Put Me In, Coach

Apparently book coaching is now a big thing. Dozens or hundreds of coaches have hung out their shingles on the Web. The deal is, if you’re writing a novel, or would like to, you can hire a book coach, who will guide you through the process.

My apologies to John Fogerty for the title of this little essay. His song was about baseball. Also, my apologies for the occasional use of clichés. But if you don’t know what “hang out your shingle” means, that’s not my problem.

I’ve been looking into coaching. Not doing it, though I’m sure I could; hiring a coach. I probably don’t need coaching, had never, in fact, heard of such a thing, but I definitely need a source of support and enthusiasm to keep me from getting discouraged about writing. Someone suggested I might hire a coach, and I’m always happy to consider new possibilities. So here we are.

Indie authors hiring indie editors has been going on for some years now. Some editors are good, some are not, but they do fairly specific things. For starters, they read your completed manuscript. Developmental editors look at the big picture — your story, your world-building, your themes, and so on. Line editors help you polish your style. Copy editors (the term can also be formatted as copy-editors or copyeditors, and don’t ask me to split the infinitive on which is correct) make sure your grammar and punctuation are up to snuff. Proofreaders check for typos, missing quotation marks, consistent spelling of weird fantasy names, and so on. You should hire them in exactly the above order.

Book coaches don’t read a finished manuscript. As you’re working on your book, you send them chunks of 20 or 25 pages. Then you have a Zoom call with them, where the two of you discuss the various things they have noticed and commented on in your chunk. For this service, twice a month, you can expect to pay anywhere from $400 to $1,000 per month. If it takes you six months to write your book, you could end up in the hole by $6,000. Or more; I’m sure $1,000 is not at the upper end of the range.

The nature of the comments the coach will make on your chunk is unknown. Is the coach doing a developmental edit? A line edit? Possibly both. Secretly running your text through a grammar checker? That wouldn’t surprise me. But to do a decent developmental edit, an editor would have to read the whole book, and you haven’t written the whole book yet! The coach’s comments about your story are likely to be a crap shoot.

Coaches are not licensed. Some of them are just starting out. Most of them are not published authors, so their understanding of the multifaceted craft of fiction is not likely to be either comprehensive or incisive. And how would a client be able to judge the value of a coach’s comments? I’ve done free introductory interviews with a couple of coaches, and I have two more scheduled for tomorrow. After chatting with the first two for, in each case, half an hour, I have not a clue whether their talents as editors are astounding or nonexistent.

The bad news is, it doesn’t matter. Over the years I’ve seen a fair variety of fiction by aspiring amateur authors. Some of it had promise, but I can’t think of a single manuscript I’ve ever read that had me thinking, “Wow, this is professional-level work!” This is a polite way of saying that most of it was dreadful.

The scribblers who are producing this material are the clients of the coaches. And it doesn’t matter what the coaches tell them. It doesn’t matter whether the coaches know what they’re talking about, because these writers are never going to achieve anything anyway, in the way of literary art. What we have here is a classic case of the halt leading the blind. Or vice versa, I suppose.

I think one question I’m going to start asking coaches is this: “Have you ever coached a writer through a manuscript that, when it was complete, was taken up by an agent and published by one of the Big Five publishing houses?” I’ll bet the answer will be, “No.” But then, I’m not interviewing any of the thousand-bucks-a-month coaches. Their services would be well beyond the limits of my budget.

Why do you want to write a novel, anyway? There are so many more rewarding things to do! I’ve talked with people whose main inspiration for writing a fantasy novel was that they played D&D. The only response one can make to this admission (silently, of course), is, “Oh, fuck.” That’s like saying your inspiration for entering the Boston Marathon was watching Road Runner cartoons.

The rise of AI text generators is only going to make this trend worse. People are going to be asking ChatGPT to write a fantasy novel based on their latest D&D campaign. “Are going to be”? What am I saying? I’m sure they’re doing it already.

Somewhere in all this, the original purpose of fiction has been not just degraded but entirely lost. Fiction is when people tell one another stories — stories that matter to the teller, else why would she be telling them? There is no way to fake it. If your story doesn’t matter to you, a coach is not going to be able to help you make it matter.

Also, just because it matters to you does not mean it will ever matter to anybody else. If you want it to matter to your readers, learn the craft. A coach is not going to teach you the craft in two half-hour Zoom calls every month. Thinking a coach will get you there is just plain stupid. Nonetheless, book coaching proliferates. As P. T. Barnum said, there’s a sucker born every minute.

This entry was posted in fiction, writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s