Writing habits differ and writers define success in a variety of ways. But a universal truth is that distractions online, at home, or at the office are abundant. They can easily sneak into your everyday routines.
As writers, how do we go deep and get work done? It’s so easy to get lost online and realize an hour has passed since you stopped to research a fact for your book. Authors like Dan Brown have set hours in the morning for work and they make sure apps are not open during that time. It is focused writing time. Other authors prefer more flexibility, but be careful.
If you need to research a name or a story detail, will it send you down many interesting rabbit holes online? If that’s the case, you need to set a time for that kind of exploration and just leave a blank in your story or document until you can get to your research.
Since covid, many more writers work from home. That comes with so many distractions. I need some water, maybe a snack. I should use the bathroom. I can throw those things into the washer and get that done while I’m working… It’s as bad as the internet.
Writing classes, workshops, and writing groups can also be distractions. Joining writer groups in person or online can be helpful in making connections, but at some point, you need to decide which groups serve you. Does the group allow you to contribute and grow as a professional? Is the group just taking up your limited writing time? The same can be said of classes, and even writing opportunities for anthologies, magazines, and blogs.
Contests, magazine submission calls, and deadlines for anthologies can serve as opportunities, but also as distractions. The first question is why are you writing for this deadline. It’s good to be published and it can add to your credibility, but make sure what you’re writing furthers your career and moves you forward in your genre. Chasing contests can keep you from finishing your novel.
In the end, what’s important is learning your craft and knowing/finding your audience.
The four best things you can do for your writing career?
Read recent works in your genre
Pamela Evans is a writer and teacher. She is best known for The Preschool Parent Primer, The Preschool Parent Blog, and The Preschool Parent Book Review which can all be found at www.ivyartz.com
As described in another page in more detail, the writer group BACCA formed after four of us met in a fiction class at WriterHouse in Charlottesville Virginia.
After the final class session, the four of us wanted to meet again for one more critique session. Then we realized that we all wanted to create an ongoing writer group.
That was ten years ago. Wow – it almost seems impossible that it’s been ten years, but there it is in my 2011 calendar – “writer critique swap” at noon on Saturday the 25th.
We immediately adopted the critique guidelines that had served us well in our writing class. Later, when we created a website for our group – by then we had named ourselves BACCA – we asked permission from Prof. Luke Whisnant, whose guidelines we’d been using, to reproduce them on the website as a resource for other writers. He graciously consented.
At our (pre-pandemic) workshops and in personal emails, we often referred other writers to these guidelines – along with a bundle of other writer group resources.
Changes over Time
Our membership has changed over the years. We now include two founding BACCA writers, another who’s been with us for many years, and one who is a guest member for the duration of her book manuscript. Three other writers were with us for a time, over the years.
Naturally, because of the variety of writers and the passage of time, our critique process has evolved.
A few months ago, we decided to take extra time at our monthly critique session to focus on the guidelines, and see where they might need expanding or refocusing.
Why the Guidelines are Like the US Constitution
I was shocked, when I looked a few months ago at the Whisnant critique guidelines, to see how much I’d added on to them – in my mind. Turns out, the actual guidelines only addressed works of fiction intended for adults, for one thing. Our group has produced, read, and critiqued in many more categories than that.
Kind of the like US Constitution, the underlying document had accrued a lot of additional meaning to over the years. But when I casually suggested to a new writer that a look at the guidelines on the BACCA website was all they needed to get up to speed, I had forgotten that none of that extra stuff is actually written down.
The US Constitution is written down.
So we went to work and came up with modifications to address not just adult fiction but also narrative nonfiction (from Carolyn O’Neal), children’s fiction (from Pam Evans), and self-help / instructional manuscripts (from me, A M Carley).
In addition, we now have a wonderful preamble by Noelle Beverly who gives every writer a high-altitude view of the critique process. Her suggestions are thorough, generous, and deeply insightful. You may recall seeing Noelle’s blog post here about this recently, as well.
Amendments Take Time
Also like the US Constitution, making changes to the underlying document requires deliberation and careful thought. Our process is not as glacial as, say, passing the Equal Rights Amendment – waiting since 1972 – but it has taken us several months.
We really hope that writers find them useful. As Noelle points out in her preamble, preparing critiques benefits the critiquer as well as the critiqued. It’s already been a great experience and opportunity for us to reflect on the key features of an excellent critique.
— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Her company, Chenille Books, (soon morphing into Anne Carley Creative) provides creative coaching and full-service editing to authors and other creative people. Decks of 52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, at the Chenille Books website, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase at Central Virginia booksellers, at Bookshop.org, and on Amazon. A new workbook, The Becoming Unstuck Journal, is forthcoming, as are chapters in two books about journaling, one from Routledge late June 2021 and one from Mango in Fall 2021.
Spin a blindfolded child and ask her to pin the tail in the middle of a map of Virginia and she could do a lot worse than Louisa County. East of Charlottesville and north of Richmond, Louisa County is about five hundred square miles of small towns, old family farms, and a tangled crisscross of streams and rivers.
In 1926, fourteen year old H. Spurgeon Moss faced a choice. Moss was a tall, bespectacled lad who loved to read but seventh grade was the end of the line for black children in the segregated schools of Louisa County, Virginia. The Virginia Constitution of 1869 had mandated the creation of free public education for all, provided that “white and colored persons shall not be taught in the same school but in separate schools under the same general regulations as to management, usefulness, and efficiency.” (Louisa Historical Society)
Sadly, the education of African-American children in the Jim Crow south seldom lived up to this mandate. The few schools that existed for black children were usually poorly equipped log cabins, church buildings, or rooms in private homes, funded by African-American churches and northern philanthropists. (Louisa County Historical Society)
Moss’s family valued hard work and education. Grandfather Boykin (his mother’s father) had purchased five hundred acres beside the North Anna River in the northeast corner of Louisa County in 1877. How did Grandfather Boykin save enough to buy such a large plot of land? Mining gold? Or did he have a skilled trade? Either way, the land he purchased may still have had remnants from one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. The Battle of the North Anna took place along the banks of the North Anna River the first week of May 1864. Sixty-seven thousand Union forces against fifty-three thousand Confederates with a casualty count of forty-two hundred men.
Economic conditions in Louisa County were extremely difficult after the Civil War. Combined tax revenues in 1870 were one-fourth of what they had been in 1863, when property tax on slaves alone earned the county $58,389. (Louisa Historical Society) Grandfather Boykin purchased the land bordering the North Anna River, registered the deed for his land at the county courthouse, and hired an attorney to draw up a will so that when he died, the land would go to his daughter. Some neighbors thought it foolish to pay good money to a lawyer just to prove the land he was raising hogs on was actually his, but Grandfather Boykin had lived in Louisa County long enough to know that everything had to be written down, certified, and in the court house or some sheriff would come knocking on his door to take it all away. Sections were sold off over the years, a few acres here, a few acres there, some to pay for education, some to cover hospital bills, eventually whittling down the farm to 116 acres in 1926. (Daily Progress, July 26, 1970, A New Dam Brings an End to Old Ways.)
Fourteen year old H. Spurgeon Moss had grown up fishing on the banks of the North Anna River. He’d grown up raising hogs, chickens, and cattle. His precious few spare moments were spent reading under the large oak in his front yard. Moss wanted to further his education so he could help his people, but that meant leaving Louisa County. It meant leaving the farm his grandfather had built and moving one hundred miles north to Washington D.C. He packed his clothes, kissed his parents goodbye, and road in the back of a segregated Greyhound bus up to Washington DC for high school. Relatives met him at the bus station. He made the honor roll at Dunbar High School, (The Washington Post, February 24, 1929) and worked his way through school as a dishwasher then as a waiter, graduating from Minor Teachers College with a bachelor of science in education in 1934. (Miner Teachers College was the principal school to train black teachers in Washington DC for more than 70 years.) Mr. Moss would eventually take graduate level classes at Virginia State College, Virginia Union University, and Boston University, and earn a Master’s Degree in Guidance Counseling at the University of Virginia.
His first teaching job was at segregated Mount Garland Elementary School. He taught fifth and sixth grade. The arrival of this tall, handsome educator must have caused quite a stir. Mr. Moss was quickly promoted to principal. A couple of years later, in 1940, Louisa County consolidated white schools and converted some of the surplus white school buildings to black schools. Mr. Moss decided to go back to teaching at Plum Tree Elementary School. He transferred to the Louisa Training School, Louisa County’s only black high school (built in 1929, too late for Moss to attend.) He taught biology and chemistry, and served as assistant principal. In 1953, Louisa County closed the Training School and opened the A.G. Richardson High School with an enrollment of 293 students and eleven teachers. Mr. Moss was the social studies teacher and assistant principal. As the social studies teacher, he’d take busloads of students on field trips to the state capitol to see how state government functioned and to shake hands with their representatives. “Hitch your wagon to a star,” he’d tell them. Mr. Moss’s concern for his students was legendary. (Interview with Rev. Larry Lewis, November 26, 2018)
Teaching full time didn’t cover the costs of raising a family and maintaining a one-hundred acre farm. Even with the added responsibilities as an assistant principal, Mr. Moss needed to supplement his income. For year he traveled to Atlantic City, New Jersey to wait tables during summer break. “I made more money there in the summer than I made teaching the rest of the year,” he said (Daily Progress, July 26, 1970, A New Dam Brings an End to Old Ways.) Former students remembered Mr. Moss with affection. “He was a very down to earth person, personable. He was so encouraging to students. In the summers, he always went to Atlantic City, New Jersey, to work, and he would bring a group of high school students with him. He secured jobs for these young people at the various hotels there along the Boardwalk. He gave them work experience and he was their chaperone during the time they were away from home, and he took very good care of them. He made sure they went and did what they were supposed to do while they were there in New Jersey.” ( Interview with Rev. Larry Lewis, November 26, 2018 via telephone)
In May, 1954, the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education case came before the Supreme Court. In a rare unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court effectively overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson doctrine of “separate but equal” and declared racial segregation of public schools unconstitutional. Virginia Senator Harry S. Byrd was outraged. He proposed “Massive Resistance” to the court’s ruling and in 1956 the Virginia state government adopted a policy to block the desegregation of public schools. Schools shut down in Prince Edward County, parts of Warren County, Charlottesville, and Norfolk. Unlike these places, schools in Louisa County never closed. Segregation remained deeply entrenched in the cities, but in the farmlands and outlying areas segregation was less pronounced. In areas that had only one grocery or hardware store, a kind of natural integration occurred, even friendships.
Mr. Moss came together with other educators to develop a plan to integrate the public schools. This was locally referred to as the “Freedom of Choice” plan and was sent to parents and announced in the local newspaper, The Central Virginian, on March 30, 1966. The intention was the elimination of segregation based on race, color or national origin. Students and parents had thirty days to choose the school the student would attend the next school year. (Louisa County Historical Society) Mr. Moss encouraged several of his students to choose white schools. The plan did not achieve total desegregation but it began the process. In doing so, Louisa County didn’t experience the anger, turmoil, or closing of public schools that many other Virginia counties and cities experience. Peace and civility were maintained largely due to the foresight of Mr. Moss along with other visionary educators such as Mr. Harry Nuckols. (https://www.culturaltourismdc.org/portal/miner-teachers-college-building-african-american-heritage-trail)
By 1968, Mr. Moss had taught school in Louisa County for thirty-six years. His wife, Ruth Moss, had taught for thirty-eight years. They’d put all three of their children through college. His oldest daughter taught English in Fairfax, his son taught industrial arts in Fairfax, and his youngest daughter, the wife of a former Army officer, was secretary to the Dean of the College of Dental Science at Howard University. He’d stopped going to Atlantic City every summer to wait tables and looked forward to retirement. He raised brood sows and would sell about forty young pigs each fall. He had eight cows as well as turkeys and chickens. His favorite animals were his six saddle horses. Farming was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. He still sat under the large oak tree in the front yard to read. This was where he wanted to grow old. This was what his grandchildren called “Grandfather’s Zoo.”
In late February 1968, when the forsythias were starting to bud, two white men drove up the newly paved road to his farmhouse in a truck with the county seal on it. Chickens scattered when the white men drove up. “Mr. Moss,” one of the men called out, “the county sent us to survey this section of land. I just wanted to let you know we’ll be working on your property.”
“What’s the survey for?”
“I don’t rightly know, Mr. Moss,” one of the men answered. “The county says jump and we jump.” Mr. Moss smiled good-naturedly and waved the men on.
The white men were still on his property when he came home from work that evening. He saw their truck drive away just after sundown. They came the next day, waving to Mr. Moss as they drove by. After the second day of strangers on his property, Mr. Moss decided it was time for him to take a look at what they were doing. He saddled his favorite mare and rode the well-worn trail down to the river. Springtime was still a few weeks away and no place on earth was prettier in the springtime than his farm. He felt a deep pride in all his family had accomplished. Neither slavery nor Jim Crow could stop his grandfather from building the farm. In time, he would pass the land to his children and grandchildren.
He rode past the stretch of pines where the deer herds liked to settle down for the night. They left their imprint on the soft beds of pine straw. He was coming up on his cattle pasture when he saw the orange survey markers. Rows and rows of them, all the way down to the North Anna River. What was the county doing? Putting in a new road? Building a new bridge across the North Anna River? Either way, he didn’t much appreciate the county not sending him a notice that the surveyors would be on his land or what they were doing. He’d lived in Louisa County almost all his life, just stepping away to go up to Washington DC for his education. He’d paid his taxes and contributed his time and talents. The very least the county owed him was to tell him the truth.
By April, Mr. Moss was making real progress bringing black and white students together. He was guidance counselor for the newly integrated Louisa County High School. A.G. Richardson High School, where he used to teach social studies, had been converted to an elementary school and renamed Thomas Jefferson Elementary school, much to the disappointment of the African-American community. As Reverend Lewis would recall, “The only thing was that when they were renaming schools, we weren’t abreast of that so much that the names of our schools were maintained. That got away from us and that’s how Thomas Jefferson Elementary and Trevilians Elementary were renamed. Those schools were originally named for a black person because they were black schools during segregation. So we lost the names of those schools.” (Interview with Rev. Larry Lewis, November 26, 2018)
Four days into the month of April, 1968, the news of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination swept across the nation. Students came into Mr. Moss’s office with tears in their eyes. He’d listen to their fears, share his wisdom, and remind them that they were not alone. On the day of Dr. King’s funeral, four hundred Louisa County citizens, mostly African American, gathered at the First Baptist Church. A few clouds marred the morning sky. Daffodils beckoned and azaleas barely hinted at their true colors. The mourners clutched handkerchiefs and held hands as they waited for the pastor to call for their pilgrimage to begin. He gave the signal and they walked in silence the three blocks from the church to the Louisa County Courthouse. If they spoke, it was in reverential whispers. No music. No singing. No band played on this spring day, not at this memorial. They walked past the old confederate war memorial, erected in front of the courthouse before most of them were born. The single confederate soldier cast in bronze, holding his rifle at his side and nestled within a granite block, indifferent to the grief-stricken mourners.
The pastor of the Trinity Parish walked up the courthouse steps and addressed the crowd. He stood in front of white marble pillars and offered up a heartfelt prayer for peace, love and brotherhood. The pastor of the Church of Christ of Charlottesville spoke next. He acknowledged the fear that had gripped all who gathered. “We won’t be afraid anymore,” he said barely above a whisper.
Those in attendance answered, “Amen.”
“Our quest for equal rights will not be denied.”
The world was off-balance, as if the solid land under their feet had shifted. After the speakers, after the final prayers, they all left in silence. They returned to their homes and their jobs, and if Mr. and Mrs. Moss were among the mourners they returned to their farm. (Richmond Times Dispatch, April 10, 1968, Several Hundred Attended Memorial Service for Dr. King at Louisa Courthouse)
Spring was a busy time for farmers. Mr. Moss took a few minutes extra with his favorite mare that morning, brushing her mane. She rubbed against him, as if she knew what troubled him. Mr. Moss had kept saddle horses all his life and still marveled at their strength and gentleness. He stopped and pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket. He’d felt so tense since he’d learned of Dr. King’s assassination. He was worried about his children and grandchildren. Worried about his students. Worried about the county’s tentative steps toward equality. Sometimes life was nothing but a truckload of worries. Only his farm gave him peace.
“Spurgeon,” he heard his wife call from the farmhouse. “Spurgeon, you have a phone call.” Their neighbor from a nearby farm was on the phone. “He says it’s important.”
“Tell him to hold on.” Mr. Moss put away the brush and headed to the house. Ruth handed him the receiver. “Hello,” he said.
“Spurgeon, did you see the news? We’re about to be boiled out.”
Mr. Moss didn’t understand. He’d seen images on the television of buildings on fire, of the police with dogs and guns, of people running and screaming. “What? What are you talking about?”
“Front page news,” the neighbor said. Moss grabbed his hat and car keys and was halfway out the door when he stopped. These were uncertain times and he didn’t like the idea of leaving his wife all alone. He kissed her on the cheek and told her to keep the doors locked.
Mr. Moss handed the drugstore clerk a dime and picked up the April 10, 1968 Richmond Times-Dispatch. The main headline was about Dr. King’s funeral. Thousands Attend King Rites. “My, my, my,” he murmured under his breath. Below the headline was the haunting image of black-clad mourners walking beside a mule-drawn wagon bearing the shrouded coffin. Jackie Kennedy was in attendance, the newspaper said, as was Bobby Kennedy. But it was the other, much smaller headline that mentioned Louisa County: Vepco Plans Louisa County Nuclear Plant.
VEPCO, short for the Virginia Electric and Power Company, planned to turn part of the North Anna River into an 11,000 acre lake and to build on its shore a half-billion dollar nuclear generating plant. The power company said the plant would have a total output of four million kilowatts, which equal the present generating capacity of the entire Vepco system. The plant would be built in three or four units. The first would have a capacity of 800,000 kilowatts and would be completed in 1974, Vepco said.
The newspaper reported on a meeting between Vepco’s senior vice presidents, T. Justin Moore Jr., Vepco President John M. McGurn, and Virginia Governor Mills E. Godwin Jr.. Other Vepco officials sat down to a two-hour private meeting in Louisa with the county’s business and political leaders and told them of the plant and the lake. No one bothered to tell the affected landowners.
Mr. Moss walked out of the drug store without even realizing it. He was standing on the sidewalk reading the newspaper. Shoppers walked by but he didn’t see them. He felt the burning sting of betrayal. As Mr. Moss would later tell a reporter, “Then I read in the paper that county officials had given Vepco right-of-way, and assured them that the citizens of the county would cooperate 100 per cent. Surveyors had been on my land months before and when I asked them what they were surveying, they said they didn’t know. I wonder why the supervisors didn’t tell us. We didn’t know one thing about it until we read it in the papers or heard it on the television. It was a terrible bombshell.” (A New Dam Brings and End to Old Ways, Daily Progress, page C4, July 26, 1970, by Jerry Simpson)
Mr. Moss looked down Main Street. There was the police department. There was the hardware store. There was the County Courthouse with the statue of the confederate soldier in front. Did everyone know except him? He kept reading:
Besides the boating and the recreation business the lake was expected to bring into the predominately-agricultural county, the plant itself was expected to add more than $900,000 to Louisa’s annual tax revenues. It would employ between 75 and 100 persons and add a payroll of $750,000 each year to the county’s economy. “It’s the biggest thing and has more potential than anything that has ever hit Louisa. It is terrific,” said one of the business leaders who attended the Louisa meeting.
“The supervisors have assured Vepco that Louisa people will cooperate with them in every possible way,” said another leader, the Rev. Joe T. Carson, who heads the Louisa County Industrial Development Corp.
From neighboring Orange County, R. Lindsay Gordon III, chairman of the county’s board of supervisors, call the lake “manna from heaven”. Most of the profits will come to Louisa and Spotsylvania, Gordon said, but Orange will benefit also. “Anytime that much money is being spent, some of it is going to rub off on surrounding areas,” Gordon said.
Vepco planned to form the lake by building a 75-to-100 foot high dam across the North Anna River near Smith’s Mill Bridge, just west of the Hanover County line. The dam would form a 17-square mile lake, with 100 miles of shoreline. Most of the lake site is wooded. A Vepco spokesman said no more than 75 homes would have to be evacuated to make way for the lake.
“No more than seventy-five homes!” Smith’s Mill Bridge was only two miles from Mr. Moss’s farmhouse, as the crow flies. His property touched the bank of the North Anna River. Was his farm going to be flooded? What would happen to his pigs, his cattle, and his beloved saddle horses? What would happen to all the wildlife on his property? The deer and rabbits and wild turkeys? Today of all days, first Dr. King’s funeral and now this, it was a punch in the gut like he’d never felt before.
The generating plant itself would go up about five miles up the lake from the dam, on the Louisa shore. The plant would use an entirely new type of water cooling system. The plant would take in water from the lake, use it power the generating units, and then release it into cooling lagoons, a series of large ponds that would be diked off from the lake. As the water passed through the lagoons it would cool to normal lake temperature. Then it would be fed back into the lake.
“Company officials gave no date for the completion of the second unit, and they said they had no idea when the final units would be added. However, it is believed the second unit is being planned for 1975 and 1976. Ragone estimated that the total cost of the dam, the lake site, and all the units together would probably come to more than $500 million.” (April 10, 1968 Richmond Times Dispatch, Vepco plans Louisa County Nuclear Plant)
The article concluded with a map of Louisa County showing the proposed dam and power plant sites. The proposed lake was right on top of Mr. Moss’s farm. How would he break the news to his wife? How would he break the news to his children? The land was their legacy. He folded the newspaper and returned to his car. He returned to his beloved farm and quietly handed the newspaper to Ruth. She read it with the same shocked disbelief he had felt.
His heart could barely take it, one piece of bad news after another. He walked down to the small creek on his property and sat on a fallen log. Small frogs jumped in the creek at his arrival. April was a beautiful month in central Virginia. Warm enough to enjoy the sunshine but cool enough to keep the mosquitoes away. Now he knew what his neighbor had meant when he said they were about to be “boiled out.” The surveyors had left orange markers all over his property, now it all made sense. They must be for the proposed dam, lake, and nuclear power plant.
The history of Mr. Moss is part of a larger work by author Carolyn O’Neal exploring the impact of the North Anna Nuclear Power Station on the citizens of Louisa County. She is also exploring the impact of Lake Anna, which was built to provide fresh water to the nuclear power station to keep the reactors cool. Many farms were condemned and much private land was confiscated to build the lake and power plant.
If you or your family were impacted when Virginia Electric and Power Company dammed the North Anna River and built the North Anna Nuclear Power Station, please share your story. Leave a reply below.
Three schools in Virginia were named for Dr. Archie Gibbs Richardson: elementary schools in Culpeper and Blackstone, and A.G. Richardson High School in Louisa. Richardson was a prominent African-American educator and a prolific speaker and writer. His papers can be found at Johnston Memorial Library, Virginia State University. The Lexington native graduated from Virginia State University in 1927. He held a Master’s Degree from Butler University in Indianapolis, a Doctorate of Education from Columbia University and an honorary Doctor of Laws Degree awarded in 1957 from Virginia State University. Richardson served eight years as principal of the Mecklenburg Training School in South Hill. He worked for a year as director of academics at Saint Paul’s College in Lawrenceville. (Saint Paul’s College was established by former slave Russell Solomon James, a contemporary of Booker T. Washington, in1888.) In 1936 he was appointed Assistant State Supervisor of Negro Education with the Virginia Department of Education. When that post became obsolete with school integration, he was appointed Associate Supervisor of Elementary and Secondary Education. Then, in 1966 he was named Associate Director of Education, a position he held until his retirement in 1966. Dr. Richardson was the first African American to be named to the staff of the Virginia Department of Education.
Writers need help to be our best. We need careful readers with sharp, unwearied eyes looking at our work, shining the light of what they know on what we’ve written. We might prefer to avoid it, but in the quest for excellence, a little aid is absolutely necessary. So…
How do you find (and give) helpful help?
How do you create an environment where respectful and rigorous critique is possible?
What are the essential elements of a beneficial critique?
The members of BACCA have been thinking and talking about this lately. We’ve put our heads together and gathered some of our thoughts here. In my own thinking about these questions, I’ve uncovered a point of origin—an opening strategy I use when I approach the work of another writer.
Assume it’s there for a reason…
I begin with this: everything is intentional. I assume the writer has something in mind and figuring that out is my first job. Simple enough—but it goes against the grain. A book feels finished, complete, but it’s natural when handling a manuscript to assume that it’s flawed—it’s a draft, after all. But if I assume from the start that every surprise, every unfamiliar turn is a flaw and not a carefully chosen move, I miss an opportunity—a chance to learn something, to see from a new perspective.
After enduring disappointing critique experiences of my own, I’ve learned that it’s best to identify a writer’s project before I do anything else. This summary becomes my north star as I spend time and get to know a manuscript, mapping out its tendencies, its borders, and its open ends.
Believing that every part of a manuscript is intentional, included for a specific purpose, doesn’t mean that there is nothing more for me to do and no way I can help. Useful comments are in conversation with the project summary I’ve identified. Positive comments highlight parts of the writing that support and enhance the goals of the project. Questions I have may indicate places could undermine or conflict with what I believe the writer is trying to do.
If you find yourself in unfamiliar territory…
It’s human nature to privilege the familiar. We like to know where we are and what kind of story we’re in. Roughly knowing what to expect—a series of predictable surprises—makes us comfortable. But, assuming that a draft needs to be remade to look familiar can cause real damage. I know this first hand.
In one graduate-level workshop, my writing was chewed up and spit out, over and over. Criticism is never fun, but some of the feedback I received in that class was legitimate and some of it was not. Some of it made me a better writer and some of it threw me off track. It took me a long time to sort out the constructive comments from the lazy, arrogant ones.
One student (I’ll call him Mark) indulged in what I now regard as a careless, irresponsible style of critique. Every time I submitted work, Mark would speak first, but he would always say the same thing:
I just don’t know where I am in this poem.
The comment itself seemed innocent enough. As a jumping off place for discussion, it might have been. But Mark, once lost, dismissed my poems entirely and refused to go further. If he didn’t know where he was in the poem, he assumed it must not be good. Inevitably, the rest of the class would follow his lead, even though I knew from their written comments that they’d had different reactions. Unfortunately, the facilitator of the class allowed him to dominate discussions of my work with this same comment, over and over. The indulgence helped no one in that room.
The problem with his comment, which he never realized and (to be fair) I never revealed to him, was that it was based on a false assumption: if he got lost in my poem, I had failed. But, it was never my project to locate him in a known place and time. If he had known where he was, I realized later, that would have been a failure. Mark’s poetry was full of trains and clocks and suburban sprawl—things I wanted to escape. I wanted to explore wildness, myth, and emotional rawness; I wanted to illuminate the edges between civilization and uncultivated territory.
Of course Mark didn’t know where he was!
Sadly, he was unwilling to push past the shock of being in unfamiliar terrain to discover the qualities of the world I was trying to create. So, we both missed a chance to learn from each other. If he had stretched his imagination past comfortable, if he’d thought to identify my project instead of just pointing out what it wasn’t, there might have been meaningful critique—which could have helped us both.
The best first gift…
Several artists I know—writers and painters and musicians—have told me that the most thrilling moment is to have someone encounter their work and really see it, to spend enough time with it to know it and really get it. Maybe this is the best first gift we can give each other in a meaningful critique. To say, yep, I see what you’re doing…
At the very least, it seems a decent place to start.
Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary group. Photos by author.
It’s true, writing is generally a solitary practice, but it doesn’t have to be lonely. If you haven’t tried co-working, the benefits may surprise you.
Writers do work with agents, editors, and publishers among others. Those interactions may be conducted in person, but are often through email or phone calls. While writers often thrive on alone time, some contact with other creative people can be a real energizer and even a comfort.
That’s where co-working comes in. Co-working allows you to check in with fellow writers. You get to give and receive encouragement or just say hello. You can ask for craft or technical suggestions if you choose. All without having anyone commenting on your actual writing.
The first question to consider is how much support do you want or need? I am in two co-working groups; one meets weekly, the other meets monthly. Having a weekly or monthly online meetup time encourages me to get more writing done, even on a day I might not have felt like writing. These groups have helped me to meet deadlines and led to new professional contacts. One of my co-working groups meets on Friday afternoons. Some weeks I would have considered my work done by Friday afternoon. The impetus of my co-working group has led me to finish a piece or start a new project. It’s not unusual for me to continue working long after the group writing is done, because once the ball is rolling…it keeps rolling.
For professional writers this is a time to get work done with a little fellowship. For those starting out, nothing improves your skills more than spending your time actually writing and it’s nice to have colleagues.
Let’s get to the nuts and bolts of starting your own co-working group. If you know some writers or participate in a critique group, you can invite those contacts to form a group. There are also many online groups you can post in. You may ask for writers who are working in the same genre. Sometimes critique groups form out of co-writing groups.
Here are the basic guidelines for the groups I participate in.
Pick a regular day/time to meet up online, either weekly or monthly.
Pick a way to meet like Zoom, Discord, Skype, etc.
It seems to go smoothest if one person runs the meeting (you can take turns if you like).
Whoever is running the meeting checks in with everyone and asks what they’re working on. This is a pleasantry, but it also gives everyone a chance to get to know each other. It’s not unusual for an author to take a moment to ask the group for suggestions on a project, or mention an upcoming event that may be of interest to the group.
Set a timer for 30 minutes. Everyone mutes their microphone and gets to work.
Check in with everyone when the time is up.
Set a timer for a second 30 minutes and work again.
Do a final check in and say goodbye.
Your group can tweak these steps, but it is amazing how much work can be accomplished in just an hour of focused writing.
— Pamela Evans leads the SCBWI Central VA Co-working group and is a member of The Writing Tribe Co-working group. She is a writer and teacher. She is best known for The Preschool Parent Primer, The Preschool Parent Blog, and The Preschool Parent Book Review which can all be found at www.ivyartz.com
I’ve been making a series of short videos geared to my creativity coaching work. One of them was to be around the topic, “when projects shift, morph, and change.”
It’s gotten very meta around here.
While drafting the script for this video, my writing started to, uh, shift, morph, and change.
I came up with scenarios that face creative people. But these scenarios were all set in the Before Times. After writing several of these, I had a d’oh moment. I noticed that everybody is now faced with exactly this challenge. Why? One word. Pandemic.
From February of 2020 on, it sank in gradually how massive the changes were going to be, and for how indefinitely long they were going to last.
I, for one, was not happy about moving my office home to my apartment on 12 March. I liked my office. I loved the meetings I’d had there for years, all the a-ha moments shared with clients, all the fruitful collaborations with colleagues and friends.
Seven months in, however, I had given up my office lease. New tenants arrived, satisfying my landlord, and letting me off the hook.
Adapting to these changes is taking the time required. We’re all at various stages of denial, frustration, resignation, bargaining, and so on. (Watch out, Kübler-Ross.)
Everyone I know has become a marvel of resilience, sometimes in multiple ways. In the past eleven months since the mid-March 2020 stoppages, who among us has not changed their life drastically? Whose work has not been altered or eliminated and re-shaped? Whose family life operates in the same way? Whose typical week looks the same?
For writers, the forced isolation has sometimes been welcome. (See introvert stereotype, etc.) However, even for people who are comfortable spending most of their time alone, the reduced social contact of the past eleven months has also challenged people’s confidence, which can lead to a loss of creative momentum.
For those directly harmed by the pandemic, through loss of employment, compromised health, and even loss of life, the idea of having projects shift, morph, and change does not bear considering. More vital questions demand full attention.
For the rest of us who are able to continue to tolerate the danger and uncertainty, hoping that things will get better eventually, we draw on inner resources and sustain ourselves. In my circle, those tactics include cultivating old friendships, and availing ourselves of distanced culture, video calls, home cooking, nature walks, favorite books, contact-free library pick-ups and drop-offs, puzzles, knitting, closet reorganization projects, gardening, time with companion animals, and, of course, bread baking.
So, as everything remains in flux, and as the US examines itself – or insists on not looking – and as the world struggles with this massive public health crisis, we continue to muddle through.
What changes that you’re making will remain permanent in your life when we’re free to go about again and travel, meet, etc.? Do you feel you’re making progress in new directions, or are you just responding to the external pressures and changing as needed? What will the pandemic have taught you, when you look back on this time? What will have changed for you?
— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Her company, Chenille Books, provides creative coaching and full-service editing to authors and other creative people. Decks of 52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, at the Chenille Books website, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase at Central Virginia booksellers and on Amazon. A new workbook, The Becoming Unstuck Journal is forthcoming.
Priori Incantatem, also known as the Reverse Spell, is a magical spell in the Harry Potter universe that reveals the most recent activity of a wizard’s wand. In the duel between Harry Potter and evil Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire, the Reverse Spell forces out of Lord Voldemort’s wand the ghostly images of the last half-dozen or so people he’d murdered, starting with the last person first and going in reverse order.
In the first printing of J. K. Rowling’s massive 734 novel (published in 2000), the last person murdered is the young and handsome Cedric Diggory, the champion of Hufflepuff House. The ghost of Cedric squeezes out of Lord Voldemort’s wand like smoke from an exhaust pipe (my description, not Rowling’s). “Hold on, Harry,” the ghost of Cedric says.
The next to the last person murdered is an elderly caretaker. His ghost, just like Cedric’s before him, encourages Harry to not give up. “You fight him, boy…” Then comes the ghost of Bertha Jorkins. “Don’t let go, now!” she cries. “Don’t let him get you, Harry…” Bertha, Cedric and the caretaker pace around Harry keeping the evil Death Eaters at bay. Next comes the heart stopping scene of watching Harry’s parents – the parents Harry never knew – appear as ghosts.
The smoky shadow of a tall man with untidy hair fell to the ground…looked at him… and Harry, his arms shaking madly now, looked back into the ghostly face of his father.
“Your mother’s coming…” he said quietly. “She wants to see you… it will be all right…hold on…”
And she came… first her head, then her body… a young woman with long hair, the smoky, shadowy form of Lily Potter…
The problem, as every Harry Potter reader knows, is that the order was wrong. Lily Potter (Harry’s mother) should have come out of the wand before James Potter (Harry’s father). JK Rowling messed up and messed up in a very large, very public way.
Rowling attributed the error to “late night writer’s fatigue” and it was fixed in later editions.
So this brings me to the question, how should authors handle mistakes AFTER publication. One of my writer friends says she never reads her work after it is published. It drives her crazy that she can no longer edit her work. She can no longer make any changes. She can no longer fix any errors. Any “fixing” is up to her publisher.
Which is one of the advantages of self-publishing. Self-publishing with Amazon, for instance, allows authors to edit their work as soon as they see an error. This won’t fix errors in the copies already sold but does allow the author to make changes to future copies. And maybe allows authors to rest a bit easier.
In June, 2019, a side door in the House of Change opened a crack. Joy Harjo, a member of the Mvskoke (Muscogee Creek) Nation, was named the 23rd poet laureate of the United States. She is the first indigenous poet and the seventh woman to hold that post. Chosen by the Library of Congress, the poet laureate’s role is to raise consciousness and enhance appreciation for poetry. In her first and second terms, Joy Harjo has chosen to represent not only marginalized female and Mvskoke voices, but to make space for a wide range of indigenous writers—through the production of an anthology, When the Light of the World was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through(2020), which she describes as “a doorway,” and her special project, Living Nations, Living Words, a digital story map introducing the country to Native poets, past and present.
I’ve been celebrating the good news by revisiting her work. I first immersed myself in Harjo’s poetry in college, where I fell in love with the collections She Had Some Horses (1983) and In Mad Love and War (1990). I felt drawn to the rhythm and power of these poems, the mix of dark and light, and I relished their keen revelation of female experience. Harjo visited my college twice during that time. In tongue-tied awe, I sat a few seats away from her when she attended my poetry writing workshop. Listening to her, I experienced for the first time the vast difference between poems on a page and poems read out loud by the poet that made them.
In light of the many challenges that 2020 has delivered, Harjo’s appointment might seem like a trivial thing to emphasize. Poetry itself might seem trivial, even irrelevant. An inert remnant of the past. A form dismantled in the last century, its shards left scattered around the waste land. Nevertheless, poetry isn’t dead. Poets persist. They continue their alchemical work, boiling language down, transforming mundane experience, offering up insight and epiphany.
Joy Harjo suggests that poets do even more. In 1994, she wrote “I believe that the word poet is synonymous with the word truth teller.” Throughout her work, Harjo reveals the truth of her experience—the harsh and the exhilarating. Published in 1979, the poem “I am A Dangerous Woman,” is so real and relevant it could have been written five minutes ago. Harjo reads it here.
Harjo’s poems are built not just to say something, but to do something. As an active extension of an ancient oral tradition, they are meant to serve as rituals and ceremonies—for change, for remembrance, for celebration—as the creeds and invocations and prayers of church are meant to do. Harjo’s poems are constructed to open doors. Because Harjo insists that words have power, her poems are made to alter and to move us and to possibly change the world. Here, a poem to release fear.
The second time I heard Joy Harjo read, she brought her saxophone and a band with her. The audience experienced, firsthand, the power of the oral tradition, witnessing the creation of live, unrepeatable versions of her poems with music in a space and time. Not fixed on a page, but fully vital. When I left that event and went back to my dorm room, I felt restless and wrong indoors, somehow. I remember wandering back outside, stirred up. I only felt right under the night sky. Her words had worked on me, opened something up.
In the current socio-political era, the truth we encounter is something to be questioned and inspected and is often found to be as insubstantial and unreliable as wet cotton candy. In such a time, we might start to believe that we can’t make a difference. All around us, words are used to obscure rather than illuminate, so it seems even more significant that someone committed to telling the truth has been given a prominent space to speak and be heard. I think we’ve received the teacher that we needed—someone to remind us that words have meaning and power, someone to remind us that “All acts of kindness are lights in the war for justice.” (The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, 1994)
Last month (November, 2020), the Library of Congress announced that Joy Harjo has been reappointed and will serve a third term as poet laureate—a rare occurrence. (She is only the second poet in seventy-seven years to do so). We might have more to learn; I know she has more to teach us.
Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary group
“[T]he habit of writing … for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. … What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something loose knit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind. —Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary
How I Started
One winter night when I was young, I sat looking out my bedroom window at the dark street in front of my parents’ house. My parents and I were on a long-distance phone call – they in the kitchen, I on the long-lobbied-for extension recently installed in my room – catching up with a family friend. The friend had called cross-country to give us the good news that a recently married couple we all knew and loved were expecting a child in May, and wasn’t it great?
As I listened, my parents’ unseen reactions seemed tinged with something. Hmmm. I’d gone to the November wedding. I counted on my fingers: one for December, two for January, three for February, and so on. When I got to six for May, I started over again, to find my error.
I knew about a mostly unspoken rule that said babies are supposed to be born more than nine months after the wedding. I also concluded this couple had broken the rule. I had questions. Lots of questions. It would not be smart, however, for me to ask my parents. While Bohemian in many ways, they each had a strong Puritanical streak that manifested from time to time, and this had all the earmarks of such an occasion. I didn’t want to be in the room when they hashed it out between them.
I didn’t have any friends to talk to about something like this. I grabbed a green spiral-bound notebook from my schoolbag and wrote out the months, to be extra sure. Wow. The mother-to-be must have been pregnant already when I helped her get dressed on her wedding day. I had no idea.
I turned to my green notebook. I needed to sort out my feelings about this good news that turned sideways when it revealed a transgression. I found a steadfast companion that night.
After that night, I kept pulling out the green notebook before I slept. It soon became a habit. I appreciated the safety of having a place to try out my thoughts before I spoke them or acted on them. I had a place where I could confide in complete privacy. As a thirteen-year-old girl I had many questions and puzzlements and uncertainties. The best place to express them, it often turned out, was in my green spiral notebook.
Many years have passed. I still maintain a blank notebook. After the green wirebound notebook filled up, I experimented with form. For a few years I made entries in a miniature bound journal my choirmaster gave all the choristers every December. This may have been to foil my eyeglass-wearing parents in the event they got nosy. I can now barely decipher my tiny handwriting – full of abbreviations and codes – in those volumes. Once I was out of my parents’ house I settled on the sewn and taped binding of a “composition book” with a marble-pattern cardboard cover. The main thing didn’t change: now as then, my journal is a welcoming open creative space. I seek a coherent narrative for this life, and the pages of my journal are where I conduct that search.
Why I Treasure My Silent Companion
Following are one big and three small gifts I have received from cultivating a journaling practice.
Unprescribed, unsupervised, unlimited, the regular putting of pen to page gives back so much. And it doesn’t just happen while you’re writing. I find that an ongoing journaling practice takes place in three timeframes – during, after, and before.
While I’m writing in my journal, I’m in the moment, and can let the words pour out, often unexamined. The passage of time is unimportant. I remain uncritical, open to what the pen in my hand puts onto the page. This process becomes a deeply ingrained habit. It helps keep me going, sustains me when I’m feeling under pressure, rewards me with insights revealed through the act of writing them, and gives me the place to puzzle out answers so I can gain understanding and take action on incomplete pieces of my life.
From time to time, I flip back and review pages already covered with my handwriting. Here, I can examine everything. Retrospectives of prior years’ entries can be useful and enlightening. Some patterns permit detection only in hindsight. From a longer view, I can appreciate genuine progress, and also note ongoing themes that recur in cycles of a year, or a decade, or longer – like the rings in a tree trunk or geologic strata. As Virginia Woolf discovered when she returned to old volumes of her diary, “I found the significance to lie where I never saw it at the time.”
Once the journaling habit became embedded, I began to notice, as they cropped up during the day, ideas and observations that felt like they belonged in my journal, even when it wasn’t at hand. One approach is to just carry the book around with you wherever you go so it’s always at hand. When I did that, I asked myself the clever question, If I’m carrying a bag big enough to hold my journal, why not toss in a few more things? Some unpleasant neck and shoulder issues ensued. Instead, I now can opt to carry small, lightweight methods for making temporary jots that I can add to the journal later. Smartphones make this easier (although sometimes, I find, things really want to be written, not typed). These ‘before’ contributions to an ongoing journaling practice are worthwhile contributions to the contents, and are also reassuring and self-reinforcing evidence of the centrality of this relationship between my journal and me.
Journals are wonderful antidotes to perfectionism. Uncritical and impossible to shock, patient and unfazed, my journal can handle whatever I introduce. Its quality just does not matter.
When you allow yourself free rein in your journal, you “invite your quieter, more thoughtful voices to come forward and be acknowledged.” A M Carley, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers. Accept the possibility that there are sources of wisdom within you that are not accustomed to being heard. Make them welcome.
My journal is a time-tested method of correcting for negativity bias, our human hardwired focus on what’s wrong at the expense of appreciating what’s working well.
Beyond Study Hall
I use my journal for much more than I did all those years ago in my bedroom at my parents’ house. No longer an adolescent, I am less interested in parsing out who said what in study hall. Crucially, I now have a sturdy community of friends and loved ones with whom to share life’s questions. The value of my journal has only increased over the years. It remains my silent companion. Open to whatever I write, annotate, or doodle, it welcomes me every time. Virginia Woolf’s ideal, a framework “so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind,” is attainable.
— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Her company, Chenille Books, provides creative coaching and full-service editing to authors and other creative people. Decks of 52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, at the Chenille Books website, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase at Central Virginia booksellers and on Amazon. A new FLOAT Workbook • The Becoming Unstuck Journal is forthcoming.
Ken Follett’s epic novel Pillars of the Earth is set in England in the years historians refer to as The Anarchy (1135 – 1153), a nineteen-year period of anarchic civil war which resulted in chaos and widespread breakdown in even the most basic civility.
This chaos is most clearly embodied in the novel’s primary antagonist, William Hamleigh, the son of a minor but highly ambitious lord. William is a spoiled pampered bully. He beats and belittles and takes advantage. His goal is to become Earl of Shiring.
Standing in William’s way is Prior Philip, a devout and deeply curious man who treats everyone he meets with kindness. Prior Philip wants to build a great cathedral. It is Prior Philip’s everyday generosity that brings him together with visionary craftsman, Tom the Builder, the man who will build his cathedral.
The Anarchy in England was “a succession crisis precipitated by the accidental death by drowning of William Adelin, the only legitimate son of Henry I.” (Wikipedia)
Historians looking back on 2020 may refer to this as America’s Anarchy. Pandemic, unemployment, injustice, crime.
This November, America is facing its own succession crisis. We face a choice between a man who has everything yet still bullies his way into getting more. And another who has served his country for 40 years despite tremendous personal loss, yet still finds a way to help another.