Friday, November 30, 2018

Sacrificing to the Gods of Writing

What obstacles, if any, did you encounter on your road to becoming a writer? And how did you overcome them?

by Paul D. Marks

Starting out to be a professional writer is scary. There are a lot of obstacles to overcome. Different ones for different people, though there are many that we all have in common. I’ve always done some type of writing of one kind or another, starting with poems and songs, non-fiction and then screenplays, writing for radio, short stories and novels. Each one had its own set of issues and concerns. I never sold a song or poem, but bands have performed some of the songs.

To begin with, I had to learn to read and write English that could be understood by others. That sounds silly, but try reading things that some would-be writers write and you’ll see what I mean. But the lack of decent writing skills is really for another post. Luckily I learned these things in school and was able to improve those skills over the years. And this will sound silly, but I had to learn to type. I took a typing class in high school. I was bored, but there were a lot of girls so I liked that. After high school I didn’t use it for a while, but eventually I started to write and the typing skills I learned came back very quickly. And I’m a pretty good typist when I want to be. But often when I’m writing I’m just flying so I don’t care about typos. They can always be fixed. But I can touch type and that makes life a hell of a lot easier for someone who wants to be a writer.

Here are some things we all have to deal with at one time or another:


We’re all scared of rejection. Some of us handle it better than others. For some that fear either keeps them from finishing something in the first place or sending it out if they’ve finished it. If you send something out and it gets rejected it’s as if someone says your baby is ugly and them’s fightin’ words. Still, it’s something we have to deal with. It’s okay to be scared. It’s not okay to let it paralyze you into doing nothing. When I was starting out and got rejections it only strengthened my resolve to “show them”.

When I started out I don’t think I realized how much one had to sacrifice to be a writer. I don’t know about other people but for me it’s extremely time consuming. And I was very driven to be successful. That meant spending a lot of time at the typewriter (in those days). And that meant sacrificing other things I wanted to do sometimes, including hanging with friends. And I know it damaged some of my friendships. People who aren't into writing don’t understand the dedication it takes.

Sometimes I might want to procrastinate, so I would go out with friends. I’d even clean my apartment. Women I dated often commented on how clean my apartment was “for a man.” Well, it was less painful to do that than sitting down at the typewriter and opening a vein, to quote Hemingway.

I know a lot of people who want to be writers. They have an idea, it’s the greatest idea in the world. It will make millions. But they don’t have the discipline to put their butt in a chair and work on it. And ideas are a dime a dozen. They’re everywhere.

So, we have to sacrifice many things to the Writing Gods to overcome these obstacles. And the things we need to learn early on are discipline and motivation. I think I’ve touched on discipline above, but we also need to be motivated. We need to want to say something and have something to say. And if we believe that enough, we should be able to find the discipline we need and make those sacrifices.

I also had to learn how to focus on the job of writing. It has its moments of glamor and fun but the actual writing part is often sitting in room by yourself trying to create something out of nothing. As I’ve probably mentioned here before and definitely in other places, when I started writing I had romantic visions of Hemingway and expats on the Left Bank, sipping absinthe and talking about things that matter. So I tried drinking and writing, but I just wanted to play. And then I tried hanging out at Joe Allen’s a bar in LA, but that wasn’t writing. So I quickly figured out that I need to be in my home office in a chair, working on projects.

And these days with the internet there are certainly distractions that you don’t even have to get up to procrastinate. I love looking things up – research – jumping from hyperlink to hyperlink. I love looking at rock videos and other things on You Tube. And sometimes I do get distracted. But ultimately I return to work and do what I need to do. So you need to maintain focus and shut out the outside world – figure out how to do that for you.

Dealing with stupid people
Another obstacle to overcome is dealing with petty and stupid people. People who want to change your voice or don’t see your vision. People who don’t know who fought on which sides in World War II. People who tell you that your story doesn’t work because people don’t take trains anymore. Don’t do what I did on several occasions and tell them what jerks they are to their faces. It’s not good for your brand. Fight for what you believe in in your work and compromise on other things. Learn to compromise!

Never argue with stupid people. 
They will drag you down to their level
 and then beat you with experience.
 –Mark Twain

I think one of the biggest obstacles that I had to overcome was life experience. Many people go from grade school (or whatever it’s called today) to junior high (or whatever it’s called today) to high school (or whatever it’s called today) to college (or whatever it’s called today) to graduate school (ditto) and then want to be writers. But what do they have to write about? Maybe that’s why there’s so many retreads out there? It’s good to have lived a little bit of life outside of school to both give you something to write about and perspective on it.

So that’s my two cents on the subject. What about you?


And now for the usual BSP:

I’m honored and thrilled – more than I can say – that my story Windward appears in The Best American Mystery Stories of 2018, edited by Louise Penny and Otto Penzler, which just came out this week. I wrote a blog on that on SleuthSayers if you want to check it out: .

I’m doubly thrilled to say that Windward won the Macavity Award at Bouchercon in September. Wow! And thank you to everyone who voted for it.

And I’m even more thrilled by the great reviews that Broken Windows has been receiving. Here’s a small sampling:

Kristin Centorcelli, Criminal Element

"Although it’s set in 1994, it’s eerie how timely this story is. There’s an undeniable feeling of unease that threads through the narrative, which virtually oozes with the grit, glitz, and attitude of L.A. in the ‘90s. I’m an ecstatic new fan of Duke’s."

"Duke and company practically beg for their own TV show."

John Dwaine McKenna, Mysterious Book Report:

"This electrifying novel will jolt your sensibilities, stir your conscience and give every reader plenty of ammunition for the next mixed group where the I [immigration] -word is spoken!"

Betty Webb, Mystery Scene Magazine:

"Broken Windows is extraordinary."

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Jacqueline Seewald said...


You write an honest discussion of what it takes to write professionally. I'm retired from teaching and thought that would give me lots of time to write. But I still have other responsibilities which limit my writing time. Still, writing is something we need to do. Congrats on your many successes!

GBPool said...

You touched on some great thoughts, Paul. The one that really grabbed me was about the lack of living experience in a whole bunch of people today. I know people think the world started the day they were born, but some of these folks never absorbed the life around them since that day. They don't understand sarcasm, historical references, or TV/movie quotes. "Frankly, my dear. I don't give a damn," will go over their head while they are playing with their computer games or whatever they do on those tiny gadgets. Young people may not realize they are prisoners of those things. Fahrenheit 451 is now, without the book burning. They just close bookstores. But if we keep writing, maybe one of these people will trip over our books and take a look. At least I am still able to dream. Thanks for the mind exercise.

Susan C Shea said...

You got me at typing. My father was a successful radio and TV journalist and he would not let me take typing in high school. He assumed I'd want to follow in his footsteps and warned me that women in the newsroom who could type would always be assigned that instead of field reporting. I type (badly) with three fingers, and have to look at the keyboard. Five novels @75,000 words and not getting better!

Paul D. Marks said...

Thank you for your comments, Jacqueline. Isn’t it amazing how our time is nickle and dimed away with one thing and another? It’s really hard to find concentrated time to write, even if we don’t have another job to go to. And thank you for the congrats on my “successes” :-) .

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Gayle, for your comments. Yeah, I agree with you. People haven’t experienced life. Both in terms of having lived it outside of certain closed environments and also the larger cultural history, as you allude to. We have access to more information today than ever and easier to get to it, but what are the majority of people spending their time doing? As you say, at least can still dream.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for your comment, Susan. You gave me a good chuckle. It’s sad that if a woman knew how to type she would be “typecast” in the typing pool. But it’s truly come in handy for me. And 75K words with three fingers sounds like a lot of fun… But it’s the final product, isn’t it, not how you got there :) .