Oliver asked me to write down what I learned writing this particular book. I had no idea where to start. Much like Rabbit in the Road, writing The Dusk Harbinger was basically an exercise- how quickly can I learn from constant failure? How many different failures can I learn from? How many of them do I have to repeat before I learn?
I feel like I spent the last four years in a cycle of effing up everything, and turning out great words in the process. Even sitting on this side of it, on the “the end” side, I’m in awe of how many failures are stacked together and it’s still done. A year late, but it’s done. It amazes me how much can go wrong and we can still produce work of which we’re proud. So here’s what I learned the hard way, and what I hope you learn the easy way.
EFF UP #1:
TOO MUCH TIME
Writing the book took four years. We started without a clear timeline, or even a very clear intent, and so it noodled on for a lot longer than it should have. Without some time pressure or goal setting, this book could have ended up in a drawer, gathering dust and gathering words indefinitely. Eff no. In addition, it would sit for months at a time while life got in the way (cheap excuse #1), so jumping back into producing words was painful at best. I think I once described it as feeling as though writing each word was the equivalent of pulling a tooth. Letting it idle and run out of steam was a HUGE error. It made it all but impossible to keep track of timelines, placement, characters. It was especially difficult on those helping us work on the book. Our testers were brought in way too early; we thought we’d be done this time last year. Instead, they hung on through all the bullshit. That was unfair to them, and I wouldn’t do it again.
EFF UP #2
NO PREPARED INSPIRATION MATERIAL
When life wasn’t in the way and I actually sat and put words down, I often felt “away” from my story world and uninspired (cheap excuse #2). I wasn’t, I was just having trouble picking up the thread again. This book was considerably more complex than the first, and there were a lot more threads. I needed a “mood enforcer”, an association built between an external prompt and the feeling of my story world. Most of you probably already have this, but I didn’t realize what I needed was a playlist. About a year ago, Oliver put together a list of tracks that felt like the world of the Dusk Harbinger to him. I built the association as thoroughly as I could, and jammed out to the list whenever it was time to make words happen. Even now, when I hear songs from the list, I start getting ideas about Kathan, Sadah and Piotr. I should have had it years ago, but I didn’t know what a great tool it could be.
EFF UP #3
I don’t mean for me. I mean for the PROCESS. Holy shitcakes. I had no understanding of the endurance contest this would be- at times I could only plan to outlast the project, rather than actually master it. I didn’t realize what a drain it would be, just how tired of the world I could let myself become. Life gets in the way, it always does, (see cheap excuses above) and ideas are still coming at me, trying to seduce me away from Dusk… it was amazing how hard it was sometimes to simply stay the course. I lost faith so many times. I was lucky to have my co-author to kick me in the ass and keep me on track. I don’t think I could have stuck with it without him. Also- no respect for the process of telling someone else’s story. Oliver and I were locked in a four year game of Telephone. The Dusk Harbinger is his story, his idea, told in my words. So there was so much noise, so much loss while he tried to communicate his vision and I tried to make it mine. Wouldn’t trade it for anything, now, and I wouldn’t be afraid to do it again; but this time, I’ll be prepared for how frustrating that can be.
EFF UP #4
NO PLAN FOR THE WELL RUNNING DRY
It happens. After a while, you’re just…tapped. Dry. Nothing happening. It had never happened to me before, and I was completely unprepared for it. I had nothing in mind, no drive to move forward, no faith that it would get better. I wasn’t blocked, I was just empty. It didn’t ever last long, but when it happened, it was rather terrifying. I needed a plan for when it went sour like that, and I didn’t have anything ready. Now, I know what to do, and I know how to build triggers and associations that keep the well filled (or at least keep it from running out completely). There is a process, and you have to respect it and play along to keep yourself juiced. Learning that was sucky, just flat out sucky. I learned it the hard way.
EFF UP #5
NOT HAVING A CLEAR VISION…AND DOING IT ANYWAY
There were so many times I’d be feeling the pressure to put down some words. Any words. Just words. I had test readers sitting around twiddling their thumbs (because I told them a year too early I’d be done /headdesk), I had my co-author chomping at the bit to move forward, full of excitement and ideas. I had my own internal pressures to get the work finished, and I would just start pooping words out onto the page, just to feel like I was making progress. So often, they would be trash. I’d have to go back, excise enormous chunks of material that felt like accomplishment but was just a band-aid. Without a clear vision of what I wanted to happen in the story, I was just dumping words. I know now that I’d rather sit around for three days to get the right idea than just pump out three days worth of utter crap words. I needed to communicate more clearly when I was struggling and actually USE my co-author more. He always has a clear vision. Why struggle when I can just borrow his? There is something to be said for writing through a problem, but this was a whole different problem. This was blindly vomiting sentences, not consciously creating.
EFF UP #6
TOO MANY EXCUSES
See how many of these were easily solved? Most of them are bullshit lies I told myself. Some are genuine learning moments, most are not. Most of the time, the reason I struggled so much with this story was because I was either not trying or not talking when I was having trouble. I should have learned that earlier. Woulda saved myself some grief.
Not being ready when we expected was the most horrible. I was making excuses left and right when the truth was, we just weren’t ready. What had been so simple with Rabbit in the Road was a nightmare with The Dusk Harbinger. The project was just bigger, so the problems were bigger, the process was bigger, the timeline was bigger… everything was just more work. I feel like I should have been better prepared for that, but you don’t know what you don’t know. I know now, and I can’t wait to do it again.