Jordan Dane On Writing Contests

Prior to being SOLD
(Posted Online Interview—Cheryl Wyatt Blog—Squirrel’s Treehouse—2006)

1. As an entrant, what do you look for when selecting a writing contest?

Personally, I participate in contests for two main reasons.

  • Having someone else flog my work is so much better than doing it myself. I consider it a more efficient use of my time.
  • And I like waiting months to hear how I did. Immediate gratification is so overrated.

Of course, none of the above is true, but if you are going to do the contest circuit, YOU MUST HAVE A SENSE OF HUMOR.

  • Picking a contest is like going on a date with Brad Pitt. BE PREPARED TO GO ALL THE WAY. (Why not?) So take a good hard look at the final judges and make an assumption that your entry will make it to their desk. (For example, select contests with final editor judges who do not accept unagented submissions.) Now you may have better odds playing Power Ball, but a girl can dream, can’t she?
  • If one Colin Farrell is yummy, imagine THREE!!! (Okay, that statement has nothing to do with what I’m about to say, but I just liked the idea of more than one Colin.) I pick contests that have 3 or more judges on the preliminary round, because there is always that one judge who has her thong in a twist. (You know what I’m talkin’ about…) Let the contest coordinator throw out that low score. What a liberating notion!
  • SIZE MATTERS!!! We all know this, right? The length of pages to submit might fit my work better for some contests than others (ie Save & Add To Library 10 pgs, 25 pgs, or 55 pgs)—so I pick accordingly. (What? What did you think I meant?)
  • UNZIP IT & TAKE A PEEK. (Now that I have your attention…) Check out the score sheet ahead of time. If your story has a shy hero that doesn’t show up for a chapter or so, then a contest that requires him to make an appearance within the first few ticks of a stopwatch is probably not your best choice. The scores sheets could give you an indication that the judges might be looking for a more formulaic story line with traditional elements.
  • Like Paris Hilton, I need a score card to keep up. (I SO wish I had her problems.) I maintain an activity log of contests I enter (for tax purposes among other reasons). If the judges’ comments were not helpful or appear to come from people lacking the proper training to be a judge, I make a note of this in my log. I’m less likely to enter this contest again in the following year. So, in this case, keeping score can be a good thing.
  • RIGID DOESN’T ALWAYS RULE—(It’s way too easy to make a ‘rigid’ pun so I’ll pass.) If the rules on manuscript formats are too rigid, I often pass on the contest. Some chapters are very picky about format/fonts. The greater the flexibility, the better I like it. It allows me to pick the best MS for the contest rules. (If the Golden Heart allows such flexibility, why not other contests?)

2. As a trained and experienced judge, what is your philosophy on assessing an author’s work in a writing competition?

Okay—gonna get serious here for a minute. I take judging very seriously. For me, the main thing about judging always falls back to the golden rule—treat others like you would like to be treated yourself. An author’s work is their life’s blood. Treat it with respect.

I know. By now, you’re saying, “Duh?!!” But you’d be surprised how many judges make disparaging remarks that add NOTHING of value. (Once I’ve read what these people have say, I like to imagine them naked on a theatre stage with a bunch of people laughing and pointing, but that’s just me.)

But after saying that, I’ve also experienced extraordinary judges who treat my work as if they were dear friends, giving me great insight. (I’ve even had a well-published author refer me to their agent after she read my material.) Those people are why I return the favor—the ‘PAY IT FORWARD’ idea. And I have modeled my judging style after some of my favorite judges as a result. As a judge, I provide encouraging words to each entrant on what I liked most and list areas that could use some improvement. (No matter how good the writing, I try to add some areas to work on. We all need those.)

There are too many naysayers to stand in the way of what we do. A contest judge doesn’t need to be another one. After all, the score reflects the judge’s overall opinion of the entry, but their comments should give constructive criticism on what works and what doesn’t.

I’m also forgiving when it comes to things that seem trivial in comparison to a good story well told (MS format, fonts, H/H meeting on the first page). Good storytelling is a gift. I put as much care into an entrant’s work as I would my own. I usually read the entry more than once and I read it through BEFORE I pick up the pen.

Contests are for fundraising but I would like to see judges’ training that actually reflected an element of nurturing the newer writer. I’m not sure if this can be done, but maybe it all starts with ‘PAYING IT FORWARD’—one judge caring enough to return the favor of a good deed.

3. As a first time RWA Golden Heart finalist in 2005, what did you learn from that experience that you hadn’t expected?

I entered the GH for the first time last year and was named a finalist. I was totally unprepared for such good fortune—wide-eyed and sitting on the center lane, staring down the headlights of an eighteen-wheeler. But Tina Novinski took me under her wing and helped me through the initial shock phase—my fellow chapter mate and voice of reason. (I know she is grinning at this comment.) Tina gave me some sage advice and was a great sounding board for some of my off-the-wall questions. Her advice was dead on, and as a result, I didn’t waste my time spinning my wheels on useless stuff—like arranging for a ticker tape parade in my home town or calling Oprah to see if she’d be interested in interviewing me. (grin) Don’t laugh, I had Oprah on speed dial.

Before Reno, I joined the GH email loop and met the rest of the Wild Cards (the name we’ve coined for ourselves). They also helped me through the initial ropes. Our loop is still very active and I feel plugged in to everyone’s success.

What did I learn?

  • Well, you know what they say—you never forget your first. (grin) I didn’t know I would shed a tear when the call came from the national office. I was at work and it made me shake, I was so excited. Who knew I could be such a ‘girl’? Great news, but I had no idea what it meant. I soon learned.
  • Having a website helped. I had just set one up the week prior to the GH announcements. (No, I wasn’t that confident. It was more a matter of good timing and dumb luck.)
  • It takes time to set up for the GH. Publicity photos, business cards, announcements and proposals to agents. This all takes time—a real distraction from reality. And it is a real drain from your normal pattern of writing everyday. It completely threw me. Tina was again the voice of reason. Both of us eventually hunkered down and kept focused on our writing while we waited for all the hoopla of nationals.
  • Feeding the repressed Goddess in me—Once you are a GH finalist, they can never take that away. How cool is that? And GH finalists will always get some preferential treatment for booking appointments with editors/agents at nationals.
  • I get better rejection letters now. Only a writer knows this can be construed as a good thing. As a finalist, you’ll see more attention from agents & editors. And that’s definitely a good thing.
  • Seriously—What they might not tell you is, prior to nationals, the GH ride is a bittersweet roller coaster with amazing highs and devastating lows. You expect more of yourself and a new level of anxiety comes with that expectation. Now, after the 2005 GH is behind me, I know being a GH finalist is a great thing. But it is only another step in the journey we are all facing…and there are many ways to achieve your goals. Keep the faith, baby!

Parting words…
What we do is follow our dreams. Many people live their lives not even knowing what that means. But by pursuing this strange path, we are proving to ourselves that passion counts. My loving husband has told me how much he marvels at my unwavering dedication over the last three years and he has changed his lifestyle to support my efforts. He’s the cornerstone I use to build upon my heroes, each one. And for you parents out there—you are a living example to your kids that personal satisfaction comes from within. And that’s a beautiful lesson.

I wish each of you good fortune in your writing journey.

© Jordan Dane, 2006