Carrie Patel: Five Things I Learned Writing The Buried Life

The gaslight and shadows of the underground city of Recoletta hide secrets and lies. When Inspector Liesl Malone investigates the murder of a renowned historian, she finds herself stonewalled by the all-powerful Directorate of Preservation – Recoletta’s top-secret historical research facility.

When a second high-profile murder threatens the very fabric of city society, Malone and her rookie partner Rafe Sundar must tread carefully, lest they fall victim to not only the criminals they seek, but the government which purports to protect them. Knowledge is power, and power must be preserved at all costs…

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JUST GO WITH IT

Writing your first book is a dare to yourself.

It starts with the embryo of a story and the nagging suspicion that, just maybe, you could grow it into a real book. So you carve out quiet little moments after work or school, pecking away at the keyboard and thinking, “Ha ha, look at this, I’m putting one word after the other, just like a real author.”

You don’t tell anyone about your little hobby—not yet. It feels too soon. Like introducing the parents on the first date. But late evenings and early mornings speed by in front of the computer, and you catch your wandering mind turning more and more to the next scene, the next plot twist, or the next juicy bit of worldbuilding.

You’re not entirely sure you’ve got the stamina to make it to the end. But somehow, seven thousand words become twenty thousand words, and before you know it, you’re sitting on fifty thousand words, and you’re too invested to quit.

Nothing demystifies the writing process so much as attempting it yourself. There’s no professional certification for it, no real prerequisite. By the time you’re waist-deep in it, what keeps you going is the sheer curiosity to see what happens next (both in and for your manuscript) and the challenge you continually issue yourself to get through one more chapter.

…BUT IT’S OKAY TO TAKE A STEP BACK

The first draft of THE BURIED LIFE took about a year to write. That’s not terribly unusual, especially for a first effort.

But I finished that draft over eight and a half years ago. All that time between then and now? Most of that’s been revising, editing, querying, and catching my skills up with my ambitions.

Writing a book is hard. But cleaning up the lump of coal that emerges from your fingertips at one in the morning and polishing it into something shiny and wonderful?

That’s harder.

You write this first draft, and typing “THE END” feels like reaching the summit of Everest, even though your manuscript only clocks in at 60,000 words, which is about 20,000 too short for the genre you’re writing.

And that’s only the first of your problems.

Then, you look back at paragraphs of lovingly crafted description and see them weighed down with adverbs and redundancy. You read through your first halting efforts at dialogue, and you shudder.

You close your laptop with the jarring realization that this misbegotten child of a manuscript is not the book you sat down to write.

Worse, you don’t know how to fix it. You don’t know how to make your worldbuilding feel compelling and interesting, and you don’t know how to make your dialogue believable, let alone entertaining.

So you set it aside, you keep reading the authors you love, and you find a regular critique group. You start to notice how other writers solve the very problems you’re having. After a suitable moratorium, you go back to your neglected manuscript and realize that you know how to solve many of those problems, too.

So you solve them.

But you recognize other issues—bad habits you’d never noticed before, tendencies you’d never seen as problematic.

You make a note of these issues, take another hiatus, and get back to the business of reading and critiquing. You’ll come back when you’re ready.

KEEP YOUR FRIENDS CLOSE AND YOUR BETA READERS CLOSER

Most writers will, at some point, show their works in progress to trusted peers and mentors for feedback.

This is important for many reasons, only one of which is the actual feedback.

Beta readers help you develop your calluses for the long road ahead. They’ll get you used to hearing frank assessments of your work. They’ll help you adjust to having your flaws noted and remarked upon by others.

These tough love lessons will be invaluable when you start querying total strangers in hopes of interesting them in your writing. Even more so when you start to get reviews.

But even that isn’t the most useful function of beta readers. Beta readers help writers most of all simply by reading.

Writing can be a lonely endeavor. You spend months crafting your story, only to wonder: is anyone’s ever going to read it?

A beta reader is an answer to that question. He or she is a promise that you’re not doing the work alone. Someone’s waiting on the other side of that Dropbox folder, so you’d better switch off the television and finish your chapter.

The motivation that comes from having a reader—even one you’re bribing with pizza and beer—is not to be discounted. It presents a goal, and it fans that hope that, one day, you’ll find an even wider audience.

Meanwhile, it’s still great to have someone there to help you catch your mistakes and find your blind spots.

But don’t give your beta readers all the hard work. There’s plenty you can do on your own.

SHOUT IT FROM THE ROOFTOPS (OR JUST READ IT ALOUD)

Most of the problems in a manuscript—repeated words, unnatural dialogue, clunky phrasing, pages where nothing of interest happens—become apparent when the work is read aloud. Your ear catches the hiccups and doldrums that your forgiving eye skates past. And your ear is a better proxy for the first-time reader’s experience.

Those spots where you trip over your own wording? Revise ‘em.

The places where you bore yourself? Cut ‘em, or find a way to build in tension and action.

Reading 80,000-100,000 words aloud is time-consuming. But it’s a lot faster than the dozen-or-so silent reads that you’d need to catch the same problems. So think of that read-aloud as an investment, and promise yourself Scotch at the end.

Averse to the sound of your own voice? Even better. Just pretend it’s Idris Elba reading your work. Would he use “enthused” as a dialogue tag? No, he would not.

PUT IN FACE TIME

There comes a point when you’ve prettied up your manuscript as best you can, gotten feedback from your beta readers, and sent out some queries. Maybe you’ve even gotten some nibbles, but none of them have amounted to anything more than chapter requests.

It may be time to up your game.

There’s a whole bevy of conferences, conventions, and workshops you can attend virtually year-round. Some are places for writers to meet with editors and agents, some are venues for authors to hone their skills, and some are gatherings for fans and creators to celebrate and discuss the genres they love.

Some of these will cost more money than you’re willing to spend, and others will require time off that you don’t have. But chances are good that there’s something in your area that’s feasible for a weekend jaunt.

Case in point, I met my future editor at Worldcon in San Antonio and pitched THE BURIED LIFE to him there. A couple months later, I had a contract for a two-book deal.

Take my sample size of one and do with it what you will, but when I visited with the Angry Robot staff that weekend, they indicated that, while they usually require agented submissions, they sometimes make exceptions for authors they meet in person. I’ve heard similar sentiments from other industry professionals, too.

Now, it’s still entirely possible (and, for many people, preferable) to go through the entire process of selling a book without ever having a face-to-face meeting. But there’s always something to be said for the personal connection. It may not sell your book, but it will help you stand out above the thousands of faceless authors who are nothing more than names in an inbox. Hopefully in the best possible way.

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Carrie Patel is an author, narrative designer, and expatriate Texan. When she isn’t working on her own fiction, she works as a narrative designer for Obsidian Entertainment and writes for their upcoming CRPG, Pillars of Eternity. Her work has also appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

Carrie Patel: Website | Twitter

The Buried Life: Amazon | B&N | Indiebound | Goodreads | Robot Trading Company