What I’ve Learned After 5 Years And 20 Books: 25 Lessons
It is about to be my birthday.
I like to think of this as both my real birthday and my birthday as a novelist, actually.
Because at this same time, five years ago, a little book called Blackbirds landed on shelves.
It did so while I was in Los Angeles, promoting that book at the LA Times Book Festival. I also took meetings on what would become the TV deal for the Miriam Black series (one that eventually and sadly went away, as most of them do), and I did a really awesome signing at the now-gone Redondo Beach Mysterious Galaxy branch.
It was the beginning of my novel-writing career — at least, the visible part, like the tip of the iceberg poking out of the frost-capped sea. And five years later, I’ve managed through chicanery and shenanigans to get 19 more novels onto bookstore shelves. I’ve had a non-fiction writing book out: The Kick-Ass Writer. I wrote me a silly little self-published indie trilogy called Star Wars: Aftermath, and each book went on to be a NYT bestseller. I wrote me some comics: Hyperion, The Force Awakens, The Shield. I’ve got more stuff on the way: the novel Exeunt, the next two Miriam Black books, some comics. I’ve been a busy motherfucker. I’m good at what I do. Not great, maybe, but I know I do the work and I do it well. And all this is built on over a decade of writing freelance games, and having a (failed) pilot at TNT, and having a short film at Sundance after attending the Sundance Screenwriters Lab the year before. It’s a lot. I’m not trying to brag — though, I am proud of what I’ve accomplished so far — and I’m also not trying to lay out my CV to let you know, HEY YOU SHOULD LISTEN TO ME. I don’t know jack shit. In fact, I’m less confident now about the things that I know than I was five years ago. And that, I think, is a good thing. In another five years, who knows? Maybe I’ll overturn these again. I’ll add to them. I’ll change them. I’ll know nothing, Jon Snow.
What I do know is this:
It’s been a short five years, and also a long five years.
(And an amazing five years.)
Plus, like I said, my birthday once again arises from the sea, squid-like and slime-slick.
And once again, as fate would have it, I will be out in Los Angeles at the LA Times Book Fest, and I will be promoting not the first Miriam Black book, but rather, the fourth. As such, this seems like a good time to look back and offer some… shape, some context, some ragged semblance of what-I’ve-learned after five years and 20 novels.
1. Writing Advice Is Bullshit And Largely The Product Of Survivorship Bias
Writing advice is bullshit. That’s not to say it’s not useful — as I’ve said in the past, bullshit can also fertilize. But writing advice should always, always, always be read through the lens of, “This is what worked for me, maybe it’ll work for you.” Problem is, a lot of writers treat this stuff as HOLY GOSPEL, as if they’re the ARCHONS OF AN ANCIENT AUTHORIAL ORDER emerging from the fog of history to give you SEKRIT TROOTHS. This shit isn’t baking muffins. You can’t just say, “Put it in the oven at 350 and 20 minutes later, yumminess will emerge.” Writing as a career is an unholy tangle of threads, from how you publish, to your style, to your process, to when you write, to how often you write, to what precious liquor you quaff to celebrate a book release. None of us get here via the same route. As I an fond of saying: we all burn the map afterward. And none of us know what the fuck we’re actually doing, not really. I sure don’t. Even the list below is just me… spouting off. They’re lessons that apply to me, not to you. Maybe to you, it’s gold. Maybe it’s a sack of angry raccoons, I dunno. The only writing advice you can count on is: you gotta write, and you gotta finish what you’re writing. Everything else is variable. Everything else must be swirled around the mouth to determine whether it tastes like honey or it tastes like shit.
2. Learn First To Say Yes, Then To Say No
This is a hard one to learn, and one I’m still endeavoring to put into practice. Early in your career, you seek opportunity like a truffle-addicted pig. Later in your career, those opportunities will come to you — they’ll stick to your ass like burrs. Earlier, every opportunity is legitimately that: an opportunity. But later on, you start to see that not every opportunity is equal. You need to start being judicious about your time and your energy, because this thing we do is work and you only have so much of it you can give out to the world. Inevitably, people want a piece of you. Not to be mean. It’s usually (though not always) coming from a good place. Just the same, you say yes early in your career, but then you gotta start practicing that big word: NO. HELL NO. FUCK NO. Can’t do it, won’t do it, don’t wanna do it. Practice it in the mirror. Shake your fist. Scowl and sneer. Urinate aggressively. I’m urinating aggressively right now. Like a territorial bear.
3. The Muse Doesn’t Hunt You, You Hunt The Muse
Waiting for inspiration is a fool’s game. You hunt it. You summon it. Writing is an act of laying traps for the Muse. Writing does not follow inspiration. It goes the other direction. You become inspired through the act of writing, of telling stories. Just sitting down and doing the work lays bait. It’s an alluring trail Reese’s Pieces meant to draw the extraterrestrial Muse into your house.
4. Ideas Are Easy
For a long time I thought ideas were everything. I thought them precious pearls, when the reality is, they’re just driveway gravel. I got a hundred ideas whipping around my head every day, and the majority of them are sounds and noises — grunts in the dark, a gibber, a wail. I used to write them all down. I’d hoard them like a crow hiding colorful strips of ribbon in its nest. Now, I let them go. I shove them back out the door with not a moment’s interest. Then I wait. If those little bastards come back, if they sneak in through the vents like John McClane, if they creep in through the boltholes like a mouse — well, okay then. That’s an idea that wants to haunt me. That’s an idea whose grunts and gibbers might turn into a song. They’re all still driveway gravel, but maybe once in a while one of those pieces of flinty limestone has some quartz buried in there — something crystalline, with depth, with shine, something worth looking at. At the end of the day, though, no idea is worth anything but the work you give it. You still gotta polish that stone. You still gotta write it all down and make it shine.
5. Find Your Damn Process — Then Challenge It
I often tell a story about how it took me five years to write — or rather, figure out how to write — Blackbirds, and that journey involves me learning I needed to outline my books before I write them. Some folks take that lesson as me telling them: “You have to outline.” But that’s not it. I have to outline. I don’t know what the fuck you need to do; you have to figure that out. You have a process. So go find it. Maybe that means writing 2k every day, reliably. Maybe it means writing 15,000 words every other weekend. Maybe it means you write in coffee shops, or in the crawlspace under your house. Maybe it means you eat a handful of bees before you begin. I dunno. That’s on you to figure it out, and while it’s important to figure out what you write and why you write, it’s also incredibly necessary to figure out how you write. You may think how you write is the way others have told you it must be, but that doesn’t make it true. Also important: when your process isn’t working, you need to evolve it. Your process isn’t one thing forever just as you aren’t one person forever. Challenge it. Change it. See the river and go with it.
6. No One Book Is The Same As The Next
Every book for me has been different than the last. Not just in content — I mean, that’s obvious. I’m writing different books, yeah, duh. I mean, how I write each book is different every time. Some come faster, others slower. Every outline I do is different than the last — some are just tentpoles, others are cuckoopants flow-charts like the nutball wall of a conspiracy theorist, others still are hastily-scrawled manifestos on ragged bits of notebook paper. The books are chimeras. They shift and change. They’re different beasts that demand different food. And that’s okay.
7. Do Not (Over)Prioritize Money
I have made decisions in this career based purely on money, and turns out, that was not always the best way. Don’t get me wrong, I like money. I need money because oh shit we live in a capitalist society and I have this thing called a “mortgage” for this box called a “house” and I don’t want to have to live in the “woods” like a “bear.” And if there’s the choice between taking LOTS OF MONEY and NO MONEY — yeah, take the cash. But I’ve had a couple situations where… I wish I’d maybe gone a different way. Where I looked at an overall strategy instead of a dollar sign. This career has to be more than just the dollar signs.
8. Publishing Is A Long Con Demanding A Long Strategy
Have a one-year-plan, a five-year-plan, a ten-year-plan. Keep it flexible, but always be casting your eyes not just to the book you’re writing but to your career down the line. If you wanna do this thing — not just put a book on a shelf but put your writing pants on for the duration of a whole damn career! — then you can’t just be looking down at your feet. This is a long game with many moves against an invisible opponent. Where do you want to be? Who are you as a writer? This is also about what you can control versus what you can influence. You can control what you write. You always have that. For everything else, you have varying degrees of influence. You’ll never control awards. You’ll never control the audience. But you look ahead anyway, and you say, how do I get to where I want to go? If you want to be writing comics, or thrillers, or sexy Gremlins fan-fic, then plot that course. Plot multiple ways of getting there. Talk it out with agents and editors. Diversify your path. Then it’s like what Dory says in Finding Nemo: JUST KEEP KILLING YOUR FOES AND EATING THEIR FLESH AS SACRAMENT wait I’m pretty sure that’s not right. But it’s close enough, I guess. P.S. “writing pants” are metaphorical as writers do not wear pants because pants are a tool of the oppressor.
9. You Can’t Do It Alone (And Yes, That Means Selling And Promoting)
Writing is not a solitary career. That is a myth — worse, like the starving artist myth, it is a romantic one that is valuable to everyone but the fucking writer. We are given this meritocratic lone-wolf ronin-ninja claptrap about how it’s all up to you, you wily pioneer, you’re out there on the frontier of the Weird and Wordy West, just you and your shooters against the world. And you’re routinely told how you can do it all yourself. Self-publishing schemers want you to think you should do everything from designing your own covers to editing your own books. Tricksy traditional publishers — and yep, this includes some of the Bigguns — want you to think you can sell and promote the book all by your lonesome, too. And you can, provided your entire scheme and strategy is just the words GOOD FUCKING LUCK written on a crummy index card. Sorry, you need help. You need agents and editors. You need copy-editors and designers. You need marketers and promoters. A traditional publisher may want to convince you that you can do it yourself, but you can move 10s, maybe 100s of books by yourself — and they need you to move 1000s. You need other writers, too. We’re good for each other when we try to be. This is a community. We’re all stowaways and impostors. Don’t feel alone, and don’t be alone.
10. Cover Your Ass, Keep Your Rights
Read your contracts and keep your rights. Own the work. You will make money not just from selling the book the first time, but also selling foreign rights and other licensing opportunities. You give them away to a publisher, know that you’re giving them to a non-invested, not-necessarily-capable party. Be smart. Be strategic.
11. Give The Proper Amount Of Fucks
This is a point I make again and again, and it’s one that was really important for me as a writer — I learned to care less. I figured out that I needed fewer fucks in my fuck basket. This serves a lot of purposes. First, it gives you confidence — because if you’re not so concerned with what everybody else thinks, you start to command your own work more comfortably and assertively. Second, it makes sure you’re not trying to chase a market or not trying to mimic someone else’s idea of what your book should look like. It’s yours alone and if your attitude is a little bit punk-rock, a little bit middle-finger, you find yourself more willing to write the book you need to write rather than the book you think other people want. At the end of the day, even if the book doesn’t work — you know you did what you wanted with it. And you can do it again with the next one and the one after that. Note: you still have to care. Your fuckgarden cannot be fallow. But when you learn to moderate how many fucks you’re willing to give to this, you find a measure of freedom somewhere between PROFESSIONAL CLAUSTROPHOBIA and CHAOS REIGNS.
12. The Opposite Of ‘Kill Your Darlings’ Is ‘Know Which Hill To Die On’
Early on you learn to kill your darlings. Your work has these precious, preening peacocks who strut about for their own pomp and circumstance. These darlings are like chairs you can’t sit on, food you can’t eat — they’re just there to look pretty and take up space. So, you kill them. You learn to kill them. You get good at killing them. And then, one day, you realize maybe you got too good at it. Maybe you went too far. You started to think of everything as expendable, everything as negotiable. But it isn’t. It can’t be. I learned this writing Star Wars: yes, those books are not purely mine. They belong to the galaxy, not to me. Just the same? It’s my name on those books. If they fail, they fail on my watch. If there’s something in there you don’t like, it doesn’t matter if it’s something Mickey Mouse his-own-damn-self demanded I put in there: it lands on my doorstep. That’s when I saw the other side of the brutally execute your peacocks argument: some peacocks stay. Some peacocks are yours, and you put them there because that’s where you want them. Maybe they add something specific, maybe you’re just an asshole who demands that one lone peacock warbling and showing its stuff. But you own that. You have to see when there are battles to lose, and when there are wars to win. There are always hills to die on. It can’t be all of them. You want to die on every hill, then you’re dead for no reason and the book will suffer. But some things are yours and you have to know which ones to fight for, and why. You have to know why they matter and then you have to be prepared to burn the book to ash in order to let it stay.
13. Don’t Give Plot The Keys To The Story Car: Let The Characters Drive
You and me, we make our own decisions, mostly. We have autonomy and agency and that’s what makes life interesting. It’s also what makes stories interesting. Characters are everything, and I’ll tell you, for me this revelation is what helps a book begin but even better, is what helps a book grow and push on through the middle to a satisfying end. When you design a book from the top-down, beginning with plot, you are creating a structure that you have to force everything into. But that’s not interesting. The small story is what’s interesting, not the big story. And the small story is always about character. Even the biggest pop culture touchstones are about character: Die Hard works because it’s about McClane’s marriage. A New Hope works because we understand Luke’s desire to get off-planet. Buffy works because we see a character who wants to be a normal teen girl but who can’t. You can tell when a story feels like it has a plot and it’s just cramming characters into it, like it’s a traveler who swears they can fucking hammer their big-ass suitcase into the overhead compartment. Look at it this way: if you can replace all the characters in your story with objects, you done fucked up. If the plot keeps chugging on even if the protagonist is a toaster or a literal cinderblock, that’s a good sign that external plot has taken over the organic narrative. Characters are not architecture — they’re architects. They build plot. So let them build.
14. Originality Is Fucking Overrated
We worry about being original but fuck being original. No one element is truly original. What’s original is in the arrangement, and what’s original in that arrangement is you. You, the author, are the single, singular unique aspect of the work.
15. Sometimes Writing Days Are Not Days In Which You Write
This one’s fucking hard for me. I grew up with a father who instilled in me a hard-nose, ass-to-the-grindstone attitude — wait, you’re not supposed to press your ass against grindstones, are you? Actually, pressing your nose to a grindstone sounds bad, too, because I’m pretty sure that’s how you lose your nose. Maybe that’s how my father lost his pinky finger. Hm. Whatever. Point is, I grew up with a WORK YOUR ASS OFF attitude, and that’s mostly paid off, and it’s not entirely inaccurate that the work is the work is the work. What I missed though, was that sometimes the work wasn’t always just the work. Some days, yeah, writing is digging ditches. Other days, it’s designing UNICORN BONDAGE DUNGEONS OUT OF THIN AIR, and that requires more than just sticking a shovel into loamy earth and moving soil around. Sometimes it means thinking. It means moving around. It means experiencing life. See, that’s one of the hangups I have — one of the chiefmost pieces of advice you get about being a writer is that the two essential components are READING and WRITING. Yes, those are essential. They’re just not the only ones. You gotta live. You have to experience things. You have to travel and talk to people and examine everything and live both inside your head and outside of it. And that means that sometimes this gig leaves you with days that aren’t about reading and aren’t about writing — they’re about a third thing, a nebulous and unprotected thing that feels unproductive but that is necessary just the same. (But you still have to do the damn work. You can’t live in that interstitial space forever. You have to come back from the adventure with lessons and magic beans for the village. Or at least lessons on how to properly hog-tie a unicorn for sexy times.)
16. Don’t Be A Jerk, Because You’re Not That Important
For the most part, this industry is filled with amazing people who want to be here because they want to be here. Because they love it. It’s not so fruitful or lucrative an industry that people are attracted to it for the money, so that means you get a lot of people who are here just because they fucking dig it the most, baby, and that’s rad. Still — still. You get jerks. Because all of life has jerks. Jerks permeate. Ant colonies probably have jerks. I’m sure at any given time, any ant colony has a bare minimum of 13% jerks. So, you get them here, too. Some can’t help it. Others can. For those who can: don’t be a jerk. We’re watching. And the industry has a long memory. It’s not to say it’ll end your career. Plenty of jerks have done well for themselves. But it’s not worth it. The people here are awesome, so be awesome in return. Help more than you hurt. Try to give back. Make friends. Don’t be a fucking asshole, asshole.
17. Every Book Is A New Day
Last book didn’t sell as well as you wanted? Or it didn’t land with a publisher? Or you didn’t like it? That’s the way the pages turn. We all fail, and the only time the failure sticks is when you stop learning from it. But remember: there’s always the next book. This doesn’t need to end with one. Your career never needs to end with one. Keep going. Keep writing. I view my life as a series of books written and unwritten and that excites the hell out of me. In some cases I’m making a pile out of my failures, and sometimes I’m making a ladder out of my successes. Either way: every book is a new chance, a new day, a new path.
18. Every Book Is Just As Scary As The Last
And yeah, every book is just as scary as the last. Scary when you’re writing it, scary when you’re editing it, scary when you’re releasing it. It never gets easier. It sometimes gets harder, in that sense that Jenga is easy when you pull the first piece out, and a whole lot fucking scarier when you go to pull the 21st piece out…
19. Your Audience Is Wide…
Inclusiveness in fiction is not about political correctness but rather about ensuring that book is a big tent ready to accommodate and reflect those who may read it. Stories work when we can see ourselves in them. So let a lot of people see themselves in yours.
20. …But Also, Your Heart Matters The Most
This was another lesson that was hard for me to come to — the fact that at the end of the day, I’m accountable to me. I write for me. At least, I write that first draft for me. Once upon a time I thought I needed to write it for you: the market, the editor, the audience, the whoever. But in the story, in the book, I need to make peace with me, first. I need to take what’s going on inside my heart and my head and I need to mash them into a gelatinous, seminal, blood-pulp paste and brew ink from that hellacious emotional-intellectual slurry. And from that inkwell, I write. I write the story from my blood and my gray matter. I write the story I need to see. I tell the story I have to tell, obsessively and anxiously.
21. A Writing Career Has An RPG-Like Progression
You start out some n00b punk sling-shotting rats in a tavern cellar, and then one day you level up and you go out into the world and you think it’s easy from here. You get new skills. You get new loot like shoes that help you jump really far or a feathered hat that calls birds to come dress you or regurgitate into your mouth or whatever. You get a new weapon: THE FANGBLOOD ELFSLAYER DRAGONSDONG BLADE. Then you go out into the new realm, into an uncharted land, and you find that your problems just have bigger teeth now. The rats are giants. The giants become dragons. The slaying must continue. As you get better, so too do your problems get better at being problems. As a writer, I find they’re all good problems to have — it’s just, it doesn’t really get easier, it just gets more complicated. You must make choices. Harder, trickier choices. What I’m saying is, it starts as a Bethesda RPG, then it becomes a goddamn Bioware one, oh shit.
22. It’s Also A Little Bit Jazz
It’s RPG, but it’s also improvisational jazz. It’s a riff here, a fill-in there, it’s syncopation and swing. Every paragraph, every page, every story, every book, even the whole damn career — it’s about rhythm, and changing rhythm, and it’s about composing the tune as you play it. You plan what you can, but the rest is experimentation. Sometimes it’s got that orgy-like component: you don’t know what’s going to happen, but you do know it’s time to take your pants off.
23. Storytelling Is The Art, Writing Is The Craft
Writing matters. It has rules. It can be artful or utilitarian, it can be languid or merciless. But it’s just the vehicle. We keep coming back to the authors we love — Atwood to Gaiman, King to Morrison — not merely because of the quality of their prose but because their stories are engaging. It’s the stories that matter. The art lives in the story. It’s the hardest and most essential part — you can write beautifully, but if the story there doesn’t sing, fuck you. The opposite is also (usually) true: the writing can be execrable, but as long as the story grips us by the nipples, we’ll buy the ticket and take the ride — and we’ll beg you for more when we’re done.
24. You Know A Whole Lot Less Than You Know, And That’s A Good Thing
Nobody knows what the fuck is going on. I’m convinced of that. We’re all just collaboratively guessing. And that’s a good thing. This isn’t math. You can’t plug numbers into X and Y and get a steady result. Every day of a writing career is exploring a new planet. All the truths you hold are likely half-truths or even cleverly-costumed lies. Embrace that. Every day I know less than I knew before, and I find that oddly and eerily liberating. It means I don’t have all the answers and neither do you. It means we’re all just drunkenly careening and caroming our way up the publishing mountain. Not just up the mountain — but we’re also navigating peaks and valleys, because the middle of a writing career involves the mitigation of cliffs. You always know one is coming: a year from now, maybe three, because at some point your contracts end and your deadlines are vapor and it’ll be time to write a story anew. And that requires reinvention big or small every time. New questions haunt us. New problems, too. We’re all navigating this weird, goofy-ass path over uncertain topography. And we’re doing it together. And did I mention we’re drunk? OMG we’re soooo fucking drunk. DRUNK ON THE CREATIVE SPIRIT. DRUNK ON STORY. DRUNK ON PROBABLY ALSO GIN IF YOU’RE ME. THAT’S ONE TRUTH THAT’S SELF-EVIDENT: DRINK MORE GIN. IT GIVES YOU WRITER SUPERPOWERS. ALSO EXPLAINS WHY I DON’T WEAR PANTS. WHERE AM I. WHO ARE YOU PEOPLE. DON’T DRINK MY GIN. *punches you*
25. Some Writers Have It, Some Don’t
Some writers have what it takes and others don’t. No, I don’t know what separates one from the other. I could make some guesses and I’d be right sometimes, wrong other times. One thing I know: it isn’t talent. Talent may or may not exist as a character trait, but those with it will fail if they don’t put in the work, trampled beneath the talentless mobs who do put in the time and the effort. Writing as a career takes a certain kind of obsessiveness and stubbornness, I think: the willingness to put a tin pail on your head as you run full-speed into a wall, hoping to knock it down. Again and again. Until the wall falls or you do. Sometimes I think maybe that the thing that separates those who have it from those who don’t is simply those who decide, “Fuck it, I’m a writer,” and then they do the thing. They choose to have it, to count themselves among that number rather than those who don’t. But I have no idea. I don’t know what the hell is going on. And neither to do you. What I know is this: writers write, so go write. Finish what you start.
The rest is negotiable.
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