Some Tech Tools for Writers

calendar of Oct - Nov - Dec 2014

What’s Left of 2014

It’s fall. Everyone’s back at their desks, and signs of the November->January holiday madness are still faint enough to ignore. So in other words, we’re all on the brink of overwhelm. If, like me, you are juggling writing projects with other work, you want to feel you’ve got the materials you need, wherever you happen to find yourself when the time opens up to work on your writing projects.

Lately, I have found a few tools that really help keep overwhelm at bay, particularly in collaborative environments.

Tracking Shared Projects

To keep track of shared projects (in my world, that usually involves 2-5 people), I used to make a table in Word of the topics and tasks within each topic that were to be managed. The parties involved each received a copy by email, and wrote back happy emails about how organized we all were. That part usually went pretty well. Then the ugly part began when it came time to update it, and keep track of version numbers, and revision dates, and who had received an emailed copy of the latest version, and on and on. It became a minefield, not a helpful tool. So many accurate and true things in that table could become wrong and out of date, so quickly.

Now for shared projects I encourage my book coaching clients and other project collaborators to use Trello. It’s a web-based tool, free for basic use, for listing items and adding comments, files, checklists, calendared deadlines, images and other media, and more. A page, known as a Board, in Trello’s default format, which is easily edited, shows three vertical lists headed To Do, Doing, and Done. One oddity: You can’t delete items from Trello, but you can archive them so they aren’t on your screen.

Sample Board in Trello

Sample Board in Trello

Search is nice and fast. It works on devices with a web connection – which includes computers, tablets, smartphones, and so on. And it’s always up to date. When people add their two cents, or a new task, or check a box in a checklist, everybody involved will know about it the next time they visit the Trello board. The ugly part from the old days of tables build in Word just pretty much disappears.

Floating Research Library

It’s true what they all say about Evernote: You really won’t need to keep those scraps of paper any more. It’s amazing to me how readily I adapted from “Where the $%^& did I put that stick-it with that book title / idea for subplot / phone number / song fragment?” to “Oh yeah, I’ll just look in Evernote. I bet I put it there.” Like Trello, Evernote’s search is super-fast and thorough. Also as with Trello, you can make categories and sub-items, here called Notebooks and Notes, subject to annotation, media attachments, live URL links, etc. For me, Evernote is my great reference library in the sky. Nothing is too small to put up there.

I’ve been at meetings with only my phone, yet equipped to answer questions, back up my assertions, illustrate ideas, and keep the ball rolling because I’ve got Evernote on my phone. And when you come across that brilliant idea or crucial piece of info while you’re out and about, you can email it to your Evernote library with your special dedicated email address (that you remembered to stick into your smartphone’s contacts directory, of course). It works on most devices. Unlike Trello, the Evernote software is not web-based – you download an app, free for basic use, from the company’s website and it resides on your device, while sharing the contents of your library with other devices you authorize. There’s a username/password gate to pass through, securing access to your stuff.

Facebook Groups

I feel a little tacky admitting this, but you know what? Facebook can be a useful collaboration tool. Protect your privacy, of course, as you would with anything at all posted there, but within bounds, a Closed or Secret Facebook group can become a terrific tool for shared projects. Keep one another up to date, ask questions, post calendared events, share files and links. The biggest downside? You have to go on Facebook to access the good stuff your colleagues are sharing with you inside your walled garden. Time sucks lurk just outside the garden wall.

Image of a garden wall

Beware what lurks outside. Image from HGTV.com

Again, it’s free of charge, web-based, and platform-independent. A web connection is all you need. We BACCA members rely on such a group for keeping in touch between meetings.

Google Calendar

The interface is unbeautiful, old, and clunky, admittedly, and privacy is, uh, dubious, but inviting people to meetings, setting aside the time for them, linking to an agenda document, and other such administrative tasks can be handled pretty well from within Google Calendar. By the way, you can invite people who don’t have a gmail address. It’s web-based, platform independent and free of charge.

File Storage

When I have the chance to get some writing work done, I’m not always at my home office with access to the files stored on the server there. I switched a while back from Dropbox to Sync, as the place to keep drafts of works in progress. Truth be told, I prefer to use it only for temporary storage. (That’s probably my 60s-era bad attitude showing up, as it is wont to do these days.) Like the other products mentioned here, it is free for basic use. Sync says it uses encryption and otherwise is better at protecting my privacy than the competition.

Backup Is On You

With Trello and Evernote and Facebook and Google Calendar and everything else web-based, backing up your data is your job – not theirs. Procedures and file formats differ, so be sure to find out the ways to save copies from the cloud down to something local under your control. Then – and this is important – slot the time into your regular routine actually to DO those backups. It’s the old umbrella-toting-rainstorm-averting theory – if you make backups you’ll probably never need them. So make them.

Privacy

Yeah, not so much. I recommend assuming, at a minimum, that what you put up in the Cloud is or may be subject to anonymous data-mining. In addition, personally, I wouldn’t use any of these tools to store usernames and passwords, Social Security and other such valuable identifying numbers, large address books and contacts directories, valuable intellectual property, and confidential documents. Sync’s website includes a blog post itemizing some of the more egregious privacy policies out there.

The Monster in the Shadows

Okay, I admit it. Not covered here is a recommendation for the tool that facilitates easy collaboration on an actual document. That’s because I’m still looking for something better than Track Changes in Word. Please understand, by that I mean I really really really want to find something better. I have been known to wail, curse, stamp my feet, sigh, and otherwise demonstrate my utter frustration with that inadequate, inelegant, outdated tool. One that I’ve read interesting things about is called Draft. Here’s its info page about version tracking and revisions.

PS – In the day since this blogpost went up, I’ve come across a few more things on this topic. Two colleagues and fellow BACCA-ites chimed in: Bethany Joy Carlson mentioned Google Docs as a useful alternative to Word for some purposes (although I’ve also seen negative reviews of it for security concerns, for example), and C E Cameron is checking out Scrivener (as I am). And then I recalled having seen mention of Poetica for online document collaboration. And then I realized that Jane Friedman’s recent blog post about alternatives to Word may have been the place I learned about Poetica.

What do you think? Do these and other tools help you keep the overwhelm at a manageable distance? Please tell us in the Comments below.

– AM Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, is a founding member of BACCA, and is CEO of Chenille Books which provides editing and coaching services to authors.

 

7 Things I’ve Learned About Writing From Casting

Bethany casting a major motion picture in 2014... right before 1,055 boys and their entourages arrived

Bethany casting a major motion picture in 2014… right before 1,055 boys and their entourages arrived

One of my favorite jobs is being a Casting Assistant for Arvold.

A funny thing happens when you work casting. Actors come up to you and ask, “why didn’t (my son / my niece / my spouse) I get the part?!?”

If I’m ever feeling low about my rejections (I’m currently 0 for 2 this year on screenwriting competitions), I remind myself of these seven things I’ve learned about writing from casting.

  1. There’s a lottery element to producing creative work. I recently assisted at an “open call”, e.g. an audition for a major motion picture that was open to the public. We auditioned ONE THOUSAND FIFTY FIVE boys in four hours. We turned away over a thousand more. The police had to direct traffic. Art is tied to dreams, and a lot of people share the dream of seeing their creative work produced and shared and enjoyed. So the competition is stiff. It’s just not statistically sound to expect more yesses than noes.
  2. It’s worth it to show up even if I don’t book the gig. Most of the actors I see don’t book the part they’re auditioning for. But, I get to see them work. Which means when I’m brainstorming whom to call for the next project, the faces I’ve seen over and over again leap to mind. Familiarity is powerful. If you’re professional on the phone and email, show up on time, take direction, and keep your cool, you’re showing that you’re a pro – even if you don’t book this particular gig. So I make sure when I’m talking with agents, editors, producers, and other professionals, I’m behaving myself accordingly. Even if they don’t bite on my project. Yet.
  3. A performance can be amazing – and not right for the job. I have cried at auditions where the actor did not book the part. If we are looking for a haggard woman crying over the death of her son, and the actor is young and beautiful, they may nail the performance but simply not be right for the role. I submitted to a comedy screenplay contest earlier this year. My script is good, but it is dark. I call it a dark comedy, but reviewers call it a comedic drama. If the contest winner turns out to be a classic slapstick comedy, I’ll know my submission just was not right for what the judges were looking for.
  4. No performance happens in a vacuum. No actor’s performance stands alone in a film or TV show. It needs to be compatible with the other performances. If we’ve already cast 10 of 20 speaking roles for a particular show, the other 10 roles that remain to be cast need actors who complement the rest. The same holds true for a publisher’s line-up. If I submit a Young Adult manuscript about a 15-year-old Physics prodigy, and the publisher is already about to debut a Young Adult book about a 15-year-old Astrophysics prodigy, that’s just my bad luck. My book does not exist in a vacuum.
  5. Some days are bad days. This doesn’t really need an explanation. Even good actors have a bad day and turn in a lackluster performance. Sometimes my writing has no spark. C’est la vie.
  6. Some actors aren’t ready yet. We’re doing emerging actors a favor by not putting them in roles they can’t carry. Ideally, we want to set everyone up so they can succeed. Frankly, when I look back on it, I’m really relieved some of the manuscripts I submitted never got picked up. I would not want my major debut to have been that (in hindsight) overwritten mess.
  7. Beautiful and photogenic are not the same thing. I’m still trying to come to grips with the difference between what looks good to the naked eye and what works on camera. There are a lot of differences, actually: What works on stage is massive overkill on camera. Comic timing and dramatic connection are not the same muscle. Large features on a face may look a bit strange in person, but the camera lens may love them. And lots of actors are still trying to work out where exactly their talent lies – and auditions can help that process, because experts are effectively giving feedback over time based on what kinds of jobs an actor ultimately books. I felt that way about my writing for a long time. Do I write short stories? Fables? YA? Flash fiction? Graphic novels? It wasn’t until I really dug into screenwriting that I felt like I found my true strength.

I guess if there’s one thing to take away about writing from casting, it’s that persistence and professionalism pay off. Don’t take rejection personally; it’s probably moving you closer to your goal.

 

Arvold casts award-winning film (Lincoln), television (Turn: Washington’s Spies), and commercials (just wait till you see the Williamsburg Tourism commercial coming in 2015). If you are interested in learning more about film and television in the Mid-Atlantic, consider attending one of the monthly Arvold Live sessions – they are an invaluable discussion with industry pros about how Virginia’s star is rising for actors – and everyone who works in the business.

Bethany Joy Carlson writes dark comedy screenplays. (Or comedic dramas, depending on whom you ask.) She is a WriterHouse Board member, owner of TheArtistsPartner.com, and founder of BACCA.

Outlining My Way

I’ve always hated outlines. For big writing projects, that was always the directive: make an outline. Start with your thesis…then flesh it out with evidence. List all the important events in the piece in the right order. Open with conflict…then include key scenes to develop it.

When the instructor didn’t assign an outline, I felt I should use one anyway. It seemed a necessary step on the way to an achieved goal, like letting the dough rise or gassing up the car before a journey. If I skipped outlining, the image of a dull paper covered in red pen plagued me. So like a good doobie, I outlined. I made a list with Roman numerals, capital letters, and numbers. My outline was a beautiful thing, and one to which I rarely returned.

Farewell to Outlines Haiku

I will not ever

use a Roman numeral

in writing again 

Since drafting this piece, I discovered that two writers I know and admire—Bethany Carlson and Dan Willingham—are Old-School Outliners. I’m sure there are others as well, but truly, this piece is not for them. It’s for all the other people—people who, like me, don’t know all that you’ll write before you begin.

After producing many lovely and ignored outlines, I’ve learned to let go of the old way and see my process differently. Writing—even logical, systematic writing, like I do for my research job—is a creative process. I can’t show up at work at 9am and write until 5pm, and I can’t produce an outline and then follow it mechanically to its finish. There are too many unknowns on the way to a finished piece, and they emerge in their own due time. Not by an imposed schedule or anything as regular and top-down as an outline.

Sure, I might know my topic when I start, and I might even have a few things I want to say about it. But! There are invariably insights that arise as I’m writing, thoughts I wasn’t going to think until I wrote the sentence…that I just wrote. (For example, having just written the previous sentence, I thought of the word, emergent. Emergent thoughts, by definition, can’t be known ahead of time. The web tells me that emergent means “in the process of coming into being or becoming prominent.”)

It’s that “in the process” that I love. À la Don Fry, who wrote “Writing Your Way,” I’ve learned to use outlines my way. I use them in the middle of my process. Instead of an outline, that process begins with thinking off the page, contemplation on walks and while washing dishes and at other times when my mind is empty of deliberate input. I might jot some notes down to jog my memory later, like the note for this post I made on July 17: Outlines are not useless…or something to explain how using an outline to get started is only a start, [you] don’t need to stick to it.

At some point after in-the-mind marinating, I’ll write for a bit. Then, when the writing tide ebbs, maybe I’ll make an outline. It might even have a bullet point, but I avoid numerals. Too inevitable. Brainstorming with my writing group is pure fun. At other times, my outline is a diagram, like screenwriters use for movie plots. Or, I’ll use the Comment feature in Microsoft Word Review tab to describe the goal of each paragraph after it’s drafted. An outline that becomes prominent after the writing has commenced honors my personal process in a satisfying, bottom-up way that I don’t experience with the traditional outline.

outline

Maybe the most important thing I’ve learned since my early indoctrination is that there’s no place for “should” in my writing process. Like an old-fashioned outline, “should” makes me feel constrained to rigid sequence, with its mechanical headers and sub-headers and bullet points, and that’s not where my creativity lives.

Instead, I find my creativity in the process, and that’s right where I want my outline. In the middle of the mess and the emergence, it can do its job of guiding, signaling, and organizing.*

*Side note that wouldn’t be in any outline: I’ve heard the best leaders are more like coaches than like bosses—they’re focused less on the product and more on the process. Maybe that means my beef with outlines is really a problem with authority…

–C. E. Cameron

The Literate Movie Goers Guide

Books into Movies…

Why some movies CAPTURE or IMPROVE the author’s work

While others turn a night at the theater into an expensive nap  zzzzz…

“What Book to Movie translation is your favorite?”

Mike:

Lord of the Rings.  Lord of the Rings PosterThe three Lord of the Rings books were very descriptive and well defined (honestly, sometimes to the point of tedium). This level of description gave Director Peter Jackson ample  material for his creative team at Wingnut Films. The acting, special effects, and the musical accompaniment combined to capture the feel of J.R.R. Tolkien’s world of Hobbits, Kings, and Wizards. The classic trilogy translated well to the screen.

Don:

The GodfatherThe Godfather Poster.  The Godfather was Mario Puzo’s pulp novel about gangsters. However, in the loving hands of Director Francis Ford Coppola, this dime-store story became a classic film trilogy equal to the great Shakespearean dramas about family and betrayal.  The story of Don Vito Corleone and his corrupt children became a twentieth century King Lear.

With both the Lord of the Rings and The Godfather, the movies increased the fan base and boosted book sales.

But this isn’t always the case….

 

“What Book to Movie translation DIDN’T work?”

Don:

The Book Thief PosterThe Book Thief. The movie had the major plot points but didn’t capture the emotion of the book. Even worse, it didn’t capture the unique voice of the author. So much of The Book Thief is about the author’s writing style, but the movie had none of that. The take home is that words do matter, not just the plot.

Carolyn:

The Book Thief. No novel since To Kill A Mockingbird has captured the lives of young people caught in a tragic world of prejudice and death like Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. Set in Nazi Germany during World War Two, the narrator is Death, and he’s busier than he’s ever been. But Death takes a liking to a young German girl and her adoptive family. A riveting plot, yet there is much more to love about the novel. The author’s unique point of view character allows the reader to experience tragedy and hope on the same page, sometimes, in the same sentence. The movie version of The Book Thief only hinted at the depth of the emotional impact of the book. It never ventured into the stories within the story that provided much of the character development. Hitler and the Holocaust are barely mentioned in the movie, yet they are in every chapter of the book, as if the movie version thought that telling this side of the story would be too much for viewers.

Carolyn:

The Firm.  John Grisham gave readers an exciting tale of moral ambiguity, even among the  heroes.   The movie sanitized the hero and changed the last third of the story, leaving viewers with a hero that didn’t change from the beginning of the movie to the end.   Isn’t that one of the primary caveats of a good story?  That characters change?

Mike:

The Watchmen.  Once again, the movie version sanitized the source material, this time a Hugo Award-winning graphic novel.  The novel was weirder and more political, and had a stronger ethic than the movie.

 

These opinions belong solely to the O’Neal family.  Read the books, watch the movies, and decide for yourselves.   Add more titles in the comments!

 

– Carolyn O’Neal

Variations on a Theme – AM Carley Interviews Elizabeth SaFleur Part Two

a red rose

Elizabeth SaFleur’s avatar is a red rose

The erotic romance writer ‘Elizabeth SaFleur‘ and I sat down this spring. Although we have been acquainted for years, we discovered something new in common – we each are active in a writer group. Elizabeth agreed to answer my questions, which I emailed to her, about how the “cp’s” (critique partners) in her writer’s posse operate. The group differs in many ways from what I’m used to as a writer in BACCA. And yet, both Elizabeth and I benefit greatly from our groups. Just goes to show!

In this, this second part of the interview, Elizabeth shows how crucial the message ‘stop futzing’ can be, explains what to do when all the members of your group use pseudonyms, and looks at the valuable contributions the other writers have made to her progress. In the first half of our interview, we learned how these critique partners began working together, discussed how they exchange work, and discovered the title of Elizabeth’s very first novel (written at age seven). 

AMC  You write under a pseudonym. How has that affected your relationships with the other writers in your group? Have you met face to face? Do you know one another’s real names? Do you think this has an effect on your sense of security in the group? Did you all agree to protect the confidentiality of the group – “What happens in Vegas…” sort of deal?

ESF  I know two of them by their real names. And, a third by her pseudonym only. After about six months, I told them my real name. But, basically we call each other by our pseudonyms just to ensure the anonymity “sticks.”

These writers know what’s at stake, and have to deal with it in their own lives. So I feel 100% safe with them.

In the beginning, we talked a lot about security and privacy. So, it’s been pretty well-drilled that we would never “out” anyone in this group to anyone outside the group. I feel very secure in this group. In fact, they probably understand where I’m coming from regarding anonymity more than my “real life” friends. These writers know what’s at stake, and have to deal with it in their own lives. So I feel 100% safe with these fellow writers.

I’ll meet two of the cps [critique partners] for the first time face-to-face this summer at a romance writer’s conference. I can hardly wait, as I am quite invested in their work and success, and count them as friends.

AMC  What are the ground rules? Do you have guidelines about how to critique, how you structure your comments, how critical to be, etc.? Or have you collectively found your way with these matters? Do you write up formal critiques, or is it more conversational?

ESF  We have no ground rules, except perhaps this: What will make the work better? As I mentioned, we’re self-policed. Generally, we ask each other where we want input – developmentally, line-edits, just another set of eyes, etc. Each person has a unique perspective. For instance, one of our members is a professional editor and published author of sci-fi/fantasy erotic romance. Another writes regency erotic romance as well as contemporary erotica. All three of them are actually published (or it’s imminent). So, I count myself lucky to be working with them.

We have no ground rules, except perhaps this: What will make the work better?

AMC  Is someone the leader, or is it more collaborative? Do you change leadership/administrative roles from time to time?

ESF  There’s no leader, per se. It’s collaborative, where each person contributes where they can. Each one of us has unique contributions to make, not just in the writing craft and critiquing, but in publishing, marketing, social media and all the other things that go along with trying to write books that someone will actually buy. We share the “knowledge wealth” whenever we can.

AMC  Does the group want or have a public identity, collectively?

ESF  Other than calling us the “writerly posse” there’s no name or identity.

We’re completely informal. It doesn’t work like a normal writer’s group, but rather more like four people who thank the stars we found each other.

AMC  Has anyone ever missed a meeting? Not submitted work when it was due? How does that work?

ESF  Since we don’t have meetings, no one’s missed any. LOL Again, we’re completely informal. It doesn’t work like a normal writer’s group, but rather more like four people who thank the stars we found each other. Given what we write (steamy romance), it’s important for writers who see our work, first, not blush from head to toe and, second, understand what we’re trying to do. Not everyone “appreciates” our genre.

AMC  If you could change anything about your writer group as it is now, what would you change?

ESF  If there is anything I could change about my writing life – or this group — is that I’d be engaged full-time. I hope to get there next year. But, in the meantime, I wish I had more time – time to write, time to critique, time to just chat with these authors more.

I wrote my first novel when I was seven: The Mystery of the Bunny. Oh, yeah, a real bestseller!

AMC  Has being in the writer group affected your writing life? Have things happened with your writing career that might not have, otherwise?

ESF  After reading a new opening chapter of one of my books, one of my cps ended her email critique with this line: Now finish the book! There is a strong emphasis in our group to complete the novel. That’s one of the greatest gifts this writing group has given me. I’d still be futzing with the first 50 pages of Lovely – three years later – if this little band of writers hadn’t told me to STOP FUTZING!

Albercht Durer's 'Young Hare"

Does This Bunny Look Mysterious?

AMC  What are the next steps for you in your writing career?

ESF  Later this year I have a short story coming out in a Christmas anthology through Troll River Publications. My first novel, Lovely, is being reviewed by a publisher. Then I have four more books started and plotted in the series. If everything goes as planned, Lovely will be out in January 2015, with the other four novels published thereafter, spaced six weeks apart. After that? Well, I have an idea for a dystopian “vanilla” romance. There is no shortage of ideas! Just time…

AMC  Anything else before we close?

ESF  Thank you for the interview. It was fun to share the immense contributions my writers posse has made to me and my writing. I only hope I’ve adequately returned the favor to them.

Feel free to drop me a line anytime, too. I can be reached through my site or on Twitter @ElizaLoveStory. Happy writing and reading everyone!

AMC  Elizabeth, thanks so much.

– AM Carley is a founding member of BACCA and provides author services at her company, Chenille Books.

Variations on a Theme – AM Carley Interviews Elizabeth SaFleur Part One

a red rose

Elizabeth SaFleur’s avatar is a red rose

The erotic romance writer ‘Elizabeth SaFleur’ and I sat down recently. Although we have been acquainted for years, we discovered something new in common – we each are active in a writer group. Elizabeth agreed to answer my questions, which I emailed to her, about how the “cp’s” (critique partners) in her writer’s posse operate. The group differs in many ways from what I’m used to as a writer in BACCA. And yet, both Elizabeth and I benefit greatly from our groups. Just goes to show! In the first half of our interview, Elizabeth tells us how these critique partners began working together, explains how they exchange work, and reveals the title of her very first novel (written at age seven). The second part of the interview discusses how crucial the message ‘stop futzing’ can be, explains what to do when all the members of your group use pseudonyms, and takes a look at the valuable contributions the other writers have made to Elizabeth’s progress.

AMC  First of all, thanks a lot for doing this, Elizabeth. It’s so interesting to compare notes about how various writer groups do what they do.

ESF It is my pleasure!

AMC  What do you write? How long have you been doing it, and how did you begin?

ESF  I write contemporary erotic romance with a very high heat level. Many of my stories include BDSM elements (emphasis on D/s over S/M) that feature alpha heroes and sassy heroines. For years, my characters “talked” to me, asking me to write their stories. After a while they got hard to ignore (especially the Doms. ;-)). When my professional life reached a “satisfaction plateau” (read: I got bored), I started to write down conversations and scenes that came to me. Next thing I knew, I was writing a novel. Now I have a whole series mapped out – The Elite Doms of Washington.

an old-fashioned thermometer

High Heat Level

AMC  How did you meet your writer group members?

ESF  My first critique partner (cp) was found through the Erotic Readers & Writers Association, which has a fantastic, free online writer’s forum. Writers post stories, and other writers will critique them. I had a few flashers (under 200 word) stories published in their gallery. After about six months of posting work and critiquing the work of others, a writer posted she sought someone to critique her novels off-line. Since she writes very similar stories to me, we teamed up. Then, she introduced me to other writers in our genre. Voila! A writer’s posse was born.

AMC  How many of you are in the group? Has the membership stayed the same, or do people come and go? How long have you been together? Does every member send out work for each meeting, or do you rotate on a schedule?

ESF  There are four of us in this “writer’s posse,” which is the only name I’ve ever heard us call our little band of authors. No one has left yet. But, there’s no formal agreement, either. We just help each other out. And honestly I can’t imagine writing without these folks. We’ve been together for about a year. We have no formal schedule, but rather just share work when it’s ready to be critiqued. But, we also know what each person is working on and “nudge” each other when we start falling behind our self-imposed deadlines. We share everything from snippets to whole chapters, from rewrites to the entire novel at once.

AMC  How frequently do you send new material around for critique? Do you limit the word count for material?

ESF  There’s no limit, though each one of us primarily works on about 80K to 100K word novels. An occasional short story is thrown in now and again. I’d say about every other week I’m sent something to read and crit, and they have something of mine. It really keeps things moving!

a police hat with checkered band

This hat is available on ebay in Australia

Our contributions are self-policed. Each person is responsible for ensuring their own writing time isn’t supplanted by critiquing others’ work. But, when we need help, we ask for it. We’re all pretty honest about what we can do. Sometimes, we even help protect the others’ writing time. For instance, one of my cps is on deadline. So, I won’t ask her to do anything new for me right now. Instead, I keep telling her to send me her writing as soon as she can so I can help! When we need time to work on our own material, everyone honors it. So far, it’s been quite balanced.

AMC  Do you meet in real time: on the phone/Skype, or messaging, or online meeting? Or are your interactions time-shifted, using email or other means?

ESF  We do a lot over email, sending documents back and forth. But, we also have phone chats through conference bridges or Google hangout. When one of us suggests numerous edits or developmental shifts, it’s just easier to talk it out.  We also help each other brainstorm when we hit plot roadblocks or feel like we’re losing our “writerly mojo.” I’ve often been talked “off the ledge” by these wonderful cps.

AMC  When you and I first met, years ago, we were both focused on writing songs – lyrics and music. How have you come to write novels?

ESF  I have wanted to be a fiction writer my whole life. I wrote my first novel when I was seven: The Mystery of the Bunny. Oh, yeah, a real bestseller! But, my well-meaning parents and friends told me I should find a “real job.” Back then I was very good at doing what I was told; I had a very successful 30 year public relations career. But as my business grew more successful, I grew less satisfied. So, after turning 50, I decided to go back to my first love – writing.

Find your own writers group or writer’s posse. But, don’t be afraid to share your work outside it, too.

The songwriting was fun. I also tried my hand at screenwriting about ten years ago. But, in the end, my stories demanded to be “born” via full-length novel. Once I started writing in that format, I couldn’t stop. That’s a pretty big clue in my book (no pun intended).

AMC  Have you developed friendships with members of your group, or is it important to you to maintain a separation from the rest of your life?

ESF  I count them as friends. But, we also honor the privacy of each other’s private life. We don’t go into great detail, but we do talk about our pets, our weekend plans and other little things that crop up. I don’t hide things from them, but I also don’t want to burden them with a lot of personal stuff. Our books’ characters’ lives keep us quite busy in that way!

AMC  How has being in your writer group changed your writing? Your attitude about writing? Your identity as a writer and your plans for the future as a writer? For me, being in a writer group – and having a writing deadline to meet – helped me make the time to keep writing, even when the rest of life got hectic. Have you noticed that happening for you?

I don’t think I could have finished my first novel, Lovely, without them.

ESF  I’d say this group has changed my writing tremendously in two ways. First, my writing is better. Without them, I wouldn’t have grown the way I have. You can listen to podcasts, take online courses, reach craft books and more to help your writing. In the end, the only way to get better at writing it by doing it a lot – and having it critiqued in such a way that shows you what you can do better the next time. That’s what these other authors have done for me.

Secondly, I don’t think I could have finished my first novel, Lovely, without them. I might have given up. I knew something was wrong, but couldn’t see it. They could see plot holes, character shifts and other things that can sink a novel. Their generosity in sharing their time and talents helped me not only write better, but finish.

AMC  Do you have any recommendations for other writers out there?

ESF  I do have a few other people outside this group who have reviewed my work. I’d tell other authors to do the same. Find your own writers group or writer’s posse. But, don’t be afraid to share your work outside it, too.  For instance, a gentleman in the UK read one of my earliest drafts of Lovely. It was great to get a man’s perspective – and from someone completely outside my usual set of crit partners.

Feel free to drop me a line anytime, too. I can be reached through my site or on Twitter @ElizaLoveStory. Happy writing and reading everyone!

AMC  Elizabeth, thanks so much.

AM Carley is a founding member of BACCA and provides author services at her company, Chenille Books.

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.