Monday, March 2, 2015

Should I Enter A Writing Contest Or Not?

Three simple words--Enter to Win--gives writers good advice about contests. If you don't enter, there's no way you can win. Simple, or so it sounds.

A lot of writers are reluctant to enter a writing contest. They might think their writing is not good enough to compete with others. They procrastinate until the deadline for entering is past. They can't come up with a good idea for the contest theme. They waver--yes-no-yes-no--until no decision gets made. 

I know, and you know, too, that it takes a bit of courage to enter a contest. Sometimes, it also takes some cash you may not be willing to part with. No problem--there are plenty of contests with no entry fees. As a general rule, the ones that do charge a fee to enter also give larger prizes. Some of the contests that are free to enter promise publication to the winners and no more. For beginning writers that is prize enough. Some will debate that putting it in the same category with writing for pay vs writing for no pay. 

There are plenty of places to find writing contests. Ask your old friend Google for a list. Specify 'no fee' if your prefer. Subscribe to newsletters for writers that offer news of submissions needed and contests to enter. Visit with other writers for news about contests. Watch your local newspapers for announcements of contests within writing groups in your state or region, or the paper itself. 

Consider what you will send to a contest. It only makes sense that you will enter something you've written that is your best work. If you wrote something that multiple editors have rejected, then it's probably not the one you want to enter in a contest. What about taking that piece that has been rejected and polishing it until it sparkles? Then enter it! 

You need to have a positive attitude when entering.. The odds of winning are not the greatest when only three prizes are given, but somebody is going to win and it could be you. You  will never know if you don't enter.

I'm reminded of one of the first poems I wrote, then entered in my state authors group annual contest. What do I know about poetry? Won't there be lots of entries from seasoned poets? Should I pay the fee or not? It's probably money down the drain. But I did pay the fee and entered my poem which won first place and a nice check. What if I'd listened to my doubting self and shied away? I'd never have had the joy of being a winner.

Will you win every contest you enter? Most probably not. Will you become wiser about the kind of contest you enter and what the judges look for? I think you will. Entering writing contests is good experience. Go ahead, give it a try.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Sometimes Trouble Is OK

This quote had me nodding my head and also chuckling a bit. If writing proved to be a pure cinch every time we sat down at our computer or took pad and pencil in hand, would we get the thrill that we get when we struggle with a writing project that finally bears fruit? Doubtful.

If writing was so easy, wouldn't everyone give it a try? Possibly. Once in awhile, an idea comes to us for a story and it almost seems to write itself. Our fingers are on the keyboard but the words flow from who-knows-where? That does happen but not on an everyday basis.

Most of the time, we do struggle with what we write. It might be only one paragraph that gives trouble or one verse of a poem but we want to get it right. One poor section can taint the entire piece.

How many times can you rewrite one paragraph? Until it feels right to you! Whether that's twice or twenty, redo it until you are comfortable with it. Is this why some novelists say their book took 4 years (or more) to write? Maybe that's part of the reason.

We've discussed revising and re-editing many times so maybe it means there is something vital about doing so. Beginning writers all too often finsih a first draft and call it complete. It's a rare first draft that is ready for submission. Seasoned writers know that rewriting is key to publishing.  Even writers who can claim many publications have trouble writing in one respect or another.

I know a woman who writes wonderful prose but she struggles mightily with finding a title that sings, one that draws readers. Another writes wonderful essays but fails when she gets to the final paragraph or two. A good essay deserves, and needs, a good ending. Same with a fiction piece. An exciting story must stay exciting right to the final punctuation mark in the last paragraph. others have difficulty with opening hooks.

Trouble writing? We all experience it. Some of us have learned how to overcome the problems of various kinds. We work hard to end up with a finished piece of writing that is publishable and also satisfies us, the writer. Writing is hard but those who love it soldier on no matter how many problems they experience.

If you have trouble writing, remember that you're in good company. The vast majority of us are right there with you.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Be Careful Not To Overwrite

Have you ever read a story where every last detail about the actions the character takes are listed for you? Look at the picture above. The writer who 'overwrites' might say something like this:

Grace rose from the sofa and walked to the library table. She bent over and picked up the stack of       books. She placed her apple on the top and walked to her car.

Yes, the fact is that Grace got off the sofa, walked to the table and then bent over before picking up the stack of books, then placed her apple on top and walked to her car. If the author wrote the following:  Grace took the books home with her. we'd have the same information without the step by step process. Most likely, this is not a crucial part of the story itself. It's unnecessary description. If Grace had been sitting on the sofa earlier and then we're told she took the books home with her, we know that she stood up and walked to the table etc. Those actions are not needed to make the story move along. In fact, they soon become boring.

One of the best writing mentors I had contended that nothing should be in a story that is not important to the plot. Grace walking and carrying is superfluous. Maybe the important thing is that she took the books home with her--possibly they did not belong to her, or they were left there by a psychological killer. Whatever!

I recently critted a chapter of a novel for a friend. She described her character as getting out of bed, walking to window, closing the window. The only important part was that the woman closed the window to shut off noise from below. All that had to be said is something like "Belinda closed the window so the noise from the street was muted." I don't need to know that she a. got out of bed and b. walked to the window. As a reader, I will assume that she did those two things. 

Here's a passage that needs to be changed. 

   Mark stood up. He put the bookmark in his book. He placed the book on the end table. He         walked to the kitchen because he was hungry. A sandwich would taste good he thought. He walked to the cupboard and grabbed the loaf of rye bread. He placed it on the table, then walked to the fridge, opened the door and found some bologna, mustard and mayo. He closed the fridge door and went back tot he table to assemble the sandwich. 

As an exercise for today, rewrite the paragraph, eliminating all the unnecessary actions. Do we, as readers, really care what Mark did step by step to curb his hunger? Probably not--unless these actions are crucial to the storyline. 

One of the best parts of writing without unnecessary actions from characters is that you will be cutting words. You'll have more space to add important things. 

Here's a true story. I was at a Saturday morning get-together of a writing group I once belonged to. Members read a chapter of a work in progress. One young woman began to read. She described every tiny thing in detail. It wasn't long before she totally lost her audience. Some were writing in notebooks, a couple nodding off, one even tapping his pencil faster and faster on his book. No one cared about her story because there was no story. Or if there was, it became buried in all those descrptions of people doing what the reader would understand anyway. 

Give your reader some credit. They'll understand much of what you do not actually write. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A Poetry Book To Be Read More Than Once

Music I Once could Dance To- Front Cover

My interview with poet, Roy Beckemeyer, ran Monday and Tuesday. Today, I'd like to feature Roy's first book of poetry, cover shown above. Some exciting news regarding the book is that it has been nominated for the High Plains Book Award in the poetry category. Results will be announced at the High Plains BookFest in Billings, MT October 2015. 

The poems in this book are ones that many readers can relate to. Roy does not write mystical verse that no one but the poet can decipher its meaning. He gives us poems about everyday happenings and memories of growing-up years. He takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary for his readers. Upon reading the assorted poesm in the book, I couldn't help but assess as a writer--he shows rather than tells and that is one reason his poetry appeals so much.

In the Introdution to the book, Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, former Kansas Poet Laureate, said "Roy has a way of approachign poetry that is both expansive and precise. He instinctively trusts the image of the poem to convey the poem's layers of meaning, and he also leaps off any familiar edge to try new forms, new inspirations, and new rhythms to construct and unearth new poetry."

I especially liked the poems that show the reader the deep love Roy has for his wife, Pat. Not an I love you, Pat type of poem. Instead, his feelings for her run softly through the lines of an everyday expericnce of husband and wife. One of my favorites is At Watermark Books Before The Reading. The poem describes husband and wife looking at books, his observations of her and finally ending with lines that touched my heart:

               and you look up,
              catch my eye,
              cup your hands,
             and motion for me to share a cold sip
             from this well of words
            that you have found.

Another poem I particularly liked is titled A Year in Small-Town Illinois: 1953 in Tanka. Using this poetic form, Roy explores the small town where he grew up, one month at a time. One of the verses that appealed a lot to me because of its wonderful visual image and the sensory detail in the second line is this one:


           skating on Shoal Creek
           ice cracks like a rifle shot
           and transforms us both
           from skaters into swimmers
           huddled steaming by the fire

A poetry book is not to be read once and shelved. Oh no, it needs to read mutlitple times for you will find something new in it each successive reading. Lines you may have read but missed will suddenly stand out on the second or third reading. 

I believe one thing that impresses me about Roy Beckemeyer's poetry is the wide variety that he offers. The poems use different forms for various subjects.Some poets spend the majority of their writing life composing words about one or two subjects. In Music I Once Could Dance To, you'll be treated to many different topics.

The book can be ordered at Coal City Review and Press in Lawrence, KS for only $10. It is now in its second printing. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Interview With A Poet--Part 2

This is Part 2 of my Interview with poet, Roy Beckemeyer.We learn about the process of putting a group of poems into a full book, getting it published and some advice for poets and wannabe-poets. 

6.  Do you have professional training as a poet or are you self-taught? Do you continue to learn about writing poetry?

I am self-taught in the sense that I have never taken a degree or major program at the university level in English or Creative Writing, but have improved my writing skill by sending poems out into the world and having them rejected or accepted, and then trying to understand what worked or did not work. Associating with good poets and reading their work have also helped. As do the workshops at Kansas Authors Club annual conventions and district meetings. I have also taken a number of writing classes, both local and on-line. Here in Kansas, we are fortunate that creative writing workshops are held regularly at state universities, and that past poet laureates such as Denise Low and Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg conduct on-line workshops. I still try to read poetry daily and am currently in one of Caryn's on-line poetry classes and a songwriting class that Kelley Hunt is teaching.

7.  Have you won any contests or awards for your poetry?

I have been fortunate to have won quite a few awards in the annual Kansas Authors Club yearly writing contests over the past five years, and was named KAC poet of the year in 2013, the same year you were named the KAC Prose Writer of the Year. I won the Springfield Writer's Guild Jim Stone Memorial Poetry Award in both 2013 and 2014 and have won prizes in other categories in their annual poetry contest. In 2014, I won first place in the Beecher's Magazine Poetry contest.  Brian Daldorph, editor and publisher of Coal City Review and Press, chose two poems from my first poetry book as nominees for the Pushcart Prize. I consider it an honor to have had my poems nominated.

8.  Can you tell us about your poetry book Music I Once Could Dance To? What inspired you to create a full book of poems? What does the title signify? How long did it take to create the book? Was it self-published or through a publishing house?

My debut poetry book, Music I Once Could Dance To, was published in 2014. As I began to have more and more poems win prizes and be accepted for publication in literary journals and anthologies, I felt more confident in the quality of my poems and the authenticity of my poetic voice. I also became a bit more receptive to suggestions that I consider assembling a book of poetry. I finally got up the nerve to gather up what I thought were some of my best poems, printed them out, and tried to put them together into groups that seemed to fit together. After a lot of shuffling and cutting, I managed to have a rough manuscript with four chapters and about 90 poems.

The last poem in the book was to be one of the first accepted for publication. It was called The Geomorphology of Life. I gave the manuscript to my wife, Pat, and told her I was going to use that for the book title.  Her immediate and vociferous response was "You can't name a poetry book The Geomorphology of Life! No one would buy a book of poetry with a name like that. What is wrong with you?" Fortunately, she was a bit more complimentary about the rest of the book. I said to myself "Why not look at the first poem in the book for a title?" When I read that poem and came to the last line, I decided it had to be the title. I read it to Pat. Music I once could dance to. She smiled and said "Now that is a good name for a poetry book. That is one I would pick up and look at." The title turned out to be the key to arranging the whole book and to give it focus. It even inspired the cover art. I think that it holds together very well.

The book came together pretty quickly once I dug in and started. It took from September until December. By then I had formatted the book and produced a draft pdf manuscript. I asked three friends to read the book and suggest changes. By incorporating those suggestions, I tightened up the book, thinned it out to the strongest poems, and moved them around so that each chapter was begun and ended, respectively, with the two best poems of that group. Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg  also wrote a great Introduction for the book.

Caryn had suggested that I query Kansas and regional small press publishers about publishing the book. I was fortunate that Brian Daldorph accepted and published the book as part of his Coal City Review and Press poetry series. Brian was a delight to work with, and his suggestions added the final polish to the book. He and Pam LeRow saw the book through the production and printing process with great care and professionalism.

9. Are you working on a new book?

Yes, in the sense that I am placing poems into a "book" folder as I decide they are worthy of consideration for a collection. Other than that, I have not identified a concept or title for a new book.

10.  What advice do you have for others who are beginning poets?

Read poetry every day. Read all kinds of poetry by all kinds of poets. Figure out why you like or don't like what you are reading. Learn from it. Write every day. Get involved with some other writers who are willing to meet regularly. (I am in a group of 6-8 poets who meet weekly for a short writing exercise and then read what we have written to one another. We call ourselves the Wayward Poets. In the five years we have been together I have written more consistently than at any other time in my life.)

Read your poems out loud to yourself as you write them. Ask others to read them. Listen to where they stumble and ask yourself why and what you can do to improve the readability of your work. Send your work out to contests and literary journals. Learn to accept rejection and use it to fuel your writing engine.  Go to workshops. Ask people for comments. Write, write, write. Edit, edit, edit. Write, write, write.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Interview With A Poet--Part 1

Roy Beckemeyer writes poems we can understand and relate to. My kind of poet! I sent Roy a list of questions for a possible interview and he graciously accepted my request. Today's post is Part 1, tomorrow brings Part 2 and a review of Roy's first published book of poetry will come on Wednesday. I think you'll find Roy's answers of interest and inspiring, as well.

1.  Where did you grow up and how many siblings did you have? Has your background influenced the poems you write?

I grew up in Illinois, due east of St. Louis, oldest child with one brother and three sisters. Blue collar family, small town, father died at an early age. My background has certainly influenced me as a writer, from the values we learned at home and in parochial school to the people we knew and grew up with. I was an inveterate reader as a child and read literally everything I could get my hands on, and my lexicon and vocabulary and knowledge of syntax are derived from my life of reading. (Roy now lives in Wichita, Kansas.)

2.  When did you start writing poetry? What inspired you do to do so?

I began to write poetry in high school. I also wrote short stories. The stories were inspired by having read so many of them; I was a fan of science fiction magazines. I started writing poetry when I was writing notes to my high school sweetheart. We have been married for 54 years, so the love poems apparently worked.

3.  I know that you spent your career as an engineer. Do you think it unusual for an engineer to also be a poet?

Probably, but my reading habits had instilled in me a love for the English language and for literature. I have also always had a wide area of interests, and have always delved deeply into anything I got into, including poetry. I dabbled in poetry for years, and went through spurts of writing and submitting them for publication, but my job kept me from having much leisure time. After retirement I got involved in a lot of new interests, and poetry has occupied much of my spare time for the past five years.

4.  What triggers you to begin a new poem?

I try to write daily; that process almost insures that something will be put on paper that can eventually be worked into a poem. Almost anything, music, sunsets, people, can inspire a poem, but I find that when reading someone else's poetry I often am struck by a few words or lines that send me off writing. 

5.  Do you have any idea how many poems you have written?

I don't really keep count, but including unfinished drafts, probably over a thousand.

Come back tomorrow to read more about Roy Beckemeyer.

Friday, February 20, 2015

School Memories Might Help Your Writing Now

Oak Park-River Forest  High School

This is a photo of a portion of the large high school I attended in a Chicago suburb. Students were told repeatedly what a fine school we had. It didn't make much of an impression on most of us. For the majority, it was the only school we knew. 

We draw from a well of information regarding our schools when writing memoir pieces or even family stories. I could write a full story about my father's visit to the principal of my grade school. Dad was infuriated over my coming home with the teacher's handprint still on my cheek. She'd slapped me for talking in my second grade class. I probably needed to be disciplined but not quite so harshly. I still remember the day she broke a ruler over the hands of a boy named Jack. She taught for only one year at our school. Most likely my father was not the only one to complain about her disciplinary tactics. That was a very small incident in my second grade year but it left an impression and could easily be included in a memoir or a family stories book.

Consider the fact that most of us spent 9 years in kindergarten, grade school and junior high (or middle school). Then add another 4 in high school. That's 13 years of your life--12 if you didn't go to kindergarten. A whole lot must have happened in your school life in that period of time. There are memories, both good and bad, that a writer can draw from when writing creative nonfiction. A novelist might use an incident from school years in a book. The book is fiction but many things in fiction are based on something the author remembers from earlier years. No names used, just the incident itself. 

If I am using a high school as a setting for a story, my mind might take me back to my own large high school that had classes on four floors and a physical education building across the street. An underground tunnel connected the two buildings. I have mental images from the four years I traveled through those halls and the tunnel. It could be easier to use those memories in my setting than to invent something brand new. I could write a chase scene through the school, closed for the night, more easily because I can actually 'see' it in my mind.

Who are the people you remember in the schools you attended? How about the many teachers who influenced you in one way or another? Some positive, some negatively. What about the rest of the school staff? Nurse, janitor, principal, school secretary, lunchroom personnel, librarian--all these people were a part of your school years. 

Can you list the special events or parties your school had? Did you have a Halloween parade through the school? Did your classrooms all have a Christmas tree every December? Did you participate in a musical program at your school? Many of the things those of us who are older had in schools are no longer allowed. Maybe it would be good to write about them for our children and grandchildren. 

Your school years can provide many things that can be included in your writing years as an adult. Ponder on them for awhile. The more you think about this period of your life, the more you'll remember.