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 vivisection...er...I mean...experience? :D