Encouraging Aspiring Writers

Photo/CCWCAs a freelance writer and writing instructor, I’m often asked to edit the work of my peers and of aspiring writers. And I love to encourage others to tell the stories that matter most.

Grammar cops. I also appreciate the editing skills of my writing peers, as they wield their red pens and hack on my “shoddy” first drafts. But at times, I observe grammar cops attack insecure, fragile writers, who approach them for encouragement as they tiptoe into the waters of writing for publication.

Now, I’ve been known to whip out my red pen from time to time, when someone asks me to do that kind of editing. But I try to use a little discernment and discretion when a novice writer approaches me with their work.

Aspiring writers. Sensitive, aspiring writers need our empathy, since they trust us with some of their most intimate tales. These newer writers pour out their hearts and souls into their first pieces; we need to handle them with care.

I’ve seen writers spanning from late teens to senior citizens. And I’ve noticed many of them choose topics dealing with difficult life struggles—the death of loved ones, flashbacks of war experiences, or simply leaving home and beginning their own journey as adults. I’m able to empathize with their pain, confusion, doubts, and fears. I recognize their need to tell their stories, trying to make sense out of the rumblings of their minds and troubled hearts.

Levels of edit. I believe it’s vital to discern the needs of a writer, not always assuming they need a grammar cop to attack their work with a red pen. My unsolicited grammar cop comments tend to cause more harm than good. I find it helpful to ask writers to clarify their needs and their expectations of me as an editor. What level of editing do they want?

I also think it’s important to examine one aspect of editing at a time, since I don’t do well at multi-tasking. And although many professional editors may have different terms to describe their levels of editing, my editing checklist for my own work includes three—the panoramic, macroscopic, and microscopic viewpoints. But sometimes, I consider one more level editing, especially with writers who need encouragement—like students, wannabe writers, or hobby writers (i.e. not professional writers).

Peer responses. Some professional writers may not even consider the peer response a valid level of editing, but it can serve as an important phase of the writing process. For instance, this approach might be helpful for some critique groups.

In the classroom, I required my students to participate in peer groups where they would listen and respond to each other’s work. I preferred small groups, where students seemed to be a little less intimidated. I wanted to encourage their writing, not scare them off.

I provided every student several copies of a peer response form. Then, as each writer read their essay out loud, their peers would listen, read along, and record their responses. After each reading, the group would discuss the responses.

One of my favorite writing professors, Dr. Sally Crisp, encouraged me as she taught aspiring writing teachers the value of emphasizing meaning.

I believe that we write to communicate and connect with others, often others we don’t know and may never know. In responding to writers, I like to let them know how their message got through to me. In other words, whether I ‘got it’ or I didn’t. I teach the same principle when I teach collaboration. The right kind of collaboration can be an excellent means of fostering in writers a keen sense of audience.

Dr. Crisp also composed a list of peer response questions and comments that you might find helpful, too.

Peer Responses

  1. How has the writer introduced the essay?
  2. What is the main theme of the essay?
  3. Is there any information that you are wondering about? What might be added to develop the main point more fully?
  4. How did the author conclude the essay?
  5. What part of the essay do you find the most effective? Why?
  6. Suggest two or three things that would make the paper even better.

Who has encouraged you as a writer? 

When the Bad Reviews Come {And They Will}

 

bad book reviews

“She needs to have more respect for the process . . . trying to claim that everyone should heal like her.”

The words pierced my heart.

Until then, I had enjoyed a couple good months of positive feedback, those heartwarming days after the release of my debut nonfiction book, When A Woman Finds Her Voice. The book hit #1 on Amazon’s Hot New Releases charts and then walked the Amazon {paid} bestseller list {in its genre} for a couple weeks in the top five. It also won some literary awards. But more importantly, my words were reaching the hearts of readers as comments like “inspiring,” “introspective,” “encouraging,” and even “life-changing” peppered online reviews.

That sort of feedback overwhelms a girl with God’s goodness, giving value to this shy writer’s words. To think He had somehow exchanged these primitive ramblings of one who simply longed to spread hope and had used them as encouragement for others, that’s humbling.

I’d finally felt the freedom to say it above a whisper: I am an author.

But then that two-star review hit my screen, attacking my sense of worth. It shouldn’t have, I know. Mentors warned me it was coming; they’d suggested I not even read it.

I didn’t listen.

I determined to mentally counter the negativity and then quickly return to my illusory sense of fulfillment. After all, I welcomed reviews—good or bad. Perpetual student that I am, I’m known to {relentlessly} solicit constructive criticism as an opportunity to learn. And here it sat, this chance for free education, this two-star review therapy.

But in a review-driven culture where we allow others to determine what we read, watch, eat, and even where we spend the night, how can we not be impacted when someone misunderstands our heart?

The judgement sliced soul deep, challenging insecurities I’d long ago buried.

This is the sort of vulnerability we open ourselves up to when we cast our words, our heart, into a public arena that holds potential for not just admiration and esteem but also misunderstanding.

You see, there’s nothing I’m more compassionate about than reaching the heart of a wounded woman and leading her to the restoring, redemptive feet of Jesus. But this particular reader didn’t know that, didn’t know me.

So how do we filter through these words when they come?

  1. We anchor. It’s crucial to anchor any negativity with perspective. We can’t allow disapproval to overtake our thoughts. For the one poor criticism, I had 49 positive reviews from folks who had been uplifted by my words. I worked hard to focus on those. {Very hard.}
  2. Bounce back. To feel defensive at first is natural, but if you find yourself wanting to respond negatively {as in hunt the person down on social media to blast them back}, walk away from the screen and refocus. Immediately.
  3. Consider truth. Ask yourself, “Is this true? Is the criticism valid? Did I somehow fall short?” If so, use this information in a positive manner and seek to write with excellence. However, if the negatives aren’t well-rounded and constructive, the point baseless, you simply have to let it go.

As word-weavers, this should become our default: in the face of bad reviews, let’s practice our ABCs to rebuild our confidence. Anchor. Bounce. Consider.

Okay, I’m curious now: How do you handle criticism?

7 Writing Tips We Learned From Our Dogs

samson-at-computer

We have always loved dogs. Over the course of our lives together we have owned over 27 dogs. It is not surprising that some were our best teachers. Here’s what our four-legged friends have taught us about writing:

1. Sit and Stay. These are the two most important commands for writers! If you don’t sit down and begin, you will never get started. Staying is important, too. No, you don’t need another snack.

2. Dig!  Sometimes the facts that we need are buried deep, like a good old bone. The best writing requires some digging–in the library, on the internet, in your heart. Sniff it out. Then dig. If you don’t find it, dig another hole.

3. Know your territory. Writing takes good boundaries and good boundaries mean saying no. One important lesson for both of us was to protect and guard our writing time. We put the time on our schedule and then we protect it. Remember: Growl, don’t bite!

4. Expect treats. It is hope that keeps us going. Hope of touching a reader. Hope of one day holding your book in your hands. Excitement and anticipation is an important part of writing. Sit down to write expecting something good to happen.

5. Be kind to the postman. It’s not his fault. Rejection is an important part of the writing process. Keep it in perspective. Shake it off and start again.

6. Stay in the moment. Don’t get ahead of yourself and start worrying about the future.  Don’t stay stuck in the past. Worry is not your friend.

7. Play! Some of the best ideas come to us away from the desk. Stop work to chase a few ideas. Dogs love any distraction from a tennis ball to a squirrel. The work will still be waiting when you come back.

Has your pet taught you anything about writing?

Betsy Duffey and Laurie Myers  www.WritingSisters.com

 

Bio: The Writing Sisters, Betsy Duffey and Laurie Myers were born into a writing family, and began critiquing manuscripts at an early age for their mother, Newbery winner Betsy Byars.  They went on to become authors of more than thirty-five children’s novels. Their first book for adults is  The Shepherd’s Song,  Howard Books, March 2014.

Your First Writers Conference? Things to Know Before You Go!

This is conference season for writers! Not just the national conferences like RWA and ACFW, but smaller, regional conferences. There’s probably a writing conference or retreat somewhere in your area this summer or fall.

Speaker at Business Conference and Presentation.I’m planning to attend the ACFW conference in St. Louis in September, and it will be my second. As I’ve been signing up for classes and preparing my wardrobe (comfortable shoes are a must!), I’ve been thinking back to my first ACFW conference two years ago. I hope what I learned will benefit you.

  • Don’t be afraid to go. You won’t be the only newbie. Not only will you find other first-timers (at ACFW you learn to look for the tell-tale ribbon on other attendees’ name badges), but the veterans will welcome you as a new member of the family.
  • Don’t retreat to your room. Writers are prone to enjoy our solitary existence. We like to be alone. But conference isn’t the place for it. You paid a lot of money to meet other people who speak your language, so make sure you meet them. Introduce yourself. Sit next to strangers. Join someone who is standing alone. Strike up a conversation. You never know who you might meet. Two years ago, I ended up eating lunch with the most charming veteran author who writes in the same genre I do. What a treat to talk with her in that non-threatening environment!
  • Don’t sweat it if you can’t attend all of the classes and workshops you signed up for. Buy the sessions on the MP3 download or CDs and listen to them when your mind isn’t filled with the busyness of conference.
  • On the other hand, try not to skip the sessions you signed up for. There’s nothing like the immediate, in-person teaching by an industry professional to spark your enthusiasm.
  • Enjoy your appointments with editors and agents. Be confident, relaxed, and friendly. And if they ask you to submit something, do it. Since they really want to see it, email it to them as soon after conference as possible.
  • Exchange business cards with the new friends you meet. It’s helpful to have your picture on your card, if at all possible. You’ll be meeting so many people, it will be hard to connect names with faces a week later.
  • Most of all, have fun! Enjoy the meetings, the down times, the after-hours sessions with your new friends. Meet new people, become inspired, and get fired up!

Are you planning to attend a conference soon? Will you be in St. Louis in September for ACFW? If so, be sure to look me up!

The Only Story That Matters

july 013I was beginning to panic about my book sales. Despite my hard work and ceaseless efforts to promote my new book, I just wasn’t making a dent in the supply of books I’d bought from my publisher. Since I’d borrowed the money from our family savings, I felt guilty that I wasn’t refilling the coffer as quickly as I’d so optimistically assumed I would.

What more could I do? Post even more frequently on social networks? Write more guest blogs? Camp out on the doorsteps of radio and television stations to get their attention? Go into even more debt by hiring a publicist, in hopes he could convince people to buy my book? Beg the few bookstores still in existence to push my book at customers?

I didn’t do any of those things.

Instead, I asked God for help. I prayed for more book sales.

And He delivered.

Within days, I heard from two stores who had taken some of my copies that they needed more. Some event bookings I’d been pursuing for months finally came through, and I added them to my calendar. One night as I lay awake in bed, thinking about my book, I realized there was another market I could tap into, and the next day, I discovered solid leads for doing exactly that.

And then my daily Scripture devotional chimed in with Jeremiah 32:17.

universe“Ah, Sovereign Lord, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you.”

Yes, I was reassured and completely grateful for God’s generosity to me in the form of helping me sell more books as I had requested in prayer. I’d asked, and I’d received.

Praise God!

To be honest, though, I felt something even more compellingly: I felt chastised. I’d asked the omnipotent Lord, who created the universe itself, to help me sell books! Who did I think I was to even imagine He would care about a few hundred dollars in my life? It’s not like I needed a PLANET or anything. I wanted material success. I wanted to put some money back in the bank. I wanted God to make me feel better about a story I wrote. A story!!

Talk about putting myself at the center of the universe. I was humbled. Embarrassed. Aghast at my own egocentricity.

And, most of all, stunned by God’s patience with me, because this isn’t the first time I’ve let my selfish priorities slide in over what I know to be the single most important relationship of my life: my relationship with God.

It’s true – nothing is too hard for God, and that includes loving me…and you.

And really, that’s the only story that matters, isn’t it?

 

The 7 Fear-Nots of Every Writing Project

Woman afraid (funny)

Whenever an emissary from another world showed up in all its effulgence, men and women fell down terrified, overcome, filled with God-brilliance and self-loathing. Our own writing projects, delivered by the other-worldly muse, can inflict and inspire a similar terror at times (Woe is me! Why did I think I could write this novel?). When you’re visited by these angels of brilliance-and-woe, (and you will be!), remember what usually came next, after the Visited fell facedown in the dirt: “Fear Not!” And then words of hope and direction were given to the stricken to lift them to their feet and their new purpose.

Here are 7 tested “Fear Nots” to get you back to your screen and your project:

Woman smiling with hands folded

1. Fear Not!—-That you’re not qualified to write this material. You’ve chosen this material, or it has chosen you, for reasons deeper than anyone knows, including you (unless you’re purely market-driven). Your desire, your interest, your life experience, your questions, maybe even your prayer life may have something to do with this insistent need to address this subject. Trust your choosing and chosenness.

2. Fear Not! —–That you have nothing new to contribute to the world. Listen to Madeleine L’Engle:
“My husband is my most ruthless critic. . . Sometimes he will say, ‘It’s been said better before.’ Of course it has. It’s all been said better before. If I thought I had to say it better than anybody else, I’d never start. Better or worse is immaterial. The thing is that it has to be said; by me; ontologically. We each have to say it, to say it our own way. Not of our own will, but as it comes out through us. Good or bad, great or little: that isn’t what human creation is about. It is that we have to try; to put it down in pigment, or words, or musical notes, or we die.”

3. Fear Not!—–That the article, short story, memoir, sonnet, sci-fi trilogy, whatever form you’re writing in, feels too difficult. Fear is the perfect response before something this grand and complex. This is partly why you’ve chosen it. If it were easy, you wouldn’t grow as a writer.

4. Fear Not!—–That you don’t have enough time to write. Of course you don’t. No one does. But if you are serious about this project, you will find a way to re-order your life: stop watching TV, write while the kids are napping, get up 2 hours earlier than everyone else, take your manuscript with you on vacation. Yes, it costs you ( and it costs others too, you must realize). Did you think otherwise? Count the cost to everyone. Then, if still so moved, cut and carry on.

5. Fear Not!—-That you don’t know where your novel, trilogy, even your memoir is headed. No one you know informs you of the outcome of their lives, do they? How many of your friends know where their lives are headed and how they will get there and who they will be once they’re there? You will not know this for your characters or story until they do. Keep writing day by day, keep listening to them, and you’ll find out what you need at the right time. The writing itself will get you there.

6. Fear Not!—–That you’re not a good enough writer to accomplish your goal. None of us is good enough to finish a project when we start. Some of us aren’t even good enough to start! By the time we finish, though, we have become more than good enough. The struggle, the long hours and the word-wrangling and prayer-wrestling will all get you there.

7. Fear Not! —-That no one will read your work. Someone WILL read your work. Maybe a few friends, the ones you really care about, maybe thousands of strangers. No one knows this when they are writing, and it has nothing to do with the writing. Just get on with the world you are making, and trust that your creation will find the people who need and cherish it the most.

BONUS: Because fears often multiply, one more to put to rest: Fear Not!—-That when this project is done, you will exhaust all your words and ideas. Not so. You may be temporarily exhausted, but never fear! Your best writing keeps the muse coming back. And when she does, return to this list, pick yourself up—-and turn a new page.

The Seven -Fear Nots- of Every Writing Project (1)

It’s Never Too Late to Write

I started my writing career later than most. At least compared to many of my twenty-first century peers.

And I worried I’d waited too long.

Broodmoor Hotel, Colorado

It’s Never Too Late to Make a New Bed

Actually, I had a lot of strikes against me. I was sure I’d made my bed, and had no opportunity to make another. But I was wrong.

If it hadn’t been for a persistent push from God, I doubt I’d be writing to you now. But He continually convicted me through the Parable of the Talents, Matthew 25:14-30. You see, I was the wicked and lazy servant who’d buried her gift.

However, God truly is merciful — and encouraging. Over a period of a few years, He used five real-life examples to show me it’s never too late to write.

The first lived in Missouri, like I do. Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane, two of the most inspirational writers I’ve ever studied, called Mansfield, Missouri home. Rose schooled her mother on how to formally pen those wonderful classic books, the Little House on the Prairie series.

But the most amazing part was learning Laura was sixty-five years old when the first best-selling manuscript went to her publisher.

Strolling through her grounds recently, I imagined her gnarled hands scratching out stories from memory onto pages of paper. She finished her final book at age seventy-six.

Another author who started late was Frank McCourt, also publishing in his mid-sixties. The wisdom of time and experience propelled Angela’s Ashes to the top of global readers’ favorite lists.

At forty-five, Raymond Chandler, (who I share a birth date and month with), finally broke into publishing success, after struggling from the time of his youth to make his professional mark.

In her fifties, Mary Wesley published a few children’s books without notice. However, in her seventies, she took the world by storm with her first novel, Jumping the Queue.

James Michener is a well-known name for those who know writing. But some don’t realize his fifty year Pulitzer-prize-winning career didn’t start until he was fifty, continuing until his death at age ninety. His last book published posthumously.

What's on Your Bucket List

What Does Your Bucket List Say?

No matter what encourages you, whether it’s real-life examples, spiritual promptings, or the example of a writer who did, though I feared I wouldn’t, let something spur you on. Age, location, past failures, naysayers, none of those things matter.

If you are willing to learn, to listen, to do the work, to learn some more, to listen some more, then work some more, you will see results. Maybe not at the caliber of some of the names listed here, but at the level you are supposed to achieve. This leads me to one more thought — actually it’s a question.

Many people tell me they believe in God. But I respond by asking this, “Do you believe God?” A simple change in sentence structure changes the meaning. In Proverbs 14:23 (NIV), it says, “All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.”

Maybe your sentence structure will help someone see a familiar statement in a new way. Maybe your profit will result in financial windfalls. But more likely, it will come through a life changed. A life you touch because you never gave up. Because like me, you chose to believe God and say, “It’s never too late to make a fresh start with fresh faith — while I write.”

What encourages you to write on?