Lisa is the author of the WAKE Trilogy, the VISIONS series, the UNWANTEDS series, and other books with tween and teen characters. She talked about her road to publishing success. She spoke of the joys of balancing a writing career with her life as a wife and mother.
She also spoke of the abuse she faced after becoming an author, such as bad reviews and hateful “fan” mail.
The First Ten Lines Critique Session
Conference participants (including me) could submit the first ten lines of their manuscript (anonymously, thank goodness) for professional – and public – critique. The critiquing panel consisted of the three visiting agents – Ethan Vaughan, Jeff Ourvan, and Dawn Dowdle, as well as author Lisa McMann.
Here are a few pointers about submitting to agents:
Number one rule for all agents is FOLLOW SUBMISSION GUIDELINES. Agents are looking for reasons to say “NO,” and incorrect formatting, misspelling the agent’s name, sending attachment when explicitly told not to send attachments are all reason to instantly reject a query letter and sample.
Grammar is important. Hire a proofreader, especially if grammar is your weak point.
Make sure your verbs carry the emotional weight of the story. Stay away from adjectives and adverbs.
Avoid lengthy italics. An overuse of italics in a manuscript looks amateurish and is a symptom of unpreparedness.
Vary short and long sentences to create tension for the reader.
Don’t quote unknown or obscure books. This pulls the reader out of story.
Getting Ready for My Very First Pitch to a Literary Agent (Yippee!)
The Hampton Roads Writers Conference offered the opportunity to meet with one of the three visiting literary agents and present a ten-minute pitch. I jumped at the chance. This would be the first time I’d ever met with a real-live literary agent, and obviously, the first time I’d pitched my manuscript. Yes, I’d written query letters and attended agent roundtables at the Virginia Festival of the Book, but this was my first sit-down, face to face meeting. I was meeting with Ethan Vaughan of Kimberley Cameron & Associates. I had only ten minutes with Mr. Vaughan, beginning at 11:15 am., but I was ready.
. . . Or, at least I thought I was ready before I’d attended Chantelle Osman’s Perfecting Your Pitch session (See day one.). According to Ms. Osman, I’d done several things wrong. I’d written my pitch (and even made a copy for the agent. Talk about being overwritten!) I’d practiced my pitch until I could recite it in my sleep, and I’d even timed it perfectly. If I didn’t pause, it would take eight of my ten minutes, leaving me two minutes for questions and answers.
Ms. Osman explicitly said that pitches shouldn’t sound rehearsed. Oh well, too late to change it now.
I arrived at the small conference room on the second floor of the Westin Hotel early. One table, two chairs. Mr. Vaughan wasn’t there yet. No one was there. I was his first pitch of the conference. Was that a good omen or bad? The timekeeper – the man who’d tell me when my ten minutes were up – arrived. He told me I could take a seat but I declined. I wanted Mr. Vaughan to choose which seat he wanted first, and then I’d take the other. I didn’t want to do anything to make him feel uncomfortable. (I felt uncomfortable enough for the both of us. )
I watched the clock. 11:00… 11:05… 11:10. I paced the hallway outside the conference room, practicing my new Tai Chi moves. Part the wild horse mane, white crane spreads its wings, needle at sea bottom. 11:12. . . . 11:13. I could hear people coming down the hallway, talking. 11:14 . . . 11:15. I hurried back to the room, notebook with the copies of my pitch in hand, big smile on my face.
I eagerly shook Mr. Vaughan’s hand and told him how impressed I was with his literary agency, Kimberley Cameron & Associates, their book list, and their well-known dedication to their authors. Mr. Vaughan enthused about Ms. Cameron’s devotion to her agents and her clients, which I found both heartwarming and endearing.
I glanced at the clock. Eight minutes left! No time for small talk. I plunged in. I read my pitch as fast as I could. Head down, monotone, my mind blank. AND I MEAN BLANK!
If you’d asked me at that moment what my book was about – the book that I’ve worked on for years, the book I’ve dedicated my life to, the book I’ve dreamed about, the book I’ve given up being with family for — if you’d asked me at that moment, I couldn’t have told you who the main characters were, let alone the plot. I was as stiff as a robot.
I looked up to take a breath and knew I’d made a mistake. My pitch was too long and too detailed. I’d given him more of a synopsis than a pitch. Mr. Vaughan was very kind. He asked questions and I tried to answer. I told him this was my first pitch ever and I was very nervous. He says I did a good job (proof that literary agents do indeed tell lies) and gave me a few suggestion for the “next time” I pitched to an agent.
I left knowing I wouldn’t get a contract but proud of myself for giving it a shot. I’d met many writers who were too shy to pitch their stories, or too afraid. I was shy and afraid, too, but I learned something very valuable in the process. Mr. Vaughan was polite, considerate and helpful. He gave me suggestions for the next time I pitch my story, which was a very generous gift, indeed.
I loved to make up stories when I was a kid. It seemed a simple, easy thing to do, back then. As I grew up, I stopped writing stories. Later, I committed to other art forms, and when I wrote sentences, I wrote nonfiction, not stories. Not long ago, I began again. I dared myself to try making up stories, by signing up for classes at WriterHouse.
Since then, I have slowly gotten more competent through practice, practice, and practice. My writer group, BACCA Literary, is one reason why. We first met, in fact, in a fiction class at WriterHouse.
This writer group has provided me with a monthly deadline for producing – well, something. We’ve been sharing work with one another for at least thirty months. I’ve emailed a Word document out to the others by the late-Friday deadline, every darn month. Well, there was one exception, when my family life was too chaotic, a couple of years ago. So let’s say I’ve been sharing work for at least 29 months and leave it at that.
Sure, I recognize that I haven’t always sent my best work to the other three writers in the group. “Best” is relative, measured on a sliding scale. Over time, I raised my standards for what’s good enough to send out to the writer group members. After I allocated more time each month to work on writing, I became dissatisfied with my earlier stories. Now I can predict with confidence that the stories I am pleased with now will one day look a little shabby to me.
Meanwhile, I have become less able to turn off the inner voice whispering, “Go ahead. Send something out and see if it gets published.” It was easy the first couple of years to hush that voice. I knew my work wasn’t ready to travel beyond the writer group.
For new-ish writers like me, hushing that voice gets trickier over time. We want to believe we’re improving. We want to believe there’s going to be an audience one day, however small or particularly quirky that audience may reveal itself to be. We want to nourish the creative spirit that energizes our whole enterprise. We want to begin to send work out to people – strangers – not in our writer group. I considered how to start.
To prepare to send work out into the world, I set up a spreadsheet to track my efforts to get published. Then I let the spreadsheet sit for quite a while, untouched. Later on, I added a tab to my spreadsheet with key facts on the publications that most appealed to me – things like deadlines, formatting preferences, lag time before they decide what to publish, method of submission, categories they favor, contact information, etc. The enhanced spreadsheet sat again, for a long break. More recently, I actually sent a few things out and made entries into the spreadsheet. I’ve heard back with two rejections, which I dutifully entered into the appropriate cells. I’m waiting for replies from the others.
I hesitated to send out my work until I felt satisfied enough with it that it didn’t feel too embarrassing. I chose carefully the places I sent those first few submissions – not too grandiose, and yet consistent with who I am as a writer.
“If you don’t know what you want from your writing, what on earth are you doing writing anything? How can you possibly tell whether your words do what you want them to?”
It’s actually not that hard a question. It rests on a more fundamental one. Why do you write?”
Please don’t tell me the answer is “I make art because I must.” To me, that feels lazy and self-aggrandizing in a “poor-me,” humblebrag kind of way. Besides it ignores free will.
I could tell you I write because I’ve engaged with the challenge to improve my work. The challenge is difficult enough always to involve real effort, yet rewarding enough, because of the progress I am making, to continue to motivate me to get better at it.
I could tell you I write because my life with music was altered when hand surgery made playing instruments too difficult. I could tell you I write because I’ve grown old enough to take a longer and more loving view of life. I could tell you that there’s plenty to love about writing for its own sake. Polishing a story can make my day, even when no one else has seen it yet.
Also, the most fun I’ve had with my writing lately was when some visiting non-literary friends asked me to read them a piece after I cooked them dinner. That was a blast. My fellow BACCA-ite, Claire Elizabeth Cameron, touched on this recently when she wrote,
“People are doing work for free, work for fun, work for creativity all over the place, and it’s making this world a better place. Success [in writing] is making a connection.”
So why am I writing? To get better at it. To see how much I can improve. To see if my embarrassment-meter gives me the green light to send out stories to more publications. To see if I receive a green light in return. And, in the meantime, to keep telling stories.
Most Kickstarter publishing category campaigns fail to raise even a fifth of their funding goals. Data nerds like me may want to visit kickstarter.com/help/stats for the full post-mortem. Suffice to say: raising money to publish your book is really hard.
Tap into your extrovert and PROMOTE. This is conjecture, but perhaps the reason book campaigns fail disproportionately is because writers tend to be introverts. We want that loophole whereby our work will be found without us having to tell anyone about it. Nope. The Kickstarter campaign is excellent sales boot camp. For both Bowling For The Mob and Camila’s Lemonade Stand, we had a month of promotion prior to the campaign before launch. The goal was to make sure everyone relevant heard about the campaign at least 10 times during the 30 days before launch, through the 30 days up to close.
Map out the money in advance. The occasional Kickstarter campaign goes viral, even books. However, all 125,000 campaigns in the history of Kickstarter have not. In all likelihood, yours will not. So you need to know both exactly how much money you need to produce your book, and exactly where that money is going to come from. After learning the nail-biting hard way on Bowling For The Mob, for Camila’s Lemonade Stand we went through a detailed Kickstarter Estimator process before the campaign launch. This was like a wedding guest list, but with the added columns of how much money the invitees were likely to pledge, and for what kind of reward. Then we applied the 65% rule – because not everyone we invited to the campaign was going to show up (they didn’t). So let’s say we need to raise $6,500 to produce a book. We sit down and tally up all of our friends, colleagues, family, and fans, and what they’re likely to pledge. That comes to $10,000. We multiply by 65%, get $6,500, and voila, this is a campaign that has a chance to succeed. If, on the other hand, we need $20,000 to produce the book, and then we tally up our likely pledges and that comes to $5,000, well… we don’t even need to bother with the 65% rule. This campaign is almost certainly going to fail.
Shoot a decent, short video. Kickstarter makes a big deal about having a video – any video. People want to see and hear from you. Good light and good sound go a long ways towards making a homemade video watchable. For Bowling For The Mob we had Bob sit directly under a skylight and used a microphone and an iPhone propped on a soda cup; For the Camila’s Lemonade Stand video we used a bright floor lamp with the shade removed behind the camera and a Samsung Galaxy phone with a tripod and microphone. Neither of these videos will win any awards, but they are watchable, informative, and they are SHORT. Don’t underestimate how brief attention spans are. Keep it under 3 minutes.
No Oscars. Successfully funded.
These 3 are the tip of the iceberg. At the seminar we’ll be covering how to tap into the extrovert and promote, how to map out the money in advance, and how to shoot a decent, short video. We’ll also be covering how to pick rewards and at what pledge levels, the (somewhat complicated) mechanics of setting up the necessary accounts for payment processing, some (hilarious!) case studies of what not to do, how to stay within key Kickstarter guidelines so that your project gets approved, what to do when you hit the mid-campaign slump, among other essential elements to success.
If you only take away one idea from this post, it would be “if you build it, they will come” does not apply to Kickstarter. Some lucky folks are salespeople by nature. The rest of us need to practice the steps to master them. And it’s easier to do it with a team.
This creepy crap only works in 80’s Costner movies
If you’ve read this whole post thinking, “what the heck is Kickstarter?!?”, you’re not alone. For Bowling For The Mob, the campaign was the first Kickstarter experience for the writers and a majority of the people who pledged. It’s a fundraising platform for artistic projects which, since 2009, has raised nearly a billion dollars. The best way to learn more is to wander around on Kickstarter.com. Enjoy!
If you’re considering Kickstarter to fund your book, it’s hard – but possible. No hocus pocus required.
And, please feel free to stop by The Artist’s Partner for more information on the services I provide – like Kickstarter campaign production – to artists who want to keep a bigger share of the profits by producing and distributing their work.
One thing that I love about “writing in community” is the accountability. Expanding the group of people who can give constructive feedback about our writing makes it a less lonely activity. Writing groups, partners, or teams help cheer us on when we’re stuck. And deadlines for those groups help us keep going even when – like at the end of Daylight Savings Time – we’d like to curl up on the couch instead of sticking to our writing goals. Here are some other mind-expanding* strategies that keep me writing.
1. Writing is an opportunity to be mindful
I recently learned the term productive procrastination,which means doing something that seems productive, to avoid doing The Thing that you should be doing – in this case, writing. Ever notice that when you sit down for your daily dose of writing, the dirty dishes or laundry start calling to you? Or for some reason it’s a good time to do your banking?
Even chores can seem compelling if you’ve been out of the writing habit for a while. So: next time this happens, expand your awareness to include this tendency. In other words, simply try to notice, to consciously register, when your mind tries to convince you that something else is more important than your writing. At first, you may still end up avoiding your writing. But after a while of noticing, you can change that habit (your brain is actually re-wiring itself). Now when I catch myself beginning to productively procrastinate, I’m usually able to override the impulse and keep on writing. Sometimes it helps to write down the item on a to-do list so I don’t forget. I just say to myself “You’re writing now, you can do that later.” And it’s true!
2. Think outside the screen
In this age of electronic devices, sometimes I forget about writing strategies beyond my laptop screen. But interacting with a paper draft is different than on a computer or tablet. I find reading and editing on paper an especially important strategy when I’m working on chapters – or really, anything longer than a couple of pages. When I read on the page, I notice more easily if a sentence needs to be moved up or down, or I can see a whole section that can be edited out. Do you find it difficult to order the action in a novel or short story? Consider cutting up pieces of text and moving things around.
You can also use outlines however they work for you. For example, try outlining after you start writing, or make an outline of what you’ve written. This will show you the entire story and things that are out of place might pop.
3. Writing is part of the learning process
I used to have a concept that I would understand something fully and then write it down. But I’ve learned that for me, writing is how I figure things out. In other words, I’ve broadened my definition of “writing” to include “writing to learn,” in addition to “writing to teach” (or explain, describe, or entertain). I’m not so hesitant anymore to start writing even if I don’t know where it might lead.
4. Expect to edit
Learning is a process. We are all in that process. Even experts write “crappy drafts.” Which is why another thing that’s just part of writing is editing. And to truly open a piece up to its possibilities, some parts of yourself may need to be uninvited from the editing part of the process. For example, the “that’s not good enough yet” voice and the “everything I do is perfect” voice do not belong in the editing room with you. Banish those voices and you will have more room to think.
It’s a three-hour drive from Charlottesville to Virginia Beach, unless you hit Navy traffic. Then it could take weeks. I was careful. I left C’Ville at noon on Thursday, Sept 19th so I wouldn’t get caught in the 5:00 rush. I wasn’t heading to Virginia Beach for a late summer tan or a fishing trip in the Atlantic. I was going to Virginia Beach to attend the Hampton Roads Writers 5th Annual Conference. It ran Thursday, Sept. 19th through Saturday, Sept. 21st. The organization describes itself like this:
Hampton Roads Writers (HRW) is a nonprofit, Virginia Beach, Virginia-based group of professional and aspiring writers, friends, and supporters of the arts who have joined together to promote the craft and passion of writing and the love of reading and literature in Virginia. We aim to encourage readers and writers of all ages and talents, as well as acknowledge and celebrate awareness of local and contemporary authors and their work. We serve as a resource to our community by creating and supporting literary events throughout the Hampton Roads area.
I signed up the minute I discovered I could pitch my novel to a real, live literary agent who represented my genre. Ten-minutes, one-on-one pitch session. I was excited to get on the road. I grew up in Norfolk so driving through Norfolk to Virginia Beach packed an emotional punch: The tunnel, the Chesapeake Bay, the condos thrown up as soon as Norfolk tore down the old Ocean View Amusement Park.
I drove by my old elementary school and my parents’ house. I noted the new front porch and a beat up pickup truck parked in the driveway. Mom and Dad never would have let their car look like that. I considered visiting their gravesites but this wasn’t the time to wallow in the past. This was the time to get ready for the future.
The Westin Hotel in Virginia Beach was a great choice for the Conference.
Clean and friendly, plus the Hampton Roads Writers (HRW) Conference attendees received a reduced rate. As I checked in, I was greeted by a familiar face, Cliff Garstang from SWAG. Cliff was preparing for his first presentation that evening. I don’t remember when or how I heard about the HRW Conference. Probably from Cliff.
Since I was going to the conference mostly to pitch my story, I had e-mailed HRW earlier asking about their refund policy. Lauran Strait, the President of HRW, was great. Her responses were timely and polite. She told me the formal refund policy:
Registration fully refundable until July 26, 2013; from July 27 to Aug 23, 2013 all refunds will result in a forfeiture of $25.00; from Aug 24 to Sept 11, all refunds will result in a forfeiture of $50.00; after September 11, no refunds will be issued.
I let her know that I was driving three hours to Virginia Beach from Charlottesville and had to book a hotel room for two nights. Lauran understood the effort and expense so she added a special caveat. If the agent I was going to see canceled at the last minute, I would still receive a full refund. Not only that, she also made sure I was on schedule with my submissions. I’d signed up for a couple of events that required submissions, including a “First Ten Lines Critique Session” and an optional (fee-based) 10-page manuscript evaluation by agent Dawn Dowdle. Lauran even sent e-mail reminders of when the submissions were due.
After settling into my hotel room, I went to register for the conference. I was given an impressive agenda:
I attended my first breakout session Thursday evening, 6:30 – 8:00 PM on the topic of PERFECTING YOUR PITCH, presented by Chantelle Aimée Osman, owner of Twist of Karma Entertainment..
Chantelle was exhausted. She’d just arrived in Virginia after a murderous flight from Arizona. After a couple sips of coffee, she began.
Start with your Teaser Pitch.
Give the genre and 2-3 sentences that provide the agent with the basic idea of your novel. Avoid generic statements. Chantelle used the Wizard of Oz to illustrate a Teaser Pitch:
After a cyclone transports a lonely Kansas farm girl to a magical land, she sets out on a dangerous journey to find a wizard with the power to send her home.
Next, give the agent your Expanded Pitch.
Tell the story in an organized fashion. Add details, avoid backstory. Highlight heroes, goals, conflict, risk, pivotal elements, turning points, and the end.
Our farm girl, Dorothy, dreams of going over the rainbow. Through a freak cyclone, she and her farmhouse are transported to Munchkinland. There, she learns the only way back to Kansas is to meet the Wizard of Oz, who has the power to get her home. So she sets off on a dangerous journey. Along the way, she meets a Scarecrow, a Tin Woodsman, and a Lion. And they travel with her. However, Dorothy has made an enemy of a Wicked Witch, and she and her three friends … (Oz pitches courtesy of Christopher Lockhart.)
Chantelle leaned in close and looked us in the eyes.
“Pitches sell you, not just your writing.”
If you don’t appear passionate and excited about your own work, no one else will be. You’re starting a business relationship, so be professionals. Dress appropriately (generally just slightly more casual than the person you’re pitching). Be respectful, appear open to ideas and suggestions. Be flexible. The person you’re pitching to has more experience in the industry, and can help.
Practice, but don’t sound rehearsed. Comedy pitches should be funny, thriller pitches should have suspense. Switch up words each time to be spontaneous. Be specific, avoid abstract themes and generalizations. Watch your audience; if they appear bored, change tactic. Be prepared to start and stop for questions or other interruptions. If you fumble, recover. Provide verbal milestones to orient the listener (“at the midpoint” or “in the final scene”.)
Avoid overselling, comparisons, describing every side plot and each character’s backstory, disagreeing.
Make sure you have a professional synopsis and other information to leave behind ask ab out how to follow up.
When e-mailing the agent, be sure to put where you met in the subject line. For example, ‘Hampton Roads Writers Conference, 2013.’”
Rules of Synopsis:
A literary synopsis is a condensed statement that conveys the narrative arc of your manuscript. A synopsis shows major characters and events, from beginning to end.
Begin at the beginning, end at the end.
Break it down into 12 beats. Act 1 (3 segments), Act 2 (6 segments), Act 3 (3 segments)
Highlight on main characters
Use attention getting/action words. This is not just a recitation of facts.
Use 3rd person, present tense
Tell entire story, avoid cliffhangers.
Have synopsis read by people who haven’t read book and don’t know story. Can they understand plot and main characters?
Use normal font, e.g. Times New Roman. Nothing unusual.
BACCA meets monthly to discuss and critique our writing projects. Sometimes we extend the meeting to include “Business.” What does that mean? What business could we possibly have, as a noncommercial private critique group?
When we began our routine of monthly meetings, it wasn’t long before we were reluctant to leave when the critiques were done. We wanted to keep talking – about who had submitted work to publications and contests, who had been sending out query letters to agents, the considerations for and against self-publishing an e-book, the best tools to keep track of submissions, queries and responses. On a related point, we were quick to provide moral support when the agent was silent, or the contest was not won.
One month, a member submitted her own writer-website as her work-in-progress. This helped lead us all to the gradual realization that we were each struggling, in various ways, with how to present ourselves publicly as writers. One of us, after reading up on author platform, branding and the like, suggested we might benefit from working together to pin down our author identity: What our persona is, for the purposes of placing our manuscripts, blogging, reading publicly, and marketing our work. We extended our next regular session to include a Business meeting.
To prepare, based on an idea from a music-performance coach, each of us agreed to choose three words or terms that described us as a writer. Then we’d provide constructive feedback – we were by then familiar enough to trust one another with this sensitive work. Digging in at the meeting, we brainstormed and came up with terms that felt juicier and more attuned to our identities as writers. For example, from Impatient | Imaginative | Honest, Bethany ended up with Decisive | Powerful | Storyteller. Claire’s takeaway words were: Candid | Insightful | Compassionate. She had started with Unconventional | Perceptive | Humane.
Two years on, Claire and Bethany still like their three words: “At the time it was something I aspired to, and now it’s a core part of my identity. It went from who I wanted to be, to who I am,” says Bethany about the experience.
This illustrates a larger, perhaps unanticipated, consequence of our Business meetings. Focusing on “Business” focuses us on our purpose as writers, and our relationships with the larger world. Carolyn explains, “The first Business meeting legitimized the time I was spending writing. Made me feel ‘real,’ like writing wasn’t just a lark. It wasn’t a hobby that wouldn’t amount to anything. The people we associate with are our mirrors. Associating with BACCA gave me confidence in my writing.”
After that three-words exercise, we enjoyed that year’s Virginia Festival of the Book. One of us suggested we offer to present a session at the Festival in 2013. We agreed to go for it. Needless to say, a good deal of business was involved in the planning for that panel. Session proposals were due to the Festival in October. Over the summer, we each drafted a proposal. From those four, we committed to a panel about how to create a great writing group. Each of us signed on for specific tasks with calendared deadlines – promotion, graphics, web, social media, liaison with the Festival organizers, etc.
We set up a group photo shoot, on the theory that, whether or not our proposal became a presentation at VaBook, some good author-headshots would come in handy. A local photographer, Fareine Benz, met us in Crozet before we began that month’s critique meeting, and took individual as well as group photos. We wanted the group photos for our own writer-group website, baccaliterary.com, and – we hoped – publicity for the Festival of the Book 2013.
Speaking of which, we added some Business time to another critique meeting, to agree on a way forward with the BACCA website – what we wanted it for, what purposes it served, how to get a logo and a graphic ‘look,’ what content we wanted to keep as permanent resources, how frequently we intended to add new blog posts (like this one) to it in future, etc.
We went live with our website in time to use it as a promotional tool for our panel – yes, our proposal got the thumbs-up! – at the Festival of the Book in March, 2013. Each of us wrote one or more permanent resource pages for the website, one member organized the design aspects, and we reimbursed another member, who had the foresight to have reserved the domain name baccaliterary.com. Our first blog posts concerned the Festival – promoting our appearance beforehand, and telling the story of our experience, afterwards.
When we set up a weekend retreat a few weeks before the Festival, we planned to focus on an overnight writing challenge, and prepare for the presentation coming up soon. Business items came up that weekend, too. We decided to table them until after the Festival.
The panel at the 2013 Festival of the Book went well. It also provoked more questions about our identity and purpose. At our next extended critique session, we set aside time to talk about where our writer group was going as an entity. Did we want to work together providing literary services? Did we want to alternate or redefine our leadership responsibilities? Did we want to collaborate with local groups for joint projects? We tabled those questions, for discussion at the next Business meeting.
What would we blog about? Who would manage website maintenance? We agreed to a monthly schedule for new blog posts, rotating authorship and subject matter. Did we want to send in a proposal to the Festival of the Book 2014? Deferring that larger issue, we requested feedback from the 2013 Festival organizers, to see what people had said after attending our session.
We recently received the compiled comments from our audience members at BACCA’s VaBook panel last spring. Overall the feedback was quite positive, with nuggets like these: “Fantastic to see another perspective on writing.” “Great ideas to improve our writing group.” “ Excellent handout.” “Extremely well organized and presented; thoughtful; as advertised; a lovely contribution to the festival!”
Constructive criticism came from someone who said with more audience involvement the session would not have lapsed into feeling a bit ‘self-congratulating.’ Another person requested specifics on writing and illustrating for children’s books, and someone else wanted to hear from a variety of writer’s groups. A few commenters suggested we extend opportunities for audience participation next time.
More recently, our Business has included keeping the BACCA blog fresh with monthly posts, and plotting our next steps, as individual writers and as actors in the larger world of letters. We keep each other apprised of interesting news and commentary, and notes from writer conferences, through our private facebook page. Throughout it all, we’ve kept our monthly critiques going. BACCA member works in progress currently include memoir, graphic novel, short story and novel formats.
So, why do we hold Business meetings and what do we get out of them? As Bethany puts it, “they help to set writer goals that become a reality.” I agree. Our Business meetings recognize that even for relative newbies like us, the business side of writing is something to engage with, rather than avoid.
It may be coincidence, but since we began our Business meetings, a couple of years ago, Carolyn completed a novel and wrote a prize-winning short story for the Hook’s annual fiction contest, Claire edited the recently published book, Braver than You Believe, Bethany founded a literary enterprise and I got involved with publishing and author coaching.
So can you guess what we’ll be discussing at our next Business meeting? Judging from past experience, I’d wager there’ll be a few surprises. I can hardly wait.
I want my students to feel our writing critiques have launched their work to the next level. At its best, competition in the classroom raises everyone’s game. But it’s easy to cross the line from healthy challenge to catty, snarky, and mean. When I teach a workshop, channeling that energy in a positive direction is one of my top priorities.
Instructor Mantras for Great Classroom Critiques
As the teacher, I set the tone. I want a positive, honest, challenging, listening environment with firm boundaries. These are my instructor mantras.
“I believe in each work.” I may imagine a long road between a current draft and publication. But if I treat a student’s work like it’s hopeless, the whole class will pick up on that vibe and amplify it. The goal is not perfection, but getting the current draft to the next level. The fact is, every work can improve.
“I say what I mean.” Balancing the previous mantra, I don’t do my students any favors if the workshop turns into a mutual back patting session. I don’t beat around the bush. I call out the things I see that are working and the things that need work.
“I ask questions about what I don’t understand.” Assumption is the mother of all, ahem, screw-ups. Just because I’m the instructor, I don’t need to pretend I know it all. When presented with something unfamiliar or unclear, I ask questions.
“I listen carefully.” I should probably move this mantra to the number one spot, because as the teacher, I want to TALK. Boring. Belittling. Discouraging. I need to listen to my students first, and talk last. I listen attentively so that I can return to emphasize students’ important contributions by name, and only then fill in any gaps that haven’t already covered.
“I stop behavior that doesn’t belong in my class.” Especially with adult students, it’s tempting to cop out and think ‘we’re all grown ups here’, and let the class devolve into Lord of the Flies. Instead, when one of my students starts in with destructive criticism or wanders into a ranting monologue, I politely interrupt with, “Interesting point, Sally, but we’re getting off track. Let’s you and I talk about that offline after class.”
Classroom Rules for Great Critiques
Luke Whisnant’s ‘Responding to Other People’s Fiction’ is my handbook for setting critique ground rules, whether the writing is strictly fiction or not. I repeat the headlines before each critique session. Most people need to hear something three times to register it and ten times to memorize it, so it is not overkill to provide gentle reminders at the start of each workshop.
Start with what’s working. Every piece has something that’s working for it. We start there to encourage one another.
Continue with what needs work. We’re not here to congratulate each other. We’re here to improve. Let’s get specific about what needs work.
Phrase with “I think”. Our critiques are opinions, not facts. We offer them thoughtfully, we listen to them carefully. In the end, it is up to the writer to decide what to do with our opinions.
Avoid “I liked…” or “I didn’t like…” This isn’t about tastes in reading material. We are here to help each other with the craft, not share what we read in our free time.
The critiquers talk first. The writer benefits most from unfiltered critiques. The writer gets time at the end to respond.
I have found variations on these ground rules to be helpful in other creative and collaborative environments: Brainstorming about starting a business. Rehearsing for a play. Setting strategic goals for an organization. Co-writing a manuscript. But for me they are particularly rewarding when I get that enthusiastic email from a student, thankful for the rekindled energy they have for their work, excited about how much it has improved, and ready to tackle the job of taking their draft to the next level.
If you are interested in more information on constructive critiques in the classroom, please contact bethanyjoycarlson at hotmail dot com.
In my day job at the University of Virginia, I do research, which many people may not realize involves a lot of writing. As my boss says, “In academia, the coin of the realm is publishing.” Our research group, called Foundations of Cognition and Learning or FOCAL, examines the underlying foundational skills that children need to succeed in school. Skills like self-control, visuo-motor skills, and motivation.
This post is about how writing groups can help technical and academic writers. Academic writing is a certain type of creative challenge because it’s essentially like learning a new language. There are particular words to use and not to use. Rules for when to use something called causal language, which implies a traditional experiment with a control group. Rules for the precise difference among highly similar words, like effect, effects, affect, and affects. Rules like never using fragments or phrases.
If you don’t know the difference between impulsivity, impulse control, effortful control, inhibitory control, inhibition, perseverate, attentional shifting, and executive function – if you’ve never even heard of these words and feel perfectly content about that – you are a normal person. Because all those words essentially mean “self-control,” and they have to do with how we must deliberately plan, organize, and apply effort to learn new things.
In academia, because scientists examine the most subtle details of phenomena like human behavior, we end up coining obscure phrases that only a few experts in that particular area master. As a graduate student, or as a scholar new to an area of study, figuring out what an article is even about can be maddening. Learning how to write in the style of scientific writing takes years, and learning how to write well in this style is even more of a challenge.
I was reminded of this a few years ago when I started writing about an area that is new to me: visuo-motor skills. I had been writing about self-control for 8 years, and when I tackled motor development, I felt like a first-year graduate student all over again. I remembered how challenging and just plain frustrating it was to build a skill from scratch. It felt like I would never get better!
For the past two semesters, I’ve been involved in an academic writing group that helps doctoral students and their mentors make progress on their writing. When the group concluded this spring, the students liked it so much they decided to keep meeting over the summer. The mentors liked it so much we decided to keep meeting over the summer too! (In the fall, we’ll all get back together). Here are five benefits of our group:
1. Effective feedback mechanism. Scientists are trained to consider a position from all sides and refute challenges. Arguing for one’s point is part of the business. But when learning to write, this somewhat antagonistic stance serves no one. My academic writing group adopted the BACCA model of allotting the first 15 minutes or so of the session for the readers to comment and for the author to listen. As our academic writing group leader Dr. Sonia Cabell pointed out, “Not responding when someone comments on our work is simply unnatural. We spend so much time on the piece that it feels impossible not to respond and defend our efforts.”
Even so, she and I agreed that was the best decision we made in structuring the group. An “author listening period” allowed the readers to build a conversation and comment off one another. Themes became evident and so were areas of disagreement among the readers. After the listening period, the author was invited to ask clarifying questions and seek more information from the readers. A side benefit of this practice was that we learned one can separate the piece of work from one’s own identity – this is what I call “ego work.”
2. Allow for comparison and contrast. In our group, students with widely varying interests – literacy development, self-control, preschool math education, measurement of visuo-motor skills, and cultural competence of student teachers – all read each other’s drafts. They told us this had two benefits: first, they learned about areas they didn’t otherwise encounter. Second, they more easily saw the principles of strong writing because they had examples of the same style of writing (academic) on so many different topics. In other words, their tunnel vision – so essential when becoming expert in a focused area – broadened.
3. Confidence building. The group involved four mentors – established research faculty who have been writing for a long time – and we mentors submitted our own working drafts. Thus, the students got to see our rough drafts. Our rough drafts were – and this is a technical term – messy. We started calling them “crappy drafts.” For university students, who are surrounded by long-time PhDs, it’s a relief to see that writing well is difficult for mentors, too. It’s difficult for everyone. Which leads to the fourth benefit:
4. Practice: The writing group provided multiple opportunities to practice and receive timely feedback on our writing. A few students submitted the same paper more than once, albeit with changes and improvements. And as research on expertise shows, improving at a skill requires practice. A LOT of practice.
5. Large return on investment. Our academic writing group did not take a lot of time. Students enrolled for one independent study credit. We met every other week for 1 hour, and reviewed two pieces of writing. When necessary we were able to review in BACCA speed, 20 minutes, though we tried to give each person more like 25-30 minutes.
Other than the professional benefits, we had a lot of fun together! The students keep coming back, so we must be doing something right. If you are interested in creating your own academic writing group, please contact Claire Cameron at cecameron(at)virginia.edu.
I’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, andBACCA 101, andAnne 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.
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!
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.
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.
“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, http://mindsetonline.com/). 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 GroupTest 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 BACCALiterary.com,” 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.