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On Perfectionism, People-Pleasing, and Writing Contests

One of my favorite blogs for writers is Kristen Lamb’s. It never fails to entertain and enlighten. Her post today was timely. She wrote of how writers cannot please everyone, and how the perfectionists among us fall prey to that old ‘people-pleasing’ habit that destroys our passion and our art—a reminder I needed since I recently entered the world of writing contests. She said:

“I’ve seen this happen time and time again… [Writers] rework and rework…trying to make it ‘perfect’—which is actually code for ‘making everyone happy.’ Here is the thing. Not gonna happen. Ever. One person will say our book is too wordy. Another wants more description. We add more description and then another person is slashing through, slaughtering every adjective and metaphor.”

Go read the entire post, my writer friends. You’ll feel better for having done so.

When I decided to join the Romance Writers of America® late last year, I did so unsure that I’d actually written a romance, but quite certain my stories included a ‘strong romantic element.’ The amazing array of resources the association offers their membership is impressive. It was only later I learned about the world of contests. Not all contests are created equal, but almost all offer feedback in the form of extensive score sheets from judges. The preliminary round judges are volunteers, members ranging from readers to published writers. Most chapters train their judges on how to review and score the entries, and the final judges are publishing industry professionals giving the finalists a chance to get their work before editors and agents.

Despite having put my first manuscript through a rather rigorous three-month-long, invitation-only revision workshop, and having many beta readers, both writers and readers, friends and strangers, I decided I might benefit from the impartial feedback of these contest judges. I entered my manuscript in a few, then a few more, also entering my sequel to see if it stands alone. Over the last two months, I began receiving my results. It has been, and continues to be, an educational and eye-opening experience—not for the faint of heart—but I’m confident no different from the range of response I would get from rank and file readers. I can say without hesitation, the process is well worth the time and expense if you can enter the contests with an open mind and a thick skin.

Which brings me back to Kristen Lamb’s comments—before you enter these contests, it’s important that you are confident in your story and your craft, enough to recognize and utilize worthwhile criticism and resist the urge to please everyone. My score sheets have ranged from perfect scores and high praise to embarrassingly low scores and scathing remarks. One judge wanted to “start a fire” with it and another proclaimed the heroine was an unlikable “uppity bitch.” But for every comment that kicked me in the teeth and made me shake my head, there were plenty that made me want to kiss the judge, especially the ones expressing a desire to see my manuscript in book form so they could buy it and read the full story. However, the most beneficial comment that I kept seeing over and over, on low and high scores alike, whether they liked the characters or not—they were intrigued and wanted to keep reading. THAT is what I want, and that alone told me I needed to trust my gut. That’s not to say I didn’t take a lot of great criticism and put it to use. I did and still do if I believe it improves the manuscript…and if it pleases ME.

I am happy to say the manuscript was chosen a finalist in two contests, WRWDC’s Marlene Awards and  Chicago-North RWA® Fire and Ice Contest, and went on to win and receive full requests from the final judge in each. Fingers crossed it pleases them, too.


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