You Be the Judge

j0438678Sometimes you throw your hat into the ring for an interesting opportunity. You figure it’s a long shot. Then you get an email saying you’ve been selected, and you suddenly question whether you have the chops to actually do it. You might even panic a little. That happened to me a few months ago when I submitted an application to be a judge in the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards. I was selected, and I felt humbled. Then the UPS guy dropped a box of 50 novels at my doorstep, and I may have panicked a little (or a lot).

I threw my hat into the ring because competitions are an important part of a writer’s journey. I’ve lost count of how many I have entered over the years. I can count on one hand how many I have won. Regardless of the outcome, you learn something from every competition. It’s a brutal exercise that is necessary to one’s growth and improvement. I believe that.

So, I opened the box and opened the first book….

Earlier this week, I completed what I initially thought would be impossible. I read and wrote critiques for 50 books in less than three months. *wipes sweat from brow; celebrates with glass (or two) of wine* It was a big commitment and a good deal of work. It also was worth the effort.

Only three of those 50 novels advanced to the second round of judging. Many of the others featured well-written prose and entertaining stories; they were worthy reads, if not award-winning. There were also a fair number that had potential and missed the mark. I endeavored to be straightforward in my critiques – highlighting areas of strength and offering concrete ways to improve flaws. My hope is that the authors of those diamonds-in-the-rough will tackle revisions with enthusiasm, an open mind and a sense of curiosity. (After all, isn’t that what authors ask of their readers?)

I learn a lot about myself and my own writing by reading/critiquing others’ writing. It can be both educational and humbling. When I’m really lucky, it’s inspirational and pushes me to raise the bar for my own work.

Do you write reviews of the books you read? What has it taught you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.



New Life for a Grand Old Gentleman

One of the reasons I enjoy historical fiction is the genre often takes tired, forgotten history and gives it new life. My latest, non-writing project has done the same.

We recently moved my father-in-law out of his home and into a memory care facility. My in-laws had a great deal of lovely antique furniture – the real deal, hand-crafted pieces, made of solid wood. Many of the items had specific memories linked to them by different members of the family. Each of us seemed to want different pieces, and moving the tables, beds, dressers and cabinets into their new homes went smoothly. The items that held no sentimental value were donated. We all seemed to take some comfort in knowing the furniture would be put to practical use and given new life by other families.

grandfather clock - new

As my husband and I walked through the empty house for one of the final times, all that remained was the grandfather clock. My in-laws brought it with them from Illinois when they moved to Phoenix roughly 46 years ago. Dad had owned a pharmacy in Rockford, where he also sold grandfather clocks (why he sold clocks in a pharmacy will probably always remain a mystery to us).

As they prepared to move the family, one clock remained. So, it became a focal point in the new McCann household. Then history repeated itself, one clock remained. So, it became a new focal point in our home – beside the desk where I write every day.

Unfortunately, the clock was broken. My father-in-law had tried many times to get it fixed. But the grand old timepiece was just too tired. Its steady tick-tock and quarter-hour chimes had been silent for years. Both my husband and I love the clock. We always have. Still, it felt strange having the old man standing dormant in our home.

Then inspiration struck as I was perusing internet photos of bookshelves and libraries (yes, that’s a thing). I ran the idea past my husband, and he approved. My mother-in-law and I had shared a love of books and reading. Both she and my father-in-law were immensely proud and supportive of my writing career. As such, we believe they would have approved, too.

I carefully removed and packed away the clock, weights and chimes. I measured and installed shelves. Then I filled the grand old gentleman with books by some of my favorite authors. I also shelved copies of my own novels. If inanimate objects can hold memories and feelings, I hope this new life has made Grandfather happy. The transformation has definitely had that effect on me.


Book Recommendation – The Power of Meaning

book Meaning of LifeWhat is the meaning of life? Why am I here? These are questions that have taunted mankind since the beginning of time. The Power of Meaning provides a straightforward and inspiring answer, based on extensive research and analysis. Simply put, the meaning of life is to find meaning in life. And it’s actually easier to find than we are often led to believe.

“The search for meaning is not a solitary philosophical quest, as it’s often depicted,” writes the author. “… and meaning is not something we create within ourselves and for ourselves. Rather, meaning largely lies in others. If we want to find meaning in our own lives, we have to begin by reaching out.”

There is so much to this book, it’s hard to boil it down in a review. (I found myself rereading and marking lines on page after page, and I handwrote six pages of notes upon completing it.) By summarizing dozens of psychological studies, presenting scores of anecdotes and stories about real people, and sharing many of her own thoughts and insights on the differences between happiness and meaning, Smith ultimately brings the reader to the simplest of revelations.

Belonging, purpose, storytelling and transcendence: these are the four pillars of meaning, and they are accessible to everyone, regardless of religious beliefs, cultural backgrounds or economic status. As someone who has made a living as a professional writer and author, I was particularly struck by the storytelling section. Though it was not surprising to me that story plays a critical role in finding fulfillment in life, it was fascinating to learn the many reasons why (both for the storytellers themselves, as well as for listeners or imbibers of those stories). The author turned to several novels to help illustrate her points – from Middlemarch and The Little Prince to Life of Pi and The Death of Ivan Ilych – as well as numerous memoirs.

I especially liked this point:

“We are all the authors of our own stories and can choose to change the way we are telling them. One of the greatest contributions of psychology and psychotherapy research is the idea that we can edit, revise and interpret the stories we tell about our lives even as we are constrained by the facts.”

And, how we perceive our lives and stories is directly related to whether we ultimately find fulfillment in them.

The sections on belonging, purpose and transcendence are equally fascinating. They are packed with examples of how seeking and finding fulfillment leads to better physical and mental health, helps us overcome traumatic events, and guides us to lasting contentment rather than fleeting happiness.

I highly recommend this book to all who want to expand how they view the world and the people with whom they share it.

The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness by Emily Esfahani Smith 



Writing Podcast: On freelancing, novel writing and life

Jessica small profile picIt was so much fun recording this interview for the Writer’s Market podcast. We chatted about maintaining a successful freelance writing career while pursuing the goal of becoming a published novelist. I also shared some personal stories about my writing journey, as well as general freelance writing and business tips.

The podcast is about 60 minutes, perfect for your daily commute or workout on the treadmill. Click below to play, or right click and open in a new window to download.

Podcast – Writer's Market – Jessica McCann

 

Big thanks to Writer’s Digest Editors Robert Lee Brewer and Brian Klems for inviting me to share my story and insights. If you're interested in writing and selling what you write, I suggest you listen to other podcasts in this series, too. Click below to go to the Writer's Market Podcast page.

   WM-Podcast