Putting Writing to the Test

When I tutored executives on communications, they wanted to know how to talk people into things.  They were always surprised when I gave them practice in listening.  I mean, what does that have to do with communications, anyway?

Most writers know that, ultimately, it isn’t about just putting words on paper and being read.  It’s also about hearing what the readers have to say.  Did they have tears in their eyes?  Did they laugh?  Did it change their lives?  Did they get it?

There are intrinsic problems with this.  Most of a writer’s acquaintances will never actually read what they write (even if it is very short — too many distractions).  Most readers do not ever communicate with authors.  Most responses are along the lines of I liked/didn’t like it.  Even “I like it” responses may be just polite.

So writers join together in groups to read each others work and provide feedback.  This can be somewhat helpful or it can be a disaster.  Under the best of circumstances, fellow writers can provide a encouragement or a sense that something (not always something specific) has gone wrong.  I’ve gotten beaten up on my beginning to Warriors by an online group and a face-to-face group and I think with two complete rewrites I’ve made improvements.  But most of the criticism was diametrically opposed.  If I were younger and fainter of heart, I might have chucked it all.  As it was, I groused, grumbled, cursed the gods and otherwise spread gloom with more effectiveness than a flu patient on a red-eye flight.

On Innovation Passport, I had four readers with specific recommendations and editors with even more.  It wasn’t always pleasant, but it was a certain way to get rid of flabby prose and anything that was not clear.  I’m looking at a request from the editor to cut 1000 words from the 6800 word “Civil Complaint,” but he also has some suggestions for me to follow up on.  I’m hoping for a better story, and I think that has happened along the way with other short stories.  Sending short fiction to magazines in one of the best ways to put your writing to the test, especially if the overall quality of your writing encourages editors to comment.

What about novels?  How in the world do you get a critical mass (so to speak) of feedback on a work of 50-100 thousand words?  If you can find a reader out there who actually knows the genre (thanks, Janet!), will take the time and can be articulate, you are truly blessed.  For two novels I wrote, the only comments I ever got were from my agent of the time and from one reader (who said “I liked it”).  Luck and someone who makes 10% may not be enough to get the feedback needed to avoid foolish mistakes and to become a better writer, but I’ve stumbled upon another possibility — contests.

Consider if you will the wonderful Writing Contests page of Ms. Stephie Smith.  At a glance, you get a sense of what contests are out there and what they require.  Each of these also has links so that you can get into the details of submissions.  It is an elegant and useful page, and I recommend Ms. Smith for canonization.  I’m sure she’ll get the requisite miracles in no time.

The first important point: you will not get rich from the winnings in these contest.  Almost without exception, the prizes are miniscule.  But all of them will get at least a portion of your novel in front of a judge, and, provided you rise to the top, your work will get read by a real agent and/or editor.  These people have piles of manuscripts on their desks, and the contests provide a way to cut the line and show your stuff, so this is no small thing.  And these are people who can actually help you by taking you under their wings or buying the work.  (The sales records for finalists and winners of these contests are posted in many cases and are impressive.)  But even if they don’t, you’ll get their comments back.  More on the benefits below.

The second important point: most of these contest are for romance novels.  For many people, this is an immediate problem since they don’t write romances.  If this is a concern, allow me to point you toward the Golden Heart Award page of the Romance Writers of America.  The honors here are essentially for best first novels, but lets take a look at the categories and how they’ve changed.  When the Golden Heart was established in 1983, the categories were Contemporary, Historical and Young Adult (with some attention to “series” aspects, essentially the length of works).  But look at the genres that have joined the party since then: Inspirational (’85), Suspense (’89), Paranormal (’92), and Strong Romantic Elements (’04).  This year was the first for Suspense/Adventure.  (Don’t ask me how this differs from Suspense.)  My point here is if you write mainstream, science fiction, horror, fantasy, thriller or novels about people being saved, there’s a place for you in “romance.”  Just make sure you have a love story.  (But you had one anyway, didn’t you?)  None of this should be surprising since most fiction novels — of any sort — sold are sold to women.  The romance houses have, to a large extent, just acknowledged that.  Think of them as the Borg of stories.

But what if you’re a guy — like me?  I looked through the hundreds of winners of the Golden Heart, and I found a dozen ambiguous names (Kit, Robin (2), Tracy, Pat, Kim, Bronwyn, Sandy, Angel, Jackie, Laron and Kris) in 27 years.  There was one clearly male name, Vince Brach, and this intrepid man does not appear to have published a book under his own name.  Does this mean that those with a Y chromosome should walk away?  No.  Just as for many years women who wrote SF and other genres where men predominated wrote under pseudonyms, I suspect that there are a lot of men out there writing romances under the cover of female names.  Mr. Brach became, at least for awhile, Fran Vincent, presumably without any surgery or hormone treatments.  However, for the purposes of the discussion here, this is interesting but unimportant.  Virtually all the contests Saint Stephie lists require that the authors be anonymous.  So if you keep a female audience in mind, there shouldn’t be a problem.

Aside from the direct benefits of good readers for your novel (usually just a piece, admittedly) and making a publishing connection, these contests are wonderfully diverse in their requirements, and this leads to some lessons.  Want to enter the Ohio contest?  You better learn how to write a query letter.  (And your letter will become text for all those agent queries you’ll be writing.)  If the Maine competition is interesting to you, there is only one way to win: write a dynamite synopsis.  (Again, agents and editors will demand this.  Here’s a chance to get the piece done.)  Can you grab a reader in 15 pages (Gotcha)? Or 3 (Hudson Valley)?  Want to put your first kiss up (New England) against what others can do or hook folks into a romantic comedy (New York City)?  There’s a contest out there for you.

One last important point: when they say only unpublished writers are eligible, don’t give up.  Romance writers in my experience are a nice bunch.  There are competitive types, of course, but the culture is more nurturing than that of most cadres of writers.  Yes, most of the competitions for unpublished works are “closed” to published writers, but they provide wiggle room.  For many of these contests, you get your virginity back if you have not published in five years (and sometimes three).  And if you just happen to have a contract in hand for a Romantic Suspense, this usually is not an impediment to entering a Young Adult or a Paranormal.  It ‘s like being an Olympics amateur today instead of in 1960.

If nothing else, all these contests provide deadlines.  Lots of deadlines that tell writers, when no one else is marking up their calendars, that the work has to be done by a specific day.  My own deadline is a shrinking bank account, but perhaps contests deadlines will be incentive for some of you.

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