarian dominance. But nope the Nazi Party was an entire organization that was as cynical as Hitler and as committed to pursuing power by any means.

I also realized that much of Hitler’s success just came from the fact that he was willing to take astonishingly large gambles. Other people might move cautiously when it comes to taking power, but nope, Hitler is like I’m gonna get appointed dictator within a few months of taking office. And in the early years of his expansion, Hitler routinely left his border with France totally uncovered in order to invade the Sudetenland or invade Austria or invade Poland. He took massive risks, of the sort you’re really not supposed to take. But I think his reasoning was that he was in an inherently weak position, and the only way for the weaker party to win is to be willing to risk more than the big guys.

Which put a lot of things in perspective for me. There are in this world so many seemingly incompetent people who are huge successes, and the temptation is to be like, well, maybe they’re secret geniuses. But they’re not! Really they’re just gamblers. Like Trump, every time he opened his mouth, he bet big. Other politicians would backpedal and avoid the shit he said, because they might be able to win by playing it safe, but Trump could only win if he was able to set himself apart.

I don’t think this is an analysis Trump made though! I think that there have ALWAYS been gamblers in American political life: Ralph Nader, Bernie Sanders, Jesse Jackson, Lyndon LaRouche, George Wallace, Theodore Roosevelt (the third time he ran), William Jennings Bryan, Abraham Lincoln. And when the historical moment has been right, and the Republic has been at its weakest and most troubled, these gamblers have tended to win.

 

I was explaining this to Rachel and she was like, “Hmm, so we need to be willing to take big risks, then?”

And I was like, “I don’t know if that’s the takeaway.”

The problem is, you don’t know if now is your moment. Nobody does! Most gamblers fail! Political life contains a hundred thousand Donald Trumps who never went anywhere. And there’s no way, a priori, of knowing if you’re going to be the one who wins or the one who loses. The thing about gambling is that in the long run, you usually lose.

And it was the same with Hitler. He never really changed throughout his regime. Up to the last days of the war, he was still making big gambles. But the numbers eventually told against him.

The smart advice is “Don’t risk anything you can’t afford to lose.” But, historically, the most successful gamblers have risked plenty they couldn’t afford to lose. Lincoln and the Republican party risked the entire American experiment. They wagered with the lives of millions of people, free and enslaved. But the secessionists were big gamblers too. They risked even more than Lincoln, and they lost big. Hillary Clinton, when fighting the election, knew she was wagering not just her political future but with our entire nation’s, and she chose to play it safe. But the mere fact that she lost doesn’t mean she was wrong to do so! The things she did, and the way she fought, were designed to minimize Donald Trump’s chances of victory. If she’d gambled bigger, it would’ve entailed risks that, in the long run, probably would’ve eroded her chances of winning.

I think in any contest, assuming all you want is to win, I think what makes sense the most sense is for stronger opponent–the one who has the weight of money and institutional support–to play it safe, and for the weaker opponent to gamble.

The problem is that most big contests in real life don’t have repeats. What happens is what happens, and you either win or you lose. But if you view all American elections as being a continuation of the same contest, you see that playing it safe tends to be the better choice. Like what if, in 1992,  either Clinton and Bush, seeing Perot temporarily in the lead, had pivoted and turned into insurgents? Well, probably the other major-party candidate would’ve won. But if Perot had won (which, for a while, you’ll remember, looked VERY possible), there’d have been a bunch of post-facto analysis about how the major party candidates dropped the ball.

A lot of pollsters got shit for not predicting Trump’s victory, but I, like everybody I know, was checking 538 every single day, and Nate Silver put Trump’s chances of victory at, like, 25 percent. He crunched the numbers and showed that there was high variability in some key states, which is why Trump had a higher chance of winning than Romney had had 4 years earlier, despite having the same poll numbers. And the mere fact that Trump won doesn’t invalidate his analysis.

Similarly, people are calling for major changes in what the Democratic party stands for and in how it fights elections, and I think those are merited, both for political and moral reasons, but not because of this election. In fact, if anything, the Democratic party is much stronger than the Republican party in presidential politics, and it is well-served by playing it safe. The Democratic party is weak because of the nature of our federal system, which gives seventy senators to thirty percent of the population. That’s a structural weaknesss, of exactly the sort that merits gambling.

In this, as with everything, what works best is to have actual principles and beliefs. If you have true moral beliefs then you don’t need to decide whether to gamble or to play it safe, because you’re not simply playing to win: you’re playing to win right. If you have real moral beliefs, then there are terms on which you’d refuse to win and there are things for which you believe it is truly important to speak out for. Unfortunately, I think having real, deeply-felt moral beliefs is generally a gamble in political life. Which is not to say that no moral people exist in politics! In fact I think politics is full of moral people: it’s just that the winners tend to be those with moral systems that are compatible with the, to me, abhorrent things that an American politician (wage aggressive war, support the prison state, maintain universal surveillance, etc) needs to espouse in order to win elections.

That’s the problem with gambling. You are not unique and special, and you don’t get to win just because you’re a risk-taker. No, if you gamble, then you’re giving yourself over to the zeitgeist, and you will only win if your particular gamble happens to fit the needs of the people.