Today, Write On! speaks with novelist Mary Guterson, author of Gone to the Dogs and We Are All Fine. Guterson, who grew up in Seattle, became a speech pathologist before moving to New York City, getting married, and changing careers to writer/editor. She now lives on Bainbridge Island with her husband and two teens. Guterson talks about her career path and writing process, and offers advice to aspiring novelists in this Author Q&A.

MG and Sparky

Why the career change? How did you go from speech pathologist to writer/editor?
Growing up, writing as a career simply never occurred to me. Such a thing was out of my realm of knowledge—I didn’t know anyone who wrote for a living. And I certainly didn’t know that I had any talent for it. By the time I headed off to college, my single goal was to finish four years later prepared to support myself financially.

So I went the practical route and became a speech pathologist. A few months later, I started going out with a guy who came from a family of novelists, editors, magazine writers, and movie makers. Suddenly, I knew people who made their living by wielding their pens. It was a revelation. I could do something I loved—writing—and, with enough luck, talent, and determination, make a living by doing so. Within months, my brief stint as a speech pathologist was over, and my writing career had begun.

What was your first writing break?
My boyfriend’s cousin was engaged to the editor of a business magazine. I basically begged her for a job until finally she took pity on me and made me her editorial assistant. The pay was terrible, but the experience invaluable. Soon enough, I was writing short pieces and understanding the nuances of crafting good sentences and paragraphs.

Where do your ideas come from?
I take a lot of my ideas from my own life. People who know me can fairly easily pick out the characters and circumstances that I’ve fictionalized. I do, of course, play fast and easy with the facts—my real life is too much of a bore to make into a decent novel. But I have to admit to having a terrible imagination. If I didn’t draw from reality, I’d never have anything to write about.

How do you approach the blank page?
With great trepidation and fear. I can avoid a blank page for weeks on end, petrified that I won’t be able to write anything anyone would ever want to read.

What is your favorite part about writing? The greatest challenge?
I love it when my sentences work, by which I mean when they have rhythm and flow. And I love it when I can make myself laugh. If I can crack myself up, I can be fairly certain I will make other people laugh, as well. The greatest challenge? Simply getting the writing done. It takes enormous energy and focus for me to sit down and put words on paper. If I only kept a schedule, like most writers do, I’m sure I’d be a lot more productive. Unfortunately, I’m far too rebellious to follow a schedule.

What are the top three things a writer should know before diving into writing a novel?
I wish I knew. I don’t know a thing when I start writing. It‚’ a total plunge into darkness, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. If forced to come up with three things, I suppose I’d say:
1. Prepare to be totally depressed every single day over your entire lack of talent.
2. Know that the blank page is going to stay blank until the moment you darken it with your terrible sentences.
3. Know that terrible sentences can be fixed.

What are the biggest mistakes newbie novelists make?
They don’t finish. They ask someone to read their work far too early in the process. They listen to too much advice. They wait for inspiration. They get discouraged by their own internal editors who rise from hell to torture them.

Additional advice for writers?
Just write. Get the words down. Don’t worry that your sentences suck. Don’t worry that you don’t know where you are going. Just keep going. That’s the entire trick. Keep going.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
Don’t forget about plot.

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