Word by word with my writing coach

I didn’t think working with a writing coach would be all that challenging. I thought I’d get inside tips on where to submit, general writing advice and editing that would garner quick results—lots of published pieces. How hard can this be?, I thought. I’ve been writing a blog for several years and I feel ready to put my work out there to other publications.

Boy was I wrong. Several months into my coaching experience I realized the process was much more challenging than I had envisioned—in that amount of time I only had managed to work on two pieces with my coach and ended up publishing the first one on my blog. However, as they say, nothing worth doing in life is easy. I did eventually have success, but not in the way I expected.

I hadn’t really intended to work with a coach when I happened to see Victoria’s post about her coaching services on a writing web site I frequently visit. But the idea resonated with me. Maybe a coach really could help me break through to get published. We exchanged a few e-mails and a sample of my work and I signed up for my first session.

All I knew about Victoria was that she had been an editor for many magazines and has been published in places like “The Washington Post,” “The New York Times,” “Quartz,” and “Salon.” I figured that she knew what it took to get into prestigious places. Plus she lives on the East Coast and is part of a world I know little about. But she didn’t look too intimidating. The photo on her web site shows a middle-aged blond woman with a nice smile. She has a young daughter and frequently writes parenting pieces like I do. Maybe she’s not so different than me, I thought.

Our first meeting was in early August–a half-hour phone call to talk about my goals. Victoria had a slightly nasally New York accent and an authoritative grasp of what makes good writing. “It’s a beautifully crafted story, lots of dialogue, action, a universal takeaway,” she rattled off. I scribbled away notes as if hearing the cure for cancer. She wanted to know my writing habits—when and how long did I write? When I explained I was planning to set aside three full days a week for writing, she gasped. “You need to break it up. I get my best ideas when I’m talking to my husband or taking a walk,” she said.

Victoria wanted me to start by reworking an old piece I had already written, but I found that hard to do. That was my first realization that I’m not very good at editing my own work. Instead, I wrote a new piece about something right then on my heart–how my teenage sons had bonded over the summer in a surprising way. I incorporated lots of dialogue and action and I thought I had a universal takeaway about how downtime can be great for kids. I imagined other parents reading it and finding insight.

Victoria sent back the first draft full of questions and edits. I could see she felt this had a long way to go before it was ready for print. To be honest, I wasn’t prepared for this level of scrutiny and critique. I had become accustomed to hammering out a blog post, making a few edits and posting it on my web site. Sometimes the writing sang and other times it didn’t so much. But clearly I wasn’t prepared for the painstaking process of readying a piece for a national publication.

I also felt conflicted. I really liked this piece about my sons. If I pursued all of Victoria’s suggestions the piece would lose its timeliness. It was already mid-August and a story about the summer would soon feel like old news. Victoria had also informed me she wouldn’t be available for the next few weeks while she was on vacation. Frustrated, I decided to send the piece “as is” to a few parenting sites and take my chances. I promptly got rejection e-mails. Maybe Victoria had been right that it needed work. Oh well, I thought. Lesson learned. I published it on my own web site and went back to the drawing board.

For my next piece I again chose another topic close to my heart: “grandparenting.” I wrote about the evolution of my kids’ relationship with my parents, from the time they were toddlers to today. This time I felt I had a clearer narrative arc. The kids had loved spending time with their grandparents early on but things took a turn as they became pre-teens. Friends became cooler than grandma and grandpa. Suddenly, making the half-hour trek over to see Grammy and Grandpa on a Saturday night wasn’t so appealing. What would happen to their close relationship?

Not unlike my first article, Victoria returned my first draft to me chockfull of comments, edits and suggestions. It was mid-September. This time I knew I was in it for the long haul. I decided to absorb all I could from her suggestions and trust her experience.

One of Victoria’s most common suggestions was to ask me to add sensory details. For example, when I mentioned that my kids used to love watching movies with Grammy, she said, “Which movies?” (“Ice Age” was their favorite). Or when I said Grammy served them treats, she pushed me to describe them. “Homemade cinnamon bars hot out of the oven” sounds much more evocative than treats.

Victoria also pushed me to make the narrative arc stronger. A personal essay (which this was) needs a beginning, middle and end. Because of this I added several engaging scenes, such as the time my dad and son hit a low when they argued about restaurants on my birthday (causing me to break into tears) or the more recent time they hit a high when they enjoyed some time on our virtual reality gaming system.

But making an arc stronger can also involve cutting scenes that may not contribute to the flow. Victoria warned me that I needed to make peace with “killing my darlings,” the scenes I loved but that didn’t advance the story enough. I loved a scene where I described how my dad had gently exhorted my son to try out for the tennis team—and my son took his advice. But it took a long time to tell this story and it didn’t quite fit the overall theme of the story.

“Don’t worry,” Victoria encouraged me, “ you can use those scenes elsewhere in another piece.”

Working with Victoria also caused me to wrestle with some age-old writing issues. Years ago when talking about writing with a friend, he had suggested that if I didn’t remember some things, I could just make them up. I remembered being shocked. I went to journalism school and you never made things up in that world. But personal narrative and memoir is different. Who can really remember exactly what someone said ten years ago? A little creative license is OK in these situations.

Sometimes it took me a week or more to “get around” to opening up Victoria’s latest edits. Inevitably though, after reading through them a few times, I would see the value. When I didn’t, I said so, and she agreed to let them stand.

In the midst of my work with Victoria, my blog writing slowed to a trickle. I found myself hesitating to do the kind of “carefree” writing I was used to practicing. And I got stuck in the mire of questions writers love to obsess over. Why am I writing? Who really wants to read this? Am I good enough? Do I have enough to say about X topic? I started and aborted several posts.

Fortunately or not, the holidays were approaching and I leapt into other activities with a relish only a bottled up writer can summon. Creative work often involves a long gestation period and the results take time. Sometimes it’s best to let things simmer.

By the end of November, Victoria sent me an encouraging e-mail that she thought we needed just one “quick” edit and my grandparenting essay would be in good shape. I soared with lofty thoughts. Maybe I could get this published before Christmas! I changed a key line at the end of my piece to refer to Christmas, thinking an editor might like to see the tie-in with the holiday.

Not so fast, Victoria essentially told me the next time we talked. Even if this were accepted soon, she pointed out, most places have a several month lag time before publication.

“You can change the reference to Christmas,” she said. “There are other holidays and seasons. And, by the way, we are targeting the New York Times “Well” section, so I want this to be good. You need to work on the ending. It needs to tie in with the themes you’ve set and leave readers with a takeaway.”

Christmas came and went and I took some time off from the piece. I journaled. I wrote poems just for myself. I spent time in online groups reading about other writers’ experiences. One writer posted how she had done 32 major revisions of her piece before submitting it (successfully) to a national journal. She even linked all 32 versions in case anyone wanted to see the progression. I was amazed at her tenacity—and a bit sobered by the hard work involved in writing.

In the months after Christmas I finally wrapped up my piece. Victoria helped me craft an ending that wasn’t overly trite and neat yet that felt satisfying. Now was the time to submit. I knew it was a reach, but I sent it to the New York Times Well section as Victoria suggested.

Then I learned about waiting. It took nearly two months before the editor of the section got back to me with a rejection. I was disappointed, but also strangely encouraged that I had at least heard something and could move on. I submitted the piece to two other national publications and got the same results. Finally, I did some research of my own and learned of a publisher who was putting together a book anthology about being a grandparent. Nine months after starting the piece I decided to take my chances there. I’m still awaiting an answer.

Fortunately this isn’t the end of the story. In the midst of submitting my grandparenting article, I got back into blog writing and enjoyed the creative freedom I find in that format. I also worked on several additional pieces for smaller, nonpaying web sites and got published there. I discovered Medium and enjoyed reading about other writers and their creative process.

Then one day I dashed off a piece about how my son loves playing first-person shooter games. I discussed the anxiety I’d felt as a parent watching these games in an era of mass shootings and the things I had done to make sure my son had a “balanced” life. I sent the piece to Victoria and she thought it had potential. This time she suggested a few simple edits and a possible paying publication. I followed her advice and a parenting magazine accepted it a week later! The editor praised my piece and said she would love to see more of my work. I was thrilled, It wasn’t the New York Times, but it felt like success.

Now it’s been almost a year since I first met on the phone with Victoria. I’ve learned a lot about the craft of writing, things like narrative arc, attention to detail and “killing your darlings.” I may not have “fixed” all my issues in these areas but I’ve learned to identify possible pitfalls. I’ve also learned about the tenacity required to keep writing, keep submitting and keep waiting. In the end a combination of all these elements is essential, plus a little luck. As Ann Lammot says, it’s just a matter of “bird by bird.”

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