How to write a book.

May 26, 2017

 

Or, more accurately, how to write a book three times and keep on going. 

 

Yeah, that's right. I wrote my book three times.

 

I'll explain below, but first I'd like to say a word about how telling people how to write seems like quite the thing to do. That's not a complaint - I read those posts on Medium like Tic-Tacs, and watch Jonathan Maberry Answers Stuff like they're crib notes for the final exam. What I realize is that those folks are leaving bread crumbs for others to follow; they're showing us where they got stuck and how they got over it. 

 

This is my attempt to pay that forward.

 

1. Be OK with what inspires you

I'd always thought that, to be a good writer, I had to be serious, to discuss the 'real' topics. You'll notice that I've fallen into that trap with this blog and will try to swim out of this quicksand.

 

My friend @b_tay , an amazing writer in her own right, got me hooked on the Joe Ledger series by the brilliant and prolific Jonathan Maberry. This series is *not* serious literature (she writes, with the smallest whiff of snobbery). I mean, it is, kinda. The lead character has a pretty fucked up history, but the story isn't his sad tale. The story is how he's taken his broken shit and become this sarcastic, wise-cracking, black ops specialist with a penchant for kicking supernatural ass. He's dark and brooding and funny as hell. But he's no William Darcy.

 

But he did get me to thinking about what would happen if my fat ass got plunked down in the middle of a black ops organization, and what a juxtaposition that would be. Silly, really. But... it tickled the fancy. How would that operation change me? How would I change it? Who, exactly, would I piss off? Before I knew it, Dr. Hedy Villarreal was born. That's it. A silly thought with teeth. You know the kind I'm talking about.

 

So, no. My book is not serious literature. But it has serious themes, and in order to get the job done, and in order to survive, Hedy (often imperfectly) has to work through the things that break her. And I don't get to her without Maberry (OK, Maberry and Jane Austen). Period. 

 

2. Follow that idea wherever it takes you

They say that writers are either architects or gardeners. You either have it all planned out, or you just start writing and follow what comes next. My guess is that's a false narrative. My guess is that planning and inspiration are on a sliding scale, and that we all do some of both. I had a strong idea, and I knew the end goal, and I knew some of the markers I wanted to hit along the way, and then I just started going.

 

By the way, doing this means that you're going to write yourself into some corners - don't be afraid of the corners! (see steps 3 & 4) And whenever you say to yourself as you're writing, "Huh, it would be really interesting if *this* was that character's actual motive," then definitely write a few words in that direction. Maybe that's a paragraph that stays in the narrative, maybe that's a paragraph that's used later on to reveal intent, or maybe it's a paragraph that you toss into your inspiration document, full of orphaned ideas and brilliantly written sentences that may or may not get used one day. If nothing else, you have that person's motivation, and that helps move the story.

 

3. Allow yourself to adjust

I started in the fall of 2015 with my silly fan fic idea for the Ledger series. I would write for myself and @b_tay, and that would be the end of it. I finished the (then) novella, and gave it to @b_tay to review. She liked the story, but I had not been faithful to Maberry's voice, or to his characters, and it took her out of the reading experience. She was right, of course, and I've always appreciated how hard it must have been to give that feedback to a friend. Still, I was left with the problem of really, really liking the characters that I'd created. So, I moved the story into a Maberry-adjacent world, one where I wasn't so dependent on capturing the original series cast. Fan favorites made appearances, but I was in my own world. Miraculously, doing this made the story better.

 

Knowing that Maberry supports his fan fic writers, I sent in a synopsis of the story... and got no response. It is possible that they read my synopsis and went no further; it's also possible that I did something wrong - like maybe I should not have directly approached him, maybe I should have gotten representation and approached the publisher. I dunno. Either way, that version of the story was dead in the water.

 

But dammit, I couldn't stop. I loved my characters. I loved their stories. I was so close to having a completely original work that I took the next logical step. I completely removed the story from Maberry's world. I was terrified, but in doing so, the story got even better. This was not because of some limitation of Maberry's world (which is limitless), but because up until that point I was still putting on the cloak of another writer. It was a great place to start, but by the end, I was fat-man-in-a-little-coat, and I needed my own clothes. I was forced to come up with my version of things. I was forced to trust my own voice. 

 

So, that's how I got around to writing this damned book three times. It took months to take it from Maberry's world to my adjacent world, because that move shifted key elements of the story, which then had to be re-written for this new paradigm. Once I decided to make it my own, there was yet another paradigm shift that affected everything. There is not a single aspect of this story that hasn't been re-worked like felted wool. 


4. It's OK to walk away... but come back

In my first iteration of the book, I'd written myself into a corner. This was about 2 months in, and I simply lost the thread. I couldn't go any further. I'd made a half-hearted attempt to finish it, but I knew that what I'd done was NOT a finished product. I was about 30,000 words in and I'd grown bored of what I was writing. So, I gave myself permission to step away.

 

Thing is, I'd written a character that I couldn't put down - people who know me will see a lot of me in her, but she is better. She's fucked up, but still way more whole than I am. She's better at recovery, and she has better boundaries, and her weaknesses and blind spots will get better over time. She's the internal voice I have that says to keep going. So, I could walk away from the writing... but I couldn't walk away from her. And like a sinner with rosary beads, my mind kept working on her story.

 

Somewhere in all of this, I nearly lost my mom. She was in a terrible sledding accident, and had to be flown to a Trauma 1 hospital. We are lucky that she survived and has recovered so beautifully. That accident quietly changed something in me; it changed something in all of us. One of the things it changed is that it made me throw off the bowlines; it made me think bigger.  And, just like that, the corner I'd written myself into was actually the catalyst for an amazing story line. I just had to zoom out of the narrow view I'd given myself.

 

NOTE: This is not a ringing endorsement for family tragedy. This is to say that inspiration and motivation sometimes come out of left field, so allow for the things that move your life to move your writing.

 

Keep in mind that, at this point, I was still in the Maberry world, but I began writing with a purpose. The changes took longer than I thought, and then, having fought so hard for this character, I could not be thwarted by the limitations I'd placed on the story. Even if this third iteration would take as long as the other two combined (it did), I would make it my own. I could make it my own. And I did.

 

5. Accept your process

God, I hope no one ever sees the first draft of anything I've written. Like, ever. Seriously, if I die unexpectedly, I'm more worried about my unedited words than I am about the sex toys in my bedside drawer. Also in the back of the closet in the zebra-covered hat box. Oh, and top shelf of the white cabinet by the sink, second drawer. 

 

There are writers whose words flow out of them like silk, and whose words land on the page with such grace that you would sigh with pleasure just to watch black pixels hit white space. Yeah. Not me so much. My first words are the ugly, inarticulate truth, and only with a third or fourth or fifth pass do I let other people see what I've done. And then, as they're reading it, I'm re-editing it because I can't imagine that I'd ever let someone see this bullshit.

 

I'm not saying that this is a good process. I'm saying that it's my process, which I'm certain to refine over time. But, the thing that hemmed me up at the beginning was the idea that my process was somehow wrong, that others did it better than me. But then I remembered one of my favorite bloggers - the Fat Nutritionist. She gets past the culturally-sustained hand-wringing around food by reminding us that the first rule of good nutrition is eat or die. Getting enough calories is job #1. Everything else is secondary, tertiary to sustaining yourself with enough to eat.  In the same vein, if your desire is to write, then writing is job #1. Making it look good or palatable or useful to others is secondary, tertiary to getting the thoughts out of your head on and onto the page. Write using your process, without judgement. It doesn't have to be serious. It doesn't have to be poetic. It doesn't have to be fucking Hemingway. It just has to be real. 

 

6. Don't panic

God, I'm such a liar. I totally panicked at several points in the story. Maybe I should say that I didn't let panic completely stop me. OK, that's a lie, too. What I mean to say here is that panic is not permanent, and panic is almost always a liar. So, yeah, panic. But then take a fucking breath. Now another. Keep going. Remember job #1, and get enough calories on the page to consume and sustain you. 

 

Finally, don't panic when you see all that is out there. It is all out there because we contain multitudes. Your story will mean something to someone, even if that someone is only you. In fact, my last bit of advice is to start with the story that you wish you could read, but haven't found. That's what the world needs. I wanted to read a main character who is fat and in her 40s, but whose story arc isn't centered around her fatness (ie, the heroic weight loss journey), but rather her complex humanity. And I wanted that character to have sex and be wrong sometimes and have flaws and still be able to kick a little ass. And I wasn't finding that, so I've written it for myself. Maybe nobody reads it, but I've given myself the story I've always needed. And I don't think that I'm the only one. 

 

So, that's what I've learned from spending the last year and half on this book. That's how I wrote this book. I hope you'll read it. I hope you'll like it. I hope Maberry doesn't sue my ass. And I really hope to read what you have written.

 

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