The Schizophrenic Writing Life

The writer

I currently have over 60 published books—probably close to 70 right now, but I’m too busy to count them—and an editor friend of mine asked me how on earth I found the time to write so many. An interesting question, that; one I hadn’t given much thought to. Too busy writing, don’t you know.

But, it was a fair question, and I took a stab at answering her. As I was typing the email, recounting for her my writing process, a realization hit me—I’m something of an obsessive-compulsive, schizophrenic, anal-retentive, driven person; or, so would the writing routine I’ve been following for almost as long as I can remember seem to indicate. In the following paragraphs, I will outline it for you, and let you decide if I’m engaging in hyperbole or not.

First, a little background is in order. From the time I was 17, until I retired from the US diplomatic service in 2012, I was a government employee (20 years in uniform, but that’s also government employment). That meant, I moved frequently, had odd hours, and, while some of my work was exciting, I was mostly involved in repetitive, bureaucratic tasks.

During those years in government, I wrote. And, by this I mean, I wrote for publication. While I was in the army, I moonlighted on several occasions as a reporter for local newspapers—the only restriction was that I couldn’t write about things on the base where I was stationed. I also did freelance stuff for regional and national magazines. Now, this is called moonlighting, because you have to do it during non-duty hours. So, I pulled a lot of late-nighters, which isn’t a big problem, because for as long as I can remember I’ve only slept an average of 6 hours per night anyway. When I retired from the army and joined the US Foreign Service, I could no longer work directly for civilian publications, but I did continue freelancing, and again, I wrote early in the morning before going to work, and late at night after returning from work—seven days a week, holidays included.

Then, in 2006, I decided to take a serious stab at writing something longer than a newspaper or magazine article. I’d been secretly scribbling a couple of novels on occasion, thinking that I’d like to actually write a book, but hadn’t quite built up the nerve to finish one. A young man who worked for me when I was ambassador to Cambodia (2002-2005) suggested that I compile my leadership techniques into a book because, though they were a bit odd, they were effective. There was another thing added to my after (and before) work hours routine; scribbling out the chapters of that damned book, which took me two years. I finally got it finished and published in 2008. That was a traumatic experience, one that I’ll not repeat in this lifetime—but, that’s another story—but, it demonstrated to me that I could, in fact, write books in my spare(?) time.

So, from that point, I began to seriously engage in writing, making it a point to write at least an hour every morning before going off to work, and another hour or two in the evening before falling into bed. On weekends, when there was no official function, or the wife and I weren’t traveling, I wrote at least three or four hours.

I’d never given it much thought before, but I soon discovered that when you do this, and, like me, you’re a fairly competent and proficient typist (I do 60 WPM), you can crank out a lot of words each month, and I mean a lot. I had a target of 1,000 to 2,000 words a day, something an old country editor in North Carolina taught me back in the 1970s as good exercise for the writing muscles. Now, if you do the math, in a 30-day month, that amounts to 30,000 to 60,000 words—a novelette or a medium-length novel, and in one month. Of course, if you factor in proofreading and all the other stuff you have to do, it would take longer than a month, but, on the other hand, when you look at four weekend days per month with an opportunity to crank out 6 to 8,000 words, you can do it in even less. Once I discovered this, I was off to the races.

Frontier Justice After a not-so amicable divorce from the ‘publisher’ who’d issued my first two books, and the decision to immerse myself in the waters of independent publishing (which entailed learning layout and design and a few other skills), I began to crank books out in earnest. I started with a mystery series featuring a retired army special ops guy working as a PI in Washington, DC, soon added a western series about the famed Buffalo Soldiers of the US Ninth Cavalry, while still doing blogging and a little copywriting and content generation on the side. To my surprise, while they didn’t make any bestseller lists, my books actually began to sell—be bought—and reviews indicated people were reading and responding to them. Sometimes those responses were negative, but I learned from those negative reviews, and I think the books got better. Hell, I know they got better; I went from selling two to three copies a month to fifty or more, and some months I even managed to sell as many as 800 copies of one of my e-book versions. I even have a couple of books that are what I call my perennial sellers. My book on Bass Reeves, the first African-American appointed a deputy US marshal west of the Mississippi, which has been out for three years now, averages 10 to 15 e-book and 4 to 10 paperback sales per month, even now. That’s nothing to brag about, but with more than 20 books doing that now, it is significant. Last year (2016) my net income from book royalties passed the $7,000 mark. That doesn’t put me in the Fortune 500, not even the Fortune 500,000, but for an indie author, that’s nothing to sneeze at.

So, you might be asking, what the hell does all this have to do with schizophrenia or writing process? Okay, fair point. I guess I did digress a bit there. Now that I’m officially retired from government service and am the master of my own schedule, here’s my writing process.

I get up every morning between 5:00 and 7:00 AM, depending on how late I went to bed, and after showering and fixing my breakfast, I hit the keyboard. I write until 9:30 or 10:00, and then take a break. I watch a little morning TV—the oldies channels with series from the 60s and 70s—or go to my studio I’ve set up in my garage, and paint or take pictures. Then, after lunch, I hit the keyboard for another hour (1:00 to 2:00 PM). I take another break of an hour or so, and maybe work in the yard or paint some more. Supper for me is around 6:30 PM, and then I plan to be at the keyboard by 7:30 or 7:45, and I write until 10:00 or 11:00 PM. That’s every day, unless I have to go out for a consulting job, a speech, or to conduct the occasional workshop. When that happens, I take a notebook with me and write notes on the subway or plane, or in the hotel if it’s a long trip. One way or another I get that minimum of 2,000 words written each and every day.

It has become such a routine now, I don’t really even think about it. Hadn’t The writerthought about it, in fact, until my editor friend asked her question. But, that’s the answer to how I’ve done over 60 books in 11 years. The thing is, I wasn’t even counting them as I was cranking them out, and didn’t even notice it until a few years ago, a friend who was introducing me to speak at an event, mentioned that I’d writing a sh-tload of books. I still don’t stop to count them often, but every now and then, someone will mention it, and I’ll count. It keeps going up. I don’t have a target, maybe to have at least one book for each year of my life—no, I know, to have more than 100. That’s nice, round number, don’t you think.

Oh, and was I right? It’s schizophrenia, isn’t it?


Spreading the word – selling books

For a couple of years now, I’ve being doing a monthly column for PnP Author Magazine, a creation of two ardent supporters of indie writers. The August issue of the magazine has an article I wrote on using speaking engagements as an opportunity to sell your books, or at a minimum, bring them to the attention of a wider audience.

Along with my article, you’ll find some other useful information for indie authors, so go on over and check it out at PnP Author Magazine.

New Al Pennyback mystery, ‘Bad Girls Don’t Die,’ soon to be released

For fans of Al Pennyback, the DC-based PI will be back on the shelves soon in Bad Girls Don’t Die.  Here’s a look at the planned cover, and a sneak peek at the first two chapters.

Bad Girls Don't Die

Chapter 1

The first thing she noticed was the darkness. It wasn’t the dark, just able to make out vague shapes kind of darkness, but the stygian, can’t see your hand in front of your face kind of darkness. For a heartbeat, it frightened her, really, really frightened.
Was she dead, she wondered? Is this what death is; a great darkness, cut off from everything, a nothingness? If so, then hell, which is where she thought she surely was, was not the place of eternal fire as her grandfather had often threatened, but was, instead, a place of aloneness, a place of dark silence, which, she concluded rather quickly, was infinitely worse than being consigned to the fire along with all the other sinners—the bad people like her. At least, in the fiery pits, she could see others who were suffering the same fate. Here, alone in the darkness, she faced eternity the same way she had come into the world, alone and stripped bare.
All of this took place in a single heartbeat. Just enough time for her to know that she was not dead. At least, not yet.
And, after that single heartbeat, the oppressive darkness began to lift. As the irises of her eyes, which had for some reason contracted to pinpoints, began to open, the darkness was no longer so . . . dark. In fact, she began to be able to make out vague shapes. A light-grey rectangle high above her that might be a window of some sort, but it was either covered by a thin cloth, or painted over. Long, narrow rectangles that in time resolved themselves into wooden beams interlocked in a pattern of large squares above her head, and receding into the murky darkness in the distance. From this pattern, other beams ran straight down, ending at a grayish, dusty looking surface.
Piece by piece, her mind began to assemble what her eyes were seeing into a semblance of reality that she could comprehend. The beams were the supporting framework of a floor, with load-bearing beams, that indicated she was in a basement, and from her inability to see a far wall—she could feel the rasp of wallboard at her back—a rather large basement.
This was familiar. She’d spent a lot of time in basements in her life, or in what passed for a life since the untimely death of her parents when she was eleven years old. A basement was where she’d often been sent when she’d been ‘bad,’ which was most of the time.
She tried moving, and found that she couldn’t move her hands apart. She could, however, bend them, so she did. Holding them near her eyes, she could just make out the silvery color of duct tape, several layers of it wrapped tightly around her wrists, pinning them together. She tried moving her legs, and was rewarded with a clanking sound, and the rough scraping of something hard against her ankles.
Well now, this is new. Never before when she’d been sent to the basement had she been shackled. Sure, the door to the ground floor had been locked, but she’d had free run of the place.
Had she been really so bad this time? Had she done something to merit this extra punishment? In that heartbeat of time it had taken her brain to determine her location, it had not determined the why. A significant piece was missing.
Why am I here?
Then, as her vision became clearer, she realized that this was not the basement with which she was familiar. This was a place she’d never been before.
Where am I?
As her heart rate, which had been she now realized, as fast and loud as a kettle drum, slowed, and her breathing, which had been a rapid panting, returned to something approaching normal, her thoughts began to clear, and they weren’t comforting.
Is this where I’m supposed to die? Am I now to pay the price for the bad thing I did? What did I do?
She found that the thought of dying did not itself trouble her as much as dying alone in this dark place, to lie undiscovered for who knows how long. Would she be found some day, when she was nothing but a pile of yellowing bones, or would she be buried and forgotten, never to be found, when at some point in the future the structure above the basement collapsed into a pile of rubble, or was demolished and covered by some new construction. That thought bothered her.
I will not be forgotten. I will not die here.



Chapter 2

Buster and I were having a late lunch at Mom’s, a Friday tradition we’d recently established, but that we missed about every other week because one or the other of us was tied up with a case. I was having meat loaf with mashed potatoes and gravy, with four of Mom’s famous buttermilk biscuits on a saucer at the side of my plate, while he was attacking a pile of golden fried chicken, sweet corn, baked beans, and corn muffins. We were both drinking iced tea, mine unsweetened, his with so much sugar in it I could see the prisms of light refracted in the amber color.
Buster is Buster Mayweather, a detective lieutenant with the District of Columbia Metro Police, and one of my oldest friends, and Mom’s is . . . just Mom’s; a soul food diner that has been a presence on Sixteenth Street near U Street, in the renovated U Street corridor of Northwest DC, since Buster and I were still messing our diapers.
And, I am Al Pennyback, Albert Einstein Pennyback on my birth certificate, thanks to a mother who had a thing for the German scientist, and a dream that one day I would follow in his footsteps—I disappointed her by joining the army right after I graduated from high school—but, people who know me know better than to use my full name. To them, I’m just Al. To strangers, I’m Mr. Pennyback. I’m a private detective. I run a two-person shop on Fourth Street, just north of Fort Lesley J. McNair in the District’s Southwest section, where my partner, Heather Bunche, and I provide investigative services to people who can’t get help from the system, when we’re not serving papers or tracking down deadbeat clients on behalf of Holcombe, Stein and Chang, the law firm that has us on a ten thousand dollar per month retainer, thanks to the efforts of my other best friend, Quincy Chang, a colleague from my army days at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where I served in a special unit attached to Delta Force, and he was a Judge Advocate General officer serving in the JAG office at post headquarters.
When you add Sandra Winter, my girlfriend of long-standing, and Carlton ‘Blood’ Raine, an octogenarian former CIA field agent, you have the only five people on my list of friends—well, I guess you also have to add Buster’s wife, Alma, and his twins, Albert and Sandra, for whom Sandra and I are godparents. Not, mind you, that I’m an unfriendly person, but I have high standards, and they’re the only people who make the cut.
I have a few people who aren’t exactly friends, but are people I’m willing to talk to, so you can see I’m not a total recluse. In fact, I’m actually a quite nice person when you get to know me.
I watched Buster demolish several drumsticks, including biting off the knobby ends of the bones, chewing, and swallowing—to get at the marrow, he says. The amazing thing is, eating as much as fast as he does, he never seems to get indigestion. In fact, sometimes he seems like an alligator, swallowing his food whole rather than chewing it.
“What’s on your mind, bro?” he asked, snapping me out of my reverie.
I hadn’t realized that I was sitting there with my fork of meat loaf halfway to my mouth, looking through the plate glass window at the street beyond.
“Nothing,” I said, which was mostly true. It was nothing that needed to be the topic of conversation. “Just bored is all. Heather and I haven’t had a decent case for months, and I’m tired of sitting in my office looking at the cracks in the ceiling.”
It didn’t help that it was a Friday near the middle of September, and the weather was perfect. There are two times in the DC area when the weather is actually livable, mid-April to mid-May, and mid-September to mid-October. Except for the pollen, the spring is almost perfect, with bright flowers, moderate temperatures, and the beginning of short dresses on the Mall, while fall also has nice temperatures and the riot of autumn colors. With the area’s humidity, both summer and winter can be hell, with summer sweltering and winter biting cold. The good weather had apparently melted away the tendency to misbehave, because we’d had no cases come in over the transom since mid-July, and even Quincy’s law firm hadn’t sent us a case to work. Not that I mind taking their money for doing nothing, it’s just that I don’t like sitting around doing nothing. That’s the way my folks taught me, a day’s work for a day’s pay. The not liking being bored part is all mine.
“So, you’re bored, are you? Well, next case I get, I’ll let you tag along as an observer. Ain’t quite the same as actively investigating, but at least you won’t have to be sitting in your office staring at the walls.”
I’m not much of a passive bystander, but his offer was better than sitting in my office staring at the Potomac River and the Washington Ship Channel through the gaps in the trees surrounding the condos behind my office, or staring at my computer screen as the damn machine trounced me in yet another game of computer chess. Besides, Buster was working homicide now, so any case he got was likely to be interesting.
“Okay, you got yourself a deal,” I said.
Just at that very moment, his phone buzzed. He took it out.
“Mayweather,” he said, and then listened, nodding frequently. Finally, he said, “Okay, I’m rolling now. Tell the officer on scene I’ll be bringing a civilian observer with me.” He swiped the screen of his phone to turn it off and stuffed it back into his pocket. “How’s that for service, eh. You got something to do.”
“An interesting case?” I asked. It pretty much had to be, since he worked homicide. I just hoped it wasn’t a gang shooting or something, because they often left collateral damage in the form of innocent bystanders. I’ve seen a lot of dead bodies in my time, but kids still get to me.
“Just might be. We’ll know when we get there,” he said. “Drink your tea, and let’s roll. I’m parked around the corner, so follow me.”
I’d lucked out and found a spot almost directly in front of Mom’s plate glass window to park my bright green classic VW, which I affectionately call ‘The Bug,’ and for a change had actually arrived ahead of Buster.
“Okay, lunch is on me,” I said, draining my tea in one long gulp and heading for the counter where Mom, in all her 300-pound glory, wrapped in a lime-green one-piece made of enough material to make a four-man tent, waited near the register.
She smiled as I approached, holding out my credit card. Normally, she’d make a fuss if you didn’t eat all your food, and I’d left nearly half of mine on the plate, but she obviously had seen Buster on the phone, and knew the drill, so she just smiled and took my card.
“You enjoy yo lunch, hon?” she asked in that girlish voice of hers. I’ve never been able to figure out how such a tiny, beautiful voice comes out of such a large person.
“It was great, as usual,” I said. “Sorry we have to eat and run, though>”
“I know how it is,” she said, as she rang up the charges and ran my card. “That’s okay. Next time you two boys come in, I’m gon’ have somethin’ special fo you, okay?”
“I can hardly wait.” And, that was totally true. Mom’s food, prepared lovingly by her husband of a whole bunch of years, is probably putting Buster and me on the road to clogged arteries, but it brings back memories of my childhood, sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen while she fried chicken, vegetables, and bread—people in the part of Texas where I grew up fry just about everything—and, it tastes like what heaven must be like.
I grabbed the receipt from her, stuffed card and receipt in my pocket, and dashed out the door just as Buster came around the corner in his 2002 Electric Blue Buick Century. The engine growled, he’d had the factory V-6 swapped out for a V-8, as he tapped the gas pedal, and the damn thing seemed like it wanted to pounce on something. Despite the tricked-out engine, it was the most conservative looking car Buster had driven in a long time. In addition, it came of a Canadian assembly line, breaking his tradition of driving only American-made cars. “Besides,” he’d said, when I kidded him about it. “Canada is almost like America.”
I couldn’t rag him too much. I mean, how many six-foot, two hundred-pound ex-Special Ops guys do you know who drive a VW Beetle, and a bright green one at that?
I was slipping behind the wheel when he drove past, and even at a crawling speed, the Century’s power was apparent. It was a beast waiting to pounce.
And, I felt a bit the same.