Wednesday, October 31, 2012

How To Get Published, Part One: My Portfolio Is Not Magic

I feel really dumb writing this post, which is probably why I’ve put off writing it so far.

I’ve had some things published. This is true. It also does not make me an expert, in the same way that someone who has been on a jr. high swim team could be an Olympic commentator, or a student who read the Cliff Notes version of Plato’s Republic should apply to teach a history of philosophy at a local college. It would take the résumé padding of a compulsive liar to convince you that I can say anything definitive on this subject.

What I can do is share from my own experience, because I’ve noticed that a lot of people new to the writing world want to know how it works. I can’t tell you that. But I can tell you the small corner of it that I’ve come into contact with. Please note that I’m still learning and stumbling through this too, and at times, I don’t do the things I know I should or follow my own advice.

People who get published aren’t some rare, brilliant, disciplined group of people. They’re people who came to this often-mysterious thing called freelance writing, worked hard, poked around at different things trying to figure out what on earth was going on, and eventually figured out what worked by trial and error.

Trial and error isn’t always fun. So this blog post is supposed to be the anti-trial and error. That is, if you haven’t fled several paragraphs because of my lengthy disclaimer. (I swear that my self-esteem is just fine. Really.)

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Time is Money

Have you ever read the fine print at the bottom of receipts? Along with a store phone number or a survey you should fill out online, there’s an enthusiastic note for you, their valued customer, something like “Total Money Saved: $78.23!” This adds up all of the sales on the items that you bought for less than the normal price (which, in my family would be pretty much every item except for those that are so generic that their prices cannot be brought down because it’s not worth the cost of printing a coupon).

At Christmas, the women of my family will go shopping. When we return with bulging bags and obnoxious holiday songs stuck in our heads, Grandpa will look at the receipts and say, with a good-natured sneer, “‘You Saved $35.38,’ it says. Well, show me the money!”

He has a good point. You didn’t save $35.38 on the three sweaters, pair of shoes, silver earrings, and pair of fuzzy socks that were an impulse buy at the register. You spent $84.99, plus tax. Sure, if you would have spent that money anyway, it’s good that you got some of the items at a lower price than usual. Sometimes, though, the promise of saving money leads us to spend more than we need.

I realized recently that it’s the same with time. One of my extracurricular activities ended last week. If you would print out the receipt of my life, it would now read, “Total Time Saved: 3 Hours!”

Except I didn’t save that time, at least not last week. I spent it in tiny increments on things that I wouldn’t have done otherwise. Daydreaming during homework, forcing me to read the same article twice. Taking a nap that was twice as long as what I needed. Wandering around on Facebook, looking for something meaningful in the slush pile of pictures of people I don’t know that well, mindless memes that might occasionally be mildly funny, and the many trials and triumphs of Farmville.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Blog About Blogging

This Friday, I’m going to talk to the freshman writing class about blogging. Since I know myself, I am fairly certain that I’ll have too much to say and not enough time. Therefore, I’m going to say almost everything here and just tell them all to read it. (As my fellow writing major put it, “How technologically impersonal of you.”)

I like lists of seven. Seriously, sometimes when I’m writing a To-Do list, I combine two items, add an extra one, or decided I really don’t need to do a few of them just so it can be a list of seven. This year, the orientation group I led was Yellow 7, the first (and so far, only) 7 group in the history of Taylor. So that was a big deal.

But next to seven, three is the next best, and since I didn’t want to add too much unnecessary information, I’m going with three lists of three that will pretty much sum up everything I know about blogging, since I’ve only been at it for a year now.

Three Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Blog
  • 76,221 Words and Counting: It’s hard work. I’ve written a novel’s worth of words in all of my posts combined (although the posts are shorter now than when I started). Consistency is especially hard—coming up with stuff to say twice a week can stretch my creativity, which is the excuse I’ll use if you think one of my posts is terrible.
  •  The Ugly Truth: You will find weaknesses and self-deceptions you didn’t know existed. And I’m not even talking about the content of the blog, although I wrote a whole post about that on Saturday. The process itself teaches you things about yourself, such as when I had to stop myself from constantly checking stats for personal validation, or the months when I didn’t have a computer and was stressed because I couldn’t follow through with posting twice a week. Once, I started a series of posts making fun of certain writing attitudes, but it was so sarcastic-borderline-mean that I withdrew the idea.
  •  Hypocrite Alert: You can be held to a higher standard. Especially because I write about my faith, I am very aware that I should be living up to the kinds of things I’m telling other people to do. Thankfully, that doesn’t mean I have to be perfect. But I do know that a lot of the people who read this blog are also watching my everyday life, and they’ll notice if things don’t match up.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Dirty Laundry List

Here are two really good options for how to have endless blog content: either be an expert on something or be a failure at a lot of things.

In case you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m the second one.

No, I mean it. As I was looking through entries to find ones I wanted to include on my Blog Birthday Top Ten List, I realized that many of my posts are about all the ways I mess up.

Here is a short list of some of the personal weaknesses and failures I’ve talked about. See any you can identify with? Doubt some of them really describe me? Read on, friend. Read on.

I am . . .

Generally a Jerk: (Tiny Heresies, Little Sins)
Afraid of Grace: (Low-Fat Grace)
Socially Awkward: (The Art of Accepting a Compliment
A Control Freak: (Learning the Hard Way)
Emotionally Needy: (Compass Hearts)
An Approval Seeker: (Living for Applause)
Self-deceived and a Compulsive Liar: (Just kidding. If this was true, then you wouldn’t be able to believe any of the other faults I identified in myself.)

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Puppets Wielding the Word of God

Last night, after a long and somewhat stressful day, I watched a DVD that is part of the series where about a dozen hand puppets tell the entire story of the Bible, along with church history and deep theological questions.

Yes, I’m serious. It’s called “What’s in the Bible,” and it’s the newest project of Phil Vischer, the creator of VeggieTales. He’s already kind of my hero because of his autobiography, Me, Myself, and Bob, which is in my Top Five Books of All Time list. But these shows are just spectacular. You should really go watch a few clips here. (DO IT. Right now. You don't even have to read the rest of this blog.)

At the beginning of this episode, Michael, the young mini-van riding viewer who forms the frame story for each show, was having a great existential dilemma, much like the various stresses and trials of my life right now: he knew the right thing to do would be to share a Rollo with his brother Pierre, but his selfish human nature fought against that right desire. In a panic, he declared, “I’m in turmoil! I need the calming salve of humorous puppets wielding the Word of God!‏”

Monday, October 15, 2012

Happy Blog Birthday!

It’s my blog’s one-year birthday! To celebrate, take a look at some random stats and fun facts about Just the Fiction, Ma'am. Or feel free to send my blog chocolate cake. I hear blogs are pretty messy eaters, so I might eat some of it instead.

  • 1 – number of posts (so far) that contain a secret code. There’s a very long story here.
  • 3 – average number of times I read/edit each post.
  • 8 – number of weeks I was without at laptop due to a seven-year-old throwing an exercise ball at my screen. Posts got a little sporadic in this era, breaking my consistency streak.
  • 104 – total posts, not including this one, which somehow makes it look like I actually posted twice a week all year like I intended to, when I actually skipped several days (but I had bonus blog entries sometimes too).
  • 200000 – approximate number of typos my friends caught and told me to fix, including one that I caught while compiling my favorite post list.
Here are ten of my favorite posts from the archives, in no particular order, with a little explanation of why. If you didn’t read every post (because who does, besides my mom?), or if you came in partway through the year, here’s an easy way to catch up.

Thanks for sticking with me for a year and reading some of my ramblings. It's been a lot of fun.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Just a Little Heresy

Every Monday, I celebrate a cherished, longstanding tradition that I just made up last year: Be a Heretic Monday. In one of my classes on that day, I try to ask the professor a heretical question that relates to what we’re talking about.

It doesn’t exactly have to be blatantly heretical as you might think of it, like “Why do you keep insisting that Jesus died for our sins when he clearly wasn’t a historical figure at all?” It really just has to be something that a Bible major would be too timid to ask. (As a general rule, Bible majors usually don’t say controversial things, maybe because they’re afraid people will question their orthodoxy and thus their legitimacy as future pastors.)

This tradition started because I usually have Bible and philosophy classes on Mondays, and I genuinely want to know the answers to questions like, “How do we explain the violent language in some of the psalms?” and “If God doesn’t change, why does he seem to give different standards of moral ethics in the Old Testament compared to today, particularly in regard to women and slaves?”

And there’s nothing wrong with this. I believe that when it comes to matters of faith, you should know where you are and how you got there. An intelligent, well-thought-out faith isn’t the opposite of a child-like faith. Kids ask questions. They’re curious. They want to know why. Most of the time, it’s the grown-ups who stop caring, who know the definitions and functions and right answers, without the whys. They know that things work but don’t know how to explain them.

So questions are great. However, like almost anything else, the need to question can be taken in the wrong direction.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

In Defense of Ridiculous Hypotheticals

Have you ever met those people? You ask them a fascinating question, like “What do you think would happen if a terrorist attacked Cinderella’s Castle in Disney World?”

And they give you kind of a strange look and say, “But that won’t happen. They have security.”

“Well, what if the South had…?”

“They didn’t.”

“But what would you do if…?”

“I wouldn’t.”

This person’s motto is, “If it didn’t happen, isn’t happening, and won’t ever happen, why think about it?”

And they almost have a point. Almost. Sometimes, I think we do need to bring a conversation away from frivolous hypotheticals and talk about things that have a direct impact on our lives. But I still think discussions of situations that can’t happen are worth our time. Here are three that I’ve been a part of in the past few weeks, along with thoughts on why they were meaningful.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

People Are Interesting

Several times in the past few days, I’ve said the phrase, “People are interesting.”

“Interesting” is one of the best words in the English language, the one time where having a word with multiple vague and even contradictory meanings can be useful. It can describe nearly any range of emotion. Conspiracy theories, as presented by a sincere believer in Area 51? Interesting. The lecture about the effects of the Industrial Revolution on roaming tinkers? Interesting. Your uncle’s tie-dye blazer? Interesting.

Really, when you say a person or thing is interesting, for all real purposes, you are stating that it exists and that you have an opinion about it. What that opinion is, and even if it’s positive or negative, is totally unknown (although tone and body language might give a hint).

So, do I think people are interesting in a good way, or in a bad way? Both, and not because I enjoy ambiguous, middle-of-two-extremes answers (although I do). Because that’s just the way reality works. Sometimes, I see a friend do something unexpectedly kind or I have a great discussion with a group of people or I listen to a concert that makes me happy to be alive.

And other times, I turn on the news and see violent protests, war, genocides, and, worst of all, political campaign ads. That would be depressing enough, but even in my daily life, most of my stress and anger and insecurity is related directly to other people.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Compliments for (Almost) Any Manuscript

It’s the classic editor’s dilemma: how to give constructive criticism without shattering another writer’s hopes and dreams into small, dust-like shards. I know it all too well. Give me a manuscript to edit, and I’ll send it back with Track Changes red ink and hundreds of little Microsoft Word comments in the margins.

That’s right. Hundreds.

Most of the time, they’ll be as polite as a dignified British butler. Unless you’re my friend, in which case they’ll sound a lot like I talk. Which is not particularly dignified. To illustrate, I asked my roommate if I could include some of my favorite comments that I made on her fantasy-in-progress.

Highlighted: “The wall was a mere three feet high.”
My Comment: Why even make it that high? Explain. (To keep sheep in? To establish zoning for taxes? Because it looks nice on a postcard?)

Highlighted: “I stared at him.”
My Comment: Um, wasn’t she staring at him before? Only say this if she notices something about him that makes it significant. Like, “I stared at him. He was smiling like my imprisonment was a good thing” or “I stared at him. He started to do the chicken dance.”

Highlighted: “Nothing could make me feel worse at this point.”
My Comment: “Never say such things. It’s like, “How could this be any worse?” Then, CLANG! Anvil falls from the sky, crushing Wiley Coyote.”

Highlighted: “Death. Death. Death.”
My Comment: Catchy little slogan.