Shirley Hailstock: I Think I'll Do Brain Surgery Today

I'm so pleased to welcome Shirley Hailstock, a wonderful author and a past President of Romance Writers of America, to SlingWords today.

Shirley, a bestselling, award-winning novelist, is the author of over twenty-nine novels and novellas. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Chemistry from Howard University and a MBA in Chemical Marketing from Fairleigh Dickinson University. (In other words, she's not only a talented author but also one smart lady!).

Shirley left her job in the pharmaceutical industry and is now a full-time writer. In addition to being a past president of Romance Writers of America, she's also a former officer of Women Writers of Color. She lives in New Jersey with her family.

I'd also like to mention that Shirley has a Christmas romance, The Christmas List, available. You can find Shirley on Facebook: (Please go and Like her page.) Or, you can email her at shirley dot hailstock @ comcast dot net.

Now please welcome Shirley Hailstock!

I Think I’ll do Brain Surgery Today
by Shirley Hailstock

I think I’ll do brain surgery today. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I have a vacation coming up. I’ve seen a lot of heads, some with hair, and some without. I know I can do it. I’ll astound the medical community, they’ll pay me a lot of money and ask me to speak at the American Medical Association, where I’m sure to walk away with the highest award in the field.

This is exactly how beginning writers think when they decide to write a book. They’ve read a lot of books. They know what they like, and they have a few unaccounted-for minutes. They’ll knock off a bestseller between lunch and dinner this afternoon.

Unbelievable But True

In no other profession other than writing would a sane person even consider doing what I’ve outlined above. If you really wanted to be a brain surgeon you’d study for years, learn all aspects of the human body; determine how each function of the system works with the other and how outside forces such as drugs and environment can influence the inner workings. Yet when you want to write a book, all thought of education and study are rendered unimportant. You just sit down and start writing. Anybody can do that, right? Wrong!

Much To Learn

While writing is essentially a self-taught profession there are many things to be learned and many decisions to make as a writer. First, what do you want to write; genre fiction, mainstream fiction, non-fiction, screenplays, documentaries, etc.? This leads us into jargon. Every profession has its own language and its own alphabet (POV, HEA, SASE to point out a few). Right away it will send a signal that you’re an amateur and haven’t done your homework if you don’t understand the language and know how to use it.

In our case let’s assume you’re planning to write genre fiction. Which genre and which sub-genre? This is another decision. In romance fiction you can write historical, paranormal, contemporary, category, suspense, erotic and others. In mystery there are cozies, true crime, or police procedurals among others. Science fiction has alien worlds, and franchises like Star Trek and Star Wars books.

Now that the decision of what to write has been made (contemporary category romance) are you ready to write? No. Have you read the guidelines of the particular area you want to write in? Have you read the books that are currently being released in this area? Reading in the domain you want to write sounds obvious, but how often have you heard people say they don’t read the kind of books they write, or they don’t read at all?

Begin With Reading

Well, here’s the place to begin the study. Reading is part of the learning process, part of the study of the genre. Read the current books, analyze them. Find out what is happening in them. Uncover the plot ideas inherent to the line. Are there a lot of family stories or stories built on family values? Are the characters all blue collar? Or white collar? Do the books have subplots? Is the plot more than boy meets girl? How much back story is shown? How far into the psychological makeup of the characters do they delve? How many love scenes are in the book? Are there books without love scenes? The questions go on and on. This means reading one book is not enough. You need to read enough to know them inside and out.

More Decisions

At this point you’re ready to start, but you have more decisions to make. What is your story about (plot) and who are the people (characters) that will tell it? There are many writers who begin with the characters and an equal number who begin with the plot. And there are many ways to start a book. You can layout character worksheets and write down everything that is significant about the main characters and major secondary characters before you start. Some people keep this information in their heads while others write it down. Do whatever works for you. I like to write it down.

As to the plot, I also outline it. This can be a detailed outline or a sketchy one. Again, do whatever works for you. If you’re new to writing and this is your first time working on a book, you might want to try both methods or make up one of your own. Remember this is not brain surgery, at least not yet. We’ll get to that.

The outline is for your use only. It’s a guide to get you from page one to page two to page three and onward to “The End.” You can even use the outline to write the synopsis (another of those undefined words that go with the jargon of the industry) before you write the book.

Ready? Yes!

Now you’re ready to write.

What happens during the writing process? You get confused, lonely, hate the book and characters, want to throw in the towel or go read someone who already knows how to write. At this point it’s time for reinforcements. Go to a chapter meeting, attend a conference, find a critique partner, try a contest, attend workshops and talk to other authors. Return to your book renewed and enthusiastic about the outcome. But keep writing.

Earlier I said if you really wanted to be a brain surgeon you’d study for years. In writing, you’ve studied the market and picked your genre. To be a brain surgeon, you learn all aspects of the human body. In writing, you’ve developed your plot and character. To be that surgeon, you determine how each function of the system works with the other. In writing, you’ve read the guidelines and learned the jargon. To be a brain surgeon, you learn how outside forces such as drugs and environment can influence the inner workings. To be a writer, you’ve attended conferences and found a system of feedback. Hopefully, fame and fortune will follow.

Congratulations doctor, you’re now a brain surgeon.

To the aspiring author, congratulations! You're now a writer.

Win A Copy Of The Christmas List

Leave a comment and be entered in a drawing for a free download of e-book ,The Christmas List, a story about an architect who must help an injured tennis player. Assisting him is his guardian angel, a thin teenager with an agenda of her own.

Takeaway Truth

Thanks, Shirley, for taking time from your busy schedule to visit with us today! Happy Holidays!


  1. Reading Shirley's article was like deja vu for me. Anyone who thinks you can "dash" off a book has never dashed one off before. Thank you, Joan, for sharing Shirley's wise commentary with your readers.

  2. Cynthia Wicklund...Thanks, for stopping by. I laughed when I read Shirley's guest post. I bet every successful author has heard "I'd write a book if I just had the time." more than once.

    I always tell them to go for it!

  3. Love this blog! Totally agree with Cynthia Wicklund as well..I use to hate seeing TV 'writers' just dashing off a book, and it would hit the bestsellers list in 2 weeks from start to finish!

    Real life is soooo much different and then there is 'real life' that always muscles in!

    Happy Holidays & thanks Joan for another great slingblog!

    Elaine Raco Chase

  4. Hi Shirley, so nice to learn more about you. Guess what? We started the same way. I also was a pharmaceutical chemist, who later shifted to environmental chemistry, and then dropped all of it after many years to write novels.
    I couldn't agree more about learning the craft: workshops, seminars, conference, contests, mentors and critique partners... I have done it to learn and improve.
    I'll chek the Christmas List.

  5. Elaine Raco ... Thanks for stopping by. I like the way writers are portrayed in movies too. Talk about lifestyles of the rich and famous!

  6. Mona Risk ... Thanks for stopping by. I don't think I knew that you were a pharm. rep too. I know your career in enviro. chem. took you all over the world which is why you have so many books with international settings.

  7. Joan, you always have the best guests. Thanks for having Shirley. First, I read she's a chemist and I'm thinking how she could kill my antagonist and get away with it. Then, I read where she might give up writing and become a brain surgeon. Me, too!

    I'm about to burn my WIP. Why? Because the POV isn't clear, the story does not have a HEA, and an agent just returned my query in a SASE. muse says all is well. No burning any MSS today.

  8. Hi Shirley. Thanks for the post. It reminds me of a conference I attended years ago. The speaker told of an audience she spoke to where she asked how many people wanted to write a book. All hands went up. She then asked how many had started a book. Many hands went down. Then, how many actually finished writing a book? One hand remained raised. It just goes to show that it's more work than anyone realizes until you get down to it. There has to be a first book for a writer just as there must be a first surgery for a brain surgeon. Hopefully, they both get better with experience. I don't mind reading someone's first book, but I wouldn't want to be a brain surgeon's first patient.

  9. Great to be here. I just wrote a long comment and it got eaten by the Internet gremlins.

  10. Cynthia, isn't that so true. I sometimes fill in at a writers group for the moderator. The new people think they can just write a book in a week. When I tell them it'll probably take a year or more, they look at me like I've grown a second head.

    But the truth (and the butt in the chair will tell).

  11. Elaine,

    When I used to watch Murder She Wrote, I wondered when Jessica Fletcher wrote. It's impossible to write in the time period that TV uses.

  12. Men,

    Never burn your WIP. What's crap today is brilliant tomorrow. I've been updating some of my older books and putting them up as ebooks. When I reread them, I was pleasantly surprised to be able to say, "OMG, I wrote that."

  13. Nancy,

    I agree with you, although I know they assist for many operations before they get the first chair.

    One summer when I was in high school, I got to watch open heart surgery standing behind the doctor. Now that was an experience. And I didn't even get queasy.

  14. Meb Bryant ... Thanks. I try to get guests people want to see. Glad your Muse popped up and stopped you from burning the wip!

  15. Nancy Morse ... *LOL* I wouldn't want to be a brain surgeon's first patient either!

  16. Shirley Hailstock said... "Never burn your WIP. What's crap today is brilliant tomorrow."

    What a great comment!

    Thanks so much for appearing here today, Shirley. Wishing you mega sales for The Christmas List.

  17. So enjoyed this particular blog as my background is a Medical Research Technologist IV, and (as a teenager) wanted to become a brain or heart surgeon. Anybody who thinks she/he can "dash" off a romance or any kind of novel is fooling her/himself. Also enjoyed everybody's comments.

  18. Janelle Taylor...Wow, I didn't know you were in medical field. Thanks for visiting today.

  19. I love "My life would make a great nook, want to write it?"

    I say "Write lots of notes and get back to me."

    Never happens!

  20. Joan,

    Thanks for giving me this opportunity to be showcased and to learn about all these fabulous women and their varied professions outside of writing. It's amazing how multifaceted we can be.

  21. And the winner is....

    Thanks again to all who participated on my guest blog day. I enjoyed the conversation.

    I offered a free e-book to one of the participants. And the winner is Mona Risk.

    If you'll send your contact information (e-mail address) to, I'll send THE CHRISTMAS LIST to you.

    Thanks again.


  22. Shirley, it's been a pleasure. Thank you again for being here.

    Mona, congratulations on winning Shirley's book.

    Happy Holidays, everyone!