Writing coach Shelley Gillespie spoke to the Phoenix Writers Club Saturday, April 18, at the Bluewater Grill in Phoenix. While Gillespie has held the titles of journalist, marketing consultant, ghostwriter, training director and author, among others, she describes herself today as a problem solver for authors. A lover of writing and reading, she enjoys being with authors, people who care about those very things. Writing and publishing a book takes “a lot of effort,” she said. “I commend anyone who’s able to see it through to completion.”
She admitted that she used to struggle getting words down on paper, but “being a journalist for 10 years pretty much cured me of that.” Gillespie worked for a small paper in Maricopa, Arizona. To get the news out, she said, “you’ve gotta hustle.” To help cure the writers at the meeting who might also be struggling, she had everyone take out pen and paper and write for three minutes. She suggested that writers do that if they’re feeling stuck, and then go back later to make corrections.
“Have passion for what you’re writing,” Gillespie exhorted her audience. “It’s an investment of your time.” She added that you don’t want to write something you don’t enjoy. One reason she stopped being a journalist was that she didn’t want to write bad things. She wanted to inspire. When she went to a woman who acts as a mentor to help people find their way, the woman told her, “You are a book coach.” And so she is.
One rewarding aspect of her coaching occurred when she worked with a man who had made the mistake of diving into a shallow lake and who ended up becoming a quadriplegic. He persevered and became an English teacher, though life was still incredibly difficult. Only able to type with one knuckle, he wanted to write a book about his experience in order to show how someone can go on, how someone can succeed. Writing “does change lives,” Gillespie said.
A woman in her early 40s who took a course taught by Gillespie at a community college told her exactly that. “You changed my life,” she said. In the beginning she didn’t even smile, but by the end of the course, she had perked up, and she “turned in a paper truly worthy of an A,” according to Gillespie. Then there was the home-schooled student who became so confident that he’s now a Fulbright Scholar. “I really have seen a lot of improvement in the people I’ve worked with.”
Gillespie had some advice for those present at the PWC meeting. “When you are a writer, you have to set a deadline. Set a deadline for yourself,” she said, even if you don’t have one imposed on you. When it comes to the writing itself, she noted the necessity of varying sentence length and sentence structure, unlike one of her clients, who started every sentence with “the.” She admonished her listeners to learn the difference between a sentence and a sentence fragment and to learn how to use prepositional phrases and gerunds correctly. But she also said, “Know that you don’t have to know everything,” and admitted that she sometimes gets confused over the use of “affect” and “effect.”
As an exercise at the PWC meeting, Gillespie asked all present to close their eyes for a moment and think back to their earliest memory of a book. Was it something a parent read to them? Was the room quiet? Did they smell anything? What was the book about? She asked one volunteer to put in earplugs and another to blindfold herself while a third volunteer shared his earliest book memory. Her point was that when someone is reading a book, he or she doesn’t see an actual face or hear an actual voice, so the author needs to evoke those senses and all the others. What are the characters’ facial expressions? Is there a scent in the air?
Once a book is published, what then? “These days traditional publishers are expecting you to do a lot of promotion,” Gillespie said, including having a website. She noted that authors can build their own free website at www.wix.com. “If you don’t have the skills to do that, find a 10-year-old to help you,” she quipped.
Another way to grow an audience is to write a blog. She also suggested entering contests. While she was still a journalist, her editor entered her work in a contest. Against the odds, she beat the big papers and won. “I was shocked,” she said.
Gillespie is launching a group coaching program on May 20, a five-week hybrid course that will combine lecturing and one-on-one coaching. “I would love to work with all of you,” she said.
Gillespie is the author of “10 Steps to Book Writing Success” and “Hiking for the Couch Potato: A Guide for the Exercise-Challenged.”