We're big fans of geek culture at Pornokitsch - that's our mission statement - but other than the occasional snarky review, we're not contributing much to it. Which leads us to Ms Michaela Staton and Cola Factory - a London-based group for aspiring speculative fiction writers. Completely free, but dedicated to proper feedback, proper peer reviews & having proper fun. We're a little jealous of her drive (and organizational ability).
Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions.
No worries, just be prepared, I give long-winded answers sometimes. Ok, most of the time.
Could you start off by telling us a little bit about yourself? According to your blog, you took the plunge into writing full-time in 2008. That’s a big decision - what prompted it?
Well, I wrote a lot in my younger life with a goal toward becoming published. Lots of stuff got in the way like needing to eat and thinking I needed to find some sort of 'real world' career. I've spent a lot of my life chasing 'happiness', but it's pretty much eluded me until I started writing again.
I moved to the UK in 2003 and by then had been focusing my energies on trying to do something corporate whilst starting my own business. I failed miserably at both. This is probably because it's not really what I wanted to do, but I was living in serious denial. In 2006 I was diagnosed with Diabetes Type 1. That was really the beginning of the end so-to-speak. By early 2008 I was so depressed and miserable with my job, my lack personal life (meaning having enough people around me I had a lot in common with besides my husband), and my health. I thought I might have a nervous breakdown. I had a good few months of thinking about what I really wanted out life and I kept coming back to writing. I made a plan. I quit my full-time job, took a part-time one and starting doing all the things I thought I would need to get myself moving toward a writing career. At least to start writing again and making friends with other science fiction writers.
And now you’re out to help other aspiring writers as well, with Cola Factory. So, first, where’d that name come from?
One of the first things I did was join the BSFA, thinking that if I really wanted to be serious about writing I should join an appropriate genre organisation. In one of the first collections of literature I received as part of my membership, Paul Graham Raven had an article about writers (even the unpublished) needing a web site. As I had experience with web design, web admin and using blogs etc, I went out and got myself hooked up with resurrection-cola.com (which is no longer in operation, my blog is now called Space Cola and located here).
Originally I joined BSFA because of the on-line critique groups. Watching my crime-writing step-mother Elizabeth Zelvin's experience in the mystery world, I knew it was something important a serious writer should get involved with. The Orbiters (BSFA writing groups) admin had technical difficulties, and then I had technical difficulties. By the time it all got sorted I had made my mind up that what I really wanted was a 'live action' group, face to face feedback and socialising. It was hard to find one that fit my needs.Like any good Punk enthusiast I took the DIY approach and started my own.
The name came out of wanting to tie it into my blog. Also SF people have a tendency to name things after space objects or like to invoke grand ideas. I wanted something that was a little more down to earth and that wouldn't say this is a purely SF group or a purely Fantasy group. I wanted it to be all speculative fiction encompassing.
It's quirky, I like it, and because I imagined we'd eventually start turning out effervescent fiction hits before too long.
What is Cola Factory? How many people are participating and how regularly do you meet?
Cola Factory is meant to be primarily a critique and writing discussion group. We meet every month and I am proud to say that in the year and since we started there has only been one time when I had to cancel the group. We do have quite a few 'socialising' meetings as it's still small enough that there isn't something to critique every month. The group is affectionately known as 'Steak Club' because we often use a very nice Wetherspoon's for our social meetings on Tuesdays when they have 'Steak Club'.
Starting a writing group is not as easy as you might think. I mean getting it off the ground was easy enough, but getting people to come back is the hard part. Writers have to be prepared to get and give feedback. They can say the words, but if they've never had a non-classroom critique it can be difficult for them to hear negative things about their work, no matter how gently they are put, or how much encouragement they are offered. It's also amazing how many writers are not actually writing. Which is fine, but it's not what a critique group is about.
Getting writers to think critically about what they are reading can also be equally difficult. We have a few regulars and every so often we get a new face. We've had meetings as small as three and as large as ten. We aren't perfect. I mean, I went into this without much of idea of what to do other than with an idea of how I wanted critiques to be presented in terms of style. So, we're learning and, as we go along, we try to improve our methods so that we can help ourselves become better writers.
I would love to be able to claim that one of our members got a big publishing deal and owed their success to our feedback and friendship. That hasn't happened yet. I am sure it will eventually. To me, success is really measured in the fact that we do have people who come back regularly and enjoy themselves. We've managed to keep going as long as we have and despite some months being a bit more low-key than others, I've tried to keep the momentum going and introduce new areas for us to get involved in - such as doing reviews.
If we can help other writers come out of their shells and be willing to receive feedback (see Cheryl Moore's article on what the group did for her), and improve ourselves in the process, then that's good enough for me.
What advice do you have to budding writers? [Editor’s note: Ms Staton’s twelve steps to writing are a great start.]
For me, the most important things you can do to help yourself as a writer are get feedback and revise. I talk a lot about suspending your ego as a writer. I don't mean believing that you are worthless or have no talent etc. What I mean is not allowing belief in your ability to cloud learning. There is always something you can improve. You can't grow as a writer, in my opinion, if you aren't willing to see your writing the way others see it.
I'm not an expert, far from it. I'm just someone who writes and wants to be published like millions of others out there. My 'advice' comes out of the lessons I learn as I go and what I have found works for and motivates me.
And, our mandatory weird question: what's your favorite cola?
Having been a child of the 'Cola Wars' it's a very important question indeed. If you follow me on Twitter you'll know I drink an inordinate amount of Diet Coke with an occasional Coke Zero. But, yes, if I wasn't a Diabetic I would probably drink only Coca Cola. It's evil, but I don't care.
Thank you very much for your time - I hope some of our readers join you at the next meeting.
Cola Factory meets every month in London. Participation is free, but it is encouraged that you attend two sessions before submitting your own work for critique. If you’re interested, you can find the latest events and contact information on their site.