Becoming Unstuck for Writers – Two Tools

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

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

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

The Big Idea

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

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

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

Courtesy Pixabay

Courtesy Pixabay

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

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

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

The Littler Idea

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

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

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

(Courtesy MediaGiphy.com)

Here’s to becoming unstuck.

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

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

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BACCA Literary Is At It Again

BACCA Literary just can’t stop organizing these mixers for writers. This time, it’s an evening session at Downtown Charlottesville, VA’s Central Library at 201 East Market Street, one block up from the Downtown Mall. (We’ve done ’em before, at the Virginia Festival of the Book, and the Virginia Writers Club Annual Symposium.)

Free Session! Free Parking!

Local writers are welcome to attend free of charge. Parking is validated for nearby garages, too!

Here’s the flyer that Reference Librarian Hayley Tompkins just sent us. She’ll be there on Wednesday, 7 October, 2015, at 7pm, to welcome participants to our session.

BACCA Literary welcomes area writers to a mixer on Wed 7 Oct 2015 at 7pm in downtown Charlottesville, VA

BACCA Literary welcomes writers to a get-acquainted mixer on Wed 7 Oct 2015 at 7pm in downtown Charlottesville, VA. The Central Library is at 201 East Market Street.

Arrive a few minutes early to get yourself situated!

We hope to see you there.

— Bethany, Carolyn, and Anne

Things I’ve Learned About Writing From Teaching Math

“Who would like to show their process on the board?”

joke This is a question I ask many times a week. I teach Algebra and Precalculus at Renaissance School. I love it.

One of the challenges I have teaching at a school like Renaissance, which is for high aptitude students in Arts, Humanities, and Sciences, is that some of my students have almost a spooky natural facility with math – but many of the artists, actors, humanitarians, photographers, and musicians have developed something close to a phobia of it by the time they’ve gotten to high school. Since math is a required subject for graduation no matter the track of their studies, one way or another, we’ve got to make it to the end of the year.

My main goal is for every student to finish the class with confidence. They don’t need to be a wiz; I just want them to be able to tell themselves, “I can do this.”

paranormaldistributionSo I focus on process, not outcomes. Getting the right answer the fastest doesn’t accrue any brownie points in my class. Instead, I encourage students to come up to the board and show their thought process. Like I often say, “There’s more than one path from here to the MudHouse.” And I often add, while they’re nervously approaching the board for the first time, “We’re all on the same team. We’ve got your back. Let’s get through this problem together.”

So, it was a HUGE thrill about two months into the school year when one of my most math-phobic students said, “Ms. Carlson, can I show my process on the board for problem 37? I’m getting stuck and I don’t know what to do next.” Yes. Yes you can.

find_x_lolNow that the school year is coming to a close, I’ve almost worked myself out of a job. The students work together in groups. The quick ones race ahead, learn the new formulas, and teach them to their peers. Everyone is going to be wrapping up the year with confidence. With a process for solving problems.

Which, finally, brings me back to what teaching math has taught me about writing. I’m not sure I appreciated it fully in the beginning, but one of the things that has made BACCA a great writing group for the last four years is the feeling that we’re all on the same team. We’re not competing with one another; we have different skills and aptitudes; we work together to give candid feedback and solve problems. We, too, focus on process, not outcomes. Naturally, we all harbor dreams of seeing this or that work published. But our esteem in the eyes of each other is based in the work we do in the small ways each month, not the grand finale.

Writing may be a solitary exercise, but improving as a writer is a team effort. Just like math.

Bethany Joy Carlson is a founding member of BACCA, a WriterHouse Board Member, and owner of The Artist’s Partner.

BACCA’s Back! Virginia Festival of the Book 2015

BACCA Literary Is Back at VaBook!

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

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

What will we be doing this year?

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

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

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

Where is The James Monroe Room at the Omni?

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

Map showing BACCA session

Shy, Introverted, Both?

Arrgh. So are some of us.

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

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

The members of BACCA Literary

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

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

Relearning How To Write When I’m Happy

Writing and I need to work on our relationship. My new year’s resolution is to learn how to be a writer when I’m happy.

I’ve been a writer since 2007, when my depression and anxiety drove me to put pen to paper as a means to survive. I shut myself in my room with my laptop for up to 12 hours a day, hammering out stories about betrayal, loss, illness, death. I had a seemingly endless well of conflict inside, fuel to drive fables, screenplays, novels, poems… I wrote a lot.

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

doodle by bethany

Thankfully, over the last 8 years my mental health has improved. Happiness is no longer a figment; it’s where I spend significant amounts of my time. Writing is not what pays the bills, but I’m enjoying my jobs, I love my friends, and I’m thankful for the little things, like a cup of coffee with a big red-headed Viking of a man each morning.

So, I’m no longer desperate, panicked, get-the-words-out-or-I-will-drown-in-them. I still love stories, to get absorbed in a book or a daydream. But the truth is, if I’m not awakened by a nightmare at 3am jumping out of my skin, I have a hard time sitting down and getting down to actually writing.

I’ve had relationships in the past based on complaining, gossip, lamenting, and grief; misery does love company. Some of these friendships have not survived my transition out of depression. But my very best friend has hung in there with me: the scary start of the slump, the increasing dark days, the long struggle, and the climb back into the light. We’ve had some rough patches, but my sister has not resented the ways I’ve changed, we’ve both adapted, and our relationship now is now stronger than ever.

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

doodle by bethany

This is the model I’m hoping to pattern my writing life after in 2015. My laptop and I do not need to be in a codependent relationship. I’m hoping to learn that I can sit down to write because I want to, not because I need to. I can let go of the fear that my creativity dissipated along with my anxiety.

I can write for the joy of it.

I find that starting new habits requires some practical little guidelines to help them along. To facilitate my new year’s resolution of learning to write when I’m happy, I plan to:

  • Put my dream journal out at night before I go to bed
  • Honor the blocs of writing time I have set aside in my schedule
  • Leave space for other creative pursuits I enjoy, like drawing, collage, and origami

I don’t want to break up with writing because I’ve changed. So I’m working on it. Wish us well.

Bethany Joy Carlson is the founder of The Artist’s Partner and a co-founder of BACCA. And she’s still a writer.

7 Things I’ve Learned About Writing From Casting

Bethany casting a major motion picture in 2014... right before 1,055 boys and their entourages arrived

Bethany casting a major motion picture in 2014… right before 1,055 boys and their entourages arrived

One of my favorite jobs is being a Casting Assistant for Arvold.

A funny thing happens when you work casting. Actors come up to you and ask, “why didn’t (my son / my niece / my spouse) I get the part?!?”

If I’m ever feeling low about my rejections (I’m currently 0 for 2 this year on screenwriting competitions), I remind myself of these seven things I’ve learned about writing from casting.

  1. There’s a lottery element to producing creative work. I recently assisted at an “open call”, e.g. an audition for a major motion picture that was open to the public. We auditioned ONE THOUSAND FIFTY FIVE boys in four hours. We turned away over a thousand more. The police had to direct traffic. Art is tied to dreams, and a lot of people share the dream of seeing their creative work produced and shared and enjoyed. So the competition is stiff. It’s just not statistically sound to expect more yesses than noes.
  2. It’s worth it to show up even if I don’t book the gig. Most of the actors I see don’t book the part they’re auditioning for. But, I get to see them work. Which means when I’m brainstorming whom to call for the next project, the faces I’ve seen over and over again leap to mind. Familiarity is powerful. If you’re professional on the phone and email, show up on time, take direction, and keep your cool, you’re showing that you’re a pro – even if you don’t book this particular gig. So I make sure when I’m talking with agents, editors, producers, and other professionals, I’m behaving myself accordingly. Even if they don’t bite on my project. Yet.
  3. A performance can be amazing – and not right for the job. I have cried at auditions where the actor did not book the part. If we are looking for a haggard woman crying over the death of her son, and the actor is young and beautiful, they may nail the performance but simply not be right for the role. I submitted to a comedy screenplay contest earlier this year. My script is good, but it is dark. I call it a dark comedy, but reviewers call it a comedic drama. If the contest winner turns out to be a classic slapstick comedy, I’ll know my submission just was not right for what the judges were looking for.
  4. No performance happens in a vacuum. No actor’s performance stands alone in a film or TV show. It needs to be compatible with the other performances. If we’ve already cast 10 of 20 speaking roles for a particular show, the other 10 roles that remain to be cast need actors who complement the rest. The same holds true for a publisher’s line-up. If I submit a Young Adult manuscript about a 15-year-old Physics prodigy, and the publisher is already about to debut a Young Adult book about a 15-year-old Astrophysics prodigy, that’s just my bad luck. My book does not exist in a vacuum.
  5. Some days are bad days. This doesn’t really need an explanation. Even good actors have a bad day and turn in a lackluster performance. Sometimes my writing has no spark. C’est la vie.
  6. Some actors aren’t ready yet. We’re doing emerging actors a favor by not putting them in roles they can’t carry. Ideally, we want to set everyone up so they can succeed. Frankly, when I look back on it, I’m really relieved some of the manuscripts I submitted never got picked up. I would not want my major debut to have been that (in hindsight) overwritten mess.
  7. Beautiful and photogenic are not the same thing. I’m still trying to come to grips with the difference between what looks good to the naked eye and what works on camera. There are a lot of differences, actually: What works on stage is massive overkill on camera. Comic timing and dramatic connection are not the same muscle. Large features on a face may look a bit strange in person, but the camera lens may love them. And lots of actors are still trying to work out where exactly their talent lies – and auditions can help that process, because experts are effectively giving feedback over time based on what kinds of jobs an actor ultimately books. I felt that way about my writing for a long time. Do I write short stories? Fables? YA? Flash fiction? Graphic novels? It wasn’t until I really dug into screenwriting that I felt like I found my true strength.

I guess if there’s one thing to take away about writing from casting, it’s that persistence and professionalism pay off. Don’t take rejection personally; it’s probably moving you closer to your goal.

 

Arvold casts award-winning film (Lincoln), television (Turn: Washington’s Spies), and commercials (just wait till you see the Williamsburg Tourism commercial coming in 2015). If you are interested in learning more about film and television in the Mid-Atlantic, consider attending one of the monthly Arvold Live sessions – they are an invaluable discussion with industry pros about how Virginia’s star is rising for actors – and everyone who works in the business.

Bethany Joy Carlson writes dark comedy screenplays. (Or comedic dramas, depending on whom you ask.) She is a WriterHouse Board member, owner of TheArtistsPartner.com, and founder of BACCA.

Variations on a Theme – A M Carley Interviews Elizabeth SaFleur Part Two

a red rose

Elizabeth SaFleur’s avatar is a red rose

The erotic romance writer ‘Elizabeth SaFleur‘ and I sat down this spring. Although we have been acquainted for years, we discovered something new in common – we each are active in a writer group. Elizabeth agreed to answer my questions, which I emailed to her, about how the “cp’s” (critique partners) in her writer’s posse operate. The group differs in many ways from what I’m used to as a writer in BACCA. And yet, both Elizabeth and I benefit greatly from our groups. Just goes to show!

In this, this second part of the interview, Elizabeth shows how crucial the message ‘stop futzing’ can be, explains what to do when all the members of your group use pseudonyms, and looks at the valuable contributions the other writers have made to her progress. In the first half of our interview, we learned how these critique partners began working together, discussed how they exchange work, and discovered the title of Elizabeth’s very first novel (written at age seven). 

AMC  You write under a pseudonym. How has that affected your relationships with the other writers in your group? Have you met face to face? Do you know one another’s real names? Do you think this has an effect on your sense of security in the group? Did you all agree to protect the confidentiality of the group – “What happens in Vegas…” sort of deal?

ESF  I know two of them by their real names. And, a third by her pseudonym only. After about six months, I told them my real name. But, basically we call each other by our pseudonyms just to ensure the anonymity “sticks.”

These writers know what’s at stake, and have to deal with it in their own lives. So I feel 100% safe with them.

In the beginning, we talked a lot about security and privacy. So, it’s been pretty well-drilled that we would never “out” anyone in this group to anyone outside the group. I feel very secure in this group. In fact, they probably understand where I’m coming from regarding anonymity more than my “real life” friends. These writers know what’s at stake, and have to deal with it in their own lives. So I feel 100% safe with these fellow writers.

I’ll meet two of the cps [critique partners] for the first time face-to-face this summer at a romance writer’s conference. I can hardly wait, as I am quite invested in their work and success, and count them as friends.

AMC  What are the ground rules? Do you have guidelines about how to critique, how you structure your comments, how critical to be, etc.? Or have you collectively found your way with these matters? Do you write up formal critiques, or is it more conversational?

ESF  We have no ground rules, except perhaps this: What will make the work better? As I mentioned, we’re self-policed. Generally, we ask each other where we want input – developmentally, line-edits, just another set of eyes, etc. Each person has a unique perspective. For instance, one of our members is a professional editor and published author of sci-fi/fantasy erotic romance. Another writes regency erotic romance as well as contemporary erotica. All three of them are actually published (or it’s imminent). So, I count myself lucky to be working with them.

We have no ground rules, except perhaps this: What will make the work better?

AMC  Is someone the leader, or is it more collaborative? Do you change leadership/administrative roles from time to time?

ESF  There’s no leader, per se. It’s collaborative, where each person contributes where they can. Each one of us has unique contributions to make, not just in the writing craft and critiquing, but in publishing, marketing, social media and all the other things that go along with trying to write books that someone will actually buy. We share the “knowledge wealth” whenever we can.

AMC  Does the group want or have a public identity, collectively?

ESF  Other than calling us the “writerly posse” there’s no name or identity.

We’re completely informal. It doesn’t work like a normal writer’s group, but rather more like four people who thank the stars we found each other.

AMC  Has anyone ever missed a meeting? Not submitted work when it was due? How does that work?

ESF  Since we don’t have meetings, no one’s missed any. LOL Again, we’re completely informal. It doesn’t work like a normal writer’s group, but rather more like four people who thank the stars we found each other. Given what we write (steamy romance), it’s important for writers who see our work, first, not blush from head to toe and, second, understand what we’re trying to do. Not everyone “appreciates” our genre.

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

ESF  If there is anything I could change about my writing life – or this group — is that I’d be engaged full-time. I hope to get there next year. But, in the meantime, I wish I had more time – time to write, time to critique, time to just chat with these authors more.

I wrote my first novel when I was seven: The Mystery of the Bunny. Oh, yeah, a real bestseller!

AMC  Has being in the writer group affected your writing life? Have things happened with your writing career that might not have, otherwise?

ESF  After reading a new opening chapter of one of my books, one of my cps ended her email critique with this line: Now finish the book! There is a strong emphasis in our group to complete the novel. That’s one of the greatest gifts this writing group has given me. I’d still be futzing with the first 50 pages of Lovely – three years later – if this little band of writers hadn’t told me to STOP FUTZING!

Albercht Durer's 'Young Hare"

Does This Bunny Look Mysterious?

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

ESF  Later this year I have a short story coming out in a Christmas anthology through Troll River Publications. My first novel, Lovely, is being reviewed by a publisher. Then I have four more books started and plotted in the series. If everything goes as planned, Lovely will be out in January 2015, with the other four novels published thereafter, spaced six weeks apart. After that? Well, I have an idea for a dystopian “vanilla” romance. There is no shortage of ideas! Just time…

AMC  Anything else before we close?

ESF  Thank you for the interview. It was fun to share the immense contributions my writers posse has made to me and my writing. I only hope I’ve adequately returned the favor to them.

Feel free to drop me a line anytime, too. I can be reached through my site or on Twitter @ElizaLoveStory. Happy writing and reading everyone!

AMC  Elizabeth, thanks so much.

— A M Carley is a founding member of BACCA and provides author services at her company, Chenille Books.

Variations on a Theme – A M Carley Interviews Elizabeth SaFleur Part One

a red rose

Elizabeth SaFleur’s avatar is a red rose

The erotic romance writer ‘Elizabeth SaFleur’ and I sat down recently. Although we have been acquainted for years, we discovered something new in common – we each are active in a writer group. Elizabeth agreed to answer my questions, which I emailed to her, about how the “cp’s” (critique partners) in her writer’s posse operate. The group differs in many ways from what I’m used to as a writer in BACCA. And yet, both Elizabeth and I benefit greatly from our groups. Just goes to show! In the first half of our interview, Elizabeth tells us how these critique partners began working together, explains how they exchange work, and reveals the title of her very first novel (written at age seven). The second part of the interview discusses how crucial the message ‘stop futzing’ can be, explains what to do when all the members of your group use pseudonyms, and takes a look at the valuable contributions the other writers have made to Elizabeth’s progress.

AMC  First of all, thanks a lot for doing this, Elizabeth. It’s so interesting to compare notes about how various writer groups do what they do.

ESF It is my pleasure!

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

ESF  I write contemporary erotic romance with a very high heat level. Many of my stories include BDSM elements (emphasis on D/s over S/M) that feature alpha heroes and sassy heroines. For years, my characters “talked” to me, asking me to write their stories. After a while they got hard to ignore (especially the Doms. ;-)). When my professional life reached a “satisfaction plateau” (read: I got bored), I started to write down conversations and scenes that came to me. Next thing I knew, I was writing a novel. Now I have a whole series mapped out – The Elite Doms of Washington.

an old-fashioned thermometer

High Heat Level

AMC  How did you meet your writer group members?

ESF  My first critique partner (cp) was found through the Erotic Readers & Writers Association, which has a fantastic, free online writer’s forum. Writers post stories, and other writers will critique them. I had a few flashers (under 200 word) stories published in their gallery. After about six months of posting work and critiquing the work of others, a writer posted she sought someone to critique her novels off-line. Since she writes very similar stories to me, we teamed up. Then, she introduced me to other writers in our genre. Voila! A writer’s posse was born.

AMC  How many of you are in the group? Has the membership stayed the same, or do people come and go? How long have you been together? Does every member send out work for each meeting, or do you rotate on a schedule?

ESF  There are four of us in this “writer’s posse,” which is the only name I’ve ever heard us call our little band of authors. No one has left yet. But, there’s no formal agreement, either. We just help each other out. And honestly I can’t imagine writing without these folks. We’ve been together for about a year. We have no formal schedule, but rather just share work when it’s ready to be critiqued. But, we also know what each person is working on and “nudge” each other when we start falling behind our self-imposed deadlines. We share everything from snippets to whole chapters, from rewrites to the entire novel at once.

AMC  How frequently do you send new material around for critique? Do you limit the word count for material?

ESF  There’s no limit, though each one of us primarily works on about 80K to 100K word novels. An occasional short story is thrown in now and again. I’d say about every other week I’m sent something to read and crit, and they have something of mine. It really keeps things moving!

a police hat with checkered band

This hat is available on ebay in Australia

Our contributions are self-policed. Each person is responsible for ensuring their own writing time isn’t supplanted by critiquing others’ work. But, when we need help, we ask for it. We’re all pretty honest about what we can do. Sometimes, we even help protect the others’ writing time. For instance, one of my cps is on deadline. So, I won’t ask her to do anything new for me right now. Instead, I keep telling her to send me her writing as soon as she can so I can help! When we need time to work on our own material, everyone honors it. So far, it’s been quite balanced.

AMC  Do you meet in real time: on the phone/Skype, or messaging, or online meeting? Or are your interactions time-shifted, using email or other means?

ESF  We do a lot over email, sending documents back and forth. But, we also have phone chats through conference bridges or Google hangout. When one of us suggests numerous edits or developmental shifts, it’s just easier to talk it out.  We also help each other brainstorm when we hit plot roadblocks or feel like we’re losing our “writerly mojo.” I’ve often been talked “off the ledge” by these wonderful cps.

AMC  When you and I first met, years ago, we were both focused on writing songs – lyrics and music. How have you come to write novels?

ESF  I have wanted to be a fiction writer my whole life. I wrote my first novel when I was seven: The Mystery of the Bunny. Oh, yeah, a real bestseller! But, my well-meaning parents and friends told me I should find a “real job.” Back then I was very good at doing what I was told; I had a very successful 30 year public relations career. But as my business grew more successful, I grew less satisfied. So, after turning 50, I decided to go back to my first love – writing.

Find your own writers group or writer’s posse. But, don’t be afraid to share your work outside it, too.

The songwriting was fun. I also tried my hand at screenwriting about ten years ago. But, in the end, my stories demanded to be “born” via full-length novel. Once I started writing in that format, I couldn’t stop. That’s a pretty big clue in my book (no pun intended).

AMC  Have you developed friendships with members of your group, or is it important to you to maintain a separation from the rest of your life?

ESF  I count them as friends. But, we also honor the privacy of each other’s private life. We don’t go into great detail, but we do talk about our pets, our weekend plans and other little things that crop up. I don’t hide things from them, but I also don’t want to burden them with a lot of personal stuff. Our books’ characters’ lives keep us quite busy in that way!

AMC  How has being in your writer group changed your writing? Your attitude about writing? Your identity as a writer and your plans for the future as a writer? For me, being in a writer group – and having a writing deadline to meet – helped me make the time to keep writing, even when the rest of life got hectic. Have you noticed that happening for you?

I don’t think I could have finished my first novel, Lovely, without them.

ESF  I’d say this group has changed my writing tremendously in two ways. First, my writing is better. Without them, I wouldn’t have grown the way I have. You can listen to podcasts, take online courses, reach craft books and more to help your writing. In the end, the only way to get better at writing it by doing it a lot – and having it critiqued in such a way that shows you what you can do better the next time. That’s what these other authors have done for me.

Secondly, I don’t think I could have finished my first novel, Lovely, without them. I might have given up. I knew something was wrong, but couldn’t see it. They could see plot holes, character shifts and other things that can sink a novel. Their generosity in sharing their time and talents helped me not only write better, but finish.

AMC  Do you have any recommendations for other writers out there?

ESF  I do have a few other people outside this group who have reviewed my work. I’d tell other authors to do the same. Find your own writers group or writer’s posse. But, don’t be afraid to share your work outside it, too.  For instance, a gentleman in the UK read one of my earliest drafts of Lovely. It was great to get a man’s perspective – and from someone completely outside my usual set of crit partners.

Feel free to drop me a line anytime, too. I can be reached through my site or on Twitter @ElizaLoveStory. Happy writing and reading everyone!

AMC  Elizabeth, thanks so much.

A M Carley is a founding member of BACCA and provides author services at her company, Chenille Books.

Writing group, times eight

This semester I incorporated writing groups into my college course, Cognitive Psychology of Education. The course includes freshmen (who at UVa are called “First years”) at one end, and PhD students at the other. With a total of 31 students, we have eight writing groups of three or four students each.

Syllabus description for Claire's class at UVa

The class syllabus at UVa

I decided to use writing groups to individualize instruction by grouping students at similar stages together, and to allow them to give and receive peer feedback. As Dr. Bill McKeachie, my first teaching mentor, points out in Teaching  Tips, “interactions that facilitate learning need not be limited to those with teachers. Often those with peers are more productive.”[1]

I’ve been grandly impressed so far. We’ve held two writing groups during class. The first time, students critiqued an informal blog-style post on a course topic they found interesting. The second time, they critiqued one another’s proposals for their course project, either a research proposal, policy paper, or magazine article that they work on all semester.

In both sessions, students followed my instructions to the letter:

writing-group-instructions

The instructions for this writing group

When I was in my early twenties, I’m pretty sure my ego would have impeded such a task. At that stage, I was hungry for positive affirmation and afraid of any type of criticism – even constructive criticism. In discussion of my work, I drowned out anything that wasn’t a compliment with a long explanation of why I made the choices I did. Maybe if I explain it more, they’ll understand. It’s not me, it’s them!

 It wasn’t until I had to seriously revise a manuscript, in graduate school (or was it as a postdoc?!?), that I learned the critical ego lessons:

  1. Critiques are part of the learning process.
  2. Critiques are not personal.
  3. The readers are always (OK, 99.5% of the time) right, and responding sincerely to their critiques improves the work.

Why do my students – some of them not yet 20 years old!! – seem so adept at taking critiques with grace? It took me years, and hours of patient mentoring, to realize critiques were not personal attacks on me, but simply suggestions for improving the work. I harbor a secret theory and hope that we humans are slowly, collectively evolving. My other hypotheses include:

  • My students have adopted a growth mindset, which is Dr. Carol Dweck’s idea that mistakes are part of learning.
  • They know that practice and targeted feedback can help you learn more efficiently.
  • They are aliens from a planet where there is no ego and everyone just helps each other with politeness and sincerity.

Whatever the answer, here are three of my favorite quotes from students in writing group:

In response to my question of whether a group needed more time:

“He hasn’t thanked us for our feedback yet,” (Followed by playful laughter and actual thanking).

Overheard during a discussion:

“It’s just that I think your premise is wrong.” (This was followed by a respectful debate about the nature of education and testing).

In response to my walking around, checking in with groups:

“I decided to reorganize my paper after seeing how C. did it!”

Now three final questions:

  1. Am I proud of my students? Absolutely.
  2. Do I know how they got this way? Not exactly…
  3. Will I happily take a little credit? Yes, but only along with the students themselves, their parents, teachers, grandparents, and mentors, Dr. Dweck, any other writing group experience they’ve had, the evolving human race, and the universe.

Now that I’m not in my twenties, I’ve also learned that while individual effort is necessary to success, there is no such thing as individual accomplishment. We accomplish things in the context of our cultures and communities and in the incubator of our families, classes, and jobs. If those contexts provide us with support – whether emotional or economic – then we can thrive. In those types of contexts, we can learn and grow. If we get feedback about how to improve, in a safe setting where we can actually hear it, we can thrive. On the other hand, if our contexts undermine us, underpay us, or stress us out, we can’t.

I know what kind of world I want to live in. My students are on their way to creating it, one thoughtful critique at a time.

Claire Elizabeth Cameron PhD is a co-founder of BACCA Literary where she practices her critiquing skills. She is a research scientist at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and teaches the Cognitive Psychology of Education.


[1] McKeachie, W. J. (2002). McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, research, and theories for college and university teachers. Eleventh edition. Houghton Mifflin. P. 188.

The 5th Annual Hampton Roads Writers Conference – Day Two

September 18, 2013, Virginia Beach, Virginia

Day Two

To read about Day One, click here!

8:30 am:

Bestselling Author Lisa McMann

Lisa McMann

Lisa McMann, Author

Day Two began with introductory remarks by New York Times bestselling author Lisa McMann.

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.

9:45 am:

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.
  • Avoid clichés.
  • 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.

11:00 am:   

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.

Wrong!

Wrong!

Wrong!

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. )

Waiting, waiting - photo of a clockface

Waiting, waiting

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.

Introductions

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.

photo of Ethan Vaughan

Ethan Vaughan, Literary Agent

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.

— Carolyn O’Neal

Carolyn O’Neal is a co-founder of BACCA Literary