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.

 Deadlines. They seem so far away when I first pencil them into my plans and schedules. But time speeds by, other unavoidable tasks crop up, or I underestimate the difficulty of the project. I try, try to train myself to start early, to get a jump on things, or to create a fake, earlier deadline in order to get moving. But my untrickable subconscious knows very well that it’s a fake deadline and blows it off. Yet, I keep trying. After all, I’ve managed to do it with other appointments. I leave plenty early for the dentist, for movies and lunch dates. And while I used to respond well to deadlines, now they render me immobile with stress.

More importantly, I’ve learned that trying to do things at the last minute is a dangerous practice. If I wait till the day of the deadline for a contest, anthology or other call for submissions to send off my entry, I know I’ll be plagued by some catastrophe or roadblock.

For instance: As I make the last tweaks to the manuscript, Word will hiccup and screw up the formatting for the entire text. I won’t know what happened, so I’ll tear my hair out for hours trying to reverse it. “Undo” will be strangely ineffective. The online support and forums will be mystified or useless. Worst of all, I will have once more broken my “rule” about saving a slightly earlier draft, so I have nothing to go back to.

If that doesn’t happen, my cat will need emergency surgery, my internet will go down or the fire department will knock on the door with a mandatory evacuation order due to a gas leak. The local library or cyber café will be under the same order and besides, I haven’t saved the work in a portable or cloud form.

Okay, so sometimes it works out. I wait till the last minute and succeed. But that just allows me to think it’s a practice that’s safe to continue. Also, it will never be perfect. Even if I get better at working ahead, life will occasionally throw an unexpected punch. Still, starting writing projects early is habit I want to add to my skill set. Now if I could just convince my subconscious to cooperate.   

Rejuvenation III

p1000927I wrote about getting an emotional lift from gaining a new follower. I also wrote about the consolation of sharing the experience of “rejection” with other writers. A third thing I sometimes do to get out of my pit of despair is to remind myself of past successes. This is easy when poems, stories or essays are included in journals or anthologies, which can be lined up on a shelf. But I have a ton of newspaper, magazine and newsletter work, which can be hard to preserve and access. I tried loose leaf binders, but they soon got so full and bulky, they were hard to handle, store, add to and review. That system just wasn’t working. Somehow, I hit upon the idea of putting them all into book form.

I hired my friend, Stephanie, to work with me. A brilliant organizer, she also does editing and graphics. She scanned all the loose material into her computer. Since she has publishing software, she was able to clean up stray marks, enhance text and otherwise improve the original copies. In this case, you can see how, by procsimple4outlining my contribution in red, she was able to make my “helpful hint” stand out from a whole page of them.

After the images were as good as she could make them, she uploaded them into Shutterfly, making sure each entry had its proper citation. I logged on, chose the colors and fonts, created the spine labels and title pages, and added any explanatory text.

We ended up with four volumes (so far): Book Reviews, Columns, Confessions and a volume I called Incunabula and Ephemera. This one is a collection of interviews, essays and other material that doesn’t fit anywhere else. It actually includes the very first time I appeared in print, in my Junior High newspaper. (Thanks, Mom, for saving it all those years!) The volumes are accessible, portable, sturdy and sit neatly on the shelf with all my other print work in anthologies and journals. Now I can look back and see that, yes, I have done good work in the past, and if I did it then, I can do it again. Very reassuring. The set also acts as a backup, as the paper copies continue to deteriorate.

I’m not recommending this method for everyone. It was expensive and time-consuming. Nor am I touting Shutterfly. I’m sure there are other services out there that can do similar projects. Although if I understand Shutterfly, the projects stay there forever, so, you know, in case the house ever burns down . . . (I’m not kidding. A poet friend of mine lost irreplaceable manuscripts and writing memorabilia in a warehouse fire.)

One thing to note: When I first began publishing in newspapers, I had the great good sense to photocopy the articles onto acid free paper, along with the accompanying heading at the top of the page. That made it a lot easier and more efficient for Stephanie to deal with. I also kept careful records of every publication, so I have confidence that the bound collections are reasonably complete. Sure, there are a few missing pieces, but nothing’s perfect.


Rejuvenation II

rejectedIn my previous post I talked about an emotional lift I got from gaining a new follower for this blog. That was in response to being “stuck” due to the sense that I was not reaching a single reader. But I can also get “stuck” when I keep getting editorial rejections. In this case, one consolation is to know that we’re all in good company, that rejections are all part of the life of any artist. If you’re not involved in a group of other writers, you can share the sting, and gain some comfort, online. One of my favorite sites for doing this is Rejectomancy. The owner, Aeryn Rudel, not only shares his experiences with “rejection” but often has advice about how to use it to one’s advantage. One of my favorite posts from this site is Michael Bracken’s description of a rare form of rejection, “The Unacceptance Letter.”. Bracken calls these rejections “disheartening” and yet his professional response to them still shines through.


Rejuvenation I

thx8w1iypuI’ve been in a slump. After cranking out 10K words on a non-fiction book, after publishing several newsletter articles, one flash fiction story and one poem, but not much else during the past year, despite lots of submissions, I was worn down. I decided to take a few weeks off. I re-started my writing practice, trying for a new attitude, one that focuses on the creation, not the outcomes. I was happy with that. Then came a major boost. An acceptance? No. A fan letter? No. An invitation to speak? Again, no. It was a new follower on this blog, a fellow I’ve known for years, whose writing I respect.

Why was this such an emotional lift? Maria Semple, in her novel, Today Will Be Different, has a passage that describes what the artist faces. Her main character, an artist herself, says, “What the world is, more than anything? It’s indifferent.” She goes on to say that as an artist, “You sign your name anyway. That’s the risk. That’s the leap. That’s the madness: thinking anyone’s going to care.”

Gaining a new follower, an actual person, not a bot, puts a dent in the world’s indifference. Choosing to follow a blog, or otherwise read someone’s work, requires action, not passivity, and I am grateful to everyone who has done so. Someone out there is reading.

As writers, the truth is, we reach only one reader at a time, whether it’s via a book, a story, an article or a blog post, online or in print. A new follower reminds me to write for that one reader, the only one I really have.


flowers-coverAs a frequent user of our local library, I enjoy taking part in many of the programs offered. So I was delighted to see a new one crop up. The Adult Reading Challenge encourages people to read in a genre or field they wouldn’t normally choose. The first month, September, was dedicated to Science Fiction or Fantasy. I never, ever read SF. It was a genuine challenge from my point of view, and I was eager to get started. But, what to read? Should I just pick something from the New Book shelf? Or try one of the traditional giants, like Heinlein or Herbert? Or what about our home-grown star, Octavia Butler, whose papers now reside at The Huntington Library? Then, at a bookstore, I noticed the classic Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes and saw that it had won both a Nebula and a Hugo, both awards given for Science Fiction. It was also the basis for the movie Charly, I checked the library catalog and they had a copy.

Put aside the fact that I sobbed for an hour after I read the last lines. This book is now in my top ten list of best novels ever written. And I never would have picked it up without the Adult Reading Challenge. Sure, there are prizes and incentives. But the value for me was being semi-forced to read a book that I never would have gotten around to otherwise and that has enriched my life. So, thanks to whomever came up with this idea. It worked for me.