You wanna be a writer? Get real!

By P.J. Parrish

Way way back in the 1980s, when I was first starting out, I got asked by a local writers group to speak at their luncheon. The group had bagged some big-fish speakers in the past (I remember Les Standiford giving a particularly inspiring talk). But I guess they ran out of literary types so they asked me — a minnow of a romance writer at the time.

I gave a lot of thought to what I wanted to tell this group of as-yet unpubbed writers. I finally decided to focus on the marketing and business end of having your book published — the underbelly stuff like co-op advertising, how “bestseller” slots in drugstores were bought by publishers, how the New York Times bestseller list wasn’t really based on sales. I thought they needed to know what they were up against. (Remember, this was pre-Amazon days when if you self-published you were automatically assigned to the eleventh ring of hell).

Well, you’d thought I had brought a dog onto the podium and shot it there in front of them. During the Q&A, they turned on me like rabid bats, each one saying, in different words the same thing: We don’t need to hear this. We need encouragement. One guy actually stood up and said — I will never forget this — “If you are so bitter about writing, why do you even do it?”

Maybe things were different back in the 80s. Maybe writers could afford to be mushrooms — keep in the dark and fed a steady diet of manure. But not anymore. Today, if you want to survive, you have to be smart, tough and tenacious. All of you who are steady Kill Zone readers know this already. But sometimes we all — including me — need to hear it anew.

As the great western philosopher John Wayne once said: If you wanna be a pony soldier, you gotta act tough.

I still speak at alot of writers groups and on panels and such. And now that I am more battle-tested, I try hard to be kinder. But damn, if someone asks me for advice about getting published, I just can’t coddle him or her with empty platitudes and pat their hands. I believe every writer needs a Dr. Phil in their life. Someone who will tell you the truth about why your plot sucks, why your characters aren’t compelling and even why you should throw away your manuscript and start over. Someone who will read your stuff, stare you straight in the eye and say, “what WERE you thinking?”

So, as we start off into this fresh new year, let me be your Dr. Phil. Let’s start with The 15 Things You Should NEVER Do.

1. Don’t procrastinate. You must choose to write. That might mean giving up something else, like golf or sleep. Too bad. Don’t jump from idea to idea. Pick one and ride it to the end. Don’t let the first wind that blows through your life distract you. Don’t wait for inspiration to come. Inspiration comes only WHILE you’re writing. It’s so much more fun to HAVE WRITTEN a book than to actually write one. (believe me, I know…this is my worst sin.) Writing the actual book is hard. Deal with it.

2. Don’t talk your story away.  I am also guilty of this but not as much as I used to be. Writers love to yak about writing instead of actually doing it. I got this great idea about a cannibal serial killer, yada yada… Pretty soon all your yadas are used up and you can’t stand your book anymore. Talk is cheap…or in this case, costly. As Lawrence Block once said, don’t book Carnegie Hall if all you do is sing in the shower. Shut up and write.

3. Don’t try to hit a home run on your first at bat. Don’t sit down to write the Great American Novel or the next Chick Lit Bestseller. First you have a better chance of hitting the lottery than landing on the NYT’s list. Give yourself permission to write badly as you find your narrative legs. Don’t get hung up on the perfect beginning. That’s what rewriting is for. I am really struggling with this one right now because my WIP is a totally departure for me and I am sort of flailing in the dark and I think I am losing sight of the “fun” part of writing.

4. Don’t beat yourself up as you go along. Trying to craft the perfect sentence can create paralysis. If you keep going back over the stuff you’ve already written YOU WILL NEVER FINISH. Write a first draft THEN go back and rewrite. And get intimate with that delete key. It is your best friend.

5. Don’t lean on adjectives. Most of us know this mantra but it always bears repeating. Adjectives weaken writing, and a string of them is deadly. Don’t use crap like “tall dark and handsome.” Find one apt word. But the real strength in writing is found in verbs. You’re not Proust.

6. Don’t overcook your words. It’s so easy to slip into cliches and overworked words. Don’t say “white as snow.” It’s not yours. Neither is “thin as a rail, sick at heart, hard as a rock, overcome with grief.” Don’t make do with time-eroded words like “beautiful, wonderful, interesting, lovely.” Find your own words and voice. And for god’s sake, stay away from dialects. Few writers can pull it off without looking silly, y’all…. (I committed this sin in my first book).

7. Don’t over-punctuate. This is my pet peeve. Some writers use alot of exclamation marks, semi-colons and dashes. Maybe it’s because they LOOK so cool — active, even — on paper. But they are crutches to prop up weak action, poor narrative and badly organized thoughts. Worse, they are signposts demanding reactions from readers (Okay, reader, now here I want you to feel excited!) You can write a whole book with just periods, question marks, quotes and a couple commas. Try it! Make your words do the work!!!!

8. Don’t neglect your theme. Theme is WHY you are writing the book. Even genre novels — well, the best ones — have themes. Steinbeck said an author should be able to state his theme in one sentence. But don’t get didactic. Maybe your book is about a body found in the Everglades, but your theme is about environmental destruction. But if you get preachy, readers will turn off no matter how many bodies turn up in the sawgrass.

9. Don’t get personal. This is a big mistake beginners make. Save your self-expression for your journal or blog. What’s wrong with self-expression? It is general, boring, trite, sentimental. NO ONE CARES about your years operating a bar in Queens. But they might care about a Queens man who loses his bar in a poker game and then kills to get it back. NO ONE CARES about your war experience. But they might care about an army unit sent to rescue the last member of the Ryan family. The trick of good fiction is taking your personal experience and making it universal.

10. Don’t be dishonest. Great fiction is always honest. Which is not the same as personal. You don’t have to “write what you know.” But you have to be able to tap into your powers of empathy to “know” the characters and world you create. To write honestly is also to take emotional risks. We’ve all read books where the characters don’t move us. Usually it is because the writer was holding back, unwilling to spill some blood on the keyboard.

11. Don’t get seduced by research. First, it is a time-killer (See no. 1). Do your homework but don’t let it get in the way. It is easy to get blogged down in research and then you feel obligated to use it in the book. The result: James Michener book bloat.  Now sometimes, research can open new doors in your plot but be careful you don’t use stuff just because you worked so hard to find it.

12. Don’t obsess about trivial stuff. 
Will a publisher steal my idea if I submit it?
Should I get Windows 9?
Do I need an agent?
What if they want me to change it?
Can I use White-Out on the manuscript?
Should I wait until I have better conditions at home to write?

You get the idea…
Answers:
No, if your book is good, they will buy it.
Work with what you already have.
Just write the damn book first.
They will…don’t sweat it.
You’re actually worried about this?
No. Poe was penniless and died in a sewer. He didn’t wait til he had the right desk lamp.

13. Don’t listen to your wife/husband/hairdresser/mother. Someday, when you are accepting the Edgar, you can thank all the folks who love you. But while you are trying to write, keep them at arms length. Sometimes, they can get inside your head in two disparate ways. First, they can criticize you and say you will never get published. Second, they can tell you everything you write is brilliant. Both are bad for you. Find feedback from someone who will be honest with you. (And yes, sometimes, that cold eye person IS someone who loves you!) But avoid writers group if all they do is sit around and bitch and moan about how its all a big conspiracy to keep them out.

14. Don’t be afraid to rewrite. The temptation is huge, after you type THE END, to ship that puppy out. Don’t. Let it bake in the thumb drive for at least a week, then go back and read it cold. The crap will jump out at you — huge gobs of smelly stuff. You must rewrite. As many times as it takes. The first draft is made with the heart. The second, fifth and tenth, are made with the head.

15. Don’t give up. Never up, never in. Not at the plate, no chance to hit. One of the main differences between the published and unpublished writer (besides talent — duh!) is that the latter packed it in. This is a cruel, difficult, god-awful business. There is no secret formula for what editors want. There is no big conspiracy to keep you out of the club. There are, however, overworked, badly paid people sitting behind desks in New York who are overwhelmed with manuscripts but are still willing to pay money for a well-told story. There are readers out there waiting to find a new author who has a great story to tell. The trick is to find them — through a combination of talent, craftsmanship, perseverance and luck. Especially luck.

This is Dr. Phil, signing off. Now get back to that computer before I come over there and cut off your fingers….

0

How to Procrastinate


There are three steps to successful procrastination:

1.

***

Let me put it another way. I am currently in the throes of NaNoWriMo, so it seems a bit odd to pause for a meditation on procrastination. But I spend a good deal of online time chatting with fellow writers, and in one loop a discussion broke out on, of all things, the proper use of the singular possessive apostrophe (talk about having too much time on your hands!)

This is what I mean. Should you write Dickens’ books or Dickens’s books? The former sounds better, but the latter is the accepted form. I pulled out my Strunk & White and found the rule to be that for ancient proper names, like Jesus and Moses, the form is: Jesus’and Moses’. Which seems to me a little unfair to Dickens, as it’s merely his accident of birth date that gets him the extra s at the end.

One of the other writers cited the “Bible” – The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition. She said CMOS “goes for  ‘s for singular nouns ending in s––even Jesus’s name.”

Unwilling to leave it at that, and feeling a bit anti-authoritarian that day, I took five minutes and wrote a drinking song, to be sung around a table with other writers, steins of beer in hand, and sung directly to CMOS:

Your singular possessive
Is singularly regressive
And your S’s just make messes!
Halaloo halalay!

[Pause for drinking, and pounding steins on table]

When it comes to guys like Dickens
Your injunction is for chickens.
Here is what I say:
I will do it Jesus’ way!
Halaloo halalay!

[Finish with more drinking]

And that’s how you procrastinate.

What about you? What are your favorite ways to keep from working on your books? What do you find yourself doing when you know you should be writing? 
0

Procrastination Day

James Scott Bell



It is my pleasure to introduce a new feature on TKZ, Procrastination Day. A time to get away from that novel you’re writing, or that task around the house you’ve meaning to finish, and get down to some serious wasting of time.


Forget Spider Solitaire. Put away Endless Zombie Rampage. Let’s use our literary lights instead.


Let’s play the Less Interesting Books Game.


I found out about this one on Thursday, via Twitter. I was checking in and saw the hashtag #lessinterestingbooks. And it was exploding. I started in and couldn’t stop. For an hour I was chugging out less interesting book titles along with what seemed like a million other procrastinators.


Here’s how to play: You take a well known book title and tweak it a bit so it comes out as “less interesting” than the original. Here is a sampling of what I came up with in the heat of the moment:

Paradise Misplaced

The Puce Letter

The Naked and the Bruised

As You Consider It


The Seven Pillows of Wisdom

Kon Tiki Barber

Mein Kramp

Get the idea? 

Now it’s your turn. The only rule is: One title per comment. If you want to leave another title, leave another comment. 

So what books sound a little less interesting to you?
0

In the writing kitchen, what kind of cook are you?

Clare’s post yesterday about NaNoWriMo reminded me of something I wrote awhile back when I was blogging over at Killer Hobbies (KH is a great blog about mysteries that incorporate crafts, by the way). Back then I’d never heard of NaNoWriMo (maybe the contest hadn’t even been invented yet), but I’ve always known I could never survive a rapid writing marathon. Here’s a recap:

Maybe I’ve been watching too much Top Chef on TV this week, but my two obsessions in life—writing and food—have started to converge.

Because I’m on a killer deadline right now, I’ve been doing some stressed-out musing about my personal writing practices. And I’ve decided that as a writing “chef,” I am a slow cooker. You could even call me a crock-pot.

My forward progress through the first draft of a novel is chunky and irregular, like an ice cutter breaking its way across a packed-solid river. There’s the occasional hang-up on the ice as I stall for a few days, working and reworking difficult sections. My average forward progress rarely exceeds a page a day. Barely tugboat speed, in other words.

On the plus side, I write every day. Every day, at the same time of day: before dawn. Over the past year, I’ve missed only two days of writing—once when I was stuck in an airplane (when I fly, I can’t concentrate on anything more challenging than a Danielle Steel novel). And once when I was retching my guts into the toilet from a bout of stomach flu.

As a writer who produces at this relatively stately pace, I reel in shock and awe when I read that some writers can tap out thousands of words a day. In the great writing kitchen of life, these people must be the flash fryers .

My best friend from college is a flash fryer. As a student she redefined the time-honored, collegiate art of procrastination. She’d wait until well past midnight to start a paper that was due at eight a.m. the next morning. Finally, in a Selectric burst of typing and crumpled pages, she’d bang out her essay. And receive an A. One time she procrastinated so long on a paper about Chaka, King of the Zulus, that it endangered her graduation status. We still call it “Chaka time” when one of us is desperately behind on a deadline. (These days, my friend is an uber-successful sitcom writer. And still procrastinating, but man her shows are funny!)

I admire the flash fryers, but I am resigned to chugging along at my crock-pot writing pace. I have to go back (and back, and back) over sections, layering in changes, rethinking descriptors, building connections, to make the prose sing. Or at least, warble.

I figure that no matter what our cooking style, all writers are heading toward the same goal: to serve up sizzling prose to the reader’s table.

What about you? Are you a slow cooker, fast fryer, or something in-between?

0

Page One . . . Again

By John Gilstrap
Threat Warning is in the can now (look for it next July), and now it’s time to get on with the next book in the Jonathan Grave series. I’m calling it Untitled Grave 4 for the time being, but I’m reasonably certain that I’ll come up with something more compelling before the pub date rolls around in 2012.

I know the basic bones of the story, and I’ve already mapped out the kick-ass final sequence in my head. Having spent all of July and August in a panicked writing frenzy (the price of procrastination), I harbor a dream of digging right into the story and hammering it out right away, delivering a finished manuscript a few months early, thus buying time to take a more leisurely pace on the book to follow that one. Recognizing that I wrote the last 300 pages of Threat Warning in about seven weeks, I should be able to have this next book finished by April and not even be out of breath.

I should be able to do that. So, why can’t I do that?

I think it’s because I don’t like me very much during the frenzied times. Every waking hour that I’m not dedicating to my Big Boy job is dedicated to the book. I’m not much of a husband or a friend during those times, and when the pressure is finally lifted, the pleasure of not writing—the pleasure of dinner table conversations and occasional nights out—is so overwhelming that I find it difficult to sit down and write again.

Thus far, I figure I’ve written about 200 words of the next opus. Soon enough, I’ll be pulled away to respond to the inevitable editorial letter for Threat Warning, and when that’s done it’ll be the Holidays, and shortly after that, two nights per week will be consumed by American Idol (yes, I’m a rabid fan), and then, come May, if this year mimics previous years, I’ll be about 200 pages behind the power curve, and the race to catch up will begin.

Come July and ThrillerFest and the release of Threat Warning, I’ll become impossibly distracted, and then the panic will begin again. I’m beginning to think that maybe I need the crippling pressure to be motivated. Is it really procrastination if you know it’s going to happen?

As I write this, I really hope that I’ll find a way to pace myself and write consistently and regularly, so that when summer rolls around next year, I’ll be able to enjoy it. In fact, that’s the plan.

I wonder if I’ll be able to make it happen . . .

0