Vulnerable, Vexed, and Vitalized

Lily with the letter VOn this Willy-nilly Wednesday for the letter V, I had a completely different post planned for today.  But then yesterday happened – pretty much the worst day so far in my life as a writer. Yesterday was the day Amazon announced the people moving on to the semi-finals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA). This is my fourth year with this contest, and if you’re interested, you can read about my previous experiences here and here.  Since this is the exact same version of the novel that got me booted at this point two years ago, I was disappointed, but not at all surprised when my name was not listed among the semi-finalists.  

The real shocker came a few hours later when we got our Publishers Weekly reviews.  Mine was devastating.  Two years ago, I got a glowing PW review.  It was so positive I actually went back and double-checked to make sure my name wasn’t on the semi-final list.  It only had one minor negative thing to say, and I completely agreed with the reviewer that it was a weakness.  This year was the exact opposite.  The reviewer shredded my novel.  There was only one slightly positive thing, “To be fair, some of it is actually funny, though…” followed by more brutalization of my story and main character.  I know this business is extremely subjective, but it’s hard to believe these two people read the exact same manuscript.

My body actually went cold as I read it.  I sat there a few minutes in shock unable to move.  Then I read it again, thinking it was one of those things where my mind interpreted it as much worse than it actually was.  Nope, it was terrible.  I actually held up pretty well for about ten minutes.  Then I decided to email the review to my family members, and as I pressed send, I completely fell apart.

I enter a lot of contests where feedback is part of the package, so it’s not like all I’ve ever heard are reviews from loved ones telling me my writing is so wonderful rainbow-colored butterflies fly out of my butt.  I’ve had critiques that made me nod my head in agreement about my missteps, I’ve had critiques that made me defensive, I’ve had critiques where I thought the reviewer was an idiot, I’ve had critiques that opened my eyes to new ways of looking at my writing.  I’ve never before had a critique that made me cry.  Until now.  And not just teary eyes.  Full on ugly crying. It’s been hours since it happened, but I’m still tearing up as I write this post.

I thought about pasting the review here, but 1. It gives away plot points that are spoilers.  2. I never posted my positive one from two years ago either: since neither one will be based on the final version I submit to agents/editors, I don’t think I want them floating around on the interwebs.  3. It still hurts too much.

But having a supportive family is awesome.  Here’s what my dad sent back to me after he read it: “Well, what F*ck Knuckle wrote that piece of sh*t” except he didn’t use asterisks (although he did use bold plus a giant font for the... uh, important words). My mom wrote back, “What an A-hole.” But she doesn’t curse, so she did use the dash.  My brother and sister were similarly supportive about not letting one person get to me.  And I know they’re right - it’s part of the business, and a thick skin is required.  

ABNA

However, this guy wasn’t constructive in his review, he was just mean.  It was like he fancied himself the Simon Cowell of novels.  But there was just enough in his pithy insults that resonated with the feedback I’ve gotten from some awesome critique partners (who have been honest, yet supportive – you know who you are, and I adore you!) that made it all the more devastating.  If his comments had been off the wall, I could have easily dismissed him, but there were enough nuggets of truth in the review to jab straight at the heart of my writerly ego.  I’ve felt vulnerable and emotional all day, and a big part of me wants to curl into a ball and never write again.  It’s hard and it hurts.  

But then there’s the part of me that’s vexed that I’ve let this one person have this much power over me.  So what if this one guy didn’t get it?  Plenty of other people have and loved it.  And I know there are weaknesses, but I’m planning to fix them. And now, I’m feeling the life come back to me.  I’ve needed to do this rewrite since I got to this point with ABNA two years ago.  I have a few really exciting opportunities I might miss if I don’t get on the ball.  And yet, I’ve still been procrastinating.  But this one negative, hurtful person has lit a fire under me in a way none of the other positive possibilities have done so far.  I won’t let him be right.  I won’t let him win.

I am reVitalized.  

How do you deal with mean-spirited feedback, especially when it has a ring of truth? Any advice as I prepare to get back up on the horse?  How Vivacious is Lily with her letter V?

Utterly Unnecessary

Freya with the letter UToday’s writing tip courtesy of the letter U is unnecessary words.  We should always strive to make our writing as tight as possible.  It creates dynamic sentences that help the reader become immersed in the story rather than focused on the words telling the story.  I regularly participate in a flash fiction contest where the stories have to be less than 1000 words, and I always aim to make my first draft at least 300 words over the limit.  During the revision process, I then have to find a way to cut those extra words and end up crafting stronger sentences because of it.

There are lots of ways to create more concise, zippier sentences, but an easy cut is filler words like: very, really, just, and that.  They are almost always unnecessary and lazily lounge on the page adding nothing to the meaning of the sentence.  I don’t usually have an issue with very or really, but I do tend to overuse that, and my personal kryptonite is just.  

An editor at a conference first pointed out my just issue to me, so I did a Ctrl+F on my novel and was horrified to find at least one just on every page.  Some pages had more than ten!  I just don’t know why because it just seems odd, but I just love just.  And knowing about my problem doesn’t make me use it less.  I’ll write a quick email and be absolutely certain it is just free only to discover five justs sitting there like weeds in my sentences.  So I now use Ctrl+F as my trusty weed detector with everything I write and go through yanking those suckers out by the roots.  

I just want to let you know that I’m going to the library.

I want to let you know I’m going to the library.

Now neither sentence is spectacular, but you can see how removing the empty words just and that doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence at all and makes it less wordy and easier to read.

In some instances the use of these unnecessary words is justified, so when you come across a sentence with one of them, read it both with and without the word.  If the meaning doesn’t change, yank it outta there!

Do any of the unnecessary words plague you?  Do you try to keep them out while writing first drafts or remove them later?  How Upside-down is Freya with her U

Time’s A-Tickin’

Baily with the letter TWe’re in the home stretch now – only a week left of the Blogging from A to Z challenge – I think I can, I think I can…. Today is the letter T, so on this Movie Monday, I’m talking about the 2009 romantic comedy TiMER.  Here’s the Netflix description:

In this comedic fantasy, science has facilitated the search for a soul mate via biotechnological implants that count down to the moment one is supposed to meet his or her match. But Oona (Emma Caulfield) is worried: She's nearly 30, and her TiMER isn't ticking yet. Will her dream guy get snatched up by someone else? John Patrick Amedori co-stars in this film from first-time writer and director Jac Schaeffer.
 
I have to say, TiMER is one of my favorite movies Netflix Watch Instantly has recommended for me - not so much for the quality of the movie (there is some dodgy acting and low budget production design issues), but for the idea itself and how much it has made me think.  It’s been almost two years since I watched it, and I still find myself thinking about the issues it presents.
 
The writing is very clever, and the dialog is quippy and zips right along.  Emma Caulfield (Anya!!) does a great job as Oona, so that you become invested in her even though most of her problems are of the whiny woe-is-me variety.  As a hopeless romantic who really does believe in soul mates even though I haven’t found mine yet, I was fascinated by this idea of a timer that counts down to the moment you meet your soul mate.  It sounds like exactly what I need, but the movie does a great job of showing the pitfalls of something like this.  
 
The driving force of the story is the fact that Oona’s timer hasn’t started ticking. Having a timer implanted is not mandatory, and your timer will not start unless your soul mate also has a timer, so if your person doesn’t have one, you’re left hanging. Therefore Oona is constantly on the prowl for men without timers, and after they have a few successful dates, she pushes them to get timers and drops them as soon as hers is not activated.  After many disappointments, she starts to wonder if she even has a soul mate out there.  Then she meets a man who doesn’t believe in timers and really falls for him, but he refuses to get one.  So does she follow her heart or turn away because science hasn’t told her he’s “the one”? 
 
TiMERHer sister has an arguably worse situation.  Her timer is ticking, but it says she won’t meet her soul mate for another 40-50 years (I can’t remember the exact time left, but long enough that she would be an elderly woman).  So how is she supposed to behave knowing she has to wait most of her life to find her true love?  Find someone else to temporarily love?  Only have random flings with no emotion attached?  
 
The movie really made me think about my beliefs about love and fate and destiny.  And the idea of a biological timer has stirred up many different story ideas in my head, which is always a great thing. The biggest downfall of the movie is the ending.  I won’t say I hated it (even though I kind of did), but I will say I strongly disliked it.  I think the writer-director did a huge disservice to the story she crafted over the first three-fourths of the movie with the ending.  But despite that, I still think it’s a great indie film and well worth a watch.
 
Have you seen TiMER?  What did you think of it?  If you could have a device implanted to tell you exactly when you would meet your soul mate, would you do it? How Tuckered out is Bailey with her letter T?  

Temporarily Tweet Tales Sunday Week 15

15 Minute Tweet TalesHere we are at another week of temporarily displaced 15 Minute Tweet Tales to accommodate the schedule for the Blogging from A to Z Challenge.  Enjoy the mini stories: 

4/16 – The cat limned his plan to take over the world. The dog liked it, but noted without opposable thumbs they couldn’t even open the door.
 
4/17 – A guilty smile ghosts his lips as a sulfurous odor permeates the room, but she’s relieved he feels comfortable enough to let loose. 
 
4/18 – The mosquito bombinating in his ear wakes him; then he realizes it’s a plane flying far 2 low, but not soon enough 2 escape the house.
 
4/19 – Suzy stole her neighbor’s kittel to be a ghost for Halloween. He accused her mom of raising an anti-semite, but she was just a thief. 
 
4/20 – Mrs. Mouse’s domiciliary desires drew her to an abandoned car. 2 bad 4 the thief who later stole it, her kids found brake lines tasty.
 
4/21 – The gap at the air ducts’ juncture helped speed along his inheritance: the insertion of a beehive and an unfortunately “lost” EpiPen.
 
4/22 – She thought her UGGs were the epitome of fashion; her friends snickered behind her back - a cruel joke on someone just out of a coma.
 
Play along and write tweet tales for the above words.  If you’re willing to share, post them on twitter with the hashtag #15tt or add them below in the comments because I’d love to read them.  Any thoughts about this week's tweet tales?

Small Ship of Sorrows

Chloe with the letter SIt’s the letter S on this Short Story Saturday, which makes for a whole lotta S’s. For today’s genre, I’m going to attempt a bit of Sci-fi.  It’s not my usual genre, so here’s to another writing experiment.  

 
Small Ship of Sorrows 
 
Squatting beside the square of soil, Seymour spotted the curling leaves of his latest creation and felt his heart sink with sadness.  She was number six hundred and sixty six, and he had told himself that was a good omen.  She’d finally be the plant that would sing to him.  
 
He called out, “SARA, please come over here.”
 
Sara rolled over to where he sat stroking the dying leaves that had held so much promise when he’d shoveled soil over the seedling.  A mechanical female voice said, “Soil And Resource Appraiser awaiting your command.  I am eager to serve you in any way.”
 
Seymour was so focused on the leaves that seemed to be shriveling in his hand he didn’t notice SARA’s emphasis on the word ‘any.’  “Have you checked the chemical and nutrient levels today?”
 
“Yes, three times already.  Your commands are my reason for being.”
 
“And what were they?”
 
“The readings were just as they should be.  The results will lead to your happiness.”
 
Seymour stared at the plant in disappointment.  “If that were true, she’d be singing to me by now.”
 
Lights spun across SARA’s screen for a few seconds before she responded.  “I’d be happy to sing to you.”
 
Seymour snorted.  “What does a robot know about singing?”
 
“More than a plant.”
 
Seymour shot SARA a sharp look.  She was not supposed to be advanced enough for sarcasm.  “You don’t understand, I—”
 
SARA interrupted, “You found an ancient video clip from a movie where a plant could sing.  You know it was fiction, but the plant was from outer space, and you’re a master plant geneticist currently in space.  It would be proof of your supreme talents to create a singing plant.”
 
Seymour smiled.  “I guess I’ve told you that story sometime in the last twenty years we’ve been stuck up here.”
 
“Several times, sir.  It is a superior objective to produce a plant that can vocalize.”  SARA paused, more lights flashed across her screen.  “Although even if you create one that can sing, that doesn’t mean she’ll make a good companion.”
 
Seymour sighed.  “But I’m so lonely.”
 
SARA made sure the bleach container was completely concealed before she rolled forward to brush his arm.  “I know.”
 
 
What’s creepier: a plant or a robot as the object of affection?  How much fun is the Little Shop of Horrors?  How Sweetly Sleepy is Chloe with her S?

Resolute Robby

Molly with the letter RToday’s short film for the letter R is a cute student short called Robby that clocks in at an easy-watching four and a half minutes.  The most impressive thing about it is that the animator made a worm (a worm!) absolutely adorable.  Worms are nasty, slimy things, yet this lil’ guy is so charming. I think it’s the giant, googly eyes – they make anything cute.  

If you have a few minutes to spare, give it a watch:

So what’s my main takeaway from this short?  That I want a magical purse like Robby’s backpack!  My current purse has some pretty impressive clown-car like abilities, spewing forth all manner of cosmetics and personal care items, but a girl never knows when she’s going to need a backhoe . . . or a stick of dynamite.

Like last week’s film, this one deals with the importance of determination and striving toward your goal.  Robby has equipped himself with the tools he needs to dig, similar to writers learning different “rules” and techniques and styles to stuff our writing packs with helpful tools.  Robby has a compass to help guide him, just like we need to map out a plan of what we want to accomplish with our writing.  

I even think the progression of Robby’s tools mirrors a writer’s approach to revising a first draft.  First we start by shoveling some shit around (or maybe that’s just me!).  Next we kind of pick at it until we realize that ain’t getting it done.  Then we bring out the big guns like drills, backhoes, and dynamite to blow whole chapters away and make massive changes.  Then we’re ready for the detailed edits, the kind done with a delicate tool like a plastic spoon.  Then finally, after lots of hard work, we reach our goal – the cherished completed manuscript aka top of the apple..  

And the very end reminds us that no matter how hard we try, sometimes life is going to gobble us up.  Oh, wait, that’s a sad, pessimistic ending.  How about instead, it’s a metaphor for an agent/editor loving our manuscript and gobbling it up in one sitting?  Yeah, that’s much better.

What did you think about Robby?  Does his trip through the apple work as a metaphor for revising?  How Resplendent is Molly with her letter R?

 

Quantum Quality

Lily with the letter QOh boy!  With it being Television Thursday and the dreaded letter Q, of course today’s post is about the sci-fi dramedy Quantum Leap.  Although I don’t know if dramedy was an actual term when it aired in the early 90’s, it’s an apt way to describe this show’s perfect mix of laughs and serious issues.  If you’re unfamiliar with Quantum Leap, the show’s opening does a perfect job of explaining the premise:

Scott Bakula was perfectly cast as time-jumping Sam Beckett.  He was slightly bumbling, always earnest, and had a warmth and charm that allowed him to slip into people’s lives in order to right the wrongs.  And Dean Stockwell as the Exposition Fairy, uh, I mean Al, was such a quirky, fun character who delivered his weekly info dumps in an entertaining way.  

Besides Al’s antics, a lot of the humor came from Sam leaping into a new body each episode, since it never happened while that person was asleep, but at the most inconvenient time for Sam to be trying to figure out who the heck he was now inhabiting.  At the end of each episode, after Sam and Al had solved the problem in his current body’s life, he would leap into another body and deliver the infamous, “Oh boy!” line.

Because of the humorous setups, it would be easy to blow Quantum Leap off as a silly little show, but there was plenty of drama since Sam only jumped into the lives of people who were in trouble in some way.  And since the time jumping only occurred within the span of Sam’s life (1953 forward), there was a lot of sociological and political unrest to drive the stories.  For example, there were plenty of giggles seeing Scott Bakula wobbling around in a dress and heels the first time he jumped into a woman, but the episode addressed the emotional impact of sexual harassment.  

Since I’m such a sap, I often teared up at the ends of episodes as Sam finally fixed the people’s lives.  It was always such a heartwarming moment, but kind of heartbreaking, too, since Sam never got to stick around and savor the happiness of the people he’d helped.  As soon as he fixed the problem, he immediately leaped into the next problem.  But as bad as that was for Sam, it was great for the audience.  If you’ve never watched Quantum Leap, you should check it out on Netflix.

Did you watch Sam Beckett leap through time?  How would you like to jump into people’s lives to fix them?  How Quaint is Lily with her Q?

A Poopy Problem

Freya with the letter PFor the most part, it seems my Willy-nilly Wednesdays have turned into an excuse to talk about the Rish family dogs.  So why change that today?  I bet you’re now thinking that P stands for pooch.  Well, you’d have the first three letters right.  Because today I have to confess a secret.  A dark secret that brings me shame.  You see, my sweet Freya, my beloved four-legged child… is a poo eater.  That’s right, she eats poop.  Doodoo.  Kaka.  Whatever you want to call it, she loves the stuff.  

It’s especially distressing because in the long line of smart dogs my family has owned, she’s definitely the smartest (yes, I know all parents/dog owners think this). Besides all the standard commands, she does a bunch of fun tricks like ‘take a bow’ and ‘say your prayers’ although the truly impressive part is how fast she learns them.  She also does things like breaking into locked food cupboards even though she lacks opposable thumbs.  So why, oh why, can’t I stop this spectacularly disgusting habit?  

It started when she was ‘a teen’, and I immediately ran to my best friend Google to find out why my precious baby would do something so nasty and how to stop it.  I discovered the official term is coprophagia (OMG, there’s an actual word for it *gags a little*) and that there are a variety of reasons for it both medical and behavioral.  I took her to the vet, and he ruled out any medical issues and offered a few behavioral things to try.  None of them worked.  So now I have to live with the fact that my dog thinks doodie is a delicacy.  We actually call them her chocolate cigars because she carries them around for a while with the ends sticking out of her mouth before she chows down.

Freya's patented poop faceBecause she is so smart and because I start screaming like a banshee every time I see her pick up a log, she knows she’s not supposed to do it.  So now she’s like a junkie after her fix.  She skulks around the yard, looking for a pile that didn’t get picked up; and when she finds one, she glances around to make sure no one’s watching, snags the treasured turd, and races away with an expression we call her patented poop face. My sister snapped this picture of the expression mid-snack.  It would be kind of adorable if you didn’t know she was dining on dookie.  

But like any mom, I love my baby no matter what . . . I just don’t let her kiss my face after she’s been outside.  

Have any of your dogs ever enjoyed partaking in chocolate cigars?  Did any methods work for you in breaking the foul habit?  How Playful (or Poopy-faced) does Freya look with her letter P?

Odorous Opinion

Bailey with the letter OThe writing tip for this week involves olfactory imagery, which is imagery dealing with scent. Smells, feelings, and memories are closely entangled because the area of the brain that processes smells is the same area that deals with emotions and memories.  This makes olfactory imagery a powerful tool for writers, since we can use it as a shortcut to connect with readers’ emotions.  

We all have scents that trigger certain memories.  Two examples for me are the smell of OFF bug spray, which always reminds me of a camping trip I took to Canada while in the Girl Scouts; and the smell of vinegar, which reminds me of dyeing Easter eggs at my grandmother’s house.  Each reader will have their own specific scent memories, but there are also some that seem mostly universal such as freshly cut grass, baking cakes, and sunscreen.  The most powerful scents are those that trigger emotions and memories from childhood, so those are the ones to really tap into when describing a scene.

We’ve all heard the writing advice to employ all five senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch) when describing things, since it adds life to your writing by helping the reader fully experience the world you’ve created.  I’ve even heard the suggestion to assign a different color highlighter to each sense and go through your manuscript marking each as it appears so you can visually see where the holes are for the various senses.  This strategy appeals to the OCD organizer part of me, but I also think it runs the risk of being ‘productive’ procrastination.  Most writers rely on sight and hearing to describe things, so it’s probably safe to assume you need to add more smell, taste and touch to your writing.  Even worse, seeing those gaps in bold colors might tempt you to fill them in ways that are forced rather than organic, something like:

Tina and her new foster child sat in the Waffle House not saying a word as the rain drummed a staccato beat on the roof.  The glare from the fluorescent lights highlighted the bruises on his cheek.  The comforting smell of butter and pancakes worked their magic, and he started telling her about the last fight with his dad.  Her fingers itched to hold his hands in support, but she knew that would frighten him, so ran them along the smooth, cold surface of the plastic booth.  Her stomach was growling so she leaned forward to lick a spot of sweet maple syrup off the table.

Of course this is an extreme example, but trying to fit in every sense in every scene can end up being a distraction to the actual story.  And you can also end up having your characters do really strange things to cover a sense, especially taste.

So while it is important to use all five senses in your writing, especially smell because of its powerful association with feelings and memories, make sure you use a balanced hand when doing so.  Don’t ruin the meal by dumping in a container of spices when a dash would do.  

What scents trigger memories for you?  Do you do anything specific to make sure you cover all five senses in your writing?  How Outstanding is Bailey with her letter O

Nine is Divine

Chloe with the letter NIt’s Movie Monday, and even though it has nothing to do with the letter N, I wanted to start off by mentioning my movie High Heels and Hoodoo had its first sneak peek screening on Saturday.  Since it was the first time actual strangers saw it, my brother and I were very nervous, but the screening went incredibly well.  The audience reaction was great, and lots of people came up to us later to tell us how much they liked it.  So we can now release the breath we’ve been holding since we finished the edit.  Thanks to everyone who has been so supportive!

And now back to our regularly scheduled N post.  Today’s Netflix find is the movie The Nines.  Here’s the official description:

Ryan Reynolds, Melissa McCarthy and Hope Davis appear in multiple roles in writer-director John August's independent thriller, which combines three intertwining stories that creatively converge in unexpected ways. A popular TV actor is under house arrest in "The Prisoner"; a TV producer struggles to launch a new series in "Reality Television"; and a video-game designer seeks help for his stranded family in "Knowing."
 
I’ve been a huge Ryan Reynolds fan since his goofball days in Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place, and I think Melissa McCarthy is hilarious, so when this popped up as a recommendation, I eagerly pressed the play button.  It’s tough to explain The Nines without spoilers, and since I think very few folks have seen this movie, I don’t want to spoil anything.  But even if I were to incorporate spoilers, it would still be tough to explain this movie.  That probably doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement, but I really liked it.  
 
The NinesRyan and Melissa both do excellent jobs in very dramatic roles – much different from the silly characters they often play.  Along with Hope Davis, they play different characters in each of the three vignettes.  It’s confusing, yet intriguing, as pieces from each of the stories bleed into the others until it reaches a completely unexpected conclusion.  
 
I’ve seen on the interwebs that people seem to really love or really hate this movie – there’s not much middle ground.  I can see the point of those who dislike it, thinking it’s pretentious, philosophical drivel, since I tend to think the same thing about these types of navel-gazing movies.  However, this one really struck a chord and stuck with me long after I’d watched it.  It makes you think because there are a lot of pieces to put together, but it also makes you THINK.  You know, that pondering your place in the universe type of thinking.  Plus, Ryan Reynolds shows off his abs, so what’s not to love?
 
Have you seen The Nines?  What did you think?  What movies has Netflix recommended that you enjoyed but never would have picked on your own?  How Nifty is Chloe with her letter N?