What Is Editing?

I keep thinking about editing. This may be because I’ve been having conversations about it. And from people’s responses, I’m seeing once again that “editing” is a chameleon word. It blends into its environment so much that it can have very little meaning of its own.

As a teenager, I was an editor for the school paper. Editing in that context meant assigning stories, laying out the pages, and writing an editorial for each issue. Oh, and polishing up the texts that came in from my fellow students. When I edited an online magazine at the turn of the 21st century, I had a similar collection of responsibilities, except that the sheets of newsprint had become web pages.

While planning and shaping content for a publication is definitely rewarding, that work usually comes hand in hand with the work of tracking down the articles, double-checking that all the intellectual property rights are secured, and other solid opportunities for hair-tearing. Nowadays, when I edit my clients’ books, presentations, and other manuscripts, I can focus on the writing — which is the best part.

hand holding a red pencil
Image by HeatherPaque from Pixabay,
altered by AMC

Even when it’s limited to the writing itself, though, the work of editing is unclear and often not well defined. Which raises the question – what is editing?

Ask two people what an editor does, and you’re likely to get a lot more than two answers, especially if those two people work in publishing. I did that the other day, actually — more on that in a minute.

To begin with, the worlds of writing and publishing recognize several distinct flavors, often including — from most specific to most general — proofreading, copyediting, line editing, and developmental editing. In the life of a published manuscript, those typically happen in reverse order, with copyediting the last step before the final proofread. Proofreading isn’t always included, but for our purposes we’ll include it as a form of editing, since a manuscript isn’t complete without it.

What’s a Line Edit?

Complicating things, those terms take on wildly different meanings depending who you’re dealing with. Take a look at the term “line edit.” Although this stage is likely where a majority of editing takes place, the online writing and publishing resource Reedsy doesn’t even include line editing in their categories of editing services. At Reedsy, a copyedit includes “consistency” and “attention to style/tone,” while a developmental edit embraces “major restructuring,” clarification, improvements to characterization, plot assessment, attention to craft, and more. I find Reedsy’s definitions baffling. By omitting one of the four steps, they scramble the timeline that begins with rough draft and ends with a polished manuscript that is ready for proofreading.

hand holding blue pencil
Image by HeatherPaque from Pixabay,
altered by AMC

The Editorial Freelancers Association distinguishes line editing from copyediting, saying “In copyediting you’d check things out and ask the author, ‘Why are you doing this?’ The line editor will simply go ahead and make the changes.” —Ally Machate, quoted in an EFA publication.

And the New York Book Editors delineate important distinctions, including when in the writing process the two occur. To them, copyediting is “like an incredibly high-end proofread,” while line editing takes place earlier and addresses “creative content, writing style, and language use at the sentence and paragraph level. …[focusing] on the way you use language to communicate your story to the reader.” They also use the term  “general” editing for this line editing stage. Others call it “content editing.”

The Four Stages • by Three Sages

Chatting over drinks on a recent spring evening, I asked two publishing colleagues what a “line edit” is, and they added some nice commentary. Not surprisingly, the two did not agree — at least at first. After a while, I think we came to a consensus. First, we zoomed out for a look at the four stages of the entire process of drafting and polishing a manuscript. Here’s what we came up with. (Feel free, of course, not to agree).

To us, the polishing process starts with developmental editing. Here, the editor works with a rough draft, and will generally ask the author more questions and make fewer alterations to the text, focusing on qualities like overall structure, narrative arc, character development (in fiction and in narrative nonfiction), voice, point of view, and shape.

The next stage occurs when the author has returned with a new draft, after incorporating the developmental editor’s suggestions. Now someone reviews and revises the manuscript to polish and clarify the text and sustain its momentum — which I call line editing. Craft, plot, character development and more can be enhanced here. Author queries show up at this stage, for larger questions for which there’s no clear answer. Whatever you call it, this the kind of editing I most enjoy. At this stage, the overall shape of the book is usually established (although there are exceptions – I’ve worked on projects where, late in the process,  the author agreed to move, add, and/or omit chapters and sections).

hand holding pencil
Image by HeatherPaque from Pixabay

Line editing can be iterative (as can developmental editing). Sometimes, after the first line edit, the author, excited about how much better their book can be, gets inspired to make further changes, to make the book even more effective. Another line edit follows, and so on.

After the author approves the final line edits, the manuscript is considered very close to complete. It will be typeset now, so it looks much the way it will when published. This often means the text moves from a word processing app like MS Word to a page layout app like InDesign. At this stage, the copyeditor zooms in on every sentence, looking for small errors and marking them all for correction: footnotes, bibliography, abbreviations, captions, capitalization, citations, titles, proper nouns, punctuation — these kinds of considerations. And if the work is to be produced according to an in-house stylesheet or style book (like Chicago, AP, or APA), this is where all those items get handled. A manuscript looks a lot more professional after a good copyedit.

Once all those fixes are made in the pages, another set of eyes is necessary before publication. Ideally, the proofreader sees the typeset manuscript for the first time at this point, and will often not interact with the author at all, as the changes remaining to be made are not considered controversial. (Some authors feel very strongly, however, about punctuation!) Spelling, grammar, punctuation, and consistent layout elements (like bulleted lists, for example) are generally the scope of the proofreader’s work. Often, an editor or production person supervises the proofreader. Proofreading comes last for a reason. No more edits can be made without risking the introduction of new errors.

As Deanna Griffin pointed out, the four overall stages we outlined — developmental edit / line or general edit or content edit / copyedit / proofread — occur in many life pursuits, not just writing. It’s a familiar progression, traveling from high altitude overview down to individual blades of grass.

Why Line Editing Is Fun

I find it a great pleasure to dig into a writer’s manuscript and help the meaning emerge. I love to adopt — temporarily — the writer’s tone of voice. It’s almost like immersing in a theatrical part.

hand holding blue pencil
Image by HeatherPaque from Pixabay,
altered by AMC

There are many creative aspects to line editing. It may seem surprising, but I can say that the a-ha moments I experience when I’m editing resemble the a-ha moments I have as a writer or composer. Sometimes a choice as small as replacing one preposition with another can make the author’s expression of an idea just click into place. Sometimes shuffling paragraphs around sharpens the focus. And sometimes landing on just the right verb can be amazingly rewarding. As my colleague, Abigail Wiebe, put it, the good editor is “hearing what the author is thinking.”

Which leads us to one essential fact in editing – it only happens after a writer writes something. To all the writers I have edited, and to all the writers whose work I hope to edit in the future, Thanks! Can’t do this without you. Seriously. Editors like me love to peel away the distractions and get to exactly what you want to say. It makes us happy.

Definitions of the stages of editing may be unhelpfully vague, but the impact those stages can have on a piece of writing is real. Maybe it’s because I was trained as a musician, but I love it when words sing. Helping that happen is such a great feeling! And everybody wins. My life thrives, the author’s intentions are fulfilled, and the reading public gets something new to enjoy.

— 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. 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. #becomingunstuck 

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The Troll and the Bully

Have you cultivated your relationships with your inner bully, troll, or monster? In my writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, I include a tool named “Objection, Your Honor!” that acknowledges the presence of our own inner mean voices. The tool recommends scripting replies to the mean voices, and keeping them handy for when you are feeling susceptible.

For instance, to that classic challenge, Who do you think you are?, one of my clients created little signs he keeps posted in his workspace. Each sign contains the nasty question – and his response to it, in this case, “I’m the one writing this book.” A novelist I met got excited about saying back to her bully, “Who do I think I am? I’m the author of a four-volume saga. The first book has been well-received, and I’m already done with the first draft of book two, that’s who I think I am.”

I’ve been exploring this further, in conversations with clients and fellow writers, and continue to learn about these inner voices. As I mentioned in a blog post elsewhere, I’ve come to see that we can engage with these voices — give them a seat at the creative table. While it’s handy to keep our swift, pointed replies handy for use in a crunch, I recommend setting aside calmer moments now and then to initiate a dialogue.

Here are sample vignettes of imaginary conversations with the troll and the bully, followed by a sample re-write of the second one.

Auntie Troll

auntie troll walks inShe launches herself into the library and commandeers the one comfortable chair, opposite you. Adjusting herself and her shawls and scarves, she begins, with her sweet, insinuating voice:

“You look busy, dear. Too busy. What’s your hurry? Where’s the fire? Speaking of fire, there’s a lovely tea shop nearby with a fireplace open to two sides. We’re sure to get a table there. Wouldn’t it be nice to treat yourself to a cozy afternoon? Surely this so-called work you obsess on can wait. Who’s paying you for this, anyway?”

“It’s creative writing. I haven’t sold it yet. At the moment I’m writing it.”

“Ah. I see. So let’s pack up your things, dear, and head to the tea shop. You won’t begrudge your auntie a cup of tea will you?”

Powerless to oppose her, you notice yourself packing up your notebook and laptop. As you hold the door open for her, you wonder how she was able to derail your writing session with just a couple of sentences.

This is troll behavior, intruding on your work session, diverting you with promises of comfort and ease, and, for good measure, adding a nice dollop of straight-up guilt.

Here’s another vignette.

The Bully

He’s there when you arrive. Lying in wait, it feels like. He speaks first, issuing the challenge.

drawing of an alien-looking creature the bully“There you are.”

“Am I late?” You realize, as soon as you speak, that you’ve blundered already by showing weakness.

“Late? Who’s to say? This is all so free form, who can say if you’re on time? Or years too late? Can you look me in the eye and promise me this project of yours is ever going to see the light of day?”

He looks like he’s enjoying this.

“Uh.” You feel so useless. Where’s the energy you had ten minutes ago?

“Right. Moving on. And if it does — say, for example, you get it printed yourself — can you explain to me how it’s going to be seen by anyone who doesn’t already know you?”

“Uh.” Well, he’s got you there.

“Say no more, buddy. Say no more.”

You exit, looking nearly as dejected and discouraged as you are feeling. No more writing for you, on this day or the next several days, as it turns out.

So far, this is a classic bullying session, which may even ring a few uncomfortably familiar notes.

The Bully 2.0

Now we’ll bring the scene in for a re-write, to turn the scene into an actual conversation.

Bully: “There you are.”

You: “Hey, good to see you. I’ve been wanting to have a chat.”

“You have? You want to talk to me?”

“Yeah. I’ve been thinking maybe we have more in common than I thought we did.”

“Well, yeah. Maybe. I mean, I am a part of you.”

“You raise an interesting point. I’ve always thought of you as the bully, this character from outside who somehow got inside my head and exists to disrupt my creative flow by questioning and diminishing all my ideas.”

“Wow. That hurts.”

“Excuse me? Are you telling me you have feelings?”

“I’m part of you. Do you have feelings? You do the math.”

“Well, that’s — a new perspective. Uh, what do you want me to call you? Do you have a name?”

“Call me BB.”

“Tell me more, BB. I need to understand how it is that you and I are on the same side.”

He sighs, whether more from relief or impatience it’s hard to tell.

“All right. I’m going to overlook – for now –  the fact that you have maintained a hostile attitude and basically wished I would just go away. That said, I will now explain how this works. Pay attention. I don’t intend to repeat myself.”

“I’m listening.”

“Let me ask you this — why do you think I ask you about whether your project will ever see the light of day?”

“To make me feel small and inadequate and sap my energy?”

“Okay, that’s one interpretation, I guess….try this on for size, instead. First of all, in case you aren’t aware, I’ve been with you all along. Ever since you’ve been here. Since before you could talk, or form sentences.”

“Huh. How is that rele–”

“So it’s relevant because it occurs to me that we may need to update my settings.”

“Your settings? What are you? A robot? A chip implanted in my brain? What the –?”

“Basically, you sent me away a long long time ago.”

“I did what?”

“I can see you need some deep background before this can make sense. You think of me as your bully because you effectively froze me into a role that I played when you were a kid. Technically, when we were a kid.”

“Froze you into a role?”

scared kid 11289228893_ee995ca3f4_z“Okay, so remember when life at school got really hard?”

“Which time? The playground bully, or the weird neighbor, or the monster teacher? Or something else?”

“I was thinking of the playground bully. what was that – third grade?”

“Yeah. Sounds right.”

“Didn’t have a lot of defenses then, huh? Didn’t want to involve the parents, who had their own problems. Kept switching schools, so no time to make close friends.”

“It was a lonely time.”

“Agreed. So my job became keeping you alert to danger. I was protecting us. Better to be ready when the next bad thing happened.”

“Be prepared, and all that.”

“Right. So I think you didn’t like how it felt, having me on the lookout like that all the time. So you put me in a corner of the attic somewhere and shut the door. And ever since then, all I’ve been able to say, or at least all you’ve been able to hear me say, are warnings of gloom and doom and failure. There was a time when that was helpful. I’d like you to understand that.”

“This is weird. But yeah, I can get that when I was a defenseless kid you were helping me out by looking out for trouble. It’s just that nowadays, that’s not what I need. From anyone — part of me or friend or stranger — anyone. What I need now is support of another kind.”

“What kind of support?”

“If we went back to the first question you asked me today — do I really think my writing project will ever see the light of day — could we look at things differently? Like, if you want to look out for me nowadays, ask me what I’m doing to cultivate my author platform and build buzz about the book before it’s even done. Encourage me to become a better literary citizen, keeping in touch with the people I know and want to know. Help me to venture into uncomfortable situations, introduce myself to authors I respect, post book reviews online, link to other writers and publications in my blog and newsletters, all of that.”

“Hmmm. I guess that makes sense. You know more about this writing and publishing stuff than I do. I’ll need to get up to speed, but I get the gist. Looking for existential threats isn’t the order of the day now, is it?”

“Nope. Not helpful.”

“Let’s do this again, okay?”

“It’s a deal, BB.”

–end scene–

smiling 11165453423_420ed1164b_z

Might it be worthwhile to check in with your own versions of the inner bully, troll, and/or monster? Might it be an interesting exercise to initiate a conversation?

Just as with the bully and the troll in these vignettes, you may be able to spot your versions of these characters delivering some script lines that are in urgent need of rewriting. And who better for that task than a writer?

— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Her company, Chenille Books, provides book coaching and manuscript development services to authors. 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. #becomingunstuck 

— All images courtesy the British Museum on flickr

— Special thanks to Artie Wu of Preside Meditation for his way of framing conversations with our “inner board members.”

Turn! Turn! Turn! – A Writer Group Evolves

I could practically hear The Byrds harmonizing to McGuinn’s twanging 12-string, doing their famous rendition of Pete Seeger’s song adapted from the Book of Ecclesiastes. The morning of our annual June retreat, our writer group received the news that one of our own would not be joining us for the weekend. In fact, she was leaving the writer group altogether.

Her note was moving and heartfelt. Good things in her life were superseding her writing in importance. I knew this to be true. I shed some tears and thought about how different the weekend was now going to be. So much depended on the four of us who remained.

I felt optimistic, because we already had some experience with changes. We got started back in 2011, when four of us attended a fiction class at WriterHouse , our local writing nonprofit, and decided to continue as a critique group. We adopted – and then adapted – the critique guidelines from Luke Whisnant that our teacher had recommended to the class, and established a reliable monthly schedule which we all observed.

Gang of Four

We thrived as a foursome for a number of years. We wrote, published, funded our projects, promoted them, and all the while sent in monthly segments of new work for discussion. We grew as writers, and as a group. We even did a series of public presentations on the benefits of committing to a writer group.

the first BACCA logo (2011) with four berries on it

Our original logo, for the four-writer membership

Then one of us made some big changes to her life. She got married, accepted a new professorship at a university far from our base in Charlottesville, and had a baby. The combined distance, responsibilities, and changed focus meant she could only meet with us sometimes, and via Skype, not face to face in the usual coffee shops, offices, and living rooms where we congregated.

Changing Numbers

So, in effect, we were a more often a group of three than four. Undaunted, we put out the word that we sought a new writer to join us. A few interviews later, we wound up with not one but two engaging new voices to join the chorus.

The six of us rallied for one final retreat, all together, last summer in Virginia. Then our far-flung writer announced that it was unlikely she’d be able to join us in future, even by Skype, what with teaching, the baby, and a forthcoming academic book in the works.

It made total sense, and we helped where we could, beta-reading portions of her book, and cooing over photos of the new baby. We missed her, each in our own ways, and welcomed the two new writers to our circle. We evolved.

A new five-member vibe emerged. Then another of our original writers let us know she’d be withdrawing for a time. She had exigent priorities, related to the events of 12 August 2017. Those of you not in the Charlottesville, VA area may not have felt the urgency that the day created among many of us to do something in the wake of the horror and violence. In the aftermath, our writer was drawn to investigate, and withdrew for a time from the rhythm of sending in several thousand words per month to our writer group. We supported her decision, needless to say. In fact, many questions remain, almost a year later, about who did what – and did not do what – to and for whom on that day, not to mention what factors led to the conditions that resulted in so much harm – to individual people and to the community.

So we were, temporarily, four. Knowing that our fifth writer was likely to return, we left an extra seat at the table for six months or so. Sadly, at the end of her leave of absence, she had found no resolution. Like many Charlottesvillians, she discovered the answers to her questions remained stubbornly out of reach.

She rejoined active participation in our group, once again a circle of five writers. It felt good. The number gave us more flexibility. If one of us were out of town, we still had a satisfying foursome at the monthly critique. I remember reflecting that our writer group had its own life force, its own reason for being. In addition, we each demonstrated our care for the group itself, tending to it with kindness and intelligence.

Life went on this way for a little while. Earlier this year, we all anticipated the retreat, scheduled for mid-June. As in prior years, we’d rented a place, planned shared activities, along with ample solitary time, and looked forward to sharing dinners assembled in the kitchen, enjoyed by all.

Then on the morning of what was to be our first day together, we got the email. Our instigator, the person who in 2011 first invited three other writers to do a critique, had come to the end of the road with BACCA. Just as had happened a year before with the new mother / academic transplant, her reasons were overwhelmingly positive and beyond reproach. As I re-read the email, I saw how happy her life had become. A new career, marriage, a home in the country – all these developments were worthy of celebration.

Now We Are Four – Again

When the remaining four of us met up at the retreat, we all had some adjusting to do. Now half of us were old-timers – around since 2011 – and half of us had been involved for eighteen months or so. What effects would that new balance have on our equilibrium?

It didn’t take long to find out. By the next day, at our scheduled critique meeting, we found ourselves already functioning as an effective, collegial, purposeful, compassionate, and committed group of four.

Happily, as do the other BACCA writers, I remain connected to the two writers who have departed from active involvement with the group. It is a great pleasure to know both of these fellow writers, now friends, and to enjoy the conversational styles and senses of humor unique to each of them. I am filled with admiration for the ways each of them has designed a life that gives them joy.

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We’re keeping the six-berry logo.

Turn, Turn, Turn

And as for BACCA, once again, our shared intention to serve the group overcame the uncertainty. As the song goes, to everything there is a season. Once again, BACCA reconfigured itself and evolved. May your writer group do the same.

— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Her company, Chenille Books, provides creative coaching and manuscript development services to authors. 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. #becomingunstuck 

Happy New Writing Year

BACCA writers, like many writers, want to get our best work out of the shortest amount of time. How do we do that?

Planning

One way is to plan ahead. Like really ahead. A whole year’s worth of planning.

To mark the start of this new year, I worked on a new method to organize the time in a writer’s year. Then, with my colleague and fellow writing coach Ginger Moran, I co-facilitated a workshop on the subject, sponsored by SWAG Writers and hosted at the public library.  We met in Staunton, Virginia with a group of writers dedicated enough to attend our session despite subfreezing temperatures and bleak skies.

Staunton Graphic 180106

The poster for our Staunton writer event. Thanks, Maggie Duncan.

Ginger and I talked about how to embrace being a creative person; how to resolve to make changes in the face of our own hardwired fear of change; how to make realistic, doable lists, and how to consider the variety of tasks that make up writing, publishing, and marketing.

We introduced a hierarchy of first choosing one big step for the year and then working backward, identifying medium steps, and within those, tiny, doable steps.

The cover of FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers

A M Carley’s handbook for writers, available at Central Virginia booksellers and online.

After Ginger’s excellent remarks on being a creative person, paradoxically both bold and sensitive, I began by quoting someone – was it Thomas Edison? – who said (more or less), “I haven’t failed. I’ve discovered ten thousand ways that didn’t work.” I love that attitude. It’s on us as creative people to remember the longer view of our projects, goals, and creative intentions. We can learn from all of it, not just the glowing successes. It gives us hope to get up in the morning and reminds us how much value there is in the things that went sideways, and can still be really useful.

The How-To’s

Drawing on some helpful ideas from my writer’s handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, I expanded on a couple of FLOAT tools.

List Hygiene

Lists can be your friends, and they can torture you. The key is that for each item you put on a list, you’ll be able to know with absolute certainty when it’s complete. That means precision and compassion. Being specific with yourself, so that you know when you are done. When we’re looking ahead at the year, list hygiene can make all the difference.

Recap Routine

Remember, counterintuitively, always to look back at what you’ve done. We’re built not to appreciate our achievements, and we tend to forget them quickly. So we can complement our innate dismissals and stop to notice. “Oh, we did some good work there.” Or, “I didn’t get any good work done but I knocked three things off the list and cleared my head for tomorrow.” With a recap routine in place, it won’t feel like you need to flog yourself to keep going. Keep in touch with your basic vision, your channel, your source. Set aside time to appreciate what you’ve done. Then, once it becomes habit, the practice becomes so rewarding it reinforces itself.

I touched on a couple more FLOAT tools that haven’t made it (yet) into the book.

Getting Real

The purpose of our workshop was to encourage each person to develop a 12-month itinerary for their writing journey, beginning with the one big step that mattered most to them for the entire year. In that light, I wanted to say a few words about being realistic when setting goals. I suggested that writers meet in the middle, between grandiose and boringly doable. You want to come up with something that’s stretchy enough, so you hear yourself say, “I’m not sure I can do this,” and also grounded enough that you can say,”It’s possible.” If, instead, you know that even if everything went brilliantly, that goal would still not be possible, I recommend you don’t set yourself that goal. Doing so wouldn’t be fair, and might well stretch to the breaking point, snap, and leave you sad rather than exhilarated.

Clock It

Can you estimate your available time resources? Do you know how much time you actually have to devote to this year’s big step? Before you commit to a stretch goal, it’s useful to know how much time you’ll actually be able to devote to it. If you’re not aware of where your time goes, it’s a good exercise to keep track of everything you do for one week. Although it can feel like really annoying busywork, it’s really informative. Clocking the actual time we spend on all the different parts of our lives helps us see where the time goes. It also shows us what turns out to be important to us. For example, if I underestimate how much time I spend reading, or listening, to the news, I’m not being helpful to myself. And, by the way, I’m not doing this to go, “A-ha! That’s what I’m doing wrong!” It doesn’t need to be about self-criticism. Instead, it’s about getting a handle on what your time resources really are. Once you block out the time you know you don’t have, you’ll find out how much time is available for writing. And that’s part of being realistic.

After Ginger and I spoke, everyone got to work. Judging from the questions and comments from participants, progress was made. And, as Ginger was careful to point out, the next step after planning out the year’s big step, medium steps, and tiny steps is to enter them all into your working calendar. You know, so you’ll remember that big vision and do the incremental tasks that bring it to fruition. Hey, this could work!

Do you have a stretch goal for your writing in 2018? Happy New Writing Year!

— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Her company, Chenille Books, provides creative coaching and manuscript development services to authors. 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. #becomingunstuck 

A Few Things I’ve Learned About Writing

Reflecting on recent lessons learned, I made this list of highlights, all to do with being a writer.

If…

• If the passive voice were to be used along with conditional or subjunctive or some such mood, and if I were to be given material from a client that happened to include such longwinded and painstakingly constructed language, it might be possible that, as the person being compensated for simplifying the client’s material so that a stranger to the topic might be able to comprehend it, I found myself reducing a lengthy sentence into one declarative statement of few words.

How long?

• Varying the sentence lengths in a long-form piece rocks.

Teacher, teacher!

• My clients and the writers in my writer group are excellent at teaching me how to improve my writing.

• Also, the fictional Emily Starr, protagonist of Lucy Maud Montgomery‘s trilogy, reminds me to keep at it. Emily’s writing career can be a great example of persistence and doggedness, traits that can get the work done, done well, and out the door.

I noticed three copies of my book, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, at a local bookshop last week.

Bookstores

• As rewarding as writing is for its own sake, it is also cool to see a book you wrote on the shelf of a local bookstore. [Hazard of visiting my books at the bookstore: Now I want to read all the other books on the shelf….]

• It’s also even cooler to be paid for books that sold off that shelf.

Funny

• Humor comes in lots of flavors and strengths. It’s often just the ticket (even in nonfunny writing).

An invitation, or a rebuke?

Joy

• Writing can be a pleasure, and a blank page an invitation. When it isn’t, it can be worthwhile to explore why that is. Sometimes even a small change can switch it back into something that feels OK or even good.

Connection

• Writers have a lot to learn from their readers. Sending out the completed book or story or article doesn’t need to be the end of a writer’s (one-sided) connection with readers. Some readers want to know more about – even get acquainted with – the author of that thing they enjoyed reading. And in non-creepy ways.

For me?

Gifts

• Beta readers are generous. When someone volunteers to read your new work before it’s released or published, and then gives you structured, useful feedback about it – that’s pretty much the ideal gift. At least for a writer. Well, online reviews are pretty wonderful, too, now that you mention it.

Like water

• A writer group can make a wannabe writer into a legit one. So can a writing coach. It’s like water on a stone. Slowly, over time, edges are delineated, and rough surfaces polished.

• There’s always more to learn.

— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Her company, Chenille Books, provides creative coaching and manuscript development services to authors. Her first nonfiction book, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase at Central Virginia booksellers and on Amazon. #becomingunstuck 

Becoming Unstuck for Writers Who Write about Becoming Unstuck

I recently published my first book. Well, the first book that I actually wrote. For work, I help authors get their books published on the regular. This was my own book though, which made the experience slightly different. Noting the differences between my experience of other people’s books and my own was meta enough, thank you, and yet there was a further complication.

fbuw-frontcoverv8-161118-4bowkerThe book I wrote is called FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers. Which presumes that I know a few things on the topic. That’s true. I’m glad to report that I still feel competent to have written it.  The difficulties came when the process of launching this book encountered, well, stuckness. You know, the stuff I’m supposed to know about extricating from.

Things Happen

I want to paint an accurate picture. And to be sure, wonderful things happened. Some great opportunities arose, surprising me with bounties of time (a client needed to postpone our work, due to a personal emergency) and space (a last-minute chance to hide out at a writer’s retreat one long weekend enabled me to put the finishing touches on the manuscript before sending it to the copyeditor). Beta readers were generous and attentive and incredibly helpful. I rejoiced. This was going to work out fine! Even with a full-time job, I was going to be able to stick to my production schedule and get this puppy out in October, as planned.

Then the copyeditor also had an emergency. It was a critically serious one, and needed to be honored. As long as it took for things to get back on an even keel, that’s how long the delay would be.

Politics

Then the US political environment took an unexpected turn and I found myself grappling with past trauma I had not expected to need to look at any more in this lifetime. Time, effort, and therapy were required to deal with the reawakened monsters in the shadows. As long as it was going to take, I realized, that’s how long the delay would be. No negotiation was possible with myself on this stuff. I needed to feel safe walking down the street again before becoming capable of glad-handing strangers about the merits of my new book.

Releasing the book in October simply wasn’t going to happen. OK. I readjusted my sights, and planned for early- to mid-November.

More Politics

Speaking of the US political scene, during that timeframe, the news reported that a candidate had won the national election. Suddenly, releasing a book about becoming unstuck felt ridiculously insufficient. And besides, who was going to want to buy such a thing? As if a craft book for writers was going to make a difference to anyone. More reflection, more therapy, more conversations with trusted friends. A growing sense emerged that we each need to focus on doing what we do well, as the best form of resistance, to become forces for positive change. I wrapped my brain around that notion and decided to publish as soon as possible.

Indie Publication and Amazon

Independent publishers like my company often rely on the combined forces of CreateSpace and Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing – both parts of the Amazon empire – to take the completed book files and turn them into paperbacks (CreateSpace) and Kindle-compatible ebooks (KDP). So when CreateSpace delayed my publication date, and KDP refused to accept my formatted ebook file, a great welling of frustration, a sense of stuckness, you might call it, once again invaded my happy plans for book launch. In neither case was it a serious problem. Eventually, the paperback did become available (there had been a backlog of orders at CreateSpace), and the ebook file was accepted (KDP had changed its web form, so I needed to re-start the ebook setup process).

Launch!

signing-at-wh-161204-p1040023

Four local authors: A M Carley (left) signs her book for Zack Bonnie (right) while Mary Buford Hitz and Bethany Carlson talk about publishing.

The book was available from Amazon by the last day of November, and I had plenty of copies on hand in time for my first book event, a soft-launch celebration as part of the twelve-author local writers holiday reception and signing at WriterHouse in Charlottesville, VA. And people bought copies of my book!

Instead of being bummed out that I missed my October launch date, I decided to focus on the New Year, and appeal to writers who need a boost so they start off January with energy and focus. I decided to offer a free course for writers who buy the book. That way, they can create their own accomplishments and a-ha moments during the first month of 2017.

Lessons Learned

What have I learned from these periods of stuckness?

  • Stuckness happens.
  • “Circumstances beyond our control” can be affected by our behavior and attitude, anyway.
  • Sometimes the schedule must change. Accepting that reality can create new opportunities.
  • Putting one foot in front of the other, being doggedly purposeful, will often see you through to completion of the next step.
  • There’s always a next step.

— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Her company, Chenille Books, provides creative coaching and book development services to authors. Her first nonfiction book, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase at Amazon and other booksellers. #becomingunstuck 

What Sir Salman taught me last week

Free Speech and Writing

So the National Endowment for the Humanities threw its 50th birthday celebration, Human / Ties, in Charlottesville, VA, mid-September 2016. Almost all the events, over a span of several days, were offered free to the public, and I went to a few of them. It was a treat. I ended up feeling chuffed – and sobered – about being a writer myself.

Publicity from UVa on behalf of the NEH and HUMAN/TIES

Publicity from UVa on behalf of the NEH and HUMAN/TIES

On the Friday evening, 16 September, at the Paramount Theater – our lovingly refurbished former Vaudeville theater now hosting drama, music, speaking, meetings, large-screen movies, etc. – Sir Salman Rushdie came for a chat. The successful author and teacher, who catapulted to international fame when an Iranian Ayatollah put a bounty on Rushdie’s head in 1989, sat on an elegant chair near the center of the vast Paramount stage. To his right, in a identical chair, his interlocutor, Suketu Mehta, a fellow professor at New York University’s School of Journalism, spoke for several minutes, after which, inserting brief questions from time to time, he let his friend and colleague do most of the speaking, .

Rushdie in 2016. Photo from Wikipedia.

Rushdie in 2016. Photo from Wikipedia.

I didn’t know what to expect. I signed up weeks before the event for my free ticket, as soon as I heard about it, on the theory that this was an important occasion and I might be surprised by what I observed and learned. I’m so glad I did that. Turned out to be a worthwhile theory.

Following are some of the nuggets I came away with, from Rushdie’s conversation with Mehta.

FYI: To the best of my knowledge, the quoted material here is accurate. I had a little notebook with me in which I scribbled 😉 Any errors in transcribing are mine.

On Dissidence and Writing

The writer is the voice that nobody owns.

The authoritarians … want to control the narrative.

If you say, ‘no it doesn’t,’ that’s why they want to lock writers up.

These remarks and the narrative around them led me to feel pleased and proud to be one more member of the international clan of writers, dating back from the storytellers in the cave, to the present-day, where we express ourselves through so many means in so many media. It’s a privilege and perhaps a duty, Rushdie implied, to write the truth as we perceive it – and as we choose to communicate it.

On Freedom of Speech

Having lived in the New York area for twenty years, he said, he applied for and received US citizenship. Rushdie emphasized that “the most important thing” in his decision to do so is the existence of the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

Handwritten text that would become the First Amendment

Handwritten text that would become the First Amendment. Courtesy Wikipedia.

After overcoming some discomfort about people in the US being able to say more terrible things about others than they are permitted to, for instance, in England or Germany, he said he gradually came to value more the First Amendment’s wisdom. It favors openness over control. After all, some people will be in power, and they are the ones who’ll say what’s permitted and what isn’t. What if you are on the wrong end of the people in power?

All it says, as adopted in 1791, is this:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Here’s some of what Rushdie had to say about the importance of that brief paragraph.

Bad ideas don’t disappear if you forbid them.

I want to know where the assholes are. … [T]hen we’ll know where they live.

Lest we try to believe that censorship can be used for good, in the interests of protecting those segments of a society that are smaller, less recognized, or less vocal, he gave us this heartfelt advice.

Don’t use censorship to defend minorities – it will backfire.

Rushdie was clever, funny, and sincere. His friend, Professor Mehta, conducted the conversation elegantly, with minimal fuss.

I am grateful for the chance to sit there, take notes, and take it all in. All writers can be brave. Some like Rushdie are called on to be publicly, conspicuously, so. That night, he did not let us down. Seated in his chair, under the spotlight, he stood up for all writers.

— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Her company, Chenille Books, helps nonfiction authors develop their books. Her first nonfiction book, Becoming Unstuck: The FLOAT Approach for Writers, is forthcoming in 2016. #becomingunstuck 

Becoming Unstuck for Writers – Two Tools

It happens to most everyone. From time to time, the words just aren’t there. You may have set aside time for writing, you may have a good idea, even a supply of your favorite food and beverages for writing. No matter. You’re just making false starts. It feels bad. You’re stuck.

Becoming unstuck is a topic I’ve given some thought to this year. My book-development clients face down stuckness now and then, as do my fellow BACCA writers, and, oh yeah, I do too. In fact, I’m writing a book about how writers can become unstuck.

Here, I offer you two tools – one larger, and one lower-impact, for your consideration, the next time you feel that stuckness in your vicinity.

The Big Idea

One of the tools I recommend is — dum – ta- dum – dum — The Deadline.

And not a fake deadline that only you need to pay attention to. For this to be effective and more likely to be resistance-proof, you need to set up a deadline where you’re responsible to others. A deliverable to a third party. A date certain. An event. That sort of thing.

Fake deadlines – for instance, putting an event in your Google calendar – can be persuaded to postpone themselves. Don’t ask me how I know this, but it’s super-easy to grab one of those quiet little fake deadlines and slide it over a day or two. Or month. The possibilities are limitless, really.

Courtesy Pixabay

Courtesy Pixabay

To make the deadline strategy work for you, do yourself a real favor. Make a plan with someone else, someone you respect. Make a solid promise to them. Did the odds just increase greatly that you’ll deliver something good, and on time?

Here’s a not-so-random illustration of how this can operate: I’d been planning and drafting this book for a while. And maybe I’d been sliding over my self-imposed soft deadline dates in my online calendar once or twice. No one would know the difference, I told myself….

Now, I’m leading a workshop on the topic next month at Andi Cumbo-Floyd‘s writer’s retreat in Virginia’s Blue Ridge mountains. And when I agreed in March to do this, I committed to having in hand a beta version of the book in time for a late-July event. See how that works? It’s simple and powerful. (And check out this retreat!)

The Littler Idea

Sometimes, all it takes is a walk around the block.

Do this for real, on ‘shank’s mare‘ (as my dad used to put it), or more virtually (standing up and stretching, your favorite deep breathing routine, a journaling break, and so on). A simple refreshing change brings you back to the same place, only it’s so barely recognizable that it has become a different place.

Ah, words don’t do justice to the beautiful simplicity of this concept. Check out the illustration to get a clearer idea of how brilliantly this can work.

(Courtesy MediaGiphy.com)

Here’s to becoming unstuck.

May all your stuckness be resolved. May you scratch your right ear and get on with your work.

— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Her company, Chenille Books, helps nonfiction authors develop their books. Her first nonfiction book, FLOAT: Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is forthcoming in 2016.

Write at the Library! An Interview with Hayley Tompkins

Photo of Hayley Tompkins

Hayley Tompkins, Jefferson-Madison Regional Library Reference Librarian

Hayley Tompkins is a Reference Librarian at the Central branch of Central Virginia’s public library system, the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library. She sat down with me to discuss the free writing opportunities offered at the library.

Their critique group operates under different circumstances than BACCA’s, and, as with our interview with Elizabeth SaFleur, proves again that there’s no single correct way to conduct a critique group.

Describe the writing opportunities that the library offers. I understand you host both creative writing groups and critique groups.

The Jefferson-Madison Regional Library offers a lot of activities for writers of all ages. Last year I began a Creative Writing Group at the Central Library in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, which meets the third Wednesday of each month at 6pm. It’s a great group. Adults can come and stretch their creativity with writing prompts and activities that I provide each month, and we dedicate swatches of time to writing. After each prompt, you can opt to share it in a non-judgmental environment. It’s been a lot of fun.

Our Writing Critique group grew out of that – as a way for writers to come together and get feedback on previously written work. That group now meets on the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month at 6pm. Just recently the Northside Library’s Reference Librarian Abby Cox has also started a Creative Writing program on the first Tuesday of the month at 6:30pm. That means that collectively, the Library offers a free writing program for writers in the Charlottesville area every week.

Every week, the Library offers a free writing program for writers in the Charlottesville area.

And for younger writers, there are teen groups: Crozet Library has Musings – a writing group for teens that has been meeting for several years. I started a Creative Writing group at the Gordon Avenue Library in 2012, and that has continued as well – it’s now called the Teen Writer’s Guild and it meets monthly on Thursdays in the summer. Teen and children’s events on writing and cartooning have also been offered as one-time workshops.

Are there other activities for writers at the library?

In addition to writing groups, Central Library also hosts a Regional Author Series in the Spring and Fall. Published authors come to the Library to discuss their books and writing and it’s a great opportunity for writers to talk with authors about writing tips and their experiences with publishing. We have had some great local authors, most recently Corban Addison (A Walk Across the Sun) and mystery author Andy Straka (Frank Pavlicek series).

I decided that I could better reach people who weren’t already using the Library as a place to write by creating a group on Meetup.com.

How did you go about telling people about the JMRL creative writing group and the critique group? How did people find out about it?

At first, we started with flyers up around the Library and on the Downtown Mall. I decided that I could better reach people who weren’t already using the Library as a place to write by creating a group on Meetup.com – an online community that connects people with groups through common interests. Now there are 115 people in the Meetup group, from all different backgrounds, although we haven’t had more than 18 in any one writing session. Some are professional writers, some are just beginning. All levels are welcome, and it’s really helped us diversify the types of people who come to the meetings. You can find that group online.

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

Fluvanna County High School Logo

Fluvanna County High School – Go Team!

I don’t have just one thing that I write. I have been writing pretty sporadically since elementary school, but a creative writing class at Fluvanna County High School really sparked my interest (thanks, Mrs. Calhoun!). I wanted to bring that same love to teens at the Gordon Avenue Library when I did teen library programming, and when I started doing adult programming at Central Library, I knew that I wanted to create the same space for adults who wanted to find and keep up with their own writing voices.

How many of you are in the creative writing group? Has the membership stayed the same, or do people come and go? How long have you been together?

It varies each month. The most we have had is eighteen. The fewest we have had was two! We have several members that come regularly, and a lot that come and go. I started this group in July 2014, and it’s been meeting monthly since then.

In the critique group, what are the ground rules? Do you have guidelines, or have you collectively found your way with these matters? Do you write up formal critiques, or is it more conversational?

In the Writing Critique Group, everyone brings in a short sample of his/her work – usually two pages or less. You give a copy of your writing to everyone, and then read it aloud, and the group discusses it. You get feedback on the piece – how it conveyed to the audience, what worked, and what could use improvements. You give similar feedback to others during their turn. There aren’t specific guidelines about how to critique, or how to structure comments. It’s a relatively small group – with the highest attendance being six people. They are informal and conversational – but very constructive.

Don't let this blank page stare you down. Join a writer group!

Don’t let this blank page stare you down. Join a writer group!

Linda Kobert is a fellow writer from the Creative Writing Group, and she helped set this Writing Critique, and attends regularly. She’s got great advice, so if you are new to the group, she’s good at helping you understand what to look for in the piece, and what kinds of comments to make. I wasn’t able to attend for the first few months, and I was really nervous – I’ve never really had peer feedback on my creative pieces. This was very new territory for me, but all of the feedback really helped me see my work in a new light, see some great things about it, and also what could get better, and where to focus my energy. I left feeling exhilarated and ready to get back to writing.

Is someone the leader, or is it more collaborative?

With the Creative Writing Group, I organize it and create a handout for it. I introduce writing prompts or activities (all loosely structured so that if someone wants to go in a different direction, then that’s great too), and keep us on track so we get the most out of the time that we have. For our July 15th session, Linda Kobert will be leading a special memoir-writing workshop. I like to introduce various styles of writing, and since Linda has had experience with memoir-writing, she was the perfect candidate to tackle this. I would definitely consider other people who were interested in taking the lead. The Writing Critique is very peer-oriented, but Linda Kobert set it up initially, and is a good go-to person for questions about the Critique sessions.

Life does get very hectic, and it’s nice to know that this block of time each month is carved out specifically for this, and it forces me to just do it.

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?

I do consider myself to be friends with these writers, although since the Library is also my place of work, I think sometimes it takes a while for the worlds to mesh.

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?

Being in a writer group has dramatically improved my writing – it’s more inspired, more deliberate, and knowing that other people will be reading it really encourages me to do better than I do on my own if I’m not sure it will ever be seen. My attitude is also a lot better – I’m much more confident and excited about my writing. Life does get very hectic, and it’s nice to know that this block of time each month is carved out specifically for this, and it forces me to just do it.

Do you have recommendations for other writers?

Just keep doing it! Use the Library and its resources to help you – we have a group for you, and books to keep you inspired. We also have quiet spaces for you if you need a space to write without the distractions of your own home.

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

I would love to have more consistency in the numbers of writers each month! It’s hard to do some of the more fun activities with just a handful, and I love new blood, so I’d really like to encourage new writers who want a dedicated group to come out.

We also have quiet spaces for you at the Library, if you need a space to write without the distractions of your own home.

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

NaNoWriMo CrestWell, I am a Librarian full-time, so writing is a lovely diversion for me. But, for my next trick, I am definitely going to do NaNoWriMo in November. I started last year and didn’t finish, so I think that’s my next step. I also have a lot of pieces of stories – mostly things that started here at our Creative Writing Group, and I would like to bring those to more fully-realized works.

How do people find your creative writing group? Are you accepting new members? When and where do you meet?

We are always accepting new members! Find us by stopping by the Central Library on the third Wednesdays of the month at 6pm, or find individual events at our Meetup page. If you have any questions, you can reach me, Hayley, at the Central Library at 979.7151 x4. We typically meet in the Madison Room at the Central Library.

What about the critique group? Can new writers join? If so, what are the steps, and the schedule and location of meetings?

Again, yes! New members always welcome. Find individual dates listed at Meetup, and more details are posted there as well. All you need to bring is an already-written piece, a pen, and yourself. We’ll make copies for you at the Reference level of the Central Library just before the meeting if you need. The Writing Critique generally meets on second and fourth Tuesdays at 6pm at the Central Library.

Thanks so much, Hayley, for taking the time to tell us about what the library offers local writers. Like you, BACCA loves to encourage writers to get in touch. Anything else before we close?

Nope! I think that about covers it – thank you so much for interviewing me and helping me get the word out about how the Library can help writers in our area!

— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Her company, Chenille Books, helps nonfiction authors develop their books.

BACCA’s Back! Virginia Festival of the Book 2015

BACCA Literary Is Back at VaBook!

Virginia Festival of the Book 2015Yes, we’re presenting again in 2015, and on PubDay – the best day of the entire festival. Uh-huh. (We’re a bit biased.)

Come spend Saturday morning with us in the James Monroe Room at the Omni Hotel in Downtown Charlottesville, Virginia. We start at 10am on Saturday, 21 March 2015. As I write this, there’s snow on the ground, but odds are overwhelmingly in favor of a charming spring day when you visit with us at the Virginia Festival of the Book.

What will we be doing this year?

Glad you asked. We’re coming to talk about writer groups – how to be in one, and how to find or create one.

When we did our session last time, we chatted with the Festival guests before and after our remarks about writer groups. It was a lot of fun, and good ideas came up. But there was something missing: More interaction with the Festival guests.

So, this time, we’re creating opportunities for Festival guests to meet one another and chat briefly, right in the middle of our session. Visitors to our session may possibly meet the future members of their new writer groups. And everyone will definitely have opportunities to learn more about writer groups, and what they can do to hone writerly and analytical skills. And cat-herding skills. Okay, maybe not that last one.

Where is The James Monroe Room at the Omni?

It’s easy to get to. From the hotel’s central atrium, turn toward the ballrooms. Catty-corner to the last ballroom entrance is our room, The James Monroe.

Map showing BACCA session

Shy, Introverted, Both?

Arrgh. So are some of us.

I know, I know. A Festival session with “activities.” The blurb for our session actually includes these words: “BACCA will guide Festival-goers in a fun and educational, hands-on mixer that will break the ice and start the process of building a writing community.”

It’s enough to make you run for the hills, isn’t it? Reconsider, please. Get an extroverted writerly friend to join you, and come join us. We’re gentle, promise. You might enjoy yourself. We look friendly, right?

The members of BACCA Literary

BACCA Literary Founding Members: Carolyn O’Neal, AM Carley, Bethany Joy Carlson, and Claire Elizabeth Cameron, after planning BACCA Literary’s 2015 VaBook session.

— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Her company, Chenille Books, helps nonfiction authors get their books completed, polished, and out into the world.