More on Writing Rules

In our first video chat, Berthold and Mark discussed “writing rules” and whether writers should follow the rules that filter through the writing community.

Recently, we heard of a couple more rules worth covering. The first was discussed on a Facebook group for literary fiction writers. A member of the group posted a question about flashbacks, having been told by somebody that she should not use flashbacks. Why? Because in the opinion of the “rule-setter,” flashbacks are poor writing and they break up the story.

Which is kind of interesting. Theoretically at least, almost all fiction is one entire flashback since most fiction these days is told in past tense. Practically speaking though, and taking that somewhat snarky response out of the equation, I can’t think of any story that doesn’t have some element of flashbacks in them.

Flashbacks are a way to provide context, to build a history for characters, to fill in gaps that bring the story forward. I (Mark) think of some of the stories I’ve written and many of them have flashbacks. Some are literally filled with flashbacks. One novel I wrote had chapters that alternated between flashbacks and the current story. The novella I published last year is about 80% flashback. The first chapter and last chapter are “now” and everything in between are a flashback to explain how the narrator got to where he was. The Dime, my most recently completed novel is also filled with flashbacks to provide for character and story development.

I’m not necessarily saying that anything I did in either of those stories was right or correct or a model of how writers should write. But just like every “rule” you hear about, take this one with a grain of salt. Think about some of your favorite pieces of fiction, books you read that blew your mind, and I imagine you’ll find plenty of flashbacks in those works. The keys, I believe, are that the flashbacks do not take away from the story, that they add depth to the story, and that they are clearly set off so that the reader knows it is a flashback. (This was one of the negative comments I heard about flashbacks — it isn’t always clear something is a flashback, which adds confusion for the reader.)

Meanwhile, Berthold heard another rule … never, ever use prologues. The funny thing about this is that I just shared a partially completed novel I’ve been working on and pondering for years. I wanted to see what he thought about it before I commit more energy to the project. It has what I think of as a prologue.

But again, think about great fiction you’ve read. I can imagine that you’ll find prologues and epilogues, and all manner of other things in those works. Just like flashbacks may be necessary to provide context and character development, a prologue can set the table for the story to follow. There are times when a prologue makes sense. A “rule” that one should never, ever use a prologue is just nonsense.

And remember that for any rule you hear. Never is a pretty harsh concept when it comes to writing. If it works for your story — a flashback here and there, a prologue — do it. Trust your instincts that you know how you want to tell your story. And then follow the one and only rule there should be — write a good story.

* * * * *

Now that I’ve said that, I wanted to share a recent experience I had. A friend asked me to read a manuscript she had written. I always jump at the chance to do this,, to help other writers, so I agreed. The story had a good mix of characters, a good storyline, and a great sense of humor embedded in it. But there were aspects that made it difficult to read. Switching between first and third person frequently. Switching between past and present person just as frequently. Sometimes these switches occurred within the same paragraph.

While I don’t believe in all of these rules we are told to follow as writers, and I believe the only rule is to write a good story, I think there is a corollary to that rule — don’t make it too difficult for the reader to read and follow the story. And that’s how I felt after reading this manuscript. A good story was confused by a couple of problems in the storytelling. Problems that could be easily fixed.

Given my position on “the rules,” I felt odd providing this feedback to the other writer. But I thought it necessary. In other words, everything I say here should be taken with a grain of salt and adapted to the story you are working on.

A Video Chat — What Not To Do

In which, Berthold, Audrey, Susan and Mark discuss a few things they think writers should think twice about doing. For instance, paying somebody to publish your book, borrowing money to pursue your publishing dreams, behave badly about negative reviews, and more.

Becoming a Writer

By Audrey Driscoll

It can feel like stepping off a cliff and realizing you can fly. Or crashing to earth with a thud.

Based on my experience, these are the steps.

  • You get the urge to write. You start writing and keep writing, and eventually you have a complete, book-length manuscript.
    Tip: Don’t go telling everyone about your writing at this point. In On Writing, Stephen King advises to write the first draft with the door closed. And, I might add, the mouth. You don’t want the magic to leak out.
  • Find other writers (critique partners or beta readers) who are willing to read your work and give you an honest opinion and helpful suggestions. Be prepared to do the same for them, and to invest some time in this process.
  • Observe how you react to feedback on your writing. Be honest with yourself about how you take criticism and unfavourable reactions. These insights will be useful as you proceed with writing and publishing.
  • Rewrite and edit. Several times.
  • Decide if you want to share your writing with the world. Ask yourself why, and figure out what success will look like for you.
  • If you intend to go the traditional publishing route, start early and be prepared to persist. There is a ton of advice out there about querying, writing a synopsis, researching agents and publishers, and dealing with rejection. Be prepared to work at this and take the necessary time. And prepare to deal with rejection.
  • If you plan, or eventually decide, to self-publish, figure out what parts of the process (editing, formatting, and cover design) you are capable of doing yourself. Your critique partners and other writers may give you valuable feedback. Use Canva or a similar tool to test your design skills by creating images that represent your novel or story. At the least, you might produce something to show your ideas to the cover designer you hire to do the job for you.
  • Decide how much money you can afford to invest in your publishing project. Do not use borrowed money with the expectation of paying it back from the proceeds of book sales. If your budget is small, apply it to things you are least capable of doing yourself. Consider skill swapping with people you know. Be prepared to take time finding the most affordable options.
    Tip: Good. Fast. Cheap. Pick two!
  • The internet is your friend, as well as your greatest distraction. From writing and publishing advice, to encouragement when things get tough, to doing research, to the act of publishing, to promotion, it can all be found or done online. So if you don’t already have them, get yourself a reliable computer and a solid internet connection.

Writing seriously, and especially bringing your writing to the world, is a complex and demanding process. It is also tremendously satisfying and rewarding (although most likely not in the financial sense).

Reading this post may be one of your first steps!

Image from Pixabay

Advice I Should Have Listened To

Early on in my 15+ year journey as a writer I received two pieces of advice that I ignored. I should have listened a little closer and tried a little harder to follow these two pearls of wisdom. I offer them here for you to consider. As with any advice, rules, or conventions of writing, do with it what you will. Nothing is set in stone. We all must forge our own path in how we approach our creative efforts.

When I graduated from law school, I got a job as an administrative hearing officer. I wrote a lot of decisions and orders for the next four years. Every decision was reviewed by two people, one of whom read for the quality of the writing. A few years after I left that job, I started writing fiction. I kept in touch with Jeanne, the woman who served as the editor back then. When I told her about my fiction efforts, Jeanne offered me advice as I started to tell her about what I was working on.

“Don’t do it. Don’t talk to people about what you’re writing.” I ignored her and I shouldn’t have. It’s an odd thing. If you write novels, you generally are committing to the life of a hermit with your idea and your work. For months, and in some cases years, you toil away without any real encouragement or endorsement of what you are doing.

It’s one of the challenges of being a writer. You spend so much time working in silence without confirmation of the value of what you’re doing. It can lead to major doubt which can lead to major writer’s block which can lead to losing all of your hair.

Here’s what I noticed though when I started telling people about what I was working on. A couple of things happened. First, the pressure to produce something people liked grew considerably. Second, the idea of the story lost its luster. I think it was the second aspect that Jeanne was mostly concerned about. And I find it to be true.

Once I tell somebody what the story is, or what my idea is, I all too frequently start to experience problems with my writing. I … just … lose interest. Once the secret is out, it just doesn’t seem as exciting anymore.

I should have listened to Jeanne way back when. I’m going to follow her advice from now on. As much as possible, I’m not sharing with people what I’m working on until it’s done. So … I can tell you that I have a project I’m going to pursue for 2021. It’s an ambitious one. But I ain’t telling you a thing more about it.

The second piece of advice I received right around the same time. After I finished One Night in Bridgeport, I had all sorts of ideas for what I wanted to do next. I started something, and then more ideas kept popping into my head.

I asked my dad (who is also a writer) how he decided what to work on. His advice was essentially to pick something and see it to its end before starting another project. “You may never finish anything if you don’t,” is the paraphrase of his final thought on the topic.

Dad is a very wise man and I should have listened to him. As my ideas developed into more complicated stories and I found hurdles in my way, I would shift from one story to another. And years later, I have at least a half dozen half-completed, half-baked novels that sit on my computer and taunt me.

In the last year, I have managed to finish a couple of things. The Irrepairable Past and The Dime. But there are those other stories that continue to intrigue me and I keep trying to push open the door on one of them. When nothing happens, I consider one of the others. It has become this vicious cycle. Too many works in progress and no idea which one I should pursue first.

Add to this that bits and pieces of all of these stories have been shared on my blog and … yes, Jeanne was right … that seems to cause part of the problem with getting back to each of these projects. So, I keep cycling through them and pondering which one to pick up.

I do know this. I finished Irrepairable and The Dime because I committed myself to it. The idea that I was going to finish them no matter what, and focus exclusively on each story until I was able to type “The End.”

This is now what I’m doing. I’m combining the advice of those much wiser than me. I have a project that I’m committed to for 2021. I will not be diverted from it until it is done. And I’m not going to tell you think more about it.

What advice related to writing have you received over the years that you followed? What advice did you fail to follow that you wish you had? What advice would you give to writers?

Seven Blogs for Writers

By Audrey Driscoll

Here are seven WordPress blogs that can serve as avenues to enter the worldwide online community of writers. Read, comment, and connect with others who do the same.

Chris the Story Reading Ape’s Blog
Curated resources, writer profiles, writer talent showcase, and more. Chris supplies links to blogs beyond WordPress, opening up a world of resources in one place.

Story Empire: Exploring the World of Fiction
The home of seven bestselling authors who share a passion for all things related to writing, publishing, and promoting fiction.

Smorgasbord Blog Magazine
Blog magazine for lovers of health, food, books, music, humour and life in general.
Sally Cronin and colleagues deliver a bounty of entertaining and informative posts, including book reviews and promotions.

Life in the Realm of Fantasy
The writerly musings of Connie J. Jasperson, author, blogger and medieval renaissance woman.
Thoroughly researched posts on the nitty-gritty of writing and publishing.

K.M. Allan
Writing Advice From A YA Author Powered By Chocolate And Green Tea
Practical writing tips based on experience.

WHAT THE HELL: Kevin Brennan Writes About What It’s Like
Author Kevin Brennan shares his thoughts on writing and publishing, including his series “Gatecrash: liberating creativity in the age of boilerplate fiction.”

The Disappointed Housewife
A literary journal for writers, and readers seeking the idiosyncratic, the iconoclastic, the offbeat, the hard-to-categorize. Writers whose short fiction, essays, and poetry fit these requirements may seek publication here.

Featured image from Pixabay

Pep Talks II

[This is a generalized adaptation of the thought process I go through whenever I wonder if there’s any point in writing. It is my answer to the question posed by Mark in this post.–Berthold Gambrel.]

Why should you write indie fiction? You’re competing not only against all the other authors in the world–past and present–but against all forms of entertainment. The grand spectacle of a Hollywood blockbuster or the rich production values of a TV series are quite a daunting prospect for a lone writer to compete with. And yet here we are.

Maybe it will help to redefine the products. We aren’t producing “books.” We’re producing stories. This puts me in the same business as Disney and HBO, and we all know who is winning in that market.

But while this is the market for stories, there is still some room for differentiation. A blockbuster CGI action picture demands very little imagination. “A picture,” as the old saw says, “is worth a thousand words.” That’s because words by themselves take imagination to compile. A movie, by definition, takes less.

So we can create a tiered system of stories by classifying how much imagination each type of story demands of its audience. This could be a fascinating exercise to carry out in detail, but for now, I’m just interested in the general point.

What is imagination? Imagination takes work. Imagination is like a muscle; you need to exercise it, or it becomes weak and ineffectual. But when you use it and train it, it can accomplish amazing things. (Also, like muscle, you can use artificial stimulants to enhance it, but this is certainly not recommended. Don’t be the Barry Bonds of imagination.)

Imagination, then, requires discipline. Anyone can watch a movie. To read a book requires putting forth more active effort. And to write a book… well! 

This is another way of differentiating our product: whereas Hollywood is selling something that is easy and fun, books are challenging but rewarding. Both McDonald’s and GNC are selling stuff you can eat, but they aren’t really competing for the same customers.

I like the analogy with health food, not least because it implies that reading is more than just a pastime–it is a lifestyle. A way of being, in fact.

Let us pause here and ask: do we expect there to be more people at McDonald’s or GNC? I think the answer is self-evident. We can no more expect books to win a popularity contest with modern media than we can expect to see children clamoring for their parents to take them to GNC for some turmeric pills. 

There’s no easy way to say it: writing books cannot be used as a get-rich-quick scheme. Or even a get-rich-slow scheme. It is true that some people have indeed gotten rich from writing books, and it is likely true that more people will do so in the future, but the probabilities of doing so are not in the writer’s favor. Some people get rich playing at casinos, too–but most people don’t, and moreover, the system is designed to ensure that it stays that way.

The audience for books is smaller and more discerning than the audience for other entertainment forms. They are therefore harder to win over, and generate less gross revenue. These are just the facts. Best to look them square in the eye and accept them. 

The world of books is a lifestyle, a mental practice, a philosophy of life. And like many another philosophy, it must begin with the renunciation of material wealth. But don’t worry; you don’t need to sell all your possessions and live in the desert. In fact, you can be as rich as you want. Just obliterate any mental connection you may have drawn between books and money. 

I understand; I really do. It’s nice when a reader pays you money for a book. It’s nicer if a million readers pay you a buck each. We all would like that. I would like that.

But there is no way we can make that happen. At best, it may happen by chance. Therefore, we must focus solely on what we can make happen. This is not a new idea. Marcus Aurelius was saying similar things back in the 2nd century. And his book is still being read today.

I would not exchange being read by Carrie Rubin, Pat Prescott, Phillip McCollum, Noah Goats, Lydia Schoch, Audrey Driscoll, Joy Spicer, Andrey Popov, Laurie Boris, Lorinda Taylor, Eileen Stephenson, Mark Paxson, Kevin Brennan, Geof Cooper, A.C. Flory, Richard Pastore, Amit Herlekar, ESXIII, Tammy Schoch, Tammie Painter, and the rest of you wonderful people for being read by a million unknown readers, even ones who paid $10 a book, because the relationship with my readers would be purely a one-sided thing.

We would like to have more readers. But we can’t control the number of readers. What we can control is our relationship with our existing readers. Many writers have observed that it feels like their books are only read by other authors. This is assuredly true. This is not a problem. This is exactly what we want. 

Writing is not like the movies, where a few people make them so a lot of people can watch them.  It’s not a client-server approach, but more of a peer-to-peer architecture. It only takes one person to read or to write a book. 

How great an advantage is this for the writer! A film director cares more about what other film directors think of their films than about what audiences or critics or even studio execs think of them. The audiences, the critics, the execs–these are all accessories which must be pleased to some extent in order to finance the production of films. But the true artist draws the most prestige from peer opinion. 

Like I said: a state of mind. Do not dwell on the disadvantages with which our craft has burdened us! Rather, see what hidden advantages we have had all along.

Perhaps you’re still not convinced. 

I don’t blame you. It’s all very well to talk a big game about the satisfaction in making one’s own art, finding joy in the creative process etc. but when you look out and see other people sitting in mansions paid for by writing books that aren’t, by the standard of anyone with some modicum of taste, any good–well, it’s easy to get depressed.

My goal here is not to persuade you that the facts are other than what they appear to be. The facts are exactly what they appear to be: it is very, very difficult for a writer to attract a large enough audience to make them a substantial amount of money. When it does happen, it is usually a result of pure luck rather than anything the writer themselves did. 

But you sort of already knew this, and yet you’re still writing. Maybe you were in denial about it, maybe you thought you were going to be the one who gets a lucky break, maybe you thought you knew something the others didn’t. All three of these things could certainly have been said of me, at one point or another.

Meanwhile, the set of books to read grows larger, and the set of available readers shrinks, meaning the odds against you get longer and longer with the passing of each day. If you haven’t succeeded already, what makes you think you are going to?

You see, I am not purely a naive optimist. I can plumb the depths of despair found in the bleakest authorial pessimism as well as soaring to the heights of sunny pie-in-the-sky rhetoric about the value of art. Neither are fully accurate assessments, but both must be observed and appreciated before we can begin to formulate a plan for succeeding as an indie author in the 21st century.

The plan first and foremost requires focusing on reading and writing as a way of crafting worlds. There is a kind of duality inherent in stories told through the written word because, as mentioned earlier, they involve both the author and the reader. In other words, my vision of your book is not the same as your vision of your bookWe see the same words, but we imagine them in different ways.

Thus, writer and reader are in a sense collaborators. It’s not an equal collaboration, though, since writing the book is far more work than reading it once it’s done. However, if the readers are also people who have written books, they at least can sympathize with what the author went through.

Recognizing this, indie authors should seek to be read by other indie authors. This is the best way of maximizing the potential of written works. 

Now, this might immediately make you think of practice of review swapping, which is officially forbidden when an indie author is trying to monetize their work. Again, we hearken back to the casino analogy–The House has certain rules, and these rules exist for the benefit of the House, not the players. If a player starts to win too much, the House will take care to make that stop.

You see how playing the game for money constrains us. Playing instead for sheer aesthetic interest is less lucrative, but it is also more fun. And it allows us to form communities of writers and readers organized around anything we’re interested in. 

H.P. Lovecraft, whose name is now synonymous with a sub-genre of horror, organized such a community back in the 1920s and ’30s. “The Lovecraft circle,” as it is now known, can be credited with popularizing an entire style–an artistic movement that has given us much good fiction, interesting art, and plenty of memes.

The cynic will note that Lovecraft died in poverty. So he did, but he did not have the internet. If we, enlightened citizens of the 21st century with a miraculous worldwide electronic network cannot do better than a bigot who liked to pretend he lived in the 18th century did with pen and paper, then we are just not serious about this. 

Today’s strange eccentricity of a select few is tomorrow’s must-have fashion. Curiously, the groups that exert the most influence over trends and tastes seem to be the ones who care least about them.  This seems odd, but makes sense when you think about it: if you are going to create a new artistic movement, the first step must be to stop following any current ones.

The advantage of the indie author lies in the ability to communicate easily with their peers. If there is a defining quality of the indie book world, it lies with its sense of community, with understanding and appreciating the duality of reading and writing. As Noah Goats observed in his indie publishing magnum opus, The Unpublishables, books are both walls and bridges; they both keep people apart and bring them together.

Indie authorship is a view of the world, a philosophy, a practice. There is no better term than the Chinese concept of gong fu–which may be roughly translated as “work practiced expertly.” As so often happens, the Western world has corrupted the meaning of this term. But contrary to what Carl Douglas may say, everybody is not gong fu fighting. Indeed, the nature of gong fu is that not everybody can do it. The art lies in the admiration of those who can.

As for material rewards or even mere popularity, are these things really the reason you write? Maybe in some cases, but I suspect not many. Here is the fusion of the optimistic and the pessimistic visions of the world of indie writing into one, presenting at last the true picture. One does not become an author to make money but to share a vision.

If there are few with whom that vision may be shared, that is hardly reason to lose heart. Human beings, even writers, are social animals, but our sociability does not scale infinitely. Though the material rewards of being the poet of the masses may be great, there is something in the human soul which prizes the understanding of a few kindred souls more dearly still. We are not meant to please the world, but to please our family–where “family” is interpreted broadly as simply those whose opinions we value. 

Or even, if necessary, only ourselves. The age of the internet has encouraged our tendency to seek external validation from the acclaim of others. This makes it all too easy for us to sink into despair when we see we are not performing up to the standard the world has set for us. But this phenomenon itself is not new. It existed in Marcus Aurelius’ time, too. I understand if you don’t want to trust me, a random nut with a blog. But Marcus is widely regarded as “the last good emperor of Rome.” Ave ImperatorI leave you with his verdict on the topic:

“Set thyself in motion, if it is in thy power, and do not look about thee to see if any one will observe it; nor yet expect Plato’s Republic: but be content if the smallest thing goes on well, and consider such an event to be no small matter.”

Pep Talks

Mark here. I realize we need to come up with a way to identify the author of the posts. I’ll work on that. But …

I posted a couple of weeks ago about my search for an agent for The Dime. I sent a query out to five agents. Within a couple of days, I got my first rejection. Which is fine. I expect it.

But … I also asked a writing friend to take a look at my query and give me feedback. He gave me some good info on how to improve the thing. And since then I’ve been stalling. I just … jeez … I have no optimism that this will actually work. It’s such a crap shoot.

In my other life, I’m an attorney. A world filled with rules and procedures. There is plenty of gray in the legal world, but there are still parameters around which there is some clarity. With the world of agenting and querying and publishing, I just have no idea what those parameters are.

Why? Because I’m convinced it all comes down to a very subjective, personal level of taste and interest. No amount of perfecting my query letter will make a difference. It’s just so … what’s the point of the effort, when the result just feels so random and undefined?

So … I’m trying to give myself a pep talk. Writers out there … what do you do when you need a pep talk? Is it an internal, solo thing? Or are there people you can turn to — other writers, readers, friends, family — who pick you up, pat you on the back and say “keep on keeping on, you’ll get there.”

We all need pep talks every now and then. We need encouragement that what we are doing makes sense, has meaning and value. Where do you find that?

A New Journey

When I started writing, I finished One Night In Bridgeport and sent a few queries out to agents. Probably around 15-20. I got no interest at all, and I gave up on traditional publishing for that story. When I finished Weed Therapy, I tried again, a somewhat halfhearted effort at best. One agent read my query letter and asked for the first ten pages. I sent it to her and got a “no, not what I thought it was” kind of response.

Ever since it’s been indie publishing for me, with not a huge amount of success at finding an audience. Whenever I write, in the back of mind is the question of whether to give traditional publishing another go.

With The Dime, my just completed novel, I’ve decided to do it. The story may have more commercial appeal and potential than other things I’ve done. I mean, it could be marketed as YA fiction, and that’s a huge piece of the marketplace these days.

I plan on putting a lot more effort into it than I did before, and sharing my experience and lessons learned here as I go through the process.

Kevin Brennan, writer and editor extraordinaire, provided me with three resources to do an agent search.

Manuscript Wish List

Poets & Writers

Association of Authorized Representatives

Starting with the Manuscript Wish List database, I’ve spent the last two days putting together a spreadsheet of agents repping YA fiction and trying to identify those that are interested in contemporary, realistic fiction, instead of the fantasy/dystopian/love triangle type of YA fiction.

As other writers point out, this is a daunting task. While there are similarities in the asks for queries, it still feels like each and every agent is different. They vary in what they want submitted. A query letter only. A query letter plus five pages, or ten, or 30. Some want a synopsis. 3-5 paragraphs in length. 1-2 pages in length. Some want an elevator pitch included. Some want social media info. Some don’t even mention it.

Which is why a spreadsheet comes in handy. After going through the Manuscript Wish List, I have 86 agents identified as possibilities. And I haven’t even gone over to the other two databases.

The spreadsheet includes their name, agency, website, email, and submission requirements, and once I send a query, that will be entered, as well as any responses I receive. But first, I need to do a few things.

I need to check the website for each and every agent to make sure they are currently accepting submissions. The database occasionally mentions this, but I have found plenty of agents for whom the database doesn’t indicate they are closed to new submissions — only to go to their website to see that they are closed. First lesson learned — check the websites and don’t rely on a 3rd party database. This goes for each agent’s query requirements. Doublecheck their website!

[Edited to add: another reason to check the agency websites? The number of agents who are no longer at the agency’s identified in the 3rd party databases.]

One thing the websites also frequently state is that they will only accept a query to one of their agents. You cannot send multiple queries to different agents at the same agency. Well, except for one agency, which encouraged multiple queries to their agents. Second lesson learned — check the websites and learn all of the details for each agency and agent. Even within the same agency, there can be differences from agent to agent.

Once I finish up my website research, I’m going to start drafting my query letter. I’m going to start with agents who don’t require a synopsis. As hard as a query letter is to write, I find the synopsis exponentially more difficult. But I will need to develop that at some point also. The reality is that these documents are the most important part of the query process. They are what an agent relies on to make a judgment about your story.

How about you? What have you done in trying to go the traditional publishing route? What lessons did you learn? Did you have any successes?

A Video Chat – Writer’s Block

In the third installment of our video chats, Berthold, Audrey and I were joined by Susan Nicholls. This particular topic is near and dear to me as I’ve struggled with major writer’s block for the last five or six years. Below the video is a post I wrote on the topic, detailing all of the ways in which I struggled with that block — or more importantly, I discuss the causes of the block I experienced.

I think it’s really important for any writer who has a block, or really any creative person, and who wants to break through for that person to really try to figure out what the root causes are. There’s something going on. Figure it out. Address it and get writing and creating again. It took me years to get there.

Have you had writer’s block? What were the causes? How did you break out of it?

A Journey Through Writer’s Block (Mark Paxson)

I’ve written about writer’s block before on my blog, most frequently by venting my frustrations that I couldn’t seem to write. Occasionally, I would cite a reason for the block and then allude to there being about 85 other reasons as well. And just rant away about the fact that I wasn’t writing.

When I started my writing journey, I wrote a lot for about ten years. A lot. I think back to that time and don’t know how I did it. I was working full-time, spending a lot of time coaching my kids in two different sports which meant coaching just about year round, training and running in a handful of half marathons, cooking and baking and gardening and taking care of a lot of yard work, and doing all sorts of other things. And writing. A lot.

Then something happened. What I want to do here is describe what I think happened.

It may have started with publishing One Night in Bridgeport. I threw that book out into the universe “to see what would happen.” When I ran a few promotions on various websites, people started to download the book. Thousands did so. Some free, some for 99 cents. Eventually, I made a couple thousand bucks on that book — the one I wrote just to see if I could write a novel. 

Back then, I was writing because I enjoyed it. I had found something creative, a talent I didn’t realize I had, and I liked to write different stories in different genres, and just wanted to keep writing. I enjoyed the experimentation and the testing, the challenge, of what I was trying to do. I got a few short stories published in various places, and then Bridgeport actually made me some money!!

That money meant something. I changed my objective. If I could make money off of my very first novel, it would only get better. I’d make more money on the next, and more on the next, as my audience grew. Right?


I published another novel a couple of years later. It didn’t attract much of an audience before I un-published it. And since then, even though I’ve had this massive writer’s block, I’ve managed to publish a few more things. A long short story. A novella. Neither of them have done much.

One of the things I’ve learned during this journey is that success in the indie market depends on a few things. One of those things is volume – a thing I haven’t been able to get to in the past because of all the other things going in my life and … well … you know … the block. Another thing that matters is writing and publishing in a genre that has broad appeal. This is why Bridgeport did well. It was a courtroom drama, a legal “thriller,” the kind of book that readers could pick up and now what to expect. As long as I followed the formula, all would be good.

But since Bridgeport, the vast majority of what I’ve written fits more readily into a “genre” that defies description and defies formula — literary fiction. Weed Therapy — the novel I unpublished — literary fiction. The Irrepairable Past — literary fiction. The novel I just finished writing, The Dime, might break this mold. It could be marketed as YA, but it is most definitely literary as well.

The point is that, after my initial success with Bridgeport, I changed my objective, but what I was writing and publishing in the indie world didn’t match up with that objective. The result was that … one of the reasons for my writer’s block was that I no longer knew why I was writing.

Was I writing for the enjoyment of it? Or to make money? Why couldn’t it be both? And if it wasn’t for both, was it really worth the effort.

Here’s the thing. Writing is difficult. It’s draining. It can be a huge challenge to sit down in front of the keyboard and screen and try to pound the words out. When you don’t know why you’re putting yourself through that punishment, it can be difficult to put the effort in.

That’s reason #1. A shifting objective that really didn’t make any sense and that has taken me years to adjust to. Only 84 or so more reasons to go! Kidding, I’ve got just a couple more.

The next reason relates to what was going on in my life. When I look back to that period of time when I was writing a lot, even though there was so much going on in my life, I think a lot of that stuff was very positive. I enjoyed coaching my kids and running and cooking and all of those other activities. But as my life evolved through my kids getting older, needing me less, and the inevitable conflicts of raising teenagers, it became less enjoyable.

Add to that an injury I incurred around the same time — an injury that exists to this day and which prevents me from the same level of physical activity — and a lot of the things I enjoyed during that time have either dried up or been a struggle.

Meanwhile, my work life got more and more and more stressful. I can’t understate the stress that developed in my work life over the last 6-8 years. What that stress did was leave me incapable of doing much writing during that time. Why? Go back to what I said above — writing is not easy. It’s difficult. It’s draining. It’s a challenge.

When I first started writing, I could come home, have dinner with the family, and then write for an hour or two. On weekends, I could write in the in-between moments of all of our other activities. But as the years went by, it became more and more difficult to do that. Once I got home from work, I didn’t want to do anything more than the minimum needed to get through the evening and go to bed.

Instead of filling the hour of free time that I had here and there with writing, I started to let the distractions win. When I first started writing, Twitter wasn’t a thing. Facebook was barely a thing. So much of what exists today on the internet was either not around or in such a nascent state that it barely registered in how I filled my day. That changed by the time I published Bridgeport and moved on from there. 

My free time became an exercise in wasting time, taking the easy way out, surfing the internet, writing blog posts, reading other people’s blogs, arguing in the comments sections of political blogs, … just doing as little as possible, while not writing very much fiction. And when I sat down to write, the voice in my head, what some people refer to as my internal editor, was way too loud. I could barely write a sentence or two without that voice chiming in, “THIS IS CRAP!! WHY DO YOU BOTHER!!”

Add all of that up and it was way too easy to just not write, to conserve my emotional and mental energy for my job and for the act of raising two boys as they entered adulthood. The distractions won, day after day, week after week, for years.

Which leads to the last reason I want to address here. I knew this then, but I don’t know that I ever put the name on it. Looking back now, I can put the name on it. I was dealing with a pretty major case of depression. Between the work stress and unhappiness (I can’t understate how unhappy I was in my work life for the last ten years or so – maybe a topic for another post), the stress of family life, and then the uncertainty about my writing that grew around me like a mushroom cloud – I wasn’t handling it all very well. That all added up to me being so weak emotionally and mentally, that I just couldn’t climb my way out of the hole I had dug for myself. And with each interval of time that went by without me writing anything, the hole got deeper and deeper.

I retired at the end of February this year. It’s been a slow process of improvement since then. At least I hope it is. A few other things have helped potentially re-open the door to writing. 

First, I started another creative outlet last year. Acrylic pour painting. It’s a thing I’m enjoying. It allows me to experiment with various techniques, designs, and outcomes. I believe doing this has helped refresh my creative mind and that is helping with writing.

Second, I was able to finish the second part of The Dime – a story I started way back in 2013, right at the beginning of my struggles with writer’s block. That second part had been sitting there, staring me in the face, for too many years. Finishing it was a breath of fresh air. And then when I shared it with a writer/editor friend, he encouraged me to finish the third part and then try to get an agent. In his words, the story has commercial appeal.

And you know what happened? Go back to the beginning of this post and my comments about having an unclear objective for writing. Suddenly, I had an objective — get the damn story done and start shopping it around. I wrote part three, 22,000 words, in just over a month. It’s been years since I was able to write like that.

So, what’s the lesson here? There are all types of writer’s block and reasons for it. When I first started writing, I wrote about 20,000 words in a couple of months before getting bogged down and not writing for a few months. Back then, it was an environmental issue — my kids were young and fun, and the only computer we had was in the office. Which meant isolating myself from my kids to write. I didn’t like doing that. When I bought a laptop and could have that wherever they were, I was able to write again.

But sometimes, as described here, there are much deeper issues at play. If you’re suffering from writer’s block, don’t be afraid to do the work to look at the root causes for it. And then, do what you can to address those causes. The reality for me is that, on some level, there was nothing I could do about some of the causes for my block. The job was necessary to provide for my family. Raising my kids was a responsibility I couldn’t shirk. It is only as those two stresses have either been eliminated or significantly reduced that I feel like I am able to breathe again, and re-consider the possibilities writing provides.