5 Takeaways From Coaching Writers in 2020
Do you ever wish you could peek inside of another person's writing life?
In today's podcast episode and blog post, I thought it would be fun to share some of the key takeaways I learned from coaching writers this year.
My hope is that you'll be able to reap some of the benefits from these 'a-ha' moments so that you can move forward with your writing in the most efficient way possible. Let's dive in!
5 Takeaways From Coaching Writers This Year
#1. It’s entirely possible to write the first draft of a novel in 90 days IF you do the hard work of outlining and pressure testing your story first.
Earlier this year, I worked with a writer who told me she was going to have a three-month break from work and that she wanted to focus on writing the first draft of her novel during her three-month break.
At first, I tried to talk her out of doing this -- and by that, I mean I tried to explain that it’s really, really hard to write an entire draft in three months.
But she was super committed to making it happen so, I told her that the only way it would be possible is if we started planning and pressure testing her story NOW. That way, she could hit the ground running (or writing) on day one of her break from work.
Luckily, she agreed, and we started planning about a month before her break officially started. So, we focused on things like her protagonist’s arc of change, determining her global genre, creating a scene-by-scene outline, and things like that.
Then, we spent about A MONTH fine-tuning everything -- so, we drilled even further down into her character’s arc and made sure we could see the change in her scene-by-scene outline from beginning to end.
From there, we drilled down into each scene on her outline to make sure that her protagonist had a goal in each scene and that we more or less knew what was going to happen in each scene. We also looked at the outline and made sure that each act, or each section of her story, was doing its job from a structural standpoint, too.
And don't get me wrong, it was HARD WORK!
But by the end of that first month, we were both confident about her story’s foundation. She had a fully fleshed-out protagonist, a theme to write toward, and a solid scene-by-scene roadmap to follow.
When day one of her break from work started, she was able to hit the ground running. Every day, she was able to sit down at her desk and she knew exactly what she needed to write and she knew exactly how her character was feeling in each scene because she’d done the hard work to get to know her protagonist upfront.
The other thing she had to do was show up and actually write about 6,000 words per week in order to have a first draft done in three months. So, it wasn’t just the hard work of planning and pressure testing her outline, it was also about showing up every single day and executing on her plan.
Long story short, she did end up writing a full first draft in 90-days. And the best part is that her draft read more like a second or third draft because she did the hard work of planning and pressure testing her story upfront.
So, the key takeaway here is that it IS possible to write the first draft of a novel in 90 days IF you do the hard work of planning your story upfront. And not just planning or outlining your story, but pressure testing your idea and your outline to make sure you’ve addressed any plot holes, properly fleshed out your character’s arc, and hit the key structural moments a story needs in order to work.
#2. It’s okay to start with the plot of your story, or the external stuff that happens, AS LONG AS you have some idea of your character’s internal arc.
I worked with a handful of writers this year who had a really hard time managing both the external and the internal pieces of their stories at the same time.
And what I mean by this is that some writers see plot events really easily.
So, they’ll know what their character has to do, who they have to see, where they have to go, etc. But it’s not easy for them to figure out how their character’s arc plays into these external plot events.
In this scenario, they only focus on the external stuff and their draft ends up being just that -- a draft full of stuff that happens and it has no meaning.
Other writers have an easier time seeing the internal thread of their story.
So, they know their character quite intimately and they know what kind of change arc they want to show in their story but they don’t know how to build out the external plot events.
In this scenario, they focus on the internal thoughts and feelings of their character, and their draft ends up reading like a manifesto in which nothing actually happens.
(If you can relate to either of these scenarios, I hope you realize that you’re not alone and that falling into either one of these camps is actually quite common!)
Now, let me tell you about a writer I worked with this year who was in the first camp. She could see the plot events that needed to happen in her story but wasn’t quite sure how the internal stuff would layer on just yet.
So, in order for her to feel like she had the freedom to focus on the external plot events while drafting, and to really get the external structure of her scenes nailed down, we still needed to have some idea of how her character would grow and change.
Once we knew how her character would grow and change, it was easier for her to focus on the external plot events of the story. And that's because she knew her character intimately, and she understood how her character would react to the events of the plot even if the 'internal stuff' wasn't 100% on the page yet.
If you can relate, if you have a hard time laying down both the external plot and your character’s internal arc at the same time, don’t worry.
What I want you to do is have a sense of your character’s internal arc before you start laying down the external.
So, how will your protagonist change as a result of the plot events? How will they start the story? And how will they have changed by the end? Once you know what their arc will look like, you can start building out each of your scenes with their arc in mind.
The key takeaway here is that you do want to have both the external and the internal threads of your story in mind before you start writing, but you don’t have to put 100% pressure on yourself to get both the external and the internal 'stuff' on the page at the same time.
If you can get both on the page in your first draft, that’s great, but sometimes it’s just not doable. I’d rather see you finish a draft than get stuck writing the same scenes over and over and over to achieve the ideal balance between external and internal.
#3. If you can learn how to write a scene that works, it's going to be MUCH easier to write a story that works.
Nearly every single writer I worked with this year said that the main thing that changed their writing life, or the main thing that enabled them to finish their first draft, was learning how to write a scene that works.
As you may know, I’m a Certified Story Grid Editor and I really love the scene structuring method that Shawn Coyne calls the ‘5 Commandments of Storytelling.’ If you'd like to read more about these '5 Commandments,' check out this article on the Story Grid website. I will also quickly go over them here.
In each scene, your character needs to have some kind of goal.
If you’ve done the work to flesh out your characters, you know there’s an overarching story goal that your protagonist wants to achieve or accomplish.
In each scene, your character should be taking one step closer to accomplishing this big picture story goal (though they may not be successful with every step).
So, as I said, we start with a goal, and then those ‘5 Commandments’ come into play. Here's a quick overview of each commandment:
- Inciting Incident - Or something unexpected that happens in the scene. So, your character had a goal, they expected things to unfold one way, but they don’t go 100% according to plan.
- Turning Point - Or the moment of highest conflict when the character realizes they can no longer go after their scene goal as planned. So, they either have to completely abandon their plan for accomplishing their scene goal or come up with a slightly different plan for accomplishing their scene goal.
- Crisis - Or a choice between two things. So, will your character do X or will they do Y?
- Climax - Or the moment in which your character acts on their decision. So, did they do X or did they do Y? What did they lose or gain either way?
- Resolution - Or a glimpse at how your character’s decision worked out for him or her. So, how do they feel now and what are they planning to do next?
The key takeaway here is that if you can learn to write a well-structured scene that works, it will be much easier to write a full draft of a story that works.
And that’s because each scene is essentially a mini-story in itself.
So, if you can nail the structure of a scene, and create a nice arc of change within a scene, it’s easier to do that on the global story level as well.
#4. It’s okay if your first draft (or even your second, or third) isn’t perfect.
Perfectionism is really tough. It impacted almost every writer I worked with this year and it’s something that affects me in my own writing, too.
I hear from writers all the time who say they’ve written many, many versions of their first scene and never make progress toward a finished draft.
Now, some of this is probably due to lack of planning, or lack of understanding of what it takes to write a full scene, but I’d say at least 95% of what stopped these writers was the sense that their writing just wasn’t good enough.
And as a book coach, this makes me super sad because a) I know how it feels myself, and b) I know that if you can just get to the end of a draft, you’ll know so much more about your story and, as a result, the process gets easier and easier.
(If you find yourself in this situation, go check out my workshop that walks you through the key elements your opening pages need to have in order to hook readers and pull them into the rest of the story. This workshop was designed to give you the tools you need to push past perfectionism so that you can finally make progress toward a finished draft.)
One of the writers I worked with this year was having a hard time getting into the head of her characters. And one day we were talking about why she thought she was having such a hard time and she said, “Well, what if I do and it just sounds stupid? Like, what if I put my character’s thoughts and feelings on the page and they sound cheesy or like I’m trying too hard?”
So, I said, okay, well, what if that does happen? What’s the worst-case scenario? And then we both laughed about it because she realized that in reality, nothing would really happen. She would see whatever she wrote, I would see whatever she wrote, and then we’d work together to make it better if needed.
So, luckily for her, this realization was all it took for her to push past those feelings of wanting everything to be perfect. She was able to get into the head of her main character, and she finally got the 'The End' of her draft.
The key takeaway here is that sometimes you have to get out of your own way.
And sometimes you have to be okay with being uncomfortable.
What I mean by that is if you write something that’s not perfect, sure, that’s uncomfortable. Trust me, I know that feeling first hand.
But guess what?
You can survive being uncomfortable. You can be uncomfortable and still finish a draft. And then, when you’re done, you can work on making it better.
Feel free to steal this mantra: "Progress, not perfection."
#5. Your second draft is where the magic happens!
One of the writers I worked with this year got all the way to ‘The End’ of a draft and was so excited to get started on revisions. But when she went back and looked at the beginning of her story, she thought it was terrible.
Now, a bit of backstory here -- I encouraged this writer to push through the beginning of her story because I knew she would uncover more about her story and her characters if she kept writing.
And sure enough, in the middle of her draft, she had a brilliant idea that made the story ten times more awesome!
But instead of going back all the way to page one, we implemented this new idea into the back half of her draft so that we could write forward to the new climax of the story.
So, when she went back to look at the first half of her draft, of course, it wasn't as good or as interesting as the back half of her draft -- we didn't go back and change anything after she had her brilliant idea!
(And the reason I’m telling you this is because IT’S COMPLETELY NORMAL if this happens to you!)
So, what ended up happening is that she went back through and updated the first half to include the changes that already existed in the back half. And then when she went back to read through it, she was completely in love with her story again.
The key takeaway here is that if you don’t get to the end of a first draft, you’ll never see all the amazing ideas that come up as you write.
Revision is where the magic happens.
Just get the first draft done and then work on making it better.
If you spend too much time going back and revising, you’ll never get to those aha moments of the gold that comes from writing forward.
So, those are the five biggest takeaways I got from coaching writers this year.
My hope is that you can see yourself in some of the examples I shared and that maybe you’ll realize you’re not alone in some of your struggles.
Beyond that, I hope you can reap the benefit of these lessons, too, so that you can keep moving forward with your work in the most efficient way possible. Happy writing!