No MFA? Never Took a Writing Class? 6 Ways to Write a Bestseller Anyway!

1. Write As If No One Is Watching. Let the story flow organically without feeling any pressure to reach a certain market, impress a specific agent, or hit a bestseller list. Write because it’s how you process the world around you. Write because it’s what you want to be doing when you aren’t writing. Write because you can’t imagine not being able to write, even if it’s during the wee hours of the morning when you should be sleeping. Then, and only then, is it worth sharing with others.

GIVEAWAY: Julie is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: sspratt2010 won.)



Guest column by New York Times and USA TODAY best-selling
author Julie Cantrell. Julie is the former editor-in-chief of the

Southern Literary Review. She has been a freelance writer for
10 years and has published two children’s books. She has contributed
to more than a dozen books, and her first novel, INTO THE FREE,
hit shelves February 1, 2012 (David C Cook). The sequel is scheduled
to release Spring 2013. Julie and her family live in Oxford, Mississippi
where they operate Valley House Farm.
Visit her website, her blog,
her Facebook page, or her Twitter.


2. Just Say Yes! Unless your name is JK Rowling, John Grisham, or Stephen King (in which case, why in the world are you reading this article? And, um, call me!), you are not too good to take that crummy writing gig. Take the job and learn from every assignment. Pen a local newspaper column. Pitch articles to magazines. Become a freelance writer for corporate clients. Even if the topic happens to be something completely unappealing (think foot fungus), you will learn important skills about word counts, deadlines, editors, fact checking, and more. Write. Publish. Learn. All those lessons will help you build a book worth pitching.

3. Build Your Bridges. Heed your grandmother’s advice. If you have nothing nice to say, then say nothing at all. If you’re honing your writing skills by posting book reviews, do the right thing. There’s nothing worse than a wannabe taking stabs at published authors. Believe it or not, most authors do read their reviews, and loyalty runs deep.

Learn more about online writing classes.

4. Rally the Troops. Writing conferences are great places to make connections with agents, publishers, and fellow writers. They also offer practical workshops and seminars that can launch your career. Of course, not everyone has the time, the money, or (let’s face it) the desire to do the conference hop. It’s still a good idea to find a peer group of writers. Whether in your local area or online, writers help writers be better writers. Share the love. (Everybody together now…group hug on the count of three!)

5. Double Dog Dare. When you’ve embraced the power of your creativity, survived your fair share of grunt work, admired those who blazed the trail before you, and mastered your craft, it is time to release all fear and take the leap. Research books similar to yours and note the agents involved. Make a wish list and start at the top. Aim high, maintaining a spreadsheet of agents you query along with the dates and responses. Not everyone will respond. Not everyone will request a proposal. But don’t let rejection get you down. Just keep trying until you find the right fit. I promise…before you know it, you will land an agent, secure a publishing deal, and see your book on shelves. It’s not only possible, it happens every single day.

6. Finally, Pay it Forward. When you do find your book on the New York Times Bestseller List, remember where you came from and offer to endorse a debut novelist. It just might be the best part of your entire journey.

GIVEAWAY: Julie is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: sspratt2010 won.)


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We bundle them together at a discount in our shop.

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35 thoughts on “No MFA? Never Took a Writing Class? 6 Ways to Write a Bestseller Anyway!

  1. Victoria Ruth Taylor

    My thoughts on the Julie’s topic:

    Wow! This article was right on time. I had my heart bent on an MFA degree…so I stated taking classes to get my BA in English. I was frustrated because the time I would actually finish my BA and enroll in an MFA program was about 2 years away. I was done with the idea of waiting to start my writing career. Who cares if I have a MFA or not, I thought…I can write right now, and self-publish if I have to.

    My passion is for ministry and global outreach so I decided to change my major to Religion just for me because that’s what I wanted to study…and this could free me up to focus on my writing, now. I attended a Christian Writers Conference for the first time the weekend of July20-21, 2012 ( on yesterday, and friday) and was amazed. I got to meet other authors, and a literary agent. Up until that point, I had no clue what a proposal or a query letter was. I’m still on cloud nine, and I believe that I too will be published author…I’m not sure when, or with who.

    Julie, you’re such an inspiration …I’m gonna take your advice and write…write, and write…without feeling the pressure! Writing is suppose to free us…not trap us.

    So off I go…as a write with love, meaning, and freedom.

  2. Scott M

    For those of us who continually question whether what we write can possibly be good enough, this is great encouragement.

    And Chuck, these types of articles should be a regular feature in WD – perhaps call it the “Monthly Mini-MFA” column.

  3. Rosalinda Morgan

    Thanks for the tip. #1 is for me. My college major has nothing to do with writing but more on business. Few years ago, I wanted to write and started with gardening articles which I knew very well. I’ve never published a novel but I ventured into fiction based on true story of my dad’s life before and during World War II. I rewriting my first draft now and your article gives me encouragement.

  4. GabiDeej

    I’m very glad to have found this post in my inbox. First, because I can’t wait to read INTO THE FREE! Second, because it confirms what I have been learning about writing in the last year or so. Even though I do not have a degree in anything remotely literary, I decided to take the leap and begin writing. It was that scary without the background. But what I have been finding is a supportive community of writers, both published and not yet published, encouraging one another to pursue their passion and reach their goal. Thank you, Julie, for your advice and encouragement. I will keep this list visible to remind me to keep on writing and that, with diligence, it is possible to reach that goal! Bless you!

  5. KLTickle

    Thank you, Julie.

    “Write because it’s how you process the world around you.” As I’ve grown as a writer, I’ve found I have less in common with the world around me. Then I realized I have never really felt like I ‘fit in’ and have only been able to embrace my unique self since making writing my priority in life. I’ve not entirely merged yet, but am definitely picking up speed on the entrance ramp.


    Ms. Cantrell,
    Thank you for sharing! Alas, I am a high school drop out, but had a very exciting life, and was adopted by some incredible parents. I always had people tell me, why don’t you write a book about your family and childhood. I had no idea where to begin. I couldn’t write fiction, but when I wrote about true life, something just clicked, and it was like the words formed in my head came out through my fingers. I had purchased a copy of writers market, and lo and behold, every single story I wrote, was published somewhere. I didn’t get a big head, I just kept thinking I needed to do something about my family, so I sat down and started writing the memories from my childhood, and my great family. I just presented what I thought would be a waste of a lot of money, and the down payment on my life time dream, a Harley Bike, to see if the “chapter outlines”, were worth publishing, and I was so excited about the interest the publisher had in it. My book Bits and Pieces of our lives, the memories over the years My Mother wanted to have shared with the world, that loved her and my Dad. Al & Jeanie Tomaini. So I am waiting patiently for my first small book to be published, and am already starting on one about me, and my life experiences. So anyone can do it, you just have to have the fire burning inside your heart, and a note pad or computer, even a typewriter will work. Never give up, just do it!!!
    Judith T. Rock

  7. Poindexter

    Thanks for the encouragement and advice. I am a beginning writer with only the requisite classes to complete college under my belt. A friend keeps prodding me to join a writers’ group, but I live in central Delaware, and the arts are hard to find. I may be relegated to searching web groups and articles like this for support and advice. I need all the help I can get! Thanks again!

  8. iola_reneau

    I am printing out the very first one and reading it often.
    I seem to follow the others pretty well but I get stuck in my head about not having the “degree” to back me up.
    Thank You!

  9. willowrose

    I’m still working on these suggestions. ;p I’ve been working on them for the past five years it seems. I’ve been writing much longer than that but I’ve been focusing on “taking it seriously” for just the past few years. Before then it was more of just a fun thing to do. But then I decided to try to actually get good at it. ;p

    Thanks for the tips! 🙂

  10. Gerbean

    Absolutely true to write, write, write. But it’s also great to read, read, read. Sometimes it’s okay to use a ghost writer too, someone who can help massage your story in ways you might not be able to. I’m currently ghost writing for a disabled person, and she is so thrilled to know she will have a book of her own to hold in her hands when we’re finished. Sometimes it’s not about selling millions, sometimes it’s using writing to simply fulfill a dream. This project is not only honing my skills, it’s doing something as a labour of love, because she could never afford to pay what ghost writers may typically charge. Share the love!

  11. havingfun

    You are always an inspiration. #1 is right on for me. I had to learn to loosen up…write the words I want to write…not the ones that seem safe. I had to learn not to “pick at” what I wanted to really say and…JUST SAY IT!

  12. Christina Lasswell

    These are all great tips, and so encouraging! I just starting reviewing books this year even though I’ve been a reader all my life. It does help with writing skills, and there is a lot of power in that ability to either tear down or build up. Julie, your book is amazing, and you are an inspiration to me.

  13. Christine M Grote

    Thanks for the tips. I self-published a memoir, Dancing in Heaven, last year after a feeble, one-query-letter attempt to find an agent. I’m working on another book and haven’t decided yet what I will do when it is finished. But I’ve also been thinking about trying to do some short freelance work. I was glad to see that was a tip. Thanks.


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