And the writer doesn’t sleep because…

This is one of those rare periods where I am actively involved in four projects.

  • I am re-reading, for the first time in years, Out of the Pocket, so that I may add a chapter or two to the paperback, which I am self-publishing in April.
  • I am actively living Openly Straight. In a couple days I will go to the Tucson Festival of Books, where I will do panels with some of my favorite writers — Laurie Halse Anderson and Benjamin Alire Saenz.
  • I am awaiting comments on the second draft of The Porcupine of Truth, which is with my editor at Scholastic. If all goes well, I will finalize that manuscript by June.
  • I am putting together an outline and sample chapters for my next novel, with the hope that I will sell it this spring/summer and start publishing a book a year.

Being involved in four such projects at once allows me an interesting perspective on my own craft and career trajectory.

Out of the Pocket, now that I re-read it, is a first novel about which I am extremely proud. The voice is strong, the story somewhat straightforward. I remember racing through the first draft back in 2003, and now I can see why I kept being propelled forward. It’s a good story. I wanted to write more, because I wanted to know what happens next.

My favorite critique of Openly Straight is one I get quite frequently — it’s more complicated than it appears at first blush. It’s a funny book that packs a punch. It says something new in a new way, and it works because I didn’t really know when I started what I was writing about. I learned as I went along, much like the E.L. Doctorow quote Mr. Scarborough uses in the novel about writing being an exploration. I learned a lot by writing that book. The premise may sound one note, but there’s no question there’s all sorts of interesting stuff under the surface.

If Out of the Pocket is a lovely piano solo, Openly Straight is a string quartet.

Enter The Porcupine of Truth. My first concerto.

There’s a lot going on in this next book, and that may be one reason my sleep has been so agitated recently.

The problem with writing a concerto is that it’s messier than a piece with one — or four — moving parts. There’s no question that the degree of difficulty has gone up with this next novel. It’s funny and it’s sad and it’s about, you know, the little things: God, family, death, disconnection, connection, kindness, humor, race, sexual orientation, neglect, the sins of the father, the sins of the grandfather.

Part of me thinks it’s the novel that will take me to the next level; part of me is afraid that people won’t understand why I didn’t write another Openly Straight. I should hear back from my editor about this one within a few weeks, and that will help me know a bit more about how well I orchestrated all of these ideas/thoughts that were going on in my head. I happen to think it’s pretty damn good. Who knows? It could be a classic. It could be a disaster. It’s probably somewhere in between. 

Which brings me to the new project. Someone smart recently said something to me about the most important question in life, and it’s one that translates into career:

“What do you want?”

The problem is, when it comes to my career, I want so many things:

  • to be universally loved
  • to be authentic
  • to make people laugh
  • to make people cry
  • to write for myself
  • to help teens
  • to grow as a writer
  • to grow as a person
  • to write something that sells well
  • to write something that helps me get another book contract
  • to write books that survive long after I’m gone

That’s quite a lot of wants to orchestrate! And while I’m crazy, I’m not so crazy that I don’t get that some of this is beyond my control. I need to focus on the process more than the outcome. But at the same time, I get to choose the process. And some of those choices dictate my chances at attaining what is beyond my control.

When you write a book outline and sell a project, what you’re really doing is sealing your fate for the next year. These will be the characters you spend time with the next year. These will be the issues you think about for the next year. You will live with them. Also, these will be your kids forever if it all works out. The result, a book, will be part of your legacy. It’s a lot to think about.

And for me: this is the book that people will see after Porcupine. Which means, after the concerto. Should it be a bigger concerto? Should it be more simple? Should it be heavy? Light? Both?

Is it possible to write a book a year, and have each book be increasingly more complex?

Is it possible to write a book a year, and have each book be better loved than the last?

Is it possible to have a career trajectory that keeps going up?

Will I love everything I write equally?

Who am I trying to impress?

I have tasks on all four books today, and I’ll be tired as I do them. It’s hard to sleep sometimes with all these questions flurrying through your brain. It’s hard to rest when your destination is entirely unknown.