We’ll start this with my usual disclaimer. I’m not calling myself on expert on any of this author stuff, or anything silly like that. There are so many levels and layers of learning to writing and publishing, I know I’ll never put down my metaphorical pen and say, “okay, I’m done”. To whatever degree that might aggravate some folks who aren’t in love with the process, it delights those of us that are. We’re the writers least likely to notice when the books are or aren’t selling, and most likely to keep writing either way. I’m an expert only on knowing that this is what I was born to do, and experienced enough to know that the only thing between me and knowledge is more learning.
Hey, I can do that.
That’s why I have something to say about this. I have done it, after all. I haven’t gone to great lengths to write a book that could effectively be used as a boat anchor, but it’s definitely in my future. We’ll talk about what a complex task that was after I’ve done it, maybe call the post ‘building a better world’; now we’ll go over what I know, based on what I have done.
‘Stumbling Backasswards into the Light’ was my first book, and it was pretty slim. The world in that book is largely borrowed from ours, and briefly mentions some Puget Sound landmarks. The bulk of it takes place inside of a cave, loosely representing the subconscious and/or unconscious mind. Although not a lot of descriptive words went into painting the picture in or out of the cave, the first person style of telling puts the reader right there in its own effective way. Too much description would have clunked that book up for sure, and detracted from the story.
A telling tale with a few important points should be told using an economy of words, in my opinion. This was a bit of a philosophical story too, one of my favorite kinds; but that is a place where flowery prose screams ‘faker’ more than it does ‘philosopher’. There are only two kinds of philosophers, when it comes down to it: the ones that are full of shit (or themselves), and those who tell it like it is. My first book was my way of saying that I am the latter sort.
My next book was another world entirely. Punny, right? Well, here’s what I was going to say originally: ‘Walking Between Worlds’ was a whole other story. See, I can’t get away from it. I ditch one, only to write another.
I guess I was just born to be punny.
The trilogy that I wrote after that first slim volume was much more of an intense experience in writing. I had to learn all kinds of stuff to even start writing, and had to jump right from no outline to extensive outlining. ‘Walking Between Worlds’ starts out in San Francisco, but it quickly goes to some places that would completely boggle a navigation app.
(As an aside, I typed both ‘Heaven’ and ‘Hell’ into my Waze search. It said that Heaven was eighty-four miles away, which I found to be an accurate enough approximation. There was no route to Hell, at least from where I’m sitting (phew!), but there is a place called ‘Hell Hole Campground’ less than two hours’ drive from here. I’d go, since my girl and I love to camp, but it likely got that name for a reason. No sense tempting fate, and changing the direction my soul is headed.)
Just as there are layers of comprehension and meaning to every subject, I wanted to show that there was possibly more to Heaven and Hell than many of us may think. With scientists finally confirming what spiritualists have been saying all along, I thought more folks than ever might be wondering what is happening in these endless layers of reality stretching in every direction away from ours. What if Heaven is not filled with super holy folks, but just a bunch of souls at a different place on their journey than we are? What if the biggest difference between them and us is their ability to see the overarching theme of life, as they have centuries to examine it? What if they see the way things actually are, and still screw things up?
What if some angels are assholes?
The best way for me to show the reader Heaven and Hell and so many places in between was to jump back and forth between two descriptive perspectives pretty often. In one, the reader saw some of what the characters doing the traveling saw…mostly they were brief sketches, with plenty of room to fill in the details as the reader saw fit. It wasn’t the architecture or the decorations that I relied on to give the impressions in this story, except in rare instances. It was the character’s experience of traveling, of seeing these things and having to digest them. From emotional states to errant thoughts that arose, I peeked continually inside the way these travels were affecting the characters.
More than anything else, I wanted to make sure that the reader felt like they were traveling alongside these characters. It’s not easy to entice readers into visiting Hell or even Heaven, particularly if they have some solid preconceived notions about such things. They had to go there along with a set of likable characters that expressed everything from disbelief to awe as they crossed worlds like we cross streets. There had to be some sense of looking out through these other eyes, without using a bunch of actual ‘I’s.
I’m a very sensory person, as strange as that may sound. Smells and tastes don’t bring up some drifting memories for me…they bring on borderline psychedelic experiences. If you ever see me out eating, watch for when my eyes roll back into my head or glaze over completely. Then nudge whoever you’re sitting with, and say, “that guy with the long hair and beard over there just went to another world”.
Somehow I got that across in the ‘Walking Between Worlds’ trilogy, and I knew for sure when I started getting feedback. Readers said they could smell Hell as they read it, that they felt hot to the point of discomfort more than once; they longed for Heaven until they got there, at which point everything felt a little too artificially sanitary and wholesome.
Perfect. That’s what it was like for me too.
There were a couple places where I wanted to paint a picture with words, and that’s exactly what I tried to do. The epic battles that I saw through the magic porthole in my head were too grand to skim over, and certain settings had to be locked into place early to make them easy to revisit later. I tried to move as smoothly from observing the setting to observing the dialogue to observing the characters externally to observing them internally. Every now and again is a little something that clearly demonstrated that this observer has a distinct point of view, but most of the focus is on keeping the reader in the right character’s shoes. Or boots.
Each of those books were around ninety thousand words. They needed to be, to get all that stuff in there. That’s not what I wanted to do next, though. The next thing I wanted to do was build a world that leaned heavily on the reader’s identification with their own world, using a screamingly fast-paced economy of words that got right to the story. I wanted to build a world, show that it was both a lot like ours and also distinctly different, get the reader either attached to it or disgusted by it, then destroy it.
I wanted to write a zombie book, and I wanted it to say something that other zombie books didn’t say. I wanted it to be a book you could read in a few hours that might just stick with you for days. There wasn’t room for flowery prose or lengthy character descriptions in the story, and I needed readers to see what I was showing them in a quick handful of words. Those brief observer commentaries that fit so nicely in my other books would feel out of place here, and too contrived.
When I look at it from that perspective, I have to admit that it seems that there were an awful lot of places I couldn’t go with this story. It didn’t feel like that at all, when I was writing it. The outline that I drew up was perfect, exactly what I needed to keep everything on track and fat-free. I’ve said it before, and it bears repeating: knowing your boundaries is more liberating than restricting, if you do it right.
This time I relied very heavily on the dialogue and character reactions to make this world one that could live outside of my head at last. Brand names that are similar to those in our world but distinctly different pop up here and there, and much of the verbal exchange between characters is outlining how these folks’ collective predicament is much the same as our own. There’s even a somewhat plausible scientific explanation for the zombies, and descriptive names for the different forms they take.
Something else happened while I was writing, one of those surprises that don’t always show themselves during outlining. The idea came up that alternate realities surely have some of the same people in them, especially people that are key to that reality’s evolution. It seemed further conceivable that some of the same folks that rise to the top in polite society might stand a good chance of surviving when that society falls. So a bunch of folks from our world starting showing up in the story, and I had to do some serious outreach to get their permissions.
Although I didn’t lean heavily on these characters, I did delight in the links provided between these worlds by their permissions and enthusiasm. It was an idea that I would be surprised to see me revisit, though; at least without good cause. The next world I build, I’ll be using a whole different method altogether. We’ll talk about that, in a year or so. Next week we’ll talk about the wonderful tool that can turn an unreadable manuscript into a compelling book; it’s also the same tool that can turn an author’s best work into unreadable drivel. It’s editing, of course, and we’ll be calling this one ‘Edited to Death’. You’ll see why, next week.
Thanks for reading!
All the best,