Five Things My Father Taught Me About Writing
By Daniel PalmerMay 10, 2018
Here’s a fact: I write Michael Palmer medical thrillers. I’ve been doing the job since 2013, which is the same year my father passed away. He died suddenly after collapsing in an airport upon his return from an incredible trip to Africa. Though many miss him dearly—his family especially—I’m comforted in knowing that he had experienced joy, wonder, and tranquility in his last few weeks with us.
It was some time after the letters and condolences stopped pouring in that my father’s longtime editor, Jennifer Enderlin, asked if I could continue my dad’s writing legacy. Readers love good medical suspense stories, but there aren’t many authors who can blend accurate medicine with great suspense—it’s a strange mix of skills, and if you knew my father, you’d know he was indeed a rarity.
I might not have an M.D. to my name, but a lot of my friends and family members do. I could figure out from them what I needed to know to cover the medical part of the equation and apply my skill in understanding what makes a good story and what makes for suspenseful reading to cover the rest.
If I’d said no, then that would have been the end of that part of my father’s story and his legions of fans worldwide would have had Resistant to savor as the final book in his impressive oeuvre. If I’d said yes, I’d have to seamlessly blend my tendencies as a storyteller with his—or to put it another way, I would have to take on a persona that was larger than life and channel it into a book that, for all intents and purposes, would read like a Michael Palmer medical thriller.
It was a tall order, but if I could do it, his fans would benefit and so would I—not only by keeping his writing legacy alive but also by feeding my father’s grandchildren, something he would have approved without reservation.
In fact, my father had wanted me to write Michael Palmer medical thrillers after he was gone for that very reason.
So could I do it?
My interest in writing (I published five novels before being asked to write under the Michael Palmer name) had grown from years of discussions with my father about his books. For him, the process of making a book “work” was an arduous one, and he had benefited greatly from the counsel of a select group of trusted advisors, of whom I was one. It gave me a unique glimpse behind the book-writing curtain before I had a curtain of my own.
Expectations would be high, not only from my father’s editor and his readers but from myself as well. Hey, no kid wants to sully the family name! I took stock of my father’s teachings over the years to see if I had the “write stuff” to do him proud.
Five lessons my father imparted about the writing life came to me, teachings that if I could live up to, embrace, or comprehend the way he did would give me the confidence to do these books justice. So without further ado, here are my father’s teachings that I carefully weighed and considered, in the order I considered them, before making my decision.
When giving life advice, my dad would often say: “One day at a time. You can only do what you can do.” He’d also say, “Higgy piggy,” which was his shorthand for those pithy sayings. But when it came to writing, his motto was: Be Fearless. Follow your gut. Listen to people you trust. Do another draft. Throw the book away if you must. Try again. Just go for it—fearlessly, without anything holding you back.
The writer’s job is to write, and if you’re in some looping, pointless thought-spiral, chances are you won’t be entertaining to anybody, especially the reader. So I let the fear of disappointing my dad’s readers pass through me like a breeze as I thought about saying yes to writing his books.
If I became tense, the writing would be stiff. That was one of my father’s first lessons about good writing: get out of your head, and get into your heart. If I thought about the guy or gal on the subway reading my book and rolling their eyes, I’d clam right up and the prose would be as dull as a butter knife. Breathe in and breathe out and relax. “You can do it, kiddo.” That’s what my father would say. It’s good advice no matter what the profession or project. So I relaxed, but I still wasn’t sure if I had a book in me—his book, to be precise.
This Is Hard
And it really is difficult. To write well takes effort and practice. You’ve got to read and write to get good at reading and writing. It seems simple on the surface, but the effort is mentally and emotionally taxing. It’s like playing baseball or an instrument—you need repetitions to build up the muscle memory. But even then, it takes concentration and commitment to execute to the best of your ability.
So when I contemplated writing Trauma—the first of my Michael Palmer medical thrillers—and was blank on ideas, I remembered my father’s words: that it’s hard, to let it be hard, and that I needed to relax and be brave. When I did that, I saw a book in my head and thought—yeah, I can pull this off, Dad. I got this. Sort of…
Use Your Imagination
When he started, my dad was virtually a blank slate as far as creative writing was concerned. He had never even taken a course on writing. He had the discipline honed by years of memorization and study in med school, and he had read a lot of fiction, but he had no formal training. What he had to his advantage was a powerful imagination and a deeply ingrained sense of what was dramatic.
In 1980, his agent purposely sold his book, The Sisterhood, to the late Linda Gray at Bantam—a legendary editor who would be gentle and patient in teaching Dad how to channel his wild imagination into a novel. Over the years, my father helped me channel my imagination the way Linda helped him. He taught me to recognize when I needed to create another point of view, to rein myself in when my writing was becoming pretentious and self-serving, and to step up when I became mentally lazy. So could I channel my imagination into a book worthy of his name? I said yes to that, and moved on to his last teaching.
Just Do It
Let’s say someone (ahem, like my dad) wanted us to sing a silly song at a book talk, and I said no way. He’d say, “Oh, just do it.” So we did. Or let’s say someone wanted us to sing a different silly song at an awards banquet in front of hundreds of our peers and industry titans, with me on guitar, him on harmonica, and hand puppets as props. I’d say, “No way,” and he’d say, “Oh, just do it.” And guess what we did? Yeah, that.
It didn’t really matter what was being asked of him; if my father thought it would be fun, funny, or amusing to somebody, chances were he’d just do it. So I heard my dad’s voice in my head when his editor came to me about writing these Michael Palmer medical thrillers. And guess what I heard him say? So, yeah, I just did it.
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