Friday, April 19, 2013

A Surprise Benefit From Contest Judging

Actually, the title of this post is an understatement. I was more than surprised. So let me explain. In 2007, Saga Books print published my first novel, Coinage of Commitment. The book sold well, considering that Saga is a small independent, and I had to self-power all the promo. When it finaled in the National Indie Excellence 2008 Book Awards, I naively assumed the distinction would help me get my second title, Pocket Piece Cameo, published by a major. It didn’t, and the book was eventually published by Saga in November of 2008. My experience with Cameo was disheartening and, since I was blocked on plotting a third novel, I decided to quit fiction writing.

But I hated the thought of letting all those writing skills atrophy. Looking around at volunteer opportunities, I thought maybe contest judging might be a way to preserve my skills, at least partially. Plus I’d be learning a new skill; plus I’d be giving back to the writing community I’d been a part of since 2005.

I took a course given by the Iowa RWA, and gave judging a try. It turned out to be a good fit. The RWA chapter contests were always eager for trained judges—especially those who were authors—and I enjoyed the work. Well, this is one of those endeavors where responding well earns you requests for more work. By the end of 2011, I had judged more than twenty contests that year. I did a tally, and figured I had spent something in the range of 800-1000 hours judging that year. In case you’re wondering, that’s nearly equivalent to a twenty hour a week job.

I planned to continue judging at a high pace, but then something profound happened in the spring of 2012. I came to the surprise realization that my writing skills were actually higher than they were in 2008. Unexpected, to be sure, and hard to believe, at first, but the verification was in the level of judging I was doing and documenting. Well, this revelation collided head-on with a special quality inherent to Coinage of Commitment. Because from a writer's standpoint, Coinage is a perfect storm of a story, with so many of the character and plot elements harmonizing to form a kind of narrative synergy. One that's rare. Now, perhaps there are writers gifted enough to consistently produce such stories by their own creative flux, but I am not one of them. I’ve written three novels—not all that many—but enough to teach me that Coinage's magic is one of the profoundest gifts I've ever stumbled upon--although I will take credit for the surprise ending. So when I turned around and realized my writing had reached a new...maturity, I knew almost immediately I would rewrite Coinage. Cameo too, but it was never the driver. If I'd been given the wherewithal to take a book that was already a perfect storm of a story, one that finaled in a national contest, and rewrite it into something substantially better, then the effort was mandatory.

But of course the effort turned out to be more than I bargained for. It took seven months of full-time work to rewrite both books to the limit of my new skills. The digital editions were professionally formatted, and they went up on Amazon in January of this year.

 The bottom line message is that if you’re looking to improve your writing, contest judging may be worth considering.

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