Chip MacGregor

June 5, 2008

Getting Started in the Business of Writing


I’ve had a number of questions recently from people in the beginning stages of their careers…

Deann wrote to ask, "As a beginner, is it a good idea to get published in an anthology? And what do you think about newer authors setting up book signings and doing readings from anthologies? Is that just good local PR?"

When you’re starting your career as a writer, it’s pretty much a good idea to get ANY bylines you can. So participating in anthologies is one good way to get introduced to the business. You should also consider looking to get published in magazines, e-zines, and web sites. If you’ve got a local newspaper, by all means try to get into that regularly. Think of it as learning to play the piano — it takes lots of practice time and performing in plenty of dumpy school recitals before you get to be the star onstage at the concert hall. What you’re looking for is a chance to perform somewhere. (Or, if you prefer sports analogies: Think of it as learning to play baseball — it takes lots of practice time, and playing in plenty of American Legion games before you get to sign a contract with a major league team.)

As for anthology participants doing readings… It’s not a bad idea, especially if you have some other pieces to read and talk about. But I sense from your question that you’re wondering if a writer might be over-selling herself. And my answer is "maybe." Still, it’s good PR for your career.

Ashley emailed me and said, "I’ve been working on my novel for months, and finally got the first few chapters to a place I feel comfortable. But when I sent them to my editor, she hacked it up and told me what to improve. So I worked on those things, until she approved of my new, revised work, and I send them to an experienced author for a critique… and SHE tells me to do exactly the opposite of the editor! I’m going crazy. How seriously do I take editors and critiques from other writers? It seems like everyone has a different opinion. Who do I trust?"

This is a common problem, Ashley, especially with newer writers. What do you do when one friend says, "Blue — it’s got to be blue," while another friend is saying, "No matter what, don’t make it blue"? That’s a dilemma facing many writers who ask others for their opinion. The real difficulty, in my mind, rests in the mistaken notion that there is a "right" way to do a novel. There isn’t — though there are many wrong ways. Editing is as much an art as it is a science. If you give ten editors a manuscript, they may all share some of the same criticisms, but they’re sure to find different things to like and dislike. That’s the nature of art. It’s why some editors rise to the top, and others remain doing the meat-and-potatoes stuff in-house. So the best thing you can do is to find an editor or author you trust, preferably one with a solid track record, and ask them to give a look at your work. Of course, the person you pick may not be right. He or she may make some choices you disagree with. The fact is, as an author you’re always listening to advice, choosing to follow some of it, and ignoring some of it. As you mature in your talent, you’ll begin to figure out which advice to follow, and which advice to ignore.

Having said all that, let me offer one additional thought: If you’re a new writer, ask for advice. I don’t know many new writers who are any good. While we all like to envision this untrained, uneducated kid rising from nowhere to conquer the world with great talent, in the real world every successful writer I know improved with training. So by asking for help, I think you’re taking the right step.

Susan wants to know, "How can a first-time attender get the most out of a writing conference?"

I’m a huge fan of writing conferences, since they offer writers a chance not only to learn in formal teaching sessions, but to hang out with writers and editors and learn just by being with them. If you’re going to a conference this summer, start by figuring out who is on the faculty. Who do you most want to learn from? Who are you hoping to meet? Which editor or author would have the most to teach you? Next, look at the conference schedule and try to select a course of study that will give you the best information for your career. (If you’re in a session and you realize it’s not at all what you expected, you might have a backup plan at the ready, so you can sneak into another one… even if you’re  a few minutes late.) Most of all, plan to participate in things. Don’t spend your time hanging back, afraid to engage. Go to the sessions. Eat the meals at the tables with everyone. Introduce yourself around. Say hello. Meet people. There’s nothing more fun than starting up some friendships with other writers you like. Stay up late and talk, go for a late-night glass of wine, and connect with these people — many of them are just like you.

If the conference schedules one-on-one appointments, by all means participate. Sign up to meet with an editor, bring some of your writing to show him or her, and ask questions about how you can improve. Don’t set some incredibly high bar for yourself ("I’m going to get a publishing deal" or "An agent is going to see my work and immediately sign me"). Instead, set reasonable goals for finding practical ways to improve your craft. After the conference is over, send thank you notes to everyone. And go back over the things you studied, so that you don’t lose the information you spent so much money trying to learn. A writing conference is one of the best learning experiences imaginable for a beginning writer.

In a related vein, Kathleen wrote and says, "I would like to attend a good Christian writing conference this summer. Can you recommend a couple?"

Sure — the Write to Publish conference will take place this weekend at Wheaton College in Chicago. It’s a great conference, if you can squeeze it in. And the Oregon Christian Writers Conference will be in Portland in late July. (I would have recommended the Ridgecrest Conference in North Carolina, but it was last week.) Of course, there are numerous writing conferences at college and universities around the country. The Taos Conference in New Mexico, the Bread Loaf Conference in Middlebury, the Sewanee Conference, and the Harriette Austen Conference at the University of Georgia all have things to recommend them. There are numerous others that are excellent. These aren’t "Christian" writing conferences, but they offer great information, with excellent faculties, and many are cost effective. In fact, summer is when every good writing program hosts a conference, so check the local colleges nearby. If you’re really looking for a great Christian conference, and it’s too late for the upcoming ones, you may want to wait until September and attend the ACFW Conference, which this year is in Minneapolis. Strong faculty, wonderful learning experience. Probably my favorite conference. (Oh… and I’ll be at the Oregon conference and the Harriette Austen conference this summer.)

And on a similar note, Hank wondered, "Is it a good learning experience for a new writer to attend the ICRS convention?"

The International Christian Retailing Show (formerly the CBA International show) is happening in mid-July. In their never-ending quest to find the hottest spot on the planet to host the show, this year they set it at the Orlando Convention Center. (Rumor has it that next year they’re looking closely at Death Valley.) It’s a time when every religious retailer gets together to show off the wares — so the convention floor is filled with CD’s, t-shirts, ties, shoes, socks, jewelry, posters, wall art, choir robes, communion plates, and everything else religious. Oh, and books. Thomas Nelson, the largest CBA publisher, has pulled out of the show this year, but the rest of the publishing world will be there. (And yes, there will be dumb stuff there — candies and underwear and couch cushions with Bible verses on them…but plenty of good stuff as well.)

Is it a good idea for a new, unpublished author to attend ICRS? I think so, as long as you keep the goal in mind. (And the goal is "to learn about the industry.") At the show, you can wander the floor and get a feel for all the different book companies. You can see where they are strong and where they are weak. You’ll get a feel for the direction titles and covers are heading in the industry. You’ll discover which topics are being talked about, and which are being ignored. You might be able to spot the "next big thing." Who knows — you may even hit on a great, undiscovered book idea. More than that, by looking at all the different publishers, you’ll begin to get a feel for where you might fit — both in the industry, and with a particular publisher. Many of the publishing houses have author parties, so if you wrangle an invitation, you’ll get a chance to rub shoulders with the authors and editors. And best of all, you’ll meet people and make friends — and publishing is as much a "who-you-know" industry as any other in the United States. It’s a great time. I make fun of the dumb stuff, but I love the show and have been going for more than twenty years. If you go, make sure to stop me and say hello. I’m the tall, good-looking guy who is constantly being mistaken for Brad Pitt.

Got a publishing question? Send it in and we’ll answer it.

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