Writing Contests: Friend or Foe?

Writers seeking recognition, validation, or those with a competitive streak: you’ve probably heard plenty of opinions on writing contests, good and not so good. I’m going to throw my opinion in the ring since I’ve a few writing contests under my belt, so I know a little something. Maybe very little, but still.

Were the contests I entered worthwhile? Yep. That’s because I didn’t enter contests with large fees or that appeared illegitimate (per this site and this one).

I entered my first one when I was ten years old. I submitted a poem about horses to McCall’s magazine. And received a certificate of recognition. It felt pretty good.

Fast forward a few decades. I wanted to write a book, but didn’t know how, what, where or much of anything. But I stumbled across a writers’ contest sponsored by the San Francisco Writers’ Conference. The winner would attend the conference for free. I entered the first chapter of something festering in one of my drawers. I dusted and sent it off. And surprise! I won. That win changed everything. When I attended the conference as the winner, everyone seemed to think I could write. For the first time, I thought I might be able to pull it off.

Fast forward a year later. I had a nearly finished manuscript for a mystery novel. I entered another contest with no entry fee. The winner would win $500 to be used toward taking a writing course. To my great surprise, I won! It felt wonderful!

I’ve also entered contests with small fees, lost and received let-down feedback. One of the four judges gave me a very low score. She made it clear she didn’t like the writing (this was the same manuscript I’d used to win the scholarship). Two judges gave me okay scores and one thought the manuscript was perfect! I learned the importance of not focusing on negative feedback and that opinions are subjective.

Would I enter a contest again? Sure, if the price was right. Contests can be confidence boosters, learning experiences and notches in our belts…if we choose carefully and not take any feedback too personally.

Hop Aboard the Idea Train!

Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we had ideas churning in our heads all the time? There’d be no end to the books we’d set sail to. What’s that, you say? You’ve got plenty of ideas? Well, what are you waiting for? You should be writing.

But what if ideas don’t flow so easily? That’s what I was asked by attendees during one of my library appearances. They wanted to know where I find my story ideas. I’ll get to that in a moment. But even when ideas aren’t sitting around, waiting to be picked up, we should still be writing. Forging ahead often gives direction to the train ideas are traveling on. Words and ideas have a swell time hanging out together.

With my latest, MURDER: DOUBLE OR NOTHING, I had a pretty solid sense about how the story would begin. I knew exactly where heroine Corrie would be and what would unfold…but after that? I wasn’t so sure. One thing I did know was that I needed to push ahead and not fall into any lurking black holes.

I start by sitting behind my laptop, wondering where Corrie is going or doing next. Corrie needs to move almost all the time to propel the story forward. Nancy Drew fans: did you ever see Nancy sitting idle? No way. She was a woman of action.

If I’m not happy with the creative direction of my writing, I wander around the house for a short time, performing mindless tasks. I may look like I’m doing the laundry, but I’m really wondering what Michael (Corrie’s long time best pal) will do to help investigate the latest crime. Or what Veera (Corrie’s no-nonsense, tells-it-like-it-is legal assistant) is up to? Mundane tasks sometimes lead to interesting ideas.

I also scan online news articles. Headlines. But not from the usual news sources. Everyone reads those. I look for the more obscure, buried headlines in smaller news sources. While I search, I gather possibilities that may lead to the creation of events and characters. News stories involving con artists, stunt dummies, FBI agents and monkeys made it into my third book, thanks to online searches. All of which makes us writers kind of like Nancy Drew, too. We’re action takers!

Why I'm Bingewatching Hallmark Movies

If you’d asked me a few months ago whether I was into Hallmark films, my reply would have been an adamant, “No way.” They were too predictable, too alike, too rosy even for me who loves all things rosy. Things change.

My husband enjoys action and sci-fi films, and a few detective shows. Because he’s wonderful, he also likes to watch my faves, too: movies from the thirties and forties, and a few, carefully selected, newer TV comedy shows and flicks, and a couple of PBS mini-series. Hallmark was hardly our style.

One night, our streaming service stopped running, and we resorted to Hubby’s iPad. Readily available was a romantic film from Hallmark, a Christmas movie in May, starring a TV star from a show we regularly watched. We were game. The next night we watched another Hallmark…and we’ve been watching ever since. Why? WHY??? What’s the big draw for films that likely took a short time to write, about the same time to film and where all story lines were just about the same? Because they’re pleasing to the eye, cast members come in all ages, shapes and colors, and the story lines make us feel good.

Take last night’s movie: my first reaction was to turn it off. The typical Hallmark heroine (a smart, professional, well-dressed, perfectly made-up woman, who appeared to own her own nicely decorated home (don’t they all?), but had made a poor choice in the man she was dating) was a bit annoying. But as the movie unfolded, the appeal grew. What Hallmark movies provide are reminders and examples of positive behavior: a woman who took her husband for granted realized the vital role he played in her life and her love for him, the heroine’s initial immaturity blossomed into maturity when she took over (reluctantly, at first) temporary responsibility of her three nieces and nephew, and she dumped a boyfriend who showed his true colors when the chips were down. Granted, there was a lot of cheese-ball and corn in the movie, but ultimately, who doesn’t love a happily-ever-after with plenty of eye candy and people who mostly treat each other kindly? Count me (and my hubby) in.