Joe Congel grew up in Syracuse, NY and currently makes his home in Charlotte, NC. He got his first break in the world of publishing when he illustrated the humorous book, Housetraining Your VCR, A Help Manual for Humans, published by Grapevine Publications back in the early 90’s.
After a successful run with the Housekeeping project, Joe decided that he was better suited as a writer rather than as an artist, so he began crafting stories that allowed the reader to use their own imagination to add the visuals to the narrative.
Time to chat with Joe!
What is your latest book?
Well, my current WIP is called Dirty Air. It’s been my current WIP for over a year. I wanted to release it at the beginning of this year, but for a variety of reasons, that didn’t happen. I’m a little reluctant to put a release date on it at this point since it keeps changing, but with luck, should be out before the end of the summer.
Yes. It’s part of a PI/Detective series, featuring Tony Razzolito, PI. The series is called The Razzman Files, and consists of three other books; Dead is Forever, The Razzman Chronicles, and Deadly Passion.
Consistency with the little things from book to book. For example, the details of frequent locations. I can’t have Tony’s office located on the 3rd floor in a building on one side of town in one book and then have him on the 2nd floor somewhere else in the next book. At least not without a reason. The layout inside the office also needs to be the same. Readers have also come to expect certain things regarding personality traits and reactions from the characters, so I keep cheat sheets that have addresses, types of cars driven by characters, character’s hobbies and favorite sports teams, etc.
What are the greatest challenges in writing short stories?
I think it’s cutting out all the fluff. I love developing the characters as the story progresses, which for me, means building in some interesting backstory. With a short story, there has to be just enough development there to understand the essence of the characters without all the deeper details. There should be a beginning, a middle, and an end, with an interesting and/or intriguing plot and interesting characters, all in under 10,000 words – and usually no more than around 7500. I don’t even want to mention the challenges of flash fiction!
A little bit if both. I’ve enjoyed reading Mystery/PI/Detective novels forever. When I decided to try my hand at this writing thing, I chose that genre because of my reading interest. It also chose me because I found myself solving the crimes before the reveal in a lot of the mysteries I was reading, and the genre was begging me to try to write a story that would keep the readers guessing.
Do your books begin with ideas for characters or plots? Something else?
At this point, since I have established characters, I come up with an idea for a plot and then I let the characters write the story based on their personalities.
Some authors, like me, always write scenes in order. But I know some people write scenes out of order. How about you?
I pretty much write my scenes in order. However, I have been known to write a scene or even an entire chapter that I felt would work better at a different point in the story, and then drop it in where it needs to be.
Some writers edit excessively as they write; others wait until a novel is finished to do the bulk of the editing. How about you?
Actually, it’s really a three-step process for me. A lot of my editing is accomplished as I write. Mainly because I find it much more exhausting to bang everything out, unedited, and then have the daunting task of starting from scratch with the editing process. That being said, I also go back to the beginning of what I wrote during the previous session and give it a full read through before continuing with anything new. This allows for an immediate second round of editing, where I can change anything I want to change while it’s fresh on my mind. Finally, after I’ve completed the book, story, or project, I don’t touch it for a couple of weeks while I’ve sent it off to a couple of trusted beta readers, and then hit it for a third round from the very beginning once they’ve sent me their thoughts. This round usually goes fairly smoothly since the bulk of the editing and changes have already been made. I find this process works best for me.
After working for a very long time on a novel, many authors get to a point where they lose their objectivity and feel unable to judge their own work. Has this ever happened to you? If so, what have you done about it?
It has happened to me more often when writing a short story than when writing a novel. Even though I would classify myself as a pantser, I generally have a path I’m following when writing the longer form novel that keeps my objectivity in check. Since I’m constantly re-reading as I go along, I don’t really get lost in whether I’m staying true to the storyline or if it’s confusing, or even any good. I’m pretty confident in my ability to tell the long story. I do, however, struggle at times while writing short stories. Because they have to be concise and tell a complete story in fewer words, I tend to lose my objectivity on whether I’m actually doing that so that it is clear and enjoyable to the reader. Either way, I’ve got a writer friend who I’ve known for years and I trust his judgment and opinion in these situations. He’s hard, honest, and is great at finding any inconsistencies in my judgment that happen when I lose my way.
How many unwritten books are in your head? How do you decide which ones come to life now and which ones stay on the back burner?
I have ideas for at least two more Tony Razzolito books floating around in my head. I know the order I want to write them in, since I know where I want to take the character over the series. I also have an idea for a stand-alone police procedural featuring two police detectives that first appeared in Deadly Passion. I loved the chemistry between the two enough that I’m developing a full story around them. And I’ve got at least 10 short stories that are partially written that I hope to develop into a themed book of shorts.
There’s a little bit of me in every character I’ve written. Whether that is drawn from my actual personality or what I would aspire to be, or fear I could become, on some level it’s all a part of who I am.
Is it important for you to know the ending of a book before you write it? The title?
The actual ending? No. The general ending? Yes. So far, most of my books involve some sort of murder. As a pantser, figuring out and then getting to the resolve at the end is part of the fun. The personalities of the characters create the twists and turns and decide the direction the story will go, which includes the ending. Quite frankly, I don’t know myself who did it until the character of the killer reveals him or herself.
The title, however, I have before I’ve written the first sentence. For me, the title suggests the plot of the book, even though the characters drive the story. I’ve got a document where I’ve listed several titles that remind me of the suggested storyline for each book.
What else have you written?
Besides The Razzman series of books, I have a book out called, Leftovers. Its six different short stories that really have no common theme. They are what the name suggests; leftover stories that I liked well enough to share in book form. I like this group of shorts because they cover a pretty wide variety of topics in just six stories.
I also have a story included in the #WolfPackAuthors anthology book, Once Upon a WolfPack, that was released in May of this year.
I do try to keep up on a blog where I share my thoughts on writing and occasionally throw up an experimental short story where I stretch myself a bit into different areas of writing. You can also find some stories about my childhood.
What I enjoy the most is putting that period at the end of the very last sentence at the end of the book. That feeling of completion is very satisfying. I can sit back, take a deep breath, and relax… but only for a minute. Then it’s on to the next one!
You would think that the editing process would get my vote as the least favorite part of writing, but for me, it’s actually those middle chapters where I’m connecting the dots between that crucial hook in the beginning, to the ending that should be, at the same time, satisfying yet leave a yearning for more. Keeping the reader from getting bored in the middle of the story is what bothers me the most. It’s the hardest part of the process for me, but always ends up being better because I labor over it. I guess you could say I have a love/hate relationship with it.
Are you easily distracted while writing? If so, what do you do to help yourself focus?
My problem isn’t being distracted while I’m writing. My problem is being easily distracted by things that prevent me from starting an actual writing session. My plan is to write daily, but my “day job” will get in the way, a family obligation will arise, a sporting event I want to watch will be on TV, etc. etc… All things I let myself succumb to way too easily at times. However, once I begin writing, I am laser focused for the entire session. I close myself off in a spare bedroom/office I use and give my WIP my undivided attention.
Many of us get stuck in our stories at one point or the other? What helps you to break through in these frustrating times?
I simply put the story aside and work on something else. I’m usually working on a few short stories at the same time that I’m working on my main WIP. If I get stuck, I stop thinking about the WIP and focus on the short stories. I find that once I change my focus, inspiration will hit me out of the blue. It might be a few minutes, a few hours, a few days, or even wake me in middle of the night. But all of a sudden, the solution to my problem on how to move the story forward will flow from my head to my fingertips to my keyboard, and all is right with the world once again.
How important is the choosing of character names to you? Have you ever decided on a name and then changed it because it wasn’t right for the character?
I have labored over choosing character names. The only time it came easy was when I chose the names for the main characters in my PI series. All the main characters are named after someone in my family. All the rest are chosen based on ethnicity of the character and the personality I am trying to convey. I find myself doing google searches all the time looking for the right name. Even a one-off character that only appears in one scene has to have the perfect name for whatever I’m trying to convey in that scene or chapter.
Please, tell us about your experiences with social media. What are your favorite and least-favorite parts of it?
Up until I had grandchildren, I was not on any type of social media. My daughter convinced me that it would be easier for me to stay in the loop with everything if I joined Facebook. Personally, I think she just got tired of posting on Facebook for the family and then sending me duplicate pictures. Lol. From there I joined Twitter to help promote my books. Then I added an author FB page.
I’ve met many wonderful people on Twitter that share my passion for writing. I spend most of my social media promo time on that platform. I post info about my books on my author FB page, but try to keep that completely separate from my personal page.
All of that being said, my favorite parts would have to be my interaction on my family FB page and my interaction on Twitter as a part of the writing community. Least favorite part would have to be the unsolicited DMs from people I don’t know or care to know.
Do you allow others to read your work in progress, or do you keep it a secret until you’ve finished your first draft? Can you elaborate?
I have no problem tapping on the shoulders of friends and family to read my WIP. I have narrowed it down a bit over the years, though, to just the folks that will be honest with me with their feedback. Although being showered with praise from “Aunt Mary” about how great you are as a writer is a fun boost to the ego, it really doesn’t help you improve your writing. So, I’ve got a few that get to see the WIP in different stages who are brutally honest with me. They help me iron out the areas where I can’t seem to get it right.
Do you feel your latest book is your personal favorite or one of your previous novels?
Right now, my favorite is Deadly Passion. I had the most fun writing that one, and believe it to be pretty good work, if I do say so myself. I hope that Dirty Air is received as well, once it’s released. Who knows, maybe that will become my favorite once I’m done with it.
Are you an early bird writer or night owl? And do you have any must haves like coffee, chocolates, wine, music or something else?
Most of the time I write late into the night. That’s not necessarily because I enjoy writing in the middle of the night, it’s because that’s when I usually find the time. I work a full-time job that sometimes requires evenings, and I also have a pretty full family life between my wife, my two adult kids, and my grandson and granddaughter. I’m knocking on the door of retirement soon, so I hope that I can rearrange my writing schedule once the obligations of the full-time job go away. At least that’s the plan.
The only real must have when I write is a beverage. It can be as simple as water but lately, most of the time it’s green tea.
I hear you have some very exciting news! Can you share it with us?
Yes! I belong to a supportive writers group called the #WolfPackAuthors. We recently released a short story anthology called, Once Upon a WolfPack, with all the proceeds being donated to help heal and protect wolves that have suffered at the hands of humans, and to help returning combat veterans also heal and regain a sense of purpose. The project has been well received and something that we, as a group, are extremely proud of.
Through the writing and publishing of this anthology, we too, found our sense of purpose. We are currently working on a second anthology where 100% of the profits will be donated to a new, and equally deserving nonprofit charity. The new anthology will have a common theme involving the moon (figuratively or literally) and will showcase some of the same authors, along with additional members of our group. We’re not prepared to reveal the name of the charity or the title of the anthology just yet, but if all goes well, the target date for release will be just in time for the holidays.
A lot of authors are frustrated by readers who don’t understand how important reviews are? What would you say to a reader who doesn’t think his or her review matters?
I fully understand the frustration regarding this topic. I’m sure we all could use more reviews. A review can help a potential reader make up their mind regarding spending their money on your book, thus helping you in the rankings, providing more exposure, and of course, hopefully leading to even more sales. An honest review is all we ask for, yet some authors agonize over that honest review if it’s bad or they disagree with the reader’s thoughts. I say, as long as it’s a truthful representation of the reader’s opinion of your work, bring it on. The key word here is, opinion. Good or bad, that opinion can help your sales. You can tell the reader that their review matters no matter what they thought of your book, and even if they believe you and agree with you, chances are, they still won’t leave one.
But it’s the same in all sales-related industries. Every business wants the consumer, their customers, to leave a review of their products. But the reality is that in most cases, people just don’t do it. And for us, the consumer, or customer, is the reader… and most will not leave a review even if it was the best book they ever read. They will tell their friends. They will tell their co-workers. They will tell their family. But sitting down at their computer and typing out a review, even a one-sentence review, will not happen as often as we would like. Don’t misunderstand me, I want the reader to take the time and review my work as much as anyone else, but trying to convince them of the importance to us as the author… your guess is as good as mine.
What genre have you never written in that you’d like to try?
I would like to try my hand at a good ghost story mixed with elements of horror.
Where do you live now? If you had to move to another city/state/country, where might that be?
I live in Charlotte, North Carolina. I would love to live on Martha’s Vineyard. When I lived in New York State (many years ago), we would go to MV for vacations. I fell in love with the island and have always wanted to own a home there.
Trains, planes, automobiles, or boats?
Motorcycles. I’ve been riding since the early ‘80s and enjoy it immensely.
What’s your favorite comfort food? Least favorite food?
Pizza, hands down! I LOVE pizza. Not a big fan of the chains. I prefer an authentic, hole in the wall pizza joint that bakes their heart and soul into the pie.
I cannot even look at scalloped potatoes. When I was a kid (around 12 yrs old), I ate the potatoes at a family function and got sick. Now to be fair, the sickness probably didn’t have anything to do with the scalloped potatoes, but the timing was such, that I blamed it for my sickness. Even though it is all in my head, I just cannot stand the smell or look of the dish. It was a long time ago, and I’ve held onto that excuse to not eat them ever since. I’m 60 years old now, so you do the math!
What music soothes your soul?
I am a fan of late 60’s and early 70’s rock and roll. Grand Funk Railroad, Three Dog Night, CCR, Aerosmith, Springsteen, and of course, The Beatles. But what soothes my soul is the sounds of Motown – The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, and many others. I’m also a big fan of the blues – Joe Bonamassa, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert Collins, B.B. King, and Clapton, to name a few.
Do you have any guilty pleasures?
I’ll probably have my man card revoked for this one, but… I enjoy watching the Hallmark Christmas movies during the holidays.
What simple pleasure makes you smile?
I have a couple:
Watching my grandkids experience anything and everything for the first time.
Helping someone who didn’t expect it.
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