Confidence, man

A year ago today I put myself through the emotional wringer and pitched my international thriller at ThrillerFest’s PitchFest.

It was New York City. The event packed people into hotel meeting rooms in cattle-chute like fashion. I had some interest, some requests for manuscripts. Since, they’ve either been declined or never heard from.

I’m pleased I did it. I learned from the experience, gained some real know-how, and met a few people. I’ve spent the last year correcting my many mistakes (I’m sure there are more) and pursuing an agent for my novel.

What I haven’t done is write much. I did some, but not nearly enough. For all the good the event did me, my writing confidence cratered. And confidence, even if it doesn’t look like much, is the main ingredient in writing a novel.

I took this whole year too hard, I admit. Hell, I still am. I never gave up. I just sent out queries last week, and this week re-wrote my query and synopsis. Those two things are the hardest, most uncertain, and most painful pieces to write.

Those are all the necessary transformations I have to make for myself. They’re stubborn things to learn, and take their toll. But they don’t get me down.

The only thing getting me down is writing the next one. I’ve got a start on a novel, and another idea sketched out. I’ve been writing a couple short stories lately. I needed to do something to show myself I could. It sounds like taking my medicine, but it sure tasted good.

I’ve got to get back into the hard routine of writing the next novel. With everything I’ve learned, it can only be a better book, and probably also an easier sell.

10 Steps for the Miserable Writer


How to turn this:


Into this:


Pitch Wars selections end soon. With all the successes and good vibrations, it’s easy for those of us who didn’t get requests or become mentees to get frustrated or down.

Keep things in perspective, writers, and figure out how to get out of the funk. To succeed, you need to learn these emotional tools as much as you need to learn the craft of writing itself.

1. Pitch Wars is just one step in the process. A very cool, very enthusiastic one. But even then it’s optional.

The event is bonkers, and it becomes very easy to get wrapped up in. Brenda Drake & Co. organized this to help you, not to disappoint you. They aren’t winning awards, and neither are you. It’s networking, honing craft, and hopefully connecting to agents. Don’t lose sight of that.

2. With genuine respect to talented, insightful mentors, many are still only a few steps farther along the journey. Remember!

This is no dig at mentors. They’re great. But they’re not the Editor in Chief of Penguin, either. They’re mostly just writers like you who – in some cases – beat out a colleague by subjective whim. Without that, they’d be in the trenches with you.

They probably do differ from you in how much effort they put into reading and helping others. Learn from that, too. Just keep in mind most are also chasing dreams like yours.

3. That mentors are just a little further along probably means they’re more accessible. Interact with them. Read them.

Again – they’re just like you. They’re busy and tired and excited and love that one book you love. Ask them something. Say hi. Thank them. The worst thing that can happen, I wager, is that you get no response. And that’s different from where you are right now exactly how? Right, it’s not different.

And, yes, go check out their books if you can.

4. “Never give up” may not feel good now. Think about the real steps you need to do in the next week. One. Step. At. A. Time.

I’m a jaded son of a bitch sometimes. I hate hearing “never give up” when I feel like giving up. It’s a hill too big to climb. So just take a step. Tomorrow, go fix that one chapter you know you need to fix. Hell, go fix that one paragraph. Sentence. Word. Do it. Then do it again. And again. Progress is amazing. Look back in a week, and know you climbed out of the mud.

5. Set your goal. Pitch Wars is a means, not an end. You should set your goal on getting an agent. Not getting picked next year by mentors.

Is your goal what you think it is? Mine wasn’t for another event. But you learn. You don’t have to have it in writing (but it can’t hurt). But you do have to actually think about it. Think about it for your immediate work. What is your goal with this book? Have one.

You can have goal for your life as a writer. That’s great, but it’s too big right now. Set a goal for your book.

6. Many of us want to belong to a club of insiders. It’s not wrong, but it’s not being published, either. Reach out to outsiders.

This might be the most important point on this list. Pay attention.

Get serious about understanding why you’re disappointed. Is it really because the novel you submitted isn’t good enough? Or is it really because you don’t feel like you fit in? Or that you aren’t good enough?

I can’t solve that for you. Neither can Pitch Wars unless you’re that talented-cum-lucky one person in 114 who submitted and became a mentee.

Someone else out there is having the exact same thoughts you are. Right now. Find them. Misery loves company, as they say. And company brings validation. Validation brings confidence.

Confidence writes books.

7. Wait for the off season. In a few months, when mentors can breathe, ask one for a single tip on how you could have improved.

Screw summer. It’s too damn hot in Iowa. Give me fall any day. This October, when the Steelers and the Hawkeyes are undefeated (hey, it’s my dream), I’ll forget to reach out to Dan Malossi or Kellye Garrett & Sarah Henning or Kristen Lepionka about my Pitch Wars submission.

But that’s just four kinds of stupid. Maybe something in my query was awful or vague. Maybe my first chapter didn’t help them see the book’s direction. If they can tell me one thing to change, that’s one thing that might matter to others. If they can’t tell me even one thing, the least I can do is take that time to say I didn’t forget that they read my work.

8. Get over it however you can. The emotions you have are valid. But they also absorb your time, and time is your best resource.

I’m driven, but when I mope around my wife wants to strangle me. I’m a real bastard to live with that way. Mostly, it’s because I get down, and then get cranky because I feel like I’m wasting precious time.

I am.

Take care of yourself. My long experience with writers says they’re prone to melancholy. Find a single, simple thing to do and find what you can be proud of. And if you are prone to mental illness or depression, talk to someone. Find help however you’re able. There is no shame in this. Seriously.

9. Go love a story with great characters. Movies are allowed. Remember why you did all this in the first place.

You already know what your favorite movies and books are. What are you waiting for? I guarantee that if you re-read or re-watch one of those you’ll learn something. You’ll learn something while watching something new. Go get a little inspired. It’s why you did all this in the first place, damn it.

Me? I’m gearing up to watch There Will Be Blood and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, both of which I’ve seen. I’m reading Leviathan Wakes, which I’ve never read. All of these are thick, heavy duty stories that I can’t wait to dive into.

10. Read someone else’s whole manuscript. You both need this. Others are working on CP exchanges. Find one.

This isn’t easy. Finding someone or a group to critique with is tough. But I also guarantee everyone who submitted to Pitch Wars wants someone to read their work and offer ideas. Keep a look out for people organizing CP (Critique Partner) events, but you don’t have to wait. Just watch the feed. Stalk people’s Twitter bios. Figure out if they’re in your “camp,” and ask them to read their stuff.

Do so respectfully. The great thing is that as you read, you’ll automatically learn from their writing. Whether it’s their mistakes or their brilliance, you’ll learn. You won’t be able to help it. Yes, it takes time, but it also directly helps your craft and theirs. Do it.

11. Also, whiskey. (Contents may vary.)

It doesn’t have to be booze. It does have to be relaxing. Get some chocolate chip cookies, BBQ, sushi, a massage, a hike – whatever your particular poison happens to be. You can’t get out of a fog by working harder. Well, you can, but you’ll still be miserable at the end anyway. Take it easy once in a while.

Unpacking from Thrillerfest 2016

I went to Thrillerfest in New York City in early July, and I’m still trying to unpack.

The clothes I wore are still on my bedroom floor while my wife waits patiently for me to put them in the hamper. Then there’s the confounding jumble of thoughts I can’t make sense of while my wife waits patiently for me to figure out what the hell I want to be when I grow up.

Matt at Thrillerfest 2016
Still in the dark …

I put everything I had into that trip. It was my self-imposed deadline to finish my first novel, and I did that. I spent the month of June between my day job and my night job of editing, and I just about hit my limit.

I spent the first day at the conference with a small workshop led by Gayle Lynds, spy writer extraordinaire. Our group gelled, and Gayle dispensed reams of advice. I floated away, ready to brave her edits for my first chapter and conquer the publishing world.

Day two was good, too. I happily volunteered for seminars and handing out registration packets. The rest of the time I attended several seminars by published authors that varied from good to so great I can’t tell you. Walter Mosley just about had me standing in my chair shouting “O Captain! my Captain!”

Day three things hit home. More morning seminars, with some interesting fireworks among a panel of agents. I ignored that, my head focused on the afternoon of PitchFest. Think of the event as speed dating meets sales pitch to land an agent. They packed us into a ballroom, then into a serpentine line I still don’t know where it started and ended, then into much smaller conference rooms packed with anxious writers and waiting agents.

My pitches went well. I had two request a full manuscript, a few more request partials. I paid dues with a couple that weren’t much interested. I had every reason to walk out of there excited to conquer the publishing world. Instead, I exited in a state of emotional confusion that I still can’t figure out.

With all the feedback from agents, and all that I observed, I can’t make sense of any of it. I don’t know how to make my manuscript meet what they want at this point, but I think that’s what they need from me.

Much of the industry baffles and terrifies me. I see my potential future selves walking around and wonder if I want to be them. Or wonder if I have the writing chops they have. I wonder if it’s too limiting to follow the rules they live by. Or do they find it freeing to be published? I know I want to publish my work. But the day taught me my goal isn’t as clear as I thought.

I’m a thinker that way, which doesn’t mean I’m smart. I brood and think through things. Three weeks later I still can’t figure this one out. It’s driving my wife nuts even today, which is our nineteenth anniversary.

I’m at the edge of a next novel, and two very different ones are fighting inside my head for attention. I don’t know what I should do.

One thing I do know is that behind me was a guy who didn’t write, and that guy’s not ahead of me anymore. I hear him sneaking up on me, always.

Curse of the Present Participle Phrase

Diction’s a real bastard. It’s what gives writers their identity. It’s our word choices and style, which creates voice. This is the art, but this requires real craft.

Craft is work. We can get to the art later, when it emerges from better work.

One of the most common problems I see is overuse and abuse of the present participle phrase. I’m sometimes guitly myself.

For those who need a grammar school refresher, here it is. And, yes, I had to look this up. Forgive me. Ms. Lawson’s class was 25 years ago.

The present participle phrase:

Running out the door, he grabbed the car keys.

The verb is grabbed. The noun is he. He grabbed. Hell, it’s even in active voice!

The present participle phrase is: Running out the door.

What’s wrong here? Nothing. Just stop over-using it!

I’ve read whole paragraphs where every sentence used the past participle phrase. It’s lousy diction.

I get it. The sentence structure is so useful, especially for tense, action-filled scenes that are common among fellow action and thriller writers. I use it myself, like I said.

Find these in your writing. Use them more sparingly. Then, rewrite those sentences. Often, they can be even better at ramping up action or tension.

Here’s a real life example I just read in an indie thiller:

Scanning briefly over the information on each man’s DOJ application he settled on the fact that the information was likely real.

Here’s another one, on the same page as the above even:

Pressing the send button, he waited as the service connectioned and uploaded the pictures.

Both are legitimate sentences. They’re a bit of a mouthful at a tense scene. How about reworking those?

He scanned the DOJ applications. Each familiar face of his attackers, every line of their information was real. He knew it.

He pressed send. The phone delivered the evidence in agonizing seconds he didn’t have to spare.

That’s just my stab at it. Season to taste. My good-faith intent is to show how much more we can pack into better sentences that still amp up the suspense and action.

The point is to reconsider when you hear yourself writing those phrases. Past participle phrases just roll off the “tongue.” It’s the kind of writing we hear in our heads that ends up quickly on the page. With overuse, it becomes predictable diction. A poker tell for an eager, crafty audience.

Get crafty right back at them.

Writer, 40 years in the making

I turned 40 on Saturday. We celebrated with old and new friends inside a refurbished barn in our new home town. They braved freezing cold and wind to eat barbecue and listen to me and friends ham our way through some tunes on our guitars and drums. It was glorious.

Jamming with friends and family at my 40th birthday party.

Several friends asked me if I felt 40. I don’t know what that means. I feel like I always have — myself, here and now. My knees ache a little when I bother to run. My hair’s thinner. But I don’t feel old.

Still, those inevitable thoughts crept in. I won’t always be 40. I won’t always be. Maybe that’s what being old feels like. Guess I had to find out for myself.

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was in the eighth grade. I dabbled, but had next to nothing to show for it. I became a journalist, more editor than writer. I changed careers. Became a family man. I even wrote some goofy, imaginative games. All worth it, but I kept kicking that writing dream down the road. That road gets shorter and shorter.

Somewhere in my early 30s, I thought I should set a goal to write a novel by the time I was 40. I failed.

I had other priorities. I had a lot to change in my life at home, at work, with friends. I knew it, and I set out to change it.

And I’ll be damned if it didn’t work. Not overnight, but drip by drip. Doing the work wasn’t the hard part. The hard part was wanting to, and to keep wanting to.

It took me almost 40 years to learn confidence and find a passion. Last year, I started writing a novel. It took me a few weeks of anxious doubt, but I wrote. Then I found some fellow writers and kept writing. I found a routine, too, a slow but steady routine. And in the nine months since I figured out I can do this. I want to do this.

And that’s not going away. It’s never easy, never effortless. The doubt creeps in like a thief. My weeks fill up, and with them the pressure to stay the course. It becomes its own cycle, and writing itself some kind of trance.

I still squint down that road, for a day past 40 when I have a novel written. Something worth reading. I can’t wait.


Today was a day of trains and zoos and Spiderman. My son turned three, and we spoiled him as much as we could. Pizza and waffles. Tigers and frogs. Cake! Oh my.

I’ve been reading Cryptonomicon, and finally reach that page count where I’m suckered in. Stephenson’s chapters are frenetic minutiae with kick-in-the-gut closers that keep me turning the pages. The book is thick — over 900 pages. At my careful pace I’m not likely to finish soon. But, I’m hooked on the interwoven story line of WWII cryptography and millennial Internet biz wheeling and dealing. I’m eager to see where it all goes.

A friend and I have kicked off a writing exercise exchange to keep on task. We started with a simple 1,000 word piece with bite. I quoted a snippet in the previous post. I surprised myself with a simple, straight-shooting piece of fiction that I turned out to enjoy quite a bit. Our next step is cleaning up the 1,000 words, maybe expanding them into 2,000.

Now if I can catch a break from all the homefront activities to repair some water issues on the house. Once I get that cleaned up, it’ll be a load off my mind. I’m always amazed how stressed I get with home repairs, even ones that aren’t worth losing sleep over. Give me a week, some drywall patching, a new window sill, and I’ll be young again.