Sometimes you have weird interactions with your kids. There brains are working overtime all the time it seems like. Not infrequently, those conversations lead to story ideas. Sometimes they turn into something, like this one about a magical animal that appears on his bed. So when it happens, I just try to run with it. An exchange my son and I had a couple of days ago inspired this story, Something Black in the Stairwell.
Something Black in the Stairwell
The boy called through the monitor, “Can I get up?”
I looked at the clock. 5:57am. It was still a little earlier than he was supposed to get up, but I knew telling him to go back to sleep at this point would just create a fuss and yield the same end result. “Yeah, buddy, come one down.”
I returned my attention to my work and waited for the boy to join me on the couch in the living room. I heard the thud of feet above me as he slid off the bed to the floor. Then plodding to the stairs. At this point his foot sounds crescendoed. Every time. It was as if he were wearing too-big work boots while trying to navigate the stairs. It was incomprehensible to me how such a small person could make such racket.
There was a pause before his steps descent resumed at a more rapid pace.
I was entering data into my spreadsheet when he came into the room, not saying anything, and sat right up against me. The sectional can comfortably seat five. But he glued himself to my ribs and burrowed in, snuggling so that I had to put my arm around him. Unusual, but okay.
“Did you sleep okay?” I asked.
“Not me,” I told him. “I had a hard time getting to sleep. Was thinking about this presentation for work.”
“Did you stay awake all night long?” he asked.
“Nah. Just woke up off and on.”
Several minutes passed with the only sound being that of me depressing the keys on my laptop. The boy broke the rhythm without looking up at me.
“Something black tried to get me on the stairs.”
“What?” Not sure I’d heard correctly, or if I had, what it meant.
“When I was coming down the stairs, something black tried to reach out and get me,” he repeated.
“You mean you saw a shadow on the wall?” I prodded.
“Buddy, we’ve talked about this. The streetlamp shines through the trees and makes shadows.”
“No,” he said again.
“What do you mean no?”
He finally looked up at me. “That’s not what it was. It reached out to get me.”
“Why did you wait so long to tell me?”
“Alright, I’ll go check it out,” I told him.
He clung to my shirt as I shifted my weight to get up. “Please don’t leave me in here by myself.”
“Well, bud, I’ve got to go check it out. You can either stay in here or go with me.”
The decision weighed on him. Where did the greater fear lie? Then I watched him summon his courage and resolve to go with me. “Okay, let’s go,” he said. He was like his mother in that way. Once the decision was made, he was committed to it, come hell or high water. I admired it.
We walked from the living room through the kitchen and into the entryway. We turned to look up the stairwell. Best I could tell, everything was as it should have been. “Buddy, I don’t see anything here. You sure it wasn’t just the shadows of the trees moving?”
“Yes.” Just a stoic yes.
We stood there a minute longer, looking at nothing. “Well, I don’t know what to say. There’s nothing here. Let’s head back to the living room.”
I had started to take a step when he said, “It’s not here any more.”
“How do you know?” Doubting that it had ever been there to begin with.
He shrugged his little shoulders again. “I can feel it.” He was looking at the place in the wall where it must been as he’d come down the stairs. A cold shiver crawled up my spine. He turned his face to me. “But it’ll be back. I can feel that too.”
When I independently published Stop Putting Out Fires in 2019, there was a steep curve to learning what I needed to know about book publishing and marketing. I thoroughly enjoyed the process. I also knew then that I wanted to use my publishing imprint, Scarlet Oak Press, to be a medium for other lawyers to publish their books, which I talked about in an episode of my podcast, Lawyerpreneur. Now I’ve done that! And it’s every bit as fulfilling as I expected it to be.
Being a Medium for Others to Publish their Creative Work
As much as I enjoyed having control over the entire process of writing, editing, publishing, and marketing my own books, I know others don’t. They just want to write their books and hand it over to someone else to handle the formatting, edition, obtaining ISBNs and Library of Congress Control Numbers, and the dozens of other things that have to be done before a book can be shipped off to retailers. It’s not always fun. There is a lot of tedium involved in that work.
But it’s the kind of tedium I can get behind. So I knew that with my love of spreadsheets and having published two of my own books, I was prepared to become a medium for someone to publish their book.
The opportunity arose when a friend told me she had just written a children’s book about the basics of intellectual property. I looked around and didn’t see anything else like it on the market. There are plenty of children’s books geared toward STEM and handling money, but almost none dealing with the law.
Making a Proposal to Publish My Friend’s Book
Shortly after my friend, Becki C. Lee, told me about the children’s book she’d written, I told her that I would be interested in publishing it. We discussed it, agreed in principle, and worked out the terms of our arrangement.
For the last few months, we’ve book working on getting Do You Draw Pictures: A Little Gavels Guide to Intellectual Property ready for publication. Having only done adult non-fiction before this, it’s been fun to work with a talented artist like Walter Jaczcowski who did all the cover art and illustrations in the book.
But more important than that is the message that Becki is conveying in the book. By teaching children the basics of their intellectual property — copyright, trademark, and patent — rights, she is empowering young artists, creatives, and entrepreneurs to protect themselves and make good business decisions as they get older.
I’ve committed to finishing the manuscript of my first novel this year, which is far more challenging than expected. Having now written three non-fiction books, I had thought that written a novel would come easier. I was mistaken.
Nevertheless, I’m now 25,000 words in and in Story Grid terminology, I’ve finished the beginning hook. This feels like an accomplishment on its own … at least until I realize there’s another three-quarters or so of the novel to write.
Journey through the Beginning Hook
But what I’ve found is that not only is writing this novel difficult because it’s a difficult thing to do generally, but specifically, this novel is difficult for me to write. Here’s the premise that I wrote down in my moleskine notebook when I was first struck with the idea in August 2019:
Child sick with terminal illness. Dad is a lawyer who loses his job due to time missed from work. Loses health insurance. Can’t pay hospital bills. Desperate. Plans bank robbery. Sees former partner at a gas station. Shoots him and is killed.
Some of that has evolved since the initial idea was born. But what hasn’t changed is that it’s about a father whose child has a potentially terminal illness. Being the father of two small children, I have this (irrational) fear that I’m writing something into existence for my family.
I was originally working with the title, A Sick Kid, but I never loved it. I stopped working on it for a while, and the project began to languish. It nagged at me that I wasn’t working on it, but between work and my non-fiction projects, I wasn’t prioritizing it (which is a cycle that has continued).
By all means, Feel sorry for yourself. By all means make excuses. By all means feel discouraged. By all means don’t play like this game is the most important thing to you. By all means entertain yourself with other sh*t because the game of baseball will be here forever and you will have infinite opportunities to play this game. You will [have] infinite opportunities to put on your gear, feel the glove, the ball, etc. The game of baseball will wait for you. Life will wait for you.
It’s not as life can be taken away from you at any moment. Nooo that would be crazy, that would be cruel. Right? So, by all means, play the game as if [you] will have all the swings you can dream of and when the day comes when you realize baseball, that life doesn’t work that way, you will understand that the best [way] to play is by ANY MEANS necessary. By any means. No excuses. No waiting. F*ck patience. F*ck injuries and f*ck THEM. PLAY as if every at bat may be ur last because it very f*cking well could be. So let’s make every single f*cking one count. Lets go get these f*ckers!
The title became By All Means. A logline followed on its heels: “What wouldn’t a man do for his family?” And since then, I’ve had a much better vision for the book. I’ve rough plotted the rest of it. And now it’s just a matter of taking the time to write the thing … which, you know, isn’t a foregone conclusion.
As far back as I can remember, I’ve always been a vivid dreamer. For a time during my 20s, I started writing down my dreams. But that seemed to somehow magnify their intensity and creepiness, so I stopped. Then the dreams returned to their baseline weirdness levels.
More recently, I’ve started writing down dreams that are particularly interesting and stick with me. I’ve started letting my dreams fuel my fiction writing, rather than let them dissipate into the ether.
A few weeks ago, I had a dream that was graphic and surreal. I remembered every detail. And I had an inkling it could be the inciting incident for a much bigger story. It remains to be seen whether that last bit becomes a reality. Regardless, here’s the dream that fueled this particular bit of fiction.
I’ve also found that my kids inspire my writing. An episode with my son was the catalyst for what became a follow-up scene in whatever this story will eventually become.
When Your Dreams Fuel Your Fiction Writing, Magic Can Happen
Josiah and his wife were awakened by a loud, strange noise. Josiah propped himself up with an elbow, straining to hear what was no longer there to be heard. He had thought it came from outside.
“What was that?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” came the croaky response.
“Did it sound like an animal?”
“Don’t know. I was too asleep,” she said.
Josiah swung his legs off the bed and padded over to the window, where he peered through the blinds. The ground and trees were bathed in moonlight. Josiah, having forgotten to look at the clock as he traipsed across the room, judged that it must be very early morning now by the way the moon hung above the western sky. At first, all was still and quiet. There were no indications that anything was amiss.
As Josiah was about to return to bed, he saw three figures in dark clothing stalk through the gap between his house and his neighbor’s and walk into the woods behind his house. Before he could comprehend what he was seeing, they disappeared into the shadows.
Moments later, Josiah heard an animal noise again. He was staring into the tree line but could see nothing. “Alright,” he whispered to himself, having made a decision about that to do next.
Josiah walked to his nightstand, pulled open the top drawer, and retrieved his Smith & Wesson .40. It had lain dormant in there a long time, in anticipation of a moment like this one. Josiah pulled on a sweatshirt, pants, and a pair of moccasins. With the handgun snugly in his left hand, he opened and closed the front door with his right.
Staying close against the house, he walked around the front and down the opposite side as the intruders’ route. He wished the siding were a darker color, to hide his movement, but there was nothing to be down about that now.
He reached the bottom of the driveway and stopped. Waiting. For what? He had no idea. He couldn’t very well go stalking into those woods with no light. Josiah realized that he should have grabbed a flashlight or headlamp. Anything that would provide illumination. He patted his pockets. He hadn’t even brought his phone.
So he waited. The only movement he saw was his breath emerging from his mouth and dissipating in the night air. Then a shrill animal scream ripped the silence apart. Josiah thought it sounded like a horse. Or maybe a donkey. Something in that family. Still, he could see nothing.
Movement. Emerging from the woods. Three figures. One was much bulkier than the other two. As they exited the shadows into the moonlight, Josiah could make out that the third man’s bulk was because he was carrying something. Something that was struggling against him.
The three men were moving quickly without running. And they weren’t moving in the direction they’d come from, they were coming toward his side of the house. Josiah had no idea what to do. Whether to do anything. They were closing ground, less then a dozen yards from the bottom of the driveway, where Josiah had all but made himself a part of the house.
As the dark-clad men came parallel with him, Josiah saw that the third man was carrying a horse. A foal. And a young one. Something was … wrong with it.
“Halt!” Josiah commanded, surprising himself and everyone else. All three men jerked to a stop, turning in the direction of the sound. The foal whinnied and bucked. It arched its head backward trying to headbutt its captor.
“Halt?” asked one of the men.
“Yeah. Stop.” Josiah found that his gun was raised in their direction. His hand was shaky, but he didn’t know whether it was visibly so.
The same voice said, “We’re stopped. Now what?”
Josiah didn’t know now what. He hadn’t had a plan to this point. “I’m gonna need you to leave.”
“What do you think we were doing?” asked a second voice.
The three men were standing in a clump. The man in the middle was speaking. All three were larger men than Josiah. Although it was difficult to gauge the size of the man carrying the foal.
The first voice suggested, “Why don’t you step out from the shadow and we can sort this out?”
Josiah realized his advantage, however slight. “I’m good. Put down the horse and be on your way.”
“Horse?” scoffed the second voice. “That’s not a—”
“Shut up,” the first voice instructed.
The third man started to lean forward as if to set the horse down. The first voice pointed at him, “Don’t.” And the third man stopped moving. “We can’t do that. We’re gonna take the … horse and be on our way.”
“No. You aren’t,” Josiah countered. He had no inkling why he cared what happened to this foal. But whatever was happening was inherently bad. Evil maybe.
“Enough of this,” said the first voice. He ordered, “Gary, handle him.”
The left-most figure began stalking toward Josiah, reaching into the front pocket of his hoodie.
A deafening bark. A flash of light. Gary fell into a sitting position, holding his belly. The sounds of the night had stopped. Or maybe it was just that Josiah could no longer hear them. His vision was interrupted. The imprint of a flame was placed over anything that he looked at directly. He could see in the periphery that none of the men were moving.
“Now, you’re gonna go. And you’ll leave the horse.” Gary had fallen onto his side and was moaning. “Set the horse down. Gently.”
The third man squatted down slowly, setting the animal on the concrete. Josiah could see it clearly for the first time now that two arms were no longer wrapped around it. It wasn’t a horse. It was … what was it?
“Y’all go on now. And take him with you.” No one objected. They got on either side of Gary and started trying to get him upright, to be his human crutches like a football player being helped off the field. But Gary’s clothes were glistening darkly in moonlight. He would have to be all but carried.
Josiah watched until they were beyond his eyesight. They walked into the shadows of the trees that canopied the street. A short time later, he saw taillights ignite. The reverse lights flickered as the vehicle was put into drive. Josiah heard the thrum of the V-8 engine as it accelerated and carried them into the night.
Josiah heard the front door of his house open and close. Agatha asked, “Honey, is everything okay?”
Josiah remembered the horse-ish thing lying in the driveway behind him. It wouldn’t do for her to see that. He shoved the gun into the waistband at the small of his back and thought about all the times he’d thought movies were ridiculous when they had somebody do that. But he’d never considered that there was nowhere else to put it when you didn’t have a holster. He was just glad the barrel wasn’t still hot. He jogged around toward the front of the house. His wife was walking his direction as Josiah rounded the corner.
“Yeah, baby. Just … um … a … uh … fox.”
“A fox? I was looking out the back window but never saw anything.”
Josiah was relieved. “Yeah. He had come around the side.”
“Did you get him?” she asked.
“Yeah. I need to take him back into the woods and get rid of him,” Josiah said.
“Now? Tonight?” she asked.
“Got to. He’ll attract coyotes and buzzards. You just go back inside and I’ll be back shortly.”
“Alright. Be careful.”
“Yep. Will do.” Josiah turned around to go the way he’d come.
When Josiah reached the side of the house again, he saw that the horse creature was standing, looking at him. It was young. Not more than a few weeks old. Maybe days. He just couldn’t believe that what he was seeing was correct. Wings. On a horse.
He walked toward the animal slowly. As he got about twenty feet away, the foal got nervous. It started looking around a little wildly and shuffling its hooves.
“Whoa, boy,” Josiah said, in not more than a whisper. He held out his hands in front of him in what he thought would be a non-threatening gesture. “I’m not going to hurt you. Just want to see if I can help.” He kept walking as he talked. The foal seemed to settle a bit.
Josiah approached to little more than arms length and stopped. They stood taking each other in. Maybe the wings were some sort of prank? Some attachment the guys had put on its back. None of this was making a good deal of sense. And why was there a horse in the woods?
Whatever the answer, this was a beautiful creature. All white with a pale mane. White wings that were folded onto its back. The moonlight gave it an ethereal quality.
Josiah started talking softly to the animal again. “Hey, boy? Where did you come from? Is your momma around?” As he spoke, he stepped forward and raised his left hand to rub its head between the eyes. The foal snorted and shook its head with the approach, but didn’t back away. Josiah kept talking and made contact. After a minute, the foal pushed back against his hand. With his right hand, Josiah began to rub its neck.
“That a boy. Nothing to be scared of. Now I’m just going to reach over here to your shoulder. Good boy.”
He didn’t know whether the talking was helping. It didn’t seem to be hurting though. He also didn’t know whether the foal was in fact a boy. But that also seemed inconsequential in the moment. Josiah continued to scratch and pet its head with his left hand, while migrating his right back to its wings.
“Holy cow,” he whispered. “Those are really yours, aren’t they? Yep. There. I can feel it coming right up through your hide.” A shiver crept up his spine.
When Josiah started handling its wing, the foal shrugged its shoulders and shuddered. Then it unfolded its wings. The transformation was majestic. Josiah took an involuntary step backwards. It was white as a ream of paper. He thought this was probably a dumb comparison, but it was the first thing he thought of. A wingspan greater than the length of its body from head to tail.
“Wow, buddy. That’s … I mean, that’s … wow.”
Josiah took to petting its head and neck again, and it tucked its wings away.
“What are you called? Not a unicorn. You don’t have a horn,” Josiah was thinking that paying closer attention during literature — or was it mythology? Whatever — it would have been helpful about now. “Icarus? No that’s a Greek guy. What did he do? Fly to close to the sun. Hang on. You’re a pegasus, aren’t you? That’s the one with wings, right? Except you’re not real. How can you be? I’m just losing my mind or something. Which is fine, I guess.”
The pegasus nuzzled him. “We’re going to need to get you back home. Is your momma in the woods? Let’s go for a walk and see what we find.”
A few days ago, my 5 year old started calling for me in the middle of the night. I looked at the clock and saw that it was 3:40am. With only an hour and twenty minutes left until my alarm was set to go off, I knew that my good sleep was pretty much done for.
I went up to his room and tried to coax him back to sleep. But when he told me that he couldn’t sleep because he didn’t want to be alone any more, I felt really bad for him and laid down beside him.
But in that little bed with only a minimum of covers made available to me, my mind started racing. And I came up with the scene below, that is being incorporated into a work in progress — as in, this is only the second scene for that project, but it looks to be weird and interesting.
Now, I’m not saying your should have kids just so that can serve as sources of inspiration — though I’ve probably heard of people having kids with worse motivations for bringing them into the world. But if you do have kids, you may find that it’s good for your fiction writing from time to time.
Here’s the scene that was inspired by my 3:40am wake-up call.
“Daddy! Daddy!” Josiah scrunched his eyes to read the clock from across the room. 3:40 AM. He fumbled for the monitor beside him, punched the button, and asked “What do you need?“ “Can I come to your bed?” came the four year old’s request. “No,” Agatha whispered to him. He relayed the message. “No, buddy. It’s too early. Just go back to sleep.” “I’m scared,” the boy complained. “There’s nothing to be scared of. Just go back to sleep.” Josiah heard whimpering. “I’ll be there in just a minute.” With the grunt, he shoved off the covers and sat up. The cold air struck him like it had been a bucket of water. He pulled on a pair of sweat pants and padded down the hall to the boy’s room. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “I don’t want to be alone anymore.” Josiah’s dad-heart broke just a little bit when he heard that. “Okay, buddy. Scooch over. I’ll lay down beside you for a couple minutes. Let me have some of those covers.” They nestled in and within a few minutes the boy again. A few minutes after that, he could hear gentle snoring. Josiah had just started to drift off himself when the boy jerked and sat up. “Something fell on my legs!” “What?” “Something fell on my legs.” Josiah began running his hand over the bed covers hoping it wasn’t another water leak. “There’s nothing here,” he determined. The boy argued, “Uh-huh. Look at the leaves.” Josiah strained his eyes in the dark, assisted by the dim glow of the nightlight. He felt around the middle of the bed where the boy’s legs were curled up. There were no leaves. “There’s nothing here. That’s just the bedspread.” Rather than conceding that his imagination was running wild, the boy said, “There’s an animal too. He’s curled up by my feet.” Josiah’s frustration level was escalating. “Bud, there’s nothing here.” “He says he’s a red panda.” “What?” Josiah asked. “The animal. He says he’s a red panda,” the boy replied. “So he just told you that?” “Yeah. He says he’s here to keep me company so I wouldn’t be alone anymore.” Josiah was at a total loss. “Okay. Well, I guess I’ll just lay here for a few more minutes ‘til you go back to sleep. Lay down now.” The boy said, “I don’t need you now. You can go back to your bed.” “You sure?” “Yes. Panda said he’d stay until morning.” Pushed himself out of the bed started walking back to his room, not sure what was happening but relieved that he was going to be able to try and get some more sleep. When you climb back into bed, Agatha asked, “Everything alright?” In the dark, she couldn’t see the peculiar expression on his face.“I guess?” “What does that mean?” she asked, pushing herself up onto an elbow. “Well, he said he was scared and didn’t wanna be alone anymore, but now apparently there’s a panda in the bed with him so everything is okay. But there’s nothing in the bed other than that boy. Oh, and the panda can talk.” “Okay.” “Things are getting kind of weird around here,” Josiah observed. “I know,” Agatha said. “That’s … not the response I was expecting.” “I know,” she said. “I think we need to talk in the morning.” “I know,” she said.
Sleep didn’t come easily for Josiah after that. There was too much strangeness going on. When the alarm started fussing at him at 5:00 AM, he felt like he had barely closed his eyes again. After seeing the boy off to school, Agatha grabbed a cup of coffee and sat down at the kitchen table across from Josiah. “Well?” he said “Well what?” she asked. “Well, what the heck is happening around here?” “Why don’t you start with telling me what really happened outside the other night?” Josiah was caught off guard and it was written all over his face. He tried to recover. “What do you mean the other night? There was a fox. I told you that.” “Josiah. Look at me.” He looked up from his coffee mug. “Do you think I’m a moron.?” “No, ma’am. I do not.” “Do you think I didn’t look outside when I heard that pistol fire?” “Well I had —” “Do you think I didn’t see three men out there with one of them laying on the ground and an animal in the driveway?” “I, uh —” “Do you think I didn’t notice the sand in the driveway to soak up the blood?” “That could have been from the fox,” he said. “It wasn’t.” Agatha said flatly. “Then, no, I reckon you saw all those things.” “So why don’t you tell me what happened?” “It’s kinda hard to explain,” Josiah started fidgeting with some crumbs on the table. He felt like a child that had been caught in mischief. “Try me. I’ve got time.” “Not really sure where to start. Not even really sure what happened.” “How about I tell you something that maybe make it a little bit easier for you?” “Okay.” “This is going to be a little hard for you to hear,” she warned. Josiah was surprised again, “What does that mean?” “That means there’s something about me I haven’t told you.” “Oh boy. Alright. Go for it, I guess.” “I am … Well, we don’t really have a word for it.” “What do you mean we don’t have a word for it?” Josiah asked. “In English. We don’t have a word for it in English,” Agatha explained. “Are you meaning to tell me you speak another language? I thought it was gonna be way different than that by the way you were carrying on.” “I do. But that’s not what I’m trying to tell you.” “Oh.” “I’m … you could say I’m a witch.” Josiah just looked at her. “Did you hear me?” she asked. “I don’t rightly know.” “I said I’m a witch,” she repeated.” “Yep. I heard you then.” Josiah took a deep breath and exhaled. “I’m going to go smoke.” “You don’t smoke.” “I didn’t smoke. I do now.” “You don’t even have any cigarettes.” “I will have. I’m going to the store to get some, and then I’m gonna have a smoke.” Josiah got up from the table snagged his keys off the wall and went to the garage. Agatha heard the garage door raise and then lower. About 15 minutes later she heard the garage door raise again then his car door open and close. Shortly after that she heard a good deal of coughing. When she got outside, Agatha asked, “How’s the smoking going?” “I think it’s gonna take some getting used to.” “You want to pick a different vice?” “Nah. I’ll stick with this for now.” He took another drag and coughed some more. “So do you do spells and potions and whatnot?” “No, I’m not that kind of witch.” “There’s different kinds of witches?” “Yes,” she answered. Leaning against the house, Josiah looked at her kind of sideways. Up until now he’d just been looking out into the tree line trying to wrap his mind around this new revelation. “Are you a good witch?” “Like, am I good at being a witch? Yeah, I guess I am.” “No,” Josiah shook his head. “Are you a good witch, like Glenda the Good Witch?” “Oh. Well, then. I guess it depends whose side you’re on.” “There are sides?” “Yes,” she said, “there are most definitely sides.” “I reckon I’m on your side.” “In that case, I think you’ll find that I’m a good witch.” “Alright,” Josiah said. This was followed by several minutes of silence. Agatha let him have it. She knew this was tough to process. “You said there was several kinds of witches?” “Yes.” “What kind of witch are you?” “I can talk to animals.” “Like, you can talk to the dog?” “I could. I don’t. He’s an idiot.” “That confirms that suspicion.” He looked at his half-smoked cigarette before grinding it under his boot and said, “I’m gonna need something stronger.” “You’d better get on to work.” “Yep.” He walked back into the garage and opened the door to his truck. He turned back toward Agatha. “Seems kinda weird to be going to work after this.” “It’ll be fine. Nothing’s changed.” Josiah laughed an unexpected laugh. Agatha smiled, and he pulled the door closed. After he started the truck up, she knocked on the window. When it had stopped lowering, she said, “Tonight, you can tell me what happened the other night.” “Oh, yeah,” he said, having forgotten he still had his tale to tell. “Have a good day. Be safe.” “You too. Or, yeah. You know.” He raised the window, shaking his head at himself, and starting backing out. At least at work, he only had to deal with putting out fires and helping old ladies who’d fallen down and couldn’t get themselves up.
Before my second book was published, I was already working on subsequent books, including the one that would become my third book. I had thought it would be a book about mindset for lawyers. With that expectation, I had decided to run with the title, The Successful Lawyer Mindset. Of course, this is a total knockoff of Joanna Penn’s The Successful Author Mindset (which is a good book that you should definitely read).
Eventually, I decided my title was too narrow. I wanted to write not only about lawyers having an introspective mindset, but also about being appropriately minded toward their business and clients. But I didn’t think the title conveyed that.
Expanding the Scope of the Book
I then came up with a title that I was really excited about for a couple of weeks, Level Up Your Law Practice. I even wrote the introduction to the book with this title. Then I polled the title among the LawyerSmack community. It met with mostly indifferent results. The next day, a friend texted me. He said that the title was cliche and didn’t fit my brand. He didn’t mince words: “Do not use that title.” The search was on … again.
Over the next few weeks, I wrote down a dozen combinations of titles and subtitles. Here are some of them:
An Uncommon Law Practice
Becoming Uncommonly Good
Becoming Uncommon: With a Healthy Mindset, Good Business Practices, and a Client-Oriented Law Practice
Then I had a breakthrough with the book itself. This was not a book just for lawyer. It was a book for people who have businesses that interface with customers and clients. It was particularly for professionals and other people in the service sector. That’s what my law practice is, and it’s what I know. So again, the title pivoted. The next round of working titles looked like this:
Mindset: Success Is Driven By Your Outlook on Your Business, Your Customers, and Yourself
Becoming Uncommon: Separate from the Pack to Better Serve Your Clients and Yourself
Eventually, I reached out to my cover designer, who’s always had good advice for me. I asked what she thought about the title and expanding the scope of the work and its intended audience. Her response about the audience really struck a chord:
As for target audience, I don’t think your approach is misguided but it’s a gamble. You have a chance to build a body of work that over time will dominate your professional niche vs. trying to broaden your reach to compete in other niches and then end up not reaching anybody.
I had gotten so enthralled with the idea of writing one of those business books that hits it big and sells millions of copies, that I had lost sight of my bigger goals. I am a lawyer writing for lawyers. The tagline for my law blog is “Build a better law practice.”
Most of the non-fiction books that I still have in mind to write are for or about lawyers. Lawyers are my audience. Lawyers are the people on my mailing list. They are who I interact with on social media. They are my people.
And I was considering sacrificing that for my ambitions of grandeur and (unlikely) potential of millions of book sales. Ambition isn’t necessarily bad, but it should be measured.
Finally Landing on the Title of my New Book
So I’ve leaned in to Level Up Your Law Practice as the title of my new book. I’ve written an introduction that I really like. The introductions to each of the three parts of the book incorporates the theme. And the title has provided for some fun analogies in a book about improving your law practice by (1) having a mindset that drives you toward success, (2) sustainable and focused business practices, and (3) emphasizing client relationships.
It’s about time too that I’ve settled on a title for my new book. I’ve written about 75% of it and have in mind a May 2020 launch date.
As a lawyer, I have observed that sometimes judges do things in the courtroom that make you look sideways at everything. They enter orders that run contrary to established precedent. They allow things into evidence that never should have been. And mostly there’s very little you can do about it in the moment. So when my protagonist lost his mind as I was writing a scene and let a judge have it, it was a really cathartic experience for me. It occurred to me in that moment that our characters can say things that authors can’t.
Set Characters Free From Your Inhibitions
We can set characters free from the inhibitions that constrain us. Now what we enable them to do may be a bad personal choice, just as it would have been for us. And they may then have to deal with the consequences of it, just as the protagonist in my story will, but it’s really nice to have that freedom.
Writing fiction is a way to explore the cause and effect of interpersonal relationships. You get to play out the results of your character’s choices in a way that provides insight and wisdom, that may be applicable in your life outside your manuscript.
Give Characters License to Make Poor Decisions
Here’s the snippet from my scene where I let my character say what I can’t [or at least, haven’t yet]:
Judge Stuart held up his hand and cut Jim off, “Just to be clear, you want this court to believe that your guy wasn’t impaired when he was all hopped up on crystal meth?”
“That’s not what I’ve said judge. What I said is they don’t have the expert testimony necessary to—”
“No. I’m not having this. What it sounds like to me is we need to continue this trial out to a later date so y’all can have time to work through these issues. I’m going to deny the Motion to Exclude and continue the trial setting.”
Something inside Jim that controlled his restraint and better judgment broke. “Well, what it sounds like to me is I should have contributed to your re-election campaign.”
Now it was Judge Stuart who was visibly reddening. A gallery full of lawyers who were waiting for their cases to get called was silent. The court reporter’s keys and stopped clacking, and she sat there mouth agape.
“Excuse me?” “You heard me. You sit up there like a tiny tyrant ruling over your fiefdom. You disregard whatever laws don’t suit your agenda. Acting like you’re the heir of the divine right of kings.”
Jim didn’t let up when Judge Stuart leaned over and instructed his law clerk to get one of the sheriff’s deputies into the courtroom.
“But I can’t say your rulings are arbitrary. They do always favor the folks who either contributed to your election or helped with the campaign. So at least you’re consistent. I was wrong about you being a tyrant. You’re more like Pappy O’Daniel. When we all walk in the courtroom, you might as well ask, ‘Is you is or is you ain’t my constituency?’ Because that’s the way the wind’s going to blow. Except there’s no reason for you to ask the question. You already know the answer.”
Jim seemed to run out of steam at that point. He had been standing still about three seconds when a deputy entered the courtroom through the side door. The phone that were out and recording in the gallery were hastily put away before anyone noticed them.
“Mr. Henton, you’re being arrested on civil contempt of court. Deputy.”
You’re probably thinking right now: it wasn’t Pappy O’Daniel who made that statement in O Brother, Where Art Thou. I know. And Jim figures it out later. He’s going to dig his hole a little deeper when the judge asks him to apologize, and he says he’s sorry for attributing the quote to the wrong person.
You may also have thoughts about whether the dialogue is any good. Maybe it is and maybe it’s not. This is the first draft, so it’ll get some more attention later. The point is that we need to set our characters free from the things that would hold us back. They have to make their own decisions, their own mistakes. And eventually, their own reconciliations.
Let Your Characters Say the Things That You Can’t
We authors have life experiences that our characters don’t have. Our story is not theirs. They have to make their own choices. We are the conduit for that. I had a moment this week where I realized characters can say things that authors can’t. I have envisioned delivering different versions of the speech Jim gave. But I’ll never do it. Probably.
But Jim can. And did. Now we’ll see what develops out of that. If I had imposed my own sensibilities on my protagonist, this would be a much more risk-averse story. But I’m trying to separate myself from him so he can do the things that are inherent to his character.
I always thought the idea of writing prompts was dumb. I thought writing prompts were for not-serious writers. They also kind of seemed like cheating the system. If you couldn’t think of something to write about on your own, was writing a scene based on some prompt really going to make you legit?
But then — and this is how it always goes when I form some uneducated, half-cocked opinion.
But then this tweet from Writer’s Digest came across my Twitter feed.
I didn’t even read the article. I just saw the tweet as I scrolled. Then I set about unloading the dishwasher and putting away the kids’ toys. And a scene began to unfold in my head. A scene that was catalyzed by a writing prompt about a truth or dare moment.
I immediately concluded that writing prompts have their place. They can be fun. I might have been [read: definitely was] wrong about their usefulness.
So after we had put the kids to bed and my wife had fallen asleep while we watched our show, I wrote this scene. I’m not saying it’s groundbreaking. But I had fun. And it’s a scene that didn’t exist before and would never have existed had I not seen Writer’s Digest’s idea for a writing prompt.
door closed, Curt looked up from his phone to see three men standing across
from him. One was far more slight of build than the other two.
It’s good to see you!”
the smaller man corrected.
replied, “I like Tommy. Imma go with that.”
could have called instead sending your guys to pick me up.”
shrugged, “Yup. But they make a certain … impression. You needed to
understand that I’m not dicking around.”
still got time. The payment’s not due until next week,” Thomas said.
due now. You know how I know that? Because that’s what I decided.”
not what we agreed to.”
in an adolescent tone, “’That’s not what we agreed to.”
“We had a contract.”
talking about, a contract?”
agreed to terms. You loaned me money. I have three months to pay it back.”
well, I want it now.”
had a contract. Contracts are the fabric of civilization. They’re sacred.
Without contracts, nothing works. You can’t just —“
and I will. Skip the civics lesson,” Curt said flatly.
have the money.”
Thomas asked, “Then what are we doing here?”
play a game, Tommy.”
have time for games. Play with one of your automatons.”
bring your ten dollar words in here. I will have your tongue cut out just
because it suits me,” Curt replied a little more heatedly than he’d been
before. Thomas knew that Curt was intellectually insecure in this situation. He
couldn’t help but provoke him, even knowing that it may lead to rash behavior.
Thomas’s turn to shrug now, “Look you got me out of bed. I don’t have your
money. I’ll have it by the time it’s due.”
won’t,” Curt said.
right. I probably won’t. But I’ve still got some time.”
smart guy, you don’t seem to get it. There’s no more time. Well, that’s not
true. There is time, just not for that. You know what time it is?”
responded, “Game time. Woo!”
was that? What did you just do?!”
don’t remember the Bulls? Mid 90s? Before tip-off, they’d say, ‘What time is
it? Game time! Woo!’”
shook his head quickly, like a dog trying to get rid of an itch in its ear. “Of
course, I remember the Bulls, man. I just wasn’t expecting it from 40-something
white dude. Or like, right then.”
conceded, “Yeah, I was uncomfortable. It just kind of happened.”
realized things were getting away from him a bit. He leaned forward in his
chair and looked directly at Thomas, who was still standing in the same spot, “Whatever.
Back to the business at hand. You owe me money, and I want to play a game.”
was puzzled, “What, like the game you played as a kid?”
That’s the one.”
kidding? That’s how you want to do this?”
smiled and sat back a bit, knowing he’d reasserted control of the situation, “Yup.
You owe a debt. I’m calling it in. So … truth? Or dare?”
ev — I just — really? This is nuts,” Thomas said.
laughed and addressed the men on either side of Thomas, “Oh, man! Tommy’s got
course I’ve got secrets. I’m a lawyer,” Thomas replied.
now you have to pick truth. I love to hear secrets,” Curt said with lust in his
you mean ‘no’? This isn’t a negotiation.”
edge of anger, Curt asked, “Do you know what I can do to you?”
The answer is still no. They’re not my secrets to tell. They go to the grave
might be sooner than you’d like.”
didn’t skip a beat before asking, “You have any money on you?”
isn’t a time for you to be asking questions.”
work with me a minute. You got any cash?”
I do,” Curt answered.
yourself, Tommy,” Curt said. But he reached into his pocket and pulled out a
messy stash of money.
Hand me a bill. Just that one on top there.”
up from his money and raised his eyebrows at Thomas, “That’s a hundred bucks.
You’re already in it for ten G’s, and you wanna add another hundred to it? Be
isn’t going on my tab. Hand it to me,” Thomas asserted.
started to hand the bill over, but didn’t let go when Thomas clasped the other
end. The money was taut between their hands. Curt finally let go with a laugh.
“Good. Now, I’m your lawyer. And I can keep your secrets too. I can never tell
anyone the things you tell me.”
eyes brightened. “Anything? I can tell you anything and you can’t tell anyone?”
Ever,” Thomas affirmed.
even the cops.”
not the cops.”
didn’t anyone ever tell me this?” Curt asked.
ever talk to a lawyer before?”
answered with contempt. “Only lawyer I ever had was the one they appoint you.
And she was getting paid by the same folks as was paying the D.A.”
held up a finger and said, “Listen. There’s only one exception.”
always a catch,” Curt said, readopting his defensive posture. “Give me my money
This is important. You can never tell me that you’re going to kill somebody.”
tell me anything, and it’s privileged – that means I can’t tell anyone. But you
can’t tell me if you’re planning to kill someone, because I’d have to
Imma put a dude down for snitching, I can’t tell you that.”
I do it, I can tell you about it afterward. And you can’t tell anyone.”
In late July of 2004, I was in Copenhagen, Denmark on the tail end of a 10-week backpacking trip of western Europe. I had been traveling with two friends, but for the eighth week of the trip, we decided to go our separate ways. John went to Paris for the week. Stephan went to southern France. And I went to Copenhagen and Amsterdam, where I wrote my first flash fiction.
Struck with a Writing Idea
After having been with my two friends consistently for eight weeks, it was really nice to be alone. And since 2004 was a world where cell phones were really just phones and I didn’t have one with me anyway, I was truly isolated. The only method of communicating with my friends about how we would meet up again in Paris was for me to log in at an internet cafe to check my email.
With all this time on my hands, I wrote a lot. More than usual. I had been journaling at every stop along the way. I had written a number of poems during the course of my travels. But as I sat beside one of the small lakes in Copenhagen, I was struck with a different sort of writing energy. Unexpectedly, I had an idea for a story.
I pulled the gray spiral notebook out of my small messenger bag that I’d picked up in an East Berlin army surplus store. And I started writing. I didn’t know the term flash fiction at the time. In fact it’s not a writing style I’d even become aware of until more than ten years later. But what I started writing was flash fiction.
My First Foray Into Flash Fiction
I wrote the story out by hand in my notebook. I’d never written anything like it before. I didn’t really know where it came from or quite what to make of it. But I enjoyed writing it.
Over the next few years, I wrote a dozen or so other flash fiction stories. I’m going to share this first one with you, not because it’s good — it isn’t — but because it exists. In some ways, it is in the lineage of writing that has become the novel I am writing and the future novels that I hope to write.
So without further delay (albeit still having some trepidation), here is my first flash fiction, “Children the Grass Grew”.
Children the Grass Grew (July 28, 2004)
The dog was barking. The dog never barked. Jim didn’t worry because the dog had never been a collie before either. The house was the same except for the plums on and around the tree; they hadn’t been there when he left for the institution one hundred seventy-one weeks ago. The leaves had just been budding then.
The doctor always worried
because once a week another tick mark appeared on Jim’s arm signifying that
another week had passed for Jim in the institution. The doctor often asked Jim
about the marks, but Jim never seemed sure where they came from. This did not
at all reassure the doctor. The doctor had any sharp objects removed from Jim’s
room, but the marks continued to appear.
The green door was
the same, and the shutters that matched. The grass seemed to have grown
children who played in it. They seemed like such nice children. The grass must
be very proud.
The boy and the
girl watched Jim with as much wonder as he did them. Their games stopped as
their memorization drew all their concentration.
No one had told
Jim he had a problem. It didn’t seem to be important that he knew; the doctor
was not even certain he was capable of understanding had he been told. Jim was
very simple, simple and pleasant, mostly.
The shrubs were
the same; maybe bigger, but definitely the same shrubs. What could the dog be
so upset about on a day like this. It’s a very nice day, no day for a dog to be
The day was an
exceptionally mild eighty degrees Fahrenheit for east Texas in mid-summer. Boys
were drawn to creeks as much as mosquitoes were drawn to the boy’s susceptible,
uncaring bodies. Chasing grasshoppers and running from snakes were all part of
the day’s agenda. The boys’ only concern was whether or not the cattle were lying
on their sides, which according to all grandmas was definitely prophetical of
rain. So goes an east Texas summer, the kind Jim remembered so well, so
Jim let himself into the yard through the waist-high wooden gate, remembering first to unlatch it from inside. Jim noticed that the grass-grown children continued to stare at him. Upon opening the front door by its brass-plated handle, Jim noticed that one of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons was playing. Jim loved Vivaldi.
The doctor always
played the Four Seasons during his and Jim’s sessions. It had a way of
soothing Jim while the doctor tried to open the recesses of his vaulted mind.
He had yet to find the combination to that particular safe. Jim always became
confused when the doctor asked questions he didn’t understand. And these
questions were always asked.
Jim could never
remember what happened after he became confused, but he always woke up in his
white sheet-covered bed in restraints. The straps didn’t bother Jim because he
could see out the window, and the hummingbirds were often on the feeders
contending with wasps for the sweet red nectar.
Jim followed the
music into the kitchen where he found his mother. Only, she didn’t look or
smell like his mother. She had similar features, but she seemed different. And
his mother had never screamed before when she saw him. His mother grabbed a
kitchen knife and a nearby telephone. Jim was suddenly very confused and tried
to stop his mother so that she would understand that he was her Jim.
The doctor was
always kind to Jim and never became impatient at Jim’s inability to remember so
many vitally important things when he seemed to remember every detail of other
seemingly less significant things. When Jim occasionally inquired about his
family, the doctor always avoided reminding Jim why they could not come to
visit. Jim got along well with the other patients and was generally free to
roam his ward. What the doctor could not understand is how Jim had walked out
the doors without the staff noticing.
The doctor was frantic to find Jim before something happened.
sirens brought Jim to. He was in restraints again but this time in the back of
a car rather than his bed. Red and blue light danced off the front of Jim’s
house; he was enthralled in their beauty. Jim noticed the children, who were no
longer staring at him, were not playing either. He thought they must be asleep;
they were very still.
arrived, and the crew, already informed of the situation, descended the vehicle
The front doors of Jim’s
car opened. People climbed in. The doors closed. Jim smiled because he liked
people, but the men in the front did not smile. The dog was still barking. Jim
wondered about that.
Several months before the launch of my second book, Stop Putting Out Fires, I reached out to the producer who had narrated my first book. I wanted him to narrate this second book, and I was willing to pre-pay for the audiobook narration so that I didn’t have to split royalties with him. This turned out to be a costly mistake.
Retaining the Narrator for my Audiobook
I didn’t really know the guy who’d narrated Building a Better Law Practice for me. Our only interactions had been through the messaging system in ACX. But aside from him delivering the product late (for which he was apologetic and seemed to have a valid excuse), I was pleased with the product he delivered.
So when it came time to get the ball rolling for the audiobook version of Stop Putting Out Fires, I went back to the same well. The difference was that I wanted to earn all 40% of the royalties on ACX, rather than having to split them. Alternatively, I wanted the option of not listing the audiobook exclusively on ACX, which wasn’t possible with a royalty-share option.
My solution was to offer to pre-pay for the audiobook narration. My narrator was agreeable and even gave me a discount for paying up front. This arrangement was going to work out well for both of us, it seemed.
Arranging Pre-Payment for Narration of the Audiobook
The narrator asked that I make my pre-payment through Google, which I did. Then he refunded it, and asked that we do it through PayPal instead. I made the payment. He refunded it saying there was a problem with his PayPal account, and wanted to use Google again instead. These should have been red flags, but I was both inexperienced and assuming the best.
All of this was occurring in February 2019, in anticipation of an early May 2019 launch date. I knew it would take a while for him to record. And then it takes about three weeks to get the audiobook to market after it’s been uploaded to ACX, as they run it through quality controls and get everything set up on the back end. Still, I thought we had started well enough in advance to get everything done on time.
But my narrator missed his first submission deadline. Then he missed his second deadline. He explained that some extenuating circumstances had arisen but assured me everything would ultimately be done on time. I started to have concerns that the book was not going to be delivered on time. But I hadn’t yet considered that it wouldn’t be delivered at all.
Pitfalls of Pre-Paying for Audiobook Narration
As launch day approached (and eventually came and went), I started emailing once a week about the narrator’s progress. Eventually, he stopped responding. I made ACX aware of the problem. They laid out my options, which eventually enabled me to cancel the contract with the narrator. But this did nothing to help me recover the money I had paid in advance for the narration services.
So I got creative and — since I’m a lawyer — thought I’ll offer this guy a settlement alternative that won’t require him to pay back the money. The idea was that we’d use the advance as a buyout for the first book. I sent him an email with the idea and … nothing. He had ghosted me.
I went to Google to request that they refund my money. But since I had paid so far in advance and we were now well beyond the due date, we were past their 120-day window for their resolving these issues and entering refunds.
At this point I had no options left. I had to get accustomed to the idea that the money was gone, with little chance of recovery. I didn’t have enough cash left to pay for another narrator outright, and was going to have to do a royalty-share again, which limited my distribution options too.
The only consolation left was that I knew this article would be born out of the loss. I would be warning others of the potential pitfalls of pre-paying for audiobook narration without putting any safeguards in place to protect themselves. And let me tell you, that was only a small consolation.
I eventually found a new narrator and finally got the audiobook for Stop Putting Out Fires to market. Only three months later than intended. I’m happy with the final result and am ready to continue accruing sales with this new income stream.
What I will Do Differently Next Time
Even though it worked out poorly for me the first time, I would still prefer to pre-pay for the audiobook narration of my next book. I like the flexibility that it gives me. But I will put some safeguards in place to mitigate the risk of paying for a product before it’s delivered.
I have a personal relationship with my narrator now and know him outside of the ACX platform. We have a mutual group of friends and professional acquaintances. There is more at risk for both of us if we were to treat each other inequitably.
I will only issue pre-payment within the ACX platform, such that the narrator can only access it once the audiobook has been delivered. This gives the added safeguard of keeping everything within the ACX dispute resolution process, should a problem arise.
I will keep all communication about fee arrangements within ACX’s messaging platform, rather than using outside email for some exchanges. Again, this keeps everything consolidated within ACX for easy review and accessibility.
As you consider your options for having your books narrated as audiobooks, make sure you cover your bases and protect yourself. If you haven’t yet created audiobooks out of your writing, you definitely should. It’s been a significant percentage of my book sales this year.