Douglas Hulick: Five Things I Learned Writing Sworn In Steel

It’s been three months since Drothe killed a legend, burned down a portion of the imperial capital, and found himself unexpectedly elevated into the ranks of the criminal elite. As the newest Gray Prince in the underworld, he’s not only gained friends, but also rivals—and some of them aren’t bothered by his newfound title. A prince’s blood, as the saying goes, flows just as red as a beggar’s.

So when another Gray Prince is murdered and all signs point to Drothe as the hand behind the knife, he knows it’s his blood that’s in danger of being spilled. As former allies turn their backs and dark rumors begin to circulate, Drothe is approached by a man who says he can make everything right again. All he wants in exchange is a single favor.

Now Drothe finds himself traveling to the Despotate of Djan, the empire’s long-standing enemy, to search for the friend he betrayed—and the only person who can get him out of this mess. But the grains of sand are running out fast, and even if Drothe can find his friend, he may not be able to persuade him to help in time…

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1) Plans Shmans

I went into Sworn in Steel knowing I had to do things differently. I mean, I spent ten years (off and on) writing my first book. That kind of turn-around time just doesn’t work in publishing, especially not for a debut author. So I had to up my game. I had to have outlines and word counts and story arcs and the whole nine yards. I’d pantsed my way through Among Thieves (meaning I made it up as I went, no outline), but that wasn’t going to fly this time around. This time, I needed a Plan.

And by god, I stuck to that plan. In well under a year, I was 90,000 words into my projected 125,000 word novel with plenty of room to spare. I had this.

And then I stepped back and looked at the book. It was, in the words of a good friend, a hot mess. Steaming, even.

I froze. Not just for a week, not just for a month. For over a year, I froze.

That isn’t to say I didn’t write. I wrote like hell. I revised like a demon. I fixed and fiddled and tweaked, trying to fix the mess that was my first draft. At one point, the book was up to 190,000 words.

No, when I say I froze, I mean that I got stuck in the story as it was. I had tied myself to a plan, and I was going to follow that plan, dammit. Except it was the plan that ended up messing me up.

And I couldn’t see it.

2) Tunnel Vision Will Kill You

When you wait tables, there is a phenomenon known as “Being in the weeds.” Essentially, it is a situation where you have so many tables and so much to do, there is no way you can keep up with it all. Every time you clear a table, two more seem to be sat in your section. When the food comes out, it is wrong, or half the order is missing, or something needs to go back. You can never get on top of things, and it feels like you are constantly teetering on the edge of complete disaster. Offers of help go unheeded because, frankly, it seems like it would be more work and take more time to tell someone what you need than to simply go do it yourself. The only way out of the weeds is to hack your way through, alone.

You are, in short, in extended panic mode.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but this is where I was for much of Sworn In Steel (especially after I blew past the first deadline). And, just like when you are in the weeds, what seems to make sense from the outside doesn’t compute on the inside. You want to help me solve this plot problem? Talk me through the indecision I’m facing over this part of the book? Get me out of the house to just breathe fresh air and gain some perspective?

You know nothing, Jon Snow. I have to do this myself. It would take me too long to explain the problem to you; be too hard to tease out the difficulties that are dogging me; eat up too much time and energy to catch my breath and paint the big picture for you, because of course its all about the big picture and how it isn’t working!

Except that isn’t true. What took me a long, long, looooong time to figure out was that, while I might see only the problems and errors and mistakes in the book, they aren’t the whole work. What I needed, desperately, was a bit of perspective. But I was so far in the weeds, so busy whirling like a distracted dervish, that I couldn’t see what I needed to do: I could only see what I thought I needed to do.

It wasn’t until I broke down and had a long talk with my editor about just where I was (and wasn’t) in the book that I realized…

3) Editors want to help you, you idiot!

This may seem obvious, but when you’ve missed deadline after deadline, you start to get a bit gun-shy, ya know? You dread talking with your editor because you know the inevitable question – “So, how’s the book coming? When do you think it will be ready?” – is going to drop, and you just don’t want to answer that question any more. Because you honestly don’t know at this point (see Weeds, above).

But here’s the thing: your editor is on your side. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t have bought your book in the first place; wouldn’t have persuaded the publisher that your work was worth investing in; wouldn’t have put their neck on the line give you extension after extension (after extension, after….). Plus, they want to not only get the book out, but they also want it to be good.

So yes, making that call and having that talk and sending the mis-matched, cobbled-together unfinished mess of a manuscript to my editor was, without a doubt, the hardest thing I have ever done as a writer (and may well be for a long while, I hope). But it was also the smartest thing I could have done.

When my editor and I finally got back on the phone and went over her editorial notes, it opened my eyes to a lot of thing that both worked and didn’t work in the book. Suddenly, what had seemed like a mountain of mistakes became a collection of smaller foothills, most of which I could see the path over. Oh, I needed to cut a lot and rework more, but I could see the end of the book. Turns out it wasn’t that far away.

4) It’s never as bad as you think

It’s easy to forget the parts you like about writing when things aren’t going well. But they’re still there – you just have to trust in them. Even when I was hacking away at the manuscript, I would stumble across a situation here, a bit of dialog there, an expected character around this corner, than delighted me.

I say “stumble” because, at heart, I am still a “discovery writer.” This means that I write the story not to get to the end, but to see where it goes, how it gets there, and who comes along for the ride. I forgot that for part of this book, but fortunately my brain didn’t. Sneaky bugger that it is, it kept doling out little treats here and there—so much so that when I went back to look things over, it wasn’t as horrible as I’d convinced myself. Parts of it didn’t quite suck. And some parts were even…arguably…maybe…kinda…good?

5) Readers are awesome

The thing that struck me the most through all of this, though, was how generous readers can be.

We’ve all heard the complaints online about how George R. R. Martin / Patrick Rothfuss / [Insert Author Name Here] is taking too long writing their next book. And yeah, that happens. But for everyone one of those, there are more people not complaining and patiently waiting.

I didn’t realize this last bit until I started having to post updates and explanations about why my release date was at first being moved back, and then cancelled altogether (since my publisher couldn’t leave the book in the catalog and keep moving the release around). I expected a torrent…well, okay, not a torrent, I don’t have that many readers…but at least any angry trickle of complaints from the people who were waiting for the next installment of the series. But to a post, e-mail, or response, every single reader who either asked or replied said something along the lines of, “That’s okay, take your time. I’d rather you write a good book than a fast one.”

This blew me away. In a world where we’ve gotten used to having everything NOW, where the complaints about a book’s speed of release are a Google search away, to have people saying they were cool with the delay? That they understood that Shit Happens? Well, it was damn nice, and damn reassuring, let me tell you.

That was also the best possible thing I could have learned writing this, or any, book.

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Douglas Hulick is the author of the Tales of the Kin series, which currently consists of Among Thieves and Sworn in Steel. He is a full-time stay-at home father, part-time writer, and part-time swordsman (no, really). When not walking the dog or trying to determine the relative might of pens vs. swords, he can often be found haunting the aisles of books shops, usually in either the sf, crime, or history sections. He is very fond of breakfast.

Doug’s first book, Among Thieves, was a finalist for both the Gemmel Morningstar and Kitschie’s Golden Tentacle awards in the UK. It was also nominated for both the 2013  Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire and Prix Imaginales awards in France.

Douglas Hulick: Website | Twitter

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