Hit Submit 2019

Yes, hi, hello, I run a writing critique group called Columbia Writers, which meets in Howard County, Maryland. If you don’t know this already, where on earth have you been? I talk about it often and at great length. (Sorry not sorry)

Typewriter

Our steadiest program has been the bi-weekly 20/20 meetings, where eight to ten writers meet up and critique two writers’ submissions of up to 20 pages. Everyone reads the work in advance and comes with notes to share in a round robin discussion with the group. This has been going steady for many years and is a holdover from before myself and my two friends officially took over running the group in 2017.

We’ve also recently completed a Novel in Six (months) challenge, which put writers in small accountability groups with the goal of writing or re-writing a draft in six months’ time. We’ve offered the chance for writers to read one another’s completed manuscripts in a book-club-like fashion. In addition, there have been interactive workshops on outlining, micro fiction, query letters, self-publishing, and more. There’s even been a demonstration of martial arts and swordplay.

All of this to say, we like offering interesting programming. The three of us are insanely busy, though, so it can be tough to find time to organize special functions and offer ongoing events. One member, Leigh (who was in my Novel in Six group), inspired me to pitch a program that we’re calling Hit Submit – and she’ll be co-running it with me.

The Hit Submit group with be no more than six people all writing for the same prompt/literary magazine, with the same submission date. We’ll go through a few drafts each and critique one another’s stories to get them ready to, well, hit submit this May 1st.

As someone who has roughly forty rejection letters under her belt, I understand the importance of putting yourself out there and submitting work to magazines, knowing very well that you probably won’t be accepted. But it’s a key step toward success as a writer: be brave enough to take the chance that you’ll fail. You can’t succeed without taking that risk in the first place.

New Year, New Goals

I’ve never been much for big New Year’s resolutions. I find most of them unrealistic and unsustainable. Small changes over time is, if you ask me, a much better approach, but it sure lacks some of the flair of a big, sweeping change of a goal. Modern psychology supports my theory of making small changes and turning those into habits.

NYE

Mine are small but important:

  • Go to the gym for an hour once a week, early on Sunday mornings (gotta start somewhere)
  • Foster another parrot for Phoenix Landing
  • Save up toward an eventual house down payment
  • Re-write my novel length manuscript
  • Run the Hit Submit group for Columbia Writers this winter/spring

Nothing huge or terrifying. Nothing that I can’t manage to do without driving myself totally crazy. Nothing I’m going to have to force myself to accomplish while dragging my feet the whole way. I think that’s how you have to get things done, generally: one step at a time.

Readers, what are your resolutions for 2019?

The Spirit of Giving

True confession o’clock: I don’t like Christmas. Pretty much at all. Never have, never will.

My partner, however, adores the holiday. This makes things a little awkward. I’m doing my best not to be a total Scrooge, but it’s tough this time of year. I’m not taking any time off of work (aside from today) nor am I going anywhere or seeing family. We snacked on a cheese plate on Christmas Eve, made hot cocoa with my homemade marshmallows, and drove around to see the lights in the neighborhood. On Christmas morning, we opened presents (more on that later) with each other and the pets (one black lab and one small fruit gremlin). Later, I’ll make a prime rib for dinner and we’ll decorate homemade sugar cookies after that to finish the evening off.

Christmas Tree

Here’s the thing: I love giving gifts, but not when I feel like I must do it out of some sense of obligation. I like to find things my people would like, buy it for them, and surprise them with it. I want to do it because I want to do it.

Example: Two dear friends just lost their beloved ten year old dog. He was much loved in our friends group and his  owners took his loss very hard. I sent them a gift of gourmet snacks for their family movie nights and got together with two other friends to commission an artist to make a memorial pendant of the dog: a 3D clay portrait in his likeness. I did this because I wanted to, because it was the right thing to do and it might make them feel better in the long run. I didn’t do it because I felt like I must or would be judged if I didn’t.

Christmas, though? It’s an uncomfortable showing of wealth and it leans in to capitalism in a way that makes my skin crawl. I don’t like stuff, I don’t like being given things, I don’t like superfluous things. I am a minimalist and I like to buy my own necessary (or fun) items, thank you very much. So when I saw the massive (and constantly growing) pile of gits under the tree for me, I balked. I had gotten my boyfriend three things: a unicorn onesie (which probably won’t fit, but I had to try, and anyway I can take it apart and use it as a pattern to make a bigger one), hot cocoa with homemade marshmallows, and a commissioned piece of art from Mass Effect (which may not arrive in time as of writing this on 12/21). I wanted to get him a D&D ugly Christmas sweater, but it had been sold out for weeks when I checked last month.

I felt so so so uncomfortable with this and, on a difficult night after my partner and I were both stressed about his dog ripping open one of my gifts for him (surprise ruined on the onesie, just super), I started crying about receiving too much and not giving enough. It was just awful. He did his best to assuage my fears that I was a shitty partner, but honestly, I still feel terrible. I’m not good at Christmas and I don’t know that I want to be. It’s too materialistic. It doesn’t suit me.

I’ll just hide in the kitchen and make a giant prime rib, garlic mashed potatoes, green beans, and a pile of cookies. I’m happiest when I’m cooking, so I’ll take the holiday as an excuse to feed the person I love something over the top.

The Five Worst Things

As I am deep in the outlining phase of my massive manuscript re-write, I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me and need all the help I can get in re-working most of my plot. In my current (like, I don’t know, fourth?) draft, one thing is clear: my main plot is far too simple. Too many things come to the protagonist too easily and – often – by sheer luck. Well, that’s just not going to cut it. I need to make things much more complicated for her and here is how I plan to do it.

15-worst-things-say-pregnant-woman-2160x1200

How can you make your readers’ hearts fill with dread or concern for your characters, compelling them to keep turning the pages? Simple: keep stacking up obstacles for your protagonists. Here’s an exercise that I’ve seen recommended in quite a few places, but which I first tried in an outlining workshop taught by my friend and Columbia Writers co-leader, Dustin.

The Five Worst Things

Take a scene where the conflict is weak or where things feel too safe for your characters. Think of something bad that could happen as a result of their action (or inaction). That’s number one. Now, think of something worse that could occur: there’s number two. And go on down the list, thinking of subsequently more trying scenarios until you have five terrible things that could happen to your characters. Heck, if you’re feeling ambitious/cruel, you can go with ten ideas.

There’s no need to always have these things be physical harm or death (that gets old quickly, trust me), but it can be the loss of a friendship, uncovering a closely-held secret, realizing something important has been a lie, being betrayed by a trusted person, losing an item, or missing an opportunity. I always gravitate to grievous bodily harm (because my protagonist is scrappy and gets into lots of hand-to-hand combat), but I need to expand my horizons a bit.

This exercise is great because it can function not just with individual scenes, but in a macro manner, applied to a whole manuscript or story. What are the five worst things that can happen to your characters throughout the entire narrative arc? How can you keep them on their toes? What complications can you throw at them?

And remember: not all of these complications need to be the result of the antagonist’s actions. Lots of characters will do a perfectly good job of sabotaging themselves – so let them! A flawed character who doesn’t always act in their own best interests can be a compelling one.

Grab some paper and give it a try. What are the five worst things that can happen? Only your imagination knows for sure!

The Moving Blues

I’m moving in three days. Oh dear god in heaven, send help. I’ve read so many blogs and articles about how to make a move low stress, but I’m thinking that’s an impossibility. That standard is unachievable. The best I can manage is only kind of wanting to die, which will have to do.

Moving Truck

I have done all of the things that are supposed to help:

  • Start packing well in advance
  • Donate or throw out everything you don’t use
  • Plan and organize tasks using a calendar
  • Research and hire the right moving company
  • Create a master to do list
  • Clearly label boxes
  • Schedule when to disconnect utilities
  • Change your address before you move

All that good stuff. But oh my gosh, it is a LOT. I’m doing all of the sorting, packing, throwing out, and donating myself and – get this – I’m sick as a dog with a stomach bug and I hurt my back moving boxes around. Unfortunately, I’m not quite done packing and I have painting of one of my new rooms to do before my stuff arrives on Friday morning. I have to push through no matter how awful I feel.

It should be noted, however, that I am extremely organized and very stubborn (that should be the title of my memoir) and that I can work through just about any physical issue to get things done, running pretty much on pure willpower. This comes from over a decade of daily, body-wide chronic pain; I’ve built up quite the pain tolerance, so if something knocks me down, you know it’s serious.

Wish me luck, dear readers. I am going to need it.

Hmm. Wish me aspirin, too. That should help.