The Writing Life

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Some important news! This blog is moving to a new address, effective...like, two minutes ago.

As I’ve been making more friends among readers and writers, it’s become more important to me to have a place where we can have a conversation, and this blog is no long the most convenient place to do that. 

For now, the website is staying, the blog is moving here to the Tumblr platform.

The RSS feed is here.

I look forward to seeing some of you in the new space.

Pencils I'll Be Using Today

I use the pencil extender (top) when said pencils get too small to hold easily.

I use the pencil extender (top) when said pencils get too small to hold easily.

You want to know how a writer procrastinates? He takes pictures of the pencils on his desk.


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2011: A Year in Review

Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci by Joseph D'Agnese, displayed in store window of Malaprop's Bookstore, Asheville, NC

A buddy of mine is fond of saying, “I’m fascinated by the passage of time and the aging process.” Um, me too. I especially like looking at my calendar and desk diary at the end of the year to see what I actually accomplished in the year just ended. I just did that today and 2011 frankly amazes me.

In the last 12 months, I...

  • self-pubbed two books (Scientist and the Sociopath; Jersey Heat)

  • had another book released traditionally

  • was reviewed in the Wall Street Journal for the very first time

  • got a starred review in School Library Journal

  • wrote a “Bible” for a TV show based on a book I hadn’t yet written and watched as it was actually bought

  • wrote a proposal for a ghost-writing project and sold it for six figures

  • wrote one book proposal that went nowhere

  • “conferenced” with a half dozen potential ghost-writing clients about projects that went nowhere

  • contracted, wrote, and shipped a short history book that will be out in spring

  • wrote a children’s picture book that’s making the rounds

  • recorded a hilarious podcast for a presentation we did for International Freelancers Day

  • gave 7 talks at various bookstores, historic sites, and conferences in the U.S.

  • did my first TV appearance

  • did more than 30 radio interviews

  • did one school visit

  • did more than a dozen Skype visits with classrooms for my children’s book

  • wrote, finished, and submitted to our publisher on a “Big Think” book with a collaborator overseas

  • made numerous out-of-state trips with my wife to help her interview sources and do research for her upcoming history title

  • visited Monticello for the first time ever and signed our books in their bookstore

  • taught myself how to format an ebook (ongoing)

  • conceived a new fiction book series

  • conducted weeks of interviews with a co-author whose memoir I’m ghosting

  • wrote and created a hilarious book trailer

  • made some wonderful new friends in the world of self-publishing

  • donated books to the troops

  • had our books featured in two major catalogs and the holiday gift list of a major city magazine

  • mentored a high-schooler who wrote a children’s book

  • wrote a novel that I’ll self-pub this spring

  • saw some Broadway shows

  • saw a ton of movies

  • lost an uncle

  • Facebooked, Tweeted, blogged, Google-plussed

  • discovered many new fascinating writers who blog

  • ran a local group for freelancers

  • hugged and drank with local booksellers

  • threw a couple of parties

  • wondered where the year went

  • wondered why I never have enough time to do the important things.

Professionally, the biggest change this year was jumping into the world of self-publishing. Despite all the good things I experienced this year in the world of traditional publishing, I am more excited every time I sell even one copy of my indie-pubbed ebook. The future is there, and I hope to do more books this way in 2012.

Part of my and my wife’s success with traditional book sales is that we’ve always been willing to hop in the car and drive somewhere to give talks, meet booksellers, and do conferences. We firmly believe that this one-on-one contact is important and ultimately helps us. But there’s no denying that it’s exhausting, and we’re hoping to reduce the number of trips we do in 2012 and focus more on writing.

Self-publishing has the potential to increase earnings and allow us to build relationships with readers directly, without having to hope they stop by at the next signing.


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Holiday Reminder

Signing Their Rights Away by Denise Kiernan and Joseph D'Agnese

Just a reminder for anyone who is looking for signed copies of my traditionally published books: The best way to get autographed copies is to order them by phone from the two independent bookstores in the town where I live.

Both Malaprop’s and the children’s bookstore Spellbound will take orders, get me in to autograph the books any way you like, and ship them out to you.

Both stores currently have stock on all my titles, and ordering from them is simpler than mailing me the book and having me sign and return it to you.

As always, if you already have a book and would like a signed bookplate, contact me via the contact page. A good season to all!


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In the Garden with Patrick Rothfuss

garden vegetables photo by Joseph D'Agnese

I don’t know what it is with me, books, and gardening. When I’m out working in the yard, I make connections between the task at hand (raking, mowing, planting, etc.) and scenes in, anecdotes from, and authors of various books I’ve read over the years.

This past weekend, I was harvesting the last couple of things from the yard for the season (above), then set about yanking up some weeds that had covered at least part of the beds.

The Name of the Wind

I was amazed how easily the weeds were coming up by hand. And immediately, a scene from The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss, popped into my head. In the scene, the weary wizard Kvothe (pronounced “quoth”) is masquerading as a humble innkeeper named Kote. When he asks a neighbor to borrow a pair of leather gloves, the man wonders why he needs him. Kote instantly “remembers” something his grandfather once told him. I had to look up the passage later, but here it is:

Kote shrugged. “My granda always told me that fall’s the time to root up something you don’t want coming back to trouble you.” Kote mimicked the quaver of an old man’s voice. “ ‘Things are too full of life in the spring months. In the summer, they’re too strong and won’t let go. Autumn . . . ’ ” He looked around at the changing leaves on the trees. “ ‘Autumn’s the time. In autumn everything is tired and ready to die.’ ”

It’s a great passage and certainly one to take to heart when the leaves are falling like crazy. Of course, there is some chicanery in this scene. Kote needs the gloves for another reason entirely. Just what he intends to do with them, I’ll leave you to discover in the pages of this great fantasy novel and its sequel, The Wise Man’s Fear.


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Flowers, and the One Where I Phoned Ellroy

Cosmos flower, photo by Joseph D'Agnese

The weather changed for the worse this weekend in my neck of the woods, but not before I shot some photos of the last few flowers struggling in my front yard. It later occurred to me that both of the flowers I shot had literary connections for me.

The cosmos, which displays its customary 8-petaled Fibonacci number, reminded me of an interview I conducted with organic farmer/poet Scott Chaskey some years ago when I was writing The Newman’s Own Organics Guide to a Good Life, with my co-author Nell Newman. Chaskey, who later went on to publish a charming book entitled This Common Ground: Seasons on an Organic Farm, told me then that cosmos are one of his favorite plants: 

“I know they’re simple and gaudy, but I like them. Last year I planted a long hedge of them, and people would immerse themselves in these six-foot plants and come out happy.”

I myself find these plants really delicate. Every year I dream of sowing them in a thick hedge like the one Chaskey speaks of, but never manage to pull it off. I love watching them bob on their spindly necks. I can’t plant enough of them, and thankfully there are lots of different varieties.

Another Fibonacci eight-petaled flower is the dahlia, which isn’t perennial in most parts of the U.S. In colder climates like ours, if you want them to come back, you have to dig up the tubers at the end of the season and carefully preserve them indoors for planting the following season. I haven’t been able to pull that off successfully either. (Whaddaya want? I’m a writer, not a farmer.)

But I cannot look at these lush flowers without thinking of crime fiction. These days anyone who knows anything about mystery fiction has heard of the famous Black Dahlia murder, probably thanks to James Ellroy’s fictionalized version of the case, and the subsequent film based on the book. But far fewer people probably remember the 1946 film noir called The Blue Dahlia, starring Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, and William Bendix. The film was produced by John Houseman and is best remembered as the work of Raymond Chandler, screenwriter.

Back a hundred years ago, before I knew anything of Ellroy or the gruesome murder case, I saw the Ladd-Lake-Bendix film at a library film series near where I grew up in New Jersey. The series, introduced by a local college professor who specialized in detective fiction, opened my eyes to a bunch of films that I would never have seen otherwise. I also remember thinking it was cool to have a job as a professor analyzing and writing about mysteries. Who knew that they would let you do that? 

Years later, I became obsessed with Ellroy’s work after reading his Dahlia novel. I bought a bunch of his signed, first editions from The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, and read them all in quick succession. Then, one day, I came across an article in People magazine that mentioned that this mad genius lived in a basement apartment in Easchester, New York. 

Gee, I thought, that’s not far from me. I could call him and tell him how much I like his work. Or something. I wasn’t thinking too clearly on this, I have to admit, but I called information and dialed the number.

“Ellroy,” the great man answered.

I panicked, and hung up the phone.

See what beautiful memories come from a walk in the garden?


Yes, I am trying to post here more often. Thank you for noticing. If you want to sign up for my newsletter and claim your collection of free ebooks, go here. Thanks!