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.

Sometimes I still can’t believe I sold a book

I’m feeling a distinct torpor, but I’m trying to shake it off. Not sure what’s happening. Maybe just that my novel’s text got finalized, but it still has another year to come out. It really feels like right now, at this moment, no one wants anything from me. I definitely have the space to just sort of dilly-dally. Unfortunately, when you dilly-dally at these moments, it shows up years later as a gap in your output. That’s no good! I’m trying to move forward in life, make a career of this.

Sometimes I still can’t believe I sold a book. It feels completely unreal. When did this happen? How? What did I do? It definitely doesn’t feel like I did anything. I mean, I don’t feel any different. I still get plenty of rejections. When I write something, I still assume it’ll never get published. Even in terms of my daily schedule, I’m writing full-time now (sort of), but when I was in graduate school I had plenty of free time too, so that feels very similar.

The book is sold, though, and it’s coming out. And it’s sooo good. My publisher just forwarded me the jacket copy they’re including with the book, and it’s amazing. That’s one thing where genre fiction has literary fiction completely beat. The jacket copy on literary novels is always incredibly dull (genre writers would say that this is because literary fiction is inherently dull, but I disagree with that). I think it’s because literary jacket copy always tries to convey the experience of reading a book, even though that’s an inherently unexplainable thing. Whereas genre jacket copy just tries to convince you to read the damn thing. The jacket copy on a literary novel is like your college professor telling you why the book is important, whereas the jacket copy on a genre novel is like your best friend telling you why the book is fucking awesome.

Anyway, after reading my book’s jacket copy, i was like, whoah. That sounds like a good book. I’d read that book.be_stoked_poster-r1d9d780a65cb480d897fe5017564565c_zejf1_8byvr_1024

Am readjusting to life on the inside!

bomb2June was not my most productive month. Went to two week-long conferences, and, from a productivity standpoint, that is two too many.

However, now I am back home, and am trying to get work done. Today I finished a draft of my proposal for my next book (yes, another proposal…writing your second book is such a saga, even when you’ve already sold it!)

Now I’m going to try to do some revisions on the middle-grade novel that I wrote LAST June. I’ve been dragging my feet on this one for ages. I’m really going to need to learn faster turn-around times if I’m going to do this author thing.

I’ve been having anxiety regarding this writing thing. I haven’t finished a novel since last June. Of course for much of that time I was working on revisions for Enter Title Here, but still, it feels like a very long and very unproductive period. All of this revision is okay and all, but I’m really excited to start working on something NEW.

At this point, though, I’m not sure when I’ll get to that.

If my proposal goes through, then I’ll need to write that book, which I think is going to be fun. But that book is just a rewrite of a book that I’ve already written, so I feel like there’s a lot less excitement in that than I’d like there to be.

A novel is an amazing thing. It’s an entire universe. You can write literally anything in a novel. And whatever you write becomes so real. When I think of the books I’ve written, each one seems amazing to me. Like, all these worlds came out of nowhere and then became such a big part of my life.

I miss that experience–the experience of being in the grip of something NEW. But it’ll come again, I suppose.

Trying not to stress out about book / career stuff

revisingLike everyone, I get stressed about stuff. I worry. I try not to, but it’s difficult. I’m trying my best to just accept the stress. Like, yes, maybe my book will flop. Maybe I won’t be able to sell my MG novel. Who knows? These things happen. Because the alternative is to go around and around and around in circles, trying to convince myself that the possible is actually impossible, and that’s simply not productive.

The annoying thing, though, is that it sometimes works. If worrying never made anxiety go away, then no one would do it. But sometimes–every once in awhile–I do manage to worry hard enough and examine enough alternatives that, in the end, I feel like I’ve planned for every eventuality and that the worst cannot happen. It’s an illusion, of course, but it’s a comforting one.

And giving up on worrying means giving up on that possibility of relief. It means, on some level, accepting that the anxiety that’s seated in the skin of my arms and on the base of my spine isn’t really going to go away. Or at least I’m not going to be able to MAKE it go away. Instead, it’ll just be with me–not predominant, it’s true, but sitting there in the background, hour after hour, until, for some mysterious reason of its own, it finally dissipates.

So far, that’s the only real solution I’ve found. Not to fight the anxiety, but to avoid giving in to it. Not to suppress anxious thoughts, but to avoid arguing with them. I know this is really banal advice, because the first thing anyone says whenever you’re anxious is that you should just be mindful and accept the thoughts. But I never understood, until very recently, that acceptance wasn’t a shortcut. Acceptance isn’t like the 3rd act of a movie, where a hero faces his deepest fears for like a second, and then is able to use that power to vanquish the bad guy. No, acceptance means realizing that the bad guy is never going to be vanquished and that your fears will never truly be overcome–instead they’ll just stay with you, day after day after day.