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Investing

invest 3Investing can be hard. Not because of the research involved or the principles to master, although that’s hard enough. Investing is hard because you have to do it in the present while not seeing the results until the future, sometimes the far, far future. You have to have faith that efforts or sacrifices made today will ensure a better life years later. And yet, if one doesn’t take actions in the present, it’s impossible for the investment results ever to materialize. There are other life activities that follow this model. One is learning a musical instrument. Another is physical fitness. You can’t forego daily, sometimes boring, practice for years and suddenly be an accomplished musician or have physical strength and stamina. Plus, if you don’t work out or practice your instrument, your skill level actually diminishes. For writers, it’s daily writing, or as close as we can achieve, that must be practiced. If you aren’t making incremental progress on your book, it won’t suddenly appear. If you don’t practice craft, you’ll never get any better. Meanwhile, there is no guarantee that results will ensue, or when, if ever. No guarantee of a book contract or a contest win. Like with exercise, musical or physical, you simply have to have faith that it will pay off. However, physical exercise has one advantage, in that it often results in feeling better rather quickly. Even a short walk can boost one’s spirits and sense of well-being. Writing has the same advantage, at least for me. I always have the sense that every time I write, even if it’s only a page, I’m becoming a better writer. It’s my investment in the future author that I hope to be. Though I can’t recall the source or the exact quote, Woody Allen once said, “It’s the dailiness that counts.” Yes.

Gratitude

gratitude (2)I got a story turned down a few days ago. Instead of feeling the normal sting of rejection, I felt a profound relief. Truth is, it wasn’t a story I was proud of. I was, and am, very proud of the writing, of the setting and the characters. But there was always something about the story itself that never quite jelled. There were no comments attached to the rejection email, but who cares? I didn’t need them. I know in my heart that the story had a major weakness, which I could never quite pinpoint, but which was nevertheless unsettling. If I had been honest with myself from the get-go, I never would have tried to market the story. I’m grateful for all the fine editors out there who, intentionally or not, end up protecting me from myself.

 

Throw It Out

fruit salad 2At a restaurant a few days ago, I had a side of fresh fruit with my burger. It was so refreshing, I thought I’d recreate it at home. I bought a selection of fruit at a store that’s usually pretty dependable in its produce. Everything looked appealing. I thought I knew how to judge quality. But when I made up the fruit salad it was a disappointment. The strawberries were sour, the grapes were tough-skinned and the melon was still unripe. Perhaps they were picked too soon. Some fruits will “ripen” or develop more sugar content if left out on the counter for a few days. Some never will. I have a choice: I can just throw it all out and try again. There was a time I was much poorer and wouldn’t have even considered tossing edible food. But even then I had no illusions that that the fruit would miraculously start to taste better.

Sometimes my writing ideas and efforts are like that. They seem exciting and full of potential when I first think them up. But as I work with them further, I realize they are not going anywhere. They aren’t working and I can tell they aren’t going to get any better. As with the fruit, should I just throw it all out? There was a time when I did not have faith that ideas were abundant. I only had a few and didn’t know when I’d get more. It was an attitude of scarcity. While my mind still doesn’t spew forth ideas the way I’ve heard other writers brag about, I now have faith that it’s a never ending supply. There’s no need to cling to ones that aren’t exciting. Throw them out. Make room for something better.

Start Again

Hemingway2As I mentioned in my last post, I’m reading Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises. The author, Lesley M.M. Blume, recounts the incident when Hemingway’s wife, Hadley, gathers up all his manuscripts “including his short stories, poetry, the starter novel and all of the carbon copies of these works.” (Emphasis mine. Because that’s the most chilling part–that she took the backup copies as well as the originals.) She packs it all into a valise which then goes missing at the train station, never to be recovered. Blume goes on to say that Hemingway used the incident in a later unpublished short story. garden2What she doesn’t say is that in a posthumously published novel, The Garden of Eden, Hemingway creates a much harsher version. In that book, the character of the wife deliberately destroys some of her writer husband’s manuscripts. Whether intentional or accidental, this sounds like a terrible thing for a writer to undergo. But both in the real life version and the fictional one, that turns out not to be the case. In the novel, the writer, David, was able to reconstruct the entire lost story from memory, and even improve it as he went. In the real life version, Hemingway “came to believe that ‘it was probably good for me to lose the early work.'” Ezra Pound’s counsel was that “memory was the best editor.”

Recently I lost two blog post drafts before I had a chance to save them. Even at the moment of recreating them, I could tell the new versions were better than what I had lost. This doesn’t mean that I would be glad if all my notes and drafts suddenly got wiped out, as it did for a friend of mine whose work was lost in a warehouse fire. What it does mean, is that the writing was there in our heads before it ever got set down on paper or in a computer file. If the physical or electronic copies are lost, the work still exists, right where it originated, waiting for us in our writers’ brains.

Hemingway2I’m reading Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises, by Lesley M.M. Blume (which I recommend).

The author recounts that in early 1920’s Paris, Hemingway became the deputy editor for a literary journal called transatlantic review, started by Ford Madox Ford. It didn’t go well. In addition to editorial differences, Hemingway “had begun to suspect that Ford was praising his own work under pseudonyms in the transatlantic (he was correct).”

Apparently sockpuppets have been around since well before the Internet. Plus ça change and all that.

 

Crisis Management

crisisOnce, on a job interview, one of the questions posed this dilemma: I was faced with three crises at once. How would I set priorities to address each one to avoid a disaster? I must have answered well enough because I got the job.

Something like that happened last week in my writing life. A notice about a contest dropped into my email inbox. But, the deadline was two days away! This contest has been around for several years, yet for some reason, I had never been aware of it before. I had a few things in inventory that might be suitable. But, my blog was due the next day, I had scheduled a meeting with my critique partner to work on another story with a pressing deadline, and I had a dentist appointment in the afternoon. On top of that, my blog host had just introduced a new editing interface, which I was sure would entail a learning curve. So, would I really have time to tweak, reformat or whatever else was necessary to get the contest entry ready? Should I even try?

For some people, writers who have more irons in the fire, or writers with family or work obligations, this may not seem like all that much to deal with. But it still required some planning and decision-making. My first response is always to panic. Luckily, I know from experience that this phase will pass. My second response is to take a shower. It’s a well-known, but somewhat mysterious, fact that shower time generates ideas.

I came up with a plan. The contest had both fiction and poetry components. I would enter only the fiction division. Those stories were already in better shape than the poems I had in mind to enter. I had an earlier draft of a blog post that I could finish up, so I had a head start on that. Reviewing the story for my critique meeting could be done while waiting in the dentist’s office.

I was all set to go when suddenly I got an email telling me the contest deadline had been postponed for 5 days. The new blog editing page was easier than I had expected. It was all a welcome reprieve and allowed me time to prepare and send off the poems, as well as the stories to the contest. The blog post went up on time and when I reviewed the other story I was working on, I saw it was in better shape than I had remembered.

There’s no telling if any of it will pay off. I only know that I felt like a winner. Until next time. 

thI belong to several online writers’ groups. One discussion that keeps recurring is: Should you pay to enter a writing contest? I’m not talking about the obvious scams or “contests” that are no more than money makers for the “sponsors” or ways to build email lists or sell books. (Writer Beware, a site maintained by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America has an excellent article about how to spot the scams. The same article also has good information and advice about all contests, bogus or genuine.)

The answer to the question of whether to pay to enter contests is easy for some writers—no, never, ever. For me, it’s on a case by case basis. Is the contest sponsored by a journal or entity I respect? Do the entry fees seem reasonable, i.e., enough to pay the judges an honorarium, plus enough to pay out the cash awards, if any? Is there some other guaranteed benefit that comes with payment, even if one is not a winner? These range from critiques or comments from judges, editors or successful writers in the field, to a subscription to the sponsoring journal or other perks. If there is no prize money, do you get a certificate, plaque, or other recognition? One of my favorite potential rewards is being included in a print anthology made up of the winning entries, even if there is little or no cash prize. There will be a greater number of winners, improving my chances, and I’ll have something to add to my shelf of published works.

Then I think about the downside. Some contests require exclusivity until the awards are announced. This means my work is tied up in the event I see another, perhaps better market. Some contests allow you to withdraw. I’d opt for the flexibility. Will developing my entry distract me from other writing actions that would be more helpful to my writing vision? Then there is the investment in time, energy and focus. Each contest has its own rules for length (will I need to cut, or add, words?), formatting and method of submission. That means that every time I enter a new contest, all that work has to be re-done. That effort is no different from answering any other call for submissions. Perhaps I’d be better off going that route.  

So, there are really two questions: should you enter writing contests at all? And if so, should you enter those that require an entry fee? I have and will continue to go the contest route, at least for now, including ones for which I pay for the privilege. I have no advice for others, except to educate yourself, focus on your goals and stick to actions that foster those goals. Then, I believe, you win every day.