Here are some of the best pieces of advice I’ve seen, bundled together as summer bounty for writers in the Northern Hemisphere. Are you planning on taking time off? Hard at work? Both? See what works for you here:
BACCA’s own Noelle Beverly put this evergreen blog post together a while ago for our website, after working on an internal document for our critique group. I notice that I keep sharing the link with other writers! Noelle’s apparently simple approach to critiquing the written work of another is powerful.
Noelle has given us invaluable, humility-inducing advice and I recommend it to your attention. Take in this state of mind first, before starting to think critically about the pages you’ve received from a fellow writer.
Are you overwhelmed? Desperate for ways to pare down the obligations, shoulds, lists, expectations, and self-flogging? Creativity coach LA Bourgeois (here’s her guest blog about Kaizen Muse for my website) in a recent newsletter advises us to “Chop wood, carry water. This phrase means to focus on simple acts and perform them to the best of your ability. Do NOTHING extra.”
LA’s guidance may ring true for you as it does for me. I’m even considering – gasp – abandoning to-do lists during my time off next month.
Are you struggling with the ending to a piece of writing? George Saunders in one of his first public “Office Hours” essays provides ten ways to think about endings. While he’s speaking to short stories, I can see many of these ideas applying in other creative contexts as well.
Saunders tells of a class he taught when non-writing-major undergrads all knew which elements of a Vonnegut story needed to be addressed to achieve a satisfactory conclusion. This gives me hope.
Not Made for These Times?
To wrap up, for those readers who, like me, are feeling swamped, struggling to move forward in the wake of so many cruel, baffling, unconscionable decisions from the US Supreme Court and elsewhere: Buddhist psychologist Tara Brach provided a podcast episode for us. “Navigating the Dark Ages” acknowledges the current environment and offers ways to keep going, finding and making meaning along the way with a sense of connectedness to others and participation in the long arc of human history. Give it a listen.
— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Through Anne Carley Creative she provides creative coaching and full-service editing to writers and other creative people. Decks of her 52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase from central Virginia booksellers, at Bookshop.org, and on Amazon. A new handbook, The FLOAT Journal: Becoming Unstuck on the Page, is forthcoming.
As described in another page in more detail, the writer group BACCA formed after four of us met in a fiction class at WriterHouse in Charlottesville Virginia.
After the final class session, the four of us wanted to meet again for one more critique session. Then we realized that we all wanted to create an ongoing writer group.
That was ten years ago. Wow – it almost seems impossible that it’s been ten years, but there it is in my 2011 calendar – “writer critique swap” at noon on Saturday the 25th.
We immediately adopted the critique guidelines that had served us well in our writing class. Later, when we created a website for our group – by then we had named ourselves BACCA – we asked permission from Prof. Luke Whisnant, whose guidelines we’d been using, to reproduce them on the website as a resource for other writers. He graciously consented.
At our (pre-pandemic) workshops and in personal emails, we often referred other writers to these guidelines – along with a bundle of other writer group resources.
Changes over Time
Our membership has changed over the years. We now include two founding BACCA writers, another who’s been with us for many years, and one who is a guest member for the duration of her book manuscript. Three other writers were with us for a time, over the years.
Naturally, because of the variety of writers and the passage of time, our critique process has evolved.
A few months ago, we decided to take extra time at our monthly critique session to focus on the guidelines, and see where they might need expanding or refocusing.
Why the Guidelines are Like the US Constitution
I was shocked, when I looked a few months ago at the Whisnant critique guidelines, to see how much I’d added on to them – in my mind. Turns out, the actual guidelines only addressed works of fiction intended for adults, for one thing. Our group has produced, read, and critiqued in many more categories than that.
Kind of the like US Constitution, the underlying document had accrued a lot of additional meaning to over the years. But when I casually suggested to a new writer that a look at the guidelines on the BACCA website was all they needed to get up to speed, I had forgotten that none of that extra stuff is actually written down.
The US Constitution is written down.
So we went to work and came up with modifications to address not just adult fiction but also narrative nonfiction (from Carolyn O’Neal), children’s fiction (from Pam Evans), and self-help / instructional manuscripts (from me, A M Carley).
In addition, we now have a wonderful preamble by Noelle Beverly who gives every writer a high-altitude view of the critique process. Her suggestions are thorough, generous, and deeply insightful. You may recall seeing Noelle’s blog post here about this recently, as well.
Amendments Take Time
Also like the US Constitution, making changes to the underlying document requires deliberation and careful thought. Our process is not as glacial as, say, passing the Equal Rights Amendment – waiting since 1972 – but it has taken us several months.
We really hope that writers find them useful. As Noelle points out in her preamble, preparing critiques benefits the critiquer as well as the critiqued. It’s already been a great experience and opportunity for us to reflect on the key features of an excellent critique.
— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Through Anne Carley Creative she provides creative coaching and full-service editing to writers and other creative people. Decks of her52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase from central Virginia booksellers, at Bookshop.org, and on Amazon. A new handbook, The Becoming Unstuck Journal, is forthcoming.
I could practically hear The Byrds harmonizing to McGuinn’s twanging 12-string, doing their famous rendition of Pete Seeger’s song adapted from the Book of Ecclesiastes. The morning of our annual June retreat, our writer group received the news that one of our own would not be joining us for the weekend. In fact, she was leaving the writer group altogether.
Her note was moving and heartfelt. Good things in her life were superseding her writing in importance. I knew this to be true. I shed some tears and thought about how different the weekend was now going to be. So much depended on the four of us who remained.
I felt optimistic, because we already had some experience with changes. We got started back in 2011, when four of us attended a fiction class at WriterHouse , our local writing nonprofit, and decided to continue as a critique group. We adopted – and then adapted – the critique guidelines from Luke Whisnant that our teacher had recommended to the class, and established a reliable monthly schedule which we all observed.
Gang of Four
We thrived as a foursome for a number of years. We wrote, published, funded our projects, promoted them, and all the while sent in monthly segments of new work for discussion. We grew as writers, and as a group. We even did a series of public presentations on the benefits of committing to a writer group.
Then one of us made some big changes to her life. She got married, accepted a new professorship at a university far from our base in Charlottesville, and had a baby. The combined distance, responsibilities, and changed focus meant she could only meet with us sometimes, and via Skype, not face to face in the usual coffee shops, offices, and living rooms where we congregated.
So, in effect, we were a more often a group of three than four. Undaunted, we put out the word that we sought a new writer to join us. A few interviews later, we wound up with not one but two engaging new voices to join the chorus.
The six of us rallied for one final retreat, all together, last summer in Virginia. Then our far-flung writer announced that it was unlikely she’d be able to join us in future, even by Skype, what with teaching, the baby, and a forthcoming academic book in the works.
It made total sense, and we helped where we could, beta-reading portions of her book, and cooing over photos of the new baby. We missed her, each in our own ways, and welcomed the two new writers to our circle. We evolved.
A new five-member vibe emerged. Then another of our original writers let us know she’d be withdrawing for a time. She had exigent priorities, related to the events of 12 August 2017. Those of you not in the Charlottesville, VA area may not have felt the urgency that the day created among many of us to do something in the wake of the horror and violence. In the aftermath, our writer was drawn to investigate, and withdrew for a time from the rhythm of sending in several thousand words per month to our writer group. We supported her decision, needless to say. In fact, many questions remain, almost a year later, about who did what – and did not do what – to and for whom on that day, not to mention what factors led to the conditions that resulted in so much harm – to individual people and to the community.
So we were, temporarily, four. Knowing that our fifth writer was likely to return, we left an extra seat at the table for six months or so. Sadly, at the end of her leave of absence, she had found no resolution. Like many Charlottesvillians, she discovered the answers to her questions remained stubbornly out of reach.
She rejoined active participation in our group, once again a circle of five writers. It felt good. The number gave us more flexibility. If one of us were out of town, we still had a satisfying foursome at the monthly critique. I remember reflecting that our writer group had its own life force, its own reason for being. In addition, we each demonstrated our care for the group itself, tending to it with kindness and intelligence.
Life went on this way for a little while. Earlier this year, we all anticipated the retreat, scheduled for mid-June. As in prior years, we’d rented a place, planned shared activities, along with ample solitary time, and looked forward to sharing dinners assembled in the kitchen, enjoyed by all.
Then on the morning of what was to be our first day together, we got the email. Our instigator, the person who in 2011 first invited three other writers to do a critique, had come to the end of the road with BACCA. Just as had happened a year before with the new mother / academic transplant, her reasons were overwhelmingly positive and beyond reproach. As I re-read the email, I saw how happy her life had become. A new career, marriage, a home in the country – all these developments were worthy of celebration.
Now We Are Four – Again
When the remaining four of us met up at the retreat, we all had some adjusting to do. Now half of us were old-timers – around since 2011 – and half of us had been involved for eighteen months or so. What effects would that new balance have on our equilibrium?
It didn’t take long to find out. By the next day, at our scheduled critique meeting, we found ourselves already functioning as an effective, collegial, purposeful, compassionate, and committed group of four.
Happily, as do the other BACCA writers, I remain connected to the two writers who have departed from active involvement with the group. It is a great pleasure to know both of these fellow writers, now friends, and to enjoy the conversational styles and senses of humor unique to each of them. I am filled with admiration for the ways each of them has designed a life that gives them joy.
Turn, Turn, Turn
And as for BACCA, once again, our shared intention to serve the group overcame the uncertainty. As the song goes, to everything there is a season. Once again, BACCA reconfigured itself and evolved. May your writer group do the same.
— 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
Reflecting on recent lessons learned, I made this list of highlights, all to do with being a writer.
• If the passive voice were to be used along with conditional or subjunctive or some such mood, and if I were to be given material from a client that happened to include such longwinded and painstakingly constructed language, it might be possible that, as the person being compensated for simplifying the client’s material so that a stranger to the topic might be able to comprehend it, I found myself reducing a lengthy sentence into one declarative statement of few words.
• Varying the sentence lengths in a long-form piece rocks.
• My clients and the writers in my writer group are excellent at teaching me how to improve my writing.
• Also, the fictional Emily Starr, protagonist of Lucy Maud Montgomery‘s trilogy, reminds me to keep at it. Emily’s writing career can be a great example of persistence and doggedness, traits that can get the work done, done well, and out the door.
• As rewarding as writing is for its own sake, it is also cool to see a book you wrote on the shelf of a local bookstore. [Hazard of visiting my books at the bookstore: Now I want to read all the other books on the shelf….]
• It’s also even cooler to be paid for books that sold off that shelf.
• Humor comes in lots of flavors and strengths. It’s often just the ticket (even in nonfunny writing).
• Writing can be a pleasure, and a blank page an invitation. When it isn’t, it can be worthwhile to explore why that is. Sometimes even a small change can switch it back into something that feels OK or even good.
• Writers have a lot to learn from their readers. Sending out the completed book or story or article doesn’t need to be the end of a writer’s (one-sided) connection with readers. Some readers want to know more about – even get acquainted with – the author of that thing they enjoyed reading. And in non-creepy ways.
• Beta readers are generous. When someone volunteers to read your new work before it’s released or published, and then gives you structured, useful feedback about it – that’s pretty much the ideal gift. At least for a writer. Well, online reviews are pretty wonderful, too, now that you mention it.
• A writer group can make a wannabe writer into a legit one. So can a writing coach. It’s like water on a stone. Slowly, over time, edges are delineated, and rough surfaces polished.
• There’s always more to learn.
— 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. Her first nonfiction book, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase at Central Virginia booksellers and on Amazon. #becomingunstuck
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.
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!
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.
In my day job at the University of Virginia, I do research, which many people may not realize involves a lot of writing. As my boss says, “In academia, the coin of the realm is publishing.” Our research group, called Foundations of Cognition and Learning or FOCAL, examines the underlying foundational skills that children need to succeed in school. Skills like self-control, visuo-motor skills, and motivation.
This post is about how writing groups can help technical and academic writers. Academic writing is a certain type of creative challenge because it’s essentially like learning a new language. There are particular words to use and not to use. Rules for when to use something called causal language, which implies a traditional experiment with a control group. Rules for the precise difference among highly similar words, like effect, effects, affect, and affects. Rules like never using fragments or phrases.
If you don’t know the difference between impulsivity, impulse control, effortful control, inhibitory control, inhibition, perseverate, attentional shifting, and executive function – if you’ve never even heard of these words and feel perfectly content about that – you are a normal person. Because all those words essentially mean “self-control,” and they have to do with how we must deliberately plan, organize, and apply effort to learn new things.
In academia, because scientists examine the most subtle details of phenomena like human behavior, we end up coining obscure phrases that only a few experts in that particular area master. As a graduate student, or as a scholar new to an area of study, figuring out what an article is even about can be maddening. Learning how to write in the style of scientific writing takes years, and learning how to write well in this style is even more of a challenge.
I was reminded of this a few years ago when I started writing about an area that is new to me: visuo-motor skills. I had been writing about self-control for 8 years, and when I tackled motor development, I felt like a first-year graduate student all over again. I remembered how challenging and just plain frustrating it was to build a skill from scratch. It felt like I would never get better!
For the past two semesters, I’ve been involved in an academic writing group that helps doctoral students and their mentors make progress on their writing. When the group concluded this spring, the students liked it so much they decided to keep meeting over the summer. The mentors liked it so much we decided to keep meeting over the summer too! (In the fall, we’ll all get back together). Here are five benefits of our group:
1. Effective feedback mechanism. Scientists are trained to consider a position from all sides and refute challenges. Arguing for one’s point is part of the business. But when learning to write, this somewhat antagonistic stance serves no one. My academic writing group adopted the BACCA model of allotting the first 15 minutes or so of the session for the readers to comment and for the author to listen. As our academic writing group leader Dr. Sonia Cabell pointed out, “Not responding when someone comments on our work is simply unnatural. We spend so much time on the piece that it feels impossible not to respond and defend our efforts.”
Even so, she and I agreed that was the best decision we made in structuring the group. An “author listening period” allowed the readers to build a conversation and comment off one another. Themes became evident and so were areas of disagreement among the readers. After the listening period, the author was invited to ask clarifying questions and seek more information from the readers. A side benefit of this practice was that we learned one can separate the piece of work from one’s own identity – this is what I call “ego work.”
2. Allow for comparison and contrast. In our group, students with widely varying interests – literacy development, self-control, preschool math education, measurement of visuo-motor skills, and cultural competence of student teachers – all read each other’s drafts. They told us this had two benefits: first, they learned about areas they didn’t otherwise encounter. Second, they more easily saw the principles of strong writing because they had examples of the same style of writing (academic) on so many different topics. In other words, their tunnel vision – so essential when becoming expert in a focused area – broadened.
3. Confidence building. The group involved four mentors – established research faculty who have been writing for a long time – and we mentors submitted our own working drafts. Thus, the students got to see our rough drafts. Our rough drafts were – and this is a technical term – messy. We started calling them “crappy drafts.” For university students, who are surrounded by long-time PhDs, it’s a relief to see that writing well is difficult for mentors, too. It’s difficult for everyone. Which leads to the fourth benefit:
4. Practice: The writing group provided multiple opportunities to practice and receive timely feedback on our writing. A few students submitted the same paper more than once, albeit with changes and improvements. And as research on expertise shows, improving at a skill requires practice. A LOT of practice.
5. Large return on investment. Our academic writing group did not take a lot of time. Students enrolled for one independent study credit. We met every other week for 1 hour, and reviewed two pieces of writing. When necessary we were able to review in BACCA speed, 20 minutes, though we tried to give each person more like 25-30 minutes.
Other than the professional benefits, we had a lot of fun together! The students keep coming back, so we must be doing something right. If you are interested in creating your own academic writing group, please contact Claire Cameron at cecameron(at)virginia.edu.
Before there is a book to publish, before the agent, before the copyeditor, there is the intense process of writing. This session is by writers-in-progress, for writers-in-progress, and focuses on the process of becoming a better writer within a supportive community. Learn from the four members of BACCA Literary, a Charlottesville, VA writer group, how to build your own. Co-sponsored by WriterHouse (Charlottesville), where the members of BACCA first met.