Literary Corner Cafe

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Writing Competitions - A Different Perspective (Maybe)

A lot of people think the best way to win a short story or poetry competition is to write a really superlative short story or poem. And sure, if you stand any chance of winning any competition, you are going to have to write a story or poem that really shines. I've been both a reader and a judge for several short story competitions (and a winner as well) and I know that not only will you have to write a story that's original and artistic, you'll also have to demonstrate to the judges that you've mastered your craft. You'll have to show them you're a writer who's in control of his/her material.

But even though you'll have to write a really superior story in order to even make the final cut in any short story competition, there are other things you can do to increase your chances of winning and some of them have nothing at all to do with the quality of your writing.

First, Plan

In order to enter any short story or poetry competition, you first have to be aware of the competition. The best way I know of to keep abreast of writing competitions is through the book, The Novel and Short Story Writers Handbook, published by Writers Digest Books (poets can pick up the Poetry Writers Handbook). Sure, the book's a little costly, but any serious writer will get more than his/her money's worth from it.

Timing is Important

Many writers think it's best to enter a competition at the very last minute, right before the competition closes. Besides giving themselves more time to revise and polish their story, some writers think if their story is one of the last entered, and one of the last the judges read, it will give them an advantage. They think the earlier submissions will have been forgotten by the judges or at least eclipsed by their story's brilliance, when in fact, just the opposite could be true.

Eighty to ninety percent of all competition entries are submitted during the week before the contest closes. This is fine if the judges don't begin to read the entries until after the competition closes, however if entries are read as they're submitted, and five to ten thousand entries come flooding in during the final week alone, do you really think the judges are going to be able to give your story the attention it deserves? When judges have to read more than one hundred stories a day, every day, for more than a month or more, they get tired. An earlier, but perhaps inferior submission, might just be "stuck" in their heads and stay there. If your story's a good one, one that's original, well written, and shows you've taken the time to master your craft, it will catch the judges' eye no matter how early you submit.

Quality versus Quantity

Most short story competitions encourage their entrants to submit as many stories as they want. And why not? There's almost always an entry fee to pay, and the more entries, the more money the magazine makes. If you have five really superior stories, examples of your very best work, then by all means, go ahead and submit all five. You'll only be increasing your chances of winning. However, never, never, never sacrifice quality for quantity. The story or stories you submit must be examples of your very best work. They have to stand out, be free of grammar and other errors, and contain that special something that makes the judges say, "Wow!"

Do Your Research

Before you submit a story to any magazine competition, you should first familiarize yourself with the magazine itself. What kind of stories do they publish? What kind of stories do they seem to never publish? Do you think your story will be a good fit? If the stories of past winners are available, and they usually are, read the winning entries carefully. You certainly don't want to copy anything, but you'll get a very good idea of what that particular competition is looking for. If the judges names are available, find out if they're published authors, take a look at their own books, and get an idea of what they (probably) like, what style of writing they prefer, where they're coming from.

Write from the Heart

While your work needs to "fit" in with the publication's view of things, never compromise your own entry just to try to please. We write in order to communicate our own unique vision of the world around us. We write from the heart. We write honestly and we write with passion. At least we should. While our vision needs to fit the competition's vision, never compromise yourself and write something that isn't "you" in an attempt to please the judges. For one thing, it won't work. Most literary judges are very astute. If you write simply to please them, they're going to know it, and they're going to penalize you for it.

Be Fresh and Innovative

Sure, you need to submit literary stories to literary competitons, science fiction to science fiction competitions, and fantasy to fantasy competitions, etc. But within context, don't be afraid to be fresh and innovative. Don't be afraid to be different. I usually write tragedy - either stories that are very poignant or stories that embody high tragedy, but one of my most successful stories is quite comedic. It's still literary. It's still well written, but it caught the eye of a publisher because it was different. In a sea of dead grandmothers, miscarriages, and broken marriages, my lightweight, truly funny story stood out.

Aim for the Top Tier

Competition stories generally break down into three tiers. (Sometimes the judges break down into tears as well.) First, there are the stories that really aren't fit to print. We discard these immediately. Then there are the mediocre. These usually get thrown out as well. Then, there's the top tier of stories, the ones that are all pretty good. This is the tier you're going to have to fall into if you stand any chance of winning a competition. This is where being fresh and innovative can really pay off. Judges read so many stories that are "possible winners," that when one comes along that's fresh and innovative and well, just a bit different, the judges really sit up and take notice. The story might not even be the best written, but it does have the little "something extra."

Summing Up

Try to enter short story and poetry comptetions early, rather than late. Make sure your work is the best it can possibly be, work that's going to make the top tier. Make sure it fits the competition or publication, but don't write just to please the judges. Submit multiple entries if possible and make sure each one is the best example of your work and totally free of errors. Be fresh and innovative, while demonstrating a mastery of your craft. Finally, never compromise your work, your vision. Write from the heart and write with passion and love for the medium.

Good luck! :)

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Writing Tips - Before a Writer Writes

Everyone's heard the phrase, "Writers write." And of course they do. If they didn't, nothing would ever get written, and no one would ever perfect his/her craft. However, there's something all writers of fiction need to do extensively before, and while, they write - read.

There are several good reasons why a writer should read extensively, and not all of them have to do with a writer's love for books or great literature, though certainly most writers do love these things.

When a writer keeps up with his reading, he learns what's currently being published. He knows how well he'll have to write in order to see his work in print. (Really, though, a writer should strive for perfection each and every time. One will rarely achieve it, but that doesn't mean one shouldn't try. Conversely, one should never "slack off" just because other writers are doing so.)

Theme and subject matter in fiction are often a matter of what year a writer's living in. Sometimes, coming-of-age stories are "in" and sometimes they're terribly out of fashion, with the result that no editor of any magazine would give one a second glance, no matter how well written. The same with, oh, comedy crime capers, for example, something I love to write. Right now, this genre is "out," though if one's already an established author, he or she might be able to include one in an anthology. I believe Stephen King did.

Writers often have the same ideas, though they develop them differently. You don't want to work weeks or months on a short story or even years perfecting a novel only to find it's rejected because a similar one was just published. This won't happen if you keep up on what's going on in the world of publishing. It won't happen if you read, and read extensively.

Another reason writers should read extensively is to learn the elements of their craft. Art can come naturally, but we should never stop perfecting our craft. By reading, and reading daily, and by analyzing what's read, writers can learn how other writers solved problems, how they "married" art to craft, kept reader interest high, or made skillful use of imagery.

William Faulkner's short story, "A Rose for Emily" is a true masterpiece. One can learn so much just from studying it's two or three thousand words or so. Faulkner uses foreshadowing so skillfully that we're fully prepared for that shocker of an ending, and we accept it as something that really could have happened, not "shock for shock's sake." And the character of Emily is very well developed, despite the story's short length. After reaching that profound final paragraph, we shake our heads and say to ourselves, "Yes, Emily Grierson could have done that. I can see it."

As a fiction writer, it's your job to make readers believe in your world just as much as Faulkner made readers believe in the world of Emily Grierson. One of the worst things for a writer is for a reader to finish a short story or novel and say, "Well, that could have never happened." Readers want so much to believe. Do your job and make them.

If you're having trouble with your beginning, your middle, or your ending, just pull out a volume of short stories and learn how other writers did it. Something is bound to help.

Writers also get ideas from other writers. No, this isn't plagiarism, as long as it's just an idea, and it happens all the time. The beginning of Anne Rice's novel, Violin, is taken straight from Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily," but still, it's developed in an entirely different way, and so it became Rice's and Rice's alone, at least in the context of Violin. It could, under certain conditions, become yours as well. While we're reading, we often run across an image or a phrase that inspires us to write something in a completely different way, and sometimes even write it better.

I've met a lot of beginning writers who say, "Since I started writing, I don't have time to read." Baloney! Reading should be a requirement of the writing life. In fact, if writers don't read, and read extensively, they'll never become truly great writers, maybe not even good writers.

So, if you're a writer, by all means, write, and try to write daily. But read as well. Read voraciously. Consider novels and short stories "required reading" just as you considered your college course textbooks "required reading."

Remember, there's really no such thing as a writer who's "too well read." Or, one who doesn't have enough time to read. :)

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Writing Tips - Overcoming Writer's Block

Personally, I don’t know one writer, amateur or professional, who doesn’t fear writer’s block, or who doesn’t suffer from it from time to time, to one degree or another. For most of us, it’s just a very normal part of the writing life.

Joyce Carol Oates says she knows the cure for writer's block, and given her prolific output, I guess we need to believe her.

For many writers, especially beginning writers, writer’s block is a mystery. It’s especially mysterious to those writers who plan and outline their stories and novels well ahead of the actual writing. You know where you want to go, so why can’t you get there?

As an editor, I’ve found that writer’s block often stems from two very sources: fear of failure and fear of success.

Some writers make their current writing project their whole world. They worry excessively about a big advance, making the bestseller list, writing subsequent books. No one should do this. Very, very few of the books published, especially from new authors, will garner a large advance or see bestsellerdom. And this shouldn’t be your goal when writing anyway.

People should write because they love writing. They should write because they need to write as much as they need to eat. The journey should be more important than the destination, and as long as the finished product pleases you, and is truly well written, it shouldn’t matter if it pleases anyone else.

Yes, it’s terrific to be recognized for your work, and it’s terrific to be paid well for a job well done, but sadly, in publishing this isn’t the norm. Too many writers identify themselves far too closely with their work. If the manuscript or book fails, they feel they’ve failed. And this isn’t the case. A well written manuscript may fail to become a book for a great number of reasons, some of them being: the publishing house already has something similar scheduled for publication; the work is too long and therefore too costly for the publishing house to take on at the present time; no one is buying that particular genre right now (try selling a comic crime caper if you’re not an established author).

Conversely, I know authors who fear success. They’re actually afraid their book will be wildly successful and they’ll be thrust into the spotlight and not know what to do. They worry about the pressure of having to live up to their current masterpiece. This could happen, but it’s so rare, it’s irrational for anyone to worry about. Sure, it’s great to dream, but the work has to come before the dreams even have a chance to come true.

Some writers think the words should flow naturally. And once in awhile, they do. But more often than not, it’s difficult to translate what’s in your imagination to words on a page. Writing, more than anything else, is hard, hard work. Mind numbing work. Writers who “wait on the muse,” might just end up waiting forever.

There are some authors, and Dick Francis is one, who say they only write only one draft of their manuscript, but most writers write at least three, and some as many as ten or twelve. Even the most moving and beautiful books and stories often start out “not very good.” First drafts of Pulitzer and Booker winners are often horrendous, at least to their authors. Good writing is almost always rewriting, and then, rewriting yet again.

I’ve known many writers who write excellent first acts only to have their manuscript fall apart in the middle, trailing off into meaningless subplots with little or no focus. Much of the time, when this happens, they simply give up. I think this happens because the writer didn’t plan his work. I have to admit, I’m a great advocate of outlines. I don’t think many books ever make the bestseller list, or even see publication, unless the author makes an outline. How can you get somewhere if you don’t know where you want/need to go?

Now, just because I’m a proponent of outlines doesn’t mean I advocate following them slavishly. I don’t. Many things will change during the actual writing process, usually for the better, and writers have to realize that and remain flexible and open.

While I see far, far more sloppy manuscripts than well written ones, I have known some writers, and I am one, who agonize over every word, every comma, every paragraph they write. It’s not that we think we’re brilliant; it’s just that we know we can do better. Still, the brilliance, if there is to be brilliance, almost always comes during revision, not the first draft. People need to give themselves permission to “just write,” knowing they will clean up any mistakes later. After all, until you have a completed first draft, you can’t go about making it better.

Just as there are some writers who are never satisfied with their work, there are other writers who fall deeply in love with everything they’ve written. These are the writers who rebel against throwing out the many pages of inferior writing that really need to be thrown out if they’re to achieve success. They’re the writers who brush aside the suggestions of an agent or editor, or worse yet, become angry and defensive. When we criticize your work, we’re not criticizing you.

It may be hard to accept, but really, not everyone can write. Oh, anyone can learn to write passably and fairly well, but not everyone can write short stories or novels that are deeply moving and extremely well structured. Not everyone can “capture the moment,” or successfully manage an entire cast of characters and subplots. The ability to write is a talent, but it’s a talent that won’t do anyone much good unless it’s tempered by a mastery of craft.

If you’re a writer, or if you want to write, then “just do it.” Don’t fall in love with your work, but don’t fear making mistakes, either. You don’t have to show anyone the finished product until you’ve written it to your satisfaction. Learn to visualize your scenes. If you can see it, chances are, you can write it.

There’s really nothing mysterious about writer’s block. I think it’s just a fancy name for hard work. It’s hard to string words together so they’re compelling, so people will want to read them, so they’ll go out and pay twenty-five or thirty dollars just for the chance to get lost in the world a stranger’s created. But it does happen. Accept the fact that writing isn’t the glamorous profession you might have thought it to be, but one filled with blood, sweat, tears, and toil. If you do, writer’s block will likely become, if not exactly a thing of the past, then at least something that is much more manageable.

Friday, April 11, 2008

News - Authors Guild Reviews Amazon's POD Policy

"Publisher's Weekly" has announced that the Authors Guild is reviewing antitrust and other laws regarding what it termed Amazon's "bold move" in its new position on POD (print-on-demand) books. The new move requires/forces POD publishers to use Amazon's "BookSurge" division if they want to sell their titles on Amazon in the traditional manner.

Late Friday, the Guild sent an email to all of its members questioning the motives and implications of Amazon's latest effort to dominate the booksellers' market.

We'll keep you updated.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

News - The Pulitzer Prizes

The winners of this year's Pulitzer Prize were recently announced. They are:

Fiction: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Literary Criticism: Mark Feeney of "The Boston Globe"

Drama: "August: Osage County" by Tracy Letts

Biography: Eden's Outcast by John Matteson (a biography of Louisa May Alcott)

Poetry: "Time and Materials" by Robert Hass and "Failure" by Philip Schultz

Nonfiction: The Years of Extermination by Saul Friedlander (a scrupulously researched book on the Holocaust)

Friday, April 4, 2008

News - Home of Edith Wharton Facing Foreclosure

The Lenox, Massachusetts estate where Edith Wharton wrote The House of Mirth and other novels is faced with imminent foreclosure due to financial difficulties. Trustees have launched a fundraising campaign with $3 million needed before April 24th. Pledges can be made at and won't be called in unless the monetary goal is reached. The Mount, which Wharton designed, is notable for being one of only 5% percent of National Historic Landmarks dedicated to women.

Writing Tips - Tips on Writing a Novel Synopsis

As a fiction editor, I read lots and lots of novel synopses. Frankly, most of them aren't very good. But that's okay. When I, or any other editor, finds that one that really shines, all the subpar ones we've read suddenly become "worth it." Below are some of the things any professional editor is looking for in a good novel synopsis. I hope, if you're a writer, these suggestions will make your job a little easier.

First, what exactly is a novel synopsis? Some authors make the mistake of likening it to an outline, a mistake that could cost them the sale of their manuscript.

Before beginning to write your novel’s synopsis, think about what constitutes the essence of fiction – conflict. Anyone who reads your synopsis is going to want to know how its characters and events are propelled forward by conflict. A good synopsis will include both the beginning and end of your novel (never play coy with your reader), and all your major set pieces. In addition, it will be written in the same style as your book and will grab the reader’s attention on the very first page. In fact, if it doesn’t grab the reader’s attention on the very first page, he or she might not get to page two.

Far too many new writers underestimate the importance of their synopsis and leave out important events, characters, or plot twists. Make sure you highlight the conflict, the dramatic interaction among your characters, and show your readers why each character acts the way he does.

There’s really no nuts-and-bolts, this-is-how-you-do-it formula for writing a good novel synopsis. A lot of the way you write will be determined by the particular novel you’re written. The guideline below, however, should help you refine and condense your synopsis and also help you make sure you’ve left nothing out.

1. The heading is usually typed in the upper left hand corner of the first page and should include the title of your novel, its genre, the manuscript’s estimated total word count, and of course, your name.

2. Write in the present tense and employ the third person point-of-view. This rule holds even if your novel is written in the first person.

3. Never play coy with your reader. A synopsis reader needs to know every plot twist, including the ending. He or she needs to know who lives, who dies, and who did what to whom. Playing coy could get you nothing by rejected. And fast.

4. Begin with a hook, just as you (hopefully) did when writing your novel. This hook should revolve around your main character and the main conflict of the novel. Introduce your reader to the book’s protagonist by giving us his or her name, age, marital status, etc. Make sure to tell us what, precisely, draws your main character into the book’s conflict.

5. The first time you mention a character (but only the first time), highlight him or her by capitalizing his or her name. Don’t, however, interrupt your narrative flow by giving us a detailed character sketch. Instead, try to weave your character introductions into the flow of your story.

6. Condense, condense, condense. A lot of people will tell you to condense every twenty-five pages of your novel down to one page of synopsis. This, however, is too much for most agents and other readers. Many of them prefer a two or three page synopsis no matter how long your novel is. Find out what your readers preferences are then stick to them.

7. Stick to the essentials. Your goal, when writing a novel synopsis, besides selling your manuscript, of course, is to give your reader a good overview of your novel. Synopsis writing is an art unto itself. It’s hard for many writers to distill a three hundred or four hundred page book down to two or three pages, but it can be done and you’re going to have to learn to do it. One good trick is to “cut the fat,” i.e., get rid of those adjectives and adverbs. Most writers don’t use dialogue in a synopsis, but a special line here or there can enhance a well-written synopsis rather than detract from it.

8. Reproduce the mood and style of your novel. If your novel is dark and moody, your synopsis should be dark and moody. If you’ve written a comic novel, that lighthearted comedy should shine through in your novel as well. A synopsis reader wants to get a good sense of your style of writing as well as the overall story you’ve told.

9. Take care not to interrupt your narrative flow. Don’t include any commentary, rhetorical questions, or phrases commonly found in non-fiction book proposals. Avoid the temptation to “review” your book in your synopsis. Doing so will only alienate your reader. Let your work speak for itself.

After you’ve written and rewritten and polished your synopsis like the diamond it must be, proofread it carefully. Make sure there are no grammar, spelling, or punctuation errors. When you’re ready to print, use white bond paper only with black type (no dot matrix, if dot matrix can even still be found). Print only on one side, justify the left margin only, and use one-inch margins all around. Some editors and agents will want a double-spaced synopsis, while a few will prefer single spacing. Make sure you know what your reader prefers then adhere to those guidelines.

Resist the urge to use copyright symbols. You don’t need them anyway. Your work is protected as soon as you print it out. Most readers are honorable people who would never dream of stealing your story even if they wanted to. Copyright symbols are often considered an insult to the reader and the mark of an amateur.

Make sure you include a Number 10 business sized envelope (a SASE) for your reader’s reply. If you don’t, chances are your synopsis won’t even be read. Some people resend the same synopsis to different editors. I don't. I recommend sending a fresh synopsis to each reader. It can only enhance you and your writing in the eyes of your reader, and besides, it's the courteous thing to do.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Reading Groups: The Composition of Your Members

Once you’ve decided on the ideal size for your reading group, you’ll have to decide on the make up of the members.

Do you want a group composed of both males and females or just females? Your choice might, not certainly, but might, have some bearing on the books you read. And, while some groups want "all female" input, others value the input of both sexes.

Would you like all your members to be under thirty-five or over sixty-five? Again, this could have a bearing on the books you read and the input your receive.

A group composed entirely of stay-at-home mothers of preschoolers will probably be reading very different books than one composed of both men and women of differing ages and occupations. The composition of your group will also be a deciding factor when choosing a meeting time and meeting place. Stay-at-home moms, for example, will probably prefer to meet during the day, while most working people would find that impossible.