How a writer makes something of herself

Eight years ago, Therese Fowler was getting an English degree at N.C. State University, and she signed up for John Kessel's survey course of science fiction.

"Instead of a final term paper," Kessel recalls, "she asked if she could try her hand at writing a science fiction story, and I said yes."

Fowler says: "I recall my story was about a family traveling ... while terra-forming Venus or something. Dr. Kessel was very polite."

"Well, I'm not sure a future in science fiction could be predicted from that paper, but she sure could write," Kessel says. "I told her to sign up for a creative writing workshop and, as they say, the rest is history."

She earned a place in NCSU's master's program in creative writing, and then a bump up to the Master of Fine Arts when that degree program began in 2003.

"I took five semesters of fiction writing," Fowler says. "I had no creative writing background whatsoever ... It was an intense learning curve."

I led one of those workshops on novel-writing and I remember Fowler and her work ethic. Writing workshops can be equal parts support group and firing squad. My abiding memory of our workshop was Fowler, charmingly, persistently defending her vision against some often-reasonable objection to how she was proceeding. The dust would settle, a few weeks would go by, and the next time we saw the novel, it would seem to be completely rewritten.

She got rid of an entire second narrator and plot strand -- half of the book! She had written interestingly about an evangelist who sought to use the other characters to publicize herself and her televised ministries ... it all went in the trash when she saw it distracted from the main story. (And I recall the workshop liking that part!)

I have rarely met a writer more willing -- after a spirited public defense or two, mind you -- to take on board good criticism, keep what was working well, toss a few hundred pages in the trash, and get going from scratch again.

I am often asked what the "secret" is. What is the magical thing that writers who go on to get published possess -- and would I be so kind to pass that secret along?

I can, indeed, tell you what it is: Every student writer I have had the privilege of encountering who has gone on to publish has been willing to work like a galley slave, redrafting, reconceiving, rewriting from scratch again and again until they got it right. I've never worked with any student who was lazy and made it anyway. Time at the keyboard is the most important quality -- and Therese Fowler has some of the most invincible typing fingers around.