8 Things I Learned About the Craft (and Myself) from Writing “The Armor of God”

I feel like explaining why The Armor of God is both my first and second book will be exhausting. In short: I wrote an enormous fantasy/sci-fi novel called Reverie of Gods when I was in college, and it’s been in the backburner since (nearly six years). It is a huge stand-alone story that taught me a lot of things, and I had a lot of trouble pitching it to agents and publishers (the one real bite I got refused last-second for reasons I didn’t really understand, but boiled down to “I can’t sell this”).

Though I love that book, maybe more than I should, it was obviously not the most easily marketable thing (or at I didn’t know how to market it) and was therefore a less-than-ideal debut.

That’s when I started throwing around the idea of writing something else, something more digestible and fun, something that could more easily get my foot in the door. That idea began to take shape, merging with other itches I had been having (like writing a mech-themed story) and eventually became The Armor of God (I’m trying to remember what the first title was because it was so bad).

My main man, Besoe Nandi from The Armor of God
I wrote this book under very different conditions to Reverie. For one, I was no longer in school, but working at home. I already had the experience of finishing a full length novel, had the experience of working closely with mentors and editors, and more importantly: I had no initial attachment to the idea, or any future it may or may not have. Reverie was my five year old baby; this was basically a wank (at this point).

I started writing the main ‘plot and characters’ document on January 2nd, and wrote “The End” on July 7th. Now, it’s been rewritten and edited and last Tuesday, published. Throughout these last months of constant work, I’ve learned many things about writing a book, debut or otherwise. These are them.

#1: You can never anticipate your feelings about your writing

The main idea behind The Armor of God was writing something I was less attached to (than Reverie) so I could use it as a learning exercise. I wanted to use this novel as a blank canvas to write my less ambitious and more immediately exciting ideas, test the waters of indie publishing, learn about marketing, create bonds with people in the industry, and ultimately open the door for what I then thought was “my real book”, Reverie of Gods.

This seems absurd now. It feels disrespectful towards The Armor of God (and anyone who’s read it) to think of it not as a book but as a tool. When I decided I wanted to write a “mech” story, it was the kind of idea I wouldn’t take seriously, because I didn’t think there was an even remotely original way to write mechs that was still interesting. I just wanted to have fun with mechs and abilities and fun designs and interesting training exercises and rivalries and all that jazz.

I never expected I would end up attached to this story and this characters, actually planning to write two sequels and obsessively thinking about how it would all end for these folks, who would die and who would live to see humankind’s return to the planet (or if that even happens at all). I don’t think it’s necessarily about growing attached to something because you’ve worked on it so hard, like some kind of literary Stockholm’s Syndrome; surprisingly, I legit found myself wanting to keep writing, looking forward to key scenes and the reactions of the people who would read it. Which brings me to point #2.

#2: Alpha Readers Are an Invaluable Tool

I published the first draft of The Armor of God on this blog, chapter by chapter, as I was writing it. At first I thought of this book as sort of fan-fiction of nothing in particular; I was just having fun as a writer, writing a love song to my favorite mech stories like Xenogears, Evangelion, or Pacific Rim, all of which influenced the story in one way or another.

When I wrote Reverie of Gods, I had one alpha reader, but she was my girlfriend so her opinions, honest as they were, always felt (to me) like she was forcing herself to like it, and I always wondered if she sincerely liked it as much she claimed (she did, I eventually learned). Also, she never put any pressure on me, and if it wasn’t because of how much fun I was having writing it, maybe she should have.

I have found that the many books I haven’t finished have something in common: no one was reading them as I wrote them. One of my favorite experiences with The Armor of God was reading twitter and text messages from alpha readers reacting to the twists and turns, talking with each other about the story, theorizing, etc. Having them actively demand a new chapter every few days was never annoying; it was what kept me writing.

Having confidence in your work is the most important element to help you finish it.  Having excited alpha readers going all tumblr on you helps. A lot.

#3: “Plot as you go” is an acceptable technique (within reason)

I’ve always felt that the “I’ll make it up as I go” ‘technique’ is for lazy writers who don’t want to do the pre work before starting. I plotted Reverie of Gods like an obsessive tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorist in his basement. As Armor was an experiment, I didn’t think that would be necessary. It was also an experiment in narrative, for me.

If you were to ask me what I think is my best quality as a writer, my one true talent, I would say plotting. I’m good at plotting and structuring an air-tight story because I’m good at mapping out several plot threads in my head, and I loathe poorly plotted stories. When I wrote Armor, I only had one thing truly clear: the big plot twist about three fourths into the story. Then, when I started, I had only a few chapters ahead of me figured out, and fell to many pitfalls of this writing strategy. At first I had many ideas that I was sure would be exciting, but then decided to erase them. I envisioned one character one way, and halfway through I realized her role didn’t fit her personality, so the re-write called for big overhauls.

But even I had headlights shedding some light on the dark highway of the story. It still called for obsessive thinking, but this appraoch actually helped to keep me excited about the story. Thanks to the way I plotted book one, I have most of book two already mapped out with only a few empty spaces here and there. A strategy I always loathed turned out to benefit this kind of story.

That being said, I still don’t think writers should ever approach a novel blindly. It’s always exciting to start a new book just because we have one idea we think is great, but that’s what often results in a bad story. No idea is ever good enough, by itself, to make a good book. The best way to make sure your good idea is not wasted on rushed, sloppy writing, is to know exactly how you will approach it throughout the entire book. And of course, how your idea will wrap up.

Stephen King is the one arguable exception to this rule. He’s actually written several books out of just a basic concept without totally ruining them. This is of course my personal opinion as a King fan, because his critics’ most common concern is how he ends his stories, because it reveals how he was just making shit up as he went. You see, writing a good mystery isn’t as easy as having a good setup. Lost is a good example of what not to do. Lost thought its mysterious setups would be enough to make the whole story good, but when they wrote themselves into a corner, and the build-up demanded closure, it all went to hell. Yes, some die-hards will insist that the ride is the important part, but if Lost wasn’t so brilliantly produced and marketed, it wouldn’t get away with crap writing. Don’t try to be Lost.

#4: When it comes to marketing, there’s always more you can do (and that’s what makes it scary)

Marketing your book is the best thing and the worst thing. I work at a company that specializes in marketing, and I’ve learned a lot about it, but it will never be enough. Writing is something that takes up a few hours of your day; marketing takes up your whole life, because it’s not just about the quality (or lack thereof) of your book. Every time you meet someone, the whiteness of your teeth and the firmness of your handshake might determine whether this person is willing to shell out a few bucks to give your book a read. Every time you tweet something. Every time you share something on Facebook. It all affects your chances of success, and that is exhausting.

I wish I knew everything there was to know about marketing, but I don’t think anyone does. When you’re trying to convince people that they should try something, and people are so diverse, and there are so many factors around their thoughts and opinions, it becomes almost impossible to predict what will be a success and what won’t. Writing a great book is not anywhere close to enough (though it will help), and knowing that making sure your book sells involves a skillset that’s entirely different to the one you have as a writer, is horrifying.

Should you post more on Facebook? Twitter? Should you go ahead and pay a publicist or marketer to do the work for you? Who knows? Are you close to a big breakthrough, or is it still years away?

And what makes it worse? It’s very, very hard to know what you’re doing wrong and if you’re doing anything wrong at all! What exactly is keeping people from discovering your book? Your cover? Your author picture? Your book blurb? It’s impossible to know. Speaking of which . . .

 #5 Putting your book out there is nerve wracking, and for entirely unexpected reasons

To quote Joni Mitchell: be prepared to bleed. It’s barely been a week since The Armor of God was published and I feel like I’m on the verge of having an anxiety attack. Not because sales are less than stellar or because reviews are poor, but because I feel trapped. I feel like putting my book out there has put me between a rock and a hard place, where I'm as equally afraid of failure as I am of attempting success.

I know success won’t come by itself, and I have done a lot of work after I wrote “The End”. I’ve read people criticize harshly my writing in the past, and I’m prepared for that (though I'm delighted to see that all reviews have been very, very positive thus far). I’m aware that The Armor of God isn’t my one shot at success (because, again, it was conceived solely to get my foot on the door), just as many authors took years, maybe even decades, before they were successful. I know I’m no different in any way.

So why is it putting this much pressure on me?

Intellectually, I can understand what’s happening: a part of me expects immediate success, and is afraid of failure. I think this feeling is impossible to avoid for any artist. Yes, intellectually, I can realize that expecting that is absolutely ridiculous and a direct road to disappointment. Emotionally, it’s a whole other story, and that’s the side against which I have to fight. This goes back to #1: you cannot anticipate your feelings, ever. You cannot train yourself to feel one way. Emotions don’t work like that.

A better way to phrase this would be that, though it is encouraged to lower certain expectations, I would never dare tell an artist not to be at least reasonably optimistic.

 #6: People (even other artists) won’t understand what you’re going through

Even if you were to make some pitiful blog post about it (shut up), people won’t understand just what’s going through your head. Yes, everyone understands the fear of failure, no matter their field of interest or their talents, but what you feel when you publish a book is far more complex than “I don’t want it to do poorly”.

My band released its first studio album last year and to say that it didn’t sell would be an understatement (it’s an eclectic sound in the most faraway subgenre of the most inaccessible musical genre there is). We gathered a bit of a following and played a few gigs, but I’m still far into red numbers when it comes to The God Particle. Maybe it is because Watercolor Butterfly was never my love child, but that never bothered me. I was invested in a very comfortable way, where a lack of success wasn’t bothersome, and I didn’t lack the patience to wait for it to come. I was sure I could have a similar mindset with The Armor of God. And though I’m almost completely sure that Armor has sold more units this week than The God Particle has since release, the feeling is totally different.

People will ask you constantly how your book is selling, what reviewers are thinking, etc. Some will make jokes about your book or you as a writer, and they’re not being assholes, they just don’t really understand that the publication of your book is a touchy subject that is always welcome, but should be approached carefully. For non-writers, and particularly to non-artists, imagining a heap of papers as a person’s love child is almost ridiculous if not properly explained (which really isn’t the purpose of this post rly srsly).


 #7: Self-publishing isn’t “the easy way out”; you just trade one hard aspect of publishing for another

Many writers and readers like to think of self-published authors as lesser beings because they took “the easy way out”. I will not argue that this is often the case, and that a vast majority of self-published books out there are so bad they stood zero chance to be published traditionally.

The thing is that seeing success as a self-published author is no easier than it is as a traditionally published author. It’s even harder. It’s not all vanity publishing. Some of us don’t just want to be able to say we’re published authors; we actually want you to read our book and take it as seriously as you would take any other book, and that is hard as hell, especially in this literary climate.

Check it out: while traditionally published authors work their asses off to get noticed by agents/publishers, most get to then sit back and let the people in charge market the book. With self-published authors, it’s the other way around; we sit back and relax while the book gets printed, but then we have to work our asses off to market it.

Success isn’t easy for either breed, and that’s something that should be respected.

#8: The only guaranteed payoff is intellectual and emotional, and that’s more than enough

This first week, I’ve raised a decent percentage of the money I’ve spent on the book, which makes me pretty happy. I think that most sales thus far are the expected “family and friends” helpful support sales (and if that’s the case, I’m blessed), but I knew that it’s normal, and that the real sales will come when/if readers begin recommending it to friends, which will obviously take time.

It is every writer’s dream to be able to live off your writing. I’m not entirely sure that’s true for me, but that might be because I have a job I genuinely like, and I wouldn’t want to stop doing. That is a blessing, I think, because I’m not counting the days until I can quit my job and write full-time. A great load off, because I’m not waiting for monetary payoff, soon or otherwise.

Which is good, because as we all know, even best-selling authors have day jobs. Significant success for writers is not guaranteed, but that should never be a writer’s detractor for one simple reason: there is still significant payoff, even if your book flops hard.

If you want to tell a story, but you are afraid of publishing because being successful is an uphill battle, take this advice from an author that hasn’t made it yet: it is very much worth it. Intellectually, you’ll be rewarded the moment you’re finished, because you’ll know that you managed to create a world and actually tell a story, two things most people cannot even conceive. “Telling a story” doesn’t sound like a big deal (a drunk guy telling a joke is doing that), but when it’s yours, and when you finish it, you’ll realize what a big deal it really is.

And here’s the best thing: the emotional payoff is even greater. When you read your first review coming from a stranger telling you that they can’t wait for the sequel to come, how they hate you for killing off a character, what they think will happen in book two, you’ll see how good and how powerful that makes you feel.

Because when people read your book, suddenly you’ve become part of a total stranger’s world. Things you created are now playing a part in your readers’ (however few they are) thoughts and emotions. You’ve engaged someone emotionally and intellectually. When your book has been published, you’ve actually become an intrinsic and eternal part of your times; even if you die, your story, and by extension your thoughts and your voice, will always be there.

That is the greatest form of immortality, and it’s just a few thousand words away.


If you want to read the book that inspired this post, you can learn more about it here, or you can go right ahead and buy it from Amazon!
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About The Damn Beast

Pre-op trans-minotaur, sci-fi/fantasy/horror author, metal singer, videogame journalist, pop culture blogger. I also lift heavy things and put them down again repeatedly to occupy more space.
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4 comments:

  1. Good points. I hadn't really considered the one about alpha readers before. I've been poking at a non-fiction book for the last few years, but I think this year is the year that I start to take it more seriously.

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    1. It's never a bad time to start, mate. Best of luck!

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  2. I've always sort of worried about posting my first draft for people to read because I feel like it's going to change so much through the editing process later that it won't even be the same story and, therefore, all their critique would go to waste.

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    1. Well the idea is that it has to change based on those readers' thoughts.

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