15 September 2022

My Follow-Up to the "Compendium" Shared Last Go-Round

Last time around I posted "A Loose Compendium of the Worst Writing Advice Ever. While considering how to follow up on this post, it occurred to me that I might as well try to give some actual useful advice of my own.

And then I remembered that I had already done something like this when answering the standard "Six Questions" that the Goodreads review platform requests authors hoping to have their work featured there take the time to answer. 

So I went and looked at what I wrote. It was a few years back that I wrote these responses, so I've updated, and where appropriate, expanded on my responses.

Wherever you are in your own writing career, aspiring, midlist, NYT bestseller, your entire canon out of print, I hope you find the following worth your time, and thank you in advance for reading. As always, if you've got a response or any addendum to something presented herein, let us all hear it in the Comments section below!

What’s your advice for aspiring writers? 

There are many paths to God. If someone tells you they have THE system to get you published, they are trying to sell you something.

Publishing is a weird business, but even in a process as creative as writing, there are also constants. First: there are no shortcuts. Second: there is no substitute for hard work, especially early on while trying to learn your craft.

I have met dozens of immensely talented writers in the two decades I've been chasing this particular muse. And by immensely talented, I mean gifted, inherently blessed with ability I will never possess. Of those dozens I know FOUR who have published anything. FOUR.

On the other hand, I have met hundreds of aspiring writers with levels of talent running the gamut from "negligible" to "mediocre" to "solid" to "good." And most of them are published. The ones who are share no common traits aside from these two: the desire to write and the willingness to put in the work. Not coincidentally, they also happen to share these twin traits with the first insanely gifted authors I referenced above.

So when I say there are no shortcuts, I mean exactly that. Steven Pressfield says it all with the title of his writing self-help book Do the Work. It's just getting in your reps shooting baskets or taking batting practice or working on your corner kick. Time spent on your writing is time invested in yourself as a writer. Never forget that.

Next, don't turn up your nose at genres/approaches which don't do much for you. Read deeply and widely. Try new things. Don't like present tense narration? Find it jarring? Read some William Gibson. Think Romance isn't for you: read more than one: romance writers tend to be the unsung professionals of fiction writing. Even if you come away from the experience with your mind unchanged and your preferences unmodified, you will have honed your own craft by discovering that within yourself: "I don't like gardening, and after reading Death Stalks Between the Rows and What the Garden Gnome Saw, I now know for sure that gardening mysteries really just are NOT my thing!"

And there's power in that. The most wonderful thing about the writing life is that if you're doing it right, it can be a dazzling journey of self-discovery. After all, each one of us contains multitudes...

How do you deal with writer’s block? 

Exercise. Read GOOD books. I have a book with a hundred different writing prompts, and sometimes writing in response to a canned scenario can help get the writing untracked and rolling. Other times it's merely sitting down and free writing. A writer I knew who has since passed away once put his own system bluntly, colorfully and succinctly: "Ass. Chair. Write." I'm not as talented as he was, so I have to change it up more than that!

What’s the best thing about being a writer?

There are so many great things about being a writer (most writers I know will tell you, "Being a writer is great! It's the actual writing that's a pain!" or some variation on that theme.) but for me the BEST thing is when someone shares that they have been touched in some way by your work, whether they simply "enjoyed your book," or something deeper. Those moments are rare and precious and are to be savored.

What are you currently working on?

I am currently in the middle of writing a couple of short stories and finishing a long-delayed project: a historical mystery set in 1844 Washington, D.C.

How do you get inspired to write?

I asked my wife about this one, and her response is telling: "You get most inspired by deadlines. You write best under a deadline. Maybe it's the pressure, but I've seen it with you time and again. Deadlines."

She knows me (and my writing process) better than anyone, so I assume she's probably right. But I also think there's more to it than just deadlines.

Someone a lot smarter than me once said "Writing is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration." Sometimes ideas just sort of come to me, and when they drop in my lap like that, they are gold.

Far more often I take inspiration from the world around me: conversations with friends (you would be amazed at the number of works of fiction which start out as: "You won't believe what happened to my sister's mother-in-law..."), and from my own past. In my recent short story "Show Biz Kids," featured in Die Behind the Wheel: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Music of Steely Dan , which takes place onboard a U.S. Navy destroyer on a port visit at Subic Bay, The Philippines, I used a plot device inspired by an actual incident I witnessed during my own time in the Navy. Lastly, since I write mostly Historical Mystery, I find tons of inspiration in historical research. And that last part is a tough one. As any lover of history will tell you, it can be really hard to halt your research and start your writing!

Where did you get the idea for your most recent book?

My most recent book is a two volume anthology of crime fiction inspired by the music of jazz-rock legends Steely Dan. My inspiration for the collection was twofold: first had the idea when I read Just to Watch Them Die (crime fiction inspired by the music of Johnny Cash), collected and edited by Joe Clifford. Not long afterward Walter Becker, one of the two founding members of Steely Dan passed away, and I was reminded of Clifford's collection and my idea to try something similar with Steely Dan. And the rest is indie press publishing history.


  1. I'll be waiting to read those "couple of short stories" when they come out in print. You've turned out some good ones in the past.

  2. I've always said that the best thing about being a writer is that you get to play all the parts. Looking forward to that 1840s historical mystery very much!

  3. I enjoy historical mysteries and would like to look yours up, but you'll have to tell me what name you write under since it apparently isn't DoolinDalton. At a guess, you might be the editor listed on the image of the book above. This post at least offers that clue. For the sake of new readers, you might consider identifying yourself in your future posts or at least adding information to the link the byline above is connected to. Right now clicking on "by DoolinDalton" leads to zero information. Thanks!

    1. Anon, you're asking about the elusive Brian Thornton. Check him out!

  4. Brian, I received a call about a writing project. (I suspect the caller invited me after really good writers turned them down.) The offer came from a small town in West Virginia that wanted a biography about its hometown football hero. They seemed to be looking for something on the order of Hoosiers. The most critical drawback centered around all the community input– I realized I would have a lot of 'bosses' and that's a recipe for disaster. I had the feeling I'd earn every dime and then some. Yikes!


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