Every writer needs a friend who’s more successful and who’s willing to validate their own bitterness

I have a friend whose first book did much better than mine, and who got much bigger advances for both their books, and I love complaining about the writing world to this person, because they’re always like…yes, it is terrible, yes it is difficult, yes it is all luck.

I have another friend whose first book was brilliant, was fought over by agents, but which never sold, and they love complaining to me, because I’m like, wow, your book REALLY deserved to be published. You have been so hosed. You deserve to be profiled by the New York Times, sitting on the steps of brownstone, wearing a sweater, talking about your influences.

People like me and my more successful friend aren’t as common as one would want. Many writers have fully bought into the values of the system, and they jealously guard their own prerogatives. I understand the practice of policing the boundaries of our little garden: oh, I’ve sold a book, so I have more status; I have an agent, so I have more status; I’ve sold stories to major publications, so I’m legit. We’ve worked hard to get where we are, and we want to feel like it means something. But the fact is that if anything should confer status in the writing world, it’s not your success, it’s the quality of your work, and quality isn’t necessarily correlated with publishing success. Nor, for that matter, is quality necessarily perceptible to any given reader. I might read something and think it has no merit, and only later realize that there was a lot going for it.

I understand why other writers don’t feel this way, because it would be exhausting, but to me every writer–published or unpublished–is a peer until proven otherwise. On the one hand, this is just good sense, because as you progress in this career, you’ll meet lots of people who start off unpublished and rapidly become more successful than you. But it’s also just, I don’t know…it’s just common courtesy.

When I was first starting out as a writer, I’d go to conventions, and I’d feel like, well, I’m nobody, and nobody respects me, nobody wants to talk to me, and I used to leave with my eyes burning, thinking, I’m never going to come back here until I’m somebody. Part of that was social awkwardness–I was shy and wasn’t good at talking to people. But now I do carry some kind of status. I’ve published books. I’ve had stories to the right magazines. Sometimes I still feel like the low woman on the totem pole because I haven’t won award or achieved material success, but I know now that to the extent that feeling is not just in my head, it’s the problem of the people putting it on me.

But anyway, back then, I swore to myself that when the time came, I would be better. I wouldn’t make assumptions about people. I wouldn’t be inclusive toward everyone, because, obviously, I’m not going to get along with everybody, but I’d judge people by their talent and by how well we got along, and not by their level of success. And I would not stand on my own tiny bit of status, but I’d willingly give it up to anyone who deserve it. And I think that is a really, really important thing one writer can give another. I think it’s one thing to know that you have a lot to learn, but it’s also a not uncommon experience to know that you are doing good work, and to know that you’re writing publishable–or even awards-worthy–fiction, and to feel frustrated that the world still treats you like a wanna-be. And as perceptive and sensitive readers, who’ve walked this path ourselves, it’s our job as writer and colleagues to ease some portion of that hurt for our friends.

Sorry, it’s early, and I’m tired from being up with the baby, so I fear this blog post isn’t as coherent as I’d like it to be, but that’s what I had to say on this morning.

Books I’ve Read Lately

Haven’t done one of these in literal years

Lee Child, PersuaderYou know, in theory, I enjoy suspense thrillers about implacable killers who wander the world writing wrongs. But I’ve never been able to get into Jack Reacher, and, honestly, that remains true. In this one Jack gets involved in an improbable plan to write a wrong from his military police days, and it involves hanging out in a big house with some arms dealers and basically just fucking around doing nothing for page after page.

J. Courtney Sullivan, Friends and Strangers – Sullivan is so underrated, and she’s only gotten better since her first book, Commencement. She writes subtle, nuanced comedies of manners about, well, people who are exactly like me. This one is about the friendship that springs up between a college student and a young mother who’re both at turning points in their lives. The relationship is just on the other side of the realistic: the kind of thing we’d like to exist, but usually doesn’t. Some very well-drawn people interact in surprising and interesting ways. Also the young mother is a blocked writer, working on her third book. For me, very relatable =]

Francoise Gillot, Life With Picasso – Memoir by a young painter who was Picasso’s lover for twelve years and the model for many of his works. At times got tedious, but I liked it for two things: the description of how a person with, well, mediocre looks and personal charm could win over and ensnare a young woman, as much through his pity as for his own sake, and, as she watches with bemusement, all the while thinking she’s above this relationship and can escape at any moment, manages to cut her off from her family and pull her deeper and deeper into his clutches. Oh, and his thoughts about art are interesting too.

Have been feeling a little hopeless lately

Sometimes when I’m feeling down these days I’m like, well, this is one of the hardest moments in human history. That does help, a little bit. I mean obviously it’s no black death or Genghis Khan conquering half the world. But it’s not great!

The other thing I tell myself is that, when it comes to writing, the true pleasure is to be able to produce something you’re proud of. You know, I’m an inveterate Wikipedia browser, and when I browse the pages of directors, I’m often saddened by how long it takes them to get their passion projects made and how much bullshit they need to put up with. Being a director (or at least being an auteur director, rather than a hired gun) requires you to be something of a flim-flam artist. You need to know how to sell your vision to a lot of different people. You need to figure out how to get producers and production companies on board. There’s a lot of moving pieces. And the end result is that most directors don’t get to spend very much time directing.

Being a writer isn’t quite the same. I write (almost) every day, and I put a fair amount of time into it. Even when I’m not writing, I’m visualizing and dreaming. But being a writer still requires skills that’re orthogonal to producing good work. You need grit, and, quite frankly, you either need a sense of what sells, or you need to be lucky enough to have native sensibilities that’re in line, at least for the moment, with what’s selling. My sensibilities are inherently uncommercial, and it’s taken me years to learn how to put a candy-coating on my projects so that editors and agents (if not the public) will like them.

That has nothing to do with being a good writer. Even grit and determination have nothing to do with being a good writer. You don’t need grit to produce good work; grit and a sort of insensible, unyielding toughness are just as beneficial to bad writers as they are to good ones. In fact, I sometimes think bad writers have an advantage when it comes to enduring the writing life. They’re more sure of themselves, and they require less inspiration to work, so they can work even when they’re depressed. Not to mention they have an easier time tailoring their projects to the market.

The point is: being a published writer has almost nothing to do with creating work that’s really unique and worthwhile. And, like the auteur direction, the writer who’s determined to create something lasting needs either to be extremely lucky, or she needs to master a lot of skills that have nothing to do with what they’re truly interested in.

But the point isn’t merely to sell books; the point is to sell a book you’re proud of. And the first step is to sit down, do the work day after day, and write something you’re happy with. I’ve done that. The Lonely Years needs a lot more work, probably, but I really like it. I don’t know if it’ll light the world on fire, but the book is more or less what I wanted it to be. And that’s a blessing that you don’t always get.

I do feel bad that where this blog used to be more or less a book review (or at least book impression) blog–you can see up top a bibliography listing all the books I’ve ever discussed on the blog–it’s now almost entirely about a much less interesting topic: the emotional journey involved in writing novels. I’m still reading, although a lot less now that the baby’s born, but I have less to say about it.

Recently I read Wallace Stegner’s The Spectator Bird, which was a really impressive book. Not just structurally–it uses the weakest possible hint of tension to get you to read an entire book that’s basically just an old man’s grumblings–but also for its meditations on integrity and aging and the role of traditional, conservative values even in the face of the hectic go-go shifting mores of the 1970s. At a certain point I did get frustrated that the author, a retired literary agent, spent so much time grumbling and bemoaning things, but Stegner wisely provided the character of his wife, Ruth, who was used to puncture the protagonist’s pretensions and call him out. High recommend.

I find myself without the same desire to seek out new books. I own about two thousand books on my Kindle–largely accumulated during two dollar sales–and I’ve been scrolling through more or less at happenstance, looking for books to read. You come across some weird ones that way! Anyways, we’ll talk later, nerds!

You’re going to end up doing the work now, or later, or maybe never

When you’re an unpublished writer, the incentives involved in writing a novel on spec (i.e. writing it and then trying to sell it) are simple. You write the best novel you can, you work on it as much as you can, and then you send it out to agents and subsequently to publishers, and it gets rejected. You repeat this ad nauseum until something sells.

But when you’ve published, the incentives are slightly different. Because now you know the publication process. You know that if you get an agent, they’re going to want edits, and if the book sells, the editor will want even more edits. So it’s a little hard to polish the book and make it perfect before sending it to your agent and/or editor, because you’re like, why not work with them to make it better? Why do all this work on your own?

The problem…is…and I don’t know how to put this delicately…once the book is out of your hands, anything can happen. For one thing, the agent and/or editor can be like, “This is crap” and reject it summarily without giving you another chance. And, just as likely, they’ll form some snap judgement of your intentions and then for the rest of the book drafting process you’ll need to try and make sure their vision isn’t affecting yours.

So there’s an incentive to finish it up to the highest degree of polish before sending it out. But when you’ve sold books you also realize that…sometimes no degree of polish can make a book sell. It’s simply not the right time for this book. Moreover, and this is something few people don’t talk about, but there’s also a degree to which being less-finished actually makes a book more likely to sell. Many agents and almost all editors like to put their stamp on a book, and they often won’t buy a book unless they have some editorial vision for it. They want to come in with some sense of how they can make it better. Moreover, because the public often responds better to messier, less-finished books, because they are (paradoxically) an easier read, a messier book can seem more marketable and feel like it has mass appeal. And then there’s the final factor, which is, the more work you put into a book, the clearer it often gets, and that very clarity can sometimes make it unpalatable. If you’re trying to say something difficult and unpopular, then in early drafts, you might only make tiny nods towards that difficult thing. But in later drafts, the difficulty might be unavoidable. All of this is to say, it’s sometimes better to send out less-finished work.

Moreover, there’s just the opportunity cost. Finishing a book to your fullest satisfaction can take three or four years. While finishing it to just the level needed to get a new agent or sell to a publisher might only take six months. Either way, you’ll do two years of revision with the agent and/or publisher, so if you send out the less-finished book and it sells, you’re saving many years of your life (as opposed to sending out a more finished book that doesn’t sell).

There’s not an easy answer to the conundrum of how hard to work on a book. I think it depends on your experiences as an author. If you’ve had the experience of putting in four years, writing a book that you’re proud of, and having it not sell or even get an agent, then you’re unlikely to do that again. But if you’ve had the experience (as I have) of sending out underbaked work and having it be poorly-received, or of feeling like it doesn’t find quite the right home, then you’re likely to put in more work.

Still, it’s difficult. I just did another complete draft of The Lonely Years, and the temptation to send it out to agents is extreme. I do think the book could get representation. And that agent will want edits, so I could do all this work after I get someone. But…I don’t know. I like working on my own. Ideally I’d have an agent with whom revision is more of a dialogue: a sophisticated reader who trusts me and my own aesthetic judgement. But you don’t always get that. I want to spend as much time as possible with my book before allowing other voices to influence me.

Anyway, what I tell myself is that I’m revising the book not just to sell, but to last. There’s a level beyond which a book is salable, but you want more than that.* You want the book to do things nobody asked it to do. For myself, the thing I like best in a book is for it to be exquisitely constructed: for me to have the feeling that every part has a purpose. The downside of this is that books can end up feeling overdetermined, where the same themes are being hammered in by every character and situation. But to me good construction means you barely even feel the way all the parts fit together, and sometimes things don’t even feel like they fit. This is not the sort of thing an editor or agent can really do. I mean, generally speaking, there’s a lot that they can’t do. I strongly believe in the value of comments and criticism–to date I’ve had something like ten people give comments on this manuscript–but I also believe that you read the comments once or maybe twice, and then you put them aside and don’t refer to them again. But that’s not a luxury you have when it comes to criticism from the people in ‘your’ corner. In fact, once you get published, it can be very hard to recover that feeling of freedom, and it’s only once it finally comes back that you realize how precious and fleeting it can be.

*The problem, of course, is that a book might be salable, but still not sell. You could do all this work, write a book for the ages, but nobody ever publishes it. And there’s really no way of avoiding this fate. It’s entirely out of your hands. Personally, the books I’m proudest of are the ones that sold, but I’m very aware, from the example of my friends, that selling isn’t guaranteed. And I, personally, have been on submission three times with three different manuscripts that didn’t sell, so believe me I know what it’s like to hear only crickets.

Wrote a book that I think will Probably sell

Hey nerds (Rachel informed me that the salutation she objected to was actually ‘hey jerks,’ and that she doesn’t find ‘nerds’ to be combative at all, so there we go. But I mean Dan Savage could start all his columns with Hey, faggots, for eight years, and to most people I know he’s a freaking hero, so whatever. Maybe I should start my columns with ‘Hey, trannies!’…but that’s a project for another day).

So, as I was saying, hey there, nerds.

Things’ve been going okay here. I finished my sexy assassin book (working title: DEATH TRAP, and if you understand how offensive that title is, then I tip my hat to you).

This is the book about a trans woman assassin who relies on her feminine wiles lure her targets to their deaths, however she runs afoul of a league of woman assassins who’re highly offended by her lack of technical assassinating skills (she knows zero martial arts, rarely exercises, and throughout the book she’s always doing shit like forgetting to check if her gun is loaded), and when she’s awarded a big job by a prominent mob boss, the league of assassins puts out a hit on our heroine and tries to snake her job. So for the first time she’s got a foe that she can’t seduce, and meanwhile she’s also got the biggest contract of her life. Oh, and the book is set in India.

I wrote the first draft in something like eighteen days, and it was a lot of fun. I’ve always admired Anthony Trollope, who wrote his books straight through, without stopping, doing X number of pages per day, and if he finished a book before finishing his quota of pages, he started a new one that day! And when you read his books, you can see how these techniques work: he just has a bunch of characters with different goals, and then he sets them loose to have conflict with each other.

For years I’ve been like, why isn’t it just that easy? Well in this case the whole story did proceed rather organically. At times my efforts to get my hero out of her problems bordered on the fantastic, but the whole conceit of the book is that there really is no such thing as a super-soldier or a super-assassin. The business of killing people is inherently chancy, and even the best are more lucky than they are skilled.

Incidentally, I’m thinking of using this speech from the movie Miracle as an epigram:

Great moments are born from great opportunity. And that’s what you have here tonight. That’s what you’ve earned here tonight. One [job]. If we [fought] ’em ten times, they might win nine. But not this [time]. Not tonight. Tonight, we stay with them. And we shut them down because we can! Tonight, WE are the greatest [assassins] in the world…I’m sick and tired of hearing about what a great [assassins they are]. Screw ’em. This is your time. Now go out there and take it.

–From a speech that was originally about hockey, but really should’ve been about killing people for money

The insane thing about the book is that, it’s good, it’s definitely good, it’s the sort of book I want to read and I want to exist in the world–but it’s nowhere near as ambitious as any number of other books I’ve written. And yet, precisely for that reason, I’m certain the book will sell and be published. You might never read my sad, sensitive literary opus, The Lonely Years, but you’ll mostly likely read this one.

Anyways, this felt really good. Was nice to just open the computer and have fun for once. It hasn’t been like that for me in a long time. Not since I sold Enter Title Here, really. Not that it hasn’t been fun, but it’s taken a lot of work. Not this time!

I’m also in the process of revising The Lonely Years. Remember that potentially insoluble problem I wrote about before? Well I’m pretty sure I’ve solved it. So we’ll see what happens with that.

Writer’s block is real

I don’t know why I’m always tempted to start my blog posts with “Hey, I nerds!” My wife said last time I did it that it sounded too combative. So I guess I won’t do that.

But have been feeling more of an urge to write in this blog. My posting had slowed down quite a bit this year, as I just started to feel like maybe I didn’t have anything to say. I still read lots of books, but I don’t have much to say online about them that’s interesting or new, so I’m left to talk about the difficulties of the writing life, such as they are. There’s some meat on that bone, to be sure, but I do sometimes think that the writing life is just a vehicle, whereas the real destination is the work itself. And in many ways, the work is the opposite of the life. The work is about capturing those things that are energetic, active, and ever-changing, whereas the life is mostly about excluding those elements.

I recently read Tillie Olsen’s Silences, which is a polemic from the seventies by a communist, labor activist, and writer whose work, after being well received in the thirties, went fallow for many years as a result of the pressure of motherhood and earning a living. The book is an examination of writers who went silent, either before or after their periods of great productivity. For instance, it looks at Thomas Hardy’s last twenty-five years, when he abandoned prose, or the thirty years of silence that marked the end of Melville’s life (which was broken only by the composition, near the end of his life, of Billy Budd, almost as if to prove that he was silent not because inspiration had left him, but because he’d lost the will to chase it).

Coming from a genre background, and particularly a background in science fiction and fantasy, silence was not well-respected by the writers who I admired. They were people like Ray Bradbury, who from the age of eighteen sat down every day in the library, wrote a story on Monday, rewrote it Tuesday through Saturday, and put it on submission on Sunday. Or Heinlein, who once asked Asimov why Asimov bothered to retype his stories in order to correct the typos. “Why not just get it right the first time,” Heinlein said. Or, in modern times, Philip Dick, the energy of whose writing came, in part, from their amphetamine-fueled manic random quality. When I was starting out as a writer, Jay Lake (now deceased, sadly) had a well-trafficked blog about the writer’s life, and he was well-known for writing a story every week, for years. He was a machine; he could write anywhere, anywhere. Harlan Ellison was known for composing entire stories, as a stunt, while sitting in a store window, fully on display, with his typewriter. And one of the formative experiences for a young science fiction writer is the Clarion Workshop, which I attended in 2006, at the age of twenty, where the expectation is that you’ll write one short story a week for six weeks, and most attendees manage this and sometimes more (I think I wrote five, only slipping up in the final week, when I came down with bronchitis).

The point is, I am very, very familiar with the viewpoint, which tends to be overrepresented amongst successful writers of commercial fiction, that one ought to be able to write no matter their successful circumstances.

The magic of Olsen’s book is that it demolishes this claim. No writer could be more real than Herman Melville or Thomas Hardy, but they nonetheless fell unwillingly silent. And, Olsen argues, this fate is even more common for women, who face greater domestic burdens, and it’s just as common amongst those who’ve not yet begun their careers as it is amongst those with mature careers. In essence, the same forces that silenced Melville and Hardy could choke off a writer’s output at any stage in their career, but when it happens early in a career, or before the publication of one’s first book, the absence isn’t even perceived as being anomalous.

In my life, I’ve suffered periods of writer’s block, the most extended and notable of which came in the two years after selling my first book. The block didn’t take the form of being unable to put down words. I wrote two middle-grade novels during that time, but I spent far more time discarding what I’d written or losing faith in it. More than a lack of ability to write, I’d lost touch with wherever the stories come from, the place that tells me what stories deserve to and need to be told.

Some writers are successfully able to power through this kind of block, and they produce something that’s publishable, but I think in some ways that’s more dangerous than what happened to me, because it teaches you to ignore your own instincts and to subsume your own creative desires to those of the market.

Personally, my writer’s block started to lift, I would say, when Disney broke its contract with me to publish my second book (they hated an early draft of We Are Totally Normal) and abated in full over the course of the last two years, during which I’ve done numerous rewrites of We Are Totally Normal and of my novel for adults, The Lonely Years. Something about the process of working on these two books, which, for all their flaws, are definitely the kinds of stories that I think ought to be told, has provided me with the kind of guidance I was lacking before.

These days it’s almost an instinct, a gut-check. I think of an idea for a story, and I perhaps even write a few thousand words of it, and then I think, But am I really into it? Or is this just a received idea—someone else’s story—that I’m writing simply because it’s easy. In truth, there’s nothing harder than working on an idea that’s not really yours, but in the beginning, at least, it can feel very simple.

When I posted about writer’s block on Facebook, I think two themes emerged in the comments. One is that some writers are inspired by duress, and that the pressure of writing for publication in some ways keeps them productive. The other is that many writers who’ve experienced writer’s block found their way out by doing the opposite, by recovering their beginner’s mind and thinking of themselves not as professional writers but as amateurs, continuing to do what they love.

For me, I think what’s freed me lately is that I’ve felt compelled for years to write a work of ‘serious’ fiction—something that would stand next to the writers I love, and I feel like The Lonely Years was my attempt to do that. But there’s no guarantee that the book will be published, and if it’s not, I think it’d be very difficult for me to write another ‘serious’ book. But I have lots of interests, and I believe in lots of different books. Lately I’ve been trying to write books that come straight from the ‘id’. Books that embody deeper, more primal desires. I’ve been thinking about what it is that I, personally, want from a thriller, a horror novel, a military sci-fi novel, and why some of those things are lacking from so many of the books I read. It’s a pretty fascinating exercise. For the first time in a long time, I feel as if I have MANY different stories to tell and that I can tell them in different forms and different styles, and for now I’m loving the sense of plenitude.

Having people read your stuff is, sadly, invaluable

As an update to my last post, I sent my book to three friends. One of them read it and got me comments within three days (I KNOW!) and without hours of reading her comments, I realized how to fix the problems I was having in the book. FML

It’s just so annoying. I never send a book to a friend until I think it’s perfect and complete, and they almost always immediately explode my conception of it. I really, really wish it was possible to do without this step, since it slows down the novel-writing process considerably, but sadly I find it difficult.

I think all that having a friend read the book does for me is confirm my secret feeling “No, the book isn’t perfect, and even though it’ll need some work to fix, it’s worth it to put in that work.” That’s it. Usually that’s much more important than any actual recommendations they make. Frequently I read their letter just once, and when I begin revising, I go in directions far from what they suggested. It’s really just that their criticism gives me permission to revise and to keep revising. SO ANNOYING.

Okay, so that’s one thing going on in my life. The other thing is that I have this silly cute adorable little tiny cute tiny grubbley-grobbly milk-face cute widdle tiny foot stompey cute little baby. And I wouldn’t say these things are an immense amount of work, but it is not easy to write or really to do anything productive while you’re caring for them.

We finally got a childcare solution in place, and it’s been incredible–I’m free to work Monday through Friday, between nine and five p.m., which is a lot better than most mothers can say. But it is a weird experience to not be able to work whenever I want. For most of my life, my amount of free time has far surpassed my desire to work. And that’s still true, sort of, but only on a global level. Locally, on any given day, it’s entirely possible that I might want to work, but be unable to!

Lately I’ve been working on what I call my “sexy assassin novel”–it’s a contemporary thriller about a sexy trans woman assassin who gets a hit placed on her by a league of local assassins who’re mad at her because she’s just too darn sexy, and they feel like she’s raising stupid expectations, amongst male clients, for what a female assassin should be like.

Anyway, I realized over the weekend that the last fifteen thousand words I’d written weren’t quite working, so I needed to throw them out. And I wanted to immediately write something, but I couldn’t, because: baby.

Lately I’ve been drawing a lot of inspiration and emotional support by reading about the travails of past woman artists. I read Parisian Lives, by Deirdre Bair, about the twenty years she spent as the biographer first of Samuel Beckett and then of Simone de Beauvoir. It was great! An intimate look at the process of artistic creation, both in terms of the professional, the artistic, and the personal. Man, she had to put up with some bullshit. Like with her fucking department, at the University of Pennsylvania, who were always putting her down and dicking with her over fiddly little stuff related to tenure.

And now I’m listening to The Equivalents, which is largely about the friendship between Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, but which also encompasses the lives of a cohort of other women–all mothers–selected to receive Radcliffe’s inaugural Bunting Fellowship (meant to encourage mothers to return to academic professions they’d dropped in order to bear children).

My wife laughed at me for talking about the kinship I felt for other women who’d been both mothers and writers, and it is slightly laughable. For one thing, I’m married to a woman, and thus the gender norms re: childcare are different from in many of these relationships. We also have help and are financially well-off. But…to be honest that’s true of most of these women! Many had supportive partners, childcare, and were well-off. But they still struggled. I know, I know, it’s peak white feminism. But the concerns of white feminism speak to me. To this day, two of my favorite books are The Feminine Mystique and The Second Shift.

Dunno how to fix my book; might just declare victory and go home

So I took my two weeks, and I reread THE LONELY YEARS, and it still has one very specific problem I’m not sure how to fix. The problem is that the main antagonists of the piece–the roommates of my protagonist–seem a little underdeveloped and, more than that, not entirely in tune with the problems that my protagonist is dealing with. It’s hard to explain; there’s just something subtly wrong about the way the pieces fit together. I wish that their conflicts more closely mirrored my protagonists’ conflicts, without everything dovetailing too much.

The problem with fixing this is twofold. One, the book is pretty tight right now. Usually, when I want to revise some part of the book, I find that my subconscious has conveniently left an empty space (usually an underdeveloped plotline or character) who I can turn into the solution to my problem. But here I’m not seeing anything.

Two, remember a few weeks ago when I said that style determines content, I just feel as if maybe the style of this book, with its claustrophobia and close focus on the protagonist, means I can’t get into the other characters’ stuff as much as I want to. As I tried to think about how to expand their role and get deeper into their heads, I just started feeling like all the possible solutions would hurt the rest of the book.

When it comes to editorial feedback, I’m very wary of the kind of feedback that I call ‘golden mean’ feedback. It’s where the critiquer says, “I love that the book is this, but can it also be not quite so much this?” It’s just a truism that the thing in the text which is most distinctive is also the thing that’ll elicit the most criticism. And, knowing this, the critiquer or editor tries to head off that criticism by finding a version of that thing which can’t be critiqued. But sometimes you’re just doing the thing! If you’re writing a science fiction novel that’s about a relentlessly grim dystopian world then it doesn’t matter if the character also has a cute puppy, because to the extent that the puppy alleviates the grimness, you’re undermining the point of your book! Now would it be nice if the book wasn’t such a downer? Yes, theoretically, but that’s what the book is!

Similarly, would it be nice if my book had a more expansive and even-handed view of some of its themes? Yes, but then it wouldn’t be so lonely and claustrophobic, so what can you do?

My answer is (probably) nothing, but I’ve sent it out to some friends for their comments, so we’ll see what happens!

Finished the rewrite of THE LONELY YEARS, now just noodling for two weeks

Hey jerks, I finished rewriting The Lonely Years. I feel pretty good about it. The last draft was great; this draft is 100,000 times better. Now I’m taking two weeks to think about it before diving back in. Kind of miss the book, but it’s good to take time off.

Have been noodling around, doing some short story stuff, trying out some new techniques. I wouldn’t say the short story is a particularly good laboratory for the novel, but when you’ve worked extensively at novel length, you recognize how much more you can get away with in a short story.

In terms of reading, I read Francoise Gilot’s Life With Picasso, her memoir of her ten year relationship with Pablo Picasso. It was boring at times; could’ve been somewhat shorter. But not uninteresting. Picasso speaks very knowledgeably about painting. As a viewer, it’s very easy to see paintings in terms of themes and content, but he also sees them in terms of the relationships of colors and shapes. It made me think about writing. I think for years I was envious of how poets see words in terms of the relationships between sounds, but I realized that the equivalent of that, for novelists, is seeing the relationship between various story elements. I know that when I talk about story structure and how things are put together, I am often operating way above the level of my audience, but other experienced novelists will be like, yes, yes, that is what you need.

There’s an adage, in writing, that style is content. It’s a bit reductionist, but it’s the idea that the way a book is written transmits as much or more information as the actual what-the-book-is-about. But I’ve recently been thinking about the opposite: style determines content. There are certain styles that only allow for certain content. For instance, I’m very interested in the fine movements and subtle shifts within relationships. In order to bring this to the surface of the text, I’ve inevitably needed protagonists who were themselves quite observant and articulate.

In my story writing I’m experimenting with having a more distant narrator–one who’s more capable of commenting upon the action without being a part of it. But this almost necessitates having characters who are a bit on the less observant side. Because if you have an observant narrator and an observant character, everything bleeds together, and it doesn’t quite work. When you start writing differently, you’re suddenly able to write about very different things. I’ve felt a little trapped by my style: I’ve felt like I was only able to write disaffected well-educated middle-class outsider types. But with this different style, I’m suddenly able to explore not just different milieus but also different kinds of consciousness (because, you know, most people, and especially most men, are not particularly self-aware).

We have childcare in place for our baby now, so I feel some pressure to be productive during the day. Like I spent the first hour today trying to get my Airpods to work, and I was like oh noooooo this is one precious hour of the eight hours when I can pretend I don’t have a child. I think ultimately it’ll be good for my productivity. Now, when I ostensibly have much more time to goof off, I’m spending much more time reading and writing. But we’ll see.

In other news, I’ve become a better person! Unless you personally know me, you probably are unaware of the fact that I am riddled with envy and spite towards other successful writers. It’d gotten so bad recently that I actually didn’t want to read good books (by living writers) and when I did read them, I’d be disappointed if they were good. Not a good place to be! But then one day something broke, and I was like, none of this has anything to do with me.

I don’t know, the whole fame machine, the NYT book pages, and the twitter accolades, and all the back-patting and self-congratulation and all the fawning over TERRIBLE books, I was like…this really has nothing to do with me. I’m just a person sitting in my living room trying to write some books.

Not sure why that helped so much, but now I feel completely better! Like, radical change, radical about-face. I even read the NYT Book section for fun! Just to see what people are writing about! I have to say, I don’t like how the NYT book pages are always so judicious with their praise. Like this week they did something on Noah Van Sciver’s Fante Bukowski, which is his graphic novel chroniclin the life of a terrible, self-important male writer-type. I’ve read FB, and it’s incredible. But they were like, it’s not totally satisfying blah blah. These are the kind of people who rejected Confederacy of Dunces (which FB resembles) because the hero isn’t sympathetic. Whatevs bro! The work is totally successful on its own terms, and I stand by that. Buy it.

Okay, blog post over.

Reread the ultimate in depressing protest novels, EVERY MAN DIES ALONE

I would say the main difference between TV and literature is that in TV the good guys usually win, but in novels, they almost never do. If they were to film a story like Every Man Dies Alone (not this book specifically, because it’s ending is too well-known, but one like it, about German resistance to the Nazis), there’d be some kind of success. They would never produce a TV show about resistance that was so wholly ineffectual.

And yet if you were to look at the history of opposition to totalitarian regimes, you’d find that most resistance was extremely ineffectual. The Nazis lost due to external factors, but I remember being struck by the long history of Soviet dissidence—millions of people who died, were exiled, or imprisoned or suffered other calamities, and all essentially for nothing. Its not clear that their efforts shortened the regime by so much as a single day.

The same can be said of the history of the Civil Rights movement between Reconstruction and the 1950s. Decades of protest that saw an erosion of civil rights, a resurrected KKK, a resurgence in lynching, the defeat of dozens of civil rights bills. Pretty depressing!

But people struggle on, what else is there to do? In Every Man Dies Alone a working-class couple are radicalized against the Nazi regime by the death of their son, and they start distributing subversive postcards. Almost all are immediately picked up and given to the police. The police detectives follow the case almost lackadaisically until after two years the evidence has accumulated and the couple are picked up and killed, along with several members of their family who were totally unconnected to the plot.

The novel was written in 24 days by Hans Fallada, a German writer relatively well-known in his day who, unlike most other well-known German writers, did not go into exile at the beginning of the Nazi regime. He stayed behind, struggling to write books that met the censorship requirements, and, in one case, adding a chapter to the end of a book where the character’s son converts to and extols National Socialism. He wasn’t a Celine or an Ezra Pound, but he certainly doesn’t have the purity of purpose and mind that one wants from one’s protest novelists.

And yet, because he stayed behind, he’s able to give a level of detail and about day-to-day life in Nazi Germany that’s quite rare amongst major German novelists. There is a reason you’ve probably read so many more descriptions of Weimar-era Germany than of life in Nazi Germany: it’s because the writers decamped! They weren’t around to write about it!

What’s striking in Every Man Dies Alone is the breakdown of civil society. The worst are elevated into positions of power. Fear rules all. There are no laws, where the party is concerned, and brutality and knavery rules the day. This isn’t the Nazi Germany of fearsome jack-booted stormtroopers who terrify the masses by marching in unison. It’s the Nazi Germany of petty informers and of sixteen year old kids in Hitler Youth uniforms who frighten their own parents; it’s the Nazi Germany of shirkers desperately trying to avoid military service; of factories that are mismanaged because party members are being elevated into the good jobs; of police departments that still try to catch and prosecute crimes even though there is no law, and where everyone knows that fearsome brutality lies just below the surface, but isn’t quite able to believe it can happen to them.

It’s a novel that makes you realize how much our media, in some ways, glamorizes Nazi Germany. It’s because our images of the era are, to a large part, drawn from images perpetuated by the Nazis themselves. Images of strength and power, soaring buildings, fast cars, sleek, beautiful men in immaculate uniforms, and of cunning, cultivated monsters who are as terrible as they are self-aware.

You won’t find any of that in this book, and that’s what makes it good. Along with its effort, perhaps a failure, to justify the sort of resistance undertaken by its heroes.

I don’t normally reread books. I remember when I first read this book, some eight years ago, I read it as a thriller and was captivated by the plot. It kept me turning pages, and I just wanted to see what would happen next.

On this reading, I could see some of the problems with the pacing. There is a lot of repetition. The last act of the book, where they are imprisoned and tried, is absurdly long. The middle half is stuffed with side-stories about little characters encountered along the way, most of whom ultimately don’t matter much. It’s all a response to the colorlessness of the couple at the center of the book. They’re heroic, but they’re also stoic and laconic. They don’t do a whole lot that’s worth reading or seeing about, so the author is forced to figure out a way to give the book a middle. Fallada famously wrote the book in 24 days, based on information he got from the police dossier of the couple who inspired the story, and he died before he could revise it, so what you see is what you get. Nonetheless, it’s very worth reading, as is his first major novel, Little Man, What Now? which is about a couple trying to survive in Depression-era Weimar—it’s a sort of German Grapes of Wrath. I’ve never read any of his other books, but I do someday intend to.