Posted On February 6, 2013 by Print This Post

What Does It Take to be a Writer? with Mary Jo Burke

Today we welcome long-time RU supporter Mary Jo Burke who shares the highs and lows of being a writer.   

So glad to have you here, Mary Jo!

With a bow to the late great Dear Abby, I’ve decided to give advice to a young aspiring author. I don’t pretend to all the answers, but I’ve learned a few things along the way. 

Dear MJ,

What does it take to be a writer?


Just wondering


Dear JW,

What does it take? In a word, EVERYTHING. Being a writer means the switch is flipped on. In the middle of the night or a car ride or a grade school band concert, an idea will pop into your head. It has a limited life span. In other words, it demands an immediate response. It won’t be calling back when you have time. Seize it, even if it’s a line that seems meaningless and stupid. Eventually, it will let you know where it fits. Characters are needy and clingy. Ignore them at your peril. I have strategic notebooks stashed around my house and in my car. When you’re in the groove, it doesn’t shut off. Be vigilant and ready.

AllHoursTrading_1When you decide to share your profession with others, don’t expect immediate congratulations. Some see writing as a hobby or a waste of time. Even people who love you may not be impressed. I told a longtime family friend I had published my book. He laughed out loud.  Shocked, I walked away. Ten minutes later, he asked how I went about getting my manuscript into the hands of an editor. He had a story locked in a desk drawer.

Then I laughed.

Even established writers may not be supportive. As a romance writer, I entered many contests sponsored by local RWA chapters. Back in the day, it involved mailing about one hundred pages; four sets of my first chapter, out with SASE enclosed. I dipped a toe into the historical romance pond. Boy, did I get swatted back.

In error or not, the three judges included copies of their personal e-mails. “The worst thing I’ve ever read,” wrote one to the other. The worst I’ve ever read is James Joyce. I guess I’m in good company. Even J K Rowling gets one-star reviews.

This sets up the real life part of writing: rejection. Editors, agents, critique partners, even the love of your life won’t like what you write. Woolly mammoths had the right idea: thick hides and layers of fur to cover bruises and scars. Once you step into the arena, be prepared to withstand a few uppercuts. I sent a query to an agent. According to her website, I should wait five to seven business days for a response. I got a no in four hours.  Another time, I sent the first chapter to an editor. Thumbs down in nineteen minutes. I’ve heard rejections over Twitter can take seconds. Nothing personal, it’s strictly business.

If these points discourage you, do what I did and quit. I threw out all my notes, gave away craft books, and deleted files. I was relieved, until I heard the siren’s song for one more contest. I gave in and didn’t win, place, or show. I sent my thank yous to the judges and considered my career closed. I heard back from two of them. Notes of encouragement, a publisher’s name, and I was on my way.

I signed my fourth book contract this morning.

If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone. Persevere or divide and conquer, pick a side. And never stop writing.

All the best,


p.s. My initials are all I have common with Michael Jordan. Or are they? What if a young woman tries out for an NBA team? She skies and slam dunks over the star player. What if he’s an FBI agent uncover monitoring the franchise owner’s stepson’s money laundering scheme? I’m telling you, this writing thing is addictive.


As writers we’re faced with writer’s block and imposter syndrome, nasty judges’ comments and rejections. How do you cope? Tell us what keeps you tappping on the keyboard



Here’s a blurb on Mary Jo’s MOTHER NATURE’S MAN.

I, Siobhan Bolyn, Goddess of the Flame and Keeper of the Land and Water, must give birth to the next goddess before my three hundredth birthday. My mate must be the preordained champion, so not just any man will do. But where to find a champion in this modern world?  

When Niall Calhoun walks into my life, he’s everything I’ve hoped for. Tall, dark, sweet, and gorgeous: the true four food groups. A mere touch of his hand and my libido roars to life. But is he champion material? 

Meanwhile, dark forces are plotting against me and calling my abilities into question. I’ve got to battle forest fires, soothe the oceans, appease my mother, turn Niall into Mr. Exactly Right, and have a baby in the next year. Can a goddess and her champion handle all that and still find time to fall in love?


Join us on Wednesday, February 8th when Anna Sugden presents Surviving Nearly There.


Bio: Mary Jo Burke writes paranormal, fantasy, and contemporary romance. She lives with her family in the Midwest. For more information on Mary Jo’s books, please visit Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter.

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25 Responses to “What Does It Take to be a Writer? with Mary Jo Burke”

  1. Mary Jo, So great to see you on RU as a Visiting Professor!!!

    Congrats on signing your 4th book contract. Such a great accomplishment.

    What keeps me tapping on the keys? Everything. For every negative thing in publishing, there are a dozen different positive and uplifting reasons to write. I have met so many incredibly supportive and kind people in the the romance community. They keep me alive and striving to better and better myself.

    I love writing, the community, the readers, librarians, bloggers…

    Congrats again! So incredibly happy for you!


    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | February 6, 2013, 5:54 am
  2. Thanks for the words of wisdom and encouragement, Mary Jo. Also, congratulations on your latest book contract! Woo Hoo!

    You’re so right–it’s a great idea to keep writing materials stashed in convenient places because you never know when the inspiration might hit and if you wait too long, it might be gone 😉

    Congratulations on your debut here at RU!

    Posted by Pamala Knight | February 6, 2013, 7:42 am
  3. Your story is the perfect example of advice I always give: If you can quit, do. Somehow, the real writers can’t quit. Congratulations on being one of them!

    Posted by Blythe Gifford | February 6, 2013, 7:53 am
  4. Thank you so much for sharing your story, Mary Jo. It will inspire so many writers.

    What keeps me writing? The characters who wake me up at 4 a.m. begging to tell their stories.

    Congratulations on your 4th book!

    Posted by Christy Farmer | February 6, 2013, 8:13 am
  5. Morning Mary Jo!

    It’s so nice seeing you giving the lecture today! =) Congrats on your books – and best of luck on sales!

    I have a pocket/desk full of cocktail napkins with little snippets on them of story ideas/dialogue/names I want to use (I work in a restaurant). I try to transcribe them into my “ideas” file when I get home along with a little description as to what story it should go in…but I admit I’m way behind. And occasionally a few make it into the washing machine in my pants pocket and never see the light of day again. Those ones are lost forever….

    What keeps me going? Friends offering encouragement. My brain that won’t turn off. Just an inner drive that’s been pushing for three years now….one that’s getting louder and louder. =)

    Thanks for a great column Mary Jo!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | February 6, 2013, 8:46 am
  6. Great post MJ! I’m an MJ too 😉
    As an actress, you’d think I’d be comfortable with rejection (or at least numb to it) – having suffered the slings and arrows of many an audition…but somehow my writing is more personal, and the rejection cuts deeper. I keep going though – and stories like yours strengthen my resolve, so thank you so very much for sharing.
    Also – the lines and bits of stories that come anytime /anywhere…YES! Having lost too many ideas by not capturing them on paper soon enough, I started e-mailing myself from my phone, since that seems to be the only thing I always have on me 😉

    Posted by Melonie Johnson | February 6, 2013, 9:19 am
  7. Good morning, MJ! I loved this post. It made me laugh out loud at times.

    I tried to quit once. Two weeks later I got a book deal. I think that’s the way this business works. It waits for us to get so frustrated that we don’t know what to do and then something fantastic happens.

    Those fantastic moments are what keep me going. When I’m sitting at the keyboard creating characters and situations that will drive them crazy, I’m in heaven. There’s no better feeling for me and that’s what I always remind myself when I’m feeling down.

    Thanks for being with us and congrats on your new contract!

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | February 6, 2013, 10:07 am
  8. I need to take your advice about stashing notebooks in various places. I often get a great idea/piece of dialogue popping into my head at the most inopportune moment…then it is GONE.

    Congratulations on your success and best of luck for your future.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Posted by jamie beck | February 6, 2013, 10:22 am
  9. You’re so right about the addiction. I always seem to get my best ideas just before I go to sleep or in the middle of the night. I now keep a notepad by my bed and scribble enough to make me remember the rest. One suggestion: If you get an idea while driving, for all our sakes, Pull Over and into a parking lot! LOLOL

    Posted by Ann Macela | February 6, 2013, 10:22 am
  10. Hello, Mary Jo!

    I have notebooks all over the house, too. I jot down ideas that pop into my head on the back of a receipt and sometimes, when I’m watching a movie I hit the pause button to scribble a thought. Writers understand this type of behavior. 🙂 I’ve got a giant folder of articles I’ve printed from newspapers ranging from murders to men’s grooming because I know that one day, these crazy bits will make it into a book.

    Thanks for your support of RU and for blogging with us today!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | February 6, 2013, 2:25 pm
  11. Great post, Mary Jo! Isn’t it funny how so many people seem to have no appreciation for the difficulty of not only writing a book, but also submitting it after slogging through the query and synopsis-writing process?

    I can see it now – a new reality show called “America’s Next Hot Writer.” Only thing is, I don’t think there are any shortcuts or magic formulas to writing a successful book.

    I’m sorry about your bad experience with the contest circuit. My critique partners and I have had both good and bad experiences with contests. I don’t think it hurts to enter, but I’m not sure how useful contests are when your goal is to sell. They do help you develop a thick skin, that’s for sure!

    Congratulations on your new release and good luck with your writing career!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | February 6, 2013, 4:32 pm
  12. Thanks Becke!

    Many people have finished manuscripts. Waiting to find the right editor is nerve wracking. I like your idea for the reality show!

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | February 6, 2013, 4:58 pm
  13. A big thank you to Mary Jo for blogging with us today. Many thanks to those of you who dropped in and commented!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | February 6, 2013, 9:37 pm
  14. Thanks again RU!!!

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | February 7, 2013, 10:32 am
  15. Excellent post! To a thick hide, I’d add discipline and tenacity. Being a writer also means not being afraid to say “no,” often, to be protective of your writing time and energy.

    Thanks for a solid post!


    Posted by Dario Ciriello | February 17, 2013, 11:39 am

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