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Author Accelerator

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Are You Doing the Work?

I have been having a hard time lately getting my own writing done. I think you could say, in fact, that over the last two weeks, I have completely and totally stalled out on the great momentum I had been enjoying with this project. My mojo came, and then it went – and I am sure you know what happened next because I am sure you have been where I am: I started beating myself up for stalling out, feeling bad about it, feeling doubt that I have what it takes to finish a book, even though I have a pretty solid track record of eight books sitting on the shelf. I started telling myself, “That was before; right now, you have nothing.”

In the midst of this negative mind-spin, there was a funny little exchange in the Facebook group of one of my online classes, and it shone a bright light on my problem.

The writers were raving about Scrivener because there was a sale and everyone was convincing everyone else to jump on board. I bought Scrivener about a year ago and haven’t even opened it. I am eager to know why people love it, eager to better serve my writers who use it, and eager to learn new technology tools, but Scrivener has become just another one of the things I haven’t gotten done.

So I wrote, “LALALALALA not listening.” (Super grown up of me, I know.) One of my writers wrote this ironic little note in reply to me:

“Aww, come on Jennie Nash. Just because you're startup is running away from you, you're dealing with a blog, live Q&As, Lecture Videos, Course materials, dealing with Clients (who love you), reading drafts until all hours of the night, hosting more webinars with guests, trying to have a home life--no, wait, strike that, trying to finish you're own book...and you don't want to take on learning a spiffy new tool??”

That made me feel better about Scrivener and then it made me feel better about stalling out on my own book – and ultimately it gave me the kick in the pants I need to get back to work.

Yes, I am busy. Yes, I have a hundred irons in the fire. Yes, I have a thousand good excuses why I am not writing and they are all really excellent reasons. When seen reflected back to me like that on Facebook, my excuses, are, in fact, ironclad.

Except for the fact that the thing I want most is to finish this book I am working on. I love my client work, love building Author Accelerator, love teaching and doing live events and creating awesome partnerships. I love it all. But I also love my own work and I love the fact that I am not just a coach who tells writers how to write, but a writer who is down in the trenches doing it myself right along with you. So my actions are not in alignment with my desires. My priorities are messed up.

I was inspired by the Facebook exchange to ask myself why. And the answer was very simple and very clear: I’m scared to get it wrong.

I got it wrong last time with my novel, Perfect Red.  It was my seventh book and I was convinced that it would launch my career to great new heights. My agent set an auction date, we had six editors from six major houses poised to bid – which is the dream -- and then on the morning of the auction, none of them came to the table with an offer.

It was a very bad day. I decided to self publish and was convinced I would show them all the folly of their ways. I thought that having published six books gave me some sort of free pass to the head of the line. I thought every bookstore where I had held a signing would remember me, and every reader who had written me about one book would want to read another. I thought I had it made in the shade. I did not have it made in the shade because I hadn’t done anything to serve that audience, to engage them, to entice them, to connect with them. So my self-publishing efforts failed too.

I took three years off writing to focus on coaching. I took three years off to lick my wounds. Getting it wrong again now would feel like the death knell to my life as a writer. That may not be rational, but that’s what I feel.

But because of my work helping writers, I know better than most people that there are no guarantees in creative pursuits. There just aren’t. And falling into the trap of believing that there are – that if I do X, I will achieve Y outcome – is dangerous and counterproductive.

None of us can control how the world will respond to our work. All we can control is how we approach it, what energy we give it, and how we prioritize it in our lives so that it gets done – or not.

I don’t want fear to be in charge. So busy schedule or not, I’m going to face my fear, and I’m going to do the work.

What about you?

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Writing by Committee

I worked with a client recently whom I shall call Phil. He had a complete manuscript of a memoir and had been sending out pitches to agents for several months to no avail. He has some bites off his query, but each time he sent requested chapters, he received a rejection. He came to me to learn why.

I reviewed the query, the rejections, and the table of contents for the book, as well as the samples chapters, and the problem was glaringly obvious: the book was very well nicely in the query, beautifully presented in the TOC, and yet the sample chapters were a wreck – disjoined, uneven, with no narrative drive.

I reported my findings to Phil and said that it was rare to see such a disconnect in a proposal. I wondered what had happened that his sample chapters were so weak compared to the description of the book.

“They were written by a committee,” he said, and then proceeded to describe all the people who had weighed in on the manuscript, including professional editors, workshop leaders, fellow writing students, writing group friends, family members, and even a neighbor or two. He had taken advice from so many people at so many different times that he had completely lost sight of his story.

I had to laugh, because last week, I posted a blog that included some lines from my own work in progress. I received emails from some readers who loved what I did, and emails from others who suggested I had, in fact, made the passage worse. If I tried to please both camps, I would probably end up with something that pleased no one – least of all me.

Many of us are so desperate for validation (Is my idea any good? Do you get it? Do you like it? Should I keep doing this? Am I crazy?) that we tend to lose our heads a bit when it comes to asking people to read our work.  We’re grateful when anyone shows interest or is willing to read pages, and so we spread it around to whoever agrees to pay attention. The knee-jerk reaction is to believe whatever it is they say, to automatically incorporate their ideas into your work, and to give up your power to the committee.

I thought I’d take a moment to say, “Don’t.”

Don’t pass your work around without intention.

Don’t take any advice that comes your way.

Good advice is not about what someone likes or doesn’t like, or what they think you should do or not do to improve the work. Ed Catmull explains good advice in his book Creativity Inc.:

 

Truly candid feedback is the only way to ensure excellence. When giving notes, be sure to include:

What is Wrong

What is Missing

What Isn’t Clear

What Doesn’t Make Sense

A good note is specific. A good note does not make demands. Most of all, a good note inspires.

 

Most important of all, don’t lose sight of your own heart. When you get advice, weigh it against what you think. Does it ring true to you? Does it strike a nerve? Can you see how incorporating it will make your work more clear, more logical, and more whole? If yes, then by all means, take the advice.

But if the answer is no, ignore it. You have no obligation to change your work according to the whims of your readers.

Your obligation should always be first and foremost to the book you are writing. Do what’s right for the work.

One of the reasons I am proud of my Author Accelerator program is that it gives writers what is so often lacking in their arsenal of tools: a trained editor who is paying attention to their work on a regular basis. I think this is one of the best ways not only to improve your work, but to strengthen your editorial muscle, which is to say your understanding of how narrative works, and WHY.

Someone who has built up that kind of muscle is going to know that writing by committee never produced excellent work.

 

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Writing is an Exchange of Energy

                          
 I have a new client whom I shall call Debbie. She was a student in one of my live and in-person classes this winter -- she came all the way from Vermont to LA to write a memoir about Topic A and for the first two days of a four-day intensive workshop, she worked on Topic A. You could tell that she wasn’t happy with what she was writing – the way she spoke about it, the way she sat in her chair, and even the look on her face all reflected frustration. And the writing itself was, in fact, a little flat. Okay, a lot flat.
 
What do I mean by flat? I lacked oomph. It lacked passion. It lacked power and drive and meaning. Think of Coke gone flat, champagne gone flat, bread dough that never rises…. I tried to point out this reality to Debbie, and she listened, and nodded, but nothing much changed.
 
Then on the third day, Debbie came into class and explained that she had stayed up all night. She had been listening to the other writers, listening to me, thinking about her pages, wondering what was wrong, and had come to the conclusion that she was writing the wrong story. She realized that her true story was not Topic A; it was topic B – something completely different. I mean, this wasn’t just a little shift. This was a tectonic shift. She handed me six new pages – the fruit of her long night.
 
I smiled – because anyone who is willing to stay up all night and start all over again in the midst of an intensive workshop is someone who is listening to their heart, and that is where good writing originates. Yes, of course we have to be logical and strategic and we have to let our brains into this process, but we have to lead with our heart and soul. That’s why I knew before I even looked at the first sentence that the pages in my hands were going to be good.
 
They turned out to be staggeringly good. Had I not been there in the classroom over the last 48 hours watching her struggle, I would not have believed she had just written them. They captured a moment as well as a whole universe, they framed a story, they made a point, they made a promise the reader could be curious about. There was almost nothing to say about them other than, “Wow.” It was a thrill to be a witness to their birth.
 
Flash forward several months. I gave Debbie the assignments I give to everyone at the start of a project (both in my private work and Phase 1 in my Author Accelerator program), and Debbie completed them and turned them in. Among those assignments is a series of questions about your ideal reader. Who is this book for? Why should they care? What are you promising them? How will you reach them?
 
Debbie gave some answers related to Topic B – answers that were rich and resonant, and showed the promise of a commercially viable book. It’s exactly what I want to see at this stage of a project – evidence that the writer is thinking beyond their own story to who their reader might be, and how they might reach them. It was good stuff and I was pleased with her progress.
 
I made my responses to Debbie’s work, asking questions, pushing her here and there, reflecting back to her what the book would look like once it was on the shelves and how she would interact with her readers once the book was in their hands.
 
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that Debbie would not settle for “good enough.” About an hour before we were set to get on the phone to discuss these Week #1 assignments, Debbie sent me an email with a whole new set of answers to the assignments. She’d changed her mind. She had a brand new idea – not for the book, this time, but for how to describe her ideal reader. She had a whole new vision of who that reader was and how she could connect with them.
 
My comments had made her see that she really didn’t want to speak to the people she’d first described. She wanted to speak to a different population. She was, in fact, really excited to speak to this new group, and had a fabulous idea for how she could do so – an idea that had nothing to do with the story itself, but everything to do with who would read it and why. She’d written up her new idea and wanted to know what I thought.
 
I smiled – again -- because I knew this was going to be a game changer, and it was, in fact, a spectacular idea. Nothing about the story itself would change (well, that’s not entirely true; there would be a new emphasis on one aspect of the work – sort of like shining a light more strongly on one thing rather than another), but everything about who it was FOR would change, and everything about WHY they might want to read it would change. It was a tiny shift, but it was tectonic, too – and it was all done at the very beginning of the project, when only a few pages had been written, and when it was easy to recast and reframe and reimagine it all.
 
It was an exhilarating moment for me, because in my perfect world, all writers would do this work, ideally at the start of their projects when the idea is fluid and changeable,  but I would take all writers doing it at any time – midway through their project, at the revision stage, when they are working on launching it, after publication. Bringing the reader into your perspective as a writer is the surest way to guarantee that you will HAVE readers. This “market perspective” doesn't sully the creative process; it enhances it, boosts it. It’s very powerful stuff!
 
It was exhilarating for Debbie, too, because she just saved herself years of frustration, and she knew it. She could feel it. She just bridged the giant chasm between “it’s just a little story that I an compelled to tell” and “it’s a story designed to connect with readers.”
 
When we talked about why she’d made this change, she said, “Writing is an exchange of energy. Ultimately that’s what’s happening between a writer and a reader, and if there wasn’t an exchange now, at the beginning of the process, then it would be a totally different outcome.”  
 
Debbie’s comment captures the fundamental reality of creative work: we need other people to respond to what we do. Readers are critical to our life as writers. Without them, we are writing in a vacuum and for ourselves. Without readers, we are totally and irrevocably alone.

Now some people might argue that all kinds of good can come from writing for ourselves -- and at times, I am that person making that argument. Writing can be healing and can bring clarity and peace and joy even if no one ever reads a word we have written. But that's a completely different kind of writing than the writing I am helping you do. 
 
If you are writing a book that you intend to be read, take a little time to let the reader into your head. It doesn't matter where you are in the writing process. Imagine them reading your book and imagine the exchange of energy you will have with them. Who are they? What do they want? What would make them stay up all night reading your book?
 
Now work to give it to them.

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