How did you first get in to writing professionally? I’m a newbie to the craft, though I have been journaling for years… I have several ideas floating around in my head, but am unsure how to get them from mere ideas to something other people would want to read.
Hello newbie writer friend! Thanks for asking how I got into this writing world. My first story was published in the Minneapolis paper when I was in fourth grade, but my writing journey has been long and filled with some heartbreak but lots of encouragement too. For decades I was afraid to write, instead surrounding myself with writers as I acted as their editor. I don’t regret my editing career, and indeed love my one-day-a-week freelance work with Authentic Media. I learned what great writing is; what is happening in the industry; how to write to meet a felt need (argh; do you dislike that language as much as I do?); and so on and so on and so on.
But how did I move from editor to writer? Through heartbreak, initially. I was the UK editor for one of the largest Christian publishers out there. It was my dream job; I was working with amazing authors – the late Rob Lacey, Adrian Plass, Michele Guinness, Conrad Gempf, to name a few. Then the big conglomerate pulled the plug on UK commissioning and they eliminated my job. I thought my world was ending.
But it was the kick on the rear I needed to pursue my writing dream. God provided freelance editorial work, which paid the bills while I explored writing. I was chuffed to get a monthly column with Christian Marketplace for six years, a now-defunct trade journal for Christian publishing, and to start up the Woman Alive book club, which I’ve run for eight years now and love to bits. I got my first commission for devotional writing with New Daylight (Bible Reading notes – I write for BRF, CWR, Living Light and Scripture Union), which is one of my great passions. And much later on, I branched out into writing on the Christian life in Woman Alive and Liberti magazine. More on my first book when I sign the contract, hopefully in this month!
Everyone’s writing journey is different, but here are some tips as you start your journey.
Write, write, write. Writing is hard work, and the best writing is rewriting, rewriting, rewriting. Ernest Hemingway said in an 1958 interview with the Paris Review that he rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times before he was satisfied. The interviewer asked if there was a technical problem; “What was it that stumped you?” He replied, “Getting the words right.”
November is coming up soon, which for writers means Nanowrimo. Do it! I’ve “won” twice and failed once (and no, I didn’t write novels – I wrote whatever came into my head). For me the experience of committing to write 1667 words a day, even if they are crap, was transformative. I found the process (finally) banished my inner editor to the basement. She might knock and scream at the door, but I can more easily ignore her when I’m writing, writing, writing. (She comes in handy later at the all-important rewriting stage, of course.)
Write what only you can. Your unique voice is what will set you apart. Read/watch Neil Gaiman’s “Make Good Art” speech for this point especially. (You can find it free online, but why not splash out for a gorgeous print book, in which the typography itself is a work of art and adds to the engagement with the content.) As he says, “The urge, starting out, is to copy. And that’s not a bad thing. Most of us only find our own voices after we’ve sounded like a lot of other people. But the one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision.”
As a Christian, I find the way God created us all so uniquely, and yet in his image, exciting and mind-blowing. Christ-in-me will result in art that’s different from Christ-in-you, but the universals come through.
Don’t fear failure. Well, you will fear failure, at least I do, but write anyway. Try to develop a thick skin. Not everyone is going to like your type of writing, but hopefully you’ll find your tribe, your clan, who will love to hear what you have to say. Whole websites are devoted to the rejections writers have faced – famous ones included.
Early on when I started to move from editor to writer, I pitched a series of columns for a well-known magazine. Because I was in the industry, I knew the editor and they responded to my initial pitch enthusiastically. I duly cranked out three sample columns and waited with baited breath. The response that came back was crushing, not least because the editor said no; they also said my pieces would fit better in an American magazine that I felt was twee! I nursed my wounds for a bit and then moved on to the writing assignments I did have, which at first were book related (such as book reviews, which I still love writing).
I’ll write about my rejections on the book front later, but know that editors and publishers don’t have super powers to let them know that this piece of writing or that is going to be a big hit. Yes, okay, some things are key, such as great writing, great content, and a huge platform. But books can come out of nowhere and surprise us.
Build your platform. Lots of people address this vital issue in their blogs, so I won’t spend much time here. (Agent blogs are great resources – try Steve Laube, Books & Such, Chip MacGregor.) Discoverability is today’s challenge – how can your readers find you in a crowded marketplace? As an author you need to get out there with social media and in real life, speaking and connecting. In terms of social media, my biggest advice is make it real – people soon tire of authors only selling their wares, who aren’t interested in having a meaningful and two-sided conversation.
Engage with the pros. Take your craft seriously. You can find a lot of free resources online, but nothing beats one-to-one engagement with an industry pro or a writers’ conference. In the UK, I recommend you join ACW, as mentioned above, which holds regular writers’ days, has an active Facebook group, and a regular magazine. Writers’ Essentials is another resource for courses and a place to hire a wise editor.
Hire an editor, you say? Yes, indeed. I hired a fabulous friend to help me with my failed book project. She helped me see what I couldn’t see, especially in terms of structure and voice. Her help was invaluable, and even though that book won’t see the light of day, I don’t regret the investment for a minute. (And yes, I write that as a professional editor myself with some twenty-five years experience!)
So newbie writer, my friend, I hope this helps. Write, write, and write some more. I trust you will find your voice; I trust you will make the world a better place for having crafted your words into prose, poetry, fiction or other format. Let me know how it goes!