The way I approach being a writing coach owes a debt to the genial baseball coaches you find on American sitcoms. My favourite was, of course, the eponymous ‘Coach’ on Cheers, which I watched at an impressionable age. Caring, warm, and very pragmatic, you could imagine Coach sympathising with the troubled-yet-talented player, all the while steering him gently and firmly back onto the field.
I like to think that’s what I do. I see writers at all stages: first draft, final draft, and all points in between. I examine their letters to agents, I red-pen their synopses, I talk through the inciting incidents of their film scripts, and I lose myself in their creativity. Most often, I am asked to help with a story that just isn’t right. I love trying to make a story work.
Perhaps it’s the wrong story. Or the right story, with the wrong narrator. Maybe the writer needs to switch the order in which things happen, or rewrite the ending, or take out a character. A few weeks ago, I worked with a writer on his film script, and we realised that he had three characters who all served the same function. With two of them gone, the story became much clearer.
Perhaps the writer doesn’t know enough about their story to make it work. A writer I met recently had a character in her story who disappeared, leaving a note. ‘Where has he gone?’ I asked. ‘Do we find out?’ ‘No, we don’t find out’, she said, answering the second question first. I repeated, ‘So, where has he gone?’ There was a pause. ‘I’m not sure,’ she said. She concluded that she needed to know, and that the reader would probably like to know as well. This unlocked something, and she was off and running.
Story-craft is hard. It’s really hard to do by yourself. I certainly can’t work out my own stories by myself. I spitball with my writing group, and my friends, and people who think they have just come to fit new shelves, till the thing is bashed into shape. I love this process, and I love doing it with other people on their stories.
I try and insist on one session of coaching only. This is not psychotherapy; to continue with the Cheers metaphors, I am not Dr Frasier Crane, meeting patients regularly for several years. Sure, me and my bank balance are happy if a writer wishes for further sessions, but I see my role more like strapping up the injured leg and shoving the writer back into the game as quickly as possible. There are plenty enough websites, courses and books that entreat you to linger over the minutiae of how to write. But I am a fan of getting people to do the actual writing, for it is only in the writing that we become writers. Nothing else, alas, substitutes, and lord knows, I have looked long and hard for substitutes.
I see writers who are on their fiftieth rejection letter, and those who, having published one book, cannot imagine how they will start over again with a new blank page. I have been there, of course, in all the trembling horror. The ‘no thanks’, the kick-backs, the blank page meltdowns. Many times. Like Coach, I am sympathetic but pragmatic. I look at my client’s writing, and ask: how can I help them achieve what they want? If they want to get published, how can I help with that? If they want to improve it, what can I tell them? If they simply want to finish it, why, you just try holding me back with a calendar and a set of goals!
I am a lousy liar. I discourage people from sending out their work if I don’t think it’s ready, or not good enough. I might propose that they try the whole thing from a different point of view/ put in more action/remove the axe-murder scene if they’re aiming for the toddler market. I also tell people which bits of their writing I think is terrific. But only if I do genuinely think that some of it is.
Coaching is good for my own writing. After a day wrestling with someone else’s words, and asking how they can be better, I go back to mine with a different mind-set. The big problems stand out much more obviously after I’ve spent time reflecting on what works – and what doesn’t – in someone else’s.
Then, after a hard day at the coalface of words, words, words, I continue in the manner of my hero Coach. I head to a bar where everyone knows my name, take out a book, and blow the froth off a couple of cool ones.
Beth Miller has written two novels, When We Were Sisters (2014) and The Good Neighbour (2015), both published by Ebury (Random). She’s also written a non-fiction book, For The Love of The Archers, out in October. She is currently writing a third novel, teaches on the Creative Writing Programme in Sussex, and drinks a lot of tea. She has had many different jobs: psychologist, typist, sex educator, journalist, counsellor, but whatever she did, she always ensured that she got to write handouts. She really likes writing handouts.
Sites That Link to this Post
- A Helping Hand – Working With a Writing Mentor | Chloe Turner | October 14, 2015
- 15 Ways to Fall in Love with Writing [All Over Again] | September 26, 2015