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Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much in February. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.
Today’s guest, Robin Wasserman, is one of my fave YA writers. She mentions her brilliant recent trilogy below, but she’s written many other novels besides. If you have not read any of them, I insist you go forth and do so now. Well, not, now now, after you’ve read her post.
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Robin Wasserman is the author of the Skinned trilogy, and she’s doing her best to maintain her sanity as she puts the finishing touches on the final book. You can watch her stave off madness on her own blog or twitter, or plumb the depths of her depravity by reading the first two books in the trilogy. She lives in New York, wishes she lived in Paris, and swears she is not a robot. (Though she wouldn’t mind meeting one.)
When Justine asked me to write a guest post for her, I thought it over for about thirty seconds, then said yes. This is because, as it turns out, I’m the kind of person who stupidly says things like “Yes! Sure! Why not!” even when she’s got a book due in four days and is spending most of her time wandering aimlessly around in her pajamas trying to remember what day it is and how to spell her own name and why she left her apartment without pants, because said book is turning her brain—at least that part of her brain not devoted to angsty teen robots—to mush.
But rule number one of meeting a deadline is that somehow, there’s always time to do something—anything—that doesn’t help you meet said deadline. (And rule number one of Justine Larbalestier is that you don’t flake out on Justine Larbalestier. Yes, she’s on the other side of the world right now. But she’s got people. I’m no fool.)
Anyway, you’ve been warned. My brain is mush.
Which means, among other things, it took me a while to come up with something to write here. Casting about desperately for an idea, I kept coming back to the thing that’s been obsessing me of late (aside from my poor neglected1 book), which is this new book by Lori Gottlieb, Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough.
Some of you have probably come across this, but for those of you who don’t spend nearly as much time as I do trolling the internet for inflammatory articles about the way women should run their lives if they don’t want to end up miserable/alone/divorced/trapped in bad marriages/with serial killer-in-training children who hate them/cat-ridden (and more on that obsession in a minute), here’s the deal, courtesy of Amazon: “Suddenly finding herself forty and single, Lori Gottlieb said the unthinkable in her March 2008 article in The Atlantic: Maybe she and single women everywhere, needed to stop chasing the elusive Prince Charming and instead go for Mr. Good Enough.”
This has left some extremely articulate people rather pissed off. (I know, you’re shocked.) And trust me when I say I could spend the rest of the evening being slightly less articulate (but appropriate rage-y) on the subject of why.2
But then I remembered this blog is sort of, kind of about writing and publishing. So, scratch that.
I figured I could turn the whole thing into a not-too-tortured metaphor for writing, and the quixotic quest for the perfect book. (There’s also the issue of the search for the perfect idea, a game I played myself recently while finishing up my trilogy and groping blindly toward the future, wondering how many balding, non-deodorant-wearing, George Costanza-esque ideas I’d have to date before my George Clooney idea got sick of his cocktail waitresses and showed up on my doorstep with a ring. But it turns out that’s a terrible metaphor, and not just because of the cocktail waitresses. Because as I’m so prone to forget and as people keep proving so annoyingly willing to remind me, ideas are only as great or mediocre as their execution.)
Where was I?
Oh. Right. The question of settling for Mr. So-So (ie the book you can write now, in an expedient fashion, with a prayer of getting published and possibly establishing/furthering your career) or taking a risk and waiting around for Mr. Right (ie the Great American Novel you know you have in you, even if it will take you ten years and, given that it’s, say, a Norwegian folk epic written in second person rhyming verse, might be something of a hard sell). Do you marry George Costanza (call back that editor who wants you to write Little Women 2.0: Not So Little Anymore), or start shopping for cat food (sharpen your pencils and accept it might be a few years before you can afford to feed your cats)?
Obviously it’s not that stark a decision for most of us (just as many of us single ladies don’t own any cats and I’m sure those of you who do are very happy about it, because cats are cute), but I suspect when it comes to books, it’s starker than many of us would like to admit to ourselves. Dani Shapiro has a depressingly honest take on this, wondering whether the emphasis on publishing/building a career/being practical is robbing literature of its 21st century Joyces and Faulkners. And it’s pretty clear she’s no fan of Mr. So-So. Life is a series of compromises, and maybe she’s right that it’s easier to compromise your art than your bank account.
On the other hand, maybe for some people, selling out would mean pursuing some suitably “artistic,” respectably literary project because they’re too embarrassed to admit how excited they are about Little Women 2.0.
Which, finally (I warned you my brain was mush), brings me to my point. Like I said, I’ve become obsessed with these articles about the “right” way to find a husband, run a marriage, get a divorce, raise your children—the more self-righteous and hilariously angry blog comment-inducing, the better.
This is partly because I have a lot of time on my hands, and hilariously angry blog comments are (as long as they’re not directed at me) hilarious.
But it’s partly because I find something deeply appealing about these debates, despite the underlying assumption that it’s possibly to come to a rational consensus on what makes for the good life, like some trashy Cosmo version of Plato. Among other things, they’re predicated on the fiction that we get to design our lives, that we sit around mapping out strategies for ourselves rather than just bumbling from one decision to the next and only stepping back to look at the big picture when we’re berating ourselves for whatever’s gone wrong (or, more rarely—and, let’s be honest, often drunkenly—congratulating ourselves on whatever’s gone right).
Wishful thinking or not, I do love me some strategizing.
Obviously there’s no absolute right or wrong way to be a writer any more than there’s a right or wrong way to be a working mother—there are about a million ways, all equally prone to setback and failure and second guessing.
And writers, at least the ones I’ve met, are extremely good at second-guessing. Not to mention self-abasement and paranoia. (As far as I can tell, the only writer not afflicted by this is James Patterson, who seems to have developed some kind of miraculous immunity.) They harbor the fear that they’re failures, that they’re frauds, that they’re lazy, that they’re hacks, that it’s just a matter of time before that bottom drops out or that whatever they’ve achieved, it isn’t enough.
This is partly because we’re crazy.
But it’s also because writing has no track to follow. It has no mutually agreed upon mile-markers, no seven-steps-to-success, no tenure track, no nothing. So as soon as we succeed at X, we move the goalposts, and wonder why we haven’t succeeded at Y. (Not to mention Z, which our friends A_____ and B____ were just bragging about on twitter.)
If you have no tangible measure of success for yourself, it’s always ridiculously easy to talk yourself into feeling like a failure. But you can’t have any real measure of success unless you have a defined set of goals, and—at least as far as I can tell—you can’t have a defined set of goals unless you know what kind of writer you want to be. (Which may be why I spend so much time wondering whose career I would want if I got a shot at my very own Freaky Friday: Libba Bray for a day? Stephen King? Michael Chabon?3 )
This is not to say that deciding “I want to win the Printz” or, as long as we’re playing this game, “I want to win the Printz and make a million dollars and live on as an admired classic for several generations and, while we’re at it, receive an unexpected but much deserved Nobel Prize” is going to make that happen.
(Although just in case, let’s be clear, universe: I’ll take it.)
But you can’t go after what you want unless you know what it is.
A wise woman (she can out herself in the comments, if she’d like, but I won’t do it for her) once made a group of us list our writing priorities (good reviews, good sales, awards, etc)—and then arrange them in order of importance. Harder than it sounds.
But you can see how it would cut down on a lot of whining—since it turned out some of the stuff we thought we wanted, we’d never bothered to pursue, maybe because we never wanted it in the first place. And plenty of other stuff—to our surprise—we already had.
All of which is to say that my current preferred procrastination method is trying to imagine the shape of the writer I want to be, the Platonic writing life for me, and—at least in small ways, with incremental decisions along the way since I’m not foolish enough to imagine that I’ve got a grip on what will happen next month, much less in the next ten years—try to mold myself to fit it.
I can’t be the only one who does this . . . right?
Or do normal people just kill time by playing solitaire?
Posted by Justine at 19:25, 9 February 2010 under Guest post, Ideas, Writing life, Writing process | 14 Comments »
I hear normal people like to kill time playing Solitaire, but seeing as how I stayed up to 4 A.M. last night writing a scene just to get to the really awesome line I thought up while doing dishes, I wouldn’t know normal from Fred.
And I did it for a book that I feared was “Mr. So-So” when I started writing it, but turned out to be “Mr. Right” all along.
February 9th, 2010 at 7:51 PM
Maureen Johnson Says:
Clearly, you need me to come home and HELP you, Robin.
February 9th, 2010 at 7:53 PM
I saw that Lori Gottlieb book and thought “WTF?” and oddly, of the mansplaining discussion which went on here a few posts ago.
Anyhow, if we didn’t spend all our time daydreaming, what would we have to write about? I for one, started out writing down my daydreams, which usually featured yours truly being the awesome heroine of the day! Daydreaming is totally just research, not procrastinating at all! *looks innocent*
February 9th, 2010 at 8:17 PM
Not a writer, but I do like to read inflamatory articles and angry comments sometimes. But I do it while playing with yarn.
I don’t particularly like the Clooney metaphor either, maybe for different reasons. I mean, cocktail waitresses kinda have to stay on their high heeled feet for a long time, and smile, and tolerate considerable harassment from party guests who think they’re available with the food and only good for easy discardable fun and not really worthy of being with Clooney. So I kinda think many of them might be strong, interesting women. I suspect they might have great stories to tell, too.
February 9th, 2010 at 8:24 PM
I’ve been told that normal people do quite enjoy Solitaire, but you’re in the company of writers, so yes, we all do that too.
May the nebulous future be good to you, Robin.
February 9th, 2010 at 8:45 PM
Krystle Shore Says:
I liked that Bookewyrme said. It’s so true, the book you think is going to be ‘Mr. So-So’ turns out to be ‘Mr. Right’. And yes day dreaming seems innocent but leads to some of the best writers of the twenty first century thank you very much! Just ask my family, they think I’m crazy when I start giggling for no reason at a restaurant. What can I say day dreaming about the book your writing or have read leads to great things. Normal people just don’t understand that. (Sorry, mom, dad, sista, and friends.)
February 9th, 2010 at 8:51 PM
February 9th, 2010 at 9:49 PM
I guess I live under a rock because I haven’t heard of the book but I mean c’mon! (to the book about settling for Good Enough not you, Robin). Anyhoo, that’s complete ridiuclous and I can’t beleive the book even got published. well, ok I can, but it infuriates me. Why settle for good when you can be great? Boo. And I love the metaphor of books (the work you won’t be as proud of but will make more money vs. the work you put blood, sweat and tears into and don’t make as much money) to Mr. good Enough vs. Mr. Right
Sadly I see this settling for thegood enough quite often in school, some of my friends can’t fathom going through life without a boyfriend, even if he’s a jerk. I don’t really get why, but whatever.
Your brain is not mush and I learned something new today so I enjoy reading your thoughts while you’re on deadline. LOL writers are crazy ARTISTS so it’s all good.
February 9th, 2010 at 9:58 PM
I don’t like this guest blogging at all. Justine has filled the roster with articulate, funny people, some of whom are authors and whose books I then have to put on my list, and this is inconvenient.
Every few years, there comes out a non-fiction book that says that women have to go back to the imaginary myth of what they were in the first place. The most successful of these was The Rules, the authors of which I believe both then divorced. It’s fun for the media who see women as useful for beer commercials, but otherwise pointless. In real life, marriages aren’t about templates of behavior that men and women have to fit themselves into. Real life is messy, filled with hundreds of boring, slippery little daily details like remembering to turn in forms or cleaning the toilet (live like you are dying is crap,) and what you need as a companion to get through those is different for each person.
And as an editor who’s worked with all sorts of fiction authors, including writers for hire, I can say that the same thing goes for writing. Writing is droning drudgery and frivolous obsession, character love and character hate, whether you’re turning out a short novel in hopes of cash or writing a behemoth of tortured prose. Authors are the same the way men or women are the same gender because they are using particular parts of their brains to write fiction, and at the same time, completely different from each other, just as individual men and women are different. There aren’t any so-so’s versus wowzas on books because authors are too compulsive about whatever they’re doing. Even the really prolific, casual, I’m a craftsman not artist making a living type of authors.
So when the “artists” look down on what they see, wrongly, as no-brainer stories and think that those writers are insincere hacks who settled and the craftspeople look down on the “artists” as snooty, egotistical folk who are chasing an impossible dream, they’re both wrong, and succumbing to a dated, mythical idea of highbrow and lowbrow culture that never has really existed, just like the lady with the men in two boxes. Fiction may be written in different ways for different purposes, but whoever writes it, they are equally sick and twisted and will have to figure it all out.
P.S. I agree with the Joss Whedon answer.
February 10th, 2010 at 1:01 AM
You gotta love writers. The twitchy, crazy people who sit in dark corners of coffee shops with blood shot eyes as they scribble notes, procrastinate and beat themselves up on what they need to do. We are AWESOME!
February 10th, 2010 at 1:27 AM
Carrie Ryan Says:
I loved this post Robin – LOVED. Thanks so much. You’re so right about always moving the goal posts (just talking to a writer friend about that yesterday). I’m off to write down my writing priorities — this post came at the most perfect time. Thanks again!
February 10th, 2010 at 11:55 AM
Lauren McLaughlin Says:
Yeah, it’s those stupid goal posts, isn’t it? They keep moving. I don’t even play football, but every time I think I’ve scored, I look up and the goal posts are, like, a mile away. Crazy thing is, I’m the one who put them there.
February 10th, 2010 at 12:52 PM
I’m afraid I don’t get the meat of this post. Why are you writing Mr. So-so after all, have you run out of ideas that make you go “YES, THIS IS AWESOME!” or is it just so-so when compared to a dream you have of an awesome story? I’m not a writer but I do want to get my stories at least typed up someday, and there are one or two stories which I think are totally and completely amazing yet I can’t do them justice if I type them out now (ie, NANO and Script Frenzy). So I wait until I feel more confident and type out my other stories, which aren’t as awesome but I love them anyway. So I don’t get how you think a story can only be so-so if you’re bothering to write it in the first place.
February 10th, 2010 at 12:59 PM
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