Write on: John McNally teaches literary survival

Almost everyone wants to write a novel. For those who don't want their manuscripts to languish in attics and hard drives, novelist John McNally wrote The Creative Writer's Survival Guide.

The author of five novels, including Ghosts of Chicago and The Book of Ralph, McNally, 45, found his calling as a pudgy fourth-grader when he wrote and performed a play about an overweight superhero getting stuck in a phone booth while changing into his costume. His class and teacher loved it. A writer was born.

After McNally sold several novels, the then-director at the University of Iowa Press, Holly Carver, brought him the idea of the Survival Guide to answer every question ever put to him about writing during a Q & A.

"I like to say that it opens with 'Do I have what it takes?' and ends with 'Am I drinking too much?'" says McNally. "I also wanted to write a brutally honest book... This isn't a 'You can do it, too!' book. I try to not to put any spin in the book on how wonderful it is to be a writer."

McNally culled his writing tips from extensive personal experience, and from his relationships with countless other writers, teachers, classmates, and students.

What are a few of McNally's precious secrets about winning the coveted privilege of selling a novel?

"Write every day," he insists. And when he began treating writing like a job, several things happened: "My writing improved; I started publishing more, and I started making more money," he says.

"Before that, I either tinkered with my writing or I wrote obsessively to the point that it became detrimental to everything else in my life," he adds.

He advises aspiring writers to study under established writers in MFA writing programs. Doing so, he says, helps writers evolve more rapidly by teaching them techniques that they might otherwise only stumble onto years later.

And McNally reminds writers that rejection is inevitable. He personally has four unpublished novels that took a decade to write.

"Were those wasted years?" he asks. "Absolutely not. My teacher Frank Conroy used to say, 'The bad work's connected to the good work,' and he was absolutely right."

Advising writers is still secondary to McNally's metier, fiction. He remains enthused about the new idea, the new challenge.

"I'm writing my first historical novel," he says. "I'm pushing myself in the direction I haven't seen before. Will I succeed? I don't know. But I do know that I don't want to write the same book over and over again."
McNally will discuss "Novels about Novelists" with authors Martha McPhee and Carolyn Parkhurst at 10am Friday, March 18 at WriterHouse on 508 Dale Avenue. McNally's website is www.bookofralph.com.