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Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers [Hardcover]

Carolyn See
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Aug 2002
As Carolyn See says, writing guides are like preachers on Sunday—there may be a lot of them, but you can’t have too many, and there’s always an audience of the faithful. And while Making a Literary Life is ostensibly a book that teaches you how to write, it really teaches you how to make your interior life into your exterior life, how to find and join that community of like-minded souls you’re sure is out there somewhere.

Carolyn See distills a lifetime of experience as novelist, memoirist, critic, and creative-writing professor into this marvelously engaging how-to book. Partly the nuts and bolts of writing (plot, point of view, character, voice) and partly an inspirational guide to living the life you dream of, Making a Literary Life takes you from the decision to “become” a writer to three months after the publication of your first book. A combination of writing and life strategies (do not tell everyone around you how you yearn to be a writer; send a “charming note” to someone you admire in the industry five days a week, every week, for the rest of your life; find the perfect characters right in front of you), Making a Literary Life is for people not usually considered part of the literary loop: the non–East Coasters, the secret scribblers.

With sagacity, a magical sense of humor, and an abiding belief in the possibilities offered to “ordinary” people living “ordinary” lives, Carolyn See has summed up her life’s work in a book so beguiling, irreverent, and giddily inspiring that you won’t even realize it’s changing your life until it already has.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1st edition (Aug 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 067946316X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679463160
  • Product Dimensions: 21.5 x 14.8 x 2.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,285,714 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent advice, which worked a treat for me 4 Nov 2009
I LOVE this book. I first read it when we were living in a small village in the middle of nowhere. I followed the excellent advice of sticking to a schedule of 1,000 words a day, and pretty soon I had a finished first novel to send out. During this time, I also wrote charming notes (admittedly, not as religiously as five times a week), and it was amazing to see the results. Just as Carolyn predicted, lots of people wrote back. I then fell out of the practice of writing the notes when we left the village and moved to London. But I found this book again recently when we were moving house, and decided to take up the charming notes again. I can't recommend this book highly enough, and it was thanks to this book that I happened to hear about what has since become one of my favourites, Rose Tremain's How I Found Her. Thank you, Carolyn See!
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Practical and Entertaining. 11 Dec 2004
If I ever finish my endless half-written novel it will be thanks to the advice I've received from writers like Carolyn See. This is such a helpful and enjoyable book, and if you've enjoyed Anne Lamott's 'Bird by Bird' this is an excellent accompaniment. Thoroughly reccommended.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  73 reviews
35 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars As much a guide to Carolyn See as to the literary life. 13 Oct 2002
By Miles D. Moore - Published on Amazon.com
As with another of my favorite books, the late Barbara Grizzuti Harrison's "Italian Days," Carolyn See's "Making a Literary Life" is as much about the author as it is about the stated subject. See's subject, of course, is how to make your way as a writer--not only how to write, but how to get your writing published and make your name known in the literary world. Some of See's advice--such as writing a thousand words a day, five days a week--is eminently sensible; some of it--such as writing cheery thank-you notes to editors who reject your work or reviewers who trash it--is a little more difficult to swallow. But See's basic points are indisputable: the only way to be a writer is to write; the Biblical wisdom of "a soft answer turneth away wrath" holds just as true in the literary business as in any other; being a literary genius doesn't give you leave to abandon common courtesy. Of all guides to writing, "Making a Literary Life" has to be the most flat-out fun to read. You get See's observations on the art of writing ("The passive voice is really good for only one thing: the weaselly notes in committee meetings where nobody wants to get blamed for whatever happened"). You get her first-hand testimony on the damage wrought when the people around you don't support your writing ("My first husband, an elegant, brokenhearted artiste, knew for a fact that if you were smart enough to want to write, you were also smart enough to realize the extent of your own mediocrity"). You get the scoop on the eccentric behavior of all the authors See has met, from Amy Tan carrying two lapdogs in her purse to Harlan Ellison's confrontation with a bookseller at a literary conference ("He howled like a castrated bison; she responded with shrieks from `The Texas Chainsaw Massacre'"). While See says at the outset that "Making a Literary Life" is intended for fledgling writers without connections to the literary world, I think the book is just as useful for journeyman writers (such as myself) who have published a book or two but have no idea how to break into the next level. Quirkily, entertainingly, Carolyn See gives us some ideas how to do so. She's the soft-hearted yet hard-headed friend all of us poor scriveners seek.
23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Engaging and very useful 14 Mar 2003
By P. Lozar - Published on Amazon.com
Most "how to become a writer" books leave me cold, and I admit to never having read one of Carolyn See's novels (someone once gave me a copy of "Golden Days," and I lost interest on about p. 10). But a friend recommended this book to me, and to my surprise I was hooked from the first paragraph. Ms. See must be a terrific writing teacher: she knows how to get and keep your attention with humor, pithy bits of wisdom, and the occasional juicy anecdote about a Famous Writer; but along with this, she conveys an amazing amount of practical, useful information about the literary life and how to make it yours. Her remarks on the "postpartum depression" that follows completion of a book, and on how to handle rejection, were reassuring: writers' guides usually don't go into the emotional ups and downs of the writing/publishing process, but she's been through it all more than once, and is willing to share what she's learned. Her brief chapters on creating characters, time and space, point of view, etc. are likewise full of helpful suggestions (although I disagree with her generalization that male writers are plot-oriented and female writers are character-oriented: consider, for example, Agatha Christie!).
While I strongly agree that the best way to become a writer is to WRITE, I find See's "1000 words, 5 days a week" formula to be no more or less useful than Julia Cameron's "morning pages" -- it's a good way to get started if you don't already write; but if (like me) you're a closet novelist and an inveterate journal-keeper, you'll have figured out your own writing rhythm by now (first thing in the morning, I can't even hold a pen, let alone form a sentence!). Her remarks about associating with people who support your writing are valuable, too: if you aren't getting encouragement from your family and friends, find it elsewhere; don't waste your effort trying to convert them.
On the other hand, I think that See's "polite notes" suggestion may create a monster. Years ago, Richard Bolles opined that a job-seeker should set up "informational interviews" with companies he/she is interested in working for; I had a corporate job at the time, and found myself pestered with an endless procession of bright-eyed aspirants seeking "just an informational interview" (yeah, right). Then there was the "networking" mania a few years later, which left me, after every business gathering, with a pocketful of business cards from people who had otherwise made no impression on me ... I think it's a great idea to let a writer know that his/her book has made a difference in your life by sending a note (and/or writing a good review on Amazon.com!), and, if you're focusing on a particular magazine or press, it's good to cultivate a relationship with an editor. But I have a horrified vision of publishers being bombarded with millions of polite little notes in 3"x5" cream-colored envelopes, and I'm sure that most of them will go straight into the trash.
As for the personal details: in the valuable book "This Time I Dance," Tama Kieves recounts how she aspired to write, but thought that published writers were exalted beings whom she could never hope to emulate. Then she signed up for a workshop with a real, live Published Writer, only to discover that she was an ordinary-looking woman with thick glasses and a sagging hemline. I think that See's personal story makes the book even more convincing: here's someone who has had a successful and productive literary life, but she's subject to the same emotional and domestic crises as the rest of us. If she can, we can! All in all, this is a great book, and one I wouldn't hesitate to recommend to an aspiring writer.
28 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A most excellent book for the aspiring writer 19 Aug 2002
By B. Merritt - Published on Amazon.com
Do you want to learn how to `court' an editor? Want to learn how to get with the `IN' crowd within the literary world? Then this book is for you.
Writers, take note. This is another weapon/treasure to keep in your writing world's arsenal.
The upbeat note that it inflicts upon the reader/writer will not be soon forgotten. I'm still impressed with the way Carolyn See dishes out the information in this book. Not only does she give incredibly comedic, heroic and downright interesting information, but she follows most of these up with examples from her own life.
You can get to know your target editors by getting to know your target editors. Sound simple and redundant? It ain't. Amazingly, most of the things you'll need to succeed aren't necessarily in your desk or a computer file. They're in your head and your heart. And Carolyn See shows us how to tap into both areas.
Like `Bird By Bird' (by Anne Lamott), this book has earned a special place on my bookshelves.
A+ rating in my book!
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Love it or Hate it 10 Aug 2003
By A. J. Vasaris - Published on Amazon.com
Reading the reviews, I could tell this was a love-it or hate-it type of book. No in-between, but, that's where I fall. Overall, a good book. I am glad I took the time to read it. I especially enjoyed Part II: The Writing. In this section the author describes methods in character and plot development to rewriting, the biggest part of writing.
Throughout the book we learn about the author's failed marriages, friends, students, small-time and big-time author associates. I hope these passages were meant to emphasize "to write what you know." Her point of view was definitely the women's point and I'm not sure what her references to sex and using four-letter words were all about. They came and went very quickly. Maybe the idea was that sex sells.
I do agree with her chapter "A Thousand Words a Day." It's a goal I don't always hit, but then sometimes I exceed it. A writer must write, many times garbage, sometime genius, but write everyday. The author says to take weekends off, but I don't always get away with that either.
I'd recommend a few other books like, Lerner's "The Forest for the Trees," Brande's "Becoming a Writer," and Ueland's "If You Want to Write" before this book, but I did walk away with thoughts and ideas to ponder, which is all I request of any book. Enjoy it.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A "Must" for the writer's bookshelf 6 Jan 2003
By Bonnie - Published on Amazon.com
Carolyn See is one funny, brave woman. Her experience as a writer and teacher, and even more importantly, her basic humanity shines through this crisp,easy to read slim volume that gives both practical advice (write 1000 words a day!) and a wise philosophical slant on what it really takes to be a writer. A unique combo from a woman who is as natural a teacher as she is a writer.
I've been a pro in the writing biz for over twenty years, and still found amazing bits of stimulating advice - as if from an older, wiser sister, ahead of me on the road, and oh, so smart.
This book works equally well for the novice looking for some tips on shaping a writing life, and for the more experienced writer who may long for a role model for facing some of life's toughest arrows. She delivers on all counts. Highly, highly recommended.
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