A Day In the Writing Life...
Readers and aspiring authors often ask me what my routine is as a full-time author. It often surprises them when I tell them that I have no routine, and that my tasks continue to evolve and change depending on what I’m working on.
I started to write this blog post last night, but then decided to go back into the archives and found a post on the same topic from 2009, when I was churning books out so fast I almost caught on fire. Wow, I have definitely learned a lot since then.
I’ve realized that my brain may tell me do more more more, but that I must listen to my body as well. The publishing industry has also changed, and it has been harder and harder to get books published. So by hook or by crook, I have slowed down quite a bit, and this has actually been better for me mentally and physically. I’ve learned that if I want to stay sane and keep my health while continuing to stay a published and relevant author, I have to approach book publishing and all of its related tasks, such as promotions, as a marathon, not a sprint. Balance, balance, balance.
I am also grateful that after teaching writing for a decade, I have developed a good one-on-one coaching business, which is now part of my income stream and lessens my financial stress. I work with aspiring authors to develop their book ideas, help them write book proposals and fulfill their dreams of getting published.
It’s nice because I can work these flexible sessions into my schedule, many of which are by phone with clients around the country, and around my own book projects. This lets me give back some of what I’ve learned the hard way, so that others can benefit from my successes as well as missteps. I enjoy my clients’ enthusiasm, and it’s fun to watch them progress.
Back in 2009, when I had six books under my belt and two more in the pipeline, I applied the analogy of cat juggling to my life, trying not to get scratched, let alone drop one of them. I shook my head and laughed today when I read about working 15 hours straight on a book proposal that was due the next day, and by 11 p.m., when I checked to see what time my doctor’s appointment was the next morning, realized that I had worked right through it.
“The doctor wasn't pleased, but at least I made my deadline,” I wrote.
Well, that doesn’t happen anymore. Although I often forget why I’ve gone into my office, distracted by a Facebook post, an email, or an unfinished task, I don’t generally work such long days anymore. And if I do, it’s rare.
Most days are quite manageable, because after fourteen years of doing this full-time, I have found my rhythm. And as the publishing industry continues to change, I’ve managed to cobble together a number of part-time jobs in addition to writing books that have allowed me to continue. I'm certainly not getting rich, I've simply adjusted my lifestyle and live on a budget, like most Americans.
Although I regularly question whether I’m crazy to keep writing books, as sales numbers dwindle for a lot of true crime writers (I’m not alone in this), I’m still hanging in there as I stretch in new directions and continue to evolve professionally. I still enjoy the freedom of working on what I want when I want and where I want.
A decade ago, I used to get out of bed and walk directly to my computer, where I would go through e-mails and catch up on FaceBook. Today, that has changed, and I admit it’s not great for my neck, but I read and answer emails in bed, where it’s warm. I also read the New York Times on my phone, as well as the local San Diego Union-Tribune, which often includes Los Angeles Times stories. Then I scan Facebook and Twitter for other news articles that catch my interest. I feel that it’s important to stay on top of current events, trends in popular culture and book publishing, and to see what other authors are doing. I am constantly learning from watching my more successful colleagues.
Much of what I’ve been writing the past couple of months is content for this new website and, yes, emails. I write emails throughout the day, because people these days don’t seem to like to talk by phone as much, myself included. Sure, you get more done that way, but it certainly is more isolating and contributes to less human interaction, which doesn’t seem that healthy for us as a culture. I guess that’s where social media has come in. I also “talk” to a lot of people on Facebook these days, which helps me feel more connected, but it really isn’t real. Ironically, I post on Facebook about this dilemma.
But emails are an important part of my research—it’s how I ask for information, set up meetings, and remind people to send me things and, also importantly, to pay me. More emails for all of us seems to mean more lost invoices, and more lost emails in general. Everyone seems so busy, so stretched. I'm happy to feel like I can work at my own pace.
Later in the morning, I move into the planning, thinking, and strategizing phase. Sipping my daily cup of tea, preferably while sitting in the sun at my local Starbucks, I plan my day, week, and long-term goals in my book of lists. This helps me from forgetting important tasks. If I have time or the urge, I write a “grateful” list in my journal, which can help shift my mood if I’m feeling down.
Some days I try to dream a little too. I wish I had more time to do that, because I feel like I could use a dream tune-up. But I’ve got a lot of balls in the air right now, so that will have to wait. I will write about the next time I do that here, and share some of my methods, which some of you might enjoy trying.
Although I've written one mystery novel, NAKED ADDICTION, and I'd love to write more fiction, it really doesn't pay well, at least for me, so I have focused on narrative nonfiction books, most of which deal with true murder cases. I have been moving more toward true crime-memoir books, though, because they are more interesting to me. But I do have an idea for a sci-fi book, which I might just try.
Each project is different. Some require me to attend out-of-town trials, such as the McStay trial, which started a couple of months ago in San Bernardino, and sometimes I do research out of state. I was pleased that the Rebecca Zahau civil trial, which I covered every day last year for a book I’m working on, was right here in town.
But I generally do most of my work from home, conducting phone interviews (and coaching sessions) with people all over the country. I do face-to-face interviews when I can, but it's not always possible or the most time-efficient. So, while I'm in the writing phase of a book, I do interviews as I work on one chapter and revise and sketch out several others. My interviews generally last about 90 minutes, but occasionally can go several hours.
My true crime, memoir, and other nonfiction books all start with a research phase. To sell a nonfiction book, you have to write a book proposal first. Unless you are lucky enough to get hired by someone who knows your work already, which was the case with the Frozen Zoo book that I’m working on now for San Diego Zoo Global Press.
But even so, I always start a book by putting together an outline. That, too, involves research, so I can craft the narrative structure of my book, how I will tell the story through a limited number of primary characters, weaving in drama, emotion, and action wherever I can.
Late mornings are my best times for doing interviews or for actual writing, although I don’t even try to start writing scenes until I feel that I’ve got an authoritative handle on the subject matter. That generally takes three months of research (after the book proposal is done), and sometimes more. And even after I start writing, I continue to do interviews and more research. As I get further into the book, the ratio switches, and I do more writing and less research.
My daily routine also includes exercise, sometimes twice a day. If I’m going swimming, I take a break in the mid-afternoon, and if I’m going to walk instead, I’ll work later and then go. This is a MUST to keep the blood circulating, release stress, think through a sticky problem, and sometimes I’ll practice singing a few songs for my band. When I’m writing a lot, I also do a morning session of stretching and other exercises for my neck and back. After working on computers for as many years as I have, I must switch positions, use a standing computer as well as a laptop, and also use voice dictation if things get bad.
Depending on the project or if I’m working with a coauthor, I may need to make calls back east before two or three o'clock. I also may do interviews in the afternoon and spend the whole next day writing. And if I’m on deadline, I might work more after I go walk, work through dinner, or even after dinner. See what I mean about the freedom of it all?
When I get a free window, usually while I’m waiting for my agent or editor to read my manuscript or book proposal, or for a source to respond, I may dive into promotions and marketing. I used to consider this a second full-time job, but I was so busy that it had to take a back seat in recent years. I am now moving back into that more with this new website and this blog, because I really want to reconnect with readers I’ve lost touch with, and to try to engage with new ones.
This seems to come in waves, but I may have three to five producers for TV true crime documentaries reach out simultaneously to book me for an interview. Then I’ll get a lull. I also do radio interviews both with terrestrial and online radio hosts, especially when I’ve just had a book come out.
And believe it or not, I constantly get emails or Facebook messages from people who have a book idea that is going to change the world, as soon as I write it for them and split all this money we are both going to make. I have stopped falling on the floor, laughing, about these, because they are so common. Some are from convicted criminals, which is even funnier.
But, these days, I just smile. Because it's very important to keep a sense of humor in this business.