JOANNA ELM, Author, Journalist, Attorney

Trying for a Third (Behind the Scenes #1)


Behind the Scenes is a series of occasional posts about my efforts to write a new thriller (working title, Book 3)  and about the challenges, setbacks — and perks — of returning to a writing life. (Note: I’m not always sitting at my laptop.)   


Crumple Paper, Notebook And Pen With Cup Of CoffeeIt’s been about twenty years since my first two. Now, I’m at a time in my life when I could be enjoying leisurely days of playing tennis and golf, reading and relaxing in the sun, and taking long vacations.  But, I’ve decided to try for a third.

No, obviously, not a baby. I mean a third book.

However, the analogy is somewhat appropriate.  A gap of 20 years between babies could mean you’ve forgotten the hard slog, and tears and sleepless nights;  or maybe you’ve convinced yourself you’d be a better parent this time around ; or you might feel you’re not quite ready for the empty nest.

mybooksAll of the above applies if you substitute the word “books” for babies, and “writer” for parent and “retirement” for empty nest.

And  then, you remember that, while the advances and royalties did not exactly constitute a living wage, you got pretty good reviews for your first two books, Scandal and Delusion, and that you sold 70,000 paperback copies of your first book, and foreign rights for both.

Crazy New World

But after 20 years, it’s a very, very different world whether that world is one of parenting or of publishing. Indeed, the crazy, new world of publishing has had me almost tearing my hair out on a couple of occasions which, of course, I will write about at some point in this series under the title of :  I. Need. To. Do. What?

Funny really because there I was thinking I was done with the world of fiction writing after I was accepted to law school in 2002. The reasons why I veered into the legal profession while on my chosen path to becoming an established author are many and somewhat complicated. Suffice it to say here though, after two traditionally published novels which, if I remember correctly, pretty much earned back their advances, but did not lead to any higher bid on a third, the legal profession started looking more and more attractive.

Detour to Law School

So, off I went on another detour (law school, bar exam, a judicial clerkship in New York State Supreme Court) that lasted for a decade — until the judge for whom I was working as principal law clerk lost his bid for re-election.

I had looked forward to working for the judge for another 14-year term, and had discussed this with my husband.  “But you will be 77 by then,” my husband observed pointedly, and the sub-text was clear. He would be 90 by the end of the judge’s second term. By the time I was ready to enjoy my “golden years,” he doubted he would be fit enough to enjoy them with me.

But I loved, loved, loved my job, and truth be told, I didn’t want to think about “golden” years. I was going to be quite happy if I skipped those years — and expired at my desk. The voters of Long Island, however, didn’t care where I wanted to make my final resting place.

My husband felt sorry for me, but made his point: “It’s a sign that you should retire.”  He meant from the legal profession.

IMG_0012“And, what exactly am I going to do? I demanded. “I can’t sit on the beach all day, doing nothing.” My husband wisely refrained from reminding me that I am a writer; and that writers never have to sit around “doing nothing.” Because no, I didn’t want to hear any helpful suggestions.  I was angry. I was pissed.  I felt sorry for myself.

So, I was going to be mean, and mean-spirited.  “Okay, I’m just going to have to do all those things that retirees do.” I could barely enunciate the word ‘retirees.’ “Oh yes, I’m going to have to learn to play golf. And tennis. You know what? I’m going to have to join a country club!”

My husband smiled. “Go ahead,” he said.

I picked a very expensive club. The non-refundable initiation fee was not cheap.  The annual dues are not cheap either. My husband just shrugged, behaved himself impeccably at the interview with the membership director, and signed the check.

Country Club Life

Over the next year, I played tennis on 136 days.  On 67 different days, I played golf, walking the 18-hole course and carrying my clubs. I took tennis and golf clinics. Occasionally, I sunned myself on cushioned chaises at the club’s beach and pools.

The physical activities were important. Tennis and golf dates were scheduled to get me out of bed, into the shower and out of the house.  I knew it was important to have a routine so that I did not end up lounging around in ratty tee-shirts till noon.

The following year, I joined a tennis league and played against other clubs. I sucked,  but I played. I sucked at golf, too. I took more clinics and played with friends on the two magnificent club courses.  I discovered that, mostly,  they sucked too because golf is nothing if not the ultimate challenge in retirement.

Writers Never Retire

On the slouch side, I caught up with TV shows that I had never had time to watch while working.  I binge-watched all six  seasons of the Sopranos, all the seasons of  Breaking Bad.  I watched House of Cards on the day it streamed.  I read all the “girl” books: The Girl on the Train, Luckiest Girl Alive , The Good Girl, The English Girl, and of course, Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s third novel and her breakout success.

I re-read my first two novels, Scandal and Delusion  and wondered what might have been if I had persevered with my third novel instead of going to law school.   Then, I went shopping for snacks for my son’s holiday visit  — and discovered an amazing fact about potato chips. The reporter in me could not resist following up on the questions I was asking myself as I stood in the snack aisle of my local supermarket that day.  I found myself jotting down facts and figures, and notes that pretty soon turned into what became one of my first website articles — about overchoice in supermarkets.

Trying for a Comeback

Notes, comments and observations I had scribbled down in spare moments suddenly became a list of article ideas.  I looked up information on starting a blog and website not least of all because I read that an author these days must have a website.  I enlisted the help of a brilliant, young friend (you know who you are, Gavin) to help me with setting up the website. I met with a consultant (you know who you are, Cathy) to advise me on social media accounts to link to my website.

I started noodling with an idea, and penning an outline for a new novel (no, not the one I shelved before going off to law school.)  I looked at it a couple of times. I noodled some more, and made additional notes.  I made some revisions.  I worked on developing the main characters.  An idea was beginning to take shape, and I was enjoying myself, but I wondered: Do I have a Story?

I decided I needed some professional advice.  I signed up for the three-day Story seminar of screenwriting guru, Robert McKee.

Next: Do I Have a Story? Writing Guru Bob McKee weighs in.


Photo credit (top photo): PRImageFactory w/






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