A year in the blogging life

One post I swore I’d never write when I started this blog (more than ten years ago!!!!!!) was the one where you apologize for not writing more often, and so far I have successfully avoided falling into this trap, even as the gaps between posts have increased!

Blog readership is substantially up from last year, for some insane reason. Last year I had twenty thousand unique visitors and like forty thousand page views, this year it was thirty thousand unique visitors and sixty thousand page views. And this is despite me writing way, way less often than in the past. So that’s cool.

It’s been nice to not have a book out. I never thought of the blog as a marketing tool, but now I can ignore the pressure to turn it into a marketing tool. Instead I can just write about the shit that comes to mind. This year I’ve posted less often about books. I’m not sure why. I’ve read just as much, and I’ve gone through some pretty interesting phases in my reading. Like I just read a ton of Michael Crichton novels, including some pretty bizarre ones, and I didn’t write much about him. I spent two months reading Clarissa and posted hardly anything about that. I read Gawain and the Green Knight, a truly bizarre medieval Arthurian tale with the crazy, strange morality that medieval tales are known for. But did I post about it? No. I also watched way more TV and played more video games than in years past. This year I must’ve put at least 200 hours into Diablo 3. I beat Borderlands 2 and the Pre-Sequel, I beat Fallout New Vegas (after 100 hours) and put another fifty hours into Fallout IV. I even, finally, after bouncing off it for many years, got into Skyrim! I watched plenty of The Good Place and You’re The Worst, I fell in love with Riverdale, I saw Sorry To Bother You and Eighth Grade and Roma and Blackkklansman and A Star Is Born (and plenty of much worse movies) in theaters. But about these things too I posted nothing.

Looking back on my year, I posted largely about my writing process. Some years I post little about this, but for some reason I intellectualized a lot of it this year. For me it’s a perpetual struggle to get closer and closer to the heart of longing. For years all I knew was that I wanted to find it, but I had no idea how to go about it. This year I started to learn the secret: you just listen. It’s that simple. You put your pen over the paper or your keys over the keyboard, and you listen to your own heart. I mean that quite literally. There are some images that make the heart beat faster and that make your skin tingle, and those are the ones you’ve got to write.

See, I’m doing it again–writing about my process!

Because at the other end of the thing, at the consumption stage of my relationship to media, I’ve been wondering more and more what it’s about. I remain convinced that narrative fiction is, like gravity, the weakest of the many forces that act upon a life. People are more influenced by what they ate for dinner or by the fit of their shoes than they are by books. And even when it comes to ideas, most peoples’ ideas, including mine, are largely the same as what their peers believe.

More than that, fiction (but not just fiction, I’m talking about all art) is a shadow-play. It’s not real. I’ve spent my adult life waiting for the book that’ll truly transport me, and I’ve found them to be very rare. More and more, I feel that the best I can hope for is a book that’ll become my friend. I remain myself and the book remains itself, but it’s a true pleasure to sit down and listen to the book tell me something interesting.

Kids experience a more passionate connection to fiction. I know this. But even as a kid, I don’t think I was defined by what I read. When I hear the way people on Twitter talk about, say, Star Wars or something else from their childhood, I can’t relate at all.

But it’s still fun to write. I mean some people spend their lives writing marketing copy. Compared to that, writing fiction is pretty meaningful.

You also don’t know the things that will stay with you. I read The Tale of Genji six years ago, and it was a bit of a slog. The book is eleven hundred pages, it’s repetitious and slow. But the quiet melancholy of the book has stayed with me all these years. Lately I’ve started reading a Chinese novel, The Story of the Stone (also known as The Dream of the Red Chamber) and that same quiet sense of transience has crept upon me, but in a much more fun way! I feel really connected to the characters in this novel for some reason, perhaps because they’re the most frivolous people imaginable (a bunch of rich aristocrats who hang around in their family compound reciting poems and praising each other extravagantly). It’s a book that’s really added something to my life.

Looking back over the year’s reading, I see a few that I think I’ll carry with me forever: Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day; Arthur Schnitzler’s Late Fame; Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (extremely underrated book!!!); Howard Sturgis’s Belchamber; Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (which has already inspired a short story); Julian Barnes’s Sense of an Ending; Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; Evan Connell’s dyptich Mr and Mrs Bridge; Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry Into The Origin Of The Sublime and the Beautiful; oh, and so many Somerset Maugham novels, but especially Moon and Sixpence.

Like gravity, fiction’s power fades less with time and distance than other things do. At times, it’s even stronger than memory. Books, or at least the right books, really stay with you. A life devoted to books isn’t necessarily logical or useful, but it’s does give you certain sorts of experiences that you couldn’t otherwise get. There’s a pleasurable solitude–a sense of communion with another person–that’s more intimate than most friendships. Although the relationship with a book is entirely imaginary and no reciprocal, it still feels in some ways like a real relationship, and that’s something that I actually enjoy quite a bit.

I’m fifteen years into my writing career, and this year I felt all the feelings

I finished (and promptly submitted) my first short story on December 20th, 2003, which means that today is the end of my fifteenth year attempting to make a go of this writing thing.

Writing-wise, it hasn’t been a bad year. I sold my book last December, and this year I’ve been making revisions to it. I also wrote the first draft of a new novel. I wrote five short stories, which is a bit down from the eighteen I wrote the previous year (but most of those eighteen were terrible, and only two of this year’s were terrible). I also sold a story (originally completed last year) to Asimov’s, which is a new market for me. That’s significantly fewer than the three stories I sold the year previous, but whatever, they’re just short stories.

I think I learned more about writing this year than I have in the last few years combined. The process of completing my novel for adults and then radically revising my next YA novel, which I felt was severely flawed (even though it’d already sold) were catalyzing experiences for me. This year, I continued to make my writing smaller, less dramatic, plainer, and more focused on the intricacies of personal relationships, and I continued to place more trust in the reader, having faith that they’d understand the little undertones I was putting into the story.

This year I also worked less hard than I have in many years. There were many days when I didn’t write at all, and many days when I wrote just an hour. I somewhat lost faith in the concept of “working hard” this year. Asimov said you needed to work out a million words of crap before you write anything good, but I’ve had five or six years in my life when I wrote a million words in that year alone. In my life, I think I’m at well over ten million words, and I no longer believe that just putting down words is at all worthwhile.

I’m coming to the end of two years working on this latest book, and I’m starting to realize that from now on it’ll take me longer and longer to write less and less. I don’t know if I can work in multiple genres anymore, and I don’t know if I can write at the pace needed to maintain a career in commercial fiction.

Moreover, this year has been somewhat disillusioning to me, as I’ve realized that I don’t think any of the advances I’ve made in my work are coming across to my readers. I’ve always believed that the solution to rejection is to work harder and to get better, but in my case getting better has only brought more rejection.

Sometimes I think it’s possible that my work just isn’t good enough. It has many virtues that I can see, but maybe those virtues aren’t the important ones. The work that excites people seems to be bigger, more florid, and angrier than mine. I’m certainly out of touch with the zeitgeist, but even more than that, I wonder if I’m out of touch with the human heart. Because as easy as it is to decry other peoples’ bad taste, the truth is that they aren’t faking it, and other authors’ success isn’t really manufactured by publishers. I’ve seen a lot of people get exposed to my work and bounce right off of it without feeling any level of excitement. At the same time, those people read other authors and it really stirs something within them.

I don’t know. It’s perplexing to me because I feel that I write straight from the heart. I don’t even begin a work unless I can feel the heart of longing inside of it, whereas I read other works that don’t seem, to me, very alive. But the longings I write about don’t seem to resonate very much with people. Or at least the way I write them doesn’t resonate.

Of course I have a new book coming out, and in the year to come I’ll get the trickle of reviews and reactions. Maybe it’ll all be great! Who knows? Yet although I really love my characters, I know that there’s a lot for people to dislike in them. Still, I am 100 percent confidence that nobody in the YA field has ever written about sexuality the way my new book does, and that makes me feel good. I’m sure at least a few hundred people out there will read it and think, “I’m not alone.”

Envy has been less of a problem for me this year than in previous years. One reason is that I manage my social media. I’ve unfollowed everybody on Twitter and am only selectively re-following people. I also mute people on Facebook if their posts inspire envy. I’ve found lately that I tend only to be envious of people who I don’t think are great writers. If someone writes a good book, even if they’re much younger than me, I’m much less envious. And if someone is genuinely my friend–a person whose company I enjoy in the real world–I’m also not envious. These things weren’t always true for me, so I guess age really does bring wisdom.

Within YA fiction in particular, there’s a cult of, well, pretending that nothing negative ever touches you. Seriously, it’s like Bad Moms every day up in this field, and I’ve found that it’s relatively easy to divide people into those-who-be-fronting and those-who’ll-let-their-hair-down-and-occasionally-be-honest-even-if-it’s-only-in-private. And if you’re telling me you never feel envy, then perhaps you’re correct, but more likely you’re fronting, so don’t come here with that shit. Samesies if you’re one of those people who never has trouble writing. For me, writer’s block is a constant companion, and I’ve made peace with that. In fact, I don’t even think of it as writer’s block, I just think of it as “having high standards.”

What’s been really amazing this year is not being under contract anymore!!!!!! For the past few years I’ve been enslaved to Disney because of my two-book publishing deal. With that deal broken and with only a one-book deal with Harper, I now feel like I can genuinely pursue projects that I’m passionate about. It is really, really, really, really nice to just be able to sit down and write whatever you want.

At the same time I’ve no idea what my next project will be. I want to write a literary novel for adults. Many YA authors seem to think writing for adults is the promised land, but I know it’s not. It is so hard to sell a literary novel, and when you do, the sales are usually awful. What I write–energetic comedies of manners–have a market in the YA world, and I enjoy writing them, but at times I feel constricted by the marketplace. There are places I’d have taken this latest novel that I knew it couldn’t go in the YA marketplace. And as I become increasingly interested in writing about masculinity and male sexuality, I feel like there’ll be more and more that I cannot say in the YA market (which is totally fine, but still, if I can’t say it here, then I need to go someplace where I can).

And at the same time, I’ve been thinking a lot this year about what impact I’ll have, if any, on the world of letters. I don’t know if anything I’ve written, or will ever write, is good enough to live on. To make your mark on literature, you need more than a good tale well-told. There has to be some element of innovation. I think that I see things and describe things, particularly when it comes to the finer points of psychology and personal relationships, that nobody else has ever seen or described, but I could just be fooling myself. Nevertheless, I don’t think that the YA world is really in dialogue with the rest of the literary world. More and more it seems to me like a different planet entirely, one where every genre has its own one-to-one YA replication (YA romance, YA thrillers, YA fantasy, etc), and the world of YA is so vast that it doesn’t need to speak to any other one. But that’s just not me.

I’m sorry, I know some authors will take that personally. There’s a profound defensiveness that runs through commercial literature, and I well understand that feeling. I came up through commercial literature. I always assumed I’d be a sci-fi writer! And I think there are many, many under appreciated YA writers. But at least those writers are usually successful within the YA field, whereas I’m kind of…not. The fact is that different genres do have different readerships, and I don’t think it’s absurd to suggest that, well, maybe my true readers are elsewhere. Or nowhere! Who knows?

This will all seem like whining and sour grapes to those determined to view things through that lens. I don’t feel bitter, though. What I have–a published book and another on the way, both from major publishers–is an incredible thing. It’s only now that I’ve sold and published a book that I can see how amazing an accomplishment it is. And selling a second book is even more incredible! This industry is pitiless. It acts relentlessly to force you out. Even authors who’ve written hits can often find themselves without a publisher. There is no security anywhere in this business, and even to continue to write and to publish is a tremendous victory. It really is, believe me. If you’re an aspiring author, you cannot even begin to understand how little this business cares about you as a person, because it’s totally different from any other personal or professional milieu in which you’ve existed. The publishing industry has a kind of contempt for its own authors that is staggering. And it’s no one’s fault–the agents and editors are all good people, who are responding to their own incentives–and the fact is that they also are facing incredible pressure–editors go out of business and editors get fired all the time (there’s a reason everybody in publishing seems to be under thirty, it’s because sometime mid-career almost everybody gets the axe). So it’s really nobody’s fault.

The quality of my work has increased this year, but the time spent writing has decreased, which is a paradox that’s left me unsure of what to do with myself. More and more I’m convinced that I’m unable to ‘force’ it. Work that I write just for the heck of it tends to be somewhat lifeless. But that leaves me, uniquely amongst modern San Franciscans, with an excess of time and energy, and I don’t really know what to do with myself. But oh well, I suppose that’s a problem for next year.