Author Interview – Sherwood Smith

Photo provided by Sherwood Smith


I first picked up Sherwood Smith’s CROWN DUEL when I was in middle school, and was immediately drawn into her world and characters. Meliara is a captivating protagonist, who is feisty but also vulnerable. I remember staring for hours at the old cover, the one where Meliara stares out at the reader, as I pictured myself in her world.

The book has deservedly garnered a number of awards: it was nominated for ALA/YASLA Best Books for Young Adults, named to the ALA/YASLA Quick Pick List for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, and named one of NY Public Library Best Books for Teens in their 1998 list, among other accolades.


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And CROWN DUEL is not Sherwood Smith’s only big success: she has written dozens of other novels in a variety of genres, including fantasy, science fiction, and historical romance. Sherwood has won the Nebula Award for Best Short Story for her work “Mom and Dad at the Home Front,” her book WREN’S WAR was named an Anne Spencer Lindbergh Honor Book, among many other accolades. I’m very happy to share this interview with Sherwood Smith and get her advice on careers in publishing and writing:


1. What is some of the best advice you’ve received about writing/publishing?

The best advice I got about writing, I actually received when I was fifteen years old, from Andre Norton, who answered fan letters personally. She said to read history. Get outside of the US-centric view. (This was particularly important in the days when history was taught so very US-centric, when I was a kid.) The best *publishing* advice I got that might be useful to writers now (things have changed so very much) was : learn to rewrite, and get an agent if you are no good at marketing yourself.


2. What is some of the worst advice you’ve received about writing/publishing? 

“Write and sent something as quickly as possible. That’s what professionals do.” That was terrible advice. The last thing any editor wants to see is a flood of half-baked first drafts, which the writer might think are ready, after coming off the intensity of writing. Of course all processes are different, but I discovered it’s best to let a draft sit for a while, then read it with fresh eyes, and if possible get someone who is NOT a family member/best friend/lover to read it. Preferably someone who knows something about writing, but even a person who knows nothing about writing can offer feedback like, “Chapter two confused me,” and “I didn’t really get excited until chapter ten.”

Another piece of terrible advice that I got early on was to write a long query letter all about myself and the book. “Be personal!” The last thing any editor wants to read is pages dully describing the plot of your book (which will inevitably sound like other books out there), or your long history of writing when you were a kid, how many things you sent out, blah blah. Learning to write a short, tight query letter in the voice of the book, and include only interesting personal details (I am also a jet fighter pilot: to write about my travel story, I walked the Great Wall of China when I was nineteen: that kind of thing), and never, ever tell them how many drafts you wrote.


3. What is one resource (whether it’s a writing tool, book discovery tool, community forum, etc.) that you think is valuable for writers that not everyone may know about?

One writing resource is Absolute Write, online. Connected to that is Writer Beware, which lists scam agents and “editorial houses” that are there to rip off unwary writers.


4. What is something that surprised you about your career path?

That it’s a roller coaster, with downs as well as ups. Basically, most of us have to reinvent ourselves over and over. Some even change their names.


5. What is one book–fiction or nonfiction–that you would recommend writers pick up?

That is a tough one, because so much depends on the writer, what they write, how they write, where they are in their career. I can’t winnow down useful books to a single title: I love reading autobiographies by writers to see how other writer minds worked, and how they felt about publishing at the time (I love Anthony Trollope’s, for instance, but L.M. Montgomery’s journals are utterly fascinating), then there are alien minds, or how other writers, who are totally different from me in outlook and work, think about writing and literature, such as Vladimir Nabokov’s LECTURES ON LITERATURE. There are also interesting think books on how and why we read, and how they think narrative voices work, by people like Lisa Zunshine, Mark Turner, and James Wood. Even when I disagree totally, they make me think about what I am doing.

As for fiction that I reread a lot . . . Jane Austen, J.R.R. Tolkien, Patrick O’Brian.


Here are the ways you can connect with Sherwood!

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Find her on Goodreads.

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