25 Things I Learned While Writing Blackbirds

The day has come.

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:

Amazon (US)

Amazon (UK)

Barnes & Noble

Indiebound

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.

37 comments

  • Two and a half more hours…the anticipation kills!

    Thanks for all the insight. I thought Double Dead was pretty damn good, but I’m looking forward to what you consider to be your very own personal word baby that comes from your soul. Point 2 spoke volumes in helping this virgin penmonkey out.

    what do I do for two and a half more hours?….

  • Halleluja to no.3!

    Also — I expect Blackbirds to become a roaring public revelation like Fight Club, and may it bring you an even longer shadow in the evening sun. If you know what I mean.

  • As someone who just sent their first book out into the world, this spoke to me. And as someone who is now about to sing an incantation during the next nighttime thunderstorm and bring some half-rotting babies from the story cemetery back to life, this screamed in my ear.

    (I should also say that my girlfriend, who is not a big reader, saw Blackbirds when I brought it home from LATFOB the other day and was compelled to borrow it from me based solely on the cover. Kudos.)

    Was a pleasure meeting you the other day, Chuck. Best of luck with new baby.

  • “Plot is like Soylent Green: it’s made of people.”

    Every fiction writer should have a sign saying this hanging over their desk.

  • I just bought it. Can’t wait to read it. Thank you for sharing the things you learned while writing it. I wish all writers did that. It really helps those of us who are working on finishing their first novel.

  • A thousand times “yes” to point no.9. It’s painful to accept but if a draft smells of turd, and looks like turd, then it’s probably a big steaming pile of turd. While I air out my writing room I’m working on smaller pieces, until I get better at story as well as writing.

    Wishing you all the luck and fortune with Blackbirds, Chuck – my copy will be winging it’s way to me in about a week and I’m already hurrying to finish the book I’m currently reading (about Elephants!) so I can start Blackbirds the minute it arrives.

  • I’ve been looking forward to reading Blackbirds for a while, and when I woke up this morning my email told me it was waiting for my kindle. What? I thought I was getting it by USPS delivery?! So I checked my orders. Yup. Separated by a month, I preordered both versions.
    Let’s just say I’m doin’ my part for B-Dub. ;)

  • Congrats on the release of the book!

    Do you have a means of getting an ePub copy that ISN’T through B&N? I ask because B&N won’t sell to Australia. Bastards. I don’t own an kindle, and read either on my BeBook or on my Android phone, so an ePub is preferable.

  • Oh, Chuck! Let me hug your glorious, bearded face. This and your ‘unfucking a story’ tips are the guiding lights through the scary darkness of my own rewrite. I can’t wait to read Blackbirds and I hope it does brilliantly :)

  • Hey, this is a great list of things you learned in the process. Thanks for being aware enough to take notice of the craft and dedication aspects of writing and publishing a novel. (Just came across your blog last week. It’s, uh, pretty stinkin’ awesome!!)

  • I love this. I love your advice. And I love how you unabashedly confront so many of the writerly tips and processes that I wonder about constantly! Thank you for this; I look forward to checking out Blackbirds asap!

  • Hah. It’s funny. I struggle with what you excel at and I excel at what you struggle with. I can make a mean outline and summary, but actually need now to learn how to write this bad boy effectively. Good luck friend!

  • Your official description of Mockingbird comes off as a great minimal query. The first sentence is a grabber. The second hauls you in. Agent Victoria Sander’s description of what a good query should be seems to match yours. Here’s her description…

    “Start with a terrific opening sentence that encapsulates the crux of the story. Remember that you’re selling here so make it one sentence that if I repeated to you on the street, you would rush out and buy the book.

    Then segue into a one or two paragraph, concise, fascinating, unputdownable description, with a sprinkling of terrific plot points to pull me in.

    Lastly, give me a short but thorough paragraph on you and your accomplishments, preferably in the publishing arena, but if not, then neat tidbits about you that make you more interesting than most.”

  • Your book came out today and there are already three used versions of it for sale on Amazon. How does that happen? Is time travel involved? And why is one of them selling for $75.00? is some other dimension involved here?

  • I hope your book sells like wildfire, Chuck. Your blog is a place I visit when I need to get grounded. You somehow help remind me of who I am, even though other than bacon and foul language, we’re fairly different. I found you through a recommendation from a different blog and have been dying to read Blackbirds.The youness of you sold me your book over the last 8 months. You are an excellent self-commercial.

  • You share a stable with one of my country’s most prestigious rising stars, Lauren Beukes. And the same incredible cover author, the inimitable Joey HiFi.

    I’ve already ordered Blackbirds, and since I work as a bookseller I can’t wait to get everyone else to read it too.

    Thank you for all you write…’Load the Guns and Brew the Ink’ is above my writing desk’ and it still the greatest motivator I know. Keep rocking and breeding them penmonkeys!

  • This is awesome. One of my favorites because it’s so personal.
    I just spoke to someone who said they would’ve read the book they’re writing because it’s about such a hard topic to read, and it blew my mind. How could you spend so much heart and energy and ASK OTHERS TO BUY IT if you wouldn’t like it yourself?

  • I hate outlining too, in fact I’m spending more time figuring out how to outline than actually doing the fucker. So, like a mindless fool, can someone point me at something that makes outlining easier?

  • Hi.
    I’m a terrible plotter. Pixar-movies makes me jealous. And now, a few days before NaNoWriMo begins, I know have to force myself to follow your teacher’s advice: “You need to outline because you need to outline so just shut up and outline.” But before I shut up I’m gonna tell you that “Write what you want to read” is the advice I’m keeping in my heart forever.
    Thank you for sharing all this. It really helps.

Speak Your Mind, Word-Nerds