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A Novel is an Iceberg: If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

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M.L. Rio © 15 June 2017.
Posted in the Magazine ( · Crime · General Fiction · Interviews ).

When you get a book published, you’ll quickly realize how little most people know about publishing. This is not meant to be a criticism of ‘most people’—it’s just something I’ve noticed in the weeks since my debut novel, If We Were Villains, appeared on bookstore shelves. Most People don’t realize that in order to get published the traditional way you have to have an editor, and that in order to have an editor you have to have an agent, and that in order to get an agent you have to write a thing called a query letter, and that in order to write a query letter yes, you have to finish the book first. (If you’re anything like me, you actually have to finish five or six books before you have one that’s worth a reader’s time, not to mention money.) I think Most People who ask me, “So how did you get this published?” end up regretting it, because the explanation is always longer than they expect it to be.

Something I often hear myself saying—usually as a preface to that rambling explanation of how I got published—is that writing is an iceberg kind of art form. What a reader sees on the page is only a tiny fraction of the work that actually goes into making a book happen. And I do mean a tiny fraction. If We Were Villains, may have only taken ninety days to write, but it took six months to outline and two years to revise, and that’s not even taking into account the years I spent learning to write, or the years I spent studying Shakespeare and working as an actor. Without those experiences, this book never would have happened.

Writing is often romanticized and always underestimated. It’s not what Most People imagine (we have Hollywood to thank for that). It doesn’t happen in blinding flashes of inspiration and sudden floods of beautiful prose. Stories don’t simply arc into being like rainbows. The reality is much less cinematic. It’s weeks spent scribbling scene cards and moving them around until you finally get them in the order that feels right. It’s a lot of long hours staring at your laptop, moving each of a dozen different words around until you finally get them in a sequence that makes some kind of sense and also sounds okay. It’s agonizing over which of those painstakingly chosen words you can cut when you inevitably realize your manuscript is longer than any sane editor will accept. It’s needing a chiropractor and computer glasses and wrist braces because all those hours of typing and scribbling have turned you into Quasimodo before you’ve even managed to turn thirty. It’s a series of painful reminders that talent is only ten percent of the equation, and the rest is hard work. (There’s that iceberg again.)

Like an Olympic gymnast or a concert pianist, a writer who’s any good has probably spent most of their life getting to be as good as they are. But we still have this strange idea that writing is just sitting down at a typewriter and letting art flow out onto a page like ink. I think it’s because a lot of writers don’t talk about their work in the early stages—because in the early stages nobody wants to hear about it. If you call yourself a writer but cannot answer “Yes” to the ubiquitous question “So, can I buy your book on Amazon?” you will be met condescending smirks. What, for some reason, doesn’t seem to occur to Most People is that even writers whose books can be bought on Amazon had to start somewhere.

I am now one of those writers. Yes, you can buy my book on Amazon. (You can also buy it in bookstores, which really should be the watershed. Anyone can self-publish a book and slap it on Amazon these days, no gatekeeping required.) That’s hugely exciting, and I do get a little kick of adrenaline every time someone asks me that question and I can answer “Yes.” But what matters more to me as a writer is that after ten years of typing and scribbling and rejection and disappointment and learning the hard way, I finally wrote something I thought was good enough to toss into the shark-infested waters of publishing. Is it perfect? Not by a long shot. (I wrote this book at twenty-two. Most twenty-two year-olds are melodramatic morons and I was no exception. But this is a book about twenty-two year-old melodramatic morons of the most extreme variety, so in some strange way, it works. They do say “Write what you know.”) But people are reading it, and a lot of them are loving it, and every time someone tells me it made them laugh or it made them cry or it made them throw it across the room in a fit of rage, I am reminded what all those years of writing and rewriting and failure and rejection and artistic anxiety were for.

Of course, this is my debut novel. I’m still in the honeymoon phase. But writing is a little like a drug: the more you do, the more you want, and pretty soon you’re hooked. You’ve got the habit. The best part of getting published is that suddenly the habit is more sustainable. These days when I sit down to work, sometimes I find myself smiling at nothing, just because I can’t believe that I get paid to do this. It is often painful and often frustrating and there never seems to be enough time in the day, but those are all problems I’m happy to have. I’m a working writer, and it was worth the wait.

(c) M.L. Rio

About If We Were Villains:

“Much like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, M. L. Rio’s sparkling debut is a richly layered story of love, friendship, and obsession…If We Were Villains will keep you riveted through its final, electrifying moments.” – Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, New York Times bestselling author of The Nest

Oliver Marks has just served ten years for the murder of one of his closest friends – a murder he may or may not have committed. On the day he’s released, he’s greeted by the detective who put him in prison. Detective Colborne is retiring, but before he does, he wants to know what really happened ten years ago.As a young actor studying Shakespeare at an elite arts conservatory, Oliver noticed that his talented classmates seem to play the same roles onstage and off – villain, hero, tyrant, temptress – though Oliver felt doomed to always be a secondary character in someone else’s story. But when the teachers change up the casting, a good-natured rivalry turns ugly, and the plays spill dangerously over into life.When tragedy strikes, one of the seven friends is found dead. The rest face their greatest acting challenge yet: convincing the police, and themselves, that they are blameless.

Order your copy online here.


M.L. Rio was born in Miami, and has just competed her MA in Shakespeare Studies at King's College London. In 2016 she won a contest to stay in Hamlet's Castle at Elsinore for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, where she was the first person to sleep in the castle in over 100 years. If We Were Villains is her debut novel.

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