How I Learned to Write a Damn Book

omgomgomgA lot of you probably wonder why I fangirl so ridiculously hard on Jim Butcher all the time. A lot of you probably think that I have some kind of crazycatlady crush on the man–or maybe on Harry Dresden. You probably wonder if I read anything but Butcher-esque urban fantasy. And you probably wonder when this madness started. Well, gather ’round, my lovelies, that I may tell you the tale of How I Learned To Write A Book.

I’ve been writing pretty much since I became literate. I completed my first short story in the 4th grade, at 8 years old, an illustrated work entitled “Loki the Lizard.” (I’m way better at words than at pictures.) I won’t bore you with the details of plot and character, but the thing had a beginning, a middle, and an end, not to mention a reptile named after a Norse god. The following years were spent dabbling, including some ill-advised forays into not-quite-fan-fiction in the 7th and 8th grades.

By the time I hit high school, though, I’d been reading adult novels for years, and decided to try my hand at historical fiction. I’d been doing a lot of spare-time research on Irish history, with a special obsession–er, emphasis–on the Easter Rebellion of 1916. (If you’re into this, read 1916 by Morgan Llewelyn. And everything else she wrote.) So I said to myself, “Self, you know a hell of a lot more about this period than a lot of people, so why not write a novel set in this time?”

You know, that sounds great.

So I started writing. And I wrote scene after scene and I filled a Five Star five-subject notebook with character descriptions and plot twists and scene ideas and rough drafts and… and the damn thing went on forever. I noticed, at some point in the 12th grade, that since I’d changed all my characters’ names at least twice, the time period twice, and shifted the narrative focus from the original character to someone else as she crossed the Atlantic Ocean to emigrate to America… that maybe I’d lost some focus. (And a word to the wise? Unless you’ve read a lot of erotica, please don’t try to write a sex scene until you’ve had it. Or at least until you’ve made it past second base. Because, Jesus.) Anyway, I put the thing aside. I remain firmly convinced that it was at least 100,000 words, some of which might have been pretty good, but most of which were pretty much just crap. (I found the drafts while unpacking from the move last week, and holy shit. And apparently I’d made people read them. High school friends, I’M SO SORRY.)

I wrote some short stories, too, during this period, as I was in a creative writing class my senior year. I had a story about this girl who gets tangled up with a guy who’s in debt to the Australian mob… anyway. Twenty thousand words, I kept trying to tell myself (unsuccessfully), do not a short story make.

We won’t even talk about all the angsty sonnets. Lord.

My freshman year of college afforded me enough extra time and brain capacity that I could continue to write. And I did the same damn thing with the new piece as I’d done with the Irish historical novel–I’d come up with all these characters, wrote scene after scene after scene… but ran into almost the exact same problem–the POV shifted characters, and that character moved to Florida.

I was beginning to sense a pattern.

ImageThe rest of college left little time to write fiction, though I did do a fair amount of creative nonfiction (thanks, in part to the Creative Nonfiction class I took my senior year), mostly because I spent the summer of 2004 reading Hunter S. Thompson’s canon, and I suddenly couldn’t write anything else. Acerbic, biting, politically bent shit. A heady time.

I did a lot of character sketches and scenes after college, based, a lot of times, on friends and coworkers. My brain had a lot of steam to blow off after being compressed for so many years, but as I was doing research at the time, I still didn’t have a lot of mental energy to spare. It wasn’t until 2008 that I really sat down to start another novel–this insane hybrid of a thing, a book about a road trip in which Things Are Revealed Between Friends, divided up into sections based on what state they were driving through, the state motto thematically relevant to the content. Good idea, I thought. I finished five of the prescribed seven sections. (I’ve even tried to go back and write on it again, but it was so miserably depressing, that place where my head was at the time, that going back is quite jarring. One day.) And in 2009, an attempt at science fiction, of the gritty mid-future dystopian bent, featuring a mysterious captain, a headstrong Federation agent, and a legitimately insane space archaeologist (space monkey, they called him). I played with it. I wrote scenes, and things happened, but there was something missing.

(It bears noting here, that while I was college, I read a lot of nonfiction–I was a history major–and continued, afterwards, to read nonfiction. I read very little fiction for years, and I’m sure that was part of the problem.)

Then my boyfriend and I moved to Columbia, and I had a hard time finding a job, as many did in 2010. In July, a friend of ours said, “Hey, so I have these books. I think you’d like them.” And the friend handed me Jim Butcher’s STORM FRONT. I said, “This? What the hell is this?” He said, “Think noir wizard detective. Think Chandler and Hammett and magic.”

And I said, “Oh. Well then.”

I read those 12 books (at the time, only 12) in five weeks. I ripped through them. I was at the bookstore twice a week. I finished the last book, CHANGES, and I was depressed for a week because I’d just spent the last month with Harry Dresden and that asshole Butcher had done what to him?!

Forget the neuroses for a second. The important part of this story is that I put down CHANGES in August and I said,

“OH. That’s how the hell you write a book. Pssh, I can do that.”

ImageIn September, I wrote a book. It was 66,000 words and it wasn’t very good. Then a friend told me about National Novel Writing Month. And I said, “Sure, fuck it, right? I’ll do it.”

In November, I wrote a book. It was 80,000 words and it was better. I had my mom read it, and she pronounced that she “liked it more than she’d expected to.”

In December, I wrote a book. It was 85,000 words and it was a lot better. I revised old novels. I read more books. I devoured fiction. I read the shit out of any urban fantasy I could find–Laurell K. Hamilton, Rob Thurman, Patricia Briggs, Kat Richardson, Nancy A. Collins–I spent a lot of time on Goodreads and the Amazon recommendations page.

I tried to write a weird western. (I’m still trying to write that book.) I joined a local critique group. I sent a query letter. One. I was rejected. I listened to Neil Gaiman’s FRAGILE THINGS on audio. I wrote a short story.

I found Richard Kadrey, Kate Griffin, Kalayna Price, Kevin Hearne, Harry Connolly, Lilith Saintcrow.

In November, I wrote a book. It was 80,000 words and it was really good.

I wrote a short story, shorter this time.

I revised the December novel (now sitting pretty at 93,000 words) and sent 12 query letters. An agent asked me for 100 pages and I almost had a heart attack. She ultimately rejected it, but sent me an awesome critique email. I thanked her.

I submitted a short story to a magazine, and then wrote another one.

I found Seanan McGuire, Chuck Wendig, Devon Monk, James R. Tuck, Joe Hill, Glen Duncan. Shelf space became a serious problem.

I revised the November novel–it went from 80,000 words to 99,000 and from really good to really fucking good.

I’m querying that one as we speak, and finished its sequel last week.

I’ve finished five novels and as many short stories in the last two years. I’ve written a half a million words in the last 24 months. Butcher’s books are, if nothing else, brilliant in their Story. I use the capital, of course, to denote the craft of it, not necessarily the actual plot, but the Beginning, Middle, and End. The Climax and Denouement. The Characterization and the Twist. The Tension and Release. The nuts and bolts, the jigsaw puzzle pieces conjured from the soupy ether of his brain to be jammed together, to be glued with blood, sweat, tears, and red pen.

I swear I didn't do this.This isn’t a blog dedicated to the altar of Jim Butcher, but I do feel like I owe the man a lot. Not personally, anyway, because that’d be awkward. (Sorry, Mr. B., not trying to get all stalker on you here.) But it wasn’t until I chewed through the Dresden Files that something finally–finally–clicked in my head and I finally Got It. I spent all those awkward pubescent years writing awkward scenes filled with awkward angst and dreaming that maybe I could publish one day but I knew I wasn’t good enough, that I’d love to be a writer but never thought I’d have the chops.

I am good enough. I’ve got the motherfucking chops.

We all do.

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4 Responses to How I Learned to Write a Damn Book

  1. Not as ranty as I like, but I will forgive since you gave the shout out. lol.

    Mine was Lilith Saintcrow. You know what her blog did for me. It showed me that I could write a fucking book.
    So I did and it sold after reading Jessica Page Morrell’s THANKS BUT THIS ISN’T FOR US which taught me that my book was shit but I could fix it.

    Heroes are awesome.

  2. Laura says:

    I still need to read Jim Butcher; his books have been on my “to read” list for what feels like an age. But I do read his blog and I love all his posts about the writing process. ❤

  3. Pingback: Write what you want to read. « Deb's Questions

  4. Pingback: The Dresden Files: The Complete First Season (3 DVD Set) | Serendipity

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