My writer Facebook friend Jeff Cohen recently posted a lament regarding a great pet peeve, one to which all but the most successful published authors among us can relate. He’d recently gone to a party and had some thoughtless dumb-ass ask him The Question. You know the one I’m talking about, because you’ve almost certainly heard it yourself:
“So, are you still writing?”
Naturally, Jeff was somewhat irked, as we all are when our choice of career is similarly treated with such disrespect and disdain. But if we were to give the party guest who’d accosted Jeff the benefit of the doubt, and tried to understand why he (or she) would ask such an asinine question, we might be less ready to condemn. Because this, in my opinion, is what The Question really breaks down to whenever it’s asked, in terms of what the person asking it is actually trying to find out:
“Since your writing hasn’t yet made you rich or famous, and you pour so much of your heart and soul and time into doing it, why are you still bothering?”
Granted, that’s still a rather insensitive inquiry, but I can see how people might wonder. Why do we authors keep writing when the ultimate rewards we seek — fame and, if not fortune, a decent living independent of a day job, continue to evade us? What in the hell keeps us going in the face of all the discouragement and rejection we regularly endure?
The little things, that’s what.
Those small, golden moments in which we are made to feel, however fleetingly, like a winner. Unexpected notes of recognition from surprising corners of the universe that serve to prove we are not, in fact, writing in a vacuum.
Example: Not two weeks after my first novel, FEAR OF THE DARK, was published by St. Martin’s Press way back in 1988, the family and I went to pick up some photos we’d dropped off at the local Fotomat. (Remember them? Those little drive-thru booths in strip malls just big enough for a cashier and about 100 rolls of film to fit in? How about film? Do you remember film? Nevermind.) Anyway, I’d paid the old guy behind the window for our developed photos and was about to walk off (yeah, we’d walked up, rather than driven through) when he said, “You aren’t Gar Anthony Haywood the novelist, are you?”
Turns out he’d found my book in the library, read it, and liked it. A lot.
I floated on air the rest of the day.
That’s a “Little Thing.” And we all experience them, sooner or later. And this being Wildcard Tuesday, I thought I’d ask some of my other writer friends to share their favorite Little Things with you.
Tess Gerritsen, author of LAST TO DIE
The incident that stands out for me was while flying aboard a British Airways flight from Boston to London. A short time into the flight, the male flight attendant quietly approached and said the crew were all wondering if I was the famous author. I never had such attentive service!
Bruce DeSilva, author of CLIFF WALK
Howard Frank Mosher (“Waiting for Teddy Williams”) is my favorite living novelist, the closest thing we have today to Mark Twain. So I was stunned to receive an unsolicited email from him shortly after my first crime novel, “Rogue Island,” was published. He raved about it, calling the book “a highly serious work of fiction combining a fascinating evocation of a twenty-first American city with a lyrical tribute to the dying newspaper business.” When my second novel, “Cliff Walk,” was published in June, he got in touch again, saying my protagonist, Liam Mulligan, is “the most human, unpredictable, and anti-authoritarian fictional character I’ve met since Ranger Gus McCrae of “Lonesome Dove.” But that’s not even the best part. My hero and I are email buddies now.
P.D. Martin, author of HELL’S FURY
I remember when my first novel got published and my ‘publicist’ rang me to introduce herself and chat. The whole idea of a publicist sounded pretty special and made me feel very much like a celebrity! And then I went to my first event with her, and she was like: “Can I get you a drink? Coffee, wine?” Might be the closest I come to having ‘people’!
Aaron Philip Clark, author of A HEALTHY FEAR OF MAN
I don’t have too many stories about folks recognizing me or any of those cool happenings. However, I did receive an email from a reader who thanked me for “writing a character with a soul” and said she typically didn’t read mysteries unless it was something Mosley had written. It put a smile on my face.
J.T. Ellison, author of A DEEPER DARKNESS
So many wonderful experiences: Winning the thriller award in New York last summer. It was an insane night – I was dreadfully ill, had laryngitis, a wicked case of nerves, and two of my literary heroes were in the room: John Sandford and Diana Gabaldon. To win a prestigious award in the presence of two of the writers who shaped me was incredible and gratifying. The very first Thrillerfest in Phoenix, 112 degrees and all the people I’ve only ever heard of there in the flesh; meeting Lee Child and having him react with, “Oh yes, I’ve heard your name.” I was floored. What? How? OMG!!! Allison Brennan talking to me like I was a real writer. The moment my agent called to tell me I had my very first deal – and not just for one book, but three. The day my agent called to tell me he wanted to be my agent. The first time I finished a book – Christmas Day, 2003, at my parents’ house in Florida, and the exhausted realization I’d finally done something special. But the very best was the very first sentence I ever wrote with intention to follow it with another, and another. I finished that paragraph and began to cry. There’s true magic in intention.
David Corbett, author of KILLING YOURSELF TO SURVIVE
Do They Know I’m Running? produced some of the most generous and heartfelt communications from readers I ever received in my career. I was deeply touched by many of the comments people shared, this one in particular:
“My father-in-law was finishing your book when I got home tonight. When I mentioned I met you, he right away asked, ‘Is he a cholo with a white boy’s name?’
I said nope, a white boy.
He got quiet for a second, then said, ‘He is a poet of my people.'”
Pari Noskin Taichert, author of THE BELEN HITCH
I was at a party the other night. It had nothing to do with my writing or writing at all, just a social gathering mostly of people I didn’t know. I introduced myself. A woman in the group recognized my name, squealed loudly and said, “I can’t believe this! I’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting for you to get me another book! When are you going to write one?” Then she gushed about my books to me and to the group. It was a small moment and an utter surprise. And it made my evening.
Brad Parks, author of THE GIRL NEXT DOOR
I was at a doctor’s office, doing some routine intake stuff with my wife, who has a different last name than me (and who, of course, carries our insurance, because her husband is a ne’er-do-well writer). Anyhow, the doctor got through asking my wife all the questions she needed to ask, then turned to me. “And what’s your name?” she asked. “Brad Parks,” I said. The doctor gasped and blurted, “The author?!?” She then launched on a 90-second rave about the great pleasure of reading my books and the tremendous admiration she had for me as a writer. I loved it and try to visit that doctor whenever possible. Strangely, my wife doesn’t use her anymore.
Zoë Sharp, author of FIFTH VICTIM
I’m constantly both humbled and honoured when I hear from readers who have enjoyed the Charlie Fox books. I try not to read reviews, so when people make a point of getting in touch directly it really means something special. It’s hard to pick out individual occasions, but three relatively recent ones spring to mind.
I have a fan in New Zealand, Karen, who is a huge champion of Charlie on Goodreads. She is always making sure the book covers and the details are correct, and she is an absolute wonder.
The second is reviewer and blogger Judith Baxter, who has done some wonderful posts about the books, and even about her surprise that I would get in touch to thank her for her kind words.
And thirdly is US singer/songwriter Beth Rudetsky, who wrote an amazing song for FIFTH VICTIM: Charlie Fox book nine called ‘The Victim Won’t Be Me’. I am just so moved by this.
Alexandra Sokoloff, author of HUNTRESS MOON
I was thrilled that Shelfari’s mystery and suspense group picked Huntress Moon as their August read, and the incredible discussion questions they’re coming up with are making all the work worthwhile.
Brett Battles, author of THE DESTROYED
When my first book (THE CLEANER) came out, I was still working at E! Entertainment Television. Every summer we would have this big party with a top named musical artist…can’t remember for sure, but think LL Cool J might have been that year. I had given a copy of my book to Ted Harbert, President of the network and he read and loved it. I had heard that he might say something when he was up on stage talking to everyone. He did…unfortunately I was in the bathroom at the time and never heard it. But I did have several folks later come up and congratulate me.
Robert Gregory Browne, author of TRIAL JUNKIES
I remember a young aspiring writer approached me at a conference and was so nervous he could barely stop shaking. I assured him that there was nothing to be nervous about—I mean, for godsakes, I’m NOBODY—but to think that someone was as nervous around me as I would be around, say, Stephen King or Donald Westlake, certainly got me to reflect for a moment on how I see myself. I rarely take time to realize that I’m doing what others only dream of and I’m a very lucky man, indeed.
Bill Crider, author of MURDER OF A BEAUTY SHOP QUEEN
In 1980 I attended Bouchercon for the first time. It was a very small convention in those days, and I hadn’t published a novel yet. (My first one, a book in the Nick Carter series, came out in January 1981.) I was, however, writing reviews and articles for a number of fanzines like Paperback Quarterly, The Mystery FANcier, The Poisoned Pen, and The Armchair Detective. I was looking at paperbacks at a dealer’s table and found one I wanted: The Case of the Phantom Fingerprints by Kendall Foster Crossen. I can’t remember the price, but it was more than I wanted to pay. I asked the dealer if he’d take less, and he looked at my name tag. “Bill Crider,” he said. “Are you THE Bill Crider?” I told him I was the only one at the convention as far as I knew, and he told me how much he’d enjoyed reading my articles in Paperback Quarterly. Then he said, “I’ve enjoyed them so much, I want to give you the book.” This was particularly gratifying because the publishers PQ were standing there beside me, amazed. I thought that as soon as my Nick Carter novel was published, things like that would happen all the time, but of course nothing like that’s ever happened to me again.
Gary Phillips, author of VIOLENT SPRING
One of my biggest thrills early on was being on a panel with Ross Thomas at the downtown main library. We both talked about having worked for the same national union — AFSCME- and among his books he signed for me was the Seersucker Whipsaw, his novel about, among other things, union shenanigans.
Timothy Hallinan, author of THE FEAR ARTIST
Aside from the thrill of getting on a plane a few times and seeing someone reading one of my books (rocked my world) my biggest thrills come from fan mail. My hero, Poke Rafferty, and his Thai wife, Rose, have adopted a little street child, Miaow, as their daughter. Once or twice a year I get email from people who have become cross-cultural adoptive parents who want to say how accurately my books describe the joys and pitfalls of bringing someone into your family who has different beliefs, experiences, and expectations. The emails practically paralyze me with pleasure–not only because the books mean something to these people but also because I blithely wrote the relationships in Poke’s little family without giving a thought to the possibility that I’d get it all wrong. The best of these letters arrive with photos of the children. The VERY best of them came from a 15-year-old Korean-American adoptee whose father wrote me in 2006 and now, six years later, she was old enough to read the book (A Nail Through the Heart) that had prompted his letter. She wrote to say that I’d told aspects of her story so accurately that parts of the book had almost seemed to be about her.
Stephen Jay Schwartz, author of BEAT
The very best “shout-out” I got was when I stood in the back of a Michael Connelly signing at Mysterious Galaxy – a room packed with almost 200 people – and a woman in front of me asked Michael what authors he liked to read. He answered that he didn’t always read in the genre in which he writes, but occasionally someone will send him the work of a new author. “Like the author behind you,” he said, “Stephen Jay Schwartz’s work is exceptional.” At that point every one of his fans turned around to look at me and my face went completely white. I nodded to him, thanking him for his kindness. That was an amazing thing for him to do, at his own signing. I really love him for that.
Questions for the Class: Writers: What Little Things motivate you to keep writing? And readers, have you ever done a Little Thing that may have inspired a favorite author to keep on writing?
Great post, Gar. And I'd trade your experience for mine any day.
Actually, no. I'll take them both. 😉
This post brightened my day, Gar. Thank you. It's funny, I completely forgot all the thrills of award nominations, Booksense picks, etc . . .
I write because I must.
What gets me is that we seem to have the only profession where the question is asked. Do people run into doctors at the supermarket and say, "So, still doing the medical thing?" What do they think I'm going to do; take up competitive snowboarding?
I'm a writer. I'd quit if I knew how.
Great post, Gar. As always.
Just last week a little thing happened that thrilled me: I received a royalty check in the mail! Eons ago (it seems now) Elizabeth George asked me to write a story for a mystery anthology she was editing. She wanted to include an "Introducing" section for up-and-comers, and she liked my writing…Actually, that in itself counts as a "small thing" (that was actually pretty darned huge).
Anyhow, so now it's three-four years later, and I receive another royalty check in the mail. Money is handy, for sure, but the thrill is that out there in the world the anthology is still selling. So cool.
Here's another "small thing" that set me to glowing. Last month I gave my first three chapters to a writer friend. She'd never read my stuff before. She had some feedback, and that was good, but here's why I glowed: She asked if she could read the rest of the manuscript, not to give feedback, but just because she wanted to read it! That thrilled me more than the check, actually. 🙂
Great post, Gar! It's so fun reading the experiences of other authors. You've reminded us of how much fun we can have in the profession.
And I do get THAT QUESTION all the time. Even more so, since I left my day job for a year to write full-time, and now I've returned to the same industry and everyone is asking, "So, what happened?" I tell them an old joke, though it sometimes breaks my heart inside – "Do you know the difference between a writer and a pizza? A pizza feeds a family of four." That's okay, I can take it.
I've been wondering how your transition is going…I'm five weeks into the 9-to-5 after years of working as little as possible (contractor technical writer). My god, it's a tough transition. Every day I ask myself: How do people get stuff done? Have lives? And, most importantly, how do I get the fiction in?
You have mentioned prioritizing family time, so I'm especially interested in what's working for you as a writing routine these days.
(By the way, David, you around? I'm also interested in how you use index cards. I love index cards; I swear by them; I live to jot all kinds of story-related notes on them…)
Great post, Gar, and not just because I'm in it. We're interesting, we writers, in that we sit alone for months, sticking our necks out a little bit further (farther?) every day so the blade can hit it on the way down, which is both brave and, probably, a little foolish. And when we finally let the book toddle into the world, we survive the bad and rejoice in the good and then sit down and do it again. I am, right now, and I'll bet everyone else is, too.
This was fun to read, Gar. Thanks for soliciting all the input, and also to everyone who contributed. Nice to see that the little things still make a difference once you're a famous published author. 🙂
For me, one of the best things about having a blog (probably the only thing that makes me keep doing it) is the feedback in the comments. Every once in a while, one of my posts attracts new people and there was one a year or so ago and someone I didn't know came over and left the following comment:
"Damn, I love writers."
One of the best comments ever. That kind of thing has the power to keep me going through the dark moments of self-doubt.
Gar, I'll give you another – for you. As you remember, my screenwriting partner and I used to write in the same Silverlake cafe as you for a time…. and the first time we went to that cafe and sat down, he leaned across the table to me and mumbled… "Don't look up but I think that's Gar Anthony Haywood."
We were both such huge fans, and there you were in the flesh, a real NOVELIST. We did come up once and rave but I'm not sure you remember….
Sorry, actually, that was Alex above – posting on Elle's computer because we're traveling together in Australia!
I can so agree with the little things. My very first virtual book tour was with Karina Fabian for Ann Lewis. And I got a comment from Stephen King. And I have read some of his novels. I thought that was such a cool thing. I didnt want to tell anyone because I was afraid it wouild jinx it and make it not worth anything. But it was a compliment the writer, Ann Lewis, the tour operator Karina Fabian and gave me a chance to show someone who is established (hopefully read some articles) that I was a good writer up and coming. And it those same comments from other authors when I do book reviews that keep me going. So I like your post, I agree with it whole heartedly and I think none of us who read it will disagree. I think Im going to share when I post on my blog in September. Thanks.
Lisa – juggling is right. I've definitely prioritized family time and I'm spending as much time as possible with my wife and boys, and with my wife alone on…wait for it…date nights! It's not leaving a lot of time for writing, although I continue to move forward, inch by inch, on my third novel. I'm just not quite as motivated to write anymore, although I know it's just a phase. Spending a lot of time working out, too, getting back in shape. The rest goes to the day job, which I'm thankful to have.
Can I make an addition to my bit in this?
Being asked to contribute to Best Of moments like this is something else that makes all the slog worth while. Thanks again, guy.
And yeah, I not only remember film, I remember BLACK AND WHITE film …
You're making that story up! No way.
Yikes, Stephen, date nights AND working out! Sounds like you've got your shit together on the balanced-life front!
Great post Gar! Love everyone's contributions.
Last year I had to call a govt health provider to make an appointment and when I told the woman my name she said, "There's an author with that name", and I said, "yes, that's me", and she screamed "oh my god!!" and raved about my books, then said everyone in the call centre was staring at her 🙂
Last night I was speaking at an event in Port Macquarie and met a longtime Murderati reader who said she recognised my name from the comments here 🙂 Hi Libby!
And recently I had the enormous pleasure of being asked to contribute a chapter to the 'Books To Die For' anthology, writing about my all-time favourite writer and hero James Lee Burke. As if that wasn't enough, this week I received the most wonderful email from the man himself, thanking me for what I said about his work. That email is now on my wall 🙂