re you stuck on a manuscript that won’t let go of you? Are you deciding between starting a blog or writing an e-book? Should you spend time on that picture book idea you’ve had for months, while you’re working on your novel? A writing coach can help you answer these kinds of questions and more!
At the gym where I exercise three times a week, I hear personal trainers constantly chatting with clients about how to get the best results with their workout. People pay hundreds of dollars a month for this exercise advice to get fit more efficiently!
Writing coaches are less expensive and even more important (sometimes crucial!) than personal trainers. When you feel lost in your career, have trouble with a manuscript, or want to explore a new writing path, a writing coach can get you moving in the right direction with quicker results.
Alice B. McGinty and Christina Katz are two amazing writing coaches and successful authors who allowed me to pick their brains about what you could expect from a writing coach, what psychological issues they help writers face, and even ideas for becoming one, if you feel you’re being led in this direction.
Alice is the award-winning author of over forty books for children, including the 2013 picture book biography, Gandhi: A March To the Sea. Her picture book biography, Darwin, was named a 2010 Orbis Pictus Honor Book. Other publications include Eliza’s Kindergarten Pet, Thank You, World, and nonfiction books on subjects ranging from nutrition to tarantulas. She is also a writing teacher and coach, a children’s book reviewer for the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette,
and the co-regional advisor for the Illinois chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Find out more at http://www.alicebmcginty.com.
Christina is the author of The Writer’s Workout, Get Known Before the Book Deal, and Writer Mama. She also wrote Write For Regional Parenting Publications For Fun & Profit, Author Mama, and Discover Your Platform Potential.
She teaches writers to prosper by building solid, saleable, life-long career skills via classes and training groups that work even in a rapidly evolving publishing marketplace. Learn more at http://ChristinaKatz.com.
1.Alice and Christina, welcome to WOW! I’m so excited that writers will get to know about your role as a writing coach. I’ve learned from both of you personally, and now our readers will, too! How did you become a writing coach and why?
Alice: I’ve been teaching children’s book writing classes for many years through our local adult education department. About five years ago, one of my students asked me if she could hire me as a writing coach. I agreed to give it a try (I told her she’d be my “guinea pig,” but she didn’t seem to mind!). I enjoy being able to help other writers tell their stories and have been told that I’m good at pinpointing what needs to happen in a manuscript to improve it.
Christina: I specifically avoided the label of “writing coach” for years. The reason is because when I became a professional writer, “life coaches” were big. I wanted to avoid any association with that type of work. To my mind, a life coach was a counselor, and I wanted to be a serious writer, not a cheerleader. So for years, I strictly avoided the label. It was not until I wrote The Writer’s Workout—when I looked back on what was then over a decade of professional writing, teaching, and speaking—and realized that I’d become a writing coach despite my best efforts. But I made it clear, I hope, in the book that I believe the goal of working with any coach or coaching tool is to become your own best coach.
2.So, can you get certified as a writing coach or is this even necessary?
Alice: I haven’t gotten certified and don’t know of coaching certification programs. I think that years of experience in writing, revising, going to workshops, being critiqued by experts and peers, giving critiques, and reading book after book after book all add up to the best experience.
Christina: I am not sure that people should try to become coaches. I’d rather see people be the coaches they already are, if this type of work is appropriate for them. Every writer has a unique dynamic to bring to the world. If “coach” is part of yours, go for it. No training necessary. Just find your own unique way to express that desire that is win-win-win for you, others, and the world.
3.Where do you find your clients, and how do you decide whom to work with?
Alice: Many of my clients are former students from my classes and others have come to me through word of mouth or because of conference presentations I’ve done.
I take on clients for whom I feel I would be helpful. I don’t feel I am the best coach for someone writing YA fantasy, for example, as this is not a genre in which I write. I tend to work most often with picture book writers—those writing fiction and nonfiction (especially biography)—and I have some clients who are doing middle-grade novels as well.
Christina: I focus on creating quality work—books, e-books, classes, training groups, writing challenges, and more—as a way to attract students who want to work with me based on my track record. I have a lot of returning students, who refer folks to me. I also have a big online presence as a result of touring and networking online consistently for many years. I also support writers in numerous ways that are free, but I suspect that my serious students are pulled in by my serious work. What you put into the world resonates out and reaches the people it’s meant to reach. So I don’t go looking for students, I just put the word out about what I’m doing, and they come looking for me.
“My mission is to empower writers to think and act like creative professionals.” ~ Christina Katz
4.As a writing coach, what do you do for authors that’s different than a freelance editor?
Alice: I begin with a focus on big picture changes—to help clients find their stories and hone in on such things as character, structure, tension, and arc. This means that I view a manuscript as a work in progress that should be shaped and developed looking at that big picture before we get into the finer points of editing.
Unlike a freelance editor might do, I try to use manuscripts as teaching tools for my clients. I teach as I coach by pointing out things in a manuscript, which illustrate the need for growth in major concepts, such as crafting a narrative arc or showing vs. telling. I also love to find examples of things that clients have done well and teach using positive reinforcement and feedback.
Christina: I would say that my work is almost nothing like a freelance editor, although I do edit some work that is generated in my classes. My mission is to empower writers to think and act like creative professionals. So I am a writing career mentor, not a person who midwives works in progress. One person works on the writer and other focuses on creating the best possible manuscript.
5.What are the toughest psychological problems that you feel your clients face?
Alice: I know how hard it is to be told that your manuscript still needs a lot of revision and that it’s not working as it is. Believe me, I’ve received that news many times from my critique group, editors, agent, and any number of other people! To me, that’s the toughest thing psychologically to deal with, and so I figure it is for my clients, too.
That’s why I use the “Oreo cookie” approach to critiquing, by pointing out the things that I like about the manuscript (I believe that knowing what works well in a piece is just as important as knowing what’s not working well), then posing the constructive criticism gently but clearly, and then finishing with specific suggestions for improvements.
Christina: I would say that the biggest challenge facing writers today isn’t psychological; I would say the biggest challenge is the complexity of both the professional journey and the world we are living in. Because we live in a world rife with distraction, the opportunity to abort any mission is available at every turn. I think I tend to focus on the solutions more than the challenges—that’s just a habit that I have developed from many years of coaching individuals who are in turn eager, gracious, and ambitious and also reluctant, anxious, and easily frustrated.
“I believe that every manuscript can be improved, and every writer can become a better writer.” ~ Alice B. McGinty
6.Tell us two issues that you have helped writers tackle and how you helped them.
Alice: I think I’ve had success with teaching writers how to write in scenes. I do this by pointing out areas in the manuscript where a client has been “telling” and working with the client to brainstorm ideas about how to “show” instead, and develop those areas into scenes. I emphasize including sensory details to make scenes jump to life.
Another issue I feel I have success with is in helping clients to craft narrative arc, especially in picture book biographies. I’ve studied and worked hard at this in my own work and can pick out problems and suggest solutions when I read a manuscript. I walk the client through the same questions I ask myself, such as honing in on the subject’s compelling belief and then questioning whether each event in the biography is caused by that compelling belief. Cause-effect relationship is the key.
Christina: I don’t so much solve issues, as I create contexts for writing career success. So if a writer brings issues into the process, there is basically nothing I can do for them. That’s really their choice. They are either going to learn, work, and grow—or invest their energy in other ways. I work hard—that’s the example I set—and my students pretty much follow suit. Writing careers are marathons, not sprints. So I would bring your goals to your mentors and get ready to work and then work some more, and check your issues at the door.
7.Are there any types of writers you can’t or won’t work with? Any problems you don’t feel you can solve?
Alice: When it comes to coaching and critiquing, I have what has been termed a “growth mindset” instead of a “fixed mindset.” That means I believe that every manuscript can be improved, and every writer can become a better writer. I try to provide the instruction and guide each writer toward dedicated effort to improve their stories and their craft. My process goes like this: After the client and I talk, the client e-mails or mails me his or her manuscript. I read it several times and do a written critique, with comments on the manuscript itself and an overall written summary with suggestions. Then I send (or e-mail) the manuscript and comments back to the client. After they’ve had a chance to look things over and think of any questions they have, we schedule a meeting, either in person or by phone or Skype. We talk about the comments and set goals for further work and progress.
As I mentioned before, I feel I am best as a coach for picture book writers, both fiction and nonfiction, but probably not the best choice for young adult or adult writers, so that’s the only criteria I have.
Christina: I am fairly confident that I can put any writer happily to work on their path, as long as writing is what they really want to do; and I offer the kind of training that is consistent with their goals. I also never forget about the folks who don’t have a lot of money or who can’t afford the highest priced offerings I put out there. I want to offer something for everyone, not just only for the people who have the most money. The people who work well with me are not the wealthiest, anyway. They are the most determined and hardworking.
And sure, there are certain types of writers I don’t work well with, like writers who put me on a pedestal or grant me magic powers. Or writers who want big results for little effort or one-time effort. There are negative Nellies, whiners, and people who manipulate instead of getting to work—and I have encountered my fair share over the years. Then there are those who are looking to piggyback on my success, and these types can be the worst because that’s not initially the face they show you. And finally, there are the quibblers. These are the folks who want to focus on what’s going wrong instead of what’s going well. I can’t make a writer want to work; but luckily, most of the writers I work with show up ready to work.
“Writing careers are marathons, not sprints.” ~ Christina Katz
8.How has your own success and/or struggles helped you to become a successful writing coach?
Alice: I know the pain and I know the common pitfalls, having been through it all myself! That gives me empathy and understanding for the psychological aspects of writing and revision, as well as a trained eye for the technical things. I think that can be a good combination as a writing coach.
I’ve also done—years ago—actual sports coaching for Special Olympics athletes, ROPES leadership training with teenagers, and coaching for a middle school Science Olympiad team, so I have experience in giving encouragement, guidance, and feedback in many areas.
Christina: I think you can probably tell from my responses to your questions that every single success and every single struggle has informed my work. I am a writer, an author, a publisher, a producer, and a writing career coach. So, everything I offer as a coach has been influenced by everything I have learned as a writer. And everything I have learned from working with hundreds of writers also informs my future. I try to get smarter as I go. I had a boss once upon a time who always said, “You have to be smarter than your sources.” I find this to be absolutely true in working with writers within a transitioning industry. There is no template. I’m constantly jumping into the fray and troubleshooting on the fly. That’s just part of what I do.
9.How many clients will you have at one time? Do you ever do coaching groups—putting writers together that share similar genres or problems?
Alice: This varies a lot, but I’ve never had more clients than I can handle! I’ve done teaching and tutoring in groups, but I’ve never done coaching in groups. I think the closest thing is a facilitated critique group, which I run from my home one night a week for a group of five to seven students. I enjoy my class, and I think they get lots out of it. The members vary from picture book writers to middle-grade writers.
Christina: I am always working with many students in many different ways at one time. I have a variety of tracks going on at one time. Some of my tracks last a month; some last six weeks; some last five months, etc. Amidst it all, I always keep an eye on the impact I’m making, my level of professional satisfaction, and on keeping my workload manageable. And if that sounds easy, it isn’t; but I guess I’m used to it.
But I think most people would be amazed at how much they can juggle. The most productive person is not usually the one who spends the most time staring out the window. The most productive person is always the person with the most to do, who is learning, stretching, and growing as they go.
10.Tell us your best success story with a coaching client!
Alice: One client came to me after she’d done multiple revisions and rewrites on a picture book biography. She was getting near misses with editors, and she felt that something wasn’t quite right with the manuscript. She was feeling very discouraged, not knowing what she could do to improve it. In doing the critique, I felt like I was really able to put my finger on the issue that was causing the problems. Fixing it would improve the narrative flow of the manuscript and the buildup of tension. My client was very excited about the critique and felt like I’d found the problem and given her good direction for making things right. Hopefully her revisions will put her over the edge, and she’ll get an acceptance soon!
Christina: One recent success is a mom writer who first came to work with me many years ago by sneaking one of my classes onto a credit card, so her husband would not know. She did some writing for traditional publication after that class and eventually found a niche blogging. She was so consistent with her blogging, writing, and networking that she built up enough confidence to the point where she decided to write a book proposal. I helped her do this and lots of other folks pitched in, too. She landed a very nice book deal. While she was waiting for her book to come out, she started publishing some e-books and selling them on her site. So now she is both traditionally published and self-published.
I think she is a great example of learn, grow, stay in your process, and enjoy the journey. There are no shortcuts; but if you can commit to your writing career for the long haul, you can often accomplish more than you might have imagined. And if you can let yourself enjoy the journey, then you win. That is the core of what I teach, and it seems to work.
After reading what Alice and Christina have to say, you may be ready to work with one of them or another writing coach you know—to get your writing career and projects in shape. Or maybe you’re thinking, Hey, I’m already helping and inspiring every person in my critique group. Maybe I could be a writing coach, too. Whatever you decide, remember this: when you’re writing, you’re exercising that brain of yours, so coaching may help you succeed even more than you already are.
Margo L. Dill is the author of Finding My Place: One Girl's Strength at Vicksburg, a middle-grade historical fiction novel set during the U. S. Civil War. She is also a freelance writer, editor, speaker, and teacher, living in St. Louis, Missouri. Her work has appeared in publications such as Grit, Pockets, True Love, Fun for Kidz, Missouri Life, ByLine Magazine, and The Chicago Tribune. She is a columnist, instructor, and contributing editor for WOW! Women On Writing. She is the memoir editor at High Hill Press and the assistant editor for the Sunday Books page in The News-Gazette.
High Hill Press will publish her children’s picture book, Lucy and the Red Ribbon Week Adventure, and she will also have a picture book out from Guardian Angel Publishingin the next couple years. She writes a blog called, Read These Books and Use Them, for parents, teachers, and librarians. She owns her own copyediting business, Editor 911. She loves speaking to writing groups, teachers, and young writers and has presented several workshops to all ages. When she's not writing or speaking, she loves spending time with her husband, stepson, daughter, and dog—Chester, a boxer. You can find out more about Margo by visiting her website: www.margodill.com.
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