Journal Entry

Monday, October 1, 2007

Sale! (and, doubts)

Sold a short story, "Nine Alternate Alternate Histories", to Jay Lake and Nick Gevers' Other Earths.

I know, I'm not supposed to be writing short stories. I'm supposed to be writing a novel. I feel guilty as I have turned down requests recently from esteemed and estimable anthologists and editors on the theory that I am hunkering down. Jay however insisted that I had promised him a story, and the idea arrived (really, it's hardly a story, more of a metastory, just noodling about, in other words) and I succumbed.

The TOC has been posted and looks amazing -- both the contributors, and the titles. I hope my contribution does not seem too slapdash by comparison.

In any event, restarting the novel after a long series of interruptions for other, time-sensitive projects (collaborations with Paul Melko and Cory Doctorow, the Anthroptic gallery show, the transatlantic move, and a couple of Secret Writing Projects I cannot yet tell even you, Gentle Reader, about) is hard going. I have not dared to dust off the spreadsheet, which lies in broken disrepair and apparently claims the novel will be done in 1900, which, really, is as good a guess as any.

Over Yom Kippur, as part of my ruminations, I reread Donald Maass's The Career Novelist, a book, pragmatic and hardnosed perhaps to a fault, which I find very wise on the subject of novel marketing and positioning, and which never fails to depress me. Reading it, it is perfectly apparent to me that the novel I am writing, Resilience, is a very poor choice in terms of any kind of ideal marketing strategy. Really, for a first sally, given my strengths and weaknesses as a writer, I ought to be trying for something broadly accessible, fabulist but universal: like middle-period Lethem, say, or Barzak's excellent (I have just finished it) One For Sorrow; something straight-ahead and disciplined, with a sympathetic protagonist and a linear narrative arc.

Instead I appear to be writing a sprawling, badly-structured far-future fantasia whose principal inspiration is, perhaps, Stars In My Pocket Like Grains Of Sand, a monumental and brilliant novel, to be sure, but not, perhaps, the most accessible or easily followed book. This strategy seems guaranteed to procure me, let us say, the intersection of Charlie Stross and Haruki Murakami fans, rather than the union thereof. Plus, complicated narrative structure, multiple points of view (again), a depressed protagonist...

Hmm.

However:

The Yom Kippur service, in addition to all-day fasting, incorporates mind-numbing communal repetitions of the Selichot -- the apologies -- and the Sefer Vidui -- catalogue of confessions. Don't get me wrong, I like this. It is an ideal inducement to soul-searching and catharsis, and an ideal setting in which to have a little yearly chat with God. (Mind you, with reference to various debates with Ted, I should point out that I envision my chat with God as taking place, materially, within the confines of my cerebral cortex, rather than any little soulium-particles travelling off to visit fluffy-bearded Mr. God in transdimensional God-space. Which doesn't mean that I don't think it's a chat with God.)

Anyway, the liturgy, I noticed this year for the first time, divides sins into sins against God, sins against other people, and sins against yourself. I had long considered the first two categories important; the third seemed strange at first.

So God, I said, what's with this sins against yourself business?

Oh, you know, God said, like your whole paralyzing self-doubt thing.

In About Writing, Delany talks about the fact of being constantly being assailed by doubts as the fundamental engine of good writing, the only chance at excellence -- "you must write to project yourself, again and again, through the annealing moment which provides the negentropic organization which makes a few texts privileged tools of perception" -- and as being, if you respond to them immediately, energizing.

Which is true for a certain kind of doubts: the kind that suggest crossing out one thing and writing another. But there's a less productive sort of doubt that I indulge in almost lasciviously, which costs a lot of energy.

So here's what I came away with, out of the dialogue between Maass's book and the Yom Kippur liturgy:

The book I'm writing may not be the ideal book to write first. But it is the book I'm writing.

The writerly balance between doubt and chutzpah is a delicate one. But this year, I'm cultivating the chutzpah.


Posted by benrosen at October 1, 2007 10:31 PM | Up to blog
Comments

As it happens, last night I watched Adaptation, a film largely about paralyzing self-doubt in a writer. The writer does not, however, attend Yom Kippur services, although it would have potentially fit in to the movie.

As a Not-Writer, I can't speak to either the career situation or the writing situation. I must say, though, that it is the book I'm writing sounds like an excellent attitude. This is the Book the Lord provideth, let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Oh, and as a reader who prefers the novel form, but who narrowly escapes the intersection of Charlie Stross and Haruki Murakami fans, I am still keen on reading Resilience whatever (or whenever) it turns out to be? You should feel free to let your agent use that—there's this one guy in Connecticut who says that complicated narrative structure is just his cup of tea!

Thanks,
-V.

Posted by: Vardibidian at October 2, 2007 04:34 PM

the intersection of Charlie Stross and Haruki Murakami fans

*raises hand*

Posted by: Dan Percival at October 2, 2007 06:54 PM

Looks like I'm going to have to read this Charlie Stross guy to figure out whether I'll like your book...

Posted by: Matt Hulan at October 3, 2007 03:40 PM

I'm a Delany fan, a Stross fan, neutral about Murakami (haven't read any of his novels, only his short stories in the New Yorker), and additionally a fan of, well, you.

Which is to say: I'm very much looking forward to Reslience.

Posted by: Zvi at October 3, 2007 09:14 PM

The name Resilience seems fitting for your attitude right now.

Count me in on that intersection of Murakami meets Stross too. Both are pretty popular, although I don't know about the overlap... You know the main thing that they have in common to me is that they're both just really really fun (some people would disagree about Stross though, and my mom hates Murakami but I'll probably give her a copy of Resilience anyway), which is to say, I can't wait:)

Posted by: DJ at October 4, 2007 10:50 PM

I think its a brilliant strategy for getting the marketable first novel done.

Look at the data... you're always dreading working on the large platonic NOVEL that your 11 year old plutonian nemisis signed you up for and decided could never happen.

By starting a novel that could potentially take you a decade or two to complete, it gives you a new move in the repetoire which is that when the GREAT swiss american novel gets in a rut, you can go play around by banging off a simply naratted, sympathtically protagonized, broadly accessible, plausible fable.

or more simply put, BEFORE as long as you feltlike you SHOULD be working on the novel, short stories were easy.

NOW that you've started a REALLY BIG novel to fret over not wanting to work on you might be able to trick yourself into feeling like a smaller novel would be easy.

And, even better than that, if this excercise in bad faith fails to be the foma that makes the difference you'll end up with Resilience in the can and the monkey off your back.

Brilliant!

Posted by: Jy at October 5, 2007 06:25 PM

I promise to read your book, Ben. I may even like it very much. Maybe!

Posted by: Jackie M. at October 5, 2007 07:13 PM

Also I read... somewhere? that first drafts are all about being brave and stupid. You can always throttle back if you need to in the next version.

So feel free to just throw all that spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks.

(ps. Yes, I feel like a total twat offering advice on something I've never actually attempted myself. Just in case you're wondering.)

Posted by: Jackie M. at October 5, 2007 07:17 PM
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