“Who would like to show their process on the board?”
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.”
So 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.
Now 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.
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!
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!
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.”
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:
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:
Critiques are part of the learning process.
Critiques are not personal.
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:
Am I proud of my students? Absolutely.
Do I know how they got this way? Not exactly…
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.
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.