The Challenge that broke the machine
Hey Vocal, is it time for a rule change?
You never get a second chance to make a first impression, so the old maxim goes. That is, unless you recently participated in the Little Black Book Challenge.
As first-year anniversaries go, this one was pretty spectacular – and not just the generous prize. This Vocal Challenge attracted many new subscribers (some say membership doubled) who took a shot at the first prize of $20 grand. In fact, more than 10,500 entries were submitted as writers, hungry for more than a few pennies, went into a kind of feeding frenzy.
It started like a cooking competition with two mystery ingredients: a little black book and $20,000. Some authors went some the traditional way and added a tiny dose of the mystery ingredients and others let the mystery ingredients take over. If you read enough of these entries you will find writers used similar themes. A black book left on a bench, a will, and some attempt to microwave a Dan Brown mystery style dish. I empathize with our judges how many stories would it take for them to have creative indigestion.
But when you look at the pros and cons, you begin to realize that at some point along the way, the whole thing suffered all because of one simple rule: allowing more than one entry per person.
What other competitions in life give you a second, a third, an infinite number of chances to win? Going back to our cooking analogy, you only get one chance to beat Bobby Flay and become Top Chef. A strict rule of one submission allows writers to work on their craft and presents the best work to show off their talents.
I’m all about letting the cream rise to the top and allowing competition to bring out the best in people, but problems arise when you have multiple entries from the same authors. Now the truly talented work is submerged in a vast sea of mediocre second efforts.
The principal issue at stake is quality versus quantity. Creativity requires your best work, not multiple takes. Does anyone really expect Vocal will choose a single author for more than one of the three cash prizes? Expect to be disappointed.
As a photojournalist back in the day, I noticed a similar issue with professionals that chose one of two approaches to getting the shot they needed for the story: one shot, one kill vs. spray and pray. You can do it right the first time, using all your talent and skill, or just flood the market and hope something works out for the best.
Aside from the philosophy of creative writing approaches, we must take into consideration the unintended consequences of playing the odds as if this Challenge was some kind of lottery. The most obvious was the now-infamous Backlog.
Before the Little Black Book Challenge captured the imagination of thousands of writers, the Vocal publication process usually took something in the neighborhood of 12 hours. When the Backlog was in full swing, writers were waiting more than twice that period to see their work – any story, any community – published. Vocal editors, who apparently never suspected the proportion of the deluge, were swamped. The Vocal writers’ forums were littered with complaints from alarmed veterans and newbies alike.
When will they publish my story? Why is it taking so long? Is there something wrong with it? Frustration mounted and discouragement set in among some of the anxious as the Uncertainty Principle worked its magic.
Meanwhile, the hapless staff at Vocal (initially overjoyed then horrified at the volume of submissions, most likely) burned the candle at both ends while slogging through the slush pile. One can imagine the overworked staffer, with eyes glazed over, scanning the first couple of paragraphs and tossing aside many entries that, in a normal challenge of a more limited scope, would have received more quality attention. Yes, I’m making an assumption, but as a former editor myself, I know the scenario all too well.
According to the rules of the Little Black Book Challenge, the winners will be announced by March 12, undoubtably followed by much wailing and gnashing of teeth. With multiple entries per contestant, you must ask yourself: Who wins? Vocal (the company) got many more subscribers, Vocal editors got many more headaches, and Vocal writers got the Backlog. The rule, in the end, doesn’t serve anyone very well. But writers need to understand the difference between treating their work like lottery numbers, which are inherently equal in value, and winning a creative contest with their best work.
This is a self-inflicted wound by Vocal. A simple tweak to the rules to allow a single entry per subscriber would fix the problem. Writers would submit only their best work and the grist mill would receive only the finest literary grain, so to speak. Vocal, save us all the hardship and make us make our best impression the first time.