Adam Christopher: Five Things I Learned Writing Hang Wire
Ted is worried. He’s been sleepwalking, and his somnambulant travels appear to coincide with murders by the notorious Hang Wire Killer.
Meanwhile, the circus has come to town, but the Celtic dancers are taking their pagan act a little too seriously, the manager of the Olde Worlde Funfair has started talking to his vintage machines, and the new acrobat’s frequent absences are causing tension among the performers.
Out in the city there are other new arrivals – immortals searching for an ancient power – a primal evil which, if unopposed, could destroy the world.
1. THE FIRST DRAFT IS WORDS. THE SECOND DRAFT IS WRITING.
Draft zero. Vomit draft. Whatever you call it, that initial version of a book is not the finished product. Nobody expects it to be. Writing is rewriting, and never a truer word has been spoken.
One of the wonderful things about writing is discovering how you write—how your brain processes the nuts and bolts of composition, how you somehow develop style and voice without really thinking much about. How you do The Work. That’s also why the trunk novels exist: a first draft not a finished book; not only that, it’s likely the first book you ever wrote is not suitable for public consumption. Which is exactly how it works—writing a hundred thousand words of cohesive narrative that not only makes some kind of sense but is interesting is difficult. Not everyone can do it. Some have a natural talent. The rest of us can learn it with a lot of work.
Hang Wire is my fourth published novel, but the fifth or sixth I’ve actually written. And every one, from the first novel locked in the trunk, to the new book I’m writing now, has taught me more about how I write. Conscious thought doesn’t come into it. You just have to trust that you brain will work it out as you keeping typing.
I wrote the first draft of Hang Wire three years ago. I’ve done a lot of work since then, so when it came time to dig it out and take a look, I was surprised. While I remembered the story, I didn’t remember the detail, and it was very obviously written by a younger, less experienced version of myself who was still figuring stuff out. I still am, but at least I’m a little further along the road now.
But by now I’d discovered a little more about how I write—my first drafts now are long. Too long, sometimes by as much as 50%. That sounds like a waste of words, but I’ve found that I need that mass of text so I can discover the novel inside it. My second draft is like a mining expedition, carving the real book out of that initial draft.
I applied this to the Hang Wire draft—writing, rewriting, carving the book out. I ditched a lot of stuff. I changed characters. Added new ones. It still need a third and a fourth draft, but that first pass on a three-year-old manuscript told me what the book was actually about.
That process cemented the realisation of how I write: I overwrite, getting the story down from beginning to end before I forget it. That version is flabby, boring, inconsistent, in places illogical. It’s a vomit draft, no doubt. But hidden inside there is the real book. It might even be a good one.
2. WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW (SERIOUSLY!).
“Write what you know” is one of the most misunderstood pieces of writing advice. My host, Chuck, has blogged about it before. Everybody talks about it, sometimes with a sort of weary frustration. I’m pretty sure every single one of these “Five Things I Learned Writing…” will include this point as one of their number.
But that tells you one thing: it’s completely true. It doesn’t mean that you can’t write a crime novel because you are neither a detective nor a serial killer. It doesn’t mean you can’t write a space opera because you’ve never travelled to Arcturus by warp drive. But it does mean you can steep your story in real life experience and knowledge. You don’t have to add much, but in the right place, it adds a flavour to the work, something that rings true even if the reader is not consciously aware of it. As writers, we’re all looking for the Truth, apparently, so if you can throw some of your own in there, why not?
Hang Wire is an urban fantasy about ancient gods, nameless power from beyond the stars, murder, a sentient and malevolent circus, and primal evil sleeping underneath San Francisco. It’s also based on a true story.
I was in San Francisco a few years ago. It reminds me of my own hometown of Auckland, New Zealand, and I knew I had to write a story set there. After dinner one night in Chinatown, the fortune cookies came out. Everyone took turns to crack them open and read out their fortunes.
I was last. I picked the cookie up, pressed with my thumbs, and something weird happened. I must have pressed too hard because the cookie shattered like glass, fragments flying everywhere along with a lot of paper strips. Due to some manufacturing fault, I had received a duff cookie—the pastry was too crispy and thick, which made it shatter, and instead of a single strip of paper inside, the thing was filled with fortunes. I don’t remember how many there were, but they all said the same thing:
YOU ARE THE MASTER OF EVERY SITUATION.
This was my kind of fortune.
I laughed and scooped as many of the fortunes as I could, stuffing them into my wallet. Walking back to the hotel later, I thought my experience would have made a great Silver Age origin story for a Marvel comic—a superhero granted his powers from an exploding cosmic fortune cookie.
But what if he wasn’t a superhero? What if the power he is accidentally granted came from somewhere else? What if he can’t control that power, and it starts to take him over?
I had my story.
3. INSPIRATION COMES FROM THE MOST UNLIKELY PLACES (WHEN YOU LEAST EXPECT IT).
San Francisco suffered two major earthquakes in the Twentieth Century, and in Hang Wire a third such catastrophe is about to befall the city. Tackling the second draft, I did a lot of research, and it was from reference source on the geology of the San Andreas fault that I learned about a series of spectacular comets that were observed in the Nineteenth Century. People have been superstitious about comets forever, and attribute a great many coincidental calamities to their appearance. By the 1800s, nothing much had changed, and a couple of big comets were blamed for causing floods, fires, the death of livestock, the failure of crops… and earthquakes. At the same time as I discovered this, I was trying to work out a couple of things in Hang Wire that needed to be linked, but I couldn’t figure out how.
Until I thought about the comets and, more importantly, what people thought about them. What if they were right? What if comets were not only portentous but carried something malignant and alien to the Earth? There’s a theory that comets were responsible for seeding life here… but what if a comet seeded something else?
Inspiration can some from anywhere, and it can come when you least expect it. In researching earthquakes I stumbled across an entirely different part of my plot, entirely by accident.
Read as much as you can, whether it is for research or not. You just never know what you might stumble across!
4. FOLLOW YOUR OUTLINE (EXCEPT WHEN YOU DON’T).
Because I’d written the first draft of Hang Wire so long ago, part of the rewrite was to create a brand new outline. My outlines are more a list of events than a full synopsis, because once I get started, my characters tend to do their own things and go off on tangents, so it seems an exercise in futility to create a detailed outline only for the story to deviate, sometimes substantially. Every writer is different—I know someone who carefully crafts 60-page breakdowns. Stephen King advises everyone to ditch the outline and just write, except he’s Stephen King and we’re not, so I tend to take that with a grain of salt.
During the rewrite, I followed the new outline, stopping and adjusting every so often as needed. Only… something wasn’t right. There was something missing from the book, although I wasn’t sure what exactly, only that it was tangential but also required. Confused? I was. Eventually I narrowed it down to the antagonist, one Joel Duvall. He was fun to write and when working on his scenes he kept whispering to me at the back of my mind. He had another story to tell, something broader than the what I was writing.
So I went back and wrote what was essentially a short story, how Joel first got involved with the evil at the centre of Hang Wire. Then it clicked—we needed to see his story, one spanning the whole of the Twentieth Century. That short story spawned a 20,000-word narrative interwoven with the main book as a series of interludes. Joel led the way and I didn’t need an outline. His backstory was unplanned, but was exactly what the book needed.
5. KEEP AN EYE ON THE ENDING (AND DON’T BE AFRAID TO CHANGE IT).
I finished the book. That old draft had been re-engineered into something new. I sent it to my agent. She liked it… except for the ending. Everything was tied up, the story came to a conclusion. It even followed my outline. But it didn’t feel right. It was downbeat. Very downbeat.
She was right, of course, so while addressing her notes on the rest of the text I let the problem of the ending bubble away at the back of my mind. Finally I figured it out, and wrote an ending that was literally the opposite of the original. There is still death, and loss, and change, but there is also hope and life, both missing from the original.
The ending of a book is important. It’s the last thing the reader takes away when they close the book. But not only does it have to work, it has to be the right kind of ending.
The end of Hang Wire switched from the wrong kind to the right kind, and that actually effected the whole feel of the novel – much for the better!
* * *
Adam is giving away a prize pack of THIRTEEN signed books by Lauren Beukes, Paul Cornell, Mur Lafferty, Emma Newman, Cherie Priest, Greg Rucka and Michael Lark, VE Schwab, Adam Sternbergh, Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover, Jen Williams, and oh, also, Chuck Wendig, to one lucky person who orders Hang Wire and/or The Burning Dark between now and April 8th. The contest is open worldwide, and full details can be found here.
Hang Wire is also being launched at Forbidden Planet London on Thursday, March 6th, 6pm, together with The Burning Dark. Details here.
* * *
Adam Christopher is a novelist, the author of Empire State, Seven Wonders, The Age Atomic, Hang Wire, and the forthcoming The Burning Dark. In 2010, as an editor, Christopher won a Sir Julius Vogel award, New Zealand’s highest science fiction honour. His debut novel, Empire State, was SciFiNow’s Book of the Year and a Financial Times Book of the Year for 2012. In 2013, he was nominated for the Sir Julius Vogel award for Best New Talent, with Empire State shortlisted for Best Novel. Born in New Zealand, he has lived in Great Britain since 2006.