Monday, February 25, 2013

What I've learned from Writing Contests

Over the past month, I've entered a couple of writing contests that involved the possibility of agent requests. Even though I started out with a lot of heartbreak, I learned quite a bit. In fact, I think I learned the most from all the negative feedback. And even though it's hard to hear, okay more than hard, it's gut wrenching, tear inducing, self doubt filled with stress, it's important to consider the critiques seriously. The knowledge gained can mean the difference between good writing and stand out writing.

The supportive nature of the writer community
This is actually something I learned long before I had a finished manuscript, but entering into contests really reinforced this. There is nothing better in the world than having your fellow writers there to root you on and being able to do the same for them in return. Knowing that someone has your back and is on the crazy train right alongside you makes the journey feel a little less daunting. Writers might all be crazy, but finding that same level of insanity in your fellow writers makes it much easier to continue on. The positive reinforcement is what gives you the ability to brush yourself off and keep on writing despite wanting to drop everything and quit. Having writers struggle with you and cheer you on makes the lonely craft feel a lot less so. And in entering contests, I've met some truly amazing writers.

The domino effect
More often than not while reviewing my own entry as well as others, I'd see one person mention an issue in an entry. The next thing I knew, there would be chain reaction of additional comments alluding to the same problem. I thought long and hard about why this was, especially when it was happening to me, because it felt like I was getting ganged up on. All it took was one person identifying an issue, and that opened the flood gates for others to see the same problem. While it seems like everyone jumping on the bandwagon that's not actually what's happening. It goes back to the whole idea that people can often spot a problem in a piece of writing but they can't always identify the cause. In a group setting however, one person mentioning the driver of the issue is enough. Everyone else that comes after, has a name for it right in front of them. The very name they may not have known had the person before them not mentioned it first.

Early on I blamed the domino effect on the open critique setting, saying it's so easy to just point out what other people are already mentioning. But really I was doing myself an injustice. Unfortunately, I didn't realize what was going on until it stopped happening. In all honesty, the domino effect doesn't happen when the issue isn't present. When you've corrected a problem, you might see one comment that doesn't seem to match the others and this is because of the subjective nature of the craft. But when you see everyone jumping on board, it's cause to stop and take a deeper look at what people are picking up on in your entry. As difficult as it is to hear, you probably have an issue that needs to be fixed.

What did others do right (or wrong)
In looking through entries that moved forward, I learned quite a bit. While they weren't always grammatically perfect and they often broke rules, they had something about them that made me want to read on. It could have been anything from an interesting concept to a character I wanted to know more about. The entries grabbed my attention in an authentic way and took me for a ride in the story, leaving me wanting more than want was on the page.

It's also equally important to see what mistakes others make. In critiquing other entries, I was often able to identify issues that I might not have otherwise been able to see. I developed a highly critical editing eye that I could turn onto my own writing. With common mistakes in mind, I could use them improve my entry.

Finding your voice (and being yourself)
Writers hear about the importance of voice all the time, but for me, it's been one of the hardest things to understand. There isn't a concrete definition of voice, or not one that I can find. I do however know, that when something has voice, you sit up straight and take notice of the words on the page. And when writing doesn't have voice, it can look phoney. I know because my first couple of contest entries were exactly that, phoney. I'd tried to use a gimmick to get people's attention and while it did grab the readers eye, it also created confusion and hesitancy, which is the last thing you want. And the worst part about it was, I knew I was doing it and didn't want to stop. The problem is, when you try to fool your reader into your story they take notice pretty quickly. As a writer you are far better off being yourself, and letting your writing show that. No amount of gimmicks, shocking lines, or other tricks are going to do that for you until you find your own true voice. It's not an easy journey but if you are true to yourself your voice will come out.

Starting in the action (or with what really matters)
This is another thing writers are constantly told but not something I didn't fully understood until I entered contests. I thought I was as close to the action as possible, but I soon found out how wrong I was. While I had whittled down my opening very close to the inciting incident, I still wasn't quite there yet and it showed. When they say start with the important scene, they mean it. They don't mean start the day before, the hour before, or even the minute before, they mean throw your character into what makes them special, and make every word that describes it count. If you are saying well if you just read to page x you'll see what's happening, or on page x you really get to the good stuff, then you are starting in the wrong place.GUARANTEED! If the "good stuff" is on page x, why wouldn't you start there? If that's what you want people to read, put it right in front of them starting on page 1.

The importance of perseverance
The process of finding an agent is grueling. It's a downright emotional roller coaster. Making it to the next round in a writing contest is no different. And no lies, I wanted to give up during some of these contests, sometimes as frequently as multiple times a day. If it wasn't for some amazingly encouraging critique partners, I might have. And if I had I wouldn't be in the agent round of the latest contest I entered. In fact, I had submitted multiple variations of my query and first page when I finally broke through the barrier, and it was because I never stopped trying. I took the advice I was given to heart, I thought about it, and I applied it to my writing. After countless revisions to my query and first page, so many in fact that I lost count, I finally have something that works, that I'm happy with, and that is true to me as a writer, as well as my story. I learned from each revision, improved my craft, and it paid off. So if you take the feedback seriously, and keep trying, you can do it.

Entering contests is not easy. It's difficult to put yourself out there. Even worse it's hard to learn you might not be ready, or you might not have the right starting spot in your story when you think you do. But contests can be great resources of information and feedback if you are open to the advice and willing to apply it. The things you learn can be invaluable. What have you learned about your writing from entering contests?

Monday, February 4, 2013

CLC Kissing Scene Competition

This is my Kissing Scene Competition Entry as part of Cupid's Literary Connection Blind Speed Dating Event.

Kissing Scene Intro: 
This scene is from my Upper Middle Grade Science Fiction. After being abducted by aliens, thirteen-year-old Gary was gifted the power of telekinesis. In this scene, he is working with his teenaged, alien trainer, Esther, to hone his ability. She tasks him with using his ability to retrieve a small pillow that is tucked tightly inside her fist.

Kissing Scene
Scrunching his face, Gary's eyes narrowed to small slits. After a few moments the white ruffles pulled between Esther’s fingers. She tightened her grip and he focused harder, imaging the pillow, and ignoring her hand wrapped around it. Once he had a clear image, he let his mind find a steady drumbeat. Slow and methodical. THUD, THUD, THUD, it pounded in his head. When he mastered the rhythm, he yanked with his mind and the pillow flew between her fingers. He reached out and caught it before it whizzed by.

Esther sucked in a breath, opened her hand, and stared at the red burn mark on her palm.
Before she could say anything, Gary spoke up, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to be so rough.” He took her wrist and inspected the red marks in her palm. With his free hand he touched the tips of his fingers to his lips then laid them gently in her palm. He folded her fingers over his and gazed into her eyes. “All better.” He smiled.

Esther blinked, a look of surprise forming on her face. “Yes, that feels much better now.” Her shimmering lips curled upward causing a dimple to appear on her right cheek.

Her happiness made Gary feel like he was floating, like nothing bad could ever change this one moment. Though he didn't know why, he leaned in closer and closer, time crawling by. Her exotic, floral scent filled his nose and intoxicated him. His mouth went dry as he brushed her cheek with a gentle kiss.

When Gary regained control of his frozen muscles, he pulled back immediately and looked away from Esther, cheeks burning. His stomach knotted with regret. Did I just ruin our friendship?

Her hand lightly touched his shoulder. Calm washed over him, his nerves eased, and the knot in his stomach untwisted. He turned to her, surprised to see her still smiling. It was infectious. He tried to hide the giant grin erupting. She's happy, so maybe I didn't mess anything up. What does this mean?

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Why Writers Should be Watching The Following: A Lesson in Fantastic Storytelling

*this image belongs to Fox

There's no denying that Fox's new drama The Following is dark, twisted, violent, and at times downright disturbing. But what I didn't expect is that it's so unbelievably clever in the way that it tells it's story. Even better it's a great road map for and of a writer, two in fact.

The Following opens with the prison escape of infamous serial killer Joe Carroll (James Purefoy) who is known for murdering a string of women often involved in taking his college literature course. Talk about an inciting incident. So who does the FBI to call to help with the case? Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon), the former FBI agent who caught Carroll the first time around. Hardy just so happens to be watching the news of the escape which is of course on every single channel and completely unavoidable. Oh no, is that a empty handle of vodka I see in his trash can and more alcohol all over his messy room? Hello flawed hero! So already we have a hugely interesting start, we've met our villain, and our not so perfect hero and we aren't even ten minutes in. And in book world, I'd say a minute per page, so ten pages in, which is sheer perfection.

The story deepens from there. Enter Sarah Fuller (Maggie Grace), Carroll's last and only surviving victim of his brutal attacks. Knock, knock, knock, the FBI are at your door Sarah, they want to protect you from recently escaped psychopath, Carroll. Well that just ruined Dr. Fuller's day. And in just another few short minutes, we've gotten some well weaved back story on the villain without the infamous info dump. HOORAY!

Meanwhile, Hardy is meeting up with the FBI and checking out Carroll's now vacated cell for clues. And what's this? Carroll had a copy of Hardy's book about the whole ordeal surrounding Carroll's horrible string of murders and his arrest. So our flawed hero is also a writer. Talk about character depth!

Cue the police whiteboard on the suspect's history. Here we learn that Carroll, a literature professor, was also a writer. Too bad his book was not a best seller, or rather it was, but not until after he was outed to the world as a serial killer. This little seed planted becomes important later, stay tuned. Oh how I love good foreshadowing.

So where does the hero go next? He retraces the history of the villain. Again we get more back story on the antagonist, in an interesting way, through the eyes of the hero. Hardy pays a visit to Carroll's now ex-wife, Claire Matthews (Natalie Zea). We learn a lot about Carroll from Claire, including that he has a son and that he wrote her a letter while in prison. What we don't expect to learn is more about our flawed hero. The letter states that Carroll knows about Hardy's affair with Claire. So with one simple tool the plot thickens, Hardy becomes more flawed and we tie the knot between the protagonist and the antagonist that much tighter. Their journeys are more than just crossing, they are entangled.

As the story continues to unfold, we learn that Carroll has an obsession with Edgar Allen Poe (yay more writers!) and Poe was the basis for his previous string of murders. Now Carroll is on a mission to finish his story. Mainly, complete what he started with Sarah Fuller. Even with the police stationed inside Sarah's house, she is taken from underneath their noses. But how can this be? Enter the first twist of the story, that gay couple that lives next door aren't as nice as they originally appeared to be. In fact they aren't even gay, but they won Sarah's trust by living next door, and also won access to her place through a shared wall between their closets.

This twist does a few things to the plot. It ups the anti, in that we can no longer trust what we thought we knew about this story. We also know we can't trust everyone we meet, yay for added tension and mystery! And this incident puts a serious mound of guilt and stress on Hardy, the poor hero. He vowed to protect Sarah and now it looks like he's failed.

Despite the grim looking odds, Hardy through a series of clues tracks Carroll's location and sets out to save Sarah alone. Here is a great example of the hero making a bad decision for the right reason. Should Hardy have set out to tackle a serial killer alone? Heck no! But he knows that this isn't about the rest of the FBI, it's about him, Carroll, and Sarah. So does Hardy tell the FBI where he's headed and risk ruining his chance at finding and saving Sarah or does he take off on his own and risk his own safety but therefore have a better chance at reaching her? Talk about some bad options which again makes for some great tension. These are the kind of choices that not only make characters interesting but really define character without just saying he's loyal, finishes what he's started and likes to take risks to do the right thing. With one decision, all that and more, was showed about Hardy rather than just told to the audience.

Unfortunately Hardy is too late to save Sarah, but he does capture Carroll with the help of the FBI, who shows up because they are luckily not as stupid as they look. So one would think the story ends here, the murderer is back behind bars, and despite another few deaths of officers and poor Sarah Fuller, all seems right with the world again. Cue another episode.... But wait! This is where another big twist comes into play and the whole genius of the writing behind this show really begins.

Hardy of course goes to interrogate Carroll. Here we learn the game Carroll is really playing. Carroll tells Hardy he was not only trying to finish what he started with the original string of murders, but he off to write a new story. And who is the main character of his story? None other than former FBI agent Hardy. Carroll goes on to say that Sarah's death is the inciting incident (yes he uses those exact words inciting incident) to his new story, and in killing Sarah, he's created a flawed, guilt-riddled hero with Hardy. Even better still, he's got a host of other players or a cult if you will, under his tutelage and embedded into the lives of others (the gay couple next door to Sarah included) to help drive the story as he so desires. Carroll assumes the God role and he's got a whole host of characters he's playing puppetmaster too. This guy is a crazy, creepy, madman, but he's a phenomenal writer! He has everything in place to complete a fantastic story.

So now we have a story within a story. Only problem is, Hardy wants to play this out by his own rules and not by Carroll's. So the journey continues with Carroll at the helm and his flawed protagonist fighting at every turn to write a different story. Does this sound familiar to any other writers out there? And driving it all is a cast of characters carefully crafted and trained (or written if your will) by Carroll himself. All Carroll has to do it watch how everything unfolds from his cute little jail cell. Now cue chapter two, and yes the episodes are broken down and named as chapters. How clever is that? Talk about phenomenal writing, fantastic story telling, and great entertainment. Something I know every writer ultimately strives for.

So to say I am sold on this show, both from an entertainment standpoint and a educational standpoint is an understatement. There's no doubt this creepy, dark show will give me nightmares, but it will also give me an amazing lesson in good story telling and how to be a better writer. And if there are any other writers out there who don't mind a little gore with a side of jump factor, I invite your to join me on this journey. It's sure to be a great one and I hope to learn a lot.