Advice About Your Writing From a Successful Writer
Here's some practical advice about your writing. All-star mystery writer Sara Paretsky talked with us about writing as a career.
Sara Paretski talks about writing as a career
Here's some practical advice about your writing. All-star mystery writer Sara Paretsky talked with us about writing as a career. This author of the wildly popular V.I.Warshawski detective novel series spoke forthrightly about the challenges of a writing career, especially in today's economy.
Sara Paretsky says her bold woman detective, V.I. Warshawski, is the quintessential urban woman. V.I. grew up in the shadow of the steel mills on Chicago’s Southeast side, and she knows her way around every alley. She’s a street fighter, a singer, a bit of a clothes horse, and a woman of great intensity and passion.
Chatting with Paretsky, it's evident that she isn't her character and isn't conflicted about that. My favorite anecdote from our conversation goes like this:
Sara, how did you develop your unique writing voice? Is V.I. channeling you?
It didn’t happen overnight. When I struggled to develop a character, I tried different approaches and got nowhere. When I worked at CNA Insurance, part of the first generation of women in management in large numbers, I worked with a guy who, to put it kindly, had issues where women were concerned.
In October 1979, I was working an event in Grant Park. A dreary day. This man was going on. My lips were saying, "Gosh! Heck of an idea!" But the balloon over my head was saying unprintables. I suddenly thought: That’s my character! She says what's in the balloon not worrying about getting fired."
I grew up in Kansas, a good girl. She didn’t. So her edgy voice is part of me I hide. In some ways, it's a crutch. I'll be in a situation where I'll think: A stronger, more courageous person than me would say something. But I can't. I know later I'll let her say it in a book for me.
Advice about your writing: getting started in writing as a career
Sara, like many writers, began her love affair with words as a child. Early in her career, she craved writing but settled for business writing for a major insurance company. Still, she couldn't shake the private dream of publication, particularly for her short stories.
"I've always loved detective fiction and wanted to create a woman detective. It was getting to be the right time for strong women characters — for women to take a step forward. That was on my mind. The women's movement was at its peak. There were characters like Nicole Hollander's Sylvia. Sylvia began a year before V.I. I was about to define a niche that hadn't existed, but people were hungry for it."
So learning the craft is an important step. Sara enrolled in a detective-fiction writing class at Northwestern University's Chicago extension. Her V.I. storyline was front and center in her mind, but she didn't know how to pull it together. Later, her instructor introduced her to a literary agent, and the rest, Sara says, was slow history.
She became an overnight writing success — in 30 years
When thinking of advice about your writing, Sara Paretsky said she's lucky to have begun when books were marketed through small, independent bookstores. They counted successful sales in thousands of copies rather than tens of thousands. Her fan base built slowly over time. That kind of audience stays loyal — has legs.
Marketing is another critical step if you're writing as a career. Sara certainly had to market herself and her work, but the world was ready for her, and she eagerly prepared to deal with book signings, public speaking engagements, and book tours.
That's a tiring road and one you cannot afford to minimize. "I'd go anywhere. Any library, community group, or club looking for a speaker. I'd be there. I'd meet with people. I was published in too small a way for the publisher to care about marketing," Sara recalls.
Best advice about your writing? Make some Noise
In today's world, self-publishing gives more writers more opportunities, but self-publishing does not negate the need to make some noise about your writing work. Marketing and promoting are even more necessary so your head rises above the crowd. Tools for promoting your work look slightly different now, and the responsibility rests on your shoulders unless you can afford a publicist.
Sara encourages up-and-coming and new writers to keep their feet planted on terra firma, especially when forming expectations about how fast and far a book or written work might go. Again, in today's economy, marketing is essential, and knowing how to market your work effectively is critical to success or failure.
How to put your writing out in front of the crowd
I asked Sara what a writer's best tools might look like. She feels that, in the end, it's about carving out the time you need to get inside yourself enough to deliberately consider what you're doing and what it means to you. You have to feel something to portray it.
"Herman Melville talked about the green grass-growing place you need to become connected to your unconscious mind. That gets you the insight you need to go forward. When we spend too much time managing things by phone, the Internet, wherever, without allowing quiet time, we're killing the source of our creativity," Sara said. "America is a culture where, if you don't look like you're working, there's something wrong with you. Especially true for women. Put that aside. Sit staring into space. That's where we as writers go when we're doing groundwork and getting prepared." Mindfulness works for anyone who is aiming to perfect a craft. That doesn't mean a writer in the business of writing needn't attend to business.
Sara has a personal blog where she talks about her writing life. Her website keeps her ever more connected to her audience, and you can subscribe to her newsletter there. She makes frequent public appearances, and though she uses a publicist, she makes sure that she's personally accessible to her public.
And of course, learning your craft, perfecting your voice, and making sure your writing rings true will always put you ahead of the crowd. That's still true, even though almost anyone can publish writing nowadays. Take pride in your work, and be honest. Don't worry about other people's writing because you are unique. Understand what your audience wants from you. But harken to what Sara posted on Facebook a while back.
“When I was young, my parents once had a bet on the exact wording of a passage from Shakespeare. Don’t ask me what — I was seven, I didn’t really know what was going on. All I know is that my dad lost, which miffed him. He crossed out the passage in their ‘Complete Works of Shakespeare,’ and wrote in his version. Thinking you can write better than Bill takes some chutzpah."
A writer needs chutzpah, but keep everything balanced so that writing as a career becomes your passion and not just a dream.
Sara Paretsky beyond writing as a career
Writing is her passion and her business. Always, she's either planning, writing, or promoting a book. She makes herself write every day. Even in throws of thinker's block, she wants to be at the keyboard when the logjam breaks. But like all worker bees, she needs downtime to connect with family and her community.
Sara came to Chicago in the summer of 1966 to do community service work in the City's South Side neighborhoods. That, she says, is what made the City her home. The fury over open housing and ethnic neighborhoods marked her — changed her life.
Now, she supports and nurtures organizations that support girls and women in the arts, letters, and sciences. She has endowed scholarships at the University of Kansas and mentored students in Chicago's inner city schools. This is a woman who truly supports those pursuing writing as a career. Sara created Sisters in Crime, an advocacy organization for women in the mystery writing world. She founded Sisters for Science in Chicago, supporting programs for school-age girls and Girls in the Game to give at-risk girls a place to run off pent-up energy.
Always willing to provide advice about your writing, internationally-acclaimed writer Sara Paretsky is a brilliant, thinking woman - a pleasure to talk with. She recently released her latest novel, Overboard. Get a sneak peek on her website.
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