Christopher Irvin: Five Things I Learned Writing Burn Cards

Mirna Fowler believes she has been cheated in life, growing up in a broken home alone with a drunken and gambling-addicted father. Now she works at a small hair salon in Reno, doing her best to survive while she saves money for school. Hoping to get a degree that will take her places. 

But in the wake of her father’s death, Mirna inherits his extravagant debt, an amount of money she can never repay. As her fractured world begins to crumble, the search for the truth sets her on a path where life hangs on her every move.

* * *

FINISH HIM!

*Throws spear*

*Shouts Get Over Here!*

So anyway…writing is hard. That’s nothing new. The middle is the most difficult for me to overcome. 3,000 words into a short story, or 30,000 words into a novel. Pat yourself on the back for kicking ass and then the full picture comes into view and you realize how far you still have to climb. BUT – finish your work. Why? Opportunity.

So what if it’s not perfect? (It won’t be.) I know a lot of writers who have been contacted by editors and agents after reading some of their short fiction. Do you have a story to contribute to this anthology? A novel for me to look at? It doesn’t always work out (probably less often than does) but you’re on their radar, and demonstrated you can finish a project.

My first draft of BURN CARDS, way back in 2012, was a piddling 33,000 words (I’d been aiming for 70,000.) But it was “done” in a sense that it had a beginning, middle and end. I bulked it up to 55,000 over the next two months (kitchen-sink-novel achievement unlocked – more on this later). It felt good, but after feedback from an editor and a couple of agents, I knew it needed a ton of work. Which leads me to…

PEACE OF MIND – LET IT SIT & IT’S OKAY TO MOVE ON

Most writers will tell you to lock a first draft in a drawer and sit on it. Two weeks, two months; put some time and distance between you and the pages. You’ll come back with a fresh perspective to better bleed red pen all over it, light pages on fire, etc.

My first thought: I don’t need to wait, I got this – hence adding the initial bulk to the novel after finishing a short draft. After receiving feedback and realizing the amount of time it would take to tackle the book, I welcomed two months in a drawer, out of sight, out of mind (kind of…). I wrote some short stories, worked on a different novella. Two months became three, then four, and then I never wanted to see BURN CARDS again. Finally I came back to the book and faced the facts. I’d taken another cue from the Rules Don’t Apply to Me Department, and like a lot of (most?) writers: I had a kitchen-sink-novel on my hands. Everything I’d wanted to write stuffed into a word sack. But it was “done” in a way, and most importantly I learned a ton and grew from the process of diving back in. I wouldn’t have progressed as a writer without the struggle. With that peace of mind, it’s okay to move on and do something new.

THE STORY’S OVER WHEN IT’S OVER, A.K.A. EMBRACE THE NOVELLA

I have a difficult time with high word counts – both as a writer and a reader. Stylistically I’m on the shorter side. A novel I recently finished writing came in at 60,000 words. Best-selling crime/thrillers run at 80-100,000. I love reading short stories and novellas, and my sweet spot for a novel is 200-250 pages (~65,000).

Reading/publishing seem to be trending my way (anecdotally at least) with some of the big guys rolling out e-book-only presses that cater to shorter works. Regardless, I’ve learned to forget it and just write. Back with the first version of BURN CARDS, one of the agents to request it liked the writing but didn’t care for the plot. They gave me another shot at a plot synopsis. Needing (of course) to get back to him as quickly as possible, I gave it a couple of days and sent a revised synopsis that kept only about half of the book intact. No go.

Fast forward a couple of years and I’m talking BURN CARDS with 280 Steps. I’ve sent my original manuscript with an outline for where I planned to take it, similar to the previous ‘revised’ outline. I get a thumbs-up and it’s off to the races. A better, stronger, faster version of BURN CARDS is shaping up – or is it? I kick it off to a friend/editor, and after some back and forth and a long telephone call, I realize the heart of the story wraps up in 30,000 words. To do it right, it had to be a novella.

I’m lucky to have a fantastic publisher who trusted me and rolled with the new vision for the book. The story took me where it needed to go.

PLAY WITH POV, BUT TRUST YOUR GUT

A very good friend and avid reader finished my short story that inspired BURN CARDS. Then he told me he hates first person. Thought about changing it?

A lot of people rag on second person. I think it can produce terrific stories (Dan O’Shea’s Shroud of Turin comes to mind.)

Everyone loves a good third – head hop between chapters, grow your story (and page count!) At one time I seriously considered switching BURN CARDS to third person, but in the end decided against it because Mirna’s voice was key to the story. I think the exercise was worth it; got me thinking about the book in a different way, and in the end I went with what felt true to the story. Give it a shot and see what you come up with.

HAVE FUN

To piggy-back on Chuck’s recent post, “Should You Quit Writing?”

The editing/re-writing stage of BURN CARDS was the first time I found myself juggling multiple projects – writing comics, finishing a novel. Pile 110 inches of snow on top and this past winter just wore me down. I have all the respect in the world for people who get up day-in, day-out and crank out words. I try my best, but sometimes you just have to pack in it and take a breather. To me, it’s not worth it if you’re not having fun. Sure, writing can be a grind, but don’t beat yourself up too much. Enjoy the ride.

Christopher Irvin: Website | Twitter

Burn Cards: Amazon