Novel revision deja vu

As mentioned earlier, I am working on revising Enter Title Here. And I am doing it using exactly the same process that I used, almost exactly two years ago, to prepare This Beautiful Fever for submission to agents. I’m enjoying the revision process considerably. Even when I am in no mood to begin it, I usually fall into it within a few minutes and then I’m happily marking it up for hours. Oftentimes I even overrun my allotted time and do more hours of work than I planned for. I like the novel so much that I’m even willing to put in the little touches. For instance, today I spent half an hour going through and finding places where I could insert super obscure dictionary words (one of them was “filipendulous”) for reasons that will probably only be clear to about 10% of the people who read the book. Yesterday, I looked at a scene that was working pretty well and then I tore it apart and rewrote it so it could be even better.

I like the novel a lot. This is not a given with me! I’ve written multiple novels that I did not like a lot. I’ve written novels that I couldn’t bear to revise. Part of my good feelings are probably because this novel hasn’t yet been rejected by any agents, contests, editors, etc. But part of it is just that I enjoy reading it and think it’s pretty good. Since I’m going through it sentence by sentence, I’m paying lots of attention to the actual writing. And sometimes (not often!) I actually come across a sentence that makes me think, “Hmm. That’s pretty good. All the sentences should be like that.”

That’s a pretty new feeling

Although I’m going through the same process as I did with the previous novel, I’m in a very different position. Writing that novel was a very speculative endeavor. Although I was full of hope for its future, I had zero expectation. I knew that publication was unlikely, not just because I was a new and untried author, but also because the book was a bit of a hard sell (agents and editors can talk until they’re blue in the face about how they want LGBT YA, but I don’t think the numbers bear them out).

This time is different. When working on a book that you love, it’s a very odd feeling to know  that it’s a very commercial concept  and that this is the right time (or at least a non-terrible time) to sell this kind of book and that you have an agent who loves the book and is excited to send it around. As much as I don’t want it to, that raises certain kinds of expectations. It’s actually not unlikely that this book will sell.

But that’s a horrible place to be. Because it could very well fail to sell. That is also a not unlikely scenario. And I know lots of aspiring writers read this blog, so let me tell you…the closer you come to the sale, the worse the rejection feels.I know, it doesn’t make intuitive sense. Since rejection is primarily painful for the way it undermines your self-image (as a smart person, good writer, etc), then you’d think a “close, but not quite” rejection would be less painful, since it implies that you have at least some talent. But I think the reason it’s worse is because when you come close, they provide reasons for why they rejected it.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the happiness research, it’s that the brain loves vagueness. When the brain is free to believe anything, it inevitably believes the thing that is most flattering to itself. When you get an impersonal blow-off of a rejection, it’s easier to believe, “Oh, they just didn’t understand it. They weren’t the right market for my work.” When they send back a detailed reason that describes the things they liked and didn’t like, then it’s harder (though not impossible) to escape the conclusion that the work just wasn’t good enough.

So yes, in the future this might result in some major hurt. But, for now, I’m really excited by my novel, and I hope that you all can someday read it.

“I am now represented by John Cusick of the Greenhouse Literary Agency” is what I _should_ title this post, but its real title is OMG, I HAVE AN AGENT!!!

Roger-Federer-Reached-Quarterfinals

Placing in the Tu Books contest started a chain of circumstances that entailed a lot of fairly quick movement and a lot of sleepless nights. For once, the publishing world moved at a rapid pace. I think that the last two weeks have been the only time in my life when my writing life has moved faster than my real life.

My agenting story starts in January of 2012, when I started querying agents about this novel. I got a few manuscript requests, but my submissions process was interrupted by several long breaks during which I tried to hone my query.

Then, in January of 2013, a query that I’d sent out in October resulted in an offer of representation from a literary agent (A1). I was excited about the offer and was leaning towards accepting it, but there were two problems: a) I still had manuscripts and queries out with other agents who I wanted to hear back from; and b) I was a finalist in this Tu Books contest, which required that its winner be unagented.

A1 rather graciously agreed to hold the offer until the award was announced. If I lost, then I’d be free to sign with her.

A week later, the public announcement of the slate of finalists for the Award generated a manuscript request from another agent (A2), which I also had to put on a shelf until the results were announced.

About two months later (and roughly two weeks ago), I was notified that I’d won the Honor Award. Since I hadn’t taken the top prize, I was now free to sign with A1, who was still waiting for me to respond to her offer. However, I asked her for two weeks in order to follow up with A2. I then emailed A2 and asked if she could possibly get back to me within two weeks, which she agreed to (try) to do.

I also emailed all the other agents who were sitting on partial manuscripts* or my query, and said that if they wanted to consider the manuscript, they should get back to me within two weeks, because I was considering another offer. This generated a lot of very nice notes of the “Good luck with your new agent!” variety, as well as another (partial) manuscript request! (Oh, and a lot of the agents never responded at all, of course)

At this point, I was still relatively sane, since I was really only  waiting on one person to get back to me.

But then the winner of the contest, Valynne Nagamatsu, emailed me (and all the other finalists)  out of the blue and offered to refer my manuscript to an agent (A3) with whom she had a personal connection.

A day later, an old high school friend who I hadn’t spoken to in quite awhile Facebook-messaged me and asked me if I had an agent yet, because one of her college friends was an agent (A4). My high school friend knew from Facebook that I was an author, but I don’t think she knew that I was actively looking for representation, which, to me, makes this the weirdest bit of serendipity in the whole process.

Anyway, both A3 and A4 wanted to look at the manuscript and were willing to get back to me within the deadline I’d set for responding to A1.

During the whole querying process, my full manuscript had never been on more than two desks at the same time. Now, within the space of a few days, it was on four.

I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t think. Well, actually, that’s not true. I wrote 20,000 words over the course of one weekend. But there was a frenetic quality to everything in my life. I was flitting from euphoria to despair every few hours.

When all of this began, I was reading a story collection by Miranda July that’s only maybe 60,000 words long. Now, two weeks later, I’m not even close to finished. I still have a third of it left!

While I waited, I developed some unsettling behaviors. There were days when I literally spent seven or eight straight hours staring at the GMail client, waiting for emails to come. I developed a cardiac arrhythmia that only appears when I hear the little beep that my iPad uses to signal new emails. I turned down social engagements so I could spend time in my room, alone, worrying. I exhausted every possible way of obsessing about this process.

Then, last Tuesday, I got an offer of representation from one of the agents. I had a very pleasant talk with the agent (one that made me late for my fiction workshop). And after hanging up, I dropped into an even deeper abyss of insanity while I waited to hear from the rest. Before that, I’d been somewhat convinced that A2, A3, and A4 were all going to turn me down. But now I knew that anything could happen.

The agent search has literally been all that I’ve thought about for the last week. Thank God that I had a class to teach, or I think I’d have skipped all my seminars and literally just have holed myself up in my room with my computer for days on end. I owe a very special thank-you to all the friends who were willing to listen to GChat with me about this agent stuff, ad nauseum, for hours.

Anyway, I’m not going to describe the details of my deliberations over the various agents (or, for that matter, their deliberations over me). All were amazing options, and I think they’d all have represented me very effectively. But I finally decided on A3 (John). I think he’s awesome: he seems enthusiastic about my book and my career, and he belongs to a great agency. I am extremely satisfied with this outcome, and I’m really looking forward to working with him.

In all of this, special thanks go to Valynne. She’s amazing. During this whole query process, I never even thought to ask anyone to refer me to an agent: my only referrals came totally unsolicited, and I really want to thank everyone who thought to lend me a hand. But I think it’s a special kind of awesome to win a contest and immediately turn around and offer to help the same people you’d been competing against. Also, during the last two weeks, she answered a lot of my questions and gave me plenty of useful advice on how to conduct myself. Before talking to her, I hadn’t realized how much I didn’t know about the publishing world.

And thanks are also due to my old friend, Valerie! Hearing from her would’ve been wonderful under any circumstances, but few rekindled connections are as wonderful as those which come attached to amazing career opportunities =)

*Agents will often respond to an author’s emailed query by requesting a partial manuscript (usually the first three chapters of the novel), so they can better judge if they want to see the whole manuscript.

 

Trying to enjoy second place

silver-medal-hiSo, first of all, yay, I won the honor award in the Tu Books contest. It’s always good to win things. Also, I’d like to congratulate Valynne. We’ve corresponded a bunch and she is wonderful in a number of different ways: a truly rare person and one who is very deserving of this award. Despite her modesty, I have no doubt that her novel is excellent. Also, I’d like to congratulate the other finalists: Ibi, Ailynn, and Akwaeke. I’m glad of the chance to (virtually) meet them, and I’m sure that they’ll be successful in their writing endeavors as well. And I’d like to thank Stacy, the editor of Tu Books, for, you know, making me a finalist and reading the book and doing all that other good stuff.

However, I think I will have to break from the normal triumphalism of these sorts of posts and say that I was a bit disappointed at not winning. Being runner up is good, but if I’d won, my book would be getting published. It’d be in stores (well, like two years from now). That’s a concrete accomplishment. A runner-up prize really isn’t. It’s definitely a sort of triumph, but it’s also a sort of loss.

So for a few days after this happened, I was feeling a bit disappointed about it and I was finding it hard to concentrate. I can’t say that I felt poorly done by. People have to publish who they want to publish. But still, I was just really wishing that I’d won.

However, eventually, during one of our classes, I had a sudden realization. I thought, “You know, I better enjoy this, because this is not going to come again.” And I immediately felt much better.

Now, this realization makes perfect sense to me, but no one else seems to understand it. Here’s how my conversations about this tend to go.

Me: So I decided that I better enjoy this, because it’s not going to come again.

Other Person: What? No! Of course this will happen again! You’ll publish a book someday!

Me: No, no, I just mean this…this thing…placing second in a contest…being so close but quite there…that is never going to come again.

OP: Err…well…I guess that’s true. But every moment is kind of like that, right? I mean we’re never going to have this conversation again, are we?

And then I just throw up and my hands and say, “Sigh! I am so misunderstood!”

Because this is not some kind of zen thing. I don’t mean that I need to enjoy this moment because you need to people to enjoy every moment because every moment is special and beautiful and wonderful.

No. I mean that every phase of a writing career has its own joys and sorrows. When you’re starting out, the sorrow is that you’re getting rejected everywhere, but the joy is that you believe so strongly in yourself and the writing is so easy and so confident. Then you get slightly more encouragement, but you drop into the pit of self-doubt once you see how far you have to go. And eventually you get to where I am: a place where you really don’t have much in the way of concrete success or status, but you’re  finally able to successfully execute at least part of your vision for a story.

Right now, I have tremendous artistic freedom. I’m not (too) hampered by my own inability and I’m not at all hampered by external constraints: marketing, agent expectations, editor expectations, deadlines, the public’s perception of me. Right now, there are no risks. Nothing I write can hurt me. The moment you publish a book, that stops being true. Your next book needs to improve on the performance of the last one.

And I’m not terribly far from selling a book. It might not happen this year, or next year, or the year after, but it’ll happen eventually. And when that happens, I’ll be on the rollercoaster. It’ll be great, but I’ll also have so many new worries and new anxieties. There will come a time in my life when not winning an editor’s approval will be a real tragedy—something that will throw a severe wrench into my career.

So yes, I do want to enjoy the good things that come my way right now, because I’m never again going to be on the verge of selling my first book, I’m never again going to be such an unknown quantity, I’m never again going to feel the momentum gather around me in quite this way.

Also, I won $500.

(As a P.S. I believe I’ve never mentioned what my eight-day novel is about, but the press release for the New Visions award unfortunately let the cat out of the bag.)

 

My novel is a finalist for Tu Books’ New Visions Award

nv-featuredart

If it wins, it will (probably) be published by Tu Books: a small press that specializes in publishing YA speculative fiction by people of color (they also put out the anthology, Diverse Energies, in which I had a story). I am obviously pretty happy about this. Including me, there are five finalists. Those odds aren’t bad.

After the shortlist was announced, I immediately googled all the other finalists, and you know what? They are people just like me. It’s insane. I kind of hope their novels are terrible. I’ve never been in a situation where I would directly benefit from other person’s failure. I mean, I guess when I was waitlisted for Syracuse’s MFA program back in 2009, it would’ve been kind of nice if one of the other admits had suddenly died or something. But, actually, even in that case I was mostly hoping they’d get into Michener or something so they’d turn down Syracuse. In general, the writing world doesn’t really work in this head-to-head competition sort of way.

Although I think my novel is pretty decent and that I deserve to be a novelist, I also bet that if we were to stack up the personal struggles of all of us finalists and measure each person’s deservingness, I wouldn’t be at the top. Thank God it’s not based on personal struggle (man, I’d never win any contest based on personal struggle–luckily for me, most contests are [informally] based on the opposite of personal struggle…the person who’s struggled the least is the person who tends to win).

Of course, from what I know about writing contests, they’re not necessarily head to head competitions either. If people see two entries that they want to publish, then usually the second one gets published somehow. But still, this whole “five enter, only one leaves” thing is an interesting thing to meditate on.

Actually, it’s not impossible that it could be “five enter, and no one leaves,” since Tu Books also reserves the right to not publish the winner of the contest. Since that would obviously be the worst possible result (I’d rather publish no book than publish your book), it’s also the one that I’ve spent the most time worrying about.

In general, I’ve found that success as a writer tends to come much slower than I think it should. I really did think that the first short story I ever wrote deserved to sell to a huge market and win tons of awards. And I’ve continued to think that with every additional short story. Oftentimes, I sell a story to a place that’s, like, objectively difficult to sell to and am like, “So what? This is pretty much where I should be selling.”

However, I’ve learned to anticipate this tendency. Now I assume that I’m not going to get the things that I think I should get (I think I wrote about this earlier this year), and I’ve thus managed, through this backdoor, to appreciate the things that I do get.

So, yay! I am really happy to be a finalist. Someone read the first three chapters of my novel and was like, “Yes, even though I am quite busy, I’d definitely like to commit to reading the rest of this novel.” I feel good about that.

And who knows, in two months, I could be announcing the sale of my novel. That’s pretty cool. But if it doesn’t go down, I will understand.

In some ways, the extremely slow pace at which novels are revised and submitted and sold is a good thing. I’ve already written two novels since writing one (this is the one that I wrote in eight days, by the way), so it’s no longer the torchbearer for all my hopes and dreams. If it doesn’t sell here, then maybe it’ll sell to the next place. And if it doesn’t sell anywhere, then hopefully coming this close on my second novel means that my fourth one will be able to go the distance.

Wrap-up Season 2011: Revising The Novel

In June, I finished a novel in eight days. My intent was to spend the rest of June revising it and then to send it out in July or August. It seemed silly to write a novel in eight days and then spend months and months revising it. So, the day after I finished, I duly went right back to the beginning and started cleaning things up (making the beginning agree with the end; adding in some necessary scenery; correcting awkward sections, etc). I did that, intermittently, for most of the rest of June and then put the novel aside. I planned on making one more pass-through for style and then another one to copy-edit and then I’d be completely done.

Even that seemed like way too much work, actually, so I decided that I was just going to make a copy-editing pass-through and then send it out. I figured that novels really stand or fall based on their totality, and that a little stylistic roughness wasn’t going to hurt the novel.

Then, in July, a friend of mine visited and asked to read the novel. She’s a huge reader of YA and someone who I could trust to be both discerning and sympathetic, so I deviated from my normal practice (of never letting any of my friends read my unpublished work). When she finished it, she said the requisite number of nice things, but when I talked to her a bit more, it seemed like she felt that the beginning was pretty weak.

That’s what I’d been afraid of. Something about the beginning was really nagging at me. I decided that even if the rest of the book wasn’t going to get much more editing (except to ferret out typos), I should at least polish up the beginning a little. By this time, I was taking a writing class taught by Nick Mamatas (at the Berkeley Writer’s Salon) and I asked him to look at the first three chapters. Actually, I primarily wanted him to look at them so he could tell me what genre label I should market my novel under (you put the novel’s genre front and center in your query letters, usually), but he also gave me some really good advice on how I could structure the beginning.

The day after I got comments, I had an epiphany while I was in bed. I realized that one major character could be eliminated entirely, and that doing so would substantially improve the first third of the novel. This epiphany both energized and exhausted me. There was no question that I was going to do it, but at the same time, I didn’t really want to do it right then.

When the class ended, I spent a few weeks revising the stories I’d written, and then I tackled the novel. First I wrote a synopsis of the first nine chapters of the novel (so I’d know what I was deleting), then I pulled up my last draft of it (the one from the end of June), and selected the first third (about 22,000 words from a 75,000 word novel) and deleted them.

I spent about ten days (from October 7th to 16th) rewriting the first nine chapters. It came out really well, and I was quite satisfied with it. During the rest of October (in addition to other writing projects), I went through the rest of the novel and made sure it agreed with the new beginning (and made all the other major changes I needed to make).

After that, I was possessed by a kind of madness. I’d put in too much time. It wasn’t an eight day novel anymore. Now it had to be as good as I could make it. So I decided to make a pass for style. A few hours into this pass, something weird activated in my mind, and I started cutting words like crazy. On a paragraph and scene level there was not much that was extraneous. Nor did I cut very many entire sentences. Instead, I just rewrote sentences to make them shorter. At the end of the day, I’d worked for about four hours to cut 600 words. It was mesmerizing.

For the next twelve days or so, I followed that pattern. During four hours, I’d go through about eight or nine pages (twice). The first time, I did really micro-level cuts. The second time, I’d see if there was any obvious chunks of fat that I’d been blinded to. That’s when I cut out whole paragraphs and sentences (I know, it seems like I should’ve done sentence-level second, but that’s not the way it worked out).  At the end of four hours, I’d usually have cut an entire page of the novel.

Halfway through this cutting-room march, I got kind of worried that maybe I was eviscerating the tone of the novel and making everything sound very clipped and stilted and featureless. I tried reading and reading the sections I’d cut yesterday, but I couldn’t perceive the distance. However, I’d gone too far and made too many cuts. I’d also been making numerous tiny substantive changes along with the cutting, and there was no way to separate out the substantive from the stylistic. I was stuck with the cutting, unless I wanted to roll back entirely to a previous version. And the novel couldn’t be half stripped-down and half verbose. That’d be absurd. Instead, I continued grimly onward. It was kind of scary, but very satisfying. By the end of this pass, the novel was down more than 7,000 words from its previous draft (down to about 67,000 words).

That was in mid-November. After taking a week or so to recover, I engaged in the most incredibly, dreadfully boring part of the whole endeavor. I downloaded a program that reads out text (NaturalReader) and had it read the novel to me while I followed along. I found a typo on maybe every other page (much less than I thought there’d be). This part took more than a week. It was utterly miserable. I don’t think I’ve ever been as terribly bored by any other writing-related task.

And then the novel was done. A few days ago I wrote a draft query and sent out a novel query, just so I could say that the novel had been submitted this year (though I still intend to revise my query a little bit).

In summary, my revision included:

  • 3 weeks – One passthrough to clean up the rough edges from the eight-day novel-writing binge and make everything cohere and actually look like a real, completed novel
  • 3 weeks – One passthrough to totally rewrite the beginning and then make the rest of the novel agree with the new beginning, as well as fixing continuity problems and other niggling little things
  • 2 weeks – One passthrough to  cut 10% of the novel’s word-count, fix any remaining stylistic problems, and take a final look at all the substantive issues
  • 1 week – One passthrough for copy-editing.

 

Great stuff that can happen to your mind while writing a novel

So, a week ago, when I finished the book, I realized that there was no way I’d be able to sleep, so I sat down and started writing a massive blog entry that I then abruptly finished in the middle by passing out. I posted that entry in five parts, the last of which was yesterday.

That entry was about all the terrible stuff that happened to my mind and body as I was writing. But there was also a lot of good stuff. Mostly that good stuff was a chemical rush: a sheer euphoria that was a lot like that caused by, say, alcohol (without dimming the mind or anything). But that euphoria also masked a lot of the other good feelings, which have become more apparent to me as they slowly faded over the past few days.

 

Basically, it’s kind of disappointing to come back from a sprint of that nature and find that life is still going on. There’s still work to do. There’s still people to see. My car still needs fixing. I still have all these stories that need revising and submitting. And, even more than that, the novel itself still has a long road to travel before it will ever see publication. I don’t just revision: it has to pass before the eyes of a lot of editors and agents before anyone would publish it, and it’s very likely that this is where the whole thing will end…that it will never see the light of day (not trying to be a downer, that’s just the fate of the vast majority of novels that get written).

And all of that is okay. I have my 646 rejection slips…I know how to persevere and how to deal with rejection.

But when I was writing the book, I wasn’t thinking like this at all. Oh, I occasionally thought about how I knew nothing about submitting or pitching books, and I wondered what kind of marketing category it would fall under. But for long periods of time those concerns fell away. Oftentimes, while working, I had the feeling – for periods of hours or days – that I was doing something absolutely worthwhile…that I was doing the right thing for me and that I was doing it at the right time and in the right way.

For me, it’s not uncommon to have a persistent feeling that I am forgetting to do something or that I am ignoring some vital task. Sometimes I have to sit down and go through each of my responsibilities, one by one, to reassure myself that this is not the case. And even then, that feeling won’t quite go away.

But for more than a week, I had a feeling that was the opposite of that sense of incompletion. And that was kind of a gift.

But now it’s gone. And what has returned is a feeling that is very similar to the malaise that led me to write the novel in the first place. If anything, that malaise can be stronger, at times, since by writing the novel I have given myself a number of additional responsibilities (for revision, submission, etc) that had not really been on the horizon before.

I’ve also started to revise my novel. In general, I am fairly pleased with it, but there is a lot of doubt that I did not have a week ago.  There can be a thing in it that I enjoy, but I can also see how that thing might be very bad. I guess what this post is about is the reintroduction of substantial amounts of doubt into my life, after having spent an unaccustomed amount of time being free from it.

This kind of doubt is the normal operating condition under which I write. But I think that I would like to start killing that doubt and start working within a more timeless and personal space: one without imaginary readers and imaginary editors. I don’t mind the real readers and editors, of course, but I am a bit tired to be sharing all this headspace with so many phantoms.

Many writers parrot the truism that drafting is a time to turn off your “internal editor” and “just write crap,” while during revision one becomes more critical. But that is not how I think of things at all. During the writing process I don’t fear the input of any voice that is about the work: the voices that are commenting on the words themselves. But I’d like to stop hearing – entirely stop hearing – all the voices that just scream chaff:  the incessant internal monologue I wrote about in my last post that mainly concerns itself with possible fame, or fortune, or failure. That stuff is not only anxiety-making, it is tawdry.

 

Anyways, I think that this is going to be the last post on this topic for awhile. Thanks to everyone who read (and maybe enjoyed?) these posts.

Terrible things that happen to your mind and body while writing a novel in eight days

Fifth in a series of blog posts stemming from having done me some novel writing. Here are links to parts one, two, three, and four.

            By far the worst  and most unexpected obstacle to progress during that week was the horrible sleeplessness. My body really just rose up and tried to stab me in the back. Sometimes after midnight I’d usually start feeling really tired. I’d lay down in bed and try to sleep…for four or five hours! Frequently it would be turning light out before I fell asleep. And even that wouldn’t have been so bad except that I started waking up earlier too. I woke up several times, after four or even three hours of sleep and unable to return to my slumber. I think that what happened is that I would have a day of terrible sleep, and then a day of merely bad sleep (six or seven hours). Since I usually get a solid eight or nine hours a night, this felt absolutely terrible. At no one point did I ever again feel as good as I did during the first day. That first day was like the first line of really good coke that the dealer lays out for you for free while he sells you the terrible shit (yes, I have been watching too much of The Wire).

That sleeplessness was really miserable. It was just my mind racing. And not even productively. Once or twice it quieted down and got to thinking about the next day’s scenes. But mostly it was just saying, “Wow this is really going well huh? Can you believe that you’re doing this? You’re going to be able to write an awesome blog entry when you’re done, aren’t you? Oh and what if you sell this novel for a bajillion dollars? Wouldn’t that be awesome? Well, wouldn’t it?” And this would continue for hours. It wasn’t even anxiety. It was a kind of euphoria, but to the extent that it robbed me of sleep, it was a deeply annoying euphoria. It made me concerned, at times, that I was having some kind of manic episode (pretty sure that is not the case. I haven’t blown thousands of dollars, lost any friends, gotten really drunk, lost my job, crashed my car, or insulted anyone…if this is the kind of mania where you’re just really productive and have no problems at all then I welcome it…but I think that kind is sort of rare)

The corollary to the above problem was the headache. This were partially caused by not enough sleep and partially caused by the caffeine used to make up for the lack of sleep (the headache substantially lessened in intensity on days when I slept better, though it never went away entirely). The headache was joined (just on the last day) by heart palpitations, which I am pretty sure were also caused by caffeine intake.

And finally, my wrists started to ache. I mean, it didn’t prevent me from doing anything…it wasn’t even particularly uncomfortable…it just made me wonder if I wasn’t maybe doing some damage to my cartilage that I was going to regret later. It also made me wonder what happened to ergonomic keyboards. Everyone used to have one, now with laptops, all we have are these total crap keyboards that probably cause hand-cancer.

Mentally, the worst thing was the total seclusion. I had a pretty good weekend lined up, you know. I was going to go to Monterey. I was going to party in SF. I was going to see people who needed seeing and then also see other people. But after I had written for two and a half days, I totally cleared my schedule. I emailed everyone I was going to see and told them I was writing a novel and was on a hot streak and that I couldn’t afford to lose the flow. I guess it doesn’t seem like too big a deal to miss one week’s worth of socializing, but I don’t know, I’ve been in times and places where I wanted to do things with people and couldn’t do it. It seems like asking for trouble to start turning down fun social engagements. Especially when I’m only writing for like eight hours a day. I mean, I used to work in an office for eight hours a day. It was nine and a half hours from my front door back to my front door. And when I was doing that it sure didn’t seem like an imposition to go out and hang with people. I don’t quite know where the other eight hours went during that week, but they sure weren’t with me in any kind of useable form. I didn’t want to go anywhere. I didn’t want to do anything. I had to force myself to eat. If it wasn’t for my roommate (who is one of my best friends) and the ladies at McDonald’s and the local café, entire days would have went by when I did not say a word.

Let’s see, oh, and I also had the normal writerly anxiety. I constantly worried over whether I was writing the right scene (my main concern was structure, remember, otherwise I also would have had a lot of other things to worry about too). I worried that one wrong scene early on would send the entire thing running off on a tangent. I often thought about deleting the current scene and starting over (which I do middling often during short story composition), but as far as I remember, I never did it. I don’t remember whether that was through laziness or a decision to trust my instincts, but I am stuck with it now.

And then there were the other writerly anxieties, these are overarching anxieties that I tend to have about everything I write. Am I going to feel like a fool for having written this? Am I totally deluded about its quality? Is it conceptually flawed? Is it racist? Is it sexist? Will I be able to sell this? Ugh, and I always feel a really heavy weight whenever I write something even slightly autobiographical. I sometimes submit those stories under pseudonyms, or not at all, just because I couldn’t bear to have a friend or family member know that I wrote such a thing.  I even feel kind of awkward about this blog entry. It’s exactly the sort of thing that I, in my head, often make fun of other people for.

There’s a kind of confession that feels tawdry, and makes the world a poorer place. It’s the kind that takes the magic out of things, and makes you realize that people aren’t really special or interesting. It’s the kind that makes you realize that peoples’ lives are just bad stories. People walk around reframing the things that happen to them as part of some sort of story…the story of themselves…but that story is often not a very good description of who they are. It’s just a dirtier version of a fairytale they heard once.

But, to be honest, the sleeplessness was much worse than all of the other things. It was an order of magnitude worse. If it was possible to exchange peace of mind for a solid night’s sleep then I’d be riddled with so many anxieties right now that I’d be typing this naked, with hands wrapped in ten layers of Kleenex, and surrounded by a prime number of milk bottles filled with my urine.

Oh, also my laptop suffered some damage too. The spacebar doesn’t work now unless I warm it up with some rapid spacing.

 Next: Awesome things that can happen when you get some writing done.

How I went about writing the damned thing

Fourth in a series of slightly portentious entries stemming from my recent novel-writing attempt. Here are links to the first, second, and third entries.

Like I said, the outline I started with was about 100 words long. When I completed the novel, it had grown to about 850 words long. As I got to be 1/3rdand then 2/3rds of the way in I started making little notes to myself about: A) what things I had just invented that needed to be hinted at earlier; and B) what kind of stuff I wanted to hit in the rest of the book. This is much more outlining than I usually do for a short story (or for my last novel).

It’s my experience, in writing, that you mostly manage to do okay at whatever you’re thinking about. This time around my primary concern was having a structure that felt right. I was willing to sacrifice a lot in order to do that. I’m always really impressed when someone gets their form right. Sometimes I think that people think I am insulting them when I tell them that what they wrote really sounds like its genre. Like, I have an acquaintance who writes political commentary for various magazines and it just sounds so much like the political commentary you read in magazines! I was amazed! And I have another friend who published a story in a science fiction magazine and I wrote to him being like, “Wow, this sounds just like a science fiction story!”

Okay, when I put it that way, it does sound pretty insulting. But I don’t mean it that way, honestly. In his book About Writing, Samuel Delany says (I’m flipping through my paper copy here):

“This book would be a lot better if it had an index”

But in the Google Books version he says (and I am patching together this quote something from a long and very awesome section on the nature of literary talent):

As far as I can see, talent has two sides. The first side is the absorption of a series of complex models—models for the sentence, models for narrative scenes, and models for larger literary structures….Generally speaking, the sign that the writer has internalized a model deeply enough to use it in writing is when she or he no longer remembers it in terms of a specific example or a specific text, but experiences it, rather, as a force in the body, a pull on the back of the gonue, an urge in the fingers to shape language in one particular way and avoid another….,The second side [of talent] is the ability to submit to those models. Many people find such submission frightening. At the order, even from inside them, “Do this—and let the model control the way you do it,” they become terrified….Acknowledging that there are models to submit to is much the same as realizing there are standards to be judged by….(most bad writing by people who write easily comes from submission to demonstrably poor models, like vampire novels).

Okay, he didn’t write that last clause, but I am pretty sure he was thinking it.

Anyway, in my writing, I kind of knew my model, and I was willing to have the story be a total cliché as long as I did the cliché right. It only takes being bored like hell by one beautifully written novel by a brilliant short story writer (see, for instance, Aimee Bender’s first novel) to realize that there are things which are more important than originality…things without which no one will even notice your originality.

But the converse of doing okay at whatever you’re thinking about is that you fall down on pretty much everything else. In my case, it was description, big time. About halfway through the story I just started writing long scenes of just dialogue, and only putting in movements where they were necessary to the plot. I stopped describing people and settings unless I needed to (or it seemed fun). All the stuff that come under what Delany is talking about when he writes (quoting Gertrude Stein) that one third of the glory of English literature comes from simple descriptions of what exists and daily life on the island (of England, I guess).

I also started to waver a lot on the narrative distance and tone. It was hard for me to maintain distinct syntax and diction for twenty different characters (something I am normally not bad at). Voices started getting blurred together. I had wanted, when I started, to write in a different diction than I thought a high school student could easily convey, so I had a fairly distant third-person narrator, but the narrator started getting all tangled up with the character, and well…yeah. I mean, I don’t particularly care about realism (one thing I know about high-schoolers is that in their heads they sound a lot smarter than they do to adults), but I would like my novel’s internal fantasyworld to have some kind of consistency. If high-schoolers are going to talk like jaded twentysomethings then they should do so all the time, dammit!

Umm, anyway, I will fix all that stuff in revision (and yes, I am actually planning on revising this one). The main point is that I am not going to do things like swap scenes around or write new scenes or delete scenes. It’s all going to be sentence-level from here on out.

One last word on outlining. Although I didn’t make an outline before I started, I did make one as I completed each chapter. It detailed each scene, their length, the number of characters therein, and a brief description of the scene. I did this because it made a pretty good way to begin each day of writing, and because I know from experience that later on making it would feel like actual work. I have this fantasy that when I look at this reverse outline in a few days, I will immediately be able to spot where I can delete scenes and where I can expand them. After I finished reading my last novel (like fifteen days ago) I still had no idea what was happening where. I had no sense of the work as a whole, and was left poking at it with a stick, trying to get it to rear up and show me its belly.

            Next: Terrible things that can happen to your mind and body in eight days of writing

How To Quadruple Your Writing Speed For A One Time Payment Of $9.99

This is the third in a series of slightly portentious reflections resulting from the intense, ecstatic experience that was the writing of my second novel (in eight days). Here are links to the first and second entries.

            When I write short stories, [I generally faff around a lot until I find something that interests me], then I write it until I write an opening that seems like it suggests an interesting story. Then I usually draft around 800-1200 words an hour (this is not including revision time, later) until it’s done or I realize it’s not going to work. This is not a terribly unusual speed for a genre writer, but it’s still a little fast to be respectable. I am suspicious of it myself. I used to write far slower (maybe 300 words an hour) and had to work 3 or 4 hours to get in the thousand words that I usually aimed at in a writing day.

The difference came when I read a blog entry by Nicola Griffith (another really good writer blog) about a program called Freedom, which turns off your internet for a set number of minutes. There is pretty much nothing you can do to go on the internet (not even go into the task manager and end the process) short of rebooting. She said that this program had tremendously ratcheted up her productivity. That is an astonishing thing to hear from someone who’s been doing pretty well in the writing game for about twenty years.

I downloaded it sometime in the fall of 2010, and immediately saw an increase in my own productivity (at least as measured by wordcount): a massive, almost unimaginable increase. I went from spending half an hour writing and half an hour browsing the internet (or fifteen minutes writing and forty-five minutes browsing the internet) to writing for the whole hour. Suddenly I could get my target word count in an hour and a half or even two hours. I proceeded to do this, and dispense with the other two hours of allocated writing time.

I can’t prove this, but I also think that my writing productivity improved when I quit smoking*. I used to smoke a lot while writing, and I had to smoke outside (if I was allowed to smoke inside, I think I never would have quit). Although I smoked pretty fast, going outside and lighting up and smoking, was pretty time-consuming…it was taking maybe 10-20 minutes out of each writing hour. When I quit, I not only got that time back, I also got the ability to concentrate for a solid hour or two hours and work without stopping (not that I use this ability that often).

Okay, anyway, so I’m drafting like 1200 words an hour, oftentimes. However awesome this was, it kind of made my word count a little less defensible. What kind of writer only spends an hour a day or sometimes 45 minutes a day writing, slaps down his 1000 words, and then calls it quits? I might be working faster than before, but it’s terribly un-American to compensate for that by working less than before (and thus producing about the same amount).

Above, I’ve been using “writing speed” and “drafting speed” kind of interchangeably. That’s because I don’t revise that much, and I redraft even less. There’s no good reason for that. Revision just bores me intensely. I tend to let my completed stories accumulate for six months and then plow through and revise them all in a row. By that time they’ve all gone solid and cold. The fire that wrote them has kind of faded, and it’s hard for me to reimagine them and make the large changes in style, structure, or plot that they sometimes need. Basically, in my mind they’re done and when something is done, a person generally doesn’t want to un-do and then re-do it.

So yeah, I revise things to a greater and a lesser degree. I’ll cut the opening scene, rewrite the ending, sometimes expand it a little, and sometimes go through (when it’s long) and pick out 10% or 20% of the words. I’ll rewrite awkward passages (never more than a few on each page, to my eyes), and try to make things more comprehensible, and sometimes add in little details. But it doesn’t amount to much. For most of my stories, a Word Track Changes between the first complete draft and the draft that I actually submit (and I generate this comparison all the time, just to see) will often show that less than 20% of the words have been altered. I don’t think I’ve ever, for instance, gone through and rewritten a story with a different viewpoint character (which is a thing people do, but which seems like madness to me).

This is something that nags at me. I neither enjoy revising, nor have I seen appreciable results from it. But I am also not getting amazing results from doing what I am doing (though I am improving, of course). There’s a balance for everyone, I think between the rewards of finding your own method and the rewards of changing your method in order to get to a different place than where you are currently.

But you know what should have nagged at me more? The hours I was working. If you have the time (as I do) then it’s kind of a no-brainer that you shouldn’t be working an hour or two a day and calling yourself done. I don’t particularly beat myself up about it, because it is something that I was aware of (and my increased drafting speed is only like nine months old…and it’s taken awhile to realize that it’s “real”).

What I’m trying to get at here is two things: A) how I can even begin to imagine that something I wrote in 8 days could be any good?; and B) how  did I write more in eight days than I have in many entire years of my writing career (like, the first five of them)?

The answer to the first question is that writing this novel didn’t feel to me (while I was sitting down and drafting) like it was any different from writing a short story. Instead of writing 1000/hr for one hour, 4 or 5 days a week, over two weeks, I did it for eight hours in one day. Now, the short stories I write might not be good, but I didn’t do anything different to write the novel than I did for the stories, so it seems possible that the novel could be just as good as the stories are.

Oh, and I think that I already answered the second question. I wrote it for 8 hours (and sometimes 10 or 11 hours) a day. I’ve never written that way that before in my life (some people would say that I have never worked 8 hours in a day at anything in my life).

The way I wrote on the first day basically set my schedule for the next 7. I woke up around twelve. I started around 2. I wrote until 6. I ate (and usually watched Season Three of The Wire [which is amazing]) until 8. Then I wrote until 12. Sometimes I did a third shift from 1 to 3. Sometimes all these times were shifted back by an hour.

           Next:  On Monday I am going to talk about how the writing of said novel actually went down.

*Smoking cigarettes, which is a clarification I never would have needed to make before I moved back to California.

How I went about abandoning my last novel

            On March 25th, I did not plan to spend any part of the month of June on producing new work. As I wrote in my March 26th post, I planned to spend it revising my last novel. I’d finally gotten around to reading through it, and discovered that it was better than I thought it was…and maybe there could someday be some merit to it. Even if I hadn’t discovered that, I was determined to rewrite the damn thing. Moving on to the next novel without revising and submitting the last one feels like an avoidance behavior. It’s just a more advanced, and sadder, version of abandoning a work in progress in order to chase a shinier, more exciting idea (that will, perhaps, be in turn abandoned once the shine is gone).

Nonetheless, I was feeling distinctly unexcited about it. During my reading, I’d started to detect some structural problems in the novel that I was starting to think might require fairly significant revisions. But what was even more troubling was that I had started to suspect that the novel might just be deeply confusing. While, conceptually, it was clear in my mind…it was a very complicated concept, and in order for the novel to have even a chance at success, the concept had to be clear in the reader’s mind within the first 10,000 words. I didn’t think that was the case, and I wasn’t sure how to make it be the case.

Then, sometime on the night of the 25th, my car was broken into (around here we call that “an Oakland parking ticket”). Nothing major was stolen, but the window was smashed. I wanted it fixed as soon as possible so I woke up at 7 AM to take it to Le Auto Glass (an amazing Oakland institution). I normally go to bed at like 3 AM, and the broken car window (my first one ever) had disquieted me so much that I don’t think I fully fell asleep that night.

So after my car got fixed, I was understandably kind of tired and dazed. I had something to do that afternoon, and I knew that after it got done there was no way I was going to do any writing, so I decided to pack in some writing right then.

After some futzing around, I wrote 700 words of what I recognized as another treatment of a concept I’d discussed over AIM about a year ago. I’d tried to make a go of it as a short story before and had realized: a) it was really novel; and b) the way I was doing it was not only a little boring, it also had the potential to be sort of creepy (in a bad way).

The new approach solved the second problem and I was really excited about writing the short story. But that afternoon I realized it was really a novel, so I kind of tabled it.

But over the next few days, I kept thinking about this novel. It seemed shiny and fun. But how could I spend another eighteen months on something without seeing through to the end the last thing I’d tried to do?

I went camping that weekend (god it was cold on that trip. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that cold). Anyway, on this trip, after a lot of thinking (and a lot of watching Oakland hippies play with fire and devour sixteen freshly caught crabs bare-handed in front of a distinctly tepid bonfire) I decided that if I did take another trip to rodeo, then I needed to avoid the mistakes I’d made the first time. First, I’m primarily (at this point) a short-story writer, so the structure of my long-form work kind of sucks. Short stories are all a huge amount of front-loading and set-up, followed by a big bang. When I try to write (or even think about) a novel, it ends up being an interminable series of bangs. Second, I wanted to write a novel that was dead-simple conceptually (my short stories often tend to be a little high concept and confusing too).

And I also started to think, “You know what the real problem is here? That whole eighteen months thing. If it didn’t take eighteen months to draft that’d be fine. If I just spent a month doing it, and made sure to get right the things I’d gotten wrong before, then it’d be a fun exercise, and it’d teach me a lot.”

So when I got back, I set forth the ground rules. I’d start when I woke up and I’d write 4,000 words a day. Generally I only write out on about two out of three days, and I expected this to be no different. I was going to aim for 70,000 words since I had the fantasy that this would be a YA novel and also because 70,000 words is a lot shorter than a hundred thousand words and shorter is less work. So in a month I’d hopefully have twenty 4,000 days, thus giving me enough room to finish even if the novel ballooned a bit.

Now, this all sounds pretty blasé, but it was actually kind of a big undertaking for me. As my sidebar shows, I really, really love charts. Also, before May 30th, I’d only exceeded 4,000 words twice, and all those times were ages ago. That’s because beginning writers often find it easier to hit high wordcounts than more experienced ones, Susan Sontag told me that. Okay it was in an essay she wrote. And what she wrote was:

 “I have never had what, it seems to me, most writers have – a sense of mastery. For unlike, say, the art of the surgeon, that of the writer does not, through years of practicing it, become less difficult. It doesn’t get easier. Surprisingly, it gets harder.…The permission given to the self to be expressive steadily, unremittingly as a vocation, feels as if it could be withdrawn at any time.”

Given the numbers I’ve put up in the past, I thought there was a good chance I wasn’t going to make it. I read Catherynne Valente’s “How To Write A Novel in 30 Days”* over and over (her blog is best writer blog that I read), and kept swearing to myself that I was going to do it…that I wasn’t going to fail on this. I made a huge black background for my screen that said:

            I’d intended to start on June 1st. But on May 31st, I was at a loss for what I was supposed to be doing with myself…so I started early. I had a 100 word outline: three sentences detailing what was going to happen at the end of Acts One, Two, Three. By 6 PM, I’d written 4300 words (already making it my 5th highest day ever). I decided to break my personal best, and restarted at 8 PM, finishing up with 8600 words by midnight. That night I could barely sleep. I calculated and recalculated in my mind when I could finish if I wrote 8000 words a day, every day. I could write this thing in ten days (still being overly conservative about how much and for how long I could draft).

*The confusing thing about this blog entry is that Valente makes it sound like writing a novel in 30 days is the most grueling thing imaginable…but don’t like 30,000 a year people do it for NaNoWriMo? I mean, it’s hard, but it doesn’t seem to necessarily involve becoming the antisocial wreck that Valente describes. Well, if you read the comments, you’ll see that Valente actually wrote her first novel (55k words) in ten days, and that nowadays she often revises the novel within that one month too. That sounds grueling as shit. What I did definitely involved neglecting everything in my life (I have a pretty flexible work schedule, so I just cleared five work days). Except my laundry. I did do my laundry.

Next: Quadrupling Your Writing Speed For Ten Dollars