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.

Is there a middle ground between the average person and the heroes of literature?

Lately I’ve gotten that social media fatigue that everybody’s been complaining about for ages. I haven’t gone much on Twitter. Haven’t even logged into Facebook. Haven’t posted on this blog. I think one day I was on Twitter, and I was just like, why am I doing this to myself? I don’t know these people, and they don’t know me. So I decided I’d stop maintaining all these unidirectional relationships. Even watching TV, which I’ve been doing quite a bit, seems a better use of my time than scrolling endlessly through Twitter.

I’ve started to feel my years. Not in terms of “I’m not the success I want to be.” Instead I keep wondering, “Am I writing the way I want to be?” I find myself scrutinizing every sentence I write, thinking, “Is this the sentence a great writer would write?” I think, “Would Tolstoy use a phrase like ‘writer would write’? Probably not, to be honest.”

My writing style has matured considerably in just the last year. Now when I sit down and write a short story it comes out in this odd, this odd sort of, well it’s very hard to describe, but it’s sort of like a historian’s chronicle–event follows event, with lots of summary, and then a few scenes that explode outward in great detail. Thinking back over my reading from the last fifteen years, I honestly think no book has affected my style more than the Sarashina Diary. Which is an odd thing. It’s one of my favorite books, but not my absolute favorite. I’ve also learned from Tolstoy. When you read him, you’re like…this is so simple. Why can’t my work be this simple? You just tell the story. That’s all you do is tell the story. And if that includes a fifty thousand word soliloquy about Napoleon, then that’s what you need to include.

But I still look at my novels and my stories, and I think, is this it? I think there’s a point, fifteen years into your writing career, when you’ve learned quite a bit, and you suddenly wonder, “Do I have a voice? Do I have anything new to contribute?” It’s that whole anxiety of influence deal.

I came out of the world of commercial fiction, where, honestly, voice is deemphasized. Instead of voice, people talk about your world-building or your ideas. It’s like language is this set of bricks, and what matters is what you build. But language isn’t bricks. Language is atoms, and you can choose to form those atoms into bricks, or you can form them into some other, stranger sort of connector.

When I read literary fiction, I quite often think, wow, you tried too hard to develop your own voice, and you forgot how to tell a story. Because story and character are part of voice too, and there are numerous writers whose style is nothing special, but who added new ideas and new forms to the world of literature.

At the same time, I admire those literary writers (the ones with too much voice) for knowing, from early in their career, exactly what’s required if you’re to be a great writer. A literary writer often feels like a child. You read the book, and you’re like…did you put any thought at all into the overall structure of this story? But at the same time, they often have the wonderful ingenuity of a child.

I’ve been reading a lot of Ibsen. His plays aren’t too long, and I’ve read seven or eight in the past few days. I like them immensely. What I enjoy in a play is the feeling that I’m witnessing some sort of interaction that would normally be private. Many plays contain an absurdist element that doesn’t necessarily appeal to me. I want to know, instead, exactly what it’s like to see a husband and a wife, arguing alone in their room. Not in the theatrical, stylized way that people do for television. In the theater, characters argue differently, they speak differently. At times it can feel very honest.

I also think, “These plays weren’t meant to be read.” It gives me hope. In Ibsen, the beauty isn’t in the lines. To be honest, the words, at least in much of what the translations that I read, were a bit pedestrian. What was of marvelous complexity were the characters. And I think what draws me to Ibsen is also that his plays contain a hint of the ideal. They’re not entirely realistic. His characters have a heroism. This is particularly notable in his most famous plays, like in “Hedda Gabler”, which is about a vile, self-centered woman who cares only for style. What she wants is for the world to contain some element of panache. And when her former lover can’t even commit suicide right, she resolves, like Kirillov in Demons, to show the world how to end your life correctly.

For the realist writer, managing that hint of idealism is one of our toughest tasks. Because we don’t want to write characters who are too plebeian. We want our characters to contain mankind’s finest qualities. But at the same time, we don’t want them to be unrealistic.

In a lot of my work, I spiral around the concepts of strength and weakness. I can’t tell you the number of stories and novels I’ve written which were rejected because the main character was “too pathetic”. I think if most people were to be written about, we’d be dismissed by readers as “too pathetic”. I don’t want, in my writing, to shy away from the things in all of us that are, quite frankly, loathsome. I’m not talking about greed, I’m talking about its opposite. So many people seem so inert and apathetic. The heroic qualities we associate with the characters in literature are entirely absent from the average person’s life, so much so that if a person is capable for even a second of breaking free from inertia, then it almost seems a miracle.

I’m fascinated by that inertia. I’ve experienced so much of it in my own life. The feeling that I’m born along by fate, and that I’m unable to take control. And I’m not a weak person. I’m stronger than most, if the truth was to be told. But even so, I fall far below the standards set by literature. It seems to me that there must be some middle-ground between the average human and the heroes of literature. Some middle ground where people are a little bit heroic. Or a little bit powerful. Or where they occasionally rise above themselves. And that’s what I seek, not always successfully, to write about.

Elizabeth Hardwick writes about fiction that treats with the problems of being a woman

Someone once told me not to begin promoting your novel until, at the earliest, six months before its release date, because otherwise any hype you build will peak too soon. I have no idea whether this is true, but it’s a good enough reason to not write too much about my book. It’s out there, going to bloggers through Edelweiss and NetGalley, and it’s accruing blurbs from other writers as well. Response has been gratifying! By this time, a few weeks, after the public release of the ARCs of my first book, ENTER TITLE HERE, it’d already accumulated some extremely negative responses, which this one hasn’t yet done.

I am very pleased with the book. Mostly I’m just pleased that I took the time to completely rewrite it late last year and early this year even when I didn’t have to. I didn’t entirely think it’d make a difference in the book’s reception, but it clearly, to me, wasn’t where it needed to be, and now it is.

Anyway, I haven’t been blogging as much lately! This is the new book’s fault again. I’ve been trying to reach new audiences, which has led me back onto Twitter. I’ve been pondering Medium, but I’m not certain it’s entirely right for me. I dunno. Instagram is where you’re supposed to go, but I’ve no visual eye.

Reading-wise, I’ve been having a good month. The book I’d recommend most highly is Elizabeth Hardwick’s Beauty and Seduction, which I found through the simple expedient of checking out ten more or less randomly selected NYRB classics from an online library. This wasn’t even the first of those books that I’ve read. I also read Boredom, by Alberto Moravia (which was a bit tedious, to be honest), and Glenway Wescott’s Apartment in Athens, which was an intense and fascinating psychological thriller about the relationship between a Greek family and the Nazi officer who’s been forcibly domiciled with them.

Seduction and Betrayal is an essay collection! It contains individual essays on the Bronte Sisters, on Sylvia Plath, on the Bloomsbury Group, on the plays of Ibsen, and on the concept of seduction and betrayal in fiction. The book is loosely organized around the theme of, “Who are the authors who’ve said something interesting in fiction about what it means to be a woman?” In this Hardwick doesn’t mean, “Who has written great female characters.” In some cases, having great characters gets in the way of what she’s talking about. She wants to know what authors have treated sort of the essence of womanhood and woman’s place in the world. And each essay in its own way gets at those ideas.

I’m finding it hard to quantify what was so striking about the collection. I think it was the gentleness with which Hardwick treats many of these women and many of these characters. For instance, in an essay on amateurs—women known for their proximity to literary greats—she writes about Wordsworth’s sister, and how she achieved greatness in one of the only ways available to her, which was to subsume her life to her brother’s genius. In her essay on seduction and betrayal, she writes about how desire, how the momentary weakening of the senses, the thing that causes a woman to give in to seduction, is a great engine for fiction. She talks about how various women have been written about when it comes to desire. She compares the saintliness of Hester Prynne. She talks about Clarissa Harlowe, who wasn’t seduced (she was raped), but who also in some ways seems to be flirting with oblivion in how she deals with Lovelace. She writes about Hetty, in Adam Bede, who seems vain and not-thoroughly-good, but who doesn’t deserve the punishment she gets. Hardwick knows, obviously, that it’s wrong for the world to punish women in this way, but she’s not concerned with the world, she’s concerned with how fiction treats the problems of womanhood, and this is a very particular problem: men can have sex without biological repercussion, whereas women risk pregnancy. And how does this problem become a vehicle for fiction?

Similarly, in her essay on the Brontes, she engages in a bit of bio-crit, talking about how the sisters were almost driven into seeking literary success because of the poor range of choices available to them at the time. They couldn’t bear to be governesses, and they didn’t want to marry poorly. She writes about how Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre represent very different solutions to this same problem. (As as sidenote, I wish she’d included poor Anne! I still think she’s my favorite of the sisters, and I’m not saying that just to be contrary. I prefer the realist to the romantic, I’m sorry…)

I liked the essay on Ibsen the most, because I hadn’t read anything of his, hadn’t even really heard much about him before. But she writes about Ibsen’s characters—about his women who are driven to make something of their lives—and about the various paths they take, and the tragedies that befall them.

It’s a short book, maybe 300 pages, and definitely worth your time! NYRB classics 4eva

San Francisco sux

Recently I joked that if you want to bond with any San Franciscan, you can just strike up a conversation about how much this city sucks.

I love living in San Francisco. It’s absolutely stunning. My home city, DC, comes close in terms of beauty, with its profusion of trees and stately architecture, but it’s sadly very flat, and quite difficult to get a sense of DC as a whole. San Francisco is quite different. It’s a city of vistas. As I speak I’m staring out my bedroom window and watching the sun rise Potrero Hill.

The architecture here is incredible. Every house is unique, different, idiosyncratic, and yet they’re constructed in a handful of style and painted in a roughly similar palette. Even the few modern houses have a boxy, spare frame that’s dictated by the relatively small lot sizes and frontages.

The other great thing about San Francisco is that nobody here reads books, but everybody respects writers. It’s the perfect combination. You never meet another writer (certainly not one that’s my age, because they’ve all moved to Oakland or Portland). And nobody ever tells me how much they’re enjoying the latest book by my literary rival or tells me their uncle is a writer too, have I heard of him? His name is Salman Rushdie.

Nobody reads, but everybody has a living room full of books. My exposure to the literary world is entirely modulated by Twitter. When I get tired of the BS, I simply switch of Twitter and go outside.

Recently I’ve been thinking about sentences, and how much nonsense is talked about them. People praise books for having great sentences, but when you read them, you’re like…these sentences are the opposite of great. They’re vapid and overwritten and full of self-conscious signifiers of ‘beautiful writing.’ They’re like that pop band that everybody thinks is a cut above simply because they’ve got a violinist. Like, yeah, you’re smart and polished, but the music’s actually nothing special.

And yet it’s okay. You just go outside.

San Francisco does suck, I suppose. But the thing is, I never knew the San Francisco that’s now supposedly lost. I only moved here three years ago! My In my San Francisco the beautiful people in the cafes have always talked about computers. Maybe once upon a time they talked radical politics or avant-garde literature, but not anymore! Now it’s all about computers. Seriously, if you’re ever here, you should try sometime looking for the coolest, most glamorous, put-together people you can find, the ones who’re sipping wine and having an animated conversation, then slowly creep closer and closer to them. Inevitably there’ll come a moment when you realize…oh…they’re talking about computers.

Writing and releasing a book that actually has a market feels very different

My book, We Are Totally Normal, is starting to be out there in the world! It’s not being released until March 31, 2020, but review copies are already available to book bloggers, and we had the cover reveal a few weeks ago. So far the experience has been pretty different from the similar stage for my last book.

My last book was a lead title from Disney, meaning it got a pretty big marketing push. It got plenty of press and was well-received. But I don’t know that readers actually responded to it. I think that at the time we were at the end of the thriller wave in YA, and we were at the height of the craze for anti-heroes in prestige TV (Breaking Bad was entering its final season), and my publishers felt like maybe Reshma would meet the same need in teen readers that anti-hero characters (including the numerous sociopaths that populate the recent spate of domestic thrillers) fill for adults.

This was not how I viewed the book at all. I never thought of Reshma as an anti-hero, for one simple reason: I just don’t think cheating in school is that bad. I mean, cheating in school is like slacking off at your corporate job instead of doing your work. One can make the theoretical case that it’s wrong, but in actually you’re just a tiny part of a massive machine, and you owe absolutely nothing to the forces in charge.

Needless to say, few agreed with me. The most charitable readings saw this as being akin to a crime novel. A tale about someone with some admirable traits who at some point went wrong.

Anyway, that’s beside the point. What I’m saying is that when Enter Title Here had its cover reveal, people were intrigued, but approximately nobody was like, “I NEED TO READ THIS BOOK.”

With We Are Totally Normal, the response has been much stronger. People are like, I need this, I want this, this is the kind of book that I look to read and to buy. It’s nice!

I didn’t write the book the book to market. But it’s nice to know that there is a market!

And I think that, if anything, when readers actually open the book, they’ll find that it really does fill a yearning inside them. I think there are a lot of teens (and adults!) out there with complicated feelings about their own sex and gender, and that my book gets at those things in a way no other book has. The thing I love hearing the most from readers is that it feels like I’ve writing about them, as if I’m narrating their secret feelings, the things they’ve never told anyone.

Readers have told me about almost the sense of embarrassment that comes from the sense that the book is reading them, and that they are now exposed on the page. I love that! If there’s anything I go for in my books, it’s to write down the things people already knew, but didn’t know they knew. Because there are so many things like that!!! Sometimes it feels like we’re all engaged in writing pastiches of other stories, when, in the world around us, literally almost every story about the human heart still remains to be told.

Nobody has more fun reading than a writer does

I’d say the number one pleasure of a writing career is that you’re allowed to read whatever you want and however you want.

This is a freedom that theoretically exists for every educated person with access to a good library system, but in truth most people are fettered. If your profession involves reading books, whether you’re a critic, professor, publishing industry professional, or teacher, then reading is work. Moreover, all reading-related professions come with specific reading modalities. You need to read like a critic, read like an editor, or read like a teacher.

And if you don’t work with books at all, then you have the opposite feeling: the sense that all your reading is somehow wasteful or unproductive.

Writers have it the best. The secret to being a writer is you don’t need to read books. There are LOTS of writers who never read anything. They used to read, sure, back when they were in their twenties, but ever since they started working professionally, they’ve lost their taste for it. Continually reading other peoples’ work is not a necessary part of a writing career. If you put in ten or fifteen years of reading, then that’s probably good enough.

But of course, most writers do read widely. And the really fun thing is you can read whatever you want, however you want. When I read I don’t need to take margin notes or do close reading or even remember the plot. I can read purely for enjoyment, just like someone who’s not in the biz. But my reading also carries a sense of purpose. It’s incredible.

I say this because I have a list of about 1800 books that I’ve read since 2009, and right now I’m going through and adding ISBN numbers to the list so that it can be readily imported into Goodreads and other book recommendation engines. And in the process, I’m remembering so much about all these books that I’ve read! Like that fall when I read all the classic noir authors (Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford, James Cain, David Goodis, etc). Or the summer I read all the German authors. Or when I first encountered Gone Girl or A Simple Plan or Jo Walton’s Farthing. Just so many memories. It’s astonishing how long ago some of these experiences were. I’ve only read some of these books one time in my life, but they’re still so fresh in my memory.

It just really makes me happy. And this is only ten years of reading! Actually I’m only up to 2013 in my reading, so right now it’s only four years of reading! Knowledge really is a form of riches that you build up over time.

Casting about for a new project

I’ve send my novel-for-adults (formerly The Storytellers, now tentatively titled The Lonely Years) off to some friends for their comments, and my second YA novel We Are Totally Normal is basically done (cover should be revealed in late June!) so right now I have nothing to work on.

This comes after a year in which I was working pretty hard. First I wrote the first draft of The Storytellers, then I completely rewrote We Are Totally Normal, and then I completely rewrote The Storytellers too! That’s three novel drafts in the space of a year. I wouldn’t say I’m burned out exactly, but it does feel like I’ve had tunnel vision for the past year, and now I’m finally able to be more strategic in choosing my next project

I’m not one of these writers who’s simply bursting with ideas for new novels. I can generate ideas, of course, just like anybody else, but in order to be worth writing about they need to get at the heart of something. Without that, the whole thing is just a pointless exercise.

But that’s easier to say and harder to do. So nowadays I’m basically reduced to lying in bed and being like…maybe a midafternoon nap would jog loose some ideas…