It Takes a Village to Write a Book

Writing is, in many ways, a solitary activity. Unlike music or dance or acting and other forms of art which necessitate collaboration, most writers work alone. The people and places and plots you create as a writer have to live in your head for a long time before anybody else can encounter them, and before they do there are many long days and nights spent putting one word in front of another in what often feels like a futile attempt to translate these vivid but intimate imaginings into prose. Easier said than done (and it wasn’t even that easy to say; I rewrote that sentence ten times).

I touched on this in a previous post, but living so much in your own head can make you feel (1) isolated, (2) like most of your friends are imaginary, and (3) stone cold crazy. Writing is a strange job. There’s a reason writers tend to be strange people. But the stereotype of the isolated, tortured artistic genius does more harm than good in the long run, from tricking would-be writers into relying on divine inspiration rather than revision to treating substance abuse as a key to creativity. It also conveniently forgets the fact that few writers could function without the support of other people.

If you flip to the back of any given book, you’ll likely find a list of names in the author’s “Acknowledgments” which includes publishing personnel like agents and editors as well as friends and family and sometimes other folks like fact-checkers and beta readers who test-drove the text before it went to press. Occasionally you’ll even find a “Select Bibliography” if it’s a work of non-fiction or something else requiring a lot of research. However, in my experience there are a lot of other people who contribute to the writing of a book whose names you don’t often see, and who may not even be aware of their own contribution.

The coronavirus pandemic has gotten me thinking a lot about those people. Unless you live under a rock, over the last few weeks you’ve probably watched a lot of local businesses close their doors, either due to state lockdowns or simply because the sudden drop in business made it impossible for them to keep up with operating costs. Many of these closures feel personal, not only because I miss my old haunts, but because the loss of them has highlighted just how important they are to my writing process. So in a fit of mixed sadness and gratitude and determination to do something to make this whole situation suck less, I spent last week throwing every dollar I could spare at the small businesses which have helped me write for the last five years. Helping helps me not feel helpless, even if it is in such a limited capacity.

On the off chance you would like to do the same, I’ve written the following list of local businesses without whom my writing would not happen; chances are you have hometown equivalents who need help just as badly, and I hope you’ll consider buying or donating there. This is a very small attempt to pay it back, pay it forward, and call attention to the unsung heroes of the creative process.

  1. Independent bookstores. By now you surely don’t need me to explain how corporate leviathans like Amazon hurt the book business. But since Amazon announced it’s de-prioritizing book sales for the duration, you really have nothing to lose and everything to gain by buying from an indie, and many of them have been working hard to move their operations online. A few of my favorites in DC are East City Books, who hosted my paperback launch, Kramerbooks, whose employees have talked up my book on social media, Capitol Hill Books, whose Twitter feed alone is worth a $20 book buy, and Loyalty Books, whose new location in downtown Silver Spring did not get the opening quarter it deserved. Another beloved bookstore of mine is Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, NC, who hosted the biggest event of my very small book tour, and kept me knee-deep in good reads while I was a student at UNC and working on the first draft of Villains. Besides all that, any writer will tell you that there is no writing without reading. I owe these establishments a lot. Chances are you have indie bookstores nearby who would love to deliver or ship your next read right to your door. Not sure? Check their websites or try Bookshop and IndieBound. Bonus tip: many bookstores carry a lot of things besides books which might be handy to have around while sheltering-in-place, like puzzles and board games or three famed portraits of David Bowie.
  2. Independent record stores and labels. I don’t have a TV but I have 800 records in my living room and music has always been one of the most important ingredients in my writing process. Musicians have been suffering for a long time due to streaming services’ shameful refusal to adequately compensate them for their work. (If you’re interested in facts and figures, check out this article by Galaxie 500’s Damon Krukowski, from all the way back in 2012. This has been a problem for a while. Krukowski’s book, The New Analog, would also be a great read in the time of covid-19.) With concerts cancelled and brick-and-mortar record stores shutting their doors, musicians–particularly the ones who weren’t selling out stadium tours back when that was a thing we could still do–need album sales now more than ever. I know it’s old-fashioned, but what better way to revive the tradition of the listening party than by supporting the artists who made the soundtrack for your quarantine and the record stores fighting to keep the music industry focused on the music? My favorite local spot is the Record Exchange, but you probably have record store near you, too, and they’re probably willing to ship! Not sure? You can use the Vinyl District’s record locator app to find one. No turntable at your place? No problem. Most record stores also stock CDs, books, movies, video games, and more.
  3. Bars and restaurants. I’ve literally never written a book that didn’t feature a bar. Drunk drama fueled so much of Villains that I sometimes feel a portion of my royalties (if I ever make any) should go the good people who put up with me and all my actor friends while I was working on the book. The next best thing is donating to support the staff of my beloved college bar, Linda’s, where I spent many good nights and a few bad ones, read books and wrote scenes and staged plays and drowned my sorrows when writing wasn’t going my way. If you’re lucky, some of your favorite local haunts may have adapted for delivery. (If you’re in the DMV, I would highly recommend throwing a few dollars at Quarry House Tavern, whose Whiskey Wednesday specials have gotten me through some tough times, and whose burgers might be some of the best in the region.) If you do order delivery, please tip well! Food service workers live on tips and they’re not making many right now.
  4. Performance companies and venues. Guess who’s not making money right now? Artists whose art requires an audience. Unsurprisingly, live theatre is a big part of my creative process. Many theatres who have closed their doors are now wondering how they’re going to keep their actors, directors, designers, and other staff on the payroll, and it’s that much harder to do when everybody and their mom is asking for refunds for cancelled events. If you can, consider donating the price of your tickets or anything else you can spare to the people who put on shows for you when we’re not all staying home. Consider paying a little more than you normally might to stream new movies or watch the live performances theatres all over the world are putting up online. The livelihoods of the people who made them–and their ability to make art–are probably more precarious than ever before.
  5. Animal shelters. If you’ve been following me on any social media platform for any length of time, you have probably seen pictures of my dog, Marlowe. I adopted him from Operation Kindness, a no-kill Dallas shelter, in 2017. Since then his presence in my house and my life has done a lot to keep me off the ledge. Many animals shelters operate with very narrow margins, and chances are they’ll take any help they can get right now. And if you wanted to take a step beyond a monetary donation, there’s no better time to bring a pet who needs a home into your life. You don’t need to distance yourself from dogs or cats, and when are you next going to be home all day every day to help introduce a new pet? Don’t make any snap decisions, but if you’ve been looking for a sign from the universe that now’s the time to rescue your new best friend, consider this it.

Writing may be a solitary activity much of the time, but that doesn’t mean it happens in a vacuum. All art, I would argue, is collaborative: it is influenced and inspired and supported by so many different people in so many different ways that listing a few names under “Acknowledgements” feels insufficient. These are just a few examples of the people who have helped me make art. Apart from directly supporting artists in times of crisis, one way to support the creators you care about is to contribute to the institutions in your community which foster creativity. It may not seem like a lot, but in a time like this every little bit helps–and if enough people do a little bit, the little bits add up to something much bigger.

Stay safe, stay well, stay home, stay hopeful, and stay engaged with the people and places that enrich the life of your community if you want to see them on the other side.

M

Kurt Vonnegut, Coronavirus, and the Reasons We Write

This week we learned that UMD, the university where we work, is prohibiting all non-essential travel for the next 60 days. Sensible, given the circumstances. But we also learned that they’re not going to reimburse anyone who’s already paid for the travel they approved and then prohibited. If you’re a tenured professor, that might not matter much to you. But if you’re in a grad student or contingent tax bracket, $800 is an awful lot to lose. (Most grad students here make about $20k a year. The cost of living in the DMV can be 40% more than the national average. I teach English for a reason, so I’ll let you do the math.)

While all this is happening on the East Coast, on the West Coast graduate students at UC Santa Cruz have been on a wildcat strike for a cost-of-living adjustment. The university’s response to their demands for fairer wages was to fire 80 of them. (You can learn more–and lend some support–here.) But as Rebekkah Dilts and Dylan Davis put it in the Washington Post article linked above,

…the exploitation of graduate-student labor is endemic to higher education. We teach for poverty-level wages only to enter a dismal job market: Some 60 percent of university teaching jobs are off the tenure track, meaning they are typically part-time and lack benefits — yet still highly competitive. That’s why innumerable adjuncts are fighting here, too.

The reality for many graduate students is that they will spend five or more years struggling to make ends meet, and when they graduate their odds of landing a job with a greater degree of security are, in a word, long. So the cancellation, without reimbursement, of conference travel not only means that we’re losing money we desperately need, but that we’re also losing a professionalization opportunity we need just as badly for our CVs. Insult, meet injury.

If you’ve heard absolutely nothing about this, don’t feel bad. It’s a niche concern in the greater scheme of things. But you probably have heard similar stories from different sectors about the coronavirus outbreak and how it’s creating new problems and compounding others which already existed (not to mention disproportionately affecting people at the bottom of the socioeconomic food chain). Between the pandemic, the never-ending 2020 election nightmare, regular mass shootings, a permanent state of constitutional crisis, and the ever-present threat of ecological collapse, it’s starting to feel like The End is indeed Nigh. Personally I’ve been flirting with a nervous breakdown for the entire month of March. However, there are two small fibers of optimism (fiber-optimism?) which have kept my last thread of sanity from snapping, and they both have to do with writing.

As you can probably imagine, Book Twitter is a bit of a mess right now. While some are lamenting the financial impact of cancelled book tours on indie and midlist authors who can’t afford to lose that publicity, others are drawing attention to the ugly irony of the publishing industry insisting that remote work is impossible and then proving the opposite by telling everyone who can afford to live and work in New York to go ahead and work from home. Really, right now you’re just better off avoiding Twitter like, uh, the plague. Or touching your face.

Still, in the midst of this madness I’ve seen quite a few writers step up to offer tips and tricks and resources for staying sane and staying on task while working from home–something most of us have a lot of experience with. (My tip: buy yourself a big dishwasher-safe water bottle and keep it in reach at all times. Hydration is easy and improves your quality of life in a lot of ways.) It may not sound like much, but for someone who’s never had to manage their own time in their own space when the kids and the neighbors and the dogs and 25 household chores are all vying for their attention, it might just be a lifesaver. It’s reassuring to see people offering what little they can in a time of crisis. And it doesn’t surprise me that this is an impulse many writers seem to share.

pity the readerThis week I also happen to be reading a book devoted to Kurt Vonnegut’s wisdom on the craft of writing, compiled by his onetime student and longtime friend Suzanne McConnell. It’s an anecdotal, idiosyncratic book likely to appeal to people who enjoy Kurt Vonnegut’s anecdotal, idiosyncratic style. My favorite nugget of wisdom so far appears in surprisingly early chapters–seven to twelve, to be exact. They’re short, like most of Vonnegut’s own chapters, and, like most of Vonnegut’s work, they prove that length is not necessarily proportional to importance, as these things go.

The overarching thread of these four chapters is what the point of writing (and art more broadly) is. It’s perhaps best summed up by the title of Chapter 12: “Agents of Change.” In Vonnegut’s philosophy, the prime mover of the artist is care. When asked in an interview after the runaway success of Slaughterhouse-Five, “Why do you write?” he answered,

My motives are political. I agree with Stalin and Hitler and Mussolini that the writer should serve his society. I differ with dictators as to how writers should serve…. Writers are specialized cells in the social organism. They are evolutionary cells. Mankind is trying to become something else; it’s experimenting with new ideas all the time. And writers are a means of introducing new ideas into the society, and also a means of responding symbolically to life…

…We’re expressions of the entire society… And when a society is in great danger, we’re likely to sound the alarms. I have the canary-bird-in-the-coal-mine theory of the arts.

McConnell goes on to quote a different interview:

I would not be interested in writing if I didn’t feel that what I wrote was an act of good citizenship or an attempt, at any rate, to be a good citizen. What brought my ancestors over here from Germany was not oppression over there, but simply the attractiveness of the United States Constitution, and the dream of brotherhood here. And also plenty of land. They were attracted materially too. I was raised to be bughouse about the Constitution, and to be very excited about the United States of America as a Utopia. It still seems utterly workable to me and I keep thinking of ways to fix it, to see what the hell went wrong, to see if we can get the thing to really run right.

Vonnegut undoubtedly succeeded, if not in achieving an American Utopia, then certainly in inspiring his readers to become Agents of Change. McConnell mentions one who followed his example by majoring in anthropology and then went on to work in international conflict resolution, helping to provide shelter and safety for people displaced by civil wars, borders disputes, and natural disasters. But this is also true on a much smaller scale.

Last semester I had the happy accident of teaching a class on 20th century science fiction. As an early modernist, this was way out of my wheelhouse and a result of the usual vicissitudes of course assignments at a large university. However, because I’d been working on a book set in the age of New Wave sci fi for the better part of two years, I’d been reading a lot classics in the genre and felt up to the task. Cat’s Cradle was one of the first things I put on the syllabus.

catscradleI knew it would provoke interesting conversation, but I didn’t fully consider the impact it would have on a group of students who (mostly) hadn’t encountered Vonnegut before. Being (mostly) STEM majors, many of them had never even taken a literature class, and signed up for this one because it seemed like the least painful way to satisfy their (meager) humanities requirements. Many of them freely admitted that it had been years since they read a book. Just as many told me, when the semester drew to a close, that they wanted to read more. This is the best outcome you can ask for as an English teacher.

Much of what I know about being an Agent of Change I learned from Vonnegut. The same might also be said of those 24 students. Cat’s Cradle not only introduced them to a bizarre and darkly funny genre (our first day of discussion was more an hour-long collective outburst of confusion and delight) but also forced them to confront some big questions they’d never considered. For instance: When does a tool become a weapon? Does it depend on the intention of the creator, or the tool’s potential use? A shovel is a weapon in the wrong hands, but we don’t place the blame for murder by trowel on the man who made the trowel. Should the same ethics apply to something like ice-nine? The science that enables biological warfare? The atomic bomb? What are scientists’ ethical responsibilities to the world they live in? How would the world be different if we considered all the possibilities of new technology–not only the desired outcome and intended use?

When I first posed these questions, nobody answered. Usually, silence is last thing you want in the classroom. Usually, it means they’re bored, or not paying attention. But not always–sometimes it means they’re thinking. 

This is only one example of the the Big Questions Vonnegut got my students thinking about. It might not seem like much, but knowing how bright they are and what else they’re learning, I’m not so sure that’s true. What of Vonnegut’s reader who went on to save lives around the world? Last semester a class of 24 had a strange encounter with Cat’s Cradle and, hopefully, they’ll take the lessons they learned with them into their careers in chemistry and biology and engineering. If our later conversations about Jurassic Park were any indication, in a few short weeks their awareness of the importance of ethics in scientific inquiry had already been raised. I didn’t need to ask these kinds of questions anymore: they asked them on their own. Thanks to Kurt, they know that none of the work they’ll do after the classroom will be uncomplicated or apolitical–and if they take that knowledge with them into the workforce, the ripple effect could be significant. That’s change, baby.

Now imagine the same thing, but multiply by the millions of people who have read Cat’s Cradle outside my class. The potential impact of a work of literature is huge. That is, make no mistake, a huge responsibility. Thank God Kurt Vonnegut had a conscience as well as a sense of humor and wove the two together so wonderfully. Of course, none of the rest of us inkslingers are ever going to be Kurt Vonnegut. But we may as well do our best to make him proud by making art that really matters. This is not to say that every work of fiction needs to be a social crusade. It’s simply to reiterate what Vonnegut said already: we write because we care.

Here’s the added bonus: your writing is going to be a lot better when you write about stuff you care about, whether it’s graduate students on strike or nuclear war or just the strange experience of a young Shakespearean actor (hi). Art is how we process things–as creators and consumers. Stories are how we make sense of the world.

Even more importantly, literature is a bridge to empathy. Really–we’ve got the science to prove it. “Controlled experiments,” McConnell writes, “prove Vonnegut right on this most important count:

Our brains do know reading is good for us. Especially literary fiction. That’s what the scientific journals NeuroImage, Brain and Language, and the Annual Review of Psychology report.

One study found that ‘after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.’ Literary fiction improves social skills. Why? Because it leaves more to the imagination, activating inferences about characters and sensitivity ‘to emotional nuance and complexity.’

Researchers discovered other particulars.

The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.

Fiction–with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions–offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality…: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.*

(153)

Not such small potatoes after all. In a time when our political leaders are refusing to take the necessary measures to keep people safe and refusing to take responsibility for the gross mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis, and when the situation is being exacerbated by individuals who are hoarding supplies they don’t need which won’t reach the people who do need them or putting others at risk by not taking appropriate precautions, it sure seems like we could all use a little empathy.

So this is why we write. And this is, I think, what’s going to keep us writing even though the world feels like it’s on fire. We’re going to keep writing because the world is on fire, because literature literally makes us better people, and because better people are more likely to help put fires out. Sitting down to type or even just to read might seem useless and futile when disease is spreading and people are dying, but just because you’re a writer or a reader instead of an epidemiologist doesn’t mean that what you’re doing doesn’t matter. Write on.

M


*From Annie Murphy Paul’s piece “Your Brain on Fiction,” published in the New York Times on March 17, 2012.

So That Still Didn’t Work

If you read my last post or any of the posts linked therein, you’ve probably come to know me as a demented workaholic who is so Type A she pencils things like errands and showers and taking out the recycling into her planner (and then color-codes them by category of activity. Really). However, as you may also know if you’ve been following the saga of M-struggles-to-find-a-work-life-balance, the freakish level of organization with which I have learned to manage my life, while useful when it comes to meeting deadlines and juggling responsibilities, often makes me miserable.

Over the last week and a half my entire planner was blocked out in pastel shades of Academic Work and Writing Work and Housekeeping and Social Obligations and Stuff I Don’t Really Have Time for but Agreed to Do Anyway Because I’m a Chronic Over-achiever Who Doesn’t Know How to Say No. It was a mixed bag of excitement and exhaustion. I saw a lot of friends and did a lot of work and absorbed a lot of new information. I was also so burned out after twelve straight days of sunup to sundown stuff that last night when I finally reached that 5-o’clock-on-Friday finish line, all I could muster up the will to do was lie on the couch and stare at a screen and let its soothing blue light numb my brain into momentary hibernation.

This morning, this glorious Saturday morning when I had nothing–nothing!–scribbled in the relevant column of the ubiquitous planner, I sat down to fill in my day. Then I stopped, snapped the planner shut, and said to myself (sorry, Mom), “Fuck it.” Why am I planning my first free day in two weeks down to the minute with stupid things that don’t need time stamps, like reading a book or writing a blog post or running the dishwasher? Folks, my brain is BROKEN.

This is not exactly news. Obsessive tendencies have been my dear companions since middle school and are largely to credit/blame for the number of plates I manage to spin on a regular basis. But it has occurred to me recently–and with surprisingly sharp clarity this morning–that some of the anxiety I feel is entirely self-generated.

In college I realized that I was much more likely to finish things I started when I only worked on one thing at a time and stuck to a schedule I figured out based on how much I wanted to accomplish by what date and how much work I had to do each day to get there. It was such a successful formula that I banged out like five novels and two theses in about six years, which is to say nothing of all the other stuff I managed to fit in in between. Because it was working, I didn’t question it–until now.

To be clear, I do not regret cultivating this kind of discipline. Without it, there’s absolutely no way I would be able to juggle writing-as-a-career with the demands of academia. However, the time seems right to entertain the possibility that there is a limit to how much hard work can help you. My solution to every setback has been to work harder and work faster and hope like hell that it all pays off. Some of it has. Much of it hasn’t. And in the meantime, I’ve become such a basket case that I need four hours of binge-watching the TV I’ll never catch up on because I’ve got work to do, damn it, just to recover from two weeks of normal.

One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. With that in mind, the way I’ve been trying to solve problems looks not just dysfunctional but downright delusional. And the closer I look the clearer it becomes how much of the stress I experience is partly self-inflicted. Working harder and faster has made little material difference in how much sooner I reach my goals, and may even be part of the reason I’m not reaching them sooner. Which raises another question: what’s the point of pushing myself to accomplish these things if I feel more like a hamster on a wheel than a person chasing their dreams?

It sounds corny because it totally is. We could blame Western culture or Walt Disney or the Founding Fathers who instilled in us the desire for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But it’s so easy to get caught up in the pursuit you forget about the happiness part. To be fair to myself, it’s not entirely my fault. I work in two industries where it is notoriously, demonstrably difficult to succeed. Getting ahead feels like sheer fantasy, when the reality of every day is a race to keep up. But it’s equally real that I am making things worse for myself.

Looking back through the first pages of the planner to the beginning of 2020, it’s obvious I’ve crossed the border from dedicated to delusional. What sane person plans to write a conference paper and a dissertation chapter and the first draft of a new novel and a series of articles and reviews while working full time and a half and still trying to sell the last novel she finished, all in a matter of three months? It’s objectively insane, and yet it was something my January self not only fully intended to do but had calculated down to the daily wordcount.

Today is February 29th, which feels like a liminal space, an unreal day of unusual possibility which we only see on the calendar every four years. Something about today made me stop and think and decide to break the cycle. Of course, old habits die hard. I will never be a person who flies by the seat of her pants, but that doesn’t mean I need to run my own life like a helicopter mom, either. So this morning I loosened some of the straps on the psychological straitjacket.

I can’t throw out the planner because I do need to keep track of what day it is and where I need to be, but I made some other changes. I deleted my Goodreads challenge so I’m no longer getting guilt-tripped by the internet for not reading fast enough. I scrapped the writing plan I made in January that had me trying to bang out 1,000 words a day on a novel on top of everything else in favor of something more flexible. I said no to a job that I probably would have said yes to yesterday because I knew it would be more stress than it was worth. I decided not to try to cram travel into the month of March just because it’s spring break so maybe I should. I want to leave more room in my schedule for spontaneity and relaxation and exploration and enjoying moments of this life I’ve worked so hard to build. And maybe, paradoxically, that will actually bring me closer to all those long-term goals. Maybe part of the reason I’ve been struggling to do good work is because I’m just trying to do too much–even if it is, like all those things I mentioned in my last post, positive. Maybe all work and no play really does make Jack a dull boy. And maybe a little time to breathe won’t make me brilliant, but it might make me healthier and happier, and that’s not bad as consolation prizes go.

So that’s my suggestion for Leap Day. Cut something loose. Self-sabotage might just be a great place to start.

M

So That Didn’t Work

I’ve said this before, but I don’t set a lot of stock in New Year’s resolutions. So far the only one I’ve ever done that worked was in 2017 when I resolved to listen to at least one song every day without doing anything else at the same time (a practice I would highly recommend for anybody trying to find a quiet moment in the midst of 21st-century chaos or reconnect with art in a meaningful way).

However, this new year happened to coincide with a series of circumstances which have forced me to reconsider the way I operate from day to day. The short version is that the class I was supposed to teach was cancelled due to insufficient enrollment, a glitch in the Matrix which might be attributable to an uninspiring–and apparently immutable–course description, the structure of the undergrad English major, the general devaluation of the humanities in American culture, my own lack of appeal as a person, or some combination of all four. The downside is a significant cut to my insignificant paycheck. (There’s no such thing as job security as a graduate student.) The upside is that this leaves me with a more flexible schedule than I have had in the last six years.

As you may have heard me say elsewhere (by which I mean Twitter), I don’t do well with unstructured time (hence the sharp upswing in my Twitter activity of late). As a result I’ve gotten to be very good at structuring my own time when there isn’t an institutional schedule in place to do it for me. But one of my objectives this year is to become less of a slave to structure. If you’ve been following this blog awhile or already clicked on that link at the top, you know I’ve been down this road before. I tried it last year. It did not work.

However, I am nothing if not stubborn, so here we are again. I’ve accepted that a reasonable work-life balance is an unrealistic goal for me, just because of who I am as a person at this particular point in my life. But that doesn’t mean I can’t make some changes to the way I work. In addition to feeling generally burned out and overwhelmed, a lot of the joy that writing used to bring me has been replaced by fatalistic dread about what it will (or won’t) amount to in the end. Is this really worth my time? Will it be worth a publisher’s money? Will it grab a journal’s interest? Worry about that sort of stuff for long enough, and it’ll make you hate something you used to love.

This is not to say I hate writing. This is to say I hate the anxieties that come with writing for publication. Unfortunately, if you intend to make a career as a writer (which I still do, with characteristic stubbornness, despite trying and failing to grab a new editor’s interest for the last four years) marketability isn’t something you can afford not to worry about. But perhaps you don’t have to worry about it all the time.

My abstract and belated resolution for 2020 is to worry less and write more with no other end goal in mind than the writing itself. I want to write about stuff I want to write about without worrying whether anybody wants to buy it. To be honest, I want to write without even worrying whether anybody wants to read it. Over the last few months, I’ve been taking baby steps in the right direction. I’ve been following whims and interests which are largely unrelated to my usual fields and genres, and some of those things have been hugely rewarding.

For example:

I’m writing reviews and interviews for The Vinyl District, an online music mag with a pretty wide reach where I have pretty free rein. If you’re curious you can find links here (and keep an eye out in the coming weeks; I have a long interview with one of my favorite cover bands and a piece on Brian Wilson in the pipeline).

Years ago, I was doing record recommendations based on followers’ favorite books. Demand got so out of hand I had to stop doing it, but now I’m back at it, in a more manageable way. I’ve told nobody about this until now. For months it was a sorely needed creative outlet with absolutely zero stakes. If you want, you can find that here.

After teaching a science fiction class last semester, I’ve taken a much deeper dive into space exploration. I applied to participate in the upcoming State of NASA event at the Goddard Space Flight Center, and–to my surprise as much as yours–was actually selected. On February 10th I’ll be touring the facilities (as Cake might put it) and sharing some exciting stuff about the Artemis program, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and future missions to Mars. If you want to follow along with that, you can find me on Twitter and Instagram.

These are just a few of the proverbial irons in the fire. I may not be teaching again until September, but I still have conference papers and a dissertation to write and a novel to sell and an admin job with my university’s MedRen society. All of that keeps me pretty busy. But finding time to write just for the sake of art and curiosity and the craft itself has helped me remember why I wanted to do this in the first place. To that end, I’m hoping to also start posting writing more regularly here. (Don’t worry, it won’t be enough to be annoying.) I’m not sure yet what form that writing will take or if it will find a consistent form at all. The point is to follow my own creative whims and write without worry.

For anyone else feeling burned out or bummed out or just demoralized by how little real reward there often is for the many hours we spend working, I hope you can find time in your life to chase a few butterflies. Indulge yourself. Take a risk. Waste some time. Resist the urge to map every hour of your day or your month and let life catch you by surprise. 2020 promises to be a rough year. If we don’t want to go crazy, we might just have make our own rules and make our own fun and find the things that remind us why we’re toughing it out in the first place.

Good luck and godspeed.

M

Liftoff

For the last two years I’ve been teaching a writing workshop in a women’s prison. They’re a well-read group, but most of them don’t have much writing experience, and they consistently struggle with starting stories. They tend to get bogged down in detail or background information and just can’t get the damn thing off the ground. More seasoned writers seem to struggle with this, too. I’ve taken a lot of writing classes where I read a lot of stories that didn’t actually start until page three or four. In one workshop, the professor took our stories and drew a huge line across the page with a red felt pen when she got bored and stopped reading. In a different workshop, the professor put the first page of each story up on the screen and the class voted on whether or not they’d keep reading. If they voted “No,” you had to revise and resubmit until you got a “Yes.” Some people never made it past that first page.

Last time we talked about the struggles of getting started, one of my prison students blurted out what everyone else was probably wondering: “Why the hell is this so hard?”

The thing is, you rarely fantasize about the beginning of a story. When you’re kicking ideas around in your head and even once you’re working on a first draft, you’re preoccupied with those big cinematic moments that made you want to write the book in the first place. At least, that’s usually my experience. But beginnings, when done well,  can become the most iconic moments in a story-telling franchise. Consider Harry Potter: few people are ever going to forget those owls landing on the Dursley house or the Hogwarts letters shooting out of the chimney. Consider The Hobbit: thirteen dwarves barnstorming the Shire is one for the ages. Consider Macbeth: the witches on the heath is one of the most recognizable scenes in Shakespeare, even though it may have actually been written by Middleton and it’s only a handful of lines. Point is, the impact of a good beginning can’t be underestimated.

I’ve been thinking about this question of beginnings a lot in the last two weeks as I’ve been writing the first chapter of a new project for 1000 words of summer. Starting a story is, like outlining, one of the challenges of writing fiction which I particularly enjoy. So when my students were wrestling with their stories’ first pages and paragraphs, I asked them the question I always ask myself when I first put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard: Why does this story start here? You can’t start a story right if you can’t answer that question. Why this day instead of any other day? What happens that’s out of the ordinary? What’s going to get the reader interested in finding out what happens next? Most good beginnings indicate an interruption of the norm, whether it’s dwarves banging down the door or something more mundane. But something has to happen to get your MC started on their journey, whether it’s a journey toward a spiritual awakening or a divorce or the end of the world.

What happens with a lot of my students (and a lot of people in writing workshops) is that they get hung up on world-building. They have such a clear vision of a place or a person that they want to fill the first pages of their story with rich description, so the reader has a perfectly immersive experience–like the opening sequence of a television show that plunges you right into the aesthetic of the thing. Unfortunately that doesn’t quite work with printed words; a little description is good, so your reader knows where they are in the world, but nothing will lose their interest faster than adjective soup. It’s much easier to get hooked on a story that starts with action, even a story that starts in media res–because people and particularly readers are naturally curious. They want to ask questions and learn the answers as they go, and they’ll keep reading until they get them, if the story has gotten them hooked.

A lot of writers forget that you can world-build as you go, instead of all at once. Starting with action doesn’t mean you’ve forfeited your only opportunity to describe the people and places that populate your story. No reader is ever going to picture everything exactly the same way the writer does, and I think the impulse to over-describe comes from an (understandable) desire to close that gap. However, good writing checks that impulse and instead seeks to close the gap between action and description, and gives the reader sensory and aesthetic detail as it becomes relevant to the events of the story–for instance, describing the way a character walks when he first walks into the room, or the way the front door groans when someone is trying to sneak back into the house after curfew without making a sound. This works in fiction because this is how it works in the real world; rarely do you walk into a new room and stop to digest every detail before you greet anybody or grab a drink or ask where to hang your coat. Instead, you absorb details of your surroundings as you move the through the world and as they grab your attention. Thus also to good writing: it takes notice of relevant detail, dispenses with the rest, and gets on with the story.

Of course, every beginning is different. But I do think it’s universally true that if you want a reader to keep turning pages, you have to convince them that things are going to happen in the many pages to come. In a world with more books than any one person could ever hope to read, you can’t afford to dither. Make a bold first move. These first pages are urgent. Shove your reader and your characters right out the door. They’ll follow where you lead. The story’s already started.

M

Best-Laid Plans

Every time I send a new draft to my agent–or my committee, if we’re talking academia–there follows a strange fallow period where I simply don’t know what to do with myself. After weeks and months of a familiar circadian rhythm hugely influenced by how much work I want or need to get done each day, suddenly finding myself with idle hands can be so disorienting that I forget to enjoy it, forget to bask in the luxury of free time. I don’t want to perpetuate the (grievously mistaken) impression that academics don’t work during the summer–because the truth is that they use the summer to catch up on all the work they didn’t get done during the year because they had classes to teach and papers to grade and conferences to attend and so on and so forth–but even though I’m spending the summer at the Folger’s Paleography Institute and working on my dissertation prospectus and crafting syllabuses for teaching next year, these first few weeks have felt uncommonly freeAfter months working around the clock, I finished grading final papers and essays, sent a new draft of a new book to my agent, and passed my comprehensive exam on May 21. Waking up the next day when it was all over felt like finding myself shipwrecked on a tropical key with only a scrambled recollection of how I got there. It felt like paradise–until the island fever set in.

I am trying hard to mitigate my workaholic tendencies, but that doesn’t change the fact that without something to work on, I get restless. My agent is in the process of reading my latest draft, and because I don’t want us to be working at cross purposes, there’s not much I can do right now to work on my current book project. Fortunately, because I’ve never figured out how to turn off “plot bunnies,” I usually have a long list of ideas waiting in the wings for a moment just like this one–when my current manuscript is out of my reach but my brain needs something to do. So: let the plotting begin.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a fanatical outliner; because I like to write in a more-or-less linear manner and because I hate staring at a blank page wondering, What next? I never start a first draft until I have a pretty solid outline to work with. I’ve heard many a protest that this sucks all the creativity out of the process, and I respectfully disagree–planning ahead lets you engage in two completely different types of creativity but (here’s the crucial part) not at the same time. Every writer is different, but personally I find it difficult to produce good prose and find the right pacing and “set the stage,” as it were, if I don’t know where the story’s going. Much easier to focus on the shape and texture and tension of a scene if the question isn’t what happens but how it happens. So, finding the narrative is Step 1. It’s hard to build a house without a blueprint.

This seems to be how many newish writers get stuck. I hear a lot of variations of, “I’ve realized I need to outline but I don’t know where to start. How do you outline your projects?” The assumption often seems to be that one can approach outlining like assembling IKEA furniture–that’s there’s a simple how-to manual which, if interpreted correctly, will eventually yield a reasonably stable bookcase (or, in this case, book). Speaking only for me, this is pretty much the opposite of how outlining happens. Despite the fastidious, buzzwordy connotations of a word like “outline,” this part of the process is messy and unpredictable and wildly experimental. So when people ask how I outline, it’s difficult to know how to answer. But because that’s the phase I’m in right now, at least until I get my other MS back from my agent, I figured I’d try to describe it.

Every story starts as just an idea. Inspiration can come from anywhere–a painting or a newspaper article or a riff in a song which makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up–and suddenly the imagination is off like an improv troupe with a prompt, trying out different personalities and scenarios, snatching and discarding different ideas until something sticks, something clicks, and the pieces begin to fall into place. Inspiration tends to ambush me, rather than tapping me politely on the shoulder when I don’t have anything more important to attend to, so most embryonic story ideas get scribbled down wherever they strike. Then I mostly leave them alone, picking them up to play with in spare moments on the train or at the gym or when I just need a break from whatever project is consuming most of my attention at the moment. Little by little, pieces fall into place. I collect ideas for characters and scenes and settings and try out different plot points as they occur to me. This often takes months, precisely because it’s a process that can’t be forced. It can, however, be helped along a little.

In the early stages, when nothing’s set in stone, a book is more about the feeling than it is about the facts, and what I refer to as “outlining” includes time spent splashing around in the aesthetic space of the story–which might mean making pinboards or making playlists or tracking down other books in the same genre to give myself a sense of what’s already out there or starting to put together a research bibliography. Inevitably I find myself discovering tidbits of character or culture that are simply too good to lose and slowly filling in gaps in that loose outline as I go. This is one of my favorite parts of the writing process, actually, because it’s purely a time to play. But eventually something a little less amorphous emerges. Casts of characters solidify and their backstories gather detail. A skeletal plot begins to take shape.

This is when I turn to notecards. When I have a strong enough sense of “how the story goes” I open FinalDraft and start dropping notecards in a storyboard. (The freeware version of FinalDraft is CeltX, which as far as I know has most of the same features I’m talking about here. But you could also do this with old-fashioned paper index cards.) What I like about outlining this way is that it lets me play with structure while retaining flexibility–I can shuffle scenes around until I find the order that makes the most sense. These scene cards are pretty scant on detail, just a sentence or two to indicate what has to happen in the scene. For instance, here are the first few from my original outline of Villains:

IWWVoutline

This is pretty sparse, but eventually it turned into something that looks more like this, fleshed out by character and atmosphere and everything else that makes a book a book. However, it takes a long time to get from idea to outline to first draft, and along the way there’s a lot of time spent trying to figure out how the pieces of the story fit together, how to get from one notecard to the next when you know there’s something missing in between. That’s probably the best analogy for it–it’s like solving a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle which will eventually give you the road map you need to start writing the first draft. It’s vital work, but unlike the actual writing of prose or revision of prose already written, it’s not really something I can schedule or quantify or plan ahead. I just have to let it happen. Sometimes it’s frustrating as hell, especially when I’m excited to get started on something but I know I’m not ready yet and the muse is taking her damn time, unmoved by all my earnest pandering to her whims. But it’s also some of the most fun you’ll ever have as a writer, precisely because it is (ironically) unstructured. It’s a time to explore and discover, and there are few more exciting moments than the “EUREKA” moment of solving a plot problem or uncovering the secret of what makes a character tick. Do that for a few weeks or a few months and eventually–voilà–you have something that’s starting to look like a story.

I haven’t decided what I’m working on next. I have three different projects which are partly outlined and starting to solidify. And because I know I’ll be getting that other MS back from my agent soon enough, there’s no sense going too far down the rabbit hole with anything new just yet. But idle hands are dangerous, and an idle mind is worse. So while I’m in MS limbo, I’m going to get out the jigsaw puzzles, and have some fun, and see if I can’t make some pieces fit.

M


Header photo by Rick Payette.

The Readiness is All

From what I’ve seen on my own and everyone else’s social media, one of the most common questions writers get is how you know when your work is “ready”–ready to show to beta readers, ready to submit to agents, ready to send to the agent you already have, ready to submit to publishers, or ready to go to press. Like most things in writing, there aren’t any straightforward answers, to any version of that question (except the last version, to which the answer is, “When the publisher decides it’s ready, because they’ll send it to press whether the writer is ready or not”). Sometimes deadlines make the decision for you, but when there’s a degree of autonomy involved, it’s much harder stop spinning your wheels and hit “send.”

I think this gets harder rather than easier the longer you write and the more revision you do, because you’ve had the time and experience to learn that every draft that seemed almost-perfect when you fist finished it looked like a holy mess a few weeks later. Sure, you might be feeling pretty good about Draft 5 now it’s done and dusted, but that’s exactly how you felt about Drafts 4, 3, and 2, and man, were you wrong about those. I published a book that went through 45 drafts all told and I still wish I could go back in time and make changes, even though it’s way too late for that now. And I think that’s the first thing you have to accept: that no draft will ever be perfect, no matter how many drafts you do. So instead of waiting for a perfect draft, you have to settle for a draft that’s good enough, despite the nagging premonition that six weeks from now when you’ve gotten some distance all the flaws you were blind to before will glare at you in blinking Vegas neon. (Art is for masochists, not romantics. Jot that down.)

So, when and how do you summon up enough “f$#k it” energy to send that thing to agents or your agent or editors or your editor even though you know it ain’t perfect and it probably never will be? Obviously it depends where you are in the process, but the abstract answer is “when you’ve done everything you can.” When you’re getting ready to query, that probably means you’ve done at least ten drafts and you’ve gotten some beta readers and maybe a freelance editor and done some of those drafts with their feedback in mind and you think it’s the best it can be without professional (i.e., an agent’s) input. When you’ve already got an agent and you’re getting ready to give them something new, that’s a whole different ball game–because you don’t need to convince them to take you on as a client anymore. Sometimes there’s more anxiety involved with a second book because you’re both asking whether the second book is going to live up to the expectations the first one created. At the same time, the working relationship has had time to grow and develop and you’re already in this together. Of course (of course) you still want to impress your agent, but it’s also not so gauche to say, “I know I still need to work on X, Y,  and Z in this manuscript, but I wanted to get your input first.” Submitting to editors is a decision you and your agent necessarily make together, and you can multiply the number of people involved and subtract from how much decision-making power lies with you, the author, the farther along in the process you get and closer you come to pub day. But people usually aren’t asking about that part of the process, because by then they’ve got the agent and the editor and everyone else at the imprint ready to give them the answer.

As for those early stages, when the decision rests largely with the writer, it’s a lot harder to take your foot off the brake and let it go. Personally I’ve found there are a couple of telltale signs I’m reaching the point of no return:

  1. Instead of identifying big problems that span multiple scenes or chapters, I’m doing the sort of surgery that only requires local anesthetic.
  2. I’m changing things and then changing them back again in the next draft to what they were before.
  3. I’m hunting for things to fix instead of finding them right away.

When I start to notice this pattern repeating itself from draft to draft (and chapter to chapter and scene to scene) that’s usually a good sign that I’ve used up my own resources and it’s time to punt to someone else. Then I take a break from the work and walk away from it, ideally for at least two weeks and ideally when I have plenty of other things to occupy my mind. This time around it was two weeks’ cramming in the home stretch before my comps exam, when I wouldn’t have had time to think about writing if I wanted to. Having come back to the MS over the last few days, I still feel the same way I did two weeks ago–namely, that I’ve done all I can do and it’s time to make a few cosmetic changes to bring the document up to industry standards and send the cursèd thing off to my agent to read.

At this point in the process, I’m usually feeling a little ambivalent. I’m still excited about the project but don’t want to get my hopes up because I’m still too close to it to be objective about the book as a book, as opposed to the book in its current iteration. And I think when aspiring authors ask questions about how they know when they’re ready what they’re really asking about is how to avoid that feeling, that uncertainty. To be honest, I don’t think you can. Like I said, art is for masochists. Self-doubt and self-confidence will always go hand in hand. That–like the fact that no draft will ever be perfect–is one of those things you just have to accept. So instead of waiting for the day when you feel unambiguously positive about your manuscript, because that day will literally never come, you wait for the day when you feel you’ve done everything in your power to improve it, and you’re ready for someone else’s input. You don’t have to be ready to publish it. You don’t have to be ready to show it to the world. You just have to feel confident that the work that you’ve done was the best you could do on your own and you’re ready now for someone else to read it and say, “I like what you’ve got so far. Here’s what still needs work.”

M

Once More, with Feeling

I never shut up about how important revision is, which is something you probably already know if you’ve been following me on any platform for any length of time. This is partly because that’s a hill I’m willing to die on and partly because it’s a part of the process I don’t often see other writers talk about, which I think contributes to the myth that the first draft is 90% of the work–which has been, in my experience, pretty much the opposite of the reality.

In my last post here I talked about the daunting prospect of the first round of revision, and about how you have to find a way to live in that strange liminal place between the disaster your first draft is and the terrific thing it has the potential to become. So let’s say you’ve gotten through that second draft. How do you approach the third?

This is where I am right now. Over the last three weeks I’ve worked through my shitty first draft, working about three hours a night with the exception of my “spring break,” which I spent locked in an AirBnB in a very small town in Pennsylvania where there wasn’t much to distract me from the work. And despite all that time spent and work done, if someone besides me were to look at the two drafts I have now, they might have a hard time spotting the differences. The most obvious one is probably that the second draft is about 25,000 words shorter, but besides that it looks more or less the same. So what the hell was I doing for those 100-odd hours I spent turning Draft 1 into Draft 2?

Reading through the ugly first draft of any manuscript is the first chance you have to meet the story as a whole, to see the shape it takes when all the pieces are finally in place. It’s a bit of a mixed bag emotionally; there’s certainly a thrill at seeing the whole thing come together, but that enthusiasm is necessarily dampened by the realization of how much work still remains to be done–a realization it’s really not possible to arrive at until you have a complete draft of, well, something. Calling it a “book” might be generous at this juncture. Whatever you want to call it, it can be hard to know where to start. Figuring that out is what I was doing between Draft 1 and Draft 2.

I’ve you’ve been following me anywhere long enough to know how much I love revision, you’ve also probably heard me harp on about how much I love outlining. So it will probably come as no surprise to you that I love nothing more than smashing those two things together. Yes, I’m that much of a creative control freak: I outline revision. This is actually a habit I picked up during a writing workshop at Iowa about five years ago. Our workshop leader, responding to a question about his own revision process, explained that in each draft he only focuses on one thing. One draft to fix plot and pacing. One draft to look only at character development. Another to look only at dialogue. And so on and so forth.

Revision, precisely because it is so important and so unwieldy and because most first drafts are a holy mess, can be really intimidating. So sometime in the intervening years I figured out my own way to make it manageable. While I don’t follow the same one-thing-per-draft approach described by that workshop leader, I do like to approach each draft with a finite list of tasks to keep it from feeling overwhelming. That, largely, is the task of Draft 2: to suss out what needs to be done in Draft 3. After the last three weeks of work, I’ve got a list with ten or twelve items on it, which range in intensity from “Write those two scenes you never actually put in there” to “Cut every word you don’t absolutely need.” (For me, cutting down on the clutter is always a high priority, but since this MS clocked in at 210,000 words I’m going to have to Marie Kondo the crap out of it.) Once I have a list, I tend to favor a top-down approach and do the heavy lifting first: fixing plot holes and character development and anything else that’s a macrocosmic problem. Then I move on to the smaller stuff that only affects one scene or one page or one paragraph. Once I get to the bottom of that list, I’ll call it a draft, then start the process over again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

No doubt about it, this is a lot of work. But what I like about working this way is that you can really see the progress from draft to draft and know exactly what you did to get there. And by the time you’re on draft ten or twelve the items on your list have shrunk from mountains to molehills and it’s starting to look like a book. The best way I can think to describe it is that it’s a bit like finding the statue inside a block of marble. You have to chip away at it, slowly and carefully, bit by bit, until you find the last graceful shape of the thing. Will it ever be perfect? Of course not. That’s art. Even Michelangelo’s David has some proportional irregularities. But if you can carve something like that from a dull mass of stone, you’ve accomplished something worth being proud of–and most people won’t even notice if his head’s just a little too big.

M

Sh*tty First Drafts

To borrow a famous phrase from Anne Lammott’s Bird by Bird, I’ve just finished a shitty first draft. As her later use of the phrase implies, that is something to be proud of and excited about. I’ve been chipping away at this manuscript for almost a year, averaging about 600 words a day in that amount of time. That might not sound terribly impressive, but because it’s happened in tandem with full-time doctoral study, I’m honestly relieved it didn’t take me ten years instead of one. (This is, of course, excluding the process of research and outlining that went before the actual writing of this first draft, which started almost a year before.) Since posting an update on various social media platforms, I’ve gotten a number of questions which are all, in the end, variations of the same question: what now?

Every writer’s process is different. For me, the actual writing of the first draft of any given book is just the tip of the iceberg (if this metaphor sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve used it before). What goes on the page in the first draft is a tiny fraction of the work that actually goes into making a book, as is the final draft which a reader ultimately holds in their hands. So. What happens between one and the other?

Again, every writer’s process is different. But what’s true for every writer is that no first draft is ready for readers. Every first draft is a shitty first draft, and expecting it to be anything else is a great way to set yourself up for a big disappointment. As V. E. Schwab once put it, “A first draft is the farthest your story will ever be from the idea in your head. Revision is the process of closing the gap, but the two will never truly touch.” This couldn’t be more true, and one of the smartest things writers can do is disabuse themselves of the notion that a first draft is ever going to be anything other than an unholy mess. Case in point: that first draft I just finished? It is fully 210,000 words and there are entire scenes and paragraphs still missing throughout. To give you an idea how much of a trash fire that really is, most books aimed at an adult audience are somewhere between 90- and 110,00 words. Upshot is, I have a staggering amount of work ahead of me. I don’t mind admitting I have no freakin’ idea how I’m going to cut this manuscript literally in half. I’m already kicking myself for being (as usual) overly ambitious. I don’t know why I can’t fight the impulse to cram way too much into one story. All I know is I’m looking at this 400-page monstrosity and asking myself the same question everyone else has been asking me: what the hell do I do now?

The good news is that unlike a lot of writers, I actually love revision. I have no illusions about just how shitty my first drafts are and truly relish the process of improving them. This is not to say that revision is easy. On the contrary, revision is a whole lot harder (in my opinion) than the writing itself. Inconveniently, it’s also (a) the most important work you’ll do on any given MS and (b) the work would-be writers are most reluctant to do. It’s no mystery why; after finally writing that ending and feeling like you’ve just finished a thousand-mile obstacle course, who on earth wants to admit that the thing they’ve just made is a steaming pile of garbage which needs ten times more work than the work they already did? It’s a daunting prospect–especially if this ain’t your first rodeo and you’ve already learned exactly how much work revision really entails (and how indispensable it really is). I know I have many long nights ahead of me, many hours to be spent struggling to wrestle difficult passages into submission, and not a few bouts of despair over how on earth I can cut this frankly obscene wordcount down.

But, bitching and moaning aside: how on earth do you actually approach something this unwieldy? How do you bridge that gap between a shitty first draft and the unattainable ideal that exists only in your (overly ambitious) imagination? To frame it in the abstract, I think the answer is to embrace the fact that every good writer is their own biggest fan and their own worst critic at the very same time. A good writer can look at their work and see just how much improvement it needs and be willing to put that effort in because they can also see its worth, its potential. You have to love it as much as you hate it. You have to believe it can be something wonderful just as firmly as you know that right now, it’s a pile of shit.

There’s a strange sort of freedom in accepting that any first attempt to tell a story will be a disaster. You can give yourself permission to fail, and fail spectacularly, with one caveat: you have to accept that you will also have to clean up the mess you’ve made. It’s a bit like flipping a house. In order to rebuild it and make it beautiful, first you have to pick up that sledgehammer and knock the whole thing down. Unlike remodeling a house, however, you can’t hire anybody to do the work for you. You can’t bribe your friends with beer and pizza to come over and help with the heavy lifting. (If you’re lucky enough to have an agent or an editor you can get some professional input when the time comes, but if all you have is a shitty first draft… that’s not the time.) You have to take your hideous house and give it a makeover so extreme the execs at ABC would weep to see it.

So. Where do you start?

Again, I can only speak for me. But I try to start standing right in that chasm between what the manuscript is and what I want it to be. I read through the whole thing being my own worst critic and my own biggest fan, asking myself over and over again, “Why do I hate this, and what do I have to do to turn it into something I love again?” Questions and answers may vary in size and scope, all the way from the raison d’être of the whole darn thing down to the order of words in a sentence. Personally I like to start with the big stuff and work my way down to the minutiae (no sense agonizing over word choice when you might yet end up cutting that whole chapter), but throughout the process one thing never changes: if you want to see improvement, you gotta do the work, and you can’t half-ass it. You have to put not just as much effort into every subsequent draft as you put into the first, but probably more. You have to accept that the first draft was just the first step.

But in deference to the work-life balance I’m still trying to cultivate (and because temporal distance is important, too), I think I’ve earned a night off. My shitty first draft will be here in the morning.

M

Writing, Reviews, and the Emotional Labor of Social Media

Having any sort of public persona in the 21st century makes you a potential target for hate mail and internet harassment. This is news to no one, and accepted by most people as an occupational hazard–unpleasant, but unavoidable. Across my own social media platforms I usually accrue a handful of unpleasant messages and mentions each week. Nine times out of ten it’s a mundane variation of some criticism of my work or myself which I’ve already heard a thousand times and it’s easy to delete it and move on: the thank u, next mentality which every artist has to cultivate if they don’t want to go stark barking mad. But every now and then there’s a little more vitriol.

This week, I made the mistake of saying readers really shouldn’t tag or “@” authors’ usernames in negative reviews, ensuring that they see the post. (Hashtags–preceded by the ubiquitous #–are a different story, as the author can choose whether or not to track those and see those notifications. That’s not what I’m talking about here.) There are a lot of reasons for this which anybody with a normal sense of empathy can probably deduce without my help. But you might be surprised (I certainly was) how many people disagree and will vociferously defend their right to make sure an author sees every bad review they write. The most common justification is that authors should be interested in seeing constructive criticism of their work. This is a sound theory. Most authors I know are interested in constructive criticism of their work, and they should be. The problem is that this kind of feedback is a lot less constructive than people seem to think. The biggest hitch here is the fact that the work you’re critiquing has already been published; even if it’s an ARC or galley it’s already on its way to press and the author can’t make any changes to it, which relegates that feedback to the category of woulda-shoulda-coulda. Okay, the proverbial devil’s advocate argues, but couldn’t an author apply this feedback to future work? Sure. And they’re probably going to. But this is still a misguided approach, for three reasons: (1) reader feedback is wildly subjective and often contradictory, (2) they’ve already seen it a thousand times, and (3) there’s a big difference between knowingly approaching criticism of your work and being blindsided by it at any random hour of the day somebody feels like posting it.

To elaborate a little: all art is subjective. No book is going to make every reader happy. All authors know this and they fully expect to see some unfavorable reviews. You might see some criticisms you agree with (I see those all the time) and some you don’t (I see those, too), but more often than not you’re going to see one person complaining about something another person loved. There is no accounting for taste. This issue of contradictory feedback is nothing new to a writer who’s already made it far enough in the process to have random readers tagging them on social media. They’ve talked to agents and editors and writing teachers, many of whom have offered them conflicting advice for how to improve their work. For instance, in the last round of feedback on a manuscript my agent and I have been submitting, multiple professional editors–whose entire job is to improve a writer’s work–gave us completely contradictory opinions about what the book’s strengths and weaknesses were. Hard to know what to make of that or how to put it into practice. Now multiply it by several thousand amateur reviewers on the internet and you have some idea what navigating reader feedback is actually like and why it’s not nearly as helpful as it might sound. Moreover, by the time a book hits the shelves, the author has already seen a dizzying array of reviews, from Kirkus to Goodreads. Chances are, you’re not telling them anything they haven’t already heard.

Let me be clear about something here: I’m not suggesting readers shouldn’t bother writing reviews or should only write nice reviews in order to spare an author’s feelings. That’s antithetical to how publishing works; people use reviews and recommendations to decide what they might like to read, and your average man-on-the-street opinion is often more valuable than whatever the professional reviewer at the NYT had to say, because most readers aren’t thinking about who deserves a literary prize or a six-figure advance on their next book. They’re just looking for something they’ll enjoy, and community reviews are often how they find it. If you didn’t like a book, that’s fine. You can and should express that opinion. But making sure the author sees it by tagging their username or handle is unnecessary. Actually, it’s kind of cruel.

If that seems over-dramatic, allow me to contextualize. Once I’ve explained how this kind of constructive criticism really isn’t all that constructive, the follow-up is usually the argument that if you’re making art for public consumption you should have a thick skin and not let this sort of thing bother you. Again, the logic is sound. Authors know their work isn’t perfect and not everyone likes it and they should be open to hearing negative feedback. However, that doesn’t mean they need to hear it every minute of the day. Most authors, especially midlist or indie authors who aren’t making six-figure book deals, have other jobs. They don’t have the luxury of just sitting around all day reading reviews and musing over how to improve their work. Even if they did, to expect anyone in any job to be prepared for a performance review at any given time–whether they’re on the clock or not–is, frankly, ridiculous. But social media has made this possible and, moreover, has led some readers to treat it as a kind of inviolable right. If your profile is public, you’d better be prepared to hear how much someone hated your book whenever they feel like telling you, whether you’re eating breakfast or watching TV or trying to get a workout in. What readers who are really adamant about this may not realize is that criticism is only constructive if you can approach it when you’re in the right frame of mind for it–and when you are, you can gird your loins and browse those hashtags or sort through the pile of two-star reviews on Goodreads. But trust me, no writer is in that frame of mind when they’re just eating breakfast or watching TV or working out or doing any of the other mundane things that normal humans do. Those all-hours call-outs aren’t helpful; they’re just demoralizing. Few things suck more than swiping a notification on your phone while you’re just going about your business, only to be reminded of all the worst things you’ve already heard about your book. And yet, if you suggest that readers reconsider tagging an author’s username in a bad review, you will get a lot–and I mean a lot–of pushback.

Inevitably, these arguments take a turn toward, “Well, if you can’t take it, you should just get off social media.” Here’s why that suggestion is also not as helpful as it might seem: unfortunately, most authors need social media to reach readers. Now more than ever publishers are depending on authors to do a lot of their own publicity, and this includes reminding people that your book is out there as often as you can without becoming annoying (a very difficult line to walk, by the way). Publishing is a never-ending battle to stay relevant and visible. So as simple as the solution might seem–Don’t like social media? Just delete it!–it’s not a feasible option for authors who don’t have a lot of marketing dollars behind their books, and the authors who do probably have a publicist to handle this sort of thing for them anyway. If you’re not that lucky, you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place: you need to be able to use social media to connect with your audience, but the trade-off is that you have to be prepared to see not-so-constructive criticism of your book literally whenever a dissatisfied reader feels like making sure you see it.

The real irony here is that for the most part, bad reviews don’t bother me. I was an actor for the most awkward years of my life; from fourteen to about 22 not only my artistic performance but my physical appearance were subject to pretty brutal criticism, sometimes about things over which I had absolutely no control. (When I was a junior in college a director told me I wasn’t a bad actor but I could never make a career of it unless I lost fifteen pounds, dyed my hair blonde, and–here’s the kicker–became two inches shorter.) People have been telling me I’m terrible at things which are really important to me for most of my life, and I do have a sense of humor about it. A backhanded compliment from the NYTBR was so funny to me I put it in my Twitter bio. My favorite review of my book is a two-word one-star insult on Amazon which my PhD cohort (who know me well enough to know how hilarious I’d find this) had printed on a coffee mug which now sits on my desk where I can show it to my students when they’re upset about a grade. What I take issue with is not a reader’s right to criticize. I take issue with the idea that readers have a right to force their bad reviews on an author anytime and anyplace. What bothers me even more is that the suggestion that we don’t do something just because it’s unkind and unnecessary seems, to some people, so outrageous.

To be fair to the reading community, this is something a lot of authors and publishing personnel and other book lovers are talking about, and many readers agree that tagging authors’ usernames/handles in bad reviews is bad form. Still, there are plenty of people who are quick to start hurling the “special snowflake” sort of insults at writers who have the audacity to say they really shouldn’t have to be notified of bad reviews all day. The false sense of distance and anonymity fostered by social media simply makes it easier than ever before to be mean. Fifty years ago if you wanted to make sure an author knew you hated their book you would have had to make a phone call or go up and knock on their door, which probably sound, to a modern reader, like insane things to do. You could also write a letter, but writing a letter and mailing it requires enough thought and effort and expenditure that you would have to stop and ask yourself, “Is this really worth it?” And maybe it is. Maybe a book was so offensive to you that you felt a deep need to bring your grievances to the author’s attention. Fine. Post the letter. But the ease of social media has made it unnecessary to ask that question: namely, what ensuring an author sees your bad review accomplishes besides making their day a little worse than it might have been otherwise.

Long story short: Readers don’t have to like every book, but they also don’t have to make sure the author knows it. It’s a small kindness, but it costs nothing.

Thanks for coming to my TED talk.

M