CommitmentNow.com: The title of your book, Damn the Rejections Full Speed Ahead seems to say that despite a drawer full of rejections and or naysayers, a writer should pursue her craft. Is that accurate?
Maralys Wills: The title of my book sums up my attitude about writing . . . and about all attempts to break into the Arts. I’ve had enough rejections on my twelve books—hundreds, maybe thousands--to know that most are meaningless and should never be allowed to define your work.
The reasons editors gave for turning down this book—that it was too autobiographical—are the very reasons my readers seem to love it. They tell me that it’s the personal story behind my advice that keeps them reading . . . that in fact, the ongoing saga makes it a page turner.
I was confident enough to leave it alone. Why make my writing book a clone of other writing books? The wonderful moment came when my new editor, Carolyn Uber, saw it the same way I did.
Think about Dr. Seuss and J.K. Rawlings. No doubt the rejections they gathered in the beginning were for the very qualities that ultimately made them best-sellers.
My advice to artists is simple: When you have a vision, stick to it . . . never allow others to dim it down. As a writer, dismiss your rejections as a temporary barrier and see yourself on the other side. . . as published! Unless a rejection offers useful advice (occasionally they do), your attitude should be, What do they know?
CommitmentNow.com: How did your own experiences as a writer lead to Damn the Rejections Full Speed Ahead?
Maralys: I’m a natural-born advice giver . . . always lecturing, my husband says. After 20 years of teaching creative writing and getting published in a variety of genres, it struck me that I “oughta write a book.” Another one. This time, about all the lessons I’d learned as a teacher and author. The book would be conversational, as though I were speaking to a few students about our mutual writing problems. And it would reflect my natural, hard-to-suppress enthusiasm. So that’s what I did.
CommitmentNow.com: You state that every writer is an optimist. Why is that?
Maralys: I may be wrong in this generalization, but I do believe that, deep down, most writers are optimists. My classes have always been full of people with positive outlooks, and never mind that most have experienced tragedy. I firmly believe you can’t write if you don’t feel good about yourself—about your abilities and your chance of getting published. You have to hit the keys with hope. (Okay, maybe this wasn’t true of Steinbeck and others—but were they really depressed about themselves?)
CommitmentNow.com: Your books span many different genres; in fact, you are a self defined “genre hopper.” Would you advise other writers to follow this path?
Maralys: I would NEVER advise anyone to do as I’ve done—become a genre-hopper, a dabbler in multiple categories. That’s no way to build a career. Writing careers depend on name recognition, on readers following you from one book to the next. I tell my students to find their niche and stick to it. And ignore me as an example. I’ve had a great time as an author... but fame and fortunes still elude me.
CommitmentNow.com: What are critique groups and how can they help a writer?
Maralys: Critique groups (and writing classes), are today’s writing teachers, the only place you can get meaningful help. Agents and editors haven’t the time to teach you to write. They’re all swamped with work. And you can’t depend on your three best friends and your mother (who either don’t know, or will fudge to save your feelings.) Without a class or critique group, you’ll spend a lifetime repeating your mistakes—and never understand why you can’t get published.
CommitmentNow.com: Why is attitude essential to the writing process?
Maralys: In writing (unless you’re doing it for fun), attitude is everything. Without determination—okay, make that obsession—you won’t follow the necessary two-pronged approach: re-writing until your work shines, and sending it out until someone buys it. Getting published takes unnatural effort. For me, seeing the words in print makes the effort worthwhile. But I can’t inspire any of my brilliant friends to become writers. Their lives are simply too good as they are.
CommitmentNow.com: What is “voice” and why is it important?
Maralys: “Voice” is that indefinable “something” that makes your writing different from most others. In some unique way, “voice” sets you apart. I must have it, but I don’t know how I got it. Before I write, I hear the words in my head, and I put them down as fast as I can, and somehow, over the years, they’ve turned into my “voice.” I would say, Don’t actively pursue your voice. Pursue good writing, and your voice will come.
CommitmentNow.com: Your state that one of the most difficult parts of writing a book is starting it. How can authors write an enticing beginning?
Maralys: How do any of us achieve that all-important Great Beginning? For this, there’s no magic formula. You write something and know it’s not good enough. Then you write something else. And all the while you’re asking yourself, What can I say here that will be Really Different, Really Crazy, Unlike Anything That’s Been Said Before? Basically, you flail around until a great beginning suddenly--and for no good reason—simply pops up. But first you have to recognize a saggy beginning when you see it.
CommitmentNow.com: What are some of the most common mistakes writers make?
Maralys: The two most common mistakes new writers make are 1. They don’t read enough, and 2. They don’t take classes. In the beginning, most of us assume writing is easy. Hey, we’ve been reading all our lives, how difficult can this be? We’re astonished when we discover that great writing evolves from a vast collection of small, virtually unnoticed, techniques. Masterful writing is like creating an artistic church in bricks. As readers, we see only the bricks. Once we’re writers, we recognize it’s the mortar that makes it work.
CommitmentNow.com: You have a chapter entitled “Lessons from To Kill a Mockingbird. What can writers learn from this book?
Maralys: The book, To Kill a Mockingbird, is full of wonderful mortar. Harper Lee’s writing skills are so great, it’s a hard book to study: the story keeps sweeping you away. When you finally make yourself concentrate, you see that her smallest, most subtle techniques are the magic ingredients. And the book really is magic. During a lifetime of writing, my personal goal has been to create lines as good as those of Harper Lee.
Maralys Wills has published twelve books, raised six children, and “lucked into the world’s best teaching job.” Educated at Stanford and UCLA, she teaches novel-writing on the college level, and in 2000 was named Teacher of the Year. Her most challenging project, a poignant memoir titled Higher Than Eagles, became her greatest triumph, garnering excellent reviews and five movie options. She lives and writes in Santa Ana, California. Visit her at www.damntherejections.com.
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