I have a love-hate relationship with story contests. I’ve only ever entered a handful. I can think of one at PHC, one a friend hosted, and one at Veritas Press. Recently I entered a small blog one, and placed third, which was exciting. I don’t do it a lot because I don’t like to pay for things and also because in a couple cases I was really disappointed with the winning stories, feeling that even if mine weren’t any better, the winners weren’t very good either (but other times I have been absolutely blown away by the winners!).
But the one I’ve entered almost every year is Vision Forum’s. It’s a challenging contest for me, since you’re given some information but not quite enough. You can’t just do whatever you want, but you also have a broad framework that you have to come up with most of the plot by yourself. And it’s a contest, not just writing for fun, so you’re not just writing for yourself.
That’s where writing for a contest for a place like Vision Forum or Veritas Press gets easier. In elementary school, we used “Institute for Excellence in Writing.” The teacher talked about “catering” to professors in college, and that has always stuck with me. It was handy in high school when we had our papers assessed by various people. It’s useful now for writing queries to publishers. You look at the things they’re interested in, key words, and the lingo they use and work that into your writing. I’ve found that even if it doesn’t “work” (meaning, even if I don’t get past the query stage), it’s a fun exercise. I use it a lot, and have used it a lot in the past, especially for the Vision Forum story contest. I know my writing has grown since the last VF contest I entered, and I also felt like the story line for this one was a lot better, but I also have grown in my understanding of “catering” to who you’re writing for.
I’m really thankful that that hard work paid off this time. Much to my shock, I opened up the announcement of winning essays, not expecting anything since I never heard anything from them, and saw that my story had not only placed, but won. You can read it here.
That story went through so many revisions and reworking, not just because of word count but getting rid of cheesiness and trying to make it “fit” Vision Forum. I don’t think it’s cheating to do that, since you’re writing for them. I’ll explain some of the little, practical things I did and how it worked with this entry.
Probably the most straightforward one was using KJV for Bible quotes. I normally use ESV and like to use that for quotations in stories (though I use ASV in the Victorious series because I have to alter it and there are copyright restrictions with ESV). But I know Vision Forum prefers the KJV, so I used it instead.
I also knew that Vision Forum likes names with meaning. I do too, so this wasn’t really catering to them as much as it was doing something I liked, but with a tight word count I almost cut it, except that I knew they’d like it.
I was a little “preachier” than I like to be. This was one reason it was edited so much. I like to have a clear, Christian message, but often it can sound cheesy and trite. There are some stories it just flows with (“Nikolai” and “In My Father’s House” are examples of those). But this one felt somewhat stiff to me. In the end it wasn’t so bad, but it was themes I knew Vision Forum wanted so I kept working at it. I’m also not a fan of how much groups like Vision Forum talk about dominion to the point where it overwhelms the gospel, but since it was a main theme for the contest I did work it in – although I also made sure to make Conrad’s reliance on God quite plain, to avoid works-righteousness or legalism if at all possible without mentioning the gospel. When I say without mentioning the gospel, I don’t mean that I was avoiding it, but that it was turning out to be very difficult to make it flow in without being preachy or cheesy (the gospel is the last thing from cheesy – but there are times when it is forced into stories or sermons in a way that says “I know this needs to be in here, so I’m going to put it here” and often it ends up being watered down or trite, and I really wanted to avoid that. I wish I could have worked it in smoothly, and if I had had more time and more words I would have tried more).
So those are some thoughts on writing for contests. The main thing is to find out what the contest host likes and work with that. But don’t worry about it so much it restricts your creativity. I started writing the story with a description of the terrain (because I had no idea what the plot was going to be, but it got things flowing!), learning about steamvents and such and trying to put myself in that place. And the story went on from there.
I don’t know if or how this will affect my writing from now on. I’m certainly encouraged by it, and it may open more doors with publishers. However, I don’t think I’ll bring it up with publishers, and this is where the idea of catering to a contest can lose its benefits. First of all, if you win your name is attached to it, and if it’s a small contest or one that could be considered “a kid’s contest,” then it may do more harm than good with publishers.
Secondly, there are people who twist Vision Forum’s teaching into very, very evil things. And people who have been hurt by that can’t separate the truth from what’s been twisted, and so they might think anyone who likes Vision Forum likes those false teachings – and that is definitely NOT true in my case.
And thirdly, if you work so much to please the contest that your style changes, then it may no longer be a good representation of your writing. I wish I had been a little more careful with that, because it’s not the same as my favorite things I’ve written, that I consider my “best,” and so I feel uncomfortable bringing it up with a publisher.
Speaking of publishers, I’ve almost exhausted my list of publishers to try… I won’t be discouraged unless I reach the end with no publisher, but I know people have and still can benefit from my writing without them being published. And I remind myself that while books can change people’s lives, more important than my books are the relationships I have with people. There’s a lot of things more important than getting published or winning contests, things that are more lasting and worthwhile. The joy and glory of winning story contests fades. The glory of Christ and the joy of relationships, especially those that have grown sweeter by hard work, is far, far greater, and His glory never fades.