Monday, February 29, 2016

A message to all of the competitors

Dear creative minds and writer-types . . . today is the last day before we announce the winners of the Five Magic Spindles creative writing contest! I know, you thought it would never come, but here it is!

Today I want to take a bit of time to let you know first how the announcement will go down tomorrow. Then I have a word (or several!) of encouragement to those of you who will not be named as winners in the morning. Because you're important to me too, I promise!

So first, here's the scoop:

Unlike previous years, the announcement will NOT be going up at crack of dawn. So please don't bother to set your alarm for 4 in the morning or whatever craziness! The winners will be posted before 9am Eastern, but other than that, I cannot tell you an absolute specific time. I would recommend waiting until 9am Eastern to check, just so you don't drive yourself crazy!

You can check here on my blog page, but I will not be posting the winners here--only a link to the website. This is different from previous years when most of the fun has centered on this blog. But the contest is growing in reach and prestige with every passing year, so we are more and more turning things over to the website for a more "official" appearance.

That being said . . . I don't want to miss the sense of encouragement and community we have enjoyed for the last two contests! So while the winners won't be announced here, I WILL invite all of you to return to my blog to leave comments and congratulations! Everyone who comes back to this page and leaves a comment celebrating this exciting day will be entered in a drawing to win an Advanced Reader Copy of Five Magic Spindles later in the summer. So don't just vanish to the website page and never return . . . come back and participate. Celebrate with the winners. Offer encouragement to those who did not win this year, because hey! They successfully submitted stories, and that's an achievement in and of itself. Let's maintain all of that fun and camaraderie, even as the years grow us toward bigger and grander things.

So there you have it--come around 9. Check the website, not my blog for your answers. But come back to my blog to participate in the celebration and community!

A couple of other things:

1. This year we are also revealing the Top Ten Finalists. We haven't done this before, but this year was such particularly stiff competition, I feel these Top Ten authors deserve a little extra recognition. You'll see a button on the winning announcement page to take you to that list if you want to see it. There will only be FIVE names listed, of course, which might look odd--but remember, the other five are the winners!

2. THREE of our judges wrote out judging feedback forms for all of the stories they read. So many of you are going to get feedback on your work. However, not all of the judges did this (it was not a requirement, but a generous extra that some of them volunteered to offer), so you may not be one of the authors to get feedback. This is not a slight on you or your work . . . the stories are given out at random. Also, some of the judges wrote out VERY detailed feedback, while some offered just a line or two. I cannot guarantee which kind you will get. But I will be sending those feedback forms to the appropriate authors both tomorrow and the day after (there are a LOT of them, so if you don't get one right away, it might be just taking me a while to get there!). If you do not get one by Thursday, assume that your story was not with one of the judges who offered this perk.

3. There were twenty-five finalists from whom the Top Ten were chosen. If you do not see your name in the Top Ten list, this does not mean you weren't a finalist! And with ALL of the stories we had submitted this year, just being a finalist was a huge accomplishment. Seriously, the competition was fierce!

Okay, I think that's all the business-related stuff I needed to cover . . .

Now, I want to talk to those of you who did not win (even though you don't know who you are yet). Because the truth is, there are only five winners's slots. Most of you will not see your names on that list tomorrow. Which will be sad. Disappointing. I know there may be tears. I've been there myself, so believe me when I say I know!

But I want you to remember something:

If you did not win, this does not mean that YOU are a bad writer or that YOUR story is a bad story. That is always a false assumption to make. Contests like this are subjective. Creativity is subjective. And, in a collection, it's all about finding the right blend of five stories to go together.

That being said . . . you need to keep something else in mind as well (and I don't usually say this half of the equation, but it's equally true and equally important for aspiring novelists to understand):

Your story is not perfect.

Yes, I just said it. And it's not something we like to hear, but it's true. If your story did not win, it wasn't just because it wasn't the right fit for the contest. It's also because your story is flawed.

Now, keep in mind--all of the winners wrote flawed stories as well. Just ask the winners of the previous years! They'll tell you what kind of edits and revisions they had to do to get their stories into publishable shape! It's not easy being a winner. It's not easy signing a contract with a traditional publishing house and then having to deal with all the editorial comments and demands. It's not easy being turned down by yet another agent or yet another editor.

We ALL write flawed stories. I do. You do. The winners of this contest do.

So don't walk away from your loss saying, "Well, I wrote EXACTLY what I was supposed to, and I wouldn't change a thing even if it meant the difference between winning and losing." That's the wrong attitude entirely.

Don't walk away from your loss saying, "Well, I'll just go out and self-publish it and not bother to get a professional edit or have a stranger's eyes go over it." That's the wrong attitude entirely.

Don't walk away from your loss saying, "I'll just submit it as-is to other houses and one of them will appreciate me." That's the wrong attitude entirely.

Instead, say, "Okay, I didn't win. My work isn't perfect. What can I do to make it better?"

Because even the winners are going to face that same question: "What can I do to make it better?"

The big difference is, of course, the winners are going to have a crack editing team to work with over the next few months, while you don't have that luxury. Which is a shame, because honestly, for all it's fun to see your work in print, for all it's a thrill to get it out there to readers, to get those reviews and the acclaim . . . in my opinion, that opportunity for fantastic editing is THE BIG PRIZE of this contest.

So, because not all of you are going to have that advantage, I have decided to give you something--I am going to offer you a detailed critique of your work, here in this blog post. This is a critique based on an accumulation of problems I observed in the twenty-five finalist stories I read. And these are tough, I'll warn you of that right now. And if you don't want to read them, I totally understand.


But if you do want to take advantage of this offer, read on . . .


Here is the second half of my message for you. Please try not to take this as a personal attack. This is not aimed at any ONE writer or any ONE story. Every point that I am bringing up is something I saw reiterated across several stories. I am not here to deal with specifics, only with generalizations.

And let me be honest—some of the winners this year also feature several of these problems in their winning stories, which they will be asked to edit and refine. Because at least 70% of good writing is rewriting. That’s just reality, for all of us.

Now here’s the list:

1.      Passive Heroines. I saw this over and over again. Much of this, I’m sure, is due to a misreading of the original fairy tale. People read that story and think, “Oh, the heroine just sleeps, so she’s passive,” and as a result, they construct passive heroines for their own tales. But this is an inaccurate interpretation of the original . . . and even if it was accurate, it’s a REALLY bad idea for your retelling.

By passive heroines, I mean heroines who have no agency in their own stories. They are pushed around by other people’s actions and decisions. They don’t actively decide to do or try anything for themselves. They might randomly act, but those actions are not firmly founded in decision-making. This makes for weak and unappealing reading.

2.      Characters without Motivation. This goes hand-in-hand with those passive heroines, but it’s actually a different problem. MOST of you understand and effectively give your characters large-scale, story-wide motivations—an ultimate goal toward which to strive. That’s a pretty basic aspect of storytelling, and while some struggle with the concept, the competitors in this contest are usually more advanced and understand the importance of motivation. So what am I talking about here?

I’m talking about small-scale motivation. Individual actions and responses to circumstances. Characters who simply do and say things because the author needs them to do or say these things, not because the characters themselves have any actual motivation for doing or saying anything of the kind. A few instances of this are not a problem, but I saw whole stories made up of small-scale lack of motivation. The big-scale motives were in place, but the small-scale motives lacked authenticity.

To fix this problem, a simple trick is to simply ask yourself, “Is my character acting like a PERSON or like a CHARACTER?” Characters are too easy to turn into puppets, doing and saying things for our writerly convenience. People aren’t that easy and are much more difficult to write as a result, but MUCH more satisfying to read as well!

This is a problem I see a great deal of every single year of these contests. It’s a difficult one for writers to peg in their own work, and I’ve even selected winners who struggle with this (and who have had to revise significantly). It’s very common, so be on the look-out for it.

3.      One-dimensional reactions. In this instance I am referring to characters whose emotional reactions to circumstances and events are entirely limited to physical reactions. I have written about this before, but it’s an ongoing problem, stemming from a mishandling of the good advice: “Show, Don’t Tell.” If you ONLY show me emotional reactions—using physical responses to indicate surprise, fear, happiness, sadness, anxiety, etc.—you are limiting yourself. Crippling yourself, even. Your character becomes someone who is exactly like everyone else, because physical reactions are universal.

And I have seen more lip-biting heroines in these contests than I have EVER seen in real life.

4.      Too much summary. In tandem with #3, however, is the reason why the rule “Show, Don’t Tell” exists. Stories that depend on huge chunks of summary are not going to be winners. A little summary is fine—every novel has that, and it’s not a problem. But if I have to wade through long passages summarizing events and scenes and don’t get to READ those events and scenes for myself, I feel as though I’m being cheated out of the whole story.

Usually this problem stems from the writer simply having too much plot for the word limit. Which is entirely understandable! But it also means the story will not be a winner, because I do need stories that fit within the contest guidelines.

5.      Sexism.  I see this every year, and it frustrates and saddens me each time. Sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes it’s overt. Most of the time, I don’t think the writer sees it at all. But it’s a massive problem for me. I won’t go into details now, but might write a blog post on this topic later. EDIT: Due to some of the comments I'm seeing, I'll add a little more to this point--When I refer to sexism, I am talking about sexism toward women. I have yet to see a story submitted that portrays a sexist attitude toward men. And allow me to also mention that NONE of the men who have submitted for these contests have been sexist in their characterizations of women. I don't know if I'll write a post on the topic or not . . . it depends on time, and I don't have a lot of spare hours to my day to pursue this weighty topic. But I do encourage all of my writers to take second glances at their work and decide what sorts of female characters and attitudes toward female characters they are representing. The infantalizing of women is the most prominent sign of sexism that I have repeatedly observed. Sometimes its overt. Most of the time its subtle. It always leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

6.      Racism. EDIT--I'll add to this point as well. Most specifically I have observed stereotypical representations of other races. Stereotypes are never strong writing anyway--taking a stereotypical and disrespectful characterization of a specific race or culture and plunking it down in the middle of a fantasy setting is ugly. I HAVE seen excellent stories dealing with characters of other races and cultures . . . stories depicting CHARACTERS, not STEREOTYPES. But for every good one, I get a bad one thrown in as well. (Note: This issue does not crop up as often as sexism. Neither sexism nor racism crops up as often as all of the other points on this list. But they are both important issues and deserve a place on this list.)

7.       Forced religious message. I am ALL ABOUT a writer expressing what she or he believes . . . just so long as it naturally flows and fits into the story being told. Anything that’s shoe-horned in simply because the writer feels like she ought to say something is not going to be a fit. Anything faith-based needs to be a natural facet of the story being told.

8.      Convenience, coincidence, or contrivance. This is SUCH a difficult one for writers to pinpoint and deal with it, but it’s a tremendous problem. If your story depends on convenience, coincidence, or contrivance to move forward, you are going to lose me. All fiction has a little bit of all three of these  . . . that’s pretty much the nature of fiction. But if I see the whole stories depending on any of these three elements, they’re not going to be winners.

9.      Appropriate language. I’m not talking about cursing. I’m talking about writing in a language appropriate to your time period. If you’re writing a historical or even a fantasy with a historical-ish setting, you need to be certain that the language you use feels right to that time period. It doesn’t have to be perfect by any means! That’s impossible. But you need to create a sense of your chosen time. If you write a historical or historical-esque fantasy using modern lingo, you’re going to jar me so far out of the story, I won’t be able to enjoy plot or characters. It’s totally fine to rough-draft in a language that is comfortable for you. But second draft, you NEED to refine to something a bit more sophisticated and old world. And don’t have historical characters using slang or idioms inappropriate to their time!

10.   Lack of consequence or sacrifice. Too often I see climaxes and resolutions that just “happen” to turn out all right, without consequence or sacrifice for the characters. This is disappointing reading. Good fiction is all about the losses as well as the gains. Don’t go for easy answers. You don’t have to write tragedies to write climaxes and resolutions that actually mean something.

11.  Too Perfect. Heroes and heroines without human flaws are not relatable. And physical perfections do NOT endear a character to me, ever.

12.  Static secondary characters. I saw this most often with parental figures, but also with best friends, villains, and other secondaries. Writers would put some effort into developing strong heroes and heroines, but leave the other characters as stereotypes. This was always disappointing.

All of our winners this year wrote ENTIRE CASTS of dynamic characters, not just the heroes and heroines. If I can name any one consistent theme across the winning board this year, that would be it. Static characters will kill a story every time, whether they are primary, secondary, or tertiary.

Let me reiterate—if one or several of these is YOUR problem or writing struggle, don’t feel bad, and don’t feel as though “this was the reason I lost!” All of the winners have problems with their stories, some of them the same problems you see listed above. But all of them are going to work with my editing team and have the opportunity to turn their good work into professional work.

But those of you who didn’t win . . . well, I feel sad not to get to work with you, because so many of you are so talented! And so many of you will go on to self-publish or start submitting to publishing houses before you are ready. You might vaguely sense that something is missing from your work but not know what it is. Your friends and family will tell you you’re a genius, and that’s flattering . . . but not actually helpful.

We have to learn to be our own worst critics. Not in a self-battering way that leads to depression and giving up. But we must NEVER be satisfied with where we are when it comes to creative writing. This is why I tell people that my favorite quote is:

Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?” (Robert Browning)

Browning is not talking about materialistic grasping here. What he’s saying has to do with striving toward that unattainable goal of perfection. In creative writing, this means always seeking to be better, always struggling to be worthy of standing among the Greats, whether or not you actually make it.

The truth is—if you think you’ve made it, you’ve already lost. Because your reach is no longer exceeding your grasp.

So are these critiques discouraging to you? I am sorry for that—I only like to encourage. But what a shame it is for talented writers to continue struggling on in ignorance!

My hope is that all of you will see this list as an extra perk of the contest. I may not be able to give you specific guidance, but I hope that this generalized guidance may be of assistance, not only for your contest stories, but also for any stories you write from here on out.

Because that is my ultimate goal for these contests—to build up new talent, to encourage new voices, to push for better and better work from all of you, for all of your endeavors. Let this be a community of creativity always striving for excellence!

Will you be on the list of winners tomorrow? Maybe. Maybe not. If you are, congratulations! You worked so hard and deserve your win. If you are not, take heart! It’s not that you are somehow on a lesser level than those who won. Maybe your story needs more refinement than theirs before it’s ready to take that next step. But the winners’s stories need refinement too! We’re ALL growing and polishing, refining and developing. That is the writing life—that is its beauty and its agony.

And without agony, how can there be true beauty?


Sarah Pennington said...

Thank you, Anne Elisabeth, for these words of encouragement and advice. I'm sure I'll be revisiting them more than a few times- if not tomorrow, then another day when I submit something somewhere and don't succeed. And thank you as well for taking the time to do the critiques- thinking back, I know I have some of these problems in my story, and I certainly didn't realize it. I appreciate the warning so that when I go back to edit it again (whether for this or for something else), I know what to look for.

Hannah said...

Thank you for taking the time to write us this very insightful and deep encouragement and critique, Anne Elisabeth! Your heart for us all is so very appreciated. *hugs* :)

Also, that's very exciting to hear about the top ten...possibly even more nerve-wracking, haha.

Unknown said...

Love this! I did not even enter this year, but this post is universal to all aspiring authors. :) I am looking forward to hearing about all the great stories!

Unknown said...

Thank you for this, Anne Elisabeth. I want to give some eloquent response, but really all I can say is thank you again. This is something we all needed to hear.

Alex said...

Well said and needed! Thank you for the challenge, constructive criticism, and the encouragement!

Julia said...

Thank you so much for this post! I so much enjoyed the list of critiques - it has me thinking seriously about what I can do to make my writing better. And thanks for that little tidbit dynamic characters... it's very interesting that that was a unifying theme in this year's contest winners! I would be so, so curious to read a blog post of yours on sexism/racism. And wow, I'm so excited that the top ten winners are going to be announced this year!

Good luck tomorrow morning, everyone! <3

Becky said...

Anne Elisabeth, I love your mentor's heart! Thank you for taking the time to give such loving critique and encouragement to all the writers.

Unknown said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post! I needed this so badly. Thank you for taking time out of your day to build up all these aspiring writers!

Therru Ghibli said...

Thank you so much for this list Anne Elisabeth!! I know my writing needs help but I've gotten to the point that knowing somethings wrong and being able to tell what it is has gotten difficult. So thank you! And I greatly appreciate the judges who are willing to critique (even if it wasn't my story)! Also, thanks for the contest, it's been a blast and I can't wait to see the winners!!

Garnet said...

I enjoyed reading this. I come from a writing family and have done a little writing, but only very little because I feel rather intimidated by the success of the rest of my family. Even if I never get up the courage (and find the time) to enter one of your fairy tale contests I hope that I can benefit from this advice.

Skye Hoffert said...

I really needed this post today, thank you for taking time to write it and the critique was really helpful. :D

Kira Thomas said...

I didn't enter the contest this year, but I think this blog post would be helpful to every writer out there. Thank you! (And I can't wait to see the announcement of the winning stories tomorrow!)

Hannah said...

Thanks Anne Elisabeth! This post must have taken a lot of time, effort, and thoughtfulness. I especially enjoyed reading the critique section. Very helpful! I look forward to seeing who the winners are!

Savannah Grace said...

Thank you SO MUCH for this post, Anne Elisabeth! This was definitely stuff I needed to hear, and I loved the critique list :). It was very nice of the judges to give feedback on some of the stories!
I'm about to go crazy waiting for tomorrow, I'm so excited to see the results (though I'm still a bit confused about how the top ten will be announced)!!!
I'm so grateful that you put this whole contest together, Anne Elisabeth, I know it must have been a lot of work. And despite whether I win or lose, I have had a ton of fun and learned a lot. Thank you so much!

Jenelle said...

As one who may never write another character biting his or her lip again.... hahahaha

This was a very beautiful post, and a good encouragement/reminder to every writer, whether they entered the contest or not. I really enjoyed reading it.

I am so nervous for everyone tomorrow!!!!!!!!

Clare said...

Even though I didn't enter these tips are really good! I am excited to see who the winners are though.

Heidi said...

Thank you so much for this. Truth is hard to hear sometimes, but your words were HUGELY encouraging and a tremendous help... :) THANK YOU!!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for taking the time to write such a long post, Mrs. Stengl. I really appreciate the effort.

It's so cool you're going to list the top ten finalists. And that some of the judges are going to offer feedback is even cooler. I can hardly wait for tomorrow! Hopefully the post is up before my sister has to go to work so we can see the results together. :D

Thank you also for the great reminders! They're definitely good things to keep in mind when writing. Again, I appreciate you using your time to offer this critique to us. And, like Julia said, I would be interested in hearing how sexism and racism play a part in the entries.

I love that quote from Robert Browning. It's definitely something I want to strive for as an author. Thanks once again for this post, Mrs. Stengl! :)


Hannah C. said...

Whether I win or lose, I SO hope my story was one of those that will receive feedback/criticism! This list has only whet my curiosity, and now I'm re-reading my story, already tweaking it and aiming higher, regardless of if I win or not, because it'll help me in the future, anyway! Thank you so much for this generalized list! Like a few others have mentioned, I'm also really excited to see a blog post on sexism and/or racism. It would be interesting to see if the sexism is more geared towards women, or if it's geared towards men (i.e. making men pigs, while having strong heroines).
Thank you so much for these contests and this feedback, and for the opportunity to grow as writers!

Rebecca said...

This post was exactly what the bundle of nerves that is me needed! Thank you! And those words..."And without agony, how can there be true beauty?" I found that incredibly inspiring. As writers-artists-I think we can all relate. Self-expression, in any form, is painful, and messy, and full of flaws. But to bring beauty out of it...that is how true art comes to be.

Meredith said...

Wow! What candid and phenomenal advice, Mrs. Anne Elisabeth! I can definitely see lots of areas that trip me up, and these comments were so helpful! Thank you.

Best wishes to everyone. In my opinion, anyone who has the courage to send a story out into the world deserves to be commended, because writing is so competetive. Thankfully, it's art that can always be polished, so regardless of who wins, we can all continue to use the gifts God gives us and try to improve our work. I liked your comment that the best prize is the editorial help that will be received. I definitely agree. I've learned more from working with an editor over the past two years than I've ever learned before regarding writing. Although the comments were often hard, they're always meant to help, and it means a lot. Hope I can see the winners, as my computer has difficulty on the Rooglewood Press web site. Crazy technology, huh?

I made a promise to myself that I wouldn't look until very late tomorrow or tomorrow night, and I'm going to keep that promise even if I have to sit on my hands! LOL!

God bless you all.

Tracey Dyck said...

Thank you SO very much for this post, Anne Elisabeth! Like others have said, your mentorship is such a gift. I'll be returning to this critique list in the future.

I know conveniences and contrivances are things I've particularly struggled with in the past. Specifically with my contest entries, I've also wrestled with summary. (I think my plots have been a tad big for the word limit. I've ended up condensing every year.) There's always more to learn, more to refine, and I can't thank you enough for showing us some key areas to polish!

I'm hugely excited for tomorrow's announcement! The extra goodies are also thrilling--the revealing of the Top Ten, and feedback from more judges. :D

Counting down the hours...

Tracey Dyck said...

Oops, forgot to mention that I, too, would like to hear your thoughts on racism and sexism.

@Hannah Carter: I kind of wonder that as well... if sexism has veered the other way, putting down men rather than women.

Savannah Jezowski said...

This was such a wonderful trove of advice. I think I will take this list and work through it as I revise my current work in progress. As one who has experienced your editing skills first hand, I can say learning to better revise has been one of the hardest and greatest lessons I learned while participating in the Rooglewood contests. I don't think I will ever learn to love or master revision, but you have given me so much to work with on my journey. I hope everyone will be able to take this blogpost to heart and add it to your writing arsenal. It's a big world out there, and you're going to need it!! Best of luck to everyone.

Anne Elisabeth Stengl said...

@All--When I refer to sexism, I am definitely talking about sexism toward women.

I don't know if I'll write a post on the topic or not. It depends on time. It's a weighty topic, and I don't have a lot of spare hours to my day.

But I do encourage all of my writers to take second glances at their work and decide what sorts of female characters and attitudes toward female characters they are representing. The infantilizing of women is the most prominent sign of sexism that I observe over and over again, but there are other earmarks as well.

E.F.B. said...

I know I'm a little late, but I just wanted to say: This kind of constructive criticism is absolutely invaluable to aspiring writers like myself. Thank you so much for sharing, Anne Elisabeth. :)

Becky said...

Thank you for adding the edits to your post. It does add understanding to your comments regarding sexism and racism. If you ever find the time to blog about these subjects, it would be interesting, but I understand how busy you are. Take care, and God's blessings, Anne Elisabeth.

Tracey Dyck said...

I second Becky's comment: thanks for the clarification!

Unknown said...

I learn so much from you! Thank you for posting these observations and words of warning...they've given me new lenses to use in looking at my own writing. Thank you!

Meredith said...

Just saw the edits to this post. So interesting and disturbing. I'm afraid I might be guilty of some of this! I pray not, but if so, it wasn't intentional. I suppose both sexism and racism are areas we are all guilty of to a certain degree whether we want to admit it or not. I think we subconsciously learn from our culture, and sometimes it's hard to take a subjective look at our work and see the issues that need addressing.
I read a novel called Bone Gap that came out last year that addresses this issue. It's a phenomenal book, a fairy tale that subtly comments on the treatment of women in our society. It's a book that's haunted me ever since I read it, and I thoroughly recommend it to everyone. There are some dark issues, and certain choices characters make I don't agree with, but the book really made me think.

Thankk you for your candor and kind assistance.

Emilyn J Clover said...

I didn't submit to the contest but this post really encouraged me anyway as a writer and opened my eyes to what I can make better in my stories. Thank you for being willing to point out the flaws in writing so we can learn.

Unknown said...

This post was so helpful! Even though I wasn't able to submit a story for the contest in March, or whenever it was, I can use this to further my writing. Thanks so much for the honesty and encouraging words, and congrats to all who made submissions--winners, runner ups, and those who didn't make the cut!

Never stop being creative!