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Sean Grigsby: Five Things I Learned Writing Smoke Eaters

When dragons rise from the earth, firefighters are humanity’s last line of defense, in this wild near-future fantasy.

Firefighter Cole Brannigan is on the verge of retirement after 30 years on the job, and a decade fighting dragons. But during his final fire call, he discovers he’s immune to dragon smoke. It’s such a rare power that he’s immediately conscripted into the elite dragon-fighting force known as the Smoke Eaters.  Retirement cancelled, Brannigan is re-assigned as a lowly rookie, chafing under his superiors. So when he discovers a plot to take over the city’s government, he takes matters into his own hands. With hundreds of innocent civilians in the crosshairs, it’s up to Brannigan and his fellow Smoke Eaters to repel the dragon menace.

1- Simple concepts can ignite big stories

A lot of people agree that what makes a great story is its complexity: complex characters, a plot that winds and twists so much, you’ll look over your shoulder to make sure David Bowie isn’t following you with Muppets and a bulge in his magical, gray yoga pants.

But this is not the same as a concept or hook, and I’m sure you’ll find that a great story also has a very distilled description.

Before Smoke Eaters, I’d written four novels and all of them took at least a sentence to describe. Then came the day I was sitting in a firefighter class where the three-word premise of Smoke Eaters popped into my head: firefighters vs. dragons.

When I told my agent and others about it, they reacted with so much enthusiasm. Wow. Three words did that?! Many were surprised it hadn’t been done before, it makes so much sense. And I guess the fact that I’m a professional firefighter helps.

Now that the book is finished, you can add a few more words to it: firefighters vs. dragons in the future. There’s a lot more going on, of course, but that simple concept sparked a much larger story.

2 – You have to fight for your write

Time to write isn’t going to fall into your lap. You have to make time. Huh. Seems like you might have heard that a few times before. Maybe even on this website.

As a firefighter, I work for twenty-four hours and then go home for forty-eight before I have to do it all over again. I’m also a dad to two toddlers and an eight-year-old stepson.

My daily writing goal is a thousand words. No, I don’t always make it. When I write at the firehouse, I have to ensure we don’t have anything else going on like a school presentation, testing hydrants and hoses, or inspecting businesses for fire hazards. That’s not even taking into account the emergencies I have to respond to. There were many times while writing Smoke Eaters (and still) where I would be on a roll at the keyboard and the emergency tones would sound. Then the voice over the radio would send me to put out a fire, perform CPR on someone who overdosed on heroin, or hold pressure to stop the bleeding from a man who decided it was a great day for self-castration.

But then I would return to the firehouse and get back to writing.

Don’t get me wrong. Some days it just ain’t happening. I’m either too tired or there’s just too much going on. That’s reasonable. I’m here to tell you that, no, you don’t have to write every day. But it’s great to try.

3 – It’s okay to write what you know

For a long time I heard the writing advice “write what you know.” I thought it was bullshit. Yeah, yeah there are many ways to define that little pearl of wisdom, but I’m talking face value. For me, writing is the same as reading something unexpected. It’s an adventure. Fighting fire is something I know. Where would the surprise be? I didn’t want to write about firefighters, I wanted to write about lesbian, laser-wheeled motorcycle gangs in space. And I did.

After I got the idea for Smoke Eaters, though, I knew I could do it my way. I could talk about what it meant to be a firefighter, the culture, the stress, all the many, many swear words. But I could also throw in all kinds of curiosities from science fiction, fantasy, and horror.

Which brings us to…

4 – You can write whatever the fuck you want!

Dragons? Check. Firefighters? Check.

But what you might not know about Smoke Eaters is that I’ve also included ghosts, robots (including a metal Dalmatian that only speaks Korean), a cyberpunk Canada, laser swords, power suits, and a bunch of other cool stuff.

Why? Because I wanted to. I fully believe in letting your imagination roam wild. That’s why I love writing speculative fiction. This isn’t to say that you should get to the end of your epic fantasy and have space unicorns invade and poke everybody in the butt with their horns. But, hell, if you’ve done the preliminary work where that would make sense: go for it!

Sometimes when I write, a thought tries to dissuade me from doing a certain thing. A few times this is just logic. Most of the time, however, this is pure, assholey fear. Fuck fear. If it’s what you want to do and it makes sense: do it. Don’t hold yourself back because you think the market wouldn’t want Karen and Debbie to get married on top of a giant puff of cotton candy in the Triangulum galaxy.

When I first set out to write Smoke Eaters, I kept seeing the beginning in my head. It was an ash-covered wasteland where a ragged ghost (wraith) floated over the desolation, groaning. I don’t know where the hell this image came from! I thought I was going to be writing about dragons. But as I developed the story, the wraiths became a big part of the plot and I tied it all together. Now, I couldn’t imagine the book without them.

You are in charge of your story.

5 – keep moving forward

So, while Smoke Eaters is my debut novel, it’s the fifth that I’ve written and the second I’ve had on submission. I’m on the low end of the spectrum, too. Some writers had to write a ton more than that before they got published.

Rejection, obviously, is a big part of publishing, but there are a lot of other flaming balls of shit that can fall into your path. The only thing you can do about it is to write more stuff, new stuff, different stuff. Don’t get hung up on one work. You still might sell it later, but I am a big proponent of starting something completely new each and every time. You get better that way. I talk about persistence a lot on my podcast, Cosmic Dragon, and in general. It’s what separates pros from coulda-beens.

And persistence doesn’t stop with the business side. I still read books on craft, listen to podcasts about writing, and watch YouTube videos about it. Never stop learning. It’s something they teach us in the fire service, and it’s just as valid in the business of lying on paper for a living.

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Sean Grigsby is a professional firefighter in central Arkansas, where he writes about lasers, aliens, and guitar battles with the Devil when he’s not fighting dragons. He hosts the Cosmic Dragon podcast and grew up on Goosebumps books in Memphis, TN.

Sean Grigsby: Website

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