Wednesday, July 14, 2010

How Did You Get Started?

I spoke to a group of high school students about writing a while back. They were very polite and listened, but I'm sure what I told them was overwhelming. It usually is when you first start thinking about writing for publication. So much to learn. So much information. Sometimes you have to hear the same things several times before it becomes a part of you.

I wish that every writer who wanted to be published could be published. That is not reality, but I do think if you are persistent and faithful to writing and submitting, it can happen. Every person who wishes to be a writer, can be a writer. And you can find readers. You start with an idea--maybe something from your past, maybe something that happened, or maybe just something that intrigues you and you can't leave it alone. Sometimes it takes years for a story to get published, but one thing is certain--you have to serve an apprenticeship and learn and you. must. write. And whether you are someone who has 75 books published, or are just publishing your first book, or are still trying to find that place where readers will read your words--all writers have to learn and start somewhere and must continue to learn. The key is to start.

The students asked some great questions. In doing so, I hope that they learned a little about themselves. The first question for me was "How did you get started?" Ask this question of authors and writers, and some answers will be the same, and some different. Everyone starts somewhere.

I like to say that I started off my writing journey in my freshman year of high school. I published a poem that year and seeing my own byline was a rush. I wrote volumes in journals over the course of my high school years. Then, I got on the newspaper staff as sports editor and art editor in my senior year of high school and really dug in. That pile of articles were sent in to Ball State University and I won a journalism scholarship.

"Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere," so says Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird. She describes what her father tells her brother who has a rough start when trying to get going on a school project about birds. "Just take it bird by bird," her father, also a writer, told him. "Do one bird, then do the next." Writing is like that.

I stuttered along in the years following college doing newsletters for service organizations, curriculum material in my teaching and taking a course here and there in writing while raising my four boys. Then, when I was 40-years-old, I took a professional writing class at Taylor University in Ft.Wayne, Indiana. That is really where I got my start. Dr. Dennis E. Hensley pushed us to publish. Early on in the class, when I barely knew him, we were on a break in the hall and he walked right into my "personal" space to speak with me.

"I hate you," he said. I think he scowled.

"Really?" I didn't know what to make of this, but I'd heard he was a Vietnam War vet and it crossed my mind that this could get ugly, but as a competition trapshooter and one who had faced off with many a nemesis, I knew I could hold my own.

"Why," and I laughed for punctuation, "do you hate me, Dr. Hensley?" I made a point to not move away from him.

And then he passionately proceeded to tell me what I had done to him, the reader of my story, to evoke such an extreme distaste for what I'd written. In that moment I knew he cared about what I had written and wanted it to be better. It was personal. It was personal to him, the reader. It was personal to me, the writer. And between us we needed to come to an understanding. That is what writing is--a communication between the author and the reader. It is just the two of you in that space--that very personal space. For me that was the beginning of understanding what the writer-reader relationship really is.

Someone on a writers' list said she had written eight manuscripts but had never sent one out. If you write, it demands to be read. And yes, it can be painful to hear what a reader has to say. (Or an editor, or an agent, or even a first reader.) It can be tough to understand what you should write and what you should leave out. But if you are a writer, you must start and you persist.

My favorite quote on this:
"You must keep sending work out; you must never let a manuscript do nothing but eat its head off in a drawer. You send that work out again and again, while you're working on another one. If you have talent, you will receive some measure of success - but only if you persist."

- Isaac Asimov

Tell me how you got started. It is good to have a beginning.

~Crystal Laine Miller
Christian Book Scout


  1. I owe my writing career to a church secretary, who demanded newsletter articles at gunpoint from staff members (I was the worship coordinator). The congregation seemed to enjoy my stuff and friends encouraged me to write. I received a flyer in the mail about a writing workshop at nearby Bethel College, attended (mostly to get away from my kids for a Saturday morning), and, at age 40, was hooked.

  2. I got started as a 5th grader when I wrote an essay entitled, "Why I Love America," won second place in a contest and had it published in the local news. I also wrote plays for fun and during recess rehearsed them with my friends.

  3. As a child I read and wrote as an escape. Even though I destroyed all that in my teen years, I wish now I had some of those story ideas. In 7th or 8th grade I placed in a Gary Diocesan writing competition. I keep the award over my writing desk even today. After that, work and life took over until my children were grown and I found a lurking story already well-formed that crept out for mental play whenever I was driving to and from work. I can't believe how alive and exciting I find writing.

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  5. Ha-ha I got so involved with answering the question I forgot to say Crystal that once again you struck close to my heart as you wrote about the personal relationship between a writer and a reader. I appreciated your candid story about Dennis Hennesley, too. It reinforces how God can use what we see as unfavorable comments to refine us.