Being a writer is great, if you can afford it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

If you’re bored by it, don’t write it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I really, really, really hope that all of this struggle is actually leading me somewhere…

robotWorking on some new stuff. Chipping away. But still finding it difficult to write. I feel like I’m floundering, a little bit.

I hate it when people talk about how hard writing is. It’s not hard. It’s about as difficult to do as it is to achieve at a high level in any profession. I think it’s just working that’s hard. Caring about something very deeply is hard.

It’s hard to work. Hard to be an adult. Hard to know that effort isn’t enough: you need to actually produce. And, moreover, that you have so little control on so many levels. You have no control over whether your output will be good. But even if it is good, you have no control over how well it’ll be received. That’s not a writer problem, it’s a problem in any field where there’s competition. There are only two kinds of fields: ones that’re only moderately difficult, because no one wants to be in them; and ones that are incredibly hard, because they’re so desirable. And most people are going to end up trying their hand at one or the other of the latter.

But things do happen, and the wellspring of inspiration does start to flow once again. It’s hard for me now to remember, but I’ve had lots of trying times as a writer. After I sold my first story to Nature (which I count as my first real sale), I went another two years before making a second major story sale. And after selling my second and third stories, I went eighteen months before selling my fourth. After selling my second story to Clarkesworld, I went more than two years without an equivalent sale. The entirety of my MFA program, I sold very few stories. I was in this program that was focused on writing short fiction, but I wasn’t getting anywhere with it.

I’ve powered through novels that weren’t working. I’ve gone to work on them day after day, trying to figure out why each moment was agony–telling myself that when I got to THE END, I’d realize that it had all been worth something–only to realize, when I started revision, that the whole project was ill-conceived and unsalvageable. That’s not just one novel, either. It’s my 1st, 3rd, and 5th novels. Even after I wrote novels that I considered excellent, I still went back and pounded away, writing ones that were terrible. If anything, my current predicament is because I refuse to mistrust my instincts–I won’t finish something that I know is not working.

But it all ends. I know it does. The dam breaks and something comes out and in the end you realize that this difficulty was because you were struggling for something.

I do feel that struggle. For all that I love Enter Title Here, I don’t think it’s the best book I can write. I think there’s something more to me–something more to my worldview and to my interests. I have different stories in me. I can do something that’s different and unique. And I have to believe that all of this agony is because I’m striving for something new. Hope so, anyway, because right now I feel stuck. I’m exactly where I was at this time last year–pacing the floor, writing chapters and scenes, assembling books, and then throwing them out.

I have written 20 short stories since then, so at least that’s something (although 12 of them were awful).

I can be kind of thin-skinned, and I’ve simply learned to accept that

17303-I-m-Sensitive-You-KnowI’m editing my middle-grade novel, and I’m slowly going through my agent’s comments. I say ‘slowly’ because whenever I go through critiques, I can only take a few comments at a time, because otherwise I just get too wound up.

I can have kind of a thin skin when it comes to critique. I mean, I’m not the worst in the world. I’ve met plenty of writers who are utterly devastated by critique, in a way that’s rather unattractive and unproductive. But I’m also not the best. I get wounded by criticism of my manuscripts. And the wounds tend to be even worse when they’re by people whom I respect as readers.

For a long time I struggled against this. I know it’s not the right way to be, so I soldiered through, trying to force myself to not feel resentful or angry when I get critique. But that was a losing battle. No matter how much I told myself that I ought not to feel bad about critique–they were critiquing the manuscript and not the person–it never really worked. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that some people are just more sensitive to this sort of thing than others.

So I’ve evolved a different way of dealing with it. Nowadays when I get an edit letter or a critique, I read it through once and then I put it away for awhile. During that time I often do some brooding  and feel bad. Then I go back, a few weeks later, and read through everything more carefully. At this point, I usually note that it’s not nearly as bad as I thought it was. In my mind, I’d turned the critique into something harmful and devastating–an indictment of the core of the work. But in reality it was just some comments on how it could be better.

The key here is time and space. I try to allow myself to feel insecure and wounded. Going through workshop comments is the one part of my writing process that I do without turning off the internet. I go through a few  comments and then I browse Facebook. I go through a few more, and then I browse Facebook some more. I count up the total number of comments, and then I allow myself to just go through a fraction of them on each day. The amount of time and space that I devote to processing the comments is absurd, but it’s what I need. Honestly, the comments don’t even need to be that bad in order to make me flinch. I remember my novel, during one of the final stages of editing, had 500 comments on it. And even the ones that were like, “Does this place really exist” or “Wasn’t he blonde in the previous chapter?” stung me a little bit. But I went slowly, and I got through it.

am really excited to edit this book, though. It’ll be good to have something out there again.

Oh, in other news, I sold another story. My short-short “The Spider” will appear in Daily Science Fiction. This is, I believe, my fifth sale to them (tied with Nature)! Really odd to me that there can be places to which I’ve sold so many stories. This is also my sixth sale this year at professional rates, meaning this is already my second best year (after 2012), and I’ve still got three months left. It is good to be doing some short story stuff again. For about two years I was having a really difficult time writing stories, particularly science fiction and fantasy stories, and I thought that maybe I was just done with the whole story thing entirely. But starting about a year ago, I slowly regained my fluency. I think I just had a lot of learning to do.

It’s a good lesson to me. I’ve also had a lot of trouble, in this past year, writing novels, and I’ve at times wondered if I’ll ever again write anything good. But life is long, and in the course of a writing career, one dry year is nothing. I’ve mostly spent this year editing books that I’d written in the previous two years, and I think I’ve gained a lot from that. I hope by the end of the year to have revised all my old novel projects and to finally be able to work on new things.

Feeling very energetic about my writing but also very in transition

Sent off my proposal for my second YA novel. About to get a second round of notes back from my agent on my middle-grade novel. And making some revisions to my adult literary novel (the sociopathic mom novel, now with 100% less sociopathy). And I should be getting bound galleys from my publisher sometime in the next month. Are those the same as ARCs (Advance Reader Copies)? For seriously, I have no idea. Nobody explains anything to you when you’re a new author. They just assume you know it all, I guess. I do try to be unafraid to ask questions, though.

Feeling much less stalled in my writing than I did a few months ago. Right now I feel like I could sit down and write a novel if I needed to. And, for perhaps the first time in my life, I feel like I’m choosing between different ideas. In fact, for the first time in my life I feel like I’m capable of sitting down and generating ideas. Actually, maybe that’s what I’ll do for the next half hour. Just sit down and generate fifteen story ideas.

But now that I feel like I’m moving again, I’ve started to feel, like, well…like I’m moving again, you know? I’ve lost that feeling of stasis that I’ve had ever since I sold my book. In a very short amount of time, my book is going to exist as a physical object! And in one year, it’s going to be out in the world! More and more, the fact that strange people will read my book (and write about it on the internet!) has become a terrifyingly real to me. It’s definitely a hard thing to get used to.

Reached my 1400th short story rejection!!!

rejection-letter-quote-signYep, reached the big 1.4k a few days ago. These milestones haven’t felt as large since I hit 1,000. In fact, I didn’t notice this one until a few days after it happened.

My submission volume is way, way down. I’ve gone from writing 20-30 stories in a year to writing, well, fewer than that. Although this year I’m already up to ten, so who knows?

1400 is the close of a decent century. I sold a story to Lightspeed, “Here Is My Thinking On A Matter That Concerns Us All” is going to be in their November issue. And I sold a story to Nature: not sure when “Corridors” is going to appear, but I think it’ll be before the end of the year.

As always, previous rejection milestones are listed below:

That’s nice. This blog has been around for so long! And I’e been submitting stories for sooooooo long. I’m sure nobody will do this other than me, but it’s interesting to go back through the milestone posts and see the change in mood over time. There are some pretty major variations in my level of optimism re: my writing prospects. Nowadays that anxiety has simmered down a little bit, especially with regards to my short fiction. I’ve certainly had better years, in terms of selling stories, than this one. But it also hasn’t been terrible. I feel like nowadays I’m in it for the long haul.

Is there any way for male YA writers to combat the sexism in our field? (even as that sexism puts money in our pockets)

mysteryfacepennamepseudonymJust read an extremely revealing post by an author who decided to submit her manuscript to publishers and agents under a male pseudonym. She writes:

“I wanted to know more of how the Georges of the world live, so I sent more. Total data: George sent out 50 queries, and had his manuscript requested 17 times. He is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book. Fully a third of the agents who saw his query wanted to see more, where my numbers never did shift from one in 25.”

This struck home for me. As a male author working in a 90+% female field, I’ve often felt like I benefited from unconscious gender bias. There’s just something about the reception that my book got from publishers…something about the reception I’ve gotten from other YA writers. I’m obviously not a star, and I probably won’t ever be, but I feel like my gender made my journey easier. Which is something I’ve simply learned to accept (this isn’t going to be one of those wallowing in guilt posts).

However, I have been thinking a little bit (especially over the last few days, for some reason) about how I can make it better. The situation in YA, thought, is different, in many ways, from the situation in my other genre–science fiction. There, women seem relatively underrepresented, and it feels like the most conscious thing to do is to just seek out and praise female voices.

But I still don’t know what to do in the YA field. It’s difficult, actually, since the number of men in the YA field is so small that even with the dramatic sexism, there’s still much room for women to flourish. Maybe 10% of YA authors are men, but we get 40% of the awards and bestseller slots. That’s unfair. It’s a systematic disadvantage for female authors. But at the same time, because there ARE so many female writers in the YA field, it means that there are also a lot of female bestsellers and awards winners, and that makes it hard to point to any specific book and be like, “This is the disenfranchised book. This is the one that should’ve been a bestseller.” (Although if I was to point to any, it would be Susan Juby’s The Truth Commission. Her book is so good and so similar, in many ways, to mine, that if mine is a hit where hers wasn’t, then I feel like we’ll have learned something…)

In the science fiction world, a friend, Tempest, recently issued a call for authors to stop reading white men. But I’m not sure that is as well warranted for the YA field, because the demographics of kid-lit mean that you end up reading a lot of books by women. In fact, although I’ve made zero additional effort to read books by women, I just did a quick count and found that 18 out of the 23 children’s books I read in the last eighteen months were by women. That’s 78%. As such, it’s hard to say that what I need to do is to concentrate more on works by women.

(Although I will note that out of the books I’ve read in the last year that I’ve raved about–The Truth Commission,  Siobhan Vivian’s The List, Tim Tharp’s The Spectacular Now and Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Storyonly 50% were by women. Furthermore, out of that group, the ones by males were already outstanding critical and commercial successes, while the ones by women required a little more searching to unearth. So I don’t know, maybe the solution is to read zero men).

Anyway, I am at a loss. It honestly feels like what’s needed are systematic procedures to encourage gender-blind reading by agents and publishers. At the very least, agents (whether they’re male or female) who are concerned about reducing gender bias ought to write in their guidelines that they don’t want cover letters and bylines to contain any information that might reveal the gender of the author. On the other hand, that’s a policy that would entail considerable financial risk for the agent because if it’s true that male writers are vastly more likely to be bestsellers, then it makes sense for an agent to try to catch as many men as they can. Still, this can’t be an intractable problem. There’s got to be something that can be done.

It’s better to ask for information, rather than advice

People, in general, are too quick to pass the buck. They don’t want to make decisions for themselves. They’d rather turn to someone in authority and do what that person tells them. Now, I’m pretty sure that every single person reading this post is like, “That’s not me!” Except guess what? It is you (and it’s me as well!). Luckily, we don’t live in an authoritarian society (cue the horde of people disagreeing), so our sheep-like instincts don’t cause that much harm.

In general, I find that, in writers, sheeple qualities tend to manifest itself in peoples’ desire to abrogate their own decision-making by just doing what some famous author tells them. Like, oh, Robert Heinlein said never to abandon anything I work on, so I’m going to abandon it. Or so-and-so turned down a publishing contract in order to self-publish, so I’m going to do that too. We don’t even notice ourselves doing it, because, to us, what we’re doing seems like what I said, in yesterday’s blog post, we ought to do (namely, when we face a difficult decision, we ought to find more people and ask them about it).

After all, it’s good to be open-minded! It’s good to consider other viewpoints! It’s good to defer to experience!

But too often I think ‘open-mindedness’ turns into a fear of forming and drawing your own conclusions. And when that happens, you see people being led astray by the whims and casual opinions of other people. For instance, let’s say you’ve just finished your first novel. And you send it around for peoples’ opinions. And an eminent writer looks at it and says, “Oh, this book is really fantastic, but it’s 175,000 words, and that’s really long for a debut novel, so this might be a hard sell.”

That’s all true, of course. But I know many writers who’d then immediately take out the knives and start hacking their book to pieces in order to get it below 120,000.

But you notice what the eminent writer hasn’t said? He hasn’t said, “I think this novel could be brought down to 120k words without losing any of its impact.”

All he’s done is state a truism of the marketplace. But the writer has viewed the statement through the lens of their fear and their desire for certainty, and what they’ve heard is, “This book is too long to sell. In its current form it will sell. If you cut it, then it might sell.”

But no one said that!

And even if the professor had said that, it’d still be just his opinion. What does he know? He’s not the God of buying and selling books. He’s just one guy.

The problem here is that writers, once they’ve reached any level of achievement, have often learned how to tune out criticism. But they don’t know how to tune out the wrong sort of praise. They get drunk on the fact that someone actually cares about them, and they start to convince themselves that this person, who knows so much, MUST be right.

What they don’t understand, though, is that no one–not even their closest mentor–is ever going to care as much about their writing career as they do. Which means that it’s very possible for a much-more-experienced person to be wrong, simply because they haven’t thought as much about the problem as you have.

Which is why, when talking to mentor-type figures, I think it’s important to be specific about what you’re asking. It’s fine to ask “What should I do?” but you shouldn’t just ask that question. What you want here isn’t to use someone’s judgment–you want to learn the information and the cognitive processes that allow that person to make those judgments. Basically, you don’t want someone running around telling you what things are right and what things are wrong–what you want is for that person to sit you down and teach you how to tell the difference between right and wrong.

So for instance, in the above case, what you ought to do is go back to the eminent writer and ask him some follow-ups: a) does he think your work can be cut?; b) Is there a way to handle the issue of length in your query letter?; c) is there any genre or area in which your novel’s length might harm it?; d) when people do publish long debut novels, how do they go about it?

Some of these questions are probably stupid, but you don’t know which ones are stupid and which ones aren’t. The key here is to get a full understanding of the landscape in which your novel’s length is such a factor, and to then, with all that information in hand, make the decision on your own, using your own judgement, as to whether or not it ought to be cut.TrustYourself1

Found some gold in my unfinished story archives

Melange+Snooper-Dune1984I used to generate dozens of story fragments, ranging from 50 to 5000 words, each year, but eventually I stopped seeing the point. I never looked at them, and most of them were just nonsense. Now I tend to either delete the free-writing or to store it in my huge “_fragments.docx” file (which I also never look at, but at least it’s only one file). Nowadays it’s only when a story starts to feel like something (i.e. gets to maybe 2000 words) that I give it my own file.

However, I still tend to either finish a story within a week or two, or abandon it forever.

Yesterday, though, I was bored and sleepy and looking for ways to avoid working, so I took a little stroll through my ‘Unfinished Stories’ folder, and I found a lot of good stuff in there! A lot of voice, actually. And a lot of inventive situations and characters. In general, these were stories that I’d written during the 2-3 months when I was very depressed and finding it hard to write anything. In some cases, I didn’t even remember writing the story. What I do remember was that I’d plop down at the keyboard, day after day, and struggle to generate something, ANYTHING.

I’m not a fan of free-writing. I think trying to produce crap usually leads to crap. These stories weren’t free-writing. They were conscious attempts to chase something–an image or an idea–and produce something good. However, I was also at my wit’s end, so I was chasing some pretty far-out things.

In most cases, when reading over the fragments, the story ended right at the point where it should’ve started to become something. You know what I mean. There’s the intriguing part of the story, where you throw out lots of stuff, and whisper to the reader “Keep going, this is all going to come together, and the payoff will be amazing.” The problem is, though, that then the payoff has to be amazing.

Generally, with this sort of story, you have 2-3 seemingly unrelated threads, and then you tie them together at the end. In speculative fiction stories, there’s usually the big story–the societal or technological change–and then there’s the little story–the protagonist is broke or lovelorn or incompetent or something. For instance, Dune is the story of a corrupt, decadent empire, and it’s also the story of a young man who’s lost his father and his place in society. The two stories come together at the end when he forges a new family and uses it to destroy the empire.

That’s what I call a major tie-up. It’s one where the resolution of the personal story leads to the resolution of the exterior story.

What I usually specialize in, though, is a minor tie-up: a story where the exterior story somehow impinges upon the personal story in a way that illuminates or clarifies. Ted Chiang is a master of this. For instance, in his story The Merchant And The Alchemist’s Gate, there’s this big meditation on time travel and fate and destiny–and it all comes together at the end to provide a moment of peace to a man who has lost his family.

When you’re lucky, the story contains the seeds of a minor tie-up right from the beginning, and you’re able to go through and write it cleanly.

However, in these unfinished stories, the minor tie-up wasn’t quite clear. Usually, that was because the personal story wasn’t well-enough thought out. Either there wasn’t enough inner conflict, or I didn’t understand the inner conflict, or the inner conflict wasn’t thematically appropriate for the story (for instance, if the inner story in Dune had been that Paul Atreides was a plucky inventor who was trying to invent an alternative to the geriatric spice, then the story wouldn’t have worked nearly as well, because that doesn’t have thematic resonance with the whole dying, decrepit empire deal, because his very pluckiness and ingenuity would, in some way, belie the tale you’re trying to tell about this world).

Anyway, I’ve read through them, and I got them in my brain bank, and someday soon, hopefully, the answer will come to me.