MY BAD SHORT BAD BOOK

I sat on a panel at the Chuckanut Writer’s Conference and the moderator had a copy of Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro. She referenced the book a few times and recommended it, so I wrote down the title and bought a copy almost immediately after getting home.

I’ve just started reading it, and already have a feeling you’ll be seeing a longer, more detailed recommendation from me here in the next few weeks, but for now . . .

Still Writing is made up of a number of short essays on the writing life. This morning, after exercising, I was reading it sitting on my back porch and got to her essay “A Short Bad Book.” To quickly paraphrase, Ms. Shapiro recommends starting—maybe not every—book by convincing yourself that what you’re going for from the outset is a short, bad book.

This is really good advice.

In lots of ways, it goes to my own often-offered advice to write fast, not to care about spelling and grammar or complex matters of style. Just write a story. Then you can find all the ways it’s too short and expand it, and all the ways it’s bad and make it better, later.

The idea behind this is that if you’re essentially planning on it being short, it takes the pressure off that terrifying thought that you have to write ninety thousand words or more to make this happen. Anyone who’s embarked on the climb up that word count mountain knows how scary it is, and anyone who’s reached the summit knows how hard a trek it was.

If you start by giving yourself permission to write a bad book, you can set aside the insecurities that cripple a lot of us—and I said “us” because as many books as I’ve actually written, believe, me all the insecurities are still there, and then some. If you start a book convinced that in order for any of the effort to be worth it—if anyone is going to publish it and anyone else is going to buy it and read it—then it has to be great, that’s even more scary.

This got me thinking then, even as I’m still working on an outline for a book I want to be somewhere between ninety and a hundred thousand words and that I hope will be fantastic, if I’ve ever actually taken that “A Short Bad Book” approach myself.

The fact is, not only did I start out writing a book with that in mind, the unfortunate fact of the matter is that it stayed both short and bad.

Under no circumstances should you read Baldur’s Gate. It’s out of print anyway, and please don’t bother trying to find it. This was my first published “novel,” and I wish it would disappear from the memory of mankind for all time.

Let’s go back a bit to the beginning.

BioWare was working on a computer RPG, under license from Wizards of the Coast, set in the Forgotten Realms world. The buzz started to get pretty positive really early and the idea was floated by someone I’ve since forgiven that we should publish a novelization of the game. Because I’m a total moron, I participated in a blind proposal process in hopes of being the person to write it. Because of reasons unknown, my proposal was picked and I was assigned to write the book. That was somewhere around Halloween and they needed the first draft by Christmas.

A “long” book wasn’t going to happen, so though I don’t remember what the assigned word count was, it was less than the average 90,000 for other Forgotten Realms novels. So I went in knowing it was going to be short and though I didn’t really hope it would be bad, I did start the process with that same sense of the freedom of low expectations.

First of all, this was a novelization, so the story was (more or less—it’s complicated, but for our purposes . . .) all spelled out for me. Gary Gygax, Ed Greenwood, and everyone else who came after them had already built the world, and so all of the up-front work was done. I just had to write it up.

I also went in comfortable with the fact that all I needed to show up with around Christmas was a first draft. That draft would then be read and vetted not just by my editor at Wizards of the Coast but by someone at the game studio, and together they would make sure I was in line with the spirit and the letter of the game story, and so on.

So I did my best with what time and story material I had and went for done—not for good, not for long, just . . . done.

And I was done on time, and the book went to my editor and someone—I have no idea to this day who and still think it might have been no one—and after a few weeks I got notes back from my editor, and nothing from anyone involved in the game except some kind of vague, “It’s fine.”

I was pretty sure it wasn’t fine.

After all, at that point there wasn’t even a beta version of the game to play. I was working from a very early story document and that’s it.

But it was “fine,” and a production deadline loomed before us, and almost as if we planned it, the second the book went to press we got a pre-beta version of the game that crashed too early on to tell how off the mark I was, but gave me just enough negative feedback to know I was in trouble in Chapter 1 . . .

Then the book came out to a flurry of online hate, all directed at me, the worst writer of all time, who had clearly never bothered to even play the game and . . . My short bad book wasn’t revised into a longer better book. It stayed short and bad, and though it sold a crap ton of copies, at least by today’s standards, it remains most Forgotten Realms fans’ least favorite FR book, and something of an albatross around my neck.

Conscious of the fact that I may have just terrified you out of ever pursuing Dani Shapiro’s advice to start out writing a short bad book, I still think you ought to at least try it. Just, for Bhaal’s sake, make it better, if not longer, before it’s actually published!

 

—Philip Athans

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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11 Responses to MY BAD SHORT BAD BOOK

  1. This is something I stumbled upon in my current wip. Write the first draft fast, it broke through my writer’s block, and I’m working on making the second draft count more though the work is far from done.

  2. Kristoffer Harbo says:

    I’m a fan of Bioware and their tie-in novels. I particularly enjoy the ones written by Drew Karpshyn, who also provided stories for my favorite Bioware games. He left Bioware and I think their latest works sadly show his absence.
    Have you had the pleasure of working with him?
    Best regards,
    Kris

  3. Kameron says:

    Heh, this makes me feel a little bit better about the short first draft I turned in for MOP.🙂

  4. djmorand says:

    Philip, I am in awe. Baldur’s Gate was a defining novel in my youth. Granted I was like 12 or so when I read it, but I remember loving it and the game. Sometimes even a short, bad book can make an impression (and not always negative). I like that you point out it is okay to write a short, bad book as long as you are doing so knowingly. I think this is why I like the NaNoWriMo bit so much, it allows you that freedom to write a short bad book and get the story out. My first NaNo book was 50k words and terrible, I’ve edited and rewritten it and it is somewhere around 80k now. Thanks for sharing!

  5. JakeAStrife says:

    The only Forgotten Realms novels I’ve read are the Drizzt books, and a few other random ones. I would LOVE to go back and read them all in chronological order–This includes Baldur’s Gate. I doubt I’ll think it’s as bad as you describe.

    When it comes to planning a story for me, if it’s the first in a series I aim for 90-100,000 words. I usually will edit out the 10,000 to make it 90 or just below. On sequels I allow myself a bigger word count, but I never go much higher than 100,000. I find that 85-95 is a ‘sweet spot’.

    I personally don’t like the write a short bad book approach. I prefer to have a good outline out, and rework the outline as need be with the story evolving. I will go back and edit it in the future, changing the word count and minor details. It’d rather write a long, ‘OKAY’ book, then go back and fix it. To m it’s easier to remove than to add.

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