Monday, February 25, 2013

What I've learned from Writing Contests

Over the past month, I've entered a couple of writing contests that involved the possibility of agent requests. Even though I started out with a lot of heartbreak, I learned quite a bit. In fact, I think I learned the most from all the negative feedback. And even though it's hard to hear, okay more than hard, it's gut wrenching, tear inducing, self doubt filled with stress, it's important to consider the critiques seriously. The knowledge gained can mean the difference between good writing and stand out writing.

The supportive nature of the writer community
This is actually something I learned long before I had a finished manuscript, but entering into contests really reinforced this. There is nothing better in the world than having your fellow writers there to root you on and being able to do the same for them in return. Knowing that someone has your back and is on the crazy train right alongside you makes the journey feel a little less daunting. Writers might all be crazy, but finding that same level of insanity in your fellow writers makes it much easier to continue on. The positive reinforcement is what gives you the ability to brush yourself off and keep on writing despite wanting to drop everything and quit. Having writers struggle with you and cheer you on makes the lonely craft feel a lot less so. And in entering contests, I've met some truly amazing writers.

The domino effect
More often than not while reviewing my own entry as well as others, I'd see one person mention an issue in an entry. The next thing I knew, there would be chain reaction of additional comments alluding to the same problem. I thought long and hard about why this was, especially when it was happening to me, because it felt like I was getting ganged up on. All it took was one person identifying an issue, and that opened the flood gates for others to see the same problem. While it seems like everyone jumping on the bandwagon that's not actually what's happening. It goes back to the whole idea that people can often spot a problem in a piece of writing but they can't always identify the cause. In a group setting however, one person mentioning the driver of the issue is enough. Everyone else that comes after, has a name for it right in front of them. The very name they may not have known had the person before them not mentioned it first.

Early on I blamed the domino effect on the open critique setting, saying it's so easy to just point out what other people are already mentioning. But really I was doing myself an injustice. Unfortunately, I didn't realize what was going on until it stopped happening. In all honesty, the domino effect doesn't happen when the issue isn't present. When you've corrected a problem, you might see one comment that doesn't seem to match the others and this is because of the subjective nature of the craft. But when you see everyone jumping on board, it's cause to stop and take a deeper look at what people are picking up on in your entry. As difficult as it is to hear, you probably have an issue that needs to be fixed.

What did others do right (or wrong)
In looking through entries that moved forward, I learned quite a bit. While they weren't always grammatically perfect and they often broke rules, they had something about them that made me want to read on. It could have been anything from an interesting concept to a character I wanted to know more about. The entries grabbed my attention in an authentic way and took me for a ride in the story, leaving me wanting more than want was on the page.

It's also equally important to see what mistakes others make. In critiquing other entries, I was often able to identify issues that I might not have otherwise been able to see. I developed a highly critical editing eye that I could turn onto my own writing. With common mistakes in mind, I could use them improve my entry.

Finding your voice (and being yourself)
Writers hear about the importance of voice all the time, but for me, it's been one of the hardest things to understand. There isn't a concrete definition of voice, or not one that I can find. I do however know, that when something has voice, you sit up straight and take notice of the words on the page. And when writing doesn't have voice, it can look phoney. I know because my first couple of contest entries were exactly that, phoney. I'd tried to use a gimmick to get people's attention and while it did grab the readers eye, it also created confusion and hesitancy, which is the last thing you want. And the worst part about it was, I knew I was doing it and didn't want to stop. The problem is, when you try to fool your reader into your story they take notice pretty quickly. As a writer you are far better off being yourself, and letting your writing show that. No amount of gimmicks, shocking lines, or other tricks are going to do that for you until you find your own true voice. It's not an easy journey but if you are true to yourself your voice will come out.

Starting in the action (or with what really matters)
This is another thing writers are constantly told but not something I didn't fully understood until I entered contests. I thought I was as close to the action as possible, but I soon found out how wrong I was. While I had whittled down my opening very close to the inciting incident, I still wasn't quite there yet and it showed. When they say start with the important scene, they mean it. They don't mean start the day before, the hour before, or even the minute before, they mean throw your character into what makes them special, and make every word that describes it count. If you are saying well if you just read to page x you'll see what's happening, or on page x you really get to the good stuff, then you are starting in the wrong place.GUARANTEED! If the "good stuff" is on page x, why wouldn't you start there? If that's what you want people to read, put it right in front of them starting on page 1.

The importance of perseverance
The process of finding an agent is grueling. It's a downright emotional roller coaster. Making it to the next round in a writing contest is no different. And no lies, I wanted to give up during some of these contests, sometimes as frequently as multiple times a day. If it wasn't for some amazingly encouraging critique partners, I might have. And if I had I wouldn't be in the agent round of the latest contest I entered. In fact, I had submitted multiple variations of my query and first page when I finally broke through the barrier, and it was because I never stopped trying. I took the advice I was given to heart, I thought about it, and I applied it to my writing. After countless revisions to my query and first page, so many in fact that I lost count, I finally have something that works, that I'm happy with, and that is true to me as a writer, as well as my story. I learned from each revision, improved my craft, and it paid off. So if you take the feedback seriously, and keep trying, you can do it.

Entering contests is not easy. It's difficult to put yourself out there. Even worse it's hard to learn you might not be ready, or you might not have the right starting spot in your story when you think you do. But contests can be great resources of information and feedback if you are open to the advice and willing to apply it. The things you learn can be invaluable. What have you learned about your writing from entering contests?

14 comments:

  1. When I worked in corporate communications, we frequently entered contests. At my favorite annual institute, I'd sneak into the contest room where all the work was on display, and spend hours reading the top entries.

    Here was some of the best writing and photography in the nation, complete with jury comments, conveniently presented for review. I learned more during those late night sessions than I did during days of workshops and seminars. Awesome, that.

    Thanks for the great post. And keep writing. I look forward to seeing you on the shelves.

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    1. I definitely agree. Observing what's on top helps put things in perspective. Thanks for stopping by my blog :)

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  2. Thanks for this timely post! I totally know what you mean re: the domino-effect. Being in the throes of Cupid/MSFV/WriteOnCon at the moment I've definitely noticed myself doing this very thing when critiquing others' pitches.

    I think that a lot of the time 'domino effect' crits are great indicators of what isn't working ... However, I do think that there are also a lot of cases where critters are just "chiming in" to discuss aspects they might not have noticed otherwise.

    At least, I've caught myself doing it!

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    1. You're welcome! And I agree, I think some of the domino effect comes from people are just agreeing with what other people said before them, and it is in fact things they might not have noticed otherwise. I know I've been guilty on occasion as well but I also know I wouldn't have mentioned it if I didn't agree. It's definitely hard to know for sure when you read comments. Thanks for commenting :)

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  3. I never thought of the domino effect that way- but i see your point and how it works. Great post!

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  4. Those are some important lessons that you've learnt.

    One thing I don't like about open critique is that it often feels as if people are finding faults just for the sake of it, which means that I have to work twice as hard figuring out which crits to take to heart. Especially because the domino effect is in play. Still, it has value as well.

    Stopping by from WoC, btw. :-)

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    1. I agree it's difficult to determine if people are just trying to find something wrong, and some people are hard to please. I think in most cases though people will point out if they are being nit-picky or if they don't find any issues. But it is hard to read the comments especially in an open forum.

      Thanks for stopping by! I keep poking my head in on WoC. I can't wait for the contest part to start :)

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  5. These are primo! What a great perspective and way to hash it all out! Saying hi from the WOC. Best wishes tomorrow :) New reader/follower and space cadet ;)

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    1. It's nice to "meet" a fellow WOC participant. Thanks for reading, following, and stopping by :)

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  6. HI! I found your blog from the pitch madness twitter comments; I did one of Brenda Drake's contests last year, plus Write On Con, and I also learned a ton from reading other entries. I think us writers tend to make many of the same beginner's mistakes, and reading through bulk entries is such a great way to pinpoint those trends.

    It took me some time to filter all the comments I had from the several contests I entered, because incorporating every person's critique changes would've led to a muddling mess. In fact, I did that with my first page after WOC last summer, then the next round of critiques everyone said the piece lost its voice. Well yes, if you're writing how everyone else wants you to!

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    1. I agree there's tons to learn and it's often easy to get caught up in the common beginner mistakes. And in reading through the WOC pitches with the agents feedback I'm finding I often agree with them. You definitely a develop a critical eye when looking at what works and what doesn't.

      I also agree that all the comments can be overwhelming. What do you trust and what do you choose to ignore? It's a tough call but I've found if something makes you mad, the comment is probably right. But ultimately you have to go with your gut and make sure you are true to your voice like you said. I think voice is the most important.

      Thanks for stopping by my blog. :)

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  7. I think another thing with the domino effect comes from readers trying to decide if an issue is worth mentioning or merely something that only bothers them. There are very specific things that grate on my nerves something fierce, for example gratuitous pet death and watered-down curse words. Judging by the vast body of bestselling work featuring these things, I know those are MY specific biases and that it is possible for a book to earn eleventy million dollars even though Stieg Larson really didn't need to kill that adorable kitty. Anyway, when I see them in an MS I'm like ... should I just look the other way? But if someone else says "Why on earth did you have the evil aliens behead Fluffy on page 3?" or "Why is the gun-toting street thug saying "'aww heck?'" then I feel more validated chiming in like "oh yeah, that bothered me too."

    Make sense?

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    1. Yes, I absolutely understand. That's a good point. That people are afraid to comment but when they see a comment that matches how they feel they are more likely to mention it rather than think it's just something they noticed and didn't like.

      I love the why on earth did you have the evil aliens behead fluffy comment. lol :)

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