Warning: Long Post
September 1st, 2014 will be a big milestone for me. On that day my next novel, Child of Lies, will finally launch. Whew! It’s been a long, bumpy road to get to this point. I recently got to hold the first hardcover copy in my hands. Very emotional moment! This book was by far the most difficult one to write. Over the course of the last year, I’ve learned some really tough writing lessons. Since so many of my readers are also writers or aspiring writers, I thought I’d share.
#1: Your Characters are Your Teachers
I take pride in the fact that I never, ever, ever miss a deadline. My original intention was to have Child of Lies ready to release by April of 2014. I was confident after the launch of Daughter of Nothing that I would zip right through book 2, even though I had no idea what the plot was going to be. I tend to outline, and once I have a general idea, I can get a first draft done very quickly.
What I did not plan for—what I could not have planned for—was that life had other plans for me. I don’t want to burden you with the details, but let me sum it up in three words: injury, illness, and death.
But looking back, the challenges that delayed my progress with the book also helped me write the book. I didn’t realize at the time how cathartic this book was going to be for me.
Belle’s journey through darkness was my journey through darkness. And I learned from her that the only escape from some situations is to go through them and (hopefully) come out the other side intact.
This isn’t the first time I’ve looked back at a story and discovered my own weird psyche exposed on the page. Writing does that to a writer. Every character is an aspect the writer, so what they say and do are reflections of things already in your own mind.
#2: Structural Problems? Don’t Rewrite. Re-draft!
There’s a truism that all writing is rewriting, which I sort of believe, but not really. Truth is, rewriting can be counter productive and often results in quality moving sideways instead of up. Re-drafting (starting your story over from a blank page) is more valuable, but it can be demoralizing. Re-drafting is what I had to do with Daughter of Nothing. The original draft was mostly from Vaughan’s point of view. But I had a few Jacey chapters in there, and they just popped to life. Realizing she was the star, I junked 65,000 words and pretty much started over.
Re-drafting is what I should have done with Child of Lies. What I ended up doing was a process I not-so-lovingly call “de-writing.” It’s basically a process of gutting a book of two POV characters and then figuring out how to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Think, deletion and then deleting deletions. Did you follow that?
Child of Lies ended up at about 88,000 words. To get there it went from 100,000 down to 65,000 words and then back up to 88,000. I had to de-write the book pretty significantly. It involved taking out huge swaths of Vaughan POV chapters and some Humphrey chapters, and then realizing I needed to put the Humphrey chapters back, but then finding they did not fit quite right and having to redraft them from the ground up.
The point is: I would have saved a lot of time if I’d just started over from a blank page.
#3: Write Badly on Purpose!
There is no shortage of writing advice on the internet and most of it is counterproductive. It seems every other writer has a blog that is at least partly about writing. The twitter #amwriting hashtag is overflowing with links to writing advice. There’s a lot of repetition out there, too: Don’t use adverbs. Only use “she said and she asked” for dialogue tags, avoid clichés, use a three act structure, use a four act structure, use a seven point plot, analyze screenplays, don’t analyze screenplays, eliminate passive voice . . .
The problem I have with all these helpful tips is this: they create a minefield of dos and don’ts. It’s a wonder any of us dares to write at all. It’s hard enough just to write a story, but now we have to tiptoe through all these rules. And we just know we’re going to place a foot wrong and BOOM! our story now sucks goat feet. The hecklers in the backs of our minds use all these rules as ammo against us, sapping our creative energy and motivation.
My advice to writers is to do two things. Write stories and write exercises. When writing stories, there are no rules. Use as many adverbs and weird dialogue tags as you want. Don’t worry if your plot has been overdone or if it’s filled with exhausted genre tropes. Just write stuff.
And then set aside some time to do writing exercises. These exercises are easy and entertaining to do because you are going to write as badly as possible. Take any writing rule you come across and then write a paragraph or scene that intentionally breaks the rule in the most grotesque and exaggerated way. You will learn way more by doing this than by trying not to commit the mistake. It’s like singing off key on purpose. Then, take what you’ve written and remove the exaggerations. Compare the two. I guarantee you, your next story will benefit from it because you’re creative instinct will have been sharpened.
I did this with the word “was.” Nothing wrong with that word, BTW. But when it’s the only verb in your writing, it gets monotonous and boring. First step: force yourself to write a scene where you only use “was.” Commit the problem over and over. Then go back through and take ‘em all out. The taking them out will require you to reconstruct your sentences. It will irritate you. Do it anyway. Compare the two versions.
Now go write a new story from the heart and tell the heckler to jump in a lake.
#4: Never Apologize for Writing What You Love
When I first started publishing, I found myself taken off guard by what is obviously an inevitable conversation.
Them: “So what do you do?”
Me: “I’m a writer.”
Them: “Really? What do you write?
Me: nervous cough “Young adult science fiction.”
Them: “Oh. What’s that?”
Me: “Like The Hunger Games, except not really.”
Them: “What’s your book about.”
Me: swallows hard “Uh, teenagers run into bigfoot, but he’s not, like, a monster. It’s hard to explain. Kind of childish, you know?” nervous apologetic laugh face flushing with shame because fraud!
Here’s the thing. I love my books. Otherwise I wouldn’t have written them. But for some reason, when faced with a human out in the wilds of life, I got all nervous and self-conscious for daring to call myself a writer. After all, I’m just scribbling out little adventures for teenagers, right?
But no! I put hundreds of hours and insane amounts of thought into these tales. I’m proud of them.
Everyone is a critic, right? The more popular something is, the more people step forward to who hate on it. But here’s something really, really, really important: If you loved the Twilight books (for instance), don’t feel ashamed about putting vampires in your story. Write what you love. Write what motivates and excites you. Write straight from your heart. Write what you would love, love, love to read. A lot of writers (especially those who get a late start at it like me) get stuck because they don’t want to be accused of writing something that has “already been done to death.”
That’s the worst reason to not write! If you suppress that story, it will block you. It will clog up your creative heart and only sad little drips of stories will come out. Truth is, inside of your cliché story might be an angle that hasn’t been done.
It may not be apparent to the casual reader, but the Undermountain and Scion books are filled with influences as divergent as Star Wars, Die Hard, and The Wheel of Time.
And even if you write a pretty bold rip-off of something you love, there is a lot to be gained from the experience. Imitating your influences is an essential part of your learning. Do it. Do it loudly. The only way to eliminate the clichés from your work is to write them out of you.
#5: “The World Needs Your Art”
This phrase came out of my mouth a couple years back when talking to a writer friend of mine who was wondering if he’d continue with his writing career. This spontaneous burst of wisdom happens to writers all the time, I suppose. Sometimes a profundity will zip right from your heart to your lips, skipping the brain entirely. The words come out of your mouth and kind of stun you a little.
I’m not sure my friend believed me, but I did. In fact, over the following months and years, that phrase became a personal motto for me. The World Needs Your Art.
A literal-minded person will argue that the world does not, in fact, need your art. They will say the world is glutted with books and information. What they are ignoring is that the world is made up of individual people, individual souls. Each one of them is like a jigsaw puzzle piece, each with gaps that need to be filled up. Your art can be that thing for someone. The story you have to tell, and the way only you can tell it, is the something they need. Your characters can be their teachers. Your words can give them a new understanding, a new perspective.
Don’t deny them that.
It could be that your art is needed by one person, or one million. You can’t control that. But if you feel the impulse to write, consider it a message that someone out there needs you to do it. Trust me. Once you reach them, they will likely reach out to you. And when they do, all the hours, frustration, and doubt you’ve expending in your writing will seem a small price indeed. You’ll be filled with such sweet satisfaction that you won’t be able to help but sit down and start a new story.
So. Do you agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments!
Child of Lies is the book I had to write. Superficially, it’s an adventure. But at it’s core, it’s about selfishness and sacrifice. I hope you’ll consider supporting its launch on September 1st. With a little help, it just might zip up the charts and reach more of the people out there who really need it.
You can find it here:
Eric Edstrom is the author of the YA science fiction series The Undermountain Saga
and The Scion ChroniclesContact Me
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