Tuesday, February 2, 2016

A Surviver's Guide to 2016 Writers Contests

I love contests. One of my prayers for the last five years, after I seriously started pursuing this writing thing, had been to win ACFW's Genesis Contest. ACFW is the American Christian Fictions Writers organization and winning or even finaling in their Genesis Contest for unpublished authors in one of the biggest honors in the Inspirational writing world. I know it's silly to want to stay unpublished/uncontracted to win a writing contest—after all, publication is the REAL goal, right?—but that win was still my prayer. 

And last year, in 2015, I won the YA category. Which sparked my willingness to change focus in my career and look toward indie publishing.

Now the 2016 contest season is here. Among my favorites are Genesis and the Rosemary. So it's time to polish up those opening pages!

I always get excited about the submission part. I'm eager to get feedback. And then, three or four months later, the results are in. The scoresheets are returned. And as I drown my emotions in a pint of Ben & Jerry's Chubby Hubby, I ask myself, "Why do I subject myself to this again and again and again?!?!?"

My scores may come back respectable. 96. 88. 92. 84. But somewhere in there, I'll get a 55. A 62. One lousy score out of a half dozen great scores, and that one failing mark leaves me questioning everything I thought I knew about writing and, more importantly, about my ability and my future as an author.

Despite positive feedback from the majority of the judges, that one low score is the only I fixate on. For some reason, I believe that judge is the only one being honest. That judge is the only one able to see that I am a failure as a writer. That judge is the only one I should listen to.

A big. Fat. Lie.

I'm guessing I'm not the only contest-junkie who fixates on the negative instead of the positive, even if the positive outweighs the negative. And even though I still haven't conquered that voice claiming the negative is the real truth, I have developed a survival guide to help me yell back at that voice.

1: Judges are Human

Because judges are human, they are subjective in their critique. Sometimes even in areas like mechanics their scores can be subjective. They may decide that two difficult-to-diagnose comma errors in twenty pages is grounds for a low, definitely-not-ready-for-editor-eyes score; while another judge may mark off much less because they believe the comma errors to be extremely minor. 

And in the bigger areas? Personal preference can play a huge role. Maybe the judge prefers first person POV over third person and has difficulty connecting to characters in a third person POV. Or something in the story bugs them in a way that clouds their positive-vibes and prompts lower scores. Or maybe the judge is struggling with frustration and bitterness about all the rules and doors slamming in their own face on this publishing journey, so they feel a little harsher toward the world without realizing it. 

If one random judge out of three or five or eight claims the story lacks conflict, emotional depth, deep story-telling techniques, while every other judge praises you in those areas, don't rent head-space to that negative judge! Scan the low-scoring, negative judge's comments, and hide them in the deep dark, forgetful place in your mind. A place where, if other, less-harsh judges point out similar weaknesses, you'll know those judges' suggestions need consideration. But don't waste energy—or delicious Ben & Jerry's ice cream—obsessing over one judge's scores.

2: Lean On Your Critique Partners (Not Ben or Jerry)

This advice goes along with the previous. When you get that super, insanely negative scoresheet, share the comments with someone you trust—a critique partner or an editor you've worked with. Someone who you trust to be honest, yet gentle. Someone who isn't emotionally invested in the manuscript. Someone who knows the craft. This person can talk you off the ledge—or out of the Ben & Jerry's carton. They can weed through those comments that to you sound like, "Your writing sucks! You're a hack! No one will ever want to publish this horrible, sticking, mess!" and see the compliments, the positives, and the valid suggestions. 

More than once, my critique partners have helped me find the positives in what sounded like haters-gonna-hate feedback and provided suggestions on how to implement valid points. I can see now that the negative feedback has made my writing better, but I needed the assistance of people I trusted to point out where and how.

3: Remember to Thank Your Judges!

Most contests will allow you to email your judges, through your category coordinator, a thank you. Please, please, email your thanks. I'm not saying this because it's polite or good form—which it is—but also because judging is anonymous for both the judges AND the entrants. The judges don't get a name attached to an entry. But what happens when the judge reads a good one? An entry they love? An entry that leaves them yelling at their computer screen, "I NEED MORE!"? 

Sending a thank you email allows the judge to attach an author to that jaw-dropping, heart-stopping, eye-popping entry that they want to finish. Now the judge can stalk—er, I mean follow—the author on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and everywhere authors hang out. When that entry gets picked up by a publisher and the publisher changes the title, the judge will finally have an opportunity to finish the story. Closure, it's all about closure.

Even after winning Genesis the rejections and negative feedback crawls inside my brain and puts down roots. I don't think that will ever change. Even after I'm published I'll face negative reviews from readers who hate something about my books. But I've got a plan and a circle of supporters who will help me through the negatives. And with their help and contest feedback, my writing will get better and better.

Any other advice for contest survival?


  1. I love writing contests, and I know its a whole season of them that whipped my manuscript into shape and landed me my agent. You make some wonderful, valid points here. Another suggestion I have is to meet other people involved in the contests if you can via social media. I've created many friends in these types of situations. It's nice to swap insecurities and find the fun with like-minded, and appetited, friends.

  2. You have excellent points here. I've judged for contests, and I know from experience that it is a very personal things for judges. There are some things I love that others hate and vice versa. Just like some people love Harry Potter and some people (robots) hate it. Like every other book - it's a mix of craft and personal preference that can catch a judge's eye!