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5 Tips for Powerful Writing

Teaching Haven Writing Worshop

Teaching Haven Writing Worshop

Haven Writing Retreat 2016 Schedule:

June 8-12 (STILL ROOM!)
June 22-26 (FULL WITH WAIT LIST)
September 7-11
September 21-25
October 5-9
October 19-23

If you want to write more powerfully no matter whether it’s the next great novel or memoir, or simply emails to friends, family and colleagues, journal entries,  speeches or presentations for work, or even your holiday card letter…here are some words that might help, inspired by Girl Friday Productions– one stop shopping for writers of all levels. I have personally used their services and all Haven Writing Retreat alums get a special Haven rate!  I wish I’d had them at my table a long time ago…  Here are their great questions, and my responses.  Hope they help!

  1. You wrote a widely read memoir (as well as an essay that went viral) about a very difficult period in your life. What is it like for you to have the public know so much about your personal life? And what advice do you offer to writers who are confronting something deeply personal or even traumatic in their own work?

With memoir, the inherent difficulty is that we’re exposing ourselves, and likely others, and it’s usually driven by a difficult time in our lives; otherwise we wouldn’t have a story to tell. Here’s what we as memoir writers must hold fast to our hearts: why we’re doing it in the first place. We must be intentional about why we write. My statement of intention is: I write to shine a light on a dim or otherwise pitch-black corner, to provide relief for myself and others. And I believe that if we shine a light on ourselves in memoir, claiming responsibility for our experience and trying to parse it rather than pointing the finger, then we can pretty much write about anything. We have to write past fear of exposure, and it helps to understand that by sharing our story, we are writing out of service to ourselves and others. If, at the very least, telling our story helps people to know they’re not alone.

  1. You’ve written both memoir and fiction. What are the biggest challenges of each? What is most satisfying about each?

I think the biggest challenge of memoir is crafting it into a story. The harsh reality is that just because we go through something profound for us that we want to chronicle in a memoir . . . it doesn’t mean that other people care about it like we do. Memoirists can lose sight of this. The story needs to unfold like a novel, even though it’s nonfiction. Whether it’s nonfiction or fiction, however, the structure is critical, and not necessarily linear in its delivery.

I find that it helps to create an outline, even if the book takes on a different form in the end. You have to know where you’re going and why, what’s at stake, and what the central conflict is and make sure there’s some sort of resolve at the end. Ultimately, though, in all forms of writing, it’s about what’s behind the words, what’s in between them, and what’s in their wake.

  1. What makes a good writing environment for you? What are your writing habits, and what makes you keep coming back to the page again and again?

I have been writing for three decades every day, not because I’m highly disciplined, but because I’m obsessed. It’s not much more elegant than that. My writing is a movable feast. I’ve written on the backs of cocktail napkins when I bartended, in the margins of newspapers on commutes, in my journal, on various screens and devices. I make time to write every day no matter what, and the time frame varies. Even if it’s for a short amount of time and even if it’s for my eyes only. It’s a matter of asking myself what shall I write, what do I care about, what confuses me, what do I need to understand? And then I write my way into the answer.

  1. You lead writing retreats that focus on giving writers at all stages of their practice an accepting place to do their work and connect with other writers. What do you think makes a good writing community? What can imperil one?

There are all sorts of writing communities. The main thing is that every writer finds one. I did it alone for too many years, either because I was too stubborn or too scared. Then I started Haven, and I realized what was missing in my writing life. Support! Kindreds! Willing and helpful feedback! Writing is hard work in every way. The truth is: no one asked us to be writers. It’s actually rather inconvenient for our loved ones and colleagues. And that makes it even more critical that we find our kindreds. In my work with Haven, I’ve chiseled too many people out of negative writing experiences in workshops, classes, writing groups, and even MFA programs. I believe in academia, but I don’t believe that you need academia to be a strong writer. You need awareness, stamina, and support. So be choosy when you sign up for any sort of group writing adventure. If anyone is promising you five easy steps to getting published or setting themselves up to be a guru . . . run for the hills!

  1. For writers who aren’t able to come to something like a Haven retreat, what is your advice for creating a productive and supportive environment in which to pursue their writing dreams?

Let’s face it: we’re not going to do anything consistently, especially something hard, unless there’s a payoff. I treat my writing practice like I’m a little girl getting away with something, like I’ve faked sick from school and am at home in bed. In fact, I often write in bed. In other words, I make it comfortable for myself to go into subjects that are often very uncomfortable. I delight in my writing practice. I value the role it plays in my life. My best advice for writers is to find your most natural voice on the page. Don’t try to force it. Find the flow that already comes out of you, even if it’s like a tiny stream rather than a roaring river. That means you might not write every day. So what? Find a writing practice that works for you based on your true self—your habits, your personality, your responsibilities, your real life. And commit to it. Start small, like with working out. Three times a week from 10:00 a.m. to noon, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday? Saturday morning? Twenty minutes before you get out of bed? Make it work based on who you truly are, not who you think you should be or how other people do it. And no matter what, find delight in it. Writing has the power to transform your life. It’s something that you can control. And all it takes is a pen, a piece of paper, and an open heart.

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Inspiration from Haven Writing Retreats

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Why You Should Hire an Editor: (or why the teacher must be a student)

Teaching Haven Writing Workshop

Teaching Haven Writing Workshop

Now booking our Haven Writing Retreats Montana 2016 calendar!

June 8-12 (booking fast)
June 22-26 (booking fast)
September 7-11
September 21-25
October 5-9
October 19-23

One of the greatest moments of my life as a teacher and retreat leader happened this fall in my living room. It was my first Haven Writing Workshop, (the advanced Haven Retreat program), intensely focused on craft, structure, and what it takes to get a book birthed. The class (including me) was having a collective ah-hah moment, and an attendee turned to me and said, “It’s great learning from a learner.”

It knocked me off center for a moment, as if I’d done something wrong. Quickly I realized it was a grand compliment and couldn’t be more true:  As a teacher, I don’t set myself up to be the authority. I feel more like a messenger. Going to the front lines, getting information for the folks back in the village so that they can fortify the troops and secure the infrastructure.  And that’s all well and fine, unless you forget sometimes that you’re a villager too.  And villagers need each other.  Or maybe a better way of thinking of it is more migratory.  Take a flock of geese, for instance.  The leader leads until it gets tired, and then it takes its place back in the V, regaining its strength and navigational abilities.  Last year, it was time for me to be that goose.

I have a lot of books on the back burner.  Books I’ve written over the years, revised, and that in one form or another, got lost along the way.  Misfit books which I’d like to see land in people’s hearts, but just aren’t ready.  This winter, I printed out a few of them and read them as if I was a reader, not their author.  And with the perspective that distance invites, I could see big fractures that needed triage.  I just wasn’t sure how to go about it. I’d written them so long ago, I’d lost their pulse, and yet I felt that they were not totally DOA.

A friend told me to hire a free lance editor.  ”I AM a free lance editor,” I told her, “via my writing retreats.”  Until that moment, I’d never ever thought of hiring someone to help me with my work. I have always been a solo act as a writer. Didn’t get an MFA. Have never been a big fan of writing conferences, though I’ve attended a few and they were helpful. I’ve just cut my teeth on life and written every day, no matter what. I don’t believe in writer’s block. I believe in being in community with writers, swapping stories and giving support. I believe in claiming your writing and living it with all your heart, speaking to yourself in the mirror while you’re brushing your teeth:  ”I am a writer. I am a writer.” Spit, rinse, go live it.

When I’ve written my way to the end of a project to the best of my ability, I ask a few select people to read it.  Pay attention to what they have to say.  (or not).  And then I go back to work.  This has been my process for almost three decades.  And it’s birthed a lot of material.  Some of it good.  Some of it not. But a handful of those babies want to be real live book babies, and while I’ve got current projects that I’m busy working on that I love…I’d still like those babies to breathe in this planet’s ozone.

So…when three published authors came on my Haven Writing Retreat in Montana this year and all shared that they’d hired free lance writers over the years in their pursuit of the published book…I paid attention.  ”You don’t have to be a solo act,” they assured me.  ”You can get help. You pay for therapy, or a gym membership, or a new pair of winter boots, after all.”

I got curious. I had heard of this amazing group of people in Seattle who are pretty much elves for writers. You name it:  social media, book proposal, editing, agenting, marketing/PR etc.  I quickly got in touch with Girl Friday Productions, and worked with their head editor, Christina Henry de Tessan on a project that I’d put on the back burner and wanted to re-visit. It was like the best Christmas present ever, elf-approved and delivered. Finally, I was able to see what was in that book’s way. Finally I didn’t feel so lost in the dark night of book-birthing purgatory. I could see what the characters needed, and more important, what this author needed in the way of brain rearrangement in order to climb back in with night vision. Finally…I had a doula!  ( A doula with a head-lamp!)  I recommend that any writer who needs a re-boot, or help on any level of writing and/or publishing, check into this phenomenal group of writerly elves.  You will not be sorry!

Lesson learned:  We don’t have to do it alone.   After all, my favorite quote from one of my favorite writers is:  I write in a solitude born of community.– Terry Tempest Williams

The teacher needs to be the student, indeed.

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Here are some words from Girl Friday Productions‘ head editor, Christina Henry de Tessan on why you might want to consider hiring a free lance editor:

Demystifying the Big Bad Editor and Her Red Pen

Working with an editor for the first time can feel daunting. After all, this might be the first time you put your manuscript in a stranger’s hands. Best case, you may feel like a real professional investing in your own career development (which is great!), but more often, you might find yourself fretting over the prospect of getting difficult feedback or panicking about whether your work is good enough. Either way, here are five things to keep in mind as you take this big, brave next step.

Editors love books. Every editor I’ve ever worked with loves what they do. We understand that it’s a privilege to get to collaborate with writers at this stage in the process and have tremendous respect for those who bravely submit their writing for professional feedback. So many of the editors I work with left jobs in the publishing industry and went freelance precisely because they wanted to spend more time working directly with authors and their manuscripts. It is immensely satisfying to help a writer enhance her strengths and polish a narrative so that it gets its message across to readers more effectively. Whether it’s figuring out how make a thriller more taut and suspenseful or helping an author who is very close to the subject find the most effective way to craft her memoir, we love nurturing the best possible story into being.

A freelance developmental editor is not the same as an acquisitions editor. We are not the gatekeepers determining whether or not a book will be purchased by the publishing house we work for. We are here to share our knowledge of the industry and the marketplace to give your manuscript the best chance of making that happen. Consider us your industry expert, cheerleader, and sounding board all rolled into one. We will do everything we can to help you communicate your message or story to the world as effectively—and brilliantly!—as possible. So don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions or get on the phone and brainstorm with your editor. That’s what we’re here for.

You don’t have to do everything we tell you to do. Honestly, we don’t expect you to. An editor is first and foremost your most valuable early reader. Yes, we have all kinds of editorial skill and genre knowledge, but ultimately we will probably be your closest reader. And as such, if something confuses us, sticks out, or makes us trip, then there probably is a little problem that needs your attention. That said, while we like to think we have the perfect solution every time, we don’t. There are often several potential solutions to a problem. If your editor’s suggestions don’t resonate with you, trust your instincts and propose an alternative that feels right. A good editor isn’t going to change your voice or make your book less “yours”. A good editor is going to help you fulfill the promise of your manuscript.

You are not alone if you feel nervous or vulnerable. It’s a big step, and it’s ok to feel a bit apprehensive. In fact, I wrote an entire post on how to handle your editorial letter for Girl Friday’s blog. A good way to settle your nerves is to schedule a call with your editor and explain how you’re feeling and ask any questions you have about their approach. If you’d rather receive feedback in the letter than have your manuscript marked up, let them know that. If you want very targeted feedback in the text, then say so. If you have questions about what they’ll be looking for, ask them.

Finally, take a moment to be proud of yourself. This is a big step, but we always learn when we invest in our own professional development. Working with a professional editor will not only give you new insights into your current manuscript but also provide you with tips and suggestions on how to improve your writing going forward, what the industry looks like, and a better understanding of the conventions and expectations of your genre. So don’t forget to stop and appreciate this milestone.

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