Writing Academy, Memoirs, Novels, Short Stories, Book Proposals

New York City Writing Coach

Gay Walley

Do you need a coach? What about writing groups? Do they help?

If you are on this site, you are obviously thinking about it. I just wrote a small e-book on how to write a first novel. I address the issue in the e-book and i will share it with you here:

Before we begin, you probably are wondering should you work with a coach or not? That is a good and complicated question. Yes, you should, if you can afford it, work with a coach who has published work and has a very adept knowledge of craft issues in a novel. A coach can gently guide you out of shoals you could get stuck on for months.
What kind of shoals? That you shift out of the scene just when the subject matter is getting emotional… (if you do that, it means you yourself don’t want to feel the feelings.) Another shoal is that you insist on being oblique because you think it is “interesting,” when all it can be is confusing and distancing to the reader. Another shoal is that your opening sounds like a journalistic précis about the story, rather than throwing the reader into the story. Another shoal is using the passive voice, “The shoes were put on.” (Never never do that.) A coach can pick up these problems that can ruin your book and cut them out of your repertoire right away.

But there are some caveats about a coach. If the coach is someone who wants you to write in his/her style, or tells you that you should be writing a whole different story, then that is not good. If the coach is rapping your hands on details of spelling and sentence structure only, before you have worked out the story, you will feel deterred, and weakened in the freedom you need to create. A coach should be exciting you to the possibilities, not making you feel badly about yourself.

Novels are often the products of rebels and one can well imagine a mediocre coach telling Faulkner, “Straighten out your language,” or telling Joyce, “No more five dollar words.” Your coach must be someone who allows your novel to unfold in your own voice and in your own style and only assists you in making what YOU want to do communicate and engage the reader. A coach is not to judge your material or the type of novel you are writing.

I am a coach and I work on many novels that I myself would not read, not my taste, but I admire how good they are in their own genre. It is my job to help the novelist get into the psyches of his characters as truly and provocatively as he or she can, and to help the novelist make scenes that the reader wants to read and not fall asleep to.

So if you leave your coach, feeling “She or he doesn’t get it,” or you leave feeling decimated by what the coach said, something is wrong. If you leave feeling energized, “Oh I have to fix this and that and why didn’t I think of that myself?”, that is a good coach.

A coach has to have a good ear to what you want to do, and help you accomplish it.
When the coach is right, you’ll know it. Their comments will “stick.” If they are wrong, you’ll forget the comments easily.

Now to the question of writers’ workshops. I used to be against them since the author is getting input from ten people, some of whom can’t write and some of these comments can be inadvertently damaging. But I have come to change my mind. Authors learn about styles from other people. They see their own flaws in other people’s work and this helps them in their own revisions. There is, of course, the pleasure in the camaraderie of sharing the difficulties and joys in writing. And there is the wonderful information for the author of seeing how people respond to his or her work. Do your readers get excited by a character or the narrative? Did they notice your language? Are they interested in what happens next? If you get that response, it will spur you forward and that is not to be understated.

A writing group usually cannot help with plot issues because they don’t see the full book. In other words, a chapter can be good but the novel may not be since the group hasn’t had a chance to see the entire 150 or 200 pages! No worries. When you have finished your third draft, you can ask people to read the whole novel. Choose wisely there too. Your mother might love it (or hate it) blindly, and not be bringing a literary acumen to her prejudice. Your spouse may only find spelling mistakes.

To return to the question of a writing group: It will give you courage and some insight and make the process a bit less lonely and daunting. You will see that all writers struggle with form, content, voice, storyline, details. You will see that writing a book is a tremendous arduous process and one that every person alive who writes struggles with. All writers are a bit frightened and tell themselves they don’t like their own work one day, love it the next, and so on. This is all normal. It is hard to be objective.

But you will come to trust the process where often 8 pages read terribly but, after being worked on, these same pages become stunning. You will discover that the way to make a wonderful first novel is to rewrite and rewrite. You’ll get there.

So yes a coach and/or workshop will HELP you a LOT.