Early in my writing career, I had the incredible good fortune to study with National Book Award winner Alice McDermott. The story of how she got started writing and publishing is nicely delivered on The National Book Foundation site. To celebrate the release of her new novel, Someone, I thought I’d share with you a three things I learned from her at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference:
1. A space break can take the reader anywhere.
This seems so obvious to me now, that a space break in the text signals to the reader that some change has occurred – she’s been taken to a different time or place, for example, or is now seeing the world through another point of view. It’s something I assume all writers know, but I’m mentoring a very talented writer at the moment who, like me, simply didn’t realize.
2. Don’t be afraid to throw out pages. Or chapters. Or entire beginnings.
Alice told me she typically wrote some shocking number of pages to get her first fifty. This was in the context of encouraging me to cut and consolidate early pages of the first draft of my first novel, which was great advice. And because I now cut so much (especially of the early pages of my novels), I’m perhaps superimposing my habits on her advice, but I believe the number she mentioned was two or three hundred.
3. Don’t refinish your own wood floors.
This fine piece of advice was delivered via my husband, Mac, who studied with Alice a year after I did. I was home with Chris and Nick that summer while he was at the conference, and I was spending far too much time and energy refinishing the wood floor in our kitchen. Alice told Mac to tell me I needed to be writing. I hear her voice now every time I think I should be … well, doing anything but writing! (And yes, I do appreciate the irony of the fact that I’m writing this blog post in the time I might be working on my new novel.)
In reading the National Book Foundation interview, I came across a fourth piece of advice from Alice, in her own words, which I think about sums it up, so I’ll leave you with it:
As frustrating and depressing and discouraging as a day spent writing can be, that day of work is also the best reward this career will give you.
If you’re in the San Francisco Bay area, join me at Alice’s reading at Book Passage at the Ferry Building, Monday, October 7 at 6 p.m. – Meg