This year, I’ve written — *checks psychic spreadsheet* — four novels. Bait Dog, Gods & Monsters: Unclean Spirits, Dinocalypse Now, and (finishing up this week), The Blue Blazes. I also wrote a novella, Bad Blood, which includes the next appearance of everybody’s favorite vampire-in-Zombieland, Coburn.
By this year I also have — *consults little man who lives in my mind* — five novels out in the world. Blackbirds, Mockingbird, Double Dead, Dinocalypse Now, and Bait Dog. (I apparently like ‘b’ and ‘d’ words. Eventually I’ll write one giant magnum opus called Blackdead Dinodog: The Baited Blood of Bad Bluebird.)
In the next year I am slated to write and/or publish — *polls the bacterial choir that lives inside my colonic labyrinth* — seven more books. Got the three books of my young adult cornpunk Heartland trilogy, got two more books in the Dinocalypse Spirit of the Century universe, have another Atlanta Burns book (Harum Scarum) and the third Miriam Black book (The Cormorant).
I do not list these things as a humble-brag (though, make no mistake, it is a humble-brag, because I am a proud peacock over here), but only to note that somehow, I fell face first into a novel-writing gig. And further to note that, maybe it’s time I wrote a post on exactly how this motherfucker right here — *points to me and the squirming bundle of sentient cilia I call a ‘beard’* — writes a book.
That’s not to say this is how you should write a book. I’m just putting out these breadcrumbs — you may choose another path through this dark forest of novel-writing. People ask me how I do it, so here’s my answer.
This is going to be a long post, so get some tea and bolster your fortitude.
The Idea Skirts Past My Orbital Defenses
The question for writers should never be, “How do you get your ideas?” but rather, “How do you shut them up to get a night’s sleep?” My mind is a moon colony constantly being pelted by little fiery asteroid-ideas. Ideas are not my problem: they fill up the ol’ brain-bucket pretty quick.
The problem is figuring out which ideas are:
a) interesting to me beyond the moment in which they are conceived
b) potentially interesting to other humans who are not me
c) potentially interesting to the giant amorphous blob known as the “publishing industry”
d) about a character in a world and not just a world
and de actionable, meaning, an idea that suggests a book I’m actually capable of writing.
If an idea checks each check-box with a jaunty slash, then I write that sonofabitch down. I write it down on my phone at first (sometimes using voice recognition if I’m driving or walking or playing racquetball or hunting humans for sport), and then later I dump it into a file I’ve created that’s meant to be a storehouse of such potential ideas. For the record, this dump file now looks like the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Shelves and shelves of crates and boxes, each a mystery container whose story remains untold.
I Barf Up A Blob Of Incoherent Thoughts
Once I’m ready to take the idea beyond that core seed of an idea (“Wouldn’t it be crazy if a cat was president?!”), I fish it out of its swampy mud-hole and hoist it into the light.
Then I start writing. Nothing concrete. Rarely anything that’s actual story. Mostly just notes and thoughts. And a lot of questions. What kind of cat is it? Is the cat a good president or a bad president? Will the cat have nuclear codes? Will the press discover the cat’s cocaine addiction (SEE YOU THOUGHT IT’D BE CATNIP BUT NOOOO THE CAT IS A LITTLE BLOW-MONKEY) and will that damage re-election chances?
The notes taken at this stage are almost stream-of-consciousness. Sentence fragments, mis-spelled words, grocery list thoughts interspersed in the middle, whatever. It’s just to ruminate on the idea. And it’s also to test the idea in a way. Is there more here than than initial idea? A great many ideas are dead seeds planned in fallow ground — they won’t grow a good goddamn thing. So, this stage of the game is very much about seeing if this thing has legs. Will it walk? Can it run?
The Critical Questions
I ask myself a handful of “cardinal” questions —
What is it about?
The answer to this isn’t about plot. It’s about the deeper, weirder answer. Like, if we were out in the jungle high on some kind of jaguar gland, I’d grab the idea by the shoulders and say, “No, man, what are you really about?” This is me starting to skirt around the idea of theme — the argument I want this story to make.
Why the hell do I want to write this?
If the answer is, “Because it’ll get published,” then fuck that. If the answer is, “Because it’s popular right now and will earn me big money,” then fuck that, too. If the answer is, “Because it’s cool,” then — drum roll please — fuck that. I need more. The answer has to be meaningful to me before anyone else.
Why will anybody care?
Some ideas are for me and for me only. I’d love to one day write them but if I think they’re too personal or too abstract to bring to an audience, I won’t bother. It has to be both a thing that’s meaningful to me and a thing that I hope will be meaningful to the audience, too. This isn’t the type of answer I can really predict; I do not live inside the collective hive-mind that is the aggregated audience. But I can generally spot a story that lives and dies with my own interest in it.
Who The Fuck Are These People?
Characters are the way through every story. As such, they are the most important component of a story — and it’s quite likely by now I’ve already got one or a few characters in mind for the story. Now it’s time to really hammer them into a gory, sticky paste and see what secret truths lie contained in those piles of steampunk gears and sloppy viscera.
Once again I look for some of the same things I looked for earlier: I’ll turn to a series of insane rambling notes turns into a test to see if these characters are interesting and readable. (Fuck likable.)
Just as I need to know what a story is about, I also need to know who a character is. And in the same way the answer must go deeper than, “He’s a cat who gets elected president of the United States.” Again the jaguar-gland shaman grabs me and shakes me and says, “No, man, who is the character really?”
Then the questions of, why do I dig this character?
Why do I think anyone would want to read this character?
What makes the character compelling?
Then: I suss out the characters wants, needs, and fears. What does the character need to keep going? What does the character want — whether consciously or unconsciously? What will drive him as a goal throughout this story? And finally, what does he fear? Obstacles in a character’s path are critical, and some of those obstacles must be bound up with the character’s fears.
Finally, I do a little three-beat character arc for the character. Three words or sentences that are meant to indicate the state of the character across the story — beginning, middle, and end.
Poor cat down on his luck wants to see a change in this country –> elected president, way over his kitty head –> once again a poor cat but now knows the intimate details of the democratic process and oh did I mention he nuked the middle of our own country into oblivion.
The three beats could be fairly succinct — consider the simple mythic arc of Maiden –> Mother — > Crone. Or, as per the vampire in Double Dead, Predator –> Protector –> Penitent. When conceiving of Miriam Black’s arc in Mockingbird my only three notes were: Selfish Vulture –> Pecking Crow –> Reluctant Raptor.
I Write A Pitch
At this point, I write a preliminary pitch. First a logline, meaning, a single sentence that sums the story up. (“A cat is elevated from poverty and is elected president only to learn that cats shouldn’t ever serve in public office because cats are assholes.”) Some call this the “elevator pitch.”
Then I write a longer pitch — under 500 words — that acts like a bigger, blown-out version of back-cover text for the book. Hits key concepts and the larger story without giving much away. In part because I don’t have much to give away — I don’t necessarily have the total story in mind by this point. I’m writing this for me in order to boil the thing down as a simple referential document.
Building Something Out Of Nothing
The Miriam Black books didn’t take much in terms of research or worldbuilding. On the other hand, The Blue Blazes required a good bit of that — but even here I did as little of it as I could manage. Meaning, I did just enough work to get me to the starting line. I know my own crazy habits and I’ll get buried in details if I let myself (“I just spent two weeks reading about the sexual habits of housecats”), so I do the work that needs to be done now. The rest can come as I write, or even in a second (third, fourth, thirty-seventh) draft.
Alpha And Omega
I figure out what I want to be the beginning of the story. And then I figure out its end.
Some folks hate to figure out the ending, because they like to be surprised. (To me this is the same dilemma of whether or not you want to know the sex of your baby before it’s born — to me, it’s still a surprise if I learn that fact at 20 weeks and that gives me another 20 weeks to figure out what kind of clothes to buy the little critter.) To me, the need for pragmatism outweighs my bullshit need for magic while writing. A houseplant survives on water — an actual thing based in reality, not the whimsy of unicorn dreams.
Here’s why I like to have the beginning and the ending in mind: because as I write, my eventual outline will fail me. It just will. No plan survives contact with the enemy and eventually I’ll be somewhere in the middle of the book, spinning wildly in the swampy mire of my own fiction not sure exactly what to do next. And when that happens I will look to the ending and I will say, “I need to go there,” and then I will march the story toward that point and eventually get the outline (which by now may require modification) back on track.
For me a novel is essentially a lesson in drunk driving (DO NOT DRINK AND DRIVE THIS IS A METAPHOR): it’s me starting at the beginning and then revving the engine and speeding sloppily and swerving dramatically toward what I’ve conceived to be the ending.
The end doesn’t need to actually remain in place — I can change it as I go.
But it’s a good thing to have in mind as I begin.
Oh! I also like to have some degree of parity between beginning and the end, some elemental or thematic or even physical aspect that links the two together across the space-time-continuum that is the rest of the story. (In the Mookie Pearl short story, “Charcuterie,” it begins and ends with him pulling up at the bar with his friend and boss, Werth. Hint, hint, the novel may have a similar book-end.)
I Start Building The Skeleton One Bone At A Time
Time to outline.
I do not have a single way I outline.
In fact, every book has suffered a different outline than the former.
Generally speaking, I first figure out a four-act structure — beginning, middle 1, middle 2, ending. Two acts lead to a critical plot-changing or escalating midpoint, which then carries us to another two acts.
Then I figure out tentpole moments (aka SHIT THAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN OR THE WHOLE TENT FALLS DOWN AND SMOTHERS US ALL UNDER ITS COLORFUL FABRIC) and then I write the key story beats that get me from one tentpole to the next and to the next after that.
Sometimes I hammer out critical story structure beats I hope to hit (a reversal of fortune, a key betrayal, a battle scene). I’m also always on the look out for at least one HOLY SHIT NO HE DIDN’T moment — some jaw-dropping pants-crapping event or revelation in the narrative that sticks you in the ribs with a story shiv. I like those moments. One of my favorite things is obliterating reader expectations in one fell swoop.
Sometimes This Stuff Lives In A Folder For Months, Years, Epochs
This might seem like the perfect time for me to jump into the story with a speargun and a wetsuit, but that’s not necessarily gonna happen. The Blue Blazes sat at this stage for many months until a gap opened up in my schedule (and, not coincidentally, this gap is just before my deadline to turn the book into my grumpy cyborg masters). Sometimes this stuff incubates in a folder for a while until the time comes.
The God Of The Ancient Grid Calls To Me
Spreadsheets. Used to hate the very idea. Now, I am married to them.
One spreadsheet I particularly require is the one that keeps all my writing schedule on it. I don’t use a calendar — I use Excel. I have the whole year planned out in terms of when my deadlines are and where the books slot in. (Then I also identify gaps and, ideally, figure out how to best use those gaps.)
I always assume I’ll write 2000 words a day and no more than that — by which I mean, that’s what I put on the spreadsheet. That’s 10k a week and, if I’m writing an 80k novel, that’s eight weeks or roughly two months. Now, I tend to write more than that, particularly if it’s a book I’m really feeling (Mockingbird was written in a month), but that then leaves me some padding, which is great.
As I write, I’ll also note in the spreadsheet “real daily word count” versus the 2k “projected” and that’ll show me if I did more or less (and by what amount). Most days are more, but inevitably I’ll have those days where I write less due to the vagaries of human existence (toddler meltdown, holiday, sick day, sentient cat swarm). That’ll give me a far better SITREP as I’m on the ground crawling through the word-trenches.
Then I write.
Nothing fancy here.
I write. I write with my head down. I write linearly, first page to the last page. I write without listening to the doubting voice that tells me I’m a total asshole for even trying this. I write without regard to safety or sanity. I write with the freedom to suck and the hope that I don’t. I write to finish the shit that I started.
I do a pass before I give it to anybody. If I have a lot of time, I’ll do a robust pass and take a lot of notes (almost a truncated process of what I’ve already gone through). If I don’t have a lot of time, I’ll do a Hail Mary pass and run through it with a manic gleam in my eye and a clumsily-swiping word scalpel.
The Agent Pass
The agent is wise. I’m very fortunate to have an agent who was a former editor and who is a smart, smart story-thinker. So, she gets a pass. A very important pass, indeed.
The Editor / Publisher Pass
Turns out, the publisher has, y’know, opinions on the work. That said, my work has at present not undergone any epic changes from a publisher — the draft I send them has by and large been the draft you see in your hands when it’s published. This is, in part, because the agent pass is often a robust one (Heartland, Book One was rewritten many times over the course of a year before submission and by its end, ~50% of the book was drastically rewritten.) And in part, I hope, because I’m not totally shitty.
The Hands Of The Gods
Then it goes out into the world. Outside my control.
It lives. It lands. Hopefully you like it. Maybe you don’t.
But what’s done is done.
And then it’s onto the next one.
Writing forward. Always writing forward.
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