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.
This 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.
I 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.*
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.
*From Annie Murphy Paul’s piece “Your Brain on Fiction,” published in the New York Times on March 17, 2012.
Normally I avoid talking about politics online. The reasons for that are probably obvious. But in 2020 it’s going to be impossible to avoid, and you know what? This week it felt personal. I’m not going into my own political ideologies here because frankly I don’t have the bandwidth to have that conversation with The Internet. It’ll suffice to say the narrowing of what was once the most diverse class of Democratic candidates in political history to two straight white male septuagenarians is… somewhat demoralizing.
Maybe this belongs in the “disappointed but not surprised” folder, but there’s a third element here which makes this sting a little more than unsurprising disappointments past, in that it proved America simply is not ready to put a woman in the White House. Elizabeth Warren was everything the theoretically “electable” female candidate was supposed to be: smart, articulate, strong on policy, untouched by scandal, folksy and accessible while simultaneously up to the task of single-handedly dismantling the preposterous vanity campaign of billionaire Mike Bloomberg on live television. And it still wasn’t enough. (Just to add insult to injury, everyone and their mom is already jumping down her throat to endorse Their Remaining Candidate, in keeping with the great American tradition of exploiting women’s labor and expertise without actually empowering them. Not a good look, folks.)
That this primary kicked off Women’s History Month and was punctuated by an International Women’s Day which happened to fall on the only 23-hour day of the year (as pointed out on Twitter by Caroline Moss) is almost too much to stomach. These might seem like trivial coincidences–and at the end of the day they probably are–but the frustration, outrage, and hopelessness many women are feeling right now isn’t trivial at all. They’re sick and tired of watching excellent women lose races, jobs, and opportunities to men who are merely mediocre. Don’t @ me.
On the individual level, there’s not a lot I can do about this. I’m not going to throw my vote away just because I can’t vote for the candidate I wanted to vote for. But neither do I like feeling helpless or (worse) complicit in systemic sexism–hence this post. In the greater scheme of things, a list of good books by women is pretty small potatoes. That said, sexism in publishing rather than politics is something I feel better qualified to speak to, as someone who has observed and experienced and occasionally studied it.
I’ve been involved in the publishing industry since 2014, and in six years you absorb a lot of anecdata. I could bore you with statistics about the disparities in paychecks and publicity for male and female authors. I could give you figures for the gender ratio of industry workers (overwhelmingly female) vs. industry executives (overwhelmingly male). I could show you a hundred screenshots of reader reviews that start with “I don’t usually read books by women but…” I could recount the dozen times I’ve been asked how I dared to write a first-person narrator not of my gender when I have never heard a man asked that question once.
I think we’d both rather not do that, so instead I’ll keep it simple: sexism in publishing exists and will continue until people decide to do something about it. One small thing you can do (which is as much a favor to yourself as anybody else) is buy, read, and talk about books by women. To that end, I’ve compiled a list of excellent books by women which you might consider picking up if you, like me, want a way to amplify female voices in a day and age where we pay lip service to gender equality by sticking apostrophes in gas station signs but can’t bring ourselves to stop relegating women to the role of cheerleader, VP, endorsement-to-be-won, or–as a creative writing professor once called a classmate of mine, out loud, in a class that was two-thirds female, in the Year of Our Lord 2012–“a pretty good writer for a girl.”
With no further ado, here’s that juicy recipe you’ve been scrolling through my boring story to get to:
10 Books by Women for Anybody Mourning the Possibility of President Warren
- Heather Abel, The Optimistic Decade (2018). This is a rare coming-of-age novel which depicts the trials and tribulations of adolescence without trivializing them. Abel’s teenagers are people, not punchlines. But my favorite thing about this book is its portrayal of political awakening–there are a thousand books out there about first love and first lust, but it’s not so often you find a bildungsroman founded on first ideologies. Abel’s book is as intelligent as it is compassionate, two qualities we could all use more of these days.
- Octavia Butler, Kindred (1979). I taught this book last semester in a science fiction course, and come December I had a fascinating pile of papers on my desk discussing the web of influence between science, culture, and history. Few novels demonstrate so masterfully the ripple effect of individual human actions, and the long-term impact of systemic inequality. Perhaps most important, though, is Butler’s attention to intersections of identity and how they shape our lived experience.
- Eleanor Catton, The Rehearsal (2008). Catton won a Booker Prize for The Luminaries in 2013, but I rarely hear anybody talk about her first novel, which is a shame. Set in a New Zealand community rocked by the revelation of an affair between a teacher and student at an all-girls high school, The Rehearsal dispenses with the sordid details in favor of exploring the social repercussions of this abuse of power. When students at the arts academy down the road decide to fictionalize the affair for their final project, they open old wounds and raise uncomfortable questions about ethics, performance, and artistic representation.
- Joan Didion, Democracy (1984). This isn’t usually the first book people talk about when they talk about Didion. It’s unlike any other book I’ve ever read in that the author intrudes on the narrative at will–sometimes as a character and sometimes the creator, commenting on how this person or that part of the narrative took shape. It’s a fascinating window into a gifted writer’s process, and an all-too-pertinent portrait of what it takes to be a woman in politics. And with their personal problems subsumed in the geopolitical turmoil at the end of the Vietnam War, the Victor family would have felt right at home in the 2020s.
- Keri Hulme, The Bone People (1984). I recommend this book constantly, with the caveat that it comes with a lot of trigger warnings. It’s not easy to read, but it’s gorgeously written–which isn’t surprising considering Hulme’s origins in poetry. Her protagonist, the loosely autobiographical Kerewin Holmes, is an artist and a recluse, an asexual woman of mixed Caucasian and Maori heritage struggling to claim her place in a world which doesn’t know how to categorize her. After an encounter with a deaf-mute boy hiding in her house, she finds herself at the center of a grisly domestic drama which forces her to reckon with the greatest extremes of human cruelty.
- Lily King, Euphoria (2014). I’ve been obsessed with this book since the cover art caught my eye while I was working at Barnes & Noble back when it came out. Fortunately, the pages between don’t disappoint. Loosely based on the life of Margaret Mead, Euphoria is one of the most immersive novels I read in the 2010s, but that’s not all it has going for it. King’s depiction of passionate researchers in the flush of discovery is perfection, but she wisely resists the urge to romanticize, and never lets the reader forget that triumph and tragedy are never far apart. (Her new book, Writers & Lovers, is on its way to my mailbox. You can order yours here.)
- Iris Murdoch, The Book and the Brotherhood (1987). This isn’t necessarily where I’d suggest you start with Iris Murdoch. It’s dense and often difficult, but also (in my humble
but correctopinion) some of her best work. Murdoch has long been a favorite of mine for her inimitable ability to weave threads of philosophy, theology, and literary criticism into a compelling piece of fiction. Her characters have remarkable depth and fascinating dynamics which explore, critique, and often explode our prescribed social roles as parents, children, siblings, students, teachers, spouses, lovers, and friends.
- Ashley Ream, The 100 Year Miracle (2016). Set in an insular community in the San Juan islands, this evocative novel foregrounds two women–a middle-aged politician and a young biological researcher–in the story of the titular miracle, six days in which microscopic phosphorescent creatures make the water in the bay glow green. Oh and by the way, they just might be the key to a cure for a fatal disease. Ream’s attention to scientific and political ethics, chronic illness, and aging make this much more than merely interesting speculative fiction.
- Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (2014). This is another one that came out while I was working as a bookseller. Am I biased because there’s so much Shakespeare? Of course. Is it an obvious choice considering the Covid-19 outbreak? Of course. But it’s still a damn good book. Station Eleven remains the most persuasive take on dystopia I’ve ever read, and part of the reason it succeeds is its refusal to fall into the trap of cynicism. It’s not all flowers and sunshine, but ultimately Station Eleven is about where and how we find hope in the darkest of times. God knows we could use that right now. (Mandel also has a new book out, The Glass Hotel. You can find that here.)
- Laura Van Den Berg, The Third Hotel (2018). This is one of the strangest books I’ve read this year, and incidentally one of my favorites. Van Den Berg’s tale of two normal, troubled people in a normal, troubled marriage takes shape around a horror film festival in Havana, where the protagonist’s dead husband makes an unexpected appearance. It’s a slim volume which raises more questions than it answers, simultaneously resisting and inviting interpretation–which might just be the point. Clare’s struggle to come to grips with the loss of her husband and his influence on her self-perception is unflinchingly honest and painfully familiar. If you’re not Clare, you’ve known her.
Spooky season is upon us, and we’ve loved seeing all your ghastly IWWV snaps, so we’re giving away three signed copies this month! To enter, tag me in your best ghoulish Villains grams and use the hashtag #IWWVwitchinghourgiveaway.
Winners will be chosen by the Villains team in the three days leading up to Halloween. First place will have their first choice of English language editions (hardback, paperback, or UK edition), second place will choose from the remaining two, and third place takes the last one. Open to anyone, anywhere. Happy snapping!
If We Were Villains will be published in Spanish next year by Umbriel Editions, and I’m so excited to share the cover art with you. It might just be my favorite yet.
I’m so glad to be able to share this story with Spanish-speaking readers, and thrilled to have it published in a language (other than English) which I can actually read!
Hope you love it as much as we do.
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.
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 free. After 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:
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.
Header photo by Rick Payette.
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.
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.
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.