115 – Push Through Writing Barriers with Guest Sharon Dunn

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Sharon Dunn on the Write from the Deep podcast with Karen Ball and Erin Taylor Young

Too many things can stop us from writing. We hit barriers that seem too big, too tall, and too strong to ever get through. Guest Sharon Dunn has faced many of those same barriers, and is here to share how God can equip us to push through.

About Sharon Dunn

Sharon Dunn is a bestselling author of over 30 books writing humorous mysteries and romantic suspense for Christian readers. After nearly 27 years of marriage, she lost her beloved husband Michael to cancer. She has three grown children and lives with a very nervous border collie. Learn more about Sharon Dunn at her website: sharondunnbooks.net.

Thanks to our sponsors on Patreon, we’re able to offer an edited transcript of the podcast!

Erin: Welcome to the deep. We’re so glad that you have joined us and, yay, today we have a podcast guest. I’m so excited. It is Sharon Dunn, and of course I’m going to let Karen introduce her.

Karen: I’m so delighted that Sharon is here with us. I love listening to Sharon. She’s one of the smartest people I know, and one of the most reasoned people I know.

I love listening to her talk about anything, politics, even. I seldom get involved in political discussions, but I love listening to Sharon because I know what she’s going to say is filled with grace and has been well thought out, and it’ll be presented in an even and reasoned way. Something sadly missing in our world.

In addition to being such a smart person, she is an award-winning, multi-published author with over 30 books to her credit. You would think she was 90, but she’s not. She’s young, and she’s got more on the way. She writes romantic suspense and humorous and cozy mysteries for the Christian market. They really are wonderful.

Her books have been on the USA Today bestseller list as well as Publishers Weekly. Her very first book, Romance Rustlers and the Thunderbird Thieves, that was a Romantic Times top pick. Pretty awesome. Prior to focusing on novel writing—and this was something I actually didn’t know about you, Sharon—she was an award-winning playwright. See, I told you she was smart, and a short story writer. Sharon, welcome to the deep.

Sharon: Thank you so much, and thank you so much for having me today. I’m just delighted and excited to be here.

Erin: And we should say we’re not talking politics. Of course, the first thing we want to know, Sharon, is what does the deep mean to you?

Sharon: I’ve known Karen for a long time, and when I saw she was doing this podcast and I saw the title, instantly, I had a response to that. I think that whatever creative endeavor it is, whether it’s painting or writing or sculpting, the very best art comes from a place of anguish and confusion, and you’re trying to work something out in the writing or in the sculpting or whatever it is.

So when I saw that title, that’s what the deep means to me. I think sometimes as Christians, we operate from a place of thinking we have all the answers, and that question is always asked, why does so much Christian art seem so trite and so shallow? I think it’s because we refuse to go to the deep, to the places of that anguish and that confusion and that mystery that is God. So that’s what the deep means to me.

Erin: I love that. The places we don’t understand.

Sharon: Right.

Karen: We did a podcast in the past about the fact that our normal response to being in the deep is that we want to get out of it as fast as we can, and we encourage people to dwell there to see what it is that God has for you there. And that will accomplish exactly what you’re talking about.

Sharon: Right. To ask the hard questions, to admit that you have anguish and confusion. Even as a Christian, that’s the deep place that we’re meant to go. That deep underwater place.

Karen: Maybe even especially as Christians. You look at what Jesus went through in his agony and the sweating blood, and “Please take this cup from me if you can.” But you don’t reach that place of “not my will, but yours” without a whole lot of anguish.

Sharon: Right.

Erin: I think one of the barriers to asking those hard questions is that we’re afraid we won’t like the answer. And that goes back to trust. Do we trust that God is going to be good and who he says he is?

Sharon: Right. And I think it’s okay to say I don’t know.

In your own personal life where you rail at God and have a fist toward God and say, “Why? Why is this happening?” People that have chronic illnesses and ongoing pain, or like me, six years ago, my husband died at age 58. I will say that took me to a place of depth that I had never experienced before. I’ve obtained some answers, but there’s still this enormous mystery that I get to ask God when I see him face to face.

Karen: Right.

Erin: One of the things I’m looking forward to talking to you about is your take on the psychological barriers that hinder writers from writing.

I think you had mentioned it, Sharon, and I just love this idea. So talk us through that. What do you think is the first barrier.

Sharon: I’ve been in critique groups and I’ve helped beginning writers and I’ve been a beginning writer myself, and a lot of times you’ll hear people say, “I don’t have time to write.”

I think that’s a lie or an excuse that they’re telling themselves because they don’t want to work through the barrier that is keeping them from sitting down and putting their hands on the keyboard and starting to write, or writing longhand, or whatever it takes.

I think there are five things that people have to work through, and they’re at different stages. A lot of times when people say, “I don’t have time to write,” I say, “Tell me what your weekdays look like, and tell me what your weekends look like.”

I could see all kinds of time in there where they can grab an hour, but they’re doing something else. They’re playing a video game or they’re going to a coffee shop, or whatever it is.

Everybody has time to write. If you really want to write, you will find a way to do it. But the two immediate barriers are fear of success and fear of rejection.

The fear of success is that your life may change once you start to write. You might have less time for keeping your house clean or whatever it is. I remember one writer saying that her husband was not happy because she was spending more time writing and the condition of the house deteriorated.

It’s not fear of success in the sense that we’re all gonna become bestsellers and our books will be turned into Hollywood movies or anything like that. It’s just the fear that if this writing thing starts to take off, my life is going to look different.

The other barrier is a more serious one, which is the fear of rejection. As long as we just remain in the place where we have a fantasy about writing—and I don’t know about you, but I’ve been at potlucks and parties and stuff and the minute you tell someone that you’re a writer, they’re like, “Oh, I have this great idea for a book.”

Karen: Oh my gosh, or sitting on the plane. I can’t tell you how many people have been beside me on planes, and then when they find out what I do for a living, they’re like, I have an idea you need to write.

Sharon: Yeah. The scariest thing is when someone says, “We should write a book together.” Immediately, I think, “Oh, so I’m going to do all the work and you’ll just have ideas.”

So getting past that fear of rejection, because if you write, eventually you have to put it out there in some form, and people will have a response to it. Or you send it to an editor. An editor will say no.

What I say to people is that you have to—to use a biblical phrase—gird up your loins because this is a business where you hear the word no way more than you hear the word yes.

Then on a smaller level, even within a critique group or with a critique partner, you’re going to have people that say, “This story isn’t working for me,” or “I’m confused on page 10,” or whatever it is.

You have to be able to work through that stuff. You know? When you write, you are pouring a piece of yourself into that book or into that article. So it’s hard for someone to hear, “I don’t want that.” To have an editor say, “I don’t want that.” Because it’s like they’re saying, “I don’t want you.”

You have to learn. You have to have a tough skin and be prepared to know that if you want to succeed as a writer, rejection is part of that. And that your identity has to be separate from what you’re producing artistically.

Karen: The thing that people miss so often, and I think it’s because they forget how important a teachable spirit is—God always tells us to have a teachable spirit and to be ready to be refined as iron sharpening iron—and there’s an entire team. We’re the writers. Yes. And we put the story on the paper, but there’s an entire team that God puts in our path of people who help us, who teach us. People who critique are a part of the team God has given us.

It’s just like in my work, I have developed an accountability group. There are people that I have asked if I can come to them when I have a decision or something that I need to do, and I’m not getting clear guidance. I go to them for guidance and just tell them to tell me anything God says.

Sometimes I like hearing their responses. Sometimes I don’t. But regardless, I respect the fact that God has spoken to them and then they share that with me. We need to be in that place as writers to be able to say that this is not to hurt me. This is to make me better.

Sharon: Right. And I will say there are mean people everywhere. So you can get a mean person in a critique group who just wants to tear everybody else apart. So even in putting together a critique group, you have to be selective that the motives of people’s hearts is that they want to see you improve and get better.

Karen: Amen.

Erin: Let’s circle back for just a minute to the fear of success as well. One of the things I think about with that is not just the change that comes to your life, if this is a thing that you end up doing, but it’s also not living up to expectations. I think the fear of success is in part about that.

What if I just get lucky on my first book and I can never do it again? Do you have any wisdom to speak to that, that someone might be struggling with?

Sharon: Sure. Yeah. I know every time you start a book, you think, “What a fraud I am.” You know? Even though I’m 30 books into it, it’s like you have to get through that barrier.

What I tell myself is don’t trust your own PR, or your successes even. But be in love. Trust the process. After having written 30 books, you have to shut off all those voices that say, “You can’t do it. Who do you think you are? You just got lucky the first 30 times. This’ll be the book that sinks you.”

That voice is there no matter what. So what I do is I say to myself, “Trust the process.”

When you start a book, it looks awful. It just looks awful. What I tell myself—and every writer has a different process—but in that rough draft, which is the hardest part for me to write, I just say, “Okay, I’m just trying to get the scenes in place.” The deeper, more nuanced stuff, the deep emotions, the motives, all of that, you’re going to get that in later drafts. I just want to make sure that the plot is there.

Karen: I have a verse that I go to in those times when finally I’m able to get all the holes filled, or at least it feels like it does until my editor gets a hold of it.

But for me, I feel as though, okay, this is the best I can make it. Angie Hunt, who’s a marvelous writer, used to say, she would just dump like 10,000 words on the page in one day, and she’d say, “Those are really stinky words, but they’re on the page.” Give me something to work from.

So when I get past the stinky word stage and I feel like it’s really working, I like to go to Psalms 13:5. It says, “I trust your love and I feel like celebrating because you rescued me.”

Sharon: That’s good. I think part of the writing process is that you really are trying to pull something out of thin air, right? To make something out of nothing. And that’s why you free write and you make lists then you do research. You’re trying to create something to work with.

Once you have that rough draft, once you push through that, it’s not as scary anymore because then you have something to work with.

Erin: Those were the first two barriers then. They were about, “I don’t have time to write.” What are the next ones.

Sharon: The other thing that I see as people move through this process, they might establish that they do have time to write and they start to produce some stuff. Then it’s something that I call writer’s depression, which is when we get an idea in our head, it’s all sparkles and glitter, because we sort of only see the high points. You see the really dramatic scenes.

And then we sit down to write and we just go, “Oh.” Then depression sets in and you go, “This is going to be a lot of work to match the vision in my head that looks so glittery and sparkly.”

You have to write all these transition scenes and figure out all this stuff. There’s a depression that sets in when you see the hard work that’s ahead. Again, you have to push past that psychological barrier.

And again, in my case, because I’ve written enough books, it’s that “Trust the process. You’ve produced a book before.” But for someone that is in the first book stage, you’re still trying to establish a process and everybody’s process is different.

So you have to trust that there’s a story there and just sit down, treat it like a job, like you’re punching the clock. “I’m going to work for two hours. I can sit here and stare at the ceiling, or I can put my fingers on the keyboard and see what happens.” And work through that depression.

Erin: Right. It’s like it’s so overwhelming. I think, too, thinking about it in smaller chunks might be helpful. If you’re depressed because it’s just so overwhelming, thinking about just, “Let’s just write a few words. Let’s write a paragraph. Let’s write a page.” And that’s okay.

Sharon: Yeah. You know, there have been times when it was a hundred words at a time for me, where I would make a deal with myself: just write a hundred words. So you’d write a hundred words. Okay, Sharon, just write a hundred more.

That’s how you would get through whatever you needed to do for that day. You have to make a deal with yourself. I love what Erin said, that you have to break it down into chunks that you can deal with. Because writing a 250-300 page book, that’s huge. Especially if you’re sitting down for the first time and trying to do that. Finding the chunk that you can deal with, I think is really good.

Karen: I like the guidance that we get from Philippians 3:12-15. Paul says, “One thing I do, forgetting that which is behind and straining toward what is ahead”—and I love the fact that it’s straining toward what is ahead, he doesn’t say sailing or cruising or gliding—“I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us then who are mature should take such a view of things.” I know that this isn’t exactly talking about writing in Scripture, and yet the principle is the same.

When you’re in that place where it’s going to be hard, you press forward, you forget what’s behind, and you press on toward the goal so that God can use what you’re doing for him.

Sharon: Yeah, for sure.

Erin: Go ahead with the next barrier.

Sharon: Okay. So say you’ve managed to produce some chapters or even a whole book, and then you start to share it with other people.

I worked for years as a tutor at a university, and the lady that trained me said, “We think writing comes from here.” I’m pointing at my head. “But in fact, it comes from here.” I’m pointing at my heart.

You’ve poured your life into these chapters or this book, and then you go out into the world for feedback in whatever form it takes, and it’s like people are saying, your baby is ugly.

Erin: Ouch.

Sharon: Even if the motive of their heart is that they’re just having an honest readers’ reaction and saying, “I don’t like this character. I’m really confused here.” They’re just having an honest reaction, but it’s hard to hear that. You have to separate what you have produced from who you are.

When my first book almost sold, almost sold, almost sold, I broke out in a skin condition as it was working its way through the committees, and then it didn’t sell. I was devastated. What I did was go back to the verses that told me that my identity was in Jesus. That I was precious and honored in his sight. I was the daughter of a King.

I think when people start to get really bent out of shape as you give them feedback—and I can remember as a writing tutor where I would be telling someone that a comma was in the wrong place and they’d start to, in their body language, their little chair would start to scoot away from me and stuff.

I thought, “Now we’re just talking about commas and semi-colons. This is not a sensitive issue.” But in fact, because the particular girl that I was tutoring that day had written a very personal essay, she thought that I was indicting her experiences, versus “I’m just looking at what’s going on on the page and whether you are communicating well or causing confusion.”

Part of our task as writers, if you want to be published, is to remember that the thing that you produced, while it is a reflection of you, while there are pieces of you in it, it is not you. No one is saying that your experiences are irrelevant or that you’re ugly or that you can’t write. They’re looking at that particular piece of writing and giving you feedback.

And as always, you have to filter through the comments that people give you. The cool thing, when I first started writing, was that I was in a critique group and I think there was maybe five of us, and I always knew that if two or three of those people were saying the same thing, it was probably valid.

It wasn’t a pet peeve of that particular person. If two of them were saying, “I’m really confused on page five, or this character’s not likable,” I knew that I needed to address that. So that’s the power of feedback and critique.

And again, that first critique group that I belonged to, the lady that started it had a really wonderful guideline. You weren’t allowed to argue or justify. You simply nodded and smiled and said thank you.

Part of knowing how to receive feedback is understanding. I know even when I get my editorial letters, you know, you’ve turned in a book and then the editor says, “Fix this and fix that.” My first response is always, “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

I don’t send her some sort of curt email or something. I’m like, “Set it aside, Sharon.” You know, walk away from it. If you have the time, you give it a day or two and then you go back. And as I dig into the manuscript, I’m like, “Oh my goodness, I have the greatest editor ever.” So it’s like we’re really protective of what we’ve done creatively, and we have to be able to see it as a separate thing.

It makes sense that sometimes you do go to battle for your story and the integrity of your story. But for the most part, editors aren’t editors because they don’t know what they’re doing, you know?

Karen: I’m so glad to hear you say that. So we’re heading into the home stretch here. What’s number five?

Sharon: We’ve addressed it a little bit. It’s separating what you’ve written from yourself and from your experience. And I gave you the example of when I was tutoring that young woman, and she had written this story about her and her mom getting away from an abusive stepfather.

I was just talking about colons and semi-colons and I literally saw her chair—and in her body language, her arms were crossed and everything. And I thought, “What is going on here?” I just took a moment with her and I said, “It sounds like you and your mom went through a lot together, and it’s so neat that it strengthened your relationship.” And everything about her relaxed, and she was able to hear that the semi-colons were not being used right.

I talked about my editorial letter where I just feel my stomach twist as I read it. We have to be able to work past that and know that we are protective of what we do, but in order to make it better, we have to allow that wise counsel that Karen talked about.

We filter through it. We protect the integrity of the story when we need to, but honestly, we don’t need to go to battle over everything it’s better to step away from it, examine it, and remember where our identity comes from.

Karen: I really love that, Sharon. It’s been so great. I’m so sad the time went so fast. We need to keep talking. I tell this to people, our guests, quite often, but I’m saying it to you, too. We need to bring you back on and we need to hear more about the kinds of things that God has shown you in your writing career.

I love the fact that you take the time to share those lessons and truths with other writers. So thank you so much for being here with us, my friend. It’s been a delight.

Let’s all just remember where our identity resides and that’s in the one who’s given us this task. We don’t need to be afraid. We don’t need to be defensive. We just need to be obedient and to trust in the fact that he loves us. So thanks so much for being here.

Sharon: Thank you so much.

WE WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU

What writing barrier are you facing right now? What helps you push through?

Books mentioned in the podcast:

Romance Rustlers and Thunderbird Thieves by Sharon Dunn

Romance Rustlers and Thunderbird Thieves by Sharon Dunn

Whatever writing barriers you face, guest Sharon Dunn shares how to push through! #amwriting @karenball1 Click To Tweet
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