Things I Learned While Writing Mockingbird

(Be advised: I’m doing another Reddit AMA all day today, so swing by and ask me, well, anything.)

I’ll dispense with the self-promo bloggerel right now:

HOLY CRAP MOCKINGBIRD IS OUT

*jumps up and down, froths at the mouth, kicks computer monitor through the window, throws up on self*

Available for in print and e-book at:

Amazon (US)

Amazon (UK)

Barnes & Noble

Indiebound

Now, on with the post.

The Second In A Series Is Tricksy Business

Staring down the barrel of a “next in the series” is some tricky shit, hoss. You can feel the Sword of Expectations dangling above your head, held there by a little length of underwear elastic, the blade bobbing and swaying and ever-ready to fall. People who read the first one have certain parameters in mind. You want to deliver on the promises made in the first book but you want to exceed them, punching and kicking the walls of your self-built box so you can deliver something bigger, stranger, different without being too different, the same without being too much the same.

This book is that, for me — it takes Miriam, throws her into a more active role regarding her dread psychic ability of touching people and seeing how and when they’re going to die. She’s been trying for the last year to live a normal life and, well, that’s like dressing up a wolverine in a chef’s coat and hoping he’ll cook you dinner instead of biting your face. But Miriam finds herself on a slippery slope that starts with a teacher suffering from powerful hypochondria and ends with a serial killer of young girls. Miriam must race against the clock and her own worst instincts to solve murders before they happen, lest these girls die. In the first book, it was all about Miriam deciding if she even wanted to tackle fate one last time to save the life of Louis. In the second book, she’s armed with one more rule. She knows how to divert the waters of fate, and that means throwing into the stream one big motherfucking rock.

But can she do that? Will she? Is that really who she is, and if so, what the hell does that mean?

With the second book you want to take the questions asked in the first and bring them forward. You’ve answered some of those questions but in fiction, answers just breed more questions. That’s what a second book must really become: the natural evolution of our Q&A regarding the character and her story.

So, in Mockingbird it’s a question of, who is Miriam Black? What does she want to become? Can she try to live a normal life? (Short answer: no.) Is she a drifter? A thief? A problem-solver? A killer?

Not Everybody Knows It’s The Second In A Series

Some people are just going to pick the book up, blissfully unaware that there exists a “book one.” And so there’s another tricksy part of the “next in the series” equation — you want to write for all the people who read the first one, but you also want to give enough in the book that it stands on its own. (Ideally, Mockingbird does. I hope?) You want to make it so reading the first book isn’t a chore, isn’t a necessity, but instead offers the reward of backtracking through a story. You find this in television, or in comics — jump in late, you get the pleasure of one day starting at the beginning to see how everything got to be the way it is.

But you also can’t write only for those people.

It’s a balance. It’s the “episodic” versus “serialized” thing — some books, shows, comics get that right.

Many do not.

It’s a tightrope walk.

The Outline’s The Thing

The first book took me way too many years to write.

The sequel took me 30 days.

And it’s longer. Mockingbird is a bigger book — bigger in all ways. Page count. Character. Plot.

I attribute the swiftness of the writing to a couple things.

One of those things is THE BLUE METH.

Wait, no, I mean — one of those things is the outline. I’ve long said that I am a pantser by heart but a plotter by necessity and this book is proof of that. I scrawled an incomprehensible-to-anyone-but-me roadmap of the novel from Point A to Point Holy Fuck What’s Wrong With You, and man, having that map was so freeing. I didn’t have to follow it every day, but on most days I merely had to look at the map and say, “Here’s where I am, and here’s where I need to go,” and boom, the day of writing was easy-breezy. Given that I don’t write fiction on weekends, that means I was pretty easily churning out 3-4k words a day.

For me, outlines are like vitamins. Nobody wants to take ‘em.

But when I do, I feel better. So, I do.

Know Thy Character

The other thing I attribute the ease of writing this book is THE BLUE M… er, sorry, is “knowing thy character.” Miriam Black, for better or for worse, is a character who has roosted in the eaves of my brain-barn. She’s up there. I can’t get her out, not with a shock-rod and a catch-pole. She’s sitting there, smoking and cursing at me and telling me all the inventive ways people suck the pipe.

My characters don’t always take up permanent real estate inside my mind. Some do. Others don’t. (Atlanta Burns has, for instance.) But she has. I always know which way Miriam will jump. The things she says — which are usually horrible — pour out without any effort. I know things about her and her life that may one day show up in books — or maybe they don’t.

But knowing her through and through makes her very, very easy to write.

Which is probably a bad thing, in retrospect.

Softening Hard Edges, Sharpening Round Corners

I continue to submit that likability is not a meaningful trait in fiction. We must like spending time with the character, but that doesn’t mean we need to like them personally. I don’t need to get a beer with my president or my protagonist. That being said, you do want to advance a character somewhat, to evolve her story and her persona, and for Miriam that was a two-fold path.

First, I wanted to make her more understandable. More sympathetic by dint of her being wholly active and in control of her destiny (in a book where, quite literally, few can say the same thing). In this book Miriam isn’t just serving her own selfish whims — though those are, erm, still there — but she’s actively trying to change something she has no right or reason to change. She’s trying to help save girls who will one day be murdered. Girls she doesn’t much like. (Girls who remind Miriam of Miriam, truth be told.)

But I also wanted to take that sympathy and turn it on its ear. A “more active Miriam” is fucking scary. Because a determined Miriam is no longer a bear trap you step into, but rather, a bullet coming at your face.

So, on one hand, I’m softening Miriam.

On the other hand, I’m just softening the metal so she can be turned into a sharper blade.

Serial Killers Are People, Too

This book features a serial killer. I’ll say no more about the plot details of that — because it gets a little twisty, as the identity of said killer is an OMG QUESTION MARK THE RIDDLER’S BEEN HERE OH NOES. What I will say is, the serial killer is deeply fucked. The killer does things that freaked me out. And I wrote it. It came from my own head.

And yet, I always know that the danger of a serial killer is that they’re woefully redundant and that the horrible things that they do are meaningless (and even cartoonish) if done poorly.

You have to remember that serial killers are people, too.

They come from somewhere. They have mothers and fathers and people they love.

They likely have some super-tangled brain-wires, but they’re still people. They have an agenda. They’re not just killing because they like pain and death and blah blah blah. That may be true in real life, but in fiction, you need more. You need meat on dem bones, and that was my goal here: to make the serial killer, well, not sympathetic, but to put in place a plan, a plot, a scary-ass WTF motive.

How To Get Twisty

Twists, man. Another thing that can go dreadfully wrong in a story.

Mockingbird has a couple notable twists in it.

I’m always wary of doing that and yet, at the same time, I fucking love doing that. Twists are great. Fiction works best when you can subvert the expectations of the reader. When you can show them something they didn’t expect but on retrospect, should have. Right? That last part is key. You’ve set up the pieces and shown them what is a kind of narrative optical llusion that things seem like they’ll turn right but all along you’ve been showing them why the story needs to turn left. Tricks don’t work when they come flying out of nowhere (“Oh no! The serial killer is the monkey butler! Though we’ve never seen nor heard of a monkey butler before! I guess I just have to take it on good faith! Damn you, monkey butler!”).

It’s a lot of fun hijacking the reader’s brain.

Twists are a part of that, I think. Small twists and big twists.

Three Things I Want To Do With Fiction

First, I want to make you feel something. Emotion. I want you invested. I want you happy and sad, hurt and healed. I don’t mean in the larger scope — I don’t expect to be gut-punching you five years after you put the book down. But I do want, whilst caught in the throes of reading, for you to feel something. Anything at all. (Er, anything except the urge to throw the book in the toilet where you will then urinate upon it.)

Second, I want you to think. For me, these two books break my noodle in certain ways — soon as you start getting into lofty notions like fate and free will, I get excited. My gears start turning immediately. And I want your gears to turn, too. Mockingbird I think ups the ante a bit by incorporating bits about poetry and mythology into the story. More grist for the thought mill.

Third, I want to shock and surprise you. I don’t mean “shock” as in “gross you out” — though that’s one viable option. I like stories that surprise, that do things I’d never expect. I think a good story takes risks. It fucks with your head a little; it presents you with two doors and then goes out a window, instead. My favorite fiction has always surprised me. So I aim to do the same.

Something Is Wrong With Me

That’s the last thing I learned.

Something isn’t right with my noggin.

But that’s okay.

Because I’m hoping something isn’t right with your noggin, either, for reading the book and — hopefully! — liking it. I think writers are all a little goofy in the head, and maybe that’s a good thing.

Hopefully you’ll check out Mockingbird today (and if you’re looking for an incentive to check out Blackbirds, it’s under five bucks for your Kindlemaschine). If you do check out either book, I hope you dig it and that it’s a book worthy of you telling a friend or three or maybe writing a review. We authors live and die by your recommendations and your love of the books you read, so for that, thank you.

At the very least, I’d sure like it if you spread the word.

Because I loved writing this book and I hope people love reading it.

You can read the first 50+ pages of Mockingbird here, for free:

11 comments

  • “What I will say is, the serial killer is deeply fucked. The killer does things that freaked me out. And I wrote it. ”

    I can identify with this like crazy. The last (and most brutal) scene of my forthcoming novel “PINS” took me several weeks to write because I was so disturbed with the images I transferred from brain to paper. I had nightmares about the things my serial killer does. Then, I had nightmares about what people would think of me when they read that scene. Now that people have read the ARC and not surprised me with an intervention/committal, I’m over it.

    But I must say how much I appreciate your “serial killers are people, too” attitude. I worked very hard to make my killer a real person. I want my readers to be disgusted by him and then say, “He does fucked up shit, but then again, fucked up shit did happen to him.”

    I’m looking forward to digging into your series, Chuck! It sounds amazing. Thanks for all of the helpful advice and inspiration.

  • The plot is the point. I’m hitting my second novel at the moment, and shit. It’s so much easier with the outline. I fucked that up big time first time. I pants’ed (?) the first one, and it blew when I hit 30/35K.

    Outline people. Plot. Listen to the Wendig.

    Man’s straight up.

  • Sucker. I just bought both Blackbirds and Mockingbird.
    I’m flying from DC to South Africa tomorrow, so I imagine I’ll be able to read both by the time I get to Jo’burg. I’m really not a fan of e-books, but I bought the Kindle editions anyway so I could use my iPad.
    I’m looking forward to it — the only writing of yours that I have actually read are blog posts and advice (500 Ways…) on how to unfuck my writing program (thanks for that!).

  • “on one hand, I’m softening Miriam.
    On the other hand, I’m just softening the metal so she can be turned into a sharper blade.”

    Wow.
    I have a book to go buy, if only for that promise.

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