Mike Orenduff grew up in El Paso, Texas and received his B.A. from the University of Texas. He received his M.A. from the University of New Mexico and his Ph.D. from Tulane. He was a university professor and administrator in seven states and three countries before taking early retirement (or, as his friends describe it, a midlife crisis) to begin a writing career. His “Pot Thief” murder mysteries feature Hubie Schuze, a mild-mannered but politically incorrect treasure hunter who digs up and sells ancient Southwestern pottery. He was doing it before Congress redefined treasure hunting as theft, and as Hubie likes to say, “Who knows more about thievery than Congress?” Mike currently lives in Valdosta, Georgia where his wife, the noted art historian Dr. Lai Orenduff, is a faculty member at Valdosta State University.
Writing Contests are Wonderful except for the Judges
by J. Michael Orenduff
The best thing about writing contests is someone wins, which cannot be said of the three other things you can do with your stories (two if you reject the burning them alternative). You can send them to a publisher, but most publishers won’t accept your stories except through an agent. You can send them to an agent, but most agents will throw them in the recycle bin without even opening the envelop. They want a query first. If art galleries worked this way, they’d ask to see your brushes and paints before consenting to look at your canvasses. If a hundred writers send a query to the same agent, it’s likely none will be invited to submit actual work. But if a hundred writers submit work to a contest, at least there will be a winner. Contests provide a ray of hope in an otherwise dismal business.
The worst thing about contests are the judges. This is not sour grapes on my part. My first mystery, The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras, won the Dark Oak Mystery Contest and the Kindle version won the “Eppie” for eBook Mystery of the Year. My second book, The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras, was selected as the Best Fiction Book of the Year last month by the Public Safety Writers Association. My play, The Christmas Visitor, has won four awards, including first place in the Jewel Box Playwriting Contests, and the top list in the annual contest sponsored by Writers Digest. Even that had a depressing side. The letter informing me of my success also informed me they received over 31,000 entries! The two primary requirements to be a writer are irrational optimism and either a large bank account or the franking privileges of a Congressman.
After reading scores of judging sheets (I’ve entered more contests than the ones I was successful in), I’ve finally figured out what’s wrong with judges. They don’t read real books. They are too busy reading books about how to write books and attending seminars about how to write books. And some of them, one assumes, are also busy writing their own books using the techniques they have learned in those books and seminars dealing with books.
The evidence for this conclusion are the notes judges scribble on the manuscript, things like “We don’t know who Jane is” after an opening sentence of chapter three that says something like, “Jane threw two fresh ice cubes into the tumbler of Old Stumpblower,” or “This musing breaks the rhythm of the story” in the margin next so a sentence in which the protagonist says something like, “The mangled corpse brought back images from Viet Nam that I had worked for years to suppress,” or “No conflict” penned under an innocent paragraph where the protagonist and her brother are remembering the day they were chased by a dog. From which it must be concluded that three rules of writing are 1) always explain who a character is before you let her do or say anything, 2) excise all sentences that do not advance the action, and 3) do not allow any narrative or dialog not essential to the story.
There is good writing and bad writing and I’ve demonstrated the ability to do both. The trick is to increase the preponderance of the former. Rules are not very helpful. Lawrence Sanders’ Archie McNally series of murder mysteries is so light it’s been described as “frothy,” and fully half of each book is given over to musings, observations, and asides that do not advance the plot, do not contain conflict, and do not keep the action moving. In a word, they are unnecessary. However, the books sold so well that what was necessary was to continue them even after Sanders’ death. The publisher hired Vince Lardo to continue, although Sanders’ name remains displayed more prominently on the covers. There are no doubt other Lawrence Sanders out there, but they can’t get published because they don’t follow the rules. Indeed, I suspect there are thousands of aspiring writers people would enjoy reading. The fact that these writers are unpublished explains why used bookstores are so popular. The agents and big publishing houses have choked off the supply of real books and turned instead to celebrity books, mindless drivel by celebrity politicians like Bill Clinton and Sarah Palin.
For any rule a contest judge can cite, I can show you a fiction best-seller that breaks it. The best way to become a good contest judge is also the best way to become a good writer. Read enough real books that you develop an ear for what works.