No Guts, No Glory

By PJ Parrish

The other day, a friend asked if he could buy me a drink. Now, our relationship is confined pretty much to the pickleball court but I knew he was struggling with his first novel. I knew he wanted some advice.

I didn’t mind. If I didn’t like helping folks, I wouldn’t be here, right? Besides, this guy had been working really hard, and he had the right attitude. So, I met him at my favorite watering hole here in Tallahassee — a tiki bar called Waterworks — and let him buy me a vodka gimlet.

“I don’t think I have what it takes,” Tom said with a heavy sigh.

“Did you read the books I recommended?”

He nodded.

“What about The Kill Zone?”

“I’m a regular lurker now.”

“What about your critique group?”

“They say they like it, but…”

I wasn’t sure what to say. I had warned him how hard it was to get published via the traditional route these days. He had done enough research into self-published to know how potholed that road was as well.

“I just don’t think I can do it,” he said.

We ordered another round.

I have to admit, I wasn’t sure what to tell Tom at that point. What was he missing? Was it craft? He was working so hard on that part, and as I read his various rewrites, I knew he was making real progress. He was a quick study, and he was far ahead of many newbie writers I had seen at conferences and workshops.

Was it perseverance? I didn’t think so. He took criticism eagerly and his energy never seemed to flag. I was a little jealous, in fact, of the fact he wrote every day without fail.

Was it talent? Well, yes, I believe you need at least a dollop. Which is why some people, know matter how long or hard they try, will never get published. Sorry, but some of this is just in the genes. And as raw as Tom’s work was, it showed flashes of genuine talent. Tom had a great idea for his book, and was adept at plotting and was really getting a grip on his characters.

I was well into the second vodka gimlet when it finally hit me. The one thing that Tom was missing was courage.

Which is not the same as perseverance. Some folks, like Tom, have great ideas but lack the courage to face the blank computer screen. Some folks start books but lack the guts to finish. And many — oh, so many! — lack the courage to then send their manuscript out into the world.

I try not to talk about rejection here too much. It can get depressing because no matter where you are on the publishing food chain, you face rejection. Looking for an agent brings you rejection. Then you get an agent and your book is rejected by editors. Then someone buys your book and the marketing department rejects it by deciding not to give it co-op support or a decent first printing. Then, Kirkus kicks you in the teeth. Then you sit at a card table at a bookstore surrounded by stacks of your book and no one stops. Or you work your ass off self-publishing your book, dropping it into the Amazon ocean where it barely makes a ripple. And then, you have to pick yourself up and try again. And again. And again.

See what I mean? It never stops. Which is why you have to have courage. The courage, like so many of our wonderful contributors, to submit your precious 450 words to TKZ’s First Page Critique and take your punches. The courage to submit your book to agents and pile up rejection letters. The courage, if you are lucky to land a contract, to hand your book over to an editor and take criticism. The courage to soldier on in the face of astronomical odds, the courage to get back up when you’ve been knocked down by a bad review. The courage to be true to your style when you see the same old names on the bestseller lists. The courage to keep writing because it is what you do.

My ridiculously talented sister Kelly loves to write song parodies. Here is one she wrote on Courage. Sing it to the tune of “If I Only Had a Heart.” (From the Wizard of Oz). Maybe it can inspire you to keep going.

I could be a mystery writer,
If I only was a fighter
To get what I deserve.
I could write in any fashion
If I only had the passion
If I only had the nerve.

I could write a mystery story
It’ll be so good and gory
And better than Lehane.
It would be dark and scary
And very literary
If I only had a brain.

I’d write romance kind and gentle
And awful sentimental
With lots of sexy parts.
I could capture the devotion
And all the right emotion
If I only had a heart.

To write my book…to send it out and get a look
That is my dream…to see my work…on the big screen.

See, I have this great idea
About a mob-run pizzeria
It has lots of blood and gore.
But I’d sit at home all winter
And send it through my printer
And stick it in the drawer.

Yeah, it’s good, but hear me, missy,
I was born to be a sissy,
Without the vim and verve.
But I could show my talent easy
If I wasn’t quite so queasy
And I only had the nerve.

Back at the Waterworks tiki bar, I tried to find a way to tell my friend Tom this. You have heart, I told him. You have brains. You just have to find your courage. I hope he heard me.


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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

28 thoughts on “No Guts, No Glory

  1. Thanks for sharing, Kris. You’re right on target. One needs the courage to face the possibility of failure in order to achieve success.

    BTW, I’m sure that modesty precluded you from mentioning that Kelly has a ridiculously talented sister as well.

  2. If someone of this profile said to me “I just don’t think I can do it,” I’d answer, “You’re right. You can’t.” Then I’d give him another poem, by Walter D. Wintle:

    If you think you are beaten, you are
    If you think you dare not, you don’t,
    If you like to win, but you think you can’t
    It is almost certain you won’t.

    If you think you’ll lose, you’re lost
    For out of the world we find,
    Success begins with a fellow’s will
    It’s all in the state of mind.

    After that it’s up to him.
    That’s the advice
    From a guy named Jim

    • Well, I’m sure he’s reading this today. (I did warn Tom I would write this). 🙂 Your poem reminds me of a verse I have carried around in my wallet since high school. Don’t know the source:

      I’d rather be a could be
      If I couldn’t be an are
      for a could be is a maybe
      with a chance of reaching par.
      I’d rather be a has been
      than a might have been, by far
      For a might have been has never been
      but a has was once an are.

  3. Great post, Kris. Every beginning writer should read it.

    Is it possible that part of that lack of courage comes from perfectionism, the fear of failure, not getting it right the first time? We stay up all night studying to get an A on the test. We want to be at the top of our class, etc. etc.

    In my previous occupation, I was held back by perfectionism all the way through grad school and training. I finally got tired of the tyranny of fear, looked around and realized I was as good as those around me, and decided it was okay to fail the first time. Heck, I needed to try it three times before I got it right.

    So, Tom (if you’re lurking), it’s the courage TO FAIL. Don’t expect perfection. Know you’re going to get it wrong the first time, maybe the first three times. So let go, enjoy the process, and tell fear to go find someone else to pick on.

    Thanks for a great post, Kris. I wish, back in my “courage-less” days, that I would have had someone like you to talk to about courage.

    Have a great week.

    • Oh definitely re the perfectionism thing. That is my bete noire. It used to really paralyze me but I have gotten beyond it for the most part. As Hemingway said. “Every first draft is shite.” (Fill in real word he used).

  4. A member of my very first in person writing group would stare and say, “You’re going to submit this. Don’t make me come get you.”
    Go for it, Tom. Not asking is the same as accepting “no” for an answer.
    (And I love Kelly’s song, Kris. Thanks for the earworm.)

    • Ha! I used to tell Kelly that when she was trying to write her first solo short story. It was accepted, I think at Ellery Queen. But after many many rewrites.

  5. Love this, Kris. Tom is fortunate to have a caring mentor like you. Kelly’s song is great.

    In the writing biz, the goalposts keep moving. You achieve an initial touchdown, the next score on your horizon is farther away. And the next and the next.

    It’s climbing a mountain that has no summit.

    If Tom can’t not write, maybe he can go the distance. Wishing him good luck.

  6. This post hits home for me, Kris, and hits home in a major way. It can be so hard, not only to create, especially when you are learning the craft, but to share what you create, because of fear of failure, something I have had long experience with.

    I’ve mentioned my friend and mentor before, the late Mary Rosenblum. She was an award winning science fiction writer, who also wrote mysteries as Mary Freeman, and worked as a writing teacher and freelance editor (and was a pilot, dog trainer, tutor, cheese maker extraordinaire, sheep farmer etc). She knew the demons of fear we writers faced and counseled me on facing my own. “Find a way to overcome yours,” she told me.

    For Mary, it was about writing craft, just like it is here at the Kill Zone. It was about understanding that we learn so much by doing and by getting feedback, and by doing it again. By not being afraid to fail, and especially, by learning from “failing.”

    “Failing forward” it’s called. It’s the writer’s version of the try-fail cycle. We all go through that as writers, in one fashion or another. I find solace in knowing that this, too, is part of the process.

    Brave heart, dear writer. You can do this.

  7. Yes, I relate to the lack of courage in my WIP. It’s outside my comfort zone. I’ve failed in similar works. I know others who’ve already proven they could do the book. It’ll bring out the critics.

    Yet it needs to be written–and by me. I’m not responsible for how it’s received. I need to be faithful and do the work, experiment and have fun with it, pray, and trust.

  8. “I try not to talk about rejection here too much.” Actually, Kris, I think it’s valuable for those of us who are relatively new at this to understand the odds. Setting those expectations up front adds a dose of realism to the dream. It’s also important to know that rejection in writing is not the same as failure. The failure is refusing to get in the game.

    I love your sister’s song parody and the poem you added in your reply to JSB. A great start to the day!

    • Yeah, that’s true re rejection. It’s hard for beginning writers, when they do get rejection, to not take it personally. The rejection is not of they themselves, it’s of the work. And there are often very logical reasons a book might not be accepted by an editor that go beyond quality. You’ve given me an idea for another blog. Thanks!

  9. What’s the old saying, Kris? “If you think you can or you think you can’t, either way you’re right.” Tom, the best advice I can give you is everyone starts with their first book and some doubt that they don’t have what it takes. But they kept going, trying, learning, repeating, improving… believing.

  10. A storied editor at St Martin’s wrote something along the lines of, “If you can’t take rejection and quit, good. You have no business being a writer because it takes courage to face rejection, and you will constantly face rejection.”

    My own less elegant comment is that writing isn’t for sissies.

    Also courage= confidence = belief in yourself = get over yourself.

  11. Love the two poems. Courage to send my work out there has never been my problem. Twenty-five or so years ago I sent my proposal and three chapters out to publishers, and most came back by return mail in the SASE I enclosed with a polite rejection. Some of them never came back.

    I came across a couple of the proposals recently and shuddered when I read the first chapter…I didn’t even read the second and third. They were truly awful. Along the way, I met a writer who had kept every.single.rejection. Over 10,000. Then one day her agent called and she’d sold, not one book, but three, and one of those went on to become a NYT Best Seller.

    I hung on to that story she told and kept learning and kept writing and sending stuff out. October 26, 2012, my agent called with a three-book deal from my dream publisher. I often ask other writers, what if I’d stopped writing and sending it out in January of 2012?

    Kris, I hope your friend keeps writing and starts sending it out. Great post!

    • I was cleaning out my files the other day and came across a couple proposals or book concepts. Boy oh boy….thank god I never tried to actually write them. Cringe-worthy. If they weren’t so long, I’d show them to you guys in a blog post. Good for laughs.

  12. I’d be tickled pink to sit in a bookstore with a stack of my books and nobody showed up or asked me to sign their paycheck or said …..err, we’re closing in fifteen minutes. Make sure you take all those boxes of books with you.

    I did teach con law for fifteen years until they sent me packing for washing out too many plagiarists. The greatest motivator for any student I ever have seen is for someone to stand there with their hands on their hips and say “You’re not good enough. You’re a failure.” Don’t do this to yourself.

    Tom, internalize. Turn it around. “I’ll show those bastards.” Illegitimi non carborundum as the Latin has it. From one rookie to another.

  13. Love the poems/lyrics! I so get the no courage thing. I’ve wanted to write stories since childhood. Long ago I went to a writer’s conference and attended a small, personal session with Very Famous Author in my genre. She looked at some stuff, asked what else I had, I told her I had ten completed manuscripts on a shelf. She gave me a stare I’ll never forget and said, “Go home tonight. Pick one. Mail it in. Bring me the post office receipt tomorrow, or don’t come back.”

    And I *still* didn’t have the nerve. But my husband (my Tom) did. He started to pick one off the shelf and said he was going to mail it himself if I didn’t. That’s when I knew I had no choice, and the rest is history. All ten of those books were published, and I’m now looking at 100 in my rearview mirror.

    It was the hardest thing I’d ever done. As the best things often are.

  14. Powerful and true, Kris. Loved this. We’re knocked down so many times, over and over and over. It’s never-ending. But continuing to get back up is what we do. The ones who don’t, quit. Tom’s lucky to have a friend like you.

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