Working with an agent completely changes the emotional dynamics of writing a novel

imagesEver since signing with an agent way back in April, my novel has been chugging through revisions. They haven’t been particularly major ones, but the novel has been much improved by alterations to portions of the backstory that had previously felt a bit thin or implausible. I have to say, working with an agent is really weird: it completely changes the emotional arc of writing a novel.

When you’re unrepresented, finishing a novel or story is an act of faith. It’s an assertion that this is done. And it’s a pretty major deal. No one is ever going to tell you that something is done. You’re never going to send it out to readers but that they’ll send it back with a bunch of suggestions. One of the main dangers that faces a writer is that they’ll never reach a place where they’re ready to let go of a novel. And one of the main fears of a writer is that they’ve sent out the work too soon.

When I first submitted this novel (which is, to date, the only one that I’ve completely finished), in my mind it was done. I’d swept through it five times. I’d sent it out to readers and revised according to their comments. I’d gone through it sentence by sentence, tightening every line. And it was time to send it out. Jesus, I think that was back in December of 2011. So long ago.

My agent has a stake in it too. He won’t send it out to editors until he feels comfortable with it. And since I can’t submit it without his help, the responsibility for saying it’s done has, in a way, been transferred to him.

There’s something very comfortable about that, actually. I never thought it was possible to shift the emotional burden of composition in this way. I’m sure that in some ways it’s a bad thing. One can easily imagine some awful wrangling over edits. One can easily imagine novels held up and careers stunted because of artistic disagreements between writer and agent.

However, for this particular novel, I haven’t had any complaints with the (pages upon pages) of edits that I’ve received. (Actually, they’ve been really insightful). So the situation is actually pretty nice. I still have to do the writing, but I don’t have to do as much of the worrying.

 

(On a sidenote, this is the kind of post that you don’t normally see on author blogs, which makes me wonder if I’ve somehow strayed into a topic that we’re not supposed to talk about. However, I can’t see any reason why that would be. But if I’m committing a horrible faux paux, I expect one of you to tell me!)

I totally understand why people quit writing short stories.

calvin-and-hobbes-on-writing-3 I’ve only written three stories this year (and it’s half over; also, one of those stories was only 700 words long)! The last story I completed was finished on February 17th. This year I’ve almost exclusively done novel-related stuff: drafting and revising Enter Title Here¸ revising This Beautiful Fever, and, this summer, working on the first draft of a different novel.

Not only have I not been writing stories, I haven’t even been revising them. I have seventeen unrevised stories, with some of them dating back to January of 2012. Normally I take a month or two at the beginning of the year to revise my backlog. I didn’t do that this time. And my submissions pile is showing the damage. Half my stories aren’t out right now, because I don’t really have anywhere exciting to show them. If I had new stuff coming in, then I might retire old stuff, but that’s not really happening.

It’s a bit disappointing. I like to always be in a place where someone could email me with good news RIGHT NOW. And that’s not really where I am at the moment. The effort-to-reward time for a short story is really good. You can get good news within a few months of writing the story. For a novel, it’s very bad. I wrote the first draft of This Beautiful Fever two years ago, and I’m still not in the GOOD NEWS COULD HAPPEN RIGHT NOW phase. Actually, right now, there’s no chance of good news happening on that novel, since I am sitting on a second round of edits from the agent. Good edits. Sound edits. But as long as they’re hanging over me, the novel isn’t going anywhere. Hopefully I can get them done before I go to the Sewanee Writer’s Conference, but if I can’t, then I won’t be able to get them done until maybe mid-August. And the it’ll take him a month to read them. So, best case scenario, the novel doesn’t even go on submission until, like, mid-September–ten weeks from now!

And that’s for something I wrote two years ago.

The stuff I am writing now is even further from being in the GOOD NEWS COULD HAPPEN RIGHT NOW phase. Not actually clear how long their journey is, since I’ve only ever taken one novel from first-draft to submission, and that novel still hasn’t completed its revision lifecycle.

But, on the other hand, the prospect of writing more short stories is not too exciting. Firstly, because the last few stories I’ve been super excited about have gotten nothing but rejection. And, secondly, because the potential reward is so limited. I mean, I like reading short stories and I like writing them. But I also like getting readers and getting paid. And novels are where it’s at for that stuff.

And even though I’m a pretty fast writer, it does take a noticeable change in gears to switch over and write short stories, and I just haven’t felt like taking the effort.

The result is that I am in a different place nowadays, mentally. In some ways, it’s relaxing. I’m not worrying as much about submissions. I’m not tracking them obsessively. I’m not staying up at night wondering if some magazine is going to like my story. But I am also deprived of the pleasure of that kind of hope.

Sometimes I do think, “Wow, actually, the odds of an agented manuscript selling are much better than the odds of a story being accepted by Clarkesworld. So it’s not at all unlikely that something good could actually happen to me.”

But that prospect seems so remote. Any success that is further away than POSSIBLY RIGHT NOW is just too far into the mists of time for me.

The difference between a sequence and a scene

I’ve been reading a lot of screen-writing manuals (as research for a novel, not because I want to write screenplays). And it’s been pretty fascinating. The nice thing about screenplay books is that they’re incredibly prescriptive. One of the most popular ones–Save The Cat–says that your second act turning point MUST occur on page 25. Not on page 23, or on page 27…page 25 is where it’s got to be.

If I was actually trying to write screenplays, I imagine I’d find it infuriating. But since I’m a novelist, I think it’s actually a bit nice to have a book that’s unafraid to give real advice. Most writing manuals are a bit froofy and guarded. There are too many examples of famous and beloved novels that contain some really bizarre decisions. For instance, what is up with Wuthering Heights? Why is it told as a weird story-within-a-story? And why does it leap forward, halfway through, and begin talking about the children of the protagonists’ in the first half?

So novel manuals are afraid to say anything definite. But that means they just don’t say anything at all. You come away from them thinking that the way to write a novel is to just read a lot of novels and then write a novel. Which is fine. It’s even true. But you don’t need a book to tell you that.

Turndown_Sequence_by_maxduff           One interesting thing that I learned (from Save The Cat) was this distinction between scenes and sequences. The author, Blake Snyder, describes a sequence as a part of the movie where the dialogue is intercut with a lot of action (an action sequence, a sex scene, a negotiation, the operation of equipment, driving a car, etc.)

I thought about this when revising my novel Enter Title Here. In This Beautiful Fever, there are maybe two parts that I think of as being really locked-in: places where everything falls away and I feel really gripped by the narrative. And they both have what I’d call a sequencey feeling to them: there’s an interplay of action and dialogue and internal monologue that works really well. When writing them, I thought of them as setpieces and I used them to anchor what I thought of as the “acts” of the novel.

In Enter Title Here, I feel as if these sequences are more common, but still limited in number. There are maybe six or seven of them.

It’s tempting to say that novels need to have both scene and sequence, but I’m not sure that’s true. There are definitely novels that are all sequence. For instance, Emile Zola’s Nana has roughly eighteen chapters and each of them is basically this fantastic ten thousand word setpiece. In one of them, she’s performing a play. In another, she’s spending all of some dude’s money. Etc. Etc.

Grapes of Wrath* is also much more sequence than scene. Not only is it intercut with these fast-moving impressionistic chapters that are a bit orthogonal to the main plot, even the main plot often has a lot going on (I’m thinking of, for instance, the strike, or the Joads’ midnight drive across the desert).

I would say that Mrs. Dalloway is also mostly sequence. There’s never a moment at which people aren’t somehow in motion.

It’s also tempting to say that sequence is better than scene. I think there is something to that. Sequence certainly engages the interest in a certain kind of way. But plenty of novels work very well without it. Evelyn Waugh’s comic novels don’t really contain any sections that aren’t just two people conversing. I’d also that Jane Austen is much, much more dialogue than action. Even when people are strolling and talking, the environment never really impinges on their perception.

*Speaking of Grapes of Wrath, the other day I was thinking about Ma Joad lying on the floor of the truck during their ride across the desert and I got chills. Oh man, I’m getting chills right now, just writing about it! That book is really, really awesome. I was also thinking that there is some alternate reality where Grapes of Wrath is indisputably the greatest American novel: the alternate reality in which the Steinbeck’s socialist revolution actually came to pass. There’s such an element of prophecy to the book. When it closes, you can feel that something has to change: that there’s no way this rotting system can totter on for even another five years. But, unfortunately, it did. It tottered on right into the modern day. So Grapes of Wrath has to content itself with just being a wonderful novel, rather than a piece of our history.

Thinking about moving away from writing novel-length adult science fiction and fantasy

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Me, after I go literary

So, the thing that I didn’t mention in my post about getting an agent is that Greenhouse Literary specializes in children’s lit. At one point, that would’ve given me pause. During my initial rounds of querying, I only considered authors that repped adult science fiction as well as YA. However, my next adult SF novel didn’t really work for me. I lost interest in it halfway through the revision process. And the one after that (the novel draft that I completed a few months ago) was another YA novel, this time a contemporary (i.e. non-speculative) YA novel. For a YA writer, that’s fine—it’s totally normal to move between the subgenres of YA. But if I’m an adult SF writer who dabbles in YA, then that’s a bit off: it doesn’t really fit the narrative.

So I more and more like the idea of being a YA writer. The field feels a bit more active (although these things can change pretty quickly). But it also feels a bit more accepting. YA novels can have a number of different structures and plots and types of conflict.

SF, on the other hand, feels like it’s very limited to the standard adventure plot. Even very sophisticated and high-concept SF (stuff like the work of Brian Francis Slattery or Jeff Vandermeer or Cory Doctorow) kind of has these adventure plots. And I feel like I’m a bit over that. The part of the story that I’m most interested in is the rest of it: the situations, the characters, the settings—I resent every page that I have to waste on action scenes.

Of course, action is not mandatory in adult SF. Some of my favorite SF novels (Beggars in Spain, Speed of Dark, Farthing, A Scanner Darkly, 334, Flowers for Algernon, Stand on Zanzibar) have no action. Actually, Stand on Zanzibar might have some. I can’t remember, since I still have no idea what the actual plot of the book was.

So you can write non action-oriented adult SF. But…you’re kind of a marginal figure. I realized this when I was looking for books to review for Strange Horizons. The vast majority of books that come out in SF are series fiction: trilogies about fantasy heroes; never-ending series’ about paranormal detectives; books about spaceships shooting at each other with lasers. And all of those things are great! But if you don’t write those things, then you’re kind of at the fringes of the SF world.

In YA, that’s not true. Although dystopian / SF / Fantasy novels are popular, they don’t necessarily need to have these adventure-hero plots. And, furthermore, there’s the whole contemporary subgenre, where you pretty much never have that kind of plot. It’s not that there’s more freedom, it’s just that there’s more of a possibility that the thing you produce while being free might actually, you know, sell some copies. In SF, the most sophisticated writers either settle down to writing (very sophisticated) fantasy trilogies or detective novels or space operas, or they accustom themselves to being left out.

And that’s not what I want for myself.

The problem with YA is that, even though I like writing it, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life writing entirely about the lives and problems of 15-19 year olds. I do, at some point, want to write about adults.

But I’m seriously considering going all literary. Literary fiction isn’t a very big sector, but (in terms of sales) it’s about equal with SF (both are about 6% of the total book market; and both are dwarfed by mysteries, which are, in turn, dwarfed by romance). It feels like in literary fiction, just like in SF, people are primarily looking for more commercial stuff, but their definition of “more-commercial” is way different. They just want some high-concept lit-fic that actually has a plot. And I can do that. Plot is in my DNA. I’m never gonna write a novel that doesn’t move.

So yeah, I have an idea for a literary fiction novel (i.e. no speculative elements at all). I already produced a novella (27,000 word) version of it, and I am seriously pondering how to expand it to 60-70,000 words. I can’t speak to where my sense inspiration will take me, but I’ve found that my sense of inspiration tends to be very closely aligned with my professional self-interest. And, professionally, I think it’d be a pretty good career move to polish that thing up and try to make it my first-published adult novel. That way, even if I wrote more-speculative work later on, I’d be firmly established as a literary writer.

And yes, part of this is just I sort of just want to test out the correctness of my theory re: how one can get into the New Yorker =)

But of course, all of this is just dreaming. Generally speaking, it’s pretty difficult (for a number of reasons) to plan this sort of stuff out.

 

Oh, and as a final note, none of this will affect my short fiction output, of course. I love the SF short fiction market. It’s way more fun and vibrant than the literary fiction market. I honestly think I’d rather publish in F&SF than in McSweeney’s.

I still find it really weird to think of myself as a novelist

confusionI vividly recall the decision to write my first novel. It was about this time, four years ago, in the spring of my 23rd year. I’d made my first professional sale (to Nature) about a year before. Since then, it’d been nothing but rejection (I’d have another year to go until I made another one). Furthermore, in their rejection letters, editors kept telling me that my characters were unsympathetic. I was getting pretty tired of hearing about that. What did they want? Some wide-eyed orphan who was getting kicked around by an evil stepfather? Some square-jawed hero whose only problem was that he loved justice too much? Some good-hearted heroine who single-handedly supports her parents and keeps getting dumped in favor of the blonde tramp? What was the fun in that?

So I threw myself on my bed and cursed those magazine editors for their conservative tastes and decided that I was going to bypass them! I’d write a novel! At novel-length, people would finally be able to see my characters (the amoral wretches) for the beautiful, complex, and utterly sympathetic made-up caricatures that they were. And I’d put them in front of the eyes of an entirely new set of people: book editors—people who actually cared about the bottom line and who were, thus, willing to take a chance on a new and provocative and bold voice.

This actually wasn’t the first time I’d attempted a novel. Like most aspiring fiction-writers, I started one during my freshman year. I had the whole plot mapped out and everything. I wrote 8500 words the first day, 5000 on the second day, 2000 on the third day, 1000 on the fourth day, and nothing on the fifth, sixth, seventh, and all subsequent days.

But the summer of 2009 was different. That summer, I had purpose. That summer, I started writing a novel. It was a bold, high concept science-fictional premise featuring a bunch of awesomely epic setpieces and a whole mess of gunfights. That summer, I abandoned the novel and then restarted it. That summer I got a third of the way into the second draft of the novel before losing steam and petering out.  I didn’t really write a word of fiction between September 2009 to January 2010 (during this period, I also applied to eleven MFA programs). However, the following summer, I picked up the novel again and barreled through, completing it in November of 2010. Time from beginning to completion of a draft? Eighteen months.

Six months after that, I sat down to revise it and realized that I didn’t really want to put in the work to make it publishable. A week or so later, I got the idea for another novel, but I didn’t want to waste another two years of my life. I swore to myself that I’d only do it if I could write a complete draft in less than a month. And I did. And that novel became This Beautiful Fever.

Since completing the revisions on TBF and sending it out (about sixteen months ago), I’ve started three novels and completed drafts of two. But I still find it very difficult to think of myself as a person who writes novels. It all feels very strange and foreign and unreal to me. Short stories still come much more naturally to me. Every novel I’ve written has felt like some kind of interlude—a break from “real” writing.

But I’m glad that I’ve taken those breaks. It’s really weird how we reap the rewards of past impatience and foolishness. If, as a 23 year old, I hadn’t been so anxious for success to come right now, then I’d be in a much worse place right now. But my 23 year old self would probably be disgusted in the sheer waste involved in these last four years: the hundreds of thousands of words that’ve been discarded—the months that’ve gone by without any appreciable progress. Actually, now that I think about it if I hadn’t been so impatient, two years ago, to produce a sellable novel right now, I’d probably still be revising that first novel. Who knows, though? Maybe that novel would’ve ended up being spectacular.

I just don’t understand how life works. Sometimes you make all these impulsive, crazy decisions and you end up broke and homeless and friendless…and sometimes you make all these impulsive, crazy decisions and you end up with novel drafts and a growing confidence in your own abilities. But…to some extent…both kinds of craziness feel the same. My decision to start a novel was ridden with anger and resentment and laziness and every other bad reason for doing something. But it still worked out great!

That’s the thing about optimism and pessimism. We pretend that things can either have a good outcome or a bad outcome. But that’s not accurate. Things can have infinite outcomes. And it’s very difficult to predict which of those outcomes will actually come to pass. Both optimism and pessimism break down when we confront the fundamental unknowability of the future.

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

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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.

Finished the first draft of my fourth novel: Study Machines

Okay, right, so you’re reading this on Monday, but I am writing it at 3:30 AM on Saturday morning. I woke up at 7 AM yesterday and wrote for approximately 540 minutes (from 8 AM to 9:30 AM; most of the time between 2:30 PM to 6 PM; and then from 9 PM to 2 AM). During that time, I produced 14,500 words (my highest-ever single-day wordcount). And that 14,500 words was the last sixth of 93,000 word contemporary (i.e. not sci-fi or fantasy) YA novel that is tentatively entitled Study Machines.

I started the novel on December 18th (though it’d been percolating in the back of my brain since August) and wrote it over the course of 31 days (I took off December 23rd to revise my short story “A House, Drifting Sideways” for GigaNotaSaurus). During those 31 days, I wrote for a total of 4,596 minutes (76.6 hours). That’s approximately 148 minutes per day.

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This is obviously just a first draft, but I feel pretty good about it. If you’ve been paying attention, you might remember that I spent the fall blogging about my efforts to revise another novel (my third: Boom). Well, in late November, I abandoned that novel. I was trying to revise it, and I just couldn’t get over the idea that it was terrible. I mean, the structure was nice and some of the situations were interesting, but it had no personality. The writing was dry as hell.

It was hard to abandon it. After all, that was half a year of thought and effort gone down the drain. But it also felt very freeing. Because I wasn’t committed to it, the revision was really dragging out. It looked like it was going to take forever to get out there. My second novel (which is the only one I’ve ever submitted) only took 7 months to go from the first word to its first submission to an agent.

Inevitably, I always spend my next novel trying to correct whatever problem I had with the one before. This one has a lot of personality. I am glad. Voice is one thing that’s hard to add to a piece later on.

On this one, I was going to go slow on this one and do a little research (I checked out so many books from the library). But whenever I abandon a novel or novel attempt (which has happened three times now), I start to get super antsy and think to myself: “Oh my god! I’ve become someone who just fumbles around and never finishes anything!” and I find myself compelled to start something new immediately. So around December 18th, I felt this incredibly strong compulsion to stop faffing around and do something NOW.

Even after I started writing, I planned to go slow. I allocated myself almost 90 days (from mid-December to mid-March) to complete it. Obviously, that did not happen.

My problem is that I just don’t write slow. No matter what, I’m generally putting out around 1,000 words an hour. For short stories, I do a lot of rewriting: often 5 or 6 complete drafts, so it’s like I’m only writing 200 words an hour. But with novels, I haven’t yet quite figured out how to do the rewriting. I usually just start with the first word and write word after word (sometimes doing a very minor amount of backtracking) until I reach the end. Maybe, now that I know what happens, I should do a complete redraft of the novel. But…you know…I tried that with Boom and it was just deadly boring. I don’t know.

I’m not really happy with my line-level writing, and I think it would generally be improved if I went a little slower, but what can you do? In the bottom of my mind, I just don’t feel like there’s any point in writing good lines when it’s possible that all this stuff is going to be mooted by later revisions to the story. The problem, of course, is that good detail-filled lines generate new possibilities through their denseness. I did try to slow down and explore things a bit, but at some point my fingers just flew out of control and I could no longer exercise restraint.

I have a lot of fears about this novel. When I was on the plane home from India*, I wrote a list of 25 things about it that I thought might be bad. Then I tried to write a list of things that I thought were good, and I only came up with 21 things (though some of them were kind of a stretch). That’s a deficit of 4 badnesses! My intuitions about the deficiencies in my writing tend to be pretty accurate. For instance, when my summary blog post about Boom, I wrote that I felt like the writing might be bad. And it was.

But…I really do like this one. Some of its flaws will be fixed in revision and some will be unfixable. But, you know, it has its good points too. And novels don’t need to be perfect; they just need to be interesting.

Also, writing it was a hell of a lot of fun. When I write short stories, I usually approach them from a very cold and mechanical place: some idea that I want to work out. And that’s what I do with novels too, but novels…they somehow get away from you. Despite everything, the characters take on a sort of life. That’s a really enjoyable feeling.

*Yes, I wrote the bulk of this novel (approximately 74,700 words of it, while I was in or on the way to South Asia).

Just finished reading my own novel for the first time

Some of you might remember that about six months ago, I finished the first draft of a novel. Since then, I have not thought about it at all.

But I decided that before I began revising it, I should probably read it. And…it’s okay. Structurally, it’s not as big of a mess as I thought it would be, but in general, it’s still a horrible mess. I am not going to do as much work on it as needs to be done (or I will still be working on it in ten years). My plan is to do one revision pass, over the next three months, and then be done with it and ready to move on to the next thing. So….in three months I guess I’ll let you know how that goes.