Ten Years In The Word Mines: One Lesson
Looking back over my emails, I am reminded that it was this week in the Ancient Year 2011, when my super-agent Stacia Decker sold my first original novel, Blackbirds, to Angry Robot Books. That book, about a young woman with a very foul mouth and a terrible attitude who can also see how you’re going to die when she touches you, took five years to write and two years to publish (a year to sell, a year to build up to its release). I wrote the sequel to it, Mockingbird, in thirty days. From there, I’ve had a fairly successful — and, to be sure, privileged-as-fuck — career. In that time, I’ve published 23 novels, plus two books of writing advice, a book of magic skeletons lovingly drawn by Natalie Metzger, not to mention a few novellas, a handful of comics, and some other miscellaneous debris. I’ve two more books coming out this year, and another three novels contracted after that, and another book of writing advice. I’ve met wonderful people, readers and authors and idols, not to mention amazing booksellers, librarians, and publishing humans. I got to work in (and then mayyyyybe get blacklisted from?) Star Wars. I get to do this as my full-time job from inside the weird wonderful box that is my
murder shed writer shed. It’s been a lot more good than it has bad.
And, and, and and and, yesterday I just completed the first draft of a new book — Wayward, the sequel to Wanderers, which currently is clocking in at almost exactly the same word count: ~280,000 words. I started writing it in September, a book about the after-effects of an apocalyptic global pandemic, written during a *checks notes* global pandemic. It’s a weird book. I don’t know if it’s a good book. I enjoyed it. It’s epic. My glorious editor, Tricia Narwani, will know how to reduce it to its constituent atoms in order to rebuild it into something better.
So, here we are.
I am a lucky boy.
Initially, my plan was, let’s revisit the career and figure out what the hell I’ve learned. Did I learn anything? Can I tell people what that thing was? After all, I’m a writer, and this is a blog. Listicles are a thing, even if they sound a little like testicles? I could do a classic return to the 25 Things series which populated this space for many, many years. But —
I’ve said so much about writing. Do I have twenty-five new things to tell you? Probably not. I know less about writing now than I did ten years ago. Some of that is born off of the hollow, callow confidence of youth — some of that comes from the rigors of a hopscotching career bouncing from this genre to that format to this style and back again. I have learned that I don’t know how to write a book, and that’s a very good thing. I learned that when I finish writing a book, I’m a different writer from when I began. And when I start the next book, I’m a different writer again. Every book demands you be the writer to write that book and that book alone. Your process can change book to book, chapter to chapter, day to day. You learn a lesson with one book that doesn’t apply to the next. As I am wont to say, this shit ain’t math. You can’t plug your collected reagents into the crafting table and get a diamond pick-axe. It’s a different adventure every time, because that is the nature of adventure. If it was the same every time? Well, it wouldn’t be a fucking adventure, would it?
So, instead of twenty-five things I learned, I instead thought–
Is there one thing?
Is there one lesson I would attempt to impart to others, even knowing full well that writing advice is bullshit, that it is a product of survivorship bias and would end up a piece of advice guaranteed to be useful only to the writer who gives it?
It took me a little while to realize what I would impart.
And what I would impart is this:
You need to know thyself as a writer.
You need to know who you are.
That’s easily said, but heroically done.
Before I get too into the weeds, though, let’s talk about what that even means.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of, well, okay, you need confidence to be a writer. Or you need, what, skill? Talent? Is talent even a thing? (Probably not.) Ah! A process, that’s it, you need a single-bullet one-size-fits-all process. We accept this, and so we begin to mythologize our processes, our standards, our ways and means of doing this thing we do. (It’s often in this place, at this time, that we start to offer advice to others. As we internalize our process, we tell others how to do the same with theirs.) This feels like Knowing Thyself. “This is what I do,” you say. “This is how I accomplish it.” It becomes codified. It becomes folklore. It’s the legend we tell of ourselves.
And it’s… maybe mostly bullshit.
It is not, in fact, Knowing Thyself.
What I mean is this: knowing your process is not the same thing as knowing yourself. Process is just recipe. It’s an Ikea instruction manual. But what you’re doing is telling stories, making art. Yes, there is procedure and process, but at the end of the day, your process will inevitably fail you. The recipe will stop working. You have the instruction manual to build a Billy Bookcase but now you’re making a Fjärngblorg Swedish Fornication Chair, and lemme tell ya, that is a whole different animal.
When your process fails you, it can destroy you. Short term, long term, it can cut your throat. It’ll make you feel like an impostor. It’ll make you feel like you’re lost in the woods. Except —
If you know yourself as a writer, that failure becomes understood. It’s expected.
It becomes a natural part of this journey: the failure and transformation of process.
Death and rebirth. Haughty, weighty shit, I know, and I’m sorry it sounds so fucking airy, but that’s what it feels like — every story, you’re reborn, and somewhere writing that story, you die again.
Forgive the following ambles into Metaphor Town, but it’s how I think, how I convey wriggly ideas, and it’s how I (attempt to, probably poorly) instruct.
Think of it this way: when you move into a new domicile (house, apartment, bear cave, elf tree, whatever), it is new to you. You might wake up in the middle of the night early on and forget how to find the bathroom. You might not even remember where you are. You will have light switches that are a literal mystery to you. They don’t seem to turn anything on. You will smell smells and hear sounds that are odd, maybe even off-putting. But as the weeks and months progress, you begin to know your house, don’t you? You know its creaks and groans, and can differentiate the normal “house settling sound” from “that is a hoofed demon sneaking into my kitchen to steal my lemon cookies, that motherfucker.” You know when a smell is just the heater kicking on and when the cookie demon is smoking a cigar. You can make your way through the house in the dark.
Or, think of it another way: when you learn how to cook, it’s all about the recipe and the ingredients. You arrange the items, you put them into the pot in the order that is described, and you eat the thing you made. Maybe it’s bad, good, great, whatever. But after years of cooking, you change that a little — or, at least, I did. You start to learn how to rescue a dish that’s going south. You start to learn what will kick up a dish, and not simply in a way that is simplistically designed as “better,” but that is instead “more keyed to your preferences.” You learn that you prefer this chili powder to that chili powder. You also go beyond just ingredients, right? “This needs acid,” you think, and you think about what acids are available to you (citrus, vinegar, fermentation, Xenomorph innards) and what they bring to the dish and why that taste is essential to you.
Or, let me try this metaphor, see how it lands: I experience the joy (/sarcasm) of generalized anxiety. Panic disorder, all that happy shit. It’s not severe, but it’s ever-present. The trick is, I know it. I view it like heartburn: I know there are triggers, I know what many of them are (and a few I don’t), I know usually how to avoid it, I know how to medicate against it, and I know that when those first two things fail (avoidance, medication), I know how to deal with the actual attack if it happens. (Ironically, anxiety can cause heartburn, and heartburn can trigger anxiety, in a delightfully fun feedback loop that is, I suppose, neither here nor there.) There are strategies to deal with it that range from meditation to logical thinking to simply letting it run its course with the recognition that this thing will not last forever and I’ve been here before, it was fine every time, and sometimes you have to let the river take you where the river takes you. It’s not a perfect system, but it provides comfort.
In the above examples, there are three pieces I want to grab hold of with my crab pincers, pluck them out, and plop them onto the sand in front of you, my sweet sweet crabby prizes.
a) You can make your way through it in the dark.
b) Why that taste is essential to you.
c) It provides comfort.
These are the three reasons to Know Thyself as a writer.
You will encounter a great many difficulties as a writer. As noted, your process will fail. You will be challenged by critics, reviewers, editors, agents, some of whom are very good, some of whom are not good, some of whom who have the story’s best interests at heart, and some who have only their own interests at the fore. You will sometimes get lost in a story. You will sometimes lose confidence in it, or yourself. You will at times feel like an impostor. You will compare yourselves to others. You’ll have a book nobody wants to publish. You’ll publish a book nobody reads. And so on, and so forth.
But in all things, you can go to ground and make it through —
You can find your way through in the dark.
You can know what you like and what you don’t like.
You can find comfort in who you are and what you’ve done —
And, you also gain comfort in the chaos.
When your process fails, when a book isn’t working, when you’re stuck, you need a rope to hold onto through the dark to make your way through the forest. When an editor or critic tells you this thing doesn’t work, you come to know what darlings you can kill and what hills you need to die on, because you know what pieces of that story are yours, or moreover, are You. And when the shit hits the fan, you know the river will take you where the river will take you, and you find comfort in the uncertainty — because this whole thing we do is wildly uncertain.
You start to understand the weird noises, the base components, the triggers.
You can predict the hills and valleys. Both creatively and in the business.
And you can know how those things are temporary. How failure is a step forward that feels like a step backward. How you will lose confidence in the work at certain milestones and how the self-doubt is normal, not exceptional. You’ll know when you can weather through and when you can’t, or shouldn’t. You’ll know what the first and last days of writing a book feels like, and how much time you need to take off between trying to edit it. You’ll figure it out.
And for me, it’s what allows me to keep going. It’s what lets me hold onto the ladder and not fall into the fucking abyss. Now, the big question is —
How the hell do you Know Thyself as a writer?
It’s reductive to say, you just do, but that’s at the core, the answer. You just do. And that word, “do,” is key — do, being an active word, not a passive one. You write. You write and you rewrite and you fail and you give up and then you try again and you buy the house and you start cooking and you get heartburn and, and, and. You do it even though it’s silly and feels weird like it’s somebody else’s underpants and you put the bucket on your head and try to headbutt the wall until it falls down or you do. You write. You fail. You write again. And you do so with a special eye toward that ultimate goal: Knowing Thyself. Not just process. Not just recipe and equation, but really figuring out who you are, what you like to read, what you like to write, what experiences you bring to the page and what experiences you want to have in the future so you can bring them to the page. You try to be present within yourself. You try to be mindful of the whole journey, not just its parts.
It sounds hard. And it’s the hardest thing. But also the easiest thing. Because you are who you are. Your voice isn’t a thing you hunt down, it’s the thing you have had all along. It’s like how you don’t always know you’re home until you leave it for a while. It’s hard, and it’s easy, and above all else, it’s really, really weird. But that’s it. That’s my lesson. To me, and maybe to you, if it’s useful.
Hopefully I’ll see you in another ten years, where my one lesson will be, just exist, or something equally bizarre and reductive! Also if you’re so inclined to pre-order The Book of Accidents or Dust & Grim, they’re coming out soon, and I need to feed myself and my family, and if I can’t feed them with words, I will have to begin to hunt humans for their meat, and nobody wants that. Bye!