Linda Nagata: Five Things I Learned Writing The Last Good Man
Scarred by war. In pursuit of truth.
Army veteran True Brighton left the service when the development of robotic helicopters made her training as a pilot obsolete. Now she works at Requisite Operations, a private military company established by friend and former Special Ops soldier Lincoln Han. ReqOp has embraced the new technologies. Robotics, big data, and artificial intelligence are all tools used to augment the skills of veteran warfighters-for-hire. But the tragedy of war is still measured in human casualties, and when True makes a chance discovery during a rescue mission, old wounds are ripped open. She’s left questioning what she knows of the past, and resolves to pursue the truth, whatever the cost.
“…a thrilling novel that lays bare the imminent future of warfare.” —Publishers Weekly starred review
Some novels are hard to write and some novels are really, really hard. The Last Good Man was the latter type, hard-fought from beginning to end. It was also my fourteenth novel. You’d think I would have learned how to do this by now—but every novel presents a different challenge. These are some of the lessons I picked up from The Last Good Man.
Don’t look too far ahead.
I’m a plotter. Before I start a novel, I’ll create a rough (really rough) outline that includes some way of ending the story. So when I say, “Don’t look too far ahead,” I’m not talking about the bare bones of plot, but rather about all the shiny details that will put flesh on those bones.
This is a lesson I have to relearn with every novel. I think for some novelists, the great blank canvas at the start of a project is thrilling in an anything-is-possible way. But for some of us the knowledge that the blank canvas needs to be filled in with great story, compelling characters, and scintillating descriptions is overwhelming and intimidating. So I try not to look too far ahead. I try not to think too hard about all that will be required of me between the beginning and the end because that will only conjure fear: the fear of not living up to the project’s potential, of not being up to the task of bringing to life the work I want to create… and fear is debilitating. Far better to focus on the immediate task, the simple day-to-day accumulation of words.
That’s easy to say, of course, but often it’s hard to do. That’s why…
Sometimes it helps to lie to yourself.
My persistent lie as I was writing The Last Good Man was that this novel was going to be 100,000 words, no more. That’s a good length. Not a doorstop, but plenty of room for story. It’s also easy to measure progress—10,000 words? Hey, I’m already 10% done! (Wow, now that’s a lie so extreme—ignoring all the revision to come—that I shiver.) Still, if bogus cheerleading gets the job done, then cheer away! That’s my philosophy, even though, deep down, I knew this novel was destined to shoot right past that handy 100K mark.
It’s possible to start over while still moving ahead.
Hard-fought, remember? From the start, I was scrabbling through literary badlands, hunting for good words, gathering them up into paragraphs and chapters—but it all felt thin, inadequate, and bland. So, thirty thousand words in, I started over. Sort of.
I’d been writing in past tense, but one day I shifted to present tense and decided I liked the energy of it. So I stuck with it—and that meant I needed to rewrite everything that had come before. In other words, start over.
But I didn’t start over at the beginning. Instead, I spent my mornings writing the new parts in present tense, and then, at the end of the day, I dropped back to the most recent past-tense chapters and rewrote those, working backward toward the beginning.
Why did I work backward? I have no idea! But it worked, and I was far, far happier with the tone of the novel.
Escaping the clutches of the past takes time.
Writing a novel is an emotional process. It’s like being in a relationship. You think, this one is special. You give it your all. You just know it’s all going to work out. Your early readers agree. The reviews come in and it’s all great. Maybe you write another book or two, make it a series. But at some point, it’s over. You have to let go, you have to move on, and that’s not always easy.
My project prior to The Last Good Man was the Red trilogy and I was proud of those books. For a while it looked like the trilogy would be my breakout work…but somehow that didn’t quite happen, and like a bad breakup, it took time to really accept that and to move on, and to let myself connect emotionally with another project. I was over 65,000 words into The Last Good Man before I reached that point. So keep going! It will happen.
Every novel is different, so be prepared to break your own rules.
Every writer is different, for sure. We all have our own methods, our own rules. Since the beginning of time, one of my rules has been don’t show a partial draft to anyone.
Okay. I admit that when required—and it’s been rare in my career—I’ve sent a synopsis and maybe a few thousand words to editor or agent. But I don’t think I’ve ever shared partials with writers groups or critique partners, partly because I’m shy about my unfinished work, but more importantly, it’s my belief that an early draft is a fragile thing. Sharing it is a risk. If an early beta reader tells me that the-story-so-far is boring, or silly, or incomprehensible, or whatever, there’s a good chance I’ll believe them. Self-doubt is always lurking, ready to grow more powerful with the least encouragement. So my philosophy is to finish the story first, then face the beast. Er, I mean my very helpful beta readers.
But with The Last Good Man I reached a point where I was stuck. I’d been struggling with it for months and though I had over 70,000 words I also had two contending protagonists and I still didn’t know whose story it really was—which meant that I didn’t know how to end it. So I broke my rule and sent what I had to my freelance editor, Judith Tarr, who’d worked with me on the Red trilogy. Judy did a terrible thing. She read and responded to the partial in about three days when I wanted to take at least a week off! But her feedback proved to be the turning point. It made me consider more deeply what the novel was about and what the ending might be, and from then on I made swift progress through to the end—which I reached just shy of 140,000 words.
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Linda is a Nebula and Locus-award-winning writer, best known for her high-tech science fiction, including the Red trilogy, a series of near-future military thrillers. The first book in the trilogy, The Red: First Light, was a Nebula and John W. Campbell Memorial-award finalist, and named as a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2015. Her short fiction has appeared in Analog, Asimov’s, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Lightspeed, Nightmare, and several anthologies.
Linda has lived most of her life in Hawaii, where she’s been a writer, a mom, a programmer of database-driven websites, and an independent publisher. She lives with her husband in their long-time home on the island of Maui.