writing

The Workshop Conundrum

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For me, writing has always been a solitary pursuit.

The first time editors got involved, it was a difficult adjustment. The second time, it was a torment. The third and fourth times were also disquieting, but eye-opening and educational.

The difference each time wasn’t so much in the editors as in me.

I was learning to let go; to stop clutching the sentences with which I’d fallen in love to my unpublished chest and, instead, look at them…hear them…through the fresh perspective of another person. And a person who was not a friend or family member operating under the misconception that praise and unconditional support are the same as constructive feedback.

In the end, the process of being edited and published gave me a new outlook on the value of involving others in the creative process. Don’t get me wrong. Writing is still an exercise in solitude for me. I love that about it. But, I’ve begun to open my own mind about accessing those of strangers.

I’m talking writers’ workshops. They can be extraordinary, depending on what you bring with you. Writing-wise and outlook-wise.

So I began searching my urban surroundings for likely workshop prospects.

That’s when I ran across one that had me laughing so hard it hurt. And for all the wrong reasons. Let me reiterate that this is my opinion. Only mine. I might be w-a-a-a-a-y off base. But…decide for yourselves.

The come-one-come-all cry for this particular workshop was issued by a woman who proclaimed herself the author of an astonishing number of ‘published’ books. She claimed thousands upon thousands of reviews. She brags she holds the title of being ‘one of the most popular authors.’

The first red flag popped up as I read her description of the workshop. It was a horror. Not the workshop…the description. Vocabulary, syntax, grammar, sentence and paragraph structure…all seemed to have been bypassed. Even giving handicap points for colloquialisms and artistic license, it shriveled my pelt and puckered my mouth.

Then I looked into her claims of fabulousness. She does have a great number of books out. All self-published. She garnered the claim to be one of the site’s most popular authors. It reminded me of some latter-day TV ad vaunting ‘Volume!! Volume!! Volume!!’ Put a thousand books out there and, for a brief time, you’ll probably be the most read writer on the site when compared to the author who has put up one well-thought-out publication.

Then I looked for the multitude of reviews. They were on Goodreads…not exactly professional. I didn’t delve past the first few dozen. They were cringe-worthy. More like hate mail than literary assessments. Some were very insulting. There were a few that gave lukewarm praise, but I saw none that could qualify as raves.

By now I was laughing. But the guffaws came in earnest when, in her workshop invitation, she said that writers don’t need to know grammar or spelling, because that’s what professional copy editors are for.

Oh, lord…I still feel the mirth bubbling up.

Anyone can self-publish. Anyone. And then, she’s right: literary quality doesn’t have to matter. But just try submitting something to an agent or a professional editor in the publishing industry with the attitude that someone else will clean up your mess because your work is that incredibly worth it, and…well…you’ll probably end up self-publishing a few hundred books, manipulating stats to make yourself look good, and leading workshops for writers where grammar, a vital part of your main tool…language…doesn’t matter.

Oh, God…I’m still laughing!

laughingcat

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writing

Season of the Writer

autumnfantasyThey say writing is a vocation you can pursue anywhere, any time.

There’s some truth to that. Thanks to technology, you can live among the dunes of the Mojave or the ice caps of Antarctica and still find your readers and meet your deadlines…internet connection permitting, of course.

But I honestly believe every writer has a season. Not talking about success here; not saying you’re ‘in season’ when something you’ve created is snapped up and lands on the New York Times bestseller list.

I’m talking about when the calendar flips a page and some gentle change in the atmosphere links to your primal spirit. You wake up literally and figuratively. An energy that’s been slumbering beneath the surface begins to froth and bubble and foam. And you just know…

…this is your time of year.

For many it’s winter when dark days and solitude invite long hours weaving tales.

For some the spring, surging with life and fresh, new possibilities, is the call to convert that energy into the written word.

For others, summer’s heat is a slow, sensual burn that spews literature like lava.

But for me, it’s autumn.

I don’t want to inspect the magic too closely. It’s enough that it exists. It’s enough that it feels like waves cresting, tossing more…and more…and too much…up into the crisp, silver-gilt light. It’s breathing air like cider and being alert, pounce-ready all the time.

It’s autumn.

Welcome to my season…

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writing

The Dispersion Factor

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No one is an endless fount of pithy comments, scintillating ideas, and inventive ways of expressing them.

It’s a scary thought that we’re not.

I once read a story about a little girl who talked too much. Somewhere along the line she was warned that each of us has a finite number of words to spend. When you reach the end…that’s it. No more. Silence. If she squandered her stock of words, she’d be left to finish her life in wordless isolation.

If that’s true, it becomes imperative that you spend your words wisely. Choose them with care. Focus them toward your goal.

But that’s hard to do in these times when writers are told to keep a public profile. To blog and tweet. To maintain a constant presence via tumblr, facebook, instagram, ask.fm, and a host of other venues.

I understand. I really do. But all the time and energy invested in those adjuncts to a writer’s ‘real’ work have a draining effect. You’re taking a big, ol’ handful of your limited supply of words and tossing them into the wind. Instead of focusing them, aiming them at a target where they might find a lasting home, you’re dispersing them to fall at random. In random patterns. On random ears. Before random eyes.

Wasted words? Or are they dispersing like dandelion seeds; their purpose being to find new ground where they can take root?

Hard to say.

Only time will tell if they’re flourishing elsewhere, or simply gone; victims of the wind.

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writing

Cooking Up a Story

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Comparisons between creating on the keyboard, and creating in the kitchen keep popping up.

Unusual, since I’m more likely to use my oven for storage than food prep. Nonetheless…

A good chef will tell you, ‘If you can’t be proud of it, don’t serve it.’  That philosophy has been behind many a late dinner service. But the end result is that all is forgiven once the diner digs into his perfectly produced, delicious repast. He’ll likely deem the meal worth the wait.

The “If it isn’t ready, don’t offer it” philosophy becomes more problematic when applied to writing. Our hungry, hopeful patron may be the editor or publisher, but we have to contend with an intractable extra ingredient.

The deadline.

For most of us who are submitting to calls that will draw hundreds or thousands of entries, we can’t expect to deliver the goods late and justify our tardiness by pointing out how it’s worth the wait. The diner at our table won’t bother sampling. There are no extensions in our kitchen.

Getting a manuscript in on time is a perfectly legitimate, understandable expectation.

But then, you stumble across the call for submissions that stills your world because it seems tailor-made for you. Right up your alley. Posted with your name all over it…

…and it ends in an hour.

So. Do you rush to pound something out with no time for anything other than a quick proofread, and shoot it off to this perfect destination where you just know you belong?

Maybe. It’s a gamble. It’s taking a chance on leaving a bad taste in someone’s mouth. Maybe it would be wiser to let them go dinner-less.

The deadline is an ingredient in the writer’s world that can trump all the other lovely things on the plate. It looms and we are under its gun.

I don’t think chefs suffer that fate quite as stringently. But I could be wrong. After all, my oven is used for storage.

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writing

The Description Duality

frenchgardenhome

I am a bona fide description junkie.

Can’t get enough.

I dive into pages of language paying homage to the precise angles of parquetry; the multi-hues of honeyed sunshine pouring through jewel-toned panes of leaded glass; the wealth of colors and textures in a garden lush with twining, scented blooms.

These things make my toes curl. As long as they’re about environment. As long as they allow my imagination to follow their path and build, layer upon layer, a space of some sort. But pay that much attention to describing characters and you’ve lost me.

It’s the difference between world-building and backstory.

To me it’s the difference between being a participant or an observer.

Once again the concept of show vs. tell rears its quixotic head. Show me a place I can inhabit as a reader and I welcome infinite detail. Use that same level of description to paint a character and I’ll wonder why I should be interested in this passive creature who wavers into view via words instead of his own actions, or feelings, or thoughts.

As a reader, I know what I like; able to scan a dust-cover or blurb and instantly discard or covet.

As a writer, I fall into the trap, carried away on the tide of my own creation.

It’s difficult to read your own work without making the unforgivable mistake of falling in love with it to the extent that you’re blinded to its faults. That’s why everyone tells you to lay the story aside for a few weeks, months, years even. However, if you don’t have that luxury, if a deadline looms…you have to develop the skill of being able to split from your work.

Because the only way your opinion of your own work counts, is if you can confront it as a reader plain and honest.

No patting yourself on the back for a particular turn of phrase.

No thinking cleverness can disguise a lack of heart.

It’s hard. I’m not sure if anyone can do it consistently. But it’s the only way to know if your backstory is as enticing as your world-building. And for those of us who are unusually description-susceptible, it’s a necessary sort of schizophrenia.

Otherwise, we’d sink beneath the surface, sucked into the creation that will never be anything but a playground for one.

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writing

Creative Distraction

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There is a fine line between creative distraction and procrastination.

But I know it’s there. I keep stumbling over it.

I love to write. Love it. So what’s up with that sudden need to browse the internet in search of ways to identify which application has hijacked my sound, rendering my laptop as silent as the grave?

With the story or article I’m immersed in open before me, why is it so urgent to investigate if the cat’s dish has enough kibble mounded in it to keep him from launching one of his evil, stank-eyed glares my way?

A beautiful, blank screen and the luxury of time to fill it with words awaits. But I can’t leave that breakfast dish soaking in the sink. Must. Clean. Now.

I love getting lost in my work. Absolutely adore that sensation of surfing waves of vocabulary, feeling as though all those tedious hours of lower education where you were forced to read what teachers, parents and other authorities deemed necessary, have finally been justified. The original purpose shredded and forgotten, but their elements distilled down over time into an internal thesaurus. Each successful excavation of expression slipping into place with a satisfying *click*…

So why all the avoidance?

And then I realized…It’s not procrastination. It’s Creative Distraction.

It’s that tiny break when you’re doing something else and…*click*…your imagination engages. The gears and cogs mesh. The next step in your story emerges from the fog, clear and concise and cogent. You fly back to your laptop, eager to get it all down. Then, as soon as the surge has passed…you stare at the keyboard and realize…

…you just have to organize your closet. Must. Do. Now.

So in the end it’s not a fine line dividing procrastination from Creative Distraction. It’s more of a trip-wire. And you don’t stumble over it. It catches you mid-stride, catapulting you forward.

Right into the next idea.

My plants need watering. Must. Do. Now…

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writing

The Relative Levels of Rejection, Part III

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We all know the form rejection is a necessary evil.

It’s impossible for an agent or editor who fields submissions numbering in the hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands, to give each one a thoughtful, individual response. Hence, the form.

But the form is a widely varied species that includes some real standouts. One is the It’s-Not-You-It’s-Me rejection. It’s the equivalent of your date saying he had an ‘interesting’ evening. Not a good-night kiss. Rather, the kiss of death. You feel as though you’re being dumped at the front door after a disastrous outing. You appreciate the intention to let you down easy, but the grain of truth that wants to irritate itself into a lump, like sand in an oyster, tells you it’s NOT them. It’s definitely you.

“You create wonderful worlds. Your writing is very atmospheric. But we’re not sure how to market you…”

Yeah, well…I’m pretty sure if the work was really outstanding, they’d find a way to market it. The truth is, it’s not a matter of how to market; it’s a matter of no market. Time to step back and consider some major rewrites.

Still, there are some very nice variations on the It’s-Not-You-It’s-Me that, in my opinion, make them the Miss Popularities of the reject pageant.

“This doesn’t quite fit with us, but you show great potential.”

In other words…back to the drawing board. If this particular submission had real potential, you’d have been asked to rewrite and resubmit. But it’s a nice rejection, and, depending on your frame of mind, you can actually savor it a little, telling yourself you’re an undiscovered talent. You just need some more time to grow.

But my absolute, hands-down, scream-from-the-rooftops fave rejection of all time is the short, sweet “This isn’t right for us, but we’d be interested to see anything else you have.”

That makes it all worthwhile. It’s not acceptance. It’s still a rejection. But it offers that one ingredient without which a writer cannot continue to shout his words into the void in solitary defiance of the odds. It dangles that little thing that has the power to change your view of the world and your place in it. It can make you forge ahead with renewed vigor and determination.

It’s hope.

And it’s beautiful.

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