Friday, October 22, 2010

Growing Pains: Confessions Of A Contest Newbie

It was among my writer’s goals for the year to enter a few contests, if for no reason other than to receive some constructive feedback from unbiased parties. I didn’t expect to win anything, or even be counted in honorable mention. After all, I haven’t entered any contests since college, and that was a classic ‘big fish in a small (barely literate) pond’ situation. So far, I’ve been glad that I kept my expectations to a minimum.

I recently received the results of a certain writing contest, which shall remain nameless. As I surveyed the judges comments, a quote from A Knight’s Tale leapt to mind in summary: “You have been weighed, you have been measured, and you have been found wanting.” Yes, it hurt. But now that I’m ready to clean up after my pity party, I thought it might help more than just me if I reviewed my experience.

If I convert my scores into a standard grading percentage, the grades I received were as follows: F, F, D, and C. (Hear that? That’s my honor student ego, crying.) Though I had been warned to expect it, I was vaguely annoyed to note a few contradicting elements to judge comments. Two thought I had perfect format with no structural issues, and two were bothered enough that I didn’t begin the chapter halfway down the page that they deducted points. (This wasn’t something specifically mentioned in the contest guidelines, but I’ll certainly err on the side of caution next time.) One of the judges had a huge pet peeve against any and all words that involved the suffix ‘ly’. On the bright side of that low score, it did draw my attention to how frequently I like to turn adjectives into adverbs. But are adverbs such a bad thing? (I’m not entirely clear on that yet.) Two of the judges wanted me to alter facts to increase tension, but I’m guessing they missed that I’d listed the piece as a Memoir. Granted, the only place I wouldn’t run into this misunderstanding is an actual Memoir contest…which I should probably look into. >.>

All four judges agreed on a few key points that I suspected from the get-go. I have no decent hook, my character goals are vague, and there’s too much backstory with not enough action. One of them was kind enough to suggest I read through the chapter, circle the first point where a conflict arises, and begin the chapter -there- instead. (For that comprehensible little tidbit, I will be forever grateful.) Another judge was kind enough to write an extra page of comments referencing the book The First Five Pages, listing chapters and page numbers where I could get help adjusting some of my more glaring problems. Talk about going above and beyond the call of duty!

To be honest though, at first I wasn’t sure I was going to make it past the more soul-crushing elements of their reviews. There were a few caustic word choices I got hung up on for a while: There was the repeated use to the term “dull and boring”, having my prose described as “awkward and convoluted”, and having my main character (i.e. me) described as “self-centered and forgettable”. >.< One judge even took offense to the story concept itself. I’m trying to be as gracious as possible, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t hard to keep from taking these sorts of things personally. I had to take a few days to sulk and wonder why I did this to myself in the first place. The answer, as it turns out, is remarkably simple. I can’t stop.

As it so happens, I was right in the middle of reading The First Five Pages when I got back the judges comments. I’ve since finished it, and found a great deal of solace at the end of its Epilogue. There, Noah Lukeman writes: “The ultimate message of this book, though, is not that you should strive for publication, but that you should become devoted to the craft of writing, for its own sake. Ask yourself what you would do if you knew that you would never be published. Would you still write? If you are truly writing for the art of it, the answer will be yes. And then, every word is a victory.”

For better or for worse, I’m devoted to the craft. And I’m declaring victory. :)

Anyone else care to share about their first major contest mean...experience? :D


  1. I can totally relate! Don't let it get you down. (Easier said than done!) The first contest I entered, I got disqualified because I forgot to take my name out of the header!!! AHHHHH! And the first few contests I entered my now-published book in, it got pretty well shot down. One person didn't like my heroine. Ouch! She's supposed to be the likeable one! Of course, many of those critiques were really helpful! As you pointed out some of the helpful comments you got. But sometimes it's hit or miss. Some contests I entered I didn't get a lot of helpful feedback, and others were the mother load! But it's good experience for when you are published and you get crabby, small-minded, or just plain scathing, reviews!!! For all the world to see! LOL!

    My advice: Use whatever you can from the comments to your advantage and forget the rest.

  2. Thanks Melanie! :) I knew it wasn't just me, but it always helps to hear these things straight from someone who has ended up where I'd like to go. We'll have to talk contests sometime! I'd love to hear which ones helped you the most. ^_^

  3. Sheesh, certainly makes a person think hard about entering a competition - though the thing about conflicting reviews I've heard before, perhaps in a writers' magazine.

    On a side note: if you like fantasy I'm reading a very good book at the moment called 'Name of the Wind' by Patrick Rothfuss (I believe that's the spelling of his name).

  4. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Hrothwyn! It was not my intention to scare or discourage anyone. I got a great deal of value out of it, in the final analysis. And as much as I don't care to suffer rejection and feelings of inadequacy, I think that was also something I had to come to terms with in my heart, and not just in my head.

    I will certainly add that book to my list! Thank you. I have a great deal of reading planned for the coming year.

  5. That business about chapter headings and where they start is just ridiculous. No one should ever take off points for that.

    When I started out, I got soul-crushing contest comments too. These days, they come in the form of reviews that EVERYONE can see, LOL, and I don't read them.

    But you will prevail. Learn from the comments, but don't get hung up on them. And try not to let it bother you that someone called you boring and dull. One person's boring and dull is another person's fabulous. All you have to do is look at a few Amazon reviews to know that. :)

    Keep on keeping on, as they say. You can do it. :)

  6. I got a 3 from a judge because of the silly chapter heading thing and that was the HIGHEST score she gave me. Well the contests are difficult to gauge because there are so many disparate comments. I only read the positive, high scoring judges now. We're going to find you a Critique Partner you can trust for feedback.

    And the best thing about that East German Judge's nasty comments and uber low score is that the same manuscript is a doing very well on the query and pitch circuit. The only judge that matters is that editor/agent--then your readers.


  7. Lynn- Thanks much for the encouragement! These things don't seem to get a whole lot easier once you are published. I think you're right for not reading the reviews. I'd have to do the same thing, I'm sure.

    Christine- *hugs* I like your style. ^_^ I hope I can get my self-esteem to that point some day soon. You do put things in good perspective. I'm sure my outlook will be improved enormously by the feedback of an actual agent who knows what they want.

  8. A little bit of harsh criticism can be good, I know that sometimes I can get lost in my own goals and ideas that I sometimes lose site if what is going on, but a good dose of criticism can help me slow down and see something that I missed. See above, sometimes I miss a lot of spelling errors and need to re post entirely.