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This week: Spotlight on JeffEdited by: Jayne
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It’s easy to say, “go enter this contest” or “take part in this activity”. The truth is contests can intimidate even seasoned members. Whether it’s fear of competition, fear of making a mistake with contest rules, or plain old imposter syndrome, we often bury things in our portfolios instead of getting involved.
Sometimes it has nothing to do with fear. The reality is not every contest suits every writer, and not every writer is motivated by the same prompt, reward, or requirements.
By putting faces to the stories behind the contests, and providing greater insight into what’s available to WdC members, I hope to tamp down some apprehension about entering contests and provide our writers with new avenues to challenge themselves.
Part of Jeff’s sustainability is the trade-off between prolific writing and contest participation for site administration. He recognises the behind-the-scenes work can make purple cases a bit mystifying, if not downright intimidating. “I remember what it was like to be a black case and a yellow case looking at the blues and purples with a sense of awe and uncertainty about what they actually did. Now that I’m on the other side of that equation, I prefer to be approached and thought of as a writer and member of the community first, and a Senior Moderator second.”
Explaining Moderators' roles in correcting ratings, answering questions, mediating the occasional disagreement with an eye to amicable resolutions, he notes Senior Mods have a few additional responsibilities, “all related to helping the Staff keep the day-to-day experience on WDC safe, consistent, and positive.” He doesn’t consider himself (or any purple case) “above” a blue case. “I would expect and hope that members would feel as comfortable coming to me with concerns as they would coming to a blue case. Whether our case colour is blue or purple, all Mod+ have the same basic job description, which is to help maintain the community and make ourselves available to members of the site who need assistance.”
Other mythologies around case colour persist. Colour is not correlated to writing ability or success. There are blue and purple cases who have never published their work outside of WdC, and some aren’t writing much even on the site. On the other side, several professional writers reside among the black and yellow cases.
The first casualty of case colour is review feedback. “Like anyone, I would definitely love more reviews of my work. In particular, I would love more in-depth, analytical reviews. As a Senior Mod, the reviews I receive are rarely critical,” which ties back to the assumption that blue and purple cases are stronger writers, so yellow and black cases steer clear. Jeff follows up with a great point: “Even if it were true, every writer – no matter how good – can always benefit from quality feedback. Regardless of the colour of their portfolio case, if someone sets their item to allow reviews, it’s probably safe to assume they’d appreciate well-considered feedback on that piece.”
– no matter how good –
can always benefit from quality feedback."
While he may not write as much as he’d like, it’s not because he set out to be a site admin. “I joined to improve my writing and build community with other writers. Those will always be two of my highest priorities, and I’d hope that other members of the community can see me as a fellow writer and a fellow citizen of WDC first and foremost.”
He backs up his commitment to the community by running not only the Official WdC Contests but also maintains a sizeable collection of his own contests and activities. Much like the decades-long evolution of the WdC community, Jeff is constantly evaluating participation, outcomes, incentives and workload to find the right mix for each one.
This year ushered in a new vision of the official contests. Taking several months to analyse the contests’ history, he found some concerning trends. “The same general types of prompts, many of the same winners month after month, many of the same judges month after month. Ultimately, I feel a sense of responsibility to make the official contests challenging while being as inclusive and welcoming as possible, and I just didn’t see that being achieved long-term by staying the course.”
When he realized the risk of members discouraged from entering because of generic prompts or ‘sets of winners’ weighed against a fresh approach of appealing to a larger member pool, it was a straightforward decision. “What I hope to accomplish with the changes I’ve made is a collection of truly diverse official writing contests that appeal to a broader swath of members. I’d like to see more members look at the official contests and say, “I haven’t done that before, I’ll give it a try” or even “That’s not for me, but I’ll check back and see what next month’s challenge is” rather than, “I’m not really surprised or challenged at all by this generic prompt.”
"I’d like to see more members look at the official contests and say, 'I haven’t done that before, I’ll give it a try'."
While he’s not implementing all the changes at once, what members can expect are more original prompts. There will be variations in tone and subject for "Short Shots: Official WDC Contest" , less popular and more specific genres for "Journey Through Genres: Official Contest" , and fresh rounds for poetry and nonfiction. They’ll also be some new judges with fresh perspectives on what makes a winning submission.
Jeff regularly analyses his own contests and activities but can sense if things are getting stale. When he feels his own interest waning, he checks it against participation numbers, lacklustre entries, and participation and results patterns. When his instincts and the numbers fall in line, it’s time to switch things up.
He doesn’t just crunch numbers, though. He also gains first-hand experience by participating in his own creations. Doing so lets him see what works and what doesn’t, but joining in is about more than just statistics. “I think the best activity organizers are the ones who are passionate about what they’re running. I participate in my own activities because I believe in creating things I would personally find satisfying.”
He also strives to find the balance between prizes, competition, and administrative inputs. This year he’s varied the individual challenges for "The WDC Soundtrackers Group" , ending up with a full lineup of activities for the year. “My goal was to create a hub where you could use music as inspiration for your writing whether you like to write blog entries, short stories, or poetry… and since I enjoy writing all of those things, it’s the activity I most enjoy spending my time on these days, both as an organizer and a participant.”
Also this year, one contest, "Musicology Anthology" had its prizes restructured, and the competition increased, and he scaled down "NaNoWriMo Write-A-Thon" after a decade by removing the team element. The amount of number-crunching didn’t align with improvement to the user experience, but Jeff admits “the jury’s still out” on that one. “That’s the thing about changes. They don’t always work out and you have to be objective enough to know when to keep pushing forward and when to pull back.”
"That’s the thing about changes.
They don’t always work out."
Sometimes a long-standing activity can’t be saved. “As a creator, I try not to be too precious about my activities. I try to keep in mind that some are winners, some not so much, and that every activity has a natural life cycle”. The "Unofficial Erotica Newsletter Group" and the "Dark Society" were genre-specific and taken on to hone his own skills. After a few years, and with similar contests/activities running, Jeff decided it was time to move on and shut his down.
Not every activity is so easy to walk away from. “The two activities I think I’m probably saddest about letting lapse are "Breakthrough!" and "The Screenwriting Group" ”. Breakthrough, a multi-round contest of increasingly complex writing, pushed participants and was flexible enough it wouldn’t become repetitive. As far as "The Screenwriting Group" , “I still think there’s a great opportunity on this site for screenwriting-related content, but there’s so much foundational work that I’d want to do to ensure it’s done right that I’ve put it on the back burner until I have time to set it up properly.” He’s made peace with prioritising keeping active over keeping inefficient or unfulfilling activities running.
Asked if it’s the same advice he’d give other creators, he agrees, adding the notion of slow and steady. “Don’t be afraid to change things up, but don’t change too much too fast.” On the one hand, it takes a lot of pressure off the organizer. Push the boundaries and be creative, but be intentional with your changes. “One of the biggest mistakes an activity organizer can make is staying the course and not adapting to the changing interests of participants. The other is changing things so often that participants don’t feel like they have a handle on the activity, or that it’s too unpredictable to be worth investing time into.”
"Don’t be afraid to change things up,
but don’t change too much too fast."
Maybe there’s a new vision for your contest and the changes can’t be done incrementally. If you’re looking at entirely new formats and concepts, it’s possible what you have is a different contest altogether. At that point, it’s time to decide where you want to focus your energy.
Whether you’re a creator newbie or old-timer, Jeff stresses the most important thing when developing a contest/activity is taking the time to get the mechanics right. “There’s a natural tendency to rush it because you’re excited and you want to get started and unveil it to the site as soon as possible”. But working out clear, sensible rules, formatting everything to be pleasing to the eye and easy to follow, and figuring out a reasonable length of time for writing and judging pays off down the road. “Take the time to do it right. Figure out what will differentiate your contest from similar ones out there. Be able to answer the question, “Why will people want to enter my contest?”
"Take the time to do it right. Figure out what will
differentiate your contest from similar ones out there."
When pressed about prizes, he admits bigger awards attract attention, but consistency trumps changes to reward structures. Big awards are also relative: an award for a 1000-word short story doesn’t need to match an award for 50,000 NaNoWriMo words, and a monthly contest shouldn’t be trying to match a big, once a year blowout activity. “Take the time to make sure the prizes are worthwhile,” he says, circling back around to consistency and longevity, “and make sure they’re sustainable.”
If you’re entering contests, he draws on his background for a solid contest entry. “Screenwriter Terry Rossio once wrote, on the topic of endings, that the best ones have four key qualities. They are: (1) Decisive, (2) Set-up, (3) Inevitable, and (4) Unexpected. For me, that’s the perfect recipe.” But he’s not only referring to the story mechanics. “Your entry should read like you are sure of what you’re doing. It must follow all the contest rules from formatting to use of prompt. It needs to fit the requirements but offer an unusual perspective that stands out. Remember that for prompt-based contests, judges are reading multiple versions of the same story. What will you do to make sure yours stands out?”
"(1) Decisive, (2) Set-up, (3) Inevitable, and (4) Unexpected.
For me, that’s the perfect recipe."
Even with everything he’s got on his plate, he’s still working on resurrecting "The Screenwriting Group" , and he teases a “top secret project” which promises to be, in his words, “epic”. Due to the scope of the activity, “planning is taking longer than usual.” Other than that, he’s not giving up any details. Even asked the same question six different ways, he wasn’t taking the bait. “I can’t really say a lot about it right now, other than it’s going to be BIG”. Frustrating as the waiting is, there’s no doubt it’ll be something special.
In the meantime, you’ll have to settle for all of his other top-notch contests.
"Judges are reading multiple versions of the same story. What will you do to make sure yours stands out?"
Always lists the current month's official writing contest at the top, as well as links to all the other official contests in the rotation. The official contests require a paid membership, and the rewards are fantastic.
This group item lists all of the activities run throughout the year. Activities run in February, April-June, September, October, and December.
This is the Soundtrackers contest that is currently running now, through the end of June. There's a ton of flexibility built into this contest, and it's quite the challenge.
Can you write 50,000 words in 30 days? Want some great rewards while you get that first draft hammered out? Sign up for the November Write-A-Thon.
An annual interlinked musical blogging challenge! Runs September 1st through 7th(ish).
A yearly blogging challenge featuring cover songs and/or dead artists! Runs every October.
The holiday season is the perfect time for a holiday music challenge! Runs every December.
If you want to check out some of Jeff 's personal writing, check here:
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