The Safe Space To Dream Big

“May 25, 2019. Bethany Carlson has won the coveted Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.”

So begins an exercise I did on 2/8/14 at this year’s BACCA writing retreat: write a press release, five years in the future, about achieving a major writing dream.

I don’t have an agent. I have only taken two screenwriting classes, one at WriterHouse, one at UVa. But not for credit. I didn’t even need to apply to get in. Just write the tuition check. I’m not famous, I don’t live in LA, I don’t have connections. So go right ahead and laugh.

This is the thing about having a great writing group: it’s a fortress. It’s not just me against the world. I know BACCA has my back. My writing group is a safe space to dream big.

The follow-up exercise was to list practical steps towards achieving that dream. I scribbled down: “Write three feature-length screenplays. The first two will probably suck but the third one might be pretty good.”

Who knows if that Palme d’Or press release will ever get written; it’s almost totally outside of my control. Except for the part about writing. I definitely can’t win if I don’t write. And one thing that has actually happened in the last two months: after years toiling on YA novels and short stories, I finally finished a draft of my first feature-length screenplay. And I’ve submitted it to BACCA for critique.

I’ll get honest feedback to make screenplay numero uno better. And the encouragement – and accountability – to move on to screenplay number two. And then #3. And they do say the third time’s the charm.

final draft

We’ll Always Have Kabul, my first feature length (almost) screenplay, in software Final Draft

Bethany Carlson is a co-founder of BACCA Literary. She is a WriterHouse Board member and the owner of TheArtistsPartner.com where she helps authors and other artists to professionally produce and distribute their work.

Writing group, times eight

This semester I incorporated writing groups into my college course, Cognitive Psychology of Education. The course includes freshmen (who at UVa are called “First years”) at one end, and PhD students at the other. With a total of 31 students, we have eight writing groups of three or four students each.

Syllabus description for Claire's class at UVa

The class syllabus at UVa

I decided to use writing groups to individualize instruction by grouping students at similar stages together, and to allow them to give and receive peer feedback. As Dr. Bill McKeachie, my first teaching mentor, points out in Teaching  Tips, “interactions that facilitate learning need not be limited to those with teachers. Often those with peers are more productive.”[1]

I’ve been grandly impressed so far. We’ve held two writing groups during class. The first time, students critiqued an informal blog-style post on a course topic they found interesting. The second time, they critiqued one another’s proposals for their course project, either a research proposal, policy paper, or magazine article that they work on all semester.

In both sessions, students followed my instructions to the letter:

writing-group-instructions

The instructions for this writing group

When I was in my early twenties, I’m pretty sure my ego would have impeded such a task. At that stage, I was hungry for positive affirmation and afraid of any type of criticism – even constructive criticism. In discussion of my work, I drowned out anything that wasn’t a compliment with a long explanation of why I made the choices I did. Maybe if I explain it more, they’ll understand. It’s not me, it’s them!

 It wasn’t until I had to seriously revise a manuscript, in graduate school (or was it as a postdoc?!?), that I learned the critical ego lessons:

  1. Critiques are part of the learning process.
  2. Critiques are not personal.
  3. The readers are always (OK, 99.5% of the time) right, and responding sincerely to their critiques improves the work.

Why do my students – some of them not yet 20 years old!! – seem so adept at taking critiques with grace? It took me years, and hours of patient mentoring, to realize critiques were not personal attacks on me, but simply suggestions for improving the work. I harbor a secret theory and hope that we humans are slowly, collectively evolving. My other hypotheses include:

  • My students have adopted a growth mindset, which is Dr. Carol Dweck’s idea that mistakes are part of learning.
  • They know that practice and targeted feedback can help you learn more efficiently.
  • They are aliens from a planet where there is no ego and everyone just helps each other with politeness and sincerity.

Whatever the answer, here are three of my favorite quotes from students in writing group:

In response to my question of whether a group needed more time:

“He hasn’t thanked us for our feedback yet,” (Followed by playful laughter and actual thanking).

Overheard during a discussion:

“It’s just that I think your premise is wrong.” (This was followed by a respectful debate about the nature of education and testing).

In response to my walking around, checking in with groups:

“I decided to reorganize my paper after seeing how C. did it!”

Now three final questions:

  1. Am I proud of my students? Absolutely.
  2. Do I know how they got this way? Not exactly…
  3. Will I happily take a little credit? Yes, but only along with the students themselves, their parents, teachers, grandparents, and mentors, Dr. Dweck, any other writing group experience they’ve had, the evolving human race, and the universe.

Now that I’m not in my twenties, I’ve also learned that while individual effort is necessary to success, there is no such thing as individual accomplishment. We accomplish things in the context of our cultures and communities and in the incubator of our families, classes, and jobs. If those contexts provide us with support – whether emotional or economic – then we can thrive. In those types of contexts, we can learn and grow. If we get feedback about how to improve, in a safe setting where we can actually hear it, we can thrive. On the other hand, if our contexts undermine us, underpay us, or stress us out, we can’t.

I know what kind of world I want to live in. My students are on their way to creating it, one thoughtful critique at a time.

Claire Elizabeth Cameron PhD is a co-founder of BACCA Literary where she practices her critiquing skills. She is a research scientist at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and teaches the Cognitive Psychology of Education.


[1] McKeachie, W. J. (2002). McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, research, and theories for college and university teachers. Eleventh edition. Houghton Mifflin. P. 188.

The 5th Annual Hampton Roads Writers Conference – Day Two

September 18, 2013, Virginia Beach, Virginia

Day Two

To read about Day One, click here!

8:30 am:

Bestselling Author Lisa McMann

Lisa McMann

Lisa McMann, Author

Day Two began with introductory remarks by New York Times bestselling author Lisa McMann.

Lisa is the author of the WAKE Trilogy, the VISIONS series, the UNWANTEDS series, and other books with tween and teen characters. She talked about her road to publishing success. She spoke of the joys of balancing a writing career with her life as a wife and mother.

She also spoke of the abuse she faced after becoming an author, such as bad reviews and hateful “fan” mail.

9:45 am:

The First Ten Lines Critique Session

Conference participants (including me) could submit the first ten lines of their manuscript (anonymously, thank goodness) for professional – and public – critique.  The critiquing panel consisted of the three visiting agents – Ethan Vaughan, Jeff Ourvan, and Dawn Dowdle, as well as author Lisa McMann.

Here are a few pointers about submitting to agents:

  • Number one rule for all agents is  FOLLOW SUBMISSION GUIDELINES. Agents are looking for reasons to say “NO,” and incorrect formatting, misspelling the agent’s name, sending attachment when explicitly told not to send attachments are all reason to instantly reject a query letter and sample.
  • Grammar is important. Hire a proofreader, especially if grammar is your weak point.
  • Avoid clichés.
  • Make sure your verbs carry the emotional weight of the story. Stay away from adjectives and adverbs.
  • Avoid lengthy italics. An overuse of italics in a manuscript looks amateurish and is a symptom of unpreparedness.
  • Vary short and long sentences to create tension for the reader.
  • Don’t quote unknown or obscure books. This pulls the reader out of story.

11:00 am:   

Getting Ready for My Very First Pitch to a Literary Agent (Yippee!)

The Hampton Roads Writers Conference offered the opportunity to meet with one of the three visiting literary agents and present a ten-minute pitch. I jumped at the chance. This would be the first time I’d ever met with a real-live literary agent, and obviously, the first time I’d pitched my manuscript. Yes, I’d written query letters and attended agent roundtables at the Virginia Festival of the Book, but this was my first sit-down, face to face meeting. I was meeting with Ethan Vaughan of Kimberley Cameron & Associates. I had only ten minutes with Mr. Vaughan, beginning at 11:15 am., but I was ready.

. . . Or, at least I thought I was ready before I’d attended Chantelle Osman’s Perfecting Your Pitch session  (See day one.).  According to Ms. Osman, I’d done several things wrong. I’d written my pitch (and even made a copy for the agent.  Talk about being overwritten!)  I’d practiced my pitch until I could recite it in my sleep, and I’d even timed it perfectly. If I didn’t pause, it would take eight of my ten minutes, leaving me two minutes for questions and answers.

Wrong!

Wrong!

Wrong!

Ms. Osman explicitly said that pitches shouldn’t sound rehearsed.  Oh well, too late to change it now.

I arrived at the small conference room on the second floor of the Westin Hotel early. One table, two chairs. Mr. Vaughan wasn’t there yet. No one was there. I was his first pitch of the conference. Was that a good omen or bad? The timekeeper – the man who’d tell me when my ten minutes were up – arrived.  He told me I could take a seat but I declined. I wanted Mr. Vaughan to choose which seat he wanted first, and then I’d take the other. I didn’t want to do anything to make him feel uncomfortable. (I felt uncomfortable enough for the both of us. )

Waiting, waiting - photo of a clockface

Waiting, waiting

I watched the clock. 11:00… 11:05… 11:10. I paced the hallway outside the conference room, practicing my new Tai Chi moves. Part the wild horse mane, white crane spreads its wings, needle at sea bottom. 11:12. . . . 11:13. I could hear people coming down the hallway, talking. 11:14  . . . 11:15. I hurried back to the room, notebook with the copies of my pitch in hand, big smile on my face.

Introductions

I eagerly shook Mr. Vaughan’s hand and told him how impressed I was with his literary agency, Kimberley Cameron & Associates, their book list, and their well-known dedication to their authors. Mr. Vaughan enthused about Ms. Cameron’s devotion to her agents and her clients, which I found both heartwarming and endearing.

photo of Ethan Vaughan

Ethan Vaughan, Literary Agent

I glanced at the clock. Eight minutes left! No time for small talk. I plunged in. I read my pitch as fast as I could. Head down, monotone, my mind blank.  AND I MEAN BLANK!

If you’d asked me at that moment what my book was about – the book that I’ve worked on for years, the book I’ve dedicated my life to, the book I’ve dreamed about, the book I’ve given up being with family for — if you’d asked me at that moment, I couldn’t have told you who the main characters were, let alone the plot. I was as stiff as a robot.

I looked up to take a breath and knew I’d made a mistake. My pitch was too long and too detailed.  I’d given him more of a synopsis than a pitch. Mr. Vaughan was very kind. He asked questions and I tried to answer. I told him this was my first pitch ever and I was very nervous. He says I did a good job (proof that literary agents do indeed tell lies) and gave me a few suggestion for the “next time” I pitched to an agent.

I left knowing I wouldn’t get a contract but proud of myself for giving it a shot. I’d met many writers who were too shy to pitch their stories, or too afraid. I was shy and afraid, too, but I learned something very valuable in the process. Mr. Vaughan was polite, considerate and helpful. He gave me suggestions for the next time I pitch my  story, which was a very generous gift, indeed.

– Carolyn O’Neal

Carolyn O’Neal is a co-founder of BACCA Literary

The Stories We Tell

I loved to make up stories when I was a kid. It seemed a simple, easy thing to do, back then. As I grew up, I stopped writing stories. Later, I committed to other art forms, and when I wrote sentences, I wrote nonfiction, not stories. Not long ago, I began again. I dared myself to try making up stories, by signing up for classes at WriterHouse.

Since then, I have slowly gotten more competent through practice, practice, and practice. My writer group, BACCA Literary, is one reason why. We first met, in fact, in a fiction class at WriterHouse.

This writer group has provided me with a monthly deadline for producing – well, something. We’ve been sharing work with one another for at least thirty months. I’ve emailed a Word document out to the others by the late-Friday deadline, every darn month. Well, there was one exception, when my family life was too chaotic, a couple of years ago. So let’s say I’ve been sharing work for at least 29 months and leave it at that.

Good Enough?

Sure, I recognize that I haven’t always sent my best work to the other three writers in the group. “Best” is relative, measured on a sliding scale. Over time, I raised my standards for what’s good enough to send out to the writer group members. After I allocated more time each month to work on writing, I became dissatisfied with my earlier stories. Now I can predict with confidence that the stories I am pleased with now will one day look a little shabby to me.

Your Best doesn't always look the same

Your Best doesn’t always look the same

Meanwhile, I have become less able to turn off the inner voice whispering, “Go ahead. Send something out and see if it gets published.” It was easy the first couple of years to hush that voice. I knew my work wasn’t ready to travel beyond the writer group.

For new-ish writers like me, hushing that voice gets trickier over time. We want to believe we’re improving. We want to believe there’s going to be an audience one day, however small or particularly quirky that audience may reveal itself to be. We want to nourish the creative spirit that energizes our whole enterprise. We want to begin to send work out to people – strangers – not in our writer group. I considered how to start.

The P-Word

To prepare to send work out into the world, I set up a spreadsheet to track my efforts to get published. Then I let the spreadsheet sit for quite a while, untouched. Later on, I added a tab to my spreadsheet with key facts on the publications that most appealed to me – things like deadlines, formatting preferences, lag time before they decide what to publish, method of submission, categories they favor, contact information, etc. The enhanced spreadsheet sat again, for a long break. More recently, I actually sent a few things out and made entries into the spreadsheet. I’ve heard back with two rejections, which I dutifully entered into the appropriate cells. I’m waiting for replies from the others.

I hesitated to send out my work until I felt satisfied enough with it that it didn’t feel too embarrassing. I chose carefully the places I sent those first few submissions – not too grandiose, and yet consistent with who I am as a writer.

And that just begs the questions, doesn’t it?

Questions

Who am I, as a writer, and why am I doing this? Author Dan Holloway, in his recent essay, What Do You Want from Your Writing in 2014 and Beyond? at Jane Friedman’s blog, says:

“If you don’t know what you want from your writing, what on earth are you doing writing anything? How can you possibly tell whether your words do what you want them to?”

It’s actually not that hard a question. It rests on a more fundamental one. Why do you write?”

Please don’t tell me the answer is “I make art because I must.” To me, that feels lazy and self-aggrandizing in a “poor-me,” humblebrag kind of way. Besides it ignores free will.

the words, Why Write?

Oh. THAT question.

I could tell you I write because I’ve engaged with the challenge to improve my work. The challenge is difficult enough always to involve real effort, yet rewarding enough, because of the progress I am making, to continue to motivate me to get better at it.

I could tell you I write because my life with music was altered when hand surgery made playing instruments too difficult. I could tell you I write because I’ve grown old enough to take a longer and more loving view of life. I could tell you that there’s plenty to love about writing for its own sake. Polishing a story can make my day, even when no one else has seen it yet.

Also, the most fun I’ve had with my writing lately was when some visiting non-literary friends asked me to read them a piece after I cooked them dinner. That was a blast. My fellow BACCA-ite, Claire Elizabeth Cameron, touched on this recently when she wrote,

“People are doing work for free, work for fun, work for creativity all over the place, and it’s making this world a better place. Success [in writing] is making a connection.”

So why am I writing? To get better at it. To see how much I can improve. To see if my embarrassment-meter gives me the green light to send out stories to more publications. To see if I receive a green light in return. And, in the meantime, to keep telling stories.

#amwriting

A M Carley

A M Carley is a co-founder of BACCA Literary. She owns and operates Chenille Books where she works with nonfiction authors.

Kickstarter For Writers

Most Kickstarter publishing category campaigns fail to raise even a fifth of their funding goals. Data nerds like me may want to visit kickstarter.com/help/stats for the full post-mortem. Suffice to say: raising money to publish your book is really hard.

Failure Rate

But it’s not impossible. I have produced successful Kickstarter campaigns for writers, ranging from a gritty New Jersey mob memoir with a ten-pin twist, to a gleefully adorable children’s picture book introducing entrepreneurship. Their successes were not a coincidence. Despite their very different audiences, their paths to success were nearly the same.

Bowling For The Mob  Camila's Lemonade Stand

I’m looking forward to teaching an afternoon workshop at WriterHouse on February 16, 2014, to walk through these case studies and what we can learn from them. For now, I’m happy to share three of the ten essentials for Kickstarter success for writers.

  1. Tap into your extrovert and PROMOTE. This is conjecture, but perhaps the reason book campaigns fail disproportionately is because writers tend to be introverts. We want that loophole whereby our work will be found without us having to tell anyone about it. Nope. The Kickstarter campaign is excellent sales boot camp. For both Bowling For The Mob and Camila’s Lemonade Stand, we had a month of promotion prior to the campaign before launch. The goal was to make sure everyone relevant heard about the campaign at least 10 times during the 30 days before launch, through the 30 days up to close.
  2. Map out the money in advance. The occasional Kickstarter campaign goes viral, even books. However, all 125,000 campaigns in the history of Kickstarter have not. In all likelihood, yours will not. So you need to know both exactly how much money you need to produce your book, and exactly where that money is going to come from. After learning the nail-biting hard way on Bowling For The Mob, for Camila’s Lemonade Stand we went through a detailed Kickstarter Estimator process before the campaign launch. This was like a wedding guest list, but with the added columns of how much money the invitees were likely to pledge, and for what kind of reward. Then we applied the 65% rule – because not everyone we invited to the campaign was going to show up (they didn’t).  So let’s say we need to raise $6,500 to produce a book. We sit down and tally up all of our friends, colleagues, family, and fans, and what they’re likely to pledge. That comes to $10,000. We multiply by 65%, get $6,500, and voila, this is a campaign that has a chance to succeed. If, on the other hand, we need $20,000 to produce the book, and then we tally up our likely pledges and that comes to $5,000, well… we don’t even need to bother with the 65% rule. This campaign is almost certainly going to fail. 65 Rule
  3. Shoot a decent, short video. Kickstarter makes a big deal about having a video – any video. People want to see and hear from you. Good light and good sound go a long ways towards making a homemade video watchable. For Bowling For The Mob we had Bob sit directly under a skylight and used a microphone and an iPhone propped on a soda cup; For the Camila’s Lemonade Stand video we used a bright floor lamp with the shade removed behind the camera and a Samsung Galaxy phone with a tripod and microphone. Neither of these videos will win any awards, but they are watchable, informative, and they are SHORT. Don’t underestimate how brief attention spans are. Keep it under 3 minutes.

No Oscars. Successfully funded.

These 3 are the tip of the iceberg. At the seminar we’ll be covering how to tap into the extrovert and promote, how to map out the money in advance, and how to shoot a decent, short video. We’ll also be covering how to pick rewards and at what pledge levels, the (somewhat complicated) mechanics of setting up the necessary accounts for payment processing, some (hilarious!) case studies of what not to do, how to stay within key Kickstarter guidelines so that your project gets approved, what to do when you hit the mid-campaign slump, among other essential elements to success.

kickstarter for writers

If you only take away one idea from this post, it would be “if you build it, they will come” does not apply to Kickstarter. Some lucky folks are salespeople by nature. The rest of us need to practice the steps to master them. And it’s easier to do it with a team.

This creepy crap only works in 80’s Costner movies

If you’ve read this whole post thinking, “what the heck is Kickstarter?!?”, you’re not alone. For Bowling For The Mob, the campaign was the first Kickstarter experience for the writers and a majority of the people who pledged. It’s a fundraising platform for artistic projects which, since 2009, has raised nearly a billion dollars. The best way to learn more is to wander around on Kickstarter.com. Enjoy!

If you’re considering Kickstarter to fund your book, it’s hard – but possible. No hocus pocus required.

Please consider yourself invited to the Kickstarter for Writers seminar at WriterHouse on 2/2/14.

Please visit the successful campaigns for Bowling For The Mob and Camila’s Lemonade Stand.

And, please feel free to stop by The Artist’s Partner for more information on the services I provide – like Kickstarter campaign production – to artists who want to keep a bigger share of the profits by producing and distributing their work.

Bethany Joy Carlson is a co-founder of BACCA Literary, a WriterHouse board member, and founder of The Artist’s Partner.

Don’t worry. You can’t pitch worse than 90’s Farley movies

Mind-Expanding Writing Strategies

One thing that I love about “writing in community” is the accountability. Expanding the group of people who can give constructive feedback about our writing makes it a less lonely activity. Writing groups, partners, or teams help cheer us on when we’re stuck. And deadlines for those groups help us keep going even when – like at the end of Daylight Savings Time – we’d like to curl up on the couch instead of sticking to our writing goals. Here are some other mind-expanding* strategies that keep me writing.

1. Writing is an opportunity to be mindful

angkor_thom_image

The author captured this peaceful face beyond the doorways on an October 2013 visit to Angkor Thom, Cambodia

I recently learned the term productive procrastination, which means doing something that seems productive, to avoid doing The Thing that you should be doing – in this case, writing. Ever notice that when you sit down for your daily dose of writing, the dirty dishes or laundry start calling to you? Or it’s for some reason it’s a good time to do your banking?

Even chores can seem compelling if you’ve been out of the writing habit for a while. So: next time this happens, expand your awareness to include this tendency. In other words, simply try to notice, to consciously register, when your mind tries to convince you that something else is more important than your writing. At first, you may still end up avoiding your writing. But after a while of noticing, you can change that habit (your brain is actually re-wiring itself). Now when I catch myself beginning to productively procrastinate, I’m usually able to override the impulse and keep on writing. Sometimes it helps to write down the item on a to-do list so I don’t forget. I just say to myself “You’re writing now, you can do that later.” And it’s true!

2.  Think outside the screen

In this age of electronic devices, sometimes I forget about writing strategies beyond my laptop screen. But interacting with a paper draft is different than on a computer or tablet. I find reading and editing on paper an especially important strategy when I’m working on chapters – or really, anything longer than a couple of pages. When I read on the page, I notice more easily if a sentence needs to be moved up or down, or I can see a whole section that can be edited out. Do you find it difficult to order the action in a novel or short story? Consider cutting up pieces of text and moving things around.

You can also use outlines however they work for you. For example, try outlining after you start writing, or make an outline of what you’ve written. This will show you the entire story and things that are out of place might pop.

3. Writing is part of the learning process

DSCF2278

One of many colorful Buddhas in a park in the Cambodian Cultural Village of Siem Reap. He might be saying “Don’t worry. Be happy. Just write. Then edit.”

I used to have a concept that I would understand something fully and then write it down. But I’ve learned that for me, writing is how I figure things out. In other words, I’ve broadened my definition of “writing” to include “writing to learn,” in addition to “writing to teach” (or explain, describe, or entertain). I’m not so hesitant anymore to start writing even if I don’t know where it might lead.

4. Expect to edit

Learning is a process. We are all in that process. Even experts write “crappy drafts.” Which is why another thing that’s just part of writing is editing. And to truly open a piece up to its possibilities, some parts of yourself may need to be uninvited from the editing part of the process. For example, the “that’s not good enough yet” voice and the “everything I do is perfect” voice do not belong in the editing room with you. Banish those voices and you will have more room to think.

*Credit to the great wordsmith, A M Carley.

– Claire Cameron

Hampton Roads Writers Fifth Annual Conference

Carolyn O'Neal at the Hampton Roads Writers Conference, 2013

Carolyn O’Neal at the Hampton Roads Writers Conference, 2013

DAY ONE:

It’s a three-hour drive from Charlottesville to Virginia Beach, unless you hit Navy traffic. Then it could take weeks. I was careful.  I left C’Ville at noon on Thursday, Sept 19th so I wouldn’t get caught in the 5:00 rush.   I wasn’t heading to Virginia Beach for a late summer tan or a fishing trip in the Atlantic. I was going to Virginia Beach to attend the Hampton Roads Writers 5th Annual Conference. It ran Thursday, Sept. 19th through Saturday, Sept. 21st. The organization describes itself like this:

Hampton Roads Writers (HRW) is a nonprofit, Virginia Beach, Virginia-based group of professional and aspiring writers, friends, and supporters of the arts who have joined together to promote the craft and passion of writing and the love of reading and literature in Virginia. We aim to encourage readers and writers of all ages and talents, as well as acknowledge and celebrate awareness of local and contemporary authors and their work. We serve as a resource to our community by creating and supporting literary events throughout the Hampton Roads area.


I signed up the minute I discovered I could pitch my novel to a real, live literary agent who represented my genre. Ten-minutes, one-on-one pitch session. I was excited to get on the road. I grew up in Norfolk so driving through Norfolk to Virginia Beach packed an emotional punch: The tunnel, the Chesapeake Bay, the condos thrown up as soon as Norfolk tore down the old Ocean View Amusement Park.

Chesapeake Bay, photo courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation

Chesapeake Bay, photo courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation

I drove by my old elementary school and my parents’ house. I noted the new front porch and a beat up pickup truck parked in the driveway. Mom and Dad never would have let their car look like that. I considered visiting their gravesites but this wasn’t the time to wallow in the past. This was the time to get ready for the future.

The Westin Hotel in Virginia Beach was a great choice for the Conference.

The Westin Virginia Beach Town Center

The Westin Virginia Beach Town Center

Clean and friendly, plus the Hampton Roads Writers (HRW) Conference attendees received a reduced rate. As I checked in, I was greeted by a familiar face, Cliff Garstang from SWAG. Cliff was preparing for his first presentation that evening. I don’t remember when or how I heard about the HRW Conference. Probably from Cliff.

Since I was going to the conference mostly to pitch my story, I had e-mailed HRW earlier asking about their refund policy. Lauran Strait, the President of HRW, was great. Her responses were timely and polite. She told me the formal refund policy:

Registration fully refundable until July 26, 2013; from July 27 to Aug 23, 2013 all refunds will result in a forfeiture of $25.00; from Aug 24 to Sept 11, all refunds will result in a forfeiture of $50.00; after September 11, no refunds will be issued.

I let her know that I was driving three hours to Virginia Beach from Charlottesville and had to book a hotel room for two nights. Lauran understood the effort and expense so she added a special caveat.  If the agent I was going to see canceled at the last minute, I would still receive a full refund. Not only that, she also made sure I was on schedule with my submissions. I’d signed up for a couple of events that required submissions, including a “First Ten Lines Critique Session” and an optional (fee-based) 10-page manuscript evaluation by agent Dawn Dowdle. Lauran even sent e-mail  reminders of when the submissions were due.

After settling into my hotel room, I went to register for the conference. I was given an impressive agenda:

Kevin Maurer, award-winning reporter and New York Times bestselling co-author of No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden, and Lisa McMann, New York Times bestselling author of the WAKE Trilogy , the VISIONS series, the UNWANTEDS series, will deliver keynote addresses. Other presenters included fiction writers Clifford Garstang, Lydia Netzer, Jeff Andrews, andChantelle Aimée Osman,  author and Certified Public Accountant Jack Downs, poet Jeanne Larsen, and agents Ethan Vaughan, Jeff Ourvan, and Dawn Dowdle.

Chantelle Osmam, President and Owner of Twist of Karma Entertainment

Chantelle Osmam

I attended my first breakout session Thursday evening, 6:30 – 8:00 PM on the topic of PERFECTING YOUR PITCH, presented by Chantelle Aimée Osman, owner of Twist of Karma Entertainment..

Chantelle was exhausted. She’d just arrived in Virginia after a murderous flight from Arizona. After a couple sips of coffee, she began.

Start with your Teaser Pitch.

Give the genre and 2-3 sentences that provide the agent with the basic idea of your novel. Avoid generic statements. Chantelle used the Wizard of Oz to illustrate a Teaser Pitch:

After a cyclone transports a lonely Kansas farm girl to a magical land, she sets out on a dangerous journey to find a wizard with the power to send her home.

Next, give the agent your Expanded Pitch.

Tell the story in an organized fashion.  Add details, avoid backstory.  Highlight heroes, goals, conflict, risk, pivotal elements, turning points, and the end.

Our farm girl, Dorothy, dreams of going over the rainbow. Through a freak cyclone, she and her farmhouse are transported to Munchkinland.  There, she learns the only way back to Kansas is to meet the Wizard of Oz, who has the power to get her home.  So she sets off on a dangerous journey.  Along the way, she meets a Scarecrow, a Tin Woodsman, and a Lion.   And they travel with her.  However, Dorothy has made an enemy of a Wicked Witch, and she and her three friends  …   (Oz pitches courtesy of Christopher Lockhart.)

Chantelle leaned in close and looked us in the eyes.

“Pitches sell you, not just your writing.”

  • If you don’t appear passionate and excited about your own work, no one else will be. You’re starting a business relationship, so be professionals. Dress appropriately (generally just slightly more casual than the person you’re pitching). Be respectful, appear open to ideas and suggestions. Be flexible. The person you’re pitching to has more experience in the industry, and can help.
  • Practice, but don’t sound rehearsed. Comedy pitches should be funny, thriller pitches should have suspense. Switch up words each time to be spontaneous. Be specific, avoid abstract themes and generalizations. Watch your audience; if they appear bored, change tactic. Be prepared to start and stop for questions or other interruptions. If you fumble, recover. Provide verbal milestones to orient the listener  (“at the midpoint” or “in the final scene”.)
  • Avoid overselling, comparisons, describing every side plot and each character’s backstory, disagreeing.
  • Make sure you have a professional synopsis and other information to leave behind ask ab out how to follow up.
  • When e-mailing the agent, be sure to put where you met in the subject line.  For example, ‘Hampton Roads Writers Conference, 2013.’”

Rules of Synopsis:

A literary synopsis is a condensed statement that  conveys the narrative arc of your  manuscript.  A synopsis shows major characters and events, from beginning to end.

  • Begin at the beginning, end at the end.
  • Break it down into 12 beats. Act 1 (3 segments), Act 2 (6 segments), Act 3 (3 segments)
  • Highlight on main characters
  • Use attention getting/action words. This is not just a recitation of facts.
  • Use 3rd person, present tense
  • Tell entire story, avoid cliffhangers.
  • Have synopsis read by people who haven’t read book and don’t know story. Can they understand plot and main characters?
  • Use normal font, e.g. Times New Roman. Nothing unusual.

That was day one.  Watch for future blog posts to learn about day two’s agenda events, how I pitched my novel, and what I learned from the conference.

Logo for Hampton Roads Writers

Carolyn O’Neal

Support WriterHouse Cville and Bid for a BACCA Critique Session

WH logo

BACCA Literary is thrilled to be donating an authentic BACCA experience to the annual WriterHouse Words & Wine benefit Sunday afternoon, October 13, at Glass House Winery (in Free Union, just North and West of Charlottesville, VA). The benefit starts at 1pm and ends at 4pm.

The successful bidder at the silent auction will receive a full 4-member, 30-minute, in-person BACCA critique of up to 3,000 words of their manuscript. The customary value of this invaluable feedback is $100.

We’ll be following the same routine that has proved so useful to the BACCA members since January 2011:

1. Submit Work-In-Progress a full week in advance.
2. Meet to hear discussion of the work, following Whisnant’s code for great critiques.
3. Allow time for author Q&A.

The founding members of BACCA first met in a fiction class at WriterHouse, so it is particularly enjoyable for each of us to come full circle and give back some of the valuable encouragement and critiques that have taken our own writing to the next level. BJC

Be sure to join us at Words & Wine this October 13 at Glass House Winery! Admission of $35 includes food, wine, a gift, live music, and one raffle ticket. The silent auction will be held during the benefit. Full details at WriterHouse.org.

wine glass and bird of paradise

Business for Critique Groups

BACCA meets monthly to discuss and critique our writing projects. Sometimes we extend the meeting to include “Business.” What does that mean? What business could we possibly have, as a noncommercial private critique group?

Image courtesy of cooldesign / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of cooldesign / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When we began our routine of monthly meetings, it wasn’t long before we were reluctant to leave when the critiques were done. We wanted to keep talking – about who had submitted work to publications and contests, who had been sending out query letters to agents, the considerations for and against self-publishing an e-book, the best tools to keep track of submissions, queries and responses. On a related point, we were quick to provide moral support when the agent was silent, or the contest was not won.

One month, a member submitted her own writer-website as her work-in-progress. This helped lead us all to the gradual realization that we were each struggling, in various ways, with how to present ourselves publicly as writers. One of us, after reading up on author platform, branding and the like, suggested we might benefit from working together to pin down our author identity: What our persona is, for the purposes of placing our manuscripts, blogging, reading publicly, and marketing our work. We extended our next regular session to include a Business meeting.

To prepare, based on an idea from a music-performance coach, each of us agreed to choose three words or terms that described us as a writer. Then we’d provide constructive feedback – we were by then familiar enough to trust one another with this sensitive work. Digging in at the meeting, we brainstormed and came up with terms that felt juicier and more attuned to our identities as writers. For example, from Impatient | Imaginative | Honest, Bethany ended up with Decisive | Powerful | Storyteller. Claire’s takeaway words were: Candid | Insightful | Compassionate. She had started with Unconventional | Perceptive | Humane.

Two years on, Claire and Bethany still like their three words: “At the time it was something I aspired to, and now it’s a core part of my identity. It went from who I wanted to be, to who I am,” says Bethany about the experience.

This illustrates a larger, perhaps unanticipated, consequence of our Business meetings. Focusing on “Business” focuses us on our purpose as writers, and our relationships with the larger world. Carolyn explains, “The first Business meeting legitimized the time I was spending writing. Made me feel ‘real,’ like writing wasn’t just a lark. It wasn’t a hobby that wouldn’t amount to anything. The people we associate with are our mirrors. Associating with BACCA gave me confidence in my writing.”

After that three-words exercise, we enjoyed that year’s Virginia Festival of the Book. One of us suggested we offer to present a session at the Festival in 2013. We agreed to go for it. Needless to say, a good deal of business was involved in the planning for that panel. Session proposals were due to the Festival in October. Over the summer, we each drafted a proposal. From those four, we committed to a panel about how to create a great writing group. Each of us signed on for specific tasks with calendared deadlines – promotion, graphics, web, social media, liaison with the Festival organizers, etc.

We set up a group photo shoot, on the theory that, whether or not our proposal became a presentation at VaBook, some good author-headshots would come in handy. A local photographer, Fareine Benz, met us in Crozet before we began that month’s critique meeting, and took individual as well as group photos. We wanted the group photos for our own writer-group website, baccaliterary.com, and – we hoped – publicity for the Festival of the Book 2013.

red piece

Image courtesy of Idea Go / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Speaking of which, we added some Business time to another critique meeting, to agree on a way forward with the BACCA website – what we wanted it for, what purposes it served, how to get a logo and a graphic ‘look,’ what content we wanted to keep as permanent resources, how frequently we intended to add new blog posts (like this one) to it in future, etc.

We went live with our website in time to use it as a promotional tool for our panel – yes, our proposal got the thumbs-up! – at the Festival of the Book in March, 2013. Each of us wrote one or more permanent resource pages for the website, one member organized the design aspects, and we reimbursed another member, who had the foresight to have reserved the domain name baccaliterary.com. Our first blog posts concerned the Festival – promoting our appearance beforehand, and telling the story of our experience, afterwards.

When we set up a weekend retreat a few weeks before the Festival, we planned to focus on an overnight writing challenge, and prepare for the presentation coming up soon. Business items came up that weekend, too. We decided to table them until after the Festival.

The panel at the 2013 Festival of the Book went well. It also provoked more questions about our identity and purpose. At our next extended critique session, we set aside time to talk about where our writer group was going as an entity. Did we want to work together providing literary services? Did we want to alternate or redefine our leadership responsibilities? Did we want to collaborate with local groups for joint projects? We tabled those questions, for discussion at the next Business meeting.

What would we blog about? Who would manage website maintenance? We agreed to a monthly schedule for new blog posts, rotating authorship and subject matter. Did we want to send in a proposal to the Festival of the Book 2014? Deferring that larger issue, we requested feedback from the 2013 Festival organizers, to see what people had said after attending our session.

We recently received the compiled comments from our audience members at BACCA’s VaBook panel last spring. Overall the feedback was quite positive, with nuggets like these: “Fantastic to see another perspective on writing.” “Great ideas to improve our writing group.” “ Excellent handout.” “Extremely well organized and presented; thoughtful; as advertised; a lovely contribution to the festival!”

Constructive criticism came from someone who said with more audience involvement the session would not have lapsed into feeling a bit ‘self-congratulating.’ Another person requested specifics on writing and illustrating for children’s books, and someone else wanted to hear from a variety of writer’s groups. A few commenters suggested we extend opportunities for audience participation next time.

Image courtesy of cooldesign / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of cooldesign / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

More recently, our Business has included keeping the BACCA blog fresh with monthly posts, and plotting our next steps, as individual writers and as actors in the larger world of letters. We keep each other apprised of interesting news and commentary, and notes from writer conferences, through our private facebook page. Throughout it all, we’ve kept our monthly critiques going. BACCA member works in progress currently include memoir, graphic novel, short story and novel formats.

So, why do we hold Business meetings and what do we get out of them? As Bethany puts it, “they help to set writer goals that become a reality.” I agree. Our Business meetings recognize that even for relative newbies like us, the business side of writing is something to engage with, rather than avoid.

It may be coincidence, but since we began our Business meetings, a couple of years ago, Carolyn completed a novel and wrote a prize-winning short story for the Hook’s annual fiction contest, Claire edited the recently published book, Braver than You Believe, Bethany founded a literary enterprise and I got involved with publishing and author coaching.

So can you guess what we’ll be discussing at our next Business meeting? Judging from past experience, I’d wager there’ll be a few surprises. I can hardly wait.

A M Carley

Critiques in the Classroom

I want my students to feel our writing critiques have launched their work to the next level. At its best, competition in the classroom raises everyone’s game.  But it’s easy to cross the line from healthy challenge to catty, snarky, and mean. When I teach a workshop, channeling that energy in a positive direction is one of my top priorities.

Matt Groening’s Simpsons courtesy of simpsons.wikia.com

Instructor Mantras for Great Classroom Critiques

As the teacher, I set the tone.  I want a positive, honest, challenging, listening environment with firm boundaries.   These are my instructor mantras.

  • I believe in each work.” I may imagine a long road between a current draft and publication.  But if I treat a student’s work like it’s hopeless, the whole class will pick up on that vibe and amplify it. The goal is not perfection, but getting the current draft to the next level. The fact is, every work can improve.
  • I say what I mean.”  Balancing the previous mantra, I don’t do my students any favors if the workshop turns into a mutual back patting session.  I don’t beat around the bush.  I call out the things I see that are working and the things that need work.
  • I ask questions about what I don’t understand.” Assumption is the mother of all, ahem, screw-ups.  Just because I’m the instructor, I don’t need to pretend I know it all.  When presented with something unfamiliar or unclear, I ask questions.
  • I listen carefully.” I should probably move this mantra to the number one spot, because as the teacher, I want to TALK.  Boring.  Belittling.  Discouraging.  I need to listen to my students first, and talk last.  I listen attentively so that I can return to emphasize students’ important contributions by name, and only then fill in any gaps that haven’t already covered.
  • I stop behavior that doesn’t belong in my class.” Especially with adult students, it’s tempting to cop out and think ‘we’re all grown ups here’, and let the class devolve into Lord of the Flies. Instead, when one of my students starts in with destructive criticism or wanders into a ranting monologue, I politely interrupt with, “Interesting point, Sally, but we’re getting off track. Let’s you and I talk about that offline after class.”

Classroom Rules for Great Critiques

Luke Whisnant’s ‘Responding to Other People’s Fiction’ is my handbook for setting critique ground rules, whether the writing is strictly fiction or not.  I repeat the headlines before each critique session.  Most people need to hear something three times to register it and ten times to memorize it, so it is not overkill to provide gentle reminders at the start of each workshop.

  • Start with what’s working.  Every piece has something that’s working for it.  We start there to encourage one another.
  • Continue with what needs work.  We’re not here to congratulate each other.  We’re here to improve.  Let’s get specific about what needs work.
  • Phrase with “I think”.  Our critiques are opinions, not facts.  We offer them thoughtfully, we listen to them carefully. In the end, it is up to the writer to decide what to do with our opinions.
  • Avoid “I liked…” or “I didn’t like…” This isn’t about tastes in reading material.  We are here to help each other with the craft, not share what we read in our free time.
  • The critiquers talk firstThe writer benefits most from unfiltered critiques.  The writer gets time at the end to respond.

I have found variations on these ground rules to be helpful in other creative and collaborative environments: Brainstorming about starting a business. Rehearsing for a play.  Setting strategic goals for an organization.  Co-writing a manuscript.  But for me they are particularly rewarding when I get that enthusiastic email from a student, thankful for the rekindled energy they have for their work, excited about how much it has improved, and ready to tackle the job of taking their draft to the next level.

If you are interested in more information on constructive critiques in the classroom, please contact bethanyjoycarlson at hotmail dot com.

Bethany Carlson