I never dreamed of being a writer. Never fantasized about writing the Great American Novel, never dreamed of living in a garret and suffering for the sake of my Art. I’m a practical person, more focused on the nuts and bolts of things than the whys and wherefores. But apparently I’ve always had a natural aptitude for words and I’ve always been a reader. So when a friend suggested that I change my college major from music to English, the idea of working with words appealed more than singing on the road for the rest of my life. I’d been doing that, you see, and my voice was tired and my suitcase worn out. Duct tape could only patch things up for so long . . .
So I graduated from college with a degree in English Lit, taught high school English for a year, then worked at a large church writing curriculum. I kept telling myself that when the time was right, I’d quit my job and actually become a writer.
I finally decided that the time would be right when I plunged ahead and did it.
I quit the day job (and I’m NOT recommending you do this!) and had stationery and business cards printed up–freelance writer for hire. I mailed those cards and a brief letter to every advertising agency and magazine in my mid-sized town, then I was amazed at the responses. A great many business people, apparently, were happy to hire someone else to write their letters, brochures, advertising copy, etc. I bought and studied books on how to write effective letters, brochures, advertising copy, etc., and set about establishing a reputation for being fast and dependable. I figured I might not be the most talented fish in the sea, but at least I could be prompt, professional, and diligent. And I learned . . . from my employers and from my mistakes. For five years I worked for magazines and businesses, and I learned as I went along. I read and relentlessly studied books on the craft of writing. I rewrote and polished and rewrote again. In 1988, an artist friend and I entered a contest for unpublished children’s book authors. I wrote a manuscript after studying a book on how to write children’s picture books (what else?) and then forgot about it. A few months later, I learned that out of 500 entries, our manuscript won first place–and first prize was publication. If I Had Long, Long Hair was therefore my first book. At the same time, I was writing about my family’s experience with adoption and sold a nonfiction manuscript to a book publisher. Those first books gradually moved me out of magazine work and into book publishing–after years of learning and writing and reading and studying. I am still learning and reading and studying, for each genre requires that a writer master certain requirements.
So when aspiring writers ask me for advice, I tell them to go to the library and find a copy of Writer’s Market. Study the periodicals market; study book publishers. Find out what they want to buy and concentrate on writing that–if you want to sell your writing. If you want to write for yourself or for your loved ones, go ahead, write what is on your heart. But if you want to write to sell, you have to learn how to write and behave professionally. Another wonderful place to learn is at a writer’s conference. There are many wonderful conferences around the country and throughout the year. Find one, go, and learn before you try to submit something to a publisher.
My philosophy is that a writer is like a builder–if you know how to use the construction tools and if you are familiar with the blueprints for various jobs/genres, you can master the work.
But it requires study and basic know-how. To help you, I’ve written a series of lessons–booklets, really–designed to get you writing with definite tools. They are called “Writing Lessons from the Front,” and they are available through this website or online retailers.
I also recommend the book Writing for the Soul by Jerry Jenkins. And Quit Your Day Job, by my friend Jim Denny, is a wonderful tool for beginning writers! Also, if you’re serious about writing, I have created a video course you can work through at your own pace and in the privacy of your own home. You can watch a free introduction and sign up here.