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Getting Her Secrets in Writing

Carolyn See's new book addresses regimen, structure and yes, networking


The flowers are here--long-stemmed exotics drifting out of grand vases. So are the crudites, the pates and cheeses. There are bottles of wine--two reds and two whites. And a waiter in vest, dark pants and starched shirt, looping around the perimeter of Dutton's Brentwood Books' deep courtyard.

The friends are here. Old colleagues and new. Family--immediate and extended. So are the students with fresh notebooks. Here too is a steady rain that falls uncharacteristically from a heavy, early-September sky.

The surprise evening shower is the only thing that isn't on writer Carolyn See's checklist of what should be a part of a working writer's arsenal. Her response:

"Let's get rolling!" See cranks her right arm in the air and winds through Dutton's covered breezeway. She threads through the thickening crowd, her black tunic and jacquard slacks flowing after her.

Her face set, focused, she'll will the drops away. She strides to a table nestled beneath an overhang, already draped with bouquets, handwritten notes and brochures announcing upcoming readings, names starred and dates circled.

As the book signing begins, See inscribes each title page with her black felt-tipped pen, closing each greeting, " ... xxxx, Carolyn."

"I just love your little notes!" enthuses one lean, sun-baked man, who looks as if he could have climbed from one of the pages of her novels. Another in seersucker and stingy brim Panama jumps the line bellowing: "Can I have a kiss, Carolyn?! Come on, Carolyn!" All this could be a scene straight out of Chapter 5 of See's new book "Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers."

"Every writer needs an entourage ... so that when your book comes out and you start having signings, you won't be quaking with terror."

She squints as camera flashes fire, dabs her eyes when a face calls up a memory. But she's quick to keep the line moving, with a light hand on shoulder and an "Enjoy yourself, dear." There is order to all of this spontaneity. There is business to this art. She has built this willfully, piece by piece. And indeed, somehow, when no one was looking, the rain paused, as if between thoughts.

In "Making a Literary Life" (Random House), See, a hardy L.A. daughter, takes a detour from her long string of L.A. novels--most recently "The Handyman" (Random House, 1999), and "Making History" (Houghton Mifflin, 1991)--and departs as well from the realm of the straight-shooting memoir, "Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America" (Random House, 1995) to tackle the prosaic realities of the hard and hardly glamorous work of writing.

"I thought it would be easy" to convey what she knows about writing, says See, on another afternoon, padding around her sunny Pacific Palisades home. "It was terrible. I thought at first that the book should write itself, but, really, in fact, [writing is] like driving a stick or talking about how adrenaline functions or looking after your child." Easy once you know how to do it, harder to explain.

Often when eager readers pick up a writers' handbook, they come looking for the basics, plot basics, say, or dialogue tips. They may want exercises to unblock the block, or more to the point, a list of agents or magazines that might eagerly await a fat 9-by-12-inch envelope.

See's volume contains some of that. There are humorously instructive chapters on writing regimens, point of view, scene building and the importance of a clear-eyed rewrite. "Often it's very hard to sit in one place and read your own cruelly imperfect work. Tomato soup and red wine can dull the impulse to jump up. Pretty soon you don't care how awful the draft is."

But what separates this guide from others of its ilk is the plain-spoken and at times unconventional advice she imparts about nudging the universe. She would have a writer refine the art of throwing her own party, cultivating contacts, making himself visible. ("Write charming notes" to people you admire!) She presses the importance of taking a more active role in the work's destiny rather than hoping the book "succeeds on its merits."

She counsels confronting the business of writing, or as she softens it "the writing life"--understanding the balance, and finding ways to have a family life that "glitters as it is stable."

The book, says See, who is also a UCLA English professor, a contributor to The Times and a book critic for the Washington Post, spun out of an all-too-familiar exchange: "The thousandth time someone called me up and said, my book is dying and I don't know what to do. You walk them through it. They are very obdurate, you know. And they are sulky and crabby, and it's your fault. But if you don't know, you just don't know. But it's not like it's arcane. "

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