: views from the Hill

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Writing advice from Robert B Parker

Interesting read in the Bostonia that came in the mail last week re Parker's donation of his archives to the Boston University Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, his writing methods, his PhD thesis ("The Violent Hero, Wilderness Heritage, and Urban Reality: A Study of the Private Eye in the Novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald") and more.

The article got me poking around on the Web and I came across his blog and an interview by Eric Berlin (3.2005) which included this bit of advice:

EB: Thank you. Classic question to any author: any advice to aspiring writers out there who are looking to become novelists?

RBP: Write it, send it in. There isn't anything else to do. Somebody asked me at a signing the other day if I have any tips for a first-time writer and I said, "Yeah, try and write good." There isn't anything I can tell them - there are no tips.

There are very successful writers who don't write anything the way I do. John Updike, who I know, and who is a nice guy and a great writer, does not write in any way the way I do. So you can't say, "You better write like me!" I mean, you can write like Updike, that will work..

If you need tips, it's almost too late for you. If you can't fix it, you can't send it to me and have me fix it. You write it, you send it in, and if somebody at a publishing house thinks they can make a profit by publishing it, they will. And if they think they can't, they won't. And I can't make them do it, your Uncle Harry can't make them do it.

I suppose Michael Jackson or somebody can write a bad book and somebody will publish it at the moment. His life story would be swell. But other than that kind of celebrity hogwash, actual writing...

[At this point, we're interrupted by Mr. Parker's PR rep. We're told that that we have five more minutes, and we're asked how everything is going. Mr. Parker deadpans, "We're doing my favorite thing. I'm talking about myself."]

So no, I don't have any advice. There are still publishers who will read unsolicited manuscripts. They'll read them all, but they may read five pages in and say, "Ooh..." And I think that works. I think that if you have a manuscript, I can read one page, or maybe half a page, and know whether you have any talent or not. But the odds are long, most people don't have it. And you're competing with a lot of other submissions, but some of them are written in crayon. I mean, some are so apparently tripe that you read one sentence and throw it out.

There are also agents listed in the Literary Marketplace. I got published without an agent. You need an agent to get read at some houses, which require agent's submission - they're listed in one of those books, Writer's Marketplace or Literary Marketplace. But they can't get you published if you can't get published yourself, except that they can get you read places where you might not get read otherwise. And they've done the initial screening: if they take you on, the publisher will give you more attention. The publisher saves the trouble of bothering the initial editor.

It's been so long since I've been a beginning writer that I don't really know what it's like anymore. I don't know what the market is like. I don't know whether it would really be better to find an agent or just get published and then get an agent. If you get published, you can get an agent easy enough. And you need one: an agent is very valuable.

But the one thing you have to do is to write it. With non-fiction, you may be able to get a deal on a sample chapter and an outline, but with fiction, it's made on the writing. Non-fiction can be the idea, the story, or whatever. Fiction is in the execution. Write it, and send it to somebody who can publish it. Not me!

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