Friday, December 08, 2006

blog post to a young writer

I just finished sending acceptance and decline emails to all the good folks who submitted work for the spring issue of Blithe House Quarterly. Afterward I checked to see how many stories were in my “No” folder in my Yahoo account—93. Plus the six I accepted. That’s almost 100 stories. And now I am having one of those “so that’s where my time went” moments. Sometimes such epiphanies follow ten back-to-back episodes of My Super Sweet Sixteen, so it could be worse.

Lately I’ve done a fair amount of reading for contests and lit mags. If you’re an “emerging writer” (as we call ourselves until we hit Oprah’s couch), I highly recommend finding such a gig. Besides being fun—the thrill of discovering good work, the amusement of discovering really, really bad work—it tells you a lot about what happens to your little manuscript after you send it off into the big wide world:

  • You know how, when winners of just about anything are announced, the announcer says, “There were so many great entries. It was really hard to choose”? This is, in fact, true, as cheesy as it sounds. What the announcer doesn’t say is that there were also a ton of crappy entries.
  • Sometimes, just one person has to like your stuff. But sometimes a whole chain of people do—the screener, the reader, the judge. So even though the judge might love your stuff, if the initial screener has an irrational prejudice against stories about girls who run animal rescue organizations and go to Malaysia, you’re screwed.
  • It really does help to have a strong beginning. Avoid opening with a weather report.
  • It also helps to have actual subject matter. Even if the heart of your story is in the tender moments between everyman characters, it will be more memorable if they’re digging for dinosaur bones or assembling mannequins or faux jousting at a Ren Faire while having those moments.
  • But quirk for quirk’s sake is annoying. It’s all about balance.
  • There are so many words in this world. Just so, so many. Your best bet is to write a lot of them and send them to a lot of places. Be careful about what you write and where you send it, but not to the point of preciousness. It should be a process of abundance, a big meaty thing--a flow, not a trickle.


KAT said...

I LIKE the Malaysia part.

Cheryl said...

Then I hope you'll be a reader on the contests I submit to. :-)

thelastnoel said...

Hey, this is real good advice. You should bottle it.

Rhea said...

Sounds like great advice. I have done fiction writing but am now concentrating on screenwriting. I recently judged two contests in screenwriting. In general, I found that everyone could 'write', but few had enough imagination to engage the reader.

Biff Spiffy said...

But what if I LIKE weather reports?!?

Dingblastitt, wish I had read this post 12 hours ago.

Any advice for an aspiring writing critic?

Cheryl said...

R: Screenwriting has always seemed mind-bogglingly hard to me, mostly because you really, really can't get away with not having a plot. Kudos to you for tackling it.

BS: (Sorry about your initials.) My advice to critics would be the same as to any other type of writer: Read a lot and write a lot. Also, the critics I like the best are the ones who don't just spew superlatives or slam things in a witty way, but who put books in a larger cultural context and use them as a springboard for their own ideas.

Claire said...

So no, "It was a dark and stormy night..." then. Hmm.

Strangely, I'm having a "where did my time go?" moment looking at this post of yours from last Friday. I think I thought I'd read it when I hadn't and thus slipped into some temporal vortex (where it was cold and then unseasonably warm). ;)

Cheryl said...

Cold and warm? Temporal vortexes in which the weather is paradoxical are the exception to the rule--if the weather is that freaky, I The Reader want to know about it.