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Thursdays with Josh

Writers Room Session Notes

By Christy MunsonPublished 20 days ago Updated 9 days ago 9 min read
Top Story - March 2024
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Thursdays with Josh
Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

2021

My nephew hands me his heart inside a plastic three-ring binder: his first story, a work of short fiction laid bare, boldly, bravely, on the page.

Four hard copies exist, and one is in my hands.

Pride, fear, apprehension, hope -- a brew of emotions splashes over its edges (to say nothing of its contents). His angsty expectations don't know where to begin or end. His 20-something face implores me, read it, but his stoic eyes hold back a deeper truth. He gives me this one shot to earn his writer's trust.

Such trust, once lost, is never regained.

He reveals himself, twisting his walnut locks. He waffles between proud and unconvinced, but there's a depth of investment he believes he's put into it.

I feel equal parts hesitation and inspiration.

  • I could decline, tearing out his heart with apathy.
  • I could accept, and then, when he asks for my opinions, I could do him the disservice of sharing a few kind, vague, friendly words that amplify an ego but do little to guide a writer's craft.

I read it.

Then, of course, when next I see him, he asks me for my thoughts.

Careful now, I think. Don't crush his spirit. Be encouraging.

But I cannot be that person who pats his back and tells him how wonderful his writing is--not when I see the cracks and blemishes that could be tended and mended into something profound.

Critique is helpful to young writers. Vague platitudes are not.

But critiques must be taken in the right light. It's a tightrope we walk.

I cherish the young man stood before me, offering me his soul to crush for the price of a few hour's time. I would never want to deter him--or anyone else--from writing. Every person who wants to write should write.

But that's not to say that everyone who writes should seek to publish.

********

After reading his first attempt, I feel relief. His writing shows promise. He creates intriguing characters and an openness in his landscapes that gives the reader room to fill in the blanks. There's room to visualize and imagine. But there's no story. The plot falls apart. The voice is a whisper, indistinct, unconvinced and unconvincing. And the characters, while fun to read, fail to serve the narrative.

If the work had not been crafted by my relative, I can say with certainty that I would not have read it cover to cover.

I am demanding of other writers, as I am of myself. Perhaps I expect even more of myself. In any case, because he asked, I owe my nephew my same high standards. I'm someone who can give him that.

********

So, I give Josh my feedback, my legitimate critique of what works, what doesn't, and why.

To his credit, he takes it.

********

Weeks pass. I fear I've ruined the bond between us. But I won't push. He'll come if, when... on his terms.

********

Several weeks later, Josh asks if he can drop by. After a bit of catching up on family dramas, he tells me that he agrees with me. His first attempt is just that, a first attempt. He acknowledges that he created characters he likes only because he liked them, not because the story called for them. He created scenes he enjoyed writing, instead of putting in the work to create the scenes necessary to convey plot, point of view, perspective, and intention.

I give him more fulsome notes. Now I know he's listening.

At this juncture, I reveal a truth I need Josh to know, really know: it is always his choice, what advice to take or leave. He's the writer. No one gets to tell him what or how to write. Not even me. End of story.

********

He chooses to begin again.

********

2022

Josh returns, asking me to work with him on his new idea. He has this concept, a fantasy novel, or five.

He wants my help because "everyone else gave (him) platitudes, which really aren't all that helpful." He returns because I offer critique.

He sees that I am willing to invest my time in his project, and in him.

What he does not see, not yet anyway, is just how much I will get out of it too.

********

When all of this began, Josh was in his late 20's. Today, he's breaking new ground as a 30-something. The maturity developing in him is remarkable. Knowing I played some part in it, well, little else makes me as happy.

I don't make my living from writing or editing, but I earned a BA in English. Equally important is my deep passion for writing and editing, a passion I could not shake if I wanted to. And obviously I don't want to. I live to write. I've been gnawing at language delectables since I could construct a sonnet all those years ago, back when I was a goofy nine-year-old. Don't know if any of that qualifies me to guide someone else on a writer's journey, but I'm in. All in.

Trusting Josh agrees to my two simple ground rules.

********

My nephew and I begin to meet weekly, on Thursdays, not to write the books, but rather to write the skeleton of the books. That's ground rule number one.

1. No writing the story until the skeleton is mapped out: beginning, middle, and end.

That's the hardest and most important rule when you're writing your first novel, let alone series of novels. The allure of sitting writing, creating, crafting, slapping sweet paragraphs onto the welcoming page, making words and paragraphs bend just so, now that's my happy place. Oh, trust me. I get it.

But that's what trips us up. Creating because it feels good, not because it drives the story. I tell my nephew he may do that kind of writing, of course, but on his own time. And not on this series, the one he's developing with my guidance.

I advise Josh, "Don't waste precious time getting precious about word choice and composition. All that comes after you decide, with certainty, where the story is headed."

Consider Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass (1871).

Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?

The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.

Alice: I don't much care where.

The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn't much matter which way you go.

If it makes no difference what story you're trying to tell, go ahead and tell it. But then there's no need for me to help to steer. In short, don't waste your time or mine.

Which leads me to ground rule number two.

2. I reserve the right to call bullsh*t.

I don't want to tell anyone else what to write, but if you've asked me into the writers' circle, I will ask that I be afforded an opportunity to help a young writer see the bigger picture. I don't claim to be wise, but whatever experience I have amassed should be put to use.

I remind Josh that the ultimate decision-making rests with him, that he has the final say, as the author, but that we should plan to occasionally come to metaphoric blows over differing perspectives. In short, don't expect me to go along to get along. I will exact my standards.

But that said, I was, and am, unwilling to loose our relationship over writers' quarrels. So the deal was, we would agree to be consummate professionals in our writerly dealings. Period.

That decision has made all the difference.

********

Agreement reached, my nephew and I begin meeting once a week, typically on Thursday evenings. We fine tune plot and subplots, the arcs, the twists, the Easter eggs, his characters -- the heroes, heroines, villains, and supporting cast. Thus far, I've learned all there is to know about 75 named characters. And I could tell you what each one eats for breakfast, whether they'd take a left or a right at a cross roads, whether or not they'd get a tattoo, and which characters care and in what ways about the others!

********

When we get started on our writers' journey, Josh and I begin at the beginning. We do the hard work. And we carry on, meeting weekly. And so it has continued for two-plus years thus far. With no signs of it ending any time soon.

2024

My nephew and I have become friends, confidantes, colleagues, and a writers' circle of two. We've attended AwesomeCon, watched movies, taken walks, and talked about every topic either of us can think of. Nothing's off limits. None of this was happening before we headed into the great unknown of writing something together.

I've earned his trust, and he's earned my respect. And vice versa.

We've been working at this long enough now to have created ourselves a battle rhythm.

  1. He arrives. Sets up his laptop. Settles in.
  2. We make dinner, Josh, my husband, and I.
  3. We dine together and share our lives.
  4. Then we get to work on the skeleton, and plan our plans for the next week.

As we think through the plot points and character arcs, I get to know my nephew in some ways better than I know most of my closest friends.

And equally important, my nephew is getting to know me. Not just the aunt he sees at family gatherings. Me, flawed and fallible. Josh also gets to know and befriend my husband, with whom Josh has a great deal in common. We all can talk hockey, music, food, weather and the changing environment, and a thousand other topics for hours.

The books we are building together will get published one day, when they're ready. When Josh is ready. I know it in my bones.

And when that day comes, I will have had a hand in crafting the most important work of my life. And the books will be sort of sacred to me, too.

***

Copyright © 03/27/2024 by Christy Munson. All rights reserved.

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Dearest Reader,

If you enjoyed my writing, please like, comment, and or add your insights. Thank you! I also invite you to read more of my stories and poetry whenever you have time. Your interest lets me know my writing connects.

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Christy Munson

My words expose what I find real and worth exploring.

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Comments (12)

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  • ROCK 17 days ago

    Congratulations on a well deserved top story!

  • Anna 17 days ago

    Congrats on Top Story!🥳🥳🥳

  • Patrick M. Ohana17 days ago

    Congrats! Writing may need family, but I know from experience that family doesn't need writing : )

  • Andrea Corwin 18 days ago

    Congrats on TS - in-depth story on writing and mentoring, and your love of the craft and your nephew shines here.

  • Ameer Bibi18 days ago

    Congratulations 🎉🎉 for top story. Embrace your unique voice, for it holds the power to connect, resonate, and inspire others in ways only you can. Keep penning your truth, and watch as your words illuminate the path for others to follow."

  • Thank you for writing and sharing this 🥹 It brought so much warmth to my heart to learn about your relationship journey with your nephew. It’s a beautiful testament to how important compassion and consideration is in feedback, and how by putting in that extra time and effort to consciously love lays a foundation for future (decades of) connection and ease. ❤️ I can’t help but admire.

  • Caroline Craven19 days ago

    Josh is very lucky to have you. There are very few people I believe / trust with my writing. I always want to be better and you only get that through constructive feedback. I really wish your nephew (and you) great success. (Oh… and great top story by the way.)

  • LASZLO SLEZAK19 days ago

    congratulations

  • Dana Crandell19 days ago

    What a wonderful story, Christy and how wonderful of you to be honest and helpful. I think many of us could do with some of the advice you've given him! Loved the story, and congratulations!

  • Cathy holmes19 days ago

    Wonderful article. Good on you for giving your time to help out your nephew. It's great that you can have an honest writers relationship, and still remain friends. Congrats on the TS.

  • Gabriel Huizenga19 days ago

    What a wonderful window into what is clearly such a beautiful relationship! I'm with John, I'll definitely be buying a first edition :)

  • John Cox20 days ago

    My respect for you just went through the roof. This is the greatest kindness one writer can bestow upon another, Christy. I so look forward to when you report your nephew's first published book. And most importantly, I will want to buy a copy of it as long as it is signed by both of you.

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