“Dear Sherry” is an opportunity to ask for advice on writer’s/creativity block, time management, the process of writing, and more. Sherry Peters is a Certified Life Coach who works with writers at all stages of their writing career looking to increase their productivity through pushing past the self-doubt holding them back. Her fiction has won the Writer’s Digest Self-Published e-book award, and been nominated for the Aurora Award, Canada’s top prize for Speculative fiction. If you could ask a writing coach anything, here is your chance.
When I was growing up, I decided I wanted to be a writer. I had oodles of notebooks filled with scenes and characters and ideas, but I was, and still am, a very shy person. My best friend, who is practically like a sister to me, was accepted to a fantastic, very well-known writing workshop. When I saw her after, I screwed up my courage and shared some of my writing.
She tore it to shreds. Not literally, but that would’ve been kinder than her criticism. This person was my best friend, the person I trusted most in the world, but after she was done, I was so mortified I wanted to burn every notebook I’d ever written in.
I didn’t, of course, but it’s hard to find joy or even confidence in writing. I secretly scribble away and don’t talk much about it except for a very few select people. Those people are wonderful and encourage me to keep fighting the good fight, and some of them are writers. But when they offer to read my work? I freeze.
I want to write. I want to grow in the craft, and I want to be published one day. I know that in order to do that, I need to open myself up and let others read and critique my work.
But how can do I that, when the first time I tried, it was such a disaster?
Scared to Share
Dear Scared to Share,
Never, ever, throw out or destroy those notebooks! Hold on to every notebook, binder, scrap of paper, and file, in and on which you’ve written. In fact, grab a few right now, and give them a little cuddle while you read this. I know it sounds silly, but that’s OK. Those notebooks contain your precious words, ideas, dreams, beliefs, quest for answers, your laughter and your tears.
What your friend did was what she’d been taught to do in the workshop, and probably what she thought you wanted. However good your friend’s intentions were, and I have no doubt they were good, what she ended up doing was stomping on you. Not just your writing, but you.
One of the best parts about writing is that no one has to see it until you’re ready to let them see it. You won’t be ready to let anyone see your writing until you have a belief in yourself, and your writing. But how can you have that belief, when all you hear is your friend’s harsh criticism whenever you write?
Are you still cuddling your notebooks? I want you to take the first notebook you’ve ever written in, and read what you wrote. Remember the sweetness, the humor, the innocence of it all. Remember how much you loved that story. Remember what inspired you to write it. Now I want you to take out the last notebook you’ve written in, the most recent one, and read it. What inspired you to write it?
I hope you noticed something else: how much your writing has improved over the years. Look at your most recent writing again. Make a note of all the good in it: that perfect sentence, that moment that made you laugh or cry, that shining moment of description or dialogue. Make a note of all the moments that stand out to you as a moment of growth in the craft of writing.
You may even find some places where you think it could be improved, or it needs something else but you’re not sure what. Remember, this is what you think, not what your friend might think, what you think. When you see those places, that is when you ask for help. That is when you consider showing your work to someone else.
Don’t show it to just anyone. You need to show it to trusted readers. You thought you had one. We can’t always know who is a trusted reader until we’ve allowed someone to provide feedback. You have a great start with your writer friends who encourage you. Strongly consider showing them your work. I can feel you tense up just thinking about it. Take a deep breath. When you hand them your work, tell them what you need.
Tell them you want only line edits, or only to pick out plot inconsistencies. Tell them you want to hear what works and what doesn’t. If there is a part that troubles you, ask them to help you work it out. If there is a spot you think is working, but you aren’t sure, ask them what they think. Above all else, whatever feedback they give you, it needs to be with the aim of making your story better.
Receiving feedback is never easy. All of us, in our hearts, want everyone to unconditionally love what we’ve written. I always think it is a brave step, allowing others to read our stories, and comment on them. What makes it easier is being able to hand it over to someone, knowing you trust them to help make your story better. It also helps to know that you don’t have to agree with everything they say either. It is your story, not theirs.
And now it is time for some tough love. Because the reality of being a writer seeking publication, being a published author, is that everyone has an opinion on your work. Chances are, a lot of those opinions are going to be negative and feel like personal attacks. You are going to face a lot of rejections saying that your work didn’t grab their attention, or it isn’t for them, or it isn’t marketable. Yes, each and every one of those rejections and negative reviews will hurt. But as writers, we have to keep going, and keep on putting ourselves out there. Yes, the feedback from your friend stomped on you, but it also represents a lot of the feedback you are likely to face from readers, agents, and editors. You need to be able to survive that kind of feedback to survive in this industry.
So let me ask you: What do you really want? Do you really want to be a published author? What are you willing to do to make that happen?
Are you still cuddling those notebooks? Set them aside. Put them in a drawer. If you’re willing to take the leap toward publication, then the time for play writing is over. Write the story you love, what you are passionate about. Make it the best possible story you can make it, then get others to read it. You need to get feedback, whether it is giving it to someone for critique, or submitting it to an editor or agent.
When their comments come back, if it is negative, allow yourself a minute or five to be upset about it, then look at it more objectively. How do those comments help your story? Then edit your story, and send it out again.
Be courageous. Step beyond your fear. I believe in you. It is time you believed in yourself.
Have a question for Sherry? Send her an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.