Seanan McGuire on What She Learned From October


Cover detail from The Brightest Fell by Seanan McGuire, courtesy of Penguin Random House

I never intended to write a book.

Oh, someday maybe, when I’d had a lot of time to refine my short fiction and work my way up to something longer, but not until I was published. Not until I was good. Books were for people who didn’t fear committing to a single fictional universe, people who had already proven themselves capable of putting that many words in a line. It wasn’t for me. Nope. My comfort zone was fourteen to twenty pages, maximum.

Until I wrote a short story called “Of Koi Fish and October Dayes,” inspired by a visit to the Japanese Tea Gardens in Golden Gate Park, and my girlfriend at the time replied by saying, “Toby wants a novel.”

Toby didn’t want a novel, I explained gently, because Toby didn’t have a story. Toby was a deeply depressed woman who just wanted to be left alone.

“That’s nice,” she replied. “Toby wants a novel.”

We can all see how this ends.

I actually started the book that would become Rosemary and Rue on a manual typewriter during breaks at my temp job. I was a holiday secretary for a garden supply company (not the best position for someone allergic to poinsettias). I typed invoices and memos, and when there weren’t any of those, I typed completely context-free pages of a book I was calling Hope Springs Eternal. I had a vague idea that if I liked the final text, I might do another one. I might even do four of them, and have a whole year. The idea of writing four books was mind-blowing. If I could do that, I thought, I would be a real author.

You may now all laugh at me. I was almost halfway through the first draft before I knew my allies from my enemies. At least two characters who appear in the published version of the book weren’t present at all. It took me about three years to type “the end,” and when I did, I felt like I had run a marathon, defeated an army, and climbed a mountain made of glass, all by myself. I felt like I was never going to write anything better in my life.

It was pretty terrible. I mean, it was a first draft of a first novel. No one has ever written a first draft of a first novel that wasn’t terrible. That is the point of a first draft of a first novel. But it taught me I could put that many words in a line, and when I went back in and revised it, it became so much better, so quickly, that it was a revelation. So I wrote a sequel. Also terrible! But terrible in different ways. I rewrote the sequel. I rewrote the first book. I wrote the third book for the first time. Thus began a cycle that would last for the better part of a decade.

People ask, sometimes, how I can have such a clear idea of what I want with this series: how I can be eleven books in and not getting bored or sidetracked or otherwise distracted. The answer is that I spent years and years getting myself ready for the big sprint. By the time I found a publisher, I had the entire journey mapped out, and I was more than ready to go.

So what have I learned from writing this series? Here are the top five things on my list:

1. You can always get better.

Writing is like anything else: the more you do it, the more you’ll improve, and the more you’ll find your voice, whatever that sounds like. The first book you finish is going to be pretty awful. That’s what rewrites and revisions are for. The second book is going to be less awful, and so on, and so on, until you figure out exactly where you’re meant to be. Once you get there, the work becomes staying there. You don’t get good and stay good forever, game over, happy ever after. You have to strive. You have to struggle. You have to work. But if you’re willing to do the work, you can do amazing things.

2. Publication is forever.

Until a book is printed, it is utterly malleable and the author is God. Anything can change at any time. Any mistake can be corrected. But once the book is published…even if you find and fix a typo later, the version with the typo will still be out there. Even if you didn’t mean to imply something, even if it was totally a mistake, it’s going to be out in the world, and people are going to hold you to it.

3. Readers will catch everything except for what you want them to catch, so have fun with that.

You can lay down the subtlest of breadcrumbs, intended to come out three books down the line, and people will catch on immediately and begin asking you on social media whether X means Y. You can also put a giant red button with a big neon sign flashing HEY HEY HEY THE PLOT’S ALL HERE, and everyone will look right past it, focusing on those breadcrumbs. It’s a very specific sort of plot obliviousness, and it would be incredibly frustrating if it weren’t so funny. Like, it’s pretty much delightful and I love it, even as it drives me up a tree.

4. You shouldn’t read reviews but you should read TV Tropes.

Reviews are…not good for you. Seriously.  Beta readers you trust are good for you. Editorial feedback is good for you. Reviews are a painful combination of “everything you do is perfect” and “everything you do is made of genuine shit.” I have had reviews claim that my books were bad because they were written by a woman, because they were written by a feminist, because they had too many female characters, and because they cost too much. (I have also had reviews that pointed out genuine flaws in my books, and helped readers make good decisions. Reviews are important and necessary. It’s just that when you’re the author, they’re also personal, and they’re not for you.) If you want to know whether you have recurring themes in your work—good or bad—read TV Tropes. See what a group of people who really understand and interrogate media have to say. You’ll be able to use the tools they give you to become better.

5. The next book is waiting.

My friend Cat writes almost entirely in stand-alone novels. I write almost entirely in series. We don’t have much in common in how we plot and plan. But we do have this in common: we’re always looking toward the horizon. We’re always itching to type “the end” and start over again with “once upon a time.” That’s normal. That’s okay. That’s honestly part of how you can get the distance necessary to revise the last book; it turns the text a little foreign to you, and lets you approach it as something you’re not so emotionally attached to that you can’t touch it.

Come on. Let’s go get that horizon.