Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Lessons (Re)Learned While Writing THE LOW WHITE PLAIN

This is kind of a big deal for me, so, I apologize in advance if my level is a bit too much for you, but... 


Publishing something is such an odd feeling. There's excitement, of course, but also a sense of resignation, too. You know the world isn't going to stop spinning on account of little ol' you, and nothing makes that more clear than that midnight email from Amazon letting you know the book you wrote, that you've read more times than you can count, that you poured yourself in to while drafting, then tore pieces back out while editing, is available. "Your Amazon Order" it says.

Months of work reduced to a generic order confirmation. 

Still, writing a book is seriously hard work, and I'm proud of myself for having gotten this over the finish line, so today I want to talk about five things I learned while writing "The Low White Plain" (which, if I haven't mentioned, is available now!). 

Maybe it will give you some insight in to my process. Maybe you'll find something useful. Maybe I'm just a bundle of anxiety and energy. Let me know! 

1. Do the Hard Shit  

When Frank Zafiro emailed me, asking if I wanted to write an entry for his Grifter's Song series, I almost said no. I'm not a big fan of series or series characters, and I'd never really written about cons. I understood why he thought I'd be a good fit - the story of mine he'd read, The Hope of Lost Mares from "The Eviction of Hope" has a couple of rather intense betrayals in it - but I wasn't convinced. It seemed too outside my wheelhouse. Too large a task to take on while already in the middle of a couple other big projects. But I also knew that, if the pretty girl asks you to dance and you say "no," she's not asking again. So I said yes. And I'm so glad I did. 

That we learn and grow by trying unfamiliar things isn't exactly new knowledge, but it's undeniably true. Do the hard shit. Do the shit you don't think you can do. Don't be afraid to let people down if you fail. Chances are, if you have the self awareness to know something is going to be hard, you've got the smarts to figure out a way to make it work. So do it. 

2. Your Work is Your Work 

This is related to my first point, but it bears repeating: I never imagined I would write a series featuring established characters. The whole time I've been writing, I've been very conscious of writing character-centric fiction. Yeah, I write crime fiction, where violence and twists are to be expected, but as a reader, if I didn't care about the characters, I didn't give a shit. So how was I going to figure out a way to make these characters, already established in 20+ other novellas, interesting? To the reader, or to me? 

Turns out, it's wasn't really that hard. Anything you write, anything that comes out of your fingers, that's you. My version of Sam (and Rachel, but especially Sam) is a bit different than most other interpretations of him so far. More paranoid. More filled with anxiety. Longer in the tooth. Is this because I changed him to fit the plot? Of course not. Frank would never allow that. It's because that's where I am as a writer right now. It's because those are the themes I feel myself being pulled towards. 

I was thinking about it wrong. It was never about me stepping in to Sam's world, it was about bringing him in to mine. My work is my work. Even if I tried to hide it, who I am is still going to bleed through to the page. Knowing yourself, your mission as an artist, your voice, and your concerns? That is the key. If you're dialed in to those aspects of yourself, everything else will follow. 

3. If You're Stuck, You're Not Being Weird Enough 

I had the initial idea for "The Low White Plain" pretty quickly after my invitation email came, but when it came time to write it, I found myself stuck about thirty pages in. The idea was sound, but it wasn't yet clicking. I knew Sam and Rachel were going to be stuck between a gang of Neo-Nazis and someone running for Governor, but it still felt kind of dry. Not bad, really, but like a hamburger that's missing a few ingredients. 

Then, while flipping through Reddit one snowy afternoon, I saw an infographic discussing the different kinds of Satanism. Specifically, it mentioned the Order of the Nine Angles. I've been aware of those assholes for a while (reading about different occult groups is a weird hobby, but it's one of mine), and I knew, in an instant, that's part of what I was missing. I was playing too straight, keeping my ideas of plot and character too in-the-lines. But most people aren't in-the-lines. Especially not the ones we want to read books about. So I took all my weird interests, things like fascist occultists, psychogeograhy, money laundering in the art world, UFOs, my honestly over the top fascination with extreme weather, and my sincere shock at how bloody local politics can be, and I threw all of that in. And suddenly the book came to life.  

4. Don't Kill the Mood 

Jordan Harper has written about this more eloquently than I can ever hope to (seriously, if you're not reading his indispensable newsletter, Welcome to the Hammer Partyyou need to sign up for it this instant), but great advice deserves to be shared as often as possible. 

In any kind of fiction, the thing that sustains, the things that sit with the reader after they've closed the book, are not the plot or the action or the character, but the mood in which the action and the plot and the characters are conveyed. If you have an incredibly tense gunfight in a bank parking lot, you're not going to remember the gunshots themselves, but rather the sweaty fingers and the glare in someone's sunglasses as they try to find their next target and the heat of the sun and it's oppressive hold on someone as they lay bleeding out on the ground. Jordan calls this "Not Breaking the Dream". Using the ephemera within scenes to create a continuous bleeding from scene to scene that establishes the exact weight of the reality the story is taking place in. 

I'd been doing this, or something similar to this, for a few years now (there are a LOT of water references in the beginning of Paper Boats for example), but "The Low White Plain" was the first time I made a conscious effort, from the beginning of a project until the end, to not break the dream. To not kill the mood. And it has become an essential part of my toolkit. If there is one piece of advice you take from this post, please make it this. 

5. It's Your Party (So Scream If You Want To) 

Do you have any idea how many books come out each week? 

No. Seriously. I'm asking. Because I don't know the exact average. What I do know is that it is staggering

Which leaves you with two choices: You can either look at the marketplace and decide, "yeah, I'm happy just to be here, to be a drop in the bucket" or you can push your book. Scream about it from the mountain tops. 

I have to admit, there's a part of me, the shy, don't-want-to-make-a-fuss part, that feels a little weird pushing "The Low White Plain" so hard. It's the 27th book in a series, a series in which I have absolutely no creative control now that my part is done. It's not a full length novel (though I think it's the longest book in the series so far). And they're not my characters. 

But, honestly, fuck all that. They are my characters. At least in this book they are. It's a series, yeah, but it's a series I was scared to write for because of how many fantastic writers have contributed entries. And, sure, I don't have control over what comes next, but I had total control while writing my entry, and that's what matters. 

So it's not a flashy hardcover. It's still MY BOOK. You better believe I'm going to celebrate that, generic Amazon Order Confirmation emails be damned. I did the work. I'm thrilled with it. No one else can give me that same feeling OR take it away. 

It's there. "The Low White Plain" is out in the world now. You can bet your ass I'm going to scream about it. And, maybe, if you're so inclined, you'll buy it too. Maybe you'll read it. Maybe you'll really like it. And if that's the case, scream with me.

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