Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Mandy Vicsai's story, "Strange Doin's" was a natural for First Place. She had such a unique and well-rounded take on our prompt that we weren't surprised when our Guest Judge Teresa proclaimed her 1st. In this interview, Mandy lends insight and honor to her real-life story character Al Boothby, and shares her smart advice to future contestants. This is an interview not to miss!

WOW: Mandy, how does winning First Place feel?

Mandy: I'm still pinching myself. Winning First Place feels amazing! It's almost surreal. I've read through the other entries and they're awesome! There are some very clever storylines, so I'm truly honoured to have been awarded First Place.

For me it was a timely appreciation of my writing style. I recently entered a few chapters of my first novel in a mentoring award. The feedback was less than encouraging and I had been struggling to see the point of finishing my book. It's easy to say logically that any reviewer is only human with likes and dislikes, yet negative criticism (as opposed to constructive criticism) always stings. That's one of the reasons I love your work. You appreciate writers as people as well as artists.

WOW: Thank you Mandy. That means a lot to us. As writers we've all been there, through the good and the bad; but you mentioned something that I truly believe in -- the 'art' of writing. (Yes, there is such a thing!) We believe in encouragement for our peers, because having a positive platform to meet our writing goals, as well as hard content, is what we're all about. And you, of all people, should never doubt yourself. Please finish that book! We can't wait to read it.

Your story about your California Father-in-law, Al Boothby, touched us deeply. He sounds like such an interesting man! Can you tell us some details about him that your story left out?

Mandy: Al was primarily a teacher. He had an aura about him that made you want to listen to what he had to say. He rarely had a bad word to say about anyone and looked for the good in the world. He not only believed in basic human values, he lived them and even better, he inspired others to live them. He was married to Mary for over fifty years and they had six children; one of whom I was lucky enough to meet and marry.

Al was extremely intelligent and did many things during his life. He designed airfields for the state of California, drew cartoons for The Sacramento Bee, designed houses, was a fireman and a radar instructor in the Army Air Corp and taught high school art and woodwork. In his later years, he mastered his Apple Mac and spent hours browsing on-line and emailing his family. Over 200 people attended his funeral; that in itself is an amazing accomplishment.

WOW: That is amazing... In fact, everything about Al sounds amazing. I think you've really shown him in a wonderful light. He sounds like a person I would love to know. Can you tell us what Al loved about squirrels?

Mandy: I think he loved that squirrels chose to be a part of his world. Okay, perhaps they were just after the nuts he left on the window ledge. Still, watching the little guys eat and drink the buffet he left them each day gave him a real buzz. (Except for the time that they moved into the roof!)

WOW: (laughing) I can imagine!

You know, I'm an avid fan of interesting conspiracy theories... they seem to make for good story plots. What were some of Al's favorites? And what was his political story, Strange Doin's about?

Mandy: Al had firm beliefs that there was a right way to treat people and a wrong way to treat people. His conspiracy theories related to how money can create power that in turn can generate a corruption that transcends generations. He believed that the seeds of today's fearful and divisive culture were sewn during the early 1900's. I would say more... but they're watching... always watching...

WOW: (laughs) Well put! Yes... we should move on to the next question before suspicion arises...

In your bio, you said that you do promotional copy for a living; but from what we can see, or read anyway, you have the gift of story-telling. When did you start writing, and how did you get into copywriting?

Mandy: My mother tells me that on my first day of school, I came home in tears because I couldn't yet read and write. I was five when I started devouring books and probably even making up stories then. My earliest memory of knowing I really enjoyed writing and starting to learn it as a craft was when I was nine. I remember writing a story that my teacher just didn't 'get.' I had a scene where the main character remembered some action and I wrote it as a flashback. My teacher told me I couldn't make a story go back in time. That was my first lesson in choosing what criticisms to take on board and what to discard.

As a child I always wrote. If I had a spare five minutes I'd write a poem. I'd amaze my friends by making rhyming poems out of conversations we'd had or immortalising those heartbreak moments from high school. It was fun and writing came easy for me. Then came the real world. I actually studied science at University because I believed that if I wrote as a job it would kill my passion for it. I wasn't a very good scientist and went back to study Public Relations. From then on, every job I had involved writing of some kind.

When we moved to Melbourne two years ago, I made the decision to start copywriting. My real aim at the time was to become a full-time writer and to finish a novel that I'd started years ago. Some of the most well-known writers started out as advertising copywriters, so I thought it might be a good way to gain credibility in literary circles. I've got to say that since I started writing as a job, my passion for it has increased. And it's not simply that I'm honing my craft, it's that other people see me as a writer which in turn reinforces that point to me (particularly on days when the words aren't flowing). Working for myself also gives me the flexibility to set my own hours. I've been able to join a local writers group and am continually inspired by their stories - both real and imagined.

WOW: Writers groups fuel the fire and spark creativity, as do contests, online critiques, and forums. Do you enter many writing competitions?

Mandy: To date I haven't entered many competitions and I've had mixed success with the ones I've entered over the years. Often life seems to intrude and claim the space and energy that could be given to writing. Now I've reached a point in my life where writing is my number one professional priority. I've got a fantastic group of supportive friends and reviewers whose opinions and suggestions I highly respect. So this year, I've made a list of all the competitions I want to enter. I've tried to mix them up a bit. The word counts range from 56 words to 5,000. Entering competitions gives me a real motivation to write - especially since I always have lots to say. I find I look at the world differently when I'm looking for a storyline. I'm more observant, more curious. Competitions also provide a natural a deadline. There's nothing like the pressure of a due date to make a story reveal itself.

WOW: I agree. I think it's the structure and word count that provides a challenge that otherwise we writers wouldn't take on by ourselves. You said that you look at the world differently when you're looking for a storyline. So, can you tell us, who are your favorite authors?

Mandy: Two books that I'll never forget are ones I read in high school. "In Search of Anna" by Esben Storm and "A Candle for St Antony" by Eleanor Spence. Both are Australian stories, which is actually strange because I read more American books growing up than Australian ones. You know, I generally forget the authors of books - unless they're really well known. I'm going to have to start remembering more of them because it's a question people often seem to ask. I love books that make me laugh out loud. Though most recently I've read Tim Winton who is an acclaimed Australian author and Jodi Picoult's "The Tenth Circle". Sometimes I go to the library looking for a particular book. Most times though, I cruise down the shelves, looking for titles and spines that catch my eye or my imagination. I like the mystery of picking books that way.

WOW: I love books that make me laugh as well! It always comes as such a surprise when a book suddenly makes me laugh out loud.

In your bio you'd mentioned that you enjoyed sailing on other people's yachts! That made me laugh when I read it. Can you tell us about that?

Mandy: If you're going to sail, on OPBs (other people's boats) is the only way to go. Keeping a yacht in a seaworthy state can be quite a challenge to your finances. My husband and I are part of a crew of eight who race on a 40ft boat. We were meant to do an ocean race just after Christmas. The day before we competed in a race around Port Phillip Bay and unfortunately got crunched amid three other boats on the start line. The boat we sail on 'cracked a rib' which is an internal structural support and bent a metal plate that sits over the bow (the pointy end). We were lucky. The boat in front of us got a hole through its hull! Yep. An expensive day out. The insurance companies will be arguing over those claims for a while.

Sailing is a great social sport. In fact, my husband and I met at a sailing school in Sydney where we were both learning how to sail. If you're going to sail, Sydney's one of the best places in the world - you can sail every day! And if you do it on someone else's boat, it's free! Melbourne is at the edge of Port Phillip Bay and around our part there are three yacht clubs in close proximity and in summer, races every weekend. In the summer months we also have daylight saving which means it doesn't get dark until later - meaning you can race on Wednesday and Thursday evenings too!

WOW: (laughs) OPB's... I'll have to hit you up if I'm ever in Australia!

Mandy, this has been so much fun, and you are such a delight! Can you tell us how the whole experience of the WOW! Fall 2006 Flash Fiction Contest has been for you?

Mandy: You know, this story was a challenge for me to write. I couldn't decide whether you'd accept a story where the pom pom was from a beanie and not a cheerleading pom pom. In Australia, we have many, many sports and only one code of football (we have four different types of football) has cheerleading squads. Once I'd gotten over the whole beanie / cheerleader dilemma, I really enjoyed the challenge of creating a story. I love short, short stories. I write my first draft and it's usually twice the allowable limit. Then comes the fun part of paring back every non-essential word. So thank you for having a challenging length.

I also love the way you communicate with your writers. You really appreciate the time and effort that everyone puts into their entries. It's a pleasure to read your emails and your website.

WOW: Thank you. Both Beryl and I have been there, so we know what a challenge it is from the opposite end. Often contestants are left out of the loop, so we try to maintain good contact. Although, we have to say, we are definitely not perfect! Most of the time things take longer than expected, and there's so much more organization going on than anticipated... but we try our best. We appreciate each one of you and sincerely enjoy chatting with you all.

Do you have any advice for writers who want to enter a contest?

Mandy: Go for it! Okay, that's too simplistic because there's more to it than that. Here's my advice:

First of all, unlike a computer manual, you really do need to read the competition rules. Read them and follow them. You don't want to go to all the effort of writing a fantastic story only to be disqualified on a technicality.

Word counts are included as part of the writing challenge so make sure you keep within them. If you've got too many words, read through your story and continually ask yourself, "Does this add anything to the story?", "Do I need this for my story to make sense?" If the answer to either question is "No", save your draft as it is, take out the words you've decided are unnecessary and then save your work as a new draft. That way if you want to go back to something you've deleted, it will be waiting for you.

Write from your heart and write about something you know or something that is meaningful to you. Readers relate to stories and people that speak their language so you really don't need big words. Rather than write a term paper, simply tell your story.

Aim to write and rewrite your story until you're completely happy with it. That may mean two drafts, it may mean twenty. Honour your talent by listening to the inner voice that tells you when a word is not quite right or when a phrase or paragraph needs to be rewritten.

Ask someone you trust to read your work. Choose your reviewers carefully. You want someone who will be tactfully honest. That means, they'll tell you what they think without being discouraging. Remember, it's your story, you don't have to make the changes they suggest. Still, if you trust them, think over their ideas before discarding them. Sometimes the things we hate hearing the most are the very comments we need to hear.

I read somewhere that if you enjoy writing your story, readers will enjoy reading it. So have some fun. This is your opportunity to re-invent yourself - or anyone else for that matter.

Know that your writing career and talent, don't hinge on whether or not you win any individual contest or award. Just because one judge preferred someone else's writing style or story over yours does not make you a bad writer. Think of all the books you've read, or started to read, that you haven't enjoyed. Those writers were published. You can be too!

Celebrate! Celebrate the fact that you've written a story. Celebrate the fact that you've entered a competition. Celebrate any feedback that makes you a better writer. And definitely celebrate when you win!

WOW: Well put!

If you haven't read Mandy's entry yet, check it out here:

Thank you Mandy for a fabulous interview!

WOW! readers: Coming soon -- Mandy shares her secrets about How To cut a contest entry down to size! Learn how to meet that word count without giving up your story. STAY TUNED


Anonymous said...

this is inspiring because it makes me want to enter a contest. thanks mandy for good tips and a great story. ~Jessica~

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