March 2020 archive

Top Writing Coach Tip #2: What’s My Writing Worth?

Dear Dave,

It was great talking with you today. Thanks for sharing your ideas for your book. I totally get your concern that your story might not hold meaning for anyone else—that it might not be (a) valuable (contribution) to literature or society.

But I want to assure you, if you can dig deep and excavate the shining core of your story and write about it (convey it) in a compelling way, readers will connect with what you have to say.

Of course, there’s a certain skill to writing a compelling story—but that can be learned.

You seem really engaged by (invested in) (committed to) your idea, and that is the reliable spark that will fuel the work of learning that/those skill(s).

Together, we’ll find the techniques that will make your story/idea strong, give the deep meaning of it, its value, a shape and a presence that will make its inherent value/worth evident to your readers.

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Whatcha Up To?! (A Puppy-Friendly Inquiry into Your Current Writing Life)

HI! I JUST DID A MINI-INVENTORY of my writing life. I was interested to see how much I’m actually doing. Here are the categories I considered—just in case you want to play along!

Personal writing

I’ve been journaling every day for about five or six months, now. Some days I dive deeper than others. But, on the whole,


I spent many years of my early career in cozy rooms writing with groups of writers. Using the Amherst Writers & Artists (AWA) method in which I was trained, I led workshops based on AWA founder Pat Schneider’s textbook for the AWA training, WRITING ALONE AND WITH OTHERS.

Sometimes, I’d write with friends or in informal groups, too.

But it had been some years since I wrote with anyone else (although recently with pal Jill)

But when two new-to-writing clients appeared in my regular schedule . Mona, Tam


Blog posts

Stalled book project

What I’ve heard from clients: Real writers fake names

Jake taking himself to a cafe to write

Sarah: 1000 words a day on a draft.


What about you?

Simple writing arithmetic: Aspirational. Dialing up or down.

Anything you’d like to add? Subtract?

Me? Pretty content!



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Knit One, Purl Two: When Not to Write

ABOUT A YEAR AGO, in a bit of a funk, I wrote a post titled “Sometimes Don’t Write.” In it, I talk about needing a break, sometimes, for our forebrains to have rest. REST was my main focus then. Today, a year later, I have an update for that:

We writers are WORD-y people. We like to think in language, play with language, describe in words—even that old (accurate) adage “Show don’t tell,” is all about using even MORE words to describe a situation or image.

For instance, if we’re just telling, we might, economically, write, “Sue’s looking happy today.” But if we’re doing our duty to our readers, we’ll dig in an write, “______.”

That’s XX words compared to the original XX words! And we had to think through each one in writing.

So. Even our writing instructors/mentors/teachers/guides … they are always wanting MORE WRITING, MORE WORDS from us.

So, writing is actually a translation—of what we see, feel, imagine, remember—into the hard currency of words. And like going into the coalmine of our brains to find these nuggets, this translation is hard work.

And sometimes exhausting. I don’t know about you, but finding language to explain myself all week—to writers and in my own text on the page—my brain can feel like two stones rubbing together: dry, but unlikely to produce fire!

That’s why, in addition to a daily journaling practice—which does keep my hand-to-brain connection wired and the messages flowing—I also make collage.

It’s completely nonverbal, and gives me great satisfaction. My style (as you can see), is very loose. Lots of smearing of paint, tearing of paper, and scribbling of pencil! But most importantly for me, it allows me to be playful and creative without using language, which is the coin of my realm.

And, interestingly, and different from journaling/writing, I find my thoughts free-flowing as I choose images and colors and trial-and-error assemble them into a pleasing (to me) composition.

Like my daily journaling practice, my art-making habit contributes ultimately to an easier flow on the page—and also to making wider, more unexpected (freer) connections and associations. It’s like letting my brain out to play.

Maybe that wider-association-making is specific to collage. I mean, visually, that’s exactly what collage is/how collage happens—through tapping unexpected  juxtapositions.

But maybe if you wantto create more order and organization in your writing, you might try the non-verbal rhythmic pattern-adherent craft of knitting. Or (and ‘m a terrible cook1), maybe if you enjoy spending (nonverbal) time in the kitchen, cooking, it would lead to ____ more SENSORY writing?

You see where I’m going, right? While it seems any nonverbal creative activity (gardening … bookbinding, …) gives your word-making mind a break, while still inviting you to experience the suppleness of creative engagement and play … maybe WHAT nonverbal creative practice you choose/focus on can be an RX (prescription) to heal what ails your writing! An antidote or stimulant to fix some aspect of your writing that’s foundering (for more about this and how, perhaps, to identify what needs fixing and what art form would be helpful, see 21st Century Mind).


Other writer friends I know do needlecrafts, or garden, or knit, or paint, or … cook or … all opportunities to give the ol’ word-making machinery a rest.

The good news! I come back from a session at my art-making table refreshed.

Non-writing prompt

Take inventory of your immediate world.

Non-writing inspiration

Visual art and design of famous writers:


Tone and Color: Make Your Writing Sing! (A Writing Prompt)

Writing has tone and color has effect. Combine the two and see what happens.

Freewrite a color … repeat with different colors (over the course of a week or a single writing session.


Natalie Goldberg links color awareness with taking a writerly walk in her color exercise.

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Good Company to Take Along Your Writer’s Path



ON WRITING, Stephen King


BIRD BY BIRD, Anne Lamott


Will Dean, Forest Author

Writing prompt

Wander the stacks of your local bricks-and-mortar bookstore or the virtual stacks of Amazon looking for new traveling companions. Follow other writers, authors, editors, agents on Twitter or Instagram or join a Facebook group or two. There’s so much support and encouragement for us along our sometimes lonely path. Use the sources I offered up as a starting place—and find … s

Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!

A Freelance Editor’s 5 Tips to Getting the Most from Your FREE Sample Edit!

TOM WALLACE IS A SAVVY EDITOR and an extraordinary ghost writer. I asked him if he’d be willing to share a useful nugget from his wide experience in the world of professional writing—and he delivered the goods!

The Sample Edit

Tom Wallace

Shopping for a freelance editor can be a nail-biter. You know you need one, but they have to be the right one. You want an editor who not only knows the principles of editing backward and forward but has the sensitivity and perception to edit your voice, to get what you’re saying. One of the most important tools to use in this epic search is the sample edit.

There are two kinds of sample edit. The first is the paid sample, usually of a good chunk of your writing—say, your opening two chapters or initial twenty pages. This is, frankly, not a popular choice, because, if you’re getting four paid samples, this search could get a bit costly.

The second type is free, so that’s what we’ll focus on in this post. Most freelance editors will be happy to do a free sample edit. They’ll jump at the opportunity to prove they’ve got the chops you’re looking for.

5 Tips to Getting the Most from a Sample Edit

Tip #1: A free sample will be about five pages. Get a sample of this length from three or four editors, so you have enough comparison material to make an informed choice between them. Have all your prospective editors work on exactly the same material—which should be the first five pages of your book. (Indeed, the three most important parts of your book are the first sentence, the first paragraph, and the first page. What’s in the beginning constitutes your best hope—quite likely your only hope—of hooking a reader.)

Tip #2: This sample should be done in Microsoft Word with the Track Changes function turned on, allowing you to see every revision and margin comment made by each editor.

Tip #3: Editors might deal with any number of issues: wordiness, spelling, punctuation, character development, pace, etc. So comparing these few sample edits can be very enlightening.

Look for things in the text like deletions of repeated words or ideas, the rearrangement of sentences and re-punctuation of dialogue, and the solving of grammatical problems like dangling modifiers. If two or three editors agree about the majority of these issues and one does not—well, then it’s time to remember what you learned on SESAME STREET: one of these editors is not like the others.

Also, if editors are revising for style, which does the best job of polishing your work without obliterating your voice. Are they really adding value, or are they just changing things to change them?

Tip #4: Look at the margin comments. These may contain information about why something was changed, suggestions to you about what you might add, or questions meant to clarify your meaning or clarify an idea in the editor’s head that will help her do good work on your material, should you decide to work with her.

Tip #5: Finally, if you don’t understand a choice an editor has made, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Remember that each editor is essentially auditioning for a part in the play that is your writing life. If they grumble at the idea of answering questions—or communicating with you in anyway—they shouldn’t be in your play.

Sample edits rock. They’re one of the best tools you have in your search for a talented editor.


Thanks so much to Tom for sharing the ins and outs of getting a sample edit. Want to learn more about working with a freelance editor? Contact Tom Wallace!

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Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review!
Want to know more about hiring a writing coach? Click to read Should I Hire a Writing Coach in THE WRITER magazine.

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A Writer’s First Year: How a Writing Coach Helped a Shadow Writer Step into the Light

FROM OUR FIRST CONVERSATION, I knew Mona was a writer … although that notion was in complete contradiction to the fact that she didn’t write! Still. There was something about her that just felt like a writer—and as someone who spends most of my waking hours talking with writers, I was pretty confident in my assessment.

Julia Cameron talks about shadow artists. These are folks who long to have a more creative life, but instead live in the shadow of other creatives. Perhaps they manage a gallery instead of painting themselves, or, in the case of writers, read voraciously, but rarely put pen to paper. Before this past year, Mona may have been living in the writing shadows, but not anymore. Since we met, she’s taken many steps into the light. I’m grateful to her for sharing both a bit about her journey here and a beautiful piece of personal writing that shows her writer’s soul!

A Writer’s First Year
—Mona Newton

My writing year started when a friend invited me to join a blog group in early January. Participants received daily prompts from the organizer, wrote posts, and shared them with the group. Thinking I could learn from others and maybe connect with fellow wannabes, I jumped in, although I felt really insecure about my writing.

I am a rule follower, so I wrote to the suggested topic each day, though no one else seemed to. In fact, only a very few of the twenty or so other participants wrote at all. After a few weeks of limping along, trying my darnedest to get into the flow, I read our leader’s post about her writing coach, Jamie Morris.

Jamie’s enthusiasm gave me a positive vibe—I could do this. I could explore writing in a safe, fun, educational environment with a writing coach! I had asked and the Universe had delivered something better than the blog group.

Then I broke my wrist while skiing. Immediately, my very active life became sedentary. It turned out to be the break (no pun intended) I needed to slow down and explore the short “writing opportunities” Jamie offered me. I wrote about a painting in my living room, about hotel carpet, about my long-dead fish, Beta (see story below). As winter melted into summer, I took walks and wrote about what I’d seen along the way.

And Jamie and I wrote together, too. In those sessions, I noticed how unfamiliar I am with spilling out my ideas. I keep circling authors whose books I’ve read and am in awe at how they are able to write hundreds of pages of really good words, all strung together, while the writing I produce seems still to be so elementary.

I struggle to imbue myself in the pieces I write, and I struggle to find the words. And I still have stretches where I just don’t write. But when I do, sometimes I am actually pleased with what I write—like I am with this piece.

Betta Fish

My friend Marcella was giving betta fish as party favors at her daughter’s high school graduation party. I decided to take one with me to my apartment, 350 miles away. Like my cousin Danette, my nephew Chris, and my niece Sonia, I took a bright red one. To make the fish’s trip as comfortable as possible, I carefully packed his bowl in a box with a towel around it. The temperature was in the 90s. Fortunately, my car had excellent air conditioning.

I’d never owned a fish before, but the idea of a pet in my little apartment put a smile on face. I named him Beta. Bettas are fighters; they don’t do well with other fish in their tank. Even when people stooped to talk to him at eye level, he’d do his aggressive dance, coming up to the side of his one-gallon tank, puffing out his gills to make his head look bigger, and attacking them, by swimming in reverse, then charging forward, stopping right before he hit the side of the tank.

But Beta was really friendly to me. He would greet me when I talked to him. I was convinced he recognized me! When he was feeling particularly friendly, he’d wave his little fins at me when I looked him in the eye. In the morning when I fed him, I would drop of couple of flakes into the tank; he would swim around one of them and then attack it, munching it down quickly. 

My neighbors Peg and Mike took care of Beta when I’d leave town for more than a couple of days. After watching him for over a year, they would joke when I took him over to their apartment that he was going to camp—Betta Camp. He was pretty entertaining for all of us.

One day, though, after he’d been in my care for three years, he started acting less frisky, looking a little gray below his mouth. After researching on the internet, I concluded he was sick, not dying. The guy at the pet store who sold me the Betta Fix, which was the medicine to cure him, told me a typical betta lifespan was about three years. The internet said two to five years. I was determined to get Beta past three, even to five. 

I changed his water frequently, didn’t overfeed him, and of course I talked to him. But he didn’t make it. After a few days of hanging out at the top of his tank on a floating plastic plant, he died. I came home from work to find him standing on his tail leaning against the little Buddha in his tank. For his final swim, I took him down to the Roaring Fork River and let him go in the current, thanking him for being my companion.

Hopefully, in a complete cycle, he was food for another fish, or a bird that spotted his bright red body from high in the sky.


In December, Mona asked herself, “Am I done with this experiment?” A gut check told her no, she’s not done. There’s more she wants to explore in this coming year. She reported that she’s signed up for two classes, one with Natalie Goldberg and one at her local college. She’ll  also continue working on a longer piece, about Georgia O’Keefe and  Mabel Dodge Luhan, that she started last year, hoping to find a place for its publication. But whether or not she does, Mona told me she’ll keep going, approaching writing with perseverance and gusto, the way she likes to approach the rest of her life (especially skiing!).

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I hope you found this inspiring. Got a dream? Be like Mona! Go for it—even if you take it tortoise-slow and with the tiniest of baby steps. Just give it a year and see how far you’ve come.

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching!

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