Many students entering the Taylor University professional writing major dream that, through the department’s teaching, they will one day have their novels published. Chandler Birch, a 2014 graduate, had this dream become a reality in August when he won the Simon & Schuster Student Writing Contest with his fantasy novel, Ashes. He was flown to New York City in mid-October, where he signed his book contract and was presented a $3,000 advance check. The novel is scheduled for national release in early March.
“It still seems like a dream,” says Birch, who now resides in Colorado Springs, where he is employed as a staff writer and projects coordinator with Christian Writers Guild and its affiliate Believer’s Press. “We first had to send in book proposals, and thousands of college students submitted entries. Those were narrowed to ten finalists, myself included. We finalists then had to complete our novels for a final judging, and mine was chosen number one.”
Birch’s desire to write began when he was eight years old. In third grade he started working on his own stories, though many were just knockoffs of TV shows. As he kept writing and refining his style, he realized just how much he loved writing.
Birch met Dr. Dennis E. Hensley, chairman of the department of professional writing at Taylor University, when Birch was in eighth grade. Dr. Hensley was lecturing at the Writing for the Soul conference, and Chandler’s father arranged a luncheon meeting for the two.
“Chandler told me, even back then, that he wanted to come to Taylor University and study under me after he finished high school,” recalls Hensley. “For the next four years, he kept in touch with me. I sent him articles on writing to read and study, and I edited and returned some of his high school writing assignments he asked me to review and critique.”
Birch didn’t waste time upon arriving at Taylor in 2010. He started writing articles for the university’s newspaper, The Echo, and devotional scripts for WBCL radio. He began publishing his freelance manuscripts in Living the Gospel Life, Church Libraries, The Aboite Independent, and Christian Book Previews. He was even a contributing author in the book Every Day with Jesus (Worthy Publishers, 2012).
Birch first heard about the Simon & Shuster contest during his senior year, when a professional writing graduate linked the contest through Facebook. Students would enter the contest by sending in 50 pages of their novels and a 750 word summary for the chance to win an iPad Mini. Birch originally entered the contest to push himself to complete a novel.
“I need deadlines as a motivator. Something like ‘write 50 pages in the next 15 days’ keeps me going,” Birch admits.
He was already on the fifth draft of Ashes when he entered the contest. His earlier drafts were written by the “seat-of-the-pants,” a style of writing in which the author comes up with the story as he or she creates the draft. By the time Birch came to write the contest draft, he had an ending in mind with his characters fully developed. He also stated that the magic elements of his fantasy story had been fully realized by then with their rules and restrictions established.
While at Taylor, Birch took a wide variety of writing courses, including “Commercial Fiction Writing,” “Freelance Writing,” “Senior Capstone,” and two courses in “Foundations of Professional Writing,” all taught by Dr. Hensley. Birch also studied creative writing, business writing, advanced editing and several literature courses.
Birch graduated from Taylor in May 2014. He first heard about the position with Christian Writers Guild, where he now works, from an email he received from Dr. Hensley.
Hensley explains, “My closest friend, Jerry B. Jenkins, author of Left Behind, contacted me in early 2014 and told me he needed to hire someone full-time to work in his Christian Writers Guild organization. I told him my student Chandler Birch would be graduating in May and would be perfect for the job.”
Birch sent his resume and started working on May 27. “I enjoy the assignments and the people I work with,” Birch says. “I recently became heavily involved in CWG’s Operation First Novel contest—meaning I’ve been judging books at the same time mine was being judged. That was an ironic but enlightening experience.”
Birch’s accomplishment is one of many successes from Taylor’s professional writing department. In 2010, Matt Mimnaugh wrote a novel during his senior year and got it published one month after graduating. Before graduating in 2013, Amy Green published two stage plays and five novels.
“As my current students see this kind of track record of our department,” notes Dr. Hensley, “they realize that this kind of success can also be theirs if they work hard enough.”
Chandler Birch has announced he is already working on a sequel to Ashes.
Brian J. Branscum is a professional writing major at Taylor University and a book reviewer for Church Libraries.