Five Things I Learned Writing The Cormorant
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Miriam Black knows how you’re going to die. All it takes is a touch — a little skin-to-skin action. Now someone — some rich asshole from Florida — wants to pay her so he can find out how he’s going to die. But when she touches him, she receives a message sent back through time and written in blood: HELLO, MIRIAM. It’s a taunt, a warning, and the start of a dangerous and deadly game for everybody’s favorite carcinogenic psychic, Miriam Black.
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And so we begin with the flagship entry of the Five Thing I Learned series, wherein a writer explains five things she learned by writing her newest book.
In this case, I’m the writer testing these waters — and also laying down what this will look like for those storytellers who may want to participate in the future.
The Cormorant came out this past Tuesday and is already a New York Times bestseller — I am of course writing this before the book is released so I’m assuming that’s true, right?
Fellas? Ladies? Anybody? Bestseller?
*is handed a note*
Well. *clears throat* Moving on, then.
Let’s just get into it, then. Five things I learned while writing The Cormorant.
1. You Gain Energy By Jiggering With Structure
The Miriam Black books have always had a slightly non-linear structure in that the tale deviates from the timeline in the first two books by offering glimpses backward through what I call interludes — flashbacks or deviations that show up when they’re needed and (ideally) perform the service of showing an event rather than having me or Miriam tell you the event. But outside of the “interview” conceit found in the first book, Blackbirds, that’s all this was: a timeline of the now punctuated by these flashback interludes.
The Cormorant changes that, somewhat. We begin with Miriam handcuffed to a table in a beach shack, grilled by two people who claim to be federal law enforcement — and we see things that don’t yet make sense. Miriam is wounded. Miriam has a mystery box. The characters also elude to things that we don’t yet understand: a dead boy in a Philadelphia Eagles jacket, for instance. Then we begin the story of how Miriam gets to this point — making the book ostensibly one giant flashback — sometimes punctuated with a return to the scene in the shack or to other flashbacks and nightmares. Then the story as a whole catches up to the timeline to finish the tale.
Hopefully, if what I’m hearing is true from reviewers and early readers (AND THEY WOULDN’T LIE TO ME BECAUSE I TURN INTO BEARD HULK WHEN I’M ANGRY AND ALSO WHEN I’M HUNGRY OR EVEN JUST MILDLY PERTURBED), then this structure serves to ratchet tension tighter and create more suspense — it’s like, I’m already telling you a little bit of what’s happened, I’m just not telling you how it happened. It’s like a controlled-environment spoiler. Where men and women in hazmat suits carry glowing spoiler material with industrial tongs.
2. You Can Also Confuse People This Way
The structure of your story is like a Jenga tower. You can pull pieces out and hand them to somebody and the tower will wibble and wobble, but at least initially will stay standing. But you go fucking with it too much and then the whole thing crashes down around your ears and then you shake your fists to the sky as the Jenga rain pours down and you scream NOOOOOOOoooo.
Early drafts of the book got some notes from those primary readers that could best be described as them giving me the face of a dog trying to understand trigonometry. (Or hell, even a dog trying to understand a banana.) Big blinky question marks above their head.
Reason for this: the structure served to highlight confusion, not clarity.
So, I had to do further rejiggering, lest the whole Jenga tower come tumbling down.
3. Florida Keys: The American Fringe
You know how in a lot of sci-fi space novels you hear tell of distant colonies and those colonists are always odd in some way? “Oh, those Saturnheads eat cheese curds and wear rings on their heads and they marry lampposts and rocking chairs. Fringe-dwellers! Weird fuckers.”
That has a real world analog and that analog is the far-flung fringes of the USA. Go to Hawaii. Or the Florida Keys. Or from what I hear, to Alaska, and you find people who seem like they were trying to escape the country without leaving the country, or you find folks who were shaken out of the dice cup before anybody got to roll them. I don’t say this by way of an insult — I think it’s awesome. The fact that you can get that ex-pat feel but still be inside the country is fascinating. In Hawaii we found people selling pot on the Big Island with a big-ass sign outside their driveway. And in the Keys I met folks who still adhered to that whole Conch Republic vibe (the Keys once played at seceding from the country to become their own nation: the Conch Republic).
I was in line at a grocery store buying suntan lotion and the checkout guy literally started lecturing me on how taxation by the U.S. government was basically a crime against the Constitution. To be clear: I did not invite this conversation. It just happened when he told me how much I had to pay and with taxes, what the final amount was.
The Keys are like a set of broken teeth flung into the water as if by a child’s hand — hundreds of little islands, some strung together by the stitching of a single highway, many left disconnected from the rest. Down there it’s a whole lot of drinking and fishing and killer sunsets and old pirates and the occasional drug-dealer submersible. It’s a cool place with weird people.
I like weird people.
Weird people make great stories.
And weird people make excellent Miriam Black fodder.
4. What Write You Know Is An Opportunity, Not A Commandment
Write what you know isn’t a rule. It’s an option. A solution to a problem, the problem of, “I don’t know how to write this.” The solution being, “I’ll go learn about this thing in order to write it.”
Simply put: it’s easier to write something you know than to write something you don’t.
Three-quarters of The Cormorant is set in Florida. Much of that in and around Miami or the Keys. I’d never been to either and I could have very easily just took a guess at it — check Google Street View, do some reading, and have that be enough. And were I restricting this to a chapter or two, I would’ve done exactly that.
But most of the book was going to take place there, and I didn’t want to be caught writing bullshit about a real place in the same way you don’t want to read erotica from some unlearned prude who’s never had sex before (“And then he pressed his testicles into her clitoral pucker…”). I figured, hey, it was worth a trip down to America’s hot moist land-wang, see what was what.
I’m glad I did. The book wrote itself in my head as I was there. Sometimes it’s big things: geography or history or in my case actually coming face to face with a real-live cormorant. Sometimes it’s little things: the way the air smells, the way people behave, a conversation you have. Moments big and little, images and feelings and realizations coming together.
You don’t have to always write what you know. Often, you can’t.
But when you can? Whoo-boy, it makes things a whole lot easier.
(I imagine, as a sidenote, this is why Stephen King writes about Maine so often. Not only does he love it, but he knows it. Knows the place, knows the people, because it’s a part of him.)
5. Characters That Are Fun To Write Are Easy To Write
Speaking of easy? Miriam Black is fun to write. She’s a horrible person who does good things, or maybe a good person who does horrible things. Awful stuff flies out of her mouth to keep people at bay so she doesn’t have to get close to them or risk them actually caring about her or worse, her caring about them. Actually, a reviewer, Terry Irving, said something I liked:
“Miriam Black is a solid taut block of arrogance, anger, and screaming rage–except that when you look back at what she’s actually done, you see a very different person. Someone who wants others to be happy, hates the death that washes around her, and never, ever stops fighting. (The descriptions of the muscular, desperate, physicality of her battles are worth the entire book alone). She isn’t a fake bad person nor a fake good person–she’s really both.”
She’s mean. And witty. And cruel. An anti-hero who sometimes flirts with being a real hero.
And that makes her fun to write.
Thing is, when a book is fun to write — often because of the characters in that book — the actual writing of said book zips along like a squirrel with ants biting its butthole.
It took me five years to write Blackbirds. It took me 30 days to write Mockingbird and 45 days to write The Cormorant. Like I said the other day in my post about 2014 writing resolutions, you have to get excited about what you’re writing. You have to find the You-Shaped Hole into the story. Miriam is why I get excited about these stories. Her mechanism — by which I mean, her psychic power — is part of that. But if you can get excited about one thing in your work, get excited about the characters. It’s why we read books, really. It’s always about people, dontcha know?
Anyway, just as Miriam and The Cormorant was fun to write…
I hope it’s fun to read, too.