ADVICE FROM A WRITING COACH
By JOAN M KOP
Ever wished for a writing coach? Someone who could teach you the craft and mold your prose into something saleable? A mentor who could offer you valuable insight into the publishing industry?
My writing coach for fifteen years was Robert Gover (RG) (now deceased) who taught and mentored writers for over twenty-five years. His first novel, One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding, a satire on racism, rose to the top of the New York Times Bestseller list in 1962 after first being published in France. Publishers Weekly magazine featured his subsequent novel, Poorboy at the Party, on its cover in September 1966 and he received a record advance at that time. Becoming a millionaire in the 60s, his future as a novelist looked bright. Unfortunately, his editor “disappeared” and publication of his second novel stopped for ideological reasons; the new editor called his first novel “political pornography.”
Although he was a highly respected novelist in his 30s, he was blacklisted for political reasons in his 40s, broke, homeless and addicted in his 50s, rejuvenated and remarried in his 60s, writing novels again and mentoring students in his 70s and 80s.
Awarded “Most Unsung Writer in America” by Kurt Vonnegut at the 1985 PEN Congress in New York City, Robert was honored, more recently, for his body of work at the 2010 Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Convention in Chicago.
I caught up with him at his home in Delaware which he shares with his wife, Carolyn, a psychotherapist, and a calico cat named Cloud “because she often sounds like a cloud full of cooing pigeons.” He had just returned from speaking at the Pima Writer’s Conference in Tucson and also California to welcome the birth of a granddaughter.
At age 83, Robert walks with a limp, but has retained his charismatic, intense, fun-loving personality. The author spends his “senior years” doing the billing and record keeping for his wife’s practice. He also researches and writes articles about astrology–correlations between cyclical economic events (such as great depressions and wars) and cyclical planetary patterns. He acknowledged my surprise at his dramatic change in lifestyle by saying, “Every once in awhile, we fly to Paris for dinner in our imaginations.”
He graciously shared his wisdom with me, while sitting on the Rehoboth Beach boardwalk, sipping lattes and staring out at the Atlantic Ocean.
What advice would you give to aspiring young writers? After all, it’s great to be a bestselling author but that doesn’t always mean you can teach the craft to someone else.
My main focus was always on the story and characters, and whether a writer created a good read with story tension. Fine writing in the service of a second-rate story is a waste of time and effort. But, if a story has what it takes to draw readers in and take them on a memorable mental journey, second-rate writing can be tweaked later to make it better. That’s where a copy editor comes in. A good copy editor can make a good story better by making the read better. But, first and foremost there has to be a good story, hopefully featuring a character or event that the writer is passionate about.
How did you make the transition from being a bestselling author into becoming a writing coach?
When I turned to teaching the novel writing workshop for the Writer’s Digest School back in 1988, I knew I had a lot to learn about teaching techniques. Of course, no one can really “teach” anyone else how to write an outstanding novel. One either has what it takes or not, and those who have what it takes either persist or not. I can take a writer with talent and teach her or him the techniques needed to bring out the best of that talent. The two most basic of those techniques, out of which all others flow, are the best sequencing of story events, plot structure, and the best use of viewpoint. Plot and POV are the foundation of all else.
Developing plots can be difficult, if not downright tricky. Tell me more about how a writer goes about effectively sequencing story events.
Usually, a writer has a character in mind as the subject of a story, and that character often leads the writer through the story. Once you get a first draft, it’s almost always crucial to determine whether you have used the right POV for this story, and then if you sequenced the story events for maximum effect. Ask yourself these questions: How much of the story happens inside the featured character’s mind and emotions? Should you use a POV that reveals the thoughts and emotions of that one character? Or the POVs of several characters? Should you focus readers on the external events, the action and dialogue? You might rewrite a key scene several different times using several different POVs to see which one works best.
Your first novel, which centers around a white male college student and an African-American prostitute, was used in universities back in the 60s and offered students a valuable teaching tool on POV. How does a writer use POV skillfully?
Most skilled writers use POV to get inside a character’s head and to tell the story from that person’s point of view. One story situation, two or more opposing viewpoints: that can be a recipe for an outstanding novel. Conflicting beliefs are shown by alternating the first person POV of each character chapter by chapter. Thought precedes action in real life, after all, so I find multiple POV’s emphasize this naturally. Motives are shaped by beliefs, so what a character has come to believe is the key. This means a novelist has to be born with or develop empathy to a high degree. Empathy is the key ingredient of talent. I hit upon using more than one POV character when I was starting out as a novelist back in the sixties, and I’ve watched POV grow in importance over the succeeding decades.
Many writers today use critique groups to hone their craft. How does a writer know whether the feedback they’ve been given is subjective or objective, and whether it should be incorporated into their writing?
Some writing comes through an author from the mysterious realm we call “inspiration” and needs no rewriting. Most good writing, however, is the result of refining or rewriting. I often say that a good editor is a writer’s best friend. Or best asset. A good editor helps a writer say what s/he is trying to say. Or helps the writer shape a story for maximum effect, or tweaks the use of viewpoint so that it brings the character more alive in the imagination of readers. At the very least, a good editor saves the writer from embarrassment by catching typos and booboos. Personally, I’ve found the best editorial help from individuals who understand what I’m trying to do in my work and can help by being a second consciousness, or alternate perceiver of the work. Writing is such an all-alone work, it’s wonderful to get together with groups of writers, but for personalized help, I find there’s no substitute for an intelligent, sympathetic individual.
What insight do you have, if any, into the publishing industry?
Years ago, a publisher told me that book publishing was essentially book publicizing. Although the publishing industry has changed over the years, it’s still basically a matter of promotion or publicity. So as we move more into electronic books and other formats, it’s still publicity that counts. People rarely buy books they never heard of. That’s why there is so much effort devoted to creating a “buzz” for a new book.
You were also recently named the top judge for the Eric Hofer Award writing contest. Can you tell me more about that?
The Eric Hofer Award is an award for short prose and independent books which honors the memory of Eric Hofer, one of the great American philosophers. I’m one of several editors. The Eric Hofer Award was launched by Christopher Klim (author of some very fine novels, including “Jesus Lives in Trenton”) and it has grown rapidly over the past few years.
What is one last piece of advice you would give to writers?
Write about what passionately interests you. My first novel was about racism. I was interested in it because some ancestors on my father’s side had been Old South plantation and slave owners, going back to the 1600s in the Virginia Colony. I grew up in an orphanage so did not learn about the ancestry till my teens but I felt an early compulsion to learn more about the history of white and black people and racism in this country. It seems I was born with this compulsive curiosity about this phenomenon called racism.
I also have a passionate interest in the relationship of rich and poor. If my father hadn’t gotten himself killed in an auto accident when I was 11 months old, I would have grown up the son of a brain surgeon, rather than in an orphanage with no “family connections.” So there’s the me that was, and the me that might have been. I think every budding writer has some uniqueness like this in their lives. I strongly recommend exploring such peculiarities in the writing.