Piecemeal Manifesto : Entry 1 : Be Who You Are
A Long Story Explaining a Basic Concept:
When I started writing back in 2006, I wrote horror short stories. I suppose that was mostly because of Stephen King. I’d devoured all of his collections and novels since high school, so it felt natural to try that. Over the course of a half-dozen years, I had some decent success selling short stories, some of which I’ll eventually post on here for you to read. I also met a lot of other horror writers who became my friends and taught me a lot of details about the publishing world. Eventually though, I got tired of writing short stories and wanted to try a novel. The obvious progression was to continue what I’d been doing, so I spent three years (or four or five years, I can’t remember, but it was a long time) writing a horror novel. LUCKY TOWN didn’t have traditional horror elements (i.e. – no supernatural occurrences, no monsters, etc.), but was definitely dark–a kid’s father has a breakdown and relocates the family to the swamp where he is manipulated by a mysterious passerby into starting a cult that is headed for a Jonestown Massacre-like situation unless the kid can stop it. So yeah, dark. If you need further evidence of the mood of the book, my soundtrack as I wrote was a lot of Nine Inch Nails and Trent Reznor’s soundtracks.
Ultimately, LT was read and rejected by nineteen agents, and after cycling through the Kubler-Ross stages of grief, I was left wondering what to write next. Another dark YA novel seemed logical. It’s what I knew from my short stories and LT. I also knew the horror publishers and agents, and felt I had come really close with LT. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized something that pretty much changed my writing life – I hated writing horror. Yes, I’d sold a dozen or so horror short stories and had spent three or so years writing a horror novel, but I realized I didn’t like who I was when I was writing in that genre. Because here’s the thing – I’m not a dark person. I have a very dark sense of humor, sure, and can be gross with the best of them, but my overall personality isn’t that dark. And as much as I liked the concept of LT, I didn’t find any enjoyment in writing it. The people, the mood and tone, the plot, all were bleak, and that’s not me. Hell, I really don’t even like horror movies that much. More than anything, I like being funny, or at least trying to be so. And with that realization in mind, I decided to write something more fitting of me and who I am – a schemer, a plotter, and a smart ass. And with that in mind, two years later I’d written, gotten representation for, and subsequently sold THE WATER TOWER 5.
Why I Succeeded Where I’d Failed Before:
I have every belief that WT5 sold because I loved writing it. Was it hard work? Yes. But it was fun work. I love those characters and that world and their scheming. I was myself when I wrote that book, and I think it translates to the page. I’m pretty sure anyone who knows me and reads the novel would say, “Yeah, that’s Kurt.” It’s my sense of humor – sarcastic, smart ass-y, and somewhat juvenile. The novel also reads super fast, which is what I like my books to do. I like plot and dialogue and twists and ensemble casts. The novel has all of that. Being myself, writing the book I’d truly want to read, is what made WT5 marketable. And I think it will connect with people who like stories like I do.
So of course if you remember the introduction to this manifesto, you recall that I struggled with how to approach the WT5 follow-up. For awhile I thought I needed to write like the most popular YA authors of the day, writing serious, issue-driven novels that get write-ups in magazines and get taught in high school classes. I figured that was the next step, writing something “bigger”, more important, really trying to establish myself as an up-and-coming YA author. (Man, that sounds so pretentious, right?) And for a couple of weeks, I played with ideas that might fit what I considered “important.” Ultimately though, none of them stuck. And why? Because, like with trying to write horror, it’s not me. I’m just not a big issue-driven person. I could probably fake a novel about a heavy teen issue, but I wouldn’t like doing it, and I have no doubt it would be terrible because–once again–it wouldn’t be me.
That’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned so far in my writing – I shouldn’t try to be someone I’m not; I need to be myself. It sounds simple, but it’s definitely something I forget from time to time. So instead of trying to force myself into some preconceived notion of what a successful YA author writes, I’ll write what I like to and hope it finds an audience. That’s better than forcing myself into something I’m not, because that’s never worked for me in the past. Besides, I think I can write about serious issues in a lighter way if I choose. But right now, I want to write fun, funny, entertaining books that read fast. And that’s what I’m going to do.
TL;DR: When in doubt, write who you are.