Posts Tagged ‘writing process’

It Takes a Week

February 17, 2010

blue soapbox  How is it that it took me the better part of a week to enter an online novel writing contest?

You have to understand that the manuscript is ready to go; I didn’t have to complete, revise or polish it in order to submit it.  I’d already honed my synopsis, pitch and bio.  And I wasn’t psychologically blocked (i.e., unduly preoccupied about my chances)—with 5,000 entries, the contest is so competitive that it would be silly to worry about winning.

So why the ordeal just to hit “send”?

Well, my synopsis and pitch, both the right length for queries to literary agents, were too long for the contest.  Forget fudging with font size to give the appearance of compliance; the contest’s software automatically counts the words and rejects even slightly bloated entries right off the bat.

Okay, so cut the materials down, you say.  Yes, but where?  My synopsis, which had evolved over literally a period of months, was lean and mean and, I felt, letter-perfect at 423 words.  And I’d worked hard to make the pitch topical and punchy enough to be put on the back cover—just in case I ever get a back cover.

Okay, so create a new synopsis and pitch, you say.

Right.  That’s what took me a week.

Where do we get the idea that people who excel at—and enjoy—a particular activity can therefore do it easily?  For me, writing is great fun, and I especially love the fact that there’s always a solution, a way to fix things.  But that doesn’t mean I find writing quick or painless.  A tricky e-mail can confound me for days; helping a friend draft a cover letter can seem like a big commitment.

And it’s hard for me to take in stride a statement like “In the first round, your entry will be judged on your pitch.”

Of course I can descend into self-doubt about all this (a Real Writer would enter a contest a week! produce a novel a year! churn out a column a day!).  But I also know that for most people, contest entry materials and resumes and college applications are pretty daunting.  Maybe in a way, these things are even more of a challenge for writers; we grasp all too well the impact of our choices, from word selection to tone to topic.

Still, why sweat a contest?  It’s small stuff, especially given the odds, right?  Well, I spent years imagining, writing, re-imagining, revising and editing this manuscript, consulting with a dozen readers along the way including a professional editor, and integrating all the relevant feedback through literally half a dozen drafts.  I wasn’t about to do a half-baked job describing the product of my efforts.  I just couldn’t.

In other areas of my life, I’m trying to challenge my own tendency toward perfectionism, which has been known to wreak havoc on my sense of well-being.  With my writing, though, it comes in handy to have a natural inclination toward overdrive.  I didn’t want my contest entry to be good enough; I wanted it to sing.  And if it took me “too long” to meet that goal—well, maybe the mistake there was in equating high gear with instant accomplishment.

Meanwhile—wouldn’t you know it—I’ve been having a devil of a time with this very column.  It’s just been unusually hard to nail down these 600 words.  You probably think I’m kidding, but I really did almost miss the deadline.

Published in the Piedmont Post, February 17, 2010

Note: my recent entry “How to Amass a Record Collection” generated a thoughtful, well-written response which is now posted as a comment underneath that entry.

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Posture Is Important: Some Thoughts on Writing

December 30, 2009

blue soapbox  It’s not easy being a writer.  For one thing, the mantle feels daunting (am I well-read enough? imaginative enough?).  Then there’s the fear of facing a blank page–manageable for me only because on most days, my impulse to describe and convince is stronger than my intimidation, and besides, when writing is going well, it’s a joy like no other.

So what does it take?  Not necessarily what you might think.

Be talented.  I won’t invoke the “2% inspiration, 98% perspiration” cliche here.  Rather, I would posit that writing is 2% inspiration, 98% desperation.  Forget sweat; you have to feel compelled to work a phrase or paragraph or novel over and over again until it bleeds.  Kind of like self-mutilation, only people admire you for it.

Choose an interesting topic.  I don’t select “interesting”  topics, which other writers are invariably covering better than I could.  Instead, I notice obscure stuff that makes my blood pressure go up, and start tinkering with that.

First, make an outline.  Outlines are for people who already know what they’re going to say, and the precise relationships among all the ideas they’re about to explore.  After I’ve finished an essay, I can produce an elegant diagram of it; does that count?

Remove distractions.  Terrifying.  Look, I’d love to be certain of my moral superiority over kids attempting term papers with iPods going, computer screens open to Facebook, and incessant texting with friends.  I’d love to be the kind of Serious Writer who needs Peace and Quiet and an Office.  But the truth is, my best stuff has been banged out at the kitchen table in between doing bills and peeling vegetables.  How else to ward off the feelings of anxiety and isolation?  This is not to say that the sound of mowers and blowers outside don’t set my teeth on edge, or that I don’t need absolute silence sometimes.  But I don’t need absolute silence all the time; in fact, that would be scary.

Posture is important.  I started writing fiction back in 1995 while lying on the living room sofa recovering from surgery.  All jokes about the psychoanalytic couch aside, I think there was something about the prone position that allowed me to tap into a deeper level of creativity–in spite of my simultaneously watching, yes, the O.J. trial on TV.  Most of my writing since has been done sitting across my kitchen love seat with my feet up, laptop where laptops go.  The more a project skews toward straight nonfiction, the more likely I am to seek out a chair and table.

Buy beautiful notebooks.  There is nothing less inviting for idea-jotting than a pristine bound journal with a stunning cover.  Instead, I stash no-pressure paper in my purse, in the glove compartment, next to my bed, and in the bathroom, kitchen and living room.  One man’s recycling…

Accept it: creativity is messy.  Hand-wringing is messy; creativity is actually pretty neat.  I’m not kidding here: researchers, curious about what bursts of writerly inspiration look like on an electro-encephalogram, have been surprised to discover that the creative groove produces a calm, steady line.  It’s the stress of writer’s block that shows up as a jagged storm.

To write fiction, make stuff up.  To write fiction, first figure out what haunts you; then think “what if….?”  Do research, interview people, and read.  A natural propensity toward obsessive-compulsive disorder also comes in handy.

Published in the Piedmont Post August 26, 2009