November 18, 2015

Advice for First-Time Writers (and Other Creatives)

Thank you to all who entered my Boatload of Books for Ministry Wives giveaway in celebration of my updated ebooks Partners in Planting and Partners in Ministry! The winner is Brianna Q., whom I've contacted by email. Congrats, Brianna!
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Almost nine years ago now, I shared a secret with my husband that I'd held inside: I wanted to be a writer! I write it breathlessly in italics because my secret felt fragile, as if saying it out loud would ensure my desire's demise.

Apparently, the secret was not a secret at all. My husband simply turned to me and said, "I know." My desires related to writing had evidently been oozing out of me and all over him since our newlywed days, but I had never taken them seriously enough to wrap them all together in a definitive statement. I hadn't admitted my passion to myself. 
I'm often asked about writing, from people whose passion for it is oozing out of them, too. In all the questions, I hear the same timidity to just say it out loud already that I had all those years ago. It's like something is bursting inside like a firework but we try to silence it. We're afraid to admit that we have a passion, mostly to ourselves.

If you're wrestling with a desire to do something creative, whether it's writing or not, I bet I can name your most common thought: This seems selfish. I'm probably making this up and trying to say God is leading me to do it. Followed close behind with this: Who am I to think I could do this? And then: I'm wasting perfectly good time that could go toward something else, like my laundry or volunteer work.

After I told my husband I wanted to be a writer, he told me to go for it, and I did. I spent two hours a week at Starbucks with a notebook (a notebook!) and a pen. For one hour and 45 minutes, I would wrestle with all the thoughts of selfishness and stupidity, and for 15 minutes I'd actually write something, typically something embarrassingly bad. And I loved it. I didn't love the thought-wrestling, but I loved the actual writing, and so I kept doing it.

I read somewhere that when you do something that feels like worship, you've found your calling. Well, that settled it for me, because writing, even from the very beginning, felt exactly like worship. Like I was made for it. Like something was released that had been trying to get out of me for years.

So if you're wrestling, I say good, because I think that's part of it. If you're still going at it after years of wrestling because something in you feels like hitting a bulls-eye, then God has certainly worked out your motivations and your desires and sharpened them to become worship.

That's the most important advice I can give you: if it feels like worship, do it. Use your creative gifts to say gospel truths with beauty and nuance and color. That doesn't mean it's not going to feel like work. My writing routine is something I schedule and requires hours of intense work. It's not romantic at all. If you're like all other writers in this world, you'll definitely have to put the work in too, especially if you want to get better at what you do.

Here's something important to know about creative endeavors: you have to not care about results. Sure, you can hope for results, but if the sole reason you do something is to have followers or get comments or get a book contract, nothing will ever be enough. You'll lose a sense of why you're doing what you're doing, and your worship will turn toward yourself and others. Instead, do your thing because you were made to do it and because God is delighted when you use the gifts He's given you.

Finally, know that there is no formula. Everyone wants the formula that will guarantee the results they envision. I myself sought that formula. Unfortunately, there aren't any magic jump-ahead steps. The good news is that, specifically for writers, there are general steps that the industry lays out. If you want to get a book published, read up on those steps.

Basically here they are: put together a book proposal, go to a writer's conference to pitch agents or publishers with said book proposal in hand, or query an agent or publisher by email with your book proposal.

Most publishers will not look at an unsolicited book proposal or manuscript unless it comes from an agent, so it's best to focus on getting an agent. When considering whether to take an author as a client, agents are generally looking for three things: good writing, a good idea, and a solid platform. Those are all things that take time to build, so put the work in, don't give up, read great writing, grow in your craft, and take the necessary steps.

These are the steps I took from my first inkling of a desire to write to becoming a published author:

  • Started a family blog in 2005, along with every other person in the world 
  • Wrote words that, thankfully, no one ever laid eyes on
  • Lots of time passed
  • Attended a writer's conference, immediately became overwhelmed at all the information (especially on building a platform, which I didn't have), and started sifting through it all
  • Transitioned my family blog into this blog, with much fear and trepidation (Who I am to think that I have anything to say?)
  • Wrote a book that, thankfully, few have laid eyes on
  • Lots of time passed. Still blogging. Still writing words no one reads.
  • Wrote for a local family magazine; Got paid for my writing the first time ever: $50/month
  • Wrote a second book
  • Read lots and lots of books on the writing industry
  • Created a book proposal for book #2
  • Queried agents and publishers. Heard back from none.
  • Attended a writer's conference and landed an agent who told me I was a long shot. I was.
  • Two publishers out of three said no. The final one said yes. 
  • I cried.
  • Rode the roller coaster of writing and editing words that I hoped people would read but wasn't exactly sure and that felt like opening my heart for all the world to see and review on Amazon
  • Currently: riding said roller coaster again and praying, somehow, God uses these words

I consistently recommend the following resources and tools for writers:

Books on Writing: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, On Writing by Stephen King, and On Writing Well by William Zinsser

Blogging and Social Media Tips: Amy Lynn Andrew's blog

Follow bloggers and writers who are doing it well.
I personally enjoy following Emily Freeman, Jen Wilkin, and Jared Wilson.

Follow publishing blogs. I like literary agent Rachelle Gardner's blog.

Book Proposal Tips: Michael Hyatt has templates for both fiction and nonfiction book proposals.

Find an Agent You'd Like to Query. Michael Hyatt has a helpful list here for Christian authors.

You Gotta Start Somewhere: Check websites, blogs, and magazines in your area of interest for submission guidelines and submit articles accordingly. I wrote for free for many years trying to build my writing credentials.

Attend a Writer's Conference. Get all the industry information in one place at a conference. While there, you'll also have the opportunity to sign up for 15 minute meetings with agents and publishers. I have attended Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writer's Conference and She Speaks and would recommend both.

What questions do you have about writing, publishing, or creative endeavors? I will try to answer as many as I can in the comment section. Also? If you're writing, blogging, or pursuing a creative endeavor, leave us links in the comments so we can stalk you see!