Five Things I Learned Writing a Novel

I recently finished writing a novel. (I recently finished writing a novel!) I’ve been working on it for years, on and off, and to see it reach its third draft is amazing.

Now that I’m finally sharing it with people for additional feedback and preparing it for agents and publishers, I’ve been thinking about the work of writing a novel and what I’ve learned during those multiple drafts, including the earliest and most hopeless-looking one.

1) You may need to grow older or go through certain experiences to write a novel

It isn’t impossible to write a novel at a young age. (I wrote one in high school that remains in a plastic bin awaiting massive revisions.) But there are novels that can’t be written until you’re older, more mature, and more aware of what’s going on in your life and the lives of other people. This awareness was underdeveloped in younger me. I couldn’t have written this particular novel in my 20s.

2) The first draft is a mess

I thought I might be able to finish the novel in two drafts. I needed three. The first draft is just ink splatter with potential. The second draft is rough but much more coherent. And the third is finally ready to be seen by other people.

If you struggle with perfectionism, the state of the first draft might destroy your willingness to keep writing. Just keep in mind that it’s ok for the first draft to be deeply discouraging. There will be a gulf between how you envision the story and how it’s actually emerging. Your first draft can make you think that you’ll never finish the novel and that you’re incapable of producing anything but a rag pile of loose ends and flat characters who’ve had all the life wrung out of them. And there will be typos and missing words and sometimes sentences you’ve left unfinished.

3) A certain amount of doubt is productive

Too much doubt, and you’ll never finish your novel. You won’t have enough confidence in yourself and faith in the outcome. But some doubt is useful. Between the first and second drafts of the novel, I made a major change to the plot – for the better – after a couple of weeks spent doubting the believability of what I’d written.

Where you aim your doubt is also important. Doubt aimed at weaknesses in the writing is helpful when you’re rewriting a draft. Massive doubt dumped on yourself (“I’m terrible, I’ll never finish”) can stall you or derail a project.

4) You don’t need a rigid writing regimen, but do mind the gaps

A regimen works for some people. They write at the same time each day. They write in the same location. Or they commit to writing a certain number of words or pages per day. I wrote mostly in the same location, but not at the same time, and the amount I wrote varied considerably day by day. What’s more important than a regimen is continuity. Work on your novel most days of the week. Don’t leave gaps of weeks (or worse, months) where you aren’t looking at it or thinking about it.

5) Writing a novel can make you feel vulnerable

There isn’t a one-to-one correspondence between the characters in the novel and people in my life, including myself. And many of the things that happen in the novel never happened to me.

But there’s no denying that I’m in the novel – in more than one character and across different settings. The novel contains things I fear or hope for or struggle with. Which makes me uneasy, even as it amazes me – look at what can emerge when you’re creative, when you’re trying hard not to block yourself with falseness and fear.

I wonder what conclusions others may draw about me, accurately or not, based on what I’ve written. There’s an instinct to shy away from scrutiny and hide what I’ve written. I’m ignoring that instinct and taking steps towards sharing the work and publishing it.

Some parts of the novel took me longer to write than others because they caused some emotional turmoil and forced me to think about things I would have preferred to overlook or quickly disregard. I did my best to write through the turmoil, with an effort for greater clarity and honesty. If you’re writing a novel, and you’re stuck or feel reluctant to keep working on a particular scene, one possibility is that you’re writing something that’s psychologically demanding. (Of course, there are other possibilities, such as being tired after hours of work/parenting/school or getting distracted by Twitter.)

Concerns About AI Bias Aren’t Just “PC-Ness”

People often need to frame things as a battle between two forces (“libs” vs. “conservatives,” or “SJWs” vs. “anti-SJWs”). Any concerns or opinions mentioned predominantly by one side will get automatically shot down by the other.

I’m seeing these kind of knee-jerk responses in conversations about algorithms trained to make predictions about individuals. Depending on where the algorithm is used, these predictions can affect anything from the health care you receive to whether you’re hired for a job.

One example is a medical algorithm that was significantly more likely to recommend special health care programs for white patients than black patients who were equally sick. The factor that shaped the decision-making in this case wasn’t even race, at least not directly. From a recent MIT Technology Review article on this issue:

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One of the remarks I regularly hear (and read) about this topic is that these algorithms are upsetting people because they reflect “facts not feelings” and that “facts don’t lie.” Ok, maybe facts don’t lie, but what do they actually reflect? What datasets are you training these algorithms on, and what do the data really tell you about people? (Not just groups of people, but individuals who are on the receiving end of these predictions.) The fact that members of one group may have historically been more likely to receive worse health care, on average, than members of another group doesn’t mean we need to perpetuate the problem.

The biases produced by these algorithms – biases which may be based on class, income, race, sex, or other dimensions – don’t necessarily reflect unchanging truths about human nature or social problems we can never address. So it’s disheartening to see people crow about how decisions based on algorithms are reflecting the “real truth” underneath the layers of PC-ness we’re festooned with as a society.

The medical algorithm mentioned in this post was examined, and the problem got addressed. In many other cases, we don’t know why algorithms are making predictions or decisions in certain ways. We don’t know what data they’ve been trained on, and companies are keeping quiet about it. There may be little accountability or option to appeal a decision. This is a critical issue to discuss, while hopefully minimizing the knee-jerk responses and the thought-terminating clichés (chants of “facts not feelings” from people who are also acting emotionally about this issue, though they don’t recognize their satisfaction or delight as feelings).

Excessive Negative Thoughts: Coping Strategies

This video from Psych2Go starts out discussing the terrible effects too much negative thinking may have on your health. After that onslaught of negative thoughts, it lays out several coping strategies (starting around two and half minutes in).

One important point that comes up during the suggestion to use distractions: these strategies aren’t meant for avoidance. Even when you distract yourself with a book or a movie, the goal isn’t to keep trying to escape from a problem in your life. The goal is to help yourself become less stressed so that you’re able to deal with the problem more effectively after you’ve become more calm.

Good luck! (I can tell you that the tip about paying attention to body language caught me off guard. Jaw unclenched, for the time being…)

New Ways to Fail Students

Just a few observations about New York City public schools:

  • There are schools where getting an ‘A’ is really easy, even without competence in a subject. Hand in the assignment, get a checkmark, and you’re good to go. Sometimes, students quickly realize they aren’t learning anything. Other times, realization comes from failing a state exam.
  • There are schools that shove students along from one grade to another, passing them so that they move ahead, and they arrive in high school struggling badly with math and literacy, including concepts and skills they ideally would have learned years earlier. They arrive without various kinds of basic knowledge and without good study habits.
  • The Department of Education inspires no confidence, although it does produce fuzzy, pleasant-sounding words about the supposed nobility of its aims.
  • It’s worth pointing out that there are excellent teachers and schools too. I’m just highlighting the fact that apathy, burnout, and soft expectations are major problems. Poor policies, ineffective educational methods, and large class sizes affect the general student population; however, students from low-socioeconomic status households feel the negative impact most strongly.
  • Kids whose parents can afford private tutors will hire tutors, or they’ll wind up sending their kids to private schools. Other kids will discover new ways of not learning math, reading, or writing, as the city implements various kinds of educational reforms that fail to address pervasive problems.

For now, that’s all I’m going to say on the subject of NYC schools. Until recent years, I didn’t realize just how much contempt there is for children.

Free, Free, Oh So Free

“Freedom of speech” is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot in the US. What limits does it come up against?

I’m not talking about free speech in terms of the first amendment alone. I’m also interested in what free speech means as a norm in various institutions and in civil society. And I’m not focusing on speech of low value (insults, childish name-calling, slurs); my concern is about the ability to hold a discussion on controversial topics, express a dissenting opinion, and ask an uncomfortable question, especially in forums that are meant for such conversations, such as a townhall meeting or a classroom.

This post is prompted by a book I’ve just read, The Lies They Tell by Tuvia Tenenbom, who took a six-month journey around the US, spoke to a variety of people, and reported his findings in what reads like a series of blog posts from the road.

There are observations he could have researched more or followed up on more deeply (though part of his approach was to let the various Americans he met explain things to him). I appreciated that he wasn’t trying to make anyone look stupid or ridiculous. He didn’t ask questions that were worded in a confusing way to trip people up. Usually he listened to an opinion and asked, “Why?” (What’s the basis for your belief? Why do you feel the way you do?). Or he pointed out the elephant in the room and observed people saying, “What elephant? No, that’s a housefly… maybe a swarm of houseflies… but not an elephant.”

Here are a few things that come up in the book, again and again:

Continue reading →

A Reminder About Humility in Judgment

A couple of days ago, I was thinking about something that often happens online (and offline too) – when you have a conversation with someone, and they aren’t really speaking to you; they’re speaking to their misconception of you.

In the conversation, you feel like an image has coalesced next to you. It vaguely resembles you, and it’s made up of the other person’s mistaken assumptions about your motives, beliefs, hobbies, etc.

To varying degrees, I think we all have a tendency to do this to other people. We fly to quick judgments about them based on stereotypes or based on our own fears or interactions with superficially similar people. Some people do this maliciously; they deliberately create cruel and damaging misconceptions that they try to force as truth during a conversation.

I remembered something I wrote a couple of years ago around this time of year – the Jewish High Holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It was a piece on humility in judgment. Humility isn’t a fashionable characteristic, especially because it’s often confused with ‘humiliation’ or ‘abject lowliness.’ In truth, it’s an aid to clearer thinking and integrity.

From that piece:

Humility opens up space for self-awareness, thoughtfulness, and doubt. You make a judgment whenever necessary, while remaining conscious of the fact that you may have erred or acted on incomplete knowledge. You acknowledge the possibility that you’ll need to revise your judgment in the future.

Forming a judgment with humility isn’t the same thing as assuming a non-judgmental pose or deciding that you aren’t capable of judging at all. Rather than kill your ability to judge, humility refines it. You’re less apt to rely on snap judgments and more likely to assess a situation thoughtfully, with a better sense of your limitations.

This isn’t easy. Humility is an admission that you’re living with uncertainty. It reminds you of the limits of your knowledge and powers of thought.

Let’s keep aiming for genuine humility in judgment, in conversation, and in thought. You can still speak with conviction but without overestimating how much (or how well) you know or understand.

Understanding the Difference Between Feeling and Acting

Have you noticed how often people confuse a feeling with how they act on that feeling?

For example, when parents beat their kids, and you ask them why, they might say, “I was angry.”

But that isn’t an answer. It’s a description of an emotional state. An answer would be, “I chose to act on my anger by beating my kid.” It was one of multiple options for how they could have handled their anger. “I was angry” is not an answer. It’s not an excuse for inflicting harm.

Even if the action isn’t something as severe as a beating, it can still be a damaging choice. “Screaming at,” for instance, or “putting down.”

Another example is how desire is used as an excuse for rape or sexual assault. As if there’s only one way to act on feelings of sexual desire. Like you’re on autopilot between the first stirring of desire and the act of harming another person.

And here’s another point to consider: An action doesn’t need to be external. It can be an internal response. For instance, someone might react to anger by suppressing it or pretending they don’t feel angry. This is ultimately a damaging choice, because if you suppress anger too often and for too long, it can lead to chronic high levels of stress, burnout, depression, addictive behaviors, and maybe over-the-top outbursts at some later point.

Managing your emotions and exercising self-control are a critical part of being a mature person. Ideally, you begin to learn useful lessons as a kid for how to understand feelings and figure out ways to deal with them that don’t involve harming other people or hurting yourself through self-destructive choices. Many people unfortunately don’t learn these lessons growing up, or they learn them inconsistently and poorly. Regardless, as an adult, it’s important to work towards greater maturity by distinguishing between emotions and actions and building up habits of thought and behavior that will help you avoid destructive choices.

I’m not saying this is easy to do. Sometimes the distance between an emotion and an action can seem incredibly small; it can even feel nonexistent. People have areas where they’re especially vulnerable, like sex or relationships more generally, food and drink, acquisitiveness, various kinds of fears. There are insecurities roiling beneath the surface, beliefs about what you’re entitled to, ingrained behaviors that kick in thoughtlessly, and other deep-seated issues that need to be examined and addressed. You also can’t be complacent about the self-control or maturity you’ve achieved so far. In day-to-day life, the hardest struggles often involve the power of various feelings and the temptation to take the least path of resistance to them, to surrender to them fully. But that isn’t the path of maturity and wisdom.