I first met Dace Sheffield when I decided to give this writing career a go. I joined the Atlanta Writers Club, printed copies of my work, and then slipped into the critique group meeting. I quickly learned that the group was filled with talented-and passionate-authors. Each author took turns reading their work and then listened to group feedback. I waited for Dace to read her work aloud as required; she didn’t.
Dace Sheffield wasn’t a writer, she was a reader.
She was the strongest reader I have ever known.
I believe that she was also, perhaps, the most valuable member of our critique group. She sat beside her husband, John, whom I’ve enjoyed knowing for several years. John has written screenplays, textbooks, a memoir, and undoubtedly the best work of science fiction I have ever had the privilege of reading. Dace, because of her keen eye and even keener ear, sat patiently listening to John read and then bravely offered suggestions. (It is a brave spouse who offers suggestions publicly). She waited as each member read their work.
She waited while members group pointed out minor corrections, and then she would utter a single word, or phrase for us ponder. Saying: “On page three you might want to reconsider. . . “ Pages fluttered. Eyes shifted to the paper. Fingers found her suggestion. And we groaned. There it was, the obvious mistake, glaring back at a room full of authors.
I loved that about her. How she waited, testing the real authors of the group just to see if we found simple mistakes. Oftentimes we did not.
Dace Sheffield completed our critique group. While the authors accepted feedback from each other, they always always lingered for a moment, with hands still on their manuscript, holding their allotted time for another moment, as they looked to Dace for confirmation that she hadn’t anything to add.
She caught the simple things like they’re and their; but also more complicated problems that authors muddle through like flow, plot, and believable characters. She adored Southern fiction. She adored good writing and she helped every single member become stronger. She nudged. She believed. She encouraged.
Her opinion carried weight with me. When I began working on my novel I asked if she would consider reading a chapter and offering feedback. Her feedback was valuable because she wasn’t tainted by the editor’s eye authors acquire. I trusted her opinion.When she and I sat down to review a section she had blocked in pencil I couldn’t read her notes “Dace, what is this notation? I asked, “I can’t quite make out the writing.”
She smiled and said, “That word is slangy. I want you to write more slangy. I just love what Pearlene says. She is so out of control. I never know what is going to come out of her mouth, but she needs to be more slangy.”
I laughed. Dace, my dear friend had just spoken a sentence that was oh so . . . shall I say, unlike Dace.
I immediately set out to write that particular character “more slangy.”
Dace was more than a reader, she was passionate about literacy. She taught English as a second language for many years, meeting people at the public library even when she required a wheelchair. She touched more lives-no, she changed more lives from her wheelchair than I ever will. She had every excuse to take it easy but she pushed on, teaching, doing, being a blessing to people who miss her.
I never saw her without a book in her arms.
She shared her book list with group members who wanted to read everything she read. Years ago, I recall her suggesting Gone Girl. “The book is brilliantly written. The characters are flawed with irredeemable actions. They so flawed that you love to hate them. The book is delicious. I love it ! If you want to write a strong character, you need to study that book.” Once I read Gone Girl I agreed.
Dace knew good-writing.
I am honored to have known her. This Saturday, the Roswell chapter of the Atlanta Writers Club will say goodbye to our friend Dace Sheffield. She was a person content to be behind the scenes working to make us better authors. She believed in me. She encouraged. She pointed out my flaws and I loved her for it. She played a valuable part in my writing and I will miss her.
Renea Winchester is the award-winning author of Farming, Friends, and Fried Bologna Sandwiches; Mountain Memories: True Stories and Half-Truths from Appalachia. A Hardscrabble Christmas. Her first book, In the Garden with Billy: Lessons About Life, Love & Tomatoes earned her a SIBA and GAYA nomination. Email her through her website at www.reneawinchester.com. She welcomes new friends on Facebook. Follow her on Twitter Here.