Archive for February, 2009

Writing contests: some pointers, perils and peeves

Herewith an item I wrote for a professional association about my recent experience as a judge in a writing contest. All views entirely subjective and idiosyncratic.

The weary evaluator looked at the pile of writing samples, then the digital egg timer, then the unopened Shiraz on the counter. Would it be wrong to drink while judging a writing contest?

old-typewriterMaybe. But he needed something to brace himself for another submission that began like all the others. They invariably described their subject in some small situation, threw in a few details – like ‘Shiraz,’ or ‘digital egg timer’ – then pulled back to announce the subject and significance of the piece: This is an article about judging a writing contest. It includes pointers for anyone thinking of entering one, which could help you some day.

OK – so I exaggerate.

Truth is, my recent experience judging an awards competition held by a large North American professional organization was at times humbling, at times exasperating, but never, never dull. I and two others had the privilege of assessing magazine features, news releases and specialized writing from a variety of publications. It got me thinking about what worked and what didn’t, what resulted in automatic disqualification and what automatically got a second look. Here are my pointers and pet peeves.

Distinguish yourself.

Rest assured that most of the entries in a writing contest are going to be solidly written and researched pieces about interesting subjects. Consider it the minimum threshold. But there’s a difference between good and award-winning. To get to the winner’s circle, you’ll need to stand out. Look for a fresh approach – if you didn’t surprise yourself a little bit when you wrote it, you’re not going to surprise the reader when she reads it. And kidding aside, there really is a certain safe similarity in much that gets submitted. Surprise us.

But don’t distinguish yourself in a bad way.

It’s a sad fact that with so many good entries, judges are looking for a reason to reject yours. Sure, your editor may have been asleep at the switch, but if you misuse a word, misspell it, make grammar mistakes or include errors of fact, we’re hitting the buzzer. For example, Machiavelli might approve of the term “complicated machinations,” but it isn’t the right way to describe the intricate workings of a mechanical device. “Impassable” doesn’t mean the same as “impassible.” “Who” and “whom” are not interchangeable.

And don’t waste my time.

You’re going to have to grab me by the lapels right from the git-go. The best entries pulled me 10 paragraphs in before I remembered I was reading. And make sure it is plainly obvious what the significance of your story is. There is nothing more frustrating than being tantalized by a strong opening, then reaching the end of a lengthy feature and having to ask, “So what?”

Writers try readers’ patience in smaller ways, too. You know that puffy quote from the VP that reads like a PR winkie wrote it? Cut it, or at least write it so that a breathing human being might actually have spoken it. There may be some in your audience who will understand your specialized jargon, but don’t assume so.

When it comes to length, aim for the Goldilocks standard.

Just right. Have you got enough story for the length? Have you got enough length for the story? In other words, news releases shouldn’t be three pages. If you’ve cured cancer, you may want to  consider sending two pages, but most of the time you should be able to say what needs saying in one. Beware of repetition. And don’t leave out the important bits, either. If your piece raises more questions than it answers, it’s incomplete.

Other peeves:

If you’re writing an obituary, and you lapse into “he was born” way up in the third paragraph, it will seem like the deceased didn’t do much of significance.

Sometimes that clever, winking lead will work, but sometimes you’ll wind up wearing it. If there’s a chance someone can construe something, someone will.

Don’t bother describing what the subject is wearing, what colour their eyes are or the state of their office unless those details really do indicate something unusual, or reveal something important about character. Is your interviewee standing there with a hand in her pocket? Sorry. Don’t care.

For longer magazine pieces, you need a frame, an arc, or some other structural engine that will bear the weight of the length. It’s not enough simply to connect one paragraph full of facts after another and expect to pull the reader through. We want story.

Don’t bother trying to dazzle me with your writing. Aim for clarity, detail and engagement. Be careful about inserting yourself into the story. If you’ve got a blockbuster of a subject, the best strategy might just be to get out of the way.

Does your ending resonate? Recall the beginning? Make me feel satiated? Endings deserve figurative as well as literal closing punctuation.

There is an unspoken contract between me the reader and you the writer: in exchange for my time and attention, I’m expecting you are going to give me something of value. Maybe it’s information I haven’t heard about, a way of seeing the world I haven’t considered, or your own entertaining grasp of language. Fulfill your end of the bargain and you’ll earn a place in my memory – and if I’m a judge in a writing contest, that’s the only place to be.

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I know it was free, but do I have to like it?

The nice people at Anansi Press give away free books on Facebook every now and then in exchange for 200-word reviews of said book. I cashed in recently and they sent me a new novel called Valmiki’s Daughter. Despite wanting to like it, well, we never really hit it off. I sent back this tepid review a few weeks ago, which I don’t think will ever see the light of day on their site, so here it is on mine – in all its lukewarm splendour.

I opened Valmiki’s Daughter by Shani Mootoo fearing it just wasn’t going to be my cup of chai. And despite the often evocative writing, the intriguing setting in sun-splashed Trinidad, the multifaceted themes of identity – and despite my own best efforts – I never really embraced the experience.

n20137676200_1387My outsider status is partly due to my lack of interest in gay-lesbian themes. But I must also confess an aversion to novels featuring a self-absorbed cast of characters who are, with few exceptions, pretty unlikeable – especially the men. (Satire excepted, of course, but Valmiki’s Daughter is earnest to the hilt.)

There is such a fog of sadness that clings to this novel. Viveka, the title character, is a young woman who discovers she loves other women – one in particular. Her father has lived a lie with his own homosexual longings, but does that mean she must also?

For a moment it appears Viveka will break free from the restrictive disapprovals of family and Indo-Trinidadian society: “She had no map of her future, but she knew who she was. She would not be diminished because of it.” And…

“In exchange for honesty, integrity, a lifetime of service, she prayed that she and all people like her be granted the freedom, so long as it did not hurt anyone, to love whomever they chose, to love well and have that love returned without judgment.”

Amen to that – even without the bargaining preamble. The hopeless ending, no matter how realistic it may be for those living a closeted existence, comes as such a disappointment. How sad.

At times Valmiki’s Daughter has an unfocused, second draft feel to it. Why does one of the principal characters – the captivating French woman Anick – only show up halfway through the book? And am I imagining this, or does the novel at times want to be more about Anick than Viveka?

Other quibbles: I’m not sure the showy second-person travelogue interspersed throughout always carries its weight, especially in the lengthy opening passage. And although I was initially impressed that the text was free of so many of the silly spell-check editing errors that creep in these days, there it was on the beach on page 380, “a slow parade of people in bathing suites.”

Nevertheless, there is clearly talent on display here. And I will freely admit that I am the wrong sort of reader for this novel. For the right sort of reader, I’m sure Valmiki’s Daughter will be more than a satisfying experience.