By P.J. Parrish
See that picture at left? That is my dog Bailey. The antlers are photoshopped on but I dress her up in Santa outfits every year and she’s a good sport about looking silly. Dogs can teach us writers something this holiday season. We need to lighten up.
This epiphany came after yet another of my sleepless nights. I was worrying about a plot pothole in our novella-in-progress, and about not finishing it, and then what if nobody downloads it from Kindle Select…you get the idea, right?
As usual, I retreated to the sofa and the remote. Nothing on except “The Da Vinci Code.” I know, bad movie, but I hadn’t seen it so I figured it would at least put me to sleep. And then that creepy Albino monk starts screwing barbed-wire anklets to his legs and beating himself bloody with cat ‘o nine tails. And I started thinking about all the pain we writers inflict on ourselves. Self-doubt, exhausting promotion tours, crippling envy, three-books-a-year contracts, flop-sweat fear. Hell, we don’t need Kirkus. We’re killing ourselves.
So I have some Christmas presents for you. They are the exact things you probably won’t give to yourself. But you need them. My gifts to you are…
1. Permission to write badly. I give this to myself every year because I am one of those perfectionist nuts who gets paralyzed trying to make every word sing. It has taken me a decade to understand that to get to the good stuff, you have to well, poop out a lot of crap.
2. The ability to know when you are brilliant. And you are. Even if it is just for one page, one paragraph, one sentence. You know when you’ve hit that sweet spot. You can feel it. Cherish it. You’re not going to do it every time, but you don’t need to. Brilliance, like diamonds, shines best when you think quality not quantity.
3. A friend to celebrate the good news. Even if it’s as small as you finished chapter two. Even if it’s as big as a six-figure book deal and Ridley Scott on your speed dial. Success is nothing without someone to share it.
4. An honest critic. You need that one true friend who can tell you when you have lost your way. Your mother loves you too much to tell you the truth about your book. Treasure the one who can look you in the eye and say, “this sucks, you can do better.”
5. The courage to question your agent or editor. Blind loyalty is dangerous. In politics, love…and publishing. A great agent or editor can be your biggest ally. But it is YOUR responsibility to steer your career.
6. A week off. Leave the laptop. The cell can go to hell. Find someplace to which you can truly retreat, where the world cannot intrude. I recommend St. Barts if you can afford it. But your backyard deck will do. Drink good wine. Read trash. Eat too much. Make love. Dance in the snow. Breathe in pink…breathe out blue.
7. The courage to talk to a writer “bigger” than you and know you have something to offer. The first time I found myself standing next to Lee Child I turned into the third verse of Janis Ian’s song “At Seventeen.” Years later, I still cringe but now I can talk to Lee without blathering. I just picture him naked.
8. A few extra bucks to attend a conference so you know you’re not alone. You need to get periodic infusions and if you approach cons right, you come away replenished and eager to work.
9. A walk in the woods to clear your head. You’ve got to quiet those shouting voices of doubt in your brain. This happens only in quietude. Or maybe during a drive on I-95 with “Bohemian Rapsody” blaring.
10. The clarity to recognize the seed of inspiration in the smallest things. You’re stuck. You’ve painted yourself into a corner with the plot. Take a step back and look for small things. Open your brain and all your senses. You never know where the answer will come from.
11. Time to appreciate your family for appreciating how hard you work. Your people are important. Tell them. Often.
12. Kindness to reach down to someone who admires you. No matter where you believe you are on the writer food chain, no matter how low you think you are, someone is looking up to you. Be nice to them. Karma, baby, karma…
13. Permission to spend some of that advance money or Kindle royalty check on yourself. Buy a great bottle of Meursault. Rent a red convertible. Get botox. Splurge on Celtic tickets. A friend of mine just got a new agent, signed a six-book contract with a new publisher — this after years of bad luck. She bought herself a diamond ring.
14. Courage to venture out of your comfort zone. This is a tough one because sometimes you can get wacked alongside the head for your trouble. But there is no growth without chances taken. You just have to believe you are right. Even when everyone else — and maybe even the sales — are telling you otherwise.
15. And lastly, I give you the gift of faith. Faith that someone will love your book enough to buy it. That you have another good story still inside you. That no matter how tangled your book might feel, you will find the way home. That you are….brilliant.
Peace, dear friends.
What I call it can’t be printed here. Sigh. But I get it.
I hope you’ll excuse a little BSP today. I have a short story out in the new Mystery Writers of America Anthology, VENGEANCE, edited by the wonderful Lee Child. Plus I think there’s a lesson to be learned from the long, occasionally tortuous journey this story has had over the past twelve years…
Some background first. This was the first real piece of crime fiction I ever wrote. I composed it while working with the San Francisco Writers’ Workshop back in 2000. I’ve never been much of a short story writer, but at the time I was just diving back into fiction, and figured that playing around with briefer pieces might help me find my voice. So this was one of the first (and only) stories I ever wrote. Shortly afterward, I started working on my first book (the one that never sold), and then, eventually, moved on to writing THE TUNNELS.
I always had a soft spot for this story, but had no idea what to do with it. Filled with hope, I submitted it to a few literary magazines. After it was roundly rejected by them, I shrugged and put it away in a drawer.
Fast forward to 2004. Lee Child was headlining the Book Passage Mystery Writers’ Conference, and at the last minute I scraped together enough money to attend. On the last night of the conference, all the participants were invited to read a short piece of fiction, kind of an informal critique exercise. I wasn’t happy with the opening of my novel yet, and was considering skipping the event entirely until I remembered this story. So I pulled it out of the drawer, dusted it off, and read it that night. All in all, it was well received; Lee attended the reading, and spoke with me afterward about how much he’d liked it. Which was terribly flattering, but again, I had no idea what to do with it. So back in the drawer it went.
Fast forward another seven years, to 2011. Lee emailed me out of the blue and asked if I’d ever done anything with that story from the Book Passage reading. He explained that he was putting together an anthology for the MWA centered around the theme of vigilante justice, and thought my piece might fit in perfectly. He asked if it would be all right to include it. Once I finished turning cartwheels across the room, I said yes.
So this week my little story, the first piece of crime fiction I ever wrote, was published alongside the work of some of my idols, including Lee, Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, Karin Slaughter, and Zoe Sharp. To say that I was honored to be part of this anthology would be a tremendous understatement. It really is a dream come true.
And from it, I’ve learned a few things:
a) It’s impossible to judge the true value of a writing conference. Sometimes they might seem like a waste of time and money, but you never know what may come of the contacts you make there.
b) Never empty that drawer. The story that can’t find a home today might bear fruit years down the road (or even decades!)
c) Never give up. I have to confess, when those literary magazines first snubbed my work, I was disheartened and almost tossed in the towel. I really thought the story was pretty great, and discovering that not everyone agreed was crushing. It was hard to go on when it felt like what I was writing might never be appreciated, or even read, by anyone outside my critique group. Eight published or soon-to-be-published novels (and one short story) later, I’m really happy that I decided to forge ahead.
What follows is an excerpt from my story, IT AIN’T RIGHT. The VENGEANCE Anthology is currently on sale at bookstores and online.
“It ain’t right, is all I’m saying.”
Joe just kept walking the way he always did, shovel over his shoulder, cigarette clinging to his bottom lip.
“You hear me?”
He stopped and turned, lifting his head inch by inch until his eyes found my hips then my breasts then my eyes. A dustdevil whirred away behind him, making the bottom branches of the tree dance like girls on Mayday, up and down. He stared at me long and hard, and I felt the last heat of the day seeping into my skin and down through my bones, reaching inside to meet the cold that burrowed in my stomach early that morning.
“She’s dead, ain’t she?” With his free hand he scratched his belly where the bottom of his ‘Joe’s Diner’ shirt had pulled away.
“Yeah, but just cause she’s dead don’t mean she should be put down like this.”
He looked past me, towards where the road met the hill and dove behind it, wheat tips glowing pink in the twilight. “What else we gonna do with her?”
By Jordan Dane
Everyone has heard the line – Write What You Know. When I first heard the line, the first thing that hit me was a question. What the hell did I know that would interest anybody, except my mother who is easy to please? Obviously I didn’t listen to that advice. My debut book was about a woman cop, a far cry from my accountant/commodity energy trader occupation.
Lee Child wrote on an email loop I belonged to in 2008 (of debut thriller authors he mentored as part of the International Thriller Authors debut program) that he thought it should be – Write What You Fear – because books are about emotion. Raw emotions resonate with people. We can all relate to what makes us scared or what we can hate or love. That’s not as intimidating as “write what you know” and hope someone buys it. It doesn’t take special knowledge to write about emotions you feel. It only takes an ability to dig deep, write honestly and find words to express those feelings.
Lee’s words have stayed with me.
Lately I find myself thinking about death. It’s not a subject I know a lot about, but I sure know how it makes me feel. My book ON A DARK WING (Harlequin Teen, Jan 2012) stirred these thoughts in me when I had to envision what a conversation with the Grim Reaper might entail and imagine an afterlife and a role for the Angel of Death. A young girl deals with the grief and guilt she feels after the tragic death of her mother in the book. And this week, a blogger (who will be on a tour stop for the promo of my book) asked for an interview with Death. I’ll be the voice of Death on the day of the blog post when I comment, so followers can ask their own questions. Do I have any idea what I will write? Absolutely not, but I think it’s important to keep challenging myself as an author to delve into areas of my imagination, especially when it’s most difficult.
But there’s a reason I wanted to share why writing about Death and imagining an afterlife has been particularly challenging for me. In my own life, my brother-in-law Michael (my husband’s only brother) is losing his battle with cancer. He’s in hospice now and he’s been in my thoughts and prayers for months. I can’t even imagine what that finality is like for him or his sweet wife and their family.
Sometimes the fiction we write becomes all too real…or too personal.
My post won’t be long today, but I would like to hear from those willing to share. Whether you had a personal tie-in or not, what has been the most difficult scene you’ve written or read in a book? What challenges did you face in writing it? Or why did the scene you read stick with you? Readers and/or writers can respond to this. There are scenes in books that I’ve read long ago, that I can still imagine in my head because they touched something in me that has stayed.
Please share those scenes and books that have stayed with you.