Who had the greatest influence in your becoming a writer?
My fifth-grade teacher. In response to a class assignment, I wrote a story about a dinosaur egg popping out of the kitchen sink. The teacher liked it, read it aloud, and published it in our little classroom newspaper. I felt so proud, and began from that moment to believe that I had a talent for writing. Throughout junior high, high school, and college, I made sure to take creative writing courses. I have no doubt that I would have become a writer anyway, but my teacher set me upon the writing path at a very early age, with confidence and a head full of dreams.
Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
I think on some level I always did, although it wasn’t until the fifth grade that I began to think of myself as a writer. Even so, I didn’t think writing was commercially viable and so for many years it was more of a hobby before it became a career. Regardless, whether it was a hobby or a career, I was always writing.
Now when I’m not writing it becomes an almost physical ache, a yearning that nothing but writing can fill. When I am writing, it’s as if the stars and planets have all aligned and I’m doing what I was put on this earth to do.
When did you first become a published writer?
I first became a published writer in 1993, when “Circles,” a story I’d written fifteen years earlier, was published in a horror magazine. (It was one of those mimeographed, stapled “magazines” that had a circulation of about three hundred and paid in copies.) Had it not been for a handwritten note at the bottom of one of my rejection letters dating back to the early 80s, I would have given up trying to get “Circles” published long before.
So you save all your rejection letters?
Actually, yes. I have three notebooks filled with rejection letters. Most of them are form rejection letters, and most of them are well-deserved form rejection letters. Here and there is an encouraging hand-written note. I find it interesting to go back through the rejections, as they really do tell the story of my development and journey as a writer. Not everyone would benefit from keeping their rejections, but I have.
Is rejection, then, inevitable?
If you want to be a successful writer, you must develop an alligator-thick skin and realize that rejection is simply a part of a writer’s life. So yes, I believe rejection is inevitable. It is impossible that every editor will fall in love with every publishable project. The key is finding the right editor for the right project, a challenging task. I still get rejections to this day.
I was at a writer’s retreat a couple of years ago with about fifty other writers. We had a fun get-to-know-one-another exercise in which we shared our most memorable rejection letter. Out of that came some insightful revelations which came as a surprise to many. Those of us who had received literally hundreds of rejections, sometimes thousands, were those who were now successful authors of multiple books. Those who admitted (sometimes with a touch of pride) of only having received a few rejections, were those whose publishing history was either nonexistent or scant at best.
Being a successful writer means putting yourself out there, being willing to face rejection head-on, not for rejection’s sake, but to be able to take those rejections and then look critically at one’s own work and ask yourself, “What am I doing wrong?” and “How can I make it better?”
My rejections began to turn into acceptances when I asked myself these critical questions and was willing to roll up my sleeves and improve my writing. My rejections also turned into acceptances when, instead of sending out masses of blind manuscripts or queries in the hopes that someone, somewhere, would fall in love with my writing, I targeted my submissions. I did my marketing homework, investigated publishers, editors, found out what they liked, what they’d published in the past, and then coupled that marketing knowledge with killer query letters and professionalism. The rate of positive responses to my query letters skyrocketed to 60% among major publishers, which is fabulous for an unknown author.
Thinking about trying your hand at a novel? Learning from those who've "been there, done that" can bring encouragement and a boost to your writing abilities, help you understand the best approach to publishing, and prevent you from making the same mistakes. In these Writing FAQs, Torrey talks about her road to publishing, her inspirations, . . .
Do you recommend trying to publish the same piece year after year, like you did for “Circles?”
Heck no. If it was my story today and was continually being rejected (which it was), I’d either rewrite it for the better, or I’d put it aside. I’ve seen too many aspiring writers beat their old manuscript to death, pining for the day when someone will publish it. If you’ve tried your best and are still stuck, move on. Write something else. It’s often through the writing of something else that our creative energy breaks through and we pen something truly extraordinary.
That being said, I wrote the first book for the DOYLE AND FOSSEY SCIENCE DETECTIVES books and marketed it to forty-three publishers before it finally found a home with Dutton. I persevered simply because I had a deep conviction about the series, an intuition that turned out to be correct. But I was only ultimately successful in selling the series because I was willing to go back and re-invent it after receiving a generous three-page rejection letter from Dutton, chock-full of reasons why they loved it but why it also was not working for them. When I asked Dutton if they would be willing to consider a rewrite, they said yes, making no promises. Dutton subsequently loved the rewrite (their suggestions were spot-on!) and offered me a two-book contract which has now grown into a successful six-book series (the series has since moved to Sterling).
What advice can you give to others who want to write a novel?
When the first flush of passion or inspiration wears away, you’re left with a mountain of hard work. Most people give up when the going gets tough (and it will get tough), but true novelists grit it out, from first draft through to the final draft.
Like painting, like singing, like playing the piano or playing soccer, writing a book is a craft you must learn through practice. Just because we can speak and write English does not qualify all English-speakers to be novelists. Determine to learn your craft to the best of your ability. Craft is primary (horse). Publishing is secondary (cart).
Put your horse before your cart.
So don't rush it. Savor the creative process. Publishing will come when you are ready.
Learn from the experts:
Take continuing education classes in the evenings at your local community college. These are usually classes in fiction writing that are taught by published authors rather than English teachers. They teach fiction fundamentals, manuscript format, submissions, provide information on publishers, and so on. Usually the class meets one to two evenings per week.
Attend writers conferences / workshops.
Check out “how-to” books from your local library on writing fiction. Study these books, and do the exercises they suggest. (I recommend: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin, On Writing by Stephen King, Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card, and Fiction Writer’s Workshop by Josip Novakovich. This is not an exhaustive list, but it will get you started.)
Read the best of the best. Read novels that you admire the most and want to emulate in terms of voice, style, rhythm, story, and character. Study them critically. How did they construct a particular scene? How did they construct their story as a whole? How did their story unfold in terms of sequence and time? Which scenes did they choose to “show” and which passages did they choose to “tell?” Who did they choose to tell the story and why?
This kind of critical reading, used in conjunction with “how-to” books and classes and workshops, was how I taught myself. Many of my earlier writings were amateurish and crude, but it’s all part of learning the craft.
Join a critique group. If you find yourself in a critique group that is not serving your needs, get out and find another. It’s important to find one that is critical yet gentle, supportive, candid, knowledgeable, and open.
Don’t wait until you “know everything” to begin to write. Write, write, and write, whether it’s on your novel or something else. It’s important to keep those creative juices flowing and to push your limits and try new techniques.
Give yourself permission to write poorly. Being critical of everything that comes out of your head onto paper because it’s not perfect, can cause writing paralysis. Get off your own shoulder and allow yourself the freedom to simply write. You can always critique and edit later.
Make time to write, don’t find time. Finding time never happens; there’s always something that’s more important, errands to run, people who demand your attention, worthy causes you can’t ignore. Making time, however, is a matter of will. Do you want to write badly enough to be willing to rearrange your life? To tell everyone, “I am a writer?” Set parameters in your social relationships; let others know that you are not available during certain times because that is your writing time. Wake up earlier to find that extra hour. Go to bed later. Write during your lunch hour. Write while you’re waiting for your child to finish soccer practice. Make the time to write, and don’t let anything or anyone dissuade you from your goal.
What about the advice, “Write what you know?”
It’s true and it’s not true. It’s not true in the sense that I’ve never been a pirate and yet I’ve written two books about pirates. I’ve never been around the world with Magellan, but I’ve written a critically acclaimed novel about a boy who travels around the world with Magellan. If you don’t know something but want to write about it, then learn it. Study it. Become the expert. Soon you will be “writing what you know.”
Any last advice for writers?
Have a story to tell. Something of significance. If it moves you, fills you with passion, then write it. And enjoy your journey.
And finally, what are your favorite books?
As a child I loved the Chronicles of Narnia, especially The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and must have read it ten billion times. I also loved Tom Sawyer, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Island of the Blue Dolphins, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Where the Red Fern Grows.
As an adult, I simply love juicy, fat historicals such as Jane Eyre, Gone With the Wind, The Far Pavilions by M. M. Kaye, and The Game of Thrones fantasy series by George R. R. Martin. I also devour insightful, no-holds barred literary novels with female protagonists such as The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund, The Rapture of Canaan by Shari Reynolds, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, and The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.
My favorite read of all time though, is the Merlin series I first read back in the seventies by Mary Stewart: The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment. I re-read this series a few years ago and was amazed by the similarities in our writing style and our voice. Either Mary Stewart’s writing resonated with me at an early age because our voices were so similar, or I absorbed her voice into the marrow of my bones and made it my own . . . I don’t know which.