A Long Distance Team That Works

Conclusion of the series, “Your Critique Partners

If you are fortunate to discover the perfect critique partner, do all you can to nurture that relationship. Saturday Evening Post editor Holly G. Miller and I have been professional colleagues and critique partners for more than thirty years. We’ve coauthored seven books, and we’ve team-taught writing workshops more than 250 times. Humorously, Holly will say that it is a good thing she and I live one hundred miles apart because sometimes we are so bluntly honest in evaluating each other’s work, it takes a day or two to heal from the wounds. But, the point is, we can trust each other to give precise, accurate, valuable evaluations. We don’t pull punches. Yet, we also are quick to praise the other person for well-written passages.

These days Holly and I work together maybe three times a year, but we stay in touch via technology during the interims. Professionally, we are equals, but we are not clones. She is a female from the East Coast originally, has a very rich background in journalism, and is left-handed. I am a male from the Midwest, have a doctor’s degree in classic literature and linguistics, and am right-handed. We bring different skill sets and perspectives to the table when we critique each other or teach together. If you can find someone like that, you will be blessed.

Developing a turtle-shell hide is one of the qualities that make a writer succeed. We all need to have our writing evaluated by competent second readers. Usually, they will make us look better than we really are. I’m certainly all in favor of that, so I’m going to get my wife to proofread this piece, and then I’ll submit it to my editor.

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Finding the Right Partner

Part 2 in the series, “Your Critique Partners

Whether you meet in person, over Skype, or via email, make the most of your time. After you receive an edited manuscript, go over the corrections and the suggested revisions carefully. Let it all “stew” for a couple of days. Then, make a list of specific questions. You may not have recognized a certain editing symbol, or understood why a line of dialogue was rewritten, or comprehended why an entire paragraph was struck. As your partner responds, take notes so that you won’t keep making the same mistakes in the future.

The longer you work as a writer, the more you will discover that various people have different specialties that can be of help to you in different situations. For example, Lin Johnson, editor of Christian Communicator, is one of the sharpest writers and editors I know. Nevertheless, even she uses diversified critique partners. She has one person who proofreads the final draft copy of her magazine. She has two other people who partner with her in running the Write to Publish conference, and they proofread the brochures and conference materials.

I have similar practices. My wife Rose has a master’s degree in education and is a licensed teacher. For many years, before word processors, she also was my secretary and typist. As such, before I ever turn in a new book to my agent or publisher, I ask Rose to read the whole manuscript to check spelling, grammar, punctuation, syntax, transitions, and continuity. The woman who serves as my webmaster also reads the manuscript to make sure it is in correct Chicago Manual of Style format and to give me an outside reader’s opinion of the content. Then, of course, my agent will eventually offer feedback regarding marketability, narrative flow, and take-away value. Each of these specialists, as noted earlier, protects me from my blind sides.

Next week, “A Long-Distance Team That Works”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Getting Valuable Feedback

Part 1 in the series, “Your Critique Partners

We writers need feedback. We need people who can read our manuscripts and point out blind spots, such as grammar and punctuation errors, sloppy transitions, illogical dialogue, missing backstory, and confused plotting. However, selecting people we can turn to and trust to give honest feedback and knowledgeable analysis must be done with discernment and professionalism.

Finding a critique partner involves searching. You can join a local writers club and discover who the meticulous proofreaders and experienced writers are. You can become part of an online forum and do some test runs with other writers who want to swap and critique manuscripts. You can take a continuing education class in writing at a local college and meet other developing writers. You can hire professional copyeditors (services listed in Christian Writers Market Guide). You can go to a writers conference and attend night owl sessions in which writers read their manuscripts aloud and seek feedback.

Once you find someone you think will be helpful to you, it’s good to set ground rules at the start. Perhaps you prefer strict confidentiality and will not want this other person to show your work to anyone else. Perhaps you will have expectations that feedback will be given within a set time period. Perhaps you will need specific explanations about any changes made to your manuscripts. Perhaps you will be the kind of thin-skinned writer who will need to hear the good news (praise) before you hear the bad news (criticism).

Communicate these requirements up front. Get off to a good start with your partner, and, conversely, be sensitive to the requests and preferences of this partner as you evaluate his or her work.

Next week, “Finding the Right Partner”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Ensuring Character Empathy

Conclusion of the series, “The Fascination of Physically Challenged Characters

It’s important not to portray challenged individuals in your stories until you understand how they are challenged. I once slipped on concrete, cracked my pelvic joint, and ended up in a wheelchair for three months. I learned firsthand what it was like to have to have someone else drive for me, open restroom doors for me, even tie my shoes. I came closer to understanding abandonment when people got up to go get coffee and just left me in the classroom alone. I understood personal frustration when working in my office and I couldn’t simply jump up to sharpen my pencil or answer the phone or turn on a light. Since that time I’ve always offered help to anyone in a wheelchair. My sensitivity is borne of experience.

Thus, conduct interviews, do online research, interview therapists. If you fully understand the challenges presented by specific injuries or diseases, you’ll portray them honestly while introducing us to a character who is a survivor.

In giving a physical challenge to a fictional character, there is no element of mockery. Quite the opposite. Being able to solve crimes is impressive, but if you are wheelchair-bound, such as Chief Robert T. Ironside (Raymond Burr) in Ironside, or you are a quadriplegic, such as Lincoln Rhyme (Denzel Washington) in The Bone Collector, it is even more impressive. Our admiration of such characters rises as they amaze us in more ways than one. (Note that in the original movie of Rear Window, the central character [Jimmy Stewart] was bound to a wheelchair, but in the remake, the plot intensity was greatly enhanced by making the central character [Christopher Reeve] a quadriplegic.)

The secret to getting readers to keep turning pages is to add plot intensity. If a physical challenge can be added to the “regular” problems of day-to-day life, plot intensity is automatically achieved. Additionally, character empathy is assured. For a fiction writer, it’s the best of both worlds.

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Add Character Challenges to Heighten Plot Intensity

Part 2 in the series, “The Fascination of Physically Challenged Characters

The reason physically challenged characters intrigue readers so much is because they present a quandary. We wonder, have they become fascinating individuals because their handicap forced them to overcome serious obstacles just to survive, or will the physical hindrance somehow eventually lead to their demise if they encounter a situation in which all human faculties are required? We watch these people, study them, try to learn from them. They constantly are in an adapt-or-die kind of environment, which heightens plot intensity.

It is important not to portray these individuals as pathetic, unless there is some sort of subsequent redeeming change in the person. For example, Cap’n Dan in Forrest Gump truly is a pathetic individual—drunken, slovenly, abrasive, self-pitying, and spiteful. As a wheelchair-bound double-amputee Vietnam vet, his bitterness makes him hateful to everyone around him until Gump’s love, loyalty, and friendship give Dan a new reason to live and be happy. He may still be bound to the wheelchair, but Dan no longer is emotionally “handicapped.” It makes for a good story.

Next week: “Ensuring Character Empathy”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Create Distinctive Characters through Physical Infirmities

Part 1 in the series, “The Fascination of Physically Challenged Characters

If your short story or novel is finished but somehow doesn’t seem to have sparks of uniqueness, you can improve it greatly during the second draft by making small but significant changes to the central character.

One of my college students recently showed me a story she’d written. The plot was captivating and the ending had a clever surprise, but something was missing. The central character was “routine.” I suggested the student revise the story and make the main character deaf. At first the student was baffled by such a suggestion, but when she followed my advice, the main character elicited new empathy. His struggles were more difficult, his success was less assured, and his behavior patterns were anything but “normal.” Now the story was far more interesting.

I gained this idea by reading short stories and watching movies in which characters are more distinctive because of physical infirmities. Let’s use one simple example, that of limping. In the space of fifteen minutes I came up with a list of thirty-four fictional characters known for having a pronounced limp. Both Captain Ahab of Moby Dick and Long John Silver of Treasure Island are each missing a lower leg due to an unfortunate encounter with a sea creature.

On television series that started in the 1950s we had Grandpa Amos McCoy (Walter Brennan in The Real McCoys and Chester (Dennis Weaver in Gunsmoke). These characters had uneven gaits. Dr. Philip Carey, the main character in W. Somerset Maugham’s classic novel Of Human Bondage, hobbles because one of his legs is shorter than the other. Another physician, Dr. Kerry Weaver (Laura Innes), for twelve seasons of the TV show ER used a cane and walked with a very pronounced limp. In the opening episode of the PBS series Sherlock, Dr. John Watson had a psychosomatic limp that Holmes “cured” by getting Watson so caught up in a case, Watson forgot to keep walking that way.

Kenny Rogers limped through all of The Gambler Western movies on TV. In the most recent movie remake of Elmore Leonard’s short story “3:10 to Yuma,” Paul Scallan (Christopher Bale) is missing a lower leg due to a wound from the Civil War and, thus, he hobbles through the action of the entire movie. Even in the new TV series Person of Interest there is an interesting point of curiosity, for in the modern-day scenes with central character Harold Finch, he walks with a very pronounced limp, but in all the flashback scenes of Harold as a boy or as a youthful computer science genius, he is not limping. We have yet to be told how and when he was injured enough to cause him (a multibillionaire, no less) to have to spend the rest of his life with that disability.

Next week: “Add Character Challenges to Heighten Plot Intensity”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Overcoming the Social-Club Mentality

Part 3 in the series, “The Pitfalls of Literary Citizenship”

Be sure you don’t confuse community with captivation. Much of literary citizenship involves people who are writing in similar genres. They associate in public or online to a level of exclusivity. For example, at open-mike readings in coffeehouses and chatrooms strictly for poets, participants visit with each other, exchange poems, offer feedback about word choices or rhymes, and share reviews of poetry chapbooks they’ve recently read. If poetry is someone’s passion and that person has no need to earn money as a writer, this may be a lot of fun. However, the world of publishing is no longer that narrow.

Today, with traditional publishing being supplemented by online publishing, self-publishing, print-on-demand books, and e-books, modern writers have to be authors, editors, publicists, agents, and publishers all by themselves. This just isn’t possible by having a “social club” mentality about enhancing a writing career. Today’s writers must explore new publishing options, attempt to write in a variety of genres, work with people in a vast array of publishing venues, and investigate professional networking options far afield.

Let me add that I do understand the value of a publishing house or literary agency having a large network of people who want to discover new releases or read about the lives of authors. I cooperate with that every time a new book of mine comes out. And I also know the value of maintaining a professional website for publicity purposes. Nevertheless, the idea that all writers are in a tribe or a hive working equally is both naïve and self-defeating. By necessity we must protect our time, maximize our resources, and sustain our creative energy.

Writing is and always has been a lonely profession. I understand why many new writers, not used to this alienation and solitude, might desire companionship. Fine. Just make it a fair relationship and exchange.

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

 

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Watch Out for Leeches

Part 2 in the series, “The Pitfalls of Literary Citizenship

Don’t confuse craftsmen with leeches. People involved in literary citizenship believe they have the right to send others their poorly written manuscripts and receive proofreading, editing, and insightful feedback. Instead of reading books on writing, attending writers conferences or college classes on writing, or being directly involved in a small-group critique circle, they want a shortcut. They want to find people to “fix up” their manuscripts so they can submit them for publication.

When people like that approach me, I send them my editing-fee rate sheet. Sometimes they are shocked that I would want substantial compensation for revising their material. But why would I want to pull myself off of my own writing projects in order to invest hours in the work of an amateur? Uh-uh. Writing for myself is hard enough.

This is not to say I am not open to exchanging manuscripts with fellow professionals. For example, my buddy John R. Ingrisano and I have been friends since we finished our master’s degrees in college in 1973, and throughout the years we’ve bounced manuscripts off each other many times. I wrote the foreword for one of John’s books, and he was my publisher for four of my business books released by R & R Newkirk in the 1980s. Recently, he sent me the opening chapters of his novel in progress, and I sat and read them and wrote comments on the pages and sent them back within a couple of days. John will do the same for me someday. He’s not a leech. He’s a highly skilled craftsman.

Know the difference.

Next week: “Overcoming the Social-Club Mentality”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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The Pro in Quid Pro Quo

Part 1 in the series, “The Pitfalls of Literary Citizenship

The hot catchphrase in the world of publishing these days is “literary citizenship.” In a nutshell, it is the premise that writers should be united in a self-sacrificing network of friends and helpers, all dedicated to advancing the careers (and lives) of fellow wordsmiths. On the surface this sounds like a noble goal and honorable cause, but as a person who has been in the writing profession for half a century, I see a lot of potential pitfalls for freelancers.

It’s important that you don’t confuse professional networking with social networking. I am totally in favor of having a series of solid contacts with editors, accomplished authors, radio and TV talk show hosts, publishers, and literary agents. These people are the movers and shakers of our profession. They’re goal-oriented, experienced, connected, and productive. By working with them in a quid pro quo situation, they can help advance our careers as we, likewise, advance theirs.

For example, if you refer a hot new writing talent to an agent or publisher and that leads to a contract, those folks will be very open to looking at your material, too. If you are willing to read the galleys of a pending book and provide an endorsement quotation for it, that author in turn will be open to reading the galleys of your next book and potentially offering an endorsement quotation for you. These are professional relationships.

Social networking, on the other hand, has the potential to drain writers. Sure, we’re supposed to gain friends and followers who supposedly will plunk down money for our books and help with word-of-mouth advertising. But we must maintain a balance.

It saps time when writers go on Facebook to read about a friend’s baby who has cut her first tooth or about a party that was held for a neighbor down the street for his retirement. I, personally, have stayed away from Facebook and all the other “connections.” When people write to me and say they want to “friend me,” I decline. I’m not prejudiced. I literally have no time for needless chit-chat. I have looming deadlines, most self-imposed. I have open lines on e-mail for people who are my close friends (most are in the publishing world in one way or the other) or business associates. The rest is clutter. That may seem cold, but it’s just reality in the world of professional writing.

Next week: “Watch Out for Leeches”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

 

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Finding Motivation in Clichés

Conclusion of the series, “Benefit from Bromides”

Last week we looked how well-known sayings can jumpstart your writing. Here are three more adages that can inspire your career.

“He who hesitates is lost.” Either by direct effort or mere luck, some plum writing assignments will fall into your lap from time to time. If you waste time worrying about whether or not you are ready to handle such assignments—enough education? enough experience? enough time? enough publishing savvy?—you’ll talk yourself out of taking what might well be your breakthrough gigs. Always say yes. To quote Woody Allen, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” Trust in your ability to learn as you earn. Go for it!

“Well begun is half done.” Physicists talk about the power of inertia. A body in motion tends to remain in motion. Well, apply that fact to getting started on your writing project. Initiate momentum by assembling all of your tools—notes, pens, cup of java, file folders, recorded interviews. Clear away any distractions, e.g., magazines, books, unrelated research. Divide the work project into a series of stages. Go to the computer, and power it up. You’re halfway home already.

“The race does not always go to the swift.” If you balk at starting a writing project because you know you are a plodder rather than a sprinter, take heart. Often the writer who dashes off a first draft and then rushes it to an editor winds up receiving it back with a rejection slip or request for additional research, better fact-checking, and improved writing. You, however, may take a bit longer to prepare your manuscript, but the high-quality end product will save you time overall. So get started, work at your own pace, and take home the blue ribbon when you cross the finish line.

Consider this parting thought: Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, spent a lifetime assembling the book of Proverbs. Ben Franklin collected all the known one-liners and clichés of his era when he wrote Poor Richard’s Almanac. Let a word to the wise be sufficient.

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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