Since I’ve enjoyed interviewing other writers about writing, and with the publication of my novel, Secrets To Keep, I thought it would be fun and interesting to interview myself about writing. (Lest you worry, this wasn’t as hard as you might think, conversing with myself that is, as it happens all day long. I figure I shouldn’t worry until the conversations start taking place out loud where other people can hear them.)
So here’s my conversation with, um, myself, about writing.
Q: First question, why did you want to become a writer?
A: It started with reading. I have always loved reading. In fact, one of my earliest memories is getting caught sneaking a book into the lunch cafeteria. It was either in kindergarten or first grade. I remember the moment the teacher tapped me on the shoulder. I was sitting in one of those plastic chairs, my legs dangling over the edge, eating spaghetti, and reading a book. The memory has stuck with me all these years not only because I got in trouble, but for some reason, while the teacher was watching me, she thought I might need glasses, which I did.
While I was growing up and reading all the time, there was this thought in the back of my mind about writing. Wouldn’t it be cool if I could do what these writers were doing? I thought it would be the greatest thing in the world, but I never imagined it was even possible. Writing was more than a dream, it was a fantasy. Becoming a professional athlete seemed more realistic than becoming a writer.
It wasn’t until I was a freshman in high school that the idea of writing started to take shape. My freshman English teacher asked me if I’d be interested in joining the school newspaper the following year when I was a sophomore. I can’t remember if there was some sort of age or grade restriction, I imagine there must have been, but I was interested. Very much so. I told her I would love to do so. Unfortunately, when I became a sophomore the following year, we’d moved two more times and I was at a different school. Actually, I changed schools twice during that time period. I’m not sure why I didn’t pursue journalism at the new school I was attending, but I didn’t. Regardless, that English teacher’s question planted a little thought in my mind that maybe my fantasy of writing wasn’t as far off as I believed.
Q: So you started writing about that time?
A: (Laughter.) No. All my energies were focused on playing basketball and reading. And girls may have been a distraction as well. The truth of the matter was I didn’t have the first idea of how to become a writer. I didn’t know anyone who was a writer. I had no idea how to start.
Q: How did you get to the place where you are now, having written three books (The Accident, One Last Word, and Secrets To Keep)?
A: It wasn’t easy and there wasn’t a natural smooth progression. My journey was filled with starts and stops. Eventually, it was desire and determination and doggedness that made it a reality.
I didn’t “act” on the desire to write until just before my senior year of high school. I only had a couple of required classes to take and most of my schedule was going to be taken up with electives. The school was offering a number of creative writing courses so I signed up for every single one of them. Unfortunately, not a single one of them “made.” In other words, not enough other students signed up for the classes, so they were dropped from the schedule and I had to pick something else. I switched to a work-study program and got a job working afternoons in a bank mailroom.
Still, I kept thinking about writing, but not doing much writing, other than research papers that is. In college, between classes and working a couple of jobs, I barely had time to do much else. The summer after I graduated from college and before I started graduate school, I started reading a lot of fiction (Jack Kerouac and Kurt Vonnegut, in particular). I got married and one night that summer, unable to sleep, I finally decided to try my hand at writing. I sat on the couch with a legal pad and just started writing. I had no idea what I was doing, but I filled two pages. I kept at it for a couple of days, then graduate school started, and I put it away. I’ve lost track of that story and can’t even remember what it was about.
All throughout graduate school (I was studying Religion) my infatuation with writing grew. I read a few books on writing and ideas started percolating in my mind. I wrote them down on all sorts of scratch paper, but I never found the time to work on them. After my second year of graduate school, when I was supposed to be working on my thesis, which I was doing some of the time, I started writing a bunch of short stories. I don’t know why I picked short stories, I just did. It sounded less daunting than writing a novel.
I’d also started writing the occasional column for the school newspaper, but I think they accepted my writing not because of any inherent value but because they were desperate to fill space in the paper. got a job at TXU as a file clerk, although there wasn’t much filing to do. When I finished with my work and the boss wasn’t around, I wrote down ideas for stories or worked on something I’d already written. At this point, I was writing every day.
Eventually, I felt confident enough to send these stories off to a number of magazines and such, but they were all rejected. I didn’t keep any of the stories, but I imagine they were quite bad and deserved to be turned down. I can only remember the title of one story, “Rat Pellets Dipped In Enchilada Sauce.” Even though I’ve long forgotten the content of the story, the title has stuck with me all these years.
Q: And then?
A: Around that time, 1995 or so, we moved to Arlington. An un-finished Master’s Degree in Religion doesn’t qualify you to do much so I managed to land a job at a bookstore. The best part of the job was getting to read new books for free and then being exposed to all these new books. By then, I felt confident enough to ditch the short story format and start on a novel. It was the typical coming of age story and I worked on it for two years before I concluded it was a terrible story. Dreadful. Once I put that one away, I started on a second book, which was a mystery.
Q: Why a mystery?
A: Working in a bookstore exposed me to mysteries and detective novels. I couldn’t get enough of them. Raymond Chandler, Arthur Conan Doyle, James Ellroy, and just a number of different mystery writers. I came up with a multi-character story, worked on it for a little over a year, and started sending it to agents. I got one lukewarm response. It wasn’t an offer for representation, but it said something like “You’ve got something here and with a little work, it might be worthwhile.” This agent referred me to someone to help me work on my book and I sent her my manuscript. She sent back my pages, but they looked as if she’d dipped them in red ink. Multiple comments covered every single page. There wasn’t’ a page she hadn’t written on. I couldn’t bring myself to write. All I did was flip through the pages and look at her comments. Publication seemed utterly hopeless to me.
The intelligent thing would’ve been to work on the book, look for the value in her comments, but discouragement is a powerful emotion. Instead of working with that book anymore, I put it in the closet and started on something new. When the story wasn’t coming together, I became even more discouraged and stopped writing.
Q: When was this?
A: 1998 or 1999. Maybe as late as 2000.
Q: Why give up?
A: That’s a difficult question to answer. Maybe because it, publication, seemed impossible. The frustration of the business side of writing was crushing my enjoyment of writing.
I continued to read and I harbored the desire to write, but other than brief sporadic spurts here and there, I did very little writing. I would read books on writing and think about writing, but I didn’t write.
Q: What changed? Why did you start writing again?
A: There were a number of things that coalesced over a period of time. In August 2009, a truck struck me from behind while I was riding my bike. Fortunately, my injuries weren’t as severe as they could’ve been. I suffered a broken leg, a concussion, and a bunch of cuts. That accident was a sort of wake-up call, the first in a series of wake-up calls. The accident prompted me to think about what I wanted to do with my life, with whatever time I had left. What did I want to accomplish? How did I want to spend my time? Writing is the best way I know how to figure out what I’m thinking so I started to write about the accident. In doing so, I remembered what I enjoyed so much about writing, the act of writing itself.
Q: So the biking accident started you writing again. What was the progression to publishing a book?
A: Just because I was writing doesn’t mean I was ready to publish anything or that I had anything to publish. I might have thought I was, but I wasn’t.
In this digital, connected age, it’s much easier to reach out to authors. I read a book by Anne Jackson and sent her an email about her book. To my surprise, she replied to my message and we emailed back and forth. It turned out we knew some of the same people.
I got to the point where I thought I had a book ready, but I wasn’t sure what to do. I emailed Anne and she put me in touch with Beth Jusino, who, if memory serves correct, had been her agent at one time. Beth was, and still is, a writing coach. I contacted Beth, sent her a sample of my writing, and I worked with her for nearly a year. For me, working with Beth was the single best thing I ever did for my writing. She pointed out the mistakes I was making again and again, the bad habits I’d developed, and she gave me some tips and resources to work on them.
Around the same time, two other things took place. One, e-readers were taking off in popularity and a number of authors were publishing their own books. As I finished the book on my accident (The Accident: A Bike, A Truck, and A Train), which was a little over a hundred pages, I figured it might be a perfect little experiment for self-publication.
And then in May 2011, my Dad passed away in his sleep. Just like the biking accident crystallized my thinking about what I wanted to, my Dad’s death had the same effect. I became hyper-focused on what I wanted to do in life. How did I want to spend my time? What did I want to do? Who did I want to be? Writing rose to the top of the list and a number of things dropped off.
I finished the book (The Accident) and published it myself. I was fortunate that the response was fairly positive, but even if it had been tepid, I wasn’t going to stop writing. The writing bug had infected me.
Q: What have been some of the most important lessons you’ve learned about writing?
A: Diligence and determination. You have to do it every single day, whether you feel like it or not, whether the words are flowing or not. Some days, it’s a struggle to get out a few hundred words and everything you write seems like drivel and garbage. Other days, the words flow from a spigot and it seems effortless. But you never know which kind of day it’s going to be. You have to show up, sit down, and write. I wrote most of Secrets To Keep before work every morning. If you want to write, you have to set aside the time. Thirty minutes, an hour, two hours, just sit down and do it.
Also, reading is very important, at least for me. Reading is a joy, maybe even an addiction, but it’s also a classroom. Through reading, you get to see and evaluate what others have done.
The other thing, and this is still hard for me, is to forget about the response of others and the sales. Write because you want to, because you have to, and focus on becoming the best writer you can be. Don’t let the frustrations over sales affect your writing.
Q: You mentioned working with a writing coach, Beth Jusino. What did you learn from her that helped you the most?
A: Honesty. Tell the story that is inside you and don’t try to hide from the reader. That’s the first thing she called me out on and she was spot on. It sounds weird, not being honest in your own writing, but I wasn’t.
Q: What does that mean?
A: Write the story you want. Tell it all, good, bad, and ugly. Paint the complete picture and don’t try to homogenize it. (Of course, if you’ve read Secrets To Keep, you may be wishing parts of it had been homogenized. But doing so would’ve negatively impacted the story.) Be honest in your writing and if you don’t like it in later drafts, you can take it out. Rounded, flawed characters are far more interesting that cardboard caricatures.
Q: What else did you learn from Beth?
A: Technically speaking, she worked with me to treat each section as a scene. It sounds like a basic lesson, make the scene or the section about one thing and one thing only, but I had a scattershot approach to writing. I would make a section about seven or eight different things. She recommended a book, Shimmering Images (I think), which reinforced that idea as well.
Q: Are there other lessons you’ve picked up about writing?
A: There’s a lot to learn and the best place to learn is by reading and reading widely. What sorts of characters are involved, how did the author construct the story, move the plot, set the scene, arrange the dialogue, all that stuff.
One of the most helpful things was in Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird. I think nearly every writer references what she has to say about first drafts, which is that all first drafts are “shitty” and it’s okay to have “shitty first drafts.” And it’s true. The key is not to give up during the first draft. I’ll come up with what I think is a great idea and then start working on it. Halfway through the first draft, my opinion will change. I’ll wonder what happened to that great idea because what I’m seeing on the page is garbage and I might even feel as if I’m wasting my time. As I start working through the second draft, I’ll start to see glimmers of light and gold.
Q: Can you describe your writing process?
A: It has changed over the years. I started as someone who didn’t outline or plot in advance, who would write the entire first draft by hand and then type it up. I’m still not someone who outlines extensively, but I do spend more time “breaking the story” than I have before. I learned about breaking stories by listening to The Nerdist Writer’s Panel podcast. Even though the focus of the podcast is on creating stories and characters for television, I learned a lot about how to put stories together, particularly from the interviews with Vince Gilligan and Damon Lindelof.
Now my process is to come up with an idea and some characters. I’ll take a few sheets of paper and work on the direction of the story. I’ll come up with the major scenes, find the flow, the pace, and so forth. Once I’m satisfied I have enough, I’ll start writing. As I write, I’ll learn more things about these characters and the story. I’ll add sections and scenes as well as come up with characters I hadn’t originally imagined. In Secrets To Keep, the character of Crazy Al didn’t come to mind until I had Colin and Max walking into the Pizza Palace to buy a gun, which happens very late in the novel. He turned out to be one of my favorite characters. Also, the original ending was far different from what I originally envisioned. It helps to have a direction and some pegs on the wall so to speak, but then I let the story guide me.
Once the first draft is done, I’ll skim through it and pick out the plot holes, the places I need to change or where the story needs more or less. I focus on what the story needs to be better. In Secrets To Keep, the couple buying a house wasn’t in the first draft. I added them in the second draft and I thought it would be an interesting plot line to ratchet up the tension. Once I start on the second draft, I work on each chapter twice and do that for a couple of drafts. After the fourth or fifth draft, I’ll let my wife read it. Before then, I don’t talk about the story at all. I won’t tell anybody anything about it. I don’t know why. It’s just the way I am. She’ll make some suggestions, I’ll work on another draft, and then I’ll usually ask one of my brothers to read it. With Secrets To Keep, he pointed out some plot developments and a few things with one of the characters that were quite helpful. I’ll try to find one or two other people who’ll read it as well.
With Secrets To Keep, I learned to put the book aside for a few weeks and come back at it with fresh eyes. It happened by accident, but it turned out to be a great thing. After a few weeks away, you notice things in the story you haven’t seen before. Somewhere in the process, I’ll read it aloud, which helps as well.
Q: So that raises the question, what are your favorite and least favorite parts of writing?
A: Well, copy-editing might be my least favorite part of writing, but there’s still a pleasure in it. To be honest, I like it all, except maybe the marketing of the book, but that’s more about the business of writing. I like coming up with characters and story and plot, getting that first draft down, and then shaping it into an entertaining story.
Q: What would you consider to be your biggest impediment to writing?
A: Years ago, I might have said publication or recognition. My focus had moved from the writing to sales, which was a mistake. Whether or not people recognize and appreciate and like your writing or buy your books is something beyond your control. It’s natural to fall into wanting that, but it’s a trap. A pit. You have to focus on doing the best writing you can regardless of what happens with it.
Having said that, the biggest challenge I face is time, not having enough of it. I write every single day, but sometimes I can only find twenty or thirty minutes to do so. Of course, those happen to be the days when the words are flowing and you don’t want to stop. I always wish I had more time to write.
One of the harder things, although it’s not an impediment, is plot development. Where is the story going? What characters will you introduce along the way? Are you advancing the story, adding elements of humor, keeping the reader’s attention, and so on? How are you going to make it all come together? It’s hard, hard work, but when it comes together, it can be very satisfying.
Q: Where do the ideas for these characters and stories come from?
A: That is the million-dollar question. If I could figure that out, bottle it and sell it, I’d be worth a lot of money. The truth is I have no idea. They come from somewhere. The key is to have an open mind and pay attention. To steal a line from Frederick Buechner – “Pay attention to your life.” Pay attention to what’s going on around you, pay attention to what you’re reading, what people are saying and doing, even what they’re not saying and doing. I read, I watch people, I ease drop on conversations, and I daydream. Somewhere in there, characters, stories, and even sentences show up.
Q: That sounds kind of arty and nebulous. Can you give an example or two.
A: It’s hard to describe. With Secrets To Keep, I wanted to write about a detective. I’ve wanted to do so for a long time. I went back and forth about him being with the police or being a private eye and finally I decided on him being a private eye. No reason other than I decided to do so. I stared at a piece of paper and scratched out ideas until I found one I liked. I also wanted to write about steroids, because they were in the news a lot and it seemed like they would be an interesting topic. Initially, I planned on the steroids being a bigger part of the story, but it turned out not to be the case. But, like I said in another post, nothing gelled until I nearly hit a runner on the way to the gym. For whatever reason, my mind and imagination kicked into overdrive and the ideas started flowing. I have no explanation other than you have to pay attention to what’s going on, be interested in the stuff taking place around you, and follow your imagination.
I have this thing that I do. Not only do I watch people, but there’s this running conversation or commentary going on in my head. I might be in line at a store and I’ll be watching the guy in front of me. Why is he buying what he is? Why is he dressed like that? Why does he walk like that? Within ten minutes, I’ve built up this whole life for him- single or married, what kind of job he has, where’s he going, where’s he come from. And then if somebody melts down and is yelling at another person, I’m wondering why is that guy so ticked off? Did his wife just leave him, did he recently lose a job, is he under pressure at work? My mind creates this whole scenario and life and existence. What has brought him to the point where he’s flipping out at a clerk? Sometimes, these playful ideas come to nothing and sometimes I think there might be a story there.
And it could be the flip side as well. Somebody, a stranger is really nice to you. Why? Is it because he’s nice or does he want something? Is he really a predator, a psychopath?
It might sound like I need mental help, but it’s good for my writing and it keeps me entertained during the day.
Of course, all that makes it sound like coming up with stories is easy, but it’s not. You also have to know when you’ve got a good story or what makes a good story and that comes from reading. Read, read, read. Read in the genre you’re interested in and read outside your genre. I’ve always got three or four books going at the same time in all sorts of genres, fiction and non-fiction. Reading a wide variety of books opens you up to other experiences and is more water in the well so to speak for generating additional ideas.
The last part, which is the hard part, is sitting down with your ideas and the briefest sketch of characters and figuring out who they are and what they want. Where are they going? What are their secrets, their hopes, their dreams, their desires? What has gone right in their life and what has gone wrong? Are they married or single or divorced? Are they happy, sad, conflicted, upset, frustrated, irritated?
So it’s a matter of paying attention to what’s going on around you, the stuff you’re inputting in your brain, and a lot of hard work. It’s not as arty and nebulous as it seems.
Q: Who are some of the writers who inspire you as a writer?
A: In the realm of mystery, there are many… Ken Bruen is at the top of the list. He’s inspired a lot of writers and there’s a number who write similar to him now, but he’s unique. One of the best. But there have been others- Raymond Chandler, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Olen Steinhauer, Richard Stark/Donald Westlake, Arnaldur Indridason, Stuart Neville, Ben H. Winters, Qiu Xiaolong, Adrian McKinty, James Thompson, David Peace, Simon Kernick, Hallgrimur Helgason, and Fuminori Nakamura. Gene Kerrigan and James Ellroy as well.
But I’ve also been influenced by a number of other fiction and non-fiction writers. For fiction, Flannery O’Connor, Haruki Murakami, and David Foster Wallace come to mind immediately. I’ve read a little of Stephen King, 11/22/63 was so well crafted. On the non-fiction side, there are a number of great books and writers. I’d have a hard time narrowing down the list to one or two.
In addition to books, I read a variety of magazines and blogs. Two guys I really like are Alan Sepinwall and Andy Greenwald, who are TV reviewers. On one level, I’m curious as to what they have to say about a show, but on another level they do a great job interacting with the story and giving their opinion as to what does and doesn’t work with the story and characters.
Q: Do you watch much TV or many movies?
A: Not much actually. There just isn’t much time in the day. I usually watch one show at a time and it might take me awhile to do so. As for movies, I rarely sit down and watch a movie. Not that I don’t like them, but I never seem to have the time. When I do, I try to find things that are very well done. In the last year, I think I’ve seen two movies, Flight and Mud, both of which were quite well done.
Q: What are some of the TV shows you have watched and enjoyed?
A: One of the first to capture my attention was Homicide: Life on the Street. It was right up my alley, the ending was not guaranteed to be tidy and neat, the characters were real, i.e. flawed, and the emotions were raw. Lately, there was Breaking Bad, which apart from being a great show, was a master class in storytelling. Before that I watched Lost, which shouldn’t get dismissed as it does by some because of the finale. Week in and week out, they crafted incredible, memorable stories along with unique characters like Mr. Eko and Desmond.
What you learn from TV is the hook. What is it that will keep you sitting there (or fast-forwarding) through the commercials or make you want to watch the next episode. Lost and Breaking Bad were highly adept at the use of the hook.
Q: Any other sources of inspiration?
A: You can’t leave out music either. I don’t listen to much music, but when I do, I like artists who tell stories. One of the earliest I found who did this was John Mellencamp. Most of his songs are brief stories. Songwriters have a different way of stringing words together, which can break you as a writer out of your own rut or give you an idea. One of the best, and not nearly as well known, is Jack Logan. For whatever reason, he’s never garnered much attention, but his songwriting skills are incredible. He has this unique ability to come up with a different perspective on something and tell a great story in three or four minutes. His ability to put a spin on a phrase in unbelievable.
Q: Have we missed anything? Any last words on writing?
A: Writing is a long, slow, lonely process, sometimes difficult and sometimes frustrating, but I can’t think of anything more rewarding. I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.