The Foreign Service Journal - November 2017

Nations in New York, the young adult book that my friend and I had hatched at the Lebanese taverna was completed. His agent submitted it to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the company that had published two of his adult nonfiction books. A few weeks later, they came back with an offer. The book, Dormia , was published in 2009. Over the next few years, two more books in the Dormia tril- ogy followed. They were not big sellers, but they opened the door to more opportunities. Our next book was a fantasy suspense novel for young adults called Nightfall . While posted in Calgary, I learned that G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin RandomHouse, had made an offer to publish it. Putnam gave us a two-book deal, and at that point, I decided to try writing full-time. A Significant Leg Up I left the State Department in August 2015 and plunged into writing—mainly young adult fiction, although I’ve also written nonfiction: travel pieces for The New York Times and a piece for The New Yorker online. Nearly two years in, I can’t say I’ve been a runaway success, but I also haven’t failed. Writing full-time is high-risk, and hopefully high-reward. It’s radically more uncer- tain than working at the State Department. But it’s my passion, and having a Foreign Service background gives me a significant leg up. This is because I brought unique experiences that few writers could match. For example, when I was consul general in Calgary, I made several visits to the Northwest Territory, which was part of my area of responsibility. While up there, I befriended the speaker of the territory’s legislature, who invited me to visit his small town on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. I took him up on the offer, and learned more about his pet project, an all-weather road that would link his town of Tuktoyaktuk to the Canadian road system. Writing full-time is high-risk, and hopefully high-reward. It’s radically more uncertain than working at the State Department. But it’s my passion. I say process, because writing a book is about more than the act of writing itself. There’s the research, even for fiction, and planning that has to take place before you begin the first page. Some call this planning “plotting,” and I suppose that’s kind of what I do—somewhere between plotting and writing by the seat of my pants. No matter how detailed I make my initial plan, it changes three or four times before I’m done with the book. The writing itself takes place for about two hours in the morning, during which time I usually work on two or three different projects, aiming for a minimum of 2,000 words on each. I write flat-out for that two-to-three-hour period, and then break for lunch. After lunch, I take a one-to-three-hour break from writing, retiring to my art studio in my garage to paint or draw, or grabbing my camera to go off and take pictures. By 5 p.m., I’m back at my computer keyboard, and back to work, with just a one-hour break at 6:30. After supper with my wife, I write for another three to four hours. Off the Treadmill of Everyday Boredom Before retiring, I worked 12 to 14 hours, six days a week, on average. I loved my job, although it was a bit boring and routine at times, and I was often subject to the direction and control of someone else. Now I’m doing those 14-hour days seven days a week! I’m the boss, and I’m never—I actually mean never—bored. I haven’t been retired long enough to offer tips on that subject. But having written for publication for more than 50 years, I think I can offer a few words of advice to those of you who are about to exchange another day job for full-time writing: ■ Don’t expect writing to be easier than your old job. If anything, it’ll be harder. ■ Establish a writing routine that you can live with, and follow it. ■ Don’t let making money be your main motivation. Most writers actually make very little. Focus on writing things that give your life meaning. ■ Include personal care and family time in your routine. A writer needs inspiration, and you won’t get it by cutting yourself off from people or being too ill to keep writing. Get off the treadmill of everyday boredom, and get on the roller coaster ride that is the life of a writer. It can sometimes be scary, but for me that’s part of the excitement. If you’re meant to be a writer, it can be the same for you. Q THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | NOVEMBER 2017 25