16 October 2018

The Obstacle Ahead is a Mirror

Michael Bracken and Josh Pachter
celebrate September birthdays
while at Bouchercon.
I’ve been writing long enough to recognize many of the obstacles that interfere with productivity. I’ve experienced the death of a parent, the death of a spouse, two divorces, four marriages, multiple job changes and relocations, heart surgery, and any number of other consequential life events. Yet, I can’t recall ever facing the obstacle that blocked my writing path throughout the middle half of this year.

During 2016 and 2017 my writing took a great leap forward, and my work was recognized in unexpected ways—leading to a lifetime achievement award in 2016; having a story included in The Best American Mystery Stories in 2018; placing stories in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and several new publications; and having other mystery writing opportunities fall into my lap. Unfortunately, sometime this spring all that good news overwhelmed me.

For many years, my schtick was to tout my productivity. I was the back-of-the-magazine, middle-of-the-anthology guy, the writer editors relied on to fill pages because they knew I was likely to turn in something on time and on theme that required little or no editorial sweat to make publishable.

For years I pounded out stories because writing was fun, and my head was (and is) filled with more stories than I will ever put on paper.

And then I stopped being that guy.


I don’t know exactly when things changed, but I began to view my writing through a different lens. Instead of asking myself, “Is this fun?” I began asking myself, “Is this important? Is this significant? Is this noteworthy?”

And the answer, too often, was “no.”

I didn’t stop writing, but I set stories aside because they weren’t important, significant, or noteworthy. Then stories I did think were important, significant, and noteworthy—stories I felt confident would sell the first time out because I knew my markets—bounced back from editors with form rejections.

My mojo was no mo’.


I did not have writer’s block. I didn’t stop writing but writing became a job I didn’t want to go to and didn’t want to do when I got there because it had stopped being fun.

This is how I felt in early September when Temple and I left home for Bouchercon in St. Petersburg, Florida. Unlike New Orleans, where Temple and I spent almost as much time wandering around the French Quarter as we spent at the convention, and Toronto, where I participated in numerous events, St. Petersburg was more about hanging out.

Like many attendees, too many interactions with fellow writers were little more than “how ya doin’?” as we crossed paths on our way from one place to another. I did manage some interesting conversations about writing with Barb Goffman and Art Taylor, had some long conversations with Josh Pachter about all manner of things, and spent time with Trey R. Barker, both alone and in the company of our wives.

Michael Bracken, Frank Zafiro, and
Trey R. Barker bond over a mutual love
of taco truck cuisine.
I also spent a great deal of time hanging out on the veranda with a revolving group of editors and writers affiliated with Down & Out Books. Over the course of the convention, a joke Trey and I shared expanded into a project that we pitched to D&O Publisher Eric Campbell on that veranda. As we did, Frank Zafiro and other writers made suggestions that expanded the scope of our idea into something Eric liked so much he asked for a formal proposal.

By the time Temple and I reached the airport to leave St. Petersburg on the last day of Bouchercon, Frank Zafiro had already written several thousand words for the project, and within a week of returning home Trey and I put the formal proposal in Eric’s hands and began work on our own contributions.

As I write this, we have not yet received the go-ahead from Eric, but it doesn’t matter. I’m about 9,000 words into a 15,000+ word novella that isn’t important, significant, or noteworthy.

And writing it is damned fun.

“Mr. Sugarman Visits the Bookmobile” appears in Shhhh…Murder! (Darkhouse Books, edited by Andrew MacRae), and it’s the fifth story of mine to be included in Robert Lopresti’s list of best stories he’s “read this week” at Little Big Crimes.


  1. Michael, I'm still in awe of your productivity (the next story I'll read in the current Alfred Hitchcock is one of yours), and I often go through the same mental funk. I thought it was because I came to "real" writing late, but I think we're about the same age.

    I'm having lots of trouble developing the next book, and part of the problem is that old self-editor: is this good enough? Will anyone care? Will it "matter?"

    My cat says "no," and my wife says, "How will you know until you write it?"

    I'm never going to get wealthy writing (we can name all five wealthy writers in the world, can't we?), but it gives me the opportunity to meet people to interview. Meeting people is good--as you yourself point out. It keeps us from getting too weird.

    And it reminds us why we write, too. It's not really just for us, is it?

  2. Hey, Michael --
    I'm sorry to hear that you struggled with that fella in the mirror this year--though know exactly what you mean here. I've asked those same questions myself, and too often writing loses its fun, feels like a job, and a thankless one at that. Tara as well has gone through periods where writing feels like work, and then suddenly, thankfully, the spark comes back. Glad it did for you as well, and looking forward to new stories, new projects, more fun times ahead!

  3. Every time I start to think, "But is this story really important?" I think about a quote I saw on Facebook from Stan Lee. Of course I can't find it now, but it was something along the lines of how he was just a comic book writer. He looked at all his friends and acquaintances going out and doing "important" things like becoming doctors, and wondered if being a comic book writer was "important." And he realized that people NEED entertainment and if his writing could life someone's spirits at a low time, it didn't matter if it was "just" comics, it was "important."

    So yeah. I'm not going to make a million bucks and I'm not gonna find the cure for cancer. I'm not gonna write something that's going to fix racial tensions. But if someone comes home from a rough day at the office and finds a little respite in my stories? That's more than good enough for me - and a reason to keep going.

  4. A good movie to watch when the mo-jo goes away - and I think this happens to most of us - is "Sullivan's Travels". There goes the film director who longs to make a socially relevant drama, but eventually learns that "creating laughter is his greatest contribution to society." Not to mention that from that, of course, came "O Brother, Where Art Thou", which makes me laugh so hard I'm rolling on the floor.
    Entertainment is more necessary than ever!
    And, as always, in awe of your productivity.

  5. Time spent with you and Temple was one of the highlights of my Bouchercon, Michael — as it was last year in Toronto and earlier this year at Malice. I'm so glad that, after all these years, we finally have had the opportunity to meet IRL! Thanks for another powerful essay, and here's to many more f2f encounters!

  6. Interesting insight into the mind of a writer. How did Ray Bradbury put it? "You fail only if you stop writing."

  7. Thanks for this, Michael. I know this struggle, too.

  8. Well done, Michael. I remember Larry Block saying that back in the sixties when he wrote his first soft porn novel the publisher liked it so much they offered him double for the next - and he froze up because he didn't know how to write twice as well! So it happens at all levels.

    I have always said that writing involves the Miner (who gives you ideas) and the Jeweler (who polishes them). You can't give the Miner orders but you CAN bribe him by spending money on your writing career, and that's one reason I go to Bouchercon and other writers conferences.

  9. Finally meeting you [Unless, did we cross paths at LCC in 2007? I don't recall for certain, and having had an online friendship for so long muddies the memory waters] was one of the coolest things about my first Bouchercon.

    I think it's brave to be so open about some of the doubts and struggles you have as a writer, because I think we all share them... or at least, I know I do. And as others have said here, there is certainly value in art that makes people feel something and escape their reality for a little while.

    The other thing that I think you touch on very adroitly is that the real question isn't if it is important or fun... it's is it important or fun TO ME. Because while writing is a craft, being a writer is a state of existence. Like a musician who could never set aside a guitar, could you ever imagine not writing?

    I didn't think so.

  10. Thanks, everyone.

    To answer Frank's question: I can not imagine not writing. So, whether I'm on a roll or deep in a funk, I still produce words. When I look back at what I have written, I can never tell how I was feeling the day I wrote, but I can see that I wrote.

  11. I'm glad the fun returned, Michael. Your audience loves you.

    Ironically, I started a joint project with a colleague who hit one of those stumbling blocks. With luck, the fun will return and perhaps the project.

    Your title evoked memory of a barely remembered movie, probably teens or maybe moonshiners against revenuers or county constables. The only thing I recall was someone placed a mirror in the middle of the road with fatal results.

    Glad the mojo's shakin', Michael.

  12. Fun is what fuels the passion. Let's face it, passion, like a stove, isn't always turned to high. But, when you relax and let the words flow as they will, it works for you and is perfect for everyone else. Glad you a enjoying again.

  13. Lots to think about here! I'm still at the tossing-out stories-that-I-hope-will-entertain-people stage. Maybe I'll skip the one about trying-for-significance. Thanks for the short cut! Your reliability is, as we used to say in programming, not a defect, it's a feature!


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