I was tagged in a status that Author Kristen Duvall had posted on her Facebook page, calling on bloggers to see if they were interested in interviewing the creator of a very popular writing competition. I figured, sure, why not, and sent Kristen a message to volunteer.
A couple of hours later I received an email from a very polite and funny man named Gary. After a brief discussion about how I’d like to conduct the interview, we were off.
D: For those of us that have never heard of LJ Idol, can you tell us what LJ Idol is?
G: Whenever I hear this sort of question, I have to pull back from my enthuastic nature of wanting to tell you about this great life changing adventure!! Or maybe talking about how it’s been called “Top Chef for Writers”.
What you really want to know with that sort of question is “what the hell is this thing?”. The best answer to that is that it is a writing competition, with the twists and turns of a reality show.
You can check out the site itself at http://therealljidol.livejournal.com/. By the time this is posted, I will hopefully have the FAQs up, which will explain a lot more of the details.
D: Where did the idea for LJ Idol stem from and did it take long to set it up? I know, from a quick scan of the link, that it started off with 9 entrants and built up via word of mouth, but the initial work that was needed to get it off the ground; how long did it take and was it difficult?
G: In some ways, the ideas that formed LJ IDOL were percuolating in my head for most of my life. I’ve been obsessed with writing since I was in 5th grade, it is something that I’m passionate about. The funny thing though, and I didn’t stop and think about this until a few years ago, is that as much as I loved doing it, that I kept showcasing other people’s work over my own!
I’d have friends and we should make up these shared universe super hero stories, putting out “issues” to distribute to people we knew. Before I knew it, I would be doing more organizing and letting other people’s work take the spotlight.
The love of reality shows started with Survivor. Which is still pretty weird to me, given how anti-reality show I was up until that point, because of how it was positioned to hurt the Screen Writers Guild. I ended up falling for the show anyway, and it was pretty much downhill from there! 🙂
There were various projects over the years, that each had elements that would eventually be used to form LJ IDOL. Ideas and concepts that I’d be turning over in my head. So that when this idea ended up “clicking” for me, I had a really good picture of what this thing was going to be, and how to make it work.
The simple answer though is that I was really, really bored and wanted to do something fun for my friends. I figured it would be good for a laugh or two, but within the first couple of weeks, I knew it was something that I would want to do again. Fortunately, most of the 9 people told friends about their experience, who showed up for Season 2, and it built from there.
Getting to the heart of your actual question though – not really. The first season came out of my head almost in one piece.
The toughest part was getting people to buy into the concept and get them on board. Straddling that line between wanting everyone to have a good time and feel like they were a part of the process, while understanding that they were also along for the ride and weren’t steering the thing, that can be tough at times.
As far as the initial set up goes, the first couple seasons were a learning curve, made much easier because I had an assistant to handle the technical aspects.
You know, the little things like “how do you set up this poll?”, “put together a community page? What is that?” and of course “I messed this up. Fix it please!” 🙂
The difficulties didn’t truly start until the balance started shifting and there were a lot of people that I *didn’t* already know! That’s when Idol transitioned from being “my little project” to “A THING!” where I couldn’t just wing it as much! 🙂
D: When you say “A THING!”, can you elaborate? How big has it become?
G: As I said, it started out with 9 people in Season 1. Season 8 had about 300 contestants.
Somewhere in there it stopped being saying “check out what Gary is doing” and more of it being an established destination that people assumed was going to be there every year.
D: How do people sign up to take part in LJ Idol and why is Season 9 the last?
G: On March 3rd I will be posting the sign up sheet at http://therealljidol.livejournal.com/. If folks want to sign up, they just need to go there! It’s a pretty simple process.
As for “why is it ending?”, I’ve been doing this every year since 2006! My life is much different than it was even a couple years ago, and while I would love to say “this is going to run until I drop dead at the keyboard!”, at some point even Bill Watterson decided to walk away and say “this is the story I am going to tell”.
LJ IDOL is the story that I’m telling – and I think starting with 9 contestants, and ending at Season 9 is a nice way to bookend things.
D: So what can people expect from the Final Season?
G: Free Puppies for everyone!*
(*Just show up at someone’s house and demand that they give you the free puppy you were promised. Pick a door, and knock on it! They will deny knowing what you are talking about, but if you keep insisting and scream loudly enough they will know you are serious, and will give you the puppy.)
Other than that – I’d like to think that they can expect to have a good time, oh, and to write! Apparently, there’s some writing involved in this thing as well!
D: We’ve covered how LJ Idol came about, so HOW does it work? Do writers just pick a topic of their own choosing to write about? Or do you come up with a list of topics they have to choose from? I guess there’s a list of rules to adhere by?
G: Every week I will post a topic, with the deadline. Sometimes there is more than one topic. Most of the time though, it’s only one, especially early in the competition, I don’t want to overwhelm people. Contestants use that topic as a jumping off point. In that sense, it’s more of a prompt to get them started.
As far as “rules” go, I assume you mean about the entries themselves. In that case, the only rule is that you link it to the topic post by the deadline. You can free-associate as much as you want, in any format.
Ultimately, the voters are going to decide if you go too far out of the box. From season to season, there are definitely preferences. Some times fiction is in, whereas other times it’s non-fiction. Poetry used to be a huge red flag, and now it’s widely embraced. You can pretty much do anything you want in Idol, writing-wise, as long as it’s quality.
D: So what’s next for you when Idol is over?
G: Hanging out with people who read this interview. They are just going to wake up one day, and there I’ll be in their kitchen making toast! 🙂
Really though, I haven’t made any definite plans. Maybe sleeping. I’ve heard good things about that.
D: Ohhhh I know what I forgot to ask!! What, if anything is the winner’s prize?
G: They win a nifty icon, a banner and of course, eternal glory!
D: Anything more you want to tell everyone about Idol?
G: There have been two “Idol anthologies” published, with a third one on the way. Quite a few contestants on previous seasons have gone on to sell pieces that they originally submitted as Idol entries and/or publish collections of their own work.
We have had former (and current) editors, published authors, and college professors. We have people who never thought that they could write, but wanted to try it. People have gotten engaged after meeting on Idol. They have changed their lives, some moving across the country, as well as numerous altered career and life paths. Generations of families play compete side by side. The youngest to ever compete was a 6 year old who came up with stories that her Mom transcribed for her. The oldest was in her 70s.
There was a contestant who wrote about her estranged family, and sent it to them, resulting in reconnecting after decades of being distant.
Over the years, we have been there for births, and deaths, and pretty much every major life event.
Idol contestants come from around the world and all walks of life and situations. Idol seasons tend to be filled with extremely diverse personalities and backgrounds, all coming together to have a good time.
Because isn’t that what it should be about? Yeah, you are going to write quite a bit. You will probably make some friends, and find some new writers to follow. Heck, you might even win the whole thing! But at the end of day, I’m always glad to hear when people end up having a good time.
D: Is there any one piece (story, poem etc) that has stuck in your mind from LJ Idol?
G: There are actually quite a few. Which is surprising, because I tend to read everything, which does lead to a lot of “all entries look alike to me”! 😉
But there was one early on, season 2 or 3. I don’t want to name names, but it was a really personal entry about a Mother’s decision to give her baby up for adoption. Looking back, it wasn’t the best composed piece I’d seen or the most exciting. But there was a real sense of honesty, a sincerity, that drew me in and keeps it in my head years later.
Before the interview ended I asked Gary was there anything else he wanted to add:
G: I’d just like to encourage people to come out and participate in LJ IDOL. It’s a lot of fun. If you don’t have an LJ account, Livejournal makes it pretty easy to log on with your Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus and Open Access IDs. It creates a LJ account for you! So there’s really no reason to miss out!
Sign-Up starts March 3rd over at http://therealljidol.livejournal.com/
Hope to see everyone there!
Fancy getting yer creative juices flowing? Go sign up to LJ Idol and make some new friends while you do what you love doing 😀