Friday, June 7, 2013
THE FAMOUS WRITERS SCHOOL ADVICE
I did not go to college. When I was 17, my father had cancer surgery and my mother had a heart attack, and going away to school seemed wrong. This was 1962. I went to work for Pacific Telephone as a mail girl in a suburb of Los Angeles. I eventually became a teller, then a service representative and scribbled novel notes on scratch paper between customers. For my 20th birthday, my parents gave me enrollment in THE FAMOUS WRITERS SCHOOL, a correspondence course I'd been longing for but couldn't afford. (The same company offered THE FAMOUS ARTISTS SCHOOL with the memorable ad in magazines of a girl's profile or a dog. The caption was 'Draw Me.' If you submitted the drawing, you'd be told whether or not you had talent.) The gift came with a Smith Corona electric typewriter, and a red plaid smock. (My mother thought all writers wore smocks to protect their clothes. She was a seamstress, so was always thinking of the garment.)
I couldn't wait to read my lessons and do my assignments. I completed the three-year course in two years. The truly wonderful part about it was that the teachers were all working writers, so the advice was practical and usually spot on. Rod Serling, noted for his scripts for The Twilight Zone was director, and I remember that Mignon Eberhard - a mystery writer whose books I later saw on the shelf - once critiqued one of my lessons. Mostly, I remember the kindness of their criticisms, and their obvious eagerness to help a fledgling writer.
Many of the lessons learned there have stayed with me. One in particular about descriptions - "A reader doesn't know what to think when you mention 'a boat,' but if you tell him about 'a red canoe,' a precise picture forms in his mind."
Another was: "Your contract with the reader who paid $1.50 for your book (this was 1965, remember) is more important that your contract with your publisher."
And: "Dialogue must ring true, or all your beautiful descriptions mean nothing."
Also: "Read everything you can. What else allows you to go head to head with Shakespeare and Ernest Hemingway?"
My correspondence course was like any kind of bricks-and-mortar classroom work: the student gets out of it whatever he puts into it. I loved it. I worked like a dog. After graduation, I submitted scores of short stories and had enough rejection slips to sink the Titanic without the iceberg. After I was married and we had the children, I discovered Harlequins. Then, I think because I could narrow my focus and aim my work at a specific target, I finally got through! My first two novels were 'over the transom,' then I hired an agent because I hoped it would reduce the time I waited for a reply. And it did! Enormously!
Recently, I tried to write to THE FAMOUS WRITERS SCHOOL, certain they still existed out there somewhere, but I don't think they do. At least, I couldn't find them. I didn't want to boast that I'd sold as much as I wanted to tell them that I sold because I'd taken their course. And that some really kind working writers had made all the difference in a woman's career.
How did you get to writing?