An update…and a suggestion

Hello, campers –

First, the less-good news: I have not yet been medically cleared for two-handed typing (one of the annoying after-effects of my recent car crash, but I hope to be soon. On the bright side, MRI technology has improved beyond all recognition in recent years.

This means (we’re back to less-good news now) I’m not going to be up for generating brand-new posts for a while. This really irks me, not only because we were in the throes of a great ongoing discussion on dialogue revision, but also because I’m very eager to share the fabulous first pages that took top honors in the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest. There is much rich material there for productive discussion; obviously, my right hand would very much like to be involved in the feedback-giving.

Are you about ready for some good news, after all that? Excellent: the annual August vacation period has begun in the New York-based publishing world; in most cases, it will extend until after Labor Day.

What does that mean for aspiring writers, you ask? Well, since so many publishing house denizens are and will continue to be out of the office, it would be practically impossible to pull together an editorial committee to consider acquiring a new manuscript or book proposal. That means, in turn, that it’s not a very efficient time for agents to be approaching editors, at least if they would like their calls and e-mails to reach something other than the Millicent or two left behind to mind the store. Being practical-minded souls, agents often choose this literarily fallow period to take their own vacations.

Translation: if you have a query you were intending to send their way, or even requested materials, it probably will not be read until after Labor Day. So savvy writers use these weeks not for submission, but for revision and the necessary research for productive queries in September.

See why I’m so irritated not to be able to compose lengthy, detailed posts right now?

So here is my proposal for handling this period productively. While you’re going back over your manuscript (yes, AGAIN) and compiling query lists, please feel free to post questions here. (One hand is usually sufficient for question-answering.) Please also comment early and often on posts; trust me, if you have a concern or difficulty, another member of the Author! Author! community will have it, too.

To facilitate discussion until my right hand is up and running again, I’m going to re-run a few provocative older posts over the next few days — specifically, those on dialogue revision — interpolating additional advice whenever I cannot bear, well, forbearing. That’s definitely left-hand doable.

Also, would folks like me to go over how to put together a submission packet and/or query letter before Labor Day? Please speak up, if so. My instinct is to spend August on craft and revision issues, but if there is strong support for devoting some serious post time to how to get your project in front of an agent or editor’s nose in a professional manner, I’m always up for that.

Thanks for the many kind messages, and try not to worry — my will to communicate is far too intense to keep me off the blog for long. Be well, be safe, and, of course, keep up the good work!

The scourge of the passive interviewer, part IV: don’t go casting your novel’s characters QUITE yet

royal-tenenbaumsposter

Hello, campers —

Here, as promised, is a re-run of an earlier post on a topic we were all blithely discussing in the happy days before those two cars decided to adhere themselves to mine so abruptly. While I would have preferred to embellish it with a practical exercise or two, designed to send you running toward your respective manuscripts, highlighting pens in hand, I suspect that as it stands, it will provide abundant fodder for discussion.

Before I let you get on with it, I can’t resist adding both a well-deserved plug and a bit of scolding for the movie shown in poster form above (and used as an example below). Novelists and memoirists — perhaps especially memoirists — interested in learning the difficult art of giving the slight spin to realistic dialogue to make it witty would do well to invest an hour or two in watching THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS. The screenplay’s lovely, full of the kind of banter writers love but filmgoers don’t always appreciate; it’s really a film best seen by oneself, to appreciate the dialogue fully.

That being said, it contains perhaps the single least excusable character-naming joke I have ever heard: the mother of the family, an urban archeologist, is called Etheline. Leaving aside the fact that this would be a rather surprising name for wealthy New Yorkers to have chosen for their daughter in the 1940s or 50s — it would have made far more sense in Dallas, right? — part of the plot of the movie concerns Etheline’s relationship with her long-gone-but-still-not-divorced husband and the man she may or may not marry.

Thus, one could say that Etheline is polyandrous, the possessor of more than one husband. Rendering her — and remember, this is the screenwriters’ joke, not mine — poly-Etheline.

Or, as manufacturers of plastic prefer to spell it, polyethylene. Call her the Original Inflatable Mother.

The moral, if you’re quite finished squirming over that bad pun: as funny as an oddball name may seem to the author, if it seems out of step with a character’s ostensible background, it can be a distraction from the story. (Yes, even in a comedy.) So even if you were already reader-savvy enough to axe your first idea of christening a waiter character Trey, you might also want to think twice before you allow a manuscript out the door with a name that’s too reminiscent of something else.

Unless, of course, you are a fan of plastic mothers. Enjoy the post!

So far in this series, I have bent our overall focus upon effective interview scenes — i.e., dialogue wherein one character, usually the protagonist, elicits information from another — toward one of my pet peeves, Hollywood narration. For those of you who missed the last couple of posts (hey, I’m aware that some of you are on vacation, cajoling children not to blow their fingers off with firecrackers, creating Jell-O molds, and similar Independence Day-related pursuits), Hollywood narration occurs when one character tells another something that both already know perfectly well, purely for the sake of conveying those facts to the reader.

How common, you ask? Well, if you’ve ever watched a movie or a television show starring a character who did not suffer from amnesia, you’ve almost certainly encountered some; it’s one of the standard ways that screenplays introduce background information. Because we’ve all heard so much Hollywood narration, many aspiring writers think it’s perfectly okay, if not downright clever, to fill in backstory in this manner.

The result: our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, spends day after over-caffeinated day leafing through hundreds and thousands of pages of Hollywood dialogue. Embracing it as a narrative tactic, then, is not the best means of convincing her that your writing is fresh and original.

The problem is, it’s not always a tactic. Precisely because this kind of dialogue flies at all of us from the screen every day, it’s easy to mistake for the patterns of actual speech — until, of course, a writer sits down with it and says, “All right, what is this character’s motivation for telling his long-lost aunt about his graffiti spree in 1943? Wouldn’t she already know that his father, her brother, was a wayward youth?”

Which, in case you were wondering, is the single best way to weed out Hollywood narration from a manuscript: reading every line of dialogue OUT LOUD to see if it’s plausible. Ideally, a writer would also — wait for it — perform this reading IN HARD COPY and on the manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY before submitting it to an agent, editor, or contest, but as I mentioned, it’s a holiday weekend, so I shan’t be holding you to ordinary weekday standards.

Why out loud? Well, in part, to see if speeches can be said within a single breath; in real life, dialogue tends to be. If you find yourself gasping for breath mid-paragraph, you might want to re-examine that speech to see if it rings true. Also, reading dialogue out loud is the easiest way to catch if more than one character is speaking in the same cadence — which, contrary to what the dramatic works of David Mamet and Aaron Sorkin may have lead you to believe, is not how people speak on the street.

Or in offices. Or in the White House. Individual people have been known to have individual speech patterns.

There’s one other excellent reason to hear your own voice speaking the lines you have written for your characters: in this celebrity-permeated culture, many, many writers mentally cast actors they’ve seen on television or in movies as at least the major characters in their novels.

C’mon, admit it: practically every aspiring writer does it. In some ways, it’s a healthy instinct: by trying to imagine how a specific actor might sound saying a specific set of words, and how another specific actor might respond, a writer is less likely to allow the two characters speak in the same rhythms.

Unless, of course, the writer happens to cast multiple actors best associated for portraying the characters of Aaron Sorkin or David Mamet.

This practice has an unintended consequence, however: due to the pernicious ubiquity of Hollywood narration in screenplays, we’re all used to actors glibly telling one another things that their characters already know. As a result, imagining established actors speaking your dialogue may well make passages of Hollywood narration sound just fine in the mind.

It can be genuinely hard to catch on the page. Especially difficult: ferreting out what filmmakers call bad laughter, a giggle that the author did not intend for the reader to enjoy, but arise from the narrative anyway. A bad laugh can be sparked by many things, typically arises when the reader (or audience member; it’s originally a moviemaker’s term) is knocked out of the story by a glaring narrative problem: an obvious anachronism in a historical piece, for instance, or a too-hackneyed stereotype, continuity problem, or unbelievable plot twist.

Or, lest we forget, a line of dialogue that no real person placed in a similar position to the character speaking it would actually say.

It’s the kind of chuckle an audience member, reader, or — heaven forfend! — Millicent gives when an unintentionally out-of-place line of dialogue or event shatters the willing suspension of disbelief, yanking the observer out of the story and back into real life.

You know, the place where one uses one’s critical faculties to evaluate probability, rather than the desire to be entertained.

Hollywood narration is notorious for provoking bad laughter, because by this late date in storytelling history, the talkative villain, the super-informative coworker, and the married couple who congratulate themselves on their collective history have appeared so often that even if what they’re saying isn’t a cliché, the convention of having them say it is.

Take it from a familiar narrator-disguised-as-onlooker: “But wait! Up in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Superman!” Sheer repetition has made that one sound like plausible speech, hasn’t it?

To resurrect one of my all-time favorite examples of Hollywood narration’s power to jar a reader or audience member into a shout of bad laughter, last year, I was dragged kicking and screaming to a midnight showing of a Korean horror film, Epitaph, in which a good 10 out of the first 20 minutes of the film consisted of characters telling one another things they already knew. Most of the other ten consisted of silent shots of sheets blowing symbolically in the wind — in a ghost story; get it? — and characters standing frozen in front of doors and windows that they SHOULD NOT OPEN UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.

I pass along this hard-earned nugget of wisdom to those of you who may not have a chance to catch the flick: should you ever find yourself in a haunted hospital in Korea, don’t touch anything with a latch and/or a doorknob. Especially if you happen to be standing in front of the body storage wall in the morgue. And don’t under any circumstances have truck with your dead mother; it will only end in tears.

Trust me on this one.

Now, I would be the first to admit that horror is not really my mug of java — I spent fully a quarter of the film with my eyes closed and ears blocked, which I suppose is actually a rather high recommendation for those fond of the genre — so I did not see every syllable of the subtitles. But the fact is, my film-going companions and I were not the only ones giggling audibly during the extensive backstory-by-dialogue marathons. An actual sample, as nearly as I can reproduce it:

Grown daughter: Dad, are you lonesome?

Doctor-who-interned-in-haunted-hospital: (chuckling ruefully) No, of course not.

Grown daughter: You’re too hard on yourself, Dad. Stepmother had a heart condition long before you married her.

Doctor-who-interned-in-haunted-hospital: But we were married for less than a year!

Grown daughter: You can’t blame yourself. Mother died in having me, and Stepmother had been sick for a long time. It’s not your fault. It’s nothing you did.

Doctor-who-interned-in-haunted-hospital: (clearly weighed down by Ominous Guilt) Both marriages lasted less than a year.

I’m sure that you can see the narrative problem — can you imagine a more blatant telling, rather than showing, presentation? — but the laughter from the audience was a dead giveaway that this dialogue wasn’t realistic. Bad laughter is a sure sign that the audience has been pulled out of the story.

Too addled with a surfeit of Hollywood narration to sleep — and, frankly, not overly eager to dream about a maniacally-laughing, high C-singing dead mother standing by her small, terrified daughter’s hospital bed in a ward where there were NO OTHER PATIENTS — I ran home, buried myself under the covers, and reached for the nearest book to sooth my mind and distract my thoughts from the maniacally-laughing, high C-singing dead woman who was clearly lurking nearby.

As luck would have it, the volume in question was a set of Louisa May Alcott’s thrillers; I had used it as an example on this very blog not long before. Yet no sooner had I opened it when my eye fell upon this sterling opening to a story promisingly entitled THE MYSTERIOUS KEY AND WHAT IT OPENED. Because I love you people, I have excised the scant narration of the original, so you may see the dialogue shine forth in untrammeled splendor:

“This is the third time I’ve found you poring over that old rhyme. What is the charm, Richard? Not its poetry, I fancy.”

“My love, that book is a history of our family for centuries, and that old prophecy has never yet been fulfilled…I am the last Trevlyn, and as the time draws near when my child shall be born, I naturally think of the future, and hope he will enjoy his heritage in peace.”

“God grant it!” softly echoed Lady Trevlyn, adding, with a look askance at the old book, “I read that history once, and fancied it must be a romance, such dreadful things are recorded in it. Is it all true, Richard?”

“Yes, dear. I wish it was not. Ours has been a wild, unhappy race till the last generation or two. The stormy nature came in with the old Sir Ralph, the fierce Norman knight, who killed his only sun in a fit of wrath, by a glow with his steel gauntlet, because the boy’s strong will would not yield to his.”

“Yes, I remember, and his daughter Clotilde held the castle during a siege, and married her cousin, Count Hugo. ‘Tis a warlike race, and I like it in spite of the mad deeds.”

“Married her cousin! That has been the bane of our family in times past. Being too proud to mate elsewhere, we have kept to ourselves till idiots and lunatics began to appear. My father was the first who broke the law among us, and I followed his example: choosing the freshest, sturdiest flower I could find to transplant into our exhausted soil.”

“I hope it will do you honor by blossoming bravely. I never forget that you took me from a very humble home, and have made me the happiest wife in England.”

“And I never forget that you, a girl of eighteen, consented to leave your hills and come to cheer the long-deserted house of an old man like me,” her husband returned fondly.

“Nay, don’t call yourself old, Richard; you are only forty-five, the boldest, handsomest man in Warwickshire. But lately you look worried; what is it? Tell me, and let me advise or comfort you.”

“It is nothing, Alice, except my natural anxiety for you…”

By this point in the text, tangling with the maniacally-laughing, operatic dead harpy was beginning to look significantly better to me. Clearly, the universe was nudging me to set forth again like the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future to warn writers to alter their sinful ways before it was too late.

But if I had the resources to commission Gregory Peck and Kate Winslet to read those very lines to you, I think it’s a fairly safe bet that they wouldn’t have struck you as so clearly contrived. It’s their job to make speeches seem plausible, after all, and they have, bless their respective hearts and muses, given us all abundant reason to expect them to be very, very good at it.

So are theirs really the best voices to employ in your head to read your dialogue back to you?

Just in case anyone out there didn’t spot the logic problem above: generally speaking, in real life, people do not recite their basic background information to kith and kin that they see on a daily basis. Unless someone is having serious memory problems (see earlier quip about amnesiac characters), it is culturally accepted that when a person repeats his own anecdotes, people around him will stop him before he finishes.

Because, among other things, it’s BORING.

Yet time and again in print, writers depict characters wandering around, spouting their own résumés without any social repercussions. Not to mention listing one another’s physical and mental attributes, informing each other of their respective ages and marital histories, listing the articles of furniture in the room, placing themselves on a map of the world, and all of the other descriptive delights we saw above.

So yes, you’re going to find examples in print occasionally; as we may see from Aunt Louisa’s example, authors have been using characters as mouthpieces for background for an awfully long time. Dickens was one of the all-time worst violators of the show, don’t tell rule, after all. Since the rise of television and movies — and going back even farther, radio plays — certain types of Hollywood narration have abounded in manuscripts.

See dialogue above, lifted from the Korean horror movie. Or any of the films of Stephen Spielberg — but of that notorious Hollywood narrator, more below.

There’s another way in which movies and TV have warped the cultural understanding of storytelling, and thus prompted many aspiring writers to incorporate Hollywood Narration in their manuscripts, to Millicent’s teeth-gnashing chagrin. As I pointed out yesterday, openings of novels are more likely to contain Hollywood narration than any other point in a book, because of the writer’s perceived imperative to provide all necessary backstory — and usually physical description of the main characters and environment as well — the nanosecond that the story begins.

Here again, we see the influence of film upon writing norms: since film is a visual medium, we audience members have grown accustomed to learning precisely what a character looks like within seconds of his first appearance. We’ve all grown accustomed to this storytelling convention, right? Yet in a manuscript, there’s seldom a good narrative reason to provide all of this information to the reader right off the bat.

Listen: TV and movies are technically constrained media; they rely upon only the senses of sight and sound to tell their stories. While a novelist can use scents, tastes, or physical sensations to evoke memories and reactions in her characters as well, a screenwriter can only use visual and auditory cues. A radio writer is even more limited, because ALL of the information has to be conveyed through sound.

So writers for film, TV, and radio have a pretty good excuse for utilizing Hollywood narration, right? Whatever they cannot show, they must perforce have a character (or a voice-over) tell.

Generally speaking — fasten your seatbelts; this is going to be a pretty sweeping generalization, and I don’t want any of you to be washed overboard by it — a screenplay that can tell its story through sight and sound with little or no unobtrusive Hollywood narration is going to speak to the viewer better than, to put it bluntly, characters launching upon long lectures about what happened when.

Unfortunately for the current state of literature, I gather that not all movie producers share my view on the subject. How many times, for instance, have you spent the first twenty minutes of a film either listening to voice-over narration setting up the premise (do I hear a cheer for the otherwise excellent THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, where an unseen but undoubtedly huge and Godlike Alec Baldwin told us all we needed to know? Anybody?) or listening to the protagonist fill in the nearest total stranger on his background and goals?

Again, in film, it’s an accepted convention; movies have trained their audiences to continue to suspend their disbelief in the face of, among other things, giant-voiced Alec Baldwins in the Sky. It’s shorthand, a quick way to skip over action that might not be all that interesting to see played out. Here’s a very common opening gambit:

Pretty neighbor (noticing the fact that our hero is toting several boxes clearly marked ACME MOVING AND STORAGE): “So, are you just moving into the building?”

Hunky hero (leaning against the nearest doorjamb, which happens to be beautifully lit, as doorjambs so frequently are): “Yeah, I just drove in from Tulsa today. This is my first time living in the big city. When my girlfriend left me, I just tossed everything I owned into the car and drove as far as I could.”

Pretty neighbor (stepping into his good lighting as much as possible): “Well, I’m a New York native. Maybe I could show you around town.”

Hunky hero: “Well, since you’re the first kind face I’ve seen here, let me take you to dinner. I haven’t eaten anything but truck stop food in days.”

Now, this economical (if trite) little exchange conveyed a heck of a lot of information, didn’t it? It established that both Hunky and Pretty live in the same building in New York, that he is from the Midwest and she from the aforementioned big city (setting up an automatic source of conflict in ideas of how life should be lived, if they should get romantically involved), that he has a car (not a foregone conclusion in NYC), that they are attracted to each other, and that he, at least, is romantically available.

What will happen? Oh, WHAT will happen?

When the scene is actually filmed, call me nutty, but I suspect that this chunk of dialogue will be accompanied by visual clues to establish that these two people are rather attractive as well; their clothing, hairstyles, and accents will give hints as to their respective professions, upbringings, socioeconomic status, and educational attainments.

Writers of books, having been steeped for so many years in the TV/movie/radio culture, sometimes come to believe that such terse conveyance of information is nifty — especially the part where the audience learns everything relevant about the couple within the first couple of minutes of the story. They wish to emulate it, and where restraint is used, delivering information through dialogue is a legitimate technique.

The problem is, on film, it often isn’t used with restraint — and writers of books have caught that, too. It drives the Millicents of the worlds nuts, because she, I assure you, will not automatically cast Johnny Depp as your protagonist — or voiceover artist — in her mind. She will respond not as a filmgoer, but as a reader.

Oh, wait, I’m talking about Hollywood narration again, amn’t I? Funny how I keep getting goaded into that. Keep up the good work!

The promised literary contest — and a tantalizing peek into a new memoir

giant cockroach & shaun attwood

I have a real treat in store for you today, campers. Actually, more than just a treat: a treat plus a writing challenge.

Remember my last post, when I waxed indignant about the fact that U.S.-based fans of longtime member of the Author! Author! community Shaun Attwood would have a harder time (so to speak) obtaining a copy of his just-released memoir, HARD TIME: A Brit in America’s Toughest Jail (Mainstream Press/Random House) than readers in the U.K. or Canada? All they would have to do — and I would encourage it, if you are at all interested in the challenges of turning personal experience into compelling narrative — is waltz into a bookstore.

Heck, U.K. readers wouldn’t even have to budge from their respective desk chairs to obtain a copy: Amazon UK would be perfectly happy to deliver it to their doorsteps (with free shipping, even). Canadian readers willing to invest a few clicks of a mouse would have similar success in negotiations with Amazon Canada.

But here in the U.S. — which, lest we forget, is where most of the story in the memoir takes place — hopeful readers must throw themselves upon the mercy of foreign nationals to obtain a copy. The only option for those of us wielding good, hard American currency is to take advantage of a U.K. online bookseller’s,the Book Depository, willingness to ship to North America for free. (Which may be the less expensive option for Canadian readers, incidentally; would-be online purchasers north of the border may wish to do a bit of comparison-shopping.)

I’m glad that we have this option, but (as, again, some of you may recall from yesterday) it strikes me as a trifle silly. Here we have an in-depth, first-hand account of the inside of a jail that not only is on my side of the Atlantic, but whose sheriff has been appearing on the national news constantly in recent weeks. For anyone who has been following the intense controversy over the civil rights of illegal aliens in Arizona, I would think that it would be intensely interesting to learn how people awaiting trial there might be treated.

Because I feel very strongly that this is both an important story and a good book, I’m going to do something unusual today: with the permission of Shaun and his publisher, I am posting the first page of HARD TIME here. That way, at least page 1 will be directly available to U.S. readers, albeit in a slightly modified form.

Modified how, you ask? Shaun has very kindly edited the language to be family-friendly, so that I may post it here. (In case you hadn’t noticed, I routinely avoid profanity out of deference to my teenage readers, whose Internet viewing may be constrained by parental control programs, and readers whose access is through library computers, which often feature similar controls. I remain deeply committed to making sure that every aspiring writer with Internet access can take full advantage of the resources here at Author! Author!)

Even if prison memoir is not your proverbial cup of tea — even if memoir isn’t your usual reading material — consider it as a first page. Purely on a story level, I think you’ll agree that it is a grabber. Those of you currently working on memoirs might also want to check out Shaun’s bio, located at the very end of this post: since what a memoirist is selling in a proposal is not just pretty writing, it might be helpful to gain further insight on what got his agent and publisher excited about his life story.

Here, then, is that first page, presented for the first time on my native soil. I am proud to bring it to you; this author has taken a tremendous number of risks to bring this story to us.

Attwood HARDTIME coverAttwood HARDTIME coverAttwood HARDTIME coverAttwood HARDTIME cover

16 May 2002

“Tempe Police Department! We have a warrant! Open the door!”

The stock quotes on my computer screen lost all importance as I rushed to the peephole. It was blacked out. Boots thudded up the outdoor stairs to our apartment.

Bang, bang, bang, bang!

Wearing only boxer shorts, I ran to the bedroom. “Claudia, wake up! It’s the cops!”

“Tempe Police Department! Open the door!”

My girlfriend scrambled from the California king. “What should we do?” she asked, anxiously fixing her pink pajamas.

Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang!

“Open the door!”

We searched each other’s faces.

“Better open it,” I said, but before I could make it to the door – boom! – it leapt off its hinges.

Big men in black fatigues and ballistic armour blitzed through the doorframe, aiming guns at us. Afraid of being shot, I froze. I gaped as they proceeded to convert my living room into a scene from a war movie.

“Tempe Police Department! Get on the ground now!”

“Police! Police! On your bellies now!”

“Hands above your heads!”

“Don’t move!”

As I dropped to the floor, they fell upon me. There was a beating in my chest as if I had more than one heart. Crushed by hands, elbows, knees, and boots, I could barely breathe. Cold steel snapped around my wrists. I was hoisted like a puppet onto my feet. As they yanked Claudia up by the cuffs, she pinched her eyes shut; when she opened them, tears spilled out.

That, my friends, is an opening. No false suspense there, eh?

So much for the treat. On to the challenge. Let’s give away some books.

While we’re at it, let’s talk about an opportunity for all of you to generate what we here at Author! Author! like to call ECQLC (eye-catching query letter candy), nifty little credentials to plump up author bios and that pesky background paragraph in one’s query letter. The response to the recent Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Pages Made Even Better contest was so overwhelming that I’ve been thinking very seriously about how difficult it can be for hard-working, conscientious aspiring writers to come up with ECQLC. Literary contests can be both expensive and extremely time-consuming to enter.

Now, I’m relatively positive that all of you are already aware that I do not rule the universe. If I did, talented writers would be granted three extra hours per week, over and above the time available to the rest of humanity, in which to pursue their craft. Millicent the agency screener would be a well-paid, literature-loving reader allowed both the time to read pages and pages of submissions before making up her mind and the discretion to say more often, “To heck with current market trends — I really like this writer’s voice!” And, of course, published exposés of government-run institutions would be readily available for purchase within easy driving distance of those institutions.

Need further evidence that I’m not in charge? Do cows give free chocolate milk to every child they encounter?

I can, however, do my bit to help make life a trifle easier for aspiring writers, a goal near and dear to my heart. My next effort in that direction: I shall be hosting writing contests here more often — and to maximize their ECQLC-generating oomph, I shall be publishing the winning entries here on a regular basis.

Speaking of which, I am pleased to announce…

The Author! Author!/HARD TIME Words Across the Water Contest
Since the difficulties of acquainting readers in one country with the work of writers in another has been much on my mind over the past couple of days, and because I was delighted to see that entries to my last contest came from all over the English-speaking world, I think it might be interesting to ask writers inside and outside the U.S. to share their experiences a little. I would also, given our recent series on self-editing, like an excuse to encourage all of you to show, rather than tell, and to make your point through specifics, instead of generalities.

The prizes

In addition to boasting rights and ECQLC, the grand prize winner will receive a free MiniConsult: a half-hour telephone consultation with me to talk about any aspect of your writing career that strikes you as relevant. In the past, writers have used MiniConsults to refine pitches for literary conferences, professionalize their query letters, nail down a book category, discuss marketing options…if it’s about your writing, it’s fair game.

Top-placing entries in each category (hold your horses; I’m getting to that) will be published here at Author! Author!, accompanied by an explanation of precisely why each was so darned good. (Hey, talented writers often go for years without hearing either praise or feedback more specific than a hearty, “Well done!”)

U.S.-based entrants will also be eligible to win copies of HARD TIME. (Had I mentioned that it was kind of hard to find in the States?) Non-U.S.-based entrants, will, I’m afraid, have to track down the book for themselves at any of the fine local emporia that happen to carry it. To level the prize pool, the judges reserve the right to create a sub-category of winners specific to these entries.

Piqued your interest yet? Good. Let’s talk about how to win those prizes.

The rules

1. Compose a short scene — 500 words or less, please — that shows (not tells!) something about being a creative person in your native land that you think will surprise and enlighten writers who live elsewhere.

Or, to put it another way:

U.S.-based entrants: what about American creative life would you most like writers in other countries to find fascinating?

Non-U.S.-based entrants: what’s the single aspect of your country’s (or province, or region’s) creative life of which would you most like writers in the U.S. to be aware?

Now’s your chance, folks. Have at it.

2. Either fiction or nonfiction narratives may be entered, but only scenes will be considered. Only one entry per writer, please.

This is the show, don’t tell part, folks. Lectures on international relations will not work here. Nor will diatribes. Create some characters, already, and don’t skimp on the telling details.

3. On a separate page within the entry document, please include your name, country and city of origin or current residence, e-mail address, and, if you are under 25, your age.
Hey, if I receive a lot of good entries from young writers, I’m open to creating another category for prizes.

4. All entries must be in standard format for book manuscripts, as well as previously unpublished in the English-speaking world. They must also be free of profanity.

If you don’t know how book format differs from short story format — or that either had a regulation format — please avail yourself of the abundant explanations and practical examples under the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right. And if there’s a formatting point that confuses you, for heaven’s sake, leave a comment asking about it.

On the non-profanity front: did you miss my explanation above about my teenage readership? Let’s all do our part to make this forum accessible to them.

5. Make it your best writing — and proofread, for heaven’s sake.
In response to many, many requests, this time around, the judging will be based purely upon literary merit, interest of story, and, of course, adherence to these rules. For once, let’s take a vacation from marketability and just tell one another some stories.

6. All entries must be submitted as a Word document, attached to an e-mail.
No exceptions. Word is the industry standard, so if you are writing in some other word processing program, you will need to get used to translating your documents in order to work with an agent or editor anyway.

7. Attach the Word document you’ve created to an e-mail. Include your last name in the subject line.
Believe me, I’ve seen my inbox crammed with messages all entitled Anne Mini contest often enough for this lifetime. Give yours a subject line that will enable me to differentiate it from the other 150 entries, please.

Oh, and would it kill you to include a polite note in the body of the e-mail? That’s always nice to see.

8. Send your entry to anneminicontest@gmail(dot)com by midnight on September 6, 2010.
That’s Labor Day in the U.S., for the benefit of those of you living elsewhere. As always, the deadline is midnight your time, not mine.

Has that gotten your creative juices flowing? I certainly hope so; I’m genuinely looking forward to what all of you have to say. Not to mention sharing Shaun’s memoir with a few of my compatriots.

Hey, I’m not entirely sure I don’t have all of the copies currently in the U.S. sitting on the corner of my desk at the moment. Let’s get some international dialogue going, folks — and, as always, keep up the good work!

P.S.: memoirists, here’s that promised bio.

Shaun Attwood 2010Shaun Attwood grew up in North West England where he was an early participant in the burgeoning rave scene that soon took over the whole country. Graduating from Liverpool University in 1991 with a business degree, he immigrated to Phoenix, Arizona to try his luck in the world of finance, and rose quickly through the ranks to become a top-producing stockbroker.

But it was not quite plain sailing. Shaun lost control of his life and finances in the mid-nineties, declared bankruptcy and quit his job.

The rave bug had never left him, and Shaun started to throw raves in Arizona while investing in technology stocks online. By 1999, he was living in a luxurious mountainside home in Tucson’s Sin Vacas, working as a day trader in the day and partying at night. It was the time of the dot-com bubble and he made over a million on paper, but the bubble was soon to burst and Shaun lost most of his fortune and moved back to Phoenix.

In May 2002, he was arrested in Scottsdale during a SWAT-team dawn raid, and alleged to be the head of an organisation involved in a club-drug conspiracy. The local media described him as “bigger than Sammy the Bull.” Facing a life sentence, he entered a lengthy legal battle.

In 2004, Shaun started the blog, Jon’s Jail Journal, documenting the inhumane conditions at the cockroach-infested Madison Street jail run by Sheriff Joe Arpaio. After two years of being held on remand while three trial dates were cancelled, Shaun signed a plea bargain admitting guilt to money laundering and drug offences. He was sentenced to 9 ½ years, of which he served almost 6.

Shaun had only read finance books prior to his arrest. While incarcerated, he submerged himself in literature – reading 268 books in 2006 alone, including many literary classics. By reading original texts in philosophy and psychology he sought to better understand himself and his past behaviour. His sister sent him a book on yoga, which he still practices.

In September 2004, blog excerpts were published in The Guardian attracting further media attention, including several BBC news stories.

Shaun was released in December 2007, and has since kept Jon’s Jail Journal going by posting prison stories sent to him from the friends he made inside. In July 2008, Shaun won a first prize, a Koestler/Hamish Hamilton Award, for a short story, which he read to an audience at the Royal Festival Hall. In February 2009, Shaun moved to London to work for the McLellan Practice speaking to audiences of youths about his jail experiences and the consequences of his drug taking. He has been working on his memoir ever since.

Bringing an unlikely memoir to publication, by guest blogger Shaun Attwood

Attwood HARDTIME cover

It’s an incredible day here at Author! Author!, campers. I believe that this is the first time in the five-year history of this blog that we have been able to follow a regular reader — a gentleman that many of you already know as inveterate commenter Shaun Attwood — all the way from writing phase to publication.

So please join me, everyone, in congratulating Shaun on today’s release of his first book, a stunning memoir entitled HARD TIME: A Brit in America’s Toughest Jail. (Mainstream Press/Random House) Kudos, Shaun!

Those of you who have been hanging around here at Author! Author! for a while may well remember Shaun from his devestating guest post last year. That post stirred huge reader response, and rightly: it told the story of a writer who felt so strongly about communicating the truth about inhumane jail conditions that he secretly wrote about them with a golf pencil sharpened on a cement wall, smuggled his pages out into the everyday world, and published it on a blog under an assumed name. Since his release, he has kept the blog going, helping other incarcerated writers get their voices heard, as well as giving talks to teenagers, encouraging them to avoid his mistakes. It is, in fact, a story of rehabilitation and redemption.

So why, given that his memoir on the subject is so enlightening about criminal justice on this side of the pond, isn’t it on bookstore shelves in the United States? Especially at a time jail conditions in Arizona have an excellent reason to be on every American’s mind?

Oh, you can buy Shaun’s memoir right now in the United Kingdom: Amazon UK was even offering free shipping within the country, last time I checked. And those of us who live close to the border could certainly pop up into Canada, or even order it à la distance from Amazon Canada.

But just walk into a brick-and-mortar bookstore in Main Street down here? No such luck.

Fortunately, those of us in the States have two options for procuring it. First, a UK online bookseller, the Book Depository, will ship Hard Time to North America for free. This is a great resource for those of us with a hankering to read books by British authors not yet widely distributed over here; I’m very pleased to be able to let my U.S. readers know about it.

The second method — and perhaps some of you saw this coming? — will be to enter the literary contest I shall be announcing in tomorrow’s post. Hey, why shouldn’t the good fortune of one member of the Author! Author! community spread joy to others?

I don’t want to distract from today’s festivities with contest details, however. I’d rather devote our time today to something I rarely do here: re-running Shaun’s extraordinary contribution to last year’s fascinating Subtle Censorship series — followed immediately by the fresh guest post he was kind enough to write for us while my hand’s been ailing.

Call it a before-and-after portrait of a memoirist — and much-appreciated proof that a good writer with a good story can indeed see his work come to publication. Take it away, Shaun!

Prisoners in Arpaio's jail

Towards the end of my stay at the Madison Street jail in Phoenix, Arizona, I asked a guard how Sheriff Joe Arpaio got away with flagrantly violating federal law by maintaining such subhuman conditions.

“The world has no idea what really goes on in here,” he replied.

I decided that was about to change.

Some of you may be familiar with Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the star of the reality TV show, Smile…You’re Under Arrest! He’s the sheriff who feeds his prisoners green bologna, puts them to work on chain gangs, and makes them wear black-and-white bee stripes and pink underwear.

He has labelled himself “America’s toughest sheriff,” but he never mentions that he is the most sued sheriff in America due to the deaths, violence and medical negligence in a jail system subject to investigation by human rights organisations including Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union.

In a maximum-security cell — about the size of a bus-stop shelter, with two steel bunks and a seatless toilet — I used a golf pencil sharpened on the cement-block wall to document the characters, cockroaches, suicide attempts, and deaths. Wearing only pink boxers, I wrote at the tiny stool and table bolted to the wall, trying to ignore the discomfort from my bleeding bedsores. Outdoor temperatures — that sometimes soared up to 120 °F — converted the cell into a concrete oven, making it difficult to write without the sweat from my hands and arms moistening the paper.

Here are the first few paragraphs I wrote:

19 Feb 04

The toilet I sleep next to is full of sewage. We’ve had no running water for three days. Yesterday, I knew we were in trouble when the mound in our steel throne peaked above sea level.

Inmates often display remarkable ingenuity during difficult occasions and this crisis has resulted in a number of my neighbours defecating in the plastic bags the mouldy breakfast bread is served in. For hours they kept those bags in their cells, then disposed of them downstairs when allowed out for showers. As I write, inmates brandishing plastic bags are going from cell door to door proudly displaying their accomplishments.

The whole building reeks like a giant Portaloo. Putting a towel over the toilet in our tiny cell offers little reprieve. My neighbour, Eduardo, is suffering diarrhoea from the rotten chow. I can’t imagine how bad his cell stinks.

I am hearing that the local Health Department has been contacted. Hopefully they will come to our rescue soon.

Fearing reprisals from guards notorious for murdering prisoners, I wrote under the pseudonym Jon. As the mail officer could inspect outgoing letters, posting my words was too risky. To get my words out undetected by the staff, I employed my aunt.

She visited every week, and I was allowed to release property to her, such as mail I’d received, legal papers, and books I’d read. The visitation staff’s chief concern was stopping incoming contraband such as drugs and tobacco, so they never thoroughly examined outgoing property.

I hid my words in the property I released to my aunt. She smuggled them out of the jail, typed them up and emailed them to my parents who posted them to the Internet. Considering the time involved in maintaining a blog, I was lucky to have such outside help.

That’s how Jon’s Jail Journal came about. It was one of the first prison blogs, and went on to attract international media attention after excerpts were published in The Guardian.

After serving almost six years for money laundering and drugs, I’m now a free man. I’ve kept Jon’s Jail Journal going, so the friends I made inside can share their stories.

Like most prisoners, those in Arizona do not have Internet access. To get their writing online, they need outside help. Unfortunately, most of them do not have family members willing to run a blog for them.

I started Jon’s Jail Journal unaware Arizona had been the first state to censor its prisoners from the Internet. This came about after the widow of a murder victim read an online pen-pal ad in which her husband’s murderer described himself as a kind-hearted lover of cats. A law passed in 2000 carried penalties for prisoners writing for the Internet. Privileges could be taken away, sentences lengthened.

The freedom to speak without censorship or limitation is guaranteed by the First Amendment, so the ACLU stepped in and challenged this law. In May 2003, Judge Earl Carroll declared the law unconstitutional. Since then, no other state has attempted to introduce such a law.

But even with that law repealed, any inmate writing openly about prison is running the risk of reprisals from the staff and the prisoners. The threat of being harmed or killed by your custodians or neighbours is a strong form of censorship.

I always got permission from the prisoners I wrote about. I hate to think of the consequences if I hadn’t. But even with that safeguard in place, I still ran into occasional problems.

I once wrote about how the prisoners made syringes from commissary items. A prisoner received a copy of that blog in the mail, and circulated it on the yard. Some of the older white gang members gave the order to have me smashed, claiming they were concerned the staff would read that blog and stop the inmate store from selling the items the prisoners needed to make the syringes.

Fortunately, I was writing stories about some well-established prisoners at the time. Like Two Tonys, a Mafia associate classified as a mass murderer. Frankie, a Mexican Mafia hitman. C-Ducc, a Crip with one of the toughest reputations on the yard. They intervened, pointing out that the staff were well aware of how the prisoners made syringes, and that I hadn’t divulged anything that the staff didn’t already know about. After a few tense days during which they instructed me not to walk the yard alone, the matter died down.

To avoid conflict with the administration, I never used real staff or prisoner names. Using real names would have enabled the administration to classify me as a threat to the security of the institution. If you are deemed such a threat, the administration can invoke laws that strip you of your standard human rights. You can lose your privileges, be housed in the system’s darkest quarters, and if the staff really have it in for you, you may suddenly receive a gorilla-sized cellmate intent on using you as his plaything.

On that front, I must credit Shannon Clark — my friend in prison who writes the blog Persevering Prison Pages — for being a much braver man than I. He has sprinkled guards’ names liberally throughout his blog, and he’s not exactly praising them for their humanity. Shannon has a reputation for being fast to slap lawsuits on the staff, which I hope continues to protect him from major retaliation.

After my release in December 2007, I figured my censorship battles with the Arizona Department of Corrections were over. I was maintaining the blog mostly for the stories of the friends I’d made inside, stories they were mailing to me in England. But in August 2008, I stopped receiving mail from them. Then in September, I received a disturbing email:

I wanted to let you know that *** called me today with a message for you. I guess the prison spoke to all of the guys that write to you and told them they are not allowed to write to you anymore. He thinks it’s because they (the prison) don’t like what is being said on your blog. It is a free country isn’t it? Can they do that? It’s ridiculous!

Attempting to sabotage Jon’s Jail Journal, certain staff members had ordered the contributors to stop writing to me. If they continued to write to me, they would receive disciplinary sanctions such as losing their visits, phone calls, and commissary.

This violation of their freedom of speech earned me a nerve-racking live spot on Sky’s headline news. The publicity attracted a prisoners’-rights attorney, and the problem eventually went away.

With all of these obstacles, it’s unsurprising that so few prisoners are writing for the Internet.

Googling for prison bloggers, I immediately noticed the absence of women in this fledgling community. I found one writer, but she had been released. Hoping to bring the voices of women prisoners online, I wrote to two women — Renee, a lifer in America serving 60 years, and Andrea, a Scottish woman arrested for the attempted murder of her abusive boyfriend in England. I’m delighted that these two women are now regular contributors to Jon’s Jail Journal, giving their unique insights on what it’s like in women’s prisons.

To keep Jon’s Jail Journal going, I’ve had to overcome censorship from many angles, some foreseen, some unexpected. The blog has managed to survive these challenges, and to build up a loyal readership over the years. It has become a bridge to the outside world for my prisoner friends. They really enjoy the feedback from the public, and some of them receive pen pals from around the world. Through blogging, they are cultivating their own writing skills, and focusing on something positive in such a negative environment. Jon’s Jail Journal has come a long way since when I lived with the cockroaches.

Anne again here: okay, that was the before. Here is the after.

yoga in jail attwoodShaun Attwood3

I never set out to be a writer. My sister, Karen Attwood, with her literature degree, job as a journalist, and fluency in five languages, was always the family wordsmith. At age 9, she even put together her own newspaper: “Kag’s Rags.” Before my arrest, the last novel I’d picked up was To Kill a Mockingbird — but only because it was required reading in high school. I viewed fiction as frivolous, and buried myself in books on the stock market.

Then in 2002, along came a SWAT team and a sequence of events that would send my life in a whole new direction. After breaking the law for years, I’d landed myself in the jail run by the king of pink boxer shorts: Sheriff Joe Arpaio. I was a stockbroker gone wild who’d tried to transfer the Manchester rave scene to Phoenix, Arizona, and that included bringing in drugs like Ecstasy. I was charged with money laundering and drug offences.

Letters that I sent home detailing the jail conditions led to my loved ones encouraging me to keep writing. My dad had just read The Clandestine Diary of an Ordinary Iraqi by Salam Pax, containing the blog entries Pax wrote as the bombs rained down on Baghdad. We had the idea to start a blog. Spurred on by a guard who’d told me that the world had no idea what really went on in the jail, I figured a blog might be a good way to expose the human rights violations.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s jail has the highest rate of death in America. The jail has paid out tens of millions to family members of the deceased. Some of whom – such as Charles Agster and Scott Norberg — died at the hands of the guards. Setting the blog up clandestinely and recruiting my aunt to smuggle out my golf-pencilled efforts right under the guards’ noses appealed to my rebellious nature.

Jon’s Jail Journal had few hits until The Guardian ran excerpts detailing my relations with the cockroaches. Other media ran stories and it gathered a following.

In 2004, I was signed up by a literary agent out of London who’d read the blog. My sister worked tirelessly with her for years. We co-authored a book. It was structured as Karen’s version of my case and the effects on our family alternating with my blog entries.

I read that reading would improve my writing, so during the almost 6 years I served, I submerged myself in literature. In 2006, I read 268 books. When I told Karen, how many books I’d read, she said, “You lucky bugger! If you weren’t in prison, you’d have a job, bills responsibilities. You’d never find the time to read so much.” It was a fantastic journey through literature, ranging from older works such as Don Quixote to novels by contemporary authors such as Don DeLillo. A lot of the books were kindly mailed to the prison by my blog readers. They filled whole shelves in the prison library.

I was released in December 2007, and finally met my agent. Over wine, we toasted to the coming success of the book, which she was going to present at the London Book Fair. But a few weeks before the fair, she was hospitalised with ovarian cancer. She was sent to her parents’ home where she died at the age of 41.

Having no experience in approaching agents and publishers, I did so unprofessionally. It was like banging my head against a wall. Each rejection made me more depressed. I’d dedicated six years to writing and was getting nowhere. But then I won a first prize in a competition my mum and Prisoners Abroad had entered on my behalf while I was still incarcerated. It was a Koestler Award. I read my story at the Southbank Centre where I met the wonderful Koestler staff. I told them about my predicament, and they suggested I apply for their mentor program, which helps prisoners pursue arts.

I once read in The New Yorker that having a mentor was the final thing a would-be author needed to get published. My mentor, Sally Hinchcliffe, embodied that statement for me. She volunteered her work, travelling from a remote part of Scotland to meet me at the British Library. When we first met, we set the goals of finding me a new agent and raising the standard of my prose to a publishable level. She advised me to start over and write my story in my own voice. She also showed me how to approach literary agents in a professional way. For breathing fire on my prose this tiny bespectacled bird-watcher was labelled “Dragon Lady” by my blog readers.

Six months later, I had a new literary agent. Without Sally working her magic, I would never have achieved so much so fast. I even blogged all of our sessions, which you can read by clicking here.

It took two more people to bring me to the publication finishing line. My literary agent, who helped restructure the book — which we’ve decided to bring out as a trilogy — and my publisher, a division of Random House, for taking a chance on this unknown prison author. I’m really grateful to all of these people and the many others for helping me get this far.

The envelope, please…

WHISPER_cover

Update as of September 13, 2010: I am sorry to report that Phoebe Kitanidis decided not to follow through on the award portion of this contest, so the feedback winners in Category II: YA will be receiving will be from me alone. While I regret the necessity, this was a mutual decision: she did participate in the judging, but her feedback on the winning entries was not up to Author! Author! standards, and her next book deadlines was, she said, too tight for her to participate in the video feedback we had planned instead.

My profound apologies to those of you who entered Category II: YA, as her feedback was slated to be its primary prize, as well as to all of the winners in both categories, whose prize entries’ posts were substantially delayed by these negotiations.

Other than removing the parts below that were obviously rendered untrue by subsequent events, I have left this post as I ran it originally back in August, 2010.

That’s right, gang: the long-anticipated day has arrived. Today, I’m going to announce the winners of the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest. Winners will receive an extensive critique of their first pages in this very forum, courtesy of yours truly and FAAB Phoebe Kitanidis, author of the HarperCollins’ new YA release, Whisper.

Hmm, why does that title sound so very familiar? You must have seen the cover someplace.

Why did it take such a long time to judge this contest, you ask? Well, several reasons, up to and including the fact that I’m typing this one-handed, due to my recent injuries. In addition, I experienced great difficulty organizing the prizes; see above. Also, the response to this contest was quite a bit more enthusiastic than either the judges or I had anticipated; as a contest without an entry fee, it wasn’t as though we could simply hire staff to deal with the additional entries.

Beginning to understand why the vast majority of literary contests charge fairly hefty entry fees? Contest administration is time-consuming.

Not that I’m complaining, of course — there were many great entries, and a tidy array that rose to the rank of fabulous. So many, in fact, that it was exceptionally difficult for the judges to agree on the final awards.

But of that, more below. First, I want to talk about a couple of the widespread entry problems.

To be blunt, it was not exceptionally difficult was to disqualify the full one-third of entries that disregarded the rules — and that’s not even counting the 90% of entries that did not adhere to standard format for manuscripts. Come on, people — there were only four rules!

What can we learn from disturbing statistic? Something that any veteran contest judge or agency screener could have told you: a significant proportion of aspiring writers evidently do not take the time to read contest rules and submission requirements.

That’s sad, because — again, as anyone mentioned above could tell you — if an entry or submission does not follow the rules, it will almost always be rejected, regardless of the quality of the writing.

Period. End of story. No appeal. Or, to put it another way: not taking the time to read the rules hurts only you.

Ditto with not following the rules of standard format for manuscripts — although so many entrants broke one or more rules that the judges had to downgrade the importance of formatting in the judging. This meant, in practice, that we ended up considering (and even giving a prize or two) to first pages that Millicent the agency screener probably would not have bothered to read at all.

Hey, we were being nice. But expecting Millicent to exercise that level of leniency would be foolish.

In case I am being too subtle here to catch the average rule-skimmer’s eye: READ THE RULES. LEARN THE RULES. FOLLOW THE RULES. REPEAT AS NEEDED UNTIL YOUR BOOK GETS PUBLISHED.

Seriously, submitting an improperly-formatted manuscript is precisely like sending a contest entry that ignores the stated rules: the writer is depending, foolishly, upon the kindness of the reader to overlook a lack of professionalism. Submitting an improperly or — even more common — inconsistently formatted manuscript is, to put it bluntly, usually a waste of the writer’s time.

Why? Chant it along with me, long-time readers of this blog: because agencies and contests typically receive so many perfectly-formatted, impeccably rule-following manuscripts that they don’t need to bother with those that are not professionally presented. Therefore, not taking the time to learn how to format a book manuscript properly because you are trying to get it out the door faster is self-defeating.

Again, it really is that simple. Fortunately, all any aspiring writer has to do to learn how to format a manuscript properly is take a swift peek at the aptly-named HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list on the bottom right-hand side of this page.

Given how much blog space I routinely devote to proper formatting, I was genuinely surprised at how few entrants had evidently checked their formatting against the literally hundreds of practical examples I have posted on this very blog in recent years. Short of coming to your respective houses and formatting your work for you, I don’t see how I could possibly have made it easier for entrants to this contest — or submitters to agencies, for that matter — to get the formatting right.

I just mention. While I’m typing one-handed. Don’t make me pull out any more guilt-inducement than that.

Oh, and something else almost everybody who entered did: titled the entry document along the lines of Anne Mini contest, Author! Author! contest, first page contest…in short, in a manner that, while convenient for finding it again on THEIR hard drives, required my renaming virtually every entry before I could save it to mine. Because, honestly, when confronted with 43 (seriously) entries called ANNE MINI CONTEST, how else was I supposed to tell them apart?

Aspiring writers do this all the time in electronic submissions and contest entries. Strategically, it’s a bad idea to inconvenience Millicent, even a little.

How should a request for an attachment be titled, you ask? Either with the writer’s last name (Smithentry.doc would have worked beautifully on my end; SmithCatIIentry.doc would have been even better) or — and this was the most popular choice in the contest — with the title of the piece. (TheWayWeWere.doc would be hard to mix up with VenusVampires.doc, after all.)

So much for the multi-part lecture. On to the announcement of the winners. First, the grand prizes.

The 2010 Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence and Grand Prizes in the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest go to:

Adult Fiction: Jennifer Sinclair Johnson, DIVIDED STATES

Young Adult Fiction: Juniper Ekman, TROUBLE COMES

Actually could fit in either adult fiction or YA, but the judges agreed they would have awarded it a grand prize in either: Cole Casperson, INDOMITVS

Memoir (not an official category, but we received a lot of great entries): Jennifer Lyng, NORMAL IS WHAT YOU KNOW

But wait — there’s more! Judging the finalist round was quite tough. Because we received such a lot of exciting, well-written entries, the judges and I talked it over, and we decided that it might be a lovely idea for me to post and discuss the first, second, and third-prize entries as well. (Not that I’ll be doing it immediately, mind you; prize fulfillment will take place when my hands are once again up to full blogging strength.)

So, bearing that prize upgrade in mind, let’s also hear it for the entries that placed:

The Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better, Category I: Young Adult

First Prize, YA: Natalie Hatch, BREEDER

Second Prize, YA: Suzi McGowen, A TROLL WIFE’S TALE, and Sherry Soule, DARK ANGEL

Third Prize, YA: Janine A. Southard, WHICH STAR MY DESTINATION, and Gayton P. Gomez, BOOK WORMS

The Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better, Category II: Adult Fiction

First Prize, Adult Fiction: Curtis Moser, PERDITION, and Jens Porup, THE SECOND BAT GUANO WAR

Second Prize, Adult Fiction: David A. McChesney, SAILING DANGEROUS WATERS, and Ellen Bradford, PITH AND VINEGAR

Third Prize, Adult Fiction: David Jón Fuller, BARK AT THE MOON; Linda C. McCabe, THE LEGEND OF THE WARRIOR MAID AND THE SARACEN KNIGHT, and Carolin Walz, GOTHIC WARS.

Hey, I wasn’t kidding about a plethora of great entries! Congratulations to all of the winners — watch this space to hear more from them.

And, as always, keep up the good work!

Writers taking care of their backs (and other wonders we’d never thought we’d see in our lifetimes) by guest blogger Annemarie Monahan, chiropractor extraordinaire

Writing spine-1

Hello, campers —

No, the doc have no yet cleared me for post-crash keyboarding, one-handed or otherwise — so if any medical type should happen to ask you about it, ix-nay on the log-blay. (And if the first part of that statement seemed cryptic to you, you’ll find an explanation of last week’s festivities here.)

My left hand (i.e., the currently working one) could not resist volunteering to write a glowing intro for this very timely and magnificently useful guest blog by novelist, chiropractor, and Author! Author! community member Annemarie Monahan. After I hurt my back in April, Annemarie very kindly offered to give all of us writers some much-needed tips on how to set up our work spaces (hint: that foot-wide shelf between the oven and the refrigerator is not an adequate writing desk), how and when to take breaks during those long writing sessions (you know, the ones where you snarl at your SO in hour four, “I’ll just be a minute for dinner — I want to finish this paragraph,” and then are astonished when s/he comes back three hours later to inform you that it’s midnight), and generally take much, much better care of our backs than most of us do.

Although Annemarie is here today at Author! Author! wearing her chiropractor and general medical wise woman’s hats, I can’t resist telling you a bit about her women’s fiction work-in-progress, THREE. She describes it as “Think Jeanette Winterson meets Sliding Doors.” As we’ve discussed at such length in the past, it’s genuinely hard to pitch a multiple-protagonist novel well, so I’m delighted to show you her teaser:

Three women. Three strangers. Yet all were the same seventeen-year-old girl on a yellow April morning, wondering, “Do I dare to eat a peach?” Three different answers sent one life in disparate directions. Now, at forty-one, their parallel lines are about to intersect again.

Ántonia searches the sea-horizon every evening. In the last light, she can glimpse it: a feminist Utopia built on an abandoned oil rig, led by her charismatic and bipolar lover. Her lost Eden made by Eves.

For Dr. Katherine North, the memory of two women chafes her like a hair shirt. After the death of one, she contacts the other — only to discover that she has been renounced in the name of God.

Kitty Trevelyan has been happily married twenty-three years. Happily enough. Until her professor asks her for coffee and kisses her.

Piques the interest, doesn’t it? To read more, check out Annemarie’s website.

And now, without further ado — hey, my left hand is new to all of these ks and ls — please join me welcoming Annemarie in her capacity as back care guru. Take it away, Annemarie!

Writing spine-1Writing spine-1Writing spine-1

Do you have a shelf of books about writing? I have a stack of them upstairs. So much good advice about the craft, the business… but so little on the physical process and its challenges. Our gracious hostess, Anne, has asked me to talk about writing and our low backs. It’s a subject dear to her… well, spine. Regular readers of this blog will remember that she recently had a bout of low back pain, like nearly half of working Americans any given year, one severe enough that she had to take some time away from amusing and educating us.

Whether we’ve never had low back pain or have a long history, we as writers are particularly susceptible because we sit. And sit, and sit. However, susceptible does not mean doomed. There are simple steps you can take to protect yourself. Let’s talk about a few.

Where do you write? In a home office? In a recliner? At your son’s cast-off kid’s desk? At a cafe? Probably like many of you here, I wrote most of my novel at my kitchen table. Not a bad choice, biomechanically.

Wherever you work, make sure you’re facing your screen or typewriter dead on when you’re relaxed. No twisting. The desk or table should be high enough to allow your chair to be pulled under it while you’re seated, and leave few inches of wriggle room above your thighs.

Now let’s take a closer look at your work space ergonomics. Sit down in your favorite writing position and take a look at your legs.

Do your heels rest on the floor? Or do they dangle in the air? Are you on tip toes? Your feet should reach the ground comfortably and fully. If they don’t, lower your chair or invest in a foot rest.

Next, look farther up. If you drew a line from the front crease of your thigh to your knee, would the line be flat, sloping down, or sloping up? You want either flat or sloping down a little. If the line slopes up, as it does when you sit in a recliner, you’re putting a lot of strain on your low back. Raise your seat (making sure your heels can still rest on the floor!) or add height to it with a firm cushion or support.

Are you writing sitting in bed, or on the couch, feet up? Stop that. Sure, it feels cushy at first, but the softness allows your behind to sink below the level of your knees. Sooner or later you’ll pay for that momentary pleasure as surely as the naïf in the old public health film who keeps questionable company.

Even if we have the perfect work station, our low backs take a beating. How many hours did you put into that first page alone? That first chapter? How many hours are you sitting at your laptop without getting up or even moving?

Writing is a long slog across rough terrain, not a frolic. A marathon, not a sprint.

The human body isn’t designed for marathons. As I say to my patients, look what happened to the guy who ran the first one. But we can strengthen ourselves to achieve feats of endurance, either active or sedentary.

Fortunately, training for the butt-in-chair marathon doesn’t have to take much time or effort. No yoga among the spandexed, no sweaty weight equipment at the Y. Just a few quiet moments at home between paragraphs.

In the over twenty years I’ve been in practice, I’ve learned that no-one– no-one!– will do a long or complicated back exercise program. It’s just not human nature. And it’s always smart to work with human nature rather than against it. With that in mind, please meet…

The Two-Minute Routine to Keep a Happy Low Back*

1. The Hamstring Stretch
Stand up. With one foot firmly supporting you, put the other heel up on the seat of your chair. You shouldn’t feel any pulling in the back of your leg at this point. If you do, use something lower and sturdy. Now rest both your hands on the knee of the leg you have up.

hamstring ready

Keep your knee completely straight — bending it ruins this stretch. Don’t worry about where your foot points: just relax. Lean over, nose towards those toes.

hamstring stretch

You’ll feel a stretch in the back of your thigh, near the knee. Don’t bounce, don’t yank. Right, in the days before the glaciers retreated, your gym teacher taught you to bounce when you stretch. Mine, too.

But don’t do it. It’s a great way to pull a muscle. Just lean gently and firmly. If there’s pain, back off.

Breathe. Count to ten leisurely.

Come out of the stretch gradually. Repeat for the other side. Don’t be surprised if one side is tighter than the other; that’s normal.

2. The Piriformis Stretch
Next, find a spot where you can lie down comfortably. On a pad or carpeted floor is fine, as is a firm bed if you have a hard time getting up and down.

Lie on your back with one leg bent at the knee, and one flat.

piriformis ready

Now, grab that bent knee with both hands. Pull it up and across your body, towards your opposite shoulder. Right, not straight up. Towards the opposite shoulder.

piriformis stretch

You’ll feel a deep stretch in the side of your behind. Pull gently but firmly, backing off if you experience pain other than that hurts-so-good feeling. Now, read your manuscript aloud in its entirety…

No, wait. Sorry. Breathe! Count to ten.

Again, come out of it gradually and repeat for the other side.

3. The Abdominal Crunch
I heard you whimper. Don’t fuss, these are not the sit-ups you dreaded as a kid.

Stay on your back after the piriformis stretches. Put both your feet on the floor, knees up. Cross your arms over your chest.

crunch ready

Take a breath. As you exhale, come up only about 30 degrees, enough to get your shoulder blades off the floor.

crunch!

There should be no pain in your low back or neck, only the sensation of muscles working in your belly. Hold for just one beat, then lie down again. Don’t flop. Repeat, making sure to breathe, breathe, breathe!

There’s no ideal number of these crunches, but I tell patients to do as many as they can comfortably, plus one. Always use good form; it’s better to do fewer than to use sloppy technique. This exercise should never hurt.

Don’t worry if you tire quickly. I have patients that can’t do a single crunch. If you can’t either, instead just flatten your low back against the floor by tightening your belly muscles.

Unlike writing your novel, this is process, not goal. You’ll get stronger bit by bit, page by page.

That’s it. It may not seem like much, but with daily small effort, your low back will stay strong and flexible as a well-bound book.

Here’s to your health and writing success!

*I’m sure my attorney would want me to mention this, so here goes: the information provided in this post, such as text and images, is for informational purposes only. It is not to be construed as medical care or medical advice and is not a replacement for medical care given by physicians or trained medical personnel.

Writing spine-1 Annemarie Monahan is still able to read the Latin of her diploma from Bryn Mawr College, a skill as practical as her degree in English. Belatedly realizing she had to eat, she earned her professional doctorate from Northwestern College of Chiropractic.

Dr. Monahan has been in private practice for twenty-one years. She writes in western Massachusetts, surrounded by chickens and stone walls.