When Medium announced that it was running a contest with $100K in prizes and guest judges like Natalie Portman, Roxanne Gay, and Susan Orlean, I was all in. But, to be honest, I’m not a “contest” type person, not feeling the need to compete, maybe because I lack the confidence to put my work against other writers.
A story for another day.
But, I’m all for supporting Medium’s new direction, and thought I could at least submit something for each of the four prompts. Another thing I’m not a huge fan of is prompts, preferring instead to fly with no pants on and let it all hang out. But, an inkling of an idea for the first prompt, Reentry, occurred to me, so I was willing to try something new.
After about an hour, a first draft of and something I thought was really great was in the can, so naturally it was shared with my friend, Mike, the genius editor. Now, I was not wanting to take advantage, because I had no ulterior motives, but he said he would read it with a practiced eye, and that was great, since the story would be competing against hundreds of other writers works’ and could use the help.
Instead of correcting a few errors and sending it back, he challenged me to take another look and refocus the essay a bit. My ego didn’t get in the way because I knew from working with editors from Human Parts, and from having Mike’s help before that it was in the story’s best interest to listen.
Rewrite. Second draft. The verdict was simple:
“Structurally, we’re right where we need to be. Well did, my friend.”
Giddiness ensued, because I knew the story was worthwhile, but here was confirmation and it felt damn good. He told me to give him two hours to work on it.
Pure anxiety, because this was my baby, but felt confident because I knew Mike had the magic hands and wouldn’t let me down.
He delivered two hours later, and what he came back with was nothing short of amazing. I had never really seen the power of a writer and editor working together until I saw what was uncovered on that page.
We meshed ideas. We vibed. We procreated.
It was so stirring that I cried a little when I read it the first time. You be the judge: “A Renaissance Among Scorpions.”
Confident for the first time in a long time, I decided to try my hand at the next prompt, “Death,” for which I had a direction to go and sat down and spent an hour or two writing about 1600 words towards the prompt.
But, even after I sent it over to him to see what he thought, I knew it was not my best work. There were good parts, but as a whole I could only say it was weak.
Mike said as much with his reply.
“Do you have a virtual file cabinet?”
“Kinda….several” I have drafts saved in Medium and gigabytes of ideas saved in Evernote that I will never use.
“Ah, okay. Don’t trash the piece, but stow it for later. Might be useful parted out.” He wrote, and I smiled because I knew he was trying to be nice. I was betting the teacher in him wanted to chew me a new asshole.
“I’ll keep it in my drafts….so no good huh? What killed it?” I knew what was wrong, but didn’t have the words, and he hit the nail on the head.
He wrote, “I could tell you were idling on this one.”
How to Tell if You Are Idling
Never one to let a teachable moment pass us by, and knowing I crave this kind of feedback because I didn’t have the benefit of the crucible of college to improve my writing, he asked if I knew how he, as an editor, knew when a writer was idling.
I didn’t have a clue.
“I can tell you things to look out for that tells you when you’re ‘idling’ if you like?”
I did, and here is the knowledge-bomb he dropped on me:
- “A big one is the cliché. When I type a phrase that almost everyone has heard before, my head’s not in the game.”
The draft sent to him was full of bunk and cliche. I should have known it was crap because it came too easy. Good writing for me is difficult and makes my brain sweat. There was no effort on this piece.
- “Exclamation points. When I use one, I know I’m being a lazy writer.”
He was exactly right because the draft I’d sent was riddled with exclamation marks. If I have to force myself on the reader, I’m not trying hard enough.
- “Starting sentences with ‘I’. Or the overuse of ‘I’.”
This one pissed me off because he had pegged me through the heart. “I” was a favorite of mine, in fact, every other sentence may have started with one.
- “When sentences aren’t widely varied and they more or less have the same structure. No out of the box sentences.”
My sentences were as boring as vanilla pudding in a cardboard cup. I could tell I wasn’t really trying because the writing sounded like a laundry list instead of a conversation with the reader.
- “When I’m using an analogy and the shift seems forced or abrupt.”
In the story, I answered the prompt for death by talking about the death of a writers ego. It started with me torturing the entitled writer in me on the rack, and trying jump back and forth to make a point seemed jerky and unnatural.
So what did I do? The story went in my drafts maybe never to bee seen again, maybe to find life in another article at another time.
So now I’m spending a lot of time in my head, trying to brainstorm but not forcing it or overthinking. I’ll know when the right metaphor comes along or a better idea. There is really no rush because there is still a month left in the contest.
I’ll know I’ve struck gold when the right idea falls in my lap, and the creation of the story is difficult and rewarding. I’m not so much worried about winning the contest, but want to give the other writers some competition, and want to make it a good show.
So I wait, and in between masterworks I write pieces like this one to keep the gears lubed.
So remember, if you:
- Rely too much on cliché
- Overuse exclamation marks
- Overuse the word “I”
- Write too many of the same kind of sentences
- Or when your analogy shifts are too abrupt
You may be idling.
Take it from the genius editor, get out of your head, and put the car in gear. No one appreciates an idler.