Eight Ways To Help You
Be A Smarter Writer in 2020

By PJ Parrish

I don’t do resolutions. Well, that’s not completely true. I did make one this year — to read everyday, even if for only a half hour, and only from real tree books.

But maybe you guys, as members of the tortured writers club, do try to start with a clean slate come the new year. You know, the usual stuff like make a daily word quota; write every day no matter what; stop wasting time on Facebook; get a short story published in Ellery Queen.

It’s human to want to try harder. But sometimes, setting new year writing goals can be defeating.  Because the first time you break the resolution, you break out the self-flagellation whip. Believe me, I know.  Which is why I don’t make resolutions about my writing life.

But…

The other day, I read a story called 8 Ways To Help You Live Smarter in 2020. It was in the New York Times business section and was a compilation of tips for business types. What was odd was how each of the eight ideas seemed to be relate-able to our lives as fiction writers.  The italics are from the Times story, followed by my thoughts. Here we go…

1. Find more happiness at work

As many as a third of United States workers say they don’t feel engaged at work. The reasons vary widely, and everyone’s relationship with work is unique. But there are small ways to improve any job, and those incremental improvements can add up to major increases in job satisfaction.

Well, all writers need to heed this one. I read this as don’t let writing become a chore. Approach it with the anticipation of success. That’s not Pollyanna speaking. That’s me telling myself to give in to the simple joy of putting words on paper. Maybe I should make writer resolutions…

2. Use your strengths more wisely

In the past two decades, a movement to play to our strengths has gained momentum in the world of work. It’s a travesty that many people are fixated solely on repairing their weaknesses and don’t have the chance to do what they do best every day. But it’s a problem that many people aren’t thoughtful about when to do what they do best.

How should we relate to this? Every writer has different strengths. Some of us are great plotters; others are great at character development. Some of us revel in historical research; others love the spareness of noir. What do you love to read? Chances are, it might be what your heart wants to write. Don’t write for what you think the market wants. Write what you need to write. Trust that genuinely felt and richly imagined fiction finds an audience.

3. Track — and learn from — your failures

When things go right, we’re generally pretty good at identifying why they went right — that is, if we even take time to analyze the success at all. But falling on our face gives us the rare opportunity to find and address the things that went wrong (or, even more broadly, the traits or habits that led us to fail), and it’s an opportunity we should welcome.

This doesn’t mean to dwell on your failures. It means find the lesson in the rejection letter, the hard critique, even the realization that the story you are working so hard on maybe isn’t good enough. I was dropped by two publishers, got more rejection letters than I can count, and was savaged by a  Kirkus reviewer for my debut novel. Boo hoo. Did I curl up and die? Yeah, for a couple weeks. But each time, I looked for something to help me grow. And the mean Kirkus guy? Well, he was an ass but he was right.

4. Avoid drama

Gossip at work is common, as is the desire to be a part of a group. In a new work environment, this combination can be harmful if you fall in with colleagues who are known for being negative and wasting productive time.

The world of crime writers is small. Don’t sit at the bar at Thrillerfest and bitch about what an washed-up idiot so-and-so is.  Don’t moan and groan about how the traditional publishing world is an evil cabal bent on blackballing you. Don’t wine and whine. And don’t burn any bridges. That editor who rejected you may end up at a new house and become your champion. And if you become a success, extend your hand down the ladder.

5.  Be smarter about asking for advice

It’s a request that experienced people of any industry have gotten: “Can I buy you coffee and pick your brain?” While well-intentioned, execution is everything, and sometimes these unsolicited requests for a casual, informational interviews can come off as entitled and presumptuous. And for the receiver, it can be difficult or even unrealistic for a busy professional to coordinate bespoke consultation appointments for everyone who asks.

Well, what’s our take-away here? Yes, seek out advice from those who can help you. If you go to a writer’s conference, don’t be afraid to talk to published writers and editors. It’s expected. But don’t be noodge. Don’t try to slip your manuscript under the bathroom stall door to an editor. (I actually saw this happen at SleuthFest one year).

 6. Let a friend’s success motivate you

It’s a common situation: a friend’s career is advancing while you’re stuck in what feels like an endless loop of 9 to 5 roadblocks. While it’s easy to grow jealous, you can harness that monster to propel you toward your elusive goal.

We’ve all said it — or thought it: How did that hack get published let alone make the Times list? Okay, go green for a minute but don’t let yourself marinate in envy.  It just makes you feel small and petty. And never do it in public. You’ll look like a fool. (See No. 4)

7. Have kind words for a bad idea

There are ways to turn down someone’s suggestion without being totally brutal. Ask a few questions like “What makes you think this is a good idea?” Applaud the effort. Say why — there’s a big difference between “I don’t like this” and “I don’t like this because…” Pitch an alternative. Have an idea of your own and be prepared to explain why it’s better.

This is for those of us who are in critique groups. It’s easy to tear something apart. But have some tact. Always be constructive. This is something I had to learn to do in my own group and even here with our First Page Critiques.

8. Keep cool while waiting for a response.

After obsessively rewriting an email in draft mode, polishing your resume, or tweaking a pitch, you finally hit send.  But then you’re frantically checking for a reply. Slamming the refresh button all day won’t bring desired results. Pick a replacement behavior to wean you from anxiety. Interrupt your worry spiral — go to the movies or grab a drink with a friend. Hang with select friends. Two people venting ad nauseam about shared stress is called “co-rumination.” Make an effort to lean on friends who won’t drag you into a joint state of panic.

We all need to adapt this to the writing life. Don’t send out one query and sit there refreshing your in-box. Getting a editor response takes weeks; some never respond at all. Don’t wait for an answer from the first one you ask to the prom. Send out as many queries as you can. And that advice about stewing in anxiety soup with like-minded writer friends?  Don’t do it. Stay away from black holes when you’re feeling vulnerable. Find some sunshine.

And a bonus extra 8: Beat those Sunday Scaries

As Maroon 5 famously crooned, “Sunday morning, rain is falling, steal some covers, share some skin.” You look out and realize Monday is just around the corner. The ensuing anxiety is called “Sunday scaries.” Plan an enjoyable (offline) activity like taking a walk or reading a good book. Leave the phone at home. Staying mindful about what’s happening around you will distract you from anxious thoughts about tomorrow. This will help you regain control of your worries and look forward to conquering the week rather than fearing it.

I haven’t had a 9 to 5 job for a while now, but I remember this feeling vividly. Sunday night sweats as I anticipated the horrors of what awaited me at the office in the morning. Part of the sweat came from the fact that, toward the end I was in management and I hated my job.  But I think there is a good lesson for writers in this: TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF.  Writing a book can be frustrating, lonely, terrifying, maddening. You have to schedule time away from the computer to refresh your spirit. Walking works for me. And when I’m really aggravated about the work in non-progress, I head to the pickleball court and bang the hell out of the whiffle ball for hours. Stop and look at the clouds. Take up the ukulele.  Empty your mind. So there’s room for the plot to run and the characters to start talking to you again.

Live — and write — smarter in 2020, crime dogs.

 

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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

8 thoughts on “Eight Ways To Help You
Be A Smarter Writer in 2020

  1. Lots of food for thought here, Kris, as always. And good reminders. As an indie author, I’ve managed to eliminate the submitting and waiting headaches (not counting waiting for my editor to get back to me and tell me this is the smelliest piece of garbage I’ve ever given her).
    Need to work on #6. There are still those twinges when I see someone I knew back when we were both starting, and she’s hitting the lists, making a bazillion bucks, and cranking out a new book every two months, and I read one and wonder what her readers can possibly see in the quality (or lack thereof) of her writing.

    I love #2.
    Happy New Year.

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    • Boy, I remember the hardest thing early in my career was waiting for editors or agents to respond. It was like waiting for your dog to recite the Gettysburg Address. But I’m still there with you on the envy thing. It’s human. But you have to fight it. Sometimes, there is no easily discernible thing to see when a book hits it — and stuff that seems so much better does not. We all know great writers who deserve wider success.

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  2. I’m still laughing that the Kirkus guy was an ass but right. I’ve also encountered a couple of those, so my laughing is with you. Not at you.

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    • My agent at the time told me to be savaged by Kirkus was a badge of honor. Not so sure about that.

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  3. Kris,

    Great article and advice.

    I’m surprised the engagement failure was reported so low. Gallup studies I’ve read indicate its upwards to two-thirds of the workforce aren’t engaged, thus costing the economy billions, if not trillions, each year. What’s important is to find happiness in what you do.

    I like your comment that writers should feel happy about putting words down on paper. As a newbie at this, I enjoy doing it and the challenge of trying to figure out how to write the best story I can. For you veterans, I imagine this excitement wanes with the business aspects of the profession. But, without ya’ll, what we role models would we neophytes have? More importantly, what would you’re readers be missing if no new books came out each year. Bottom line, be ecstatic that you’re making a difference in someone’s life – that’s diffidently worth gobs of happiness when times are tough.

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    • Hey Larry. Thanks for showing up. Yeah, you are right about how the business aspects of the profession can have a wearing affect on you. When I started out, writers weren’t expected to be so proactive on the biz side — you had, if you were lucky and I was — the help of on-staff marketing folks, PR staff and editors who weren’t overworked. But things have changed. So some days, it still feels like the Scary Sundays all over again — gotta get going on my marketing plan today instead of writing.

      But that’s whining, right? 🙂

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    • Excellent advice. Tattoo it on your forehead. 🙂 That’s partly why I have made a commitment to read more this year.

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