How to work with a writing coach

This week I had the privilege of working on my novel with Cathy Yardley of

Cathy is a novelist and writing coach who offers Plot Brainstorming sessions.

I turned to Cathy for some coaching, because whenever I start something new, I always think of this Donald Rumsfeld quote:

There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know . . . . it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

No matter how many books and articles I read, there is no way I’m going to know everything about planning my book.

Working on my own, I’m always going to miss problems, holes and mistakes lurking under the surface.

So I jumped at the chance to get on the phone with Cathy and let her rip my story apart, so we could put it back together again in the right way.

Of course, whenever someone critiques your storytelling, certain emotions are going to come up.

The Critique: From the Ridiculous to the Sublime

At first, I felt embarrassed.

My story has wizards and assassins and castles and kings. Telling Cathy about my story was the first time I had said the whole thing out loud, and honestly, it felt ridiculous.

I kept thinking, “Oh, this is so cliché!” and “Dear god, she’s probably regretting getting on the phone to hear this drivel.” I had to push through that inner resistance.

Then I felt defensive.

Some of the characters and twists in my story were things that I liked. I didn’t want to give them up.

But I listened to her reasoning, and in all but one instance, she talked me into seeing her side of things.

Then I felt relieved.

At the end of session, Cathy said I had a strong story, and that it was ready to start being written.

Now, I know on a logical level that I’m allowed to sit down and start writing fiction whenever I damn well please. But having a professional give me permission to get started was very motivating.

As we moved through the session, she walked me through my characters, noting strengths and weaknesses in my inciting incident, plot points, the final “black moment,” and the resolution.

As with any good coach, she didn’t necessarily tell me any new information, so much as help me recognize problems and important elements that I was missing.

Working with a Writing Coach: The Positives

There are so many things to keep straight when writing a novel, that it’s easy to miss important factors.

Here are the biggest takeaways I gained from the session:

1. My main character has to grow and evolve throughout the course of the story.

I’ve read about this idea. But it wasn’t until Cathy asked, “How will your character have changed, grown or fallen by the end of the story?” and I heard myself answer “I don’t know,” that I realized I’d totally missed that important development.

Cathy walked me back through the entire story arc for my character, and helped me identify places he could grow and learn.

2. My middle was sloppy.

I needed two characters to end up in a certain place at a certain time, and had solved that problem in a very forced, contrived way — three kidnappings and two escapes, all in a row.

Cathy help me straighten this out, making that part of the story more interesting and exciting.

3. I was starting too slowly.

I was waiting to bring in my “inciting incident,” which starts my character’s quest, until seven scenes into the book.


Here’s the thing: You may read the above list and say, “Well yeah, of course.”

But I’d bet good money that you have similar problems happening in your book — the unknowns that are unknown to you.

I’ve learned, whether it’s working on your car, starting a business, writing a book or marketing one, that there will always be obvious things you are missing and need to know about.

And the fastest, most direct way to find your weak spots is to work with a professional who has done it a thousand times and can easily point them out.

Working with a Writing Coach: A Few Tips

At the end of the session, I asked Cathy to rate how I well I’d done as a client, on a scale of 1 to 10.

She gave me a 7.5. So of course, I asked for tips on how best to work with a writing coach.

Here’s the list we put together:

1. Prepare.

Most writing coaches are going to give you a few tasks to do ahead of your session. Do that homework.

I showed up with my characters and plot in place. This allowed us to immediately get to work, instead of sorting out the foundational details of who, when and where.

This will save you time and your coach frustration.

2. Kill your ego.

Any good writing coach is going to make you kill your darlings.

It’s not just a question of changing or deleting things that we like about our story. It’s admitting that some of our basic beliefs and assumptions about writing are wrong as well.

That’s not fun. However, keep the goal – writing a great story that readers love – constantly in sight, and sacrifice your pride on that altar.

3. Argue, but not too much.

Cathy told me “Be open to suggestions, but know your deal breakers before you start.”

On four or five points, I pushed back against Cathy’s suggestion. She won on all but one of them.

Pushing back isn’t a problem to a good coach, because it gave her a chance to explain why she was suggesting the change. That gave me a solid understanding of that point so I wouldn’t have to make that mistake again.

It’s OK to push back for the sake of discussion and clarity. However, don’t be a jerk.

When I wrote the second draft of Your First 1000 Copies, I had a good friend read it. We then got on the phone and she started giving me notes on things she thought needed to be changed.

I argued. A lot.

Not because she was wrong, but because I was mad that she was ripping apart my precious manuscript.

It was rude of me, and very counter-productive.

It’s OK to disagree with your writing coach, but fundamentally, you should trust them and take their advice.

When I wrote the first draft Your First 1000 Copies, I ended up throwing out over half of what I’d written. Then it took a lot of mental energy and procrastination before I started working on the second draft.

Looking back now, I could have saved myself a lot of frustration if I had worked with a writing coach before writing 20,000 unnecessary words.

It’s not a shameful act to admit we need help, especially when you’re starting something new. Get a coach and save yourself the headache and lost time of flailing alone.

Start getting those “unknown unknowns” out into the open.

If you’re interested in working with Cathy Yardley (whom I highly recommend) you can buy her book Rock Your Plot: A Simple System for Plotting Your Novel or schedule a plot coaching session of your own.

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