Sunday, January 13, 2013

Writing Contests -- Really?

By D.R. Shoultz

I’m about to enter my first writing contest, at least the first where I’ll submit an entire manuscript of one of my novels.  The contest is the 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, or ABNA.  The ABNA is a well-organized, well-documented national contest, and it has a large following of aspiring authors.  Exactly 10,000 writers will submit their unpublished or self-published manuscripts this year during the enrollment period, which begins at 12:00AM  on January 14th.  The 10,001st entrant will be rejected.
I have no doubt that my manuscript will receive a fair and unbiased review.  The entries are anonymous.  Any previous glowing reviews or awards that might sway judges can’t be included with the entries. It’s a level playing field.  My concern with writing contests isn’t with fairness, but more with the definition of what “good writing” really is.
When I was in high school (several decades ago), I ran track and field.  If there ever was an event where the winners and losers are readily identified and rarely disputed, it’s track and field.  Subjectivity doesn’t play a role in the judging.  Individual styles and techniques are welcome, but don’t garner the participant any extra points, and clearly don’t influence the results.  The winning high jumper is just that.  He or she can jump higher than their competitors.
Writing contests are much different.  I understand how someone can identify truly bad writing -- writing that exhibits inconsistent use of tense, poor spelling and punctuation, run-on sentences, meandering storylines, and undeveloped characters.  But out of 10,000 manuscripts, I don’t know how anyone can identify the best novel from the second best, or from the 150th best for that matter.
I imagine there are some track and field-like criteria even in writing contests.  Rules, if violated, would knock participants out of the contest – violations like plagiarism, too many or too few words, including your name in the manuscript, or namedropping Stephen King as your cousin.  These violations might narrow the field by 10%.
There are likely some entries so poorly written and poorly edited that they’d receive a C- in a freshman composition class.  These get tossed out quickly, possibly reducing the total field another 10% to 15%.  That leaves 75% of the manuscripts as readable, grammatically correct, effectively edited, containing believable characters and with storylines that flow from beginning to end.  Of these remaining 7,500 entries, what narrows them down to the top manuscript – the winner?
Whatever it is, it is subjective.  Judges would have you believe it is more obvious than untrained writers (as I am) can appreciate.  I’ll concede that the quality of writing may allow them to subjectively push half of the remaining 7,500 entries off to the side.  These entries may not be interesting or the writing style may be difficult to read.  They may use three words where one would suffice, contain overused adjectives, or heaven forbid, interject too many clich├ęs.  Okay, we’re now down to about one-third of the original entries.  But there will be one winner and only a handful of near winners.  The rest of the contestants will be sent away knowing only at what point they were dismissed – round one, round two or round three.
As hard as I try, I am not expecting win.  So, what do I and the other non-winning, aspiring authors do? What do we take away from the experience?
When I ran track, I knew exactly where I stacked up, and how much I needed to improve to win.  The goal of narrowing that well-defined, visible margin kept me participating, trying to improve, and trying to win.  But the gap between winning and losing a writing contest is subjective.  It can’t be seen or measured, but it needs to be understood if you are to improve.
Many of the rejected writers from the early rounds will never produce a product worthy of publishing, let alone making it to the finals of a national contest.  I’ll never admit being in this category -- neither will most of the other dismissed contestants.  A few of those rejected in final round will still become successful writers, finding a publisher and a reading audience despite falling short in the contest. Most of the 10,000 entrants fall somewhere in between.  They may someday find a publisher willing to take a chance, but likely not.
So, other than changing the writing careers of a handful of authors, what did the contest accomplish?  Does it help the non-winners understand what they need to do to improve?  Does the contest define “good” writing?
Writers, good or bad, write because they like what they do.  It fills a need in their life to express themselves. If they can garner some recognition, all the better.  I expect very few of the non-winners in this year’s ABNA will throw away their pens.  Like me, they’ll be back next year with hopefully improved offerings, exposing themselves and their manuscripts to the subjective process one more time – trying to show the world they are good writers.