by Susan Wittig Albert
Brooke Warner is the keynote speaker at Stories From the Heart VIII. She is the founder of Warner Coaching Inc., publisher at She Writes Press, and author of What’s Your Book? A Step-by-Step Guide to Get You from Inspiration to Published Author.
In her fourteen years in the publishing industry, including eight years as Executive Editor at Seal Press, Brooke has shepherded hundreds of books through the publication process. As a teacher, coach, author, and publisher, she is a champion of women writers, with a special commitment to memoirists.
Susan: Many members of our SCN community know they have a story to tell, but they find it hard to get started. What suggestions do you have for them?
Brooke: In my memoir-writing classes I always say to just start with one single memory and then to create a single scene. (This holds true for fiction, too, though in the beginning it’s important to write what you know—whether you end up with fiction or nonfiction.) A scene will lead to a story, and a story can lead to a book. I know a lot of writers struggle with overwhelm, especially when they’re working on a book. The sheer length is daunting. And that’s why it’s important to take small steps, to find a regular practice, to get into a rhythm. Writing is a discipline. It requires attentiveness and care. Doing a little bit a few times a week gives you confidence, until you discover that place where you actually want to do more.
What is your advice for memoirists, especially novice writers, in writing groups? What should they look for in a group? What should they be wary of?
Great question. Finding a supportive group is so important. My main piece of advice is not to stay in a group if it’s not fully supporting you. I know a lot of writers who’ve been eroded by their writing groups. The place that was supposed to be a safe place turns out not to be. People bring their personalities to writing groups, so if you’re in the position to start one, or if you’re laying ground rules, establish what’s not okay. Discuss with the group how you want to give and receive feedback. Have accountability structures in place so that if someone gives feedback that stings, or that’s not delivered in the right way, tthat member of the group gets feedback as well. Writing groups sometimes suffer jealous members, and people can poison the well. But then there are also members who champion each other, who are each other’s biggest advocates. When you find that, it’s gold, but don’t think that you have the power to change a difficult person or a complicated dynamic. If you’re experiencing something like this, it’s probably best to leave and search elsewhere, or start your own group.
You’ve said that memoir is your favorite genre. Why? What about it has captivated you? What challenges you?
During my tenure as Executive Editor at Seal Press, I worked mostly on memoirs. Women’s voices and stories were always at the center of the work. I loved bearing witness to the honesty a memoir requires. I loved being in process with authors and their truths—watching them triumph after so much struggle. Memoir is a unique, storydriven genre that asks so much of writers, and then it’s so often dismissed as somehow “less,” as if opening your heart is something we shouldn’t be in awe of. I personally am in awe of it, and I love reading it, teaching it, and editing it. It’s very fulfilling for me, and I find memoir writers to be a very courageous bunch.
You wear a great many hats: you’re a teacher, a coach, an editor, a publisher. As a teacher, you see a great many writers up close and personal. What kind of help do you think they need most? Do they need assistance in defining and focusing on their stories? On ways to tell the story? On the mechanics of writing?
The kind of help authors need has a lot to do with their personalities. Some need support and validation more than anything. They don’t struggle with writers’ block but do struggle with validation issues. They might not have anyone who’s supportive of their writing. They might be the black sheep of the family. They might have people actively discouraging them from writing their book, or for spending time on “that hobby.” Other writers need help with their process—organization, how to schedule their writing, how to manage their time. These are my accountability clients and students. They just need someone to report into, and to help them brainstorm ideas and ways to actually do the writing. Then finally there are the craft folks, who really don’t understand certain elements of writing—scene, scope, character development, takeaway, whatever. These authors want someone to teach them the ropes and make their story better. They’re trying to figure out what’s not working, and they’re actively wanting to learn along the way. Some of my clients and students want or need support in all these way, but others are more definitely in a particular camp. My work is getting to know them as writers, figuring out what drives them and what their strengths are. The variety is rewarding to me. It keeps me on my toes.
At what point do you think a writer can best use a coach? What should a writer look for in a coach—and how does she go about finding that coach?
I think writers would do well to look for a coach at the beginning of their writing process. Of course you can always look for a coach later, but too many writers come to me after a manuscript is complete, looking for a “fix.” They know something is wrong but they don’t know what. If they had worked with a coach from the beginning, there are so many rabbit holes they simply wouldn’t have fallen down. But of course any point in the process is a good place to seek support. It’s just that too often writers want to be lone rangers, and can’t see all the ways a coach provides value, so they wait until they have a problem.
Finding a coach. Good question. There are many writing coaches out there, but too many of them who hang out their shingle without true experience other than having written their own books. I would recommend that authors ask other writer friends about coaches they’ve worked with. Coaches are easy to find at writing conferences, and usually they won’t be invited to attend unless they have some credentials. Once a writer has identified a few coaches, they should ask to talk to them, and then if they want to, they can contact references. Even if publishing is not your end goal, it’s good to look for a coach who has a track record of supporting authors all the way to publication. Many coaches will also refer other coaches they know and like. SheWrites actually has a stable of coaches, and I’ve been working to cultivate this list.
Join us next week for part two of our interview with Brooke Warner!