The 17 Year Journey of John Cutler

My writing career began in 1996. 

Sometime during that year, I sat at my computer and wrote a single-page story. It featured a cop drinking in a bar. Anger and bluster filled every word. It was an unreadable tale written by an unhappy man.

Cutler journey

At that time, I didn’t know that I would soon be a police officer. That was still three years into the future, and I hadn’t even imagined such a thing possible. I was simply a guy whose world had crumbled around him. The company I worked for sold, and I was soon out of a job. My marriage ended that same week—we only had to file the paperwork to make it official. And the dog we’d recently adopted ran away.

For one week, my life turned into a clichéd country song.

I didn’t know how to deal with the feelings surrounding those events. My friends weren’t the type I could share those emotions with. I didn’t journal, and seeing a counselor never crossed my mind. Therefore, the sentiments about my situation remained bottled up. The pressure built, and it needed a place to escape.


While in the Army, I noodled around with a couple of short stories. They weren’t anything special—basically, a guy experimenting with ideas. In college, I wrote a few pieces for various English classes. Again, nothing extraordinary—just some assignments, but I was proud of them. My friends and family read them and said the kind of things that those types are apt to say, “That’s nice,” or “I didn’t know you could write.”

I carried an idea in my heart that someday I would be a writer. I’d been telling it to myself since I was in junior high school. I had an English teacher who once said my writing style reminded her of Ernest Hemingway. I didn’t understand it then, and I don’t see the comparison today, but I got that she meant it as a compliment. I puffed with pride.

In high school, I shared the lofty dream of being an author, and some family members playfully asked when I would write the next great American novel. I had no idea who wrote the first great American novel, if there might have been a second, and how I could fit into that lineage. I stopped talking about being a writer after that. I didn’t want to be mocked any further.

Those teasing questions lingered into my twenties.


With a divorce looming and negative emotions building, I turned on my computer one evening and wrote, “Motherfucker.”

I don’t know why I wrote that expletive, but I didn’t have anything else in my head except that single word. I wanted to scream it from the roof of my house. I wanted to shake my fist at God for how things had gone wrong in my life. It wasn’t supposed to have turned out this way. But I didn’t do those things.

Standing on the roof would make me a maniac—that’s what society said.

Shaking my fist at God might send me to hell—that’s what the church had taught me.

But writing “motherfucker” on that page felt good.

The single-page story finished itself quickly. As I mentioned at the start of the introduction, it was terrible. But a bit of steam escaped. Some pressure was relieved

That short story led to a second which was then followed by a decade of quick tales—easily more than a hundred, possibly two. I’ve never spent the time to count. So many are bad that I’ve considered deleting them to remove them from existence. However, I don’t get rid of them because I want the reminder of my journey—of where I started, how I got here, and how painful the road was. Those stories are my journal.

Unfortunately, what they revealed was how unhappy I was.

Most of the tales were dark or sad, and they had unlikable protagonists filled with ugly flaws. I didn’t like the lead characters in most of the stories.

That should have been expected as I didn’t like myself then.


I wrote the first John Cutler novel in 2004.

That book was called Running in Circles, and Cutler was known by a different name—Jack Collins. Two more novels quickly followed—one in 2005 (Dog Town) and another in 2006 (Sticks and Stones). I was proud of those books, yet I shouldn’t have been.

My pride was based solely on the fact that I wrote a book. That seemed a significant achievement when compared to a short story, but quality should dictate self-esteem, not quantity. I should have been proud that I wrote a good book—not that I managed to string together 65,000 words.

I couldn’t see any glaring issues with those books, yet there were plenty. The primary of which was Jack. He wasn’t someone most readers would want to spend time with. He was angry, misogynistic, and lost. A more accomplished writer might have been able to pull off that feat, but I couldn’t.

Jack Collins was a one-dimensional bore. He complained about everything, fought without provocation, and swore too much. He was everything I thought a tough-guy private investigator was supposed to be.

Worse, he didn’t grow over the three books. He remained an immature man-child.

Whenever Jack couldn’t get to the heart of a problem, he slugged someone for the truth. And if that didn’t work, he waved his gun like a lunatic. By the time I wrote those books, I’d been a cop, and I should have known better. But I parroted what I read in action books and what I saw in the movies. However, I wasn’t copying the good stuff, only the bad.

“Me, tough guy. You talk or else.” 


Strangely, there was enough in that first Jack Collins manuscript to interest a young agent. She signed me up and shopped around Running in Circles. Luckily, no one picked it up. However, I didn’t think I was fortunate at the time. Instead, I felt discouraged and heartbroken.

Looking back now, I dodged the proverbial bullet. Nobody accepting Running in Circles was a gift as it allowed Jack Collins to sit for seventeen years.

The manuscript seasoned, and I matured both as a writer and as a man.


He might have been seasoning, but Jack Collins didn’t sit idly. I pulled out the manuscript and flipped it over in its marinade now and then. At first, my editing attempts were half-hearted because I thought the books were done. I thought I’d nailed that first story, and I still couldn’t see the flaws in the character.

But each time I came back to that Running in Circles manuscript, the more I hated it. I began to despise Jack as well. That didn’t mean I wanted to throw away all that work. The skeleton of the story had merit, and parts of Jack did, too. The problem was I didn’t know which parts to keep and which to jettison.

There’s advice in the writing field that says authors must kill their darlings. It means they need to get rid of anything self-indulgent or anything that they hold precious in their manuscripts. Eventually, I realized Jack was my darling, and he was holding me back.

As you can see, Jack Collins embodied a lot of me at the time. He was angry that his marriage had fallen apart, and he was mad about leaving the police department. In general, he was an unhappy person.

Here’s a not-so-fun fact. During that time, I told people I needed to be angry to write. How messed up is that?

My solution came from reading a James Lee Burke novel. One of Burke’s more famous creations is a serial murderer named Preacher Jack Collins. Imagine my surprise when I read that. I couldn’t have my hero named the same as Preacher Jack Collins. Maybe I could, but this finally nudged me to kill my darling.

It didn’t hurt that I was finally happy in my life. I wanted the character to be reborn.


Creating John Cutler allowed me to rewrite the entire Jack Collins back story.

Cutler would be a man who would learn and grow (a constant theme in my writings now), but I removed the failing marriage he was so upset about. Instead, I gave him a daughter from a short-term relationship. This allowed him to feel guilt and struggle to connect, but it removed a huge chunk of his anger.

I removed the resentment for the police department. He disliked certain officers, but Cutler could see his part in his downfall. He wasn’t so myopic like his earlier incarnation.

As the series progresses, Cutler still punches his way to answers, but he’s less of a wild card now. If you read these books and decide that he still is, imagine him worse—way worse.

Those three Jack Collins novels were eventually reborn as Cutler’s Return, Cutler’s Chase, and Cutler’s Friend. I’m proud of those stories now. It took a lot of work to mold them into something different, and I’m happy to see them on a shelf next to my other series.

I’m also excited about Cutler’s future. The first novel starts in 2004. I figure I’ve got a lot of writing to get Cutler up to modern day.


This blog post is part of the introduction to Cutler’s Cases - a collection of short stories featuring John Cutler.

Back to blog

Leave a comment