A while ago I mentioned I was going to enter my first ever RWA Contest. And I did.
Borne aloft on a tide of post-first revision euphoria, I submitted the first fifty pages to the Heart of Denver Unpublished Molly Contest. It was, shall we say, premature. After I submitted to the Mollies, my poor beleagured Merely Players has undergone something like seven further revisions, with the first three chapters being rewritten extensively. And it's still not done (no one ever told me that writing your first novel actually the 13th Labour of Hercules, but now I know).
Anyhow, excesses of enthusiasm aside, I was of course curious to see how my rough cut novel fared. In the brutal world of anonymous judging, would I rise to the top or sink to the bottom?
Here's the weird thing - I did both.
Two judges read my work, both authors who have published either a short story or a reference work. One really liked it... and one hated it.
I read the latter first. Judge 1 was utterly perplexed by the story, couldn't work out who the hero or heroine was, thought the period setting was clear but full of name dropping and wordy cliches, the dialogue and narrative unbalanced and most crushingly:
"All aspects of the style and voice were weak. The point of view and the direction of the plot are all over the place".
In fact, judge 1 didn't have one positive thing to say.
It was with trepidation that I opened the comments of Judge 2. Imagine my surprise to read the following:
"Very compelling and original storyline. It’s the only one of my judging package that stuck with me for several days after my first read. I think this story has a lot of potential!"
"Loved the strong heroine. She has a strong sense of self and doesn’t cow-tow to her father. She seems to take the world for what it is, rather than live in some isolated cocoon like many romance heroines."
"Very compelling beginning that drops the reader into the story. The tension and anxiety Rachel feels is gripping and immediately relatable as a reader. Very nice job."
Furthermore I got top scores for having "a unique or fresh and interesting voice."
Judge 2 marked me down most strongly on punctuation and the hero being a bit angsty, both issues that I'm aware of and have been working on since I submitted to this contest (phew!). Weirdly, Judge 1 had given me good marks for punctuation, commenting, "The mechanical aspects of the manuscript are fine."
In fact, in almost every single category judge 1 and 2 gave me opposing marks. If judge 1 marked it high, judge 2 marked it low and vice versa. The score that judge 2 gave me was twice what judge 1 gave me!
So what am I to take from this?
I'm still not entirely sure. Writing is a craft and one which I'm constantly striving to improve. I have two critique partners and a couple of first readers and regularly get feedback on my work. I'm not precious about it. I revise my writing constantly and read up on technique, craftsmanship and tools on a pretty much daily basis. I want honesty and I'm happy to hear advice and moreover, to implement it. I'm practicing all the time.
I know that there is a hell of a lot I need to learn and I'm always searching for people to learn from - and luckily, thanks to the talent, skill and generosity of writers I have come in contact with over the last year, there's no shortage of them.
I'm not sure what to make of RWA contests... the encouragement from judge 2 was lovely to read, but as it's contradicted by judge 1, I'm inclined to take it with a pinch of salt. What I had hoped for were some common points between the two. That would have helped me to prioritise the areas that I really need to work on - which was, for me, the point in entering.
So hey ho. I'm not drawing a line under contests - it's always interesting to read reactions to my work and there is always something to learn.
But as a failsafe guide to self improvement... I'm not so sure.
I leave you with two excellent points from my super talented friend Laura Ward:
1. "A bit of negative critique tends to spur me on. The good stuff is a relief."
2. "I figure if there are people in the world who don't like cheddar cheese or James McAvoy, you can't please them all."
Thank you, Laura.
One last point: to anyone judging RWA contests, a kindly 'keep trying' is always appreciated, even if there is little about the manuscript itself you can appreciate. Show us aspiring writers the love! We will love you for it.