My decade in love, friendship, and publishing

It was in late January of 2010 that I quit drinking, which means that the close of this decade also means I’ve had almost a decade of sobriety. At this point I’ve been sober twice as long as I was drinking! The number of people in my life who knew me when I was drinking is not a small number, but it’s certainly not a majority. My wife and her family and most of my writer friends all have no experience of that side of me.

At this point, when I write about being sober, I think some people suspect I’m making it up or exaggerating it! Once, a friend of mine, who thought she’d discovered some inconsistencies in my sobriety narrative, accused me of ginning up the whole sobriety thing to get attention. To which I say…LOL.

In 2010, when I quit drinking, I was twenty-four years old, still living in Washington, D.C., weighed about 330 pounds, had never really gone on a date or been in any form of romantic or sexual relationship, and my publications were limited to a single short story in Nature. I’d written around a hundred short stories by that point, I’d gone to the Clarion Writer’s Workshop four years earlier, and I’d accumulated some four hundred or so short story rejections. I was about to be rejected by all eleven MFA programs to which I’d applied. I’d just come out as gay.

That year, I started my first novel, a science fiction novel for adults (to be finished the next year and promptly abandoned without revision). I also wrote twice as many words as I’d ever written in one year. I made my second significant short story sale, to Clarkesworld magazine. I tried to get a more permanent gig at the World Bank, where I was working, but my boss didn’t have the budget to hire me. If I’d gotten that job, my life might be totally different right now! The previous year, I had decided that if I was going to be a real writer, I needed to be a real reader too, so I had embarked upon a campaign of reading the classics. In 2010, I read Anna Karenina, War and Peace, The Bell Jar, Journey to the End of the Night, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, What is Art?, The Charterhouse of Parma, every Sandman comic, and every Dashiell Hammett novel. That was probably the most significant year of reading in my life.

In 2011, I moved to Oakland, CA. I thought I was quitting my job at the World Bank, but I ended up continuing to do consulting work for them, which I do to this day! I quit smoking. I finished that science fiction novel, and I began and finished a second one, a YA dystopian called This Beautiful Fever whose first draft I wrote in eight days! I wrote a lot of short stories. This was probably my best year for short stories, both in terms of production and in terms of the number that would eventually sell. I started hooking up with men in all the usual (oftentimes somewhat sordid) ways, but still wasn’t dating. Determined not to repeat the previous year’s I applied to 28 MFA programs! I spent five evenings a week hanging out with my former roommate, Brian, and became good friends with many of his friends and coworkers. We went to lots of house shows in Oakland’s twee-pop scene, but my fondest memories are just of hanging out in his house, chatting with whoever would come by. Nine years later, although many of those people have had children and/or moved away, I still count them amongst my close friends. I read True Grit, David Copperfield, Grapes of Wrap, Darkness at Noon, and Something Happened. I read every Adrian Tomine comic I could find. I started a life-long love of Emile Zola, going through Nana, Germinal, L’Assommoir, and the Masterpiece. And I read all seven volumes of In Search Of Lost Time, which was something I couldn’t quite believe even as I was doing it–this seemed so far from my usual interests (I was still writing mostly science fiction)–but which has shaped my life and my thinking and my writing immensely in the years since. Toward the end of the year, I got very into noir novels, and I got deep into the ouevres of Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford.

In 2012, I was accepted to four MFA programs, and I chose to go to Johns Hopkins essentially because they offered me the most money. I started querying my dystopian novel, This Beautiful Fever. I got a head of steam on a sci-fi novel for adults, only to abandon it after thirty thousand words when I realized the book was no good. This began a pattern of abandoning books at the one-third, one-half, and sometimes even 90% completion mark. I wrote another sci-fi novel for adults, Boom, that I’ve never shown to anyone. That fall, after moving to Baltimore from Oakland, I started hearing the voice of Reshma, the protagonist of my first book. She sort of popped fully-formed into my head. All through my first semester of grad school, I’d hear fits and snatches of her voice: a sort of angry running commentary on everything in the universe. I put off writing the book, because I wasn’t sure I could do it justice. Graduate school was fine. I turned in science fiction and fantasy stories into the workshop, and I didn’t suffer at all for it. My cohort and the year above were composed of some very talented and hard-working writers. But almost everyone was married or engaged, and I did feel a little lonely. The whole thing was a bit claustrophobic, just the same thirtyish people hanging out every day and exchanging the same gossip or telling the same stories about teaching our classes. It seemed to lack the vitality I’d experienced in Oakland. Not the fault of Baltimore, by the way! I was charmed by the city; it’s an extremely hip place to live, you have no idea how hip. But attending Johns Hopkins is not the way to experience that hipness. Looking at my records, this was the year I read Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice, The Sportswiter, Things Fall Apart, The Feminine Mystique, The Pillow Book, and Revolutionary Road. I read most of Edith Wharton’s major novels this year. She remains a huge influence. I fell in love with and was charmed by Nancy Mitford. I read the collected poems of Larkin and Eliot. I still don’t know if I like poetry, but I at least like those two!

In 2013, during winter break, I wrote a first draft of Enter Title Here, which would eventually be my first published novel. Aside from one realist story I wrote for my MFA applications (to prove to application committees that I could do it!) it was the first sustained work of realism I’d ever engaged in. Writing that book was so easy that it was incredible, and that very easyness made it difficult for years after for me to write another novel. Through a complicated series of introductions and events, I got my first agent that year. This Beautiful Fever had been sent out to 95 agents at this point, but I finally got one offer, and that shook loose a second offer from a different agent, and I went with the second one. I spent the remainder of the year doing revisions on the book with this agent. During this time, I wrote my fifth book, another realist novel, which was an interesting idea, but somehow never came together. That fall, I wrote my sixth book, a contemporary YA about a troubled starlet who starts hearing the voice of God, (working title: On My Knees 4 U). And, incredibly, I wrote my seventh book too, a weird crime novel about a sociopathic mom who schemes to get her daughter into a school for talented and gifted kids. My YA dystopian novel, This Beautiful Fever, went on submission. At some point, it’s hazy exactly when, I became close with a very talented writer, Courtney—a former graduate of Hopkins–who’s become one of my closest friends. This Beautiful Fever was rejected by five editors, who seemed to universally agree that my protagonist was too pathetic (a lifetime problem for my writing!), but I didn’t much care because I’d polished up Enter Title Here, and my agent loved it. We decided to put it on submission in the spring. This year I pitched my first article to a publication: a piece to Salon on Eddie Huang’s memoir Fresh off the Boat (which would later, though I didn’t know this at the time, become the basis for a hit sit-com). When I sent in the article, Salon decided they didn’t like it and killed the piece. This mild rejection touched off my first major depression: two months of utter blackness. Although it’d begun with rejection, my depressed thoughts centered primarily on my loneliness, and how I was never going to find love (I still had never really gone on a date. I’d tried online dating, but somehow never connected with someone–I’d just chat and chat and chat and eventually the conversation would peter out). JHU offered free counseling, so I signed up for that. I started antidepressants. And after the depression lifted, I seriously started doing the online dating thing. A roommate told me that he always asked people out within the first ten messages in an exchange, and I was like, “Wait, you can do it that soon?” and he was like “Yeah, there’s no point in just chatting endlessly”. Armed with this knowledge, I started asking dudes on dates. The third or fourth of these guys was someone who loved movies and graphic novels and science fiction and also was extremely new to the dating thing. We became each other’s first milestones for many things! I remember that winter we watched Ellen Page’s emotional coming-out speech, and we both cried and held each other. I stopped being able to write science fiction stories, and I began turning in realist stories to workshop. This year I got really into German literature for some reason. It was more playful than French literature, but it was also about more serious subjects. It seemed to combine psychological penetration with a sense of fun! I read Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain, Skylark, Beware of Pity, The Man Without Qualities, Radetzky March and Every Man Dies Alone. I also read Mrs Dalloway, A Simple Plan, Gone Girl, Les Miserables, The Interestings, and The Magicians.

In 2014, I sold my book and graduated from my program on the same day! I broke up with my boyfriend! I moved to New Orleans, and, after giving it up as a bad thing, I moved again after six weeks to Berkeley (best decision I ever made! Two months after selling my book, I lost my acquiring editor at Disney. I started having problems with my agent, who disliked both of the novels, the sociopathic mom and the teen starlet books, that I’d written the previous year. I know, the honeymoon period was short. I moved in with Sasha, who’d soon become a very close friend, and spent lots of time with her very off-beat hippy friends. I came out once again, as bisexual, and started going on dates with women, which, let me tell you, is a very different game from dating men! I got extremely depressed and went into therapy (again) and increased my antidepressant dosages (again). I was still writing and sending out short stories and by this time had sold stories to most of the smaller pro sci-fi journals, including several stories each to Nature and to Orson Scott Card’s magazine. I also sold a weird realist story (told in the form of a chart) to The Indiana Review. This year I also met another person who’d become a close friend, a fellow YA writer, Erin, though it’d be years before we would truly reconnect. This year I read Doctor Zhivago, The Corrections, Tom Jones, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Sarashina Diary, and Dangerous Liaisons. I got into Yasunari Kawabata, who I still think has written some of the most beautiful books in existence.

In 2015, I suffered incredible writer’s block. I can’t count how many books I began and abandoned. Nothing seemed worth writing. I had a two-book deal with Disney, but had a terrible time trying to get them to agree to any of my ideas for the second book. My agent finally sent them a copy of This Beautiful Fever, and my editor liked it, but the acquisitions committee shot it down, saying a dystopian novel wouldn’t sell. All I heard in my head was the voice of my editor and my agent, shooting down everything I was working on. My middle-grade novel went on submission to a very small round, but got rejected, and my agent sort of lost interest in it after that, and I was mostly focused on trying to write or think of some follow-up to my young adult novel. I would say that at this point, I had real, classic writer’s block. I’d sit down and write, and everything would look like total garbage, and I’d delete everything. I just felt so empty of every possible idea. This was the year I stopped trying to write every day: it felt like there was no point. After a hundred rejections from him, I sold my first story to John Joseph Adams, which felt pretty good. I MET MY FUTURE WIFE, RACHEL, AND FELL IN LOVE AND KNEW ON OUR FIRST DATE THAT WE WERE PROBABLY GONNA SPEND OUR LIVES TOGETHER FOREEEEEEEVER! That was pretty cool. I went to Burning Man, which was cool, but not really for me. I read Thucydides, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Crime and Punishment, and a bunch of the less-silly Dialogues of Plato. I also got very into ethnography, and I read some great ethnographic studies of, amongst others, fashion models, working class college students, elite students vying for management consulting jobs, and working-class black men who are burdened with outstanding warrants. I read two excellent Jo Walton novels: My Real Children and The Just City. She is truly a treasure.

In 2016, my writer’s block continued apace. I am not kidding when I say this writer’s block consumed years of my life! I went from writing four novels in one year (2013) to being able to write basically nothing in 2014, 2015, and 2016. I just felt totally unmoored. I had no idea what I wanted to write. I tried everything, every form, every style. It was all just odious to me. This culminated in a terrible depression in the beginning of the year, which resulted in my antidepressant mix changing once again. However, in April of that year, as I was coming out of the depression, I wrote the first scene of what would eventually become We Are Totally Normal. The difference between the composition process for this book and for Enter Title Here could not have been more different. Where ETH just flowed from my fingers, We Are Totally Normal took a lot of doing. I actually deleted that first fragment, thinking it was a false start, before going back and recovering it and doing some more work. When I sent it to my agent, he was extremely enthusiastic about the book and did one revision with me before forwarding it to Disney. Sasha, my roommate, left for law school. I moved in with my wife and proposed to her a week later, which was about one year after we’d met. I sold a story to the Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy! Huge milestone for me. Oh, and I almost forgot, my book came out! It did okay, I think. It was reviewed in the New York Times. Lots of people hated it and hated my protagonist, but fuck them. It also touched lots of people. I read The Caine Mutiny, The Bostonians, A Little Life, Bonjour Tristesse, and Brideshead Revisited. I got very into superhero comics and, after reading All Star Superman, I developed a surprising fondness for Superman. I re-read the whole Honor Harrington series, a military science fiction series David Weber, and I also reread In Search of Long Time. I read all six books in Trollope’s Palliser series. I love Trollope. He’s incredible. The perfect mix of romanticism and realism. I got very into late 20th century realism, and I read several works of realism from America (The Rise of Silas Lapham), Poland (The Doll), Britain (four novels by George Gissing, who I now adore), and Spain (Tristana). I started listening to audio books, which nowadays constitute well over half of my reading.

In 2017, after several months of considering it, Disney rejected We Are Totally Normal (then called Tell Em They’re Amazing) and, deciding that they didn’t see a future with me, they cancelled my book contract. My agent, who’d formerly been enthusiastic about the book, now thought it wasn’t salable and urged me to abandon it. When I told him I wanted to send it out anyway, he dropped me as a client. I revised the book (changing the hook, admittedly, to make it significantly more marketable) and sent it out to agents. After just a week of querying, I ended up with my current agent, who sold the book to Harper later that year. I also got married! It was really nice. I liked being married. Living in San Francisco changed my life in a number of ways. One was that I was no longer living with roommates, no longer had that built-in community, and needed to start making friends and finding my own way in the world. Although I had many friends and acquaintances, I felt like I didn’t have enough intimates, and during this time I tried to focus on deepening some of the relationships in our life. ALSO RACHEL MANAGED THROUGH SOME CRAZY MIND TRICKS TO PERSUADE OUR LANDLORDS TO GET A LITTLE KITTY AND WE NAMED HIM SCHUBERT AND HE IS JUST SO CUTE, WE PICK HIM UP AND CUDDLE HIM ALL THE TIME. I still was having trouble writing, but not quite as much. I read The Secret Agent, Evicted, The Emperor of All Maladies, Lord Jim, and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I read every novel and most of the short stories in Elizabeth Gaskell’s ouevre. I got very into 18th century literature, and I read books by William Godwin, Samuel Richardson, Denis Diderot, and a few others. I got into neoconservative riters, of whom most weren’t very good, but I did quite enjoy Norman Podheretz’s Making It. I’m a sucker for any book that has the unvarnished truth about literary lives and literary ambition. I got into reading about the Soviet Union and read books about the revolution, about the gulags, and about the Terror. I read a few books about painters and visual artists, of which the best was a biography of Joseph Cornell called Utopia Parkway. Man that dude was a weirdo!

In 2018, I wrote the first draft of a novel for adults (current working title The Lonely Years). This would be, I believe, my eleventh novel (I think I’ve left one book out of this chronology). Rachel and I started trying to have a baby, which made me really anxious and panicky, and led to all kinds of feelings being stirred up, which led me into therapy yet again! Ugh, I hate therapy. Stupid therapy. I got back edits on We Are Totally Normal and when I took a look at the manuscript again, after eight months away from it, I realized that the book wasn’t very good! I mean, I still think it was good enough for Disney and my former agent’s purposes, but the story was completely all over the place! Nothing fit together very well at all! I set aside the draft that had sold, and I rewrote the entire book from page one. I also sold a story to Asimov’s, another long-awaited first, after fifteen years of submitting. This year, I reread the entirety of Robert Caro’s ouevre. I think he’s the finest living American writer, and he definitely deserved the Nobel more than Bob Dylan. I read, for some reason, a lot of novels by Michael Connelly and Scott Turow. I read the entirety of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which was fabulously written and had some wonderful stories and analysis, although I do wish I retained more of it! I got really into Somerset Maugham, whose work always startles me with its baroque and outlandish elements, which are usually mixed into the most prosaic set of characters and events. I listened to at least twenty Donald Westlake novels, including most of his Parker series. I’m still not sure what the appeal of those books is. They’re just straightforward heists, but somehow they’re very fun.

Finally, we’ve landed in 2019. I expect nobody has read this far, so I’ll bury my most momentous news here. I rewrote my novel for adults at least four times, top to bottom, and between this and rewriting We Are Totally Normal, I felt my writer’s block fade to nothing. I’m not sure what happened. I think I just got a better idea of what stories I want to tell and how to tell them. In the process of pitching We Are Totally Normal to agents, I also realized…you can’t just write a good book, you also need to stir up excitement about the book. So I lost some of that feeling of, well, what’s the point of writing: it’ll never sell anyway. Now, when I write something, I always try to include some hook, some way of selling it. Which is not to say that everything sells, but more things do! I started this year with three or so months of depression, which only lifted once I started exploring the idea that I might be transgender. This is something I had thought about years previously, at the beginning of this chronicle, but had dismissed, because, well, I hadn’t dated anyone, I hadn’t done anything, I didn’t know myself. But now, as I started to revisit those ideas, I felt a growing sense of, well, almost…like…euphoria? It’s something I’ll struggle to understand for a long time, I think: being trans still feels weird to me, but it has undeniably improved my life and my mood. I’ve been dressing as a woman and using female pronouns in my private life for six months now (my wife has been very supportive, and we’re more in love than ever), and now I’m going to start being more open about it online. I don’t feel as blocked anymore. I’m out there, I’m writing. Now that my novel for adults is off with my agent, I’m working on the first book in a fantasy trilogy that’ll explore the fucked-up morality, especially re: caste and social heirarchy, in the Indian epic, The Mahabharata. My hero is Karna, obviously. I’m excited about the book! Though who knows what’ll happen with it. I’ve also written a bunch of short stories this year, but none have sold yet. Life is good. But it’s also full of ups and downs, and who knows what’ll happen next? This year, I read so many domestic thrillers! I love domestic thrillers! If I’m ever trapped on a desert island w/ only one genre of book, I want it to be the domestic thriller. They’re just so claustrophobic and twisted. I also got very into true crime: Jon Krakauer’s Missoula and Erik Larson’s Devil In The White City were the standouts here. I read a ton of self-published legal thrillers: Victor Methos was the best of these writers. I got really into Ibsen! Why did nobody tell me about Ibsen! He’s a fantastic writer. His characters speak with so much power, but they always feel quite real. Oh, and I read all five volumes of Cao Xueqin’s Story of the Stone. This 18th century Chinese novel is about a thirteen year old boy who loves women and longs to be one…is it any wonder that I adored it?

Oh, and we also got a dog. Lara. She is cute too. And she and Schubert, our cat, tolerate each other surprisingly well.

Most genre novels require external conflict

I was tooling around recently with an idea I had for a fantasy novel (a take on the Mahabharata that interrogates the caste system, and the way it sort of underpins the entire epic), when I had an epiphany. You know all that stuff I usually write about the action being driven by the main character’s desires and about how you’ve got to capture the heart of longing? It’s not really necessary for a fantasy novel, because in a fantasy novel the action isn’t usually driven by the protagonist: it’s driven by the bad guys.

In the kinds of novels I’ve been writing for the past five or six years, I’ve moved toward a model where all the conflict is internal. There are two opposing drives inside the main character, and they’re drawn in one direction and then in the other, and their actions complicate their own life, until everything comes to a head. I’ve written books this way because it’s true to life. In real life, there aren’t really bad guys. There is just the individual and their milieu; they can accept their fate or they can struggle against it, but if they choose to struggle, the opposition tends to come in such subtle ways, and over such a long period of time, and from so many different corners, that it’s a very hard feat, technically speaking, to dramatize that opposition in a novel.

That’s why with my realist novels I always try to find the right premise. I feel like a good premise–one that’s naturally full of a lot of inherent tension–is so valuable. hI never let go of a good premise

But in this fantasy novel, it’s not like that. Because I’ve got bad guys. And my main character wants stuff, sure, but ultimately if it wasn’t for the bad guys butting into his life, he wouldn’t have much trouble getting what he wants.

I think this is something I once knew, but I lost interest after a while in writing this kind of novel, because I felt it wasn’t true to life. Whereas right now, having just written and turned in a more ‘serious’ novel, I feel more comfortable playing around.

The conventional wisdom is that you should write in one genre and in one style and build an audience over time, but I’m not sure whether that wisdom makes sense anymore. It feels like publishers only want books with breakout potential, and if the book you’re pitching them is more or less the same as the books you’ve written in the past, then it’s hard to convince them it’ll break out. Whereas each time you write in a new genre, publishers see you as an untried quality. They think there is a chance, at least, that you’ll catch fire and turn into something.

Most authors I know are mostly interested in just one or two genres. Or they’re only interested in one or two markets. They can only see themselves writing young adult. Or only adult science fiction and fantasy. That’s all legit. But I feel like anything I like to read is something I wouldn’t mind writing, and I like to read all kinds of stuff. I’ll write a fantasy novel. I want to write a domestic thriller too. And a suspense novel. And a science fiction novel that has spaceships. And even a romance! And a bunch more things besides.

Where do new projects come from?

Have sent my book-for-adults to my agent! But am still fiddling with it a little bit, because I know it won’t go on submission till January at the earliest. However I’m also thinking about what might come. I’m not sure, really. I’ve never been certain where new projects come from. When you’re faced with the blank page, it feels like you can write about anything in the world, but it’s not true. You can only write the stories that only you can write. Everything else feels lifeless.

I have an exercise where I imagine opening a new book, and I imagine staring at “Chapter One” and I imagine looking at the page and what I’d like to see on it. What’s my ideal page one? Not my all-time ideal, but my ideal for right this minute. What do I want to be on that page?

Usually what comes to me first is a certain shape. I want the text to look a certain way on the page. Right now, it’d be a short first paragraph, maybe three lines long, then one long paragraph continuing through the page and maybe halfway onto the next page. After that, the first dialogue. But just a brief exchange, maybe ten lines of dialogue. Then our character looks around, we get some setting description, and we’re already on page three.

In terms of subject matter, it’s a little trickier. I think right now, I’d like to read a character who’s less self-aware, who’s less intelligent, and who’s more confused by the world around him. This character is not without their gifts, but they’re by no means a master of this world. That usually means, in turn, that the narration won’t be as close.

These days I like books that take place in the real world. Invented worlds don’t have the depth of the real world. There also tends to be a lot of describing how people are dressed and what they look like. It all ends up feeling contrived. I don’t want to read a book that’s about other books. I want to read a book that’s about life.

Right now I’m reading Evelina, an 18th century novel by Fanny Burney, and it’s pretty great! The main character is an innocent, a rustic from the country, experiencing London for the first time, so in her letters she gives wonderful descriptions of ordinary life: for instance, I just read a scene where she offends one dude by dancing with another dude after refusing the first dude (which was not okay, apparently, if you were going to refuse somebody, then you needed to sit out the entire dance, so it wouldn’t look like a snub). These are things no Jane Austen novel has ever told me.

I like novels about society, no matter what form that society might take. Webs of relationships always interest me. Smaller-scale, more claustrophobic stories interest me. I like stories about work and about money and about experiences that, while not quite quotidian, are nonetheless somewhat common. I recently read a book about an older Manhattan couple trying to sell their apartment, and it was excellent. Moving is stressful. There’s room for a novel in there. Surely not all novels need to be about adultery..

But where does this leave me when it comes to page three of my novel? Well, I’ve never seen a reason not to set a novel right here, in San Francisco, in the world I know. One of my favorite writers, Edith Wharton, set all her books amongst New York’s high society, even though she freely admitted these were boring and small-minded people. It was the world she knew.

There is a way to write about the real world, however, that comes off somewhat false. If your first scene takes place in the humming office of a startup, with twenty-four-year old techies shooting each other with nerf guns, then you’re not writing about the real world anymore, you’re writing a book about this vision of the tech world that’s been promulgated by films and movies. Not that it doesn’t have truth to it, but you should begin with the truth that only you know, not the truth everybody knows.

So I don’t know. I’ve gotten a dog recently. Maybe I would begin my book at the park, where my dog is running around with the other dogs. Maybe it gets bitten by an out-of-control dog. Plenty of drama there. I would definitely read that book.

In my most recent few projects, the plot has changed dramatically over the course of each rewrite, but what’s remained is the setting and the core of each characters’ motivations. I think when you’ve got some good characters, who want things deeply, you’ve got the beginnings of a story.

But even with all these exercises, you still often end up with a blank page. Or with a page full of crap. So you delete it all and try again. Or just keep soldiering on and hope the crap gets better. No easy answers here.

Feeling that totally normal blah feeling that one feels when between projects

I think I’m done with the novel-for-adults (The Lonely Years, formerly The Storytellers). Have sent it to a friend to proofread it, and then I’ll send it along to my agent. Has changed considerably since the last draft I sent him, and I’m pretty certain he’ll like it, because the book is good book.

Now I just feel totally blah. I don’t want to do anything except listen to true crime audiobooks and play mediocre Diablo clones (Grim Dawn, right now, for those keeping track). Haven’t had much interest in reading serious books. Definitely haven’t had much interest in starting a new project.

When I am trying to start anything new, the one exercise I’ve used over and over again is to just imagine that I’m holding a book. Then I imagine opening the book and looking at the first page. What’s on that page? What do I want to see there? What genre? What characters? What tone? Then I try to write that book.

I’ve had no luck with this exercise, even though I’ve done it for years. No aha moments where everything just unfolds naturally, but I still do it, because it puts the emphasis exactly where it needs to be: my own interest, and my own tastes. I want to write the sort of book that I want to read. And usually that means, “The sort of book I want to read right now.”

Lately I’ve been fooling around with various ideas for thrillers. I started a spy thriller and got bored of it. Now I’m starting a domestic thriller. Maybe I’ll get bored of that too!

I supposed I could also work on another young adult novel! I am definitely being a bad children’s book writer by failing to sell another YA novel before my first one comes out. At this rate, even if I sold a young adult novel tomorrow, it wouldn’t come out until 2022, probably.

Oh well!

I do think I have another YA contemporary in me, but it’ll need time to come out. There’s a reason this second novel is coming out four years after the first.

I continue to be very happy with We Are Totally Normal. I can’t believe it’s actually coming out! It’s the kind of book where, normally, I’d write it and be like, well this is great, but it’ll probably never sell. Except it did sell. And it’s gonna be released in less than six months. That’s pretty sweet. We’ve got a great list of blurbs, from Shaun David Hutchinson, M.E. Girard, Kacen Callender, Julian Winters, and a bunch of other people. I’ve enjoyed reading the Goodreads reviews too. Even the bad reviews are good! The bad reviews are like, “This is a great book that was not to my taste.” Whereas the bad reviews for my first book were like, “This book infuriated me. It is an abomination. It shouldn’t exist.” The good reviews for this one are also a lot better than the best reviews for the last one.

I don’t know that this book will take off like a rocket or make an immense splash. The market is huge, and it’s impossible to say what’ll happen. But I am confident that some people out there are going to read and love it and that a few kids will be very happy they came across it. There are no other books that handle confusion re: sexual orientation and gender identity in quite the way mine does, and I think that for a lot of young girls, especially, confusion is the order of the day!

Am in the final stages of editing my novel for adults

A friend texted me the other day and was like, “I can’t get thaup any enthusiasm to work on my novel projects, when I know that there’s a good chance the book won’t sell, and it’ll all be for nothing.”

I wrote back, “That’s the life!”

Right now I’m in the final stages of editing my novel-for-adults, The Lonely Years. Originally I had allocated three months for this stage of revision, because at every stage this book has taken much longer than I thought it should. I would go into a revision intending to just fix one little problem and discover that I needed to rewrite 70% of the book.

But now I’m having a sneaking suspicion that the last rewrite did it. I had a sensation when writing the ending that I had finally, for the first time in the drafting and revising process for this book (and perhaps for any book), written an ending that worked. The final image just popped into place, and I realized that the whole book was leading up to this, and that it couldn’t possibly have ended any other way. And when you’ve got an ending that works, usually it means the rest of the book works too.

I don’t know. I think this book might just need another two or three weeks of work. Then off to my agent, who’ll take anywhere between 1 and 3 months to read it. And afterwards…who knows? It’ll go on submission at some point, and maybe get rejected all around town. Selling a literary novel for adults is very different from selling a young adult novel. Even YA novels frequently fail to sell, but literary novels are much worse. The number of debut literary novels that sell to major publishers, including the big independents, each year is, well, I’m not going to make up a statistic, but it’s a very small number! And when you think of the 150 MFA programs in this country churning out 3 to 10 graduates in fiction each, every single year, and all the people writing literary novels who aren’t in those programs, well, it’s depressing.

But what’s not depressing is my book! I love it! The book is good book! It’s scary to be in this stage of editing a book and to be like, well, I can’t fix these words later. These are the words. Editors will read them. And from those words they’ll form a judgement about whether to buy the book. It’s making my heart race just writing about it.

At the same time, I feel very grateful to have written this book. I’ve been working on it now since January of 2018 (which is, okay, not that long I guess). But it deals with themes I’ve been trying on since, well, at least since 2013, when I started trying to write a follow-up to first novel. I think The Lonely Years does something that’s very technically difficult, at least within the framework of the standard three-act novel. It looks honestly at loneliness and anomie in a way that’s not hysterical or diseased. I think the book gets deep into the sense of isolation that comes with being alive, being uprooted from your community, and being transplanted to a new place where you’re supposed to be having the time of your life. It’s not an easy thing to write a book about the absence of conflict and the absence of drama. Each time you attempt to do it, you need to solve a bunch of problems anew, and solve them in a way that fits the specific situations you’re writing about. I think the solutions I used in The Lonely Years are extremely clever and, dare I say it, beautiful. I certainly hope that y’all get a chance to read them someday.

If you want a hint, though, you can read my second YA novel, We Are Totally Normal, in which my problems were almost the opposite. Early drafts were way too full of conflict and event, to the point where it distracted from the things I was trying to write about. In each draft, I dialed back the conflict, focusing more on the specifics of the characters and their relationships, and the result is, I think, as intricately plotted and well-structured as a thriller, but without any of the overt plot scaffolding.

Life is pretty good, but also sometimes it’s not so good

Life is good. Can’t say I have any complaints. It should be criminal to have as much fun as I have. Maybe that sounds snotty. It probably does. But I could just as easily be complaining! And in another mood, maybe I’d find plenty of things in my current situation that merited complaint. In any given year, I tend to be clinically depressed for two or three months. It’s hard to say why I get depressed. I have nothing to really be depressed about. But I usually find something.

I’ve been on antidepressants now for about four years. Five years? No, more than six years. I’m on two, Bupropion (the generic of Welbutrin) and Duloxetine (the generic of Cymbalta). Every time I got clinically depressed, for the first few years, I’d get my psychiatrist to up my dosages or switch them around, until, finally, the last time I got depressed I was like, no, this feels pretty manageable, I’ll stick with my current formulation.

Writers tend to have very fixed opinions about antidepressants. Either they’re like, “Fuck that shit, I don’t wanna lose my edge” or they’re like “Being happy makes it a lot easier to write.”

I have sympathy for both of these viewpoints. Our personal lives and our emotions are inextricably linked to our art. Writing isn’t made of words, it’s made of emotions, and it makes intuitive sense that if something is messing with your emotions, then it’ll mess with the content of your work.

I think oftentimes writers who are pro-antidepressants make what I see as a bit of a disingenous. They’re like, “Well, it’s easier to write when you’re not depressed.” That’s true, undoubtedly. And I think to writers of non-realist work, where the relationship between their real life and their work is somewhat more obscure, it makes more sense to equate “work” with “sitting down to write.”

There probably exist some people out there who write more when they’re depressed and who have little desire to write when they’re happy, but they’re in the minority. Generally, clinical depression kills one’s ability and desire to write. At the very least, it becomes very hard, when you’re incapable of feeling happy, to judge whether your writing is good or bad. I’ve gone back and looked at work that I made while I was depressed and I’ve oftentimes been surprised to discover it’s quite good! Nonetheless I usually never do anything with it, because, for me, the emotional connection to the work was severed by depression.

On the other hand, I think one’s emotions and, more broadly, the way you live your life, feed directly into the work. And I think that depression is often a galvanizing force. Each time I’ve come out of depression, I’ve been inspired to make changes in my life. Sometimes there’s a kind of dark humor to it. Spring will roll around (I often get depressed in spring, April really is the cruelest month), and I’ll think, “What landmine is about to explode? What unexamined assumptions will I have to change?”

In the abstract, I do find some value in that, and that’s one reason why I didn’t up my antidepressants the last few times. It’s very difficult to understand how antidepressants work unless you’re on them. The most perplexing thing about them is that they do not make you happy, and they don’t have a direct, perceptible effect on your mood at all. As someone who’s done his fair share of recreational drugs, I will say that antidepressants have zero abuse potential. They cannot get you high. They do not make you feel better in the short term. They merely act to set a floor to one’s mood. And that floor is, generally, so low that almost any normal sadness will still be above it. You can be pretty sad and upset while on antidepressants. I have no idea whether it’s possible to raise the floor to such a level that regular sadness becomes impossible. Part of me is very intrigued by that notion, but ultimately one shouldn’t fool around too much with one’s brain chemistry.

To bring things around: I wouldn’t want to be on antidepressants if their function was to allow me to tolerate the intolerable. I wouldn’t say that my depression is caused, in particular, by anything that happens to me. I’ve suffered major losses that didn’t spark depressions, and I’ve suffered minor setbacks that sent me spiraling. But my depressed brain gives me a different, and oftentimes very valuable, take on my circumstances.

At the same time, one doesn’t want that take to be, “I don’t deserve to live.”

Finding this balance is up to every person. Being on antidepressants can be frustrating. I am literally addicted to the duloxetine: if I go more than two days without taking it, I get withdrawal symptoms (they’re very odd, a bit like alcohol withdrawal, headaches, jitteriness, dissassociation). Moreover, the drug is quite expensive (about $500 a month, without insurance, although I don’t pay that of course), and there’s one generic maker of the drug whose product gives me terrible headaches, which means whenever Walgreen’s gives me that maker, I’m forced to remonstrate with them to replace it with a different generic. Bupropion, in contrast, has never given me trouble, and the out of pocket cost for that drug is only about $50 a month (without insurance).

But other than these, I’ve never had side effects. It definitely feels like one of those “It’s nice to be in your thirties” moments. Like, yeah, I’ve even got my antidepressant cocktail down. But of course all these thoughts are subject to change if my life and/or my mood go downhill.

I am still a writer of short stories

Hello, my beauties. Everything is going well for me. Writing proceeds apace. This draft of my novel-for-adults (working title: THE LONELY YEARS) isn’t quite a rewrite, but the scenes I’ve deleted from the last draft of the book (which was only 58k words) total 35k words! So more than half the words will end up being new. I was stuck on the book for a while, but now I feel less stuck.

I recently had a story accepted by F&SF, my second there, after last year’s “Bodythoughts”. “The Leader Principle” is my take on Heinlein’s classic story (which I thought was the coolest thing ever, as a kid) “The Man Who Sold The Moon”. It’s about a charismatic billionaire (DEFINITELY NOT BASED ON ELON MUSK) who is determined to establish colonies on Mars. But obviously, because this is 2019 and not 1932 (or whenever Heinlein published the original story), I have very different things to say about the worth of my billionaire’s mission. On the other hand, the billionaire himself is an engaging character and not a bad man. It’s just that, like most people, he cannot escape the hand of fate. This was definitely one of those stories that came out very easily. It only required mild tinkering to put it into saleable form.

This success inspired me to write a few more short stories. Sure hope something comes of them! What surprises me is that I do so much rewriting for my novels, but hardly none for my short stories. I’m not sure why: maybe it’s a skill I never developed. But I have heard other writers talk about not needing to revise their stories very much. I feel like they either come out more or less right, or they don’t work at all, and no amount of fixing is going to make them better.

I also tend to lack both the vision and the will for revising short stories. With novels, after I finish one draft, I tend to gestate a new conception of the book that’ll emerge triumphantly in a month or two and inspire me to obliterate the old draft. I literally will not be able to send out the book in its tired old form, no matter how much I might want to.

This doesn’t happen with short stories. And if it was to happen, I’d probably ignore it. Spending weeks revising a story that I wrote in a few hours and that probably won’t sell and, if it did sell, would be read by less than a thousand people and earn me less than five hundred dollars? Well…I dunno, doesn’t seem like an amazing use of time.

With the sale of “The Leader Principle”, I’ve now sold something on the order of fifty-mumble short stories. Of these, thirty-mumble were to reputable magazines and journals. That includes five stories at Nature, five at Daily Science Fiction, two at F&SF, three at Lightspeed / Nightmare, three at Clarkesworld, three at the now-closed Intergalactic Medicine Show, and two at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, amongst others. I’ve also sold a story to Asimov’s and one to Interzone and one to Apex, the latter of which led to my only Year’s Best inclusion (in Rich Horton’s Year’s Best, maybe two or three years back). I still want to sell stories to Analog, Strange Horizons and Tor.com. Analog will happen someday. Strange Horizons is only open for like three hours a week, so I can never get it together enough to sell there, and anyway I always get the feeling that my fiction isn’t woke enough for them. And Tor.com is NEVER open, so roughly every other year I’ll ask one of their commissioning editors if I can submit something, and they’ll say yes, and then my story will get rejected. If you’re an editor from Tor.com, can you please add me to Tor’s secret site for taking online submissions, plz? I mean I’m just assuming such a thing exists. Actually, I have an agent now, so maybe I should just get him to submit. That seems way too formal for the sci-fi/fantasy world though.

I also submit literary stories on occasion. I have a few making the rounds right now. We’ll see what happens with those!

Sometimes I do think about trying to come out with a story collection, but I’m not sure. A few years back, I spent an afternoon trying to put one together, and I concluded that I didn’t have 50,000 words of fiction that I actually wanted to get reprinted. And there’s also ZERO audience for a single-author collection of my works. To be honest, although my short fiction is, I think, better than most of what’s out there, I don’t know if it’s good enough that I could honestly say, “You should spend a day reading nothing but Rahul Kanakia’s short stories.”

I’ve stopped trying to market myself for science fiction and fantasy awards. Not because I think there’s anything wrong with such marketing, but because, I don’t know, it’s not really my world anymore. Winning a Nebula or a Hugo is great for a sci-fi / fantasy writer’s career, but it doesn’t mean anything if you’re writing outside the genre. I have to say, it was a blessed relief to be able to stop asking other people to read my stuff and, in turn, to stop promising to read other peoples’ stuff. It really made an incalculable improvement in my life.

I still have stories coming out every so often. This year I had “The Intertidal Zone” in the May/June issue of Asimov’s, so, you know, if you want a Rahul short story you can check that out.

I made my first sale to a high-profile magazine (my first ‘real’ sale) to Nature in 2008. That was 11 years ago! From a short story writing perspective, I’ve been around a LONG TIME. Most people who started publishing stories when I started publishing stories aren’t here anymore. They’ve quit writing. Or at the very least, they’ve fully moved on to novels. After a decade in this biz, you get to realize, well, there’s a lot of value just to surviving.

The bad-lyrical style is a fungus that lies mouldering at the back of literature’s refrigerator

I just procrastinated for two hours, then spent forty-five minutes writing, and (this seems impossible, but it’s true) wrote 2,400 words. I’m on what feels like the fifth major rewrite of my novel. At least in this one I’m not rewriting the entire thing from scratch, but in the end probably around 70% of the worlds will end up being new. As with the best rewrites, this new version is much simpler and much easier to describe. Instead of being about a bunch of complicated stuff, the book now focuses on an extremely simple conflict: will my main character give up her rent-controlled one-bedroom in order to live with her new best friend?

That’s it. There’s very little plot other than that. They get together, they become friends, they concoct this plot to live together, even as my main character gets increasingly nervous about giving up something very valuable—her apartment is thousands of dollars below market—to invest in a friendship that might evaporate at any moment (her friend has some flaky tendencies and, early in the friendship, blows her off several times, leading to an interregnum of several months before they reconnect).

Obviously the meat of the story is in the details. My main character is a trans woman, she’s spent so long idealizing female friendship, and now she feels like this thing is finally within reach, and yet at the same time, she’s suspicious of both it and of herself. Something within her says that these desires of hers aren’t quite right, aren’t quite normal. It’s a very small-scale, delicate book.

I am very in love with the plot, the characters, the set-up, and the language. I have a strong belief that this revision will be, if not the last, then certainly amongst the last revisions that this book will undergo. And I am making excellent progress on it. I think the book will end up being about 65,000 words in length, and I’m more than halfway through this revision.

It’s not such a mean feat to rewrite a single book four times in one year! I mean that’s a lot of work! And during this same time I’ve written eight or nine short stories and done substantial work on my second YA novel. So I’ve been working! But sometimes it does occur to me that if I can do 2,400 words in 45 minutes, then I could probably go ahead and knock out another ten thousand words before the day is over.

I don’t know. The other day a friend and I spent a solid two or three hours texting back and forth, making fun of what we called “the bad-lyrical” style of novel. (In case you’re wondering, there are three main types of mediocre literary novel: the bad-lyrical; the bland-realist; and the try-hard postmodernist), but the most offensive of these, to me, is the bad lyrical. This is a novel where the prose is simply trying WAY too hard to be lyrical. At worst, you get misuse of words, meaningless metaphors, and pointless and random mid-sentence elevation in diction. At best, the writing is fine on the surface, but it’s so thoroughly enslaved to a sing-song rhythm that it tends to numb the mind.

The bad lyrical is in ascendance right now. I have no idea why. Usually when I read a bad lyrical novel I can’t even finish the first page.

What’s interesting is that bad-lyrical novelists tend to talk a lot about the purity of the line and about how much time they spend slaving away at each of their sentences. They generate a mythos around the text itself. A bad lyrical novelist would NEVER admit to writing 2,400 words in 45 minutes. A bad lyrical novelist spends eight hours slaving away at a paragraph, and perhaps writes each sentence down twenty or thirty times, often by hand or maybe composing them on index cards like Nabokov (a good lyrical novelist), before moving on to the next one.

I don’t understand it. To me, the work of the bad lyrical novelist is profoundly imitative. They aren’t actually in thrall to the logic of their own sentences; they’re merely reaching, more or less at random, into a bag of tricks and going “A-ha!” It’s really not very difficult to do. Anyone can do it without much effort. To demonstrate the truth of this assertion, I spent two hours yesterday composing the first scene of a bad lyrical novel about Silicon Valley (example below).

I thought once these software developers with their three-day beards and hollow eyes were heroes, the stuff of legends. They were the children who sat up late at night building models and airplanes, rewiring the electricity within their toys, taking all apart and putting together. I had almost been one of them, but my adventures with technology were solely abortive and failed. I took a screwdriver and took apart my playstation, assembled the ribbons and cards next to each other all across a table, but when the time came to add the mod-chip that would overclock my device and set me along the road to true hackerdom, I miserably failed, snapped the ribbon, was lost behind the thicket of my own tears, until I was found in my basement three hours later, fingers bleeding from attempted surgery, and was solidly beaten for my trouble. Only when it came to words were my failures tolerated, and only then because I kept them secret for long years, until they’d rotted and been plowed back into the fertile soil of my soul, only to grow anew, twisted and misshapen, but strong in their mutant glory, and oh-so-solidly mine and mine alone.

That’s what I spent two hours doing yesterday (I have about 1500 words of this novel)! I had this whole plan to write out an entire bad lyrical novel and try to sell it! And after it received critical acclaim, I’d tear my own novel to bits and be like THE EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES!!!

Writing in the bad lyrical style was very freeing. It required no effort. Because I was composing without any regard to my own interests, I could just go on and on and on and on. I probably could’ve sat at the keyboard for another seven days and finished the entire forty thousand word novel (I had an entire plot mapped out and everything, it was going to be about a beautiful ingenue who tires of trying to make it as a poet and becoms a computer programmer, then has an affair with a senior designer at her company—an older man who flatters her intellect—before being ripped off and defrauded by him. In the final lines, she would of course return to her true passion: the written word.)

I don’t pretend to be a lyrical writer. Feel free to criticize my sentences as much as you want, but at least I’m not a BAD lyrical writer, and at this point in history that makes me a better writer than most. Anyway, to make the long story short, it does make me feel better about the whole 2400 words in 45 minutes thing. I mean if it takes hours to compose terrible sentences, then maybe it should take only minutes to compose decent ones.

As far as I can tell, there’s not a lot of interesting book discussion online

I’m back!

After a tour of all the precincts of social media, including Twitter, Instagram, and Medium, I decided I still like my own blog best! It has zero reach and almost nobody reads it, but it’s fun, and it doesn’t actively make my life worse.

I decided, actually, to spend a little bit more time cultivating one-on-one relationships. When I thought of the most popular and charismatic people I knew, one thing that cut across them, actually, was that they tend to put little effort into social media and a lot of effort into developing intimacy with their friends.

Of course I don’t want to be one of those people who bags on social media. I’ve found it to be a very useful tool for getting better acquainted with people I already know. Facebook has given me a lot in this life. I’ve reconnected with several old friends, and I’ve becom better acquainted with scores of people who I probably would’ve lost touch with were it not for the platform.

But as a marketing tool or a tool for broader engagement with the intellectual world, I’m not sure social media is for me.

The truth is, sometimes I feel a little lonely, when it comes to my intellectual interests. For instance, right now I’m reading a lot of Mary Elizabeth Braddon, who was a 19th century writer of sensation novels. Essentially, her books are thrillers, she wrote thrillers. But because it was the 19th century, her thrillers proceed at a rather sedate pace. And yet she’s a master of keeping you in suspense. And her plots proceed in such a cunning and thoughtful manner that the writer in me is very impressed. Previously, I’d read a little Wilkie Collins, and although I liked it, I didn’t enjoy how contorted his plots were. The book seemed to be straining to deliver shocks and surprises. Whereas Braddon is very in tune with the virtues of the form. She’s still writing domestic stories and still writing novels of manners, but in her books the manners are now somewhat expanded, to include things like murder and bigamy. It’s good stuff! Particularly when you compare it to current domestic thrillers, which I also find to often be somewhat sweaty in their plotting. I think there’s a lot of value to reading books that were written before current standards cohered. Because she’s not working with the framework of the “thriller”, Braddon doesn’t need to try so hard to be thrilling.

But who is there to talk to about these things? I thought maybe I’d find somebody on Twitter, but to be honest, Twitter seems mostly concerned with discussing ephemera. Even in the literary world, there’s a certain level of faddishness that doesn’t excite me. I don’t hate what is new, but I also don’t instinctively think that it’s superior to what is old. And I don’t see why our conversation has to be dominated by books that came out this year and writers who are currently alive.

One might think that I’d find people to talk to within the academy, but again I don’t know. I find that academics don’t read in either the way a writer or an ordinary person does. They don’t seem to read for pleasure. They rarely read outside their field. And they read with an agenda, to prove or disprove some particular point. There’s no feeling of wonderment.

Oftentimes I think writers are the true heirs to the world of literature. Alone amongst peoples, we have permission to read widely and to read deeply and to read only the best of what literature has to offer.

The real problem here is that when we writers follow our own tastes, those tastes take us into peculiar and unique places, whereas if we just read whatever is getting reviewed this week in the New York Times, we’re able to read it along with everybody else, and, as such, we get the pleasure of discussing it. Because of that, current discussion will always, of necessity, be dominated by the new and contemporary. Everybody out there might be reading their own M.E. Braddon, but their Braddons are all different, while if we’re reading contemporary novels, we’re probably reading Sally Rooney.

It’s not anybody’s fault. It’s not even a problem with human nature. It’s structural, mathematical, a problem of the long-tail distribution of the books that sell and are read each year.

I guess I just wish that the current books that everybody was talking about were, like, better? I wish they actually merited all this discussion. I wish there was still something interesting to say about them. And I wish there was some way of talking about them without either being gushy or completely disdaining them. These are all things that, I think, come easier when a book is older and an author is dead. But by the time it’s possible to say something interesting about a book, everyone has forgotten it! So the only times you get a fun discussion about a book is when its stock is rising, as with John Williams’s STONER or John Okada’s NO-NO BOYS, or when its stock is falling, as with INFINITE JEST, and you get to have post-facto arguments about it that lead people to read it to see what the fuss is about.

The evolution of my writing style over time

Writing continues apace. I’ve been highly productive lately. Have written two new short stories, including a new sci-fi story! The story writing was inspired by the sale of a story I wrote maybe a year ago or two years ago to The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy (my second story to sell to that publication). I was like, hmm, maybe I’m still able to do this short story thing.

I have to say, for years I’d write a story I thought was particularly accomplished only to find that it would go unsold. So it’s nice to see those stories sell nowadays on occasion. I have a close friend who’s shopping around a story collection, and I even got the misty ideas, hmm, maybe I’ll put together a collection one of these days! I wonder what my combined ouevre would say about me?

I actually got an offer once from a specialty press to put out a collection, but I turned it down, after looking through my published stories, because I realized I just didn’t hadn’t written enough stories that I felt proud of.

That might still be true, to be honest, but I hope someday it won’t be.

It’s nice to put out an SF story. I think this year I’ve had a story out in Asimov’s, and I wasn’t stressed about it at all. Once upon a time I used to google each story and see what was happening with it and then assiduously market it online for awards nominations. Now I’m like whatever. Either people will notice or they won’t. Either it’ll get nominated or it won’t. A person only has a very limited amount of marketing energy, and there’s no point wasting it on things that don’t really matter.

What’s most exciting about some of my latest story sales is that my writing style has really developed! I’ve advanced tremendously in my ability to expand and contract time, in my ability to dip into and out of the protagonist’s head, and in my ability to module the colloquialism of the language to reflect whether we’re hearing the main character’s thoughts or hearing the disembodied thoughts of the narration. I think that, like Berthold Brecht, I’ve often struggled because I write characters who I don’t necessarily want the audience to fully identify with. Part of me wants to hold them up to scrutiny. However, unlike Brecht, I don’t despise my own characters. I want my readers to like them, but also to understand who they truly are. And it’s taken some time to find the tools to write about them well.

Writing is an odd thing! You work and work on something, and people don’t see it for years. Like in my soon-to-be-released YA novel (WE ARE TOTALLY NORMAL is out March 31) I think my main efforts were spent in peeling back some of my initial training regarding plot. With every draft, I made that story less dramatic and more character-focused. I was learning how to tell stories that hinged upon internal conflicts and how to avoid letting the machinery of drama take up too much of the story. The problem was that this led to a lot of dialogue and a lot of internal rumination. And it was only in the final drafts of the book that I began to condense some of that stuff and turn it into narrative summary.

So what readers will see in WE ARE TOTALLY NORMAL is primarily my efforts to tell a less-dramatic story, something more focused upon tiny emotional movements. Whereas before I used to attempt to dramatize the internal, by finding events that served as an exterior analogue for what was happening inside, now I’m trying to portray the internal with simple honesty.

But I’m beyond that now. All that stuff is already a part of the toolkit. Now I’m trying to make the narration carry more weight, so I don’t need to scramble as much for interesting situations (which, in modern life, are relatively rare). And it’s not a simple thing. Every change in my writing has served to make it less dramatic and more, dare I say it, boring.

Yet I still come from a background steeped in the virtues of a good plot. I always try and think, “Why is the reader still reading this? What question do they want answered? What relationship is unresolved?” So I still have a story. That’s the fun part! There’s always a story, there’s always a plot, and, at least if you’re me, it’s a plot you’re genuinely excited by. Is Nandan gay? Does Jhanvi (the protagonist of my new book) actually manage to become friends with this other girl? The trick is that the plot hangs upon such small changes in mood and in circumstance, and unless you’re able to portray those things accurately, the book fails.

This makes me sound like a writer who’s focused primarily on language. I would not say that this is the case. You can tell, even from my blog posts, that I’m not the most careful writer on a sentence level. And even the virtues of my prose are usually considered vices. I love to put in extra words and extra phrases just for the rhythm of the sentence. My sentences can be long and full of dependencies. I tend towards the mannered, and not entirely with good reason, but in part simply because mannered prose tends to give off some sheen of seriousness that’s borrowed from the Victorians.

I still believe strongly in structure and in content. When I read Proust, I’m impressed not primarily by the sentences, but by the complexity of the portraits and of the relationships. And, similarly, when I want to revise my books, I think primarily, “How can I change my premise in order to tell this story better.” It makes revision much simpler, I’ll tell you, when instead of needing to go through and alter every sentence, you’re simply able to reduce the book to its constituent parts and think, “Which of these parts needs to be different?”

Well there you go, that’s a thousand words on what and how I’m writing these days.