It’s Crucial to Know Who You Are as a Writer

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Brandon Sanderson

Have you heard about what Brandon Freaking Sanderson is doing? As they used to say in the 60s, “It’ll blow your mind, man.”

Last Tuesday Sanderson made a “surprise announcement” via YouTube, telling his fans that over the course of the last two years he has produced four—count ’em, four—“secret” novels. Instead of releasing these books through a traditional publisher, Sanderson is running a Kickstarter campaign to sell directly to his readers. The books will be delivered each quarter in 2023. And not just books. At certain levels supporters receive a box of Sanderson swag in each of the other eight months.

When you run a Kickstarter, you choose a minimum goal for your campaign. If you don’t hit it, the pledges aren’t collected. Sanderson set his goal at $1 million.

In one day his pledges hit $15 million

In three days he raised over $20 million (from 84,600 backers) and officially became the most successful Kickstarter in history. And the campaign is open until the end of the month!

It doesn’t stop there. After the books are delivered, Sanderson will turn around and license those rights to a traditional publishing company and reap those royalties, too. 

This is, in short, an awesome display of how to exploit intellectual property. 

However, some things to keep in mind at this stage of my post.

  1. You are not going to make millions via Kickstarter. 
  2. Kickstarter campaigns are notoriously difficult to run successfully. The time and effort do not, in my opinion, offer enough Return on Investment (ROI). Sanderson is an exception because of his enormous popularity and the fact that he has a “team” to help him. Just thinking about the fulfillment aspect of this project makes my head explode. But if anyone can pull it off, he can.
  3. Forget about Kickstarter.

If that is so, why am I bothering to write about this? First of all, it’s publishing news. It’s viral. And it’s amazing. Just thought you’d like to hear about it if you haven’t already.

Second, to get to the basic reasons why Brandon Sanderson is able to do this, note that he is: a) a very good writer; b) prolific; and c) nurturing of his fans.

Thus, while very few writers ever get to the Sanderson level, we can do the same three things within our own sphere. To wit:

Be Good

You know me. I believe in a never-ending self-improvement program for writers. We expect that from doctors and plumbers; why should we not expect it from artists who ask us to spend money on them? 

Write, study, write, get feedback, improve. Write. That’s how you get to be good.

Be Prolific

Brandon Sanderson is a writing monster. I mean, not only has he written his own epics, he hired on to complete another massive series after the original author died! (The Wheel of Time books). 

Not many of us have the time to produce on that scale. But we can all produce with the time we have. I’ve said it often here and in my workshops, and I still consider it the best piece of advice I got as a new writer—write to a quota. I put it this way: figure out how many words a week you can comfortably produce. That means what you can write without turning the rest of your world—family, friends, day job—into a maelstrom of stress, anxiety, recrimination, illness or the desire to overeat. 

Be easy on yourself. Find your comfort zone, then up that total by 10% as a stretch goal. Make this a weekly quota divided into six days. That way, if you miss a day, you can make it up by writing a little more on the other days. Take one day off to recharge.

If you miss your weekly number, forget about it. Start your new writing week fresh. 

Be Nurturing

As your readership grows, find ways to connect with your audience. You can do this by:

  1. Growing an email list. Give away free content in exchange for signing up (I offer a free novella). Put a link to this in the back matter of all your books. 
  2. Communicate with your list regularly. Once a month is good. Every other month minimum.
  3. Make your communications fun to read. You don’t want readers to think you’re just more spam. If they like the content of your communication they’re much more likely to buy what you pitch to them.
  4. When readers contact you, answer them, and soon.
  5. Have a minimum social media presence. I say minimum because the key, in my opinion, is to pick the few that you enjoy and don’t try to spread out everywhere. My social media is:
    1. TKZ, because I love it here.
    2. A Twitter profile that I guard carefully from controversy (there is no benefit in that. Twitter is not the place for nuanced discussion). 
    3. A mini-social media site of my own, via Patreon, which I enjoy immensely because I can write short fiction for fans and interact with them there.

Could I do more? Yes, but I’ve calculated the cost/benefit for me is ultimately negative. I want to spend most of my creative capital writing more books.

As a final thought, I’m sure many writers look at the Sanderson numbers—and the numbers of many others in a higher income level—and feel some variation of envy over the money being made. Don’t let that happen. Every writer wants to make good dough and therefore has to utilize business thinking to one degree or another. But that degree depends on your personality and what kind of life you want to live.

For example, the quest for success can wreak havoc on personal relationships (you could have asked any one of Norman Mailer’s six wives about that). Money is a powerful motivator but can also be a menacing siren. As a wise Nazarene carpenter once observed, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed—life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”

On the other hand, a writer who creates without even a sideward glance at the market should not later howl at the moon because his stuff doesn’t sell.

Balance is the key. It’s different for each of us. I feel, after over 25 years in this game, that I’ve found my sweet spot. That doesn’t mean I don’t continue to learn and explore ways to increase my revenue. But I don’t run after every money-making morsel like a hungry ferret. Thus, don’t look for me on Kickstarter or doing dance videos on TikTok (my daughter is greatly relieved). 

And whenever doubts or disappointments start to creep in—Am I doing enough? Am I fooling myself? Will I ever be as successful as ____? Or even ____?—determine to write just one more sentence…and write it!  Then write the one after that. Get lost again in the joy of making stuff up. That is your safe haven, your home sweet home.

In short: Carpe Typem. Seize the Keyboard!

The questions for the day are as follows: Do you have an idea of what kind of balance you want from your writing life? Do you feel stress about any aspect of it? How would you describe your ideal writing profile?

Spider Writers

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I usually spend a bit of the early morning outside. Mrs. B has created a lovely garden spot in our back yard. There’s a Celtic cross under an arched trellis, with creeping vines all over, and I’ll sip some coffee and have a little quiet time. Good for the brain and the soul.

The other morning, quite by chance, I saw something wondrous—a beam of sunlight illuminated a silvery, gossamer thread about eight feet in length. It was a single strand of spider web extending from our overhang to about twelve inches above our outdoor table. From there a more intricate web spread outward, like a pyramid, with three strands mooring it to the surface. A miracle of art and architecture!

I had Cindy come outside to see it. We gave it a full minute of admiration before I reluctantly took it down. As I did I said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Spider. I really am.”

I gave the anonymous arachnid no further thought.

The next morning I came out as usual. And once again the sunlight revealed that overnight the same spider had constructed the exact same web!

This time I had not the heart to take it down, for I know that spider must be a writer.

Spider webs are made of silk, a natural protein fiber. The material comes from an underside structure on the spider’s abdomen called a spinneret. In this way, a spider can seriously maintain it is creating art from the gut.

And isn’t that what writers do?

We toil and spin. We reach deep inside. We weave a dream onto the page. (This metaphor is also pursued in Larry Block’s excellent Spider, Spin Me a Web.)

And when we release our work it is sometimes summarily taken down—rejected by publisher or agent, ripped by critic or reader reviews. All that work!

So what do we do?

We go back to the keyboard and spin again.

We’ve talked recently about persistence and why we write. But maybe there’s one thing we ought to learn from the spider: We write simply because that is what we do.

To me that’s the difference between a writer and a hobbyist. Nothing wrong with the latter, mind you. A hobbyist can make some nice lettuce through productivity and business sense.

But a writer is someone who can’t contemplate not writing. William Goyen expressed it this way:

“I can’t imagine not writing. Writing simply is a way of life for me. The older I get, the more a way of life it is. At the beginning, it was totally a way of life excluding everything else. Now it’s gathered to it marriage and children and other responsibilities. But still, it is simply a way of life before all other ways, a way to observe the world and to move through life, among human beings, and to record it all above all and to shape it, to give it sense, and to express something of myself in it. Writing is something I cannot imagine living without, nor scarcely would want to. Not to live daily as a writing person is inconceivable to me.” (The Writer’s Chapbook, George Plimpton, ed.)

Now, I don’t mean that there aren’t times when we need a break. Rest is as much a part of the writing life as typing. That’s why I normally write six days a week and take Sundays off to rest. I always find I’m raring to go on Monday. I’ve taken two or three weeks off near the end of a year to think through my goals for the next twelve months.

I also understand completely when even highly successful writers may want a longer break from the hamster wheel. I do suspect, however, that at some point there will be a tug in the gut, that yearning to spin another web.

Because that’s what we do.

George Bernau was a San Diego lawyer who nearly died in a car accident. In the hospital he took stock of his life and “decided that I would continue to write as long as I lived, even if I never sold one thing, because that was what I wanted out of my life.” He had discovered he was a spider writer and went on to write some popular thrillers.

So…

Do you ever contemplate giving up writing for good? Think you actually could do it without your Spidey sense luring you back? 

Do you take breaks from writing? How do you feel when you’re away from the keyboard for any length of time?

 

Advice to a Budding Author, Old-School Version

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

The other day I was rooting around in some old files and found a document from 2003 titled “Budding Author Questionnaire.” I wrote it to answer some questions a high school student sent me. His assignment was to find someone who was doing what he wanted to do someday and conduct an interview.

It was a stroll down memory lane to see what I advised the lad. Remember, this was four years before the Kindle arrived and changed everything. Self-publishing was not an option. The only way forward was by way of the Forbidden City.

Which was probably why Dorothy Parker once quipped, “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”

But one should never toss cold water on the hopes of high school students. They’ll get to real life soon enough.

So I wrote the following answers. I thought it might be fun see if you think any of it still applies…or what you would add. (Do so in the comments.)

Here we go:

What training does a career in writing require?

Mostly it is self training. You must teach yourself to write. You can read good books on writing, take courses, go to writing conferences, etc. But the most important thing you do is write, each day if possible, and apply what you are learning. You learn by writing, trying, seeing where you need to improve, finding out how to improve, and writing some more. There is no shortcut.

In college I wrote to an author I admired asking some of these same questions. He wrote back and said, “Be prepared for an apprenticeship of years.” He was right.

Are you in a particular genre of writing?

I write thrillers, mostly legal thrillers.

What additional special training did it require?

Since I’m a lawyer, I have that background. But I have also written in other fields, such as bio-technology. You can stretch your mind and experience through research, interviewing experts, and actually participating in some activities you wouldn’t normally touch. Writing, in this way, becomes an exercise in personal growth.

What natural abilities or interests are needed for a career in writing?

You should love to read, and be moved by books. You should have some love of words and the rhythms of language. You should be something of a dreamer.

What is the approximate starting salary range for authors?

Using “salary” with fiction writer is like using “sure thing” at the racetrack. There is no regular or predictable income.

Fiction writers get an “advance against royalties” and then the royalties themselves—if any. The advance is a portion of what the publisher thinks the book, when published, will earn in sales. First-time novelists, being unknown commodities, do not demand large advances (though there have been exceptions for first novels that publishers thought would be blockbusters. However, many of these bombed, which hurt the authors’ careers.)

The average annual income for fiction writers in the U.S. is something like $3,000. But that is skewed. A handful of authors make millions; a large number make virtually nothing. My goal, and the goal I advise for new writers, is to try to build your audience progressively by writing better and better books. Gain the publisher’s confidence that you can turn in a solid performance every time. Then you will make some money, too. And there’s always that racetrack chance you’ll win the trifecta, and join the John Grishams or Danielle Steels—just don’t bet the farm on it.

I don’t advise “quitting your day job” too soon. Having a dependable source of income is a wise idea unless and until you have enough of a sales record to be able to count on book income alone. Even then, you might consider keeping a low-stress side job, like price checker at the 99¢ Store.

Is there good job availability for those who choose writing?

There is always room for another superb writer. It’s hard to break in, but if you are consistent and persistent, and show that you can produce over and over again, you might make it.

Would you rate the opportunities for advancement as poor, fair, good, or excellent?

As with anything in our capitalist system, the opportunities for advancement are tied to the value that you offer an employer. If a publisher begins to make money from your books, and you stay productive, your chances to build a career are good to excellent.

But writing, as with all the arts, does not offer as predictable a path as other work, where you can pretty much know that Effort X will result in Reward Y.

That’s why you need to write for more than just financial gain. You’ve got to write because writing itself is a reward.

Could you list a particular advantage to being a writer?

You can’t beat the hours. Or the dress code. During the summer I work in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. If I go to Starbucks, I wear flip flops.

A particular disadvantage?

Not knowing how much your next royalty check is going to be. Also, writing concerns can easily take over your life, which is a real threat to more important things, like your spiritual life, family life, etc. You have to keep watch. If writing becomes the most important thing in your day-to-day existence, you could end up like Fitzgerald or many another writer who turned to the bottle for solace.

Do you have any special advice for someone interested in writing (such as college courses to take, things to study)?

Read some good books on the craft. Take classes, sure. But remember to put into practice what you’re learning. Try stuff. Show it to others. Get feedback. Develop “Rhino skin,” which means you can take criticism without dying the death of a thousand cuts.

Remember, no criticism of your writing is personal unless it’s accompanied by a punch in the nose.

Are there any current problems faced by most authors?

More and more books are being published, an estimated 114,487 in 2001, compared to 39,000 in 1975. This is good news and bad news. Your chances of being published are increased a bit, but your chances of getting noticed in the avalanche are smaller.

The only way to get (and keep) that notice is to become known as someone who writes quality books—emphasis on the plural.

Why did you choose writing as your profession?

Writing chose me. It was something I couldn’t not do. Even if I never made any money, I was going to write. At the very least I was going to publish at Kinko’s and distribute copies to my family until they shouted “Mercy!” And then I was going to find another family to torment.

Looking back across your career and where you are now, was it worth everything you did, everything you sacrificed to get where you are?

The “sacrifice” is really countless hours spent trying, studying, trying again, surviving disappointment and on and on. But since that was the only way I was going to get anywhere in the writing game, it was certainly worth it. I loved the learning. Flashbulbs would go off when I discovered something, and then saw I could do it. I still love that aspect of the craft. I will never stop trying to learn to do things better.

Not to discount the frustrations and obstacles. They are real. But if writing is what you must do, and you love it, you can keep going. I like this quote from a long-ago professor at the Yale Divinity School named Grenville Kleiser:

Be done with the past, save where it serves to inspire you to greater and nobler effort. Be done with regrets over vanished opportunities, seeming failures, and bitter disappointments….Be done with the “might have been” and think of the “shall be.”

I wish you abundant success in your future endeavors.

Sincerely,
James Scott Bell

Keep on Clacking Till Your Soul Goes Packing

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

We writers have a great gig, don’t we?

We get to play in our imagination every day. We bring characters to life or—even better—watch as characters come to life while we write. We dream. We create plots and scenes and twists and turns.

Some of us have day jobs (or, as Brother Gilstrap used to put it, “my big-boy job”) and write when we can. Others do this for a living. Still others occupy a middle position where they have some days they can dedicate to clacking away at the keyboard. (As a Southern California boy, I have to admit I love being able to “go to work” in shorts, flip flops and a Hawaiian shirt. I enjoyed practicing law but didn’t like having to wear a suit and tie every day!)

But maybe the thing I love most about the writing life is this: I can write as long as I’m a sentient being. I never have to quit. And I can effortlessly slide into the role of crusty but benign eccentric who mumbles aphorisms—even to other people—and still hits the keyboard each day.

In fact, I know how I want to look when that time comes. Like this:

Donald Hall, photo by Gary Knight, www.garyknight.org. Used by permission

That’s writer Donald Hall as posted by The Paris Review. In the accompanying essay, Hall (now deceased) reflects on the approach of his 90th birthday. There he is in comfy pants and T-shirt, a favorite chair, hair a bit mussed, surrounded by books, some of which are on the floor as his active reads. Perfect! (I’ll have to check with Mrs. B about the beard, and I’ll probably be barefoot much of the time.)

On Hall’s wall is a print of the famous Andy Warhol painting of Elizabeth Taylor, which got me wondering what one picture or painting I would like to have hanging over me as I approach 90. Something noir-ish, I suspect. Heck, I already have it—a movie poster from the 1953 re-issue of Out of the Past starring Robert Mitchum.

Trivia note: The original poster for Out of the Past from 1947 has Mitchum with a cigarette. So why not in the re-issue poster? Because 1953 was after Mitchum’s infamous bust for smoking reefer. He did two months in the jug for that, and most people thought his career was over. But Howard Hughes, who owned Mitchum’s contract, figured out Mitchum’s “bad boy” image was catnip for the bobby-soxers. Mitchum became more popular than ever. But when Out of the Past was re-issued, there was no need to remind people of the arrest by sticking what could have been a joint in his mouth!

Back to Donald Hall. He ruefully compares his earlier writing life with his present:

Back then, I wrote all day getting up at five. By this time, I rise scratchy at six or twitch in bed until seven. I drink coffee before I pick up a pen. I look through the newspaper. I try to write all morning, but exhaustion shuts me down by ten o’clock. I dictate a letter. I nap. I rise to a lunch of crackers and peanut butter, followed by further exhaustion. At night I watch baseball on television, and between innings run through the New York Times Book Review. I roll over all night. Breakfast. Coffee.

Of course an octogenarian scribbler is going to be a tad slower than his thirty-year-old former self. But Hall did something each day, and that’s the point—not stopping.

Printed newspapers will probably be gone by the time I’m 90, but coffee will remain. Coffee is forever. And so is storytelling.

So, TKZ friends, imagine your ninety-year-old self. How do you look? What are you doing? What picture is hanging on your wall?

Riding the Writer Roller-Coaster

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

First off, thank you for all your wonderful support for the launch of my new thriller, Your Son Is Alive. The print version is now available.

Launch week is usually a high for an author, though nerves can be set a-jangling as we wonder what the reception will be.

Which brings up the subject of the roller-coaster ride that is the writing life. For as we all know there are ups and downs and curves and twists. Sometimes it’s exciting. Other times you get queasy. Which is why you should never launch a book after a big Italian dinner.

Ahem.

We all know this gig is rife with opportunities for that devil disappointment. Our human condition can’t avoid it. We construct hopes for ourselves and our work knowing there are plenty of rocks and boulders ahead in the rushing waters of the marketplace.

This is not just in our professional lives, of course. It’s there in every other aspect of our existence on this good Earth. We are hopeful beings, we strive and and work and desire. Sometimes those things turn out exactly as we envisioned. Most of the time not so much.

I remember when my son began playing baseball. He developed into a pretty good pitcher at a young age, and there was one game where he gave up a home run that lost the game. It crushed him. As the other team was running onto the field cheering, he was standing on the mound trying not to cry.

I went out to the mound and put my arm around him and bucked him up as best I could. Then later, over ice cream, I tried to impart a little bit of stoic wisdom. “Most of life is about losing,” I said. “It’s how we handle the losses that make us or break us.”

I told him that in moments like this, when a home run is given up or such like, I would allow him one great big DANG IT! He could pound his glove as hard as he could. He could feel it for a moment, he could shout, “Dang it!” But after that he was to begin the task of forgetting it and getting ready for the next batter or the next game.

It’s a lesson he learned well. He went on to become one of the best pitchers in the league. During the season he had a bad inning against the strongest team. It was brutal. And they let him know it, the way little boys do. They jeered and threw shade. He pounded his glove as the coach relieved him.

Then came the championship game, and he faced that same team. As he stood on the mound they began to jeer again and try to rattle him. He proceeded to mow them down. And his team won the championship.

I consider that one of the best moments of both our lives.

This is how we should handle disappointment in our writing life. Our book goes out there and doesn’t perform as well as we would like. Or we get a scathing review. Or a rejection from an editor. Or Aunt Hildegard says, “When are you going to grow up and go to dental school?”

Give yourself a great big DANG IT! Pound your glove (but do not kick the dog). Then get back to your keyboard. One of the great truths about writing is that when we are in “the zone,” disappointments melt away. When we come out of the zone, the harshness may try to revisit, but it won’t be as strong. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Let me offer three more bits of stoic wisdom:

  1. Don’t compare yourself to others

Comedian Tom Shillue has a great five-minute video on the perils of comparison. Here is part of what he says:

If my happiness were based on being the biggest comedian in the business, I’d be mad at whoever was getting more Netflix specials than me. (I have zero.)

If it were based on having the best TV ratings, I’d be mad at Jimmy Fallon. He beats me every night.

And if it were based on being rich, I’d be mad at a lot of people.

And even if I were rich – really rich, like #10 on the Forbes 400 rich – I’d be mad that there were nine other people richer than me. It never ends.

Comparing yourself to others creates a totally unrealistic measure for what constitutes success. And I know, because the entertainment business is all about unrealistic expectations.

He concludes: “Professional success is about making a living, pursuing excellence, and finding meaning in what you do.” (You might also be interested in this video by the redoubtable Joanna Penn on the dangers of comparing yourself to other writers … and how to get over it.)

  1. Keep expectations in check

While it’s good to set goals, make plans, and take action, watch out for letting expectations build up too much in your mind. We have this wisdom not only from ancient philosophy; there’s also recent data that suggests lowering expectations leads to greater happiness.

For example, if you get nominated for an award, don’t keep picturing your acceptance speech. Don’t dust the mantel twice a day. When you get to the banquet, sit at the table and be a good conversationalist. Try to enjoy the rubber chicken. Then, if your name is called, it’s a bonus. If it’s not, you won’t want to crawl under the table with a bottle of wine (or whine, as the case may be).

As the great John Wooden used to tell his players, “All of life is peaks and valleys. Don’t let the peaks get too high and the valleys too low.”

  1. Worry only about the page in front of you

Epictetus said, “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”

You can’t control the will of agents, editors, critics, readers, awards committees or the IRS. So don’t worry about them. Instead, focus on your daily work. Get into your scene. Think about ways to make it better. That’s what you can control.

The mental aspect of writing is every bit as important as the physical act of typing. Which is why I wrote a whole book on the subject.

Friends, when you’re hit with disappointment, or on the other end with a great reward, remember the Latin phrase (which I had the audacity to make up):

Carpe Typem!

Seize the Keyboard!

What is your go-to method for handling the highs and lows of the writing life?

Don’t Be Satisfied With Competence

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

In reviewing Uncommon Type, a short story collection by Tom Hanks, the critic concluded that, with one exception, Hanks’s stories “are forgettable, middle-of-the-road and touched by the special banality of mere competence.”

Ouch, man.

I like Tom Hanks. I’ve liked him ever since Bosom Buddies. I haven’t read his stories, so this is not a pile-on. And critics have been known to be wrong (ya think?)

But I was struck by that phrase, the special banality of mere competence. That’s because when I teach workshops, I usually lead off with this quote from a former acquisitions editor for a major house:

As my first boss used to warn us green editorial assistants two decades ago, the type of submission that’s the toughest to spot—and the most essential to avoid—is the one that is skillful, competent, literate, and ultimately forgettable.

Over my two decades of teaching the craft and reading manuscripts submitted at conferences, I’ve seen a rise in the tide of competent fiction. A big reason is, I think, the internet, with great teaching blogs like **blush** this one, and so many others. There are **blush** online courses and podcasts. And we still have the tried-and-true teaching avenues, like critique groups (in person and via email), books and Writer’s Digest, panels of writers at conferences, freelance editors, and so on.

All of which I love. I still get excited about diving into a good article on writing, or revisiting one of the many craft books in my collection.

So yeah, there is a lot of competent fiction out there.

But that’s not good enough.

Let me amend that. What’s “good enough” is highly subjective. But the ministers of content within the walls of the Forbidden City (that is, traditional publishing) are always looking for that “extra” thing. Much of the time they call it voice, and treat it the way Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously approached obscenity. He couldn’t define it, he said, “But I know it when I see it.”

Of course, now it’s possible for writers outside the walls to publish whatever they like. And competent fiction may bring some return.

But for a long-lasting career, I say make it your goal to go higher.

How?

Create a self-study plan.

There are seven critical success factors of fiction: plot, structure, characters, scenes, dialogue, voice (or style) and meaning (or theme). You can, in conjunction with others (trusted beta readers, a good editor, a critique group) assess your strengths and weaknesses in each of these areas. Try giving yourself scores on a 1-10 scale.

Then start with your weakest factor and design a six-week self-study program. Get a couple of books on the subject. Write some practice scenes. Get feedback.

Then move on to the next factor.

Just think about it. If you were to improve each of these areas just by 10%, the overall effect on your writing will be enormous. And you can get there in less than a year.

Of course, as you’re studying the craft, keep writing your current project and developing your next, and the one after that.

Is this work? Um, yeah. Like any pursuit of excellence.

Is it also fun? Oh, yes. When you see and feel your improvement, there’s nothing quite like it.

It took me a good two years to get to competent. And no buyers. Then one day I had a literal epiphany reading a certain chapter in a certain book (it was Writing Novels That Sell by Jack Bickham). Sirens went off in my head. The next thing I wrote got me a Hollywood agent.

A few years later, I got a book contract (this was seven years after I began to seriously study the craft). When I got another contract with another house, I had the privilege of working with one of the best editors in the business. His feedback took me to another level. When I started working with my agent, Donald Maass, there was another hike.

Each of these stages was a beautiful thing.

I wish you that same beauty, writer friend. It’s worth all the effort.

I’ll leave you with a quote I’ve always liked, from an old-time ad man named Leo Burnett: “When you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.”

Are you reaching?

If You Hadn’t Become a Writer, What Else Would Have Filled That Void?

Many writers develop the passion to write because they were avid readers as children. The rabid craze wouldn’t be denied and years later, they have come face to face with an amazing addiction for self-expression.

If you didn’t write, what else would you have done to fill the void? What other forms of self-expression would have taken hold of you? Do you have a secret talent?

Do You Have a Typical Writing Day?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Novelist Tracy Chevalier recently observed:

Part of me wishes it were easy to describe my typical writing day. I have heard about them, those smug productive hours when a writer – usually male, it has to be said – sits down each day at 9am with an espresso, writes till 1, makes bouillabaisse, writes from 2 till 5, plays tennis, and after supper sits with a glass of single malt whisky reading over what he’s written that day. That is a scenario I both crave and detest. It will never be that controlled and disciplined for me.

This is an absolute slander! I make a sandwich for lunch, haven’t played tennis in years, and in the evening prefer a California red.

I do, however, have a typical writing day, though of course it has varying tones and I’m free to be as flexible as I want to be. That’s the nice part of being your own boss. Yes, I have to call myself into the office and chew myself out from time to time, but I generally get along with the old so-and-so fellow.

Here’s how I like my day to go:

I’m up before the sun rises. The coffeemaker was set to timer the evening before so my morning brew is ready. I love starting work in the dark. Most people I’ve broached this subject with look at me with a mix of wonder and horror. Their eyes and dropped jaws nonverbally retort, “You do what? The dark? Are you daft?”

Yep. From daft to draft!

I try to do some writing immediately, to bring up what my writer’s mind has been working on all night. There might be a good plot twist there, or an idea for another book, or maybe just a way of phrasing something. Or perhaps it’s just junk. Whatever it is, I spill it into a free form document that I’ll assess later.

I then set out to write a Nifty 350.

Later on, I’ll give a light edit to my previous day’s pages, then go for my quota.

What I really have to watch out for is the temptation to jump onto social media the moment I hit some challenge or other. I’ve written about this before.

However, I do like having some ambient noise going on, which means I will sometimes be found writing at some local coffee establishment. But at home, I turn on Coffitivity. I compose in Scrivener, which allows me to have a background on my screen. I have taken a photo of my favorite deli, Langer’s, so it’s like I’m there in a booth, writing:

From about 11 – 1 I’ll generally take care of business matters (e.g., marketing, email) and have some lunch. I’ve pretty much settled that from 1 – 3 it’s zombie time. My brain just wants to lie in a hammock. So I’ll work in a power nap (15 – 20 minutes). That sets me up for the late afternoon. I can usually squeeze in another hour of writing or editing from about 4 – 5.

Then I pretty much knock off. Dinner with Mrs. B. We might watch a movie or classic TV show. If I finish a book, or my wife closes a real estate deal, we’ll celebrate by going out to eat. It’s a short drive to Malibu, where we can nosh by our beloved Pacific Ocean.

That’s as typical as it gets, so long as there are no earthquakes, fires, mudslides, power outages, or locusts.

So now I’d like to hear from you. Do you have a typical writing day? If not, how would you design one?

What Did You do Today, Writers? Tell Us About It

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

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Purchased from IStock by Jordan Dane

Lately I’ve had a lot of personal things happening that have been a distraction from my writing. Some are good distractions, while others are more of a black hole, as if I’m walking in a fog some days.

Today I will be at a home inspection. Yes, I am buying a new home. Home buying can be a scary prospect, as well as a spark of hope for a new beginning. It can be especially scary when it comes to looking at mortgages, I was lucky that my friend told me about something like Money Expert so at least I don’t have to worry about whether or not I’m getting the right mortgage. But I have been thinking about other things. I haven’t been able to sleep much lately with thoughts of “nesting” in my head. I’m not one to second guess my decisions, but I can see how taking this step could spiral a person into self-doubt.

Buying my home might represent leaving the past behind or it could be taking a metaphorical leap off a cliff that I may or may not be ready for. It could mean putting down roots that I wasn’t sure I could do on my own, or it might be a way of setting a firmer foundation for the rest of my life, or my new home can be a gathering place for my friends and family (meaning that I am opening my life to others).

I’m buying what I hope will be my last home, a place where I can retire comfortably. Another thing on my list today is meeting with my parents. I’ll show them the house then take them for breakfast. A facet of this day’s adventure is that my folks are considering selling the family home and looking into their options going forward. They are still teaching me life lessons as they age and I may be showing them how to let go by my home adventure. I expect today will be life changing in a quiet meaningful way for the three of us.

So you see? As a writer, I can read into so many things. I can write this scenario any number of ways for a story. How much do I give a glimpse into my personal life if I were to thread this reality into a character of mine? That’s the fun part of writing for me. Is it for you? How much of your life experiences do you weave into your stories? Or do you purposefully stay away from anything too close?

Another aspect to this story could be that I’m buying a home from a previous tenant. Who were they? Is there a mystery that surrounds their life? What clues could they leave behind for me to find? This property has an amazing terraced garden. I can feel the love of the gardener in every rare plant grown with such care. It makes me want to plant my own contributions with as much thought and diligence, so that I can pass the love on to the next “gardener.” I have a plan to create a beautiful garden storage space when I thought “garden site sells timber storage” spot on.

The point to sharing this tidbit with my TKZ family is that it can be important to remember how even the mundane aspects of your life can hold a story. This is one thing I am doing today that can turn into a story in books ahead.

So I’ll give you a homework assignment. I’d like you to jot down what you did today, right down to what you ate for lunch and where you ate it. Then pick something from your list to share what might make a good story, similar to how my home inspection launched a range of emotions in me.

Go on, TKZers. Share your day with me.