The Pitfalls of Writing Contests: A Case Study

September 15, 2017

 

Note: PM me if you want to know the contest and its associated workshop that I am hereby boycotting.

 

I have had an awful experience with a writing contest. Here's the beginning: I was told my work was disqualified because word count exceeded that which was "clearly stated." The specification was 3000 words. My submission was 3002 words; I did not count the two-word title. Next, I was told I did not double-space, and was lectured about "industry specifications." I have the original attachment that was clearly double-spaced, Times New Roman, etc. But that's just the beginning. The other issues are not this petty.

 

What my complaint boils down to is that so many of the contests out there are based on the most rudimentary expectations of commercial fiction--keep it simple, don't EVER vary your point of view, write only what readers expect, present characters who portray some stereotype that readers want to be.

 

I do respond to constructive criticism and recognize the authority of those who have skill, experience, and insight into the writing process. I love it when beta readers tell me they were disappointed in this or that, or when a qualified editor suggests massive or minor changes. I love feedback that helps me improve. But to enter a contest and receive a shredding by someone who is clearly unqualified after my being DISqualified for no reason amounts to an awful experience. I'll be over it by tomorrow, or later today.

 

Adding insult to insult, I got two critiques, a great one and a terrible one (the insult). The nice judge said it was truly lamentable that my work got disqualified because the story is a "doozy." Well, that felt good.

 

The other judge made arrogant, insensitive comments full of criticism about "mixing tenses" and recommended I attend writing classes and workshops. Hmmm. I'll resist the temptation to trot out the resume here.

 

Back to tenses: Indeed, at the beginning of a flashback, one has to switch to past perfect if previous writing is past tense, to past tense if previous narrative is present tense. Such maneuvering requires a full understanding of tenses. Here is just one of the useless remarks of the judge who was so concerned about tenses: "You have an unusual way of writing that combines third and present tense. . . . . You fall into the incorrect use of tenses all the way through. Pay attention. Needs to be third tense except for dialogue. At least pick one tense and stick with it."

 

Where to begin? First, there's no such a thing as "third tense." Reference to the mystery third tense appears elsewhere in the critique. I do switch between third and first PERSON, depending on the persona delivering the narrative. Maybe this confused the "judge." Other comments were that there were no likable characters and that there is no action. My response: It takes a while to develop a character, and they don't have to be likable. My characters are dynamic, and they often BECOME sympathetic as the reader learns more about them. As to action, I can't imagine anything more action-fraught than a front-loader slamming on its brakes when it unearths a human skeleton. That's in the first two sentences.

 

Everyone gets lambasted if they put themselves out there. I got an online review once upon a time that said my book stunk because the sentences were too long! Well, all righty. But I shan't line up for lambasting. I will never attend, enter, or promote this writers' workshop or the "writing" contest that represents it.

 

I'm still sending the MS to my publisher, so there! #stillediting

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