This piece is the third in a series – and just a warning: it’s a long post. It will probably take you about 15 minutes to read, and there is a second part coming next week.
If you have a writing process that is working for you, none of this advice applies. If you are feeling satisfied and on track with your writing life, and making the progress you want to make, and achieving your goals and feeling good – I salute you and urge you to keep doing what you are doing. After all, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! I am, instead, speaking here to writers whose DIY efforts are not paying off – who have a nagging sense that they are stuck, or spinning their wheels, or going backwards -- and who may be looking for another way forward.
In last week’s post, A Brief History of Book Coaching (link directly above), I talked about the emergence of book coaching as the publishing industry has changed, and before that, in the Making the Unconscious Conscious post, I discussed the general benefit of coaching – of having a mentor, advisor, or guide to help you learn and grow while mastering a complex undertaking. Inherent in both these posts is the idea that trying to DIY a book is a risky undertaking – which is the idea I want to dig into today.
This stance – that there are dangers in trying to DIY a book – is going to make some people upset. I am thinking here of the five most common objections I hear about book coaching. I’m going to go through them one at a time:
Objection #1: “You’re a book coach who sells book coaching services so of course you’re going to say that people shouldn’t DIY their book. You’re just trying to take people’s money.”
I hear this a lot, sometimes stated with incredible vitriol. My answer is that YES I run a book coaching business and I am ABSOLUTELY trying to make money. I am not, in fact, doing this work out of the goodness of my heart. I am working every day to build a sustainable company that offers a service that is so valuable, writers are happy to pay for it. If we can’t delight writers and have a deep impact on their work and help them reach their goals, we have no business being in business.
I have a fierce belief that helping writers bring their ideas into the world matters. Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you,” and a lot of people suffer from this particular agony. They want to raise their voice, rise above the noise, stake their claim. Whether they are writing a “light” middle-grade fantasy or an epic sci fi thriller, a how-to book for empowering women executives or a cookbook for vegetarians, somewhere deep inside them in a person who just wants to be heard. They want someone to understand their idea or their vision and say, “I GET that, and I LOVE that and I NEED that.”
I honestly believe that helping writers stop talking about writing their books and actually write them can lift them up, and lift up their readers. Imagine if more people felt heard!
I am in the middle of reading Phil Knight’s memoir Shoe Dog – he’s the guy who created Nike – and I am finding it incredibly inspiring, mostly because it turns out that Knight really believes in shoes. In the early days of his company – during the era of Nixon and the Vietnam War – fitness was a not embraced in America the way it is now, and Knight believed that running could make everything better. It made his own life better – the striving, the solitude, the high from moving your body the way it was meant to move – and he wanted everyone to have that same opportunity. Making better shoes and selling them to more people was totally about making money, but the whole thing was built on Knight’s core-level passion. I love that one of the most massive global brands began with that kind of belief. We could talk all day about problems that arise from such a brand – issues of the use of natural resources, income inequality – but let’s not.
Let’s just stick with the idea that someone who is making money building a company based on a particular mission may in fact actually believe in that thing.
I believe in helping writers raise their voices, and I believe that they best way for them to do it is under the guidance of a book coach. No one actually needed to wear a Nike shoe back in the day to run a couple miles through their neighborhood, or to participate in a Thanksgiving-day 5K run. They could have worn a pair of Adidas shoes, or a no-name athletic shoe, or gone barefoot. But if buying a pair of Nikes was the thing that inspired them to get outside and run, to believe they were capable of it, to actually make it happen? Totally worth the investment.
Investing in book coaching takes more of a leap of faith than buying a pair of shoes, but the principle is the same. We put our money into the products, services, and business we value. If you value the idea you have for a story, or the idea you have for a book that can teach, inform and inspire a reader – if you value your voice – why wouldn’t you invest in a professional guide to help you make your dream come true?
Objection #2: “Great and beloved works were written by writers working alone! Think of Jane Austen! Think of Dickens! Think of JK Rowling on the train and in the café toiling away in glorious solitude!”
People come at me all the time with this argument. The writers change, but the concept is the same: Brilliant writers don’t need no stinkin’ help. Genius happens in isolation! Great writing comes like a flash of lightning from God! Leave me alone and let me just write my flippin’ book and one day when my brilliance is unleashed on the world, you’ll see what I mean!
Okay, so yes, let’s acknowledge that some genius writers do in fact produce amazing work in total isolation, just as some genius writers produce amazing work in six frenzied weeks or without ever revising or because it all came to them perfectly whole in a dream and all they had to do was dictate it onto the page. But for the vast majority – by which I am going to guess 99.99% -- these miracles of creation never happen, but instead people toil away for many years, with the help of many shepherds, guides, writing partners, editors, coaches, and friends, until they finish and publish a book.
They toil away – that’s the point, and that’s the problem. Part of your brain wants to skip the toil part. You want to skip the hard work and the pain and the doubt and the suffering and just get right to the part where your work is unleashed to wild acclaim and an adoring audience and a movie deal.
I get the dream. I mean, I really get it. I want it, too. I have spent more years than I would like to admit believing in my heart that I am in the .01% and that it was just a matter of writing one more book until the rest of the world knew it too. I am 53 years old. I’ve written 8 books, and many thousands of words in blog posts and course curriculum and I finally get that I am not, in fact, part of the .01%. I finally see that success comes from simply doing the work. And that is why I believe book coaching works. We help you do the work. We help you shake off the myth of genius, and do the work, deadline after deadline.
My guru and guide in this idea is the great choreographer Twyla Tharp, whose book The Creative Habit has done more to inform my thinking and make me who I am as a writer, a book coach, and an entrepreneur than any other. Here is what she says in the introduction:
“I will keep stressing the point about creativity being augmented by routine and habit. Get used to it. In these pages a philosophical tug of war will periodically rear its head. It is the perennial debate, born in the Romantic era, between the beliefs that all creative acts are born of (a) some transcendent, inexplicable Dionysian act of inspiration, a kiss from God on your brow that allows you to give the world The Magic Flute, or (b) hard work. If it isn’t obvious already, I come down on the side of hard work. That’s why this book is call The Creative Habit. Creativity is a habit, and the best creativity is a result of good work habits. That’s it in a nutshell.”
Tharp also has a powerful answer to the But what about ____________ [fill in genius here]? objection. Here she is refuting the greatest of all “struck by lightning” myths:
“Nobody worked harder than Mozart. By the time he was twenty-eight years old, his hands were deformed because of all the hours he had spent practicing, performing, and gripping a quill pen to compose. That’s the missing element in the popular portrait of Mozart. Certainly, he had a gift that set him apart from others. He was the most complete musician imaginable, one who wrote for all instruments in all combinations, and no one has written greater music for the human voice. Still, few people, even those hugely gifted, are capable of the application and focus that Mozart displayed throughout his short life. As Mozart himself wrote to a friend, “People err who think my art comes easily to me. I assure you, dear friend, nobody has devoted so much time and thought to composition as I. There is not a famous master whose music I have not industriously studied through many times.” Mozart’s focus was fierce; it had to be for him to deliver the music he did in his relatively short life, under the conditions he endured, writing in coaches and delivering scores just before curtain went up, dealing with the distractions of raising a family and the constant need for money. Whatever scope and grandeur you attach to Mozart’s musical gift, his so-called genius, his discipline and work ethic were its equal.”
I hope we can agree to abandon the idea that genius is what drives the creation of most books, and I hope that allows us to also give up on the “creativity happens in isolation” myth, too – which was supposed to be part of this second objection, but is going to bleed into the third one, too.
Objection #3: “A book coach or editor is going to mess with my vision and my voice and I have to protect it.”
This is a corollary of the genius myth – the idea that real writers don’t need help, and that help, in fact, is risky. This objection often shows up as a writer asking if they should copyright their idea (before they have even written a word), or worrying about pitching a book idea to an agent because they fear that someone will steal it. These writers lock their ideas away like they are precious jewels, but guess what? Artists and writers steal ideas every second. Read Austen Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist for a super entertaining exploration of this concept.
You are not selling anyone your idea. As Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, says: “The market rewards execution, not ideas.”
Or if you prefer this truth delivered in a slightly more literary way, here’s what Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, the author of the A Series of Unfortunate Events books), says: “It is never the idea and always the way it is told.”
This fear of external input also shows up in writers asking professionals like me if their idea is “worth pursuing.” The asker of this question is focusing only on the end-product and not on the process of creativity.
You can’t even TALK about “worth” unless you MAKE the thing. There are absolutely no guarantees unless you make the thing and put it in front of readers. As the novelist John Cheever said, “I can’t write without a reader. It’s precisely like a kiss—you can’t do it alone.”
A book only works if it impacts a reader. In order to write well, you therefore need to think about your reader and who she is and what she needs and what would delight her. It’s very, very difficult to do this in isolation because we are all stuck in our own minds. That’s the human condition. And that’s exactly why we love books – because they give us a chance to get into someone else’s head for a minute to see what it’s like in there.
If a book is seen in this way – as a invitation to a reader to look out from a different perspective – you can see why it makes perfect, logical sense to bring other people into the creative process at key points along the way so that you can see if you writing in a way that makes room for the reader, invites them in, and engages them.
That is exactly what a book coach or an editor does. They are not out to change your voice or co-opt your story or make it their own or ruin your mojo. They are there to be a mirror, to reflect back to you what you are doing so you can see if you are doing it effectively, and to the best of your ability. They are there to help you write the best book you can.
Take a look at almost any acknowledgments page in almost any book on your bookshelf. You will see a long list of people who helped the writer – who gave them places to write, or money to support them while they wrote, or read drafts, or batted around ideas, or cleaned up prose, or pushed them to keep going when they thought they should quit. I can guarantee you that every one of those people listed “messed” with that writer’s vision in some profound way. They listened to the writer explain what they were trying to do and they reacted to it. Many of them were down in the weeds in the words and the pages and the chapter, getting their hands dirty to help that writer bring their vision to life.
Writers almost universally adore their coaches and their editors and their copy editors and their proofreaders and their writing partners, because having someone pay close attention to your work is validating, comforting, and powerful. I had the great privilege of publishing six books with Big 5 publishers and I adored being edited by smart, savvy, compassionate women who somehow knew far better than I did what I was really writing about.
This quote from Kelly Barnhill, recent winner of the Newbery Award for The Girl Who Drank the Moon, captures the joy of being edited in beautiful detail:
“I sat down, over months and months, and wrote a story. Then I erased that story and recomposed it from memory. Then I erased itagain, and recomposed it again. The story lived in my eyes and my fingers. It lived in my messy hair and my wool socks and my fuzzy slippers. It lived on my skin. It lived in my mouth. It lived in my ears. And then I sold it to a publisher, and the publisher said, “I love it! Let’s change everything!” And so I did. It’s called the editorial process, and it is a magic thing. Editors are people who have eyes made of titanium and tongues made of steel. Their hearts are carefully built of the most delicate and complicated clockwork gears in the world. They never sleep. They never eat. They are fed on starlight and birdsong and the dreams of children. And they are almost always right. So I changed lots of things and rewrote lots of things and the story I wrote became the story it could be, and that has made all the difference.”
Objection #4: “I don’t need professional guidance. I have an awesome writing group.”
Maybe your writing group is, in fact, awesome – but I would urge you to consider how, exactly, is it awesome. Is it offering you a chance to talk about writing and writers, and to get encouragement for your efforts, and to share the trials and tribulations of the creative journey? Does it give you access to fresh baked goodies and wine and a chance to be among people you consider to be your people? Are your writer friends some of your best friends? These are really excellent reasons to get together in community to support each other’s work – an activity I highly endorse -- but even if you have all this, you may want to analyze whether or not writing group is helping you become a better writer. They may, in fact, be keeping you from reaching that goal.
I know this because I see the end-result of dysfunctional writing groups every day – manuscripts that writers claim their writing groups just loved, but that are riddled with glaring errors and fatal flaws.
I wrote several posts about the hidden dangers of writing groups, which you can read HERE at Jane Friedman’s blog and HERE so I won't go into this now.
The point, in a nutshell, is that your writing group friends can offer you support and community and inspiration, and they can react to your work and give their opinions on it, but they are not usually trained to analyze WHY it’s not working nor to give you assistance in improving your skills and developing a sustained narrative. A professional is.
Objection #5: “All my friends think of me as `the writer’ and if I get help, it means I’m admitting that I’m a fraud and that will shake my identity to the core.”
Okay, this is not an objection that anyone voices out loud, but it’s one that is there, all the same, running under everything like a riptide. A lot of people who are now working on writing books were excellent students in college, or they are currently paid to write for their job – i.e. they are a lawyer, a communications pro, a PR expert, an English teacher, a popular blogger -- so it makes sense that they think of themselves as a writer. They are probably passionate readers and leaders of their book clubs. They are probably the person who friends turn to for help on grammar, or on a college application essay for their kid, or the brochure copy for a new business venture. But strong writing skills don’t always translate directly to writing a sustained narrative that holds a readers’ attention.
I have been digging into this concept of shame and vulnerability in asking for help. I have, in fact, been seeking out writers who chose not to work with me, or who had a lot of objections to working with me before we started, and some of these people have bravely shared with me details about this particular objection. Here is a typical response from a writer who has been working with me for a couple months:
“I felt a lot of shame around asking for help because I think I do pretty well on the technical details of writing (I'm kind of a grammar snob) and other people often told me I was good at writing. I felt like I was good at writing, and I felt like seeking help was admitting that none of that stuff was actually true about me.I think it might be true for a lot of people - that they are known as `the writer' in front of their friends, their family, whoever they tell about their work, and admitting that they are seeking help might make them feel like they were `cheating’ by not going it alone. This is what held me back from asking for help many, many times. But now I see that there were things about my story that I DID NOT UNDERSTAND and could not understand because of what I was never taught. You helped me understand those things and what my story lacked and where it was failing.”
In Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, Brene Brown speaks directly to this fear -- which it turns out that many millions of people, especially women, seem to feel, because Brown became world famous for showing people that vulnerability was not, in fact, a weakness. She says this:
“Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.”
And she also says this:
“Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.”
Asking for help is a primary way we let ourselves and our hopes and dreams be seen – and so is writing a book.
Now that we understand the objections to working with a book coach, we can better understand the dangers of trying to DIY your book. I intended to do that here but this post went on way too long, so I’ll discuss those in my blog next Friday, and then after that, I’ll talk about how to decide whom to trust if you decide you want to try a professional guide for your writing life.