Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Writing Contests and You (or me)


I’ve encountered a few people in my time as a writer and even a few in my time as a wanna-be writer that are terribly opposed to the idea of the writing contest. The argument tends to go something along the lines of “It’s a waste of time and a commoditization of art. Who are they to judge what I create?” Now, I’m under the impression that these people are in the minority, and the vast (maybe?) majority of folk feel differently.

I belong in the pro-contest party, as you may have very well guessed, and I will get to that in a moment. But I first wanted to address the opposition for one or two reasons. My thoughts on the matter is that if you want to write for the sake of writing, and you hate the idea of your writing, or art, as a commodity, then you might have a hard time making sales. Sure, you could give away your work for free and just write for fun, which some people do for sure. But for most of us who want to write and hopefully live off of it, this is not really a viable option.

The second issue, of “who are they to judge me?” well, everyone judges everything. Who are the buyers who leave reviews on Amazon.com to judge you? They’re your audience, and that is what an audience does. It doesn’t matter if they’re judging a contest or judging you after picking up a copy of your book. You’re going to be judged on your work unless you squirrel it away in the small corners of your attic where no one will find it until the day you die (and even then you’ll be judged posthumously). Without the feedback from the populace, you’re never going to grow as an author; it’s a part of the writing process, and one you’ll need to get used to.

Anyways, I believe that’s more than enough of me debating imaginary antagonists; although if any of you fine readers would like to weigh in, the comment section is open down below. Let us move on to my opinions on writing contests. Here they are; I think contests are absolutely magnificent and that everyone everywhere should participate as much as possible. I believe that they help round out established writers by forcing them to create in a way that may not come as naturally to them (more on that in a moment) as well as help new writers come into the fold by setting up guidelines for them to follow. It’s daunting to sit down with no direction and only the want to write a novel—it helps to start smaller and with some idea of where to go. Give it a try, the worst that happens is you don’t win, and you have a new story/ idea/ springboard to keep working off of.

Now, for established (or even un-established “I’ve-been-doing-this-for-a-while-but-never-really-published-anything”) writers, contests can wildly help broaden your horizons. I normally knock out a couple thousand words a day (when I get to write) and call it good. If I go too much over, I burn out a little, and if I go under I feel like I’ve been lazy. It’s a good balance for me and it’s a range I feel safe in. Contests grab me about the word bits and yank me out of my safety zone faster than I can say “This may have been a mistake!” I’ve entered contests where I needed to write 250 words max, and I spent at least 10 hours honing a story from 800 words down to the very most basic thing I could create without losing meaning. Contests such as http://www.nanowrimo.org/ are the exact opposite, where the goal is to createcreatecreate as much as humanly possible for the entire month of November. There’s no real winner, in the sense that one book is chosen and the person is awarded a prize—everyone that finishes is considered a winner (which is cool, as you should feel accomplished for writing 50,000 words in a month).

There are even more extreme examples, such as the 3-day writing contest http://www.3daynovel.com/ where you write a novel in 3 days, no pre-writing allowed. I competed in the contest this year, and will be hearing back from them, I believe, in January with the verdict on the winners. I was averaging about 8,700 words a day (in reality I think I hit 10,000 the first two and 6,000 the last day). It was a marathon being run at full sprint, and something that I would never EVER do normally. I pretty much fried myself and was absolutely useless by the end of the contest—my girlfriend had to make sure I was eating. I was sleeping about 4 hours a night, dreaming about the novel, and when I tried to edit it with my remaining 4 hours on the final day, I found that whatever I did just made it worse. I’d broken myself, and all I wanted to do was drown in a massive cup of coffee, eat a pack of cookies, and sleep, which I did—but it was an amazing experience that I’ll probably repeat next year. Also, born from the remnants of my scorched brain, came a very strange story that, if it doesn’t do well in the contest, I’ll touch up and probably toss onto the internet for free.

The point is, that I was forced to work in a way that very nearly broke me, but out of it came a new novella, and the starting point for a much larger novel that I’ll be working on a few books down the road. The same goes for the other contests; they all gave me new writing experiences that I’ll be able to utilize in all my future writes.

The contest that I’m working on right now is the PRISM International Short Story Contest http://prismmagazine.ca/contests/. I’ll be putting the link up in the things I like section if you want to find it in a few weeks time. Keep in mind, the deadline is coming up in a month or so—don’t dilly-dally too much.

As a final and entirely unrelated side note, Gnarls Barkley (yeah I know I’m 6 years late on buying the album) is very strange music to listen to while writing. And unless you like having your train of thought hijacked for the song-length sessions at a time, I don’t know if I would recommend it as writing music.

Told ya’ it would be a long post.

-Trevor

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