Too much to write

I don’t really know how I got into this situation. Used to be that I worked on precisely one novel project at a time. When I was finished with that, I dedicated my life to editing, and then sent it out. I might occasionally take a break to write a short story, but never another novel.

Of course, then I chose to write the first book of a fantasy trilogy. And then that decided to get published. But in the meantime, I graduated from college and tried out a few jobs and eventually decided that I was going to take a stab at making a living doing the only thing I’ve ever really wanted: writing fiction. This puts me in the strange place of needing to take on as many different writing opportunities and challenges that I can. From work-for-hire projects to more commercial novels to screenplays for TV ideas to other novels I really want to write, I have never had so many writing projects at one time in my life. It’s overwhelming. Oh, and this doesn’t even mention the short stories and (ahem) fanfiction I’d like to get to at some point, too. Some people manage to write far more than that and maintain their lives, but I have to wonder how they do it. My middle name is not “indefatigable writer”. I get distracted easily. I procrastinate like it’s an Olympic sport. And suddenly, I have at least five novels that I need to get started working on right now.

Including the last two books in The Spirit Binders trilogy (a/k/a Racing the Dark 2 and 3). And then there’s this (very much on the adult side of) Young Adult novel about a female painter in a Northern Renaissance-esque world. And this (bizarrely fun) vampire novel that I like to refer to as: Amelia Peabody meets Margaret Sanger in the roaring twenties New York with vampires. And the book I’ve been researching for years that I like to call Revolution and Desire in the Mushroom Kingdom (why do I have a feeling some editor will change that?)

Oh, and then there’s this unfinished fanfic that, uh, a few people might like me to get on top of.

The worst part of all this is that half the time, I don’t even know where to begin. Please tell me that at some point it will get easier to sort these projects out? Maybe if I refuse to get any new ideas for novels in the next, say, five years?

You hear that, brain?

Right. Back to work.

I knew I should’ve gotten that appendectomy…

My cadaver is apparently worth: (sorry, the image won’t work on this silly blog, for some reason)

$5625.00The Cadaver Calculator – Find out how much your body is worth

Mingle2Online Dating

And an appendectomy would make me worth at least a couple hundred bucks more.

Still, I have to figure that bodies are worth much more on the black market. You know, evil villains pay top dollar for their nefarious purposes.

Big Love: Is there a bathroom nearby?

So, I caught an episode of Big Love today. I’ve never seen the show before, but it didn’t seem like I’d be completely lost if I watched one out of order along with my dinner.

Big mistake.

Now, I watch a lot of TV shows while I’m eating. One of my favorites is House, which features all sorts of pleasantness, like a patient’s penis exploding, or House dragging a fifty-foot tapeworm out of someone’s gut. And nary a quibble emanates from my stomach as I chow down on some hastily prepared vegetarian feast. I might be a little squeamish, but I’ve always thought I had a cast-iron belly.

But apparently I’m not nearly so sanguine when confronted with what is apparently the entire subject of Big Love: crazy Christians and exploitative polygamy. Let me say upfront that I fully support any kind of union a person might want to have–gay, straight, multiples–with one caveat: all parties must enter the arrangement of their own free will, and have a reasonable expectation of even knowing what that free will is. By this I mean: the fifteen year old girl who has never set foot inside a real school, has been indoctrinated and prepared all her life for early marriage and childbirth, and can fully expect to be disowned by her entire family if she disobeys (or thinks for herself), might say that she’s becoming the seventh wife of a man fifty years older of her own free will, but we can’t honestly expect her to be capable of making that decision. The deck is absurdly stacked. I don’t think it’s the country’s place to condemn any variety of marriage people might like, but I think it’s telling that the only one you hear about is polygamy. What about some good old polyandry? Can I set up a religion saying that god has told me it’s pure and sacred to have at least three husbands? Now, a bit of that might have helped me keep down my dinner.

From what I could tell in this episode, Big Love is very well written. The acting is marvelous, and–maybe best of all– I saw at least two Veronica Mars alums: Amanda Seyfried (Lilly) and Kyle Gallner (Beaver). But it was hard to get too excited, because I was busy taking long, deep breaths after watching a sixteen year old girl attempt to reconcile herself with her impending marriage to the “prophet”: a skeevy old pedophile who conveniently thinks that morality is just another word for whatever he wants. In the Mormon compound, the women and children were all decked out in gingham and French braids, like a really sinister version of Anne of Green Gables. And let’s not forget the perhaps more mundane agony of watching teenagers grow up in a religion that says almost all their normal teenage desires will land them in hell.

The relationships between these characters make for strange and fascinating viewing, but I think next time I’ll have to take my Big Love in more bite-sized doses.

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Portrait of the Writer as a Crazed Junkie

I just read this article in The New York Observer. This, in particular:

Yet, still, the dreamers dream. Brendan Sullivan, 25, moved to New York after studying creative writing at Kenyon College in Ohio.

He hasn’t landed a book deal for his novel, but is determined to find a publisher. “Writing has ruined my life and cost me many, many girlfriends,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I have thrown away several careers and one college degree to spend my time working in bars, D.J.’ing in bars and drinking my rejection letters away. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy, and I’ve made many of them since I started …. I also abandoned my agent with words harsher than those I’ve saved for lost loves.”

Mr. Sullivan has held 27 jobs to support his writing career, from selling chapstick on the street to being a night guard in an art gallery (“That was my favorite job ever, because I just sat in a chair and read novels all day,” Mr. Sullivan added.)

He is currently working on his second novel. His first one, well, “There are eight drafts of it—they’re in my basement right now,” he said in a phone interview from his Fort Greene apartment. He trashed the novel after he got into a public fight with his first agent and decided to start anew. “You have to learn how to suppress your gag reflex in order to get anything out. Like in love, you make a lot of mistakes and you learn from them.”

I’m sorry, but I’m really sick of the self-perpetuating myth that authors must be a shade saner than Vincent Van Gogh to create “true” art. This entire article feeds it by interviewing absolutely zero (of the many, many) authors who have managed to eke out successful, fulfilling careers while maintaining their friends and sanity. Lots of these authors might have never quit their day job, because it’s true that most writing doesn’t even cover the celebratory dinner. I daresay that most writers aren’t hermits in their apartments, buried under books and subsisting on nothing but coffee and Hostess cakes. Okay, they might do that, and they might have panic attacks over their lives and their writing and whether or not any of it is any good (hey, it’s all familiar), but that doesn’t mean they’re bound for Bellevue. That doesn’t mean that plenty of people with “normal” jobs don’t experience the same self-doubt and anxiety. I just wish that writers (and journalists) would stop elevating themselves on this strange pedestal of special insanity. I guess writing an article about how “being a publicity assistant” ruined your life is less sexy, but I don’t think it’s fair to credit authors with such special sensitivities. It seems to insult the rest of the world by omission, that they don’t have enough artistic feeling to let the world hurt them as we do. And even worse, it implies that authors who haven’t gone half-mad are more artisans than artists. As someone who loves and writes genre fiction (note the utter absence of any of these writers from the article), this is a canard frequently lobbed our way. And to that I say: bullshit! Writing is intensely personal, and this group masturbatory exercise of parading your substance-rich eccentricities has as little to do with proof of artistry as voting Republican has to do with proof of moral character.

I think the cult of the writer as insane person is a relatively recent cultural meme. After all, visual artists have been popularly crazy for a while, but my impression is that writers were more celebrated figures– closer to rock stars than inmates. Closer to Warhol than Pollock. Take Fielding, Voltaire, Mark Twain, Alcott or Wilde. Famous, but not famously tortured. Even Dorothy Parker–while certainly tormented– was not famous because of it, but in spite of it. Before you object, absolutely none of this applies to poets, whom I’m perfectly aware have cultivated a fine cachet of artistic insanity for centuries.

Which brings me to Mr. Brendan Sullivan. Christ, could this guy sound more pretentious? Because talk about someone who’s trying too hard…it makes me wince to read. Writing has ruined his life, has it? Really? Really? This is a guy who can afford to go to one of the best colleges in the country (and, apparently, drop out of it to write) (ED: Yeah, I don’t know where the hell I got that idea from the article. Clearly, you can both graduate from a college and move to New York.), who can live in one of the most expensive cities in the world on odd-jobs (though you have to wonder why so many odd jobs…is he trying to lose them?), and can have an agent to publicly fire. Let alone, you know, eat food and surf the internet and read books and have girlfriends and watch TV, etc. Not to sound like your mother forcing you to eat your peas, but no one with his resources has any right saying that his life is ruined. You want to see a ruined life? Try here, or here, or here. Yes, I know it’s sometimes hard to gain perspective, but sheesh, can you at least make the attempt?

Yes, I obviously think that writing is difficult. Look at the title of this blog! But no matter how crazy I make myself, I do attempt to at least spare all but my closest friends my bouts of insanity. Why? Well, because I know it’s tedious. Everyone else has a hard life, too. I do think that the process of dedicating your life to writing does produce some strange quirks in people, and maybe one day I’ll write about it, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that those quirks make us somehow more special or artistic or worthy of attention. Garrison Keillor has said this about as well as anyone, so I’ll let him take the floor:

OK, let me say this once and get it off my chest and never mention it again. I have had it with writers who talk about how painful and harrowing and exhausting and almost impossible it is for them to put words on paper and how they pace a hole in the carpet, anguish writ large on their marshmallow faces, and feel lucky to have written an entire sentence or two by the end of the day.

It’s the purest form of arrogance: Lest you don’t notice what a brilliant artist I am, let me tell you how I agonize over my work. To which I say: Get a job. Try teaching eighth-grade English, five classes a day, 35 kids in a class, from September to June, and then tell us about suffering.

I’ll drink to that.

The Love of Imaginary Things

More Dennett. Another thing he discusses is the curious phenomena of humans dedicating their lives to the intricate study and near-worship of things they know for a fact to be imaginary. So, not people who chase ghosts or Bigfoot or Nessie…I think they’re fake, but the people studying them believe they’re real. No , there are people whose entire lives are spent in the study of imaginary things (and to my fangirl friends, this should be familiar). His example is the Baker Street Irregulars, who pride themselves on esoteric knowledge of Sherlock Holmes. Of course, in this day of massive internet fandoms and sprawling popular culture, you could pick almost any example. Trekkies learn to speak a fake language in order to discuss a fake universe and have arguments about fake characters in their made-up dilemmas. Any Trekkie who admitted to believing that Spock and Picard are actually real people would be looked upon pityingly and quietly recommended to a psychiatrist. That doesn’t stop millions of fans from holding these characters in their hearts and thoughts and truly loving them the way you might an actual person. (Or really, which is Dennett’s point, an unseen God you also believe in).

When I read novels or watch television shows, I get very emotional. I cried for hours after reading The Silver Metal Lover. It made me really depressed. Yes, I know that Silver and Jane aren’t real. It never crossed my mind that they were. But, still, it seems that on some level they must be real to me, because they are so firmly implanted on my brain. I have read Sunshine by Robin McKinley at least five times, and each time I am more impressed with just how real Sunshine and Con are. If I were granted one novel to turn into a television series, it would be a toss up between that and The Lymond Chronicles. Why? Because those characters feel so real to me that I can hardly imagine a greater pleasure than getting to know them better.

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On Memes and Genes

I’m reading Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett, and so far it’s great. It’s funny that with this book he has been lumped in with Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens as the “militant atheists” or (even worse) “fundamentalist atheists” (see here for an explanation of why that insult is utterly vacuous). Now, you can call Dawkins or Harris strident (and Hitch downright belligerent), but Dennett seems like something else altogether. Unless he really lets loose in the last hundred pages, Breaking the Spell doesn’t seem very polemical at all. Don’t get me wrong—I think a good, well-reasoned polemic has its place in modern intellectual discourse, and I think that Dawkins in particular did a damn good job in The God Delusion—but Dennett makes the mild-mannered Dawkins look like a red-faced crusader with a flaming sword in comparison. He makes a painstakingly polite, empirically solid, rational case for treating religion as a natural phenomenon and then seeing where such an intellectual exercise of peeking behind the curtain might lead.

Honestly, books like this might as well be Alaya catnip. I adore them. If Dennett and Dawkins gave concerts, I think I’d be a groupie.

One of his most interesting discussions is that of memes. And not in the over-simplified “religion as virus” sense that Dawkins-haters love to plump with straw and attack, but as a fully-realized and nuanced theory. He postulates that many of our cultural conventions (of which religion is merely one) are discrete, self-replicating ideas that evolve in similar ways as organisms, except that the substrate of their replication is not genes, but the human brain itself. Thus, unlike genes, they can be passed “laterally” (i.e. your best friend can convert you) instead of just to your descendants (but you are still more likely to believe in your parent’s religion). One thing that utterly bowled me over was his discussion of the idea that memes themselves could have interacted with our genes to encourage the genetic selection of centers in the brain that would make the memes easier to propagate. This is a little more complicated than the “accidental preference gets amplified by runaway selection” hypothesis that underlies obvious features of sexual selection (the peacock’s tail, the bowerbird’s preference for blue, etc.) In this case, he argues, a propensity toward being amenable to hypnosis (or the placebo effect) might have affected a person’s reproductive fitness by reducing their stress, enabling them to make better decisions. In the population that now has this trait of being amenable to hypnosis, memes that postulate rituals of worship and animism might flourish more readily, because they lend more credence/power to the “witch doctor” doing the hypnosis in the first place. The memes themselves would acquire features—in the same undirected, free-floating rationale of genes—that give sexual preference to those believing in the same creed. Now we not only have a genetic reason for the propagation of certain kinds of credulity and propensity for religious experiences, but a memetic reason as well: the memes survive best when those who carry them mate with others who carry them. Now, carriers (believers) of Meme A are forbidden by the gods to intermarry with believers of Meme B. The reason this meme became so widespread in the first place was through a certain genetic propensity, and the memetic propagation amplifies the genetic lattice upon which it’s built. I’m very curious now to read the critiques I know exist of meme theory, but it strikes me as a very exciting possibility. I’m sure it doesn’t explain all human ideas and thoughts, but it does seem to accurately describe certain kinds of them.

(Disclaimer about the above. I’m not a biologist, and I’ve taken only the very basic required science courses. Anything that is painfully, glaringly wrong above is clearly my fault, and not Dennett’s. I just wanted to share.)

Every author needs some Pips…

So, I went to BEA this past weekend (with Tamar and her three fab friends) and it was great and fun but scary and SO EXHAUSTING that I think I have only now recovered. I now am filled with renewed hope about the prospects of my novel, but then again, I feel like I’ll hate myself forever if I don’t attempt to be more proactive about promoting it. I was incredibly happy to meet all of the reps at PGW. A lot of them had actually read almost all of the book (and they’d probably had galleys for a week at most before the conference), and they were really enthusiastic. This is weird to me, because I’ve realized that for the past three years, I could count the people who have read that book on one hand. And now, suddenly, I have signed and given away a bit less than two hundred galleys and I I have NO IDEA who is reading it! Well, actually I do know a few people who are reading it, but they are some pretty big authors from whom I am praying to the star-gods I will get a blurb or two. So, really, best not to think of it. I know this might seem like a little late to be worried about this– but I’m still afraid that the novel sucks and my publisher/agent/sister are just crazy. Must breathe.

Actually, a good thing about BEA was that it showed me just how much “street cred” my publisher has in the business. Not as though he hasn’t been wonderful as an editor, but I think that this was the first time I had ever really seen him in full publisher mode, and I was definitely impressed. He has a small press, but he gets major attention, and that’s all I can ask for. Sometime later, I may make a more in-depth post about the pros and cons of going with a small publisher, but in brief: my experience has (so far) been great. The major downside, as far as I can tell, is the money, but in these days of dwindling advances and almost non-existent author loyalty, I’m not sure how important that should be.

On Thursday I went to a black publisher event, and ran into a few old colleagues of mine. I also ran into Walter Mosley (or should I say he ran into me? We ended up walking out of the party together.) I introduced myself and mentioned my novel, and since he writes science fiction himself, he was actually sort of interested and suggested I drop off a copy of the galley in the Hachette Book Group booth the next day. Of course, the next day is Friday– and that morning I am due for my very first AUTHOR SIGNING. Now, I know all I have to do is smile, read a name tag, and sign a book, but this absolutely terrifies me. What if no one comes? What if the only books I give away are to my friends? What if I misspell someone’s name? Actually, about fifty people came, which isn’t so bad considering that I’m a first time novelist. Lucky for me that I used to work in publishing, because plenty of old friends/colleagues were at the convention and made sure to stop by and fill up the line. It was just half an hour, and actually a few people ran to catch me when my time was officially over so that they could get a signed copy of the book. It warmed my timid little author’s heart. Later that day, I went with my former boss, friend, and all-around awesome person Retha Powers to find Walter Mosley. He was signing galleys of his forthcoming Easy Rawlins novel, Blonde Faith, and I realized that it would be a perfect opportunity to give him a copy of my galley. So I screwed up my courage (and braved some significant awkwardness) and approached him. He remembered me (whew) and actually complimented me on the first line. He put it with his stuff and I think it is, in fact, possible that he will look at it. Hey, I’m a writer, don’t knock the small hopes.

Saturday I met with Tamar and her friends and they went off to become the swag queens of BEA. Well, actually, they were pretty impressive at the time (shipping boxes home to CA, no less), but on Sunday I realized that I had not seen even a fraction of the gigantic pirate’s bounty that a canny con-goer can obtain at the end of BEA. I’d done the whole “gobble up as many galleys as I can” thing last year and realized that, in fact, cool as free books seem, stacks and stacks of unread books in the apartment are overrated. We had lunch in the (awful) Javits Center food court, and I realized why people have suggested taking the ferry to Jersey City as a viable alternative to dining on a stale cinnamon muffin or congealed General Tso’s Chicken. One of her friends had her first novel come out this past month from St. Martin’s Press, and she was concerned (but reassured by her publisher) about the first-month sales. Clearly, the anxiety of being a writer is a never-ending cycle. I think I need to look into Buddhism or something. Otherwise I might be destined to be reborn as an ulcer.

Saturday night, my boyfriend Scott (who had been planning to attend the show, but instead spent ALL DAY CLOTHES SHOPPING. No, I’m not kidding) and I headed to a bar where I had heard there would be a fun YA get-together. I found my friend Lauren McLaughlin, whose first novel was just picked up by Random House in a major auction (and it’s truly awesome enough to deserve it), her husband Andrew, and her friend Deb. I was planning to go to the big PGW party downtown at the Gramercy Theater, but then Lauren told me about how all the YA authors were going to do some karaoke, and if there is one activity I am powerless to resist, it is the selection of songs and standing up in front of friends and singing them. I am a karaoke fool. When I went to Japan for the first time, my friends and I ended up in a karaoke booth at least three times a week. Sometimes multiple times a day. So, Scott went off ahead to scout out the PGW party and I headed off to karaoke heaven.

And my god, was it karaoke heaven. I have had some fun times, but I don’t think that much tops the singing of “Midnight Train to Georgia” with Coe Booth and Lauren and a few others serving as my Pips (I nearly died on “A superstar, but he didn’t get far”). I didn’t make it to the PGW party, needless to say. Scott came back with his friend and then we ended up going out with Deb to one of my favorite Indian/Pakistani places in the city: the incomparable Haandi, taxi-cab stand to the (karaoke) stars.

Cue Sunday, and I’m so tired that I’m practically falling asleep in the Agate booth. Also, though the air conditioning has been rather inadequate for the last two days, today the clever managers at the Javits Center have decided to really tackle the problem by turning the convention center into an arctic winter. I am wearing a sleeveless sundress. Unhappily. I shivered my way around the areas of the convention that I hadn’t yet seen, and was surprised by the relative lack of self-published authors this year. I remember that last year there was a whole aisle stuck off in the corner of people wearing crazy costumes with hand-made signs attempting to waylay anyone who didn’t walk by fast enough with a discussion of their latest book, printed by that reputable “traditional publisher,” Publish America. Maybe they just decided to explicitly exclude anyone from exhibiting who wasn’t affiliated with a legitimate press? Of course, there was at least one bona-fide, pay-for-your-novel self-publisher on display, but maybe they found some way to hide their true nature. After the con was over, Scott and I went to Patsy’s, because what better way is there to end a crazy weekend than eating the world’s best pizza? Possibly sleeping, which I did promptly at 7 pm.

BEA was a lot of fun, but I’m glad it’s only once a year. I wonder what I’ll be doing this time next year? Oh yeah. Worrying about my writing.