Monica Wood -- A Book Sense Favorite for Her Fiction -- Shares Ideas on the Craft of Writing in Latest Book Sense Pick

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Author Monica Wood of Portland, Maine, is a good exemplar of the apt phrase "Those who can, teach."

The "teach" part is demonstrated by the adult education and other workshops in fiction-writing technique that Wood's led for years -- and by her new book, The Pocket Muse: Ideas & Inspirations for Writing (Writer's Digest Books), a September/October Book Sense 76 pick.

The "can" part is shown in Ernie's Ark: Stories (Chronicle), Wood's third book of fiction -- a Book Sense 76 pick for July/August.

"I was really thrilled, to say the least, to have two Book Sense picks in two seasons consecutively," the Maine writer said recently, by telephone, of her distinction. "It was really amazing."

Teaching and writing have been linked in Wood's life for years. The 48-year-old Wood was first steered towards becoming a writer by a high-school teacher: her own sister.

"I grew up in a mill town called Mexico, Maine," Wood said. "I read mostly the stuff all kids read: Nancy Drew, Little Women. My favorite all-time book as a child was Anne of Green Gables, because my folks were from Prince Edward Island, Canada; I'm sure you know the story of that red-headed girl on Prince Edward Island. And I was a red-headed girl and related very well to that book; I probably read it 10 times."

Once she started reading, she began to write.

That's where the teacher came in.

"My family is a funny family," Wood explained. "We have this 20 years, between the first and last kid. So, my older sister was my high school English teacher, in this little town of 4,000 people. And she, probably more than anybody else, has been the light I followed into my career."

Other teachers guided her, too. "I was lucky," said Wood. "In this little high school, in this little town, I had some of the best teachers; I had a very good education. And we had a little church and parish school also in the town, so I was educated by nuns until the eighth grade. They were great taskmasters. We diagrammed sentences, and I learned to really love languages that way, I think. Also, with my family being from Prince Edward Island, it was a very big Irish storytelling tradition that I come from. So, I think it was kind of inevitable that somebody in the family would be a writer."

Still, though Wood was an English major in college and "dabbled" at story writing through her twenties, her first job was as a high school guidance counselor. She didn't start writing seriously, she said, until age 30.

Again, a teacher played a key role.

"I was working in Portland, Maine, and I decided to take one of those local two-week writing conferences," Wood recalled. "And I had the great good fortune to be in a beginning-writing-stories class taught by George Garrett, who is much-beloved by many writers because he helped them the same way he helped me -- by teaching us, really, the nuts-and-bolts of technique."

From Garrett she received "pretty much the sum total of my fiction training," Wood said. "Like a lot of writers, I was always writing, even as a little kid; I just needed a little bit of guidance on technique and that sort of thing."

After that two-week conference, Wood began writing stories in earnest and got some published. But, it was still a few years before Wood quit her job as a guidance counselor and leapt into the chancy life of a full-time writer. She was in her early thirties.

"The biggest change was financial," said Wood, who is married with no children. "Our household income was cut by more than half..... But we didn't really have a lot of expenses. We had a little house, and we were able to live pretty frugally; we still do, really. So we managed."

Wood did freelance copyediting, wrote occasional articles, and published a few more short stories while working on a novel. Nine years after her course with Garrett, that first novel, Secret Language, was published.

"After that, I thought, 'Oh wow, first novel -- Yeah, here we go!' But, really, it was a long time before the next thing was published."

In the five years she worked on a second novel, Wood did more freelance work, including writing several guides to teaching literature in the high-school classroom, and a volume on Description for Writer's Digest Books' Elements of Fiction Writing series.

"That actually did pretty well," Wood said of Description, "and gave me a little income -- and just a little more spirit to continue with the fiction."

In 2000, Chronicle Books published Wood's second novel, My Only Story, and Ballantine Books ("by some really wonderful miracle," said Wood) picked up paperback rights. Ballantine -- which is contracted to publish the paperback version of Ernie's Ark -- also acquired reprint rights to Wood's eight-year-old first novel, Secret Language. That paperback was also published this summer -- Wood's third book in a single season.

"So at this point," Wood said, "I'm not rich and famous, but I'm a working writer who can manage to get along doing it. I have a hardcover publisher who's loyal to me, and a paperback publisher who's loyal to me, which is a miracle these days. I feel I am as lucky as I ever expected to get, right now."

And the experiences that have brought her to this "very happy" point led Wood to write The Pocket Muse, a profusely illustrated, user-friendly manual of exercises and advice for the budding and working writer.

"I wanted to do a book that I could have used at two points in my career," Wood said. "One, when I was just starting and didn't know up from down. And the other, when I was in the middle of writing my second novel and I completely blocked. It was the first time that had ever happened to me. Until that point, I had always thought of writer's block as a character flaw. And, boy, it was real. I think it was just a lot of fear that I couldn't really do another novel -- all this crazy psychological stuff that happens when you lose your confidence.

"So The Pocket Muse is a kind of a hybrid; it's a little bit of a how-to, but it's a little bit of a why-to: why to keep going, and ways to keep going."

Monica Wood, then, is passing along the same sort of practical guidance she got from George Garrett and all those other good teachers through the years.

In fact, she's been giving the same sort of tips and encouragement for free to visitors to her Web site ( for the past three years -- and she doesn't intend to stop.

"It sounds so silly almost," Wood said, "but I really like helping other writers. It doesn't take a lot of time -- just a few minutes a month -- and so many people write and thank me for those tips, I would feel almost meanspirited stopping at this point." -- Tom Nolan