VAH: John, what does your typical writing day include?
JBB: For more than a decade, when I commuted from Berkeley to a full-time job in San Francisco, I woke up every workday morning at 6 and wrote for at least an hour before making breakfast and catching the bus to work. I wrote in the evening and now and then took time off and cranked all day or all week. But the norm was first thing in the morning, when dreamland hadn’t yet been buried away for the day. I wrote at least half of Bones in the Wash in those early morning sessions.
Now that I’m working at home and no longer commuting to a full-time job, I’m not as disciplined about my morning habit, but as often as I can, I devote my first hour of the day to writing fiction. For some reason, I am able to tap into my imagination better in the morning than any other time. I can edit or design in the evening, and sometimes I will generate new material, but it doesn’t flow like it does in the morning.
I have recently been going on Wednesday afternoon to a meetup writers drop in at the Mill Valley Library where we write for an hour and then share what we read. I’ve only been about five times, and the first few times, I read something I had written before I showed up, but then the past two times, I wrote some new scenes for my upcoming novel and they weren’t bad. When I’m focused, I can sometimes write two or three pages of good solid prose in an hour. I just can’t sustain that over a day or a week. Maybe someday.
VAH: What are your thoughts on the writing community? Are there any writing or author organizations you belong to or online that you frequent for community, online conversing, networking or commiserating? Any favorite online sites?
JBB: I had the very good fortune of being part of a novel writing group that last for ten years, and was extremely helpful. They read and critiqued my first novel and my second, and they were insightful and tough without being discouraging. (Well, sometimes they were.)
They were tough enough that I was at first surprised by the positive responses to my novel from new readers. Because these new readers were looking to enjoy the book, not critique it. Or because I fixed enough of the problems that the book really was a good deal better.
I was part of a theater group in the 1980s — the Plutonium Players, a.k.a. Ladies Against Women — and I wrote or co-wrote a lot of our skits and plays and monologues. We were young and talented and full of ego (present company not excepted) — when others critiqued my work, I felt like I was being put down. It wasn’t “here’s how you can make this better,” it was “you suck, why did you come to us with this crap?” That’s an exaggeration, but let’s just say that the novel writing group of the 21st Century was better at giving me feedback that would help make my book better without denigrating me.
I have been exploring Meetups and various other critique groups, including one called 16 Eyes that grew out of the Berkeley Writers Club, but I’ve only been a handful of times yet. There’s also a Writers’ Drop In at the Mill Valley Library that I’ve been going to. Usually, there are three or four of us. We write for an hour and then some of us share what we’ve written.
I definitely want and need readers. People talk about a community of readers. I don’t really have one, as much as I have a bunch of friends and readers who are not necessarily part of a community.
I don’t know why I’m not participating more in online communities. Too often, it seems like the only thing people are saying is buy my book.
I love going to Why Are There Words, a monthly reading series in an art gallery in Sausalito.
VAH: What are your thoughts on traditional or independent publishing? Or a little of both? What choices have you made and why did you go the way you have?
JBB: I wrote my first novel, Wasted, a “green noir” murder mystery set in the world of garbage and recycling in Berkeley, and I tried to get it published in the traditional way. I rewrote it a dozen times, and in 2003 and 2004, submitted it to about 60 agents. I got about eight nibbles, two wanted to see the whole manuscript, and one, I was convinced was going to take it. But she didn’t.
Once I was far enough along in my second novel, I decided I needed to self-publish, partly because I was concerned that once again, I wouldn’t find an agent, but also because I had this delusion that the book, which is set during the 2008 presidential election, would be ready in time for the 2012 election. It wasn’t, but by then I had committed myself to self-publishing.
The process was time-consuming, but I ended up with a product I was proud of, and response has been heartening. I have 24 positive reviews and plenty more readers who told me they liked it, but I haven’t been able to get them to write a review. Sales have been disappointing. I know I need to do more marketing, but even when I have done a flurry of it, it hasn’t resulted in many sales. That hasn’t stopped me from writing a new book or reworking Wasted to independently publish this fall.
VAH: Best bit of advice to save another writer some anxiety or heartache?
JBB: If you’re not comfortable with solitude, find something else to do. Or else make sure you build in social connections into your schedule. There are days I have nothing scheduled but writing, and I don’t care for those days. But if I have a walk with a friend as part of the day, or a meeting, then I’m more comfortable with the solitude.
VAH: What’s next for you? Do you have a work in progress you can tell us about? (Include any links related you’d like to share.)
JBB: I am working on two projects. One is publishing Wasted, which is now in the home stretch. I have advance reader copies available in trade paperback and ebook format and I will happily send them to anyone who promises to write an honest review. You can contact me at email@example.com. You can also find out more on my website.
The other project is a new novel, working title Edgewater, about a man whose father has cancer and dementia and demands his son help him end his life. I’ve written about a third of my first draft and I’ve excited about where it’s going, but I haven’t mapped it all out yet. You can read the first chapter.
VAH: Thank you John for an interesting conversation this month!
Thank you for joining us for another month of author interviews, this month with John Byrne Barry.