- A different approach to editing and outlining which allows our characters more freedom.
- Watches can tell us much more than just what time it is.
- Why word count is not the most important parameter of your story.
I wrote an entire draft that I also trashed because it failed to adequately do what I knew it wanted to do.
Welcome to the twenty eighth episode of Interviews from the Void, where I interview writers about their writing process, discussing the mechanics and physicality of the craft.
In this episode, I chat with writer Logan Hannen.
From Logan’s book, THE DOCTOR WILL SEE YOU NOW:
I remember feeling like I was handcuffed to a tree, but the tree was made of fog and it was starting to swallow me whole. I couldn’t place where I was, or why I was wearing that horribly unfashionable lab coat, or why…anything.
Arthur: Your book, THE DOCTOR WILL SEE YOU NOW, was a wonderful story with an incredible premise: a doctor mirroring the symptoms of his patients. Can you tell me more about the writing process for this book? Where did the inspiration come from? Are there any real-life experiences of your own which fit into certain scenes?
Logan: Thank you so much, I’m glad you enjoyed it! This book was one I started my junior year of college after having written another book that was, frankly, kind of awful. It started as a simple premise that I ended up turning into this overly complex conspiracy and it just fell totally flat. When my old laptop died, that book went with it, and I think we’re all the better for it as a collective human race to be perfectly honest. But that book did, in many ways, inspire very directly THE DOCTOR WILL SEE YOU NOW. Michael Blake and his story is essentially my rebuttal to my own shortcomings with character, plot, etc in that first book – the characters in that book were emotional invalids, largely me trying to create a world of people who could cut through the BS and see things as they are. But that world is also super boring, and so I started to consider what the opposite character would be like, on the opposing extreme, and Michael Blake was born.
I wrote an entire draft of THE DOCTOR WILL SEE YOU NOW that I also trashed because it failed to adequately do what I knew it wanted to do, and it also read far too much like a Twilight Zone version of House. I finished that first draft, the one that went the way of the dodo, in around May of 2016, and by November of 2016, the second new draft was done, and this one I just kind of knew was the right one. There weren’t nearly as many moments in the book that I pulled right from my own life as people might think. In THE DOCTOR WILL SEE YOU NOW, most of those moments come in the form of little bits and pieces, like my breakfast order at the time I was writing the book (some 20 lbs ago, I might add), or the pizza place in my hometown I used to frequent. I’m sure I probably gave Mike one of my jackets or ties or something too. It was all the little stuff that makes its way into the book. This one, anyway; the next one – it gets a bit deeper there.
Arthur: Tell me more about your other writing projects, as I understand you’re now working on a second novel. What did you learn while writing your first novel that you are taking into the writing process of your second?
Logan: So the next book, to me, was two things when it started – it was my attempt to write something completely different than THE DOCTOR WILL SEE YOU NOW, since I’d lived in that world, and I’d lived with Mike for so long that I just needed a break. It was also going to be my love letter to being into punk rock as a young adult, especially in New Jersey where some of the greatest American punk bands ever are from (The Misfits, The Bouncing Souls, the Gaslight Anthem, My Chemical Romance, Saves the Day, I could go on…). What writing about Mike Blake and his empathy disorder taught me more than anything was that I never have a clue what’s going to happen when I start, and I shouldn’t try to figure it out along the way. Writing in first person exclusively, I get the added benefit of being able to experience a lot of this stuff in real time through the eyes of these characters, and so I don’t necessarily need to know what so-and-so is doing on the other side of town while it’s happening, because my protagonist doesn’t know either. It’s a lot more freeing that way, because I get to really focus on the emotions of a thing, rather than the technical details of it. Obviously, if something makes no sense, I go back and fix it, but take, for example, the bit in TDWSYN where Mike sees what’s in Kathy’s closet (no spoilers, don’t worry peeps). I had no idea what was going to be in that closet until he opened the door. I knew what kinds of stuff needed to be there, but not exactly what would be. As Mike noticed different things, that’s when I “discovered” them, in a sense. If I were to write down in detail what was going to be on those shelves and why, that scene never would have worked because it would feel like Mike was reading a checklist, y’know? For my style, and the perspective I use, that level of planning doesn’t work. So with STRAY HEART, I knew that I had to plan the very beginning of the book to the finest detail, and then let the thing loose and see what happened from there. That book starts off with the suicide of our protagonist’s best friend, and to this day I have absolutely no idea why he took his life, and as such, neither does Peter. There’s something super refreshing about writing like that, and I think me not knowing also helps to sell the emotions of it a bit better because when I write about the confusion, and the questions, and so on, it’s all super genuine. Hopefully that comes across in the writing.
I think me not knowing also helps to sell the emotions of it a bit better because when I write about the confusion and the questions, it’s all super genuine.
Arthur: What is your outlining approach?
Logan: I kind of alluded to that above but ultimately what I started to do is outline the beginning of the book with near-surgical precision and then just let things loose from there. With THE DOCTOR WILL SEE YOU NOW, that outline took me to about the halfway mark, maybe a bit short of that. With STRAY HEART, it was basically the first two chapters and that was it. Peter is totally an analog for me in the truest sense, sort of how Bukowski had Henry Chinaski or Kerouac had Sal Paradise, so it’s way easier for me to take over from the outline on that one because if I hadn’t been through it exactly, I at least knew perfectly well how I’d react if I were to go through it. Beyond that though, I just can’t stand outlining. Because nothing I write involves all that much world building or mythology, I find that it constrains a lot of the freedom of my characters to do what they would do if I wasn’t looking.
I just knew that words were going to be my weapon of choice and so far, I haven’t been wrong about that.
Arthur: There is a lot of medical information in THE DOCTOR WILL SEE YOU NOW. How much research did you have to perform to feel you were able to factually tell the story?
Logan: Luckily, both my mom and grandfather have been in the medical field for several decades between them, so much of it was just as simple as an email or a phone call with a quick question, because I knew I’d get a more concrete answer from them than 45 minutes trolling through Google trying to avoid WebMD links. I’d still double check what they said, of course, just so I could keep a running list of links to refer back to if I forgot something, or to see if maybe the research had come to show something new that they simply hadn’t caught wind of yet. But generally speaking, it wasn’t hard. Most of the stuff I put Trevor through is stuff that doesn’t take nearly as much to figure out as people might think, which is also kind of scary if you think about it. I’m sure there are some side effects I didn’t quite touch on, but I think dwelling on much of that would have killed the pace, too, and after all, the best fiction writers, to me, have always known when to put fact aside for a minute for the sake of preserving the plot, and I like to think I picked that bit up from them.
The best fiction writers, to me, have always known when to put fact aside for a minute for the sake of preserving the plot.
Arthur: Tell me more about your watch non-fiction. What interests you in watches, and how did this come about? Are watches a hobby of yours?
Logan: My day job (one of them, anyway) is as the head of written content for a company called Theo & Harris. What T&H does is we sell vintage watches that we (well, that Christian) goes out kind of hunting for, and then the other half of the company is we produce content on the subject. Some of it is written, some of it is on our YouTube channel, and I handle all the written stuff. It’s a kind of dream come true moment in a lot of ways, because ever since I was little, my grandmother used to buy me a cheap little digital watch every Christmas, and there’s something about having the time on your wrist at the age of like, 11, that just makes you feel so grown up and mature. And then one year, they bought me an analog watch, and I had to kind of teach myself how to read analog time, and with that, it became less about the time itself and more about the different ways it can be expressed. All of a sudden there were parts that moved and it felt like I had this tiny little instrument on my wrist. Fast forward a couple years later, and my grandmother passes away, and one of the things I end up with kind of by accident is her father’s old watch, only it isn’t running, so I just assume, like I would, that it needs a battery. I put it in a drawer and that’s where it stays for another few years. Eventually, I come to learn about a brand called Invicta which, for those not in the know, it sort of like the mass market version of good watchmaking. Quality control is abysmal, and they do a marvelous job of telling you a watch was originally $600 marked down to $150 on some big sale that, if you pay attention, never actually ends, but they’re really good at getting people to wear watches again, so I have to give them credit for that. So I spend $80 which, to me, was a ton of money for a watch, on an Invicta Pro Diver on a really awful rubber strap and I thought it was broken when I got it too. Turns out I’d accidentally bought the automatic version, which is probably easier explained by this article I wrote on the subject for T&H, but basically it doesn’t need a battery, right? It’s all mechanical. And then I realize that watches were, for most of time, mechanical, and not battery powered. And then I remember about my great-grandfather’s watch. Sure enough, I give the crown a couple of turns, and the second hand starts to move as if no time had passed. In an instant, I felt this weird connection to this guy I never got to meet, so now I wear it as kind of a memento to a time I sometimes wish I could have seen. And then I remember that my purple hair would have gotten me shot in the 1950s, and I feel instantly better connecting to it from afar.
The thing I think that interests me the most, especially when it comes to mechanical watches, is just the sheer level of genius engineering you need to construct something that will (somewhat) accurately keep the time on your wrist without the aid of any kind of computer or other digital technology. You have this thing on your wrist that is, in a sense, a living machine, and you give it life. In automatics, it’s the movement of your wrist, and in hand-wound pieces it is literally you having to give the crown some turns to keep it powered. There’s a kind of symbiosis that happens there, and then the more complex the movement is, and the more things the watch tells you, the more fascinating it gets. Take a Perpetual Calendar, for example – this is a mechanical movement that, just on its own, knows the difference between months with 30 and 31 days, and knows when you’re in a leap year and how many days February should have. All of that complex understanding of time in something without a “brain” so to speak. That’s just insane to me, and that’s part of why I’m constantly amazed by what mechanical watches can do. The three pieces I always tell people to look at if they still don’t “get it” are the Patek Philippe Sky Moon Tourbillon, the Piaget Altiplano Ultimate Concept, and the Omega Speedmaster Professional. These are 3 pieces that are each unique in their own ways, and the thing about the Speedmaster is that it’s undoubtedly a more “pedestrian” piece mechanically speaking, but it also is the only watch flight qualified by NASA for all manned space missions, and has been since the days of the Apollo missions. It was the very first watch worn on the moon, strapped to Buzz Aldrin’s wrist as he joined Neil Armstrong on the surface. That alone makes it perhaps one of the most important pieces in American history, and worthy of inclusion if you ask me. I could go on for days hahaha.
I fell in love with Dan Brown’s way of giving the reader just enough to make you keep saying “just one more page” until you’re blue in the face and feel like you’re going to pass out.
Arthur: Does your watch non-fiction inspire any of your fiction works?
Logan: Funny story about that – in the original draft of TDWSYN, Mike was a watch collector, but then it didn’t fit into the narrative so I yanked it. Then the book I wrote after, which also died along with my old laptop, also featured a protagonist who was a watch collector. And I kept trying to give this hobby to people who ultimately had no need for it, but now with Peter Irving and STRAY HEART, I finally have a chance to introduce the hobby to a character who will be able to demonstrate his journey into it in a way that makes sense both emotionally and in the context of the plot. I find that, generally, my tone in my fiction inspires more of my nonfiction tone than anything else. I have a nearly impossible time just shooting straight and being dull in my writing. If I have to be informative, you best believe it’s going to be equal parts educational and sarcastic, with a dash of bad puns. It’s just who I am, and luckily Anna (my wonderful editor at T&H who puts up with far more of my crap than she should have to) is wonderful about making sure that I don’t lose my voice, while balancing that with not losing the information in the process.
My tone in my fiction inspires more of my nonfiction tone than anything else.
Arthur: Tell me about your writing journey. When did you start writing and how did you get to where you are today? Are there successes and failures you learned from?
Logan: When I was in fifth grade, I read THE DA VINCI CODE for the first time. Was it a bit steep for a fifth grader? Yeah, but I was getting bored of Clifford I guess. And I saw, for the first time, this idea that words could move, and that when you don’t have pictures, you have to envision things yourself, and this gives you a lot of freedom too in the sort of “rating” you give the mental movie you’re watching, because you can always “censor” the grotesque stuff or the sad stuff. And more than anything, I fell in love with Dan Brown’s way of giving you as the reader just enough to make you keep saying “just one more page” until you’re blue in the face and feel like you’re going to pass out. I knew, in that moment, that I was a writer, even if I hadn’t written anything yet. I just knew that words were going to be my weapon of choice and so far, I haven’t been wrong about that.
I gave it up for a long time, though, because it just felt too bludgeoningly unrealistic. I had no concept that you could get paid to write without being super famous or being really lucky. So I decided to pursue Forensic Psychology. I went to college, and am nearly done with my Master’s Degree in Forensic Psych, and it was about two years ago that I realized I wasn’t doing what I was meant to do and started to write that first book almost in total secret aside from my roommate knowing. And then came the first draft of TDWSYN, and so on from there. So I committed myself to still getting the degree, but between the novels and the work I do at T&H, it’s safe to say the degree is a kind of reserve plan at this point, which is going to suck for my bank account when the loans come up but hey, such is life.
Arthur: Why have you chosen to write in your particular genre? Are there particular genres which interest you more than others?
Logan: I think that the biggest thing I’ve fought to do is to avoid ever being called a “genre” writer, which is absolutely awful advice in the age of Kindle and self-publishing. Don’t get me wrong, I know that to be successful as a self-published author, you need consistent, series-based books with really simple titles and yada yada yada, but all of that crap just bores me to tears. My number one goal has always been to tell really good stories about really flawed people, usually with a detour through Hell. So on that level, I don’t know that there’s a genre I wouldn’t write in or like to write in at some point. I’ve always wanted to do something paranormal and with the occult, but the idea I’ve always had for it always felt better suited for a comic book/graphic novel than a full blown piece of literature. I think the only genre I would never touch is fantasy. It’s just too much world building and intricate planning to me, and it doesn’t necessarily suit my tone or the way I tell stories either. I give those who can write it the most credit perhaps of any kind of writer there is. And, if I’m being honest, it’s also the only genre I don’t read, in part because it’s just too involved for my ADD riddled brain, and in part because I’m slightly envious of those who can write it.
Arthur: What kind of advice or information do you think writers are craving most? What kind of advice are you yourself most interested in with regard to writing?
Logan: From being involved in a few different writing-oriented Facebook groups and things, perhaps two of the most common questions I see being asked are these: “Do I need an agent?” and “Should I be paying someone to publish my book?” It seems like most writers, whether they’ve actually got it figured out or not, seem to think they have the writing part squared away, and their confusion comes in the form of what comes after. And the sheer number of people that I and other veterans of those pages have had to pull back from the edge of being taken advantage of by a vanity press is, frankly, disturbing. Perhaps that’s the piece of education new writers need the most – how to not get played.
For me, I feel like the only thing I struggle with above all else is extending my novels. The final word count for TDWSYN is about 68,000 words which, in the world of fiction, isn’t an awful lot. And while I can’t think of a single way that the book could have been extended whatsoever without killing the pace, I also recognize that to agents, that kind of number, given the premise of the book, screams “underdeveloped plot.” Now, you’ve read the book and told me you enjoyed it, so I think you and I both agree that isn’t the case, but numbers like that are a dead stop to a lot of agents, so trying to find tips and tricks for making the book longer without sacrificing the pace and plot would be lovely. Then again, maybe it’s my grand purpose in this universe to be the one to write those tips. Hmmmm….
Numbers are a dead stop to a lot of agents, so trying to find tips and tricks for making the book longer without sacrificing the pace and plot would be lovely.
Arthur: There are a lot of people out there writing books. What are you doing with your writing to set your stories apart from other stories?
Logan: The thing I most strive to accomplish is to tell the stories that nobody else is telling, and not necessarily in terms of plot, etc. I kind of explain to people that each of my protagonists is a specific part of myself that I hate, an emotional demon that I’m exorcising through writing the book. So on that level, it’s kind of like reading one of my own therapy sessions and I do what I can to make that as entertaining as I can, but I feel like people feel that raw kind of openness even if they don’t actually know going in. Mike, for example, is all of my problems with connection (both my excessive cravings for it and my attempts to avoid it) built into one person. He didn’t start out that way, but by the time I’d finished writing the third or fourth chapter, I realized that’s what was happening, and it gave me a super clear picture of where he had to go. So while a lot of writers talk about imbuing a sense of themselves into the stories they tell, I think I probably do it in a way that’s a bit more literal, even if I never set out to do that. I start with the story, and then quickly come to realize which of the sort of 7 Deadly Character Traits in my head is being represented.
The thing I most strive to accomplish is to tell the stories that nobody else is telling.
Arthur: Describe your editing process. What have you learned the most from it?
Logan: As I’m sure you can tell, I ramble a lot. So that’s something I’ve grown to work on, though almost never in my fiction has it been an issue. Like I said, I’m constantly coming up short, so to me, the editing is always “does this scene need more time to breathe?” or “can this be made clearer with some expansion?” and much less about actually trimming the fat, as many a writer would say. From it, I’ve learned that I definitely have difficulty just taking my time with things, and that I am almost completely incapable of editing my own work with any degree of seriousness. I’m too close to it to be able to look at it objectively as a piece of entertainment, and I think that more writers should be willing to let the professionals handle the editing, because whatever we think we can do for the book, it will be all the better for letting someone else at it.
The editing is always “does this scene need more time to breathe?”
Arthur: If you had the chance to sit with a very accomplished writer, what would you want to ask them? What would you hope to learn most from the conversation?
Logan: I think about this kind of question a lot, probably more than I should, and I think I’d sit down with Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose series My Struggle is one that should be required reading for anyone looking to write, right alongside On Writing by Stephen King. I think the only thing I’d ask Karl Ove is this: “How did you reconcile the impact of being so honest about the lives of so many people?” And I think I already know what his answer would be: “Because I wasn’t being honest about their lives – I was being honest about mine.” As far as things I’d like to learn most, beyond that simple little platitude, is probably what made him decide to write in a separate building on his property rather than in his house, kind of the way Roald Dahl used to. I’ve always wanted to do that, but I’ve always had a distinct lack of spare buildings to work with.
Thank you, Logan, for sharing your incredible insight on writing and for telling me more about time than a watch ever could. Stay tuned for more weekly writing discussions in the INTERVIEWS FROM THE VOID series.