Having a baby has not proven the shock I thought it would be

I continue to be a sheltered-at-home baby-haver. She’s my baby, whom I have, and I can kiss her cute little baby head whenever I want. For the past few days the sleep deficit has caught up to me. Even though I’m getting more sleep than my wife, it’s still only about five or six hours a night, and I’m used to something more on the order of eight or nine. At first it was okay, but it added up after two weeks to a constant weariness. Today though I finally got a long stretch of sleep, and I woke up feeling good!

Even before today, I’d been surprised that this having-a-baby thing wasn’t the total, abrupt shift from not-having-a-baby that I’d been expected. A friend told me that there’s sort of a ramp up, so eventually when you get to two years old and they’re running around screaming at everyone and throwing things, you’re like, oh, I got here by stages.

My book is out. That’s good. Happy people are finding it and reading it. If you’re my friend and haven’t bought one, then please buy one. If you’re a fan of my blog and haven’t bought one, then you could also buy one. Just generally buy my book. You don’t need to read it, buying it is more than enough. If you’re buying a paper copy, consider buying it from my local bookstore, Alley Cat Books. Amazon is offering zero discount on my book right now, and Alley Cat is offering ten percent, so it’s even cost-effective.

Work continues apace on my novel for adults, The Lonely Years. I am loving this revision. I’ve actually been able to write during this period: I think I was just in such a good place, creatively, before this quarantine that not even Covid and a baby could keep me down! It’s a hard thing to work on a book in the best of times, never knowing if it’ll actually see the light of day. I started We Are Totally Normal almost exactly four years ago, in April 2016, and it’s only just now coming out. I started The Lonely Years two years ago, in January 2018, and at best the book won’t come out before 2023.

To take control of my creative life a little more, I’ve also begun work on an exciting self-published product. While I was looking for an agent to represent The Lonely Years (an effort that didn’t quite succeed, hence my current revision), I took out some of my anxiety and frustration by writing my own guide for newbie writers: The Cynical Writer’s Guide to the Publishing Industry, which is all about how to pitch and position your book so it gains the excitement of traditional publishing. The book is excellent. It’s absolutely unlike any book on publishing that you’ve ever read. I’m thinking of self-publishing it in October of this year (since it wouldn’t be fair to the publisher of We Are Totally Normal to be marketing two books at once).

I’m now working on a second book in the series, The Cynical Writer’s Guide to Literary Stardom, which is all about how to make it in literary fiction.

What qualifies me to write such guides, you might ask? Well…nothing, to be honest. But they’re mostly written as entertainment and as therapy for the frustrated writer. As the books themselves say upfront, you should take their advice with a grain of salt.

Since my last post, I’ve had a baby, my book has come out, and an unprecedented pandemic has shut down the country and the world

Life is good. Can’t complain. As I write this, my twelve-day-old daughter, Leni, is sleeping on the couch next to me. She’s secured in this little dock-a-tot dealy that stops her from rolling off, though apparently she might suffocate if her head gets wedged into the plush bumpers. For creatures that really like to push their tiny little faces into small crevices, newborns are surprisingly prone to suffocating. But I’ve got an eye on her, don’t worry.

She’s pretty cute. It’s been a learning curve, but hasn’t been too terrible as of yet. One thing I hadn’t fully understood until I had a baby was that breast-feeding puts an intense strain on the birth parent, and the non-birth parent simply doesn’t have the same experience of raising the child as the birth parent does. I mean, my wife is physically at the mercy of this baby for a significant portion of the day. For me, it’s really not the same. Also, bottle-feeding is so much less time-consuming than breast-feeding. But whatever, we’ve heard that unless you breastfeed your baby will become a career criminal, so I guess we’re stuck (JUST KIDDING, we’re doing it for the immune system benefits. My wife is an immunologist.)

So yes, I’m sleep deprived, but it’s very bearable. Right now, having a baby feels less like parenting a tiny human and more like we have some very exotic and very needy housepet. The main pleasure that one seems to get from a baby at this stage is sensual. You can kiss them and cuddle them and stroke their widdle tummies and let them wrap their fists around your fingers. It’s pretty cool. Also you can put them in adoorable outfits. And they make really cute, fluttery stretchem motions. Babies are basically the cutest thing in existence. There is nothing cuter than a baby. I’m already sad for the day she won’t be a baby anymore.

Also, my book came out today! It’s been an incredible journey for We Are Totally Normal, and I’m pleased as hell that it’s out in the world. It’s an odd thing, by the time a book comes out, it’s been out of your hours for a year or more. I once read an interview with a band, where they’re like, “Does this album reflect any of your personal struggles?” And the band was like, “Err, it reflects the struggles I was having three or four years ago.”

That’s how I feel. This book not only taught me quite a bit about writing, it also led directly to me becoming a better friend and to a re-evaluation of my gender presentation. But I also feel a little distanced from it.

People have been like, “Maybe this is the perfect time for your book to come out! With the Coronavirus, people will be doing lots of reading.”

That’s not insane. I’ve read like ten books in the last ten days, and I’ve bought most of them at full price. Something about this quarantine makes money just run through my fingers. But it ignores the economics of the book business. My book is printed. It’s shipped to bookstores. Right now, there five or ten thousand copies of my book sitting in the back rooms of closed bookstores. Many of those bookstores will be out of business by the time this quarantine ends. The ones who reopen will probably be more interested in stocking whatever that month’s new releases are. Books are only fresh for a pretty short period of time: they tend to move the most copies in their first three or four months. By the time this is over, my book’s time will be done, and it’ll never recover that ground.

But…it’s okay. It’s really okay. People are dying from this thing. Others are losing their homes and their businesses. People are terrified. I am terrified. My mother-in-law is staying with us, and I keep worrying I’ll somehow bring home the virus and infect her. It’s a lot of stress!

Against this backdrop, I feel thankful that I and my wife are financially stable and that the book is coming out at all. It’s true that things would’ve been better if the book had come out three months ago, but I bet at some point a lot of books will get canceled because of this thing. I’m just happy that my book exists in the world. A book that’s in print can eventually find an audience, but it’s very, very possible for books to fail to come out, to be cancelled on the eve of release, and to simply never see the light of day.

I think I’d be more upset if I had really high hopes for this book. I do feel a little sorry for the debut authors and for the people whose books were being positioned to be the next big thing. I mean somewhere out there is an author who was supposed to hit the New York Times bestseller list this week. Now, because the bookstores are closed, maybe it won’t happen. Or if it does, they won’t be able to capitalize on it. Their whole career and their life trajectory is different.

Mine isn’t. This book, if it was going to be a success at all, was going to be a slow burn. And to be honest, I wasn’t expecting it to be an immense success. The negative reception from so many reviewers and goodreads types has been a drain, if I’ll be honest. With my first book, I sort of understood why so many people didn’t like it: the main character was entitled and dishonest. I didn’t agree with their assessment–I thought her virtues outweighed her flaws–but I understood it!

With this one, I’m a little baffled. I don’t see anything particularly terrible about the characters in this book. If anything, the boys in this book, even the worst of them, are much, much, much kinder, more thoughtful, less violent, and more honest than the boys I went to school with (I went to an all-boy’s school). Honestly, I think a lot of people out there are just so used to getting a relentlessly idealized version of human nature that they’ve forgotten about the full panoply of human emotion and motivation. Oh well, more fool they.

I know you’re supposed to just write what you write and not let the reaction bug you, but it honestly frightens me. If I was trying to write terrible people, I’d understand the reaction to my books. But when I look at the world, I mostly see a lot of weak, passionless, colorless, thwarted, anxious people. I write characters who are larger than life and who are better than life. I wish more people were like my characters. Writing a book is such an odd thing. You can walk through this world, you can make friends, you can talk to people, and you can convince yourself that you have a lot in common with everybody else, and it’s only when you sit down and put everything you know into a book that you realize, wow, my worldview and my experience of life are extremely different from the average person’s.

OH WELL. It’s not some grand tragedy. And if I ever feel sad I have an adorable little baby to snuggle with.

If you dislike my novel, you’re really not alone!

For a book that has amongst the worst Goodreads ratings of any 2020 YA novel, has gotten mediocre-to-scathing trade journal reviews (Kirkus called it “frustratingly long-winded and rambling”) and which has already caused a flash-in-the-pan Twitter controversy due to people finding its content offensive, my book is really generating a lot of excitement amongst readers!

It’s kind of astonishing. My debut novel, Enter Title Here, was a lead title for Disney. They put a fair amount of money and effort into publicizing it, and I thought, at the time, that the efforts had worked. The book seemed to be getting mentioned everywhere. But it was nothing like this! Harper has done okay by the book. I actually have no idea what they’ve done. Maybe they’ve done something? But the end result has been incredible. Basically ever since the cover got released last August, people have been so hyped for the novel.

This is not something I was expecting. Because of the trade reviews, I sort of thought it’d just fade away. Now I don’t know if that’s gonna happen. I think people are going to at least attempt to read it.

Unfortunately, when those people do read the book, a lot of them do not like it! I had a call recently with Harper’s marketing team, and I wanted to joke that we should stop sending out ARCs, because I’ve seen so many people online go from: “One of my most anticipated 2020 releases” to “this book was a huge disappointment.”

That happened with my first book too. My worst review on Goodreads came from an ARC I handed personally at a conference. Definitely was like, wut, why am I even doing this?

With my first book, I stopped reading the bad reviews, because they just made me feel terrible. With this book, I’ve read them all! And none of them have particularly bothered me. When it comes to any book, all bad reviews tend to mention only a handful of things. With my first book it was: a) unlikable characters; b) plot was all over the place; and c) the ending was too abrupt.

With this book, it’s: a) the book has no plot; b) the characters are unlikable; c) it’s not a romance; and d) its depiction of bisexuality is problematic. None of these criticisms bother me, because I don’t agree with any of them. Bad reviews are the worst when they come with an element of shame: you know the reviewer is right, and you wish you could’ve fixed the problem. Here, all of these issues are a result of intentional choices I made. I think my only regret with this book is that I should’ve made it more explicitly about transgender identity. I was just starting to come out as trans when the book was finishing its edits, and I decided not to mess with it. On an aesthetic level, the ambiguity is great! It’s not a book about finding yourself, it’s about losing your shame at not knowing yourself. On a marketing level, well…it’d probably do better as a trans book.

But whatever!

The other interesting thing about the book is some people LOVE it. They’re like, this book is me, I’ve finally been seen. That’s awesome. I expected that. There’s never been a depiction of queer sexuality, not just in YA but in any novel I can think of, that’s quite like that in We Are Totally Normal. Things I spent fifteen years learning have been put into a 70,000 word novel, and it makes me really happy that those lessons are useful to other people.

I didn’t write the book primarily to “help” kids. I don’t really write my books for kids. I just write books, and then I try to sell them as best I can. But I do think that the right kids will really love this book. And I’m hoping that somehow, amidst all the hype and hate, that those kids get ahold of it.

What’s so odd is that I’ve written exactly the right book at the right time. YA romantic comedies are blowing up. There’s a huge demand for m/m romances with people of color as leads. I’ve written exactly such a book. If I’d just done a paint-by-numbers portrait of bisexuality, people would’ve loved this book. But oh well. Instead it’s something different.

Some of my friends have been like, “The book isn’t being marketed well! It’s being marketed as a fluffy rom-com, and it’s not that!” To which I’ll say, “I participated fully in the marketing of this book! In fact I suggested marketing it as a fluffy rom-com! In my mind, it’s extremely fluffy. ” But, secondly, there’s no market anymore for issues-based LGBT YA. Whole market is taken over by romances. If there’s anything I’ve learned from my first book, it’s that there’s no percentage in releasing a book that people don’t think they want.

People want the thing that they think my book is, and that feel great! Most of them will be disappointed, but along the way, some people won’t be! And those people have already written some incredible, passionate, insightful reactions to the book. My book might be amongst the most detested 2020 YA releases, but for that very reason, it’s also amongst the most beloved.

Oh, by the way, I have a ton of ARCs of this book. So if you’re a book blogger who’s ever experienced any brand of questioning of their sexual or gender identity, shoot me an email at rhkanakia@gmail.com, and I’ll see about maybe sending you a copy!

Look at these two cuteys! Don’t you just want to imagine them giving each other handjobs?

Hey blog readerssssssssssss! I still love you

Sorry it’s been a while since I’ve posted. I’ve been working on a different non-fiction project: a series of essays on the publishing industry that I’m planning to self-publish. It just feels good to be writing, to be honest.

Otherwise I’m counting down the days until We Are Totally Normal launches on March 31st. It’s insane that after four years this book is finally going to be out in the world. I feel quite happy and proud about it, and I’m excited to see what’ll come of it.

Feeling a little free-er to speak my mind these days

For my entire online life, I’ve tried to avoid controversy, because, to be honest, it makes me anxious. There’s no other reason. I don’t think controversy is bad. I don’t think it needs to be stopped. I do think some aspects of call-out culture are absurd, but it doesn’t seem to really hurt people (other than their pride). I also have little desire to call people out, because nothing anyone has written or said really makes me that upset.

But I do have controversial thoughts of my own, and I have suppressed them! Like remember when Michael Vick went to prison for running a dog-fighting ring? That was absurd. They’re just dogs. They say pigs are smarter than dogs, and we eat those. And we also hunt animals for sport. And we also force animals to race each other. It’s ridiculously contorted to create one tiny variety of animal cruelty that for some reason is punishable by YEARS in prison, when all the other kinds are perfectly okay.

That’s the kind of scintillating opinion that I’ve kept from the world for all these years.

Or remember when there was the Rachel Dolezal thing? And people were all like how is being trans-black different from being trans-gender? And trans people were all offended and shit? Well I had inklings then that I was trans, but I wasn’t out, so I couldn’t say what I thought, which was…millions of people had to die, get beaten up, lose their jobs, lose their families, to get to the place where the world had to accept that being transgender was a real thing. If a million people did the same for trans-blackness, then we’d probably accept that to. Or, as the famously trans-friendly comedian Dave Chappelle put it in a recent comedy special, “The difference between trans people and Rachel Dolezal is that I believe trans people.”

Yes, I watched three of his recent specials! Two of them had lengthy sets of jokes about trans people. WTF. Kind of makes me wonder if Dave is trans himself. I did admire the artistry of the jokes. He tells bigoted transmisogynistic jokes to an audience of white college-educated people and gets laughs. Not that easy to do. He tells an anti-trans joke about as well as it can be told these days. And in ten years his specials will be unwatchable because of it (they’re almost unwatchable today). What a weird hill for him to choose to die on!

The point is, I’ve got controversial opinions. I think Joe Biden is gonna win the nomination and the presidency. There, I said it. Sometimes this shit happens! I mean, Macron won. Neoliberal centrists win sometimes. I’m still not gonna vote for him in the CA primary though. I will say one thing: that dude’s been in my house. He’s definitely a person who has set foot in my parent’s house, and I was living in it at the time, and that means the future President of the United States has been in my house.

I think those might be all the controversial opinions I have. Michael Vick, Rackel Dolezal, and Joe Biden. Wow, it’s been tough keeping that in.

Balancing gratitude and entitlement

Authors are terrible people. I feel sorry for those who need to deal with us in a professional setting. Even authors who are perfectly nice in their personal life become extremely anxious when it comes to issues related to their career. For instance, every author I know feels annoyed that their publisher didn’t ‘do’ enough for their book. This is one gripe I’ve never had, to be honest. Like, shit, with my first book, that thing was everywhere. Tons of people had heard of it! They just didn’t like it. If people had liked the book, it would’ve done a lot better. (Note, I still love the book, just saying it didn’t exactly click with the market).

And with my current book, I’m like shit, this book is everywhere! People are tweeting every day that it’s one of their most anticipated books for 2020. I’m like how do you even hear about books like mine? Jesus, I have NO idea which books are coming out this year, and I am an author! But somehow they do. I mean I don’t think the publisher has done much to make them aware, but they seem to be hearing about the book okay.

But I still have anxieties. I have written A LOT of books that haven’t sold to publishers. And each time I’m like, “But whyyyyyyyyyyyy???? The book is so much better than the crap you normally publish!”

I’ve also written a lot of books that my various agents have not wanted to put on sub. Each time I’m like, “But yyyyyy?????? If it’s not salable just let the editors decide!”

It must be unbearable.

See, the thing is, I completely get it. If you are on the outside (or, I suppose, if you’re a successful author, but I’m not friends with too many of those), you have no idea how brutal the book business is. Editors are getting fired all the time. And as for agents? They’re all the time putting projects that they really believe in on the market and seeing them not sell! There are so many books out there looking for homes, and there really aren’t enough readers for them all. I mean my first book was an example! Both the publisher and the agent (and myself) thought it was going to be a breakout hit, but once it got onto the market, people were like…but I don’t like this character. Reading this book does nothing for me. It brings me no pleasure.

Now I was reading Enter Title Here the other night, and I have to say, this book is amazing. It’s so good. I love this book. And yeah you could be like, the book didn’t find its readership. But…sometimes…the readership just isn’t there. I think we’ve found that the YA audience isn’t really looking for anti-heroes. (Maybe that’s because the YA audience is mostly girls? I dunno. Although actually I never thought of Reshma as an anti-hero, to me she was just a hero, but I am literally the only person in the world who has that reaction to her. Even my wife hates Reshma! Although she does love the book).

I definitely feel like the book should have been a hit. I just don’t see how it could have been a hit. I don’t think the publisher can actually manufacture hits where no hit-potential exists. But I still feel like the book should’ve been a hit! I think it’s really hard for authors to face the fact that sometimes the readership isn’t there*.

This is what I mean about authors being insane.

Writing wouldn’t be nearly so infuriating if the books that got published weren’t quite frequently so terrible! Like, when I was a baby author, I just assumed terrible books were published because they’d run out of good books to publish. Now, as a grown-up author, I know that good books go unsold so that terrible books can be acquired. And then those terrible books often become hits. It’s madness, but what can you do?

Even writing these sorts of thoughts often strikes people as entitled. In fact, much of the whining that published authors do comes across, even to me, as pretty entitled. Like…nobody owes you the publication of your book. Nobody owes you awards. Nobody owes you their attention or their readership.

And yet…on some level, I have to admit, I do think that great books are owed all of those things. Maybe this is the impetus behind English department curriculums. You just feel like people ought to somehow be educated into loving all the things that nuanced and complex and beautiful.

But to what end? Ultimately, it’s okay for people to not read stuff. It doesn’t really hurt anybody. And the people who want good stuff have plenty of it they can find.

Which is where gratitude comes in. I am honestly grateful just to be in print. As I learn more and more about this industry, it strikes me as even more of a miracle that my books sold in the first place, and I’m extremely happy that my second book is gonna be unleashed on the world in a few months! I haven’t lost the hope that it’ll be a hit. It’s not entirely impossible! But I think that the people who need to read my book will manage to get ahold of it, and that makes me happy. There are so many books that need to be out there–books that could make a huge difference to one or ten or a thousand readers–which will never get that chance.

*On a sidenote, sometimes authors complain because their books are exactly as bad as the books that did become hits, and they’re like, “My book is exactly like the popular stuff; why didn’t it get picked?” I wanna be all like, err, that’s not something to be proud of, but I keep quiet.

The definitive guide to getting over writer’s block after just two or three years of agony

Yesterday I spoke to two authors who were in the throes of writer’s block, albeit in very different situations. One is trying to think of ideas for a follow-up series or standalone book after finishing a trilogy that did pretty well in bookstores. The other has been trying for years to write a second novel; her first, which was an extremely good book, went out on submission to a number of publishers but never found a home.

I am an expert at writer’s block. After I sold my first book, Enter Title Here in May 2014, I started to experience difficulty writing. I managed to force out a middle grade novel that summer, but after that it took me two years to write another book, and it wasn’t until 2019 that I’d consider myself fully recovered.

During this time, I would constantly google “Cures for writer’s block” and I found nothing! There are no cures! Nobody knows shit! In fact, the internet is full of these smug, self-satisfied writers, both published and unpublished, who are like, “Uhh, I never get writer’s block.” To which I always want to reply, “Yeah, but your books are also not very good; of course writer’s block isn’t a problem if you don’t care about quality.”

Sophomore novel writer’s block is extremely common. I’d say my unscientific opinion is that about half of all debut authors fall prey to it. When a debut sells a series, usually it doesn’t hit you on the second or third book of the series: it hits you at the start of your next series or next unrelated book.

Not infrequently, sophomore novel writer’s block is career-ending. The second book simply never comes. Or when it comes, it’s extremely bad and doesn’t sell. Or it sells and flops and you never sell a third.

This writer’s block usually doesn’t involve staring at the blank page. Usually the writer is writing constantly: reams and reams of stuff. But they feel that all the work is terrible!

The typical advice is to ignore that self-critical feeling and keep writing, even though you suspect the work is really bad. This is not good advice. The problem is that the work usually is terrible. You’re accurately responding to its badness.

So the real question isn’t “How do I feel better about my crappy work?” it’s instead “How do I make work that I don’t need to feel better about?”

Because while it’s true that all first drafts are bad, there’s a difference between ‘bad’ and ‘boring’. A first draft ought to contain the kernel of that thing that makes you excited about the book. You can see the part of this draft that is incredible and world-altering, even if right now that part is mostly obscured by all the cliche, trivial, or just-plain-weird stuff that you also threw into the draft.

When the draft lacks even that element of greatness, you’re not gonna like it, and no matter how much you write or rewrite it, probably nobody else will either.

Ultimately, we all know both the reason for this writer’s block and the route to get out of it. We get sophomore-novel writer’s block because of fear. The first book was really good! It got an agent. It felt special. It often flowed relatively easily. Or at least it carried some element of destiny.

You don’t know how to replicate that. And now there are expectations. What if you give your agent or editor this book and they hate it? It’s even worse if the book didn’t sell or didn’t get an agent, despite being a perfectly good book. If you feel like you did your best, and the book didn’t sell, then it’s hard to do your best again.

The publishing industry conspires to deepen writer’s block. Publishing tends to view books as commodity. Where does this book fit into the market? And agents and editors frequently try to intervene in books even before you’ve finished writing them. in the young adult space, authors are encouraged to run their ideas past their editors so their editor can weed out any that aren’t ‘worth’ pursuing.

Some writers can work like that, but many can’t. Once you’re interjecting other peoples’ voices and other peoples’ opinions into the drafting process, it becomes very difficult to find what you really want to say.

The most infuriating thing about this is that what publishing ultimately wants from you is the thing only you can do! Which means that all through your writer’s block time, your agent and editor will say, “Give me the book you’re really passionate about! Give me the book that’s deepest and most critical to you! Give me the one you’re afraid to write!”

The problem is that if this book isn’t marketable, they will reject it. Your books must exist at the intersection of your aesthetic interests and the marketplace. When you’re a new or less-developed writer, this isn’t as scary or frustrating, because you don’t know the market place as well, and you don’t know your own interests as well either, so there’s always a feeling that, well, these two things will converge somehow.

But when you get more experienced you realize…that’s not guaranteed to happen. You can very easily write a book which you think is perfectly good, but it doesn’t sell, not because it’s bad, but because it’s literally unsalable. It’s simply outside the general purview of what editors consider acceptable within the genre. This is even true for literary fiction. There are lots of literary novels that cannot be sold. For instance, if you want to write literary novels that are mannered and cold in the extreme, in the style of the French nouveau roman, you probably can’t sell them to mainstream publishing, even though this is a perfectly fine way to write a novel. That’s an obvious example, but there are plenty of less obvious ones. Historical fiction about stuff nobody cares about, for instance. Or, more generally, fiction that falls into that vague space between “women’s fiction” and “literary fiction”, where it feels too smart to be women’s fiction but, for whatever reason, not smart enough to be literary fiction (where ‘smart’ is entirely a matter of appearances, of course). The point is, your novel is dead in the water the moment you conceived of it, and yet you wrote the stupid thing anyway!!!

It’s this realization that causes writer’s block. You start to evaluate your own work through the eyes of the publishing industry, instead of through your own aesthetic interests.

This basic problem–“How do I write books that are both marketable and interesting (to me)” is not really solvable, since they tend to be at odds. The more your book is like other books, the less you’ll be into it. And the more different it is, the less publishing will be into it. I think a lot of authors succeed in having long careers simply through luck: their own interests happen to coincide with the mainstream of their genre. In not a few cases, this is because the author is extremely basic in their own reading tastes.

But the problem we’re trying to solve here isn’t the above, the problem is “How do I keep writing books even though I know that getting ‘better’ (in my own eyes) might mean making my books less and less publishable?” Its this realization–the idea that, after a certain level, quality is decoupled from marketability that causes you, paradoxically, to choke up and start writing terrible books!

Because, say what you will about books that don’t sell, the fact is: at least you wrote them! And if you wrote the book, then you accomplished something, you did something. And, moreover, if you’re writing then you can at least have some hope that something will hit, something will happen, and eventually you’ll break through.

Whereas when you’re blocked, there is no hope. Anything bad can happen to a writer, but it’s bearable so long as they’re writing. Once you stop being able to write, you just feel like a fraud. You lose that sense of hope.

Okay, so that’s the problem? Now what’s the solution?

I don’t know! It’s like asking what the solution is for depression. There is none. Depression is completely logical. Everyone should be depressed all the time. And yet life isn’t livable if you’re depressed. When it comes to writer’s, everyone should be blocked. This conundrum, the idea that you can write a good book that nevertheless can’t ever be sold, is crazy-making!

My solution came in stages. First, I stopped writing proposals. It was profoundly debilitating to go to all the trouble of thinking up an idea, only to have it shot down. That’s not how I work. So then I was at least at the stage of needing to write an actual novel, instead of just a proposal. But that novel was still extremely difficult to write, and it took many drafts. I think, however, that my writer’s block lifted most substantially when my agent fired me sometime in 2017. It was extremely depressing, of course, but I almost instantly felt a sense of freedom. I was finally in control of my own career again! I could write a book and query it to agents, and nobody could stop me. I had returned in some sense to the situation of before I had sold a book, when it was just me and the keyboard.

I also had the experience of taking my YA novel, the one I had written on-spec, without a proposal–the one both my agent and editor told me was unpublishable–and, essentially, twisting it into a more marketable form. Basically, I took the homosexual subtexts and turned them into text. I made it a more explicitly queer romance. And now, with a firmer place in the market, it was not only vied over by agents, but it sold in the first round of submission to a larger publisher than my old one.

I think that was the final nail in the coffin for my writer’s block. I realized that there is often a way, at least for me, to turn my book into something that is superficially marketable. This might not actually be true–I’ve since suffered the ‘this isn’t marketable’ or ‘this doesn’t fit the genre’ problem with other novels I’ve sent out–but it’s my own personal delusion. I persist in believing that no matter what I write, there is a way to make it look or seem marketable. And that if one book doesn’t work, there’s always another that will. Moreover, I’ve made peace with the idea that most things I write won’t sell.

I am serious. When I write a novel, I fully expect it not to sell. But I don’t think that nothing will sell. I have hope that somewhere, something in my arsenal will sell. I decided, very explicitly, during my two years of writing proposals that my editor didn’t accept, that I would much rather write books instead of proposals. Because at least if a book doesn’t sell, you have something, you’ve discovereds something, and you’ve improved along the way.

But my solutions won’t work for everybody, unfortunately, because my solutions are, at their core, pretty insane and delusional. And, moreover, I don’t need to make money from my writing. Some people do. They literally can’t afford to write (as I have) nine unsalable books. They need their next book to sell.

For these people, I can offer no solutions; you’ll have to find your own. But I can guarantee you one thing, whatever that solution is, it won’t be reasonable one, because when it comes right down to it, writer’s block is the very logical end result of living in a difficult and cutthroat world.

My decade in love, friendship, and publishing

It was in late January of 2010 that I quit drinking, which means that the close of this decade also means I’ve had almost a decade of sobriety. At this point I’ve been sober twice as long as I was drinking! The number of people in my life who knew me when I was drinking is not a small number, but it’s certainly not a majority. My wife and her family and most of my writer friends all have no experience of that side of me.

At this point, when I write about being sober, I think some people suspect I’m making it up or exaggerating it! Once, a friend of mine, who thought she’d discovered some inconsistencies in my sobriety narrative, accused me of ginning up the whole sobriety thing to get attention. To which I say…LOL.

In 2010, when I quit drinking, I was twenty-four years old, still living in Washington, D.C., weighed about 330 pounds, had never really gone on a date or been in any form of romantic or sexual relationship, and my publications were limited to a single short story in Nature. I’d written around a hundred short stories by that point, I’d gone to the Clarion Writer’s Workshop four years earlier, and I’d accumulated some four hundred or so short story rejections. I was about to be rejected by all eleven MFA programs to which I’d applied. I’d just come out as gay.

That year, I started my first novel, a science fiction novel for adults (to be finished the next year and promptly abandoned without revision). I also wrote twice as many words as I’d ever written in one year. I made my second significant short story sale, to Clarkesworld magazine. I tried to get a more permanent gig at the World Bank, where I was working, but my boss didn’t have the budget to hire me. If I’d gotten that job, my life might be totally different right now! The previous year, I had decided that if I was going to be a real writer, I needed to be a real reader too, so I had embarked upon a campaign of reading the classics. In 2010, I read Anna Karenina, War and Peace, The Bell Jar, Journey to the End of the Night, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, What is Art?, The Charterhouse of Parma, every Sandman comic, and every Dashiell Hammett novel. That was probably the most significant year of reading in my life.

In 2011, I moved to Oakland, CA. I thought I was quitting my job at the World Bank, but I ended up continuing to do consulting work for them, which I do to this day! I quit smoking. I finished that science fiction novel, and I began and finished a second one, a YA dystopian called This Beautiful Fever whose first draft I wrote in eight days! I wrote a lot of short stories. This was probably my best year for short stories, both in terms of production and in terms of the number that would eventually sell. I started hooking up with men in all the usual (oftentimes somewhat sordid) ways, but still wasn’t dating. Determined not to repeat the previous year’s I applied to 28 MFA programs! I spent five evenings a week hanging out with my former roommate, Brian, and became good friends with many of his friends and coworkers. We went to lots of house shows in Oakland’s twee-pop scene, but my fondest memories are just of hanging out in his house, chatting with whoever would come by. Nine years later, although many of those people have had children and/or moved away, I still count them amongst my close friends. I read True Grit, David Copperfield, Grapes of Wrap, Darkness at Noon, and Something Happened. I read every Adrian Tomine comic I could find. I started a life-long love of Emile Zola, going through Nana, Germinal, L’Assommoir, and the Masterpiece. And I read all seven volumes of In Search Of Lost Time, which was something I couldn’t quite believe even as I was doing it–this seemed so far from my usual interests (I was still writing mostly science fiction)–but which has shaped my life and my thinking and my writing immensely in the years since. Toward the end of the year, I got very into noir novels, and I got deep into the ouevres of Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford.

In 2012, I was accepted to four MFA programs, and I chose to go to Johns Hopkins essentially because they offered me the most money. I started querying my dystopian novel, This Beautiful Fever. I got a head of steam on a sci-fi novel for adults, only to abandon it after thirty thousand words when I realized the book was no good. This began a pattern of abandoning books at the one-third, one-half, and sometimes even 90% completion mark. I wrote another sci-fi novel for adults, Boom, that I’ve never shown to anyone. That fall, after moving to Baltimore from Oakland, I started hearing the voice of Reshma, the protagonist of my first book. She sort of popped fully-formed into my head. All through my first semester of grad school, I’d hear fits and snatches of her voice: a sort of angry running commentary on everything in the universe. I put off writing the book, because I wasn’t sure I could do it justice. Graduate school was fine. I turned in science fiction and fantasy stories into the workshop, and I didn’t suffer at all for it. My cohort and the year above were composed of some very talented and hard-working writers. But almost everyone was married or engaged, and I did feel a little lonely. The whole thing was a bit claustrophobic, just the same thirtyish people hanging out every day and exchanging the same gossip or telling the same stories about teaching our classes. It seemed to lack the vitality I’d experienced in Oakland. Not the fault of Baltimore, by the way! I was charmed by the city; it’s an extremely hip place to live, you have no idea how hip. But attending Johns Hopkins is not the way to experience that hipness. Looking at my records, this was the year I read Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice, The Sportswiter, Things Fall Apart, The Feminine Mystique, The Pillow Book, and Revolutionary Road. I read most of Edith Wharton’s major novels this year. She remains a huge influence. I fell in love with and was charmed by Nancy Mitford. I read the collected poems of Larkin and Eliot. I still don’t know if I like poetry, but I at least like those two!

In 2013, during winter break, I wrote a first draft of Enter Title Here, which would eventually be my first published novel. Aside from one realist story I wrote for my MFA applications (to prove to application committees that I could do it!) it was the first sustained work of realism I’d ever engaged in. Writing that book was so easy that it was incredible, and that very easyness made it difficult for years after for me to write another novel. Through a complicated series of introductions and events, I got my first agent that year. This Beautiful Fever had been sent out to 95 agents at this point, but I finally got one offer, and that shook loose a second offer from a different agent, and I went with the second one. I spent the remainder of the year doing revisions on the book with this agent. During this time, I wrote my fifth book, another realist novel, which was an interesting idea, but somehow never came together. That fall, I wrote my sixth book, a contemporary YA about a troubled starlet who starts hearing the voice of God, (working title: On My Knees 4 U). And, incredibly, I wrote my seventh book too, a weird crime novel about a sociopathic mom who schemes to get her daughter into a school for talented and gifted kids. My YA dystopian novel, This Beautiful Fever, went on submission. At some point, it’s hazy exactly when, I became close with a very talented writer, Courtney—a former graduate of Hopkins–who’s become one of my closest friends. This Beautiful Fever was rejected by five editors, who seemed to universally agree that my protagonist was too pathetic (a lifetime problem for my writing!), but I didn’t much care because I’d polished up Enter Title Here, and my agent loved it. We decided to put it on submission in the spring. This year I pitched my first article to a publication: a piece to Salon on Eddie Huang’s memoir Fresh off the Boat (which would later, though I didn’t know this at the time, become the basis for a hit sit-com). When I sent in the article, Salon decided they didn’t like it and killed the piece. This mild rejection touched off my first major depression: two months of utter blackness. Although it’d begun with rejection, my depressed thoughts centered primarily on my loneliness, and how I was never going to find love (I still had never really gone on a date. I’d tried online dating, but somehow never connected with someone–I’d just chat and chat and chat and eventually the conversation would peter out). JHU offered free counseling, so I signed up for that. I started antidepressants. And after the depression lifted, I seriously started doing the online dating thing. A roommate told me that he always asked people out within the first ten messages in an exchange, and I was like, “Wait, you can do it that soon?” and he was like “Yeah, there’s no point in just chatting endlessly”. Armed with this knowledge, I started asking dudes on dates. The third or fourth of these guys was someone who loved movies and graphic novels and science fiction and also was extremely new to the dating thing. We became each other’s first milestones for many things! I remember that winter we watched Ellen Page’s emotional coming-out speech, and we both cried and held each other. I stopped being able to write science fiction stories, and I began turning in realist stories to workshop. This year I got really into German literature for some reason. It was more playful than French literature, but it was also about more serious subjects. It seemed to combine psychological penetration with a sense of fun! I read Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain, Skylark, Beware of Pity, The Man Without Qualities, Radetzky March and Every Man Dies Alone. I also read Mrs Dalloway, A Simple Plan, Gone Girl, Les Miserables, The Interestings, and The Magicians.

In 2014, I sold my book and graduated from my program on the same day! I broke up with my boyfriend! I moved to New Orleans, and, after giving it up as a bad thing, I moved again after six weeks to Berkeley (best decision I ever made! Two months after selling my book, I lost my acquiring editor at Disney. I started having problems with my agent, who disliked both of the novels, the sociopathic mom and the teen starlet books, that I’d written the previous year. I know, the honeymoon period was short. I moved in with Sasha, who’d soon become a very close friend, and spent lots of time with her very off-beat hippy friends. I came out once again, as bisexual, and started going on dates with women, which, let me tell you, is a very different game from dating men! I got extremely depressed and went into therapy (again) and increased my antidepressant dosages (again). I was still writing and sending out short stories and by this time had sold stories to most of the smaller pro sci-fi journals, including several stories each to Nature and to Orson Scott Card’s magazine. I also sold a weird realist story (told in the form of a chart) to The Indiana Review. This year I also met another person who’d become a close friend, a fellow YA writer, Erin, though it’d be years before we would truly reconnect. This year I read Doctor Zhivago, The Corrections, Tom Jones, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Sarashina Diary, and Dangerous Liaisons. I got into Yasunari Kawabata, who I still think has written some of the most beautiful books in existence.

In 2015, I suffered incredible writer’s block. I can’t count how many books I began and abandoned. Nothing seemed worth writing. I had a two-book deal with Disney, but had a terrible time trying to get them to agree to any of my ideas for the second book. My agent finally sent them a copy of This Beautiful Fever, and my editor liked it, but the acquisitions committee shot it down, saying a dystopian novel wouldn’t sell. All I heard in my head was the voice of my editor and my agent, shooting down everything I was working on. My middle-grade novel went on submission to a very small round, but got rejected, and my agent sort of lost interest in it after that, and I was mostly focused on trying to write or think of some follow-up to my young adult novel. I would say that at this point, I had real, classic writer’s block. I’d sit down and write, and everything would look like total garbage, and I’d delete everything. I just felt so empty of every possible idea. This was the year I stopped trying to write every day: it felt like there was no point. After a hundred rejections from him, I sold my first story to John Joseph Adams, which felt pretty good. I MET MY FUTURE WIFE, RACHEL, AND FELL IN LOVE AND KNEW ON OUR FIRST DATE THAT WE WERE PROBABLY GONNA SPEND OUR LIVES TOGETHER FOREEEEEEEVER! That was pretty cool. I went to Burning Man, which was cool, but not really for me. I read Thucydides, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Crime and Punishment, and a bunch of the less-silly Dialogues of Plato. I also got very into ethnography, and I read some great ethnographic studies of, amongst others, fashion models, working class college students, elite students vying for management consulting jobs, and working-class black men who are burdened with outstanding warrants. I read two excellent Jo Walton novels: My Real Children and The Just City. She is truly a treasure.

In 2016, my writer’s block continued apace. I am not kidding when I say this writer’s block consumed years of my life! I went from writing four novels in one year (2013) to being able to write basically nothing in 2014, 2015, and 2016. I just felt totally unmoored. I had no idea what I wanted to write. I tried everything, every form, every style. It was all just odious to me. This culminated in a terrible depression in the beginning of the year, which resulted in my antidepressant mix changing once again. However, in April of that year, as I was coming out of the depression, I wrote the first scene of what would eventually become We Are Totally Normal. The difference between the composition process for this book and for Enter Title Here could not have been more different. Where ETH just flowed from my fingers, We Are Totally Normal took a lot of doing. I actually deleted that first fragment, thinking it was a false start, before going back and recovering it and doing some more work. When I sent it to my agent, he was extremely enthusiastic about the book and did one revision with me before forwarding it to Disney. Sasha, my roommate, left for law school. I moved in with my wife and proposed to her a week later, which was about one year after we’d met. I sold a story to the Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy! Huge milestone for me. Oh, and I almost forgot, my book came out! It did okay, I think. It was reviewed in the New York Times. Lots of people hated it and hated my protagonist, but fuck them. It also touched lots of people. I read The Caine Mutiny, The Bostonians, A Little Life, Bonjour Tristesse, and Brideshead Revisited. I got very into superhero comics and, after reading All Star Superman, I developed a surprising fondness for Superman. I re-read the whole Honor Harrington series, a military science fiction series David Weber, and I also reread In Search of Long Time. I read all six books in Trollope’s Palliser series. I love Trollope. He’s incredible. The perfect mix of romanticism and realism. I got very into late 20th century realism, and I read several works of realism from America (The Rise of Silas Lapham), Poland (The Doll), Britain (four novels by George Gissing, who I now adore), and Spain (Tristana). I started listening to audio books, which nowadays constitute well over half of my reading.

In 2017, after several months of considering it, Disney rejected We Are Totally Normal (then called Tell Em They’re Amazing) and, deciding that they didn’t see a future with me, they cancelled my book contract. My agent, who’d formerly been enthusiastic about the book, now thought it wasn’t salable and urged me to abandon it. When I told him I wanted to send it out anyway, he dropped me as a client. I revised the book (changing the hook, admittedly, to make it significantly more marketable) and sent it out to agents. After just a week of querying, I ended up with my current agent, who sold the book to Harper later that year. I also got married! It was really nice. I liked being married. Living in San Francisco changed my life in a number of ways. One was that I was no longer living with roommates, no longer had that built-in community, and needed to start making friends and finding my own way in the world. Although I had many friends and acquaintances, I felt like I didn’t have enough intimates, and during this time I tried to focus on deepening some of the relationships in our life. ALSO RACHEL MANAGED THROUGH SOME CRAZY MIND TRICKS TO PERSUADE OUR LANDLORDS TO GET A LITTLE KITTY AND WE NAMED HIM SCHUBERT AND HE IS JUST SO CUTE, WE PICK HIM UP AND CUDDLE HIM ALL THE TIME. I still was having trouble writing, but not quite as much. I read The Secret Agent, Evicted, The Emperor of All Maladies, Lord Jim, and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I read every novel and most of the short stories in Elizabeth Gaskell’s ouevre. I got very into 18th century literature, and I read books by William Godwin, Samuel Richardson, Denis Diderot, and a few others. I got into neoconservative riters, of whom most weren’t very good, but I did quite enjoy Norman Podheretz’s Making It. I’m a sucker for any book that has the unvarnished truth about literary lives and literary ambition. I got into reading about the Soviet Union and read books about the revolution, about the gulags, and about the Terror. I read a few books about painters and visual artists, of which the best was a biography of Joseph Cornell called Utopia Parkway. Man that dude was a weirdo!

In 2018, I wrote the first draft of a novel for adults (current working title The Lonely Years). This would be, I believe, my eleventh novel (I think I’ve left one book out of this chronology). Rachel and I started trying to have a baby, which made me really anxious and panicky, and led to all kinds of feelings being stirred up, which led me into therapy yet again! Ugh, I hate therapy. Stupid therapy. I got back edits on We Are Totally Normal and when I took a look at the manuscript again, after eight months away from it, I realized that the book wasn’t very good! I mean, I still think it was good enough for Disney and my former agent’s purposes, but the story was completely all over the place! Nothing fit together very well at all! I set aside the draft that had sold, and I rewrote the entire book from page one. I also sold a story to Asimov’s, another long-awaited first, after fifteen years of submitting. This year, I reread the entirety of Robert Caro’s ouevre. I think he’s the finest living American writer, and he definitely deserved the Nobel more than Bob Dylan. I read, for some reason, a lot of novels by Michael Connelly and Scott Turow. I read the entirety of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which was fabulously written and had some wonderful stories and analysis, although I do wish I retained more of it! I got really into Somerset Maugham, whose work always startles me with its baroque and outlandish elements, which are usually mixed into the most prosaic set of characters and events. I listened to at least twenty Donald Westlake novels, including most of his Parker series. I’m still not sure what the appeal of those books is. They’re just straightforward heists, but somehow they’re very fun.

Finally, we’ve landed in 2019. I expect nobody has read this far, so I’ll bury my most momentous news here. I rewrote my novel for adults at least four times, top to bottom, and between this and rewriting We Are Totally Normal, I felt my writer’s block fade to nothing. I’m not sure what happened. I think I just got a better idea of what stories I want to tell and how to tell them. In the process of pitching We Are Totally Normal to agents, I also realized…you can’t just write a good book, you also need to stir up excitement about the book. So I lost some of that feeling of, well, what’s the point of writing: it’ll never sell anyway. Now, when I write something, I always try to include some hook, some way of selling it. Which is not to say that everything sells, but more things do! I started this year with three or so months of depression, which only lifted once I started exploring the idea that I might be transgender. This is something I had thought about years previously, at the beginning of this chronicle, but had dismissed, because, well, I hadn’t dated anyone, I hadn’t done anything, I didn’t know myself. But now, as I started to revisit those ideas, I felt a growing sense of, well, almost…like…euphoria? It’s something I’ll struggle to understand for a long time, I think: being trans still feels weird to me, but it has undeniably improved my life and my mood. I’ve been dressing as a woman and using female pronouns in my private life for six months now (my wife has been very supportive, and we’re more in love than ever), and now I’m going to start being more open about it online. I don’t feel as blocked anymore. I’m out there, I’m writing. Now that my novel for adults is off with my agent, I’m working on the first book in a fantasy trilogy that’ll explore the fucked-up morality, especially re: caste and social heirarchy, in the Indian epic, The Mahabharata. My hero is Karna, obviously. I’m excited about the book! Though who knows what’ll happen with it. I’ve also written a bunch of short stories this year, but none have sold yet. Life is good. But it’s also full of ups and downs, and who knows what’ll happen next? This year, I read so many domestic thrillers! I love domestic thrillers! If I’m ever trapped on a desert island w/ only one genre of book, I want it to be the domestic thriller. They’re just so claustrophobic and twisted. I also got very into true crime: Jon Krakauer’s Missoula and Erik Larson’s Devil In The White City were the standouts here. I read a ton of self-published legal thrillers: Victor Methos was the best of these writers. I got really into Ibsen! Why did nobody tell me about Ibsen! He’s a fantastic writer. His characters speak with so much power, but they always feel quite real. Oh, and I read all five volumes of Cao Xueqin’s Story of the Stone. This 18th century Chinese novel is about a thirteen year old boy who loves women and longs to be one…is it any wonder that I adored it?

Oh, and we also got a dog. Lara. She is cute too. And she and Schubert, our cat, tolerate each other surprisingly well.

Most genre novels require external conflict

I was tooling around recently with an idea I had for a fantasy novel (a take on the Mahabharata that interrogates the caste system, and the way it sort of underpins the entire epic), when I had an epiphany. You know all that stuff I usually write about the action being driven by the main character’s desires and about how you’ve got to capture the heart of longing? It’s not really necessary for a fantasy novel, because in a fantasy novel the action isn’t usually driven by the protagonist: it’s driven by the bad guys.

In the kinds of novels I’ve been writing for the past five or six years, I’ve moved toward a model where all the conflict is internal. There are two opposing drives inside the main character, and they’re drawn in one direction and then in the other, and their actions complicate their own life, until everything comes to a head. I’ve written books this way because it’s true to life. In real life, there aren’t really bad guys. There is just the individual and their milieu; they can accept their fate or they can struggle against it, but if they choose to struggle, the opposition tends to come in such subtle ways, and over such a long period of time, and from so many different corners, that it’s a very hard feat, technically speaking, to dramatize that opposition in a novel.

That’s why with my realist novels I always try to find the right premise. I feel like a good premise–one that’s naturally full of a lot of inherent tension–is so valuable. hI never let go of a good premise

But in this fantasy novel, it’s not like that. Because I’ve got bad guys. And my main character wants stuff, sure, but ultimately if it wasn’t for the bad guys butting into his life, he wouldn’t have much trouble getting what he wants.

I think this is something I once knew, but I lost interest after a while in writing this kind of novel, because I felt it wasn’t true to life. Whereas right now, having just written and turned in a more ‘serious’ novel, I feel more comfortable playing around.

The conventional wisdom is that you should write in one genre and in one style and build an audience over time, but I’m not sure whether that wisdom makes sense anymore. It feels like publishers only want books with breakout potential, and if the book you’re pitching them is more or less the same as the books you’ve written in the past, then it’s hard to convince them it’ll break out. Whereas each time you write in a new genre, publishers see you as an untried quality. They think there is a chance, at least, that you’ll catch fire and turn into something.

Most authors I know are mostly interested in just one or two genres. Or they’re only interested in one or two markets. They can only see themselves writing young adult. Or only adult science fiction and fantasy. That’s all legit. But I feel like anything I like to read is something I wouldn’t mind writing, and I like to read all kinds of stuff. I’ll write a fantasy novel. I want to write a domestic thriller too. And a suspense novel. And a science fiction novel that has spaceships. And even a romance! And a bunch more things besides.

Where do new projects come from?

Have sent my book-for-adults to my agent! But am still fiddling with it a little bit, because I know it won’t go on submission till January at the earliest. However I’m also thinking about what might come. I’m not sure, really. I’ve never been certain where new projects come from. When you’re faced with the blank page, it feels like you can write about anything in the world, but it’s not true. You can only write the stories that only you can write. Everything else feels lifeless.

I have an exercise where I imagine opening a new book, and I imagine staring at “Chapter One” and I imagine looking at the page and what I’d like to see on it. What’s my ideal page one? Not my all-time ideal, but my ideal for right this minute. What do I want to be on that page?

Usually what comes to me first is a certain shape. I want the text to look a certain way on the page. Right now, it’d be a short first paragraph, maybe three lines long, then one long paragraph continuing through the page and maybe halfway onto the next page. After that, the first dialogue. But just a brief exchange, maybe ten lines of dialogue. Then our character looks around, we get some setting description, and we’re already on page three.

In terms of subject matter, it’s a little trickier. I think right now, I’d like to read a character who’s less self-aware, who’s less intelligent, and who’s more confused by the world around him. This character is not without their gifts, but they’re by no means a master of this world. That usually means, in turn, that the narration won’t be as close.

These days I like books that take place in the real world. Invented worlds don’t have the depth of the real world. There also tends to be a lot of describing how people are dressed and what they look like. It all ends up feeling contrived. I don’t want to read a book that’s about other books. I want to read a book that’s about life.

Right now I’m reading Evelina, an 18th century novel by Fanny Burney, and it’s pretty great! The main character is an innocent, a rustic from the country, experiencing London for the first time, so in her letters she gives wonderful descriptions of ordinary life: for instance, I just read a scene where she offends one dude by dancing with another dude after refusing the first dude (which was not okay, apparently, if you were going to refuse somebody, then you needed to sit out the entire dance, so it wouldn’t look like a snub). These are things no Jane Austen novel has ever told me.

I like novels about society, no matter what form that society might take. Webs of relationships always interest me. Smaller-scale, more claustrophobic stories interest me. I like stories about work and about money and about experiences that, while not quite quotidian, are nonetheless somewhat common. I recently read a book about an older Manhattan couple trying to sell their apartment, and it was excellent. Moving is stressful. There’s room for a novel in there. Surely not all novels need to be about adultery..

But where does this leave me when it comes to page three of my novel? Well, I’ve never seen a reason not to set a novel right here, in San Francisco, in the world I know. One of my favorite writers, Edith Wharton, set all her books amongst New York’s high society, even though she freely admitted these were boring and small-minded people. It was the world she knew.

There is a way to write about the real world, however, that comes off somewhat false. If your first scene takes place in the humming office of a startup, with twenty-four-year old techies shooting each other with nerf guns, then you’re not writing about the real world anymore, you’re writing a book about this vision of the tech world that’s been promulgated by films and movies. Not that it doesn’t have truth to it, but you should begin with the truth that only you know, not the truth everybody knows.

So I don’t know. I’ve gotten a dog recently. Maybe I would begin my book at the park, where my dog is running around with the other dogs. Maybe it gets bitten by an out-of-control dog. Plenty of drama there. I would definitely read that book.

In my most recent few projects, the plot has changed dramatically over the course of each rewrite, but what’s remained is the setting and the core of each characters’ motivations. I think when you’ve got some good characters, who want things deeply, you’ve got the beginnings of a story.

But even with all these exercises, you still often end up with a blank page. Or with a page full of crap. So you delete it all and try again. Or just keep soldiering on and hope the crap gets better. No easy answers here.