Friday, October 22, 2010

Growing Pains: Confessions Of A Contest Newbie

It was among my writer’s goals for the year to enter a few contests, if for no reason other than to receive some constructive feedback from unbiased parties. I didn’t expect to win anything, or even be counted in honorable mention. After all, I haven’t entered any contests since college, and that was a classic ‘big fish in a small (barely literate) pond’ situation. So far, I’ve been glad that I kept my expectations to a minimum.

I recently received the results of a certain writing contest, which shall remain nameless. As I surveyed the judges comments, a quote from A Knight’s Tale leapt to mind in summary: “You have been weighed, you have been measured, and you have been found wanting.” Yes, it hurt. But now that I’m ready to clean up after my pity party, I thought it might help more than just me if I reviewed my experience.

If I convert my scores into a standard grading percentage, the grades I received were as follows: F, F, D, and C. (Hear that? That’s my honor student ego, crying.) Though I had been warned to expect it, I was vaguely annoyed to note a few contradicting elements to judge comments. Two thought I had perfect format with no structural issues, and two were bothered enough that I didn’t begin the chapter halfway down the page that they deducted points. (This wasn’t something specifically mentioned in the contest guidelines, but I’ll certainly err on the side of caution next time.) One of the judges had a huge pet peeve against any and all words that involved the suffix ‘ly’. On the bright side of that low score, it did draw my attention to how frequently I like to turn adjectives into adverbs. But are adverbs such a bad thing? (I’m not entirely clear on that yet.) Two of the judges wanted me to alter facts to increase tension, but I’m guessing they missed that I’d listed the piece as a Memoir. Granted, the only place I wouldn’t run into this misunderstanding is an actual Memoir contest…which I should probably look into. >.>

All four judges agreed on a few key points that I suspected from the get-go. I have no decent hook, my character goals are vague, and there’s too much backstory with not enough action. One of them was kind enough to suggest I read through the chapter, circle the first point where a conflict arises, and begin the chapter -there- instead. (For that comprehensible little tidbit, I will be forever grateful.) Another judge was kind enough to write an extra page of comments referencing the book The First Five Pages, listing chapters and page numbers where I could get help adjusting some of my more glaring problems. Talk about going above and beyond the call of duty!

To be honest though, at first I wasn’t sure I was going to make it past the more soul-crushing elements of their reviews. There were a few caustic word choices I got hung up on for a while: There was the repeated use to the term “dull and boring”, having my prose described as “awkward and convoluted”, and having my main character (i.e. me) described as “self-centered and forgettable”. >.< One judge even took offense to the story concept itself. I’m trying to be as gracious as possible, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t hard to keep from taking these sorts of things personally. I had to take a few days to sulk and wonder why I did this to myself in the first place. The answer, as it turns out, is remarkably simple. I can’t stop.

As it so happens, I was right in the middle of reading The First Five Pages when I got back the judges comments. I’ve since finished it, and found a great deal of solace at the end of its Epilogue. There, Noah Lukeman writes: “The ultimate message of this book, though, is not that you should strive for publication, but that you should become devoted to the craft of writing, for its own sake. Ask yourself what you would do if you knew that you would never be published. Would you still write? If you are truly writing for the art of it, the answer will be yes. And then, every word is a victory.”

For better or for worse, I’m devoted to the craft. And I’m declaring victory. :)

Anyone else care to share about their first major contest mean...experience? :D

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Writing Routine

Having hit a bit of a block lately, I was challenged by a dear friend to examine the way I go about writing. It’s become my understanding that nearly all artists benefit from a habitual sequence that aids them in their creative process. Though, many of us are only partially conscious of this. We know we need peace and quiet, so we aim for a time of day that’s most conducive to it. We migrate to our personal ‘workspace’, which is really more of a haven for inspiration that happens to be either decorated or buried under clutter. And then, once we’re good and comfortable, we attempt to get something accomplished.

It’s getting into the ‘groove’ that everyone seems to vary the most on. I have friends who absolutely –have- to exercise before they get down to business, or their creative efforts start out about as promising as herding a pack of squirrels. One particular friend of mine prefers to write out a chapter draft by hand first, before transferring it to the computer. Not only does she hand-write it, she does so using a particular olive-wood pen, which she otherwise keeps in the special box it came in. Let us pray she doesn’t lose that magical pen.

Considering this concept more fully, I decided to make note of my own little rituals throughout the last week or two, hoping for a clearer understanding of my own creative process. With only a small degree of variability, my cycle seems to be as follows:

1.) Make tea. (Green, red, jasmine, chai, chamomile… it doesn’t seem to matter, as long as it’s hot.)
2.) Sit down at computer and, while drinking said tea, proceed to check all three emails and facebook, just to eliminate the nagging sensation that there is something else I should be doing.
3.) Play one turn of internet Scrabble.
4.) Write several lines of a poem I have no intention of getting back to.
5.) Finally begin work on a chapter, continuing until I face-plant into the keyboard.
6.) Work on chapter every conscious moment until it is complete.(Average 1-3 days)
7.) Cuss, growl, mope, wallow in low-self-esteem, and otherwise agonize over how to begin the next chapter. (Average 1-5 days.)
8.) Clean, do laundry, shop, draw, and go back to revise several previous chapters, all while not-so-cleverly avoiding a start on the next chapter. (Average 1-3 days)
9.) One or all of the following: Yell, throw something, blame the cats, go for a long walk, or have a good cry.
10.) Wash, rinse, repeat.

There you have it. I apparently have my own little ten step program. Now that I look at it, I think I can probably streamline the whole process by trimming out the Scrabble and the crying. If I can get away with that, I’ll be sure to report my findings. >.>

So, what’s YOUR routine?

Friday, August 27, 2010

Inspirational Distractions

I’ve read several perspectives on the countless number of pointless distractions we often impose on ourselves as an avoidance tactic.(Hands down, the ironing of the underwear was my favorite.) And while I found those things valuable to recognize about ourselves, I wanted to take a few moments to shift gears and talk about productive diversions.

I think it stands to reason that very few (if any) of us can just sit down and complete something as daunting as a book without trouble. Now, the majority of people who are creatively inclined are also at the mercy of their Muse. Yes, the muse — that fickle, nebulous entity that skulks through your imagination, coming and going as it pleases like a haughty tomcat.(Okay, so my muse and I are not on the best terms at the moment.) We do what we can to coerce it into sticking around and making itself useful, but inevitably it seems to tire of us and disappear for hours, days, or weeks at a time. And so in our own ways we feel forced to take a brain break, grab a butterfly net, and go out looking for our wayward muse.

I’ve noticed that, for me, there are a number of AFK(Away From Keyboard) activities that recharge my mind or often result in the inspiration to push through a sticking point in my work. Among the mundane diversions are going out for a walk, indulging in a long bath(a rarity with small children roaming underfoot), sketching or painting, reading a book that is better written than any I’m likely to write, and driving to the grocery store for no apparent reason other than to roam the isles and hear the screaming of –other- people’s children.

The less mundane of my exercises seem to revolve around spontaneity and a change of scenery. For instance: Stopping by a private coffee shop and challenging the barista to ‘surprise me with something unique’… Randomly ducking into various tattoo parlors to examine the d├ęcor and quiz the staff on a particular design that I may or may not actually want…Loitering in Barns & Noble on off hours for the purpose of eliciting book reviews out of their more friendly looking workers…And of course, dressing up oddly or putting my children in Halloween costumes for no reason other than to go out in public and monitor people’s reactions.

All of these are inspirational diversions and, for whatever reason, they all seem to help me recapture my muse and haul it clawing and yowling back to my computer chair. But in reflecting on this it’s made me wonder, what activities do –you- engage in to recharge your creativity and will to press on towards the finish line?

On a more random but personally entertaining note: If you were to envision your muse as a real, tangible being, what would it look like? (The winner of this one could possibly earn a sketch of it.) For some reason, I always picture Weight Watcher’s ‘Hungry’ Puppet…only in more of an elusive-yet-sparkly black color. >.>

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Garbage In, Garbage Out

Under most circumstances, banal platitudes are a pet peeve of mine. However, for the last few weeks I’ve been reexamining the deeper implications of one of the earliest sayings to be instilled in me: ‘You are what you eat.’ Of course when I was a kid, I presumed this statement was little more than a malicious assault directed towards my compulsory adoration of junk food. It took until adulthood before I thought to consider it in a more metaphorical light.

Most people recognize, on some level, that they will tend to regurgitate what they are immersed in. Children are well known to mimic adults and peers as they integrate the language and behaviors they experience into their own identities.(Which, of course, ties in with the equally old adage: ‘Show me your friends, and I’ll show you your future.’) This process of replication and assimilation doesn’t end with childhood, it simply becomes less parroted and more subtle. (At this point, I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m prancing off into sociological commentary. Bear with me. My thought process may take the slow lane and make a few detours, but it usually reaches its destination.)

As I’ve spent more time talking to others writers about growing their own personal style, another application of this concept occurred to me.(And I dare say it has crossover relevance to professions that involve any degree of creativity.) In terms of media consumption, we ‘are what we read.’ That’s not to say that every last word we ingest is significant to our future works… I’m only noting that we can hardly keep from incorporating aspects from what we spend the bulk of our literary time meditating on. I know I’m probably behind most of my peers with this revelation, but it’s had a significant impact on how I delegate my time. It used to be that I would devour just about any book or magazine that found its way into my hands.(Please note; I’m not knocking the practice of reading widely!) But in attempting to balance everything else that needs doing, I’m already seeing the benefit of screening for quality.

Let’s face it, written media is like any other form of entertainment. Some works are masterpieces to be cherished, while others are spat out in the wanton hopes of making a quick buck. Most of us have picked up a book that reminded us of a car wreck; horrible to experience but curiously difficult to tear your eyes away from. Perhaps we want to feel justified in denouncing it as a waste of time. Or, perhaps we’re hopeful to the bitter end that the author might somehow pull out of their blatant career nosedive. Regardless of our motives, we convince ourselves that our semi-precious time was the only casualty to seeing it through to the finish. I’ve come to the conclusion now that, in my case at least, my writing also suffers. Just as reading something fantastic can inspire and enrich my prose, reading something awful seems to have the opposite effect.

This brings me back around to yet another commonly overused maxim, and the aforementioned title: ‘Garbage in, garbage out’. As a pre-teen I recall receiving this warning in regards to the television and music I was spending my time on, and the resulting affect on my impressionable vocabulary. It always made me envision something on this order:

Though what comes out of my mouth tends to see far less revision than what comes out onto paper or word processor,(apologies to all those within earshot of me) I suspect that the sentiment still applies. And so, I’ve been challenged of late to ask myself what I’m taking in, and if it’s affect on my work could be deemed good, bad, or neutral. Hopefully I’ll learn to skip over the bad, and possibly spend less of my time on the merely neutral. (If I become any less long-winded over expressing a concept like this, we can all assume it’s paying off.)

I have my mascot, and now out of this train of thought I’ve produced my motto: “I will write well; or at least adequately!” …actually, I’m not sure if that counts as a motto, or if it’s more of an assertion. Hmm. Well, seeing as it would make a lousy battle cry, I’m going to claim it as a motto until otherwise corrected.

P.S.: I don’t plan on making vaguely morbid illustrations a habit with this blog, but I can’t promise you won’t see more of it. I’m a visual person. That’s my excuse, and I’m running with it. >.>

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Writer's Mascot

I don't take rejection very well. Considering my high school experience, I like to think that I'm used to it. But, as with most human beings, I'm the emotional equivalent of a 'bleeder'. It may have a great deal to do with why I talked myself out of being a writer for so many years. It's one thing to stumble upon rejection as you navigate the quagmires of life. It's quite another to place yourself in situations where it's a statistically likely result.

Six months ago I got serious about the business, and subsequently heard the the same advice over and over: Grow a thick skin. As I already knew, even the greats have been rejected at one time or another. Rejection isn't (usually)personal in this business. I was instructed to glean what I could from criticism and insulate myself from the blows to self-worth. I decided that a proper representation of the dermal depth I was going for would be the noble Walrus.(There are worse mascots out there.) And so I would pray from time to time, "God, give me the skin of a Walrus."

I quickly realized that in order to juggle my primary responsibilities in life with the development of this far-fetched dream, I was going to need to be stronger. Strong enough to change diapers and wrangle kids all day, while utilizing every free moment to write. Being a nerd, I recalled that ants are the strongest creatures in proportion to their size; and certainly the most disciplined. I thought, why have just one mascot? I claimed the miniscule-yet-mighty ant as my patron insect. "God, give me the strength of an Ant."

Then, after months of grinding away at my book and walking painfully back through everything I'll need to represent, I discovered I was becoming exhausted. It's incredible how draining it can be to sit in front of a computer for hours on end. Well, maybe not so incredible when it feels more like slicing open a vein and bleeding my heart out into my keyboard.(In review, that was a pretty emo statement, but I'm going to leave in lieu of a better description.) Regardless, I realized that I needed a lot more endurance if I was to finally persevere to the completion of a project. A google search eventually revealed to me the creature credited with the most endurance. The Penguin. That's right, the fowl variant that I find the most humorous can in fact swim for days on end without the reprieve of coming on land. "God, give me the endurance of a Penguin."

It recently occurred to me that God has a warped sense of humor at times(in justifying that claim, I would direct your attention to the platypus), and so I've since specified that my request for these traits be left in metaphorical terms. However, I personally couldn't resist consolidating my chosen creatures into one. So without further adieu, I submit my mascot proposal on behalf of all aspiring writers and anyone feeling in need of the traits previously outlined.

Ladies and gentlemen I give you...

Skippy, the Wal-guin-ant.

And now you see why I'm a writer and not an artist.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Testing, 1-2-3

I've long been under the assumption that I needed another new project like a diabetic needs a twinkie. However, when enough credible voices keep pointing me in the same direction, even my mule-ish nature has to sit up and pay attention. And so, here I am. A generally non-social creature, learning to network. Now I just need some topics to discuss. Unfortunately, my long neglected livejournal is a testament to how gifted I am at coming up with those...