Arts & Writing Essays & Opinion Writing tips: from writers for writers

The Inner Game of Writing (Or How I Wrote A Novel By Accident)

Novelist Andy Charman writes about his personal experience working with a writing coach - and explains how he ended up writing a novel by accident.

Twelve years ago I started working with a coach. At the time I was wretchedly unpublished. My efforts at becoming an author were in pieces and the whole pretension was starting to feel like an embarrassment. I had made my first bright-eyed submission to an agent nineteen years previously, in 1989, and in between had produced huge volumes of part-novels, fragments, segments, sections and even a few finished works—but over the course of more than two decades, the consistent rejection began to outweigh the sporadic flashes of encouragement, and by the time I started talking to my coach, I was starting to give up hope.

However, ten months after our first coaching conversation, my first short story was published. After more than two decades of trying, the first step took less than a year. That is not the end of the story for a couple of very good reasons: firstly, because one short story was not the sum of my ambitions, and secondly, because it wasn’t immediately obvious that the coaching relationship was the key.

So the sequence that followed was important. After that first story, there were other successes. I was shortlisted in a couple of competitions and had some stories in a few anthologies. The acceptances kept coming and it started to seem that I was getting the hang of it. So I decided to build on my growing confidence and attempt another novel.

Up to that point it was clear to me—so I thought—how the coaching relationship had helped. My coach was implausibly enthusiastic and encouraging. We talked about once a month (via internet calls because she was in the US), always focusing our conversations on what I was writing about. She sounded immensely American, whooping with joy at each new success and forever asserting how amazing I was as a writer, while I sounded terminally English, embarrassed by my own modest achievements and emotionally reticent. So it’s not a surprising mistake, but as I geared myself up to produce a novel, I did my coach a disservice: I believed that the main difference she had made was helping to bolster my confidence.

Then came the fourth act crisis.

I chose to write a crime novel because I thought it would be the most fun to write. I followed the requirements of the genre, gave it a strong female lead, added as much originality as I thought it could carry, located it firmly in a town I knew well and, having re-drafted it twice over the period of a couple of years, fired it off to an agent.

Then came the shock: I received a message from the agent’s readers saying she loved it. Her voicemail explained how she had stayed up late into the night to finish reading it, had been completely hooked, and thought it was brilliant. She actually used the ‘B’ word. I was over the moon.

But that little flash of excitement from the agent’s reader was the entire life-span of my crime novel. It turned out the agent did not agree. A couple of weeks went by before the reader emailed me, confessing the result and lamenting the loss, which, she said, felt as if she’d written it herself. Bless.

After that, nothing. No-one else could be induced to show the slightest interest in my crime novel. Rejection followed rejection and eventually the whole thing was relegated to a metaphorical bottom drawer where it will dwell for all eternity.

This was my nadir, but there was little risk of giving up completely because I had a monthly coaching call to attend and needed something to talk about, and because I had what Emma Darwin rightly calls ‘the itch of writing’. So rather than giving up, my coach encouraged me to stop trying. I stopped trying to write what I thought would sell; I stopped trying to write something clever and new and appealing; I stopped trying to write to please agents or to produce what everyone else wanted. I stopped trying.

I did not stop putting effort into my craft. Far from it; under the guiding eye of my coach (who claims no knowledge about writing at all) I started to write short stories that stretched my skills and abilities, just to see if I could. I settled on 19th century Dorset for a consistent setting and combined research with experimentation. I wrote a story in which first, second and third person narrative positions sat alongside each other. Another story mixed future tense, past tense and present tense. I wrote in a ‘Victorian style’ but with a modern voice. I played with a rapid-paced narrative and then with something very slow and studious. I became increasingly obsessed with using different and authentic-sounding voices, and in order that the narrative would not sound mock-Austen, or faux-Dickens, I worked hard to uncover the realities of mid-century diction. I studied diaries that were not meant for publication (Anne Lister’s was particularly revealing) to see how people expressed themselves when they thought no-one was looking, and I became obsessed with academic work on regional dialects. After discovering William Barnes’s glossaries and grammar descriptions, I started weaving Dorset dialect into my stories. Then I had a go at writing a whole story purely in dialect.

For three years, I lived part of my life in the mid-nineteenth century, I wrote about female composers, priests, cordwainers and even a full London theatre troupe. I spent several months researching what it was like to sail around Cape Horn and several months more turning that research into a five-thousand word story.

My production rate was pathetic, but it didn’t matter because I didn’t expect anyone else to ever see the result. No-one was waiting.

What emerged, during this process, was an overarching story. I found links in the different experiments and gradually reworked them until the links became threads and the threads ran through everything. That was very unexpected, and was very clearly the result of my coach encouraging me to relax from trying so hard. Pretty soon I realised that I had quite unwittingly—as if by accident—written a novel.

I still didn’t expect anyone to publish it. It was too quirky, self-indulgent, experimental and uneven. It broke far too many rules, there wasn’t even a single central character—indeed most of the characters in the first section didn’t reappear in the whole of the rest of the book.

All the same, I showed a few sections to an editor at Unbound, the crowd-funding publisher. Her reaction was unexpectedly enthusiastic. She told me that if I gave her a chance to publish it, she’d bite my hand off.

So it has come about. The novel I wrote as if by accident is being published by Unbound. It is called Crow Court and is due to hit bookshelves in January 2021. Unbound have high hopes for it, proof copies are garnering some excited responses from some very respectable literary figures, and my coach is ecstatic.

These are the moments that writers live for. For the most part, writing is a lonely, unrewarding pursuit. Feedback can be patchy, infrequent, and unreliable, and keeping the emotional and intellectual stability to get through the troughs between each peak is a real ordeal. That is where coaching can really help.

The influence my coach has had—constantly—over the past twelve years, is to encourage me back to myself. In practical, writing terms that means returning time and again to write about what interests me, in a manner that I find engaging; and to listen to my own judgement when making choices about what to write and how to write it. The pioneer of coaching, Tim Gallwey, called it the ‘inner game’ and while he developed coaching as the ‘inner game’ for tennis players, it can be applied to just about anything.

There is only so far we can go when learning the craft. There is a wealth of information to be gained from all the brilliant teachers that offer their knowledge, from Dorothea Brande, to Robert McKee, John Truby and John Yorke. There are some superb blogs such as Toby Litt’s and Emma Darwin’s and there are brilliant examples such as the podcast, The Bestseller Experiment, to show us the way. But there comes a point when the writer needs to set out alone. After that line has been crossed, the advice given by teachers and mentors runs the risk of being counter-productive.

A writer who is teaching another writer will always be prone to advise writing the way the teacher would write it. It’s the best way they know. They aren’t going to teach you the second-best way, nor eschew an improvement in their own technique. But there comes a point when you need to stop learning other people’s way of doing it, and start finding your own way.

At that stage, coaching becomes the right tool for the job. Coaching is designed to enable you to find your own way, using your own resources. I am immensely grateful to have had the wisdom, company and guidance of my own coach for many years, and now I’m determined to pass on the benefit. I have a coaching certificate and I studied NLP to master practitioner level, so I have all the tools I need. I might not be the most accomplished author, but I do have a few achievements under my belt and, as a qualified coach, I know how help other writers, new or experienced, to perfect their own ‘inner game’.

 So if you know what you are doing, but you’re still struggling to actually get on and do it, or even if you are getting along perfectly well, but you want to take your writing to another level—get a coach. There are plenty of them out there, and the International Coaching Federation can point you to qualified and experienced practitioners. You could even engage me. I’m currently offering cut-price introductory sessions as rewards in the crowd-funding campaign for Crow Court (single sessions or a set of three). There are still a few available!

Or you could get in touch via Twitter, where I am @andycwriter.

The inner game of tennis

The International Coaching Federation

Emma Darwin’s Blog

Toby Litt’s Blog

About the Author

Andy Charman is an author and writing coach. His short stories have been included in anthologies, long-listed and short listed in competitions and published in journals such as Every Day Fiction, The Battered Suitcase, Cadenza, Pangea and Ballista magazine. His novel, Crow Court, is published by Unbound and is due in bookstores in January 2021.

Andy is a certified coach, an NLP practitioner and master practitioner. He coaches authors and creative writers to find or improve their own method, rhythm and writing voice.


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