My last blog post was a stirring defense of my desire to bed someone most of my friends find particularly loathsome, so I thought this time out I’d actually try writing something serious about writing. I was inspired by this time lapse video of a container ship gliding around the world. The video reminded me of one of the more frightening things I’ve ever done while researching a novel. And that got me thinking about what it means to go outside your comfort zone, as a writer and a human. And that reminded me of the one novel I wrote that took me entirely outside of my comfort zone from first sentence to publication.
Yeah. I know. I get reminded of me a lot, but what else is social media for really? So here goes.
I’m breaking this one into two parts. In Part 1, I’ll talk about My Big Uncomfortable Novel. My dangerous research jaunt will be discussed in Part 2.
About fifteen years ago I made some major life changes in the wake of discovering my father had an inoperable brain tumor. (The short version: Goodbye, Out All Night Party Boy Chris. Hello, Son Who’s On Time To His Father’s Biopsy Chris.) One of the friends who helped me out during this period of self-reflection and behavioral modification had the following piece of advice. Wake up every day and ask yourself, “What would I do today if I weren’t afraid?” It’s easy to dismiss this question by coming up with the most unworkable answers: Pet a rattlesnake! Stand naked on the rooftop of a forty-story building!
But anyone with a modicum of maturity know’s that’s not the nature of the question. Reworded for the pedantic, the question would read, “What would I do today that I’ve always wanted to do but I’ve convinced myself is a bad idea based on a vague amalgam of ‘evidence’ that’s really anxiety and self-centered fear masquerading as ‘good sense’?”
For writers, this type of question turns into a ruthless dismantling of their creativity: “I can’t write that book, it will destroy my career.” “I can’t have my character do that, my readers will hate it.” When a writer’s in the grip of thoughts like these, terms like career and my readers are just cover identities they’ve given to an imaginary committee composed of fantastical versions of everyone who’s ever said anything unkind about the writer in the course of their career. They’re attempts to make the wild uncertainty of the book market into something that can be easily predicted.
And if there’s one thing I can predict about the book market, it’s that there’s very little you can predict about the book market. In the course of my career, projects and ideas that seemed like sure things have popped and fizzled. Ideas that seemed like long shots were met with a surprisingly positive reception. (My favorite publishing story involves the reaction of Michael Cunningham’s editor when he turned in the manuscript for THE HOURS. “What am I going to do with this?” the editor said of the book that would go on to win a Pulitzer and be adapted into a film starring Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman.)
Publishing, like most things, is not a meritocracy. And like most things in life, the forces that determine which books rise to the top are often entirely external to the book’s content or the author’s talent. The publisher’s in-house marketing decisions, the arrival of a national disaster on the day of a book’s release, the sudden blossoming of a new book format that drives down prices and increases the availability and popularity of certain genres over others – all these things can determine whether a book succeeds simply by virtue of severely limiting how many people will know the book even exists. Then there are structures of privilege, access, opportunity – and yes, NEPOTISM! – that come into play as well. This chaotic convergence make an author’s assertion that a single creative choice can doom or save their entire career seem a bit delusional.
Once an author finds a series or a character or a brand that works for them, they’re wise to stick with it until it runs out. But it’s going to run out at some point. And no one will be able to say exactly why. Sure, they’ll have lots of opinions about it. But a surefire metric that accounts for the intersection of popular trends, changing market forces and the entirely subjective tastes of individual readers – no one has one of those yet. It’s the terrifying and wonderful thing about publishing (and entertainment) – nobody knows what’s going to succeed or crash! Lightning bolt success can come out of nowhere. You could be writing the next big bestseller right now. Follow your bliss. Because if you don’t, you wasted a lot of energy calculating something that can’t be calculated.
Yes, anyone who’s ever listened to The Dinner Party Show knows I got most of these ideas from Eric Shaw Quinn. Or, more accurately, he’s the one who actually encouraged me to start believing some of them.
Because believing them is easier said than done.
And I didn’t believe any of this in 2007 when I was wondering what I should write next.
Corporate intrigue had uprooted me from a publisher that had made a delightfully big fuss over me in the past. My most recent book, LIGHT BEFORE DAY, had been “orphaned” by staff defections right at the moment when it was becoming clear that my readers weren’t as excited about it as they’d been my previous work. I’d written it from the depths of my grief for my father (and scuttled a planned sequel to THE SNOW GARDEN to do it.) It was a very hardboiled detective story that tackled the crystal meth epidemic in both rural California and the gay community in West Hollywood. The plot involved pedophilia, closeted military men and a hero struggling with his newfound sobriety while he traveled the kind of redemption arc that I thought made for the best detective fiction.
People either loved it or they really didn’t love it and the ones who didn’t love it were really loud about it.
Today, it’s one of the books total strangers and casual friends feel oddly comfortable saying ugly things about to me. “You lost me with that crystal meth book,” said a yoga teacher at a dinner party after we were first introduced. I’m not sure what I lost her to. Was it yoga?
“I didn’t like that book with the whiny drunk,” said another friend who had recently quit drinking and then, once he decided to drink again, shared that thought with me, while drunk, in front of a group of our friends.
Another writer wrote me an email saying he’d read the book and thought “my talent was slipping,” even though I’d never solicited his opinion on the matter. (Spoiler Alert: the email destroyed our friendship.) Then there was the PC crowd who attacked the book for presenting a world in which gay characters were not just the heroes but also the villains. To them I say if we want to accept our Michelangelos, we also have to acknowledge our Jeffrey Dahmers. Also, grow up.
Amidst all of this, I agonized over what had “gone wrong”. How had I gone astray? Had I departed from a promised formula? Had I betrayed my loyal readers? The answer was far simpler than I wanted it to be: I had written the book I needed to write and it had been received the way it had been received. Period. End of story. In the process, I was given the chance to put to bed another untruth about the creative life – that anything you write out of authentic passion will be rewarded with great success.
The universe doesn’t work this way. Your reward for writing something you’re passionate about is that you wrote something you’re passionate about. It exists. It’s out there. And it might find readers who are also very passionate about it, as opposed to millions of readers who read it on the train to work and might not be able to remember any of it in a few months. But in the moment, I was desperate to come up with some simple cause-and-effect explanation for what I was going through so that I would never have to go through this again. Of course, there wasn’t one.
So all my concerns centered around a single question.
What the hell would I write next?
I’d planned LIGHT BEFORE DAY to be the start of a series. The new publisher that was courting me had different plans. They wanted something different. And there was an unspoken assumption that I would “learn” from the “mistakes” of my previous book. In other (unspoken) words, come up with a more sympathetic hero – have him raise kittens or start a bed and breakfast! – and avoid dark topics like addiction and how people in Los Angeles actually behave.
There was just one problem. I only had one idea and it seemed wrong. (In retrospect, I can see how anyone suffering from this self judgment would consider any idea for a new book “wrong”.) It seemed more like a film idea than a novel idea. I’d come up with it years before and shelved it because it was one of those gay-centric, high concept ideas no one in Hollywood would make at the time. At least not with the budget I thought it would need.
The concept, a secretly gay Marine and his secret boyfriend are savagely gay bashed. The gay Marine dies in the attack. This is how his straight comrades find out he was closeted. The boyfriend survives, however, and soon tries to enlist the other Marines in a plot to hunt down and kill the attackers.
Boat chases. First fights. Revenge. A high-concept action thriller set in the long, dark shadow cast by Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. That’s how I envisioned the story unfolding. But did it have the core of an idea that could translate well to the page?
Probably. There was a relationship there that could translate well to the page – the conflict between a straight, and possibly homophobic, Marine and his comrade’s secret, gay boyfriend. It had potential for complex conflict, conflict that could be rendered in a bunch of different ways. But in my gut I knew there was only one way to tell the story that would work for me.
I had to tell the entire story from the straight guy’s point-of-view.
Was I nuts? I’d never written a book entirely from the point of view of a straight person. Much less a straight Marine. People would laugh at me and call me a fraud. If I thought the response to LIGHT BEFORE DAY was irritating…But the book that didn’t exist out there yet, the tension that made the entire project interesting, originated from the point of view of the straight guy having to come to grips with his own homophobia, not the gay guy. So I made the mistake of sitting down with my best friend Eric Shaw Quinn to explain to him how I had an exciting idea for a new book but it was totally unworkable and so I needed to move on to a new idea and HELP! After a moment of silence, Eric said, in his typical, no-nonsense Eric Shaw Quinn fashion, “So you’re only reason for not writing this book is because you think it’ll be hard?”
Boom goes the dynamite.
It was exactly the kick in the pants I needed to get beyond the idea that my next book was supposed to fix the perceived “mistakes” of my last book. It moved my focus off of trying to manage unmanageable reactions to my work and onto more creatively inspiring questions, like, what would challenge me as a writer? And, What was the book I really wanted to see out there in the universe that wasn’t out there yet? (FYI, Eric’s full of great advice that takes your obsessive mind off the unanswerable questions and puts your focus on the things you actually have control over. There’s more of it here.)
Eric’s simple question also brought to mind another simple question posed by one of our mutual friends. “What would you do today if you weren’t afraid?”
In that moment, the answer was simple.
I would write BLIND FALL.
And the experience of writing and publishing the book ended up being one of the most rewarding of my career. A prominent critic who’d made no secret about not liking my previous book gave it a wonderful review in a major newspaper. Marines both straight and gay contacted me to tell me how much the book meant to them. And it didn’t sell so bad either. One of the highlights of the whole experience came when I did a reading from the book and the spouse of another writer who’d read that night began asking me sincere questions about my military experience.
The moral of this story, if there is one, is that when I stopped trying to predict the results, when I stopped asking questions about what would be best for my career, I wandered outside of my comfort zone and was rewarded with a positive experience I hadn’t anticipated. I made the decision on what to write next based on a more complex set of questions about my creative instincts and how I wanted to grow as a writer, and not on some Ten Step Plan For Writing the Next Big Thing. And these questions all had one thing in common – they weren’t defined by fear.
What would you do today if you weren’t afraid?
It’s not just a question for writers. In fact, it’s not why my friend originally posed the question to me. But I submit to you that if you get a chance to interview some really successful people, they’ve all answered this question for themselves at various points throughout their career, and they’ve gone on to do the thing that made them afraid. I’m pretty sure the results have played a bigger role in their success than any self help guru who falsely promises you’ll be able to manifest exactly what you desire if you wear the right smile or say the right mantra or pin the right stuff on your vision board.
I’ll be back with Part 2 in a day or two, in which I describe how I became willing to risk being chopped into little tiny bits and pieces while researching a book, and how that was ultimately a good thing …maybe.