The thick, familiar odor frying bacon, onions, and the sounds of clanking utensils against cheap plates filled the small country café. I’d been lamenting a temporary stall in my writing career while we had our weekly appointment with eggs over easy.
Across the booth, my former boss and friend of over forty years, the Cap’n, raised an eyebrow and sipped from a steaming cup of coffee. “You hear yourself, right? You remember what you said back in the old days when we were taking those education courses?”
The Cap’n doesn’t have an eidetic memory, but he comes pretty close and I had to flip through several cases of dusty mental files to dredge up a nearly forgotten conversation between two young men in the teacher’s lounge. I finally found the memory and blew it off. “I said I wanted to get just one book published.”
“Right. It was back in ’81. You wanted to get just one book published and then you said you’d be finished. Let me see, ‘I just want one book on shelf and I’ll be through.’ That about what you said?”
I thought I had one book in me, and had never considered writing another. As a teacher working in the classroom during the day, taking Masters level courses in the evenings two days a week, and sitting behind an old IBM Selectric in a bedroom/office, I wanted to leave something behind that would outlast me.
“Well, that was a long time ago, but I never expected to get a series.”
“Yeah, and now you have a dozen books on that shelf and you’re bitching about how you’re not on the best seller list.”
“You realize you’ve already achieved what others dream about? You’re published.” He raised an eyebrow and held the nearly empty cup like a smoker with a cigarette. “Ever thought you’d be here, with two series going at the same time?”
“My manuscript is still in the drawer and I piddle with it only every now and then. You did it your way, now shut up and keep writing and you’ll make it one of these days. Breakfast is on you by the way, big shot writer.”
That conversation somewhere around 1980 came after I’d already been struggling for years, trying to get at least something published. With a stack of rejection notices that reached from the floor to the top of the table I used as a desk, I needed to find a way to break in. Eight years later, I achieved that dream that most budding writers only talk about, but it didn’t come easy.
I was reading a book by the author who inspired my style, Robert C. Ruark, when an idea clicked. Ruark launched his writing career by getting published in a newspaper.
Hey, I can write a newspaper column.
And like Ruark, I used newspapers to establish a foundation by writing outdoor humor, a niche that, in my mind, needed to be filled.
Of course we all want to explode on the writing scene with a massive bestseller, and that occasionally happens, but the cold hard truth is that we need to build that solid foundation by finding our voice, and most often that comes from practice and a lot of work.
But you have to get that voice out there, and one way is my suggestion for beginning writers who come to me for advice. Here it is, but you might not like it.
Write for free.
So let’s examine this suspicious piece of advice. How do you write for free?
Try small publications. My first column was published in The Paris News back in 1988, and they paid me. My work caught the attention of another paper about an hour away, and a year later I was writing for them, too. Then another, and before long, I was in 50+ papers in Texas and Oklahoma. They paid me, too, but that was then.
When the Internet became a Thing, papers dropped me like falling snowflakes as their income dwindled and readers turned to finding their news online. The first thing to go were the columnists. But that was an excellent place to cut my teeth.
There are still small town papers and independent publications that need content. They may not be able to pay, or pay much, say $5 a column, or they may only offer space for your work, but that space results in tear sheets that can be used to establish your writing reputation.
Online magazines and organizations need writers, and through I have no experience in that world, I’m sure there are online entities that are looking for good writing. Contact them and offer to write for free. It’s the perfect place to polish your craft, and is an excellent way to gain exposure.
“But I can do the same on my blog.”
Yes, mysterious, figment of my imagination. You can, and keep doing it that way, but one outlet these days isn’t enough. You need to expand that foundation and create a name for yourself. Write online, in local magazines and papers, in those small community publications that appear in your mailbox, and anywhere else you can find. Build name recognition, assemble a collection of tear sheets both physical and electronically, and use them to get noticed.
Get it? Reach into a new box of spaghetti and pull out one strand. Yep, there it is, one piece of dried noodle that you can boil and consume. Small. Unimpressive.
Now, shake the whole box into onto the table and watch them scatter like pick-up sticks. Look at all of them. That single stick might be difficult to see, but the contents of the entire box is right there, impossible to miss.
Get your name out there, and eventually, someone will offer a few bucks for your work.
Then build on that momentum. One…step…at…a…time.
Try it my way and someday maybe you’ll have that one book on a shelf, then you can start complaining about not being further along.
In the meantime, Happy New Year and good luck with your writing!