On Chandler, Dilettantes, Getting Paid, And The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Writer

“I was as hollow and empty as the spaces between stars.” — Raymond Chandler

By PJ Parrish

I am not feeling hollow or empty today, but damn, I do love that Chandler line. More on him in a moment.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading this past fortnight, of newspapers, websites, scientific journals. It’s the times, I guess. Forcing me to focus more on the tough realities of life rather than the simple rewards of the creative process. Yet…amidst the gloom and doom, I’ve dug up some ores of joy. I hope you don’t mind me sharing a miscellany of writing wisdom today.

A Case For Being Merely Good

Sunday, Jim Bell wrote about inspiring quotes for writers, words that might help us all be better professionals. Sue followed that with inspiring rituals of great writers. So allow me to now offer something for the dilettantes among us.  This comes from Kurt Vonnegut, no less.

“When I was 15, I spent a month working on an archeological dig. I was talking to one of the archeologists one day during our lunch break and he asked those kinds of “getting to know you” questions you ask young people: Do you play sports? What’s your favorite subject? And I told him, no I don’t play any sports. I do theater, I’m in choir, I play the violin and piano, I used to take art classes.
And he went WOW. That’s amazing! And I said, “Oh no, but I’m not any good at ANY of them.”
And he said something then that I will never forget and which absolutely blew my mind because no one had ever said anything like it to me before: “I don’t think being good at things is the point of doing them. I think you’ve got all these wonderful experiences with different skills, and that all teaches you things and makes you an interesting person, no matter how well you do them.”
And that honestly changed my life. Because I went from a failure, someone who hadn’t been talented enough at anything to excel, to someone who did things because I enjoyed them. I had been raised in such an achievement-oriented environment, so inundated with the myth of Talent, that I thought it was only worth doing things if you could “Win” at them.”

I just love this. Because here are some things I love that I am pretty good at but not great at:  Piano playing, pickleball, cooking, gardening, oil painting, speaking French, juggling. It used to bother me that I did not excel at these things, but Vonnegut was onto something here. Being “good at things” is not the point. Enjoying the ride is.  I’m sure all of you have a similar list to mine. And to all of you still struggling with your first attempts at writing, or are feeling, like Vonnegut, “inundated with the myth of talent,” remember to take joy in the process.

Book Sales Soar

News we can use! From Publishers Weekly: In the first half of 2020, unit sales of print books surprised many in the industry by posting a 2.9% increase over the same period in 2019 at outlets that report to NPD BookScan, overcoming a slump in sales in early spring following the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Print sales finished 2020 up 8.2% over 2019, and that strong performance continued into 2021, with units jumping 18.5% in the first six months over the comparable period in 2020. With the exception of the juvenile nonfiction category, all the major publishing categories had double-digit sales increases in the first half of the year. Backlist had the strongest gains, up 21.4%, but frontlist sales were also solid, rising 12.4%.

People are reading! And they are buying old books of published authors. I know this for a fact because I got an Amazon royalty check this week for $45.87 and spent it on diet dog food. Seriously, this is good news. YA fiction showed the biggest jump. Click here for full report.

Never Sell Yourself Short

When I was first starting out in the novel biz decades ago, I would accept any gig that came my way. Luncheon speaker for women’s club? I’m there! Book signing at mall craft fair? Count me in! Set up a card table at a street market even though it meant driving four hours one way? No problem!  Problem is, there was a problem. I thought that I had to accept every event possible to get the word out about my books. The problem was I wasn’t getting paid for my time, or reimbursed for travel or expenses. The problem was, I didn’t sell that many books. The problem was, I was exhausted, cannibalizing myself — my limited energy and TIME — and getting very little in return.

This sad history came back to me this week via a thread on an author-friend’s Facebook page. Louis Baynard asked the hive whether it was worth it to accept most invitations to sign or promote books. Most the published authors said the line they heard most was: “The exposure will be good for you.”  To which I wrote, nuts to that. It was my good friend Elaine Viets who set me straight and said that any organization that wanted to book me as a lunch speaker had to buy X-copies of my book and include it in the price the attendees paid. I took her advice and it worked. And I also learned how to gracefully say no.  Got more writing done and was happier for it. So, those of you just starting out, I advise this: Say yes to libraries because they will shelf your books. Say yes to indie bookstores because they will hand sell you. Say no to everyone who wants to pay you in “exposure.”

Don’t believe me? Well, listen to Harlan Ellison. Warning: The language gets a little…blue.

I Wanted To Be A Literary Novelist But I Realized I Liked Plot. 

Jean Hanff Korelitz was exhausted by wrestling with the second draft of a novel that was refusing to come together. She was nervous about a meeting with her editor, who had already turned the book down once. At the meeting, an idea for a thriller popped into her head and that was the beginning of a new writing life, complete with a blurb from Stephen King.  Not sure how I feel about this one. You tell me!  Click here. 

From Chandler With Love

A couple day ago was the 133rd anniversary of the birth of Raymond Chandler, patron saint of Los Angeles noir and perhaps the most famous crime fiction writer of all time. I came very late in life to Chandler, well after I had begun my own crime fiction journey. Probably just as well that I didn’t read him early on or I would have said, “screw this” and been content to take Vonnegut’s advice and be an unpublished bad poet. But darn, Chandler’s stuff just dances.

Over at Literary Hub, Dan Sheehan went through Chandler’s nine books and pulled out some of his most iconic lines. Just a sampler:

From The Big Sleep:

  • Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.
  • It seemed like a nice neighborhood to have bad habits in.
  • I been shaking two nickels together for a month, trying to get them to mate.

From Farewell My Lovely:

  • It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.
  • She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket.
  • The coffee shop smell was strong enough to build a garage on.

Click here to read more. You won’t regret it. Or, if you’re in the middle of wrestling your WIP to the mat, maybe you will.

And Just So You Won’t Feel Alone…

I leave you with a TikTok tidbit from another Facebook writer friend Jon Merz. Turn on your sound. You’re going to like his take on “What It’s Like Writing A Novel.” Although I do think Hendricks is far superior to Sapphire gin when things are going south.


True story. #booktok #booktoker #authortok #authorsoftiktok #fyp #fypシ #foryourpage #read

♬ original sound – Jon F Merz


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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

34 thoughts on “On Chandler, Dilettantes, Getting Paid, And The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Writer

  1. Thanks, Chris, for the wonderful doses of early morning good news and advice. i had a love/hate relationship with Harlan, but when the guy was right there wasn’t any space in the room for wrong. Re: exposure…I read somewhere (it might have been at TKZ) where an author who had been asked to do something for the exposure replied, “That’s great! My rent is 800 exposures per month!”

    If I might make so bold as to add to the good news portion of the discussion…my Google newsfeed once in a while gets it right and featured an article by Theresa van Baalan titled “25 Books That Writers of Fiction Should Consider Reading” from Authors Publish. TKZ is represented. Twice. “How to Write Dazzling Dialogue” by TKZ regular James Scott Bell and “Writing the Cozy Mystery” by TKZ alumnus Nancy J. Cohen are on that list. Congratulations to both. And thank you for all of the advice we get at the click of a keyboard. https://authorspublish.com/25-books-that-writers-of-fiction-should-consider-reading/

  2. Thanks for this, Kris. Today is my book’s birthday, and I’m happy to think it’s “Good.” Never going to be great, but the fact that people I don’t know are buying it–even a few of them–makes me feel like a success.
    I don’t know where I saw your Vonnegut quote–probably Facebook recently–but it’s perfect for me. I’m doing what I love to do.

    • Congrats on launch day, Terry! And yeah, I get what you say that strangers are willing to take a chance on what you love doing. Parents, friends…we sorta of expect they show up at signings and even buy the book. Bu when a stranger calls…

  3. Thanks Chris, for all the information, advice, and humor. I especially liked the Ellison interview. Those of us who are beginners at writing should take note. On my list of “Jack of all trades, master of none,” is woodturning (where I am also a beginner). The pros in that field also complain about the newbies “giving away” their work, and the effect it has on the market and what buyers are willing to pay for quality work. In this age of mass production, people without skills in an area, don’t understand the time and experience that are required to produce a quality product.

    Have a great day!

      • Kris, sorry I spelled your name wrong, above!

        Woodturning is shaping wood while it is turning on a wood lathe, with various types of tools. The way bowls, platters, hollow vessels, and spindles are “turned.” It’s the creative branch of wood working.

  4. Thanks for mentioning the divine Chandler, Kris. Always a pleasure to read, sprinkled with stylistic gems that never overtake the narrative. Two of my favorites come from his short stories:

    “I’m an occasional drinker, the kind of guy who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Singapore with a full beard.”


    There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Ana’s that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks.

  5. The Chandler quotes made me think of the delightfully warped parodies from The Naked Gun. My favorite Frank Drebin quote: “But there she was, just as I remembered her – that delicately beautiful face and a body that could melt a cheese sandwich from across the room.”

    • Mike, you put me in mind of the Bulwer-Lytton bad opening competition. This is my all-time favorite:

      With a curvaceous figure that Venus would have envied, a tanned, unblemished oval face framed with lustrous thick brown hair, deep azure-blue eyes fringed with long black lashes, perfect teeth that vied for competition, and a small straight nose, Marilee had a beauty that defied description.

  6. Love this, Kris! The video of Harlan is so true. Everyone expects us to work for free. Although, I had a wonderful experience with CT libraries booking Zoom events this year. Every single one asked for my fee. I told them to stock my books instead. Win-win. So far, each event led to sales.

    The TikTok video is hilarious! Thanks for the LOLs this morning. 😀

  7. Kris. Thanks for the encouragement and the great advice. I loved the videos. When it comes to being a dilettante, the piano is my weapon of choice. I love to play, but don’t love it enough to work hard at it.

    And special thanks for the great quotes from Raymond Chandler. Just the mention of his name makes me want to go soak in “The Long Good-bye.”

    • Yeah, that’s how I feel about the piano…well put: Love it but not enough to work really hard at it.

  8. Good stuff, Kris. Love Vonnegut’s quote on experience over excellence. I regularly use the line when someone finds out I was a detective. “Yes, but I wasn’t a very good detective.” Enjoy your day!

  9. Kris, thanks for sharing the encouraging news about the increase in book sales. I hope reading becomes a habit for those burned out on more shallow forms of entertainment.

    Here’s a weak tribute: After reading Raymond Chandler, I carried my laptop to the roof of a ten-story building where we jumped off together.

    • LOL! I have the same impulse myself, Debbie, after reading Chandler. The one and only. Then I realize, the world already has the one and only Raymond Chandler. It needs the one and only Debbie Burke and the one and only Dale Ivan Smith etc. 🙂

  10. Harlan Ellison was brilliant and uncompromising in his views. I’ll never forget being in the audience at a science fiction convention years ago when an audience member argued with Ellison, claiming that he had a right to his opinion. Harlan replied, “no, sir, you don’t have a right to an opinion, you have a right to an informed opinion.”

  11. Being one of those Jack-of-all-trades and master of none people, I loved the Vonnegut quote. thanks for brightening up my morning, especially with the info on publishing!

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