Alan Anderson, creator of Writing Coach In A Box, shares the inspiration behind his latest invention for writers.
I've long loved how-to-write manuals, and I used them every day when I was working as a freelance writing coach. You can learn a lot, even from the bad ones, and the very best – like Joe Moran's First You Write a Sentence or John Yorke's Into the Woods or anything by Roy Peter Clark – will give you sensible, actionable advice in spades. And I don't think it matters what kind of writer you are: historians, novelists, scientists, journalists, poets, bloggers, all of us work with the same raw materials – words, sentences and paragraphs – and nearly all of us can benefit from a new trick, a new technique, a new way of doing things. And writing coaches, those of us who have the sheer arrogant temerity to charge actual money for our expertise, need those tools more than anyone.
So I've read plenty about the craft of writing, and I even filled a chunky brown Leuchtturm notebook with the best bits from scores of such books, blog posts, articles, and interviews: everything from George Orwell and William Zinsser to George Saunders and Lisa Cron. My own technical toolbox, if you like.
But I did hit one problem. The expertise in a how-to-write book might be great, but the medium it's delivered in – the long-form book – isn't. Because when you're writing, editing or re-writing, the last thing you want on your desk is somebody else's open book. You don't want to be flicking from page to page or turning to their index while you're struggling with your own prose, wrestling with your own stubbornly half-formed ideas, or in general having a tough time with keyboard or pen.
To get round this, I went through my brown notebook and sorted the advice it contained into lists, which I then copied onto the back of portrait postcards* of authors whose work I particularly admire. So my 'Paragraph Checklist' sits behind F. Scott Fitzgerald looking dreamy, the 'Chapter Checklist' has Joseph Conrad smoking a fag, and so on. A convenient combination of inspiration and practical help, I hoped – and indeed I soon found myself using my cards all the time. I'd prop one up by the keyboard and every time I read back a draft I would refer to it, asking questions like 'What's the causality?' and 'Can the reader see the scene?' A helpful exercise.
Here are a couple of those original cards:
So when Zara Larcombe, Skittledog's publisher, asked if I wanted to write a book for writers, I immediately said no – but that I would love to create some cards for them. Happily this idea tied into a strand of practical boxes that she was developing at the time, and so Writing Coach in a Box was born. I adapted the cards I'd already made, researched a bunch more – learning a lot in the process – and boiled each nugget of advice down to its essential essence, remembering all the time that it was destined to be propped against a coffee cup.
The set was a joy to write, and I'm delighted that it will be published just in time for National Novel Writing Month, when hundreds of thousands of us choose to wrestle with the exact same problems of plot, story, character and style which it addresses.
I don't coach any more, and to be honest, I miss it: there's nothing more satisfying than seeing a nervous writer become more confident about their work, knowing that you've not only spotted the problems with their prose, but given them the tools they need to fix them and grow into their craft. Hopefully Writing Coach in a Box will do the same job for its readers.
*Those postcards, if you're curious, came from the Penguin Modern Classics set, published in 2011, when I was given it for Christmas. Despite using the cards, I've got serious reservations with the product. It skews horribly male (I think a pathetic 15 out of the 100 cards are women), and a coating on the cards means that ink takes days to dry and still smudges. So it's not a great piece of publishing, and I don't really recommend it.
Alan Anderson has written eight books under five names and worked in publishing, in various capacities, for over twenty years.