Thursday, February 25, 2010

Read On...An Excerpt from The Case for Contests by Jacob M. Appel at Gotham Writers' Workshops and

Read On...An Excerpt from The Case for Contests by Jacob M. Appel at Gotham Writers' Workshops and

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I attended a new writers group Tuesday (thanks again for inviting me!) and it was an interesting evening. It’s always nice to reconnect with former writing friends, hear what they’ve been up to since we last met. But the new acquaintances were most intriguing. Warning: the names have been changed to protect the innocent! As noted in a previous blog, I struggle with relating a story that is not mine alone to tell.

Samuel started the session with a wonderfully descriptive excerpt from a larger piece. The other members had the advantage of knowing the story from earlier readings, but we all agreed his writing is well done. I was impressed with his ability to provide physical, background description so vividly that the scenes come to life in my mind. That’s something I have never mastered.

Although to some in the group, such effort is overdone. Interesting that is was a gender divide. The women loved the language; the men felt it was unnecessary and detracted from the flow of action. As I’ve considered his work in the days since, and discussed it with other writer friends, I think I lean toward a division of personal preference, not sex. Some of us love visuals; others prefer action. No right or wrong here!

The most difficult reading of the evening was the final one, given by Fred. Again, the others in the group had heard pieces of the story before, so they had more of a context for what I found to be disturbingly graphic. We ran out of time for the extended discussion the piece provoked – and warranted – and some of the talk spilled over to our walk to the parking lot after we broke up. Fred seemed focused on, “But did it hold your interest?” He asked me that several times as my answers evaded a direct response. I’ve thought about this encounter quite a bit since Tuesday and think I am finally ready to offer a more nuanced answer.

Yes, Fred, it held my interest – much like a train wreck would. I was horrified, but compelled to listen, praying for some sort of redemption. Was it really necessary to tell that story in such painful detail? If so, if it truly serves the piece as a whole, if your intent was to shock the reader into paying attention to what will be a larger message of overriding importance, then I’m okay with that. I would not read it, but there are lots of literary works I will not read. I nearly stopped halfway through Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for that very reason; I plowed through, looking for that redemption, and found it – barely. I will not read the sequel. Again, personal preference, and certainly no right or wrong.

But if you wrote such cruel descriptions of disembowelment and violation simply for the ‘eeww’ factor, I would be heartily disappointed. Your obvious appreciation for the craft of writing is not well-served by such base motivations. Granted, we only met once, for two short hours, but I hold out hope that the larger message is there, yet to be discovered. I will make every effort to stay with you long enough to find it.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Mechanical priorities

What a roller coaster week! It started out with two rejections, one explicit, one by default (no news, in the case of a writing contest, is definitely not good news) which left me feeling pretty low. I spent the next few days struggling to prioritize my work and to find the motivation to tackle the necessary rewrites.

Rejection number one was a short story written several years ago and I thought it was pretty good. I revised it while in the midst of the adrenaline-rush after finishing last summer’s Antioch Writers Workshop and sent it out, with three other pieces, to various markets. Every one has now been returned. I’m left with confusion over how and where to resubmit, or if I even should. Toss these old things a file and move on to something new or keep trying? A couple of them are iffy, granted, but I see much worse items published every day. For now, I’m setting them aside.


A personal essay I had been so pleased with when I first wrote it last fall (rejection number two) benefitted from some trimming, some additions, and a general tightening of focus. It’s better now, I hope, but I’ve forced myself to set it aside for a few days before a final reading and resubmission. My AWW writers group has been very complimentary of this piece, so I have high hopes for it. The difficult part at this point will be deciding where to send it. Entry in a contest with a monetary prize and publication in a little-known journal, or a try for acceptance in a more prestigious outlet with a greater chance of rejection?


Then there’s my thesis novel. Yuck. I’m at the point where I don’t even want to look at it anymore. I’ve been ignoring it for several weeks now, waiting for a couple of new readers to comment on the completed draft, but it’s time to stop procrastinating. I went back through the chapter outline and realized what a mess it is. Scene flow, chapter breaks…the longer I look at it, the more confused I become. After a bit of shuffling, consolidation and deletion, it was better, or so I thought. I sent it to my mentor for review and she came back with a list of pointed – and difficult – questions about my characters that I’m having trouble answering.

Today, after making the adjustments I noted on the outline, I took out all the chapter numbers. I want to see where story wants to break, not where I think it should. My characters have shown me the way before; I trust they will do so again, if I will let them. As for the mentor questions, I’m going to sleep on it.



So after I posted the above, I realized my overly-active pessimism had taken hold and wiped out the memory of two very exciting opportunities which came my way today. I hesitate to say more at this point (see pessimism note!) but once everything is settled, I'll be happy share. In the meantime, just trust me and share my joy. Thanks!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Between a rock and a scary place

A writer friend and I agreed to enter the Cup of Comfort for Couples contest, writing a brief story about our marriages and critiquing each other before submission. We figured it would be a good exercise if nothing else.

What I found when I tried it was surprising. I started with a gentle humor, celebrating my husband, and ended up reliving emotional baggage that he has tried desperately to help me jettison for the past thirty-five years. Where did all that come from?

I also ran head-on into another issue that I’ve been avoiding. How do I write about myself, my life, without harming those I love, or at least those with whom I’ve come into contact? My story is not just my own; it is often theirs as well. There are parts of my life I will never write about, never share, because the other people involved in those incidents deserve their privacy. It is not mine to invade or to air publicly.

Ralph Keyes addressed this issue at length in his wonderful The Courage to Write. I disagree with many of the writers he references, including William Faulkner, who said, “A writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one.” Faulkner’s pointed comments, and others like them, weigh heavily. Is my writing dull and lifeless because I allow what he calls my “censor-in-chief” to edit my words for fear of offending? Am I being less than true to myself, and to reality, by shielding those stories from the light of day? Keyes admits he sticks mostly to non-fiction because of the fear that “fiction might lead me into dark caves I’m hesitant to explore.” So I’m stuck? Which is worse…avoiding sensitive topics out of respect for others or bad writing that ignores truth?

Fellow writers, what say ye?