An Exclusive Interview with Novelist Laura Van Wormer
Part Two: Lessons From the Trenches

by G.K. Sharman

Read Part One

Laura Van Wormer

Novelist Laura Van Wormer

In our previous episode, Laura Van Wormer, former Doubleday editor and author of two TV series books, had just shown the manuscript of her precious first novel to three people: her future agent, her future editor and a friend who taught college lit.

Two of them told her the book was terrible, said she had no future as a writer. The third—the college professor—saw things differently.

It wasn’t a bad first draft, the prof allowed, but it wasn’t finished yet.

“The professor said, ‘the art is writing is in revision’,” Van Wormer recalled, mentally slapping her head for all the times she had said the same thing to a writer from her editorial perch at Doubleday.

Keep working on it, the educator told Van Wormer, and don’t show it to anyone until it’s finished, until it’s the best you can make it.


". . . don't show it to anyone until . . . it's the best you can make it."


It was lesson No. 1 in her now-successful career – one she took to heart and is willing to share with other aspiring writers. Three years and two more drafts later, she had a book worth publishing – Riverside Drive, which came out 1988 and is still in print.

She’s learned a few more things in the trenches, too:

It’s a myth that publishing is some ivory tower that unknowns can’t break into. Nonsense. It’s a business, and with a little research, you, too, can crack the code. Publishers are always looking for a fresh voice.

“Educate yourself as fully as possible,” she advises. Read the how-to-get-published books. “How to Get Happily Published” has been around a while, but it’s still packed with useful info, especially about query letters.

Then check out Literary Market Place, known as LMP in the trade. It’s too expensive to buy your own copy, but the local library should have one. She called it the “yellow pages” of the publishing world and “a direct line to every editor and agent in publishing.” Complete and up to date, it’s the resource that publishers and editors use to keep up with their business and you should use it too, because . . . 


"Before you mail your manuscript, show it to someone . . . who can tell you the truth."


Rule No. 2: send the right paperwork to the right person. If you send it to “editor” or someone who left two years ago—or send a complete work when you should be sending a query—they’ll know you’re not ready for the big leagues.

Before you mail your manuscript, show it to someone you trust, someone who can tell you the truth. Criticism stings, but the manuscript may need more work. Better to know it now than after you receive a dozen rejection letters.

Have a place that’s just for writing. Doesn’t matter how humble it is – a TV tray would do – as long as you dedicate it to your craft. Don’t pay bills or do any other work there because it will lead your mind down non-writing paths.

Take care of yourself. Get some exercise. Don’t overdo the drinking or smoking. Don’t hang out at the bar or coffee shop with a bunch of wannabes with defeatist attitudes. Writing is tough enough without sabotaging your physical health or squandering your emotional energy.

Read, read, read. Van Wormer tears though three books a week, on average, and she reads everything – fiction, non-fiction, biography, magazines, Publisher’s Weekly, you name it. Reading is a way to get inspired and to “keep company with published writers” – instead of those latte-sucking losers you used to hang out with.

Be nice, especially to secretaries at publishing houses. Not only will they be editors one day, they’re the ones who control whether your manuscript is on the top of the pile or buried where it will never be seen.

Trouble Becomes Her

“Luck is for people who are ready,” Van Wormer concluded. A little work and you can be lucky, too.