Write It Forward: Lessons Learned from a Writing Life #1 .

Over the years, as I’ve learned more about the craft of writing, I’ve revised my process for writing a book.  Honestly, way back when, in days of yore, when I was living in the Orient studying martial arts and started writing my first novel because other than getting beat on 8 hours a day, I still had some time to kill, I had absolutely no clue what I was doing.  I’d never taken a creative writing class, attended a workshop, a conference, read a book on writing, had a mentor.  Nada.

But I had read.  A LOT.  I read so much growing up in the Bronx, that I had to go beyond our local library branch and find a larger one, because I’d read my way out of the local one.

So I simply regurgitated every thriller I’d read in writing my own thriller.  I didn’t even know I was doing that.  My subconscious brain had the flow of a thriller and a novel imprinted on it so many times, that I was able to basically mimic all I’d read.

What I’m finding to be a very valuable practice now, is to look back at some of my old books and try to reconstruct, with my present awareness, what exactly I did in writing those books.  Both good and bad.  Also, both in craft and business.

The one thing I can remember about every single one of the 50 or so manuscripts I’ve written is what I call the Kernel Idea now, but used to call the Original Idea.  This was the moment of conception of the book.  Let me give you an example of examining process in retrospect and how it helps me now.

I was in the midst of writing my Area 51 series, which had taken off at Random House.  I was doing a lot of research on mythology, ufology, legends, pretty much every far out thing I could find.  And I came across a mention of Atlantis.

I’ve always been fascinated by myths and Atlantis is one of the oldest.  I delved deeper and found there was only one true source mention of it:  by Plato in his dialogues.  Everyone else was riffing off that.

So that was the moment of conception of my Atlantis series:  What if Plato was talking about a real place?  And what if the force that destroyed Atlantis came back to threaten our modern world?

So that’s idea.  What about story?

I was also taking a graduate course in physiological psychology.  In the bicameral mind (The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind—not a beach read) the two sides of the brain mimic each.  But there’s one part, on one side, that doesn’t mimic the same part on the other side—in fact, no one is quite sure what it does.

So.  Now I’ve got Atlantis.  The brain.  And military last stands.  Yes, my mind has some weird parts in it too.  I’ve always been fascinated by them.  But what if they could serve some higher purpose and be connected to a priestess who has a brain that’s different and that area that no one knows what it does—it does something, but only in connection with the spirits of warriors fighting in a doomed battle—do you see how a writer’s mind works?  So I ended up with Custer’s Last Stand, Isandlwana, Pickett’s Charge, the 300 Spartans, a gladiator in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD—all eventually were woven into the main storyline.  And, oh yeah, I brought Amelia Earhart back from the dead.  Three times I think.  Well, not back from the dead, but from parallel worlds where she was still alive.

Is your head hurting?  Isn’t this fun?

I ended up with a six book series, under a pen name, that my friend, Terry Brooks, loved for some reason.  Maybe because he does elves and his brain, well, it’s out there too.  The series also sold a lot and is now back in print under my name and my Area 51 pen name, Robert Doherty.

But in retrospect, what did I do wrong and what lessons can I take from that?

  1. I didn’t consciously know the theme/intent of my series.  What message was I sending?  It came out eventually in the writing.  But you can do a lot better if you consciously know it before writing.
  2. I didn’t know who the true antagonist was.  For the first book it was enough that there was this Dark Shadow coming through ley line gates into our world and doing bad things.  But who was the Dark Shadow?  What was the plan? WHY were they doing this?  Honestly, I didn’t take the time to figure it out before writing first book. I was too excited about all those things bubbling around in my brain.  Ever start writing a book too fast?  Without having all the pieces you need?
  3. Point of view.  I’m not sure I really knew what POV was back then.  I wrote a mixture of third limited and omniscient, without really knowing.  I’d go to omniscient whenever I shifted away from my protagonist or a few other main characters.  I don’t think it was a major problem, but I could have handled it better by locking down. Into omniscient.  Jenny Crusie is the one who schooled me on strict POV.
  4. I didn’t plan a series.  After my experiences with Area 51 and Atlantis my recommendation is this:  trying to write a multibook series with a story arc covering the entire series is hard as heck.  Because each book has to do two things:  carry the series arc; and be a complete story by itself.
  5. And you have to write each book to please two readers:  the series reader who started at book one, and the other reader, the one who picks up book three and wants a good read.  The letters from my editor drove me insane:  too much info here for series readers; not enough explanation here for stand-alone readers.  I swore I would never write a series again, so, of course, I’m doing final edits on 55, a novel of the Civil War that starts in 1840 and goes to the Battle of Shiloh in 1862.  Book two will pick up there.  ARGH!!  BTW:  55 refers to the fact that in the Civil War, in the 60 major battles, West Pointers commanded both sides in—guess how many?
  6. Pen names.  I’ve written under five over the years.  The problem is that scatters your audience.  I couldn’t really have done it different back then because of contracts.  I picked Donegan because it was close to Doherty, which was my Area 51 pen name.  But now that I’m bringing backlist out, it’s a bit of a problem at times.
  7. Genre.  Area 51 was racked in science fiction because there’s this flying saucer on the cover (which isn’t in the book).  Atlantis was racked mainstream, because the publisher couldn’t figure out what genre it was.  We called it X-Files type, Michael Crichton type.  I was quite proud I’d invented a new genre:  TechnoMyth.  It does not seem to have caught on.  For writers, being able to find your niche and focus it is key to marketing.
  8. On the plus side, five years after the first Atlantis was published, this TV show called LOST came out.  About halfway through the first season I had contacted a lawyer and asked about intellectual property.  There were exact scenes, concepts and characters from my first Atlantis book in that first season.  I learned you can’t really protect intellectual property.  On the bright side of that, though, I used Lost as a marketing platform to re-launch the series and I believe that’s what’s made it our #1 selling title.  (BTW, Abrams is also behind Super 8 coming out later this year, which is about Area 51.  Hmm).

Overall, the main lesson is to learn lessons.  Everything that happens can be both an obstacle or an opportunity.  As far as craft goes, get all the good stuff out of your subconscious brain and into your conscious brain.

And here’s the real kicker, which you’ll see as I do more of these posts intermingled among other Write It Forward posts in the coming months:  the more you consciously know about writing, the harder it gets.  You can’t wing it any more.  You have to do it right!

Write It Forward.

About Bob Mayer

West Point Graduate, former Green Beret and NY Times bestselling author Bob Mayer has had over 50 books published. He has sold over five million books, and is in demand as a team-building, life-changing, and leadership speaker and consultant for his Who Dares Wins concept. He's been on bestseller lists in thriller, science fiction, suspense, action, war, historical fiction and is the only male author on the Romance Writers of America Honor Roll. Born in the Bronx, Bob attended West Point and earned a BA in psychology with honors and then served as an Infantry platoon leader, a battalion scout platoon leader, and a brigade recon platoon leader in the 1st Cavalry Division. He joined Special Forces and commanded a Green Beret A Team. He served as the operations officer for 2nd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) and with Special Operations Command (Special Projects) in Hawaii. Later he taught at the Special Forces Qualification Course at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, the course which trains new Green Berets. He lived in Korea where he earned a Black Belt in Martial Arts. He's earned a Masters Degree in Education.

Posted on February 15, 2011, in Research and the Writer, Write It forward and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. “the more you consciously know about writing, the harder it gets. You can’t wing it any more. You have to do it right!”

    I got to a point where I had learned so much I felt like I had forgotten how to “just write”. However, my writing is a lot better now. I’ve had to change the way I do a lot of things, but well worth it.

  2. Great post, Bob. Good advice.

  3. I hear you, Bob. My first book was a breeze to write. Okay, it took me nine months and my second took me only nine weeks, but still – a breeze. I didn’t have a clue as to theme or overall concept – I’m just now, on my tenth book, figuring that out. Luckily, its the first one to be picked up.

    Fascinating stuff, hearing about your past. My dad has written MANY books under MANY different names. A lot of them are being reissued now, since they make him money and are easy for the publishing house – but others he’s got the rights to, and has been selling off. He’s at the age where learning new technology, i.e. publishing them himself, is a bit out of his range – and I’m not there near him to help enough. So I guess I’m saying, good for you for taking control of your back list.

    Cheers!

  4. Maybe Abrams likes you as an author. :-) The trailer looks exciting. I’m still at the process of winging it. It just takes longer to rewrite but hopefully, I’ll have a passable ms sooner rather than later.

  5. Terrific post, Bob. I threw my first novel together too, and spent years working out what it was supposed to be. Never again. Thank you for sharing this journey – it’s fascinating!

  6. I’m always interested in hearing successful writers describe how their thoughts turn into completed books. A lot of folks will find this breakdown fascinating and helpful. I’m also a history guy and appreciate the references. And the Abrams connections are quite interesting as well. Nice post.

  7. Just another reason to purchase Bob’s book, The Novel Writer’s Toolkit. That book has proved essential to my writing arsenal.

  8. Thanks for all the comments. I plan on looking back and breaking most of my books down, with what I know now. Amazing how the craft can grow over the years.

  9. It’s great for someone like me, who’s just starting to write, to read blogs like this from authors who’ve “been there, done that.” Thanks for the insights Bob. BTW, I agree with Mindi (M.E.) that The Novel Writer’s Toolkit is a great reference book.

  10. I just spent two hours with a publicist trying to brainstorm exactly who my audience was for the first book in my Legacy series, and who we were going to target with the upcoming second. Not an easy discussion, when we’ve discovered mid-series to switch genres from paranormal romance to contemporary fantasy. Particularly when you still don’t exactly fit in the new genre you’re targeting (though it’s a better reflection of your writing than the one you’re moving on from).

    So, yes, my head hurts reading this. And, yes, I’m pretty much guilty of a lot of the traps you describe above.

    But sometimes, when you’re creating something truly unique, I think this is simply the way it happens. You’re not writing for a specific audience, even if you would sell more easily if you were. Sometimes there’s just no way to define what’s being created while it’s being created. Am I learning as you did from the experience, Yes. And my publishing team and I are being smarter about the second book. But without the “lost” expreience of figuring out exactly (or as close as we could) what we were dealing with the first time around, we would be here.

    Sometimes, the mistakes we make are the best steps forward we can take ;o)

  11. Fantastic stuff! Adding The Novel Writer’s Toolkit to my TBR pile now.

  12. Very interesting discussion–I love hearing about how writers discovered and developed their stories. Since I have enjoyed your books (haven’t read them all, but many), this kind of revelation is interesting.

    One thing–Are you really going to call a novel full of blood, guts, honor, pragmatism, authoritarianism, broken promises, ruined lives, treason, cruelty, and devastation–55? 55 is a speed limit on some roads. 55 is when you start looking old. 55 is the price of a can of peas. 55–I don’t know what it is, but, gee. I hope you get a great cover. Tell me you’ve got a killer subtitle & blurb.

  13. I totally agree with Texanne about how interesting it is to hear how writers discovered and developed their stories. And enjoyed hearing about your background.
    Atlantis is a fascinating series, and was probably fun to write–all those ideas colliding together, becoming focused into the series.

    Thank you for sharing some of what you’ve learned. And you gone from mimicing (and damn good mimicing) to becoming an exceptional writer. Very inspiring!!

  14. I appreciate knowing how you got started. It gives me hope because I did exactly the same thing–started winging it with no plan. Then I met Kristen, suffered her Death Star blast, and had to ask myself, do I want to play with my imaginary friends, or do I want to write a book? As a friend of mine says, you can condemn people because they aren’t elite warriors, or you can teach them to be elite warriors. Thank you for teaching us when the fact is, you could just laugh at us. I know I certainly give people plenty of reason. :) All the best.

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