So You Want My Job: Novelist

And lo, the mighty pine fell.

THE ART OF MANLINESS once interviewed me about being a novelist. Lumberjacks fear me.

[As a child] I’d make “movies” by taking sequential photos of my action figures, or by drawing a cartoon, slideshow-style, on a big roll of paper I could pull through a fake TV made of a box with two slits cut in the side. So the storytelling impulse was there, even if I wasn’t yet writing.



Write, Burn, Read

I earlier posted about my current workday routine: writing 1,000 words of new fiction and burning an equivalent number of calories on an exercise bike. Book gets bigger, I get slimmer.

View from my writing chair

So far, so good. Since late March, I’ve written 21,000 words (about 60 pages of a first draft) and burned 21,000 calories, and that’s including spring break with our son home from school.

Now I’ve added reading to the mix, so the routine looks like this:

  1. Write 200 words
  2. Burn 200 calories
  3. Read 20 pages of a book
  4. Repeat

Ideally, by the end of each week, I’ve written 15 pages of fiction, lost approximately 1 pound of bodyweight, and read at least one book.

A single, undisrupted season would yield:

  • 180 pages written (half a mid-sized novel)
  • 12 pounds lost (which I could stand to lose)
  • 6,000 pages read

And I can still be a bum on the weekends. I recognize that I’m in a privileged position of writing fiction full time, and that such a routine would be tricky for people with day jobs. But the beauty of the routine, for me at least, is the steady accrual of results, along with the enjoyable, balanced variety. It’s daunting to write 1,000 words in one rush, or exercise for 90 consecutive minutes. Alternating through micro-goals keeps the effort fresh and approachable. On days when I can accomplish only a fraction of my usual goals, the routine remains an easy way to beat procrastination.

Yorick’s Skull and Vader’s Helmet

A few months ago, I wrote an essay about how fatherhood realigned my storytelling instincts as I began writing my forthcoming novel BELL WEATHER. My publisher recorded an audio version, which you can listen to below, but today — having cried a few happy tears upon seeing the new Star Wars teaser — I’m posting the print version.


Fatherhood revitalized storytelling for me. I was thirty and boring and terribly serious, and nothing could have saved me but an energetic kid.

The question isn’t how I went from writing literary novels to writing an epic adventure. It’s how did young Dennis, ecstatic after seeing The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, end up writing literary chamber pieces?

Maturity, for better or worse. I grew up, discovered more sophisticated stories, and took undergrad courses in existentialism. When I started writing fiction, I wanted to get published and have a meaningful career, and I wrote to impress editors and critics. This worked for a while. My writing strengthened and my characters deepened, but I was falling into the Serious Artist routine, toiling away and unhappily gathering rejections. The work began to suffer.

At some point I learned that writing is good for me—it kills depression and anchors my days—and I knew I would write for the rest of my life, even if publishers kept rejecting my books. Faced with decades of future storytelling, I needed to truly enjoy it. But I had lost that 1980 thrill, and I had even lost the high-school rush of meeting Holden, Huck, and Hemingway. My writing felt small and increasingly conservative, and I decided it was time to muscle up.

My first published novel, FELLOW MORTALS, benefitted hugely from a go-getter protagonist and higher stakes. I love that book and I’m proud of it, but I spotted an opportunity. Instead of seeking big emotions in a small story, what if I wrote a big story?

bell-weather-3dOur son Jack was seven when I started BELL WEATHER. I read the Harry Potter series with him. We read The Hunger Games trilogy together and lined up for The Avengers on opening day. Guess what I saw in his face and re-experienced along the way? 1980.

Before Jack was born, I had became a lit snob, the kind of guy who devours a dozen Stephen King novels and then finds ways to excuse such behavior. Heaven forbid pleasurable reading! And yet the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian, once pigeonholed as “mere genre”, had pulled me through a nervous breakdown in my early thirties. They kept me company. They consoled me. They showed me an unfamiliar world I didn’t want to leave. There was not only a place for such novels in my life, there was an essential place, and it was this—combined with the blood transfusion of fatherhood—that shifted my perspective on storytelling.

I think of the Javits Center in NYC. Attending Book Expo America with a friend was interesting, but exploring Comic Con with my son was thrilling. Once Jack’s enthusiasm for books and movies reminded me to loosen up, I looked at stories in a new way. I re-read Shakespeare, Dickens, and Austen and thought, “Right. These authors have guts.” I met Lisbeth Salander and Walter White, pop-culture characters with extraordinary depth. I read the announcement of Star Wars: Episode VII and couldn’t wait to tell Jack. He and I have talked at length about Yorick’s skull and Vader’s helmet, because they’re both important to us. They both matter.

This isn’t an apology for writing an epic adventure, and it isn’t a rejection of quiet literary novels. It’s simply how becoming a father rolled adulthood and childhood together, and how the newfound balance rejuvenated everything.

7 Things About My Writing You Might Not Know

My friend, author Kate Southwood (FALLING TO EARTH), tagged me in a Facebook list:

7 Things About My Writing You Might Not Know

I’ll answer below and tag three others: Eric Devine, Nathan Kotecki, and Kathryn Kopach Biel. You can check their Facebook author pages in the coming days for their answers, unless they blow me off.

isolator1. Lately I’m writing 1,000 words a day and riding off the equivalent number of calories on an exercise bike. The first draft will burn around 130K calories.

2. I defeated fear of the blank page at the age of 30, when I forced myself to visit a library after work and stay until I’d written 1,000 words. Unlike my current healthy bike parallel, I tempted myself into the library with their cafe’s superb coffee cake.

3. That fall in the Westport, CT library, I wrote a 70,000-word horror novel, which was so bad I never even tried revising it. I have since deleted all copies (I hope).

4. I don’t remember loving books until halfway through high school.

5. I write on a laptop, until I have such an unaccountably hard week that I switch to pen and paper, in order to change things up. When pen and paper grow stale, I return to the laptop. Whatever works.

6. Now that I’ve invented a fictional 18th-century world with BELL WEATHER, I can use that book, and its maps, as primary research texts. If the information isn’t there, I get to make it up.

7. It would be triumphant to say I built my writing career alone, with nothing but grit and genius, but it would also be a lie. I had a good childhood with wonderful parents, a solid education in upper-middle-class America, a string of easy day jobs, a supportive wife and son, two world-class pets, no major illnesses or derangements, and buckets of luck.

I will claim a measure of grit, but I had an incredible amount of help. Instead of feeling guilty about my unearned advantages, I view it all as a big royalty advance: I try to write good books and pay it back however I can. (My wife refers to this as her Return on Investment. She’s going to make me travel overseas at some point.)

The 130,000-Calorie Novel

I write and exercise best in intervals. Several consecutive hours of writing would exhaust me, and whenever I’m on an exercise machine, I’m painfully aware of the remaining minutes. This makes it tough to write books and stay fit.

The writing chair. It’s real nice.

Now that I’m writing the BELL WEATHER sequel, my workday goal is 1,000 written words and 1,000 burned calories. We’ve had this cheap but durable (and dead silent) exercise bike for more than a year. I keep it near my writing chair during the day. The new routine is to write a few hundred words in one go, and then ride off the equivalent number of calories on the bike.

So if I write 333 words and need to clear my head, I ride until I’ve burned 333 calories. Then I drink some water and coffee and write more words. I listen to WCDB or KEXP, and sometimes Beats. Our dog Bones sleeps beside me when he isn’t guarding the front window.

A thousand is a good number for me. Simple and round, it’s easy to compute when measuring progress. I can ballpark how long my draft is going to be, so I can ballpark how long it’ll take me to finish. And a thousand daily words is a solid pace, a respectable challenge (especially because I write slowly, even during first drafts) that isn’t overwhelming. If I write fewer than a thousand words a day, I feel lazy. When I’ve tried committing to more than a thousand, I’ve burned out or felt rushed.

The bike. It is cheap but durable.
The bike. It is cheap but durable.

Plus a thousand calories on the bike gets my Fitbit step count up to 10,000 — that gold standard of minimum daily steps, as established by some apocryphal study of Japanese health. Ten-thousand steps isn’t a magic number, but it’s about 7,000 steps more than I would usually take, bumming around the house between the library and the kitchen.

I estimate this draft will run approximately 130K words. By the time I’m done, I’ll have burned 130K calories on the bike, which is the equivalent of:

  • 394 peanut butter sandwiches, or…
  • 962 extra-large bananas, or…
  • 1,857 Oreo cookies

Book gets fatter, Dennis gets leaner, and my workdays are much more productive and enjoyable.

Station Eleven

11An apocalypse novel that’s more love letter than death wish. The pandemic’s depiction is chilling, and the visions of life before and after are vivid and heartrending. I loved how the story jumped from hints of disaster to global ruin in a quick thirty pages, then alternated back and forth, allowing the past and future to coexist, just as they coexisted in the minds of the survivors. Nostalgic quiet hangs over everything. It made me want to hang onto things more, and made me feel better about letting things go. Sad, wonderful book.

Bach on Mandolin

Writing: A scattered week, but I made some decent headway — enough so that I don’t feel stressed today.

Nature: Waiting for the wet yard leaves to sun-dry so I can mulch them with the lawnmower.

Personal: I drank a glass of imperial pumpkin stout, and it tasted like pumpkin pie with a graham cracker crust, and nutmeg, and vanilla, and hints of chocolate, and some kind of holiday cookie with cream, all melted together into a beer, and it was just too much and I really wouldn’t recommend it.

Voracious Support

Bellweather REDO author send
Click Image to Preorder

To my dear Rabid Fans with literary froth dripping from your lovely, pearly white fangs:

In an effort to better engage with you all in the buildup to BELL WEATHER’s release, I’m upping my social media game and hope you’ll join me.

I have a new official Facebook page. Please hop over and click “Like”.

My Twitter account is getting more active, and you can follow me at @Giganticide.

And please consider adding BELL WEATHER to your “To-Read” list at Goodreads.

Your continued Voracious Support is most appreciated.