Today we speak to Craig DiLouie, whose book One of Us debuted on July 17th and has been described by Peter Clines as “disturbing, beautiful.” Craig shares insight about his writing process and publishing, and his advice for new authors.
Can you tell us a little about One of Us? What inspired it? What influences did you draw on while writing it?
Thank you for having me as a guest at the Writing Bloc!
Published by Orbit, One of Us is a dark fantasy about monsters living in the real world. In the 1970s, a genetic disease produces a generation of monsters, who are now growing up rejected and abused in ramshackle government orphanages throughout the deep South. Some of them are beginning to exhibit frightening powers. When a “normal” kid is murdered, a plague boy stands accused, which might be the spark of revolt.
Misunderstood monsters and mutants with powers are familiar ideas in fantasy, but what makes this telling fresh and gritty is casting it as a Southern Gothic. This venerable American literary tradition—occupied by greats such as Cormac McCarthy—is dark, violent, and deals with topics like the taboo, grotesque, and society in decay. The result is a misunderstood monster novel about human monsters and monstrous humans. About prejudice and whether monsters are born or made. Author Claire North (84K) called it The Girl with All the Gifts meets To Kill a Mockingbird, which sums it up perfectly.
How long did it take to write the book?
It took me six weeks to write. It really poured out of me. That being said, there was quite a bit of preparation before I started writing, and the editing process took way longer. Bradley Englert, my editor, really proved his value with excellent suggestions for improving the novel, which resulted in a lot of back-end work. I couldn’t be happier with the result. It’s really the most powerful, gut-punching thing I’ve ever produced.
Did you have any moments while writing One of Us that you thought you might give up? How did you move past these?
One of Us was a rare book for me in that I wrote it with a fierce joy without the usual speed bumps. I knew exactly where I wanted to go and how to get there. I was barely typing fast enough to keep up with the words forming in my head.
Tell us a little bit about your writing process. Do you aim to complete a set number of pages or words each day?
I’m lucky in that I write as a day job, providing journalism and education services to the lighting industry. This trained me to treat writing as a job done with discipline. It’s also given me a lot of flexibility, though not a lot of time between a very full client roster and being a single dad.
Once I was ready to start, I’d commit to writing it in the morning and getting back to my client work in the afternoon, but the novel wouldn’t let go of me. Next thing I knew, I was writing it every free minute I had until it was finished.
Your bio says you are a Canadian American author and your book takes place in the Southern United States. What inspired you to pick this setting and what kind of research did you do to write about it? What role does place play in the story?
I set the novel in the rural South to fit the Southern Gothic mold. The world in One of Us is a very small place, where the characters come across as ordinary and yet larger than life. Everything is small town and tight knit, from the relationships to the history to the thinking to the witticisms passed down through generations. At the same time, there is a mythical feel to it, again hitting that “small yet larger than life” vibe. This setting is very important to the novel, from the farms to the swamps to old plantations in ruins, all of it feeding a rich, earthy, brooding atmosphere.
I’ve been to the South but didn’t grow up there, so yeah, this required research. This was twofold, split between factual research into things like local geography and common proverbs, and Southern Gothic literature, to get the mood just right. Overall, the research phase is one of my favorite parts of writing a novel. All sorts of ideas pop into my head during this time.
As a side note, I also set the novel in 1984, and I did that for several reasons. I wanted to convey that this is an alternate history, where one big thing changed everything in America’s timeline. I liked the low tech feel of nobody having cell phones and other devices. The AIDS epidemic and its stigmatization occurred in the 80s, which is appropriate thematically. And finally, I was going for nostalgia. Not the on-the-nose nostalgia of Stranger Things, but a general nostalgia for the past.
What do you most hope readers will get from reading your book? Is there a main takeaway you want them to have?
As with all my books, the one big thing I hope readers will get from my work is an engaging experience that will make them feel something and then reflect on its themes.
What are your thoughts on self-publishing vs. traditional publishing? Can you tell us about the process of finding a publisher? How did you feel when your book was accepted for publication?
As a “hybrid” author who both self-publishes and also gets into print with big publishing companies, I love both, though I write very different books for these outlets. For large traditional publishers, I tend to write standalone big idea novels, while when I self-publish, I tend to write series of highly targeted, pulpy dime novels.
The path to publication for One of Us was so surprisingly simple it felt like a hammer to the head. I’d written it, sent it to my agent, he loved it, he sent it out, and then there were just rejections, one after the other. Then at the last minute, three offers came in from great houses. Book publishing is a “no, no, no, no, no, yes” business, so you can imagine how cathartic that yes was. Working with Orbit was a dream come true, so I grabbed their offer in an instant. For me, it was the culmination of thirty years of struggle working my way up through the publishing world, both gratifying and humbling. So, yeah, it was an amazing moment receiving the offer, accepting it, and seeing my book on the shelf at the local bookstore.
That being said, I’ve gotten just as amazing a feeling from self-publishing. Putting out a series of short military fiction novels and having total control of everything, seeing the Amazon rankings and sales add up, and getting fan mail. It used to be self-publishing was considered cool but not as cool as working with a big publisher, but I don’t think that’s the case anymore and actually never really did. If you’re putting out a book and readers are enjoying it, you’re making it.
What advice would you like to give writers who are working on their first novels?
I can share a few things I’ve learned, noting your mileage may vary, as there are so many types of writers out there.
Many writers produce faster if they plan out their work. Learn story architecture—I’d suggest Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering. Then learn character arcs—I’d suggest Take Your Pants Off by Libbie Hawks, a book about plotting for pantsers. Start with a big idea that is wrapped around a strong question or nonfiction theme, then build out where you want it to go. By the time you plan out the major plot points and character arcs, writing the novel won’t seem daunting.
Write your logline as soon as possible, ideally the first thing you do, though you can of course refine it. The logline is an elevator pitch for your novel that sums it up in 1-3 sentences, ideally one sentence. That logline should identify the protagonist, the problem facing him or her, what he or she wants, what antagonistic person or force is in their way, and where/when this is all taking place. This becomes the bible for the story. Many writers try to come up with the perfect pitch after the novel’s done—if you do it before you start writing, you’ll write the story with that logline internalized, and your story may be more focused.
Write the novel then write the next. One of the best things that ever happened to me was writing as a day job—first in advertising then in magazine publishing and now as a freelance journalist and educator. Writing for publication tends to be a long game. Put in the hours, produce good work, and keep producing it.
Finally, don’t think of yourself as writing. Don’t write. Tell a story. That is what you’re doing.
What advice do you have for authors hoping to publish their work?
At some point, new novelists will bump into somebody who achieved some success, and that somebody will say, “Just do what I did.” I think one could learn from whatever that author had to say, but overall “just do what I did” doesn’t really work. I often describe my own career as looking like somebody falling up a long flight of stairs—how do you tell somebody how to do that?
That being said, I could offer some very simple advice that I think is universal. First, be hungry, but also be patient. It’s always wonderful to hear of somebody writing their first novel and getting a big publishing and TV show deal—I know a guy who did just that—but it’s rare. In this game, one small success tends to lead to another. Again, treat it as a long game. To keep those successes rolling in, always be writing and learning, and be professional at all times in dealing with others.
Another thing I’d advise is don’t be shy about attending writing groups and especially conferences. You’ll be amazed at the friends you make and the things you’ll learn. Networking is very important for writers trying to maximize their odds. Be professional and you may make valuable contacts, not to mention some good friends.
Manage your expectations. Success is up to each writer, and it is not always one thing or another. Success is a very long ladder with many rungs, not a pass/fail thing.
Finally, and this is probably the hardest thing an aspiring author will ever hear, is whether you fast-track and self-publish or struggle your way into traditional publication, there is an elusive X factor, which is just plain luck—being at the right place at the right time with the right book. Nobody knows exactly what will catch an editor’s eye or set the market on fire. The main thing is to find your voice, produce quality work, and get it out there, hoping it will be the new spark.
Thanks again for having me as a guest!
Thank you, too, Craig, for your thoughtful and inspiring answers to our questions!
Published on July 17, 2018 by the Orbit brand of Hachette Book Group, One of Us is available in hardcover, eBook, and audiobook formats. The 400-page hardcover edition, launched at San Diego Comic Con, is available at any physical or online bookstore. The trade paperback will be published in February 2019.