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 

 

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The Stories We Tell

I loved to make up stories when I was a kid. It seemed a simple, easy thing to do, back then. As I grew up, I stopped writing stories. Later, I committed to other art forms, and when I wrote sentences, I wrote nonfiction, not stories. Not long ago, I began again. I dared myself to try making up stories, by signing up for classes at WriterHouse.

Since then, I have slowly gotten more competent through practice, practice, and practice. My writer group, BACCA Literary, is one reason why. We first met, in fact, in a fiction class at WriterHouse.

This writer group has provided me with a monthly deadline for producing – well, something. We’ve been sharing work with one another for at least thirty months. I’ve emailed a Word document out to the others by the late-Friday deadline, every darn month. Well, there was one exception, when my family life was too chaotic, a couple of years ago. So let’s say I’ve been sharing work for at least 29 months and leave it at that.

Good Enough?

Sure, I recognize that I haven’t always sent my best work to the other three writers in the group. “Best” is relative, measured on a sliding scale. Over time, I raised my standards for what’s good enough to send out to the writer group members. After I allocated more time each month to work on writing, I became dissatisfied with my earlier stories. Now I can predict with confidence that the stories I am pleased with now will one day look a little shabby to me.

Your Best doesn't always look the same

Your Best doesn’t always look the same

Meanwhile, I have become less able to turn off the inner voice whispering, “Go ahead. Send something out and see if it gets published.” It was easy the first couple of years to hush that voice. I knew my work wasn’t ready to travel beyond the writer group.

For new-ish writers like me, hushing that voice gets trickier over time. We want to believe we’re improving. We want to believe there’s going to be an audience one day, however small or particularly quirky that audience may reveal itself to be. We want to nourish the creative spirit that energizes our whole enterprise. We want to begin to send work out to people – strangers – not in our writer group. I considered how to start.

The P-Word

To prepare to send work out into the world, I set up a spreadsheet to track my efforts to get published. Then I let the spreadsheet sit for quite a while, untouched. Later on, I added a tab to my spreadsheet with key facts on the publications that most appealed to me – things like deadlines, formatting preferences, lag time before they decide what to publish, method of submission, categories they favor, contact information, etc. The enhanced spreadsheet sat again, for a long break. More recently, I actually sent a few things out and made entries into the spreadsheet. I’ve heard back with two rejections, which I dutifully entered into the appropriate cells. I’m waiting for replies from the others.

I hesitated to send out my work until I felt satisfied enough with it that it didn’t feel too embarrassing. I chose carefully the places I sent those first few submissions – not too grandiose, and yet consistent with who I am as a writer.

And that just begs the questions, doesn’t it?

Questions

Who am I, as a writer, and why am I doing this? Author Dan Holloway, in his recent essay, What Do You Want from Your Writing in 2014 and Beyond? at Jane Friedman’s blog, says:

“If you don’t know what you want from your writing, what on earth are you doing writing anything? How can you possibly tell whether your words do what you want them to?”

It’s actually not that hard a question. It rests on a more fundamental one. Why do you write?”

Please don’t tell me the answer is “I make art because I must.” To me, that feels lazy and self-aggrandizing in a “poor-me,” humblebrag kind of way. Besides it ignores free will.

the words, Why Write?

Oh. THAT question.

I could tell you I write because I’ve engaged with the challenge to improve my work. The challenge is difficult enough always to involve real effort, yet rewarding enough, because of the progress I am making, to continue to motivate me to get better at it.

I could tell you I write because my life with music was altered when hand surgery made playing instruments too difficult. I could tell you I write because I’ve grown old enough to take a longer and more loving view of life. I could tell you that there’s plenty to love about writing for its own sake. Polishing a story can make my day, even when no one else has seen it yet.

Also, the most fun I’ve had with my writing lately was when some visiting non-literary friends asked me to read them a piece after I cooked them dinner. That was a blast. My fellow BACCA-ite, Claire Elizabeth Cameron, touched on this recently when she wrote,

“People are doing work for free, work for fun, work for creativity all over the place, and it’s making this world a better place. Success [in writing] is making a connection.”

So why am I writing? To get better at it. To see how much I can improve. To see if my embarrassment-meter gives me the green light to send out stories to more publications. To see if I receive a green light in return. And, in the meantime, to keep telling stories.

#amwriting

A M Carley

A M Carley is a co-founder of BACCA Literary. She owns and operates Chenille Books where she works with nonfiction authors.