You should see my inbox. There are days I have to wade through reams of advertisements in order to find that e-mail from my agent I've been waiting for, or that note from a friend, or, even more fun, a fan!
It's not that I have a spam problem. It goes back to the days when I was starting out as a writer. I figured it was a good idea to sign up for a bunch of writing focused magazines, book clubs, contests, etc. I mean, I'm a writer, right? So I should have all sorts of writerly materials filling my inbox.
Daily, I am reminded of a contest site where I'm invited to enter my choice of 1,000,000,000 contests being run at THIS VERY SECOND. I'm told I qualify for a FREE BOOK, and that I have a CHANCE TO WIN a book by some author I've never heard of! Woo Hoo!
Well, I got to thinking.
I love it when that happens. Thinking. Makes me remember what my brain is for.
I got to thinking about how a writer should make the best use of all the opportunities to enter contests, do writing exercises, etc. Here are my thoughts on the subject:
Nearly every writing book you pick up will be jammed packed with writing exercises. Each one focusing on a specific aspect of writing. There are entire books dedicated to writing exercises, such as Brian Kiteley's book The 3 A.M. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises that Transform Your Fiction. I happen to own this book. I love the cover.
Then there are the contests. Oh my, oh my, there are contests. Contests where you are given the first sentence and you have to write the rest of the story, contests on specific topics, on specific genres, short story, poetry, inspirational, long story, poems about dogs; it's nearly endless.
So, should a writer be spending time doing writing exercises from a book? Entering contests?
Here's what I say: Books like 3 A. M. are great because they force you through a sort of writer's mental gymnastics. They get you thinking out of your regular patterns and can help you to add dimension and depth to your writing. They are focused on specific aspects of writing, so you can work on areas you need the most help with. So, in a nutshell, they are fantastic.
But. . .
Well, lets talk about contests for a moment. If you ever land an agent, or a publisher, they are going to ask you if you have ever won a contest. It looks good to say you have won something for your writing. If the contest was a half decent one, a notation of your win may even grace the cover of your upcoming book. Add to that the fact that when you submit your work to a contest, you are submitting to much the same intellectual process as if it were to a publisher. Your entry needs to be properly formatted, and clean. It must be well written. It will be judged by a panel, it will be compared to the work of other authors. This is a good thing, especially if you are new to writing. It's a good way to get your feet wet.
But. . .
Here's the rub, as far as I'm concerned. Writing exercises and entering contests take a lot of time. Hours and hours of focused work go into preparing a manuscript for a contest (or, at least it should if you want to win). Writing exercises are set up for you, and you follow the format that is presented to you (in other words, you work on what someone else suggests you work on). This takes time away from your masterpiece; your book (or whatever it is you are writing that you desire to see published).
Okay, it is totally worth the time it takes to become a better writer, to get feedback on your writing and to improve your skill sets. You may want to consider blocking some of your weekly writing time for just such pursuits.
But. . .
Don't get distracted from your real goal: to finish your own work.
This past winter I opted out of all contests and writing exercises.
I wrote two books, and two short stories.
All of them are either published (the short stories), or being published (my books).
I took the time to focus what I had learned on my books, rather than spreading my time out on contests and exercises.
The take home lesson: Do what you need to do to become a great writer, beginning with making the best use of your time.