Contests: A Proving Ground
Unpublished writers can gain much from writing contests
Contests are a great way to hone a writer’s skill and develop good author habits as long as the contest route is taken with “practice” in mind. Like making the Olympic team, we need to develop a routine, exercise our muscles, practice our art, and enter competitions, so when we make the publishing team, we have a solid foundation on which to build and we won’t let our teammates down.
But we must be very conscious of how we approach this path and what our expectations are. If we enter contests simply hoping our entry will pass the test of the first-round judges who will pass it along to the final judge who will then request the full manuscript, and love it so much they’ll decide to publish it, then we are losing out on the education that can be gained from the experience itself. Not every competition will be won, but we can take something away from every competition entered.
Feedback is probably the most controversial area of entering a contest. Horror stories abound about the belittling judge who told a writer never to write another word. To me, this type of critique tells me more about the judge than the work. However, it amazes me that a writer will receive feedback from three judges and two will offer wonderful praise and the third will trash it. The writer can’t stop talking about, and, yes, obsessing over, the negative feedback. Granted, positive critiques don’t give you a lot to work on, but, for some reason, we always focus on the one negative. Are our egos really so delicate? For writers, they’d better not be, or trips to the psychologist will far outpace trips to the bank!
Yes, getting a harsh critique can be tough, but guess what? Editors and agents are not all going to have the same opinion. They aren’t going to like the same genres, writing styles, voices, and plot lines. They will come to your manuscript with their own personal biases and beliefs, just as the many volunteer judges do for our chapter contests. Some editors will think my manuscript needs work. Others may think it should be thrown in the trash (though they won’t say so), and then, there will be that one editor who thinks my story has great potential and will want to publish it.
Notice the similarity? The judging portion of the contest world is simply a microcosm of the publishing world. It is a competition for your Olympic manuscript. Feedback from the “good” judges is like our coaches sharing their experience and wisdom. The feedback from the “bad” judge is the opposing team’s trash talk. Are we really going to waste time on trash talk?
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