Tag 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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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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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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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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On Writers Groups: Part II—Types

The past couple of weeks have been productive ones in my writers groups. Last week, in what I call my writing group, I generated a few pages of new material on a new short-story concept that’s been percolating. And this week, in what I distinguish as my writers group, I got helpful feedback and encouragement on an older piece of writing that I may just polish up and send out.

I’m pretty much in love with my current writers groups, but I have participated in lots of different types over the years:

  • The workshop is a formal writers group led by a teacher or mentor. This is the model found in graduate and continuing-education writing programs, but there are private workshops as well. They usually charge tuition or a fee to pay for the meeting place as well as the leader’s time and expertise. The facilitator sets and enforces the format and tone for the workshop and keeps the group on task. You may provide your work beforehand or read it to the group during the meeting. Usually participants take turns providing verbal feedback with the facilitator commenting last so as not to influence the remarks of the others. Often written feedback is provided as well in the form of marked-up manuscripts.
  • A critique group is similar to a workshop in format but is more informal and usually smaller in structure. In this type of group, there’s no facilitator; rather, a handful of writers decides together how they want to operate. Again, work can be provided beforehand or read out loud during the meeting, and participants take turns offering verbal and written feedback. The advantage of the critique group is that you share and get feedback on your work more often than in a larger workshop environment.
  • An offshoot of the critique group is the writers guild, which operates in much the same way but adds publishing to its activities. One of my friends from grad-school just produced a collection of short stories and poetry with his writers group.
  • Recently I’ve been introduced to a writing group, which gathers weekly not to read and discuss work, but to produce it. In my writing group, everyone arrives prepared with a prompt to share with the group. We spend ten minutes or so writing the exercise; then we take turns reading whatever we came up with. The resulting material can be pretty raw, so there’s no critique, and you can pass on reading it out loud if you want to. Other writing groups have a standing appointment to get together to work on their own material.
  • A reading group, John Fox of BookFox argues, is just as important as a writers group. “[You] can’t separate writing from reading, and you need people to read with as much as you need people to write with,” he says. I would imagine a reading group for writers would function much like a book club but with more of an emphasis on focusing on the author’s craft.

Where writers groups meet depends on their size as well as the tone you want to set. Workshops often take place in classrooms, but I have attended these in conference rooms and around dining-room tables. My critique groups have met in bars, restaurants, and, with the economy being how it is these days, our homes. Of course, you can also meet online via email or chatrooms.

What types of writers groups have you participated in? Share you experiences below in the comments section.

And check out the first installment in this series, “On Writers Groups: Part I—Benefits.”

Next week in Part III, MJ will lay out the rules for writers group. Share your suggestions now by email (findtherightwords[at]gmail[dot]com) or on Twitter (@motsjustes).

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Life After a Writers Retreat—Part VII: Appreciate Home

Now that I’ve taken my own advice and joined Facebook, I see that some of my fellow Pembrokers are suffering from Cambridge withdrawal. Although by the time I turned in my final portfolio, I thought I was ready to go home, upon my return, especially during the first couple of days, I pined for the creative environment, the pastoral setting, my fellow writers, the more civilized society …

In order to transition to everyday life after returning from a writers retreat, though—and not alienate your loved ones, who are surely happy to have you home—take a moment to appreciate your hometown.

For example, in Los Angeles, there is such a thing as air conditioning. Not necessarily in my apartment, but at least in many public places. The mall, for example. Not so in Cambridge.

Also, in Los Angeles, you can eat Mexican food. And Cuban food. And Ethiopian food. And whatever kind of food you could possibly want …

… at practically any time of day. You see, grocery stores are open twenty-four hours a day here, and pharmacies don’t close at, say, six p.m.

The City of Angels may lack the bucolic walk through pastures along the River Cam to the Orchard at Grantchester, but there is a lovely little park nearby, and tea at the Huntington Gardens, and the beach, and the mountains …

Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum is world-class, but so are the Getty, LACMA, and MoCA. Even a quintessential U.K. experience—Scotsman Irvine Welsh reading at a bookstore in Cambridge—ultimately isn’t so singular after all: he’s appearing in Los Angeles on September 18.

And L.A.’s movie theaters are the best the world.

What do you appreciate about your hometown?

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Life After a Writers Retreat—Part VI: Stay Connected

Part of what I enjoyed so much about my studies at Pembroke College in Cambridge, England, was the sense that my fellow classmates were holed up in their dorm rooms or at the library or at a café or pub nearby or at the Orchard … all writing. There was an atmosphere of community even in isolation.

Maintain that camaraderie by staying connected with your fellow retreaters even after you’ve returned home:

  • Collect contact information, especially email addresses, and add them to your address book, whether on your phone, in your email, or in an, uh, address book.
  • Join Facebook. Not only will you be able to add a whole slew of new friends, but you’ll be able to track their continuing progress, and they yours.
  • Exchange pictures via email, Facebook, or Flickr.
  • Organize a group get-together shortly after your return. In fact, set the date and get commitments while you’re still together at the retreat.
  • Make a lunch or dinner date with fellow retreaters in your area.
  • Share your work completed during the retreat and ask your peers to share theirs. This should not be for critique, however, but for enjoyment only.
  • Form a writers group. Meet regularly in person or online. This creates a continuing support network, sets deadlines, and provides feedback on your project going forward.

Caught in the ’Net

U.S. News & World Report asks, “Does Grammar Really Matter Anymore?”

Pop+Politics discusses plagiarism versus aggregation.

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Life After a Writers Retreat—Part V: Continue the Work

Often you will attend a writers retreat with the express goal of finishing a piece of work. Indeed, when you apply to attend, you may be asked what you will be working on and what you hope to accomplish while you are there. Because my recent three weeks at Pembroke College in Cambridge, England, were spent enrolled in a graduate-level writing course, I was required to hand in a portfolio at the end with, among other things, a completed short story or novel excerpt.

Although accomplishing your goal can be very satisfactory, however, it may be ultimately detrimental to your smooth transition back to everyday life. Having left the idyll of an environment designed to foster creativity, it may be difficult to continue to work, especially if your departure from the writers retreat came at a stopping point in your project.

Instead, take a page from Hemingway, who reportedly stopped working each day in the middle of a sentence, and return home with the project unfinished. For example, when I left Cambridge, I knew I still had work to do on the chapter I had been working on during my stay and have since inserted additional scenes. Because the piece will have such a close connection to your experience at the retreat, you will be able to carry that inspiration and motivation through your return home.

Also, before you go—perhaps when you sit down to analyze your stay—set new goals for the next stage of the project or your next piece.

Alternatively, if you do achieve the goals you set for yourself during the retreat and completed your work, try to start a new piece before you leave. If you’re stumped on what to write, go back over what you’ve written in your notebook during your retreat for new ideas.

Finally, after you’ve been home for a couple of days or a week, pick up the work you did while at your retreat and read it through again. Don’t read it with a pen in hand or a finger poised over the cursor—just read. Enjoy what you’ve accomplished.

Then read it again, this time with a pen (or cursor). In other words, start polishing from a place of retrospect in which you can apply what you learned throughout the duration of your stay.

Any other strategies for retreat recovery?

Caught in the ’Net

DailyWritingTips offers “10 Ways to Find 10 Minutes to Write.”

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Life After a Writers Retreat—Part IV: Extend the Experience

You’ve just spent two weeks (or two months) at a writers retreat. Now what?

So far we’ve suggested analyzing your experience and maintaining the productive strategies you developed there as ways to make the transition back to your everyday life. But let’s be real: it’s going to be hard to stay motivated once you’ve left an environment expressly designed to foster creativity. How can you extend the experience even after you’ve returned home?

  • Take pictures. Digital technology now allows us to click away to our heart’s content, shooting snapshots not only of our fellow retreaters but of the setting and space in which we worked. Download these onto your desktop; send them to your friends and family. And go old school: pick a few to develop and blow up for a collage to frame and hang up where you write.
  • Bring home local treats, and figure out where you can get them in your hometown. I spent my writers retreat in Cambridge, so I imported British candy bars and English tea. Scones are now on my repertoire, and I’ll have to hunt down clotted cream for a very occasional indulgence.
  • Buy souvenirs. Decorate your writing space with trinkets from your trip, and shop for items of clothing that will remind you of your time away every time you put them on. A piece of jewelry—a necklace, bracelet, or ring—that you’ll wear often is an especially effective keepsake for recalling your experience on a daily basis.
  • Send yourself postcards. You’re already picking them up for friends and family. Take the time to write yourself a note as well about what you learned or experienced that day. Mail them on your last day—or, better yet, get someone to post them for you after your departure—and look forward to revisiting your retreat after your return.

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