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.
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.
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.
Here’s the first try, from early April, 2013: Sue and I were both excited about the potential, but we felt the last word in the title, “Believe” was too separate, making the title look at first glance like “Braver Than You.” Sue requested a change, and by the end of May, we were pleased as pink lemonade with this:In the meantime, I was taking an eBook DIY class with Bethany Carlson of The Artist’s PartnerI learned about the importance of bold colors, readable fonts, and having a cover pop out even as a thumbnail-sized image. For a class assignment, I mocked something up, and chose the red, white, and grey colors from Amy Michelle’s work. Those colors echo the themes of grief and romance from our book.
If we had offered a teaser free e-download, we could have used this… …but we decided to just go forward and publish the book on Aug. 10, 2013.
We eventually decided on Calibri, a font that is now Microsoft Word’s default for new documents. Why? Because it works. Combined with the emotive, hand-lettering of our book’s main title, the Calibri choice was simple, modern, and professional.
Here’s the final cover…
…And here’s where the work paid off: A month ago, I received a request through our self-publisher (Amazon’s CreateSpace), from Act One Script Clearance. Script clearance is necessary whenever a production team creates a set, using books, posters, or other products that are copyrighted. Act One staff were seeking books that looked like plausible reading for the characters played by Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda on Grace and Frankie. In the show, these women are left by their husbands, when the husbands decide they are gay and fall in love with each other.
When I asked how they found our book, I learned that the production team searched Amazon for books their characters might be reading during a time of great turmoil. And while I’m sure our book’s title was key in the search, an attractive cover didn’t hurt. In fact, the cover was the main copyrighted work requested for use in the show. The production team sought permission to show it throughout the season, on bookshelves or coffee tables. It is now a part of this season’s permanent set.
Hollywood, here we come!
Claire Cameron is an educational psychologist at the University at Buffalo (SUNY), and aspiring science writer. Her dream is to write about human development, health, and science in a way that everyone will want to read.
This post is Part 2 of 2 about my experiences working with Writer’s Relief, an agency that helps authors find agents and outlets for their work. In December, I had just submitted materials about my work and myself, so that Writer’s Relief could draft a query letter and send me a list of agents who might be interested. This post continues the Q&A format I used in Part 1.
1. What happened after you submitted your materials?
After signing up on Dec. 16, two different Writer’s Relief staff contacted me on Dec. 23 and Jan. 7. One asked for my publication credits, and the other sent this intriguing question:
How close to your life is the book? You’ve called it a memoir – does that mean that you’ve just changed names and some minor details. This will determine how we target your book. Is it based very loosely on your life? Could it be called a novel? Please advise.
All events in the book happened, to me, as they are described, in the timeline described. I agree with your wording: only names and minor details (such as identifying locations and personal information) have been changed. And obviously I’ve put it into third person, which I think I noted in my submission materials was due to the sensitive nature of the health details–easier to read and write this way. It is definitely not a novel.
This level of detail told me they were looking very carefully for the agents who would be interested in my book, which I describe as a health mystery memoir.
2. What did you think of their query letter? And the list of agents?
On Jan. 13, I received their draft query letter. I was impressed. Though I had done my best with my own query letter to sell the big picture, Writer’s Relief zoomed out even more. They also sent me a PDF document of various resources for authors, which included a rationale for their approach in writing query letters. Their goal is understated professionalism. No clichés, nothing over the top. Let the work sell itself. Their opening paragraph reflected that:
Please consider my book Pretty On The Inside: A True Story of Transformation, an autobiographical account of my experiences dealing with a chronic, disfiguring skin condition. Due to the personal nature of the story, I’ve written in the third person and names have been changed.
3. Did you like the list of agents?
On Jan. 16, my personalized list of agencies and specific agents arrived, also in a PDF. The $250 fee covered 25 agents + query, but the list contained 29 names and email addresses, plus the materials I should submit to each party. What amazed me most was the fantastic fit of the agents to my work. I had no idea there were people who were seeking to represent “non-fiction efforts in health and wellness, relationships, popular culture, women’s issues, lifestyle, sports, and music.” Except for sports, my book has all those elements. Neat-o!
Many agents wanted an excerpt from the first part of the book, though this varied from as little as 5 pages to as many as 50. Most wanted the first 1-3 chapters. Writer’s Relief instructed me to query immediately (within 3 days), though this turned out to be a challenge given the particulars of each agency’s query preferences. As of today (April 15), I’ve managed to send 16 out of 29 queries. Shh, don’t tell Writer’s Relief!
4. What happened after you received the list of agents?
What happened next is I’m waiting and trying to find the time to finish querying. Of 16 queries already sent, I received two personalized notes from agents who expressed enthusiasm for the project but are just too busy (or not enthusiastic enough), but who encouraged me to keep going. Totally worth it. Thank you Janet Reid (who also writes a funny and sharp take-your-medicine blog for writers) and Molly Friedrich.
5. Can you recommend Writer’s Relief?
Yes. One could say that I can’t know for sure, until I find an agent. But honestly, the structured process of prepping my materials for a professional set of eyes, the long list of agents that assured me there is a place for my story, and the supportive personal notes from two agents have already made the sometimes confusing journey from query to publishing easier.
Claire Cameron is an educational psychologist and aspiring science writer. Her dream is to write about human development, health, and science in a way that everyone will want to read.
Yes, 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.
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?
— 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.
It’s fall. Everyone’s back at their desks, and signs of the November->January holiday madness are still faint enough to ignore. So in other words, we’re all on the brink of overwhelm. If, like me, you are juggling writing projects with other work, you want to feel you’ve got the materials you need, wherever you happen to find yourself when the time opens up to work on your writing projects.
Lately, I have found a few tools that really help keep overwhelm at bay, particularly in collaborative environments.
Tracking Shared Projects
To keep track of shared projects (in my world, that usually involves 2-5 people), I used to make a table in Word of the topics and tasks within each topic that were to be managed. The parties involved each received a copy by email, and wrote back happy emails about how organized we all were. That part usually went pretty well. Then the ugly part began when it came time to update it, and keep track of version numbers, and revision dates, and who had received an emailed copy of the latest version, and on and on. It became a minefield, not a helpful tool. So many accurate and true things in that table could become wrong and out of date, so quickly.
Now for shared projects I encourage my book coaching clients and other project collaborators to use Trello. It’s a web-based tool, free for basic use, for listing items and adding comments, files, checklists, calendared deadlines, images and other media, and more. A page, known as a Board, in Trello’s default format, which is easily edited, shows three vertical lists headed To Do, Doing, and Done. One oddity: You can’t delete items from Trello, but you can archive them so they aren’t on your screen.
Search is nice and fast. It works on devices with a web connection – which includes computers, tablets, smartphones, and so on. And it’s always up to date. When people add their two cents, or a new task, or check a box in a checklist, everybody involved will know about it the next time they visit the Trello board. The ugly part from the old days of tables build in Word just pretty much disappears.
Floating Research Library
It’s true what they all say about Evernote: You really won’t need to keep those scraps of paper any more. It’s amazing to me how readily I adapted from “Where the $%^& did I put that stick-it with that book title / idea for subplot / phone number / song fragment?” to “Oh yeah, I’ll just look in Evernote. I bet I put it there.” Like Trello, Evernote’s search is super-fast and thorough. Also as with Trello, you can make categories and sub-items, here called Notebooks and Notes, subject to annotation, media attachments, live URL links, etc. For me, Evernote is my great reference library in the sky. Nothing is too small to put up there.
I’ve been at meetings with only my phone, yet equipped to answer questions, back up my assertions, illustrate ideas, and keep the ball rolling because I’ve got Evernote on my phone. And when you come across that brilliant idea or crucial piece of info while you’re out and about, you can email it to your Evernote library with your special dedicated email address (that you remembered to stick into your smartphone’s contacts directory, of course). It works on most devices. Unlike Trello, the Evernote software is not web-based – you download an app, free for basic use, from the company’s website and it resides on your device, while sharing the contents of your library with other devices you authorize. There’s a username/password gate to pass through, securing access to your stuff.
I feel a little tacky admitting this, but you know what? Facebook can be a useful collaboration tool. Protect your privacy, of course, as you would with anything at all posted there, but within bounds, a Closed or Secret Facebook group can become a terrific tool for shared projects. Keep one another up to date, ask questions, post calendared events, share files and links. The biggest downside? You have to go on Facebook to access the good stuff your colleagues are sharing with you inside your walled garden. Time sucks lurk just outside the garden wall.
Again, it’s free of charge, web-based, and platform-independent. A web connection is all you need. We BACCA members rely on such a group for keeping in touch between meetings.
The interface is unbeautiful, old, and clunky, admittedly, and privacy is, uh, dubious, but inviting people to meetings, setting aside the time for them, linking to an agenda document, and other such administrative tasks can be handled pretty well from within Google Calendar. By the way, you can invite people who don’t have a gmail address. It’s web-based, platform independent and free of charge.
When I have the chance to get some writing work done, I’m not always at my home office with access to the files stored on the server there. I switched a while back from Dropbox to Sync, as the place to keep drafts of works in progress. Truth be told, I prefer to use it only for temporary storage. (That’s probably my 60s-era bad attitude showing up, as it is wont to do these days.) Like the other products mentioned here, it is free for basic use. Sync says it uses encryption and otherwise is better at protecting my privacy than the competition.
Backup Is On You
With Trello and Evernote and Facebook and Google Calendar and everything else web-based, backing up your data is your job – not theirs. Procedures and file formats differ, so be sure to find out the ways to save copies from the cloud down to something local under your control. Then – and this is important – slot the time into your regular routine actually to DO those backups. It’s the old umbrella-toting-rainstorm-averting theory – if you make backups you’ll probably never need them. So make them.
Yeah, not so much. I recommend assuming, at a minimum, that what you put up in the Cloud is or may be subject to anonymous data-mining. In addition, personally, I wouldn’t use any of these tools to store usernames and passwords, Social Security and other such valuable identifying numbers, large address books and contacts directories, valuable intellectual property, and confidential documents. Sync’s website includes a blog post itemizing some of the more egregious privacy policies out there.
The Monster in the Shadows
Okay, I admit it. Not covered here is a recommendation for the tool that facilitates easy collaboration on an actual document. That’s because I’m still looking for something better than Track Changes in Word. Please understand, by that I mean I really really really want to find something better. I have been known to wail, curse, stamp my feet, sigh, and otherwise demonstrate my utter frustration with that inadequate, inelegant, outdated tool. One that I’ve read interesting things about is called Draft. Here’s its info page about version tracking and revisions.
PS – In the day since this blogpost went up, I’ve come across a few more things on this topic. Two colleagues and fellow BACCA-ites chimed in: Bethany Joy Carlson mentioned Google Docs as a useful alternative to Word for some purposes (although I’ve also seen negative reviews of it for security concerns, for example), and C E Cameron is checking out Scrivener (as I am). And then I recalled having seen mention of Poetica for online document collaboration. And then I realized that Jane Friedman’s recent blog post about alternatives to Word may have been the place I learned about Poetica.
What do you think? Do these and other tools help you keep the overwhelm at a manageable distance? Please tell us in the Comments below.
— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, is a founding member of BACCA, and is CEO of Chenille Books which provides editing and coaching services to authors.
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.