Deadlines, should you be afraid of them? How much do you plan your books or even your series of books? In my early twenties, I learned one important lesson - the importance of deadlines.
Deadlines can help you write book chapters, sections of your book, and even your entire book on time. They can also help you work with editors and then ship it so you can start earning book royalties.
If you need help setting deadlines for your book, I recommend that you break it down into smaller milestones. So, rather than saying I'm going to write a book in six months, tell yourself I'm going to write act one in one month, and put that date in your Google Calendar.
More experienced authors will use this approach to map out an entire series, and that's something that this week's guest did.
His name is Mark Pawlosky. He's an experienced journalist who worked for CNBC and the Wall Street Journal.
In this episode, we discuss:
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Mark: It's the old saying. If you can't be on time, be early with your deadline. So, that's what I try to shoot for. If I'm not writing or being productive about my writing — that could be editing, that could be working on scenes — there's a certain guilt that sets in. So, that is really driving me to like, okay, write every day. If I'm not writing every day, I'm feeling unproductive.
Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.
Bryan: Deadlines, should you be afraid of them? How much did you plan your books or even your series of books? Hi there. My name is Bryan Collins. Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast. As I've mentioned before on previous episodes, in my 20s, I was a journalist, granted not a very good one. But I learned one important lesson from my time working as a journalist. That is the importance of deadlines. I learned this lesson because one day, my editor called me into the room and said, "Brian, if you can't hit your deadlines, you will be fired." That quickly prompted me to start shipping my stories in to the editor on time.
The fact is, if you're an author today, deadlines are not something to be feared or something to be afraid of. Deadlines can help you write book chapters, sections of your book, and even your entire book on time. They can help you work with editors for your book, and then ship it so you can start earning book royalties. If you need help setting deadlines for your book, I recommend that you break it down into smaller milestones. So, rather than saying I'm going to write a book in six months, say to yourself I'm going to write act one in one month, and put that date in your Google Calendar. Then you can go one step further by setting the deadline for what you're going to write this week.
More advanced authors will use thinking like this to map out an entire series. That's something that this week's guest did. His name is Mark Pawlosky. He's an experienced journalist who worked for CNBC and the Wall Street Journal. My key takeaway from talking to Mark was, of course, about the importance of deadlines. But I was also fascinated to hear about his approach to planning out an entire series, something that he started to do during the lockdown. He has five books planned for his particular series.
I hope you enjoy this week's interview with Mark Pawlosky. If you do, please consider leaving a short review on the iTunes Store. Because more reviews and ratings will help more writers find the Become a Writer Today Podcast. You could also share this show with another writer or another friend on Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you're listening. Do hang on for the end of the interview when Mark describes his process for turning his book into an audio book.
Finally, we had an audio issue during this week's interview. So, to make sure you can get something practical from the interview with Mark, I've gone through and edited the interview and added some commentary, rather than relying on a typical Q&A format. If you have feedback about this new type of format — because I haven't really tried this before in the Become a Writer Today Podcast — please let me know.
Mark: My journey to becoming a writer. I was a full-time journalist. My company had decided to relocate my position back to the East Coast. I was in Seattle at the time and chose not to make the move. Believe it or not, I ran into an old friend in a parking lot. He was the creator of Pictionary. He was looking to do an autobiography on the game that he created, and asked me if I've ever written a book. I said I had not, but I'd be willing to help him.
And so, over the course of several months, we talked about outlining his book and working on what that would look like, what the chapters would look like, what the voice would look like. Eventually, he ended up going with a ghostwriter. But it sort of set off in my mind what it would be like to be a writer. I decided that would be a good time just to take the opportunity and devote six months trying to write my own books. I was off to the races. This was just— yeah, it was 2018. Yeah, before the pandemic hit. So, once that happened, I know a lot of people felt dislocated over the pandemic. Since I was writing, it was the perfect time for me. I mean, I just closed myself off into my study and just wrote nonstop.
Bryan: Next, I asked Mark if he found it difficult to transition from working in a busy newsroom to writing a thriller by himself.
Mark: I did. I was a reporter all my life until I got into management. The writing style is totally different. The discipline is different since you don't have any editor really standing over you, and with the deadline. So, it was more self-imposed discipline and writing. Finding your own voice was a journey. It turned out to be a lot of fits and starts, but eventually it ended up really a very fluid style for myself. So, yeah, it was good.
Bryan: Mark described in detail how his experiences in busy newsrooms in the United States informed his writing process for his thriller books.
Mark: The biggest newsroom I ever really worked in was at The Kansas City Star years ago. It was one of those mazes of just desk upon desk. They had the old copy editors in the middle, and a lot of yelling. Over time, walls started to get built. Cubicles got built for reporters. So, it was more quiet newsrooms later in my career than earlier. But what I did miss is just the camaraderie that you have with reporters. Reporters have a very jaded sense of humor and outlook on life. That was always a fuel every morning coming in and getting the perspective of your fellow reporters. Throughout the course of the day, just communicating with them and having back and forth. That was hard to replace. I don't know that you could ever replace it.
Bryan: I asked Mark if he was inspired by some of the people he worked with during his career on how he worked these inspirations into his series.
Mark: Yes, the protagonist is Nik Byron. It's sort of the tip of the cap to a reporter that used to work for me, who wrote a column called Through the Keyhole for the New York Observer. Chris Byron was his name. He was a muckraker and a first-class muckraker. He passed away several years ago. He was always digging up dirt on people, especially financial journalism and going after a crook in the financial industry. If you got a call from Chris Byron, your next call was to your PR person to try to figure out how you're going to handle. Because you know the questions he was coming at you were not going to be pleasant. He wrote the book, what's called Martha, Inc. on Martha Stewart just before her downfall and her going off to prison. So, he came at journalism with tongs and hammer. It was quite a character.
Bryan: I asked Mark to elaborate on why he decided to write thriller books, considering that many journalists and non-fiction writers tend to write these types of books even when they move away from their traditional careers.
Mark: Well, I've had a pretty interesting career in reporting, in terms of big stories or scandals that have happened. When I was a reporter with The Journal, I was in the Dallas Bureau. Not long after joining the bureau, we had the Oklahoma City bombing. I was one of the first reporters on the scene covering that. The two people that were eventually charged with that bombing, Timothy McVeigh and Nichols — I always was sort of fascinated about how they rented a truck and drove it across the Midwest and down to Oklahoma City, and what their conversations were like, and how they came about to really creating this, pull and effect assaulting Oklahoma City, and blowing up the federal building there, and murdering all those people. So, while my books are thrillers and fiction, they are based on experiences I've seen as a reporter and events that I've covered as a reporter. So, there's the interweaving of fiction and non-fiction.
Bryan: Mark elaborated on how thriller books he's read has inspired him.
Mark: I was a big fan of John Sandford, John le Carré. I've fallen into C.J. Box recently. But I've read a lot of non-fiction as well. Really kind of all over the map in terms of my reading.
Bryan: I love hearing how authors will sometimes plan stories, and even an entire series in advance. This was an approach Mark took, which he describes to me.
Mark: I wrote the first book. It's called Newshound. It will now be a prequel. Instead of starting with the first book in the series, we started with the second book, which is Hack, which was published on July 12. Then that will be followed by Friendly Fire, which will come out in spring of 2023. Then that will be followed by Black Bird, which will come out in the fall of 2023. Newshound, the original book in the series, will be a prequel. The fifth one I'm working on now is called Rendezvous. I've been struggling with it. I had a lot of good scenes that I had in my head and down on paper, but I couldn't really connect all of them together. So, I threw out everything I had written and started over. Just this week, I finally polished off the first chapter of it. I felt pretty good about it.
Bryan: Mark struck me as a pretty productive author. So, I asked him to describe his early morning writing routine, and also if he has any other effective work habits which helped him.
Mark: I'm still one of those old school journalists. I get the New York Times and Wall Street Journal delivered, read them, and pay out the paper. Yep, I get up early in the morning and read my newspapers. I look at CNBC. I follow CNBC just because of my history with them. Generally, settle into writing around 11 o'clock, and then write straight through to 5 or 6 o'clock.
Generally, when I start, I go back and read what I wrote the day before and polish it. Probably, spend way too much time going over it again, but I do. Then I set my course on the next chapter and the next scenes that I want to create. I would say in the first four books, the first two I wrote longhand, and then transcribed. The last two, I've outlined longhand, and then just wrote on the computer. This last one, the fifth book, I've just made notes and then tried to write it. So, I'm going to go back and outline it all now, and see if that will help me kickstart it a little bit more.
Bryan: I was pretty impressed by Mark's process, that he was able to sit down and write out the entire book chapters longhand. I told him about how I sometimes tried to write like this, but I usually end up with repetitive strain injury.
Mark: It took a lot of notes, longhand, as a reporter. What I found as a reporter and also in my writing is that when I do something longhand, it sticks with me in my memory. So, if someone gave me a quote and I wrote it down longhand, I would remember it verbatim. But if someone gave me a quote and I was trying to type it, I would have less recall on it. So, just for some reason, the brain connected to the fingers. It just seemed to work better for me. The flow was good, and it's easy to rip out a page out of the yellow note back and throw it away and start all over, too. That's a pretty simple way. I'm writing in longhand. Probably, most people couldn't read it because my penmanship is not very classic. It's kind of messy, but it's all longhand. I mean, it's all written out. Not shorthand.
Bryan: Some thriller authors are pantsers, and some are plotters. So, which is Mark?
Mark: The last book I wrote, Black Bird, was a little bit more at the seat-of-the-pants. The first three, the scenes were pretty much developed in my head and then on paper. This one I'm currently working on, I have the scenes in my head but not on paper. So, that's why I'm going to go back and do that just to firm things up a little bit.
Bryan: I couldn't help but wonder, does this approach mean that Mark will sometimes change the ending of a book that he has outlined or prescribed long in advance?
Mark: When I've got to the end, occasionally, it will change a little bit even when I had an idea of how it was going to end. But I let the characters determine that in some ways. I'm trying to think, okay, if the characters are really looking at this, how would that play out in their own heads? So, that ends up influencing it. But I do have some idea of where it's going, yeah.
Bryan: I also asked Mark if he hires a transcriptionist to type up his notes, or he does this himself? If so, does he have trouble reading his handwriting? Because this is a problem that I have when I sometimes look back on my old notebooks.
Mark: I do it all myself, which is great. Because what it allows you to do is you edit while you're going with it. You're taking it from the longhand onto the keyboard. I think there's a fluidity involved that really makes the story better.
Bryan: Next, I asked Mark to describe his editing process.
Mark: The first book, on Newshound, I had an outside editor look at it. We sent that. We went back and forth a couple of times. Then I sent it to a couple of agents. It was just very fortunate that one of the first agents we send it to love the book. So, he took me as a client. Then I would, on my second book, I just finished it after a week or so. I fine-tuned it, sent it off back to my agent. He read it, and we got feedback. So, that's how it evolved for me.
Bryan: Some authors go in fear of deadlines — not Mark. He uses them to hold himself to accountability. Here's what he said.
Mark: I think it's good for me to have a deadline. Usually, it's the old saying. If you can't be on time, be early with your deadline. So, that's what I try to shoot for. If I'm not writing or being productive about my writing — that could be editing, that could be working on scenes — there's a certain guilt that sets in. So, that is really driving me to like, okay, write every day. If I'm not writing every day, I'm feeling unproductive.
What I've discovered is that by doing that, you can turn out a book in a year or so, or less. It usually takes me around seven months, six, seven months to finish, just from start to finish on the first four. I haven't imposed a deadline per se. But I have imposed discipline about my daily writing. That leads to the finished product.
Bryan: So, how long should a good thriller book be?
Mark: Yeah, all of them are in the 70 to 80, yep.
Bryan: Did that mean Mark actually tracked his word count in a granular way, or did you take a different type of approach?
Mark: Early on, I did. It wasn't so much daily word count. So, when it was longhand, it was, okay, I need to fill eight pages of a yellow tablet. Then when I started writing on the computer, on the keyboard, it was pretty clear what the word count came in. It was usually between 800 and 1,200 words.
Bryan: Mark described to me his process for seeking feedback — from colleagues, from friends, from family members, and from beta readers. This is a hugely important step for any aspiring author.
Mark: Well, the feedback I got, which is different in journalism, was to have a satisfying ending. It was from a book editor. That sort of stuck with me. As you take your reader through this maze, you don't want the ending just to be flat, or predictable, or to be uneventful. So, that's one thing that I keep on coming back to. Also, about having the characters — at least your main characters — approachable, if not likable. I would say, those are the two disciplines I adhere to.
Bryan: Mark said this when I asked him about his approach to editing sentences line by line.
Mark: It's more focused on sentence structure, and how I hear the voice in my head than what I'm actually seeing on the screen or on the paper. Does that sound authentic? Does that sound in the moment? Is that what someone would really say? Is that what the character would say? Even though I've been an editor all my life or a long part of my career, it's more about what I hear than what I'm seeing.
Bryan: Considering his planned-out books for the next year or two, does Mark have any plans to go back and revisit the books that he's already written, but which are not published yet?
Mark: On Newshound, which was the original book. I just made a note to myself today to go back and reread it, which I haven't really done since I finished it a couple years ago. I suspect, I won't be making some structural changes to that manuscript, just because the way the series has unfolded — with the second book coming out first. Going back and looking at that, it'd be in the first book. There are probably a lot of things I thought were really well done, and the editor thought was well done, and the agent thought was well done. But now, given what I know about publishing, I will probably go back with a more critical eye toward it.
The book that I'm now currently starting to work on, it is definitely influenced by the three books prior. The character obviously continues to evolve. The character is not just the main character. But the other characters continue to evolve as well.
Bryan: I asked Mark if there's anything he knows now about writing thriller books that he wished he'd known when he started out?
Mark: Yeah, so the first book is a much — it's a fairly complicated financial scam that is unfolded. It's set in the Midwest. The other three books are all set in Washington, DC. So, I probably would have not made the plot as intricate as I did, because it made me — I wouldn't say intricate, but it delves deeply into the financial machinations that people might find a little bit hard to penetrate. So, now I have the ability to go back and smooth that out and not make it so layered and complicated.
Fortunately, I know a number of journalists, obviously. Two, whom are very good writers. One who is now a full-time writer himself, a novelist, literary. I was fortunate enough and lucky enough to have him read my manuscripts and give me a lot of feedback. I did get feedback. We sent out ARCs, advanced readers copy, and got some feedback from reader groups. Also, early on, from the agent and editor.
There wasn't a ton of changes. My publisher now — I work with this editor on the East Coast. She has been phenomenal. She has a great eye, and also a very good ear and just cadence of suggestions. One thing that I did not realize is that certainly on my first novel, about the point of view shifting in, it shifted way too much within chapters. She really was very disciplined about that. That helped tremendously. So, you're keeping the reader with the same point of view from the character throughout. If you change, make sure that the change is really noticeable.
So, unconsciously, I was changing within the chapter. That was just her hard, fast rule that unless it's exceptional, you do not want to do that. So, I would either do a chapter break or a new chapter where the point of view switch. So, now as my writing progressed, I'm very aware of that and keep that in top of mind.
Bryan: I asked Mark to elaborate more on his thoughts about point of view.
Mark: I've just finished a book by Nelson DeMille, his first novel, Charm School. And he switches point of view from sentence to sentence within chapters. In the past, I may have not have been so aware of it, but I've certainly am now. It is a little disorienting as you're hopping between people.
Bryan: So, is Mark planning on a big promotion campaign to sell his series of books?
Mark: The first book, promotion-wise, we've done a lot of social media. We've done BookBub. I've done readings. We have a pretty good distribution channel. There was a run in the New York Times' digital book section. So, we've put a lot of effort behind promoting the first book. We're just starting now to talk about what promotion looks like for the second book. The first book, Hack, was the Editor's Choice on Amazon, which was a great achievement. I'm not sure. Amazon is a bit of a black box, so I'm not quite sure how they make that decision. But that was a real boost on the promotional side.
Bryan: If you want to find out more information about Mark or read some of his books, he offers a number of resources, which you should check out.
Mark: So, markpawlosky.com. It's P-A-W-L-O-S-K-Y. Our Amazon or our bookshop, you can just search under my name. And Hack. My website has all four of my books, the two books that are coming out. Hack is already out. Friendly Fire, as I mentioned, is coming out in March. But you can preorder Friendly Fire now on Amazon and see the opening chapter. So, it's available at Barnes and Noble, Google Books. It's available in audio and ebooks, as well.
Bryan: Finally, here's Mark on his process for turning his thriller book into an audiobook.
Mark: I had a narrator and I was really — I wouldn't say skeptical. But I was hesitating to listen to it because I had all the voices in my head and my characters. I didn't know if the narrator would really be able to translate those voices the way I hear them. But he did a great job. I drove across to Colorado, and I've listened to it. It's a little over seven hours, and it was a fantastic listening. I was really happy with how it came out.
Bryan: I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode. If you did, please consider leaving a short review on the iTunes Store or sharing the show on Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you’re listening. More reviews, more ratings, and more shares will help more people find the Become a Writer Today Podcast. Did you know, for just a couple of dollars a month, you could become a Patreon for the show? Visit patreon.com/becomeawritertoday or look for the Support button in the show notes. Your support will help me record, produce, and publish more episodes each month. If you become a Patreon, I’ll give you my writing books, discounts on writing software and on my writing courses.