Having a new book baby out in world is a mixed bag of emotions. It feels a bit like jumping off a cliff with no parachute: sheer excitement coupled with abject terror. Why? Well, because the book is no longer your own. It’s one thing to build a book. It’s something different to have strangers read it.
So let’s talk about building a book. THE SIXTH DAY hit shelves Tuesday, and the research that went into it was astounding.
For me, writing an international thriller with historical components is sort of like making French onion soup out of apples — in other words, an uphill battle. Or magic. I like the magic analogy better, let’s go with that.
Even though I’m not doing it alone, this magic gets its essence from the minute details. Elizabeth George just did an interview in which she described the moment a piece of her latest book came together for her:
“Seeing the place is really helpful in developing the plot, because if I don’t go, there are things I simply won’t know,” she explains. “For example, for the new book I went to Ludlow, and when I visited the police station, it was closed. There was an intercom and video-camera setup at the building which connected people with the police and emergency services. That became a hugely important plot point in the book.”
For me, physical proximity is the secret behind good research. You can study everything, read all the books, read all the articles, but if you can actually go to the spot you’re writing about, plot points can appear out of the ether. I can give you oodles of moments this has happened to me, book after book. Heck, a trip to Scotland saved WHERE ALL THE DEAD LIE — I had the winter colors all wrong. Trees, grass, flowers, skies… How embarrassing would that have been?
I know travel isn’t always possible, so at the very least, a few hours spent on Google Earth will go a long way. You won’t get all five senses (and trust me, how someplace smells creates all kinds of interesting ideas), but you’ll at least see what people wear, what it looks like when it rains, etc.
And the facts you see in the novel are fractional compared to the work done on the back end. There’s a reason we call research an iceberg, after all. You only see the tip. I’ve literally spent days on certain topics in order to put one single fact into the manuscript. I like to joke I get a Ph.D. on every book, but it really is true.
I have a somewhat organized way of researching my novels.
If I’m working on research online, as I’m going deep into a topic, any link that I touch that has any sort of relevance to the book immediately gets bookmarked. If I know it’s relevant, it goes into its own folder in Evernote. If it’s possibly relevant, it goes to Instapaper, and then gets shuttled into Evernote if I find anything worthwhile. I also sign up for newsletters, subscribe to online magazines, join Facebook groups. Anything that will allow me hands-on experience with the people who actually do the work or live in the world I’m researching. (Dark Web for hacking info, anyone? 😈)
Once the research is conducted, I usually print it out and put it in a huge Circa binder. That way, if the internet crashes, I have my research. And of course, let’s not forget the books — easy to work with there, just slap a Post-it note and write it up in my notebook. Same for movies and television shows related to the story. I have two massive bookshelves in my office that cover everything from the occult to FBI to falconry. I call it the database.
For THE SIXTH DAY, I have over 200 individual links in my Evernote. From hacking to falcons to the Voynich to hemophilia to LSD, they are a roadmap of memories to building a book. I love that record, too. It’s as evocative as a playlist for me. I can remember the exact moment I saw a certain story and what idea it triggered — and often, I make a note about that in my files, for posterity.
Hopefully, I get it all right. But as huge as these novels are, sometimes I blow it. A fact gets reversed, or the source material is incorrect, or I just plain read and interpret wrong. Hopefully, those mistakes are minimal. Because ugh! Fingers crossed it’s all perfect in this one.
I hope you enjoy all the crazy research that went into THE SIXTH DAY. Catherine and I had a blast with it.
Now, on to book 6! (It only has 130 links bookmarked so far…)
Writers, how do you do your research? And Readers, is there anything that drives you crazy on research-heavy books? What do you love to see?
Oh, 2017. You will go down in history as one of my most exciting, crazy, thought-provoking, and frustrating years ever.
Looking Back on 2017 - The Year of Flow
After purposefully pulling back from external commitments, 2017 is the year I give my art my full attention again by staying home and working on my writing habit. Consistent writing brings me great contentment, and that is my goal for 2017 — contentment through consistency. This applies to more than just writing; it is my personal goal as well. Staying home allows for regular habits to grow and thrive — not just writing, but yoga, golf, friendships, minimalism for the house, and lots of regular, protected deep work time. This deep work practice will create great flow, allowing me to focus and challenge myself in my work.
HOW DID I DO?
When I read this, I started to laugh and wrote Ha—not even close. But... as I thought about it, while I wasn't able to stay home and nest all year, pouring out words as quickly as I do my morning tea, I do believe I achieved my goal of contentment through consistency. I'm rather surprised by this revelation, as I spent weeks on the road this year, had my schedules shift around several times, ran around with my hair on fire meeting new deadlines, remodeled the house, and otherwise spent a lot of time freaking out.
And yet... The crazy remodeling of several rooms to make them exactly what we wanted resulted in us decluttering the house to the point of austerity—a long-time goal achieved. It feels so good now. Another goal met: I spent a lot of time with the people I adore the most—friends, family, and business teammates, at home and on the road—deepening those relationships. With all the chaos, I managed to meet all my deadlines, read almost 80 books, took an actual unplugged vacation, wrote 275,000 fiction words, launched an anthology and recruited another, taped 6 episodes for A Word on Words, and found a comfortable writing habit. I even lost ten pounds in the process. Maybe I didn't fail as much as I thought I did! Then again, my golf handicap did go up because I only played 8 rounds this summer. 8! This must change.
WHAT WENT RIGHT?
Well, everything and nothing. Professionally, the year-long campaign for LIE TO ME was a massive success. The book was a big hit, and allowed me to travel all over the country, meet a lot of readers, and put me on the radar of some very influential book bloggers and Instagrammers. My publisher got behind me big time, with major future commitments, and really, you can’t ask for anything better. Catherine and I wrote a new book that I think is wildly unique and fun, I finished a new standalone novel that is dark and different, wrote some short stories I’m very proud of, and grew Two Tales Press to its next level. Assistant Amy worked her tail off all year to allow me more margin for creative work, and when you see the numbers below, you’ll see exactly how well that worked.
Personally, I found a great deal of contentment toward the end of the year once all my deadlines were met. The changes to my schedule and focus worked well, and I absolutely love my new interiors. I nearly exceeded my writing goals, nearly met my reading goal, and had a very good year in general. I committed to handling the holidays early and did, which brought a surprising amount of joy. Like so many others, the holidays are sometimes hard for me, but this year, having everything dealt with Thanksgiving weekend allowed me to enjoy instead of fret. So there’s the key — planning, and executing the plan. Who knew?
I also asked for and received an Apple Watch for Christmas. I can already see how this tool is going to be very useful in helping me meet my physical goals this year. I am so excited by it — it’s very clever, and I was able to import all 5 years of my Fitbit data using a cool app, and can track my sleep, too. Winning! I also upgraded my laptop to a Mac Touch Bar, and I LOVE it. The keyboard alone is worth the price. So much better ergonomically.
We also did a great job decluttering, emptying closets, turning the bonus room back into a game room instead of using it for storage. We have no house projects on the horizon; it’s time to settle into our bones and enjoy what we have.
WHAT WENT WRONG?
If I say everything and nothing again, you’re going to smack me and call me dramatic. You know the saying, still waters run deep? That was this year.
On the surface, everything looks stunning. But trust me when I say there was a lot of behind-the-scenes chaos, fear, freakouts, emotional collapses, self-doubt, and just plain too much to handle. Were it not for the support of friends, family, teammates, a very compassionate husband, and a brilliant assistant, I would have run away to a little town in Europe and not looked back. It’s interesting, I seem to have a cycle going. Every few years, I lose it completely and struggle for a couple of months to find my footing again. Why is this? Perhaps because I take on too much and it all catches up at once, perhaps I care too deeply about the work and am holding on to it too tightly, perhaps the natural physical changes as I’m growing up affect my emotional state (chick hint: it does). A combination of all these things? Regardless, I’m committed to lowering my stress levels in 2018. Something has to give. I don’t know what yet, but to start, I have canceled all travel and conferences save two I’d already committed to. I really need to step back and take a breath so I can focus on my work.
NERDOLOGY - AKA THE NITTY GRITTY
2017 Word Total: 919,881
Fiction Total: 274,410
Non-Fiction Total: 78,571
Fiction Percentage: 30%
Books Read: 75 (of a goal of 80)
2016 Fiction Total: 217,228 (Fiction 25%)
2015 Fiction Total: 203,749 (Fiction 28%)
2014 Fiction Total: 291,114 (Fiction 36%)
2013 Fiction Total: 270,000 (Fiction 34%)
2012 Fiction Total: 265,000 (Fiction 34%)
2011 Fiction Total: 252,300 (Fiction 35%)
2010 Fiction Total: 198,383 (Fiction 32%)
2009 Fiction Total: 135,738 (Fiction 27%)
The most important takeaway from the 2017 numbers is this: my fiction total went up by over 57,000 words, and my non-fiction dropped by 48,000 (as compared to 2016). That in and of itself makes the year a raging success. I’m back into my 2013/2014 output levels, which means I can stock my magic bakery with more titles, and I’ve converted non-fiction words into fiction words for the very first time. A very good thing.
2017 was an insanely good year for my creative work. So many great things happened, some of which I can’t even talk about just yet! I released three original titles: THE DEVIL’S TRIANGLE with Catherine Coulter, my second standalone, LIE TO ME, and my first anthology under my Two Tales Press imprint, DEAD ENDS. I wrote and published two short stories: CATWOOD and THE ENDARKENING, and started two more that will come out in 2018. THE DEVIL’S TRIANGLE hit #2 on USA Today and The New York Times, and #1 on The Wall Street Journal. It received a starred Booklist, too. LIE TO ME hit The Globe and Mail and Toronto Star top ten lists, received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, and continues to do well. Target chose NO ONE KNOWS for their Emerging Author shelf, and LIE TO ME as a Target Select Read. FIELD OF GRAVES was nominated for a RITA® Award for best Romantic Suspense, and both NO ONE KNOWS and FIELD OF GRAVES were long-listed for the Southern Book Award in the Thriller category. I went to ALA and BEA in support of LIE TO ME (OMG, that banner!), as well as toured all over the west coast, which was a blast. And of course, a huge exciting highlight of the year, A WORD ON WORDS won a regional EMMY®! And I managed to throw in another standalone novel, that I’m revising now, which will be my 2018 solo release.
Now if I could just write faster…
2018 - The Year of Change
It’s time to apply all the changes I’ve made over the past several years into a single, overarching habit that encompasses my work, my current life, and my future work. Putting my own needs first will allow me to grow both as a writer and as a person. Being selfish with my time, only applying my energy to work I love and believe in, will help me reconnect with my creativity in new and exciting ways. I vow to try new things, to read new-to-me authors, to regularly unplug and decompress, and enjoy life without pushing so hard all the time. Most importantly, I will set work hours, and step away from the screen when the day is done. “Mischief Managed” will be my new end-of-workday mantra, giving me permission to shut down until the next day. A shutdown ritual coupled with an 8-week modular work plan will lend structure and cohesiveness to my days, and drop my stress levels exponentially.
I’m not even pretending to have a zen word for this year. 2018 is going to see some serious life changes for me work-wise, and I intend to shift several of my personal goals as well. I’m closing in on a major birthday in 2019, and I want to lay the foundations this year that will carry me through middle age (gulp). This includes the usual culprits: exercise and weight loss, a sustained yoga practice, and more vegetables than meat. And golf is a priority. But this year, I’m going deeper than changes to my physical being.
I want to change how I approach my creativity. I feel like it gets stifled with all the pressure that exists in our current environment. I stepped away from social media several times in 2017, and this will continue into 2018. The psychic cost isn’t one I’m willing to pay anymore. I’ve found a comfortable pace with my networks, and my focus is on deepening those relationships instead of trying to grow, grow, grow. I’ve always said quality is more important that quantity. 2018 is the year I prove that to myself.
I want to push myself creatively, too. You’ve heard the term “leveling up” — well, I want to find a way to be focused enough to level up every book instead of every five to ten books. That’s going to take an overhaul of my systems. Deep work is paramount, no distractions, no panic. I've learned how to say no when something doesn't enhance my life or work, and will continue to do so. My daily habit is in a good place, reinforced by scheduled Freedom sessions: Read during breakfast, write from 10–12, read during lunch, write from 1–3 (or 2–5 depending on the day), then a workout. Dinner, read or TV. Wash, rinse, repeat.
I want to read more and consume less. As always, I want to read more of what I already own instead of buying new books. I want to read with intention, work with joy, and put myself first. I want to continue mentoring, continue broadening my horizons with A Word on Words guests, and dig deep into my mental wellbeing.
I also ran across a very cool concept recently about breaking the year into multiple 8-week segments. The idea is 6 weeks of deep work, 1 week of wrap up, 1 week of vacation/rest. Looking at my word trackers, I do something very similar to this already—the bulk of my books are almost always written in the last 6 weeks of the project’s timetable. I spend the first 8 weeks or so on the first 25,000 words, making the set up works perfectly. I will be analyzing this new method and applying it to my annual creative planning, and see where it takes me. Plus, that week of rest is paramount. I took a real vacation in 2017, and I need to do it again.
As far as work plans: I want to write three short stories, and finally wrangle the non-fiction project I’ve been circling for the past several years, which means instituting a non-fiction day every week. I’m choosing Fridays, to echo my many years blogging at Murderati. Catherine and I will be writing the sixth Brit in the FBI, which is due in late summer, and I will tackle another solo book. I'm not sure if that's a standalone or a Taylor/Sam yet. I might toss in a secret project if I have the time and energy.
I have three original releases this year: THE SIXTH DAY, A Brit in the FBI #5, comes out on April 10. TEAR ME APART, my new standalone, releases on September 18. And we have a cool new anthology coming from Two Tales Press in November. I can’t WAIT to tell you all about it.
There’s even more incredible news to share, projects that will be taking my creative time, and I will release those details as soon as I’m able. Exciting times ahead!
Honestly, I don’t know that I ever imagined my career would be humming along like it is. I am blessed, and I know it, and so much of that is thanks to you.
All in all, I’m faced with an interesting moment in my creative life. I hope I can meet it with aplomb, meet my new goals head on, and accomplish a lot. Thanks as always for being a part of my journey. Many blessings for a splendid, productive, happy, and safe 2018. Peace out!
The Deets - 2017 Writing
For the past several years, I’ve been doing annual reviews of my life and work, based on the format from Chris Guillebeau’s wonderful Annual Review on his blog, The Art of Non-Conformity. Chris’s system is exceptionally detailed, more so than I really need, but the gist is there. It’s a great system for those of us who are self-employed and want to do an assessment of our work for the year. Here’s the link to the actual post. Go on over there and take a read. I’ll wait.
OK, I’ve been terrible about the Daily Tao. You get in a habit, then you get out of the habit, and boom — no blogs for a week.
But here I am.
And there were words today.
They happened late. They happened unexpectedly. And there were a lot of them. I don’t know what, exactly, broke the drought, but 2700 in 2 hours later, I could have cried in relief.
A week of no writing freaks me out. A day here, a day there, eh, that’s the nature of the beast. But a week of staring at the page means something is wrong. Oddly, while there's usually a simple reason for this--the story is going in the wrong direction--that wasn't the case. The story is fine. The characters are fine. The setting and timing - all fine.
It was just me.
So many changes in the house, so many boxes and bags and worry and selections and phone calls and email (much more of that than I'm used to, too), planning for birthdays and vacations and conferences and tours, editing secret projects, dealing with a kitten who got into some chicken, to which she’s allergic, and vet visits for steroids and antihistamines, shows to prep for, family and friends and gym visits, and, and, and…
I think there’s just been too much noise around.
And I have to forgive myself for that. Because, sometimes, despite your best efforts, life happens. It happens around you, in you, and to you.
So. Chicken stew on the stove, a non-itchy kitten, boxes broken down and in my trunk, paintings hung, laundry finished.
And words, written.
I feel like I can finally breathe again.
It's so nice to be home! Darling Husband and I had a lovely afternoon yesterday, the kitties were super excited to see me, there was even a block party (not for me, but fun to catch up with everyone.) Today I got up, poured my tea (oh, the joy of having the tea already made when you arise) and settled in to work. I haven't been alone for a few weeks, and as cool and fun and everything has been, the travel and interacting for days on end has gotten to this introvert.
Nothing fixes me up like a nice day puttering around cleaning, doing laundry, and listening to podcasts, then writing! After a fun call with CC, in which we refined a bunch of the ideas I worked on last week, I am cleared to start writing this book. Which is good, because I'm antsy to create.
Speaking of creating, I received a cool email this morning from Chapter 16, Tennessee's premier online literary magazine, which you really should be reading, because they review all the best books. Here's a link! Chapter 16 came into existence when all of the local newspapers dropped their book coverage (boo-hiss!). Sponsored by Humanities Tennessee, and run by the indefatigable Margaret Renkl, it's a veritable treasure trove of book info. Today, she did a roundup of the upcoming workshops and conferences that are great for writers of all stripes, and I asked for permission to share. Get thee writing, people!
It's summertime and the living might be easy somewhere else, but here in Tennessee summer is the time when writers flock to conferences and workshops to hone their craft. Here's a list of upcoming opportunities across the state, the location where each is held, and the dates of the event. Please keep in mind that registration deadlines for many of these workshops are right around the corner, so take a moment now to click anything that looks interesting.
Sundress Academy for the Arts summer writing retreats (Knoxville, dates vary beginning 5/26)
Classes at The Porch Writers' Collection (Nashville, dates vary beginning 6/2)
Clarksville Writers' Conference (Clarksville, 6/2-3)
Mountain Heritage Literary Festival (Harrogate, 6/9-11)
Manifest Voices, a free workshop for teens (Chattanooga, 6/12-24)
Humanities TN's Appalachian Young Writers' Workshop (Harrogate, 6/18-24)
Utopiacon (Nashville, 6/22-25)
Humanities TN's Tennessee Young Writers' Workshop (Lebanon, 7/9-15)
Crosstown Arts' Zine Workshop (Memphis, 7/15)
Belmont "Writing for Your Life" conference (Nashville, 7/18-19)
Tennessee Writing Workshop (Nashville, 7/22)
Killer Nashville International Writers' Conference (Nashville, 8/24-27)
I'm off to a retirement party this afternoon, and then the week stretches before me, unformed, perfect for diving into a new story. I can't wait!