Happy New Writing Year

BACCA writers, like many writers, want to get our best work out of the shortest amount of time. How do we do that?

Planning

One way is to plan ahead. Like really ahead. A whole year’s worth of planning.

To mark the start of this new year, I worked on a new method to organize the time in a writer’s year. Then, with my colleague and fellow writing coach Ginger Moran, I co-facilitated a workshop on the subject, sponsored by SWAG Writers and hosted at the public library.  We met in Staunton, Virginia with a group of writers dedicated enough to attend our session despite subfreezing temperatures and bleak skies.

 

Staunton Graphic 180106

The poster for our Staunton writer event. Thanks, Maggie Duncan.

Ginger and I talked about how to embrace being a creative person; how to resolve to make changes in the face of our own hardwired fear of change; how to make realistic, doable lists, and how to consider the variety of tasks that make up writing, publishing, and marketing.

We introduced a hierarchy of first choosing one big step for the year and then working backward, identifying medium steps, and within those, tiny, doable steps.

The cover of FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers

A M Carley’s handbook for writers, available at Central Virginia booksellers and online.

After Ginger’s excellent remarks on being a creative person, paradoxically both bold and sensitive, I began by quoting someone – was it Thomas Edison? – who said (more or less), “I haven’t failed. I’ve discovered ten thousand ways that didn’t work.” I love that attitude. It’s on us as creative people to remember the longer view of our projects, goals, and creative intentions. We can learn from all of it, not just the glowing successes. It gives us hope to get up in the morning and reminds us how much value there is in the things that went sideways, and can still be really useful.

The How-To’s

Drawing on some helpful ideas from my writer’s handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, I expanded on a couple of FLOAT tools.

List Hygiene

Lists can be your friends, and they can torture you. The key is that for each item you put on a list, you’ll be able to know with absolute certainty when it’s complete. That means precision and compassion. Being specific with yourself, so that you know when you are done. When we’re looking ahead at the year, list hygiene can make all the difference.

Recap Routine

Remember, counterintuitively, always to look back at what you’ve done. We’re built not to appreciate our achievements, and we tend to forget them quickly. So we can complement our innate dismissals and stop to notice. “Oh, we did some good work there.” Or, “I didn’t get any good work done but I knocked three things off the list and cleared my head for tomorrow.” With a recap routine in place, it won’t feel like you need to flog yourself to keep going. Keep in touch with your basic vision, your channel, your source. Set aside time to appreciate what you’ve done. Then, once it becomes habit, the practice becomes so rewarding it reinforces itself.

I touched on a couple more FLOAT tools that haven’t made it (yet) into the book.

Getting Real

The purpose of our workshop was to encourage each person to develop a 12-month itinerary for their writing journey, beginning with the one big step that mattered most to them for the entire year. In that light, I wanted to say a few words about being realistic when setting goals. I suggested that writers meet in the middle, between grandiose and boringly doable. You want to come up with something that’s stretchy enough, so you hear yourself say, “I’m not sure I can do this,” and also grounded enough that you can say,”It’s possible.” If, instead, you know that even if everything went brilliantly, that goal would still not be possible, I recommend you don’t set yourself that goal. Doing so wouldn’t be fair, and might well stretch to the breaking point, snap, and leave you sad rather than exhilarated.

Clock It

Can you estimate your available time resources? Do you know how much time you actually have to devote to this year’s big step? Before you commit to a stretch goal, it’s useful to know how much time you’ll actually be able to devote to it. If you’re not aware of where your time goes, it’s a good exercise to keep track of everything you do for one week. Although it can feel like really annoying busywork, it’s really informative. Clocking the actual time we spend on all the different parts of our lives helps us see where the time goes. It also shows us what turns out to be important to us. For example, if I underestimate how much time I spend reading, or listening, to the news, I’m not being helpful to myself. And, by the way, I’m not doing this to go, “A-ha! That’s what I’m doing wrong!” It doesn’t need to be about self-criticism. Instead, it’s about getting a handle on what your time resources really are. Once you block out the time you know you don’t have, you’ll find out how much time is available for writing. And that’s part of being realistic.

After Ginger and I spoke, everyone got to work. Judging from the questions and comments from participants, progress was made. And, as Ginger was careful to point out, the next step after planning out the year’s big step, medium steps, and tiny steps is to enter them all into your working calendar. You know, so you’ll remember that big vision and do the incremental tasks that bring it to fruition. Hey, this could work!

Do you have a stretch goal for your writing in 2018? Happy New Writing Year!

— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Her company, Chenille Books, provides creative coaching and manuscript development services to authors. Decks of 52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, at the Chenille Books website, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase at Central Virginia booksellers and on Amazon. #becomingunstuck 

 

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Hampton Roads Writers Fifth Annual Conference

Carolyn O'Neal at the Hampton Roads Writers Conference, 2013

Carolyn O’Neal at the Hampton Roads Writers Conference, 2013

DAY ONE:

It’s a three-hour drive from Charlottesville to Virginia Beach, unless you hit Navy traffic. Then it could take weeks. I was careful.  I left C’Ville at noon on Thursday, Sept 19th so I wouldn’t get caught in the 5:00 rush.   I wasn’t heading to Virginia Beach for a late summer tan or a fishing trip in the Atlantic. I was going to Virginia Beach to attend the Hampton Roads Writers 5th Annual Conference. It ran Thursday, Sept. 19th through Saturday, Sept. 21st. The organization describes itself like this:

Hampton Roads Writers (HRW) is a nonprofit, Virginia Beach, Virginia-based group of professional and aspiring writers, friends, and supporters of the arts who have joined together to promote the craft and passion of writing and the love of reading and literature in Virginia. We aim to encourage readers and writers of all ages and talents, as well as acknowledge and celebrate awareness of local and contemporary authors and their work. We serve as a resource to our community by creating and supporting literary events throughout the Hampton Roads area.


I signed up the minute I discovered I could pitch my novel to a real, live literary agent who represented my genre. Ten-minutes, one-on-one pitch session. I was excited to get on the road. I grew up in Norfolk so driving through Norfolk to Virginia Beach packed an emotional punch: The tunnel, the Chesapeake Bay, the condos thrown up as soon as Norfolk tore down the old Ocean View Amusement Park.

Chesapeake Bay, photo courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation

Chesapeake Bay, photo courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation

I drove by my old elementary school and my parents’ house. I noted the new front porch and a beat up pickup truck parked in the driveway. Mom and Dad never would have let their car look like that. I considered visiting their gravesites but this wasn’t the time to wallow in the past. This was the time to get ready for the future.

The Westin Hotel in Virginia Beach was a great choice for the Conference.

The Westin Virginia Beach Town Center

The Westin Virginia Beach Town Center

Clean and friendly, plus the Hampton Roads Writers (HRW) Conference attendees received a reduced rate. As I checked in, I was greeted by a familiar face, Cliff Garstang from SWAG. Cliff was preparing for his first presentation that evening. I don’t remember when or how I heard about the HRW Conference. Probably from Cliff.

Since I was going to the conference mostly to pitch my story, I had e-mailed HRW earlier asking about their refund policy. Lauran Strait, the President of HRW, was great. Her responses were timely and polite. She told me the formal refund policy:

Registration fully refundable until July 26, 2013; from July 27 to Aug 23, 2013 all refunds will result in a forfeiture of $25.00; from Aug 24 to Sept 11, all refunds will result in a forfeiture of $50.00; after September 11, no refunds will be issued.

I let her know that I was driving three hours to Virginia Beach from Charlottesville and had to book a hotel room for two nights. Lauran understood the effort and expense so she added a special caveat.  If the agent I was going to see canceled at the last minute, I would still receive a full refund. Not only that, she also made sure I was on schedule with my submissions. I’d signed up for a couple of events that required submissions, including a “First Ten Lines Critique Session” and an optional (fee-based) 10-page manuscript evaluation by agent Dawn Dowdle. Lauran even sent e-mail  reminders of when the submissions were due.

After settling into my hotel room, I went to register for the conference. I was given an impressive agenda:

Kevin Maurer, award-winning reporter and New York Times bestselling co-author of No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden, and Lisa McMann, New York Times bestselling author of the WAKE Trilogy , the VISIONS series, the UNWANTEDS series, will deliver keynote addresses. Other presenters included fiction writers Clifford Garstang, Lydia Netzer, Jeff Andrews, andChantelle Aimée Osman,  author and Certified Public Accountant Jack Downs, poet Jeanne Larsen, and agents Ethan Vaughan, Jeff Ourvan, and Dawn Dowdle.

Chantelle Osmam, President and Owner of Twist of Karma Entertainment

Chantelle Osmam

I attended my first breakout session Thursday evening, 6:30 – 8:00 PM on the topic of PERFECTING YOUR PITCH, presented by Chantelle Aimée Osman, owner of Twist of Karma Entertainment..

Chantelle was exhausted. She’d just arrived in Virginia after a murderous flight from Arizona. After a couple sips of coffee, she began.

Start with your Teaser Pitch.

Give the genre and 2-3 sentences that provide the agent with the basic idea of your novel. Avoid generic statements. Chantelle used the Wizard of Oz to illustrate a Teaser Pitch:

After a cyclone transports a lonely Kansas farm girl to a magical land, she sets out on a dangerous journey to find a wizard with the power to send her home.

Next, give the agent your Expanded Pitch.

Tell the story in an organized fashion.  Add details, avoid backstory.  Highlight heroes, goals, conflict, risk, pivotal elements, turning points, and the end.

Our farm girl, Dorothy, dreams of going over the rainbow. Through a freak cyclone, she and her farmhouse are transported to Munchkinland.  There, she learns the only way back to Kansas is to meet the Wizard of Oz, who has the power to get her home.  So she sets off on a dangerous journey.  Along the way, she meets a Scarecrow, a Tin Woodsman, and a Lion.   And they travel with her.  However, Dorothy has made an enemy of a Wicked Witch, and she and her three friends  …   (Oz pitches courtesy of Christopher Lockhart.)

Chantelle leaned in close and looked us in the eyes.

“Pitches sell you, not just your writing.”

  • If you don’t appear passionate and excited about your own work, no one else will be. You’re starting a business relationship, so be professionals. Dress appropriately (generally just slightly more casual than the person you’re pitching). Be respectful, appear open to ideas and suggestions. Be flexible. The person you’re pitching to has more experience in the industry, and can help.
  • Practice, but don’t sound rehearsed. Comedy pitches should be funny, thriller pitches should have suspense. Switch up words each time to be spontaneous. Be specific, avoid abstract themes and generalizations. Watch your audience; if they appear bored, change tactic. Be prepared to start and stop for questions or other interruptions. If you fumble, recover. Provide verbal milestones to orient the listener  (“at the midpoint” or “in the final scene”.)
  • Avoid overselling, comparisons, describing every side plot and each character’s backstory, disagreeing.
  • Make sure you have a professional synopsis and other information to leave behind ask ab out how to follow up.
  • When e-mailing the agent, be sure to put where you met in the subject line.  For example, ‘Hampton Roads Writers Conference, 2013.’”

Rules of Synopsis:

A literary synopsis is a condensed statement that  conveys the narrative arc of your  manuscript.  A synopsis shows major characters and events, from beginning to end.

  • Begin at the beginning, end at the end.
  • Break it down into 12 beats. Act 1 (3 segments), Act 2 (6 segments), Act 3 (3 segments)
  • Highlight on main characters
  • Use attention getting/action words. This is not just a recitation of facts.
  • Use 3rd person, present tense
  • Tell entire story, avoid cliffhangers.
  • Have synopsis read by people who haven’t read book and don’t know story. Can they understand plot and main characters?
  • Use normal font, e.g. Times New Roman. Nothing unusual.

That was day one.  Watch for future blog posts to learn about day two’s agenda events, how I pitched my novel, and what I learned from the conference.

Logo for Hampton Roads Writers

Carolyn O’Neal