A monthly column of wit, insight, irreverance and inspiration by a published author and veteran of the publishing trenches.

The Ink-Stained Wretch

Don Whittington

September, 1999

Advice to the Wretched


So this friends says to me, he says, "You know what you need? I'll tell you exactly what you need.  You need to write a science fiction novel more popular than Star Trek or Star Wars."

I was, of course, overwhelmed with gratitude.  Who had changed my buddy into a citizen angel suddenly sent to direct my career path?  How did I come to be so lucky?

And why stop with SF?  I could follow up with a romance novel more popular than Gone With the Wind.  A kids' series more popular than Harry Potter.  A thriller better than Silence of the Lambs.  A horror novel better than The Shining.

I'm embarrassed I never thought of this myself.

Once my other pals heard I was open to advice, they fairly spewed with big ideas.  I was awed at how much thought they'd given it:

'Invent the next big relationship fad, you know, like Women Are From Portugal, Men Are From Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania.'

           I nodded.

'Get selected for Oprah's Book Club'

           I took notes.

'You need to get some of those displays up by the checkouts in Barnes and Noble.'

          Memo to publisher…

'Go on the talk shows.'

          Look up Lettermanís number.

'Be the next Louis L'Amour.'

          Find a cougar; eat it.

'Sell to the movies, man!  That's where the money is.'

          Get to know James Cameron.  Does he bowl?

Believe it or not I've actually received all of these pieces of advice over the years.  Folks mean well, but they just don't understand.

These aren't ideas; these are pipe dreams.  Good books are passed over by the movies all the time.  And considering most movies these days, thank God.  Positioning in books stores is paid for by publishers, and they don't fork it over for just anybody.  And as for "better thans" and "more popular thans" who knows when the lightning will strike?  Or why?  Or when?

All you can do is write the story you want to write, and write it precisely because you want to write it.  Because you have a passion to write it!

When writers give advice, they focus on other things because they know the only useful advice is that which helps you keep your interest up, keep your passion burning, and that keeps reminding you that you are in fact a writer, whether published or not.

Back when I was starting out, I talked with James Lee Burke once who shared some advice he'd received many years ago about the writing life.  'Do three things every day that will help your career,' he said.  (He also called me 'podnah' but it didn't give me a swelled head.  Made me feel like Clete Purcell, though.)

Now that's advice a writer can use. Three things a day.

If you write, well that's one right there.  Hard to get on Oprah if you don't write the thing to begin with.  But what about those other two?

Here are a few ideas:

1– Write a letter to someone in the business, especially someone you've met, especially if it ís an agent or an editor.  Don't talk about your work too much.  You're just writing to let them know you're still alive, still out there working.  Keeping your name in front of people helps keep you out of that nasty old slush pile.

2– Re-read a favorite book.  Keep yourself immersed in language.

3– Read the newspaper carefully.  Look at the small articles for bits of life that can add to your own stories.  Read the obits and check out the name combinations.  Look at the pictures and think about describing those faces.  Notice how some of those faces keep popping up over time.  There's a face in the obits of the Fort Worth Star Telegram that I'm positive has died at least four times in the last seven years.  What does this mean?  (Is this a story I see before me?)

4– Take a class in something stimulating.  Maybe something one of your characters is studying.

5– Volunteer to speak for groups.  Speaking engagements are good training for that imagined talk show circuit and they reinforce your self-image as a writer.

6– Read about writing.  There are hundreds of books on the subject and you should read as many as possible just to see what they have to say.

7– Read writer's memoirs and collections of letters.  See for yourself how their struggles are not so different from your own.

8–Look in the damned mirror.  Say,'That's a writer in there.'

9– Join a writer's group.

10– Get up, go outside, look around.  That's what you're writing about.  Make sure you remember to see some of it.

Three things a day.  That's not so hard, now is it?