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Writing Contests

In my last post, I discussed the danger of taking too much to heart the advice, tips and how-to’s from other writers, bloggers, editors and critics. Trying to incorporate every piece of advice can stop a writer in her tracks and produce inertia in the creative process. The same goes for writing contests and competitions.

By way of example, I entered a writers’ contest with my novel, Dangerous Turf, and received two critiques from two different people who gave me, you guessed it, two completely different critiques. What one judge disliked, the other one loved. What one dinged the entry for, the other one passed over without a comment.

The point is that every judge, editor, agent and critic is a unique person with unique likes and dislikes. What they can probably tell you accurately is market trends — what publishers and agents are looking for. Of course, they can be grossly wrong. J.K. Rowling was rejected numerous times when she tried to get her first Harry Potter novel published. The market simply had never seen anything quite like it, so most couldn’t see past what was being read and published at that time.

One of the critiques I received from a contest judge proved my contention admirably. My novel (which under contract with a publisher) struck her as lacking in one main area. She said, “I like character-driven novels—I like to know the people. If I feel I know them I then care about what happens to them. To me, a novel is about the protagonist and the plot is the way we get to see him/her live, fail, succeed, grow. Again, it is very important for the reader to feel every breath that your protagonist takes.

Well, no, not really. What she is referring to is her own preference for a character-driven novel. But mine, like most mysteries, is a plot-driven novel. If I wanted to write character-driven novels, I would write romance. But I don’t want to write those. In fact, I don’t even read romance. I read and write mysteries. And mystery readers want plot-driven novels. The critic superimposed her own preferences on the structure of a genre that she most likely never reads.

She also said, “This is about the protagonist—everything else is a backdrop to showcase her.” Again, that would be the case in a character-driven novel. But a mystery story is about the murder and the solving of it. Everything else, including character, is a backdrop to showcase it.

Another comment: “This is the way I would write it.” Here is the crux of the matter and one that trips up a lot of writers. If you are a writer, you shouldn’t concern yourself with how another writer would render your work. Of course there are a thousand ways to express the same thing, but you are unique and your writing should reflect that uniqueness.

Her final comment is the one all writers should take to heart: “I’m just one person with one opinion.” Even the best-selling books on the market have their detractors. Just read the reviews of any best seller on Amazon. Although most reviews are positive, there are some people who just didn’t like it. Some can say why; some can’t. Someone somewhere won’t like what you’ve written.

This is not to say that getting other opinions is of no value. But the writer has to weigh each criticism (and each compliment) with a grain of salt. If the overwhelming number of people who read your work can give you legitimate advice about how to improve it, and especially if you hear the same criticisms over and over, then you would be wise to consider them. But ultimately, each critic is just one person with one opinion.

As a final note, of all the novels that have won in the mystery category of that contest in the past five years, not one has been published. My “losing” entry will be released in December.

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