Who Asked You? 5 Writing Habits That Work For Me

I do not consider myself a success.

That is not self-deprecation, nor am I trolling for compliments. It is a state of mind, meant to stave off complacency, the enemy of all artists, writers in particular. I resumed writing regularly in November 2010, and three years later I have had 50 stories published, published three anthologies, and written one novel, with another novel and story collection nearly completed. I’ve won a Bullet award, had an anthology nominated for a Spinetingler, I’ve made dozens of new friends in the crime fiction community, and one of the stories I edited- Dave White’s excellent “Runaway” in the Protectors anthology- was listed as a distinguished story in The Best American Mystery Stories 2013.

Not bad. But it’s never good enough.

This from nothing. It began with a big bang of enthusiasm after I was coaxed into writing a novel in one month for NaNoWriMo 2010, which I called “Beat the Jinx.” Two revisions later I call it Bury the Hatchet, and I am about to unleash it into agent slushpiles everywhere.  How did I do it? Same way I went from being a chubby weakling into the man-ape hybrid you see before you, who outwrestles athletes half his age and can lift over a quarter ton.

By observing successful writers I admire and cultivating their habits:


Friends have called me the most driven writer they know. I  write nearly every day- 3-5 hours, until I feel tiredness at the edge of my eyes, when I know any further effort will have diminishing returns. But in my mind, I’m a slacker. And that keeps me driven.

If writing is a chore to you, perhaps writing isn’t for you. Let’s face it, it is work. But it should be a pleasurable work, like building one of those cakes that look like they require a degree in architecture. There will be failure and struggle as you learn by doing. But you get to lick the spoon. Write every day for a month. Pick a time that works, whether you can devote a half hour or three hours. Say you will write for 5 minutes. You will usually write longer. Force yourself to do it for three weeks to a month and it will become a habit. When you skip, you will feel a pang of guilt. You will scribble things down whenever you can. If you don’t know what to write about, maybe you’re not a writer. Ideas are a dime a dozen. It’s what you do with them that matters. In the beginning, I said “yes” to everything. Guest blog, interviews, anthologies, moderating. It forces you to write and make deadlines. Now I have to say “no” to new projects I want to participate in, to meet my commitments.


How does this jive with drive? I just told you to get off your ass and do, do, do. But be patient while you improve. Be patient while your stories sit in editor’s inboxes, waiting to be read. Be patient as you get rejections. Be patient as your rejections improve from form letters, to “Best of luck, it’s not for us,” to “we just published one like this,” to “if you edit this, this, and this, we will reconsider.” Be patient with editors. Remember, it is your responsibility to translate your thoughts into words that others can understand. If they don’t “get it” they aren’t necessarily dense; maybe what you wrote is unclear. If you trust the editor–and why else would you submit to a market, unless you enjoyed what they published and think the editors will like your work–you will work with them. You should also sit on a story before editing it, to approach it with a clear head. Don’t ship it off right after you type “The End,” no matter how excited you are about it. In the afterglow, you’re not in a right mind to edit.


This goes hand in hand with Drive. It is the one I struggled with the most. I am easily distracted, and I love starting new projects. But unfinished projects are nothing. They are a waste of energy. Must you finish everything, even a story you realize is bad? In the beginning, yes. Make something of it. A bad story can be fixed, an unfinished one is useless. No one wants to believe that writing takes practice, despite the mantras of “10,000 hours of practice before learning,” or “you must write a million words of crap before you’re a writer.” How do you expect to improve without failure? I wrote 50 stories, a novel, and edited two anthologies while I was supposed to be revising my first novel, Bury the Hatchet. I have all sorts of excuses for this. My writing has improved due to all those projects, and the novel has benefited, but if I had finished it first, that improvement would still have occurred. Do not let distractions drag you from finishing your work. Starting something new when you are in the middle of the hard work of finishing a story is just procrastination in disguise.


Sometimes, you hit a wall. With deadlines, writers often crash through these walls and finish the story in a way that works, but shows the wreckage. I’ve noticed this in many novels, even stories I’ve enjoyed. “Oh, you painted yourself into a corner there.” Then they cut a window into the wall to escape, and the house is still a house, and pretty from most angles, but there’s a weird window that sticks out. But at least you didn’t have to paint that room twice, right? WRONG! Fix the damn story problem. It will take perseverance. First to finish a story, and again to fix it. Writers have all sorts of vile analogies for revision. You get sick of your own story. And it doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be better than “good enough.” If you’ve read enough good books, you will get a feel for it. If you say to yourself, “No one will notice,” that’s a big hint that it needs work. Or if you skim that part and get to the good bits. With me, I get a queasiness, a desire to shirk. And I bold that section for later, if I have no idea what the hell to do. But I always go back to it. Thanks to my friend Wayne Dundee, author of the Joe Hannibal PI novels and creator of Hardboiled magazine, for “persevere.” That’s how he signs his letters. And it encapsulates everything. If there’s one habit that’s most important, it’s this one.


Do you love books? Do you love reading a great story, and wishing you could write it? I hope so. You can’t be driven 24/7.  If you find yourself sneering at everything you read and saying you could do better, you might need a break to recharge your enthusiasm. Ever read something you know damn well you could never have written, and yet feel outrage that THIS won the Nobel Prize/Edgar/Hot Poop Award? While your genius went overlooked? It has been known to happen. It means your enthusiasm level is critically low. Read a book by a favorite writer, for enjoyment only. An old favorite. Or stop reading for a week and watch movies you love. Read or watch the stories that inspired you to be a writer in the first place.

What happened? You may have fallen into a validation trap, where you write to hear the applause of the audience. For a time, I found it easier to write quick stories and get the thrill of an acceptance, rather than buckle down and finish a novel. My friend Josh Stallings had the opposite problem- he loves writing novels, but convinced himself that he couldn’t write short fiction. After several of us cajoled and harried him into writing for us, he wrote several excellent stories, which broadened his audience for the Mo McGuire novels. It also supercharged his enthusiasm. He wrote his breakout noir memoir ALL THE WILD CHILDREN, and Mo #3, ONE MORE BODY, will be out soon.

Yes, “only writing is writing.” But writing takes more than typing, and keeping the brain happy–but just a little bit hungry–is part of the maintenance.

I hope this helps. I learned it by mimicking the writers whose careers I want mine to emulate. People who worked hard and were rewarded. Lawrence Block, who has always been an inspiration. He’s 84 and just hammered out another novel while on a world cruise, just to see if he could do it. Joelle Charbonneau, who juggles three series and still has time to blog, tweet, go to conventions and live a busy life. Joe Lansdale, who says he writes 3-5 pages a day. Last time I checked, he’s written 35 or so novels. Plus he runs a dojo. Perseverance personified. He also posts excellent no-BS writing advice on Facebook. George Pelecanos, another prolific author, said he writes 4 hours in the morning and edits at night. Whatever works- the common element is they go the distance, they write whether they feel like it or not, and get the job done.

Now it’s your turn.

Hunting Yabbits

elmer_fudd_a_wild_hareA friend on Twitter suggested that I write a book on writing. I think that’s a bit premature, as there is a plethora of writers giving advice out there. But I try to make a habit of distilling the essence of an idea and filtering out the bullshit. So here goes.

Writing is a muscle. You must flex it. You must use it. Does this mean “write every day?” For me, it does. For you, maybe not. Whatever works. But to find out what works, you need to try a lot of things, which involves writing.

In weightlifting everyone wants answers. The articles are a lot like articles on writing- the same stuff, then some new radical idea that everyone tries a while because this one person saw amazing results, and everyone talks about it a while, then it fades away, and then maybe a few years later it gets rediscovered when someone has a deadline. What works is lifting heavy things. You want a better bench press? Do a lot of bench presses with proper form, adding a little more weight each cycle, no more than you can do with proper form.

Part of this came to mind from Steve Weddle saying that some story writers should build a set of stairs before they try to build an escalator, or a Wonkavator for that matter. I think those are two totally different fields of construction, but I see the point. Before you can write a complex story, you should write a straightforward one. And write some more.

This is where the yabbits come in.

Yeah, but Tarantino’s first movie was non-linear and stuff. Yeah, but David Foster Wallace. Yeah, but this bro at the gym with thunder guns said… Yeah, but. Yabbit, yabbit, yabbit.

Write. Don’t agonize over it. Just write it. I still agonize, way too often. I don’t trust my voice all the time. I worry about building the roof when I’m putting in the basement. I want to take the elevator when I haven’t built the stairs. We all do it. It takes discipline not to do it, and discipline falters now and then, but we don’t tear the house down or abandon it, we go back and build the damn stairs.

Six metaphors later, I get to the point. My writing advice is simple. If you want to be a writer, you have to write. Does every story have to be great? Certainly not. I have a few turds in my pocket I’ll never share. (Unless you approach me nicely and say, “Tommy, can I hold the the dessicated turd you keep in your pocket?” Then I’ll gladly let you fondle it.) This also doesn’t mean you need to construct the perfect, master carpenter spiral staircase before you let your imagination run free. Just be aware that the tough, complex stories will take a lot of work. Sometimes you need to build them later, after you’ve tackled stuff that’s a little easier and more fun.

Because no matter what people say, writing should be fun. It can be tedious, brain-racking work. But so is working out, or building a set of stairs. You can learn to enjoy it, but it’s always work. It’s the results that are the fun part, when you’re proud of what you’ve done, when you read it yourself and don’t cringe, or when everyone wants to squeeze your biceps like Brad Pitt’s booty, those are great moments. Like riding the Wonkavator. But before you get there, build the damn stairs. And climb them a few times. Writing is sedentary. You don’t want to die of heart disease before you finish your bullet train escalator novel, do you?

To distill this…
How I Write.
1. Daydream often. You need ideas. Daydream in the shower. On the train. In the car. Try not to daydream while other people are talking.
2. Read everything. News, books by authors you love, books by authors you’ve heard are great but aren’t “your thing,” old books, new books.
3. Sit down to write regularly. To quote Jack London, “you can’t wait for inspiration. You have to chase it down with a club.” Talk yourself into writing for five minutes.

For real advice, I recommend these books.
Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, by Lawrence Block. The one book that I read first. LB is funny, tolerates no bullshit, and is one of the greatest short story writers working today. Let him be your Writer’s Block. Haw haw.

On Writing, by Stephen King. Half memoir- which made me like the man even more- and half no-BS writing talk. He eschews notes, which I disagree with. I use Evernote to take notes on my phone. But solid advice.

Break Writer’s Block Now! by Jerrold Mundis. This is the advice you’ll say YABBIT about. But it works. Whether you want to begin writing, write regularly, or break a dry spell this book is a must. Some sounds like bullshit- relaxing before you write? WTF? but it makes sense once you actually think about it, and try it. Anxiety is the root of most blocks.

And when you quit being a yabbit and start writing the big ponderous novel, I recommend Scrivener. It helps keep me organized, lets me write the scene I want to write, no matter where in the book it is, and keep things sensible. You can compile in Standard Manuscript format, Screenplay, as an e-book, paperback templates… truly a powerful tool, and great for taming that wild imagination:

Get Scrivener 2 for Mac
Get Scrivener for PC

And Steve Weddle’s debut novel COUNTRY HARDBALL is available for pre-order. Steve is a fine writer, and I’m sure these stairs won’t creak or send you plummeting to the basement.

Mystery or Crime Fiction? Less Filling.

Both Patti Abbott and Spinetingler editor Brian Lindemuth (at Do Some Damage) have asked whether you prefer Mysteries or Crime Fiction, both as a reader, and a writer, when it comes to labeling books.
It used to be that Crime Fiction was a subset to Mystery, and now the tables seem to be turning somewhat. Here is my long comment at DSD.

Almost every story has an element of mystery. What happens next? Parker is on a bridge and he tells a guy off. I like this guy. What’s he gonna do next? But that’s not a story of deduction. Is Tana French’s excellent Faithful Place allowed to be crime fiction? There’s a murder and we don’t know who did it. But her depiction of Dublin and her excellent characters are right out of Hammett or Chandler.

I like both mysteries and crime fiction. I consider Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr “Burglar” mysteries to be cozies. I can never keep up with the classifications that nerds keep narrowing down, whether it’s in music (no dude, that’s not shoegaze, it’s um, darkwave fartsniff dubstep!) or books or whatever. I can’t be bothered.

Let’s face it, Mystery and Crime Fiction are labels to sell a book. If it bothers you to see “Mystery” on a book you like, is it because you imagine Miss Marple or Jessica Fletcher and don’t want to be associated with fans of those stories?
Mystery lovers likely get the same shiver when they see Crime Fiction or Noir on a label, they know there may be foul language and testicles (probably severed ones).
It’s a marketing construct. I don’t like either label. “Crime Fiction” can certainly drive away readers who assume it’s all about serial killers and gumshoes wearing fedoras and talking like Bogart, just like “Mystery” may be dismissed as a puzzler to keep you occupied in the waiting room for the gastroenterologist.

What about “Suspense”? I hope your story has suspense, even if it’s “literary fiction.” But heavens forfend it be labeled a “thriller,” those are for reading on airplanes, right? Speaking of thrills, I’m thrilled when an author I like is in the good old Fiction section. Megan Abbott, Pete Dexter, Scott Phillips are all recent sightings. But I don’t mind wandering to the Mystery corner, like the “Adult” section of the video store (if you remember those) to get my kicks.

Like Colson Whitehead says about those who call genre fiction a guilty pleasure:

“Other people’s labels. Other people’s hang-ups.”

Belly Up to the Bar with Lawrence Block

Lawrence Block should need no introduction. Author of the Matthew Scudder detective novels, the Bernie Rhodenbarr series of burglar mysteries, and standalone novels and short stories too numerous to mention, his most recent novel is HIT ME, starring everybody’s favorite hit man: Keller. Mr. Block is one of our greatest living storytellers, and I’m glad that he continues to write long into his self-professed retirement. If you haven’t read his work, the Hit Man series with Keller is a great place to begin.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: Welcome to Belly Up to the Bar, Larry. What can I get you?

Lawrence BlockLB: I’m good, Tom.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: The hit man is well-worn territory, but with Keller you’ve created one of the most likeable and believable killers in fiction. I knew a guy–to use the Jersey parlance–and Keller’s sense of calm, and his capability for calculated violence ring utterly true. There’s a sadness in the stories, as well. The loneliness of the job is the perfect foil for the excitement of the hunt and Dot’s acerbic sense of humor. So where did Keller come from, and what keeps you returning to tell his stories?

Lawrence BlockLB: Well, I had a story idea that turned into “Answers to Soldier.” Guy goes out to Oregon on business, makes the mistake of getting to know the quarry, has fantasies of quitting the business and making a life for himself similar to the guy’s, goes so far as to look at houses, then comes to his senses, kills the guy, and goes home. The hit man turned out to be Keller, and I wound up having a lot more to say about him.

HIT ME Lawrence Block

Tom Pluck BeerTP: When I pick up one of your books, I know I’m getting great dialogue. The latest Matthew Scudder novel, A Drop of the Hard Stuff, begins with a conversation between Matt and Mick Ballou that I could have read for the entire book. George V. Higgins said “Dialogue is character and character is plot.” Do you think it boils down to that, or is there something more to it?

Lawrence BlockLB: Well, it was true for Higgins. It depends enormously on the writer. Some of us are intensely visual, for example. They know what all the people in their books look like, see the rooms in their lives fully furnished. What I tend to know most about my characters is what they sound like, how they express themselves.

Snake Stamp

Tom Pluck BeerTP: You’ve traveled the world, but your fiction is mostly set in New York. Keller seems the most widely traveled of your creations. I read a lot of New York authors, but when Scudder is walking around town or Bernie is scoping a building, I feel not only like I’m there, but that I’ve lived there and know the town. Which I don’t, except as a Jersey invader. What keeps your stories in New York and the States, when you’ve visited so many exotic locales?

Lawrence BlockLB: New York has been home to me in a very fundamental way from the first time I came here. It’s as natural for me to have my characters live here as it is for me to live here myself. In the mid-80s my wife and I moved to South Florida, and I found myself wondering if I’d wind up setting most of my fiction there. I realized that I probably wouldn’t, that I had no real sense of the inner lives of people there. Thus I’d go on setting my stories in New York.

hit me stamps

Tom Pluck BeerTP: Keller’s stamp collecting has become almost as intriguing as his hits. I missed out on the last philatelic edition, but I snagged the one Mysterious Press is doing for HIT ME. (The philatelic edition is a special first edition that comes signed, with a special postage stamp affixed to the cover, and a souvenir sheet of stamps) I never collected stamps, but I did collect coins, then lost my collection to some unscrupulous movers. A pristine 1945-S Mercury dime will be my Rosebud, I imagine. There’s something about stamps, coins and bank notes besides the art and their monetary value–they’re tangible icons. I was a numismatist, and you’re a philatelist. Which both sound like kinky perversions, and to a degree they are. What stamps do you collect? Does Keller have your dream collection?

Lawrence BlockLB: Keller collects worldwide, 1840 to 1940, which his British Empire collection extending through the reign of George VI. Me too. How’s that for coincidence? Keller, of course, has a much better collection, because he had the sense to pick a far more lucrative profession.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: You’re a writer’s writer. I say that because you’ve written several books about writing that tell it straight, such as Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. One of my favorite quotes is when you respond to that ubiquitous cocktail party nightmare, the person who says they’d love to be a writer if they only had the time, as if it were a hobby, not a skill and a talent. You said no one says that to a pro ballplayer, and I took that to heart. Writers don’t get respect, and we’re often the last to get paid, if we get paid at all. Would you say that’s gotten better or worse?

Lawrence BlockLB: It’s probably stayed about the same. One difference is that people tend to think we’re rich. They read about the contracts a couple of people get and figure we all make that kind of money. I remember Evan Hunter telling me how some clown from some college explainded that, for a donation of a mere ten million dollars, they could build a new dormitory and name it after him. “What kind of money do they think we make?” he marveled. On a lesser scale, but just barely, some well-meaning fool once advised me to charter a private plane for my book tours. Jesus. You go to some town, spend two hours in a bookstore, sign twenty books, with translates into what, $60 in royalties? It’s absurd enough for a publisher to fly you in coach, which is why book tours are finally coming to an inglorious end, but charter a fucking airplane?

Kukri Stamp

Tom Pluck BeerTP: You’ve always been one of the most tech-savvy writers I know. You had your email address in your books 20 years ago. And in your fiction, you manage to get the reality of computers and cell phones into the stories without making them linchpins of the plot, where the tension hinges on how many bars of signal someone has. I liked how TJ was the go-to character for the non-technical Scudder. That worked, you acknowledged the Internet but kept his feet on the ground. People have arguments about cell phones in mystery stories. Do you think technology leaches the tension out of a mystery?

Lawrence BlockLB: I think it might. It certainly performs that function for life itself. Nobody gets to be alone anymore.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: You’ve taken self-publishing head-on, releasing short stories, backlist titles written under pen names, and two short story collections: one of Matthew Scudder tales and another of Ehrengraf, the only lawyer I truly enjoy reading about. If you were a beginning writer, would you take advantage of self-publishing, or do you think the traditional route remains the best way to establish yourself?

Lawrence BlockLB: I’m not sure I know the answer, and it’ll change in ten minutes anyway, given the current pace of change in and out of publishing. But from where I stand (well, sit, actually) self-publishing certainly appears to be the way the world is moving. It’s the best choice for an increasing number of writers—and it’s often the only choice.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: Thank you for indulging my questions. Before you go, what would you like for your last meal?

Lawrence BlockLB: Treacle.


HIT ME is now available in the philatelic edition from LB’s bookstore, and his website is as you’d expect, LawrenceBlock.com

BW Beer Mug

Salute These Shorts

I love short stories. Otherwise I wouldn’t write them, because they are a pain in the ass. Sure, you can get the whole idea in your head at once, but there’s no room for error. So when I read a great one, I sit in awe. Here are a few of my favorites. What are yours?

The Creature from the Cleveland Depths, by Fritz Leiber

This one felt silly when I first read it, but now that we have cell phones, ol’ Fritz is laughing in his grave.

In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried, by Amy Hempel

Amy Hempel paints pain so beautifully, without ever using fancy brushes.

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, by Ursula K. LeGuin

An incredible fable that puts civilization in perspective and asks us why we can’t walk away.

The Gentle Way, by Lawrence Block (available in his collection “Enough Rope”)

Mr. Block writes damn fine short stories. This one, about an animal shelter dealing with a vandal, resonates deeply. His excellent story “See the Woman” is available online.

Placebo, by Andrew Vachss (Available in his collection “Born Bad,” and also in Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT.) You can read the also-excellent “Working Roots” free here on his website.

Placebo is a pared down work of great power. Working Roots is a gritty urban fairy tale. I wish Andrew Vachss would write a novel about these kids.

Houston, Houston Do You Read? by James Tiptree, Jr. aka Alice Sheldon.

How do you end violence? The answer is simple, if unpleasant.

Speech Sounds, by Octavia Butler
The last Ms. Butler is interviewed by Charlie Rose here:

The late, great Ms. Butler captures the terror of a true apocalypse and losing the power to communicate in this gut puncher.

The Man from the South, by Roald Dahl

One of my favorite horror tales. You’ll be clutching your fingers!

The Chaser, by John Collier

One of the funniest and best short story writers, Collier is oft forgotten but has many lessons to teach writers today and many joys to bring readers for centuries hence.

The Appointment in Samarra, by Somerset Maugham

A classic bit of flash fiction.

Why I Live at the P.O., by Eudora Welty

A great picture of a family from one of its loony members.

A Good Man is Hard to Find, by Flannery O’Connor

If you don’t like this story, hit yourself in the face.

Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell

The inspiration for “The Thing,” this one is terrifying on a cellular level.

“I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” by Harlan Ellison. He has written a ridiculous amount of great short stories. How to choose one? This has always been the most memorable to me. A supercomputer destroys humanity in retribution for creating him–a genius who cannot truly move, feel or love– but he saves five individuals to torture for eternity. Misanthropy at its most dire. A close second is “The Paladin of the Lost Hour,” a wonderful fantasy story about a man who guards the “clock” that keeps the world from doomsday, and how he shares a moment with a veteran wracked with survivor’s guilt. The first is available in the collection of the same name, the second is in “Angry Candy.” I am also fond of the entire collection :”Deathbird Stories,” especially the title story, which retells Genesis from Satan’s–I mean “Snake’s” point of view.

Patience and Marshmallows

I’d like to talk about the virtue of patience and how it pertains to being a writer.

First things first: who the hell is this guy to give advice? He’s written a few dozen stories, and self-published an anthology. I’m not giving advice. I want to start a discussion about something that has come up a lot in the writing community on the ol’ internet.

Patience, or lack thereof.

I grew up raised by worriers.  My Grams lit candles whenever we traveled from home, and in catechism, I learned that all the tragedies in my past and future were punishments for trespasses that I had thought about committing. I try my best to realize that every bad thing that occurs is not karma for some past or future transgression. It becomes difficult to do anything, with that kind of hang-up.

The other thing I learned in Catholic school was that it was better to be punished for doing something than for something you didn’t do. So if the whole class was going to be punished for goofing around, I made sure I was doing the goofing. This has made me someone who would rather act than stand by. And while I don’t consider myself that busy or prolific, this neurosis has given me the blessing of output. What does this have to do with that poor dog with the treat on his nose?

Patience. I used to be very impatient about writing and being published. I would submit to markets who responded quickly. I didn’t want to wait. I wanted to be published right now, dammit! And a few editors could tell you that I wrote stories for them overnight to apologize for not reading the guidelines about simultaneous submissions (Thank you for your understanding, David and Aldo). So, I learned early that impatience only brings embarrassment and tears. And I am thankful for the lesson.

Now, one must strike when the iron is hot. And opportunity knocks but once. But be sure that what you hear is a knock, and not your own belly rumbling with hunger for glory.

I don’t talk much about self-publishing vs. traditional. I think it has become less of a business decision than a personal crusade for some evangelists, and has become as pleasant to discuss as politics. Which is to say I’d rather toast my own danglies in a waffle iron than jump into the discussion, at this point. So I will approach it from the angle of patience, because I’ve seen too many good writers make mistakes due to a lack of it.

I’ve read of a couple short story collections and one self-published novel being pulled and re-released due to copy-editing errors. The writers made effusive apologies, offered the book free, told all their Facebook friends and blogger buddies to download the new copy. But the cat is out of the bag, and the readers they hoped to reach- the ones who don’t follow them on Twitter or read their blog already- have gotten a Shit Sandwich. And even if they do download the new version, they’ll remember this.

Of course, we’ve all read traditionally published books with errors. The e-book of Neal Stephenson’s REAMDE was pulled for egregious mistakes. But it doesn’t make up for the fact that you only get one chance to make a first impression. Do you want the priceless word of mouth to be, “That book was great,” or “I’m never buying one of his books again”?

There are more examples of impatience: Querying a press with your novel, then self-publishing it a few weeks later. Not submitting to markets who take over 30 days to respond. Self-publishing merely to avoid the grueling process of submitting queries to editors or agents, then waiting up to 18 months or more for your book to be published, if everything goes well.

The real question is: Do you want one marshmallow now, or three marshmallows later?

That link goes to Kristine Rusch writing on the Stanford Delayed Gratification Experiment, where children were offered one marshmallow now, but told if they didn’t eat it, they could have two marshmallows later. I know, I want a marshmallow now, don’t you? Well, wait for it.

Kris Rusch uses this experiment to show why we will take a “big” advance now, vs. the slow steady sales that can be achieved through self-publishing. But I’m going to flip that argument. I think a lot of new writers self-publish because they can’t wait to eat that marshmallow. Not a money marshmallow, but one of gratification at hearing their friends (and hopefully some new readers) tell them how much they liked their book. And I think a lot of the time we should wait, to get more marshmallows.

Ms. Rusch is a pro, and her Business Rusch blog is great reading. I like reading her posts because she is somewhat balanced and shrewd in judging traditional vs. self publishing. She may seem like she isn’t, because she calls out the big boys on their terrible accounting, bullying contracts, and otherwise non-agile business performance, but that is because she has self-respect. She is a professional, and demands to be treated as such. And I can’t think of anything wrong with behaving that way, from the time you submit your first story for publication.

Kris Rusch has self-published, and has many books with traditional publishers. She makes a choice on each book. It is a business decision, not a religion, or changing the world. It is not a knife in the back of bookstores, fighting the gatekeepers, or giving the big bully Amazon the defiant middle finger. It is no more political than choosing a credit union over a multinational bank (though that too, has been politicized).

If you read Ms. Rusch’s post, she lays out a very convincing argument to self-publish, when comparing money made vs. advances paid, on average. If you write, read that post. It will inform your decisions. But keep an open mind, and don’t act out of impatience. If you want to write a series character, you might not want to self-publish, if you are doing so to get the attention of a traditional publisher. They don’t want book #4 in your series. They want book #1, and they’re not going to publish it if it’s… already published.

And… editing is essential. Not just copy-editing. Editing. Find someone who will be honest with you, or pay a pro. They are out there. Check their references. If your stories were all published in well-edited zines, that’s great. Edit them again, you’d be amazed how many typos slip past multiple sets of eyes. Ask Lawrence Block, who found half a sentence repeated in a novel that was published three times and proofread each time.

This is the age of instant gratification. But to quote an old commercial… Make no wine before its time. Remember when writers used to have novels they left in a drawer? Maybe writing this novel was practice, if everything thinks your book stinks on ice. Do you want to send it out there, like an embarrassing childhood photo? That is a serious consideration. A reader is unlikely to forgive you and see if your second book got a whole lot better.

I force myself to sit on a story for a week before I edit it again and send it out. It hurts, like someone is spooling my intestines out on a spindle. But it pays off, when I’m stuffing my face with the marshmallows of acceptance. I rewrote my first novel, gutted over half of it, and this version is being gutted again. I had entire chapters describing the past in great detail, when one sucker punch of a line could do the job… but enough about that.

I have a long way to go and a lot to learn. But I have learned some patience, and it has served me very well. I may self-publish a story collection, with a new Jay Corso story, after he debuts in Needle. I am editing my first novel, and will be querying agents and editors this year. If no one asks for edits, and rejects it outright… who knows, I may self-publish. But it won’t be because I can’t wait to see what people think. It will be because that is what I’ve decided is best. And I’ll damn sure be writing my next novel as soon as I’m done editing this one.

From what I can see, it’s like fighting. You need to strike when opportunity presents itself. But you sure as hell don’t throw a punch just to get it over with.

I used to do that, as well. I had a straight nose, once.

My Local – Watchung Booksellers

The death of the independent bookstore has been greatly exaggerated.

Some are having hard times, and some are closing. But imagine my surprise when I walked into my local, the excellent Watchung Booksellers, and found that they will be closing next week.


Now, that’s the kind of news a writer and a book lover finds joyful. I’ve known the bookmongers and proprietors for nearly twenty years, and they run a great shop with a sprawling children’s section, a meaty mystery department, and they’ve had everyone from Jenny Milchman and Dennis Tafoya to the one and only Lawrence Block signing and speaking there. All in a very efficiently used, and to dip into realtor parlance, charming and cozy space.

It’s a small store. I’ve been in smaller bookshops, but I can’t recall them, and I think they’re all in bookstore heaven now. So I am thrilled to see them taking over space from next door and embiggening themselves.

I stopped in to pick up Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, on the urgent recommendation of Matthew Funk, and snagged Night Soldiers by Alan Furst, after hearing about his ambitious series of linked novels set in the run-up to the Second World War. They have impeccable taste- meaning they carry books I love by friends and other authors I admire- and they’ve sold a few copies of the Lost Children Anthology, which is available from them locally and via mail order, if you like supporting indie bookstores.