Wednesday, November 4, 2009

An interview with a contest director

Fall of 2007, I had been working on my middle grade novel for a number of years, and had gone through numerous versions (my poor critique group.) I had lost all objectivity and decided it was time to get some professional feedback. I entered the Paul Gillette Memorial Contest and paid for extra critiques. When the envelope arrived a few months later, I reminded myself that the critiques were the reason I entered and braced myself for the inevitable disappointment. It took multiple readings and many minutes before "Congratulations, you're a finalist!" made sense to me.

That 2nd place gave me the necessary confidence to take some important actions with regards to my writing.

A year later, I started wondering about my works that live quietly in my "short stories" folder. I love short stories but I also find myself confused often. Sometimes I would love the writing but have no clue what I've just read. Other times, certain phrases or scenes that don't really make sense, would haunt me long after I've finished reading. And then there are those subliminal moments when I would finish a story and thank God for the gift of words. I am not an English major nor an MFA student and don't often get the more literary devises. But I believe I have stories to tell that don't require an entire novel. Once again, to get some objectivity, I entered the same contest, now known as the Pikes Peak Writers Fiction Contest, in the short story category.

Surprised and comforted by my first place win, I have resurrected quite a few of my stories and written a few new ones.

Many writers don't need the pat in the back that contests provide, but I am one of those who benefited from the exposure and encouragement.

Here is an interview with Dawn Smit Miller, the contest director of the Pikes Peak Writers

Fiction Contest.

Dawn, I can only imagine how much work it takes to coordinate a writing contest yet you've done it for many years. Is it like giving birth, you think, that you forget all the pain as soon as the baby is born?

Well, not quite as soon as the baby is born. I'd lie around at least until May, swearing that the next year would be my last. Then June would come along, and I'd be back into the contest groove again. This year, my last, has been really challenging, since my husband and I were also training for our black belt test in Taekwondo, which conveniently began at the same time as the contest and continued for the next month. Thank goodness for my new contest coordinator Chris Scena.

Tell us more about the contest. And by the way, why the two names?

The PPW Fiction Contest was created to give writers a safe environment in which to submit their work. Sometimes, our judges are the first strangers to read a writer's story, and we try to do no irreparable damage to skins that have not yet been toughened by rejection. Some of our entrants (and winners!) have been teenagers. Knowing that we will occasionally fail, we aim for the high goal of tactful and constructive criticism. We also want to be the first to find those gems out there and give them our praise before they get published. That kind of recognition can be the difference between a writer submitting one more time and dropping the manuscript in the file-n-forget drawer. It was for me when I submitted in 2001.

Beginning this year, the PPWFC is an all-electronic contest, so no more hardcopies! We may have a few bumps in the virtual road, so please bear with us while we learn to streamline the process. Contestants complete an online entry form, pay either online or through snail mail, and email us their entries as an attachment. For more information, including a nifty checklist, go to our online brochure at:

Once the entry comes to us, we assign it to two judges, who judges according to a four-page scoresheet. One or both of them will also type up a one-page critique if the entrant orders one (or two). If the judges just don't agree, we send the entry to a third judge. The most skewed score is dropped, and we add the other two scores together. The three entries in each category with the highest total score move on to our VIP judges, editors and agents who choose who gets first, second, and third place. We honor the winners each year during the awards banquet at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference.

As for the two names, well, "Pikes Peak Writers Fiction Contest - The Paul Gillette Awards" is quite a mouthful, isn't it? We just couldn't drop our homage to author and screenwriter Paul Gillette, who was an early supporter of the conference. However, we did want to add "PPW" to link the contest and the organization more directly in peoples' minds. Being writers, we sat around, talked about it, voted . . . and chose the longest, most complete name on the list.

But don't worry. We still answer to "Pikes Peak Writers Fiction Contest," "PPW Contest," "That contest in Colorado," and "Hey, You."

As the coordinator, you publicize the contest, handle money, collect and send manuscripts , train new judges, field the same three questions asked by 107 different people, call the finalist who's in third place, etc. Which ones cause the most sleepless nights / induce the loudest screams / bring you to your knees, pounding the ground?

My primal screams tend to come after interactions with those who have not read the instructions. Now don't get me wrong, many entrants go through the instructions with a fine-toothed comb and may still miss a detail here or there. No, I'm talking about, for example, the entrant who one year submitted one copy of a nonfiction story, stapled three times on the left to simulate a bound book, with no entry form, no check, and no contact information. This year, I've made some subvocal mutterings about people who email their entries as .doc files or who have 6000 words in their 4000-word sample manuscript, but those people sent in early enough that I could contact them, and they've been great about making the necessary changes. So no primal screams yet this year.

My sleepless nights tends to come from situations beyond my (or anyone else's control). Like dealing with the Post Office. If there ever was a reason to take the contest all-electronic, the Post Office is it. Every single year, at least one entry has been lost in the mail, and one year it was a judge's handwritten packet.

And which is the reason for your pouring your time and effort into it?

The people I get to meet. My favorite job is calling all of the finalists in late March/early April. Some say, "That's nice," thank me, and hang up, while others are on the line for twenty minutes basking in the glow of their win. It's wonderful. And the judges are great people, many of whom I have gotten to know as friends over the course of my six years running the contest. Writers are a fascinating and diverse bunch, and a hoot to work with. This is one way I can give them support. (If Chris is really, really lucky, I'll let him call some of the winners this year.)

Tomorrow I will post Part II of this interview, in which Dawn talks about how she finds judges and getting the word out to the general writing public about the contest. We'll even hear from her left-hand man, Chris.


Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Very nice interview, Yat-Yee. And nice to see you here, if only once in awhile. Best wishes.

Nandini said...

Great interview, Yat-Yee. Look forward to Part II. It's a measure of your talent that you've placed twice!! Good to see you posting!

Solvang Sherrie said...

What a great idea to interview Dawn!

PPW will always have a special place in my heart. Receiving printed affirmation that I don't suck as a writer was beyond awesome. Yay Dawn!!

Yat-Yee said...

Tricia: thanks for dropping by to a supposedly dark blog. I planned this interview a little while before I decided to take a break. I'm glad to be able to post it before the contest deadline!

Thanks, Nandini, you're very kind.

Sherrie: Maybe I'll see you at PPW conference? (Although I'm not sure if I'm going yet.)