how I discovered that a writing coach can be helpful



I’m writing a supernatural thriller called THE DECADENTS. It’s a bit different from my previously published novels. It’s a book I’ve been carrying around in my head for a long time. I’m a little afraid to write it.

So I did something I’ve never done before: I hired a writing coach.

Her name is Rachel, and she wrote a book that I admire and deals with some of the same subject matter that I’m working with, if in a different form. I first saw her years ago at a Black Clock reading at a bookstore called Dutton’s in Beverly Hills (which is now, sadly, closed — the bookstore, not Beverly Hills). I liked what she read, and I also liked her fashion sense (she was wearing white jeans and a fringed Cavalli-esque poncho).

After her new book came out, I rediscovered her.

We had our first official work meeting last night. We tried to go to a restaurant called Wilshire, which was closed, so we walked to the speakeasy next door. The waitress’s name was Sophie and she wore glitter eyeshadow. (When I found out she had just moved from Boulder, I asked her, “Do you know a restaurant called The Kitchen?” She squealed, “I love The Kitchen!” My ex-brother-in-law owns that place, and one of the things I actually do miss from my marriage are the trips we took to Boulder and free meals at The Kitchen. But I digress.)

I had written 50 pages of DECADENTS and put the book aside for a bit. “You weren’t ready to write it yet,” Rachel observed, and this was true. I had this idea of what I wanted the book to be, told from the perspective of a particular character and covering three different periods in time.

But after those first 50 pages, I got blocked. What I’ve learned is that, as one writer put it (and I wish I could remember her name but can’t), a block can be your subconscious’s way of saying, Hush, child, I’m working on a better plan.

What I eventually realized was that a lot of the stuff I thought was story is actually backstory, and although the book is told from several different perspectives (I like multiple perspectives, think they bring a depth and richness) the story belongs to a different character than I’d originally intended, the young female character.

This now seems so obvious I wonder why it took me so long to come to my muddled senses.

The bones of the thriller, which is about — and I’m still refining this — how a legacy of psychosexual damage gets handed down through a family and plays itself out in other relationships — fell into place. I went back to those first 50 pages, cut about 20 of them, tightened some of the remaining scenes, jettisoned a point-of-view experiment that wasn’t working, and showed them to Rachel.

Rachel thinks the pages are strong and was surprised to hear about my hesitancy: “The writing is fluid and has a lot of authority.” We talked about the materials of the story and although I’m writing fiction, Rachel has learned me enough to make the connection between the book and life of the writer generating it. “No wonder you’ve been resisting it,” she said, and pointed out that I’m still working through some of the issues and experiences that inspired the book in the first place.

How true. And again, so very freaking obvious. Yet I wasn’t able to realize this on my own, partly because I’m way too close to the project, and also because the mind has a fascinating capacity to sidestep and overlook whatever makes it too uncomfortable.

Rachel and I talked about accountability: a big part of her job is to make sure that I write the damn pages. I’ll give myself deadlines and weekly page quotas, draw up a contract and sign it. Quite possibly in blood. And Rachel will nag the hell out of me.

Jan 6, 2010

2 comments · Add Yours

As you know, I’ve been terribly curious about this and what-all’s involved with working with a writing coach, so thanks for the update. Is Rachel, formally, a coach, or a writer whom you admire and have asked to help you in this way? Either way, she sounds like she’s a very good fit for you and what you’re doing.

Ben Casnocha just recycled his post about “a writer’s voice” in his blog (I think you commented there the first time he ran it). It occurred to me that these two qualities Rachel identified — “the writing is fluid and has a lot of authority” — are crucial markers that one is on the right path, and are a little more helpfully concrete than “voice.” Personally, I don’t think that “voice” is a quality one can seek to cultivate in any kind of specific way except through practice — over time, it emerges. But “fluidity” and “authority” are good qualities to work on specifically, and to look for in one’s own work. (I think part of what I love so much about your best blog posts is the quality of relaxed, effortless fluidity they have.) In an earlier comment, Ian observed that a writer’s ability to “show” rather than “tell” is related directly to the writer’s self-confidence (I completely agree — when I feel tentative and uncertain, I tell rather than show). I think “authority” is closely related to this. Still frustratingly amorphous qualities, but good to add to the checklist, I think.

I also like that you’re sharing the two-steps-forward-one-step-back process of serious writing. 50 pages written, 20 burned, a point of view thrown off the train, one main character demoted, another promoted. I think it’s useful, in the 3 page a day regimen that creates such a satisfyingly tall stack of pages so quickly, to keep a book of matches handy and to remember that using them is as much a necessary part of the creative process as meeting your quota. (Of course and alas, you’ve gotta have something to burn, too.)

Also, I want to make an observation about the value of putting problematic work aside for a while, as you talk about here, but I want to tie it in to the value of the non-fiction writing that you do here in the blog, but I don’t quite have it all together in my head yet. Something about the way you put the novel aside but kept writing in another unrelated area. purpose-oriented nature of blog writing hones a set of skills that morning pages and journal writing do not — and I’m a big believer in both of those. That set of skills and the act of putting them to work on a piece of blog writing does something for the process of fiction writing, and the creative process in general, that’s very useful in a practical sense. There’s a right-brain, left-brain, lateral thinking connection here also. In any event, the decision to stop writing and put it aside would seem a counterintuitive step in moving a piece of writing forward, and yet it’s obviously an effective tool.

Thanks for sharing your experience with all of this, Justine. It’s valuable and inspiring. (Correlation between value and dearth of comments, by the way: always zero.)


so interesting, not just this post but your whole blog, I love the way you write about all the stuff around writing and your honesty with it all


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