On Writing 'The Informationist' and Coming from a Cult Background

I'm often asked which came first, plot or character. The answer should hint toward how clueless I was when I first set out to write: I had no plot, or characters--not even an idea of the story--only the place.

I'd spent four years living in Africa--over two of them in Equatorial Guinea--and when I made the decision to "write a book," all I knew was that it was going to be fiction, and I would set a good portion of it on Bioko Island, off the west coast of Africa. At the time, I didn't quite understand the concept of genre, but I figured my book should be something like what Robert Ludlum wrote. Turns out, Robert Ludlum wrote thrillers, and now, so do I.

It might be easy to think that I'm self-deprecating and attempting to be funny, and while I would happily settle for funny, the truth is, I really was that clueless.

My life, up until that point, had been anything but traditional. Born and raised in the Children of God, an apocalyptic religious cult that believed education beyond 6th grade was a waste of time, I'd lived on four continents and knew how to cook for a hundred people at a go, but only had a splotchy grade-school education that left me unfamiliar with a few fundamental concepts. Like the parts of speech, for example, and proper punctuation, and math beyond decimals: on the whole, not very helpful for entering the real world as a mother of two babies, and trying to forge a career.

One of the few upsides to coming from nowhere and knowing little, is being acutely mindful of your own ignorance. That was me: determined to write, fully aware that I knew absolutely zero about publishing or for that matter, about writing fiction. But I did know how to use a search engine. The Internet was my lifeline to knowledge, and a used writing guide my trusty Bible.

I wrote more--and re-wrote a lot. I was halfway through the first draft of THE INFORMATIONIST by the time I finally began to grasp what my writing guide had taught; half-way through, I'd found my voice, but more triumphant it seemed at the time, I finally understood what the heck they meant when they kept going on and on about that thing called "voice."

And then, two years into the writing process, one day to the next, THE INFORMATIONIST was finished. If I'd plotted the story ahead of time, maybe I would have seen the end looming, but I was winging it.

Having worked so long on learning to write, on learning the industry, and on writing the book, finishing was rather frightening. I expect it might be a bit of what life feels like after spending four years in college and being thrust out of the womb of academia with the need for a real job--although, I really wouldn't know much about that.

I scoured blogs from agents, editors and professional writers in order to understand the publishing industry, and quickly realized that, like everything else, I would be forced to go the hard road. I wasn't in a position to attend writers' conferences to meet agents in person to pitch a book. Neither was I well read enough to track down the agents or editors of authors whose books I liked. I didn't know anyone who knew anyone even remotely connected to publishing: I had no referrals, and no foot in the door. My only option, really, was to cold query agents by email, which, if you believe the naysayers, is impossible.

People ask what compels me to write, and this always makes me smile, because although the reasons are many--some of them even sappy, ultimately it boils down to this: I have no plan B.

Taylor Stevens is the author of THE INFORMATIONIST (Crown, on-sale March 8, 2011).