Fifteen years ago, when I was struggling to write a fantasy novel, I stumbled upon a series of fiction-writing classes taught at the local library by Joyce Sweeney. At the time, I didn’t know much about her, only that she had authored a bunch of books for young adults.
I quickly learned that Joyce was a fountain of knowledge and that these classes of hers only scratched the surface of what she knew. The details of those long-ago classes are fuzzy now, but I do remember how much she encouraged me. I was so proud when I received back one of my assignments where she had written, “I love the spare dialogue here. It really works in the scene.”
Though I finished my fantasy novel, I never tried to publish it because I knew in my heart it wasn’t good enough. I kept writing fiction off and on, but another ten years passed before I began writing another novel. Remembering how much Joyce helped me, I looked for her on the Internet and found a series of workshops taught by Joyce and another writing coach, Jamie Morris.
These “Next Level” workshops were tailored toward more advanced writers, and I learned more about fiction writing in one weekend than I thought possible. I also learned how little I knew about the craft. So I kept taking Joyce’s workshops, and I joined one of her critique groups, and I kept writing, and she kept teaching, and little by slowly (and sometimes in leaps and bounds), my writing improved … until finally I felt my book was good enough to seek publication.
Joyce helped me with that, too. I had taken one of her classes on marketing, so I knew how to query an agent and how to write a synopsis. After six months of searching for (and not finding) an agent, I told Joyce I was thinking about shelving my novel. She told me that was a terrible idea and encouraged me to follow up with some of the agents I hadn’t heard back from. So I did. And it was one of those agents (the wonderful Tina P. Schwartz, of the Purcell Agency), who ended up representing me. Not long after, I signed a contract with Merit Press to publish my young-adult novel, A WORK OF ART (March 2015). So my lifelong dream of becoming a published novelist is about to come true—and I owe much of that success to Joyce Sweeney.
Over the years, Joyce has mentored 49 writers to publication. (I was number 46.) In addition to teaching, critiquing, and coaching writers, she also runs a community theater company and somehow finds time to write plays and poetry. I caught up with Joyce during taping for her online Advanced Fiction Writing classes.
MM: First off, what kinds of services do you offer writers?
JS: I keep expanding the way I work with writers, so there’s quite a variety of services now. Sweeney Writing Coach offers three ten-week classes per year online on a variety of topics. This year it’s Fiction Writing Essentials, Picture Book Essentials, and Advanced Fiction Writing. In addition to the online classes, I offer individual manuscript critiques, personal consultations, plus workshops and retreats all around Florida. I also participate in a variety of SCBWI activities and programs such as the Boot Camp, which was offered in September 2014.
MM: You’ve had a successful career as a young-adult novelist, so what made you become a writing coach? Who were some of your teaching mentors?
JS: I was mentored by the best, which may account for my desire, later in life, to be a mentor. I took graduate classes in creative writing at Ohio University where I was mentored by Daniel Keyes (author of FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON), Walter Tevis (THE HUSTLER) and Jack Matthews (HANGER STOUT, AWAKE). These three amazing teachers gave me three different kinds of insight into how to help writers. Daniel was the craftsman who taught me to really respect the rules of good writing; Walter was the warm and fuzzy mentor; and Jack always brought a crazy prompt or element of surprise to his writing exercises. When I became a teacher myself, I took the best from all three.
MM: You’ve become somewhat renowned for your famous “Plot Clock,” which I understand you created in collaboration with fellow writing coach Jamie Morris. In fact, my mouse pad shows an illustration of the plot clock, which has been very useful to me as I write my next novel. Can you explain how the idea for the plot clock came about?
JS: I have been working with plotting templates since I worked on screenplays in my early years. I read Syd Field’s book on the subject and realized there were formulas and templates for plotting, which was the bane of my writing existence. I was teaching a very rudimentary form of the Plot Clock when I first worked with Jamie, and she was incredibly excited. We started talking about it, studying novels for plot points I might be missing, and the result was the world’s most perfect plot clock (as we view it). It’s not the only way to plot a novel, but if you’re stuck on plotting, it’s an amazing tool.
MM: The Plot Clock has gotten me out of many writing jams, so thank you for that. Looking back on my early days as one of your students, I see how you tailored your teaching to fit my writing level—but you did it in such away that I never felt insecure about my writing. Is that something that you have to work at, or is that a byproduct of being a good teacher?
JS: I have to say that a lot of what I think makes a good teacher is part of my natural personality. People tell me I’m very patient, and I have a knack for tailoring lessons to the person in front of me. I always understood that you can’t flood a student with everything at once. You have to see what’s the most important next step for a student and just concentrate on that step. Then you praise the heck out of them and show them the step after that. Once you shut a creative person down or make them feel insecure, they stop learning.
MM: I know from being in your critique group that a lot of writers, including me, have used the name “Sweeney” in their books as a tribute to you. Can you take a guess as to how many published books are out there with the name Sweeney in them?
JS: A lot. If you count other tributes besides my name, like including my cat’s name, etc., it would probably be twenty to twenty-five.
MM: What do you like best about being a writing coach?
JS: I like everything about it. It gives me a satisfaction that frankly, being a writer didn’t give me. It always thrills me to see someone learn something new and apply it successfully. And seeing people actually get published. That’s the biggest thrill of all.
MM: Let’s talk about your own writing. What are some of the books you’ve written? What else have you published?
JS: I have fourteen novels in all that were published between 1984 and 2004. My favorites are PLAYERS, FREE FALL, CENTER LINE, SHADOW, HEADLOCK, and THE GUARDIAN. I notice every single one I’m picking has a male protagonist. I loved writing for boys, and it gave a wonderful outlet to my tomboy side. I also wrote poetry quite a bit and was thrilled to have a chapbook (IMPERMANENCE) published in 2005. Since I’ve been working in theater, I don’t have much interest in writing, so I think all my creativity went in that direction. By nature I’m more a writing teacher than a writer, but I had to have a writing career or I’d have never been the teacher I am today.
MM: And finally, if you could give one piece of advice to all the aspiring writers out there, what would it be?
JS: The most important thing to know is that this is a much longer process than what aspiring writers imagine. It takes years to learn the craft and it takes even more time to play the frog-kissing game of finding the right agent—with a lot of rewriting, revamping, and readjusting in between. The worst thing to do is to set a deadline for when it’s going to happen. Just keep asking yourself what else can I do now to move forward. The ones who stay with it always get published eventually. The ones who give up I feel sorry for, because they’ll never know what they could have accomplished.
To learn more about Joyce Sweeney and the services she offers, visit her at www.JoyceSweeney.net