Don’t Ever Mail It In

by James Scott Bell

Jessica Strawser, editorial director of Writer’s Digest magazine, and soon-to-be debut novelist, tweeted this from the recent WD conference in New York.

I agree. The dread mistake is called “mailing it in.” It’s when you think you’ve reached a certain point in your writing where you don’t have to improve. You’ve had some success, so why sweat and strain?

That’s not how a real writer thinks. How do I define a real writer? It’s someone who honors the craft and never settles. The real writer always sets the bar a bit higher than the last jump.

Mailing it in sometimes afflicts even the A list. A series that catches on in a big way can afford the author the opportunity to spend more time on a yacht than behind a keyboard. I’ve seen that happen a couple of times, and it’s not pretty.

On the other hand, you have a writer like Dennis Lehane. There he was with a popular PI series that he could have sat on. But then he proceeds to write one of the great stand-alone crime novels of our time, Mystic River. Not content with that, a few years later he writes an epic historical called The Given Day. I’m not sure he meant this to be a series, but I suspect the popularity of the novel gave rise to the idea. Now that series character, Joe Coughlin, is going to get the Ben Affleck treatment in a major motion picture.

I like what the Amazon “best books of the month” reviewer said about the second Coughlin book, Lived by Night: “Incredibly, Lehane … becomes more masterful with each book…”

That’s the kind of accolade for which a real writer strives. Because, you see, there is a joy and a satisfaction in the striving itself. The mail-it-inners don’t have that anymore. It’s a loss to the soul.

paulnewman460I’ve referred several times to that speech Paul Newman makes in The Hustler, one of my top ten favorite movies. He is “Fast Eddie” Felson, low-level pool hustler whose been told he’s a “born loser” by the satanic gambler played by George C. Scott. One day he describes to his girl, Sarah, what the game of pool feels like when “he’s really going.” It’s…

…like a jockey must feel. He’s sittin’ on his horse, he’s got all that speed and that power underneath him… he’s comin’ into the stretch, the pressure’s on ‘im, and he knows… just feels … when to let it go and how much. Cause he’s got everything workin’ for ‘im, timing, touch… it’s a great feeling, boy, it’s a real great feeling when you’re right and you know you’re right. It’s like all of a sudden I got oil in my arm. The pool cue’s part of me. You know, it’s a pool cue, it’s got nerves in it. It’s a piece of wood, it’s got nerves in it. You feel the roll of those balls, you don’t have to look, you just know. You make shots nobody’s ever made before. I can play that game the way nobody’s ever played it before.

Sarah looks at him and says, “You’re not a loser, Eddie. You’re a winner.”

Eddie looks at her quizzically. And she says, “Some men never get to feel that way about anything.”

Get it? Don’t ever settle for mailing it in.

Now how do you get to that “Fast Eddie feeling”? These things work for me:

  1. Read widely, not just in your preferred genre. I love reading great writing, fiction or non-fiction. Right now I’m reading three books at the same time (do you do this?) I’m reading L.A. Noir by John Buntin (about Chief of Police William Parker and mobster Mickey Cohen, and the battle for Los Angeles); a collection of short stories by John O’Hara; and a two-volume biography of Andrew Jackson published in 1938 (elegant prose here of the kind we rarely see anymore).
  1. Be intentional about studying the craft. What I mean is look for books and articles and blog posts on specific subjects that are chosen to address your own writing needs. I break down the craft into what I call “seven critical success factors” –– plot, structure, characters, scenes, dialogue, voice, and meaning (or theme). I advise you try to locate your weakest area and design a self-study program that lasts a minimum of six weeks. Read books and articles on the subject, and do practice writing. Get feedback on your exercises. What if you took the next year and set out to raise your game in each area? What if you designed seven 6-week courses for yourself? (If you would like a ready-made course of study, I do have one available). Your growth will be tremendous. You’ll feel it. Just like Fast Eddie.
  1. Be a risk taker. Go to new places in your writing. You don’t have to jump genres if you’re trying to build a brand. But do something more, different, deeper in your next book.

Early in his career Dean Koontz was rolling along writing bestselling paperback thrillers under several pen names. But he wasn’t satisfied. So he set out to deepen his characterizations. He studied up on psychology and used what he learned to write Whispers. Would his wide audience for fast-paced thrills like it? It was a risk … and it became Koontz’s first New York Times bestseller.

So keep the edge. Make the writing itself (not just the results) the object of your affection. That way you’ll leave behind no regrets when your personal mail is delivered by the groundhog.screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-1-08-22-pm

25 thoughts on “Don’t Ever Mail It In

  1. I do try to read out of my zone of horror and thrillers from time to time but last time I took the detour I ended up stopping a quarter of the way through, not because I didn’t like the story but thanks to my studying of the craft I saw how paper thin the MC was. Hell she was thin as one ply toilet paper at times.

    but there have been time where the detour took me to a new author and genre I really enjoyed so it all seems to balance out in the end.

  2. Love this, Jim. Taking a risk especially spoke to me. I like writing on the edge of what I perceive as my ability, taking on craft challenges, because it pushes me to new achievements and greater confidence. That excites me. Even if no one else notices, I do and that’s good for me.

    Thanks for the timely encouragement, Jim.

  3. Thank you for this post. A great push. And somewhere in there, I need to carve out some time for a time management review.

  4. Jim, thanks for the post.

    I do try to read a craft book and a novel at the same time. Being a new writer, I’m always looking for feedback on where I need to improve.

    I’ve been reading (and rereading) Donald Maass’ WRITING 21ST CENTURY FICTION. His premise is that we need to add literary technique to genre fiction, that literary fiction needs plot and structure, i.e. we should be striving for “hybrid” fiction.

    So, I’m on a path of trying to learn literary techniques, without taking an MFA. I’m currently reading John D McDonald’s THE DEEP BLUE GOOD-BY, after comments you made about his prose. I love it. I’m studying Constance Hale’s SIN AND SYNTAX.

    What authors do you recommend reading who write “beautiful” prose? What craft books can help to learn the “hybrid” ficition Donald Maass is advocating?

    Thanks for the encouragement, the teaching, and especially the premise that “it” can be learned.

    • My Name is Aram & The Human Comedy by William Saroyan

      Raymond Chandler, of course.

      The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr

      All Over But the Shoutin′ by Rick Bragg

      Craft: Word Painting by Rebecca McClanahan

      Voice: The Secret Power of Great Writing by someone I know.

      • Thanks, Jim.

        VOICE: THE SECRET POWER OF GREAT WRITING was great. I seem to have a tall stack of every craft book that author has written. He’s a great teacher!

  5. Great advice! I’ve become invested in more than one series only to have to abandon it before its fruition due to this very problem. I hope to never be an author like that, but it’s helpful to have this reminder.

    And I will read more than one book at once, providing one is fiction and one is non-fiction. I can’t read two or more novels at the same time. If I’m not that invested in the story, I mix characters and details. And if I am thoroughly engrossed, I won’t stop reading to start a different story. 🙂

    • I can’t have more than one novel going at a time. But I read much more non-fic than fic, so that scenario doesn’t usually occur anyway.

      But it’s not uncommon for me to have 2-3 non-fic titles going at once.

  6. Oh! Can you tell me the title of the biography set you’re reading on Andrew Jackson? I started reading one of what I think was a 3 volume set called “Andrew Jackson: The Course of American Empire” by Remini (broken down by time period) but I had to return it to the library before I could finish.

    The challenge with presidential biographies is if the authors are even-handed in their treatment. I’d be curious to hear of your assessment on that matter once you finish the ones you are reading.

    RE: Targeting a specific area of study in writing–I can’t say I’ve ever done that but it would definitely be a good idea, particularly since (at least to me) revising and editing a novel can feel so overwhelming.

  7. The problem is that many writers, particularly those of series crime fiction, are REWARDED for mailing it in.

    Many I’ve read started strong and bold, caught a little lightning, got an audience from their well-received debut. Then they made a cynical if understandable career calculation — to stop growing their audience and start pandering to the one they got. I’m thinking of one well-known author of a Western crime series whose first novel was full of gorgeous prose and multilayered characters and deep themes and a first-rate sense of time and place. It got a lot of attention. But then that writer never wrote another book like it. He stopped taking chances. Instead, he pounded out interchangeable product, and now his series has devolved into the Western equivalent of an English village cozy in which the snappy banter between beloved characters has become more important than the mystery plot that loosely encircles them. It’s brilliant business if depressing art, and bears little resemblance to that first work of a hungry and talented author with something to prove to himself and to the world.

    So what do you say to a writer who sees that playing to the lowest common denominators pays off big?

    • Well, it’s their choice, isn’t it? It can be done. But I don’t think it provides real satisfaction and that will be felt at some point. Does the money provide enough solace? Philosophy and theology and human experience provide the obvious answer.

  8. “A series that catches on in a big way can afford the author the opportunity to spend more time on a yacht than behind a keyboard. I’ve seen that happen a couple of times, and it’s not pretty.”

    And what of the author who spends enough time behind the keyboard to crank out five novels a year? I picked up book 5 in a best-selling series some years ago, went back to book 1 to watch the character get to where he was in book 5. Read his breakout book, which wasn’t part of the series, and it was good. Went back to his series for a while longer. Stopped buying, but got them from the library for the next 5 or 6 books. Then stopped bothering to do that. Yet his audience doesn’t seem to mind. Nor does his publisher, obviously. Reviews are in the hundreds and hundreds, with 4 star averages.

  9. Too often I find posts and commentaries by authors inane and self-serving, but I’m pleased to come across someone who believes in raising the bar every time they sit down to put words on paper.

    I’ve been a professional author for over 30 years and my legs still go a bit weak when I cross the hallway into my writing space and commence the daily grind–starting new work or endlessly editing a piece until I’m half out of my mind.

    There are always fresh challenges, new aesthetic and creative problems to solve. Sorry all you aspiring writers, it never gets better and your worries and neuroses will never go away.

    And now, after those rousing words of encouragement, back to work…

  10. I like what you wrote about Koontz. I have several books along that line that I have a page corner turned down in: Gavin De Becker’s “The Gift of Fear,” Elaine N. Aron’s “The Highly Sensitive Person,” and Brené Brown’s “Daring Greatly.” Probably all point the finger to me to improve myself, but also my characters! Any other suggestions are welcome!

    Thanks for the kick in the butt!

  11. What a great reminder, Jim. Who was it that said that a writer needs to read 3 times as much as they write? I don’t remember, but I tell my workshops that all the time.

    I had written one shelved novel, and was working on another (that would also be shelved) when I started reviewing books for the Grand Rapids Press, in Michigan. The books editor sent me all sorts of books–from biography to lit genre to crime fic and fantasy. I had thought I was a wide reader until I started reviewing. The experience really opened up my head and made me excited about writing again.

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