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?