Saturday, January 28, 2012

You can't teach a cat to sing or a dog to fly.

John Ramsey Miller

I’m not here on every other Saturday to teach anybody how to write. Others here know the technicalities and can teach you or sell you books about the craft. I’m not blogging here to make what I do seem mysterious, or harder than it is, and it ain’t at all hard for a real writer. I’ll just say for you to keep your story moving. Make your characters real. Your style should be to write like you’d tell a story to an audience. Work hard to write a story you’d like to read. And think hard about your story before you write it down. That is all I can tell anyone. I expect that anything else I say is a rule is bullshit I’m making up. That’s all about it I actually know, I’ve read Elmore Leonard’s list and Stephen King’s book, and BIRD IN HAND, and I didn’t agree or disagree. That is what they think, or think they think or want me to think they think. The process is different for everybody. Some authors will say they have no idea how they do what they do. I think most famous authors are surprised they are famous for what they wrote.

I’m not in on any authoring secrets, and I worked the steps everybody has to work in order to be published, and I had no contacts in the writing community. I wasn’t discovered sitting in my studio by talent scouts, I worked damned hard. No known writer reached down, took my hand and dragged me to their publisher and demanded they publish me of they would take their money generating words elsewhere. So work your ass off or get away from this profession now.

If you can write a book that people will actually buy without being related to you, or your shamelessly flogging it to them in a crowded bar at Bouchercon, you are in the vast minority. I never say, “if I can do it anybody can,” because it is one of those things you either can or you can’t do. Anybody on earth can write badly and most do. I know high school dropouts who write brilliantly. I know learned writing professors whose books can suck lint off a cheap sweater at fifty yards. There are no shortcuts I can impart, or secrets to being published. Write a very good book and push it to the right people at the right time. I don’t know who that is, because it is different for every author. Hell, just publish it somewhere yourself and say you wrote a book. There are millions of people singing not very well on You Tube.

I didn’t set out to become an author. From an early age I wrote short stories, poems, and I did so for my own entertainment and as a way to express myself. People have always fascinated me. Stories fascinated me. I was blessed with a natural curiosity and being born in an interesting time and place. Writing found me the same way graphic art and photography did. I was interested in it and I did it for myself first. People I shared my stories with, enjoyed them. My advertising writing sold products. I wrote my first thriller without knowing it was a thriller, or what made any book a thriller. I wrote a fast moving story about violent and complex people. A very talented editor bought it and together we turned it into a very good book.

I have never read one page into a romance novel and I don’t ever intend to. I’ve had dear friends who write them, but I do not care to read any. I have friends who have never read any of my books, and in truth I could care less. Not that I think romance, mystery, or cozy authors have less talent, I’m just not into those genres. There are great writers in those genres and they have their readers, some legions of fans. Kumbaya moments bore me. I don’t like writing them.

My fans have strong stomachs. They like justice, the rougher the better. As far as I can tell, most of my fans are not violent people, but they like to read violence, and they like their violence accurate. The romance I write into my novels is that which is in me. You don’t stay married 35 years without some romance. My written romance isn’t necessarily sentimental, it’s a reflection of my affections and *effections. I can only write convincingly that which is within me.

If I think the story should go there, I will kill both cub scouts and cats without a second thought to the reader’s reaction. Some readers make the association that murdered fictional animals are the real ones they love, which isn’t my problem. The same readers could care less if I kill children. I don’t give a damn. I really don’t.

It is my opinion that most new Thrillers are that they are just rehashes or reshuffles of thrillers that came before them. I know that’s true with other genres as well. You can’t think of an original story because they have all been done. It is the rare twist that Thriller readers or writers don’t see coming before the writer thinks they will. A fresh new story gets harder to write all the time. Early Thriller writers had it good because that wasn’t yet true. Think of books like you might a gun. There are just so many places you can put the barrel. The barrel has to point forward else the shooter is in imminent danger of not living through the shooting experience. The bullet rests in the chamber, which has to be very precisely located behind the barrel. There are a finite number of firing pin, hammer and grip designs to be put with the barrel designs. There are just so many bullet calibers to be put into the mix. So any new gun has more to do with cobbling together varying design elements that have come before them than those that can come after. There will be ray guns and particle beam guns, but those will be less guns than machines that can do what a gun does, only better or differently. Maybe thrillers that are written so differently that they don’t just entertain, but maim or kill the reader as well.

I have been brutal to would-be authors whose work showed no inkling of talent at writing fiction. Other writers think I should encourage everybody who tries. Bullshit. If someone is wasting their time, they should know it so they can follow another dream, or perhaps start bending sheet metal into ducts that might prove useful. It is hard enough when you have some talent or even some mechanical ability with words. If you can’t write fiction, you can become a technical writer, or write non-fiction. But if you can’t write on a fundamental level… Ok, so who am I to judge. I don’t like hurting feelings or dashing dreams. I never asked to be put in a position to judge ability, but when I’m asked to judge, I do. Don’t want to hear it, don’t friggin’ ask. That’s certainly cool with me.

I am not a drum major for deluded people who only dream of being authors to prove something to themselves, to make a quick fortune, to impress their friends, or to allow their egos to bloom. I feel sorry for people who truly love books and have a real desire to contribute their own visions to literature, all the while knowing that is as impossible as me becoming American Idol. Delusions should not be fed, else you’ll have people going postal all over the country. So I like to imagine I’m saving lives by being critical.

Nothing pleases me more than seeing raw talent. If someone has that, I always do my best to encourage and help them any way I can.


  1. Actually, John, one could learn more about writing from the paragraphs you just posted than they could from entire books on the subject. That may not have been your intention but it's true.

  2. "Work hard to write a story you’d like to read."

    I don't know about anyone else, but the hardest person for me to please is myself, so if I follow this adage and work hard at writing what I want to read, which has been my goal anyway, I'll have written a book with potential.

  3. Bravo, Miller!

    I have long believed that Simon Cowell was in his own way the kindest of the American Idol judges. Filters and unearned kindness exist only in the world of the wannabe. In the professional world--whether it's sports, soldiering, fire fighting or writing--the uncomfortable truth is delivered with full energy.

    I actually enjoy reviewing manuscripts and helping people develop their talent. I make it clear up-front, though, that while I never intend to be mean, I owe it to them to be honest. I would never tell anyone to stop pursuing their dream, but I have on more than one occasion told people that they are way not ready for prime time. The rejoinder to that is often, "Well, that's your opinion." To which I respond, "Mine is the only opinion I have."

    John Gilstrap

  4. "I think most famous authors are surprised they are famous for what they wrote."

    I have found this to be true not only in writing, but in other arts as well. I used to collect autographs of unknowns, the guys sitting in galleries with their work looking stunned that I was interested in them. It was the genuine delight that made me pick out the winners. I made a tidy profit off of some of those signatures 10 years later.

    And I love thrillers that don't pull punches.

    And I dislike writing groups that are all fluffy kitties and unicorn poop (been there, done that, Swiffered the fairy dust out of the corners).

    I have a friend who is getting lots of partial and full requests, but lightning fast rejections. She asked my opinion and, as a reader, I gave it, her book idea is awesome, but the pacing needed work. I didn't do it to hurt her, but hopefully to help just a bit to get her to "yes," (so I can get an autographed copy and tuck it away ; )

    Fab post: Terri

  5. I've gone with the adage "You can't teach someone how to write". Of course, one should tell one how NOT to write, perhaps.

    I didn't listen to my high school English teacher who told me that my spelling was horrible and my grammar worse, and I should find some other thing to do with my life. Screw her! I kept writing.
    30+ years later, I've been published. I figure that after being rejected over that many years and I still didn't get it that I wasn't meant to be published, I wasn't going to quit writing.

    Glad I didn't. It's really up to the writer. They're either into it for life or they aren't. Excuse me while I get back to the scene I was fleshing out.

  6. "Work hard to write a story you’d like to read." That's the best advice any writer can get or give--write for yourself first. Nice post, Miller.

  7. Who said: We Like Candy, but it isn't good for us...

    I want to know up front how bad my stuff sucks. If you take the time to read my work, that's an honor in itself - but side dressing a critique with, what did Terri Lynn say, fluffy kittens and Unicorn Poo, yeah, I love that - I don't have time for all that.

    I learned more from the three rejections I got last year from professional editors than anywhere else. Those rejections forced me to pace my work differently, add more conflict, tighten dialogue.

    They helped me to write a book I'd want to read.

    Good post, John.

  8. I may have set a record for rejections before being published-167, I think. But the editors told me what they liked and didn't and I changed. I am a commercial writer. My advertising thick skin helps. I do not care what anybody says about my books, as long as I believe in them. Criticism is invaluable. I can come off as mean, but as John said, "The only opinion I have is mine." If I see promise in someone's work, I keep reading. I read a book the other day by a first time self-published author and he used 2 povs in one scene. I forgave it because there was so much else that kept me reading. I sent him a note saying that I loved the book, which I sincerely did. If you have the guts of a talent the nuances are easy to pick up.

  9. Paula, I agree 100%. We can compare notes at Gun-Camp-for-Girls

    My motto for 2012 is, "Get busy! You can't get your rejections if you don't sub!"

    The results so far? One "yes" for a small press anthology and a win in a contest that meant a lot to me. Latest sub is on the drawing board and there are still a couple wandering out in the wild blue yonder.


  10. Reality is the best medicine for those who want to cure stupid. It has made me what I am today ... less stupid.

  11. Thanks for your comments, John. Your honesty and authenticity are refreshing. I am not a writer nor do I aspire to be one. It is just not me. However, I have loved to read from the time I could do so. I enjoy many books, including yours.

  12. You're made od better stuff than I, John. I toast to you. Great post.