You wanna be a writer? Get real!

By P.J. Parrish

Way way back in the 1980s, when I was first starting out, I got asked by a local writers group to speak at their luncheon. The group had bagged some big-fish speakers in the past (I remember Les Standiford giving a particularly inspiring talk). But I guess they ran out of literary types so they asked me — a minnow of a romance writer at the time.

I gave a lot of thought to what I wanted to tell this group of as-yet unpubbed writers. I finally decided to focus on the marketing and business end of having your book published — the underbelly stuff like co-op advertising, how “bestseller” slots in drugstores were bought by publishers, how the New York Times bestseller list wasn’t really based on sales. I thought they needed to know what they were up against. (Remember, this was pre-Amazon days when if you self-published you were automatically assigned to the eleventh ring of hell).

Well, you’d thought I had brought a dog onto the podium and shot it there in front of them. During the Q&A, they turned on me like rabid bats, each one saying, in different words the same thing: We don’t need to hear this. We need encouragement. One guy actually stood up and said — I will never forget this — “If you are so bitter about writing, why do you even do it?”

Maybe things were different back in the 80s. Maybe writers could afford to be mushrooms — keep in the dark and fed a steady diet of manure. But not anymore. Today, if you want to survive, you have to be smart, tough and tenacious. All of you who are steady Kill Zone readers know this already. But sometimes we all — including me — need to hear it anew.

As the great western philosopher John Wayne once said: If you wanna be a pony soldier, you gotta act tough.

I still speak at alot of writers groups and on panels and such. And now that I am more battle-tested, I try hard to be kinder. But damn, if someone asks me for advice about getting published, I just can’t coddle him or her with empty platitudes and pat their hands. I believe every writer needs a Dr. Phil in their life. Someone who will tell you the truth about why your plot sucks, why your characters aren’t compelling and even why you should throw away your manuscript and start over. Someone who will read your stuff, stare you straight in the eye and say, “what WERE you thinking?”

So, as we start off into this fresh new year, let me be your Dr. Phil. Let’s start with The 15 Things You Should NEVER Do.

1. Don’t procrastinate. You must choose to write. That might mean giving up something else, like golf or sleep. Too bad. Don’t jump from idea to idea. Pick one and ride it to the end. Don’t let the first wind that blows through your life distract you. Don’t wait for inspiration to come. Inspiration comes only WHILE you’re writing. It’s so much more fun to HAVE WRITTEN a book than to actually write one. (believe me, I know…this is my worst sin.) Writing the actual book is hard. Deal with it.

2. Don’t talk your story away.  I am also guilty of this but not as much as I used to be. Writers love to yak about writing instead of actually doing it. I got this great idea about a cannibal serial killer, yada yada… Pretty soon all your yadas are used up and you can’t stand your book anymore. Talk is cheap…or in this case, costly. As Lawrence Block once said, don’t book Carnegie Hall if all you do is sing in the shower. Shut up and write.

3. Don’t try to hit a home run on your first at bat. Don’t sit down to write the Great American Novel or the next Chick Lit Bestseller. First you have a better chance of hitting the lottery than landing on the NYT’s list. Give yourself permission to write badly as you find your narrative legs. Don’t get hung up on the perfect beginning. That’s what rewriting is for. I am really struggling with this one right now because my WIP is a totally departure for me and I am sort of flailing in the dark and I think I am losing sight of the “fun” part of writing.

4. Don’t beat yourself up as you go along. Trying to craft the perfect sentence can create paralysis. If you keep going back over the stuff you’ve already written YOU WILL NEVER FINISH. Write a first draft THEN go back and rewrite. And get intimate with that delete key. It is your best friend.

5. Don’t lean on adjectives. Most of us know this mantra but it always bears repeating. Adjectives weaken writing, and a string of them is deadly. Don’t use crap like “tall dark and handsome.” Find one apt word. But the real strength in writing is found in verbs. You’re not Proust.

6. Don’t overcook your words. It’s so easy to slip into cliches and overworked words. Don’t say “white as snow.” It’s not yours. Neither is “thin as a rail, sick at heart, hard as a rock, overcome with grief.” Don’t make do with time-eroded words like “beautiful, wonderful, interesting, lovely.” Find your own words and voice. And for god’s sake, stay away from dialects. Few writers can pull it off without looking silly, y’all…. (I committed this sin in my first book).

7. Don’t over-punctuate. This is my pet peeve. Some writers use alot of exclamation marks, semi-colons and dashes. Maybe it’s because they LOOK so cool — active, even — on paper. But they are crutches to prop up weak action, poor narrative and badly organized thoughts. Worse, they are signposts demanding reactions from readers (Okay, reader, now here I want you to feel excited!) You can write a whole book with just periods, question marks, quotes and a couple commas. Try it! Make your words do the work!!!!

8. Don’t neglect your theme. Theme is WHY you are writing the book. Even genre novels — well, the best ones — have themes. Steinbeck said an author should be able to state his theme in one sentence. But don’t get didactic. Maybe your book is about a body found in the Everglades, but your theme is about environmental destruction. But if you get preachy, readers will turn off no matter how many bodies turn up in the sawgrass.

9. Don’t get personal. This is a big mistake beginners make. Save your self-expression for your journal or blog. What’s wrong with self-expression? It is general, boring, trite, sentimental. NO ONE CARES about your years operating a bar in Queens. But they might care about a Queens man who loses his bar in a poker game and then kills to get it back. NO ONE CARES about your war experience. But they might care about an army unit sent to rescue the last member of the Ryan family. The trick of good fiction is taking your personal experience and making it universal.

10. Don’t be dishonest. Great fiction is always honest. Which is not the same as personal. You don’t have to “write what you know.” But you have to be able to tap into your powers of empathy to “know” the characters and world you create. To write honestly is also to take emotional risks. We’ve all read books where the characters don’t move us. Usually it is because the writer was holding back, unwilling to spill some blood on the keyboard.

11. Don’t get seduced by research. First, it is a time-killer (See no. 1). Do your homework but don’t let it get in the way. It is easy to get blogged down in research and then you feel obligated to use it in the book. The result: James Michener book bloat.  Now sometimes, research can open new doors in your plot but be careful you don’t use stuff just because you worked so hard to find it.

12. Don’t obsess about trivial stuff. 
Will a publisher steal my idea if I submit it?
Should I get Windows 9?
Do I need an agent?
What if they want me to change it?
Can I use White-Out on the manuscript?
Should I wait until I have better conditions at home to write?

You get the idea…
No, if your book is good, they will buy it.
Work with what you already have.
Just write the damn book first.
They will…don’t sweat it.
You’re actually worried about this?
No. Poe was penniless and died in a sewer. He didn’t wait til he had the right desk lamp.

13. Don’t listen to your wife/husband/hairdresser/mother. Someday, when you are accepting the Edgar, you can thank all the folks who love you. But while you are trying to write, keep them at arms length. Sometimes, they can get inside your head in two disparate ways. First, they can criticize you and say you will never get published. Second, they can tell you everything you write is brilliant. Both are bad for you. Find feedback from someone who will be honest with you. (And yes, sometimes, that cold eye person IS someone who loves you!) But avoid writers group if all they do is sit around and bitch and moan about how its all a big conspiracy to keep them out.

14. Don’t be afraid to rewrite. The temptation is huge, after you type THE END, to ship that puppy out. Don’t. Let it bake in the thumb drive for at least a week, then go back and read it cold. The crap will jump out at you — huge gobs of smelly stuff. You must rewrite. As many times as it takes. The first draft is made with the heart. The second, fifth and tenth, are made with the head.

15. Don’t give up. Never up, never in. Not at the plate, no chance to hit. One of the main differences between the published and unpublished writer (besides talent — duh!) is that the latter packed it in. This is a cruel, difficult, god-awful business. There is no secret formula for what editors want. There is no big conspiracy to keep you out of the club. There are, however, overworked, badly paid people sitting behind desks in New York who are overwhelmed with manuscripts but are still willing to pay money for a well-told story. There are readers out there waiting to find a new author who has a great story to tell. The trick is to find them — through a combination of talent, craftsmanship, perseverance and luck. Especially luck.

This is Dr. Phil, signing off. Now get back to that computer before I come over there and cut off your fingers….

31 thoughts on “You wanna be a writer? Get real!

  1. Inspirational. I’m going to comment quick, then right to work. But first, I must expound on #11, the research advice, because I’ve been so disappointed with a couple of the big name authors on this one.

    I had to delete my rant. This is not the place for it, and I ended up feeling bad because I love so much of this particular author’s previous work. I’ll simply say, research should be woven into the story, not be the story. And that I love John Corey.

    I’m guilty of most of these but I had to chuckle at #2. Constantly telling myself, just shut up and write.And #12, the trivial stuff. There are day I’d rather roam around Staples looking for something I might need one day in the distant future, than write.

    • Amanda: I was once a huge fan of Michner but after three books, I felt sort of like I do after Thanksgiving dinner — “did I really need ALL that?” Ditto with Leon Uris but to a lesser degree because he’s a better writer and I did get a pretty solid education on the Irish conflict from “Trinity.” But yeah, research, when it calls attention to itself in a novel, is really offputting.

      As for Staples: I hear ya loud and clear. My local coffee shop aka office closed recently (now a sushi bar) and I devoted two weeks to finding a new one. It was a grand way to procrastinate, scoping the “right” place to write.

  2. And please don’t think I’m a bitch, but there is no such word as ‘alot’. It’s one of those things that drives me nuts and I couldn’t ignore. I tried. I really did. But then you did it again…

    Also, your email link doesn’t work on your webpage…

  3. I’m printing this out and hanging it on my wall. Even though I have a dozen books under my belt, I find myself falling over at times. This list is a great reminder. Thanks.

  4. Great list, Kris. Deserves the attention of all writers out there.

    This is a cruel, difficult, god-awful business.

    The great thing is that now writers don’t have to be paralyzed by this, because they can start their own business. Yes, it’s still a business, and there are principles that need to be understood and followed. But at least there are more options now than when you gobsmacked crowds in the 1980s….

    • James: I still think writing is a cruel difficult business, even though writers’s options have been expanded with the self-publishing model. The difference, maybe, is that even as the New York traditional publishing model is shrinking, there is more room for optimism and growth for us outside of it.

  5. Great advice, Kris.I am always violating at least one of these points everyday. It doesn’t matter how many books I write or get published, it’s still easy to fall into one of these tar pits.

  6. There should be a panel at Sleuthfest this year just called “Tough Love.” I’ll be on it with you, Kris.

    • Neil, my man! How you been? I’m game on the Tough Love panel. We sort of do one every year called “The Book Broads” wherein four women writers get to talk about anything they want to and the audience gets to ask anything they want to. It was started years ago by Barbara Parker and we have kept it going after her death. You wanna be an honorary book broad this year at SF? I can make it happen…

  7. Well done. All writers would do well to look at this list from time to time, as we all slip into one or more of the habits described occasionally.

    I sometimes tell fledgling writers I have uncovered The Secret that connect all great writres, from Shakespeare to Steinbeck to Melville to Dickens to Tolstoy to O’Connor and beyond: they finish. No amount of marketing advice, encouraging or discouraging, can hlp if they don’t finish the damn book.

  8. Great list. I tend to get carried away with research— I don’t REALLY need to learn how to speak Russian and Korean for one WIP just because I have a Russian and a Korean character. Just a little bit of research will do it.

  9. Nissa: Kelly and I got deep in the weeds in research via Skype yesterday…it started with a simple Google search of cemeteries in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We lost a full hour looking up abandoned cemeteries and oohing and ahhing over the cool pictures. It was for ONE LITTLE SCENE in the new Louis book but that didn’t stop us.

  10. Great list, PJ.
    To your anti-adjective point, I would extend it to anti-adverb too. All too often, using an adverb means the verb is too weak and there’s a better one to use.
    The only other thing: don’t go extreme on any one writing element. Balance is good. Your Michener comment fits right in there as a corollary.

  11. Great list, Kris! And I’d add to Steven’s comments above that using too many adverbs is even more damaging – and definitely the lazy way out. Use a strong, precise verb instead, as you said. And I agree with your comment about punctuation, except keep all those commas that are necessary for meaning! All the ones that keep the reader skimming along instead of stopping to reread the sentence because the lack of comma confused them the first time through.

    • Jodie,
      To comma or not to comma, that is the question. I like to leave as many out as possible, even if “proper” grammar dictates otherwise. But you need them for clarity, as you say. It’s sort of a “feel” thing, I think, in fiction as opposed to more formal writing. But don’t get me started on semi-colons…hate the darn things in fiction!

    • I agree with you about semicolons, Kris. They’re too academic and stiff-looking for fiction – too “correct”. And NEVER use them in dialogue! I suggest to my clients that they replace semicolons with dashes, periods, or commas, whichever works best in the situation, and I usually give them an alternative – often the good old em dash.

  12. Excellent advice! And as to this:

    “Trying to craft the perfect sentence can create paralysis.”

    I know you’re right, but cannot seem to break this habit. Is there hope?

  13. Mike: I feel your pain. This is my biggest problem as a writer…have fought it for years. The only thing that really works for me is a tight deadline. My writing suddenly gets pretty darn good when I am under the gun. (This goes back to my newspaper years). But my current WIP is not a series book and is therefore not on contract so the future extends like a limitless universe in front of me. Which is bad. So i decided, this new year, to impose a deadline on myself of April 1 to have half my book finished. It is working so far. Maybe you need to do something similar?

  14. As a new writer, having just received a contract offer on my first manuscript, many things remain overwhelming. Great post – I’m printing it out and will keep it handy so I can learn even more as I start my next project.

  15. This is all great advice, Kris.
    I think your “harshness” in telling unpubbed authors is actually doing them a favor. Everyone is so excited to get published that they often don’t realize they are not ready. It is hard to get honest advice when the only people reading your work are you mom (who loves it) and the copy-editor who you pay and feels they must say it is good.
    As fiction writing is new to me and somewhat completely different from the travel writing I do, I often wish there was someone I could turn to for an honest critique and not just a “you can do it!” fluff pat on the back.
    Victoria Allman
    Author of: SEAsoned: A Chef’s Journey with Her Captain

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