As we reach the end of another fraught year with unfortunately more of the same looming on the horizon, I thought I’d take a break from telling all of you things you’d rather not know about the ancient world and talk a little about my main gig, writing. When I talk to people about writing and publishing, many get a sort of wistful look in their eyes and murmur something to the effect of they feel like they have a novel or story inside them that they’d love to write one day. I’m sure they do and I genuinely believe that if it’s something you want to do, that anyone can be a writer. Particularly since we are in an efficacious time to publish your work solo without even having as a last resort to rely on vanity publishers who will potentially want access to things like your copyright in addition to a bite of your royalties.
So this week and next, in honor of the New Year and maybe to jumpstart a new resolution to begin a book of your own, I want to talk about my writing process and publishing—things that have worked for me and places in which to start your own journey. Because having a helping hand at the beginning, when you have no idea where to start, is part of what I think makes so many people afraid to try and if I can illuminate the starting line for someone, that would be awesome. We can never have too many stories and perspectives, and everyone’s success belongs to the writing community, so I don’t think gatekeeping “trade secrets” does anything except hurt us all. This week we’ll focus on the writing itself, and next week I’ll dive into the nuts and bolts of publishing process, particularly from the indie side.
But the biggest caveat I have before we get too far in is that writing, like many creative pursuits, is a deeply personal activity and anyone who frames their advice like they’ve cracked a code is deluding themselves as much as you. A lot of the past few years has been about finding something that worked for me, rather than worrying about what the “experts” say I should be doing. I am certainly not your guru if you want to learn how to make bank doing this—I haven’t figured that out myself. Publishing is great, making money with your writing is baller, but the main thing is the writing itself. Write because it makes you happy, write about the things you want to write about. If you get a traditional contract with one of the Big Five and a six-figure advance, that’s amazing (and heck, I’ll envy you), but if you start your writing journey because writing is what you want to do, it will be fulfilling to you. Create because creating brings you joy, not because you can plot it on the meter of capitalist success. If you start and you find writing less fulfilling than you thought it’d be, leave it and try something else. The only real failure is not to attempt anything because you’re worried about not measuring up to some ideal.
Kind of on that note, I think you need to start writing with an idea of what story you want to tell, rather than the proverbial image of a person sitting down at a typewriter (because that’s quaint and artsy) and being struck by inspiration. I’m sure that happens, but that kind of situation puts you in a lot of pressure to perform in the moment and that’s rough. The core of all of my advice is to relax and let things come to you when you can. I personally even eschew the proverbial sitting down at a desk to write as much as I can. If I’m at my desk working on a book, we are in final editing or formatting stage, not the production of a draft or coming up with ideas. When I started The God’s Wife, I was terrified of turning this thing that I wanted to do into work, feeling that the moment it became something I “had” to do, I would give up or writer’s block would set in. I live on my iPad and I started, and still do, virtually all of my writing on it. On my couch. Buried in cats, usually. Victor Hugo did most of his writing in the bathtub. By associating my writing with a relaxing location and a place where I unwind, it sort of gives my mind permission to work though things in a less stressful environment. It also has made it easier to pick up my drafts in quick bursts if inspiration does strike.
But back on the “having an idea” part, it doesn’t have to be complex or complete (some my favorite things I’ve written have come shockingly late in the process, or have been entirely different in trajectory from what I had originally intended), but it is easier to have a point to start from than trying to produce something from nothing. Don’t have an idea right at the moment? Start thinking about things you’re passionate about and what stories could come out of them. I love history and especially the people in it, so historical fiction is a no-brainer for me, but being into video games, or painting, or the outdoors, or whatever lights you up can be an inspiration. When I first learned anything specific about ancient Egypt in sixth grade, it blew my eleven year old mind, and the first book I ever tried to write around that time was about Queen Ankhesenamun, Tutankhamun’s wife, because I thought these two teenaged royals sounded cool. For the record, I wrote four wildly historically inaccurate chapters—hadn’t squared the fact that Tut and Ankhesenamun were half-siblings in my bougie little brain yet—but laying aside that, it isn’t as cringey as a lot of things I did as a preteen (I had a fairly sophisticated prologue involving the Carter dig in the 1920s that flashbacked to the main story that isn’t half bad). It’s a story I might come back to one day, but it led me down a long road toward writing a story about a different (Greek) Egyptian queen later, so even if I never go back, it wasn’t wasted time. In part because, if I tilt my head a little, I see flashes of my half-formed Ankhesenamun in my Arsinoë’s eyes.
The shorter version of this point is: when in doubt, write the kind of book you want to read. I’m not denying the good financial sense of trying to write whatever is the current zeitgeist genre, but I think you’ll be more satisfied by writing something that interests you, particularly as you start out, because that passion will shine through in your work. I know you can’t throw a shoe these days without hitting a historical fiction novel about Tut, Ankhesenamun, or the Amarna period, but when I was first trying to hammer out my middle school novel, I didn’t know of any and this was proto-internet, so it was a lot harder to find more information about my girl, period. So I started making up my own story, and even though I didn’t finish it, I had a blast.
Of course, all writers will tell you one of the hardest parts of writing outside of finding what to write is finding the time to do it. Because of a supportive spouse, I’m in the monumentally fortunate current position of being able to do this full time while not needing to feed myself solely on the fruits of my artistic labors, and while I know this isn’t feasible for many, I don’t think that has to be a bar to a life in creative writing. When I started (eight years ago and up until eight months ago), I had a full time non-writing-based day job and I found writing on the side as something I could do that was more intellectually stimulating than my office work. So it became something I did in my free time (and ok, frantically jotting down scene ideas and dialogue at work) rather than some of my previous activities. It’s made me woefully uninformed about pretty much all current tv shows, but deciding how much time to devote to writing is also totally your call. When it comes to other hobbies outside of your writing, I do think it’s helpful to continue to read as widely as your personal taste will allow (I think Faulkner once counseled something similar). Reading other writers will help you develop your own style, as well as point you toward or away from choices in your own writing. Even as I read authors whose style I don’t like, or books I don’t care for, practicing articulating why I don’t forces me to consider how to avoid similar pitfalls in my own books.
So much writing advice I’ve seen seems zeroed in on figures and specific targets vis à vis word or page counts, or set numbers of hours, per day and I believe that those sorts of parameters can set you up for failure as much as give you focus. Maybe some people really need the mark of five thousand words a day (for example) to keep them on task, and if that works for you, that’s great. Personally, I find it very stressful—which is part of the reason I did NaNoWriMo exactly once in 2005 and have never done so again (and one of many reasons why what I did manage to write that November was not very good). Granted, a large part of why it was bad was that I violated the aforementioned suggestion of having an idea for I wanted to write about and was under the additional pressure of trying to start from absolutely nothing on November 1st. But the other was that the daily word count idea meant that any day where I didn’t hit it felt like a failure and there are plenty of writing days where you don’t have to go hunting around for feeling like a failure, so why basically invent one?
What I do instead is any day I have any time to devote to writing—these days I have more, but I started with something closer to 1-3 days a week—is I try to get at least a page in Microsoft Word done each time I am writing. If I’m writing a descriptive passage, that might be a lot of words, if it’s mostly dialogue, not so much, but it sounds very doable. In fact, it sounds so doable that I’m sure some of you are skeptical that you can ever finish anything at that rate, but that’s kind of the secret. Once I make my goal reasonable, it’s much easier to consistently exceed it. Even if you only can squeak out a page at a time twice a week, at the end of the year you’d have 104 pages, which doesn’t sound like much, but remember, your page count in a word processor like Word will be smaller than it would be in an ebook or standard 6”x9” paperback. For example, my novel Daughter of Eagles is 544 pages in Word, which is about 720 pages in the paperback edition (which I hate to admit because I don’t want to scare people away—I’ve been told it’s worth the length 😬). So, suddenly our puny 104-page book in Word becomes a very respectable 280-odd book in print, and trust me, I’d have probably had more interest from traditional publishers for a book of that length as a first time author than I did when I was trying to get them to take my 500-ish page God’s Wife manuscript seriously (Oh god, you’re all looking at me like, “What is her problem?”… do as I say not as I do… I am the one for whom the “I like big books and I cannot lie” meme was created).
Another thing that I don’t feel like gets talked about much in blurbs I’ve seen is: you don’t have to write your story in order. Seriously. Ask Virgil, who did not write the Aeneid in the chronology you read it in. Usually, you need a beginning—a first chapter, or if you’re me, a prologue—and a vague idea of where you’d like to end up, but the rest is totally up for grabs. I write scenes as they come to me—if I’m at an impasse of how to write a certain scene, I lay it aside and work on something else while I think about how to resolve it. Many times, the solution will come to you as you write other stuff. I think too many people get to a certain place, don’t know how to get from where they are to the next scene, and get stuck on the problem indefinitely.
Usually, I work backwards-ish: I want to end up at point Z, so I spend my time thinking about how to get my characters to that point in a way that makes sense rather than pushing forward linearly to a destination. It does mean you sometimes have to do rewrites later on if what you originally wrote doesn’t end up aligning with other scenes as you fill in, but you’re probably going to have to do that anyway. Better to get something down on the page than worrying about how perfectly everything lines up the first time around. Some authors are really big on index cards for organizing plot points; I personally don’t find it particularly useful. But that might be because writing historical fiction tends to give you a natural timeline for order, and I do tend to keep a separate document with a timeline of events relevant to my story, with my fictional events added into it if it helps me organize my thoughts. I think I did that more for God’s Wife than I’ve done for the subsequent books; usually my timelines are mostly to keep track of where people are as they move around (i.e., was Tiberius in Rome in 4 AD? Or do we have a record of where he was? Stuff like that).
Clearly, the proceeding is hardly an exhaustive list of tricks and techniques, but I hope as simple as some of it might seem, it might have given you a different perspective on the process and helped you see there is a definite limit to the idea that if you’re a writer you have to do X. As I stated at the beginning, if you find what works for you, don’t waste your time worrying that’s not what Dan Brown or Peggy Atwood told you to do in their Master Class. Write what you love because you love writing about it, and it’ll be worth whatever effort you can devote to it. There’s no amount of writing or time devoted to it that’s too big or too small, unless it’s no time at all because you worried too much about the result at the beginning. I started The God’s Wife solely to see if I could write a book; I had no other expectation beyond that. Start slowly, find your rhythm, and go forward from there. I hope the new year will bring us all a new year of wonderful words, and if any of you are newer to this than me and think I can help your writing journey, don’t hesitate to reach out. Good luck and stay tuned for next week when we’ll talk about making your story an honest-to-God book!