Fantasyland, by Kurt Andersen

Ever read a book that makes you feel both better and worse about the times you live in?

That’s what Fantasyland did for me.

Better, because Andersen shows how the current fad for conspiracy theories and disregard for facts (on the conservative side of politics, this time) is just the latest iteration of a series of such fads, going all the way back to the first Northern European settlers of the Americas.

For example: the first colonists in Virginia were lured by rumors of gold that had been completely made up by speculators. They starved and died while hunting for gold and silver, until by chance they started cultivating America’s first addictive drug export, tobacco.

But I also feel worse, in that it makes me think there’s no real escape from the fanaticism and illusions that lie in the heart of the American experiment. They’ve allowed the burning of witches, the enslavement of entire nations, and the genocide of those who were here first. And now they’re pushing even my own family to condone the caging of immigrant children, the silencing of women, and the persecution of Muslims.

It’s disheartening, to say the least.

I take hope in the other side of the cycle that Andersen exposes. When reason pushes back against mysticism, and we re-fight the battles of the Enlightenment. We banned snake-oil and established the FDA. We drove quacks underground and wrote licensing laws. We won the Civil War. We passed Civil Rights legislation.

Granted, Andersen himself doesn’t seem to think there’s light at the end of our present tunnel. At the end of the book, he falls into what I think is a trap: believing the United States to be completely unique, and the current era to be uniquely terrible.

I think the first is countered with any glance at the news from the rest of the world. From Brexit to the rise of the populist right in Poland and Hungary, to Venezuala’s deluded leadership and China’s reality-scrubbed media, there’s plenty of other countries with their own fantasylands. While we in the U.S. often tell ourselves we’re not like anyone else, it turns out we are.

And I think his own book is a firm counter to the second trap. Every era thinks itself both the pinnacle of human achievement and the lowest depth to which humanity can fall. But pushing back against unreason — by refusing to give them a platform, by taking their threat seriously but not their claims, by not falling for the trap of treating every belief as equally valid — has worked in the past. It can work now.

Keeping Score: October 1, 2018

Scraped by this week’s word goal: 2,258 words.

The next week or two are going to be spotty, writing-wise. I’ll be in Ireland starting Thursday, partly for work and partly for fun, so between prepping for the trip and going on the trip and then recovering from the trip, there might not be much time for writing.

I will have a rather long plane-ride there (and one on the return), so I’ll try to get what I can done then. Other than that, my schedule will probably be so screwy I won’t be able to carve out any regular writing time.

I’m going to give myself a pass on this time, though. I’ve been working on the book almost a year now; hobbling along for a week or two while I’m traveling seems like a small delay, in the scheme of things.

Keeping Score: September 24, 2018

Wrote 2,404 words last week! That makes three weeks in a row I’ve managed to hit my new, higher target.

And I hit another milestone, as well: the novel passed 50,000 words!

I worried several times that maybe I didn’t have enough “story” there to hit 50K, and make it a proper novel. But I’m already there, and I haven’t yet hit the climax.

I should top out at around 60K, which’d be a nice size for trimming later on. A short novel, true, but a novel nevertheless.

Onward!

Keeping Score: September 17, 2018

2,306 words written this week!

I’m trying to let go a little more this week. As in, stop worrying so much about what would be realistic and worry more about what’d be interesting. To approach the new scenes and descriptions thinking “what would be cool?” rather than “what would be expected?”

Again, I don’t know if this approach will make the book any better. No way to tell until it’s done. But it is making it both more challenging (I have to think things through a bit more) and more fun (anything goes! so long as I can describe whatever it is).

I’m heading into the final stretch of the novel, so I’m giving myself more liberty to experiment. Since I know where I’m going now, and who’s taking me there, I guess I feel more free to play around.

I’ll probably just end up making more problems for myself down the line, but for now, I’m just enjoying flexing my wings a little bit.

Keeping Score: September 10, 2018

I did it! Hit the new word count goal: 2,285 words written last week!

Again, I wrote most of them on the weekend. Mornings last week were consumed with vacation planning, as the trip we’re taking to Ireland in October is coming up fast. Had to get everything booked before it sells out, so that took priority over my writing during the week.

But I still got it done!

Pushing closer to the climax. Even this close to being done, though, I’m still finding things that I wrote earlier that I’ll need to change.

For example, while writing one scene, I realized the character I’d planned to have in it to do a certain thing couldn’t be there, because he wouldn’t do that thing; it just wouldn’t make sense for his character. So I had to change the scene mid-stream, as it were, and finish it out with a different character in mind (and even a different action, so the plot’s changing, too).

I suppose I should expect this by now, though. The book isn’t going to be right the first time, and I’m going to have to go back over it multiple times until it is right. I suppose I should be grateful I’m able to see any mistakes now, instead of having to wait for them to be pointed out to me by beta readers later (though I’m sure they’ll find more when they go through it).

So I’m keeping the higher weekly word count for now. Not sure what I’ll do when it comes time for the Ireland trip. Either take some time off, or maybe, just maybe, I’ll be done before then?

Keeping Score: September 3, 2018

2,050 words written this week!

That’s five weeks in a row of hitting my goal of 2,000 words. I’m consistently churning out 400 – 500 words a day, 5 days a week.

Hard to believe I was having trouble with just 250 words a day only a few months back.

So it’s time to up my goal once again. I’m targeting 2,250 words this week. Just an extra 50 words a day, but it’ll get me to the end of this first draft that much faster.

Speaking of which, I’m closing in on the tentpole event that will set off the last act of the book. I got the idea from Jim Butcher’s excellent post on how to handle the mushy middle, and it’s really helped me focus on something other than the climax to keep the book on track.

I’m also trying to embrace Peter Clines’ advice to accept that the first draft will suck. It’s still hard for me to turn off me inner editor, but I’m trying to give myself more freedom to play in this draft.

If I’ll have to go back and fix it anyway, why not have some fun with it first?

Keeping Score: August 27, 2018

Wrote 2,023 words this week!

This means I not only met my goal, but the book’s crossed over 40K words!

It’s an arbitrary number, but since I’m estimating the final count’s going to be somewhere between 50K and 60K, it feels like I’m in the home stretch.

Of course, I keep noticing mistakes I’ve made, earlier in the draft. This week I realized I’d gotten the geometry of the setting completely wrong. I’ll need to do an editing pass (once this draft is done) just to fix the blocking, movement, and descriptions of the place.

But I’m sticking to the advice I got from the Writers’ Coffeehouse: to keep writing as if I’ve fixed the issues, and just keep notes for what I should rewrite later. It’s helped me keep moving forward, and kept me from getting discouraged.

Conservative Arguments

Among the many feelings I have about American politics recently, a recurring one is disappointment.

I’m disappointed that so many who call themselves conservatives have thrown their principles away for a tribal loyalty. Disappointed because when the people on the other side of the issue abandon their own logic, there’s no debate you can have with them anymore.

You can’t find common ground, if the other side doesn’t have any ground to stand on.

So I’ve been thinking about what a principled conservative would have to say about the issues of our day: health care, abortion, etc. What arguments would they make, if they chose ideals over loyalty?

The Roots of Conservatism

Modern European conservatism arose as a reaction to the French Revolution. Edmund Burke led the charge in England, writing multiple essays against the both the goals and the methods of the Revolutionaries.

Arguing against the intellectual inheritors of the French Revolution – everything from the Independence movements of the Americas (North, South, and Central) to the Bolsheviks in Russia – is how the conservative movement defined itself over the next two hundred years.

At the center of their stance was a belief that people cannot be improved through government action. It was deliberately set against the utopias of socialism and communism, which held (among many other things) that you could get an inherently peaceful and conflict-free society if you but organized it differently.

You can see echoes of this in the Western science fiction writing of the mid–20th Century, which often portrayed dystopias as societies that regulated the thoughts and beliefs of their members “for the greater good”, whether through government fiat (1984, Farenheit 451) or chemistry (Brave New World).

Coupled with this was a conviction that the People did not have a right to revolution. Government had a responsibility to use its power in the pursuit of justice, but if a government was unjust, its citizens had no right to take up arms and overthrow it. They did not have to suffer in silence, but they did have to suffer.

American Conservatives found this second principle more problematic, since their own government was formed via revolution. The compromise they came up with was two-fold:

  1. People do not have the right to overthrow a democratically elected government
  2. Workers do not have the right to overthrow their employers

Thus American conservatives had no problem putting down rebellions in the former colonies (Shay’s Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion, etc). As corporations and business leaders grew more powerful, conservatives naturally sided with them against unions.

20th-Century American Conservatism

From those two principles, everything about 20th Century American conservatism flowed.

Anti-communist, because communists wanted to build better people via overthrowing business power and regulating personal beliefs.

Pro-nuclear-family, because socialists, anarchists, and others wanted to break the nuclear family as a social experiment (again in the pursuit of better people).

Anti-regulation, because government has no more business trying to make better corporations than it does better people.

Consequences

Unfortunately, the emphasis on the preservation of the “traditional” family (itself a product of the Industrial Revolution in Europe and elsewhere) and the prerogatives of business put conservatives arguing on the side of injustice for many decades: against the liberation of women, against the emancipation of African-Americans from Jim Crow laws, against the call for corporations to become responsible citizens.

And they stand against similar liberation movements today. They pass laws regulating who can use which bathroom, or restricting a woman’s access to a safe abortion, or surpressing votes that might go to their opponents.

And they keep losing these fights. Fights they should lose. Fights they need to lose.

But instead of re-examining the choices that led them to take on these losing fights, American convervatives have instead double-down on them. Anyone on their side on these fights is an ally, and anyone not on their side is an enemy.

This tribal – not conservative – way of thinking it’s what’s led the Republican Party to choose a twice-divorced sexual predator as its standard bearer for a “moral” society.

They’ve forgotten their roots. You can’t make better people, remember?

A New Conservatism

If American conservatives did let go of their tribal ways and thought through these issues from their own principles, where would we be?

Gay marriage would be legal. Homosexual families means more nuclear families, which conservatives believe are the best way to raise children. Adoption by same-sex couples would be not only legal, it’d be encouraged.

Laws restricting abortion would be lifted. First, because banning it is wielding government power in an attempt to make people “better”, which is anathema to a conservative. Second, because women without access to safe abortions get unsafe ones, which can damage their chances of having children later, which means fewer families, which is bad for a conservative.

Gun ownership by private citizens would be highly regulated. The private ownership of anything more than a hunting rifle can only be meant for either a) murder, or b) overthrowing the lawfully elected government. Neither of those are things a conservative could endorse. For sporting enthusiasts, gun ranges might be legal, but licensed and monitored like any dangerous public service.

Maternity and paternity leave would be paid for by the government, and mandatory. Parents should be encouraged to have children, and to bond with them. That leads to stronger families, which conservatives want.

Health care would be universal and free. Making businesses pick up the tab is an unfair burden on them, and suppresses the ability of all businesses – large and small – to hire. Providing free pre- and post-natal care for mothers encourages having children, as does paying for a child’s health care. And covering health care for working men and women means a) they’re healthier, and so can work more, and b) reduces the financial strain on families in case of accidents, which will help them stay together.

Future Arguments

Even in a world where American conservatives embraced these positions, there’d still be a lot for us to argue about.

We’d argue over the proper way to regulate business, if at all.

We’d argue over military spending.

We’d argue over foreign policy (which I haven’t touched on here).

In short, we’d have a lot to talk about. Without tribal loyalities, we could actually debate these things, secure in the knowledge that we disagreed on principle, not on facts.

Keeping Score: August 20, 2018

Blew past the word count goal this week: 2,133 words written!

I realized yesterday that I’m almost at 40,000 words. Since I expect this novel to be brief (about 50K or so), at my current pace I’ll be done in about five weeks.

Five weeks!

Who knows if I’ll actually be finished at 50K, but it’s exciting to think about putting this first draft to rest. Feels like I’ve been working on this novel forever. It’s only been nine months, though, and it’ll be close to a year before I’m done.

Ok, not done exactly, but at least done with the first draft of it.

I’d like to get into a pace where I can finish (as in, draft, revise, stick a fork in it, ship it finished) a novel a year. I’m not quite there yet; if I finish this one by October, I’d only have a month to do all the edits it needs, which likely won’t be enough time.

It’d be better if I could revise one book while writing another. I haven’t been able to master that trick yet; the one book takes up so much head space for me that it’s all I can do to occasionally spit out a short story or two while I’m in the middle of the draft.

Maybe I could find a way to edit on weekends, and work on the new draft during the week? Or vice-versa?

Not sure what’s best. I just know once this draft is done I’ll have four novels that are finished drafts, but not finished pieces. And that’s starting to bug me. I need to be sending these out, trying to land an agent. But that’s hard to do when they’re not in any shape I want a professional to see them in.

Do you revise one book while writing another? How do you do it?

Keeping Score: August 13, 2018

Hit the new goal again this week: 2,016 words written.

Wrote almost 900 of those in a single day: Saturday. Not great to be writing on a weekend, I suppose, but better than having to write both days.

I’ve noticed I seem to need two days off writing, no matter what. Whether that’s Saturday and Sunday, or Monday and Tuesday, there’s always a gap somewhere in the week where I have to accept I won’t get any writing done.

I’m also apparently fairly sensitive to work stress when writing. If the week starts out hard, I’m likely as not going to be playing catch up on my writing over the weekend. Stress at work seems to soak up all the free space in my head, making me feel like I can’t think about anything else.

Not sure if that’s an unhealthy reaction or not. From one perspective: shouldn’t my writing be an escape from what’s going on around me? From another: how can I possibly devote energy and time to being creative when I’m worried about my livelihood?