Thursday, August 30, 2007

Waiting Around

Right now I'm hanging out at my mother's, waiting for a guy to measure the floor. I know, thrill a minute right? Briefly I thought that I should bring something to work on, like the round story chapter that I will, will, will (!) finish by this weekend. I've already got a pretty good handle on where I'm going (chaos) but now have to work out the willy-nilly details of getting there.

And yes, I realize that I'm on a computer right now, but I've already started writing the round story chapter and I did not bring my file. As fun as this story is, I'm not starting from scratch. Uh-uh.

But, my question to pose right now is: If you know you're going to be somewhere where the only entertainment for a while is mindless television, do you bring something 'productive' with you? My obvious answer is no, though my thoughts are good (I wouldn't quite call them intentions...).

I mean, I suppose I could work on the Minesweeper score thing, but various parties have informed me that it 'doesn't seem like a 'real' goal, now does it?' After my ambitious post for September I tend to agree and will stay my hand at the mouse. Eventually I will make it home this afternoon and set to work. Or nap.

Okay, maybe not nap. But it sounds good.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Things I Learned from Icon

First off, here is how the contest worked: There were 19 contestants who read either excerpts from book-length pieces or short stories. In as few words as possible they stated who they were, what they were writing and give a log line (what's your story about?). They had two minutes to read from their work and if they did not finish within that time frame an obnoxious sound could be heard.

After that, the three judges would give their critiques. And these guys were great, really on target for being put on the spot all night. The judges were Carol Berg, award winning fantasy author, Charles Kaine, head of Last Knight Publishing, and Barbara Samuel, award winning romance author (she has a great blog called A Writer Afoot).

I'm the seventeenth person to read. After sitting in the front row and listening to 18 of my peers read aloud, this is what I have learned:

1. Practice what you are going to read. Out loud. With a watch. Cut your scene if you need to so that you can get the pertinent information across. A lot of people just read until the buzzer went off. The ones that did better in the competition as a whole stopped before that buzzer hit, and took charge of the note that their piece ended on--and it was never a screechy one.

One woman in particular comes to mind, and I don't remember her name, but there was a scene with a car wreck. The main character reaches out a hand to grab her son and discovers that he is not there. Ending on that image, the image with the hand reaching for the lost son would have been sooooo powerful. But she continued reading for maybe one more paragraph and was interrupted mid-sentence by the buzzer. I think her odds were hurt by that, honestly.

2. Know where the scene is. In about half the cases there was a great deal of exposition. In a couple cases the exposition went back to the dawn of man. An audience, like an editor, wants to be pulled in immediately. And, while my log line sucked, I could tell exactly when the audience started listening to me. It was only a sentence or two in. I was pretty proud of that. For others, I don't know if they ever caught the audience's attention.

3. Speaking of log lines--I'm not a big fan of them. The agents and editors I've heard from don't want the vague notions that even the best log lines give. They want the meat of the story. If that takes a paragraph or so, they're willing to read it, if it's well written. But, if you're going to go through the trouble of participating in a contest, follow the guides and write a damn log line. It'll save the judges something to critique you on. I wrote mine in about thirty seconds, right before I went up there. Don't do that.

So, Jenny, how'd you do?

Well, I did not win the overall contest. I believe I was a top contender. But, in the spirit of the competition and out of deference to my karma, I voted for someone other than myself. The good news is, he won. Because had I voted for him and he hadn't won...and neither had I...well, then I'd be a tad bit upset.

Congratulations to Kirk Farber, who took the critic's prize and the Audience Favorite for his Postcards from a Dead Girl (see, even the title's pretty cool).

I got an award for Best Tension. And I was granted a reading from agent Kristin Nelson, who also has a fabulous blog.

Barbara Samuel
http://awriterafoot.typepad.com/

Kristin Nelson
http://pubrants.blogspot.com/

September Goals

No, I don't like them. Yes, they're good for me. Like broccoli. So I'll eat them anyway.

1. Finish 2 chapters of FJR.
2. Finish 1 chapter of TR.
3. Finish round story chapter...and, John, you have some explaining to do.
4. Get as many of the submissions done for this month as I can.

Yes, I realize that these are loftier than the August goals I missed. But, come hell or high water (and maybe both), I shall prevail.

Friday, August 24, 2007

August Goal Results

The results:
I still hate goals.

I finished one chapter of FJR, not two.
I did not complete my fantasy chapter.
The critiques for the Sunday group will be done by Sunday. Chalk one up there.
I did not read The Namesake, which I am greatly saddened about.

But, Jenny, you ask, why did you not finish everything? I answer: A combination of factors. Mainly I blame the lure of competition. I spent a lot of my time refining my submission/reading for the contest that's going on tomorrow. That cut a lot of hours out of the week (read: I made Deb sit for two hours while I practiced. Then I did the same thing to Shane).

Another reason/excuse? My plan did not execute as well as I'd hoped. Ah well. We'll chalk that up to experience. It's hard to work two pieces at once. Though I think I'm a slow learner and will try it all again next month.

But I'm waiting to see if I actually have to do the round story for next month. That'll cut into something, I'm sure. But maybe John will have mercy and point the finger at some other schlub?

Minesweeper Scores

Okay, I'll never beat J.K. Rowling's sales. But, by golly, I shall defeat her Minesweeper score.

Her fastest score for the expert level, if I remember correctly from her website, is a 99. So far, my fastest time is 125. Only 26 seconds to go and I can take her.

If only my wrist wasn't killing me.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Dreaming a Scene

The only time I've ever used dreams in my writing (that I'm aware of) has been for poems, and those were assigned. The basic idea was to transcribe the dream, not interpret or manipulate, and see what happens. Results varied.

Last night was weird though.

So I'm exhausted, right? (I blame being pregnant.) I go to bed and it's all snug and warm. Then the dream starts coming and it's odd because it's the scene that I want to write for the American Icon competition. And I'm in two places: at my desk with a legal pad and a pen, physically writing the scene and in the bar where the scene takes place. Like I'm watching it through the paper and pen.

The thought keeps running through my head that I've procrastinated too long, everything is going to suck...but the scene is good. And it's come to me whole...with only one question of continuity because there's something I want to happen that I may have to let go. I only have two minutes after all--that's about two-three pages depending on how dense I make the prose.

When I woke up I felt ready and raring to go. Has anyone else had an experience like this? Where you realized the dream was your work and you knew what happened next? It's pretty trippy. Goodness knows if it'll work, but I think I'm gonna try to do what I remember.

4 Days and a Wake Up

...until the Sunday meeting.

You would think I'd be more concerned about the upcoming reading in front of a bunch of strangers, in which three of those strangers will comment in public about the novel I am so diligently working on. Nope, not so much.

I still have not finished the critiques for Sunday--but I'm sure they're brilliant. However, that's nothing new, I'm notoriously slow about getting to them. However to my however, at least I remember what I want to say about them.

My biggest fear: I have not finished the chapter I promised the Ali-demon. *Shuddering*

Monday, August 20, 2007

Speaking of Reality Shows....

Watching writers write would, indeed, be like watching paint dry. You see a whole bunch of moderately attractive faces (because writers, unlike actors/models are not super-gorgeous, but we are not dogs either...) staring at computer screens or sheets of paper and you have no idea of what is going on behind that moderately attractive face. Something, yes. But what? You won't know until it's all done.

Well, a group called the Pikes Peak Writers has decided, for the third year in a row to host American Icon. This is a competition where writers read excerpts from their novels and are judged by a panel of three. There is also an Audience Choice award. It's based on the concept of American Idol.

And I signed up for it. I am a fool.

The competition is this Saturday from 6:30-9:30. I am biting my fingernails. (Yes, John, that does make it harder to type...) We'll see how it goes.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Novelist, The Short Storyist, The Dramatist, and The Poet

As a student, I have been involved in what seems like an infinite number of workshops--both fiction and poetry. In these workshops, it seems like the question of genre always came up. "Here is how poetry is different than a short story, which is different than a novel" type of conversations. I've struggled with professors and other students over the question of genre and whether or not one author can master all of them.

The original conflict came up in a playwright class where the textbook itself said that writers could not mix genres successfully. Another professor compared the genres to sports (and I'm paraphrasing here): Poetry is like ballet and Novels are like football--one person can have some ability in both but will only master one.

That is, of course, bullshit.

The genres aren't like different sports (and I can't believe I'm using a sports analogy here), they are all like swimming. In swimming you have four main competitive strokes: freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly. Each may look different, requiring different muscles, and then the different events require different distances. But the basics of swimming are universal. You will never qualify for the Olympics in any of these events if you don't know the basics of streamlining, buoyancy--and if you can't move a lot of fricking water.

Writing is like that. Sure, you may have to use dialogue tags in fiction and name-colon in drama to indicate who is speaking, but if you have command of the language, that's no big deal. It's about flexing different muscles, and if you're in good shape and train then switching off is no big deal. Yes, you will probably determine that you just want to write poetry. Fine. Novels? Go for it.

But if anyone steps back and tells you that writing in different genres can't be done (and those of you in grad programs are probably under the most threat, sadly enough) tell them Shakespeare wrote poems and plays, he's legendary for both. Hemingway? Short stories and novels--equally brilliant. Oscar Wilde? Plays, poems, and one spectacular novel. Percy Bysshe Shelley? Brilliant essayist and poet.

But...but...but...they're geniuses you say.

Which came first? The genius...or the practice/work/training/immersion in language by using the different genres?

Monday, August 13, 2007

A Double Header

Normally, when I'm working on a 'big' project, like a novel, I do not work on two pieces at once. If I get stuck, I'll do a short story or a poem or something 'small' to give my brain a break.

Recently, however, I decided from somewhere that I should work on two big pieces at once. Perhaps to challenge myself...mostly because I really, really wanted to work on a fantasy novel, which is something I haven't tried before. For the last week or so, that's what I've done.

Or, tried to do.

So I start work on FJR, because this is the original big project that I want to get done (and if you look at 'August Goals' that's the one I have to do two chapters of before the month is out). I get into it. There's a great argument scene, lots of tension and action--so it's fun to write, right? Right.

Everything is going so well, I decide to jump into the fantasy novel, which for shorthand purposes we'll call TR. I've made it one paragraph in--about seventeen times.

My problem, I think, is that I'm in two different places. I don't mean settings, I mean physical places in the novel. Page 1 and Page 200 are definitely two different stages of commitment, work, character development, world development. Yi! How to go from one mindset to another? I don't have an answer, but here's what I'm going to try.

Focus immediately on FJR, then, for the week leading up to the writer's group, I'll ignore that book completely and see if I can jump into the world of TR and get it ready to submit. By that time, I'm certain I'll be a little tired of FJR anyway. Fingers crossed....

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

It's a Grind: Revision

So last night I handed Deb my final critique on her novel, and I think I inserted my foot in my mouth (which happens more than you would think). The poor girl talks about how busy her week is going to be and how she's going to wait to do the revisions and I say something to the effect of: "Yeah, you shouldn't look at what I have to say during a busy week."

It sounds worse than I mean, both then and now.

Her story is fantastic, and because it's hers I will not go into why here...the story shall come out in its own time, when Deb says so.

However, like all, all, all first drafts, there's some revision and editting to do. I happen to love revising because it gives me an opportunity to make what is good even better. And that is how you have to look at it or it will seem like too much work and you'll flip out. Fleur said something to that effect (affect? I don't know, I'll fix it later...) last night. She said that she rewrites as she goes so that it's not so scary later -- revising twenty pages is easier than revising 200. I would still argue that you have to go through at least one major novel-length overhaul to make sure everything is seamless.

And a novel-length overhaul is what I suggested to Deb. I tailored the process for her novel, because there are certain elements that need to be considered seperately, but here is the basic layout:

1. Without re-reading a word, do a blind, (novelistic)sequential outline of the important scenes (i.e. Bad Guy Gets Out of Prison, Liquor Store Robbery...etc). Why do this? I borrowed this from Ali, who stole it from our professor, David Keplinger, in regards to a short story rewrite. Essentially, by doing something blind, you have to remember the parts that are truly important. The crappy, unecessary parts are cut out automatically.
2. Reread the novel with those thoughts in mind.
3. Go through the novel and rearrange the physical pages (no computer screens, those who ignore this do so at their peril) in the order that they have to appear. Don't worry if some parts don't really make sense, you're going to cut or rewrite them. You're also going to mark where you need new scenes. This is where you mark typos and cut whole chunks of prose and add in new ones. Add loose leaf paper if you have to.
4. With the original blind outline in hand, and the physical pages of your novel next to you, re-type the whole thing inserting the changes that you've made on the paper. If you think of a new turn of phrase or a better word this is where you put those in. Go until the end. If you haven't cheated, you should wind up with a pretty spiffy second draft.
5. Wait a little while (week or two at least) and read your second draft. Polish it or revise as necessary.
***It's important that you don't type over your first draft with your second draft. You may realize that you need something out of that first one after all. Don't delete anything until you've got a bound, published book on your desk.

But, you see why I told Deb not to look at this stuff during a busy week? Even with a full vacation time it's enough to make someone balk. However, after spending a year or more on just getting down the first draft, investing all that time and energy, aren't you cheating yourself if you skip the part where you make it all better? Make it all worthwhile? Because, really, and I'm repeating myself here, the only thing you can control is the quality of your work.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Top Chef and the Publishing Process

Top Chef, for me, is interesting to watch because the chefs competing are already successful, creative, and they are willing to learn. Because they want to be number one. The best. Every last one of them. Cooking is something that you are a student of your entire life. Like music. Like art. Like writing.


These men and women are put through grueling challenges meant to test their skill and creativity. The ones least successful are voted off one by one. A couple weeks ago, one of the chefs in the bottom set was a young man named Hung. When the judges began to critique his food, he stated that (and I'm paraphrasing here) that no one was spitting out his food. The judges immediately responded that no one was playing on the level where food would be spit. Essentially, stating that these guys were in a top playing field.


So the question becomes, how does one critique the food? There are certain factors, of course, that go into it--texture, taste, presentation, creativity, and remaining within the parameters of the challenge. Then, it seems to me, that it becomes a ranking game. If you scored an 8.5 to Joe Schmoe's 8.7, well, you're going home.

A similar thing happens in writing when we send out work. Our 'dish' is 'tasted' and judged as to whether it should show up on the 'menu'. If our story did not perform either 1.up to par, 2.as well as the other offers, or 3.did not suit the palate of the particular 'restaurant' then the story comes back with a rejection note. Any one of those three factors could play a part in why we did not get voted in.

So don't whine about it. Keep in mind that competition is fierce, even in the smaller magazines. You can control only one of those three selection items: whether or not your work is up to par. The only thing you can do is write the best you damn well can and put out a story that you're proud of. That means looking at the story more than once, making sure there are no holes in the plotline, making sure it is a neat/legible package, and no typos. Clean and well-told. (You can also make sure that you send it to the correct magazine--the horror genre is to Ploughshares as a hamburger is to a donut shop, it don't mix.)

Recently I received a rejection from The Carolina Quarterly and they have written a note on the bottom: "We liked this story very much! Please continue to submit your work."

This rejection tells me two main things. 1.My work was up to par. That's good to know. They didn't tell me that my fingers should be broken and I should never write to them again. 2.That I probably sent my work to the right place, but I was just ousted by Joe Schmoe, and probably physical page numbers of the journal--they can't publish everything. Rejections like this are a step in the right direction. It tells me I'm playing at the right level (no one is spitting out my food). Be thankful someone bothered to tell you that you were on the right track...and then keep sending your story on down the line.