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*

Oh.

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.)

Some further thoughts on Write What You Know, if you care to read ‘em.

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.

35 comments

  • I’m about halfway through THE CORMORANT (I keep dropping the article). I absolutely love the framing story. It gives this beautiful texture to the narrative, like looking out an antique window and seeing both the window’s character & the scene beyond. The headfakes, the foreshadowing, the little confusions & mysteries that pay off later.

    A less skillful author could get in trouble here because this whole structure requires a lot of trust. As a reader, I’m willing to tolerate uncertainty and confusion because I believe my effort and patience will be rewarded. I’ll get the joy of the eureka moment. I have that faith because of the skill shown early in the work and, of course, my previous experience with the author.

    And the beard. Beards are good for trust.

  • Starting the story in that way creates a sort of “locked room” curiosity. You’re presenting the reader with an outlandish situation that you promise to make sense of if they’ll just stick with you (“Lord Tightpants is found dead on the floor of his locked larder. The only way in is the door, which is locked *from the inside.* How did the murderer escape the room? With a two-headed dildo linking his mouth and anus, how did Lord Tightpants survive long enough to write a six-page suicide note in both English and Esperanto?”).

    • True to a point! I don’t quite think that outlandishness is part of the goal (though obviously can be) — it’s more that I’m giving people an incomplete equation. I’ve filled in part of it, but variables remain, and thus the promise of the story is that throughout I will as Trusted Author (the fools!) fill in those variables.

      And man, poor Lord Tightpants.

      — c.

  • Zeroed in on your American fringe comment and a light went on: I lived in what’s referred to as “Unincorporated Malibu” for a decade. Ventura County, way up in Santa Monica mountains. A few celebs up there, but mainly the kind of incredible, one-of-a-kind, seriously independent characters; the type who for one reason or another, were washed up out of LA and left clinging to the mountainsides by whatever high tide they found themselves caught in. People who carve caves out of the sandstone to live in, who made their own Dr. Seussian musical instruments and produce awesome music with them, who grew pot suspended in baskets from beneath giant oaks to baffle the police copters patrols. And, yes, now and then an alarming amount of gun fire in the middle of the night. Really similar to what you found by sending your imagination rooting around in the Keys. My Yerba Buena Road eccentrics haven’t turned up in my own writing yet (YA, sci fi, deals more w/ your Saturnian lamp-post-aphiles), but your comment about fringe-itude reminded me I need to start mining that seam. Thanks. And thanks for continuing to find the time to talk about writing here – you’re a frakkin resource you are. cheers.

  • Ah, the Florida Keys … a place where a two-week vacation can turn into a permanent move. Cost of living is almost too high for working people, which means a lot of them are working 2-3 jobs to stay down there. Pretty much everything you described is true for Key West, but not so much for other islands. Key West is party central (Fantasy Fest is the largest, lasting multiple days), where you can dump your inhibitions like a hot potato and be someone else (as long as you’re not destroying people or stealing property) for at least one night.

    Twelve years of living on Big Pine Key taught me that people are more important than objects (“You LEFT?? Why the hell did you do that? Why did you want to?”). People ask me what I miss most about living in the Keys, and I give ‘em the same answer every time: “The people.” All the natural beauty in the world can’t help you bail out your boat after a fast & furious thunderstorm. People will, and not just the Coast Guard folks. People will check on you after a power outage to make sure you’re OK, and to pass on any news they might have about the event (battery radios are big down there, not to mention boat and ship radios). My move down to the Keys was job-change related (late hubby’s), so the stars-in-the-eyes effect of the Keys never got its hooks into me.

    Strangely, no one has asked me about what I was the most happy to leave behind. Without doubt, that would be having only one driving route to the mainland, followed closely by heat/humidity and hurricanes. I now have a pleasant variety of routes for driving, actual seasons and nothing worse than a blizzard, for which I thank the Eternal One (your choice) most humbly.

  • This is off the subject, but I finished reading “Under the Empyrean Sky” and I was wondering. What’s the word count on that novel? Also, what’s the average word count on your other books?
    The reason I’m asking is because I’m wondering what novel lengths are more successful and how to keep the tension going through long (epic sized) novels.
    Steven Kings novel “The Dome,” was one thousand pages of small type (at least in paper-backed) yet he kept you on edge nearly the whole way through.
    Any words of wisdom there?

    • I think all of my characters are some aspect of me — a mirror broken into tiny pieces, a shard shoved into each.

      But Miriam and me ain’t the same. She’s much meaner, way more fucked up. Way tougher. I couldn’t be here. I like stability, sanity, all that stuff. I look at her decisions and the stuff that comes out of her mouth and I cringe, but keep on writing her that way, so there you go.

      Best connection between the two of us is maybe the way she sometimes speaks, or some of her penchant for vulgarity.

      — c.

  • I oftentimes think that here in Hawaii we don’t have enough weird people. We are rather isolated. I can say, however, with a fair amount of confidence that many people in Hawaii think that it’s the “mainlanders” who are weird. Weird habits and customs, weird outlooks and philosophies. Don’t get me wrong, we do have our fair share of freaks, flakes and fuck-ups, but our supply is actually pretty small. The Big Island is a whole ‘nother ball game, though. I won’t go there. Literally or figuratively.

    Actually, when I need to get some good ideas for characters or when I just want to go check out some weirdos, I head down to Waikiki and watch the tourists. LOL.

    Thanks for the 2014 Writing Resolutions. Currently putting “I will try new shit” into practice. Writing new shit is, I’ve discovered, very, very hard and painful. But I’m learning from the process.

    BTW, are you planning on doing any more Coburn novels?

    • It was the Big Island I was talking about, and man, honestly, BI is one of my favoritest places on earth.

      As for Coburn — I doubt it? I’d like to but I don’t own the rights to the character — it was work-for-hire, and I knew the deal going into that and it was a good experience, but Coburn is mine intellectually, just not legally. Plus, the last offer was to do another e-novella with him, and I would’ve much rather have done another novel.

      — c.

  • Wow . . . speaking of weird. Never really considered that: owning a character intellectually but not legally. This is probably a question that would warrant its own blog post (assuming you’re at liberty to discuss such things), but is it different for Miriam Black? When a publisher owns the rights to a character, where does that leave the writer? Does the publisher get to dictate what is done with that character?

    • Very different. Original fiction is fiction to which you own the rights — the publisher is basically licensing the content based on a deal, which is why you can then take the content and go to film, comics, etc.

      Coburn is part of a series called TOMES OF THE DEAD, which Abaddon owns — I pitched them an original novel, yeah, but the terms of the deal are that I don’t actually own the stuff I made up. So when film folks came calling, I couldn’t offer them anything. I don’t regret writing the book or publishing with them, but over time it did help crystallize why I wasn’t going to keep doing that for long.

      — c.

  • Cannot wait for my Christmas present copy of The Cormorant (hurry Amazon shipping, HURRY!) I so enjoy Miriam and since I only just started reading the series, have been able to flow right from one book to another- ah, blisssssssss. Chuck, you have written one awesome chick. thank you!

  • Did you by chance ride the bus while on the Big Island? I just moved to O’ahu a year ago from upstate NY. I take the bus to work from the burbs to downtown, far enough away that the 15 total miles takes 1.25 hours each way. And I’ve seen some crazy shit on that bus. I think my favorite was the guy with the small old pomeranian shaved like a lion, in a stroller, and his granddaughter who yelled at him for not giving her $15. There’s gotta be a great story in there somewhere.

    ‘ve ridden public transit in many cities I’ve lived in, and I think Hawaii, by far, has the most interesting and downright strange bus passengers. And if they’re not on the bus, you’re passing by them on the trip to downtown, past the homeless grounds and into Chinatown…

    Hope I get to check out the Keys one day. Sounds like another fun place to check out.

  • Loving revelation number 4 the best. I think children know this implicitly before we wash their brains. I used to teach my ten-year-old students to “Write what you know,” and would watch those kids deflaaaaate as ideas about time travel, world travel, fantastical creatures, magical abilities, etc. popped over their little heads. The best and most entertaining stories take you somewhere you’ve never been and show you things you’ve never seen. When I read realistic fiction especially, I want to go somewhere–hopefully strange. Using Google Maps to do setting research is some fabulous advice! :)

  • I’m curious about how your point about fun characters being easy to write relates to the 5 year period that Blackbirds took. Was that fast for when you were writing it? I feel as if I’m missing some context.

    I’m already hooked on Blackbirds, and will likely be buying the next two in short order. Thanks!

    • It’s not the only axis of consideration — there, Miriam was fun to write and fast, too — but I didn’t have a GOOD BOOK in which to put her. Took me an important lesson about outlining to get there.

  • Four and five hit home for me. I find myself thinking about ships and Upstate New York when I get stuck. That somehow gets my mind going along with death metal if I hit a wall. I also find myself driving away from these subjects and believe you were spot on to go check out the Keys. Writing severely whacked and offbeat characters are more fun to write than the boring sane characters I come up with.

  • Ahhhhh! The release date went by without me realizing!

    So I downloaded it right away =3

    I’m soooooooo excited =D

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