Monday, May 28, 2012

The Emotion Factor

If it’s true that there are only seven basic plots (or twenty, as I recently learned) and there’s nothing new under the sun, why do we keep buying books or going to the movies? Why is storytelling such a popular form of entertainment?

Perhaps the biggest reason is that storytelling can provide us with something we all crave: a strong emotional experience. Good stories can offer us a glimpse of what our lives might have been like if we’d been raised in another country or century, or if we’d been born a different gender. But the best ones make us experience someone else’s life as though it were our own.

Stories have the power to touch us in a variety of ways: be it the feeling of falling in love, the loss of a loved one, the rush of adventure, the thirst for justice and revenge, intense fear or deep exhilaration. Whatever the emotion might be, if the director/writer has done a good job, the audience will feel it. Ever said, or heard someone say: “I loved that film. I cried so much with it”?

A couple of months ago, I attended a Writers Conference where Screenwriting Instructor Rick Reichman mentioned that every director in Hollywood knows that emotion is the key to selling a film. He emphasized the importance of choreographing every scene to evoke a specific emotion in the viewer.

“Drama is when the audience cries, not the actors,” he said.

In Advertising, they understand that every ad must have an “appeal” for the audience. One of my college professors repeated these four as the most powerful ones: sex, humor, hunger and emotion. But there are many others. It all boils down to identifying the costumer’s primary need and offering them a solution to satisfy it. Storytelling is no different. There are genres for every “emotional need.”

True emotion or manipulation?

Here’s where things become muddy. Emotion is very personal, and it can also be subjective. Recently, a good friend of mine sent me this link. She was shocked when I told her I didn’t cry with it. “But I liked it!” I said. She called me “insensitive.” I defended myself by saying that I had cried with Juno and Cinema Paradiso. Well, guess what, she hadn’t cried with either one.

Part of my problem is that I’ve been studying storytelling for so long that I can identify many of the tricks filmmakers use to touch the audience. Not to say that I’m never touched by a film or book anymore. I am. (Recently by Gran Torino and always by Steel Magnolias and My Girl). So why this and not that?

I couldn’t say for sure. But I know that unpredictability and “hope and fear” have been determining factors in my reactions as a viewer/reader. If I’m invested in a story and character, and I suspect something bad is about to happen but don’t know for sure (I keep hoping for the best, but fearing I may be wrong), I’m devastated if my worse suspicions come true. However, it’s fundamental to like—or at least understand—the protagonist.

On the other hand, if I can predict with certainty the outcome of a story, then I’m less likely to be touched. For example, when I saw The Notebook, I was not familiar with Nicholas Sparks’ work so I didn’t know the ending would be so sad. Needless to say, the story touched me. After a while, though, I recognized the pattern in this author’s work and became immune to the “Sparks effect.”

The same has happened to me with several Latin American soap operas. When the main character and her love interest have (yet) another fight and break up, I know (like everyone else) that in the end they will be together, so my emotions are not invested in the heroine’s suffering. However, some telenovelas throughout the years have managed to surprise me with an unexpected, unforeseeable and painful event (like the death of a loyal friend or family member) and such incidents have been heartfelt and extremely upsetting for me. At first, I couldn’t understand why the script writers would do this. Were they crazy? Didn’t they know I loved that character?

But then I read this passage in Donald Maass’s book “Writing the Breakout Novel” and everything made sense:

“Trials and tests are the stuff of character building, of conflict. Ask yourself, who is the one ally your protagonist cannot afford to lose? Kill that character. What is your protagonist’s greatest physical asset? Take it away… Push your characters to the edge, and you will pull your readers close.” (Maass, Pg. 78)

But please, don’t go on a killing spree and down all your side kicks and mentors!

The funeral scene in Steel Magnolias is masterfully executed: it's poignant, it has tension
and a touch of humor (which gives us a glimmer of hope in spite of the blackness).


Emotion doesn’t only mean crying your eyes out. Another strong emotion that has kept me reading/watching a film is frustration. And what propels frustration and anger more than injustice? Some of my favorite stories are the ones where a big injustice has been committed toward the main character (like being wrongly accused of a crime and having to pay with years of hardship and pain in prison.) I live for the moment when the protagonist (now hardened, stronger and wiser) finds his way out of jail and comes back for revenge against those who hurt him.

My favorite examples of this emotionally-charged storylines are: Stephen King’s The Shawshank Redemption, Sydney Sheldon’s If Tomorrow Comes, and Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Montecristo. Anybody remembers the 80’s Australian mini-series Return to Eden? How I loved that show! And how about the film Midnight Express? (That was just painful to watch.)

I realize this type of emotion is not for everybody, but it’s definitely for me!

In The Shawshank Redemption, an innocent man is wrongly accused of killing his wife
and her lover, and must serve two consecutive life-sentences in prison. 

Can I open my eyes now?

Fear is another driving emotion. The popularity of ghost stories in folklore, Halloween and scary movies is an indication that us humans love to be scared (as long as we know it’s not real). Isn’t it strange how in fiction we crave the emotions we abhor in real life?

Butterfly explosion

But not everyone is a masochist (or we’re not masochistic all the time). If you’ve been married for too long, you may want to reexperience butterflies in your stomach instead of indigestion. Perhaps the healthiest way to do this is through fiction. Many attribute the success of the Twilight Saga to the theory that many women around the world fell in love with Edward Cullen. Bella was simply a blank canvas to project themselves on. (This rich, good looking, powerful man fell for ordinary-me!)

The same is true for thousands of romance novels and films throughout history. But the illusion of falling in love is very tricky. I believe that the butterfly moment can only happen once in a story (twice if you’re lucky). Usually as a consequence of many encounters between the protagonists where anticipation has been built. The payoff is that first kiss or sex scene (when done tastefully, I think.)

Again and again I see in TV shows an attempt to recreate that initial magic between the two characters that finally get together. We saw it in Friends. After that initial kiss between Ross and Rachel, things leveled and eventually became pretty static between them. With the breakup, the jealousy episodes, Ross’s many failed marriages and Joey’s sudden interest in Rachel, the writers tried to bring back that initial sexual tension between Ross and Rachel. For me, it didn’t work. In fact, it became annoying (especially the last season!)

One of the most famous kisses in television history.

How NOT to convey emotion

After several drafts of my first novel and a couple of my second, I finally realized that I have a tendency to be overdramatic and often resorted to cliché scenes and phrases to evoke emotion in my readers. Don’t do this. Come up with unique ways to describe reactions (don’t have them trembling over everything like I did!) and please, no more airport tension scenes at the end of your novel (I’m guilty of having done this SEVERAL times) but the problem is everyone knows what the outcome will be. Another way of not conveying emotion is to simply name the feeling (she was so sad, or hurt, or mad, or whatever else). It’s better to let her actions/words do the work.

In the end, there is no secret formula to touch the reader. Killing all your characters is not a guarantee that your audience will feel anything. To some, it may seem melodramatic and contrived. As writers all we can do is be honest with ourselves and our audience. Take the story where it needs to go, not where you think it has a better chance of making your readers cry.

Do you remember fondly those stories that made you cry? What are your favorites? What is the emotion that moves you to watch a film or read a book?

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Plot Thickens

I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren't compatible. ~ Stephen King

I like Stephen King’s quote here, largely because it justifies my own sad inability to plot. Well, I don’t totally lack the ability, I’m just not very good at it. I envy those who, like JK Rowling, saw the entire span of her storyline unfold with perfect clarity, from the very get-go. What must that be like? I rarely know what’s going to happen paragraph by paragraph. I am like a climber rose that someone forgot to provide with a trellis, so I just meander all over the place.

In an effort to discipline myself, I bought some how-to books. I even read them. You may be familiar with some titles: Twenty Master Plots, The Writer’s Journey, First Draft in 30 Days, Scene & Structure, and Beginnings, Middles & Ends. The one I found the least helpful is First Draft in 30 Days, by Karen S. Wiesner. This book may be exactly what many writers need, but it was too cerebral for me. Formats, outlines, daily goals, worksheets, timelines. I do some of this on my own as I write, when I organically need it, but I find I can spend all day filling out detailed character worksheets (What kind of clothes does she wear? What kind of job does she have? If she was a dog breed, what dog breed would she be? This is fun!) and forget to do any actual writing.

Twenty Master Plots, by Ronald B. Tobias, is a dead useful book. Any aspiring novelist or screenwriter should read it, simply for the ideas it presents. Obviously, you should not approach a novel as if it were a recipe, and Tobias does not. He indicates that your story is probably already following one of these master plots anyway, and the first job is recognizing which one it is. Not too many stories fall neatly into the twenty, but he gives great examples, and the breakdown gives the rambling writer a trellis on which to climb. I couldn’t sort out, for example, whether my 19th-century novel was a quest plot or a maturation plot. It has elements of both, but in reading through the examples and how each unfolds, I felt I had a much better handle on how my story should progress.

From the Elements of Fiction Writing, the Writer’s Digest how-to series, comes Scene & Structure, Beginnings, Middles & Ends, and Plot. All three books were interesting, but Scene & Structure is essential. It might even be the first book any aspiring novelist should read, because the most common mistake I see in new writers is an inability to write in scenes. As that author, Jack Bickham, points out, a novel is basically a series of scenes. Once you figure out what scenes you must include to get your story told, you’re going to have something very much like a plot outline. On the downside, I found that Bickham’s actual rules of what a scene is supposed to look like are too rigid for me; most novels I read, too, simply do not follow his pattern, which is “1. Statement of a goal, 2. Introduction and development of a conflict, and 3. Failure of the character to reach his goal, a tactical  disaster.” While that seems awfully formulaic, and we can all think of a million counterexamples, it’s a decent loose idea for a writer to have in the back of her mind. It’s also not a bad way to approach a scene you’re struggling with.

The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogel, is such a classic that I’m willing to bet most of our followers have it on their bookshelf. I love this book; I love thinking about it as I read a novel or watch a movie: Ooh! Our hero has just crossed the First Threshold! Ooh, we have just met the Mentor! Ooh, I bet that guy is the Shapeshifter! Uh-oh, I think we’ve just approached the Supreme Ordeal. It’s the kind of book you should think about as a consumer of stories, but I don’t pay a great deal of attention to it when I’m structuring my own … the Hero’s Journey on which the The Writer’s Journey is based is deeply subconscious. It doesn’t work well, in my experience, if you consciously design a story based on the timeless structure. (Unless you are George Lucas.)

A last point I’d like to make about plotting is that the subject tends to come up as an either-or: Either you are someone who writes the way King does, making it all up as you go along; or you are someone who comes up with a complete outline before you type a word of story. I don’t think too many people really fit these extremes. Although I’m more a seat-of-the-pants writer, I find that after about 100 pages of happily pounding at the keyboard in an undisciplined manner, I start to see an actual story emerge, with a possible endpoint. At this point I really need to do a little outlining: not because it’s The Rule, but because I feel compelled to. I set up a couple ways the story might go, in summary, and see how I feel about each. Then I have that trellis on which to twine the next 100 pages. This also helps me identify what major scenes I’ll need to get the story told, to get my main characters from the beginning of the story to the end.

How do you work? Do you agree with King about plot, or are you a meticulous plotter-aheader? Where did you get your ideas about story plotting?

Monday, May 14, 2012

Self-censorship and the lost art of subtlety

When it comes to writing, I just hate rules. I particularly detest when the industry imposes arbitrary rules that limits my creativity.  In an age where there are relatively few taboo subjects, those rules are tantamount to censorship. And yet they serve a purpose. Whether we follow or bypass them, they force us to improve our writing skills, to develop crafty ways in which to please this new form of censorship while retaining our personal style. Thus we become subtle writers.

Repression breeds good writers
Once in graduate school, a professor shocked our class by saying that political repression usually breeds the best writers. He used Boris Pasternak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn as examples. In those Glasnost days, my teacher prophesied that no good writer could come from the freer atmosphere of the New Russia. Time has proven him right. I haven´t heard of any Russian literary masterpiece written after the fall of the former Soviet Union.

Moreover, Tom went on saying, and this time we had to agree, that all the genius of the Spanish Golden Age, whether it was reflected on Velasquez paintings or Calderon´s plays had seen the light under a climate of extreme social and political oppression. The Holy Office, the most dreadful censor that has ever existed, was in charge to approve or obstruct any form of artistic expression not only in the Iberian Peninsula but in its overseas empire as well.

The proof was that during their lifetime, Cervantes, St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross ran into trouble with the Inquisition. So, how could Spain reach such artistic zenith during those heavily censored times? Every great artist had to work with what they have, to create code ways to express their true ideas, to skirt around dangerous subjects. In sum, they had to learn to be subtle.
St Teresa and St John of the Cross

Subtlety is something modern writers and scriptwriters no longer recognize.  Despite constant whining about censorship, contemporary artistic expression has no boundaries, few taboo subjects and absolutely no nuance. It´s why we can hardly notice great films since their “greatness” is cloaked by profanity, gore and cascades of graphic sex. I am not saying writing or audiovisual entertainment should lack four-letter words, violence or sexual content, but the lack of delicacy that characterizes its usage diminishes its potential.

To torture or not to torture
Graphic violence has made me close a book several times, but I have to say it seldom happens when reading fiction. Depictions of torture, human experiments, and horrid ways of execution have made me ill, but only if I find them in history books.  Violence in novels doesn’t have that same effect because we know it is fictional, and because good writers know how to use it.

As a child I used to shake all over with Isaac of York’s ordeal in Ivanhoe. The funny thing was that Isaac is never really tortured by the dastardly Norman Front de Boeuf. A fortunate and timely attack by Robin Hood´s Merry Men saves the Jew from being roasted alive, but Sir Walter Scott carefully depicts the torture instruments, the iron grill, the oil, the fire, making the reader as terrified as Isaac of what is about to happen in that torture chamber.
Sir James Mason playing Isaac of York in Ivanhoe

In The 25th Hour, Constant Virgil Gheorghiu portrays with crudeness the suffering of Rumanian people before, during and after World War II, but its strongest scene does not include physical violence. Nora West, the female protagonist, finds herself in an East Germany cell.  When she bangs on the door demanding an explanation for her arrest, the jailer threatens her: next time she calls, she´ll be punished. Although he doesn´t specify what punishment expects her, Nora is terrified.

Unused to hardship or extreme fear, she crumbles apart. The author describes everything that goes through her head from the possible causes behind her arrest to the lice in the bed in the cell. Worse is to come, she needs to urinate but she can´t call the jailer to take her to the bathroom. With exquisite detail, the author describes her need to perform the bodily function: “She felt as if a hundred needles pierced her bladder and she couldn´t force her muscles to obey her.”
Nora West in the Spanish edition of The 25th  Hour

When The Sunday Herald serialized the novel in 1951, the censor cut that piece considering it too strong for their readers. To me is much more powerful and painful than any torture scene, like the one Robert Crichton includes in his The Secret of Santa Vittoria.

After the fall of Mussolini, the village of Santa Vittoria elects Italo Bombolini, the town´s drunkard, as their mayor.  When Germans invade Italy, Bombolini knows they´ll seize the wine the village produces. With the townspeople’s help, he hides over a million bottles of wine in a nearby cave. The Germans arrive and Captain von Prumm, the officer in charge, confiscates a couple of thousand bottles to send over to Germany.
Anthony Quinn as Bombolini

Then the S.S. turns up in Santa Vittoria. Furious because according to the pre-war statistics Santa Vittoria yields over a million bottles,  they demand hostages to torture into giving away the wine´s whereabouts. Bombolini, who has been reading The Prince, devices a Machiavellian plan. He tells von Prumm that to avoid guilty feelings, they should select as hostages the fist two men that walk into to the town square. Previously, Bombolini has arranged so those men are Copa, the former mayor, and another of his Fascist cronies.  The men are taken to the torture chamber and Crichton spends over a page depicting their torment:

“After that they did things with the blowtorch on Copa's body that cannot be written down. After the torch they cooled him with water. He was still conscious and they put the funnel in his mouth so that it went far down his throat and they bent his neck back and brought him to the point of drowning.”

When the time came to get Crichton’s novel to the silver screen, director Stanley Kramer was in a quandary. He wanted to sell his film as a comedy, so how could he balance that with a gruesome torture scene? (Moreover, 60’s sensibilities were not partial to such scene.)His solution was to reach out for subtlety.

Kramer had the camera focus not on the tortured men but on the villagers’ faces as screams are heard in the background. Like in a Greek tragedy, violence occurs off the stage, we don´t see the torture, and we don’t see the torturer or his victims. And yet it is a blood curdling scene (I am glad I found it in YouTube) with those sporadic shrieks of pain breaking perfect silence and the camera recording the reactions of both Bombolini‘s (Anthony Quinn) and von Prumm (Hardy Krueger.)

A reviewer once said that the torture scene was proof of Crichton´s masterful style. I agree, but I also feel that Stanley Kramer deserves some accolades for his timely self-censorship and skillful subtlety in directing a difficult scene. Too bad we cannot say the same about Rosemary Rogers.

Gifted with a fertile imagination and an almost elegant prose, Rosemary Rogers stood apart from the other bodice-ripper authors as the most “literary” of the lot, but she cramped her style with a taste for violence. Not only were her heroines incessantly raped, but her antiheroes were not immune to victimization either. With gusto, Rogers would subject her male protagonists to flogging, beatings, and stabbings. She reached heights of cruelty such as bounding them to cacti, slowly choking them with wet leather and staking them to the ground just to be covered with hungry ants. She even had he favorite macho hero Steve Morgan threatened with male rape. Rosemary Rogers was a good writer but she went too far. Too bad there was no censor around to curtail her sadistic imagination.

“And the earth moved…”
Over the years I have run into many books and films that could be perfect except for one flaw: excess.  An overflowing of shocking material can cause mental indigestion and it’s a sign of artistic immaturity. A writer doesn´t have to return to Victorian literature inhibitions and leave the reader wondering how and when the heroine got pregnant, but a bit of self-censorship will force the writing to be more ingenious and subtle.

I don´t want to linger too much on the subject of explicit bedroom scenes , but I think the most arousing books and films are those that display restrain. A friend of mine once complained about the amount of euphemisms historical romance authors used for male genitalia.  “Why can´t they just call it a penis?” she said. I explained that the word didn´t matter, much more important was what the penis did, something even authors forget. They shouldn’t focus on body parts or positions, but feelings and emotions.

 Guy de Maupassant wrote fantastically sexy short stories and novels and yet he never had to use anatomical references or lewd language. He concentrated on atmosphere, sexual tension and feelings. Just describing the shrill provoked by a girl’s fist orgasm was much more exciting that spending two pages illustrating every action that brought about that shriek. Just think of Hemingway’s phrase "and the earth moved out and away from under them” in For Whom the Bells Toll.  That immortal metaphor for an orgasm is all you need to realize that Robert and Maria are having a good time upon the Spanish ground.
Robert and Maria before making the earth "move"

Forbidden words
Recently Regis reminded me that the word “impotence” is not used in The Sun Also Rises to explain the hero’s malady, yet every reader knows Jake is impotent, just as we know Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Doryan Gray is all about homosexuality. Sometimes a writer doesn´t need to state the obvious. However, the fact that the film version includes the word “impotent” was a major breakthrough in an industry that couldn´t use the word “virgin” (referring to a physical condition) until “The Moon is Blue" (1955) and the term “pregnant” until “A Summer Place” (1960.) Nowadays those words are so common in television and moving pictures that we don’t even notice them. It´s only the first time they are used that they cause the desired shock.

Norman Mailer´s epic war novel The Naked and the Dead presented the reader with a new verb: “to fug.”Mailer had to yield to his publisher´s advice not to use the “F” word since books that had previously used it (i.e. Joyce´s Ulysses and Lawrence´s Lady Chatterley’s Lover) had been banned in the US. But two years late, James Jones dared to actually use the “F” word (60 times) in From Here to Eternity.
Nowadays profanity is so widespread in fiction that I hear a good way to attract an agent is to begin a novel with a dialogue line that includes a “bad” word. I guess that after rating a dozen manuscripts that start with “F...k” or “S...t”, agents are probably immune to such novelties. The problem of overusing resources is that they become boring and predictable.

I remember the first “bad word” heard on national TV. It was uttered by Hawkeye Piece (Alan Alda) in the “M.A.S.H” episode “Guerilla My Dreams.”A M.A.S.H.  fanatic, I still recall the electric current running down my spine when that “Son of a Bitch!” was hurled by Hawkeye to a Korean intelligence officer bent on torturing a patient. In the 80's, profanity was unknown in open television. Nowadays the S.O.B term is used even by children on the small screen and we scarcely bat an eyelash.
"Guerrilla My Dreams"

My father once gave me a great piece of advice. “Never use a four-letter word when you have a better term at hand. Extreme profanity is a sign of ignorance and lack of vocabulary.” Every time I watch “True Blood” I remember Dad’s advise because everyone in the show from sophisticated vampires to working-class shapeshifters suffer from a bad case of gutter-mouth. This applies to the heroine as well.  Sookie Stackhouse in her books doesn´t curse as much as her television counterpart who comes across (excuse the non PC word) as the prototypical “white trash.”

 I am tired of hearing that “explicit sex, gore and foul language sell.” How come extremely successful shows such as “Downton Abbey” and “Mad Men” do not use that cheap device?  “Mad Men,” a show that is all about sex, keeps profanity to a minimum. In five seasons it has yet to show nudity or naked sweaty couples huffing and puffing like the Big Bad Wolf about to blow away the homes of The Three Little Pigs.

After this tirade, I have to confess that I have been guilty of every fault I criticize in this post. I have written gory and sexually explicit scenes, and twice wiser-than-me Beta Readers have counseled me to erase an untimely “F” word. We are the product of what we see and read. How could we then circumvent the inevitable excesses of poor taste?

My advice is read, read and read. And watch your reaction to all that reading. Could you name novels (or films) where offensive subjects were skillfully and tastefully managed? Have you turned off the TV, walked off the movie house or closed a book because of a particular mishandling of delicate themes? In general, how do you feel about too much sex, violence and profanity in literature?  Should we exercise self-censorship to balance the excess?

Sunday, May 6, 2012

We've Won the NMPW Awards! (Oh, and a thing or two about bios.)

On behalf of each sister at the Sisterhood, Sister Lorena and I have accepted the annual New Mexico Press Women's first place award for best informational blog focusing on a specific topic (writing)!

We want to share this award with each and every one of our followers, readers, anonymous looky-loos, etc., because it's you who help make this blog a success. When we started Divine Secrets of the Writing Sisterhood two years ago, our goal was to write not only informational articles for our chosen audience, but to also engage in dialogue with other writers out there. Writing can be a lonely profession when left to oneself, but we at the Sisterhood believe that it doesn't have to be. I'm very proud of each and every one of my sisters and the fact that they have taken time out of their busy lives to contribute to the success of our blog! Thank you ladies for traveling the lonely road of publishing with me. At this point, I don't know if I could continue without you!
♥ Mary Mary

If you're interested in reading either of the two articles that Sister Lorena and I submitted for the contest, please feel free to click on the links below:

Interview with Western Author Melody Groves ~ by Mary Mary

To Err Is Human, To Learn Divine ~ by Lorena

♥   ♥   ♥   ♥   ♥

On to my thoughts about bios!

Perhaps you're one of those aspiring writers out there who doesn't believe in entering contests. I mean, why should you have to pay money to have your work read, right? Well, I hear ya, but you have to keep one thing in mind if you're looking for credibility in the publishing world —

What are you going to put in your bio?

I had just this question pop up for me last week. An agent requested my work with synopsis and the dreaded BIO! What could I actually say about myself that related to writing? Just like a resumé asks you to list all your up-to-date work history, a bio needs to include your writing and publishing history (and not a thing should be mentioned about the number of cats or dogs you live with). Sounds simple, right?

Well, not really.

Unless you're publishing articles, novels, stories, books, etc. on a regular basis, then you need to start somewhere. But where to begin? Contests, my friends! I've written about the usefulness of literary contests in the past and I continue to feel that they are not only great in getting your work read by those in the industry, but they can also open doors to other writing-related things as well. Five years ago, when I started writing my first novel, I didn't have one piece of writing cred to my name. Period. Now, this is what I list in my bio:

  • The five awards I've won and the names of each since they are scattered across the country.
  • The contests I've judged. FYI -- If I hadn't have won in a couple of those contests then I never would have been picked as a judge for the other ones.
  • My association and membership with the state's writing group.
  • The conferences I've attended.
  • My educational background, which in the writing world is very important.
  • The fact that I am actively writing another novel and give a hint as to what I'm writing.
  • And now, I can add the award-winning Sisterhood blog!
I don't believe an aspiring author should write alone in a padded cell, devoid of all noise and the insight of others. If we did, we'd never get published, and I don't know about you, but that is my ultimate goal as a writer!

I encourage you, if you've never stepped into the contest waters, then do so. Try it out, see if you've got what it takes to win!

If you feel like sharing, I'd love to hear any great contest stories in the comments below (or any tips on bios that you might have)!