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To Become A Writer

Posted 5 years 193 days ago ago by Randy Mains

Are you interested in becoming a writer?  A young helicopter pilot by the name of Taylor heard me speak at Helisuccess in Las Vegas and sent me an email saying he, too, had an interest in writing and wanted to know what the writing process was like for me, what was the tipping point where I decided to write and WHY.  Here is my answer to him. 

Taylor, if I can do it, anyone can.  I flunked the 1st grade for being a poor reader.  I was not a good writer in school and my first semester in college after high school, I was placed in what they called ‘Dumb bell English.’ I couldn’t string a coherent paper together.  I only lasted 1 ½ years in college as my grades were slipping and I quit before flunking out. I then joined the Army to fly helicopters.  

The first inkling  that I may have had talent for writing was when I went back to college after the service.  I was in the Army for just over 3 years but something magically occurred in that short time-frame.  I went back to college but this time I got A’s in every English class I took and A’s on every writing assignment.  I remember an English professor by the name of Ed Dornan who I really respected told me, “I wish I could write like you.”  His belief in me motivated me to keep writing and was the spark I needed to believe in myself that I might have talent.

I began to write well because I discovered, as most writers do eventually, that writing is actually rewriting.  I just kept polishing what I’d written over and over again until I felt it couldn’t benefit from more rewriting.  

Having only completed two years of college, I went Australia to try to find a helicopter flying job and kept a diary to record the adventure.

I later flew in Papua New Guinea, then Iran before returning to the States during the Islamic Revolution.  My next flying job was as an air medical pilot in San Diego, California.  While there, I went back to college to finish a 4-year degree in Journalism.  

One of the courses I took was Magazine Article Writing.  The professor told  us that if we managed to get a magazine article published you would get an immediate ‘A’ in the course.  I queried Rotor and Wing and the editor asked me to write an article about helicopter air ambulance.  So I wrote Life and Death from an EMS Pilot’s Viewpoint, which appeared in the December 1983 edition of the magazine.  I was paid $500 but receiving the money wasn’t as thrilling to me as actually seeing my name in print.  But the story gets better. 

Six months later the editor called to say Rotor and Wing had submitted my article for a yearly competition sponsored by The American Society of Business Press Editors in Chicago and judged by members of the journalism department at the University of Chicago.  My article won an award for ‘Editorial Excellence.’  The editor told me it was the first time a writer for the magazine had won an award.  

So how did I get into writing books?  I did it as a way to save lives. After graduating from San Diego State, I was hired by the Royal Oman Police to set up a country-wide HEMS program. I’d been flying HEMS in America for six years witnessing first-hand how dangerous it was becoming.  I felt I needed to write a book (fiction based on fact) to act as a bellwether to the industry back home saying if the same practices, attitudes and procedures were allowed to continue, more people would die.  The book is entitled ‘The Golden Hour’ which sadly became prophetic, foretelling the carnage to come.  Since writing that book over 400 people have died in an air medical helicopter crash leaving over 700 crash survivors who must live daily with the physical and emotional scars from their crash.

Writing The Golden Hour was without doubt one of the hardest things I’ve done. I began writing it in 1985 when I first got to Oman and it took me 2 ½ years and four total plot changes before I felt I had a story I could be proud of; one that I wouldn’t mind putting my name to.  It was hard for me because writing a book is much different than writing a magazine article.  I had to learn about plot, characterization, dialogue and rug-pullings.  In short, I had to learn the ‘rules’ of what makes a good story.  To do so, I read several books on how to write a novel.

I had much better luck with my second book, Dear Mom I’m Alive - Letters Home from Blackwidow 25.  I began writing it in 1990.  It took me nine months to write, probably because it was non-fiction. I queried 8 publishers, again by snail-mail from Oman doing what is called a ‘over the transom submission’ that is, an unsolicited manuscript without the benefit of an agent.  Luckily, I was offered a book contract by Avon Books in New York and it sold over 20,000 copies.  

From the time you start writing, until you find a publisher and finish the negotiations and it finally enters the light of day, you are looking at 2 to 2 ½ years which, to me, seemed like an eternity.  That is why I self-published my last two books mainly because the messages I had to deliver to the HEMS industry was so time-critical (lives were being lost at an average of 13 per year) that I felt I couldn’t wait for more people to die waiting for the book to come out.

The problem with self-publishing is that there is no mechanism for advertising or distribution of your book.  But because I have a target audience in the HEMS industry, I can easily get the word out about my books.  

I use what is called ‘on demand’ publishing, that is, I can order as many or as few books I feel I need at the time.  It’s a good way to go because you’re not saddled with a garage full of books gathering dust waiting to be sold.

So, Taylor, my advice to you is this: write what you like reading about then rewrite it until it sparkles.  Subscribe to Writer’s Digest a magazine for serious writers.  We wannabe writers were told about the magazine in college.  I subscribed to it for many, many years and found it extremely useful.  There are lots of excellent tips in it for aspiring writers plus I found it to be a great motivator.

Find someone you trust to read what you’ve written, someone who will be honest with their feedback.  Family members are seldom a good choice because they don’t want to discourage or tell you what you’ve written isn’t good.  I was told in college that if your worst enemy likes what you’ve written, it’s probably good.  

Keep a journal or diary.  I used my diaries as reference for my last two autobiographical books.  They helped with chronology and dusting off the memory banks.  My pilot log books helped in that regard too.  

Writers write.  If you write you ARE a writer regardless if you’ve published or not.  Please keep that in mind and don’t give up.  A writer once said, “Ninety-five percent of being a successful writer is putting the seat of your pants to a chair.”

That is so true!

Try getting published by picking a magazine you’d like to write for and send an email asking for their editorial guidelines which will tell you what the magazine is looking for, word length, what they pay, how to submit etc.  The Writer’s Market is an excellent resource for placing your work and can be found in your local library.

I hope I’ve answered your questions.  Now get writing!  


Randy Mains is an author, public speaker, and a CRM/AMRM consultant who works in the helicopter industry after a long career of aviation adventure. He currently serves as chief CRM/AMRM instructor for Oregon Aero. He may be contacted at [email protected]