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Pull back the curtain and see how a suspense writer puts the thrills and chills together.

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Stephen King has said a great many witty, pithy, and all-too-true things about writing…and life. But one of my favorites is this:

“If you write, someone will try to make you feel lousy about it.”
I’m not sure why, and maybe people in other artistic fields have experienced the same, but everyone seems to feel perfectly free to tell writers how they should live their lives. For example, if you write so-called “genre fiction”, which encompasses pretty much everything except non-fiction and so-called “literary” novels, chances are that you will receive some scathing comments, as King did when his teacher told him that he shouldn’t write “trash”. I have a friend who loves to write romances, only to be asked by her friends and family when she’s going to write a “real book”. Or how about the embittered book critic I used to work with who once asked what my book was about, and before I could answer said, “Well, I’m sure it isn’t literary.” Now what is that supposed to mean?
Years ago, I took the bold step of walking away from a successful freelance business so I could finish my novel. I’d been so busy writing articles for others that I had nothing left for my own work. Even though it was a big risk, I told my clients I’d be unavailable for two months and got down to it. When my neighbor found out what I was doing, she looked at my fiance and said, “Wow. You want to be a writer? I hope he’s got a good job.” That comment had me simmering for weeks, I was so pissed. And the best part of it? My neighbor was the mother of a fairly well-known, successful author! Guess we know how supportive she was of her daughter’s career choice.
What is it about writers that makes everyone want to put their two cents in? I wish I knew. I would never tell a heavy metal musician that perhaps he should give folk music a try. Or suggest that a GP become a heart surgeon.
It took me a long time to land an agent. From what I’ve heard from others in the biz, this is normal. It’s more unusual to get an agent on your first couple of tries than it is to have accumulated a large stack of rejections first. I wanted an agent because I didn’t just want to write for fun–I wanted to writing to be my career. Moreover, I wanted a New York agent because–even in this era of email, text messaging, and video conferencing–agents that live in the heart of the publishing industry still have an advantage. Most of the time, when I wasn’t drowning in self-pity, I knew I would get one eventually. I just had to keep trying, and not let the rejections get to me.
As always, people asked me how the writing was going. I told them that I was still working on getting an agent. Nine times out of ten, I got this response: “Why don’t you just send your book to (fill in name of small local press here)?” So I had to explain that: 1) this local press was actually highly selective and had a very narrow category of books they would accept, being a small publisher; 2) the press was not-for-profit, and therefore couldn’t really afford to pay its authors well; and 3) maybe it’s shameful to admit, but–I believed I could do better. I knew it would take me longer, but I was willing to wait. Anything worth doing is worth doing well. And I still feel the same. Even though things didn’t work out with my first agent, it turns out that that isn’t unusual, either. So I’ll keep walking along the path I’ve chosen for myself, and eventually, it will lead where I want it to. That’s the great thing about freedom of choice, isn’t it? The ability to choose your own path, for better or worse.
How about you, dear reader? Ever received some unwanted advice that chafes you to this day? Feel free to vent here!
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9 Comments

  1. Knapper

    I submitted a script to a studio exec once and got the feedback “your dream sequences are totally unrealistic”. I was also told that it was “too original” and asked if I had “anything like Dodgeball?”

    Reply
  2. Story Teller

    That’s hilarious, Knapper! Sad but true…writers hear that type of thing all the time. I once pitched a story about eating disorders among boxers to the local paper, and they turned it down, saying they were “nervous about running a story about a topic no one else had written about yet”. Isn’t that supposed to be the point – to be the first?

    Reply
  3. James Rewucki

    I love it when people point out my ‘quirky’ or ‘eccentric’ writing style and offer the advice, “Why don’t you try something more main stream?”. And I have to explain to them that I write what I am interested in and that usually is so far from the main stream that it hurts. Why would I want to pollute the cultural landscape with more main stream disposable trash?

    Reply
  4. Story Teller

    Hear, hear, James! Good for you for sticking to your guns. And I think the reviews of your last movie are proving that there’s an audience for your type of quirky eccentricity.

    Big publishers (and production houses) are notoriously chicken about taking on something that’s radically different from the mainstream. That’s why we have independent films, small presses, and e-publishing. It always amuses me to see the surprise from the “powers that be” when something radically different does well. I hate that original ideas still have to fight so hard to see the light of day, but maybe that will change.

    Reply
  5. Laura Best

    Hi Holly, I’ve left a little something over at my blog for you..Enjoy!

    Reply
  6. Joylene

    My professor at university told me to quit school and to go home and have babies.

    Great post, Holly. Congrats on your Versatile Blogger Award.

    Reply
  7. Story Teller

    @ Laura – thanks so much! This is really exciting, and so appreciated. As a new blogger, it’s difficult to get the word out, and you have certainly helped. I owe you one!

    @ Joylene – wow, talk about some terrible advice! I assume you ignored him? Thanks for your kind words, and welcome to my blog!

    Reply
  8. K

    Margaret Laurence had a great comeback to a surgeon at a cocktail party, who, when he found out she was a writer, said, “Oh,really. I’m going to be a writer when I retire.” To which Ms Laurence replied,”When I retire, I’m going to be a surgeon.”

    Reply
  9. Story Teller

    I have always loved that quote, K, and it goes to show how so many view writing as a “silly little hobby” that can be picked up at will and mastered quite easily. Welcome to my blog, and thank you for your comment!

    Reply

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