Your Writer Obituary

by James Scott Bell

Phyllis A. Whitney

Back when I was starting out on this journey, reading book after book on the craft, one of my favorites was Guide to Fiction Writing by Phyllis A. Whitney. It was just what I needed. No fluff and flowers, just practical techniques that work. I review that book every year or so, reading the portions I highlighted.

The other day I did a search for Phyllis Whitney and came across her 2008 obituary:

Novelist Phyllis A. Whitney, whose romantic suspense tales sold millions of copies and earned her top accolades from the Mystery Writers of America, has died. She was 104.

Whitney wrote more than 75 books, including three textbooks, and had about a hundred short stories published since the 1940s.

“I’ve slowed down in that I only write one book a year,” she said in a 1989 interview with The Associated Press, when she was 85. “A writer is what I am.”

Can you relate to that? Can you see yourself at 85, 90, even 100 (Herman Wouk) still writing books? Of course, we are all subject to this mortal coil and the various infirmities, slings and arrows to which it is subject. But if relative health is yours, would you continue to write because “a writer is what I am?”

Whitney’s last novel, “Amethyst Dreams,” was published in 1997. She began working on her autobiography at 102.

In 1988 Whitney was named a Grand Master, the Mystery Writers of America’s highest honor. In 1990, she received the Agatha award, for traditional mystery works typical of Agatha Christie, from Malice Domestic.

Time magazine in 1971 called Whitney one of “the best genre writers” and the only American woman in the romantic suspense field with a major reputation.

In 20th century lit circles the term “genre writer” was a putdown, a close cousin of “hack.” Even if a writer sold millions of books—a la Erle Stanley Gardner and Mickey Spillane—they were not counted as “real authors.” That distinction has largely been erased now, except among those handing out literary awards. Readers don’t think about it at all. What they want is what Whitney gave them:

She said her books were successful because “I tell a good story.”

We all agree that this is our goal. What things did Whitney do to accomplish it in book after book? That’s what Guide to Fiction Writing is about, but she does have a chapter called “The Plus Factor: That Certain Something.” There’s a lot in there, but if I can attempt to sum up it is, in Whitney’s words, a novel that says something worth saying. You find that something in a subject or theme that grabs you, then work it until you are fully, emotionally invested. “If you don’t have this emotional involvement, throw the subject away. You can’t fake conviction.”

One item more from Whitney’s obit:

“I offer optimism,” she said. “All my books have happy endings. I don’t see any point in letting my readers down at the end. I’m an optimist – people feel that in my books.”

Not every author offers an HEA (happily ever after) ending. There is great moral value in tragedy, too. The Greeks knew that. But the point of classic tragedy was to serve as a warning, and an incentive to live a life avoiding the “tragic flaw.” There’s a certain optimism in that, too. You can always offer, as the novelist John Gardner put it, “A vision of life that is worth living.”

With that, I ask you:

What would you want your writer obituary to say?

As you ponder, here are some gems from Whitney’s book:

These days in my writing I try to offer, as a “plus factor,” something unusual in the way of background or profession, and something significant in what my characters must learn in the course of the story—always remembering that reading fiction should be entertaining, and that I must first tell a story.


Probably the best way to start any story, long or short, is to show a character with a problem doing something interesting….Long expositions, descriptions, philosophizing, may entertain you, but are unlikely to grip a busy reader today. In the past we could be more leisurely.


While you’re writing, you should be satisfied to reread only whatever you wrote the day before. You do this in order to recapture your mood, reacquaint yourself with what happened last, and thus regain impetus to move ahead with the next scene.


Climax and Ending are two different things. The Climax is the big dramatic scene in which almost everything is resolved. The Ending is the wrap-up where lovers used to embrace and walk happily into the sunset. If possible, it’s a good idea to leave a thread of question in the reader’s mind right up to the last paragraph. Then let the sun go down fast, give your blessings to the characters and let them go. Let the whole book go. After all, another novel is waiting to be written, and you are eager to get to it!

34 thoughts on “Your Writer Obituary

  1. “She passed peacefully slumped over her laptop having just typed THE END to her [insert #] novel.”

    Jim, thanks for sharing Phyllis Whitney’s life as an inspiring example of a writer’s life well lived.

  2. You bring up a tough subject–what would I want my writer obituary to say? While I admire those who have written dozens of books in their lifetime, that’s not necessarily a goal of mine. Sure, I probably have about 50 book ideas in the hopper, but not all of them have been vetted to see if they are a solid idea, and I may lose interest in some of them–in fact some I have already crossed off the list.

    Plus the thing I wrestle with is if I pushed myself that hard to write that many books, writing would no longer be fun and just another job. Above all, writing is an escape for me. A chance to explore, sometimes to administer justice in a world where that is sometimes lacking.

    I have 2 book series I definitely want to finish (8-10 books in all), and if the current book goes well, possibly a 3rd series. And one short story collection that has been on my heart for quite a few years. So whatever writing time I have, I want to focus on those things. if there is more, great. If I only finish one of those series, great.

    I do always wonder if I will have writing regrets as the time comes to ‘punch out’ of life. Chances are I will. I used to always think that the older you got the more life slowed down, but as a mid-lifer, I’m finding out it just gets more hectic. LOL! But the bottom line for me is writing what I can as my life allows-not comparing myself to others’ writing accomplishments. Above all, writing is my enjoyable escape and I want it to stay that way, regardless of volume. When I’m old, I want to be as excited about writing as I was in first or second grade when I was taught how to write my first sentence and that huge lightbulb went off in my head as I began to think about the power I would have of stringing sentences together to form stories.

    Maybe that’s my epitaph–a short cryptic: “Her second grade lighbulb never went out.”

  3. “Writing saved her life.” (A bit melodramatic, and rather ironic, considering it’s for an obituary, but very true.)

  4. What an inspiring writer! Thanks for sharing her story, Jim.

    “She died with her fingers still on the keyboard, music blaring out her headphones, and her body encircled by her faithful crows, who escorted her into the afterlife.”

    • Funny, Sue. Some like blaring, some like quiet, some like smooth jazz, some like Metallica, some like rain, some like Coffitivity. But by whatever sound, let the fingers be on the keyboard, preferably having just typed THE END or SEND.

    • Now that’s going out in style, Sue! I hadn’t thought about what music I might be listening if I’m lucky enough to live very long and pass away at the keyboard. Maybe “To One in Paradise,” the last track on The Alan Parsons Project album “Tales of Mystery and Imagination” (songs about Edgar Allan Poe’s works).

  5. I loved reading today’s post about Phyllis Whitney. It brings back so many wonderful memories of helping a few of her many devoted readers find one of her books on the library shelves.

    “He died at his keyboard, having just finished his latest novel, still connecting with his readers.”

    • Seems to be a recurring theme here, Dale. Reminds me of Bing Crosby’s death. He just finished 18 holes of golf and said to his friends, “That was a great game of golf, fellas.” He started walking to the clubhouse and dropped dead.

  6. Thanks for sharing Phyllis Whitney’s wisdom with us, Jim.

    How about this as a start with an optimistic twist:

    “Kay DiBianca was the author of over one hundred novels, novellas, and short stories. 🙂 Her books were entertaining and thought-provoking, often reflecting lessons learned from a long life. DiBianca believed writing was a privilege, an act of creation that informed and satisfied the soul. Her last words were ‘Thank you.’ “

  7. Thanks for the information about Phyllis Whitney. Very inspiring.

    “With [insert number] books in the Mad River Magic series, he left a legacy for his grandchildren and their descendants.”

  8. What a great post. Thank you so much!

    “After her 100’s birthday, she fell asleep in her favorite chair, probably thinking about what to write next.”

    I can’t stop writing. Writing is my life. 👩‍💻

  9. My favorite review comments which would make good epitaphs were, “She is a smart woman’s romance writer,” and “Marilynn is a writer’s writer.”

    My favorite bit of Phyllis Whitney advice is never to have a character just thinking. If she’s folding laundry and thinking, the killer should be sneaking up on her.

  10. Thank you for these gems. I hadn’t heard of Phyillis Whitney. I looked on Amazon for her book, it’s obviously no longer being printed. I’m suspicious of the third-party sellers not to mention the prices. I’m going to save this post for future reading.

    I haven’t given any thought to my obit. However, my favorite quote from Maya Angelou sums up my life motto and would work for books as well.

    “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

  11. “Thanks for the lift.”

    I’m closer to the hundred mark than probably anybody here, but if I can get one reader to say that, my job will be done because I enjoyed the ride too.

  12. I’d already read a ton of Whitney’s novels when I found the Guide to Writing Fiction. I bought it immediately, and it’s indeed the treasure that you say it is. That book is still on my shelf, right next to three Bickhams and a little essay called “Reading For Survival” written by John D. MacDonald. I remember the part about “when the story is over, stop!” Something I had to learn early on.

    And I’m with Debbie. Keeling over at the keyboard right after typing the end, that’s how I want to go. I already broke my big goal, 100 books, so I guess I need to set a new one!

  13. This is a bit off topic but someone forwarded me this link to an interview with author Sharyn McCrumb. I thought it was interesting for several reasons, but primarily because one thing I have heard several of you mention at TKZ is that you start the next day’s writing by reviewing what you wrote the day before. She is also a subscriber to this idea. It seems to be the overwhelmingly preferred technique. 😎

  14. My obit? I think mortality’s a bore and vastly overrated in the popular mind. “He’s someplace else.” is what I want for my epitaph.

    As to the taint that literary types have put upon genre writers, I think it’s high time they were removed from their high horses. I recently checked out a book from the library on writing, written by someone I much admired who taught at Iowa (a sure ticket to be get picked up by a traditional publisher by the way).

    In it he says that literary types are drafters and designers of blueprints while genre writers are mere readers of the same-construction workers and plumbers and electricians, if you will, not fitten for polite company.

    I might have believed this a few years ago but now, now I’ll pass on the snobbery and petit-fours in favor of conviviality and a working stiff’s bar.

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