Writing: Finding your own story

Yesterday, I read this post from Brain Pickings titled, “Good Writing vs. Talented Writing.” It discusses what literary critic Samuel Delany has to say about the craft in his book, About Writing: Seven Essays, Five Letters and Four Interviews. It really resonated with me, this part in particular:

Good writing is clear. Talented writing is energetic. Good writing avoids errors. Talented writing makes things happen in the readers mind — vividly, forcefully — that good writing, which stops at clarity and logic, doesn’t.”

I have a story in my brain that I started writing many years ago. I had a lot of great starts, then I’d hit a creative wall. Looking back, I think that I had no idea what I wanted to say or what issues I wanted to explore. A story about an interracial couple. Okay, what about them? Even ten years ago, I intuitively knew it needed to be about much more than their family/friends/co-workers don’t like the relationship. Outrageous plot-twists and secret-keeping sounded good at first, but once it got onto paper, it didn’t feel right for this story.

Another issue I struggled with was character development. Every writer does, but the main reason for my struggles were this: as a Christian at the time, I thought I had to weave a gospel message into the story. As a result, my characters were flat and boring. They also lacked clear, realistic motivations. I was attempting to wrench in a religious message at the expense of creating relatable, complex characters. And the final message of salvation, even then, felt incomplete and empty. What did I really want to communicate to my reader? Did I want to lecture them and manipulate their feelings or just present an experience and let them create their own meaning? Did I want to tell my own story, or a story I think I should be telling? Ultimately, self-censorship will never produce a good story.

Now, after maturing a bit, having different life experiences and leaving religion behind, I feel like I’ve grown as a person and can write from a more authentic place. Authentic for me, to be clear. This will be different for everyone. And shrugging off the shackles of religion is by no means the only way to grow as a person. But religion can indeed be a hinderance to personal growth (particularly the fundamentalist kind).

Fiction contest update

My story didn’t make it to the final round in the fiction contest. And perfect timing, Wordstock, the day before my birthday!

*sad face*

No, I jest. I love Wordstock and will definitely attend their festival in October. Maybe even attend a class or panel discussion.

I have a lot of inspiration fuel left from writing my short story, so I’m still working on a novel length version. And perhaps I’ll enter the short piece into another contest.

So yes, tomorrow is my birthday. We’re going to the Oregon Coast and I expect to chill and have fun (well, as much as one can chill trying to keep up with a 4 and 1 year old).

And I promise with a capital “P” to take lots of pics and blog about our trip!

So…another fiction contest?

Now that I’ve turned in my short story for the Wordstock Short Fiction Contest, I’ve got two choices:

1) Obsess about it daily until I find out if I am a finalist or not.

2) Move on to the next thing.

I’m consciously opting for #2.

Writing this short piece has really gotten my creative juices flowing for working on an expanded version using these characters/storyline. So I started researching other fiction awards/fellowships/grants for novel length pieces. And I came onto a literary award that I had already heard of: The PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.

The award was started by author Barbara Kingsolver and it seems like the partnering with PEN American Center is a recent development? Not sure. In any case, this might be a good fit for my story. I like the kinds of fiction that Kingsolver is trying to support.

But the stakes are pretty intimidating. In addition to $25,000, the winner gets a book contract with Algonquin Books. Whoa. I immediately start suffering from Is-my-shit-good-enough-to-even-try? Syndrome.

Then, I think of all the books I see in bookstores. Some are wonderful. Some are okay. And some are awful. To me. There is always a story that will touch someone, in some way.

While the PEN/Bellwether Prize is on my list, I’ll keep researching. Make a list. And choose an award to pursue. That is my goal.

The 5th draft

The deadline for the Wordstock Short Fiction Competition is looming. My story is coming along well. I’m currently tweaking a 5th draft and I estimate that the 6th draft should be the charm.

Throughout this process, I’ve realized I really love to both read and write dialogue. I enjoy the interaction between the characters, whether its arguing, intimacy or even a failure to connect or communicate. Exciting stuff.

How do I feel about description and narrative? Me no likey as much.

Narrative consists of a character’s inner dialogue (whether in 3rd or 1st person), background details a reader needs to know or description of an environment. They can all overlap. If the piece is in 3rd person, then the narrator can sometimes take over and provide information (characters may or may not be privy to this info).

I don’t like long narratives, unless it’s inner dialogue about something interesting (like conflict). But if it’s more than a page, especially description about a leaf with droplets of dew on it or the powdery snow sparkling in the sunlight on Mt. Hood, I get bored.

Narrative slows things down, which can be a good thing. When there is a lot going on, and the story is moving forward, you need a break. But not for several pages.

This is why I cannot stand Lord of the Rings. There are literally pages and pages of description about people walking. Or boring ass Middle Earth history. Maybe some will revoke my nerd credentials for this, but LOTR is crappy writing. Some parts are wonderful, but others parts consist of boring narrative and shitty poetry. There I said it!

Now, long dialogue that goes on and on isn’t good either. When characters are talking, the story is moving forward at a fairly rapid pace. But it’s tiring to read that for pages and pages. So that is where narrative can be helpful for not only slowing the pace, but to inform the reader about needed details along the way.

First draft done

At 3600 words. The word limit is 3000. I’m not sure why, but it felt like a monumental task to write a first draft. It wasn’t. The hardest part is editing, but with a first draft you have to allow yourself to write it all out and cut down in subsequent drafts.

DH is the designated guinea pig for this project. He liked it and gave some good feedback to carry into the second draft. Funny thing is, he does not generally like to read fiction. He kept saying, “Just take what I say with a grain of salt.”

To give an idea of what grabs his attention: Pride and Prejudice (because he was forced to in college and he just ended up liking it) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are on the list of maybe 50 pieces of fiction he has read. What he actually liked? Not sure, maybe the above two are the only ones!

857 words

During nap time yesterday, I was able to think about my story and plot and ended up with this word count. I just have to do this two more times, and I will have a working first draft. Yay!

One thing about writing: you start out crafting a scene thinking it will go one way and end up realizing it must, must, go another way. I love that.

Wordstock Ten Short Fiction Competition

A story, a particular story and the people in it, have been haunting me for over ten years! I want to write a short version of it, a snapshot into the lives of my dear characters, and enter it into this competition.

There will be ten finalists. The top submission gets the first prize of $1000 and the story published in the Portland Monthly. All ten finalists get their stories published in Wordstock’s book anthology, The Wordstock Ten.

There is so much talent out there, I doubt I will make it to being one of the finalists, much less the winner. But it gives me a goal to reach with my fiction writing and, if nothing else, I’ll have a finished piece I can expand on.

The deadline is July 1st. Oh, and forget about the final outcome. Lets hope I can actually submit this bad boy in six weeks and three days. Wish me luck!


I’m one day behind on NaBloPoMo! Maybe I’ll do two posts today?

I was talking to SO yesterday about goals that I have. Two major ones are:

1) publish a novel.

2) create a magazine for mixed race families in the Pacific Northwest.

I’ve been working on a novel about an interracial couple for over 10 years now. I’ve got three versions of the story, but none of them are complete first drafts. Lately, I’ve been considering applying for some kind of prize or fellowship to complete the story and get it published.

As for the magazine, I am going to write a business plan for it. In about a year and a half, I want to start implementing it.

Seems like a lot to do both; if I actually receive prize money to finish my novel, I’d have to focus only on that. Same deal if things start falling to place for the magazine.

Anyway, these are some things I have been thinking about for a long time. Sometimes writing them down or talking them out is the first step to making them a reality.

Do creatives dress more sloppy?

I was having a conversation with my SO about fashion and I started thinking how I have never met a writer or artist that dresses to the nines all the time. At worse, some may even dress a little sloppy; at best, they may have their own “style” that could be interpreted in many ways.

SO suggested that creatives put almost all of their energy into their projects and maybe don’t have time to put into their clothes (even when they have the money). Think Steve Jobs and his signature black turtleneck/jeans combo he wore at product launches. Also, you have to feel comfortable to be creative so your favorite jeans+t-shirt might win out over a dress shirt, tie and slacks.

Interesting observations. For me, as long as their is a cup of coffee nearby while I am writing, I am cool.