How I Wrote My Pirate Book

When I’m trying to keep things short and sweet, I tell people that I started writing the first draft of MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT in February 2011. I finished the first draft in June, right before I graduated from my MFA program, and that draft became my graduate thesis. After that came a couple rounds of revision, feedback from my trusty writing friends, and a whirlwind of sending the manuscript out in a wobbly, excited sort of way to agents and then to editors. It’s a nice, straightforward short story–and it’s pretty much true.

The whole truth, however, is a little more complicated and a little more scary. But I think it’s an even better story in the end.

In the not-as-short, not-as-sweet version of this story, I wrote the first 15 pages of MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT in the waiting room of the Greater Chesapeake Hand Clinic in May 2010. My husband had just broken his wrist, and I was assigned the job of driving him to his doctor’s appointments as he got his x-rays taken and his splint adjusted. This meant that I got to spend a good amount of time in the waiting room, which didn’t have Wi-Fi and didn’t have any decent magazines; in other words, it was the perfect place to write. And I needed to write something new. I was actually working on a completely different novel at the time, a YA fantasy that I called The Lighthouse Book. (I usually call MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT “The Pirate Book.” I’m not that great at titles.) I was about 100 pages into The Lighthouse Book and ridiculously excited about it–my advisor loved it! I loved it! It was going to be my first book! But I needed to write 15 pages of something new for an upcoming grad school workshop, and I figured I might as well write something fun and goofy.

This is probably a good place to mention that I have always loved pirates.

I’d had a half-formed idea for a pirate book bouncing around in my head for a few months, and I’d even jotted down a paragraph about it in my Story Ideas file. Here it is, verbatim:

a girl who tries to enroll in Piracy, but the admissions office refuses her application and instead forwards it to Young Ladies’ Finishing School. told partially in letters, postcards, ads, business cards, magazine clippings. imaginary world, very humorous.

If any of you have read MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT in its latest form, you’ll know that this half-formed idea still pretty much describes the current version of the book. It wasn’t a lot to go on for a first draft, but I had a deadline to meet and a whole lot of free time in the waiting room of the Greater Chesapeake Hand Clinic, so I knocked out those first 15 pages and sent them off to my workshop group.

At this point, something great/horrifying happened. My workshop group liked the book! They wanted to know what happened next! They had brilliant ideas for the story, and they made me desperate to work on it immediately. People started asking me how The Pirate Book was coming along.

The horrifying part was that it wasn’t coming along. It was only a workshop exercise, after all, and I’d set those 15 pages aside to work on my one true love, The Lighthouse Book. But no one ever really asked me about The Lighthouse Book. People seemed to like it well enough… but The Pirate Book, well, that was what they wanted to hear about. I started to feel a little defensive about The Lighthouse Book. It was my shy and awkward first child, lurking in the shadows. Surely, once more people read it, they’d all be asking me about it instead.

I ignored the signs. I charged through to the end of The Lighthouse Book. 200-and-some pages later, and a full five years after I’d begun it, I had a first draft I was proud of. My first book! I imagined what the cover might look like. I imagined reading it aloud in bookstores. At the beginning of my final semester of grad school, I presented The Lighthouse Book to my advisor. I figured we’d spend the semester polishing it up, and by the time graduation rolled around, I’d be sending it out into the world.

I’m going to pause here to laugh hysterically.

My advisor, Martine Leavitt, is a brilliant writer and an even more brilliant person. At the end of January, she sent me a letter. She had read The Lighthouse Book. And–she said all this in the kindest and most tactful way possible–she just didn’t think it was going to work. If I wanted to fix its fatal flaws, I would probably have to find a new plot.

Martine said she’d be happy to work with me to completely revamp this story. But I’d also worked with her that winter on prewriting and brainstorming for The Pirate Book–maybe I’d like to work on that story instead?

At this point, I took a (short) break from writing. I called my mom–always a wise strategy in times of crisis. She suggested that I could always go to law school if the writing thing didn’t work out. And at that moment, I knew I’d do whatever it took to be a writer, ’cause there was no way on Earth I was going to law school.

As I was nursing my wounds, I reread one of my favorite books in the world, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. And I remembered for the millionth time why I wanted to write. I wanted to write books like that, books that readers could sink into over and over again when the rest of the world got tough. I wanted to write books that made readers laugh, books that kids would adore and dive into again as adults. As painful as it was to hear the truth about The Lighthouse Book, I knew that Martine was right–it just didn’t work. And even worse, I didn’t have the energy for it anymore. I wanted to do something new, something joyful and playful and funny that would remind me why I was writing in the first place. So I wrote back to Martine and said I wanted to get started on that pirate book.

I wrote MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT in 4 months flat. The process wasn’t all joyful or easy–but a lot of times, it was both. It’s a book of my heart, and a book that I couldn’t have written if I hadn’t charged through other drafts of other books first. I don’t know if The Lighthouse Book will ever see the light of day; I still haven’t come up with a strategy for refurbishing it, and as much as I’d like to work on it again, other projects have come along and demanded my creative energy. Still, as hard as it was to abandon that manuscript, I’m so glad I was able to do it. It gave me a chance to write the book I’d needed to write the whole time–and it taught me all sorts of things that ultimately made MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT stronger than it would have been otherwise. No book is a wasted experience; every composted draft is fertilizer for the small green tendrils of plot that come after it.

Anyway, that’s how I wrote my pirate book. It’s not the book I expected to publish first, but it sums up nearly everything I’ve learned so far about writing and about life: Have fun, and pursue your dreams fiercely, with a sword by your side and a gargoyle in your bag.

7 Responses to “How I Wrote My Pirate Book”

  1. Robin H

    Oh, I love stories of inception! Can’t wait to read MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT when it comes out.

    By the way, I do the same thing when I title my books in my head. “The Trailer Park Book.” “The Imaginary Friend Story.” You know the score.

  2. Elisabeth Dahl

    I love this account! So interesting. Also, I kind of like the title “the pirate book.” It reminds me of how they used to title Friends episodes (e.g., “The One Where the Monkey Gets Away”). I really can’t wait for Magic Marks the Spot, or whatever it ends up being called. It sounds terrific.

  3. kkittscher

    What a story!

    Your book’s title is particularly fitting, given the magic way it came into being. It’s funny how writing refuses to be linear, and how hard work and slogging through can work in, say, law school, but not with art, isn’t it?

  4. carolinecarlson

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. MMtS will definitely be receiving a new title–maybe The Pirate Book is the way to go! My current WIPs are The Detective Book, The Colonial Massachusetts Book, and The Second Pirate Book…

    Kristen, I think you’re so right. I firmly believe that hard work and slogging through will eventually pay off in writing–but maybe not exactly when or where you expect it to.

  5. Brandy

    I LOVE stories like these! This process is a long one that’s just full of surprises, eh? Thanks for sharing – I am super excited about your book.

  6. carolinecarlson

    Thanks, Brandy! I know–I am a junkie for stories like these, too, so I felt like it was only fair to share my own after devouring other people’s for years.

  7. Blessy Mathew

    Congratulations again, Caroline! I enjoyed reading about your path to creating MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT. Looking forward to its official release.