I Entered a Contest

I’ve been a little busy this week.

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I started writing when I was about eight years old. At first, it was just a school project, and then some stories to amuse myself and my friends, though I think I imagined publishing a book one day even then. By the time I was sixteen, I decided it was what I wanted to do with my life.  When I dropped out of college and nineteen, I said that writing was the only career I saw for myself and if I had to work entry level positions until I made that happen (I was a little naive at the time and didn’t realize that writers often need day jobs even after they’re published), so be it.

At that time, I gave myself a goal: have something published, even if it’s just a short story, by the time I’m twenty-five.  I’ll be twenty-six in a month, but I’m nowhere near that goal. In fact, in all the time I’ve been writing, the only time I’ve submitted a story for any kind of judgment was to apply for the Governor’s School for the Arts, to which I was rejected. I usually either don’t stick with projects long enough or I feel they’re not ready, or they’re not what I had in my head. Well, there’s that, and then there’s me. Sharing my stories with even family and close friends makes me feel sick to my stomach. Workshops? Unbiased betas? It’s painful to even think about it.

It’s a stumbling block I know I need to overcome, so this year, I made a New Year’s Resolution to enter more contests and submit to magazine’s. And NYC Midnight‘s annual short story challenge seemed like the perfect place to start. You all know that I’m a long time participant in NaNoWriMo, and that my favorite thing about it is the “healthy dose of panic” it induces. One of my NaNo friends told me, when I explained this challenge to her, “That sounds exactly like something a NaNoWriMo writer would do.” It works like this: each writer is placed in a random heat and given a genre, a topic, and a character to work with. For the first round, they receive assignments at midnight and have eight days to write. The writers of the top five stories of each heat will then go on to the second round, placed in new heats, and given three days to write. The four best of each heat then go on to the final round, in which they have one day to write.

With over 3,000 participants, I don’t expect to get past the first round, but that’s not really the point. At each stage, participants receive feedback from judges who are writing professionals themselves. Just in participating, I’ve sort of accomplished my goal. I finally put myself out there. And I freaked out the whole way. I stayed up too late worrying. I woke with my stomach in knots. I anxiety-vomited all over social media almost every day to tell everyone how nerve-wracking this was. I’ve been a little obnoxious, but this whole experience has been, though rewarding, a little uncomfortable. Knowing Sam was also in the contest and going through the same thing helped a bit.

I’ve been trying to pinpoint what scares me about my story being judged. This story, a thriller of all things, was not really within my strong suit, but there are parts of the story of which I’m actually very proud. I have a complex, interesting protagonist.  I used clever twist of an ending. I really liked some of the quotes. I don’t think it’s the best story, but I don’t think it’s bad. I’m terrified the judges will think it is, though. That’s the worst thing that could happen, in my mind. They’ll tell me that it’s boring or that the characters aren’t compelling. I know that I’m probably just doubting myself because I’m too close to the story to see it objectively; but I also might not be able to tell if it’s bad work because I’m too close to it. It is possible that they won’t like it.

When I tell my friends about my fears, they like to tell me, “Oh, no, they’ll love it” or “they won’t say that, it’s not as bad as you think.” And yes, there’s probably something to that. If nothing else, these judges probably know how to give more constructive feedback than, “This sucks, don’t quit your day job.”  But if they do think my story is bad…I need to let that happen.  If this is a bad story, or if there’s an element to it that’s very weak, I need to know. How can I ever expect to improve if I won’t let anyone tell me what’s wrong? How can I develop a thick skin to rejection if I don’t let myself be rejected in the first place? It will hurt, of course, if the feedback is mostly negative. I’ll probably be crushed, and just thinking about it is sure to keep me an anxious mess through the first half of next week. But I need honest feedback from people who don’t love me if I’m going to be the best writer I can be. I really hope the feedback is positive, but negative feedback might be just what I need right now.

After editing and reading through the story, just shy of 2,000 words, until I was sick of it, I sent it in late last night. Now there’s just the agonizing process of waiting.

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What I Learned from D&D: First One-Shot

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It started with Critical Role, a twitch livestream/youtube webseries in which voice actor Matthew Mercer and other voice actors play a game of Dungeons & Dragons that’s been going on for about four years now. When I first heard about the show, I thought it sounded fun, but…Dungeons & Dragons isn’t my thing. Still, it was fun to read my friends’ reactions and look at some of the fan art. Inevitably, my curiosity got the better of me and decided to watch it. But…it’s probably just going to make me want to play D&D and I’m really no good at oral storytelling.

I tried to watch it and just enjoy the story, despite the temptation to jump into a game when I saw how much fun the players had. Meanwhile, a couple of my friends started talking about playing a one-shot. A more experienced friend offered to DM for them. But…I don’t know, it just sounds so complicated.

Inevitably, my curiosity got the better of me.

For our one-shot, I created Fenoise, a high elf bard who had debilitating stage fright and one leg four inches shorter than the other. Fenoise’s parents were librarians and she spent most of her youth pouring over adventure tales and folklore.  Finally, her curiosity got the better of her and she left home to become an adventuring bard herself, despite the fact that she couldn’t bring herself to get on a stage and perform anything. Fenoise was a good channel for my own writing insecurities, as well as my nervousness about my first game. I thought that I did a pretty good job of plotting out who she was as a person. Her motivations, her desires, her flaws. She was critically self-conscious, defensive and proud, a little unintentionally racist, but sympathetic and brave and she tried.  And then, once I felt like I had her personality and my character sheet was all finished, I stopped. All I had to do was wait, I figured. And maybe for some that would be true. It wasn’t quite for me, however.

The game was a lot of fun and I left it energized and wanting more. But it didn’t go quite the way I wanted it to. As content as I was with my characterization beforehand, I felt like I lost sight of my character through the game. She wasn’t coming off like I imagined. She’s not supposed to be this awkward–she is a bard, after all–and she should feel less comfortable with this character. And it wasn’t just the character. When we started the game, all four characters were in a waiting room, waiting for our employer to see us, and I didn’t know what to say or do. We asked the townspeople questions and I found myself at a loss when I tried to think of helpful questions. Witty one-liners became a far-off dream. At one point towards the end of the game, we were face to face with a small red dragon, and when my turn came, I was at a loss.

“I don’t know what to do,” I thought aloud. “I wasn’t prepared for a dragon.”

“In a game called Dungeons & Dragons?” the DM quipped, and we laughed.

I eventually just shot the dragon with a crossbow, and because they were already weakened by another player’s attacks, the DM borrowed a line from Critical Role and asked me, “How do you want to do this?” For those who don’t watch the show, it’s the same as, say, “Make it flashy.” I can describe, in dramatic detail, how my limping, insecure little bard slayed a fucking dragon. It was a swelling underdog moment worthy of an animated Disney movie with a killer soundtrack.

“Bard kills are the best kills,” the DM added as I hesitated. Except…

I blanked. I just couldn’t think of anything. She offered to give me a minute, but in my panic and utter lack of ideas, I just asked one of my other friends to take over and describe it for me.  And then it was over, and it was more good than awkward, and I don’t think anyone really cared except my anxiety.

But I decided there are lessons to take from this, lessons that can be put to use in my writing. Dungeons & Dragons is, after all, just another form of storytelling. I could say that I learned how awkward I am at oral storytelling, but I already knew that. Here’s what I did learn:

I am not a pantser.

I’ve seen this debate for a few years amongst writers: plotting vs. pantsing. Plotting means you prepare for your story, you outline, you plan; pantsing is diving in and “writing by the seat of your pants.” When I was a teenager, I only ever pantsed. To outline was to kill the story for me. But as I got older, I found that sometimes it helped me to have a sense of what I was writing and not get stuck if I wrote an outline first. In the past couple years, I’ve done a bit of a mix. Sometimes I plot; sometimes I pants; sometimes I start to plot and just end up pantsing. It depends on the story, I tell myself. Except it doesn’t. I always, always feel better about my story when I first take the time to figure out what story I’m trying to tell.

In D&D, you have to be able to play “by the seat of your pants,” and I was nervous about that going in. I am, after all, the girl who messed up an improv group exercise by bursting into giggles at everyone else, saved only by a much more talented improv actor who claimed I was drunk. Sure enough, it was an awkward experience for me. There’s only so much that can be done about that, but I think there are some things I can do to help it. I can spend a little time with my character before each game. I can write little snippets so I can get used to their voice and the way they respond to things. I can write out hypothetical scenarios, like killing a monster or questioning townspeople. And in my personal writing, I can accept that I am officially not a pantser. If I need to plot for a D&D game, I need to plot that much more when I’m trying to write a novel.

There was a time that I thought I would be less creative if I couldn’t just…form the story off the top of my head. But I grew up, and you know what? It’s okay. It’s good to know my weaknesses and to focus on my strengths instead. I’m great at plotting out a dynamic character and a compelling story. I just have to give myself the time and put in the work.

New Years Resolutions

Nothing makes my imposter syndrome kick up like making New Years Resolutions. Every last few months of the year, I tell myself that I’m not going to do New Years Resolutions, because I only ever finish half of them and there’s no point in setting myself up for failure. But every last week or so of the year, I get caught up in that spirit of newness and renewed motivation and soon I have a little list of goals in my mind of things I want to do over the course of the next year. I might as well write them down, right? And if I only finish half of them, well, that’s a half-list of accomplishments for which I can pat myself on the back.

So, here goes. My goals for 2017.

  1. Work on my relationship with God. This is my constant goal. If I have no other goals, this one will still remain, because I can never be close enough or rely enough on my LORD.  I’ve created a lot of obstacles between myself and God in the past few years, though, and while I’m trying to get back to where I was, it’s an uphill battle.
  2. Enter more writing contests and submit to magazines. To be specific, I want to enter a minimum of two contests and submit to a minimum of six magazines. I’m already on my way with this one. My friend Sam and I are both going to enter NYC Midnight‘s Short Story contest, the first round of which begins on January 21. It has the healthy-dose-of-panic sort of goals I love: first round is a short story in 8 days, second round is a short story in 3 days, and final round is a short story in 24 hours.
  3. Travel. I have plans to go to Philadelphia to visit a friend in April and to go to Bookcon in New York with another friend in June. So far, it looks like it might actually work out, if I’m careful with my savings. And that’s the catch. I’ll also be staying at hostels for the first time, so that will be fun. And in October, I should be going to a friend’s wedding in South Dakota.
  4. Decide where I want to move. I’m planning a move by fall of 2018 at the latest. I’ve always wanted to move out of Kentucky eventually, and I really feel like it’s time. Well, that might not be all of it.  The truth is, I’ve always liked the idea of living everywhere and I think I’m just ready for the next chapter of that book.  Right now, I have it narrowed down to Atlanta or Minneapolis, or Kansas City if I can’t afford either of those. I thought about this all through last year, and went through half a dozen cities. I don’t want to add more options to this list this year. By the end of the year, I want to have an idea of where I’m going.
  5. Read 55 books. This is actually just my Goodreads reading goal for the year. Shouldn’t be a problem, as last year I read 65.
  6. Get the guitar fixed up. Last March, my mom told me that she passed a stack of encyclopedias by one of the dumpsters at our apartment complex and that if I wanted them, I better go get them, because it would rain soon. While I was out there, I found an old Stella acoustic guitar. It was dusty and cracked, with two of the strings missing and all of them in bad shape. It had these old stickers from the 60s or 70s stuck to it. I don’t play guitar (tried to learn once, until my guitar teacher quit on me without warning to join a band), but it struck me so immediately that I couldn’t just leave it there to be ruined by the rain. I took it home, duck taped it as best I could, bought a case, bought some polish. I named it Chelsea Morning, with the help of Laney. And for several months, it’s just been resting between my bookshelf and my dresser. I didn’t want this to become one of my unfinished projects. I wanted to actually clean the guitar up, if it can be cleaned, and learn how to play it. So, this year, I’ll have to hit up music stores for new strings, a tuner, and probably show it to someone that knows something about guitars to see what can be done to rehabilitate Chelsea.tumblr_o3jlp7k1l81uccj6go1_1280
  7. And finally…blog more. Believe it or not, every week I set a goal of an amount of blogs I want to write. I have yet to meet my weekly goal. I never really expect to, it just gives me a little push to blog at all during the week. But I want to try harder to make a habit of it this year.