How is it that it took me the better part of a week to enter an online novel writing contest?
You have to understand that the manuscript is ready to go; I didn’t have to complete, revise or polish it in order to submit it. I’d already honed my synopsis, pitch and bio. And I wasn’t psychologically blocked (i.e., unduly preoccupied about my chances)—with 5,000 entries, the contest is so competitive that it would be silly to worry about winning.
So why the ordeal just to hit “send”?
Well, my synopsis and pitch, both the right length for queries to literary agents, were too long for the contest. Forget fudging with font size to give the appearance of compliance; the contest’s software automatically counts the words and rejects even slightly bloated entries right off the bat.
Okay, so cut the materials down, you say. Yes, but where? My synopsis, which had evolved over literally a period of months, was lean and mean and, I felt, letter-perfect at 423 words. And I’d worked hard to make the pitch topical and punchy enough to be put on the back cover—just in case I ever get a back cover.
Okay, so create a new synopsis and pitch, you say.
Right. That’s what took me a week.
Where do we get the idea that people who excel at—and enjoy—a particular activity can therefore do it easily? For me, writing is great fun, and I especially love the fact that there’s always a solution, a way to fix things. But that doesn’t mean I find writing quick or painless. A tricky e-mail can confound me for days; helping a friend draft a cover letter can seem like a big commitment.
And it’s hard for me to take in stride a statement like “In the first round, your entry will be judged on your pitch.”
Of course I can descend into self-doubt about all this (a Real Writer would enter a contest a week! produce a novel a year! churn out a column a day!). But I also know that for most people, contest entry materials and resumes and college applications are pretty daunting. Maybe in a way, these things are even more of a challenge for writers; we grasp all too well the impact of our choices, from word selection to tone to topic.
Still, why sweat a contest? It’s small stuff, especially given the odds, right? Well, I spent years imagining, writing, re-imagining, revising and editing this manuscript, consulting with a dozen readers along the way including a professional editor, and integrating all the relevant feedback through literally half a dozen drafts. I wasn’t about to do a half-baked job describing the product of my efforts. I just couldn’t.
In other areas of my life, I’m trying to challenge my own tendency toward perfectionism, which has been known to wreak havoc on my sense of well-being. With my writing, though, it comes in handy to have a natural inclination toward overdrive. I didn’t want my contest entry to be good enough; I wanted it to sing. And if it took me “too long” to meet that goal—well, maybe the mistake there was in equating high gear with instant accomplishment.
Meanwhile—wouldn’t you know it—I’ve been having a devil of a time with this very column. It’s just been unusually hard to nail down these 600 words. You probably think I’m kidding, but I really did almost miss the deadline.
Published in the Piedmont Post, February 17, 2010
Note: my recent entry “How to Amass a Record Collection” generated a thoughtful, well-written response which is now posted as a comment underneath that entry.