Peace Corps Writers
Talking with Elsa Watson (page 5)
 Talking with
Elsa Watson
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You say you are free lancing . . . what sort of writing?
Right now I’m writing travel guides, non-fiction articles on historical figures, and camping articles. It’s quite fun, but I honestly can’t wait to get back to fiction. Doing the freelance work has shown me that part of what I love about working on fiction is the way it involves you so completely. When I’m planning a novel or in the middle of writing it, I think about it all the time — when I’m out for a walk, or sitting around, or falling asleep at night. Non-fiction, I find, is work I need to do at my desk, not something I can — or need to — spend time dreaming on. I find I miss that deep immersion.
Have you read any Peace Corps books?
Only Under the Neem Tree by Susan Lowerre (Senegal 1985–87) which seems to be the quintessential African Peace Corps book.
A couple questions about process: How long was your first draft of Maid Marian?
   I wrote the first draft in about three months, writing about six pages (or 1800 words) a day. I probably spent another month editing it, then turned my attention to finding an agent.
How did you go about getting an agent?
I made a huge, tiered list using the listings in the Writer’s Market, then sent out batches of queries, some with chapters, some without. I think received forty or fifty rejections, a few of them very kind ones (but mostly curt), before anyone showed any real interest. In the end, my book caught the eye of one person in my agency who championed it around the office. The lesson there, I think, is that you shouldn’t give up on your project if you really love it. Keep sending it out and hope for that good bit of serendipity.
Then what happened?
Once I signed on with my agency — a good four or five months after finishing the book — they took charge. They sent it around to various houses, forwarding the rejections, until it found a home a Crown one or two months later. That was in the summer of 2002. I would guess I spent another two months editing the manuscript with my editor’s guidance, then the book came out in April, 2004.
Do you have any suggestions for would-be writers who were in the Peace Corps about writing novels or non-fiction of any sort?
I’d say jump in there and give it a go. The first hurdles you have to overcome are hurdles of confidence: you have to learn that you can write a whole book, that you can come up with a plot that’s large enough to carry a story, and can build characters that are interesting. Once you have that confidence, you can focus on other things — your narrative style, the book’s point and purpose, the changes your character will go through, etc.
     Also, if your first attempts don’t receive much attention, don’t give up. Take the lessons you’ve learned and apply them to your next project. I don’t want to sound discouraging, but I wrote five “practice” books before the one that was published. I believed in each one as I was working on it, but I didn’t really find my voice until Maid Marian. I should add one caveat here, though: I think I could have produced a better book earlier if I hadn’t neglected the editing process. I had a tendency to dodge the hard work of editing, choosing to move on to something new instead of rolling up my sleeves. I’ve since learned that what they say is true, that the real quality of a book comes from its re-writing.
     Last of all — and this is key — when you’re feeling serious about your writing, go to a writer’s conference. The conference speakers and attendees will teach you what you need to know about finding an agent and surviving in the publishing industry.
Thank you, Elsa. Good luck on the next novel.
Thank you so much, John, and thanks for your help, and to Marian and you for the great website. I love reading all the wonderful writing by other RPCVs, especially on rainy days. And we do have a lot of rainy days on Bainbridge Island.
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