So You Want to Be a Writer

Starting a new series targeted for everyone who wants to be a writer. Some of the fits under the Writer's Toolbox Series, and some of this is more for those looking into a writing degree.

When I started looking into writing for my degree, I wanted to be a journalist. For some strange reason, I had thoughts of Lois Lane, Ellie Warne and John Murphy running through my brain (honestly, I think I was born too late). John Murphy, for those who don't know, was a lead character in the Zion Covenant's first book, Vienna Prelude; Ellie is in the later Zion Chronicles series, Gates of Zion. John is a newspaper journalist in pre-World War 2 Europe; Ellie is a photojournalist in 1947, Palestine. Both series are written by Bodie and Brock Thoene.

For me, writing came naturally. I enjoyed reading, and I enjoyed telling stories. When we moved from Southeastern PA to Western NY, I started writing novels to keep myself occupied. I left friends, family, and a small town to live in farm country. When I started looking for colleges, I had two requirements: (1) outside New York State, if at all possible, and (2) Christian.

Sounds simply enough. Find a Christian college that offers a journalism degree ... or at least a writing degree ... or even something in communications ... not speaking though.

I wanted to write - it was that simple. I wanted to create stories that reached into people's hearts and minds. I wanted to write something that I would have wanted to read. I looked at the authors I loved: Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers, L.M. Montgomery, C.S. Lewis, Bodie and Brock Thoene, and more, and realized if they could do this, then I could do this.

I never realized how very little about what I wanted to do, or how few writing degrees available in the Christian world. My list of potential schools dropped faster than I thought possible. Few schools offered a degree in writing. Some offered minors in writing, but even those were few and far between. Communications degrees were often speech related - while I enjoyed talking, and don't mind talking in front of people, I wanted to write. In fact, one college even flat-out told me I couldn't be in the communications degree because it was for those going into the pastorate i.e. no girls allowed.

Eventually, I found a college that offered a journalism degree ... and realized I wanted to write novels, not newspaper stories, so I switched to Creative Writing ... then the comments. "Just what do you expect to do with a writing degree?" or "What is creative writing?" or (my personal favorite) "Why doesn't she just go into English, at least then she could do something with the degree."

Um, yeah. Right. English degrees ... even education majors can have a hard time getting a job. Now, math or science - whew! - can they find jobs, but English and History ... not so much. Besides, if I wanted to teach students about writing, I wanted to know how to write, not just critique other's writing.

Old and New

I was part of the sea change in writing, although as an eighteen-year-old, I didn't know it. When I was looking for college, I was still a part of the world where newspapers, magazines, radio, television and the like were the primary sources of information. Cell phones existed, but smartphones were just coming into play. Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and all these other social media sites did not exist. For some of them, the founders were just entering high school. There was still a place for writers among the newspapers and magazines.

Then the social media storm hit ... after I graduated from college.

Now, anyone can be a writer, in fact, most everyone is. We gain our information not from journalists, but from bloggers. We learn about events in the world not from the evening news, but from cell phone videos. Our world is an interconnected, free-for-all.

And yet, the gatekeepers remain.

There remain editors who read submissions; there remains journalists (print, audio and visual) who collect and disseminate the world events; there remains magazine editors who decide what goes into their magazines or on the websites. All this remains, but we now have print-on-demand, internet news sites, and e-zines.

We're becoming more visual and less word oriented. We need to see a story instead of hearing or reading a story. Writers remain, of course: plays, films, novels, books, articles, blogs all need to be written, but the writer of today is becoming a multi-tasker. It pays to know how to do many aspects.

Colleges, at least the ones who take the information we have and understand it, are re-organizing their writing departments. In some cases, radio, television, film and writing are combining under one field. Not a true communications major (though some do have that), but more of a department where students are required to take a little bit of everything.

The good thing about today: if you want to write, chances are you can be published; the bad thing: you have to know how to do more.

What to Do

So, you want to be a writer, well then, let me suggest a few things for you. Things I wished somebody had told me, and things I wish I could go back and re-do.
  1. Write. It sounds dumb, cliché even, but it's true. Write. Learn your craft. Pick up books from the library, bookstore, or yard sales and learn your craft. Do you want to go into film? Pick up books on screenplays. Don't ignore stage or radio, though. Hone your craft by studying the other sides of it. Do you want to write novels? Find books about novels or the genres you want to write. What about journalism? Write about your community.
  2. Set up a blog. Once again, many of you probably already know this. Don't be scared to put your words out there. Blogs have been around for fifteen years or more now. Take in some considerations, but write. Write about what you do; write short stories or serials if you write novels. Engage with the community. For most writers, this step can be hard. We tend to turn inwards, and prefer not to show our unfinished ideas. That's a good thing, but eventually, you need to put yourself out into the public realm. Blogs are good starting point because they are free.
  3. Find your passion. Most writers just want to write. I did. I didn't know what I wanted to write, but I just could not not write; it's like trying to stop breathing - eventually, you die. If you know what you want to write, pursue it, but be open to other avenues. I wanted to go into journalism, but I realized that I could reach more people through novels and plays. You might want to go into novels, but realize you're better suited to short stories.
  4. Volunteer. Just because you're young or inexperienced, does not mean you cannot write. Attending a church? Write a children's play for the students then have it preformed for their parents. Want to write screenplays? Write it up, gather up your friends and go forth. Take over writing the church's, school's or other organizations newsletter. Some schools have newspapers; some don't. Churches send out e-mails to keep their members up-to-date. Create a newsletter for them, or volunteer about setting up a blog for either of them. You want to go into playwriting - find a local theater and work there.
  5. Learn the Business. If there was one thing I wish someone had taught me, it would be this: how to make writing my business. Learn how to submit stories, how to earn income when your stories don't sell. Investigate places where you can sell your stories or articles. Understand the business end of writing, not just the submission, but the marketing as well. Writers need to do everything. If you want to go into writing as a career, think like an entrepreneur.
  6. Become a storyteller. Writing, at its core, is storytelling. The story might be fictional, it might be non-fictional, but whatever it is, it's a story. Learn how to best tell the story: visual, audio, written. Some stories are more powerful because the audience can see it; others need to be heard, while others need to be savored and read. Learn the different ways to tell a story. I don't expect you to become a film director, but I do expect you to know how a film director thinks.
  7. Find your niche. Today, this advice is more important then ever. A niche is a small opening in a wall where something sits; in writing, it's where you fit. It's the place where you can work and develop your thoughts. It isn't just your voice, but your genre, your medium, and your audience. For me, writing science fiction, fantasy, historical or mystery novels targeting Christian women primarily ages 15-55 who are willing to explore the nuances of the faith, both the good and the bad, is my niche. For another person, it might be covering sports in Baltimore; or another might be writing avant-garde plays in a small city. Whatever the niche is, find it. Establish yourself in it, and learn everything you can about it. There, you will grow, and there they will find you because if you keep moving no one will know where you are.
  8. Take a chance. This is the hardest of it all, because everything else I said, we can do on our own in our safe worlds. This is the one thing I struggle with, because by nature, I don't like putting myself out there. Everything I suggested rests on this very piece of advice: take a chance. Take a deep breath, and jump in the water. Writing and learning about writing comes easy to those who want to write. Learning about other fields, then putting them into practice, isn't as easy. Putting your writing out onto the web is harder. Talking to someone about your writing is scarier still. Learning the business can overwhelm you, but take that chance, whatever it is. Take a chance, and talk with someone about writing a play. Ask another writer to walk alongside you.
So, you want to be a writer? "Writing is easy," according to Gene Fowler. "All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead."

Never let anyone tell you writing is easy. No art - whether painting, sculpture, dance or anything else - is easy. It involves taking a piece of you, and putting it on display for the world to see, and to criticize or affirm.

Yet, if you realize that you can't stop writing like you can't stop breathing, then take heart, and write. Learn all you can, and keep learning until you stop breathing. Take the chances; make your own opportunities, and dive in. There are sharks in those waters, but there are also mysteries and beauties you can never know until you see them for yourself.


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