If you’re bored by it, don’t write it

I was going to write today’s blog post about how to organize your reading life. I had some trenchant observations to offer, apropos of my reading a few books of literary criticism. But instead of writing that post, I sat here staring at the blank screen for fifteen minutes.

Lately I’ve learned to listen to my own disinterest. Because there is no point in putting more words out there just for the sake of entertaining an invisible audience that may or may not care. I’m not saying my post on the reading life would not have been interesting, or that you wouldn’t have gotten something from it. But, for me, that is not enough. There has to be something more.

I’ve also had many thoughts lately on skepticism. Recent replication failures, particularly in the field of social psychology, has me questioning much of the stuff I thought I know in the social sciences. It turns out that even scientists aren’t amazing at determining even the correlations between things in the human world, much less the direction of causation. It’s very difficult to know anything, and I’ve begun taking all arguments about patterns, particularly those patterns that are created after looking at the data, with a lot of skepticism.* But, again, everything there is to say about skepticism has already been said. My opinions are just David Hume mixed with Thomas Kuhn mixed with Daniel Kahneman. These ideas exist pretty readily out there in the world, and anyone can find them. So what’s the point?

More and more I feel like writing the things that only I can write, and I really don’t think I’ll ever contribute much that’s new to the world of ideas. Sometimes I read essay collections, and I’m like, “Wow, this is so organized and so interesting. Maybe I should write an essay.” But then I think about all the research that’s involved, and I get exhausted and depressed. It’s only an hour or two later, that I’ll be like, “Wait a second, I don’t have to write an essay. I don’t have to write anything. I can have my own thoughts, for my own elucidation, and never write them down.”

I can’t be the first author to have thought this. Last night I was skimming Edith Wharton’s memoir A Backward Glance, and in the chapters about Henry James, she writes that it’s a pity nobody ever recorded his conversation, because he was one of the most thoughtful, interesting, and witty people she had ever met. She said this entire side of him, the joking side, never came out in his published writings and only rarely in his letters. Now…Henry James wrote alot, and it’s pretty staggering to think he was able to use language in ways he never put on paper. But the man was also a genius, and maybe he realized that while he was funny, his humor in no way matched what he was able to do in other arenas (now if you come back at me and say that Henry James’s writing is funny, I will have to disagree with you. There exists humor within it, but jokes? there are almost none).

The practice of following the thread of my own interest is one I’ve been using a lot this year. I think it’s hard when you’re used to school, where you have to write on assignment, or freelancing, where you write for money, or genre fiction, where you write under contract, or the workshop, where you write because you’ve a slot to fill. Following the thread of your own interest doesn’t come easily, because, especially early in one’s writing career, you essentially have nothing to say, or at least no idea how to say it, and so ‘following your own interest’ would more or less mean silence.

Nor is that thread a very strong one, especially at first. Usually when you tug on it, the thing snaps. And sometimes this is good. Maybe I wasn’t very interested at all. But before I learned to listen, the voice of my own interest was a very quiet one, and it was easily overpowered by the voices of fear and of ambition. It takes a lot of quietness to listen to your own interest, because it’s not very insistent, and it’s extremely willing to be overruled.

In my current work-in-progress, I had one situation that repeated itself (essentially, two different characters, in two different chapters, did something that was very similar). And it was very easy to convince myself this was a stylistic choice. Whenever I felt a sense of dissatisfaction, I was like, “But I’m doing it on purpose!”

It took faith to go back and delete the repetition and search for another answer. But the moment I had done it, I knew that it was the right decision. Similarly, in re-reading the book, I’ve noticed places where I get bored: situations that are perfectly well-drawn, but which simply don’t cut to the heart of what I’m interested about. Cutting these parts will leave gaps in the story that I’ll have to fill, and I won’t be able to say precisely why they’re being cut, but it’s still something that has to be done.

Following the voice of my own interest means, most often, not writing something. So many times over the past year, I’ve looked at the opening lines of a story or a novel, and I’ve said, “This doesn’t work for me.” Which is an easy thing to say when it’s just a line or a paragraph or a scene, but about when it’s an entire concept? What about when it’s something you’ve had in your idea box for years? What about when you haven’t finished anything in a month, and you sit down every day, and nothing comes out right? At that point there’s a very strong temptation to just force it. And I think if you’ve a very good sense of narrative structure (a much stronger sense than I), then that forced result can often be published and perhaps even acclaimed.

But the biggest damage there is not to your career or to the public, but to your own sense of what you’re interested in. I don’t know, I shouldn’t phrase this in the second person. Authors all have their own ways of finding inspiration, and many of them (including a few great ones, like Anthony Trollope) seem to profit from just churning stuff out. But there are entire years in my life (I’m thinking of 2014 to 2016, the years right after selling Enter Title Here) when I was completely unable to get in touch with my own inspiration, and once you’ve gone through a period like that, you don’t ever want to risk losing touch with yourself again.

*Human beings, when we look even at random data, can usually assemble some sort of pattern from it. For me to even come close to believing in a person’s assertion, one of two things must be true: i) they must have tested it in some way, using protocols and methodologies established before data collections; or ii) it has to fit with my preconceived biases =]

I guess it’s not really surprising that young adult fiction might have an ageism problem

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Been thinking a lot about ageism within the writing community. More specifically, about younger writers shutting out or belittling older writers. Ageism to me is fascinating, because it’s the only form of prejudice where you go from oppressed to oppressor and then back to oppressed, and in most cases this happens without you even realizing.

Like, when you’re a kid it makes sense to hate on older people, because you’re establishing your independence. But at some point, without even realizing it, you become a person in the prime of your life—somebody who has real power within your local sphere—but, in most cases, you continue to perceive yourself as a Young Turk who’s doing battle with your elders.

You see this so much in the tech sector, here in San Francisco, where you have people in their mid-to-late twenties who are working in positions of power, and they’re still talking about older people as if they’re old fogies who’re set in their ways, without realizing…this is gross. These people you’re talking about aren’t your teachers, and they’re not your parents. They’re not people who’re using their age as a way of controlling you. Instead they’re coming to you, asking for collaboration and for jobs, and you’re dismissing them because of their age.

But the young’uns don’t realize it, because they never adjusted to thinking of themselves as powerful people.

In most fields, of course, the effect is muted, because, at least up until retirement age, older people continue to have most of the power. For instance, in academia (and I’m including creative writing academia here), younger academics might have age-prejudice, but I wouldn’t call them ageist, because the older professors in the department, even when they’ve ceased to publish or contribute, oftentimes still have an outsized amount of power.

In traditional fields, you see ageism manifest at the outskirts, whenever younger people with middling status have to interact with older people who have low or declining status. For instance, older lecturers in departments get treated even worse than younger lecturers, because younger lecturers, it’s assuming, might be on their way someplace. Older middle managers are treated worse than younger middle managers, and it’s for the same reason. Whenever older people have the same status as younger people, it’s assumed that the older person is less innovative and intelligent, even though both might have the same productivity.

 

As I said, in literary fiction, academia is a countervailing force, creating an institutional environment in which older people can hold onto power. And in science fiction and fantasy, fandom serves much the same function. Because fan activities are grounded and controlled by older people (so far as I can tell) and Hugo voting also skews older, there remains a place for older people (which you can see in the case of older writers who get nominated for awards even after younger ones have begun to dismiss them).

But I’ve found that the young adult field is rank with ageism. It’s probably the worst environment for it that I’ve ever seen, because there’s no countervailing force that gives older people an advantage. First of all, the field is new. There was no young adult publishing, at least as we know it, twenty years ago. Secondly, it has no memory. Careers don’t even last for five years. There’s at least fifty percent attrition (if not more!) between book one and book two. The number of people who put out a book three is probably less than ten percent. This field chews up people and spits them out. Afterwards, I have no idea where they (we?) go. I’m pretty sure they (we?) just quite writing. In YA, an “older” writer who’s successful might be someone like Stephanie Meyer or Gayle Forman (who’re both only in their forties!) Even our “Old Guard” is barely into middle age.

Finally, this is a field that is about the magical primacy of teenagerhood, and it’s dedicated to the notion that there is nothing teenagers can’t do, and that there’s no feeling or thought that they’re not capable of. And when you’re surrounded by those sorts of semiotics, it’s sort of unavoidable that you would slowly begin to discount the value of age.

As a result, at YA writer events, you usually see cliques form by age. The twentysomethings hang out together, the thirtysomethings hang out together, and the fortysomethings hang out together. I don’t know where the fifty- and sixtysomethings go. They get shunted aside fully. As I said, I don’t think the YA field even has a place in its cultural imagination for people who’re over fifty, so most of what I’m talking about here is ‘age discrimination’ against people who’re, like, forty-seven.

Now I don’t necessarily think this is the worst thing in the world. America today, at least amongst the sorts of middle- and upper-class people who write YA books, is a pretty age-segregated place. There are entire neighborhoods and towns where only young people live, or where all the homes are “starter” homes. I’m thirty-one, and I go to parties here in San Francisco, and I almost never see somebody who’s older than forty (this is not the case, I’ll note, in other places, especially rural areas, or in ethnic and religious enclaves, in rural Oregon, in Salt Lake City, and at certain Indian events, I’ve been shocked at times to see people of all ages getting drunk together). I think all of this makes us really unused to socializing with older people, which, after all, is something different from socializing with younger people. You’re gonna talk about different shit. Have different concerns. Maybe have different political opinions. So if people gravitate to others of their own age, I totally get it.

Where it becomes a problem is when one of the ages is more powerful than the other ages. And in YA writing, I think it’s true, the perception exists that the younger you are, the more likely you are to get buzz and to succeed as a writer.

Now I don’t know how true this perception this. It could be entirely false. As I said, I don’t think New York publishing necessarily cares a lot about the age of a debut author.

But because the perception exists amongst authors, I think it leads to a lot of resentment when younger people hang out together. Because in that case it’s not just like cleaving to like, it’s actually the Hot Young Things all getting together and hording their success.

Furthermore, it can lead to some desperate social maneuvers that (somewhat comically) oftentimes resemble an inverted high school, with older writers doing their best to speak and dress in a younger fashion so as to ingratiate themselves with younger authors. None of which is something I think is particularly necessary, by the way! I don’t think popularity with other authors correlates with your book’s success. These are all just neurotic games that we play. But the fact is that while we’re waiting to succeed or fail, we still have to live in this social environment, and I think these sorts of social dynamics make it into a more unpleasant place for everybody.

Some advice to aspiring writers on how to search for the heart of longing

tolkien-biopic.jpgIn earlier posts I’ve written somewhat about the heart of longing, and I believe I might even have said that there’s no point in writing anything unless you begin with the heart of longing. This is the sort of thing that people often say: “There’s no point in writing unless you are (pure of heart / care only about the work / find that you can’t do anything else / etc / etc).” And people say this stuff even though they know it’s complete bullshit.

People don’t write because they’ve found some mystical, transcendent reason for writing. No, they usually begin writing because of vanity. It’s the same reason kids aspire to be actors or rock stars. Writing is a romantic occupation. People admire writers. Bookish kids, especially, tend to admire writers. And if you’re a bookish kid, you often want, more than anything, to be like the hero of a book. And since bookish kids are unlikely to grow up and slay dragons, they oftentimes decide that they want to be artistic heroes. They’d like to be Ray Bradbury slaving away at a rented typewriter in his library. They’d like to be a thin, ascetic J.R.R. Tolkien smoking a pipe and dreaming up entire languages. They want to Auntie Jane Austen, who sits at her escritoire in the parlor like all the other old maids, but who, unbeknownst even to her kin, is producing works that’ll last for two hundred years.

That is where the impulse to write comes from.

So given that you’re beginning totally backwards, not with any idea in mind or anything in particular to say, but only with the vague, unformed desire to live a bold and interesting life, how do you go about writing a book?

This is where so much writing advice breaks down, since much of it is given out by freaks. Yes, some minority of writers do blaze with a singular and unique vision even at an early age, and it’s these writers who tend to reap a disproportionate amount of success in the field and, hence, position themselves later as dispensers of advice.

And as for the rest of the advice-givers, I think the long years of failure in this field will often alter you in ways that it’s difficult to see and understand. We began, at age 14 or 18 or 22 or 25 or 45 with these romantic notions, but those ideas fade after awhile, because: a) we never achieve any success; b) whatever success we do achieve tends to be so unsatisfying that we find it difficult to believe we ever lusted after it; and c) we eventually discover our voices and, as the joys of success fade, we find that the joy we take in the writing tends to increase.

Thus we end up, in middle age, saying things like, “It’s not worth writing unless you start out with the heart of longing.” Because this is something that we, after twelve or fifteen years of striving, have learned on such an intuitive level that we’ve forgotten we ever felt differently.

 

So much nonsense has been written about finding your creativity. The real, honest truth is that everybody has to come by their creativity in their own way. There are some people who call up the muse with a snap of the fingers; they know exactly what they want to write, and they sit down and do it on command. And it’s these people who perpetuate the notion that writing is a craft. They’re the ones who say stuff like, “Writer’s block is a ridiculous notion. Writing is a job, just like being a plumber, and have you ever heard of plumbers getting plumber’s block?”

But the truth is, writing is not like being a plumber. Plumbers aren’t presented with a blank space and told, “Hey, do something with this! Maybe it ought to involve water and shitting? I don’t know. Be creative! But also make me feel something. Oh yeah, and it should preferably appeal to enough people that a major multinational corporation can make money off of it.”

Writing is about creation something from nothing. It’s a creative profession. And in every creative profession, people are at the mercy of their own imaginations. Sometimes that thing you need—the idea or the character or the setting or whatever—simply does not come.

Not being able to find the heart of longing is simply one possible way that a writer’s imagination can fail them. There are others, and many of these other failure states are much harder to remedy.

But right now I’m talking about the heart of longing. And I think that as writers, especially writers of genre fiction, we’re often a little bit scared to write from a place that’s very personal. For one thing, we might be afraid that our ‘very personal’ place is trite and that nobody will care about it. If you’re a white woman in your late twenties or early thirties who’s afraid of never finding love, for instance, then you might think, oh the world has enough of this, and nobody will want to read it. Nothing new can come from this. I ought to write a story about a soldier returning home from Iraq to a nation that’s forgotten him.

Or if you’re a geeky kid who grew up playing video games and watching sci-fi movies, then maybe you’re so accustomed to reading and watching narratives about people who’re very different from you (gun-toting space marines, for instance) that you’ve lost sight of the connection between that space marine, who seems to never feel any pain or misery, and your own longing to be a hero. When we read or watch something in order to be transported to somewhere new, we often purposefully obscure or turn away from the things within ourselves that are driving this desire to escape.

But I don’t think you can write a decent Star Wars or a Lord of the Rings or a Dune unless you’re in touch with exactly those things. Paradoxically, it’s only by delving deep within ourselves that we will be able to create works that allow other people to transcend their own fears.

Which is to say that in some ways finding the heart of longing isn’t an imaginative act at all. It’s the opposite. I think it’s about looking inside yourself and finding the places where longing stirs within you. What do you want? What are you afraid of losing?

And I don’t mean that you should articulate these desires. Anything that can be plainly explicated is useless as a source for fiction, because fiction is about those feelings that can’t be conveyed except through actions and images. What I’m saying is that if you want to find the heart of longing, you should observe yourself as you move through the world. Where do you experience longing? And not just desire: I’m talking about that bone-deep, painful longing. Where do you experience the feelings that you’re afraid to admit even to yourself?

Every writer has at least one longing, which is the desire to write a great book. But the longings I am talking about go so much deeper than that. The longing to write a great book is almost a paltry one, because it’s something that’s within your power. You can sit down, day after day, and try to write a book. But in your life, you contain desires that are already lost to you. I will never be a secret agent. I will never walk on Mars. I will never be Casanova. These things are not possible for me. And yet the desires remain inside me. If you can find those scarred places, then that’s where you’ll find the heart of longing.

Initially, these desires will only reveal themselves in the briefest glimpses. I mean you’ll feel a pang and then, quicker than you catch hold of it, the pang will be gone, and while you’ll be left with the memory of its passing, you won’t remember the feeling of it.

The effort to pin down these desires is a tough one. The temptation is to take the memory of the desire and try to write something immediately. But that won’t work; you’ll produce something that’s nothing more than a pastiche of other things you once loved.

What you need is to work to reproduce the desire itself. When you write, think about that desire, and whenever you write something that makes the desire flicker to life, then you should follow that trail until the desire dies down. Finally, after some time, it’s possible that you’ll hit upon a voice—not a first-person voice, necessarily, but a certain cadence and rhythm and set of words and images—that make this desire come to life more fully than it ever has before. And once you have that voice, you can begin to write your book.

In my experience the search for the heart of longing is never something that happens entirely behind the keyboard or computer screen. You can’t sit alone in a room and conjure up the heart of longing. If your hunt for the heart of longing takes place entirely behind the computer screen, you’ll end up producing a whisper of something that feels sort of right, and then saying to yourself, “Well that’s it. That’s the real thing.”

But if you occasionally go out into the world and experience the desire in its natural habitat, you’ll see that what you’ve made doesn’t really capture the real thing at all, and you’ll go back to work and produce something better.

And yet…most of the work does need to take place while you’re alone, struggling with the words. Because finding the heart of longing is only the start of the journey; the real work comes when we try to create something, on the page, that can arouse that longing within other people.

Writing blog posts doesn’t actually take very much time

Longtime blog readers probably know that I am a huge fan of personal metrics of various sorts. I spent years upon years tracking all kinds of shit about myself, including how many hours I wrote, how many I read, how many steps I took, how many words I wrote, number of rejections I got, times I exercised, blog posts I wrote, and on and on and on, even extending into some really weird and arcane stuff (when I was first trying to expand my social media presence, for instance, I gave myself a point for each day that I posted a comment on somebody else’s Facebook post).

Sometime last year this all became way too daunting and meaningless. The amount of data being collected was so much that I had no idea how to use it effectively, and I eventually ended the entire logging endeavor (archiving something like twelve years of data in the process!)

But obviously I’m still the same nerdy guy underneath, so lately I’ve been approaching logging in a different way. The study of one person is obviously never going to be rigorous or scientific, but it also doesn’t need to be. The point of all this logging and goal-setting is simply for me to feel more comfortable in myself. So lately I’ve been passively gathering data in the form of a daily time-use log. Each day I record it whenever I start a new activity or stop another activity.

On days when I’m out and about, the log is obviously pretty sketchy. For instance I might write down (6 PM to 12 PM – Party!!!) But in an ordinary day it’ll mostly be a mix of writing, reading, paid work, TV or computer gaming, and, in the afternoons and evenings, socializing. It’s been interesting to see how I work when I’m just observing myself, without any goals or strictures.

For instance, for years I’ve been dieting (I lost 110 pounds from January 2012 to January 2015), and throughout that time I generally tried to eat around 1600 calories a day. In the last year however, with the tumult of traveling and the book launch and of my wedding, I’ve gained 20 pounds. Now this is in part a totally normal thing. Ninety-five percent of dieters regain their lost weight within five years. I’m actually significantly ahead of the curve in that I’ve kept most of it off for more than five years. However, the body does strike back against what it perceives as a period of extended starvation.

In any case, in the last few weeks I’ve tried to reassert order, but in a gentle way. Rather than alternating between having zero sweets and having cheat days where I binged on them, I now allow everything, so long as it gets logged. Unsurprisingly, this has reduced the binging. It’s interesting to see that my calorie consumption has tended to be closer to 1900-2100 in reality (I’m 240 pounds, so that’s still a level at which I’d lose weight). I’ve also felt less desire to binge now that I know nothing will ever be off-limits. I don’t know, probably this scheme will fall apart eventually too, but nothing lasts forever.

Other interesting data: I write much more than I think I do. For years I struggled to have more than two hours of writing time in a day. But I think relaxing and allowing myself to write during all the odd moments when it occurs to me has been a good thing. In the last week I’ve averaged almost 3.7 hours of writing per day. And that’s real writing time. I’m not just counting time in front of the computer. Whenever I switch over to a distraction (computer games, often), I mark that.

Writing time does however include the hours spent doodling in the notebook or staring into space or just sitting poised in front of the keyboard. I’m trying at the moment to think of an idea for a novel for adults. I very much want to write a book for adults, but nothing has ever yet gelled for me in the way that Enter Title Here or It’s Probably Just A Phase had. I think though that the aimless time is actually very productive. If there’s anything I’ve learned from the extensive periods of writer’s block in my life, it’s that the right character is a necessity. The write character–someone who’s strong and larger-than-life and animated by deeply-held yearnings–can make small talk in the kitchen seem like it’s of riveting, earth-shattering importance. Conversely, the wrong character can make impending nuclear war seem dull. So right now I’m spending a lot of time just listening for the right character. Again, not sure if this effort will bear fruit.

Oh, and one more insight, which is the original reason I came here to write this post, is that writing blog posts only takes fifteen minutes!

Usually I put off blog writing because it seems time-consuming, but it’s not. Only fifteen minutes. Sheesh. Probably it’d take longer if I did more editing of these posts, but who’s got the time?

Sent out IT’S PROBABLY JUST A PHASE for what I hope is the last time

Well I’ve spent the last two weeks revising what I hope’ll be my second YA novel: It’s Probably Just A Phase (formerly known as Tell Em They’re Amazing). I just sent the book off to Robert, my new agent, and I don’t think there’s going to be any more rounds of revision (though we’ll see). So if you never hear about the book again, that means that it didn’t sell!

I reread the whole thing today just to make sure that it was internally consistent (when you revise, sometimes you forget to line up all the little bits and pieces), and I found myself thinking, “This book is pretty effing good.”

This was not something I always felt. When I first began the book in April of 2014, I was like, well, okay, there’s something here. It’s got a nice voice and all. But the whole thing was a mess, both narratively and structurally, and as I worked on it I was consistently telling myself, okay so it’s not as good as Enter Title Here, but it’s probably good enough to sell.

The book has gone through round and round of revision (most of them instigated and directed by my own intuition) and with each round the book has improved, but each time I’ve also been like…well…it’s better, but it’s still not as good as Enter Title Here.

Now…this book certainly hasn’t displaced ETH in my heart. Writing ETH was like a religious experience. Reshma appeared so fully-formed in my head, and remarkably little revision was needed in order to sell the book. Moreover, I just identified so strongly with her, and the criticism her character has taken since publication has only made me feel more tenderly about the book.

Buuuuuuut…I do think It’s Probably Just A Phase is the better book. It really took this last revision to tip it over. Everything is finally lined up in a row. The themes and character arcs make sense. Moreover, I finally like all the characters. They feel really alive to me, and I have that sense of tenderness for them that I felt for Reshma. Moreover, I think they’re really messy and honest, but not in a way where I’m just trying to excuse bad plotting or characterization by saying “They’re messy and honest.” The characters have no idea what’s going on, but I, the author, am still in control, and I know what’s up.

The book has truly been a joy to write. I’ve had to learn an amazing amount about how to plot and structure a quieter, more character-based narrative, and that’s something I really needed to learn in order to write the sort of stuff that I plan to write. But, moreover, the experience of writing this book has been useful on a broader level. It’s nice to know that you don’t need to be absolutely one hundred percent in love with a book in order to write it. Sometimes all you need is to love it just enough that you’re willing to keep working on it (which is a pretty high threshold in itself, I might add! I’ve abandoned so many books simply because I couldn’t bear to reread the opening chapter another twenty or thirty times.)

As for what’s next? Well…I have no idea. book_done.gif

If your revised manuscript still has the same events in the same order, then what was the point?

Custom-Jigsaw-Puzzle.jpgOkay, I think line-editing is great. Lines should be as information-dense, melodic, and insightful as possible, and you can’t get there without a lot of work. However, I don’t think a line edit is rarely the difference between selling and not selling, or pleasing and not pleasing your writer.

Too often I see people get a bunch of comments back on their manuscript, whether from editors or agents or other readers, and all they do in their revision is they shift the words around a little bit. For instance maybe the editor says, “I didn’t know why the character was doing this thing?” so the writer puts in a line where they explain why they’re doing that thing. Or people were like “Huh, this motivation felt weak” so they put in a few lines where the character is like, “I did this thing because I am angry, and I am angry because the tyrant killed my people.”

And at the end of the revision, you’ve still got the same events in the same order. Which, to my mind, means you’ve fundamentally got the same book.

I’m not saying that the words on the page don’t matter, but…wait a second, that’s exactly what I’m saying.

When a person reads a book, they’re not experiencing words on a page. No, they’re experiencing a “living dream” (as John Gardner put it) that is conjured up by the words on the page. Now of course the tone and texture of that living dream are affected by the words on the page, but when you revise a book you need to be very clear about what you’re doing. You’re not trying to alter words, you’re trying to alter the experience of the person who reads those words.

If viewed this way, individual lines and paragraphs become much less important. You don’t remember individual lines (except the most beautiful and insightful) of a book. Still less do you remember the details of their thoughts and backstory and motivation. What you remember more is the voice, the tone, and the events. Voice and tone are, to my mind, a complicated thing to change, but I do think they’re more dependent upon the events in a story than anybody might like to admit. Your work has a certain voice, but the deeper layers of the voice only come out when your characters are placed in fresh and surprising situations. Tone, too, is the result of expectations, set at the beginning of the book, that are then either undermined or reinforced by subsequent events.

Which is all to say: I strongly believe that a story is composed of things that happen.

They don’t need to be huge things. I think a conversation is an event. In fact (at least in my stories) most events are nothing more than conversations. But the things that happen in those conversations matter: they are the result of characters with differing goals who want different things from each other.

And when I get feedback on my books, I don’t go in and tinker with the dialogue or the descriptions, I go and think about those conversations: I delete scenes, move them around, and add new scenes. I alter characters’ motivations, which results in scrapping some scenes and rewriting others. And when you read one of my revisions, you often know exactly what I did: “Oh my god, in this draft he accepts her proposal instead of refusing it!” or “In this draft her parents threaten to ship her off to reform school!”

I am not tied to any specific outline or plot. Nor am I even tied to any particular story. What I am tied to, if anything, is my search for the spirit of the story: the thing that compelled me to write it in the first place. Oftentimes, finding that spirit means scrapping almost everything I’ve already written.

In the case of my current book (which I’m exceedingly pleased with, as you may be able to tell from the tone of this post), the plot has changed drastically at least seven times. And each time meant revising the book to add new events and take out old ones.

If this is true in a book that contains no violence, no adventure, and consists mostly of conversations (it’s a love story, more or less) then think how much more true it ought to be for plot-driven works: for fantasy or science fiction or thrillers.

 

Feeling a tiny bit on edge about this novel revision

My revisions are going really well. Yesterday I reread the opening and was like, “Yep, this has soul.” Which is to say I feel very good about the book.

But I also feel a little stressed. I know this is the last revision before I send it to my agent, and I know I want to send it out in two weeks. There’s still a lot to do. All very achievable stuff, of course, but a lot.

I think the problem is that writing a novel isn’t something you can just sit down and do (no matter how much some people might like to pretend otherwise). When you’re creating something that’s original, you need to think, and you need to listen to yourself. It doesn’t happen automatically. Almost every time when I’ve had reluctance to write some part of this book, I’ve put it down for the day and, like magic, within a day I’ll have an insight that’ll dramatically change what I would’ve written. And without fail I am happy that I didn’t just bull through the point of resistance.

Because resistance tells you something. Or rather it tells me something. It tells me that the logic of the story is snarled somewhere, because if it wasn’t, the next part of it would be clear to me.

However it can be hard to trust in that. And it can be very hard to sit back and wait for the answer when you really really really want to be finished.

Well, my debut novel, ENTER TITLE HERE, is officially out in the world

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If you’ve preordered my book, it is on its way to you. If you ordered it on the Kindle, then you should already have it. If you go into a bookstore tomorrow, the book should be there (I hope). After two years of waiting, my debut novel, Enter Title Here, is finally out.

And, you know, initial signs aren’t bad. Publisher’s Weekly called it “mordantly funny story of an overachiever who takes ‘write what you know’ to new extremes.” And Bookpage said it was “a definitive metafictional experience.” And the Barnes and Noble teen blog said, “Reshma is a genuinely unique protagonist: unintentionally funny, often mean, and uncompromising in the lengths she’ll go to get what she wants.”

Nor is the game finished! A majority of the review outlets and trade journals haven’t put out their takes on the book yet. However, just in the last few days it has hit most-anticipated lists in Bustle, Teen Vogue, Epic Reads, Book Riot, Rich in Color, and others.

So I’m not saying that you should buy this book. All I’m saying is that buying it is a thing that people are doing.

For those of you who are in the Bay Area, you could also come to one of the two events I’m having in the next week!

The bigger one is my launch party. It’s at Berkeley Central Library (2090 Kittredge St, Berkeley) on August 6th from 6:30-8:00 PM. It’s an after-hours event, so don’t panic if the library appears closed: it is not. There’ll be books for sale, refreshments, and I’ll answer some questions. It’d be great to see you if you can come out! Here are a mess of links concerning my launch: LocationFacebook EventEvent at Berkeley Library Website; Add to Calendar (iCalGoogle)

I’m also doing a smaller event in San Francisco on Thursday, August 4th from 6:30 to 8:30. It’s called InsideStorytime, and I’m going to be reading with some great speculative fiction authors: Vylar Kaftan, Effie Seibert, Na’amen Tilahun, and S.G. Browne. There too, although the focus isn’t as exclusively me-centered, there’ll be books for sale, and it might be easier for some of you to make it, since the event is at the SF Armory Club in the Mission. Here’s the event listing.

I just want to close by saying thanks for being a subscriber. Thanks for being interested in my career. This has been a long journey, and I’m really happy not only to be able to share a book with you, but to share a book that I believe in so strongly. I can’t overstate how much my heart still lies in this book, and I’m so excited that the world can now read it.

Engaged in a really delicate, painstaking revision process

man-outline-drawing_40186.pngRight before coming to Maine to spend a week with my parents, I finished a revision on my work in progress. Certain types of revisions, I find, tend to recur again and again. In this case, the revision was the sort where you make small changes to the first third of the book, moderate changes to the middle third, and completely rewrite the last third. This is basically the kind of revision you engage in when, during the drafting process, you had a decent start and then went completely off the rails. It’s the opposite of the kind of revision, also common, where you completely rewrite the first act and leave the last two acts untouched. In one case, you lost track of the soul of the book and need to find it again, and in the other case you found the soul of the book but you only found it partway through the drafting process so now you need to go back to the beginning and pretend like you had it all along.

I was pretty happy with this revision, and I thought I’d make just a few corrections throughout the text and then I’d send it out to readers (right now nobody aside from me has read the book). However I realized as I was reading through the book again, literally as I was reading the first two pages, that there are things I’ve never liked about the main love interest. I’ve tried to handwave these flaws in my conception of her (she’s too perfect, for one thing), but they’ve never run true. She’s just not what she could be.

So for the past week I’ve been doing some brainstorming, trying to reconceive her. And that in turn meant reconceiving the third major character (not the protagonist, but the second most important male character). And now that those two characters are different, all their relationships with all of the other characters are different.

And this is a type of revision I’ve never done before. A relationship-oriented revision. I mean, I did a version of this for Enter Title Here, where I spent a lot of time working with my editor, Kieran, to make sure Reshma’s relationship with the best friend character, Alex, rang true. But ultimately that was a fairly small part of the book, and this is not. This is the core of the book.

think I know what I’m doing. Or at least, I understand these characters to a much better degree. And I think I can start at the beginning and systematically rewrite all their interactions, and then, I don’t know, see how that affects the rest of the book. I actually don’t think I’ll need to change much of the plot.

What’s interesting is that as you write a book you often have, on some intuitive level, a sense for what needs to go in each place. And even if you aren’t quite able to craft each element correctly, you’ll end up creating a void that is perfect. Oftentimes in early drafts of books you’ll have people acting irrationally, and it’s only when you go back and tweak something that you find that they were rational the entire time: it’s simply that you hadn’t yet put onto the page the reason that your subconscious knew needed to exist all along.

In the same way, in the current draft I have characters reacting in certain ways to other characters–feeling a strong connection to them, basically–that is not merited by the text. As written, the characters just aren’t compelling in the ways they need to be. But because the book acts as if they are, the process of revising them is much simplified.

I hope.

I’m not sure there’s any such thing as laziness

so-procrastinate_1330673033_epiclolcomI’ve gotten better in recent years at listening to myself, and one thing I’ve noticed is that whenever I find myself frittering away my time on pointless, mind-numbing activities (computer games, iPhone games, idle Internet browsing, binge eating, etc), it’s not, as I used to think, because I’m feeling lazy, and I need to pull myself together. It’s because I’m avoiding something.

Today I spent a significant portion of the day playing Shadowrun, and after a few hours I realized why: I’m afraid of the revisions I know I need to do on my book.

Over the past few weeks I’ve slowly put together a sense of the changes I want to make in the YA novel I wrote earlier in the spring, but they haven’t yet cohered into a full and concrete plan of action. And now it’s time to stop thinking about it; I know I need to get in there and play around and see what happens. But it’s frightening. When you work on something, you’re brought very close to the idea of failure: both aesthetic failure–maybe this will never look the way it ought to–and business failure–maybe it’ll never sell.

And when you procrastinate, you’re able in some way to avoid thinking of failure. It’s such a simple thing. Procrastination makes failure more likely, but because you’re not confronted with it in the same way, it feels safer than actually trying to do what needs to be done.

Maybe that’s all laziness is: the effort to avoid unpleasant thoughts. And willpower is the ability to force ourselves to do things that are unpleasant. But perhaps there’s some other quality we can use in these situations: some way of either confronting those bad thoughts or of making them lose their sting. Honestly, I think naming them is a large part of the fight. It makes me feel better to know that I’m wasting time for a reason. That it’s not something inherent to my character, but rather it’s because I’m facing a particularly difficult challenge. It elevates the moment somehow, whereas the idea of laziness does the opposite: it makes the moment seem hollow and worthless.

When they’re starting out, many writers are trapped in procrastination for years. And when that phase passes, those writers look back and say, “I’m so glad I finally learned some discipline.”

But I wonder if that’s what actually happened. Was it discipline? Or was it that the fear lessened and became not quite so overwhelming? We pretend as if writing your first story is the same thing as writing your hundredth story, but how can it be? Perhaps writing your first story is a challenge that needs to take years. Perhaps the procrastination went away because the subsequent challenges were not as great.