In his new book, The Creative Writer’s Survival Guide: Advice from an Unrepentant Novelist, John McNally gives an honest and highly informative account of his experiences in the writing/publishing industry. As he cautions his readers in the introduction entitled “The Writer’s Wonderland—Or: A Warning,” this book is not an instruction manual on how to write short stories, it’s not a place to seek writing prompts, and the author does not claim to have a formulaic answer to getting published. Rather, he explains:
This book is a highly subjective and idiosyncratic take on the writing life. You might agree with most of it or find something of value in each chapter, but it’s entirely possible that you won’t agree with me. In any case, I set out to write an honest book about what it takes to be a writer today, using my own life as well as the lives of other writers I’ve known as anecdotal support for my opinions on a wide range of subjects.
Through his personal experiences, McNally demystifies and de-romanticizes the writing life without being discouraging; he illustrates how challenging it can be (read: donating plasma to make ends meet), but isn’t embittered or disdainful. Throughout his book, he never makes the reader feel as if the option of being a writer is outside of her reach; instead, he paints a picture of his life, and lets the reader make decisions for herself. While reading, I experienced moments of embarrassed disappointment when I was forced to admit that “being a writer” looks less like a Parisian party filled with literary geniuses and more like a person sitting alone in a trailer trying to knock out one more page. (“Talking about writing isn’t writing,” he warns.) But in this way, McNally’s realism is a gift. His book covers what he’s learned over many years and will be a useful resource to writers throughout their entire career, from making the decision to become a writer, to being a published, tenured professor with multiple books under his belt.
In addition to emphasizing the importance of writing every day, and the undeniable role of “luck, serendipity, and chance,” he explores the merits of MFA programs, how to get funding, the process of submitting pieces to magazines and what you might accidentally do that would cause an editor to return your manuscript in shreds, the differences between cover letters and query letters, how to find an appropriate agent (and why you need one at all), how to effectively publicize your work, where to find the proper resources, what literary employment opportunities are out there, and how to deal with the inevitability of rejection. His narrative is highly entertaining, and the way he vents his own frustrations adds to the humorous and personal nature of the book, though at times it feels defensive. His credentials are strong and he is generous with sharing what he’s learned. McNally writes, “If this book does nothing else, I hope it narrows that gap between the idea and the reality [of being a writer]” and I believe it does.