Sunday, February 27, 2011

How Much?

Do you believe in your writing? (No, this is not "believe in" like the Easter Bunny. This is "believe in" as in "believe in the value of.")

No, really. Do you believe in your writing?

How much, in actual dollars, do you believe? If it's hard to quantify, think about some other concrete item--say, grande mochas.

Would you be willing to forego 2 grande mochas, or pay $10, to enter your story (poem, script) into a contest?

Then go here, to the contest sponsored by the Northwestern Ontario Writers Workshop, and do so.

Disclosure: I'm on the Executive for NOWW. I am not involved in administering the contest, and I'm not entering it. As we used to say in the South, back when we wuz rockin' on the porch 'n' spittin' watermelon seeds, I don't have a dog in this fight. (Okay, we never said that, and nobody I knew in real life ever said that, but Southerners in movies do.) (However, I have been known to sit on porches, to sit in rocking chairs, and to spit watermelon seeds, though never all at the same time.)

Back to contests: I carefully pick and choose the contests I enter, because I'm interested in getting feedback on my writing. From some contests, the only potential feedback is "no," and I can get "no"-related information, delivered with glee and in excruciating detail, from my critique group. For free! (They love me, really they do.)

So here are the criteria I use to evaluate contests, and why I recommend the NOWW contest.

1. Affordability: Can I afford the entry fee? Most of the contests sponsored by literary magazines include a year's subscription in the ($30 to $40) entry fee--an excellent investment in literature and in the development of your own writing career, if you can afford it. (It is illuminating to read an entire year's worth of issues of a literary magazine.) But if you can't afford it--there's no shame in being realistic about finances--here's a consideration: The NOWW contest costs $10 to enter. (In Canada, that's two grande mochas.) You can enter two pieces per category. If you're a person with talents in multiple categories, consider joining NOWW for $35; that way, you can enter 2 stories, 2 poems/cycles, and 2 scripts (a $60 value) and save $25.

2. Return on Investment: What is the potential payoff? I don't enter contests that give one award. I just don't. What are the chances that my (e.g.) short story is "the one" that some judge somewhere is going to like the most? Not good. What are the chances that my short story is one of the three best that the judge will see? Better. The NOWW contest gives three prizes in each category. Money prizes. Cold hard cash. More than $10, too. Did I mention money?

3a. Company (as in, what company am I keeping?): Who are the judges? Judges for the NOWW contest are well known Canadian writers. These are people whose writing you should get to know, too. Good company, in other words. This year, Anne Compton (poetry), Fred Stenson (fiction), and Dave Carley (scriptwriting) are doing the honours. Shouldn't they have the opportunity to read your work? Previous judges have included Lorna Crozier, Pasha Malla, Betsy Struthers, and Gordon Korman.

3b. Company (as in, what company am I keeping?): Who has won this contest, anyway? The list of 2010 winners is available at the link above. A few winners from 2009 are posted to give you a sense of the kind of writing the contest attracts. All of which gives you a sense of whether your writing is competitive in this environment.

So there you go. If these criteria sound a little cold or business-like, that's because they are. I am not independently wealthy. I therefore choose to invest my money, as well as my time and energy, as wisely as possible. That sometimes means saying "no" instead of "yes."

BUT after I look at these criteria, I go back to the writing itself. I ask myself questions like these: Do I like this (e.g.) short story, am I proud of it, is it the best I can make it right now? All of which are sneaky ways of asking DO I BELIEVE IN THIS? (If I'm thinking about a contest at all, the answer had better be "yes.") Okay, then: How much do I believe in this?

Because there's one other, hard-to-quantify criterion that may be the most important criterion of all: what will entering this contest mean to me? It's actually the shadow form of the "payoff" criterion (#2 in the list above).

Your actions about your writing demonstrate your beliefs about your writing--not only to the world, but to yourself. Every time you struggle to bring a piece into existence, to make it its own best self, or to send it into the world, you tell yourself that your writing is important. Maybe it's important only to you--so what? Aren't you worth two grande mochas? (And by the way: If it's not important to you, why are you doing it?)

One of the most important reasons to enter a contest is to remind yourself that you are a writer. Your most important audience, for this act, is you.

So, if you have $10, consider entering your most darling beloved creation, which you have revised and polished, in this contest. (What, it's not darling and beloved? It's not revised and polished? You still have two weeks!) And then, pat yourself on the back--for taking your writing seriously.
Saturday, February 19, 2011

It's the Little Things

When you work as an editor, you have to make compromises to live in the real world. (Well, you don't really have to, but if you don't, you go nuts. Or drink. Or both.) Sometimes, compromise involves letting go of little things.

Here's an example: Menus. I don't edit menus. I would if I got paid for it, but when I'm out for an evening, I don't. I don't care that the menu lists "roast beef with au jus." In fact, I would say, "I couldn't care less." If you in a similar situation said, "I could care less," I might grit my teeth a little but would try not to show it. Unless you really meant "I guess I COULD care less but I'm not sure how," in which case I would know you're one of us!!!

The point is that when I'm off duty, I'm off duty. Because I can't fix all the little things in the world, especially when I'm not asked to.

But here, I'm supposed to be on duty. So you'd think I'd have noticed at SOME point in the past year that my email address (see right) was incorrect. But you'd be wrong, even though I'd looked at it and thought it maybe wasn't right but wasn't sure. It's correct NOW, though.

As that example illustrates, little things are not necessarily unimportant things. A little thing can be the straw that breaks the camel's back. A little thing can be the canary in the coal mine. (Little things are apparently hell on animals.)

In fact, Terry O'Reilly points out in this recent episode of the Age of Persuasion, little things are often taken as signals of big things. Van Halen required a dish of M&Ms backstage--but no brown M&Ms. Brown M&Ms in the bowl indicated that someone hadn't read Van Halen's contract carefully and possibly cut corners in stage sets, lighting, or other safety-related areas.

So, when I read in a book that "[t]he United States is the only major western nation...where five out of ten think the Creation myth in the Bible is literally true,"* I look for a footnote. When I don't find one, I know that the writer is, at best, sloppy. I wonder what else the writer has been sloppy or lazy or just plain ignorant about. (Quite a bit, as it turns out, but this site is not the place for a review.)

And, after receiving another rejection, I always debate whether to do another proofreading pass through the piece or just send it off without looking at it. It's tough because different people always find something different, and the person I am today editing something is a different person from the one who edited it last. I may see a different mistake this time, in which case, another pass is obviously the right choice. But I may simply have a different opinion about a phrase, in which case, another pass is a whole lot more like "making myself crazy."

I'm currently preparing a few things for submission, and I plan to let the pages "age" for one extra day so that I have the benefit of proofing with fresh eyes. Because whether I'm editing for myself or someone else, I'm on duty. And while I can't fix all the little things in the world, it is important to fix all the little things I can.

*Wright, Ronald. What Is America? A Short History of the New World Order. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, Canada, 2008, pp 220-221.
Saturday, February 12, 2011

Save a Life: You Can. Yes, YOU.

I had the BEST gift this week. A writer I am acquainted with sent a note commenting on my short story in Ten Stories High. It's always nice to hear compliments, of course, but her comments were thoughtful as well as supportive. (Well, she is also a writer, and a good one.)

She also said, and it's true, that we writers often wonder whether what we're doing is worth it--not to ourselves (writing is necessary for some of us), but to anyone else. Does the world need this story/novel/essay? With the explosive proliferation of content, is my writing really important to anyone else?

It's that "dark of night" question: Have I saved anyone's life? The answer: Probably not.

There are ways, though, to know FOR SURE that your life matters, if not your writing. Teaching is one obvious way. Teachers touch lives every day.

Another, perhaps not-so-obvious way is to join the national bone marrow donor registry in your country. If you donate, you can save a life. Literally.

And it might be my brother's.

Yes, my interest in donor registries is personal. My brother will have a stem cell transplant this spring and they're searching registries for a match. So I have a face to put with his particular database search. And every single person who needs a stem cell transplant is someone's brother or sister, mother or father, son or daughter.

Don't be put off by the medical aspects. Joining the registry requires only a swab of the cells inside your cheeck (just like on CSI!). If your immune system matches someone else's, you are given the opportunity to donate. Some donations are of bone marrow, which is a one-day outpatient procedure, but many donations require only blood. A recent study in Germany, home to the largest marrow donor registry in the world, indicates that of the 12,000+ donors who responded to their survey, 95% would donate again.

So if you're in the US and between the ages of 18 and 60, go to Be the Match to learn about the being a donor. If you're in Canada and between the ages of 17 and 50, go to the One Match registry, run by Canadian Blood Services.

And whatever country you live in, whatever your age or health status, remember that donors join the registry for free--which means that the registries can always use financial contributions to help cover their costs. Donations to these registered charities can help reduce your income tax burden next year.

So, next time that "dark of night" question hits, know that you hold lifesaving power inside you. You only have to share it.


My brother, looking angelic, with my sister and me. I'm the one eating (of course).

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Not That Kind of Sign Language

I was trolling Gimundo looking for something else when I saw a short film called Sign Language. Always a sucker for things relating to American Sign Language, I watched it and was rewarded even though it wasn't about that kind of sign language.



It's cute, right? Maybe too cute? Yeah, maybe. But sometimes, cute and sweet is good. Plus, an advanced degree in urban semiotics? I'm hooked.

But it also reminded me of the communities we're part of--even communities we may not know about. In this film, we don't know till the end of this little story whether the sign holders' community exists outside of Ben's mind.

In another example, I still watch for Walking Man.

And although I am on the periphery of the community that will miss Winnipeg-based writer Michael Van Rooy, I am still in that community.

But of course most of us--which means most characters--are part of families and other communities, often by choice. On Facebook, I recently connected with my husband's first cousin-in-law twice removed (his wife's grandfather was my husband's first cousin), who lives in Finland. My husband wondered what his parents, who left their Finn-Swede families in the early 1920s without expecting to see them again, would think about the relatively (ha ha, relative, get it?) easy connections that technology makes possible.

Just yesterday I had a conversation with another writer who is battling her characters' communities and backstories. Are we getting to the point where you have to explain why a character doesn't have a cell phone? Or is that point in the rear-view mirror and I'm just now looking?

And if you were to unexpectedly disappear from your community, how would you be remembered? What about your characters--would they encourage a colleague to take a risk? What do they give?

Lots of questions from "just" a cute film, eh.