Inspiratus Interruptus

I have a home office. I love it. There’s no commute. I can get a couple of hours of work in while most people are still asleep. I have a secretary named “Joe,” a gofer named “Joe,” and a personal manservant named “Joe” who makes me coffee and breakfast and lunch. What a team we are. We all get along just fine. I don’t have anyone hassling me about “Rrrrr, rrrr, rrrr, your billable hours are down, rrrr rrrr rrr, what about rrrr, rrrr, and why are you on the internet again, rrrr?” Yep, it’s a sweet deal. I can do my big boy job, write a bit, do my big boy job, lather, rinse, repeat.

The only problem I have (for purposes of this discussion) is having to deal with non-work, non-personal interruptions. I have my office line and my home line in the same room. I have been getting a lot of calls on my home line because I will be turning 65 in a few short months. Yes, I know, I know, you wouldn’t expect someone of my countenance, libido, and good cheer to be that old but it is so. Here is a warning: when you are about to turn 65, everyone starts calling you to 1) tell you what’s what about Medicare and 2) sell you the exact policy that you need. I began acquiring all sorts of new imaginary friends, such as “Medigo,” “WhatsMedicare,” “Medsuppins,” “Marketplace,” and the alluring, mysterious “Name Not Found.” Ignoring them didn’t help because the phone would ring four times before sending the call to voicemail. That’s a distraction, even when you are screening your calls. And we haven’t even talked about the fine folks from the help desk at Windows Security who have detected a ‘wiwus” on my computer, or the guy who is willing to give me a free vacation if I’ll just watch a short demonstration video, or the woman who keeps calling me to ask if I’m interested in my cable company’s latest product. Uh huh. The “do not call” list?” It’s pretty much a joke. Muting the ring isn’t an option for me, either, as I have a daughter in college and a granddaughter in grade school, both of whom need me at unexpected times.

My life was changed for the better, however, when I came across an article in a newsletter from the Community Senior Center which my wife belongs to (and, no, I’m not a member. That stuff is for old people). The article touted a gentleman by the name of Aaron Foss, the designer of a called “NoMoRoBo.” Foss is GIVING this thing away. No strings, no deposits, no nothing. It’s a true public service. What it does is block robo calls — those things that dial five thousand numbers at a time — and telemarketers. You go to the “nomorobo” website, watch the very short video, click on “get started now” button, fill in the blanks, and within a day or so you’ll see results. Your phone rings once, gives a little purr, and “pfttt”…the annoying caller doesn’t even have a chance to leave a voicemail. They are gone. “Nomorobo” doesn’t work with every landline phone service, or every cell phone service provider, but it works with mine, and they’re adding more and more constantly. Oh. Oh. And. It supposedly will not block or divert political fundraisers or surveys, but I’ve had several blocked already (“Poll_Quest,” to name but one). “Nomorobo” constantly learns new numbers to block and you don’t have to do a thing, other than write your next bestseller without interruption (other than for that initial ring). And every time the phone rings once and disconnects during dinner, my wife and I look at each other, and smile.

Authors, readers, doctors (Hi Steve!) and all who fight the good fight on all fronts each day: try this out. I have absolutely no interest in this, financial or otherwise. It is free and it does work and no one puts your name or number on a mailing list, either. And Aaron Foss? I’d stand in front of a tank for him.

Having shared this marvelous invention with you, I want something in return (Aaron Foss, I am not). Please tell us: what devices do you use to give yourself privacy, and to keep yourself from being interrupted? And what is your favorite personal story that concerns dealing with telemarketers, solicitors, and the like?

Writing Lessons From The Masters

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Okay, the headline is sneaky wordplay, as I am not referring to writing experts, but The Masters golf tournament recently concluded. Something shocking happened there and I think we can all learn from it, as writers and as normal folk making our way through a life that tosses out plenty of lemons.

jordan-spieth

Jordan Spieth

There is a young golfer named Jordan Spieth. He is twenty-two years old and a huge talent. He’s already won two majors (the hardest thing to do for a pro golfer), and one of those was last year’s Masters. He’s also a classy, well-spoken gentleman. And boy, do we need more of those these days.

Which is why what happened is so sad.

Jordan Spieth was set to go absolute legend. Only three players have ever won back-to-back Masters. You may have heard of these guys–Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods.

Spieth was playing lights out, leading the tournament all the way into the final round. He was up by five strokes with only seven holes left to play. All he had to do was avoid a major mistake and a second green jacket (the Masters’ cloak of honor) would be his. And then they’d begin measuring the space for Jordan Spieth on golf’s Mount Rushmore.

So as Spieth stepped up to the notorious par-3 12th, he could feel it, the victory. The crowd was with him. As were the millions watching at home.

But then the unthinkable, the shocking, the disastrous happened. Spieth hit two consecutive balls into the water. The first from 150 yards, the second from just 80. These were shots Jordan Spieth can make in his sleep, left handed. Not this time. The infamous Masters pressure caught up with him and … plop, plop.

His next shot went over the green and into a bunker. When it was all over, Jordan Spieth, one of the best players of his generation, carded a quadruple bogey.

And lost the tournament.

That, my friends, will mess with your head. To his credit, Jordan took it like a man, stood up to reporters’ questions, and made his obligatory appearance in Butler Cabin to slip the green jacket on the surprise winner, Danny Willet. Poor Jordan went through the motions, but he was clearly not there. He looked like an actor auditioning for a part in The Walking Dead.

This loss will be with Jordan forever. The only question now is, how will he handle it?

I know for sure he will hurt for a long time. But I suspect Jordan Spieth will muster his competitive spirit and play great golf again. I believe he will add several more majors to his resume before he’s done.

Which leads me to three lessons for writers:

  1. When you get knocked down, let it hurt for an hour. Then write something

Rejection. Rotten reviews. Dismal sales. They hurt. Don’t deny it. You can’t.

But after an hour (set a timer!) get yourself back to your keyboard.

If you’re on a project, write a new scene. If you’re not, write a journal entry.

Or use a writing prompt to get your creative juices flowing. (There’s a wonderful “writer igniter” over at the DIYMFA site. Check it out).

When you write, the pain of the setback begins to fade a little. It will try to reassert itself, but then you write some more. Eventually, the pain ceases to hold any power over you.

  1. Be the kind of writer that readers pull for

People like Jordan Spieth. He’s humble and positive and polite. Golf fans want to see him do well, especially now.

So show in your craft and your social media presence that you are a positive writer, someone who seeks to add value to other people’s lives. Readers who know you that way are much more likely to give you another chance should something you write fail to catch on.

  1. Don’t expect the easy road

Let me engage in a golf analogy for writers who are contemplating self-publishing. Imagine that suddenly anyone could play in The Masters. Just show up and tee off. Would being able to play mean you’d finish in the money? Of course not. The best golfers in the world would still win the prizes, with a few exceptions. Some really good amateurs would get in and maybe a handful of these would play out of their minds and make some tournament dough.

But the vast majority wouldn’t. Why not? Not because there’s a “tsunami of golfers,” but because their game is not good enough yet.

What they would need to do is go practice, get some coaching, and expect that it will take years to develop a great game. Even then, there are going to always be better golfers than you.

But if you grind and drive your beat-up Saturn from tournament to tournament, maybe you can earn enough to make it worth your while. Plus, you are playing a game you love.

Well, publishing is like that now. You don’t have to wait for an invitation from the Forbidden City. You can publish anytime you like.

But please don’t think that “getting to play” is an automatic win. You need to work on your craft, every day, just the way a pro golfer does. Think in terms of many years and many books, not just next month and your one completed novel.

Jordan Spieth will be back. And so will you, writer, because the only way to stop you is if you quit.

And you’re not going to.

So what about you? What major setback did you have to overcome, as a writer or in any other arena of life? How did you handle it?

25

aa 25 year chip

A little over a year ago — March 28, 2015, to be exactamundo about it — I posted a blog here entitled Through the Glass, Darkly, about attaining my twenty-fourth year of sobriety. April 1, 2016 marked twenty-five years, and as I write this I’m eight days in what I hope will be the twenty-sixth year. I don’t want to repeat everything I said last year — not when you can get it from the handy-dandy menu on the right side of this page — but I’ll mention again a couple of things that are important to us as writers and primarily as people.

The big one is that an addiction problem — substance, gambling, sex, or pick your poison — is insidious. It is the vampire that is tapping on the window of that wonderful domicile you call “me”. It can only get in if you let it in. Once you do so, it takes over your life without your even knowing it. If you think you have an addiction which has taken up residence in you there is a test developed by a brain trust at John Hopkins Hospital that will give you an idea. Go ahead and take it. The first time I took it I answered fifteen out of the twenty questions affirmatively (that’s not good). I laughed, put the test aside and kept drinking. I neglected getting a physical for years because I was afraid that my drinking would show up in some blood results. I didn’t have a problem, however. Nope, not me. I was ultimately fortunate enough to have a road-to-Damascus moment that knocked me off of my high horse and onto my brains. I was fortunate. But I should have paid attention to that test, a few days before. Take a look at it, and believe what you see.

The big problem leads to a large one. Writers like everyone else have deadlines and responsibilities. I assure you that the punch list you make for your day/week/month becomes a lot less important after that first beer or joint or trip past the casino of the day. There is a reason why there are no clocks in casinos or windows in taverns. We lose our concepts of time and of what needs to be done and yes, of what has to be done. Writing does not lend itself to multitasking. It is a harsh mistress, demanding full attention. You can’t do it while you’re feeding the vampire.

If you decide that you have a drinking problem, try an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. You would not believe how many meetings are going on around you every day; take a look at the AA website. There may be one within walking distance of you. Try it out, keeping in mind that each meeting tends to develop its own personality. Disclaimer: I never used AA. Why? It’s not important for purposes of our discussion here. I recommend AA, however, because of all of the people I know who have stayed sober using The Program. Go for it. As far as AA is concerned, look at it as calling AAA, but for you, and not your car. If your problems lay elsewhere, from gambling to drugs, there is a program for you modelled after AA, such as Narcotics Anonymous or Gamblers Anonymous. If you think that you might need something a bit stronger than a meeting —and those meetings can get pretty strong — go to your physician for a referral to a rehabilitation program. So, regardless of whether you choose a sober living program like the one by Ascension House – Structured Sober Living, or you regularly attend AA, you need to get help to support you in your transition from alcoholism.

The families of alcoholics and addicts in general are often forgotten. While those suffering from alcoholism are always urged to go to places such as Pacific Ridge for their recovery, many people forget just how traumatic it can be to be the loved one of an alcoholic. If you’re living with someone with an addiction, then run, don’t walk, to Al-Anon. Al-Anon is for families and friends of alcoholics. Meetings are easy to find. You will be amazed at all of the people you will meet who are going through the same things that you are. A practicing alcoholic is the prince of lies. I have seen an alcoholic go into a loving, happy family and have everyone at each other’s throats within a week. If that is happening to you, it is not something that you have to deal with alone.

I am not trying to bring your weekend down. I want to elevate it. If you think you have a problem, you probably do. This can be fixed. I did it. I do it. So can you. You will still hear that vampire tapping on the window every night, but you’ll know not to let it in.

How Did You Get Here?

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.

BERLIN, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 03:  Cars and traffic fill the A100 ring highway at dusk on November 3, 2014 in Berlin, Germany. Germany is heatedly debating the introduction of highway tolls (in German: Maut), which in the current form proposed by German Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt would be levied solely on foreigners. Dobrindt's office argues that this is not discrimination, which would be illegal under European Union law, since Germans already pay an annual car tax.  (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

(Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)            

Drilling Down Into Your Deep Writing Soil

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

The outskirts of Flagstaff, Arizona. I was with my high school church group, taking a week in the summer s-l225to 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.

Randy Winter

What about you? What friend from your youth do you remember, and why?

A Trick That Will Tame Your Crazy Writing Stress

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

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.

conor-mcgregor

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 whatTenniel-Cards 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?

The Ten Events of the Highly Successful Writer

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

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Bob Mathias

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:

  1. Dedication

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.

  1. Production

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!)

  1. Quality

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.

  1. Study

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.

  1. Creativity

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

Dick Fosbury

Dick Fosbury

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.

  1. Goals

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.

  1. Perseverance

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.

  1. Courage 

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.

  1. Balance

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…

  1. Joy

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.

Keep writing.

Hello Darkness, My Old Friend

darknessBy Elaine Viets

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.ArtofMurder_revised(2)

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.

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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. 51aGmux%2BaXL._SY355_

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.81AGOsdOSnL._SX425_
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.gardening
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.Pepperspray
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.

startup-photos-large I was prepared to have Angela grab one, when it dawned on me: Wait! This isn‛t a cozy.
You can use firepower.
So Angela shot the killer in the head. It felt so good.