Friday, March 04, 2016

Writing: Christy Distler on ACFW's First Impressions Contest

You may recall meeting Christy Distler here when she talked about the book she and a number of other editors published, The 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing. Now she's back to talk about her experience with a writing contest I am proud to have had a hand in getting started: the First Impressions Contest.

Writing contests. In my two and a half years as an ACFW member, I’ve learned that some writers love them while others shudder at their mention. Last fall, a writer friend and I had a great discussion after I mentioned that ACFW’s First Impressions contest had just opened and she might want to consider entering. “Why?” she asked. “I’m sure there are plenty of others with more experience who’ll enter. Besides, I’m not competitive.” 
I completely understood her answer, mainly because I’d thought the same thing when an ACFW member encouraged me to join ACFW and submit to First Impressions in 2013. Here are some snippets of the conversation I had with my reluctant friend:

So what is First Impressions?
In ACFW’s words, “First Impressions gives unpublished writers the opportunity to have the first five pages of their Christian fiction manuscript evaluated by an industry professional.” Essentially, you submit the first five pages of your story and experienced writers, editors, and agents critique it using ACFW’s judging sheet. The three entrants with the highest combined scores in each category become finalists, and then final-round judges critique the finalists, with the highest-scoring finalist in each category being the category winner.

I’m sure there are plenty of others with more experience who’ll enter. Besides, I’m not competitive. Why should I enter?
For those who win (or final in) any writing contest, there’s certainly encouragement to keep writing and honing the craft. But that’s not why I encourage writers to enter. More importantly, contests allow writers to receive invaluable feedback from people who work in the industry. I’ve entered First Impressions three times, and each time the feedback I received helped me strengthen my story’s start. What I love even more is the dedication of the judges. Those in the Christian fiction industry—both writers and professionals—have a common goal of bringing readers closer to Christ through story, and we truly want each other to succeed. So don’t enter just to try to win; enter for the opportunity to improve. If you win, that’s a bonus.

What should I expect if I enter?
That varies, depending on the judge. All entrants receive a judging sheet from each judge, which includes individual scores for each writing craft question (for example, Did you want to keep reading more when you reached the end of the five pages?; Were the characters appealing and likable?; Did the writing engage you as a reader?) as well as an overall score. Some judges also add comments to the judging sheet and/or the manuscript, and some may provide an edit or proofread of the manuscript. As an entrant, I’ve found the feedback to be worth far more than the entry fee.

What if I get a really tough judge [i.e., whose criticism is not constructive]?
Yeah, it happens—even in an industry that’s so supportive. I once had a contest judge tell me my plot was unlikeable (that’s a bit subjective), my character sounded biographical (is that a good thing or a bad thing?), and my punctuation needed work (while his/her judging sheet contained sixteen punctuation and grammar errors—but who’s counting, right? J). The judge topped it off with a score that was half of the other scores I received. I’d love to tell you I just shrugged it off, but it wasn’t that easy. That kind of criticism, even when it’s questionable, stings. What I can tell you is that we need to be able to impartially weigh criticism for its value—in writing and in life. If it happens, take what’s plausible and leave what’s not. Finally, remember that writers need to develop thick skin, so even this kind of feedback can have some benefit.

How has First Impressions helped you?
It has encouraged me to keep writing and continue learning the craft. It has garnered me more writing friends (several other same-genre writers friended me on FB after I won the contemporary category in 2013 and the historical category in 2015, and some of those friends have become awesome writer buddies and critique partners). It has given me the opportunity to share what I’ve learned by judging ACFW contests. Most of all it has given me feedback that greatly improved my story’s beginning—and that’s priceless.

If you have a First Impressions experience you’d like to share, we’d love to hear about it.

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