Making Mistakes: It’s a
Mistake Not To Make Them

Nothing will stop you from being creative so effectively as the fear of making a mistake. — John Cleese.

By PJ Parrish

I’ll never forget this piece of advice I got from my agent: “No one is waiting for your stand alone thriller.”

Immediately, my hackles went up. (As I wrote that, I realized I didn’t really know what a hackle even was so I Googled it. It is the hairs on the back of dog that shoot up when he’s angry).  I said nothing to the agent, but hackles erect, I hung up the phone, and opened the laptop to finish my stand alone thriller.

See, we were eleven books deep into our Louis Kincaid series at the time, and the series had done pretty good thus far.  We had a loyal fan base who really loved our character. We’d won some awards and cracked some bestseller lists. But here’s the thing: I had this idea for a serial killer book set in Paris and I couldn’t let go of it.  The bad guy — a professional cellist — haunted my dreams at night and kept my imagination afire during the day. I couldn’t get anything done on the series book.  The stand alone was a siren call.

Would it crash us on the rocks? Well, maybe. At the time, we were coming up on a contract renewal with our publisher and they were expecting a new Louis book. But Louis was, well,  being sort of recalcitrant. The story wasn’t moving along because he just wasn’t talking to me.  We clearly needed a vacation from each other.

So I took up with the killer cellist. The book poured out of me, uncharacteristically. (I am a really slow writer). And it was really good. I’m not being immodest here. Every writer just knows when they’re onto something.  it was solid plot-wise, filled with cool pretzelly stuff. It had a haunted protag, a prickly side-kick woman cop, and a charming villain who just had a hangup about garroting women with e-strings. It also had Paris’s catacombs, Miami’s decaying art deco hotels and crumbling Scottish castles.

What wasn’t to love?

The publisher grudgingly put it out.  No promotion, small press run and an ugly cover. (see above left for original cover and right for new cover when we re-issued it). It got some nice reviews and didn’t sell well (though it sells fine now as a back list title).  It remains one of my favorite books. We were dropped by the publisher not long after that.

Did I make a mistake?

My agent was probably just trying to tell me that we didn’t have the star-power name to write whatever we wanted, that we needed to rely on the safety our our serial reputation. Stay with what brung you to the dance, right? But no, I don’t think it was a mistake. Here’s my take-away for any of you out there who might be struggling with the fear that you might make a mistake:

Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.

Okay, that’s not my words. Albert Einstein said them. But I believe them. If you write in fear of doing something wrong, you are doomed. Whether you are venturing into a new genre, experimenting with a different plot structure, or trying to write a short story for the first time, or just switching from the comfort of first person to third, you can’t be afraid to fail.

I had to write that book. I just had to.

But how do you know when you’re onto something good? How do you trust your instinct to stay with a story when your brain might be telling you to jump on the neo-fem-jeop bandwagon? (female in jeopardy but with a new twist, of course).

That’s a hard one. No one can answer that one except you. It’s part of that chimeric thing we call voice. Why would you want to be a poor man’s Jeff Deaver? Or another sad clone of Gillian Flynn? Write the book that only you can write.

Here’s something else to chew on: Sometimes doing something the wrong way is the only way to find the right way. Writing fiction is not a straight-forward process. Yes, there are basic tenets of what makes a story work — plot structure, dialogue, all the craft stuff we talk about all the time here. But even if you follow every “rule” to the letter, there’s no guarantee you’re going to succeed. If you concentrate on what is safe, what is trendy, what is sell-able (revelation: No one really knows what will sell) you will produce junk.

Maybe, after all your work, no editor will want to publish your book. Maybe, after you work hard to get it up on Amazon yourself, not enough readers will find it. Was it a mistake?

  • Not if it helped you grow as a writer. Maybe you rushed your book into print before it was ready (ie not well edited or formatted). Sloppy doesn’t cut it.
  • Not if it made you stronger. No one is ever going to be harder on you and than you are. Rejection comes with the business at every turn.  Mistakes help you grow a shell.
  • Not if it helps you find your way to your next story. And there always had to be a next book.

So, what’s my final takeaway from all this? What did I learn from my mistake of writing the stand alone thriller that no one was waiting for?

Don’t write the book you think might sell. You have to write the book that is tearing at your insides to get out.

Write the book that keeps you up at night.

 

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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

29 thoughts on “Making Mistakes: It’s a
Mistake Not To Make Them

  1. I think you were very brave in following your gut and writing the story you felt you had to. Sorry about the publisher dropping you. Thanks for the advice. I’ll try and remember that there are no mistakes, only lessons.

    • I’ve been dropped a couple times by publishers but that’s the nature of the beast. I don’t know any author who hasn’t had this happen. Sometimes, it turns out to be a gift in disguise. But you’re right, there are lessons in everything if you know how to recognize them.

  2. I’m glad to hear you wrote your book anyway. As you were sharing your story I was thinking, ‘Truly, what harm would it be? What difference would it make?’ You already have a string of books out there both for credibility and they are earning, and readers need to be given a little credit. They may not like every book we put out but I assume any reasonable person can figure out a creative likes to experiment and write different things, or paint different art subjects, etc.

    • Yeah, that was a version of what was going on in my thought process at the time. Like: What’s the worse thing that could happen? No one buys the book. The best thing? I had a great time writing it! Most fun book ever to produce. 🙂

  3. Thanks for this, Kris. I’m at about the halfway point of a stand alone based on my trip to the British Isles, and it doesn’t quite fit with any of my other books. I tried to come up with a way to sneak it into my series, but that wasn’t feasible. I thought it could be a quick, “sappy” romance, but I can’t write those. I might have abandoned it, but I’m writing off the cost of the trip on my taxes, so I HAVE to finish it. I’m usually a pretty fast writer, but this one is dragging. I blame part of it on the current distractions and stress, but I’m not finding the same excitement when I sit down to write. I asked myself countless time if it was a mistake to try this one.
    But I’ll finish it, and perhaps I’ll feel better about hitting the keyboard each day after reading your post.

    • Good for you. Keep going, I say. Here’s something I neglected to mention: The Paris book, as Kelly and I have come to think of it, was hatched when I was having a wine at a cafe in Paris with my husband and we came up with the serial killer plot nugget. When I got home, I called Kelly and told her I had this great idea for Louis to chase a serial killer in Paris and…

      “Louis isn’t a Paris kind of guy,” Kelly said.

      She was right. Now THAT would have been a mistake.

  4. This is so timely for me, Kris. A story set in Kenya hit me three years ago. I’d kicked it around for a couple months when a new neighbor moved in — from Kenya! Not only that but he had the exact job as my anti-hero. What are the chances of that happening? Even though I took it as a sign to write the book, other projects and deadlines demanded my attention. Time passed. I’d tucked the story in the back of my mind and every once in a while I toyed with the idea of finally writing the novel. Since quarantine, it’s reared its head again and won’t let me rest. Might be time to finally write it.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to buy The Killing Song. 🙂

    • Seems there’s too much synchronicity in your experience NOT to write that Kenya book, Sue. And now, well, maybe this awful time is a gift of a sort for you to write it.

  5. David Morrell, in his book on writing, talks about finding the “inner ferret” that is gnawing at him. The big WHY he wants to tell this story. He won’t start on a project until he finds it.

    And then, sometimes it finds you and you have to write it or it won’t go away.

    But in either case it’s those little teeth that make the book more than paint-by-the-numbers.

    • Paint by numbers…good phrase. I wish I had come up with that one yesterday when I was writing this. People: Don’t be content to churn out a paint-by-number. Don’t try to be another Thomas Kinkaide (go Google him…ick). Be the next Picasso. In his blue period. Or maybe yours is pink…

    • And I’ve heard David Morrell give a version of this idea in speeches. But I never heard the “inner ferret” metaphor before. Now I can’t get that image out of my head.

  6. You are so right, Kris. It takes courage to turn away from a sure thing, but you did it. I couldn’t write another Josie Marcus cozy. The series was doing well and readers loved her, but I didn’t. I wanted to write darker books. So I switched to the Angela Richman death investigator mysteries. I’m happier writing darker books, and maybe more prolific because I made the switch.

    • I remember many conversations we had about this at the 52 Seasons restaurant back in Fort Lauderdale. 🙂 Glad you made the change!

  7. “You have to write the book that is tearing at your insides to get out.”

    I feel so fortunate to be here at TKZ. I wish I’d found y’all much sooner, because you say the things I know from my gut are true. And things I don’t know who else to tell because they wouldn’t get it.

    The above quote was given to me recently by another writing coach/friend. “If you could only write one more book, only one, write that.” The one that makes you bleed on the page (Hemingway?). The one that sends you screaming down the hall away from the keyboard, but then drives you back with a cattle prod. The one you can’t leave the planet without telling.

    I firmly believe all writers, actually all humans, have that one story. The one which, when told from the depths, adds to the beauty of what we call humanity. Writers write it. Painters paint it. Musicians sing or finger it. Architects design it. Builders build it.

    Thanks for reminding me… 🙂

    • You’re welcome. I’ve been in a position (lucky) to have contracts with publishers that compelled me to write even when I didn’t want to. I like all the books in our series, but a few less than others. They weren’t “ferret books” like Jim describes them. Oddly, one of them turned out to be our bestseller ever. So what do I know?

      Seriously, try to stay with that siren story if you can. You won’t regret it.

  8. Kris, I love this!

    There are so many gray areas in this biz that there’s rarely a clear answer to what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s brilliant and what’s stupid. What may appear at first to be a bad decision can turn around in a few years to become a great decision. And vice versa.

    What matters most is how you handle negative outcomes. Every experience–positive and negative–teaches a valuable lesson called wisdom.

    Adding Killing Song to my Kindle.

  9. Great post! I took my writing a new direction this year, and while it’s been a fun ride, I do miss my “regular” stuff, so probably heading back that direction after my diversion. But no regrets!

    • I get that, Karla. After the stand alone, I was eager to get back to the series. I think of the time away as mon affaire de coeur. Had to get that new guy out of my system! Some readers wrote to ask for a sequel to the stand alone, but the story was done. Nothing left to say.

  10. I call these career paths safe paths and muse paths. Neither is wrong, both are choices that have good and bad results. You can have one or two series and write them forever if you are lucky enough to keep readers. Or you can go wherever your muse takes you.

    Colleen McCullough is my Patron Saint of muse writers. She wrote everything from the historical soap opera THE THORNE BIRDS, to murder mysteries, to science fiction, to straight up historical novels set in Ancient Rome. She was a financially successful and critically acclaimed writer, but she would have made much more money if she’s put out THORNE BIRD clones for the rest of her career.

    On the other hand, you have Dick Francis who kept writing horse racing mysteries. In the last ten or so years of his life, I felt many of his mysteries wanted to be something else, and he was fighting to stay on that safe path but was throwing in a bit of family saga and other things. The safe choice isn’t always the happy choice.

    • Good examples, Marilynn. I’m a McCullough fan as well. The Thorn Birds remains one of my old time fave books but I enjoyed her other work as well. Dick Francis…I get it, I see why his work has endured. But I don’t find it interesting enough to return to.

      Safe paths vs muse paths…good way to put it.

  11. Fantastic advice! This is a very timely post. I truly believe that what we have to offer as writers is our own take on what we are passionate about. “Mistakes” are part of writing, but, what’s really a mistake is to not follow that passion because you are afraid of making a mistake.

    I wish I’d learned this lesson sooner, but I’m glad to be following it now, as I finish the fifth and final book in my somewhat unconventional modern fantasy series.

    Moreover, I’ve been drawn to the idea of writing a mystery again, something I’ve wanted to do for years (my modern fantasies all have a crime element to them), and your post reminds me that I need to follow my passion. Trying something new and different is also a way to level up one’s writing, and that’s another reason to not be afraid of making mistakes.

    Thanks so much for this thoughtful post!

    • You’re welcome! As someone said, “Don’t try to be the next Stephen King. Be the next you.” Good luck with your fantasy series and a new mystery if that’s in the cards.

  12. This is so very true! I had one of those “ferrets” gnawing at me once, something utterly and totally unlike anything I’d written before, and it simply would NOT leave me alone. It was driving me mad. I couldn’t find the time, since I was still working full time at my PD. So finally I went to my sergeant and told him I needed to put all my days off next month together with all my days off the following month, followed by the remaining week of vacation time I had. (I was published by then and fortunately he was a big reader so he went for it) So I set aside my contracted book (read: the one I was getting paid for) and locked myself in my office and let the ferret loose.

    I only admitted after the book was eventually published and won every award it was up for and got a tremendous reader response that I wrote it in three weeks. Three weeks of 18-20 hour days, yes, but still…

  13. That second cover is great!

    I took a detour into fanfiction to play around with some ill-formed ideas. When the ideas firmed up, I started writing original novels again, quite different from anything I’d done before. So sometimes my Muse gives me a flash of inspiration and sometimes it sends me the long way around.

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