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Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers
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Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers

3.98  ·  Rating details ·  1,311 ratings  ·  137 reviews
As Carolyn See says, writing guides are like preachers on Sunday?there may be a lot of them, but you can't have too many, and there's always an audience of the faithful. And while Making a Literary Life is ostensibly a book that teaches you how to write, it really teaches you how to make your interior life into your exterior life, how to find and join that community of lik ...more
Paperback, 288 pages
Published August 26th 2003 by Ballantine Books (first published 2002)
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Average rating 3.98  · 
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 ·  1,311 ratings  ·  137 reviews


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Julie Ehlers
Sep 12, 2017 rated it really liked it
Making a Literary Life is a unique and enjoyable writing guide. What's unique about it is that, unlike most books of this type, it doesn't focus mainly on process. Sure, there's a chapter on process (and See's own process sounded really solid to me), and there are short (useful!) chapters on things like plot and character, but more than most writer-teachers she seems to have some confidence that her readers know about these things already. The rest of the book is taken up by two topics, one fanc ...more
Salma
Jul 31, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites, writing
Few writing books succeed in keeping you from dozing off. Bradbury's "Zen" is an exception. So is Ayn Rand's "The Art of Fiction." And this. This book reads as quickly as Twilight, and you actually laugh out loud at every other paragraph (so don't read it in public places, unless you don't care if people look at you like you're loony). She covers style, the 'tax man' and other basics- stuff that most writing books stay far away from. She covers style beautifully. But really, this book is more in ...more
Liaken
Jun 12, 2012 rated it liked it
What I got from this book:

1. Write from your life. Figure out who the main characters (good and bad) are, as they'll influence the characters you write.
2. Write a thousand words a day (or two hours editing) five days a week for the rest of your life.
3. Write a charming note to an artist, editor, author, agent, publisher, etc., five days a week (build up who you know by being thankful and charming rather than asking favors).
4. Pretend to be a writer by doing things that make you feel closer to
...more
Susan Oleksiw
Aug 31, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: writing
This book is subtitled Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers, and that should be a clue to its content. Part II has the standard information on writing--character, plot, point of view, setting, building a scene, and rewriting.

But Part I is what sets this how-to book apart. The author advises the neophyte to build a life as a writer, and this means some very specific goals and behaviors. Keep your entry into the writing life private. Don't talk about your work (that's dangerous, as other writers
...more
Erik
Feb 17, 2009 rated it liked it
Honestly, I don’t know Carolyn See from a bump on the log. But her literary how-to is just likely her only piece of writing that will make its mark on me – or pass under my eyes, for that matter. Reflecting on her forty-some-odd-year writing career, See condenses it all down into three succinct sections. The “Before” section is her best as she distills her recipe for writerly success into a simple prescription, humorously referred to as her “18-minute chili”: write a thousand words a day, five d ...more
Bart
Jun 21, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a delightful book that, along with Stephen King's On Writing, composes a couple of the best books written in the last 25 years about the craft and profession of writing.

The words this book brings to mind are "lovely" and "gentle." Whatever Ms. See might be in her classroom or her other novels or life itself, she is a lovely and gentle advisor in Making a Literary Life, the very sort of advisor any beginning or intermediate or advanced writer should be fortunate to encounter. Her advice i
...more
Anna
Aug 03, 2009 rated it it was amazing
A spectacular book on becoming a writer, filled with real-world approaches and habits as well as stories and observations from Ms. See's own experiences.

This book feels like a conversation with a wise and sassy aunt who not only cares deeply about your success, but will also kick you in the butt when you need it.

Who could ask for more?

(I'll now be reading this on an annual basis, along with BIRD BY BIRD.)
Linda Blaine
I read this book twice, and loved it mostly because of the author's uniquely wry and intimate voice. I regret not seeing the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, and I regret not meeting this woman who has inspired me over some difficult periods of my life. We actually corresponded a few times, and her encouragement (by email and later, after she died, through this book about writing) led me to finish my first novel. Sometimes a writer speaks to your heart, and you can almost hear their words in your ear. ...more
Sara
Oct 28, 2019 rated it really liked it
I quite enjoyed this and it’s definitely worth reading if you aspire to the writing life. Carolyn See is a quirky writer and her stories were amusing but the second half of the book was a little sad as she wrote it while her beloved was dying. I read a few reviews that didn’t like this but to me it made this book all the more real, relatable, and memorable.
Antonia
Aug 07, 2019 added it
Shelves: did-not-finish
Oh Jeez, bored to death. DNF. Maybe I'll come back to this one sometime in a better mood.
Elizabeth Spencer
Now that I've finished it, this book is kind of hilarious.

When Ms. See gives advice on writing, it's very sound. Start a writing habit. Write a thousand words a day. Write nice letters to people in the writing industry you admire. The chapter on editing was very good--she has a really organized way of looking at what needs fixing scene-by-scene. Her chapter on the pre- and post-publication process was illuminating.

But the problem is that she nests her good advice deep, deep within anecdotes, and
...more
Ching-In
There were some concrete pieces of advice/guidance that I found useful (such as the write a 1000 words a day), but I really wish that she had been more aware of being more inclusive of her audience. There's definitely some alienating examples around what is "foreign" to her, but may not be to all of us (such as incomprehensible Sanskrit or a "rough-looking Chicano" being 2 examples I clearly remember). Also, I found her discussion of the difference between female and male writers to be somewhat ...more
Stephanie Morrill
Feb 21, 2012 rated it really liked it
This is a writing book that had been recommended to me often, and I can see why. It's a different type of writing book (more like Bird by Bird by Anne Lammott than a traditional how-to-write type book). I'm taking a lot of really good things from it, like the concept of charming notes. It's also one of the only writing books I've read that actually acknowledges zero writing takes place during the type of your book releasing.

I think this book captured really well what the life of a writer is like
...more
sarah  morgan
Apr 27, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Oh my. This is jam packed with good advice for writers, the beginner, the pro, everyone of us. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. If you don't do anything else she suggests, write a thousand words a day for the rest of your life. And writing a charming letter of appreciation is not a bad thing to do, either. Read it. You'll be glad you did.
Liliana Sousa
Jul 15, 2011 rated it really liked it
Very good for young writers!
Aimée Medina
Nov 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Excellent, so very helpful for a newbie writer. I think about this book often like an old friend. Get it, read it, she's so knowledgeable
Brent Jones
Oct 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Her book tells writers, dreamers, and even those trying to see their own life more clearly, how to find and identify the characters needed for the plot.

She said that the characters we will be most familiar with come to us from our own life, and that the characters needed in writing a novel can be based on them. Even if you’re a "dreamer" and your plot is just fantasy, it still has to be delivered in a plot by someone. Names can be changed if you draw on your own life, but the personality and ess
...more
Tammy Marshall
May 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This isn't really a review in the general sense of a review but rather a bit of commentary about one of my favorite books. I first read this book years ago when Carolyn See was still alive, and her advice about the charming notes resonated with me so much that I decided to start by writing her one. A short time later, she wrote back to me! I still have that lovely note from her taped in one of my writing notebooks. I receive book release announcements from her daughter, the exceedingly gifted Li ...more
Jordan Graham
Nov 29, 2017 rated it really liked it
Making a Literary Life, by Carolyn See, was an interesting and helpful book. It was filled with helpful advice on every step of your journey as an author. What sets this book apart from the others in its genre is how readable it is. Carolyn See has an interesting tone in it, if nothing else. It feels like she alternates between an aloof tone and a friendly one.

On a better note, though, she does something most of these books don't do. She tells you how to actually make a literary life. She talks
...more
Tom Britz
Feb 11, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is a quick read, but definitely not fluff. Carolyn lays out what it means to be a writer, for life. She shows by way of anecdote and personal experience what it takes to be someone that has dedicated their life to the written word. At times she lays it out in plain down to earth language and at times with some salty humor.
This is not a nut and bolts book with lessons to do, it is more of a memoir. As I'm still struggling to find the joy of writing once again, I think this book filled its n
...more
Brittany
Jan 13, 2018 rated it really liked it
This was written well over ten years ago and some of the advice I felt is no longer applicable because of the rise of the internet and social media. But it was still a great read and the final two chapters were great, realistic pep talks. I also think this is geared more towards authors of literary fiction or non-fiction writers. But her chapter on rewriting/revision can certainly apply to almost any type of writer. Overall, I think this is a book that you must read if you hope to become a full ...more
Kathy
May 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: how-to-books
Carolyn See would make an interesting character, fiction or non-fiction. She's a book reviewer for the Washington Post, teaches English at UCLA, and is the the mother of novelist Lisa See. This book is a memoir and a guide to writing, but so much more. Truthfully, the detailed description she gives of the rat race within the life of a published author is enough to discourage one from trying to be a successful author. Interesting tip: write a "charming note" to someone you admire 5 days a week fo ...more
Lindsay Hickman
Feb 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This was such a heartwarming laugh out loud book. I was saddened to learn that the author had passed because her voice made me want to know her. Who knows if I will ever have a ‘literary life’ but I can say that my evenings were filled with such wonderful cackles of laughter, by the sarcasm, wit, and charm of this book. If you were an English Major in school or fancy yourself of the literary world you will get a kick out of reading this one.
Janelle Gustafson
Oct 07, 2019 rated it really liked it
I pulled out my laptop to write, something I haven’t done in a long time. When I got stuck I would pick up this book and it kept me going. I appreciate the flow of ideas to help trigger thoughts and memories. I like how she reminds us it’s not always a glorious process.
Kelly Ferguson
Jun 02, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: humor, nonfiction, craft
Great if you're looking for a humorous, meandering pep talk peppered with solid advice. Some of the nuts and bolts stuff is out of date (the book was published before social media took over the world), but the truth of the writing life is in there. Okay, off to finish 1000 words...
Kara
Apr 05, 2020 rated it really liked it
Essential reminders tucked inside.
Juliana
Nov 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Excellent set of essays and advice from Carolyn See on the writing life.
Caroline Carrico
Jan 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
Writing as a habit makes the foundation of a literary life.
Michael
Jul 02, 2019 rated it liked it
it's no Captain Blood but maybe it'll help you write a book as good as Captain Blood
Emily
Nov 29, 2017 rated it really liked it
It's like sitting in a coffee shop with a good friend, whose advice is spot-on and delivered with a smile and a chuckle. Not just for dreamy would-be writers.
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Carolyn See was the author of ten books, including the memoir, Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America, an advice book on writing, Making a Literary Life, and the novels There Will Never Be Another You and The Handyman.

She was the Friday-morning reviewer for The Washington Post, and she has been on the boards of the National Book Critics Circle and PENWest International. She won both the Gug
...more

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