Gay marriage

I’m happy about it. Marriage equality is a good thing. There are some ambivalent feelings about it in the LGBT community, I know. Like, it’s great that queer people can get married, but it also feels icky that this is the major victory, since it’s basically all about queer people assimilating and becoming more like straight people. (Whereas, for instance, a national law against employment discrimination or a national program to help LGBT homeless youth would be something that felt a little bit more like a celebration of queer peoples’ right to choose.)

On the other hand, I don’t even know if I experience that ambivalence. There is a powerful conservative streak that runs through my own psyche. Not conservative on a political level, but conservative in an older sense. Conservative as in wary of change. In America, minority groups fight for the right to assimilate, and then they do. It is our pattern as a nation. People are free to be different, and to pursue their own ways of life, but this country does not make it easy. There is a powerful conformity pressure here.

The American dream enshrines both individualism and its opposite. Individuality is celebrated, but it’s also punished. Maybe you can’t have one without the other. If we weren’t a society that looked down upon abnormal people, then we couldn’t be a society which celebrated abnormal people who succeed. Perhaps what it comes down to is that we hate anything that is incomplete or uncertain or unfinished. America only accepted queer people once they were able to present a shiny, happy picture of themselves as committed, monogamous, All-American couples who wanted nothing more than to marry. Whereas the larger acceptance–the acceptance of that which is anarchic or inchoate–is, I think, going to be a long time in coming.gay-older-couple1

Finally got a Los Angeles library card

I’m at the Lambda Literary Retreat for Emerging LGBT Writers. It’s great. Really enjoying it. It’s kind of like the Launchpad workshop, but without the terrible altitude sickness! And I finally realized my year-long dream of getting an LA library card!!!

Little backstory: I read most of my books on the Kindle. And almost all libraries, nowadays, have a kindle lending library. And the bigger the library system, the bigger their kindle book selection. San Francisco has tons of Kindle books, but LA’s selection DWARFS theirs. I mean, it’s no surprise. If you have a book that only gets checked out once per year per million people, then it’d only get checked out like .8 times a year in SF, but in LA it’d get checked out eight times! Which means it makes way more sense for LA to have a copy than it would for SF to have one.

Anyway, almost all library systems in CA will give a library card to anyone with a CA address, even if it’s in a different municipality. I have no idea why they do this. Maybe it’s a state law. Anyway, I’m not sure they’ve quite realized the ramifications of this reciprocity when it comes to ebooks (i.e. my LA library card is useless for checking out physical books unless I’m actually in LA, but with it I can check out LA ebooks no matter where I am in the world). I’m sure they will cut off out-of-system ebook lending eventually, but until then I’m going to be sitting pretty!

Connoisseurship is unavoidable

I was in the grocery story the other day and I looked at the apple display and was like, “Eww, red delicious, what’s the appeal? Are there people who want apples that taste like wax? Or is it just the color?”

And then I was like oh my god, I’m an apple snob. This is how it happens. You just consume enough of something that you become jaded with entry-level experiences and go searching for more refined ones, and then you start to look down on the entry-level ones. It is unavoidable!

I don’t necessarily believe that writing useless words is any help in later on writing good words

Sansa-Stark-sansa-stark-35694453-2808-4240At Clarion, Samuel Delany said something like, “Writing a bad stories isn’t practice for writing a good story, it’s just practice for writing another bad story.”

Which is a pretty uncompromising thing to say. And also a little bit untrue, since almost every writer does get incrementally better over time, so, in some way, writing bad stories does feel like it helps. But I also think there’s a lot of truth there. Because you can’t just keep doing the same thing over and over and expect the output to get better. Furthermore, in my own writing career, I’ve often spend months writing draft after draft of something–all of which were complete crap–only to arrive at one simple conceptual leap that finally helped me create the right draft.

I don’t think that writing the bad words helped me make the conceptual leap, I think that rejecting the bad words helped me make it. Writing bad words just keeps you busy. It confirms you in your belief that you are a writer, and it creates the space in which something good can happen in your writing. But that good thing still needs to actually happen. If it doesn’t, none of the bad words are ever going to amount to anything.

In the most recent case, I feel like I’ve finally cracked the problem of my second novel. For a month or so I’ve been trying to revise an older novel (my pop star novel), but something always felt wrong with it. In fact, something felt wrong in the initial draft, too. I never felt like the protagonist had sufficient motivation for doing what she did (walk off the set of a TV show she was filming). It always felt more like something I’d mandated than like something that flowed organically from the character. In the initial draft, I papered over that problem by attributing everything to the voice of God. You see, God tells her that she needs to leave her show, so she does. But that’s unsatisfying, because it’s so external. In fact, the story only works if God is a hallucination, and it’s actually a reflection of her own desires. But in that case, the story I’d written felt too distant. Because of the voice of God conceit, the character never had to integrate and own up to her own desires.

So I’ve been trying and failing to figure out who this person was. I just didn’t get it. I worked on it from all kinds of angles, trying everything. Mostly, I tried to make her a little spunkier and a little less hapless (more hap?), since, in my opinion the main problem with her was that she was too passive. But it’s one thing to make a heroine more active–it’s an entirely different thing to figure out what she needs to be active about.

But today, while driving home, I had a realization. My elevator pitch for the book used to be: A pop star is filming a television show when she suddenly hears a mysterious voice telling her that what she’s doing is sinful and wrong. After deciding that the voice is the voice of God, she walks off the set.

Now, say what you want about that book, but it’s a book that’s about something. Whereas now I had zero elevator pitch. I was actually unable to say anything about my book beyond A pop star walks off the set of a television show.

Why? Why did she walk off? What could possibly make her want to leave?

Once I framed it that way, I was able, pretty rapidly, to come up with a new elevator pitch: After complaining about a distasteful scene she’s been asked to film for her show, a sixteen year old actress walks off set when she realizes that the people around her have zero respect for her abilities–they see her as nothing more than a body.

There. That’s it. Pretty simple. Is it good or not? Will I be able to write it? Will my editor and publisher like it? I have no idea! But at least it’s an actual story.

After getting that down, I was able to sit down and write out the entire synopsis. It heavily draws upon the synopsis for my first draft of the book, but in this case the story has a solid backbone. There’s both an external story: Will she beat the studio and get her own way? And there’s an internal story: Does she actually have any talent?

And the two stories work in concert, because the internal story is the key to the external story. If she has talent, then she ought to keep fighting the studio. Whereas if she’s nothing more than a manufactured sensation, then she ought to give up and let them do what they want.

I also wrote down that critical first scene! In it, she’s having a very carefully supervised phone call with her mother, where the mother tells the actress that her show is sinful and wrong.

So yeah, who knows. It’s entirely possible that I’ll wake up tomorrow and realize that EVERYTHING IS COMPLETELY WRONG. But maybe I won’t!

The broader point is: how did I work on this draft for a month (and on this novel for close to a year and a half) without ever realizing that it didn’t have a character arc?

I really can’t say. Writing novels is hard! It’s really easy to get bogged down in details! In this case, I kept getting short-circuited by all the story-within-a-story parts. I could write the actress parts fine, but whenever I had to write about her TV show, I just got dreadfully bored, because it seemed to have no relevance to anything. I realized, quickly enough, that the problem was that the show-within-a-show parts didn’t advance the central story, so I kept trying to figure out ways for it to matter more. What I didn’t realize, though, was that I was looking at it backwards. I couldn’t write a good story-within-a-story until I figured out what really mattered to the character.

After I’d figured out what the novel was actually about, the story-within-a-story came together pretty quickly (it’s a Game of Thrones analogue–the actress plays the Sansa character).

Whenever I feel tempted to comment about stuff, I try to remind myself that for some people these issues are deadly real

Red_Sunset_by_Mariposita1I am a serious person. I am well educated. I am articulate. I have many thoughts and opinions about things. Today, for instance, I had a very good conversation with a friend of mine (Danielle) wherein I made what I thought were some very salient and interesting points on the comparison between transracial and transgender identities (the conversation spurred by Rachel Dolezal’s story being juxtaposed with Caitlyn Jenner). I think there is nothing wrong with discussing these things or having opinions about them, and I encourage people to do so.

In fact, the having of opinions was so enjoyable that I even considered writing up those thoughts in the form of a pithy Facebook status or blog post. It is even possible (though unlikely) that this blog post would’ve been a valuable contribution to the internet’s discussions on this topic. But when it came to the point of actually putting fingers to keys, I felt exhausted by the whole prospect. Because the truth of the matter is that whenever you write about identity questions, you’re writing about stuff that is serious business for a lot of people. They often are beaten and harassed because of these questions. They suffer financial and career loss. They suffer discrimination and shunning by both friends and family. And I wouldn’t want to write any comment that wasn’t respectful of that reality. Not because I’m afraid of people leaping on me and saying that I am very very wrong (although partially because of that), but also because it wouldn’t feel right. I’d rather just find some other person’s comment and link to it, so that’s what I’ll do.

This is another reason that I didn’t like living in DC. There was too much gossip and too much shop-talk about issues that were deadly important. Living in the Bay Area is much better, since all the talk is about the tech sector, and, say whatever else you want about it, but the tech sector strikes me as something that’s just important enough to blather on about. It’s important, don’t me wrong. But it’s not deadly important.

Turned in my copy edits, but I’m still trying to write the proposal for my second book

smashed-tv-remote-8414236(Or rather, to write _a_ proposal for my second book, since there’s no guarantee that what I write will be accepted).

I have the voice. I have the setting. I have the plot. I can literally (and I mean literally) hear the character speaking inside my head. But it still hasn’t come together. Because the very last thing I need in order to for a book to work is the perfect first scene.

Many authors do not need the perfect first scene. They just write any old scene and revise it later.

I do not work that way. I need the perfect first scene because the perfect first scene leads to the perfect second scene. It’s my own special mania, perhaps.

The perfect first scene contains many things, but the most important thing that’s missing, right now, from all my first scene attempts is that I want it to perfectly encapsulate the central conflict of the book. From the very first scene–usually even the very first paragraph–you want a hint of tension. And right now I don’t have that. And that slackness keeps me from writing further. There’s just no point in writing any action or setting detail or dialogue unless it’s somehow animated by thwarted desire.

It’ll come to me.

Usually, though, when I’m at an impasse like this, it means I need to change one of my assumptions about the book. It’s not that I just haven’t found the perfect scene yet, it’s that the perfect scene CANNOT yet be written, because the perfect scene would contain elements that are, currently, at war with my Platonic conception of the book.

My friend Courtney Sender and I were talking about this recently. She was talking about how sometimes your editor will ask you to add a line to a scene, but you can’t do it, because the language is so tight that all the sentences flow logically from each other, and there’s simply no space to put in a new one. The solution, in these cases, is to smash the scene apart and rewrite it such that the flow of the language can now accomodate the new line. That is a hard thing to do, though.

That’s what I’m doing now. I had a book–an entire draft of a novel–and now I need to smash it apart and rebuild it so that it can hold my new conception of the character.

Not sure why some of these sociological studies don’t get a wider circulation

41UU+zakm0L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Most academic writing is pretty dull, but there is one exception: the sociologists know how to write! I don’t know where they learn it from or how they go about it, but there are an astonishing number of sociological studies–not popularizations, but real academic work that is meant to contribute original thought to the field–that are pretty entertaining reads for the laymen.

In fact, on a number of occasions, sociological studies have broken out and become nonfiction bestsellers. The most recent example is Alice Goffman’s On The Run, but previously there was also Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader For The Day (though the latter is not, strictly speaking, academic writing, but rather a popular nonfiction book that’s based on Venkatesh’s academic work). I can name at least a half-dozen works though, that, while less popular, are just as interesting:

Each of these books is the same. The sociologist identifies a subset of people (for Liebow, for instance, it was homeless women in a DC suburb) and watches them closely for a year or more, then combined their observations, interview notes, and knowledge of sociological theory to draw some grander hypothesis out of what they’ve seen.

These books are basically exactly what you want from a juicy nonfiction book: a bunch of interesting characters, finely-observed details, and a larger lesson.

For instance, the one I just read (Paying for the Party by Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton) is about the 53 freshman girls who lived on one floor of a ‘party dorm’ at a large midwestern flagship university (I think it’s either UI-Urbana-Champaign or the University of Michigan). The book tracks the students for five years and examines their orientations to party culture and their academic careers through the lens of their social status and their incoming plans (what the book calls their ‘class projects’). For instance, some girls come in wanting upward mobility–they’re working class girls (often the first in their families to go to college) who want to be teachers or nurses. Others–the upper-class and upper-middle-class women–want to replicate their parents’ social station, and they tend to choose one of two paths, either the ‘party’ path or the ‘professional’ path. Really interesting stuff, especially with its analysis how their decisions during freshman year followed them throughout their college career and affected their post-graduation prospects.

Much of the book boils down to “If you’re well-off, then you can do whatever you want and basically be okay” but what’s interesting is the ways in which working class and lower-middle-class women are caught unawares. For instance, most of the more studious upper-class and upper-middle-class women don’t draw into this dorm in the first place, because they know it’s where the drunken revels take place. It’s only those who come from families and social circles that don’t have insider information that find themselves unwittingly placed in a dorm where they’re going to have a very difficult time both socially and academically.

How science fiction and fantasy writers tend to self-mythologize…

J-Populist-1890s-anti-monopAt the Launchpad workshop, I was talking to Adrienne, a writer of literary fiction (and a webcomic artist!), about the assumption, especially if you’re a young writer, that you’re a wunderkind who had it easy and just sort of sat down and whipped out a publishable book.

In my life, however, I feel like what I often encounter is the opposite sort of mythology: the writer who talks about how dreadfully hard everything is, and how they sit down and write so many hours a day and go through so many drafts and labor so deeply over every sentence and how they are forced to eschew all frivolous activity so they can WRITE, because they are simply compelled to WRITE.

In some cases, I’m certain that’s true. There are people in the world with very demanding jobs and demanding lives. I’m astonished, for instance, at how working mothers are able to write books in a world that doesn’t seem to contain even the notion that they ought to have time to themselves.

But in many cases, I’m a little skeptical. I’m sure there are writers out there who write for eight hours a day, but they are not anywhere close to the majority. For most writers, three hours is a good day. And you can maintain a perfectly decent writing career on just an hour a day or five hours a week. Seriously, you can write and complete a book a year on that schedule, and many writers do.

So what need for all of this almost universal (in the science fiction and fantasy world) description of writing as hard labor?

I feel like it’s just a symptom of SF’s populist roots. If you come from a more aristocratic milieu (as in, for instance, the East and West Coast upper-class society that I and a lot of literary fiction writers come from_, then you value the appearance of effortlessness. Things are supposed to look easy and simple. You’re supposed to look good AND give the appearance that you’re not trying to look good. You’re supposed to make money, but not seem as if you want to make money.

On the other hand, more populist milieus are suspicious of what is effortless, and they tend to value that which comes with great labor. In these social milieus, everything is supposed to seem very difficult. You’re supposed to have come from a hard-scrabble upbringing. You’re supposed to have raised yourself up by your bootstraps. You’re supposed to be stern and independent. And when you’re surrounded by those ideas, writing tends to seem a little, well, frivolous. After all, it’s nothing more than sitting at a desk and making up stories. Which is why writers in populist milieus tend to spend so much time harping upon the difficulty of what they do.

Started reading a book that has zero amazon reviews

The book is Lisa Gornick’s Louisa Meets Bear. Not quite sure what it’s about or what is up with it. I found it because I was idly browsing the FSG website the other day, and I clicked on their new releases page. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that I had so little prior info about! Right now, the voice feels a little mannered for me, but I am liking the level of observation. Anyway, we’ll see. Perhaps mine will be the very first Amazon review!

Getting paid again

Just got word from my agent that Disney has released the second installment of my Book 1 advance (due upon completion and acceptance of the text). Which means I’m getting paid again! Woohoo!

I enjoy getting paid because it means I can eat, and things like that.

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