Category Archives: creative life

RIP Mots Justes

Mots Justes is going on hiatus. “Going on hiatus?” you might ask. “You haven’t posted in three weeks!” You’re right. You’re absolutely right. And that’s why I have to take a break and reassess.

I’ve known I have to do this for a quite awhile now. I’m freelancing, with large swaths of “free” time that I feel like I have to fill up. So I start projects. This blog. Another blog. A nascent idea for yet another blog. A photo-a-day project and a cookie-a-week project. Meanwhile, I’m constantly behind—or flaking altogether—on my paid gigs, and worse, I’m not writing my fiction. I’m doing everything around writing but the actually writing itself.

I held out this long because there were legitimate reasons to continue. But frankly, my vision for the blog has been too ambitious, and I have to prioritize the activities that are going to serve my writing best.

I’ll be ceasing Mots Justes’ daily tweets as well, although I haven’t been able to keep on those for awhile either. I learned a lot and made a lot of connections through the research required for that news feed, but it was a giant time suck too hard to keep up with when I’m actually going into an office, even if it is just a couple of days a week.

I don’t plan to shut down Mots Justes the blog or the Twitter feed completely. I may post the occasional writing-related column and tweet my writing-related activities. (I tweet my personal and film-related stuff at @annleee.) But Mots Justes can no longer be a daily commitment. I’ve decided that rather than reading about writing or even writing about writing, the best thing I can do for my writing is … write.

That’s probably the single best piece of advice I’ve come across and that you’ll read here: log off and write.

***

Still here? Okay, then, let’s talk about writing.

What’s been occupying my thoughts on writing lately has been blogging. Not the how-to type of blogging I’ve been doing on Mots Justes—nor news blogging nor gossip blogging nor fan blogging nor theme blogging—but personal blogging in which writers record what they observe, what they’re thinking about, what inspires them. It’s in this type of blogging that the future of writing lies, multimedia storytelling that a platform like Tumblr especially facilitates—journals or scrapbooks in which bloggers not only write about their lives but illustrate them with photos and videos and music. If a text or image or piece of audio touches a blogger, chances are it will touch a reader, too.

(The work I’ve read is mostly autobiography at this point, but I just know that someone somewhere is doing something really cool on a blog with fiction. If you know who and where, please share!)

Writers have always kept diaries and written letters. It’s just that now those same instincts are available for instantaneous public consumption, simultaneously encouraging more thought and less. Fleeting insight can now be permanently recorded, but it’s also published without context, consideration, the guiding hand of an editor.

Lately I’ve felt I need both—more thought and less. My writing can only benefit from paying more attention to my surroundings, observing my environment more closely, thinking about it and analyzing it. But I also need to obsess less about the actual writing, not be so precious about, well, the mot juste. I’m stifled by that, that everything has to be polished, publication-ready, and it’s an area I want to work on: experimentation—trying to be less staid in my writing and my thought.

I suppose this is supposed to happen in a writers notebook, but the instant gratification of the web is so tempting and satisfying; even experimental work is somehow legitimized by its availability to be read by someone else.

I guess what it comes down to is I need to do the work where it feels most relevant, write the stuff that speaks to me, follow my bliss, as it were. For now, that’s not on Mots Justes. At least not in the same way.

Now, go write!

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Resolved

2009 was a tough year for me. Tougher than I’d like to admit, even to myself. After nine years, I quit my full-time editorial job in early 2008 to concentrate on finishing my master’s thesis, confident that’d I’d be able to find a new position once I’d graduated. Well, I handed in my (draft of a) novel in December 2008. Twelve months later, I’m still freelancing. The job market, I don’t have to tell you, has been tough on everyone, especially writers.

Some progress has been made. I’m delighted to be writing about film again for Moving Pictures Magazine and working with clients on editing and consulting projects ranging from a literary romance novel to a blog that provides management and marketing advice to lawyers.

Still, as I look back on 2009, at what I wrote and what I read and what I watched—the criteria by which I measure productivity—little of substance was accomplished: I didn’t finish any fiction projects. I read only seventeen books. I watched only 109 movies. I neglected my blogs, both here at Mots Justes and at my new personal blog, LAcation.

A year from now, I don’t want to look back on 2010 and see the same results. A year from now, I want to have

  • written five hundred pages of fiction
  • read fifty books
  • watched 250 movies
  • published 250 posts on Mots Justes
  • published fifty posts on LAcation
  • pitched articles or freelancing services to fifty editors

You’ll note that these amounts are multiples of fifty. That’s because there are roughly fifty weeks in a year, so these goals easily break down to

  • write ten pages of fiction per week
  • read one book per week
  • watch five movies per week
  • publish five posts on Mots Justes per week
  • publish one post on LAcation per week
  • pitch an article or freelancing services to one editor

Although I can’t feasibly work on every project every day, perhaps I can write/read/watch five days each week, so

  • write two pages of fiction per day
  • read fifty pages per day
  • watch one movie per day
  • publish one post on Mots Justes per day

Suddenly these 2010 year-end totals seem doable.

Still, that’s ambitious, right? Without a forty-hour week, I feel the need to fill an “empty” schedule with projects to keep me busy. But my days aren’t empty, far from it. I spend two days a week in an office for one client, afternoons with private students, and evenings at screenings. Perhaps one of my New Year’s resolutions should be to give something (or some things) up. Otherwise, I’m setting myself up for failure.

But what? Everything I’m involved in, every project I’ve launched, serves my work in some way: How can one be a writer without, well, writing? How can one be a writer without reading? How can one write about movies without watching them? How can one be a writer without learning about one’s craft and connecting with other writers (e.g., though a professional writing blog)? How can one be a writer without exploring the world and experimenting with new forms (e.g., through a personal blog)?

I’m not ready to give up on any of that yet.

Here, at the outset of a new decade, I find myself in much the same place as at the end of the last decade, with many of the same goals and, frankly, many of the same strategies, which is frustrating. But just by writing this post, articulating my plan, exercising my writing muscles, already I feel more hopeful and motivated. Here’s to a happy and productive New Year!

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Scam? Or Missed Opportunity?

I hit job-search sites pretty regularly, looking for new opportunities, whether full-time editing or part-time freelancing. So yesterday afternoon I applied for a contract “Editor Manager” position—a job title I’d never heard of before, perhaps my first clue—for an unnamed company. At 2:39 a.m. I got the job (the following text was cut-and-pasted directly from the email, unedited):

Your application has been reviewed and accepted, you are are suitable for the job.

I will send you first text to correct today as you condirm you are ready to start.
You need to correct the texts SAME DAY you have got it and send them back SAME DAY
we can work with our customers without any delays.

Be available for correction every day as needed,
We want to cooperate for long-term.
There is 1-2 texts per day, be ready to check your email every few hours.

Salary paid every month at the date you have been activated.
Salary amount depends on text volume (quantity of words in the text)
you have corrected during the month.

We pay all taxes and fees.

Please confirm you are ready to start the work.

At 2:41 a.m., I received my first assignment. No request for work samples. No interview. No tax paperwork.

Look, given the uncertain use of English in the correspondence and text sent for editing, and the time of day at which I received these emails, it’s likely I’m dealing with someone on another continent. Fine. Even a phone interview might be a bit complex in this situation. But don’t they want to know anything about me? I sure want to know more about them—like who they are and what they do, for example.

So I did some digging around. The company link provided in the email signature didn’t work (although it does now, leading to, unsurprisingly, an international company). When I Googled the company, both the abbreviation it uses and the full name, nothing associated with it came up. When I Googled the name of the person who contacted me, only ads for the job I had applied for and an unrevealing MySpace page (no photo, no posts, very little—male, 31, single, Gemini, and, like untrue, U.S.—in the way of bio) appeared.

I was skeptical. The rate seemed decent, even generous, until I opened the attached document and discovered what I would be dealing with—writing that not only struggles with the English language but is riddled with typos. Complete rewriting would be required on business correspondence in which the meaning is unclear. And, given the company’s payment schedule (“Salary paid every month at the date you have been activated”), I could provide a month’s worth of work before realizing I wouldn’t be getting paid.

I didn’t reply. Perhaps this was a missed opportunity. But I am wary of falling for a scam. At the least, the whole situation was unprofessional, and one thing I do know as I continue to look for job opportunities is that I want to work with people who are good at what they do.

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Writers Group Reboot

After a rocky patch last week, my writers group met over margaritas and Mexican food, sans writing. We had one of these powwows at the start of the year, too—I think it’s healthy to recognize when the operation is stagnating and make a plan to reinvigorate the enterprise. Ultimately, we decided to take a break—a month-long hiatus in August. But we also decided to keep meeting regularly, partly because we enjoy each other’s company and would miss catching up for dinner and drinks, and partly to ensure that we don’t just dissolve altogether.

We also discussed how we might take our writers group to the next level, how we might evolve, what we might become.

We agreed, I think, that we should broaden our scope. The few pages in front of us each week are a narrow view of our work, and we need to look at the bigger picture of ourselves as writers. What we’re working on, what we’re struggling with. But also what to do with our writing when we’re done—submitting it to journals, entering it in contests, querying it to agents.

Here’s how one group member put it:

I guess part of my concern is that we are really a professionally geared group and that we do not just write into a void, or just for each other, though that is of course valid … it just feels like we all hope for something more and should encourage each other to take those chances.

We talked, too, about accountability, committing to not just the biweekly group meetings but setting aside time to write in between and reporting back to the group when it’s done. We talked about sharing prompts to kickstart the writing if needed. We talked about collaborative projects.

I can’t say that a lot was decided. I can’t say that we all agreed changes need to be made or what those changes should be.

But I think we can each decide what we need from the group and ask the group to provide it. Thorough and thoughtful critiques? Check. Moral support? Check. A good time accompanied by food and alcohol? Check. But maybe also lines on places to submit our work. Tips on querying an agent. Weekly check-ins on our progress. A more focused conversation about our writing or literary endeavors in general.

It’s our group. It is what we make of it.

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Making a Commitment

“I heard your writers group is awesome!” a friend exclaimed at dinner one night last week.

“We are!” I can’t help but gush about us. As I’ve written about before, we’ve been together for more than a year and a half—longer than any other group I’ve worked with. We’re talented and eclectic—on any given night, we might read a novel excerpt, a short story, and pages from a screenplay. And we ♥ each other.

But the last couple of weeks have been tumultuous ones for our little band.

It all started last week when we were (i.e., I was) particularly lax in turning in our work on time, and one of our members cancelled at the last minute (totally understandably—after a summer of nonstop travel and out-of-town guests, she was nearing exhaustion). Rather than meet without her, we considered postponing, and our “band mom”—who’s male, by the way—emailed a frank (and hilarious) pep talk/scolding that has since caused us to reevaluate what it is we want from the group.

Now, at this point we were in no danger of dissolving. As the email acknowledged, life happens. But this kind of vigilance is exactly why we’ve lasted as long as we have. If we postpone one week, pretty soon it becomes two, and eventually we’re meeting less than even once a month.

More to the point, however, was his last paragraph:

“I also don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect people to make this more of a priority than it is now. And I don’t just mean blocking out, say, Wednesday nights [when we meet]. I mean setting aside time to write. Specifically, time that isn’t a day or two past the already-extended deadline to submit.”

Our meetings last for hours, two-thirds of which is spent just catching up. When you like hanging out with your fellow members so much, you risk your writers group turning into solely a social event. But we always come prepared, and we always eventually get down to business.

Our band mom, though, was asking more of us. He called for a greater commitment—not just to scrape together a submission each week or to provide thorough and thoughtful critiques (which we do, consistently), but to write. He called for a commitment not to the group but to the writing.

He called us out, and his point was well taken. I now include a commitment to writing outside of a writers group as an important contributor to the success of that group.

Taking a Break

But sometimes fatigue sets in. Some of us, to different levels and for different reasons, just weren’t producing. There are times to push through, and there are times to take a breather.

Our perpetual traveler/host decided she needed the latter. With her first novel written, edited, and out to agents, she is starting her second book. She’s working at it diligently, but that doesn’t mean words are necessarily being produced, especially, as is the case with nascent ideas, words that she’s ready to share. With another trip on her schedule, she took a hiatus from the group for the month of August.

The question for the rest of us has become whether we meet without her. Our band mom, who called us to task in the first place, is of the mind that we should push through:

“I hate to say it, but I really do think that if we all take a month-plus off, the odds of being able to start up again are not good. At all. And yes, I know sometimes long shots can pay off—just ask whatever engineer it was who said, ‘You know what? We can probably get away with not protecting that one tiny shaft in the Death Star. Seriously, what’s the worst that can happen?’ But we are not a scraggly band of rebels with Sir Alec Guinness on our side … I think.”

(See what I mean about hilarious? This led to a thread in which we were all to choose which Star Wars characters we wanted to be, which led to another thread inspired by Spaceballs.)

I see the merit in pushing through this rather stagnant patch. But I also think there is a strong argument for taking a break and taking time to retrench, refresh, and refocus. With the caveat that we take our band mom’s mandate to heart and use the time to write.

We’ve decided to meet, but without writing, to discuss our goals—both for ourselves and for the group. Reassess, restrategize, reboot. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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Happy Anniversary, Mots Justes!

As of July 1, Mots Justes is one year old. Here is what I set out to do twelve months ago. A little has changed since then: Twitter and Facebook (I’m now on both) seem to be the preferred modes of communication over blogs and MySpace. But the mission remains the same: to find the right words.

The goal has been to find the right words through columns on grammar, punctuation, and usage; writing exercises; reviews of books on writing and editing; recaps of author readings; and random musings on writing and editing. I’ve also connected with the larger writing and editing world by linking to and Tweeting about news stories and blogs on related topics.

Posting, though, has been sporadic, including an extended hiatus while I finished my thesis at the end of last year. Life gets in the way. Meanwhile, I haven’t always been able to find the right words—i.e., the words I most want to write.

Which brings me to a troubling issue: there comes a point where you just need to stop reading about writing and writing about writing and thinking about writing and just write. Guilty of all of the above, and not wanting to contribute to this vicious cycle for others, I feel the need to justify the continuation of Mots Justes. It’s not generating income. Readership, although lovely, remains low. What am I getting out of it, other than yet another tool for procrastination?

  1. Well, writing—Although not necessarily the words I most want to write, when I post to MJ, I am writing. When it’s going well, I’m forming a writing habit. And I’m publishing—what I write can be read instantaneously by anyone with an Internet connection, not just by my writers group. There’s gratification in that, a sense of accomplishment.
  2. Education—By posting on sometimes admittedly dry topics such as grammar, punctuation, and usage, I’m not just providing information to others. I’m also gaining a deeper understanding of rules or guidelines that I previously have just had a feel for, and often I’m learning something new. I’m also reiterating advice from successful writers. I’m discovering new writing prompts. I’m exploring the creative process and immersing myself in a creative life.
  3. Business—After working as a professional writer and editor for more than a decade, I am currently freelancing as a writer, editor, and consultant. Part of my goal for MJ has always been to serve as a platform for this expertise. Version 2.0 will include more emphasis on this aspect.
  4. Networking—Through this and other blogs, through Twitter, through the power of the web, I am meeting other writers, editors, and bloggers. I am learning from them while I hope they find something to take away from MJ.

As MJ enters its second year, I’d like to hear from you: Do you blog? If so, what role does it serve in your writing life? You’ve just read what I get out of MJ, but what do you get out of this blog—or would like to? I look forward to reading your comments!

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On Writers Groups: Part III—Rules

Just after the New Year, my writers group gathered at a German tavern in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Silver Lake to touch base over ale and wieners dunked in steins of pea soup. At that point, we had been working together for a year, but I think we all felt we were in danger of disbanding. As of the end of the fall semester, we had all completed our theses—a major driver for participation in the group—and graduated.

We were determined to stick together, however, and we’re stronger than ever after instituting and enforcing (more or less) some rules. If you want your writers group to last, set the parameters up front:

1. Makeup: Keep it small. For a critique group, I’d suggest no more than four to six people. “Any more, and either the meetings are way too long or not everyone gets equal time,” reasons one of my writers group members. “Too few members, and there’s not nearly as much chance for differing voices in terms of critique. … It’s good to have enough people that you can rotate submissions.” Conversely, you don’t want to have to wait too long between opportunities to share your work.

Only invite writers whom you admire and respect. You want to be challenged by your writers group, and you want to read good work while you’re there. BookFox blogger John Fox goes so far as to suggest “hazing—preferably painful, embarrassing hazing—and guidelines like they have to submit sample papers to join. Groups with porous membership regulations fail easily.”

2. Operations: Once you’ve assembled your writers group, set some ground rules. First, meet regularly. Every other week works well for most groups. “Frequent meetings—let’s say twice monthly—are ideal because they not only solidify the bond among group members by making the activity a regular occurrence, but they also force people to write,” says my fellow writers group member. “Meet too infrequently, and it’s a lot easier to postpone or cancel meetings.” (We’ve had problems with this in the past.)

Second, set deadlines. In our group, we submit on one Wednesday and meet the next, although some members (that’d be me!) tend to push the deadline as far back as the weekend.

Finally, everybody submits. Our group used to be a free-for-all where we submitted work when we had it. The problem with this was if one of us was suffering from writers block, we could go several meetings without seeing his or her work. A guiding tenet of critique groups is the trust that’s built between writers who are sharing sometimes raw work; it’s not fair to critique others without putting yourself on the line. Besides, the guilty parties felt, well, guilty, and that’s not good for anybody. Now we’re on a schedule, submitting two out of every three meetings.

“One thing to keep in mind: rules like these only work if they’re implemented or enforced,” adds my writers group member. We’ve gotten much better about this. It’s probably too obnoxious to actually assign leadership positions, but often they happen naturally: one of us leads groups discussions when we have administrative details to take care of; a couple others gently nudge us with emails or texts when we’re past deadline.

3. Critiques: I had one writing instructor—tellingly, a graduate from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which has been criticized for its cutthroat atmosphere—whose guidelines for critique protected the writer’s feelings to an almost ridiculous extent. We were asked not to refer to the writer by name, but to call him or her “the author” during our critiques, and we were not to look at the writer while we critiqued his or her work. I find this approach to be counterintuitive—I want to convey my sincerity during critiques by speaking directly to the writer and looking him or her in the eye.

How supportive comments should be is also up for debate. “Keeping critiques supportive could foster an environment of coddling, but I do think it’s a good idea to keep them constructive. (i.e., not ‘This sucks,’ but ‘Here’s why this sucks, and here are some ways it could possibly be fixed.’),” says a member from my writers group. “Mutual admiration is great, but the really valuable feedback comes when your writers group lets you know what isn’t working.

Again, Fox takes a hard line: “Don’t give supportive critiques. Critiques should be debilitating and harsh. The minute you start cheerleading is the minute you lose respectability. Of course you need to talk about what is good with the piece, and tell someone where to submit it, and how much work it needs (if much) before they send it out, but focus on the negative. That’s what’s helpful.”

Focus on overarching issues. Typos, misspellings, and misused commas can be addressed in later drafts.

During the critique, the writer should listen to the comments of the other group members. Don’t respond. Don’t explain. Don’t defend. If you keep your replies to a minimum, you will get a more accurate critique from your readers and you’ll be better able to absorb their comments.

Do, however, take notes. You might even record your critique to audiotape. Later, you can throw out comments that are useless or irrelevant and keep those that are helpful.

For more tips on writers groups, check out these related posts by Quips and Tips for Freelance Writers and Dames of Dialogue.

For previous installments in this series, check out “Part I—Benefits” and “Part II—Types.”

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