Jeff Macfee: Five Things I Learned Writing Nine Tenths


I’m a new writer who’s not a new writer. 

What I mean is, I’ve been writing a looong time and only now do I have a debut novel. Experience (or age) doesn’t make me unique in any sense, but it adds a certain perspective to this whole ride. My expectations are…lower? Don’t get me wrong, I’m very interested in my books existing. Being read! Selling! Made into comics, tv, and movies! But I don’t expect those things, at least, not anymore. I did, in the early days, despite telling myself I was a realist.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. Ha.

I could write pages of the things I believed before writing NINE TENTHS that I’ve since set aside, for the better. I’ll share five of them with you, because five is Chuck’s limit and he won’t let me out of the cellar if I disobey.

I’m A Morning Writer, Or You Control Your Environment

This lesson was the simplest. In the early years I worked in the late afternoon or early evening because life, or so I thought. In reality, I slept late. I could have been writing, but I chose sleep. Fine, if that works for you. It didn’t work for me. A lot of my late-day production was a slog.

Enter children and school.

What ye olde folks don’t tell you is when your kids go to school, so do you. The hours, the activities, the homework–the whole burden returns. My precious morning sleep disappeared. I wasn’t busy for an entire extra two hours, but I certainly had to function earlier in the day. I realized since I was awake, I might as well write. And at that hour (now) the words flowed easier than in the evening. My brain wasn’t mush from a full day of “other work”. I was energized and eager to attack the novel in progress. The scheduling switch didn’t occur to me organically—it took my children starting school for me to pivot to morning writing. I wish I’d learned (earlier) to play with scheduling, and jumpstart my creativity.

This is not me saying you should write in the morning. This is me saying you should learn when you’re most productive, and write then, as much as life allows. Sometimes you’ll have to make trade-offs. (Dream about donuts or wake up and finish that novel because no one else will.)

I Wasn’t The Second Coming Of FAMOUS WRITER

You’d think I’d know better. EVERYONE falls for this. And I certainly said the correct things, out loud. But inside my head, I marched to a different drum. They’re going to think you’re amazing. I could hear them. Look at this guy, he nailed a bestseller on the first try. Established authors would contemplate their own work, the horror dawning as they realized I was so much better at everything literary.

Please see extended laughter above.

Turned out, I had no idea what I was doing. I relied on plenty of cheap writing tricks. My plots lacked direction and urgency. My characters had no agency. I cobbled together approaches and themes from various authors I happened to be reading–pastiche. Again, this experience isn’t atypical. I mention it so maybe a handful of you manage to silence your early author hubris. I mean, confidence is valuable, but then there’s delusion.

I learned I had skill gaps. I still do. And that’s fine. I can be the writer I am. So can you.

What You Think Is Clever Dialog Is Not A Story

Up until very recently I wrote dialog with a blind eye. Early feedback complimented my dialog, and in a world where I had any number of other writing struggles, I was more than happy to believe I had dialog sewn up. At least I know how people talk and translate that to the page. In my head, the characters bantered endlessly, entertaining with every word they uttered and I transcribed. Cut the dialog, I thought to myself. But, it’s so good.

Again, see cruel laughter above.

At the risk of sounding like a jerk, my dialog wasn’t bad. Dialog writing was one of the easiest parts of the process, for me. The problem was failing to turn a critical eye to the words my characters spouted. Did the words matter? Did they serve more than one purpose, advance plot, or reveal character? And if the dialog did nothing else but seem incredibly fun to read, was it notable? Meaning maybe limit myself to one or two moments of clever for the sake of clever in the whole book, rather than one or two moments per page, Macfee, you dumbass.

It’s great to have a strength. But even strength needs editing. If nothing else, mine did.

A Unique Premise Isn’t The Most Important Element

When I first had the idea for NINE TENTHS, the premise of an ordinary man who repossessed augmented (superhero) devices, I knew I had a winner. At the time (I’m not going to list a year, but it will become clear it wasn’t recent) superhero media was rare. I wasn’t aware of anyone who’d taken the angle of an ordinary person in a world where superheroes were the norm. The combination of repo man and superhero felt fresh. THIS IDEA IS SO GREAT, NOTHING CAN STOP ME.

Enter the MCU. And scads more brutal laughter.

I still think my story is unique, or unique enough. But after I accepted the whole superhero market saturation thing (or mostly accepted) I realized what I should have realized all along—it’s the characters, stupid. If I cared about the characters, other people would care. If I kept the characters interesting, if I was true to the story I was telling, basically if I followed all the writing fundamentals, I’d still have a good, maybe great, story, regardless how many superhero movies and tv shows existed. “The idea” is but a small first step. Lots of people have ideas. Very few people deliver on them (or even try).

Creating A Story Is Fun (Forget, Relearn, Repeat)

The whole point of writing is that you, the author, enjoy the process. Why else are you writing? It’s not a get-rich-quick scheme—there’s not enough storage space in the world to contain the typed laughter. You’re writing because it’s fun. Making stuff up, seeing the nonsense you invented become a real live book, to have people get what you wrote, enjoy it, imagine up their own version in their heads—this is cool stuff. Most amazing of all–sometimes, every once in a while, you might even read your own writing and think–I did pretty damn good. That’s the point.

But writing is also real work. Producing a novel requires discipline. We’re not talking manual labor, but it’s structured. Regarding writing as a task requiring effort is a great lesson to learn, and learn early, but living that lesson does run the risk of obscuring the reason you started down the path in the first place. My writing benefitted from outlines, spreadsheets, supporting research, and inspirational documents. But this type of somewhat grindy work pushed the fun parts from my mind. And after long enough the “all work and no play” approach was reflected in my writing. I had to remind myself the process was fun. Who writes thousands of words with no promise they’ll earn a dime? Who sinks countless hours into creating a whole world that may never see the light of day? People trapped in hell, and those who think they’re having fun, that’s who.

I had to relearn this lesson along the way. Put on new writing music. Write a whole new section that might not survive edits. Write in second person. Forget all the writing rules for a day or two and let the crazy fly. Then I reactivated editor-brain and folded in the pieces that made my writing better. Even if zero of those tangents succeeded, I’d recharged myself.

Depressing note–I forgot this lesson more than once. You will too. Forget. Relearn. Repeat.

If I learned anything at all writing NINE TENTHS, it was to be better, at everything. The book taught me about my own life as much as writing. I need to be a better version of myself if I want to have any success as a writer. And by success, I mean regular joy in the daily writing process, regardless of how many books I ever sell.

Was that a sixth thing I learned? Of course not.

*checks lock on cellar door*

***

Jeff Macfee is a writer. His work has appeared in Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Shotgun Honey, and the anthology Killing Malmon. Nine Tenths is his debut novel.

Jeff MacfeeWebsite | Twitter

Nine TenthsAmazon | B&N | Google | Kobo


4 responses to “Jeff Macfee: Five Things I Learned Writing Nine Tenths”

  1. YEAH!!! So proud of you, man! Put your time in and here you are! Really looking forward to reading it. Now pop yourself a wine cooler and put on some smooth jazz because you deserve it!

  2. My son walked in my office this morning to tell me that I’m a morning person because I wake up at 6am. I looked at him and said I only wake up that early because of him. My alarm gets me up so I can make sure he’s dressed, fed, and ready to go to school. Then I opened this piece. I called him over and read him the beginning of the morning writer section. The coincidence blew his mind (he’s 9, it’s easy to do sometimes).

    Congrats on the novel.

  3. “Creating a story is fun”, I’ve lived by these words my whole life, and now applying them to all kinds of writing, not just fiction. Because people like stories.

  4. I love the guest posts. They’re so grounding–they bring me down to Earth, remind me that writers are regular people, with cool jobs, but like any job, are still work.

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