Giving up on Envy, but not on judgement

A friend of mine made his first professional short story sale yesterday. It’s been an immensely long time coming.1 He was writing at a professional level years ago. Why does it take so long? I have no idea. Just luck. It’s hard to stand out. Sometimes I sell a story these days, and I’m like, “This story feels like a story I would not have been able to sell five years ago.” The opposite also happens. Editors get tired of you. The stories you send in are just as good as before, but that’s the problem, they’ve published too many, nobody wants them.

When you haven’t broken in, or when you’re being kicked out, there are things you can do. Switch stuff up, try new venues, give up writing for a while and come back, switch forms and formats, write longer, write shorter, read differently, etc. But to be honest that’s the stuff writers are always doing. You do that like you breathe, just because of curiosity and playfulness and a desire for new challenges.

With two books out and thirty-five sales at ‘pro’ rates, I’d say I’m not in my early career anymore. I feel early. I still feel like I’ve done nothing and haven’t broken in. But that’s not objectively true. I’m definitely in the part of my career where I’m just doing whatever.

The other day I was talking about revision with a friend of mine, and I said I’m not a big believer in it. My experience is you can completely rewrite a novel, and peoples’ reaction to it will be more or less the same. You get the same criticisms after the rewrite as you did before.

She said that was ironic, because I am the biggest rewriter she knows. We Are Totally Normal was completely rewritten three times at least, and my current literary novel is going on five or six rewrites (I am talking blank page rewrites). I said yeah, but I just do that to make the book better, not because it affects the reception.

I’m feeling pretty contented these days. And by these days, I mean Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday morning, because all weekend I felt miserable over problems with my current rewrite. I still have those problems! It’s an utter mess! But what can you do?

I would definitely like to be a bigger success. I think that I deserve it. I think my work is really good. I think I’m a good writer. But, you know, lots of other people in the world are good writers too. My friend deserved to have a pro sale years ago. He wrote stories that were better than lots of stuff that’s in the magazines! So what can you do? Today I was thinking that failure (or at least ‘not earth-shattering success’ like my own, because I am definitely not a failure) can be a blessing. You can just do your own thing, write, be terrible, no expectations. if I was Junot Diaz, I couldn’t submit my terrible poems to all kinds of third-tier literary journals. It would be embarrassing! And it’d be even more embarrassing that I have no idea the right number of ‘r’s in embarrassing. I’d need to conduct myself entirely differently if I was Junot Diaz. I have none of those artistic restrictions now. I can write whatever I want.

That’s a blessing. If I was Junot Diaz, I would have fame, I could give lectures, I’d be interviewed, maybe even get on TV occasionally (bit not often, I mean I’m not Norman Mailer, I’m Junot Diaz). But when I woke up in the morning, I wouldn’t be able to write what I wanted. That’s an immense cost. And it’s one Diaz has clearly suffered from (witness the ten years it took to follow up on his acclaimed first book, Drown).

I’ve been reevaluating a lot in my life lately. Mostly as a result of reading Torrey Peters’s book, Detransition, Baby. This is a bourgeois domestic novel (her words, not mine), with trans women as protagonists. I am writing a bourgeois domestic novel with a trans woman as a protagonist! But my book has been rejected by many people, including Peters’s own literary agent. It’s hard not to feel envious. But I really liked her book! It enriched my life! And, more generally, my life has been enriched by the writing of other trans women, queer people, black writers, and a whole host of other writers whose success has made me burn with envy.

I was discussing with another writer how difficult it is to read honestly when you’re reading a contemporary’s work. It’s so hard to be generous and to engage with it as it’s meant to be read. And that to me has been the biggest cost of envy. It’s one thing for me to be miserable, but when envy starts harming my aesthetic judgement, it’s just too much.

There’s been a reckoning. I’ve been thinking about the roots of my own envy, and how they go back to all those years of struggling, when I was overweight, socially anxious, alcoholic, underemployed, celibate, and just generally rejeected in a whole host of areas of my life, including my writing. I built up this idea that I was the most brilliant and intelligent writer in the world and BY GOLLY I WOULD SHOW THEM ALL.

And that myth was very sustaining. For some writers, that sort of myth kills them, closes them off, makes them bitter and convinces them there’s no reason to work. For me it did the opposite, I said I would batter my head against the wall until it fell down. I was frequently very confused. My work was so brilliant! Why was it being rejected!

It’s easy to say, well, maybe the work wasn’t good enough. In a lot of cases, that’s true. But it’s hard to know for certain. Maybe if an early story had gotten picked for an anthology or won an award, my career would’ve been different. Maybe if I’d gotten into Iowa or won a Stegner, who knows? Or if I’d sold my first book as a literary novel instead of as YA. You can never know.

But what’s not good is that I’m still in that angry place, even as the level of self-deception needed to maintain the illusion (that I am the best) has grown increasingly untenable. And I don’t know what meaning or purpose any of that scaffolding serves. At the point when I am rewriting a book despite not believing it’ll make a huge difference in how it’s received, I am way beyond temporal ambition, and it’s become about something else. Maybe just having fun!

Which is to say, I’ve been dropping some of my envy, and it’s been great! No regrets. I am not dropping, however, my ability and desire to make snap judgements about whether or not an artist is overrated, and then to gossip about them with my friends, because that is a pleasure too exquisite to be denied. I just won’t do it from a place of envy.

young women with contrast appearance on sandy beach
Photo by Nick Bondarev on Pexels.com. Found it by searching for “envy”.
  1. In the science fiction world, one marker of whether you’ve ‘made’ it is whether you’ve sold a story to a journal that pays ‘professional’ rates, which is the rate set by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America as their benchmark for determining if selling a story to that journal qualifies a person for membership in the organization. I think the pro rate nowadays is 8 cents a word. When I started out it was five cents a word. The list of sci-fi journals that pay pro rates is relatively small, I believe right now it’s limited to Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF (the only three remaining print journals in the SF world), Lightspeed / Fantasy / Nightmare (a trio of journals run by the same team), Clarkesworld, Uncanny, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, Tor.com, and Apex (though Apex has been going out of business and back into business and has run so many kickstarters over the years that it’s hard to tell when it’s operating and when it isn’t). I’m sure there are others, but these are the main ones. Very few of these journals were aaround 17 years ago, when I started out (only the print zines and Strange Horizons). And in that time a number of zines have died, amongst them Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, Shimmer, Chizine, IGMS, Subterranean, Absolute Magnitude and others. This trip down memory lane has been brought to you by my recent discovery of Markdown’s footnote functionality. []

Being a writer is great, if you can afford it

It’s a truism that all the fun and meaningful careers tend to be competitive and poorly compensated. I’ve been seeing a therapist lately, and when my insurance sends me the amounts they pay him, I’m consistently shocked: it’s less than I bill as a freelance writer.

But writing corporate blog posts is not at all fun or satisfying, while presumably therapy is, so the latter, despite its extensive training requirements, gets paid much less.

Of course, the inverse isn’t true: unpleasant labor isn’t necessarily well-compensated. Working retail seems pretty unpleasant; it’s also not very well-paid.

They say that wages are set by supply and demand, but I wonder about this. All my life I’ve been paid well for things that I’m fairly certain most college-educated people could do. For much of that time, unemployment has been very high, with lots of people looking for and unable to find the work that I’ve been doing.

So I have given up on understanding the economy, except for this one point: anything at all fun or satisfying tends to be very poorly-renumerated.

Perhaps doctoring and software development are the exceptions. Doctors are well-paid (although most doctors I know would disagree with that) and many doctors find their work satisfying, but the supply of doctors is also artificially constrained by the extremely low number of medical school spots.

I’m at a loss to understand why software development is such a well-paid profession, since it seems fun and simple-to-learn. I’ve at least a dozen friends who’ve landed six figure jobs after taking just a twelve-week courses in how to code.

I guess the moral of the story is that you should learn to program computers. Not everybody has the mind for it, but I’ve been surprised at the people who can pick it up. Even some friends of mine who seem very left-brained (including one who majored in cultural anthropology in college) have successfully learned how to code.

 

Writing fiction is incredible. It’s everything people say it is. Well I mean it’s agony, of course, since most of the time I have no idea what to write, and even when I do write something, it usually doesn’t sell, and even when it does sell, very few people read it. But it’s still a meaningful occupation. And high-status too! People are quite impressed if you’ve published a book. They don’t necessarily read the book (and I don’t expect them too), but you still have status in their eyes, just the same as if you were a professional chess-player or a professional ballerina. People know it’s not easy to get a book published.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between money and writing. The truth is that over the last four years, I’ve done okay, but that’s mostly because of the large advance I received for Enter Title Here.

It’s hard to believe I’ll ever get one of that size again. There’s very little security in this field. Even the concept of being a ‘working writer’ seems a bit meaningless. All you have is your last advance. There’s no guarantee there will ever be another one. I’ve heard of NYT best-sellers who’ve had trouble selling another book. You’re constantly in danger of losing your financial footing.

Not me, I’m fine. I have other income streams. And some savings. And I’m married to a doctor.

I suppose these are reflections prompted by my revisions on my second book. It’s coming close to the time when the text will be put into production. At that point, this poor book will have to fend for itself.

With every book, you hope it’ll catch fire and turn into something. I have those hopes for this one too. I think it can hold its own with the best YA novels that’re out there. But you also realize that your opinion isn’t necessarily shared by other people. Success is not guaranteed.

And with writing, it sometimes feels like there’s no middle-ground: if you’re not a best-seller, then the industry boots you out.

That’s not entirely true. I have other tricks up my sleeve. I can change genres. That’s it, actually, that’s my only trick. I can change genres. Each time you write in a new genre, you start with a blank slate, and so far as I can tell, a writer can do this as many times as they want.

It’s so different from other careers. My other friends have mostly achieved some stability by now. They have skills. They’ve gone to grad school. They get head-hunted on LinkedIn. Writing isn’t like that. Even success doesn’t last. The person winning awards one year doesn’t even make the ballot in the next. The big book of the summer goes out of print within five years. I was thinking recently of a famous author from the early aughts and wondering why we don’t notice anymore when he publishes a book. He’s just irrelevant: the culture is done with him, at least for now.

For me, writing is something between a hobby and a career. In many ways, I don’t feel like my relation to it is very different from back in 2012, when I hadn’t yet sold a book. I still mostly spend my time playing around. In fact, the best thing about this last year is that I finally got rid of the mouse (ahem ahem) that was hanging onto my back and turning the writing game into such a stressful experience. It’s been a relief to recover my sense of exploration.

I spent two years writing sub-par books. After that experience, you can never again regard your creativity as something that’s under your control. It comes, and it goes. Which means writing can never be a career in the way that other things are.

The writing world never interested me much, and now it interests me less. Writers aren’t uninteresting people, but the element of careerism that runs through writing circles is extremely dull to me.

(Once someone objected to that opinion of mine, saying, “Why shouldn’t people of the same profession spend their time talking about that profession?” and I didn’t have an answer. Of course people should talk about whatever they want. But I find it so unhelpful to talk about career issues in the writing field. None of it can be planned. None of it can be managed. You cannot set goals and achieve them, because you cannot control, on the most basic level, whether anything happens when you sit down to write.)

I can’t pretend that the time I spend alone with the written word is particularly satisfying. At times it is, but mostly it’s a dull, intractable struggle. I try out idea after idea, approach after approach, and ninety-nine percent of them fail. My wife assures me that scientific research operates the same way.

On Wednesday I saw the latest remake of A Star Is Born, and in the movie Bradley Cooper is always telling Lady Gaga, in his raspy Johnny Cash imitation of a voice, that a singer “has got to have something to say.”

I think that I have many things to say, but I wonder what my big ideas and my big themes are. I feel like my real work hasn’t yet begun, and lately I’ve been thinking, “Oh wow, I need to watch my health, because there’s a good chance it’ll be another twenty or thirty more years before I’m able to write the novel I’m meant to write.”

That expectancy sits like a stone in my stomach, and yet I know that looking back on this period, twenty or thirty years from now, the thing I’ll envy the most will be that same sense of hope.

 

 

Got my 1600th short story rejection

The other day I got my 1600th short story rejection. It’s taken me a very long time! I used to rack up a hundred rejections in nine months or so. But I see that I logged my 1500th more than two years ago! I know, I’m such a slacker. It wouldn’t have happened at all if I hadn’t decided to do some more submissions to literary journals. Since you can simultaneously submit, it’s easy to get a lot of rejections in a short time.

In the last 100 rejections I’ve sold five stories, including my first two sales to the “Big Three” (the remaining science fiction and fantasy paper digests): “Bodythoughts” to F&SF and “The Intertidal Zone” to Asimov’s. I’ve also sold a solicited story to A Thousand Beginnings and Endings, and I’ve sold stories to Lightspeed and to Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Not a terrible haul, especially considering I haven’t written many stories in the past two years.

Lately I’ve gotten back into writing short stories as well. It’s sort of come out of a sense of play. It’s a little hard to feel a sense of play when writing a novel. That’s for many reason. There’s the length of time involved (you have to write this thing day after day, whether you want to or not). There’s the high stakes (your career hangs in the balance). But, most of all, there’s simply the rigidity of the form. Novels live or die based on their structure. And once you’ve begun a book, the process of writing is largely the process of finding its ideal structure. It’s not really a process of discovery, more it’s a process of trying to see the things you have to do in order for it to work. With short stories, it’s a lot easier to just start writing and see what’ll happen. It’s fun.

The process of submitting is also a game. It’s fun to send things out and see what’ll happen. When I was younger I used to live or die on the basis of the responses to my stories. Now I care a lot less. It’s simply not very important. When the story is published, it tends to sink without a trace, so what does it matter whether it gets published or not? It’s a very inside-baseball sort of thing. You want to publish in Asimov’s for the benefit of the few hundred people who might be impressed. You want to send Charlie Finlay a story he’ll like. So you keep trying. But it’s not a very high stakes game.

I was reading a book lately, Overwhelmed by Brigid Schulte, which is part of the genre of pop nonfiction books about how moms are overwhelmed nowadays and have a really difficult time. The book was only okay, but it contained a large section on ‘play’ and on the idea that adults have no time to play.

My mind immediately leapt to computer and video games, of course, which constituted most of my play as a kid. But more, I thought about imaginative play. I thought about all the little daydreams I had as a kid, and the ways I would enact those daydreams. For instance I remember spending days creating my own utility belt, full of odds and ends, that I’d use in case of emergency.

To my mind, it’s not that adults don’t play, it’s that adults just play so much more seriously. When an adult rearranges their closets, that’s a form of play. It’s a deeply satisfying endeavor, and it’s part of a process of reimagining your own life. When a child plays, they dream the impossible, but when an adult plays, there’s always a desire to turn that dream into a reality. I would hesitate to say that writing is a form of play. It’s sometimes struck me that I could write literally anything. I could write an entire novel about being a gaseous being who’s stuck in an unhappy tripartite marriage with a black hole and a neutron star. But I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to just jazz around. I want to write the things only I can write.

But, as opposed to the writing, the career stuff–the marketing and the submitting and the maneuvering–all seems to me very playful, in that you try out a lot of things, and maybe some of it works and some of it doesn’t, and in the end it’s pretty much all doomed to failure, but hopefully you have fun along the way.

As always, here’s a list of my previous rejection milestone posts!

When should I revise something?

I recently read a critically acclaimed (and quite good) novel that was horribly overwritten. I could’ve gone through with a red pen and cut twenty thousand words of internal rumination without seriously harming the plot or character development of the book. To be honest I felt a little sorry for the author. Because the book did rather well in its current form, they’re unlikely to alter their style, and they will forever after be hampered by this unnecessary wordiness.

Of course that’s only a matter of opinion on my part. And it’s very likely that the author is aware of this criticism of their work. Perhaps they even at this point agree with it. Now, at three years remove from finishing my first book, I can see all the issues with it, and when I happen to pick it up I almost immediately note things about the book that I would like to change.

People put rather a lot of faith in editors to catch these sorts of mistakes. They say, “Didn’t this book get edited?” or “I hear nobody bothers to edit anymore.” But the truth is that there’s a limit to what an editor can do. At bottom, an editor is nothing more than a very sophisticated reader who (hopefully) has a keen understanding of what makes books succeed or fail in the marketplace. Many errors, particularly errors of style, have zero effect on how a novel performs, and thus editors are somewhat disincentivized to comment upon them.

Moreover an editor isn’t necessarily right. When it comes to your novel, you’re the only person who really knows how it ought to go. Perhaps you strongly believe that pages upon pages of internal rumination are a critical element of your style, and that to elide any of it would ruin your book. And you might be right, but you might also be wrong.

Obviously, it’s all subjective, but I am of the opinion that it’s possible to make improvements to a book that will, for the sophisticated reader, turn it into a more beautiful and satisfying work of art. However, a book is also a statement of values; in its form, it tries to say something beautiful and unique. Each great book teaches its readers how to appreciate it. So it’s possible that the choices I most disagree, because they conform the least to my own vision of a good book, are actually the best parts of the book.

I don’t know how an author decides whether something is essential or not. I think…in my own work, I’ve noticed the difference between times when I’m trying to ‘get away’ with something and times when I’m in control. I’ve a story circulating now that relies on a very subtle and persistent sense of unease that a reader ought to feel from the beginning to the end. I’ve no idea whether editors get it, but I am certain that it’s in there, and that it’s working as it’s supposed to. But I’ve also written stories where I’ve ended things on an uncanny note just as a sort of, “Well, let’s see if this works” gambit, and in those I’ve just felt like for whatever reason I wasn’t in control.

As I’ve advanced as a writer I’ve learned to distrust that out of control feeling. Generally whenever I’m uneasy about something in a book, I’ve found it profitable to go back and rethink it. But I still make plenty of mistakes. I just abandoned the book I’ve been writing for adults–a book I was pretty excited about–because I realized it had gotten away from my true interests. It’d be nice to skip right to the end and just write the final draft first, but that’s a thing much easier said than done.

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 =]

Feel free to just summarize the parts that bore you

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

I 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?