Posts Tagged ‘writing life’

Writing Coaching Inspiration: One River Is Like Another River

Working with writers can be tricky. They’re on a wild and unpredictable journey. As a coach, I want to help—but sometimes a writer’s goals can prove out of their (current) reach. That’s when I reach deep into my bag of writing coaching inspiration. I need to pull out something that both acknowledges the hard truth they’re facing and offers reassurance that there are still fine opportunities likely to arise for them.

Recently, I read a beautiful ancient tale—one of discouragement followed by unlikely success. Told in Dianne Skafte’s LISTENING TO THE ORACLE, it’s the story of a Greek soldier who loses his way in enemy territory. He is supposed to meet up with his troop on the banks of a certain river. They plan to board a ship there and travel to a town friendly to their cause. Having hired a guide to help him get to his destination safely, the soldier is devastated to find he has been led to a different river!

He berates his guide, only to be met with a shrug—and this enigmatic response: “One river is like another river.” What? But in fact, appearing on the shores of this river is a small boat captained by a man who agrees to take the soldier back to the friendly town that was his original aim.

Once the soldier disembarks from the small boat in the town, he learns, to his horror, that the ship with his mates was captured and all aboard were killed.

Writing coaching inspiration

The soldier was not able to reach the river he aimed for. But he was guided to another river that carried him to safe harbor.

Similarly, when we set our sights on big writing goals, it may be that we can’t reach them—or not at this time. Whether we want to publish in a major magazine or attract an agent to represent us, our desired outcomes may be (temporarily) unattainable.

That’s when it’s time to scout out another river. Reset your goals. Aim to get published in a regional magazine, rather than in O Magazine. Agents can be tough to impress. Consider submitting your manuscript to small press editors instead. Match your target to your current abilities to meet it.

Fortunately, different from this Ancient Greek tale, no one is likely to die in the literary trenches. But when we’re rejected, it hurts. Still, it’s a wise Modern writer who will remember the motto of that Ancient Greek guide. One river is like another river. So look around. A boat you never imagined might appear on a river you didn’t notice. And you might find, ultimately, you are carried exactly where you want to go.

Need some clarity about your writing goals? A consultation with a top writing coach might help! Let’s chat.

Writing coaching inspiration with Jamie Morris, pictured smiling. Writing is a powerful and compelling endeavor. If you are setting goals but not meeting them, though, you might need a different approach—or more nuanced goals. With over a dozen years’ experience helping writers take their work to the next level, I might be able to show you how to make similar strides. Schedule a free 30-minute consultation with me. Also, check out THE WRITER mag article Should I Hire a Writing Coach.”

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Why Hire a Book Coach: Jen’s Story

Perhaps you’re wondering, Why hire a book coach? Jen’s story, below, will give you a novel writer’s first-hand experience of working with a professional book coach.

When Jen first contacted me, she’d completed a Young Adult (YA) novel and had already been under contract with a literary agent for a year. Unfortunately, the agent was not able to sell the book. The editors rejecting Jen’s manuscript said things like: “The plot was slow-moving,” “I found my interest waning by the third chapter,” and “I couldn’t quite connect with the main character.”

Finally, mutually frustrated, Jen and her agent parted ways. This brought Jen to a come-to-Jesus moment with her literary career—and led her to hire a writing coach. I’m delighted that coach was me! And I’m so happy to share Jen’s thoughts on our process together.

Why hire a book coach: Jen shares her story

If you’re a writer, you spend a lot of time in your own head. If you’re not a writer, that might sound weird to you, but trust me—it’s fun! There are people in there, and they’re doing interesting things: falling in love, learning magic, murdering their families. Writers’ heads hold maps of cities and castles and the location of quicksand. They’re populated by talking animals, ghosts who refuse to speak their needs clearly, and, maybe, if we’re really good planners, several generations of violent family trauma.

See? Fun!

Writers, however, aren’t content to hang around in their own brains by themselves forever. We writers want to show-n-tell the insides of our brains to the world. And we want the world to love what they see. And pay us for it.

So we sit down to our laptops and we type for many years. And then we send our manuscripts to our friends and family and wait for them to say they like it. And then we email our manuscripts to carefully researched agents in New York who we’re sure are going to love it. And then we die when we receive piles of rejection letters.

But we revive ourselves and do it again. And again. Maybe we do it three times before we stand in front of our haggard reflections and ask ourselves if we should stop—forever.

We don’t, though, either because we really loved show-n-tell (and we’re still mad that Mrs. Walsh mismanaged her time and missed our turn on the last week of second grade) or because there’s something in our bones that won’t let us stop.

When to hire a book coach

After all those rounds of rejection, we realize it’s time to do something different. If we’ve got several years of free time on our hands—not to mention a spare $50,000—maybe we go back to school for a Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) in writing.

If we don’t have that luxury—and I didn’t—I highly recommend hiring a book coach.

If you’re intimidated by the cost of a writing coach, you might want to research the cost of a three-credit graduate class on novel writing. Then consider the fact that you’d be sharing your professor with your classmates. Not only that, but your class will likely end long before you finish a first draft, let alone your second.

When I found Jamie, I was in the middle of my MA in Special Education, and it put the cost in perspective. By the age of 35, I had invested tens of thousands of dollars on myself as a teacher and only a few hundred dollars on myself as a writer. I decided it was time to change that.

Why hire a book coach if you have a finished manuscript

I came to Jamie with a finished manuscript—my first foray into writing adult fiction, rather than my seemingly unmarketable YA novels. But no matter how many times I revised it, it wasn’t working.

We decided to go back to the beginning of the process—back to story concept. That meant I had to trust Jamie with the raw contents of my brain, and it wasn’t easy. Jamie, however, is a big fan of raw brain. She’s an idea zombie, if you will—deeply interested in the process. I learned to trust her to help me untangle the contents of my gray matter and weave them into a cohesive story, one that connects with readers.

Not show-n-tell

Writing a novel is inherently a lonely process. While it may not be show-n-tell, writing is a way to make a human connection. (Maybe AI is going to write the next novel. And maybe it will be entertaining. But I daresay readers want satisfying connections with characters, understanding that another human designed that character and her journey.)

Leo Tolstoy said, “Art is a microscope which the artist fixes on the secrets of his soul, and shows to people these secrets which are common to all.” Writing 400 pages of the secrets of your soul just to receive a “no thanks” earns you membership in an especially sad club.

You start to wonder if there’s something wrong with you—something about your secrets that really are uncommon.

And then you meet Jamie, who tells you that’s crazy, to get back to work. The issue isn’t that you’re too weird, she’ll say. It’s that you’re not being weird enough. From there, you discover the secret to connecting to readers is mastering the craft. It’s a skill. It’s hard work. That narrative structure, the Hero’s Journey—the one that’s been in literally every story ever since the dawn of human language—it exists for a reason.

No, it’s not easy to master. But Jamie is a plotting expert with a keen eye for characterization. She’s a voracious reader with a book recommendation for exactly what you need to work on this month. She’s a cheerleader and a tough-love distributor. Family and friends will pretend to like your work when it’s bad. Jamie will not. She’s your personal trainer who’s going to tell you that you need to work harder, but she’s also going to make sure you’re not wasting your valuable time working harder on the wrong things.

Welcome to the book coach reality show

Working with Jamie hasn’t exactly been the show-n-tell I’ve wished for; it’s more like being a contestant on one of those reality TV shows. You know. The ones where the straight-shooting declutterer holds your hand as you tearfully toss four of your five chipped Teflon pans into a distended garbage bag. Just like that host, though, Jamie reassures you that, somewhere, behind those dutch ovens and glass casseroles, there’s going to be a story people—editors included—will love.

And I believe her.

—Jen Russ

Struggling to get published? A top book coach might help! Let’s chat.

Writing coach Jamie Morris, pictured smiling, can help you learn how to self-publish your book. I love story—and the characters that live through their stories. I’ve helped many novelists develop their plots in ways that make them more engaging and more marketable. If you’re working on a novel and wonder how to make it more successful, schedule a free 30-minute consultation with me. Also, check out THE WRITER mag article Should I Hire a Writing Coach.”

Tarot’s Judgment: Your Writing Coach

When tarot’s Judgment card volunteers to be your writing coach, fasten your seatbelt! It’s time to rev up a manuscript you thought had breathed its last. We’ve all been there, right? (Or is it just me?) We give up on a “failed” manuscript. Then we push it as far away from ourselves as possible, leaving it to die an ignoble death.

But is it really dead?

Tarot’s Judgment card can coach a writer’s draft to life.

Tarot's Judgment: your writing coach is shown as a phoenix rising from the flamesJudgment, in tarot, is about rebirth. In this image, we see a Phoenix rising from the ashes. From the Judgment card’s perspective, we can see that our manuscript did not actually collapse into a pile of cold ashes. It just needed time to settle.

In WRITING DOWN THE BONES, Natalie Goldberg discusses “composting” our ideas. She says that with repeated attempts to express a concept or aspect of our lives, we’ll eventually develop a sort of critical mass of attention. And “something beautiful will bloom.”

This seems to me to be similar to the way we can focus sunlight through a magnifying glass and eventually set fire to a pile of kindling. (Please don’t try this at home!)

Tarot’s Judgment writing coaching moment

It’s been my experience that our ideas, gathered like tinder in the form of a draft, may lay dormant for longer than seems reasonable. In fact, having shoved the darned thing in a drawer or file, we swear we’ll never look at it again.

And then … one day … it calls out to us. Then, it’s time to bring out the magnifying glass and stare at our draft until it bursts into fiery new life. That moment when the twigs spark, that’s a Judgment card moment! When our book draft (finally) starts to kindle, though, we must be right there to fan the flames.

You see, Judgment may make the call. But we must to be ready to answer with a full heart—and faith that this time our book will be fully born from the flames.

Ready to (re-)commit to your book? A chat with a top writing coach might give you the boost you need!

When a writer is ready to tackle either a significant revision or an entirely new approach to their book, a professional writing coach can offer a perspective that will help them get traction right from the get-go. Would you like to discuss your project? Breathe new life into your book with Jamie Morris writing coach and tarot's Judgment card Schedule your free consultation.and check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

Tarot’s Judgment Card as Your Writing Coach uses the image of Judgment from the ASTROMATRIX TAROT.

Tarot for Writers: 9 of Coins

When we writers consult tarot and see the 9 of Coins, it may signal a high-five from our muse! Have we graduated in some way? Had a step up in our writing life? Have we made the leap from student or apprentice to master of our writing domain?

If so, huzzah!! Here’s the 9 of Coins’s story—and some lessons we can take from it.

Tarot for writers: Introducing the 9 of coins

Let me tell you about the 9 of Coins (aka 9 of Pentacles). a tarot card shows writers a woman in a vineyard with 9 coins growing amidst the grapes This lady was born to wealth. (For a writer, that’s like being born with talent.) Her father owned a successful vineyard. He was grateful when his daughter took an interest in the business and apprenticed with him. (That’s us, acknowledging our abilities and embarking on an education to develop them.)

After years of dedication and application (us, working our butts-in-chairs off!), she took over the vineyard, allowing her father to retire. Once she was in charge, she established a winery, hosted wine-tasting weekends, and created an annual wine-and-grape competition.

Her father was concerned she was overreaching, but the 9 of Coins was ready to try new approaches. Some of her innovations succeeded and some failed. But either way, the reins were in her hands, and she was going to steer the business according to her own lights.

(That’s us! We may have spent years studying with wonderful teachers in amazing writing programs. But at some point, we’re ready to step out from under their wings—or shadows—and try it our own way. Good for us. Those we’ve trusted for guidance in the past might not approve of some of our choices. But we’ve put in our time—and now we’ve graduated and are steering our own literary ships.)

Tarot’s advice for writers from the 9 of Coins

If tarot’s 9 of Coins were your writing coach, this is what she would tell you:

You’ve studied hard and learned from many teachers. The time has come to move out of the role of student and put your hard-won knowledge to work in the fields of writing.

You have earned your opportunities. Capitalize upon them. Not all will bear fruit. But don’t let failed crops discourage you from sowing new seeds. Work hard and eventually you will harvest the riches of your own creative labor.

Although you’ve inherited a vineyard, you may decide to plant some of your fields with corn. If you studied business writing, but have a different inclination, follow your inner urging. Embark on a memoir or novel or volume of poetry, if that’s what you prefer.

Evaluate the marketplace, sure. But also listen to your intuition like you once listened to your teachers. The baton of authority has passed to you. If you find resistance from the writing elite—publishers, agents—consider self-publishing. Or even starting your own press.You are responsible, now, for your own literary well-being and for nourishing those who consume the fruits of your labor.

May your fields be fertile and your work well-received.

Let a top writing coach support you in your writing life!

When writers are gearing up for new challenges, a professional writing coach can help them make the most of the moment! Let’s chat. Maybe I can offer some support as you move ahead on your writing path! unlock-writer's-block-with-Jamie-Morris-writing-coach Schedule your free consultation.and check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

Tarot for Writers: 9 of Coins uses the image of the Nine of Pentacles from the LO SCARABEO TAROT, published by Lo Scarabeo.

Unlock Writer’s Block

Oh, my gosh! Yolanda needs help to unlock her writer’s block! writer's block causes figure under nine swords to have a nightmareShe’s tormented by worries of failing as a writer—yet can’t get any words on the page. While she’s allowed swords of self-recrimination to stack up over her head, it’s probably not as desperate a situation as she believes.

Like many writers, Yolanda feels that if she’s stuck with her current project—short story, essay, master’s thesis—she’s “blocked.” But if she looked more closely, she might find she’s facing a more manageable problem.

In my wide experience as a writing coach, I’ve seen writers like Yolanda free themselves from the dreaded block quite quickly. They just need the right strategies.

If writer’s block is threatening, check out these common causes and their cures. You, too, may be able to unlock writer’s block and write with ease again!

Start here: Is it really a block?

At a crossroads? Maybe you’re actually just confused about what to do next. “Confusion” is not a block! It’s a reasonable response to the many paths a writer can take at any given moment. Uncertain of which way to go?

Try this: Pick any one possibility, set a timer for ten minutes, and write as if you were committed to that direction. If it’s not right, back up and try a different option.

Empty tank? Exhausted? Pushing forward when our creative tanks are empty is a sure way to grind writing to a halt. While fatigue is not necessarily a symptom of writer’s block, it sure can feel like it.

So, take note: Too tired to write? Give it a rest. Whether you need an hour or a week to recover your mojo, take it. Your restored future self will thank you.

Says who? Okay. Here’s the truth: I hate being told what to do. Maybe I’m alone in this. Maybe not. But I have noticed that when someone is writing a memoir because other people have told them to—“You’ve had such an interesting life”—the would-be writer generally loses interest at some point. Likewise with fascinating topics about which a person is an expert. Or when someone is naturally funny or a great story teller.

If you’re struggling to fulfill someone else’s literary ambitions for you, chances are good you don’t have writer’s block. You probably just don’t want to write a book. Or, at least, not the book other folks are telling you to.

Mix it up to unlock the block!

Pushing an agenda? When we come to writing with a too-tightly circumscribed agenda, we can write ourselves into a corner. Rather than trying to beat our project into obedience, we can play a bit. Free-writing on our topic can allow fresh ideas to surface, unlocking our writing progress once again.

Traveling the straight and narrow? New writers—particularly new novelists—may think their job is to start writing at the beginning and continue all the way to the end. Makes sense, right? But more often than not, this approach leaves them in a rut, wheels spinning.

Instead, imagine which scene might be the most interesting to write today. A novel is a long haul. Making it more fun makes it more likely you’ll actually get it done.

Play hopscotch! Rather than committing your focus to a single writing project, have two or three on the go. When you feel stuck with one, move to a different piece. Hopping from a stalled project to a fresher one is sure to reinvigorate your writing process.

I hope you (and Yolanda!) try unlocking your next bout of writer’s block with some of these strategies. While a little angst can make for interesting writing, I’ve found it’s best to keep most of the drama (not to mention the swords!) on the page, not hanging over our heads and  inducing nightmares.

Would you like some more writer’s (un)blocking strategies from a top writing coach?

As a professional writing coach, I’ve boosted writers at all levels of experience out of their  writing block slump. Maybe I can help you!unlock-writer's-block-with-Jamie-Morris-writing-coach Schedule your free consultation.and check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

Thanks to U.S. Games Systems, Inc. for kind permission to use the image of the Nine of Swords from the RIDER-WAITE (SMITH) TAROT.

Two of Coins, Your Book Coach

When Ella called, upset that daily life was eating up her writing time, I knew just where to look for advice. Woman juggling two coins as book coach for balance“If tarot’s Two of Coins were your book coach,” I said, “she’d show you just how to keep all your priorities in play.”

The Two of Coins (aka the Two of Pentacles) has made multitasking a fine art! She juggles resources, makes time for multiple projects, and just generally finds balance amid her myriad obligations. Bottom line? There are only so many hours in the day, and it’s up to her to make the most of each.

So much to do!

As a book writer, Ella, like so many of us, struggles to make her time s-t-r-e-t-c-h. She’d like to work on her novel, sure. But she’d also like to help her daughter with her science homework, take the dog for a run, cook something nutritious for dinner, clean the bathroom—and finish the dratted report her boss tossed on her desk at the last minute!

Can she—or you, or me!—get it all done? Maybe? On a good day, perhaps. But the truth is that for many of us, a busy day shoves our writing to the curb.

Book coaching for busy folks

Out of necessity—life!!—the Two of Coins has developed five writing coaching strategies for herself. She uses them to keep her life in balance and get her novel done! These strategies can help you keep your book project alive and spinning with all the other plates you’ve got in the air.

That’s why, if you find yourself in a similar pinch as Ella, I recommend hiring the Two of Coins as your book coach!

Strategies for book writers

1) First things first: When the Two of Coins gets up each morning, the first thing she does  is grab her tablet and jam out 250 words on her novel. These are not (necessarily) good words. She might try out a bit of dialogue or describe a scene. But good or not, these words set her brain to thinking about her novel for the rest of the day!

2) Catch as catch can: My admirable client Jessica works on her novel in the pick-up line at her kids’ school. A couple of times a week, she grabs a half hour when all four kids are doing homework to add another scene or two. Be like Jessica. She makes steady progress in the spaces in-between.

3) Make a date: Find a critique partner whose life is as busy as yours. Meet monthly to exchange pages—and complain about how little time you have to write! This strategy, based on accountability and camaraderie, will give you both someone who cares that you are writing and who sympathizes with how hard you worked to get that writing done.

4) Buy or barter time: If you have kids—or an aged parent, or dogs, or a yard that needs mowing—could you hire a neighbor to help? Or exchange your skills for their time? If some neighborly support buys you even an hour or two a week for writing, you are the big winner.

5) Keep a book diary: End your day by jotting down notes about your book. Maybe you had a thought about plot or structure during your busy day. Or maybe your morning writing gave you a jumping-off place for tomorrow. Spend ten minutes before lights out noting your progress—and where you want to go next.

The Two of Coins, your book coach, gives you a high five—and says, “Keep going!”

Once you get the hang of prioritizing your book, you’ll discover your own strategies to help you get ‘er done. Keeping in mind that the best lives are full to the brim with family, friends, and good creative work, we can always rely on the Two of Coins’ book coaching to show us how to get it all done.

Would you like some insight from a top book coach?

As a professional book coach, I’ve helped many writers create a workable life/writing balance. Maybe I can help you!Jamie Morris Writing Coach Schedule your free consultation.and take a peek  at the article Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

The beautiful image of the Two of Pentacles comes from THE MODERN WITCH TAROT DECK, published by Sterling Ethos.

King of Cups, Your Writing Coach

If Tarot’s King of Cups were your writing coach, he’d teach you to calm the troubled waters of your writing life. He rules a kingdom that is entirely fluid and in motion—and he’s had to learn how to maneuver in its emotional depths. It took him some time, but the King of Cups has matured into a person who can acknowledge his feelings without being overbalanced by them. And this is his gift to you.

King of Cups, your writing coachYou see, it’s his kingdom—of water and creativity and the unconscious—from which our dreams and our writing emerge. But when we enter his world, we must be prepared. Our writing can take us far from known shores. It can bring us into waters so deep we get the bends. But, whether we are writing memoir or fiction, those depths are where we are most likely to find pearls of great worth.

Writing coaching advice from the King of Cups: “B” is for “ballast”

So how do we make the best use of the King of Cups’ advice? Take on ballast! “Ballast” is defined as something that gives stability—certainly helpful when we’re about to tug on our scuba gear and slip backwards into the wild waters of our creativity.

One way to stabilize ourselves is to take on a daily writing practice. Our writing practice might look like Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages or Natalie Goldberg’s writing practice. We might use a journaling app or keep a quiet blog. However we choose to do it, writing daily can keep our ship steady as we navigate difficult shipping lanes.

The King of Cups might also suggest we have regular conversations on dry land. We can meet with other writers, sharing advice as well as telling harrowing tales of the tsunamis we’ve survived! We might also seek out a counselor or a 12-step or other supportive group. Sharing our experiences with others can help us find balance while we’re deeply engaged creating an imagined or remembered life on the page.

From his sea-tossed throne, our writing coach the King of Cups reminds us that the more we commit to our literary work, the more likely we are to be pitched about by internal squalls. He’d like us to prepare for those squalls—by having plenty of ballast at hand.

Would you like to discuss your writing process with a top writing coach?

I’ve worked with many deep-diving writers. I’d love to hear about your work and see if I can help. Jamie Morris Writing CoachI invite you to schedule a free consultation. You might also read Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

Thanks to U.S. Games Systems, Inc. for kind permission to use the image of the King of Cups from the DREAMING WAY TAROT.

Tarot Writing Coach: Four of Coins

Tarot writing coach? What?! Why?! Although I’m a professional writing coach, I still need the occasional new insight—for myself and my clients. I’ve found tarot’s 78 intriguing images can definitely inspire us! When writers need an out-of-the-box solution, tarot can act as a writing coach and help them find fresh ideas.

Tarot writing coach to the rescue!

For instance, when my memoir writing client Jeanine wondered why she wasn’t getting more traffic on her blog—which houses lovely vignettes from her life—we consulted the cards to see if they might offer an angle we hadn’t considered.

Although Jeanine was in the early stages of her book-writing process, she knew she intended to publish her memoir. So, building a base of engaged readers was important for her. That was why she’d started her blog. But it wasn’t garnering the interest she’d hoped it would.

Looking for further ideas, we drew the Four of Coins from the Anna.K Tarot. A person sneaks a gold coin to show tarot as a writing coachThis card reframed Jeanine’s issue perfectly! Using the image as a metaphor for Jeanine’s situation, we saw that she has the literary goods (the coins), but doesn’t want to share them!

Although she is posting on her blog, she’s reluctant to publish her work on any other social media platforms. Like the figure in this card, it’s almost as if Jeanine is trying to hide the gold of her writing from others’ eyes.

A writing coach’s solution

Once we saw Jeanine’s dearth of blog visitors from tarot’s point of view, we realized the issue could be resolved by her sharing her beautiful work more widely. For advice on how Jeanine might do so, I turned to author and artist Austin Kleon. In his book SHOW YOUR WORK! 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered, Kleon shares a bevy of options—beyond the blog—for an aspiring memoir writer to choose from.

(If you, like Jeanine, are ready to try some low-risk strategies for sharing your writing, I’ve written an article that discusses Kleon’s ideas and includes several of my own. Take a glance at Publish Your Writing Now: Whisper, Shout, Hit Send!”)

What else could the Four of Coins have to say?

If the Four of Coins were your writing coach, it might suggest you share your resources with other writers. For example, you could host a monthly critique group for writers who need support. Maybe you could review a friend’s manuscript and give her feedback. Or what if you read parts of your work-in-progress at a nursing home or senior center?

This card’s bottom line? Share the gold of your writing and your experience. It will benefit both you and those in your writing world.

Would you like to discuss ways to get your writing out into the world with a top writing coach?

I’d love the chance to hear about your story and offer you some support from my many years of experience helping writers become authors. If you’d like to chat with me, Jamie Morris Writing Coachschedule a free consultation. Also, check out this article: Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

 

Thanks to Llewellyn Worldwide for kind permission to share this image from the Anna.K Tarot.

5 Writing Workshop Pitfalls

Oh, writing workshops! How we love and hate you!  A group of talented folks come together to discuss one another’s writing. What could possibly go wrong? Any one of these 5 writing workshop pitfalls, that’s what!

As a professional writing coach, I encourage my clients to join a good writing workshop. Participating in a well-run, level-appropriate workshop will add benefit to our writing coaching sessions. But a bad workshop? That’s just a waste of time. It can take some research to find the right fit—but it’s worth it. Use the lists below to increase your chances of writing workshop success.

5 common writing workshop pitfalls

1) Writers in one genre may not be well-versed in other genres. In a genre-mixed writing group this may result in less-than-helpful feedback. A horror writer might fault a women’s fiction writer for not establishing high enough stakes early on in the story, for example.

2) Often, workshop mates have widely differing opinions about what’s working and what’s not. This leaves the writer under discussion in a quandary: Which advice should they take?

3) Being a good writing workshop participant requires time. If the group is reading 25 pages of your novel-in-progress, you’re expected to read 25 pages of everyone else’s manuscripts— ongoingly. While there is much to be learned from reviewing others’ work, the amount of attention to our own work may feel like a scant payoff for the reading we do on the other writers’ behalf.

4) Sometimes a workshop member is just mean, insensitive, hurtful. Are they having a bad day? Are they jealous? Do they simple dislike the writer under attack? Or perhaps the writer is simple trying to help. When our writing is up for feedback, we can be quite sensitive to criticism. But, you know, sometimes someone is just not playing nice.

5) The math may not work in your favor. If you’re submitting 25 pages every three or four weeks, that’s a slow ride to get the ~80,000+ words of your novel read!

5 solutions to the pitfalls of a writing workshop!

1) If writers unfamiliar with your genre give feedback that consistently misses the mark, consider starting a workshop for writers only in your genre. Or, alternatively, create a “cheat sheet” of the basic tenets of your genre. Hand it out to group members and ask them to consider those points when critiquing your work.

2) Too many conflicting opinions about your writing? Use this rule of thumb: If two or more people comment about the same passage—no matter how different their views of it—take that as a signal to review that section closely. Ultimately, though, give your own opinion more weight than that of your workshop fellows.

3) Spending a disproportionate amount of time reading others’ work relative to the attention your own work is receiving? Maybe your writing workshop is just too large? Could members agree to split the group in half? Or maybe what you really need is a single excellent critique partner, rather than a guild!

4) Ugh. Harsh, mean, or otherwise hurtful feedback can be devastating. Set up guidelines for feedback—and stick to them. The “sandwich rule” is helpful: Start and end feedback with positive comments—and limit critical comments to just three to five of the most significant. You might also allow those whose work is being considered to ask for specific feedback and not entertain comments on any other aspects of the writing.

5) If your critique group is slowing you down, you might benefit from a book-writing program or course designed specifically to support writers in finishing book-length drafts in a short time. Or you could hire a developmental editor or writing coach to help you move ahead more quickly.

Bonus writing workshop support

In her article The Writing Workshop Glossary” on the NEW YORK TIMES website, Amy Klein translates some of the puzzling stuff a writer might hear when hanging their work out on the line and inviting others’ input!

Klein includes her very helpfulo take on the following phrases, frequently heard in a writing workshop: Find your own voice; I don’t find the character sympathetic; What does the character want?; What Is this story really about?; Show, don’t tell; and the ever–popular Kill your darlings.

Discussed with both humor and an obvious wealth of writing workshop experience, Klein’s article will likely offer you support as you manage your workshop participation—and a chuckle or two. The latter may come in handy when dealing with the pitfalls of the former.

Need more for your writing? A chat with a top writing coach can help!

Jamie Morris pictured knows writing workshop pitfalls and is a writing coach. Sometimes, writing workshops are great for writers. Sometimes, they’re confusing. Over a decade of leading workshops has taught me that! If you feel you might benefit from some one-on-one attention, let’s chat.  Schedule a free initial consultation. And also take a look at this THE WRITER mag article Should I Hire a Writing Coach.”

Writing Sprints and SFDs

WRITING SPRINTS AND SFDS

by Tia Levings

I’LL NEVER FORGET WHERE I was the day I learned about SFDs (shitty first drafts). The phrase alone got my attention, so bold and borderline-crass in a sea of serious approaches to “craft.” I bought BIRD BY BIRD because I was familiar with Anne Lamott’s blue-jeans-and-bare-feet spirituality. She’s forgiving, likes dogs, and knows how to tame wild anxiety. To me, she is St. Anne, patron saint of nervous writers trying to find their way.

Writing sprints and SFDs changed my writing life completely. 

I’d recently decided to write my first novel, based on an idea I got from a travel ad. My two main characters came in loud and clear––travel writers who wanted to kill each other. The problem was, they were married (to each other) and had just accepted a job contract contingent on their union. 

I had a premise, characters, a fun working title…and minimal plot. Looking back, I’m not sure I even knew what the word “plot” meant yet. I wanted to write a novel and had no idea how to do it. 

So I took BIRD BY BIRD on audio out for a walk. I left my front porch and our cul-de-sac and crossed the street to get on the sidewalk. One square, two square..  “step on a crack and you’ll break your mother’s back,” came to mind. I was on the seventh square of the sidewalk when I heard Anne’s voice describe what she called “shitty first drafts.” Zing! Electricity. 

The SFD reminded me of Natalie Goldberg’s WRITING DOWN THE BONES––the skeletal frame. Anne called it “writing without reining yourself in.” She said it’s almost like “just typing.” You can’t overthink, which is hard for anxious writers who want to get it right. But there’s no pausing for corrections in the SFD. The sentences run on. The ideas flow and wander. You’re writing down the bones of your story, and the pretty fleshy bits come later. 

writing sprints and sfds

An SFD is more than writing badly on purpose. It’s a flow.

If you’ve used free-writing and morning pages as techniques to become unblocked, you’re working the right muscles for a shitty first draft. These uncensored lines flow through you, mind to hand. The difference between an SFD and my morning pages is intention; I have an idea with story elements I’m working with on a draft. Otherwise, the sensation while writing is very much the same. 

If your shitty first draft is rambling, incoherent, and too-ugly-to-show-anyone, you’re doing it right. You never show anyone your SFD. Showing it off is not the point. You’re just getting the words down on paper—messy, uncramped words out of your head and onto the page. You can edit and revise later, but only if you put the words down first. 

“You can’t edit a blank page.” ––Jodie Picoult

I’m no longer a new writer. And in my experience, a gate with two locks guards the pathway to a solid working draft and the Kingdom of Completed Projects. The SFD is one key to the kingdom; the other is writing sprints

Writing sprints are timed shitty first drafts. You assign yourself a duration, set the timer, and go, much like a free-writing session. When I sprint, I go for fifty minutes, break for ten, and usually do another, sometimes changing projects. The rinse in between is long enough to grab a snack, get some fresh air, and then dive back in with my concentration renewed. 

The urgency of the clock is just enough pressure to keep my fingers flying. I’m not stopping to edit and rearrange sentences because I want that word count target. My eye is on the prize. 

I write in Scrivener, which allows me to set word count targets against a calendar date. Scrivener tells me how many words I have to write per day to hit both the word count goal and deadline. The alchemy of target, timer, and deadline is the method I use for all of my work now. 

Writing sprints are also excellent keys to unlock creative blocks. Choose a writing prompt––Jamie’s tarot prompts work great for this––and set a timer for 15-30 minutes. Just write whatever comes to mind, even if that’s “I don’t know what to write about this.” Sometimes I even type with my eyes closed. It always leads to a discovery. Most importantly, it creates movement, and when I’m done, I’m no longer blocked. 

Vocal writing sprints: try talking it out

A few of my author-friends are experimenting with speech-to-text software for their SFDs. Using microphones and dictating their first drafts, they get the words down quickly, well enough to revise and edit in a second sprint. In his book 5,000 WORDS PER HOUR, Chris Fox breaks down his method to increase word count efficiently. It’s working for genre writers I follow online, and if speed an issue for you, dictation might help you battle it out.  

SFDs and writing sprints help me overcome creative paralysis and perfectionism. The point, which is a draft that can be cleaned, edited, and improved, makes sound metaphorical and practical sense to me. I still turn to BIRD BY BIRD when I get stuck. St. Anne suggests short assignments, one-inch squares, and making messes. We’ve got to break these enormous tasks into bites we can handle, as the title suggests. “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” 

* * *

Writing coach

Tia Levings hired me as her writing coach in 2017. Since then, she completed her memoir, co-authored a book on the craft of writing, and started a podcast for writers. I’m delighted to have Tia as a colleague, co-writer, and client. And I’m so glad that she’s sharing some of her writing experience with us, here. Thanks, Tia! 

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching! And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

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