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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Advice to an aspiring writer

Hi my name is L---. I'm 39 years old and I love to write in my spare time. I'm wondering if you have any advice as to what kind of education is necessary to become a successful author?

The only ‘education’ that is essential is a great deal of reading and a mastery of the mechanics of the language. It is quite possible to gain these things without ever crossing the threshold of a “school.” Schools give a structure, a reading list, companions, teachers, and deadlines. If these things would help you, then go for it.

I would love to publish my book someday, but I know I need to strengthen and sharpen my skills to complete it.

I have inquired about college, writing schools like Winghill, online classes (writer's digest)...not sure which is the best way to go.

Well, I looked up Winghill’s web site; I know nothing about it, and would want to see what sort of person is involved. I’m always dubious until I see the roster of instructors. Then sometimes I’m even more dubious, so tread with care and try to talk to somebody who has gone through their program. (Maybe the whole world knows about Winghill, and I’m a dunce! But make sure.)

If you would like critiques, there are online writer’s groups like “Critters,” or you can try to join a local writer’s group. In-person groups can be useful or can be harmful, so don’t feel that you can’t quit and look for another. I sometimes share pieces-in-progress with other writers via email.

Are you interested in a certain 'kind' of fiction? There are intensive writing programs in the summer that could be useful and give you a circle of friends who write—and who might like to continue a relationship afterward. I’ve never done anything like this, though I’ve taught week-long classes, but I’ve noticed that some summer workshops are extraordinarily useful. The very competitive ones seem best. People who go to Clarion, for example, are followed by that achievement for years, and have an advantage when they submit stories to markets in speculative fiction. The graduates keep up with the people who were in “their year” and support them; in addition, one works closely with six different writers and editors in the field. I’ve thought about this way of going about a writing life quite a bit, because I have a child who wants to be a writer/illustrator of fantasy and science fiction. The path from working on fiction and reading to going to Clarion to being a 'known' figure in speculative fiction circles seems to be a common one. I have no doubt that there are counterparts to this sort of workshop in many genres. I haven’t really paid attention to this subject otherwise, but I know there are long-established literary workshops in Squaw Valley and Saratoga and many other places.

Please let me know what you did to become a sucessful writer.

L--- H---
New Jersey

I don’t think that much helped me except my obsessive nature and my passion for reading and writing, plus--in discouraged moments--the knowledge that certain people I respect in the field thought that my writing was very good. My education had little to do with it, though I did read many things in school that I might have skipped otherwise.

The question of ‘success’ is an interesting one, and I’m not really sure what is meant by it.

In some ways I am a very ‘successful’ writer; in other ways, not. I’ve written books and stories and poems, and I’ve haven’t stopped striving toward what’s beautiful and alive and true. Yes, I’ve won some awards for short and long fiction, gotten plenty of pleasing reviews, and I'm grateful to the writers and publishers and editors in the field who have volunteered wonderful things about my writing. Most of my books have been published with what is, arguably, the premier major publishing house. I have a wonderful new agent. Best of all, I still take deep pleasure in the act of writing.

If that is “success,” I have it.

But perhaps that is not what the world means by success. I have a novelist friend who always calls me the Artist of the Beautiful; he means that I hew to my own course and have an instinct for the beautiful. Yet in Hawthorne's story of the same name, while the artist is utterly fulfilled and transformed by his magical artistry, he is wholly a failure in the world's eyes. Meanwhile, there is absolutely no doubt that in Hawthorne's eyes, the artist has triumphed. What could be more ambiguous--or more accurate about the artist's plight in our own time?

If success is having a large readership (something I would, naturally, like) or making filthy mounds of money (not bad, especially for paying back the sort of student loans you may be contemplating!) or being a ‘name’ (meaningless to me, but a corollary to having readers), then I do not have it.

Why not?

Like most in the vanishing 'mid-list,' I have never had a ‘push’ from a publisher. I’ve done many things that are ‘wrong’ for success. I don’t like to do the same book twice. In fact, my books often leap to a very different audience. I am fatally ‘nice’ and undemanding. In addition, the world has changed greatly since I began publishing, and writers have a new challenge in trying to find a niche in a frenetic electronic landscape. But I don’t regret not being pushy. I don’t regret not writing variations on the same book, over and over, as many writers do.

And I often feel an intense joy when the words are streaming onto the page. I guess that means that I’m going to go on doing what I want to do in the way I like to do it, and that I accept all of the consequences.

I don't know if any of this is a help. You may feel differently about many of these issues. However it is with you, I wish you much pleasure in making stories.

I spent the afternoon grubbing in my garden, so the picture above is in honor of my little Eden. It's from Laurelines--lavender with oyster shells, at Okay, I see that Blogger says "no." Imagine it! Or go find it.


  1. I've invaded the local library again. Looking for grants for my school on the internet. We are in want of some technological devices in the classroom, and I'm in charge of looking for and writing grants for that purpose.

    But, all of that aside, I just had to say the NCCAT seminar that you taught, Marly, was wonderful. It definately gave me insight and encouragement. And as for sucess, filthy amounts of lucre would be nice, however, I truly think a gifted writer does it because it is something inborn in the soul that seeks birth into the world. So you see, you are a sucess.

    Meanwhile, I've been writing. I had to do it via pen and paper as I've no computer. I've discovered I miss my computer for being able to move large chunks of text around. Still, my husband claims I write better if I do my first draft by hand. We'll see.

    Anyway, more later.


  2. You can do everything, that's the problem, or not the problem, one of the two. (I'm talking about your not writing the same book over and over.) Just keep on doing it, all of it, pretty please.
    PS: Your response to L was good, clear and kind enough without being glib. Yeah, you and glib don't belong in the same thought at all.

  3. Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other.
    (Abraham Lincoln)

  4. Thank you Marla for responding to my comment. It was a nice surprise.

    I do wear a lot of hats, and have just inherited a large collection of crazy ones. What do I plan on doing with them people ask. Well, have a hat party of-course! everybody gets to pick one out wear around for the evening.

    I am going to have to start reading your blog. It seems very insightful.


  5. Ah, the wonder of flashing fingers on a keyboard. You've made me a Marla! I don't know if I can live up to that name... And are you a Susanna-as-signed or a Susan-as-in-your-address? Or both? I'm assuming that you prefer Susanna.

    Yes, I love hats, too. But I don't have anything like your purple turban, or the one with African feathers.

    As a person who sometimes feels the letters F-O-O-L glittering on her forehead, I thank you. I can't say that many posts come out of a wondrous day like that one with Howard B. and Randy... But I'm glad you found me there.

  6. I am so sorry I got your name wrong. I feel terrible!

    I was speed typing this morning and i am already half dyslexic! hahahaaa

    My name is Susanna, and my Live Journal user name is Susangalique. I am a huge Dark Shadows fan and when ever I felt nauty or outragoeus I called myself Susangalique. Its just a spot of fun.

  7. You're in luck: the rule is to forgive all women who wear jolly hats!

    Also, I'm constantly calling my three children by the wrong names (particularly when things get a bit mayhemish), so it's laid on me to forgive all name errors and typos.

  8. Bad Blogger, saying no to you. I went and found flowers anyway.
    How nice to know, at a distance, the Artist of the Beautiful.
    Little drops of rain are falling (I know your coast is getting lots, we've been baking). I'm going out to let it soak my hair--or at least wash off some of the dust and dryness. I will nod at my lavender for you.

  9. wow

    I just read some of your poems on line. So far I particulary liked At the Glass Doors.

  10. Susanna,

    You will be very popular here if you go hunting and read my poems!

    The weirdest one is at McSweeney's. I'm not sure where the one you read is. Hypertexts, maybe. I like the ones at Books & Culture, but last time I looked the formatting was a little odd.



    I do have some lavender... And I'd like to flick some drops all the way to California. Children shut up in the rain, day after day. Think of the bottled-up hysteria. But this week one is going to Turkey, and another is going to camp, and one will have to put up with the hometown rain.

    Go out in the garden and do a little rain dance. It'll shake off the dryness (inside, outside) for a bit, and it might bring on the rain.


    Oh, and thanks to the b. q. and Laura for the confidence-votes. What was I thinking not to say so? And I hope not to be a con man and have something to show for them!


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.