Rebecca Scarberry, whom I got to know after she reviewed one of my stories for the Kindle Book Review, asked me to write about what it’s like to coach an aspiring writer who seems unsure of her talent.
Let’s dispense with the “aspiring” label first. If you write something, a complete document, you’re a writer. If you make it possible for anyone else to read it by publishing it on paper or on the Web, you’ve published. That’s all there is to it. (Getting paid for it is another story.)
Rebecca has called me her “writing coach” for a while now, and I was flattered about that. A few other writers have asked me for advice, and it’s still flattering. I’ve been happy to offer whatever help I could. (If some of the really terrible writers out there who managed to score big publishing contacts were to ask for advice, I’d feel vindicated. I’d also charge a lot of money for the service.)
Coaching a writer who lacks confidence is like being a coach or teacher of anything. I taught English at colleges and university in Canada for over 10 years, and I heard a lot of that lack of confidence: “I can’t write. I know the material, but I don’t know how to put it down on paper.”
Teaching is unteachingOne thing that any coach or teacher has to do first is to unteach some of the habits or assumptions that new students bring. You have to show kids how to hold the baseball properly, and how to swing their arm the right way to make the ball go farthest.
Last year, I took a white-water canoeing course with my son. The technique I had to unlearn was stiffening up and trying to hold perfectly still when the canoe began rocking in the swirling water. I had heard the lecture: move with the water, stay flexible. I learned that my response—grabbing the gunwales and trying to keep the canoe steady by keeping myself still inside it—was not just futile, but counter-productive. I had to respond to the movement of the river and the canoe, shift dynamically.
Many new writers pour all the back-story or context into the first chapter of their books. They tell us where their main character went to school, how they learned martial arts, what was their business or romantic experience.
The writer is trying to paint a portrait of the character so the reader understands why the character behaves in certain ways, or why he or she does the actions that move the story ahead.
The lesson: bring out the back-story bit by bit through the story. Use flashbacks and other techniques to show the readers why the characters do what they do. Get on with the story—get to the action, whatever the action is. I don’t mean necessarily blow up the bridge or kick the bad guy in the butt; it could be break up with a lover, or proposition another one, or even sit on the beach with a good book. Get to the story.Getting lostWhen it comes to fiction, the common complaint I hear is “I’m stuck. I just don’t know where to go with this story.”
A lot of writers can think of a great start to a story or novel or movie. But it’s much harder to think of a good ending to the story. Think of the numbers of movies you’ve seen and books you’ve read with a great premise, but a completely unsatisfying ending, like a cop-out so that the hero and heroine live happily ever after. Or gaping plot holes that leave you thinking “But how could she ride into the sunset with him when his wife is still waiting for her with a shotgun?”
Getting stuck in detailAnother problem is writers who put in way too much detail. Now, I don’t think we all have to follow Elmore Leonard’s rules, but we should know what they are. I like some description, and I like to write in ways that other writers have not already. But I have found that those two ideas sometimes lead me into writing 16 words to describe someone nodding “yes.” Assume that your readers are smart enough to understand that nodding means moving your head up and down.
Don’t tell me you can’t
You can write that story—if you know what the story is. Rebecca, for example, knows what the full story is for “Rag Doll.” She wrote an enthralling opening chapter, which she published as a short story, and summarized the rest of the novel. It’s a good story. Now she has to write it.
There’s no magic to writing fiction of any length. There is a lot of work, though. You have to figure out what the story is—not just the cool opening, but the ending and the path between the two extremes.
That’s always been the hardest lesson to impress on new writers of any kind: do the work. I’ve always found that once I have a good outline, the document, fiction or non-fiction, almost writes itself.
So what’s it like coaching writers who don’t have confidence? It’s like showing children that they can use good technique, and watching their faces when they see how far they actually can throw the ball.
blog: Written WordsScott Bury