Writing Contests and Flashes of Genius
Guest Post by Andrea Downing
Love’em or hate ‘em, if you’re a writer, most likely you’ve entered a writing contest at some stage of your career. You may have done it in the pure and simple hope of getting your work in front of an agent or publisher, or you may have just wanted more feedback on your work in order to know you were going in the right direction. Perhaps you were just hoping for a win to use as promotion for your book. Whatever your reason, the value of entering could well depend on where you placed and what the judges said about your writing.
A couple of years ago I entered a writing competition and, unfortunately, came in fourth where the first three places were the finalists. Like anyone would be, I was disappointed that, by a mere two points in this case, I had been pipped at the post. My personal reason for entering had been to get feedback on my writing since I had undertaken to write a western historical romance which no one, but no one, in New York reads. Therefore, I obviously looked to the three judges of this contest for some useful critique. Two of the judges scored me at 99 and 94 out of 100 respectively, and the third—whose marks happily didn’t count as the contest only took the two highest scores— scored me a whopping 56. After I was able to stop catching flies with my mouth hanging open, I asked myself….WHY? Where the first two judges raved about my dialogue and said they could hear the voices of my characters, No. 3 said they sounded like the 1960s instead of the 1860s. Whereas Nos. 1 & 2 loved the story and claimed they wanted to read more, No. 3 told me it was over-plotted and maybe I should try writing something else. In fact, No. 3 didn’t have a single good thing to say about my opus until at the end she conceded that I had “flashes of genius!” Not even ‘some bits were ok,’ but actual genius! Hmmm.
So, was Judge 3 having the literary equivalent of a bad hair day? Was she simply a hard marker? Can there be such a gap between critics as to explain my results? I looked at the marks for all 20 contestants and the nearest gap to mine was a measly 20 point differential to my 40. Did my critic just hate “westerns?” Or did she see something the others hadn’t? And who was right? Can one be subjective about good writing?
When sentences are grammatically correct can ideas, imagery, voices, story be thought ‘good’ by one person and ‘bad’ by another? Obviously, they can or critics would be out of a job. There are books—stories—you may not like while knowing they are well-written. The existence of classics and bestsellers says that there is often a general consensus of opinion. But why (and how and when) does a difference of opinion occur? And what is the value of all this to the entrant?
Obviously, if you enter a competition purely in the hope of winning for promotional purposes, your chances are pretty slim that you are going to reach your goal, and the same might be said about hoping to get your work in front of an agent or publisher. You might, of course, but it’s not something you can count on. What you can count on is getting criticism, and what you do with that criticism is entirely up to you. I had some very good advice from a fellow writer, and it’s guidance I followed in the contests I entered following that fateful one. I take the criticism I believe in and ignore the censure with which I don’t agree. I go back over the manuscript with the remarks to hand and look at my work and see whether I feel the judge was right or wrong. And—I repeat!—I ignore the rest.
In time the above manuscript became my first book, Loveland, and it has, to date, received quite decent reviews. In fact, it’s currently a finalist as Best American Historical for a RONE Award—a competition which I did not enter but with which inclusion is purely based on having received a 5* review. Whether entering previous contests paid off, it’s difficult to say. Or maybe those flashes of genius just flashed enough at an editor to get me in print.
About the Author
Andrea Downing likes to say that, when she decided to leave New York, the city of her birth, she made a wrong turn and went east instead of west. She ended up spending most of her life in the UK where she received an M.A. from the University of Keele in Staffordshire. She married and raised a beautiful daughter and stayed on to teach and write, living in the Derbyshire Peak District, the English Lake District, Wales and the Chiltern Hills before finally moving into London. During this time, family vacations were often on guest ranches in the American West, where she and her daughter have clocked up some 17 ranches to date. In addition, she has traveled widely throughout Europe, South America, and Africa, living briefly in Nigeria. In 2008 she returned to the city of her birth, NYC, but frequently exchanges the canyons of city streets for the wide open spaces of the West. Her love of horses, ranches, rodeo and just about anything else western is reflected in her writing. Loveland, a western historical romance published by The Wild Rose Press, was her first book and is a finalist for the RONE Award of Best American Historical. Lawless Love, a story, comes out as part of The Wild Rose Press Lawmen and Outlaws’ series on Sept. 4. Andrea is a member of Romance Writers of America and Women Writing the West.