Monday, June 5

Contests? Yes or no.

On Facebook last week, author Ilona Fridl said, "I'm wondering seriously if I should keep writing. I got the scores today from one of the contests I entered. The numbers came out below average. I wonder if it's that way in all the contests. I know I have some loyal readers and of that I'm grateful, but this was a major blow to the gut."

I know how she feels, don't you? Many of her friends responded to her post, all encouraging her to not let it get her down. To remember that judging is subjective. They reminded her of what she already knew but it's hard to remember sometimes: that she's a good writer and that she loves it.

Way, way back in my early writing days, I won a chapter contest with my first manuscript, the one that later took up permanent residence under the virtual bed. The scores were great, the comments were great, and...well, I won. Yay! The prize was a full-blown critique by another RWA chapter.

Twenty-some years later, I'm still picking scar tissue off my ego. Not one person in that chapter liked the story. Not one person had anything good to say beyond Your manuscript's neat. No one liked my voice, my humor, my down-to-earth protagonists. The readers were mostly polite, mostly constructive, but there were no positives. No one said, You can do it. 

It was three months before I could write again, before I could separate the wheat from the chaff in the critiques and get better at POV. Better (but not good) at dialog tags. Better at making my secondary characters somehow less than the more-important hero and heroine. Better (but not much) at plotting.

I entered The Growing Season in a few more contests. It did all right, but eventually I slid it under the bed and started over.

Over the years, I entered more contests. Placed sometimes. Had nice scores and feedback in the Golden Heart once. My RITA entries never made it into the upper 50 percent. 

Also over the years, I judged in contests. A lot. I preferred being a coordinator to being a judge, but the truth is that--in those days, at least--the coordinators usually had to judge, too, because there weren't enough judges to go around. I've read some of the best and some of the worst. 

And then I stopped. For a few reasons. One was that an entry I judged and considered flawless didn't even final in a prestigious contest. I didn't figure things up mathematically, but that meant the entry's other judge had to have given a really low score. Which means either she was wrong or I was, and neither of us was being good for the author. Reason Number Two was that when I read a few RITA-winning books, I wondered...what in the world? 

Reason Number Three has to do with how Ilona Fridl felt last week. 

I just don't think it's worth it.

If I sound like I'm denigrating contests and their judges across the board, I'm sorry. I'm looking at this in hindsight, too, which we all know is 20/20. But I'm sure that somewhere along the line, I've made someone feel like Ilona felt. Like I felt all those years ago. I have thought 100 times, What if I made someone quit? because the truth is I'd rather give false hope than that. False hope can be built upon--quitting can't.

I hope we hear other people's thoughts here. Is my feeling on this age-related (like nearly everything else seems to be) or did Ilona's comment just hit me on that scar tissue I mentioned up there?

Let us know. We're interested. And have a great week.


Liz

19 comments:

  1. Maybe a little of both? I don't think I have great advice because I feel kind of the same way - contests are too subjective to go into thinking you'll finally find a silver bullet that will put you on some bestseller's list. As a judge, it's stressful because you bring your history into everything you read...and what if your history has zero to do with that author's intent? And, as an author, I'm not sure contests help us sell more books (although winning has got to be a great ego boost!). Contests are a weird area for me - in theory I like them, in reality I've only occasionally found a nugget of something I can use to make my books better.

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    1. Yeah, that's exactly where I am, too.

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  2. I'm a big fan of contests which offer feedback. It's one of the reasons I'm published... I was that newbie who thought "writing a book can't be too hard" and did so in a vacuum without understanding even the basic rules. When I entered my second manuscript to a contest, it was the harshest judge who spurred me (crying and yowling in pain) to make my book even better. It's not easy to hear criticism (even the constructive kind) from anyone, but if it makes us better and stronger writers, it's a good thing. (And I, too, have a judged entry collecting dust under my bed. :-)

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    1. I agree--the feedback you sometimes get is valuable. What a virtual bonfire we could all have with our books under the bed, couldn't we? :-)

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  3. Right there with you, Liz, although my approach to judging gets a little skewed because of my job-more on that tomorrow... Great post!

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    1. I expect your job makes judging much harder, but I'm also sure the feedback you give is much more helpful than my, "I don't know--it just doesn't look right."

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  4. A contest where critical feedback is on a pro level, possibly from actual agents and editors, can be a valuable reality check. Any one who wants to be a professional writer has to learn to glean value from even the harshest comments. Often they are the most truthful. We have to weigh a lot of variables about any contest to determine whether it will provide something we need to become better at what we do. There are a lot of useless ones out there. The IGO from the Indiana RWA chapter is one of the gems that gives a humongous amount of feedback for the money. Contests like that are worth the entry fee. As to judging, yes, it's subjective to a point. All judging is. I've judged writing entries and art show entries, and one has to peel back the layers of craft as well as look at the overall impact. It's never easy, if you want to do it right. Contests just are not for everyone, nor is judging.

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    1. You're absolutely right, Valley. They can be valuable and often are--especially for writers just learning the craft.

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  5. Wow, this is a hard question, because I bounce back and forth on it. I think that we're so close to our writing that ANY criticism hits us hard. I don't enter contests, but I've told myself to grow a thicker skin when I read negative reviews. Sometimes, I learn from them, and sometimes, they just hurt. But without any criticism, I wouldn't have grown as a writer. I'd keep repeating the same old mistakes. But I really do believe every critique should state a positive besides opinions on how to make the writing better. We need to know our strengths as well as our flaws.

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    1. I gave up working on the thicker skin, Judith--I don't think it's happening for me. Valley mentioned a word up there--harsh--and I guess maybe that's something I quarrel with. Just as it shuts me down in conversation, it does the same thing in judging comments. (Back we go to the thin skin.)

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  6. I entered a few contests when I started writing. One judge gave me the feedback "don't quit your day job," (that's a direct quote) went on to tell me I didn't understand the term "protagonist," and that I shouldn't introduce backstory using dialogue. That hurt even though I knew the judge was wrong, not only in stating those things in a hurtful way, but in assuming I didn't know what works for me. That feedback spurred me to becoming a better writer and also a contest judge. I still remember those words, perhaps not with the initial angst, but I haven't forgotten that judges can be cruel and that feedback should contain both strengths and weaknesses couched positively. I no longer enter contests as I doubt they contribute to sales, and I trust my editor to give me the feedback I need to improve.

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    1. I have entered a few, including the RITA, but think I'm done with it. The only way I think I would still enter is if I were writing outside my comfort zone and would go in search of comments on quality. Even then, though...even then, I"m not sure.

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  7. I've been on both sides of the fence. I've entered a few contests, and for several years my writing group operated a contest we called "We Dare You", as in we dare you to hook us in the first few pages. One of the things we were very adamant about was providing feedback. I took that very seriously. The other thing we stressed was not tearing down a writer. We tried to tell the writer something she was doing right, something we liked, in addition to any criticism. None of us would ever have said "don't quit your day job". That's just rude and mean. Most writers were pleased with the feedback and thanked us for it.

    I entered the Golden Heart once and got a couple of really good scores and a couple that sucked which brought down my scores and kept me out of the finals. I never bothered to enter again because I didn't get any feedback so I had no idea why the judges who didn't like my book didn't like it. I've entered a few contests since then, but not a lot. I agree with Ashantay. I would rather put my trust into an editor.

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    1. That's where I am now, for the most part. And critique partners and beta readers are godsends who always have your back, too.

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  8. Contests before I was published were meaningful due to the feedback. I don't see any reason after publication unless it's an ego-thing. Plus I don't have $40 or so to pay to submit. Not judging those who do, just not my thing. Very good, honest post!

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    1. Thanks, Tanya. The money is a consideration for me, too.

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  9. I think contests can be beneficial if you don't stake too much hope in them. I think if you're willing to take the feedback objectively and as a way to improve what you've put out, they can be helpful. However, you do have to screen the contests and not just enter them because you can. It's a delicate balance. And you have to realize, that all comments are subjective. Although, if you get back feedback from several judges that basically say the same thing, it might be something you want to consider.

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    1. I think you're absolutely right, Margie, but these things are learned over time--it's the newbies who worry me, who think all of that feedback is the gospel truth. I know they're adults and should know better, but still...still...

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  10. Great post! I read it when you first posted and am finally getting around to commenting. In my experience judging and submitting to contests offer valuable opportunities to help out other authors and to help me improve my own. But these days I'm focusing primarily on writing. Staying on task of writing books I'm proud of is hard because life is so busy.

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