William & Mary

Jamie Quatro offers 12 tips for students and aspiring writers

  • Sharing her experience
    Sharing her experience  Jamie Quatro took students through her "nuggets" of insight into the publishing world on Nov. 20. She touched on everything from agents to query letters.  Photo by Jim Ducibella
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Jamie Quatro told the audience inside William & Mary’s Tucker Hall Theater that she had 12 “nuggets of wisdom” to help them traverse the often rocky path to authorship.

They were more like 12 commandments.
{{youtube:medium:center|gic14rbdDBE, Jamie Quatro discusses her career as a writer}}

Quatro, who received her master’s degree in English from William & Mary in 1999, is the author of the 2013 collection of short stories I Want To Show You More. The collection has been selected a New York Times Notable Book, National Public Radio Best Book of 2013, Indie Next pick, O, The Oprah Magazine Summer Reading pick and a New York Times Editors’ Choice.

She was on campus on Nov. 20 to participate in the Patrick Hayes Writers Series, but also to conduct a seminar with students interested in the business of writing.

“One reason I wanted to do this talk is that it doesn’t just happen,” she told her audience. “There’s so much legwork, so much heartache. It’s a road. It’s a journey.”

Quatro confessed that despite the acclaim given I Want To Show You More, that November week alone she had received three story rejections.

“You have to learn to expect rejection – and love it,” she said in announcing Nugget No. 5. “Rejection can be fuel.”

Something that sets her apart from many of her writing contemporaries, she said, is the experience she gained at W&M reading books such as Paradise Lost, (John Milton) or Our Mutual Friend, (Charles Dickens). Many of her peers don’t dig that deeply into antiquity.

Her other nuggets:

Nugget No. 1: “Writers are readers first,” she said, “and writers need to stay readers to continue writing well. That’s something I learned here at William & Mary.”

Nugget No. 2: “It is good for writers to have work in other things, and life provided those.” Quatro and her husband started their family of four immediately after she left W&M, and she helped them make ends meet by teaching English, playing classical piano, even spending time in a band.

“All of that experience contributed to the writer I was going to become,” she said.

Nugget No. 3: Everything is material.

“Henry James said, ‘Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.’ Be taking notes. Be storing up material.”

After leaving William & Mary, Quatro wound up getting a Master of Fine Arts degree, attending classes for a week or 10 days at a time twice a year for two-and-a-half years. She’s a proponent of getting the advanced degree and the extensive writing and mentoring that come with it.

“It also provides the critical opportunity to ask yourself, ‘Is this my calling, my vocation?’” she said.Jamie Quatro

That includes learning to give and accept criticism, but at the same time “tuning out the noise” and staying true to one’s artistic vision. Such programs force participants to write under all circumstances because they “can’t afford to wait for the muse to show up.”

Ultimately, MFA programs lead participants to Quatro’s Nugget No. 4 – “At some point, every writer must ask, ‘Do I have the talent for this?’

“It’s a scary, scary, scary question,” Quatro said.

There was a moment at William & Mary that helped answer that question in the affirmative for Quatro. The editor of the student literary journal phoned to tell her they wanted to run one of her submissions.

“I ran out the door – I’m a runner – and ran to the soccer fields to find my husband,” she recalled. “He was in the MBA program, playing soccer against law students. And I just couldn’t wait to tell him.

“It’s funny. Around that time, I got a phone call that I’d been accepted into the Ph.D. program at Princeton, and it felt great. But it was not the same feeling as getting that story accepted. It was a seminal moment for me.”

From a practical standpoint, Quatro counseled the audience to (Nugget No. 6) submit stories simultaneously to several literary magazines, often considered a no-no.

“It’s a numbers game,” she said, reminding the audience that the professional thing to do is alert the editor to that fact in the cover letter and, once sold, to notify them that you are withdrawing your work.

Nugget No. 7 is to make sure that your manuscript is “really, really, really, really ready before you send a query letter to an agent. You get one shot to sell it.”

Nugget No. 8 focused on stability.

“If you can become a ‘house author’ and stay with one publisher, do it,” she said.

The cover of Quatro's short storiesNugget No. 9 was simple to say, difficult to do.

“Work on your next book while your first one is still underway.”

Quatro finished the seminar by cautioning authors not to be too haughty about their work.

Nugget No. 10: “During editing, know what to hold loosely and what to fight for.”

I Want To Show You More was not the original title for her short stories, but Quatro ultimately compromised.

However, Nugget No. 11 is “Don’t be afraid to set boundaries with the publisher.” Quatro fought for, and won, the right to keep a particular short story in the book, and has never regretted that decision.

Quatro’s Nugget No. 12: “Support your independent bookstores. These are the people who will keep art alive.”

Later, she reminisced about returning to W&M and the impact the university had on her life.

“Writing began for me here, in Tucker Hall,” she said. “I had a study (office) and I would go in there to study Victorian literature, American literature, (James) Joyce and (Virginia) Woolf, and find myself yearning to write my own fiction. So I wrote my first short story on the main floor of Tucker Hall.

“I think one of the biggest gifts William & Mary gave me was that I was required to read, broadly, all of ‘The Canon” in two years, and then I was tested on all of that reading in my comprehensive examination. I don’t think I could be the writer I am today without having had the experience in the masters program at William & Mary.”