Revision is very important, but I don’t think it makes books more likely to sell

Have been feeling a little stir-crazy at home, so I’ve done what I hardly ever do, and I’ve repaired to a local cafe (the Atlas Cafe on 20th and Florida, in case I’ve any stalkers) to drink coffee and try to get some writing done. But then it turned out that my computer was out of batteries, so I am writing this on my phone. I don’t often go out, simply because, well, my home is spacious and light-filled and the coffee there is free, but there’s been something in the air lately. I think just because it’s been so windy–when the windows at my home are open there’s this howling sound, and when they’re closed the place feels very airless.

Currently I’m working on revisions for my second book, We Are Totally Normal, which is due out from HarperTeen sometime in early 2020. My editor gave me a stunningly long lead time on the revisions, and I’ve been taking advantage of that time.

I am a good reviser. That’s a part of my identity. I’m pretty good at setting aside what I’ve actually written and analyzing the book de novo (really hope I’m using ‘de novo’ right) to figure out how it can be put together better.

With revision it’s important not to rush into anything. For any problem there are a thousand potential solutions that sound good in theory but would wreck the novel if put into practice. The trouble is to not lose sight of the heart of the novel. If you make revisions willy-nilly, simply to suit the taste of the market or of a certain set of readers, you’ll end up with a mess.

Ultimately the point of revision isn’t to make the book sell more copies, it’s to revise the book so that it better fulfills its own artistic aims. You revise–or at least I revise–so that the book will be the best possible version of itself. With some editorial feedback, especially if it comes from agents or editors, adhering to their guidance would bring the book further from its artistic aims, and its in these cases that a writer faces his or her most difficult test. It’s easy to say ‘stick to your guns’ but almost always the better choice is to figure out what things are truly worth fighting and which are not.

Luckily, with both my editors and both of my publishers, the edits I’ve gotten have been more or less copacetic, so that’s one writing difficulty, at least, that I’ve been spared.

However even with editorial suggestions that you agree with there remains the issue of incorporating them carefully. You can’t just edit to please your editor; you need to internalize their advice. You need to see what they see.

I generally start off revision very carefully. I digest any editorial suggestions. I reread the book. Then I think, “What is at the core of these suggestions?” Because oftentimes when you read a critique or an edit letter, you’ll see that all the things they’re pointing out are the result of one or two deficiencies in the text. Sometimes these deficiencies aren’t even things that they themselves necessarily noticed or called attention to. Nobody knows your book and your vision better than you do, and for that reason nobody else can really understand the parts of the book that are inessential and the parts that are exactly what they need to be.

It’s usually my objective to revise by changing as few elements as possible. By that I don’t mean that I make small changes, all I mean is that I identify exactly what I am going to do. Usually, I find, the changes are, at their core, changes in character’s backstories. People are their histories, and if you change what’s happened before the story starts (i.e. the stuff you haven’t written), then you change a character’s entire outlook on life. You change their desires, their objectives, and their relationships. Sometimes too I contemplate changes to the setting. Oftentimes I imagine changes that are very large, and then I realize that much smaller changes will do.

I prefer, though, if my revisions make the book simpler. Ideally, I prefer to eliminate things, rather than add them. I also often find that a change, when it is right, serves either to better utilize or to completely eliminate a previously ancillary part of the story.

In early drafts of a book, you put lots of things in without knowing exactly what you’re going to do with them. Later on, these things become your tools. They’re guideposts for you; they are hints as to the real emotional core of the story. I think it’s very easy to revise by adding things, by making the story bigger and more complicated, by in my opinion this is how you ruin books. I always like to either change something or eliminate something.

Oftentimes, the current draft of a book contains, somewhere within it, the form of a much better book, and the purpose of revision is to find that form.

Anyways, I am a big believer in revision as a necessary part of the artistic process, but, oddly, I don’t believe it much impacts the commercial or critical success of the book.

When you revise, you often eliminate elements that are sentimental, untrue, overwrought, or false. But it is precisely these elements that many audiences respond most deeply to. In a revision, you might decide that your damsel, rescued from a monster by a knight, would be too traumatized by her experience to easily trust again. You might decide that they cannot, as you originally wrote, fall in love. You might decide that the best that they can hope for is an uneasy trust. And the hard decisions you put into the book might ultimately, to the sophisticated reader–the one truly on board with your vision–make your knight and your damsel into truly unforgettable heroes who forge a unique and honest relationship. But oftentimes audiences don’t want that. Oftentimes they respond most deeply to the illusion. They want to believe that trauma doesn’t scar. They want to believe that chemistry always turns into true love. They want something that feels like other things they’ve liked. For this audience, your unrevised version would probably do better.

On a less cynical note, I think audiences usually respond to the emotional core of a book. And it’s this core which is usually present even in the very first draft. Nothing you do in revision is going to substantially alter this core, so nothing is really going to alter how audiences respond to it. Thus, revision, to me, is something you mostly do for the benefit of yourself and of your best and most sophisticated readers.

Frustrated with the way so many authors play it safe when it comes to questions of morality

Recently listened to a book, The Wicked Girls, that to me is clearly based on the real-life story of the novelist Anne Perry, who along with another girl, killed a woman while a teen (also the basis for the movie Heavenly Creatures). Perry’s story, assuming she hasn’t killed anyone as an adult (which seems a safe assumption to me), gives rise to questions about the nature of evil, cruelty, and rehabilitation. Some of these same questions are tackled by this thriller, which is about two women who meet again, twenty-five years after committing and being prosecuted for a murder as eleven year old girls, and find themselves entangled in a serial killer’s rampage. To be honest, I found myself wavering considerably on this book. To me the whole thing hinged on the construction of the murder that they committed as kids, and this is precisely the issue that the novel spends most of its length trying to obfuscate. What makes Perry’s case so disturbing and interesting is that the murder she committed was quite premeditated. Her friend’s mother was going to take her friend away, so they killed the mother in order to stay together. The killing was not quick or simple; it required twenty whacks on the head with a brick. And now the person who committed this crime is free, and she walks around as easily as you or me, writing books, giving interviews, and living a very normal and, to all appearances, quite matronly existence. That is fascinating. The story told in this book is much less so.

However, I understand why Marwood wrote it this way. This is the third book I’ve read recently which featured a character who had acts that the reader was meant to think are vile or morally gray. In one of those books (unnamed because this is a spoiler), it turns out that the murderer actually killed another guy in order to stop him from raping and killing a girl in a war-zone. And in Jeff Zentner’s Goodbye Days, a kid is ostracized because he sends a text message and his friend’s attempt to reply, while driving, result in him crashing and all the passengers in the car dying (note, the protagonist of this book isn’t in the car, he’s just a guy, somewhere else, who sent a text message). In both of these cases, the act is so far from being morally ambiguous that I threw up my hands in frustration. Like, we all agree that killing in self-defense or defense of another is okay, but if you want it to be even _more_ okay, then surely it’s alright in a warzone, where there is no law, and where your victim is a soldier who is abusing his authority. Similarly, there is nothing wrong about sending a text to someone who is driving. If there’s any culpability, it’s in the person who engages in texting while driving, not the person they’re texting with.

The problem, however, is that if these books were written in a way that was actually morally ambiguous, they would’ve been taking something of a risk. In Zentner’s book, the obvious solution would be if the protagonist had been the driver of the car and if he’d been the only person to survive. Texting while driving is not good, but it’s also something lots of people do, and yet it’s only when you crash that suddenly you’re a murderer. That would be a classic examination of moral hazard and of hypocrisy. But if that’d been the story, people would’ve hated the protagonist, and they would not have enjoyed the book. Which is absurd, because literally three quarters of people have texted while driving. It’s sort of an Emperor’s New Clothes situation (similar to, say, underage drinking or using illegal drugs or cheating), wherein a massive percentage of the population is doing something–if it’s not you, then it’s your father, your mother, your kids, or your husband–and yet we pretend it’s somehow beyond the pale.

 

I don’t think it’s impossible for a book to succeed commercially if it contains ambiguous morality. I mean, it’s especially true when we have thrillers. Gone Girl contained some terrible people. The protagonist of The Girl On The Train was a terrible and terribly self-absorbed alcoholic. But in general, and this is entirely my own unscientific impression, it seems that the authors of most commercial hits have tended to play it safe when it comes to moral questions.

Thoughts on books I’m currently reading

Been awhile since I’ve posted, and I apologize for nothing! It’s now two years since my last book came out, and it’s almost two years until my next book will come out, and I feel like I’m not really blogging to attract or impress anybody. In general I’ve gotten a lot more sparing with my words, both here and in my writing, and a lot more interested in following the flow of my own interest. In my work, this means cutting out, even on a micro level, the sentences that don’t interest me. I won’t have somebody open a door and walk into a room, unless that interests me. I won’t write a conversation just because the information needs to be in the book. I won’t even include white space, unless it serves a purpose. Probably this does the work no favors, but I don’t care.

With this blog, I too sometimes have ideas, but writing them out bores and tires me. For instance, I’ve little interest in writing descriptions of most of what I’m reading. I am beginning the third and final volume in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and each volume has been better than the last. It’s really less about the Roman Empire and more about the development of Western Civilization (which includes, essentially, everything west of India and north of the Sahara) between the death of Marcus Aurelius and the fall of Constantinople. It’s an incredible work, and all the more incredible for having been written in the 1700s. I mean, it’s pretty racist, too, but not as racist as many things from that era can be. Also, many of the racial prejudices are somewhat quaint, for instance, the characterism of ‘Oriental’ (i.e. Persian and Egyptian and Asian Greek) people as being addicted to despotism. I think the author genuinely finds himself confused, at times, over how to reconcile the modern (i.e. 18th century) prejudices against Middle Eastern, Italian, and Greek people with the fact that, well, historically speaking, those places were the center of all that was civilized. Most authors treat the Mediterranean peoples from antiquity as if they were completely different from those of the modern era, but since Gibbon is dealing with that very transition from Late Antiquity to Early Modern, he has trouble performing this leap of imagination.

Anyway, it’s good. Each volume is about as long as five regular novels though.

Simultaneously I’m reading The Dirty Girl’s Social Club by Alisa Valdes. I was intrigued after reading her description of her relationship with Junot Diaz, which also contrasts the difference in the acclaim their novels received. I think that writers of commercial fiction who write realist novels that are essentially modern comedies of manners find the system of genre distinctions particularly perplexing. It’s not per se obvious why Diaz’s book should get the Pullitzer Prize while Valdes’s would never even be considered for it. Where writers of science fiction and fantasy can at least say, “Oh, the system discriminates against non-realist fiction” (not entirely true, but at least it’s an easy explanation), the writers of romance novels, women’s fiction, and chick-lit face an even more arbitrary distinction.

Anyway, reading The Dirty Girl’s Social Club and contrasting it, in my mind, with Oscar Wao has been an illuminating experience. I’ll leave it to other people to more directly contrast the two books’ quality, but I’ll note that Valdes’s novel has many virtues, not least of which is an honest examination of mores. I really liked the woman who’s in love with a social worker but is upset, essentially, because he’s cheap and poor. Or the other woman who’s really turned on by this drug dealer she meets. This all feels very real to me, and it’s not something I’ve encountered in other novels.

I think the worst part of the system of genre classification is the sexism that’s at its core. But the second-worst thing is the way it impoverishes literary fiction of realistic depictions of desire, of friendship, and of relationships, and I think that if you want those things nowadays you’re almost required to read commercial fiction (or to watch contemporary television). Which is a little sad, because depictions of manners are at the core of what novels are about.

Writing is going really well

I’m experiencing that loss of motivation that comes whenever the writing is going really well. It’s such a rare event that I want to slow down and enjoy it. Was just thinking today that right now I’m working on my eleventh novel. That’s definitely something. I wouldn’t say that I have absolutely no idea how to write a book, but I do feel I know very little. It’s a bit astonishing to me, still, that I’ve sold two of them. Actually, I’m more astonished today than I was when I first sold Enter Title Here (almost exactly) four years ago. Back then, it felt like an inevitability. I’d worked hard, served my apprenticeship, gotten better, written a great book, and now, of course, it was getting published.

But I’ve learned that this is far from a normal course of events. The writing world doesn’t reward hard work. And it doesn’t even necessarily reward the writing of a good book. There’s so little upside to publishing any given book that you sometimes wonder why these companies even bother (I think they often wonder the same thing themselves). As a result, the writing world has a genteel aspect, but it also ends up feeling very random. When you sell a book to a publisher, all it means is that an editor decided, for some reason, to use their capital, within the company, to attempt to buy your book.

Hopefully, that also means that they loved it and that the company loved it. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes books get bought simply because this is the sort of book they feel they ought to be buying.

It’s such a strange world.

I try not to beat myself up over procrastination

Some of the things I write about here are more advanced-stage writer stuff that might be dangerous in the hands of an apprentice or journeyman (journeyperson?) writer, and this is perhaps one of those topics. Because I know that people often procrastinate for years, or even a lifetime, when it comes to writing. In the science fiction and fantasy world, they procrastinate by developing complex worlds or strange fictional languages instead of writing. People procrastinate by saying, oh I’ll write the book when I retire, or after I sell enough short stories, or when I finally get an agent or a book deal or…or…or…

I’ve done my fair share of procrastinating in my day. But usually what would happen (I’m talking ten years ago, when I was in my early twenties) is I’d set some wildly ambitious goal, fail to meet it, and then, through guilt and shame, shove writing out of my mind entirely for months at a time.

A key part of beginning to write was to set more manageable goals. I didn’t need to write a story a week. I didn’t need to write a novel in X number of days. I just needed to do a little bit each day. Once I started setting limits on how much I needed to write in order to feel like I’d done something, I. paradoxically, became much more productive. Some people’s way of becoming productive is to say, “I will just work all the time.” And more power to them. But that’s not my way.

Rather, at each stage in my writing career, I’ve learned to relax. First I stopped keeping track of word count. Instead all that mattered was how many hours I spent at the keyboard. Then I stopped keeping track of that too, because I found I was just spending many hours writing nonsense or writing stuff that I’d never used.

It’s taken me a long time to quiet down and learn to listen to the work. This is not something that people emphasize in commercial fiction. Whether it’s YA or science fiction, there’s an assumption that you just write, write, write–that you can crank out novels as if they’re widgets. And that’s an assumption that I imbibed for a long time, with both positive and negative effects. On the positive side, I’ve written a lot of books. I’ve experimented with a lot of things. And out of all the writers working at my level (in terms of quality of the work), I’m probably on the faster side when it comes to productivity.

But the focus on productivity also made me lose sight of the work itself and lose sight of the thing in the work that makes it compelling. I gradually came understand that to be good a novel needs “the heart of longing.” But I was working so fast that if the heart of longing didn’t come immediately, I had no time to find it. And that’s how you produce work that might be competent, but which has no soul.

Nowadays I’m able when I work to listen for the heart of longing. And I don’t try to sort of find it or to approximate it–I either hit the heart of longing as close to dead-center as I’m able, or I don’t write at all.

This means I pause a lot in my writing. It means I spend a lot of time thinking. It means sometimes I stop writing after an hour or two. It means I scrap projects that seem to be going fine. It means I go back and rewrite a lot, and it means that I sometimes take many days off from a project without quite knowing why.

Procrastination has become, for me, a very valuable tool, because it’s often a sign that my plans for the book are almost but not quite right. Sometimes I think I’m procrastinating out of laziness, but during the hours or days of idleness I realize my conception of the book is wrong. Sometimes I have an epiphany about a new direction for the book, but I procrastinate about going to work, and a few hours later I realize the epiphany was glib or shallow and that I need to think harder.

I think ideally writing should be exciting, and that when I’m really hitting the heart of longing, my urge to write ought to more than outweigh any natural torpor I have. And when the torpor wins out, it’s often because there is something fundamentally unexciting in the work.

The three things that cause stories to stall out

Am stalled today on writing, because there’s just this one thing I don’t know. I have these two characters interacting, and I don’t know how it turns out. The thing is, you can always just write down some crap. One pulls out a gun and shoots the other one. They break up. They’re mean to each other. There are ten thousand solutions.

But the real question is: what is the right solution?

The main thing I’ve learned from all the movies I’ve been watching lately is the importance of dramatizing action. When you strip away the emotional responses and the thoughts and the exposition, what does this actually look like? Frequently I find myself picturing my book as if it’s a movie (a very dimly lit and indistinct movie), and I’ll try to put myself right there in the room with them.

Ideally, the characters and the action should snap into place so intuitively that you can’t imagine it otherwise. The best action movies are like this: You cannot imagine Rambo taking place in any other way. It is inevitable that this man, walking through this place, is going to end up involved in a countywide man-hunt. There’s a sense of inevitability to the action that allows you to ignore the constructedness of the story.

But usually when you’re just drafting a book, that doesn’t happen. Both characters and action have, through many drafts, a sort of unfinished quality, and as a result things happen more or less arbitrarily. For me, the writing process involves finding these arbitrary places (usually I recognize them because I can ‘envision’ a novel right up to this point, but afterwards my vision is a total blank) and slowly altering one thing and then the other until they fit together better.

I usually begin by imagining really simple solutions. What if…instead of doing what they do, they just do the opposite? Then I’ll move onto really drastic solutions, what if I combine these two characters into one person? Then I’ll come up with a medium solution, and I’ll get excited, and I’ll halfway alter the entire draft, only to realize it doesn’t work. Then I’ll go back and do this all again. And eventually there’ll just be a click and suddenly scenes start appearing in my head beyond the stuck point.

Oftentimes the click is really simple. It might be a change of dialogue. Or to alter a really minor plot point a ways back. Frequently it involves tinkering with the characters in really subtle ways so that they fit better into the situation I’ve envisaged. And I’ll think, wait a second, this was so easy, why didn’t I start off with this solution?

But really what happened was that all of the little changes I made all of them combined to get me past this point. There was a sanding-down and reshaping of the characters and the situations to make everything fit together.

Usually the stuck place resulted from a combination of three things: a) lack of knowledge of character; b) failure of inventiveness; and/or c) wrong technique.

You never know everything about your characters. In fact, I find that I often know remarkably little about them. To my mind, if you know what a character wants most in the world, you’ve basically got the core of them. But sometimes you don’t exactly know that. Or there’s something else about them and their relationships that’s unclear to you.

Failure of inventiveness has always been a bugbear for me. A person can have their Rambo, but if they don’t have their intolerant North Carolina town then they don’t yet have a novel. I have trouble oftentimes thinking of situations where interpersonal conflict arises naturally (one reason why writing about teens is easier for me; their lives are more bounded). Thinking of the right situations is a perpetual struggle, and oftentimes the only solution is to just try and discard hundreds of situations until one fits.

To me, the most interesting failure is the failure of technique. We all have certain things we know how to do. And sometimes a stuck point comes from using your favorite tool in a situation where it’s completely wrong. This is where reading widely comes in very handy. It teaches you all the different ways that exist of telling a story. Failure of technique really encompasses some pretty broad terrain. Most people would think of ‘technique’ as being the more technical parts of story construction. Using flashbacks or frame narratives or a three-act structure–that’s technique. I would say, however, that it’s more helpful to think of technique as the ways in which you think about and shape your material in order to form a story.

For instance, many science fiction writers will read the news and think, “What if?” And they’ll write a story about, I don’t know, a world where pockets of sentient radon gas seep up out of our basement to try and make friends and kill us in the night without understanding that it’s their very existence that’s inimical to us.

In a realist novel, a technique might be a way of twisting a relationship. Maybe your technique, whether you know it or not, is to re-imagine all relationships as family relationships. So in your work, bosses and teachers often have fatherly relationships with their employees and students. Or perhaps your technique is to always look at the money, a la Balzac or Jane Austen, and think, how do they afford this? How do they live?

But sometimes those techniques aren’t the right ones. Sometimes you need to be like, well, this isn’t that story. People in this story aren’t worrying about money. Or maybe you’re like, well, usually I don’t care about money, but in this story, money needs to be a major element. Or maybe technique is, literally, technique, and you’re like, well in my story the writing has to be very sparse and lyrical. Or you’re like, well, this story needs to include lots of geeky Neal Stephenson-style mini-essays all over the place.

If you read widely, you absorb other authors’ techniques, and they come to you in your moments of need! Of course usually the techniques that are wilder and more different from your work-in-progress aren’t helpful, but sometimes a weird influence will seep in there and dissolve up the blockage.

“Writing for yourself” doesn’t mean ignoring all criticism…just most of it

Am borrowing a friend’s house in Nevada City so I can get away this week and do some writing. It’s pretty incredible. I generally have few enough responsibilities, but it’s nice to have absolutely zero. Trying to make some progress in my writing. Did a fair bit today, so I’m feeling good. But there’s always more out there to be done.

Sometimes I get depressed, when I write, at the thought, “Oh, here’s another character that people are going to hate.”

When I wrote my debut, Enter Title Here, I never imagined people would have such a negative reaction to my protagonist. I always sympathized with her wholeheartedly, and I still do. I’ve never fully understood why people abhor cheating in school SO much. Because the fact is, most people have cheated at least a few times. Whenever I’m standing around with parents or teachers, and they’re like, oh, plagiarism in school is such a problem, I’ll ask, “Didn’t you guys ever cheat?” And inevitably around half of them admit to having done it at least a time or two (and those are just the ones who admit to it!)

And I think most people understand the difference between cheating in things that really matter (like your profession or your creative work) and cheating in school, which is nothing more than a bunch of meaningless assessments designed to sort you out into strata that ultimately are correleted less with intelligence and skill and more with parental education and income.

I think these opinions of mine came through pretty clearly in the book, and I don’t have much in the characterization that I’d change. All you can when you write is be honest. In fact, one thing I’ve learned over time is to make characters exactly as bad as they truly are. It’s very tempting, if you’ve got a character with anger issues, for instance, to make them go around hitting people. But there’s really no need. You can show them speaking sharply to people instead. Or just getting visibly defensive and flustered. I find that the lightest possible touch is the best, because that’s the truest.

If anything, authors have a tendency to weight the scales against their characters, because they can’t tolerate ambiguity. But, ironically, this often works out for them, because it’s harder, usually, to sympathize with the character who speaks sharply to their friends or their spouse, because their lack of force betrays a certain hesitancy and insecurity in their character, and this hesitancy feels too real to us. It makes us confront our own powerlessness and the ways in which we ourselves can be villainous.

That’s why audiences can sympathize with characters who engage in vigilante killing or who steal millions of dollars, but not with a character who cheats in school.

 

I’m speaking too generally, of course. Many people sympathized with my main character in Enter Title Here, and I’m sure many will sympathize with my character in the new book. But I also know that lots of people won’t like him. And not for anything he does, either, because he really doesn’t do anything even as bad as cheating in school. If anything, he’s much better than most guys. But they won’t like him because he’s selfish sometimes (just like we’re all selfish, when it comes to love). There’ll be a feel to him that we won’t enjoy. Something in the texture of the narration. Most fiction is full of elisions and little lies, particularly when it comes to teenage boys. Young adult fiction pretends we are so much better than we are. That’s one of the reasons I loved Emma Cline’s The Girls. The book was, at least in small part, about how difficult it is to love a teenage boy and about how many concessions girls need to make to keep that fantasy alive. But because of these elisions in typical YA fiction, any book that breaks the illusion comes across as disturbing.

 

What I don’t want to do is seem entitled. People are allowed to like whatever books they want. Certainly I have books that others love which I don’t like. What’s interesting, from the writer’s standpoint, is how you deal with these issues. It is hard to write when you know that most of the audience is not going to approve. That if you went against your deepest instincts and your sense of what’s true, the book would probably be more critically and commercially successful.

I’m also well aware that this is exactly what really shitty novice writers say when you try to tell them that nothing is happening in their book. They’re like, well, it’s not like all that other crap out there. My book is doing something innovative and new.

Sometimes they’re right, of course. I read so many books that are not written the way I’d have written them, but which are still very successful. I’m thinking of Proust, for instance, which strikes me as so overwritten, with so many relationships that parallel each other and situations that recur over and over. But his book is a masterpiece, and it was the product of a singular vision, and, most importantly, it’s given me about as much pleasure as anything I’ve ever read.

That’s the problem. Your instincts usually lead you down wrong pathways in addition to the right ones, and both good and bad end up so inextricably mixed that it’s hard for you to figure out which is which. Usually the result is interesting, at the very least to yourself, but there’s no guarantee that what is interesting to you will be interesting to anybody else in the world. Peoples’ comments can give you information about how the book is being read, but they can only go so far.

When it comes to revision, I am incredible. I mean it, I’m a great reviser. This wasn’t always true. I used to never revise. But nowadays I’ve gained this ability to re-envision my work and figure out ways of setting aside what I’ve actually written and thinking of ways to simplify and streamline it. In some ways I’m a very cerebral writer. I do actually think, explicitly, about themes and character arcs and how the different strands of a story play out against each other. And my books change radically through the revision process.

And yet I’m also not a huge believer in this idea that revision can turn a hater of your book into a lover. When people love or hate a book, they’re usually responding, in my opinion, to its core. For instance, I just read an early work of Asian-American literature, John Okada’s No No Boy. This is a book about a Japanese-American boy who refused to fight on America’s side in World War II and was sent to prison as a result. After he gets out, he wanders around Seattle frothing with wordless rage and getting into fights with Japanese-American men who’ve recently been demobilized from the army.

It is…not well written. Everything is repeated so many times. The themes and thoughts are stated so baldly. The writing is purple, but not lyrical, and the character development is very slow and fitful. And yet I really liked the book, because its core was the protagonist’s deep ambivalence about his own actions. He took this highly principled stand, but he feels like a coward. He wishes, on some level, that he’d been able to go abroad and fight, and yet he’s angry with those who did. His relationships are so complex.

And people who hated the book are also, usually, responding to this core. They thought it portrayed the Japanese-Americans in a bad light and gave support to the white people who had called for internment.

The book would’ve been improved immeasurably by greater revision, but I don’t think any number of rounds would’ve turned those haters into lovers. Both they and I ‘got’ the point of the book, we just responded, because of our own history and propensities, in very different ways.

So when I revise, it’s not really with an eye to the critics. Instead I revise with an eye to the people who are going to love the book. When I revise, I think, “How can I trust my audience more? How can I surprise them and delight them more? How can I give them more to remember? How can I quicken their pulse and heighten their sense of longing?”

And, most importantly, I think about the integrity of the book itself. “How can I make this book more perfect? How can I better express the essence of what it is?”

Because that’s ultimately what it’s about. I think it’s very possible for your own ego to come between you and the book you’ve written, and criticism, when it’s useful, is only useful for me in that it reminds me that the book has a soul of its own that’s totally separate from any thoughts and desires that I or my agent or my publisher or my fans or all the reviewers on Goodreads might have for it.

 

It is a strange thing: this phenomenon of characters getting away from you

I just wrote a scene where the characters did exactly the opposite of what I’d planned for them to do. And this is a very normal occurrence when you’re a writer, but I still think it’s such an odd thing.

We still don’t know exactly what happens when we write. People like to be all blase about it and say, “It’s a craft, just like any other.” There are so many books on deconstructing plot and so many classes and college programs in how to write. In some ways, teaching people to write is almost as big a business as writing itself (certainly it seems to keep many more people employed).

But this thing that happens when your fingers hit the keyboard…it’s insane. There’s no real way to get a handle on it or manage it. Writers have gone crazy or taken to drink or killed themselves when faced with the simple truth that there does exist such a thing as inspiration, and it can’t be turned on at will.

During the first five or six years of my writing career, ideas came pretty easily to me, but for the last, well, almost the last ten years, I’ve had an increasingly difficult idea coming up with ideas. I’ve written so many words that were totally worthless–millions upon millions of words that literally have zero worth, because they didn’t contain even the ghost of inspiration.

I am extremely aware of what it feels like to be forcing it.

And I’m not even talking about the novels that I finished but which never got published. Most of those at least had a modicum of inspiration behind them. I’m talking about the rest of it. Sometimes I look back on my writing career, and I feel that almost the entirety of my time at the keyboard has been spent producing false starts and half-drafts and little scenes or fragments that never showed any threat of cohering into a real story.

And I still don’t entirely know how a person gets away from producing stuff like that and moves towards producing work that is inspired. But I have developed a few rules of thumb over the years.

  1. Don’t write the boring parts – Write only the parts of the story that hold your attention. This is why I stopped writing action scenes of any sort. By and large I’m only interested in extremely fine social movements–I’m talking about the little undercurrents that pass between two people who want something from each other.
  2. If something feels like it’s wrong, then it probably is — This is probably bad advice for you, but it’s great advice for me. Time and again, I’ve heeded the instinct to slow down, stop, or throw away something, and each time I’ve been right. I think that the essence of writing is the fine-tuning of your ability to tell the right words from the wrong words.
  3. Be wary of repeating yourself — This is the hardest one to follow. Many times when I’ve had a good idea and brought it to completion, my next few dozen ideas will be variations on the first. I mean they’ll have similar characters, conflicts, and plots. Sometimes as I pursue these ideas, they diverge from the original and become something new. But I have noticed that the best sign of an idea worth pursuing is if it’s substantially different from anything I’ve written (and completed to my satisfaction) before. Of course, many of my ideas are rehashes of old failures, but that doesn’t count. If I’ve failed before to write something, then maybe now is the time I’ll succeed.
  4. Be wary of too much complexity — Oftentimes I’ve tried to solve problems in my writing by generating a lot of froth. I’ll fracture the timeline or tell the story from an outside narrator or I’ll have a lot of running back and forth and very complicated plotting. Always I’ll have some reasonable explanation for why the story needs these things, but I find that too much complexity (for me) means that intellect has taken the place of instinct. Whereas when an idea is really working, the resulting story is generally very simple (my first book, Enter Title Here, is a notable exception here. The plot is wayyy too complex.) Similarly, I find that new writers’ response to critique is often to add new elements to a book, whereas they should really be thinking more about taking things out. When I revise, I know a revision is really working if it smooths out or eliminates some knot that previously existed in the draft. Oftentimes you’ll find that your unconscious mind has created these shortcuts or easy solutions within the story, and all you need to do is to see them.
  5. If I opened this book, what would I want to see — This one is sort of corny, but sometimes when I’m stuck, I imagine I’m a reader who’s opening this book to the first page (or to whatever page I’m on), and I think about what I’d want to see. It doesn’t begin with words, it begins with the shape of the paragraphs. Does it begin with a long paragraph or a short one? Is there lots of dialogue? Then I trace through these lines a little bit, and I try to follow this line of reasoning–what is compelling here? What do I want to read? I’m not saying that this leads to any dramatic breakthroughs, but it is helpful sometimes for me to connect to the book as a reader.
  6. Am I willing to reread this book a dozen times? – As a practical matter, if you want to sell a book, you need to be willing to re-read it A LOT. I mean more times than you can imagine: at least a dozen times, but most likely two or three times that many. If I’m souring on a book, sometimes I’ll go back and reread the beginning. If I can’t bear to reread it, then I’ll think “Do I really have the stamina to reread this book a dozen more times?” And usually the answer is no, so I’ll shelve it.
  7. Is this the book that I’d write if I was dying – As I remarked recently on Facebook, I once upon a time spent all day writing a bucket list, only to realize, the following day, that I had ZERO intention of actually doing any of the things on the list. I didn’t want to learn a new language or travel the globe or go skydiving. All I wanted was to read and write books. And sometimes I think, if I found that I was dying, would I spend my remaining time trying to finish this book? Or would I abandon it? This means: Is this the book that only I can write?; and Does this book get at the things I’ve spent my life trying to communicate? Usually the answer is “No,” and to me that too is very clarifying.

I’m not sure any of these techniques will work for you. They’re my own answers to the problem of “Is this the real thing? Or am I just faking it?” But I do think the essential lesson here is useful for anyone. And that lesson is, “How do I get at the heart of my own experience of life?”

Note, I’m not saying, “How do I get at the heart of why I want to write?” Because for most people that heart doesn’t exist. People usually don’t want to write because they’ve anything particular to say. They usually want to write simply because they love books, admire writers, and want to live a meaningful life. In fact, new writers often search for many years for their subject matter.

What I’m saying is something different. It’s more like, “Given that I want to write, what do I have to write about?” It’s similar to “Write what you know?” (which, I have to say, is not a terrible adage), but it’s more like, “What compels me?”

The weird thing about writing is that your writing is fueled by everything you’ve thought and felt outside of writing. It’s fueled by every story you’ve read or heard. It’s fueled by all of your desires and longings. It’s fueled, most of all, by your sadness and your thwarted dreams. I don’t mean to say that all writers have to go to war or tame wild horses or do any of that crap, all I mean is that in your writing, you have to get somehow at the essence of things, and those ‘things’ are inevitably going to come from your own experience of the world.

Now at this point my huge audience of speculative fiction writers are going to go, “But how can I write my secondary world fantasies? Obviously I have no experience of using a swords to fight a bunch of monsters.”

To this my response would be that all novels are fantasies. No novel portrays the real world. I mean, think about it, have you ever read a book that felt anything like the experience of being alive? No. All books are dreams. When you write secondary-world fantasy (or science fiction) you’re still in that dream-space, and I think the question of “What about this is compelling to me?” still applies.

What function does fantasy serve in your life? Where does it take you? Why do you need to go there? Your stories exist somewhere in the interaction between fantasy and your own deepest desires. And, again, this isn’t something you’ll be able to come up with through reason alone. Like take Dune. Obviously this book came from some very deep place inside of Frank Herbert. I mean look at the images he uses: the spice worms, the Fremen in their still-suits, the Spacer’s Guild, with its big fishy navigators inside cannisters of spice.

There is some deeply evocative shit going on in there. And it takes a lot of courage and insight to harvest those visions from inside yourself. Which, ultimately, is what we’re all doing. Just harvesting our own visions.

Writing is going really well, I feel pleased

Not sure what else to report in this space, but I do feel bad going more than a week without posting something. I’m writing. It’s going well. Writing usually doesn’t go well. It usually goes poorly. So I am always pleased when that’s not the case. Every night, I tell Rachel, “Writing was good today, but it’ll probably fall apart in the morning.”

Sigh, it’s so exciting to be in the midst of the act of creation. Really it is. This feeling that there was nothing, and now there’s an entire living world. What I like best is the feeling that anything can happen. No, I mean, even more than that, the feeling that I am excited to see what’s going to happen–the feeling that this story is something so incredible, and I just can’t wait to see the end.

That thing, though, that sense of life, that feeling that I’m telling myself a story–you’d think it’d be something very easy to conjure up–what I mean is that you’d think after awhile it would come more easily, and I’d be able to conjure it up whenever I sit down to write–but the opposite is true–that feeling becomes harder and harder to capture–and yet when you do–when you actually grab hold of it–the feeling is so astonishing, because it really is nothing like reading a story. Reading a story is a dream within a dream compared to the writing of a story. There’s just something so real about a story that you write yourself. It lives inside of you in the way that no other story can.

In a way, it’s almost nice that I have lower expectations for future fame and success, because before when I was in the midst of something, I’d always think, “Oh, this is going to be a best-seller; it’s going to win awards; it’s going to…etc, etc,” and that’d take me out of the reality of the thing itself. Now I hardly think about that stuff.

It’s something you can’t explain to writers who haven’t put out their first book yet–the way that you become more and more focused on the writing itself and less focused on the publishing aspect–oh well, if people are lucky, they’ll eventually find out for themselves.

Taking a rebuilding day

Everything I know about sports comes from reading the sports page and watching sports movies. I don’t think I’ve ever sat through a sports game that I wasn’t for some reason being forced to watch. But I still use sports metaphors because this is America, and I can do what I want.

For the last few days I’ve lost a little steam on my writing. Today I woke up and realized that the rest of what I needed to write just hadn’t quite come together in my mind. Normally when writing is going well, the next few scenes sort of knit themselves together as I go, and I can hear the dialogue and feel the action. This time that wasn’t happening. Oftentimes this means I need to go into what I’ve already written and re-work things. But today I wasn’t quite sure how to do it.

In sports franchises, there’s this concept of a ‘rebuilding year.’ I think this is an effort by coaches, owners, and GMs to lower expectations: “We’re not going to win many games this year, they’ll say, but we’re developing the players that’ll help us win in future years.” This is the same thing I say to myself on certain days, just to lower expectations. “I won’t write anything today, but I’ll do the thinking that’ll let me write a lot in the future.”

The thing is, when you write the focus always has to be not just on what works, and not just on what the audience will love, and not just on the needs of the market, but, most importantly, on your own heart: Where is my interest; What is compelling to me. There are lots of potential answers to any problem in a novel, but the book doesn’t need an answer–it needs your answer.

This is something I’ve been guilty of forgetting in the past. It’s very easy to think and write and think and write and write and think and think and think and think until you finally come up with a plausible solution, but in all the thinking, you’ve gotten too deeply involved in the craft of it and forgotten the art. For me, I often get bogged down in the plot and forget about what the characters really want–the stuff that’s truly motivating them. So I need a rebuilding day to remove some of the pressure and let me see things more clearly.