Joe Barlow Writes

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

Category: Fiction

Announcing: Inaction Figure

1 - Inaction Figure Cover

I love superhero stories.

That hardly makes me unique; it seems like three-quarters of all new films and TV shows are based on Marvel or DC properties. What’s not to love? These stories are (or can be) wonderful escapist fare, with fun action sequences, smart-alec dialogue, and attractive people in tight costumes. Truly, geeks: this is our time.

Superhero stories are based in fantasy, so I have no problem believing that a mild-mannered scientist turns into a ravaging green Hulk when he gets angry, or a brooding billionaire chooses to fight crime in Gotham City by night, or that Robert Downey Jr. would settle for Gwyneth Paltrow. After all, this is make-believe.

I love superhero adventures so much, in fact, that I thought it might be fun to create my own pantheon. And this month, I released my first offering.

Inaction Figure is a serialized superhero spoof/parody, in the style of Douglas Adams. The story involves a man named Allan Clark who, along with approximately 1 percent of the global population, develops superpowers after a comet skirts the Earth’s atmosphere. While most people receive one fairly tame power, Allan receives almost unlimited abilities, which he regrettably can’t control. As such, he finds that he does as much harm as good.

I am calling the series a “prose comic book,” with a new issue available each month. Issue #1 is currently available through Amazon. Each installment will be Amazon-exclusive for 90 days, after which it will roll out to other platforms, such as Kobo, Nook, etc.

I hope you’ll give it a try. The first issue is already receiving some nice reviews, and I’m proud of it. And if you’d like to be notified when each new issue appears, please sign up for my mailing list.


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.


Surviving a Rejection Letter

RejectedSo I got a rejection letter yesterday for one of my short stories.

It’s not a big deal. I’ve gotten plenty of them over the years, and this one rolled off my back without crushing my spirits, or initiating a crisis of faith in my writing ability.

As I prepared to send the manuscript off to the next market on my list, it suddenly struck me just how much my attitude towards rejection has changed over the years. I remember the early days of freelancing, when rejection letters would hit me with the force of a sledgehammer. The sense of failure I’d experience upon receiving such a letter could last for hours. Even if I received an acceptance letter for a different piece on the very same day, I would disregard that victory in exchange for reveling in the failure.

Hey, I’m nothing if not dramatic.

Rejection letters aren’t fun. How could they NOT discourage us? The term itself conjures up painful memories of getting turned down for dates, or being picked last for the school softball team. It’s a letter specifically sent to inform you, a writer, a creator, a storyteller, that your work does not meet an arbitrary benchmark of quality.

Or at least that’s how I felt back then.

However, having spent some time on the other side of the editor’s desk in intervening years, I now realize something very valuable — rejections aren’t personal, and you shouldn’t take them that way.

Don’t let a rejection letter utterly derail you. The next time you receive a rejection letter, consider the following:

1. YOU aren’t being rejected. ONE SPECIFIC PIECE of your work is being declined by one particular editor at one particular time.

I once attended a Sci-Fi convention in which novelist Spider Robinson boasted that he had never received a rejection letter, which frustrated him greatly, because he dreamed of wallpapering his office with rejection letters from prestigious publications in order to impress girls.

His story got big laughs from the audience, but I don’t believe it for a second. Remember: a person whose work appeals to everyone must have a bland writing style indeed. 
Even two of the most successful novelists in history, JK Rowling and Stephen King, both received dozens of rejection letters from publishers who considered their work to be below substandard. And let’s not forget that Decca Records turned down a band called The Beatles, believing that guitar groups were on their way out.

2. The rejection isn’t necessarily a reflection on the quality of your writing. 

Consider any of the following scenarios:

– You may have written a perfectly fine story that happens to slightly resemble a different story the editor has already purchased, but which hasn’t appeared in print yet. (Although this doesn’t seem to affect Hollywood: how many similarly themed films open within weeks of each other? Remember Deep Impact and Armageddon? Or Dante’s Peak and Volcano?)

– You may have written a first-rate private-eye story, but the editor, having read thirty of them this week, is momentarily burned out on the genre.

– Your story may have too much humor (or not enough!) to suit the editor’s preference.

– You may have written the world’s greatest western, but Publisher’s Weekly just ran a story declaring the western dead.

– Maybe the magazine has purchased its allotment of fiction for the upcoming year, and has simply decided to reject all stories for the next six months to clear out the slush pile. (Yes, this happens.)

– Maybe you called your protagonist Walter, and the editor has an old boyfriend named Walter, and therefore can’t bear the fact that your protagonist doesn’t die at the end of the story.

Hey, stranger things have happened. Editors are people too, and like all people, they can be extraordinarily illogical when it suits them.

The best thing to do? Send the piece right back out into the world. Do it today. Don’t let the sun set on your rejection. Send your work to the next market on your list, and start crafting a new piece of writing if you haven’t already done so.

What about you? How do you handle rejection? Leave a comment and let me know!

[This post originally appeared on the blog The Coffee House Wordsmith on September 16, 2011.]


Things I Wish I’d Known When Writing My First Novel [Guest Post from Scott Nicholson]

flyboymug-247x300NOTE FROM JOE: As I’ve previously discussed, I’m in the process of writing a novel. Although I’ve been publishing non-fiction professionally for almost twenty years, my fiction endeavors have been limited. As such, when I began writing Coffee to Die For, I reached out to one of my favorite writers and asked for his advice.

The author in question is the prolific Scott Nicholson (pictured), an icon of both traditional and indie publishing. In addition to the breakout horror novel The Red Church (which I highly recommend), Scott runs a terrific blog about writing and publishing. Here’s what he had to say in response to my question. I trust you’ll find it as helpful and inspiring as I did.  –Joe

Advice for Joe on the Writing of His First Novel
by Scott Nicholson

Joe, here’s the big difference from when I started writing 15 years ago:

I didn’t know writing was so dog-gone difficult.

I didn’t have the Internet and a billion writing blogs telling me how hard it was to get published, or how great the self-publishing era is. I had to subscribe to paper newsletters to keep up with market listings for the short story market, and go to the library or buy magazines to get lists of agents and publishers.

In a way, the lack of Internet made it really easy to focus. I had a certain number of hours available to me in the morning, and I could get lost in the story. There was no email to check, no hot market tip, no obligation to engage strangers in social media, no latest tech toy that was going to change the face of publishing forever, or at least for the next few weeks.

Don’t get me wrong: e-books are going to help a lot of writers meet their audience in ways that were never before possible. It’s going to be easier for most writers to make money, even if it still will be difficult. And I am very grateful to be here while it’s happening.

But I miss hammering out my stories on an old Selectric IBM typewriter with a clunky print wheel and a floppy disk drive. It was quite a feeling of accomplishment to roll those pages in one at a time and print them out, until there was a big stack beside me at a cost of about a dime a page, only to be boxed and mailed for $10 or $15 per submission. The very cost and inconvenience made shipping it off to a publisher a big enterprise, like launching a ship.

And, back then, most publishers would still look at your slush submission, so I could at least hold out hope that someone would read it, love it, and make an offer. (In fact, that’s how it happened to me). We weren’t aware that the odds of getting accepted were less than one in 100. Indeed, you could legitimately hope that every submission was the winning lottery ticket, instead of the mass email queries favored today, the policies of agents to “only respond if interested,” and with most larger publishers refusing to look at anything unless it was sent in by those same rude, aloof agents.

In the beginning, all I knew was to tell the story the best I could, read every book on the business and craft I could get my hands on, and keep up my leisure reading, which was never fully “leisure” because I was always aware of the wizard behind the curtains lining up words. I’d read something bold and be inspired to write something boldly. I’d read something tepid and hurl it across the room, positive that I could do better.

In the beginning, all I had was my imagination, my fingers, and my words. I was blissfully ignorant. I didn’t know what I was doing was impossible.

So I just did it anyway, without knowing any better.

If I had any advice for an aspiring writer today, aside from warning them away from all advice, it would be this: Ignore everything but the next sentence.

Scott Nicholson is the author of several dozen books, short stories, and screenplays. His non-fiction works include The Indie Journey: Secrets to Writing Success, and the essay collection Write Good or Die, which he edited.

[Note from Joe: This post originally appeared on my old writing blog, The Coffee House Wordsmith, on September 30, 2011.] 



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.]