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How a Book Coach Can Jumpstart Your Writing Career

photo by Graham Binns
photo by Graham Binns [1]

It happened again last month. A writer emailed to say that she had finally finished her manuscript and it was now ready for my professional feedback. “I’ve wanted to get it to you for months,” she wrote, “but I had to make sure it was finished first.” Uh oh, I thought. I wasn’t being mean — that was hard won experience talking. I knew this person was a good writer. That’s almost never the problem. The problem I feared was that she was about 300 pages too late, and I’d be reading a well-written, story-less, plot-filled novel that went nowhere. Which meant I’d have say to her what I almost always have to say to writers – even well published writers — who come to me with finished manuscripts: “Let’s go back to the very beginning and nail the story before you begin [pullquote]One of the biggest mistakes writers make is waiting too long to seek help.[/pullquote]to spin a plot.”   I take no pleasure in the fact that I was right.

One of the biggest mistakes writers make is waiting too long to seek help. I’m not talking about writers’ groups to cheer them on, or writing workshops to learn about craft. I’m talking about serious, professional, story-focused help so they can get their story right, right from the start. Because learning to “write well” is not the same thing as learning to write a story. And without a compelling story, the result is — at best — what’s known in the trade as a beautifully written, “So what?” And at worst, merely a bunch of things that happen.

In this regard, I practice what I preach. I worked with a coach on my first book and on the proposals for my next two books (on which my publisher instantly made offers). I work with her when I develop speeches, talks and articles. I can’t imagine working without her. I’d feel like an orchestra without a conductor, an athlete without a coach. This outside assistance helped catapult my career to a whole new level – and it can do the same for you.

But what is a book coach, exactly? I’ve asked my book coach, Jennie Nash, to answer some questions about book coaching to give you an idea of how it works and why it’s effective. Originally, being a story coach myself, I was going to answer the questions as well, but I found that I’d almost always be echoing what Jennie says so succinctly. She and I also recorded a 45-minute conversation about the process, which offers deeper insights into all of the topics we cover here. You can access that interview at the end of the piece.

Lisa: So what does a book coach do, exactly?

Jennie: The simple answer is that a book coach guides a writer through the book-writing process. A coach helps a writer to understand her idea, execute it, [pullquote]A book coach can be many things – a cheerleader, a whip cracker, a sounding board, a strategist, a story analyst, a project manager, a publishing consultant, a marketing guide, even a shoulder to cry on[/pullquote]and get it out into the world. What this means in practice can vary wildly. A book coach can be many things – a cheerleader, a whip cracker, a sounding board, a strategist, a story analyst, a project manager, a publishing consultant, a marketing guide, even a shoulder to cry on. So one of the first things a book coach does for a writer – before they are even hired — is force the writer to define exactly what kind of help they need, which forces them to think about their creative process, which forces them to think about their book not as a hobby or something they are just dabbling in, but as an actual, I’m-really-doing-this venture. When writers come to me, they are ready to get serious.

Lisa: How does the process work?

Jennie: It depends in large part on where the writer is in the process and what kind of help they need. I have many writers who come to me at the “I have an idea and I’m ready to commit and I don’t know where to start” stage. I help them understand their idea, structure their book, take a measure of the marketplace and get off the starting block. Sometimes writers have done that work already, but they’re stuck; they can’t seem to move forward. I give them weekly deadlines and accountability to get them to “the end.” And at still other times, writers come to me to get help pitching a book they have already finished — perhaps they need to develop a book proposal or an agent has said they need to cut 150 pages from a novel and they’re freaking out. (I’m not making this up; this just happened…)

Lisa: Hiring a book coach sounds like a big investment.

Jennie: It is exactly that – an investment. As I said, above, writers tend to work with coaches when they are ready to take their work seriously. They are finished “trying” to write a book, finished simply talking about it, finished making excuses. They are ready to tackle the challenge head on. Working with a coach gives you nowhere to hide.

You set deadlines. You must be accountable. And you are paying for professional feedback, so you tend to take it seriously. You may not accept it, but you [pullquote]A finished rough draft you work on with a book coach is actually more like a fourth or fifth draft or sixth draft.[/pullquote]tend to respect it in a way you don’t necessarily respect the feedback from your neighbor or your friend. All of those things combined mean that the writing tends to go faster and tends to come out stronger. A finished rough draft you work on with a book coach is actually more like a fourth or fifth draft or sixth draft.

Lisa: A book coach is a relatively new thing. What shifted to bring book coaches into the publishing universe?

Jennie: For the most part, agents and editors stopped giving writers the kind of intimate hands-on help they used to provide, so traditionally published [pullquote]Working with a book coach gives you both intensive attention on the entire sweep of your book and professional, practical feedback – plus there is the ongoing deep-level emotional support, which should not be underestimated. [/pullquote]writers needed to find that help somewhere else. That hands-on assistance was one of the best parts of being traditionally published – at least that was my experience as a writer. There are still SOME agents and editors who do this work, but it is increasingly rare. Self published writers need to find professionals to help them at every stage of the process (cover designers, proofreaders, etc.), so it stands to reason that as more writers self publish, more writers need book coaches.

Lisa: What does coaching offer that writers’ groups and writers’ classes don’t?

Jennie: Groups and classes allow you to be part of a community of writers, and it’s nice to have the support of your peers. It’s a good way to combat the loneliness and doubt of writing. But in a class you’re not getting intensive attention on the entire sweep of your work; you’re usually only getting lessons on craft and surface-level feedback on a small part of the whole. And in a group you’re not getting professional feedback; you may get strong reactions from other writers, but little in terms of why something is not working or how to make sense of the reaction, or how to fix it. Working with a book coach gives you both intensive attention on the entire sweep of your book and professional, practical feedback – plus there is the ongoing deep-level emotional support, which should not be underestimated. There are times when I think that is the most important thing I give to my writers.

Lisa: Why should writers ask for help early in the process?

Jennie: As you said in your intro, getting help at the start of a project can be the most powerful and productive time to make an investment in your book. Waiting until you get stuck – or, as you mentioned, until you are finished – tends to put the writer in a bad bind. If anything is off balance or flat-out wrong in the narrative or the structure, it takes an incredible amount of time to unwind everything, to peel back the layers, to figure out exactly where it went wrong, why, and then get it all right. We can do it – it’s not impossible – but it’s infinitely more frustrating for the writer, because at that point they have invested their heart and soul, not to mention years of their life, into the book. They really don’t want to hear what’s wrong, for one thing, and they try to find the most [pullquote]Writers who have a pile of rejections – usually really nice and encouraging rejections – and want some understanding as to why their book is being rejected.[/pullquote]painless way to fix it, instead of the best way to fix it. If they come at the start of the project, the cement is still wet. It’s totally malleable. You can lay a really strong foundation – and then any problems that might arise in the writing of the book are much easier to fix.

Lisa: Have you ever had a writer come to you with a finished manuscript that was so perfect it merely needed a little polishing?

Jennie: No. I know you would say the same thing, Lisa, and I know that we both hate to say it – but it’s simply the truth. I imagine that those writers are the ones who instantly and effortlessly land top agents and giant advances. They don’t need anyone’s help! More often, what I see is the opposite: writers who have a pile of rejections – usually really nice and encouraging rejections – and want some understanding as to why their book is being rejected. I do a “Rejection Audit” where I read through all the rejections and the materials submitted to agents in order to find an answer — and it is always very obvious to me where things have gone off the rails and what needs to be done to get the book back on track. Many times, the agents are actually telling the writers straight up what’s going on, but the writer just isn’t hearing it. It’s not that they’re dense; it’s that, after awhile, it can be very hard to see your own story.

Lisa: What is the best part of the coaching process from your perspective?

Jennie: Well for me, it’s getting to go down deep into someone else’s creative process. That’s a powerful and a potent place to be and I personally love it. I love ideas and strategizing and helping people find a way forward. I particularly love it when someone gets to a place where they have worked really hard and can finally say, “I did it!

If I had to answer from the writers’ perspective, most of my clients would probably say that it’s having someone believe in them. I believe that anyone can write a book that other people want to read. It may not be fast or easy or painless, but I believe they can do it, and my writers undoubtedly feel that confidence.

Lisa: What’s the biggest thing you see writers doing wrong?

Jennie: Rushing. Thinking it’s a big no-brainer to write 300 pages that can hold a readers’ attention. Thinking that the second they get to “the end” of a first draft, they are done.

 Lisa: How can writers find a good coach? What should they look for?

Jennie: The best way to find a good coach is to ask fellow writers for recommendations. They’ll tell it like it is. There’s no license needed to do this work, no certification, no graduate program, so anyone can say they do it. Therefore, you want to make sure your coach has a proven track record. Once you start narrowing the field, ask the coach to explain her process and her philosophy so you can be sure she suits your needs. When you get serious, ask to have a short consultation – expect 15 minutes or 30 minutes – to learn about their style and personality. Finally, don’t lock yourself into a long-term commitment until you’ve had a chance to experience how the process works.

   A few extras:

About Lisa Cron [6]

Lisa Cron is the author of Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers From the Very First Sentence [7] and Story Genius: How To Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste 3 Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere). [8] Her video tutorial, Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story, can be found at Lynda.com [9]. Her TEDx talk, Wired for Story, [10] opened Furman University’s 2014 TEDx conference, Stories: The Common Thread of Our Humanity. A frequent speaker at writers conferences, schools and universities, Lisa's passion has always been story. She currently works as a story coach helping writers, nonprofits, educators and journalists wrangle the story they're telling onto the page; contact her here. [11]