They’re turning Wordpress into Medium

Wow, they really changed the WordPress interface, now it’s a lot like Medium’s. I approve of this blatant stealing. It reminds me from a quote by the guy who was running Netflix, “Our goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.” This amuses me.

Got a good response from my editor on my book! Feeling pleased about this. Was walking with Rachel the other day and was like, “Oh my god, I’ve been operating on the assumption that this book is never going to be published, but now it seems like it might actually happen.” 

I am so pessimistic about publishing stuff. Advances are typically split into 2-4 parts, only one of which you receive upon signing, and I mentally write off all advances until they’re actually deposited in my bank account. This book is going to be a good one.

Still working a bit on other projects. Sold a story to Asimov’s after fifteen years of trying (and 55 rejections), which has inspired me to get more short story submissions out there. Working on the book for adults (though progress on that has been slow). Exploring some other genres. And of course working on revising the YA novel. Been trying to read more. Not that I don’t read a lot, but lately I’ve been feeling the pressure of all the books I’ve never read. It’s stupid, for all I talk about how living your life is more rewarding than reading books, I still largely choose to spend my time, even when the weather is absolutely beautiful like now, sitting in my apartment and reading books. I guess the human commitment to ephemera just runs really deep. At least it’s better than playing video games, I suppose.

I recently read a paper book

I can’t recall the last time I read a paper book cover to cover (I think it was a Kent Haruf novel given to me by a friend six or twelve months ago), but recently I wanted to read Keigo Higashino’s Naoko, and it was only available in paper, so I purchased and read it.

The tactile quality of the paper book was undeniably pleasant. I enjoyed the feeling of pages flying from my right to my left hand. Progress through the book was a physical adventure, and I seemed to pick up momentum as I got through it. With each page, I could see that I was completing a greater and greater portion of the remaining text, and my subjective feeling was that I completed the book faster than if I’d read it on the Kindle.

Reading in artificial light was difficult. I felt like no matter how many lamps and overhead lights I turned on, the paper was still dimly lit. But reading in daylight, even with just the light from a partially-blinded window, was extremely simple and caused no perceivable strain. This was true even though the type on the book was much smaller than I’m used to on the Kindle. And I was put off by the difficulty of highlighting passages or looking up terms in a paper book. Since Naoko was set in Japan, it would’ve been most helpful to have been able to look up the various place names and cultural references.

I’m often told that people experience some form of sense-pleasure, often attributable to nostalgia, when they hold a paper book. I don’t believe that this was the case for me, but the human mind is a strange thing, and perhaps there was a deeply submerged element of that emotion within me.

All told, I was pleased by my paper book adventure. In fact, in the interim time I was inspired to inspect my wife’s bookshelves to see what other paper books I might read, and within the course of a few hours I read Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, in which I also experienced the same feeling of motion that I think is perhaps a peculiar attribute of the paper book. I am sure this sense of motion could be replicated in electronic format, but since it’s directly related to the bulk of the paper book, whereas the strength of the e-book is in its weightlessness, I think these two qualities will forever remain opposed.

I am still not certain in what situations a paper book is superior to an e-book. Sense of an Ending and Naoko are very different books. One is somewhat meandering literary mystery, the other is a metaphysical thriller, but both are quite short. I think reading a longer book in paper format would be difficult for me. The last time I tried was with Herman Wouk’s Youngblood Hawke. The book was excellent, but the print was quite small, and by the time I was done I had a splitting headache. Lately I’ve had back troubles however, and I did enjoy that the paper book can be read in a greater variety of physical positions than can the e-book, and I think perhaps for this reason a longer book would be more comfortable to read. I just wish they didn’t make the print so small (and yes I know about large print books, but the problem is that it’s the longest books that have the smallest type!) In any case, I will soon experiment further.

The flip side of the heart of longing

As I think I’ve mentioned here before, the number one thing I need in order to write a book is the heart of longing. I have to feel a sense of desire in the skin on the back of my arms. Maybe it’s not something I can put in words. Maybe it’s only a set of images or a single image. Maybe it’s a memory or a song. But somehow a book has to be actuated by the kind of desire that makes people do insane things.

That’s only half the story. The other half, which is equally as hard though perhaps not as necessary, is to find their power. You know how there’s all this talk about making characters likeable? Well this is the part of the character that makes me like them: the thing that makes them bigger than life. Their power is the way that they differ from other people: it’s their sensitivity or their ruthlessness or strength. It’s the things they will do that nobody else would. It’s the wish fulfillment aspect of the book, essentially.

Pairing a character’s desire with their power isn’t an easy  process, and it often doesn’t happen until the story is pretty well fleshed out. Usually this is because any desire is, generally, pretty achievable for a powerful enough character. So you often either need to tone down their power, increase their desire, or increase the opposition to their desire. I’m making this sound like something very mechanical–something you could distill into a worksheet that’s on a perforated page in the back of a screenwriting manual–but it’s not. This is probably not something anybody else other than me could do, and even I don’t think about it in a straightforward or logical way. It’s more of a post facto assessment. “Oh, why am I having trouble writing this character? I think it’s because I haven’t yet found their power.”

Right now I’m cooling my heels, trying to put something together for my novel for adults. I keep trying to work on one of the viewpoint characters, but I just don’t have his power yet. I have his desire, but not his power. I’ll get there, but it’s a little frustrated, since sometimes it feels like if I don’t have both sides of the equation locked down, there’s almost no point in writing.

Been playing a lot of Borderlands, and Borderlands 2, and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel

A few days ago I finally beat Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, which is the latest iteration of a series of first-person shooters that feature cooperative gameplay, interesting loot mechanics, a zany sense of humor, and a really striking cel-shaded graphical style. I’ve been dabbling for months with the second game in the series (the pre-sequel is the third), but TPS turned out to be significantly easier than Borderlands 2, and I beat it within a few weeks.

Of course with these games, as with Diablo 3, beating the game for the first time is only the beginning of your journey. Their aim, by using increasing difficulty modes and endless different types of equipment, is to keep you playing forever. I don’t think I’ll be doing this (who’s got the time!), but I did want to put a shout-out in here for the storytelling in the game. Obviously the story isn’t the key point here, but I did find the primary plotline, which follows the villain of the second game (Handsome Jack) and his slow descent into sociopathy, to be moderately compelling. In this game, Jack starts as a middle manager at a large corporation. His space station comes under attack, and he’s forced to recruit a team of mercenaries to defend both it and the planet below from a bunch of insane mercenaries.

As a storyteller myself, I know that it takes a lot of work to make a story that’s this simple and elegant. The recent Han Solo movie attempted a similar sort of revisionist history for Han, but they were unwilling to commit to their story. In order for Han to end up as the cynical bounty hunter of the first movie, we needed to see him go from idealistic to cynical, and they just couldn’t do it.

By the mid-point of this game, we actually sort of like Jack–he’s an everyman who’s thrust into a difficult situation, and he displays flashes of heroism at times–so it’s a shame when he becomes more and more ruthless in his efforts to retake the space station and come out on top. He’s a little bit too much into scatological humor for my taste, but it’s a video game and the target demo is 13 year old boys, so I guess I can’t complain too much

Callooh Callay

Turned a corner on the revisions. Now it’s just some polishing up and then sending it off to the editor. I had some very important thoughts on writing, but now I can’t remember–oh yeah, okay, here they are.

I watched both Sorry To Bother You and Blindspotting recently, which are two recent indie films set in Oakland, with black protagonists, by black film-makers, and about race issues. I liked both, but of the two, I found Sorry To Bother You a lot more  sure-footed, because it let its images and situations do the talking for it.

Blindspotting was littered with conversations about political issues, about race, about gentrification, about police brutality, and it culminates in a powerful speech act. Personally, I think there’s a place in the world for smart narratives that are explicitly about ideas. I mean, look at Anna Karenina or War and Peace, these are two of the greatest novels ever written, and they both contain relatively earnest discussions of all kinds of issues, whether it’s rural farming methods, political reform, or whether the ballet is sinful and stupid.

But I think the number one requirement when you’re explicitly discussing these things is that your take has to be thoughtful, interesting, and transgressive. Tolstoy’s ideas are still, even now, so far outside the mainstream that it’s just a pleasure to hear his characters voice them. If you’re not doing this, if you’re voicing ideas that embody the (or at least one possible) conventional wisdom, then I think it’s better to do it the way Thomas Mann did it in The Magic Mountain, where he had Naptha and Settembrini (his stand-ins for the fascists and communists) spout a powerful mix of nonsense that gives the emotional and rhetorical effect of these philosophies without going into the ideas themselves.

In Blindspotting it was like, yeah, we get it, you have a black and a white character, and they experience the gentrification of their hometown very differently. You really don’t need to spell it all out for us by having them argue about it. That theme was at least sustained by the film, though, and in that case the explanation was simply unnecessary. It’s even worse in cases where the theme is not sustained throughout, but only comes up in dialogue, which was my feeling about, for instance, the climax of the film.

I think writers have a tendency in their work to overvalue speech, because the form itself encourages the idea that words are powerful. In this case, the medium really is the message. If words cannot, by themselves, change peoples’ lives, then there’s no reason to write books. But in work that purports to mirror life, I think we need to acknowledge the fact that peoples’ actions, or even their thoughts, are rarely changed by speech.

Watching movies has encouraged me to focus more closely, in my writing, on images. How can I convey my themes through the juxtaposition of elements? Settings, in particular, while always important to me, have become a larger part of my work, particularly on the scene level. I find myself paying more attention, in my mind, to the lighting, to the furniture, and to whatever natural surroundings there might be. This has also taken some of the weight off of the gesture, which I’ve traditionally over-used in my writing. There’s only so much that you can do with the movement of the hands, the eyes, and the face. Sigh, but I’m still not completely there yet. I’ve had a lifelong battle with the image: I’m primarily a textual thinker, and my mind’s eye is really not what it should be.

The writinginginginginginginging

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

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

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

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

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!

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

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

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

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

 

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

Thoughts on books I’m currently reading

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

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

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

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

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

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