By P.J. Parrish
See that picture at left? That is my dog Bailey. The antlers are photoshopped on but I dress her up in Santa outfits every year and she’s a good sport about looking silly. Dogs can teach us writers something this holiday season. We need to lighten up.
This epiphany came after yet another of my sleepless nights. I was worrying about a plot pothole in our novella-in-progress, and about not finishing it, and then what if nobody downloads it from Kindle Select…you get the idea, right?
As usual, I retreated to the sofa and the remote. Nothing on except “The Da Vinci Code.” I know, bad movie, but I hadn’t seen it so I figured it would at least put me to sleep. And then that creepy Albino monk starts screwing barbed-wire anklets to his legs and beating himself bloody with cat ‘o nine tails. And I started thinking about all the pain we writers inflict on ourselves. Self-doubt, exhausting promotion tours, crippling envy, three-books-a-year contracts, flop-sweat fear. Hell, we don’t need Kirkus. We’re killing ourselves.
So I have some Christmas presents for you. They are the exact things you probably won’t give to yourself. But you need them. My gifts to you are…
1. Permission to write badly. I give this to myself every year because I am one of those perfectionist nuts who gets paralyzed trying to make every word sing. It has taken me a decade to understand that to get to the good stuff, you have to well, poop out a lot of crap.
2. The ability to know when you are brilliant. And you are. Even if it is just for one page, one paragraph, one sentence. You know when you’ve hit that sweet spot. You can feel it. Cherish it. You’re not going to do it every time, but you don’t need to. Brilliance, like diamonds, shines best when you think quality not quantity.
3. A friend to celebrate the good news. Even if it’s as small as you finished chapter two. Even if it’s as big as a six-figure book deal and Ridley Scott on your speed dial. Success is nothing without someone to share it.
4. An honest critic. You need that one true friend who can tell you when you have lost your way. Your mother loves you too much to tell you the truth about your book. Treasure the one who can look you in the eye and say, “this sucks, you can do better.”
5. The courage to question your agent or editor. Blind loyalty is dangerous. In politics, love…and publishing. A great agent or editor can be your biggest ally. But it is YOUR responsibility to steer your career.
6. A week off. Leave the laptop. The cell can go to hell. Find someplace to which you can truly retreat, where the world cannot intrude. I recommend St. Barts if you can afford it. But your backyard deck will do. Drink good wine. Read trash. Eat too much. Make love. Dance in the snow. Breathe in pink…breathe out blue.
7. The courage to talk to a writer “bigger” than you and know you have something to offer. The first time I found myself standing next to Lee Child I turned into the third verse of Janis Ian’s song “At Seventeen.” Years later, I still cringe but now I can talk to Lee without blathering. I just picture him naked.
8. A few extra bucks to attend a conference so you know you’re not alone. You need to get periodic infusions and if you approach cons right, you come away replenished and eager to work.
9. A walk in the woods to clear your head. You’ve got to quiet those shouting voices of doubt in your brain. This happens only in quietude. Or maybe during a drive on I-95 with “Bohemian Rapsody” blaring.
10. The clarity to recognize the seed of inspiration in the smallest things. You’re stuck. You’ve painted yourself into a corner with the plot. Take a step back and look for small things. Open your brain and all your senses. You never know where the answer will come from.
11. Time to appreciate your family for appreciating how hard you work. Your people are important. Tell them. Often.
12. Kindness to reach down to someone who admires you. No matter where you believe you are on the writer food chain, no matter how low you think you are, someone is looking up to you. Be nice to them. Karma, baby, karma…
13. Permission to spend some of that advance money or Kindle royalty check on yourself. Buy a great bottle of Meursault. Rent a red convertible. Get botox. Splurge on Celtic tickets. A friend of mine just got a new agent, signed a six-book contract with a new publisher — this after years of bad luck. She bought herself a diamond ring.
14. Courage to venture out of your comfort zone. This is a tough one because sometimes you can get wacked alongside the head for your trouble. But there is no growth without chances taken. You just have to believe you are right. Even when everyone else — and maybe even the sales — are telling you otherwise.
15. And lastly, I give you the gift of faith. Faith that someone will love your book enough to buy it. That you have another good story still inside you. That no matter how tangled your book might feel, you will find the way home. That you are….brilliant.
Peace, dear friends.