Dear Literary Ladies

Should I take time off work to write full time?

Dear Literary Ladies,
Miraculously, I’ve saved a bit of money, and I’m considering taking a few months or a year off of work to write full time. I want to see if I can make a go of it, once and for all. Is this a good idea, or would I be putting too much pressure on myself? 

It might be dangerous for you to have too much time to write. I mean if you took off a year and had nothing else to do but write and weren’t used to doing it all the time then you might get discouraged too easily. Of course I don’t know. But don’t anyhow say to yourself that you will give yourself so long to find out what you can do—because these things don’t work on time limits. Too much time is as bad as too little.

—Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964), from a letter to a friend


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How should I deal with reviews of my work?

Dear Literary Ladies,
My first novel is finally coming out, and I’m thrilled! But I’m also concerned about how to handle reviews from critics as well as readers. It’s hard to ignore reviews these days, with everything on the web and in one’s face 24/7. Any words of wisdom before my book hits the shelves?

If one has sought the publicity of print, and sold one’s wares in the open market, one has sold to the purchasers the right to think what they choose about one’s books; and the novelist’s best safeguard is to put out of his mind the quality of praise or blame bestowed on [her] by reviewers and readers, and to write only for that dispassionate and ironic critic who dwells within the breast.

—Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance, 1934


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What’s scarier, failure or success?

Dear Literary Ladies,
Sometimes I wonder what I’m more afraid of—failure, or success? In its own way, the prospect of success seems daunting. And I know I’m not alone. Did any of you find the idea of actually succeeding as scary and incomprehensible as I do?

I never expected any sort of success with [To Kill a] Mockingbird. I didn’t expect the book to sell in the first place. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of reviewers, but at the same time I sort of hoped that maybe someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected.

—Harper Lee, from a 1964 interview


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Isn’t there an easy road to writing success?

Dear Literary Ladies,
Like most writers, I want to be published, and truth be told, I’d love to be successful. But I’ve heard so many stories of long years of toil, false starts, and tons of rejection. Isn’t there an easier way? I’d prefer to become an overnight success, earn fame and fortune, and avoid all the struggle.

I can only say to you as I do to the many young writers who ask for advice—There is no easy road to successful authorship; it has to be earned by long and patient labor, many disappointments, uncertainties and trials. Success is often a lucky accident, coming to those who may not deserve it, while others who do have to wait & hope till they have earned it. This is the best sort and the most enduring.

I worked for twenty years poorly paid, little known, and quite without any ambition but to eke out a living, as I chose to support myself and begin to do it at sixteen . . . “Little Women” was written when I was ill, and to prove that I could not write books for girls. The publisher thought it flat, so did I, and neither hoped much for or from it. We found out our mistake, and since then, though I do not enjoy writing “moral tales” for the young, I do it because it pays well.

But the success I value most was making my dear mother happy in her last years & taking care of my family. The rest soon grows wearisome & seems very poor beside the comfort of being an early Providence to those we love.

—Louisa May Alcott, from a letter, 1878


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