I lost my own writing contest. Again.
Let me explain: A few months ago, I created a fake identity and entered a writing contest hosted by The Write Practice. In other words, it was my writing contest.
I wasn’t involved with the judging—although I’ve judged over 15 contests—but I personally hired the head judge and knew most of the associate judges.
And even though the judges had no knowledge that I was participating, you would think that it would have given me a leg up in the writing contest, right? I knew what the judges were looking for, after all.
I didn’t win though. I didn’t even make the shortlist. And last month, when I submitted my story for the Spring Writing Contest, I didn’t win it either (we just announced the writing contest’s winners here).
In this post, I want to share what I learned from losing my second writing contest in a row, and at the end I’ll share what I plan to do differently in the next contest.
My Writing Contest Mindset
When I first got serious about writing, I avoided writing contests like this.
That’s because I had a belief that you were either born a great writer or not. Sure you could get a little better through practice, but in the end, your success all came down to your genes.
And I was terrified of being revealed as a fraud, that I didn’t have what it takes to be a writer.
I wish I could go back and tell my younger self how much time I was wasting. Now I know that talent plays only a limited part in being a good writer.
What matters is how much and how well you practice.
And writing contests like this are the best way to practice your writing.
But to practice well, to grow the fastest, you have to have a plan. So for this contest, I made a plan to push myself out of my writing comfort zone.
How I Approached This Writing Contest
In this contest, I wanted to practice writing in a genre I’ve never written before: the thriller genre.
I also was able to attend Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid workshop in New York shortly before the contest started, and I wanted to try to craft the story through the Story Grid system.
My Genre: Thriller
So I started by researching the genre. Here’s what I learned from Shawn Coyne’s The Story Grid:
- Thriller is a combination of the action and horror external content genres
- The story builds to one core event, the hero at the mercy of the villain, when the situation appears like the villain will defeat the hero but the hero somehow gains the upper hand
- There are four obligatory scenes (although in a short story, these will be moments rather than full scenes): the inciting crime, a speech in praise of the villain, the hero at the mercy of the villain (mentioned above), and two endings (false and real)
- There are also nine storytelling conventions:
- There must be a crime
- The crime must occur early in the story
- The crime must reveal a clue about the villain’s MacGuffin
- The villain is a human monster
- The villain must “make it personal” with regard to the protagonist
- There must be clues and red herrings
- The life/death value must be pushed to the limit
- There must be a false ending
- There should be a clock, a time limitation
If you want to learn more about the thriller genre, I recommend getting a copy of The Story Grid.
Now that I knew my genre, I looked over my list of story ideas that I’ve collected, searching for an idea that would be a good fit for the thriller genre.
There was one idea that immediately stuck out: a story about a female priest who takes on the role of a detective when one of her parishioners is murdered.
After settling on my idea, I focused on outlining my story using the Story Grid’s five storytelling “commandments.” Here’s what I came up with for my first draft:
- Inciting incident: After one of her parishioners is murdered, Alexis, a young pastor, discovers where the murderer lives and confronts him.
- Progressive complication: After work at her office later that night, she is carjacked by the murderer.
- Crisis: Best bad choice: Will she crash the car and risk dying on the chance she can escape? Or should she keep driving and risk him killing her when they get to their location?
- Climax: She crashes the car crashes and she escapes, but then realizes he is dying. She forgives him as he dies.
- Resolution: Alexis wakes in the hospital to find out the murderer actually escaped, and everything after the crash was a dream.
In writing my outline, I tried to incorporate as much as I could from the thriller genre, including the core event, obligatory scenes, and conventions. Of course, for such a short story, it was difficult to include everything.
I focused especially on the hero at the mercy of the villain scene, which is the defining event in a thriller. In my story, it would be when the murderer kidnaps her.
My Writing Process
Writing the outline took about four hours over two days. After thinking through the story’s structure, the writing process should have been easy.
The problem is I have a bad habit of making everything extremely complicated. As I wrote my story, I somehow managed to pack in Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of the “Beloved Community,” a socioeconomic look into gentrification, a broad overview of the roads in southwest Atlanta, and the last rites from the Book of Common Prayer.
All packed into a 2,000-word story. Whoops.
After a week of writing and rewriting, I had a finished draft I was ready to submit to the contest workshop.
At this point, I felt reasonably happy with my story, but I knew it needed a lot more work. First of all, it was 400 words too long. Worse, it didn’t flow as well as I wanted, and I was concerned the false ending wasn’t clear enough. But I had followed the main structure of the Story Grid and there were a few moments in the story that were really exciting.
What I Learned from Feedback
After I submitted my story to the contest workshop, it took about twenty-four hours to start getting feedback. I always get stressed when I don’t hear right back from people, thinking that nobody liked my story.
But when the feedback came in, it was mostly positive. People liked the fast pace and the unique character. However, as I was worried about, most found the false ending confusing.
In writing contests, a good ending is everything. I knew that I needed to clear up the ending if I wanted to have a chance at winning.
How I Rewrote My Story
On my second draft, I focused on clarity, not on word count. In fact, even though I was already over the limit, by the end of my second draft I was even more over, up to 2,800 words.
I focused especially on clearing up the ending. The story had two endings, a false ending, in which the murderer dies as the main character forgives him, and the true ending, in which the main character wakes up in the hospital to find the murderer has escaped. I tried every “show, don’t tell” trick I knew apart from telling the audience, “It was a dream,” to make it clear what actually happened.
However, readers continued to tell me it was confusing. As the final deadline approached, I managed to trim my 800 words, but I knew the ending was still not quite right. I didn’t have any time left, though, and so I submitted the story.
One of the exciting things about our writing contests is that every story can be published if the author chooses. Publication isn’t limited to just the winners. And that means you can read my story right here on Short Fiction Break.
What the Judges Said
I always opt-in for feedback when I participate in writing contests. The feedback you get from judges is so helpful to figure out what worked in your story and what didn’t.
While some of the feedback the judges gave me wasn’t helpful—like overuse of adverbs (I wrote the post on avoiding adverbs, and I don’t think using “only” a few times is overusing adverbs) or use of passive voice (there are many situations when passive voice is okay)—much of the feedback confirmed what I already knew.
“I’ll admit, there were parts of this story which left me confused,” said one judge. “It was the ending which really threw me…. Overall, there is a lot of room throughout the story for simplification and clarification.”
It was helpful to get that feedback from the judges. I just wish I had figured out how to do that by the submission deadline.
What I Will Do Differently in the Next Contest
I learned so much from this writing contest. I learned the basics of the thriller genre and how to structure a story using the Story Grid. I also learned that I try to pack way too much into a short story, and that’s what I’ll be working on for the Summer Writing Contest.
To be specific, I would have likely focused just on the car jacking scene, the “hero at the mercy of the villain” scene. I might have included a short flashback or two to give context, but the story would have centered on that one scene.
Was it worth it to participate in this writing contest?
Absolutely. In fact, I plan to participate in every writing contest we host at The Write Practice for the next year at least.
For me, writing contests are not about the prizes (especially since I’m ineligible to win them).
Writing contests are not about getting published (although that’s a nice bonus).
No, writing contests are practice, a chance to try new things, and a chance to grow as a writer. And no matter how good I get as a writer, I never want to take it for granted that I “have arrived” or that I’m some kind of expert. I always want to be focused on growing.
Sign Up for the Summer Writing Contest
Registration for our Summer Writing Contest closes on Monday, and it’s going to be one of our best contests yet! Not only do we have over $1,000 in prizes, including 100 SIGNED copies of Jeff Goins’s new book, Real Artists Don’t Starve, you also have a chance to get feedback from a traditional publisher, which I think is extremely cool.
These writing contests are like a mini writing course, and we believe they’re one of the best ways to grow as a writer (that’s why I keep participating in them under made-up names).
Plus, EVERY writer who enters will have the option of publishing their story with our partner literary magazine, Short Fiction Break. That means even if you don’t win the main prize, this contest will still be well worth your time. You’ll grow as a writer and have a published story to show for your hard work at the end.
Keep in mind that registration closes on Monday, so don’t wait.
And who knows. Maybe you can figure out which pen name I’m competing under!
Did you participate in our last writing contest? What did you learn? What will you do differently as you write your next story? Let us know in the comments section.
Start writing your entry to the Summer Writing Contest using the contest prompt options:
- What happens when Jeanette Tanner finds out that her father, a New York City police officer, is a vampire?
- What if a pack of werewolves takes over the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles?
- You see an otherworldly creature on the way to work. No one else can see it. What do you do?
- Tell us about a secret government facility tasked with cloning every dead American president.
- What will the American government do when it finds out that the Chinese Premier can read minds?
- What happens when Admiral Peter Kane’s fleet of starships gets ambushed by the Russian Federation?
- What will NCIS Special Agent John Rathbone do when he’s forced to retire because of a botched investigation?
- A washed-up Medal of Honor recipient walks into a bar. What’s happens next?
- What if a CIA-sanctioned assassination of a foreign president goes awry?
Hope to see you in the contest, and happy writing!