Bryan Camp: Five Things I Learned Writing The City Of Lost Fortunes
In 2011, Post-Katrina New Orleans is a place haunted by its history and by the hurricane’s destruction, a place that is hoping to survive the rebuilding of its present long enough to ensure that it has a future. Street magician Jude Dubuisson is likewise burdened by his past and by the consequences of the storm, because he has a secret: the magical ability to find lost things, a gift passed down to him by the father he has never known—a father who just happens to be a god. When the debt Jude owes to a fortune deity gets called in, he finds himself sitting in on a poker game with the gods of New Orleans, who are playing for the heart and soul of the city itself.
You Never Sell the First Book, Even When You Do:
THE CITY OF LOST FORTUNES is my debut novel, a murder mystery about a demigod with the supernatural ability to find lost things who gets caught up in a magical poker game. The first book I ever wrote to completion was also about a demigod who found lost things involved in a poker game, but they are not, in fact, the same book. I finished the first draft of this other, not-my-debut-novel book (which had a very different protagonist, title, and theme) at some point in 2006. I didn’t sell THE CITY OF LOST FORTUNES until late 2016. Over the course of that decade, I wrote a whole new draft as my thesis for my MFA, another draft after I graduated from Clarion West, and ANOTHER draft as a “revise and resubmit” for my now-agent Seth Fishman.
Throughout this whole process I kept seeing writers saying that before they sold their first novel, they wrote two, three, even five novels and stuck ‘em in a drawer. So every once in a while I’d do a little math. “So, B,” I’d say to myself. “You’ve been writing this book for five years now. If you trunk it now, write and trunk another one, you might sell that third book. In like, a decade.”
Aaaaaand then I was Artax, and the Swamp of Sadness had me.
What I didn’t realize at the time, though, was that I had novels in the trunk already. They just happened to be clones of the book I was writing. Sad, broken clones who would never survive outside the lab. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that they were Pokemon who hadn’t hit their final evolution yet. Little lizards with smoldering tails instead of the giant fuck-off dragon of wrath and terror I wanted to create.
The point is, nobody knocks it out of the park on their first at-bat, even if that’s sometimes the narrative marketing wants to sell you. Everyone has to fail at writing a book before they can succeed at it. Whether that means a bunch of different books or one book over and over again is really up to you.
Your First Draft is (Probably) Not As Good As You Think:
For every writer I’ve ever spoken to on the subject, there are times (usually for me towards the middle and end of a first draft) where you are writing with white-hot, incandescent brilliance. You’re still you, but you’re the Avatar-state you, eyes all glow-y and the four elements leaping to your whim. The words aren’t just flowing, they’re goddamn pyroclastic. You’re Odin on Hlidskjalf, the high seat, where you and your twin ravens “Hell Yeah” and “Fuck Yes” can see the entire world laid out before you. Everything fits together like you’re playing Tetris with a cheat code. Whole chapters, which seemed intimidating before, fall before the might of your genius in one fell swoop.
You laugh in the face of the publishing industry.
And then the high passes, hopefully after you’ve gotten to the end of the thing you’re writing, and you re-read this deathless prose of yours which you just know is going to change the world and it’s . . . fine. Some of it’s probably pretty good, and some of it needs some work. But you can’t really distinguish an “I am a Golden God” day from any average day of word-smithing. “But I was in god-mode,” you whine. (Maybe you don’t whine. I do.) “Where did all those amazing words go?” The fact of the matter is that they weren’t all that amazing to begin with. They just felt amazing, because you felt amazing, because you were actually doing the thing. You were riding a joy-wave of progress, not brilliance.
I think this is why some writers say they hate revision. Nobody truly hates making their story better. What they truly hate is returning to the words that felt brilliant when they wrote them and realizing that they’re just as first-draft-y as the rest of it.
What I learned in writing draft after draft of CITY is that this surge is normal, universal, and damn near predictable. Knowing that this surge of good vibes comes from effort and progress and not some ethereal muse means you can try to work towards it instead of worrying that you’ve lost the magic forever, and the knowledge that a writer in the unrelenting grip of the work is an unreliable judge of the quality of that work means . . .
Your First Draft is (Definitely) Not As Bad As You Think:
For every day that you are a literary Titan striding across the land with a fistful of linguistic thunderbolts in one hand and a Leviathan-sized cup of coffee in the other, there are about a dozen at least a few days where you are laying down the fiction at a blistering speed of a word every other minute and then deleting the sentence as soon as it’s finished. It feels like you’re attempting to build one of those mortar-less walls where every stone has to align perfectly, but instead of trying to fit different sizes and shapes of rock together without seams, you’re working with a wide variety of excrement. “Gee,” you wonder, “does this dog turd go better with this pile of wet cat crap, or should I pair it with that mound of elephant feces over yonder?” Word after word, sentence after sentence, and all it feels like you’re doing is mashing together two fistfuls of shit. And what’s worse, you’re not even doing it correctly.
The thing I learned, the unfair, maddening secret that I’ve stumbled across in writing and rewriting and rewriting this book is this: when you’ve finished your 70 or 80 or 100 thousand words of this thing . . . you’ll find it difficult to know which of those handfuls of words came on a brilliant day or a crap one. The words are just the words, by and large. The struggle is in your brain.
And speaking of brains, let’s talk about revision!
Fear is the Mindkiller:
When I first sent the full manuscript of the novel-just-before-my-debut-novel (which was still pretty different from THE CITY OF LOST FORTUNES) he kicked it back to me with some notes. The beginning and the early part of the middle moved a little too slowly. The main character’s motivation needed clearing up. It took too long to get to the crux of the conflict. He used the word “muddled.” (That’s always the description you want your agent to use.) “Take another crack at it,” he said, “give’r a whirl ‘round the ol’ revision wheel and see how she spins out.” (Seth doesn’t actually sound anything like this, but in my head, all literary agents are barkers in an old-timey travelling carnival. Don’t ask.)
So I re-read my book, and I made a list of all the things Seth suggested I should change . . . and I froze. Like an antelope in headlights. You see, I was this close. Big time agent! Revision instead of rejection! We talked on the phone! I could see it all so clearly: I would sign with Seth, who would sell my novel for an embarrassing amount of money, and I could quit and work full time as a writer and I’d look good in photographs I didn’t even know people were taking and then Gaiman and Valente would show up to invite me to the secret cool writer club and . . . all I had to do to get everything I’d ever wanted was to not fuck up these revisions. Let’s skim right over the part where “everything I’d ever wanted” didn’t actually hinge on this one moment, and go right to the part where I approached these revisions from a place of fear. A place of “there was this one little spark of magic in the book, and if I change too much, I’ll ruin it.” So I changed as little as possible. I sweated and panicked and fretted and doubted everything I did. Three months of working with a constant refrain of “please don’t fuck up, please don’t fuck up” running through my head, and then, bitter and defeated, I sent it back to Seth.
Spoiler: I fucked up.
His reaction was, essentially, that it looked like I’d changed as little as possible. That my problems were bigger than a couple of shifts and adjustments. He told me, a little less gently than he did the first time, that I needed to rewrite the book instead of tinkering with it.
That kind of failure was strangely freeing. The thing I feared most, taking my one shot and missing, had happened. So I could do whatever the hell I wanted. Turned out, what I wanted most was to write the book I should have written all along. And so I came back to the book without fear, took it apart, and rewrote it. I took a reveal which It took me a year. I won’t tell you how much of that year was spent getting over my abject failure and how much of it was spent actually writing, but when that year was over, I had the final draft of the book, signed with Seth, and sold it.
If You’re Gonna Stay, You’re Gonna Work:
After a year of writing the final-ish version of this book, I’m not sure what reaction I expected from Seth. If I had made a list of potential responses, though, suggesting that the novel was pretty solid except that I should maybe delete a character who was in the entire goddamn book probably wouldn’t have made the list. But that’s what he said. After a few minutes of full on shock, I considered the idea. It took pretty much everything I’d learned in the previous decade or so to be able to do what I did next. Knowing that I’d already written multiple versions of a novel told me that I had the faith in the book to suffer through a major revision. Knowing that my fond memories of how brilliantly I’d written the character were unreliable made me comfortable with cutting the character out entirely. Knowing that fear only leads to failure but determined gets shit done helped me crack my knuckles and wade on in.
So I looked at this character who had been in every previous version of the book. Who was one of the suspects in a murder mystery. Who showed up both the first chapter and the last, and more than a couple in between. And over the course of three days, I snipped that character out entirely.
Because Seth was right, the character didn’t do much. I narrowed it down to a single scene where, if they weren’t there, the book didn’t work. Was there another character who could fill that role? Turned out there was. Which leads me to the last thing I learned writing this book, which is that every part of the book has to carry its load. Character and tone and setting and sentence structure and on and on. It doesn’t just have to fit, it has to work. And if it doesn’t, it’s gotta go.
All in all, it took me ten years to write my debut novel. It took me about ten months to write my second one. I learned a lot writing that one, too. But that, as they say, is another story.
* * *
Bryan Camp is a graduate of the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop and the University of New Orleans’ Low-Residency MFA program. He started his first novel, The City of Lost Fortunes, in the backseat of his parents’ car as they evacuated for Hurricane Katrina. He has been, at various points in his life: a security guard at a stockcar race track, a printer in a flag factory, an office worker in an oil refinery, and a high school English teacher. He lives in New Orleans with his wife and their three cats, one of whom is named after a superhero.
Bryan Camp: Website