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?





20 comments:

  1. You always write the most interesting blogs, Muriel.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Muriel,

    There's a school like that here in Canada called the Longridge Writers Group. When I was fifteen, my mom (who is an amazing writer)applied and they send her an aptitude test for admission. Of course she passed and was admitted. I too, wrote it and submitted it and they said I had great potential but unfortunately I was too young. At fifteen, I didn't have the required life experience to write 'adult' fiction. (They were right lol). But the note from them was encouraging and I just did the assignments along with my mom. They weren't critiqued, but it was practise at least.
    Then, I decided to pitch an idea to Harlequin-still at fifteen lol. Back then, they didn't have their sweet lines or YA lines, so I pitched the idea of it to them:) I submitted the first three chapters of a teen romance and the rejection letter was amazing! They critiqued my writing and said I definitely had talent, but that they just didn't have a line for my novel:) Best day ever for me at fifteen!
    Anyway, after that it was similar to you-submit-reject-got a few published on my own through smaller presses, then got my amazing angel of an agent (two weeks was all it took for her to sell my book) and now I'm here with you lovely ladies!

    xo
    Jen

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. We have so much in common, Jen! When I made my very first submission to Harlequin, before there were conferences to learn from, I read the submission instructions about providing an outline and literally did an outline of a 60,000 word book with the roman numerals and A., B., C. breakdown. I think it was 13 pages long! The lovely person who had to read it wrote back and said it had 'sparkle,' but wasn't quite right. Like you, I lived on those words for months and kept writing. And here we all are!

      Delete
    2. Sparkle-I love that:) And I can totally agree with that assessment of your writing. Even your blog posts are beautifully written.

      Delete
    3. Shucks. It's just such fun talking to all of you!

      Delete
  3. I'm annoyed. I think you should change your picture so that you're wearing a red smock!

    Awesome post.

    I loved the Twilight Zone. And, I've heard of the mystery writer.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Actually, I really want a tiara. Too much, do you think? You're probably not old enough to remember 'Route 66'?? Stirling Silliphant co-created the series. I thought he was brilliant and wrote the best dialog. I believe he also wrote the script for "In the Heat of the Night." So many good writers to learn from.

      Delete
  4. Muriel, such an interesting blog. I remember those ads in magazines. My sister did the art one as she is a great artist. She took the course and eventually went to an art school, then took a different tack, went to college to be a teacher and kept going to college until she got her Masters in two areas. I didn't go to college until after I had children. Then I went back and got a two year degree in Travel and Tourism. I never could figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. Reading was always my passion. I didn't begin to write for real until my youngest daughter and her friends began to consume Harlequin books. I worked at an elementary school and wrote the newsletter. The parents loved the funny twist I gave the newsletter and said I should write. In college my English teachers said the same. No one said it was more difficult that just having the desire to write, however.
    You deserve a tiara. I have one from when the Superromance authors all wore them at one RWA National conference. I love the tip about the red canoe.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Well, no wonder your settings always ring so true. You have a degree in Travel and Tourism! What a well-rounded writer. I am jealous that you have a tiara and I don't.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Muriel, I got my tiara at Claire's. It's a store that has all kinds of interesting stuff for hair, nails, junk jewelry etc. You need one to wear while you write.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thank you, Roz! If I can find one, I'll change my photo.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Muriel, I love you how you got your start. I remember seeing those ads in magazines when I was a kid and submitted to them years ago. But I wasn't 18 yet, so like Jennifer I was told I had talent but to wait.

    My start in writing began soon after I learned to read and figure out how to write letters to make words to make sentences to make paragraphs. I have a recording of me at four when I told my grandpa that I wanted to write stories for all the children in the world. He told me to never give up. And even after every rejection and discouragement, I'm glad I didn't because then I wouldn't be among you wonderful ladies.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, what a wonderful grandpa! I've taught quite a few writing classes and think you can be taught to write, but serious writers are born with the passion, and you just can't learn that. I'm so glad we're all here today!

      Delete
  9. Not forgetting those who helped you get started, says a lot about you, Muriel :) I love your story, the pearls of wisdom and the fact that your parents 'knew' there was a writer in you and got you that enrollment.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. True about my parents. Though they may have regretted it later - those old electric typewriters were noisy! And messy! Does anyone remember changing ribbons before they were encased in cartridges? You could be black (and red) up to your elbows! Glad you're here, too, Rula!

      Delete
  10. Rod Sterling was one of your instructors?!!! OMG. That is why you are such an amazing writer- amongst many other important reasons :) I wish I could take that course. I need it! Perhaps you'll consider giving one, Muriel, because I would take it.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Rod Serling was the director, but I never had contact with him. Wish I had! I don't think you need me, Karen. Haven't read a book of yours yet, but your blogs are beautifully polished and always touching. I think we all need tiaras!

    ReplyDelete
  12. I'm always so fascinated by your stories, especially your family ones. Things could have been so "scattered" for you, but your parents gave you the very best present a budding writer could get (including the smock--remember Jo March in the garret!) I love the things you remember from the course.

    I took the test to see if I could take the course (I got a B-), but I was--I think--15, and of course there was no money for anything like that.

    ReplyDelete
  13. What a wonderful post, Muriel! I've really enjoyed hearing everyone's stories of how they started to write. :)

    ReplyDelete