Posted by on Mar 22, 2007 in novels, writing coaches | 9 Comments

Be careful what you pay for …

I’m in the middle of a sad and complicated email conversation with a writer who has recently had a rotten experience. He’s been badly burned, and feels both embarrassed and angry, so he asked me if I would blog about his experience to help others avoid the same trap.

He has spent quite a lot of money, many hundreds of pounds in fact, working with a book ‘guru’, and after months of rewriting and so on, was dropped, unceremoniously by the guru for his ‘unprofessional attitude’. Not only that, but once his support system was pulled out from under him, he found the guru had started to bad-mouth him to other writers with whom she was working.

This is appalling, unprofessional and abusive behaviour on the part of the ‘guru’ and it’s one of the reasons that I am very clear with my coaching and mentoring clients about the extent of the relationship, how information I obtain about them will be used, and what they can expect from me in terms of confidentiality.

It reminded me of something that has influenced my life since I was a teenager, and I’ll share that experience with you, to explain why I am deeply suspicious of many forms of creative support.

When I was fifteen, I became a glamour model. Yes, I took my clothes off for a living! It happened by accident, I was spotted by a photographer, who paid me for some shots, and then passed my name to another photographer and blah blah … I was too young to sign contracts (but I did anyway) and it was highly exploitative. But I made lots of money, and found it hilarious that one could get paid for doing nothing. By sheer good fortune my mentors were other, older, models, who looked after me and gave me advice and support. I was a lucky, lucky girl and I don’t regret a minute of it.

But I needed a part time job to explain my absences from home, and at least some of my ridiculously large income, so I worked for a dentist as a receptionist. He had a dental nurse who saved all her money to pay for tuition and courses … to become a model. She wanted to do catwalk, of course, not glamour, and she’d spent a small fortune on photographs, deportment courses etc. She even had an ‘agent’. I took her photograph to one of my clients. He told me she could never model ‘in a thousand years’. I believed him – because his name was David Bailey. To be fair, he’d only used me as a stand-in for a girl who’d got flu, and he never hired me again, so he didn’t think much of me either, but it taught me a lesson I’ve never forgotten. Not everybody can do what they want.

When you work with somebody, you should believe in yourself, not them. You should be clear about what you want. You should know how and when the relationship will end and on what terms – assuming everything works out, and you should also know how termination of the relationship will occur if everything doesn’t work out. If you have a dream, rather than a career plan, you will find yourself picking up leeches and liars who want your money and don’t care if you succeed. If you want to be cossetted and applauded, you will find you spend a fortune on empty promises. A true guru, or coach, or mentor, will tell you the truth as they see it (and they may be wrong, everybody’s fallible) not what they think you want to hear. They will be honest about your talent, commitment and aims – and that may be painful to you. If you’re not feeling any pain, they may very well be selling you a line, and a line won’t deliver anything except empty pockets and a feeling of failure when the truth emerges.

So what should my writer have done? Reality checks. He should have measured what his guru said against his peer group’s experience – were other writers at his level being told the kind of things he was hearing? He should have stepped back regularly and looked at how his work was progressing and assessed that progress in terms of independence rather than dependence. He should have set goals and asked his guru to work to them, not to some woolly future. Above all, he should have constantly, carefully and honestly asked this question – ‘if my guru dies tomorrow, will I have gained anything from this relationship’?

We worked out that with the money he’s spent on this guru, he could have completed a year and a half’s tuition on a good writing degree that would have given him friends, a qualification, and confidence. What he has, right now, is an overdraft and a whispering campaign – and a novel, which, to be honest, was better in the first draft than it is now.


  1. Quillers
    22nd March 2007

    Very good advice again, Kay. There are too many people out there willing to part aspiring writers from their hard-earned cash. IMO it was the ‘guru’ who acted unprofessionally here and s/he is probably going to find that the behaviour impacts on any future business.

    An experience like your friend had can put someone off writing for life, and when a writer believes someone knows better than them, it can be hard to listen to their own inner voice telling them that the guru might just have got it wrong.

    It’s a tough thing to recover from, but I hope your friend does go on to prove that guru very wrong.

  2. Tribeless
    22nd March 2007

    How does the relationship between writer and a writing coach work?

    Is it project specific, and editing based, or more along the lines of a private creative writing course or tutorial?

    [For some reason no one ever offers me money to take my clothes off: but you don’t have to answer any implied question on this one.]

  3. Nik's Blog
    22nd March 2007

    What a rotten shame. Very best wishes to your friend.

    It’s a shame but there is a very active subindustry in writing, run by people who (I imagine) have zero interest in writing but are rather partial to making money any way they can. And charging for dreams is wrong.

    Your friend should get straight back on that horse and not let this idiot put them off. Writing is tough enough anyway without these people.


  4. Vanessa G
    22nd March 2007

    I empathise with what you say here, Kay. The relationship between guru and aspiring writer is one that’s fraught with dangers, but all the dangers seem to be on the writer’s path, not the guru’s.

    It would be great if there was a ‘stock exchange’ of writing experience. Where writers could check out the experiences of those who had experience of the gurus they were going to work with.

    You were professional enough to send me to someone who could tell me how it is working with you. Straight stuff.

    I try to tell people how it is in the places I’ve been taught …sometimes its a struggle, because I dont say it as the ‘sales brochure’ would have it. It doesnt make you friends, thats fer sure!

    I took a story to an angency. Once. I was feeling isolated, didnt have anyone in particular I trusted to give me good solid feedback. This was an agency that promised to give you an in depth critique, and if they liked what they saw, would pass you ro a ‘real agent’.

    I was as I say, at a low spot. So I didnt think.

    I had a few pages of feedback from a novellist, who completely misunderstood what I was doing. She told me that addressing the reader directly was a huge mistake every time it happened anywhere. She said that the lyrical passages in the story shoudl be cut by half. That I needed to tell the readers what the weather was like at the start, to ground them. That I hadn’t put in anything about my MC’s parents. or where she lived. Or what she ate. etc etc.

    I paid £150.00 for that crit.

    As I say. I was depressed, not myself, and was trying to function without a support system when I really needed it. I was a very easy target.

    Luckily, I didnt change anything at all. Re read a hundred times. Sent it to Bridport. Got longlisted.

    No prizes. But my goodness, if Id done as she said, Id have ruined it.

    I will be happy to tell any writer about that ‘agency’ and its gurus.


  5. Kay Sexton
    23rd March 2007

    Quillers, you’re right, as is Nik (hi Nik!) that there’s a real sub-industry in writing, just as in modelling, that trades on the credulity of fools. The writer in question was not blameless in this – but I think the extent of his victimisation makes it obvious that this was not simply his silliness at work.

    Mark, it varies. I always work to a specific set of goals, usually three, that I agree with the writer. And always for a limited time frame that we agree between us. Other people work differently, but I think knowing what we’re aiming for, and having a deadline, is important to give the writer a set of tools to measure progress with. Editing is something that we decide on between us. Some people love it, others don’t find it helpful.

    Vanessa – that would be so wonderful, wouldn’t it? I wish somebody would adopt your idea! I use feedback forms to ensure writers on my courses, or being coached, MUST give feedback in the middle and at the end of the process. And that feedback is available to future students whenever they wish … but it’s amazing how many people don’t do what you did, and ask for a contact to whom they can speak privately and freely.

  6. Vanessa G
    23rd March 2007

    I’m not sure ‘trade on the credulity of fools’ is quite right.

    They trade on peoples hopes.

    They ‘sell’ a ticket to another country it is very hard to reach.

    They will provide you with a passport, tell you what clothes to pack, what suitcase to take. They may even take you to the port, and see you onto the ship.

    A freshly painted ship, with white handrails and a prow that points out to sea like an arrow.

    They do not show you the rust under the paint. They do not show you the faulty turbines or the missing radar. And you do not think to ask because you trust them.

    And when the ship sinks, it is because your weight was just that little bit much for the ship… so of course, it is entirely your fault.

  7. Kay Sexton
    23rd March 2007

    Actually Vanessa, I can’t absolve writers of all blame when they get into these circumstances. There’s a line on the Trading Standards website about people who hand over their bank account details to others via email. It simply says, ‘Think – how can you have won the lottery if you didn’t buy a ticket?’

    Too many writers think they can win the lottery without paying for the ticket. Working with a coach is a good idea, but you should pick one with a good track record, you should monitor their performance FOR YOU, and you should get a contract in writing. Without those basic common-sense precautions, you might as well chuck your money down the drain.

  8. Vanessa G
    23rd March 2007

    I agree with all that. And learned a lesson myself when I had my own fingers burned.

    Was I a fool? yes, probably looking back. But at the time, it seemed fine.

    The agency was given a post on, their details sent out to thousands of writers. They said they were accepting short stories for assessment.

    I sent one.

    They then emailed a week later to say they had been inundated, and were unable to process them all. However, if …. etc etc etc. and you know the rest.

    it weas a clever way of getting to individual writers, having work sent then moving the goalposts.

    the foolish bit was believing they were able to pave a way forward. And I dont think anyone can do that, unless you write commercially, are under 35 and have a 24 inch waist and 38F bust.


  9. Quillers
    26th March 2007

    I think a lot of us have been that fool at least once in our writing career. I know I was caught out by a poetry anthologiser years ago. Luckily I had even less money than sense so didn’t spend too much before I realised what was happening. Though the poems were published in anthologies with proper ISBN numbers, I don’t bother to list them on my website among my successes.

    I think some writers’ services do prey on peoples’ hopes and dreams and it is easy to be fooled when you don’t know much about how the business works. In fact I’m sure that for every ‘dream’ whether it’s becoming a writer, model, actor, artist, racing driver, there will be someone who sees a way of making money out of it.


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