25 Things I Learned While Writing Blackbirds
Blackbirds hits shelves — online and off — today.
I feel like a great big hand has reached into my chest and pulled something out of me. In a good way. Like, “Oh, hey, those chest pains you were feeling? Your keys were lodged in your aorta.” *jingle jingle*
So, let’s get this out of the way up front: I hope you’ll consider nabbing a copy today. This book is my baby. I mean, okay, my baby is my baby, but this is my book baby. A seriously disturbed, very fucked-up, hopefully hilarious and also sweet (in its own sick way) book baby. Your procurement options are as follows:
Hopefully you’ll take a chance on the book. Hopefully you’ll see that all the writing-related gobbledygook I talk about here ideally — ideally — stacks up and comes from and went into writing this story and character.
In the meantime, I figured I’d cobble together a “list of 25” orbiting the book and talking about what I learned through writing it, submitting it, and publishing it. Please to enjoy.
1. Bleed On The Page
Give it your all and put it out there. This is your book. This matters. Story matters. And it has to matter to you first before it matters to anybody else. Don’t be milquetoast about it. Don’t just spit and piss on the page. Blow a hole in your chest with a booger-glob of C4 and grab your heart from within the bone-splinter wreckage and squeeze it like a sponge over the tale you’re telling. Blackbirds is me in many ways — it’s about my fear of death, my need for control, my love of profanity, my frailties and foibles and weirdnesses. It features places I’ve been, things I’ve seen, and dreams I’ve had. It made it easier to write. It made it so that it mattered to me.
2. Your First Novel Usually Ain’t
My backyard is a cemetery of muddy dirt mounts and unlabeled stone graves, in each a novel I never finished or a novel I did finish which likely sucked a big bucket of pickled undead monkey balls. They were all practice drills leading up to the big fight, baby. Lessons learned, pitfalls identified, characters and ideas stolen from myself. Blackbirds is my debut original novel, but it damn sure isn’t the first one I wrote. It’s just the first one that mattered. It’s the first one that deserved to live.
3. The Flywheel Of Story, The Gearwidget Of Writing
I wrote Blackbirds a buncha times. And it never quite worked and I didn’t know why. I know why now: storytelling and writing are two different skills. When I first wrote Blackbirds (and all the dead forgotten books before it), I knew I could write. The writing was fine. Capable. Occasionally even good. But the story was — nyyeaah, bleargh, barf noise, gag sound. It didn’t hang together. It didn’t have shape — it was like a bunch of wilted half-erect man-wangs lashed together with fraying bungee cord and left to float (and then sink) in a rusted wash-tub. I learned soon the obvious truth to which I was oblivious was that the mechanics of story and the mechanics of writing are two separate machines. They fit together. So learn both.
4. Completo El Poopo, Motherfucker
The first many iterations of Blackbirds lay unfinished. (Back then, the book didn’t even have a title, though I sometimes called it Vultures.) The book isn’t real until it’s done. It’s perhaps the most important lesson: before you can do anything else, before you rewrite, edit, query, publish, whatever, you have to finish your shit. Nobody wants to shake hands with your wrist-stump of a story. *spurt spurt spurt*
5. You Gotta Write For The Movies, Kid
Novelists can learn from screenwriters. I would not have finished Blackbirds if it was not for workshopping the pre-existing mess of a story as a screenplay through a year-long mentorship. It comes back to that thing I was talking about earlier, how writing and storytelling are two separate skills? Well, screenwriting focuses more strongly on storytelling than writing — and in writing a screenplay, you start to see the bones of the story and how they can be arranged to form whatever skeleton you want. I don’t mean that novels are equal to screenplays: each is a format deserving of its own features and bugs. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a bucket of stuff to learn from each format.
6. Language Holds Hands With Action And They Traipse Along La-La-La
Writing and storytelling may be two separate skills, but they still are two funky-toothed gears that fit together and spin one another. Language should reflect the story you’re telling. As the story moves into a languid space, so does the language stretch out, fill the sails with oxygen. As the story tightens into a fight scene or a scene or some tension, the language can tighten, too — sentences that are short and sharp and simple: a prison shiv of story delivery. *stab stab stab*
7. The Power Of Present Tense
Blackbirds is the first time I thought of tense as a meaningful choice. Everything I’d written before that defaulted to the past — in fact, the earliest drafts of Blackbirds were that way. But screenwriting is present tense and in writing Miriam Black’s story in that mode, I found that tense gave me two things. First, present tense makes a story feel more urgent, more present not just in the sense of time but in the sense of place. Second, and building from that, that was appropriate to Miriam’s story: Miriam is an agent of free will in a world of fate. Tense here for me was able to do double-duty and reflect the themes at hand — past tense would be an assumption of fate (“it has already been written”) while present tense reflected Miriam’s free will (“it has not been written and, in fact, is being written right now as you watch”).
8. The Outline Is The Thing
I hate outlining. Hate, hate, hate it. I hate it with a syphilitic burning, I hate it like I hate eggplant or pageant moms or really big potholes. And for a very long time I refused to do it. I was an artist, thank you. My story was a living, liquid thing. It could not be contained by an outline. The outline was a prison: lock my story away in a preliminary outline and it would go on hunger strike until it was a withered, quivering thing sitting in its own mess. All this I proudly proclaimed upon my throne of shitty incomplete manuscripts. Eventually, my screenwriting mentor said: “You need to outline because you need to outline so just shut up and outline.” And I groused and grumbled and fought my captors and then finally rolled over and outlined. And the plot presented itself like a beautiful vagina made of gold-leaf and pegasus dreams. Or something. Point being, it solved the problem I was having. Blackbirds would fail to exist if not for this lesson. I am a pantser by heart. A plotter by necessity.
9. To Fix It, You Must First Break It
I had several incomplete versions of Blackbirds. What it took to fix it was — after all that outlining, after all that screenwriting — to blow up everything I had and start over. The versions that existed were kludgy and clogged with old panties and eyeless teddy bears. Sometimes to fix a broken pipe, duct tape won’t do. You gotta rip that shit out. You gotta put in new pipe. I destroyed Blackbirds to save Blackbirds.
10. The Characters Carry The Book On Their Backs
This is a lesson I’ll repeat until I am dead in the ground (or until I change my mind, I guess) — Plot is like Soylent Green: it’s made of people. Miriam Black and the characters who surround her shape the story and the plot. The story and plot do not shape the characters. A plot is, at the end of the day, the motivations of many characters pushing on one another, birthing a conflict that forms a gauntlet for the audience to walk. Miriam Black, as an agent of fate, of chaos, of warring selfishness and selflessness, pushes on the story.
11. The Key To Unlikable Characters
You can make the most unlikable character in the world as long as she’s fun or compelling to watch. I’ve heard from many that one of the most vile characters in the book — the assassin Harriet — really grabbed them by the lapels and, in some cases, actually aroused sympathy despite being a total fucking monster. I hated her, but loved to write her, loved to watch her work.
12. The Empathetic Psychomemetic Soul Bridge
HERE HAVE SOME MORE ACID DUDE. Okay, not so much with the acid? Fine. I tried to find in all the characters a connection to myself — not always a part reflective of me but an empathy. Not a sympathy, but a thing where I can look at that character and, as the Devil’s own advocate say, “I get this character, I grok their voodoo, I see why they are the way they are for better or for worse.” I have strong feelings for some of these characters; they’re not just mechanical exercises, not just ink on a page. Me loving to write these characters ideally translates into you loving to read them. I hope.
13. Write What You Want To Read
Life’s too short and novels are too long to waste time writing stuff for other people. Write the story you want to write. Not least of all because your passion for what’s on the page will bleed sticky onto the reader’s hands. It’s just one more reason to not chase trends — write what gets you geeked.
14. The Pitch Is A Bitch (But You Gotta Do It)
Remember how I said I hate writing outlines? I hate writing queries more. It’s like, “I just spent years of my life writing this goddamn novel and now you want me to take the whole thing and condense 300 pages down to one? MY BRAIN IS BURNING.” But fuck it, you gotta do it. Even self-publishers have to write an Amazon description, and trust me, the vibe is the same. In fact, there’s my query secret: don’t think about writing a query, pretend you’re writing the back jacket marketing copy for the book. It works.
15. Some Agents Are Kinda Douchey
Many — perhaps most — agents are really cool humans. Some are not and have earned the reputation that agents have, as prickly gatekeepers guarding the gates of Eden with a flaming book stamp that says FUCK NO. I received some very nice rejections and some very cool interest from different agents. I also received a helluva lot of No Responses At All (and several that came to me six months or more after the fact), and I received a few agents that straight-up jerked my chain. They were cagey, hard to get responses from, made me feel like a cat chasing a laser pointer. They ask for professionalism, then don’t offer it in return.
16. Your Agent Needs To Dig Your Vibe, Wordomancer
I knew I had my agent — Uber-Ultra-Super-Agent-Queen Stacia Decker — because she got it. She totally understood Blackbirds. Loved the character. Had the right ideas for it. And she was fast with her interest and professional in her communication and she loves bacon and has dogs and has a twisted sense about her. Done and done. I occasionally hear horror stories from other authors where their agent doesn’t really talk to them or seems to represent only the book but not the author (or worse the publisher over the author), and I’m hella glad I don’t have any of those problems.
17. The Value Of Trodding The Old Roads
I believe authors thrive on a hybrid approach to publishing. Blackbirds walks the “traditional” path, and I’m glad for it. It’s not always about straight-up cash (though I’m happy there, too) — it’s also about the opportunities afforded to trad-pub authors. Would I have that kick-ass cover by Joey Hi-Fi? I would not. Would I have gotten the passel of great early reviews? Mmmnope. Would I have a shot at awards or foreign rights or be able to talk to agents and film companies in Los Angeles about the story? Not likely.
18. The Old Roads Are Long, Though
From the time of procuring an agent to the time of publication, you’re looking at a very long road. A year would be a fairly short margin. With Blackbirds, we’re looking at… two-and-a-half years? Something like that. It’s a slow, long line to the front. Now, a few things: in that time, the book was refined, made better. But I also didn’t sit on my asscheeks, eating Cheetos and watching marathons of 16 and Pregnant. I wrote other stuff. And some of that I self-published, and that stuff created energy for Blackbirds, and Blackbirds in turn creates energy for those things.
19. Surf The Tsunami Of Rejection
Rejection is a temporary state. Blackbirds went through a helluva lot of it, from agents, from publishers. I’m not saying that with persistence, every book will find a home. Some books are dead dogs — they won’t ever roll over. But as an author, persistence and practice will eventually carry you beyond the margins of rejection. It’ll drive you to the brink of madness. Just don’t let it push you over.
20. A Team Of Robot Ninjas Is Better Than An Army Of Tanks
Angry Robot Books are the fine metal lords and ladies publishing Blackbirds. Couldn’t be happier. They’re small. Versatile. Author-friendly. And willing to take risks. It’s that last one that matters most for me: Blackbirds played host to an unholy number of rejections, many of them orbiting the same theme: “I love it,” the editor would write, “but I can’t get it past our marketing board, as they think it’ll never sell.”
21. Genre Is A Moving Target
What genre is Blackbirds? Fuck, I dunno. It’s got crime in it. It’s paranormal — or is it supernatural? A dollop of romance. Lot of blood. Buckets of mystery. Thrills and chills, I like to think. Angry Robot calls it urban fantasy. Some reviews call it horror, or noir (though I’m disappointed no one has mashed that up into “noirror,” as yet). The one genre I know it ain’t is science-fiction, I guess.
22. People Will Judge The Book By Its Cover
I won the cover lottery. And I hear from folks the cover is hooking them left and right. Now I have to hope that what’s inside the book measures up to the raw bad-assery on the cover. Uh-oh.
23. Pebbles Thrown In A Pond
Little things add up. I’ve heard from folks who came to the book via this blog, or Twitter, or Goodreads, or even the experimental death-themed Tumblr, “This Is How You Die.” You have to try something. Every attempt is a pebble in a pond — you never know how far the ripples might go.
24. The Sequel Is Harder And Easier All At The Same Time
It took me years to write Blackbirds. It took me 30 days to write the sequel, Mockingbird. Slipping back into Miriam is like wearing an old coat (whose goosedown feathers frequently stab you through the fabric), but you also grow paranoid: “Am I writing this one like the last one? I need to be similar, but different, but not so different that I lose people, but not so similar that it feels like the sequel to a different book and NURSE GET ME MY XANAX LOLLIPOP.”
25. I Can’t Feel My Legs
Writing — and querying, and publishing, and marketing, and loving, and hating — a book takes a lot out of you. It feels in some ways like a great gym workout, in other ways like a weird (not bad, not good) breakup. You’re left flapping in the wind, your little book-baby all-groweds-up, out in the world doing things without you. You can only hope the book doesn’t embarrass you.
Fly, little book. Fly.
And bring me money if you find any.