I’m hoping to use this post to create a regular, but intermittent, feature about writing that starts an ongoing discussion between me and any other writers/creative types–published or not–who want to jump in. (I’ve given myself permission to write whatever interests me every week which is why this won’t be a serial series but, if the response opens the door to writing issues, I’ll of course follow up.) Nothing would please me more than a back-and-forth so we can learn from each other. If you have anything you might want to say, suggest, or share, please do. Writing has always been termed “solitary,” and it is. But that doesn’t preclude confabbing about what we’ve discovered during all those secluded hours, which has the potential to enrich us all.

There are a million things to say about writing, but good writing always starts with the same two things: time and effort.

You have no idea how often people would come up to me when I did book tours for my Matt Jacob novels and say, “I have a great story, but I just don’t have time to sit down and write it.” Worse, some would suggest that they tell me their story and perhaps I could write it. I usually nodded sympathetically or politely demurred but, at the same time, thought fuggetaboutit. Wasn’t gonna happen. Not only was I not going to write their story, I knew they weren’t either.

The first thing any aspiring writer needs is a good chair and the guts to keep his or her ass stuck to it. That doesn’t mean all day, every day. But it does mean carving out a regular time to focus and think and dream. A regular time to write. This is true for pros as well as neophytes. From where my ass is parked, it’s the only way to actually learn the craft and keep it sharp. Though, if other people found other ways, I’d dearly love to hear about it.

Gotta read too; it’s the key to understanding what kind of book you want to write. Although reading a variety of types of books can only enrich and help, it makes sense to eventually focus on the ways different authors work in the type of writing you’re interested in.

From an early age, I loved mysteries. Started with The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, which, of course, evolved as I grew older. And while I enjoyed what is often termed “literary” fiction, Updike’s Rabbit, Malamud’s depressing take on the world, the comedic genius of Heller’s Catch 22, for example, I kept returning to mysteries, honing in on the “hard-boiled” version of detective fiction.

So, when I decided to leave counseling to try my hand at writing, I already knew what I wanted to do. I understood the parameters of detective fiction well enough to try to push its boundaries, while still maintaining the basic form. Kinda like grammar; you have to know the rules well to break them artfully. When I began writing, I also stopped reading all mysteries because I was terrified of unconsciously plagiarizing. And, I’ve held to it. Do any of you out there do this too? And for the same reason?

A good example of someone who works differently than I do is a musician friend who asked me for feedback on his manuscript. After my usual caveat of “Sure, but I have to be free to tell you what I really think without any bullshit,” I read the work. It was a fictionalized memoir that, frankly, wasn’t all that good. Its underlying premise could have made it truly interesting, but the tradecraft was weak and I thought he had missed the forest for the trees.

I line edited, noting where I thought he hit or missed the mark, where characters weren’t drawn well or their voices distinct enough. We set up a time to meet and I was pretty nervous about it. Basically, I was suggesting going back to the drawing board.

We met for hours and, much to my relief, he was eager for feedback and undaunted by the task ahead. After this meeting, he began voraciously reading many different types of memoirs while he began his rewrite–something I wouldn’t have done but no two people are the same. A few more extensive revisions over the next couple of years and the book is now in the hands of an agent. I don’t know if it will sell, but I do know the quality of his story and work is outstanding.

I started to tell his story as an example of someone who felt comfortable reading in his genre or area of writing, while trying to do it himself. But my buddy’s experience actually confirms both points I’m really making in this post. You have to commit to the project. Despite working full time, he put in the energy and effort on a regular schedule and accomplished his goal. Of course he wants it to sell (as do I), but at the least, he has completed something he is proud of and should be. Plus, he has subsequently gone on to write other stories (which his agent also accepted). He has turned himself into a wonderful writer by understanding and accepting the hard, time-consuming work it takes to create something special.

Writing starts with this commitment–and hopefully, our discussions where people relate their own experiences will too. Then, in upcoming weeks, I’ll talk in detail about various aspects of my personal approach to writing books, hoping others will chime in at those posts as well as now. Please don’t leave me talking to myself.

Meanwhile another dedicated, talented artist needs some help: A good friend of mine, Jim Ohm, an independent film maker who embodies all the qualities I mentioned above and many more, is raising money for his new film Pretend. I’ve read the script, think it’s really, really, good, and hope each of you visit his site ( and listen to what he says about the film. Well worth the time.

Do not wait for the last judgment. It takes place every day.
Albert Camus

10 thoughts on “SO YOU WANNA WRITE A BOOK? PART 1

  1. I am in awe of your discipline to write long-form with the necessary continuity and dialogue required to produce a novel. When did you first realize you possessed this discipline? talent? ability? facility? Which is it?

    No matter, I either lack it or have yet to harness it successfully. I found that after I began writing opinion/non-fiction I all but lost the ability to read novels, let alone consider writing at length.

    I think of my writing not as story-telling; more as translation. Reading between the lines… Riffing; imputed to elements of events that reveal (to me) a pattern. What is said; what is meant, what is the logic? Beyond 3000 words it blurs and frays and repeats itself. The task changes to condensing, distilling.

    I enjoy “call and response” writing that morphs into a dialogue then allows the readers to decide what any of it means.

    • One person’s 3000 words can often equal a novel. You’ll always be welcomed here as a guest columnist. As far as some of the other questions about my writing, I intend to save all the comments and weave them into Part 2, whenever I write it. And, as usual, thanks for taking the time to read the post and comment. Much appreciated!

  2. It is a pretty decent offer. I spent forever learning to draw and paint but now it seems wonderful but limiting. Writing, though, so far, offers a quick fix. It’s a cheap high compared to the frustration of painting.

  3. I love this topic and think many will find it useful. The first thing I want to say is this: don’t fall in love with your own words. Be merciless in cutting out your deathless prose if it tightens your story.

    My main comment is to agree with the
    discipline you used; set a time and don’t vary from it. When I wrote my
    books I set an hour every morning before the rest of the family got up and
    spent that hour writing. I was running a very busy secretarial service at
    the time and still had family to take care of, including a mother in her
    last year of life. That hour early in the morning was without interruption,
    no phone calls, etc. Then the rest of the day, into the night and even into
    my dreams, as I did my secretarial work, I wrote in my head so that the next
    morning at my set time, all I had to do was sit down and type what had
    already formed in my head. IMO, to write a book you have to be obsessed
    with it (not to the point of letting others in on your obsession) and let it
    “write itself in your head.” At least that’s the way it works for me. If I
    had a character who just would not do what I wanted him to do, I’d realize
    he was exerting his own personality and so it was that personality I went
    with. In my novel, one little boy was going to be sweet and helpful, and he
    turned into an absolute brat, but I realized that he needed to be that.
    Sometimes the character writes the dialog and you have to go along with it.
    I think what I’m saying is that you simply have to let it go, forget your
    own biases and what you thought the story should be, and realize the Greeks
    were right, there is a muse that takes over if you just get yourself out of
    the way. Stephen King said he always starts not with a beginning and an
    end, but with a situation and the story builds from that. For instance, the
    man who has an accident and is trapped in the home of the crazy nurse. He
    started with that situation, and ended with a novel which was made into a
    movie. He has written a very good book for any author to read, and its
    title is “On Writing”. I recommend it to budding authors.

    • Louise–I think you’re right on the money about letting a book take over–though it does make family life a bit more difficult. I can’t count the number of times Sue and I talked about going someplace during a period when I was writing one of the Matt Jacob novels and I’d beg out because I was struggling with a paragraph and didn’t want to leave it behind. Luckily, Sue, who is herself a tremendous writer, understood and we’d try to reschedule.

      But your aside right at the beginning of your comment struck me as huge. Slice, dice, and do whatever necessary for the good of the book. I think it not only helps with the story but teaches you how to become a better writer.

      Like I said, I’ll be doing more of these posts and would love if you, or anyone one else, would like to send me areas you might want discussed. I can always be reached at my website address witch is

      And thank you too for taking the time and effort to comment. Really appreciated.

  4. I admire people with discipline. I never had any to speak of. But I’m a published writer, as you know, and am currently working on my next nonfiction magazine/paper article.

    I cannot speak for anyone else but me. If I followed your regimen I’d wind up looking at the clock and waiting for my damned writing time to come to an end so I could go about other pursuits. Conversely, I have stopped work on other things to get to the keyboard and write nonstop throughout the day and often throughout the night. I write my professional work when compelled to by some inner drive I never asked for or nurtured. I write like a man possessed when the muse is upon me. My wife can tell when I’m “on a roll” because I type so fast the keyboard makes a low buzzing sound, like faraway thunder. I don’t normally type like that. It’s as if I’m merely taking dictation, the words coming to me from an unknown source. I almost never edit anything. I write as it comes to me and that miraculously seems to grip people somehow.

    What’s behind this? My best guess is my Bipolar Disorder. We’re quirky in other ways, so why not writing too? The thought of setting aside a timed limit to begin and end my writing is as alien to me as some distant planet. *I do not know where the words come from.* I mean that literally. I do considerable amounts of research and find all the facts possible, but the articles and stories themselves jell into a coherent tale in a portion of my mind I’m not allowed into.

    I’m a voracious reader, though. Even in the bathroom, if there’s no magazine handy I’ll read the contents of a Listerine bottle. I read during every meal. I read every night in bed before sleeping. I was the baby of the family, coming along late and rather accidentally in all their lives, and they were all readers too. They took the time to teach me, because I asked them to and they were all exhausted with reading to me. I could read (poorly) at three and read, comprehend, and discuss what was in the newspaper by five. When exposed to “Dick and Jane” and “See Spot Run” in the first grade, I thought everyone else, including the teachers, were idiots. What’s this crap? This ain’t a book. This isn’t even a good comic strip.

    I never realized I had the “knack” until high school and teachers began to write long comments on papers I was required to write and turn in. A+ was my usual grade. If they told us to pick a subject and give them five pages on it, I’d often turn in fifteen interesting enough for adults to take the time to read.

    It’s both a blessing and a curse. There are bad sides to this sort of thing too.

    So I think perhaps I should bow out of this discussion. I am a freak, an aberration, I’m not like the others. I’ve met a few other great (at least in my opinion) writers and only found one other who honestly admitted he had no idea where his words came from either. I looked at him as if he was crazy. He had to be crazy. Those words came from within him, not delivered by a divine hand on stone tablets. He had no hot line to God. He wasn’t psychic, didn’t glow in the dark, or walk on water. He was boringly normal as an old shoe, with just that one insane talent. I politely changed the subject in order to keep from calling him a nutcase, and eventually we parted. It was only hours later that I realized I had met my doppelganger. That’s how seemingly ridiculous and hard to believe such confessions are.

    I’ve made this comment about my own writing before, and will share it here. I often write the polar opposite of what I want to read or see in a movie. I don’t like “chick flicks,” I think the Hallmark Channel should be bombed off the air, and I don’t appreciate some hack trying to make me feel happy, sad, or anything else with their writing. Just tell me what you have to say and let it go, man.

    And yet…I’ve had several grown, stable men tell me when they read a story or two of mine they cried, cried right in front of their families. I’ve gotten emails from people in other nations telling me the shock and boundless joy they felt when one of my protagonists, obviously doomed to a horrid fate, even death, escaped by the skin of their teeth and lived on, amazed himself to still be breathing. I write nonfiction. The readers know these things really happened to real people.

    I was sitting alone thinking about this in the middle of the night while re-reading some of the kind things people have written me about my stuff. Everybody likes fan mail. A light bulb went on over my head. This is POWER. This is sheer, tremendous power. This is the ability to reach halfway around the world and grip a complete stranger by the collar and manipulate their hearts and souls and make them cry, either with sadness or joy, make them smile and laugh, *make them think*. I have done that in the past and will probably do it again. It is a power very few people can wield.

    Except…I didn’t wield it. I didn’t do that, not me, not Kent. I’m just a regular guy. When I’m on that roll, when the so-called muse is whispering (sometimes bellowing) inside my head, I just type stuff down. Back in my drinking days I’d write things late at night while well-lubricated and read the words in the morning when I woke up, and wonder who in the hell wrote THIS? It was eerie the first few times I did that. But people can get used to things over time and I simply came to accept it without question.

    Every psychiatrist, even reasonably well-read laymen, will tell you there is a fine line between genius and insanity. They’ll say that folks who are a little warped tend to be more creative or have what Charles Fort referred to as “Wild Talents.” There really are people like “Rain Man” who are bumbling, pitiful oafs in society but can do integral calculus in their heads accurately and amazingly fast. I’m not alone in this. And the docs often wind up their professional explanations for the different brain wiring by adding the vast number of people like me who woke up one day, found themselves bored, and took their own life. Everything has a good side and a bad side, I suppose…

    I could not teach anyone to write well if you held a gun on me. I can’t explain my own talent. You, and other more normal people might have some success at it. But I maintain you can’t teach writing to someone who has nothing to write, nothing their soul is not screaming to tell the world. If a wannabe writer has a great story to tell, but knows not how to tell it, you can be of great service to them. Me, I’d ask where the story came from. That’s my personal mystery. That’s what I would like to know, and never will. Most writers are perfectly, boringly, sane and your advice above should be a godsend to many of them. Discipline in a hard craft is necessary for excellence. Advice of any kind is helpful, even if it’s a little off-kilter for some folks. They can adapt good advice to their own situations. If people want the time to write, they can make that time if they demand it of themselves. I support your efforts to help others, because there are too many lousy writers out there and any improvement would be a welcome gain.

    But I can’t help them. I run with scissors.


    • Kent–god bless you. I sure wish I had your natural ability. Wish I could have a muse other than my own head and those moments are few and far between. I just have to make certain I’m ready for them. Which, for me, requires a certain amount of discipline. I can, however, identify with your experience of, well, for me it’s like watching a movie in my head and rushing to write down what I’m seeing. That’s the most fun in the entire writing game. But those moments don’t last which means digging in my heels and trying to fill in when there’s no movie. Which often means edit, edit, edit.

      I also concur that people need to have something they want to say, especially if it’s from the heart, to become any kind of writer. Fiction, non-fiction, whatever. I can’t imagine writing anything decent without something that’s trying to push itself out me.

      So we may not be as far apart as it seems. And no reason to bow out. Truth is, when I write Part 2, (not this coming Monday) I’ll probably use your experiences to cross-ruff against my own. And of course, thanks for taking the time to write about your writing. It’s exactly the type comment I hoped for.

  5. Well I’ll tell you one thing, it does take time. I have been writing almost non-stop since 1993 and I do not intend to stop, ever. Only my political commentaries have ever been published, and only in newspapers, but write all kinds of things. I agree that you can’t take a long break and stay decent at any craft, so when I am not writing for bank, as if I have made any, I write for a workout. I write silly, serious, and downright useless stuff, but I never stop. One day I will pull my crap together, and be expected to perform based on something good I create, so I need to be in top form for when I back myself into a situation where it is expected.

    Crap, it is bedtime…

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