Recently, I’ve had a lot of people picking my brain about how they can become a writer/speaker. Here’s what I tell them… or what I wish I would have told them, depending on the situation.
1) Have something to say. Yeah, I know it seems obvious, but there are a lot of charismatic people out there who… well… don’t have much to say. You don’t want to be one of those.
How do you figure out your message? Well, pray about it. If you listen to someone else speak, and you get really, really angry, figure out why. Is it because they are not saying it the way that you would? How would you say it? Listen to your own petty jealousies, because they just might be directing you. Think about what gifts that you bring to the ministry. Do you have a unique perspective because of your religious background, age, ethnicity, technological skills? Have you done some interesting activism? Is your church growing? Do you have artistic, poetic, or musical skills? What do you have to say that the church is dying to hear? Be certain that you’re passionate about the subject, because you may be speaking about it for a long time to come.
2) Produce work. When you know what the topic is, then begin to read everything you can on the subject. Don’t just limit your reading to church books. Reach outside of our field and find out what other experts are saying as well, because sometimes the most interesting work is done when a religious leader takes cutting edge research and then reflects on it within his or her context. Then, start to write. Blogs have lost a bit of steam, but they are still an excellent way to get started when you don’t have another platform. Writing a blog can get you into the discipline of working every day. You can rework blog posts for magazine articles. And, for a while, more people knew me from my blog than my published works.
While you’re at it, begin to use Twitter as a public figure. Yes, Twitter matters. Talk to people. Unlock your privacy settings. Put your real name, position, and blog on your bio. If you’re used to being semi-anonymous on Twitter, it may take some of the fun out of it, but it’s also a powerful tool in making publishing connections. I have a wonderful friend who randomly Twittered his book idea, and a publisher contacted him. I have been contacted three times by publishers who are interested in my work because of Twitter.
3) Get published. Once you have your blog up and running, look for other places you can be published. We all think we know more than Elizabeth Gilbert, and we want to be the ones with the New York Times bestseller and big movie deal, but we may not be able to get a contract with Penguin right away. But there are places you can get published. There is a ladder. It’s not that hard to climb, but you may have to start on the bottom rung. Look at your denomination’s weekly newsletters. Are there respected religious blogs that you can write for? Often if a publication is not paying its writers and/or it has to publish often, then they’re always looking for good stories or book reviews.
Publishing (like so many things) is in a strange transition at the moment. Most publishers are having a hard time figuring out their strategies during this Internet age. This makes them very wary to publish authors who don’t sell, but it may also be helping them take a chance on newcomers. At least that’s how it seems. I don’t know… what’s your sense of this?
4) Don’t back-stab (i.e., I just changed “we all know more than Elizabeth Gilbert” to “we all think we know more than Elizabeth Gilbert”). And certainly don’t backstab in public. I said to be aware of your petty jealousies, but don’t blog about how much you hate another author. (Just to be clear: I love you, Elizabeth Gilbert). You might only have six people reading your blog, but one of them is the person who set up the blog alert to find out the feedback on his book. The religious writing world is very, very tiny. If you want to write, then you may have to be careful with your snarky comments. Of course, you can write something like this sweet homage.
Don’t write a nasty review of an author’s book on Shefari, and then turn around and ask her for a contribution to your blog. She read your review. And she might be your editor one day. Even if she’s not your editor, she may be making editorial decisions about you. (Publishers–large and small–contact me regularly to ask me what I think about certain authors or book ideas. And I’m just a small fish. I know I’ve advised against authors who have been rude to me. Not out of pettiness or vengeance, but the experience left a bad taste in my mouth when it came to their work.) You may criticize in broad terms, you might have a constructive dialogue, but don’t throw your hope-to-be colleagues under the bus. It might give you a short-term audience, but it makes you untrustworthy and it might destroy you in the long run.
5) Help and ask for help. You have a great amount of power in this new era of publishing. You can write a good Amazon review. You can Twitter when you’re enjoying a book. If you want to be a published author, help to promote the authors you enjoy. Some authors might ignore it when you do (authors often ignore me), but the smart ones will pay attention. I have scored big interviews for God Complex, because I’ve helped the author promote his or her book. I’ve made great friends this way too.
When you’ve been working hard on proposal, ask for help. And women, I’m talking to you. For some reason, it seems that men contact me for help often, and women rarely do. I mean, really close friends will send off a proposal without asking for my help. What can a seasoned author do for you? He can look at the query and proposal and tell you where your mistakes are. Often, he can make a contact with the publishers and put in a good word for you. Of course, you need to build a relationship with the author before he or she will do this. And some authors don’t have the time. There have been situations when I can’t get back to someone with advice, because I’m swamped. If I’m one of fifty people copied on an email, I’ll ignore the request. I can give advice as one person, but I don’t have time to be part of a survey. If you don’t hear back from an author, don’t take it as a failure, it’s just the nature of writing. The workload is often feast or famine, and when it’s feasting time, then the writer has to concentrate hard on prioritizing. He may not get back to you, but that’s probably not because your work sucks. It’s probably just because the writer has put it on the back-burner and forgotten. Or they don’t have the time to help new authors.
And… that’s my advice for publishing, but I’ve gone on too long and haven’t gotten to speaking. I’ll tell you about that tomorrow. So, what would you add?