Write First, Clean Later

Find a Better Day Job

About halfway into my fiction writing adventure, I read an interview that changed my life. The featured scriptwriter had recently sold his first screenplay, which was made into a blockbuster movie. When the interviewer asked him if he would do anything differently (given the chance), he said, “If I had known it would take ten years to sell a script, I would have found a better day job.”

That hit home with me. At the time I was waiting tables and doing a little freelance writing. I had recently failed to sell a novel even though my agent had told me we had an offer. So I came to the immediate conclusion that I needed a better day job. I needed a job that put my journalism degree and inquisitive mind to work every day in some productive and satisfying capacity. I realized that I how spend every day is important. All we have is the here and now. The future (as glamorous as I envision it) doesn’t exist . . .yet.

So I stopped living for the future—that day when my novel would sell and my life would change. I found a job as a magazine editor, and I accepted, on some level, that magazine writing and editing would be my career and that it would be enough.

But I continued writing novels, and ten years later I have my first book out there getting great reviews. I am so glad I spent the last ten years editing and developing a successful career instead of waiting tables. So for all you aspiring writers (actors, artists, musicians) who are working at jobs you loathe or that don’t mean anything to you while you wait for your big break—find a better day job!

Life is short. Enjoy every day.

10 Writing Resolutions

I’m in an unusual space at the moment—waiting for feedback on my latest novel and trying to leave the manuscript alone in the mean time. But this phase is also an opportunity to write other things, form new habits, and expand my knowledge base. With those goals in mind, I developed 10 writing resolutions, some of which I’m already working toward and others that are new and exciting.

1. Write every day. That means during the week, spend a minimum of three hours on my current big project and on weekends, write blogs, articles, short stories, comedy material, letters to the editor—almost anything to keep the juices flowing.

2. Write bold. Do not be afraid to offend an occasional reader. I can’t make everyone happy. If I did, my stories/blogs/comedy would be boring.

3. Dig deeper into characters’ motivations. Who are these people and why do they act the way they do?

4. Make more trips to the library. I only finish about one in three books I start, so I have to buy books regularly. I’ve been ordering from Powells and buying a mix of new and used. It’s expensive, but I’m supporting other writers, so I don’t feel bad about the money. Yet I need to supplement my purchases with more library books (titles that I’m uncertain about and new books that I can’t afford).

5. Read more literary fiction. Maybe read an occasional poem for inspiration. My writing is straightforward and lean and could benefit from an occasional poetic flair.

6. Conduct research interviews. Meet with law enforcement personnel and others in the community to develop background knowledge for future stories.

7. Listen carefully to first readers.
Be open to criticism and willing to fix problems. This is the point of having first readers and why it’s called a first draft.

8. Do not be in a hurry to submit. Let the manuscript sit untouched for a few weeks. Then revise the story with early readers comments in mind. Then send it out to other readers.

9. Start outlining my next novel. So I’m already writing it when the rejections start coming in. It’s easier to think “This next story will be the one,” if I’m in the process and feeling good about the new story.

10. Write new comedy material. It’s hard work, but great fun at the same time. It’s an important creative change of pace to get away from the serious crime stuff. Then go perform that material.

10 Things to Know About L.J. Sellers

And you thought you knew everything about me by now ….
For 10 more facts, click right over to my guest blog at Lisa’s Book Critique.

Quit the D**n Cursing

It has come to my attention lately that I curse too much. First my husband said to me, “Why do you curse so much?” Then a reader mentioned that my series character had become more foul mouthed in the second book. So I had to think about it. And I don’t have a good answer. Like almost everything in life, cursing is a habit. And so, like all the other bad habits in my life, I’m trying do without. Fortunately, it’s not an all or nothing proposition like smoking. I like to think that I can cut back on the cursing—reserve it for special occasions and not slip all the way into my current pattern. I’m not giving it up entirely, and I’m not looking for sainthood.

But what about my characters? Do they curse too much because I do? How much should characters curse? Of course that depends on the character. But now I’m reading back through the story and looking at every curse word and asking, “Is that necessary? Will another word choice be as effective?” I’m not the pandering type, but I also don’t want to alienate readers with unnecessary offensive language.

Of course, if my character discovers a bomb in his briefcase set to go off in 30 seconds, he’s still likely to say “Holy shit,” but maybe not “Oh f**k.” We’ll see. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Do your characters curse? Do you ever tone it down with sensitive readers in mind? Should we?

Less TV, More Reading

My husband and I have decided to give up cable TV. This is a small deal for me, because I watch very little—daily pre-recorded Jon Stewart shows and Bill Maher on Fridays. It’s a bigger deal for Steve, but he found an article online about how to get a bunch of TV shows through his computer and we’re expanding our Netflix subscription. He seems excited to make the change. The motivation? I got tired of writing that $162 check every month for 20 minutes of daily entertainment. I told him we could spend the savings anyway he wanted. (I suspect we’ll end up with motorcycle accessories.)

The bigger benefit though is that we both plan to do more reading. I was so excited by this possibility that I ordered a stack of books from Powels. Here’s what’s in my to be read pile:

A Nail Through the Heart, by Timothy Halinan
Kidnapped, by Jan Burke
Money Shot, by Christa Faust
Invisible Prey, by John Sanford
Safe and Sound, by J.D. Rhoades
The Black Path, by Asa Larsson
Lost Dog, by Bill Cameron
Go Go Girls of the Apocalypse, by Victor Gischler (Steve plans to start with this one)

Any bets on how long Steve lasts without cable?

Let It Chill

Yesterday I finished the edit/second draft of my WIP (meeting my Sept. 1 deadline!) and today I feel a little lost. Writing that story has been my main focus for the last six months. It was the activity around which I structured my life. It’s not that I lack things to do; my list is longer than ever. In simple terms . . . I miss the creative process. I miss looking forward to where the story was going each day. I miss my characters.

I’m already thinking of things I need to add or fix. But I’m only making notes. I’m resisting the urge to go into the file. I have learned over the years that it’s important to let a novel sit and jell for a couple of weeks after the first major draft is completed. This is very difficult for me. I like to keep moving forward, and I’m anxious to find a publisher. But it’s critical to take a break and get some perspective on the story. When I come back to it, I’ll see flaws and gaps that I can’t see now. So for now, the manuscript is chillin’.

So today, I’m working through my list of things to do, brainstorming for my next novel, and cleaning. This is the “later” as referred to in my blog title.

Writers: Do you let your story chill? And for how long?

Staying Sane While Working at Home

My commute was up the stairs. My workday was self-directed, flexible, and light on responsibility. Most people would call it the ideal job. For me, working at home for a magazine was a long slow descent into depression, anxiety, and claustrophobia. The rest of the magazine staff was in New York, and a week at a time would pass without a call from my co-workers. E-mails simply served to exchange files. I was alone for eight or nine hours a day for more than a year and it drove me insane. I am a social creature. I generate energy from being around people. But that period in my life was years ago, before CrimeSpace, Facebook, Twitter, and list servs.

Now I’m working at home again as a novelist and freelance editor. So far, I’m loving it. But it is different this time. I’m connected to people through the Internet, and I’m able to set my own hours and take breaks when I want. But I worry about what it will be like for me six months or a year from now. I want this career phase to work out long term. So here’s my strategy for staying sane while working at home:

  1. Make time to reach out to people on the Internet periodically throughout the day.
  2. Have lunch with real-live person once a week.
  3. Conduct interviews in person even if they can be done by phone.
  4. Schedule regular social activities (such as weekly bowling with my brothers).
  5. Join a writers group and meet periodically (I haven’t done this yet, but it’s on my list).
  6. Open Pandora, click my funk station and dance for five minutes at least twice a day. Dancing is so joyful, it wards off depression.

I assume that most of the people I interact with throughout the day also work at home. So tell me, how do you keep from getting cabin fever?

Blogs: Opinion Versus Promotional

I started to blog this morning about McCain’s VP pick, then realized it was not a good idea. This is not that kind of blog. If you had to break down blogs into only two categories, they would fall into either opinion blogs or promotional blogs. As opinionated as I am, this blog falls in the promotional category—it’s about reaching out to readers and writers and letting them get to know me (with the idea that eventually they’ll buy my products).

And so, there are many subjects that are off limits to my blog, and many things about me that I can never share. There are many books that I will never review on this site. It is too easy to alienate people (readers) just by mentioning, hypothetically for example, that I don’t read books that have cats on the cover or in title. I would never say that here. There are too many cat-loving readers and writers out there who would be offended. (As info: PS Your Cat Is Dead by James Kirkwood is one of my favorite books.) So my goal is to be a gracious host and blogger and keep politics (and many personal opinions) out of the conversation.

Other bloggers blur this line, vacillating between opinion and promotion with occasional side trips into the too-personal. For them, anything is fair game and every opinion is worth stating. Some, I believe, would call me a hypocrite or a chicken for limiting my subjects. What do you think? Do blog categories exist? Do you have expectations that some blogs should stay nonpolitical?

Easy Effective Edits

I’ve been editing the first draft of my new novel, and I became aware of some changes I consistently make—for the better. I’ll share them here, in case you find them useful.

1. I get rid of the word “it” and replace it with the specific thing that I’m referring to, even if I just named that thing in the previous sentence. “Jackson reached for his Glock. The weapon felt heavy in his hand” is better than “Jackson reached for his Glock. It felt heavy in his hand.” In verbal communication, repetitive use of “it” may be acceptable, but in narrative writing such lack of clarity is ineffective and often confusing.

2. The same is true of overuse of pronouns. So I’ve also consistently replaced “she,” “he,” and “they” with the specific name of the character(s). Sometimes it feels too formal to use the character’s name three times in a paragraph, but if the character, say, a guy named Jack, is talking about the suspect, a guy named Vinnie, then referring to either of these guys as “he” can be confusing to the reader. This is a point that Stephen King makes in his great book On Writing.

3. The third most consistent edit I make is to tweak individual scenes so that they read like mini-stories, with mounting tension, a climax, and a conclusion. The exception to that structure are scenes at the end of chapters, which I often leave with a revelation, a hint of a revelation, or a great deal of uncertainty (aka, cliffhangers).

My Greatest Fan


I’d like to introduce you to Sergeant Isaac Hutchison, my greatest fan. He’s a military police officer stationed in El Paso, Texas. He just found out he’s going back to Iraq in January. He already spent a year and half of his young life there, but he serves his country willingly and proudly. And I am proud—beyond words—of him.

My proudest moment as an author came many years ago after a midnight phone call. I stumbled to the phone, half asleep and half panicked, thinking, “What’s wrong?” Isaac’s voice came on the phone and said, “Oh my God. You blew me away.” I didn’t know what he was talking about. “I just finished your novel, and I had to call you and tell you how much I loved it. I loved your characters. I want to be Eric.” He recently told me he read that particular novel four times. And it’s possible my story character shaped who he turned out to be—a thoughtful, passionate man who cares about so much of the world beyond himself.

Isaac was also my first fan. He started reading my novels almost 20 years ago when they were still in manuscript form. Anytime I printed a copy of a novel or first three chapters that wasn’t good enough to send out, the stack of paper would go into a recycling box for the kids to use as math scratch paper or for drawings. Isaac would grab a stack of paper from the box, take it to his room, and read chunks of my stories. They were often just bits and pieces, 10 pages of this section and 40 pages of something else. He would often ask me to tell him how it all turned out.

Years later, he was as excited as I was to finally see my novels in print. Today, he brags about me and my writing to anyone who will listen. Now he’s waiting anxiously for the next installment. Whenever I’m having anxiety about not being good enough, I can count on him for moral support. I’m lucky to have such a fan. And such a fine son.

Five-Time Readers Favorite Award Winner!

LATEST REVIEWS

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. The characters were compelling, the procedural work was dead-on, and the story was enthralling. Definitely recommended.”
~Michelle Gagnon, author of Boneyard
The author expertly intertwines multiple story lines, presents readers with fully realized characters that readers will feel they know, and keeps the action and suspense levels high. That’s a lot to expect from an author but L. J. Sellers delivers.” ~OverMyDeadBody
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