Want to Be a Writer?
First Be a Mensch

By PJ Parrish

After almost two decades as a crime novelist, working in a business that has seen head-spinning turmoil, I’ve found there is one thing that never seems to change — the menschness of my fellow writers.

I’m pretty sure that menschness is not a word. But maybe it should be. Because what I am trying to describe goes beyond friendliness, kindness and even camaraderie. Sure, you can find all those traits in our community. But the thing that always strikes me when I mingle at conferences, sit on panels or hoist a pinot at the hotel bar is the down-to-earth nice-guy attitudes of my fellow crime dogs.

Okay, I just went and looked up mensch so you don’t have to:

Mensch (מענטש) a Yiddish word that means “a person of integrity.” A mensch is someone who is responsible, has a sense of right and wrong and is the sort of person other people look up to. First known use 1856. In English the word has come to mean “a good guy.”

I have met lots of mensches in the mystery world. Folks who were kind to me in the beginning and gave me advice or a blurb. Big-time writers who, as Lee Child once put it, once they climb high don’t forget to reach down and pull others up a rung. Fellow mid-list authors who shared my pain and talked me off ledges. Beginning writers who sent me thank you notes for something I did or said.  With the exception of one super-successful bestselling toad-guy (who shall remain nameless here) most the people I’ve met along the way have been generous of spirit.

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MWA’s head mensch Margery Flax unpacking the Edgars before the banquet.

This point was driven home to me this past week when I went up to New York for the Edgar awards given out by Mystery Writers of America.  I’ve been chairing the banquet since 2007 and it has put me in touch with some of the biggest luminaries of our genre. (One reason I volunteer for the job!) Bear with me if I go alittle fan-girl here on you, but I want to talk about them, because sometimes us guys on the lower rungs tend to think those stars above us aren’t human.

Lee Child I met at the Las Vegas Bouchercon. During a cocktail party, I screwed up my courage and went over to introduce myself. He looked down at me (everyone does…I’m five-three and shrinking fast) and said, “You stole the title of my book, you know.” I’m standing there thinking WTF? Then Lee told me that his book One Shot had come out the same day as the MWA anthology, in which I had my first short story, “One Shot.”

“I forgive you,” Lee said. And he bought me a beer.

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Kelly and me flanking Mary Higgins Clark at our first Edgars.

Mary Higgins Clark I met at my first Edgar banquet when she came up to me when it was over and said that she had been attending the banquet for decades and this was the best one. She didn’t have to do that. But she’s a mensch.  This year, when I went to get my drink at the cocktail party, the bartender asked me in a whisper, “Is that Mary Higgins Clark over there? I’m her biggest fan.”  Wiping away visions of Misery, I took her over to meet her and Queen Mary was utterly charming.

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With Lisa Scottoline. then MWA prez.

Speaking of royalty, Lisa Scottoline is another good guy. The night she was emceeing the Edgars Prince William was getting married to Catherine Middleton. At the podium, Lisa wore a tiara in their honor. We’re both royalists and bonded over brain-lint on the Saxe-Coburg Gotha family line. Another mensch queen.

Which leads us to kings. Yeah, I got to meet him. It was my first Edgar job back in 2007 and Stephen King was named Grand Master. One of my duties was to greet him, make sure he got to interviews, a book signing and cocktail parties, and wasn’t mobbed in the Grand Hyatt lobby. I was nervous and tongue-tied. He took my hand and told me to relax. Last week, we met again because he was a Best Novel nominee. (He won for Mr. Mercedes). Not only did he remember my name, he asked what I was working on.

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I got to escort Stephen and his wife Tabitha to the nominee party, and when I walked in, you’d think I had the pope in tow. That pic is of me  (looking oddly dyspeptic) with Sara Paretsky and Brad Meltzer. As I watched King work the room (or rather the room work him), I was in awe of how unflaggingly gracious he was to everyone, no matter what their rank.

I wasn’t alone. Best nominee Ian Rankin tweeted: “Well, on the minus side I didn’t win the Edgar award – some young ruffian called Stephen King did. On the plus side I got to meet Mr King.”  From Best nominee (and one of my fave writers) Stuart Neville came this tweet: “I didn’t win the Edgar, but I got to meet Stephen King, who was very gracious in tolerating my fawning.”

Another true mensch is Brad Meltzer. I got to meet him when he was the GOH at SleuthFest and later when he was MWA president and emceed the banquet. He is funny, down-to-earth, and always has time to talk to you, no matter your status.

These are just a few of the good folks I’ve been lucky to meet. So many others have been kind to me on my way to this point in my career — Jerry Healy, Elaine Viets, James Hall, SJ Rozan, Steve Hamilton, William Kent Kreuger, Reed Farrel Coleman, Linda Fairstein, Mike Connelly, Stuart Kaminsky, Eleanor Taylor Bland, and John Gilstrap, who gave me my first blurb.

I wish I could remember who said this, but it was about what “class” was: The ability to make any other person comfortable, regardless of their status and your own. All the folks I’ve mentioned have it in spades. And after a sorta rough year, it was good to go back to New York and be reminded that no matter what winds buffet the book world, our community provides shelter and support.

But ours is a small family with long memories. So no matter where you are on the food chain, play well with others. This post was inspired by a blog I read the other day wherein the author Guy Kawasaki provides five tips on how to be a mensch. After the Edgars, I realized there are lessons in here for writers:

1. When someone has wronged you, continue to treat them with civility. For writers, don’t curl up and die at the easy slight. This happened to me years ago when a fellow writer said something not-so-nice to me in a conference bar. I stewed about it for a long time and finally decided to confront her. She apologized and said she was drunk and had been too embarrassed to bring it up. We’re friends now.

2. Give way more than you take. Volunteer to work at a conference. If you’re published, give someone a critique. Don’t just sit back and bitch; get involved. And if you are a blog lurker, don’t be shy about posting. No one wants to be that creepy guy at the party who sits silent in the corner and just watches. A good blog (like ours here at TKZ) is a conversation. It’s at its best when we all give something back. Winston Churchill said, “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”

3. Genuinely acknowledge others. If someone gets published, congratulate them, for God’s sake. If you owe someone a debt, put them in your acknowledgements. If you’re in a critique group, find something to praise. We all need praise. It is high octane fuel for the soul.

4. Embrace diversity.  If you read only light books with happy neat endings, read something dark and difficult. Or better yet, try to write it.  If you’ve never tried to write short stories, now’s the time. If nothing else you will find, as I did, that it’s not as easy as it looks. And lastly, don’t be a genre snob. If you write hardboiled noir, don’t look down your nose at cozies. (Chances are their royalty checks are bigger anyway). When I finally got around to going to Malice Domestic a few years ago, it was like being in a different world, sure, but I came to appreciate more deeply the writing of our less gritty brothers and sisters.

5. Default to kindness. In his blog, Kawasaki says the biggest deficit is not monetary—it is the lack of kindness in our interactions with others. You see this dynamic in action at any writer’s conference. We tend toward cliques. We gather with people of similar status. It’s like high school all over again. But you don’t have to give in to it. If you see someone sitting alone, gather them into your circle. If you are on a panel and someone is struggling, help them out. If you’re sharing an event or signing with someone, talk up their stuff along with your own. And if you ever find yourself in the same room as Stephen King, introduce yourself. He may keep a small boy’s heart in a jar on his desk, but he won’t bite your head off.

Be a mensch. And thank you for putting up with my fan girl pix.

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16 thoughts on “Want to Be a Writer?
First Be a Mensch

  1. Wow, Kris. Great post. I always look forward to reading yours.

    And when I’m a blog lurker,here at TKZ, it’s because the day has been so long at the office no one will see my comment. But I assure you, I’m reading them all.

    I loved your tips for writers on how to be a mensch.

    So, to put it into practice, here’s No 3 – Genuinely acknowledge others.

    You and Kelly are my favorite mystery writers. I love your Louis Kincaid series.

    I’m a beginning writer – one short published in an anthology, one novel sold but not yet out. I started writing thrillers, but am discovering that I’d rather write mysteries. So I’m studying all the craft books. And I’ve been reading your Louis Kincaid series. I tried reading some of the authors mentioned in the craft books, but I keep coming back to your series. I just enjoy it more!

    I even bought DARK OF THE MOON (used – from a re seller on Amazon). And wouldn’t you know, it was a hard cover from a library in the suburbs of Detroit -where Louis got his start. I think it’s a collector’s item. Some day I’ll catch up with you when you’re doing a conference in Michigan (I’m from Ohio) and ask you to autograph it.

    So I’m honored to get to communicate with you here on TKZ.

    Thanks for all your great posts.

  2. What a nice way to start my rainy morning, Steve. There is nothing better than having a new fan, especially if you’ve been in the biz a long time. So thanks for that. As for your own writing path, as the chestnut goes, it’s a marathon not a sprint. So enjoy the scenery as you move forward.

    As for mysteries vs thrillers…interesting topic. I think others have covered the subtle differences here before (Joe?) It’s always worth going back to, I think. I read a helpful book on the subject when I was starting out by Carolyn Wheat called “How to Write Killer Fiction” and it helped me alot. And Jodi and James have their own great contributions. Weigh in, guys.

    • Mystery vs. Thriller, always a fun debate. Without going into great detail, here’s how I define them in my workshops. A mystery generally starts with an event and spends the rest of the story discovering who caused it. A thriller generally starts with the threat of an event and spends the rest of the story trying to prevent it. Hope that helps.

  3. The further I go with my writing, the more kindness I encounter. This site has been my best experience so far. Everyday, when the email arrives, I feel lucky to have found the Kill Zone community and I look forward to reading the day’s offering. Today reminds me that I must continue to give back what I have been receiving.
    Thank you!

  4. I loved this post! What a fantastic time you had. I’m not at all surprised by the kindness of these authors. The writing community is like no other, and I’m so proud I’m able to be a part of it.

  5. This brings back memories of meeting Lee Child at the Writers’ Police Academy a couple of years back. I begged Lee Lofland to introduce me, and Mr. Child was so very gracious to someone who will never approach his caliber. I fumbled for something to say, and babbled how late I’d come to discover his books because they were billed as thrillers, and I’d “learned” that thrillers were suspense books with ‘consequences of global proportions’ and I asked if he thought the definition h had become diluted by publishers as a marketing technique. He gave me a conspiratorial smile and said asked if I wanted to know the difference between mystery/suspense and a thriller. I nodded and he leaned down (because I’m 5″4″ although maybe 5’6″ in the heels I was wearing that night), and said, “An extra zero on your advance.”

    Another mensch I met at Bouchercon was Sue Grafton, who, despite being on a tight schedule, insisted on chatting with everyone in line for autographs, even making sure I got a picture with her. “No camera? Surely you have a cell phone?” (And her accent was so unexpected, given I automatically put her in California with Kinsey Milhone.)

    • LOL! Great story about Lee. And Sue Grafton is great as well. I meet her many years ago when she was the GOH at SleuthFest. At day’s end, I headed into the bar and there she was sitting all by herself. I worked up my courage and went to tell her how much I had liked her speech and she invited me to sit with her. Well, we soon had a party at the table. She was so darn nice.

  6. And, I sorely neglected the menschness of both halves of PJ Parrish for their encouragement and critiques of my early manuscripts when I was at SleuthFest years ago. The workshop was one thing, but to find me later and say to keep with it, that the manuscript had promise, was priceless.

    • That is the best thing I could hear, Terri. I just spent the day with my critique group and they (constructively) tore my chapter apart. Good to have input you can trust.

  7. Excellent anecdotes, photos, and advice, Kris! I’m very shy so couldn’t screw up my courage to introduce myself to Lee Child four years in a row at Thrillerfest, but I enjoyed chatting several times with other talented, friendly authors like David Morrell and Steven James – two real menches, for sure!

  8. I enjoyed your post Kris. I’ve also found, for the most part, that the more famous writers are usually gracious.

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