One of the huge advantages of taking a writing course is having a book coach, or mentor, by your side giving you one-to-one support. But what does this actually involve? How closely will you work with your book coach, and what will the dynamic be? We asked the US/International tutors on our Ultimate Novel Writing Course to tell us about what mentoring means to them and what to expect.
JW: What is book coaching? Can you say a few words about what you would expect your relationship with your students to be like?
The mentoring component of the UNWC is one-on-one customized coaching that’s calibrated to your needs as you move through the course. Your mentor is your creative collaborator, someone who’s going to get to know you and your project really well in order to help you ensure that your novel reflects your intentions in a way that’s going to captivate your reader. Each month, you’ll submit a portion of your work-in-progress to your mentor. You and your mentor will connect for a conversation over Zoom or by phone, typically for about an hour. You can also opt for written feedback, or choose a combination of the two.
“Your mentor is your creative collaborator, someone who’s going to get to know you and your project really well in order to help you ensure that your novel reflects your intentions in a way that’s going to captivate your reader”
In our conversations, we think big and brainstorm, review specific passages in your manuscript to look at what’s working well and where there might be room for improvement, and navigate the ups and downs of the writing life as you build toward a sustainable creative practice you’ll be able to stick with long after the course is over.
Between these conversations, your mentor is there to field your questions, concerns, and middle-of-the-night epiphanies, and each month, your mentor will gather their group of students for a Zoom conversation to reflect on the tutorials and discuss progress and challenges together. You’ll also have the option of continuing your work with your mentor through a manuscript assessment in the final months of the course
I have a really particular pedagogy. I teach it a lot, and I teach a lot of different kinds of students. One thing I find that nearly every writer has in common, especially when they’re working on their first draft, is that momentum is more important than anything else. You don’t know what’ll happen to the finished draft. Then you can go back and apply things to it, but up until then, you are experimenting with choices. So when it comes to working with me – as an instructor, as a mentor, as a peer, as anything – my pedagogy is one that focuses mainly on praise, so that you know which of the choices you’re experimenting with are the strongest, and are getting across your message the strongest. And so you can hoard those choices.
My approach to coaching is praise-focused because it gives students the chance to write toward their strongest choices instead of away from criticism, which honestly could stop a writer in their tracks. And the most important thing is to finish that first draft.
“My approach to coaching is praise-focused because it gives students the chance to write toward their strongest choices instead of away from criticism.”
The other thing that people can expect from me when it comes to coaching is that I have a pedagogy of decentralising the instructor. So in any group of novelists, I believe that we all have things to learn from each other; I am not special in that room. Working with me is a really non-hierarchical experience.
I have tools and I am happy to hand those tools over to someone else – but someone else’s experience of their life and their art and their career is just as valid as my experience of mine, and their experience is more relevant to their life. So what you can expect from me is: here is an array of tools, we get to practice using them and then you get to pick which ones are actually working for you. I’m not going to impose my taste or aesthetic, or my practice, on somebody else. My practice works for me because I’m me.
Read more on ‘useful praise’ by A.E. Osworth for Catapult.
I try to be very available to students to field questions, and essentially to be a kind of accountability buddy but also there for support– that might require a pep talk, but sometimes it’s just knowing that somebody is there listening. I think especially with writing for publication – it’s a communicative art. It can help to have someone who is waiting to get your pages, and that gives you a certain amount of energy to complete them.
Your mentor gives you real-time feedback on your work, and that also can help guide how you’re moving the narrative forward. I like really getting into the text and talking about story decisions. Structure, and pacing, are both really important to me. Besides reading, I’m a big television watcher and I think it’s a similar principle. Keeping your audience’s attention over around 300 pages is hard, and you have to really think about how you’re going to keep the energy of the reader chapter by chapter.
“I try to be very available to students to field questions, and essentially to be both a kind of accountability buddy but also sometimes for support– that might require a pep talk, and sometimes it’s just knowing that somebody is there listening.”
So I will be talking to my students face-to-face once a month and seeing them together as a group once a month, and hopefully getting everyone to share some of the challenges and experiences finding their way through a story I try to help the author thread their way through their narrative structure, before they become lost.
As writers, we sit at our desks all day, in our own worlds, with all these characters looming large in our heads. It can be extremely isolating. I know. I get it. I’ve been there. I’m still there. As a mentor and coach, I am personable, honest, and hands-on. I will walk alongside you, cheering you on when you need it, but I will not blow smoke. I am an intuitive, close reader – that is, I read for intentionality in order to help you realize your vision on the page.
“As a mentor and coach, I am personable, honest, and hands-on. I will walk alongside you, cheering you on when you need it, but I will not blow smoke.”
I will keep you on track by holding you accountable, and I will push your work to the next level, encouraging you to lean into your natural narrative strengths and to stretch them beyond your comfort zone, toward greater urgency and resonance. I’ll challenge you to take risks and dig deep, in order to excavate a larger truth. My style is a mix of merciless and generous, but I always come from a place of openness and love.
Lindsey Alexander, A.E. Osworth and Sara Lippmann are available as tutors on the UNWC US/International course. They’ll give you one-to-one book coaching and expert tuition as you write a publishable novel over a year. Find out more below.
Brian Gresko is now available as a mentor on the course with a UK/European timezone: