Photo: a NANGIE group Nancy and I taught in Philly.

If this is Thursday (and I never know when you’re reading this), I’m finishing up a week at the Blue Ridge Christian Writers’ Conference at Ridgecrest, North Carolina. I always enjoy teaching at conferences because I love teaching and I love seeing my writer friends. Waking up in the beautiful Blue Ridge mountains isn’t bad, either. 🙂

I am always a little amazed when I go to writers’ conferences and see how many people want to write novels. When I teach, it’s my job to be encouraging, but I also know the statistics–the last figures I heard indicate that the vast majority of all freelance writers in this country learn less than $5,000 per year from writing. It’s not easy to break in and it’s also hard to maintain and improve your quality.

Ignorant as I was, when I went to my first conference as a student, I thought everyone there would be a published, working writer. Not so. The Maass conference I attended was geared toward “midlist writers,” so I assumed the majority of participants would be multi-published. Again, not so.

I’ve come to the conclusion–which may or may not be right, because it’s simply based on my experience–that a lot of people want to start writing with one of the hardest forms to master, the novel.

If you’ve read my story on my web page, you know that I started writing out of desperation. A friend told me I “had a way with words,” and I’d been an English lit major. My husband was a youth pastor and I desperately needed to help pay the mortgage. But because I wanted to stay home with my babies, I turned to writing. And in the beginning–and for five YEARS–I wrote whatever people would pay me to write: brochures, business letters, catalog copy, ads. Then I branched into magazine articles.

Then one day, on a whim, I read about a contest for unpublished picture book writers. I ran to the library and got a a book about how to write picture books, I followed the guidelines, and wrote a story in about twenty minutes. An artist friend supplied three sketches (required by the contest), and we sent our package off. A few months later, we learned that we’d won. First prize–publication. Why? I think it’s because I followed the rules. Really. You’d be amazed how many people don’t.

I moved from picture books (which are probably the second hardest thing to write well!) into middle grade fiction and nonfiction. And then my editor said, “Why don’t you try adult novels?” and I shrugged and said, “Okay.” And that’s where I’ve discovered my chief joy and challenge.

When I go to writers’ conferences, however, I see a lot of people who are trying to start with the novel–I think that’s a little like trying to begin a surgical career by opening someone’s brain. Sure, it’s possible to learn in solitude for years and then publish something–we hear about that happening all the time. But goodness, why not learn how to master word-work while writing something for which you can be paid? If you truly want to earn your living as a writer, it’s all writing.

If you’re living for the emotional rush that you think being published will bring, well, I’ll be honest–it IS a rush to hold your new book or a published article in your hand. But then you set it aside and move on, because you’re probably working on your second or third work PAST the new arrival.

Learn the basics. Follow the guidelines–and every form and genre has ’em. (Read. Study. Repeat.) Give yourself time to grow and enjoy the process. And yes, go to those writer’s conferences–no matter what stage of learning you’re in, you’ll find peers and material to challenge you. There’s always something new to learn. Good writer’s conferences can cut your learning curve by years.

But don’t spend all your time reaching for the moon while you’re standing in a hole. Learn a few things to elevate yourself, build your confidence, your skills, and your audience, and then reach for the moon.

It’ll be a lot closer than you thought.



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