Chip MacGregor

January 1, 2013

How did you get started in your writing career?


Someone wrote and asked, “How did you go about the business of becoming a writer?” Since it’s a holiday and the start of new year, I thought this would be a good time to re-tell that story. 

For years I tried writing in dribs and drabs, trying to get an actual “writing career” going. I had started working in publishing as a copyeditor at a magazine, and had done quite a bit of magazine writing, plus some newspaper writing and lots of chapter editing, but I could never get over the hump and get my own book done. So I edited, and wrote some, and worked for magazines and newspapers and journals, sometimes running the publications for organizations. Then two articles I stumbled across in the course of my reading changed my writing life.

The first was an interview with Thomas Wolfe in Esquire magazine. Wolfe, the author of such books as The Right Stuff, The Bonfire of the Vanities, and The Man in Full, was shown resplendent in a white suit, hat, and spats. The caption read, “Thomas Wolfe on his way to the office,” or some such thing. Notably, his office was in his home. Wolfe would get up, get dressed, and go into a spare bedroom to write — just as though he were heading off to an important publishing luncheon in a downtown New York restaurant. In the article, Wolfe explained that, to him, writing was a business. So he treated it as a business. He would begin writing at nine every morning, and would write until noon. Then he’d take ninety minutes off for lunch. Wolfe noted that he didn’t wait for inspiration to strike him – instead, he would sit down, read the last few pages of what he’d written the day before, and begin to type. By simply approaching writing as a business, he got much more done. After lunch, he returned to his office to answer his mail (this being in that long-ago era before e-mail), return phone calls, and take care of any pressing business matters. When he was done, he would begin writing again. An alarm went off at 4:30, when he ended his day “attending to the business of writing.”

That article was a revelation to me. The thought of approaching writing as a business had never occurred to me. I immediately changed my entire approach to writing. Though working full-time at a university, I began getting up early and writing from six to eight every morning before going into my day job. In short order, I had my first book written. I soon figured out that, for me, the best plan was to have a place to write, a time to write, and a project to write on. Rather than waiting for my mood to be right and my muse to appear, I simply sat down each morning and started writing. That was the most important change in my entire publishing career.

The second article that changed me was a short biography of British novelist P.G. Wodehouse, creator of the character Jeeves the Butler, and his bumbling master, Bertie Wooster. Wodehouse was an unsuccessful salesman in the 1920’s, when he decided to begin writing entertaining short stories to help make ends meet. As a young man, he set a goal: each day he would write 1100 salable words. He admitted to the interviewer that sometimes he would be done by one in the afternoon, and would immediately stop writing and go play golf. Other days he wouldn’t be done until one the next morning. But he kept at it, since 1100 words would allow him to make a living at writing. Over the course of a long career, Wodehouse published more than 90 novels, hundreds of short stories, hundreds more articles, and several stage plays. His simple goal of writing 1100 salable words per day made him one of the most published novelists of the 20th Century.

When I left academia to write full-time, I followed Wodehouse’s method. I got up each morning, got dressed, ate breakfast, and went to my “office” (a spare bedroom in the house my wife and I were renting). There I would read the last few pages of my previous day’s work, then begin typing. My goal was to create a half chapter per day – later that became a chapter per day, which is one of the reasons I was able to produce more than fifty books and study guides before my 50th birthday. I should add that my days in magazines and newspapers helped me to write fast and clean (a newspaper is a monster that has to be fed — you must give it fresh words every day, at the same time, or it dies). So I used the talents I had developed, made a couple important changes to my thinking, and that’s how I got going. 

I should add something else… A longtime collaborative writer, Steve Halliday, came to me while I was trying to make a living. I was doing some writing, hosting a talk-radio show, and teaching a couple classes to make ends meet. Steve introduced me to an idea he’d done successfully — going to a company that needed study guides on a regular basis, and offering to write them. In other words, create a paying part-time writing gig that didn’t require all my creative abilities. Instead, I turned someone else’s work into print. If it hadn’t been for Steve sharing such an obvious concept, I don’t know that I would have made it through that season and actually made a living at it. He made the introductions I needed, but more importantly he gave me a money-making idea for writing that worked, so I wasn’t stuck just trying to write and sell books (which, for a beginner, is a tough way to make a living). I never want to leave this part out of my story. I owe Steve Halliday a huge debt. The success I had doing study guides for some organizations launched me into a bunch of other publishing ventures — collaborating on business books, writing for Promise Keepers, creating books for organizations, and doing significant freelance editing. 

I no longer write full-time, having decided to spend more time helping other writers as an agent, but I continue to write on special projects. And when I do, I still treat it the same way – I pick a time (generally first thing in the morning), a place (still a room in my house, quiet and without many interruptions), and a project. I organize my thoughts and my notes first, then I sit down and write.

There are three writing tricks that I learned while making my living writing books, and I’d like to share them with readers because they were some of the lessons I learned through experience. All three of these have helped me immeasurably in my writing career. The first  trick is to read your work out loud. I’ve never published anything that I haven’t read to myself, out loud, in my writing room. That has helped me figure out when something I’ve written doesn’t work. When I read it out loud, my ear will tell me if I need to re-write it.

The second is that a beginning writer should learn the importance of writing a book or article all the way through. Whether you’re creating a novel or a nonfiction book, get all the way through one draft before going back to sharpen and polish. The first draft will be awful, but there’s value in going through the process of creating an entire book that you can’t get by just doing pieces of a book. It’s always easier to revise and improve something than it is to create it from scratch. So if you’re writing, write the WHOLE THING. Get it all down, then go back and revise. Sure, the work may be crap. So what? That’s not going to be your story — it’s going to be the framework you build your story from as you go back and revise and rewrite and improve. 

The third trick is that a writer need not suffer writer’s block if he or she will simply stop writing and talk through it. Whenever I got stuck in one place, I read out loud what I’d just written, push away from my computer screen, and started talking out loud about my topic. I acted as though I was teaching a class, and since I generally know what I want to say, if I start talking out loud it will all come out. The book is there — I just need to know what to say next. In talking out loud about it, I’d quickly figure out what I wanted to say next, and soon I was back at my screen, banging out words. 

There you go — my story, and the lessons I learned. That’s how I got going in the business. Would love to have you leave a comment sharing how you got into the business. 

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  • Karen Morris says:

    Thank you, as always, for the insight, Chip.

    My story began two years ago with a broken pinky finger. Killed my golf game (not that I have much of a game to kill…) and put a damper on gardening. Desperate for a creative outlet, I sat down at my pc and began a story I caught a glimpse of in my head.

    That story is due to release next fall.

    Now I am treating writing as a biz, getting up at the crack of dawn to write before work and any other free time I can find between time with my hubby and two sons. And one day, perhaps work will be as you said, in my jammies at home.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Appreciate that, Karen. Would breaking a finger help MY golf game? Because it can’t get any worse…

  • Amy Leigh Simpson says:

    Really enjoyed this! Looking forward to the days when my kids are in school and I can set aside daytime hours to write. Very practical advice here. Thanks for sharing!

  • Dana McNeely says:

    This has been a year of firsts for me: my first finished novel, my first ACFW conference, my first proposals, and my first rejections. All have been great learning opportunities, but this post is so timely, as I was wondering about how others got their starts – especially the year they first were published. Your suggestions, as always, are helpful and appreciated. I can’t wait to see what others have to say about their beginnings.

  • :Donna Marie says:

    I always love hearing how writers, agents, editors, etc. come to do what they do and how they go about doing it. Every story is different, and although the daily regimens (if they exist) are often similar, there is often some wonderful tip to be gleaned and hopefully implemented by others.
    Though I’ve heard, many times before, the “reading out loud” suggestion, it’s the one thing I’m not sure I would/could do. I’m not one to talk to myself—out loud—so this doesn’t feel comfortable to me. I do like the idea of recording it and listening to it ’cause I would think that would be effective. Perhaps, once I’m at that point with my WIP, I may give it a shot!
    Thanks, everyone, for the suggestions 🙂
    Oh, and by the way, though I’ve never suffered from actual writer’s block myself, I remember a professor (I took a little 4-week course years ago) suggesting to pick a word from the last sentence you wrote and begin the next sentence with it.
    Also, at this year’s conference (actually, last year’s!), Kate DiCamillo mentioned she writes in the morning, when the “Creative Writer” is awake and before the “Critical Writer” wakes up 🙂 Due to my faulty recall, I’m not sure she used “creative” and “critical” specifically (though I think she did), it’s what she meant 🙂

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks for writing, Donna Marie. I know how hard it is to read your stuff out loud — for one thing, the others in the house will think you’ve lost your mind. But, of course, if you’re trying to make a living as a writer, you probably already HAVE lost your mind…

  • Julie Surface Johnson says:

    Thank you, Chip, for caring about writing and writers and for sharing your tips with us.

  • Tina Bustamante says:

    Happy New Year Chip! Thanks for your predictions, your thoughts on writing, and your own history … it’s all great. My only consistent thought, as I read your daily blog and glean from all your wisdom, is that I think you’d write great short stories … I hope I get to buy a book of your short stories sometime in the future. Family stuff, funny and slant but true, quirky religious humor, and depth – but below the surface. Only for the ones who get it. Warmly, Tina

    • chipmacgregor says:

      In fact, short stories are my favorite form of literature, Tina. There’s just been no market for them. But thanks for this, and happy new year to you and yours.

    • Tina Bustamante says:

      Olive Kitteridge probably made some money. Mark Helprin’s short stories have sold. Alice Munro probably makes a few dollars here and there. And just so we don’t think it’s only the Greats who write short stories – Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand began as a compilation of short stories and she turned into a novel. The Gilmmer Train is still publishing their quarterly book of short stories and a lot of them are very good. Wendell Berry writes of a make believe town in Kentucky in novels and short stories. It may not be as big a market as before … but I think short stories are still the best and cleanest way one learns how to tell a story and understand what a story is. As long as people are still wanting to learn how to write well – there will be a market, albeit small, for them. I’d buy a group of short stories you wrote. Happy New Year to you too.

  • DavidThomas14 says:

    I was 13, and my dad was asked by the county newspaper if he could shoot photos of our high school’s football games and add a short story about the games. The second week, he decided he only liked shooting the photos and asked if I wanted to write the story for him. I did and when he told the editor that I had written it, she asked if I would write the stories for the rest of the season.

    Almost 30 years later, I was still writing sports for newspapers when I came across a story that I thought would make a good book. Chip agreed and was able to sell it to a publisher.

    A few months after the book came out, the publisher came to me and said they knew journalists weren’t afraid of deadlines, so … would I be interested in collaborating on a sports memoir that would need to be completed in one month?

    I survived writing that book, that led to more opportunities, and a year ago, I left the newspaper business to collaborate full-time.

    Hopefully, the rest isn’t all history yet. 🙂

    • chipmacgregor says:

      LOVE this. And for those who don’t know, David Thomas was a columnist for a major market newspaper for years — a fine writer, who understands the craft as well as the deadline. Appreciate you sharing your story, David.

    • DavidThomas14 says:

      If I can add one thing … the reading aloud is a great tip. What is even more helpful, when it’s possible, is to have someone else read aloud what you’ve written.

      When I read what I’ve written, I’ll naturally use the tone and place points on emphasis that I intended when I wrote. But when someone else reads aloud to me, I can identify places where my intentions did not come through to the reader and I can adjust my writing accordingly.

      Thanks for the great tips, Chip!

  • Ninie Hammon says:

    After a 25-year career as a journalist, my husband’s job moved us to England and as anyone who has ever spent more than 11 minutes at Heathrow will attest, British English and American English are two entirely different languages. I wasn’t merely unemployed; I was unemployable. I’d always likened my journalism job to being a concert pianist. I played other people’s music. Well or poorly, I told somebody else’s story. I sat in a little British village watching drizzle drip down out of clouds that barely cleared the tops of telephone poles and figured I had two options. I could let words back up in my head like a clogged drain until I had a stroke or I could find out if I had my own song to sing. As you pointed out, Chip, journalism does not affort the luxury of waiting for the California Raisins to tell you what they heard through the grapevine, so I sat down at a computer and started typing. That was a biography (really just a gigantic feature story) and seven novels ago. Once I discovered that making up the facts was a whole lot more fun than reporting them, I never looked back! My advice to beginners is simple: write until you run out of breath, throw in a semi-colon (which is an otherwise useless piece of punctuation) and keep going. Vomit the whole story out onto the page, then edit the warm, stinky chunks.

    • Shauna says:

      “Vomit the whole story out onto the page, then edit the warm stinky chunks.” Perfectly appropriate awesomeness!! : )

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks for sharing your story, Ninie! Having lived in England, I can attest to its ability to bring out the writer in bored, frustrated (and wet) creative types. Appreciate this — especially the colorful advice.

  • Becky Doughty says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Chip. With a full house, sometimes it’s hard to think, no less write, but I remind myself of John Wesley’s mother who had 19 living children (NINETEEN!!!!!!). When she needed some quiet time (specifically to pray), she’d drop into her rocking chair, drape a blanket over her head, and talk with God. Laptops make that possible…

    I have written “The End” a few times at the kitchen table, in a corner of the sofa, on the floor by the heater vent, etc., but a little over a year ago, our oldest got married and moved out, and I got a real office. Last year alone, in that dedicated place, I wrote “The End” THREE times. Was the office the reason; the physical place in which I wrote? Eh. Maybe. I’m certain it helped. More likely, it’s the spiritual/emotional/mental place my heart is in – how serious I am about finally bringing my writing to fruition. But then, the condition of my heart and mind is the reason I turned the room into my writing place and not just a pretty spare room.

    This is a long-winded way of saying that I think the reason I’m writing seriously – the reason I actually do the things you listed above (have a place to write, set writing goals, read my work out loud) – is because I’ve DECIDED to take my work seriously. I’m doing what it takes for me to BE a writer.

    An extension of the whole reading out loud thing for those of us who self-edit ourselves into the trenches – I will record an audio file of me reading out loud, load it onto my ipod, then hop on the stair-stepper with my handheld microcassette (yes, still use it) and comment on necessary changes while I LISTEN. That way I can’t stop mid-sentence and edit, messing up the flow of reading, which defeats the point of reading out loud in the first place.

    Back to work for me! Blessings!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Really appreciate you sharing your story, Becky. I love hearing how writers have decided to simply make this their life’s work.

  • Meghan Carver says:

    Thanks, Chip, for the advice. I’m saving this to refer to later when I need some wisdom. I have the story of discovering I loved to write in the sixth grade during an essay exercise then going on to major in English and edit and publish during college. Next, I used my writing heavily in law school. (I still can’t understand why the Dean said my English degree wouldn’t do me any good in law school. Every single course grade save one was based on essay exams or briefs.) Then my writing got pushed aside to birth six children. I returned to writing when I finally got frustrated with children’s picture books and decided to write my own for my children. Interestingly, it never occurred to me to seek publication of those. When I had to write my father’s obituary and I was musing over his life as a paraplegic, the creative writing bug bit hard. A couple of conferences later, I’m reading agent blogs, connecting with other writers, submitting to contests, and beginning my third novel. Thanks for sharing your story and encouragement.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      An English degree helped in law school — that alone is good enough for me to celebrate, Meghan. Thanks.

  • Ardis Van Boxtel Nelson says:

    Thanks for the great inspiration for the New Year. I am a new writer and needed to be reminded of this wisdom. I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time this year and gave me the momentum and the discipline to make a schedule, create a space, etc. I also like what you said about finishing a work. I only made it though 6 chapters (30,000 words) and have been tempted to go back and restart, but I need to continue and finish this. It has been an amazing learning process. Thanks again Chip. I love reading your blog–you do still write!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks for writing, Ardis. And yes, I’d encourage you to push on and finish your novel — then go back later, once it’s all on the page. Good advice.

  • dabneyland says:

    A kick in the backside from friends to write my story. Turns out, they were onto something I didn’t see.

    • dabneyland says:

      Oh, and this post is Ah-maz-ing. Amazing. I’ll be sure to pass this post on to others interesting in writing a book.

  • maureen chapman says:

    hank you so much. I have written my first serious children’s/young adult book through various drafts and was still unhappy with it. Too many words, too much domesticity. Woke up one night. Make the protagonist, a girl, into the secondary character and make the boy, her betrothed into the protagonist. It has meant turning the whole book inside out, but what a change. I’m a third of the way through and still going strong.
    You give me courage to carry on.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      So the key to success is to dream a lot! :o) Thanks, Maureen. Glad you shared your story of pressing on.

  • Lisa Van Engen says:

    I love this, thank you. A great reminder to summon up a large measure of discipline this new year 🙂

  • Cherry Odelberg says:

    What excellent insights!
    Other than sending short paragraphs to Laughter the Best Medicine in “Reader’s Digest,” or hoping someone would pick up on the pathos in my poetry; I believe my first foray into writing was an office news letter to sales staff. Why? Because I had to do something with the urge to write creatively.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      You know, I also sent in jokes to Reader’s Digest — it’s funny to discover how many writers did that when they were young. Thanks, Cherry.

  • Robin Patchen says:

    Hmm, this makes me think I ought to quit reading blogs and get started writing this morning. Thanks for sharing your story.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Well… quit reading OTHER blogs, Robin. But I just got a message from God, and he says he wants you to continue reading MINE…

  • So glad you mentioned needing to get up and talk it out. I
    do this all the time. Unfortunately, I don’t have a writing room. I do it in my
    kitchen, so therefore am “caught” talking to myself by my husband often. He
    shluffs it off now, but the first few times were a little disconcerting.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yeah, when my kids were little they used to ask, “Who were you talking to?” It took them awhile to learn their father was simply crazy. True story: One day my daughter had a friend over to the house. When her friend asked her who I was talking to, my daughter Molly said, “Oh, that’s just my dad, talking to himself again…”

  • Anne Love says:

    Great tips. I have to walk while I talk out the next scene. It helps the chair-bum too!
    Do you send your work to a Kindle to read it out loud?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Nope – I stand and read it from my screen, Anne. But I’ve heard from several people who say they read it from their Kindle or Nook. And yes, WALKING is the best way to read!

  • Jeremy Myers says:

    Excellent! Extremely helpful as I begin my writing career.

  • Jennifer M Zeiger says:

    Thank you for sharing this. The idea that writing, even in your own home, is a business seems vital. I know it is for me or I’d never finish a project. Thanks again.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yeah, but I think a lot of writers treat the work as a hobby — which is fine, unless you want to get things published and make money at it. Then it’s a business. Appreciate the comment, Jennifer.

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