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.

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