Rob Parnell has published over 30 #1 bestselling novels, nonfiction books, and award-winning short stories. He has been an online creative writing teacher for almost twenty years. In this article, he shares his life with you.
Hi there. I was born in Winchester in the UK to a fairly middle-class family. We didn't have a lot of money. Dad was a lorry driver and Mum ran her own dressmaking business. I have a sister, Helen, who is two years younger than me. She's a server and homemaker.
I don't remember my childhood as being anything but ordinary. It wasn't anyone's fault but I felt slightly 'out of sync' with people, friends, even my family. I felt I was an outsider, looking on, mostly unmoved by the rest of the world, though I found it fascinating that others took everything so seriously. From a very early age, probably around four, I knew that writing would help me deal with that odd sense of disassociation.
Anyone who gets my newsletters and writing lessons will know most things about me. I don't keep much secret. I don't think writers should. I'm a composer at heart. I like to create things - and music can do that instantly. I write pretty much all the time when I'm not actively running the business or relaxing - by which I usually mean strategizing over the next project, whatever that may be.
I'm a restless soul, constantly trying to push myself into new arenas. It doesn't matter how much I try to let go, my brain seems to have another agenda. Currently I'm fascinated by directing and making short movies - as well as my fiction and my website of course. Oh, and I write regular columns for Aurealis, Mike's Workshop and Jozette's Desk.
Writing is something I've always done, even before I could read very well. I think it's about control. The world is an insane place if you think about it, full of crazy people bent on violence and destruction - even nice people seem to expend ridiculous amounts of energy on being cruel to each other, demanding love or whatever they need to get by.
Real life has no happy endings, no overwhelmingly good purpose I can discern. Writing is different. In writing you have an opportunity to make sense of things, to create order from chaos. That's why I think writing is sometimes more true than life.
A long time ago I took a correspondence course in the UK. (I live in Australia now with my most precious darling wife, Robyn.) I think I took it to kick myself into taking freelance writing more seriously. I didn't do much with it though my tutor assured me I could write well enough for publication. I didn't believe him at the time.
I've always had issues with my self confidence when it comes to writing, something I'm only just coming to terms with, even now. I think the reason why I have taught writing for almost a decade is that I've really been teaching myself all along! I hope that doesn't sound bad.
I belong to the Australian Horror Writer's Association and Australian Writer's Guild. I enjoy going to writing seminars though I'm shy about meeting new people - Robyn helps me there. Oddly I don't mind giving talks and workshops. I enjoy those. I guess it's the musician and performer in me. I completely understand those actors who say they're shy. I get it.
I write full time, I'm happy to say. It was always a dream to do just that and although it took me a relatively long time to make it happen, I finally worked out how to balance a self employed income with being single-mindedly creative - which, as any artist will tell you, is not always financially rewarding.
I feel very lucky now that I can write fiction in the mornings before our assistant arrives and then work on running the business for the rest of day - or until Judge Judy comes on at three!
When I'm fired up by a project I can write at any time, except when I'm drunk perhaps! As long as my mind is clear on the direction of the story, the screenplay or the non-fiction I'm writing, everything's fine. I guess I prefer mornings because I have the most energy. I write until I'm too tired or too wired to continue.
I read and write horror and thrillers mostly, though I'm working on a couple of YA and kid's stories at the moment. My screenplays are not always genre specific - but I always verge on the darker side. I think I like to explore the dark because I'm fascinated by the human condition - what makes people tick when they're exposed or in peril. It's funny because I'm not particularly adventurous and I loathe physicality but I will happily put my characters through hell.
I've thought a lot about what makes a good story over the years.
Recently I've concluded it's "Total Immersion", by which I mean that when the reader is absolutely convinced by the reality of a story, then it's working best. Not many writers know how this is achieved but when you see it, you know it - and you love them for it.
Lots of things inspire me to write. I generally don't wait for inspiration nowadays - the wait can be too long. Often I'll have an idea that merges two disparate notions into one. The old "Wouldn't it be interesting if..." kind of thing. Sometimes I'll be inspired by a TV program or something I've read. Sometimes when I'm relaxed, strolling along the beach or driving I'll get cool ideas. I'm very inspired by other writers - just in principle - not their ideas. Plus, I find that reading bad writing can set me off - I feel the need to do better.
I think routine is the key to creativity - and being consciously committed to your goals. If you think too long about anything, you'll stop and question your motivation. Best to keep focused and just do it, as Nike say. The best way to deal with 'starting' is to get going before you question what you're doing, and whether this is the right project to be working on. Often nowadays I find I'm immersed in writing and didn't have to deal with 'getting started' bit. I think that's good, the way it should be.
I set goals every day. After lunch I go into my office (I don't write in there) and take time out to meditate on my goals for the week, the month, the year. I make lists and prioritize over and over. I listen to my intuition and put things at the top of the list that I actually want to do.
I get our assistant to do some of things I know need to be done but I don't feel like doing myself. (Sorry, Elyse - she's going to read this!) Mostly I have very long lists of things to do that I use my 'strategizing hour' to go through and cull into the most urgent - or the most fun. I realize I'm very lucky to be able to do this - to be guided by my instincts and not have to worry about money - but it seems to be working for me.
My objective in everything I write is to connect with the reader. I want my writing to be transparent - so there&rsquos no barrier between my mind and the reader's. I think that's important. Sometimes it can take a lot of editing and rewriting. It can be a long process. It's ironic that the purpose of editing is to make your writing look as though it's the first thing you thought of - to make it flow naturally, without hiccups, without losing the reader.
It's the hardest part I think - but also the most rewarding.
The most surprising thiing that writing has taught me is that I had so much to say. Often when I sit down to write I don't have any clear idea in my head, sometimes nothing at all. So it comes as a great shock when I look up after an hour or so and see hundreds of words and a thread of logic running through them that must come from my subconscious.
I can't remember who it was but someone once said, "I like to write because then I know what I think about things." That's true for me.
I find research tiring, especially on the Net. My brain gets frazzled by information overload. Way back I used to do a lot of research for fiction and articles until I noticed that I wasn't actually writing - and the data I'd gathered wasn't doing its job, that is, to inspire me. Nowadays I do very little research - usually just checking facts after the writing. I find I'm much more productive if I write first, assume I know all the facts and arguments etc, and then see if I need to prove them afterwards. I hope I'm not the only writer who works this way - but I know I have a good memory and will use it in preference to looking things up before I start.
How long does it take me to write a book? It depends. If I'm obsessed enough I can get the first draft down in three or four weeks. Mostly I'll take two or three months though - because I have other commitments of course.
Sustained focus on a project is good for the flow of the manuscript but it'os not always practical. Fiction is different because some projects take years - dipping in and out of them after the first draft, etc. We have a screenplay that we've been reworking for over two and half years now - different producers come and go and they want different things. I have novels that I keep coming back to and reworking. And I'll usually rework a short story or article just before I send it out or post it online.
I see writing as an organic process that doesn't really have a beginning or end - just a handy deadline sometimes that forces you to stop working on a project.
My mother thinks that writing is not a proper way for anyone to make a living and hasn't read anything of mine since I was fifteen, and then it was a story she didn't like. Dad, well, he was not a great reader, preferring to wait for the movie version. Once I showed my Dad a story I'd had published in an anthology which he dutifully started and then after five minutes said, "Okay, just tell me what happens."
Thankfully my partner Robyn is my editor, proof reader and sounding board, especially when it comes to fiction. We often brainstorm ideas around the pool table.
Being more of a teacher than a novelist, my books are more like courses, or written lectures. I have around fifty published online on various aspects of writing, motivation and self belief. "The Easy Way to Write a Novel" was published in paperback in 2004 and that's still a favorite. I've had around a dozen horror short stories published in magazines and anthologies but I'm still waiting for that elusive novel contract. It will come, I'm sure. It's on my list of goals. ;-)
I have several works in progress. A horror novel I'm submitting to publishers, another that I'm about half way through. Currently I'm writing one short story a week too because I have a three year plan... that requires that I write one short story a week and submit to magazines, ezines and anthologies. My partner and I are also co-writing two screenplays because we have interest from Hollywood.
Plus I keep getting distracted into making short films, mostly for fun, and recording odd bits of music. I play in a rock band.
What else? To be honest, I don't handle rejection well - or criticism for that matter, which is probably why I don't submit more, and prefer to self publish my work.
For a long time I have believed there's no such thing as writer's block. You're either writing or you're not. You shouldn't give a name to something that you're not doing because that gives it the power to affect you. Besides which, I've noticed over the years that the only way to deal with writing problems is to write more. When you stop and think too hard, you can end up not writing for a myriad of unhelpful reasons. Best not to question the mechanics and just get on with it.
I own a publishing company as well as a Writing Academy. I've published about thirty books for other people - plus quite a few of my own on Amazon.
I think it's good for writers to self publish, especially given the fact that getting published by traditional publishers is seemingly so difficult. I do wonder sometimes if publishers have any idea what they're doing - the whole industry seems set up to say 'no' to everyone. And many fine writers are rejected and self publish and go on to be bestselling authors. What does that tell you? That certain writers know better than publishers, for one thing!
I think if you believe in your ability then self publishing is a great experience - but only if you have the motivation to go out there and relentlessly publicize yourself and your books. That's a tough call for most writers.
My partner's the expert on publishers. She's had over eighty books published so far. I've met some of her publishers. They're just people. Often very supportive of writers and genuinely sorry they can't publish more. They all say one thing though - that 99% of the MSS they get are not publishable at all. Usually because they've not been properly presented - as in edited, proofed and polished to perfection.
It surprises me that the majority of writers can be so cavalier about their submissions - and ultimately their success.
I've had a few agents, as has my partner, though we don't use them at the moment. To be honest, we can't find anyone who works as hard as we do. It's a challenge to find someone who actually does anything except pop up when there's money to be had. It's the old Catch 22. When you need one, they're not interested. And when you don't need them because there's a deal in the offing, they're like 'white on rice' as our Hollywood producer says.
We're looking for an agent who has no other clients but us, someone who can dedicate time and expertise to just one end - making us famous! We've had tempting offers from US promoters - it's not as though we're work-shy after all - but we're still looking for that elusive wunderkind. I'm sure he/she will arrive soon. (Hint: now would be a good time.)
Lots of people - my subscribers mostly - have nothing but praise for my work. Robyn thinks my fiction is the best she's ever read but - alas, no awards. There again, I don't enter competitions. Maybe I just can't accept the possibility of losing!
I wish I could say I like skydiving or kayaking or collecting antique furniture, but I can't. I like to travel because it gives me ideas for stories. I like reading. A lot.
I tend not to think in terms of compartmentalizing my life into work and play. It's all the same to me. But when I completely let go, I like to be with Robyn, doing anything, nothing, I don't mind.
At the moment I'm reading The Tower by Simon Clark, almost at the end. It's a horror novel, fun. Before that I read The Alchemist's Secret by Scott Mariani. Loved it. Next: The Cellar by Richard Laymon. Looking forward to that. I read a novel a week on average. Can't help myself.
I believe that self promotion is the key to any writer's success. Sure, you can have a bestseller if you're a lazy hermit but it's not the norm. I prefer the James Patterson model - get in people's faces, get yourself noticed and sell one book at a time. There's a lot more I could do - and will when I'm ready - but I may need more staff to be able to fully embrace the kind of PR necessary to compete in today's marketplace.
My subscribers write to me every day. That's one of the reason we employed Elyse - to deal with the thousands of emails we get weekly. Before Elyse, we found that we were doing nothing but answering queries and messages of support all day. It became a crazy way to spend our time. We realized the success of The Easy Way to Write was getting completely beyond what we could manage. I think maybe because I was always committed to answering emails - and being in constant contact with my subscribers had been fine eight years ago but now it's a full time business on its own. But that's good. It means we're providing a service that means a lot to many people. It's actually very humbling to have such a huge fan base. But it's a responsibility too, one that I care about deeply.
I think ebooks are wonderful. I know it's hard to sell fiction in digital format - although I hear Kindle is doing better than expected. I think writers should embrace all media - including screenwriting &ndash if they want to stay relevant and working full time.
Sitting at home in your garret might be a nice fantasy but it's a big world out there and the demand for good writers is actually enormous - it's just that writers often don't see the opportunities staring them in the face.
My best advice for writers I think is not to limit yourself. Sure, when you're successful, specialize. Find your niche and then work it. But until then, experiment. Write in all genres. Take on any freelance assignment you're offered, paid or not. Write non-fiction, articles, company reports, anything and everything. It's all good experience - and will help your writing and help you hone your unique voice, your best asset.