Peter John McLean

On Writing Most of Our Jugs Are Empty (Writing)

About a week ago I finished writing my book, Most of Our Jugs Are Empty. I formatted it for mobi, loaded it onto my Kindle, sat down for about five hours, and read it beginning to end.

I liked it.

It was a weird feeling. Two years ago, well, in the summer of 2014, I sat down with a rough idea of a story I wanted to tell. Like basically all of the ideas that I have for stories, it was really weird. It had to do with a girl and a boy, but the boy was in a rat suit and the girl wasn’t always a hundred percent honest. And then there was this semi-paranormal element. And all these gangs and drugs too.

I was basing it heavily on my own life, drawing from personal experience for most of the skeletal structure, and then adding in other ideas as they came to me. Over time the characters started to develop their own motives, their own voices, personalities etc. By this point I feel like most of the primary and secondary characters are strong enough I could write spinoff books about their own lives. Which I think is pretty cool; I like developing characters to the point that I no longer feel they can accurately be described as rip-offs from people that I’ve known, but are instead truly original.

But that took a lot of time.

I’ve finally reached the point where I’m going to ship it off to an editor and then publish it on Amazon so other people can read it. Two years after I started playing with the idea for it.

In general, not just writing, I think that the best way to improve at a task is by tackling projects that are a little bit too hard. Tasks that at first seem impossible, once broken down to their component parts seem difficult but doable, and after a lot of work begin to seem like real possibilities. This is true for all elements of life, whether you’re trying to climb the chess rating ladder or learn Python.

One of the most meaningful discoveries for me during this process was learning to balance right and left brain activities. Figuring out how much of my book should be creatively driven and how much should be engineered. There are certainly those out there who would make the argument a book should be entirely creative, and of course there are monstrous hacks like Sue Grafton who write every book using the same color-by-numbers formula ad nauseum.

However, as I wrote MOOJAE and then rewrote it, I had to figure out the balance. How much did I care about having a page-turner plot versus how ‘fully realized’ did I want my characters to be? Did I want realism at any cost, including the reader’s attention span? Or did I want to minimize some elements to keep the tension in the situation?

It was this obsession that got me reading my book over and over again. I would change scenes, adjust some of the dialogue, add or cut descriptions, and then I would sit down (for about five hours) and read my book beginning to end. This, to me, is one of the hardest things about writing a full-length novel. Writing a blog post or a short story is much easier simply because you can quickly read through the entire thing to see how cohesive it is; however, with a book, figuring out the pacing requires either an innate sense of it or the willingness to continually test it out through rereading.

I’m sure that as I write a second book, this will become easier. Like all things, the more practice you get at it, the easier it gets. I already feel like most elements of my writing have improved through this practice. My dialogue is generally more realistic, my narration and action are finding a better balance with less meandering but also fewer instances of things taking place without a shred of introspection.

All of these things take time and practice.

Perhaps the greatest takeaway, however, is that writing this book has made me an exponentially better reader. Before writing a full-length novel, I read books for entertainment primarily, with an interest in the writing style, sentence structure, and general mood of a novel as a secondary interest. Now, however, I read a book like it is a recipe for creation. I try to see and understand how the different mechanisms in the book interact. I pay close attention to the plot structure of books; frequently reread them once I know the storyline to see when different ideas are introduced, to see how long an author will string a reader along before revealing key pieces of information.

Revealing information at the right opportunity is truly part of the magic of good writing. We Need to Talk About Kevin is an extremely good example of this. American Pastoral is as well. Kurt Vonnegut’s entire oeuvre is a master class in revealing all of the information in a way that seems entirely too early, then carefully weaving a surprising tale out of that information, using strange narrative structures and a heavy handed narrator to weave it all together. I’ve reread Timequake many times trying to understand how Kurt Vonnegut could open a book saying basically, “Okay, so this manuscript was shit. It’s just about the universe getting smaller and then getting bigger and so people are moving back in time and stuff and also the narrative doesn’t make a lick of sense because sometimes I’m Vonnegut and sometimes I’m not and sometimes we’re in one year and other times we’re in a totally different year and I never both to clarify.” And yet, it’s by far my favorite book of his, because the real revealing qualities of the novel are in the characters’ interactions with one another, with their own natures being revealed, and with the many anecdotes that Vonnegut sprinkles throughout the book.

Now that I have finished writing Most of Our Jugs Are Empty I feel a mixture of relief and confusion. The relief stems from having completed a project that I’ve been working on for over two years. The confusion is the “shit, did I forget something important?” variety. I suppose you can’t rewrite a book again and again, edit it thoroughly, read it a hundred times, and expect to call it finished without at least a mild sense of jitters.

So it goes.

I expect that this blog post will be the beginning of a series on the subject of writing Most of Our Jugs Are Empty. There are so many things that I learned in the process of writing the book that I haven’t even realized all of them yet. Whether or not other people find the book interesting, it certainly helped me improve as a writer. Even if you’re just going to let the manuscript collect dust on a bottom shelf of a bookcase, the process of writing it definitely changes you as an author.