Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Critique Recovery 101

Writing contests: the thrill
of victory...
...and the agony of
         As a battle-scarred veteran of many writing contests, I’ve had my share of wins and, in my opinion, more than my share of losses. I’ve also received my share of critiques. Here are some strategies I’ve developed over the years for dealing with critiques that can make me feel like either a budding John Grisham or a withering writing wannabe.

1. Be appreciative.
 I’ve never judged a writing contest, but I’ve graded approximately two million student essays in my day. I’m thinking the experiences must have a lot in common. Both can be thankless jobs, and, generally, the compensation is minimal. Not all contests offer critiques or comments, so be thankful for the ones that do. Appreciate the people who took the time to read and often comment on your submissions (even the ones who weren’t astute enough to recognize a Nobel Prize winner in the making). And for the record, I've found most judges to be considerate, encouraging folks.
2. Repeat over and over to yourself: The critique is my friend.
While cleaning my desk the other day, I ran across this quote among some notes I’d taken at a conference: “Nobody ever got better by being told how great they are.”
I apologize to the creator of this quote, whose name I failed to record. There is so much wisdom in these words. If you’re fortunate enough to receive feedback, take advantage of it. Read it, digest it, nurse your bruised feelings, and then experiment with the suggestions. If they don’t work, toss ‘em. Not all suggestions are nuggets of wisdom. But some of them are, and if the feedback does work, you’ve taken a big step forward on your writing journey. From personal experience, I can tell you that many critique suggestions I’ve taken to heart have resulted in an award in a subsequent contest.
3. Can you say subjective?
Bear in mind that responses to writing—like responses to all art—are personal and subjective. I recently wrote what was—in my mind—a touching and inspirational short story. In the very first contest I entered it, I won first place (and $100. Yay!). I received the following comments: “Very powerful. Well written. Good details.” But the judge didn’t like my title because it seemed “... at odds with the generosity of spirit that marks the end of the story.” I agreed. I changed the title and entered it in a different contest ... with a different judge. No prize this time. And in the comments, the judge—who obviously came from a totally different mindset than the first one—gave my ending a 2 out of 10, explaining that it showed my main character to be “vindictive and completely delusional.” Huh? What about that “generosity of spirit”? Was this the same story? I promise I’m not bitter, just a little confused. But it proves my point that what can be a love story to one person can be a horror tale to another.  And I know I’m not the only writer to have experienced this.
In my English-teaching days, we addressed the matter of subjectivity by instructing student writers to “consider your audience.” In some contests, you might be fortunate enough to do that. If a contest you’re entering lists the judge(s), do research. Find out what you can about the judge’s background, what he himself writes or prefers to read. If you discover his own writing style leans more toward artsy and experimental and yours comes right out of the Elements of Style playbook, you might save yourself an entry fee and move on to the next contest—there are lots of them out there. Unfortunately, many contests don’t identify the judge(s) in advance. But many contest sponsors publish former winning entries. Give those a read and see if your entry is a good fit. Over time, you’ll start to recognize those contests which in general exhibit a preference for your particular style and/or subject matter, and you can use subjectivity to avoid post-critique stress.
4. Don’t quit.
On one of the most negative (as in downright nasty) critiques I ever received, I got the best advice I ever received: Don’t quit. And that’s what it boils down to. If you love writing, why let someone else rob you of that pleasure? With today’s technology, social media connections, and self-publishing opportunities, there is nothing to stop anyone who wants to from writing. You might not win a contest, get an agent or a Big 5 contract, or make the best-seller list. But you can write. And with that in mind, I’m closing with another quote I love by Florence Foster Jenkins in which I’ve substituted the word write for sing.  In response to her critics, Ms. Jenkins said, “Some may say I cannot [write]; but no one can say I didn’t.
        How about you? Have some strategies/insights that keep you writing?


Tuesday, May 12, 2015

"If the World Had a Front Porch..."

            Basically, I’m a city gal. Growing up on the outskirts of Houston spoiled me for urban conveniences. These days, I still like living within a few blocks of all the essential destinations in my life: supermarkets, shopping centers, my bank, my doctor, my church, and a Braums’ ice cream store. But my mother was a country girl, and frequent childhood trips to her tiny East Texas hometown established a few rural roots in me—at least enough to give me an appreciation for country music (some) and a yearning for a big front porch.
My grandparents' front porch.
Its appearance has changed some
since I was a kid, but the good
memories remain constant.
            In 1995, Tracy Lawrence came out with the hit “If the World had a Front Porch.” With the exception of a grandfather who taught the singer “how to cuss” (I never heard my grandfather utter a single curse word), that song tells so much of my own front-porch experience. My grandparents’ big porch was replete with the swing (why have a front porch if you don’t have a swing?), the rocking chair, and the yellow light bulb that attracted swarms of kamikaze insects. I never witnessed the birth of puppies on the porch, but I recall a couple of litters being cradled in boxes there. On hot summer nights, my siblings and I, along with a passel of cousins, would play games or collect “lightning bugs” in the yard, while the older folks sat on the porch to catch and shoot the breeze. Often, one of the kids was recruited to sit on top of the ice cream freezer while an adult cranked the handle. There were also truckloads of watermelon consumed on that porch.
            With so many good memories, is it any wonder I’ve always longed to own a big front porch? And yet I never have. I grew up in the fifties and sixties in one of those midcentury houses with a front porch the size of a postage stamp. The houses my husband Bill and I have owned all had porches the size of the envelope—a little larger but still not big enough to serve any useful purpose. It seems that until recently front porches all but disappeared. In the suburban sprawl of the fifties, folks retreated behind the walls of their houses to seek privacy and to watch TV. In the sixties and seventies, they ventured back outside, but instead of lounging on the porch to sip iced tea or lemonade, they retreated to backyard patios to barbecue. In the eighties, those patios became decks—often with the added luxury of a hot tub and/or a pool—and that trend held steady through the nineties and into the new millennium. These days, outdoor kitchens ensure that most of our socializing remains in the back yard.
            Lately, though, I’ve noticed a revival of the front porch. With the resurrection of the Craftsman and bungalow styles, lovely porches are once again gracing the fronts of new houses: porches large enough to provide shade and comfortable seating for several people; porches where folks can sit outside and greet—or meet—their neighbors.
            I don’t think my dream of owning a big front porch will ever become a reality. Bill and I have lived in several different houses throughout our married life but have been in our current one for twenty-five years. We’re so settled in, it would take an act of God to remove us (maybe not such a remote possibility with Oklahoma tornadoes and earthquakes). But  Bill insists his next address will be the ground. I’m thinking more along the lines of “the home.” porch "wannabe"
(But, hey, it works.)
My dream porch...
            So what do you do when a dream eludes you? You improvise. Located between an exterior garage wall and the sidewalk that leads to our front door is a patch of land originally intended as a flower bed. Problem was, nothing but a boxwood hedge and a couple of yaupon hollies would grow there. When the hollies were bushes, summer sun burned up any flowers I planted in that spot. When they grew into trees, too much shade became the culprit. So about fifteen years ago, in a fit of frustration, I covered that patch with pavers and made my own “front porch.” It’s a poor substitute for a rambling veranda with the obligatory swing, but Bill and I use it for a cozy place to read or chat on the phone or to enjoy some fresh air. And it’s a great place to wave or yell “hello” to neighbors. 
            In regard to that aforementioned “home,” when the time comes and if I have anything to say about the matter, it will have a big front porch. I think that will make a nice transition into my final and eternal abode—which, of course, will have a HUGE one.
            Have any front-porch thoughts or memories you’d like to share?