a writer’s guide to basic etiquette

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been out of commission for a little while with a bad cold. i spent most of the last week sick in bed. i used the time to watch season four of “big love,” which was hilariously terrible. only nine episodes, & they managed to pack about seven thousand ridiculous storylines in there. i won’t spoil it for anyone, because there may still be people feverishly awaiting the DVD release, but my advice? if you were feeling iffy on the show after the third season, just cut your losses & skip the fourth. unless maybe you’re sick in bed or something. but you’ll probably feel more relaxed tracking down some old episodes of “the golden girls” or “roseanne” on youtube.

yesterday i got an e-mail notification from the flash fiction contest to which i submitted over the summer. submissions closed at the end of august & the first round of judging took place in september. & i made the first cut! they capped submissions at three hundred entries, & the top hundred have been passed on to the official guest judge. there are 25 potential placements (first, second, & third places, seven runners-up, & 15 honorable mentions). so i have a one-in-four chance of placing, but…honestly, i’m ecstatic just to have made it through the first round. this was my first experience submitting to a writing contest as an adult, & for me, it was mainly an exercise in meeting a deadline, following submission guidelines, & putting myself at risk for rejection. the contest i entered allows contestants to pay a little extra for a critique, which they will receive once judging is complete & winners have been announced. i went ahead & sprang for the critique. serious fiction writing is something that is still very new to me, & i want to know where my strengths & weaknesses lie. i don’t expect any big prizes.

i did a little digging around on the internet to see if anyone else who made it through first round judging is also gushing about it on their blog. & i found one. but there was no gushing. instead, the author was complaining about how she made it through first round judging in the last contest too (it’s a quarterly thing), but did not place. she said it was all just a big tease & that she must be a terrible writer if she can’t stand out enough to place in a pool of one hundred stories. she seemed almost pissed off to receive notification of making it through first round judging–it was weird. she said something like, “if i can’t place in a group of one hundred stories, what chance do i have of being plucked out of an editor’s slush pile?” well…none, if you’re going to be so defeatist about it that you don’t even try anymore.

it’s important to remember that the judgment of any sort of writing is very subjective. once you get past the big hurdles (is it coherent? does it meet basic grammatical standards?), so much of what’s good & what’s bad is a matter of taste & preference. no writer can please all of the people all of the time, & it’s pointless to even try. but being a writer, & especially being a writer that strives for mainstream publishing credits, is all about facing rejection & criticism. plenty of people have criticized my writing. sometimes the critiques are legitimate–i meandered away from my original point, or i didn’t have a point to begin with, or my writing was brittle & unpersuasive, or my plot was boring & unrealistic. & sometimes the critiques were just an issue of personal preference–my sentences were too long, i used too many fifty-cent words, they didn’t care for my topic. & sometimes the critique was straight up bogus. if i were to get too bogged down in trying to make everyone happy, it would be impossible for me to write anything authentic.

i’m really pleased to have gotten this far in the contest, even if i don’t make it any further. i look forward to receiving my critique & seeing what the judges liked & didn’t like. it will give me some baseline from which to examine my writing & strengthen it. even if they dislike aspects that i am really invested in, i can still use the critique to sharpen my focus in terms of audience, or find a new way to craft an aspect of my writing that i don’t want to lose altogether. this is what makes writing a craft, as opposed to an art. there’s always a different angle to consider. writing is self-expression, but i think it’s very important for writer to consider their goals, intended audiences, & abilities, & to play to those things. pure self-expression is for my diary. writing that others will see is crafted, to some extent.

kind of related to this topic…in writing about why i closed my zine distro in “love letters to monsters” #3, i critiqued a zine i received for distro consideration about a year & a half ago. i said that the author’s execution, in terms of writing & layout, wasn’t as good as her premise, & that’s why i chose not to carry her zine. this zinester later made a huge stink about distros rejecting her zines & publicly suggested that all the zine distros that had rejected her were perhaps engaged in some sort of elaborate conspiracy to “censor” her…by not carrying her stuff. like distros are the only way to get your zines sold. i think everyone who runs a distro gets accused of something like this sooner or later. it wasn’t the first time i’d experienced it, but after running the distro for six years, it was kind of the last straw. this is all in the zine, you can read more about it if you want. the point is that i mentioned this incident as an instigating factor in why i finally decided to shut down the distro (one factor among several).

i was really surprised when the zinester in question then ordered my zine! she’d been so critical of my submission guidelines & decision not to carry her zine, i figured she had written me off & was disinterested in my zines. but i sent it to her, with a nice little note. she wrote me today to let me know that she had positively IDed herself in my zine, & she was very angry about it. honestly, her e-mail didn’t make a whole lot of sense. she took umbrage with my criticism because she said she’d never personally attacked me. well, i never personally attacked her either. i merely critiqued the quality of her writing & encouraged her to edit more. & i actually do think some of the things she wrote about distros censoring her (in which she named my distro specifically) could be construed as attacks. but perhaps that’s a matter of opinion. she also said that the next time i want to criticize her i should use her name because “all publicity is good publicity”. i wouldn’t call what i wrote “publicity” by any stretch of the imagination, but hey. she also said that she has always supported my distro (she ordered from me once, around the same time she submitted a zine for consideration), & had done so again by ordering my most recent zine. which she ordered from me. not the distro. because the distro is closed. reading comprehension? very confusing. i considered writing her back & offering to refund her $3, but she specifically said not to write her back, so…i guess i’ll keep that $3 then.

i was definitely expecting some kind of fallout when she ordered the zine, but it wasn’t so bad. just non-sensical enough to make me laugh, without really stressing me out. so i’ll consider it a win. but it just highlights, again, the way that people in the zine community seem to be so completely uninterested in constructive criticism nowadays. i think that’s fine–different strokes for different folks. a lot of people making zines are doing it purely for the purposes of having a therapeutic outlet for self-expression. they’re not trying to lay the groundwork for some fantastic writing career (& thank goodness, because zines may not be the way to make that happen). but this woman…IS. she has written explicitly in her zines about how she is self-publishing in the zine format in order to launch herself as a legitimate published author in a mainstream context. & as such, i expected a lot more from her writing than the usual self-involved never-made-a-zine-before screeds. & once she got a few issues in, i definitely anticipated a little polish…but it doesn’t seem to be happening.

i like seeing people pursuing their ambitions. but i like to see the pursuit augmented by a little self-awareness & respect for the people that will be assisting them on their path to greatness. my ambition doesn’t go much further than, “i would like to finish writing a novel & shop it around to some agents,” but that doesn’t mean i’m going to just vomit forth 50,000 words & write a cover letter about how i’m the next margaret atwood & anyone who doesn’t want to represent me can kiss my rosy ass. & it doesn’t mean i’m going to throw myself a pity party if an agent requests a full manuscript & then passes. baby steps, people.

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