Writer Advice #0: Embrace your Bullshit

The first draft of The Dawnhounds came from a group called WAD. It was 2013, and Brandon Sanderson was releasing a weekly video of his creative writing lecture at BYU, through a channel called Write About Dragons, or WAD. Every week, we’d watch a new Sanderson video on Youtube, discuss it in a video chat, then we’d crit somebody’s latest chapter. 

If you’ve never run into Sanderson before, there’s two important things to note:

  1. He’s famously prolific
  2. He fucking loves rules

Which I don’t mean in a negative way: Sanderson has a rule for everything, and I think it’s a big part of how he writes so effectively—when he comes to build a house, the scaffolding comes pre-installed. Probably the most famous are his rules of magic, which I’ve seen bizarrely applied to everything from Bitcoin to 100 Years of Solitude.

The entire first draft of The Dawnhounds followed Sanderson’s methodology to a tee. I tried to write like him structurally, and I tried to write like him aesthetically. It was awful. It was a stiff, lifeless draft. It sat doing nothing in my drive for 4 years before I decided to try draft 2, and it ended up being an almost-total rewrite. 

To be clear, this isn’t a criticism of Sanderson: he writes good books, and his methods clearly work for him. They catastrophically didn’t work for me. I wrote a book like Brandon Sanderson would’ve written it, but I’m not him, and it came across like a teenager attending a job interview in his big brother’s ill-fitting suit. 

A big part of why it didn’t work is because I scrubbed a lot of the things I loved, but felt self-conscious about, and that didn’t fit within the structure. There were no revenants, no circuit magic, no mushrooms, no LGBT people, no fight against fascism. It’s not unrecogniseable from the finished manuscript: there was a port city loosely based on Singapore, and a plague; there was a young cop racing against time to stop it; there was a vaguely Ottoman pirate captain called Sibyl Sibbi. The things in it were the things that I thought were marketable, were standard, were expected of fantasy. I was obsessed with the idea of making a Good Fantasy Book, based on what everybody else was making. It didn’t work. 

In 2015, I became obsessed with Dan Harmon’s story embryo. I’m a huge Community fan, on a level where I’ll defend season 6 to the death. Harmon’s essay was invigorating—it took the Hero with a Thousand Faces and animated it for me, for the first time in my life. I was raised on Save the Cat, and somebody daring to ask why we care about these stories blew my fucking mind. For a solid 18 months, every single thing I wrote followed Harmon’s embryo. It followed it on a macro level, but also within scenes, within individual interactions, every fucking place I could fit it. I was trying to crack the mathematically perfect story. It’s bullshit in hindsight, but it made sense at the time. I ended up in the same place I’d ended up with Sanderson: I love the guy who wrote this, but I’m writing generic shit that anybody could write

At some point in early 2018, I sat down with that first draft of The Dawnhounds. I hated it, but I liked the cop. She was the Straight Man to her husband, a police morgue technician. They were the first people to find an infected body, and they had fun banter. They’re the reason the draft was called, within WAD, “the ass mushroom book”. I tossed aside Sanderson’s rules, and I tossed aside the idea of writing to market. Instead, I wrote about the shit that I love: I love mycology, and I love old sailing ships. My dad’s an electrical engineer and he taught me circuitry from a young age, and I still love electrical systems. I love language, and the way it shapes our culture and our world. I love cosmic horrors. I love stories about LGBT+ people, and particularly stories that would’ve helped me as a teenager—stories about shooting stars burning their way right out of the night. 

My relationship with the cops also changed: I came out in 2015, and I got closer to the community, and I heard horror stories from my new friends. I grew up white and upper middle-class and extremely straight-passing, and the cops had always been good to me. I’d written a book where two nice bantery cops … solve a crime and their bosses shake their hands and everybody gets a medal and their city loves them. It was a safe story, and one that wouldn’t generate any major backlash, but I couldn’t tell it any more. 

I made the cop queer, and I made the department ugly and crooked and homophobic. I made the city a mushroom city. I added a magic system basic on circuitry. I spent too long on a conlang. I wrote a cosmic horror based on my own experiences with depression and suicide; a big ole’ wail of despair and fog and baffelement who lives in the emptiest place in existence. I wrote about opera and I wrote about the strings section and I wrote a whole lot about old sailboats. After years of trying to write somebody else’s story, I just took all my favourite ingredients and I made gumbo. 

It worked. 

I sat down with the final draft and I realised—after ten years and half a dozen scrapped attempts—that I’d written my debut novel. I didn’t follow Sanderson’s rules. It didn’t follow Harmon’s embryo. It didn’t have any marketable elements. Readers loved it. 

I’m not going to pretend I’m a superstar author, but I sat down with a fellow writer a few weeks and I asked: “am I a cult author?” and she grinned and said “fuck yeah”. This thing is selling; we’ve only got one box left from the second print run. It’s getting great reviews. It’s a contender to win the SJV for Best Novel at WorldCon 78. In an event that still baffles me, Tamsyn Muir read it without me or my agent sending it to her, and told me she loved it. I trust her judgement better than my own, so I guess I wrote a good fuckin’ book. I broke every rule I’d taught myself in the last ten years, and I wrote the best thing I’ve ever written. 

Don’t get too attached to somebody else’s structure or aesthetics. Your worst enemy is the voice that says “stories don’t work like that!”, who says that something you care about is something readers won’t. Be unashamed of your story, because that’s the only way it can be your story. 

In short: Love your bullshit.

It is uniquely, powerfully yours.

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