E.C. Myer's first novel Fair Coin is a wild ride through wish after wish. This debut novel demonstrates a mastery of writing that has been honed through a variety of short stories. Here, Myers shares his writing process with us.
Tamago: Do you have a regular drafting process when you write a book, or does that process vary from book to book?
Eugene: I always start with the same process, but it might be necessary to try a new approach once I get farther into the draft. My default method is to work out the major plot points and characters ahead of time. By the time I start writing, I might have scattered notes about character traits, bits of dialogue, plot ideas, a few scenes—not in any organized sense, like you’d find in an outline, but just fragments of ideas that I may or may not refer to while I write and which help guide the draft. This isn’t too different from how I would tackle writing a short story, though I might have even less figured out in advance for a shorter piece.
My third novel is an example of when my process changed considerably. It had too many characters and too complex a back story to keep everything in my head. I also had difficulty deciding what to write next during my writing sessions, which wasted the hour or so I set aside for them every morning. So I finally decided to try outlining every scene in the book, and it was exactly what I needed to move forward with that particular book. I returned to my old ways for the next novel.
Tamago: Do you write by yourself or do you write in a writing group? What do you see as the benefits of the method that you choose?
Eugene: A bit of both. I’m lucky to belong to a terrific writing group called Altered Fluid, and I also have a number of other trusted beta readers, but I don’t share my work—or even talk about it much—with anyone until I have completed a solid first draft on my own. All my first readers are smart people with unique writing strengths, areas of expertise, reading interests, experiences, and perspectives. Their critiques help me see if the draft is working the way I hope it does, for a wide range of readers, and shows me where I can make improvements in rewrites.
I think it’s helpful to know people who can not only tell you that a draft has problems, but can express what they are and offer suggestions for fixing them. Writing can be very lonely and frustrating—ultimately, it’s just the author and a blank page—but it’s so much better when you can talk with others who understand what it’s like. The communities I’m part of provide an invaluable support network when things aren’t going so well with writing or submitting my work, and it’s also great to share in everyone’s successes. Good news, even when it isn’t your own, can be a powerful motivator to keep going when you’re discouraged.
Another side benefit is that I often get to see their stories and novels before they’re published. As a fan of their work, I get a thrill from reading manuscripts before anyone else, and I’m honored that my friends value my feedback. And critiquing other people’s fiction absolutely improves my own writing.
Tamago: How do you know when a draft is working?
Eugene: Generally not until I have a complete manuscript and read it all the way through for the first time, but sometimes I can’t be sure until I’ve finally shown the draft to others and heard their impressions. I can also sometimes gauge my progress by how quickly the daily word counts add up, how much I look forward to writing the next scene, or how I feel after a writing session, but I am not always the best judge of my own work. I’m as hampered by artistic self-doubt as your average creative person, so I try not to let that critical voice intrude while I’m drafting. I just trust that no matter how bad I think the draft is, an opinion that changes daily, I can probably fix it later.
Tamago: Your novel Fair Coin has an elaborate, multi-layered plot. What did you do to keep track of all the strands of the novel?
Eugene: Although I generally avoid outlining my novels in advance, I did update an outline for Fair Coin as I wrote it: A table that listed every chapter, scene, the characters in each scene, and what happened. I also made notes in the table about plot points and character threads that I needed to pick up later in the story, and often included revision notes since the book changed so much as it went along. This outline was indispensable in revising the first draft.
Tamago: How many drafts of a project will you write? What do you do in each draft?
Eugene: As many drafts as it takes to make it as good as possible, assuming I don’t have to meet a hard deadline. Short stories typically go through at least three drafts: the first draft, a revision after my writing group has seen it, and possibly another revision once I’ve shown it to fresh readers. I try not to let the same people see multiple drafts of the same piece.
Fair Coin went through six drafts before it was published, with varying degrees of revisions. I didn’t query agents until I was on the fourth draft. Using that book as an example, the first draft is typically very rough. I’m just getting the story down, working out the plot and getting comfortable with the characters as I go. The first revision is a complete overhaul: I’m deepening characters, adding or subtracting characters, fleshing out the plot, adding more descriptions, improving dialogue, developing the theme, and so on. Then I show it to my writing group and other first readers. In the third draft, I have hopefully addressed the problems they’ve pointed out in their critiques and further adjusted the characters and plot, probably adding more layers based on their suggestions and comments. I’ll probably show it to a few more readers at that point, and if there are no major problems with the book, the fourth draft is more about punching up dialogue and descriptions, checking for consistency in plot and character, and doing a strong line edit.
Wash, rinse, repeat if the book still isn’t working as well as it should.
Tamago: Besides the big firsts (getting an agent, publishing your first novel), what moments have you had that made you think, "hey, I'm actually a writer?"
Eugene: One of the first was actually several years ago when I did a small reading in NYC with some members of Altered Fluid. One of the attendees told me he had just read a short story of mine in a magazine, visited my website where he learned I was doing a reading that night, and decided to come to it. That was a surprising, wonderful moment for me because not only had a stranger read my fiction, but he liked it well enough to come see me read. More recently, a talented illustrator, Justin Woo, just shared some fanart he made for Fair Coin with me on Twitter. I am so blown away that people are moved to do that kind of thing based on something I’ve written. Any sort of response from a reader, favorable or not, in person or on the internet, makes me feel like a real writer—these interactions are welcome reminders of why we sit alone for so many hours in front of a computer screen.
Tamago: Which part of the writing process--drafting, researching, revising, editing--do you enjoy the most? Which part do you enjoy the least?
Eugene: Depending on the day, I probably enjoy the drafting part the most. When it’s going well, it’s the most fun because I’m discovering the story too, and it makes me feel the most productive because the growing word count is a measurable sign of progress. The draft is also full of so much potential at that point; until I get to the end of the first draft, there’s the chance the book will be as awesome as it seems in my head. Then comes disappointment.
I like research the least, because it delays me from getting to the drafting part. Though I like learning about fascinating new things and research gives me plenty of ideas for my work, perhaps it feels a little too much like homework. If I had more time to write, I probably would enjoy research more, but until then, it’s a time-consuming, but necessary part of writing where I’m not actually writing.
Tamago: Is there a difference in writing a novel versus writing short stories for you?
Eugene: Not too much in my overall approach, but novels obviously require a much greater time commitment. A short story might take me anywhere from a day to a week to write, and I can revise and start submitting it within a few weeks—immediate gratification. I also can start a short story with only the vaguest idea of where it might take me and immediately see if it works or not; if it doesn’t, or if I can’t sell it, then I can let it go a little more easily than a novel that represents several months, or even years, of work. I can experiment with short stories, but I have to be pretty sure that my novel has a chance of succeeding before I start it. In the happy event that the novel sells, I’ll be working on that book for another year or more and investing a huge amount of personal time in promoting it besides. I have to like that book a lot, considering it may be my main writing focus for a long time to come. It’s also a lot easier to revise a short story, because of the length and scope of the work, compared to a novel that has a lot more going on that makes it hard to keep the big picture in mind while rewriting individual scenes.
Tamago: What has been your favorite project to date?
Eugene: The answer to this question always has to be the project I’m currently working on, which is a young adult novel about reincarnation, romance, and rebellion in an alternate version of America, called WHO WE USED TO BE. I’m revising a draft now, and I hope it will be ready to submit to publishers soon.
Tamago: What are some particular issues that a YA writer needs to pay attention to that a writer of "adult" fiction might not have to pay attention to?
Eugene: I think you probably have to pay attention to all the same things no matter what audience you’re writing for, but it’s a matter of emphasis. In YA, you focus more on concerns that might matter more to teen readers than adults: questions of identity, first relationships, fears for the future. The world the characters exist in, whether it’s a contemporary American high school or a dystopian future, has to be convincing and relatable, and I would say the characters and their relationships to their friends and families must be represented accurately. You always have to write in a genuine, honest, and heartfelt way, but most of all, you have to tell a good story as well as you can. It might be hard for some writers to trust that readers will get what they’re trying to say, but you can’t underestimate the intelligence and savvy of teen readers. This might get me in trouble, but in some ways, I feel you have to treat teens not like “young adults,” but as if they’re better than adults.
Thanks for the terrific interview, Eugene. I will be waiting anxiously for your next book.