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How I Accidentally Wrote a Novel

DARK SKY 1 (1)

Joel Canfield here.

So, it was a sunny Sunday, May 24th of this year, and my lovely wife Lisa and I were having lunch here on Roosevelt Island with a couple of writer pals, David Muhlfelder and Robert Thielke.  All four of us had ordered burgers and, as we wolfed them down, some other guy showed up at out table, a guy I didn’t know, and he immediately lambasted our diets. Which was fair.

Anyway, I found out his name was Joshua James and he lived over the river from us in Queens – Robert had invited him over to meet up with us. I also found out that Josh was a talented playwright, screenwriter – and, as it happens, novelist (he writes thrillers under a pseudonym, but check out his published plays by clicking here).  Even though a film of one of his scripts had just been released, he was the most excited about self-publishing his books. He told us excitedly that was where the future was at – and how he was racking up some great sales, as well as getting hundreds of amazing reviews. And if you guessed that his spiel set me on fire…

…well, you’d be wrong.

Lisa was the one hanging on his every word who suddenly wanted to get into the self-publishing game – I was the one in the corner rolling my eyes. I had no intention of writing a novel. A novel takes a lot of time and a lot of energy, and at this point in my life, I don’t have a lot of either to spare. Not only that, but I never got anywhere with the ones I did finish, back when I was in my twenties and thirties. The closest I got to getting published was to finally have a book agent read my stuff, love it and promise to get it in print. He died of a heart attack on a tennis court a couple of weeks later. Okay, it was a bigger tragedy for him than me, but still…

But then I fell asleep and everything changed.

Not during the lunch – that would have been rude. But after Lisa and I got home, I took a quick nap (our dog gets us up way too early) and suddenly the whole first chapter of a new book came to me while I slept, as well as the main character and the basic plot. I woke up on fire – and Lisa was looking at me as though I was nuts, which isn’t that unusual, I’ll grant you.

That week, I started writing DARK SKY and, two and a half months later, it was done. And sleep continued to be my biggest writing helper. I kept waking up in the middle of the night with the idea for the next chapter and then lay there in bed for a couple of hours working out the mechanics. But it was worth the ongoing exhaustion.

When I was done, Lisa went through the manuscript and helped me make some significant improvements, and then my talented son A.J. did the book cover design. In this house, everything’s a family affair.

The result was DARK SKY.  I’m excited about this book and I hope everyone reading this will give it a read. I’d love to write a whole series of these books with the same main character and I already have a plot for the next one. But people have to like this one first before I get crazy involved with another one.

That’s why, for now, I’m sleeping on it.

Anyway, DARK SKY is NOW on sale on Amazon in paperback and Kindle ebook editions…check it out here if you want.

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a little mid-august creativity.

burned out- exhausted- just not feelin'

It’s the middle of August. The sun’s in the sky.

But alone in your office, you think you might cry.

You’re s’posed to be writing a post for your blog,

but it’s all turning into a bit of a slog.

Your premise? It’s weak. And your prose? It sounds clunky.

The whole piece is coming out just a bit funky

(and not in a good way – it’s pretty much junky).

But what can you do?  Stuff has got to get done

even when doing said stuff is not any fun.

Well, I happen to have a suggestion for you:

when the old stuff won’t work, why not try something new?

After all, no one said that you have to be boring

and lull your poor audience deep into snoring.

Tell your readers a story, share a Q and A,

write a script to be read like the lines in the play

(or a poem like the one I’m writing today).

The next time you’re blogging and feel lost and hazy,

it could be a sign that it’s time to go crazy.

Take a risk, take a chance, let your freak speak out loud —

you just might end up with something that makes you proud.

(and after all that, if you’re STILL stuck, why not download my FREE guide to beating writer’s block? or for an hour of intensive, one-on-one help to get your writing done, schedule a super-helpful Copy Therapy Session with me.)

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in praise of the Mental Health Day…

burned out- exhausted- just not feelin'

Do you ever have one of those days when you don’t want to get out of bed?

When the thought of sitting down at your computer and actually doing something productive is about as appealing as shoving a red-hot poker in your eye?

When, as much as you want to, as much as you need to, as much as you know that you absolutely, no-questions-asked HAVE TO, you just…


I have some semi-radical advice for you.  Don’t.

Instead, take a Mental Health Day.

The Mental Health Day is the reason neither of my boys ever brought home one of those coveted “Perfect Attendance” awards when they were in school. They were basically good kids who generally did what they were supposed to do. But every couple of months, one of them would hit that wall where the thought of getting up and going to school and sitting at a desk for six hours just about drove them to tears.

As a mom, I knew my job was to get them dressed and out that door and into the hands of the public education system, where they belonged. But this subversive little voice inside me couldn’t help asking, “Why? What would be so bad about letting the kid have a day to hang around in his pajamas and eat cereal on the couch and play video games until his eyes glaze over? What harm would it do?”

And thus, the Mental Health Day was born.

Every so often, one of my boys would announce that he was taking a Mental Health Day, and then stay home and do pretty much whatever he wanted. And yeah, since my husband and I both worked at home, it occasionally drove one or both of us crazy. But eventually, the day would end, the kid would go back to school all rested and happy and grateful, and everything would go on as normal. Better even.

So. If it worked for them…why can’t it work for us grown ups?

Of course it can. Not only that, it does. At least it does for me. When I have one of those days where it feels like I’m dragging my body through quicksand, I give myself permission to just STOP. I banish all pressure and judgment and embrace my inner pajama-wearing, non-showering, video-game-playing slug.

And the next time you hit the wall, instead of running into it over and over again hoping it will somehow magically disappear, I invite you to just try, just one time, to do the same thing. Not that you have to wear pajamas or play video games – your inner slug is YOUR inner slug, after all. Just let your lazy flag fly – or just hang there…

You might not win a Perfect Attendance Award. But you’ll probably have a MUCH better day tomorrow.

Oh! And if the wall you hit happens to involve writing, you might want to consider downloading the FREE guide i call The Positively True Actual Professional Writer’s Guide to Beating Writer’s Block HERE.

You can even do it in your pajamas.

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on idols and writer’s block…

If I’m getting stuck doing the thing I’m

You know that favorite writer you have? The one who constructs sentences that somehow reach deep inside your soul – or who makes you laugh so hard the person sitting next to you on the plane asks what you’re reading?

Or both?

Well, re: that writer, I have four words of advice for you:

Don’t write like that person.

Yes, that was five words. It’s Friday and I’m halfway out the mental door… 🙂

But as for my point, I’m serious. And this is not any sort of judgment as to whether or not you can, in fact, write like this author-you-admire. I just know no matter how hard I try, I’m never gonna be Joan Didion.

I also know that the act of trying to sound like someone you admire can be exhausting. You’ve already set the bar at “impossible,” so all that’s left is to reach for it over and over and over again.

And the super fun part? You never get there.

But even if you did, what would you have? A really good imitation of someone else. Instead of a 100% genuine peek inside your own brain and heart and soul. To which I know some of you are instantly yelling back at your computer screen…


Well, welcome to the club. Do you think I believe that every word that flows from my fingertips is interesting? Or even passable? That’s where writer’s block comes from – that reaching, that striving, that pushing to reach some literary nirvana – and then mentally shutting down when you realize you aren’t even close.

A better way, if I might make a gentle suggestion, is to just be honest. Express what you have to say in the true and genuine way it comes to you. Don’t worry if that’s the way Joan Didion or Elizabeth Gilbert or insert-literary-idol-here would say it. (And yes, I noticed I always seem to use the word “say.” Maybe because, to me, writing is like talking, only not out loud.)

When I work with people to help them write better, it’s all about helping them find their true voice, their sharpest perspective, their most quintessential turn of phrase. Because that’s the way they’re going to touch the heart or the soul or the funny bone of the people who need to hear from them.

It’s the way you’ll touch the people who need to hear from you.

And isn’t that what your readers deserve?

If you think you could maybe use some help finding your true voice, I would love to help. I offer this thing called Copy Therapy — it’s kind of like regular therapy, except instead of spending an hour talking about your mother, we talk about the thing you’re trying to say, and figure out the best, most powerful way to say it. In writing. CLICK HERE to find out how.

And if you’re looking for some other ways to break through writer’s block, and haven’t already, why not download The Positively True Actual Professional Writer’s Guide to Beating Writer’s Block HERE?

It’s not Joan Didion…but it helps.

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Is It Time to Turn That Writing Project Over to a Ghostwriter?

no time to write your book-no problem. (1)

You’ve been telling people about that book you’re writing for a year – or two or three. And you’re starting to panic.

Because in reality, that “book” is more like a collection of random musings, old blog posts and other files on your computer that don’t exactly make sense together…

Or it’s one single, lonely page you’ve started 25 different times, in 25 different ways…but it never comes out right…

Or it’s just an idea you really, seriously intend to flesh out SOMEDAY…as soon as you carve out the time to write 150 or 200 pages…and figure out what’s gonna be on those pages…

SO…how’s that book ever gonna get done?

I have a gentle suggestion.

Maybe you should hire a ghostwriter.

The right ghostwriter (yes, there are “wrong” ghostwriters – but that’s for another time) will take those random musings and half-formed ideas and anything else you might have swirling around in your brain and magically transform them into a coherent, cohesive book that presents them to the world in the best possible way. She (or he) will give your ideas a structure with a beginning, middle and end, work with you to dig deep into your story or “thing” to find the answers to the questions your readers are dying to know, and present it all in a voice that sounds like you on your best day ever.

Does it cost money? Of course (even ghosts gotta eat!). But it could be the best investment you ever make.

If you’re ready to stop telling people about the book you’re going to write, and start showing off the book you wrote, maybe we should talk. click HERE for more info.

And if you’re stuck on your own writing project and need a little help, download the positively true, actual professional’s guide to beating writer’s block HERE.

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Is it Time to Stop Writing Alone?

as of noon today,i will no longer bea (5)

I’ve been writing a lot about writer’s block lately. Which, maybe, you’ve noticed. All those posts about writer’s block, and do you have it, and are you wondering how to get rid of it? Yup, that was me. I wrote this little guide to dealing with it (that you can download here…), so I’ve been doing all I can to make sure Every. Single. Person. in the world knows it’s available. HERE.

But here’s the thing about the guide. It isn’t 100% foolproof. There are going to be times when you just get stuck. When your brain won’t budge no matter how many clever games you play with it. When you can’t get past the place where you are no matter how hard you try.

Those are the times when, maybe, you shouldn’t be writing alone.

I know, I know. Writing is kind of a solitary pursuit. But then again, sometimes you could really use another set of eyes to look at what you’ve done – and the other brain that goes with them to determine whether or not what you’ve done actually makes sense. Because something that makes perfectly perfect sense to you might look like a totally random assortment of words to somebody else.

And you definitely don’t want that.

Then there are those times when another brain would really help you catch what you might be missing, or make connections you’re not making, or find that perfect approach that, for whatever reason, you’re not seeing.

And those times when you need someone else there just to let you know you’re not crazy? Those are maybe the biggest.

So. Where does one find said person?

Well, a low pressure place to start might be asking someone you know and trust to read something you’ve written, or brainstorm with you. Or you might join a writer’s circle or challenge for a chance to share with other writers, and hold each other accountable, and maybe even get some group coaching.

Or if you want to focus on your results and yours alone, you might work one-on-one with a writing coach.

And…hey! I happen to be one of those.

As a writing coach, I work with struggling (and even not-so-struggling) writers to help them connect with their readers, focus their message and structure stuff so it makes sense and keeps readers reading (as opposed to drifting off in the middle). I help with all kinds of projects, from landing pages and websites structuring, developing and writing entire books. And everything in between.

All for a (very reasonable) fee. 🙂

If that sounds like something that might help you with your writing project, I’d be happy to be the help-er – just contact me HERE for more info.

And whatever your writing challenges might be, remember, you don’t always have to go it alone.

Even I don’t. I have my crazy husband sitting next to me all day long.

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Can You Really Call It Writer’s Block If You Don’t Know What the &*%$ You’re Writing?

I’m a riffer. I like to riff. I like to sit down at my keyboard and just kind of freestyle, and write what comes to me in the moment.

Then I read what I wrote. And a lot of the time, I hate it.

Riffing can be fun. It can be easy. I’m actually riffing right now – I had the idea for this post while eating a bowl of special k and got so excited I dropped my spoon. I swear. And I ran to my office and I started writing, and, hey, so far so good, right?

But then there are those other times. Those times when I sit down and start writing, and suddenly, I forget what the &%$@ I was trying to say. So I look at what I’ve already written, hoping it will provide some sort of clue, and it all sounds like a bunch of nonsense, or self-indulgent crap, or insert-your-own-insult here.

And I find myself totally and completely blocked.

Now, as a lot of you already know, there’s a thing I do when I get writer’s block, and it generally works pretty well. I even made it into a special, FREEwriter's blockstops here. (3) guide you can download HERE and use yourself.

However. As great as the guide is – and it is super, super great – it isn’t completely foolproof.

Because it doesn’t work if you don’t really know what you’re writing about.

A few weeks ago, I tried to write a blog post that was basically along the lines of, “Can you really call it writer’s block if you don’t even know what you’re writing?”

And I got blocked. So I never finished it.

(Until now, I guess…)

So now we’ve at least identified the problem. But what can you actually do to break through writer’s block when the normal stuff won’t work?

I know what I will do next time – because that’s what I figured this out in the middle of a bite of Special K.

The next time I get writer’s block when I don’t know what the bleep I’m writing, I will…

…Write an Outline.

To be honest, I’m kind of shocked I didn’t come up with this sooner. My primary job, besides writing stuff about writer’s block, is writing books and – and here’s the important part – coaching people through writing their own books. And when I coach people, the number one thing I tell them to do, before they start thinking about titles or designing covers, is to WRITE AN OUTLINE!!!!!

Why?  Because an outline is like a map that keeps them from getting lost. If they ever feel like they don’t know what to write next, all they have to do is look at the outline and it should be right there.

So.  Wouldn’t the same principle hold true with something smaller? Like, say, a blog post about writer’s block???

I’m about to finish this piece. So that proves that it did. And I’m betting it will work for you too.

(But if it doesn’t, let me know – I may be able to help.)

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How do Professional Writers deal with Writer’s Block?

as of noon today,i will no longer bea

I’ve said before that, when your job is writing, writer’s block is pretty much an occupational hazard. Spending hours making up stuff every day, day after day just about guarantees that at some point, your brain is gonna check out and say, “we’re done here.”

And if it happens to the pros, it probably happens to you. So what can you do about it?

The playwright and essayist Paul Rudnick, who I think is hilarious and brilliant, is famous for saying, “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials. It’s a matter of doing everything you can to avoid writing, until it is about four in the morning and you reach the point where you have to write.”

That sounds about right.

Anne Tyler, who wrote The Accidental Tourist and lots of other great books, struggles so much with writer’s block that sometimes she has to force herself to work. “The one ironclad rule is that I have to try. I have to walk into my writing room and pick up my pen every weekday morning.”  Why? Because she also said, “If I waited till I felt like writing, I’d never write at all.”

In fact, some of the best writers in history have used tricks and little motivational phrases to basically force themselves do their jobs. Norman Mailer told himself, “Being a real writer means being able to do the work on a bad day.” James Thurber’s mantra was “Don’t get it right, just get it written” (which is so pithy and clever it probably took him a whole day to come up with it). And William Faulkner advised, “Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.”

That one I know from personal experience.

I’ve followed just about all of that advice and tons more over the years. Eventually, I combined the best stuff – the stuff that worked for me – into a just-about-foolproof plan to beat writers block. And right now, I’m sharing those tips in a little guide I wrote called, oddly enough, The Positively True Actual Professional Writer’s Guide to Beating Writer’s Block. You can download it for FREE HERE! – it’s quick and simple and, best of all, it actually works.

I hope you’ll check it out. After all, as Mark Twain said, “The secret to getting ahead is getting started.”

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Ignore your English Teacher!

Love you writing.  Really engaging.Very

The other day, my husband, AKA Ghostwriter Joel, got kind of an unpleasant shock – in the form of a client’s corrections on a manuscript he ghostwrote. This client happens to be blind, and the book is about his adventures as the first blind person to kayak the Grand Canyon solo, among other things. Since he can’t see, he wasn’t exactly comfortable being the only person to proofread the book. So he had his high school English teacher do it.

That’s where the fun started.

Joel opened the file and saw the entire manuscript was marked up, from start to finish. Seriously, she might as well have taken a red pen to the whole thing. It was covered with the kind of comments you’d expect to find on a 9th grade term paper on The Scarlet Letter — every time Joel wrote the word “yeah,” she changed it to “yes.” Slang expressions were converted to proper English. And on every other page, there was a comment amounting to something like, “This should be more formal.”

Now Joel has been writing professionally for so long I probably shouldn’t even say. So as you can imagine, seeing his worked ripped to shreds like that was more than a little insulting.

His ego, however, wasn’t the problem.

The problem was that English teachers don’t know anything about writing.

I should clarify that. There are some English teachers who probably write beautifully, and who understand that language is a living, breathing thing that is constantly evolving and changing.

But there are also English teachers who believe that writing has to follow the rules. This teacher was one of those.

The thing is, in real life, most of us don’t communicate according to the rules of proper grammar.  Everyone has their own, unique way of saying things. We use slang, we use colloquialisms, we put words together in ways you won’t find in any style guide. And because of that, our words do more than give us the facts – they tell people where we come from, where we fit in, how we see ourselves, and who we are. They bring our personalities to life.

That would be completely lost if we wrote the way our English teachers told us to.

Imagine how boring it would be if everyone wrote their books and articles and web copy the exact same way they wrote that term paper on The Scarlet Letter. Of course the content would be unique, but the voice, the tone, everything else would be the same. It would be almost like everything in the world was written by one person. (A person who was, very likely, an English teacher.)

That’s part of the reason why, when Joel and I ghostwrite, the biggest thing we focus on are those little language quirks – those unique turns of phrase that are specific to the person whose story we’re telling. Of course we add and embellish and exaggerate a little, because the idea is to showcase their personalities and how unique they are.

Not to pass a standardized test.

Now, I’m not saying you should throw all the rules out the window. Spellcheck is still your best friend. Using an ‘s to make a word plural is always a no-no. And please, I’m begging you, learn the difference between your and you’re.

But the next time you write something, maybe try loosening up a little and using some of the same language you use when you talk. Ask yourself, “Would I say that in real life?” and if the answer is “Hell no!” change it to something you would say.

Just don’t show your English teacher.

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on losing my mentor…

on losing my mentor...

My first mentor died last week.

Not that he ever knew he was my mentor.  Okay, he didn’t actually know I existed.  But that didn’t stop him from, basically, making me the person I am today.

Because Stan Freberg taught me that there’s nothing better than making people laugh.  Primarily in 30-second intervals.

Freberg was 88 when he died – old enough where a lot of you probably don’t recognize his name.  Or you might…he was a humorist, and he did a lot of cartoon voices, as well as a lot of other entertainment industry-type things.  But to kids like me, who grew up in front of the TV in the ‘70s, Stan Freberg is the guy who transformed the lowly, 30-second commercial from that thing that interrupted whatever crazy-ass hijinks were going on during The Beverly Hillbillies into the highest form of comedic art.

Or at least, more comedic and more artful than The Beverly Hillbillies.

Unlike most so-called “creatives” at the time, Freberg took the term seriously.  He thought there might be a better way to get you to buy a product than to endlessly repeat an annoying slogan like “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin” until you wanted to channel Elvis, grab a gun and blow a hole through your TV screen.

Instead, he thought commercials should actually be — you know — entertaining.  He went for the big laugh instead of the hard sell.  He was over the top, in your face wacky.  He even got celebrities to help out, convincing the most unlikely personalities, from sci-fi author Ray Bradbury to TV’s Lone Ranger, Clayton Moore, to appear as themselves in spots that had basically nothing to do with the products they were hawking.  When they were over, you didn’t know you were being sold anything.  Because you were too busy laughing.

Which is probably why Ad Age dubbed Freberg “The Father of the Funny Commercial.”

And also why I grew up with a serious obsession with advertising – especially TV ads.  And they didn’t even have to be funny!  I was that kid who would recite a Preparation H commercial, verbatim, to anyone who would listen (whether they wanted to or not).  I had favorite jingles as opposed to favorite songs.  And after the glorious Christmas when Santa managed to squeeze a Panasonic portable cassette recorder into my stocking, I spent hours holed up in my bedroom, recording dozens of spots for my own, made-up products.

I guess no one was surprised when I ended up a copywriter.

But even today, more than twenty-five years into a writing career that has taken me on a long, twisty path from advertising to marketing to ghostwriting to coaching and even a little screenwriting, there’s still that little piece of Stan in me.  I still love nothing more than making people – and, okay, myself too — laugh.  I know it’s not rocket science, or curing cancer, or even writing the Great American Novel.  But it’s still pretty cool.

Check out this little piece of Stan Freberg greatness – possibly my all-time favorite – and maybe you’ll agree with me.

RIP Stan.  And thanks.