Tim Vargo — author, CCC Writer Member and Finalist in The Great Novel Contest 2014 — wrote this guest post on his writing process and how it relates to The Great Novel Contest 2015. Find the original post on Tim’s author website here.
If you’re a member of the growing horde of artists who write fiction, let me fill you in on a few secrets. First, your chances of becoming rich or famous are about the same as becoming a professional athlete. Really. So get that out of your head. Second, you’re not smarter than your workshop, class, or writing group. Even if you’re a genius, the group is and always will be smarter than you. That’s just the way it is—sorry.
As a writer myself, I’m aware that many of you stopped reading after I wrote that you won’t be rich or famous. Writers are a particularly delusional lot (as are most artists), and newbie writers are especially prone to believing they’re the next big thing. No amount of reason or logic will sway them. But the bald-faced truth is this—if you’re a writer, you’re a member of the creative class, which is a veritable MOUNTAIN of a class. To get an idea of how titanic it is, log on to Amazon’s book selling machine, check out that ever-expanding galaxy of novels, and then realize that the books on Amazon are an infintesimal speck of the literature being produced by the great unwashed masses. Published work represents approximately three or four percent of the universe of literature. There is a great unseen tidal wave of novels out there, my friend, and if you’re a writer, you’re part of that wave. It’s a scary proposition. You work your tail off only to be part of a teeming mass of dreck, with no way to determine if your work has any merit. The random nature of this process breaks many writers. “What is the secret?” they cry, shaking fists of rage as their novel dies the slow death of apathy, ignored by agents and publishers alike. “What am I doing wrong?!”
Well, unclench your fists you big dummy. The secret is simple. From this point forward your job is simple—do your best work and learn from your mistakes. That’s all. The best part is it doesn’t matter what your skill level is. Unless you’re unable to work up the gumption to put words to paper or are locked in the delusional throes of your own genius, you can always do your best work and learn from your mistakes.
There are a couple options on how you can master your writing talent, or (as is often the case with me) figure out how to—ahem— skillfuly hide your lack of talent. If you’re interested, my strategy is as follows:
- Write something
- Have it critiqued
- Rewrite it
- (and the fun part)—Enter it in a contest
We’re going to skip over the writing part. If you haven’t written anything, stop reading and get busy—we’ll be here when you get back. For the rest of you, the first part of this strategy—critiques—vary in efficacy depending on the source. Critiques from agents, publishers and book reviewers are notoriously hard to get, but they’re the best. They’ve helped me really understand why I stink and how I can write stuff that’s less stinky.
Unfortunately, getting critiques from agents, publishers and professional reviewers is hard and sometimes impossible, so the next best route is to get critiques from fellow writers at workshops. If you follow this strategy, your job is to filter out the nonsense and focus on the real input.
Rule of Thumb—If more than two fellow writers think your thirty-year-old Shaolin monk-turned-assassin talks like an eighty-year-old Yiddish housewife, take that input as gospel and fix that unfortunate misconception.
Once you’ve completed the rewrite phase, you’re ready for the real fun of being a writer. If you’ve written a novel, had it critiqued, and rewrote it, then contests are your next order of business. Yes, you heard me right, CONTESTS. They’re the perfect vehicles for having your work weighed and measured against the competition. I mean, what the heck are you writing for anyhow? You want people to read what you’ve written, don’t you? Contests will get that done for you, and they’re also a ton of fun. I came late to this realization, entering my first contest after writing fiction for twenty plus years, but once I did enter a contest, my eyes were opened. It’s exciting. Contests gives you a buzz for the entire length of the competition. Even when I’m having a bad day I think to myself, “Hey, maybe a judge is right now laughing at my story—hopefully because it’s funny—and is passing it along to the finalist round.” You will not believe how much it boosts your creativity when you enter your work in a contest. No joke. Maybe it’s because I feel the need to fill the vacuum created when work leaves my computer, but whatever it is, I write more when I enter a contest. Which brings me to today.
I am currently in the midst of preparing a manuscript for The Great Novel Contest 2015. If you have a completed novel, you need to do the same. This contest is legit. Last year I creeped on all the writers who were finalists. It was a sobering experience. Writing professors, established fiction writers, and highly-regarded graduates of MFA programs from all four corners of the U.S., as well as at least one or two from Canada, were among those in the finalists round. Let’s put it this way, these people knew what they were doing and trust me, that’s what you want when you enter a contest. If you’re going to be a writer, you have to know how your work measures up against people who are serious about the artform. In addition to stellar competition, this contest also has some pretty cool benefits if you win or get runner-up status. You get $1,000 if you win and a bunch of publishers consider your novel for publication. The runner-up gets $500 and a letter of recommendation that can be used for contacting publishers and/or agents.
This is the third year of the contest and the past two winners have had their novels published. That’s a good track record. What really attracts me to this contest is that manuscripts are judged blind. This means that the judges are reading the story and giving it a thumbs up or down based on the writing. It’s like that show “The Voice” where judges pick singers for their teams without seeing them, in effect selecting singers based on the quality of their singing rather than how they look, dance, command the stage or any of the other extraneous stuff. The Great Novel Contest 2015 follows this model. There are no names on the manuscripts. No listing of prestigious degrees or honors and previous writing glory to sway the judges’ opinions. It’s nothing but your writing put to the ultimate eye-test.
Believe it or not, I’m entering the first novel I ever wrote. Yes, I know—it’s a fools strategy. First novels are often atrocities, and mine definitely falls into this category, but I’m taking the time to work through it and see if it’s salvageable. And once I’m done, I know of only one way to find out once and for all if I was able to transform the stinking heap of words I called a first novel into something readable—I’m entering it into The Great Novel Contest 2015!
If I can do it, you can too. Hope to see you in the finalist round. Good luck and happy writing!