Getting into work mode

Also reading Georgette Heyer. She is delightful. But very very very hard to understand. Why does she use so much 1820s slang? Even books actually written in the 1820s aren’t written like this. It actually makes the book very difficult to read, much more so, at least for me, than something like Dickens or Proust. Example:

He was quite a pretty whip, but no one had ever seen him take a fly off the leader’s ear, or heard of his breaking a record in a racing-curricle; he rode well to hounds, without earning the title of neck-or-nothing; and while he sometimes practised single-stick in Jackson’s Boxing Saloon, or tossed off a third of daffy in Cribb’s Parlour, he was no Corinthian.

Heyer, Georgette. Cotillion (Regency Romances) (Kindle Locations 1583-1586). Sourcebooks. Kindle Edition.

But then again, sometimes you do just need keyboard time…

After proudly announcing yesterday that time spent conceptualizing was just as important as time spent typing, I sat down today–after a full week of thinking–and found myself unable to write the stuff I thought I was going to write. It just didn’t work. Every word of it felt wrong.

The keyboard is great at detecting bullshit. Anything might be able to work in your head, but when you start to write it, you see how unworkable it really is. Some people hate this. They wonder why they can’t get their vision out on paper. I prefer to think of it the opposite way. Our attempts to write things down are what reveal how meager our vision was.

Anyway, I spent a few hours toodling around and finally made a start. This YA novel is going to be even more romancey than the one I just turned in (which was pretty romancey). In fact, it’s gonna do that thing I normally hate where there both the male and female characters are viewpoint chars. Of course, I’m writing my story in third person past, so I won’t have the problem where the two first-person narrators sound exactly alike.

Trying to write the male protagonist, I realized I hadn’t really gotten to the core of him. I just hadn’t yet captured the heart of his longing. It’s a mystical thing, the heart of longing. I’ve written a lot about it, and I think deservedly so. Unless you capture the heart of longing, there’s simply no point in writing a book. Or a story. Or writing a song. Or doing anything artistic, really. It’s all about the heart of longing.

With this guy, I didn’t have that yet. I had the longing. I knew what he wanted. But I hadn’t drilled down into the heart of it yet.

Except now I have. Or at least I hope I have. We’ll see!

I do feel a little more easy-going about this book (which I’m sure will be a short-lived feeling). With the last book, it changed so much after the first draft. I did a compare and contrast and found that virtually every word is different. The first and final drafts are recognizably related, but only in the way that apes and human beings are recognizably related. With that example, I feel a lot more comfortable making mistakes.

Enter Title Here wasn’t like that, by the way. A huge portion of the first draft (maybe 40-50%) actually made it into the final draft. And, more importantly, the basic bones of the story were all there in the first draft. I honestly think the first draft could’ve been shopped around and sold. Which was great at the time, but it made it difficult to write another book, because I kept waiting for magic to happen, and for it all to come out perfectly.

The goal is to write good books, not rack up a certain number of hours behind the keyboard

half_cockEvery year, in December, I usually have a blog post where I share a number of my productivity stats for the year: hours spent writing; days where I wrote; number of words I wrote; etc etc. (Here’s an example, if you want one). Last year I did not do this, and I had a very good reason. It’s because last year I stopped keeping statistics.

Oh I recorded a few things, but only infrequently, when I was on a hot streak and trying to keep myself going. Before, I’d check my spreadsheet every single day, and every single day I’d fill out all the fields. Last year, I had three periods of weeks or months when I didn’t check the spreadsheet at all.

And yet last year I wrote and revised several stories, and I finished and submitted a novel I’m pretty happy with. The latter, the novel I’m happy with, is more than I’ve managed to do in several years. And I think if I was still a slave to having to write every day for x number of hours, I couldn’t have done it. In fact, during most of the time I was working on the novel, I had no set goals. I just woke up, turned off my internet and wrote. If I wasn’t feeling it, I stopped. If I was, I kept going. This is how I worked for at least nine months, off and on.

Now I’m coming off of another period of a week when I didn’t write so much as a word. I had a reason for it. I was at AWP. But in the past that wouldn’t have stopped me. After all, you can always find an hour or two to write if you really want to. But I didn’t want to, so I didn’t. Instead I did some thinking, and I realized some things about my work in progress (namely, that I needed to add another point of view).

If I’d spent this week writing, I might’ve still had that realization. Or maybe I wouldn’t have. But I don’t know if I would’ve had it any faster. Sometimes it’s precisely when you’re not working on something that you have the realization you need to have before you can start.

I don’t know. I’ve never been a writer who had the answers when it came to process or workflow. I’ve always been the writer who’s like, “Err, every book is different.”

But I do know one thing: I am tired of going off half-cocked and spending months working on ideas that are still deeply flawed on a conceptual level. I think there’s a time for working things out on the page, and there’s a time for working things out in your mind. Both are really important, and, to a certain extent, neither can replace the other. The problem is knowing when it’s time to transition from one phase to the other. I think there are some writers who spend too much time thinking and not enough time writing, and there are a (smaller) number of writers whose problem is the opposite. Maybe I’m one of the latter. I don’t know. As I said, I don’t have all the answers.

Work on the thing you actually want to work on

So I sent in my novel to my agent yesterday, and I thought I’d spend a few weeks working on short stories. The thing about short stories is that they provide a lot of immediate satisfaction. You can write them, revise them, send them out, and see them accepted in a matter of months. Novels, on the other hand, take like four years to go from inception to publication. Also, I dunno, my short story output is very different from my novel output. My novels are realistic contemporary YA; my short stories are usually science fiction and fantasy. I like to keep my hand in the sci-fi game is what I’m saying, I guess.

But the thing is I’ve had this other YA idea percolating in my head for months. And this idea is itself a resurrection of something I’d worked on three years ago. And as I was trying to work out a short story idea yesterday, I was like, “Why am I bothering? Does this matter to me at all?”

Since the answer was “No,” then the next logical question was, “What does matter?”

And the answer was, “That other novel idea!”

So that’s what I spent today working on.

It’s an odd thing. Your heart doesn’t always give you the answers, but even when it does, it’s so easy to be too distracted by other concerns, either logistical or practical or strategic, to listen.

I read a book about the Russian Revolution!

51tpukxxecl-_sx327_bo1204203200_The only history class I took in college (aside from economic history classes, which don’t count) was one in “Early Modern Russian History,” which ended with Catherine the Great’s reign in 1796. Other than that, all my knowledge of Russia comes from reading fiction: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Chekhov, all the way up to Solzhenitsyn and Lyudmila Petrushevskaya.

Novels are not a very good way of learning history. Well, except for War and Peace, which is actually pretty decent at teaching you about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. And if you try to read a novel without knowing anything about the time period in which it’s set, you can sort of do it, but you also sort of can’t. I realized this after I finally read a book on Chinese history and was like, “Wow, I read entire books where I literally had no idea where the characters were or what form of government they lived under.”

Recently, I was listening to these oral histories of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and I was like, I’ve read so many Russian novels, but I know nothing about this country. So I picked up a book about the Russian Revolution. It was called The Russian Revolution.

And I learned some shit. Like…did you know there were two revolutions? The February Revolution, in which the Tsar was deposed, and the October Revolution, in which the Bolsheviks took power. Mind. Blown.

Also I’d always been confused by the distinction made between the Communist Party and the Government of Russia. Like, why did they bother having the pretense of civil administrators when it was really the communist party making the distinctions? Turns out there’s a fabulous path-dependence behind this: the workers of Petrograd took power in February and formed their own government, the Petrograd Commune, that coexisted uneasily with the civil government that was left in place after the Tsar left office.

The book didn’t begin and end with 1918; it posited that the Russian Revolution was a continual process, which carried through the Russian Civil War, the early thaw of the twenties, and into the Stalinist era.

This whole business of left-wing revolution was not very advanced back in 1918. The only real example that they had was the French Revolution, and they were largely concerned with avoiding the mistakes of that time. It was fascinating to get a feel for the newness of this business of revolt. They knew that with this, the world’s first successful Marxist revolution, they were doing something entirely new within human history, and they were primarily concerned with making sure that they actually did it.

What’s fascinating is how ideological it all was. They were terrible men who cared about power, but they also really believed in communism. If they simply wanted to remain in power, they could’ve left the rudiments of market capitalism in place. Certainly, there was no need to collectivize the farmers or the small businesses. But there was definitely this sense that something needed to be done. They needed to hurry through the dialectic and achieve true socialism.

We aren’t like this today. Nowadays we’re not about systems and about evolution. All we want is to hold onto what we have (and maybe find a way to get a bit more). Russia seems, both from this book and from the novels I’ve read, to always have been a place that was brimming with big ideas. Every writer is so political. And every hero is an anarchist or a collectivist or a pacifist or some other sort of -ist. I don’t think America has ever been like that. I mean it’s not even our self-image. When we had our revolution, we built a government from scratch, but that government wasn’t about remaking society: it was just about letting people do what they wanted to do. And today, whether you’re conservative or liberal, I think that’s still how we view our government. The idea of a revolution that totally remakes our individual relations, the way that individual Americans interact with each other both on a personal level and within the marketplace, seems foreign to us.

Of course now somebody is gonna bust down my comment wall and be like, “You’re wrong! I am a revolutionary!” Well…okay. But I don’t know if you are. The Russia of 1933 was completely different from the Russia of 1917. In twenty years, divorce was legalized, women entered the workforce, private property was banned, peasants were collectivized, and almost every human being found him or herself (assuming they hadn’t starved to death or been sent to the gulag) operating in some totally different role than they had been. If you were an independent barber in 1917, for instance, then by 1933 your whole way of earning a living had become criminal. You could no longer work for yourself; instead you needed to work for a state-owned hair-cutting venture of some sort. Which is pretty wild! Your fundamental relationship to your community and to the state had been realigned!

Obviously the idea of a planned economy is a bad one, but even that level of societal change seems, to me, to be inherently unstable and unattractive.

So close to being done with this revision pass!!!

As in, literally only another day or so.

Will be so happy when it’s in.

Maybe then I’ll write another book. Or some short stories. Or just party. I don’t know. It’ll be good though. Vr vr vr good.

Have finished the ‘rewrite’ part of the revision pass, am now in the ‘hoping it hangs together’ part

Well this morning I finished rewriting the ending to the book. It wasn’t a major rewrite, but it was certainly something I needed to do. I’m very pleased with it. Now comes the annoying part where I go back to the beginning and mess around with all the words and stuff.

Also finished reading Jeff Zentner’s The Serpent King today! Figured I better read it since it won the Morris award. It’s really, really, really good. A very assured debut. Won me right off the bat by doing the sensible thing w/ its three points of view and just writing them all in the third person. I mean sheesh, life is hard enough without trying to write three first-person protagonists.

But more than that, it was very slow and quiet, without being dull. The novel was great at milking the natural drama inherent in these peoples’ lives. I’ve definitely heard Jeff, and others, try to pitch the book, and I’ve always been like, “Err, but what’s it about?” And the truth is it’s just a low-concept book. It’s about people. There is a tinge of the Southern Gothic to it, which was honestly not my favorite part of the book (the snake-handling and the alcoholic abusive father felt too dramatic for this book), but they too work fine.


Great examples of the novel’s deftness: the female protagonist, Lydia, has the least amount of drama in her life; she’s got a healthy, well-off family, and she’s headed for college. But she befriends, online, this pair of New York City ‘it’ girls who she’s gonna room with in New York, and you constantly expect something to go wrong. Maybe they’ll turn out to be mean. Or maybe she won’t get into NYU. But nothing ever does! Instead, it’s just…well these girls are probably perfectly fine, but they’re still not her friends yet. And even if they do become her friends, they’ll never be the same as her friends from home. They just are what they are. They’re a source of tension in the book, and the book is wise enough to know that tension doesn’t necessarily need to erupt into actual drama.

Coming really close to the end of this round of revision

Today I finished reading my 17th(!) book by Anthony Trollope: He Knew He Was Right. I have five more left on my to-read list: Three Clerks; The Fixed Period; Rachel Ray; Lady Anna; and The American Senator.

At this point it’s really gone beyond reading for any kind of edification. On that score I’ve gotten all I can possibly get from Trollope. I just really really enjoy reading his work. He’s so consistently delightful. And his books are just different enough that you feel as though they’re worth reading. I’ve yet to read a really bad Trollope book

I’m also nearing the end of this round of revision. Feeling very happy with Tell Em They’re Amazing. Impossible to know what the future holds, but would not be unhappy if it went out into the world as my second YA novel =]

SECONDHAND TIME might be the worst possible thing to listen to at this moment

Not only is Secondhand Time full of terribly, grotesque anecdotes about living in a totalitarian regime (for example, one man, assigned to guard a freight car transporting people to Siberia during dekulakization, opened the door to find a “half-starved child eating his own shit as if it was kasha.”) but it also contains so much rage and wonderment over the collapse of their Empire. They really did not expect it to happen. It’s not like they lost a war or anything. There wasn’t even an economic shock. Instead everything somehow fell apart over the course of a few months. And only then did their economy collapse. Gruesome. Makes you realize how fragile a society really is.

Got up so early in the morning today!

And it’s really nice. I mean, it’s nice when you know you can go back to sleep if you need to. I love the mornings. I wish I was of the age to watch Saturday morning cartoons…they still have those, right?

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