Monday, January 7, 2013

A Writer's Most Important Tool

Since the title of this blog is All Things Writing, I thought my debut post as the regular Monday contributor would share the single biggest secret I have learned as a writer. After four books I have learned more than a few. So that's what I'm going to talk about - the most important tool I've 'acquired' since starting this painful, frustrating, rewarding, pain-in-the-rear journey we call writing.

When I started this game some years ago I began with an idea. It was a good idea that is the basis for my recently published novel, The Silla Project. In the parlance of Hollywood, with which the literary world shares not a few important concepts, it would be called "High Concept."An easily relatable idea that appeals to a wide audience. What if an American nuclear scientist were kidnapped by North Koreans and forced to help them build a bomb? To bring this novel to life I sequestered myself for about two years, yes two years, and crammed everything I could dig up about North Korea and nuclear weapons into my head. Why my totally awesome wife didn't pack up the kids and split I'll never know. Probably because she is totally awesome.

1958 Ford Edsel.
Following that rather insane opening (I tend to be... let's say "passionate," about my interests) I spent the next two years hammering out the greatest novel of all time! Except, when I finally finished it, it stank. Not only that, it was like, 220,000 words! I'd given birth to the Edsel of thrillers! With a sinking heart I realized, I had no idea how to write a novel. I had a great command of the facts. I'm a physicist so the nuclear material was quite digestible. I'm... what did I say? Oh yes, "passionate," so had learned to read and speak some Korean. I also knew about every street, building, and monument in P'yongyang and was probably one of the leading experts on North Korea in the United States. But what I had written was a physics book with characters. So I spent the next few years working on a new novel which also sucked. Time to regroup.

Obviously I needed some training so I spent a couple more years actually studying how to write a novel and I learned much. I am happy to admit that I really enjoyed it. The philosophical underpinnings of story are fascinating and, as we are completely surrounded by story, my lab was any book or the nearest theater. In fact, I found writing to be very much like experimental physics with a development structure similar to the scientific method. To hone my plot skills I studied and wrote screenplays for a year. To master character I read psychology books and some very good works on developing character. Flush with newfound knowledge I delved into my next book with my highest concept, concept to date.

Geodesic Dome Home. Well-
structured but...
This one was called Multiplayer and it went far, far smoother. The training showed. It was much easier to develop, the plot had better structure, the pacing made sense, the characters were better. Overall, it was a much better product. But something was still missing. It was closer, but I still didn't have it quite right. I was also halfway into another book, Viridis, that was a step closer yet again. But, I didn't want to have it go awry and be forced to structurally rewrite it again so I stopped. I already had three of those waiting for that elusive magic

Now I'm getting a little frustrated at this point. I'm six or seven years into this journey, I've written three and a half books and a screenplay, and my work is still crap! Actually, it wasn't crap. If it was crap I'd have stopped. There was some very good stuff in what I'd done and I already had some glowing reviews from readers. Enough to convince me that it made sense to keep going. So, while it wasn't bad, it just... If you're a writer you know what I mean. It was time to take the plunge. Writer's conferences. And that is where I found a writer's most important tool.

So, I went to some writer's conferences. And while I learned some good stuff and discovered some very deep, possibly pathological, problems with the industry, I didn't find that magic I was looking for. At least, I didn't realize I'd found it until later. About eight months later to be exact. Now, if you don't have one of these, you really need to get one. It might take a writer's conference to find one, or you might come across one locally. They are very difficult to find and it takes some slogging. Especially the good ones. But when you find the right one, you know it like a flash of lightning. BOOM!

I met a lot of people at these conferences and, as all aspiring writers do (I really hate that word, aspiring) I collected emails and stayed in touch. We also started sharing work. Some of it was decent. Some of it was not so good. None of it was great. But what I quickly discovered was that most people don't want to hear the not-so-good about their work. Moreover, I wasn't hearing any "not-so-good" about my own work, which is why I'd gone to the conference in the first place. I knew there were elements of my work that were "not-so-good." I just didn't know what was wrong. Apparently, neither did anyone else.

That's when I found a writer's most important tool. One of the manuscripts I read fell into the 'decent' category. Part of it anyway. Particularly, character work was very strong. Even though the plot structure was off, the characters kept me reading to the end. And when I was done, I told this person the good and the not-so-good. And she said, "You're right, how do I fix it?" <Flabergastization> Meanwhile, she'd read through Viridis and came back with glowing reviews except... she thought my characters were weak in places. I said, "Okay, what would you do?" And she told me. And it worked. In fact, it was friggin' brilliant!

I jumped into her book, which is called Foreseen by the way, and identified the structural problems and made recommendations. She incorporated them in her way and voila, it worked! And just like that I had found the most important tool a writer can have: someone who will not only tell you the truth, but tell you how to fix it. She jumped into Multiplayer and working together, it came to life. The story was always good but now the characters were people that you cry with. More importantly, over the next two years both novels were published. Without our collaboration, neither would have ever seen the light of day.

Somewhere along they way I said, somewhat shyly I recall, "Say, would you like to read some of the other stuff I've written?" Working together, we fixed The Silla Project and it was published, also. The wonderful lady who had become my full time writing partner, the brilliant and gracious Terri-Lynne Smiles, is now working on the sequel to Foreseen, which she calls, Choices. And when it is ready, I will work with her to iron out the bumps. And when I finish Non-Player Character, the sequel to Multiplayer, she will help me with the characters.

To say it has been smooth sailing all the time would be a lie, though. Neither of us is famous yet. Neither can support ourselves on royalties. (Yet.) But readers rave about our work. We're getting solid reviews. We have new books in the pipeline. And lots of high concepts. We've also had some pretty good... fights. We DO NOT always agree. Sometimes I become a guy and clam up like a stone, or say something stupid. Sometimes she becomes a girl and gets emotional, or says something stupid. We get get past it. We're friends. We trust each other. It's Rogers and Hammerstein. My work needs her help. Her work needs my help. And we both put aside our egos to make it happen.

Terri-Lynne in NYC,
September 2009.
There are a few good pieces of advice I've come across on this journey. "The three R's of good writing, revision, revision, revision." "Good writing is ass plus chair." "Writing is like driving a car at night, you can only see as far as the headlights but you always get where you're going."  I even have one: "The secret to writing a book is to start, and then don't stop until you are done." They go on. And they help. But nothing helps like that 'tool' I found at an otherwise useless conference in New York City. We didn't even like each other at first. How could we have possibly known our fates would become inextricably intertwined? That we'd become fast friends. Shelve your ego. Find a writing partner that will tell you the truth. But you can't have mine. You can't even borrow her so don't ask. She's too busy fixing my work.

Happy Writing! - John C. Brewer
You can learn more about John's work at


  1. Writing partners can do so much to keep us focused and on track! Great piece and welcome to All Things Writing!

  2. Thank you, John. And the same back at you. In fact, I'm having a plot problem that ... Oh, maybe later.