Nobody puts Baby in the corner

I'll admit that a few times a year I head over to Will's Amazon page and use "Surprise Me" (which takes you to a random location in the text) to re-read some of my book. It's silly and self-indulging, but whatever--I doubt I'm the only author who does it. Today it brought me to the chapter "Nobody Puts Baby in a Corner", which I think has one of my favorite scenes in the book. It actually made me chuckle out loud today, so I decided it'd be worth copy-pasting an excerpt up here for posterity:

---

At six thirty, Will ordered a pizza. Not because he was particularly hungry again, but because he didn’t want to get completely smashed from all the beer. The live music Josh had mentioned turned out to be a young guy with a guitar and a portable PA. He set up in a corner and spent what seemed like forever doing sound checks and tuning the guitar.

“Who’s the guy?” Will asked Josh. He waited while Josh finished mixing a drink and set it on a full tray. A portly waitress named Amanda deftly shouldered it and slipped away.

“His name’s Curt something… Keiller I think. He came in last week and gave me a CD, sounded okay, and he’s not charging much to play. So I figured I’d give him a shot.”

“He looks a little nervous.”

“Ya, I see that.”

 

But when the kid finally started playing, he sounded terrific; his fingerpicking was clean and steady, and his voice was exceptional. He covered a Charlie Parr song and then did a couple of original tunes. Will tapped his toes on the foot rail and bobbed his head. Man, he seriously needed to try and learn how to play guitar. This wasn’t the first time the thought had occurred to him, but this guy Curt was a real inspiration. Just drive up to Munising and buy a cheap guitar and get on the internet and learn how to play the fucker.

Some guy at one of the tables shouted a request for “Brown Eyed Girl” and Curt played it perfectly, drawing a hearty applause.

When he started the intro to “Wagon Wheel”, by Old Crowe Medicine Show, the Van Morrison fan shouted another request. Margaritaville. Shocking. Will thought that the life of a starving musician must be hell sometimes.

But if Curt was irritated, he didn’t show it. He just gave the guy a polite, “just let me play this song first” nod.

But the guy was apparently too excited, or too much of an asshole, to wait, and he called out, “Come on man, play something we know!”

He was an older guy, maybe in his fifties—gray hair and a strong-looking jaw. He was in good shape, too, muscles showing under his loud button-up short-sleeved shirt. His sandals matched his khaki shorts. It looked like he was out with his family: a pretty, well-put-together wife, two college-aged boys, and a daughter who looked like she was maybe eighteen. Maybe. He started talking, very loudly, with a similar-looking dude at the next table over about how entertainers needed to do a better job of gauging their audiences.

Will walked over to the table and stood there, giving the guy a big, friendly smile until he finally noticed and stopped talking. Will felt good, loose but not slow or off-balance. He was in what he liked to think of as his beer window—that brief period of time before full drunkenness where you actually enjoy a heightened sense of awareness. Like a superhero.

“Can I help you?” the guy said.

Will didn’t answer. He just stared until it became awkward enough that the guy’s smirk faded. Then Will turned to the daughter and gave her the most charming smile he had.

“This is one of my favorite songs. Would you like to dance?”

The girl blushed furiously. She glanced at her father and then around the bar. “There’s nobody else dancing,” she squeaked.

“It’s okay, it’s allowed.”

“I, uh…”

Will could tell she was about to say no—realized his smile might not be enough to overcome his worn clothes, grungy hair, and half-ass goatee. But he didn’t give up (beer window, baby). Still smiling, he held out his hand. Nobody puts Baby in a corner, he thought. Then he wondered if she’d ever seen Dirty Dancing. Probably not.

“Listen buddy,” the dad said, “she doesn’t want to—“

The girl flinched at her father’s voice. “Sure,” she said, her eyes suddenly full of resolve, “that’d be great.” She took Will’s hand and followed him a few steps away from the table.

Will heard a noise and looked back to see that one of the brothers had pushed his chair back and now stood, glaring at Will.

Will glared back. What’s the problem, you fucking punkass?

The kid was pretty big, but Will knew he could take him—little shit had probably never been in a real fight in his life, probably wouldn’t enjoy having that beefy arm twisted behind his back until things started to pop. Will’s eyes must have conveyed some of this reasoning because the kid sat back down.

They danced, and Will was a perfect gentleman. He did his best young-guy dance, half-slouched and bobbing to the beat, and he never touched her except to twirl her a couple of times. He was more than a little relieved to feel only academic attraction toward her—she was too young.

He hadn’t done so well in the girl department lately. Andrea was the only local he ever hooked up with, mostly due to a lack of other options for either of them, and the tourists—well, he’d tried a few times, but rarely got anywhere. After the last time, when the twenty-something redhead he’d asked to dance had given him a look with actual fear mixed in with the incredulity, he’d stopped trying altogether. So, yeah, it had been a while, but at least this teenager wasn’t giving him a hard on.

It did the trick on the jackass dad; he was pissed. He glared at Will as if he were wishing him dead (which was probably the case). But at least he wasn’t harassing Curt anymore. Fucking guys like this, roll into town like they’re doing everyone a favor.

When the song wrapped up, Will returned the girl to the table.

“Thank you, young lady.”

“Sure.” She shot a rebellious look at her father. Will thought she might actually stick her tongue out, which would have been awesome, but she didn’t.

Will regarded the man again, still smiling widely while he let his eyes tell the rest of the story. “You all have a pleasant evening.”

Amanda came by at the same time and asked if they needed anything else.

“The check,” the man said, “now.”

Curt started playing “Margaritaville,” and Will was surprised to hear that the kid’s voice made even Jimmy Buffet tolerable.

When he got back to the bar, Josh was waiting for him. “Goddamnit, Will. What the hell was that?”

“The guy was a dick. You see him heckling your guy?” Will pointed at Curt.

“Yeah, well, in case you haven’t noticed, dicks make up a pretty big part of my business in the summer. I don’t need you running them off, eh?”

Amanda walked up and handed a credit card receipt to Josh. “The guy stiffed me.”

Josh glanced at the receipt and then held it up. “See Will, guy spent two hundred bucks and didn’t leave any tip. Now why do you suppose he did that?”

“Because he’s a fucking dick, Josh. Why else would he take it out on Amanda when I’m the one who pissed him off?”

“It doesn’t matter why, Amanda got stiffed, and I’ve got a disgruntled customer. I’d appreciate it if, in the future, you could leave my patrons alone.”

“Fine. Jesus.” He settled back down into his bar stool. “I think you’re kind of selling out though.” He gave Amanda a sidelong glance. She wasn’t bad looking, but she had a boyfriend (which didn’t matter to Will as much as it apparently did to her). “Buy you a drink when your shift’s over? You know, to say I’m sorry?”

Amanda rolled her eyes and walked away. Will turned to say something to Josh, but he’d moved down the bar.

The place was starting to feel overcrowded, full of tourists acting like high-school morons as they got plastered; getting drunk was a novelty for them, apparently. He needed another drink, but Josh had his hands full building a tray of pointlessly complex drinks (one of them even had an umbrella). Unless Josh would give Will the bottle, which he wouldn’t, then the service was going to be too slow tonight. He needed to get back to the cabin and enjoy his Jameson in peace.

Someone stumbled into him from behind, pushing him until he was leaning over his empty glass. He could feel the big sweaty asshole lean hard before regaining his balance. A young, slurred voice murmured, “Sorry man.”

Will didn’t turn around. He didn’t want to start another fight with Josh already pissed at him. Instead, he looked to his right, planning to tell Nick that he was getting the hell out of there. But Nick was gone. The guy sitting there now, young but dressed like a golfer or something in a pink polo shirt and unbelievably white shorts, looked over at him and said, “What’s up bro?”

Man, these fucking people.

Will downed the rest of his beer and practically bolted for the door.

Will has been nominated for a readers' choice award!

Will has been nominated for BigAl's Books and Pals 2015 Readers' Choice Awards!

If you've read Will and liked it, please consider giving me your vote. Indie books need all the publicity they can get, and the overall audience is small enough that every vote will make a big difference in this contest.

If you haven't read it yet, but have been meaning to get to it, this would be a great time to do so smile emoticon. Please don't vote if you haven't read it though, that wouldn't be fair.

Oh, and to sweeten the deal, they're also raffling off prizes for voters.

To vote, click the link below and then scroll down until you see the embedded voting widget that asks you to log in with Facebook or just your email address. My book is listed under the Contemporary/Literary/General fiction category.

Thanks for the help!!

http://booksandpals.blogspot.com/2015/03/2015-readers-choice.html 

The Evolution of a First Paragraph

Well, hopefully 'evolution' is the right word to describe this.

I dug through old manuscripts of Will and copied out the first paragraph as it existed at different points in time. The first paragraph is obviously very important, and it's kind of interesting to see how it changed as the novel progressed...

September, 2011

This is basically the first draft. If you've read Will, you can see that the original story of how Leigh and April die was different, and was also entirely summarized in the first paragraph. Pre-readers thought it was a lot of baggage for Will to carry, and that it was a bit far-fetched, so the milk truck accident was used instead. Readability-wise, though, I don't think it's too bad.

Will spent ten years making a family that was taken away from him in less than two days. Monday night his six year old daughter became ill with fever. Tuesday afternoon she died at the hospital of dehydration, doctors and nurses flitting around her with looks of infuriating non-comprehension on their faces. At some point Tuesday night, while he finally lay in an exhaustion-fueled sleep, his wife took all of the sleeping pills she'd been prescribed that day and he woke in her cold arms.

November, 2011

Here we are about a month later. At this point I had decided to hold back the details of why Will was leaving. I think the sentences are a little too long and try to cover too much, making the whole thing a little hard to read.

Will would need to move quickly if he was going to get out of the house before anyone woke up or came by. He tip toed to the garage and started loading camping gear into the back of his car, working as quietly as he could and expecting someone to appear at any moment to ask him what he was up to. If that happened he was afraid he'd be too embarrassed to stick to his plan or even admit what it had been.

January, 2012

Here things get a little worse. Sentences are still hard to read, and another bad one is added in an attempt to add more insight into what Will was thinking. So now it's even harder to get through, and I don't think "amongst" is a word.

Will needed to move quickly if he was going to get out of the house before anyone discovered him. The thought of going through with it sparked some excitement amongst all of the misery and he didn't want that to end. He tip toed to the garage and started loading camping gear into the back of his car, working as quietly as he could and expecting someone to appear at any moment to ask him what he was up to. If that happened he was afraid he would be too embarrassed to stick to his plan, or even admit what it had been.

July, 2012

Here we are about a year away from publication. It's not bad. Sentences flow pretty well, I think, and the amount of information conveyed is more digestible than in earlier drafts. It stayed like this for a very long time while I finished the rest of the book.

Will knew he needed to move quickly if he was going to get out of there before anyone discovered him. Feeling foolish, but, for the first time in weeks, also the tiniest bit excited, he tiptoed to the garage and started pulling camping gear down from the wire shelving that ran along the back wall. Once he had an armload, he turned around and paused, looking back and forth at the two vehicles.

August, 2013

And the final draft. I actually surprised myself by changing quite a bit about this paragraph in the last month before publication. It conveys pretty much the same information as the previous draft, but attempts to spice it up a little bit.

When the idea of leaving—of just getting the hell out of there—finally came to him, it felt like the best idea he’d ever had. Savoring the tiny speck of excitement he felt, Will Brown tiptoed to the garage and started pulling camping gear down from the wire shelving that ran along the back wall. When his arms were full, he turned and regarded the two parking spots. One of them was empty, and the other held his sedan.

Back to January, 2012

Whoa! What's this? This was the paragraph as it existed right before an entire fantasy subplot was scrapped. It was briefly awarded first-chapter status, and then cut out completely. If you've read Will, note that the paw prints that the fairy is inspecting belong to the mountain lion that goes on to kill Lars Jackson.

The guardian sat in the perfect darkness, perched on a log almost too rotten to support her slight weight, and stared at the paw print. It was fresh, the mud that held it not yet dried at the track's edges, and it was massive. No marks had been made by the retracted claws but she could imagine the length of the sharp spines hidden within each deceptively soft round toe.

And, Finally, the Evolution of  a Title

Coming up with the title for the book was very difficult. I mean, REALLY HARD. I know that "Will" seems super obvious and simple--like maybe we didn't put much thought into the title at all--but it actually took us forever to even consider it as an option.

Here's a high-level summary of how it went down.

  1. Billy from the Hills
    (original working title, from the name of a Greg Brown song)
  2. The Dancing Hermit
    (you know, because he's a dancing hermit)
  3. The Hermit's Dance
    (aha! a double-meaning! genius! although, no matter how many times you see it or say it, it still sounds kind of dorky...)
  4. Will
    (duh)

I'm really glad we landed on Will. Thank you, Jody, for enduring countless evenings of title discussions before finally suggesting it--I half-suspect you knew it all along, so appreciate your patience while we thoughtfully  contemplated so many bad ideas.

Publishing a Book

Self-publishing advocate, and best-selling author, Hugh Howey has posted a video where he explains how he designs his paperback books. At around the 25 minute mark, you can see how he fixes widows, orphans, and the like--including the very-helpful kerning adjustment.

I wanted to share this because the intricacies of paperback book design are numerous and non-obvious (as I've mentioned to many people who have asked me about self publishing), and Hugh does a great job of illustrating the work involved.

I was just going to add a link to his video, but then I found a saved draft of the following post where I highlight some aspects of publishing that I found interesting, so I decided to post all of this at once. 

Regarding Traditional publishing

I was not successful with this route, but I'll share what I did in case it's helpful.

Today, the traditional publishing process for new authors seems to be something like this: 

  1. You write a book that is as close to print-ready as you can possibly get it
  2. If you finish your book, you try to find an agent
    1. Write query letters and send them to prospective agents, or figure out a way to meet them in person
    2. Wait
  3. If you find an agent, your agent attempts to find a publisher
  4. If your agent finds a publisher, you work with an editor at the publisher to finalize the book (more revisions, cover and interior artwork, etc)
  5. If that all works out, the book goes into production and you're eventually published!

It's a long process, with lots of opportunities to experience a flameout. Finding an agent can take months or years (and may never happen). Another long span of time passes while the agent tries to find a publisher (which also may never happen). And then another long wait during the publisher's editing and production processes. There are varied opinions on whether or not it's all worth it; there's all that effort, the rejections, and then, even if you get published, a very low probability of making any money anyway.

However, I think a lot of people still want to go this route because, basically, it would be awesome to be able to say you landed a traditional book deal. I decided to try it, and never got past step two. To be fair, all I did was send query letters, which most seem to agree is the least-likely way to land a deal (better routes include attending writing conferences or figuring out other ways to meet people in the industry). I queried forty agents or so before I threw in the towel and decided to self-publish.

Here's how it went for me. I...

  • Searched the internet for advice on how to write a query letter (there's a ton of it out there)
  • Wrote a query letter and let people read it
  • Got my first taste of real rejection when people told me the query letter was bad (and I'm like, Jesus, I thought I was done with agonizing over the writing part for this damn book)
  • Realized I was probably doomed because I had no references, no writing credits, and had written a novel in the genre with the smallest likelihood of getting published (general/literary fiction)
  • Finally had a query letter that I decided was at least half-decent
  • Realized I should have written it a long time ago, because it forced me to finally figure out what the book was all about
  • Found a directory of reputable agents (I used this one: http://aaronline.org/Find) and spent days going through it and building a spreadsheet of agents that seemed like they might be interesting in what I'd written (ordering them most likely to least likely).
  • Sent twenty emails, each with a customized version of the query letter and synopsis depending on each agent's submission guidelines
  • Waited six weeks, enjoying a steady stream of rejection form letters
  • Sent another twenty emails to the next twenty agents in the list
  • Enjoyed six more weeks of rejections
  • Decided to self-publish

I wasn't surprised or particularly disappointed by this outcome, since I knew the odds were long anyway, and I'd read engouh arguments by proponents of self-publishing to view it as a good option. For example, check out some of Hugh Howey's thoughts/stories on the subject, including being offered money by big publishing houses that was a fraction of what he was already making on his own.

Oh, and here's a fun word cloud of all of my rejection letters:

 

Advice for Self Publishing

Again, Use Scrivener

I talked about Scrivener in my last post, but I have to bring it up here because it was as helpful during this step as it was during the writing phase. It's not very expensive, and it's awesome. It's downright invaluable when it comes time to generate print or e-reader versions for self-publishing. The big win here is that it keeps most of the formatting of your book separate from the manuscript itself: you write it, and then compile it into a separate document formatted for print, or eBooks, or whatever you need.

It's the way to go.

Decide Where to Publish

I feel (and most seem to agree) that Amazon is a must. I used CreateSpace for the paperback versions, and KDP for the Kindle versions.

I also wanted Will to be available on Nooks and iBook readers, and I used Smashwords for that. Frankly, for me, using Smashwords was a gigantic pain in the ass. The hoops you need to go through to make it happy, and the confusing way it gives you feedback on where your book is in the process, were ridiculous compared to the process for CreateSpace and KDP. Now, to be fair, Smashwords is doing more work because they need to convert your book into multiple formats at once, something that would have been really hard to do on your own a few years ago. And they also take care of actually pushing your work onto Apple and B&N sites (plus many other smaller distributors). So, if you're not very technically inclined, maybe it's worth running their gauntlet once to get your book everywhere. But in my case, I think for my next book I'll try publishing to Apple and B&N directly.

In any case, you're going to need to be a little computer savvy if you plan to do it all yourself. At a minimum, you should be very comfortable with word processing concepts such as fonts, styles, margins, and the like. And you'll need access to an artist for the cover art (thankfully, I'm married to one). If either of these are going to be a problem for you, it might be worth finding someone to help you. Amazon has in-house services they'll be happy to provide, or I'm sure you can use Google to find others willing to help for a variety of fees (I'd recommend checking elance--which worked great for me when I needed editing help).

Use DiffPDF When Making Final Corrections

http://lifehacker.com/5917106/diffpdf-finds-differences-between-pdf-files

It takes a long time to get to where you're ready to pull the trigger and publish. In those final hours, someone is still bound to find a typo, or you may still stumble across a sentence that you think should be worded differently. This definitely happened to me, but I was terrified of making any changes at all because I was afraid I'd accidentally mess up the formatting or something. Like, adding a couple of words might push things down such that you get a single word by itself at the top of some page later in the chapter (a single-word "widow", or "orphan"--more on that shortly).

So, once I got to the point where I was uploading potential final documents to CreateSpace (the service I used to self-publish), I started looking for a reliable way to make sure I wasn't introducing problems from one "final" version to the next. I found DiffPDF and started using it to compare the last PDF I'd uploaded with the one I was about to, and it allowed me to carefully step through every difference to make sure all was well.

Decide How Hard-core You Want to be When Designing Your Printed Book

Speaking of widows and orphans, I realized late in the game that professionally published book designers go to great lengths to get each page of a book looking great. This includes removing widows and orphans (single lines at the top or bottom of a page). Furthermore, they use hyphenation to avoid

strangely   spaced  words    on lines ending in    long  words like    Mississippi.

Scrivener and Word have some automated tools to help with both of these problems, but both are imperfect--sometimes creating results that look worse than the original problem--definitely not something you want to screw around with in the home stretch. I think the only way you could fix all of this properly is to export to Word (perhaps using Scrivener's automated tools to get as close as possible) and then go page by page and deal with it manually. I didn't have time to do this, so my book has widows, orphans (although I did take care of the single-word versions), and strange spacing due to full justification.

I still sleep okay at night, but I might try and do a little better next time around. If you're going to want to go that extra mile, budget your time accordingly. 

Budget Some Time

Today's self-publishing services are amazing, but they still take a little bit of time. There are various approval steps that can take a few days, and it can take even longer for your book/ebook to trickle out onto various vendors' websites. Plus, when ordering a big box of books for yourself to give away or sell or whatever, be advised that getting them produced and shipped can take a couple of weeks. None of this should be a big deal in the scheme of things, but you should be aware of it so that you're not stressed out during that final phase (e.g. hoping that your personal copies of the print book show up in time for your first book signing!).

The first time around, I'd budget at least four weeks from when you think you've got your interior and cover production-ready to when someone can actually buy the book on Amazon, and another week or two after that before your first shipment of books arrives at your door. Also, if you're using Smashwords to hit other eBook retailers, be advised that it can take many weeks before your title shows up for sale on their sites.

Then What?

From here, your next step is to work on your next book while doing some marketing for this one. I tend to agree with those who feel that your best marketing tool is publishing more books, but you should probably at least set up a website and Facebook page. There are lots of resources on the internet for how to market your book, and I haven't put enough time into it to share anything from a personal perspective, so I'll leave it at that.

Oh, and don't forget to congratulate yourself. Finishing a book is a big accomplishment! I found it incredibly gratifying to get my book out there, and a huge weight off my shoulders to not be able to edit/revise it anymore. I also very much enjoy hearing from people who have read it (whether they liked it or not), and in fact have found that aspect of the whole process to be the most rewarding.

Sitting Down to Write a Book

In my last post, I shared my thoughts on what you might want to consider doing before sitting down to write a book. Here are some thoughts on the actual writing process.

Phase II: Writing the Book

Spend Days Preparing Your Workspace

Hah. No.

I did do this, and it was kind of fun, but I ended up writing wherever I felt like it and found that it didn't matter much. The only distractions I couldn't deal with were people talking to me. So, I did use my office when the kids were around. But if they weren't, I spent as much time on the living room couch as I did in my well-thought-out office. 

Screen Shot 2013-10-14 at 7.52.05 PM.png

Like I said, it was kind of fun to do though. At one point I said to Jody, completely seriously, that I couldn't decide whether putting my desk by a window would be too distracting. Hilariously, we happened to watch Funny Farm with the kids a few days later, completely forgetting that it's partially about a man's failed attempt at becoming a writer, and Chevy Chase's character says almost the exact same thing to his wife as he's setting up his office. It's funny how I seem to say and do the dumbest things when I'm excited about something.

Anyway, my point is, there's no need to obsess about where you'll do your writing. Any place that you find yourself able to read or do any other thoughtful activity will probably work just fine. 

Get the Best Tools You Can Afford

True, you can write on anything (including paper), but I think using a quality computer is an important part of staying motivated. You're going to be spending a lot of time with it, and you want to view it as your partner--not an annoying piece of shit. 

For me, a MacBook Pro + Scrivener is a great combination. When I sit down to write I feel like I'm properly equipped to do so. I can flip open the lid and be writing in fifteen seconds, or close the lid and relocate just as fast. The battery lasts forever (I've got the 13"), and it's tough as nails (I haven't actually dropped it yet, but it's been tossed around a bunch and has held up great). They're not cheap, though, so I realize I'm fortunate to have one at my disposal.

The practical advice, then, is to get the best tools you an afford. Avoid trying to write on a slow, outdated computer that takes forever to start up, freezes, or does anything else that frustrates you and slows you down--it will be bigger productivity deterrent than you'd think. Of course, if that's all you can afford--fine, it won't be that big of a deal. But, if you could use an upgrade and can swing it, but just aren't sure if it's worth it or not, I would say that it is.

On that note, use Scrivener (which isn't very expensive)

I started with iA Writer, and its simplicity was really nice. However, once the story broke about twenty thousand words and I started the process of revising and sharing, it became too limited for me. There's minimal support for printing, no page numbers, no way to organize the work into chapters and scenes. Almost overnight it went from being a nice clean way to write to a burden, so I switched to Scrivener. 

   Will  in Scrivener

 Will in Scrivener

It's not very expensive, and it's awesome once you get used to it. For example: after I took the time to break up what I'd written in iA Writer into scenes and chapters in Scrivener, it was great to see how the word count was distributed (Jody was right, the ice fishing chapter was originally way too long). Also, it added a level of organization and sanity to the revision process that made things go much more smoothly.

And when it comes time to start generating manuscripts for editors or agents, it's the bomb--drawing a nice distinction between your raw material and the different ways you might want to format it for printing/sharing. Finally, it's invaluable when it comes time to generate print or e-reader versions for self-publishing. 

Sorry, I guess so far I'm still talking about getting ready to write. Moving on... 

Give Yourself Deadlines

I found using word-counts to be the most effective measurement. I'd tell myself, "Okay, I'm going to get to eighty thousand words by the end of the month. I've got forty-thousand words done and thirteen working days left. This means I need to do around three thousand words per day. I can do that."

If I got the urge to quit early, I'd check my count and only do it if I was running ahead of schedule. Similarly, I wouldn't necessarily stop when I hit that day's goal--I'd just write until I felt like I was spent, and then check where I was relative to my goal.

This also helped me muscle through days when I really didn't feel like writing. I'd tell myself to just hit the word count, even if it's all garbage, because it won't be any worse than not writing anything that day.

I found it more satisfying to work this way; it's much better than just plugging away hoping you'll eventually be done. Achieving measurable goals helped me feel like I was accomplishing something more tangible than that. I could sleep better at night.

Write Through the Pain

Like anything else: even if you are very much not in the mood to do something, once you force yourself to get started, that "I'd rather clip off one of my little toes than do this right now" feeling quickly fades. 

Give Music a Try

For me, there's this small child in my brain that never, ever, pays attention to what I'm supposed to be doing and is always thinking about other stuff and threatening to distract me from what I'm trying to focus on. I'll be in the middle of something productive, and this part of my brain will suddenly scream something like, "LETSGOGETSOMETACOS!"

But I've learned that I can distract it, and music works well for me. I'll put something on I've heard a bunch of times before--a particular album or Pandora station--and that little voice spends all of its time singing along while the part of my brain meant to get stuff done can work uninterrupted.

Read and Re-read

Spend a little time every day revising. 

My process was to write the initial draft of a chapter or part or whatever, then go back (on the computer) and read through it--fixing errors or rewriting parts that really stood out as needing to be cleaned up.

And then I'd start printing. I apologize to the trees, but it was so much easier for me to read drafts on paper than on the computer screen. After each major revision was done, I'd print it out and re-read it, usually out loud, and use a red pen to make changes. Sometimes I'd just circle sentences or paragraphs and write "awkward" or "lame" or "shitty"--and then do the actual re-writing later, on the computer. I invested in a home-office-sized black and white laser printer so I could more quickly and economically print out the entire manuscript whenever I needed to.

A good time to work on this kind of editing is when you've already met your writing goal for the day, and feel kind of creatively tapped out, but still have stamina and time to work. 

Hire an Editor

I found this very helpful. If you can afford someone who will work closely with you all along, that's probably worth it. But even if your budget doesn't allow for that (mine didn't), there are lots of different options.

I worked with three different freelance editors while I wrote Will. Marlene Adelstein (http://fixyourbook.com/) read the rough draft, and she provided tons of good advice on the storyline and writing style (she's The Editor I talked about in this blog post). Janet Steen (http://www.editrixie.com/) provided line editing services for the approaching-final draft (patiently correcting, among other things, what must have seemed to her like borderline malignant comma misuse). And Martin Coffee (https://www.elance.com/s/coffee2go/) read the print-ready version to look for any lingering or recently introduced typos (and he found a couple!).

You can spend a lot on this, or very little. My advice would be to set up an editing budget, and then start researching and talking to potential candidates until you find one you like and can afford.

Friends and family are good, too (my mother-in-law was particularly helpful with my comma disorder), but they'll always be biased in one way or another.

If you're sold on the concept, but don't want to spend much, start with posting a job on Elance--you'll likely get a huge response, which will give you lots of options (that's how I found Martin). Also, you should start the process of finding an editor pretty early on in case the one you'd like to work with won't be available for awhile.

Finally, remember that writing is not a stroll through the magical land of rainbows and butterflies

I truly thought it would be, despite all of the warnings about it being hard work. It only took about twenty minutes in front of the computer to set me straight.

There will be fun days, not so fun days, and really crappy days. It can be a daunting, frustrating, and sometimes feel impossible. Basically, it's like any other kind of serious work: it isn't easy; but if you keep at it, you'll get there.

 

Getting Ready to Write a Book

Will has finally been released. To mark the occasion, I thought I'd post a few tips for writing a book. This isn't necessarily about writing a good  book, or becoming a successful author, since I'm not sure about that. But, now that I've at least put in some time, it seems only fair to share my thoughts on the process of starting with a blank screen and ending with a finished book. Obviously, this is all highly subjective.

Phase I: Before You Start

Read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

A writer and co-worker named Andy gave me some awesome advice when he heard I was quitting my job to write. I really wish I still had his email, because it was great and I'd love to pass the whole thing along. Sadly, I forgot to print it or forward it to my personal email account before turning in my badge and Blackberry.

But, I can at least pass along his book recommendation. The War of Art is a quick read and the perfect way to kick off an artistic endeavor. I ran into a lot of Pressfield's examples of Resistance as I wrote, and his book helped me identify and (usually) push through them. 

On Writing, by Stephen King, is also very good (especially if you like Stephen King--and who doesn't like Stephen King?). 

And, read a lot of books in general

Everyone says this, and it's true. It's helpful and inspiring to read things you enjoy with an eye toward how each author writes. Some of my more productive writing occurred just after reading for awhile. Similarly, if I was in a slump, taking a break to read something good would often get me going again.

You might want to avoid Cormac McCarthy at this stage, though. I read Blood Meridian  just as I started out, and (besides destroying my glamorized perception of the wild west) it screwed up the part of my brain that builds sentences for months.

Refresh Yourself on the Rules of Grammar, and Make Some Stylistic Decisions Up Front

I had forgotten about comma splices, I unknowingly used the poor bastardized periods like the one you just read again and again.

I apparently really liked to use run on sentences and if I had just taken the time to remember what, technically, they were, it would have been easy enough to avoid them.

I finally had to write down the lay vs lie grid from Grammar Girl's blog and tape it to the wall above my desk. It would have been a lot easier to do that right away and not spend hours searching for "lay", "lie", "laid", and "lain" to make sure I'd used the correct word. (Grammar Girl, by the way, is a fantastic resource in general.)

I had to make a decision on toward vs towards and backward vs backwards. Sometimes Will dragged things around, other times he drug them.

 And there was more, lots more, that I had to go back and correct after the first draft was done. Some of this is, of course, to be expected during the editing process, but you can make your life a lot easier by putting in a little extra effort up front.

In other words, while there's a lot to be said for not getting hung up on the details of grammar and style when the creative juices are flowing, there's also a lot to be said for pausing the first time you write "goddamnit" to make note of how you spelled it so you spell it the same way later.

The commas were the worst for me; I still get them wrong at least 30% of the time. I blame a dozen years of reading and writing corporate emails.

Create an Outline

Having tried it both ways, I'd say it's far easier to write a long story if you have an outline. I didn't use one for Will, and spent a ton of time rewriting and reworking a story that was at first meandering all over the damn place. There were fairies in there at one point, and Lars Jackson had a pet bear, and Lucy was twelve when Will rescued her from a possessed wolf that was working for a white witch or something--not bad ideas, necessarily, but kind of a jarring reading experience.

Conversely, before I wrote the first draft of my fantasy novel, I spent a few afternoons making notes. I summarized the whole plot in three or four sentences. I put down some potential "major scenes" as bullet points. I drew a map. I named the characters and wrote short descriptions. I did all of this in longhand on two sheets of notepaper, erasing and reworking these tidbits again and again until I could kind of picture the whole story in my head.

This, incidentally, was also a good excuse to indulge in one of my fantasies concerning what it would be like to be a writer: I wrote this outline while sitting on the dock and drinking beer, Hunter S. Thompson style.

hunter-s-thompson-rum-dairy1.jpg

Then, I sat down and wrote the last chapter. (I planned to write the whole thing backward, buying into the theory that it's easier to stay focused that way, but it became too awkward after another couple of chapters, so I switched to the beginning.)

It was much easier to write when I knew where I was going. Any time I felt stuck or wasn't sure what was supposed to happen next, I'd look at the outline to find the next bullet point to remind me where I needed to end up, and the scenes would line up in my head and pour out. I didn't stick to the outline all the time, but having it there as a rough guide was very helpful. I finished the first draft in just a few weeks, and it was much better than the mess that was the first draft of Will. 

Phase I Checklist

So, if you are: 

  • ...reading other authors that inspire you to write.
  • ...fired up because you read The War of Art  and are confident that the first time you have the urge to fart around on Facebook, or pester your spouse/partner/hand for sex instead of writing, you'll realize that that's just Resistance trying to beat you down, and you'll get back to work.
  • ...tuned-up grammatically-speaking because you read through Grammar Girl and/or thought back to the grammar quizzes you bombed in high school to identify where you're likely to mess up. 
  • ...full of ideas and, ideally, have turned one of them into a rough outline of what you're about to write.

Then you, my friend, are ready to rock and roll.

 

Employed

Well, the plan worked out more or less as expected.

No, I did not become a professional novelist. Yes, I did very much enjoy the 20 months spent writing and hanging out with my family. I self-published Escape from Devil's Canyon, will be self-publishing my novel Will this summer (the agent search was mildly interesting, but fruitless), wrote a draft of a fantasy novel, wrote a draft of a sequel to the kids' book, and am many chapters into an action/thriller novel.

And, even though the kids are bummed that I'm suddenly gone again during business hours and occasional business trips, I was there with them for probably as many hours as I had spent with them in their entire lives before the break. And Jody and I didn't drive each other crazy, either. Quite the opposite.

So, especially now that I'm gainfully employed once again, I can say with confidence that taking the sabbatical was a fantastic idea.

And, even though I'm bummed that I'm suddenly gone again during business hours and occasional business trips, I'm also excited to be back at work developing software. It's with a new company and new people and so far it's been great.

I'll be finishing and publishing all those drafts I mentioned earlier, too. It might go a little slower (which probably seems impossible to you), but I feel like I know how to do it now, so I'm excited to keep at it.

I'm Still Here

Here's what's happened since last I posted.

A number of people agreed to read the proof of my novel, and every one of them provided a ton of valuable feedback.

This resulted in another pretty major revision, even though I had promised myself I wouldn't do that. I first spent a few days starting in on an actual rewrite, which would have been a massive effort, but then came to my senses and decided to just clean up a few things that people pointed out that weren't too hard to fix: confusion around the purpose of the eviscerated bear in chapter 3? scened deleted; a few too many f-bombs? okay, sure, we can tone that down; nobody sits down and monologues for three pages in order to share the life story of a recently deceased character? yeah, I guess I can break that up a bit; and so on ...

Then the other big change of plans happened. One of my readers made an awfully compelling case for giving traditional publishing a shot before going straight to the presses. This involves scouring directories of agents for any that might be interested in this book, and then querying each of them with a customized letter and excerpts from the book. I just finished that part yesterday, so now I wait to see if any are interested. If they are, I send them the full manuscript and then wait again, possibly for months, to see if they're still interested after they read it. If they are, then they start looking for interested publishers. If they can find one then I work with the editor at that publisher to prepare the book for publication.

Obviously, this is going to take a while.

So, in the meantime, I'm going to keep writing. I've drafted a fantasy novel, owe my kids another chapter book, and have a great idea for a Travis McGee-style action/mystery novel.

However, the Sabbatical Support Fund is running low, so I'm also starting to think about a day job. I tell myself that this is not tragic, nor is it a surprise—I always knew I wouldn't have enough time to make a living at this. It is a little jarring though. I wrote the first resume I've written since college (avoiding the surprisingly strong urge to use the same Word template that I used then) and finally created a LinkedIn account. Now I'm faced with a lot of questions related to what exactly I want to do with my experience and where we want to live.

In any case, one thing that I'm really excited about is the fact that I feel like I learned enough about the process of writing to continue on with it—even if only on nights and weekends. And, of course, this time away from traditional work has been every bit as wonderful as you'd imagine. I just can't believe it's gone by so fast.

The (What's Another Word for 'Refinement'?) Phase

I've done signifigant revisions to my novel a half-dozen times, and each time I performed four to six editing sweeps. I've hired two different editors, one to provide high-level feedback, and the other to copy edit it. I received the copy-edit changes last week and, excitedly, incorporated all of her changes in two long editing sessions (the most common issues were comma and semicolon misuse, and a couple of grammar rules I'd completely forgotten about—like laying vs lying).

It was time to create a proof, an actual paperback version of my book. I went to work on formatting for print, and Jody went to work drafting the first option for a cover. Again, two or three long working session later we'd placed our order for proof copies.

They arrived on Thursday (today's print on demand technology is incredible) and look like this.

Now, I should tell you. That's a draft cover and even the title may change. I at first wasn't going to share this picture because of that, but hey—there are so few of you reading this site that the least I can do is give you some insider information. We're hoping to draft a few more cover ideas and run a poll to get your feedback on which one is best (although I really like this one—Lakewater Design, Jody's graphic design shop, is awesome).

Anyway. We got the proofs, which was really exciting, and now starts the process of reading the proof and marking any issues. In fantasyland this is when I'd only be finding formatting problems, right? So I sit down with my red pen, take another moment to admire the look and feel of my manuscript in the form of an actual book, and turn to the first chapter. I didn't even make it past the first page.

I don't remember changing that sentence in a very long time, which means I've read it dozens of times and never noticed the double-probably. Or maybe it just never bothered me before, but it bothered the hell out of me now. I kept on reading, and made similar marks on every two out of three pages.

I'd have been depressed but in truth, I knew this would happen. When I went through this step with Escape from Devil's Canyon, a book that was 'just for fun', I found stuff I didn't like every single time I read through it (including after it was finally published).

And so it goes. Once it's in book form, and you're really getting ready to pull the trigger, you start to read differently, and a whole new phase begins. I suppose we could call it the refinement phase (although then I'm not sure what phase I've been in for the past four months).

I'll try and get through it as fast as I can, and I've enlisted others to help, but it's going to take just a wee bit longer before this baby ships.

The Editor

As I mentioned earlier, I hired an editor to read my first manuscript and provide high-level feedback. About a month after I sent it along, I got an email from her. She'd attached a Word document containing her critique of the book, and I opened it right away--anxious to see what she had to say. The first sentence read:

For me what's strongest in your novel is the clean, clear prose writing.

Hrm. That sounded a lot like a preamble to bad news. She continued on with a nice long paragraph detailing a few specific strong points that ended with:

This feels like a good draft to work with.

Okay, good. I'd known it wasn't my best work--that's why I'd sent it to her, to help prioritize what needed to change to make it better--so I hadn't expected a stellar review or anything. But, with the one-paragraph "What's Working Well" section out of the way, what was on the next seven pages of her notes?

A ton of constructive, critical feedback on topics including genre, storyline, structure, lack of specific details, emotion, showing instead of telling, and the dog (she's a dog person, so the protagonist's furry friend got its own section in the critique). I read it all, agreeing with almost everything, and thought to myself, "Shit, it'd be less work to start over with a different novel."

She wanted me to cut out the fantasy subplot (which was what I was excited to write about at first, but did admittedly become a bit of a third wheel as I progressed). She wanted me to stay in the main character's point of view through the whole novel. She wanted me to provide more vivid details for the sex scenes, without being graphic. And she wanted all that plus another half-dozen heavy changes that would result in major rework.

Demoralized, I talked it over with Jody. She read the review, listened to my concerns, and then said something like, "Well, my guess is that this kind of work and rework is what being a professional writer is all about--it's hard work."

I sighed. She was, of course, correct. Then I had my final debrief call with the editor and, when I asked her if she thought I should just give up on this one and move onto the next, she said no. She reassured me that she'd received manuscripts that were in much rougher shape; that in my case I had something good to work with and a pretty clear path for making it better.

So, after those two discussions and a couple of days to mull things over, I carried my laptop back up to my office and resumed plugging away at it.

And it felt great. I could feel the story improving with every change, whether it was small (naming an ancillary character and letting her share two lines of dialog about her past that help explain her actions) or large (reworking the entire ending to compensate for the eviscerated fantasy subplot). It was a slog at first, since I felt like I was disassembling some complicated piece of machinery that I might not ever get working again, but the longer I struggled with it, the easier it became.

And I got much more excited about the novel. The story changed a lot, but it felt so much more like a real work of fiction than the first draft had. The changes were for the better.

Then summer came, and my pace slowed to a crawl. But, just two weeks ago, I forced myself to get through the last of the changes and sent the revised manuscript off to another editor for full copyediting. And I'm fully committed to just implementing whatever edits she comes back with and calling the damn thing done.

Could I further improve it with another major revision? I don't know, sure, but I think that this particular story has been told. I'm going to use that energy for novel number two, which I plan to start in two days when the kids go back to school, instead.

The Kids' Book

I sent a hard copy of my manuscript to my freelance editor in mid-December; just in time to set it aside and relax for the holidays. That night at dinner, I announced to the kids that this had been done, that the first draft of the book was officially finished, and they were excited for me. Then Anna asked if she could read the draft. Nora and Danny wanted to hear the story too.

"No," I said. "I'm sorry, but it's kind of written for grown-ups."

Their faces fell. They were not only dissapointed, but a little angry at having to wait all this time for me to finish something that it turns out they couldn't read anyway. I felt bad, and by the time the new year rolled around, Jody and I had the idea to write a short "chapter book" just for them. It would star characters that were modeled after them, and would be heavy with scenes based on things that had really happened in their lives. Jody would do chapter header illustrations and the cover, and we'd get a couple of copies printed up for their bookshelves.

It was a ton of fun. A couple of weeks later I had a good draft and Jody had done most of the illustrations. By the end of January we'd used Lulu.com to order a proof. I read it and found a number of typos and grammer problems. Also, some parts were too scary, others too silly. It needed more work, even if it was only for our kids.

About this time, the editor got back to me with her feedback on my novel and the kids' book took a back seat. I still plugged away at it over the next few months, but things moved slowly. I switched to CreateSpace because they had the trim size that I wanted. Jody modified the cover a few times (very few of her illustrations though--she pretty much nailed those the first time out). And so it slowly evolved.

By June, I'd re-read and edited the thing nearly a dozen times (while taking short breaks from the novel). I'd ordered four or five different proofs and found problems in each of them. It was starting to feel impossible to finish. Finally, in the third week of June, I forced myself to work on it every day with the challenge of calling it done, no matter what, by that Friday. I was desperate to get back to my novel, and the kids' book was supposed to be fun, not a burden. Plus, the kids were starting to suspect I'd never be done, and were getting frustrated with me.

So I finished it, ordered yet another proof, and read it to them the same day it arrived. They loved it, because they're my kids and it was about them. Anna did a book report on it. Nora took it in for show and tell. I made a handful of final edits and approved the changes without bothering to order another hard-copy proof. The kids begged me to make it publicly available so that their friends could get copies, so by early July, Escape from Devil's Canyon was up on Amazon. On July 17th Jody outed me on Facebook, and I officially became an author.

The whole experience was very fun and, more importantly, served as a fantastic dry-run to self-publishing. I learned how it works, what the timing is like, how much effort is involved, etc. And writing for a younger audience was fun too--something I may actually come back to with more seriousness in the future. But for now, I'm just happy to have finished something; it gives me hope for the novel.

The First Draft

I wrote the first draft of my first novel in about six weeks. I worked, up in my dedicated home office, Monday through Friday for two to four hours per day. I averaged something like 2500 words per day. I didn't have any idea where I was going, often thinking of what would happen that day when I was in the shower. The result was a fun time writing, just zoning out and letting the words come, that produced kind of a mess.

I would spend time reading about writing and publishing, and I read a number of times that good novels are authored by people who "know what their novel is about"; who understand what they're trying to accomplish.

I had no idea what mine was about--the scenes and chapters depended on how I felt the day that I wrote them. In a good mood? I'd try to be funny and witty. In a bad mood? I'd write dialog that was so heavy with foul language that nobody would want to read it. On some days I'd write after reading. I was working through Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian at the time, so on those days what I wrote was dark and wordy (and really, really bad, since there was no way I could pull of his style of writing anyway). Some days I'd be bored, and the writing would simply be boring. I really had no consistent voice and, since I hadn't worked out much of the story/characters ahead of time, no guidelines to follow to keep things moving in the right direction. When I was done (at eighty thousand words), there were a few chapters that felt like my own, and that I thought were pretty good, but the rest was kind of a crapshoot.

I did a quick edit, re-reading the whole thing and trying to clean it up to be more consistent, and then I let Jody read it. I was on my way out the door to go on a five day hunting trip when I printed it off, manually hole-punched the pages, and put them in a binder for her. I told her it was nowhere near the best that I could do, but that I was desperate for feedback and direction.

She emailed me the next day, half way through it, to tell me that she liked it. She had feedback, and didn't say that she loved it, but she liked it. She called me "multi-talented". Honestly, no matter what happens in the future, I'll remember how happy that made me feel.

When I got back home, we spent a couple of evenings talking about it, and her feedback gave me lots of new ideas. But we also decided it really needed to be critiqued by a professional. Since I didn't really know how to write, hadn't really been trained at all, it made sense to pay somebody who did to give me some direction. Also, I knew in the end that Jody was going to have a hard time giving me unbiased feedback for fear of hurting my feelings.

I did some research online, and eventually connected with a freelance editor. I emailed her the first couple of chapters, we had a phone discussion about it, and we decided that she would read it and give me high-level feedback on my writing style and the story itself. It would be four more weeks before she would have time to read it, so I sent her a deposit and sat down to edit the book one more time before sending it her way.

My First Few Weeks as a Writer

I quit my job on a Friday, and started writing the next Monday. I woke up, showered, and went about my morning routine just as I had for the past few years. I sent the kids off to school, kissed Jody, and headed up to my home office.

I had spent much of the weekend cleaning and redecorating it, including, I'm embarrassed to admit, moving my desk back and forth between the two windows as I tried to figure out which view would provide inspiration without being distracting (so silly). I loved, and still love, how empty the small room felt without the gigantic flat panel monitors and suitcase-sized laptop computer from work.

I sat down, opened my laptop, and launched iA Writer. Even at that moment, I still had virtually no idea what I was going to write. I did have a couple of basic ideas and my loosely-defined plan was to try writing a short story for each, and then see which felt most like a potentially interesting novel. So, I started typing.

The first story was about a woman, a mother, who returns to her small hometown in South Dakota after hearing on the news that a man from her past has been murdered on the Indian reservation next to where she grew up. I was inspired to write it on one of my trips out there to pheasant hunt because rural SD strikes me as very desolate, and when I see young people there I can't help but wonder what it would be like to grow up in a place like that. The draft of the story was very short, only around six thousand words, and by the time I was done I did not feel inspired to turn it in to a novel. There may be another story to be told in that setting, but it wasn't what I pounded out that morning. I took the rest of the day off to go golfing.

The next morning I was back at it. This time I wrote a short synopsis about a small group of scientists at an outpost in the middle of some jungle. They receive a distress call from Outpost Echo, which is located deeper in the jungle than they are. Even though the call for help is quickly amended to be a false alarm, the communication is suspicious and the group decides to head out into the night to check on the Echo team in person. When they get there everyone is gone, and they fear that the invasion they're supposed to be looking out for has begun, but they're not 100% sure and, if they're wrong, sounding the alarm will start an unnecessary war. It was sci-fi, and I got kind of excited thinking about it. Who was invading what? Where are they? Why can't they tell what happened? But, I also found it almost impossible to not picture characters for Lost running around on The Island, and was afraid that the whole "what the hell is going on around here" theme would seem too derivative. I may get back to that one though.

I ran some errands that afternoon and, while listening to my "Greg Brown" station on Pandora, I heard "Billy from the Hills", by Greg Brown, and then "Our Mother the Mountain", by Townes Van Zandt. They played one right after the other and the idea of writing about a guy who retreats to the woods to become a mountain man, and who maybe goes a little crazy out there, was added to the short list I'd been keeping in my head. By the time I got home that afternoon, I was pretty excited about the idea and I started on it the next morning.

I tried out a couple of other ideas over the next couple of weeks, but kept coming back to the mountain man. I still have no idea why it felt like the thing to write, I could tell it wouldn't be the easiest, and may not even be the most interesting, of my ideas. But soon it was all that I worked on, and will be the first novel I finish.

If only I could finally wrap up editing...

How to Wear a Business Suite

I must have read Escape from Devil's Canyon twenty times before finally clicking the "Accept Proof" button and publishing it on Amazon. But alas, I've had my first report of a typo (thanks Barb!). In chapter two, a woman is wearing a black business suite.

Damn.

It's probably not the only error. If you're nice enough to read the book and find any other mistakes, please let me know. I'll do a second edition this fall that cleans them up.

Thanks!

Why I Call it a Sabbatical

I am often not brave enough to call myself an aspiring novelist. I should be--I've taken the risks and am working hard at it--but I truly struggle with telling people what I'm up to.

"I resigned last fall to write a novel."

It just sounds like such a cliche, right?

Maybe. I mean, that's what I told everyone at first--that I was admittedly acting out a cliche. I was confident in my decision, but embarrassed to tell people about it, and so resorted to self-deprecation.

You see, it was, by most measures, a great job that I was walking away from; one that provided opportunities I may never get again. And to "work on my writing"? When I've never published a thing? When I'd hardly even written anything (except tons and tons and tons of emails) since college?

The looks I got from some of the people I told actually made me sweat.

But, thankfully, and surprisingly, many of people I talked to were very supportive. For example, when I mentioned the cliche thing to one particularly encouraging colleague, he pointed out that the real cliche is talking about it, and that doing it is something else entirely. I liked that.

Another colleague, whom I had only had the opportunity to work with a couple of times, proactively reached out to me with a wonderful amount of support and advice. He, a professional writer himself, sent me an email that contained some of the most encouraging and practical advice I've received yet on striving to become a real writer. He did not treat me like I was going on a lark, he congratulated me on having the guts to make a major career change.

But most people were just confused--really wanting to understand what I was doing, but struggling with how such an act fit in in a world where people must make money in order to eat. It was in one of these awkward conversations that the word "sabbatical" was finally used, and I latched on to it. It was a word that people understood and it seemed to somehow legitimize what I was doing. And so, even though I consider myself an aspiring professional novelist, I started referring to this as a "sabbatical".

And now, instead of "You're doing what now?", it's usually, "Ah, a sabbatical! That's great!" Are they assuming this is a prearranged situation with my company (which it's not)? Maybe, but I usually don't go there.

In fact, nothing makes you as self-conscious about how you describe your employment situation as not having a traditional one. People who are little more than complete strangers ask what I do and I still usually say "software development" and hope that that will be the end of it (as it had almost always been when I was actually a professional software developer).

But sometimes they ask me what kind of software I write, or who I work for. And then I say, "Well, I'm actually on a sabbatical right now but what I used to do was..."

The Day the Stars Aligned

There are two main reason that I never thought I would be able to quit my job to write a novel. The main complication was that I was always so deeply involved in so many things at work that I never thought I'd find myself in a situation where I could leave without causing major, painful disruption to a ton of people. It just seemed to too selfish.

The secondary reason, not surprisingly, was the money. One needs money, and typically needs a job to secure it.

But then, last summer while on a business trip to the east coast to sell software--a part of my job I think I was pretty good at but didn't particularly enjoy--I realized that I should reassess where I stood on both of those assumed roadblocks.

You see, my company had just hired in a CTO and there were many management changes afoot. They were hiring people to do parts of my job so that I could refocus my efforts on other things (like those sales calls). The result of this was that many of those projects that I had been so heavily involved with were suddenly, explicitly being handed over to other people. At the same time, I was just digging in to my new responsibilities. I was in a kind of limbo--a few more months and I would likely be as critical to my new responsibilities as I had been to my old ones, but that hadn't happened yet.

I distinctly recall guiding my rental car onto an exit ramp that, besides heading to my destination, also headed to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, when I realized that I could probably quit the next day and not cause anyone all that much stress--at least not relative to what they were already going through as we restructured.

I wasn't as sure about the money--I'd need some spreadsheet time to work that out--but I found myself genuinely giddy at the realization that it was now, for the first time since I joined up, possible for me to leave without causing untenable disruption. I felt like a newly freed man.

Too worried that I'd wimp out that night on the phone, I sent Jody an email as soon as I got back to my hotel. It said, verbatim:

 

Hi honey,

   

I'm having a great couple of days at work that have been productive and fulfilling. I am also more seriously than ever considering retiring and taking 6-12 months to try and write a book and then--who knows? It's not because I'm hating work, I just think overall I would be a happier person trying something else and feel that all of the hard work over the past 12 years has earned us the right, as well as the financial cushion, to do so.

   

I'm just sending this so you can start thinking about it and let me know what you think. I know you've said you'd support this decision in the past but I'm pretty serious this time so wanted to give you some time to consider it before we try to talk about it.

   

I love you more than anything,   --me

Cheesy right? But that's the kind of mood I was in. When we talked that night she told me that, once we had a chance to talk through all of the implications in person, she'd support me if it would make me happy.

I could start a whole other website dedicated to examples of how wonderful my wife is. If I did, that moment would be right up there near the the top of the list.

Why Writing?

I was in fifth grade when I first realized that a very big part of me wanted to write stories. We had been given the assignment of writing a short story about anything we wanted to. I remember sitting down at my Apple IIc with only the vaguest idea of what I was going to write about and opening with some dialog.

"Damn," he said. "Where are we?"


I was nervous about using the word 'damn', but I liked the gritty way it kicked things off. I wrote a couple of pages about a team of elite soldiers who, in the midst of heated battle at some point in the future, accidentally drove their armored three-wheelers and motorcycles through a time-travel portal that brought them back to present day America. Awesome, right?

Unfortunately, I don't remember much more about it, including how it ended, but I do remember my teacher telling the entire class that my story was one of the best he'd read in a long time. Then he read it out loud to everyone. I was somewhat mortified by the attention, but also intrigued by the feedback.

Fast-forward to Freshman English in high school, where the teacher spent almost the entire year focused on creative writing. I loved it, taking home the assignments and writing stories that were almost always at the maximum assigned length. Some were okay, most were pretty bad, but it was a ton of fun. It was the only homework I actually looked forward to working on. That teacher was encouraging as well, occasionally taking me aside to compliment my work, and often reading my stories to the class.

High school was actually inspiring for me in general. I took an American literature class that turned me on to Hemingway, there was a grammar class that I did not enjoy but definitely learned from, and then there was an AP class in creative writing. That last one was, unfortunately, largely peopled with senior boys who were far more interested in driving the teacher crazy than learning how to write. As a result, I didn't learn a ton but I was, however, encouraged (and a little offended) when I got my first assignment back and saw that the teacher had scribbled "Quite a story, an original?" on the first page. (That one was hard core sci-fi about an infantry soldier trapped on the front lines, about to be overrun by aliens in giant robotic suits, who elects to use the experimental "jump" button on his wrist that will teleport him out of there. The catch was that nobody knew where people went when they did that, because the technology was so new; it was a roll of the dice meant to be used as a last resort.)

When it came time for college, I started out as an English major with the secret goal of becoming a novelist. But, a combination of ignorance and lack of guidance resulted in me randomly selecting literature classes and not even trying to get in to the few creative writing courses and workshops that the university offered, and by the time junior year rolled around it was clear that I could either re-focus on journalism, or plan to be a teacher. Neither really appealed to me, so I went to my UW-appointed guidance counselor and told him I wanted to go into computers.

He about died, it being such a different track compared to the one I was on. I had tested so poorly on my math placement tests that I'd have to start with remedial algebra and trig before I could even think about taking all of the required calculus and linear algebra classes required for Computer Science.

I was undeterred, and, by the time we worked through the specific courses I'd have to take, it turned out that I was so close to getting my English degree that it would be almost just as easy to double major. It would cost me one summer and an extra semester, but that didn't seem like much at the time and I did it.

And it was great, I loved computer science. With a real goal in mind I even enjoyed the math, breezing through the remedial classes (as one would hope), and doing pretty well in the advanced stuff too. It was 1998 when I graduated, which, in case you don't remember, was a pretty good time for CS majors to get jobs. So it seemed that I'd made a good choice.

But I never forgot about wanting to be a writer. I occasionally tried writing "on the side", but I was always just too tired when I'd sit down to do it; and I couldn't shake the feeling that I could do so much better if I could just focus on it full time.

So that's why I was looking for an opportunity to quit my job. There were ancillary reasons--the typical stuff about simply wanting something new, maybe something about evolving (or devolving) into a role that I no longer found particular satisfying--but it was mostly about the writing.

And so, when the stars aligned, I went for it.

You're doing what now?

Last September I did something kind of...crazy? daring? idiotic?... For now let's just go with *unusual*. I quit the job that I'd had for nearly thirteen years, the one I'd taken right out of college, to pursue my dream of becoming a novelist.

I've never been published; I haven't even written much since high school. So how can I be sure that I can make a career of it? Obviously I can't. But just to *try*, to say that I've tried, was enough for me. So, I decided to focus on writing full time with the goal of producing at least one novel to my own, personal satisfaction.

Thus resolved, my wife, Jody, and I crunched the numbers, agreed on the ground rules, and I resigned. I explained to my superiors and colleagues that 'it's kind of like a sabbatical', because that sounded better than 'I may be having a mid life crisis', and I hit the road.

Now, nine months later, I've got a lot to reflect on and a lot of decisions to make before I run out of time and money. In fact, I've got so much to reflect on that I've decided to finally start writing it down and sharing the experience with people.

Why do I think anyone will care? Well, they might not, but after talking with a lot of people about this (mostly poor suckers who were just trying to make small talk when they asked what I do for a living) I've confirmed that--wait for it, it's shocking--nearly *everyone* seems to have the urge to do something like this. And, also unsurprisingly, most are reluctant to try it because it is, ostensibly, a stupidly risky thing to do.

And so people are usually supportive--some very enthusiastically. I totally get that it's not always because they really think it's a good idea, or that they think I can do it. It's because they're excited to see what will happen.

Will one of the most exciting decisions of my life, one that's perhaps representative of the secret ambitions of others, also end up being the worst? A financial disaster that's a great example of why people can't just haul off and do something as reckless as this?

Will it simply be a break that allowed me to spend time with my family and forget about my normal career for awhile, even if the writing itself doesn't pan out and I go back to work in software development?

Or will I somehow pull it off? Write something that's marketable, or at least promising enough to give me reason to stick with it, so that I can tell people that I'm a professional novelist?

Whatever happens, however things work out, I'll keep you posted. I'm awfully curious myself.