Thursday, January 30, 2014


My daughter Tami and I are finally watching American Idol for the first time EVER this year. (I know, I know - get the shocked gasps out of the way.) It's become our Wednesday and Thursday night "thing" we do together. I confess I watch it b/c I'm a huge Keith Urban fan - saw him when he was just getting started with his debut album, playing in a small dinner theater in Milwaukee, WI. He walked right past our table, playing and singing like an old-fashioned troubador. Pretty cool.

And now he's a big-time headliner playing stadiums...and judging on American Idol. It's the initial city-to-city preliminary competition stage, choosing the (so-far) 193 people (w/one city to go yet tonight) to go to Hollywood for the show. Trying to weed through the nerves and amateur inconsistencies to find the diamonds in the rough to go on, and be the industry gatekeepers to kindly tell tens of thousands of others "you're not quite there/ready yet." It's been fascinating to me to watch Keith interacting with the other two judges, the chemistry and byplays. Because they've all three made it, that perilous journey from obscure dreamers to stardom, but they all seem to remember what it's like for those just starting out. Most of the contestants are just babies, high school kids. Others are single parents, waitresses, farm hands - all with the same dream to sing in something bigger than the church choir.

Watching the judges work together was eye-opening. Harry's the tough one, the technician. JLo's the "nice" one who says yes to way to many people. Keith more often than not ends up as the tie-breaker, b/c two out of three yeses gets you a gold ticket. Tough position to be in, but he handles it with grace and humor. What I love the most is that every rejection gets feedback - useful info that the contestant would be insane not to take to heart and use to improve (and possibly return in the future, better than ever). Feedback from an expert who's BEEN THERE is priceless. And it really bugs me when the person blows them off with a "you don't know what you're talking about" attitude. Because, umm, yeah they kinda do. Now Keith was the first to admit on camera "it's just my opinion" and that the very thing that Harry LOVES might be a deal-breaker for HIM (and vice versa) but I really loved when they told a contestant "they might be better players than you, and there might be better singers than you, but you're a whole package together - the sum is greater than the parts" and gave the guy a gold ticket.

Industry professionals giving back. Whatever the profession, experts everywhere work as judges, teachers, mentors, contest coordinators, critique partners, and so on. It goes for writing, too. It's like the in-person "pitch" sessions at conferences. You go in front of an agent or editor and tell them how wonderful your baby is, why your unique baby is so much cooler than everyone else's baby. And they have to get past the stuttering and rambling (and the dropping the cue cards under the table - yes I did that in New Jersey!) and imagine what you're talking about. The request for a partial or full manuscript is the golden ticket, their "there's something there, I want to see more of you."

Once upon a time, we were all on the outside looking in. I slogged through 22 RWA contest finals and 34 rejections before Duality sold in 2007. And people want to know "How'd you do it?" Now everyone's journey is different, but "what worked for me" can strike a chord in others, and if you can reach that one person, then it's worth it. Encouraging someone who's trying really hard, appreciating and celebrating what they do WELL as well as pointing out the weaknesses or inconsistencies that might be making it harder for them to achieve their goals, THAT'S what it's about.

So don't be shy. I think it's important to offer your services, say yes when someone asks you for help. Step up and be a "good guy." Judge or coordinate a contest, put together a class or two about something you're particularly interested in or good at, offer to look at something for someone in your writer's group who's not at far along as you are. Remember to give positive feedback as well as negative feedback. Not only can you help others learn and grow and develop, but it also helps YOU become stronger, more confident, develop a better eye and ear for the craft. We all have something to offer, strengths to play on and weaknesses to improve.You are also networking - an utter necessity in any business.


Tina Donahue said...

What a wonderful post, Renee.

I totally agree that you have to give back. I help as many authors as I can, and ask for help when I need it.

This is a brutally tough business. By being there for someone else, we can make the journey so much easier. :)

jean hart stewart said...

All so true. Getting there is hard to do. I'm judging a big contest now, and while it's time consuming, it's so worthwhile. And yeah, sometimes the writing is amazing and sometimes it's pitiful, but it's always interesting. I totally agree... you gotta give back.

Fiona McGier said...

This is why I judge every year in the EPIC novel contest, and follow that up with also judging in the New Voices contest which allows for teens to compete in two categories: middle-school and high school, in three genres: poetry, essay and fiction. In the adult contest we don't offer feedback, but in the New Voices contest we are allowed to offer a few words of advice. As an English teacher, I value the opportunity to encourage all students to continue writing to develop logical organization skills that will enhance their lives no matter what career path they choose.