158 Queries or, Another Case for the Growth Mindset

“I queried 158 times before I sold my first word.”

I was sitting in a Just Buffalo writing workshop led by Nancy Davidoff Kelton, the author of Finding Mr. Rightstein (Passager, 2016) and Writing from Personal Experience (F+W Media, 2000) and countless personal essays. “158 queries” was part of Nancy’s opening remarks.

The rest of her workshop was useful, personal, and entertaining—even if you don’t count the law firm’s noisy party on the floor below. But “158 queries” is what I needed to hear the most. I walked into the workshop, thinking “I don’t need a writing workshop—I need a query pep talk.” Unlike most of the other workshop participants, I’ve taken writing classes…several. I’ve spent a couple years, in those classes and working with 2 different writing groups, developing control over my voice, so the academic in me doesn’t come out unless invited.

But so far I’ve not developed a successful query process. I think I know my query issues, AKA false beliefs that serve to self-handicap, AKA the fixed mindset when it comes to querying. What’s ridiculous is, when it comes to writing, I’m the queen of growth mindset, which is the idea that if you keep doing something, you will improve. And improving depends on regular practice.

I shouldn’t be surprised by this because the research on mindsets (made famous by Carol Dweck who wrote the book) says that indeed, a person can have a growth mindset in one area and a fixed mindset in another. Here’s what I mean:

My attitudes about querying (Fixed Mindset):
– I query intermittently, not on a regular schedule.
– I, inaccurately, see querying as separate from writing in the sense that I “can’t” make room in my schedule for both at the same time.
– I dread querying because of the (extremely high) chance that I will fail.
– I don’t believe that if I keep doing it, it will pay off (meaning, result in an accepted piece).

My attitudes about writing (Growth Mindset):
+ I write regularly: multiple times per week, if you count academic writing, which I do since it’s my day job.
+ I make time to write in between all my other obligations.
+ I look forward to writing, because I see it as something that I can improve if I do more of it.
+ I believe that if I keep writing, I will end up with a piece I’m satisfied with.

Before Nancy’s “158 queries,” mini-pep-talk, I had been lying to myself. Telling myself that querying is too hard, that it’s not in my skill set because writers aren’t natural marketers, and that if I just keep entering contests I will eventually, miraculously, be found through that process by an agent or publisher who can’t wait to publish eerything I’ve ever written: my books, short stories, personal essays, back files, rough drafts, and even random, lightly polished journal entries (hey a girl can dream).

Ha. Please don’t tell Jane Friedman, or Anne Janzer, who helpfully present more on mindset-as-applied-to-the-writing-life here.

So now I’m trying to stop lying to myself. Querying is difficult, but Nancy did it. 158 times before she had any success. And now she is a grand success. She had, and has, a growth mindset about both writing and querying.

They (people, somewhere) say identifying the problem is half the battle. So here I am, problem identified.

Time to stop writing—for now. I need to go send in a query letter.

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Some Tech Tools for Writers

calendar of Oct - Nov - Dec 2014

What’s Left of 2014

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.

Sample Board in Trello

Sample Board in Trello

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.

Facebook Groups

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.

Image of a garden wall

Beware what lurks outside. Image from HGTV.com

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.

Google Calendar

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.

File Storage

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.

Privacy

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.

 

The Stories We Tell

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

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

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

Good Enough?

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

Your Best doesn't always look the same

Your Best doesn’t always look the same

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

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

The P-Word

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

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

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

Questions

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

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

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

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

the words, Why Write?

Oh. THAT question.

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

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

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

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

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

#amwriting

A M Carley

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

Business for Critique Groups

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?

Image courtesy of cooldesign / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of cooldesign / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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.

red piece

Image courtesy of Idea Go / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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.

Image courtesy of cooldesign / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of cooldesign / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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.

A M Carley