How an insane deadline changed the way I write
If you haven't heard of it before, this is an annual novel contest that Amazon hosts. This is their sixth year, and I had never heard of the contest myself. But on an impulse, I thought I'd enter. And I decided to write a new book, rather than finish Eleanor, or polish off an older novel.
The challenge: I hadn't worked on a book since setting the manuscript for Eleanor aside and adapting it as a comic.
The other challenge: I would have just about four weeks to write and edit this new book. The shortest period of time in which I'd ever written a novel before was three months. And that was sixteen years ago, when I was younger and oblivious to everything.
At the same time that I decided to take up this challenge, I was embarking on a very rapid, very high-profile project deadline at work, and trying to spend every free minute I could with my wife and one-year-old daughter. This meant that I didn't really have time to screw around. In fact, I had very little time for anything at all, and I couldn't waste a minute of it.
For most of my writing life, I've relied on inspiration to strike. When it did, I would write. If it didn't, I would do other things. When I was younger, it struck more often. But as I got older, it seemed to come around less and less, and as a consequence, it took much longer to finish anything I started.
When I was eighteen, I wrote my first novel in three months.
When I was twenty, I wrote my second in six months.
At twenty-one, I wrote my third. That one took almost a year.
At twenty-two, I began Eleanor. I'm thirty-four now, and I still haven't finished.
What I needed was to time-travel back to the novelist I might have been at age sixteen, and channel that guy's ability to just go. The most important thing: I needed to learn to write without being distracted by, well, distractions. I couldn't count on pure silence, or the perfect ambient daylight, or any of the things that once enabled me to write. I couldn't count on writing during my most alert hours. I had to write whenever I found a moment, in whatever medium it took.
I really wasn't sure I could do it if I was going to write something in my usual wheelhouse. My stories are usually emotional bricks, heavy and textured and slow. If I was going to write a story like that, I would never finish in time to submit the book to the competition.
So I forced myself to think of the things I liked to read. You know, guilty pleasure stories. The books you read in between important literary masterpieces. When I read, I take mental breaks in between books of consequence, and I read books that trade in pure entertainment value. Flights of fancy. Driving mysteries.
I remembered that Michael Crichton paid his way through Harvard Medical School by writing and selling disposable spy novels under a pen name. He wrote enough of them, and quickly enough, that they must have been escapist themselves. They must have been fun to write.
That made up my mind for me. I would write something that had momentum, something that sprinted down the field and then kicked into overdrive and grunted and sweated to the finish line.
That decision changed everything. One night, around midnight, I sat down to work on this new novel with only a faint idea of where it might go -- I didn't outline anything -- and before I got back up, I had six thousand words on paper. When I stopped writing, I did so just short of a break in the action... which meant the next day, I could sit down and leap right back into the story, knowing just where it was going, and then ride that momentum to the next scene.
From that first day on, the novel had a life of its own. I'd never once felt like that when writing. It was so effective, so immersive, that I've reconsidered the sort of things I write about. Perhaps important literary tomes aren't what I should strive to write. Perhaps -- gasp! -- perhaps I'm a genre writer.
I should have noticed this sooner, I think. My favorite writers all work in popular genres and write fiction that, while sometimes respected, doesn't always get the credit it deserves. Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, John Sandford, even John Grisham. Every year, I re-read The Stand and The Martian Chronicles and Contact. If you'd asked me a few months ago, I'd have told you that my favorite authors were Michael Chabon or Jonathan Lethem. But I've had an epiphany, I think. Those are the authors I want you to think I adore. And don't get me wrong, I enjoy their work, and there are times I crave a twelve-page sentence or a strange treatise on Motown records and how they relate to gentrification in Brooklyn suburbs. But they're not always fun to read. Sometimes they're a lot of work. In fact, most of the time they're a lot of work. And these days, I enjoy sitting down with a stack of adventure novels more than anything else.
The Man Who Ended the World played with ideas that have always fascinated me: solitude, loneliness, the end of mankind, the end of the world. It's a fast-moving story about a man who so badly wants to be by himself that he tries to get rid of the rest of us. It was so inherently interesting to me that I couldn't stop thinking of it. Every time I sat down to write, the words just exploded from me. That wasn't how I used to write. But it's how I write now.
In the end, I didn't submit the book to Amazon's contest. I felt fairly certain that I would have made it through several of the judging rounds, but I also felt that the odds of my winning anything, in a field of thousands, were slim. And frankly, I was anxious to share my book, which I think is pretty good.
That's how I ended up self-publishing for the first time, and how a contest I didn't even enter completely changed the way I tell stories, and the way I write them. I'm already starting my next book, and you can bet it's not about how a family processes their grief over the course of several generations.
My next book takes place in space. Because I like space a great deal, see.
Maybe that's the other thing that I learned.
Don't write what you know.
Write what you love.