This post is going to be a defining moment for this blog.
I’m centering my Creative Combat Arms around an interesting comment I got regarding my submission to the East India Press Short Story Contest in my “About” section. Here’s what fictigristle reader Tabitha asks:
You mentioned that you entered the East India Press short story contest. Did you leverage the Nightingale or submit an original short story? [For those of you not familiar, the contest stipulates that you’re allowed to set the story in the universe David Farland created in his new novel Nightingale.] What advice would you give regarding contests like this… Stay original or write in someone else’s world?
I decided giving her any response that was worthwhile would take more words than are recommended for a comment reply. So instead I’m dedicating a post on contest tips and how to win them.
My subscribers can see why this is a defining moment. For those who have just today seen me in action, please note that I haven’t won the contest yet! Me giving contest tips at this stage of the game is like a kid brazenly pointing to the basket before he shoots the $100,000 halftime shot cause he knows he’s got it.
So either I’m giving some tips which I can go to, you guys can go to and everyone else can point at and say, “Damn, he must really know what he’s talking about…this dude called it.” Or I’m putting my foot in my mouth and giving advice about a topic the judges will confirm in the very near future that I don’t know diddly about.
Some of you may be thinking… so why give these tips? Cause I’m a supreme optimist! But while I would love to look badass pointing to that basket that looks impossible to make from here I’m also playful enough to not mind looking silly. Besides, she asked.
Here’s my one and only tip. And I’ll explain what I did in reference to this tip.
Fictigristle’s Solitary Tip to Winning Contests: Treat the contest like a grade changing writing assignment.
If you treat it this way then one thing’s already taken care of: you’re entering. You have to. This is a grade changer, the difference between college parties and “pull up to the next window”.
You will also read the assignment carefully. Very carefully… several times in case the teacher makes some screwball update at the last minute, picking apart the words as if there’s a Rosetta stone in there for writing the perfect piece that will satisfy the teacher and get you to that college party.
Then you’ll read all supplemental posts/interviews/excerpts and tertiary data concerning the assignment. You’ve seen a grease trap and that’s about as close as you wanna get to having to clean one. You hate grease splatter. You consume as much information as you can to save yourself.
So, after treating it like a grade changer, I looked at my catalog of unsold stories and decided to write something brand new, set in David Farland’s Nightingale universe, and so close to the 2,500 word limit that it could cause border disputes.
This contest is unlike most others in that East India Press wants to promote their first book, Nightingale, and discover new, fresh talent. If they can do both of those with one story, then it’s a happy day in East India. And me? I wasn’t trying to make them work that hard for happiness.
Tabitha, just the fact that you used the word “leverage” when you talk about using the Nightingale universe is indicative of what you saw when you read the contest rules. Not saying that someone who hasn’t written in Farland’s universe can’t win… it’s just they decided to pass up an offered advantage. It’s like saying no to running shoes in a race… barefoot heroes do exist, but I’m the type to lace up the kicks as tight as I can.
Underneath your question comes the unspoken issue of whether or not it’s cool to write using someone else’s vision or stick adamantly to your own. I say the two aren’t all that far apart. You are bringing your same talent and creativity to bear with new rules in mind (i.e. rules of this standing universe). The rules just aren’t as universal as grammar rules and such. Besides, in this Digital Age of a million pokes and prods to your psyche, there’s nothing you’ve thought of that hasn’t derived, in at least part, from something else… just because you can’t remember where you got the idea doesn’t mean you created it in a vacuum.
More to the point, writing in someone else’s world doesn’t have to be derivative fanfic. A good writer brings their vision and color to that world. They maintain the standing rules and well-loved characters and introduce them to new adventures and new characters in settings that are solely the work of that writer. That’s why there’s dozens of books set in Star Wars and the World of Warcraft and Magic and bunches others that are official canon and good.
It’s a challenge, writing in someone else’s universe. But if you’re good, you can rise to the challenge. Sometimes it doesn’t matter if you’re good. Sometimes, you just have to. See my solitary contest rule for more info on when you have to.