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?”
“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.