The Long, Messy Road To Publishing My Novel
My novel THE BODY SCOUT is out today. A post about my confused and chaotic novel writing process.
I try to keep comments about my own work limited to the footnotes of these newsletters, but since today is the publication day (!) of my debut novel (!!) I hope you don’t mind me indulging in one (and only one) newsletter devoted to my book. I promise there will be some craft thoughts below.
But first: The Body Scout! It’s a science fiction noir set in a future where the human body is the latest ground for technological innovation and corporate control. (More specifically, it’s set in a futuristic baseball league where biotech and pharmaceutical companies field augmented players as advertisements for their products.) There’s a murder mystery, cyborg loan sharks, philosophical Neanderthals, bizarre designer animals, and a whole lot of other fun things.
Sounds like a good time right? But [used car salesman voice] don’t take my word for it! It currently has a “rave” rating at BookMarks. The New York Times said it was “timeless and original […] a wild ride, sad and funny, surreal and intelligent,” BOMB Magazine called it “a refreshing and assuredly unique work,” Booklist declared it “a spectacularly successful debut,” and Esquire said the “breathlessly paced techno-thriller” was one of the best books of the fall. Some blurbs:
“The Body Scout is the kind of wild, inventive adventure that I'd been searching for. Lincoln Michel is a wildly talented author and this novel is something special indeed.” —Victor LaValle
“A fizzy and brilliant confabulation. I devoured it.”—Jonathan Lethem
“This novel is delightful in its brio and sharp as a tack in its inventiveness—and yet its greatest, most poignant gift is in asking: What does it mean to inhabit a body? A superb read.”―Esmé Weijun Wang
“Lincoln Michel has the restless brain of Philip K. Dick, the bloodshot eyes of David Cronenberg, the tongue of William Gibson, and a beating heart ripped straight from Raymond Chandler's chest.”―Tony Tulathimutte
Okay enough of the icky self promotion. If any of the above sounds interesting to you, I hope you’ll look for it at your local indie bookstore this week or order it online from any number of reputable sources. (And if you read it and like it, well, Amazon and Goodreads reviews really do help in our algorithm age.)
My Writing Process
Since I’ve done deep dives into the writing processes of other writers in this newsletter, I suppose it would be weird not to write about my own. Here’s the secret to my processes: it was a fucking mess.
I wish that I could sit here and write about my rigid, well-thought out system. One that was based on carefully thought out craft principles or that perfectly married form to processes. One that I could have used for my second novel instead of starting from scratch all over again... But the truth is that my process was scattered and improvised. I typed some chapters in Word and wrote others in notebooks. I wrote without outlines and then with outlines and then again without. I plotted then pansted. Architected then gardened. And everything in between.
Somehow, after many years and drafts—I made my initial notes for the book in 2015 (and had the basic idea many years before that)—I finished it. So mess can work. I hope that’s useful to hear for anyone else struggling with writing a first book. Many, indeed most, of the writers I know are similarly messy and chaotic and bizarre and confused. In the end, all that matters for readers is the final result not how many twists and turns were on the journey there.
But let me try to dig into things a bit more.
The first thing I did with the idea that would become The Body Scout was, well, think about it. I had an initial idea that was “cyberpunk but with the ‘cyber’ replaced with ‘flesh.’” Basically, what would a cyberpunk novel look like if the focus on hacking, A.I., and robots was replaced with body modification, advanced pharmaceuticals, gene editing, etc. (Yes, I’m aware of “biopunk” and I know I’m not the first to think in this general direction. But still, this was my thought.) From there, my mind drifted to sports and since I grew up in the 90s during MLB’s big steroid debates, baseball seemed like a natural entry point to look at the larger questions about capitalism, the body, and politics I wanted to explore.
Science fiction / cyberpunk was only one touchstone for me. I didn’t have a good idea for a title at first. So on the first page of the first draft I typed a science fiction body horror baseball noir. These were the traditions and conversations I wanted to reference, subvert, and contribute to. A lot of writers put some text on the first page as guiding posts. Often that’s epigraphs. Some writers I know will have up to 10 epigraphs when drafting, though those normally get whittled to 1-3 by publication. But for me I went with genres.
One thing I did was use these genres as almost Oulipian constraints (a process I’ve written about in more depth here). What does a murder mystery look like with body horror elements? What’s a hardboiled detective in a SF baseball league setting? Etc. I created the outlines of my characters, settings, and plot this way. What ideas fit the genres I’m working in, while also being surprising and interesting.
I had other concerns too, obviously. One was that I really wanted to challenge myself to write a heavily plotted, thrillerish novel. Plot is something that was mostly ignored in my MFA education, if I’m being honest, and I wanted to prove to myself that I could pull it off.
Another animating concern was that I really dislike science fiction that presents a world where everyone basically reacts the same way to some new technology. (Or everyone does except the hero.) Humans don’t work that way. I remember people, including myself, holding out for years before getting a cellphone. I have friends today who have no social media accounts for various reasons. We’ve watched things like Google Glass fail because of blowback. So I wanted to show a range of ideological reactions to this future. And since the book was focused on the body, I wanted to show a range of bodies with different disabilities, gender identities, and so on and also a range of personal reactions among those characters to the tech.
Add all that stuff up together and before I’d done more than jot some notes I had a pretty good idea about the setting, plot, characters, and worldbuilding details.
What I did—and again I’m hardly saying this was “a good” much less “the right” way to do anything—was to just start writing without any set plan. As mentioned, I had some ideas at the ready to pull from. And I knew that I wanted it to draw on hardboiled novels by authors like Raymond Chandler (I’m a sucker for his over-the-top metaphors) so I knew I wanted it to be first person POV. Plus I had my murder mystery plot structure with short chapters. So while I didn’t have any outline or specific plan, I did have the basics down.
I wrote chapters and scenes here and there, willy nilly to a degree. I let characters and plot points come out of these scenes. Many were deleted later, of course. Or else radically changed. During this whole drafting process, I kept doing what I described above. That is, looking at the genres and themes of the novel I wanted to write to figure out the characters, plots, settings, etc. I love writing this way. It’s just a lot of fun to think about how, say, the tropes of noir (high society vice, low society vice, the femme fatale, the jaded detective) can be reinvented/homaged/subverted in a science fiction setting.
In addition to being fun, I also think it makes the art more thematically dense and thus powerful. There’s a line in George Saunders’s essay “Rise, Baby, Rise!” where he talks about a story—in this case “The School”—reaching a point where “the air is charged with meaning.” This is the goal for me. That the themes of the story have been looked at from so many different angles and directions that everything is abuzz with meaning.
Anyway, about maybe 30k words into the document I sat back and looked at what I had. Then I switched from “gardener” mode to “architect” mode (to use Martin’s terms that I prefer to pantser/plotter). I wrote an outline for the whole book, chapter by chapter, plotting out the beats and deploying the characters and settings I’d come up with. My outline was probably only a few sentences per chapter. I didn’t want to feel too constrained by it.
Then I wrote that book. So initial ideas in, I dunno, 2008 or so. Notes made in 2015. Real writing started in 2016. And I completed first draft by the end of spring 2017.
Adding and Subtracting
Of course, writing a book means rewriting it many, many times. I cut whole characters. Added new ones. Changed major plat beats. Etc. I had lovely early readers who provided smart, and of course often contradictory, notes. The usual drill.
I’ve often heard that a writer should cut 10% (or some other arbitrary number) from every draft. The idea here is that writers always write too much and need to “kill their darlings” one by one until the book is trim and lean. I don’t write this way. Or at least I didn’t with this book. I wrote fairly skeletal chapters and much of my revising process was fleshing out each chapter. Adding details, dialogue, and interiority to the framework. I often write this way, but my early chapter drafts were even more skeletal than usual because of the plot-heavy nature of the story. I needed to get the story beats down before expanding the scenes.
All that was addition. But there is one major area I subtracted from: worldbuilding. Although I’ve I written many times about how I prefer more impressionistic worldbuilding to super detailed worldbuilding, I still somehow found my book with just too much exposition. Detailed histories of the various future baseball leagues, for example. Explanations of various terminology. Etc. I found that the more I stripped away, the more the book opened up. I like a little mystery in a fictional world.
I have to say it was really nice to see this singled out for praise in the New York Times: “Michel’s writing is beautiful, too, breathing sophisticated life into stock genre types, and illuminating vast tracts of story with casual wrist-flicks of world building.”
Writers love to brag about the number of “drafts” they did. But I never really know what people mean when they talk about “drafts.” Any set of small edits? Only major, book-changing ones? I think we all define it differently. I can say I certainly read through it and made complete (sometimes small, sometimes large) edits front to back over a dozen times before the book was sold to Orbit. Some of these edits were pretty major. I wrote several different opening chapters, each completely different. At one point I cut 1/3rd of the novel to tighten up the pacing on the suggestion of an interested editor… who ended up never responding to the revision.
My revising and polishing process was also a bit chaotic. I spent some time retyping the novel in a blank document, a very interesting process that forces you to pay more attention to your sentences. This is a method I learned from Alexander Chee. If you’re like me, you might realize a sentence is weak when staring at your Word doc but keep skipping past it. If you force yourself to retype it, your fingers tell your brain “damn okay let’s actually fix this now I don’t want to retype this dreck.” As useful as this process is, it’s… very slow. So I only did it for a few chapters. Mostly the opening ones.
I did however read the entire book out loud a few times. A process I always recommend, and which also helps you catch clunky sentences. It was especially helpful for honing the hardboiled-ish voice I wanted.
The book was finished and sent to editors right before the lockdown hit in early 2020. (I was pretty sure the novel would simply get lost in the chaos of early COVID and quarantine to be honest.) It was weird timing since the novel takes place in a future where pandemics and other issues have given rise to these powerful biotech and pharmaceutical companies. Now the book is coming out in a world where people call tweet about being a “Pfizer girl” or “Moderna for life!” as if these corporations were sports teams to root for... while in the novel those companies literally operate sports teams. And the medical inequality the book discusses feels reflected in the news as half the world still can’t get vaccines. Science fiction isn’t about predicting the future. But every now and then a few things fall into place…
I want to shout out my genius editor at Orbit, Angeline Rodriguez, who helped me with both smart line edits and a some significant plot tweaks. I’ve always heard that the right editor for you is the one who sees your vision of the book and pushes to make that happen. One you “vibe” with as the kids say. And I knew Rodriguez was the right editor for me when her first editorial note—on our call before an offer was made—was “I’d push you to make this even weirder.”
So my process was a jumble. A bunch of different approaches tried over many years. Like most authors, I spent most of the time thinking everyone would hate it. And if they didn’t hate it, it wouldn’t sell anyway. And if it sold, it would be released without any attention. (And then the handful of readers would probably hate it anyway.) But so far the early reviews and reader responses have been extremely nice.
The messy, long timeline: early ideas many years ago, maybe starting in 2008? Real notes made in 2015. First draft mostly written in 2017. Novel sold in 2020. And, well, today, it is in the world.
If you check it out, I hope you enjoy the read.
Thank you for this.
I love how you describe your chaotic approach, and I think you're more honest than a lot of writers. Our writing reveals a lot about us, and that can make you feel naked. Writing about the process that produces that nakedness, that's practically a colonoscopy! Ordering it today and looking forward to reading it. It sounds like your themes overlap with a lot of what's been on my sci-fi mind for the past decade or so, too!