What’s The Best And Worst
Advice You Got About Writing?

Ah, but I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now. — The Byrds

By PJ Parrish

Just for yucks, I did a search on Amazon books today for “writing advice.” I got this response — “over 50,000.” No surprise to this veteran observer. Advice is plentiful and cheap. Well, not so cheap in one author’s case: He’s charging $39.95 for his self-published eBook on self-publishing.  First piece of advice for writers: Don’t over-charge for your stuff.

I’ve gotten lots of advice in my novel writing career. Some of it good. Much of it stupid. It just took me a while to figure out which was which.

My first romance was published by Ballantine Books in 1984. Since then, I’ve worked with two traditional New York houses and Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer imprint. I’ve had at least twelve editors and two agents. I switched from romance to crime. I’ve won two Shamus Awards, two Anthonys, one Thriller Award and was nominated for an Edgar. I’ve been dropped by three publishers, including a French one, which really stung. I’ve self-published original books and backlist titles on Amazon. I’ve chaired writers conferences and felt lonely at others. I’ve given a couple keynote speeches and endured sharing a signing table at Bouchercon with Charlaine Harris, whose line wound out the door and into the hotel lobby while I had oh, maybe five people. (Charlaine is a real lady BTW…kept talking up my books). I’ve cracked bestseller lists and had royalty checks that wouldn’t buy a can of dog food. I currently do not have a publisher. I sometimes think I don’t even have a good idea.

So what did I learn?

That advice about writing is to be taken with a shaker of salt. Here’s some of the best and worst I’ve collected over the last 37 years:

Best: Just Write A Good Book. When I was just starting out and hanging around the periphery at writer’s cons, this was the one thing that was always said on panels. Don’t worry about anything else. Just write the book and make it come from your heart. I still consider this great advice because you can’t fake quality, craft and passion. Editors don’t want less-than, and readers don’t like junk. (Okay you might fool them once but they won’t buy your second book and nobody loves a one-trick pony). Hone your craft. Write the kind of book you want to read. Don’t expect shortcuts to success.

Worst: Just Write A Good Book. Because of industry contraction, it’s no longer enough to just write. Today’s crime novelists must be active participants in the marketing, promotion and even publishing process. When I started out, writers were the proverbial mushrooms — kept in the dark, fed a lot a manure and everyone hoped they’d somehow magically sprout into bestselling fungi. My early editors balked at any questions I had and never sought my input. Today, publishers routinely send writers lengthy questionaires asking for input on everything from cover design, book tone, and market strategy. And if you’re self-publishing, I don’t have to tell you what a hydra-headed beast you must be to survive.

Best: Get Out! I’m convinced that most writers are naturally introverts. We want to hide in our writer caves with our coffee and imaginary friends. Early on, I was too scared to do signings. I didn’t network or go to conferences. When I finally did go, I was too intimidated to talk up other writers, agents or editors. Big mistake. Our community is generous of spirit and the advice of those who’ve gone ahead is invaluable. Get over yourself and get out there. (And yes, some day we will all meet again face to face, I promise. First round is on me).

Worst: Write What You Know.  This sounds good. In theory. If I had heeded it, I would have never had the success I did because what do two middle-aged white female Yankees know about a biracial 20-something man in the South? Yeah, if you’re just starting out, you might want to sow more familiar ground. It gives you confidence. But it doesn’t mean that if you’re a car mechanic in Des Moines, you can’t write about a tribe of Amazon zombies in Belle Époque Paris. It means you must invest your characters with genuine emotions and experiences. It means you must build a world that is believable even if it is fantastical. Madame zombie, c’est moi. 

Best: Writing Will Bring Out The Worst In You. I heard this from a famous writer in the Hyatt bar post-Edgars eons ago. He was two sheets to the wind but what he said still resonates with me. What he meant was is that unlike regular jobs. writers don’t have easy ways to gauge our success — no weekly paychecks, no performance reviews, no boss breathing down our necks. This tends to magnify whatever is strong — or weak — within us. Are you a procrastinator? Wait until you paint yourself into that plot corner. Are you a conflict-avoider? Well, being at the mercy of a publishing house is going to drive you nuts. Are you a tangled yarn-ball of self-doubt? That first bad Amazon review is going to have you in tears. Are you full of yourself? No one will sit next to you at the bar. Know your faults and don’t let them cripple your writing.

Worst: Outline Your Book Before You Write One Word. For my second and third books, our editors required a full outline. Ours ran 20-30 pages. This is common if you’re just starting out because editors are investing in an unseen product from an untested manufacturer. (you). They give you an advance, however paltry, and hope you can produce a great book ON A DEADLINE. So traditional pubs usually want to see where the story’s going before they commit. Now, I abhor outlining. It feels like torture in a straitjacket. (Best advice I got from my agent: Just make something up that sounds good to make them happy then go ahead and change it).  I get that many of you must outline. But those of you, like me, who can’t but must — well, fake it.  You’d be surprised (as I was) that sometimes looking at a map makes you want to take that detour.

Best: Read Well and Widely. I’m ashamed to say I never read crime novels before I tried to write one. Guess what? My first attempt was awful. So I started reading P.D. James, Michael Connelly, SJ Rozan, Steve Hamilton, Ross Macdonald. Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley was a revelation. When I read Jeff Deaver, I underlined the parts that solved my craft questions. I also read some bad stuff. (no names!) which gave me confidence. Yesterday, the 2021 Edgar Award nominees were announced. Click here and maybe go buy a book or two.

Worst: Do What You Love And The Money Will Follow. This one actually comes from my friend Shane Gericke who points out that more than a million books are published every year and 95 percent of their authors still require a day job. That you love to write does not mean you will make any money at it. When I published my little romance in 1984, I was sure I was going to get rich. Didn’t take me long to wise up.

Okay, enough from me. I want to hear what you all have to say. What was the lousiest advice you ever got about this wacky business? And what was the best advice, the stuff that makes you put your butt in the chair and keep trying?

And yes, I was much much older in 1984. I’m so much younger than that now.

This entry was posted in Writing by PJ Parrish. Bookmark the permalink.

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

40 thoughts on “What’s The Best And Worst
Advice You Got About Writing?

  1. Kris, so much wisdom in your post! Thank you.

    Less experienced writers may think they’ll achieve success if only they snag a great agent or win an award or receive a six-figure advance. Those trappings of success often simply signal the beginning of new challenges with different requirements and goals. You climbed the first mountain, only to turn a corner and find an even bigger mountain before you.

    Sometimes success means just surviving and not giving up.

    Best advice came from mentor Dennis Foley: You can’t fail at writing; you can only give up.

    • Yeah, especially the award thing. I’ve got several friends who’ve won major crime awards. Yet it was no guarantee of success. Most of them still struggle or have kept their day jobs. One person agent-jumped several times, hoping that would be the right catalyst. Even after they snagged a major name, they still haven’t broken through. Geez…just re-read that. Debbie Downer here. Sorry, guys. It’s not all despair. I also have a couple friends who just kept their heads down and wrote good books and they’re doing pretty good. As Debbie says, if you go into this NOT expecting sunshine and lollipops (Lesley Gore?), you’ll make out a lot better.

      • Several friends and acquaintances received six-figure advances then never wrote another book. They were paralyzed b/c they were sure they couldn’t live up to or exceed that standard. Sad.

        • So true re advances. A really big one can set you up for failure. If you fail to make it up in sales, chances are your pub will not throw a ton of money at you again. Or even renew your contract. Happened to a very dear friend of mine. She got a million $ multi-book contract and didn’t sell thru enough. Publisher (major NY) did nothing for the two other books in her contact, which created more of a death spiral. This was years ago, pre self pubbing. She eventually found moderate success with a small house.

  2. Best: Write to a quota. Don’t just have a writing time (it’s too easy to jump over to Spider Solitaire, etc.). Writers produce words. That is, successful writers produce words on a regular basis, year after year.

    Worst: No backstory in the first fifty pages. As we discussed on Sunday, strategic backstory can do powerful work, like creating sympathy for a character who is soon to die. I do, however, caution about larding on too much, which slows the action. As a discipline, try one (and only one) paragraph of backstory in the first 10 pages. Make it count.

    • Both good points. Love the of the quota. I switched to that idea a while back (I think I got it from one of your posts) and it helped me greatly with pressure. And yes, too, to the backstory point. Your post yesterday of the Koontz opening makes that point well.

  3. Agree with JSB’s ‘write to a quota.’
    My photographer son had a little holiday Zoom get-together for his clients, and trivia games were played. He put out a quote from Ansel Adams, and it resonated with me for writing as well as photography.
    “There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.”
    Substitute “books” for “photographs” and I think that’s good advice.
    Hmmm… Maybe I’ll turn that into one of my blog posts someday.

    Worst advice. “Don’t let anything bad happen to Sarah.”

  4. Worst advice? Keep your day job—this wasn’t from a writer but well meaning friends who thought my writing dreams were just that—pipe dreams.

    Best advice—you’ve already said it. Learn the craft and don’t give up. I wrote for 30 years without getting a book published. What if I’d given up in January that thirtieth year when I got a contract in October? My 13th book is about to release.

    • Re the day job. When I was starting out, I DID quit my day job but it came after long discussions with husband about finances etc. We were in a position for me to take a shot. It worked out okay but it took us a long time to make back what I would have had in a salary.

      Congrats on no. 13! Your story is must-read for anyone still struggling to get a foothold.

  5. I need to echo Debbie. So much wisdom in one post! Thank you, Kris.

    Best Advice: Write the book you want to read.
    Worst Advice: Once you have a backlist of five books, the money will roll in, as if some magical waterfall will suddenly shower you in cash.

    • Ah yes…the myth of the backlist bankroll. And another piece of advice related to that: Don’t keep obsessing over your Amazon rating or backlist sales patterns. Or lack thereof.

  6. Best Advice: Write a good book.

    Interpretation: Write a perfect book. Stay in an endless circle rewriting it until the book is perfect.

    I see so many first time authors unable to publish because they can’t get out of the endless feedback loop.

  7. Great stuff, Kris! Best advice: Like you said – butt in chair, fingers on keys. Worst advice: It’ll be easy, they said. All you have to do is put your butt in the chair and get your fingers going on the keys.

    • I have some friends who think writing books is easy. One said to me once, “Are you ever going to get a real job again?” I should have hit him.

    • Ah, especially if you mention you write any romance genre. “One weekend, when I have time, I’ll write a romance novel.”
      Great — show it to me when you’re done.
      I recall trying to explain romantic suspense to a mystery writer at a SleuthFest conference. “Wait,” he said. “You have TWO protagonists? TWO story arcs?” He walked away shaking his head.

  8. Kris, this is great…copy & paste-worthy.

    I especially like Write the kind of book you want to read. My two current WIPs fill that bill.

    There’s a lot of truth in Writing will bring out the worst in you. I didn’t think I was so OCD before I published my first three…but there’s a missing period at the end of one sentence that I still sweat about. 🙂

    The best advice I’ve ever received: Hire professionals to do what I’m not skilled at. And the same person said, Never stop learning. (My husband is fond of saying if you’re not learning, you’re dead.)

    Worst advice: Write what’s trending in the marketplace. Nope! Not this girl. What’s trending fluctuates daily, and I don’t really know who’s in charge of the ups and downs…kinda like the stock market. I must write what I’m passionate about.

    I can live with myself if I do that.

  9. Great post, Kris. A lot of wonderful advice, and a lot of wisdom.

    I’ll apologize up-front. I’m posting this Saturday on a similar question – considerations before transitioning to full time writing. A slightly different twist on the same question. Sorry for the overlap.

    Best advice – Read the craft books, go to conferences, read the genre that you write

    Worst advice – Write what you know. If we aren’t growing by constantly learning, we’re on our way to decay. Research invigorates our imagination and provides fresh material for our stories.

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

    • I have to admit I got this idea from Kate Flora, who asked it of her FBook friends. She is going to write about it next week in her own blog mainecrimewriters.com.

  10. Even bad advice has its value because you learn why it is bad advice. Good advice the same thing. The tricky thing is that good advice at the beginning of your writing career may be very bad advice further along. Writing books of the heart is a good example. Books you NEED to write fuel your writing early on but that often turns into a stone-clad unwillingness to listen to your readers and, more importantly, the gatekeepers of publishing if you are traditionally published. I’ve watched authors implode their careers because they refuse to bend to the dictates of the market and some editor telling them “no.” In a fit of rage, they walk away from writing. Self-published authors tend to implode because they think their craft and skills are perfect from that first book and stop learning. “But my readers LOVED this book and me so I know everything” should be engraved on the tombstone of every arrogant little snot’s dead career.

    • That’s a great point, Marilynn, that advice that might work early in your career won’t mean a thing later on.

  11. Great post, Kris! Best advice for me: “There’s only one rule of fiction writing: affect the reader emotionally.” Worst advice: “Never outline and never edit.”

  12. I love this post, Kris. Not only full of great advice, but very entertaining. I enjoyed hearing about your journey.

    Best advice: “Festina Lente” — It’s a Latin phrase written at the top of the whiteboard on my desk. It means “make haste slowly.” To me it means don’t piddle around (Garry Rodgers will appreciate that), but don’t rush something out just to be published. Threading that needle is hard to figure out, but worth the effort. (The image for this is a dolphin entwined around an anchor. It’s the logo for Doubleday.)

    Worst advice: Market your book on X, Y, or Z platform and you’ll sell millions. Baloney.

    Thanks again!

    • I love that Latin phrase. It reminds me of quote from the choreographer George Balanchine who said “slower is faster.” He was talking about the need to learn craft ie walk before you try to run. But as you said, rushing something into print is very tempting but it is always a bad idea.

      Platforms???? Don’t even get me started…

  13. Loved the advice about writing bringing out the worst in writers. Though I interpreted that on an emotional level. You got to go into your own darkest moments and understand them to write deep characters.

    I’ll start with the worst advice. “On Writing by Stephen King is the best book on writing and the only one you’ll ever need.” I didn’t believe that entirely, because even though reading about how he wrote Carrie was interesting, I could only find one piece of advice in those 200+ pages. The scenario with the rabbit. Paraphrasing: it doesn’t matter what kind of cage it’s in, or what kind of table it’s on, or if the table has a table cloth, the important detail is the blue number 8 on the rabbit because that’s what the reader’s interested in. Great advice, but no where near enough.

    Best advice: These are tools we’re giving you, you choose when and what to use. Said by several authors at a virtual conference I went to in October. I had learned most of what the panels were on here, but that bit of advice just put everything in perspective.

    • As a writing teacher, I never recommend King’s book because his main advice is do it like I do which is naturally intuit how to do it. Plot magically appears on the page, for example.

      One bit of advice I did carry away was that you should make the reader care about the minor characters you slaughter. The guy the monster kills on the first pages should be heading to the 7 11 at midnight because his pregnant wife wants pickles and ice cream, and she’s eaten the last gerkin. In other words, cheap shot sadism.

      • Yes, I agree about making readers care about even the minor characters. And I would extend that to make the reader care about a murder victim, even if the victim appears only in a prologue or chapter one. You can create sympathy as you move deeper into the book, sort of in reverse. It is a very effective technique.

    • As much as I love King’s book, it isn’t the be all and end all, as you say. 🙂

  14. Awesome post!

    As a newbie, I think one of the downfalls of the current “indie revolution” is there are an endless number of “publishing gurus” looking to sell you marketing advice. You have to dig to find craft advice, but get rich quick gold rush hucksters jump from every corner. It creates a weird feeling that self-publishing appears to have more “rules” than traditional once did. You have all these “authorpreneurs” who’ve published three books telling you how to game the system: don’t write this genre, write that one. Spend a zillion bucks on ads. Have a podcast, beg for reviews, etc. etc. It’s a major distraction when getting the work itself finished is hard enough as it is.

    • Craft is easy to find. Just check out the people here, for example. On publishing, the best first advice is write what you want to read, finish that book, start the next book, then start networking with other self-pubs through organizations and follow the advice of the people who are doing it successfully.

    • Absolutely, Philip. It’s become a jungle out there. I think it’s much harder for writers now than when I started, for many reasons. The “advice” market is overwhelming now. And as you say, it can be very distracting. Try to concentrate on your craft and your story. A great piece of advice I got early on came from Jan Burke who said, “Just keep your head down and write.”

  15. Best: “Don’t waste words — and my time — describing how the coffee looks, smells and tastes — tell me about the cup, the person who served it, the place it’s served in, and the planet it’s served on.”

    Worst: “Never begin a sentence with a comma or a period.”

  16. I was mulling over best advice, and I want to share this bit for crime writers. It’s from Joseph Wambaugh – “The best crime stories aren’t about how cops work on cases. They’re about how cases work on cops.”

Comments are closed.