Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Read It Loud, Read It Proud

Last Wednesday night, I did something crazy.

Ok, well, maybe not so crazy, but crazy for me. I read at an open mic event for stories that were three minutes or less.

This was nothing like the readings I do at meetings for my prompt-based writing group. There everyone reads what they wrote in the time allotted for the prompts in a warm, fuzzy, high-fiving atmosphere.

The open mic was different. There was a microphone for one thing. And a recorder. And a timer. Scores of plastic folding chairs. And the oddest assortment of people – young, old, handicapped, MFA students, creative type townies… Oh, and me.

People were supportive of one another, but the stench of competition was in the air as well. You see, after everyone reads, attendees vote for their favorites. The recordings for the top three stories would then be archived online for all time’s sake. And the writers were hungry to share, to read, and, most importantly, to win.

I was hungry too, but in a different way. The open mic is a monthly thing, and I had been wanting to go since the start of the summer. However, real life conspired against me (buying a house, moving, houseguests, general disarray). Finally (finally!) the stars aligned and I was able to attend this month’s meeting.

My goals were only to read my story in three minutes or less and not goof up. Both of which I achieved. This month's winners haven't been announced yet, but that's ok. I'm just happy I went. I’m pretty sure I read at a reasonable pace and paused at the appropriate places. It was nerve-wracking and exhilarating all at once. I’m grateful it’s over, but I’m also glad I did it. And I’m positive if I had not been used to reading my work at writing group, my open mic attempt would be an epic fail.

Coincidentally, a recent post on the Guide to Literary Agents blog talked about public readings. As the author says:
"Each time I read, I explore my own text, emphasize words differently and take chances on intonation and pacing. I’ve absorbed silence and learned to pause when the belly laughs were so loud and long, even I had to chuckle at my own writing.”

This kind of immersion is so helpful in evaluating your own work, which must be why so many writers advocate reading your stuff aloud when you are revising.

I’m not sure I’ll be going to the open mic next month. Despite the obvious benefits, the whole process can be a bit stressful. But if I were to go, I am already thinking about what I would read. Theoretically, of course :)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Feedback Frenzy

I’m always vexed to learn I’m not perfect.

Yesterday was no different when I received my feedback on my entry for the Golden Rose contest. I already knew I wasn’t a finalist but that was ok since I’d be getting back critiques from three different judges (two published, one unpubbed). I chose to enter this contest for that very reason because there’s no one who writes romance let alone historical romance in my writing groups. So with this contest, I would finally be getting critiques from my so-called peers.

Overall my scores were pretty good, confirming my gut feeling that I’m close and getting closer everyday. But where one judge liked my secondary characters, another thought they were two-dimensional. Where one liked my clean prose but thought I had no style, the other thought my style effectively conveyed mood and tone. One thought my storyline tried and true, another compelling. Hmm…

But two things the three judges had more or less in consensus:

  •  I’m still doing more telling than showing in a few instances
  • After an opening scene chock full of external conflict, internal conflict takes over and affects the overall pacing.

No bueno. But instead of a “I’m just not that into your book,” this time I have actionable advice I can use on another revision. All for 50 bucks. I’ll take it.

One thing I found interesting about this whole process was the unpublished judge was harsher than the two published judges. Resulting in a difference of about 10 points. Maybe she didn’t get the story; maybe she’s still a bit green when it comes to craft and critique. But I have to wonder if we unpublished masses are harder on each other because there’s so much competition out there these days. Manuscripts must be perfect like never before for writers to break into the market. A sobering thought.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Case of the Not Enoughs

I’m constantly worried I’m not working hard enough on my writing. That I’m not writing enough. That I haven’t had enough life experience to write anything worthwhile. I’m already pretty sure I haven’t read widely enough even though it seems I'm always reading when I'm not writing. And I suspect I’m not revising enough, even though I’m not sure how I should approach that process differently.

Bottom line, I fear my attempts to better my craft just aren’t good enough.

It’s a debilitating spiral of negativity to be caught up in. But consider:

It is no longer enough to have a webpage. Writers must blog, tweet, share on Facebook. And the list of Thou Shalts keeps getting longer when it comes to social media. (On a side note, Paulo Campos over at yingle yangle has a great post on how social media affects people’s perception of writing success.)

It is no longer enough to land an agent. While agents are still a writer’s number one advocate in the publishing world, the writer still has the ultimate responsibility for selling, positioning, and managing their work. Now, this is nothing new. With so many aspiring writers out there, armed with record levels of literary, the market will favor those writers who can seemingly do it all.

Am I one of them? I don’t know yet as I’m still struggling with this notion: It is no longer enough to write a book.

I’ve written a book (and completed a number of solid drafts for other projects). One that I’m proud of. But is that enough in today’s marketplace? NO. I need to ensure both my idea and story execution are marketable. Competitive. The best I can make it and then some.

This means it is not enough to write for yourself. You must look past your own narrow view of the world. You must know your audience (Found in Translation by Michael Cunningham provides a fascinating take on how to envision the audience for your work). Ultimately you must have a built-in market if your book will win the struggle to stay relevant in our evolving digital culture.

When making the leap from writing for myself to writing for publication, aspects of my work that didn’t bother me before were thrown into sharp relief. I had to ask myself if my work was still good enough for a wider audience. And I didn't like the answer.

It’s hard enough to write a book from start to finish. I don’t mean you have to write in a linear fashion, but that you actually complete the project (tinkering aside). When you hit that point, it can be a tremendous relief. After all, how many other people have great book ideas but get stymied by the execution? But then the real hard work looms ahead of you. Revision. After too many passes to count, you have a polished book, sure, but is it one people want to read? One you can market to publishing houses? One that people will plunk down money for?

Is it that good?

This is where I stumble every time. I just don’t know. I think my work is good. My few readers think so too. But is it good enough? Have I done enough? And if I haven’t, how do I take my work to the next level?

Am I overstating things here a bit? Probably. Am I so discouraged that I will stop linking words, creating dizzying chains of sentences that when fused together make for some awesome storytelling? Hell no. I started writing because I loved it. I won’t stop now. But I still think I haven’t done enough to get things right. I haven’t learned enough. But as always, I’m willing to try.

If this post is a little too grim for you, take a gander at the Agency Gatekeeper's take on debut novelists and what they need to beat the odds:
What do you need? The ability to write really, really, really well. And a great query, a great first page, and The Jeff Herman Guide. Or another  method of finding agents who are likely to be a good fit.
 Until next week.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Identity and In-Laws

My in-laws are visiting for a week starting today. Lovely people. Honest. We get along for the most part and although we’re not best buds, I know I can count on my husband’s parents for anything.

So what’s the problem? They don’t know I write. As far as they’re concerned, I fritter away my time while my husband works. Quite a reversal for an educated woman who had clearly achieved some measure of professional success in another life. Do they think I’m lazy? Unmotivated? Depressed? It’s hard to say since it never comes up except in oblique, sideways references.

I’ve run into this issue with friends and acquaintances as well. There are some people I just don’t know well enough to tell them about my creative aspirations. If I meet someone at happy hour, I’m not going to launch into my plans for the umpteenth revision of my WIP. I’m sorry but I don’t trust my dreams and hopes with just anyone. (There's a great post at Diary of a Virgin Novelist that also talks about this issue).

Even close friends of mine don’t know. If I fail, I want my failures to be as private as possible in this day and age. I’m still insecure with my progress. I keep thinking it will be a lot easier to tell people what I do once I have publication credits to point them to. (Agent Nathan Bransford calls this the “if only game”). Without evidence, I feel like a cheat. A wannabe. I feel the whisper of failure.

So I don’t talk about writing. I don’t talk about the one thing that has shaped my life into what it is today. I keep it all bottled up inside. When people do inevitably ask me what I do, I play the fool, cultivating the image that I’m just some pampered housewife taking her time figuring out what gives her life meaning besides cooking, cleaning, and laundry. This way, my deep dark secret is safe. But at the same time, I’ve discounted my intelligence, my abilities, my determination. People don’t take me seriously. And I’m accustomed to being taken seriously. It’s quite a reversal, and I’m still trying to cope with it.

I feel like my interaction with people who don’t know I write are monochromatic, one-note, absent of vibrancy and meaning, because I’m holding some much of myself back because of vague notions of pride, fear, and self-preservation. It’s not something I necessarily enjoy. I’ve gotten better about it. I’ve let a person here and there in on the big secret with no obvious ramifications. I felt a bit more entitled to the idea of being a writer after attending my first writing conference. And then of course, I always have my colleagues from my writing groups to help put things in perspective.

But there’s something about the in-laws that makes everything worse. They don’t know. They won’t ask. And I just end up feeling awkward about the whole thing. Even if I do succeed someday in getting published, I’m not sure if they’re the type of people who would understand my decision to write when more practical, prudent paths are available to me.

But what’s important is my husband understands. He understood my desire to write before I ever articulated it. I’m thankful for that everyday I get to play with words. And usually that’s enough.
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