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?
- But—I hasten to assure my editor, on the off chance she’s reading this—not too neglected. Pinky swear. [↩]
- Caveat: I haven’t actually read this book, so I’m basing my rage on other people’s descriptions of it, which I realize is . . . problematic. But I have read the insanely depressing article the book is based on, and let’s just say it should come with a warning label: Feminists, especially those of the single variety, beware. [↩]
- The correct answer, for those playing along at home: Joss Whedon. [↩]