Wendy Elaine Nelles is an award-winning journalist, writer, editor, and speaker with wide-ranging experience in the corporate, not-for-profit, and publishing sectors. She co-founded The Word Guild in 2001, invested nine years getting it established, and continues to be an advisor.
Wendy has played a key role in equipping Canadian writers who are Christian to achieve increased professionalism and greater influence. She co-directed the Write! Canada conference from 2002–2010; served on its leadership team for 22 years; and oversaw writing contests and literary awards.
Wendy, at last year’s Write! Canada Conference, I attended your workshop called “Writing True Stories that Won’t Bore Your Readers.” I appreciated your detailed notes. This year it’s a continuing class on a similar topic. What is the most important tip you give your students?
Not an easy question, Linda! I guess it all boils down to one word: story. Whether we’re telling true stories or fiction stories, similar elements make them interesting, and similar writing techniques make them effective.
From everything I learned editing 95 pieces in the two Hot Apple Cider anthologies, many of which were personal experience stories, my most important tip deals with two extremes of detail we have to hold in tension:
- Too much detail: When we’re writing personal experience stories or memoir, we can get too hung up on the details of wanting to retell exactly what happened. But in many cases the readers won’t care, or will get lost. We’ve got to focus on the key incidents or events the readers will find attention-grabbing, and how to arrange them to create a satisfying story.
- Too little detail: Conversely, because we know what happened and can “see” the whole thing in our mind’s eye, we often don’t put in enough details for outsiders to quickly grasp what’s going on. The reader has to be able to easily follow the plot, the chronology, the logic, and understand the background motivation. And be able to experience the story through the writer using enough sensory description. That gets back to the easier-said-than-done technique of showing versus telling.
My history with the conference goes back to 1988. It’s been an important part of my life. I haven’t missed a conference since, and I ended up being part of the volunteer leadership team for 22 consecutive years!
In 2001, when we discovered that the sponsoring organization was going to discontinue the conference, a small group of “regulars” said, “We’ve got to do something! We can’t let the conference die.” We knew this was the only point of connection for Christian writers in eastern Canada. Many of us had met good friends, colleagues, and employers there. This is where many writers had received much of their practical training.
Out of a series of meetings, we realized we needed something that could help writers 365 days a year, not just three; and all across Canada, not just in southern Ontario. Through the magic of the Internet, The Word Guild was feasible. So the conference became one of the many ways that The Word Guild helps writers.
Little did I know the extent of God’s plans—another writer also attended God Uses Ink for the first time in 1988, N. J. (Nancy) Lindquist. Nancy had also been on the planning committee and at the conferences, but we barely knew each other. I worked more in journalism and corporate communications, and she worked more in novels and young adult areas. Nancy and I ended up co-founding The Word Guild, co-directing Write! Canada for nine years, co-editing two bestselling books—and spending more time talking by phone and email in the past decade than with our own family members!
What advice do you have for the new Write! Canada assistant directors, and the other team members?
Anyone who takes one of the bigger volunteer roles on the Write! Canada team always says the same thing: “Wow, until I got involved, I had no idea how much work goes on behind the scenes!” Event planning means a whole series of steps to put together all the pieces of a giant puzzle, and months of work to account for thousands of details.
I laugh and say it’s like enjoying a gourmet prepared picnic on the banks of the Avon River in Stratford, Ont., watching those beautiful white swans gliding serenely. But you don’t realize that beneath the surface, they’re paddling madly.
My main advice to all the team members is to develop a detailed step-by-step plan to work from, so nothing gets forgotten. And try to get as much done in advance as you can. There inevitably are last minute questions, changes, glitches, and unforeseen circumstances, that will require you to quickly come up with Plan B and Plan C. I’ll never forget the year someone decided to wait until the Thursday morning of the conference’s opening day to go do all the photocopying of the class handouts at the Staples store in Guelph… and discovered that every one of their photocopiers was down for service!
Linda Jonasson of the PR Team conducted this interview with Wendy Elaine Nelles.