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.

* * *


*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…


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.


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.


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.


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

10 responses to “Christopher Irvin: Five Things I Learned Writing Burn Cards”

  1. I’m staring at my own kitchen sink novel right now, so this is…this is helpful timing. I also know I need to let it sit, and that’s where the real struggle is. It’s like I said I was gonna climb this mountain, broke my leg within sight of the summit, and I’m trying to drag my half-mangled self the rest of the way. If it was an actual broken leg it would be pretty clear how dumb and dangerous that is, but for some reason it seems like you should be able to force your brain to do a thing it clearly can’t do right now. WHY DO I THINK THAT?

    Anyway, thanks for this.

    • Thanks for reading, David. It’s difficult…I’ve found reading can be a big help as well. I recently finished Richard Lange’s ANGEL BABY and it gave me the creative jolt I needed on how to fix some issues with my current WIP. Might help you see how other authors have dealt with the issues you are facing.

  2. I dig this! I have a completed sci-fi manuscript right now. It’s sitting at 56,000 words. People kept telling: “Sci-fi books are worldbuilders, 80,000, 100,000 words! 56,000 words is too short!” I wanted to listen to them but this article made me realize what I was thinking the entire time. If it’s finished where it is. It’s finished. 56,000 is where the story ended. So I’m going to keep it there. Thanks!

    • I started my fantasy novel with the idea that 100,000 words was an easy goal. Just 100 1,000 word chapters. LOL erm no! i got to 58,000 and then went back through and workred out where to flesh out bits and pieces. Im now at 73,000 and still find a couple of hundred words to add here and there. Its nice to know we aren’t alone

  3. I had the hardest time breaking past the idea of established word counts. The same thing happened to my book Subtle Art of Brutality. The first draft clocked in at about 50K. I knew I needed to almost double the word count to get it in that 80-100K perimeter. I wound up with 80K. When I went back to write the sequel I outlined two cases for the PI to investigate, thinking that would automatically (well, mostly so, anyway) double-ish the word count. I hit the end of the second act of both story lines at a whopping 30K. I was so discouraged I set it aside for almost four years. In that four years I learned to ignore the preconceived idea of word counts and be happy where it landed. The story is done when it’s done. Final draft was just over 60K. I think more folks need to get what you got, Chris. The freedom that comes with writing for the story and not the perimeters of other people.

  4. I’m in that stage where I’m doing my 2nd edit but I haven’t sat my book down for a while yet. I’m happy about it because I knew that although the book was incomplete, I just wanted to finish it. Now I can go over it and add scenes that need to be there, take out excess and polish the plot and character motivations and such. I knew the story was unclear about what made the Bogai and the fey’s attacks clear. Heck, I didn’t know myself but through this process I know what all my villain’s motivations are.

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