Five things I’ve learned

by Pari

When I first hit the book scene as an author, I developed a talk called, "Ten things I've learned since becoming a published writer."

Some of the things were funny: There's a man in Texas who doesn't like to laugh . . . and is proud of it.

Others focused on what surprised me: No one is going to recognize you or stop you on the street to tell you she loves your book.

This weekend, I was in Roswell, NM as a guest of the Friends of the Public Library. I updated my Ten Things talk and wanted to share five items with you. They're personal — not dictums for everyone — but they're tidbits that are important to me and might help others on this particular road.

#1  The first job of a writer is to write.
Yes, I know that sounds obvious, but it took me a few years to figure out. I got so distracted in the marketing game that I kept losing focus of what's important. You have to write to be a writer. If you're not writing, you'll be a has-been before you ever become a does-have.

#2  Creativity must be nurtured.
There are several ways to do this. I've found unplugging — turning off the computer (especially the internet/email, no phone) is a big one. Taking walks and staring blankly into space works well too. And writing, writing, writing — without personal censorship — propels me into different and interesting directions . The more I do it and produce, the more ideas I have.

#3  "Edit" is the most essential word for any writer.
I don't care who you are, editing will make you better. It's part of writing the best book you can. The longer I'm in this career, the more I realize how words can be misinterpreted. Writing what I mean to write takes effort and a critical eye. Actually, it takes many critical eyes.

#4  There's no such thing as "writer's block" — at least for me — BUT there is such a thing as paralysis due to fear of failure/of not living up to expectations.
Most writers I know are great actors. We pretend to have faith in our work. Dig deeper and you'll find our fragile faith in ourselves, in our ability to effectively tell the stories we want to tell. We can be knocked to the floor with a bad review or a nasty email. When we're in that scary place of self doubt, it's difficult to continue creating. And it's easy to get stuck, to blame an absent muse, when what has really left us is our own self confidence. 

#5  Word of mouth remains the most powerful way to make/break a career.
It doesn't matter if we Twitter or FaceBook, if we email or do public appearances, if we buddy up to bookstore employees or attach magnetic signs about our books to our cars, if we send out monthly newsletters or have contests — nothing will get us further than the real buzz of readers who love our work and want us to succeed. I know that many people believe that we can manufacture that buzz, and maybe we can through some of the methods mentioned above, but the bottom line is that person-to-person communication remains the single most effective tool to persuade others to buy books.

I don't want this to be a long post, so I'll stop here and throw it out to YOU.

Writers: What's something you've learned since publication?
Readers: What has surprised you about writers or their professional lives since you've become part of the literary community (You are, you know; you prove it daily by reading and hanging out in the blogosphere.)?

38 thoughts on “Five things I’ve learned

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    >>#4 There’s no such thing as “writer’s block” — at least for me — BUT there is such a thing as paralysis due to fear of failure/of not living up to expectations.<< Whoa, that’s a great way to put it. Totally right. You’ve pretty much nailed the things I’ve learned. Except that my “this is never going to come together” stage last much longer in the middle of writing a book than in the middle of writing a screenplay. Sigh.

    Reply
  2. B.G. Ritts

    The self doubt. There are people who can put the world into words and those who can’t. I’m a can’t. But I thoroughly enjoy reading a phrase, sentence, or paragraph and feeling, “Yes, that’s exactly right,” or “What a delightful way to say that.” The thought that even though a person can convey ideas that well, but still be concerned about that ability, amazes me. Just about every writer seems to express it. I wish writers could banish self doubt, at least most of it, so the process of getting your words to us, the readers, was easier. Your words make losing ourselves in your stories ever so worth the time we invest doing it.

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  3. pari

    Yeah, Alex,The whole WRITER’S BLOCK realization was a biggie for me.

    And your “this is never going to come together” phrase/phase is so right on. I wonder if all writers of longer fiction hit that point in their work?

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  4. pari

    Kathryn,Maybe you can speak to the rewrite vs edit concepts.

    I lump them pretty much into the same glob of work. I rewrite often while I’m in process of creating the original piece and am now realizing that it’s more efficient for me to try NOT to clean up the story until I’ve got it all out.

    Then comes rewriting/editing through several passes.

    How do you work?

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  5. pari

    B.G.,Thank you so much for your comment.

    I wish we could all banish those nasty thoughts as well. But I suspect they are part of the reason we keep striving to be better.

    There may also be the deep-seeded notion that if we are self-impressed or self-satisfied when it comes to our work — it will kill our ability to view our work critically.

    I don’t know.

    I’ve only met a few supremely confident people in my life and most of them were boors.

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  6. Allison Brennan

    #6: It doesn’t get easier. In fact, it gets harder.

    There’s a conversation that has gone around RWA ever since I’ve been involved. The quotes are not exact, but the sentiment is as I heard it. I don’t have the exact quotes, and maybe it never happened, but I think it probably did:

    UNPUBLISHED AUTHOR TO NORA ROBERTS IN ELEVATOR: I want to be you someday.

    NORA ROBERTS TO IDIOT UNPUBLISHED AUTHOR: Do you really? You think this is easy?

    apparently, there was more. I wish I had the exact quote.

    #4 is the honest truth. I feel like I’m hanging upside down by my toes with writhing snakes and poisonous spiders below . . .

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  7. kit

    I’ve learned three things…and they were big ones to me, personally.One..writers are real people with REAL lives..the same person that is so creative may also put their head under the sink to fix a stopped up drain. THIS is reassuring.

    And two, You never ARRIVE….so you better damn well enjoy the trip in-between.I’m not sure why I thought being published would be any different than anything else…but I did. So while, it’s great to be published…it doesn’t mean you can coast, you are always in a state of learning, polishing and working..but even so, it still doesn’t put me off.And three…it ain’t baseball….no three strikes and you’re OUT..it isn’t about writing so much as re-writing till you get it where you are somewhat satisfied.

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  8. Louise Ure

    My first big aha! as a published writer: Very few writers can do so full time and make a good living. I was stunned to discover that a couple of my favorite (and famous!) writers were still working fulltime for IBM or as a vet.

    And I’m with Allison on her additional point. It never gets easier.

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  9. pari

    Allison,Last year, I interviewed Faye Kellerman for a public fundraiser. She’s written more than 20 books and she said the same thing.

    Of course she prefaced it with, “I’m sorry to tell you this, Pari . . . ”

    Reply
  10. pari

    Oh, Kit,I love your three additions. Every one of them.

    The one about never arriving is particularly poignant. I suspect most of us think, deep down, that there will come a point when the work will be easier, where all doubts about sales and skill will be gone.

    We’d better stop deluding ourselves, huh?

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  11. pari

    Louise,That’s a big one. I remember sitting in the bar at my first LCC — in Pasadena — and listening to well-established writers talk about the financial aspects to this business.

    I was gobsmacked.

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  12. toni mcgee causey

    One rule I have is that it doesn’t matter what other people’s output is per day, what matters is that I do my best each day. I can’t do their best, and I can’t compare myself to someone else. Just like the old adage that there’s always going to be someone younger, richer, smarter, skinnier, so too is it true that there’s always going to be a writer who sells more or gets more acclaim or both, there’s always going to be someone for whom it seems the world serves up good luck on a silver platter, and none of that matters, because you can’t write their books… and they can’t write yours. Stick with your strengths and be happy for them (the strengths, as well as the other people).

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  13. Christine Cook

    Pari,

    I realize this post is related to your post of last week rather than this one, but I thought we might all benefit from it. In a tangential response to your blog about whether to opt in or opt out of the Google settlement, Janet Reid’s blog has some interesting insight (jetreidliterary.blogspot.com). Her post is in response to a Wall Street Journal article about the settlement, written by someone who hadn’t read the whole settlement, and admitted to not understanding it. Janet Reid says she has read the settlement, understands it, and thinks, from an agent’s perspective, that it’s a good settlement. You might want to check it out if you’re still considering whether to opt in or out.

    Reply
  14. Cornelia Read

    “I’ve only met a few supremely confident people in my life and most of them were boors.”

    Oh my, yes. And the *nicest* surprise for me about the mystery community has been how open and supportive even the biggest “names” are, with very few exceptions. In fact, it seems to be the boors/jerks who are least likely to succeed, which hasn’t been my experience in any other group of colleagues i’ve been part of, over the years.

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  15. Rashda

    I spent the weekend at a conference with one of my favorite authors –Maria V. Snyder (Poison Study etc.) and learned a lot:

    1. I learned about characterization, worldbuilding and rewriting from her workshops and discussions.

    2. When she asked questions and sat in on another workshop, I was reminded that even successful people can learn (prob. why they are successful).

    3. She kept smiling and being gracious throughout the weekend, despite being exhausted. I saw people who hadn’t ever bought her books, buy one.

    I saw her haul her own boxes of books, sign, go buy other authors books, network and more — and I learned that being an published author is hardwork and one must put in the effort.

    A reader

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  16. pari

    Cornelia,I, too, was surprised and delighted with the generosity of time and knowledge within our mystery community.

    What a gift to be part of this group. You know?

    Reply
  17. pari

    Rashda,Thank you for your comment. The examples you give of how Maria V. Synder taught by living — being — herself are strong and important.

    They make me want to check her out, to learn more about her and what makes her tick.

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  18. J.D. Rhoades

    I credit Laura Lippman for this advice: take the long view. It may take a long time to build an audience and get to where you can quit your day job. But think of this as a long term career, not a short term get rich quick scheme.

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  19. J.T. Ellison

    I’ve been looking at the long view from day one. I’m just thankful there’s a long view to look at. : )

    I think it’s so important not to have preconceived notions of how your career is going to go based on how other authors’ careers are going. It’s really all apples and oranges.

    Something I’ve learned, and it’s the hardest part of my career: You have to maintain a public persona to stay sane. I’ve learned how to bite my tongue and not inundate people with MY feelings, and instead allow them to share theirs. Listening is a valuable tool for an author.

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  20. I.J.Parker

    Lesson learned: Nothing you can do — no matter how good your books are — will help them succeed like support from the publisher.

    (Word of mouth does work, but it works slowly, frequently too slowly for the publisher.)

    Reply
  21. Kaye Barley

    Readers: What has surprised you about writers or their professional lives since you’ve become part of the literary community (You are, you know; you prove it daily by reading and hanging out in the blogosphere.)?

    I am surprised constantly and continually that you’re all so generous – not just to those of us who are readers and fans, but amongst yourselves. Unless some of you are putting on a very good act – the generosity is enormous. ‘Course, I’ve worked as a secretary in a university setting (in NC and in GA) for the past 25 years, which is not known for its generosity within the ranks . . .

    Seriously. The generosity. And it’s a lovely thing.

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  22. kit

    Allison and Pari,Ok, some of these things are a bitch slap of reality…but it’s also good to know, especially when your spouse whines “Honey, my stomach feels like my throat’s been cut…what’s for supper?”*kit muttering over keyboard* “my god, if you can read a blueprint, you should be able to burn a pizza by yourself…”This also ties in with not giving up your day job…because it’s all a balancing act….and I don’t feel quite so alone.

    Reply
  23. ZoΓ« Sharp

    Hi Pari

    For me, fellow Brit mystery author, Christine Poulson, came out with the best one about being a published author. She said, “When you get your first book published, it’s like winning the lottery … and they you realise that all you’ve won is a ticket to another lottery …”

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  24. pari

    J.D.,I got some news today that makes me very grateful for Laura’s advice!

    J.T.,Huh? What did you say?

    Yes, of course you’re right. And drawing a distinction between the two personae is very important.

    I.J.,Absolutely. That’s what I’ve come to after all this time. You can bust your buns, but if your publisher isn’t there working the distribution/PR/marketing ends, your work will never get you very far (not quickly at least . . . )

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  25. pari

    Kaye,There’s the generosity of writers AND the generosity of readers. Thank goodness for both!

    Kit,Balancing act?Yep. Tightrope, edge of the cliff and sobriety test all wrapped up into one. Sheesh.

    Zoe,Poulson’s statement is so right on it hurts. Please thank her for me. And thank you for sharing it with us.

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  26. Karen from Mentor

    “or attach magnetic signs about our books to our cars”

    Pari,That’s a great visual.I want to echo the sentiments about the AMAZING generosity of your group. I didn’t know who Allison was the first time I poked my head in, now I’ve seen her work (lots and lots of it, on the shelf!) and am extra awed that she took time to listen to me have a lightbulb moment while she was stuck at the airport. AND then she gave me a virtual hug. (sale made that day at B&N and she wasn’t even trying.)So much kindness out there in the writing community.Thanks guys!Karen

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  27. pari

    Karen,I’m a person who is big on counting my blessings.

    At the risk of sounding so sweet that it might rot all of our teeth — this group of bloggers at Murderati (and those that share their knowledge and perspective daily at many other blogs out there) just blow me right away.

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  28. Rob Gregory Browne

    What I’ve learned — and this is very important to me — is that I can do it. I can sit down and write a book. More than one.

    It was something that for many years of my life I avoided really trying because I didn’t have faith that I could sustain 400+ pages of prose. Now I’ve done it four times and am gearing up to do it again.

    No, it isn’t easy, it isn’t always fun, but typing THE END and knowing the book will soon be out in the world, is an extremely satisfying feeling.

    Reply
  29. Robin of My Two Blessings

    Readers: What has surprised you about writers or their professional lives since you’ve become part of the literary community (You are, you know; you prove it daily by reading and hanging out in the blogosphere.)?

    What I have learned is the writers I’ve met virtually (waving to you all) all are so down to earth, warm, friendly, and have the same problems we all do. That it isn’t as easy as it seems and you all experience those moments of nail biting, hair pulling, stressful pull the words out and make them sound wonderful. You are very much as human as the rest of us. And it takes a lot of hard word, time and dedication.

    I’ve learned it isn’t necessarily the number of words you write a day, but just sitting down and writing is the key. And you are absolutely right, pari. Creativity can and must be nurtured. One of the reasons I started blogging in the first place was to improve my writing skills. And when I’m feeling frustrated, I just have to read your blogs to realize it can be done. It takes time and perseverance and yes, the ability to paint a picture with words. You all lead by example and give fledgling writers something to aspire to.

    Thank you for sharing. I learned something new every day.

    Reply
  30. Karen Schindler

    Pari,I open my eyes every morning and count my blessings. The list gets longer every day.You didn’t rot my teeth, you’re preaching to the choir!People ask me “how can you be so disciplined to write every day?” For me, it’s not an obligation, it’s a must. And not a heavy kind of “must”, my characters just have a lot to say and they want me to get it down on paper dammit.Then I go to the park and hug trees. :)Thanks for the great insights.Karen πŸ™‚

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  31. pari

    Rob,Oh, yeah. That’s powerful. It’s one of the things I tell new writers about finishing projects. Do at least one so that you know you really can.

    Robin,Thank you so much for your kind post. I’ve never understood writers who feel “in competition” with each other. To me, we’re all in this together.

    Karen,Re: Your teeth — Whew!And, yes, I hug a lot of trees too.

    Reply

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