Joe Barlow Writes

Quirky Books for Quirky People–New Thoughts on Writing and Publishing in the Digital Frontier

Announcing: Inaction Figure

1 - Inaction Figure Cover

I love superhero stories.

That hardly makes me unique; it seems like three-quarters of all new films and TV shows are based on Marvel or DC properties. What’s not to love? These stories are (or can be) wonderful escapist fare, with fun action sequences, smart-alec dialogue, and attractive people in tight costumes. Truly, geeks: this is our time.

Superhero stories are based in fantasy, so I have no problem believing that a mild-mannered scientist turns into a ravaging green Hulk when he gets angry, or a brooding billionaire chooses to fight crime in Gotham City by night, or that Robert Downey Jr. would settle for Gwyneth Paltrow. After all, this is make-believe.

I love superhero adventures so much, in fact, that I thought it might be fun to create my own pantheon. And this month, I released my first offering.

Inaction Figure is a serialized superhero spoof/parody, in the style of Douglas Adams. The story involves a man named Allan Clark who, along with approximately 1 percent of the global population, develops superpowers after a comet skirts the Earth’s atmosphere. While most people receive one fairly tame power, Allan receives almost unlimited abilities, which he regrettably can’t control. As such, he finds that he does as much harm as good.

I am calling the series a “prose comic book,” with a new issue available each month. Issue #1 is currently available through Amazon. Each installment will be Amazon-exclusive for 90 days, after which it will roll out to other platforms, such as Kobo, Nook, etc.

I hope you’ll give it a try. The first issue is already receiving some nice reviews, and I’m proud of it. And if you’d like to be notified when each new issue appears, please sign up for my mailing list.

Thanks!
Joe

Reflections on 2014

Christmas flat

Happy holidays, everyone!

It’s the end of another year, and as usual, I find myself in a reflective mood. This year, that reflection is tinged with sadness and regret, because I dropped the ball in 2014. Not just once, but over and over again.

It’s been ages since I’ve updated this blog. That’s because I’ve had nothing of note to report. I made great strides on two novels early in 2014, then stopped running a few hundred yards before I crossed the finish line. Coffee to Die For, my first Clayton Gyler mystery, still isn’t finished, even though I’ve done three complete drafts. And don’t even get me started on the sequel, The Phantom of Mulberry Street. That’s even further from being done, although I do have a complete first draft.

What happened? Oh, the usual: crippling self-doubt, and unplanned detours into self-loathing. “Who do you think you are, Joe? No one cares about what you write. Sure, you can write non-fiction and technical copy just fine, but nobody’s interested in your characters.”

Stupid, right? Yeah, I know.

It’s the curse of the creator. Being a writer is a peculiar combination of arrogance (obviously we think our work is worth sharing, or we wouldn’t write it) and crippling insecurity (what if the world hates what we create?). It’s a contradiction that makes no sense, but it has utterly derailed me. Things got so bad that every time I thought about working on Coffee to Die For, I’d have a mini freak-out.

So I ended up doing nothing at all. Not blogging. Not starting a new project. Just basking in inertia, because that was easiest.

Well, enough.

Early this month I started a brand new project, and I’m happy to report that I completed the first draft yesterday. I wrote over 2,000 words each day, with the word count on the first draft totaling around 32,000. Novella length, basically. This was my Christmas present to myself.

I’ll tell you more about it soon. I’m very excited, because this isn’t just a new project; it’s a whole new way of storytelling that I’ve never tried before. Not a novel, and not truly a novella, despite the length. It’s its own thing, and I’m super proud of the concept behind it.

Watch this space. If you haven’t done so, please sign up for my mailing list over on the right, so you can be notified when I have more to share.

I’m looking forward to 2015. This year is going to be different; it’s going to be the year I take control of my life and make it work for me.

How about you?

-j.

P.S. Due to a recent influx of spam comments on the blog, I have temporarily disabled comments. Sorry about that. I hope we’ll be able to turn them back on soon. This is why we can’t have nice things.

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Surviving a Rejection Letter

RejectedSo I got a rejection letter yesterday for one of my short stories.

It’s not a big deal. I’ve gotten plenty of them over the years, and this one rolled off my back without crushing my spirits, or initiating a crisis of faith in my writing ability.

As I prepared to send the manuscript off to the next market on my list, it suddenly struck me just how much my attitude towards rejection has changed over the years. I remember the early days of freelancing, when rejection letters would hit me with the force of a sledgehammer. The sense of failure I’d experience upon receiving such a letter could last for hours. Even if I received an acceptance letter for a different piece on the very same day, I would disregard that victory in exchange for reveling in the failure.

Hey, I’m nothing if not dramatic.

Rejection letters aren’t fun. How could they NOT discourage us? The term itself conjures up painful memories of getting turned down for dates, or being picked last for the school softball team. It’s a letter specifically sent to inform you, a writer, a creator, a storyteller, that your work does not meet an arbitrary benchmark of quality.

Or at least that’s how I felt back then.

However, having spent some time on the other side of the editor’s desk in intervening years, I now realize something very valuable — rejections aren’t personal, and you shouldn’t take them that way.

Don’t let a rejection letter utterly derail you. The next time you receive a rejection letter, consider the following:

1. YOU aren’t being rejected. ONE SPECIFIC PIECE of your work is being declined by one particular editor at one particular time.

I once attended a Sci-Fi convention in which novelist Spider Robinson boasted that he had never received a rejection letter, which frustrated him greatly, because he dreamed of wallpapering his office with rejection letters from prestigious publications in order to impress girls.

His story got big laughs from the audience, but I don’t believe it for a second. Remember: a person whose work appeals to everyone must have a bland writing style indeed. 
Even two of the most successful novelists in history, JK Rowling and Stephen King, both received dozens of rejection letters from publishers who considered their work to be below substandard. And let’s not forget that Decca Records turned down a band called The Beatles, believing that guitar groups were on their way out.

2. The rejection isn’t necessarily a reflection on the quality of your writing. 

Consider any of the following scenarios:

– You may have written a perfectly fine story that happens to slightly resemble a different story the editor has already purchased, but which hasn’t appeared in print yet. (Although this doesn’t seem to affect Hollywood: how many similarly themed films open within weeks of each other? Remember Deep Impact and Armageddon? Or Dante’s Peak and Volcano?)

– You may have written a first-rate private-eye story, but the editor, having read thirty of them this week, is momentarily burned out on the genre.

– Your story may have too much humor (or not enough!) to suit the editor’s preference.

– You may have written the world’s greatest western, but Publisher’s Weekly just ran a story declaring the western dead.

– Maybe the magazine has purchased its allotment of fiction for the upcoming year, and has simply decided to reject all stories for the next six months to clear out the slush pile. (Yes, this happens.)

– Maybe you called your protagonist Walter, and the editor has an old boyfriend named Walter, and therefore can’t bear the fact that your protagonist doesn’t die at the end of the story.

Hey, stranger things have happened. Editors are people too, and like all people, they can be extraordinarily illogical when it suits them.

The best thing to do? Send the piece right back out into the world. Do it today. Don’t let the sun set on your rejection. Send your work to the next market on your list, and start crafting a new piece of writing if you haven’t already done so.

What about you? How do you handle rejection? Leave a comment and let me know!

[This post originally appeared on the blog The Coffee House Wordsmith on September 16, 2011.]

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The E-Book Revolution: Does the Writing Still Matter?

Amazon+Kindle+Touch-1024It’s impossible to discuss the state of modern publishing without mentioning the Amazon Kindle, the iPad, the Nook, and the many other handheld e-readers currently flooding the market. E-books have now surpassed hardcovers in numbers of sales, and liberal self-publishing programs through sites like Amazon, Smashwords, and others have allowed authors of all skill levels to release their words into the world, to sink or swim on their own merits, with no interference from editors, agents, or publishers.

The phrase “Kindle millionaire” has been bandied about by the media, first derisively, and then with dawning reverence. Many previously unknown writers, including John Locke and Amanda Hocking, have garnered headlines for selling obscene amounts of digital books, earning fortunes in the process (and, in the case of Hocking, a juicy $2 million, four book traditional publishing contract). Even former mid-list authors like J.A. Konrath and Scott Nicholson have enjoyed rejuvenated sales thanks to e-publishing.

It’s an exciting time for authors, with bold new distribution systems being introduced almost weekly. As I write these words, Amazon has offered many of its e-books for free rental at over 11,000 public libraries (including my own — I just checked). And next week, Amazon is expected to announce its own sub-$250 tablet computer, a potential game changer for e-books.

But with all this talk about massive e-publishing fortunes, the mass acceptance of digital literature, and potential new revenue streams for writers, you know what I haven’t heard much about?

The writing.

Hocking made headlines for her Kindle sales, but are her books any good? Beats me… no one wants to talk about that. Locke is the first self-published author in history to sell over a million Kindle e-books; you can find many articles analyzing his sales figures, but precious little discussion about the literary merits of his Donovan Creed mystery/thrillers.

What gives?

Yes, some authors are making huge money with e-books. But they are outliers, astonishing but rare success stories, sparked by a combination of hard work, excellent marketing, crowd-pleasing narratives (one assumes), and a certain amount of luck. Anyone who thinks that vomiting out sub-standard content and uploading it to Amazon will fund a lavish new lifestyle is going to be sorely disappointed.

I’m a technology buff, and I get it: the novelty of e-books is strong, and it’s exciting to see what some authors have achieved without the backing of a corporate publisher. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that e-books aren’t widgets. They’re books, even if they aren’t printed on paper. Can’t we discuss them the way we discuss other books? By talking about their strengths and weaknesses, rather than their sales figures and financial aspects?

If I were Locke or Hocking, I’d be insulted.

For the record, let me state that I’m a complete convert to e-books, and will probably never buy another paper book as long as I live. I absolutely love having adjustable font sizes and the ability to carry my entire book collection with me everywhere I go. But as with paper books, e-books are worthless to me if they’re not well-written, regardless of how many copies they’ve sold.

I wish all these “journalists” would remember that too.

How about you? What do you think of digital publishing and the e-book boom? Are we living in a golden age of self-publishing, as some have claimed?

[NOTE: This post originally appeared on my old writing blog, The Coffee House Wordsmith, on September 23, 2011.]

 

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Things I Wish I’d Known When Writing My First Novel [Guest Post from Scott Nicholson]

flyboymug-247x300NOTE FROM JOE: As I’ve previously discussed, I’m in the process of writing a novel. Although I’ve been publishing non-fiction professionally for almost twenty years, my fiction endeavors have been limited. As such, when I began writing Coffee to Die For, I reached out to one of my favorite writers and asked for his advice.

The author in question is the prolific Scott Nicholson (pictured), an icon of both traditional and indie publishing. In addition to the breakout horror novel The Red Church (which I highly recommend), Scott runs a terrific blog about writing and publishing. Here’s what he had to say in response to my question. I trust you’ll find it as helpful and inspiring as I did.  –Joe

Advice for Joe on the Writing of His First Novel
by Scott Nicholson

Joe, here’s the big difference from when I started writing 15 years ago:

I didn’t know writing was so dog-gone difficult.

I didn’t have the Internet and a billion writing blogs telling me how hard it was to get published, or how great the self-publishing era is. I had to subscribe to paper newsletters to keep up with market listings for the short story market, and go to the library or buy magazines to get lists of agents and publishers.

In a way, the lack of Internet made it really easy to focus. I had a certain number of hours available to me in the morning, and I could get lost in the story. There was no email to check, no hot market tip, no obligation to engage strangers in social media, no latest tech toy that was going to change the face of publishing forever, or at least for the next few weeks.

Don’t get me wrong: e-books are going to help a lot of writers meet their audience in ways that were never before possible. It’s going to be easier for most writers to make money, even if it still will be difficult. And I am very grateful to be here while it’s happening.

But I miss hammering out my stories on an old Selectric IBM typewriter with a clunky print wheel and a floppy disk drive. It was quite a feeling of accomplishment to roll those pages in one at a time and print them out, until there was a big stack beside me at a cost of about a dime a page, only to be boxed and mailed for $10 or $15 per submission. The very cost and inconvenience made shipping it off to a publisher a big enterprise, like launching a ship.

And, back then, most publishers would still look at your slush submission, so I could at least hold out hope that someone would read it, love it, and make an offer. (In fact, that’s how it happened to me). We weren’t aware that the odds of getting accepted were less than one in 100. Indeed, you could legitimately hope that every submission was the winning lottery ticket, instead of the mass email queries favored today, the policies of agents to “only respond if interested,” and with most larger publishers refusing to look at anything unless it was sent in by those same rude, aloof agents.

In the beginning, all I knew was to tell the story the best I could, read every book on the business and craft I could get my hands on, and keep up my leisure reading, which was never fully “leisure” because I was always aware of the wizard behind the curtains lining up words. I’d read something bold and be inspired to write something boldly. I’d read something tepid and hurl it across the room, positive that I could do better.

In the beginning, all I had was my imagination, my fingers, and my words. I was blissfully ignorant. I didn’t know what I was doing was impossible.

So I just did it anyway, without knowing any better.

If I had any advice for an aspiring writer today, aside from warning them away from all advice, it would be this: Ignore everything but the next sentence.


Scott Nicholson is the author of several dozen books, short stories, and screenplays. His non-fiction works include The Indie Journey: Secrets to Writing Success, and the essay collection Write Good or Die, which he edited.

[Note from Joe: This post originally appeared on my old writing blog, The Coffee House Wordsmith, on September 30, 2011.] 

 

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Birth of a Novel: A Conversation with the Writer I Used to Be

young joeGood morning, Old Joe!

Eh? Who said that?

Me!

I’m afraid that doesn’t help. Who, exactly, is “me”?

Don’t you remember? It’s me! Young Joe! The kid you used to be, before you got old and fat! The boy who dreams of growing up to be a writer!

Oh… uh, hello. Wow. This is a little awkward. Tell me, why are you in my head today, Young Joe?

I decided to travel to the future and see how my life’s going to turn out! To see if we ever made good on that whole writing dream!

You know how to time travel, Young Joe?

Oh, sure! Remember, I’m a kid with a huge imagination! That’s one of the reasons I want to be a writer when I grow up! I love telling stories!

Hmm… now that you mention it, I do seem to remember that about you. Or me. Whatever. I’m confused.

Nice brain you’ve got here, Old Joe. Although there seems to be a lot of dust lying around. It’s almost like you don’t use certain parts of your mind any more, especially the parts that are about playing and having fun! That’s sad.

Well, it’s a little different when you’re a grown up, Young Joe.

Things aren’t always groovy, huh?

“Groovy?” I haven’t heard that word in years!

Well, remember, Old Joe, it’s still 1979 where I come from. But tell me, is my dream going to come true? Do I grow up to be a writer?

As a matter of fact, Young Joe, you do!

Hurray! I knew I could make it happen if I worked hard enough! Tell me, how did we get started? Did we write an awesome horror story about ninja robot skeletons? Or books about pirates? Or spaceships? Or vampires?

Eh… not so much, Young Joe. You see, I write non-fiction these days.

Non-fiction? You mean those boring books that don’t have any pictures? The kind of books I have to read for school?

Uh, yeah.

Oh. (*long pause*) Do you like writing that stuff?

Yes, I do. Clients hire me to write reports, manuals, grants, and other stuff like that. It’s important work.

And they don’t ever want you to write stories?

Well, no. I haven’t done much fiction writing since high school. Not since I got Miss Rose’s note.

Who’s Miss Rose, Old Joe?

Oh, that’s right! You haven’t met her yet, Young Joe. She was, or will be, our 11th grade English teacher. One day, I mentioned that I wanted to be a professional writer when I grew up.

So why did she write you a note, Old Joe?

Well, she wrote a handwritten message on the title page of a short story I handed in for an assignment.

Was it a nice note?

Well… no, Young Joe. It wasn’t.

What did it say?

You know what’s funny, Young Joe? It’s been over 20 years, and I can still remember it word for word. It said: “Joe, your ideas have merit, but your writing is flat. You aren’t a natural storyteller. Stick to non-fiction from now on.”

Wow. That must have hurt!

Yeah. It did, Young Joe. It really did. And I haven’t written much fiction since then. Hardly any at all, in fact.

Wait a minute, Old Joe. Let me see if I’ve got this straight. You used to write fiction constantly, right?

Right.

And you gave it up almost overnight, even though you really enjoyed it?

Right.

All because one person said she didn’t like your work?

Uh, yeah. I guess so. Sounds kinda lame when you put it that way.

It’s beyond lame! I wish I wasn’t just a voice in your head, Old Joe! I wish I was actually standing in front of you right now, so you could see how crestfallen I am. The fact that you would let the word of one woman destroy my dream like that! How could you do that to me? How could do that to yourself?

Wow… I’m sorry, Young Joe. You’re right. Even though I’ve written and published a lot of non-fiction, I do miss writing fiction. I never should have given it up. What can I do to make it up to you?

I think you know what you need to do, Old Joe. If you really want to make it up to me, you have to write a novel.

A novel? Really?

Yes! You need to write a novel. And you need to start working on it right now. This week.

Well…

Come on, bub! You owe me. You’ve kept my dreams imprisoned for over 20 years. Let them out!

You know what? You’re right, Young Joe. I’m going to do it. I’m going to write a novel.

Good! And make sure you tell other people that you’re doing it, Old Joe! If other people know you’re working on it, they can offer encouragement and support! They can give you all the things that your awful high school English teacher didn’t provide.

Good idea! I think I’ll post about it on my blog.

What the heck’s a blog, Old Joe?

Oops. Uh… well, it’s this thing I write on the Internet…

What’s the Internet?

Never mind. All you need to know is that I’m going to do it. I’m going to share this conversation with some of my friends, okay? It will be my way of letting them know that I’m going to write a novel. And I’ll keep them updated each week on my progress. Won’t that be fun?

Oh wow, it sure will! Good luck, Old Joe! I better get back to my own time, and let you get to work on your new book.

Sounds good, Young Joe. Thanks for stopping by. And hey, I appreciate the kick in the rear.

It’s what I do, Old Joe. It’s what I do. 

[NOTE: This post originally appeared on my old writing blog, The Coffee House Wordsmith, on September 9, 2011. That was the same week I began the first draft of Coffee to Die For, the first novel in my Clayton Gyler mystery series. Last night, on February 10th, 2014, I completed the third (and what I presume will be the final) draft of the book. As such, I thought today was a good time to repost this conversation with Young Joe. I hope he’s proud of me! If you’d like to keep informed about my further writing adventures, please sign up for my mailing list.]

-j.

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The Top 5 Reasons I Quit Reading Your Blog

no-blogLike many of you, I expect, I’m thoroughly addicted to reading blogs. It’s one of my favorite pastimes, and my poor RSS Reader finds itself bursting at the seams with dozens of quality sites each and every day. The sheer amount of blog post links that get flung in my face on Twitter alone is enough to fill a hard drive, and yet somehow I always seem to crave more blogs, more blogs, dear God, just a few more blogs.

I’m willing to give almost any blog a chance, provided the subject matter interests me. However, because I have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to reading material, I have become increasingly less tolerant of a few blogging traits which hinder, or outright prevent, my ability to enjoy certain sites. As such, here are the top five ways to ensure that I’ll never read your blog again:

1. I can’t find your RSS feed. I do about 95% of my blog reading through an RSS Reader. When I hear about a new blog that I’d like to check out, I type the URL into my browser and spend about 30 seconds poking around the page. Do the posts appear to be engagingly written and properly punctuated? Do the headlines make the content sound interesting? If so, I immediately sign up for the mailing list and subscribe to the RSS feed. Then, in all likelihood, I never visit the main page again. From that point on, my relationship with that blog exists entirely within the confines of an RSS reader.

If I can’t find your RSS feed, or (gasp) if you don’t have one, you’ve lost me as a potential reader, no matter how great your content might be.

2. Your RSS feed only shows me a few sentences of each post. This goes hand-in-hand with #1. You see, I read a lot of blogs on my iPod Touch, which is a wifi-only device. Every morning I launch my favorite mobile reading software, MobileRSS, which syncs up to my RSS Reader and downloads all the latest posts straight to my iPod, in much the same way that iTunes downloads new podcasts for me. This way, I have the posts with me throughout the day, and can read them at my leisure, even if I end up in a place that doesn’t have wifi access.

However, if your RSS feed only gives me a few sentences of your post, and then invites me to “click here to read the rest of the article,” then you’ve effectively ensured that I can only read your content if I’m in a wifi hot spot, which isn’t always convenient for me. That’s just not how media should work in the 21st century. Include the entire post in your RSS feed, and I’ll be your reader for life.

3. You don’t understand third-grade grammar. I don’t have a problem with the occasional typo or grammatical oddity; we all make mistakes. What I cannot abide is a willing and repeated disregard for the basic rules of grammar, which were drilled into my head when I was nine years old and which I’ve never forgotten. I’m referring to the people who continuously write “your” when they mean “you’re,” ten times in the same post.

Nobody’s perfect, but really, if you can’t even get that right, I’m unlikely to have confidence in your blogging skills.

4. You force me to jump through hoops to read your content. I just came across this peculiar situation for the first time: I found a blog that has great writing, and useful information. However, in order to encourage people to join his mailing list, this particular blogger password protects roughly 50% of his posts. The password changes weekly. Every seven days, he e-mails the new password to his subscribers. If they click on a protected post, they must enter that week’s password in order to read it.

Seriously? In order to consume his content, I’m expected to dig through the hundreds of e-mails I receive in a typical week and look for his latest password, hoping all the while that I didn’t accidentally delete it, or that it didn’t get blocked by my spam filter? Sorry, life’s too short. Bye bye to that particular blog.

5. You assume that my knowledge of the subject matter is equal to your own. While there is something gratifying in reading a site that doesn’t patronize me, or treat me like I’m unintelligent, it’s possible for a blogger to go too far in the opposite direction. If I’m reading your blog, it’s very likely that I’m not an expert on your subject matter, and am hoping to learn more about your topic of expertise from you. But if you rely too heavily on elite industry jargon, without including a definition of an unusual term or acronym, don’t be surprised if I have no idea what you’re talking about.

I don’t mind doing a little research to clarify a confusing concept or word, but if I have to perform a Google search to understand every third sentence of your post, your blog probably isn’t for me.

How about the rest of you? What are your own blogging pet peeves? And more importantly, am I violating any of them? Let me know in the comments below!

[NOTE: This post was originally published on my old writing blog, The Coffee House Wordsmith, on April 6, 2011.]

 

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Coming Out of the Writing Closet

funny-pictures-cat-pidgeons-star-warsWhen we last spoke, I shared with you the story of how I wrote my second novel, The Phantom of Mulberry Street, over a two-month period by getting up an hour early each day.

I think it’s fair to say that I’ve now made this formerly alien behavior a habit, and I can barely remember what life used to be like before I embraced it. It feels so natural, so correct, that it’s hard to believe I ever tried to write at night, after my brain was fried from a hard day of corporate writing and various household responsibilities.

I realize I’ve been living a lie for years, and I can’t take it any longer. I need to come out of the closet. I’m finally ready to admit it:

I am, and always have been, a morning writer. I deluded myself for over a decade, trying to make myself be something that I wasn’t, but I was wrong.

Well, no more denial of my true nature! No more will my novels have to subsist on my intellectual leftovers! Now, Clayton Gyler and his sidekick, the lovely Jennifer Watkins, will get served first at my creativity buffet each day, when I’m at my freshest and most focused.

What has impressed me most about this method of working is not just how great I feel when I’m done (knowing that even before many of my friends have gotten out of bed, I’ve already made substantial strides on a project that matters greatly to me, and furthered my long-term career goals).

No, what has impressed me most is how quickly the pages pile up when a person commits to writing each and every day. Even a relatively small amount like 1,000 words (about four double-spaced pages) can yield impressive results after a few weeks.

Referring back to my notes, I see that for the first 39 days I worked on Phantom, I wrote a total of 44,510 new words (162 pages). That’s about 2/3rds the length of the first book (Coffee to Die For), the first draft of which took me eight months to complete. By the time the first draft of Phantom was complete a few weeks later, I’d written 85,183 words (306 pages). This meant that Phantom was about 25% longer than Coffee, yet was written in one-quarter the time. That’s music to my ears.

Incidentally, I worked on the first draft of the second novel in the morning, and spent any free time I could find in the evening writing the second draft of the first novel. Any new words I wrote while revising were in addition to the words I wrote in the morning, and were not counted towards my daily word goal. (Nor are blog posts.)

I’m thrilled by this new routine, and the progress I’ve made. I’m now finishing up the third draft of Coffee, and am excited by how close to the end I’m getting. Then I’ll turn my full attention to revising Phantom and getting it out into the world, too. (Don’t forget to sign up for my mailing list, if you’d like to be notified when they’re available.)

What about you? What’s your daily routine? Are you a morning person, an afternoon writer, or a midnight oil burner? I’m genuinely interested.

-j.

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The Morning and the Muse

typingIt’s the age-old question for literary storytellers: how much writing is enough for one day? At what point can you step away from the keyboard, secure in the knowledge that you’ve put in a solid day’s work, thereby entitling you to spend the rest of the evening sitting on the couch, streaming 30 Rock episodes from Netflix? (Oh, Liz Lemon, how I want to cuddle and strangle you at the same time.)

There’s no right or wrong answer. In the world of business writing, we’d typically have a firm deadline for a project, a completion date by which we must deliver a final draft to the client. At such times, work can feel exactly like what the name implies: work. We pound the keys until we’re done, no matter how long it takes, regardless of how tired we might be. The number of words we write is governed entirely by how many words remain before we reach the end of the project.

But things aren’t so clear-cut when we’re writing without a contract, especially in the world of fiction. Even if we ultimately hope to publish the final product, either through a traditional book deal or via the blossoming medium of self-publishing, we’re essentially writing on spec. When our manuscript is done, it’s done. Since we have no contract, we have no deadline. No editor is likely to call us up, demanding to know the status of our manuscript.

As such, it’s easy to let these projects fall onto the back burner. That’s why so many more people begin novels than complete them. With no deadline, or word count plan, we write only when we feel like it, rather than because it’s time to write.

Well, no more.

Thirteen days after finishing the first draft of Coffee to Die For, I began work on my second Clayton Gyler mystery, tentatively called The Phantom of Mulberry Street. As I mentioned in my previous post, I completed the initial draft of Coffee in about eight months. But what I didn’t mention was that I didn’t write every day during that eight month period. Not even close, in fact. I would tend to wait for inspiration to strike before I fired up my copy of Microsoft Word, leading to long, frustrating dry spells where I wouldn’t think about the book at all for a week, interspersed with other days where I’d pound out 5,000+ words in a frantic attempt to make up lost time. As satisfying as it was to complete a week’s output in a single sitting, this method of work left me a frazzled wreck by the time I called it a day.

This is a classic example of working harder, not smarter.

What I now know is that if I’d simply sat down at the keyboard and began typing, the words would have come. They always do.

Woody Allen famously said that eighty percent of success is simply showing up, and he should know: he’s been faithfully writing and directing a feature film (and sometimes two!) per year for more than four decades now.

How does he manage this superhuman feat? Easy. He writes. Every day. He shows up for work, in other words. He doesn’t wait for the muse to strike. He hunts it down and drags it to the office with him if he has to. Because he’s got a film to deliver.

When it came time to write the first draft of Phantom, I decided to follow Mr. Allen’s guidance. Rather than repeating the haphazard writing schedule of my first novel. I promised myself that I would show up at the keyboard every day. Regardless of whether I felt inspired, I would do the work. And I told myself that I would not get up from my chair until I’d hit my quota.

I always made myself write when I had a corporate writing deadline approaching, even if I didn’t feel inspired. I couldn’t afford to wait for inspiration. I just sat down and did the work. Well, I’d do the same for the second Gyler novel.

I set myself a goal of 1,000 words per day. That’s 1,000 new words, by the way. I’m not counting minor revisions to the previous day’s writing, nor time spent answering e-mails, fooling around on Twitter, or writing blog posts. 1,000 new words per day, all directed towards my novel’s word count. If I felt particularly inspired, I would allow myself to write more than 1,000 words. But I couldn’t refuse to write because I didn’t feel the muse’s presence.

Just as importantly, I also refused to accept the excuse that I didn’t have time to make my word count on a particular day.

No one has the time to write. But anyone can make the time, if they want to.

Borrowing a suggestion from my friend, the writer/blogger Nicholas Strange, I began getting up an hour earlier each morning. My body protested, but I made myself get up and spend that extra 60 minutes of consciousness tickling the keys of my laptop before my wife and kids woke up.

As such, I wrote the first draft of Phantom in just a couple of months. I wrote between 1,000 and 1,300 words each and every morning, at the time of day when my brain was at its freshest and least cluttered, and when the house was silent and free from distractions.

It was marvelous.

Before I even had my first cup of coffee, my day’s writing (at least in regards to the novel) was done. No matter what came up during the rest of the day, I knew I made my fiction word count.

The take-away from all this? Don’t wait for inspiration. Set a target quota, and deliver! It’s the only way to get the results you deserve.

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So, a formal introduction, then…

tubesAs we all know, the Internet is a series of tubes. Every computer in the world is connected by a mixture of twine, plastic, and wax, allowing cybersurfers to slide from one digital destination to the next, like wind passing through the gap in a first-grader’s smile.

Or something. I’m not very good with this technical stuff.

Because of the digital sorcery that allows us to teleport all over the planet simply by typing random subjects into a search box, there are many possible ways you may have found this site:

Perhaps you’re a writer, interested in reading about the ongoing adventures of another writer. If so, welcome.

Perhaps you’re a mystery fan, looking to find out more about the types of novels I write. If so, welcome.

Perhaps you’re a spambot hoping to share with me the exciting news that I’ve won ten million pounds in the UK lottery (which, judging from the amount of notifications I receive, I seem to do about twice a month, despite having never been to the UK). If so, welcome! I don’t discriminate against machines. Robots kick ass.

No matter how you might have found me, I’m pleased to meet you.

On my previous writing blogs, I typically discussed the business of freelance writing. I’ve been writing professionally since 1997, both as a corporate tech writer and as a newspaper/magazine freelancer. I made a living doing that for many years, but it wasn’t always the type of work that satiated one’s muse.

That’s why, after a bit of soul-searching two years ago, I promised myself that I would write a novel within 12 months. Although I like many genres, mystery is by far my favorite, and that’s where I set my sights. More specifically, I envisioned a detective story that gently satirized, yet also revered, the hard-boiled crime tales of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

I got busy pounding the keys, and although progress was sadly held up by a death in my wife’s family, I completed the first draft of that novel, Coffee to Die For, about eight months later. I’m already hard at work on the sequel, tentatively titled The Phantom of Mulberry Street, while Coffee percolates (no pun intended, I promise… oh, alright, you caught me, I intended it) for a while. Soon I’ll pull it out of the metaphorical desk drawer and begin work on the second draft.

[UPDATE: Since the time this post was originally written, over a year ago, I’ve completed the second draft of Coffee, and I’m nearly finished with the third draft as well.]

That, in a nutshell, is why I’ve started this blog: to chronicle my fiction-writing pursuits, and to hopefully connect with others who are interested in doing the same.

And now you know a little bit about me, if you didn’t already. No doubt we’ll learn more about each other in the days and weeks to come.

Thanks for reading. Don’t forget to sign up for my mailing list if you want to stay notified of my various writing projects!

Now remember, kids: it’s a great big world out there. Let’s go break some stuff.

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