Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Hard Truth About Writing Contests

This past week has been all about writing contests for me*, so naturally when I sat down to write today’s post, it was the topic at the forefront of my mind.

But so much has been written about the value of entering contests, about the disappointment of not winning contests but the need to soldier on, about the difficulties of being on the other side of contests as a judge or mentor, I wasn’t sure what I could say that would be different or useful.

And so the only thing I can do is share my experience. I hope somewhere in here there’s a nugget or two you haven’t heard before, something that explains the value of entering contests, helps you deal with the disappointment of not winning, and gives you a glimpse of what it’s like on the other side.

It’s Not Whether You Win or Lose, It’s How You Play the Game . . . and other “Mom-isms” that Turn Out to Be True

In late 2012, I finally admitted to something I’d been doing in private for three years: writing. Other than my husband and one or two close friends, no one knew I’d been working on a manuscript for give-or-take two years. The thing I was slowly discovering I loved was far too fragile to put out there. What if I told people I was writing and nothing ever happened? That was my greatest fear (in many ways, it still is…but that’s another post for another day).

But in keeping my writing to myself, I was hampering my ability to do what I loved—what I couldn’t even dare to hope in the far reaches of my mind might possibly, one day, maybe become a career. Because without showing our writing to other people, without getting feedback and critiques, we are working in a vacuum, with no ability to learn, grow, or improve our craft.

If it weren’t for one login and password, I’m not sure I would have ever left my safe, but unproductive writing cave. That login and password were to Twitter. The writing world on Twitter opened its arms to me (special shout-out to Dee Romito (@writeforapples), Jen Malone (@jenmalonewrites), Summer Heacock (@Fizzyfrrl), and Brenda Drake (@brendadrake) for being some of the first writers to make me feel comfortable doing this thing called “tweeting”).

Somehow, in this semi-anonymous, semi-public world of people I had never met and would only recognize on the street if their heads were surrounded by tiny square boxes, I found the courage to say I was writing (I was still not ready to call myself “a writer”). This was the fall of 2012 and as this season tends to be, it was CONTEST TIME on Twitter.

Though I kept it hush hush with my friends and family, online, I entered contest after contest with my first manuscript and also with my second, the one I worked furiously hard to finish in time for Pitch Wars 2012.

The end result? I won some and I lost some.

How did this make me feel? It gave me the courage—and the desire—to call myself a writer. Let me explain:

For me—someone afraid to admit I was writing—the first time I advanced a level in a contest, I felt ecstatic but also a tremendous amount of relief. Not just to have advanced but to have gotten the tiniest of nods that “yes, maybe I can do this.” Did I lose contests after that? Including Pitch Wars. Yes and yes.

But I’d gotten the contest bug. I was determined to keep trying, to see what worked for others, to absorb every tidbit of feedback I was given, to do anything and everything to get more feedback. Because feedback was making me better. It was making me annoyed, frustrated, and the teensiest bit competitive, sure, but better too. Feedback was helping to teach me what I was doing great and what I could do better.

I sought feedback in every way, but three things ultimately made the most difference in my writing.

The first was getting critiques from published authors and from agents. How does one do this? It’s not easy. But Twitter helps. At times authors and agents (especially as auctions in support of great charities) give away critiques. These do cost money (but the money is going to help those in need, don’t forget). But in my case, I can honestly say that I would have never sold Becoming Jinn without these critiques I bid on and won. Feedback from those critiques run a straight line to elements I changed that led to my agent and book deal. Cost? Priceless.

The second was diving into an intense three-week First Five Pages Workshop online (that still runs; check it out: This workshop gave me something I couldn’t get elsewhere: feedback on what I’d changed. Because it’s one thing for someone to point out what isn’t working but how am I to know if my changes are on the right track? By having fellow writers, published and not, look at each revision and give constructive criticism, I started to learn to trust myself. Even more priceless.

The third was, again, contests. But now I’m not talking about the feedback from contests. I’m talking about the people. Okay, so you’ve heard this before. But it is so true that I can’t not repeat it. Making connections with other writers is the most important part of this industry: for feedback in terms of critique partners, for gaining confidence to put your work “out there,” results be damned, for having people who understand what you are going through, who know how high your highs are and how low your lows are, and who will hold your hand through it all. It is through contests and Twitter that I found my writing friends who are now simply friends. (Shout-out to N.K. Traver (@nktraver), Chelsea Bobluski (@chelseabobluski), Nikki Kelly (@styclar), and the entire Freshman Fifteen clan (@freshman15s).

Contests are hard to enter. They are hard to judge (there’s so much talent, I find myself wanting to work with every single entrant and wishing I had the time to do so; picking one hurts me, maybe not as much as you, but it does, believe me).
There’s much to be learned on both sides. And that’s the other part of this: if you don’t take the feedback, if you don’t work hard to improve your writing, then you can enter all the contests you want, but your writing may not get you where you want to go.

Are all judges “right”? Absolutely not! But more often than not you will find a little something to take away: even if it’s reading the entries of the winning writers and comparing their work to your own.

So that’s it. Contests aren’t for everyone, but if they appeal to you, enter and grab onto all the feedback you can get!

* The contests I was a part of this week include the Freshman Fifteens-Wattpad Teen Short Story Mentoring Contest, which I organized. The pitches were amazing and the talent in this group of young writers runs deep. I’d love to invite you to read their pitches and return in January 2015 to read their finished short stories. Give them the feedback they deserve for putting themselves out there at such young ages. (;

The second was, you guessed it, Pitch Wars. And if you would have told me in 2012 that the contest I just lost would have me as a mentor two years in a row, I’d have chuckled in your little square-headed Twitter box face. We never know what the future holds. Be open to everything and enjoy the ride.

Lori Goldstein is the author of Becoming Jinn (now available for preorder; Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan, May 12, 2015, sequel, Spring 2016). With a degree in journalism and more than 10 years of experience, Lori is a freelance copyeditor and manuscript consultant for all genres. She focuses on the nitty-gritty, letting writers focus on the writing.

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