Tag Archives: sophomore novel angst

The end of the beginning

“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Thank you, Mr Churchill.  I think I just passed the mid-point of In the Red.  Phew.  I am at another stopping point where restructuring will have to take place.  This is pretty much the most inefficient way to write a book EVER.  It took me like a year for find a narrative voice–and there’s still no solid structure!  Basically I write in fragments until I get to a pausing place, then shuffle everything around to make it as cohesive as possible.  Then I keep generating the fragments until the whole thing is balanced all wrong and I can’t go any further, and I have to pause and reshuffle again before I can continue.  I feel like Sisyphus.  Hold me.

These days I spend a lot of time considering alternate careers.  Hey, speaking of alternate careers and Winston Churchill, I think I’m going to chuck this whole novelist thing and open a nautically-themed gay bar called The Traditions of the Royal Navy.  Who’s with me?  (Although apparently that quote was not actually uttered by Mr Churchill. Drat.)

In better news, I just went over the proofs of my story “Commuting” for Zyzzyva’s Spring issue.  It looks coooooooooool!  It will be out in April!  Brace yourself for the awesome.  There will be a sexy, sexy release party at Tosca’s in  San Francisco if you feel like coming by.  I’ll also have a couple of appearances around the March release of the paperback for 13 rue Thérèse.  Check out my events page if you’d like to swing by for any and all of these gatherings…  I’m sure you could get a bit of rum at Tosca’s!  You’re on your own for sodomy and the lash though, unless of course I get to open my bar.


Emo artist is all emo.

Sometimes my cat will let out these heart-wrenching meows that sound like “Goodbye cruel world!” and will make me run in from another room expecting to find her holding a tiny gun to her head or weaving a rope to hang herself with from torn bedsheets.  But she will just be sitting there in the middle of the floor looking at me with big soulful eyes, waiting to be picked up and petted.  It’s a power trip, really: she wants to know that I will come to her.  And because I am a sucker, I always do.  I pick her up and coo, “Are we having feelings?  Is emo kitty all emo?”  Then she purrs like a diesel engine, and all is right with the world.

Sometimes I wish someone would pick me up from my writing desk and say, “Is emo artist all emo?”  Then massage my ears and make everything okay again.  (Kitty loves a good ear rub.)  I’m just saying, sometimes trying to write this book feels like peeling my skin off.  All these mini allegories I’ve been posting lately are my attempts to psych myself up.  They seem to be working, I think I can feel something coming up through the undertow.  At least I hope so.  I need it to.  My last conversation with my agent was about something annoying, and it ended with me saying, “Well, that’s disheartening.  No matter how little you think of the human species, it is–” (Here I paused.)  She filled in, “It is not little enough.”  Then we both laughed.

Well, at least my agent is awesome.  Know why else she is awesome?  She’s never asked me about my “author platform” or advised me to “build my personal brand.”  That latter turn of phrase especially must make poor Bill Hicks puke in his grave.

Let me leave you now with my Zen Koan of the Day:

So, if this blog is part of my author platform, is my author platform an anti-platform platform?

whistling past the graveyard

Holy mackerel, how did it get to be June already?  I sort of hadn’t noticed because the weather has been unusually cool and rainy for California lately, but today all of a sudden it’s summer.  I realized this peeling off my sweat-drenched corduroys after walking home from downtown this afternoon.  Time for sundresses.  Also time for love for some type of finch.  The air is alive with tiny dancing birds.  One of their spiffiest moves is tucking their wings in and diving straight for the ground, then pulling up in a fast graceful U as low as possible. I am guessing this is the male display. They must get extra sexy points for doing it over concrete.

My cat just expertly skated the line between totally gross and kind of endearing when she stuck her whole head inside my sweaty sneaker after I took it off and huffed passionately. Yum! Fresh mommy juice.

So.  I finally wended my way past 20,000 words for In the Red, which is just about the place where this book collapsed spectacularly last time I was writing it.  So I printed the sucker out and scanned over it to see if it collapsed again.  It seems not, but I don’t quite trust myself.  I feel a bit like I’m whistling past the graveyard.

The 20K mark happened in the middle of a sex scene I was writing with a cat on my lap.  For a while I was even typing one-handed, not for the reason you might expect but because the cat had to hug my left wrist to rest her head on my arm and how could I take my left hand back when she was purring so blissfully?  Seriously, she totally took me hostage.  After I was done writing for the day, I really had to get up and start getting ready for my anniversary dinner (seven years married, a dozen together) but every time I tried to move the beast, she’d made the most piteous complaint imaginable. Then she’d purr when I petted her head, totally draining my heart of the will to get up.  I considered calling the jaws of life; she’d been on my lap so long I couldn’t feel my legs.

Eventually I managed to pick her up very gingerly with the flats of both hands, keeping her in the same curled up position she was in on my lap, then got up and gently placed her on the chair where I had just been sitting, in the warm spot from my butt. She gave me a bleary-eyed look and went back to sleep.  I put on a pretty dress and some nice underthings and went to the city with the husband for foie gras and boeuf bourguignon and chocolate mouse and macarons.  Aw yeah.

But now I am back at my desk once again wondering where the book is supposed to go next and looking at the maw of the abyss while reflecting that the year is half over but this book is nowhere near half over. Help!  Hold me.   Where is the cat?  I need a cuddly distraction.

Maybe some Xanax, but mostly just the Lego.

Here is the panel I was on a few weeks ago at the LA Times Book Festival.  Can you spot me?  It was a great session, moderated by Thomas Curwen of the LA Times, with authors Lisa See and Karl Marlantes, both of whom were lovely to talk to and sell a buttload more books than I do.  Can I be them when I grow up?

It’s been a while since I’ve written an entry that justifies the title of this blog.  Never fear, there is plenty of sophomore novel angst happening here!  Ever since I finished my Romanian collective unconscious document I have been genuinely scared to address the actual narrative of In the Red.  Is it because it collapsed so spectacularly last time?  Partly.  But I think it’s mostly because once I get started it’s going to tell me a bunch of shit I don’t want to hear.  The consciousness of this book is so heavy.  It has an existential obsession with human morality in the face of the void.  So I’ll just be going around my business when the book will spontaneously say something like: “We all collaborate with our miseries.  The only true gesture of negation is to cease existing.”  And then I respond, “What?  Are you telling me to eat a gun?  Can you shut up while I play Angry Birds here for a minute?  Jesus.”

I swear, it’s like I have Albert Camus living inside my braincase.

Also it really, really wants to talk to me about Capitalism and while it’s fun to channel that problem into goofy rants about toothpaste, this book does not want to be a goofy rant about toothpaste.  It intends to be Serious.  It also wants to talk about exile, history, repression, abuse of power, and all sorts of fluffy shit like that.  Please send help.  I want to write a book about puppies and rainbows.

(Don’t worry, potential readers, there will still be hot sex.  I mean, this is me we’re talking about here.)

Okay, let’s talk about Lego instead.

Before I went away for the book festival, I admired this Lego set at Target:

I totally wanted it, but could not quite justify plunking down forty five bucks to buy this for myself since I am, allegedly, an adult.  I mean, that’s what my driver’s license says.  (It lies.)  Fortunately, I have the world’s awesomest husband ever, so this set was waiting for me on my desk when I got home from the festival.  I love him so much.  There was a feature to this set that he, like me, simply could not resist.  Take a closer look at the cargo the truck is hauling:

Yes, it is hauling tiny Lego sets for Lego people, among them sets of itself.  Could you die?  Okay, probably if you are not a huge dork, this does not make butterflies flutter in your stomach.  But, I am not not a huge dork, so this makes me unreasonably happy.

Anyway I just put the set together last night, after a particularly grinding bout of unproductive sophomore novel angst.  It was such a fucking fabulous experience.  Everything clicks into place so satisfyingly, and it all looks exactly how you expect it to, and it gives you a sense of achievement.  Why can’t life be more like that?  I need more Lego.  And maybe some Xanax, but mostly just the Lego.

Second Annual Sophomore Novel Angst Google Search Jubilee Extravaganza Celebration

A while back I wrote a post about the various google search terms that people used to reach my blog.  Looking at the date–yipes, that was over a year ago!  Let us waste no further time, and begin the Second Annual Sophomore Novel Angst Google Search Jubilee Extravaganza Celebration:

• Favorite misspelling of my name and book title: 13 routerays by helena shipiro.  I think this one came in shortly after my radio broadcast so it was probably someone trying to guess the spelling phonetically.  I heartily commend google for actually finding me with this!

• Inadvertent Poetry Award: golden apple music box memories.  Honorable mention for: tulle as snow.

• Many people have reached me googling something about cheez doodles, which I consider a great honor.  A couple of searches found me attempting to find a French translation for “cheez doodle.”  I will be reporting you to the French Consulate and/or Académie Française for Culinary Sacrilege immediately.  However, the most alarming cheez doodle-related search has to be: when can baby have cheese doodles.  Please, please do not feed this to your infant.

• Early on in the life of this blog, I wrote a post about the Crazy Horse Cabaret in Paris.  This has caused a truly horrifying number of people to reach me searching for footage of people doing unmentionable things to horses.  People.  Horses are our friends, not our lovers.

• “This Sounds Kind Of Sexy” Award: i will write a story in french then translate it slowly.  Rowr.  Call me.

• “Why, Thank You” Award: elena mauli shapiro is a sex goddess.

• Salient Questions:

  • how does my immigrant experience relate to the person i am? In many untold ways, my friend.
  • so are you saying that we’re all just, like, really excellent sheep? Yes.
  • four phases of vagina? They are: prophase, metaphase, anaphase and telophase.
  • simile for indeed? I think you may mean “synonym,” and the answer is “forsooth.”  You’re welcome.
  • why do sophomore novels suck? Generally because the author is scared shitless of failure in a way that they weren’t with the first novel, which causes them to freeze up and fail.  Life is awesome like that.

• “Who you gonna call?  Ghostbusters!” Award: vaporous specter fuck off (Seriously though, I’m sorry about your specter problem.)

• Hilarious academia-related searches: the word other as a verb, difference between sign and signifier.  It should be no surprise that these things lead to: post “qualifying exam” syndrome.  Do get that looked at, or it might very well lead to “Fuck This, I Am Going To Clown College Instead” Syndrome.

• And finally, would the following searchers please, please contact me and explain what exactly you were looking for?

  • arachnid tradeshow dallas
  • women shitting pants waiting for elevator
  • حصان مع حصان سكس





No matter how long you work at a craft, you can always learn something new.  Today’s lesson is: Even if the protagonist has a compelling voice and a strong personality, she should not necessarily be the narrator.

I got stuck about 85 pages into In the Red.  I decided to print out the whole manuscript and read it over, having found that oftentimes when you get stuck, your text itself will cue you as to what is supposed to come next.  I read along marking it up, realizing for instance that some of the material around page 60 or so should be right in the front of the story.  I felt a sense of cautious hope.  And then I got to the last dozen pages or so and the whole thing just completely destroyed itself.  I’d never seen it happen so fast; it just telescoped like a collapsing building.

It’s wasn’t so much that the plot broke apart (the thing with plot is that you can pretty much pull anything off as long as you do it with enough panache), it was just that the voice totally died.  It was unreadable.  I was breathless with pain.  It sucked more than I thought suck could suck.  I had started the book with a voice hoping that eventually a structure would accrete, but instead the lack of structure just completely imploded the voice.  What went down?

A partial answer came to me when I read a quote from Joyce’s “The Dead” that a friend had posted on her facebook:

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

I was quite moved by the beauty of that sentence.  Then for some reason, I changed the sentence to first person.  Go ahead and try it.  Doesn’t it completely suck that way?  (The reason being that this sort of intense shameless lyricism just can’t work in first person.)

It dropped like an anvil: I should have never tried to write this book in the first person.  It is a third person book.  I am a dumbass.

The reason why, I think, is because the novel is so much about erasure, about how much of the protagonist is erased.  If the protagonist is the narrator, then you simply know too much, you know where the holes are.  Part of the interest of the story is that you’re not supposed to know where the holes are; Irina should be mysterious.  That was why she was such a recalcitrant narrator–because she’s not supposed to even be the narrator.  She is the object, not the subject.  God, I am such a dumbass.

Eventually I will go back to see what can be salvaged from all the rubble.  But not yet.  I need to take some time away and maybe work on some short stories, smaller structures with lower stakes.  When those fall down, the devastation is not quite so complete.

worms everywhere

So, I went to NCIBA trade show on Friday evening and it was fun, if somewhat surreal.  NCIBA stands for Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, so I got to sit at my little author table and chat with lots and lots of book sellers.  Also sign galleys for them.  I’d never signed my name so many times before.  After a while, it started to dissolve.  Actually, seeing a tabletop covered with multiples copies of my book had the same effect–something about all that repetition induces the same sort of vertigo as standing between two mirrors that are facing each other.

A couple of the book sellers already knew who I was, and even what I looked like.  It occurred to me that this is what any amount of fame entails: people you don’t know know who you are.  Which is…  Spooky!  Let’s just say I’m not worried about finding paparazzi digging through my trash, but still, having a public face to any degree requires some adjustment.  At least I am not a memoirist, thank God.  Fiction affords me a covering, however flimsy.

Meanwhile I am about 15,000 words into In The Red.  While I know most of what happens in the story, it is dreadfully hard to make this narrative take any sort of shape since it insists on coming out in disorderly fragments.  It’s like I’m getting shipments of hashed meat and bone from which I’m somehow supposed to eventually reconstitute the entire cow.  Sometimes one of the bone pieces is sort of an interesting shape.  This is a conversation between Irina and Andrei, shortly after he tells her a hypothesis about something that is awful, and yet has a certain air of inevitability:

“One body for another,” he said placidly, “that is the way it works.”

How did he do this?  This relentless disdain for all people, this ability to carve them up until they were all selfish and rotten.  It was a talent—a talent for making the world ugly?  No, it was not that he made it ugly, how could he make it ugly sitting there all golden skin and lithe musculature and iron-gray eyes?  Filled with stark knowledge, yes, but so beautiful himself he could make nothing ugly.  It was worse.  He stripped and peeled and sliced everything until loneliness bled out of every cut.

“Andrei,” I said, “you’re disgusting.”

I expected him to laugh then; that was mostly the way he ended these kinds of conversations.  He never became offended.  He was impossible to offend.  At least he was true in that way.

He didn’t laugh.  He looked at me very seriously, at the outline of my body that I’d pulled the sheet over while he remained naked.  “How much more disgusting would I be,” he said, “if I came to you in the guise of a good man?”

I hadn’t thought of explicitly connecting these two things before: inability to be offended and being true.  But when I put the words down on the page, they made sense.  Say someone accuses you of something.  If you know yourself completely and the accusation is true, it will not faze you because you know it already.  If it is false, you will merely feel a sense of dim puzzlement as to where your accuser could have gotten such an idea.  If you react explosively with HOW DARE YOU? then somewhere along the line, you have told yourself a lie, and indignation is the handiest way to keep yourself from acknowledging it.  Being offended is the defense mechanism of the false.

And that is only one of the cans of worms this roughly sketched scene decided to open.  That is the problem with this book: I don’t know how to make order of it because it just keeps opening cans and there are worms everywhere.

Seriously, don't open it.

nice and insecure

I write an elder writer the following e-mail with the subject line I am an arrogant asshole, but I am really bad at it:

When I write I pretty much labor under a giant neon sign that reads YOU SUCK.  I spend a ridiculous amount of time and energy fretting about how awful my work is. Then I have a bunch of people read it and basically say, “it’s fine,” and I wonder, how can that be?  When I was a young spark, I thought that if I ever got good at this writing thing, the YOU SUCK sign would go away, yet here it remains unchanged.  Today I realized why that is: I am not holding up what I write against the work of my peers in workshops.  I am not even holding it up against most of the stuff that’s out on the market today.  I am holding it up against Gustave fucking Flaubert.  No wonder I always feel like crap!  Immediately I also realized what a hilariously arrogant thing that is to do, and then I thought–wait, don’t arrogant people think that they are awesome?  Yet I somehow figured out how to be arrogant while also feeling like shit all the time.  You have to admit that is a display of ineptitude bordering on the magnificent.

She replies:

“If there is an alarming object in this world it is a writer delighted with something he has just written.  There is no worse sign.”
–William Maxwell
I am puzzled:
But, does such a writer exist?  Trying to understand such a person is like trying to visualize Peace on Earth.  My brain just shuts down.
She tells it like it is:
Oh, I encounter plenty of them.  Except, of course, they’re not real writers.  I’ve seldom met a real writer delighted with anything to do with his work.  In other words, don’t stop comparing yourself to Flaubert.  That’s the goal; not acing it in a workshop.  And it’ll keep you nice and insecure.
I love her:

You are my new mommy.


Sophomore novel angst!

For the record, I’d like to state that Rogert Ebert is an awesome human being, and a great writer.  I still miss him on TV with Siskel (it wasn’t the same with Roeper!).  They had such a fabulous bickering rapport.  Here’s an outtake video of them riffing off each other:

I love the way they seamlessly slide into the announcement at the end.

Today I am going to comment on the subtitle of my blog, which is Sophomore Novel Angst.  This is a new feeling that has manifested with increasing urgency over the past few months.  I have, as a dutiful writer, always been angsty about my work (it’s in the Tortured Artist Handbook, or How to Get Laid if You’re Not Good-Looking*), mostly fretting about it being not good enough.  In past years I have always talked myself down from the ledge by telling myself, “so what if it sucks?  Who gives a shit!  It’s not like it’s going to get published.”  It was a nice double whammy, simultaneously reducing my anxiety level and turning my inability to get published into a comfort.

Now, I am obviously in a different position–a lucky and privileged one, but also one with higher stakes.  As I am struggling to find a strong narrative voice for my next novel, my brain hums with a new brand of crippling terror: “oh shit, what if I can’t do this again?  What if this book completely sucks and my editor turns it down?  Or worse, my agent won’t even consider it good enough to go out on the market?  FUCK!”

There is no seeming end to this sort of self-defeating freakout.  It makes me yearn for a security blanket, a stick to bite down on, a heavy narcotic.  I call this unfortunate condition sophomore novel angst, and it courses through my entire blood stream like an ever-duplicating virus.  I have yet to find an effective coping mechanism; hopefully I will happen upon one before my brain implodes from its self-inflicted pressure.  Hopefully, it will not involve Heminwayesque amounts of alcohol.

* I read some study once that claimed creative people have more sexual partners than the average person.  This may mean that being creative is attractive.  This may also mean that creative people are such a pain in the ass to live with that partners don’t generally stick around for long, and thus angsty artists have to find more bed pets.