Dumb Mistakes That
Will Doom Your Book


Don’t get whistled out of the game on fouls before you have a chance to show off your best moves. – Miss Snark

By PJ Parrish

So I’m watching Hassan Whiteside play in the Heat game the other night and it got me thinking about writing books. Or maybe it was Marco Rubio in his last debate. I dunno. Not sure who inspired me more. But what I want to talk about today is dumb moves.

Shooting yourself in the foot. Stepping in it. Dropping the ball. Screwing the pooch. Whatever you want to call it, this is not something you want to do in your career. Ask Whiteside. He threw an elbow into the face of his Spurs opponent and got ejected (his third this season). Or ask Rubio. He became Chris Christie’s chew toy after he robo-repeated a talking point three times in thirty seconds. (and paid for it by dropping to fifth in the New Hampshire primary.)

Hey, we’re all human. We all make mistakes. Believe me, I have. Some that adversely affected my writing career. So let’s take a look today at some of the wrong moves that can, as the great agent Miss Snark said, get you knocked out of the game before you’ve even had a chance. Your contributions to our guide to dumbness are welcome!

When writing the book…


Don’t chase the trend: We can go way back to Jaws for examples here. In the wake of Benchley’s novel, we quickly got such memorable chum as Megalodon (oil rig explosion unleashes giant shark), Carcharodan (prehistoric shark freed when iceberg melts), Extinct (killer shark preys on boys in Mississippi River) and Meg (really big pregnant shark bubbles up from Marianas Trench and eats dumb tourists.) After Anne Rice, Charlaine Harris and Stephanie Meyers dug up Bram Stoker, we got a full decade of un-deads. And après Dan Brown came le deluge of conspiracies (Templars! Cathars! Christian Inquisitors! Oh my!) Here’s my point: By the time you decide you want to follow a trend in publishing, it has begun to wane (and surely will be over in the 18 months it will take you to write it and get it to market). T.S. Eliot might have said, “Mediocre writers borrow, great writers steal.” But if you’re trying to break into the bestseller bank, chances are the money’s already gone. So think twice before you use that unreliable narrator or try to wedge “girl” in your title.  You are a snowflake. You are unique. Let your book reflect that.

Don’t be content with dull titles: Your title is your book’s billboard, meant to be glimpsed and grasped as a reader speeds by in the bookstore or on Amazon. It is ADVERTISING and it must convey in just a few words the essence, heart, and all the wonderful promise of your story. Work hard on this. Yes, slap anything on the file name as you work, but always, as you work through the writing, search for that pithy phrase that capsulizes what you are trying to say. Try Shakespeare (The Fault Is in Our Stars, Infinite Jest) or poetry (No Country For All Men — Yeats).  Go for weird juxtapositions (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) or intrigue (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil  or Then There Were None) or humor (Hello, Vodka, It’s Me, Chelsea!). Twist an old phrase (Dr. Suess’s You’re Only Old Once.). So many times, I read manuscripts (or published books) where the title feels like an after-thought, almost as if the writer used up all his juice just getting 300 pages down, breathed out whew! and then went back to page 1 and typed The Templar Conspiracy Book I. Click here for some good tips on titles.  Click here if you want to read the worst titles of maybe all time — and see some butt-ugly covers. Which leads me to…

Don’t use ugly covers: Now, if you’re traditionally published you have little control over this. (although some enlightened publishers are getting better about seeking author input.) But if you are self-pubbing, don’t let your nephew who flunked out of Pittsburgh AI design your cover. Don’t go find free lousy images and try to do this yourself. Nothing screams amateur louder than an ugly cover.  It tells potential readers that you think so poorly of your story that you’re willing to send it out in the world in dirty sweatpants and a Led Zeppelin World Tour 1971 T-shirt. Pay someone to do this. It’s worth every schekel. If you cheap out, don’t be surprised to see your ugly cover end up HERE.

After the Book is Done…

Don’t forget to copy edit it:  This is tedious. This is awful. This is grunt work that comes after even the hell of rewrites. Well, tough. After you finish your filet mignon, you have to floss. You might be really tired of looking at the thing and all you want to do is get it out there in the world, wait for someone to love it, and throw shekels your way.  Resist the urge to do this. Instead, PRINT IT OUT and read it for typos, misspellings, stupid mistakes, grammar lapses, brain farts. After you’re done, go back and do it again — maybe with a ruler held under each line so you go reeeeeal slow. I know authors who copy edit their stuff backwards so the mistakes jump out better.  You won’t get all the bad stuff. But the goal is to make it as clean and professional as you humanly can.  If you don’t know the difference between lay and lie, find someone who does. Agents and editors all say if they see dumb errors in manuscripts, they won’t read on. No one will take your words seriously until you do.

Write a great query letter:  This isn’t easy but it’s really important.  Agents want to fall in love with new talent and every affair begins with a magic moment.  A great query is simple, direct but has a terrific hook. Which is not the same as a plot summary. In Hollywood-speak, it is a “log line” that capsulizes the essence of your plot with a strong emotional pull. (ie from Aliens: “In space, no one can hear you scream.”)  This is hard writing. Even if you self-publish, learning how to write a great tease for your book will serve you well when you go to write that Amazon copy. Click here to see a simple and very serviceable query template.

Have some cajones: There is nothing worse than a falsely humble author. If you are doing a book signing, would you tell someone who walks up to your table, “Oh, I know you’re busy…you don’t really want to know about my book.” So, in your query letter, don’t spend precious words apologizing for “wasting” an agent’s time by sending them your letter. If you don’t have faith in your book, how do you expect anyone else to?  Even if you aren’t a pro yet, act like one.  Be like that wide receiver who doesn’t spike the football in the end zone — act like you belong there. (I got this one from a great blog by agent Jenny Bent.  Click here to read the rest of her advice on submitting.)


Follow the rules when submitting your novel:  Reputable agents are good people; they truly want to find the next best thing because they love good books. So be a pro and follow their rules. Research what types of novels they are looking for. Find out their names and how to spell them. (DEAR AGENT is sorta off-putting, you know?) Format your manuscript in the way they want it — ie, double-spaced, courier or roman, etc.) And finally: Don’t forget to number your pages. Don’t use colored paper or add weird stuff like glitter. And for God’s sake, don’t call your book “a fiction novel.”  You laugh? I saw the actual query letter that had that gem.

I don’t think that guy ever made it off the bench.


NEWS FLASH: There Are No Shortcuts to Success

By John Gilstrap

Everyone who does anything for a living owes it to himself to take advantage of learning opportunities.  Even after one has attained journeyman’s status, to rest on one’s laurels is to invite disaster.

Last week, I had the honor and pleasure of attending SleuthFest in Orlando, Florida.  I taught a class on pacing, and sat on three panels.  And I hung out at the bar, of course, because that’s where all business is conducted, irrespective of chosen discipline.  I met a lot of talented writers I’d never met—Heather Graham and Charlaine Harris among them—and hung out with old friends.  And, of course, there are our own Kathleen Pickering and Nancy Cohen, whom I finally met in person—Nancy in a meeting room, and Kathleen in the bar.  A lot in the bar.  I’m just sayin’ . . .

For me, the big learning moment—the a-ha moment—came during Charlaine’s luncheon keynote, and it reinforced something I’ve known and admired about Jeff Deaver for years (Jeff and Charlaine were guests of honor, along with Chris Grabenstein).  If I did my math correctly, the first book of Charlaine’s True Blood series—the one that launched her into the authorial stratosphere—was her twentieth book.  Give or take a couple of books, that was the same number of novels that Deaver had published before he became a household name with the Lincoln Rhyme series.  As Charlaine put it, she’d spent many years with $4,000 advances, pursuing what her husband had come to think of as a “well-subsidized hobby.”

I am currently pounding away at my tenth novel (fourteenth, if you count the ones that no one wanted).  I’m proud of them all, but the recent ones are so way better than the older ones.  And the ones that were never published?  Well, thank God they weren’t.

At SleuthFest, I learned (again) what I’ve long known to be the truth: writing is a business, and the only way to succeed—and success to me means hundreds of thousands of copies sold—is to keep writing and playing by the rules. Agents are more important than they’ve ever been, and brutal, professional editing is what makes the difference between passable and entertaining.

Even in these days of new media and instant gratification, the bottom line is the bottom line: There are no shortcuts to success.

All comments welcome . . .

Book Inhalation

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Just a quick post today as I have just returned from book tour for The Serpent and The Scorpion and look a little like this picture – not that my boys care. They seem happy just to have me back home (bless ’em!) I had a terrific time visiting amazing mystery bookstores (and meeting actual readers!) in LA, Houston, Seattle, Portland and of course here in the SF Bay Area. I also got to have a great time at Bouchercon in Baltimore – am I lucky or what! But above and beyond this I also got to read some terrific books – with flights and travel I get to indulge in my favorite past time – ‘book inhalation’.

I’ve been away nearly two weeks and have managed to ‘inhale’ the following books (all of which I loved):
* Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (embarrassingly I hadn’t read this until now!)
* Charlaine Harris’ first Stookie Stackhouse – Dead until Dark
* Harlan Coben’s The Woods
* Linwood Barclay’s No Time for Goodbye
* Tana French’s In The Woods followed immediately by ‘The Likeness’ – you can see how much I loved those books int hat I read both in three days!

Not bad going I must say and my brain was thankful to finally have the time to sit back and enjoy. So I loved the book tour – spent lots of time with readers, fans, other writers and bookstore owners as well as books!
Now for some sleep…Before I do some more local events this week and then off to Arizona next week!