Peter John McLean

On Writing Most of Our Jugs Are Empty Part Two (Writing)

It’s been about a month since I finished writing my first novel, Most of Our Jugs Are Empty. Get this, since then I wrote a second book. Yeah, on November second I thought to myself, why the hell not, let’s do National Novel Writing Month. I already had an awesome idea (man comes home to an inflatable cow in his living room and it slowly destroys his life over the course of about fifty thousand words).

So I did that and just yesterday (a week early, mind you) I wrapped up the rough draft at a total of about 50,300 words. For whatever reason, three weeks seems to be the exact gestation period for a Peter John McLean rough draft. I have no idea why.

I noticed a lot of cool things while writing my new book, Cow, that I’m sure are because of my experiences writing MOOJAE. First, I noticed that I’m a lot better at writing in every aspect. I felt like my characters came together better and faster and it was easier to create complex emotion without much thought. I knew more fundamentals about writing and, as a result, the characters grew organically out of this. Granted, part of the reason it was easy is that Cow is basically a sequel to MOOJAE, with many of the same characters center stage.

I also noticed my ability to plot a story as I went has improved. I don’t believe in outlines. Mostly because I think they lead to stale and formulaic stories. I get it, some people actually want to follow formulas, and I have nothing against them (except Sue Grafton, of course). With my first book I wrote and wrote and eventually felt like I had a team of characters I sort of believed in (there were a few weak links), but I still wasn’t sure where the story was going. There was a point, about thirty thousand words in, where I no longer knew what to do and the plot took a major swerve. Through the process of rewriting I was able to fix it and—get this—draw more on personal experience instead of fiction in order to make the story work better (it’s usually the other way around).

With Cow, I had less trouble with this. I let the characters do their thing, which is my preferred way of exploring a new draft, and after a slow start for one of them they eventually found their goals and went along their two separate but interesting paths. This means of course that when I go back to revise and rewrite there will be a handful of early scenes that should just be taken out back and shot; I’ll probably replace them with more interesting scenes that develop the characters and push the story forward, or I’ll just remove them. While writing in this fashion means that the story may start slow, there is no reason that stuff can’t be removed down the line and once you figure out where the characters should be going, it all works out. This is how it worked for Cow. One of the two protagonists (the protagonist from MOOJAE) sat around moping and getting high for the first five or six thousand words until an opportunity fell into his lap. While these first few thousand words of monotony need to be removed, I can expand on the opportunity, I can foreshadow in the next draft, and I can tie everything together wonderfully.

This brings me back to writing MOOJAE, which is where I learned how to do this. When writing from an outline I imagine there is far less need or desire to rewrite because you already engineered your book and so you know where the story is going before it gets there. You lose some of the excitement of an exploratory process but in exchange you get a strong sense of organization and won’t have to go back and wonder how the hell you’re going to fix a plot point that makes no sense whatsoever.

However, the advantage to the organic exploratory write-until-it-makes-sense style is that when you go back you can add in more organization, more foreshadowing, and so on. You can develop the characters better; make it clearer to the audience what the character’s motives are and why he or she is headed in whatever direction h/she is headed in. While I learned all of this from writing Most of Our Jugs Are Empty, I truly got to implement it while writing the rough draft of Cow.

One final thing that I learned while writing MOOJAE that specifically helped me in writing Cow was thinking about how all characters have motivation. All characters are people trying to achieve things, trying to get places, or in many cases (at least in my dystopian Donald Goines esque wasteland desert) just trying to survive. The more you understand that every character has a unique and specific motive, the more likely all of your plot points will resonate with normal humans reading the book. If a plot point happens because an author needs it to happen but none of the characters involved would ever let things go that way, you have problems (and I think that this dilemma is way more common in outlined books, where the author has unilateral control without any checks and balances from the cast).

I have had issues with this motivation thing myself, even though I don’t outline books at all. I still had directions I wanted to take the book and so I took it that way, not even considering how some key characters would likely object to it.

The first draft of Most of Our Jugs Are Empty was the roughest, most confused, most claustrophobic, most depressing and screwed up and disorganized draft of a book possible. I could have submitted it in a competition for truly hopeless drafts and it would have fared well. Through revision and rewriting it steadily got better until I called it finished (I’ll put it up on Amazon soon enough).

Cow is a much better first draft. I like to think that means it will end up being an even better book when I’m done with it.