Got more serious about this year’s Writer’s Digest short-short story contest, after a couple of earlier attempts. I took a true escapade from my youth, tacked on a fictional scene that allowed further character development, smoothed it down a few times, and sent it in.
OK, the actual process was more laborious than that, more stop-and-start, with less dedication than I might have invested … but I like the final product! I don’t love it, but I do like it – and maybe some judges will too.
I hadn’t realized it had been nearly a year since I’d written in this blog. Shortly after that entry, I continued to develop the article I’d just begun; now, it’s sat fallow for a while, but I plan to return to it in the next few days (before it becomes one of those half-hopeless New Year’s resolutions). Good writing to you in 2013!
OK, yesterday I produced a burst of writing – about 1,200 words worth. I’d gotten the idea for this piece the previous day, and I woke up eager to get to the keyboard. A rare and revivifying sensation!
I’m highly skilled in a particular game: not world-class good, but state-champion caliber. Last month, my wife gave me several items from my holiday gift wish list, one of which was this game’s world champion’s memoirs. While reading about his first steps as a young prodigy in this game, I realized I’d started competing in it during the same year. Of course, his skill and achievements then were ridiculously greater than mine … but our careers roughly paralleled after that, with each of us meeting (and overcoming) gradually stiffer competition as we played the game ever better. The enormous gap between us stayed roughly constant.
This sparked the notion of writing an article charting our simultaneous rises (mine being the dimmest echo of his). Somehow, it reminded me of the book Julie and Julia, in which an ordinary cook with a tiny kitchen tries to prepare French cuisine in the style of Julia Child.
Anyway, I had fun starting my article, chronicling his unnervingly brilliant play and contrasting it with my fumbling attempts. I’m still not sure what to do with the final product, though, should I get that far. It will be too long for a hobby magazine, not long or gripping enough to be a book. Maybe I’ll set up a blog about the game and use this as my feature piece. Interesting possibilities!
Once again, as I did last year, I have entered the Writer’s Digest short-short-story competition. I took a kernel of an idea I’d had for a novel aimed at young teens, wrote a drastically shortened draft of it, then ran several edit passes while trying to shoehorn it into the contest’s 1,500-word limit. Not easy, but worth the effort.
I am not holding my breath about prizes; just glad to have given my prose-producing and -polishing muscles a good workout.
Regarding my December 9 post: I did not, in fact, win fame, glory, or a meeting with prominent publishers in the Writer’s Digest short-short story contest. ‘Nuf said.
Regarding my February 12 post: the high-powered book agent finally did send commentary on my 500 words. Her six comments were somewhat repetitive, instilling these ideas into my hard head: show, don’t tell; good use of tension-building hooks; start a book with action (rather than by discussing a character’s name, which is “a huge cliche”); and remember, show, don’t tell. I was aware that I was “telling” about earlier occurrences that might have been shown in other ways (e.g., flashbacks); this was a first draft, and I was mainly trying to create a whole story line, with the idea of fleshing it out later. Oh well. Not the worst input I could have received, but hardly encouraging either.
Lately I’ve seen notices about a couple of meetings of local writers’ groups. I should probably try attending one of them. Should. Don’t know whether I will. (Tune in next time to find out ….)
For now at least, I’m still too stubborn (and stingy) to break down and register for an online writing course. But I did find a good compromise between all and nothing: a recent “webinar” [what an ugly word], in which I spent 90 minutes listening to a book agent chat about the market for kids’ and teens’ books, while following her simple PowerPoint presentation on my computer screen.
She gave some basic tips on writing for those markets. Perhaps her most valuable contribution, though, was her offer to critique the first 500 words of each registrant’s current book draft.
Back in the early ’80s, a close friend took the “est” training and felt it was worthwhile. I called that organization to explore the possibility of trying it myself. I told their phone rep, “I’ve heard that the training really starts as soon as you sign up for it.” He corrected me: “Actually, it starts when you think about signing up.” I mention that because I benefited from the book agent’s offer even before I had sent her my work. I’d thought these first couple pages of my novel-to-be were fairly good … but when I looked them over before submitting them, I found lots of rough edges that needed smoothing. I must have spent close to an hour just editing that excerpt so that it would be good enough for her to critique.
I should hear back from her within the next month or so. Oddly, this process has actually put up a temporary barrier to my writing. I don’t want to add any more to the story until I find out whether a pro feels that I need to approach it any differently. Oh well! I’ll find other creative outlets in the meantime.
Maybe writing a novel right off the bat is an overly drastic goal. Maybe I’m trying to bite off more than I can chew. So I decided to practice chewing something smaller.
Writer’s Digest magazine runs an annual short-short-story contest, with a 1,500-word limit. Such a small quantity – I figured that would let me focus more on quality.
An idea suggested itself from my daily life. I’m such a creature of routine: park the car a certain way, hang up keys & put away cell phone in a certain way, etc. For the story, I strung some of those routines around a central plotline featuring a guy who’s just been the driver in a hit-and-run (that part is not from my actual life). As night falls, he wrestles with what he should do.
I cranked out about 1,300 words, ran an edit pass, let it sit for a couple days, then tinkered with it some more. What author is ever satisfied? In this case, I’m not; the story has some nice attributes, but it ain’t Great Literature.
Given the chance, I might have played with the prose endlessly, but that wasn’t feasible. Deadlines were approaching. So, after a few final word switches, I pasted the file into a form on the WD website, typed in my credit card info for the $20 entry fee, and clicked the submission button.
Winners will be announced on Valentine’s Day. The top ten writers get cash and – more important – their names and story titles published. Considering how many entries they’ve probably received from dedicated writers, I have little hope of receiving a prize.
Still, this was one of those experiences where the process – actually writing a fully realized piece! – is more valuable than the outcome. I’ve already gotten my “prize”: the knowledge that I can sit down and put words together. Time to employ that ability in a more ambitious way!
A new issue of Time magazine arrived the other day. Cover story: “Great American Novelist” – a profile of Jonathan Franzen.
Long before becoming the heir to Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Updike, and Roth, Jonathan was a college schoolmate of mine. He was a couple years ahead of me, and although I knew who he was, we never met.
Six or seven years after graduating, while writing for and editing trade magazines, I was invited to speak on a panel at my alma mater. Along with two fellow alumni, I told current students what it was like to work with words for a living. One of the other speakers was Franzen, whose first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City, had just been published.
Chatting briefly with him afterward, I mentioned that I was planning to write a novel (yes, even then!). He politely said that when I completed it, I should contact him, and he would put me in touch with his agent.
So … I wonder whether that offer (from 20+ years ago) still applies? Yet another reason to finish writing a novel is so I can look up the Great American Novelist himself and seek his long-promised aid.
Yesterday, I felt unusually inspired to write … but the feeling passed.
Today, more inspiration, largely in the form of a newspaper article about a college classmate of mine who is now a highly successful lawyer. Meanwhile, I’m a guy who sits at home dreaming about writing a novel. Hmm.
So: after many of the usual delays and procrastinations, I opened the computer file containing one of my partially drafted novels. I dawdled my way through reading it, fixing a repeated word here, a flimsy reference there. And then – yes! – I actually added on to the end of the story-in-progress. Today’s burst comprised hundreds of words rather than thousands, but still, it’s waaay better than the usual zero!
One day of writing is happenstance. Two in a row is a streak. Let’s see if I can keep this streak alive tomorrow!
Well, I just finished my month-plus stint as a middle school English teacher. Whooee! I had forgotten what an enervating job this is. Classroom management all day, grading papers for much of the evening.
Strangely, though, I think my writing will benefit from this “lost month.” The students were reading, and writing about, a couple of historical novels unfamiliar to me – but wonderfully written. That’s the kind of bar I’ll strive to reach in my own writing, though I’ll likely never reach it. Also, the kids did oral book reports on a wide range of classics that I hadn’t read; just looking through those books (to prepare for the reports) was enlightening.
You’ve probably heard old sayings about how the best way to learn something is by teaching it. I had a taste of that experience over the past month, and now I’m inspired and raring to write! (Before I start, though, I have a lot of lost sleep to catch up on. Did I mention how much effort it takes to be a good educator? Be sure to thank the next teacher you see!)
I’d been getting some of my other affairs in order so that I could start writing in earnest in this New Year. Well, fate had other plans for me.
Late in December, I accepted an unexpected offer to spend all of January as a full-time substitute teacher. A challenging and rewarding gig, to be sure, and one that helps out a former colleague, but it occupies a lot of potential writing time!
We all figure, “I will start writing more when x happens,” or “after y is over.” We’re not always in control of those x‘s and y‘s, though, any more than a football coach who diagrams a play but sees a very different outcome on the field.
At least my novels’ characters will follow the x‘s and y‘s that I chart for them … if and when I get the chance!