by Jennie Bentley
My long-distance friend and critique partner emailed me earlier this week to tell me about a writing contest she’d entered (and exited). Her manuscript didn’t do as well as she’d hoped, and she was a little disappointed, but – thankfully – a lot more amused. One of the comments she had gotten, from some no doubt well-meaning soul, was that she should learn to write before entering any more contests.
It brought me back to the first contest I entered. It’s a few years ago now, back in the days when I thought I might want to write romance novels. My local RWA chapter was announcing their annual contest, and because I wanted validation, and also because I wanted to see whether I could write something that someone might be interested in reading, I decided to enter. I didn’t have anything written at the time, but that didn’t stop me. All that was required was a first chapter, so I came up with an idea – actually two – and wrote a first chapter for each of them. Then I sent both off, with the appropriate fee, and sat down to wait.
A couple of months went by, and then the finalists and winners were announced. All of us who had entered the contest received copies of our judging sheets, the ones from the preliminary judges – our chapter mates and peers – and for the finalists, the final judging by the professional. And boy, were they eye opening!
Admittedly, I was a rank beginner. This was the first time I had shown my writing to anyone outside the family. Some of the judges were wonderfully encouraging, pointing out everything they liked, everything that worked, everything positive... while carefully, gently, letting me know where I’d dropped the ball and how I could improve. But there was this one judge who kept harping on my punctuation. I’d put the commas and periods outside the quotes when writing dialogue. Like this:
“I’d like to kill her”, I said. “I really would”.
It was consistent throughout – consistently wrong – and obviously I needed to be made aware of it. She wasn’t the only judge to point it out, by any means. Most of them did, in some form or another (although the rest of them managed to refrain from circling every misused comma or period with a red pen). But for this woman, it became something that overshadowed everything else, good or bad, about the story. And then she made the same kind of remark that Allie heard. Come back when you’ve learned how to write.
I got my revenge, I’m happy to say. Both of my entries in that contest became finalists, and the one she objected to so strongly actually won its category. The big-name New York editor seemed perfectly capable of looking past my punctuation faux pas to see some merit in the rest of the entry. The fifty bucks went into my Christmas fund that year, and the certificate is sitting in a folder somewhere. I’m not sure what I did with the judging sheets, but I did learn to properly punctuate my dialogue. I also learned that I could write something that at least a few people enjoyed reading, even if everyone didn’t. And I learned to take critique with a shaker of salt, which I think is something we could all benefit from. After all, if someone could say about Fred Astaire – arguably the best dancer Hollywood has ever seen – that he “can’t sing, can’t act, can dance a little,” talent truly is in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it?
So what about you? Do you enter contests? Do you have any horror-stories to share? Any I-just-can’t-believe-she-said-that feedback you’ve ever gotten? (Or given; let’s not be prejudiced here!) What nasty comment did you have to rise above to get to where you are today, wherever that is? And how did you get even, which is, after all, what it's all about? Inquiring minds want to know!