'Not Today, Fred'


Attorney humorously addresses anxiety, depression in first novel 

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

With legal writing, attorney Brandon Helms outlines everything.

When writing his first novel, “Not Today, Fred” (White River Press $20), Helms didn’t outline it. At least, not at first.

“It wasn't until I was halfway through that I realized having an outline, with detailed ideas for each chapter, would have been helpful. And it would have streamlined all of the editing I did once the first draft was complete,” explained Helms. “Once I wrote a second draft, I had my wife and a few friends read it. After processing their criticism and feedback, I wrote a third draft. But then I made a mistake by thinking it was ready to submit to literary agents. After some early and swift rejections, I did more revisions, and I also read some books on how to write novels.”

A native of Pittsburgh, Helms, 38, grew up in Naperville, Ill. He currently lives in Grosse Pointe with his wife and two children. In 2004, he graduated from Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis., with a degree in chemistry.

 In 2007, he graduated summa cum laude from DePaul University College of Law in Chicago. He has been a practicing attorney for more than 12 years.

Since late 2014, Helms has been an Assistant U.S. Attorney, prosecuting fraud and other white-collar crimes for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit.

“I always thought I would be a doctor, but I learned in college that I disliked the rote memorization that was necessary for biology and medical school,” said Helms. “I majored in chemistry because I loved the concepts, but I knew I did not want to be a bench chemist, so I added political science as a minor. I always enjoyed writing and debating, so I figured law school would be a good fit.

“When I received my first assignments during the summer before law school began, I knew I had made the right choice. I loved everything I was reading and was excited to learn more about the law. After law school, I was still able to use my chemistry degree because I litigated patent infringement disputes between pharmaceutical companies during the eight years that I was in Chicago.”

“Not Today, Fred” was born out of Helms’ struggles with anxiety and depression.

“I’m generally upbeat and optimistic. I joke that my wife does the worrying for both of us, so depression is not an ongoing problem for me,” said Helms. “But I did have depression in 2017 when a perfect storm of events left me feeling like a black cloud was surrounding me and weighing me down. I woke up in a bad mood and went to bed stressed. I was short with friends and colleagues, and I tried to avoid people – in part because I didn’t want to see them, but also because I couldn’t hide my foul mood. I didn’t want to burden them or have to answer questions about it. Because those feelings were so unfamiliar to me, I had a hard time dealing with them.”

The sources of his depression and anxiety stemmed from both at work and at home.

“My wife and I weren't sleeping well because our 1-year-old son (at the time) wasn’t sleeping, which caused us to be irritable with one another. We were also stressed about financial issues and some other relationship issues. It was a rocky time for us,” he said. “To help cope with some of what was going on, I started going to therapy, where I realized I had some personal issues that I had never addressed. In addition, I started writing. I’m not very introspective, but all of the therapy was making me take a harder look at myself. I needed an outlet for my emotions, so I put them into the book.”

In “Not Today, Fred,” lawyer James Wright names his cloud of despair Fred as a way of coping. In the rare moments when Fred isn’t causing James to contemplate suicide, James fantasizes about his co-worker, a beautiful, kind woman named Alexis.

“One way James and I are the same is our use of humor to deal with our problems,” said Helms. “James gave his black cloud a name so he could compartmentalize his depression and hope to contain it – and make jokes about it when necessary.”

James finally asks Alexis out on a date. Soon thereafter, his life begins to change – for the better. Fred’s hold on James weakens as James’ outlook on life improves. However, James’ relationship with Alexis hits a speed bump as James realizes his emotional baggage doesn’t make it easy for him to be loved. In turn, he discovers Alexis has emotional baggage of her own.

“‘Not Today, Fred’ lets readers learn about self-discovery through positive relationships,” said Helms. “We all need them, and – hopefully – this book will inspire others or will help them get through the problems they encounter or endure.”

For this book, Helms researched the effects of long-term depression on people and how they cope. He also took ideas and anecdotes from family and friends who cope with depression.

“James’ family is based on my own, but I exaggerated certain relationships or qualities and mixed and matched, so that my brothers and mom wouldn’t be too annoyed with me. I’m not sure I succeeded in avoiding that,” explained Helms. “But for example, I’m not super close with my twin brother, but we respect each other and get along much better than James and his brother Andrew do. Other aspects of James are completely different.
His dissatisfaction with work, his desire to be alone more often than not, his suicidal fantasies, those are all things that in general I don’t have to endure.”

The eBook version of “Not Today, Fred” became available March 27. It is also available for purchase on Amazon.

Helms is currently working on his second novel, a contemporary fantasy with some science-fiction elements reminiscent of David Eddings, Piers Anthony, and J.R.R. Tolkien. He’s on the fence about writing a legal thriller along the lines of John Grisham. In fact, Helms doesn’t read legal thrillers, and he dislikes almost all legal drams on TV.

“I get too distracted by the inaccuracies and the implausible moments,” he said. “Plus, I read books and watch movies to escape from everyday life, not to immerse myself in things related to being an attorney.”

For Helms, the two biggest challenges of writing his first novel were finding the time to write and navigating the publishing industry.

“I work full time, as does my wife, and at the time that I started writing we had a 1-year-old,” said Helms. “As soon as he went to bed, I would start writing. On the weekends, I would write when I wasn’t spending time with him. But there were days when my wife just wanted to spend time with me and not with some guy maniacally typing on his computer. Now that I have a daughter too, so it’s even more challenging to find time to write. I have to treat it like a second job to keep going.”

He continued: “The other biggest challenge was learning how to navigate the publishing industry. I’m still a neophyte. I thought the hard part was going to be just writing the novel. I was wrong; it turns out lots of people can do that. The hard part is learning when to stop revising, how to write a query letter for agents, how to build your social media presence and author platform, how long to wait before querying a new agent, how to deal with the rejections that accumulate as one agent after another passes on your novel, and then what to do if you’re faced with the unenviable position of deciding whether to self-publish or throw your manuscript in a drawer and move on to a new novel.”

One surprise for Helms was realizing how vulnerable he was when letting other people read his novel.
“As a lawyer, I’m confident in my abilities and have 12 years of experience to draw upon. I know what I’m doing when I walk into a courtroom or sit down to write a brief. As a novelist, I don't have any of that. It wasn’t easy to shrug off the rejections from agents,” he explained. “When friends would critique drafts, I was defensive even when I agreed with what they said. Even with a published novel, I still feel like someone posing as an author... I’m also eagerly and anxiously awaiting the reviews of people who have purchased ‘Not Today, Fred.’” 

Still, despite the challenges and surprises, it was pretty thrilling for Helms to see the finished product.

“But even more than that, I’ve enjoyed hearing from people who don’t know me tell me how much they like the novel,” he said. “I’m hoping more and more people find it and love it.”


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