Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Smile When you Say That.

I saw an advertisement once it read, “Make 100,000 a year as a writer”. The ad went on to explain how you could snag writing gigs all over the place: writing contracts for corporations, writing manuals, medical files, proofingadvertisements, you name it.
I thought, That’s not writing. That’s just putting words on paper. The idea of spending my days up to my eyeballs in lifeless words made me ill.
A little later, I read another advertisement that promised I could make a comfortable living writing articles for magazines. I have no doubt this is true, I know many writers who write almost exclusively for magazines. What rankled me was the next line: Anyone can earn a living writing for magazines! It’s just that easy! Aside from the fact that writing for magazines is not ‘just that easy,’ I had to wonder: why are we preoccupied with easy? What has easy every brought us except a consumer mentality and laziness? Do we earnestly believe that we deserve big dividends from little or no effort?
On Monday, Latayne shared her difficult experience with a friend who thought he’d like to write a book. I’ve had my share of encounters with novice writers (including being one myself), and I’ve discovered some ways to navigate the minefield discussion without exploding.

1. Say no to family and friends. I never read unpublished work from family or close friends. Here’s what I say, “I’m too crazy about you to read this. I’m not objective – I’ll love it and it won’t help you a bit. You need an unbiased reader who will be able to see the flaws, and offer real help.”

2. Say no to co-workers. Recently someone at work said, “I should get you to help me get an agent. I write fiction.” I asked my three diagnostic questions: what did he write? (fantasy) What did he read? (um, uh, well, it’s hard to find good fantasy novels) What classes, workshops, or conferences he had attended? (none so far). By the end of the third question he understood he wasn’t ready to talk to an agent. Just to be certain we wouldn’t have to repeat this conversation, I asked, “Would your writing blow me away? It is exquisite? Is the novel professionally polished?” The conversation was over.

3. Say no to strangers. I received an email recently from someone who knows my parents. I’ve never met the person. He wrote asking for help to become published. I suggested a number of steps that have helped me over the years, conferences, books, courses, associations. And. Nothing. More. I wished him well, and didn’t leave the door open for him to write for more hands on help. Was that unkind? No. He writes children’s book – something utterly outside my experience as a writer. I advised him to start meeting other children’s book writers. He’ll be happy when he does.

4. Say yes-but to colleagues, conference attendees and blog friends. There is a small group of writers I always say yes to. The Novel Matters women (in fact, I think I’ve begged to read some of their manuscripts pre-pub), and two or three others. I do this because reading their work is a joy – and my feedback is usually short an unnecessary.
I make myself available to writers at conferences, and through this blog. I love each encounter – partly because I set the ground rules early. I give these lovely people my ‘yes-but’. 99% of the time, I honestly cannot read full manuscripts for critique. I’m a wife, a mom, a writer, I work part-time, and my husband is a pastor. I make honest assessments of the time I can spend reading other people’s work, and I then I say “yes-but I can only offer to read the first three chapters”, or “I can help with the synopsis.”

Does this list work every time? Nah. I’ve been told I was a bad Christian because I said no to reading someone’s work. I’ve passed on reading someone’s work and regretted it because I would have loved to know more about the story they were writing. But it helps when I remind myself that knowing me and hearing my ideas isn’t anyone’s golden ticket. And that while most of the time I must say no, when I do say yes I mean it, go deep, give it my full attention, and only offer ideas I think will be helpful and constructive. In other words, I just do the best I can with what I have to give.
How have you managed to say no when you needed to? How hard was it? Share!

17 comments:

Sandra Stiles said...

I think the scariest thing for me is when people at work (school) see me writing during my lunch and think I should be able to help them write that memoir they've been wanting to write. I give them a list of sites and courses they can take. I give them a list of books that people like you recommend. I tell them if I had all the answers I would have lots of published books by now. Students (middle grade) think I should be willing to read everything they right but they don't want to hear what they need to correct it. It is easier to tell them that I can't read it at that time because...and I list the reasons such as grading "their" papers and finishing my own work. I am not going to be offended. These people are not willing to do what it takes to write. They want instant gratification and think we have the magic words that will send them on their way. They don't understand it can take a long time to get published.

Karen Schravemade said...

I like this idea of setting ground rules early. Wise advice.

I can't understand people who prey on authors in this way. You must feel pulled in a hundred different directions. But then, I was always the kid at school who would never ask the teacher for help because I could see how harried she was by everyone else. It always used to amaze me that the others didn't see that.

I guess some people never grow out of their childish expectations.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Yeah for boundaries.

And I think I'd laugh if someone called me a bad Christian. Or I'd scream wooden plank. Wooden. Plank!

Thanks for your yes. I know I learned from it & I'm insanely in love with learning.

~ Wendy

Susie M Finkbeiner said...

I was running into something very similar. As soon as I "came out" as a writer I got emails from all over the place.

So, I started an editing group. We meet twice a month. If friends are interested in me reading their poems or stories or essays I just tell them to come to the group.

It's amazing how many people pass.

Patti Hill said...

Thanks so much, Bonnie. This is wonderful, thoughtful advice. I have a page on my web site with advice for new writers. That's not always enough, so this helps loads.

Latayne C Scott said...

Bonnie, what good advice. I love you!

Bonnie Grove said...

Sandra: I've talked to many people who feel they want to write a memoir. I think they are the most difficult thing to write for a number of reasons. What stuns me is most people don't think a memoir needs a plot (and many other structural components of a novel, as well as the laser precision of a non-fiction.)

Karen: The vast majority of people who approach me for some kind of help are sweet, earnest, and honestly looking for whatever advice I can offer. There are exceptions, but happily, by far the majority understand my parameters and respect them. I don't mind people approaching me - not at all - as long as they can accept my limited ability to offer help.

Bonnie Grove said...

Wendy: I did laugh when the dear lady said I was a bad Christian. I replied, "I'm not a bad Christian because I can't read your work. I'm a bad Christian for many other reasons, but not this one." I was happy to read your work, Wendy. I pray you're moving forward as a writer everyday!

Susie: You've really hit on something there! You made yourself available in the most generous way, and separated the wheat from the chaff in one swoop.

Patti and Latayne: Mwah! You guys are my heros.

Hilarey Johnson said...

Good advice. It is easier to be succinct in your "no" than to drag on a possibility.
I once devoted 4-5 days to a horribly written manuscript, only to find out they didn't take a single edit and decided to self publish as is.

Bonnie Grove said...

Hilarey: Oh man. That's painful! And an example of the worst in self-publishing. There are good reasons to self publish - but laziness is never one of them. So sorry that your time and effort was trampled on. Of course, all our suggestions and ideas are just that - ideas and suggestions. But to spend time and effort only to be utterly disregarded is a painful lesson - and hurts the chances of the next person who comes along asking for your help.

Anonymous said...

And I don't know about your respective regions of the country (or countries), but today, there are more opportunities than ever for newbie Christian (or non) writers to find writers groups to join.

When I started fishing for a group in 2004 in metro Phoenix, there was only one group that met a long way from where I live in Fountain Hills, so I formed my own.

Now, in addition to Fountain Hills and my own, I think there is another on the other side of the county PLUS we have an ACFW chapter of our own AND they are forming groups in the northern part of the state.

I'm tickled pink by how training and networking opps have expanded.

BK Jackson

Bonnie Grove said...

BK: an excellent point - there are so many helpful groups forming all over. This is good news to every writer from novice to pro. We need each other!

Ellen Staley said...

As a newbie, I can so relate to those seeking confirmation that their writing is ok, readable, good or saleable. But the horrible sense of "I'm not good enough" that likes to raise it's ugly head is normal doubt situated in the required learning curve for excellence as a writer. But to seek advice and not apply it, is ludicrous.

Bonnie, I so appreciated all your direction and assistance through your teeth and bones process and I hope I wasn't ludicrous! If I was, I so apologize. :)

B.K. Jackson, You mentioned you were in Arizona. I'm in the Bullhead City area. When last I searched, I did not find a Christian writers group in my area. Are you aware of one?

BK said...

Ellen, I couldn't find contact info for you in your profile. Please email me at Brenda At The Ranch (at) yahoo dot com and I will see what I can find for you.

LiberryLady said...

I appreciate your caring ways of saying "no." I've recently been put into an uncomfortable situation with an unpublished writer asking for help; your ground rules validate my own feelings and response to her.

MandyB said...

My writing group has an editing workshop every year. Members meet up each month for approx 8 months to share, comment and suggest. This gives us a broad range of reading & writing styles with which to refine our own project. We learn from each other and there is no pressure. All in all a much more pleasurable way to edit.
Thanks for a great blog.

Bonnie Grove said...

Ellen, I enjoyed working with you, and peeking over your shoulder at your writing. I know you're on an exciting path toward finishing that novel! :)

Liberry: It's never easy to say no - but when one must, it's good to have a game plan! Glad you got something from this post.

Mandy: Your writing group sounds amazing! Congrats on finding and contributing to such a robust group. What a blessing!