Getting Your Big Break as a Writer

Four writers in discussion

The recent New West Festival of Words opened with a panel discussion featuring Gail Anderson-Dargatz and J.J. Lee, both judges for the year’s Whistler Independent Book Awards. At the event, jointly sponsored by the Federation of BC Writers and LitFest New West, the panel also included award-winning poet Rob Taylor and best-selling novelist Roberta Rich. After reading from their work, each panelist was asked to share the story of their path to success.

Roberta Rich was able to secure an agent on the strength of her first two, so far unpublished, novels. She likened the process to making waffles – “the first few stick to the pan or are soggy messes. But if you keep at it, they eventually come out crisp and golden brown.” Rob Taylor emphasized the importance of “developing a thick skin” and persevering in the face of frequent rejection. This approach allowed him to slowly build up a body of work that caught the attention of an editor. J.J. Lee turned a volunteer position with campus radio into a job at CBC, where his writing was regularly critiqued by uncompromising editors.

For Gail Anderson-Dargatz, writing contests were the key to success. “I entered contest after contest for years. Eventually, I began to place. Finally I won a CBC literary competition with a story that ultimately became part of The Cure for Death by Lightning.” Her victory helped her secure an agent, and The Cure for Death by Lightning became an international bestseller shortlisted for the Giller Prize.

The themes that unite these experiences are practice, persistence and feedback. All of the panelists emphasized the need for writers to continually hone their craft, be open to feedback and reach as many readers as possible. 

At the conclusion of the evening, each panelist provided a single piece of advice to aspiring writers. J.J. said, “Don’t be afraid.” Gail disagreed. “Be afraid; we are all afraid. But do it anyway.”