Writing a novel these days feels like a relentless and slow grinding of gears

Been working on my novel-for-adults (provisionally entitled The Storytellers). I’m quite excited about the book. But it’s also been slow. Te novel is very short, 30k words in its first draft and probably 45k in the final draft, and I’ve been writing and rewriting the first two (of six) chapters. I always spend a lot of time on the first act. To my mind, the first act is usually the most exciting and interesting part of the book, and it’s also the rocket that blasts the book into space. Whenever I hit the end of the first act, I have the same question, “Do I have enough propulsive power to get to the end? Is there enough conflict here? Are there enough characters and threads?” Because if you run out of material in twenty thousand words, you can’t just invent stuff: you need to go back and put more stuff into the beginning.

It’s hard. I use the word ‘cerebral’ to describe my writing process these days. Whenever I encounter a road block, I do a lot of thinking and a lot of diagramming. And it’s always the same two questions: What is currently in the book? And what wants to be in the book?

Each book has an internal logic that’s dictated by the situations it tackles and the effects it’s trying to achieve. The logic of a book cannot be directly altered; only the book’s contents can be altered. So whenever I run into a problem with the logic, I think, What needs to change in order to solve this problem? Quite frequently, the answer is that something within the book is vague or unelaborated. In the current case, it’s the central antipathy born towards the protagonist by her boss. I had some vague idea of what drove the antipathy, but when I ran into problems writing, I realized that the nature of his hurt was too vague. That meant that in different situations, I allowed it to be different things. In the absence of definition, my mind chose expediency rather than clarity.

Other times the answer is that you’ve made concrete decisions, but they don’t fit within the logic of the book. Essentially, you’re trying to force it, trying to create a false situation.

It’s a bit punishing, trying to make sure the book seems complete and logical, and it often isn’t very rewarding. The logic of the book is something that only a very few readers are able to appreciate. It can also feel hopeless or frustrating at times. It takes a lot of faith to delete what you’ve written and to keep working, in the belief that you’ll eventually discover that logic. You’re searching for something that might not exist. And you don’t have to do that. It’s very tempting to ignore the glimmerings of logic and to just push forward, finish the thing, and send it out.

But it’s also fun to work on a book. It’s fun to think. It’s fun to watch the characters slowly come to life. It’s not fun all the time, or even most of the time, but some fun does exist. And I guess that’s why we do it. And also for the money. And the fame.

I’ve “read” an absurd number of “books” in the last ten weeks

The new year is ten weeks old, and I see from my stats that I’ve read sixty books in the last seventy days. Of course, thirty-nine of these were audio books and seven were graphic novels, so I’m not sure in what sense I can say I’ve been reading.

I went through a huge number of thrillers this year. I’ve been on the domestic thriller band-wagon from the beginning. Gone Girl was a huge favorite of mine when it came out, and I’m always down to see the twisting tendrils of madness as it manifests within the typical American yuppie couple.

But I have to say, a large number of these domestic thrillers were pretty disappointing. I think the problem here is The Girl On The Train and, to a lesser extent, Gone Girl, which both went to extreme lengths to keep you guessing about key aspects of the narrative.

But this is not usually good storytelling. I mean, generally speaking, people tend not to be uncertain about whether or not the things they’ve experienced in the recent past actually occurred. Like, let’s say I had a person rent a room in my house. Then I see my neighbor murder them. Almost always, I’m going to be pretty sure that this person actually existed. First of all, it’s unlikely that nobody else would have EVER seen them. I don’t care how huge an agorophobe I am: there’d be some evidence of their existence. Secondly, I could prove their existence if I needed to. Maybe they left something behind. Maybe they gave me something. Maybe they had to sign a lease. Maybe I ran a credit check. Maybe they rented through AirBnB. Now I’m not saying you always have all this evidence, but generally speaking, the facts are relatively clear.

Similarly the protagonist is insane, then usually it’s equally clear, to the outside observer, that they are insane. They’re like, this boarder came to my house, and she brought an alien with her, and they were working with the CIA. There’s not a lot of edge cases when it comes to visual hallucinations.

Which is not to say that you can’t have people with delusional beliefs that aren’t disprovable (people who believe they are, for instance, Jesus Christ), but that actually be a pretty concrete thing. Because if I’m reading a story about someone who believes they’re Jesus, I know that I’m dealing with an inherently ambiguous unresolvable situation (unless they perform miracles, in which case it’s unambiguous in a different direction).

Now if you’re gonna muddy the waters and try to make the reader believe that a relatively simple situation is actually ambiguous, then you’re gonna end up writing a book that’s pretty sweaty. Like, you simply cannot spend four hundred pages obfuscating whether or not someone actually exists.

Sometimes I get very disappointed with the writers of plot-driven fiction. Because it feels like they believe that it’s easy. All you need is to throw some crap at a board and then contort all logic to make it work. Like, oh alright, we’ve got a murder. But nobody is sure that the person actually existed in the first place! Wouldn’t that be a mindfuck? No.

It’s gotten to the point where I just won’t read any book if the plot summary contains more than one plot twist. Like, here’s an example, is the plot summary of Riley Sagar’s mega-hit Final Girls:

Ten years ago, college student Quincy Carpenter went on vacation with five friends and came back alone, the only survivor of a horror movie–scale massacre. In an instant, she became a member of a club no one wants to belong to—a group of similar survivors known in the press as the Final Girls. Lisa, who lost nine sorority sisters to a college dropout’s knife; Sam, who went up against the Sack Man during her shift at the Nightlight Inn; and now Quincy, who ran bleeding through the woods to escape Pine Cottage and the man she refers to only as Him. The three girls are all attempting to put their nightmares behind them, and, with that, one another. Despite the media’s attempts, they never meet.

That is, until Lisa, the first Final Girl, is found dead in her bathtub, wrists slit, and Sam, the second, appears on Quincy’s doorstep. Blowing through Quincy’s life like a whirlwind, Sam seems intent on making Quincy relive the past, with increasingly dire consequences, all of which makes Quincy question why Sam is really seeking her out. And when new details about Lisa’s death come to light, Quincy’s life becomes a race against time as she tries to unravel Sam’s truths from her lies, evade the police and hungry reporters, and, most crucially, remember what really happened at Pine Cottage, before what was started ten years ago is finished.

Now “Serial killer targets the survivors of other serial killers” is pretty absurd, but I might read that book. What I won’t read is “serial killer targets the survivor of other serial killers, AND it turns out he was connected to the killings that they all survived…” That’s one plot twist too many! I mean trying to imagine how that would work (or why anyone would do it) can ONLY lead you to ridiculous places. There is no reasonable novel that can be constructed from such a premise.

What I prefer are books where there’s some sort of concrete conflict that flows organically from characters who have different needs. For instance, my favorite of this crop of thrillers was Michelle Frances’s The Girlfriend, which is about a clingy mother who’s afraid that her son’s girlfriend is a gold-digger. She’s not wrong, but she’s also not right (incidentally, this is same premise as that of Henry James’s most readable novel, Washington Square). That’s a good novel. I’ll read that shit all day.

But coming up with a premise this simple is HARD. You can’t just churn out something like that year after year (at least not without repeating yourself). And that’s why it’s hard to find good thrillers. Somebody might write one or two great ones, but eventually either the pressure of the market catches up to them, and they start churning out crap, or their pace of publishing becomes glacially slow and they try to cross-brand their books as “literary thrillers” (which is a bit of a meaningless term, to be honest).

Letting go of your work

I’ve gotten more and more revision-oriented as my career has progressed. Lately, I’ve been heavily rewriting my novel for adults: The Storytellers. I liked the previous draft quite a bit, but at the same time, nothing in it was working well. The novel didn’t have the sense of expansiveness that I like. I couldn’t live inside it. And the characters felt bland; I like to have the sense that there’s much more going on here than what I could put on the page, but in my draft, I always felt like they were struggling to find things to say to each other.

I say that I’m rewriting the book, but it’d be more accurate to say that I’m not rewriting it. For the first time in years, barring the five months between being dropped by Disney and finding a new publisher at HarperTeen, I am not under contract. Moreover, I have a book coming out in a year, so I’m even free from the sense of stasis or the feeling that my career is going nowhere. It’d be far from accurate to say that I feel hopeful, but the nimbus of shame and dread that normally surrounds all thoughts of writing is at an all-time low.

As a result, I’ve felt a bit more able to relax.

I think when people talk or think about writing, it’s usually with this sense of painstaking craft. Every sentence needs to be examined and labored-over. And the longer a book takes to write, the more effort that’s been expended on it.

But I’ve never felt that direct correlation between effort and output. The truth is that writing is an act of imagining, and it’s not exactly the kind of thing you can work at. All my career, I feel as if I’ve been learning how not to work. How to look past all the things I’ve read and all the things I want my book to be, and to look instead at the essence of the story I want to tell.

With this book I’ve been consciously pulling back, consciously not writing, because I think some of the problems I’ve had with my work recently have come from feeling too anxious about output–too anxious to put down the first thing that comes to mind. Instead what I’ve been trying to do is to live with the characters: to feel them walking next to me; to imagine their problems; to hear their dialogues.

Hopefully it leads to something in the end, but in the meantime it looks a whole lot like not working at all.

Going to more fully embrace audio for my popular fiction reading

Lately I listened to several Georgette Heyer novels on audio and quite enjoyed them. Now, long-time readers might remember that I have a love/hate relationship with Heyer’s Regency romances. On the one hand, the characters are lively, and I love the humor. But on the other hand, she uses period slang that I find unnecessary and incomprehensible.

Unsurprisingly, the slang problem completely disappeared when I listened on audio. Instead of puzzling over the unfamiliar words, I just caught the sense of them from the intonation (“oh, it’s an insult” or “oh, it’s a sporting term of some sort”) and let the narration carry me onwards.

Lately my response to popular fiction has been much, much better if I’ve listened on audio. I devoured the audio versions of the entire Red Rising series, for instance, whereas I’ve bounced repeatedly off of the written versions.

I’m not sure what it is. Audio is simply less demanding. The story just unravels around you. It’s simpler to visualize and simpler to hold onto. It’s almost like watching TV, to be honest.

This is both good and bad. I’ve tried to listen to more sophisticated books on audio and had mixed results. Henry James simply wasn’t doable. A third of the way through The Ambassadors, I had to switch to a text version. But Remains of the Day, perhaps because it was so voice-driven, worked extremely well on audio. And, of course, the quality of the narrator matters a lot. Some narrators are very good at understanding the difference between acting and telling you a story. I can’t quite explain it, but there’s something about the way a skilled audiobook narrator speeds up and slows down and subtly alters their voice for different characters. It’s pretty incredible stuff.

I’m a bit surprised that there’s such a difference between different listening modalities. After all, in both cases it’s the exact same text. I know some people also claim to perceive a difference between print and e-book, but that’s not something that’s ever been perceptible to me. Here, though, the difference is night and day. Audio feels like a completely different experience. I feel like when I listen to a book, I’m coming much closer to actually living the story.

My woo-woo friends will say that there’s something much more primitive and atavistic about oral storytelling. Hearing a story activates different parts of the brain. It’s older than writing–as old as speech–and much more natural. Generally I take these mystical explanations with a grain of salt, but in this case I think the New Agey types might be on to something.

Turned in my book!

Greetings, blog readers. I have finished the revision of my second novel, We Are Totally Normal, and I’ve turned it in to my editor, and, barring the sort of mishap to which I am unfortunately quite prone, I am finished with the whole blessed thing.

And not a moment too soon. The book, which I have rewritten extensively in the last five or six months–to the point where perhaps not a single word remains of the version of the book that I originally sold this time last year to HarperTeen–has started to tire me.

Normally when I read a work of mine, I have no trouble thinking, “I am a genius,” but in this case, although I still thought the book was very good, I had begun to wonder whether it was truly worthwhile. In fact, in reading the first chapter of the book, I actually had the thought, “Would I buy this book if I encountered it in the bookstore?”

And the answer is that I don’t know. I think I would. The truth is, I’ve read it at least two dozen times, and I’ve rewritten it seven times, and I’ve worked on it for almost three years, and it’s impossible at this point for me to view it dispassionately.

This is in contrast to Enter Title Here, which was more or less a gift, and which went from first draft into publication with remarkably few hitches. Even today, when I pick up a copy of ETH, I can read its first few lines with a certain level of fondness (though I’ve never actually sat down and reread the book, from cover to cover, as I keep meaning to do).

Anyways, we will see.

I’ve read a good novel recently: After The Workshop, by John McNally. I picked it up for $1.99 during a Kindle sale, and it was really good. The book’s about a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop who stuck around, turning into one of the burnout townie former writers who cluster around the site of any MFA program. John Sheehan thought his star was on the rise: he published a story in the New Yorker and had it picked up for Best American. But since then he’s been unable to write a word.

It’d be hard to say what the book is about. It’s just an event-filled weekend in his life, where he’s visited by many figures from his past, including a number of the writers he’s squired around town (he works as a media escort) and some former friends and lovers. He shakes off his writer’s block, of course, and discovers a sense of hope, of course, but what’s most valuable in the book is simply the world that it creates for you.

Most stories of artistic failure are bitter and desperate, and that’s even more true when they take place amidst snow and poverty and debt in a tiny Midwestern college town. But what stands out most about McNally’s book is the sense of warmth. The book has something good to say about everyone, whether it’s the pompous trust-funded working-class imposter or the romance writer with a magnetic personality and a terrible writing style. The book is full of life, full of the numinous, and it comes by these things honestly, without any sugar-coating. Yeah, the writing life is full of failure and despair, but it’s also got some interesting stuff too.

P.S. This is a book I found through my inveterate browsing of discount Kindle deal newsletters. If you want to hear about good (emphasis on good) books that are on sale, sign up for my own deal letter: Three Dollar Classics.

It’s been a minute since I’ve written about the books I’ve read, so let me tell you about David Graeber’s BULLSHIT JOBS

Most of my long-time readers probably don’t often visit the site itself, but in my menu bar there’s a link to an index of all the books I’ve ever written about (at least between 2008 and 2016). Just now whilst procrastinating I followed some of those links and revisited my thoughts on a few randomly-selected favorites. Part of me was appalled by the careless language (I really overuse ‘basically’) and part of me was appalled by the careless thinking, but I’m glad those posts exist.

This blog, in its second incarnation (it’s gone through at least three or four reboots), was primarily a book blog. I’ve maintained it through my entire time as a reader of the literary canon, and you can see, if you care to, my initial posts on Anna Karenina and War and Peace and Bleak House and other literary classics that for some reason seemed to demand comment from me.

Lately my reading hasn’t slowed, but I’ve felt less need to write about it. I long ago accepted that I don’t really want to be a ‘thinker’ in the way of a Samuel Delany or Lionel Trilling or Dwight McDonald. Nor do I want to be a smart cultural critic like Pauline Kael or Jo Walton. And I don’t even want to be an essayist of any stripe. Although I appreciate all these forms of writing, they don’t inspire me. There’s a certain density to all the popular nonfiction forms that I find myself uninterested in matching. I also have zero desire to look up quotations or research facts. I think what I enjoy most in the blogs I read is actually the opposite of this denseness; it’s the feeling of looseness and playfulness that comes from watching a mind at work (it’s what I value most about John Scalzi’s or Nick Mamatas’s writing, for instance), and it’s what I hope to give my own readers.

Sometimes I’ve thought of collecting all my posts about writing and putting out a little book. It’s a saturated market, but I probably have something original to say, both about the structure of the novel and about finding your inspiration. The most difficult lesson, at least for me, has been the process of learning to listen to the whisper-soft voice of my own longing (“This is what you really need to be writing…), and I know that other writers could use a little guidance along this own journey.

But that’s all a long aside. In this post we’re talking about book-blogging. That’s the topic, and I’m sticking to it.

It feels wrong to read so many books and to let them pass without comment. Particularly since I’ve lately been trying to read more obscure books–novels and essays and short stories that are less fully assimilated into our culture. And I see that in the past two months I’ve read a few books that’ve had a profound impact on my thinking.

Probably the most exciting of these was David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs, which is about the very broad phenomenon of people feeling as if their own jobs are, not just meaningless, but actually almost like some sort of scam. For my entire working life, people have paid me to do things whose utility has eluded me. I don’t just mean in the broad sense, that I didn’t understand why this project was necessary, I mean that in the micro sense: I didn’t understand how my work even contributed in any meaningful way to the completion of the project. If, as I learned as an undergrad economics major, I was being paid in some sense for my productivity–my added value to some completed economic project–then why couldn’t I perceive that value?

Instead of going with the standard economist’s answer (“You can’t necessarily perceive the larger picture under which your labor is necessary”), Graeber starts by assuming that people like me are, broadly, correct in our assumption that our labor is without productive value. Instead he develops some theories for how society could’ve developed in such a way that a large number of people are paid for valueless labor.

The theory is that the apocalypse foretold by mechanization has already occurred: most workers are already superannuated. Our economy simply doesn’t have a need for nearly as many workers as there are people. But obviously some immense surplus still exists, and for political reasons the owners of capital are unable to simply take all of it for themselves–they need to distribute the surplus in some way in order to create allies and maintain the political order. This isn’t some big conspiracy; it’s something that occurs organically. In large organizations, having employees means having power. You fight for a bigger budget so you can employ more people, and then the fact that you employ so many people means you get paid more and are more important. Repeat this many industries, and you have our current economy.

I don’t entirely buy the theory, for many reasons (a bit of the economics major lingers inside me still), but I highly recommend the book. It’s very worth reading, and it’ll explain these ideas far better than I ever could.

Reflections on how the MFA program ushered me into class-consciousness

Sometimes, when I’m in the shower, I think about what I’ll tell interviewers after I’m famous. (Whatever, don’t pretend you aren’t guilty of equally ridiculous things).

One thing I know is that my interviewers will probably ask me at some point about my MFA and about MFA programs in general. I’ve already had this experience, actually, when a New York Times reporter, after digging up an old blog post of mine, contacted me to try to get some juicy quotes where I talked trash on the MFA. Unluckily for her, I’d recently read Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, about the exploitative relationship journalists have with their subjects, and I was very much thinking: What’s in it for me?

My feelings about the MFA haven’t changed much in the last six years. It’s essentially a tool of the upper classes (in my second year, three members of my Stanford class were in my ten-person MFA program, and when I entered the program had were five graduates of Yale). But then, literary fiction, like all ‘high’ art (documentary film, visual art, classical music, etc) is a tool of the upper classes. It cannot support itself on a purely economic basis, but the upper classes have structured society in such a way as to direct disproportionate wealth and attention towards ‘high’ art.

Literary writers complain that their sales are low, but a professorship is a powerful reward. Very few commercial writers are earning fifty or sixty thousand (or at Hopkins, up to 120,000) dollars a year for their writing. And despite all the complaining about the teaching load, many literary writers wouldn’t be able to make ends meet without this societal support. Nor does the patronage end there. From honoraria to awards, society is structured in such a way as to direct money to literary writers. Not much money, but more than they’d get purely from sales.

(The same thing, on a smaller level, exists in YA, where writers of upmarket YA are kept afloat by librarians and schools).

So yeah MFAs are part of a system of class privilege that includes the symphony and the art school complex and all the self-funding documentary film-makers.

On the other hand, I like literary fiction. Not all of it. Not even most of it, but the sad thing is that I find the ambitions and methods of literary fiction to be more up my alley than those of commercial fiction. The losers, in my opinion, are the ambitious writers who’re trapped in commercial genres. If Ted Chiang wrote literary fiction, he’d have a Pulitzer. If Maureen McHugh wrote literary fiction, she’d be a professor. It’s really not fair that these fascinating, sparkling writers aren’t getting their just merits.

On the other hand, when people complain about the MFA, they’re often not complaining that the Ted Chiangs and Maureen McHughs of the world aren’t getting their due. They’re instead operating from a purely populist standpoint. They’re complaining that the Orson Scott Cards and the Anne McCaffrey’s aren’t able to sweep the board clean and claim all the literary prizes in addition to having immense commercial sales. To be honest, I have little sympathy for this view.

What’s bad about academic creative writing is that many of the writers it has rewarded are careerist and lacking in ambition. This is true of commercial fiction too, but at least there it’s nobody’s fault. Vox populi, vox dei; if the people are buying crap, then what can be done? But when the guardians of culture are using public money (and I consider nonprofit money, because of their tax-exempt status, to be somewhat public) to reward artists, then they have a duty not to reward small-minded writers.

Obviously there exist differences of opinion about what constitutes a mediocre writer. I don’t think it’s entirely a matter of personal opinion, though. For instance, I did not enjoy Wolf Hall, but its acclaim didn’t befuddle me. The work was ambitious and well-executed. But if you look at the creative writing professoriate, you’ll find few Hillary Mantels, and many writers who ape her sort of lyricism not out of any genuine sense of beauty or rhythm, but simply because that’s what gets applause. There’s a whole system of rewarding work simply because it’s the sort of work that gets rewarded. This is what occurs when rewards are distributed by committee.

And yet I do think a system needs to be in place to encourage the writing of ambitious stories. Because the market by itself does not reward ambition.

Writers of science fiction and fantasy love to hate on literary writers who get critical acclaim for writing novels with SFnal tropes (think Oryx and Crake or The Road), but I often ask them, “What SF imprint would’ve published The Road? Would The Road have come out from Orbit? Or from Baen? If The Road had been released as an SF novel, in the SF section of bookstores, would it have won a Hugo (or even a Nebula)? Would it have sold enough copies to support its author?”

The Road came out in 2006, and the science fiction field had the ability to nominate it for awards. Instead, a novel by Jack McDevitt won the Nebula and one of Vernor Vinge’s lesser novels one the Hugo. But that’s no surprise. Oftentimes science fiction writers don’t even like The Road (which is a truly beautiful and haunting novel), because its ecological underpinnings are nonsense (nothing grows in this world, everybody survives by cannibalism).

And maybe science fiction felt snubbed by The Road, so they ignored it, but plenty of really smart, well-written science fiction gets ignored. I’m thinking, for instance, of Brian Francis Slattery’s Spaceman Blues and Liberation (both published by Tor, which is the only major SF imprint that makes room in its list for really high-quality writing). These books got ignored. They won no awards. They didn’t even make many year-end lists.

So while I dislike the snobbery of the academic creative writing field, in some ways that’s also the thing that I value about it. Because as much as I hate on the Pulitzer, I’m far more likely to enjoy a Pulitzer-winner than I am to enjoy a Hugo winner. And I’m far more likely to enjoy the work by a randomly-selected creative writing professor than I am the work by a randomly-selected New York Times bestseller.

I don’t know the way out of this dilemma. I recognize that there’s an element of violence to this system. The upper classes are imposing their aesthetic values onto the lower. Millions of people who enjoy commercial fiction are told, by the society in which they live, that their tastes are no good. It’s quite anti-democratic.

And yet the prospect of giving up the power to be an arbiter of culture is terrifying. When I see the reading taste of the people who complain about the MFA and the creative writing establishment, I realize that I don’t want to live in the world these people would create. I don’t know, perhaps this is simply class solidarity on my part. The only solution is probably a classless post-scarcity society, where all affinity groups can practice their own tastes peacefully. But in the current world, where it requires money to live and work, I am a little bit glad that: 1) there’s some mechanism besides the market for directing money to ambitious work; and 2) this mechanism is in the hands of people whose tastes are closer to my own than they are to, for instance, the average Hugo voter.


The thing is, the writer who interviewed me didn’t care about any of the above. What she cared about were the personal consequences of the MFA. Is it a good idea for students to get an MFA? Does it help you career-wise? And does it improve your writing?

The answer to these questions is: yes, if you don’t need to pay for it; yes, but not as much as you’d want it to; and not really.

Being paid twenty-two thousand dollars a year to do minimal work is amazing. It’s so good. Especially in Baltimore, where twenty-two thousand goes a loooooooong way. I would recommend this to anyone. Also, it’s a well-known fact of academia that the more prestigious your institution, the lower their academic standards. At my MFA we had no papers or grades. My good friends who’re paying twenty thousand a year to do the Vermont College of the Fine Arts children’s literature MFA have to do so much work! They have to write critical essays! It’s absurd! It’s like they think the point of the MFA is to learn how to write!

It’s not. The point is for society to pay you to write.

Now will it help you career-wise? Ummm, yes, sort of, but in two ways. One, there is almost no online community for literary fiction. All the networking happens in-person. The MFA is your entree into this community. Being in that world gives you a clue as to the values of the community, it introduces you to people, and it teaches (if you’re alert) how to apply for things and how to get them. Nor is the credential itself entirely meaningless, although its value rapidly decreases once you start moving down the list from the top program (Iowa). If you want maximum career advantage, go to Iowa.

As for whether it helps your writing? Here there are also two answers.IUf you’re a purely or mostly careerist writer, and you use the MFA to consciously or unconsciously imbibe the formulas that the literary establishment is particularly vulnerable to, then the MFA will help you a great deal. But most writers aren’t looking for this. They want to realize their own unique aesthetic aims. In this, the MFA won’t help or hurt. It’s true that the workshop does impose a conformity pressure: writers in the workshop will tend to criticize anything that’s different in the work, simply because that’s the thing that tends to be most noteworthy (and perhaps, at least in the journeyman writer, the thing that is the least well-realized). But the workshop also encourages you to set a higher standard for yourself: you can’t get away with lazy bullshit if your peers are gonna be reading these stories. And while you have to be unique to really succeed as a writer, your uniqueness also needs to provoke a genuine response in the reader. Testing out your work on ten writers who broadly resemble your intended readership isn’t an entirely valueless exercise.

But I don’t think my professors would disagree with me if I said that the value of the instruction is minimal. It’s really hard to teach someone to write short stories, because a short story can succeed in so many different ways. It’s a lot easier to teach them to write novels, because novels live or die based upon their structure, but MFA programs don’t really do that.

You can also potentially find one-on-one mentorship in an MFA, but this is rare. Professors don’t have time to mentor writers who are often very early in their careers and many years from writing publishable work. They also know that most of their class will stop writing shortly after graduating, so there’s an incentive to step back. Furthermore, when professors show any sort of favoritism, it creates a competitive dynamic in the workshop that just leads to an unpleasant and unhealthy social experience for everybody. For these reasons, I don’t think the professors in my MFA were unique in being rather austere and remote from their students.

When it comes to practical advice on publishing, you’ll find almost none in an MFA, but when it comes down to it, what do you really need? Fiction is the most open out of all the arts. Journals take open submissions. Most agents take unsolicited queries. Just send your shit out and see what sticks.

The worst thing about the MFA (and this is what I noted in the interview with the New York Times reporter) is that it makes life too easy. Students are often only a few years out of undergrad. Many times they haven’t written a word since undergrad, or they’ve written only sporadically (they got into the MFA using stories they wrote as part of their undergrad creative writing major). During the two years of the MFA, they will often only produce the minimum amount necessary (three stories a semester). Furthermore the praise you get in workshop, while rare, is easier to come by than validation from editors, so upon graduation students go from an environment where somebody is waiting for their next story to one in which they’re getting form rejection after form rejection, and they’re unprepared to take the rejection. The MFA is a waste of time if after graduation, you’re not able to: 1) manage your time and motivation effectively so as to write even though nobody is asking you to; and 2) tolerate the years of rejection that will come before publication.

The primary attribute of a successful writer, whether in commercial or literary fiction, is determination, and MFAs don’t select their cohorts with determination in mind. For this reason, I wouldn’t be surprised if some low-res programs produce successful writers at a rate equal to or greater than more prestigious ones, because it takes grit to carry on an MFA while holding down a full-time job.

But that’s not an argument against getting an MFA; it’s just an argument against letting the MFA rule your life. Take an MFA, but treat it as a gift, rather than as a degree. For me, the MFA was entirely about money and freedom. I wrote Enter Title Here during the winter break of my first year in my MFA program. People often ask if it went through the MFA, and I’m, like, uhh, no way. For one thing, the book didn’t need it–for another, the MFA is not the place to workshop a novel or even part of a novel.


These reflections were prompted, in part, by my thought that it’s six years since I finished that first draft of Enter Title Here. It was probably the third or fourth work of realist fiction I’d written in my entire life (I wrote one realist story, entirely cynically, just to put it in my MFA applications and prove to them that I could do it). I don’t know if I’d have written the book if I hadn’t done the MFA.

What I do know is that in the past ten years I’ve moved farther and farther from my first love, science fiction. (At this point, let me note, for the haters in the audience, that I’m not some outsider: I am in fact a bona fide Clarion graduate with stories appearing or forthcoming in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Nightmare, F&SF, Nature, Apex, IGMS, Interzone, Daily SF, BCS, The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, and many other journals both living and dead). Not only do I not write much science fiction, I don’t read much of it either. Periodically I’ll pick up the hot new thing in the field and find that I simply don’t enjoy it very much (one notable exception was N.K. Jemisin’s fabulously realized The Fifth Season). Sometimes I wonder where it all went: the twelve years of reading and six years of writing science fiction.

(At this point, truly determined haters will note ‘science fiction’ and ‘non-realist fiction’ aren’t synonyms. And this is true, but we’re talking about my own writing life here. And for me, the primary form of non-realist fiction that I’ve written is science fiction within the broad tradition started by Hugo Gernsback, that carries a lineage all the way through to, for instance, Ken Liu and Ted Chiang and Maureen McHugh. I’ll read and sometimes enjoy and occasionally even write other forms of non-realist fiction, but they’ve never been a core part of my writing life the way that science fiction was for many years).

If I was to trace the influence of sci-fi on my current writing, it’d be extremely minor. I don’t even write about people who like science fiction. I’m not a chronicler, like Junot Diaz or Jonathan Lethem, of the inner life of nerds (although both of these writers contain much more than that, of course). If anything, I’m much more drawn to the opposite: people who dismiss, not just science fiction, but all literature.

I think all that really remains of that influence is a lingering preoccupation with heroism. I don’t believe in the science fiction version of heroism: a lone hero with exceptional abilities. But I do believe in the thing inside people that makes them want to be heroes, and I cannot commit to a protagonist until I discover their own peculiar heroism.

This is a long way of saying that one of my resolutions for 2019 is to leave non-realism behind. The struggle to write a science fiction or fantasy novel has become nothing more than a struggle to reclaim an older idea of myself. For me, the struggle to hold on to science fiction has been so painful and so confusing. Losing my ability to write sci-fi has felt like losing touch with deepest self. It’s a very odd thing to no longer be able to tap into the feelings that were once the very thing that impelled you to write.

I don’t really know what happened, but I do know that it occurred sometime during my MFA. I think, to be honest, that it was during the MFA that I came into class consciousness. To me, science fiction seems the literature of the middle-class: the lower middle class, I mean, of artisans and technicians. (This for instance explains why science fiction, like this part of the middle class, is often reactionary). There’s some bleed in values and ideals between this lower middle class and the upper middle class of professionals and managers (Silicon Valley has staked out a claim in this area of overlap, which is defined by an occupation, engineering, that has a curious position in both classes, in that engineering is both professional and a technical). I always considered myself an occupant of that middle ground, but I think in the MFA, I realized that those values and that identity didn’t entirely fit.

To most of my readers (and I’m thinking particularly of my wife), this will be an upsetting conclusion to my blog post. I think there’s an ideal that we all ought to transcend our class status, and that we all ought to embrace the art of the people, but I don’t know if I’m able to. While I believe, on a political level, in freedom, equality, and a class-less society, my personal values remain those of my class (which is exemplified by the difficulty I’m having with science fiction). And in an America with decreasing mobility and increasing stratification, I fear we’re only going to encounter more and more class identification as the century progresses.

About to finish my revisions on this book!

I’m now engaged in what I think will be the last substantive set of revisions for We Are Totally Normal (might as well start mentioning the name here so you all remember it when the thing comes out in a year or so). As part of my final process for books, I like to go through line by line and make whatever cuts need to be made on a sentence level. For instance, that last phrase would be rewritten (“and make cuts on a sentence level”). The level of condensation you can achieve is pretty impressive. In the past, I’ve reduced a book’s length by as much as 15% by doing this (and cutting the occasional errant paragraph that doesn’t belong).

Normally I enjoy this work. It’s problem-solving; there’s a thrill in finding a better solution for saying what you’re trying to say. But this time I’m finding it taxing.

For some reason, I’m cutting less (only about 5% of the sections I go through), and it’s occupying less of my brain. I hope this is because I’m writing cleaner drafts, so there’s less to do later, but it’s hard to tell.

In any case, this is probably the most unnecessary part of my work. Lots of inefficient phrasing can be dismissed as “part of the voice.” And over-long books succeed all the time. I actually think over-long writing is easier to read, because you don’t need to read every line. It’s shocking how in many books you could easily skip all but the first and last sentences of each paragraph and not miss any of the novel’s nuance.

But still, you don’t write for the average reader; you write for the best readers, and you hope the average ones can still keep up. Or at least that’s my philosophy (now whether the best readers will like my work is another thing entirely).

Start now. Your future self will thank you.

I’ve been learning to draw. And I’m really bad at it. I don’t think I have zero talent. I could’ve been good, if I’d started when I was 12. But instead I absorbed the idea that I wasn’t an artistic person, so I never thought about that stuff ever.

Whereas at exactly the same time, some people in my life said I was good with words (and admittedly I spent a lot more time reading books than looking at pictures), so instead I spent a lot of my youth on random writing projects (a lot of source material for a lot of unplayed D&D campaigns), and shortly after my eighteenth birthday I started seriously trying to write fiction.

Fifteen years later, I’m still learning things. Some of those things, I probably could’ve learned sooner, but some of these lessons are things I can’t articulate even now. It took me fifteen years to get to where I am today. Now if I started today, it probably would take me less time, but still, it takes a while!

I’m routinely grateful to my past self for setting down this unknown road, and I just-as-routinely think about what I’m doing today that my future self will be grateful for. Lately I feel like I’ve been resting on the solid groundwork that I laid at ages 24 through 29, and I’ve been thinking, well, what do I need to do now? What seeds should I plant now that will only flower when I’m 40 or 45 or 50?

As a sidenote, I think my first introduction to truly eternal thinking came when I met my wife. I had a strong suspicion, even very early in our relationship, that she was the one for me, so every time I met one of her friends or family members, I thought, “How I act now will have reverberations that echo through our entire lives.” And indeed that has proven to be the case.

Of course it’s impossible to be nice and gentle all the time, and I’ve sometimes felt myself slipping a little, but the solid foundation laid in the first year of our relationship has really helped me out.

That’s what wisdom is, I guess.

Carefulness and obscurity in fiction

I’ve been reading Stefan Zweig’s memoir The World of Yesterday. Zweig is a writer from the inter-war period whose literary reputation has really gone up in the last ten years. I remember 5-10 years ago reading this article that was like, “Hey, there’s this dude out there, Stefan Zweig. He wrote this story, ‘The Royal Game,’ that’s a metaphor for the conflict between nations that led to World War II.” And that was it. His reputation was confined largely to that one story. He was a curio piece.

Now, thanks to the translation and reissuing of his novels and, lately, of this memoir, he’s roared back to life. Thanks must be given here, as with many literary resuscitations, to the NYRB classics imprint. I read two of Zweig’s novels, Beware of Pity and the Post-Office Girl in NYRB editions. His memoir, however, was put out by the University of Nebraska Press! It’s almost unbelievable, considering that it has hundreds of Amazon reviews and has attracted quite a bit of critical acclaim.

Like Nabokov’s Speak, Memory (which I’ve never read), Zweig’s novel is an evocation of a lost world: the Vienna of the final years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This was a particularly fertile period for fiction. Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities and Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March were also written during this time, as well as a host of lesser books that may or may not also be making a comeback (of the authors Zweig mentions in his book, I’ve read works by Hugo von Hoffmansthal and Arthur Schnitzler as well, and Schnitzler at least deserves to be more widely known).

As with all memoirs of bygone times, it’s hard to know what is real and what isn’t. Zweig describes a time of literary ferment, when everybody cared deeply for culture and art, when theater actors were mobbed on the street, when the conductor of the Opera or the Symphony was a superstar, and when 18 year old kids looked upon poets and authors almost as divine beings, completely separate from you and me.

I don’t entirely disbelieve this account. I’ve only been to Vienna once, but it struck me that even today, it’s a city that prides itself on being cultured. Even the commercials that showed on television had a very dreamy, artistic quality, and I have a vivid recollection of wandering through a public park as an aria from the Marriage of Figaro was pumped through the square by loudspeakers.

But even within this ferment, Zweig sought out a somewhat niche area. He avoided the popular press, he avoided the big imprints that sometimes published lighter fiction, and he exclusively sought out only the most renowned presses, theaters, and publications. As a result, his work, those of his fellows, and those of his idols, was often very unknown during the time in which he worked. He in particular recalls during his time in Paris that the writers in whom he was interested were the exact opposite of the super-star writer. They were humble people, who often worked minor civil service jobs, lived simple and bourgeois lives, and wrote without expectation of reward. He also comments that the three people in Paris who would later make the biggest impression on the literary world, Paul Valery, Marcel Proust, and Romain Rolland, were all entirely unknown even in the literary world at this time.

I’ve several times now read literary memoirs about small groups of highly intellectual people who wrote in periodicals with poor circulations or for small presses or in tiny editions, and who later had an outsized influence on the world (also coming to mind is Norman Podhoretz’s memoir Making It), and I can’t deny that there is something very attractive about this image.

It’s all farce and image, of course. Plenty of authors seek out immediate notoriety. Plenty of great authors write for money, or write for the commercial press. But I am attracted to the monastic quality that Zweig describes, the sense that the work itself has its own purity that will someday shine through. He tells, for instance, of going to visit Rodin in his workshop, and seeing Rodin start to work on a sculpture. The artist works for a few minutes, making corrections to a clay model, and when he’s done he’s surprised to find a strange young man in his studio: he’d entirely forgotten that Zweig was in the room.

This vision of artistic greatness has seeped into our culture and congealed. Books nowadays come with their own creation myths that are released in tandem, or even before, publication. The story of how The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao took ten years to write, for instance, or the idea of the immense periods of time that elapse between books by Donna Tartt or Jeffrey Eugenides. Yet oftentimes that labor is more of a reaction to celebrity culture than it is an inherent demand of the work. I think oftentimes authors take a long period to follow up on books simply because the pressure of delivering another success is so immense. In some ways this is the opposite of the careful, painstaking work of a Proust or of a Romain Rolland.

In my own revisions, I’ve really been enjoying the gentle suturing I’ve done on the book. Most of the changes I’m making aren’t going to matter to the reader, but they matter a lot to me. I do feel slightly resentful that the work needs to come to an end. Part of me thinks a few more rounds of revision would really be useful.

Everything about this book has been hurried. I wrote it to fulfill my contract with Disney, then after losing my agent and publisher, I rewrote it, feeling hurried and oppressed, because I wanted it to sell but I also didn’t quite have the same faith in the book. Then since it’s sold I’ve been working on my publisher’s (albeit very generous) deadlines. I’ve worked quite a bit on the book, but every word in it is also new since August of this year, and I feel that newness in the pages. Even now, I’m writing new scenes, and I think, well, these scenes are more or less going straight to press, they won’t ever get that time to sit and be mulled over.

The structure of the book is excellent. It’s as perfect a thing as I’ve ever put out, but I still somehow want more from it. And yet I also feel that the market won’t really reward that care. Whether the book succeeds or fails will depend entirely upon only the broadest possible reactions: whether people identify with the protagonist whether librarians and teachers think it’s ‘important’; whether it arouses in kids a sense of hope and longing. By the time they get to the third chapter, they’ll either be sold on the book or they won’t, and the rest won’t particularly matter.

I think all writers ultimately know this. Zweig had books and plays accepted by the most prestigious venues in Austria at an early age, and yet he pooh-poohs these works, saying he’s never allowed them to be reprinted. He knew instinctively that he hadn’t yet created anything truly great.

In the same way, I think writers need to hold themselves to higher (and different) standards than the market does, and yet that’s not an easy thing to do, because the mere fact that these standards are different means they are unrenumerated. Nor will you even have the satisfaction of seeing readers or critics grasp what you’re doing–they might like it, but they’re unlikely to like it because of those things you put into it. A really intelligent and sympathetic reading is something that most authors don’t get until they’re well into their careers.

This book is done (or almost so). I honestly don’t think I could handle another round of revision. But with my next book I hope to be able to take more care throughout.