November 2020 archive

What Is a Writing Coach? … and What Makes a GREAT Writing Coach?

WHAT IS A WRITING COACH? Someone who helps writers get their books done! Part editor, part cheerleader, part story confidante, a coach is always, always on a writer’s side—and she is also someone who has the chops, knowledge, and experience to make her support effective.

Your writing coach is your smart, effective writing friend. Whether you’re trying to figure out which writing project to tackle next, how to plot your story, or how to even handle such a big commitment with so many other demands on your time, she will guide you forward confidently.

She’s traveled this road before, and knows how to get you where you’re going.

While I’ve been coaching writers for well over a decade, and have developed solid strategies along the way, I was curious: what makes a great writing coach? I asked this question of a dozen writers, including several well-published colleagues, a few clients, a former writing coach, an editor, the head of a college writing program, and the creative director of a small publishing house.

If you’re in the market for a writing coach, you might keep their responses in mind.

So, what does make a great writing coach?

Tom Wallace, editor and ghostwriter: Contrary to what many new writers believe, the craft of writing—narrative writing, creative writing—is less an inborn talent than a collection of skills that can be learned. In my observation, the best coaches—great coaches—can not only hold multiple story and character ideas in their minds, but guide writers in applying the skills they need to make those ideas work. A great coach offers both their knowledge and their generous attention to a writer’s creative needs. Working with a coach is an investment in time and energy that can transform a writer’s creative journey and pay off for years to come.

Joyce Sweeney, award-winning author, former writing coach, literary agent with The Seymour Agency: I think, moving past the obvious skill of knowing the rules of good writing and how to apply them, the real talent a great writing coach brings to the table is to be able to read the client’s work and feel the intent. We have to know what this person is doing, why they are doing it, and what is important to them beyond what they have written. What do they uniquely have to say? What undeveloped gifts can we see traces of? We have to somehow see the finished project they are dreaming of, and work backwards from that to what they have put on the page so far.

Tam Cillo, Communications at Club CarWe all have our writing strengths and weaknesses. A good writing coach celebrates the former and helps improve the latter—and she creates an atmosphere of acceptance. When she reviews my writing, she is listening for my voice, my personality. This means she sees what’s possible in even the roughest pieces. Like my favorite scuffed sneakers, my work doesn’t need to be pristine, like out-of-the-box white Keds for her to see the potential. 

A great writing coach does more than encourage, though. She helps me set goals—and stick to them. She knows that the art of writing takes more than creativity, that I must continue to develop my skills. And when I get stuck, she’s a motivator who helps me move the roadblocks and continue on the way toward my success. 

Elizabeth Sims, award-winning author, contributing editor at WRITER’S DIGEST magazine: A great writing coach is first a listener. Tell me your troubles! Then, a permission-giver. It’s OK for you to feel anxious when you do new things. It’s OK for you to screw up! In fact, it’s required! Then, a combination wrecking ball and new puppy. Let’s blast through obstacles without much thought! Let’s make friends out of troubles we can’t break apart! Love the storm and sunshine equally! What a journey!

Reverend Rebecca M. Bryan, minister at First Religious Society, Unitarian Universalist: A great writing coach is someone whom you trust implicitly to guide you on the right path. She always tells the truth and holds the success of your work as paramount importance. She’s a consummate professional, who has a way of being kind to your spirit and entirely honest at the same time. Her critique and redirection always resonate and nudge you to the next right step in your writing, while her encouragement is ever-present. You trust her with your craft, which is to say you trust her with your heart and your professional path.

Peg Loves, writer: I had four developmental editors before I realized what I needed was a writing coach. Through my many sessions I’ve found these attributes to be what makes, for me, a great writing coach:

  • She’s an incubator for ideas. I have brought twigs of ideas into a meeting and left with the frame for a tree house.
  • She’s an advocate—a champion of the work and ally to my goals. When she pushes back on an idea, but changes her opinion after being led through my thought process, I know I have an advocate. When she doesn’t let me avoid something hard that I’m fully capable of doing, I know I have an advocate.
  • She has the breadth of a developmental editor and the depth of an investigator, willingly jumping in to help me untangle weak points and suggest strong threads to braid into the story.

I believe, though, part of what makes a writing coach great is the writer. Are you open-minded? Are you clear on your goals? Are you ready to deep dive into the work? Finding the right writing coach is much like dating, trying out personalities, finding which one fits best to foster your productive and fruitful work.

Ryan G. Van Cleave, author, Head of Creative Writing, Ringling College of Art and Design: Why do you need a writing coach?

  • To stop floundering
  • To save years of heartbreak
  • To shorten the learning curve
  • To help develop an appropriate, effective platform
  • To create a clear direction for your writing efforts and career

The best writing coaches aren’t just editors—they’re guides to the wider world of reading, writing, and publishing. A great writing coach will help identify what’s holding you back, troubleshoot specific writing projects, and offer insider-industry advice to create a pathway to the future you want in the world of writing.

MK Swanson, writer: A great writing coach is …

  1. A cheerleader to speed you to the goalpost.
  2. A best friend for delivering truth gently.
  3. A concierge on whose efficiency you can depend.
  4. A masseuse with whom your creative muscles relax.
  5. A drill sergeant by whose orders your story gets stronger.
  6. A trail guide to lead you past the brink of madness.
  7. A magic hat from which to pull rabbits.

Teri Saveliff, author of SIGNATURES: If you ask a friend, even a well-qualified friend, to judge the quality of your work, you will likely get a supportive but not necessarily accurate response. A good writing coach will tell you the truth. A great coach will tell you the truth in a way that encourages you to jump in and make the changes that will benefit your story—even, or especially, if these are big changes.

If you’re like me, you love words and have an easy time putting them on paper. But maybe the overall arc of your story is weak. A writing coach can tease out the story lines you may have buried in pretty language and give your work some true substance. She can also work her magic on unlikable protagonists and improbable plot lines. Ready to take it to the next level? Consult a writing coach.

Hanna Kjeldbjerg, creative director at Beaver’s Pond Press: When I’m looking to connect authors with a writing coach, the number one thing I look for is heart. Writing is so personal, and manuscripts are oftentimes an extension of ourselves. It’s true that authors need writing coaches for accountability, organization, and an objective eye to help with structural elements like narrative arc. But more than that, writers need a partner who understands their vision for their book, who feels like a friend.

My favorite editing quote is “Editing fiction is like using your fingers to untangle the hair of someone you love” (Stephanie Roberts). A relationship with a great writing coach should feel like that.

Megan Cooke, writer, animator, graduate Ringling College of Art and Design Creative Writing Program:

  • Great writing coaches don’t just tell you to fix something, they explain how to reach your solution.
  • Prioritization and organization are huge—a great coach will help you focus on what matters most.
  • A great coach should have your future readers in mind. They’ll catch things that will be confusing or unsatisfying to your audience.
  • Your coach should know what hard decisions need to be made. A coach can help you make tough decisions—sometimes even suggesting “killing your darlings”—that will benefit your entire story.
  • A good relationship between you and your coach makes all the difference. Our stories can be very personal, and a great coach will understand what matters most to you. They will encourage you and push you to produce your best work.

Scott Dobbins, aspiring futurist; founder/CEO, Hybridge: Any writing coach must have the experience and knowledge to provide perspective and insight to their writers. But that is just a part of it. A great writing coach must have the ability to engage with their writers on many levels—personally, intellectually, and spiritually. This forms an authentic bond, one rooted in mutual trust and respect.

With this foundation, a great coach may be empathetic and supportive in one session and no-nonsense and directive in another—whatever the project and writer require at the time. A great writing coach knows when to push you and how to pull it out of you. They are both your cheerleader and your challenger, your accountability partner, and your friend.

Writing coach

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching! And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

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Image of “The Coach,” from BASEBALL TAROT, by Mark Lerner and Laura Philips, illustrations by Dan Gardiner.

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Writing Prompt: Thankful

IT’S BEEN A TOUGH YEAR. You’ve probably heard that at least a thousand times. But it’s true. And that toughness can lend a dark and uneasy tone to our lives.

But here comes Thanksgiving to remind us of our blessings. And why not? Even if there’s no turkey (bird or vegan) for our tables, even if our families (of origin or choice) are unable to join us to raise a glass, even if we have sustained devastating loss over the last few hundred days, still, we can—if we wish—look around and find something to be thankful for.

And doing so seems to be good for us! According to an article in FORBES, focusing on gratitude improves not only our psychological well-being, but our physical health. Feeling thankful may also help us sleep better and think better. And, certainly, it inclines us more positively toward ourselves and our fellow humans.

Writing prompts for gratitude

We writers often make sense of things by writing. So here are a handful of prompts to support you if you feel the need to shift your gaze from what’s not working to what is.

1) Start a gratitude journal. Making a daily list of three to five things we’re grateful for is a simple but effective way to keep gratitude alive in our hearts.

2) Write about a time when something wonderful happened (expected or not). Remembering any boon—from the timely discovery of a much-needed twenty-dollar bill to learning that a loved one’s health concern ended up being nothing for concern at all—reminds us that, like rays of sunshine, moments of well-being can break through the cloudiest of times.

3) Create a dour character who, like Eeyore, sees life as an endless series of difficulties. Put that character in unavoidable proximity to a person you might call a “Pollyanna,” someone who is unremittingly cheerful. Perhaps they become roommates or cubicle mates; or maybe Pollyanna marries into Eeyore’s close-knit family. Or they’re stuck in an elevator together! Or on a three-hour tour“!

However you glue them together, let Pollyanna’s sunny outlook eventually push your Eeyore to a change of attitude. (This may take considerable doing. All the better for dramatic tension!)

4) Write about a random act of kindness and its unexpected, far-reaching effect. This can be something you did for someone else, or a kindness you received. You might also use this idea to launch a short story!

5) List your own good qualities, attributes of yours for which you’re grateful. Dig deep! Don’t be modest. In addition, you could list the ten best qualities of some of those closest to you. Bonus: Make any of these lists into a poem!

These prompts are just jump-starts, a handful of ways you might incorporate gratitude and thankfulness into your writing. They aren’t (necessarily) meant to elicit high literary art. They are meant to remind you of what’s going right in your world and send you into your day (or into your dreams) with a lighter heart.

And that’s something to be thankful for.

Writing resources

Here are some books I turn to when I need to boost my gratitude practice. In them, you’ll find folks whose compassion and generosity and appreciation of the everyday world make their own and others’ lives better.

HUMANS, Brandon Stanton

PUT YOUR HEART ON PAPER, Henriette Anne Klauser

29 GIFTSCami Walker

POEMCRAZY, Susan G. Wooldridge

GOOD DAYS START WITH GRATITUDE (a journal), Pretty Simple Press

Writing coach

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching! And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

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Thank you to Llewellyn Worldwide for kind permission to use the image of the Three of Cups card from the ANNA.K TAROT.  

Muse Induction: How One Writer Beats Writer’s Block

I ASKED MY GOOD WRITER PAL MK SWANSON to share her magic. You see, MK writes consistently, creatively, and to completion. Currently, she’s preparing two novels for publication (watch this space!). But whether she’s got a book launch in mind or not, she successfully makes her way through big drafts of complex, full-length manuscripts—and tells excellent tales, at that!

I’ve watched MK work this literary magic for years. As someone who helps writers deal with serious stress about getting words on the page, I was curious about MK’s process. How, I wondered, does she get it done so well and so effortlessly. So I asked. And this is what she had to say:

I rarely have writer’s block. It’s my superpower.

Sometimes, I’m inspired. I dream a crazy story-line, read an enlightening science article, remember a strange episode, or just think of an idea. But for now, I’m between muses.

So how do I start a story—or keep one going—with no gentle voice in my ear? How does my superpower work?

It starts with attention. Or perhaps inattention? (Looking directly at the problem is ineffective.)

I turn my head away from my computer screen and stare out the window. I’m drawn to a colorful flying creature, a moth or a wasp, maybe; I can’t tell from this distance. It could even be a beetle or a damselfly.

Bees are hovering, too, even though it’s late in the year, getting their nectar before the flowers thin out during a Florida winter.

I’m reminded of the big freeze of 1983. When the freeze destroyed our orange grove, my mother told me how, when she was a child, she helped her father light the grove heaters and keep them stoked all night.

I could write an imagined story of my mother and grandfather, allied in purpose just this once.

I think of crickets at night, a low hum and rise to crescendo, before falling again, a sound I’ve heard less as the city encroaches. What would the world be like without bees and butterflies? Dragonflies and moths?

The absence of buzzing and the brush of wings made a summer’s day hurt the ears.

Frogs, too, are scarce—Cuban treefrogs have displaced the delicate green ones that liked to rest in the furl of a palm frond, and I rarely hear carpenter frogs, spring peepers, or leopard frogs.

I think of a poem about disappearing species, but instead I return to my fluttering insect, available only in memory now.

The bee, or beetle, or maybe moth, lit on a Turk’s cap’s never-opening red petal, slipped over the edge and into the throat of the flower in an indistinguishable blur of legs.

Who is watching the insect? Is this a protagonist in a story I’m already writing, or a new someone?

Helera directed her attention to the insect, commanding her cybernetic implant to focus telescopically on the details—multifaceted eyes, six legs with barbs designed to keep nectar attached, incidentally lifting pollen to father other plants in Utheria’s garden.

A bee, she thought triumphantly, and searched her database for its exact species and role, until she felt an elbow jostle her mechanical left arm.

“Stop it, Hel. This is a garden, not a machine,” said Utheria.

And just like that—a turn of my head, a window, an insect I can’t identify—and I have the beginning of a semi-biographical essay, a line of post-apocalyptic poetry, and a science fiction scene.

My process isn’t unlike meditation, improvisation, or a shamanic journey; I have to look and listen. And then write it down.

Writing coach

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching! And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

 

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Fuel for Writers: A Writing Coach Takes a Winding Journey Through 10 Literary Quotes

1. EVERY STORY IS A STORY OF SUSPENSE. I wish I could recall where I heard this. It’s been invaluable as I help writers get the most power from their stories. Whether you’re writing a memoir or a novel, remember that readers are held fast by suspense. Give your story stakes by making your readers care about a character or an anticipated event—and then create suspense by threatening that in which you’ve gotten them to invest.

2. But how do you get started? Crime novelist Lawrence Block says, “One thing that helps is to give myself permission to write badly. I tell myself that I’m going to do my five or ten pages no matter what, and that I can always tear them up the following morning if I want. I’ll have lost nothing—writing and tearing up five pages would leave me no further behind than if I took the day off.”

3. And if you get stuck? Speaking to the power of the unconscious to provide elegant creative solutions, Nobel Prize in Literature winner Saul Bellow says, “You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.”

4. In her guide to finding your most authentic voice, WRITING ALONE AND WITH OTHERS, poet Pat Schneider explains this further: “Never underestimate the power of sleep. Leading a disciplined writing life is not all about work. It is also about sleep. Entering and staying in the mysterious place where daydream meets night dream is important to the writing life. Our deepest writing, our genius, requires an engagement of the unconscious mind.”

5. Writer Brenda Ueland, author of the classic IF YOU WANT TO WRITE, finds another way to unravel a tangled tale. A fiend for walking to find creative gold, she says, “I will tell you what I have learned for myself. For me, a long five- or six-mile walk helps. And one must go alone and every day.” (Personally, I manage two miles a day—and consistently find at least one crystalline, often startling, solution along the way.)

6. And then there’s the question of what you feed your writer self while it’s walking and sleeping and spinning out the threads of suspense. Best-selling author Stephen King, never one to beat around the bush when offering writing advice, says this: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” 

7. Poet and novelist Natalie Goldberg, who has encouraged at least one generation of writers to settle into a meaningful writing practice agrees. In WRITING DOWN THE BONES, she says, “If you read good books, when you write, good books will come out of you. Maybe it’s not quite that easy, but if you want to learn something, go to the source.”

8. Sometimes, though, we need to remind ourselves why we write. Diarist and novelist Anais Nin says, “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.”

9. However, (brilliant) novelist Amy Tan, who contributed her essay “Pixel by Pixel” to the anthology LIGHT THE DARK: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, found her way to a different meaning. At the start of “Pixel,” she says,

In my novel THE VALLEY OF AMAZEMENT, a character named Edward Ivory recites the following lines from Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’:

Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself.

It is not far, it is within reach,
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born and did not know,
Perhaps it is everywhere on water and on land.

…. And I realized [Tan says]: This is what the character is about. No, more than that: This is what my writing is about. This is what my whole life is about.

10. Tan’s conclusion, that her whole life reflects Whitman’s idea that we must travel our road ourselves reminds me of another quote by Natalie Goldberg. Speaking of her desire to write a novel after her well-received books on writing process, WRITING DOWN THE BONES and WILD MIND, were published, Natalie says,

“I [had] a story I wanted to tell, something I’d half lived and half felt, and I needed the big space a novel afforded to tell it. I was a writer and liked to keep my hand moving. The road was out there and I wanted to ride it.”

This takes us far from the idea we started with—that suspense is what keeps a reader turning the pages and that, implicitly, we bother to write at all so as to be read. In searching out quotes that were meaningful to me, however, I seem to have taken myself on a winding journey. And here is where I end up: Maybe we don’t always write to be read. Maybe, at least sometimes, we write because we are creatures who have something to say, who have a head full of words to say it with, and who have a road before them just waiting to be illuminated by those words.

Writing coach

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching! And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

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