being alone writing as well as being on tour and meeting my readers. But I’m on a
different plane when I write, and I love how I feel when I’m lost in the midst of a
book. (That said, I often crash when I finally finish a book.)
helped mentor a number of aspiring writers into successful published authors, and I
think there are common pitfalls.
The biggest intangible in becoming a writer is overcoming fear. More than anything
else, you must be fearless. You must yearn to write because you have to write, no
matter what anyone else thinks. Writing must call to you, as much as eating,
breathing, being. The greatest writing – the reason any writer writes, the reason any
artist creates – is not and should never be the end result: The commercial success,
the notoriety, the praise. All of that is great, yes, but it is not a valid source of
inspiration and creation. The reason I write is that I have a story in my head that
yearns to be told, one that talks in my head, begs to get out. So I tell it. Every day. In
my own voice. Overcoming fear to channel that voice is the biggest thing I can teach
and preach to a writer. I believe we are taught to be scared in this world, of pretty
much everything, and that fear paralyzes us from pursuing our passion and heeding
our true voice. Too often in our world today, fear drives our daily lives typically
more so than passion. We worry about money. Time. Health. Aging. Our Parents. Our
Children. The future. But how often do we nurture our now, which helps nurture a
healthy future? I always teach writers that awful things happen from head to hands,
from mind to finger to laptop, when we let fear consume us, when we worry about
whether we’re good enough, whether we’ll make money, whether our spouses,
children, parents, friends will like our work. You must unlearn fear.
Being a successful writer today requires a few other important elements:
-No one can make you write. I cannot rappel into your home and stand over you with
a menacing look and a laptop. You have to want to write. You have to sit down every
day and make it happen. This is seemingly the simplest but often the hardest part: I
compare writing to the first time I trained for a marathon. We all tend to look at the
end: There is no way I can run 26.2 miles, I thought. That’s even too long of a daily
commute. But as I started to train, I took it all in smaller chunks: Two miles. Five
miles. 10 miles. Wind sprints to help my pace. But I trained every day. And I ran a
great time. You don’t get very good at anything unless you put in the time and effort.
-Publishing is not a craft fair. Yes, writing is art, but it’s also a big business – from literary
agents to publishers – and you must remember that. Be professional. Be prepared.
Approach your writing seriously.
-You must have a quest for perfection: You finished your first draft. Congratulations. You
have about a dozen more. Sit back down. If you write and think you are done, you are
sorely mistaken. One of my favorite quotes (often attributed to Mark Twain) that I recite to
authors is: “If I had more time, I would’ve written you a shorter letter.” If it takes me a year
to write a book, a good chunk of that is spent on editing.
-You must have a unique voice: Voice is the only thing that sets a writer apart from another,
and it cannot be taught. I joke there is only so much that separates Sedaris from
Shakespeare: We all utilize the same tool belt … same words, same themes. We all tend to
write about the same things: Love, faith, family, sex, work, pets, war, death, but it’s how we
tell those stories that makes us unique. Anne Lamott is one of my favorite writers and
teachers of writing. She explains voice this way to writers, and I do as well: If you were all a
choir, and I gave you the lyrics to the same song, and stood up here and listened to you sing,
from a distance, it would largely sound the same. You’d be singing the same words,
hopefully together and in tune. But if I dropped a mic over each of your heads, the song
would sound totally different: The sound of your voice, the way you interpret those words
would be uniquely you. A writer must do the same, except silently, on paper.
never giving into that dark place that often calls. We must be willing to walk through
walls to make our dreams come true. But all of that is very different from a big ego. I
don’t think a big ego helps anyone, much less a writer. Publishing is really a very
small world – from publishers to booksellers to libraries, from marketing to media –
and word gets around quickly. If an author is an egomaniac, people know …and I
think publishers are much less likely to work with such a writer. My philosophy is
that I work as hard as my family did. There should be no ego involved. I am blessed,
and I remember that. Publishers are investing in me, and I want to reciprocate their
faith and investment in me by working harder than anyone else. And I think I do.
no music, no intrusion. I’m blessed to have two very quiet places to write: A carriage
house in my cottage in the woods of Michigan, where I spend summers and fall, and
my writing office in Palm Springs, which is set against the mountains. Mother Nature
is the only voice I like to hear when I write.
name, Viola Shipman, as a pen name for my fiction to honor the woman whose
heirlooms, life, love and lessons inspire my writing and who inspired me to become
a writer. My Grandma Shipman – along with all of my grandparents – made great
sacrifices for my family, and I would not be where I am or doing what I am today
without their support. I like to say that a pen name chose me. And I’m honored that
readers will be saying her name forever. It’s the smallest thank-you I could give to
many that I admired before I became a published author. Some of those include Jane
Green, Adriana Trigiani and Nancy Thayer, among others. What these incredibly
successful authors mentored to me is kindness and the fact that authors are a tribe.
We help one another. We promote one another. We lift one another up. Publishing is
a tough business. It’s bruising to the ego and the soul. But when you have a group of
supporters who empower you, you feel anything is possible even on the darkest
Caroline Leavitt was an immense help in making my debut novel, The Charm
Bracelet, not only better but also a book that many publishers wanted to publish.
She challenged me to see things differently by offering wonderful insights into my
characters and narrative. She is a true artist.
I got to know Rita Mae Brown many years ago at an author event (where she had
hundreds of people lined up for her books while I had a handful!), and she took me
under her wing. She invited me to visit her at her farm in Virginia, where we
bonded. Rita Mae taught me to believe in myself and my work, to fight the good fight
when necessary and to never, ever give up. I adore her to the moon.
connections between each book?
each of my memoirs – is a standalone, each is also part of a bigger narrative theme I
build. My fiction is inspired by my grandmothers’ and family heirlooms as well as
their lives, love and lessons. The stories I write are a tribute to family – about bad
things that often happen to good people – and how we soldier through the hardships
in our lives with love, faith, hope and each other. My fiction is also a tribute to all of
our elders, whose stories and sacrifices helped shape us and make us the people we
are today. It is a tribute to family, love and kindness, things we need more than ever
in today’s world. And, as I write in The Recipe Box, if we don’t remember from where
we came, how can we know where we are going. Those are the connections in my
My memoirs are humorous and look at different slices of my life – growing up,
terrible career, family holidays, moving to the country a la Thoreau to find myself –
but they are universal in theme: Self-esteem, following our dreams, finding love,
family dysfunction. I want readers to look at themselves differently through my
books. I want to challenge readers’ thinking. I want them to laugh one minute, cry
the next, and then see how – despite our differences – we are really all the same.
nurture it for so long that you almost don’t want to release it into the world. Then
you publish that book and realize how much more quickly you have to write the
second and third, especially if you have a contract, or if you want to continue
striking while the iron is hot. I also became a better writer: I had a great first editor
for my first memoir (who I reunited with for my fiction!), and her insights stayed
with me, especially in regards to structure and building the narrative. The more you
write, the better you become, just like anything you do.
rest I invested with my financial advisor. I knew that I needed to invest in the book
to help make it as successful as possible, and I also knew that I was launching a new
career, one in which I wouldn’t be receiving a monthly check from my employer, or
health care and retirement. I approached the business side of being an author as
seriously as I approached my craft. It’s often a huge mistake first time authors make.
They blow it, or think the advances will just keep coming. Authors must be
professionally, personally, creatively and fiscally savvy.