Saturday, November 29, 2008

Change Is Good


Change is in the air.

Some changes I expected. I initiated the largest one myself. I’m changing from the writing workshop I’ve been in for the last two years to a smaller, more intensive writing group. It’s not that I don’t like the old group. I do, and I plan to stick with it. But the group has grown and the critiques have become less insightful. Many of the writers, though talented, aren’t as interested in writing as a career as I am, so they (understandably) don’t devote the time to their writing I do. I, on the other hand, need to dig in and commit, to have writing buddies who will be there, deeply assessing each inch of the story arc. So a new group to meet that ever-growing need.

Other changes have taken me by surprise. Old writing friends reappeared a few weeks ago to invite me to join them on a new writer's forum. After I left the Writer’s Digest forum, I never thought I’d participate in an online forum again. (Not anything against the forum; it was primarily a time issue that tugged me away.) But, now that I’m back in with these fine, generous writers, I find myself enjoying it. Time is still a major issue. I try to do one well-considered critique a day. It isn’t much, but I do my best.

But perhaps the biggest change has been the new phase my writing has entered. Prior to now, getting my writing out for public consumption had been an uphill battle. I’ve earned every acceptance I had by enduring fistfuls of discouraging rejections. One story, recently accepted, was rejected five times before it finally found a home.

Somehow, I’ve crossed a magical threshold where my work has developed a life of its own and is creating its own opportunities. Two such marvels have come my way this month:

* My short story, “The Burning Black,” has been selected for Every Day Fiction’s Best of 2008 anthology.

* My short story, “Free,” was the most read story on Every Day Fiction for September, amassing a mind-boggling 1400 reads. Every Day Fiction has graciously requested an interview with me (yes, of course, I accepted). So my first official author interview is scheduled to be published December 1.

Wow. It’s been a long haul getting here. And I can’t believe where I stand. I have a long way to go. The same day I got the interview request, EDF also sent me a rejection. And Jamieson’s Folly is far from finished. But I feel like I’m getting somewhere and I’m damn grateful for it.

I’d like to add one final note: I’ve always been a person who dreads change. I live and die by my daily routine. God help anyone who messes with it. But for the first time in my life, I see change as an organic and beneficial force in my life. I see change can be good. Perhaps that’s what I should celebrate the most.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Et Tu, Brute? (Or the Danger and Joy of Writing Buddies)


This week, I’ve had the privilege of observing (from a safe distance) a brouhaha on a new writing forum. I’ve seen it before: one person decides to push his or her weight around and offer dictatorial, snide, nasty critiques. In return, the rest of the community bands against the offender with a pack mentality until the offender flees.

In this case, buddy Stephen offered up a slice of story that used third person present tense. To the critic, this POV choice was simply intolerable and required an aggressive offensive determined to MAKE STEPHEN CHANGE THAT STORY.

Personally, I feel sorry for everyone involved. For my buddy, because he’s a damn fine writer and a helluva nice guy who doesn’t deserve to be ragged on so viciously. For the critic (who shall go unnamed), because she’s one of those people who always have to be right. Right can be a lonely place and lonely places aren’t the best for us writers.

Stephen’s bad experience got me thinking about my own experiences with writing buddies. I’ve been a buddy to many. I’ve had many buddies myself. And I’ve had some real nightmares, people like our critic above who insist you write your story their way or you’ll never achieve an ounce of success. (Or they call names and run away. Bullies are the same whether you’re twelve or forty.) But, after sifting through the duds, I find myself graced with a handful of particularly fruitful writing friendships.

So here are my thoughts about what makes a good writing buddy.

1) Honesty

A good writing buddy wants you to succeed, so he’ll give you his honest opinion, even if it hurts.

2) Kindness

A good writing buddy tempers his honesty with kindness. My playwriting teacher in Rhinelander this year, Liz Fentress, phrased the nature of constructive critique perfectly: DO NO HARM.

3) Ability to communicate

A good writing buddy knows how to put his thoughts into words. He can identify what he sees and name it. He can offer suggestions to help you improve.

4) Vision—both literary and career

A good writing buddy knows about literature and good writing. He reads books. He has his eye on literary trends, past, present and future. He also has an eye toward career track. He knows your strategy for reaching your goals. He watches for articles that may help you fine tune your plans. He wouldn’t insist you try something you aren’t comfortable with. He keeps you on the straight and narrow.

5) Commitment and an earnest desire to helping a buddy succeed

A good writing buddy makes time to read your stuff. He reads it with an eye toward making your writing its very best. He takes his time when critiquing your work. He thinks it over while he’s in the shower or on the freeway. He isn’t distracted by petty jealousy. He cheers you on when you hit a roadblock. He believes in your work as strongly as you do. He tells other people how talented you are. He reads your stuff again when it’s published.

6) Ability to offer both constructive criticism and praise.

A good writing buddy points out what works and what doesn’t. He helps you learn to work to your strengths and either eliminate or circumvent your weaknesses.

7) Respect

A good writing buddy treats you like he wants to be treated himself. He acknowledges graciously that you’re the author of your work and he doesn’t try to bully or intimidate you. I saved respect for last because I believe it’s the most important. It’s the fuel that drives the friendship forward.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Viva Las Vegas!


I’m back from Vegas, tired, but inspired. Crossing two time zones, enduring brutally early flights, and contending with another seasonal time change when I got home have wreaked havoc on my energy level. And, of course, let's not forget all those miles of walking and gawking on the Strip. I think I put on five miles in Caesar’s Palace alone. (For the uninitiated, don’t go there without a map.)

But it was a good trip, full of writing and personal revelations. Here’s the short-list of what got me thinking:

1) Inspiration can come anywhere.

What should have been a relaxing massage generated a story idea when my masseuse chose to unload to me about his marital problems. I’ve never had a massage before, but even I know the massage therapist isn’t supposed to talk for the entire hour. And, believe me, we covered the gamut of topics, everything from following God’s will to impotence to defunct marital communications. As I lay there with my face buried in that sheet covered little donut, I remember wondering if Ed would ever shut up. Later, as my friend Mary and I soaked in the Jacuzzi, I had this vision of the spa as a Christian cleansing ritual. I would have never thought it, but Blathering Ed and my day at the spa got the wheels turning for a new short story. I’m not ready to write it yet, but the seeds are there. And I have a theme: finding God in Vegas.

2) Details, details, details.

I was pleased to see how faithfully I’d recreated aspects of Vegas in Jamieson’s Folly. But the tawdriness of Vegas loomed larger for me this trip. For the first time ever, I noticed the hookers on the Strip. The guys handing out hooker trading cards seemed more grubbily ubiquitous. I felt like a kid who just realized she’d made a horrible, public mistake. The nasty aspect of Vegas is lacking in the revised parts of Folly. For a bit, I saw myself rewriting the whole bollixed first chapter. But a good night’s sleep made me see it with fresh eyes. When Nick arrives in Vegas, he sees it with the eyes of youth. The grubbiness of the city doesn’t really register. He’s too caught up in the glamour and glitz. It will be better to add the grungy side as Nick’s illusions are stripped away. His altered view of the city will make a great parallel for his disillusionment.

3) Seasons are as fluid as martinis.

While we were there, Vegas experienced unseasonably high temperatures—mid to upper 80s during the day and 60s at night. It was beautiful, even to someone who thought she was ready for the cool, crisp temperatures of fall. I enjoyed slipping back into the sultriness of summer, feeling the warm sun on my face. It was like one last fling with my sandals and summer before both went away for too long.

Just as I enjoyed slipping back into summer, so I enjoyed seeing Tom Jones perform at the MGM Grand. Tom’s fully into the autumn of life, but he still embraces performing like a kid bursting forth out of spring. And he still emanates that smoldering sexuality that made him a star in the 60s. Nicest of all is that he still enjoys the magic that music has brought to his life. He experiments with new styles. He tries new things, even as he hangs on to what’s worked for him all along. In spite of all the obvious plastic surgery, his wizened journey through the seasons has inspired me. Yes, seasons change and we should embrace them, but the core of who we are remains unwavering and strong.