Cabbages and Kings

A diary by the authors of the Louis Kincaid series

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Location: Fort Lauderdale/Elk Rapids, Florida and Michigan, United States

We are the New York Times bestselling authors of the Louis Kincaid series and other stand alone thrillers. We have taught writing at major conferences for ten years.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

GET OUT!

Warning: crabby post follows.

I got hooked into reading a manuscript the other day. I did it as a favor to a friend who had a friend -- a lawyer, of course -- who had just finished writing his FIRST legal thriller. It was "a more literary John Grisham," he said. Would I read it, to, you know, give my opinion....?

So I started it last night. (I know, I never learn). I got maybe 20 pages in and I began hearing this voice in my head. Not my usual muse voices. This one was whispering: "Get out!"

Took me a while, but I realized it was the demon voice who had screamed at James Brolin in "The Amityville Horror." Only this voice was really me yelling at the writer of the misbegotten mess of a novel I was reading.

Get out, now, buddy. Get out of any notion that you could possibly ever succeed as a writer. Because you are tone-deaf to dialog, blind to characterization, and utterly and completely unable to tell a basic linear-plot story. Worse, you didn't bother to learn a damn thing about the craft that goes into fiction writing before you tried. You had the brass balls to think you could shortcut all that.

God, this just rots my socks, this whole idea that anyone can just write a novel these days. I have had it with professionals who write and think that just because their printer spat out 200 double-spaced pages of typing, they have made the leap to professional writer.

I am not alone in this frustration.

I have a new hero, a guy who is blogging on a site called Evil Editor.. He takes actual query letters and dissects them (I highly recommend his site for those of you struggling with the fine art of query writing). But this paragraph from Evil Editor to a writer who had queried him caught my eye the other day:

"Look, here's the thing. The competition to get published is fierce. If Evil Editor tried to write a symphony, he would expect someone with an MFA in music to mock his first attempt mercilessly. If Evil Editor tried to create a giraffe or a Dachshund out of a balloon, you would laugh at his comic ineptitude. So it shouldn't be shocking when Evil Editor suggests that while what you've learned about people, natural perceptions, and history may be impressive, what you've learned about English, particularly the craft of writing (so far), isn't going to get you to your goal. Take classes, join a critique group, read a lot, and maybe ten years from now you'll read this letter and laugh. When you're not groaning. Sorry, my friend."

Preach on, brother Evil.

Postscript: I awoke this morning to find out George Lutz, the owner of the real Amityville horror house, died May 8. Rest in peace. He finally got out.

30 Comments:

Blogger Bhamini said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

12:41 PM  
Anonymous J. Carson Black said...

This is a pet peeve of mine, as well. Your example of the evolution in Picasso's paintings pretty much said it all. There's a lot that goes into writing a good book. Talent is part of it, but craft and the ability to learn, those are even more important.

I've been told by several people that they would write a novel, if only they had time. And by that they meant that their novel would blow my novels out of the water. It was in the tone. Hey! Anybody can do it!

Just like anybody can do brain surgery.

3:47 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

K, K, K,
I think I love you.

I recently agreed, as a favor of a friend of a friend (no, I will NOT buy your damned swampland), to look at the first 50 pages of some guy's first novel. He was thinking of paying somebody, like me, to edit the entire manuscript if he could get a good price. Honestly, I knew how bad this was in 2 pages, struggled through 18 with pages marked damned near everywhere in red and blue ink. I couldn't read the rest. Don't pay anybody to edit this, I told him. It's not worth it. You have too much to learn first.

I also suggested he might want to move on to a second manuscript because it was possible this one was irredeamable. (IMHO it would be a waste of time, and I gave him some suggestions as to why I thought so, in other words, he was trying to write a story that had so many knocks against it in the publishing world it would be shot down before it left the paddock, if you'll not mind the mixed metaphors).

I was kind. I was supportive. I was appalled.

I guess you've got to start somewhere, but he really had massive problems with that old faithful, TELLIN' INSTEADA SHOWIN' and man, talking about unfocused! Big jumps in time...

The point is, I think, that maybe he'll turn out to be the next Stephen King, but I don't see it happening with this manuscript. It was a beginners, and even beginners need to realize they're beginners. Would-be novelists never seem to.

If you were able to sit down at a piano and hammer out "Chopsticks," would you immediately think you were ready for Carnegie Hall?

Best,
Mark Terry

5:25 PM  
Anonymous Bob Morris said...

I feel your freaking pain. Still, the question: What are you going to tell the pseudo-literary lawyer guy? The truth? That he is not now nor likely ever will be, you know, a writer. Or will you be the nice polite person that we all know you to be?

5:51 PM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

Why Bob...you KNOW I am always sweet! Actually, I weaseled out and sent it back saying my schedule was so packed I couldn't do it.

And I wasn't picking on lawyers per se. You can get the same attitude from any professional. I once had my allergy doc tell me he had a great idea for a PI novel, then proceeded to tell me the whole plot while flushing my sinuses. I mean, just kill me now.

6:19 PM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

"If you were able to sit down at a piano and hammer out "Chopsticks," would you immediately think you were ready for Carnegie Hall?"

Mark, as someone who took up the piano for the first time at age 50, I know how hard it is to learn something from scratch.

I have progressed from "Wooly Bears" to "Play Misty For Me." But it took countless hours of nasty scales, tedious exercises, cussing, and feeling like I was the dimmest bulb on the tree.

One problem I see a lot in beginning writers is they over-reach. They try multi-POVs and complex flashback narratives when they should be doing a simple linear plot with a basic 1st or 3rd POV. Once they master that, then they can move on and try to be the next Dennis Lehane.

Nothing wrong with "Wooly Bears." It was an entertaining little piece. Even Chopsticks can sound fresh in the right hands.

6:26 PM  
Anonymous J. Carson Black said...

What's hard is promising to read someone's manuscript and you know by the first or second page that it will take you forever, because you're not a masochist and have to take it a little at a time. Does time ever move so slowly? With a good book, you're flying, you can't get enough, but with an ms. like that, it is truly painful. Especially when it's someone you're friendly with and you promised to read The Whole Thing. I find myself skimming, my eye catching the next important part, because word by word would put me in a coma. It's kind of like catching up with a soap opera after a week. Not that much has changed.

6:40 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

FYI,
In my previous, previous life I was a pianist. In my senior year in high school my job was teaching the piano--I had something like 18 students.

So yeah, I do understand.

6:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're either a self rightuous snob or an idiot.
Let's see, by your own deffinition if you try and fail, don't try again just move on.
Your stuff really isn't that great either.

7:06 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

I've been writing in one form or another, sometimes for pay and sometimes not, for most of my life. I don't consider myself a beginning writer, but I do consider myself a beginning novelist. The novel is an art form, different than any other kind of writing. I think I'm a competent wordsmith, but the novel is a brand new game. Anyone who thinks it's easy needs to have his own sinuses flushed--thoroughly.

So, I'm taking your advice, Kris, and working with a single POV and a very linear plot. Maybe after writing half a dozen books like that, I'll be ready to move on to multiple POVs and complex subplots etc. Maybe not, because I actually LIKE novels with one point of view and a simple plot line. John D. MacDonald, for example, is one of my faves. And, he's one of the best mystery writers ever.

As far as multiple POVs and weaving plot lines together in a complex way, yesterday I started reading JUST ONE LOOK by Harlan Coben. All I can say is...wow.

10:01 PM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

Ah yes..."Anonymous," the last sanctuary of the spineless.

But hell, let's give this a shot.

You totally missed my point. If you read my post, you will see that my ire is not directed at those who try and fail. Just the opposite. You are nothing without perserverance in this business. I was dropped by my first publisher back in the 80s and had to start over. Second time around, I was rejected by every publisher in New York before I finally got my break. I have great admiration for those who keep going in the face of increasingly dismal odds. And for the record, I do a lot of manuscript critiques (for charity auctions) and have worked with writers who are willing to do the hard work it takes to get published these days.

You're right about one thing, however. My "stuff," as you call it, isn't that good on the grand scale of things. (Though I am flattered you have read my "stuff"). But after 20 years in the book biz and 25 total as a fulltime journalist, I don't have the hubris to think I need to stop trying to be a better writer. I fight that battle every day.

And that was the point of my post. You need to learn your craft, and keep learning it. My beef is with those who think there is some way around this.

10:10 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Anon: Get a life. While you're at it, get a dictionary and book on basic grammar.

10:11 PM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

Jude,

"Keep it simple" was the advice I got from an agent when I was just starting out. I had shown him a novel I was working on -- a big bloated historical thing with a Dickensian cast. I didn't have the chops to carry it off and he told me so.

I still have this unpublished mess on disk. Every time I get the urge to write an epic, I read it.

10:18 PM  
Anonymous J. Carson Black said...

Maybe, when it comes to reading unsolicited manuscripts (while we're busy working on our own), an established author should ask for the first twenty pages and a synopsis first, just like agents.

I always wonder what makes someone like anonymous tick. It's like he/she expects a free ride from everybody, and is bitter when he doesn't get it. As if everyone should drop what they're doing and "give him a chance". One thing I've learned about this biz (and I was cut from your publisher back in the mid-nineties, so I know what you're talking about): you make your own luck. You find your own way. You learn the basics and write the best book you can, and if that doesn't work you go back to the drawing board and you try again. And when you do that, other writers will go out of their way to help you.

7:51 AM  
Blogger Bernita said...

Exactly, Jude.
I'm with you.
The rules are different for fiction.

9:08 AM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

J. Carson wrote: "Maybe, when it comes to reading unsolicited manuscripts (while we're busy working on our own), an established author should ask for the first twenty pages and a synopsis first, just like agents."

Exactly. This is how we do it at SleuthFest at our Author Critique auctions (money goes to charity, not the authors' pockets). My sister and I have been doing these for about 6 yrs now, two each year, and the winning bidders submit 30-50 pages only. Of course you can tell in 30 pages if the writer has the basics down. And I don't say this to be mean, but few I have seen over the years do. So Kelly and I give them rather extensive critiques on POV, dialogue and narrative.

But this year, we got one MS that has genuine potential. This writer has quite obviously worked her buns off learning the basics. Sure there are things to improve, but she has a good grasp of structure, characterization etc. Most likely, her challenge is: can she maintain a compelling dramatic arc over 200-300 pages? Or will her story fall prey to what Kelly and I call "the soggy middle"? (hardest part of the book to write...the vast middle!)

So we are going to ask to see her entire book, because that is where she is at on her learning curve. But I can tell that she worked hard to get to this point. And I will go the extra miles to help her get further.

11:42 AM  
Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

I've got to check out evil editor!

Yes, the idea anyone can write is frustrating. I rejected something for Spinetingler and sent back some basic editing notes - nice suggestions. The person had submitted before, been rejected before, received suggestions before...and immediately submitted this latter story instead of processing the suggestions. Guess what? The critique was a repeat, but it wasn't everything the editorial team had said, just the printable stuff.

He wrote back and ranted that I should have let him make those changes and published him. Like he deserved to be published. Uh, when we've got multi-published authors submitting polished stories? And that the full editorial review had been "reading this made me want to scream and I even thought about trying to choke myself"?

I gave the guy the uncensored version and my husband almost killed me, but what can you do? If people are going to demand you publish them, there comes a point you have to tell them their work isn't even close to the mark. I just feel bad. As a writer and editor, there's no greater joy than typing those acceptance letters...and no greater pain than telling someone their work is rejected. I do feel for them.

1:20 PM  
Blogger JA Konrath said...

I don't believe in absolutes, but one that I'm leaning toward is:

No good deed goes unpunished.

One of the overriding problems with newbie authors (and I can say this because I was one for 10 years) is that they struggle to get published, but don't struggle nearly as much to learnt he business or improve their craft.

It takes a lot of time and effort to write a book. Anyone who can finish a book deserves my respect.

But they don't deserve my blurb, my money, or my help. Those things have to be earned.

BTW--I was going to post this anonymously, but then I remembered that I'm not a semi-literate chickenshit asshole.

1:59 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Joe--

Nobody would call you SEMI anything!! :)

4:18 PM  
Blogger Justin R. Buchbinder said...

That wasn't MY novel, was it?

(sure hope not)

JR

5:24 PM  
Blogger AstonWest said...

"What's hard is promising to read someone's manuscript and you know by the first or second page that it will take you forever, because you're not a masochist and have to take it a little at a time."

Had that more than a few times when I agreed to read and critique a friend-of-a-friend's manuscript...

When I have that happen now, I simply go through a few chapters, point out the things they should fix, and ask them to go through the rest of the manuscript (and fix those issues throughout) before I continue.

Usually, though, they simply don't bother to re-send the corrected manuscript (if they correct it at all).

Your post reminded me of a recent one over at

5:55 PM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

Justin, dude! Of course not!

Boy, glad to know I'm not the only one in the room with doubts about their books. :)

7:54 PM  
Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

"BTW--I was going to post this anonymously, but then I remembered that I'm not a semi-literate chickenshit asshole."

Nobody who reads your blog would think that for a second. Okay, maybe semi-literate... (Just joking -seriously!)

And no, you aren't the only ones with doubts about your novel. The one I have coming out, I never thought would be published. 9 months not even looking at it and then starting final edits. I'm making myself groan and cringe, thinking how juvenile the writing was then.

Wondering if it'll seriously be cleaned up enough to be presentable when the time comes.

And if anonymous can do better, love to see him name himself and stand behind his work. Otherwise, shut up.

8:55 PM  
Anonymous J. Carson Black said...

Astonwest: that was hilarious! I wish I'd thought of that.

9:33 PM  
Blogger Bryan D. Catherman said...

Just tell this lawyer that this reminds you of the kid who dropped out of high school, works at a gas station, and is determined to become a lawyer. The lawyer just laughs and laughs. All that hard work to get good undergrad grades, and the LSAT, and the admission letters, and law school, oh, and passing the BAR. Just tell the lawyer he's the kid at the gas station.

I went down that lawyer road for a while, then I went to Iraq. I've changed lanes and now am starting the learning thing over... to write. Maybe I'm not to bright.

12:18 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

a P.S.

I have a suspicion that people who ask you to read their manuscript, no matter how much they say: "I really want you to be honest, there's no way I can learn if you don't tell me the truth," really want you to say:

"This is absolutely fabulous! I couldn't put it down! I'm taking it to my agent and I'm positive she can get a six-figure advance for this!"

11:16 AM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

Mark,

I think you are right. Quoting John Irving here:

“Very few writers, young or old, are really seeking advice when they give out their work to be read. They want support. They want someone to say ‘good job’.”

11:20 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Great post . . . Because I worked as a book editor for 10 years before becoming a f/t novelist, I am asked to do lots of favors like that, usually (with no offense intended to anyone in these two professions) by doctors or lawyers who think by virtue of having a post-grad degree, they are instantly brilliant and thus don't have to study craft.
I've reached a point where I now tell strangers at cocktail parties that I sell life insurance or am an actuary just so I don't get cornered by someone who "has a great idea and you can write it and we'll split the millions of dollars in royalties" or someone like your manuscript's author.

E

12:15 PM  
Blogger Dantzr said...

Although I understand all that all of you have written...except for Anon... what planet???... I have seen it all from the other point of view also.
I have been trying to write a book now for, oh probably 30 or 40 years. Not the same book...i think I would have quit by now. But I write up a storm for days or weeks or months and then...I walk away from it for a few days or weeks and come back and it seems more like drivel than wunderbar. Have any of you had this feeling??

My "training" if you want to call it that, is from reading the masters, over and over again...Gardner, Chandler, the MacDonalds, Fleming, Greenleaf, and so on for over 45 years. I now read at least and as many as 5 books a week and I know, ahem...KNOW what I like to read. I try and incorporate what I like into the books I work at.
The book I have been working on for the past year is probably my best so far...but, once again the drivel comes out.
I read a bunch of books by good, just not great, authors and mine doesn't seem so bad. Then I read a great wordsmith...Dick Francis, Alex Kava, William Kent Kreuger, Michael Connelly, Ridley Pearson (and a couple of ladies named P.J...An Unquiet Grave is probably the best all over novel I have read this year)...and all of a sudden I know my words don't match up. Although I know that the vast majority of first time authors don't come across as brilliant...or even sparingly gifted, I choke.

Okay...I know it has been said here that it is courage needed to finish and submit a book. My problem is I know I have the courage...if only I could write a good novel.

I commend all of you who are working towards the completion of your novels. Envy is here, jealousy also, but mostly, I suppose, it is awe.

Good luck to all. Maybe someday I'll go down to the local bookstore and just look at my Bestselling novel sitting in the showcase in the window. Till then, I'll read yours!!! :)

12:44 AM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

Dantzr:

You wrote: I commend all of you who are working towards the completion of your novels. Envy is here, jealousy also, but mostly, I suppose, it is awe.

But you must know that ALL writers feel the same thing you do. We all read other writers and are envious of their talent, their success or productivity. Or, more likely, as you said...it is awe.

That is why I usually don't even read while I am the throes of completing a novel -- correction, I don't read authors whose writing I admire. Because it can paralyze me with unrational feelings of inadequacy.

The best advice I can give you is to yes, study and learn from good writers. But find your own voice and be the best storyteller you can. It's like yoga class...
compete against yourself, not the guy next to you who can bend herself into a preztel.

And thank you for a very good honest post.

11:54 AM  

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