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You can judge a book ... 

Competition brings Idol-style script to literary world

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY SALLY PIETTE

"I have hundreds of rejections," says Beth Groundwater.

But among other writers, Groundwater considers herself lucky: After toiling for seven years, she signed her first book deal in 2006. And her second book comes out in May.

In her role as vice president of programs for Pikes Peak Writers, Groundwater's looking to spread the luck around. At least that's the thought behind American Icon, a writing competition that mimics the popular TV singing contest.

"The idea was to do something like American Idol, where we have people read from original works of either fiction or creative nonfiction and then get feedback from a panel of three judges," says Groundwater.

This Friday, Pikes Peak Writers will host its fourth competition inspired by the show. And, as in American Idol, contestants will be judged on their performances in front of a live audience. Twenty writers are expected to compete. (As of this writing, a few open spots remained.) Each will read for two minutes and then get a minute of feedback from the respective judges.

American Idol, of course, is known for its brutal feedback, especially from tough-to-impress judge Simon Cowell. On the show, he throws out lines like, "If you had lived 2,000 years ago and sung like that, I think they would have stoned you."

While Groundwater promises that Icon judges are "all kind," honest feedback both good and bad is still the goal.

"We ask the judges to find one positive thing to say and to give one constructive comment that might help them improve their work," says Groundwater.

Still, knowing that the judges will be kind, doesn't make getting on stage easy.

"I've seen sweat and shaking hands," Groundwater says. "Our occupation is a solitary one. We sit in the basement and pound on the computer, so it's difficult for us to get in front of audiences and speak."

But getting your work in front of the right people can make the agony worthwhile. This year's panel of judges will bring lots of expertise: Sandra Bond is a literary agent, Doris Baker owns a Colorado publishing company and is a senior editor, and Alane Ferguson is an Edgar Award-winning author working on her 32nd book. Even the evening's emcee, Jodi Anderson, is a published writer.

So does winning the competition guarantee real-world results?

Groundwater says last year's top winner, Kirk Farber, is a success story. His entry, Postcards from a Dead Girl, won awards for Best Overall, Audience Favorite and Best Character.

"As a result," she says, "[he] now has an agent shopping his book around."

Even some of the contest's prizes are aimed at helping writers make their work attractive to publishers. The top six entries will receive partial manuscript critiques from publishing professionals.

For audience members, the night's allure is similar to that of American Idol the chance to cheer on contestants and vote for their favorites. Well, that and the door prizes, dessert buffet and cash bar.

Groundwater says she expects the popular contest to return in coming years because participants and audiences alike enjoy the parallels to American Idol. And, who knows, maybe they'll discover the next literary superstar.

jill@csindy.com

  • Beth Groundwater is trying to share her luck with American Icon.

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