It started with reading Show Your Work by Austin Kleon (read my review). He does regular pieces of art, sketches and blackout poems, stuff like that.
Sounds like fun. I used to draw a lot. I had a comic book I was aspiring to write back in the day, this absurd comedy following a team of bank robbers — a sloth, a turtle, and a badass starfish. It didn’t make it very far, and this was a long, long time ago.
I’m getting more and more interested in graphic novels lately, and have been thinking about writing/illustrating one in the near future. I have no delusions that my illustrations are works of art. But writers like One (creator of One Punch Man, and Mob Psycho 100) have created masterpieces from simple lines. Maybe I can do the same.
But I can’t just jump into that. Drawing a graphic novel would be a huge undertaking and would demand a ton of my time. Plus I have 2 other projects to finish before I can even consider diving in (Grim Curio and The Gin Theif: Eps 2-6ish).
On top of that, I need to develop some kind of style. I can get away with mediocre art if it has a cohesive style that can communicate a story. So that’s my vague goal, creating my own sense of style. I think I’ll fill one more sketch pad with my red and black marker shtick before moving on to pencil, and ink.
If you want to support my artistic journey, whether you’re looking forward to more sketches or a novel release, sign up for my mailing list. It’s free, you get a free ebook copy of Discovering Aberration, and when I make a release I’ll keep you informed. It’s literally an email every 6 months or so. So sign up below.
But if you want to give me money instead, buy a copy of Discovering Aberration or The Gin Thief: Ep 1. Click on one of the book covers on the right to buy. Every sale counts, so buy one for a friend.
You’ve come up with the perfect idea for a novel. Now it’s time to sit down and write. You open your word processor, type in your working title and name (can’t start without that), go to page one and…. freeze. What now? Do I just write? Where do I start? How do I know where I’m going? I’m using Word, do other writers use Word? And…. and… and…
Who knows, maybe when you started your first novel it was a breeze. You just started typing and it felt right. But if you’re anything like many new writers out there, you might not be aware of the many ways novels get written. And even if you do know, you probably don’t know what works best for you until you discover them and give each a shot.
Over the last fifteen years, I’ve given several writing methodologies a shot. My process is ever evolving as I try to find the balance of several aspects, which we’re about to dive into.
In this blog post we’ll answer the following questions
How can I plan my novel without getting too bogged down in the details?
How can I plan it and still maintain the freedom of free-writing?
How can I create a basic elevator pitch before I’ve even started writing?
How can I plot my novel and ensure my characters have a compelling arc?
How do I make sure each scene feels complete?
What word processor should I use to organize all of this?
This is a medium-depth overview. I’ll expand on each point in future blog posts, but for now this’ll be a great jumping off point if you’re wanting a crash corse in novel-writing.
Last note before we get started: this is my method, and my method is constantly changing as I hone it to suite my needs. Your method may turn out quite different from this. Use this as a jumping off point, and then change it to match your style.
Planning your novel
Gasp! I said ‘plan’. If you’re among those who fear or despise this word, worry not! Read on and you’ll find a most satisfactory compromise. You see, I used to hate planning as much as anyone, I still don’t love it. But I’ve discovered a hybrid method that will work for even the most hardened hater.
Planning vs. Pantsing
For those of you who said, “huh?” to the paragraph above, let’s touch on case of plan v pants for a second.
Planning refers to preparation before writing, often in the form of an outline, sometimes in the form of lore or backstory, etc. You might also see it called plotting or outlining.
Pantsing refers to “writing from the seat of your pants”. It’s also called discovery writing — but really, who uses two words when they could use one. In essence, it’s writing without preparation H… I mean a preparation stage (stupid autocorrect ).
I’m not going to spend too much time exploring planning vs pantsing since it’s already been discussed ad nauseam on every writers blog on the planet. And, frankly, it doesn’t interest me. If you want more a more in-depth study on the subject, google it.
What is interesting to me is why, after years of being a staunch pantser, I’ve become something of a hybrid. So let’s talk about that.
The early years, or writing without a plan
The first three novels I wrote were 100% done without preparation — 2 unpublished, the other is Discovering Aberration which you can get for free in the doobly doo below. It felt great. When others talked about planning, I scoffed. I couldn’t understand how anyone could cage themselves with an outline.
Then came revisions… I found my plots meandered. It lingered on some plot threads long past there due, lacked proper foreshadowing, and the pacing was all over the place. In the end I was forced to do several major rewrites. I mean major. It was a bummer and added at least six months to the writing process.
Attempting to outline
Eventually I attempted a full outline for another project, The Gin Thief, but as I wrote the mid to late sections, everything felt like a guess. It’s hard to account for character reactions before your characters are even written.
When it came to drafting, I found I deviated far from my plan and all that work planning seemed wasted. Furthermore, I felt confined by my own preparation. Turns out, plot ideas may sound great in the outline phase but in practice feel forced. There’s too many unaccounted for variables early on.
So I abandoned the hardline planning approach, and today follow a hybrid method that’s working extremely well for me.
The hybrid approach to planning
Today I’m somewhere in the middle. I plan just enough to give me direction, but not enough to box me in. Let’s dive in to what this process looks like.
Acts in bullet point form
First, I break down my novel into three simple lists of arcs organized by Act. Three’s just a number, you can do five or seven or whatever the hell you want. The three act structure is common and it’s what I find myself gravitating to recently, but Shakespeare wrote in five acts and he’s pretty good.
Below is an example. It’s the three acts of my novel Grim Curio, which I’ve nearly completed writing. Spoilers below, but it wont ruin the book even if you know the vague details.
James and Simon save a village from a strange, alien disease which came from another reality. It doesn’t go well.
Nat joins nihilist cult.
Scientists experiment with the nature of reality.
James and Simon struggle to return home. When they arrive their home is drastically changed.
Scientists open a hole in reality.
Cult attacks scientists.
Revolution has broken out. Simon is caught up in it.
Reality is torn, leaking. James tries to fix it.
All hell breaks loose.
Notice how simple it all is. Just the major beats of the story in a loose arrangement. Best of all, before I’ve even written my novel I can give an elevator pitch. It’s not as refined as it will be later in the process, but having these bullet points gives you ammunition when anyone asks you, “so what’s your book about?”
Here’s an elevator pitch built from the bullet point list above: “Grim Curio is about these guys who save a village from an otherworldly disease and get punished for it. When they return home, everything has changed. Reality is torn, and a revolution is on. And that’s not mentioning the nihilist cult in the middle of it all.”
Fleshing out characters
Now we know the basic arc of our novel. You have a lot of options at this point. If you were a hardcore planner, you might start a flowchart of every scene. If you’re a lore geek, you might start nailing down all of the back story. If you’re a pantser at heart, you might just start writing.
As for me, I’m obsessed with character. I believe characters are why we read books. Everything else is just sugar on top, plot included. So my next step is spending some time getting to know them.
A characters beginning and end
First thing I like to do for all major characters is determine their starting and ending state of mind. This doesn’t need to be overly complicated. Could be, “Jill starts out bad, becomes good,” or “Sam hates dogs, learns dogs are man’s best friend”. That kind of thing.
And then there are characters who don’t change, static characters. There’s nothing wrong with a static character, but you should know before hand if your character is going to be unchanging, and why.
In the case of Simon, from Grim Curio, he starts as a man who believes he understands the world but has little affect on it, and ends as a man who realizes he knows nothing but the masses follow him regardless.
As for James, he’s more static. There are changes, but its much more subtle and internal. James is a man who always needs to be working, being stagnant leads him into depression. He begins believing in himself but even as his successes are marred with terrible consequences. Because of this, he stops believing in himself, continues trying anyway, and finally gets things right.
Creating character arc through sign posts
We now have our major characters beginning and ending state of mind. Time to fill in the rest with sign posts. These are plot points you can aim towards while you’re writing your scenes. If you know that Jaclyn is an asshole who becomes a saint, then each of these sign posts are the moments where small amounts of change occur. By the end of the novel, all of these small moments of change will build up to a big revelation.
If you want more information on this, I recommend reading Creating Character Arcs by K.M. Weiland and watching these two Brandon Sanderson lectures. These resources changed my outlook on crafting character, and I consider them required reading/viewing.
Do I really need to do all this work before I start writing?
HELL NO! You don’t need to do anything you don’t feel like. Jack Kerouac famously wrote On The Road in a single drugged out session, and that’s considered a masterpiece. So go do that if you feel like it. Doesn’t matter how you write it as long as it gets written.
There are zero rules to writing other than you need to put words on paper — or e ink. Don’t let anyone push you around with their rules. Your weird unheard of method may result in a best seller or critical darling. I don’t know, and neither does anybody else.
I don’t even always stick to my own rules. They are there to service me, not the other way around. So I deviate when I feel like it. But I’ve found having these methods in mind greatly helps me, even when I don’t follow them.
Post continues below.
The drafting process
If you’re following along, you’ll have bullet pointed your major arcs, you’ll have created you’re major characters with beginnings and endings in mind, and you’ll have some scenes you can aim towards via character sign posts. Now it’s time to actually write.
If you’re brave, you can start by writing scene one all the way through and then move on to scene two. This is the most straight forward approach. But I’ve found simply drafting an entire scene from scratch is fraught with flaws. It takes too long, has too many uncertainties, requires too much mental gymnastics as I attempt to account for later scenes, and is prone to unexpected bouts of writers block.
But I made a brilliant discovery. Write descriptions of scenes before writing the scenes themselves. I’m pretty sure I didn’t come up with this. It’s been a long time since I read Write. Publish. Repeat. by Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant, but as I recall they have a similar method.
Before we talk about that, let’s take a look at our most potent weapon, the word processor
Sorry. This bit sort of comes out of nowhere, but I want to make sure I include it because it’s such a fundamental part of my process these days. Let’s talk about Scrivener for a sec.
Scrivener is a word processor that’s built with novel-writing in mind. You can organize things by act, scene, character, tag, and so much more. Drag and drop whole chapters at a time. It’s well worth the $45, and is by far my tool of choice.
Above is an older version of Scrivener (I need to upgrade to version 3). What you see is Grim Curio broken up by act, and each act broken up by chapter, and each chapter broken up by scene. This is how I write, and I find it invaluable. You’ll see why next.
Creating scene descriptions
Let’s say today is the first day of drafting for my new project. I have my characters in mind with some sign posts to aim for. What I do now is create a new scene file, but rather than start writing a fully fleshed out scene, I write a very short description of the scene I’ll eventually write. My goal is a rough idea of the scene in a couple of paragraphs.
Here’s a contrived example:
James enters the village, and immediately is struck by their strange customs. Everyone is gathered around a great dead tree that’s scorched black. The people are coated in mud and dirt, and as they work they toss more dirt on their skin. Their homes are burrows in the ground.
As James approaches, they notice him and send someone to intercept/question him. He makes some basic mistakes, but recovers a little. They lead him to talk to the village elders, but their conversation is interrupted by screams.
I’m not trying to write well here. I’m just getting a basic idea of how the scene will progress. When that’s done, I create the next scene file and do it again. I’ll do this as far as I possibly can before it feels like I’m forcing it. Usually this is a few chapters worth of scene descriptions.
As I read through the descriptions, using Scrivener I can rearrange them easily if needed. Later I’ll come back, go back to scene 1, and start fleshing it out.
Writing the scene
From here, it’s pretty straight forward. Go through your description and expand. Don’t worry about writing perfect prose. Just get the scene done and feeling pretty good. Then move on to the next scene description and expand that. Do this over and over until you reach the end of your written scene descriptions.
Now that we have a series of drafted scenes, I go through several passthroughs to improve them.
Phases of rewriting
I tend to go through my scenes at least four times. Each time, I focus on a different element of storytelling.
First passthrough I focus on character. I make sure motivations feel legit, make sure dialog feels real, and generally just try to keep each character inline with their personalities.
Second passthrough I focus on descriptions. The best narration engages the senses, so I try to mimic what I consider the best. That means making sure every scene not only has a look, but a feel, a sound, a scent. If a character touches a wall, I want a line about the texture. If they enter a kitchen, I want a line about the scent.
Third passthrough I focus on prose. That’s the words themselves. I like books with good word economy, meaning never using two words where one will do. This doesn’t necessarily mean using big words all the time, but I also don’t shy away from big words if they feel right.
Forth passthrough I just refine and cut. If there’s anything extra that doesn’t service the characters or the plot, I cut it. Even if it’s really good on its own. Doesn’t matter. Cut mercilessly. After all this work, you’re gonna have paragraphs that you labored over that don’t fit right. Don’t be sentimental. Cut the shit out of them.
Bear in mind that four passthroughs is on the low end for me. That’s a straight forward scene without too many complications. The first and last chapters of Grim Curio both had at least 10-15 passthroughs, as well as some all out rewrites. Keep massaging it til it feels right.
Continue this cycle over an over again for about a year, and you’ll have a damn fine novel. When you’ve written up to the end of your scene descriptions, start writing descriptions again and write towards your sign posts. Then expand and refine. And again and again.
That’s it. That’s my process. If you want me to get more granular on any topic, let me know and I’ll make time to do so. If you like this post and want more like it, then please share through your favorite social network. If you want to support my work, buy a novel using a link to the right, or sign up for my mailing list in the doobly doo above. Until next time, I’ll see you around.
Every week or two, my mom would buy me a new Goosebumps book. I loved them so much I’d sleep with them under my pillow. When I woke up, all my tossing and turning would destroy them, creasing the cover and crumpling pages.
You could say Goosebumps had a profound affect on me. The series planted the seed that would blossom into my current obsession with writing. But if I were to pick up Say Cheese and Dietoday, I doubt it would have the same effect.
Fight Club and the $100 plate of nachos
The make-out years
I was a nerdy kid. All the way to freshman year, all I did was hang out with church friends, play video games, read books, and walk to the local Blockbuster to rent movies. I didn’t know how to talk to girls. I had little rebellions, but nothing substantial.
Sophomore year, everything changed. I made friends with the rebellious kids, started going out more, discovered girls were a thing and they were soft and fun to kiss. I even came up with a bold move — at a party, I’d sit next to a cute girl, lean in, and just go for it. And it worked! Let the sloppy make-out session begin. I became a smug little shit.
The book that changed everything
During this time, I heard whispers about this book everyone said was “badass and messed up”. It passed from rebel to rebel, and eventually worked its way into my hands. The book, Fight Club. I didn’t just read it. I cut it up into a line and inhaled it. Then again and again…
Fight Club inspired a strong, prolonged drive in me to push against my boundaries in all directions. It’s nihilistic glee spoke to me, empowered me to break away from everything that held me down. I took part in a series of escalating acts of destruction, mayhem, experimentation. Tyler Durden was my hero.
First, I skipped school to go to the river or hang out on the train tracks. Then I ran away from home. I stole backpacks full of groceries and alcohol. I played around with mushrooms, dextroamphetamine, nearly got arrested while on mescaline. One night my friends and I wanted nachos, so we stole enough chips, salsa, meat, and condiments to make a plate of the most over indigent nachos we could muster. It was cemented in infamy as the $100 Nachos.
I’m not bragging about it or suggesting you do what I did. The reason why I share is to illustrate the profound impact Chuck’s book had on me. It, along with Punk Rock and my growing dissatisfaction with Mormonism literally shaped a period of my life in drastic ways.
All About Timing
This begs the question: why did Fight Club affect me so much? What about it impacted me more than all those other books I read before? Of all the books I can remember reading in that period of my life, from The Hobbit to Catcher in the Rye, I don’t think any inspired a discernible change in me til this one.
Turns out, I have an answer. As I get older and go back to reread books I loved from previous periods in my life, some I have a greater appreciation for, while others I’m left wondering what it is about it that made me love it in the first place. It all comes down to timing.
Books can mean incredibly different things based on so many factors outside of the text itself. From the culture around you, to your own mindset that morphs year to year, the book you pick up today will be very different from that same book seven years from now.
Sure, it can be argued that Fight Club is targeted to young men at the exact age I was. But that’s missing the point. Reading Kurt Vonnegut now vs. reading it him in high school brings up a different response in me. I image the same will be true when I pick up Robert Luis Stephenson, Hermann Hesse, Cormac McCarthy, or Patrick Rothfuss again.
So maybe greatness is all about timing.
Fight Club fifteen years later
I recently re-read Fight Club. I went into it concerned that it wouldn’t live up to my memory, but something happened. I read it with two mindsets. I was transported via nostalgia right back to that feeling I had when I was a kid reading it for the first time. Meanwhile, I read it with older eyes. I was more distanced from the characters, the anti-consumerist message, the unique rhythm of Palahniuk’s prose. Of course it felt different, I’m different now. But it was still fun, still gleefully anarchistic, and I enjoyed it.
Reading it for the first time at age 32, would it have changed my life? Doubtful. It would certainly entertain me, and I would still find Tyler Durden to be enduring as all hell. But it wouldn’t change the way I think.
What does that mean? Was it once a great novel, and now it’s just good? Does a novel need to change the way you think to be considered great? Of course not. Not all great books will change you. But only a great book can.
So that makes it official. I declare Fight Club to be a masterpiece. Because in the end, I guess it did change me a second time. It taught me that greatness is just as much about the reader as it is the book. Not just that, but the specific stage in the reader’s life when they pick it up.
I hope you liked this piece. I’m going to try to devote more time to writing pieces like this on aspects of what makes a novel great. I want to talk about prose, character, situations, plot, setting, all those things. If you liked this piece and want more like it, then share it. The more people who stop by, the more incentive I have to write more. And, hey, if you want to support my work, buy one of my novels. You’ll find links to their Amazon page on the right.
A slow burn. That’s what you’re getting yourself into if you read The Blade Itself. Cleverly executed characters going about their daily lives while the threat of war looms in the background.
[Note: this review was originally posted on Goodreads. Follow me for more updates and reviews]
While the title and the cover design make this look like an action heavy novel strewn with violence, it really wasn’t. There are some action scenes, and when they come they are fairly brutal, but the action is not the focus, thank God. I usually find myself board when half the novel is descriptions of characters swinging swords and parrying and whatnot.
The Blade Itself felt more like a character focused hardboiled detective novel with a coming of age tournament arc and a travel log. The several different styles of story mashed together actually worked well.
We follow several disparate characters who’s threads eventually intertwine. Logan the barbarian, Bayaz the magi, Luthar the soldier, and several others. Most are fleshed out and fully realized. You’ll find yourself rooting for quite a few of them, even when they’re at odds with one another.
No character is all sterling, and none are evil. They feel conflicted and their motivations feel compelling (though we don’t always know what a characters motivations might be). But none are as compelling as one of the best characters I’ve read in a fantasy novel, Sand dan Glokta.
“Every man has his excuses, and the more vile the man becomes, the more touching the story has to be. What is my story now, I wonder?” -Glokta from The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie
Glokta is a war hero now crippled by torture who’s survived to become a torturer himself. Due to a series of discoveries, Glokta is promoted and empowered. He’s charged with investigating merchants who’ve neglected to pay the kings taxes, and what follows is an engrossing detective story.
While we get to peer into several (but not all) characters minds, with Glokta we get full access. It reminds me of reading some of the best hardboiled novels, especially while Glokta says one thing and thinks quite another. In my mind, Glokta is the hero of this story, even if by appearances he is the least heroic of all the character types.
Despite his grisly job, I found myself so invested in Glokta, I was able to overlook some of the novels faults. But there are faults. Chapters following Logan’s former band of warriors weren’t that interesting. These characters, along with Ferro, felt like cookie cutter one-dimensional fantasy fair. I think they were included to add extra action scenes, but because I never found myself invested in Dogman or Threetrees and especially not Ferro, when the action came I never really cared what the result was.
Picking on Ferro more, her chapters never felt consequential. She’s a former slave who’s seeking vengeance for what’s been done to her people. She will remind you of that over and over again, often spouting the one liner, “Vengeance!” in case you’re not clear on that point. The only purpose of her chapters is to get her from point A to point B. She inevitably arrives, and it’s a big fat “so what?” If I were the editor here, I’d have fought strongly to have her cut entirely. But who knows, maybe she’ll be important in the next book.
All that said, I never wanted to put the book down. Yes, it sometimes felt aimless, but I was so engrossed in the moment to moment storytelling that I didn’t really care. I was compelled through the narrative, eagerly awaiting the next turn (or Glokta chapter). Yes, sometimes I had to read a Ferro chapter, and I found myself rolling my eyes, but they would end and the story became fantastic again.
So, despite it’s weaknesses, I still give this novel a very high recommendation. It’s one of those stories that feels like more than the some of its parts, and some of the characters were among the most compelling I’ve ever read in fantasy, even if others were not. If you read it, you’ll enjoy it. I’m very much looking forward to the next entry in the series.
Lately I’ve had my heart set on designing a t-shirt. As all my friends in the office can attest, I’ve been bugging the hell out of them over t-shirt logo’s and designs. It’s a weird obsession, I get it, but one I’m gonna see through.
Why create a t-shirt?
For the Beta Readers
Over the last few months, I’ve had tremendous support from my team of beta readers. They read an early copy of Grim Curio, enduring my own slow pace. I’d call them all out to thank them by name, but I know privacy is something a lot of them care about, so I won’t do that. But these guys are the best.
Do I need to clarify that by guys I mean men and women? I’m from the North West and that’s just what we call everybody.
As a way to show my thanks, I want to gift my beta readers something special. Not something that will be stored away and forgotten, or worse yet, thrown away. Something they can show off and be proud of. A symbol of their contribution to Grim Curio. So naturally, a t-shirt.
For fans and supporters
If you’ve been a writer in the trenches, you know how important it is to have swag. When you stand behind a table trying to sling books, it gets rough sometimes. But then comes someone who want’s to support you all the way to the bank. They like you, your work, and want you to keep creating, so they buy everything. These wonderful people fuel the arts, and the more you can offer them, the more they’ll give back to you.
Why a shirt?
To be fair, a shirt is probably just the beginning. But shirts are awesome for a few reasons. It’s a walking piece of art that I’ve created. That’s pretty cool. More than that, if someone wears it, they’re also spreading the word about my work without have to, you know, interact with people 👍. Not only are they supporting me with their hard-earned money, but by spreading the good word. We call these people saints.
Eventually there might be mugs and posters, but we’re getting way way WAY ahead of ourselves……
Here’s the status of where we are. I’ve been coming up with concepts for almost a month, and I think I’ve finally landed on one that’s pretty good. Here it is.
This design is representative of several themes from Grim Curio. At the top we have the planet Mars, the place where many people on Earth dream of going. Below that, an eye looks up, showing the only place where hope lies in this book. The eye is red, a side effect of not wearing a full face respirator outside. The eye also appears to be stabbed by the tower below, just as an eye is gouged in the novel — which comes with plot affecting benefits. Then there’s the tower itself, which is a massive part of the third act. Behind it is the red sun whose rays look like flames, representative of a specific even in the novel. Then there are the ruined buildings, which are the city, and the rolling earth before it which is inspired by the cover of Roadside Picnic and represents the rubble and the wastes.
So there’s a lot here that relates to the novel. Is the design good? I don’t know. I think it needs polish, but it’s maybe 80% of the way there. Some of the lines need to be cleaned up. Mars needs to be smaller, and maybe the eye too. Also, I need to figure out the color of the shirt.
If you are a beta reader, or if you have any thoughts, insight or suggestions, feel free to let me know in the comments. If are interested in buying a shirt, sign up for my mailing list in the link at the top of the site, and I’ll let you know when they go on sale.
Behind the scenes
I’d been trying to come up with a t-shirt design for a while. Here’s a concept I had midway through the process.
I liked this because it’s a minimalistic self-portrait and could be cool on a shirt. I don’t like it because, as one of my friends pointed out, no woman will wear that… Haha. So no go for the first shirt, but I might revisit it for later.
Then I came up with this.
I kind of like the idea of this… but in practice it looks pretty… phallic. Soooo…. it needed some refinement. But you can see how the design above was born from this.
I decided to draw several elements of the design on their own sheets of paper. So I started with the eye and mars. Then I layered on top of it the tower and the cityscape, cutting them up with an exacto-knife.
Finally, I added the sun in the background to come to where we are today. Here it is again for good measure.
That’s it. Sign up for the mailing list to get the opportunity to pre-order this shirt when all the details are ironed out. See you around.
While writing Grim Curio is still in full swing (but nearing its end), I’ve been thinking about future projects a lot lately. I have two other novels in the works, The Gin Thief episodes and an untitled novel I’m co-writing with my wife, Tana.
She’s not much into social networking or blogging, but she’s a voracious reader and you can follow her on Goodreads. Last year she read well over 100 books and this year she’s already on track to surpass that.
I’ve been asking her for a while, “When are you going to write your own novel?” and she shrugs.
She’s the reader, I’m the writer. But I knew there was a story inside her if I could just coax it out. So during an hour long drive, I grilled her. I started with the broad questions. “If you were to write your novel,” I asked, “What genre would it be?”
She was skeptical of my motives, but after a little coaxing she opened up. “My favorite books are mash-ups of Science Fiction with a Fantasy element,” she said. Turns out, she likes the Sci-fi aesthetic, and magic systems from novels like the Mistborntrilogy. Sounds good to me.
“I really like the plot of Treasure Island,” she said. One of my favorite novels. Scored a big point with that one. “I’m interested in a science fiction retelling of Treasure Island with magic and a heist.”
I was taken aback. “That sounds amazing. I’d totally read that. In fact, I’d totally write that.”
We tossed ideas back and forth, getting more and more specific along the way. And what we came up with was this.
It’s a mess. But it’s also a jumping off point.
Let’s say you’re interested in writing your own novel, but don’t know where to start. What can you take away from this?
Find someone to bounce ideas off of
As it turns out, Tana has more interesting ideas than I do. Go figure. She’s read everything under the sun. She’d throw me an idea, and I’d build on it and throw it back. Pretty soon we had the seed of what could be a promising story.
It’s important to remember that there really isn’t such a thing as a bad idea in this stage. It’s ok to say, “That’s been done before,” or “I’d rather see something like…” But don’t shoot the other person’s ideas down. They are doing you a service, and if you want their continued support, be encouraging.
Start broad, then go more and more narrow
You’ll notice that in the beginning there wasn’t a specific idea. But as we explored settings and themes and plot structure, we began to get more and more specific.
Of course this isn’t the only way to go. In fact, this is the first time I’ve ever attempted to create a novel this way. But it seems to have worked well.
Alternative ways to begin a novel include: start with a character, start with the plot, find an idea you want to explore, find an aesthetic, or just find a book you want to emulate. It really doesn’t matter where the spark of the idea comes from. Just find a something you love and run with it.
What you brainstorm here will likely not be your final product. What sounds amazing in the idea generation phase may be terrible once executed. There’s no way to know until you do it.
Embrace change. Pivot once you realize something isn’t working. Don’t hold yourself to your early ideas, because in the end it doesn’t matter how you started, only how you finish.
Realize that this is just the first step
The work is only just beginning. An idea isn’t worth the paper it’s written on unless you follow through with it. Writing a novel is a lot of sustained hard work. Be prepared to follow through for months and months in the trenches, taking fire and shooting back until… you’re novel is written I guess. Not a great analogy, but I’m keeping it.
Another week, more illustrations of myself. Is that narcissistic? Somehow it feels better to me than taking selfies, lol. Once again, you can see me run the gambit of emotions throughout the week, and it shows up in the art. I mean, how could it not?
A portrait a day is pretty difficult when you consider I’m a writer first and whatever this is second (I hesitate to say artist). I’m very curious to see where this leads. I’ve been toying with the idea of drawing a panel of a comic a day featuring what I’m thinking about. I don’t know, we’ll see.
If you like these and want to see more, checkout week 1 and week 2. If you want to support my work, feel free to buy one of my books by clicking on any of their covers to the right.
Right now I’m working on so many projects, sometimes it’s hard for me to keep them straight. I imagine it might also be difficult for you to follow along. So to try to, eh, clarify, I created this flowchart.
The bar on the left measures a project’s level of completeness. The bar on the bottom signifies time. So the projects in the top right are nearly complete but way in the future. To be honest, I’m not sure how much it does clarify. Maybe I’ll take another crack at it sometime in the near future.
Blood Meridian. I don’t know where to begin with this book.
It’s a western, or an anti-western. I’ve heard it called the greatest work of southern gothic lit out there, if that helps at all. It follows the kid (he has no name, always referred to simply as “the kid”) through 1850’s northern Mexico who joins the Glanton gang as they go on a scalping spree.
It’s fantastic. Maybe the best novel I’ve ever read. Definitely provocative, controversial, often difficult to read, eye-opening, mind changing, terrifying. The prose is sparse, gripping, often perfect, I mean really truly perfect as if some greater power wrote through Cormac McCarthy. What a novel. What a novel.
So many people have written about Blood Meridian, throwing my hat in the ring hardly feels justified. Doesn’t matter, I’m giving it a shot. My goal isn’t to be illuminating. I don’t think I can help you fully comprehend this novel. I just want you to read the damn book and wear the same look of shock on your face that I did during the three months it took me to soldier through it.
No it’s not a long novel. But it demands your full attention and concentration. Sometimes reading it was so taxing, I had to put it down for several days before I had the energy to pick it back up again.
And you should read it. No matter what I say throughout this piece, remind yourself that you owe it to you to read this book. It’s a masterpiece.
What’s it about? Professional American scalpers in 1850’s Mexico. The Glanton gang who butchered Indians for a buck, then Mexican villagers and American soldiers. They get consumed in the violence before getting consumed by the violence. Saying Blood Meridian is violent is kind of like saying water is wet. It’s a stupid sentiment because it’s so clearly evident from page 1 til the end.
Eye gouging in chapter one is the least of the atrocities. Scalping becomes commonplace. There are several massacres. The violence is never exciting. It’s never thrilling or fun. It is a gut punch until you grow numb to gut punches. By the end of this novel, you’ll form a callous around your heart. You’ll walk through life in a kind of stupor, replaying scenes in your mind over and over again. Will you gain a greater understanding? Probably not. But it will consume you, that much is certain.
There is a kind of illumination in the violence. Illumination of what, I don’t know. Was the novel written in defiance of God? I don’t know. Was it written with hands blessed by God? It could go either way. More than once I found myself seriously considering whether Cormac McCarthy is extremely blessed or cursed, sanctified or damned. I still don’t know. But God is in this book, and so is the devil.
The devil, in fact, makes perhaps the most literal appearance in the form of The Judge. But I’ve read convincing arguments that The Judge is in fact God. Who ever he is, he’s chilling.
The prose often require some effort to gain a full understanding of any given paragraph. Here’s a quote showing how difficult some paragraphs are to read, but you can’t deny the imagery these words conjure. This is perhaps Blood Meridian at it’s most difficult, but I personally didn’t mind:
A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained wedding veil and some in headgear or cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a Spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses’ ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.
Holy shit! Did you read what I just read? Damn it, I might need to give up the craft. That’s the kind of thing you’ll be reading throughout Blood Meridian. For some, this is enticing, but it may dissuade many. Do not let it. This book is worth it. Trust me.
The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.
The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.
I mean, come on! It’s beautiful, dark, enlightening and nearly indecipherable on first reading.
There are scenes that will linger in your mind long after you put the page down. Such as when the Judge lifts a meteor over his head in defiance of the universe. Such as when the Glanton Gang make gun powder of piss and bat guano and lava rock, then gun down their pursuers with their crude recipe.
There were sentences so perfectly wrote I threw the book down and cursed because I’m fairly certain I’ll never be able to write half this well. It’s infuriating to see someone using language near perfection, even when it’s contained in a few short lines describing the way spit evaporates in the desert and how the lizards will drink it up before it bubbles and dries.
And that last paragraph. If you’ve reached this point, and you’re convinced that you’ll never read Blood Meridian, you owe it to yourself to read that final paragraph and see if it doesn’t give you chills. Even removed from all context, the final words of this novel will make your blood curdle.
I loved Blood Meridian because it more than once made me pause and think “How was that written by a person, a human being like me?” Can a man really be that good a writer? I don’t know. Can I ever be that good a writer? I don’t know. Probably not, and even typing that makes me sad.
It does, however, give me something to strive for. I’ll revisit this novel, of that I’m certain. And when I do, I think I’ll type out the best of pages word for word just so I can see how it feels to mimic what I can only describe as perfection. I have so much to learn from Blood Meridian.