I have recently become the Contest Co-Ordinator for Romance Writers of Australia and I’ve had many people ask me what’s so important about entering contests in the journey of a writer. I get the reticence, particularly from writers who are working by themselves and haven’t had much experience with getting their work critiqued by a critique partner or don’t belong to a writing group.
I remember back to the time when I was a newly fledged writer and someone who thought they were being very helpful said, ‘Why don’t you enter a writing competition?’
I laughed and said, ‘I’d rather have someone shove a hot poker in my eye.’
The helpful person didn’t seem to understand my reticence. But how could anyone but a fellow writer understand that the idea of having someone I didn’t know criticise the manuscript I had been sweating blood over just wasn’t something any writer looks upon with happy bunny feelings. Besides, what could contests offer me? I was doing okay all by myself. I’d had some requests for partials and fulls and even though nothing had come of those requests, I’d received some nice letters from the editors explaining what I needed to do to improve. I also had a bunch of ‘how to’ books and articles to read and I’d gone to a number of workshops. What could contests offer me that those things weren’t?
The self-justification to continue on as I was as a loner writer went on for a fair bit of time, even when I got no further with my writing than I already had. But I won’t bore you with all my many and various reasons for not entering comps, or joining a writing group or getting a critique partner, suffice it to say that they all seemed perfectly logical and reasonable excuses to me at the time.
I would have continued on in this vein, if not for a chance meeting with Anne Gracie who insisted I join RWA, join a writing group, get a critique partner and ‘gird my loins’ and enter the competitions. She was really nice about it. She was also very insistent that this would help make all the difference for me in my writing journey.
‘No, really. You must do it. In fact, here’s my email address and when you get home I want you to join RWA and email me to let me know you’ve done it,’ insisted Anne. ‘And send me those rejection letters so I can interpret them for you. We must figure out why you’re not getting any further.’
‘Alright,’ said I, giggling a little (because I was having an overawed fan moment).
I suppose I could have walked away and ignored her advice – I mean, she couldn’t make me do any of those things. But, this was Anne Gracie. Apart from being one of my favourite writers, she really seemed to know what she was talking about. And she seemed to be very interested in helping me. She’d given me her email address for goodness sake.
So, I did what she suggested. I joined Romance Writers of Australia, I joined a writing group, I got a critique partner, I emailed her those rejection letters and I entered my first competition. I even went all out and entered three different entries in the first competition I could (being all enthused by Anne’s encouragement.)
Wow. Was that an eye popping experience? Not only did it teach me things about formatting and deadlines, but (once I got over my immediate reaction of vacillating between, ‘I can’t write’ and ‘They don’t know what they’re talking about!’) I realised the problem was not that I’m not a good writer, but that I just didn’t know about writing. I knew some, but not enough to make a cohesive, well-structured whole. I told, rather than showed. I used passive voice a lot. I info dumped and used too many flashbacks and had a tendency to write really long sentences without a comma in sight so the person reading just couldn’t take a breath kind of like in this sentence here. Not that that sentence really needs a comma if I don’t feel like putting one in. No. Really. But part of the problem was, all my sentences were like that. I didn’t use different sentence lengths.
Or white space.
Or punctuation to really help with comprehension; to emphasise emotion.
And those things are important.
These and many other things besides were all things I had not seen, but when it was pointed out to me in detail by some very helpful and well-meaning judges, it was a revelation. They had a point. A whole heap of very helpful good points. And not one of them said my work was crap (that hot poker in the eye fear I’d always had.) They were all very encouraging (even if some of the comments didn’t seem that way at first, especially when they were accompanied by scores that were the equivalent of a fist to the gut and a two-by-four to the back of the head at the same time.) But, I had been an actor and performer, and so I knew all about taking it on the chin; that while much about the creative arts is opinion and perspective (I missed out on many roles because they were looking for a short brunette and I was a tall redhead) much of it is about hard work, learning about different forms of performance and not only getting to know your audience, but getting to know their expectations. The judges were writers – so they knew about technique. They are also readers – so they know what speaks to them and what they like. They are my audience. From my theatre experience, I knew I needed to listen to them and take note. (How I learned to do this and my advice is on that is a whole other article which if you’re interested, you can see here: http://www.leislleighton.com/?p=83)
So, I learned and improved and grew more confident and lo-and-behold, my competition scores got better, the comments became less, ‘this writing needs work but it shows promise’ and more ‘this should be on a bookshelf’, and I started to get into finals and placing and winning. (see the list of my competition successes on my website http://www.leislleighton.com/?page_id=26)
I’m not saying that competitions were the only thing that helped me improve and get published. My writing groups and critique partners also had a huge hand in that and I will be forever grateful to them and continue to work with them, because hell, you can’t do this writing thing alone. But there is my point. And I think it was Anne Gracie’s point too.
You can’t do this alone.
Writing is a very lonely occupation and it is really easy to get so caught up with your characters and plot ideas that you can’t see the tapestry as a whole picture, but rather as the individual threads that make up the whole. Or maybe you see the whole and don’t understand the structure of threads that create it. Getting another person’s perspective can be very helpful in doing that. The people who judge for competitions are a mix of readers, published authors and your fellow writers who are willing to share some of what they’ve learned on their journey with you. They are also the people who will one day buy and read your books (how wonderful to get their feedback early!) They will give you their opinion – and remember, it is ONLY their opinion. Sure, sometimes what they say may seem a bit harsh (after all, your mum, grandma and best friend all loved your heroine and her interesting trait of sneezing every time the hero comes around!) but their opinion is impartial and given with the best of intentions to try to make your novel stand out in an increasingly competitive market.
Not only that, many great agents and editors volunteer to be the final judges in RWA competitions here and in NZ and the US – so it’s a way of getting your work seen by people who might not normally be open for submissions. Not to mention, it can really prepare you for the reviews you will get (some glowing, some not so much) when you are published.
I got a huge amount out of entering competitions and have (if I might say so myself without sounding too big headed) an impressive list of placings and wins. The feedback I got helped me to build on my strengths and improve my weaknesses and helped me get so much closer to that amazing ‘call’ I got earlier this year. I believed in the value of competitions so much, I decided to volunteer to manage one for Romance Writers of Australia, and have done so for the last four years and now, as of August, I am Contest Co-Ordinator, overseeing all the contests on the RWA schedule. I fully believe in the value of entering writing contests if you are serious about becoming a better writer and hopefully, one day, becoming a published writer. Entering competitions have helped me on my goal to being published and if you enter them with an open mind and a willingness to let go of some of your preconceived ideas about your work, they just might help you too.