Odds and Ends, incl a great new transFem novel!

Hello friends! I know I’ve been slow in posting lately. I do have news though: after several phone calls and emails, my Cynical Guide is back online at Amazon. This also prompted me to upload it to other ebook stores, where it has thus far sold checks notes one copy. But that’s three dollars and fifty cents I wouldn’t otherwise have, so I say not bad.

I am also getting together a paperback version. I don’t expect anyone to buy it, but having a paperback gives you an air of legitimacy.

Writing is going exceptionally well. I hope to have good news for you soon! My reading life is going less well, I’ve had a very difficult time concentrating on words lately, but I’ve listened to a lot of stuff. First of all, a warning, I must rescind my "Not Intolerably White" label from Dan Carlin’s history podcast. It’s pretty white. I have a higher tolerance for that than most of my audience; a lot of you probably wouldn’t like it. The podcast is almost entirely military history, and there’s just…a whiteness to it. Nothing wrong with that. White guys have their culture just like everyone else. And part of that culture involves wondering whether the Assyrians could’ve beaten the Macedonians in battle and/or pondering what exactly made Alexander and Genghis Khan such fearsome conquerors. I went to an all-boys school, so there’s a part of this that’s still appealing to me, unfortunately.

I’ve also been listening to some literature podcasts, and I’ve been listening to some of the recommendations when there are audio versions available. Most notably I listened to Gerard Reve’s book The Evenings. It’s a book about a young man who lives at home and how he spends the ten evenings before New Year’s. He’s pretty insufferable, and he reminds me strongly of the main character from [Confederacy of Dunces], but the focus on interstitial time and the passing of time sets the book apart. Most famously, it’s a book about boredom, tedium, ennui, annoyance, all the small feelings that make up the greater part of one’s day.

I also read Anton Myrer’s Once An Eagle, which is an odd duck–an extremely long novel about the career of an officer who fights in WWI, stays in the army during the interwar period, fights in WWII and eventually dies while on a mission in Vietnam. The book had its high points, and it was stirring at moments. But I was most compelled by the human cost of a military career–the toll it takes on relationships–and by the conflicting motivations that career officers have. The main character longs for glory, at times, but increasingly hates the stupidity and waste of war. Don’t necessarily recommend the book, especially when you could read the much superior [Caine Mutiny], which has a similar feel and covers similar ground.

I’m also reading Jeanne Thornton’s Summer Fun. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about this book over the next month, but it’s so good! It’s nuts! It’s such a weird novel! It’s told as a series of letters from a trans woman living in a trailer in New Mexico to a reclusive rock star who is definitely Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys. I first met Jeanne at the Lambda Literary conference in 2015. She was working on this book even then, and at the time I was like…this is one of the most random books I’ve ever heard of. This resembles literally nothing else in the world.

And that is true! But it comes together. That’s the crazy thing. TRUST THE BOOK. IT COMES TOGETHER. In my own writing, I am big on storytelling–I like everything to fit together neatly–even when there are ambiguities, I like to know what the ambiguities are. But that does mean I don’t leave room for that wild bolt of inspiration that has you going wow I didn’t know books could do this!

And now that I know the publishing world better, believe me when I tell you that you are lucky to be getting this book. Publishing doesn’t like what it cannot understand and neatly package, and this book is that. It’s also just fun and compulsive and terrifying and warm-hearted. Strong recommend (though it’s not out yet). Jeanne has told me she’s narrating the audiobook, which sounds incredible. Maybe get that =]

Okay I was completely wrong and there’s no need for my guide to be exclusive to Amazon

The good news is that after several people clued me in, I realized my guide does not need to be exclusive to Amazon. The bad news is that I’m trying to get people to take publishing advice from a moron (can we still say moron?)

So now I’m pleased to report that my book is available at a bunch more stores:

Cynical Guide temporarily (I hoped) unavailable from Amazon

There’s good news and bad news. The good news is if you’ve managed to purchase a copy of my Cynical Writer’s Guide To The Publishing Industry, then yay, you have a collector’s item! The bad news is that it’s unavailable from Amazon right now, and since it was only uploaded to Amazon, that means there’s no place you can buy it.

I know, it’s kind of a bummer. I have no idea why it’s been taken down. I’ve been on the phone with Amazon’s tech support twice. They’ve each time been like, we have a special team to deal with them—the team has no phone support and you can’t email them directly, so just sit tight and wait for them to get in touch. It’s only been since Thursday, so not an excessively long time, but it is sort of a bummer! The whole impetus behind self-publishing was so I would have more control, but ultimately I’m still at the mercy of an immense corporation. In some ways I have even less power than before, because there’s no way to talk to anyone who’s in charge! I don’t have an editor who I can bother. I can’t even get a straight answer.

Oh well! Good thing I didn’t leave traditional publishing behind entirely (and probably this will be resolved soon anyway).

As for why it’s only available on Amazon, well that’s because Amazon will give you much higher royalty rates if you make a book exclusive to their platform. Since my impression is that they’re the vast majority of the ebook marketplace, the gain per copy (for me, it’s on the order of an additional two dollars per copy) far exceeds the potential profits from selling books on Smashwords, B&N, Kobo, iBooks, and Google Play. But of course it gives Amazon an immense amount of power. Very annoying.

So yeah it’s kind of depressing, but I’ll manage.

In other news, I spilled coffee on my computer, and I got it repaired, but the repair was no good so the keyboard craps out periodically. It’s no big deal, everything is backed up, but the upshot is I’ve been using one of these fancy iPads (with a fancy keyboard attachment) as my main computer for the past two weeks, and it’s pretty good! I mean, it definitely has its advantages. Fewer distractions, the software works better, and the typing experience is essentially the same. If iPadOS had a better file structure there could be a case to be made for eschewing a computer entirely. As it is, I’ve been able to write A LOT on this machine. Just have to be careful that dropbox sync errors don’t end up destroying it all.

I’ve also been listening to lots of history podcasts. I finished the entire of the History of Rome and Revolutions podcasts, both by Mike Duncan, and I’m listening to Hardcore History, by Dan Carlin, and The Industrial Revolutions, by….somebody. I forget his name.

The thing about history podcasting is it is SO WHITE. It is like the distilled essence of being a white guy. I mean this isn’t surprising. I’ve met many white guys who are really into history (often military history). So when you start a history podcast, there’s always this moment when you hold your breath and you’re like, will this be intolerably white? Or will it be whiteness with perspective? So far all of the above are great.

I know it rankles some people when I say something is super white. To be honest I am not fond of the nomenclature myself. Something has to be really white before I notice. Like, my MFA program (all-white faculty) didn’t seem intolerably white to me. I’d say the threshold where something tips over into ‘too white’ is when I feel like there isn’t even the slightest awareness that a person of color might be listening or might have a different perspective. The first environment I was ever in where I was like…this is too white was ReaderCon, a sci-fi convention in Massachusetts. I don’t know what it is. I think ReaderCon’s combination of snootiness (we’re the sci-fi convention that cares about LITERATURE) and its overwhelming whiteness struck a discordant note. Like, if you’re super white, you can’t also claim to be excellent or representative.

Trying to think if I’ve been somewhere more white than ReaderCon (and this was more than ten years ago, so even ReaderCon might be less white now). Hmm…not sure, I’ll have to get back to you on that.

Cynical Publishing Advice: If you’re a brown writer who’s writing brown characters, you can’t afford to ignore race

I was talking to a friend recently about the curious fact that any book which is by a brown writer and is about brown characters will naturally be read through a racial lens. That is to say: readers will pick it up and read it primarily for what it has to say about race.

On its face, this doesn’t seem like it needs to be true. One can easily imagine a brown writer who writes stories about brown characters that don’t really have weighty themes. Maybe they write mysteries or romances or science fiction novels that just happen to star brown people.

Yes, you can imagine such a writer, but readers cannot. People who just want to read a good story without weighty themes tend to read white writers. People who want to read a good story with weighty themes that are not race-related tend to read white writers. The only people reading brown writers are people who care about race. The exception, if one exists, might be the audience of general fiction readers who happen to be black, and who’ve created a category of best-selling black commercial authors (most notably Terri McMillan). But generally speaking, this will not be you.

It’s easy to decry this state of affairs as being racist. Unfortunately, the very editors and readers who are doing the decrying are the same ones perpetuating the problem. People who care enough about race to want there to be a market for PoC books that aren’t about race are also the people who tend to read books through a race-related lens.

The answer is that if you’re brown, you must put race-related themes into your book. There is simply no avoiding it. Yes, you can eschew this, but the editors and agents who are trying to sell the book are going to studiously do their best to read race-related themes into it, and if the readers who buy it will also try to read race-related themes into it. And if those themes aren’t overtly there in the text, they’ll stretch really hard to find them, but ultimately it’ll be unsatisfying: they won’t know why they dislike the book, all they’ll know is that they do.

So do them a favor: somewhere in the first three chapters, just put in an explicit race-related reading (“Once again, it fell to a brown person to clean up the mess…of an alien invasion”). Just do it and be done with it. The alternative is not being able to sell your book.

P.S. If you want more such advice, check out my Cynical Guide to the Publishing Industry

Good Behavior, by Molly KEane

Hello friends! Writing is going extremely well. I have no reason for complaining, but I will anyway: I’ve found it a little difficult lately to concentrate on my reading. Not sure what’s up with that! It’s not the pandemic or having a baby, because I’ve done a fair amount of reading over the past year, and as recently as a month or two I was tearing through books. It’s just a kind of reading ennui: I’m bored with simple / formulaic / comfort reading, but don’t have the concentration to read books that are more complex. WOE IS ME.

I am the NYRB book club, because I love clutter and hate order, and I actually picked up this month’s selection: Good Behavior has a classic domestic novel premise–the failing fortunes of a family of minor gentry (in this case, part of the Anglo-Irish gentry in Ireland around WWI). The main character, Aroon, is repressed and deceitful–she’s certainly an unreliable narrator–as she relates the story of her upbringing, her dad’s various ‘friendships’ with other women, her mom’s efforts to corral him, and his eventual death from…unclear but potentially handjob-related causes. I think the genius of the book comes from the implication that Aroon’s evasions are both conscious and unconscious. On some level, she does know the truth, but she suppresses that knowledge. It’s like someone who, for instance, is totally gung-ho about the company they work for, but knows on some level that their work is meaningless, if not actively evil. Or someone who thinks COVID is an overblown hoax–nothing more than a typical flu–but also thinks it was manufactured in a laboratory in Wuhan. Life is full of this kind of doublethink: there are so many times when you need to believe something that happens to be untrue.

Anyway it’s the first novel I’ve read (like, with my eyes, as opposed to my ears) in a few months, and probably the first print novel I’ve read in…a year or so? At least. It was highly pleasant to pick up a book I knew nothing about and just be like, hmm, I wonder what’s going to happen–I wonder what’s going on in this book? The first forty pages seem like they might be a little dull, but a lot more is going on than you think. It’s a great performance: glad the NYRB reissued it!

Have been gossipping up a storm with other writers ever since the Cynical Guide came out. I love hearing other peoples’ failures, their observations, and their encounters with the weirdness of publishing. Each anecdote makes me stronger, fills me with more uncorroborated but utterly believable information. It is my happy place. If you haven’t, think about picking up a copy of the cynical guide today! In addition to the sample chapters you can preview, it’s also picked up a bunch of reviews, so you don’t need to take my own word that the book is good.

Good Behaviour

Revising A Book by Exploding It In My Mind

Hey friends, thanks to everyone who has bought and read my Cynical Guide To The Publishing Industry. It’s really nice to finally have it out there! I’ve heard from a bunch of people about it–only good things, obviously, because what kind of psycho contacts the author of a self-published e-book to tell them negative stuff about it?

If you’ve read and enjoyed the book and haven’t written a review on Amazon–it would be really nice if you would. Thanks for taking the time!

ANYWAY, I am in knee-deep in novel revisions. God knows how anybody manages to write or revise one of those things. When you read a book, especially a good book, it seems so simple, as if they just sat down and put some characters on the board, and the story just happened, as simple as a kid acting out the tale with her dolls. For at least one of my novels, [Enter Title Here], it did happen just like that.

ETH has a bit of a confused plot, but I don’t think it really bothers people. Stuff happens, and you go with it.

However, it’s never again been so easy. Nowadays, I always need to do tons of rewriting, and with each revision, the book gets simpler, more elemental, and becomes more like itself. The conflicts sharpen, the pitch becomes more comprehensible, and the character arcs become more powerful and archetypal. It’s kind of a pain!

Lately, I’ve been revising the first half of this book over and over. Usually, unless a book needs a total rewrite, what happens when I revise it is the book kind of explodes in my mind, and I’m able to pick apart the pieces that need reshaping. If I’m lucky, when I explode the book, there’s an empty space that screams out to be filled–a place where something is underimagined or underrealized, and I’m like oh, I’ve just been handwaving this question and now I need to finally answer it. But sometimes it’s not like that, and you really have to move the pieces around and start questioning your original assumptions in order to make things work.

For me it’s helpful to return to three questions:

  1. What is actually happening on the page? – It’s very easy to write something in the text like, "They were best friends!" But sometimes the problem is that they’re not actually best friends. They just don’t seem like, feel like, or act like best friends. The temptation here is to wade in and start forcing stuff into place, writing scenes where they swear eternal friendship, but the thing to do is first to just notice what is going on: What are the conflicts? What are the relationships? Not what do you want them to be–instead, what have you actually written?

  2. What, specifically, is creating this effect? – I’m a big believer in the idea that a story is composed of specific things: events, settings, motivations, relationships. People aren’t "friends" in the abstract sense: they’re golf buddies; they’re workplace acquaintances; they’re cousins. Their relationship is structured by the things you’ve written for them: how do they get together? How do they talk? When do they hang out? What do they talk about? This is also the case for everything else in the book. Everybody and everything is embedded in a web of other things, and those things exert influence on the part of the book you’re working on right now. Oftentimes, what you need in order to fix the part you’re working on now is for some of the other things to be different.

  3. Why did you write it how you did? – Your unconscious throws up the events on the page. And it throws them up, oftentimes, for a reason. Now, this isn’t always true. Sometimes you just goofed, or gave in to a cliche. But oftentimes, on some level, you wanted there to be the tension you’re talking about. Like, maybe they’re not friends because they’re workplace acquaintances, and your protagonist changed her job. Now you could fix that by making them roommates instead, but do you want to? Maybe the weakness of the relationship–its lack of stability–is exactly what you wanted!

  4. Can you keep the good, remove the bad, and heighten the conflict? – But you also can’t just throw up your hands and be like "I meant it to be this way!" It takes a very talented writer to make a tale out of feelings that are wishy-washy or not-specific. And, largely, you don’t want to write those stories. You want to write stories that, even when they deal with anomie, are brutal in their sense of longing. And that means strong feelings need to enter in somewhere. But strong feeligns pervert a text, because, unless there is a countervailing force, a character will tend to follow the source of strong feeling, and that will lock the text into place. So oftentimes to make the story work–to have conflict at all–you unconsciously undermine your own characters. A perfect example of this is the first Star Wars sequel movie: The Force Awakens. In that movie, Finn and Rey are constantly trying to evade their responsibility to fight the Empire–there is simply no reason for them, given their personalities, to want to fight–so they struggle against the narrative. And that’s what the writers wanted: they wanted reluctant heroes. But if they had ever given either of the characters strong personal stakes when it came to fighting the empire, the characters just would’ve done it, and the story would’ve been over (emotionally speaking). So they undermined the story by never really giving them that reason to fight (Finn, in particular, only ever fights because he’s friends with Rey and wants to save her). Whereas, if you look at the Mandalorean, he is also a reluctant hero, but he has a reason to fight (Grogu) and also a reason not to (his own character and the overall impossibility of his task). They changed the terms of the story–the Mandalorean constantly has to recommit to his quest, precisely because it is so difficult, and yet because he loves Grogu, he’s constantly willing to do it.

  5. What specific elements should I alter? – The specific thing that they did in the Mandalorean that made it work so much better is that they left him without a clear source of guidance. If he’d had a General Leia to constantly give him concrete tasks, it would’ve been harder, structurally, for him to appear reluctant–and in that case he would’ve needed a weaker link to Grogu or some more concrete reason for betraying his charge, and that would’ve undermined the whole narrative. Because then he would’ve been more unlikable, and they would’ve needed to show his face more, give him more concrete connections. Essentially, they made choices in telling their story that made their central conflict sharper, and because of that they didn’t need all these deus ex machina effects like they just happen to run into Han Solo, who just happens to lead them back into the heart of the conflict with the First Order.

Anyway, so after you’ve realized what story elements you’re going to change, you usually get back to writing, and then you realize, whoops, now some other stuff is out of alignment. So you make more changes and sort of pat the story into place. It’s a process.

But the main thing I want to communicate is that brute force revision doesn’t help the work. I’m talking about Save The Cat style patches where you’re like, "The hero is unlikable, let’s have them save a cat in Act One." I mean, that stuff works in that unsophisticated audiences buy it, but it harms the integrity of the work. Good revision incorporates these conflicts and ambiguities, it heightens them, and it brings them into the core of the story: Why is the hero unlikable? What elements are making them seem that way? Why did you put in those elements? Can we structure the story such that their good qualities and their bad qualities are in opposition? Can we find the perfect conflict, or symbol or relationship, that cuts right to the core of their being? Or will we use tricks and short-term fixes to obscure the heart of the text?

The thing is, there is absolutely no reward for good storytelling in this way. It’s not highly in demand, even in Hollywood. Television shows, honestly, are most likely to have it, because their stories are primarily about relationships, and they can modulate and alter the relationships over time (like they did with Walter / Jesse in Breaking Bad or Don / Peggy in Mad Men). But it’s still a worthwhile exercise, at least in my opinion.

wood bird people garden
Photo by Lisa on Pexels.com

Out today: The Cynical Writer’s Guide To The Publishing Industry teaches You how to build excitement for your manuscript without compromising your integrity

The day has arrived! No longer do you need to take my word for it about what’s in the book. You can click through, look at the sample, and see for yourself. At its core, this is a book about how to generate excitement within the industry for your manuscript.

It’s an underrated skill. To a large extent, authors do it accidentally–they internalize the values of the industry so thoroughly that over time their imagination goes down the tracks that are likely to be more productive. But if you learn how to harness that ability–to write and pitch to the market–then you can sell books without compromising your creativity (too much).

I used to be like, oh I’ll just write whatever I want, but I ended up with too many manuscripts that simply had no place on bookshelves. It’s taken me a long time to learn these lessons, and it took that time to a large part because writers and agents and editors are invested in the idea of the business as a meritocracy. A writer said to me the other day: "If the manuscript is good enough, someone will take a chance on it."

The problem is, "good enough" only tends to be determined after a book’s marketability is determined. If your book isn’t marketable, no one will read it, and if they read it they won’t like it, because liking the manuscript would just entail the laborious task of selling a reading public on a book that they don’t really want.

This book is about harnessing some of the energy that in this industry is so often used to boost bad books to the top of the pile, and instead using it to get your good book acquired!

On a personal note, I am immensely proud of this book. It tells a concrete, coherent story. None of it is cribbed from my blog. I wrote it on my own time, on spec, and the book makes me about as happy as anything I’ve ever written. If you read it and like it, please post a review! It’s only available on Amazon, so Amazon reviews matter a lot. Once it has a core of good reviews, I’ll probably pay for some advertising to promote it on the site, but there’s no point if that’s just going to draw a bunch of randos in to trash the book.

Thanks for your help! Now that the book’s out, I’ll stop being all Cynical Guide all the time =]

For writers it’s all business, for editors and agents…not so much

In an online group, a writer asked “How do I turn down an agent who I’ve decided not to go with. I’m worried about offending them!”

Predictably people were like, “Don’t worry, they’re a pro, they know it’s just business!”


LOL. It’s never just business! That doesn’t exist! The business world would collapse if people only made decisions for reasons of pure self-interest. And publishing is even less of a business than other businesses. People take stuff so personally! During my most recent round of querying I sent out a query to an agent whose offer I’d turned down once, and they sent back a super-snarky response refusing to even see my manuscript. I kind of respected them more for it! At least my book had mattered to them. It hadn’t just been a commodity.

In a similar vein, I’ve never again been given the time of day by an editor whose offer to publish my book I refused. And when I encountered the program director of an MFA program I’d turned down (they offered half the money Johns Hopkins did), he was so terse: he acknowledged me, clearly remembered me, but barely said three word (last time we’d met, we’d talked for two hours!)

You know for whom it is just business? Aspiring authors. If you have no power, you can’t hold a grudge. My current agent rejected my manuscript the first time I sent it to him. No rewrite request, nothing. I’ve been published by editors who’ve rejected over a hundred short stories of mine. You can’t afford to hold petty grudges. Writers get that it’s hard out there. But other people in the business don’t necessary feel that way! They kind of get used to the position of being gatekeepers, and they feel like if they put in the time to read your book, then they’ve given you something, and if you didn’t accept their offer, then you’ve almost stolen that time from them.

So no, it’s not just business, and there will frequently be hard feelings. There are of course lots of real pros who get it, but they’re not the majority (although they do tend to be overrepresented amongst the upper echelons of any profession). It’s true everywhere. Like if your boss lays you off without notice, that’s just business, but if you take a job and leave him without notice then you better not ask him for a reference, because you left him in a lurch! Never mind that he harmed you personally, by taking away your livelihood, whereas all you did was slow down some project he was working on. Doesn’t matter! People have no sense of perspective.

OH WELL. There’s nothing to do about it, except this. Whenever you’re in a position of power, remember that it is just business. If you’re an editor and someone pulls a story from you because it got accepted elsewhere, well…what, where they supposed to do you a favor? If your nanny quits at the last second, well what…was she supposed to work someplace she didn’t like? If your advisee wants to switch labs, well guess what…it’s just business. They’ve got to do what’s best for them.

My personal feeling is it’s dumb to say it’s “just business”. Instead people should look at the combined good that arises from a decision. Like if you switch jobs, leaving your boss in a lurch, they lose little, but you gain much. Whereas if you’re the boss who refuses to give that person a reference, you gain little, but they lose much. Just have a sense of perspective!

But of course, the system works exactly the opposite. The powerful consider only their own needs, which forces the less-powerful to account for those needs as well. However let’s at least not lie about it! For the people above you, it’s never just business.

And of course here’s the obligatory plug for my book! You can preorder The Cynical Writer’s Guide To The Publishing Industry here! It’s coming out in two more days!

THE MOST IMPORTANT QUESTION TO ASK ABOUT a LITERARY AGENT WHO WANTS TO REPRESENT YOU

Hello friends! My cynical guide to the publishing industry is coming out this Thursday! If you’re at all interested in ever getting a book published, you’re gonna want to read my guide. The advice is way fresher than anything you’re likely to read online. Preorder it here!

As an example, I recently joined a Facebook group for writers looking for agents. Not to publicize my guide, I just joined because giving unsolicited advice about publishing has become like a drug to me. And someone asked about what questions you should ask an agent when they offer representation.

Now there are a dozen blog posts out there with advice on this subject, but I’ve never seen someone use the approach that I use. First of all, the call with the agent isn’t that important. During the call, focus on their plans for your book. But everything else, like, "What’ll you do if you don’t like a subsequent book?" or "How do you prefer clients to communicate with you?" isn’t really that useful, because you won’t know how to interpret the answers. In fact, a lot of what agents tell you is essentially in code. And usually first-time authors are so committed to fooling themselves that they can’t interpret the code. For instance, if an agent says, "I just really want to find the right editor" then that means they don’t think it’ll be a big book, and they’ll be happy to get one offer (which is totally fine! Just telling you the code). If an agent says "This just needs a little revision" then that means you’ll only be rewriting a quarter of the book. Whereas "Might need a little work" means you’ll be rewriting half the book.

But anyway, you likely won’t understand the code, so don’t worry about that. I have found, in my three agent searches, that the number one most important thing to do is contact their former clients. You want to go on Publisher’s Marketplace, scroll down to the bottom of their list of deals, and start contacting their oldest clients first. The real pay-dirt though comes from two kinds of clients: former clients and clients for whom they haven’t sold a book. To find former clients, looking at the oldest PM deals is good. You can also search google books for their names, to see who’s thanked them in acknowledgements in the past. And you can look up old interviews online to see what authors they mention themselves as repping who they no longer rep. If they list clients on their web page, you can also use archive.org to grab an old capture of their page to see who used to be on it.

Getting clients for whom they haven’t yet sold a book is trickier. But I usually search for their name followed by "my agent" or "represented by". This often pulls up people who’ve listed them on their author website.

Then just sit down and email every single one of the people you’ve found. Don’t leave any out. Write "AGENT NAME" as the subject. Ask if you can ask them about their experiences. Offer to talk on the phone if they would prefer.

Then when you’re talking, there’s only one question that matters. "I know you probably like them, but if there was one thing you could change about your relationship or their style, what would it be?"

That’s the question that gets you the fly in the ointment. Authors will almost always say nice things about their agents, even their former agents. But almost no author is entirely happy with their agent. What you want is to elicit that one thing they do or have done that’s been a problem. Usually there’s something. They are slow responding to emails. Not aggressive in submitting. Don’t seem to have the best contacts.

Keep in mind, you’re going to be having this conversation 30+ times (almost all the people you contact will reply). And over time some sort of picture will build up. You’ll get a sense of who they are and how they operate and what problems, if any, people tend to have with them.

This is also the moment to practice some emotional intelligence and listen to how people say things. It’s hard advice to give, and I wouldn’t give it if we weren’t writers, but we ought to be able to pay attention to little details and to the nuances in a person’s statements.

I once got a testimonial from an author that was literally the most lukewarm recommendation I’ve ever seen. It was like, "They send emails for me. Sometimes editors answer. But they sold my book, so I guess it worked out." Three weeks later the author emailed back being like why didn’t you go with my agent. I was like, "Your email was a huge part of it!" The author had no idea. They were like, "Wow, you discovered something I knew without knowing that I knew it."

After all this, you’ll probably discover that all the agents have their upsides and downsides. The sole exception is my current agent, who is perfect. I couldn’t find a single person who had a bad thing to say about him, even out of the five or six former clients I tracked down (in almost all cases they’d left because books hadn’t sold or their career had changed directions). But generally speaking you won’t be so lucky.

Then, after doing all this work, just go with the agent who seems most excited about your work and who seems to have the most contacts in and experience with the field in question. After all, almost every agent will do a great job with the book they sign you with. And with subsequent books it’s hard to say what’ll happen. But at least after doing your due diligence you will know how they operate. You will know what parts of the relationship are typical and what parts are unique to you. I’ve never once, with any agent, been surprised by what they did. In every case, they treated me just like they tended to treat their clients. Don’t assume you’ll be an outlier.

Oh and this is just personal preference, but don’t sign with an agent who promises you the book will sell or that it’ll sell big. Nobody who is ethical ought to make such a promise. The most important thing in an author / agent relationship is trust, and it’s very hard to know who to trust to have your best interests in mind, but a trusting relationship doesn’t start with lies. No matter how much the agent loves your book, nobody can know for certain that a book will sell. Even the best agents fail to sell books all the time.

Still really happy I never did the required reading in school

Hello friends. I am so sleepy today. Not sure what’s wrong with me. I’ve been doing a lot of writing on the bed these days, because, what with the baby, space is a little limited in the house, and I think all this lying prone can really take it out of you.

I’ve generally been feeling cheerful. My last book, Enter Title Here sold like 5x more copies in hardback than it did in paperback, presumably because a lot of the sales were driven by school and library collections (they tend to purchase in hardback). But We Are Totally Normal has been doing well in paperback! Overall I’d say the book has met or exceeded overall sales expectations, esp since it came out right at the beginning of the pandemic and most copies of the book, I imagine, sat in closed bookstores for months. I mean the book didn’t set the world on fire, but it didn’t flop either, and this is something that a person learns to appreciate. Get your copy of the paperback here!

I do wish I had more energy though. I’m sure if I ate better, slept better, worked out, I wouldn’t feel so worn out. I’ve never been that person though. How did everybody get so healthy??? I’m not the first person to note that there is something of a class marker here. At some point in the nineties all the upper middle class people got the memo that you need to devote yourself to health and exercise. Even when I was in college, a significant number of my classmates engaged in optional exercise, which still strikes me as absurd. I mean it’s one thing to be thirty-five and exercise, but to be 20 and regularly going to the gym? Just doesn’t make sense. Somehow people knew, though! They were like this is important! Silly go-getters. I have to say, there are things that other people did that I am glad I never did, like study hard in college, get good grades, apply myself to my work, and do the required reading for classes.

Letting other people determined how you expend your emotional energies is no good. Like, yes, do the work, but don’t care about the work. If you work too hard at other peoples’ priorities, you get halfway through life without ever figuring out who you are. I have to say, I am especially down on required reading. It seems antithetical to the spirit of the classics to read them and then immediately have some learned professor explain them to you. What’s the point? You might as well just not do the reading and just listen to the explanations instead. The writing world is full of people who got all their opinions about literature from their undergrad professors, just like the political world is full of people whose political opinions are a direct cribbing on the New York Times editorial page.

Life is so much more luxurious when you indulge yourself. Having your own opinions about things is a form of indulgence, in that it’s not good for you, the opinions are frequently incorrect and indefensible, and it feels so good. A friend today forwarded me these two Elif Batuman12 essays about how terrible MFA programs are. I loved them obviously, as I love everything that slags MFAs and the MFA system. But these aren’t fresh takes, they’re simply eloquent ones. You’ll never find a person who defends the MFA system in its entirety, nor will you find someone who says that American letters is healthy and producing tons of interesting work. The bias is obvious here. In one essay Batuman reads The Best American Essays and then she reads a Chekhov story collection. She doesn’t read Best Russian Stories of 1885. If she did, I imagine that she would find plenty that is second-rate (although it is true that at perhaps no other time and place in history was so much first-rate fiction written as in 19th century Russia).

But it’s fun to hate MFAs. Writers are wonderful at developing hypotheses about things. But we have a terrible time proving them. Almost everything that people say is wrong. Human brains aren’t particularly scientific. We hardly bother to define what we’re talking about, much less the conditions under which we might consider that thing to be true. And to go the step further and actually test the hypothesis is something that is beyond almost all people, and in most situations can’t be done. So we’re wrong, most of the time. And when we’re not wrong, it’s because someone else did the work of figuring out the truth. But what’s the solution? To simply not think? Not say? To withhold judgement? That’s no fun whatsoever.

Exercising your own mind isn’t particularly good for you–nobody thinks more for themselves than a conspiracy theorist–if you’ve ever spoken to one, you’ll find them impossible to defeat in an argument, not because their arguments are true, but because they’ve simply thought much harder about their position than you have about yours. They have facts upon facts to prove 9/11 was an inside job, and what do you have? Just a vague sense that, well, it probably wasn’t. But you are still right, and they are still wrong. A person’s rightness or wrongness has nothing to do with how smart they are and everything to do with how willing they are to trust the authority of mainstream scientists and researchers.

But that doesn’t leave much for you to do, does it? Where is the residue? Where is the space for the individual to make some kind of contribution? I think this is one reason I don’t do much discussion of politics on this blog. I have opinions, obviously! Half my conversations these days are about cancel culture, and the benefits or dangers thereof. Anybody who is in the business of producing culture has to think about whether their work is racist or sexist or homophobic. It’s onerous. The criticisms can be boring, humorless, and a bit reductive, but they’re a part of life.

For many people, the question of whether or not a YA novel is racist seems to be deadly serious and on par with climate charge, the carceral state and the endless war on Terror. For other people, the overreach of cancel culture is an existential threat to free speech. My god, these kids are going to destroy independent thought!

It’s hard to even begin to analyze the truth or falseness of these opinions. Both sides can be supported with argument. But largely we just don’t know. There are claims here that can be tested empirically, but the test is so difficult as to be in practice impossible. What is the effect of a book? Even if a book is racist, what harm does it do? What harm does it do to suppress the book? How do we create a peaceful and equitable society? These aren’t questions of values–we all want political and economic equity–they’re questions of fact–what means will lead to the outcome we all desire?

I just don’t know. Nobody does. And all the chatter back and forth about the topic leads us no closer to finding the real answer. But it’s not without its pleasures.