Top Chef, for me, is interesting to watch because the chefs competing are already successful, creative, and they are willing to learn. Because they want to be number one. The best. Every last one of them. Cooking is something that you are a student of your entire life. Like music. Like art. Like writing.
These men and women are put through grueling challenges meant to test their skill and creativity. The ones least successful are voted off one by one. A couple weeks ago, one of the chefs in the bottom set was a young man named Hung. When the judges began to critique his food, he stated that (and I’m paraphrasing here) that no one was spitting out his food. The judges immediately responded that no one was playing on the level where food would be spit. Essentially, stating that these guys were in a top playing field.
So the question becomes, how does one critique the food? There are certain factors, of course, that go into it–texture, taste, presentation, creativity, and remaining within the parameters of the challenge. Then, it seems to me, that it becomes a ranking game. If you scored an 8.5 to Joe Schmoe’s 8.7, well, you’re going home.
A similar thing happens in writing when we send out work. Our ‘dish’ is ‘tasted’ and judged as to whether it should show up on the ‘menu’. If our story did not perform either 1.up to par, 2.as well as the other offers, or 3.did not suit the palate of the particular ‘restaurant’ then the story comes back with a rejection note. Any one of those three factors could play a part in why we did not get voted in.
So don’t whine about it. Keep in mind that competition is fierce, even in the smaller magazines. You can control only one of those three selection items: whether or not your work is up to par. The only thing you can do is write the best you damn well can and put out a story that you’re proud of. That means looking at the story more than once, making sure there are no holes in the plotline, making sure it is a neat/legible package, and no typos. Clean and well-told. (You can also make sure that you send it to the correct magazine–the horror genre is to Ploughshares as a hamburger is to a donut shop, it don’t mix.)
Recently I received a rejection from The Carolina Quarterly and they have written a note on the bottom: “We liked this story very much! Please continue to submit your work.”
This rejection tells me two main things. 1.My work was up to par. That’s good to know. They didn’t tell me that my fingers should be broken and I should never write to them again. 2.That I probably sent my work to the right place, but I was just ousted by Joe Schmoe, and probably physical page numbers of the journal–they can’t publish everything. Rejections like this are a step in the right direction. It tells me I’m playing at the right level (no one is spitting out my food). Be thankful someone bothered to tell you that you were on the right track…and then keep sending your story on down the line.
After one month of focusing on nothing but reading, I’m finding it hard to get back into the swing of things with Following Julia Roberts (the working title of my novel). All the advice/writing/inspiring/etc. books say that you should not lose the momentum of your novel. Write Every Day! Plunge On!
Bite me. I needed a break, okay?
Anyway, I write most of my stories/chapters out by hand first. I just like the tactile feel of hand on pen on paper. It’s intimate to me–and I like seeing how many different ways I can shape my ‘t’s in cursive. When I left off with FJR I anticipated that I would need to ‘get back in the groove’ and, therefore, I did not type up the last bit of Chapter Eleven. By leaving it to be punched into the computer, I allowed myself a chance to re-read where I left off.
So far, it’s worked. I remember what I was supposed to be doing and in the process have rediscovered my characters as if they were someone else’s. Now, does that sound bad? I don’t think so. Just because Harry Potter is not my character, does not mean that I don’t know him. I didn’t get the chance to end Harry’s story, or Scarlett O’Hara’s, but the opportunity I have to come in the middle of a story and direct characters that I know/love, and see with fresh eyes the direction that the story should go, well…it’s kind of like getting to write the end of the Harry Potter series from Goblet of Fire to the end. (This is just an example, people, I do not consider myself the next Rowling…I just hope.)
Deb makes us do goals. (Okay, she doesn’t really make us, but she strongly encourages….) Actually, I think goals are a wonderful thing. However, I hate staring at all the ones I don’t hit in a month. Somehow it feels like I was sleeping while the test was happening…and it was a timed test…and I was naked…
But it’s those months when you hit every single goal on your list that make you feel damn good.
So, here goes for August:
1. Finish two chapters of FJR (which is my current mainstream novel)
2. Finish one chapter of Two Rooms (which is my soon-to-be-current fantasy novel) and have it ready to submit for the writers group by the end of the month–that’s for Ali’s sake, demon that she is.
3. Finish reading/critiquing the stories for the writers group (because I can’t expect them to work for me if I don’t work for them. Right?)
4. Read The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri.
As part of a writers group/workshop group it is one of the necessary duties to critique works that are submitted. I’ve been in groups where this is a fear-inspiring event, either because of page length, or quality of writing, or personal feelings towards others in the group. But with this group it is different…I feel no fear in picking up any of their stories and giving an honest opinion.
Ali, just a little while ago, stated that there are certain members of a group that play certain roles. She called them coaches (people who give exercises to help a writer work out an issue), fixers (people who read a story and know exactly how it should be fixed, and say so), cheerleaders (for when the writer is feeling like this whole writing gig isn’t for them), editors (just like it sounds), and something else that I forget right now. And indeed, we can find all these people in our little group.
But I wanted to talk about two other types of people–one that is beneficial to a group, though it doesn’t seem like it at the time, and another that is never beneficial.
The first helpful member of a writers group: the Reader. The Reader is not the best writer of the group, in fact, they may be the weakest. However, when critique time comes they are the ones who are the most astute at pointing to what they did ‘like’ and pointing out what ‘worked’. If you have a Reader in your group, count your lucky stars. And pay attention–both to their words and their writing because if they’re that bright without writing practice, once they catch up….
The second member of the group is dangerous. This member seems helpful–they mark up the papers, do it line-by-line, but then offer nothing constructive at the end. Yes, it is important to know what did not work for them (and that you’ve used the word ‘she’ fifteen times on a page, and that, well, they just didn’t buy it). But, if at the end of the critique there has been nothing useful suggested (a la the ‘fixer’) or there is nothing positive said (a la the ‘cheerleader’) then it is just a rude, prolonged diatribe at the writer’s expense–of both the writer’s time and emotion.
Imagine it: A writer has worked on a piece for at least a week, put time into it, some sweat. And along comes this person who seems to want to help, but is not going about it in the right way.
First off, it’s rather silly to mark up a rough draft line by line–if there’s something wrong with the story structure, the writer will have to fix that first and then work on the language. By all means, point out spelling and punctuation, just so they know what to look for in the future. But after that, they can read your marks and take ’em or leave ’em. If something feels off in the story, mention that. But, more importantly, point out what worked. If a writer goes through life with people just pointing out his flaws…well, let’s say that we’d possibly miss those brilliant metaphors, that funny turn of phrase, and that character we may fall in love with, if all we do is point out the negative.
Recently, on Ali’s blog (see left), she brought up the question of productivity. One of our mutual writer-people, Matt, had stated that he considered a 22 page week a slow one. He stated that he was feeling ‘down’ because of this lack of productivity. The immediate response was that he should basically suck-it-up because that was better than most of us did in a month.
Later Matt posted that he was out of his rut and had produced a decent 74 pages this week.
Well, glad he fixed that.
But the question for me: What is truly productive? No one in their right mind would say that 74 pages is unproductive. No way. But what if you’re stuck in you story? You don’t know which way your character should turn. Suddenly it doesn’t seem okay to set the bomb off at that particular point in the story. Is plunging ahead when facing these kind of things okay? What if you don’t know exactly how to word something? The language seems all wrong? (First, I’d say you were overthinking…but this is just a what if…)
Personally, I just took the month of July off from writing because I wanted to re-read all the Harry Potter books and enjoy the seventh without feeling like I had to get something down on paper. I wanted to sink into a story–one that I would never be able to tell because it belongs to one J.K. Rowling. I insisted that she take me somewhere I’ve never been, into a world I’ll only be able to see because she showed me. After that, I figured, I’ll come back to my story.
Instead of writing one word this month, I read over 3,000 pages. (If Matt keeps going at his 74ish-page-per-week pace, he should hit Potter-length in about 40 weeks) I learned a great deal about characterization, foreshadowing, and ending (bittersweet, but necessary). Possibly I could have learned all that without reading a page. But I think I’ll have saved myself a lot of time by listening to a woman who did a lot of work over seventeen years. Paying attention is just as productive as churning out pages, in my opinion.
Call it peer pressure. Call it another opportunity to write. Call it what you will but I call it this:
A chance to escape from the heat by hiding in my basement–and a way to keep the Ali-demon (whom I love dearly) off my back.