As yet another writing contest comes to a near close, I thought I’d post about my experiences with contests – I had initially started this as a thread on Twitter, but with the way it was going, I thought it best to blog instead.
First of all, I’ll make this clear: I’ve been picked for one contest, and it was as an alternative pick. By logic, it means my title is wrong, but when I say I’ve never been picked, I mean my manuscript has never been chosen when it comes to super popular writing contests – the ones with all the popular kids, and the well-known hosts, the awesome agents who are basically guaranteed to show up. You know which I’m talking about:
#PitchWars #QueryKombat #NoQS #SunvsSnow #pg70pit #PitchMadness #PitchMAS #PitchSlam. Those, I’ve never been picked for (which, ironically enough, is the story of my school life – never was picked by the cool crowd lol).
And you know what? The first time, it hurt like hell. I’ll admit it – I cried like a baby. No shame. It was the Nightmare on Query Street, and I entered one of the first manuscripts I’d ever written. I remember I was lying in bed, and the host decided to surprise everyone with announcing the picks earlier. It was around…one in the morning, I think. I scanned through the picks about a dozen times (not kidding), and I just burst into tears when my entry wasn’t there. I even did a ‘find in page’, and went through all the titles one by one in case there had been a spelling mistake. But, it wasn’t there, and I cried all night. The next morning, I was so depressed, I skipped my university classes. And you know what? I’m so glad it wasn’t picked. Know why? I rewrote that story, three years later, and now, I actually love it. It may change again, who knows, but I love it a lot better now than I did when I’d entered it. If it had gotten picked, and even published…I honestly know I’d regret it because it’s so much better now. This was back in 2012, by the way, and this new version is the one I entered in #PitchWars this year. Will it be picked? Well, this brings me to my next point.
SUBJECTIVE. Oh, how we hate this word. And not only writers but publishers, agents, editors, etc. – we all hate the word. But, you know what? It’s really what that final decision usually comes down to. For example, some people don’t like the Harry Potter series. “But…how is that possible?” you may ask. Simple: not everyone likes the same things. I love some books that aren’t popular and I scream at the heavens, not understanding how it’s possible. Meanwhile, other books are extremely popular (even get their own movies/TV shows), and I’m sitting here bashing my head against the desk. How does this happen? Subjectivity. Now, that’s not to say that the manuscripts that weren’t chosen are just because of subjectivity! Here are some other reasons:
- Market (this is the other nasty word writers/publishers/agents/editors/etc. hate): sometimes, the market isn’t in demand for your category and/or genre. Now, this brings me to what I’d written beforehand: will my entry be picked this time, after I’ve done countless revisions on it for the past 5 years now? I’ll be honest – probably not. It’s an Adult Dark Fantasy Romance, and I’ve been hanging around the publishing industry long enough to know this isn’t always the right genre (better than paranormal, which is the other genre I write), but still, not popular like some other genres. Also, I have to mention my word count of 107K (ouch). This may very well be a major turn off to mentors who just don’t have time to put in that many hours in for that many words!
- Could be better: oh lord, no writer wants to hear this, but it’s the truth. Just take my dark fantasy romance I mentioned – it could have been better, and I took the time. How many times is too much when it comes to rewriting, revising, editing? That’s really up to you. I finished my paranormal mystery romance back in 2014, and edited it 72 times, rewrote it three times, and revised once. And guess what? June 29th, 2017 it was published! And what else? I love it more than all the other times I’d ‘finished’ it. Now, when you hear this, our first reaction is to think “It’s subjective – they don’t know what they’re talking about!” Well, yes, it is subjective, but if you don’t want a mentor’s opinion, then why enter a contest in the first place? Are they all-knowing publishing gods? No, but if they were chosen as mentors, then they know their way around the block a bit more than the writers entering (not necessarily, but odds are, yes). So, while your ego needs to take this with a grain of salt, you – as the writer – need to think about that criticism, mull over it a few days, then decide what you want to do with it if anything.
- Voice (pretty sure I hate this word even more than the market, actually): What is voice? Ah yes, the one question we never can really get the answer to because, in some way, this too is subjective (that CURSED word!). It’s true, though – it’s one of those things you can’t really explain, but the only thing I can really describe it as is by giving an example. You know how, when you write character dialogues, each character has their own unique way of speaking? Like, if you took out the tags, 99% of the time, you could guess who was speaking? Voice is a bit like that, except, it’s YOUR voice. It’s the words you chose, the way you place them…think of it as art – it’s your brush technique, the way you play with shadows and light. It’s your voice.
- 1 pick: let’s not forget this part, which is pretty crucial. There were what? I think I saw something like 3,500 entries for the contest? And there are 178 mentors (though many are in teams of two, so for the sake of numbers here, let’s say a total of 100 mentors) – that’s a 35% chance of getting in. Now, this would be if all mentors represented your category, which isn’t the case, and as of right now, I don’t have a clue how many entries there were per category. What am I getting at? Your entry might have been gold, but in a sea where there’s lots of gold, it doesn’t really matter, does it? Imagine for a second, you’re in front of a table with, let’s say, 200 pieces of gold – each of them unique in their way – but you can only pick one…maybe two, but that’s it! Now, this is where subjectivity kicks in (damn that word!), and you grab two and leave with those. Was the rest of the 198 pieces you left behind bad? It’s gold! Of course not! But, you still could only pick one or two! So, if you don’t get picked, don’t let it get you down because your manuscript may have been gold, but the mentors just couldn’t pick all of them
Now…what else did I want to talk about…? Ah yes! The mentors! Picture this, for a second, and live through the agony with me. Okay, here we go! You have a list of books you love, right? (if you’re a writer, you must have a list). You stand in front of that same table, and all of your favorite books are lined up, but guess what? You can pick one. Now, your heart has started to race, your palms are sweaty (knees weak, arms are heavy. There’s vomit on his sweater already: Mom’s spaghetti. #SorryNotSorry), and you’re thinking “Wait…just one?! Impossible! They’re all so good, and different, I can’t pick!” Well, that’s what the mentors have to do. They read a bunch of entries, and then have a list of their favorites (and yours could be in there!), but they can pick just one. Can you imagine the pain of doing that? Seriously, joking aside: could you be a mentor and pick just one? I know I’d have one hell of a time because from those games we play on the #PitchWars thread, posting pages and lines from our entries, there are a dozen right now I’d love to read. If I had to pick just one? Shit. No. Even when there are twitter pitching parties – do you know how many I would love to ‘like’ and represent if I was an agent? Yet, if you were picked by an agent, you’d want them to have time to dedicate time to represent your book, so if they represent all the books they love, the books would suffer. It’s a bit like quality over quantity. An agent, as well as a mentor, can only take on so much, but in the words of Charles Emerson Winchester III: “I do one thing at a time. I do it very well. And then I move on.“. THIS. I would rather a mentor pick one or two entries so they can actually dedicate time instead of taking a bunch on, and not being able to do much because let’s face it: mentors aren’t paid for this. They have day jobs, they have their own writing; they are busy. So, as angry as you might feel if you’re not picked, try that old saying of putting yourself in a mentor’s shoes, and ask yourself the following questions before you bitch on social media:
- Could I have dedicated 2 weeks worth of reading a bunch of entries?
- Could I have narrowed my choices down?
- Could I have sent for fulls, and read them all on time?
- Could I have read all of these, knowing I could only pick one?
- Could I have spent this time doing all this reading, postponing my own writing/projects?
- Could I then take the time to mentor/criticize/work with knowing the writer might not be as open to making changes?
- And could I have done all of this for free?
Maybe you can say yes to all of these (and I’m sure there’s way more), and if so, then congrats. Whether you say yes or no to any of these, just remember this when the picks are announced.
So what to do if you’re not picked? Different things work for different people, but may I suggest the following:
- eating a pint of ice cream (not recommended if you’re lactose intolerant – may I recommend Chapman’s Sorbet, if that’s the case – rainbow is yummy!)
- screaming into your pillow
- crying (and I mean, ugly crying here)
- writing how angry you are in a word document, then delete it
- DM private chats with friends
- writing a new story (and no, I don’t mean shelf your manuscript because it didn’t get picked – gods I hated when people suggested that to me constantly – I just mean write something else to get your mind off the contest, type of thing)
- Query (oh, how we hate when people suggest this as well, but it’s true. I mean, like I said before, my published manuscript was never picked for any contest (big or small), yet I queried and ta-da! After 3 years, it was finally picked up by a wonderful publishing press! Shoutout to Evernight Publishing!)
What not to do:
- Don’t post on social media angry tweets – we get you’re pissed off, no worries – please reach out and DM! You don’t have anyone? That’s fine – my twitter is @stormowl7 – add me as a friend, and DM the longest rant you want, it’s all good! I’ll listen, I’ll respond, I’ll encourage, and bitch along with you, and at the end, we’ll go through some ideas together for whatever you’d like to do next (FYI: This isn’t an invitation to ask me to read the manuscript you entered. As much as I’d love to beta read as well, I just can’t – I’mbookeds solid for the next 6 months with work, writing. beta readings, book covers, etc.)
- Quit writing. Funny thing, but I had actually quit writing after I didn’t get picked for a contest a while back (like, maybe 2 years ago? maybe longer…). You know what, though? It was the best thing I could’ve done. It put writing back in perspective for me, and pushed me harder to never give up again. So, while I don’t recommend quiting, if taking a break is what you need, then do it. For a while, I took a break from writing contests – that was also good for me – gave me another way to view contests from the sidelines
What’s the goal of a writing contest? To get picked, yes. I hate when people are trying to encourage writers who weren’t picked by saying things like “You didn’t lose!“. Well, technically, you did. I grew up in the generation bordering right before the ‘participation medals’ so my mentality is rigged with ‘You win or you die.‘ I mean…lose…sorry, Game of Thrones there. So, let’s look at this for a minute, shall we? You didn’t get picked. You lost. Breathe it in. Relax, and now think. Of what? Well, while you were waiting for the results, did you network? Did you make writer friends you’ll be able to DM and rant over not getting picked? Did you perhaps make writer friends who will someday beta read your stories and vice versa? Did you even make a critique partner? Did you find a writer who already has books and now you’ve found a new favorite author? There you go! You lost the writing conest, sure, but if you did any of the above, you come out with more experience, more friends, networking, etc. than when you started. So basically, think of it as a birthday party: you don’t get the presents that the birthday kid/mentee gets, but you get to have cake, and leave with a goodie bag!