With the first leg of the Triple Crown only a few weekends away, this is a good time to be reminded that no matter how superb the bloodlines, a Thoroughbred isn't born and three days later put on the track to compete in the Kentucky Derby. Not only that, but it's three years before a potential winner joins his peers for a chance at that legendary winner's circle.
I've loved reading and writing for as long as I can remember. I’ve always been told "you're a good writer." But that's not enough to qualify me for a shot at the publication Derby. Just as a naturally fast Thoroughbred has to learn how to run to win, many writers (like me!) must learn how to be a good storyteller. Learn how to best utilize all the facets of the writing craft to produce an entertaining, satisfying read.
Race horses are taken through a progressively difficult, step-by-step training process in their introduction to the Sport of Kings. At the beginning, they are taught simply to lead, to respond to a bit in their mouth, to carry weight on their back. Eventually they're led onto the turf, and their jockey and trainer school them in the basics of how to run. Then they are introduced to competition. Short trial runs first, then come the distances.
It's in the contest world where the manuscript you've slaved over for months--or years--can get a "cold run" with the other "colts." You get a feel for how what you write is perceived by others. Find out where your work fits in with the competition. Discover what areas require additional preparation. You learn what kind of stuff your manuscript is made of.
Does it balk in the opening scene? Is it fast in the first quarter mile, but fades in the backstretch? Does it get the bit in its teeth and waste energy running off on tangents? Does it have good action? Pace itself wisely? Does it have the stamina to take it to the wire? And how do those "in the know" rate it against the competition? Does it have heart?
The answers to these questions can help you further "condition" and "train" that manuscript--and develop you as a writer.
In one of the first contests I entered, I was told my heroine was "annoyingly cloying," I had an "overwritten, stilted style," and the dialogue was "wooden." OUCH! But, after the initial shock, discouragement (and humiliation) I embraced the suggestions and continued to grow as a writer.
Over the course of several years, the scores and comments on my manuscripts improved. My annoyingly cloying heroines are now "gutsy, funny, and very real." The overwritten, stilted style is deemed "smooth and easy-to read" and my once-wooden dialogue is "snappy and enjoyable."
Entering contests, for me, has been a worthwhile effort. The deadlines are great discipline. I've found the overwhelming majority of judges are encouraging and helpful; they're not out to crush my dreams or bump the competition off the track. When I’m published, I'll have a lot of judges to thank. They've been "trainers" in my own personal Run for the Roses.
So as you watch this upcoming Kentucky Derby, remember this: Only ONE horse is going to win the competition. Will the winner go on to capture the Triple Crown? Maybe. Statistically speaking, not likely. Will the Derby winner be the absolute best horse in the field? The fastest horse? Again, maybe. Maybe not. The track will be overcrowded. Lots of bumping. Fast horses that can go the distance may get boxed in by the less fleet.
So if you don't win that contest, if the scores seem unfairly low, or if the comments break your heart, remember the REAL race to publication isn't over with one competition. Or a dozen. There can be more than one winner. If you wisely use the feedback from a contest judge, you're already a step ahead of other contenders who refuse to listen or learn. Unlike the one-shot Derby, you can “retrain” that manuscript and run it again. Or bring a fresh, new "colt" onto the track.
So get your "race horse" out there and run for the roses! As writer Walter Farley's fictional trainer said to Alec Ramsey before the Black Stallion's first match race: "I can't tell you to hold him back, because you won't be able to. Stay on him and ride like you never have before!"
I'll be away from Seekerville today--but please stop off in our comments area and share with us the piece of contest advice that HURT, but took your writing to the next level. I know my fellow Seekers will be along shortly to make you feel right at home!