Friday, February 13, 2009

Entering a fiction writing contest? Be Strong and Courageous

This time of year many people are entering contests for their writing to be judged. The contestants enter for a myriad of reasons, but mostly they want to see how they're measuring up in the publishing world. Sometimes that is like hitting a moving target! But if you follow a few guidelines, you can get the most of the experience and walk about not too battered.

Having judged a few contests (as well as having judged manuscripts for agents and editors) I thought I would post a checklist to go over before sending out a fiction entry. You want to make the strongest showing that you can, but also realize that no matter what the final tally, you can take away comments from judges who can help you along on that journey to publication. I know plenty of writers who entered a writing contest, scored low, but kept writing and processing, and were published not long after the prizes were distributed. It happens. And plenty of high scored pieces have yet to make it to publication. No matter. You just turn in the best piece of writing that you can produce and see what flies.

1. What's the audience? Whatever the contest caters to (Christian, romance, mainstream, sci fi....) be aware that the judge is a part of that audience and will judge within the parameters of that market.

2. Does my entry fit the genre that I'm entering? If you are not sure, see if you can write a short synopsis or "back of the book" copy and decide if it'd fit on the shelf with that genre.

3. What is my theme? It should be a natural part of the piece. Find it, highlight it. The judge will find it, whether you know what it is or not. Theme will out. Theme should ask a question (and your piece answers it.) Even short pieces should have theme.

4. How's my pacing? Read it out loud. Listen to the cadence and the beats. You often catch things you wouldn't by reading it aloud.Make every word count.

5. Are my characters convincing? Even if your setting is totally out there in Siberia or on the Titania-Starship, you must suspend any disbelief and draw people into your world. Characters convince us it's real.

6. Show or Tell? Don't tell the judge--show him.

7. If you have a Christian entry, it should contain a spiritual thread that isn't tacked on. (Don't just stick some verse in.) It's probably best to find a theme or Christian worldview that weaves into the very fiber of your characters or setting.Worldview is a part of this and every fiction book is written from someone's worldview.

8. Go back and read aloud now, this time looking for missing words, punctuation, misspellings, grammar, context clues--all that stuff that will make your copy as clean as possible. A couple flicks of a red pen will not doom your entry, but a clean copy is a happy copy.

9. Make sure you have details about character occupations/dress/living, setting, or genre correct. This becomes particularly important in historical settings. Know the language of your characters and their vocabulary. If you need to, for your own sake, make a vocabulary list for your story.

10. Let your entry go and work on something else or keep working on this piece to get ready for the market. Don't sit waiting for it. Read a writing craft book. Read books in the genre you entered. Make notes of the publishers of those books/authors in this genre. Keep a 3-ring notebook for this piece for development and put your judges' comments in with this.


It's not the end of the world, and you don't need to trash the judges, if they didn't "get" your writing. Keep your reactions and hurt among your writing friends, not spit into the judges' faces. You may never know who the judges were of the first round. The world is a small place with big ears. The judge you "trash" may very well have your manuscript in front of her when you DO send it out to that agent or editor (as a first reader or assistant or just because the editor wanted an opinion.) How YOU react to criticism is noted.

Listen, I've heard some pretty harsh comments in the past from contestants (from Christians, too) who entered contests. Because they got low scores or tough comments(thus eliminating them from the final round,) suddenly they feel the need to vent about the process or the judges. Contestants went so far as to question the motives of those judges, their character, their experience or their affiliations. Don't do this. If you disagree with the judge, fine--disagree(among your friends, not on a forum.) When you send that manuscript to an editor, just remember that the publishing world is very, very small and the contest is only a small part on the road to becoming a published author.

A note about judges: Most judges get paid NOTHING to judge, and just want to give back and help those who enter the contests. They put in tons of thought, time, and expertise, only to be told they know nothing about what they're doing. Leaves a bad taste in the mouths of those who took time and concern to make comments to those hoping to land a publishing contract.

It's true that not every comment is written in stone. Publishing is a fluid business. What flies one day, crashes into the Hudson the next. Judges have precise instructions and try their best to follow the guidelines laid out by the contest. If you truly have a beef about what a judge said, probably this would best be directed to those who set up the guidelines/contest, so it can be addressed from within context. It could be that it was a guideline that the judge was following needs adjustment, or it could be you don't understand the criteria. This is all a part of understanding what each publishing house wants. Isn't that the goal?

Read your criticisms with an open heart, not a wounded one. The contest may or may not get your writing in front of an editor with whom you really want to work. Write thank you notes to everyone (judges, organizers) and appreciate that this is just one more step. Your name, once revealed, should not bring pain to the judges.

And if you do well, thank your judges! They are proud of you, too.


LeAnne Benfield Martin said...

Wow! Great info and so thorough. Thank you!


Story and Logic Media Group said...

Wise advice. Thanks Crystal.

Terra said...

I write nonfiction and aim to be courageous too.
I enjoy this post of yours.

Jean said...

This is a terrific post, Crystal. Great advice for contests or submissions. Thanks.

Oh, and thanks for "following" my little blog.


Sabrina L. Fox said...

Wonderful post, Crystal. Loads of great info here. I told you I almost didn't judge this year because of all the horrible comments made on the forum last year.

It was a smack in the judges face and I wasn't sure I wanted any part of it. Hopefully many writers will read this post. I may post it over on my blog if you don't mind. :)