Last time I checked in on my writing journey, I had just emailed my book manuscript to my writing coach, Mary Carroll Moore. I waited in anxious anticipation while she took a month to read it, think about it, reread it and send me her initial report. In addition to feedback on my manuscript, she provided an in-depth description of the process she used to evaluate my work, and laid out a plan for working together. While it was overwhelming, I was certain I had chosen the right coach.
Now, seven months later, I have come out the other side of that experience. After dedicating myself to the writing process for the duration of my coaching, followed by some time to reflect, I thought it was high time to report back on what it was like.
I will readily admit that the coaching process was not at all what I expected. I naively assumed it meant working through my manuscript. Tweaking my writing. Developing its flow. Working the chapters into it into a cohesive structure. We worked on all that, but not via my words. Instead, it involved carefully devised assignments that led me to take a step back to look at the content as a whole, then tear it down into small modules, scenes. Work on those, then reshape them into the chapters. Pay attention to the reader’s perspective, not the writer’s. Finally, rebuild it back into an overall structure. All of this took place within a list of my chapters, not the manuscript itself. For me, that systematic approach perfectly suited my analytic nature.
Logistically, this occurred through eight sessions conducted entirely by email. For each check-in I sent in my assigned work. I also kept a running tab of questions and observations as I worked and included that as well. Mary emailed back a wealth of comments and answers, followed by background materials and instructions for the next assignment. Several emails usually flowed, as I reviewed the feedback and asked clarifying questions. Then I was off on my own until the next check-in. In her original set of instructions and guidelines, she strongly encouraged holding off on emails in between. Chances were, I would solve any problems on my own and learn from the process, she said. And she was right.
I started out thinking 2 weeks per assignment would be plenty. But the further in I got, the more time I wanted. I was eager to accomplish as much as possible, and to make the most of Mary’s tutelage. Each assignment was comprised of a number of different tasks. She readily admitted to assigning more than could be accomplished in the time allotted, allowing me to choose which pieces I wanted to tackle. I couldn’t helpful myself from trying complete it all. In the end, the process stretched out over 5 1/2 months, thanks to Mary’s willingness to be flexible and extend the time between check-ins as much as possible within her schedule.
Early on, Mary had me doing a lot of freewriting. As this book is a memoir, she gave me writing prompts which provided me with an inventory of thoughts, ideas, influences, experiences, and life shaping moments that might ultimately find a home in my manuscript. She also asked me to read as many books as I could find written by touring cyclists, since that’s the nature of my book. I quickly found the value in that, sizing up what made them boring, compelling, repetitive, well crafted. And especially, what made me really care about the cyclists.
Not until assignment 5 did I begin sending in chapter rewrites for editing. By then, I finally felt ready to build on all my new knowledge and try out the techniques I was learning. They came back with a warning that she made “extensive suggestions.” I welcomed the honest feedback and heavy hand – those have become treasured examples. I continue to look back on them as I rewrite other chapters, taking her edits to heart and trying my best not to repeat the same mistakes.
Throughout, Mary was supportive and encouraging. And I was right about the benefit of personalized attention, and working with someone who knew my work intimately. Each assignment was based on my progress to date. If one approach didn’t work for me, she’d try another tact. And she always stressed that her insights and suggestions were just that – the final decisions always rested with me.
I started with a pile of content – I admitted to Mary that’s all it was. By the end, I mostly have that same pile of content. But now I have a roadmap. I drastically narrowed my scope. I identified critical elements that need to be woven into my existing chapters. I have a detailed revision list. I know where I need to add chapters. And I understand how to structure those chapters to be a compelling read. Have I mastered all that yet? Hardly. But I feel like I know where I’m going with this.
I want to note that none of this was dictated by Mary. It came about through the artful learning and discovery process she led me through. True to her role she was my coach and mentor. She taught me skills and I practiced under her guidance. Now it’s up to me to play my own game.