How to Be a Successful Writer* (*spoiler alert–I have no idea)

My first novel was like an eruption from my heart onto the page. I composed entire scenes in my head while I rocked my young kids to sleep, and then raced to my laptop and pounded out the words. It was satisfying, cathartic, romantic–both the act of writing and the book itself.

Eventually, it got published–a dream come true–but no one bought it–a nightmare come true.

I wrote another novel with an eye toward the market. I wrote it slightly cynically, threw in a lot of popular tropes, took all of the editor’s notes, felt no particular pride of possession, and forgot it almost as soon as it was done.

It sold very well.

If you think you can draw a conclusion from any of this, you’re wrong.

Since then I’ve written many more novels–seven of which have been published–and some have sold and some haven’t. I promise you, if I could tell you what the determining factor is for literary success, I WOULD ONLY HAVE SUCCESSES. I’m not writing for my own pleasure.

Oh, wait, maybe I am.

Which brings me to the age-old question: why do I write? Why do other authors write? Is there a correlation between the reason you write and your ultimate success as a writer?

Some people genuinely seem to have something to say, a message to impart to the world, a burning vision. Which maybe leads to true brilliance . . . but can also just as easily lead to the situation in the movie Sideways where you’re told that your novel is absolutely wonderful, but no one wants to publish it, because it’s just not what the market wants right now.

There are others who seem to have their fingers on the pulse of the public, giving them vampires when they want vampires, bleak thrillers when that’s what’s selling. If the timing works and they’re good at what they do . . . huge success. But there’s also a risk of just being derivative and chasing a market.

Obviously, through luck or insight, some people hit the sweet spot–write the book they want to write at just the right time for the market.

I hate those people.

I don’t really, of course.

I just envy them.

I write the way I read–chaotically, experimentally, somewhat thoughtlessly, flitting from one genre to another, feeling very much tapped into the zeitgeist at one moment (loved Gone Girl) and then completely alienated another (never did make it through the first Twilight, let alone all four). The same is true for me as a writer: I’ve hit the sweet spot a couple of times, missed it a few more.

Sometimes I aspire to writing the great American novel, and sometimes I just want to be allowed to keep writing in whatever humble way I can.

Right now I’m in between projects–just sent something off to my agent and am trying to decide what to work on next. The freedom is exhilarating. The freedom is terrifying.

The page is very blank . . .  but it’s also filled with questions.

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Book Publication Day!

Hey, guys! WRONG ABOUT THE GUY has landed: it’s officially on sale now.

It’s sort of a modernization of EMMA, but it’s also about living a Hollywood life and about verbally sparring with cute guys and about trying to get into college and about best friends who maybe can’t always keep up with you and about little brothers who don’t talk or make eye contact and mothers and stepfathers who can’t agree what to do about that.

Mostly it’s just romantic and fun.

41ZmlwxrfNLPlease buy it. Please read it. Please love it. Please love me.

Okay, that got needy real fast.

And now my laptop charger won’t work unless I jiggle it. Which is about as exciting as publication day gets around these here parts.

I’m always happy to sign and mail bookplates that you can stick inside your books so they’re sort of signed by me! Just let me know if you want one.

WRONG ABOUT THE GUY. It’s what’s for dinner.

I may have the tagline wrong . . .

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Jane Austen, Alison Bechdel, and me

My fourth YA novel comes out on Tuesday. (But you can get it this weekend at the LA Times Festival of Books!) Like the previous three, it’s loosely based on a Jane Austen novel—in this case, Emma. I strayed pretty far from the original this time, so if you’re someone who likes her Austen modernized but still very familiar, consider yourself warned and please don’t yell at me because there’s a non-Austenian subplot

Still, I did borrow quite a few elements from the original, which meant I found myself facing a by-now-familiar challenge: how do I take a marriage plot novel and transfer it to a high school setting without making the girls in it ridiculously boy crazy? Putting aside the whole marriage issue (which I do, of course), I still don’t think teenage girls should be obsessed with landing boyfriends.

Don’t get me wrong: I love a good romance. I just feel my heroines should stumble upon love in the process of doing other stuff—it shouldn’t be their goal, just a happy bonus.

Plus there’s the whole Bechdel Test thing.

For those of you who haven’t heard of it, the Bechdel Test came from a comic strip written by the incredibly brilliant Alison Bechdel (of Fun Home fame). It was written to be about movies, but it works for novels too. Here’s the strip:

The famous strip

The famous strip

I’m not sure if Austen’s original Emma would itself pass Bechdel’s test, but she gets a break–back in her day, unless a woman was super rich, she pretty much had to marry her way to a decent future. Plus she’s Jane Austen--one of the most brilliant writers ever. She gets to do whatever the hell she wants because she does it so freakin’ well.

But I’m no Austen and times have changed, so I wanted my novel about modern young women to pass the Bechdel Test. My solution? Change the eligible bachelor storyline to an eligible college storyline.

In my version, “Emma” isn’t trying to convince her friend to pursue a guy who may or may not be interested in her—she’s trying to get her to apply to a college that may or may not accept her. Now the girls are talking about something other than boys. Like most of the high school seniors I know IRL, they’re focusing on their next four years of school, where they’ll go, whether they’ll fit in, what it will be like.

Fictional romances can be fun and inspiring and exhilarating. But they should never make a young woman’s value dependent on her ability to successfully land a guy.

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A Post from My Daughter

My 17-year-old wrote today’s post about living with an autoimmune disease.

Dear Addison’s disease,

Thank you for shutting down my adrenal glands, thyroid, and other body parts.
Thank you for making me tan.
Thank you for making my scars darker, legs weaker, and eyes heavier.
Thank you for the endless doctor visits and hospital gowns.
Thank you for making me special.
Thank you for the medical bracelets.

And, if I’m thanking you, we can’t forget the 12 vials of blood that gets taken from me when prescribed. I’d like it, though, if you could make me less tired, and let me occasionally have enough energy to curl my hand into a fist. Because it’s actually scary when you can’t. And I’ll never forget the time when–because of you–I got diagnosed with two other diseases, and asked my mom after seeing the doctor “Mom, why do I keep getting diseases?” Because although that’s scary on one hand, it gets quite confusing when later you’re told “you’re fine. Go run a mile” when you know you really and honestly can’t.

And while we’re at it, thank you for scaring my parents when I get to the point where I can’t walk or talk because one little white pill is a bit off. School is already hard, so why are you trying to make it harder? How bad are you, and why can’t anyone give me a clear answer about it? It’s hard enough to wake up to go to school, but that’s not enough for you, is it? No, you have to make it so I don’t have cortisol or energy in the morning to even stand a fair chance.

But, Addison’s, here’s the kicker: I kind of love you. You’ve made life hell, but you’ve made me special. No one understands you, so no one can make assumptions. But, could you ask people to stop asking what it’s like to go on a roller coaster without adrenaline? Cause I don’t really know anything different.

So, here we are in our twelfth year of living together. You know me, I know you. What are we going to do now?

Love,
Annie

PS send help

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Surviving a Depression, in a Handy List

After I wrote my November post on being depressed, a lot of people reached out to me, so I wanted to give one last update.

No point in burying the lede: I feel much, much better. Turns out everyone was right–depression does lift, even if that feels impossible when you’re in the middle of it.

While I’m happy to wave goodbye to it (and, frankly, to 2014, which was Not My Favorite Year for a lot of reasons), I don’t want to blithely move ahead and act like it never happened, partially because I feel the peace is a fragile one that could easily fall apart, and partially because I feel like I learned some stuff that I don’t want to forget.

Which of course I’ll share with you all, in a nifty list format. (Everyone likes a list!)

1. When you’re so depressed you feel like life is a pointless, joyless cesspool of unrelenting disappointment . . . seek out help from a professional. Because you’re deep into feeling like life is a pointless, joyless cesspool of unrelenting disappointment, you may not see the point of getting better, but if there’s a single person (or animal) in your life who cares about you, tell yourself you’re doing it for that person (or animal) and make the appointment.

I don’t know if this is a universal experience, but I walked out of my very first appointment feeling a little less alone. I felt like someone was in the fight with me, someone who (unlike my family) wasn’t frustrated with me for feeling this way and desperate for me to just stop being like that, but was instead completely in it with me.

2. Exercising helps. The first thing my new-found therapist said was, “Start exercising today–get your heart rate up for at least 20 minutes.” I did it and felt better. IMMEDIATELY. That feeling slowly dissipated but still . . . it reminded me what it was like not to feel sad and anxious all the time and made me realize I wanted more of that. Plus there’s no downside to exercising–the side effects are kind of nice. (Except that my knee is twingeing today, damn it.)

3. Modern science is a wonderful thing. I’ve been on an SSRI for the last eight weeks or so and within a week of starting it, I realized I was perseverating much less about the things that were making me anxious. It was like I’d been carrying a backpack filled with crap around for months and suddenly I could just PUT THE BACKPACK DOWN AND WALK AWAY now and then. I knew the crap-filled backpack was still there where I’d left it; I just didn’t need to carry it around with me all the time. You don’t know how good that feels until you feel it. I was worried that meds might change me in other ways, but nope–my brain just stopped churning and churning about things that were unpleasant. Otherwise, I’m still me, for better or for worse.

I would marry my Zoloft if I could, but it seems content with our relationship and the fact that I swallow.

4. Don’t romanticize mental illness. Yeah, maybe some brilliant artists and writers suffered from depression, but that doesn’t mean it was their source of genius or creativity or a sign of YOURS. Depression and anxiety suck productivity out of you. Feeling like you’re isolated from the rest of humanity doesn’t make you special or elevated: it makes you sad and lonely. Do what you can to get better.

5. Reach out to other people. Tell them your story. Let them tell you theirs. I loved the friends who said to me, “I’ve been there and it took a while but I got through it.” It made me feel hopeful but also validated. I also adored the friend who went right to asking me if I wanted to hear a stupid funny joke. I did and it made me laugh and that felt good. The only response that mildly bummed me out was, “Oh, wow, that must be terrible for you. I’m so sorry.” There’s no empathy in that–just pity and a tiny bit of superiority. I didn’t need people to pity me; I needed them to crawl in the hole with me for a minute or two. But overall people were fantastic.

6. Even misery has its lessons and the occasional silver lining–I’m trying to hold onto those now that I’m feeling better. I was always rushing around before, impatient with delays, annoyed at chores, jealous of people who were more productive and successful than me. Then I stopped caring about anything other than getting through the next hour. Now I’m trying to hold onto the good side of slowing down and living in the moment. I take my time running errands, walking the dogs, cleaning the kitchen . . . even flossing my teeth. I can’t remember why I was always in such a hurry before, always so desperate to be somewhere else. I’d like to hang on to this feeling of being present in the actual moment, now that the original accompanying despair is gone. Maybe not permanently gone, but gone for the time being and, since I’m living in the moment, that’s enough for me right now.

Anyone have anything to add to this list?

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Hatred Is Not a Religious Belief

I don’t usually write about religion. I’m not the kind of person who wades into areas fraught with potential peril. I’m the kind of person who flees from fraught. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. So here goes.

I think people should be free to believe whatever they want. They should get to worship whatever god or goddess or many gods they believe in, alone or with others who want to join them. They should also get to NOT worship if they choose to, and their morality should never be questioned because of that choice. People should all be judged by their actions, not by their professed beliefs.

I will fight to defend anyone’s right to believe and practice what he wants to, so long as his religion doesn’t impinge on anyone else’s.

People should be allowed to practice their own religious beliefs in peace.

What people should NOT allowed to do is marginalize, disenfranchise, persecute, abuse or harm innocent people and claim that it’s in the name of their religion. That’s not a belief. That’s bigotry and criminal behavior.

It doesn’t matter what religion you start out with, what you call it, or what you claim to believe: if you are hurting other people and fomenting hatred, you are a person of violence, not a person of faith.

From the little I know of comparative religions, almost all of them are based in kindness, generosity, and peace. Anyone who uses his religion as an excuse to practice violence and cruelty is twisting and perverting what’s actually there in an act far more harmful and offensive to the original religion than anything a peaceful and tolerant nonbeliever could ever do.

Seems obvious, right? But there are huge numbers of people all over the world–and in this country–who stridently claim that their religion gives them the right to criticize, marginalize, refuse to hire, persecute, bully, and even kill people who are innocent of any crime, who simply want to be allowed to live their lives in peace. We can’t accept “my religion says you’re evil” as an excuse for hatred. That’s medieval.

Basic morality says we should be generous to those in need, kind to those who are suffering, and tolerant of those who are different. If your religion is teaching anything other than that . . . you should probably get a new religion. There are a lot out there to choose from.

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The Clouds Smell of Gasoline

In Wrong About the Guy, a character launches into one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite plays–Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee. (I lifted this version off the internet, so it may not be punctuated correctly.)

Gentlemen, progress has never been a bargain. You’ve got to pay for it. Sometimes I think there’s a man behind a counter who says, “All right, you can have a telephone; but you’ll have to give up privacy, the charm of distance. Madam, you may vote; but at a price; you lose the right to retreat behind a powderpuff or a petticoat. Mister, you may conquer the air; but the birds will lose their wonder, and the clouds will smell of gasoline!”

I’ve been thinking about this quote a lot lately.

Maybe it’s because I see so many people sitting at tables together, staring at their phones, not talking.

Just to be clear, I’m a fan of science and technology. I think we should always move forward. I don’t harbor any nostalgia for the old days, when plumbing sucked, people got polio, and it took you all day to go fifty miles. I just think we have to be aware of what losses might come with each gain and fight to hold onto the things that make our lives good.

The obvious example: I love my cell phone with a passion. I love being able to text my kids wherever they are and hear back immediately from them, unless they’re in class. (Oh, who am I kidding? They text me back even when they are in class.) I love being able to look up anything I want whenever I want and know what the weather will be anywhere and check my email when I’m in line at the supermarket. Smartphones are amazing. They’ve enriched out lives. They keep us informed and in touch.

But . . .

People don’t look around anymore when they have a free minute: they just stare down at their little screens. My kids used to devour books on trips and vacations: now they just watch videos or text friends. Free time for all of us has stopped being a chance to see something new or to think random and possibly creative thoughts. It’s  just another opportunity to check our email or post a photo. So much progress at such a huge cost.

But that’s not actually why I brought up that quote. This is why:

My oldest son just graduated from college.

From college.

From college.

Sorry. I don’t mean to repeat myself. It’s just . . . holy crap, you know? How did he get so old? How did I?

The night after my husband and I attended his graduation ceremony, I had a brief dream that was so vivid I couldn’t shake it the next morning. It was very simple: I was reaching up as Rob handed me our toddler son, and I felt that good, warm, solid, satisfying weight of a small child transfer over from him to me. He put his head on my shoulder and I held him close, feeling happy and whole.

I woke up and lay there, remembering how good it felt to hold all my kids when they were little, how it gratified some kind of skin and emotional hunger in me to have a little person I loved settle in against me. My kids are all taller than I am now. Carrying them is a long distant memory but in my dream it felt real, like I’d never stopped, like I would never have to stop.

the little guy he once was

the little guy he once was

My son has graduated from college and it’s been a long, crazy, inspiring, frustrating, challenging, unpredictable journey for him and for us. I’m so proud of him.

But, oh, how I loved the feel of that toddler in my arms. I miss it with an almost physical pain.

For every gain, a loss. Progress is never a bargain.

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