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Sunday, April 12, 2009

Contest Woes

Today, my post is one of tears for an aspiring romance author.

In my February 20th post entitled "Ten Common Writing Mistakes," I wrote: "Recently, I came across near perfection in a contemporary single title contest entry. I can't explain what made it perfect. That is, I can't break it apart, and say, here are the three or thirteen or thirty factors that made it so. All I can say is that it was minus ten common writing mistakes ... and plus one indefinable something, which, for lack of a better term, I'll call "hook, line, and sinker." In other words, it was near perfection, plain and simple."

Then, in my March 26th post entitled "Hook, Line, and Sinker," I wrote: "Well, to my utter delight and absolute thrill, this contemporary single title is a 2009 Golden Heart® finalist. I did not judge the 2009 Golden Heart® Contest this year, but I did judge the 2009 Winter Rose Contest. And that's where I first saw this wonderful piece of near perfection. Congratulations to the author!"
Now, on this beautiful Easter weekend, I have taken time away from cooking, entertaining, mothering, etc. to add a postscript to "Hook, Line, and Sinker." The wonderful piece of near perfection (I'll call it Near Perfection) didn't final in the 2009 Yellow Rose Contest. Yes, that's right—an entry that is a 2009 Golden Heart® finalist didn't final in a 2009 RWA chapter contest. How can this have happened? I suspect the author might say it doesn't matter because she's a Golden Heart® finalist, but I think it does matter because it says something frightening about contests.

Near Perfection wasn't the typical contest entry. It wasn't a winning entry because of plot, characterization, GMC, hook, etc. No, don't get me wrong. It had all of those in buckets, but it had something far more extraordinary. It had V O I C E. Never have I read such a voice, not among aspiring authors, not among published ones. This author has an unparalleled facility with language, as if the words roll back and forth over the tongue before spilling out to overflow the reader's cup. More, when you lift this golden cup to your lips, you take a sip of what appears to be mineral water only to feel the effects of the headiest red wine.

In my April 3rd post entitled "Can You Hear Your Voice?" I wrote: "When you lose a contest or receive a rejection, don't take it to heart. It mightn't be as complicated as the possibility that you don't have voice. It might be as simple as the fact that you didn't have the luck of the judicial or editorial draw." Well, the author of Near Perfection didn't have the luck of the judicial draw in the 2009 Yellow Rose Contest. I suppose Stephen King is right about being successful at writing—it takes talent, perseverance ... and luck.

I've decided that contests can mean little to nothing, no matter that some aspiring authors think a contest win is the equivalent of the Holy Grail. Most judges (especially those who are aspiring authors) look for a reason to shoot down entries, often on the basis of their prejudices and especially when stories are outside of the box, whereas editors seem to like stories that don't look like a thousand others they've read, or in other words, stories that are outside of the box. Perhaps for this reason I've come across contest winners who have never published and published authors who have never won a contest.

Before you place your writing soul in the hands of judges, know this unspoken truth about contests—contest wins can hinge on luck, not talent. If all you're looking for is some feedback from mostly other aspiring authors, and don't mind paying for it, go for it. However, if you're thinking you can win a contest on talent alone, or that an RWA chapter contest win or two is going to lead to publication, or any of the other scenarios in which your writing dreams are fulfilled, you might want to rethink your expectations of contests.

© 2009 Madeline Smyth. All Rights Reserved.