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Unearthing the Art of Storytelling: A Conversation with Rusti Lehay

In the realm of literature, where words dance together to create magic, finding one's authentic voice and weaving a compelling narrative is a journey of its own. I had the privilege to sit down with Rusti Lehay, a seasoned writing coach, editor, and true friend. Rusti's unique approach goes beyond the technicalities of grammar and plot structure; she delves deep into the hearts of writers, helping them unearth the stories that resonate within them.

Rusti Lehay

As an empathetic guide, Rusti leads writers to embrace their narratives, guiding them toward the genuine essence of their tales. Her expertise extends to identifying the perfect words, the ideal moments, and the reasons that drive the storytelling process. Whether it's giving birth to a book or strategically planting words to achieve specific objectives, Rusti's connection with language is profound and innate.

With a profound understanding that words are not just tools but extensions of our thoughts and emotions, Rusti specializes in the intricate art of wordcraft. She empowers writers to find their unique literary paths, shaping and refining their words until they shine with authenticity and purpose.

In this insightful Q&A session, we dive into Rusti Lehay's world, exploring her philosophy on storytelling, her approach to coaching, and her journey of nurturing writers to reach their full potential. Join us as we unravel the nuances of storytelling under the guidance of a true wordsmith, Rusti Lehay.

Q&A with Rusti Lehay

Teena: Could you share some insights into the collaborative, compassionate editing approach you use? How does this approach differ from traditional editing methods, and what benefits does it offer to writers seeking to improve their manuscripts?

Rusti: The traditional approach to editing is for the editors to take the whole manuscript off by themselves, mark it all up, and make changes without any back-and-forth conversation. As I strive to connect with the author’s voice empathically, I’m careful to honour the author’s intent, narrative style, and flow. Editing without the author can sometimes bypass or interfere with the author's voice. Authors retain their artistic copyright with the collaborative immersion approach I have been using since 2014. Any in-depth changes are discussed. If I suggest a change that the author does not feel is a fit, we then engage in a conversation factoring in the author’s strategic objectives. Also, we explore what they want to say to the reader. Another tool to reach a consensus is to ask what they want the reader to hear. Together, we keep in mind that the reader is the real boss, not the editor or the writer.

Teena: Many writers struggle with maintaining a clear and effective book structure. What advice do you have for authors grappling with organizing their ideas and content in fiction and non-fiction manuscripts?

Rusti: Trust the first draft. Follow their hearts and be instinctive. If the author has dove into their passion, they will most likely find and submerge themselves in that mysterious state called flow. Listen to anything online with Stephen Kottler speaking to learn more about the flow effect. With fiction, there is more leeway regarding how to structure your book. You can have the plot flow back and forth, sequentially, give chapters to different characters that come together in the end, or start from the future and work your way back. As long as you drop enough sticky bits at each chapter or section end to hook the readers’ attention and fill in the gaps you purposely leave to maintain curiosity, you can do just about anything. It is good to complete one mini-mystery in the plot as you progress and plant fresh ones.

Regarding memoirs, there are as many different ways to structure memoirs as the people who write their stories. Quite often, people will structure their books in a linear style. You can utilize all the tools and structures listed above for fiction authors. A few ideas are to leapfrog through the years by a common number. Or to pick a theme like family weddings or the dresses you wore, friends you had through the years, what were Sunday dinners like, or the things you’ve learned through the years on a specific topic or at regular intervals.

I offer a resource article for authors writing instructional books covering two significant easy ways to structure their books. It is also important to use the “sticky bits” at the end of sections to keep them reading. It can be as simple as, “In the next chapter, readers will learn the most valuable step of the process…” Many of the fiction and poetic tools can be applied to non-fiction. Metaphoric writing is a superb teaching tool that enhances reader retention of the information and makes what might be dry material engaging, thought-provoking, and captivating. For an example, look at Gabor Maté or Dean Copeland.

Teena: Editing can be daunting, often requiring writers to make significant revisions. How do you help writers strike a balance between preserving their unique voice and addressing areas that need improvement, such as plot development or factual accuracy?

Rusti: Working as a collaborative, empathic editor and a ghostwriter, I start with everything that is working well, then ask questions to inspire the author to view it from the reader’s perspective. Any feedback I offer is always delivered as suggestions, not as a must-do, which can set us both up for a power struggle where no one wins, least of all the reader. After calling attention to everything that works well, it seems more natural to address areas that may improve with slight changes. Authors come to editors because, deep down, we all know a piece of writing can always be revised and that all writers need a keen editorial eye.

Working empathically with only one author in their specific genre at a time allows me to engage with their use of language, the tone they convey, and the way they create descriptions or explanations. These combined are what make an author’s voice unique,. Once I am in the flow of these aspects of personal authorial voice, I can better preserve them while suggesting changes to sections of text that can benefit from improvement.

Any suggestions for improvement are solely to strengthen the work. Sometimes, this requires structural editing, moving text around, and plot development for congruency and consistency. Again, any ideas for revision are discussed with the author from a foundation of tact and sensitivity. It takes a gargantuan effort to write a complete book, and this accomplishment, while not for the faint-hearted, must always be kept front and centre in an editor’s mind. We didn’t sweat over it, lose sleep, or neglect other aspects of life to put each of those words down to create the book.

An editor’s role is to balance preserving a writer's unique voice and addressing areas that can benefit from revision. The goal of the editor/author collaboration is to make a stronger and more polished final product.

Teena: In your experience, what are some common mistakes or challenges that writers face when trying to polish their manuscripts? Are there specific techniques or strategies you recommend to overcome these hurdles and refine their work?

Rusti: Heather Robertson, a writer I admire, said writers are only as good as their editors and vice versa. We all need editors, and before an author hires one, I often suggest finding friendly readers in your friend and family circle or training a friendly reader. I elucidate that latter point in my talk, “The Four Things Every Writer Needs.”

Even the thought of showing your manuscript to someone will flip a switch in your brain, and you will likely be invigorated to set aside time to revise and edit your work. This crucial stage is often missed when writers are in a rush or set unrealistic deadlines for themselves. While reviewing your work can be challenging, even for those with writing experience, setting your manuscript aside for five days and celebrating your accomplishments is a wise thing to do before digging in to find those grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors that will jump out at you after a break.

Another risk is loving your little darlings and becoming too attached to them. Paraphrasing Natalie Goldberg, author of several fantastic books on writing, says, “We must be willing to kill our darlings.”

Many authors swear by the tool of reading their work aloud. You will quickly become aware of awkward phrasing, run-on sentences, and word favouritism (every author has their overused words or turns of phrases). These issues become readily apparent when reading aloud. Even more so if you have a friend read your work aloud. They can offer valuable feedback from an outsider's point of view.

One final tip, though I have many more that come up unique to each author, it is important to be amenable to make changes and try revisions based on the feedback you receive. Sometimes while feedback may feel like criticism, do your best to remember people who care enough to risk offering feedback are working with you to enhance your ability to create the best possible manuscript. Almost all revisions you can make at this point to raise the quality of your writing will only increase your potential success on your publishing journey. You will know you need a break or an editor or possibly done when your energy wanes.

Teena: As writers progress from drafting to editing, marketing, and potentially publishing their books, what key considerations should they keep in mind to ensure their work stands out in a competitive market? How does understanding factors like Return on Investment (ROI) and strategic promotional tools contribute to their success?

Rusti: To reach the marketing stage, some might say, the real work begins. I have curated successful self-published authors to speak at conferences and they are geniuses at marketing. This stage takes some consistent effort and thinking outside of the box. I adore arriving at this stage with my authors and am often told I should teach courses on this aspect. When you jump from the editing to the publishing phase, hang on for the ride. The market is competitive, and with some concerted effort, you can keep your book front and centre with contests, periodic sales, and delivering short excerpts on SubStack and similar programs. This is the time to be creatively strategic to reap an ROI. (A Return On [your] Investment)

Ask local papers if they have a lit section to do a review, have SM influencers on GoodReads to review it on their accounts, and consider investing in a book trailer. Book trailers communicate the feel of the book and can create a buzz of excitement and interest. I have a resource on how to proceed with that and links to some of the best ones to give you ideas. Another small but not insignificant investment you can make is NetGalley which will preview your book to their list of signed pre-readers who can help create a buzz before you launch your book.

Use social media as much as possible, enlist your friends and readers to make posts, and keep your target audience in mind to leverage the platforms they hang out on to influence their purchasing decisions.

Do all of this or even ninety percent, and you can potentially gain a competitive edge in the market and see that readers enjoy your book.

For more information on Rusti Lehay and her author services visit her website at:

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