And the Winner Is…..

Well, if your email inbox looks like mine, you know it’s contest season! I don’t know if other groups are the same, but the RWA and it local affiliates do a lot of successful fundraising via writing contests, and if you’re brave enough to enter, you can benefit, too.

So, should you enter a contest?

If you mean, “should I dash something off in the next few days, kind of proof it, send it in, then sit back and wait for the accolades,” then my answer is “Don’t bother.” But if you have a solid piece of writing from your WIP (“work in progress”) and would like some constructive feedback, then, by all means, format that baby and press “send.” Likewise, if your WIP is finished (or nearly so),  in revisions or revised, and you’re ready to query agents, give it a go.

In the RWA, writing contests serve two valuable purposes. For the beginning writer, a good contest provides valuable feedback from (hopefully) thoughtful, conscientious judges. In the first round, many of your judges may not be published. Don’t let this bother you. They may still be more experienced writers, and even if they’re not, they ARE your future readers. If your entry doesn’t grab them, chances are it’s not going to fly off the shelves.

If you’re further along and ready to query or submit, a final or a win–particularly in a contest with a good reputation–will be a point in your favor. And let’s not forget that many of the final contest judges are editors and agents–the very people whose eyes you’re trying to catch.

Are there pitfalls to contests? Sure. One is the danger of becoming a “contest slut”; that is, a writer who enters contest after contest, never getting beyond those first 35 or 50 pages-plus-synopsis. You’ll also need to learn how to evaluate criticism. No matter how great your judges are, they’re not going to catch everything, and some of the things they do catch may not be actual problems, just matters of personal taste. One rule of thumb that helps me is to think that, if more than one judge comments on the same topic, it must be a concern. For example, I’m not someone who gets hooked on sensory detail. If it’s there,  fine; if not, that’s ok–I’m more interested in the heroine’s thought processes. However, in one contest I entered, every judge commented on my lack of sensory description, and I lost points because of it; obviously my future readers wanted to know what that hospital room smelled like, or how the hero’s wool sport coat scratched….

Moving on!

Every once in awhile, you may get a “mean judge.” This is rare, but if you enter enough contests, it will happen. Sometimes, of course, the judge isn’t mean, just forthright. At other times, you’re right to be offended. So say it with me now: “Let it roll.” Gripe to your spouse, your friend, or your mother, but do so privately, and never in a blog, email loop, FB or twitter. Never, EVER contact the judge. As writers, we all know we need to develop thicker skins, and this is your chance. One day, that nasty comment may come from an RT review, Amazon or even PW or the Times, and there are horrible instructive examples of what happens when you take on reviewers at the professional level. Don’t bring teh crazy. It stings, but you can take it, right?

So sift through those e-mails and find a contest that fits. Polish, format, and sweat through the wait. Then let us know what happened! Got a contest story or advice? Leave it in the comments!

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Deadlines…the Ugly Truth

Have you ever thought about what it looks like to be a writer? I have. In my fondest imaginings, it involves a beach house, sounds like surf, smells like ocean, feels like warm sun, and comes in muted blues, greens, and tans.

This is what it really looks like….

It looks like every dish we own is stacked in the sink, smells like five loads of laundry, sounds like a crunchy floor, feels cold (it’s February in Indiana), and sounds like kids with cabin fever (a week of snow days) unless I crank up the iPod.

Why?

Because I have a deadline.  Several, actually.

Unfortunately, these are not fiction deadlines. My professional writing life currently involves writing web content. It’s fun, but it’s demanding, and it’s opened my eyes about the reality of deadlines.

When you’re writing your first novel, you have, literally, the rest of your life to get it done.  You can write when you feel like it, when you have time, between volunteer gigs, when the job permits….  You can let it lie fallow when the inspiration isn’t there, or when the family goes on vacation or your best friend calls.  You can polish it until it gleams like a million diamonds and you’re confident it’s the best work you’ve ever done.

But once you get “the call,” and the coveted “three book contract,” everything changes.

As a professional, you’ll have deadlines. Very firm deadlines. Deadlines that incorporate other jobs, such as revising, editing, printing, proofing, cover art, marketing–and that include tens if not hundreds of  people…who are counting on you.  Deadlines devour. They create dirty dishes, complaints of “no underwear,” cut out “girls’ night,” vaporize school volunteering, hobbies, TV, reading and, if you’re not careful, quality time with children and spouse.  Unless you have a very helpful spouse or nanny, you’ll see more of 3 a.m. than you ever did in college. Sometimes, like today, you might wonder if this really is what you want to do when you grow up.

But it is. The chaos, the clutter, the anxiety, the stress. It’s all part of being a professional. The one who gets paid. It’s not pretty, but it is…beautiful.

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Learning from the Pros

Well, it’s 2011 and, like me, you’ve probably resolved to make this year count in your writing life. Last year was good. I wrote–and was paid for!–a large number of articles for online sites, and received my first professional rejection letter (from Woman’s World). *Remember–I’m Leah, not Sandra!* But this year, I want to focus more on fiction and finish revising this novel (which is all you want to hear about anyway, right?).

I finished my first draft on January 1, 2010. After that, however, every event in my life seemed to conspire against my writing any more. I did, however, read a great deal and in the process, I learned more about what I needed in my writing than I could have in a hundred writing magazines and instruction books. Here are a few of the best:

1. Skill: Voice
Book(s): Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and various pastiche novels.

I’d read Doyle’s Holmes stories in college, and thought them a little silly and dull. Truth is, I wanted a little more gore in my mysteries. However, I read the whole lot of them (and quite a few pastisches) this fall, and realized that Doyle was able, very quickly, to create two characters with distinct identities and voices. He uses little backstory (he doesn’t have room), but through dialogue and description, he makes Holmes, Watson, and their partnership incredibly real. So real, in fact, that fans who go on to read “apocryphal” (non-Doyle) writing know instantly when a writer has achieved an authentic voice and believable story. In fact, I would also put these stories down as an example of “world building” for the non SFF writer. After just a few, you can feel the fog, smell the gaslights, and hear the din of late 19th century London.

2. Skill: Suspense/Pace

Book(s): Relic, Reliquary, and the other Pendergast  novels by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

You’ve heard it hundreds of times: “Make your characters suffer.” But when it comes time to turn the screws, you hesitate. Is that plotline believable? Am I brave enough to go there emotionally? Is all that drama necessary? I have a hard time bringing the pain in my books. Preston and Child have no such qualms–and it keeps you enthralled.  “Naw, there’s no way they’d do THAT,” you say, then turn the page to find that yes, they would, and they just did.  They also do something else extraordinarily well,  and that is….

3. Skill: Character Arc

When I sent my first page to the Dear Author website to be critiqued a couple of years ago, my most frequent comment was that it was full of “info dump.”  This was a new term for me. I thought I was giving the reader necessary information, so they would know and like my character.  Now that I realize that two pages of immediate backstory is a no-no, I still wonder to get those important facts in without breaking up the story or making it contrived.  Preston and Childs have created several vivid characters who become more real over the course of the series simply because you learn just a little more information over time–and it’s always information that makes you want to know more. (They also write fantastic, easily visualized car chases, if you need to know about such things).

4.  Skill: Description

Book(s): The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane  (Katherine Howard)

I am not one for description. I generally skip over them in 19th century novels, and when I have to write them, I end up full of dull words and cliched metaphors.  Katherine Howard has no such problem.  Her descriptions are lush, colorful, and more real than real. They practically drip through the page.

5: Skill: POV

Book(s): Major Andre  (Anthony Bailey)

This is an older, out-of-print book, but if you can get hold of a copy, you should. In it, Bailey uses first-person to explore the last days of  18th century British solider and spy, Major John Andre (hanged for his part in Benedict Arnold’s treason). I’ve read it several times, but this summer, I read it as a writer, and was blown away by Bailey’s ability to inhabit Andre. The reader comes away believing that this is, really, how it must have been.

6: Skill:  Saying More with Less

Book(s): A Slight Trick of the Mind (Mitch Cullin), Mr. Emerson’s Wife (Amy Belding Brown), The Little House Books (Laura Ingalls Wilder)

One of the writing skills I covet most is the ability to describe enormous insights with little words. Whenever any writer does so, the result is profound and lyrical. Mitch Cullin achieves this as he describes Sherlock Holmes’ encounter with love and mortality in his literary novel, A Slight Trick of the Mind. The last two chapters are the best I’ve read this year–and perhaps ever.

Amy Belding Brown’s Mr. Emerson’s Wife achieves the same with her story of the marriage of Ralph Waldo and Lidian Emerson, complicated as it might have been with their friendships. There’s not an extra word, and they’re all chosen for maximum emotional impact.  One caveat: if you wish to avoid over-curious looks, don’t read chapter 16 in the pre-school pickup line.

Finally, if you haven’t read them in years, revisit Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series as an adult. You’ll be surprised at how dark they can be, and how well she can describe the perils of pioneer life and complex emotions with words simple enough for young readers, yet evocative enough for adults.

Keep it simple! Make them suffer! Lose the backstory! Kill your darlings! Writing instruction manuals are always telling us to do these things. Sometimes it’s best however, to see how other authors do them–and do them well. These were my favorite “instruction manuals” for 2010. Share some of yours in the comments!

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Writing as a Team Sport

Writing is, at its root, a solitary occupation. Sure, you may be sitting in a coffee shop, surrounded by chattering, or at the kitchen table, fending off hungry children. You may have a collaborator, another writer with whom you discuss ideas and share writing and edits. Eventually, you’ll want to add a whole team–an agent, an editor, a publisher, printer, distributor, bookseller and thousands of adoring fans…but in the end, the words and the work begin inside you…just you.

I have to admit, I like this. I’m an introvert, and I like being alone in my head. I love my family, my friends, and am genuinely interested in the stories random strangers love to tell me, but in the end, I spend some of my happiest hours at home, with only my characters to keep me company. Still, even the most introverted among us needs to get out and relate sometimes, and then there are all you extroverts, who find your energy comes from interaction.  Let’s face it: most of us would like to discuss our writing joys and worries with someone who can understand what we’re talking about. One way you can meet other writers, learn the publishing ropes, and, in some cases, obtain benefits and legal advice is to join a professional organization.

There are many professional writing organizations out there, ranging from large groups which welcome both amateurs and multi-published authors, to those which focus on a particular ethnic group or professional status. Groups often have national and regional/local chapters. No matter what your genre or writing interest, you’ll find an association that fits. Writing organizations offer various opportunities for members to share information: e-mail loops, publications, websites, chapter meetings, and conferences. As a member of the RWA (Romance Writers of America) and the ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers), I can ask and answer research questions, learn more about an agent or publisher, figure out a knotty grammar dilemma, or participate in an online critique group, all through e-mail. Groups like the RWA sponsor writing contests, which allow participants to garner valuable feedback, as well as a chance to win a review with an editor or agent. Some organizations even offer legal advice, union representation, and health benefits.

I would definitely recommend that any writer join a national organization, but there are a few drawbacks. First, of course, is the expense. Annual membership dues may not fit into your budget. Second, is the potential for distraction. Most of us only have a limited time for writing. If you know that you are a person who will be readily sucked into organizational activities, such as running for office, and that this will adversely affect your writing, then you may want to forgo membership. Also, be prepared for your e-mail volume to jump. A lot of the messages I get are interesting, but I’ve had to learn that I cannot participate in every discussion, lest I spend all day on the computer, none of it writing.

Interested in finding a group of your own? Here are a few to check out:

Romance Writers of America (www.rwanational.org)
American Christian Fiction Writers (www.acfw.com)
Academy of American Poets (www.poets.org)
Horror Writers Association (www.horror.org)
Mystery Writers of America (www.mysterywriters.org)
Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (www.sfwa.org)
Sisters in Crime (www.sistersincrime.org)
Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (www.scbwi.org)
Western Writers of American (www.westernwriters.org)
CineStory (www.cinestory.org)
The Author’s Guild (www.authorsguild.org)
American Crime Writers League (www.acwl.org)

None of these for you? An online search for writing organizations will turn up many more options.  Know of a good one? List it in the comments!

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Independence Day….Deferred!

Ironically enough, just six days after I posted the last blog entry, I got the call. No, not THE call, but the call that heralds the beginning of a family emergency. A very involved family emergency. A family emergency that will be part of my life for quite awhile, and which will take up a good deal of….time….

Now fortunately, this emergency doesn’t involve a serious injury, illness, or crime, and I’m grateful for that. I also am (mostly) glad that I can provide what this person needs. But I also find myself frustrated at the loss of the writing time I’d been longing for–and which has been put aside for others many times before. Not that I’m…ok, I do have some bitter moments.

I know I’m not the only one in this situation. In fact, I would guess that most writing women who are not independently wealthy find themselves giving up or postponing their dreams so that they can work, care for children, care for an aging parent, spouse, family member; or other reason. In her book, Silences, author Tillie Olsen discusses the ways in which women’s artistic talents have often been stifled by the nature of their lives. And it is true that, for the moment, while my life has been completely upended by this event, my husband’s goes on virtually unaffected.

It doesn’t help to ruminate about the situation, however. The question is: how can we continue to write, while at the same time handling the emergencies life often sends our way?  Here are some ideas; hopefully one will work for you!

First, try to rearrange your time. For example, if you need to care for your aging mother during the day, but have your evenings free, switch your writing hours. This may be a challenge if you typically do your best work in the morning, or if you’re spent by sundown, but it’s worth a try.

Second, focus only on the most important parts of your day. What tasks can you drop? Does your house need to be spotless? Can the beds go unmade? Is ironing really necessary? Can the weeds in the yard grow a little? Do they really need you on that committee? By paring down your life to the bare essentials, you may uncover some (essential) writing time.

You can also ask for help. Yes, really, all-sufficient one,  you can ask for help! Can your husband give the kids a bath, help with homework, make the grocery run? Can your kids help pick up around the house? Walk the dog? Put away laundry? Can other family members spell you? Is it financially feasible to hire help with housework, babysitting, or respite care? If your emergency is very stressful, you may find that such services are essential to maintain your sanity–and that writing helps you retain it.

Ask yourself: is this really an emergency? You may find that it’s not. Are you enabling, rather than helping that family member?  Would they be better off trying to solve their own problems?  Do they really expect you to provide a magic wand for their lives–or do you just expect it of yourself? Can you ask them for a day off? 

Before you find yourself overusing the words “never” and “always,” determine, realistically, how long this situation will last.  It could only be a short-term adjustment, after which you’ll resume your normal routine. Or it could be long-term, even permanent.  If your emergency (like mine) seems to have a built-in time limit, don’t drive yourself and your family crazy with angst; put on those vaunted big-girl panties and do what you need to do (I have to do this every day–and I do whine about it). If this emergency is, in fact, your new life, have faith that in time, you’ll be able to adjust, and that writing will be a part of this adjustment.

Finally, a note to other Christian writers. I’ve noticed that sometimes, we have a tendency to try to “interpret” events in our lives as pointing to God’s ultimate plan for us. For example, I can, if I wish, consider this emergency and all the other obstacles I’ve encountered as “proof” that God does not want me to have a writing career. Or, I can see those obstacles as hoops He wants me to jump through to prove my desire to succeed. See? It can go either way. Job didn’t know the mind of God, and neither do we. If God gave you the talent and the desire to write, then by all means, use that talent. If you serve Him, work hard, and pray for His will, that talent will come to fruition, whether it be through that big New York publishing contract, devotional poetry that brings other closer to Him, or just a way you can cope with the trials and joys (don’t forget the joys) of life.  But I think that it is unwise to assume we can discern immediately what His will is in every aspect of our lives.

Finally, take a deep breath.  It’s life.  Everyone goes through it. It’s never easy. But trials build character, discipline–and plots! Got an emergency? Take notes–it may become your next novel!

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Independence Day! Maybe!

Yes, I know it’s actually Labor Day–I’m not quite that far behind! However, tomorrow, my youngest child starts preschool, and since I’m not averse to paying an extra three dollars a day, that means–wait for it–THREE FULL HOURS A DAY ALONE–FOR WRITING! And I sorely need it. I’ve barely looked at the WIP since the end of June, and I’m looking forward to all the time I’ll have to get it into submission condition….

Or will I?

Since I know I’m not alone in my struggle to balance motherhood and writing, I had planned to dedicate this blog entry to discussing ways in which we can enjoy both roles. However, in the last week, I’ve found a more insidious threat to my writing life emerging…my desire to please other people.

I was aware, whenever I fantasized about my school year writing schedule, that not all of my time could be devoted to writing. I need to get an exercise routine going, for example. There’s that dental appointment I should probably confront. There will be occasional PTO and school volunteer duties, as well as the weekly trudge through the grocery store. For the most part, however, I planned to hole up somewhere with my laptop and revise until my eyeballs fell out.

Then, last week, I made the mistake of mentioning my desire to get in shape to a casual friend. Being a take-charge individual, she immediately declared that she would walk with me for fifteen minutes every morning. Being taken aback, I kind of nodded. Then she went on, telling me that we would build up to forty-five minutes a day…. That sucking sound I heard was my precious alone time, roiling down the drain. Because I needed that space, either circling the neighborhood, taking the dog to the park, or straightening the house, to gradually move from my real life to my imaginary world. I would not be able to do that carrying on a conversation, or thinking someone else’s thoughts. Was I just being selfish? Should I learn to be more flexible? Would I end up a friendless hermit?

Then I complained to a friend who is a professional pianist, who told me that she, too, needed that extra mental space to be able to immerse herself in her playing and composing. I remembered all of the articles that remind us aspiring writers that we need to treat writing as a job long before it actually becomes one. I thought of the women I know who have already “made it,” who have friends, family, even day jobs, but who take their writing seriously enought to make time for it.

And I’ll have to make time, too. It never makes itself. Tomorrow, I’ll have to explain to my friend that I really need the mornings to work on my book. It will feel uncomfortable–I never like telling someone “no.” But I can do it, and so can you. Are you frustrated with your lack of writing time? Feeling that your writing dream is fading, and wondering if you should even bother? Think about your weekly schedule. Is there something you can cut, to give you that precious hour or two alone? As women, we often believe that we should be all things to all people, and if you are a religious woman, as I am, you also feel the need to serve God by serving others. But each of us has something we can drop without much consequence. What can you say no to? How do you make time for writing? Share your strategies in the comments!

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This is It….

No one can tell what the future holds…

You make the choice of how it goes….

                                 (Kenny Loggins, “This is It”)

I have some sophisticated friends. They like sophisticated music: jazz, blues, old school hip-hop, Philip Glass…. I am not sophisticated, and I like cheez.  If it got constant airplay in Indiana during the ’70’s and ’80’s, I probably love it. That’s why, when Sandra Sookoo asked me to do a blog entry for her about being a beginning writer, I immediately thought of the Kenny Loggins song,  “This is It”. It captures my writing life perfectly.

Like almost every writer (and probably just like you), I started writing at an early age. I remember very clearly that Sunday evening in April, 1978, when I followed my mom into Hook’s drugstore after  church and said, “Laurel and Lisa are writing a story?  Can I write one, too?”  For four months after, that magenta steno pad was my constant companion. Then it was a green one. Then a light blue five-subject notebook with hard covers, and then, and then, and then….

I wrote constantly after that, up through high school, and then life started getting in the way. First, it was juggling college and work. Then it was college, work, and a not-so-great boyfriend. Then work and grad school. Then two jobs, then three, then marriage, then one baby, then two, and three…. Until one night in September, it hit me: I was 41–halfway through my life, if I was lucky. If I was going to have any sort of writing career, I would have to start NOW.

The next day was September 11th, 2007. I felt kind of uncomfortable, starting my novel then, but I knew that if I didn’t, I might never get another chance.  So I pulled out a few pages from one of my more promising false starts (the one I wrote two days before giving birth to my second child), and began writing. Two-and-a-half years later, in the early morning of January 1, 2010, I wrote “The End.” 

Now I have to start all over.

But I can do it. And so can you.  Perhaps, like me, you’ve always waited for the “perfect time” to start writing. When you finish college, when you get a better job, when your kids are out of diapers, when they’re in school, when they’re out of the house, when you retire–then you’ll start that book. But guess what?  There never is a “perfect time.”  Important tasks and loved ones will always be there, clamoring for attention. You will always feel stressed and stretched in every conceivable direction. But you can still write. Maybe not five pages every day, sometimes not even five paragraphs. And maybe you’ll be sitting at a kitchen table listening to your kids squabble, instead of in your beach house or a quaint neighborhood coffee shop. But you’ll be writing, and every day, you’ll be getting closer to typing “The End.”

So, this is it. I’ve got to revise this book and begin submitting. Maybe we’ll be doing this together. Or maybe you have yet to write your first sentence. Wherever you are in your career, thanks for reading my post…but now turn off the internet and get writing!

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