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.

I am in no way against nepotism. Of course, I doubt that is a surprise, since I am an upper-class type person and that is how we perpetuate ourselves

Sofia-Coppola---It-sounde-001Recently, I was talking (and later about) a very impressive acquaintance of mine who wants to get into the same field as one of their parents, but is too proud to ask that parent to use their influence on the person’s behalf. I understand the reasoning here. If you use nepotism to secure a position that you otherwise couldn’t have gotten, then you, almost by definition, don’t ‘deserve’ it.

However, it is a reasoning that I disagree entirely with, because my point of view is that what you need to do in life is: a) decide what kind of work you need to do; and b) get into a position where you can do that work. And in the case of my friend (and many other people), they’re putting the second step ahead of the first step.

What they’re saying is, “Well, I want to do X, but maybe I’m not really good enough to do it, so if I can get into the right position to do it, then I’ll do it, and if I can’t, then I won’t.”

That, to me, is madness.

For instance, let’s say that you want to make films. You think about films all the time. You have a vision for the film that you want to make. And your father is also a famous film-maker. If you decide not to trade on his name, then you’ll work for years and maybe never get the chance to make anything. But if you do use his name, then you’ll get the funding to produce something.

If you choose the former option, then you’re pre-judging yourself. You’re saying, “I might not be worthy of making this film.” That, to me, is the weaker and less praiseworthy position, because in that case, what you’re hoping is that some independent authority will come along and tell you that you’re a genius and give you permission to make the film you want to make. And a lot of times that doesn’t happen. In fact, what you’ll find, if you try to go it alone, is that oftentimes you don’t succeed until you stop waiting for that permission and stop waiting for people to praise you and start doing whatever it takes to get to where you need to be.

What’s scary about the nepotism option is that you don’t have that permission. Instead, you are asserting that your work is valuable and that your vision is worthwhile, and you’re leveraging every possible resource in order to produce that work.

Now…is there a chance that your work is going to be terrible? Mmm…yeah. Probably. Is there a chance that you’re going to get promoted into a position that you’re ill-suited for? Mmm…yeah, there’s a good chance of that. And is it good, for society as a whole, that people can use their family connections to publish bad work or to get promoted into positions where they’ll bungle things? No. It’s not. It’s quite harmful.

But, to me, that is a completely different issue from whether YOU, as an individual, ought to whole-heartedly pursue the thing that you want to do. In this life, it doesn’t pay to be timid and to hang back. You’ve got to have the courage that you’re a Sofia Coppola and not a Jennifer Lynch.


In other news, I’ve been reading recently that authors should have email lists so that they can build relationships with their most devoted fans and let them know about book releases and public appearances. So if you’d like to join my email list and receive very infrequent emails (less than once a month) about what’s new in terms of my career, then please sign by clicking this link! Also, feel free to click on one or more of the checkboxes, so that I can better personalize your emails.


51kxQMvzMeL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_When this book came out, I read the description and was like, “Huh? I don’t get it? What’s it about?” And there was a good reason for that. It’s because this book is completely bananas.

The short answer is that it’s about aliens who’re planning on invading the earth. But the way they do it is so strange and surreal. They start infiltrating the world’s scientific establishment and getting the scientists to play this weird propagandistic video game that serves as a primer on alien history and biology. The book has a very murky, sluggish atmosphere. Everyone moves slowly. Everyone seems confused and trapped and hapless.

The book was translated from the Chinese by Ken Liu, which is strange for me, since I know that Ken Liu can form beautiful sentences, since he composes critically acclaimed English language speculative fiction, whereas the writing in this book, particularly the dialogue, is odd and stilted. For example, take the following passage:

Wang turned around and walked back to Shi. Forcing his anger down, Wang said, “The way you speak is not appropriate for a good police officer.”

“Who said I’m a good cop?”

“We don’t know why these researchers killed themselves, but you shouldn’t speak of them so contemptuously. Their minds have made irreplaceable contributions to humanity.”

“You’re saying they’re better than me?” Still seated, Shi lifted his eyes to meet Wang’s. “At least I wouldn’t kill myself just because someone told me some bullshit.”

“You think I would?”

“I have to be concerned about your safety.” That trademark smirk again.


Most of the awkwardness seems, to me, to lie in the transitions. A line of dialogue like “You think I would?” is alright, but it doesn’t flow naturally into “I have to be concerned about your safety.” It feels maybe a little too choppy to me. Obviously, it’s possible to translate that dialogue in a way that sounds more natural, so I can only assume that the awkwardness is an intentional choice on the translator’s part. In fact, in his afterward, Ken Liu writes:

The best translations into English do not, in fact, read as if they were originally written in English. The English words are arranged in such a way that the reader sees a glimpse of another culture’s patterns of thinking, hears an echo of another language’s rhythms and cadences, and feels a tremor of another people’s gestures and movements.

Which is something that bears thinking about. I feel this most often in the Japanese fiction I read. I recently read a number of Kawabata and Tanizaki novels, and they don’t sound or feel like any kind of English-language fiction. They too have something of the same stilted formality as this novel, but in the case of those novels, the dialogue was much more arch and indirect. Here it seems like the dialogue might be a bit bogged down by the need to convey information. For instance, I felt like the first section of the novel, which takes place during the Cultural Revolution, didn’t contain nearly as much awkwardness. It didn’t read naturally, necessarily, but it wasn’t hard to read. It was only  when we reached the science-fictional part of the narrative that the writing became more difficult.

In any case, my ear eventually adjusted to the writing style, and I’m glad I persevered. I’m legitimately interested to see what’s going to happen and to learn more about the book’s ideas. And I’m actually sad that the second and third book in the trilogy aren’t yet out.

How to get your novels marketed as ‘literary fiction’ rather than ‘young adult / fantasy / romance / women’s / science fiction / etc’

51I6k+NGMTL._SY300_Because I write young adult books, I sometimes field inquiries from people who’ve written books with age 13-19 protagonists and want to make it clear to potential agents and publishers that their book is not a young adult novel.

This is a problem that particularly affects women writers, because there are entire genres whose purpose is, basically, to cordon off women’s stories and stop them from being taken seriously (e.g. a girl’s coming-of-age is YA, whereas a boy’s is literature; a woman struggling to find love in her 20s is chicklit, whereas a man doing so is literature; a woman trying to deal with raising a family and with her incipient mortality is women’s fiction, whereas when a man does it, that’s literature). So many female writers seem particularly concerned with trying to ward off any suggestion that they are writing commercial fiction.

Now, I know that many of my readers will instinctively scoff and dismiss this as snobbishness, but I spent a portion of yesterday’s drive thinking about the non-snobbish reasons why a person might not want to have their novel published within a commercial fiction category. And I thought of four.

  • This is the only novel of this sort that you plan to write — Commercial genres are more restrictive than literary fiction. You can publish a novel w/ spaceships as literary fiction, but you can’t publish a novel with no speculative element in the science fiction section. Furthermore, a person who finds an author through a given channel of commercial fiction is, rightly, going to expect that their future work will be somewhat of a piece with what they’ve read. If you don’t plan on writing any future novels that could be called young adult, then you really should avoid being put into that category.
  • You believe your novel would appeal more to literary readers than to readers of that marketing category — I believe it’s very possible to write a novel with a young protagonist that is, nonetheless, of little interest to teens. Similarly, I think that some novels w/ speculative elements would be unlikely to be embraced by a speculative readership. For instance, does anyone think that Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada would have won a large readership amongst science fiction fans? These novels might use tools and tropes from a commercial genre’s box of tricks, but they don’t fit within that genre because they fail to be pleasurable in the ways that this genre generally expects (for instance, Ada is a science fiction novel that does not contain much of a sense of a wonder)
  • You want to become a professor and/or win awards — Most creative writing departments won’t hire you on the basis of a novel published as commercial fiction. And most major literary awards won’t go to commercial fiction either. I think that becoming
  • You can’t handle the marketing- and productivity- requirements of a career in commercial fiction — In literary fiction, there are mechanisms that keep authors’ reputations alive during the long interval between books. Whereas in commercial fiction, you’re supposed to keep yourself alive by being productive and staying on shelves. If you can’t write lots of books, then maybe literary fiction is the place for you.

(On a sidenote, I do think that some authors do just want to avoid commercial fiction because they are snobbish. These are the writers who don’t want the label simply because they think their novel is too complex to be published within a commercial category. I know that some blog readers get whipped into a froth over this issue, so let me be clear here, when I talk about ‘commercial fiction’ I am only talking about a set of marketing categories. These categories do not have rigid boundaries. They are discursively created through the individual decisions of thousands of agents, writers, publishers, book-buyers, publishers, and sales people. A book is commercial fiction because people say it is. Books slip into and out of commercial fiction all the time (for instance, Gone With The Wind was once literary fiction and is now commercial fiction). The label ‘commercial fiction’ does, in the minds of many people, connote something that is of lower quality. And the label does affect the way that it is marketed to readers. But I, personally, am not saying that commercial fiction is of lower quality. What I am talking about in this post is not some grand structural thing, I am talking about the ways that you–as an author–might want to influence the way your book is marketed.)


Anyway, the answer here is really simple. Authors underestimate the degree of control that they have over how their book is pitched. They think that they will put their delicate coming-of-age story into the world and then publishers and agents will yank it away from them and turn them into young adult writers. And the truth is that there might be some pressure to do this. It’s easier to sell young adult novels. And my impression is that advances and print runs are often higher for YA novels than for literary novels.

However, the simple fact is that the book literally belongs to you. You, on a legal level, own it. And if you remain firm, then you should be able to make sure that it’s marketed in the way that you want.

The thing to do here is to not just be agreeable. If you know what you want, then you’ve got to be clear and upfront about your expectations. The very first thing to do is to just make it clear to agents, in your query letter and other communications, that you see your work as a literary novel. Then, when you speak to an agent on the phone before accepting their offer of representation, you should ask how they plan to market it. And if they don’t plan on marketing it exclusively to editors who handle literary fiction, then you need to tell them that doesn’t work for you. And if you still can’t come to an agreement, then you have to refuse their offer of representation. Conversations like this are the reason that agents and authors talk on the phone before signing an agency agreement.

What many beginning authors fail to realize is that an editor doesn’t buy a book and then decide how to publish it. No, usually it’s pitched to an editor as a certain kind of book. And it’s pitched to an editor and to an imprint that only (or at least mostly) handles that kind of work. If your book is presented to potential publishers in a certain way and they acquire it on the basis of that representation, then that’s how they’re going to present it to the public.

So if you want your book to be literary fiction, here’s the simple three-step process:

  1. Be clear about this expectation when you query and communicate with potential agents and editors
  2. Confirm, before accepting an offer of representation or publication, that the other party shares your conception of the book.
  3. Be prepared to walk away from agents or publication offers if their answers on point 2 are not satisfactory.

The key here is just to have an agent who agrees with your conception of the book. The agent will then go and find an editor who shares that conception. And, in the end, your book will end up in the place where you want it to be.


Or not.

The scary thing about this advice is that it might entail turning people down. You might lose an offer of representation because the agent wants to market it as a young adult book and you don’t agree. And you might fail to sell a book that otherwise would’ve sold.

But that’s exactly what’s at stake here. If there wasn’t anything to be gained by going commercial, then there’d be no pressure to do it. If you really believe that one path is right for you, then you need to be willing to refuse to go down the other path.

Sometimes I think that what new writers are really asking is, “How can my book be marketed as literary fiction without losing any of the excitement and opportunities that it might have if it was marketed as commercial fiction?”

Many commercial writers have the inverse question. They want to know how their books can have all the possibility of literary acclaim that comes from being published as literary fiction without losing the chance at a larger readership that comes from being published within commercial fiction.

There’s a plaintiveness embedded inside both of these questions: a rage at the ways that genre categories enfold and constrict and limit the work. But that’s a whole nother post.


Finally, in my very last caveat, I want to say that beginning writers underestimate the degree to which agents understand and are familiar with this problem. If I, a debut author of no particular name or reputation for wisdom, have encountered this question on more than one occasion, then every agent must’ve encountered it hundreds of times. Agents are well aware of the reasons why a writer might want to be in one category or another. Furthermore, authors also underestimate the amount of leverage that they have in talking with agents who are interested in their book. I’m not saying you can throw your weight around, but if an agent has read your entire book and wants to represent you, then they are fairly invested in you and in the work. If you’ve pitched the book to the agent as a literary fiction novel and the agent handles literary fiction and they’ve read the book and liked it, then I would honestly be surprised if the agent was unwilling to market it as a literary novel.

Sometimes, when you’re in the darkest and gloomiest part of the writing process, the workshop cliche is what saves you

Source: The Gnomon Workshop
Source: The Gnomon Workshop

Usually, the suggested fixes that you’re given by a writing workshop are pretty mechanical and, oftentimes, not very coherent. The thing that workshop does well, though, is diagnose the problems that need to be fixed. Because stories are so complicated and need to work on so many levels, it’s very possible to create a story that’s all tone or all setting or all language or all concept and neglect the other elements.

Which is exactly when your workshop comes in and says something like ,”What are the stakes here? Why should the main character care about this? And why should I care” or “What does this main character want?”

I’ve heard those complaints so many times in so many different critique groups and workshops. These sentiments are the definition of workshop cliche: a generic thing that you say about a piece of writing that you don’t really like. And it’s very easy for a writer to dismiss these criticisms with some glib tossed-off answer: “They’re interested in seeing whether their philosophy works” or “They want to be alone.”

Sometimes, though, these phrases come back to you when you’re stuck. And questions that seem like cliches can become very powerful when you take them seriously and use them to interrogate your text. When you use them to cut through the easy, glib answers and really examine, “Why does this matter?” and “What does the character want?”

Writing this book, in particular, has meant abandoning two dozen different paths that were very defensible and plausible ways to go, except that they just weren’t the right thing to do. But if I didn’t have the sense of the basics that I got from workshop, then I don’t know that I would’ve been able to recognize or articulate what was wrong with what I was writing.


Sometimes the key to writing a novel is situating yourself at the right point in your protagonist’s emotional journey

Monarch Changing to Chrysalis 5Actually managed to get to chapter 2 today!!!

Not sure that I’ll stay there. I’ll probably end up getting two or three chapters in and then find myself back at chapter one.

It’s very strange, because I know pretty much what the world is like and the emotional journey is going to be and what’s going to happen and all of that seems to work pretty well (at least in my mind), but I haven’t quite ironed out the voice. There’s no point in writing a book unless every sentence is, in some way, fun to write. A character needs to shock and surprise you. I know it sounds silly, but I do feel like the characters ought to feel, when you’re writing them, as if they’re alive. I don’t think that anything mystical is necessarily happening, I think that’s just a sign of the unconscious taking over.

Writing is primarily an unconscious activity. No one can properly answer the question: “What should the character do right now?” And that’s why you need to rely on the unconscious mind to provide those answers.

However, I’ve gotten better and better at rejecting the false answers that sometimes crop up. And, sometimes, one of those false answers is when the character has too much voice and too much personality and is too sure of themselves. Sometimes you can write a character who spits and cackles and moves across the page, but…to no end. They’re static; they already know who they are.

In my last workshop, one of my MFA classmates gave me a really insightful comment. He said that my characters already seem to know exactly who they are and what they want, and that meant that there didn’t really seem to be enough growing for them to do within the story. He recommended that maybe I ought to pull back a little bit and try to explore what my characters are like when they’re still in the process of becoming their final selves.

Anyway, in the more recent versions of Chapter 1, I’ve been pulling back and trying to write a version that’s more muted, more uncertain, and more human. I’m not sure whether it’s completely working yet (because as soon as one aspect of the book starts to get stronger, then some weakness in another aspect is revealed), but I think I’m starting to get there.

It’s inadvisable to begin a novel with both an unusual event and a weird setting

63463189_8d0f96d5c5With the end of the semester, I went back to work on my whimsical children’s novel (no joke, I am currently writing the 32nd draft of the first chapter). And I realized that one of my problems was that my first chapter contained both: a) a pretty atypical setting; and b) an event that was, for that setting, fairly out-of-the-ordinary. And this sets up an almost impossible challenge. It means that you simultaneously need to convey the setting well enough that readers know what events are ordinary for it, while also describing a big out-of-the-ordinary event.

The problem, though, is that if your setting is weird, then the way that readers understand it is by observing the things that happen within it. For instance, if the first chapter of my novel was set in my escalator-world (a world made entirely of moving escalators), then the way the readers would understand the rules of escalator-world would be by observing how they function in the first chapter. However, if I open the novel with the escalators all screeching to a halt, then no matter how much I have the characters panic and react to the screeching escalators, the reader is never quite going to get it, because they’ve never had the opportunity to see the escalators functioning normally. Thus, any story that’s set in a weird place needs to have a chapter or two of events that are ordinary (for that place) before the big, crazy stuff happens.

The problem there, though, is that it still needs to feel like something is happening. It can’t just seem like the novel is spinning its wheels until its time for something to happen. And that means that those ordinary events need to contain enough tension to propel reader interest and, additionally, they need to somehow suggest the shape of the big, dramatic events that are going to come along shortly.

On the other hand, if you open your novel in a place that people understand very well (an airplane, a suburban public high school, a typical pseudo-medieval fantasy land), then you can open up with something weird happening on page one.

So to recap:

It’s okay to start with an unusual event in an ordinary setting: For instance, if in the very first page of a high school novel, one student jumped on another one and then started trying to eat his brains and everyone began to panic, it wouldn’t be that confusing at all, because you would immediately understand it as something that’s out of the ordinary.

It’s also okay to start with an ordinary event in an unusual setting: For instance, if, on the first page of a high school novel, one student jumped on another one and then started trying to eat his brains out and then the second student pulled out a pickaxe and bashed the first student in the head, and then the janitor came out and swept up the blood and gore and doused everything with ZombAway, then you wouldn’t be confused, because you’d be like, “Okay, this is zombie high school world, where this kind of stuff happens all the time.”

What’s confusing is when you have an out-of-the-ordinary event in an unusual setting: For instance, if, on the first page of a high school novel, one student jumped on another one and then started trying to eat his brains out and then the second student pulled out a pickaxe and bashed the first student in the head, and then everyone in the school started clapping and praising the second student as the best zombie-killer to ever walk the halls of that school and the big-titted cheerleader sidles up to him and is like, “Oh gawd, I love how you bashed that zombie. If it’d been anyone else, then that zombie would’ve killed us all.” Then you’d be like…uhh…what? Exactly how unusual are zombie attacks? What is going on? Do students expect zombie attacks? Or are zombie attacks unusual? None of this is making sense to me!

Writing a novel is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle composed of pieces you carved yourself

My metaphor only worked if there was such a thing as a wooden jigsaw puzzle. Luckily, there is.
My metaphor only worked if there was such a thing as a wooden jigsaw puzzle. Luckily, there is.

I’m trying to write a whimsical children’s novel (you know, something in the style of Harry Potter or Lemony Snicket or Dianne Wynne Jones’s oeuvre), because I wasn’t in the mood to write another short story and I wasn’t in the mood to write anything long and complicated. Whimsical children’s novels (WCNs, for short) tend to be pretty short, and I also thought, since I had a pretty robust idea for one, that this would be easy.

I was wrong about that (as I kind of suspected that I would be). Putting together a WCN is just as hard as putting together any other kind of book. And right now, after two weeks of work, I have about 600 words (and thirteen discarded drafts) of an opening chapter.

However, I’m not full of the usual panic and gloom that I normally feel when I’m mired in a novel. I think that’s because no one is really expecting this out of me, and I’m also not working according to any self-imposed deadline. It’ll be done when it’s done. And if it’s never done, then that’s fine too.

Although it’s an unsettling and chancy endeavor, starting off on a novel is also really interesting. It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, except that you’re carving and painting the pieces one by one, and each individual piece also has to work as an aesthetic object

When I’m in the process of imagining (for instance) the setting of a novel or the main character of a novel, I can often feel myself getting closer and closer to something that interests me, and it’s always really exciting to find a piece that I think I can work with. But then there remains the task of how to fit it in with all the other pieces.

The temptation is to just hammer the uneven corners together and make them fit. And, eventually, that is what you eventually need to do. There aren’t many novels where everything is perfect: all of them have places where stuff doesn’t quite make sense or things are glossed over. But you generally want to avoid that, because it throws off the whole thing.

The real solution is to go back and sort of re-jigger the edges of the pieces so they come closer to fitting. Often, you’ll need to throw out a bunch of the pieces entirely, because there’s just no way to make them fit.

For me, most of this work takes place without that much writing. Because the first 2000 words of a novel contain so much information—character, conflict, setting, voice, arc, point of view, theme, narratorial distance—they often suffice to show me exactly how things are fitting together. I’ll write a thousand words and then I’ll pull back and say, “Hmm, what’s not working here?”

And then I go back and start moving my pieces around even more.

What’s really exciting, though, is when I get close to the end, and the missing pieces are things that need to be so delicate and so specifically crafted that it seems almost impossible that I can find them. For instance, I was recently writing a story where a hard-working, successful woman was dating a total schmo who’s kind of mooching off her, and at some point I realized that the only question left—the only thing that was keeping me from writing the story—was “Why does this woman want to be with this guy?”

Except it wasn’t just that, because she needed a reason for being with him that: a) the reader would understand and emphasize with; b) wouldn’t make him seem like less of a schmo; c) wouldn’t make her seem like some kind of castrating monster who just wants to be with a weak-willed guy; d) wouldn’t be so strong that it couldn’t be disrupted by the later events of the story; and e) wouldn’t require (since the story was so short) any new scenes.

It seemed impossible that the solution would ever present itself, and I was very tempted to just go ahead and force everything into place with some kind of makeshift solution (i.e. I’d’ve thrown in a few lines of description about how no one else had ever treated her with such grace or looked at her so appreciatively, etc, you know…the kind of stuff that you can say, but which the audience won’t believe, because you haven’t dramatized any of it).

However, when the solution finally came, it felt so good and so right that it felt like there never could’ve been anything else. After that, I wrote the story in a day or two.

Right now, I am at this point with the WGN. Many of the pieces have been created. Many of them are even locked into place. But there’s one major thing that’s missing (an emptiness at the heart of the main character which somehow needs to be fulfilled in a way that will do five very specific things). And it seems impossible that any solution can ever be found.

But I have faith that it will come. Somewhere out there is one extremely odd and extremely specific character trait that will slot perfectly into the space that I have left.

And now I just need to wait for it to reveal itself to me.

Ten lessons on writing and conceptualizing a novel (illustrated using a world composed only of escalators)

Okay, it's kind of like this, but instead of stairs, they're escalators
Okay, it’s kind of like this, but instead of stairs, they’re escalators

Over this spring break, I’ve been working on a long-form project, and it’s made me reflect on all that I’ve learned about novel-writing. If I’d been able to internalize these lessons four years ago, then, well…I could’ve skipped four years of learning. However, whenever I try to explain these lessons, all I get are blank stares or uncomprehending nods. Sometimes, when people are feeling particularly agreeable, they’ll listen to what I am saying and then say, “Oh, I get it, you mean [something that is not at all what I meant].”

Thus, I am pretty sure that many of these are esoteric lessons which can only be learned through practice. Still, I am going to make an effort to set them down (going from simplest to most complicated).

  • Length – I tend to write using a loose three-act structure. And, over the course of several novels, I’ve found that the rough proportion between acts tends to be 2:3:1. That is, the second act is 50% longer than the first and the third act is half as long as the first. When I get to the inciting event (the point at which hell breaks loose and the story really gets going), I multiply my current word count by 6 to get a rough estimate of how long the novel will be.
  • Create distance between the beginning of an element and the point when it comes to fruition – When I find myself beginning a chapter with something like, “I’d asked Alma to tell me something about the history of the serial killer, and when she finally got back to me, she sat me down and said…” I’ll delete the first part and then actually go back to a previous chapter and put in a reference to this request to Alma. In a novel, you’ve got so much space, it makes sense to play with it. Otherwise, you’re introducing a nonlinearity to the telling of the novel that is not organic, it’s just a byproduct of the fact that you’re making it up as you go along.
  • The events of the novel should matter to the main character – You can write a shockingly large amount of a novel without ever realizing that your character doesn’t care about any of it. This usually means you’re concocting very thin reasons for your character to do what you want. For instance, if you write a story about an alien invasion and make your character violently allergic to the aliens, then you’ve got a good pretext for him to go around blasting aliens, but it still has a thinness to it. The reader can tell that you’re basically maneuvering the character into doing what you want, rather than creating someone who’s rich enough to have desires of his own.  The more complicated your novel’s setup, the easier it is to lose sight of the character’s motivations. For instance, if you’ve got a world that’s entirely composed of an MC Escher-like tableau of moving escalators, and your character is desperately racing downwards, against the tide, trying to reach the bottom, then you can spend lots of time thinking about the characters they meet on the way, and the obstacles they encounter, and the person they push off the escalator, and the time they get put on trial for queue-jumping…without ever considering why they really want to get to the bottom of the escalator and if that reason can sustain an entire novel.
  • If I’m having trouble writing it, then it probably shouldn’t be written – This might apply only to me. But I find that if I’m not really able to write a scene, then that’s because I can sense, on some intuitive level, that it doesn’t belong in the book.
  • It’s very easy to write something in an outline and then not have it work at all on the page – For instance, in our escalator novel, I might write that the climactic end of the second act comes when a key escalator is broken, and he needs to face the terrifying decision to cannibalize another escalator for parts (possibly stranding other riders) or to give up on his journey. But when I actually tried to write that scene, I probably wouldn’t be able to, because it wouldn’t have any emotional resonance: it’d just be an arbitrary obstacle that I placed there in order to artificially heighten tension. I find that obstacles don’t really work unless they arise out of the inherent conflicts of the novel. In this case, I am using this artificial obstacle to mask the fact that I don’t really know my material: I’m not sure what its inherent conflicts are. Which brings me to…
  • The character’s internal struggle should resonate strongly with the novel’s setup – For instance, in my escalator-world story, I might say that the escalator-world protagonist wanted to reach the bottom of the escalator because there was an ancient prophecy that at the bottom lay the control room and that the person who reached the control room would control the whole escalator-world. But this would actually be a pretty bad conflict, because it has nothing to do with escalator or mechanization or racing against the tide or feeling like the whole world is against you. I don’t exactly know what would be the right internal conflict for escalator-world, because it’s actually very hard to figure this stuff out. The bulk of my angst in novel-writing comes from matching up these pieces in the right manner.
  • If something isn’t really making sense, the solution isn’t to explain it or justify it…the solution is to change it – If you find yourself writing in all kinds of explanatory material about how none of the escalators have ever broken before, because, until recently, there was a race of mechanic-robots that serviced the escalators, but the robots disappeared and now the escalators are breaking, then you might be trying to paper over a basic weakness in your concept. Oftentimes, I find that the solution is to just change your concept to something simpler. For instance, instead of a world of escalators, maybe our entire world is now a giant river, which is ceaselessly flowing in one direction, and it takes an immense amount of strength to go upriver. Rivers can’t break down, so an essential problem is eliminated.
  • I know the novel is coming together when everything starts to become very specific – Lack of specificity is, to me, often an indicator that I’m trying to avoid really thinking about what’s going on. For instance, it would be very possible for me to say that the protagonist of my escalator-world novel is disgusted by the escalator-society’s insistence on always rising higher and higher and wants to retreat downwards into what he hopes will be a simpler world. If I wrote a novel with that non-specific conception of things, I’d probably include a lot of generalized grumbling on his part about other peoples’ pushiness. But there’s a certain fuzziness about this. In what way does escalator-society insist on always moving higher? How does this insistence negatively affect him? What exactly does he hope to find down below? So maybe I think a bit harder about things and I realize that escalator-world is divided between two ideologies: standers (who stand on the escalator and wait for it to carry them up) and climbers (who believe in adding their own footpower to the escalator’s velocity). In the protagonists’ part of escalator-world, climbers are predominant. But he remembers, wistfully, all the standers who he shouldered past on his way up. Now he’s running back down in order to see what happened to them: he’s dreaming of finding a part of escalator-world where everybody is just standing there and enjoying life. There. You see how that’s more specific? Now he has something specific to look for, and all the conflicts are thrown into much sharper relief.
  • The main character should have something to do – It’s possible to create a very specific, well-thought-out novel where the internal and external arcs fit perfectly…but in which there’s not really anything for the character to do, other than see what happens. For instance, suppose my escalator-world story was about all these people who’d lived their whole lives on the escalator, but who have suddenly determined (through science!) that the escalators are speeding up, and that each subsequent escalator is going faster and faster and that soon they will reach some kind of physical limit. This is (relatively) cool and has some internal conflict (people are afraid of change, they’re worried about the future, they wonder if they’ll see the end before they die) and some external arc (the increasing speed of the escalator will result in all kinds of strange physical effects–particularly to do with wind resistance, etc–that might result in greater tension). At the same time, there’s nothing for the protagonist of this story to do, other than talk to people and think about stuff. And that’s alright, I guess, but it means that the novel will have no guiding principle that will suggest what things should be included and what things should be cut. Since there’s no real plot to move along, then the only criteria for whether or not to include scenes is how well they develop the character and/or illustrate the story’s themes. And that sort of story requires a very sure hand. I mean, it can be done (for instance, there is really nothing for Gregor Samsa to do in Kafka’s Metamorphosis), but I, personally, find it very difficult.

Let go of things you wrote while you were in undergrad

These are three of the actual human beings we saw in this play

Just went with my MFA classmates to see a production of Seminar at the Roundhouse Theater in DC. This is a play that’s about four aspiring writers who are in a workshop with a crusty old instructor who alternates merciless abuse with tepid praise. It was extremely enjoyable. However, most of it was not specific to writing. It could’ve been about any creative profession. You could have replaced “writing” with “coding” at any point and made the whole thing about computer programmers and it still would’ve worked (well, except for how computer programmers don’t really struggle economically).

One thing, though, was specific to the writing profession and rang fairly true. The very first week of the seminar, the professor critiques a woman’s story for being incredibly dull and lifeless. And after he leaves, she rails about how she’s spent six years working on that story and about how all these other well-known professors (she mentioned Frank Conroy and Tobias Wolff) had really loved it.

That’s something that definitely happens, and I think it’s very particular to the way that people begin writing. When people begin writing, they often only write for class. They might really like to write and really like the feeling that being a writer gives them, but they haven’t yet processed that writing is something you should do all the time and do on your own. They need the motivation of class to produce anything. And, for many people who sort of thought about beginning writing careers, their first writing classes were in college. And then when they leave college, they stop writing, because there’s no more class.

Many writers go through a several year long fallow period before they start to realize that they’re going to need to write for themselves now (I think this also happens to writers who leave their MFA programs). And during this time, they’ll reread, revise, and polish their best undergrad pieces: the ones that brought praise to them from their professors and that made them feel like they could be writers in the first place.

These pieces, though, are, almost invariably, not very good. What people don’t understand is that when a professor says something is “good,” what they really mean is “better than I expected.” And sometimes (oftentimes) professors’ expectations are very low. It’s certainly a good thing to write one of the best stories in an undergrad workshop (better than writing one of the worst ones), but even the best story in an undergrad workshop usually doesn’t come close to actually being a good story.

Part of the process of becoming a writer is learning to replace the professor’s judgment with your own. Because, in most cases, professors aren’t going to be nearly hard on you as they ought to be. In most cases (and for most people), it would be counterproductive for a professor to be as hard on you as they ought to be. You will accept criticism from yourself that you would never accept from another person. I can dismiss an entire novel as garbage. But if another person told me it was garbage, that’d be devastating (and I probably wouldn’t listen).

I’ve never really heard another writer talk about this (in fact, I’ve heard the opposite. I’ve heard many writers talk about how they don’t know when their work is good and when it’s bad), but I think it’s very important to have your own independent sense of your work’s value. I don’t understand how people can write something if they’re not, on some level (even if it’s only in a relative sense like ‘this part is better than that part’ or ‘this story is better than that story’) able to evaluate it.

Anyway, part of the process of acquiring your own sense of judgment is learning to let go of stories that your professors told you were good. There’s something very comforting about that seal of approval. It feels like a promise. But it’s not. A professor’s judgments are meant to guide you; they’re not meant to override your values.