Jack and Jill Knew the Score: Coaching for Writers

Writing coach Kurt Opprecht describes how coaching can help writers.

Sometimes writing feels like tossing pebbles into a well. You stare at your reflection in the darkness and wait for the sound to come. When it does, the echo is so forlorn you want to cry. For an art form that aims to speak to the depths of human interaction, writing can be an incredibly solitary endeavor. In how many art forms does the artist work for years at a time on a single piece without interacting with a soul? We humans weren’t built to work like that. Writers are a species hungry for coaching. Of course, a coach offers more than just another cranium against which to bash your own; but at its core, coaching draws from the power of the human relationship. When you’ve got a coach, suddenly your self-imposed deadlines have teeth. At least one person is going to be interested in how your manuscript is coming along. You’re not alone.
For the most part, coaching involves talking over the phone – usually twice a month or once a week – plus a bit of back-and-forth by email. With a writing coach, there might be some reading and editing done as part of the package, or for an additional fee. Some coaches work face-to-face, and some do it purely by email, but nearly all of us address the following issues:

Values and Goals - What’s most important to you? Artistic integrity? Fame? Bling? Are your deepest values in alignment with your day-to-day endeavors? We often assume they are, but our heartfelt values change over time. When someone like a coach compels us to reconsider, many of us find that we’ve been living day-to-day for things we no longer hold sacred. (Usually the shift is toward writing more.)

Vision and Strategy - How are you planning to get where you want to go? Whether it’s a finished story, a published book, or a Booker Prize, you need a strategy. Crafting that strategy includes exploring new perspectives on the chronic issues, and brainstorming some new tactics. Writers are pretty good at visualizing the final destination, but planning a strategy that fills in all of the steps is another thing. It’s not rocket science, but strategy is one of those things that a coach helps to insure take place.

Accountability - One of my clients sent this to me in a note last week: “Perhaps one of the greatest services you provide for me is a date, a deadline… the knowledge that there is a real live human waiting at the other end.” (I’d like to think I offer more valuable stuff than that, but I’ll take what praise I can get.) It’s amazing how much it matters to a writer that his or her coach be pleased with his or her output. Usually, just the possibility of having to fess up to me that they missed a deadline is motivation enough, and I don’t have to resort to medieval techniques.

Morale - Are you taking care of the writer within you? Is your creativity being squelched by the demands of the marketplace? When some writers hear the word “coach” they think I’m a hired cheerleader, and they’re repulsed. I’ve had a client tell me, “No pep talks.” But that same client wrote me two days later that she was so discouraged she could barely write. Some of us have the cruelest, most ruthless inner critics you could imagine. The fact is, what I say isn’t going to fundamentally change how a writer feels about her writing, but I can help her reconsider how she looks at her own writing and how she looks at herself as a writer. I consider that to be one of the most valuable aspects of coaching.

Advice - This is generally last on the list of what a coach is does. We are trained to help you find your own way, not to tell you which is the “best” way. But, a coach who knows his or her field can provide invaluable guidance - navigating the publishing archipelago, perhaps… A year and a half ago I took on a client who was sure of little more than that she wanted to write a travel book to a destination in Europe. We went through the customary steps toward narrowing her focus, putting together a snappy proposal, and choosing the appropriate publishers to query. (For travel books one can generally approach the publisher directly.) A boutique publisher picked her up right away - but asked her to write an entirely different book than she had proposed. Here we were able to draw on the power of the relationship, not just the know-how of the coach. We had a good heart-to-heart talk about her options and her concerns. She opted to sign the contract and write the book. It will be released this month, and meanwhile she is shopping the first proposal around anew. (Confidentiality norms keep me from being more specific, but I will say this author did all of that while caring for two young children at home, and taking time out for a successful round of brain cancer chemotherapy. She has my nomination for superhero mom of the year.) Coaching isn’t always such fair sailing, to be sure. A large number of would-be authors just aren’t emotionally mature or skilled enough at writing yet to bring it all together. And sometimes the chemistry between coach and client isn’t quite right. There is at least one former client of mine who may well never speak to me again. (I wish him well, of course.)

Now, those five keystones might be peachy keen, but I have to say, I don’t get contacted by many writers who say they need help with their “vision and strategy” or who complain that their values and goals are out of alignment. It’s more likely to be, “I’m stuck.” Or, “I’m overwhelmed.” Or, “I don’t know where to begin.” But regardless of what the day-to-day issues are, the big picture rears it’s unruly head sooner or later, and we have to delve into those deeper issues. The trick is to do it without alarming the poor writer. I’ve found I have to encourage without sounding like a parent, to interrupt a tangent without sounding like a reporter, and to point to darker emotional territory without sounding like a shrink. Lucky for me, it’s very rewarding work, for many reasons, not the least of which is because I’m a writer myself and I share every issue my clients have.

Choosing a Coach If you’re thinking of hiring a coach, here are a few things to consider: It’s only going to work if you feel comfortable sharing your thoughts with the coach, so getting along together is important. Most coaches hold a preliminary interview or a sample session before embarking on a coaching relationship, usually to see whether it’s a good fit from both sides of the table. If the coach you’re considering doesn’t offer one for free, then pay for a single session before committing to a series. But keep in mind that coaching will eventually bring up issues that are likely to be uncomfortable at first –if they weren’t, then you’d probably have addressed them already– so once you’ve chosen a coach, get on board for the long haul; three months at the very least. There are plenty of good writers and editors that offer coaching, and they probably do help their clients. But one does learn a lot in coaching school. Get yourself one who’s trained in coaching, not just an editor who works one-on-one. Once you’ve chosen a coach, tell him or her clearly what you want. You’re not signing up for the coach’s regime, you’re hiring him or her to support your agenda. And remember the transformation is going to happen inside you, not between you and the coach, so be prepared to step up and take charge of your own writing path.

The Challenge One of the things a coach is particularly good at is challenging you to go beyond your comfort zone and do something you would never have considered. Often, the challenge is either impossible or crazy, but usually it leads to a breakthrough of some sort. Here’s my challenge for you – and as with any coaching challenge, you’re free to accept, decline or counter-offer:

Write an agent query that says exactly what you want to say, no holds barred. Tell the agent how brilliant a writer you are, how much pain you’ve gone through, and how much you deserve to be published. Tell the agent exactly what you think about having to plead for acceptance, and how unfair it is that you haven’t already been chosen. In fact, make it extra clear that you will be the one to choose. Let it all out.
Don’t just think about it. Write the query. You’d be surprised what good it does you. And if just writing it isn’t transgressive enough – actually send it to an agent or two.

If you accept this challenge, I’d love to see what comes of it. Send your heartfelt query to me at “challenge” at “opprecht.net”. I wish you the best of luck. Keep tossing those pebbles, and looking for new wells.

Kurt Opprecht coaches clients internationally, usually from his home base in New York City, where he teaches for Gotham Writers Workshop, runs the Bananafish Writers Groups, and writes fiction, drama and satire. His coaching website is www.Opprecht.net.