Share the story about how you became an author. Who or what inspired you?
by Joe Hartlaub
It was only a few hours ago that I spoke with a friend that I hadn’t conversed with in almost forty years. Don and I worked for a couple of summers on a municipal road crew in the Akron, Ohio area in the early 1970s. We came from very different backgrounds and had a bit of an age difference between us but became something more than work friends. He had a number of colorful expressions, most of which I can’t use in family blog, but which pepper my conversation to this day. The method we used to rid a field of a hornet’s nest almost got me arrested some fifteen years after the fact when I replicated it elsewhere.
You don’t forget a guy like that, but you do lose touch. I moved to Columbus in 1978; Don stayed in Akron. Life got in the way for both of us. There weren’t emails or cell phones or Skype and we became busy with jobs and raising families the way that people do. I never forgot Don, however, given that I quoted him like Scripture on a frequent basis, usually with appreciative laughter from whatever audience I was before. I started looking for him on the internet several years ago but couldn’t find him and assumed he had moved or even passed. I had long since given up trying to reach Don when I saw him featured on the front page of a northeastern Ohio newspaper. He had been ambushed by a reporter outside of a polling station; he looked older (unlike me) but it was still the same guy, for sure. His internet presence, however, was still non-existent. I was able to locate a couple of phone numbers for him but they were out of service. I did, however, get a street address for Don after some effort and wrote him a letter — an actual letter — with my prized fountain pen. It took eight days for him to get it (they don’t call it “snail mail” for nothing) but he ultimately received it and called me. We’re going to get together soon (“…before one or both of us dies!” he said) and catch up further.
All of this got me to wondering about all of you. I remember where and how I met Don, and most of my other friends, and my wife, business associates, etc. But those of us who contribute blog posts to The Kill Zone don’t know how you, our wonderful readers and commenters, got here. What brought you to The Kill Zone originally? How did you get here? Twitter? Facebook? Writer’s Digest? An author’s link? I’d love to know. And if you have any stories about reuniting with old friends and acquaintances that are unique and/or unusual, please share if you’re so inclined.
Inspirations comes from many different places and can combine into a great story. Tell us about the inspiration behind your latest project. Why did you choose to write this story?
The outskirts of Flagstaff, Arizona. I was with my high school church group, taking a week in the summer to do volunteer work for the Hopi. Our bus had stopped for the night and we brought our sleeping bags and duffels into the fellowship hall of a local church. We were told by our adult leaders to relax, read, play games, listen to the radio––but by all means stay inside the hall! Which of course my friend Randy and I interpreted as meaning: “Feel free to wander into town and find some trouble to get into.”
Ever ready to follow instructions as we understood them, Randy and I slipped out the side doors and started a nocturnal tour of the bustling Flagstaff metropolis, which seemed to have, as they used to say, rolled up the sidewalks.
So we walked and talked and came to a railroad crossing, moving therefrom into the soft red-and-yellow neon of a LIQUOR STORE sign. To a couple of seventeen-year-olds on a nighttime prowl, such illumination is catnip. Randy suggested we baptize our adventure with a bottle.
I agreed, as Randy Winter was my brother from another mother, my closest friend, with whom I laughed much and talked deeply. We would discuss with equal fervor the mystery of girls and the character of God (whose reputation, by the way, we were failing to uphold as we schemed how to lay our hands on some demon intoxicant).
Our first order of business was what manner of spirits to acquire. As an athlete who was not a member of the party circuit, I was not an imbiber of any sort. I did not like the taste of beer. I’d snuck a nip of gin once in my parents’ liquor cabinet and wondered why on earth anyone would want to drink gasoline.
So Randy suggested we try some wine. He’d heard that Boone’s Farm Apple Wine went down nicely, and the decision was made.
Then the next step: to lurk in the shadows of the parking lot until a car drove up, then casually approach the driver with a request that he be our procurer. This was nervous time, for who knew what kind of personality we would engage? What if it was an off-duty cop? Or some old Veteran of Foreign Wars who’d want to lecture us on the evils of drink?
A chance we would have to take. Which we did presently when a car drove in, and out stepped a man of about thirty, with long hair. Long hair! A good sign. A hippie perhaps, or at least a musician. In either case, cool. We emerged from our hiding spot and said, “Excuse me …”
The man stopped and read our faces in the soft, primrose light. “You want me to get you a bottle, don’t you?” he said.
We nodded. My face felt flush, as if the entire world were witnessing my iniquity.
The man laughed. “I used to do the same thing. What do you want?”
We gave the man a couple of fins, our pooled resources, and Randy said, “Boone’s Farm Apple Wine.”
It seemed to me the man hesitated, as if to give us one last chance to reconsider our fate. And then he went through the door.
Randy and I high-fived our success. And soon thereafter we had in our hands a brown paper bag and some change, passed to us with a “Good luck” sentiment from our partner in crime.
We left the scene of our misdemeanor, went back near the railroad tracks, and sat cross-legged on the ground.
Randy unscrewed the top. We were too unsophisticated to smell the cap.
Then he drank and passed the bottle to me. I took a tentative sip. Ah, I thought. Sprightly, with a conversational fruitiness and subdued notes of summer. (Actually, what I really thought was, This isn’t so bad.)
And so ‘neath the Arizona stars Randy Winter and I shared a bottle of what was generously classified as wine, and discovered something interesting about the human body, namely, that there is a lag time between the ingestion of alcoholic content and its effect on one’s physiology.
Which meant, at one point, it suddenly felt as if a switch was flipped in my brain. The disco ball lit up and went round and round, and I heard myself say something like, “Rammy, my headth pinning” before I teetered backward and ended up on the gravel, looking up at the stars as they raced around the heavens like sparkling emergency room nurses shouting, “Stat! Stat!”
Which is the last thing I remember about that night. In the morning I was in my sleeping bag on the church floor. At least I think it was my sleeping bag. My stomach felt like a balloon of toxic gasses. Two miniature railroad workers were on either side of my head, driving spikes into my temples with their sledgehammers.
The adult leaders were none too pleased with Randy and me. We knew we’d messed up, crossed the line, failed to represent our church. We were threatened with expulsion, which would mean a long and humiliating drive for our parents to come pick us up. We threw ourselves upon the mercy of the court and were granted a temporary stay. I began then to truly appreciate the power of forgiveness. Plus, I was ready to swear off booze for good.
Honest, hard work kept Randy and me on the straight and narrow for at least a week. There’s a victory in there somewhere.
I don’t know why I’m writing about this now, except that I was thinking about Randy the other day, as I do often. He died at the age of nineteen. Leukemia. When I think about him, and all the good times we had, this particular memory is the one that surfaces first.
Why is that? Maybe because it typified our friendship. We took risks together, got in trouble on occasion, but mostly laughed. A couple of times there were tears. There’s something deeply meaningful to me in all this, and if I explore it I sense it will tell me something about what I write and why. It may also be a story idea trying to get out.
Memories are the deep soil of strong fiction. We do well to work that land from time to time. Journal about it. Record it. Listen to it.
Early in his career Ray Bradbury started making lists of nouns, many of them based on childhood memories. Things like The Lake, The Night, The Crickets, The Ravine.
“These lists were the provocations,” he writes in Zen in the Art of Writing, “that caused my better stuff to surface. I was feeling my way toward something honest, hidden under the trapdoor on the top of my skull.”
Open up your own trapdoor. You’ll get to really good stuff that way. You can use it outright as the basis for a piece of fiction, or tap it for characters, emotions, scenes. Nothing is wasted. All of life is material.
And it will teach you, too, if you’re open. For I don’t believe I’ve had a taste of Boone’s Farm wine since that night. Nothing against it, you understand, but I prefer a nice California cab. In fact, I think I’ll have a glass tonight––just one––and raise a toast to my best friend, Randy Winter.
What about you? What friend from your youth do you remember, and why?
Some time ago the astute Kristine Kathryn Rusch posted about what she calls The Popcorn Kitten Problem. It’s based on the video below. Take a look at a bit of it:
Now that is what an indie writer’s mind can often feel like. So much freedom! So many things to write! And yet so many marketing hats to put on, and a ton of petty tasks that seem to repeat, over and over again.
Lest ye think this is just an indie conundrum, it’s also increasingly a picture of a tradpub author’s brain, because so much of the marketing onus now falls upon the writer. Publishers are insisting upon “platform” before they offer contracts. When a book is released the harried in-house publicity person (if there is one) has little time for any single author. So you better be out there doing a hundred different things…every day!
If you don’t watch out the resulting stress might grab your good endorphins like an amped-up Conor McGregor and slam them to mat.
Enough of that and you could end up tired or with a chronic case of the blues.
Here’s how a typical popcorn kitten scenario might play out:
You’re writing your WIP, an essential scene where your protagonist has to apply for a new job. In your pre-planning you decided that job would be as a hairdresser. Or, since you are a notorious pantser, you came up with that on the spot.
You don’t know all that much about the hairdressing business. If you are a wise writer, you put a mark in your manuscript that will tell you to do the research later. Then you’ll write as much of the scene as you can, based on what you know about human nature and job interviews—and if you don’t know about either of these, you should quit writing and join the Navy. Then get out and write a novel about the Navy.
Instead, you decide to leave your WIP and jump on the internet for some “quick” research. As you look at search results, you see a book called What Every Writer Needs To Know About Writing Hairdresser Interview Scenes, and you click over to Amazon to check it out. Seems reasonable at $2.99, but just to make sure you don’t spend your discretionary Starbucks money like a fool, you download the free sample.
But while you are on Amazon you see a recommendation for a mystery series about hairdressers. You know the author. She’s someone you met at Bouchercon. You hop over to the book page and see 125 five-star reviews and a rank of 1,286 in the paid Kindle store. At a price of $4.99. What? Your self-published stand-alone mystery is only $2.99 and it’s ranked 423,679.
You wonder what this other author has that you don’t. So you look at her Amazon author page and check out her covers. Wow. Great! Your cover was done by your cousin Axel, a budding commercial artist who lives with his poet girlfriend, Moonglow. Well, you admit, you got what you paid for.
You do a little more research and find out who did this author’s covers. You check out the artist’s portfolio online and what he charges. Whoa! That’s a healthy chunk!
So you do a little research on how to judge the worth of a book cover. There are many blog posts on this, and you read a few of them. Something else catches your eye on the last one. It’s about the importance of book description copy in selling a book. You recall that when you did yours you had a nagging suspicion it was rather plain vanilla, but you were anxious to get the book out because everyone in your critique group was making money self-publishing and you didn’t want to be the chump standing on the dock as the ship took off for the Bahamas with all your friends.
You go back to Amazon and find a book called Book Description Copy for Former Chumps Like Yourself, and you download that sample. You read that sample, and from the Table of Contents figure out some of what your own description was missing, so you open up a new doc and start writing afresh.
Ten minutes into that a thought pops into your head. You don’t want to have your protagonist apply for a hairdresser job. No! She should be an insurance investigator!
So you hop back on Google looking for “How to become an insurance investigator.” Lo and behold, there’s a book called Insurance Investigation for Former Chumps Like Yourself. The author has a website. You go to the website and see he has a blog. Gold!
Which reminds you, you were going to try to do some guest posts for various blogs when your book came out. That’s publicity! Where was that list again? You search for it … you need to send out some emails!
You look at the clock. Uh-oh, it’s almost time to pick up Lydia from school, and what have you done on your WIP? Fifty-seven words! The last word you typed was hairdresser…
I’m sure you can relate. Just as a Molinist theologian can contemplate an infinite number of contingent realities, so you, the writer, have an infinite number of ways you can get distracted, going off in different directions based upon a single pop of a cerebral synapse, one little soft-pawed frolic of a popcorn kitten.
So what’s the cure?
Here is a simple trick that can change your life. All it requires is some paper and a little mental discipline.
I call it Nab, Stab and Tab.
First step is to nab that thought. Recognize it for what it is—a siren’s song to leave what you’re focused on and slide into Alice’s rabbit hole. You might even say it out loud. “My crazy mind wants me to go on Google right now!”
Next step, stab. You want to nail the thought to your desk so it doesn’t hop around in your head. You do this by writing it down. That’s all. I have scratch paper nearby for just this purpose. So in the scenario above, if I suddenly remembered I want to explore guest blogging, I’d write guest blogging on the paper.
Then I immediately forget about it and get back on task! This is the key moment, the forgetting. Get back to work on your WIP!
Finally, when I come up for air and have some time, I’ll give each thought a tab—I assign it a level of importance, using the A, B, C method (which I detail in my monograph, How to Manage the Time of Your Life).
A is for highly important, must-do.
B is for what I’d like to do.
C is for items that can wait.
If there is more than one A item, I prioritize these with A1, A2. Same with any Bs and Cs.
Next, I estimate how much time each task will take. I use quarter hour increments. So a task might take me .25 hour or .5 or a full 1 or 2. Whatever.
Finally, I put the A tasks into my weekly schedule in priority order. If there’s enough time, I’ll put in the Bs. The Cs I usually put off.
This may sound complicated, but it takes only a few seconds to nab and stab. And only a few minutes to tab and schedule.
Yet the benefits are profound. Less stress, more focus on you primary work.
The kittens will start to purr, and then they’ll go to sleep.
And you’ll sleep better, too.
So can you relate to kittens bouncing around in your mind? How do you usually handle it?
One of the greatest athletes America ever produced was Bob Mathias. Listen to this: in 1948 Mathias was a high school student in Tulare, California. His track coach mentioned he ought to consider the decathlon. This is, of course, ten events, several of which Mathias had never attempted. They trained for three weeks. Three. Mathias won the local AAU decathlon. A short time later, he won the nationals and Olympic trials.
Mathias went to the London games and won the gold medal. He was seventeen-years-old, the youngest person ever to win a gold in track and field.
In 1952 he went to the Olympics in Helsinki, and did what no one had ever done before—he won the decathlon again. To top it all off, he starred as himself in the movie The Bob Mathias Story, which I watched several times as a kid.
I thought of Mathias a few days ago when I read this phrase once again: “A writing career is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.” It suddenly occurred to me that this is inadequate. Why? Because it doesn’t matter if you run 26 miles if it’s in the wrong direction!
Instead, I think a successful writing career is more like a decathlon. There are at least ten “events” you must master in order to compete and win a medal. Here they are:
Are you willing to put in the work? Pay the price? Stick with it and not give up? Will you stay with this even though it’s going to take you years to get there?
Olympic champions start young and spend countless hours practicing, for years, for that one shot at gold. Similarly, it takes a long time and a lot of work to gain a writing foothold these days.
While there are no hard rules on this, suppose I told you that it’s going to take you five years and five quality books to start making solid income as a writer? Will you still go for it?
I hope so.
Decathletes have to spend a set amount of time every week in training. A writer has to spend a set amount of time every week writing.
You don’t produce books by not writing them. (Maybe I should go into the Zen koan business. Or not.)
Seriously, when I hear people say, “I just can’t write to a quota. I have to get into the mood,” I hear the sound of a cash register not ringing. (See? Zen master!)
In sports, practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. The precision of your drills is what makes the difference when it comes time for actual competition.
So the words you produce must be quality words. By quality I mean this: the best you can do while keeping your audience in mind.
Who is your audience? Readers. If you’re writing in a genre, you know those readers have certain expectations. You must serve those expectations at the same time you are exceeding them. How? By being an original, surprising them, elevating your book beyond the merely competent.
How do you get to that point? See #4.
A decathlete watches film of great athletes competing in certain events. Slow motion of champion pole vaulters, shot putters, discus and javelin throwers. You hone your skills partly by studying what others do well.
I can’t understand writers wanting to get ahead in the fiction game not making study of the craft a regular habit. I simply do not get it. Do you want some fresh-out-of-med-school doctor who doesn’t read the medical journals or observe experienced surgeons taking out your spleen?
At least when a writer makes mistakes nobody dies. But the interest of a reader does. And that can mean death to a career.
Did you know that every decathlete before 1968 used either the scissor kick or Western roll for the high jump? That’s because those two techniques were the only ones the dedicated high jumpers ever employed.
Then along came a guy named Dick Fosbury who, in high school, wasn’t able to win in the
high jump using old-school technique. Over the course of time he experimented with methods until he started going over the bar backwards, something no one had ever contemplated before. He began to set records with “The Fosbury Flop” and he won the gold medal at the ’68 Olympics in Mexico City.
All high jumpers and decathletes now use the Flop.
Writer, you need to nurture your creativity, try new things, play and explore. You still need to jump over the bar. How you do that is your individual style.
Great athletes give themselves benchmarks to shoot for, and put in place plans to reach them. These goals are measurable. In other words, they can be assessed according to what was done or not done, what was accomplished or not accomplished. Then there is a time for reassessment and recommitment.
Writers need to set goals, too. Not just word count, but the development of future projects, craft study objectives, social media presence, even personal health (which affects production). Goal setting is one of the essential skills of success.
I prepared a short monograph on this topic that can be found HERE.
Every champion athlete has had setbacks, losses, injuries. There are many, many times when quitting seems like an option. Those are the very times the great ones push on. Like Rocky Bleier, the Pittsburgh Steelers running back who came home from service in Vietnam with a right leg shredded by shrapnel. Coaches and doctors told him to give up football. He refused, and worked harder than everyone else. For two long years he struggled, and made the team again. Two years after that he was a starter. Two years after that he gained 1,000 yards for the season.
The writing life has plenty of frustration and disappointment. A rejection can feel like a shredding of your soul. That’s when you let it hurt for half an hour. Pound a pillow. Eat some ice cream. Cry if you must. But then take a deep breath and go to your keyboard and write something. Anything. You cannot be defeated if you keep pounding the keys.
In addition to perseverance, champions have times during an event where they must reach down deep and tap a reservoir of courage. That’s certainly true in the decathlon, the most demanding two days in all of sports. When Rafer Johnson competed for the United States in the Rome Olympics in 1960, he was coming off the effects of an auto accident the year before. His big rival (and UCLA teammate) was C. K. Yang, competing for Taiwan. It all came down to the final event, the grueling 1,500 meter run. Johnson needed to stay within ten seconds of Yang in order to win. But Yang was almost twenty seconds better at this event than Johnson. Johnson reached inside and willed himself to dog Yang’s heels. He finished only 1.2 seconds behind Yang, and took home the gold.
There are times in your writing when you have to dig deep, keep going, try harder. It may just mean hanging on for one last lap. The great thing is, even if things don’t turn out quite the way you want, you will be a stronger writer because of it. No effort is wasted.
Athletes have to give their bodies time to recover from an intense workout. There is a delicate balance between exertion and rest. And when it’s a young athlete, they have to figure in school work and a bit of a social life. The number of athletes who were driven too hard by an overzealous parent, and ended up out of athletics altogether, are legion. See, for example, Todd Marinovich.
There is a time to rest as a writer. Personally, I write six days a week. I take Sundays off. It’s hard. I’m like a horse that wants and expects to run on the track. But the day off gives my mind time to rest and recharge. I come to Monday raring to go.
And don’t forget the people in your life. Give them the time they deserve, even though you may have to explain that far off look you get sometimes. You know, the one where you’re thinking what a great scene this would make, or how that bartender over there would be a terrific minor character…
A champion athlete has to take joy in his event. Eric Liddell, the Scottish sprinter who won a gold medal in the 440 at the1924 games, was depicted in the movie Chariots of Fire. As the son of a missionary, he was expected to go to the mission field, leaving athletics behind. After his sister reprimands him, Liddel replies, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but He also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.”
“In the great story-tellers, there is a sort of self-enjoyment in the exercise of the sense of narrative; and this, by sheer contagion, communicates enjoyment to the reader. Perhaps it may be called (by analogy with the familiar phrase, “the joy of living”) the joy of telling tales. The joy of telling tales which shines through Treasure Island is perhaps the main reason for the continued popularity of the story. The author is having such a good time in telling his tale that he gives us necessarily a good time in reading it.” – Clayton Meeker Hamilton, A Manual of the Art of Fiction (1919)
Just as the decathlon is the toughest of athletic contests, so the writing life is one of the toughest ways to make a buck. Yet isn’t that what makes it worthwhile? When you score a win, and you will––you’ll finish that novel, you’ll start to see some sales, you’ll get an email from a delighted reader––you’ll feel that joy of accomplishment that the ne’er do wells never do.
The easy road is for chumps.
After 15 years of writing cozy and traditional mysteries, I‛m back writing hard-boiled, forensic novels. I‛ve signed a two-book deal with Thomas & Mercer for the new, darker Angela Richman mysteries.
Angela is a death investigator in mythical Chouteau Country, Missouri, stronghold of the overprivileged and the people who serve them. Brain Storm, the first mystery in the new death investigator series, will debut at Thriller Fest this July.
The death investigator mysteries aren‛t too gory – not like Patricia Cornwell‛s “I boiled my dead boyfriend‛s head.” This series is more like the TV show Forensic Files, without the commercials.
I‛ve come home.
My first series, the Francesca Vierling newspaper mysteries, was hardboiled. When Random House bought Dell and wiped out that division, I switched to the traditional Dead-End Job mysteries, featuring Helen Hawthorne. The Art of Murder, the 15th novel in the series, will be published this May.
I also wrote ten cozy Josie Marcus, Mystery Shopper mysteries.
I love both series, but wanted to write dark mysteries again. But I didn‛t want to do another police procedural or a private eye with a dead wife or a drinking problem.
Other writers had done those and done them well.
But death investigators were a profession many readers didn‛t know about. Janet Rudolph, founder of Mystery Readers International, agreed. She believes Angela Richman is the only death investigator series.
Last January, I passed the MedicoLegal Death Investigators Training Course for forensic professionals at St. Louis University. I wanted the training – and the contacts – to make the new series accurate.
Now that I‛m writing dark again, my writing has changed. Here‛s what happens when I jumped from cozies to hard-boiled:
My characters can cuss. Angela Richman‛s best friend and colleague is Katie, Chouteau County assistant medical examiner Dr. Katherine Kelly Stern. Pathologists tend to be eccentric, and Katie is based on a real pathologist who‛d perfected the art of swearing. Her profanity was a mood indicator. I could tell how angry she was by whether she used “fricking,” “freaking,” or the ultimate F-bomb and how often she employed these and other cuss words. Oddly enough, when she swore, the words didn‛t sound offensive.
Katie cusses with style and grace in Brain Storm.
Body counts. In cozy and traditional mysteries, the murders take place offstage. In the new death investigator series, readers aren‛t forced to take a blood bath, but they will see crime scenes and forensic procedures. They‛ll get a firsthand look at the sights, sounds, even the smells of death.
Real weapons. In cozy mysteries, when Josie Marcus battles killers, she resorts to “domestic violence,” using kitchen tools, gardening equipment, and whatever she can grab for weapons.
Helen Hawthorne in the Dead-End Job mysteries is a little bolder. She‛s armed with pepper spray to take down killers, though in Checked Out she did get sprayed with her own weapon.
In Brain Storm, when Angela confronted the killer, she was in an office, surrounded by the standard supplies: waste baskets, chairs, coffee mugs, letter openers.
The holidays are nostalgic for me. Family gatherings bring back memories, some good and others questionable. In 2016, I thought I would start the year off with my family memories and share how they shaped my writing. I’m calling this series – Everything I Needed to Know About Writing, I Learned from my Fam-Damily. Maybe I should consider having some of my family photos mounted to celebrate some of the better memories in my current home. My friend told me it helped him when he was writing similar reflective work he said to have your photos mounted here for high-quality prints which apparently helped with his creative process. But I digress.
Do you remember the classic Christmas movie – A Christmas Story – with Darren McGavin? It’s become iconic and a movie my family watches every year. Well, thanks to my older brother Ed, we had our own version of the Red Ryker BB Gun Rifle with the compass in the stock.
My brother Ed pleaded with my parents all year that he’d be responsible enough to own a BB gun pistol. After all, everyone who was anyone had one and he wouldn’t be denied. He swore he would be careful. He wouldn’t hurt anyone or kill a defenseless animal. With my brother’s deep voice and sincere demeanor, he could charm anyone. My mom finally caved and took him to the hobby store to pick out the best BB pistol anyone could ever own. I went along for the ride and was a firsthand witness to the questionable moment in my family’s history that would follow.
Ed rode back home with my mom, holding his prized possession in his hands, getting the feel and weight of it. He stroked the barrel and loaded it with its first BBs. He was ready to go.
Mom pulled up to our house and Ed got out. He turned to see my younger brother Ignacio coming up from the mailbox. I don’t know what went through Ed’s mind at that moment, but he took aim and fired a shot—at my little brother. He said he didn’t think it would shoot that far. Yeah, right. My mother grabbed the pistol and Ed never fired another round. The BB hit my other brother center mass. Great shot, Ed.
For the rest of the year, Ed worked on my mom again. He swore he had learned his lesson and would never take aim at his brother—or anyone—again. (I hoped his assurances would cover me and my sisters, but was never quite sure.) Forget about defenseless animals, Ed had leaped over that line and went straight for spilling human blood. Way to go, big brother. Ed knew he had a lot to make up for and he saved his best material for mom. She eventually caved…AGAIN.
She took Ed to the sacred place she had hid his BB gun pistol—a secret location no one had known about or would ever find—in her closet. (I did not inherit my imagination from Mom.) She pulled out the box that held Ed’s prized possession and they opened it together. Inside the box was his BB gun pistol—shattered in a million pieces and painstakingly put back together. If anyone tried to lift it, to would shred apart like confetti. (I wished I had inherited my little brother’s imagination…and patience.)
Little bro had found a way to never be a target again.
What did this teach me about writing?
1.) AIM HIGH – If the dream is yours, you’re the only one who should dictate the goals you set or how high you aim. People told me to shoot for a certain publisher or line because they perceived it would be easier. I didn’t want easy. I wanted to earn my place and wanted to sell single-title. I had my day job. I could afford to aim higher. I never regretted my decision and far exceeded my goals. You never know until you try.
2.) EXPECT BLOOD – Writing is hard. There will be blood. If it were easy, everyone would do it. Constantly strive for the best you can be, even if that means it hurts. You will be happy you did. It will mean more. This goes for project to project too. Dare to risk something you haven’t tried to push yourself. I like to write where I’m slightly off balance and not entirely sure I can do it. When I surprise myself, it means more and I can shoot higher next time.
3.) MOTHERS DON’T ALWAYS KNOW WHAT’S BEST – They say, “Write like your parents are dead.” That means to write with abandon. Don’t let anyone else’s opinion resound in your head as you write, fearing what they will think of you after they read your work. You’ll be defeated before you even start.
4.) IF YOUR GOALS GET SHATTERED, PUT THE PIECES BACK TOGETHER AND TRY AGAIN – You writing goals can change as the market changes. Be prepared to rethink your idea of success. Be flexible when things get tougher and hang in there. If your dream to write is important to you, you will find a way to make it work, even if you’re doing it only for your own personal satisfaction. Find the joy in your writing and hang on to it. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
5.) BE NIMBLE WHEN PEOPLE TAKE POTSHOTS AT YOU – There will always be naysayers and critics who will not understand what you’re doing. It comes with the territory of being an artist and creating something from nothing. But I like to challenge those who tear apart a book to write one themselves and put it up for public opinion. Perhaps they would understand the guts it takes to write. Be fearless.
1.) Which of the 5 goals resonated with you the most?
2.) What keeps you going?
I am reading an extremely interesting book which will see the light of day next week — Tuesday, November 24, 2015, to be exact — everywhere books are sold. It is titled REACHER SAID NOTHING: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me. It is written by Andy Martin, who teaches at Cambridge but is nonetheless capable of writing a fun book, and more so, a fun book about the writing process. What occurred is that Martin approached Child via email in August 2014 about writing a book that would take the reader from the very beginning of the process by which Child does what he does so well to the very end. Martin’s timing was perfect, given that Child was about to start writing what ultimately became MAKE ME, his latest Jack Reacher novel.
I’m not going to present my review of REACHER SAID NOTHING now — you’ll have to go here next week over the Thanksgiving weekend to see that — but I can tell you that if you have ever thought of writing a novel you need to get a copy of REACHER SAID NOTHING and sit down and read it. You’ll feel better about the process, for sure. I can assure you that, whatever problem you may have had with completing your work, Child has had it as well, and yes, still has it and works to overcome it year in and year out. You will find within the pages of REACHER SAID NOTHING how he does it, as well as the very first thing that Child did when he started writing the very first Reacher book, lo those many years ago. Child utilizes many tools — copious amounts of coffee and cigarettes among them — but you don’t have to have move into Starbucks or have access to a secret stash of Chesterfield Kings to have similar results, with “similar results” being finishing your book, and then writing another, and another. And no, I’m not going to give away the specifics. Martin gave up a year of his life following Child around with proximity and access that would make a proctologist jealous, and then compiled it all into something readable, so it would be neither fair nor right. I will tell you in one general word, however, how Child does what he does: discipline. That’s it. He sits down (among other things) and gets it done. The process of doing that is a part of Martin’s book, and so far, that book is an entertaining hodgepodge of an account consisting of emails, diary entries, and transcripts of conversations.
Will reading REACHER SAID NOTHING help you to write a bestseller or a critically acclaimed work? No. No. No. Life is not fair. Equity is not equal. If you want justice go to theology school and cross your fingers; maybe you’ll get it. But, if you model your work ethic after Child, you’ll finish your book, The rest is a combination of luck and ability and timing. As far as writing goes, remember that just because you like sausage doesn’t mean you want to make it. Have at it, by all means, but know what you are getting into. And if you still want to by the time you finish REACHER SAID NOTHING, by all means: start, and never stop until the job is done.
From my house to yours: Happy Thanksgiving! I’m old and grumpy and experiencing a health issue that is more an inconvenience than a herald of mortality but it’s a reminder that the sand is running, ever running, through the hourglass. Still, I have much to be thankful for, and you would be very high on that list, for stopping by The Kill Zone and spending a few minutes with us. Thank you.