I’ve noticed that I oftentimes face a pause, or a slowing-down, when I finish the first act of a work-in-progress
I’m up to 30k words on this book. I’ve been doing this thing for the past year where I write an outline for the book and then delete it. Having an outline means I know what I’m aiming at. But deleting it means I’m free to deviate from it whenever I want. This book is much less structured than any other book I’ve ever written, so the organization of detail is based more on effect and intuition than it is on story logic. So I realized today, while writing the fourth chapter, that it was going in a different direction than I’d intended and that meant that I could shuffle around some other things and the result was that I very definitively completed the first act and, at the same time, found myself with little idea of what’s coming next.
The most common stumbling block for me, when writing a novel, is the first chapter. There’s so much to do in that chapter. You have to establish voice, tone, theme, conflict, setting, characters, etc, and I find that if the first chapter (and, especially, the first scene) aren’t correct, then I can’t write the rest of the book.
But the start of the second act is also something that gives me pause, because I find that this is the place where the rules of the novel are often allowed to change. Novels become different between the first and the second acts, because in the first act the character isn’t yet acting. The first act, I find, is where the character is deciding what they want, and whether or not they want it badly enough to overcome the obstacles ahead of them. Whereas the second act is the one in which they do things. And when characters start doing things, the novel can switch up the rules a bit.
Sometimes this is dramatic. For instance, in many novels–especially literary novels–new points of view will be introduced at the start of the second act. I think that’s because the protagonists in these novels often don’t have much to do, so a sense of expansiveness can be created by opening up the world and allowing you to see the main character from a different angle.
In many genre novels, this is where the mode of action becomes apparent. For instance, my novel Enter Title Here is, at its core, a crime novel. It’s about someone who commits a tiny immoral act and has to commit more and more horrendous acts in order to avoid being punished for their crime. But that’s not really apparent until the start of the second act.
In other YA novels, the second act is where the book firmly establishes itself as a thriller or a romance or an adventure novel.
Anyway, the other thing I’m trying to do is I’m trying to avoid starting each writing day with a blank page. What’s worked well for me so far is to write a few paragraphs, at least, of the next chapter before I go to sleep, so I have something to work with in the morning.
In the case of this novel, Sequential Events, I walked around the block a few times and finally came up with an approach that I think will work, so now I have at least a thousand words of a sixth chapter (chapters in this book are averaging 5-7k words).
Was talking to an acquaintance yesterday about college and about how this person feels nostalgic for college. They’re happy enough now, but they also feel constrained. I joked that nostalgia for college was “the dark side.” Which was a bit facetious. I’m still astonished by how idyllic the setup for college (at least in the upper-middle-classes) tends to be. It’s all the privileges of adulthood and none of the responsibilities. You can do whatever you want, whenever you want. I mean, we pay lip service to the idea that you’re there to learn, but if you want to, it’s very possible to get through college with minimal effort.
However, I, personally, do not feel at all nostalgic for college. In fact, when I walked aroiund the old alma mater yesterday, I actually felt a vague sense of dread. It wasn’t overwhelming. I was still able to feel nostalgic. It was nice to reconnect with myself at a younger age, just because I usually feel so disconnected from my past self. I enjoy that sense of continuity. As in, yes, I am the person who once ate hot cookies (and ice cream? Or am I just imagining the ice cream?) every day in the Wilbur dining hall.
But the sense of dread was real. And I was profoundly glad, during my whole walking tour, that I was not in college anymore. Now that I’ve been out for six years, I feel like I can say that my four years in college were unquestionably the darkest time in my life. I had plenty of fun. I made lots of really good friends. I saw and did lots of new things. But I was also acutely miserable much of the time.
It’s no one’s fault. Not even my own. I don’t really know what caused it. I don’t think drinking was entirely the cause of the misery (though it didn’t help). I think I just wasn’t equipped to live in such close quarters with so many people. I remember I just felt really awkward, really shy, and really emotionally stunted. I felt like everyone was making lifelong friends and falling in love, and I was in stasis. I had no idea how to relate to people. No idea how to talk to them. Couldn’t understand how to make friends. And the only way I could face people was by drinking. But the drinking then led to more negative feelings and more fragmentation and confusion. And I really lost my sense of self.
In high school, I was relatively happy (most of the time). And I had my friends and my place in the world. I was elected Student Council President, and I was not unpopular. I kind of knew who I was. But in college, I felt completely helpless. I wanted desperately to feel close to people, but I just didn’t have the first idea how to go about it. All I knew how to do was go to parties and drink. But even there, I felt so shy. I’d walk around in circles in the hopes that the constant movement would obscure the fact that I was there alone. I’d stand silently at the edge of peoples’ conversations until I was finally drunk enough to break in. It’s still amazing to me. Nowadays I am so systematic in how I handle my problems. But back then I didn’t even know that being systematic was a thing. I didn’t even know that I had a problem which I could work on and get better at.
I think I was stunned by the environment. The crush of people was so constant and all-encompassing. There was no room to reflect, and no way to take stock. I’m struggling to articulate what I mean when I say that my sense of self was gone, because it’s a complicated and subtle thing, a sense of self. I guess what I mean is that everything was so immediate. I couldn’t even think about next week. I was in triage mode all the time, because each day and each moment brought such powerful waves of loneliness and anger. Part of me is wondering if I’m being overdramatic. But I don’t think so. It really was that bad. And I really did regress and become less capable of interacting with people and making plans for the future.
In contrast, every year since graduating has been great. Even my first year out, when I was jobless and still drinking, was much better than the year prior. And although I’ve had periods of depression in the time since college, I’ve always experienced that depression as something strange, something outside my normal mood, and something that I needed to work to address. I feel like in the last five years I’ve done all the things I didn’t do in college: I’ve learned to make friends and to relate to new people, experienced romantic entanglements; found my vocation; and learned lots of new things. It’s been great. You couldn’t pay me to go back.
April isn’t the cruelest month for me! I officially feel way way better. And along with the increase in my mood has come a concomitant increase in productivity. Shockingly, I’m 25k words into a novel (it’s working title is Sequential Events) that I think I might actually finish. I don’t have the mystical mind-to-keyboard connection with this novel that I had with Enter Title Here, but I do feel like this one might be good.
I suppose there are writers who can produce good work when they’re depressed, but I have no idea how they do it. For me, the moment I started being able to enjoy life again, I also started being able to visualize this book.
However, a good mood is not sufficient. I’ve been trying to write another book since September 1st. According to my records I’ve spent 316 hours and 131 writing days on the attempt to figure out what I ought to write about, and I’ve only just sort of come up with it (maybe…there’s still a chance that the book will fall apart). I honestly don’t know what I could’ve done to come up with it faster.
I recently read this Lynda Barry book What It Is? which is about starting with an image and attempting to work without self-consciousness. The book talks about writing in the same way that children draw pictures: you draw a line, and then another line, and then you get a sense of what it is, and you keep adding lines, more or less by instinct, until you’ve got it.
So I started to do that, and it did help. I got a short story out of it. And one of her exercises led me to a chapter that I though was going to be the opening chapter of a novel. But when I kept writing that novel, I got really wrapped up in an entirely different chapter, and anyway…I don’t know.
My point is, I don’t know that you can just power through and write a book. People talk about how they have more ideas than they know what to do with. That’s not me. I can generate ideas by the job lot, but I know exactly what to do with them–most of them are just idle notions that should never be turned into real stories. Finding an idea that can sustain my interest is extremely rare. And I don’t have a set way of getting to that point. I mostly just flail around until something happens. But sometimes that means months of flailing. And then, of course, I write the book in a few weeks. For instance, I fully expect to be done w/ this book by May 15th (at the latest).
When I’m really working on a book, it doesn’t feel like something I’m creating. It feels like something that’s flowing out from some unconscious place. I think of that as ‘inspiration.’ And I don’t know what can be done to make that inspiration come.
I think some things can kill it. For instance, if you don’t get into the habit of writing, then you’re unlikely to be able to channel the inspiration when it does hit. If you’re too self-critical then your sense of inspiration can become afraid to throw ideas out there. And if you’re not self-critical enough, then you can spend way too long pursuing ideas that aren’t very good. But mostly it’s just about waiting…
I have some kind of ear infection or sinus infection. Finally broke down and scheduled an appointment with my doctor. I have punishingly bad health insurance, which means I need to pay out of pocket for almost everything, but sometimes you just got to see the doctor. There’s a chance the infection is viral, which means no one can do anything, but I feel like at some point you get sick enough that you need to at least confirm that there’s nothing you can do.
This pain has been extremely annoying and has hampered my enjoyment of life for some days, but it is not debilitating. However, it comes on the heels of the week I lost to my neck strain injury! What is this business! Sheesh, is this what getting old feels like?
I’ve never read much Arthur C. Clarke. I read lots of other golden age writers: Bradbury, Bester, Simak, Asimov, Heinlein, Pohl, Kornblutch, etc. But not Clarke. Can’t think why. I suppose I just wrote him off because the movie 2001 was so boring, and the book of his that was in all the stores, Rendezvous With Rama, seemed incredibly dull. However, I recently purchased Jo Walton’s essay collection What Makes This Book So Great and have found it to be a great source of book recommendations (it’s where I learned about Random Acts of Senseless Violence, for instance). And one of the books she recommended was Against The Fall Of The Night. I went online, very skeptical, to read the Kindle sample, and…I loved it. What a fantastic book! It’s so sweeping and magisterial. It’s about a young man who’s born ten billion years from now, on the last remaining city in a completely desertified Earth. I haven’t gotten far yet, but the Walton is absolutely right that this book exudes a sense of heaviness and stillness–the sense of time hanging dead on top of you–that is pretty magnificent. For instance, the first scene in the book consists of the people of the city rushing out from their towers to stare at the sky:
Convar’s voice was sad when presently he spoke to his son.
“Look at it well, Alvin,” he said. “It may be the last the world will ever know. I have only seen one other in all my life, and once they filled the skies of Earth.”
They watched in silence, and with them all the thousands in the streets and towers of Diaspar, until the last cloud slowly faded from sight, sucked dry by the hot, parched air of the unending deserts.
It’s the diary of a twelve year old girl who’s living in a New York City (and an America) that’s slowly falling apart. As the story progresses, her family slowly (and then rapidly) falls from the upper-middle to the working class, But what’s even more fun is that her language completely changes! For instance, here’s the first paragraph of the book:
Mama says mine is a night mind. The first time she said that I asked her what she meant and she said `Darling you think best in the dark like me.’ I think she’s right. Here I am staying up late tonight so I can write in my new diary. Mama gave it to me for my birthday today. I love to write. Mama and Daddy write but I don’t think they love to write anymore, they just write because they have to.
And here’s a randomly selected paragraph from near the end of the book:
While I waited I hid the bat alongside the stoop between trash cans then stairsat watching cars swoop past. His street wasn’t much for walkers and that pleased cause I didn’t keen interference. The light outside his building burned out and that heartened cause the darker the better when it all downcomes. Sitting there I photoed his puss in my head the way he cursed Daddy and Mama and lied on Daddy’s paycheck and his billing five dollars and I steamed set to boil. There was no excusing what he did none nada none. Every time I heard the clipclop I eyed round but it never was him even after nine. I didn’t leave though.
The language changes so gradually, though, that you hardly notice. A few new words get introduced her and there, and then a few more, and there’s never a moment at which you’re like, “Wow, this is now a completely different voice!” It’s a pretty remarkable performance.
On Twitter the other day I was talking about how much I love the video for “The Boys of Fall,” Kenny Chesney’s high school football anthem. I kind of get emotional whenever the song comes on the radio, but I find the video to be extremely affecting. And fellow country music enthusiast (and children’s lit writer with the same agent as me) Michelle Modesto refused to believe that I was serious!
Yes, admittedly, high school football is silly and frivolous and probably even quite injurious to the health of both its participants and the nation as a whole. Nonetheless, the SONG is about real sentiments that most of America does, to some degree, feel. It’s kind of like how we can read and write all these books about teenagers falling in love, and even though we know that, by and large, this love is doomed, we can still feel ourselves touched by it. Because even if the love is impermanent (and, dare I say, a little silly), the EMOTIONS are very real.
Also, since today is a day for frivolous things, I’m lodging another call for people to join my email list, The Rahuligans. The email volume is very low (I don’t think I’ve sent out one yet). But people say that email lists are the best marketing tool you can use. It’s permission marketing. By signing up to my email list, you sort of align yourself with me and develop a one-to-one relationship with me that will come in really handy later on when I’m trying to sell you stuff!
I’m reading Jo Walton’s The Just City. Maybe it’s just me, but even though this book came out four months ago, I’ve heard zero buzz about it. I don’t know why. There’s something really fun and ridiculous about it. This is a book about Pallas Athena (yes, the Greek goddess) transporting 300 philosophers from throughout history to an island at the beginning of recorded history so they can create an ideal society, as set forth by Plato’s Republic.
If you’ve ever read The Republic, you’ll immediately understand how absurd this is. For one thing, The Republic is an authoritarian nightmare. There is literally no personal freedom. However, since this book begins w/ people who’re all of the same mind, it takes awhile to unravel.
I just can’t. The book is so weird. I love Jo Walton. The only book of hers I haven’t been able to get into was Among Other, but her Small Change trilogy and her last book My Real Children are amongst my favorite books of hers. Jo Walton gets plenty of buzz and sells plenty of copies, I’m sure, but I feel like she should get even MORE credit. When her books release, it ought to be a bigger event than when Neil Gaiman’s books drop. I mean seriously, her books are so smart and so readable. I wish someday I’m half as good (and half as accessible) as she is.
Several weeks ago, I got an email from an NYT education writer who was writing an article about MFAs. And I was like, whoah, exciting, it’d be good publicity to have my name in the Times. Anyway, while talking to her, it became clear that the reason she’d contacted me was because of this blog post I’d read.
Now, I sort of stand by the things in that article. As a general principle, the structure of the MFA system is very classist, because it discriminates against people who don’t have time to take two years off from life. And I am fine saying that kind of thing when I control the message. However, I also went to an MFA program where the professors were really good to me. For one thing, they admitted me, even though I wrote science fiction. And they critiqued my work seriously. It was a very good place! And ever since reading The Journalist and the Murderer I’ve become uncomfortably aware that the principal role of journalists is to use a sense of camraderie in order to get people to say things that are against their self-interest. So I knew that if I said anything in the interview like what I’d said in the post, then my name would forever be linked to a quote wherein I slammed the MFA system for being classist, which would be: a) kind of rude to my program, since it’d be seen as an indictment of Hopkins more than anywhere else; and b) a little bit of a strange thing for me to complain about, since I come from an extremely upper-class background.
(The things I could say, without sounding ridiculous, would be that the MFA system is racist and homophobic, but those things aren’t really true. Or, at least, MFA programs are certainly much less racist and homophobic than the sci-fi/fantasy world.)
So anyway, I was extremely cagey during this interview and in fact I asked the reporter to send me any quotes from me before she used them, on the principle that she’d be embarrassed to print anything too detrimental to my interest if she actually had to own up, to me, that she was doing it. (However, even though she promised to do that, she didn’t actually send me the quotes.)
Anyway, for these reasons I was fairly certain that they wouldn’t use any quotes from me, since it can’t be hard to find an MFA student or graduate who’s willing to publicly say things that are much more provocative than I will. But whatever, they did end up putting in a quote by me and that makes me happy. The quote they used came from a bit where I talked about how I kind of feel like life in the MFA is too easy and you get too much instant gratification (via people saying nice things about your writing) and that it’s not really a good preparation for the real thing that makes or breaks a writing career, which is the ability to work and work and work even though no one in the world cares whether you produce a story or not.
(What also makes me happy: they extensively quoted my favorite Hopkins professor–Jean McGarry. I love her. What she said was actually pretty incendiary, which is that writers expect more hand-holding nowadays than they used to, and that that’s a reflection of a change in the times. And I have no idea whether that’s true, but that’s at least an interesting thing to say, right? Anyway, that also made me really happy I didn’t provide a more incendiary quote, since I’d have been really unhappy to have it featured right under the one from McGarry.)
Is it possible to conquer envy? The answer might surprise you! (But there’s also a very good chance that it won’t)
I’ve always thought of myself as being a very envious person. Hearing about good things happening to a peer of mine has, in the past, sent me into black moods that have lasted for weeks! It got so bad that, for a time, that all of social media became a minefield for me, and I had to take special effort to shield myself from other peoples’ good news. In fact, I’m part of a writer’s group, the Codex Writer’s Workshop, that contains a message area where people report their acceptances, and I actually went into the settings and made it so that section didn’t appear for me, because otherwise the whole board was causing more negative emotions than I could handle.
And yet, when I talked, a few posts ago, about being friends with writers, it somehow didn’t seem right to talk about envy. Not because it’s a taboo subject (although it is), but because I’m not sure that I’m as susceptible to it as I used to be.
Let’s get one thing out of the way, though. Making friends with other writers can, for many people, dramatically increase the amount of envy that you feel. When good things happen to someone you don’t know, it’s hard to be envious. Envy only kicks in when good things happen to a peer. And when you make friends with writers, you start to develop a rough idea of who your peers are, and you start to develop a weird ranking system–a ladder that exists only in your own head!!!–in which you’re constantly gaining or losing status relative to these other people.
But now I don’t do that as much anymore. I don’t know why. It’s not something that I consciously tried to avoid. In fact, I still experience a twinge of envy when I hear about someone winning an award or selling a market to I haven’t sold to or getting a great book deal. But it’s only a twinge, and it rarely lasts for longer than a second. Before, that feeling used to ruin entire days! It would dramatically undermine my whole self-image!
Again, can’t say what’s up. It’s possible that I have other concerns now, and other areas where I compare myself to other people (i.e. I’m no less shallow, I’m just shallow about different things). It’s also possible that I’m more psychologically healthy and have a better self-image overall, so little things don’t shake it as much? Or maybe I finally became close enough to my writer friends that I’m able to be happy for them? I thought maybe the answer was that my ego was SO inflated that I’d always think, despite any evidence to the contrary, that I’m the greatest writer, but I recently had dramatic proof that that wasn’t true.
As I posted on Facebook:
When Courtney Sender–a 26 year old classmate of mine at Hopkins–told me she’d just finished the first draft of a novel that spanned 35 years, three countries, and ten viewpoints in only 96,000 words, I was pretty skeptical, but now I’ve read it, and I can say: [her book] is amazing. It’s so good. Unbelievably good. Junot Diaz good. National Book Award good. So good that halfway through I texted Courtney and was like, “Umm, why did no one ever tell me that you were _this_ good?”
Reading that novel was quite an experience. I cannot overstate how good it is. Let me tell you, when you read a friend’s novel, you do not expect it to be THIS good. You expect it to be, like, goodish. Good in comparison to the usual dreck on the shelves. You do not expect it to be as good as the best that literature has to offer. You don’t expect it to be incredibly self-assured and observant and beautifully structured.
Courtney’s novel is better than anything I’ve ever written. And maybe better than anything I’ll ever write. And she’s significantly (at least two years) younger than me. I’ve gradually grown used to the idea that I’m not the best writer in all of space and time, but now I’m not even the best writer out of all the people I know who are my age or younger.
But, you know, it’s okay. I’m not really upset. If the novel had been bad, it wouldn’t have made my work better. And what’s more, I’m glad it was so good. Both because it gives me hope–wow, it’s actually possible to write real next-level type novels–and because it’s exciting–It’s really exciting when you read something special. At some point, it’s not even about status anymore. It’s about something new coming into the world. And there’s something very pure and refreshing about admitting, both to yourself and to others, that you’ve read something really good. I don’t know. It’s a prayer, of sorts. Or a gift, maybe. A gift to your own aesthetic sense. If you’re able to see the good in something even when you have incentive to dislike it, then you’re honoring and strengthening the sense of beauty that we all rely on in order to create good work. (Which is why I always make a sincere effort to enjoy the work of people who I don’t like.)
And, conversely, when you start letting your personal gripes and jealousies get in the way of your ability to recognize good work, then you do real damage to your own sense of aesthetics and harm your own long-term ability to produce anything that’s worthwhile.