67 points

While we’re talking about contests, I’ll tell you my secret:

In 2005, I submitted the opening pages of a novel to a manuscript contest. The judge praised the strengths, noted the weaknesses, and awarded me a score of 85.

In 2006, I submitted the very same pages to the very same manuscript contest. The judge praised nothing and awarded me a score of 18.

The 67 points between high and low scores taught me a valuable lesson.

Judging is subjective. What one judge likes, another hates. Not everyone loves my work as much as I think they should. Or as much as I do. I’m competing with a large pool of writers who have talent, skill, and experience.

If I allow one rejection to discourage me, I might as well quit right now.

I don’t want to quit.

I won’t pretend I was thrilled with the second score or with the judge’s comments. I won’t pretend I didn’t rampage around the house telling husband and cats exactly what I thought. I won’t pretend I was surprised when husband and cats announced they needed their beauty sleep and high-tailed it up the stairs.

But by the next day I’d regained my equilibrium. One contest, one critique sheet, one manuscript.

I went to the literature. I reread Ralph Keyes’s The Writer’s Book of Hope, and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and Elizabeth Berg’s Escaping into the Open.

Then I sat down at the computer, and opened a file, and began to write.

Two days before the deadline

My partner in Just for the Hell of it Writers (JFTHOIW) and I delivered our submissions to a manuscript contest Monday–two days before the deadline.

I have Critique Partner (CP) to thank for that. I normally hand-deliver everything the last day, just under the wire. CP, however, tries to get her entries in early, and she set up a schedule that helped me get mine in early as well.

The truth is, if it hadn’t been for CP, I wouldn’t have submitted anything at all. I had decided to skip the contest. The first ten pages of my novel didn’t seem strong enough to merit submission.

CP, however, encouraged me. Once we’d agreed to enter, she initiated a plan of attack. Each Friday, we set ourselves an assignment for the upcoming week. When I didn’t meet my objective, CP kept me on track. In fact, she believed in me until I could believe in myself. I think somewhere along the line I began to encourage her as well.

We worked for two months. During that time, I reconsidered what my first ten pages needed to accomplish with respect to characters and plot. I scrapped previous drafts and wrote new scenes. I weighed words and images. I tightened, tightened, tightened, cutting wherever I could.

Throughout, I listened to CP. We share an ear for Southern speech. When my ear went tone-deaf, CP let me know. “I really don’t like that word,” she’d say. Or, “I just don’t think he’d say it that way.” Or, “If the readers know something about roses, that line would be okay, but if they don’t, I think they’ll be confused.”

Of course, I didn’t have to take her advice. Both of us make our own decisions about what we change and what we keep. When she felt sure of herself, however, she didn’t hesitate to tell me, sometimes more than once, and in no uncertain terms. “I still don’t like cranky there. It just irks me every time I see it.”

The third or fourth time I heard the same advice, I’d give up and start to listen more closely to my own words. Did I really want to say, “all five cranky feet of her”? Should I have Rhys tell Miss Agnes she “looks as lovely as the Bride’s Dream rose growing beside your door?” Or would he say, “My, don’t you look lovely?”

Granted, he’s soft-soaping her, but Rhys isn’t dumb. Neither is Miss Agnes. If he spouted all that rose talk, she’d probably take charge of the scene and whap him with her cane.

When we formed JFTHOIW, a couple of friends expressed reservations. Critique groups, they said, could be negative. I knew they were right. Some critics aren’t graceful in giving criticism; others aren’t graceful in receiving it. Some don’t have the best interests of the writer in mind. Some don’t have the expertise necessary to be helpful.

In addition, criticism of a work in progress can stifle creativity, especially if the critic doesn’t understand the writer’s intent and tries to substitute his own vision.

But CP and I haven’t run into problems. I think that’s because we do have each other’s best interests in mind. We respect each other’s feelings. We admit we don’t know everything, and we attempt to learn more. We want each other to succeed.

We’ve also become friends. I’d like to do well in the manuscript contest we’ve just entered. I’d like to be a finalist. Oh, let’s be honest–I’d like to win the thing. But I also want CP to do well. If she wins, I’ll be just as happy–well, almost as happy–as if I’d taken the top spot.  I believe she’d be happy for me if I won.

Writing in Helen Ginger’s blog, Straight from Hel, literary publicist Stephanie Barko said, “One of the best reasons to enter a contest is to evoke creativity. It is by exploring the unknown that we find our answers, not by having the answers before we explore. There’s nothing like serving yourself a problem to jar your synapses loose and bend your brain in ways it doesn’t normally move.”

When I read that, I understood what CP had done. By pushing me to enter the contest, she required me to push at the boundaries of my own creativity. She made me find new answers to problems I’d been trying to wish away. She helped jar my synapses loose and bend my brain in ways it doesn’t normally move.

And that jarring and bending produced ten pages that are much better than they were before. I submitted an entry that, win or lose, I could be proud of.

And I delivered it two days before the deadline.

Thank you, CP.

Cross-posting again

Yes, I did it. I cross-posted.

I wrote “Try, Try Again” for Whiskertips. Then, because it was about writing, I posted it on write is to write is to write as well.

I didn’t even retype it. I copied and pasted.

To those kind people who read both blogs, I offer my apologies. To those who saw the two blogs with the same post title listed together on the SCN Blogging Circle page, I offer my confession of how foolish I felt when I saw that.

To everyone, I offer advance notice that in just a few minutes, I’m going to do it again.

Try, try again

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” ~ attributed to Albert Einstein

“Insanity: staying up until 3:00 a.m. both Friday and Saturday revising your manuscript contest submission and then expecting to have enough functional brain cells to proof the final copy on Sunday before submitting it on Monday, when repeated replication of the experiment over the past four decades has already told you it ain’t gonna happen that way.” ~ attributed to Kathy

Pea green: the color you feel every time you replicate the experiment

Fifteen Minutes of Fame

Two Saturday mornings a month, when reasonable people are still in bed, David and I sit around a table with five or six other like-minded individuals and practice writing.

We do timed writings–ten minutes, twelve minutes, the magic fifteen, sometimes even twenty–and then read aloud what we’ve written.

Write. Read. Write. Read. Write. Read.

We follow principles set forth in Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. David supplies prompts for those who need a jumpstart. Subjects are neither prescribed nor forbidden.

Some of us write from life. Some write fiction. Some write poetry. David writes in a genre that can only be called “off-the-wall.” Everything we write is creative.

We do that for two hours.


Friendships. Fluency. Fun.

We see the people we write with only four hours a month, but we know them, in some ways, as well as–perhaps better than–some members of our own families. Their stories tell us who they are.

And there’s something about being with them, playing with words, playing off one another’s words, that creates energy–parallel energies, if you will–that affects our minds and our hands. We become more fluent. We become better writers.

As for fun–what can I say? We laugh a lot. When David, the temporary facilitator, looks at his watch and announces it’s time to leave, I’m always surprised. And disappointed. Those are the shortest two hours of my week.

Now here’s where we get personal. Our group is called Fifteen Minutes of Fame. It’s free and open to the public. New members are welcome.

If you live in or near Austin, Texas, you’re invited to join us. Bring pen and paper and just show up on the third floor of BookPeople Independent Bookstore, 603 N. Lamar Boulevard (corner of 6th St. and Lamar), on the first and third Saturdays of the month. We write from 10:00 a.m. to noon.

If you’re visiting Austin, you’re welcome to visit us as well.

And if you ever attended an Austin writing practice group called Writing From the Heart, you’ll feel right at home with us. Fifteen Minutes of Fame originated as Writing from the Heart. It’s been in existence for fifteen consecutive years. The name is different, but the process is just the same.

For more information, including 2010 meeting dates, check out our blog, Fifteen Minutes of Fame. If you have  questions, send an e-mail to the address listed on the FoF blog, or leave a comment there or at the end of this post.

Start with the headline…dear


“SCORPIO (Oct. 24-Nov. 21): No one can argue with your powers of conversation. You make language dance. Insightful without being overbearing, you’re a joy to be around. And you are about to meet your match.” ~ Holiday Mathis, “Horoscopes,” American Statesman [Austin, TX] 6 Jan. 2010, final ed. : D2.

Ha! My horoscope is way behind. I met my match years ago.

It was the fall of 1999, and I was right in the middle of one of my best stories, when my husband began to wave his hand in that circular  motion–the universal symbol for “Get on with it”– and said, “Start with the headline.”

He was actually my pre-husband then, and I hadn’t known him long, and he was telling me I wasn’t a joy to be around. I burst into tears.

He patted me and apologized. (And no doubt wondered what he was apologizing for.)

I cried some more, mourning our relationship’s untimely end. Because I was incapable of starting with the headline.

I am a Southerner. When I share an anecdote or impart information–such as the conversation I had with Cousin Bob at the post office yesterday–I am genetically programmed to start at the beginning. I may need to go back three generations before I can get to the core communication.

To properly set the stage, I must introduce Cousin Bob’s parents and grandparents, and possibly his great-grandparents, and maybe his aunts, uncles, brothers, and sisters. I have to say who married whom and why and how many children they had. I have to mention economic status, level of education, and geographic location. I have to describe outstanding traits and idiosyncrasies as well as interesting interrelationships, such as major quarrels, grudges, and feuds.

When I finally get down to Cousin Bob, I have to flesh him out as well.

Then, once I get the plot moving, I sometimes need to digress and pull in anything else I think might be helpful.

It takes time.

But I’ve  sat on enough front porches listening to old people talk to know the rule: Never start with the headline.

Still, in the interest of continuing romance, I made an effort. And in the interest of same, my pre-husband said no more about my tendency to mosey.

A couple of years later, however, taking a course in legal writing, I heard the lawyer at the front of the room say, “Start with the headline.” In other words, when you’re writing a legal memo or a case brief, state the conclusion; then explain how you got there.

The light dawned. My pre-husband had a law degree. He was trained to start with the headline. He didn’t want me to tell my stories backwards. He just wanted me to talk like a paralegal. Eleven months later, I emerged from the university with an official certificate in paralegal studies and an unofficial certificate in interpersonal communication, probably a first for that program.

Still, starting with the headline seemed a dreary thing for both writer and reader. How can the reader understand the headline before he’s met all the characters, seen where they live and how they’re related? And isn’t starting with the headline like reading the last page first? All the suspense oozes out.

I was so glad fiction doesn’t have to start with the headline.

A few years later, however, I decided to try my hand at writing a mystery. I set it in a small Southern town populated with characters whose family relationships go back several generations. I developed an intriguing plot. I jumped into the action. I wrote several chapters, revised them, and handed them off to a friendly writer.

She handed them back with some positive comments and a great big, “GET THE BACKSTORY OUT OF THE FIRST CHAPTER.”

In other words, start with the headline.

I’m good enough, I’m smart enough…

Before we go further, we have to talk about the P-word: publication.

I want it.

Now. Often. And accompanied by immense public acclaim and financial reward.

I want to go on book tours and do readings. I want to be wined and dined by the literati.

I want to be the literati.

I want a loft in The Village. I want a croft on the Isle of Mull.

I want it all. And I can have it.

The thing is, before I can have it, I have to finish a manuscript.

That last has become a bit problematic.

My critique partner and I have discussed the situation at length. We’re weary of writers who have a string of books to their credit advising us to forget about being published, to “just write for yourself.” Easy for them to talk.

Unfortunately, they seem to have a point. The more we obsess about agents, editors, and cover design, the flatter our prose becomes. And the more we feel like tossing our multiple revisions into the air and walking away.

Which would be a shame after so much work, and which would probably make the BookPeople barista, who’s been so nice to us, really mad.

So at a recent powwow we decided that from now on, we will write just for the hell of it.

We are now, officially, the Just for the Hell of It Writers.


I should make clear that my critique partner has finished one manuscript and has won a manuscript contest, so she’s considerably closer to being literati than I am. She says, however, that her accomplishment hasn’t made manuscript #2 any easier to birth.