Any quick tips for plot and character development?

Dear Literary Ladies.
It's always fascinating to discover how those of you who succeeded so brilliantly went about the basics of the practice of writing. Can you share some quick insights on how you developed plots and characters?

My methods of work are very simple & soon told. My head is my study, & there I keep the various plans of stories for years some times, letting them grow as they will till I am ready to put them on paper. Then it is quick work, as chapters go down word for word as they stand in my mind . . . I never copy, since I find by experience that the work I spend the least time upon is best liked by critics & readers.

While a story is under way I lie in it, see the people, more plainly than the real ones, round me, hear them talk, & am much interested, surprised, or provoked at their actions, for I seem to have no power to rule them, & can simply record their experiences & performances.

— Louisa May Alcott, from a letter, 1887

Help! I need to hear a good rejection story!

Dear Literary Ladies,
A book that I've toiled on and believe in with all my heart has been rejected by more than a dozen publishers. Am I delusional? Maybe it's no good after all. I need to hear a great story of a book that was rejected over and over but then became a smash success. Who among you has such a story for me today?

A Wrinkle in Time was almost never published. You can’t name a major publisher who didn’t reject it. And there were many reasons. One was that it was supposedly too hard for children. Well, my children were 7, 10, and 12 while I was writing it. I’d read to them at night what I’d written during the day, and they’d say, “Ooh, mother, go back to the typewriter!” A Wrinkle in Time had a female protagonist in a science fiction book, and that wasn’t done. And it dealt with evil and things that you don’t find, or didn’t at that time, in children’s books. When we’d run through forty-odd publishers, my agent sent it back. We gave up. Then my mother was visiting for Christmas, and I gave her a tea party for some of her old friends. One of them happened to belong to a small writing group run by John Farrar, of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which at that time did not have a juvenile list. She insisted that I meet John any how, and I went down with my battered manuscript. John had read my first novel and liked it, and read this book and loved it. That’s how it happened.

— Madeleine L'Engle (1918-2007)

[A note from Nava: A Wrinkle in Time went on to sell millions of copies, and has won numerous awards. It also has the distinction of being one of the most banned books of all time. Madeleine L'Engle likely paved the way for authors of juvenile and young adult literature to be able to deal with darker themes—the Harry Potter series being just one example.]

Are women authors held to different standards than men?

Dear Literary Ladies,
Not one of the top ten books of 2009 according to Publishers Weekly was by a female writer, and only about a third of the books on their extended best book lists were by women. Do you think women writers are (or should be) judged by different standards than men?

To value praise or stand in awe of blame we must respect the source whence the praise and blame proceed, and I do not respect an inconsistent critic. He says, “if Jane Eyre be the production of a woman, she must be a woman unsexed.’

In that case the book is an unredeemed error and should be unreservedly condemned. Jane Eyre is a woman’s autobiography, by a woman it is professedly written. If it is written as no woman would write, condemn it with spirit and decision—say it is bad, but do not eulogise and then detract. I am reminded of The Economist. The literary critic of that paper praised the book if written by a man, and pronounced it ‘odious’ if the work of a woman.

To such critics I would say, ‘To you I am neither man nor woman—I come before you as an author only. It is the sole standard by which you have a right to judge me—the sole ground on which I accept your judgment.’

—Charlotte Brönte, from a letter, August 16, 1849

How can I develop good writing habits?

Dear Literary Ladies,
With a full-time job and a thousand other things on my plate, my writing time is catch as catch can. Is it important to have regular writing times, so that writing becomes habitual?

I’m a full-time believer in writing habits…You may be able to do without them if you have genius but most of us only have talent and this is simply something that has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits or it dries up and blows away…Of course you have to make your habits in this conform to what you can do. I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have, but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place.

—Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964), from a letter

How can I find my unique writing voice?

Dear Literary Ladies,
My desire to be a really good writer exceeds nearly all else. But like a lot of artists, I fear what I want most. It's like I'm tripping over my own feet. I'm self-conscioius and that "trying too hard" style shows up in my writing. How can I get out of my own way and find my unique voice?

The business of writing is a personal problem and must be worked out in an individual way. A great many people ambitious to write, fall by the wayside, but if they are the discourageable kind it is better that they drop out. No beginner knows what he has to go through with or he would never begin.

When I was in college and immediately after graduation, I did newspaper work. I found that newspaper writing did a great deal of good for me in working off the purple flurry of my early writing. Every young writer has to work off the “fine writing” stage. It was a painful period in which I overcame my florid, exaggerated, foamy-at-the-mouth, adjective-spree period. I knew even than it was a crime to write like I did, but I had to get the adjectives and the youthful fervor worked off.

I believe every young writer must write whole books of extravagant language to get it out. It is agony to be smothered in your own florescence, and to be forced to dump great carloads of your posies out in the road before you find that one posy that will fit in the right place. . .

— Willa Cather, from a 1915 interview in the Lincoln Daily Star

Is it better to be a modest success than a grand failure?

Dear Literary Ladies,
I’m plugging away at a modest but steady writing career, but sometimes I think about aiming higher. I admit that I’m afraid to fail— and then look foolish to myself and others. What about you? Do you think it’s better to stick with what you do best, rather than stick your neck out and possibly fail?

Is it better to be extremely ambitious, or rather modest? Probably the latter is safer; but I hate safety, and would rather fail gloriously than dingily succeed.

—Vita Sackville-West, from a letter to Virginia Woolf, Aug. 1928

Is it somehow nobler to write fiction than nonfiction?

Dear Literary Ladies,
I write all kinds of non-fiction and I do enjoy it, but I can’t rest on my laurels until I take a stab at fiction. It’s fiction that seem to endure and make a lasting impression on culture. Or am I mistaken? Should I stick with writing about subjects I enjoy, or should I pursue the elusive dream of writing the Great Novel?

. . . I would ask you to write all kinds of books, hesitating at no subject however trivial or how vast. By hook or by crook, I hope you will possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream. For I am by no means confining you to fiction. If you would please me—and there are thousands like me—you would write books of travel and adventure, and research and scholarship, and history and biography, and criticism and philosophy and science. By so doing you will certainly profit the art of fiction. For books have a way of influencing each other.

Fiction will be much the better for standing cheek by jowl with poetry and philosophy . . . Thus when I ask you to write more books I am urging you to do what will be for your good and for the good of the world at large.

— Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 1929 .

Do I have enough wisdom to be a good writer?

Dear Literary Ladies,
Sometimes I feel that I don’t have enough life experience to be a good writer. Everything I write, in hindsight, looks rather shallow and inauthentic. Should I wait until I’ve lived more fully, and gain some wisdom, before I bare my soul to the public in writing, or should I just plow ahead?

I wrote “Their Eyes Were Watching God” in Haiti. It was dammed up in me, and I wrote it in seven weeks. I wish I could write it again. In fact, I regret all of my books. It is one of the tragedies of life that one cannot have all the wisdom one is ever to possess in the beginning. Perhaps, it is just as well to be rash and foolish for a while. If writers were too wise, perhaps no books would be written at all. It might be better to ask yourself “Why?” afterwards than before. Anyway, the force from somewhere in Space which commands you to write in the first place, gives you no choice. You take up the pen when you are told, and write what is commanded. There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you.

—Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography 1942

How do you develop a unique writing style?

Dear Litarary Ladies,
How does one develop a unique writing style? I’m not an especially gifted wordsmith, so I thought if I came up with a style that sets me apart, I wouldn’t agonize so much over finding the time to hone my skills, or lack thereof.

I simply don’t believe in style. The style is you. Oh, you can cultivate a style, I suppose, if you like. But I should say it remains a cultivated style. It remains artificial and imposed, and I don’t think it deceives anyone. A cultivated style would be like a mask. Everyone knows it’s a mask, and sooner or later you must show yourself—or at least, you show yourself as someone who could not afford to show himself, and so created something to hide behind. . . You do not create a style. You work, and develop yourself; your style is emanation from your own being.

—Katherine Anne Porter
from Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, 1963

How can I write without self-consciousness?

Dear Literary Ladies,
Now that my writing has seen the light of day, it’s hard to work without feeling like the public, the reviewers, my peers, and my editor are looking over my shoulder—all competing with the inner critic! How did you manage to work without self-cousciousness, knowing what's been said about how you could have done things better or differently?

Those critics or well-wishers who think that I could have written better than I have are flattering me. Always I have written at the top of my bent at that particular time. It may be that this or that, written five years later or one year earlier, or under different circumstances, might have been better for it. But one writes as the opportunity and the material and the inclination shape themselves. This is certain: I never have written a line except to please myself. I never have written with an eye to what is called the public or the market or the trend or the editor or the reviewer. Good or bad, popular or unpopular, lasting or ephemeral, the words I have put down on paper were the best words I could summon at the time to express the thing I wanted more than anything else to say.

—Edna Ferber, A Kind of Magic, 1963

How should one celebrate a literary success?

Dear Literary Ladies,
I just got a taste of sweet success—all my work and efforts seem to be coming to some fruition. I don’t want to boast or brag, but I admit I want to shout my news from the rooftops! I won’t, of course; but how should a writer savor success once it arrives?

I believe that success and the enjoyment of it are a very personal and a very private thing, like saying one’s prayers or making love. The outward trappings are embarrassing, and spoil achievement. There come moments in the life of every artist, whether [s]he be a writer, actor, painter, composer, when [s]he stands back, detached, and looks at what [s]he has done a split second, perhaps, after [s]he has done it. That is the supreme moment. It cannot be repeated. The last sentence of a chapter, the final brush stroke, a bar in music, a look in the eye and the inflection of an actor’s voice, these are the things that well up from within and turn the craftsman into an artist, so that, alone in [her] study, in his studio, on the stage . . . [s]he has this blessed spark of intuition. “This is good. This is what I meant.”

The feeling has gone into the next breath, and the craftsman takes over again. Back to routine, and the job for which [s]he is trained. The pages that must link the story together, dull but necessary, the background behind the sitter’s head; the scenes in the actor’s part which come of necessity as an anticlimax; all these are measures of discipline the artist puts upon [her]self and understands, and [s]he works at them day after day, week after week. The moment of triumph is a thing apart. It is the secret nourishment. The raison d’etre.

—Daphne Du Maurier, “My Name in Lights” (essay), 1958

How can I write, when I have no privacy?

Dear Literary Ladies,
I want to write, but my circumstances are less than ideal. My kids run around the house, and someone is always interrupting me. I have no private space, let alone what Virginia Woolf called "a room of one's own." Were any of you in the same position, and if so, how did you do it?

During long years of struggling with poverty and sickness, and a hot, debilitating climate, my children grew up around me. The nursery and the kitchen were my principal fields of labor. Some of my friends, pitying my trials, copied and sent a number of little sketches from my pen to certain liberally paying “Annuals” with my name. With the first money that I earned in this way I bought a feather-bed! for as I had married into poverty and without a dowry, and as my husband had only a large library of books and a great deal of learning, the bed and pillows were thought the most profitable investment. After this I though that I had discovered the philosopher’s stone.

So when a new carpet or mattress was going to be needed, or when, at the close of the year, it began to be evident that my family accounts “wouldn’t add up,” then I used to say to my faithful friend and factotum Anna, who shared all my joys and sorrows, “Now, if you will keep the babies and attend to the things in the house for one day, I’ll write a piece, and then we shall be out of the scrape.” So I became an author, —very modest at first, I do assure you, and remonstrating very seriously with the friends who had thought it best to put my name to the pieces by way of getting up a reputation . . .

—Harriet Beecher Stowe, from a letter, 1853

A note from Nava: Harriet Beecher Stowe had seven children, and was the ultimate working mother—she was compelled to use her pen to augment her husband's meager salary, writing sketches, poems, essays—anything that would yield quick payment. All the while, for many years, she burned to tell the story that scholars agree aided the cause of abolition tremendously—Uncle Tom's Cabin, and finally did so at age 39.

How does getting published change your outlook?

Dear Literary Ladies,
How does becoming a published author change your outlook? Do you become more self-conscious or self-aware? Are you constantly on the alert for ideas and dialogue that you might work into your next piece of writing?

I begin already to weigh my words and sentences more than I did, and am looking about for a sentiment, an illustration or a metaphor in every corner of the room. Could my Ideas flow as fast as the rain in the Store closet it would be charming.

—Jane Austen, from a letter to her sister, Cassandra, 1809

Should making money be the incentive to write?

Dear Literary Ladies,
I write and write, sometimes getting compensated for my efforts, but often not. I just feel this incredible urge to keep putting words to paper, whether I get paid or not. Am I being foolish or naive? Should I try to do the kind of writing that might bring in a few bucks?

As for me, when money comes, I say, “So much the better,” without excitement, and if it does not come, I say, “So much the worse,” without any chagrin. Money not being the aim, ought not to be the preoccupation. It is, moreover, not the real proof of success, since so many vapid or poor things make money.

— George Sand, from a letter to Gustave Flaubert,
ca. 1868

Can success be as daunting as failure?

Dear Literary Ladies,
Sometimes I wonder what I’m more afraid of—failure, or success? In its own way, the prospect of success seems daunting. And I know I’m not alone. Did any of you find the idea of actually succeeding as scary and incomprehensible as I do?

I never expected any sort of success with [To Kill a] Mockingbird. I didn't expect the book to sell in the first place. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of reviewers, but at the same time I sort of hoped that maybe someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I'd expected.

—Harper Lee, from a 1964 interview

Why am I afraid to take risks with my writing?

Dear Literary Ladies,
I want to go in a new direction with my writing. But I'm afraid I'll fail and feel foolish. Can you give me any encouragement that will help me take some risks with my work and get out of my comfort zone?

Risk is essential. It’s scary. Every time I sit down and start the first page of a novel I am risking failure. We are encouraged in this world not to fail. College students are often encouraged to take the courses they are going to get A’s in so that they can get that nice grant to graduate school. And they are discouraged from taking the courses they may not get a good grade in but which fascinates them nevertheless. I think that is a bad thing that the world has done to us.

We are encouraged only to do that which we can be successful in. But things are accomplished only by our risk of failure. Writers will never do anything beyond the first thing unless they risk growing.

—Madeleine L’Engle, from Madeleine L’Engle Herself, 2001

How do I find time to write?

A Note from Nava: I'm reprising my very first entry for this blog, as not too many people got to see it, and because I myself need to follow Edna Ferber's advice after all the entertainments and activities of summer. I've started to say, sorry— I really need to stick to a 9 to 5 schedule. Thanks, Edna!

Dear Literary Ladies,
I would dearly love to call myself a professional writer, but I’m so easily distracted. After the kids go to school, it’s off to work, the gym, and endless errands. On weekends, I entertain family or visit with friends. In the midst of all this, I can’t seem to find time to write. How can I fit everything in?

To be a professional writer one must be prepared to give up almost everything except living. Amateur writers are not included in this rule (I loathe loud-talking amateurs of any walk of life. An amateur is an apprentice and should conduct himself as such, keeping his mouth shut and learning his craft). The first lesson to be learned by a writer is to be able to say, “Thanks so much. I’d love to, but I can’t. I’m working.”

—Edna Ferber, A Kind of Magic, 1963

How can a writer balance solitude and camaraderie?

Dear Literary Ladies,
How can a writer balance the need for quiet and solitude, with the desire for camaraderie? When I’m alone, working, I feel the need for feedback; and when I’m among colleagues, talking about my work, I feel I’m seeking too much outside validation.

If you don’t keep and guard and mature your force and above all, have time and quiet to perfect your work, you will be writing things not much better than you did five years ago. You must find a quiet place near the best companions (not those who admire and wonder at everything one does, but those who know the good things with delight!).

You need reassurance—every artist does—but you need still more to feel “responsible for the state of your conscience” (your literary conscience, we can just now limit that quotation to), and you need to dream your dreams and go on to new and more shining ideals, to be aware of “the gleam” and to follow it; your vivid, exciting companionship in the office must not be your audience, you must find your own quiet center of life, and write from that to the world that holds offices, and all society, all Bohemia; the city, the country--in short, you must write to the human heart, the great consciousness that all humanity goes to make up.

Otherwise what might be strength in a writer is only crudeness, and what might be insight is only observation; sentiment falls to sentimentality—you can write about life, but never write life itself. And to write and work on this level, we must live on it—we must at least recognize it and defer to it at every step. We must be ourselves, but we must be our best selves.

—Sarah Orne Jewett, in a letter to Willa Cather, ca. 1909

How can I write amidst the chaos of parenting?

Dear Literary Ladies,
I’m having trouble juggling parenting and writing. I can’t live without writing, but every day brings a thousand interruptions, and I’m just not getting anything done. How can I make this a more positive experience, and feel less frustrated? Did any of you manage to raise a few kids and create a body of work simultaneously, and if so, how did you do it?

Perhaps the most useful thing about being a writer of fiction is that nothing is ever wasted; all experience is good for something; you tend to see everything as a potential structure of words. One of my daughters made this abruptly clear to me when she came not long ago into the kitchen where I was trying to get the door of our terrible old refrigerator open; it always stuck when the weather was wet, and one of the delights of a cold rainy day was opening the refrigerator door. My daughter watched me wrestle with it for a minute and then she said that I was foolish to bang on the refrigerator door like that; why not us magic to open it? I thought about this. I poured myself another cup of coffee and lighted a cigarette and sat down for a while and thought about it; and decided that she was right. I left the refrigerator where it was and went in to my typewriter and wrote a story about not being able to open the refrigerator door and getting the children to open it with magic. When a magazine bought the story I bought a new refrigerator . . .

It is much easier, I find, to write a story than to cope competently with the millions of daily trials and irritations that turn up in an ordinary house, and it helps a good deal—particularly with children around—if you can see them through a flattering veil of fiction. It has always been a comfort to me to make stories out of things that happen, things like moving , and kittens, and Christmas concerts at the grade school, and broken bicycles; it is easier, as Sally said, to magic the refrigerator than it is to wrench at the door.

—Shirley Jackson, Come Along with Me, ©1948

What should my attitude be toward reviews?

Dear Literary Ladies,
My first novel is finally coming out, and I’m thrilled! But I’m also concerned about how to handle reviews from critics as well as readers. It’s hard to ignore reviews these days, with everything on the web and in one’s face 24/7. Any words of wisdom before my book hits the shelves?

If one has sought the publicity of print, and sold one’s wares in the open market, one has sold to the purchasers the right to think what they choose about one’s books; and the novelist’s best safeguard is to put out of his mind the quality of praise or blame bestowed on [her] by reviewers and readers, and to write only for that dispassionate and ironic critic who dwells within the breast.

—Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance, 1934

How can one persevere when writing pays so poorly?

Dear Literary Ladies,
I work so hard at my writing, putting in an inordinate amount time and effort. For all that, the rewards are so meager. Adding up the hours I put into my work (which I’m not even sure is more than mediocre), I would be making much less than minimum wage! My family thinks I should pack it in. What can you advise to help me persevere in a pursuit that’s so poorly compensated?

How can we know if we work hard now and develop ourselves we will be more than mediocre? Isn’t this the world’s revenge on us for sticking our neck out? We can never know until we’ve worked, written . . . Weren’t the mothers and businessmen right after all? Shouldn’t we have avoided these disquieting questions and taken steady jobs and secured a good future for the kiddies?

Not unless we want to be bitter all our lives. Not unless we want to feel wistfully: What a writer I might have been, if only. If only I’d had the guts to try and work and shoulder the insecurity all that trial and work implied.

Writing is a religious act: it is an ordering, a reforming, a relearning and reloving of people and the world as they are and as they might be. A shaping which does not pass away like a day of typing or a day of teaching. The writing lasts: it goes about on its own in the world. People read it: react to it as to a person, a philosophy, a religion, a flower: they like it, or do not. It helps them, or it does not. It feels to intensify living: you give more, probe, ask, look, learn, and shape this: you get more: monsters, answers, color and form, knowledge. You do it for itself first. If it brings in money, how nice. You do not do it first for money. Money isn’t why you sit down at the typewriter. Not that you don’t want it. It is only too lovely when a profession pays for your bread and butter. With writing, it is maybe, maybe-not. How to live with such insecurity. With what is worst, the occasional lack or loss of faith in the writing itself? How to live with these things?

The worst thing, worse than all of them, would be to live with not writing.

—Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), The Journals of Sylvia Plath, ©1982

Isn't there an easy road to writing success?

Dear Literary Ladies,
Like most writers, I want to be published, and truth be told, I’d love to be successful. But I’ve heard so many stories of long years of toil, false starts, and tons of rejection. Isn’t there an easier way? I’d prefer to become an overnight success, earn fame and fortune, and avoid all the struggle.

I can only say to you as I do to the many young writers who ask for advice—There is no easy road to successful authorship; it has to be earned by long and patient labor, many disappointments, uncertainties and trials. Success is often a lucky accident, coming to those who may not deserve it, while others who do have to wait & hope till they have earned it. This is the best sort and the most enduring.

I worked for twenty years poorly paid, little known, and quite without any ambition but to eke out a living, as I chose to support myself and begin to do it at sixteen . . . “Little Women” was written when I was ill, and to prove that I could not write books for girls. The publisher thought it flat, so did I, and neither hoped much for or from it. We found out our mistake, and since then, though I do not enjoy writing “moral tales” for the young, I do it because it pays well.

But the success I value most was making my dear mother happy in her last years & taking care of my family. The rest soon grows wearisome & seems very poor beside the comfort of being an early Providence to those we love.

—Louisa May Alcott, from a letter, 1878

Am I talented enough to be a successful writer?

Dear Literary Ladies,
Sometimes I wonder if I really have what it takes to be a successful writer. The desire is definitely there, but I’m not sure I have the talent. For those of us who don’t feel particularly “gifted,” what hope is there?

I didn’t have any particular gift in my twenties. I didn’t have any exceptional qualities. It was the persistence and the great love of my craft which finally became a discipline, which finally made me a craftsman and a writer.

The only reason I finally was able to say exactly what I felt was because, like a pianist practising, I wrote every day. There was no more than that. There was no studying of writing, there was no literary discipline, there was only the reading and receiving of experience. . .

So I would like to remove from everyone the feeling that writing is something that is only done by a few gifted people . . . You shouldn’t think that someone who achieves fulfillment in writing and a certain art in writing is necessarily a person with unusual gifts. I always said it was an unusual stubborness. Nothing prevented me from doing it every night, after every day’s happenings.

Anaïs Nin, “The Personal Life Deeply Lived” (from a series of lectures, 1973)

What role does imagination play in writing?

Dear Literary Ladies,
It’s the cliché of creative writing class: “Write what you know.” Lately, I’ve heard a better directive: “Write what you want to know.” What do you think? How much should one’s own experience dictate what goes down on paper, and what role do you think imagination should play?

Is not the real experience of each individual very limited? And, if a writer dwells upon that solely or principally, is [she] not in danger of repeating [her]self, and also becoming an egotist? Then, too, imagination is a strong, restless faculty, which claims to be heard and exercised: are we to be quite deaf to her cry, and insensate to her struggles? When she shows us bright pictures, are we never to look at them, and try to reproduce them? And when she is eloquent, and speaks rapidly and urgently in our ear, are we not to write to her dictation?

—Charlotte Brontë, in a letter to G.H. Lewes, 1848

How do you develop ideas for plots?

A note from Nava:
In the comments under "Can good work be done in short sessions?" Travelscribble left a question that she hoped a Literary Lady might answer. Perhaps not an exact fit, but Madeleine L'Engle's description of how she developed stories came close, especially since Travelscribble mentioned that she's fond of children's literature and fantasy. I welcome other readers leaving their questions, and I'll do my best to find a fitting answer.

Dear Literary Ladies,
Where do you go looking for plots? Did your stories once begin with just a title in your head? Did you have a mundane thought that you somehow developed into a plot? I enjoy writing and am satisfied with my craft but sometimes feel that I must be really dull or lack imagination. I might add that I am especially fond of children's literature and fantasy. (submitted by Travelscribble)

When I start working on a book, which is usually several years and several books before I start to write it, I am somewhat like a French peasant cook. There are several pots on the back of the stove, and as I go by during the day’s work, I drop a carrot in one, and onion in another . . . When it comes time to prepare the meal, I take the pot which is nearly full and bring it to the front of the stove.

So it is with writing. There are several pots on those back burners. An idea for a scene goes into one, a character into another, a description of a tree in the fog into another. When it comes time to write, I bring forward the pot which has the most in it. The dropping of ideas is sometimes quite conscious; sometimes it happens without my realizing it. I look and something has been added which is just what I need, but I don’t remember when it was added.

When it is time to start work, I look at everything in the pot, sort, arrange, think about character and story line. Most of this part of the work is done consciously, but then there comes a moment of unselfconsciousness, of letting go and serving the work.

— Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, 1980

Is it necessary to be a starving artist?

Dear Literary Ladies,
It's so hard to make a living at writing these days. There used to be so many more paying outlets for short stories, essays, and sketches; now everyone expects writers to contribute free content. How did you manage to earn a living while building your reputation? Do you think it's necessary to be a "starving artist" until one's ship comes in?

I always took little dull jobs that didn’t take my mind and wouldn’t take all of my time, and that, on the other hand, paid me just enough to subsist. I think I’ve only spent about ten percent of my energies on writing. The other ninety percent went to keeping my head above water.

And I think that’s all wrong. Even Saint Teresa said, “I can pray better when I’m comfortable,” and she refused to wear her haircloth shirt or starve herself. I don’t think living in cellars and starving is any better for an artist than it is for anybody else; the only thing is that sometimes the artist has to take it, because it is the only possible way of salvation, if you’ll forgive that old-fashioned word. So I took it rather instinctively. I was inexperienced in the world, and likewise I hadn’t been trained to do anything you know, so I took all kinds of laborious jobs. But, you know, I think I could probably have written better if I’d been a little more comfortable.

—Katherine Anne Porter, The Paris Review Interviews, 1963

Can good work be done in short sessions?

Dear Literary Ladies,
I always thought that one needed great swathes of time to get any writing done. Now I hear that some esteemed authors worked in short bursts and still produced an enormous amount of brilliant work. I want to hear from one of you. How did you do it, and what did you do with the rest of your time?

I work from two and a half to three hours a day. I don't hold myself to longer hours; if I did, I wouldn't gain by it. The only reason I write is because it interests me more than any other activity I've ever found. I like riding, going to operas and concerts, travel in the west; but on the whole writing interests me more than anything else. If I made a chore of it, my enthusiasm would die. I make it an adventure every day. I get more entertainment from it than any I could buy, except the privilege of hearing a few great musicians and singers. To listen to them interests me as much as a good morning's work.

For me, the morning is the best time to write. During the other hours of the day I attend to my housekeeping, take walks in Central Park, go to concerts, and see something of my friends. I try to keep myself fit, fresh: one has to be in as good form to write as to sing. When not working, I shut work from my mind.

— Willa Cather, from a 1921 interview

How can I deal with rejection?

Dear Literary Ladies,
I know that rejection is part of a writer's life, but every time something I've submitted gets turned down, I just feel crushed. How did you learn to cope with it, and not take it personally?

After leaving Prince of Wales College I taught school for a year in Bideford, Prince Edward Island. I wrote a good deal and learned a good deal, but my stuff came back except from two periodicals the editors of which evidently thought that literature was its own reward, and quite independent of monetary considerations. I often wonder that I did not give up in utter discouragement. At first I used to feel dreadfully hurt when a story or poem over which I had laboured and agonized came back, with one of those icy little rejection slips. Tears of disappointment would come in spite of myself, as I crept away to hide the poor, crimpled manuscript in the depths of my trunk. But after a while I got hardened to it and did not mind. I only set my teeth and said, “I will succeed.” I believed in myself and I struggled on alone, in secrecy and silence. I never told my ambitions and efforts and failures to any one. Down, deep down, under all discouragements and rebuff I knew I would “arrive” some day.

—L.M. Montgomery (author of Anne of Green Gables), The Alpine Path, 1917

Why am I imitating authors I admire?

Perhaps because I haven’t learned to trust my own voice, I sometimes find after I’ve written something, that it’s almost an homage to a writer I admire, and not very well done at that. Judging from my writers’ group, I know I’m not alone in this unconscious copying, but will I ever stop?

When you begin to write, you are usually in the throes of admiration for some writer, and whether you will or no, you cannot help copying their style. Often it is not a style that suits you, and so you write badly. But as time goes on you are less influenced by admiration. You still admire certain writers, you may even wish you could write like them, but you know quite well that you can’t. Presumably you have learned literary humility. If I could write like Elizabeth Bowen, Muriel Spark or Graham Green, I should jump to high heaven with delight, but I know that I can’t and it would never occur to me to attempt to copy them.

—Agatha Christie, An Autobiography, 1977

Writer's envy—do others suffer from this too?

Dear Literary Ladies,
I suffer terribly from writer’s envy, constantly comparing myself with contemporaries, measuring my meager accomplishments against their more substantial successes. Do well-known authors like you still experience professional jealousy, and if so, to whom do you obsessively compare yourself?

It has taken me a long time to scribble some forty volumes. So many hours stolen from traveling, idleness, reading, even from healthy feminine stylishness! How the devil did George Sand manage? That sturdy woman of letters found it possible to finish one novel and start another in the same hour. And she did not thereby lose either a lover or a puff of the narghile [hookah], not to mention a Story of My Life in twenty volumes, and I am overcome by astonishment. Forcefully, she managed her work, her recoverable sorrows, and her limited pleasures.

— Colette, The Evening Star, 1946

Should I take time off work to write full time?

Dear Literary Ladies,
Miraculously, I’ve saved a bit of money, and I’m considering taking a few months or a year off of work to write full time. I want to see if I can make a go of it, once and for all. Is this a good idea, or would I be putting too much pressure on myself?

It might be dangerous for you to have too much time to write. I mean if you took off a year and had nothing else to do but write and weren’t used to doing it all the time then you might get discouraged too easily. Of course I don’t know. But don’t anyhow say to yourself that you will give yourself so long to find out what you can do—because these things don’t work on time limits. Too much time is as bad as too little.

—Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964), from a letter

Should you write for yourself, or for others?

Dear Literary Ladies,
Which is better—to write purely to please yourself, or to write with an audience in mind?

No, you don’t write for yourself or for others. You write out of a deep inner necessity. If you are a writer, you have to write, just as you have to breathe, or if you’re a singer you have to sing. But you’re not aware of doing it for someone. This need to write was for me as strong as the need to live. I needed to live, but I also needed to record what I lived. It was a second life, it was my way of living in a more heightened way.

—Anais Nin, from a 1973 interview in A Woman Speaks

How can a writer improve her craft?

Dear Literary Ladies,
What advice would you give a writer wanting to improve her craft? I read so many books on writing, and every one of them offers different techniques. Also, how long can I expect to work at this until I see results?

Each person’s method is no rule for another. Each must work in [her] own way, and the only drill needed is to keep writing and profit from criticism. Mind grammar, spelling, and punctuation, and use short words, and express as briefly as you can your meaning. Young people use too many adjectives and try to “write fine.” The strongest, simplest words are best, and no foreign ones if it can be helped . . .

Read the best books, and they will improve your style. See and hear good speakers and wise people, and learn of them. Work for twenty years, and then you may some day find that you have a style and place of your own, and you can command good pay for the same things no one would take when you were unknown. . . I have so many letters like your own that I can say no more, but wish you success, and give you for a motto Michael Angelo’s wise words: “Genius is infinite patience.”

—Louisa May Alcott (from a letter, 1878)

Does having connections help in getting published?

Dear Literary Ladies,
I’ve often heard it said that “it’s who you know that matters.” Well, I don’t know anyone in the publishing world. Does that mean my work doesn’t stand a chance of being looked at seriously?

There is no easy road. “Pull” will not help. Knowing an editor, or a publisher, or a successful writer, or having a friend who knows one, will not make up for a poor manuscript. Do not write to editors, or established writers asking them to criticize your work, or for help or advice in getting your book or story published. They are unable to help you, even if they were willing to spend half their working hours trying to assist the beginner. Your work must speak for itself.

The young or beginning writer must realize that every manuscript mailed into a publishing office of any sort is carefully read by trained and competent readers. This does not mean that such readers necessarily read every word or every page of a submitted manuscript. A few paragraphs often tell the sad tale that the piece of writing is worthless. Amateur writers have been known to place a small object between pages, and finding it undisturbed, to announce triumphantly that the manuscript had not been read. But one does not need to eat a whole apple to know that it is no good.

—Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings ("If You Want to Be a Writer," 1948)

How do I find time to write?

Dear Literary Ladies,
I would dearly love to call myself a professional writer, but I’m so easily distracted. After the kids go to school, it’s off to work, the gym, and endless errands. On weekends, I entertain family or visit with friends. In the midst of all this, I can’t seem to find time to write. How can I fit everything in?

To be a professional writer one must be prepared to give up almost everything except living. Amateur writers are not included in this rule (I loathe loud-talking amateurs of any walk of life. An amateur is an apprentice and should conduct himself as such, keeping his mouth shut and learning his craft). The first lesson to be learned by a writer is to be able to say, “Thanks so much. I’d love to, but I can’t. I’m working.”

—Edna Ferber (A Kind of Magic, 1963)

Wouldn't you love to get advice from  classic women authors on writing and the writer's life? Here I fancifully pose the questions, and the Literary Ladies answer in their own words.

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