Hello friendly people! I'm busily at work on my Princeton press book (working title: What's So Great About The Great Books?) It's going gangbusters. Love the book, having so much fun. Writing this book is so pleasurable it almost feels wrong. I do run into missteps occasionally, but I'm chipping away at it each day. The book is organized dialectically, as an argument with a Great Books skeptic (who is also me), so it doesn't need a lot of extensive prior planning.
I'm writing the book in Typora! Yeah, that markdown software that I wrote about before! I realized that Scrivener was starting to feel a bit oppressive: too many features, too much interface. Typora doesn't use a proprietary format, just simple markdown files that can be read by a variety of editors (even the source code is perfectly intelligible). I dunno, might go back to Scrivener, but so far I'm liking the experiment. The markdown format means it's simple to add headings, emphasis, lists, abbreviation, etc. I'm writing this as one big document, and there's an outline feature within Typora that lets you jump between sections easily. So who knows?
Of course I also just spent an hour writing custom CSS so that typora wouldn't add extra white space between lines in the editor, so I'm not sure it's ultimately a labor-saver. And doing that took up all my extra blog-writing time so c'est la vie.
Hello everyone. I got my COVID booster a few days ago, and today I got dizzy and fell down several times. Not a pleasant experience. But I assume COVID is an even-less-pleasant experience.
I am also going through edits on another piece that is going to appear in the Chronicle of Higher Education sometime next week, and I wrote a piece too that I sent to the LA Review of Books that maybe / probably will appear next week.
Not sure what to say about the whole essay-writing thing. I’ve always wanted to try to write for periodicals—it’s something they seem to have endless demand for—but was never sure who to pitch or how to develop ideas. I had a bad experience in 2013 when I pitched an article to Salon and worked really hard on it, and it was not at all what they wanted, and they killed it. So I didn’t try again for a long time. In retrospect it was probably good for me not to get caught up in the hot-take production line, but at the time it felt like a major failure, and it seemed like I just would never be able to adapt my voice to what any periodical might want.
The whole thing is really obscure. You can pitch articles in one of two ways: either to some submission email or portal the publication has (in some cases), or by hunting down the relevant editor and emailing them. But when I went with the latter, it never quite worked somehow. I actually tried sending things to the LA Review of Books multiple times, and it turned out that the editors had left or were about to leave. Submissions got swallowed up without reply by their general submissions portal. Finally, with my classical education piece, I sent it to someone on their masthead who was like “I’m not a commissioning editor, but I’ll send it on to Boris (their editor in chief)” who liked it. But even then they were like, “We will get you an edit in September.” I had no idea what that means…did it mean the piece was accepted or not?
This is just how writing for periodicals is I guess! To be honest I have no idea. I have a bunch of friends who do it, and I could’ve asked them, but always felt too shy. I prefer to fail in private. With these things, stuff that’s outside my comfort zone, I wonder if I’m good enough or whatever.
But I’ve been really pleased at the success of the classical education piece! It’s been retweeted and included in all kinds of wrap-ups and substacks. Oh my god, there are a lot of literary substacks. Wow. Come on, guys, haven’t you ever heard of a good old-fashioned WordPress blog? It’s like a substack but people can also find it online. Anyway, I have no substack, but you’re certainly welcome to do an email subscription to this blog—there’s some kind of tool or doohickey for doing that on the left-hand side of the page.
I’ve gotten a few emails—not an outpouring or anything, but a few—praising the piece. One was from an editor at Chronicle of Higher Education. They asked for pitches. I gave them one.
Personally, I hate pitching. I prefer to write out a piece beforehand. I think I’m sensitized by the Salon incident. I just want them to be able to scroll down, read the article, and see right away if it’s good enough. So in this case, after being accepted off a pitch, I was on tenterhooks, worrying the piece itself wouldn’t make the cut.
I dunno. It’s a sideline. Sorry if this is scattered or disjunctled—I’m still recovering from the shot and the fall (the latter happened about half an hour ago). I started writing essays (again) around this time last year, when I was still hunting for an agent. I’d spent a year looking, with little success. I was working on a fantasy novel, and I abandoned it, thinking, “What’s the point? It’s just another thing that I can do nothing with unless I get an agent.” So I made a big list of writing that I could do and pursue even without an agent. I’m trying to remember what was on that list. It was definitely something like the following:
Pitch another YA novel to my editor
Sci-fi short stories
Literary short stories
Obviously the biggest outcome of that decision to refocus my energies was that I wrote a proposal for my third YA novel, Just Happy To Be Here, which my editor took to acquisitions—which event finally found me an agent. But I also got short stories published in Gulf Coast and West Branch. I had poems appear in Cherry Tree and Vallum. I had book reviews in The Rumpus and The Bind. I self-published my cynical writer’s guide. and now I’m having these essays come out!
I think once I started working on all those sidelines, I felt almost immediately much better, more in control, and more confident about my fate. I literally said to myself, “Okay, even if I never get another novel published, I can keep writing, and that’s what’s important.” It was a very empowering moment for me. I know that none of these forms is nearly as high-impact as having a novel come out from a major publisher, and none of them is as close to my heart as my literary novel (which was the book that was failing to find an agent), but I think what’s important is just that you work, that you have a meaningful outlet for your talents, and that you have some chance of seeing your work reach the world. What’s so corrosive about the agent search is that your life is just on hold until you find an agent—you can write another book, but why bother? In my experience the agent usually doesn’t like the second book. And anyway they won’t send out the second one until the first one sells! So you’re just left sitting there twiddling your thumbs, waiting for someone to read your manuscript.
Breaking through that cycle was really great and empowering, and I continue to bear its fruits.
A friend of mine made his first professional short story sale yesterday. It's been an immensely long time coming. (( In the science fiction world, one marker of whether you've 'made' it is whether you've sold a story to a journal that pays 'professional' rates, which is the rate set by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America as their benchmark for determining if selling a story to that journal qualifies a person for membership in the organization. I think the pro rate nowadays is 8 cents a word. When I started out it was five cents a word. The list of sci-fi journals that pay pro rates is relatively small, I believe right now it's limited to Asimov's, Analog, F&SF (the only three remaining print journals in the SF world), Lightspeed / Fantasy / Nightmare (a trio of journals run by the same team), Clarkesworld, Uncanny, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, Tor.com, and Apex (though Apex has been going out of business and back into business and has run so many kickstarters over the years that it's hard to tell when it's operating and when it isn't). I'm sure there are others, but these are the main ones. Very few of these journals were aaround 17 years ago, when I started out (only the print zines and Strange Horizons). And in that time a number of zines have died, amongst them Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, Shimmer, Chizine, IGMS, Subterranean, Absolute Magnitude and others. This trip down memory lane has been brought to you by my recent discovery of Markdown's footnote functionality. )) He was writing at a professional level years ago. Why does it take so long? I have no idea. Just luck. It's hard to stand out. Sometimes I sell a story these days, and I'm like, "This story feels like a story I would not have been able to sell five years ago." The opposite also happens. Editors get tired of you. The stories you send in are just as good as before, but that's the problem, they've published too many, nobody wants them.
When you haven't broken in, or when you're being kicked out, there are things you can do. Switch stuff up, try new venues, give up writing for a while and come back, switch forms and formats, write longer, write shorter, read differently, etc. But to be honest that's the stuff writers are always doing. You do that like you breathe, just because of curiosity and playfulness and a desire for new challenges.
With two books out and thirty-five sales at 'pro' rates, I'd say I'm not in my early career anymore. I feel early. I still feel like I've done nothing and haven't broken in. But that's not objectively true. I'm definitely in the part of my career where I'm just doing whatever.
The other day I was talking about revision with a friend of mine, and I said I'm not a big believer in it. My experience is you can completely rewrite a novel, and peoples' reaction to it will be more or less the same. You get the same criticisms after the rewrite as you did before.
She said that was ironic, because I am the biggest rewriter she knows. We Are Totally Normal was completely rewritten three times at least, and my current literary novel is going on five or six rewrites (I am talking blank page rewrites). I said yeah, but I just do that to make the book better, not because it affects the reception.
I'm feeling pretty contented these days. And by these days, I mean Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday morning, because all weekend I felt miserable over problems with my current rewrite. I still have those problems! It's an utter mess! But what can you do?
I would definitely like to be a bigger success. I think that I deserve it. I think my work is really good. I think I'm a good writer. But, you know, lots of other people in the world are good writers too. My friend deserved to have a pro sale years ago. He wrote stories that were better than lots of stuff that's in the magazines! So what can you do? Today I was thinking that failure (or at least 'not earth-shattering success' like my own, because I am definitely not a failure) can be a blessing. You can just do your own thing, write, be terrible, no expectations. if I was Junot Diaz, I couldn't submit my terrible poems to all kinds of third-tier literary journals. It would be embarrassing! And it'd be even more embarrassing that I have no idea the right number of 'r's in embarrassing. I'd need to conduct myself entirely differently if I was Junot Diaz. I have none of those artistic restrictions now. I can write whatever I want.
That's a blessing. If I was Junot Diaz, I would have fame, I could give lectures, I'd be interviewed, maybe even get on TV occasionally (bit not often, I mean I'm not Norman Mailer, I'm Junot Diaz). But when I woke up in the morning, I wouldn't be able to write what I wanted. That's an immense cost. And it's one Diaz has clearly suffered from (witness the ten years it took to follow up on his acclaimed first book, Drown).
I've been reevaluating a lot in my life lately. Mostly as a result of reading Torrey Peters's book, Detransition, Baby. This is a bourgeois domestic novel (her words, not mine), with trans women as protagonists. I am writing a bourgeois domestic novel with a trans woman as a protagonist! But my book has been rejected by many people, including Peters's own literary agent. It's hard not to feel envious. But I really liked her book! It enriched my life! And, more generally, my life has been enriched by the writing of other trans women, queer people, black writers, and a whole host of other writers whose success has made me burn with envy.
I was discussing with another writer how difficult it is to read honestly when you're reading a contemporary's work. It's so hard to be generous and to engage with it as it's meant to be read. And that to me has been the biggest cost of envy. It's one thing for me to be miserable, but when envy starts harming my aesthetic judgement, it's just too much.
There's been a reckoning. I've been thinking about the roots of my own envy, and how they go back to all those years of struggling, when I was overweight, socially anxious, alcoholic, underemployed, celibate, and just generally rejeected in a whole host of areas of my life, including my writing. I built up this idea that I was the most brilliant and intelligent writer in the world and BY GOLLY I WOULD SHOW THEM ALL.
And that myth was very sustaining. For some writers, that sort of myth kills them, closes them off, makes them bitter and convinces them there's no reason to work. For me it did the opposite, I said I would batter my head against the wall until it fell down. I was frequently very confused. My work was so brilliant! Why was it being rejected!
It's easy to say, well, maybe the work wasn't good enough. In a lot of cases, that's true. But it's hard to know for certain. Maybe if an early story had gotten picked for an anthology or won an award, my career would've been different. Maybe if I'd gotten into Iowa or won a Stegner, who knows? Or if I'd sold my first book as a literary novel instead of as YA. You can never know.
But what's not good is that I'm still in that angry place, even as the level of self-deception needed to maintain the illusion (that I am the best) has grown increasingly untenable. And I don't know what meaning or purpose any of that scaffolding serves. At the point when I am rewriting a book despite not believing it'll make a huge difference in how it's received, I am way beyond temporal ambition, and it's become about something else. Maybe just having fun!
Which is to say, I've been dropping some of my envy, and it's been great! No regrets. I am not dropping, however, my ability and desire to make snap judgements about whether or not an artist is overrated, and then to gossip about them with my friends, because that is a pleasure too exquisite to be denied. I just won't do it from a place of envy.
It's a truism that all the fun and meaningful careers tend to be competitive and poorly compensated. I've been seeing a therapist lately, and when my insurance sends me the amounts they pay him, I'm consistently shocked: it's less than I bill as a freelance writer.
But writing corporate blog posts is not at all fun or satisfying, while presumably therapy is, so the latter, despite its extensive training requirements, gets paid much less.
Of course, the inverse isn’t true: unpleasant labor isn't necessarily well-compensated. Working retail seems pretty unpleasant; it's also not very well-paid.
They say that wages are set by supply and demand, but I wonder about this. All my life I've been paid well for things that I'm fairly certain most college-educated people could do. For much of that time, unemployment has been very high, with lots of people looking for and unable to find the work that I've been doing.
So I have given up on understanding the economy, except for this one point: anything at all fun or satisfying tends to be very poorly-renumerated.
Perhaps doctoring and software development are the exceptions. Doctors are well-paid (although most doctors I know would disagree with that) and many doctors find their work satisfying, but the supply of doctors is also artificially constrained by the extremely low number of medical school spots.
I'm at a loss to understand why software development is such a well-paid profession, since it seems fun and simple-to-learn. I've at least a dozen friends who've landed six figure jobs after taking just a twelve-week courses in how to code.
I guess the moral of the story is that you should learn to program computers. Not everybody has the mind for it, but I've been surprised at the people who can pick it up. Even some friends of mine who seem very left-brained (including one who majored in cultural anthropology in college) have successfully learned how to code.
Writing fiction is incredible. It's everything people say it is. Well I mean it's agony, of course, since most of the time I have no idea what to write, and even when I do write something, it usually doesn't sell, and even when it does sell, very few people read it. But it's still a meaningful occupation. And high-status too! People are quite impressed if you've published a book. They don't necessarily read the book (and I don't expect them too), but you still have status in their eyes, just the same as if you were a professional chess-player or a professional ballerina. People know it's not easy to get a book published.
I've been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between money and writing. The truth is that over the last four years, I've done okay, but that's mostly because of the large advance I received for Enter Title Here.
It's hard to believe I'll ever get one of that size again. There's very little security in this field. Even the concept of being a 'working writer' seems a bit meaningless. All you have is your last advance. There's no guarantee there will ever be another one. I’ve heard of NYT best-sellers who've had trouble selling another book. You're constantly in danger of losing your financial footing.
Not me, I'm fine. I have other income streams. And some savings. And I'm married to a doctor.
I suppose these are reflections prompted by my revisions on my second book. It's coming close to the time when the text will be put into production. At that point, this poor book will have to fend for itself.
With every book, you hope it'll catch fire and turn into something. I have those hopes for this one too. I think it can hold its own with the best YA novels that're out there. But you also realize that your opinion isn't necessarily shared by other people. Success is not guaranteed.
And with writing, it sometimes feels like there’s no middle-ground: if you’re not a best-seller, then the industry boots you out.
That's not entirely true. I have other tricks up my sleeve. I can change genres. That's it, actually, that's my only trick. I can change genres. Each time you write in a new genre, you start with a blank slate, and so far as I can tell, a writer can do this as many times as they want.
It's so different from other careers. My other friends have mostly achieved some stability by now. They have skills. They've gone to grad school. They get head-hunted on LinkedIn. Writing isn't like that. Even success doesn't last. The person winning awards one year doesn't even make the ballot in the next. The big book of the summer goes out of print within five years. I was thinking recently of a famous author from the early aughts and wondering why we don't notice anymore when he publishes a book. He’s just irrelevant: the culture is done with him, at least for now.
For me, writing is something between a hobby and a career. In many ways, I don't feel like my relation to it is very different from back in 2012, when I hadn't yet sold a book. I still mostly spend my time playing around. In fact, the best thing about this last year is that I finally got rid of the mouse (ahem ahem) that was hanging onto my back and turning the writing game into such a stressful experience. It's been a relief to recover my sense of exploration.
I spent two years writing sub-par books. After that experience, you can never again regard your creativity as something that's under your control. It comes, and it goes. Which means writing can never be a career in the way that other things are.
The writing world never interested me much, and now it interests me less. Writers aren't uninteresting people, but the element of careerism that runs through writing circles is extremely dull to me.
(Once someone objected to that opinion of mine, saying, "Why shouldn't people of the same profession spend their time talking about that profession?" and I didn't have an answer. Of course people should talk about whatever they want. But I find it so unhelpful to talk about career issues in the writing field. None of it can be planned. None of it can be managed. You cannot set goals and achieve them, because you cannot control, on the most basic level, whether anything happens when you sit down to write.)
I can't pretend that the time I spend alone with the written word is particularly satisfying. At times it is, but mostly it's a dull, intractable struggle. I try out idea after idea, approach after approach, and ninety-nine percent of them fail. My wife assures me that scientific research operates the same way.
On Wednesday I saw the latest remake of A Star Is Born, and in the movie Bradley Cooper is always telling Lady Gaga, in his raspy Johnny Cash imitation of a voice, that a singer "has got to have something to say."
I think that I have many things to say, but I wonder what my big ideas and my big themes are. I feel like my real work hasn't yet begun, and lately I've been thinking, "Oh wow, I need to watch my health, because there's a good chance it'll be another twenty or thirty more years before I'm able to write the novel I'm meant to write."
That expectancy sits like a stone in my stomach, and yet I know that looking back on this period, twenty or thirty years from now, the thing I'll envy the most will be that same sense of hope.
I was going to write today's blog post about how to organize your reading life. I had some trenchant observations to offer, apropos of my reading a few books of literary criticism. But instead of writing that post, I sat here staring at the blank screen for fifteen minutes.
Lately I've learned to listen to my own disinterest. Because there is no point in putting more words out there just for the sake of entertaining an invisible audience that may or may not care. I'm not saying my post on the reading life would not have been interesting, or that you wouldn't have gotten something from it. But, for me, that is not enough. There has to be something more.
I've also had many thoughts lately on skepticism. Recent replication failures, particularly in the field of social psychology, has me questioning much of the stuff I thought I know in the social sciences. It turns out that even scientists aren't amazing at determining even the correlations between things in the human world, much less the direction of causation. It's very difficult to know anything, and I've begun taking all arguments about patterns, particularly those patterns that are created after looking at the data, with a lot of skepticism.* But, again, everything there is to say about skepticism has already been said. My opinions are just David Hume mixed with Thomas Kuhn mixed with Daniel Kahneman. These ideas exist pretty readily out there in the world, and anyone can find them. So what's the point?
More and more I feel like writing the things that only I can write, and I really don't think I'll ever contribute much that's new to the world of ideas. Sometimes I read essay collections, and I'm like, "Wow, this is so organized and so interesting. Maybe I should write an essay." But then I think about all the research that's involved, and I get exhausted and depressed. It's only an hour or two later, that I'll be like, "Wait a second, I don't have to write an essay. I don't have to write anything. I can have my own thoughts, for my own elucidation, and never write them down."
I can't be the first author to have thought this. Last night I was skimming Edith Wharton's memoir A Backward Glance, and in the chapters about Henry James, she writes that it's a pity nobody ever recorded his conversation, because he was one of the most thoughtful, interesting, and witty people she had ever met. She said this entire side of him, the joking side, never came out in his published writings and only rarely in his letters. Now...Henry James wrote alot, and it's pretty staggering to think he was able to use language in ways he never put on paper. But the man was also a genius, and maybe he realized that while he was funny, his humor in no way matched what he was able to do in other arenas (now if you come back at me and say that Henry James's writing is funny, I will have to disagree with you. There exists humor within it, but jokes? there are almost none).
The practice of following the thread of my own interest is one I've been using a lot this year. I think it's hard when you're used to school, where you have to write on assignment, or freelancing, where you write for money, or genre fiction, where you write under contract, or the workshop, where you write because you've a slot to fill. Following the thread of your own interest doesn't come easily, because, especially early in one's writing career, you essentially have nothing to say, or at least no idea how to say it, and so 'following your own interest' would more or less mean silence.
Nor is that thread a very strong one, especially at first. Usually when you tug on it, the thing snaps. And sometimes this is good. Maybe I wasn't very interested at all. But before I learned to listen, the voice of my own interest was a very quiet one, and it was easily overpowered by the voices of fear and of ambition. It takes a lot of quietness to listen to your own interest, because it's not very insistent, and it's extremely willing to be overruled.
In my current work-in-progress, I had one situation that repeated itself (essentially, two different characters, in two different chapters, did something that was very similar). And it was very easy to convince myself this was a stylistic choice. Whenever I felt a sense of dissatisfaction, I was like, "But I'm doing it on purpose!"
It took faith to go back and delete the repetition and search for another answer. But the moment I had done it, I knew that it was the right decision. Similarly, in re-reading the book, I've noticed places where I get bored: situations that are perfectly well-drawn, but which simply don't cut to the heart of what I'm interested about. Cutting these parts will leave gaps in the story that I'll have to fill, and I won't be able to say precisely why they're being cut, but it's still something that has to be done.
Following the voice of my own interest means, most often, not writing something. So many times over the past year, I've looked at the opening lines of a story or a novel, and I've said, "This doesn't work for me." Which is an easy thing to say when it's just a line or a paragraph or a scene, but about when it's an entire concept? What about when it's something you've had in your idea box for years? What about when you haven't finished anything in a month, and you sit down every day, and nothing comes out right? At that point there's a very strong temptation to just force it. And I think if you've a very good sense of narrative structure (a much stronger sense than I), then that forced result can often be published and perhaps even acclaimed.
But the biggest damage there is not to your career or to the public, but to your own sense of what you're interested in. I don't know, I shouldn't phrase this in the second person. Authors all have their own ways of finding inspiration, and many of them (including a few great ones, like Anthony Trollope) seem to profit from just churning stuff out. But there are entire years in my life (I'm thinking of 2014 to 2016, the years right after selling Enter Title Here) when I was completely unable to get in touch with my own inspiration, and once you've gone through a period like that, you don't ever want to risk losing touch with yourself again.
*Human beings, when we look even at random data, can usually assemble some sort of pattern from it. For me to even come close to believing in a person's assertion, one of two things must be true: i) they must have tested it in some way, using protocols and methodologies established before data collections; or ii) it has to fit with my preconceived biases =]
Been thinking a lot about ageism within the writing community. More specifically, about younger writers shutting out or belittling older writers. Ageism to me is fascinating, because it's the only form of prejudice where you go from oppressed to oppressor and then back to oppressed, and in most cases this happens without you even realizing.
Like, when you're a kid it makes sense to hate on older people, because you're establishing your independence. But at some point, without even realizing it, you become a person in the prime of your life—somebody who has real power within your local sphere—but, in most cases, you continue to perceive yourself as a Young Turk who's doing battle with your elders.
You see this so much in the tech sector, here in San Francisco, where you have people in their mid-to-late twenties who are working in positions of power, and they're still talking about older people as if they're old fogies who're set in their ways, without realizing…this is gross. These people you're talking about aren't your teachers, and they're not your parents. They're not people who're using their age as a way of controlling you. Instead they're coming to you, asking for collaboration and for jobs, and you're dismissing them because of their age.
But the young'uns don't realize it, because they never adjusted to thinking of themselves as powerful people.
In most fields, of course, the effect is muted, because, at least up until retirement age, older people continue to have most of the power. For instance, in academia (and I'm including creative writing academia here), younger academics might have age-prejudice, but I wouldn't call them ageist, because the older professors in the department, even when they've ceased to publish or contribute, oftentimes still have an outsized amount of power.
In traditional fields, you see ageism manifest at the outskirts, whenever younger people with middling status have to interact with older people who have low or declining status. For instance, older lecturers in departments get treated even worse than younger lecturers, because younger lecturers, it's assuming, might be on their way someplace. Older middle managers are treated worse than younger middle managers, and it's for the same reason. Whenever older people have the same status as younger people, it's assumed that the older person is less innovative and intelligent, even though both might have the same productivity.
As I said, in literary fiction, academia is a countervailing force, creating an institutional environment in which older people can hold onto power. And in science fiction and fantasy, fandom serves much the same function. Because fan activities are grounded and controlled by older people (so far as I can tell) and Hugo voting also skews older, there remains a place for older people (which you can see in the case of older writers who get nominated for awards even after younger ones have begun to dismiss them).
But I've found that the young adult field is rank with ageism. It's probably the worst environment for it that I've ever seen, because there's no countervailing force that gives older people an advantage. First of all, the field is new. There was no young adult publishing, at least as we know it, twenty years ago. Secondly, it has no memory. Careers don't even last for five years. There's at least fifty percent attrition (if not more!) between book one and book two. The number of people who put out a book three is probably less than ten percent. This field chews up people and spits them out. Afterwards, I have no idea where they (we?) go. I'm pretty sure they (we?) just quite writing. In YA, an "older" writer who's successful might be someone like Stephanie Meyer or Gayle Forman (who're both only in their forties!) Even our "Old Guard" is barely into middle age.
Finally, this is a field that is about the magical primacy of teenagerhood, and it's dedicated to the notion that there is nothing teenagers can't do, and that there's no feeling or thought that they're not capable of. And when you're surrounded by those sorts of semiotics, it's sort of unavoidable that you would slowly begin to discount the value of age.
As a result, at YA writer events, you usually see cliques form by age. The twentysomethings hang out together, the thirtysomethings hang out together, and the fortysomethings hang out together. I don't know where the fifty- and sixtysomethings go. They get shunted aside fully. As I said, I don't think the YA field even has a place in its cultural imagination for people who're over fifty, so most of what I'm talking about here is 'age discrimination' against people who're, like, forty-seven.
Now I don't necessarily think this is the worst thing in the world. America today, at least amongst the sorts of middle- and upper-class people who write YA books, is a pretty age-segregated place. There are entire neighborhoods and towns where only young people live, or where all the homes are "starter" homes. I'm thirty-one, and I go to parties here in San Francisco, and I almost never see somebody who's older than forty (this is not the case, I'll note, in other places, especially rural areas, or in ethnic and religious enclaves, in rural Oregon, in Salt Lake City, and at certain Indian events, I've been shocked at times to see people of all ages getting drunk together). I think all of this makes us really unused to socializing with older people, which, after all, is something different from socializing with younger people. You're gonna talk about different shit. Have different concerns. Maybe have different political opinions. So if people gravitate to others of their own age, I totally get it.
Where it becomes a problem is when one of the ages is more powerful than the other ages. And in YA writing, I think it's true, the perception exists that the younger you are, the more likely you are to get buzz and to succeed as a writer.
Now I don't know how true this perception this. It could be entirely false. As I said, I don't think New York publishing necessarily cares a lot about the age of a debut author.
But because the perception exists amongst authors, I think it leads to a lot of resentment when younger people hang out together. Because in that case it's not just like cleaving to like, it's actually the Hot Young Things all getting together and hording their success.
Furthermore, it can lead to some desperate social maneuvers that (somewhat comically) oftentimes resemble an inverted high school, with older writers doing their best to speak and dress in a younger fashion so as to ingratiate themselves with younger authors. None of which is something I think is particularly necessary, by the way! I don't think popularity with other authors correlates with your book's success. These are all just neurotic games that we play. But the fact is that while we're waiting to succeed or fail, we still have to live in this social environment, and I think these sorts of social dynamics make it into a more unpleasant place for everybody.
Alright, well that was the most nerve-wracking two weeks of my life. Got a lot of interest in the book, but finally ended up going with the first person who got back to me: Robert Guinsler at Sterling Lord.
Very pleased to be working with Robert. He has an excellent track record, but, more importantly, he really loved and seemed to get my book. Hopefully it'll sell, but we'll see. Hmm, now I need to update all the many places on my site where it says who my agent is...
I'm doing line-level edits to It's Probably Just A Phase. The book is currently at about 78,000 words, and I've found that it's generally possible to reduce a book by at least 10% simply by going through and tightening the language. I am also going to try to inject some beauty into the language.
In general, I'm not an amazing prose stylist. I have an okay ear, but my eye isn't very good. I can't see things in a new way, and if you can't see well, then it's difficult to write well. However I have come, over the years, to have a better opinion of my own line-level writing, simply because I leave out most of the bullshit that people often put into books when they're flailing around and trying to write something that sounds like a book ought to sound, rather than relying on their own sense of aesthetics.
I'm not against description. I'm not even against wordiness. My sentences tend to be pretty long, and I think the right detail in the right place is a beautiful thing. Two of my favorite writers are Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust for Christ's sake. Although it's not the main thing I enjoy in a book--I prefer books that depict complex social relationships--I do love it when a writer can make me feel like I'm living somebody else's life: seeing what they see, smelling what they smell, walking where they walk.
But if you can't do that, don't try to snow me over. I'm basically talking about any book described as having "lush prose." To me that just means this book is describing the greek friezes on the lintel, and grandma's collection of elf dolls on the bookshelf, and the smell of the jacaranda that's climbing the trellis. God save me from the jacaranda. When a book is really dense and full, nobody describes it as lush. Nobody's going around saying Virginia Woolf is lush, because prose is lush when it seems excessive or overgrown.
Anyyyyyyways, I'm editing my book. It's frightening. I mean I haven't done this in four years! And it seems very possible that nobody is gonna want the stupid thing. I believe so strongly in this book, but that's not really a guarantee. And I am getting terrifyingly close to the day when I will need to send it out. Because after I do this line-by-line tightening there's no more revisions left. I'm not gonna go back and rewrite a bunch of scenes. The book at that point is done, at least until an editor or agent has their way with it.
Was thinking the other day about how it's amazing the way little things can get in the way of writing. Like if you have a dirty plate on your desk, you might say to yourself, "I'm gonna clean this plate, and then I'm gonna write." But then if you don't clean that plate, you won't end up writing, because first you need to clean the plate!
If the plate was a bigger task, it'd be easier to see what you were doing. If you were like, "I'm gonna do my taxes, and then I'm gonna write," you'd be able to rationally look at it and be like, "Doing my taxes is a big job. I'll do it later, and I'll write now."
But because the plate is such a small job, there's never a moment at which it makes sense to just give up on it and go ahead and write.
Of course, you could also just go ahead and clean the plate. But...then you'd have to write.
I generally tend to date the beginning of my fiction-writing career to December 20th, 2003, when I finished my first-ever short story. Since that first year of writing, I've kept fairly detailed records of how much I've written and on what days. Over time, I added other indicators, like how much time I spent writing, how much time I spent reading, etc, etc. And I usually publish those stats on my blog on this day. However the big news this year is that after more than twelve years, I've abandoned my record-keeping system.
To be honest, I simply got tired of it. The setting and keeping of goals was a huge hassle. It drained the fun out of life. And I also couldn't see that it was really serving my main goal, which is to write great stories. On the contrary, I'd been following this scheme for years, and I felt like I was just spinning my wheels, and writing nothing that was any good. So I stopped. I also felt like it'd done all the good it was going to do me. After almost four years of writing every single day, the habit of writing was either inculcated in me or it wasn't.
I deleted most of the columns from my spreadsheet, and now the only things I keep track of are whether I actually wrote anything at all (even one word) on that day. That's only to keep myself in the habit of thinking of myself as a writer.
And I don't think I've been unsuccessful. In the time since I stopped, I've written and revised a novel that I'm quite excited about. I've also written a few short stories, including one which just sold to F&SF. That's not bad.
So in lieu of my normal detailed roundup, all I can offer are generalities. I wrote...a bunch. Probably less than I have in years. But I produced a novel! A good novel! And that's more than I managed to do last year. I think the lesson here, if any, is just that people change. For years my spreadsheet was my one constant in life. I checked it like every day. Now I go quite awhile without looking at it (there're still some daily things I track, but I can fill them in a few days at a time); it has left me unmoored, but also freer. Now I can take long walks if I want. I can lounge around. I can neglect my blog. It's nice. Whether this state of affairs will last is, well, I've no idea.