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LJ Idol Home Game Week 8: First World Problems
cap, captain miss america
I thought, given the irony of giving this topic to a bunch of people who are engaged in the pastime of sitting around freaking out while refreshing an internet poll (of which I am very guilty so I hope it doesn't come across as hypocritical) , I would talk a little bit about approaching topics.

People take a lot of approaches to topics. Everyone has their favorites to write and their favorites to read. Everyone also has their most-hated. I'll talk about this a little. Obviously I can't even mention every approach, but there are several basic approaches people seem to use the most.

I am giving myself a fake topic to use as an example. It will be "lemons."

1) Discuss your feelings about the topic and what the topic makes you think about.

This would be the entry where someone talks about the different meanings of the word lemon. They would talk a little about the fruit and why they like it or dislike it, and maybe a little about cars that don't work. Then they might mention Liz Lemon. This is probably my least favorite approach to topics. While some people can really take this in a deeply personal and interesting direction, I generally feel like this is preparation for writing, and not writing itself. I tend to find these entries to be strongest when they really veer off into stream-of-consciousness writing, because that is usually the only way that they get a personal touch.

2) Pick one specific aspect of the topic and zero in on it to write an essay, either descriptive, personal, or persuasive (I am counting rants here, too)

Here, the person might remember a scientific article that they read about lemon seeds, and reinterpret the information they learned from that article into an essay about their opinion on the scientific claims of the article. This can be a really interesting way to approach a topic, although it's one where you have to be confident you will pick an aspect that not too many other people will pick (or that you will do it better than everyone else, which is not so much confidence and more arrogance considering the number of awesome writers who are out there). It doesn't happen every week, but sometimes there will be a lot of people who pick the same aspect to zero in on and then only the ones that are really unique or really well-done stand out. Another thing that is important in this approach is research and fact-checking. Even when writing a rant, if it's being written for other people to read, make sure you have your information right. One thing that can take away from non-fiction for me is if it's not well-researched.

3) Pick one specific aspect of the topic and zero in on it to write a memoir or personal narrative style entry.

This is like #2, but is more deeply personal. This writer might relate a story from childhood about the first time they made lemonade. Because of that, it can often succeed where #2 might fail, because your personal experiences are more likely to be unique. I do think that some people are better at relating personal experiences in a way that sets them apart, but I always like entries where I get to learn something about the person writing it, and these are usually the easiest posts to do that in. Even ones that don't impress me with their writing often make me like the writer more as a person (unless they write, say, about how proud they are that they squeeze lemon juice into puppies' eyes.)

4) Pick one specific aspect of the topic and zero in on it to write fiction.

Like #2 and #3 but this is the one where the writer writes a fictional story about lemonade-making. This can be a good way to achieve the same kind of "feel" you would get in #3 while not necessarily writing something too intensely personal, or when you don't actually have a personal experience to base it on. I am a sucker for good fiction but I am much more highly critical of fiction that doesn't meet my personal standards for "good writing" (whatever those are) than I am of non-fiction that doesn't. I think a lot of people feel that way so it can be a risk.

5) Approach the topic metaphorically.

Here, someone might think about the sourness of lemons and write an essay or narrative about a sour aspect of their life or a time when things turned sour. I really like when people take this approach because it shows a certain amount of creativity and risk in still relating to the topic while having a more tenuous hold on it, but it doesn't always work and for some people, it's not always clear how it relates.

6) Take a bye.

Just kidding.

7) Combine any of the above approaches into a single entry.

In this case, someone might alternate paragraphs of personal narrative or fiction about a lemon-related experience with scientific fact about lemons that bolster the "moral" or "punchline" of the story. These entries can be rich and complex at their best and meandering and pointless at their worst. While when someone does the metaphorical approach, I can give them the benefit of the doubt that THEY see a connection even if I don't, if I don't see the connection and they're trying to draw the connection on the same page, it can really push me out of the story. At the same time, if it's well-done, it might make me see a connection I would never have seen on my own.

I know, I know I left out "write poetry" and a few other formally experimental styles people have played with. But on some level, even those formally experimental styles are usually based on one of these approaches. Most of my comics were either personal essays or fiction, even if they were personal essays or fiction in graphic form.

Picking an approach can also be part of how you approach the topic. You can think about whether the topic is better-served through an essay or through fiction or through a poem. Sometimes the meaning of the topic will lend itself better to one or the other. Sometimes, you might even go so far as to feel like it would be in poor taste to write a certain approach to a topic (I felt that way last season about "Hyperbole is Literally Hitler" and didn't feel right making a comic about it, although I didn't let that affect the way I read other people's entries, just how I wrote my own), while other times, you might feel as if there is only ONE approach that could possibly work, even if you don't know what you're going to do for it (Last year, for "Salt of the Earth," I knew I wanted to write non-fiction but I looked at a bunch of different subjects for it before deciding on one). I definitely love seeing writers who try all different approaches or combinations of approaches and don't use the same approach every week, although there are some writers who are masters of a single approach and are able to use it without making you feel like you're reading the same thing you already read.

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I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate your willingness to share your expertise and guidance. You could compile all your tips into a handbook for writers--or maybe you have already. I am getting to know people through the entries and comments. I have managed to read and pretty much comment on all entries before I vote for my favorites.I really do enjoy the banter in the GR. I laugh,agree,nod my head and disagree sometimes but am still reluctant to actually post much there except for my entries.I'm making progress, though and loving being a part of it all.

Oh thank you! I don't really consider this expertise or guidance to be honest with you! I only played last year and I dropped out in the top 15 or something like that. But I enjoy talking about writing in general so I thought this would be a good way to make me think about my writing and about what I like in other people's writing.

I had a hard time getting involved in the GR last season, too, so I know where you're coming from. It was actually talking about writing that got me to become more involved. I'm just not much of a small talk person, but meta? I eat meta for breakfast!

I just find you friendly and glad to read all that you write. :) Meta for breakfast? too cute!

Sometimes my goal is to just get the word or phrase into the entry, even if its just a throwaway line, especially if I already have an idea that I want to explore. Or try to interpret it metaphorically. But I find when you try to wedge the topic in it seems sort of out of place sort of like product placement. Especially in dialogue, because sometimes you wind up making a character say someting totally different than they would have said.

I tend to agree that most of the time when people take the "use the phrase in the entry" tactic, they seem forced. I like to assume the topics are for getting ideas for the entry as opposed to plugging the word in. Even if someone comes up with a good way to get the word into their entry, I like to see that the theme of the entry is also related.

8) Get an idea the day before the prompt, write that story, then stick a lemon tree in it somewhere ;)

Actually, the one time I really did that, and more or less had the entry down before the prompt, it ended up being a free topic week. LOL.

This is what I do a lot too, but with non-fiction rather than a story. Write what you wanted to write about that week anyway, and throw the topic in there somehow. ;)

I do try to mix up my entries, being aware that if I did fiction last week I should aim for non- this week, things like that. Usually I don't settle on what I'm going to write until I've brainstormed it with my significant other, bouncing ideas off another brain really helps me clarify what others might find interesting.

Also, I've been enjoying your posts for/on LJIdol this season, and I'm not certain if I've said that yet. I appreciate the time you're putting into these, and always come away with some new tidbit.

I really enjoyed this and now want to read a series of posts about Lemons. What I especially love is that you've really thought about the relationship between the heart of the piece and the prompt, not the genre or package the piece is wrapped in.

I have a real aversion to Obvious Prompt Placement in entries; it takes skill to have the prompt become what appears to be an organic piece of the writing. What I hate even more, though, is what I think of as badly done meta--meta that isn't really trying to be meta but is, rather, the writer sort of spewing process thinking at readers that should have been edited out. I think this is probably akin to your first approach. I have to be honest: nothing will make me check out faster than that sort of approach. Having said that, I wrote an entry (a poem, no less) that started out as my process rambling about the difficulty I was having with the topic; I fully expected to get roasted for it and was surprised when I didn't.

I think it's important to be aware that what story you choose to tell is completely independent of how you choose to tell it. Someone could take the same concept (the things I'm discussing above) and present any one of them as prose, poetry, photoessay, comic...and whatever else they can think of. Medium and story are really independent. Sometimes the choice of medium will help get across the message better than another choice of medium: for example, I think alephz' piece this week about rampant consumerism and movies is better because it's told with photographs of toys than it would be if it had just been written in story or essay format.

But I also think that when someone goes into something choosing their medium first, it can actually hinder their process. If you say "I'm going to make a comic this week" without thinking "This is the story I want to tell, what is the best way to tell it?" can sometimes hurt the story you finally decide on. I know it's a bit ironic to hear that coming from me, but there were definitely ideas I discarded last year because they wouldn't work as comics.

I have an aversion to Obvious Prompt Placement, as well, unless it's clearly being done on purpose for some kind of literary effect. And yeah, I think what you're talking about as badly done meta is what I'm talking about in the first example. Once in a very long while, there is an entry like that that I like-- your poem is a good example of that, actually-- but it's pretty rare. Like I said, that kind of writing usually seems like it should be the preparation for the entry, not the thing someone actually submits.

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