Category: Craft of Writing (page 2 of 3)

Journey to the Title of My New Book

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

I knew from past experience that finding a good title is difficult, but this felt like it was starting to get ridiculous.

Focusing on my Intended Audience

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.

Characters Can Say Things That Authors Can’t

J. W. Judge

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.

Are Writing Prompts Really Useful?

J. W. Judge

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.


When the 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.

“Tommy! It’s good to see you!”

“Thomas,” the smaller man corrected.

Curt replied, “I like Tommy. Imma go with that.”

“You could have called instead sending your guys to pick me up.”

Curt shrugged, “Yup. But they make a certain … impression. You needed to understand that I’m not dicking around.”

“I’ve still got time. The payment’s not due until next week,” Thomas said.

“It’s due now. You know how I know that? Because that’s what I decided.”

“That’s not what we agreed to.”

Curt mocked in an adolescent tone, “’That’s not what we agreed to.”

Thomas said, “We had a contract.”

“Whatchu talking about, a contract?”

“We agreed to terms. You loaned me money. I have three months to pay it back.”

“Yeah, well, I want it now.”

“No. We had a contract. Contracts are the fabric of civilization. They’re sacred. Without contracts, nothing works. You can’t just —“

“I can and I will. Skip the civics lesson,” Curt said flatly.

“I don’t have the money.”

“I know.”

Confused, Thomas asked, “Then what are we doing here?”

“I wanna play a game, Tommy.”

“I don’t have time for games. Play with one of your automatons.”

“Don’t 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.

It was 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.”

“No, you won’t,” Curt said.

“You’re right. I probably won’t. But I’ve still got some time.”

“For a 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?”

Thomas responded, “Game time. Woo!”

“What? What was that? What did you just do?!”

“You don’t remember the Bulls? Mid 90s? Before tip-off, they’d say, ‘What time is it? Game time! Woo!’”

Curt 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.”

Thomas conceded, “Yeah, I was uncomfortable. It just kind of happened.”

Curt 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.”

“Alright.”

“Truth or dare.”

Thomas was puzzled, “What, like the game you played as a kid?”

“Yup. That’s the one.”

“Are you kidding? That’s how you want to do this?”

Curt 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?”

“I can’t ev — I just — really? This is nuts,” Thomas said.

“Pick.”

“Dare, I guess.”

Curt laughed and addressed the men on either side of Thomas, “Oh, man! Tommy’s got secrets!”

“Of course I’ve got secrets. I’m a lawyer,” Thomas replied.

“Well, now you have to pick truth. I love to hear secrets,” Curt said with lust in his voice.

“No.”

“What do you mean ‘no’? This isn’t a negotiation.”

“No.”

With an edge of anger, Curt asked, “Do you know what I can do to you?”

“Yes. The answer is still no. They’re not my secrets to tell. They go to the grave with me.”

“That might be sooner than you’d like.”

Thomas didn’t skip a beat before asking, “You have any money on you?”

“This isn’t a time for you to be asking questions.”

“Just work with me a minute. You got any cash?”

“Course I do,” Curt answered.

“Pull it out.”

“Watch yourself, Tommy,” Curt said. But he reached into his pocket and pulled out a messy stash of money.

“It’s Thomas. Hand me a bill. Just that one on top there.”

Curt looked 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 my guest.”

“This isn’t going on my tab. Hand it to me,” Thomas asserted.

Curt 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.

Thomas said, “Good. Now, I’m your lawyer. And I can keep your secrets too. I can never tell anyone the things you tell me.”

Curt’s eyes brightened. “Anything? I can tell you anything and you can’t tell anyone?”

“No one. Ever,” Thomas affirmed.

“Not even the cops.”

“Especially not the cops.”

“Why didn’t anyone ever tell me this?” Curt asked.

“You ever talk to a lawyer before?”

“No,” Curt 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.”

Thomas held up a finger and said, “Listen. There’s only one exception.”

“There’s always a catch,” Curt said, readopting his defensive posture. “Give me my money back.”

“No. This is important. You can never tell me that you’re going to kill somebody.”

“What?”

“You can 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 report that.”

“So if Imma put a dude down for snitching, I can’t tell you that.”

“Right.”

“But if I do it, I can tell you about it afterward. And you can’t tell anyone.”

“Right. You got it now.”

“That’s amazing!” Curt laughed. “That’s messed up.”

“Maybe. But that’s how it works.”

With a smile, Curt said, “This has the makings of a beautiful friendship, Tommy.”

“Thomas. I’m not your friend. I’m your lawyer.”

A Foray into Flash Fiction

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.

I think this is the lake I sat beside when writing my first flash fiction story,
or at least, it was a lake very much like this one.

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.

I find it difficult to read the poetry and fiction that I wrote in my teenage years and early 20s, because it is so much different than how I write now. But I do have some appreciation for it as it is part of my writing evolution.

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 barking.

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 vividly.

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.

The screaming 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.

An ambulance arrived, and the crew, already informed of the situation, descended the vehicle hopelessly.

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.

Traveling to Add Depth to Your Writing

About 75 minutes after my plane’s wheels had touch the ground in Denver, I was standing on top of a mountain. Clouds were spitting rain at me. Thunder clambered from storm clouds to my north and south. I had determined to put in a few miles of hiking, but the weather was determined not to cooperate.

Why was I in Denver in the First Place?

To properly tell this story, we need to go back to 1940. The United States was in the throes of the Great Depression. Europe was engaged in a war that would eventually entangle much of the world. And my 20-year-old grandfather, unable to find work in Iowa Park, Texas, enlisted in the Civilian Conservation Corp. He was sent to work at a camp near Golden, Colorado, about 20 miles west of Denver. While there, he helped build what would become Genesee Park, a part of the Denver Mountain Parks system.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve done some research to uncover all this information and dig up some documents that were in the National Archives. So while I was in Colorado for my conference, I wanted to see the park he helped construct.

Not just to satiate my curiosity and walk on the trails that my grandfather may have blazed, although that would have been enticement enough. But to add depth to my writing of his story. I wanted to walk where he’d walked, see what he’d seen, touch things he might have built.

What was the Purpose of My Pilgrimage?

I am writing a novel about my grandfather’s story. I’ve been working on it intermittently for the past couple of years. There’s far more to it that just his time in Colorado, and it’s a truly fascinating story. But I’m finding it very difficult to write. For many reasons, not the least of which is that I’ve never written a novel before.

I thought that traveling to one of the locations where the story unfolds would help add depth to my writing about it. It was certainly necessary to add authenticity to the events that occur at the CCC Camp. But what I was hoping for was a deeper connection, some emotional catalyst that would jump-start my writing.

Now I Have to Face a Hard Truth

Well, I got half of what I needed. Going to Genesee Park was helpful for filling in details about the landscape and the camp. It also forced me to mentally fess up to the truth that the reason I’m having such with writing this story is fear.

Fear that I can’t write fiction. Fear that it won’t be good enough. Fear that it won’t honor those who came before me. And the only antidote is just to write the story and let come what may. But that’s proving a lot harder than what it sounds like.

I had thought that traveling to Denver would add depth to my writing of this story. And I was right. I now know the sights, sounds, and smells of the places where my grandfather walked 80 years ago (except that I’m pretty sure he couldn’t hear I-70 in the distance). But I had also thought traveling would be the catalyst that pushed me to continue writing the tale.

About that, I was wrong. There’s more to overcome. It wasn’t a lack of knowledge holding me back; it was fear. And that is proving a little more difficult to overcome.

Apply Running Principles to Your Writing Practice

Over the last few years, I’ve discovered there are significant correlations between what it takes to succeed as a writer and a runner. Here are a couple of running principles to your writing practice to increase your likelihood of success.

Before going to law school, I was a high school teacher. During the fall, I coached football. In the winter, I helped with the basketball program. In the spring, I went to a lot of baseball games. And when on summer break, I framed houses or hung gutter for friends of mine. I was active. I was in my 20s. It was easy to stay in relatively good shape even though I didn’t do any real exercise.

Then I went to law school, where I became sedentary. I sat for endless hours, listening or reading. My weight started to creep up. By Christmas after my first semester, it was noticeable. I was self-conscious about it and unhappy. I started going to the gym with my wife to work out. It helped some, but I loathed working out at the gym. After several months, my wife mentioned she wanted to run a 5K. Neither of us had ever done any running before, but I decided I’d run with her. Anything to be out of that gym.

Little did I know I had traded one form of misery for another. We printed a couch-to-5K regimen and began our training. Going from no cardio to running 3 times a week is hard. Even when those initial runs consist of little more than running for 1 minute, walking for 30 seconds; running for 2 minutes, walking for 1 minute, and so on as you slowly build up your endurance. I did not enjoy learning to run … at all. But I did prefer being outside to being in that dreaded gym.

By the time I was able to run 3 miles, I had decided that I liked running. In fact I decided I wanted to run a half marathon. And 5 months later, I ran the Mercedes Half Marathon in Birmingham. Then I ran a few more races. The next year, my wife ran a half marathon with me at the Talladega Superspeedway. Running became an important part of my life over the next few years.

Then we had a kid, and I haven’t run regularly since. But I learned some important things along the way that I’ve found applicable to my writing practice.

Muscle memory is an asset

When you first start running, or even when you stretch yourself to run new distances, you don’t know what to expect. You hold back on your tempo and exertion levels because you don’t know what 3 miles or 6 miles or 13 miles feels like. But eventually you do it enough that when you set out to run a particular distance, your body knows what’s coming.

When I was conditioned well, I knew that running 3-4 miles at an 8:00 minute mile would give me a pretty good workout. I could cruise through 6 miles miles at a 10:00/mi pace and feel good afterward. Even though I haven’t run in … a while, I could go out right now and run 3 miles because my body still knows what that would take.

Writing requires the same training. If you’d told me in 2016 at the outset of my law blog, that I would write a 45,000 word book, I’d have found that hard to believe.

But I didn’t have to write a 45,000 word book all at once. I had to write 800 words on one topic, 900 words on another topic for months on end. It took me a while to find my writing voice, but once I did, everything fell into place much more easily. I trained my brain how to think in a particular way so that now, when I sit down to write about a topic, I have muscle memory I can rely on.

Even on days when I’m not feeling particularly inspired or nothing seems to be falling into place well, I can push through the resistance and get through the writing I need to do. This applies to legal writing, blogging, and creative writing. If you make a practice of writing regularly, you’ll find your brain is a finely tuned muscle that will respond upon demand.

Pacing yourself is the key

In 2012, I started running with my golden retriever. She loved it! Whenever she saw me getting my running shoes out of the closet, she would run around in circles, nipping at her tail and barking at nothing. But for all her love of running, that dog was terrible at pacing herself.

If we were going on a 4-miler, for the first half she was straining at the end of her leash, dragging me along with her. The second half of the run would find her lolling behind me, also at the end of her leash, but this time serving as an anchor rather than a propeller.

If you’ve got a big writing project ahead of you, whether it’s a short story or a novel, you need to allot plenty of time to get it done. Unless you’re well organized and in the regular practice of writing, you’re not going to be able to write multiple thousand words in a day like Jennifer Romig (of Emory Law School and Listen Like a Lawyer) did recently while working on her book.

I can’t say that I’ve ever written 7,000 words in a day before. But a few weeks ago, I wrote 2,000 words on a travel day while bouncing around from one airport to the next. I felt pretty good about that.

When I proposed my book Building a Better Law Practice to the ABA, I pitched it as a 28,000 word book. They replied that they were interested in the book and liked the format, but would only publish it if it were 40,000 words or more. They wanted to know if I could do that within the next four months. I replied that of course I could do that. Never mind that it had taken me a year to come up with the first 28,000 words.

That conversation occurred on November 28. Knowing my January schedule was looking fairly rough, I figured out how frequently and how much I needed to write to meet my deadline. Then in the early mornings on weekdays and during nap times on weekends, I wrote. I had plenty of ideas in my queue, where I drop ideas as they come to me. And I knew that my schedule does not allow large chunks for writing time, so I had to be prepared and organized. And I had to pace myself.

Not only was there the additional 12,000 words (that become 17,000 words) to write, but there was also proofreading, editing, and re-writing to do … multiple times. I had a long row to hoe, and if I didn’t pace myself appropriately, I’d be lolling at the end of my leash, but with no one to pull me along.

The next time you set about on a large writing project, you’ll find it much easier to accomplish if you’re already in the regular habit of writing and you plan appropriately to get your writing accomplished.

Make Time in the Margins to Write

This first part may sound like bragging, but it’s not. I wish I lived in a world where I could just write all the time and make ends meet. Instead, I have a law practice that requires my attention for 50-60 hours a week. Outside of work, I have a wife and two young kids that I want to spend as much time with as possible. I have several writing projects going on. When people ask me how I’ve had time to write two books in the last two years, I could give them a cop-out answer, and say, “I don’t know.” But that’s not the truth. The honest answer is that I make time in the margins to write.

Every weekday, I get up at 5:00am. Most days, I use that time to get an hour or two of work in before heading to the office. But some days, I use that time to write. On the weekends, I get up early and use that time to write or maintain my writing business in other ways. Today, I had this particular idea while taking a short walk around the parking lot at my office. So I came back inside to write it down before it left me. Some days, I’ll dictate into my phone while driving to a hearing. These are the margins of life in which I make time to write.

My work schedule varies from day to day. No week in my law practice looks similar to those surrounding it. If writing is to be a priority for me (and it is), I have to make time in the margins to do it. Most of us don’t have the luxury of blocking out chunks of time to work on our writing projects. We have to create smaller blocks of time in which to write . Then we have to endeavor to be consistent with our discipline, or at least give consistency a good go.

How Author Phillip Lewis Makes Time to Write

In 2018, I interviewed practicing lawyer and author of The Barrowfields about how he made time to write his first novel.

I met John [Grisham] recently and the very first thing he said to me was that, as a writer, you have to have rigid discipline that includes setting aside time to write every day. I think he still follows this routine, and obviously it has worked well when you consider that he’s now published more than 25 books and he’s still going.

My writing schedule for The Barrowfields, with first one young child at home, and then two before the book was finished, did not allow for anything approaching regularity, but I nevertheless found myself working on the book at every spare moment of the day. I’d often get up and write in the mornings while everyone else in the house was still sleeping. For me, this writing time was the best and the most lucid, but it was also the shortest. I would often write for a few hours once I got to work, before I was overwhelmed with client e-mails and telephone calls and appellate deadlines and the like.

On days when I had court, I’d get to the courthouse early and write before my hearings started. Anyone who knows me well knows that a lot of my CLE time was spent writing and working on The Barrowfields. At night after work, I would resume writing once the children were in bed—a few ounces of good bourbon at the ready—and this time was good for reviewing the day’s writing and reading it aloud to myself to gauge for tempo and rhythm and meter. Wherever I went I had a notebook with me, and usually a laptop computer, so that if I found myself with any amount of time, I would set to work on the book. At the bar in Poe’s Tavern in Charleston was a favorite place of mine to write.

Phillip lewis (full interview here)

Writing in Life’s Margins Is a Choice

I almost called this article “Finding Time to Write …” but the truth is you aren’t going to find time. Taking the time to write must be a decision. If you aren’t making an affirmative choice, time is going to fill itself with other activities.

My choice is that some mornings, when I get up before everyone else, I’m going to work on one writing project or another. Maybe it’s this blog or my law blog. Maybe it’s one of my book projects. That decision is also up to me. But if I don’t consciously choose to write, it’s not going to get done. And I’ll be a guy who wrote a couple of books once upon a time, rather than a writer with a catalogue of books to my credit.

Your schedule is likely different. Your internal clock may set your most productive and creative hours at a different time of day than mine. But what remains the same, is that if you don’t intentionally make time in the margins of your life to write, you’ll always be an aspiring writer, rather than the person who is doing the work of writing.

Write Book Ideas Down as They Come to You

In the summer of 2004, two friends and I backpacked Europe for ten weeks on a shoestring budget. Knowing this opportunity wouldn’t come again, I carried my camera with me everywhere. I burned through dozens of rolls of film. In fact, I only remember going out once without a camera. I remember it well because it haunts me.

We were staying at a cottage near Chamonix, France. Early one evening, as the light was beginning to falter, I began walking from the cottage to a pay phone a mile or so up the road. The day had mostly been rainy, but the sun had broken through and the clouds were beginning to dissipate. As I looked up at the mountains, a rainbow was reaching from one peak to another through the backlit, dusky mountains. It’s the greatest photograph I never took.

I hadn’t put myself in a position to take advantage of that opportunity as it presented itself. Likewise, if we don’t write book ideas down as they come it us, we risk losing the ideas altogether.

Write book ideas down or risk losing them

Last week, I had a dream in which I was writing a book that was a spy/private investigator thriller. In the dream I had written most of the book, I recall that I knew the entire plot. I woke up from the dream in the middle of the night, and I thought, “That’s a really good idea. I need to write that down … I’ll just write it down in the morning.” Then I rolled over onto my belly and went back to sleep.

By the time morning arrived a few short hours later. The details of the dreamed up book idea had left. In fact, I can remember nothing more specific than what I wrote above. Nothing has ever come back to me.

It’s unlikely that the book idea was as great as I thought in my sleepy state. But I’ll never know, it seems. Just like the photograph I didn’t take in Chamonix, this one’s going to haunt me for a while. If I’d just taken a minute to write my book idea down and make some notes on my phone, the tenor of this post could have been different. I may instead have been telling you about a great, new idea I’m working on.


Photo by Pimthida.

Using Census Data to Fill Knowledge Gaps

I wrote recently about how we can use historical weather data to write more accurate historical fiction. But that is just one of many resources. For my project that is set in Texas in 1940, I’ve also used data from the 1940 census that the National Archives has released. And let me tell you, it is invaluable.

Historical Census data tells its own story

My project is based loosely on a terrible event in my family history – my great-grandfather killed his estranged wife and himself. In what will be a surprise to no one, this isn’t an episode that is readily discussed by members of my family. In fact, I don’t remember having even heard about it until I was an adult. The byproduct of that is that any details of the murder-suicide and surrounding events have been lost in the intervening years.

Fortunately for me, in 2012 the National Archives released the 1940 census records. Because of this available census data, I was able to learn who was living in the household within months of the tragedy, everyone’s ages, and the occupations of the adults. Below is an excerpt from the page that shows the data about my paternal family.

But not only that, there are also maps available that show the townships and other details relevant to the census. Particularly important is that the maps identify the census pages on which the data for various districts can be found.

You’ll have to be patient and have a good idea of where to start geographically to navigate the available information. It’s not always easily searchable. But it can be very rewarding.

Using Current Census Data to Inform Your Writing

Using census data from the U.S. Census Bureau can be an effective way to supplement your knowledge. The Census Bureau maintains available data about every city, county, and state in the country. And they make the information available to us on their website. Navigating this website is much easier than using census data from the 1940 surveys.

I haven’t yet used the modern census information in my creative writing, but I use it fairly regularly in my legal work. While the present-day census information is not at all personalized, it is valuable for other reasons. You can access data about populations, relative wealth, racial demographics, education levels, and much more about any state or municipality in the country.

Using census data for your writing becomes practical when you need to write about areas that you may not be intimately familiar with. For example, if you are writing about events that occur in both Madison County and Bibb County, Alabama, it would be important for you to know that Madison County (in which Huntsville is the county seat) is one of the fastest growing areas in the country and is relatively wealthy. Meanwhile, Bibb County has a stagnant population and is comparatively poor.

Accurately portraying distinctions like this can be difference is your writing being authentic or inaccurate. I am an advocate of using as many resources as possible to improve my writing. Of course, I’m accustomed to doing this for my historical and legal writing, but I’m still learning about all the ways historical records can improve my creative writing.

Flirting with a New Book Idea

Having a new book idea is much like the kindling of a new romantic relationship. It usually starts unexpectedly and sometimes blossoms into something special.

Like with relationships, a new book idea starts with flirting

You’re sitting at a coffee shop doing some work between appointments. You’re minding your own business. Suddenly, you’re interrupted with a new thought. Maybe it’s amusing or entertaining or even darkly fantastical. You take some time to explore it and get to know it. This is the part where you’re just flirting with it, getting to know your new book idea. It’s new and fun, and it’s not long before you are searching for chemistry between you and the idea.

You know from past book ideas that (like new personal relationships) most aren’t going to be around for the long haul. So it’s not long after the idea initially strikes you that you begin to consider its viability. Is it an idea that has some real legs to it?

Then things start to get serious

Next, you and your new book idea are dating regularly. You know each other fairly well. You’re spending most of your free time together. Real quality time too, not just surface-level engagement. It’s here that the relationship is made or broken. You are undoubtedly going to find yourself dealing with psome rocky times. Do you love the idea enough to persevere? Is there a deep level of commitment? Or is it an idea that you’ve spent enough time with now to know it’s just not going to work out between you? And you cast it off to move on to the next idea.

If you decide at this point to overcome the obstacles you’ve run up against, your determination will likely result in a completed book project. The kind of relationship that exists for a lifetime.

Only time will tell whether it’s going to work out

I’ve had this cycle happen to me numerous times. It’s resulted in two booms that I’ve published, a few writing projects that are in various stages of production, and a few abandoned ideas.

A couple of years ago, I was struck with an idea to write about Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black’s extensive contributions to advocating the Bill of Rights. I had an angle on it, knew how I wanted to compile the information. I even started the research and spent hours gathering the documents I needed, finding additional sources to reference, and even mining the resources for content. But somewhere along the way, the spark went out of the project. I haven’t touched it in … a long time. I still like the idea. I’d like to write the book some day, but it’s not a priority. 

I have a half dozen other ideas that are more intriguing and pressing. Other ideas that came along afterward and drew my attention away from a project I’d become disenchanted with and wasn’t committed to any longer. 


Photo by cloud.shepherd.