Virtual Writing Group

The kitchen is finished. Exactly three months from our July start date, I shook the contractor’s hand, thanked him and his team for their hard work, and said goodbye. Now able to return to the baking and cooking routines, you will find me at the stove every day, often several times a day, either trying out the oven’s convection feature or dealing with the last of the CSA greens before they yellow and spoil.

I am coming to love the range as I learn how best to adjust my recipes’ baking times and temper the roaring gas flames of the powerful burners so I don’t scorch our meals. I love the sheen of the counters and the occasional expanse of cheerful green. I love the calm I feel every time I walk into the space. But I have to admit I really love the floor. Weird, I know, but it is so easy to keep clean. No more taking a toothbrush to the miles of grout with little to show at the end.

The best part of a finished kitchen renovation, though, is the quiet. No more banging, drilling, sawing. No heavy boots tramping in and out. No strange cell phone ring tones interrupting everyone’s work. More than anything, I love that I have reclaimed the quiet and the old dull routines. I think the dogs agree. It’s dawning on them that they don’t have to bark out their anxiety with every shift in the atmosphere because there just aren’t that many shifts any more. Finished is good. We’re all settling in.

Of course settling in means I have no more excuses for why I can’t start the next novel that has been rattling around my head for the past several months. And so I have started.

My writer friend, A.M. Monzione, and I just this past week began a virtual writing group. Like me, she has started a third novel she hopes to finish sooner rather than later. Also like me (and just about every other writer at one time or other), she needs prodding to get into the daily routine of writing to finish. Hence the purpose of this little group of two: daily prods at each other to get to work and finish. To add incentive, we are competing to see which of us can write the most words over a 5-week period.

A.M. and I live close enough to each other to grab coffee together once every six weeks or so, but far enough away to make an in-person, daily progress check next to impossible. But the internet and cell phones help us make those daily connections. We text and email and chat; we’ve talked of Skype-ing meetings; we have explored several apps to use for monitoring work output. No, it’s not quite the same as an actual writing group meeting, but knowing someone is on the other end and waiting to hear the day’s progress is keeping us motivated to make our goals.

If you’d like to start a similar virtual writing support group with a far-flung writer or two, decide in advance how much and how often you want to write and whether or not there will be incentives – like treating yourselves to a nice lunch – once you have met incremental goals. Once the ground rules are established, check out the following apps and programs that may make meetings, accountability, and keeping track of your own work easier.

Skype  Use the teleconferencing site for check ins when a physical meet up is impossible. Or, if you need lots of prodding to get back into the daily routine of writing, keep the Skype conference up and running with your writing partner(s) as you both sit down to work for a set period of time. With someone virtually in the room with you, you might be less likely to drop the writing for the extra load of laundry that needs to get done.

Dropbox  Dropbox is the best way to share documents. You get to avoid email and attachments altogether by putting the docs up so that all the writers in the group can access them.

Evernote  If you are like me and scribble notes on the little scraps of paper found at the bottom of your purse when an idea or some other inspiration hits, you might consider switching to something like Evernote. Since your phone is likely with you all the time anyway, put it to use to help your writing efforts. Notes you take will be able to sync from the phone to a desktop or laptop – the place where you are also storing your manuscript.

Write Chain or Write or Die  Both of these apps keep track of your word count and guilt you into sticking to writing everyday, but Write or Die gives you an extra boost by helping you create daily word count goals.

Self Control  Writers spend a lot of time on the computer. Unfortunately those same helpful computers can be quite the conduit to all the lure of the internet, and visiting and revisiting favorite websites can distract from the work at hand. Self control will help you block some of your greatest temptations while you are working. Bye-bye Facebook.

Storytracker  You’ll be so successful as a result of your virtual writing group that you will need to keep track of all your submissions. Storytracker is the administrative assistant every writer needs.

Keep in mind most of these apps will work for you if you are the type of writer who prefers to work alone but still wishes to create structure and incentive.

Writers don’t live by apps alone, though. So here’s a recipe for a delicious soup to keep you fueled for the work ahead of you.

Minestrone from an End-of-Season Garden

  •  extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 pound piece of pancetta, cut into small dice
  • 2 medium yellow onions, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 ribs of celery, sliced
  • 3 medium carrots, sliced
  • 2 sweet Italian peppers, cored, cut into thin rings
  • ½ fennel bulb, including fronds, root end trimmed, sliced
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1 (26.5 ounce) box chopped tomatoes*
  • 2 quarts chicken stock
  • 1 large bunch kale or Swiss chard, stems trimmed out, leaves washed and cut into ribbons
  • 1 piece Parmigiano-Reggiano rind
  • 2 (15-ounce) cans cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
  • salt and pepper

In a large saucepan or stockpot set over medium heat, cook pancetta in 2 or 3 Tbsp. olive oil until the pancetta fat begins to render. Add to the pot the onions, garlic, celery, carrots and fennel. Stir occasionally as the vegetables soften and turn slightly translucent.

Add ½ teaspoon each of salt and freshly ground pepper and stir these into the vegetables along with the tomato paste. Allow the vegetables to soften a bit longer, about 2-3 minutes.

Stir in the chopped tomatoes, the kale or chard ribbons, and the chicken stock. Toss the parmesan rind into the pot. Cover the pot and bring the soup to a simmer. Crack the lid a bit and maintain a gentle simmer for about 45 minutes.

After the long simmer, add the drained beans and heat through on a low simmer for about 10 minutes. Discard the cheese rind. Taste, and season the soup with additional salt and pepper as desired.

Serve with an additional drizzle of olive oil and some shavings of parmesan cheese.

*I recently made the switch from canned tomatoes to Pomi brand tomatoes in a box. Imported from Italy, I think you will like these tomatoes too.

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©Jane A. Ward