This is one of my favorite seasons, and can also be one of the more frustrating.
I volunteer as a fiction judge for several writer organizations, and each year I revel in the excitement of receiving those batches of fiction in my inbox. The excitement lasts until I begin the time-consuming task of reading through those manuscripts, making notes, and scoring the enclosed sheets, knowing that with each stroke of a key on my computer keyboard, I could be crushing the dreams of a less initiated writer. At the same time, I could be reading the next bestselling novel and not know it. And there are those that qualify as bestselling writers.
There is often a large disparity between the various writing talents of the entrants of these competitions. I try to remain objective while reading the twenty-some pages of each hopeful candidate. And even though the prizes offered for the individual competitions are not typically large, the validation of having your writing earn a place among many other entries is deeply satisfying, and gaining recognition, however modest, can be wonderful.
Remembering my own first forays into the competitive writing industry, I approach each manuscript with both trepidation and eagerness. Sometimes, the entries are too obviously rushed and appear in a shoddy state. Egregious grammatical errors, misuse of punctuation, storylines that make no sense or are seemingly borrowed from a recent motion picture release. (indeed, one year recently, I encountered a manuscript that did exactly that, and being a film buff, I recognized the film that had been plagiarized and not too skillfully reworked into a piece of fiction. Needless to say, I didn’t pull any punches in scoring that particular piece.)
If a writer has obviously labored over their entry and paid attention to details, it’s a joy to read; even if the story isn’t all that original, it’s easier to provide them with positivity and encouragement, seeing their Herculean efforts on the page. And as judge and invisible mentor, I do strive to keep positive, offering helpful suggestions rather than a strong or even mild tearing down (even when warranted). Sometimes it’s a struggle to come up with one positive thing to say, and those are the frustrating moments mentioned earlier.
I wonder, in those moments of frustration, what the circumstances were that would cause that unknown writer to submit a piece that’s riddled with grammatical errors, punctuational errors, and other things that seem like common sense things every writer would/should/could know in this era of informational overload.
But perhaps not.
So, stepping into the role of teacher, I offer what wisdom I possess. All of these competitions are based on “blind judging,” so it’s rare I would ever meet one of the contestants. However, if a particular piece is simply outstanding and I happen to be attending the writing conference from which that entry originated, I will introduce myself to the writer and thank them for entering, and congratulate them on their writing prowess. There’s never any jealousy on my part, for I know that there is room on earth for every single writer ever born. Some of these contestants I have remained friendly with over the years, which is inspiring to me, a guy who now considers himself a veteran among the as-yet unpublished writers.
Judging these competitions inspires me and makes me appreciate where I came from in my own writing career. And most times I want to reach out to some of those manuscript authors who made the worst of the errors, and guide them to seeing their way to a better path. I also know that that’s a bit presumptuous. Every one of us travels our own paths to reach our individual destinations in life, writers included. So instead I like to imagine that I’m their invisible Mr. Miyagi. And I reap the priceless reward of being able to grow along with each and every one of them.