With a Little Help from My Friends

HelpingSo, this last year I had the personal goal to earn the Writer of the Year award through the Alaska Writers Guild. To do this, I had to accumulate the most points of anyone who entered the Guild’s anonymous bimonthly writing contest for members, wherein entrants write within rotating categories, and see how close to the deadline they can turn in a piece without getting disqualified. (Oh, wait, was that last part just me?)

Now I’m not all that super at nonfiction, and I truly suck at poetry, but, hands down, the hardest one of the contests for me to write was the category of Alaska Mystery. I think I’m getting phantom chest pains just thinking about it.

Two months seems like it should be plenty of time to write a story with a maximum of 2500 words, but that can seem like a mighty tight deadline when you spend the first six weeks of it feverishly drafting and then summarily executing- I kid you not- twelve different story ideas. It was very easy to feel very discouraged very quickly. And so I did, verily. With hardly more than a week left before the deadline, I was ready to throw in the towel.

But the trouble was that I keep this pesky husband. And we sometimes talk to each other about our goals and stuff. He knew what I was working toward, and he knew how important it was for me to enter every contest, even the difficult ones.

That man gave me no rest.

Every time I sat down, he’d start pestering me. “What are you working on? Are you doing the one with the mountains? With the serial killer? With the fox? What are you doing? Why? Why not? (Have a cookie.) What are you working on?” The man was relentless. And he would hear not a word of giving up, not on my goal and not on this Alaska mystery contest.

And that was before he started telling everyone we know about it, too. *shudders*

I don’t know about you, but I have confidence problems sometimes. Sometimes too much, most times not enough. My husband, and a few close friends like him, give me the kick in the pants when I want to lie down and surrender, and the tackle of forbearance when I’m full steam ahead on a really bad idea.

The secret weapon of all successful writers is tenacity. And for some of us, a little of that tenacity can be sponged off others. I tend to break down my cheerleading squad into two broad categories: writers, and nonwriters.

Writers Your fellow writers are the monarchs of commiseration. They understand what it’s like to be blocked. They know the brain-addled madness of waiting- for beta readers, for query answers, for book reviews, for sales reports. They understand the pain of rejections. They also know when a story of yours isn’t working, and are usually able to articulate what’s wrong. They’re widely read and industry savvy. Your writer friends are ideal when you have a piece that you’re working on and could use a little guidance in making it presentable.

Nonwriters These are the people who, although maybe they enjoy reading, don’t do any writing themselves. And as well as being legion in numbers, they’re also chattier than a giggling high school clique back from spring break. Once you let one of them know (cough, cough, husband, cough), they’ll all know, and they’ll all want to know why you’re not done yet. They don’t know how long drafting takes, let alone editing and submissions. And they don’t care. Your nonwriter friends are ideal when you have a concrete goal combined with motivation issues.

So there you have it: my fail-proof formula for squeezing out a piece even when it hurts. One part cheerleader, one part drill sergeant, writers and nonwriters alike are always at the ready to help their buds with what is important to them. Of course, you still have to want to reach your writing goals yourself, and be willing to put in the work, but the endless harassment loving encouragement of your friends, family, mail carrier, and grocery clerk can be the final nudge to help you get that story out the door and into the wide world.

(And it works, too- I did win Writer of the Year at the 2017 guild conference! Yay!)

So if you find yourself struggling, whether with improving a piece, or just summing up the motivation to work at it, clue in your pals! They’ll hold your feet to the fire in a way you never could for yourself, and they’ll cheer you at every victory along the way.

Happy writing!

Conference Fun, Part II: The Awards Ceremony, In Which I Win and Fail

The day after the car ride made in heaven, we went in for breakfast in a hotel conference room filled to capacity. I am not shy and quickly found myself a table of peer-looking people to accost. We exchanged the typical greetings. Names, cities. Genres, pitches, how we felt about Twilight. (Not kidding. Twilight came up four times over the two days of the regular conference. Fifty Shades of Grey came up thrice. Shockingly, Chaucer came up zero times.)

We quickly established the undying bonds of literary comradery (aka- exchanged Twitter handles). They’re all super cool and it was great to meet them and hang out with them throughout that day and the next. We had meals together, went over notes from sessions and workshops and critiques, and had a generally good time. And there was snark. Oh, the snark.

Saturday was also the day I went over my critique with Lisa Cron, which was great. Fifteen minutes was not enough time, but she did help me clean up a few points of confusion and let me know that my query was utter garbage. (She’s right. It’s utter garbage.) Since I was the first critique after lunch, she, being the phenomenally nice lady that she is, let me start a few minutes early and pick her brains a bit more. We determined that I talk too much about setting and not enough about emotion. So… something to work on.

That evening was the awards ceremony. I knew I was being awarded the Doris J. Dearborn scholarship by her son, Barry Dearborn, so I got all dolled up and Barry put on a tie. We made a fetching pair, I’m sure. I said a few words that mostly amounted to gushing gratitude (I’m so bad at public speaking. It’s terrible. Can’t I just write a short story about how the event made me feel and call it good?) and happily sat back down with my pals. The scholarship paid for my attendance at the conference, my critique, my Friday workshop, and a year’s membership in the Alaska Writers Guild.

But then my name got called again! Each of the three critiquers was told to select up to three of the best manuscripts from their pool to be awarded Most Promising Manuscript. Lisa Cron selected mine and apparently felt so strongly about it that she refused to pick another two. So I got each of the two awards that I possibly could have qualified for, and was the only person of the evening to get two awards. There were a total of eleven awards handed out that evening. I was so giddy I felt light headed the rest of the evening.

One would think this would grant me mythic confidence. One would think this would make me feel perfectly justified in approaching any ol’ agent I wanted to. One would be wrong.

After the award ceremony was over, I took pictures with Barry Dearborn and with Gretchen Wehmhoff, the Guild president, and started eying Deborah Warren, who happens to be the agent of my kids’ favorite books. If I had any right to approach an agent, I figured now was the time. I was a double award winner, for crying out loud! The double award winner! So I inched closer. But she was talking to other people, so I puttered around the skeletal remains of the buffet. But she was still talking. So I went and talked query letters with the Conference’s chairperson, Brooke Hartman, who is awesome. But Ms. Warren was still talking to people who were not me.

I gave up and went outside with Mary. But as we were loading into the car, she kicked me back out and told me to go talk to the agent. So I slunk back inside. Folks were walking up to shake my hand, to congratulate me, to ask about what I was working on. But not Ms. Warren. She was still talking. So I edged closer, standing almost close enough to reach out and touch her lime green jacket, thereby absorbing some of her magical literary powers.

But I didn’t. Instead, I skittered back outside, where Mary was sitting in the car, casting me a rather stern look. Cheeks burning, I crept back inside.

I glanced at Ms. Warren again, still talking and having a great time, absolutely oblivious to my plight (or at least too polite to stare). I poked my head into the empty conference room, pretending I was looking for something, and then went back out into the hall where the few stragglers were still talking.

By this point, I felt like a total creep. I mean, seriously. I was being a stalker. I opened the door, took one step, saw Mary, and retreated back inside. Oh, golly, I was being flanked! There was nowhere to go! Ms Warren was still chatting, her group breaking up and heading for the elevators, but the conversation never stopped. They never paused. And I never interrupted. And so I slumped in defeat back to Mary’s car in the half-empty parking lot and decided I would pester Ms Warren tomorrow.

But we all know, my darlings, that tomorrow never comes. I found out the next morning that she wasn’t attending the second day, that my ship had sailed, and that she had very little, if any, idea who I was. Sigh! Alas…

But… I’m probably going to query her anyway. So, we’ll see?