This piece can also be read at Scriptophobic.
You can learn a lot writing a book. Learn something about yourself, your understanding of genre, and maybe hopefully how to be a better writer on the next book. I like to think I learned a great deal in writing my apocalyptic kaiju epic In the Shadow of Extinction. But to save time, I’ve boiled those lessons learned down to a more reader-friendly Top 6. Some of these lessons learned were altogether new to me, others I understood at least on some level but had their meaning reinforced in the writing of this story.
First a short synopsis of the book: Volcanic activity unleashes kaiju across the globe and mankind's weapons prove unable to push them back. Governments disband, countries are left decimated, and our once great cities are reduced to rubble ruled over by massive predators. But there are survivors. In the age of monsters, humanity must learn to survive in the shadows.
Now onto lessons learned.
1. Writing a long book isn’t hard. Editing a long book? That’s hard.
In the Shadow of Extinction is a big book at roughly 800 pages. Or, if you prefer to view it as three volumes in a trilogy of books, it’s… still roughly 800 pages. I can’t help but view it as one big book, because I wrote it all at once. And it’s not hard to write a long story like that. Sometimes my attention waned -- I wrote the horror novella Rakasa on those days -- but mostly you just gotta keep going. I always planned on In the Shadow of Extinction being a long story. That was the design. If it had happened accidentally, that’d be cause for concern about a book that’s out of control. One of my favorite reader reviews called it, ‘The "War And Peace" of kaiju novels,’ and that’s kind of what I was going for. Epic story. Large scale action. Character arcs that play out not by the chapter but by the year. As long as you keep putting in the work/words, a story can be as long or as short as you want it to be.
But holy shit, editing those 800 pages was hell. It was originally even longer. You print up something like that for a proper edit and it breaks the spirit knowing just how much work you have to do. I set it aside, fearful of the task that awaited me after the mad sprint to write the first draft. And then finally you read the first draft and realize it’s only one grade above shite and so you’ve got more work to do after that.
I started writing In the Shadow of Extinction in 2014 and finally finished it for publication in 2018. I never had one work of fiction with me for long before. I never want to have that happen again, either. Editing a 300-page novel is no small task but it can be enjoyable if approached with the right mindset. Editing In the Shadow of Extinction was not fun. And the task continued from draft to draft as characters were created and deleted, subplots were added and removed, and new conflicts were devised throughout (never cut conflict).
What I learned is that I should have edited it one volume at a time. Smaller chunks. Sure, it would’ve felt like editing three novels as compared to one, but the point is not to make one feel needlessly overwhelmed in their creative work if it can be helped.
2. The world doesn’t wait.
As I mentioned above, I started writing In the Shadow of Extinction in 2014. A great deal has happened since then, both good and bad. In relation to the novel, two key things have transpired: 1) kaiju have seen a surprising boom of popularity in the US and 2) Donald Trump got elected president.
When I started writing the book, Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla was still on the horizon and there was very little in the way of kaiju fiction beyond Jeremy Robinson’s popular Project Nemesis (fun book!). While I edited my book, Jeremy Robinson got some company in the kaiju fiction sub-genre with the likes of JE Gurley, Raffael Coronelli, and Jake Bible. And kaiju cinema continued to see some interesting/entertaining films like Kong: Skull Island (2017), Shin Godzilla (2016), and Colossal (2016).
he hope of being ahead of the pack was gone. But! The surprising popularity of the kaiju genre did give my book more of a landing pad when it was ready for release. Do I wish I had gotten it out sooner? Of course. But I did what I could. And it’s in good company now. I’m happy as a creator and as a fan of the genre that the kaiju boom continues to go on strong.
Now let me get political… accidentally? Well, no. Not accidentally. Art is political and I’ve got some opinions, man. But my book only accidentally has something to say about President Donald Trump.
In the story’s apocalyptic future, most the world has been reduced to ash and ruin from failed wars to beat back the kaiju invaders. Refugees migrate from one burned out city to the next looking for a safe place to rest their heads. Word is spoken of a safe haven in America and refugees flock to it from all corners of the globe. But when they get there, they find walls have been erected around the safe city. Only those with something of worth are allowed through the gates and into the city walls. The rest remain on the outskirts, occasionally rising up in violent protest in their desperation to reach safety.
So, yeah. I wrote some science fiction which accidentally hit close to our current reality of walls, refugees, asylum seekers, and pitiless policies on how best to deal with the weak and wounded. Coming up with that years ago and preparing it for publication as it started unfolding above a Breaking News banner was kind of weird. Totally unintentional. And I’d really rather my book about a deeply flawed city at the end of the world had no relation to today’s America, but here we are.
The world doesn’t wait for your book to be ready so that it can land at the front of the line of the new trend. Likewise, life-changing world events happen at a rapid pace, and can have an impact (good or bad) on your work’s themes that you never intended. My book is different now from how I first conceived of it, not only because of my own changing concepts for how to deliver the story but because of uncontrollable outside influences. Your art enters into the world at a certain time. If you’re lucky, you get to pick the date. But you don’t get to pick the world.
3. It is possible to go too dark.
So, um, there’s a dark section in the book that I got some notes on. I won’t go into it, but if you’ve read In the Shadow of Extinction chances are we’re thinking of the same section. Originally it was different. For whatever reason, I tapped into my inner Tobe Hooper and went wild with that thing in all the worst ways. My early readers were not pleased by this surprising turn in the middle of a giant monster story into sweaty, backwoods horror territory. I listened — thank goodness — and I made the necessary changes. It’s still a dark, unpleasant section of the book, but in an entirely different way.
Though I don’t think of myself strictly as a ‘horror author,’ my writing instincts always point me to horror for inspiration and plot fixes. I firmly believe that it is important to trust your instincts. This is what makes you you. But you can overdo it if you’re not careful. One must juggle the need to subvert genre expectations with the need to please genre fans. In other words, don’t impale somebody on a meat hook in the middle of a kaiju novel.
I went too dark. I got too nasty. I was trying to say something about a certain ugly part of culture and went about it the wrong way.
I rewrote the entire section (probably the biggest rewrite of the book). I substituted the sweat and rust for cold, clean surfaces. I removed hooks and chains in favor of hospital hallways and orderly staff. Instead of chaos and lawlessness, it became all about the new law of the land, which was sterilized, unfeeling, inhuman government operated rationale.
The change actually helped me say what I wanted even clearer than before. At least I think so. I still get occasional notes, but I’m okay with that. I feel like it’s the right amount of dark now. And besides, the bad guys die horribly, so that’s fun.
4. Don’t chase trends. But if that thing you love is trending, then do as you wish.
If you read just about any book on writing you’ll find the advice that you should never chase trends. And I agree. However… if you’re already into that trending thing, then maybe now’s a good time to tell that story you’ve always wanted to tell.
If you’re not into vampire tales, you’d be silly to follow the Twilight hype and write your own (are we through that now? Is it safe?). But if you do love your vamps and Bela Lugosi is your dream guy, then damn it, now’s your moment. Write fast. Write with passion.
Listen, In the Shadow of Extinction is not a big hit bestseller. It’s not. I’m a small-time author. But it sold well by my standards. Better than my previous books. The first month’s sales were especially nice and I got myself that big ol’ Bergman box set from Criterion as a gift to myself. I call that a win.
I do not believe it sold better because I have a larger platform now (though I do) or because the cover art is good (though it is). I believe it sold well because it settled into a popular subgenre of fiction that people are reading now. You can easily identify it as a kaiju novel, not just a horror, sci-fi, or disaster novel, you know? It has a niche. And that matters.
Don’t chase trends. Chase your passions. And if what you’re passionate about is trending, then you better damn well make the most of it.
5. The value of beta readers you don’t know.
I’ve used beta readers before but they were all friends, family, and writers I knew. When I was pushing In the Shadow of Extinction into its 4th draft, I decided to reach beyond my trusted circle to find beta readers who had never heard of me or my books before. It was worth it.
One beta reader came back with notes that dramatically improved Part 1 of the story. I mean, holy shit what an improvement. It was a problem section of the book for me that my circle of trusted readers/friends didn’t think was that big of an issue. This one beta reader who I’d never spoken with before comes in and almost immediately points out what’s wrong and why. And it’s like, Duh. There it is. That’s the problem. So much of the time the lightbulb of an idea is there but it requires someone else to flip it on.
Another beta reader had good suggestions about one of the book’s kaiju, which they felt didn’t fit in with the attempt at ‘realism’ found in the other kaiju (let’s be real, they’re giant monsters. But if some of them exist by a set of physical rules, it only makes sense that they all should. And failing that, at least explain/point out that this particular monster is special for some reason).
Another reader had notes about the section alluded to in #3. One reader said they found a certain character dull. At least a couple of folks suggested chapter cuts. Another came up with a notion of where the story might continue in a sequel.
All of these thoughts, even the ones that had very little to say beyond ‘this good’ and ‘this bad’, were invaluable to me as I shaped the mammoth manuscript into its 5th and final draft. Chances are I would not have ever made some of these alterations had it not been for these beta readers. It is worth it to reach beyond the usual circle of confidence now and then, find someone with the basic requirement that they enjoy reading, and see what they have to say.
A note on beta readers and feedback from writer friends: if someone tells you there’s something wrong with the book, they’re probably right. However, if that someone tells you how to fix it, they’re probably wrong. Fix it yourself. It’s the only way you’ll be totally happy with the change.
6. Listening to the monsters…
It seems like Toho sues somebody every other week for the unlawful use of Godzilla in entertainment or advertising. There’s a reason for that. Simply, Godzilla is so much a part of modern pop culture that it’s become shorthand for ‘giant monster.’ And though we see some interesting, totally original monsters now and then, the influence of Godzilla informs the design of many original beasts.
In the Shadow of Extinction was no different. The influence of Godzilla and all his rubber-suited friends can be found throughout. But I tried to put some distance between us and make these original kaiju my own. There’s no atomic rays or fire breathing dragons to be found anywhere in the text. And radiation has little to do with how they’re brought to life.
In the Shadow of Extinction has four main kaiju: the gargantuan dinosaur-like beast, the insectoid horde, the giant sea creatures, and a blind mole monster. But they were just monsters until I discovered what they were trying to say. You know, Godzilla is a stand-in for nuclear annihilation. Kong is about capitalism and slavery. Hedorah is a monster that symbolizes the danger of unchecked pollution. A great many more were about diving too deep, going where we did not belong, or being reckless with our scientific discoveries. And so on. So, what were my monsters up to? What did they have to say?
I didn’t figure it out right away. Wasn’t until rewrites when I deduced that the monsters were about war and all the misery that comes with it. In the book, mankind enters into war with each other as well as with the monsters, thus speeding along our own demise (that’s not a spoiler; most the book takes place after the end of the world). The Tyrant, the big guy on the cover of the book, is like war made flesh as it crashes through our cities looking for something new to fight. And some of the human characters are no better, continuing to want a fight with the monsters long after that fight is already lost.
Once I understood this, the vision of the book changed for me. The ending came into clearer focus. And I had it.
Listen to your monsters. Find the theme hidden beneath the rubble. You don’t have to write a ‘message story’ to have something to say.
Writer of horror, science fiction, and dark fantasy. Lover of fiction and film. Lifelong Godzilla fan. Reluctant blogger.
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