Thursday, October 11, 2018 | By: The Write Way Cafe

Five Lessons to Lead a Sane Life in an Insane Writing World by Paul Thaler

The Write Way Café welcomes Paul Thaler, who encourages writers not to let others limit your aspirations.

So let’s start off on an honest note. For a new writer—actually for any writer outside of the likes of John Grisham—the road to publishing a novel is not only filled with potholes but fissures large enough to swallow up the most resilient of us. Okay, a bit dramatic of a start for this advice column, but you get the idea. I speak from my own travails of the past six years in which I went through two major revisions of my novel only to confront “the industry” when I set out to publish. Even with two well regarded nonfiction books to my credit, Bronxland was a tough sell to agents or publishing houses (as much as I was tempted to change my name to Grisham). I was fortunate enough to come upon a small press, Black Opal Books (BOB), that took to the manuscript. BOB has been great in fact, moving the novel into paperback, digital and, most recently, hardcover. The added perk has been their authors’ online forum where BOB writers daily commiserate and offer advice and support. So, I was fortunate. Still, the journey has left its battle scars, but also a modicum of wisdom about the writing and publishing process. Take what you may from these “lessons.” I’ll only preface them to encourage you to keep at it, not that we as writers have a choice anyway.

Lesson 1: First, some practical advice. Find a writing schedule that fits your personality, one that keeps you sane. I am always interested in how writers write. Stephen King, for one, mentions that he works a four-hour morning shift, with the intention of putting out 1500 words each day. He’s done pretty well for himself following that regimen. I must admit that I follow a slightly different track immersed at times in 16-hour writing days–so I’m not a great example of the sane school of writing. In noting my addiction, I would still advise to separate yourself from your writing at times, take a break. You’ll be surprised in looking at your previous paragraphs and pages through fresh eyes to see what works or not.

Lesson 2: Don’t fall too heavily in love with your original book idea—be open to new ones. Like all journeys into the unknown, writing a book has its own surprises—and writers must be ready to adjust. Bronxland actually started out as a memoir, and after spending two years I thought I had nailed down my final draft—clearly a brilliant coming-of-age autobiography. That is, until I heard back from my writing colleagues who collectively offered their opinion—in short, that I should tuck the book into a desk drawer, and forget about it. Okay, not kind advice – but they were right. I had written a book heavy in narcissism with limited reader appeal (save for a family member or two, and even then if I was lucky). So, Bronxland was finally born – a novel where I could meld my autobiographical musings into a more appealing flight of imagination for readers. Of course, I wish I had come to that realization and that story earlier —but such is sometimes the bi-roads in the writing journey we sign up for.

Lesson 3:  Pay attention to the voice and personality of your characters. I know, standard advice for the craft. But too often new and even experienced novelists become so immersed in the narrative and twisty plot scenarios that they lose sight of their characters. When we think back to a book that resonates, it is more often the human element that sticks. I cannot tell you much of anything about Jack Reacher’s exploits even as his avid reader—but Lee Child has created an iconic character that holds up even when his story lines falter. My reviewers generally speak in positive terms about the narrative in Bronxland but seem especially ramped up by “memorable” characters involved in the novel (and nice to hear, of course)—and a reason to care and commit to those 300 pages. This is not to say that the narrative arc of your story isn’t important—of course it is—but the “voices” that come alive are especially vital to the life-blood of your novel. So, breathe life into them.

Lesson 4: You don’t need a computer to write. In fact, typically that’s not where our stories come from. Which brings me to Jack Nicholson in The Shining. While most of us remember this epic horror film for Nicholson’s wonderfully terrifying performance, there is a moment when his character nails the writer’s mindset. Nicholson, an aspiring writer, is sitting, still and silent, at a desk in a vast, empty space at the Overlook Hotel. A sheaf of blank paper rests at the side of his typewriter. He has not written a single word, as his wife, Shelley Duvall approaches and timidly asks why, in fact, he isn’t writing. Nicholson, in all his crocodile-smile madness, replies, tapping the top of his head, “This is writing. . .”, then pointing to the typewriter, “This is typing.” Nicholson had it right, that as writers we are always writing even when we aren’t. We need time to think but also to engage the world. Our creative minds need that oxygen. Years ago I met up with the writer, Pete Hamill. He always seemed to be jotting something down in a journal he always carried with him. When I finally inquired just what it was he was taking note of, he shrugged, replying that you never know when something hits that finds its way into your next book. Since that talk, I always carry around my own pad.

Lesson 5: Writing requires long patience—and backbone. Understand that you are in for the long haul, and it can be something of a scary ride. And one not for the faint of heart. After all, as writers, we work in isolation with that underlying fear that no will ever care or take notice of what we have to say on our pages. Some writers finally do opt out, their stories never seeing the light of day. But for the brave among us, perseverance is key. Writing the book is only a first step—but certainly not the only one. Whatever the romantic view of our creative process, the reality is that we are also sales-marketing people, trying to win over agents, publishers, reviewers, and readers. Voluminous marketing advice exists on the web ranging from the good to the not-so-great. I won’t step into those deep waters here, but a personal caution. I avoid paying anyone to read a manuscript, or to review my book, or any other such marketing “promises.” Other writers may disagree, but this monetizing of the industry is something that has gotten out of hand. I am, however, a huge fan of writer-friendly bloggers and sites that have a supportive heart (and thank you The Write Way Café!).

An extra lesson, if you don’t mind. Whatever, your writing choices, as in life, don’t let others limit your aspirations. If you feel it, then that is your challenge. The writer’s life can be insane, but it is like walking the high wire—yes, dangerous, but the view up there is magnificent. Take it in.


  by Paul Thaler
Welcome to Bronxland by Paul Thaler—and this uproarious and heartrending coming of age novel set in the Bronx circa '60s. Paul Wolfenthal is a peculiar 13-year-old kid grappling with the absurdities of his young Bronx life circa 1960. He visits the dead, hears voices in his head, despises Richard Nixon, is infatuated with his Marilyn Monroe look-alike math teacher, and is a choice victim for the neighborhood’s sadistic bully. And then Paul really starts running into trouble.

Paul is, in fact, a kid in search of heroes, alive and otherwise, and finds them in John Kennedy and Harry Houdini, both of whom cross into his life. But these are strange and even dangerous times. Hovering in the shadows are “the demons” that haunt Paul’s young childhood dreams, only to come alive and shatter his world. One steals away a neighborhood child. And then his president.

Set against the turbulent history of the times, Bronxland tugs on a kaleidoscope of emotions. A place of the heart known to all of us, with our own story to tell of growing up, of trying to make sense of our life, with everything that comes along.

Bronxland buy links:   Amazon        Barnes & Noble

Paul Thaler
is a former journalist and the author of the critically acclaimed The Spectacle: Media and the Making of the OJ Simpson Story, and The Watchful Eye: American Justice in the Age of the Television Trial. Bronxland is his debut novel, released (October 2017) by Black Opal Books. In addition to his writings, Paul has also been an on-air media commentator for numerous television cable news programs and documentaries including those on CNN and HBO. He holds both a Masters of Arts in Journalism and a Ph.D. in Communications from New York University. Paul is a longtime resident of the Bronx, New York, where he lives with his wife, Amy, and their three children, Matthew, Robby and Rebecca.



HiDee said...

Great advice, Paul. Thank you for sharing your experiences and your book with us!

Saralyn said...

I enjoyed and agree with Paul's assessment of the writing life. It has its pitfalls, but the joys outweigh them by far. I also appreciate The Write Way Cafe for giving a forum to writers, for articles like this one that prompt us to reflect and expound upon our trials and successes. Thank you, Paul, and thank you, TWWC.

Zari Reede said...

Great message to new and old writers. I have seen, The Shining many years ago, but I didn’t remember that part. I was only 10 when I watched it. So accurate! Love the blogspot today. Best wishes for your books!

Angela Adams said...

Love this post and the advice, Paul! Thank you, and best wishes with your new release!!!

Lynn said...

Thank you for being on our blog! Your tips are very helpful.

Helen and Lorri said...

Good advice, and we would very much like to second (or third) the kudos to Lynn and HiDee and The Write Way Cafe.

Kathleen Kaska said...

Thanks for sharing this, Paul. This is great advice and, as authors, we need to hear it over and over.

Steven M. Moore said...

I second your five points. Thanks for sharing them.
I do most of my writing in the afternoons because mornings are dedicated to all the other stuff: social media, emailing, editing, and so forth. Here's a quote from my old English prof N. Scott Momaday: "I simply kept my goal in mind and persisted. Perseverance is a large part of writing." (After I took his course, he won a Pulitzer for House Made of Dawn. He's a Native American.) I've been publishing for more than ten years, and it can become stressful. Yet writing is still a lot of fun, and thinking that each book that I write might entertain at least one reader keeps me going.

June Trop, Roman Empire Mystery Lover said...

A comment about Paul Thaler's advice about finding a writing schedule that suits your personality. The operative word for me is schedule and the commitment that implies. Still that can mean punctuating your writing hours with the necessary but mindless household tasks like cleaning the kitchen, when your ideas can incubate. And so, I'm also thinking of Jack Nicholson in Paul's Lesson 4, that writers write even when they're not sitting in front of their computer.Thanks to the WWC for bringing Paul's advice to us.

Paul Thaler said...

To all my writing friends - My thanks for your generous feedback, and especially to HiDee and Lynn and their wonderful Write Way Cafe. Just great being part of this community and sharing in the writer's life. To all, keep going strong!