I got an email.
The email contained the following paragraph:
My Dilemma, Dr. Wendig, is that I have a book I want to write, something that is kind of… ‘out there’ and totally different to anything else I’ve written or published so far… and the fact of the matter is that I’m SCARED (ugh) to write the damn thing. To really go for it. I mean, we’re talking about just being willing to let it all hang out and write something off the wall and ‘dark’ and ‘edgy’ and all that good stuff. It’s just downright… weird. And I don’t usually write stuff that’s all that weird, but this story is DEFINITELY fucked up. You know? And you’re a writer who… if I had to find something that unites all your work so far, it’s just… FEARLESS. You’re never afraid to go there. Wherever ‘there’ happens to be. I mean, I’m sure you have moments of pant-soiling terror while actually doing the writing – but you still do it. You still write whatever particular twisted weirdness you happen to be vomiting onto the page at the time. 🙂
It’s a great question.
I have thoughts about this.
I have strong thoughts about this.
As I have noted before, I wrote several books before I actually wrote the one that would become my debut novel (Blackbirds), and those several books were a mixture of hot barf, garbage noodles, and books that were sorta-maybe-not-terrible but that weren’t really me. They were all books where I was trying to figure out just who I was as a writer — I was chasing the market, I was chasing the success of other authors, I was chasing my own bewildered ass. I knew I very badly wanted to succeed, and in trying to succeed I forgot why I wanted to write books in the first place, which is because books are awesome. Books changed me. The characters and metaphors and ideas in those books grafted themselves into my DNA. Their effect on me was irrelevant to their success in the marketplace. The effect that mattered was that the books that I read throughout my life and that I connected with were a success to me.
When it came time to write Blackbirds, I was besieged by a case of the FUCKITS. There existed a part of me that felt like it was possible this would be the last book I’d ever write. Because, yeah: fuck it. I didn’t know if I would have the courage to try and write another suck-fest literary tire fire, so I figured if this could be my last, I would go out with a bang. I was just like fuck success, fuck selling this book, fuck being someone else, fuck writing rules, fuck it, fuck it all. I was dealing with some heavy (but standard) shit in my life — the recognition of the mortality of those around me and by proxy the recognition of my own mortality — and as a result, I had this book inside me. It was a cantankerous, mean little fucker. It was a bitter, acerbic, snarky book. It brooked no shit. It gave no shit. The protagonist, Miriam Black, was haunted by death. She knew how other people were going to die and felt powerless to stop it. And that created in her this special kind of venom, this peculiar kind of wayward rage that I found somehow necessary. And so I wrote the book. It took me years to figure out how to even write this book, but I did it, and in writing it I didn’t care about how everyone else thought books were supposed to be written — I only cared about how I wanted to write this book. I clumsily, defiantly broke rules. I inelegantly put to paper this human tornado protagonist who whirled about the narrative, messing up everybody’s plots. She didn’t care about you. I didn’t care about you. I cared only about the book.
The book landed. Got sold. Got pubbed.
Like, the book I wrote is damn near the book that is (once again!) on shelves.
And that book has sold somewhere north of 50,000 copies by this point. Which, by the way, and I say this with no small pride, is pretty great. A book that sells that many copies is not necessarily common — especially a book that I considered marginal, edgy, a bit gonzo, a bit black-hearted. (Though the blackness of her broken heart is contrasted with the few veins of gold that keep that particular organ together in a kind of magical kintsukuroi.) It’s a book with two sequels and three more coming.
I learned a vital lesson in that, which is to always write the book I want to write.
Because fuck you, that’s why. (Er, not you personally. I like you! I mean the general you. The you that tells me I shouldn’t do that.) I write my first drafts with me in mind. I write the first draft like nobody is watching. Though of course I edit the second draft like everybody is watching. First draft is for me. Second draft is for you.
I have no fear when I write.
Because I’m looking to please me, first and foremost.
That sounds callous. It seems selfish. But it’s really the only way to write that book. You can’t write to please everyone else — in part because EVERYONE ELSE comprises this monster blob of competing desires, and also in part because what EVERYONE ELSE wants is unknowable and unpredictable. But what I want? I know what I want. And what I want is to write the book that lives inside my arteries and capillaries, the book that flows through me sure as blood. All I gotta do is chew open my fingertips and type the tale onto the page and it’s mine. I own it. That red is my red, those streaks are my streaks. All the fingerprints belong to me.
All your fingerprints belong to you, too.
You know the book you want to write, even if you don’t think you do. Shut all the worries and anxieties and uncertainties out of your mind and really, you know. You know the book that sings to you when you’re not expecting it. You know the idea that haunts you, that scratches at your brain-stem like a cat dragging its claws across its scratching post. You know what book you’d write if you were the last poor fucker in a world where everyone else was dead.
You know what your own fingerprints look like.
But too often we worry about what everyone else’s look like.
We think we’d rather that our work look like their work. It’s easier that way. Almost like we don’t have to own it, as if we can absolve ourselves of responsibility that way. Like we can just be them instead of being us. Like we can write their books instead of our own.
Too many books appear and those books chase trends that already exist. They try to be something else — stepping carefully in the footprints of what came before so as not to do differently and mess up the sand. They consume the successful stories and then process them bodily and excrete them back onto the page in some gross literary replication of The Human Centipede. But the books we remember aren’t the ones that carefully tried not to leave footprints, but rather, the books that ran batshit and screaming through the sand and the surf. We remember the books that left their own ragged, looping trails, that cut through the underbrush, that kicked over rocks, that changed the landscape rather than fearing to disturb it.
Trends are bullshit. The books that set the trends are the ones we care about — not the books that carefully hurry after, trying to draft off its speed, trying to cloak itself in the scent of the former as sure as a dog rolling in squirrel diarrhea.
Look at it this way.
Assume you get one shot at writing this book.
That’s probably not true, but hey, it might be. You might write one book and then get hit by a bus. You might get gored by a bull or sucked into a jet engine. We’re all gonna die. It’s just a matter of when the carousel stops turning for us. So, again, assume that it is at least possible the book you write now may be your last.
Make it a good one.
Make it yours.
Don’t be afraid to write the book you really want to write. Fear is what stops great stories from being told. Fear is complicated by the industry — but you can’t worry too much about the industry. Fearing the industry (which by the way is an unknowable Byzantine puzzle box anyway where nobody really knows what works and what doesn’t) is a good way to halt your breath and stay your fingers and stop the story from ever happening. Concentrate on the thing you can do, which is write the best book you can, and a book that you draw from your heart and your genital configuration as much as from your mind. Everyone wants you to stay inside this neat little fence. But you know who stays inside fences? WAKE UP, SHEEPLE. You know who jumps fences? AWESOME MOTHERFUCKERS WHO GO HAVE CUCKOOBANANA ADVENTURES. I mean, stories are rarely about people who play it safe. And so why should authors be encouraged to run counter to what makes our characters so interesting?
Leap the fence. Seize that chaos. Whet your own edge. Go weird. Go buckwild.
You do you.
I want to read the book you want to write.
I don’t want to read the book somebody else wants you to write.
I mean, what kind of advice would that be? Play it safe. Be a little boring. Write somebody else’s book instead of your own. Quiet your voice and diminish what makes your story special. The one thing — the one thing! — you get to bring to the story that nobody else has is you. So, shunt fear and embrace the terror and goddamn just go with it, you know?
And now, if you will, a revised version of the Rifleman’s Creed, for us writer-types —
The Penmonkey’s Creed
This is my book. There are none like it, because this one is mine.
My book is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life.
My book, without me, is useless. Without my book, I am useless. I must write my tale true. I must shoot straighter than my fear who is trying to kill me. I must kill my fear before my fear kills my story.
My book and I know that what counts is not what others have done, what sales we make, what tweets I have twotted. We know that it is my heart that counts.
My book is a living document, because it is my life. I will learn it as it is my kin. I will learn its weaknesses, its strengths, its characters and plots and themes. I will put my heartsblood into the book and it will put its heartsblood into me as we become part of each other.
Before the Muse that I have shackled to the radiator in my office, I swear this creed. My book and I are the representatives of who I am. We are the masters of our fear. We are the ink-stained fools who press our fingerprints into the page for all to see. We are story and story-teller, one and the same. We are the gods of this place.
So be it, until victory is mine and I have finished my shit — fuck yeah and amen.
* * *
Miriam Black Is Back (In Print)
Miriam Black knows how you’re going to die. This makes her daily life a living hell, especially when you can’t do anything about it, or stop trying to. She’s foreseen hundreds of car crashes, heart attacks, strokes, and suicides. She merely needs to touch you—skin to skin contact—and she knows how and when your final moments will occur. Miriam has given up trying to save people; that only makes their deaths happen. But then she hitches a ride with Louis Darling and shakes his hand, and she sees in thirty days that Louis will be murdered while he calls her name. Louis will die because he met her, and Miriam will be the next victim. No matter what she does she can’t save Louis. But if she wants to stay alive, she’ll have to try.
“Fast, ferocious, sharp as a switchblade and fucking fantastic.” — Lauren Beukes