All Authors Should Read This Book – The Essie Summers Story

This is the autobiography of Essie Summers, a New Zealand writer of wholesome romances and the wife of a hard working minister who wrote over fifty novels that were published between 1957 and 1997. She also wrote poetry, short stories, articles and a newspaper column. The volume of her published work is immense. For that alone, Essie Summers deserves respect. It’s also important to remember that she was writing while at the same time bringing up a family, working as a minister’s wife (which is not an easy position) and often working in a shop or office as well. Those stories caught the imagination of readers so much that there are still die hard fans republishing her work on Kindle twenty five years after she died in 1998. From that point of view alone, any writer should be interested in her work and how she achieved such consistently excellent stories.

This autobiography isn’t a book about ‘how to write’. It is, on the surface, a straightforward, chatty account of the author’s life. Essie Summers writes about her childhood, the challenges that she faced and how she grew and lived. She talks about a trip from her home in New Zealand over to the UK and Europe, her family life and the wonderful people she met. I have never read an autobiography with such little ego in it. It is a joyous account of life, filled and brimming over with an appreciation of words, people and the world around her. There is so much about Essie Summers finding the good in people – and all in a natural, honest way. It is perhaps the most unaffected account of life I’ve come across. She had some tough times and difficult moments, but rather than wallowing, she looks outward and onward and carries on.

This book isn’t a structured, carefully curated account. You can settle down with this book and feel like you are listening to an informal conversation. The punctuation is idiosyncratic, the style is informally cosy and it is so easy to relax and watch Essie Summers’ life unfold, knowing that you are listening to a kind and generous woman. She is welcoming you into her memories with all of her highs and lows.

All authors and those who want to be authors should read this book and read it carefully. In between the stories about struggles with stoves and worries about her children are swathes of great writing advice. Next to, and part of, the stories of the minor triumphs and disasters of everyday life there are accounts of jotting things down in notebooks, recording details, scheduling time to write, approaching publishers, research, editing and writing even more. She wrote about the discipline and demands. Essie Summers didn’t put time aside to be a writer. She was a writer all the time and it is woven through all her life. She was always ready to make a note when inspiration struck or when she needed to remember a fact. She was always aware of the world. If you read any of her stories, you are struck by the detailed and glorious description and the crisp, natural dialogue. You can only get those by doing as Essie Summers did – pay attention to what is around you and look at things as a writer. And when you are looking – make the darned notes! This book shows the way Essie Summers lived as a writer and it is a wonderful example for us trying to follow that path.

Image from Unsplash, taken by Glenn Carstens-Peters

In this Kindle edition, Ken Pierce has gathered together a wonderful selection of extra material with the help and blessing of Essie Summers’ family and friends. It takes up almost half of the book and is well worth dipping into. There are some reminiscences, a short story from the start of Essie Summers’ career and a chapter entitled ‘A Few Practical Hints on Preparing a Novel’. Many of the hints apply to the days when books were either handwritten or typed on a manual typewriter, and they make me utterly grateful for the privilege of access to a word processor. I am old enough to have fought with carbon paper, and I always came second. It is only a small part of the work it can seem dated, especially the parts about presenting the typed manuscript.

Don’t skip these paragraphs! In them you have a wonderful example of professionalism and efficiency. Essie Summers, in the brief note written to her daughter, clearly explained that you gave your manuscript the best chance of reaching the publisher and laid out the work to make it as easy for the publisher as possible. An author may no longer use manila envelopes or take carbon copies of a piece of writing. It’s no longer expected to double tap after a period or full stop. However it’s still vital that you approach a publisher professionally and send your writing to the address stated, whether it’s to an email address, a submission form or even via the postal service. It is equally vital that you send your submission using the layout requested, whether using Shunn format, double spacing, single spacing, or whatever is requested in a call for submissions. Essie Summers understood that these details were important and while the tech may have changed from fountain pen to email, the need for a professional approach is still vital.

Above all, for a writer, this is the best, most perfect, most exact example of someone doing ‘show don’t tell’. Essie Summers shows what it means to be a successful, widely published, much loved author and all the work involved. I will be reading and re-reading this so many times to keep myself on the writing straight-and-narrow. It’s also a lovely, warming, wholesome read which I fully recommend.

Disclosure – I helped with the proof reading, although Ken Pierce had it pretty nailed down, as he is awesome and so are the other wonderful people who are involved with the Essie Summers Project. The reason I got involved was because of my love of Essie Summers’ books and my respect for her as an author. I wish that I was more like her.

6 thoughts on “All Authors Should Read This Book – The Essie Summers Story

  1. You know, I hadn’t thought of TESS in that light, not being a professional author…but it’s a great point. While she is chatting away about her life, she says a very great deal indeed about being a successful professional writer, because writing WAS such an essential component of who she was. “Essie Summers didn’t put time aside to be a writer. She was a writer all the time and it is woven through all her life.” — that is absolutely true and a great way to express it.

    Good review, in that the next time I read TESS I will read it a bit differently thanks to this review. Well done!

    1. Thank you for such a lovely comment! I’m glad that I could give a little extra dimension for you. You are a hero for all that you have done

  2. I was also a proof reader and although I’m not a writer – and have no ambitions in that direction – I agree with everything you said. I found the book gripping and really felt like I was sitting down with Essie to hear her story. I’m just sorry I never had the opportunity to meet her in person, although I feel I have some knowledge of her through her writing.

    1. Yes, it felt so homely and safe and fascinating. I felt that I had just met a wonderful human being. I really wish I was more like her.

      Thank you.

    2. Anne, in one of the Afterwords (Sweet Are the Ways I think) I compared the main character to Essie herself and drew out the similarities based on my image of Essie based solely and 100% on her books. But I didn’t want to do her an injustice; so I sent the thing to Bill and Liz and said something like, “I didn’t really know your mum and I’m sure I’ve got something wrong so please let me know what.”

      Liz emailed back, “Are you SURE you and mum weren’t best friends in a previous life? Because you have got her to a T.”

      And my response was something like, “It’s not really that impressive — ANYONE who wants to can get to know your mum as well as I do. You just open her books and there she is.”

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