I was in 9th grade when I wrote my first story that I didn’t think was complete shit. Up until then, I had this weird habit of burning every scrap I’d scribbled upon. Ideas ripped from movies and TV shows, fan-fiction that when I was writing I was sure was as good as the original work, they were all horrendous. I’d take the notebook pages back behind my parents’ house and set them ablaze with the red extended-reach lighter we kept in the drawer next to the stove. As the ashes fell to the rocks at my feet, I remember feeling relieved. Hours of work rendered blackened clumps of nothingness, but it didn’t matter. At least now no one could read the drivel. Then came the night I wrote Them, an end of the world alien story that had themes and semi-realistic characters, and I did something I’d not done before: I shared my story.
From then on, I kept writing. Story after story. Most were not very good, certainly not now when I go back and read them today, but with each one I, ideally, got better. Usually the stories did not end well for any of the characters, and the endings were oftentimes written with some Shyamalan-ian twist worthy of both an eye roll and face palm. In the months before graduation, I wrote my longest (to date even) short story called Eden. At the time, I knew I’d never written anything as strong. In it, Doctor Han White is given the coordinates to a land where all of his dreams come true. Now, it still suffered from some of the same tropes I’d always included in my works, but it was a damn good tale. It was around this time that I started dating my now-wife Sarah. She encouraged me to keep writing, saying one day I would write a book. My response was always the same, “I only write short stories.”
Things slowed down when I entered college, and not just because of the 21-credit workload I so foolishly took on. I’d made the mistake of asking an English professor I admired for feedback on my story Darren (I swear I’ve written stories with titles longer than one word!). Weeks went by without word. Then one day we met in the atrium to discuss one of my technical writings for class when he pulled out a copy of my story. For the next 30 minutes, he pulled apart every sentence and every idea I’d put into the narrative, of which I was actually extremely proud. When he finished crushing any and all of my enthusiasm, he told me I could go; he had the next student to meet with. Holding fast to my composure, I thanked him for his time and walked back to my apartment. The barrage on my ego hurt like a sonofabitch. While not the first time I’d heard something negative about my writing, it was the first time no punches were pulled. Today, I remember him with mixed feelings. First, the asshole could have at least offered some suggestions as to how I could have better improved my work. Second, the regent taught me that if I was going to keep at writing, I’d need to develop a thicker skin.
Throughout the next three years of college, I continued writing. There wasn’t much I’d ever revisit, but it kept whatever grasp I had of the craft honed. All the while, Sarah would say, “You should really write a book.” By now I’m sure you know my response. And it wasn’t that I couldn’t come up with the ideas. I could create elaborate yarns in my mind, but when it came time to do the dirty work, I froze. The idea of writing the same piece for that long was terrifying. What if it was terrible? At least if a short story wasn’t any good, I hadn’t spent a year of my life working on it.
After graduating college, I was left with an abundance of free time. This was sadly due to my inability to find work as an English teacher. But with that time, I turned my efforts back to writing. By then I wanted to try my hand at writing a comic series. That’s when I plotted the story for Existence (I PROMISE NOT ALL MY TITLES ARE SINGLE WORD!). I had the first issue scripted and the other 29 heavily plotted when I started looking for an artist, but it was hard to pay for talent when I had no money. Student loans needed paying and what was leftover from subbing in the surrounding schools wasn’t going to buy me anyone worth investing in. Weeks were wasted. I had so much material, but nothing could happen. I sure as hell wasn’t going to draw the comics; I wanted people to buy them! In a panic, I started writing. I needed to write something that wasn’t dependent upon someone else. With prose, the only person to blame when the work isn’t done is yourself.
At this point, I can’t quite remember where the idea came from, but I can recall sitting in my bed back at my parents’ house and writing about a hammer falling from the sky. Why the hammer was falling, I didn’t know, but I described how it landed in a young boy’s backyard. I knew it would impact him in some way, but I would figure out the how later. By the time I fell asleep that night, I had a rough draft of the first chapter of The Hammer & the Serpent.
The next morning, I started to ask the important questions like “Why was the hammer falling?” and “How would it drive the story?” and “Oh my god, what should the main character’s name be?” The last question is always the worst. Slowly a plot developed. But of course, the hammer belonged to Thor, and he was sending it as a message. During my second-to-last semester of college, I found that I’d missed a credit somewhere. In a panic, I turned to my favorite English professor at the time, Dr. Hall. I was currently taking his Brit Lit I class, and I found the old epic poems fascinating. Together we created a curriculum for an independent study. The topic was Old Norse literature, primarily studying the Eddas. Once a week, we’d meet in his office and talk about Nordic gods and legends for an hour. It was hands down the coolest class I had in my whole college career. What I would do with the information I’d learned, I did not know. That is until I started answering my questions.
Plotting came next. Throughout high school, I never wrote an outline unless the assignment forced me to do so. I hated the time they wasted. Well, college taught me otherwise, and I’m happier for it. By the end of the day, I had the first outline of the book. I knew that I was writing a book geared for kids in middle school, so I wanted to keep the length manageable. With the success of the Spiderwick Chronicles (a series I still have yet to read), I figured why not shoot for that size? What were they, like 10,000 words? Pssh…that’s no problem, I thought. And so I kept writing. With a goal of 10,000 words, I typed away.
I’d write from 10:30 AM through the night. The next day I’d wake up around 9:30-10 and start again. The book consumed me, and I let myself be consumed. On the days I subbed, I would bring my notebook with me and write in the back of the classroom when the students worked on assignments. In fact, it was in the back of a fifth grade classroom that I came up with the names of the main characters, Corbis and Harper. I remember getting irritated when the teachers would leave actual lesson plans in which I would have to teach something, as it would lessen my writing time.
Each time I started a new chapter, I would plot it out, point by point. With more ideas, the story grew until I hit 10,000 words. I’d reached my goal, but something wasn’t right. I wasn’t anywhere near done with the story I wanted to tell. There was still so much more to say. And then it hit me: I was writing a book. My stomach dropped. Suddenly the task became infinitely more difficult. I only wrote short stories. What the hell was I doing? Why did the page count exceed ten? I quickly did the math, figuring the number of pages I would need to tell my story. The number only made the situation worse. It wasn’t until I looked at the book with a new perspective that I could continue. All my life I’d written short stories. That was my thing. But what if I approached each chapter as if it were its own short story? Every chapter has a beginning, middle, and end, and with a few well placed transitional sentences, a collection of short stories eventually becomes one coherent novel. That was all it took to jump back in. By the time I was done with the first draft, the word counter on Microsoft Word read somewhere around 20,000 words. I had doubled my goal.
Now, I know a 20,000 word book is incredibly short in the grand scheme of novels, but I was damn proud. I’d done it. I’d written my first book! I knew I had to edit, but that wasn’t going to take long at all. One of the reasons it took me two weeks to write 20,000 words was because I wrote slow and steady, choosing each word carefully to ensure it sounded right the first time. Sitting back, I read the culmination of hours of work. And it was hot garbage. Scenes did not make sense, continuity was all over the place, and the story just felt empty. I remembered reading several times that the best time to edit a piece was after a lengthy time away. Editing directly after writing is like critiquing your child. Sure, he may be slightly cross-eyed and piss his pants, but he your little pants pisser. Following that advice, I walked away.
But I couldn’t stay away for long. About a month later I started printing off each chapter individually. Using a pen, I would mark up every single page with notes both macro and micro. I would then apply the corrections and addendums to the file on my computer. Lastly, Sarah and I would lie in bed and read through each chapter aloud or she’d read it on her own (She said my voice always put her to sleep…), and we’d continue to polish the draft. By the time we made it to the end, we’d seemingly perfected the book and added another 5,000 words.
During this process, I’d reconnected with a mother of one of my grade school friends. She was an author of several published books, and she’d introduced me to a small indie publisher. I’d been talking to the guy who ran the company, and he told me to send over my book. It didn’t take long to get feedback. While he enjoyed the story, it still felt shallow. There was not enough, the characters were not fleshed out well enough. He sent me back to work, and I’ve since told him how fortunate I was for that response. The next go around added about 10,000 additional words. But while the story was there, I knew I needed to give it another round of editing. Clearly, strictly doing it myself (and with Sarah’s help) wasn’t going to cut it, so this time I asked a couple friends for help. Without their guidance, notes, and feedback, there’s no way the book would be what it is today. Editing isn’t and shouldn’t be a one person job.
Alas, I finished. It was time to send the book back to the publisher. Only this time, he was less excited. Even though I had made the corrections he was looking for, the ship had apparently sailed. Weeks went by. Months. I’d check in from time to time only to be told they were busy, but that they would eventually get to in. During the wait time, I sent queries to 20 some agents. I was declined by them all. Experts warn that the first rejection is going to hurt, but what they neglect to mention is each one after hurts just as much. If my book was going to be traditionally published, the connections I’d made were my only hope. But it never happened. After waiting over a year, I came to the conclusion that if I wanted my book to find an audience, I would have to do it myself.
Self-publishing was always a scary idea. While it seemed like a simple process, I’d learned that publishers will usually not touch something that was self-published prior. I still held to the minuscule of hope that my book would be picked up. Add more wait time, and the hope completely vanished. In its place a new emotion grew: Acceptance. Like I do for many cases, I turned to Amazon. I knew the Kindle eBook was available, and that it was going to be my primary avenue for distribution. But I was still missing the same thing that I was missing when trying to create comics. I needed the art.
When browsing the covers of most independent books, the market is saturated with shitty covers. Stock photos and generic, pre-loaded fonts were not going to work for me. I wanted my book to stand out, so I began my search for a cover artist. This time, the search did not take long. Not twenty minutes into seeking a competent artist, I came across Olga Zhupina from Russia on Fiverr.com. I’d had good luck with the site after finding an amazing artist for a card game I created, so it was only natural that I return. Olga took my cover description and, blending her own unique art style, created something more than I could have hoped for. Not only that, but it was relatively inexpensive. Where some website can charge hundreds for the rights to a generic photograph, I received a unique piece of art for a fraction of the price.
I won’t get into the formatting for preparing my book for an Amazon release, but let’s just say that making a book look pretty as an ebook was not as simple as I had imagined.
I released The Hammer & the Serpent as an Amazon Kindle Book on November 12, 2015. I announced the release on Facebook, garnering dozens of likes and an impressive amount of shares. The support from friends and family was staggering. By the end of the day, I had sold a whopping two books. But seeing those sales (even though there were only two) and knowing there were people out there reading my work–and hopefully enjoying it!–made it all worth it. I finally had something to show for the time and energy I’d invested in the novel, and I don’t mean money.
When I said, “Every chapter has a beginning, middle, and end, and with a few well placed transitional sentences, a collection of short stories eventually becomes one coherent novel,” I was of course downplaying the need to craft a narrative with an overall continuity. However, strictly speaking for the act of structuring the writing, the statement stands. Each chapter service a purpose, not only in providing a continuation to the previous chapters, but to tell an individual story all on its own. If Chapter Two could not stand on its own, what was the point of creating another? Why not just lengthen Chapter One?
Ensuring each chapter can be taken on its own, treated as its own beast, is more a necessity than choice. Even though I was the kid getting in trouble for reading during class, the bulk of my read time came right before bed. I’m sure this is the case for most people. But what I’ve found is that over time my mind has been trained that if there is a book in my hands and words in my eyes, it is time to sleep. This is a problem for an avid reader. Even in mid-day I need to take breaks between chapters. I have to go for a walk, have a snack, or simply put the book down and shake my head vigorously to fight the encroaching sleepiness.
Because of this, there are nights where I can only complete a single chapter before passing out. And if each chapter does not provide at least some full story on its own (while, of course, furthering the overall story), then I can lose interest in the work.
The comics medium works much in the same manner. Every month another piece of the story is released, usually about 22-32 pages worth of material. If each issue could not be taken on its own, then what would be the point of releasing the series in pieces? Years ago, before books were as common place as they are today, authors would release installments of their novels. In fact, serialized writing is where Charles Dickens got his celebrity. Once a month for nearly two years, Dickens published short installments (usually about three chapters) of The Pickwick Papers.
Each installment had to be interesting enough to stand as its own work, as well as add to the complete story Dickens was trying to tell. Using the same thinking, I apply these rules to writing single chapters as well.
(Before I continue, let me just mention that this the mentality and method that works best for me. There is no right or wrong way to writing. If it is something you love, you will learn what works best for you. I’m here to offer but one way to get the same job accomplished.)
One of my electives in college was some bullshit course on computers. I call it bullshit because the parts I could use outside of the classroom I knew before enrolling, and the parts I didn’t I’d never use again. Although, there was one nugget I took from the lectures. When writing code, we were taught how to create an If/Then Statement. If X occurs, then Y follows. Writers do the same thing when writing, but we usually refer to it as Cause and Effect. One event occurs, leading to some sort of consequence.
On the macro level, looking at the book as a whole, chapters should do the same thing. Chapter One is the cause and Chapter Two is the effect, and the formula continues for as many chapters as there are in the book. On the micro level, each chapter should have its own If/Then or Cause and Effect.
Using my book The Hammer & the Serpent as an example, Chapter One shows the hammer falling into Corbis Callum’s backyard, and Chapter Two explains how Corbis’ family is forced to leave their home. If the hammer falls, then the Callums leave. This is the macro.
It is on the micro that we focus on the events of a single chapter. When the hammer fell into his backyard, Corbis began to hear the weapon whispering to him. If the hammer falls, then it starts calling Corbis to his adventure.
Now, if you are not one of the two people who bought my book, these examples probably mean nothing to you. To further prove my point, I’m going to use the childhood classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum.
When Dorothy and her friends are in the Emerald City, they are there to ask the wizard to help them with their own respective problems. The Scarecrow is looking for brains, the Tin Woodman is looking for a heart, the Cowardly Lion is looking for courage, and Dorothy is looking to get the hell out of Dodge…well, Oz. Separately, the four heroes meet with the wizard to plead their case. With the natural flow of the story, this makes perfect sense. If they are going to get what they came for, then they need to talk to the wizard, just as The Good Witch of the North explained when Dorothy first arrived in Oz. However, breaking down the chapter as its own entity, we see the wizard take on different forms and swindle the heroes into doing his dirty work, for to get what they came for they need to destroy the Wicked Witch of the West. If they meet with the Wizard, then he will take on forms best meant to convince the heroes to kill the witch.
Think of chapters as mini-stories complied into one big book.
If I have not thoroughly confused you, then let’s move on.
See what I did there?
When asked to give advice on writing comics, Robert Kirkman, author of The Walking Dead, warns against writing scripts. Instead he says, “I would write scenes. I would write interesting and compelling short stories.” He continues, once you are able to nail down specific scenes, it’s not that difficult to stretch it out into something more.
This is the same approach I take when writing. I come up with scenes that I feel are really powerful and meaningful, and then I find ways to link them all together. And they don’t have to come in order. When I sit down to write, sometimes I will pick up at the start of the next chapter and begin to tell that new short story, but most of the time I will be hit with the inspiration to write a particular scene. From there, I will find ways to bridge the scene to what came before and what comes after.
If the next scene in the sequence does not interest me at the time, I know I need to skip it. There is no sense writing something that does not grab my own attention. Leaving it be while I work on something I’m more enthusiastic about will do one of two things. Either I will discover a more exciting angle to take on the part, or I will decide that it is so uninteresting that I’ll remove it all together. It is okay to prune.
Consider each scene to be its own chapter and then its own short story.
Could this all be just some kind of elaborate mind trick that I play on myself? Sure. Perhaps I’m only fooling myself by erasing the distinction between writing short stories and full-length novels. But here’s the thing, I don’t care. No longer am I the young boy lighting his stories on fire. That era is long over. Today I’m a guy sharing his novel with the world, no longer afraid.
And I only write short stories.
To find the book on Amazon, click the link below. Like it? Then think about leaving a review!