Friday, April 23, 2010

Why Writing Contests Matter

Happy Friday, everyone. With no specific writing prompt for this month, I will treat (or subject) you to the various thoughts that are rattling around in my mind during this transitional spring-summer month.

Didn’t you enjoy Kent’s report on the festival? I dreamed last night that I went and then used insight gained there to encourage other artists. I had been thinking about wanting to go since reading his post, and woke up this morning determined—the first year I’ve gotten serious beyond the “oh yeah, that’d be neat” stage. I opened our college calendar to check it against 2011 festival dates and start planning… only to discover the festival is offered every two years. Yep. I guess it will just make it all the more special to go in 2012. Maybe by then I’ll have a good manuscript to workshop.

3-Minute Fiction Contest
Did any of you enter
NPR’s three-minute fiction contest? I did and really enjoyed the rush of a) a down-to-the-wire contest entry and b) trying to tell a story in 600 words. I battled against the temptation to just do some sort of vignette/snapshot of an interesting character (maybe in reflection about a past event) and not reflect any kind of plot. But it just didn’t feel like a story as was called for. So I went with an actual storyline—I keep a running list of ideas that intrigue me saved in my phone, usually just an off-beat character or a weird scenario I think would make a story.

What I discovered from pulling together a contest entry was that I keep reverting to local-color stories about Louisiana or rural places that seem alien to our 2010 suburban life. And I’m not sure that’s a good thing. My worry is that my work won’t be taken seriously because it may be coming across too folksy and too rooted in the past.

Am I going to throw myself off a ledge or abandon writing or dramatically change my style? None of the above. But I am going to think through why I write the way I do and decide if that's what I want or if I want to rethink my style (slowly). So… one of the beauties of submitting your work is learning things about yourself you wouldn’t discover if just writing with no deadline or submission process.

Link of Interest
Speaking of deadline,
this site caught my eye because it lists emergency tips for pulling off a short story due right away. I thought it’d be pretty good to go through the checklist for all projects regardless of deadline.

All about You
So, what have you been writing lately? Sound off on your projects and let’s get a feel for the variety of work being created by our community of Apostolic writers.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

FFW 2010: True Story

One of the student guides passed this gem along from the breakfast area in the Prince Conference Center (where all the presenters/authors stay):

One older man slapped the table of another man and said, "I want to thank you for all the hours of pleasure you've given me."


"Are you Wally Lamb?"



Saturday, April 17, 2010

FFW: More Day 3

So here's more from FFW 2010:

* Eugene Peterson Exclusive: For the first time in his life, he doesn't know what book he'll be writing next. I asked if that worried him. He kind of shrugged, "No." What's he writing now? "Letters."

* More EP: I was told incorrectly - he does have a cell phone, just no email.

* Memoirist Mary Karr, whose bestselling Lit has kept her on the road since November, said she's looked on as a moron for admitting to secular audiences that she became a Christian (much of what this book is about), then went on to say when she says she's Catholic, it's even worse.

* To achieve, like Hemingway said, that one true sentence while writing, Mary Karr prays for God "to let me know the truth I have to tell." That's a fabulous line.

* A panel admitted that Christian fiction is a sub-genre (Christian) within a genre (romance, adventure, etc), thus creating a kind of double-bind for writers to be constrained within. They also said that while certain rules of reality are being lifted, the one sure taboo is a "dark tone and mood." The supposed typical Christian reader (female through & through) supposedly won't support that.

* Good quote from the fiction editor of a lit journal: "Write what you want to know - then research it."

* Catholic Gene Luan Yang creates graphic novels, American Born Chinese being the first to ever be nominated for a National Book Award (against prose texts), said his parents told him, "Be friends with everyone, but when you choose your closest friends, you're choosing who you are." I'm going to start telling the prodigy that.

* Super agent Chip MacGregor ended his session with a hilarious story about the power of word choice (but don't ask me about it unless you're willing to feel uncomfortable), but started with the statement that Jesus' best friend on Earth didn't compare God to a symphony, ballet, or painting. Instead, to properly describe God, he compared him to "The Word." Now go write.

* BTW, he was yet-another guest who said, "I don't attend writing conferences, but I never miss this one."

* Yale law prof / novelist Stephen Carter (I ended up in his session by mistake & was so glad I did), noted that:
1. When the size of university libraries shrank, so did their number of advanced degrees.

2. Children seem to absorb print & computer screen stories with the same amount of comprehension, but when you ask imaginative or critical thinking questions (What do you think will happen next?), the screen readers get stumped.

3. Interest in anything written wanes quicker on a computer screen.

Thus, 'The purpose of a book is to challenge us and make us rethink even topics we think we know.'

Yeah, it was a fabulous day for spectacular quotes. I feel whole.

Festival of Faith & Writing: Day 3

Except for Mary Karr's address tonight, the Festival is over.

I'm hungy, my brain is overloaded, & I don't have my notes, but:

* About 2,000 attendees from 5 continents, the same as 2008, which is a bit of a miracle because of the economy (according to one of the key administrator).

* 60-40 split between female/male. Most lit conferences/workshops are at least 80/20 female, with the age demographics skewing older (40+), but not overwhelmingly so.

* More booths representing more lit journals (Relief, the Other Journal, Image, Culture is Not Optional, Ruminate, Rock & Sling), publishers, clothes (a first) & posters (a first), other writing conferences, and Eighth Day Books, the store that would make Witchita worth living in.

* I snagged my Eugene Peterson interview. He's 77, gracious, articulate, physically frail, pauses to compose his answer before speaking (reminded me of Marilynne Robinson in that way), with a ready, easy smile.

* The student workers were amazingly well-informed & friendly.

More later tonight...

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Festival of Faith & Writing: Day 2

I can't imagine a better writing/book festival for Christians than Calvin College's Festival of Faith and Writing. It gives you a fabulous idea on what is going on in the world of Christian writing and writers who are Christian, as well as what's coming in the next year. More importantly, there's so many writing areas covered (fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction, preaching) that you're hard-pressed not to find sessions that minister directly to you.

They do a good job of mixing lectures, workshops, specific instruction, and general guidelines to minister to your heart and mind. Now, the focus is on "faith in writing" so sometimes that means unorthodox believers are speaking and sometimes its atheists who include believers in their stories and investigations. The point is in how others see and interpret us. Sometimes it's impressive, sometimes it disappointing and unfair, but it's always respectful.

Here's some highlights, w/more tomorrow. (Sadly, my camera isn't working right, so no pix yet.)

* Eugene Peterson rocked the house with this morning's lecture on "Poet and Pastor on Patmos," by explaining how his "Badlands" period is what turned him into a writer and a pastor.

* One author on "Healing Prayer" said there's a difference between God healing us and God curing a sickness. More than a cure, God wants us healed, and that often means overcoming unforgiveness.

* Poet/essayist/editor Christian Wiman shared a profound essay on modern anxiety, how everyone worries about being overwhelmed, then discusses every solution but God. Then said, "Christ is not an answer, but a means to exist." Later, on the presence of God, he said, "It's not difficult to hear the music, but it's difficult to hear as music." I'm buying his new book, which comes out in November.

* Wally Lamb (She's Come Undone) was a disappointment. Just kind of did a "Here's my story with some readings in between" talk.

* Image Journal threw a party for attendees tonight to acknowledge 20 years of publication.

* Screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi talked about the power of a single image, expertly making the case of stories living and dying by the specific perfect image to expound a scene.

* Novelist Brady Udall (The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint) decried how most academics loved "art" but disliked "structure." Art is for the individual. Structure (or craft) is by the community, and can be taught. In one of his novel-writing classes, he starts students on the pulpiest romances and crime thrillers before working themselves across the spectrum to the "most literary" of novels. What students come to realize is the underlying structure on all of these books is nearly identical. It's all in how you build on it.

Yeah, it was that good.

I've had one disappointing class (there's one at every conference), and an overwhelming number of idea-cramming, specific-giving, spirit-building sessions that are feeding my soul.

Start making plans for the next Festival in April, 2012.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

First French Novella

Bonjour yet again from the fair city of Tours, France. I can't believe I'm well into my fourth month here! Two more to go before I head back to the US of A.

French life is eating into the part of my brain where I store all of my blog ideas for Word, so I thought I'd whip out something literary from my French experience thus far to share.

There's nothing like reading to help you enrich your vocabulary. That goes for English as well as any foreign languages you decide to master. And there's nothing like reading a piece in its original language to get the full effect.

I remember when I read my first novel in Spanish for pleasure. It was a 19th century novel called Pepita Jimenez by Juan Valera. It tells the story of a young seminarian who falls in love with an enchanting young widow and he is forced to choose between her and his vocation. This time around, as my first French novel, I chose L’EchappĂ©e belle (The Beautiful Escape) by Anna Gavalda, a very popular French contemporary writer. Not exactly "lit-ra-cha," but easily accessible. I wouldn't say it was easy to read; there was a lot of slang, but I learned a lot of new vocabulary and phrases, and was astounded at how much I could follow.

I don't know if I'll try to read Madame Bovary in the original French just yet . . . I think I might follow a classmate's example and continue with another well-known, yet relatively simple read, Le petit prince.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Three-Minute Fiction Contest

Attention writers! NPR is offering a neat writing contest.

  • 600 word limit
  • Entry must include 4 key words
  • Prize is an interview on NPR plus reading your story on air
  • Deadline: 11:59 p.m. April 11.

Let's have some Apostolic/Pentecostal writers sound off, shall we?

Sunday, April 4, 2010

A Picture is Worth (Almost) a Thousand Words

Whether my topic is relevant as inspiration for regular writing tasks, I will let others decide. I haven’t had a lot of such tasks recently, posts for Word being about the only writing assignments currently on my desk. And the problem with getting these written hasn’t been a lack of inspiration! Rather, my problem as a writer would appear to be over-stimulation and lack of focus.

Life in a Kaleidoscope

If you’re like me, you might notice how life often feels like living in a kaleidoscope with constantly shifting patterns and colors and people and stories coloring our days. As a writer, while fascinated by these compositions, I tend to grow dizzy at times, and I need to pull back from them. I need to be able to capture life in individual frames.


I hope it’s not a hash of metaphors to liken this capture to taking snapshots. When we pull out our cameras to take a real photo, aren’t we trying to capture a moment, an impression, and image? Later we come back to these for inspiration, to relive a time to which there is no return. In a sense, we are assembling, in each picture we take, the present as it slips into the past. It’s like that in writing, too. There is no way to write down every significant detail of life as it whizzes by like the country side seen from the window of a speeding train. But we can snap verbal “photos” of what we see and hear and smell and taste and feel throughout our days. And I can store these, as my creative writing instructor said, in my writer’s warehouse for inclusion in some later project.

Focusing the Fiction Mind

In their discussion of reading as a tool for writers, Hallie and Whit Burnett in their Fiction Writer’s Handbook, offer this: “It is by reading that we learn first to focus the fiction mind, framing incidents and characters and places into the particular shape of imagery and economy that makes a short story, a play, or a book. A photographer has his own way of shutting off what he does not wish to see, moving his camera through many angles until he finds the one that suits him best—but this is after he has learned the limits of his medium.”

Focusing the Poetic Mind

Although the Burnetts speak of focusing the fiction mind, the technique they suggest also applies to the poetic mind. Reading good poetry that abounds in sensuous imagery is like viewing exhibits of well-composed photos. In turning to the poets, we can see the world through the poignant lenses of the Romantics, the Moderns, the Imagists. We return to our own experiences with re-sensitized vision to perceive the wonder around us, and like William Blake, “see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour.”

Focusing the Spiritual Mind

Undoubtedly, the most significant aspect of writing for a Christian is maintaining spiritual focus, which we must do by continuously ingesting the Word. As my pastor has said, reading the Bible is thinking God’s thoughts after Him. Reading the Word is somewhat like perusing an extensive photo album of God’s family. We can see what faith and other virtues look like, not in abstraction, but in stories, snapshots and portraits, of living, breathing human beings like ourselves, especially in the person who was the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.

Putting It All in Perspective

Ingesting the Word involves more than merely reading it, although reading is important. We need to write about the ways we experience the Word in our daily lives. Where does God’s grace interrupt the chaos and cacophony? How do we fit into God’s story? For me, the snapshot method of writing is a way to first perceive and then capture the grace-infused moments of my life. It is in this place and this time to which Jesus comes to teach us about Himself. He uses the familiar to reveal the mysteries of His kingdom: “Therefore, every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matt. 13:52, ESV).

Get the picture?

Jesus wasn’t the only one to use the mundane to illustrate the profound. Every scribe trained in the kingdom of heaven pulls from the resources he has stored up. Look. Listen. Live. Read. Write. We’ll never be able to capture every aspect of life in infinite detail. The kaleidoscope will keep shifting. But we can give the world snapshots from our lives that have been illuminated by the grace and goodness of God.

Photo collage: Quote: Cesare Pavese, Quotable Cards. Painting: Edgar Degas' Mary Cassatt at the Louvre