Joe Barlow Writes

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

Category: Clayton Gyler

Reflections on 2014

Christmas flat

Happy holidays, everyone!

It’s the end of another year, and as usual, I find myself in a reflective mood. This year, that reflection is tinged with sadness and regret, because I dropped the ball in 2014. Not just once, but over and over again.

It’s been ages since I’ve updated this blog. That’s because I’ve had nothing of note to report. I made great strides on two novels early in 2014, then stopped running a few hundred yards before I crossed the finish line. Coffee to Die For, my first Clayton Gyler mystery, still isn’t finished, even though I’ve done three complete drafts. And don’t even get me started on the sequel, The Phantom of Mulberry Street. That’s even further from being done, although I do have a complete first draft.

What happened? Oh, the usual: crippling self-doubt, and unplanned detours into self-loathing. “Who do you think you are, Joe? No one cares about what you write. Sure, you can write non-fiction and technical copy just fine, but nobody’s interested in your characters.”

Stupid, right? Yeah, I know.

It’s the curse of the creator. Being a writer is a peculiar combination of arrogance (obviously we think our work is worth sharing, or we wouldn’t write it) and crippling insecurity (what if the world hates what we create?). It’s a contradiction that makes no sense, but it has utterly derailed me. Things got so bad that every time I thought about working on Coffee to Die For, I’d have a mini freak-out.

So I ended up doing nothing at all. Not blogging. Not starting a new project. Just basking in inertia, because that was easiest.

Well, enough.

Early this month I started a brand new project, and I’m happy to report that I completed the first draft yesterday. I wrote over 2,000 words each day, with the word count on the first draft totaling around 32,000. Novella length, basically. This was my Christmas present to myself.

I’ll tell you more about it soon. I’m very excited, because this isn’t just a new project; it’s a whole new way of storytelling that I’ve never tried before. Not a novel, and not truly a novella, despite the length. It’s its own thing, and I’m super proud of the concept behind it.

Watch this space. If you haven’t done so, please sign up for my mailing list over on the right, so you can be notified when I have more to share.

I’m looking forward to 2015. This year is going to be different; it’s going to be the year I take control of my life and make it work for me.

How about you?


P.S. Due to a recent influx of spam comments on the blog, I have temporarily disabled comments. Sorry about that. I hope we’ll be able to turn them back on soon. This is why we can’t have nice things.

Birth of a Novel: A Conversation with the Writer I Used to Be

young joeGood morning, Old Joe!

Eh? Who said that?


I’m afraid that doesn’t help. Who, exactly, is “me”?

Don’t you remember? It’s me! Young Joe! The kid you used to be, before you got old and fat! The boy who dreams of growing up to be a writer!

Oh… uh, hello. Wow. This is a little awkward. Tell me, why are you in my head today, Young Joe?

I decided to travel to the future and see how my life’s going to turn out! To see if we ever made good on that whole writing dream!

You know how to time travel, Young Joe?

Oh, sure! Remember, I’m a kid with a huge imagination! That’s one of the reasons I want to be a writer when I grow up! I love telling stories!

Hmm… now that you mention it, I do seem to remember that about you. Or me. Whatever. I’m confused.

Nice brain you’ve got here, Old Joe. Although there seems to be a lot of dust lying around. It’s almost like you don’t use certain parts of your mind any more, especially the parts that are about playing and having fun! That’s sad.

Well, it’s a little different when you’re a grown up, Young Joe.

Things aren’t always groovy, huh?

“Groovy?” I haven’t heard that word in years!

Well, remember, Old Joe, it’s still 1979 where I come from. But tell me, is my dream going to come true? Do I grow up to be a writer?

As a matter of fact, Young Joe, you do!

Hurray! I knew I could make it happen if I worked hard enough! Tell me, how did we get started? Did we write an awesome horror story about ninja robot skeletons? Or books about pirates? Or spaceships? Or vampires?

Eh… not so much, Young Joe. You see, I write non-fiction these days.

Non-fiction? You mean those boring books that don’t have any pictures? The kind of books I have to read for school?

Uh, yeah.

Oh. (*long pause*) Do you like writing that stuff?

Yes, I do. Clients hire me to write reports, manuals, grants, and other stuff like that. It’s important work.

And they don’t ever want you to write stories?

Well, no. I haven’t done much fiction writing since high school. Not since I got Miss Rose’s note.

Who’s Miss Rose, Old Joe?

Oh, that’s right! You haven’t met her yet, Young Joe. She was, or will be, our 11th grade English teacher. One day, I mentioned that I wanted to be a professional writer when I grew up.

So why did she write you a note, Old Joe?

Well, she wrote a handwritten message on the title page of a short story I handed in for an assignment.

Was it a nice note?

Well… no, Young Joe. It wasn’t.

What did it say?

You know what’s funny, Young Joe? It’s been over 20 years, and I can still remember it word for word. It said: “Joe, your ideas have merit, but your writing is flat. You aren’t a natural storyteller. Stick to non-fiction from now on.”

Wow. That must have hurt!

Yeah. It did, Young Joe. It really did. And I haven’t written much fiction since then. Hardly any at all, in fact.

Wait a minute, Old Joe. Let me see if I’ve got this straight. You used to write fiction constantly, right?


And you gave it up almost overnight, even though you really enjoyed it?


All because one person said she didn’t like your work?

Uh, yeah. I guess so. Sounds kinda lame when you put it that way.

It’s beyond lame! I wish I wasn’t just a voice in your head, Old Joe! I wish I was actually standing in front of you right now, so you could see how crestfallen I am. The fact that you would let the word of one woman destroy my dream like that! How could you do that to me? How could do that to yourself?

Wow… I’m sorry, Young Joe. You’re right. Even though I’ve written and published a lot of non-fiction, I do miss writing fiction. I never should have given it up. What can I do to make it up to you?

I think you know what you need to do, Old Joe. If you really want to make it up to me, you have to write a novel.

A novel? Really?

Yes! You need to write a novel. And you need to start working on it right now. This week.


Come on, bub! You owe me. You’ve kept my dreams imprisoned for over 20 years. Let them out!

You know what? You’re right, Young Joe. I’m going to do it. I’m going to write a novel.

Good! And make sure you tell other people that you’re doing it, Old Joe! If other people know you’re working on it, they can offer encouragement and support! They can give you all the things that your awful high school English teacher didn’t provide.

Good idea! I think I’ll post about it on my blog.

What the heck’s a blog, Old Joe?

Oops. Uh… well, it’s this thing I write on the Internet…

What’s the Internet?

Never mind. All you need to know is that I’m going to do it. I’m going to share this conversation with some of my friends, okay? It will be my way of letting them know that I’m going to write a novel. And I’ll keep them updated each week on my progress. Won’t that be fun?

Oh wow, it sure will! Good luck, Old Joe! I better get back to my own time, and let you get to work on your new book.

Sounds good, Young Joe. Thanks for stopping by. And hey, I appreciate the kick in the rear.

It’s what I do, Old Joe. It’s what I do. 

[NOTE: This post originally appeared on my old writing blog, The Coffee House Wordsmith, on September 9, 2011. That was the same week I began the first draft of Coffee to Die For, the first novel in my Clayton Gyler mystery series. Last night, on February 10th, 2014, I completed the third (and what I presume will be the final) draft of the book. As such, I thought today was a good time to repost this conversation with Young Joe. I hope he’s proud of me! If you’d like to keep informed about my further writing adventures, please sign up for my mailing list.]



Coming Out of the Writing Closet

funny-pictures-cat-pidgeons-star-warsWhen we last spoke, I shared with you the story of how I wrote my second novel, The Phantom of Mulberry Street, over a two-month period by getting up an hour early each day.

I think it’s fair to say that I’ve now made this formerly alien behavior a habit, and I can barely remember what life used to be like before I embraced it. It feels so natural, so correct, that it’s hard to believe I ever tried to write at night, after my brain was fried from a hard day of corporate writing and various household responsibilities.

I realize I’ve been living a lie for years, and I can’t take it any longer. I need to come out of the closet. I’m finally ready to admit it:

I am, and always have been, a morning writer. I deluded myself for over a decade, trying to make myself be something that I wasn’t, but I was wrong.

Well, no more denial of my true nature! No more will my novels have to subsist on my intellectual leftovers! Now, Clayton Gyler and his sidekick, the lovely Jennifer Watkins, will get served first at my creativity buffet each day, when I’m at my freshest and most focused.

What has impressed me most about this method of working is not just how great I feel when I’m done (knowing that even before many of my friends have gotten out of bed, I’ve already made substantial strides on a project that matters greatly to me, and furthered my long-term career goals).

No, what has impressed me most is how quickly the pages pile up when a person commits to writing each and every day. Even a relatively small amount like 1,000 words (about four double-spaced pages) can yield impressive results after a few weeks.

Referring back to my notes, I see that for the first 39 days I worked on Phantom, I wrote a total of 44,510 new words (162 pages). That’s about 2/3rds the length of the first book (Coffee to Die For), the first draft of which took me eight months to complete. By the time the first draft of Phantom was complete a few weeks later, I’d written 85,183 words (306 pages). This meant that Phantom was about 25% longer than Coffee, yet was written in one-quarter the time. That’s music to my ears.

Incidentally, I worked on the first draft of the second novel in the morning, and spent any free time I could find in the evening writing the second draft of the first novel. Any new words I wrote while revising were in addition to the words I wrote in the morning, and were not counted towards my daily word goal. (Nor are blog posts.)

I’m thrilled by this new routine, and the progress I’ve made. I’m now finishing up the third draft of Coffee, and am excited by how close to the end I’m getting. Then I’ll turn my full attention to revising Phantom and getting it out into the world, too. (Don’t forget to sign up for my mailing list, if you’d like to be notified when they’re available.)

What about you? What’s your daily routine? Are you a morning person, an afternoon writer, or a midnight oil burner? I’m genuinely interested.



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.