Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Writing Wisdom From Jo March and Louisa May Alcott- Little Women, Chapter Twenty-Seven

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

This past summer I listened to the audio book of Little Women. This was the first time I'd enjoyed the story as an adult (who happens to be an author), and I was enthralled by all of Jo's scenes that involved the writing world she threw herself into, heart and soul. So enthralled that I wanted to pull you all into the discussion as well. I shall make my way through chapter twenty-seven, posting blurbs of each. But if you wish to read the whole, click here where you can do so.


Every few weeks [Jo] would shut herself up in her room, put on her scribbling suit, and ‘fall into a vortex,’ as she expressed it, writing away at her novel with all her heart and soul, for till that was finished she could find no peace. Her ‘scribbling suit’ consisted of a black woolen pinafore on which she could wipe her pen at will, and a cap of the same material, adorned with a cheerful red bow, into which she bundled her hair when the decks were cleared for action. This cap was a beacon to the inquiring eyes of her family, who during these periods kept their distance, merely popping in their heads semi-occasionally to ask, with interest, “Does genius burn, Jo?” They did not always venture even to ask this question, but took an observation of the cap, and judged accordingly. If this expressive article of dress was drawn low upon the forehead, it was a sign that hard work was going on, in exciting moments it was pushed rakishly askew, and when despair seized the author it was plucked wholly off, and cast upon the floor, and cast upon the floor. At such times the intruder silently withdrew, and not until the red bow was seen gaily erect upon the gifted brow, did anyone dare address Jo.

What does your writing space look like? Do you have any special clothing you wear when you write? Does your family check in or know to keep their distance?

[Jo] did not think herself a genius by any means, but when the writing fit came on, she gave herself up to it with entire abandon, and led a blissful life, unconscious of want, care, or bad weather, while she sat safe and happy in an imaginary world, full of friends almost as real and dear to her as any in the flesh. Sleep forsook her eyes, meals stood untasted, day and night were all too short to enjoy the happiness which blessed her only at such times, and made these hours worth living, even if they bore no other fruit. The divine afflatus usually lasted a week or two, and then she emerged from her “vortex,” hungry, sleepy, cross, or despondent.

How often does “the writing fit” come upon you? Does it look similar to Jo’s or different? Have you ever gone without showers or meals because you were lost in a fit of writing?


On [Jo’s] right, her only neighbor was a studious looking lad absorbed in a newspaper. It was a pictorial sheet, and Jo examined the work of art nearest her, idly wondering what fortuitous concatenation of circumstances needed the melodramatic illustration of an Indian in full war costume, tumbling over a precipice with a wolf at his throat, while two infuriated young gentlemen, with unnaturally small feet and big eyes, were stabbing each other close by, and a disheveled female was flying away in the background with her mouth wide open. Pausing to turn a page, the lad saw her looking and, with boyish good nature offered half his paper, saying bluntly, “Want to read it? That’s a first-rate story.”

Jo accepted it with a smile, for she had never outgrown her liking for lads, and soon found herself involved in the usual labyrinth of love, mystery, and murder, for the story belonged to that class of light literature in which the passions have a holiday, and when the author’s invention fails, a grand catastrophe clears the stage of one half the dramatis personae, leaving the other half to exult over their downfall.

“Prime, isn’t it?” asked the boy, as her eye went down the last paragraph of her portion.

“I think you and I could do as well as that if we tried,” returned Jo, amused at his admiration of the trash.

“I should think I was a pretty lucky chap if I could. She makes a good living out of such stories, they say.” And he pointed to the name of Mrs. S.L.A.N.G. Northbury, under the title of the tale.

“Do you know her?” asked Jo, with sudden interest.

“No, but I read all her pieces, and I know a fellow who works in the office where this paper is printed.”

“Do you say she makes a good living out of stories like this?” And Jo looked more respectfully at the agitated group and thickly sprinkled exclamation points that adorned the page.

“Guess she does! She knows just what folks like, and gets paid well for writing it.”

Here the lecture began, but Jo heard very little of it, for while Professor Sands was prosing away about Belzoni, Cheops, scarabs, and hieroglyphics, she was covertly taking down the address of the paper, and boldly resolving to try for the hundred-dollar prize offered in its columns for a sensational story. By the time the lecture ended and the audience awoke, she had built up a splendid fortune for herself (not the first founded on paper), and was already deep in the concoction of her story, being unable to decide whether the duel should come before the elopement or after the murder.

I love that Jo thinks this story trash, then runs off to write some of her own when she discovers how much money could be made by writing the same. Have you ever been tempted to write in a genre just because it sells well? Have you ever daydreamed your own “sensational” success? When did you first think of trying to get published to be paid? Share in the comments.


[Jo] said nothing of her plan at home, but fell to work next day, much to the disquiet of her mother, who always looked a little anxious when ‘genius took to burning.’ Jo had never tried this style before, contenting herself with very mild romances for The Spread Eagle. Her experience and miscellaneous reading were of service now, for they gave her some idea of dramatic effect, and supplied plot, language, and costumes. Her story was as full of desperation and despair as her limited acquaintance with those uncomfortable emotions enabled her to make it, and having located it in Lisbon, she wound up with an earthquake, as a striking and appropriate denouement. The manuscript was privately dispatched, accompanied by a note, modestly saying that if the tale didn’t get the prize, which the writer hardly dared expect, she would be very glad to receive any sum it might be considered worth.

Jo studied the publication she planned to submit to, understood how the stories needed to be written to be published, then worked hard creating her own. She did her homework! She even wrote a cover letter in the form of her note. Where did you submit your first piece for publication? Did yours contain a cover letter too?


Six weeks is a long time to wait, and a still longer time for a girl to keep a secret, but Jo did both, and was just beginning to give up all hope of ever seeing her manuscript again, when a letter arrived which almost took her breath away, for on opening it, a check for a hundred dollars fell into her lap. For a minute she stared at it as if it had been a snake, then she read her letter and began to cry. If the amiable gentleman who wrote that kindly note could have known what intense happiness he was giving a fellow creature, I think he would devote his leisure hours, if he has any, to that amusement, for Jo valued the letter more than the money, because it was encouraging, and after years of effort it was so pleasant to find that she had learned to do something, though it was only to write a sensation story.
Ah, the wait. Many of us writers have experienced this, and it's simply awful! I loved that even back in the mid-to-late 1800s authors went through much of the same things we do today. And then she gets an acceptance! What fun. If you’ve been published by a company or won a contest, share your story of getting the news in the comments. Did you cry? I'm pretty sure I did.

A prouder young woman was seldom seen than [Jo], when, having composed herself, she electrified the family by appearing before them with the letter in one hand, the check in the other, announcing that she had won the prize. Of course there was a great jubilee, and when the story came everyone read and praised it, though after her father had told her that the language was good, the romance fresh and hearty, and the tragedy quite thrilling, he shook his head, and said in his unworldly way...
“You can do better than this, Jo. Aim at the highest, and never mind the money.”
Have you received criticism from a friend or loved one that hurt? What did you do with it? Was that person right or mistaken?

Having copied her novel for the fourth time, [Jo] read it to all her confidential friends, and submitted it with fear and trembling to three publishers, she at last disposed of it, on condition that she would cut it down one third, and omit all the parts which she particularly admired.  
“Now I must either bundle it back in to my tin kitchen to mold, pay for printing it myself, or chop it up to suit purchasers and get what I can for it. Fame is a very good thing to have in the house, but cash is more convenient, so I wish to take the sense of the meeting on this important subject,” said Jo, calling a family council.
“Don’t spoil your book, my girl, for there is more in it than you know, and the idea is well worked out. Let it wait and ripen,” was her father’s advice, and he practiced what he preached, having waited patiently thirty years for fruit of his own to ripen, and being in no haste to gather it even now when it was sweet and mellow.
“It seems to me that Jo will profit more by taking the trial than by waiting,” said Mrs. March. “Criticism is the best test of such work, for it will show her both unsuspected merits and faults, and help her to do better next time. We are too partial, but the praise and blame of outsiders will prove useful, even if she gets but little money.”
“Yes,” said Jo, knitting her brows, “that’s just it. I’ve been fussing over the thing so long, I really don’t know whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent. It will be a great help to have cool, impartial persons take a look at it, and tell me what they think of it.”
“I wouldn’t leave a word out of it. You’ll spoil it if you do, for the interest of the story is more in the minds than in the actions of the people, and it will be all a muddle if you don’t explain as you go on,” said Meg, who firmly believed that this book was the most remarkable novel ever written.
“But Mr. Allen says, ‘Leave out the explanations, make it brief and dramatic, and let the characters tell the story’,” interrupted Jo, turning to the publisher’s note.
“Do as he tells you. He knows what will sell, and we don’t. Make a good, popular book, and get as much money as you can. By-and-by, when you’ve got a name, you can afford to digress, and have philosophical and metaphysical people in your novels,” said Amy, who took a strictly practical view of the subject.
“Well,” said Jo, laughing, “if my people are ‘philosophical and metaphysical’, it isn’t my fault, for I know nothing about such things, except what I hear father say, sometimes. If I’ve got some of his wise ideas jumbled up with my romance, so much the better for me. Now, Beth, what do you say?”
“I should so like to see it printed soon,” was all Beth said, and smiled in saying it. But there was an unconscious emphasis on the last word, and a wistful look in the eyes that never lost their childlike candor, which chilled Jo’s heart for a minute with a foreboding fear, and decided her to make her little venture “soon.”
So, with Spartan firmness, the young authoress laid her first-born on her table, and chopped it up as ruthlessly as any ogre. In the hope of pleasing everyone, she took everyone’s advice, and like the old man and his donkey in the fable suited nobody.

I love reading all the advice that came from her family, and again, it's not all that different today. I've heard the very same things in my own writing journey, well over a century later! Have you been here? In that place where you know your story needs something, but you don't know what. So you ask everyone, get a myriad of conflicting advice, and do your best to please everyone? And in the process, you strip your book of everything that is uniquely you. I have. And it's frustrating, because you desperately want to learn to strengthen your own writing, but trying to please every reader isn't the right way to go about it.

There was much to discuss in this chapter and I hope we get a nice discussion going in the comment section about how each of our experiences relate with Jo's, even though she lived in a different place and time.


  1. How I love this advice. Jo is one of my writer inspirations :D I'm doing a Little Women readlong in February and I am so excited to re read this book :)

    1. Oh, it's so much fun, Stefanie! Enjoy it!

  2. Thank you for highlighting one of the reasons I love Little Women so!
    I can't relate to all Jo's experiences- particularly not those to do with publishing- but some I can. Criticism from those I respect, for instance. I make good use of it (my parents are my primary editors, at the moment at least), but sometimes one of them will (for good reason) cut my story to bits and it's not fun. :P
    I don't have a writing "outfit" so to speak, but if I'm writing, I'm hooked up by earbuds to a computer/phone/iPod and have a notebook in my lap, so it's pretty easy to tell. Most of my family does know not to disturb me unless it's important, but . . . my dad's definition of "important" is sometimes different than mine. :P And no one will let me skip meals to write . . . which is probably just as well.

    1. LOL! Love that, Sarah. Thanks for sharing. I can totally picture you now. My husband doesn't let me skip meals, either, but there have been many times when he brings me lunch and sets it on my desk. He's so nice!!!

  3. I have this hat I got vacationing in DC, with "NCIS" on the front. That's Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which is a real government agency and also my all-time fav tv show. (Helps get the ideas flowing too! My genre is psychological/epic thriller)
    I'll wear that hat sometimes, and I find a carbonated drink helps fire the synapses. Usually Dr Pepper or this lemon-flavored soda we get at the store sometimes.

    My first experience with real criticism was when I entered ACFW's First Impressions contest I did pretty well, two of three judges really loved my entry (they told me so), and gave me some advice for improvement... The third didn't, and she was quite brutal. I don't mean constructive brutal, a writer friend of my mom's confirmed for me she was being really rude. I had to eat some ice cream while I waited for my heart rate to dip back below 230 bpm... Then I watched an episode of NCIS.
    They all had good points, though, and i did take some of their suggestions into account.
    I think my work is better thanks to it.

    1. Oh, man. I so get that about contest judges. Some people should NOT be contest judges. They totally miss the point of their role when they behave in such a way. I'm sorry you went through that. I know many others who have too, and it's sad.

      I LOVE that you love NCIS and wear an NCIS hat. I love that show too. This is awesome. Thanks for sharing! :-)

  4. I don't have one particular writing space or outfit (though I really want one now), but if I'm at my computer and typing, I tend to get left alone. And if I'm handwriting a novel, I normally write up in my bed where it's quiet. Living with five siblings (all younger than me) can get noisy :D.
    I have not yet skipped meals because of writing, but if it wasn't for my family, I bet I would have!
    I have definitely daydreamed about my own 'sensational' success, though the more logical part of my brain says my daydreams are a bit, um ... unrealistic. But hey, who says I need to listen to the logical part of my brain? :D

    1. I never listen to the logical part of my brain. Ha ha. What will you choose for your new writing outfit, I wonder?

  5. Oh my goodness! That first passage up there about Jo and her hat and her own little writing escape! I'd forgotten how much I loved Little Women. I can totally relate to that flurry of energy when you are desperately inspired. I don't have special clothes, but 90% of the time I'm wearing my 49ers lazy pants and hoodie. I wash them a lot.

    1. Ha ha. I can totally picture you in that outfit, Shan!