Emma Dhesi is a book coach, novelist, and the author of Launch Pad: The Countdown To Writing Your Book.
Gabriela Pereira: What led you to become a book coach and how did your own writing journey take you there?
Emma Dhesi: I was a bit of a slow starter to the publishing world. I’d been writing all my life but it wasn’t until I was nearing my 40th birthday that I decided to take it seriously and pursue this dream of publishing a novel.
The day I finished the first draft of my first novel was a pivotal moment because it showed me I could achieve something if I put my mind to it. It showed me I could commit to something I was passionate about. Up until that point, I would never have described myself as a finisher. Now I felt as though I had finished something difficult.
When I hit ‘publish’ on my first book, that was another milestone. It was a step into a whole new future I would never have envisaged for myself only five years’ previously. It changed not just how I saw myself as a writer, but as I saw myself as an individual.
I’d given myself the evidence that I could do so many new things, even as I was entering the second half of life. I wanted other women, both career women and stay-at-home mums, to feel the same freedom and empowerment that comes with doing something adventurous and challenging.
That’s when I knew I wanted to help other writers.
So this was always in the back of my head but it wasn’t until a few years later when I’d published another couple of books that I felt I could help first-time authors take those first few steps and write their first novel.
GP: What exactly does a book coach do and what are some of the benefits of working with one?
ED: A book coach is somebody who guides a writer through the process of writing their book. That might sound very simple but, for anyone who has written a full-length novel, you’ll know it is a whirlwind of a journey with lots of ups and downs, both emotionally and on the page.
The primary role of the coach is to offer feedback on the written manuscript and to provide guidance on the structural side of the story, making sure each scene has a point and a purpose.
I help the writer make sure that throughout the story there is suitable conflict, that the protagonist wants something at the beginning of the novel, and that there’s lots of things standing in their way before they get to the end.
It’s hard for a new writer to do this on their own, but a coach is really good at pointing out where an author is doing too much telling and not enough showing. This is something all writers struggle with at the beginning of their careers and having someone’s feedback on it is really, really helpful.
Some coaches work with authors right at the beginning of the process, so it might be establishing the character, establishing the goals of the character and what’s getting in their way, and helping them write that very first draft and maybe a revision draft.
Some coaches will take an existing manuscript and help the author refine it and get it ready for publication or querying. There are other coaches who help writers find the right agent for them and craft the perfect pitch package.
The benefit of working with a coach is undoubtedly the feedback on the words on the page. That’s a really big component of how we help our authors. It’s a sad truth, but nobody is going to care about a writer’s book as much as they do.
Friends and family will be supportive. They want the best for you but they’re not in the trenches as you write the actual book. They don’t care about plot twists or the inner dialogue with your character. That’s not their role. Their role is to support you in other ways.
A coach is in the trenches with you and it is comforting and encouraging to know you’ve got someone on your side who understands what you’re going through and can offer the benefit of their experience.
The other benefit of working with a coach is the emotional support they offer. This is a less tangible quality to a book coach, but anyone who’s written a novel knows it’s a very up and down process. Sometimes you absolutely love your story and being an author and everything is flying along beautifully.
There are other times when it is slow and painful, when you hate the story and you wonder why you ever thought you could do this in the first place. A coach supports you through that.
GP: Working with a book coach is usually a pretty big investment, so let’s talk a little bit about the decision to enlist a book coach. How can writers tell when they’re ready to work with a book coach? What do writers need to have ready or do before they begin working with one?
ED: In my experience, writers are ready to work with a coach when they have attempted to write one or two books. They don’t need to have finished a manuscript, they’ve maybe got halfway through, but they’ve made a real determined effort to get to the end of that first draft.
Alternatively, they’ve been working on a project for ten or twenty years, sometimes even longer. Either way, the writer has hit a brick wall and realised there’s a lot they don’t know.
The reason I find these writers are ready to work with a coach is because they have an understanding of the commitment needed to write a long-form piece of fiction. I have worked with authors who thought it a nice idea to write a book but hadn’t gone beyond writing a scene or two or attending the odd workshop.
There’s a big difference between that and writing an 85,000 word novel. There’s a lot of practice that needs to go on in between, so the author understands what is needed to finish.
Once a writer understands that level of commitment and still wants to continue, then it’s time to reach out and look for a coach.
Depending on the coach you work with, you don’t have to have anything ready. As I mentioned, some coaches will work with you right from the beginning so you perhaps have a story idea and you want to work it up into a premise and then into a full idea.
Alternatively, if you’ve got a half-written manuscript you believe in and you want to continue working on, that’s what you’ll start with and the coach will take that as the starting block and work on it with you.
I know also of authors who have written their manuscript, revised it many times, they’ve sent it out to query and they’re getting rejections and, at that point, they think, ‘Okay, now I need to get external help, something’s not right and I can’t see it.’
That’s when they’ll invest in a coach to help them tweak the novel and get it right so agents want to pick it up and ultimately publishers want to publish it.
GP: I think for a lot of beginning writers, they feel pretty unsure of how to start writing a novel. I think in part because they’ve never done it before. Sure, they like reading and are interested in storytelling but what are some of the mindset tips you have to have?
ED: This is a long journey. I think a lot of writers start off with the belief they can write a novel in 3-6 months because they’ve seen an advert on Facebook that tells them they can and then realise actually there’s a lot more to it, particularly if you want to write a novel that has some depth and meaning.
There are more experienced writers out there who can write a novel in a month and they follow what’s called a rapid release strategy. Those authors have been very strategic. They’ve written a lot of their books before they publish, they’re very experienced, and they’ve niched down into a specific genre that works for them.
The other thing to say is that those writers write for up to eight hours a day. They are fully committed. Most of us choose not to go down that path, instead we want to make writing a part of our life, not our entire life. We don’t want burnout.
So, understanding that this is a long-haul game is absolutely key.
A second mindset tip I offer people is to acknowledge they’re doing something they’ve never done before and it’s going to be an upward learning curve. But that curve is not one to be scared of. Instead, it’s a curve to be embraced and enjoyed. How lovely to be learning something new, something challenging, and something so rewarding.
The third mindset tip I would offer is don’t expect your first draft to be perfect. This is a misnomer. Even experienced writers do not write a perfect first draft. In fact, I challenge that there exists a perfect book.
I always point to Stephen King at this point. No one can doubt he is one of the most successful authors of our generation but, if you look at the reviews he gets on Amazon or Goodreads, you’ll see a vast mix. Some people love his work, five stars all the way, and can’t get enough. Other people rate his books a one star and are baffled as to why other people enjoy them so much.
I think this is the perfect example to show that no book is perfect and your book, as a brand new author, is going to be very far from perfect.
That’s as it should be. Every writer starts somewhere, and you write the best book you can at that time. If you wait for the book to be perfect, you will never write it.
GP: Another common struggle I see a lot of writers deal with is feeling like they don’t have time to write or, when they do have time after getting all the things done, they’re too tired to write. What are some ways writers can find the time to write and make it a priority in their lives?
ED: For me, the simple solution is to schedule your writing time. It’s unglamorous and very unsexy, but it does work.
I advise people to look at their upcoming seven days and schedule the things that are absolutely non-negotiable. That includes things like paid employment and child care. Those are the top of your priority list and they are unmovable. They have to be there.
After that comes your writing. You schedule your writing time and everything else gets bumped down the list. That includes dinners out, birthday parties, volunteering, and church activities.
These are all things that, while you’re writing your first draft, you can bump down the priority list. They don’t come off all together, you can come back to them, but if you want writing to be a priority in your life, you have to make space for it and that means making some tough decisions.
If the idea of bumping those other things down your priority list feels too awful for you, maybe it’s a sign you’re not meant to write this book. Writing is not something you will do with a view to getting published. Rather, it stays as a hobby and something you do for fun.
There’s no other way around it. I’ve spoken to many published authors who are working full-time, raising children and still writing their books. The thing they all say to me is you have to decide if it’s a priority.
Once you make that decision, then you fit it into your life, and the writing gets done. But there’s no way around this. Writing a novel is work, especially if you want to publish.
GP: At DIY MFA, we believe there is no cookie cutter way of doing things, that every writer has their own process and approach to the craft. Honoring your reality is another big tenet of DIY MFA. Can you talk a bit about how to find your process and really hone in on what works for you?
ED: I agree with this tenet of DIY MFA. Every writer is different, and every writer has their unique process and approach to the craft. The only way you can figure out what that is, is by writing a book.
Writing scenes in a workshop or even short stories is a very different beast. You can write a short story in an afternoon, do some revisions over the next couple of days, and have a really good finished product.
Writing long form fiction is very different. Writing your first novel can take a minimum of 12 months. During that time, you’re learning what your process is. You can only learn it by doing it.
That’s why, although I have a framework I take my writers through, it is tweaked and altered for each individual author because everybody comes to it with a different schedule and different ambitions. Everybody comes to it with a different mindset and their own strategic ways of thinking.
What I mean by that is their own filing system, their own note-taking process, and the words they choose that resonate with them differ from one student to the next. But you only learn what resonates with you, you only learn how you take notes, you only learn how quickly or fast you can write when you do it.
So, again, this feeds into the mindset of understanding that this is a long-haul journey. You have time to learn; you have time to practise; you have time to make mistakes and you have time to improve.
So, only by writing the novel, either on your own or with a coach, do you get to see what systems work best for you when you’re at your most creative, the kind of feedback you enjoy getting and it’s also a chance to learn what you’re good at.
As human beings we always look for what we’re getting wrong, but by writing even a very rough first book we get to see what we are good at.
Believe it or not, each of us comes to the page with something we’re good at and it’s nice to acknowledge that and then be able to work on the things that are not our strongest suit.
You can only find that out by writing the book and understanding what works for you, what doesn’t, and what your process is.
GP: What are some common mistakes writers make at the beginning of a project? Is there a way to help streamline it or make it go a bit more smoothly? Because I think sometimes the biggest struggle or roadblock for writers is just getting started.
ED: I found it to be the other way around. I, myself, and the writers I work with find it really easy to get started. We have a wonderful idea. We can picture it really clearly in our minds and we delve right in. I should say that I am a pantster and seem to attract pantsters so, as that type of writer, we delve straight in, we’re very excited and can’t wait to get going.
But it’s not until we get to about 15,000 or 20,000 words in and we’re in the middle section that we get stuck. Things become a genuine struggle. The characters aren’t fully thought out; the story gets more complicated as subplots need to be interwoven with the main plot. That’s when things get tricky and when a lot of writers give up.
I am a huge fan of Lisa Cron and her book Story Genius. Reading the first part of her book was a lightbulb moment for me and I understood that character is at the heart of a good story. I encourage all writers, whether they be pantsers or plotters, to pause and think about their protagonists before they start writing and I absolutely recommend Lisa Cron’s book on how to do it.
I’ve realised that the more you know your character, the easier it is to write about them. If you take time at the beginning of a project to get to know your protagonist and even your antagonist, you’re setting yourself up for much greater success than if you just jump in without thinking about that person.
GP: After some poking around, I know we both agree on this: writers need a website. Even unpublished writers need a website. Can you talk a bit about what authors can put on their website before getting published and how they can balance working on it while they’re writing their book?
ED: I do think authors need a website, you’re right. I think where I differ from some other mentors is that I don’t think you need to blog or post regularly on it in the beginning. That may be because I’m working with first-time novelists predominantly.
The reason I think it’s important to have a website is it’s a mindset thing as much as anything. When you create this website, even if it’s just one page with your name, photo, and a little bio about you and how people can contact you, that is a starting point and when you see your website up there with your name as the URL, that is a really empowering feeling. It’s a step closer to feeling like a published author, to feeling like a professional. I think a website is a great way of doing that.
I don’t think fiction writers need to blog, necessarily. I know myself that blogging is a really big endeavour. We think we can do it on the side of our writing but if you’re working a full-time job and you’ve got caring responsibilities and you’re writing your first book and all the challenges that come with that; I think expecting yourself to be able to blog and write regular articles about this is asking too much of yourself. It will become overwhelming and I think you’re more likely to give up then.
However, I think as you make your way through your book, say you’ve finished the first draft and now you’re working on revisions, that might be a time that you can start posting the odd blog post or the odd social media post that shares a little about your writing journey. It doesn’t have to be everything, warts and all, it can just be little bits and pieces.
I perhaps disagree with others out there, but I know from my own experience that when you’re writing your first book, it’s so overwhelming that the idea of doing any form of “marketing” can just feel like too much.
Ultimately, though, your website is the perfect tool for growing your mailing list. A mailing list is the most important asset an author has, after the book, of course! A mailing list is how you let the people who enjoy your books know that a new book is coming out and where they can buy it.
So those are the two reasons I think a writer needs a website. First, to share a bit about the writing journey and get people excited about what you’re writing, but then also to capture those email addresses for people who will want to hear from you in the future and know about your book. But take it easy. It’s a new skill set and, again, writing the book is the most important thing. The fancy website comes later.
GP: You’ve shared so many words of wisdom. Where can word nerds go to learn more about you and to connect with you further?
GP: You’ve also got a book called Launch Pad: The Countdown To Writing Your Book, can you talk a bit more about that and why it has a unique approach?
ED: I’m so proud of this book. I really believe it’s a wonderful resource for new and more experienced writers alike.
One of the things I especially love about it is the fact it is an anthology of writing advice and strategies for writers who are looking to write a novel. That means the reader gets the benefit of lots of different approaches, not just one person saying this is the only way you can do it.
It was a great opportunity for me to put myself back in my beginner shoes and think, ‘What would I have liked to have known if I was starting out again?’ and so I believe this book covers many things that others don’t.
For example, we have a fabulous chapter about online research. What’s different about this chapter is Meredith R. Stoddard, the author, doesn’t just tell you which websites to go to but she actually tells you how to search for different things. For example, how you can search a specific website or how you search a specific search term, or even how you eliminate specific words to narrow down your research. It’s such a practical chapter for authors who do a lot of research.
We, of course, have chapters on how to outline, whether you be a plotter, a pantser or a puzzler. And if you want to know what a puzzler is, I recommend reading this fabulous chapter by Lewis Jorstad.
We also include things like finding the heart of your character, choosing the right point of view, and world-building considerations. But I believe we go even deeper into what you need to be aware of.
For example, I wanted to include a chapter about scene structure because this was so pivotal for me in my learning journey. We know a lot about story structure but I think fewer people know about scene structure and how that really helps writers form a tight chapter that contributes meaningfully to the book and is not just a pretty scene.
We have a fantastic chapter on show and tell by Heather Davis. As we know, this is a subject many writers get their knickers in a twist about. Heather really just clarifies all of this and explains to you why you need to show and you need to tell. When I learnt this, it was a game changer.
I also wanted to include a chapter on grammar and punctuation for writers. For the purposes of writing a novel, we don’t need a ton on grammar, we need a chapter including only what we need to know in order to write prose and Stacy Juba does a fabulous job of this.
It always amuses me that this is the chapter most people seem interested in because everybody struggles with grammar and punctuation and everybody thinks they’re getting it wrong. Believe it or not, Stacy does this in a really lighthearted and easy to absorb way. It is not a dry or dull chapter at all and is really worth checking out.
We also include a couple of chapters about critique groups and where to find support and friendship, because community is such a vital part of any author’s success.
We finish the book off with a dive into what publishers are looking for, so a really good chapter for you if you are considering the traditional route but aren’t sure yet if it’s right for you.
What makes Launch Pad: The Countdown to Writing Your Book unique is that, at the end of each chapter, we have a Top Ten Countdown, which each contributor has compiled. The best way to use these countdowns is to read the chapter you’re most in need of, for example, Scene Structure, then read it again because you’ll take in new and different things the second time around. Then turn to the Countdowns and complete the action points Joe Bunting suggests.
When you do, it will make a real difference to your craft level because, not only are you reading about scene structure, you’re implementing it straight away. So you can take an existing scene you’ve got and go through the Top Ten Countdown and see if you have incorporated the elements Joe recommends.
This way you get to embody what you’re learning. It’s not something abstract you read in a book once, instead it is something concrete you have put into practice and is now part of your writing process.
That is one of the things that makes Launch Pad: The Countdown To Writing Your Book such a unique resource for writers.
GP: You have an amazing event for writers coming up in October, can you tell us more about it?
ED: Absolutely! It’s called The Back-to-School for Writers Bundle and it was created by Stacy Juba, Kat Caldwell, and me.
It is a one-stop landing page with over 20 authors, editors, productivity experts, and book marketing experts giving away 30+ tips, tricks, worksheets, and ebooks for FREE, including wonderful resources from DIY MFA!
Every writer will benefit from these resources to help them finish their book in 2023.
Between 1 and 7 October 2023, you can get as many free resources as you want, conveniently organised in one place, so keep a lookout at www.emmadhesi.com for more details!
GP: I always end with the same question – what’s your number one tip for writers?
ED: I asked this question of somebody a number of years ago and they surprised and enlightened me when they said, ‘Get enough sleep.’
It made me laugh because I recognised sleep was something that, all through my 20s and 30s and certainly in my years as a parent, I’d never got enough of and I’ve learnt the hard way that sleep impacts everything we do.
It certainly has a huge impact on your creativity, so not just that it gives you the extra energy to be able to get up early and write when the house is quiet or stay up late when the house is quiet to do your writing but actually it helps your brain function better so you can be more creative and you can enjoy your storytelling as you go.
So my number one tip for all creatives, but particularly for writers because creating something out of nothing takes a lot of brain power, is get enough sleep.