Meeting and Coaching in Person

Most of the time, I coach writers by phone or email, which allows me to work with people who live in different time zones in the U.S. as well as in other countries (Canada, Mexico, Australia and the UK . . . so far!). I enjoy a flexible schedule, and in general my introverted self likes being alone, sheltered from noise and distractions. If I happen to get restless, no problem! Being able to take my work with me when I travel means I don’t have to stay rooted in one place.

Sounds great, right? But of course there are downsides to long-distance relationships, which aren’t as up-close and personal as face-to-face conversations. It’s harder to feel a meaningful connection, harder to tell for certain how someone else is feeling.

Thus far, I’ve met only two of my writers face-to-face. The first time was with someone I’d been working with off and on for nearly three years. Chris and I had exchanged many, many emails and even a few photos during that time, and I’d already begun to think of her as a friend. So when she emailed to say she would be traveling to the east coast (asking, if she were to come to New Hampshire for the day, would I be available to meet?), I jumped at the chance. Though I was a little nervous, as any two people tend to be when they meet for the first time, I soon discovered we had a lot in common. We found plenty to talk about (though as I recall we spent very little time “talking shop”—right, Chris?).

After that delightful rendezvous, I went back to hibernating in my home office and working with writers remotely . . . until about a year later, when I was paired with an Author Accelerator writer who lived close enough to make me wonder about the possibility of another in-person meeting. When Anita told me she was teaching a class related to the book she was writing, I saw it as the perfect opportunity for us to get together. I looked forward to sitting in on the class, observing her teaching style, and talking to her in person about her project. Also, the university where she taught happened to be my alma mater, Brandeis University, and I’d read that the castle in which I’d resided as an undergrad had been partially torn down and reconstructed. I was curious to see what had replaced it.

Brandeis Usen Castle
Brandeis Usen Castle (prior to 2017 addition of Skyline residence hall)

When I asked how Anita felt about me dropping in on a class, she kindly sent her syllabus and invited me to come “any time.” We settled on a date, and as the date got closer . . . I began to get cold feet. Even though it had been my idea to meet, I felt more than a little pressure to impress, or at least not to disappoint. I worried about saying something stupid or revealing too much about myself, and I wondered how it might affect our ongoing work together if we didn’t hit it off. I didn’t want to take a chance on jeopardizing the project in any way, and there was always the possibility that an in-person meeting could go poorly.

Still, my overthinking such a simple encounter was a clear indication that I’d gotten a little too comfortable with my professional-relationships-at-a-distance lifestyle. The potential benefits of meeting in person far outweighed any imagined risks, so I juggled my schedule, buried my head in the assigned reading for the class (about 100 pages of scholarly prose), and tried to recall what little I could remember of the campus map. On the agreed upon day, I drove the ninety minutes to Waltham and headed to the Faculty Club, where we’d arranged to meet.

On my way there, I noticed the castle no longer looked quite the same. The contemporary Skyline addition (to the left, in the photo below) made it look as though the old building was a little confused, struggling to retain the past while extending itself awkwardly into the future. Feeling a little nostalgic for the way things had been thirty years ago, I thought about the ways in which I’d changed, too. I never imagined that I’d return to campus one day to help a member of the faculty write a book.

Brandeis Usen Castle (with the new Skyline addition to the left)

The minute I met Anita, I had a feeling everything was going to be just fine. She was warm and friendly and put me at ease right away. While I didn’t snap a selfie of the two of us together (my one regret—sorry!), I had a wonderful time getting to know her a little better, hearing about her work and plans for the future. In emails, I’d often reassured her that I believed in what she was trying to do, but I don’t think she wasn’t entirely convinced until she saw the excitement written all over my face. “You’re my target audience!” she said with a smile. Likewise, while her passion for what she was working on seemed genuine from the start, seeing her light up when she talked about the book helped me to understand just how much it meant to her.

After a leisurely lunch, we headed over to her class, where she introduced me as “the editor helping with the book she was writing.” When the students responded to that news with “ooh”s and nods of approval, I felt a warm glow that lasted through the rest of the afternoon. Yes, that’s who I am. That’s what I’m doing here. Being acknowledged so publicly made everything I’d been doing for the past four years as a book coach feel real and valued and important. Such an incredible gift.

I left Brandeis that day with a jar of Anita’s homemade peach jam and a copy of her first book clutched in my hands. In a subsequent email, she wrote that she felt “reinvigorated” by our meeting, which describes how I felt as well: energized to continue with the work ahead. To say “I’m glad I ventured out” would be an understatement.

Now that spring is almost here, what are your plans for branching out and seeing what others in the writing and publishing world have been doing during this long winter? Me, I’m hungry for more face-to-face encounters. I’ve just registered for The Muse and the Marketplace, a national conference for writers held in Boston, and in September I’ll be assisting with an Author Accelerator “Find Your Book, Find Your Mojo” writing retreat in Maine.

Care to join me?

Dealing with Setbacks

Ever doubted yourself when you’re trying to do something extremely challenging? Wondered why you’re putting yourself through painful feelings of inadequacy and moments of intense vulnerability when you could be safely binge-watching Netflix or curling up with a hot cup of tea and a bestselling novel?

If your answer is yes, you’re not alone. Every writer I’ve worked with has struggled with self-doubt, though some more than others, and everyone in their own way. Some worry about whether they have what it takes to write something other people will want to read. Others suffer from “imposter syndrome” and worry they aren’t “real” writers. They worry their work isn’t sufficiently clever or insightful or original to deserve anyone else’s attention.

As a book coach, one of my jobs is to help writers kick their doubt to the curb so they can get back to work.

But what if, as a coach, I’m the one suffering from self-doubt? Coaching a writer is challenging. Deciding what’s working and what isn’t in a manuscript is always a judgment call, and there are so many variables to consider when preparing feedback. Even if I manage to correctly identify the main trouble spots in a manuscript, I still have to decide what to provide feedback on first so I can help the writer target revisions in a way that will result in the most improvement in the least amount of time. And then, of course, there’s the writer’s personality and tolerance for critique to consider. How much feedback will be enough to make a difference, but not so much as to overwhelm? It can be tricky to find the right balance. Trickier still to have enough confidence, day after day, to be decisive.

This past week, a writer I’d been working with for over a year let me know she wasn’t happy about being asked to make (more) changes to her manuscript. How could I still be telling her, after a year of hard work, that there was more to cut and add? She needed to be done, she said. She thought she’d be getting ready to pitch to agents by now.

Her main goal wasn’t only to write the best book she could; she had hired me, a professional book coach, specifically to improve her chances of getting traditionally published. She’d already worked with two other editors, prior to seeking my help, and had revised her manuscript several times. So, this wasn’t a first draft we were talking about. Her frustration was understandable.

My skin started crawling with doubt. A year did seem like a very long time, especially for a manuscript the writer had once (well, twice) considered “done.” What kind of book coach works with a writer for a year—on revisions!—seemingly without getting them much closer to the finish line? Could I even tell her how much longer it was going to take? Did I even know what I was doing?

Doubt wouldn’t leave me alone. You have no business coaching writers. You should start looking for a new job. Baking bread, perhaps?

The more I thought about her situation, the worse I felt. I started having trouble sleeping. I lost my appetite. I needed to figure out what I’d done wrong, how I could make it up to this writer, and what I could do differently the next time. Not knowing how I’d failed her was driving me crazy.

Luckily, I have access to a coach of my own—a coach for book coaches— and she was very reassuring. She told me that revisions typically take three times longer than most writers initially estimate, and that doesn’t even include the time it takes for copyediting, proofreading and preparing a pitch. Revising is an iterative process, and it can take a long time to go through multiple rounds. Which is why, she said, I should have spent more time at the start of the project with the writer, developing a very clear plan and setting realistic expectations for the work that needed to be done.

Oh. Right. That made sense. I felt foolish for having missed what seemed obvious in hindsight.

For anyone who’s wondering how I could have been so clueless as to start a revision project without a plan, let me offer a brief defense. It’s not that I didn’t have any plan at all. I began with an evaluation of the manuscript and wrote a summary of what I saw as the strengths and weaknesses. The evaluation included suggestions for what could be done to improve the existing draft. The writer and I then spent several weeks discussing why she wanted to write the book, what the story was really about, what she was and wasn’t willing to do, and her level of commitment to the project. Once we had all those planning documents in place, she began the work of revising her story in 20-page increments, sending the revised pages to me for feedback.

The process seemed to be working, more or less, but in the back of my mind, I feared the small changes she was making wouldn’t be enough. We had a plan, but it wasn’t particularly strategic. (That was my biggest mistake.) I was trying to help her fix everything at once, and I was too afraid of being wrong, afraid I might make things worse if I asked her to change too much.

A few times, when I had questions about the story that would require changes to multiple scenes or chapters, I asked the writer to return to the initial planning documents to make sure the story hadn’t changed and was still on track. She wasn’t thrilled but changed the plot here and there, and then went back to revising. I continued to gently push and query and offer suggestions each week, hoping the cumulative effect of the changes would lead to a major improvement.

Unfortunately (but, in hindsight, predictably), when the major improvement didn’t materialize, both the writer and I ended up feeling frustrated and disappointed.

I think if I’d had more experience managing a revision project before I started working with this writer, I could have done a better job of coaching her. Instead, after many months of working together, I had to break the awful news that she wasn’t as close to being done as she’d hoped. It was a hard conversation to have, made even harder because we hadn’t had it sooner. If I’d helped her to prioritize the revisions—made sure she would be dealing with the major problems first, saving the smaller stuff for later, figuring out a set schedule for everything—she would have known what to expect and how much work was left to do. It wouldn’t have had to come as such a shock.

Realizing where I’d gone wrong, I wanted to go back in time and start over. I thought about quitting and referring the writer to another coach. I was at a low point and believed anyone would be better than me.

But that seemed cowardly. How could I keep telling writers that not doing everything perfectly the first time around was part of the process, if I didn’t apply that to my own work? I couldn’t allow myself to be derailed by a setback. I decided that even though I’d made a mistake, I could still try to do my best work going forward.

With help from my mentor, I pushed myself to stay in touch with the writer. We exchanged many emails and had several long conversations by phone, and that helped to clear the air. I asked if she’d be willing to re-examine the overall cause-and-effect trajectory of her story to figure out whether all the scenes she currently had in place were truly working to move the story forward, and she said yes. At my request, she sent me a 100-page document for feedback (even though our weekly max is usually 20 pages), and I spent hours working on it. We also set a target date for finishing.

To recover from the setback, I’ve devoted easily five times as many hours as I’d usually spend on a client, but it has been worth it. I can now go to sleep at night knowing I’ve done everything I could. The writer seems to have appreciated my honesty and extra effort, because she’s decided to stick with me. I’m grateful for the trust she’s placed in me and will work hard to avoid disappointing her.

No matter how good you are, as a writer or a coach, it’s unrealistic to expect your work to be flawless at all times. We’re all going to make mistakes, and we’re going to have times when we doubt ourselves and our abilities. That’s just life. But when doubt strikes, do you have a plan for dealing with it? Have you thought about how you’ll prevent a setback from kicking your legs out from under you and stopping you in your tracks?

I didn’t before, but I do now.

One Person at a Time

I have come to think, therefore, that the basic thing we must do is to stop generalizing about people. If we no longer thought of them as groups, but as individuals, we would soon find that they varied in their different groups as much as we do in our own. It seems to me quite natural to say: “I do not like John Jones.” The reasons may be many. But to say: “I do not like Catholics or Jews” is complete nonsense. . . . It is individuals we must know, not groups!

Eleanor Roosevelt, What I Hope to Leave Behind

When Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, “It is individuals we must know, not groups,” she probably wasn’t thinking about how to help writers develop compelling stories. Reading that line as a book coach, though, I’m struck by the truth of it, not only as advice for combating hate and prejudice but also as a guideline for writers.

Here’s one example: I was recently asked by another coach to help with a writer who had written several passages that she feared would come across as racist. The writer had not intended to portray her protagonist as someone who was racist, but because the writing was relying on generalizations, the effect was alienating rather than compelling. The other coach and I wanted to help the writer show more of her protagonist’s inner life—specifically, what the character was thinking and recalling from past experiences. That way, readers would have a chance to understand why her character interpreted a particular situation the way she did. By avoiding the generalizations and being more specific, the writer could show us a person who had every reason to be angry and fearful. While readers might not agree with the character’s bias, they would be more likely to empathize with her.

Working with this other coach helped me as well, because coincidentally I happened to be working with a writer who had been portraying a few of the characters in her story in a way that made them seem more like caricatures than real people. I ended up giving her similar advice: dig deeper to figure out who this person is on the inside, how they think and feel. Don’t just tell me about their physical features—help me to understand why they are in the story at all, why your protagonist is affected by them. Show me the distinctive point of view they’re bringing to the story.

Photo Credit: Alan Levine

While thinking about this idea of specificity and the difference it can make in a story, I was also reading Becoming by Michelle Obama, The Leavers by Lisa Ko, and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. All three of these books present a particular point of view, a window into the soul of another human being. They help us to imagine how it feels to be someone else, to exist in the world in a different way. Once I was inside their worldview, I began to understand what had previously been beyond my own frame of reference. I saw what made us different as well as what we had in common.

What I love most about being a book coach is having the opportunity to read a wide variety of stories as they are being written by a wide variety of people. I don’t mean pale imitations of stories, thin as topsoil and generic as store brands. I mean specific stories, about individuals, each one with a unique perspective and voice that’s been shaped by years of experience.

During the early stages of a draft, a scene or even a whole manuscript may come across as generic and bland. That’s because the full story isn’t on the page yet. It’s overgeneralizing, showing how anyone (“Joe Average”) would be affected by what’s happening in the moment, as if the protagonist or narrator had no unique identity, no history, no worldview, no special concerns or goals.

A generic story falls flat because it oversimplifies human experience and leaves it up to readers to fill in the blanks. It presents characters as if they were merely a collection of stereotypical traits: resentful housewife, angsty teen, weird homeschooler, dirty or ignorant [insert label here]. That can lead to a dull story or, worse, it can alienate readers who may be offended by the stereotypes. Readers may add meanings you hadn’t intended to convey.

If the problem is that the writer doesn’t know their character well enough yet, I encourage them to work on developing their character’s backstory more fully. Try to figure out what makes that person think and act the way they do. If the problem is that the writer isn’t showing everything they know to the reader, we’ll work on fleshing out the details.

When a character’s thoughts and feelings aren’t fully on the page, readers are forced to make assumptions, jump to conclusions, rely on prejudices. That’s not good, especially if the character is, well, “complicated” (someone who has been misunderstood, or who appears to be racist or cruel, for example). To be able to relate to the characters in a story—and the real human beings in our lives—we need a little help seeing the world as the controversial character sees it. Otherwise we start putting people into boxes, where they don’t belong.

Diversity Unites

A few years ago, I read Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon. I was struck by his premise: diversity unites. He explains that parents of children who are “different” (autistic, deaf, Down syndrome, child prodigies, schizophrenic, transgender, transracial adoptees) tend to have in common the universal experience of how it feels to parent a child who is substantially different from you (and vice versa: how it feels to be the child of parents who are unlike you). Though these families couldn’t have been more different, on some level they were similar.

His book helped me to understand why, as an adoptee, I struggled to explain to my adoptive parents why being adopted wasn’t exactly the same as being born into a family. It also helped me to see how my own children, who weren’t adopted but were often asked by strangers if they were, experienced life in our small, ethnically monochromatic New England town differently than I did.

I’d worried my children might be subjected to racist attacks (my husband once having been told to “go back to China”), so I was relieved when they told me they’d rarely had to deal with people teasing or harassing them. The problem, they said, was having to feel so darn conspicuous all the time. They always stood out in a crowd while I, with my physical resemblance to all of our neighbors, blended in. I’d been oblivious to the effect that could have on a person, because I hadn’t been seeing things from their point of view.

While their father said he could relate to how that felt because he was in the same predicament, he couldn’t know exactly what it was like to be biracial. Our kids inherited their Japanese features from him, but when our eldest daughter visited Japan, she still stood out: as not-quite-Japanese. To be clear, it wasn’t just because she was an American, which is what people tend to assume. It was because she didn’t look Japanese to Japanese eyes, or at least not as Japanese as she looks to people in rural New Hampshire who always saw her as “Asian.”

As with any children who are different from their parents in a fundamental way, my children developed a worldview that was not just a combination of mine and my husband’s. They are the culmination of all their experiences, as we all are. And you may have noticed I’ve just set a bad example here, because I’ve been generalizing, too, grouping all three of my kids together as if they were one person, which of course isn’t right. Their racial make-up and hometown are insufficient—I haven’t shown you nearly enough to allow you to picture them as individuals. If I was writing a book about them, I’d have to do better.

Which brings me back to my point: specifics matter. I push writers to be specific because I want them to move away from stereotypes and reveal authentic human beings. A writer who can provide a glimpse of the world from a single, unique perspective has the power to elicit genuine empathy and understanding, one person at a time. I believe writers have an opportunity to open minds, open hearts, and perhaps even change the world for the better. My goal is to help them take full advantage of that opportunity.