Saturday, April 2, 2011

Q and A With the Lit Coach, Erin Reel

Every writer could use a coach. Lit Coach Erin Reel talks about the most common problems in a manuscript and how to save a novel.

What is the mission of Lit Coach and what prompted you to start it?

Simply put, The Lit Coach mission is not only to educate writers about the nuts and bolts of how to get a book published but to direct writers into passionately focused, productive, successful, whole writers lives through an intense examination of their expectations and goals, attention to craft and strategic approach to the publishing world (whichever route they choose). I put my literary agency to bed and began The Lit Coach as a response to the need writers were still approaching me with - direction not only with their attempts to get their work noticed and sold but also with the development of their work, author platform, being agent ready and their writer’s life challenges: time management and productivity, clarity, goal mapping and confidence, book sales, etc. Despite all the great advice found through conferences, online and in trade magazines (and of course, some of the better writers blogs), the writers who were approaching me preferred a guide they could instantly bounce ideas and questions off of rather than trying to decipher what advice was most reliable and taking their chances. I would give them the answers they needed but I would also ask questions based on the questions they would ask me – questions they didn’t know they had yet – further shaping their approach to writing and the publishing world. I realized I could do this full time, so after researching the market and speaking to a few colleagues I respect in the publishing industry, I jumped back into the lit pool as a publishing and editorial consultant and writer’s life coach.

What are a few common problems you see in novels?

The work isn’t finished. I seem to be approached by many new writers who want to duplicate the Stephenie Meyer success formula for writing a bestselling novel in less than a year. Ms. Meyer’s meteoric rise to bestsellerdom and major Hollywood box office success is an exception. Most authors spend years writing and re-writing their novel – and no disrespect to Ms. Meyer (she has created a fantastic world in her Twilight Series), your novel will be better for it. You can’t rush perfection.

Lack of Clarity. I’ve had a few beginning novelists come to me mid-draft unsure of where to go next or how to finish, which is usually a symptom of not knowing the characters well enough and/or a poorly developed plot. Others haven’t fully considered the series potential of their work if they’re writing within a series supporting genre, like cozy mystery or paranormal YA. The great news is it’s totally fixable. My quick advice to writers is to head back to your characters first. Have you taken the time to draw up detailed character sketches? Have you developed them beyond their wardrobe and favorite cocktail? To know how your characters are going to navigate their way through the plot, you have to know how they’re going to act and react to all the “stuff” you throw at them. Give them some real DNA – even if you don’t put it all down on the page, at least you’ll truly know the core of your characters. After we explore the characters fully, then we begin digging into the plot. Is it plausible? Is it exciting/thoughtful/compelling enough to capture an audience? Does A lead to B which will logically result in C? I ask them loads of questions and through the process and some in-depth outlining, the plot surfaces as will the potential for a series…which we also develop through careful exploration and outlining.

What can make a novel unsalvageable?

In my mind most every novel is salvageable if an author is willing to put in the work it takes to make it better. However, there are two major mistakes writers sometimes make which could possibly make a novel unsalvageable; the first, hands down, writing for a trend in the market. Those in publishing can tell if a writer is just trying to capitalize on a trend to get their foot in the door – the book has no heart. When a book has heart, it’s because the author is passionate about the story and their characters and it shows through the craft. Chances are, that author is looking to build a strong career in the genre they’ve chosen to write within, be it literary fiction, romance or thriller – they know the genre and their place in it. The second thing that makes a novel unsalvageable is writing with the agent in mind. Way too many authors these days are writing for agents and not themselves and more importantly, their audience. There is only one thing you should be thinking about when writing your novel – the story YOU want to tell.

Who are some novelists you respect and why?

Right now, I’m loving what Ellen Meister (The Other Life) is doing. She’s a great writer, her work is solid, she knows her craft and her place in the market and she has a firm handle on promoting a book. And in this age where authors are encouraged to communicate with their readers and followers through social media, Ellen does so with a genuine warmth and friendliness that makes you happy you bought her book.

What's your favorite part of your job? Your least favorite?

Favorite is everything! That’s why I chose this role in supporting writers – I truly love every bit of the process. Least favorite - I like to eat and I’m glued to the chair most of the day. I do make it a point to exercise at least three times a week, but I don’t like to diet. Alas.

Erin Reel, The Lit Coach, is a publishing and editorial consultant, writer’s life coach and blog host of The Lit Coach’s Guide to The Writer’s Life. Her column for nonfiction writers, Pitch Perfect Proposal: Crafting Your Nonfiction Book Proposal from Concept to Pitch is featured monthly on Pitch University, an online one-stop pitch crafting resource for writers. A former Los Angeles based literary agent, she has contributed to Making the Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent’s Eye; and Author 101: Bestselling Secrets from Top Agents.


  1. Erin, I'm so very impressed by the great advice here, and so immensely flattered by your generous comments. Thank you! Coming from you this means so much.

    And also, I hope a lot of aspiring authors read this post because there's solid gold here. It's hard to pick out one favorite quote, but I do love this:

    When a book has heart, it’s because the author is passionate about the story and their characters and it shows through the craft.

    So true!

  2. Very nice interview:) I especially like your advice on salvaging a novel. And I wholeheartedly agree about taking your time to write the best book possible.

  3. Thanks,
    Nothing like great coaching.
    Greg Gutierrez
    Zen and the Art of Surfing

  4. Thanks, Karin, for hosting me today!

    And Ellen, thanks so much for the kind comments! It's so much fun watching all the great reviews come in for The Other Life. Congratulations! All well earned.

    Thanks, Maria and Greg!

  5. I think you are so right about getting to know those characters! They're just like anyone you'd meet; you can't expect to know a person in minutes or even months. Sometimes (big sigh) it takes years! Great interview!

  6. Well said, Laura! And thanks.

    Building strong characters is a lot like building a deep, lasting relationship. My writers and I spend months developing their characters - and trust me, they're all swimming in my head. I truly love how they're shaping up!

  7. I'm currently working on the unfinished draft mistake. Every time I think I'm done I take one more pass through the novel, and find a question I didn't answer. I'd rather keep going through it then put something out that's not the best I can do.

  8. Lots of excellent advice here--thank you!

  9. Good, A.M.! My question to you, then, which would be helpful for new writers reading this, how do you know when to stop editing?

    Thanks, Wendy!

  10. Good stuff here.. And a big thanks to Erin who keeps me pushing my characters to be all they can be! Having someone to bounce ideas off is making a huge difference for me and my work. I love the quote by Tolkien "Finish it in great detail or not at all".

  11. Thanks, Laura! I just saw this. I LOVE your characters - they live with me.

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