BACCA Writers

The 2013 Virginia Festival of the Book – Creating a Great Writing Group

BACCA logo with Virginia Festival of the Book and WriterHouse logosI’ve wanted to be part of the Virginia Festival of the Book since I moved to Charlottesville in 1998. Just being in the same room as these creative authors, illustrators, and publishing professionals expands my world. I’ve volunteered for the Festival for many years at several venues. The Omni, Northside Library, Blue Ridge Mountain Sports. I was the smiling woman at the door handing out evaluation forms to audience members. I’d never been on stage or at the podium. Never been a moderator or a speaker. But I wanted to be. Every year I’d stand at the back with the other volunteer and envision telling an audience about my writing. I don’t know which member of BACCA proposed the idea that we present at the 2013 Virginia Festival of the Book but I am grateful she did. Maybe it was me or maybe it was Bethany, Anne, or Claire channeling my dreams.

BACCA (Bethany, Anne, Carolyn and Claire) came together as a writing group in the spring of 2011. Since then, BACCA has slowly uncovered the formula for creating, leading, and sustaining a great writing group. Now we were ready to share our discovery with the world. Our proposal was submitted, along with our application, to the Virginia Festival of the Book in September, 2012. By October, 2012, we were in! BACCA was going to the 2013 Virginia Festival of the Book, and not just going, we were presenting.

By the end of winter, BACCA was almost ready. We had informative handouts on How to Create a Writing Group, How to Lead a Writing Group,  How to Find People, and BACCA 101and Anne launched our beautiful website. We had the date and location of our presentation – Saturday, March 23rd at the Omni in Downtown Charlottesville. Special thanks to Bethany Joy Carlson for securing the Omni on Saturday, the best venue and the best day for maximum exposure. But we still needed just one more ingredient … practice. We scheduled a Writers’ Retreat in early March. (See Claire Cameron’s excellent account of our retreat.)

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Saturday, March 23, 2013. We agreed to meet at the Omni Hotel, downtown Charlottesville, at 9:15 for our 10:00 am presentation. We didn’t know what to expect. Would we have one attendee or one hundred?  We’d made fifty copies of our handouts.

Our presentation was located in the Preston Room. Where? To get to the Preston Room we had to walk through the Omni’s in-house restaurant. We waved off the confused maître d’. “No, we’re not here for breakfast.”  Diners stared at us as we bypassed the breakfast buffet and found a short hallway that lead to an open door. The Preston Room was almost perfect. Good sound system, plenty of chairs, well lit, but we had one concern. Location, location, location.

Carolyn O'Neal
Carolyn O’Neal

I was worried. I’d volunteered at the Omni quite a few times and I’d never even heard of the Preston Room. All the other presentations were along the main corridor, on the other side of the hotel. Not in the middle of a busy restaurant just beyond the confused maître d’. How would our audience find us? Fortunately Anne had brought extra flyers with directions to the Preston Room. We taped her flyers on the hallway outside the restaurant and kept our fingers crossed.

Our Festival of the Book volunteer, Susie, showed up and it began to feel real. We’d already decided on the order of our introductions. Bethany, as moderator, would go first. Anne would be second. I (Carolyn) was third. Claire was forth. As Claire illustrated in the previous post, The Writing Group Weekend, we were well prepared.

We placed handouts on the first few rows as our audience began to trickle in. Three women saved seats in the front row then scurried away. Saved seats! We took that as a good omen. Familiar faces arrived next. My husband, Claire’s boyfriend, Anne’s husband, and Bethany’s friend. Strangers walked in. They filled the first few rows. More friends arrived. Our confidence grew with each new attendee.

We chatted with the audience as we waited for 10:00 am. One woman told of her bad experience forming a writing group with friends. Hurt feelings and friendships threatened. Another chimed in. She’d formed a writing group with friends as well. Some took the writing seriously, others didn’t. They had to disband. We assured these women that they came to the right presentation because BACCA had the formula for success. The middle rows filled. We glanced at each other, our excitement building. Amazing!

Bethany Joy Carlson
Bethany Joy Carlson

Ten o’clock. Bethany welcomed audience members. She thanked both the Virginia Festival of the Book and our volunteer, Susie, and introduced herself:

“I’m Bethany Joy Carlson, and I’m a storyteller. I write fables, screenplays, and YA fiction. I’ve always loved a good story – in books, at the movies, told around a campfire. Story contains, for me, something essential about what it is to be human.”

She shared a share a quote from a favorite author, Haruki Murakami:

When you listen to somebody’s story and then try to reproduce it in writing, the tone’s the main thing. Get the tone right and you have a true story on your hands. Maybe some of the facts aren’t quite correct, but that doesn’t matter – it actually might elevate the truth factor of the story. Turn this around, and you could say there’re stories that are factually accurate yet aren’t true at all.

“Since writing is a solitary enterprise,” Bethany said, “being part of a thoughtful, fun, engaged group of kind critics has not only been a boost to my craft but a boon to my soul.” BACCA has given each of its four members much-needed feedback, but more than that, the women of BACCA also become cherished friends as we share the intimate act of putting the words on our hearts to paper.

AM Carley
AM Carley

Anne was second. She talked about the benefits of BACCA to her writing process, comparing our writing group to a farm cooperative. She contrasted her creative writing with the nonfiction essays and opinion pieces she had written previously. The audience laughed when she added, “Can I just say, the term ‘submission’ is unfortunate? I prefer to say I’m ‘sending my work out’.”

Bethany called my name, and I suddenly I realized I hadn’t heard a word Bethany or Anne had said during their introductions. (I had to ask them, “What did you say?” for this blog!) My mind was blank, my vision tunneled. I felt like I was inside a thick balloon floating underwater. I began by telling the audience what I write. “Fiction, mostly,” I said. My voice was shaky. “But I’m starting to write non-fiction. I’ll tell you more about in a moment.”

Since I write speculative fiction, I wanted my introduction to take an unusual turn. I looked at my notes and told the audience about one of my my favorite animals, the cuttlefish: a wondrous aquatic invertebrate that seems more like a creature from an alien planet than inspiration for my Festival of the Book introduction. Someone in the audience laughed, which is what I had hoped would happen, and I began to relax.


“The cuttlefish quality I admire is its ability to change color to match its emotion.” I compared this ability to my online presence. My Facebook, twitter, and blog pages change colors to match my emotions. From blue to red to black, depending on what’s happening. I returned to the previously mentioned non-fiction, a very personal blog I began with my diagnosis with endometrial cancer last December. “We share our souls when we write. And no one can share their soul if they fear gossip or ridicule. Trust is the foundation of a great writing group.”

Claire gave the final introduction. She discussed BACCA’s process. How and when BACCA meets, what we talk about, how we each comment on another writer’s work, and how we observe boundaries. She shared a few key principles of learning based on her research as an educational psychologist.

Claire Cameron headshot
Claire Cameron

“Many of us have an ability bias,” Claire said, “where we think we can’t get better at something if we’re not already good at it.” (See link to Carol Dweck’s Mindset website, Claire cited research contradicting this bias and emphasized that expertise evolves through putting in the time. “We’re talking thousands of hours,” she said. Expertise also comes from supportive, effective feedback, which a great writing group can provide.

After introductions, Bethany asked the audience to take a minute and travel back in time. Remember when they received positive critique on their writing from another person. Maybe it was a teacher, a friend, or a family member. Maybe a commenter online. She reminded the audience that “critique is a loaded word. It sounds pretty close to criticism.”  The room quieted as we all thought of our writing experiences.

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Our panel discussion came next. Bethany asked the questions and Anne, Claire and I took turns answering. Our answers were sincere, humorous, and instructive.

Where do you meet? What have been the highlights and lowlights?

Anne’s house because it’s private. The Mudhouse in Crozet unless it’s hosting a violin recital.

Have you become friends? How does that impact your critiques?

After two years together, friendship was inevitable. We keep our critiques strictly about the writing and try not to let personal feelings influence our feedback.

Is there a difference between how you critique fiction and memoir? Why?

Memoir, by its nature, is more personal than fiction so critiquing can be difficult. Plus, readers know the ending.

What has enabled the trust to be vulnerable as a writer in a critique group? As a reader?

This question reiterates the importance of selecting the right people for your group.

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After the panel discussion, Bethany launched our second planned activity: Writing Group Test Drive. This activity allowed the audience an opportunity to practice giving and receiving feedback. Bethany referred the audience to our two-page handouts. On the first page was a short excerpt from a famous (unnamed) fiction author. On the second was Luke Whisnant’s critiquing guidelines, Responding to Other People’s Fiction.

We asked audience members to silently read the paragraph, and then form small groups of three or four people. We asked them to focus on “what’s working” and “what needs work” in the excerpt. We gave the audience ten minutes to complete the task. Extra points for guessing the name of the famous author.

After the exercise, Claire asked the audience how focusing on “what’s working / what needs work” rather than “I like / I dislike” changed how they read the piece. One person said, “it made me see the details of the construction, rather than my emotional response to the piece as a whole.”  Another noted, “The run-on sentences reflect the endless roads.” Three teachers in the front row chimed in: “Never begin a sentence with a number!”

Even the extra points question was answered. “When you’re John Steinbeck you can make your own rules!”

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The audience participation exercise was the perfect segue for Bethany to widen the discussion. She asked for questions from the audience. A woman in the second row raised her hand. She asked about forming writing groups with friends. I suggested she carefully consider each member of her group. Members need to be serious writers who respect the feelings, privacy and integrity of the other members. “It’s easier to invite someone to your group than to un-invite them.”

Another hand went up and a man asked what makes a group work. Anne was emphatic with her answer:  “Being present. Showing up. It’s noteworthy that BACCA has met every month for two years.”

Another woman asked the benefits of e-mailing our Works in Progress (WIPs) a week in advance versus reading them on the spot, as we did in the exercise. I talked about needing the time to read each piece fully and non-critically before going back with the red pen. Anne countered, noting the benefits of a spontaneous reaction without falling into over-analysis.

Bethany brought the session to a close, once again thanking the Virginia Festival of the Book, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, Writer House, and Susie, our volunteer. “Feel free to pick up more materials at the back, at the Writer House booth here at the festival, or at,” she said.

Bethany told the audience we would be available to answer questions after the presentation and reminded them to fill out the feedback form. Quite a few people came up with additional questions. Everyone left in high spirits, both BACCA and the audience.

BACCA writers at Festival of the Book
BACCA Writers: Claire Cameron PhD, Carolyn O’Neal, AM Carley, Bethany Joy Carlson at Virginia Festival of the Book 2013

April, 2013

Memory is a tricky thing. I committed to write this blog entry for our Festival of the Book experience during our writers’ retreat, but actually being in front of an audience is very different from sitting around with friends, practicing our questions and enjoying our answers. I thank Bethany Joy Carlson, Anne Carley, and Claire Cameron for helping me fill in the details.

Carolyn O’Neal

BACCA Writers

The Writing Group Weekend

One of my favorite things about writing – both fiction and nonfiction – is that you never know where you’ll end up. When the four of us met in David Ronka’s Evening Fiction workshop at WriterHouse two years ago, I’m certain that all we expected was a writing class. But now we are BACCA Literary: Bethany, Anne, Carolyn, Claire – aspiring authors, already-writers. After responding to Bethany’s emailed invitation, we’ve spent the past two years honing our skills in monthly critique sessions.

We’re honored that our writing group was the first – as far as we know – Virginia Festival of the Book session by writers-in-progress, for writers-in-progress. We presented on Saturday morning, March 23, 2013, at a Publishing Day event called “Creating a Great Writing Group.” We were excited – maybe even a little nervous – and wanted things to go well. To prepare for the session, we decided to spend a late-winter weekend at a nearby retreat.

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Like walking into a new class for the first time or sharing your work with strangers, spending an entire weekend writing with people you normally see once per month is an “uncertainty situation.” It’s hard to know what to expect. The pay-off could be huge – or not. And the weekend got off to a rocky start. Two days before the retreat, Carolyn was forced to drive herself to the emergency room in the middle of the night. Her husband was out of town and she began to bleed heavily from a recent cancer-related surgery. When we heard the news over our private Facebook page, we went from preparing for the weekend in excitement to worrying about Carolyn and wondering if the retreat would work out after all.

Carolyn at her desk
Carolyn at her desk

While Carolyn was in the hospital, I realized how much I wanted all four of us there. We are yin and yang: two fantasy writers, two reality-based writers. Two Baby Boomers, two Gen X-ers. Like a table with four legs, BACCA would wobble if one of us were missing.

Carolyn’s condition turned out to be caused by loose stitches. Though she needed a blood transfusion, her doctor still gave her the green light to leave town. Her husband, a true “knight in shining armor,” drove her out and unpacked all her things. After they arrived, I asked Anne, “Do you think this is pushing it?” Anne checked with Carolyn, who reassured us that if anything should happen, we were only 40 minutes from the nearest hospital. Luckily, we never had to test that drive.

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After the novelty of settling in, I could appreciate our beautiful surroundings. The retreat had one space for meeting and another for resting, dining, and socializing. Internet was limited. By chance, we were the only group on the grounds. Though the air was chill and the skies cloudy, the land cradled us in rich earth tones of straw and bark, red clay, and spring-green grass in spots. Just beyond were the Rapidan River and the Blue Ridge Mountains, timeless reminders to relax and let our creative energies flow.

We began the weekend with a writing prompt, plucked from a paper bag at 5pm. The instructions were simple, based on our composer Anne’s experience with a music retreat: choose one prompt, then take 24 hours to write a short piece. The next day, read your work to the group.

Bethany's hands at work
Bethany in close-up

The others seemed game, but I was initially skeptical. Our writing group routine is to share, one week before meeting, material that we’ve polished for months. What could we possibly produce in 24 hours? Especially without knowing the topic in advance?

The prompts were:

  • Write about an object you love dearly – something besides photo albums – that you’d save in a house fire.
  • You’re convinced that your best friend’s son plans to bring a gun to school.
  • You’re sorting through your childhood things and a stuffed animal suddenly begins talking to you.
  • You have a near-death experience. When you awaken, the only person you remember seeing is Adolf Hitler.
Anne writing
Anne writing

After choosing our prompts, we rested or brainstormed in solitude. Then we made dinner and chatted. By sheer coincidence, Anne and I are both on gluten-free, dairy-free diets, with several other restrictions, so Anne generously volunteered to prepare entrees for both nights. Her chicken soup and tomato-free turkey chili were delicious as well as diet-appropriate. After dinner, Carolyn brought out a dog-eared “Moon Signs” book and we playfully psychoanalyzed ourselves before bed. We weren’t surprised to learn that our moon signs were compatible. It started to feel like a bona fide slumber party. That night I slept on a loft with a window to the sky. I awoke once to the moon at its peak, a shining light I could have read by.

The next morning, we prepared for our VA Book session. Then we wrote. The 5pm prompt deadline approached. At 4:50pm, I was 99% done. I needed an ending though – the piece hadn’t gelled. Then, an insight, and a hasty final sentence, which ended up the same as the first. Funny how things come full circle. But was it any good? I didn’t have time to edit.

Claire looks up
Claire looks up

At 5:01, I walked into the kitchen. The three others sat around the table already. Everyone looked as hesitant as I felt. Someone said, “Y’all realize this is a rough draft, right?”

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If you want to know what we wrote, you’ll have to wait until we publish our pieces. But suffice it to say that after we finished sharing, we agreed that each piece was submission-worthy, with a little tweaking. We agreed that the prompt activity had far surpassed our expectations, and that two years before, there was no way we each could have written something coherent in 24 hours.

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So was it the beautiful place, the energy of an all-but-unplugged retreat? Was it the change in scenery or the moonlight? Or was it two years of monthly meetings and regular feedback? Whatever it was, here we are. Four women, four writers, four friends. After working together, we presented at one of the country’s best book festivals – Bethany’s preparing to teach her E-publishing WriterHouse class – Anne’s consulting other writers in her small business – Carolyn won second place in The Hook’s 2013 short story contest – and I just completed my first book. Could we have accomplished what we have without each other? Possible, though unless someone invents a parallel universe, we’ll never know. But what’s certain is that without each other to lean on, cheerlead, and listen, the successes we have enjoyed so far wouldn’t be nearly as sweet.

Carolyn, Bethany, Anne, Claire
Heading home from our weekend: Carolyn, Bethany, Anne, Claire

“Uncertainty situations” are designed to stretch us, sometimes in uncomfortable directions. But perhaps that’s the point of writing, writing classes, and writing retreats. To stretch, learn, and grow. Especially in the company of friends.

– – Claire Cameron

A shorter version of this post appeared at the WriterHouse blog