So, people do their “what I learned writing MAH BOOK” guest posts here and so I thought, well, hell, why shouldn’t I do one, too? So, here we go, a five things I learned post, this time about what I learned writing that big-ass apocalyptic book, Wanderers.
Let us begin.
I Have No Idea What I’m Doing (And That’s Maybe A Good Thing?)
Let’s just get this out of the way right now: I do not know how to write a book. By which I mean, I do not have a reliable way to write a book. I thought I did. We begin as authors, I think, to take in and accept certain truisms — if not about Writing In General, than about Our Individual Processes. We just say, “Well, this is how we do this. I outline the book, I think up some character arcs, I pray to the Dark Goat Slorgath, I pour a phial of demon saliva in a cursed inkwell, and then I write the book, two thousand words a day until it is done.”
This book just didn’t conform.
It was big and wiggly.
(That’s also the name of my Morning Zoo radio show. Big and Wiggly 97.5! BIG AND WIGGLY ON YOUR FM DIAL. Wait. Are there still Morning Zoo shows? Is there still an FM dial?!)
This book just didn’t conform to the way I thought I did things. The words came steadily, but in great swings of word count amounts, and sometimes the words came in huge fits and starts. I didn’t even outline it the same way: it was more I wrote a series of chapters and then kinda filled in the blanks. And there came a point where I was coming up on deadline and… wasn’t anywhere near finished. When that happened I snapped into freelance mode and was like, “Boom, I can hit deadline, just let me do a time jump and we’ll get to the third act and I can make it work with some killer thriller pacing and–” And blessedly, my glorious editor, Tricia Narwani, told me not to do any of that. She just said to write the book. Let it be long, we can always edit it down later. Forget the deadline: just get the best book I could out of it. And I think that’s what happened. I think this is my best work, and it was done by doing almost everything… differently.
I don’t mean to suggest we’re not, in a way, experts at what we do. And I think we do need to sometimes trust the process. But sometimes we need to go beyond that, outside that, and trust ourselves more than the process. The process is not the book, and the book is not the process.
Size Doesn’t Matter, And Neither Does Time
It’s a big book. Let’s just get that out of the way. It’s 800 pages, ~280,000 words. And surprisingly, we didn’t cut much out of it. Maybe 5k, and mostly as line edits. And it took four years for the idea to marinate, six months to write, six months to edit, a year to shelves.
Books are gonna be what they’re gonna be. They’re gonna be as big as they gotta be and take the time that they need to take. That’s not to say every book should be this — and I don’t want you to think that the book is somehow sentient and will defy editing wisdom in order to stay a THICC, LORGE BOOKSON. And real talk: in most cases, if you’re a debut author, you’re not gonna have an easy time securing an agent with a 400-billion-page book. But sometimes, you just know what a book is, and what it has to be, and this book had to be what it is. Which is to say, a bonafide bison bludgeoner that took a long time to get here.
The First Steps Direct The Journey
In the first round of edits, there was one big problem with the book — one of the main characters, Benji Ray, a CDC EIS investigator, felt off. He was too together, too competent. He was too good and there wasn’t much struggle in the story beyond external circumstances. He felt more a mouthpiece than anything without much story to call his own. But characters need stories of their own; they must have agency and problems unique to them and separate from (if eventually intertwining with) the Bigger Story. Benji felt hollow, sadly.
Turns out, stuff like that nearly always cascades from the very beginning: stories can suffer from step on a butterfly here, make a hurricane there problems, and turns out, if you point the story in the wrong direction, even subtly so, from the get-go, you end up way off the fucking mark.
Took some changes at the beginning to his story to lock his whole narrative in, and braid it with the rest. And that change — which was adding the “disgraced” part to his role as “scientist” — lent not only him clarity, but also clarity to other aspects of the plot, complicating the entire moral dimension of the thing. This is a riff on the old saying that third act problems are really first act problems, and it’s true, to a point: sometimes you just have to fix the beginning to fix the ending.
A Good Editor Is Everything
Apropos to a number of these things I learned is a thing that I did not learn so much as was reminded of consistently through this process: a good editor is gold. Tricia is an astonishing editor. Her edit letters nail that perfect balance between being kind and brutal, and they aren’t afraid to really get into what the book is doing and what it’s saying. It means so much to have someone there who you trust with the story as much as, if not more than, yourself. Especially in those curious, vulnerable times where you’re just not sure what to do or where to go.
Trust me when I tell you: you won’t always have great editors. But when you do — it’s revelatory.
Light and Dark
In a book about the end of the world, you run a real risk of just being too damn dark. A ceaseless, grimdark parade. THINGS ARE BAD. DID YOU KNOW THEY’RE BAD? BAD BAD BAD BAD.
But I just can’t have that. I can’t have that first because I don’t want you to have to endure that kind of book, and also, I don’t wanna write that kind of book. Obviously, it’s not going to be a wacky fun-fest, writing the End Times, but my goal is to see that darkness and crank up some serious candlepower to blast a hole through it. And that means writing the darkness away with hope and heart and even humor. A campfire to push back the night.
The horror I like to write isn’t the kind where the horror wins. I think evil can be beaten — if only temporarily, and only after a vicious, sometimes Pyrrhic victory. I just can’t give into nihilism. Not now. Not with all that’s going on — both in the book, and off the page.
Part of the thing with this book is, it’s full of anxieties, right? My anxieties, but I’m betting, yours too. (I mean, have you read the news?) But I don’t want those anxieties just to be there on the page, running rampant, only there to scare your pucker shut. I want to treat it like a summoning circle: I’m summoning the demon and trapping it into the circle —
Because there, we can kill it.
Or at least wrestle it. Learn from it. Maybe even calm it down a little.
So, for me there’s value in bringing the darkness in —
And then pinning it to the floor with a spear of light.
You can’t beat all the darkness.
But you can beat back a little of it. And I hope Wanderers manages to do exactly that.
Hope you check it out and enjoy.
And you can add it on Goodreads.