Story Slam WINNERS

In the 2013 Stanford Story Slam, there was one first-place winner, and two runner-ups. The story I wrote with my writing group captured the first runner-up, so we essentially won second place! See our story “At Bike’s End” listed as a runner-up in the 2013 Winners tab of the slam webpage.

story slam winners

This was a ton of fun to do—I thoroughly enjoyed spending several hours with three other writers discussing plot, character, diction, etc… It is so gratifying to see our hard work rewarded. We have all grown so much as writers over the past few years, and now we’re starting to see our dedication pay off. Not that there won’t be a ton of rejections and failures ahead, but this win is just the beginning.

Story Slam my section

Section 2, “The Routine,” written by yours truly. (I also came up with the title–you can see our title thread here.)

I also managed to submit my query letter and the first five pages of my novel for a couple of meetings at the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference. Despite having gone over the query and pages with my writers’ group, and incorporating incredible advice from a successful author friend, I spent the days before submission stressed, worried, second-guessing. I was freaking out. Especially the hour directly prior to submission.

Had I really done my best? Would my best be good enough? How important is it, really, to get exactly 25 lines of text on each page? (I learned from my friend to turn off “widows and orphans” in Word, and in doing so learned what “widows” and “orphans” even are.) I chose Times New Roman, but what if my readers are in the Courier New camp?

And on, and on, and on. In the minutes leading up to submission, I called several members of my writers’ group, frantic, to ask their advice. Ultimately, I just had to make choices and go with them.

Tomorrow I’m speaking with a literary agent, a friend of my father’s massage therapist (that’s how networking works, right?), and while he doesn’t typically represent my genre, I can’t wait to ask him all kinds of questions and listen with rapt attention to his advice. As my uncle reminded me yesterday—he is an accomplished writer/director, and yet still had a treatment he’d written torn apart by his writing guru—there is always more to learn.

(P.S. For those grammar buffs out there who might be wondering, both “runners-up” and “runner-ups” are correct, according to Merriam-Webster.)

MUG Retreat Spring 2013

Zaytoon

Dinner at Zaytoon. From left: me, Anthony, Ari, Andrea. Photo by Cynthia.

At the MUG Santa Barbara Retreat this past weekend, I spent all of Saturday writing away with my writers group. Critiques and writing prompts broke stretches of solo writing. We went out for dinner at 9pm. My favorite part, along with the company and the food, was a little game we played in which we suggested actors who fit each other’s characters. The main contender for my novel’s protagonist was Amanda Seyfried, except with brown hair and eyes.

During the focused writing, we sat together in silence and focused on our own work. The only sound in the room was the tapping of laptop keys. Every now and then someone would break the silence to ask, “how do you spell…” or “what’s another word for…” like that.

Ari and Anthony

In the afternoon we wrote to prompts. Someone would explain the prompt, we would write, and then we’d go around and share. I’ve been so entrenched in revision that writing rough and fast was refreshing. In one prompt we each wrote down a profession on a piece of paper and passed it to the person on our right. We wrote using the beginning, “I have the hands of a…” After five minutes, we were told to begin the second section with: “But I’m not a…” That gave most of us a challenge! My piece of paper said “physicist” so mine was challenging anyway, since I know few, if any, details of that profession (let alone their hands).

We also went over my query and the first five pages of my manuscript. Several of them have read this book in all its iterations, and they stick with me no matter how tired they might be of reading it over and over again! I feel so lucky to have the support of this group of talented, intelligent, and creative people. My writing wouldn’t be the same without them.

At the edge of the pier. Photo by Cynthia.

At the edge of the pier. Photo by Cynthia.

See more details about the MUG Spring Retreat on our blog here!

Ensembling A Story

Stanford Story Slam

Over the past week and a half, I’ve been participating in the Stanford Story Slam with several members of MUG, my writers’ group. You can check out what we’re working on here. The deadline is in three days, so after a few more edits, we’ll be submitting. Wish us luck!

The challenge is to write a story, collaboratively, of no more than 1,000 words using the prompt: There are over 15,000 bikes used by students, staff, and faculty to get around Stanford campus. Over 300 bikes are stolen each year. Where do they go?

First we brainstormed over email. Each of us came up with at least one idea. We all voted, first for our top two favorites, and then we narrowed it down. We didn’t use my idea for the contest but I entertained myself quite a bit writing it, so I thought I’d share:

**The bicycles are stolen by homeless people. Two sects of homeless people, who meet in two camps on opposite sides of town once each year. One group is an underground ring of vices – the homeless beg enough money to buy drugs and alcohol and trade up with each other. The other group is Shenanigans. They are homeless because they’re free, and they get together to make merry in their own form of cycling circus. There are relay races and wheelie popping tournaments and the Grand Sand Painting, in which cyclists trail swirls of colored sand behind them as they ride, building a collaborative picture. Usually these camps operate independently of each other, but this year… well, here’s the thing. The Cycling Vices are tired of stealing their own bikes, and they think it’d be much easier to just run over to the Shenanigans and steal theirs. Initially all hell breaks loose, especially since the circus crowd easily hops on their bikes and cycles away. But the Shenanigans have heard colored cocaine makes finer detailing than colored sand, so eventually they cut a deal. They give half their bikes to the Vices in exchange for a sturdy supply of coke, which they then dye and go on to use in creating the best Grand “Sand” Painting yet.**

Someone suggested breaking the synopsis into four parts, and we each picked the one we wanted to write. We’re a flexible crew, otherwise that might not have worked! I started writing and ended up with over 300 words – it probably took me twice as long to edit it down as to write it, and I was still slightly over my 250-word mark.

We video chatted twice, once before we started writing and once after we had each made comments on all the sections. We actually went through the story line by line, nitpicking cadence, streamlining themes, and jiggering our word count. Perhaps because we’ve been in a writing group for the past three years, we work really well together.

On that note, I am very much looking forward to my writers’ group Retreat next weekend! We will trade prompts, try out writing exercises, chat about writing, and feed off of each other’s creative energy. I have found a plethora of information on query letters via the internet, and must revise, revise, revise. I’ll pass out my query letter at the Retreat, facedown like they did tests in elementary school, have everyone flip the papers at the same time, and give them a short period to read. Like 30-60 seconds, because I’ve heard agents decide yay/nay in that time. I’ll ask for gut reaction feedback, and then I’ll ask them to take a bit longer to look it over and offer comments. I’m also submitting the first five pages for their perusal. And I’m furiously rewriting the ending, because with a new ending I may have a whole new query letter!

A Novel Critique

Last week I had a successful critique for Draft 3 of my novel, and I am so grateful to my readers. This group of very intelligent and supportive people read through the entire 300+ page draft, wrote notes, and joined the critique with thoughtful and honest comments. Over the past few days I have also had a personal calls with people who weren’t able to make the crit. Thank you to all my readers for your encouragement and the effort you’ve put into this.

We discussed everyone’s favorite scenes, favorite moments, the world-creation, and the construct of being popular in this novel. And the main things I have to work on are, let’s see – the beginning, the end, and my protagonist’s character arc. No big shakes, right? For some reason I thought that by the fourth draft I might be working on things like, I don’t know, expand this scene, cutting this specific scene. Sentence structure, refining dialogue – well, it seems the dialogue is one of the strengths, and wordsmithing on the sentence level doesn’t happen until oh, about draft 8.

With previous drafts I was getting comments randomly, and there was no dialogue between critiquers, so it was hard to be sure what I wanted to take and what I didn’t. This critique was so great because people talked to me and to each other, so I got to see clearly what was disagreed upon and what everyone thought was a necessary change.

Hard copies of my draft with notes from my readers.

When my mentor said he thought I should cut the first 60 pages, I wanted to tear my hair out. Apparently it’s a common thing for young writers, not to begin where the story actually begins. (I hate to think of myself as a “young” writer, even though I am, and I was so sure I was starting where it really begun!) I’ve let that little dagger sit for awhile and have gotten used to the idea. Thinking about okay, how might I do that? I brought the question to critique, to general agreement – yes, much of the beginning should be trimmed (a nice way to say, cut). The question – to prologue, or not to prologue – remains. (How often do people really read prologues? I do, because it’s usually part of the fiction. I’ll admit, however, I hardly ever make it past the first few pages of a forward.)

Usually for me critiques go one of two ways. Excitement, inspiration, I want to work on this immediately. Or deflation – it will never be what I want, I can’t even look at this right now. My general feeling after this critique is okay, here we go again. I’m elated that it went so well, afraid I’ll never get it published (sure, each draft has been significantly better than the previous, but still so riddled with issues), and ready to work on it again. I’ve heard many different forms of advice, one of them being that you should never begin work on a piece directly after a critique. You have to let it sink in, work in your subconscious, so when you go back to the piece, you have a place to go. To me, two months seems like forever. I feel like I’ve been away from my novel for a long time. But two months isn’t really that long. Often, it’s advised you take much more time away to get perspective. I have short stories that I’ve been working on for years, and the most recent drafts could never have happened back when I first wrote them.

A lovely gift from my friend, critiquer, and fellow writers’ group member. I couldn’t do what I do without the incredible support of the amazing people in my life!

What I’m getting to, is whether or not I should do NaNoWriMo. That’s National Novel Writing Month – November. Next month. I’m afraid that beginning a whole new project in the middle of my first novel is a crazy idea. At the same time, perhaps the time away would give me needed perspective. But if I begin a new novel, isn’t it only that much longer to publishing my current one? It’s a great thing for craft, to be writing and writing and getting perspective and writing some more, but a person could spend her whole life doing this and never publishing.

I’ve had the idea for my next book for a long time. It’s been brewing in the backround, and I’m starting to get excited about it. Several members of my writers’ group are going to participate. We even have a word counter up on the blog. I so want to participate in this race, be inspired by some healthy competition!

My mentor is adamant that I don’t step too far away from this novel. “You’ve worked too hard,” he said, “To let this go.” Perhaps I can use the buzz of NaNoWriMo to speed along my revision. A whole new draft in a month? That would be amazing. I just don’t know if this is a process that can be sped up.

The MUG Blog

One of my writers’ groups, called MUG (kind of an inside joke), has started a blog. On the MUG blog, we keep track of the published pieces we read, and whoever submits a published piece puts up questions to get everyone thinking. The blog also serves as a forum for thoughts and discussion about writing.
As we recruit new members, we’ve decided to put up a page called “How We Operate.” I’ll be writing about our expectations for critiquing pieces, while other veteran members will post about what our meetings typically look like and submission guidelines.