Author T. Jefferson Parker Shares Writing Failures That Led to 22 Successful Novels

TJeffersonParker March 16 2016
T. Jefferson Parker signs my copy of CRAZY BLOOD.

When I heard Old Firehouse Books and Council Tree Library had invited best-selling author T. Jefferson Parker to come to Northern Colorado on March 16, I read his website bio.

He grew up in Southern California and graduated from the University of California, Irvine with a bachelor’s degree in English.

I grew up in in Southern California and graduated from the University of California, Irvine with a bachelor’s degree in English!

He worked as a reporter at the Daily Pilot in Orange County.

I interned at the Daily Pilot!

Were these signs from the universe, or what? I, too, will become a best-selling, critically-acclaimed author one day!

And so I decided to attend the event.

Turns out, T. Jefferson Parker doesn’t seem like a famous author who struck gold with his first novel LAGUNA HEAT, published in 1985, and went on to write 21 books (and counting).

He’s more like your best fishing buddy who loves to tell stories: down-to-earth, amiable, with a good sense of humor, especially when recounting that his first attempt at a novel amounted to “500 pages of bad Hemingway.”

Parker re-wrote LAGUNA HEAT six times before deciding it was good enough to submit for publication (after he edited out all the bad versions of his writing heroes’ voices – Hemingway, Garcia Marquez, Harrison, Chandler – and had his writers’ group critique it, 10 pages at a time.) His friend’s literary agent contacted him a week after he submitted his manuscript, and shopped it publishers.

Contradictory feedback ensued: “We love it, but we can’t publish it. Great characters, terrible plot.” “We love it but we can’t publish it. Terrible characters, great plot.” “We loved it, but we can’t publish it. For a mystery it was so simple, we had it figured out on page 8.”

“I was crushed,” Parker said.

Another major publisher said, “It’s so complicated, we don’t know what happened.” Then finally, St. Martin’s Press called his agent and said they planned to make an offer.

“The lessons are self-evident,” Parker said. “You’ll see mixed reactions a lot. You’ll hear it all. You have to be able to believe in yourself and also take criticism.”

He advised writers to trust their intuition. “I learned there’s a difference between good advice and bad advice. If it’s good advice, you know it.”

Those lessons have served Parker well, especially when he decided to depart from the mystery-thriller-crime genre and try his hand at literary fiction with FULL MEASURE. He tells the story of a solider who returns home from the war in Afghanistan “exhilarated by his new freedom and eager to realize his dream of a sport-fishing business. Instead, he learns that the avocado ranch his family has owned for generations in the foothills of San Diego has been destroyed by a massive wildfire, and the parents he loves are facing ruin.”

The novel was inspired by the experiences of Parker’s young neighbors and acquaintances in Fallbrook, California, near Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, most of whom graduated from high school, joined the military, went through basic training, then found themselves “killing people and watching their buddies die” for eight months. They came home at age 21 or 22 having witnessed unspeakable violence. “I became very admiring of their sacrifices.”

In CRAZY BLOOD, the author tells the story of “a ferocious rivalry between brothers set in the high octane sport of Olympic skiing” that turns into “ a ruthless quest for supremacy.” Parker has always been fascinated by the Old Testament stories of Cain and Abel, and Jacob and Esau, and was interested in writing a story showcasing how humans develop.

“I wanted to explore the idea that at birth we all get certain gifts and certain curses,” he said. “We try to maximize the gifts and minimize the curses, and create our fate.”

The novel investigates human character, nature versus nurture, and competition, and is set up like a Western: the story culminates in an inevitable duel.

“I wanted it to be High Noon on skis.”

When starting a new novel, “I figure out the general tone,” he said. “The mood I want to leave you with.” Sometimes the endings of his stories are hopeful. Sometimes they’re sad.

During the question-and-answer session, I told Parker about our shared connections to UC Irvine and the Daily Pilot (which made him smile), then asked about his daily writing process and how long it takes him to finish writing his books.

He writes, researches, and takes care of “the business of being a writer,” for about eight hours a day, starting at 6:00 or 6:30, with a break for lunch and walking his dog. “I’m not writing that whole time,” he said, but if he can complete five pages a day, “I’m very pleased. If I can complete four pages a day, I’m pretty pleased.”

Some days, he’ll write 10 to 12 pages, but delete four or five pages. His daily notes are full of “a complex accounting system” of added and subtracted pages, he said.

“If you get 25 pages in a week, that’s 100 pages in a month, and a complete draft in five months. I’ve written a first draft in six months.” Even a page a day will yield a draft in one year.

His other advice: (1) “Read – that’s the way you feed your writing soul. Read the good stuff, not the bad stuff.” (2) “Write – for one hour a day if that’s all you can do. Fight for your right. Family and friends, they’ll try to take up all your time. People don’t take you seriously sometimes” when you’re a writer.

Parker sold his second novel, LITTLE SAIGON, set in Westminster, California, on the basis of three character names, circled, connected by lines (Bennett, Li, and Chuck; a Vietnam veteran, his wife, and his brother), all of which he scribbled on a cocktail napkin during his first dinner with his publisher after LAGUNA HEAT was accepted for publication. (He paid for his own flight to New York.)

The bare-bones notes were in answer to the publisher’s question “What else are you working on?” In the first chapter, Bennett’s wife, Li, is kidnapped from the cabaret where she sings.

When asked “What happens next?” Parker, embarrassed, replied, “I’m not exactly sure.”

The man was disappointed, but asked, “Well, okay. Can I at least keep the napkin?”

When he returned home, his agent called and said, “I don’t know what you wrote on that napkin, but they’re buying your second book.”

Katherine Valdez dreams of dazzling literary agents and publishers with book ideas scribbled on cocktail napkins…but knows writing every day will probably be more effective in the long run.

Follow her @KatValdezWriter on Instagram and Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest, and subscribe to her “Secrets of Best-Selling Authors” blog at Type your email address in the Follow box and watch for the confirmation email to complete the process.

Bonus Materials

Opening Lines by T. Jefferson Parker:

The camel spiders of Afghanistan were the size of his hand but they couldn’t kill his strong young body. Neither could the little saw-scaled vipers that were almost invisible on the sand and crawled into his bedding at night.

Sit down and I’ll tell you a story.
I shot my husband, Richard, twenty-five years ago, right here in Mammoth Lakes, California.

Poster T Jefferson Parker


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