Caught Between a Word Count and a Deadline by Kim Norris

Kim Norris
Kim Norris

Please welcome guest blogger and friend Kim Norris.

We both like spicy noodle soup and we both write. The difference is that Kim is much braver in putting her work out there.

Kim sends in unpublished materials to writers’ contests. Here is a guest post about how it all began and how she manages her writing.
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My writer’s bio has always started the same way: “I’ve been writing ever since I learned how to hold a pencil…”

As a twelve-year-old, I declared I would win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction by age 40. Over the years, I filled pages with poems, stories, plays, news articles, scholarly articles, and chapter books. After graduating college, I got a job as a technical writer, and since then I’ve written hundreds of reference guides, press releases, white papers, feature articles, web pages, and brochures.

In 2001 I completed and attempted to publish a novel-length murder mystery. Few publishers accepted electronic submissions then, making the process expensive and unwieldy – self-addressed stamped envelopes, the cost of printing the first three chapters, trips to the post office. When the stack of rejection letters within the folder I labeled, “They’ll regret this one day” exceeded the thickness of the first three chapters, I gave up in disgust and quit writing fiction and poetry completely. Newly married, I hardly missed it. Life filled the time. Words still earned me a paycheck, but the passion to write was gone.

While I can truly say I make my living writing, when the mid-life crisis hit two years ago all I could think was, “I failed to win the Pulitzer Prize.”

As I struggled with uncharacteristic depression, I soul-searched on just what was my problem? I had a good job, a fantastic husband, a nice house, spoiled cats – it’s a wonderful life. Why was I so dissatisfied? Clarity offered one answer; I missed creative writing. I regretted not having that Pulitzer Prize. Mostly I regretted that I had not even shot for it.

So I began writing again, blogging, sporadically at first. Eventually I connected with other writers, got needed encouragement, and managed #52weeks of blog posts in 2013. Topics ranged from poetry to prose – one week, my father’s obituary had to suffice. The challenge of the weekly deadline re-instilled a much-missed writing habit, but the compressed writing cycle soon frustrated me. The work felt rushed, and nothing seemed good enough for anything more than self-publication.

Although I found self-publication satisfying, I wanted to dig deeper creatively. I decided to spend 2014 penning new works to submit to poetry and fiction contests, one each month, #12Contests. The pace allowed four weeks to conceive and complete each work, which seemed luxurious after surviving fifty-two seven-day cycles. Twelve contests, I decided, would be a breeze.

I was wrong.

Finding contests became my first challenge, but Writer’s Digest proved a good place to begin. I also found The Writer, which had a longer list. Nearly all the contests had an entry fee, but I figured that the average fee ($5-$20 typically) was still far cheaper than the cost to snail-mail a manuscript with a self-addressed stamped envelope. I created a spreadsheet and copied links to possible contests.

I had January covered as I planned to submit – to a contest I knew I would not win – the ridiculous science fiction novel I completed the previous November during #NaNoWriMo, the write-a-novel-in-a-month challenge. I then found poetry contests for February and March that accepted simultaneous submissions. This gave me eight weeks to write a poem I could submit to both. I proudly sent the final piece off to each contest, pleased with the end result.

In early March I began a new story for the April contest, and that’s when my grandiose vision started to blur. The short story contest I selected had a 5,000-word minimum. At 6,500 words, I was only a fourth of the way through. Then my plot evaporated, exposition dominated over dialog, and the story got stuck. Very stuck. By April 20th, I knew with certainty I would not make the deadline for the April contest because there was no way I could edit the story (still unfinished) to 5,000 words.

Undeterred, I revised my #12Contests rules to include cook-offs, entered a macaroni-and-cheese contest at the end of April, and published the recipe. I also managed to locate a contest that allowed works up to 12,000 words, unstuck the story, and made the May deadline with hours to spare. (Thank you, Glimmer Train!) I covered June with a blog carnival entry and began to work on the July story with seven weeks of writing time.

***

To date my contest win-loss record is perfect; I have lost them all, (including the cook-off; a bacon-packed mac-and-cheese beat my four-cheese blend, and rightfully so). Each time I lose another writing contest, I remember that I had low expectations to begin with, that this was an exercise in putting it out there without regard to the result, a strop with which to hone, razor-sharp, my craft before I press it to my metaphorical neck.

I won’t pretend it doesn’t rankle; I count the increasing email messages stored in the directory I labeled, “They’ll regret this one day.” Some moments, especially when the story is stuck, I despair, briefly. Then I remind myself to want what I have – a writing habit. I found my muse again; for that I am grateful, but sometimes I doubt my reasons and my rhymes.

It takes a generous dollop of ego to put it out there in the first place, and I feel well outside of my comfort zone when I do so. My finger wavers over the SEND key before every contest submission. When self-doubt threatens to overwhelm, I turn to my writing friends, we commiserate on the frustrations and remind ourselves of the rewards of a well-turned phrase, a carefully crafted sentence, and a perfectly quilted paragraph. They tell me to keep it up, and I love them for that.

***

It’s August, and the July story is unfinished – stuck. Very stuck. I managed to whip up a 30-line poem for the July contest, so my goal of #12Contests remains on track. I would have liked to say more on the topic (summer days with my grandmother), but the contest mandated only thirty lines. Beyond bouts of writer’s block that come and go, staying within the word count has been my greatest challenge.

I don’t focus on word count while I write. I prefer the philosophy: put it all down in the first draft; pare it in the second. I begin editing by using my word processor’s find/replace function to turn all my Be verbs (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, and been) red. It gives me literal red flags for passive voice in my writing. Compare the sentences, “I walked to the store” and “I was walking to the store.” Not only does the active voice read better, it is shorter by a word. I also scour for words that end in “ly” because adjectives and adverbs are often unnecessary fluff. When all else fails, I turn to my writing/editing friends who have less emotional attachment to each word, and, therefore, better identify the paragraphs that I should cut.

I have slim but resilient hope that I can finish the July story (now the August story), and edit the tale down to 5,000 words as required by the August Contest. I will need a better title than “July Story,” and an arc – I need an arc between the place where my heroine now stands and the place she is destined to go. And I need it quickly, because the September contest deadline will be here soon, and for that I must write a short story or essay with the theme, “Any Emotion Goes” in under 2,014 words, or a poem 250 lines or less.

It’s the writer’s challenge.
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I’ve been writing ever since I learned how to hold a pencil at age four, although my plots improved after I learned to read. I earn my living as a technical writer, editor, and marketing coordinator, but my passion is creative writing: blogs, plays, fiction, and poetry. I call the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of southwest Virginia home where I live with my husband and two very spoiled cats.

I blog more fact than fiction at: http://four-good-ideas.blogspot.com/

I blog more fiction that fact at: http://4goodideas.wordpress.com/

I offer my mouthy opinions on Twitter @KimHNorris

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