By Gar Anthony Haywood

Because then-President Ronald Reagan made it famous by appropriating it for a “no new taxes” speech to the American Business Conference in 1985, most people think . . .

. . . is the greatest line Inspector Harry Callahan of the San Francisco Police Department ever uttered.

But I beg to differ.

Clint Eastwood has snarled a lot a memorable things over the course of the five films in which he’s played the iconic Dirty Harry (DIRTY HARRY, MAGNUM FORCE, THE ENFORCER, SUDDEN IMPACT and THE DEAD POOL), but in my opinion, as meaningful snippets of film dialogue go, his “make my day” line doesn’t hold a candle to the one he dropped, more than once, in MAGNUM FORCE:

“A man’s got to know his limitations.”

While the “man” Harry was talking about was his two-faced supervising lieutenant (played to hair-raising perfection by Hal Holbrook), his statement could have applied just as easily to writers as policemen.  Because the writer who’s constantly working beyond his limitations — which is to say, outside the boundaries of his innate strengths — is probably not writing very well.

“Limitations?” you say.  “I don’t believe in limitations!”

And that’s understandable, of course.  Who among us wants to think that there are things we would like to write that we can’t?  Things, in fact, that we may be ill-suited to ever write particularly well?  Such ideas run counter to everything we’ve ever learned about the power of positive thinking and the indomitable creative spirit.

Still, I think there’s something to Dirty Harry’s declaration.

One of the most common fears we professional writers have is that an unpublished novel from out of our past will someday be discovered and published, to great critical abuse, after we’re dead.  Something we’ve determined should die unborn will instead be dredged from the depths of our effects and made public the moment we’ve been lowered into the ground.  It’s a terrible thought, isn’t it?  And yet, I don’t happen to have this particular concern.  I don’t have it because none of the dozen or so novels I attempted to write, prior to finally publishing FEAR OF THE DARK, would add up to 200 pages.  FEAR OF THE DARK was the first novel-length manuscript I ever completed; all the others petered out and died after two or three chapters.  (And this is a very good thing, people, believe me.  They were all dreadful.)

There were many reasons for all the false starts: lack of skill, preparation and commitment chief among them.  But one of the main reasons most of these novels died on the vine was that, in each case, the realization inevitably dawned on me that I was trying to write a book I was not equipped to write.  It was not my book.  Instead, it was a book outside my realm of competence: too big, too complex, too far removed from my particular life experience.

I loved spy novels, so I tried to write spy novels.  I enjoyed comic westerns, so I tried to write a comic western.  Science fiction, horror, coming-of-age melodramas — if I read it and loved it, I tried to write it, and almost always with the same disappointing result: an unreadable, unconvincing manuscript.  Only when I set my sights on FEAR OF THE DARK — a classic, hardboiled private eye novel that fit right in the groove of my interests and skill set at the time — did I write and finish a book that felt like my very own.

Did I do the right thing in pulling the plug on all those other manuscripts, rather than soldier on to each one’s ultimate conclusion?  I think I did.  I could have done a ton of research to fake my way to the very end of one or two, sure, but I don’t think that would have accomplished much, because it wasn’t just an insufficient knowledge of the material involved that made me the wrong person to be writing these particular books.  It was the fact that I had little or no personal perspective on them; I was a foreigner trying to write a book only a local could really do justice to.

I know this all sounds like an argument for that tired, age-old piece of advice that says a writer should only write what he knows, but that’s not what I’m suggesting at all.  What I am suggesting is that, just because you can learn all there is to know about something and then write a book about it, that doesn’t mean you should.  How well suited you are to write a given book doesn’t begin and end with how well informed you are about its subject matter.  There are other qualifications to consider as well, such as:

  • Insight

    What insight, based upon your own personal or professional experiences, do you have into the material?  Will you be writing from the inside looking out, or from the less advantageous perspective of an outsider trying to peer in?

  • Passion

    What reasons do you have to be passionate about this book?  What makes it one you need to write, rather than one you’d simply like to write?

  • Motivation

    Have you decided to write this particular book because it appeals to you artistically, or are you simply chasing the dime?  Would this still be your project of choice if all commercial considerations were set aside?

  • Confidence

    Is this a book you can write with a level of confidence the reader can actually feel?  Or will your self-doubts regarding your command of the material, regardless of how much research you’ve done, be noticeable on every page?

  • The Fun Quotient

    Yes, writing is work, and it’s not supposed to be all fun and games, but a book that’s well-suited to your talents and interests should, on some level, be enjoyable to write.  If, instead, you find writing it feels like a daily stint on the San Quentin rock pile, you may very well be writing somebody else’s novel, not yours.

In baseball, they call the area around the plate in which a pitched ball is most likely to be pounded by a given batter his “wheelhouse,” and I believe all writers have wheelhouses of their own.   That’s where your best work lies.  Over time, as you grow as a writer, your wheelhouse grows naturally right along with you, broadening the range of material you can write reasonably well.  But unless you’re one of those rare genetic mutations who are capable of writing anything they choose with equal brilliance, there will always be books that reside outside your wheelhouse, and those are the ones you’d be better off leaving alone.  Taking a swing at them instead — to run with my baseball metaphor just a little while longer — is more likely to earn you a strikeout than a homerun.

There’s a published author of my very casual, online acquaintance who does a great deal of crowing about the diversity of his work and his determination to write in and across all genres.  It seems he’s intent on writing any book, for any market, that suits his fancy.  From an artistic point of view, this sort of blind ambition may be admirable, but as a business plan, I think it’s a disaster, because it’s based upon a rather vain assumption of professional infallibility that few, if any of us, can honestly claim.  Anyone less than a literary phenom, in fact, following this guy’s formula, is going to write some books that work and a lot more that don’t, and surely life is too short to be wasting time writing the latter just to flaunt one’s disdain for boundaries.

Let me state for the record that none of this is meant to imply that a writer shouldn’t always try to stretch himself, or make a constant effort to avoid being pigeonholed.  Versatility is a wonderful thing.  I am, however, suggesting that smart authors assess their strengths, weaknesses and comfort level with certain types of material, honestly and accurately, and prioritize the things they write accordingly, for their best possible chance of success.

And they don’t much care how much credit they’re given for being someone who can write anything they damn well please.

Questions for the class: Name an author you love to read, but wouldn’t dare attempt to imitate, for the reasons I’ve stated above.  Or instead, make an argument for why you think no kind of book should be off-limits to you.

(FINAL NOTE: The title for this post is another favorite outtake of mine from one of the Dirty Harry movies, this one from the titular DIRTY HARRY.  It’s Harry’s answer when he’s asked to explain how he came to get his nickname: Because he always seems to catch “every dirty job that comes along.”  Which, if I were a cynic, I might say is often the writer’s lot in life, too.)


  1. judy wirzberger

    Wow! Your post slams a home run. I truly believe that writing should not be slashing my wrists every day to get a few words on the screen. I've tried books that just made me suffer. Now, I think I have found my groove. I love medical books, but I'll leave those to Tess and Jonathan. I am woman, feel my suffering, my longing for self discovery.

    The mistakes we make trail after us like a tattered shadow. We search for a new light, try on new shadows, and arrive into our selves at some noon awakening.

    That's where I've been. That's what I know. And I love writing about it. Some chapters are easier than others.

    Thanks for the post. Judy

  2. Fran

    I've got a few things in the works, but I thought at one point that I'd try to write a comic romance. How hard could it be, right?


    I maybe, MAYBE, got two chapters into it. My estimation of folks who can write romantic comedy has soared. I just can't make it happen.

    I also haven't been able to make the whole gritty noir thing happen yet, but I kind of feel like that one's hovering just outside my wheelhouse, and once I get my legs under me, I'll be able to find my way there.

    Thanks, Gar!

  3. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    This one REALLY strikes close for me, Gar. Because the current book I'm writing is just that. It's bigger than I've ever gone, it's way out of my comfort zone, and it's been a bitch to write and rewrite and rewrite. I have had to revisualize it many different times in an effort to "make it mine." It's taking so much more time than I had allowed for simply because I need that time to learn the world and feel comfortable writing it. And it has been a chore. I haven't enjoyed the process. It has felt like work.
    Until last week.
    Finally, after a year and a half, it connected. Now it's reading like a Stephen Schwartz book. Now it has my voice. But, God, what it's taken to get there. Thank God for the professionals who are there for us – the FBI agents who will give us a personal peek into their lives, the residents of foreign lands who give us perspective on their cultures. This is a tough biz we're in.
    I've already decided that I'm going to return to writing about crime in Los Angeles when I'm done with this novel. I need to write something that comes easy, if ANYTHING really comes easy. It would be nice to write a novel in a couple months instead of a couple years. However, I do believe my current WIP is going to kick-ass. And it's only because I've somehow managed to soldier through. I've managed to somehow make it my own and write it from the perspective of the points you mention here.
    But, boy, you hit a nerve on this one. If I had read your blog two weeks ago I might have tossed my WIP in the trash and started on something new. I'm not kidding.
    I guess one of the principle realizations I made this past week is that I'm finally ENJOYING the work. And that means everything. If I'm enjoying it then it comes through in the writing and I know it's working.
    By the way, MAGNUM FORCE was the first R-rated movie I saw, and I saw it when I was 12 years old. A bit shocking, I'd say. Sex and murder in the same shot. I think it fucked me up just a bit. Oh, well, that's Hollywood.
    Oh, and a writer I really admire for his ability to cross genres is Walter Tevis. He wrote The Hustler, The Color of Money, The Queen's Gambit, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and another sci-fi novel or two. Not a lot of books published, but damn they were well-done.

  4. Louise Ure

    I adore Daniel Woodrell's writing, but could never attempt it on my own. It bespeaks a familiarity with the underbelly that I could only fake. I understand personal demons, but he gives us an inside look of a whole class of destitute and angry people I've never met.

  5. Dudley Foster

    Wow this is the third blog I’ve read in the last few days on the same topic. All are very timely. I have just put my steampunk novel aside to well, steam. I love steampunk which is a bit odd, as one of my favorite observations is Jess Nevins’ quote, “Steampunk is what happens when goths discover brown.” I’m about as far from goth as you can get. There is one steampunk author I love, but would never try emulate, Gail Carriger. Her books are urban fantasy (another of my favorite genres) and steampunk, but they are primarily a comedy of manners. I would never consider writing a comedy of manners.

    While I have written both steampunk and urban fantasy, my favorite genre is mysteries and thrillers. I have a number of stories running on the hamster wheel of my mind. I am doing the outline and character sheets for one of them. The problem is that every time I sit down to write a mystery or thriller I feel like the whole genre is outside my wheelhouse. This makes no since to me. This is the genre I love, that I read 3:1 of other genres. There’s something there that makes me hesitate, but hell if I know what it is.

  6. Eika

    I loved reading Ender's Game. I loved it when I was ten, when I was twelve, fifteen, and last year at twenty. Love love love. But if I ever try to write something like that, I should be shot on the spot.

    I've tried, and done okay with, multiple points of view. I like long, sprawling plots with about eight different subplots, all important to the main plot… though I shouldn't try to write something that complicated just yet. (maybe just three subplots). But if I tried to do the science fiction? No. So far, the stories I've written, and have worked, have all been fantasy; and while the line between Sci Fi and Fantasy is blurred sometimes, it's pretty distinct in these cases. I barely understand computers, don't get programming or technology; my characters should get lost in the woods or travel on foot, things I can research and understand after researching, rather than research and then need someone to explain to me.

    Besides, my characters are masters of their own destinies. Ender was, in too many ways, a bit of a pawn.


  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    What an interesting question! I have to believe I can aspire to writing to the level of my favorite authors in my own genre, but I love reading Ann Patchett and would never try to write like she does; I am simply not an evolved enough human being to pull off that exquisite grace.

    Maybe ten lifetimes down the line. Sigh.

  8. Gar Haywood

    Judy: Limiting "the mistakes we make" to a minimum while searching for our true selves is the whole point of this post. Writing the wrong book generally teaches us nothing other than how to waste valuable time.

    Fran: If Rom-Coms were easy to write, HOW DO YOU KNOW wouldn't have been such a sorry mess. But you'd think they WOULD be easy, wouldn't you? Boy meets Girl, Girl gets disillusioned with Boy's fart jokes, Boy grows up and wins Girl back… How complicated is that?

    Stephen: Oh, great. So now when your present WIP is published and sells through the roof, you can tell everybody none of it would have happened had you read my blog post first. Makes me sound like a real sage, doesn't it?

    The last thing I wanted anyone to get out of this post was the idea that you can't prepare yourself adequately to write a certain kind of book by doing research alone. Of course, you can. But I think you hit on it when you said your WIP didn't really take off for you until you found a way to tell it in YOUR voice. If you can hit that groove, the book is yours. If you can't, it belongs to another. And writing in the groove doesn't necessarily make it easy — it just makes it easier. Writing anything well will always be a struggle for most of us, and that's okay. What's not okay is when it becomes a cage match to the death, because that kind of stress, in my opinion, is usually obvious on every page for your reader to see.

    Louise: You're right about Daniel Woodrell. He's a very singular talent who will be often imitated but rarely duplicated.

    Dudley: I love the steampunk genre myself, but I'm scared to death to try it. I may yet, though.

    Alaina: Sci-fi was my first love, and I spent years trying to write and sell sci-fi short stories before it became as apparent to me as it was to all the editors who kept rejecting my stuff that I was the wrong writer for the job. Oh, well…

  9. Larry Gasper

    Gar, I wish I'd read this five or six years ago. After writing a book of linked mainstream short stories I decided to work on an idea I'd had years ago about a post-World War 3 Canada dealing with the after effects of an American war. I loved the world and tried to bring it into my comfort zone by setting a mystery novel in it. Epic fail, but I loved the world and, since I was having fun world-building and researching, kept trying past the point of good sense. Last year I finally put it aside and started a new mystery novel which came along nicely and that I'm in the process of revising now.
    So, for now I see my wheelhouse as being mysteries. Maybe someday I'll have learned enough to go back to the other book, but for now it's just too far outside my comfort zone.
    Thanks for this

  10. Dana King

    Outstanding post. Just as no baseball player or musician is superior at all aspects of his trade, so it is with writers. James Lee Burke is my example of a writer I wish I could write like, but know better than to try. It's so easy to get wrapped up in the beauty of his prose and want to write in such a manner, but I can't do it. It's a gift I lack, just as I lacked the ear to be as good a musician as I wanted to be.

    Everyone has limitations. The true successes are those who find the niches where their limitations don't dent them success. Take the great relief pitcher Mariano Rivera. He really only throws one pitch, a cut fastball. Try going through the order three or four times with just one pitch and see how far it gets you, no matter how good that pitch is. For three or four batters three times a week, he's unhittable.

    No one laments Rivera's ability to go nine innings, and I will not feel diminished by not being James Lee Burke.

  11. Gar Haywood

    Larry: The thing to keep in mind is that the limitations I'm referring to in my post don't have to be permanent. You may very well become the perfect writer for your World War 3 novel sometime in the near future. The trick is to recognize you're not quite there yet and focus your attention elsewhere until you are.

    Dana: I am so with you on James Lee Burke. He is far and away one of my favorite writers, but if I attempted to match just his effortless evocation of place, I'd fall flat on my face. I can't be James Lee Burke, no matter how badly I'd love to be, so I'll just have to settle for being the best writer Gar Anthony Haywood can be. Thanks for the kind words about the post.

  12. JT Ellison

    Diana Gabaldon, absolutely. I adore her books, her style, her topics and settings, but I'd never in a million years try it. Sometimes you just want to be a reader, you know?

  13. Dudley Forster

    @Alaina I had to smile. Between starting a law practice and young children I missed the whole Ender's series. When my daughter found out she was appalled So I am currently listening to the 20th Anniversary Ed. It is amazing.
    @Gar – I'm there with you on James Lee Burke too. Though I still wonder how fish smell when they're spawning.

  14. Gar Haywood

    J.T..: That is perfectly put. Sometimes you DO just want to be a reader. When I read the authors who inspire me. X-number of pages in, my internal editor just shuts down from lack of things to complain about and I'm left to simply enjoy the ride. Pure bliss.

  15. David Corbett


    Sorry to be late to the party. Yesterday was the last day of the Book Passage Mystery Conference and I was swamped then exhausted.

    I am intiimidated by historical fiction. I'm overwhelmed enough by researching contemporary issues. How to infuse every line with historical accuracy — God, I just don't know how I'd do it. Alan Furst, Robert Wilson, Pete Dexter's DEADWOOD, Charles Portis' TRUE GRIT. I admire them, but they're safe from any competition from me.

    I recently put aside a novel that had a very compelling story for me, or so I thought. Then a friend said: Why are you doing this? It doesn't seem like your kind of book. I struggled to answer that question, and I may have come up with an answer, but other projects have taken away the time.

    Love the metaphor of the wheelhouse. Put me in coach, I'm ready to play.

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