Recently I signed up to receive Stephanie S. Smith’s Slant Letter – an editor’s angle on finding you. Stephanie works as an acquisitions editor for Zondervan Books. Previously, she served as an editor at RELEVANT magazine, the Barna Group, and before all this she started out on the other side of the printer as a literary publicist. She is currently pursuing my masters in theology at Western Theological Seminary.
Her inaugural letter arrived in my email box today and she encourages writers to find their unique perspective:
The trick, of course, is to get your reader to spark to your fire of an idea just as much as you do, and that’s where the angle can help. That’s where we practice telling it slant.
I’ve spent my career thus far investigating what makes an angle work—first as a publicist pitching media, then as a magazine editor screening such pitches, and finally as a book editor working with authors to develop their concept. So what is an angle, exactly?
At its simplest, your angle is your unique slant on how you see the world, written in your unique voice . It’s the boldest statement you have to make about your topic. It takes courage and creativity, hard work, and risk. And it’s the engine of all great writing.
If that sounds intimidating, just think of this: no one else in the world has your precise vantage point—the sum total of your gifts, experience, intellect, and story—and no one else has your distinct voice.
She offers some helpful questions for writing and for life:
The first helpful question she asks is what saves you?
As you think about the golden threads woven through the story of your life, what are the themes, the ideas, the truths that have saved you? What mantras, what wisdom, have rallied to your rescue? What truth has most transformed you? What good and true thing is helping you carry on right now, today? Chances are, it might just do the same for someone else.
The most common threads and themes that move me pertain to self care, using your voice, and setting boundaries.
These are qualities I didn’t have in my teens, 20s, and early 30s. It was only after becoming a counselor and doing my own emotional work that I discovered and incorporated them into my life.
That may sound selfish because each of these are related to ourselves and not others, but if we are healthy, it helps others feel safe for others to request things of us knowing we can say yes or no without feeling obligated or manipulated. When we use our voice and tell our truth, people know what they are getting. They are not fooled by plastic smiles that prevent people from coming close. Many people are terrified of using their voice so they remain quiet and stay pleasant. But when people come to the end of their lives, staying quiet is one of people’s top five regrets.
So how do you do that? One of the best teachings I give my clients is about passiveness, assertiveness, and aggressiveness.
Here’s how it goes:
If you are passive it means I win, you lose.
If you are assertive, it means we both win.
If you are aggressive it means we both lose.
Let’s say I ask you where we should have lunch and you say, “I don’t care.” That’s passive. If you say, “Mmm, let’s see, there’s that new sub sandwich place I’ve been wanting to try, or we could do Italian,” that’s assertive. It doesn’t mean you get your way, it just means people don’t have to wonder what you’re in the mood for. If you say, “Go to Pizza Hut” that’s aggressive. It doesn’t take into consideration what the other person’s desires are. I know lunch is a silly example, but think about how important it is when it comes to marriage responsibilities, where to live, or deciding whether or not to have more children.
Now here’s the clincher. Unless you have both people being assertive, you cannot have true intimacy.
When teaching clients about boundaries, I always share two stories: Years ago I had a doctor’s appointment that suddenly became available. I called my neighbor to ask if she could watch my children. She sighed deeply and finally said, “Send them down.” I could tell she was a lot like me—a people pleaser. The whole time I was gone, I worried she was being mean to my children because she had not wanted extra kids that day.
Fast forward to my favorite professor in grad school. If I asked if I could stop by for a short visit, he would say, “Yes, how about 2 o’clock?” or “Nope the won’t work today. How about next week?” He never qualified why it wouldn’t work and he never felt compelled to say yes. He just stated yes or no. That is what made me feel safe to ask.
Do you see how our healthy boundaries are good for others? People admire and like those folks who have strong boundaries. And if someone gets upset, well too bad, that’s their disappointment to deal with. The most helpful book I ever read on this topic is the book Boundaries by Dr. Cloud and Dr. Townsend. I highly recommend it on audio. You can download it on your smartphone and you can get a 30-day free trial at Audible.com
The next question Stephanie asks is what moves you?
We all want to be the writer with the prose that moves people. But there’s a catch. First, we must have the courage to be moved ourselves. In writing as in life, emotion must be earned. And the emotion that is earned does not merely touch us in a fleeting way; it moves us altogether. What has been such a catalyst for you?
Beauty is one of the qualities that moves me. I wrote a lot about beauty in my book Renewed. I need mass quantities of it in my life, be it from nature, music, books, etc. I didn’t know beauty was important until I took the VIA Character Strengths test. You can find a free version and a more in-depth paid version online. Maybe I need beauty because I experienced so much pain in my early life. Another quality that is crucial to how I am wired is justice. This helps me understand why I feel so strongly about crooked political candidates, etc. Once you know how you are wired you don’t need to feel bad and wonder if you’re okay. It’s how God crafted you.
Lastly, I’m an Highly Sensitive Person. I cry easily, I perceive slights or rudeness instantly, I hate when people crunch popcorn behind me in the movie theatre. I used to feel bad about this but now I know my sensitivity is my best trait. It’s what let’s me counsel people well, it’s what keeps my relationships fine tuned, etc. If you’re like that, check out the book Highly Sensitive People.
The final question Stephanie asks is what scares you?
What fears do you bring to the page? Where is the end of the line for you in your writing—the place where you think, “Oh, I’ll never write that. I can’t go there.”
One of the places that scares me on the page is when I write about people who’ve hurt me. Maybe that comes from being a good girl all my life. Or being a Christian. We’re supposed to be lovely and loving all the time, right? Well, I’ve started risking my stories about what hurts. In a way it’s a form of self care. It’s my stories that say, “Ouch, you hurt me” or “It’s not okay to treat me like that.” As Dr. Phil would say, “You teach people how to treat you.”
Check out Stephanie S. Smith’s material at www.SlantLetter.com
Lucille Zimmerman is a Licensed Professional Counselor with a private practice in Littleton, CO and an affiliate faculty teacher at Colorado Christian University.
She is also the author of Renewed: Finding Your Inner Happy in an Overwhelmed World. Through practical ideas and relatable anecdotes, readers can better understand their strengths and their passions—and address some of the underlying struggles or hurts that make them want to keep busy or minister to others to the detriment of themselves. Renewed can help nurture those areas of women’s lives to use them better for work, family, and service. It gives readers permission to examine where they spend their energy and time, and learn to set limits and listen to “that inner voice."