Writing Tips: How I Got Started
I’ve been writing since I was about eleven years old. By the time I was twelve, I knew that I wanted to do it for a living when I grew up. When I was fourteen, I got my first job — working as a clown — for the sole purpose of making enough money to buy a typewriter. Trust me, it was a huge sacrifice. Every day I would put on this floppy clown suit, complete with clown make-up, big feet and bald head, and I would stand out in front of shopping centers giving away free balloons to promote the company I worked for. It was humiliating, but I really wanted that typewriter!
When I bought my typewriter — a little manual Brother typewriter — I started sending out my short stories for publication. Someone told me to get a current copy of Writer’s Market, and it was like gold to me. It was full of information about publishers, with information on how and where to submit. I also subscribed to two magazines: Writer’s Digest and The Writer. By reading those voraciously from month to month, I learned about the business of writing, and the proper way to make submissions.
I immediately began getting rejection slips, but that was okay. I knew from my reading that it wasn’t easy to get published, and I figured that every rejection put me one step closer to publication. I literally could have papered a bathroom with all the rejections I got. But I kept trying.
When I went to college, I majored in English, and studied the classics. Through writing college papers, I learned how to do research and how to organize my thoughts in a concise way. College was a valuable experience for me. I did a lot of writing in college, and began to think that someday I might be able to move from short stories to novel-writing.
Not long after graduating from college, I began trying to write my first novel. I found a group of writers who lived about two hours from me. It was worth the drive to go meet with them once a month. We critiqued each other’s work, rooted one another on, and celebrated when one of us sold. Within a few years, almost all of us were published. Eventually, we were each so busy with deadlines that we had to stop critiquing each other’s work, but we remain good friends to this day. I don’t belong to any critiquing groups anymore, and I’m too busy to critique manuscripts for anyone else, but I do keep close relationships with other writers. I find that few people understand me quite like another writer does.
But I digress. In 1983, when I had my first book finished, I packed my manuscript up and began attending writer’s conferences. I looked for those that had agents and editors attending. So many publishers don’t take unsolicited manuscripts (manuscripts that come in through the mail, without an agent), so I knew that if I could “pitch” my story to an editor face to face and get him or her to ask to see it, then it was no longer unsolicited. That worked. I was able to interest some editors and an agent, and they asked to see it. I sent it to them… then waited.
If you’ve ever tried getting published, you know how excruciating the waiting can be! It sometimes takes months to hear back, and if the answer is no, all those months are wasted. But I determined not to waste them. The best way for me to pass the time was to write another novel. Well, I eventually did get a rejection on that first book, but by then my second one was finished. I quickly sent it out, and that one sold! I was now a published novelist.
Since that time, I’ve continued to publish steadily. No, publishers haven’t bought everything I’ve proposed, and I do have some manuscripts sitting on the shelf collecting dust. (Thank goodness they never sold — they’re not very good!) But I don’t let rejection knock me down. I just keep writing.
The best piece of advice I ever got about writing is this: Don’t get it right, get it written.
I used to rewrite the first three chapters over and over, agonizing over every word, and finally I would lose interest in the story and start something else. Once I understood the “don’t get it right” advice, I decided to write the first draft straight through without judgment, without going back and fixing things, without trying to wax poetic or even get very creative. Once that first draft is finished, then I start getting creative. I may take the manuscript through ten, eleven, twelve drafts before it’s ready for publication. The final draft doesn’t even look like the first one.
In fact, my husband has strict orders that, if I die, he’s to burn any first draft I have in progress. I would never want anyone to read it!
Writing Tips: Advice for New Writers
1) Don’t get it right, get it written. I used to spend weeks writing and rewriting the first three chapters, until I heard this bit of advice. Now I write the first draft without judgment, and rewrite extensively on the subsequent drafts. Just having the book on paper–even if it’s terrible–makes the rest of the job seem easier.
2) Attend writer’s conferences, especially the ones that offer you appointments with editors. Be prepared to pitch your idea to them and follow through immediately when they ask to see your manuscript.
3) Join a writer’s group and make friends with other writers who understand you.
4) Don’t talk about your plots to your family, friends, acquaintances. People who talk a lot about their plots usually never wind up writing them.
5) Don’t expect to sell your first book with just a proposal. Write the whole thing, then start submitting it. Even if it doesn’t sell, your work isn’t wasted, because you’ll learn a lot in the process.
6 Be prepared to revise. I still have to revise every single book after my editor sees it. I look forward to his or her input because it always helps me take my book to the next level.
7) If you’re not good with grammar and spelling, take a course. An editor will not even look at your manuscript if you don’t have a good command of the language.
8) Set aside your writing time, and don’t let anything distract you. Don’t do laundry, run errands, set doctor’s appointments, or plan anything else during that time.
9) Put God first, and your family second. Your writing should come somewhere after that. Fame, fortune, and bestsellerdom are not worth anything if you don’t have your priorities straight.
10) Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established. (Proverbs 16:3)
Check out my blog post on how many drafts I write here.
Writing Tips: Resources for Writers
The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style
Writer’s Digest (Available Online and in Print)
Writer’s Market (Available Online and in Print)
The Writer (Available Online and in Print)
Christian Writer’s Market Guide by Sally Stuart (Available Online and in Print, new edition each year)
Writer’s Edge (Manuscript Service)