Michael Wehunt lives in the lost city of Atlanta, where he wishes he had more time to read. Robert Aickman fidgets next to Flannery O’Connor on his favorite bookshelf. His fiction has appeared in Electric Literature, Cemetery Dance, The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, and Year’s Best Weird Fiction. His debut collection, Greener Pastures, was shortlisted for the Crawford Award and nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award. You can find him online at www.michaelwehunt.com.
10 Non-Occult Things That Helped Me Write My First Novel
by Michael Wehunt
I wasn’t sure I could write a novel. They’re scary. They require discipline and determination. I certainly let mine scare me. Even when my debut story collection, Greener Pastures, had been published and was faring better than I would have dared hope, I still wasn’t sure I could do such a Big Thing.
But it’s not that big. Or that scary. I didn’t start off with the following so-called tips, but that’s exactly why I’d like to share them with anyone who might be dreaming of writing that first novel. I learned most of them along the way, and most importantly, I learned a great deal about myself as a writer in general. Every writer is different, with a unique voice and a unique set of variables in their day-to-day life. I worked a demanding full-time job while writing my novel, so time and discipline were more important to me than they might be for you. These little pearls of wisdom might not fit your life or be particularly helpful, but maybe the spirit of them will. Maybe one or two of them will help you be sure you can do it.
500 Words a Day, Sundays Off
Work/life balance is crucial to me. If writing were more important to me than my partner and my pup, I truly believe I would be a lesser person and a lesser writer. I wanted to write the entire novel in nine months, tops. (A year or a year and a half felt too all-encompassing, too this-is-all-I’m-doing-with-my-life-I-guess.) So since I knew it would take a disciplined routine over such a long period of time (relative to anything I had done before), how was I to keep the balance of my life in harmony? I made a deal with myself: only 500 words a day, with one day off every week. Not much, right? Well, the math adds up to roughly 12,000 words a month. Rushing through that first draft might work for some, but keeping a deliberate pace helped my novel open up and breathe, and the best part is that it was usually stress-free. Soon I was hitting my daily goal on my lunch hour at work, then hitting 600 and 800 words in an hour. I realized I was exercising muscles I didn’t quite know I had. And when I got home from work, I wouldn’t even touch my laptop. I had already hit my word count and could enjoy my home and recharge my batteries for the next day. This was liberating, and if you take only one piece of advice from all of this, make it this: Go easy on yourself.
Letting Go of the “Special Writing Environment” Thing
Once upon a time, I wrote in our home office, with one of a few certain records on the turntable, everything a certain way at my desk, and the mood just so. That worked fine when writing short stories without any self-imposed deadlines, but the mood-just-so thing wasn’t going to work here. It was too conditional and unpredictable. The discipline of a novel meant that I had to get my daily word count wherever I could, muse be damned. I wrote outside in an unattractive courtyard at the office. I wrote in the small cafeteria. I conditioned myself to treat writing a novel as a daily assignment, and since I owed my employer 40-plus hours a week, I needed to improvise at times. I practiced and it got easier. I went from ambient music to the natural ambient actuality of my surroundings, which could have been insects, construction site noise, or the drone of distant traffic, turning it into music when I needed to.
No How-To Books
I have nothing against books that claim to teach you how to write a novel. I’m suspicious of most of them, but I’m sure there are a few that preach some serious gospel. Maybe reading a few of them would have helped me, and I’ll learn that the hard way when my book fails to find a home when it goes on submission in the coming months. But for now, I’m glad I decided to take a more self-educating route. I had half a lifetime of reading for pleasure standing behind me as a dedicated teacher. As I mentioned earlier, I learned so much about myself while writing my book, and this is partly because I was only following my own path, often stumbling around in the dark. And the stumbling itself felt like the best education I could have asked for. I think this will be particularly helpful when I begin my second novel. I’ll know on page one all those lessons I learned. I’ll still have the bruises to refer to.
Make a Reading List
I deeply love to read, and if I weren’t a writer, I would read three or four times as much. It’s very true for me that the more regularly I’m writing, the less regularly I’m reading. It’s a strange paradox of being an author with a set amount of free time: give up what you love for the ability to make your own version of the thing you love for other people to love. But all writers should be readers first and foremost. Reading nurtures and nourishes and teaches each of us, so read widely, inside and outside your comfort zone, perspectives you know and those you’ve never encountered. With my novel, though, I decided to make a reading list and stick to it. Since it was a novel, I included no short fiction, lest the different rhythms and story engines throw wrenches into my process. I thought of my novel’s themes (often only loosely defined) and chose books that spoke of them in ways I wouldn’t or couldn’t. My novel is horror-ish, and since I’m pretty comfortable in the horror frame of mind without needing fresh infusions, I included no overt horror novels. I recommend making a list of books that, for whatever obvious or subtle reasons, you feel would help you engage with your story in refreshing ways.
Clean Your Plate
Writing a novel will never, I imagine, be a straight and level road. There will be detours, exit ramps, construction delays, even walls thrown up in front of you. Dedication and confidence will lag. Life stuff will jump in and knock you down for a day or a week. It goes double for first novels because of the learning curve. This is why discipline is so important, and part of the discipline for me was to tell myself, “No short stories or other projects. Period.” If I saw an interesting submissions call for a themed anthology, I ignored it. If an editor asked me if I would write a story for a project, I politely declined. If I were still working on the novel, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post for Kendall Reviews. For me, this was a necessary evil. I needed tunnel vision even as I worried my story cupboard would go bare and everyone in the world would forget I existed because I had nothing new coming out. When I hit a wall or a snag while writing the novel, it was important to use my time and brain on the problem at hand rather than wading into a different pond with its own discrete story world. Because not only would I be spending time in another world, I would have to come back to the novel’s world and reacquaint myself with its heart and rhythms. That felt like the opposite of discipline.
Finding a Way Around the First Wall
One of the nine months I spent writing my novel was a black hole with zero words. I had hit a major wall, and there were some moments of real panic. The two sections following this one involve ways of breaking through or circumventing the wall, but here I want to emphasize the general lesson I learned: Don’t stress out about it. Hitting a wall means you have to let your mind—whether conscious or subconscious—feel its way forward. Whether the wall is really only darkness without a flashlight—you have no idea where the story should go next—or if it’s an actual obstruction, such as a failure of story logic or characters, put the sledgehammer down and let your mind take out its chisel. Trust yourself to work on the problem, and give yourself time to do so. Let your well refill. I encountered other walls after the first one, but they were all smaller because I gave myself the patience to figure my way around the first one.
Take Long Walks
Nature is your friend. City nature. Nature nature. The wilderness. The park. Go outside. Walk through the woods. Observe the world. Breathe it all in. Think actively about your book but also make sure you’re not thinking about it sometimes. Some of your best work and problem-solving will come when you don’t have it under the microscope, when it’s in the corner of your eye. You could experience an a-ha! moment among a thousand trees, sure, but often you won’t even realize your walks have improved your writing because it’s such an organic, healthy process.
Outlining for Wanderers
When I hit that first wall and spent some quiet time in the woods, away from the laptop, I struggled with the fact of my experience as an author to that point: I am not an outliner. To recycle the flashlight-in-the-dark metaphor, I wander into a story and fall in love with what the light touches, trusting myself to somehow find the way. My rough drafts are typically not very rough. But a novel is different. There’s a complicated story skeleton with many more bones than I was used to, more tissue and organs and blood traveling everywhere, all having to work together. Once I hit the 35,000-word mark—where that first wall was for me—I realized the story was too big to hold it all in my mind. I tried regular outlining, listing story points and chapter organization, but it didn’t work for me. Unless I rewire myself down the road, I just can’t create that way. Finally I decided I would summarize what I’d written thus far, in a condensed form. Think old Reader’s Digest stories. That way I’d have a short version to refer back to. When I finished doing this, I…kept going, that old blind trust holding strong in a different application. And what I ended up with was a kind of rough draft, only it was very rough, sandpapery, sketched out with no meat on it. It wasn’t like anything I’d ever done. But it helped me figure out what the heck was going to happen. From there, it was smoother sailing. Trust me when I say that if I can embrace a form of outlining, then pretty much anyone can.
More Than Just the Sake of It
Perhaps the most important part of writing my novel was the why of it. Sure, it made sense to go for it. It’s what most consider to be the next step. The novel is king in the marketplace, and for most authors who want to succeed in the industry, there’s no escaping that. But I was passionate about not wanting to write a novel just to write a novel. I wanted to take advantage of the large canvas, use far more characters than I ever had, write far more dialogue than I ever had, have far more moving parts than I ever had. I wanted my brushstrokes to hit harder, more vividly. I wanted bigger conflicts and voices that shook with more emotion. There are novels out there that are essentially novellas with padding, or short stories with even more padding. Some of them work. Many of them feel a little empty, unnecessary. Some of them are a breathless series of action-packed set pieces that wow readers. Some of them want to be savored slowly like a decadent meal. Whether or not mine works is still up for debate, but I wanted it to be something only I could write, something that couldn’t possibly be told in half the word count, because of the ways those moving parts speak to and interlock with each other. I wanted it, more than anything, to really reward anyone who gives many hours of their time to something I made up.
Be Patient (Then Be Patient Again)
Patience is haunting everything I’ve written here, but it deserves to be last on this list, too. Patience comes with trust, and you need to have both of these things. Be kind to yourself. Allow yourself to learn. Allow yourself to fail. Allow yourself to get frustrated and allow yourself the time to let that frustration find its way out of you. And know going in that it doesn’t end when you type the word end. Patience is needed for editing your manuscript, too. This will also be a learning process, because why write a novel if it doesn’t go to press as the best novel it can possibly be? If you’re querying agents with your polished novel, you’ll need…yep, you guessed it, patience. If it sells, you’ll work with an editor, and you’ll need even more patience as the red pen comes out dripping with what seems an awful lot like your own blood. But it will probably be worth it. You’ll grow from the first word to the day you hold the book in your hands, hot off the presses. And you’ll grow after that, too, with several new skills in your writer toolbox.
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In his striking debut collection, Greener Pastures, Michael Wehunt shows why he is a powerful new voice in horror and literary weird fiction.
From the round-robin, found-footage nightmare of “October Film Haunt: Under the House” (selected for The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror) to the jazz-soaked “The Devil Under the Maison Blue” (selected for both The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror and Year’s Best Weird Fiction), these beautifully crafted, emotionally resonant stories speak of the unknown encroaching upon the familiar, the inscrutable power of grief and desire, and the thinness between all our layers. Where nature rubs against small towns, in mountains and woods and bedrooms, here is strangeness seen through a poet’s eye.
They say there are always greener pastures. These stories consider the cost of that promise.