Having people read your stuff is, sadly, invaluable

As an update to my last post, I sent my book to three friends. One of them read it and got me comments within three days (I KNOW!) and without hours of reading her comments, I realized how to fix the problems I was having in the book. FML

It’s just so annoying. I never send a book to a friend until I think it’s perfect and complete, and they almost always immediately explode my conception of it. I really, really wish it was possible to do without this step, since it slows down the novel-writing process considerably, but sadly I find it difficult.

I think all that having a friend read the book does for me is confirm my secret feeling “No, the book isn’t perfect, and even though it’ll need some work to fix, it’s worth it to put in that work.” That’s it. Usually that’s much more important than any actual recommendations they make. Frequently I read their letter just once, and when I begin revising, I go in directions far from what they suggested. It’s really just that their criticism gives me permission to revise and to keep revising. SO ANNOYING.

Okay, so that’s one thing going on in my life. The other thing is that I have this silly cute adorable little tiny cute tiny grubbley-grobbly milk-face cute widdle tiny foot stompey cute little baby. And I wouldn’t say these things are an immense amount of work, but it is not easy to write or really to do anything productive while you’re caring for them.

We finally got a childcare solution in place, and it’s been incredible–I’m free to work Monday through Friday, between nine and five p.m., which is a lot better than most mothers can say. But it is a weird experience to not be able to work whenever I want. For most of my life, my amount of free time has far surpassed my desire to work. And that’s still true, sort of, but only on a global level. Locally, on any given day, it’s entirely possible that I might want to work, but be unable to!

Lately I’ve been working on what I call my “sexy assassin novel”–it’s a contemporary thriller about a sexy trans woman assassin who gets a hit placed on her by a league of local assassins who’re mad at her because she’s just too darn sexy, and they feel like she’s raising stupid expectations, amongst male clients, for what a female assassin should be like.

Anyway, I realized over the weekend that the last fifteen thousand words I’d written weren’t quite working, so I needed to throw them out. And I wanted to immediately write something, but I couldn’t, because: baby.

Lately I’ve been drawing a lot of inspiration and emotional support by reading about the travails of past woman artists. I read Parisian Lives, by Deirdre Bair, about the twenty years she spent as the biographer first of Samuel Beckett and then of Simone de Beauvoir. It was great! An intimate look at the process of artistic creation, both in terms of the professional, the artistic, and the personal. Man, she had to put up with some bullshit. Like with her fucking department, at the University of Pennsylvania, who were always putting her down and dicking with her over fiddly little stuff related to tenure.

And now I’m listening to The Equivalents, which is largely about the friendship between Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, but which also encompasses the lives of a cohort of other women–all mothers–selected to receive Radcliffe’s inaugural Bunting Fellowship (meant to encourage mothers to return to academic professions they’d dropped in order to bear children).

My wife laughed at me for talking about the kinship I felt for other women who’d been both mothers and writers, and it is slightly laughable. For one thing, I’m married to a woman, and thus the gender norms re: childcare are different from in many of these relationships. We also have help and are financially well-off. But…to be honest that’s true of most of these women! Many had supportive partners, childcare, and were well-off. But they still struggled. I know, I know, it’s peak white feminism. But the concerns of white feminism speak to me. To this day, two of my favorite books are The Feminine Mystique and The Second Shift.

Dunno how to fix my book; might just declare victory and go home

So I took my two weeks, and I reread THE LONELY YEARS, and it still has one very specific problem I’m not sure how to fix. The problem is that the main antagonists of the piece–the roommates of my protagonist–seem a little underdeveloped and, more than that, not entirely in tune with the problems that my protagonist is dealing with. It’s hard to explain; there’s just something subtly wrong about the way the pieces fit together. I wish that their conflicts more closely mirrored my protagonists’ conflicts, without everything dovetailing too much.

The problem with fixing this is twofold. One, the book is pretty tight right now. Usually, when I want to revise some part of the book, I find that my subconscious has conveniently left an empty space (usually an underdeveloped plotline or character) who I can turn into the solution to my problem. But here I’m not seeing anything.

Two, remember a few weeks ago when I said that style determines content, I just feel as if maybe the style of this book, with its claustrophobia and close focus on the protagonist, means I can’t get into the other characters’ stuff as much as I want to. As I tried to think about how to expand their role and get deeper into their heads, I just started feeling like all the possible solutions would hurt the rest of the book.

When it comes to editorial feedback, I’m very wary of the kind of feedback that I call ‘golden mean’ feedback. It’s where the critiquer says, “I love that the book is this, but can it also be not quite so much this?” It’s just a truism that the thing in the text which is most distinctive is also the thing that’ll elicit the most criticism. And, knowing this, the critiquer or editor tries to head off that criticism by finding a version of that thing which can’t be critiqued. But sometimes you’re just doing the thing! If you’re writing a science fiction novel that’s about a relentlessly grim dystopian world then it doesn’t matter if the character also has a cute puppy, because to the extent that the puppy alleviates the grimness, you’re undermining the point of your book! Now would it be nice if the book wasn’t such a downer? Yes, theoretically, but that’s what the book is!

Similarly, would it be nice if my book had a more expansive and even-handed view of some of its themes? Yes, but then it wouldn’t be so lonely and claustrophobic, so what can you do?

My answer is (probably) nothing, but I’ve sent it out to some friends for their comments, so we’ll see what happens!

Finished the rewrite of THE LONELY YEARS, now just noodling for two weeks

Hey jerks, I finished rewriting The Lonely Years. I feel pretty good about it. The last draft was great; this draft is 100,000 times better. Now I’m taking two weeks to think about it before diving back in. Kind of miss the book, but it’s good to take time off.

Have been noodling around, doing some short story stuff, trying out some new techniques. I wouldn’t say the short story is a particularly good laboratory for the novel, but when you’ve worked extensively at novel length, you recognize how much more you can get away with in a short story.

In terms of reading, I read Francoise Gilot’s Life With Picasso, her memoir of her ten year relationship with Pablo Picasso. It was boring at times; could’ve been somewhat shorter. But not uninteresting. Picasso speaks very knowledgeably about painting. As a viewer, it’s very easy to see paintings in terms of themes and content, but he also sees them in terms of the relationships of colors and shapes. It made me think about writing. I think for years I was envious of how poets see words in terms of the relationships between sounds, but I realized that the equivalent of that, for novelists, is seeing the relationship between various story elements. I know that when I talk about story structure and how things are put together, I am often operating way above the level of my audience, but other experienced novelists will be like, yes, yes, that is what you need.

There’s an adage, in writing, that style is content. It’s a bit reductionist, but it’s the idea that the way a book is written transmits as much or more information as the actual what-the-book-is-about. But I’ve recently been thinking about the opposite: style determines content. There are certain styles that only allow for certain content. For instance, I’m very interested in the fine movements and subtle shifts within relationships. In order to bring this to the surface of the text, I’ve inevitably needed protagonists who were themselves quite observant and articulate.

In my story writing I’m experimenting with having a more distant narrator–one who’s more capable of commenting upon the action without being a part of it. But this almost necessitates having characters who are a bit on the less observant side. Because if you have an observant narrator and an observant character, everything bleeds together, and it doesn’t quite work. When you start writing differently, you’re suddenly able to write about very different things. I’ve felt a little trapped by my style: I’ve felt like I was only able to write disaffected well-educated middle-class outsider types. But with this different style, I’m suddenly able to explore not just different milieus but also different kinds of consciousness (because, you know, most people, and especially most men, are not particularly self-aware).

We have childcare in place for our baby now, so I feel some pressure to be productive during the day. Like I spent the first hour today trying to get my Airpods to work, and I was like oh noooooo this is one precious hour of the eight hours when I can pretend I don’t have a child. I think ultimately it’ll be good for my productivity. Now, when I ostensibly have much more time to goof off, I’m spending much more time reading and writing. But we’ll see.

In other news, I’ve become a better person! Unless you personally know me, you probably are unaware of the fact that I am riddled with envy and spite towards other successful writers. It’d gotten so bad recently that I actually didn’t want to read good books (by living writers) and when I did read them, I’d be disappointed if they were good. Not a good place to be! But then one day something broke, and I was like, none of this has anything to do with me.

I don’t know, the whole fame machine, the NYT book pages, and the twitter accolades, and all the back-patting and self-congratulation and all the fawning over TERRIBLE books, I was like…this really has nothing to do with me. I’m just a person sitting in my living room trying to write some books.

Not sure why that helped so much, but now I feel completely better! Like, radical change, radical about-face. I even read the NYT Book section for fun! Just to see what people are writing about! I have to say, I don’t like how the NYT book pages are always so judicious with their praise. Like this week they did something on Noah Van Sciver’s Fante Bukowski, which is his graphic novel chroniclin the life of a terrible, self-important male writer-type. I’ve read FB, and it’s incredible. But they were like, it’s not totally satisfying blah blah. These are the kind of people who rejected Confederacy of Dunces (which FB resembles) because the hero isn’t sympathetic. Whatevs bro! The work is totally successful on its own terms, and I stand by that. Buy it.

Okay, blog post over.

Reread the ultimate in depressing protest novels, EVERY MAN DIES ALONE

I would say the main difference between TV and literature is that in TV the good guys usually win, but in novels, they almost never do. If they were to film a story like Every Man Dies Alone (not this book specifically, because it’s ending is too well-known, but one like it, about German resistance to the Nazis), there’d be some kind of success. They would never produce a TV show about resistance that was so wholly ineffectual.

And yet if you were to look at the history of opposition to totalitarian regimes, you’d find that most resistance was extremely ineffectual. The Nazis lost due to external factors, but I remember being struck by the long history of Soviet dissidence—millions of people who died, were exiled, or imprisoned or suffered other calamities, and all essentially for nothing. Its not clear that their efforts shortened the regime by so much as a single day.

The same can be said of the history of the Civil Rights movement between Reconstruction and the 1950s. Decades of protest that saw an erosion of civil rights, a resurrected KKK, a resurgence in lynching, the defeat of dozens of civil rights bills. Pretty depressing!

But people struggle on, what else is there to do? In Every Man Dies Alone a working-class couple are radicalized against the Nazi regime by the death of their son, and they start distributing subversive postcards. Almost all are immediately picked up and given to the police. The police detectives follow the case almost lackadaisically until after two years the evidence has accumulated and the couple are picked up and killed, along with several members of their family who were totally unconnected to the plot.

The novel was written in 24 days by Hans Fallada, a German writer relatively well-known in his day who, unlike most other well-known German writers, did not go into exile at the beginning of the Nazi regime. He stayed behind, struggling to write books that met the censorship requirements, and, in one case, adding a chapter to the end of a book where the character’s son converts to and extols National Socialism. He wasn’t a Celine or an Ezra Pound, but he certainly doesn’t have the purity of purpose and mind that one wants from one’s protest novelists.

And yet, because he stayed behind, he’s able to give a level of detail and about day-to-day life in Nazi Germany that’s quite rare amongst major German novelists. There is a reason you’ve probably read so many more descriptions of Weimar-era Germany than of life in Nazi Germany: it’s because the writers decamped! They weren’t around to write about it!

What’s striking in Every Man Dies Alone is the breakdown of civil society. The worst are elevated into positions of power. Fear rules all. There are no laws, where the party is concerned, and brutality and knavery rules the day. This isn’t the Nazi Germany of fearsome jack-booted stormtroopers who terrify the masses by marching in unison. It’s the Nazi Germany of petty informers and of sixteen year old kids in Hitler Youth uniforms who frighten their own parents; it’s the Nazi Germany of shirkers desperately trying to avoid military service; of factories that are mismanaged because party members are being elevated into the good jobs; of police departments that still try to catch and prosecute crimes even though there is no law, and where everyone knows that fearsome brutality lies just below the surface, but isn’t quite able to believe it can happen to them.

It’s a novel that makes you realize how much our media, in some ways, glamorizes Nazi Germany. It’s because our images of the era are, to a large part, drawn from images perpetuated by the Nazis themselves. Images of strength and power, soaring buildings, fast cars, sleek, beautiful men in immaculate uniforms, and of cunning, cultivated monsters who are as terrible as they are self-aware.

You won’t find any of that in this book, and that’s what makes it good. Along with its effort, perhaps a failure, to justify the sort of resistance undertaken by its heroes.

I don’t normally reread books. I remember when I first read this book, some eight years ago, I read it as a thriller and was captivated by the plot. It kept me turning pages, and I just wanted to see what would happen next.

On this reading, I could see some of the problems with the pacing. There is a lot of repetition. The last act of the book, where they are imprisoned and tried, is absurdly long. The middle half is stuffed with side-stories about little characters encountered along the way, most of whom ultimately don’t matter much. It’s all a response to the colorlessness of the couple at the center of the book. They’re heroic, but they’re also stoic and laconic. They don’t do a whole lot that’s worth reading or seeing about, so the author is forced to figure out a way to give the book a middle. Fallada famously wrote the book in 24 days, based on information he got from the police dossier of the couple who inspired the story, and he died before he could revise it, so what you see is what you get. Nonetheless, it’s very worth reading, as is his first major novel, Little Man, What Now? which is about a couple trying to survive in Depression-era Weimar—it’s a sort of German Grapes of Wrath. I’ve never read any of his other books, but I do someday intend to.

Things you might not know about me: I love the DC Universe. Have been really liking the show HARLEY QUINN

Haven’t been able to write a blog post lately, because I feel like one ought to comment on the political situation, but nothing I could say would be adequate to the task. I support the protests. They’re exciting. Hearts and minds seem to be changing, which is incredible.

On a personal level, life is great. Have been focusing entirely on my novel for adults, The Lonely Years. Have been working on it since January of 2018, something on the order of two and a half years, and I’m a day or two from finishing the fifth full rewrite. Feeling very happy with it. Not sure if there’ll still be a publishing industry when this is over, but the novel will get out somehow.

Other than that, I’m just a baby-having individual. She’s gurgling and making her “urrr-ahhh” sounds next to me right now. Such a cute little silly baby.

Let’s be honest, writing takes like two or three hours a day. The rest of the time I’m just doing whatev, watching TV, playing video games, reading, and maybe combining one or more of the above with holding and rocking the baby. In terms of media my major find has been a DC Universe original TV show: Harley Quinn. This show is amazing. It’s like a drug to me.

As background, something you might not know is that I’ve got a shocking fondness for the DC Universe. I cannot blame this on some sort of childhood nostalgia. Like all right-thinking millennials, I preferred Marvel as a kid. The X-men is really too powerful a story for children. Just the idea of a group of teens who are hated because they are TOO SPECIAL was too much for my tiny brain.

As an adult, I sometimes tried to get into superhero comics—always Marvel comics—but found that I just didn’t like the art. Marvel comics tend to be extremely busy, on a panel level, with way too much detail, way too much linework, way too much articulation of the body. They also use kind of a washed-out color palette (aside from Spiderman, which mostly avoids this sin) that makes them boring to look at. These aren’t universal issues, just general problems I had with many of the comics.

Then at some point I was reading through recommendations for best comics, and I found a blog post recommending Batgirl of Burnside, which is Cameron Fletcher’s run as the writer of Batgirl. Basically she moves into Gotham’s version of Brooklyn (Burnside) and becomes a total hipster and also fights crime. The art style was way more stylized, with brighter, more interesting colors (it strongly reminded me of Scott Pilgrim, which was one of my first comic book loves). From there, I got into All-Star Superman (Grant Morrison’s incredible year-long superman story), and I dunno, I just started liking DC comics. Not all of them. Not even most of them. But here and there I found some really worthwhile ones.

In the process, I subscribed to DC Universe, which is DC’s subscription service that gives you basically unlimited access, on the ipad, to their entire comics library. And there are also TV shows! Now, I didn’t watch the TV show, because superhero TV shows are silly, and I figured it’d all just be Smallville or Arrow or stuff like that. But I finally, with the shutdown, ended up checking out the Harley Quinn show for some reason—oh yeah, it was because I loved Birds of Prey so much. It’s not a movie for the ages, but it’s a good, entertaining, non-stupid movie, and that’s a bar not many superhero movies meet!

The long story short, Harley Quinn is incredible. It really captures the core of superhero stories, which is…they are soap operas. They are about relationships. Obviously there’s villain-fighting, but even that only works when the villain and the hero have a long-term relationship.

The backbone of Harley Quinn is the titular hero’s relationship with Poison Ivy, who helps break her out of Arkham and helps her break up with the Joker. These two are so much fun! It’s a classic odd couple scenario. Poison Ivy is more sensible, a bit of a loner, much more powerful, while Harley Quinn is impetuous and gets into scrapes that Ivy is always rescuing her from. The two of them are best friends! It’s like Broad City, but with superheroes.

The tone of the show is broadly satirical, similar to Lego Batman or Space Ghost Coast To Coast. It makes a lot of hay from being able to reach deep into the DC canon and make subtle allusions to the characters’ past while also updating or subverting them. For instance, Dr. Psycho, Wonder Woman’s antagonist, is, in the comics, something of a misogynist. In the show, he gets expelled from the Legion of Doom after he calls Wonder Woman a misogynistic slur on TV during a fight.

The heroes largely don’t play a role in the show. It’s mostly Harley fighting with other villains, engaging in hijinx. Some of the supporting cast pops out more than others. King Shark and Clayface join Harley’s crew (in addition to Doctor Psycho), and the two of them are just darling. They are so sweet and nice. King Shark is a nerdy computer hacker who disdains violence and is relentlessly positive, while Clayface is a hammy wannabe actor who adds a mock Shakespearean intonation to all of his characters, no matter how inappropriate (for instance, when playing a college student “My NAME…is Stephanie. And I WANT to see Chad and to KNOW if he is right FOR ME.”)

It’s really the family dynamics that keep one watching the show, and it’s actually reinvigorated my interest in superheroes as a whole. Oh, and the show is R-rated I guess and has blood and swearing and people getting murdered right and left. Strong recommend.

Definitely wish writing books involved more, like, typing

I’ve fallen into a pattern with this book where I write for a few days, then feel a slow cessation of desire to write, which, as I have learned, is usually because I’ve subconsciously detected some sort of problem in the text. Then I stop writing, and I mull. There’s a few days of total confusion and despair. Then a solution appears. But…and here is my innovation…I don’t immediately start writing. Instead I wait for some days (or even weeks) as the solution builds, and as that solution reverberates through the text, forming connections and sticking to other pieces of the narrative, solving other problems. It sounds cool and fun and easy, and I suppose it is those things, but it’s also slow and frustrating. I kind of miss the days when I’d just bang on the keyboard every single day. Yes, they were ultimately unproductive, since I’d follow a half-baked conception of the story and sometimes even produce an entire draft before I realized what was wrong. But that at least felt like progress. This does not feel like progress. It feels like doing nothing.

Writing doesn’t seem like it needs to be this hard. Ideally you just create a bunch of characters with opposing desires and set them free to interact. The problem is that when you do this, you inevitably create large, dramatic stories, focused on outsized people and event. And that’s because, frankly, interpersonal conflict is not a major part of ordinary life. Peoples’ conflicts, in life, are of the smaller, more mundane, diffuse sort. People are beset by creeping anomie and loneliness and self-destruction and by the persistent, yet sourceless and blameless, attempt of society to destroy them and people like them. It’s inherently undramatic and, hence, rather a hard thing to dramatize. Modern society doesn’t have heroes or villains, only victims, and it’s very hard to write a story about victims.

I think that’s why, in my storytelling, I have to work so annoyingly hard. Because the natural tendency, for my characters, is to not come into conflict. I have to continually refine my stories to discover those rare situations in which these subterranean conflicts are brought to the surface, but in the process I don’t want to distort or enlarge them, I want them to remain just as small and persistent as they are when they’re still underground.

It’s not an easy task! The continual tendency of my characters, when given their own way, is for there to not be a story at all: for them to split apart and to go their separate lonely ways. It takes a lot of artifice to knot them together even for a week or a month, much less a year, so as to produce something that can be visualized: concrete scenes, with dialogue and action and conflict and stakes. To put it differently, Virginia Woolf didn’t just show us ‘a day in the life’ of Mrs. Dalloway: she showed us the very specific day when she is reintroduced to not just one, but two, of her former lovers.

Of course Virginia Woolf wrote Mrs. Dalloway in a year, and I’m on my third year of working on this book. But we can’t all be Virginia Woolf!

In any case, I sometimes undershoot my target, producing work that’s tedious, but I also sometimes overshoot it, producing work that’s sentimental and needlessly dramatic!

What I dislike most about this way of working is that the characters don’t quite come alive in my mind in the way they do if I work more organically. Each character contains a kernel of life–a tendency–but it’s something I refine as I go. Only in the final drafts does each character become the thing it always should’ve been. What I carry most throughout a book is the voice: sometimes the voice of the characters, but more often the voice of the narration. I used to think that voice was all that matters and voice sells books, and that’s true, but only if you pair the voice with a plot that uses attention-getting devices to propel the reader through the book. But if the story you want to tell is antithetical to those plots, then you need to work much harder.

It’s not unpleasant. I’m having fun, I think. And it’s honestly not a lot of work. But what does grate on me is the pointlessness of it. Nobody wants this kind of book. To me it constitutes the merger of realist and romantic fiction: it’s about taking the larger-than-life qualities from characters in stories–the qualities we all aspire to embody–and putting them into realistic situations. I don’t think that I write reality as it is; I write reality at its best, when it’s peopled by human beings who’re trying to be good and honest and struggle to achieve something. But it’s not something anybody really wants or admires, especially because when it’s done well all the strings disappear, and you feel like you’re reading something that’s not constructed at all.

When I think about the purpose of my books, I just think…the point is to give people hope. The life that we lead, on a day to day level, does matter, and it does offer scope for human connection and heroic action. You don’t need a radical break from the world to live well. You don’t need to stand in front of a line of tanks or leave your wife or become a whistleblower exposing corrupt practices. You don’t even need to help other people. You just need to know yourself and to pursue your own deeply-held desires. I really do think that we all have our struggles, and that there is honor and value in those struggles, and that’s why I write what I do. I think if my fiction had no connection to ordinary life, as lived by people like me and those I’ve known, then I’d be too depressed to write. But ordinary life, while full of joy and honor, just isn’t dramatic! Sort of a difficult problem, and my solution, which is to use all my craft and knowledge of storytelling to eke out another few pages of the reader’s interest, is inherently unsatisfying. But whatevs, that’s life.

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Not gonna lie, I’ve been feeling really bummed lately. People are like, “Is it the baby?” No, it’s not the baby. She’s fine. She’s totally cool.

It’s the coronavirus, mostly. I hate being cooped up. Our little family doesn’t have it at all bad. We’ve got a beautiful home, some entertaining pets (the cat has gotten REALLY clingy since the baby came), and each other, but I just need more excitement in my life.

For me, excitement is meeting and talking to new people. Over the course of the last ten years, my writing has become much more inflected by the things and people I encounter in ordinary life. I just enjoy hearing peoples’ stories, gossiping, listening to what’s bothering them. All that feels kind of gone these days. I mean there’s the telephone, it’s true, and that’s been good, but sometimes it feels hard to have anything to say to people when you’re all stuck at home.

But we’ll live. My writing has been going extremely well. I’m rewriting my book for adults, The Lonely Years, and I’m debating whether it’s a work of genius or just really good. No, just kidding, it’s not either of those things yet, but it’s getting better. With each draft, it’s getting better. Writing has turned into such a funny experience for me. There’s the drafting part, and then there’s the part where I look back and see what I have. That’s the part where I consciously choose which parts to emphasize and which parts to discard. What I love most is making these subtle tweaks in the starting conditions of the book, which then reverberate through the entire novel and make the whole thing so much tighter and more compelling. I’m just talking little stuff, very hard to describe, about what people think of each other and what their history was or has been.

Most days I’m in the slough of Despond, of course. Having a truly good writing day remains unusual. But they’ve been happening. It’s nice to have a book. Nice to work on a book. Even if the book doesn’t sell, you don’t get that many books in your life! When you’ve got ahold of one, it really feels like a gift.

In terms of my reading, I re-read Middlemarch for the first time since, I think 2011 or 2012. It’s so good that it makes you wonder why the rest of us even bother. George Eliot makes it all look easy. You just put together a mismatched assortment of characters and watch them make poor marriage decisions. I love everything of hers that I’ve finished (which is to say, I love MM, Mill on the Floss, and Scenes From A Clerical Life–I gave up on Daniel Deronda halfway through, because it was so utterly tedious). What impresses me most is her fine eye for extremely minute differences in social class. British literature (and culture) is famous for the great seriousness with which it treats the class system, but there’s no other author who can make quite so much hay out of the tiny difference in social station between Rose Vincy–the daughter of a well-off manufacturer–and Tertius Lydgate–the poor nephew of a provincial squire. Their entire plotline, essentially, is constructed from Rose’s desire to take one ever-so-small step up the social ladder.

As America becomes a more class-bound society, I think we’re going to see much more of this kind of thing in American literature, by the way. Our contemporary language and storytelling really struggle to capture all the class distinctions that we very clearly can perceive. For instance, people always try to make out young Bernie supporters as spoiled young kids or as college kids who want welfare, but what they really are is de-classed. They’re kids with middle-class social markers who have living situations traditionally associated with the working class. The entire American socialist movement lives and (mostly) dies over its attempt to build solidarity between the working and middle class. An attempt that’s failed largely because of a lack of class consciousness in our society. Something we can rectify with literature!

(No, I’m just kidding, literature has no social relevance, and we all know it. But that’s okay. It’s not like Middlemarch started any revolutions either.)

Kind of nice to not have a book under contract anymore

I’m at home, staying safe. Newborn life. Staying up really late, sleeping in. It feels a little like summer break to me, honestly, and it’s resulting in something of a regression. I’ve been playing lots and lots of computer games (Witcher 3, Dead Cell, Enter The Gungeon, and Frostpunk are some of my latest faves). I’ve been re-watching Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine and Rick & Morty. I’ve been listening to the Mrs. Pollifax mystery / thrillers, which are delightful! So warm and kind! And I’ve been slowly rereading MIDDLEMARCH, which is incredible: why do the rest of us even bother writing when Middlemarch already exists?

My writing has been…happening? Writing is very painstaking, exacting work. What I’ve come to realize is that the market doesn’t really impose any standards on the work. When you’re starting out, you want to write something that’s ‘publishable’. But that’s kind of a meaningless term. You can write something quite good that never gets published, and you can write something bad that does. Moreover, the things one cares the most about in one’s work are often things the market doesn’t demand.

For instance, I care very much about structure. I like things to fit just so. It’s hard to make character, theme, and relationships all work together in a satisfying way with a minimum of plot scaffolding. But in the reaction to my latest book, I’ve realized this reads to some people as the book having no plot or no story. No no no, it does. It really does. Most novels and movies, to me, have very bad plots. They have WAYYYY too much plot, and the plot isn’t at all germane to the themes (think the vampires who always appear in the third act of every Twilight novel and kidnap Bella, they have nothing to do with her essential problem, which is her loneliness and anomie). So this is something I care about a lot, but publishing and readers don’t care about it.

I got a little depressed the other day about the reception to We Are Totally Normal, and I started listening to the audiobook, just to reassure myself that it was good. Within minutes, I was like…this is great…this is fun and carefree and charming, it’s exactly what a YA novel should be. And yet the book doesn’t connect with YA readers. If it connects with anyone, it connects with adults. And yet it is so manifestly a YA novel in its structure and aims. That’s the problem. I wrote a book that corrected all my issues with the YA novel, but the absence of those things reads to many people like a mistake or an oversight.

But in the process I made what I think is a really good YA novel, and that’s all that matters. I think with all my works in progress I reach a point where I’m literally just writing it for myself. I’ve blown past the point where agents, readers, or editors are demanding something, and I’m pushing for something that I think is missing in the world. It’s a very weird feeling! I guess I’ve never thought of myself as pushing the envelope in any way. I aspired to push envelopes, but that was always a project for the future. And yet here I am, spending days and hours thinking about the pieces of my work-in-progress, trying to make sure everything is weighted out and that all the parts really sing. It’s frustrating work, but it’s also very satisfying, almost mathematical in the level of abstraction involved, and when it finally snaps together, as it did with We Are Totally Normal, the result, to me, is a very elegant and beautiful object.

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.