Guest Post | Douglas Hulick in the Trenches

Bringing up the rear, is Douglas Hulick, author of one of the most exciting novels of 2011, Among Thieves. I bought the novel electronically. After reading it, I was stunned to learn that it was limited to a mass market paperback. Similar to 2012 debut author Myke Cole’s Control Point (also an Ace/Roc mass market paperback), Among Thieves became a success due almost entirely to word of mouth as opposed to the big-six marketing machine.

Hulick’s novel adds a new chapter to the thief subgenre and it stands out as the best thing to happen to it since Scott Lynch’s masterpiece, The Lies of Locke Lamora. It’s also unique in the characterization of Drothe, Hulick’s protagonist and narrator. Namely, he’s not special. The result is a character that the reader can identify with in a personal way even while he accomplishes things way outside the purview of his natural ability.

Let’s see what he has to say about writing his sequel, Sworn in Steel

For the last post in this series about debut authors and their second novels, it seems only fitting that I come at the subject from a slightly different direction. Where all my predecessors have talked to you from the perspective of someone who’s finished their sophomore effort, I’m going to talk to you from the trenches directly. See, I haven’t finished my second novel. In fact, it’s pretty damn late.

How damn late? Let’s just say I was expecting to have my third book in the series done and turned in by now.

Of course, it’s not like I planned for this to happen. As Mazarkis mentioned earlier this week, I was well aware of what was riding on the second book, not only for readers, but also for my reputation as a writer. Plus, I had the added advantage of being in a SF/F writer’s group that can count over forty professionally published novels among its seven members. None of what was coming, be it deadlines or marketing distractions or the limits imposed by a previous book, were news to me. I had, through my fellows, seen it all before. There should have been no surprises.

And yet, here I sit, 18 months past deadline, still carving my way through the forest that is Book 2 (otherwise known as Sworn in Steel).

What happened?

I could give you a blow by blow of my progress and stumbles and discoveries, but really, it all comes down to one thing: I forgot how to write. Or, to be more precise, I forgot how I write.

For a long while, I kept blaming my delay on my method of plotting. I was always a pantser, meaning that, beyond a general character and story arc, and maybe a bit of plot, I didn’t plan a whole lot. After all, I’d taken over a decade to get my first book on paper: surely it was my meandering about the page, following characters who at times seemed to be under the influence of too many tequila shooters, that had caused my delay. Couldn’t I point at my earlier process for my current downfall?

But then I looked at my legal pad, heavy with outline and plot points; at what I had of my first draft, directed and, if not tight, still arguably endowed with strong forward momentum. No, I couldn’t lay it at plot’s door.

How about speed, then? Lord knew I’d always been a slow writer. Doubling my daily word count after my first book had initially involved going from 250 words a day to 500. (That may not seem like much, but please understand that I have, on average, four hours a day to write, five days a week, nine months out of the year. So, yeah, sloooow.) If it wasn’t plot, then it had to be my sheer glacial pace.

Except, at the end of a year’s worth of work on Sworn in Steel I had generated almost 200,000 words in total. That was a full 75,000 above and beyond my target. And while not all words are good words, still…come on. 200K? It wasn’t lack of production.

So what was it? Blind alleys in the story? Too much verbiage? Too easily distra—oh, look a penny!

All were problems, yes, but none could explain the key issue I was having. None gave me a reason for my inability to *finish the damn book.*

And then, it hit me. In all the preparation, all the planning, all the daily word counts and plot points, I’d forgotten how I’d written the first (and my only, to date) book. In my attempt to get Sworn in Steel done, to get it ready to be handed over to my editor, I kept looking to the final version my first book, Among Thieves, as a guide post. That was the mistake.

Even though Among Thieves wasn’t on the bookstore shelves when I started Sworn in Steel, it was still a polished piece of work. It had gone through innumerable rewrites on my end before being submitted, and then edited and copyedited as well. The only problem was, this had taken place over the course of years–years which conveniently fell out of my memory. All I saw was the final product–the tightly plotted, fast-paced novel that had secured me a three book contract with a Big Six publisher. And that’s what I set out to write.

In short, what tripped me up was that I tried to write the final draft as my first draft. And while that probably sounds bad enough on its own, add on the fact that I tend to be a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to my work (“a bit”? I can hear my wife saying, along with peals of sarcastic laughter), and, well, you can see where things went off the rails.

So, have I learned anything? Looking at the above, yeah, I think I can say that I have. (I damn well better have, or Book 3 is gonna kill me!) But even more than the nuts & bolts stuff, I realized that, as much as we may beat ourselves up as new authors, there are people who are still rooting for us (even when we’re horribly late). Editors, agents, and especially readers (oh, BLESS the readers, who have been unfailingly polite, not to mention the first ones to tell me to “take as long as you need”) who honestly want to see us and our books succeed. Fellow writers who nod and worry and call in the middle of the afternoon to say, “Dude, are you alright? You’ve gone missing for, like, three weeks….” Family and friends who grit their teeth and put up with us as we try to navigate this new career and all the stresses it can entail.

The second book is, in many ways, a much more lonely, terrifying, and frustrating slog than the freshman effort. It is our first real exposure to what it means to be a professional writer. And, as we’ve seen these last two weeks, it’s a different experience for each of us. But it’s also very much that same, in that we each learn not only how to push and stretch and believe in ourselves, but also how much we aren’t alone in this after all.


You can find Douglas Hulick on the web and Twitter. Be sure to visit the former to learn more about the Tales of the Kin series. Hulick is a 17th century Italian rapier combat (in the tradition of Ridolfo Capoferro) hobbyist. Come to WorldCon and watch him teach it!

Unfortunately, because Sworn in Steel is deep in the editorial process, there won’t be an excerpt later today. I’m sobbing too. It’s ok. Instead, I’ll be announcing a huge grand prize giveaway to commemorate the end of Debut Authorpalooza 2012. Stay tuned.

Justin Landon

Justin Landon is the Overlord of Staffer's Book Review. When he's not writing things of dubious value to the world, he's at the gym or being a dad. You can follow him on a multitude of social media, which is strongly suggested lest you miss out on vital information that could someday save your life.

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  • Paul Weimer July 27, 2012 at 10:40 am

    I admit it. Its my fault, Doug.

    Had I read your book, you would have the impetus, strength and verve to finish book 2 by now.


  • Mazarkis Williams July 27, 2012 at 10:42 am

    “In short, what tripped me up was that I tried to write the final draft as my first draft.”–I just realized that I did the same thing . . .

    • Douglas Hulick July 27, 2012 at 3:38 pm

      Yeah, it's something I hadn't even considered. Add to the fact that I'm a picky writer to begin with, and wanted to get “clean copy” to my writer's group on the first pass, and I found myself circling a drain I didn't even know what there.

      Still trying to overcome it in SiS. The real challenge will be keeping an eye on it in the next book.

    • Douglas Hulick July 27, 2012 at 3:52 pm

      Make that “was there” not “what there.” Ugh.

  • Michelle July 27, 2012 at 11:08 am

    That is my problem as well. Half the time I seem to take hours trying to get a perfectly polished prose and get nowhere. Then when I decide to give in for the day and 'just write some notes so I know where to start next time' I end up with 1000 words or so which I can polish later. It's like I have to reassure myself I can go back and change things before I can write at all.
    I can't imagine what it would be like if I actually had real pressure. :P

    I'm always a big proponent of authors taking as long as they need. I'd rather wait for the best possible book and not have someone half-kill themselves for my enjoyment. There are plenty of other books to read in the meantime anyway. :)

    I get annoyed at supposed fans who come into the bookstore and constantly complain about authors not having written books fast enough. As much as I'd love you all to give me new books every six months you all have lives too. :P

    • Douglas Hulick July 27, 2012 at 3:45 pm

      I think I developed the habit in college, where I double majored in history and english. I was *constantly* writing papers, and got used to pretty much having to get it right on the first pass, if not the second. Of course, if I'd been better about starting my papers earlier, that might have not been as much of an issue, but that's a different story. (No, I haven't been trying to write SiS “at the last minute” :)

      As far as authors taking as long as they want: bless you. Unfortunately, though, this is a business, and publishers need to be able to plan and market books in advance. I get that, and it's what I signed up for, so I can't really complain. Fortunately, all the readers I've heard from have been incredibly patient and understanding, which only makes me want to get the book out for them even more.

  • Philip Tucker July 27, 2012 at 12:45 pm

    I know the feeling. It's as if you have to learn all over again how to write a first draft after polishing a final novel. Learn to accept bad passages, clunky dialog, yawning plot holes, and keep plowing on. This tripped me up for ages, as I kept despairing as to how two dimensional all my characters seemed, how obvious the plot twists, and so on, always looking back at my last novel as a model to emulate. Forgetting, of course, how I'd had to scrap a third of the previous book, change the ending, rework countless examples of dialog and so forth.

    Excellent post. Glad to see you've figured out what was going wrong!

    • Douglas Hulick July 27, 2012 at 3:49 pm

      Thanks, Philip. Glad you liked the post.

      The trick for me is that, so far, I haven't figured out how to turn off my Inner Editor. So for me, it's a constant string of errors and clunky bits I feel *compelled* to try and fix RIGHT NOW. Of course, they still need cleaning up later, but I have one hell of a time leaving any kind of mess behind me on the page (which is, like, 180 degrees compared to the disaster that is my office…).

      It's something I am still working on and expect to be wrestling with for a long time. But I do want to try for a “looser”, quicker draft on Book 3, just to see how it feels. We'll see how it goes.

  • Elspeth Cooper July 27, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    Glacial pace: check.
    Perfectionism: check.
    Lonely, terrified, frustrated: check, check, check.

    Doug, I think we might be related.

    And Michelle might possibly be the perfect fan.

    • Douglas Hulick July 27, 2012 at 3:51 pm

      Haven't you said that about us being related already? I'm suspecting a pattern here. (not that I'm disputing the notion on some level…)

      And yes, Michelle does seem awesome. She should start a publishing house Right Now! ;D

    • Mazarkis Williams July 27, 2012 at 4:24 pm

      That was me who said we were related, I think. But we all could be :)

  • Courtney Schafer July 27, 2012 at 4:56 pm

    Count me in as another perfectionist who finds it really damn hard to turn off the inner editor (and who struggled with comparing The Tainted City's initial messy draft to my beautifully polished final draft of The Whitefire Crossing!).

    Although in my case, I remembered all too well how much work had gone into revising Whitefire's initial NaNo-inspired rough draft – and I was trying to avoid having to do quite so much rewriting for book 2! (Silly me. :P) For Whitefire, I ended up rewriting the entire book from scratch (major plot points & characters stayed the same, but pretty much every scene got a white-page rewrite). I thought I didn't have time to do that under deadline – so for The Tainted City, I tried a kind of spiraling approach, revising earlier chapters even as I pushed ahead in the draft. (I reasoned it could work because I already had a horrifically rough draft of about 3/4 of the story, written before I ever did that massive rewrite of Whitefire.)

    But I found that it was terribly hard for me to switch gears between revising & rough-drafting…so in the end, it probably took me about as much time as if I *had* written a full 1st draft w/no concern for quality & then rewritten the entire thing! For book 3, I plan to go back to what I did for Whitefire: write entire messy rough draft first, then re-write the whole thing, then revise further to make it pretty. Less stress, and it'll take probably about as much time.

    • Douglas Hulick July 27, 2012 at 5:25 pm

      I have yet to let myself write a messy first draft. I always try to polish as I go, even at the sentence level. I am hoping to loosen up a bit next time. (Obsess only at the paragraph level? ;p)

    • Mazarkis Williams July 28, 2012 at 1:30 am

      It's such a waste of time. I spent months polishing chapters that never made it into the book.

  • Teresa July 27, 2012 at 6:31 pm

    Yes, this, all of this … what Doug said … what everyone said …

    I'm sorry I missed all the earlier fun. I was in the air and now I have slow Internet from Hell, but Doug, I think you nailed all of the problems I went (am going) through. Thanks so much for this!

  • Anne Lyle July 28, 2012 at 1:22 am

    Hugs, Doug – I would be a total mental wreck if I'd missed my deadline by that much. I may have my Inner Editor on a tight leash, but being a project manager in my day-job, I take deadlines deadly serious!

    I'm hoping I don't get this affliction on Book 3 – the first two were written for NaNoWriMo, so of course they were a mess, but now I expect myself to do better. I shall try to learn from your lesson and not worry too much about the first draft. Famous last words…

  • [...] when writing their second novel after being signed. Douglas Hullick posts his challenges here:…-trenches.html but there are more to be found on this page: Point is, [...]

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