The Writing Habits of L.J. Sellers (as if you wanted to know)

I got tagged (thanks Marvin) for telling you all about myself, so here it is:

1) Computer, longhand, or other?

The only thing I write with a pen are lists. I have loved computers for writing anything and everything since the first day I sat down at one.

2) Coffee or tea?

Both! And lots of it. I start with strong black coffee (grinding the beans and all), then switch to green tea (lemongrass or jasmine), then drink licorice tea at night.

3) Day or night?

As my blog’s subhead says, “First thing every day.” I can, and do, write at night sometimes, but I struggle with it. (See April blog entry: Shaking It Up.)

4) Favorite genre to write?

I write what I love to read: mystery/suspense. I also write comedy for my standup routine, and I have written three comedy screenplays. I love writing comedy, but it’s very hard work. Some people manage to combine crime and comedy, but for me, they’re like oil and water, and I just can’t mix ‘em.

5) Pencil or pen to edit?

I edit my own work on screen, but I prefer to edit other people’s fiction on paper. I use three writing utensils: the black pen mark means “make this edit,” the pencil means “consider this syntax edit,” and the yellow highlighter means “look at this repetition or inconsistency.”

6) Unusual writing quirk or trait?

I wish I had something funny or cute to tell you, but I don’t write naked and I don’t wear hats for inspiration. In truth, I write very lean. My first drafts are mostly action and dialogue. Then I have to go back and fill with more detail and characterization.

7) Writing from home or writing in a cozy café?
I use an ergonomic keyboard, I can’t function without a mouse, and my workstation at home lets me stand up and work for periods throughout the day. In other words, I’m spoiled. Why would I go anywhere else?

8) Music or silence while your write?

Years ago, I could write with three boys playing Nintendo in the room. Now I like it quiet. But I’m going to try Karen’s suggestion of certain music for certain scenes.

9) Favorite motivational writing quote?
My own: Life is short. Get it done.

10) Favorite bookmark?

I use one of my own for THE SEX CLUB. It reminds me that I can write too.

11) Favorite fictional character of all time?

Tough question. Who comes to mind today is Irwin Fletcher, made famous by Chevy Chase. I loved the books and the movies! He’s a great example of combining crime and comedy.

12) Most admired living writer today?

I can’t pick a living writer because there’s too many. My favorite writer of all time though is Lawrence Sanders. He’s incredibly versatile and always entertaining.

And I tag Charlotte to go next.

How to Be Happy

Lately, strategies for happiness have been in the news, and I’ve adopted them to my benefit. Two prominent ideas have a common theme. The first is to stop complaining. Completely. No exceptions. You train yourself to do this by wearing a band on your wrist. Every time you complain, you have to move it to the other wrist. The goal is to go 21 days without complaining—or moving the band. I’ve never made it 21 days (because some whining is cathartic!), and I stopped wearing the band (it’s summer!). But I keep doing the mental checks. It’s very productive in controlling negative thought cycles.

A second secret to happiness, which has been promoted recently in articles by psychologists and counselors, is to be grateful everyday. They say the strategy is most effective when you write down, everyday, the things you are grateful for (more listmaking!). The theory is that feeling grateful is a clear path to happiness. And it works by keeping your thought processes in a positive mode.

Then if you throw in the concept from the popular self-help book, The Secret, the formula for happiness is this: Stop complaining, express gratitude every day, and ask the universe for what you want.

The universe has not yet given me everything I want, but I have everything I need and I’m happy in my effort to go out and get the rest for myself.

PS Here is my gratitude list for the day: great family (husband especially), good health, flexible lifestyle, readers who love my work. What are you grateful for? What keeps you happy (and sane)?

Never Give Up (if you know its good)

Last weekend I finished the first draft of my new Detective Jackson novel (yes, I write and edit on weekends too), and so this week, I’m going back through to rewrite and clean up (find all the places where characters have morphed and street names have changed). This is such a strange process. One moment I’m excited and happy and thinking “This is the one. This is the novel that will be a breakthrough and get people’s attention.” Then two pages later, I’m disgusted by a line of dialogue, doubtful about the whole plot, and scared that this manuscript will suffer the same fate as all the others.

What is that fate? Here’s the short version of my “Almost” story.

My first “almost” was about ten years ago. I had a great story and found a great agent (president of Writers’ House) who sent my manuscript out to five editors at major publishers. One day he called and said, “Michelle Whatshername at HarperCollins loves your manuscript, and I’ll have an offer for you next week.” I danced around the house for days, but the offer never came and my agent gave up. I was so crushed, I stopped writing novels for a few years. (I wrote screenplays, instead. A whole ‘nother story.)

My second “almost” was two years ago. I finished another story that I was excited about, found an agent who said, “This story has great commercial potential,” then she sent it out to five editors at major publishing houses. Those editors said things like: “I read this story in one sitting!” “The writing is excellent.” “This is an outstanding piece of fiction.” But nobody bought it because the victims are underage. That story is THE SEX CLUB, which I brought to the market through a niche publisher. (An effort similar to using a toothbrush to dig a hole for swimming pool.) But readers love the story and want more.

So now I have another Detective Jackson novel, soon to be finished. I don’t want to go the same niche-publisher route (my toothbrush is worn out and my fingers are numb), and I have two agents who read the first 50 pages and are excited to see the rest. But this process—agent, wait, submission, wait, “no thanks”—scares me big time. Will it be a case of “Third time is the charm” or “Three strikes and your out”? I’m not sure I can take another “Almost.” But I am sure that I’m not giving up yet.

PS: Read tomorrow’s post to find out how I stay happy through the crushing disappointments.

Listmaking vs. Goofing Off

As I drank a second cup of coffee and made a specific list of things to do today, my husband said, “Why don’t you take a day off? You know, just goof off for the whole day.” I rolled my eyes (while he laughed hysterically), then went back to my listmaking—which I may have taken to a new level.

First, there’s the life-quest master list, with all the big ideas like: Make the NY Times bestseller list, lose 7 pounds, be nicer to the husband. Nothing comes off the list until it’s accomplished. “Quit smoking” was on the list for 10 years (scratched it off 15 years ago!), and “Lose 7 pounds” has been there since college. (Maybe a nasty bout of food poisoning will eventually take care of that.)

Then there’s the ongoing writing/promoting/career list with things like: “Create a master list of character descriptions” and “Create and post a book discussion guide” (still haven’t done that). Then there’s the daily list of every little thing for that day, such as: blog, bike ride, work on novel, update website, water flowers before they die, have sex. Often there’s a fourth list of things to do while I’m out and about: bank, haircut, post office, Fred Myer. That list may include a list of things to buy at FM, or I may have a fifth little post-it note on my wallet that says: decaf, mints, meaties.

I also have lists for: books to read, blogging ideas, nonfiction article ideas, novel ideas, places to visit, websites to check out, editors, publishers, agents, and more.

So now you’re thinking, “That is truly anal.” And you are truly right.

But I get things done.

So back to my original thought: Have I ever goofed off for a whole day when I wasn’t on vacation in some place other than my home? Actually, no, I haven’t. Can I do it?

No, not a whole day.

But I recognize the need to occasionally have fun. (On vacation, I go all out and don’t even answer my phone. Scroll to the bottom of the page and see the photos for proof. ) But maybe I can sneak in a little fun now and then between vacations. But the only way it’s gonna happen is if I put it on the “must-do-today list.” Maybe I’ll give that try . . . when I get through list number 2.

PS: Did anyone notice that I didn’t use cleaning as an example on my lists? (See blog title.)
Is anyone else a compulsive listmaker? Are there support groups for the addiction?

Party Crasher

Being a new author often feels like being the new kid in school. The cliques are already established and everybody else seems to belong. The fact that my book is from a micropublisher makes me feel like a party crasher too. I’m not on the list. I came in through the back door. People are being polite, but I suspect that they know I shouldn’t be there.

I know this sounds a little paranoid and it’s not typical of me. But recently I was unfriended on Facebook by another popular author (meaning well-liked by other authors), and that’s what started this whole introspection. I’m normally very self-confident, and I used to be unconcerned with the opinions of strangers. But as a novelist, you have to care about the opinions of strangers. In fact, you have to seek out the opinions of hundreds or, if you’re lucky, thousands of strangers.

I’m planning a trip to Bouchercon this October, and on the list of attendees, there’s an “A” by my name. So it’s official, I’m an author. But I can’t join Thriller Writers or Mystery Writers of America because Spellbinder Press is not on their list. (Thanks, Sisters in Crime for not being elitist! And thanks Mystery Scene magazine and all the reviewers who read and loved THE SEX CLUB.) A little part of me is afraid that before I get to B-con, someone will decide I’m not a real author and take away my badge.

The upside is that readers don’t care who published the book. They either like it or they don’t. And so far, readers like me. They really like me.

Career Misfits (aka, Love What You Do)

Today, I veer completely off the subject of writing to indulge in my second favorite pastime, raving. And today’s rave is about Career Misfits—people who seem to be particularly unqualified, at least on the surface, for the job they do.

For example, a women I met recently proudly claimed to be a hairdresser. I glanced at her “coiffure” (a white-blond crewcut with black roots) and thought to myself, never in a million years would I let this woman touch my hair. I could achieve more sympathetic results with chemotherapy. The poor woman might be surprisingly good with a pair of scissors, but who in their right mind would take the chance?

Then there’s the woman I encounter socially, very sweet, but substantially overweight. One evening I asked what she did for a living. (Are you cringing?) Of course, she owns a weight-loss clinic. I stood there nodding, completely speechless for the first time in my life. What should I have said? “New in the business?”

Seriously, how can you sell a product when you’re visible proof of its failure? It would be like Jason Alexander (aka, George Castanza) trying to pitch Rogaine. Don’t they know better? Doesn’t it hurt? Or is it possible they simply lack a sense of irony? If there were only a few of these characters, I’d call it a karmic snafu and let it go. But they are everywhere!

There’s the guy behind the counter at the health food store who raves about the benefits of nutritional supplements yet looks like he hasn’t eaten or slept well in weeks. And the brother-in-law who struggles to make a living as a remodeler, while his own home is such a cosmetic nightmare I’d love to torch it and make him start from scratch. (As a writer, I’m lucky there’s no way to judge my competence by looking at me or the books on my shelf.)

I once knew cook who loved to grow exotic plants. When he told me he was studying psychology at the U of O, I impulsively blurted out, “Why? If you love plants, study botany. The key to happiness in life is finding something you love to do, then doing it until you’re good enough to make a living.”

I stand by my words. If these mismatched folks love what they do and are happy doing it, then more power to them. I will continue to bite my tongue—and ask for references.


I finished the first draft of my new novel, Secrets to Die For, yesterday. It’s nowhere near ready to go out to anyone, but it’s such a great feeling to have the whole story down on paper. To have a new product to sell. It’s impossible to get the attention of agents or editors without a finished manuscript. And at the moment, I have no freelance work in house. So I have a free day. And it will be a promopalooza! Here’s what I hope to accomplish:

Blog (done)
Update my website (create a page for Secrets to Die For, add more links, etc.)
Update my blog (add links to guest blogs, add a sitemeter, upload book trailer)
Post on all four list serves
Write/send query letters to agents
Send out free copies of The Sex Club to weekly winners and others
Query various blogs about appearing as a guest author or blogger
Update my books on GoodReads (add friends too)
Write and post a book discussion guide to website (this has been on list forever!)
Write and post a note on FB about blogging every day in August
Check out the 50 websites I’ve bookmarked and never got back to
Query people about reading my newly finished manuscript/ask for blurbs
Find a roommate for Bouchercon
Finish reading discussion novel and create list of questions

There’s more, of course, and I won’t get it all done today. But the list never goes away, and eventually, I’ll get to it all. Meanwhile, I’d better get busy.

Second Worst Thing About Being a Novelist

I mentioned yesterday that now as a novelist I read differently than I did before I starting writing fiction. I am aware of POV changes (subtle and not), plot devices, foreshadowing, pacing, and more. Noticing these things often makes me stop and think, “Why did the author do that?” I am also extremely busy and have to make time to read, so if a book doesn’t grab me—or makes me stop too often to think about the author—I put it in the giveaway pile and move on. Consequently, I only finish one out of every three or four novels I start. (Which is why I almost never buy hardback books, but that’s another subject.) I don’t mean to imply that all these books are bad or unreadable, they just weren’t right for me.

Also as a novelist, I’m trying to get to know and network with other writers. I’ve made many friends online, and I look forward to meeting all these nice/funny/interesting people in person at conferences. But here’s the sticky part: What do I say if they ask me if I liked their novel and it was one of those I put down? Social training tells me to tell a little white lie and quickly change the subject: “Great writing. What are you working on now?” Let me point out that this causes me great anxiety. I want to like the work of everyone I know. (And I have taken a vow to never ask anyone that question about my own work.)

Here’s the trickier part. I’m a member of several mystery discussion groups, the point of which is to discuss books we’ve read. Other novelists are also members of these groups. How do I discuss a novel I didn’t really care for without offending or alienating the author who may be reading my posts? And what if I signed up to be the moderator for the discussion (before I read the book)? Which means I can’t just sit back and be quiet. I face this dilemma today. I’m supposed to discuss a book I haven’t finished. Technically, there’s nothing wrong with it. The writing is good and many people would find the character compelling. I just don’t care for gun-toting, hard-drinking, wise-ass men. Or stories about the mob. Being the kind of person who can be counted on to follow through, I’ll finish the book, post intelligent questions, and try to be as diplomatic as possible with my own opinions.
But I won’t volunteer to moderate any more discussions unless I’ve already read the book and loved it. Or the author is no longer living.

The Worst Thing About Being a Novelist

As I opened my e-mail this morning and read through the new mystery list-serv postings, the theme was “July Reads.” At first I thought, I could post about this. Then I realized it wouldn’t be much of an offering. I didn’t actually finish a single book last month. I started several but lost interest and put them down. (More about that phenomenon tomorrow.) But I don’t lack for novels to read. I have a huge TBR pile.

For me, the worst thing about being a novelist is the lack of time to read novels! Before I started writing novels, I read at least one or two books a week. Now I feel lucky if I can read 10 novels a year. And it kills me. Especially when I meet other mystery/crime authors. I’d love to be able to say, “I read your new novel and I loved it.” But most of the time, I haven’t read any of their work.

I don’t know how to get around this. I’ve given up what little TV that I used to watch and that has helped some. But still, working as an editor, writing new novels, promoting my published novel, online networking, and spending time with family uses up almost every minute of every day. And the only one of those activities that I’d give up voluntarily is my editing job. (But then I’d end up homeless.) So not having enough fiction reading time is a painful sacrifice I have to make, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.

As a novelist, I read fiction differently now too. The author’s choices (POV, pacing, foreshadowing, syntax) are always present. It’s much harder to simply be absorbed into a story and transported away for hours the way I used to. Sometimes I think that being an avid reader (back in the day) was more fun than being a novelist. But there’s no going back. I am a storyteller now; it defines me.

Being Faithful

As I drank my coffee and checked my list of things to do this morning, I vacillated about how to structure my day. A six-hour freelance editing project was sitting in my “in progress” file, waiting to be started. I was raised with the “work first, play latter” mantra, so my left brain kept telling me to do the freelance work and get it over, then work on my novel. But my novel beckoned me too. Secrets to Die For is so close to being a finished rough draft that it’s like being near the end of an exciting book and not wanting to put it down.

Then I remembered the August blogging challenge and opened my blog. And there were my words, “Write First, Clean Later.” Of course, I get paid to freelance edit, so it’s not exactly in the same category as cleaning, but still, “Write First.” And so I decided to be faithful to myself, my mantra, and my novel. Writing this blog is the only thing I doing before getting to work on my novel. But it’s writing, so it counts.