Nat Segaloff

How did you become a writer? You don’t “become” a writer. You either are one and get better at it, or you aren’t one and learn to hire one and “just fix it a little.” The first thing I remember writing was “I’m running away from home” notes. My mother, who was a school teacher, used to grade them and hand them back to me. Writing was a chore throughout high school. The first time I enjoyed it was when I was a college freshman and the instructor not only gave me an “A” for my character sketch, she said we ought to have it published. We never did, but it was the first time anybody had ever said anything good about my writing. There’s a lesson there.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.). My writing influences are as eclectic as the work I have done. I love Twain, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Angelou, and Saroyan. I learned conciseness from Ellison (Harlan) and Mcdonald (Gregory); humor from Price (Roger), Douglas (Jack), and Gelbart (Larry). It was a newspaperman named Donald Cragin who told me that the trick of writing is putting a blank piece of paper in the typewriter and not stopping until it’s full, and it was screenwriter Stirling Silliphant who taught me that a script should take as long to write as it will to shoot -- in other words, efficiency and professionalism. But my most important influence is the business affairs person who also writes. Checks.

When and where do you write? I write on a desktop computer. Hate laptops and touch pads. My handwriting is so bad even pharmacists can’t read it. I used to write on a 1940s Royal upright manual typewriter and y’know what? I think my writing was better because I really had to think first about what I was typing because retyping was a bitch.

What are you working on now? My forthcoming book is Final Cuts: The Last Films of 50 Great Directors from BearManor Media in February of 2013. It’s about the last films of 50 great directors. Next up is a biography of a close friend who also happens to be one of the world’s foremost writers.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? I’ve never been unable to write, but I have occasionally been unable to write well, which is just as bad.

What’s your advice to new writers? Larry Gelbart used to say that the first advice to writers is to take solitaire off your computer. My advice is threefold: first, write about yourself and then stick it in a drawer because nobody gives a shit about you yet. Second, use that same drawer to store the first draft of anything you write that comes too easily, then go back two days later and ask yourself why. Third, learn spelling and grammar because no matter how well you write, if your mechanics are lousy, so is your writing.

Bio: Nat Segaloff started off as a movie publicist, then quit and become a journalist/critic, TV producer, teacher, and film historian. He has published something like ten or eleven books.

Carol Saller

How did you become a writer? It’s funny, but even after my first books were published, I didn’t call myself a writer. Maybe it was because I live in Hyde Park and work at the University of Chicago, where real writers are a dime a dozen. I felt like a trainee. I thought children’s books didn’t count. In any case, at some point enough people called me a writer that I finally thought, what the hell, I’m a writer.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.). I like stories. My father and uncles told great stories. My first favorite writer was Ray Bradbury. When my children were small, I fell in love with children’s book writers, especially those with real humor and heart: Cynthia Rylant, Beverly Cleary, Christopher Paul Curtis, Richard Peck, Mildred Taylor, Karen Hesse—all great storytellers. Hesse’s Out of the Dust was always within arm’s reach when I was writing Eddie’s War. The Subversive Copy Editor is more like a personal rant, probably most influenced by advice columnists—I’ve been addicted to them since I learned to read.

When and where do you write? At this moment I’m writing in a dark theater at a rehearsal for a play I’m in. (I’m a minor character, so I have lots of down time.) I can write blog posts and interviews and articles anywhere I have my laptop, which is getting to be a problem, because I increasingly resent toting it around. I wish I could write on paper napkins and gum wrappers, but I can’t think properly with pen and paper, even nice paper. Yellow legal pads intimidate me. For me, there is simply no substitute for multiple Undo. That said, book writing seems easier at home in the quiet.

What are you working on now? I wish I were writing something. Typically I go a long time between ideas, and I’m not interested in working on something I don’t feel strongly about. Eddie’s War and The Subversive Copy Editor were both intensely personal books, one rooted in my family and the other in my work. I more or less spewed the latter in four months, I was so excited and knew so clearly what I wanted to say. Eddie took six years (I once calculated  I averaged eleven and a half words a day) because I loved writing it and didn’t want to stop honing. So how do I top all that? I miss having a project, but I don’t want to be the writer who sits around desperately trying to think up something that will sell. So I’m keeping busy with other things; I’m reading and listening. For a while now I’ve been interested in the topic of women who were put in insane asylums against their will, and I’ve been casually reading fiction and nonfiction about that, hoping something will come of it. Because I’m acting in a play and have a lot of time to observe professional actors and directors, I’m secretly excited about the possibility of writing a play. In Chicago it’s not impossible for a new playwright to get a staged reading.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? Yes, I’ve been terribly stuck at times. The worst block was when I was four years into writing Eddie’s War and almost threw it away. But with encouragement and advice from my writers group and my editor, Stephen Roxburgh, I was able to carry on. When I was writing my first children’s book, The Bridge Dancers, I wrote my little heroine to the edge of a chasm and then realized that it would be too, too stupid for her to find the courage to cross the rickety rope bridge and save the day. I put it down for months until I figured out what she would actually do.

What’s your advice to new writers? Everyone advises new writers to read, because unless you’re some kind of idiot savant, the only way to write well is to get great writing into your ear and imitate it (whether you realize you’re doing it or not) until you hit stride and launch into your own style. My second piece of advice is more a quality-of-life issue: Writers will never be happy until they realize that getting published is not a worthy goal. Writing is the best part of being a writer. Getting published gives you moments of happiness, but it’s nothing compared to the extended happiness of writing itself. When your book is finished and published, there’s a big hole in your life and a lot of pressure to market your book and to already be cranking out the next one. So if you’re lucky enough to be writing something you love, don’t let a longing to finish intrude on your process.

Bio: Carol Fisher Saller is a manuscript editor at the University of Chicago Press, where she also serves as an editor of The Chicago Manual of Style and the CMOS Online Q&A. Her young adult novel Eddie’s War was named a Best Children’s Book for 2011 by Kirkus Reviews and a Bank Street Best Children’s Book of 2012. In a starred review, Publisher’s Weekly Online named The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice from Chicago (or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships with Your Colleagues, Your Writers, and Yourself) its Pick of the Week, calling it “a singular survival guide to the copy editor’s trade. .  . practical, relentlessly supportive and full of ed-head laughs.” 

Alexia Casale

How did you become a writer? I’ve wanted to be a writer since before I can remember so, from the time I mastered my dyslexia and dyspraxia enough to put pen to paper and create things that looked vaguely like words, I did. It was pretty hit and miss to start off with as I had enough trouble writing shopping lists (‘keesh’ for dinner anyone?), but I had a wonderful tutor, Maureen Cook, who eventually taught me how to read… and then I was off. I started writing my first novel before I turned ten and haven’t stopped since. Throughout my teens many manuscripts, in many genres, were started and then abandoned as unsatisfactory. When it came time to choose what I would do at university, I decided that there wasn’t much point learning how to write if I had nothing to write about; I took Social and Political Sciences, majoring in Psychology, as that lies at the core of the subject matter I am most passionate about as a writer. After finishing my first degree, I started looking for an agent in and around various jobs and various other degrees.

I submitted three different novels to agents before the wonderful Claire Wilson at Rogers, Coleridge & White offered me representation after reading The Bone Dragon (it’s psychological thriller rather than fantasy in case you were wondering about the genre!). To be fair, I had only sent each previous manuscript to a scant handful of agents so I wasn’t very surprised that getting signed took a while. Knowing that most writers make a lot of submissions before getting an agent, I figured that, instead of trying and trying and trying again with the same manuscript, I should give each book a shot with a few people then, if I got rejected (as I did), I could take the feedback and go away and improve my work before trying again with a new project. The plan was to gradually inch forwards, improving from book to book, to the point at which I’d get a yes.

I had a feeling about The Bone Dragon when I wrote the first page. It just felt like the right book at the right time. It’s telling that, for the first time, I was prepared to keep submitting until I got a ‘yes’ or ran out of agencies to submit to. But I didn’t need to. Claire offered me representation within 48 hours of being sent the full manuscript and less than two months later the book sold in a three-way bidding war to Faber and Faber. Not long after, Carlsen bought the German rights. Now, the final proofs are nearly ready and then it’s just the wait until the book is released on 2 May 2013. So, Chapter 1: Getting an Agent, Getting Published is finally finished. Soon it’ll be time to start on Chapter 2: So How’s Publication Working Out for You? Cross fingers!

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.). As a child, I spent a lot of time with my maternal grandparents, listening to their stories about the past – though my grandfather also made up the most wonderful stories combining all sorts of books with real figures from history: Robin Hood meets Queen Elizabeth I was one of my favourites. I think that was probably what triggered my passion for storytelling.

In terms of direct writing influences, I am in awe of Barbara Kingsolver’s craft. She can pack an incredible amount of beauty, plot and characterisation into even the shortest sentence. I would love to have her command of technique. Children’s writer Diana Wynne Jones has an enviable ability to create likeable, three-dimensional characters with just a few ‘brush strokes’: I admire her efficiency. And her sense of humour.

That said, like most writers I find inspiration in all sorts of things: books, poems, paintings, films, anime, beautiful scenery, flowers, music… This tends to be reflected in my writing. The Bone Dragon mentions plays (Hamlet, The Tempest), films (including Hitchcock’s Spellbound), poems (including ‘The Lady of Shalott’, paintings (including ‘Miranda and the Tempest’), a statue and several other books. For me, the world of the book just wouldn’t be complete without bringing in all those connections.

Finally, a special mention must go to the fiercely amazing Pat Neal, who gave me my first piece of serious criticism… and who continues to be the first person to read my work.

When and where do you write? I have a lovely study in a converted attic with a view of roofs, trees and even some distant hills. Most of all it’s bright, with lots of natural light. I’m in the process of reorganising at the moment to make the room less chaotic, so it’s even messier than usual, but it will remain scattered with various beautiful things, including pictures, cards, stones, shells, glass animals, the odd shiny knife (I like shiny knives), dried flowers, sugar-flowers and books, books, books, books and more books.

I also love to write in the garden, provided there’s nothing noisy going on nearby.

As for timing, I write whenever I can, day or night. I start as early as I can and keep going until I get stuck. Then I work on getting unstuck. Then I carry on until I’m too tired to keep going.

What are you working on now? Too many things: the screenplay for The Bone Dragon; a historical novel set during WWII (a new version of the novel I wrote as part of my PhD); and a second YA/crossover psychological thriller. I’m also working, in the back of my mind, on restructuring the manuscripts that I tried submitting before The Bone Dragon. I think I might now have the skill to turn them into good books.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? Nope. I don’t believe in it. I get stuck all the time – on a daily basis actually. But even when I get stuck for weeks and months at a time I don’t see this as some sort of pseudo-illness. Usually I’m stuck because I don’t know how to solve a problem with whatever I’m working on. Or I’m standing in my own way for any number of reasons – fear of failure, not having enough emotional resilience because of difficulties in other areas of my life… But I never say I’m blocked. I just tell myself that I’m stuck and I’d better unstick myself if I want to call myself a professional writer.

What’s your advice to new writers? Be honest with yourself about what you want to achieve, why you want to achieve it and how much it matters to you. Then put in the work necessary to achieve what you really care about achieving.

Don’t spend time worrying about whether or not you’re talented: there’s nothing you can do about your natural ability. Take control of the thing you can do something about: how hard you work. Work (then work some more) on every aspect of your technique, including grammar and punctuation. Decent grammar and punctuation isn’t that hard to master so if you can’t be bothered agents, publishers and other writers will be inclined to think you don’t care very much about writing after all.

Read. Everyone says it and everyone is right to. Read. But write too. The best way to learn about writing is to write. And write some more. At the start, don’t worry about writing something worth publishing. If you write something great, then see if you can get it picked up. If it’s not so great, then remember it’s still good practice so the time and effort is not wasted.

Finally, don’t be in too great a rush. It’s vital to be passionate and to feel a driving need to achieve your goals. But remember that most writers have to write for years before they get an agent and often for months or years after that before they get published. There’s no harm in wanting it to happen fast, but don’t want speedy success to the point where you paralyse yourself as a writer if it doesn’t happen right away. Remember that most people get there by inching towards their goal, not performing a long-jump over the frustrating, heart-breaking stages of rejection. And while you’re waiting, you’re probably becoming a better writer so, once you get that miraculous, vital ‘yes’ you’ll be able to move ahead much more effectively in your writing career than if you got a ‘yes’ based more on luck and talent than graft and hard work. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with luck and talent, but both can let you down: hard work rarely does in the long run.

Bio: A British-American citizen of Italian heritage, Alexia is an editor, teacher and writing consultant. After studying psychology then educational technology at Cambridge, she moved to New York to work on a Tony-award-winning Broadway show before completing a PhD and teaching qualification. In between, she worked as a West End script-critic, box-office manager for a music festival and executive editor of a human rights journal. She loves cats, collects glass animals and interesting knives, and has always wanted a dragon. Luckily, she has her very own rib in a pot…

The Bone Dragon is now available for pre-order at Waterstones, Amazon and WHSmith.