Joe Barlow Writes

Quirky Books for Quirky People–New Thoughts on Writing and Publishing in the Digital Frontier

Archives: January 2014

The Morning and the Muse

typingIt’s the age-old question for literary storytellers: how much writing is enough for one day? At what point can you step away from the keyboard, secure in the knowledge that you’ve put in a solid day’s work, thereby entitling you to spend the rest of the evening sitting on the couch, streaming 30 Rock episodes from Netflix? (Oh, Liz Lemon, how I want to cuddle and strangle you at the same time.)

There’s no right or wrong answer. In the world of business writing, we’d typically have a firm deadline for a project, a completion date by which we must deliver a final draft to the client. At such times, work can feel exactly like what the name implies: work. We pound the keys until we’re done, no matter how long it takes, regardless of how tired we might be. The number of words we write is governed entirely by how many words remain before we reach the end of the project.

But things aren’t so clear-cut when we’re writing without a contract, especially in the world of fiction. Even if we ultimately hope to publish the final product, either through a traditional book deal or via the blossoming medium of self-publishing, we’re essentially writing on spec. When our manuscript is done, it’s done. Since we have no contract, we have no deadline. No editor is likely to call us up, demanding to know the status of our manuscript.

As such, it’s easy to let these projects fall onto the back burner. That’s why so many more people begin novels than complete them. With no deadline, or word count plan, we write only when we feel like it, rather than because it’s time to write.

Well, no more.

Thirteen days after finishing the first draft of Coffee to Die For, I began work on my second Clayton Gyler mystery, tentatively called The Phantom of Mulberry Street. As I mentioned in my previous post, I completed the initial draft of Coffee in about eight months. But what I didn’t mention was that I didn’t write every day during that eight month period. Not even close, in fact. I would tend to wait for inspiration to strike before I fired up my copy of Microsoft Word, leading to long, frustrating dry spells where I wouldn’t think about the book at all for a week, interspersed with other days where I’d pound out 5,000+ words in a frantic attempt to make up lost time. As satisfying as it was to complete a week’s output in a single sitting, this method of work left me a frazzled wreck by the time I called it a day.

This is a classic example of working harder, not smarter.

What I now know is that if I’d simply sat down at the keyboard and began typing, the words would have come. They always do.

Woody Allen famously said that eighty percent of success is simply showing up, and he should know: he’s been faithfully writing and directing a feature film (and sometimes two!) per year for more than four decades now.

How does he manage this superhuman feat? Easy. He writes. Every day. He shows up for work, in other words. He doesn’t wait for the muse to strike. He hunts it down and drags it to the office with him if he has to. Because he’s got a film to deliver.

When it came time to write the first draft of Phantom, I decided to follow Mr. Allen’s guidance. Rather than repeating the haphazard writing schedule of my first novel. I promised myself that I would show up at the keyboard every day. Regardless of whether I felt inspired, I would do the work. And I told myself that I would not get up from my chair until I’d hit my quota.

I always made myself write when I had a corporate writing deadline approaching, even if I didn’t feel inspired. I couldn’t afford to wait for inspiration. I just sat down and did the work. Well, I’d do the same for the second Gyler novel.

I set myself a goal of 1,000 words per day. That’s 1,000 new words, by the way. I’m not counting minor revisions to the previous day’s writing, nor time spent answering e-mails, fooling around on Twitter, or writing blog posts. 1,000 new words per day, all directed towards my novel’s word count. If I felt particularly inspired, I would allow myself to write more than 1,000 words. But I couldn’t refuse to write because I didn’t feel the muse’s presence.

Just as importantly, I also refused to accept the excuse that I didn’t have time to make my word count on a particular day.

No one has the time to write. But anyone can make the time, if they want to.

Borrowing a suggestion from my friend, the writer/blogger Nicholas Strange, I began getting up an hour earlier each morning. My body protested, but I made myself get up and spend that extra 60 minutes of consciousness tickling the keys of my laptop before my wife and kids woke up.

As such, I wrote the first draft of Phantom in just a couple of months. I wrote between 1,000 and 1,300 words each and every morning, at the time of day when my brain was at its freshest and least cluttered, and when the house was silent and free from distractions.

It was marvelous.

Before I even had my first cup of coffee, my day’s writing (at least in regards to the novel) was done. No matter what came up during the rest of the day, I knew I made my fiction word count.

The take-away from all this? Don’t wait for inspiration. Set a target quota, and deliver! It’s the only way to get the results you deserve.

So, a formal introduction, then…

tubesAs we all know, the Internet is a series of tubes. Every computer in the world is connected by a mixture of twine, plastic, and wax, allowing cybersurfers to slide from one digital destination to the next, like wind passing through the gap in a first-grader’s smile.

Or something. I’m not very good with this technical stuff.

Because of the digital sorcery that allows us to teleport all over the planet simply by typing random subjects into a search box, there are many possible ways you may have found this site:

Perhaps you’re a writer, interested in reading about the ongoing adventures of another writer. If so, welcome.

Perhaps you’re a mystery fan, looking to find out more about the types of novels I write. If so, welcome.

Perhaps you’re a spambot hoping to share with me the exciting news that I’ve won ten million pounds in the UK lottery (which, judging from the amount of notifications I receive, I seem to do about twice a month, despite having never been to the UK). If so, welcome! I don’t discriminate against machines. Robots kick ass.

No matter how you might have found me, I’m pleased to meet you.

On my previous writing blogs, I typically discussed the business of freelance writing. I’ve been writing professionally since 1997, both as a corporate tech writer and as a newspaper/magazine freelancer. I made a living doing that for many years, but it wasn’t always the type of work that satiated one’s muse.

That’s why, after a bit of soul-searching two years ago, I promised myself that I would write a novel within 12 months. Although I like many genres, mystery is by far my favorite, and that’s where I set my sights. More specifically, I envisioned a detective story that gently satirized, yet also revered, the hard-boiled crime tales of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

I got busy pounding the keys, and although progress was sadly held up by a death in my wife’s family, I completed the first draft of that novel, Coffee to Die For, about eight months later. I’m already hard at work on the sequel, tentatively titled The Phantom of Mulberry Street, while Coffee percolates (no pun intended, I promise… oh, alright, you caught me, I intended it) for a while. Soon I’ll pull it out of the metaphorical desk drawer and begin work on the second draft.

[UPDATE: Since the time this post was originally written, over a year ago, I’ve completed the second draft of Coffee, and I’m nearly finished with the third draft as well.]

That, in a nutshell, is why I’ve started this blog: to chronicle my fiction-writing pursuits, and to hopefully connect with others who are interested in doing the same.

And now you know a little bit about me, if you didn’t already. No doubt we’ll learn more about each other in the days and weeks to come.

Thanks for reading. Don’t forget to sign up for my mailing list if you want to stay notified of my various writing projects!

Now remember, kids: it’s a great big world out there. Let’s go break some stuff.


The Phoenix Has Risen

Joe Barlow - Apple Pic

Hello, world. Nice of you to stop by.

Let me admit something right off the bat: this isn’t the first writing blog I’ve ever had. In fact, by my count, it’s no less than my fourth. Three times before I’ve stood at the brink and leapt, only to find that I couldn’t flap my arms hard enough to keep my aspirations airborne.

So why do it all again? Why set myself up for failure once more?

Simple: this time, I’m not going to fail. Too much has changed. My head feels like it could split open with all the ideas that are beating around inside it, like moths slapping against a window, trying to reach the light bulb on the other side. I need an outlet for them, to preserve my sanity if nothing else.

Words have served me well over the years. I’ve made a reasonable living from stringing them together in various ways. I’ve worked as a technical writer for perhaps a dozen corporations and small businesses. I’ve been a grantwriter and a ghostwriter. I’ve composed sales copy, served as a web editor for any number of organizations, and even earned my living for a brief but glorious time as a film critic, back before the Internet (and, more specifically, blogging) erupted into the public consciousness and eradicated the notion that writers should get paid for their opinions online. (Happily, I did publish a collection of film reviews some years back, and it’s still in print. We’ll talk more about that in future updates, I’m sure.)

But that’s not where my main interests lie these days. You see, I want to tell stories.

I’ve always dreamed of being a novelist. Back in the ’90s, I wrote two absolutely heinous novels, both of which were mercifully slaughtered in a hard drive crash several years ago. I’ve written five feature-length screenplays (one of them got optioned by a small production company, although that’s where its journey to the silver screen ended). And I’ve written and published a few short stories over the years, though I’m sure you’ve never heard of the outlets in which they appeared.

But despite the hardships, the dream has only grown stronger. And it’s time to indulge it.

You see, in the past year, I’ve written two additional novels. Happily, they’re substantially better than the two I mentioned above. And although they’re not quite ready to be unleashed on the world, they’re not too far off. So I thought it would be fun to start this blog, to chronicle my journey towards publication and make the process a little more transparent.

Thanks so much for taking the trip with me. I’m honored to be sharing it with you.