the downs and ups of writing contests: Little Gems Garnet 2011

I’m ‘a bit of’ a contest junkie (addicts find it hard to make a full admission) and over the past few years I’ve entered a couple of Romance Writers of Australia contests. 

I didn’t make the finals in any until last year, when my short story scored a place in the annual Little Gems Topaz Anthology. It was one of 14 short stories with a romantic theme to make the cut and ranked 7th out of about 45 entries (I can’t remember the exact number).

I entered RWA’s Little Gems this year with high hopes. I was sure my story was better than my 2010 effort. I was so confident that I shared it with two non-romance readers – my partner and a good friend.

They both liked it and said they found it an easy read. My friend said she was hooked from the start and keen to find out what happened at the end of the story. This buoyed my hopes of success. Surely, I thought, the three contest judges would feel the same?

This morning THE email arrived, announcing the stories that made it into this year’s anthology. Mine wasn’t one of them.

I’d already put on mascara so I didn’t cry. I drove to work and tried not to think about it, though it hassled me all day.

Where did I go wrong? Was it my heroine? I find it hard to write ‘likeable’ women and she was complex (more about that in another post). Was it the plot – also complex. Was it my hero? I find it hard to write alpha males (more about that soon).

I arrived home to find another email from the contest coordinator that contained feedback sheets from the judges and the ranking sheet.

The maximum total score that each judge could award was 62. Here’s the lowdown from best score through to worst:

62/62: This judge wrote, ‘The story was beautifully done and a privilege to read. Thank you for writing it … I hope you get into the anthology – I think this story is outstanding.’

59/62: This judge wrote, ‘All aspects [of the story] are strong – characters, dialogue and setting, but it is the element of surprise and the way the story unfolds that particularly appeals to this reader … This is good writing.’

47/62: This judge wrote, ‘Overall this story was a good read, it just needs a bit more polish to reach its full potential. I like that the characters were not perfect and that the heroine made some down right stupid mistakes in her life. I just feel that I needed to understand them better.’

My story ranked 26 out of the 84 stories submitted.

Am I pissed off? Yep. Sort of. Well, not really. It’s OK. I’ll live. Things could be A LOT worse. Actually, I feel pretty good. But maybe that’s the glass of red wine kicking in.

Anyway, if there’s a lesson to be learnt from this, it’s to take the good and revel in it like a pig in mud and consider the bad and how it ruined my life.

Now it’s onto the next challenge – the Valerie Parv Award. Not another bloody contest. I can’t help it!

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Winging it or plotting it? Which is the right way to write?

I tend to fly by the seat of my pants when I write which, in writing terms, defines me as a ‘pantser’. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the plotters, who piece together every part of the story before they sit down to write. They know where they’re headed from the outset because their plot is so tightly knit.  

Of late I’ve been forced to consider the wisdom, or lack thereof, of winging it. 

Here are two reasons why:

I’m reading the most amazing novel, The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. You’ve probably heard of it. It was a ‘#1 International Bestseller’ a couple of years back.

The plot of The Book Thief is so complex and intricate that I can’t imagine Zusak writing the story without some serious plotting beforehand. 

Maybe you’ve read it? If so, you’ll know the story is primarily set in a small town in Nazi Germany and starts prior to WWII. The main protaganist is a young German girl Leisel Meminger. But the story is narrated by Death, who coolly observes Leisl’s journey. I’m only halfway through the book, and Leisel is 11 years old, so I don’t know when, how, why or where her journey ends.  

Zusak will sometimes have Death leap into the future in his narration (I reckon Death is a bloke), so the reader learns of a catastrophic event that has not yet happened. This sounds like a cop out, and Death even admits that, but it has the effect of making the reader more anxious about the inevitable. It’s just soooo clever.

Death also takes the reader back in time – of course this is to give backstory – but it is so elegantly woven into the text that I can’t imagine Zusak cutting and pasting anything in the rewrites.

Maybe I’m wrong.    

The other reason I think I might have to get serious about detailed plotting comes from American scriptwriting guru John Truby. He’s a fan of plotting and believes many scriptwriters fail because by the time they get to around 30 pages, their story has lost impetus becuase the flimsy plot has faltered. He says a lack of plotting is responsible for writer’s block.

Truby writes: ‘Plot is the sequence of events by which the hero tries to defeat the opponent and reach the goal.’

I just admit that I’ve been caught out with my current wip because I’ve lost direction. And that does have something to do with lazy plotting.

Back to the drawing board. Again.

RWA contests entered: three

Romance Writers of Australia runs a number of contests each year. I usually  enter Little Gems, The First Kiss and High Five.

My short story made the Little Gems Topaz anthology last year, and I’m hoping for success in the 2011 contest, which closed on February 4. The added incentive for entering this year was the introduction of cash prizes for the first three place getters. 

First Kiss is self explanatory. It’s the scene where the heroine and hero first lock lips. It can be no longer than 1500 words and must be accompanied by a 25-line explanation, so the judges can understand the context.

In 2010, my First Kiss entry placed 17th out of 43. The 2011 comp closed last Friday, so it will be at least a month before the results are known. Now I’ve put it out there, I hope I sneak up a few more places on the leader board.  

As for this year’s High Five contest, it’s all over. My entry finished in 19th place out of 76 entries. I would’ve tied for 18th had I not screwed up my formatting, which led to the deduction of one point. (I had to share that – vanity).

The final big RWAustralia comp of the year is the Valerie Parv Award, where entrants are required to submit 12,500 words of their completed ms. Unfortunately, I’m not ready for this one because I’ve fluffed around and haven’t got my act together with my latest wip.  

The comps are good fun and, for me, they’re an exercise in self discipline. When The First Kiss results are announced and I receive the judges’ feedback, I’ll be able to re-slot my already seriously edited scene back into my ms with all the rough edges ironed out.

The waiting game has begun.

You don’t read romance? Take another look at the book

During the holidays I read a Harlequin romance and, not surprisingly, received these sort of responses from people who noticed: “Why are you bothering with that?” and “I’m not interested in that sort of stuff. “

To answer the first question, I read All over you by Sarah Mayberry to learn more about the romance genre and good writing in general.

I’ll answer the second question with a question, have you ever read a romance novel?

I’d argue that All over you, a 55,000 word romance in the ‘Blaze’ category, was a reasonable read and far better than some of the books that appear on bestseller lists. The book’s author Australian Sarah Mayberry used to write for TV and has now turned her hand full-time to hot, sexy fiction.

She can write, and while All over you isn’t going to win any literary awards, it’s tightly structured with strongly developed characters. Mayberry has managed to weave some unusual elements into a conventional love story by giving her heroine, Grace, an unforgettable appearance and compelling back story.

I find it annoying that the general public continues to dismiss romance as rubbish that is written for bimbos with a reading age of 12 – the age thing is more applicable to readers of The Daily Telegraph and Today Tonight viewers!

In fact, romance novels appeal to educated career women who are looking for a light read and an escape from their day-to-day lives. They are looking for an HEA – Happily Ever After – where the prince rides off into the sunset with the princess by his side. It might not be rocket science, but it’s an entertaining diversion and pleasantly predictable.

When you think about it, there’s not much difference between books written by Monica McInerney, Maeve Binchy and Sarah Mayberry. Maybe McInerney and Binchy’s books are longer with more secondary characters, but at the essence of the book is romance.

And think of the top rating movies. Romantic comedies always do well at the box office, which is why Hollywood churns out so many.

So, the next time you see someone reading a Mills and Boon, don’t be so quick to judge.

Totally devoted to writing

Some of you may know me from my blog writing whims and ocean swims blog , where I write about my love of ocean swimming and writing.

Because melding the two didn’t quite work, I’ve decided to separate the ocean swimming from the writing.

This is my new blog, totally devoted to the writing side of my life. It’s for fans of contemporary women’s fiction.