Let’s just get one thing out of the way right now: None of us knows what we’re doing. By us, I mean, of course, writers — though it’s also possibly true for plumbers, mathematicians, hang glider pilots, and dragon tamers too. One suspects that a miasma of cluelessness hangs about every human being like a cloud of clumsy bumblebees. But maybe not! Maybe they all know what’s up. All I can
tell you is, we writers don’t know what the sweet hot hell we’re doing.
Oh, we’ll tell you we know what we’re doing. We’ll give you as much writing advice as you want. We’ll trumpet our book proposals before you. We’ll write essays like the one I’m writing right here, right now
. But it’s all artifice.
I don’t mean to suggest that writers cannot write with expertise, or with confidence. I don’t mean that we cannot be practiced at our work, or that we cannot with some reliability write one book, and then another, and then another after that. We know how words and sentences work (usually: sorry, copy editors). We know how stories work (mostly: sorry, developmental editors).
What I mean is, each book is not the same as the last, or the next. What I mean is, every book is a fresh walk into a different dark forest. Every time you think you know exactly what you’re doing, along comes the next book (or edits on the current book, or reviews for the last book) to casually and cruelly remind you that, ha ha, sucker, you don’t know squat
This is a feature, not a bug.
It’s a feature, I think, because that’s what makes books special — both for us, the authors, and for the reader who ends up with that book in their hands. It helps to ensure that every book is a portal to a truly new place and not a reiterative journey through well-trod lands. Nothing wrong with an ordained and designed walk through a prepackaged Disneyworld wonderland, but a book as a new
thing, a new trip through the portal, is what makes books so goshdang wonderful in the first place. That sense of wonder. That sense of being lost. Again, it’s something that’s (ideally) true for the author as well as the reader. That sense of discovery guides us, excites us, terrifies us. But it also makes it hard for us to talk about the books without resorting to various grunts and wide-eyed gesticulations. And ultimately, I find that authors are often asked two primary questions about their books anyway, and those questions are: Where do you get your ideas?
And, How long did it take you to write this book?
We writers don’t know what the sweet hot hell we’re doing.
We writers tend to develop answers to these questions, both for when we’re asked, and for us so we can convince ourselves that we know what we’re doing. (Which, to remind you, we totally don’t know what we’re doing
.) Maybe our answers are jokes (“Where do I get my ideas? A safety deposit box in Richmond, Virginia.”) or serious answers evoking discipline (“I write 2,000 words per day and my novels tend to be around 90,000 words, so roughly 45 days is what it takes me to get my first draft.”) or answers of arty artfulness (“I listen to the horses in the clouds and I speak to the grass beetles and the ideas come to me that way, unbidden, and I write when the muse arrives, resplendent upon her palanquin of old bones.”).
For me, I had my answers to those questions locked down. I knew the ideas came from the standard industry practice of living life and reading books. I knew I had a schedule down, too — I would usually end up writing three or four books a year, and a first draft took me anywhere from 30 to 90 days to get down onto paper (“paper” meaning a computer screen).
And then came Wanderers
Four years too early.
One day, I had an idea, you see — there were people, and they were walking. Sleepwalking, actually. One by one, they joined one another, a numb, moving mass going somewhere. Across the country. And I saw, too, that they were joined by family and friends who cared about them and who protected them from the elements, from other people, from the government.
And that’s all I had.
I don’t know where it came from. It came to me the same way those early fragments of dreams arrive as you’re falling asleep — those garbled transmissions that are probably from your own brain but that somehow feel as if they’re delivered from outside you, beyond you, extra-dimensionally.
It arrived, and to reiterate: It’s all that I had
I had no story. I had no character. The core idea had some conflict implicit, but I didn’t know who these people were, why they were walking, where they were going. I didn’t have a beginning. I didn’t have an ending. I just had that singular vision.
I tried giving it those elements. I’d take walks, or mow the lawn, or hop in the shower, and I’d roll the idea around in my mouth like a loose stone, hoping it would dissolve like a hard candy, except it wouldn’t because it was a stone
and not a delicious candy. I went through scenario after scenario, genre after genre, and nothing really clicked.
So, in my brain, the idea sat. It arose from time to time to poke at me in the hopes of getting me to poke at it, and I would. To no avail.
Time passed, as it is wont to do.
And then came 2016.
By which I mean it was, at best, a sewer fire of a political year, one that yielded not only a vicious stink but a cascading series of sewer fires — still burning, in case you haven’t been paying attention.
With it uncorked a bottle of anxieties within me (and, I assume, nationally, even globally). A Pandora’s box of anxiety. A Voltron robot, except instead of forming a robot of cool lions, it’s a robot made of anxiety
. It wasn’t just the political situation. It was creeping autocracy. And the resurgence of white nationalism. And those were like gateway drugs to other, stranger fears. The post-antibiotic age! Artificial intelligence! The Sixth Extinction
via the Anthropocene Age! Oh, oh, oh, and don’t forget the granddaddy of existential threats: climate change.
It was not a pleasant feeling to have these fears rise up in me. It was like being covered in ants. (See also an earlier novel of mine, Invasive
, which literally features people being covered in ants, in part as a metaphor for anxiety.) I didn’t know what to do with it. I lost my ability to sleep. I felt unhinged, uncertain, spiraling.
And then —
Something made sense.
Oh, not the world. The world was, and remains, a clown car speeding violently toward an F5 tornado. But suddenly, the idea I had for Wanderers
gained life. In conflict and terror was born a story. The Voltron robot of my anxieties formed together and created this book. It told me everything. I put all the anxieties in there. I gave them context. I even tried giving them hope. It was a therapeutic undertaking 280,000 words in the making (the longest novel I’d written before that was less than half that in word count). I thought it would take me three to four months to write, and those months came and went and I was still writing, and writing, and writing — and it took me far longer to write that book than ever. And longer to edit, too.
It blew my answers to those two questions right out of the water. It destroyed any sense I had of how I thought that I do this thing. And that was a gift. It was a gift because I was reminded how each book is whatever it’s going to be. You can’t really force it. The ideas come however they come. And the book takes the time that it takes. It still takes work. It still takes discipline. But it’s ready when it’s ready.
is ready even when you
Even when you have no idea what you’re doing.
÷ ÷ ÷
is a novelist, screenwriter, and game designer. He’s the author of Blackbirds
, Double Dead
, Dinocalypse Now
, and the Star Wars: Aftermath trilogy
, is cowriter of the short film Pandemic
, the feature film HiM
, and the Emmy-nominated digital narrative Collapsus
. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife, taco terrier, and tiny human.