My last eight weeks of writing and editing are a total loss.

I could attempt an explanation of how this makes me feel (e.g. rage, sorrow, self-pity), but that would be superfluous.

I’m not going to immediately rewrite, as it would only be an impossible attempt at recapturing exactly what I did these past two months. Instead, I’m going to shelve Muddy River for the time being and work on another completely unrelated story, one that I’ve been brainstorming for a couple of years. It differs significantly from Muddy River in story, style, and tone. I need some time to cleanse my creative palate. 



From: [DataRecovery@——.com]
To: ———
Date: Tuesday Aug 12th, 2014, 07:42 am
Subject: Your Drive Has Been Received

Dear Jonathan:

Thank you for your response, your hard drive has arrived … The hard drive will undergo evaluation to determine if it is a candidate for data recovery; this will commence shortly. I will contact you with a report on progress in the next few days.

An email that I received this morning concerning the status of my busted USB drive that I mailed out priority yesterday.

Well, I suppose that all I can do now is wait patiently. I think I’ll sit here and stare at the wall, frantically checking my email every two minutes as I await further news.


Well, the predictable yet still somehow unimaginable happened.

My USB is busted.

Now, I’m not an idiot. I have a backup of most of the data. Most.

I don’t really take my laptop outside of my house and I always leave the small USB drive in the port. Because of this, it’s easy to forget to backup… which means, unfortunately, the last time I did a backup was in June. Yesterday, I moved my laptop and apparently banged the USB drive off of something. Now, it’s busted.

Since my last backup in June, I spent who knows how many of dozens of hours completely editing 100% of the 90,000+ words of my novel, fleshed out and reworked entire chapters, wrote about 20,000 more words, and transferred 40 pages of notes from my iPhone/iPad to a Word Document.

And I didn’t fucking back it up.

Because - let me take back what I said earlier - I am an idiot.

And in between bouts of nausea, I’ve done just about everything within my capabilities of extracting the data from the USB. 

In other words, right now, my only hope is that an expensive data recovery lab will be able to extract the data, if it’s not lost.

If not…

I don’t even know.

What a fucking avoidable disaster.

Lesson learned, I guess.

UPDATE: Already talked to a local data recovery dude (no, not GeekSquad) and will be sending it to be evaluated and worked on tomorrow. Could take from 2-15 days and cost between $250-600. Don’t be stupid, kids: have a more effective data backup system and don’t keep important files on a cheap USB stick.

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White


When I have students interested in writing for a living - after advising them that they’re crazy and that crazy people are always the most interesting - I always recommend that they read three books: 

I’ve given away a few dozens copies of these books over the years. I never go to a used book sale without searching for extra copies to store in my classroom closet.

Most students who want to write for a living understand the difficulties associated with this. Being a living-wage novelist requires a lot of hard work and even more luck. If it’s a career in journalism that interests them, well, they have to be willing to accept that mainstream journalism nowadays is something better suited for the National Enquirer.

Still, if they want to write, the advice that I always give is cliche, but no less effective: write and read every day.

There really isn’t any other way around it , at least if you want to be any good at it. Writing is hard work. Hard work takes practice. A lot of it.

Larry Bird used to take 1,000 shots every morning before his team’s practice ever even started - and he was a devoted student of the game. While it wasn’t required, he’d watch and study and take notes on game film as a means of improving his game.

Pardon the shoddy analogy, but for a writer, reading is like watching game film. Writing every day - on a blog, in a journal, or whatever means preferred - are those practice foul shots that help prepare a writer for the big game (i.e. being publishable).

Write. Read. Study. Let people you trust read over your work critically, feel bad about yourself for a day or two when they tell you what they don’t like, and then examine their advice. You’re either going to think your writing is an act of divine genius (it probably isn’t) or that it’s unbearably bad (it probably isn’t).

Still, consider their advice. They likely know better than you what works or doesn’t in your writing.

Whatever the case, read the books mentioned above. Take their advice or don’t. But read them. Then keep reading and keep writing and stop looking to the internet for inspiration. Most of us are as lost and confused as everyone else.

I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.
Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt


The current word count for Muddy River is 86,155 - although I expect that to surpass 100,000 with the ending that I have yet to complete (which I have mapped out in my mind) as well as some fleshing out of certain scenes and characters. Then after editing, who knows?

Last fall, when I reached what was initially the end of my story (which is now no longer the end), I took a long break from writing. It’s actually been over nine months since I began my initial editing process and six months since I’ve spent any significant time with the story.

It’s been fun over the past few days refreshing myself on the story and characters with a reread of what I have written, although it’s clear that the editing process is far from complete.

Now that I’m on summer break, it’s back to the grind. I’ve set myself a deadline of July 4 to complete the added writing as well as the next phase in editing.

We’ll see how that works out.


If you’ve ever attempted to write a book as an adult and writing is not your paid profession, it’s likely you’ve experienced the silent skepticism of others or, even worse, the congenial smirk.

"Oh, that’s cute," they say in a tone reminiscent to a kindergarten teacher commending a student for saying they’re going to be an astronaut when they’re all grown up. They ask about the story and you’re torn between trying to explain an inexplicable plot or mumbling that you’re a better writer than Nicholas Sparks before scurrying away bitterly.

In many ways, writing - at least writing fiction - is juvenile. It’s a refusal to let go of one’s imagination. It’s the deliberate choice to spend one’s increasingly finite time building stories rather than kitchen cabinets or car motors, the refusal to stop playing make believe as one does on the playground, only now, it’s expressed on paper with words instead of being acted out with verbalized sound effects and poorly executed kung fu kicks on weather-worn blacktop.

Maybe it’s silly, but really, so is life. Might as well act accordingly.

Why should things be easy to understand?
Thomas Pynchon’s response in a 1977 interview with Playboy when asked about the complexity of his stories.

The Best Fiction Books I Read in 2013
  1. The Son by Philipp Meyer
  2. Out of This Furnace by Thomas Bell
  3. American Gods by Neil Gaiman
  4. Mockingbird by Walter Tevis
  5. The Second Coming by Walker Percy
  6. A Gathering of Old Men by Ernest J. Gaines
  7. Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
  8. The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave
  9. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
  10. Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

Writing through fatigue

It’s been said that Vonnegut wrote some of his greatest works while being employed full-time and having a houseful of seven children (three of his own, four adopted) waiting for him in the evening.

Vonnegut was a writer whose genius has rarely been surpassed, so perhaps even that distraction was inconsequential. With his skills as a writer, he was able to transgress workday fatigue and a busy homestead to produce some of the finest works of American literature.

As for me and my lack of genius, my writing process slows during the school year. After a long day of dealing with squabbling teenagers, I arrive back to my relatively quiet abode, I sit in my usual seat at the dining room table (which is, of course, for writing, not dining), light a candle, and I face a particular white wall with my freshly brewed dark roasted coffee. Once situated, I open the document and stare at the words, which all seem to blend together into a mishmash of confusion. Where was I exactly? Where was I taking this particular conversation? Where did I want to take the story from here?

"No more thinking," my mind begs. "Shut off your brain. Lay on the couch. Crack an ice cold beer. You deserve it after such a long day."

My mind makes a convincing argument. Sometimes, it takes the more rational part of my mind to conduct a takeover of the lazy side to overcome that master of convincingly crafted excuses.

So, I trudge forward and I write anyway. I edit. I know that I don’t write as well when my brain is tired (which is most of the time during the school year), but the important thing is getting the words (or the red ink) onto the page.

How Vonnegut or some of these other writers were able to do it, balancing their writing with other full-time careers and responsibilities, is a skill I am still working on. I can only hope it is a skill that can be learned.


Fiction has two uses. Firstly, it’s a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if it’s hard, because someone’s in trouble and you have to know how it’s all going to end … that’s a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, you’re on the road to reading everything. And reading is key. …

And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals. You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this: The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different. …

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds … you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.

From a recent lecture by author Neil Gaiman. Read it in its entirety here.

Spent some time today polishing the first draft of the book.
This could take a while.

Spent some time today polishing the first draft of the book.

This could take a while.

81,654 words.

I knew that was more than the average length of a novel, but I still needed a point of reference. That word count puts it somewhere between the length of the first Harry Potter book (77,000 words) and Orwell’s 1984 (89,000 words).

I’m not yet done with the initial draft. I estimate that I have another 15,000 words or so before I’ve told the story that I intend to.

My output of words-per-day has slowed to a crawl. In hindsight, I recognize that I should have invested even more time in writing over the summer, taking advantage of the momentum to finish my first draft before the school year began. Writing after a long day teaching followed by a few more hours of lesson planning, grading, meetings, and phone calls is downright difficult. Although surely other writers have written under more difficult circumstances, so it’s little more than an excuse.

Then, of course, there are the real decisions to make. Do I dive into the editing process immediately? Do I let the story sit for a few months first? Do I - *gasp* - let others read the first draft and provide their input? Do I start right away on one of the other projects that have been brewing in the back of my mind? Do I cleanse my mental palette by writing and reading some nonfiction?

That doesn’t even begin to consider the process of shopping it around, but I am quite some time away from even considering that, especially considering my editing process (actually, I spent some time editing the first ten pages… the amount of red is horrifying).

I think I’ll sleep on it and decide all this later.


From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books. …

Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.

George Orwell in his classic essay “Why I Write" (1947), expressing much more eloquently what I was attempting to explain a year or so ago.