An age-old novel-writing question: How can I sustain a plausible love story using the minimal number of actual scenes between the two principles?

Your handsomeness is not going to fool me into forgetting that you're barely in this book!
Your handsomeness is not going to fool me into forgetting that you’re barely in this book!

I am awful at love stories. A friend of mine was telling me the other day that all her stories are about the guys she’ve dated. I can’t even imagine doing that. It’s not that I dislike love plots. I like them alot. I find them very warm and wonderful. But I just don’t have much to say about love. However, love is a real part of life. And sometimes a novel simply demands a love story. Like, you can’t ignore it. Love and sex often intrude on life.

Which means that I not infrequently am forced to ponder: Can I make this love story work even though there are only maybe five scenes between the characters?

It definitely can be done. Look at Jane Austen. Sometimes her novels have lots of meetings between love interest and protagonist. For instance, Emma and her love interest meet on a number of occasions. But how many pages do Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy really spend together? He’s very much in the background through much of the book. And yet their love feels plausible. It almost seems like the only kind of love that could be shared between two such formal and terse characters. It’s a love that’s revealed not through words, but through actions.

And, in general, there’s a larger question here about economy of incidents. The easiest way to build intensity and show movement is to have something happen many, many times. If two people meet and exchange numbers and then go on a first date and on a second one and a third one and then it’s their one-month anniversary and etc. etc. etc., then obviously the audience will believe they’re in love. I mean, they’ll be bored, but they’ll believe it. Whereas if you sweep over all that time with a blistering narration, then it’ll move much faster, but might not be as believable.

In general, I have become a much bigger believer in doing everything as few times as possible. I don’t like to look at a novel and see, “Oh and here they have lunch again and here they discuss the previous night and here…” No. I want to be able to sit down and enumerate, in a specific way, every interaction that two characters have. For instance, I want to be able to say: “These characters have six scenes together. In the first, she kicks him in the kneecap because she thinks he’s an Islamic terrorist. In the second, she apologizes to him in the hospital. In the third, he testifies against her in the course of his civil suit for all the emotional distress and physical pain she inflicted on him…”

I think that if you break down lots of good novels (and I’m actually just making an assertion here, since I haven’t done this), you’ll see that in lots of them, there’s considerable economy of scene. Each incident is very sharp and very specific and shows measurable movement in their relationship since the previous incident.

Romantic subplots are just an example here. It’s also true for anything in the novel that requires movement: a job, a friendship, a question to become the world’s most powerful sorcerer…

I write my novels in Scrivener (I know, feel free to groan right now), which allows you to tag each scene with keywords. Lately, I’ve taken to tagging all my scenes with keywords relating to the various plots that are advanced therein. Obviously, the main plot is threaded through (almost) every scene, so there’s no point in tagging that. But all the minor ones, the friendships, the love stories, the sad and lonely declines, get their own tag. I’m hoping that when I’m done, I’ll be able to just click each tag and immediately be able to break out each subplot and see the places where it’s advanced in the novel. Hopefully, this will allow me to learn something about economy of incident. It also might just be a waste of time and an easy way to procrastinate (today I spent half an hour figuring out how to make Scrivener reset the chapter count for each new part of the novel. Yes…that wasn’t procrastination at all).

Novels are insanely complicated

This was one of the top image results for "sharpness"
This was one of the top image results for “sharpness”

Got thirty thousand words into the novel before realizing that I had failed to rigorously imagine one key thing (how the mother felt about something that her daughter was doing). And when I belatedly started trying to do some of that imagination work, the entire novel fell apart. Like, just completely unravelled. I realized that the novel had exactly the problem that I described in American Hustle: the characters weren’t emotionally invested in the thing that was taking up most of the screentime, so I’d had to shoehorn in a sideplot in order to give them some life.

Reimagining the character’s motivations meant reimagining her history, which meant changing the entire narrative voice of the story (which I actually hadn’t been too happy with before anyway).

It’s all connected. When one thing is wrong, it wrongs up a whole bunch of other things. In this case, I’d been worrying all through the novel that it was too dialogue-heavy. Even when I glanced at the pages they didn’t feel right: there wasn’t enough variation in paragraph size. I’d tried to fix it up by going back through and adding some descriptive details, but that looked, felt, and sounded like a jury-rigged fix.

I think, in the end, all of that shakiness was a result of my own uncertainty. I didn’t understand my novel enough to be able to know what thoughts and images and actions needed to bubble up at each moment. And I sensed that, so I left it blank, and filled up the pages with talking (which can often be a great cover for a lack of substance, since conversation passes time and feels a bit like action). I mean, I’m caricaturing those thirty thousand words a bit. Lots of interesting things happened, including many things that’re going to remain in the next draft of the novel. But, in the end, they weren’t right.

After going back and reimagining that motivation issue, I was able to write a thousand words and then stopped short. The main character’s daughter was eating ice cream, and I wasn’t sure whether or not the mom was going to scold her about it. And so I went and lay on my bed and I realized that this unsureness was tied to a whole host of other things that I was unsure about (primarily, I hadn’t yet thought about the actual mechanics of the fancy-schmancy childcare center that’s one of the centerpieces of the book). And then that required a lot of rigorous thinking too.

Anyway, I think I got that sorted out, too. As I mentioned before, I normally know that I have the right answer when I sense things becoming more specific. The right answer turns a hand-wavy notation in my outline (something like “He goes on a journey and finds himself”) into “He goes back to his old college and sees that the professor who tormented him is now extremely wealthy because he was an early-stage investor in Google and learns that there is no karmic justice in the world.”

There’s also a certain sort of elegance to the right solution. It’s hard to explain. But wrong solutions feel wrong. They contain too much doubling back and too many tortured motivations. Often I’m able to justify the most insane things to myself by saying something like, “Well, this character acts this one way in this one scene and this other way in this other scene because he’s complex! People change their mind! They act with different motivations at different times!”

Which, yeah, sounds very high and mighty and artistic, but, on an aesthetic level, it just doesn’t work. Fiction should (in my opinion) have a sharpness to it. Because none of this stuff is real, characters, settings, places, situations, need to leap off the page if the audience is going to be able to see it at all. Even when you’re writing a complex, multi-faced character, then you still don’t get to be fuzzy–you just need to make sure that all their facets are sharp.

Novels are incredibly complex. When they’re clicking, you don’t think about that. But every novel–even a realist one–is a whole world with its own rules and its own logic. And you can’t develop that logic simply by deciding “This is how things are in this world.” Writing a novel isn’t like ordering a sandwich at Subway: you don’t mix and match from a menu of discrete elements.

No, you choose each element so that it supports every other element, both on a surface level (so that the plot, character arc, and conflict are sharp) and on a thematic level. And when everything fits together like this, that’s not the mark of a great novel. No! Plenty of bad novels have the kind of cohesion that I’m struggling to reach. Actually, this sharpness is just the bare minimum thing that you need if you’re going to write something that succeeds on any level.

Most novels that I read are so competently-constructed–even the bad ones–that I forget how hard it is to achieve that kind of competence.

And I still don’t know whether this novel is eventually going to come together. I give it about a 50% chance at this point. On one level, it’s extremely disheartening when you work on something and it’s not coming together. But it’s also a bit exhilarating. Generally speaking, I walk around all day listening to a constant internal monologue that’s pretty self-important and banal. And I always agonize about that. I mean, I shouldn’t be wasting valuable brain-time worrying about a rejection or wondering what I’m going to order for dinner. No, I should be pondering important matters.

But when I’m figuring out a novel, my brain works so much harder than it ordinarily does. I can actually feel it turning things around and crunching them into place and taking up hypotheses and discarding hypotheses and framing questions to itself. It’s the kind of thinking that I, when I was young, used to assume would fill up my entire adult life.

When to listen to your fear and when to ignore it

Keep_Calm_Big_ThinkSomething about writing novels brings out fear in the way that no other writing task seems to. They’re so big and there are so many variables and so many decisions. And the price of failure is so high. When you walk away from the wreck of a novel, you lose something–a sense of your own invulnerability–and start wondering, “How could I have worked, for so long, on something that was so bad.”

When I talk about failed novels, I’m not talking about ones that were merely not very good. I’ve written those too. A not-very-good novel still has something to it: a story, some characters, an arc, and maybe a spark of something new. Just, for whatever reason, it’s not very good. But I’ve also written failed novels. And that is the worst. I’ve now written three novels that were so abysmal that I found it difficult to reread them. Once they were done and finished, the thing I realized about these books is that there simply wasn’t any story: they were ninety-five thousand words of smoke and mirrors. Events happened, but they didn’t add up. The books didn’t have that emotional core.

Lots of published books and even more published short stories have this problem. There are three main ways that a work of fiction can fail to be a story. The first is that it can be trivial. If there’s nothing in the work that matters or really resonates with the reader, then it doesn’t matter what happens. The second is that it can be rote: if the novel never deviates from what’s expected of it and offers nothing new, then it barely exists–it’s merely a shadowy something that’s cobbled together out of bits of what’s come before. And the third (which is the problem that I usually grappel with) is that it can be incoherent. If the story doesn’t know what it’s about, then the selection of elements will be governed by whim instead of by its own internal logic. The different parts of the story will work at counter-purposes to each other and dilute or destroy any possible effect (two recent movies that suffered from incoherency: American Hustle and The Wolf Of Wall Street).

In an incoherent book, the failure is a lack of vision. Elements are thrown in because they’re “cool” or because they’re simply the sort of thing that happens in books.

I have never written a book that didn’t start off as an incoherent mess. And it’s always the same. I’ll start writing the book, and I’ll get five or ten or fifteen thousand words in and then I’ll suddenly be terrified. I simply won’t want to write another word. The problem is not that I don’t know what’s coming next. I’ll know. I’ll have a plan. I can tell a person exactly what the next scene will be. But I simply won’t want to write it.

In situations like this, the common advice is to face down your fear and press onwards. And I’ve done that: I’ve ignored that feeling and gone forward and written that scene. And then the next scene. And the scene after that.

In one other case–my first YA book, This Beautiful Fever–the ship, somewhat miraculously, managed to right itself. The result was certainly incoherent, but at least the narrator’s story was fairly clear. A huge number of subsequent revisions managed to at least partially clear up the incoherent elements. And, in the end, it came out as something fairly readable.

But in those three cases (and in at least two other novels that I never completed), I never found my bearings. I just piled scene on top of scene until I’d finally written so many that I felt like the novel could end.

Since the last of these failures (which occurred just this last summer), I’ve learned to listen to my fear. I’ve learned to draw back and say, “Why am I afraid to write this next scene? What is missing here?” And I literally write down lists of questions for myself. And I spend hours in bed, staring at the ceiling, trying to figure out what it is that I’m not seeing. This isn’t about finding the answer. It’s about finding the right question. And when I do, the question always reveals some fundamental problem with the central narrative of the story. For instance: “The way I’ve written her, would this character even care about being a good mother?” or “If God is really talking to her, then why is she questioning it?”

When I find the right question, the temptation is always to gloss it over with some irrelevant bullshit like, “Oh, she needs to pretend to be a good mother in order to stay with her boyfriend” or “She’s still not really sure if the voice actually is God.” That’s all stuff that sounds fine on paper. I mean, you can tell it to people and they’ll nod their heads and say, “Oh, that makes sense.” But writing a novel is not an exercise in bullshitting. It’s not about finding a plausible answer; it’s about finding the right answer.

The problem with the bullshit answers is that they cripple the emotional heart of the story. If she’s not sure that the voice is really God, then the story becomes a weird detective story, where she’s trying to figure out who’s talking to her. And then, when she finally does, then she’s still subject to the same core problem! And then, because there’s no emotion in the main story, I need to insert some through side-story: some drama with her friends or whatever. And the result of the whole thing is a whole lot of flash and glitz, but not a lot of movement. This is exactly the problem with American Hustle. Christian Bale and Amy Adams aren’t really at all invested in the scam that they’re being forced to perpetrate, so the writers had to force the love triangle to bear all the emotional weight of the story.

Luckily, the bullshit answer doesn’t make the fear go away. Whenever I come up with one, I’ll go back to the story and try to write it and will feel like I’m tangling up everything in knots. And I still won’t want to write further.

Trying to come up with the right answer is very frustrating. Sometimes it ends up being an easy fix (“Just excise my chatty voice of God, and turn it into a single mysterious oracular command”) and sometimes it ends up being really hard (“The character I’ve written is not one that can carry the weight of a novel like this; I need to delete everything and then write her in a way that’s fundamentally different”).

In general, I can tell that I’ve come up with a good answer when the answer is something that makes my novel less complicated and more specific. When you’re operating off a bad conception of the novel, then lots of things about it remain stubbornly vague (“Oh, and at this point she has an argument with God”). But when you have the right answer, those things pop into focus (“At this point, she stops an angel of death from murdering the kindly, but irreligious, studio head”). Basically, a good answer makes your novel easier to write.

But that answer could just as easily never come. Or you could get so tired and frustrated that you convince yourself that a bad solution is actually a good one.

Because at some point, the good fear–the fear that lets you know you’re making a mistake–turns into the bad fear. The bad fear actually gets stronger as the novel gets better. For me, the bad fear is mostly a voice that says, “You’re gonna fuck this up. You’re gonna lose this.”

And it can be overpowering.

The bad fear is the reason why, when I’m on the threshold of really getting into a project, I’ll sometimes spend days (or even weeks) not working on it. Because if you don’t work on something, you can’t fuck it up.

The truth is that the bad fear isn’t wrong. Sometimes I do screw it up. And sometimes I’m feeling really confident about a project but then, the moment I start to work on it, I realize that it everything has evaporated. But, unlike the good fear, the bad fear is unproductive.

The good fear stops me from making mistakes; the bad fear stops me from doing anything. The way I’ve written this blog post, it sounds like the two fears are very separate. But that’s not really the case. They feel very similar. And oftentimes they coexist. The differences between them are very subtle. Generally speaking, the bad fear tends to abate the moment I begin writing. Conversely, the good fear builds and builds as I write, until it eventually ejects me from the story.

That’s why I can’t really outline stories. The bad fear loves outlines, because they feel like work but, on the other hand, you can’t really screw up an outline. And the good fear doesn’t even seem to operate on outlines. I can cheerfully draw up the most incoherent outline in the world without getting even a twinge of the good fear. Basically none of my instincts really come into effect until I start writing actual words.

Anyway, this has been your monthly dose of semi-mystical writing advice. I wouldn’t advise putting too much stock in it. After all, I’ve written a bunch of novels, but none of them have been published. It’s entirely possible that the difference between my “good” novels and my “bad” novels is something that’s apparent only to me.

The importance (and unimportance) of the conceptual breakthrough

three-pillarsSo, when you listen to people who give life advice, it’s always the same old horseshit: follow your dreams, take risks, live every day like it’s your last, etc. Has anyone ever gotten anything they could use out of a commencement address, for instance? And because of that, I had long assumed that all true wisdom was ineffable: it could not be spoken–in fact, it could barely be formulated in words. And that still might be true! But I have come to realize that frequently when I make a breakthrough and hit a new level in any of my activities, I am able to distill the essence of that breakthrough into words.

For instance, I’ve recently started thinking about my stories in a completely different way. It’s become a kind of architectural process. Now whenever I am writing a story, the moment I can sense weakness, I stop, pull back, and see which element is the weak one. In most cases, the element is weak because I haven’t thought it out very well, so I can phrase my issue in the form of an unanswered question. For instance, one of the unanswered questions from a recently completed story was: “What exactly happens in the novel that the characters are reading inside the book?”

After I went through and thought about that for a long time (usually by trying out a bunch of things and going through some false starts), then I could solve it and keep writing. And then, almost immediately, I’d have to stop again. At each moment in the story-writing process, the weight is on one particular element: the weakest one. But the moment that I strengthen that element, the weight falls onto the next weakest one. This means that I can frequently only write a few hundred words farther before I have to stop again. Then, finally, when most of the questions are answered, I can blaze through to the end and finish it.

Now, that is an extremely comprehensible explanation of my (current) process. And it’s good that I’ve explained it, because now I can put it into practice in a more clear-minded way. It also prevents me from being frustrated when I work for days on a story and only make minimal progress. Because I realize that all those days of doing some hard thinking and writing just a few hundred words are just as much work as the days of breezing through and writing 3000 words.

But if someone had told me about this before I had figured it out myself, would I have been able to take advantage of it?


I know that for a fact, because I realized, while writing this blog post, that this is exactly the same metaphor and method (well, she calls it a wall instead of a bunch of columns) that Annie Dillard uses in her writing book. And I read that four years ago. At the time, it struck me, but I didn’t do anything with it. I had to figure it out myself in order for it to be of use.

I think that’s the nature of the conceptual breakthrough. You attach words to the process, but the words don’t fully describe the process. The reason it works has something to do with the specifics of the way you apply it: there’s something about it that’s uniquely suited to you.


Another of the (many) ways in which writing fiction is not like playing the violin

images            In science fiction circle, it’d be utterly uncontroversial to say that a person doesn’t really need instruction in order to become a good writer. Instruction is fine. Maybe it even helps a little bit. But too many writers have succeeded without any form of instruction–no classes, no mentorship, no critique circle–for anyone to believe that the only path to success is through the workshop.

In literary fiction, it feels a little different. The workshop is baked right in. Many literary writers earn their livelihoods from teaching creative writing. Furthermore, admission to creative writing programs is both a reward for writing process and a means of facilitating future success. And workshops are also one of the main social activities in literary fiction; literary writers don’t have conventions (well, aside from AWP), they have summer workshops.

Because of this, I think it’s a more common belief in lit-fic circles that some kind of instruction is necessary in order to become a successful writer. On the face of it, this is not an absurd belief. It’s difficult to imagine someone becoming a successful violinist or dancer without classes. And while there are some untutored visual artists, they’re certainly unusual enough to be notable as “outsider artists.”

In fact, there are very few things that one can do well without being trained in them. Even something as simple as driving or riding a bike usually requires an instructor. Given that, it almost seems absurd to suggest that someone can learn to do something as complex as writing a novel without guidance.

Nonetheless, I have to say that writing fiction is not like playing the violin or riding a bike. It’s just different. What separates writing is its relative lack of technique. Instruction is primarily useful for imparting mechanical techniques. Instruction tells us how to hold the bow and how to make the notes and how to move in a certain way. But language doesn’t require nearly as much technique. We all know how to use language. Our brains are programmed to do it. The more we speak and hear and read and write, the more original, compact, and powerful our use of language becomes.

Using language to tell stories is something that we do very naturally. It’s more like walking than it is like dancing. Even someone who’s never read a book has plenty of experience in telling stories.

Given that, writing a good story is a matter of: a) recognizing and selectively utilizing the various models for story-telling; b) avoiding tired language and story elements; and c) injecting some startling new element into your story.

The workshop can tell you when you’re doing b). But it cannot give you an intuitive sense of a) and it definitely can’t help you with c).

*I always love to compare writing fiction to playing the violin, because (to me) they seem as different as two artistic practices can possibly be.

The primary negative outcome of the existence of the ‘institutional method’ for succeeding as a writer

Life would be way easier if there was just a sorting hat that could divide us into 'Gonna be a writer' and 'Never gonna be a writer'.
Life would be way easier if there was just a sorting hat that could divide us into ‘Gonna be a writer’ and ‘Never gonna be a writer’.

Yesterday, I talked about the institutional route and the anointing process. And I don’t think there’s anything per se wrong with anointing. However, I do think that it has a few perverse and unexpected consequences.

I think that there is a belief within the creative writing academy–a belief that is sometimes conscious and sometimes unconscious–that the writers who deserve a place in the literary world will get anointed and that the rest will give up or, at best, lurk on the fringes of the literary world.

This is, in some ways, a spillover effect from the academic world. In academia, it’s often pretty clear, by the end of grad school, that some students are going to get the good fellowships and go on to be professors and the rest are just going to be adjuncts. Actually, that’s often clear even before the end of grad school. In most fields, the lower-ranked PhD programs tend to produce very few professors. At every stage in academia, there’s a sorting process.

And no one thinks that’s particularly unfair. If anything, people often feel that there should be even more sorting and that more people should be discouraged from getting PhDs. The sorting is simply seen as evidence of talent finding its own level.

And I think there’s a sense–albeit a largely unspoken one–that this is how the world of literary fiction works. Within a few years of the MFA, some people have demonstrated that they can get the residencies and the fellowships and the journal publications…they might not quite be where they need to be yet, but they’re at least on an upwards trajectory…

But if you can’t get those things then, well…it’s good that you tried to be a writer and hopefully it’ll (somehow) prove helpful to you later in life, but maybe it’s time to start applying to law school…

Now, this winnowing-out process is certainly one way of organizing the field…but it’s not the way I’m used to thinking about art, and it’s not the way that the literary world has historically functioned. In the world of commercial fiction, this kind of tiering doesn’t exist. There, you’re nobody…until one day, suddenly, you’re somebody. In the commercial fiction world, you don’t get points for having potential: you’re either producing worthwhile work or you’re not.

There, there’s less of a focus on “being a good writer” and more of a focus on “producing a good book.” For instance, in literary fiction, it seems less uncommon to get an agent when you don’t have a finished manuscript. This is much rarer in commercial fiction (though, in SFF, it does sometimes happen in cases where a writer has won serious awards for their short fiction–we do have our own little version of the anointing process =)

There’s something to be said for the winnowing-out method. It’s certainly more efficient in terms of wasting fewer lifetimes. But it also makes me sad. What I most enjoy about art is that no one can ever stop you and no one can ever tell you to quit.

Of course, that remains true even in literary fiction. It really is possible to go away and work on your own for ten years and come back and sell a novel and stun everyone. You don’t even need an MFA. People often come in from totally outside the literary world and write fantastic literary fiction.

But, I do think that when people (sometimes unconsciously) accept the winnowing-out model, then it results in harm. It makes people think that they’re supposed to get encouragement at every step of the way. And if the encouragement stops, then they’re a failure. And it encourages people to accept the academy’s judgment of them. Since fellowships and conference slots and MFA admissions are awarded based on potential, then being rejected for them can often feel like the committee is rejecting your potential to ever produce worthwhile fiction (and, in some cases, I think this is what the committee actually thinks it is doing).

However, this is false. No one knows who’s going to be good and who’s going to be bad. You can’t tell. Someone could produce a horrible story today and then produce an amazing one in ten years. Someone could produce a story that’s almost-good-enough today and then produce steadily more terrible ones for the next year. I think it behooves us to remember that this is all just a crazy mystery.

Why I am not a pessimist and people should stop saying that I am. Because I’m not. And, also, you will never succeed at anything, ever

Now, when I write stuff like yesterday’s post, people always say, “Oh, Rahul, you’re so pessimistic. You can’t succeed if you don’t try!”

But I don’t think I am pessimistic at all. It’s just a fact. The vast, vast majority of people who want to become creative professionals are going to fail. And it’s not because of the marketplace or anything like that. It’s just the nature of the beast. The number of creatives that the world needs does not scale up linearly with population. If the population doubles, people don’t watch twice as many shows; they just have twice as many people watching the same shows (obviously, this isn’t exactly true—it’s more like 1.4 times as many people watching 1.4 times as many shows). However, the number of people who want to be actors does double. Thus, you have 2x the people competing for 1.4x the spots. Thus, as time goes on, it becomes harder and harder to become a media personality (a thousand years ago, every village had its own rock star: the town skald or Homeric orator or whatever. Whereas nowadays your story-telling neighbor is just seen as a crushing bore).

So yeah, it’s a fact. Most people who want to succeed in a creative endeavor will fail. There are a hundred ways to succeed, but there are a thousand ways to fail. You can do everything right and still just not be good enough. A few days ago, an acquaintance forwarded me this article about all the non-traditional things you can do to succeed in your art. And I loved the article, but I hated the way it implied that if you’re creative and quirky and dedicated then you will succeed, because that’s just false. Articles like this never bother to find people who followed all their rules but still failed; those people are invisible, but they are legion.

And this is where people are like, “Oh, Rahul. You’re so pessimistic. Why are you so depressing about all this stuff? Why can’t you just let people follow their dreams…?”

But I’m not pessimistic. I consider myself to be an optimistic, because I believe very strongly that in the future, I will continue to find ways to: a) be happy; and b) get sufficient food, shelter, and leisure time.

These are not difficult thing to achieve, but they are at the core of what life is about. Furthermore, the fact that they’re not difficult is exactly why I think I’ll achieve them. Most Americans are fairly happy and most Americans have sufficient food, shelter and leisure time. Since I’m more fortunate and capable than most Americans, I think I ought to be able to do at least as well as the average.

That, to me, is a very joyous and optimistic worldview.

On the other hand, I find it to be profoundly pessimistic and depressing when someone (and our society, in general) acts in a way that suggests they will not be happy or satisfied with their life if they are not able to achieve something that they only have a 1 in 100 shot of achieving. That’s a recipe for disaster!

So, in order to get back to the mainpoint of this blog post, I will say that I don’t think it’s stupid to enter a humanities grad program. However, I do think that people should be cognizant of the likely scenario: in ten years, you’re probably going to be applying for the same kinds of jobs that you could get right now.

But really, what’s the problem with that? Having a higher-status job isn’t the cure to all of life’s ills. If you enjoy your studies, then that feels like it’s worthwhile in and of itself.

(For what it’s worth, I’ve heard a ton of Ph.D horror stories. It seems like they are, more often than not, quite miserable. I think comparatively more people like their MFAs. From my perspective, the MFA is great. The workload is light and the people are good. It’s been like a year-long vacation).

Why you should never, ever get an MFA

phdhoodgoldpiping           After semi-randomly going on a midnight rampage and reading a whole bunch of articles about why graduate school (in the Humanities) is a terrible idea, I decided to codify some of my pithiest thoughts on the subject.

I’ve sometimes been shocked to hear my friends tell me that their English professors encouraged them to apply to PhD programs. Honestly, to me, that seems like it should be a firing offense: it’s the academic equivalent of malpractice.

The jobs just aren’t there. When you graduate in one of the humanities, you are often super-specialized. There’ll only be like three or four job openings a year for whatever it is that you do. And there’ll be a hundred applicants for it.

Another way to think about it is this: the supply of professorships is not increasing. There was a time, during the 40s and 50s (with the GI bill) and again during the 70s (when women and minorities started entering college in greater numbers) when colleges had to increase in size very fast. The supply of professorships was HUGE. That is not the case anymore. At best, the number of professorships will stay the same. More realistically, it is going to shrink. Basically you will only get a professorship if someone dies. Now, each professor advises maybe 40 or 50 students over the course of his or her career; and only the single best student is going to advance into his (or someone else’s) chair.

In fact, most professors will never have a student who becomes a professor (while others, the ones at prestigious universities, will have several). But even in the most prestigious programs, most of the students are not going to be able to become professors.

Those odds are terrible. It’s legitimately much harder to become a professor than it is to do a lot of other things. Furthermore, between the PhD and adjuncting and post-docs, you usually put in a decade of work before you realize that you’re not going to make it. And when you don’t make it, you’ve been socialized so strongly to believe that becoming a professor is the high-point of life, that not-becoming-a-professor shatters your self-esteem. Also, when you enter the real job market, you find that people generally don’t really want to hire PhDs with little work experience aside from teaching.

What it amounts to is that getting a PhD in the humanities is, from a strict cost/benefit standpoint, almost never a good idea. And it’s definitely not something that should be encouraged.

In some ways, MFAs have it a bit easier. Our degrees are shorter—only 2-3 years—so we waste less time. Since we’re less specialized are generally qualified for almost all of the jobs that open in a given year (rather than just a tiny fraction of them). And we don’t have an expiration date. You can be ten years out of your MFA and, if you publish a book, still be competitive for a teaching job.

However, on a broader level, the job market is still incredibly gloomy. For awhile, the number of creative writing programs was growing rapidly, but I feel like that’s bound to slow down shortly. And even amidst the boom, there are only 25-30 openings every year. Each gets 100+ applicants. And all of those applicants are usually published writers, with books (so they’ve already survived a pretty rigorous selection process). The vast majority of MFAs—even at top tier programs—will not get professor jobs.

Furthermore, MFAs suffer from the same problem of socialization as PhDs. When you’re here, you kind of imbibe the notion that writing is something that happens in a university. I think that makes it hard to write when you’re out there, in the world, working. I think it makes you start to feel like you’re a bit irrelevant. More and more, there doesn’t seem to be much lip-service paid to the notion that someone could work at an insurance agency and still produce good fiction. I feel like people think that if he was really good, then he’d have a professorship. So, to that extent, I think the MFA has the potential to harm peoples’ ability to orient themselves to what will be the reality of their life as a fiction writer: for the rest of your life, your writing will need to be scheduled around a job–some job–that does not involve creative writing or the creative writing industry.

So yes, don’t go to graduate school.


Tomorrow: I will write about why this does not make a pessimist (and, also, the circumstances under which you might consider going to grad school)


Some of the articles that I read between 2 AM and 4 AM on a day that I think might’ve been a Sunday?

How I would try to get a story published in the New Yorker (if my dream was to be published in the New Yorker)

I understandBeing published in the New Yorker is pretty awesome. You get a few million potential readers (assuming each copy has more than one reader) and they also pay pretty well. But there are a lot of things in life that are pretty awesome: book deals; Stegner Fellowships; cloudless summer days; etc…and, for whatever reason, being published in the New Yorker has never been one of my particular daydreams.

I think this is mostly because I don’t read the New Yorker. I have literally never opened an issue of the New Yorker and read the short story inside it. I’ve never watched a story go from being in the New Yorker to being on the tip of everyone’s tongue—I just don’t have the same positive associations with it that I have with Asimov’s or F&SF or The Year’s Best Science Fiction.

But ever since entering this MFA program, I’ve learned that getting published in the New Yorker is an obsession in the literary world. Many MFAs subscribe to the New Yorker. Even more MFAs read it. And almost everyone is familiar with what is published in it. Over the last six months, I’ve had countless conversations where someone said the words, “Last week, I read in the New Yorker…”

There’s nothing wrong with that. The New Yorker is a great magazine. And even when it’s not great, it’s still very influential. The New Yorker’s readership makes it the definitive place to publish a short story. It is the only place where general readers might encounter a contemporary short story writer.

So if you write short stories and love short stories and want your short stories to be culturally relevant, then by far the best place for them to be is in the New Yorker.

So, before I go on, let me stress that I am a guy who is very much on the outside of the publishing world (particularly the world of literary fiction). With one exception (my story in the Diverse Energies anthology), I’ve only ever sold stories through open submission systems (and I have the 982 rejections to prove it). Although I take on a pretty definite stance in this post, everything within it is based on observation and supposition–it’s entirely possible that a bunch of it is wrong. However, when you’re on the outside, supposition can be all that you have.

So here is where the chain of supposition begins.

It appears to me that if you want a short story in the New Yorker, there are two ways to do it:

  • Submit directly to the fiction editor (i.e. bypassing the regular slush pile) through some personal contact. I imagine that this personal contact takes one of three forms:
    • Direct networking – meeting her and making her acquaintance.
    • Being put in touch with her through a mutual friend or one of your teachers.
    • Being a staffer (an editorial assistant, proofreader, secretary, copy-editor, etc) at the New Yorker (a la Nell Freudenberger)
  • Have your agent submit the story on your behalf.

Note what I left off this list: submitting through the online submission form. There’s nothing wrong with the online form, but even if it was possible to sell through it, then the odds (assuming they buy 1 story a year from the slush) would be 1 in 40,000. That’s such a low probability that, to me, it’s not even worth fantasizing about.

However, there is also substantial evidence that it is completely impossible to sell to the New Yorker through the submissions form. The previous fiction editor of the New Yorker, Bill Buford, never bought a single story from the open slush during his eight-year tenure. The current editor, Deborah Treisman, is a bit more cagey, but, in interviews, she has never named a single person whose story she’s selected from the online submission form. She does name unagented and unsolicited authors she’s published, but it feels entirely likely that all of those stories were submitted through connections. And when she’s asked how to get a story into the New Yorker, she basically says, “Through your agent.”

Thus, it’s possible that the last time the New Yorker published a story it got through the open slush was sometime in the mid-90s.

Now I’m not here to piss and moan and wail about that, since I don’t really care. But if it is your ambition to be in the New Yorker, then you should stop fantasizing about the online submission form and start thinking about how you’re going to make your dream come true.

You might try to leverage whatever contacts you have.

You might try to make some contacts that might be leverageable.

You might try to go to one of the MFA programs whose students tend to publish in the New Yorker: Iowa, Syracuse, Cornell, etc. (On the theory that these programs have some kind of pipeline to the magazine).

You might move to New York and try to get a low-level job at the New Yorker.

All of these things are absolutely worth doing. But they’re all murky and chancy endeavors. It’s very difficult to tell who might be willing to open that gate for you: people who have that power are unlikely to advertise it.

However, there is one relatively easy and unambiguous way to get in the New Yorker. The editor herself told you how to do it. Get the right kind of agent.

Now, plenty of agents don’t really accept clients through unsolicited queries. But many actually do. I think it’s more common than not for agents (or at least someone at an agency) to at least glance through the queries and think, “Might we want to represent this person?”

The only way an agency can stay in business is by finding an author whose work might sell. And good work does sometimes come in through the transom. Furthermore, it’s often a lot easier to network with and make personal contacts with an agent, since: a) there are more of them; and b) as middlemen, they are, almost by definition, somewhat approachable.

As an author who wants to be in the New Yorker, you have to do two things:

  1. Find out which agents are capable of placing something in the New Yorker.
  2. Find a way to make those agents interested in representing you.

The first aim is accomplished easily enough. You just need to comb through the New Yorker and find a hundred or two hundred authors who’ve recently published in it. Some of these authors might’ve gotten into the magazine through other means, but most of them probably got there via their agents. And when you see a novel excerpt in the New Yorker, I think the likelihood is fairly high that it was placed by an agent.

Then take your list of authors and compile a list of their agents. Agents whose names appear two or more times in your list of authors are, in my opinion, highly likely to have some connection to the New Yorker.

So now you have a list of agents who you’re going to query.

All you need is something to query with.

In order to interest an agent, there has to be at least a chance that your work is going to make some money for them. And the only kind of fiction that really makes money is novels. Even short story collections by really, really famous writers often sell pretty poorly. Maybe once in every five years,** there’s a break-out story collection that becomes a best-seller, but yours is unlikely to be that collection. Agents will sometimes rep collections, but it feels like that often occurs when an author already has some buzz (usually because they’ve already published in the New Yorker) and the agent wants to lock them down and extract a novel from them. No agent in the world is excited to see a short story collection show up in their inbox.

On the other hand, I feel like novels at least have potential. Some random MFA student’s novel could turn out to be the next Lovely Bones or Everything Is Illuminated. It probably won’t happen, but at least the odds are a bit better.***

Actually, if you’re really set on hooking an agent, then probably a literary-type memoir might be an even better bet.

So yeah, the hard truth is that the aspiring New Yorker author should write a novel. I feel like that’s unwelcome news, because I think that part of the reason people want to publish in the New Yorker is to somehow make the transition to novel-writing a bit easier. If you publish in the New Yorker, then the world will want your novel. It’s very possible it’ll get sold before you even write it.

But that’s completely backwards. Publishing in the New Yorker in order to become a novelist is like buying a house because you want a secure place to do your laundry for free. It’s like killing your baby in order to get it to stop crying. It’s like getting elected President because you want free security for life.

Selling a novel is much easier than getting published in the New Yorker—the New Yorker only publishes 52 stories a year, whereas the Big Five (and the big independents) publish many more literary novels than that. Furthermore, there’s much less competition in the novel arena, since fewer novels are written (although the competition is still very fierce).

The reason to publish in the New Yorker is not because you want to publish your novel. The reason to publish in the New Yorker is because you want people to read your short stories. Publishing in the New Yorker is one of the very few ways for a short story writer to achieve any kind of visibility in this country.

So, yes, if you want to be a successful short story writer, then you should write the novel first and then use it as leverage to get what you want for your stories. When the agent calls you up, all excited about your novel, ask them if they’d be willing to place your stories in the New Yorker. After you sign with them, send them a story and ask them to do it. If they hedge and refuse, then fire them and find another agent.

Obviously, following my advice would be incredibly difficult. First you’d need to write a novel that could excite an agent who sees a thousand novels a month. Then you’d need to write a short story that could believably appear in the New Yorker. And then a dozen other things would need to line up in the right way.

But your odds of success would be a ­hell of a lot better than one in 1 in 40,000.

*Looking on the acknowledgements page of one of their books is usually a pretty good way of doing this—for instance, I just looked through my copy of Prep: Curtis Sittenfeld’s agent was Shana Kelly, at William Morris.

**In the last fifteen years, I can only think of three story collections that’ve been best-sellers: George Saunders’ Tenth of December; Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies; and Melissa Bank’s The Girls’ Guide To Hunting and Fishing;

***My understanding is that it’s much easier–in the literary fiction world–to get an agent if you have some decent short story credits. And it’s definitely worth trying to get those. In any case, your MFA program will likely require you to produce 12 or so short stories, so you’re going to end up with some product that you’ll need to try to unload. But you don’t need the New Yorker to impress an agent–I’m pretty sure that stories in some of the snazzier reviews (Kenyon, Boston, Missouri) would be enough. But even if you do have those credits, an agent will still, most likely, turn you down if you don’t have a novel.

As a final P.S., if you want more answers on how to navigate a career as a writer of literary fiction, you really can’t do much better than Mary Anne Mohanraj’s FAQ page. I read it years and years ago, before I ever even began to consider an MFA, and it really set me straight.

If you go to a workshop with the expectation that people will lavish praise on your writing, there is a nonzero chance that you will be destroyed

you suck

A bunch of my friends are going to writing workshops this summer, so I thought I’d share the most hard-won piece of advice that I possess: don’t go there looking for people to tell you that your writing is great.

What makes this advice so hard-won is that I’ve gone into so many critique situations looking for that kind of validation and I’ve rarely gotten it and the not-getting-of-it has melted me into a boneless jelly of self-hatred. And now I don’t look for it, and I am much happier and much more willing to take criticism.

Now, I know I am going to get a ton of comments where people are like, “Oh, of course it’s stupid for people to look for validation at workshops,” but c’mon, let’s be real. You do it. Or at least you’ve done it. You don’t admit to doing it, because that is gauche. But you know if, deep down in the back of your brain, you’re really hoping that the instructor will tell you that you are amazing. Honestly, it’s really hard to not hope for that…at least in the beginning.

The reason it is so dangerous to look for validation is not because you never get it…it’s because you sometimes do get it. Let’s face it: in every MFA program, Clarion class, and workshop, there is a star. And when you are that star, the validation that you get from your teachers and classmates is so intoxicating that it can become addictive. The impersonal world of submission and rejection offers no pleasure which is as exquisite as when your workshop leader—frequently a well-published and critically acclaimed author—tells you, in detail, why your story is excellent.

That has almost never happened to me. But the few times it has, I’ve gone home shaking. The excitement frequently rendered me unable to sleep. That joy was capable of nourishing me for days.

I think I am lucky to have not been given too many tastes of this joy. Because when you take too many hits of that crack-pipe, you start to need it. And chasing after validation starts to affect your behavior. You feel the need to run all of your work through some kind of critiquing process. And if the critiquers don’t like it, then you start to hate it too. And you start waiting for people to validate you: you wait for an authority figure to tell you that you’re ready to publish, or ready to write a novel, or ready to send a story out.

Recently, a writing colleague told me about a person who’d been working on a short story for ages and ages and felt like they had finally finished it, and then they’d put it up for critique and received a really wonderful and positive critique from a well-known SF writer.

Which, okay, is wonderful…until you stop to think…if they’d finished the story, why did they put it up for critique? And the answer is that they were looking for someone to tell them that it was finished.

But what if it hadn’t gone that way? Many very well-regarded novels have received a few negative reviews, after all. What if this story had received a lukewarm or a negative critique? The answer is that the author probably would’ve spiraled down into another round of revisions and rewrites.

That’s insane. At some point, a writer should be able to take control of their lives and their work and say, “No. This is finished. This deserves to be published. I believe in it, even if no one else does.”

Because the alternative is to put your self-worth into the hands of anyone who might possibly offer you a kind word.

And that’s a terrifying place to be. I should know; I used to be there. Sometimes I’d get negative critiques that would haunt me for days. Several summers ago, I got one that I literally could not stop thinking about. When I woke up, the first thing I’d think, even before “I’m hungry” or “I need to pee,” would be “Shit…I got that critique.”

I was so devastated by this critique that it called my whole future into question. I could not go to an MFA program if I was going to continue to react to criticism in this way. I couldn’t ever enter a workshop situation again if I didn’t sort this out.

So I did. I was driving on the 880 (I have a lot of epiphanies on the 880) when I realized that the reason the critique had affected me was because so much of my self-worth is tied up in being a good writer. And if someone had had such a negative reaction to a story that I’d liked so much, then it meant I might not be a good writer, and if I wasn’t a good writer, then I wasn’t really anything.

Right there on the highway, while I was crossing the Dumbarton Bridge, I did some mental reshuffling. I told myself that I was not, first and foremost, a writer. I was just a guy who wrote stories. And if the stories were bad, it was no big deal, because that was not who I was. And it worked. Ever since then, I’ve gone into critique situations with zero expectation of validation and no matter what gets said, I tend to walk out of them with very little angst sitting on my shoulder.

Yes, this is a really hokey and shopworn epiphany, but it’s also an epiphany that people can go their entire lives without having. There are really famous writers who die inside when someone says something negative about their writing. Don’t be one of them!