Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Notes From a Contest Reader

A Note That’s an Introduction and an Apology: this turned out longer than I’d anticipated. I hope it’s still helpful.

Let there be light!

I’ve written recently about three lenses through which one could revise a piece of writing. Today, I’m thinking about them again as writing contest season ramps up.

A full blog post about those three lenses is here. Here’s a brief recap. The subject of your piece is what your draft is about. Your ambition for the piece is the final form you want it to take. The execution is how close to your ambition you come and how well you convey your subject.

A Note about Contests: Most contests (and literary journals) rely on volunteer and/or anonymous readers—sometimes one, sometimes a team—for the first round of reading. (An administrator might have already tossed out entries or submissions that don’t meet the stated criteria—for example, word count or formatting.)

These readers select the top entries--sometimes the top 6, 10, 12, maybe even 20 or more, depending on the total number of entries.

Some contests use two or more rounds of readers—again, depending on the size and number of entries. A contest that gets 1000 entries and skims the top 10% for further review is still evaluating 100 entries.

Along the way, the contest announces some entries, perhaps as finalists or a longlist. Often it’s from this subset that the actual Big Name Judge chooses the winning entries, plus perhaps some honourable mentions.

For several years at different times, I’ve served as a reader for national and regional contests, looking at both fiction and nonfiction. I’ve worked as an individual and as part of a team, using different scoring and selection methods.

All systems for judging contests (and for everything else; systems are imperfect) have pro and cons and are inherently subjective. Contests are, after all, managed by humans, with distinct likes and dislikes. Ultimately, a contest’s system aggregates individual tastes.

A Note about Using Lenses to Revise: And here’s where those lenses come in. Thinking through them as you revise might help you understand why a specific contest didn’t recognize your work. They might help you find a contest or publication that’s a better fit. Or they might help you revise your work so that it’s a better match for your dream contest or publication. 

Incidentally, that's why the basic advice for writers is to read: read the publication and previous year’s winners to see what has worked for them in the past.

A Note About My Experience: In both fiction and nonfiction, I saw a lot of writing addressing similar subjects.

* The cancer or other serious illness diagnosis, as told by the patient, the spouse, the child, the child’s best friend, the parent.

* The death of parent, spouse, child, friend, boyfriend, BFF, worst enemy in middle school.

* The coming-of-age story (yes, both fiction and nonfiction) in which the writer recognizes some important life lesson around adults being imperfect, revenge being futile, and/or the inescapability of personal humiliation.

* The “dude we were so wasted” story* (yes, both fiction and nonfiction) told by an affected child, a sober person, one of the impaired persons, a neighbour, a bystander; these stories usually had just enough bodily fluids to be edgy; these stories also tended to end in extreme hilarity, extreme tragedy, or some mixture thereof (but not in the middle).

* The “human against Nature” story, usually about a boy and again with the bodily fluids, often a riff on the coming-of-age story that focuses less on disappointment in other humans and more on the actual dangers of farm or sporting equipment, plus cold weather and (literal) thin ice or excessive heat.

I am not mocking any of these types of stories. I have written my fair share of “death of a parent” and “illness of a spouse” pieces, to say nothing of stories of people (of various ages) struggling to understand what the heck is going on in the world (some of which have also included weather and bodily fluids).

Serving as a contest reader has helped me see how my lovely, heartfelt, obviously PERFECT writing might appear to a reader—and therefore, why it might not be recognized.

A Note About The Effect of Reading Contest Entries: Here’s the problem. Entries start to sound the same.

The writing that fell into these content groups was often written with great feeling and exquisite sentences. But the pieces had the same ambition. They aimed at a close-third-person short story or personal essay, heavy on personal content and heartwarming (sometimes banal and tidy) conclusions, and lacking anything more—anything more insightful or unexpected, more connected to a broad swath of time (even, possibly, the future), more connected to the specifics of a culture (theirs, mine). They presented nothing for a reader to learn, though what they wrote was … fine.

BUT! Sometimes, a writer had a different ambition. This writer aims in a slightly different direction—“higher,” if you are into hierarchies; I’m not, so I’d say these writers were going somewhere unique. They made room for untidy, chaotic feelings and impulsive or baffling, inconsistent decisions; maybe they presented new information (like a brief history of warfare in a specific region); or perhaps they foregrounded a person with an interesting and insightful voice who was in an interesting situation.

Sadly, these writers often couldn’t deliver a coherent reading experience (sorry, that that sounds hoity-toity). Their execution was lacking—the writer didn’t quite have the mastery to pull it off. Beyond the mechanics of spelling and grammar, which might be 100% (all the sentences made sense), they didn’t create a sense of consequence or consequences—nothing happened. The piece had no shape; everything somehow carried the same weight. (Maybe this makes me an old-fashioned reader. Again, this is just my experience.)

Even experiments in form aren’t a sure-fire “fix” for content that’s “all over the place” or “too expected.” Writing in the form of a weather report, a course syllabus, a post-mortem exam, a braided essay, or a glossary can be interesting. But unique forms can feel like another clichéd device. Instead of “oh, another close third-person narration” it’s “oh, a story told backward” or “oh, another recipe.” Ideally, a unique form adds something to or comment on the content, and sometimes it doesn’t.

So as a reader, I often had to make difficult choices. Do I select from among myriad same-sounding, well-executed, perfectly fine but unexciting entries? Do I forward a chronological story with an interesting voice that fizzles, leaving me baffled and frustrated? Do I forward something that uses an unusual form, even if it doesn’t really help the subject or the execution needs serious tweaking?

You can see how different people--contest readers, contest judges, publication editors--would make different choices.

But still: you can play with your piece’s ambition, subject, or execution and see if changing it helps you get your point across. It's one way into revising. 

A Note That’s Evergreen: This is a lot. Sometimes, writing is hard. Sometimes, revising is also hard. And both are so, so worth it. There’s nothing more exciting than finding the sweetest spot you are capable of at any given time—that perfect marriage of subject, ambition, and execution that leaves you satisfied.

Even if, five years later, you pick up something published and roll your eyes at your past self.

Even if the writing never finds a publication that resonates with it, but five years later, you pick it up think, “Hmm, this is pretty good.”

It’s all worth it. And although you can’t control “best of” lists, “eagerly anticipated” lists, or “finalist” lists, to say nothing of “yes we’d love to publish this” decisions, you DO have some control.

You get to decide all these things—your subject, ambition, and execution level—and keep writing.

That’s the most important thing.



* A category named by Phoebe Buffay on Friends.


Thursday, January 20, 2022

Spiritual Dungarees

My mother, and hers, enjoyed Mrs. Miniver--the book, rather than the movie (which was also fine).

A new furnace, heading to installation in the basement,
 has a red-carpet moment.
Meanwhile, the old furnace went out the back way.
Yes, I feel sorry for the old furnace.

And as a result, Mrs. Miniver became one of my book-companions in early high school. 

Mrs. Miniver is an upper-middle-class woman in her thirties in the thirties, who lives in London with her three children and her architect husband. They also own a summer house in Kent.

She's an observer of life, rather like myself (and my mother and grandmother). I know I've written before about "eternity framed in domesticity," and how a parent has a different relationship with each child--not more or less loving, just different. 

Note that the full text of the book, along with publication notes and commentary, is available here. It's also a pleasant book to look for if you need a reason to browse used bookstores. Someday, we will again.

She's been on my mind recently, because we've had an autumn and winter (so far) of STUFF HAPPENING. Here's her description:

As a rule she managed to keep household matters in what she considered their proper place. They should be no more, she felt, than a low unobtrusive humming in the background of consciousness: the mechanics of life should never be allowed to interfere with living. But every now and then some impish poltergeist seemed to throw a spanner into the works. Everything went wrong at once: chimneys smoked, pipes burst, vacuum-cleaners fused, china and glass fell to pieces, net curtains disintegrated in the wash. 

Here's her remedy:

At such times, she knew, you must just put on spiritual dungarees and remain in them until things are running smoothly again. 

Luckily, she's due to meet a friend (Badger) (not an actual Badger) for lunch, and he's late, so she has time to wait in someone else's home--as she says, she has truancy thrust upon her. 

And here's what she found happening.

She leant back in Badger's armchair and prepared to let her mind stray wherever it liked. But it had got into spiritless habits, like a dog which has been kept on a lead, and for several minutes it would do nothing but potter about sniffing at the kind of object it had grown accustomed to. There was a handle, it informed her, missing from Badger's desk; the bookcase had a cracked pane, and the glass finger-plate on the door was hanging by a single screw. Look here, said Mrs. Miniver, haven't I had enough of this sort of thing lately? Run away and bring me something interesting. That's what any decent mind ought to do


So she looks closely at the carpet on the floor and begins to name the colours along the edge. And from there springs insight. Which you can read. Go here and search for Badger, and in the hits down among the twenties, you'll find this episode.

Not everything in life requires a lesson, but moments of perspective do help. And (this time through) I found it especially interesting that Mrs. Miniver finds what she needs in the act of labeling of the colours of the carpet. It's the type of mindful exercise that I hear recommended often. (Search for "54321 Exercise," for example.)

They can be useful especially at this point in the pandemic. She, of course, was living through uncertain times; namely, the lead-up to a second World War (having been young during the first one), which I think about a lot, too. 

Now we HAVE a new furnace and it's creating new noises that will fade into an unobtrusive humming in the background as we become used to them. The change of year also brings other workaday tasks--I foresee spending significant time with spreadsheets as we ready for the year's taxes.

But for now, I've "taken time off"--yesterday, after another stretch in spiritual dungarees and unavoidable appointments, I accepted truancy and ignored my to-do list. 

And now I'm trying, through close attention to colours and shapes and music, to return my mind to the other world I know, slightly, with its islands and maps, history factual and otherwise, relationships and disappointments. It's waiting for me, content with the moments I've given it recently but ready for more. And so am I.  


Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Lenses for Revising

Clouds of yesteryear. Y indeed.

About a month ago, I had a brief conversation on Twitter about revision. Of all the things I’ve learned about writing, accepting the need to revise has improved my writing the most.

But it was hard to actually DO. For one thing, my background in writing and editing professionally meant that my drafts were mechanically just fine. (The sentences made sense. Paragraphs flowed.) So far, so good. But what I was writing felt unsatisfying (and wasn't getting published). So beyond editing, I didn't know what to do. 

Learning to revise took practice. As much as I enjoy revising, in the past year or so, I haven’t done much revision. Because (gestures at everything) reasons, and because I’ve been writing first drafts.

While daydreaming (succumbing to the allure of thinking about the thing I'm not working on NOW) about how I’d approach revising a finished draft of a short (or maybe long?) piece, I found myself articulating changes through three lenses: subject, ambition (form?), and execution.

Notice the question mark. The terms, and in fact the whole idea, remains a work in progress.

So, here’s what I mean. Maybe. Sorta. Note that I’m trying to use examples that apply to both fiction and nonfiction.

Subject: What are you writing about? Family, thirtysomething angst, generalized ennui, revolution?

As you revise: Try being more specific. Like “Family relationships as they fray in the face of an unrelenting illness” or “coming of age at a time when your existence is a criminal act.” Perhaps pose a question: “Should families protect their secrets in an age of home DNA swabs?” Perhaps you're excited about illness symptoms instead of whole diseases.

Ambition: What form do you envision this taking—what are you aiming for? Again, specifics might help. “Prose” may be too general: is it a column for a family newspaper or a braided essay? A historical romance just like XXX on the bestseller list? A sonnet? A thoughtful if sprawling modern family saga that takes on a classic theme? A straightforward narrative nonfiction explanation? It’s not “cheating” to think of where you might to publish it: experimental zine, mass market paperback, The New Yorker. It's not "cheating" to pick a book just like (but different from) the one you're writing.

As you revise: Is your chosen ambition (form) a good match for your subject? Perhaps it’s TOO good a match for your purposes—is it cliché, even? (Remember, you get to decide what you’re aiming for; one person’s cliché is another’s enduring truth.) Or is the mismatch its strength—in which case, try leaning into it so a reader knows you're doing this on purpose.

Execution: How well does this draft fulfill that ambition—so far? Where is it not quite what it could be? Where does it sing? (Read it aloud; it’s amazing what you can learn.)

As you revise: Think beyond the basics, beyond mastery of the tools of grammar and spelling and even the details of your subject. Are your choices consistent throughout the draft (only one Tuesday per week, Jackson always named Jackson and never Jared, third person past never present)? (Yes, you might create weeks of many Tuesdays or a Jackson who becomes a Jared, but you know what I mean.) Is it too long? Does it need research to go with personal experience? Does it need consequences instead of coincidence?

Of course, these three lenses aren’t completely separate—changing one may change others. They’re elements of a Venn Diagram, maybe. And maybe your overall writing goal is to maximize the overlap. Again: maybe?

Where you find your piece lacking can help you determine what the next step in revision is.

You might find that you’ve matched your subject well with your ambition, but your execution isn’t quite there. Dive in! Revising might look a lot like “fixing what’s there” and “moving paragraphs” instead of “starting over.”

You might find that your execution is basically okay (my problem: the sentences all make sense), but your subject is hazy. “I don’t know what this is ABOUT. I WANTED to write a sonnet about furniture-making, but I keep running into different grades of lumber that I have to define.” Again, targeting your subject might help. Or change your ambition: instead of a sonnet, write a long discursive essay. (Pull from it later for a sonnet.)

You might write a well-executed piece about a meaningful subject, and it might be published in exactly the place you aimed for. Congratulations! This process may absolutely fulfill your hopes. If it doesn’t, you could experiment next time with form: can you make it funkier? Less expected? Less (or more) “literary”? Can you write something that drips with raw feeling and comes to less tidy conclusions? A piece aiming at a Chicken Soup publication would likely appeal less to a literary journal, and vice versa.

I’m sure these lenses aren't unique to me, by the way. Shoulders of giants and all that. I hope thinking about them is useful for other peopleI know I'm thinking. And, come to think of it, I do have a large revision on my horizon. So it wasn't daydreaming after all!

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Things I’m Taking Into 2022

Lines of Light on Snow

Sublime? Ridiculous? You decide.

My plans for 2022 include

# keeping frozen diced onions on hand at all times. I’ve enjoyed this hack, which I picked up from an Instagram and YouTube influencer, all year. There’s been much less crying and far less metric tonnage of onions spoiling because I've forgotten I have them.

# listing a few fun things to do each month. I did this in December—small holiday/celebratory things I wanted to do—and it was nice to have that list to refer to. Doing difficult errands or tasks was happier when I could look forward to relaxing at home in a room lit by coloured lights and look at our evergreen swag (the getting out of which was two things).

# following my own interests for “fun” reading and better focusing my efforts for “professional” reading. I have more to say aboutreading and year-end lists, here.

# limiting and focusing my time on social media, both to spend time doing fun things (see above) and to reduce my exposure to headline news. I hope this has the side benefit of reducing my (non-clinical level but still heightened) anxiety, because apparently worrying about all the things happening in the world that are out of my control actually DOES NOT help, no matter how good I get at worrying. I’m modest about my prowess at most things, but I will say I’m a good worrier.

# playing every day. This actually came out of a twitter thread where I described my post-pandemic haircut as “Bilbo Baggins, as played by Ian Holm,” and then had a yen to re-watch The Hobbit, where I was most impressed with Martin Freeman’s capering as Bilbo headed off on an adventure. I can’t commit to a daily adventure, but I can commit to daily play. So I’m infusing a sense of play into more of the things I do.

# getting a vaccine booster, and limiting exposure. Because everyone should, because not everyone can. 


I hope you’ve found some ways to refocus this year—perhaps a moment or two of peace that sustains you.