I’ve heard from many sources over the years about how important it is to challenge yourself with writing outside your normal format or genre. One of the best ways to do that is to enter a writing contest. The obvious advantage, aside from winning and getting a cool writing credit, is that you’re usually going to get some feedback on your writing from an unbiased professional. There are other advantages: you get practice working under a deadline and you learn writing to a particular theme or wordcount. But that feedback is the most important part.
I entered the Tulsa Nightwriters annual flash fiction contest this year, one of 18 entries. The story prompt: “Which box should she check?” and we only had 500 words to craft a story. That’s a special challenge for me, as I tend to get pretty wordy. You can’t be wordy with flash fiction. It’s got to be some of your tightest writing. But I had a story pop into my head, so I entered my first writing contest.
I wasn’t exactly petrified, but I was more than a little anxious. I know the quality of writers we have at TNW. Some have a dozen books published. They’re all great writers, and here I was, a new member, and a newish writer, without a lot of education or training in the craft. Did I say without a lot? More like none, other than a high-school education that was way too long ago. Who was I to think I could write? Never mind that I’m published now, by a real live publisher. Wasn’t I just putting on airs to think I could beat any of these professionals?
I didn’t win, and the feedback I got was only 44 words. But I learned a lot from the evaluation. I maxed out the “Style; Voice; five senses” and “Grammar, POV, typography spelling” categories at 20 points each. I also scored well in Character Development (18/20) and Setting In First Paragraph (15/20).
I only scored 10 points on the Ending category though, and the feedback explained that I didn’t wrap things up well, so the judge didn’t quite understand the ending of the story. For that matter, I realized they didn’t quite understand the rest of the story. That means I need to make better use of my words, and that maybe I shouldn’t sweat running closer to the wordcount limit. I still had 136 words left on this one.
The best part though was the last thirteen words.
“You are a good writer with a RARE great imagination. Keep on writing.”
That was amazing to read. For a writer, there’s nothing better than hearing someone tell you you’ve got talent. Except maybe selling books.
The rest of the evaluation gives me something to work on, something to reach for. I do much better when I’ve got a target. And as TNW President Jim Laughter regularly points out, there’s nothing stopping you from polishing a story that didn’t win one contest, and entering it in another. So that’s what I’m going to do: polish this story, and enter it elsewhere.
Because as scary as it is to put my work out there and ask for critique, I still love telling someone’s story.