What do you mean I DIDN’T FINAL???
As expected, the congratulatory e-mails and blog posts are making the rounds for those who were announced as semifinalists in the Genesis contest. But what about those who entered but didn’t final? Where are their consolation e-mails? Their “come cry on my shoulder” blog posts?
I’ve been on both sides of this, both as an unpublished writer and as a published author—but it’s that first one I want to focus on today.
I entered ACFW’s contest—back when it was ACRW and the contest was called “Noble Theme”—the first three years of its existence.
The first year (2002), I received an honorable-mention certificate for the sample I entered—of the first manuscript I’d ever completed, after twenty years of “playing.” Though I’ve never received confirmation on this, I have a feeling that there were only five entries and mine came in #5—but they felt like everyone who was brave enough to enter should receive something. I got tons of great feedback on that entry—but by that time, I already knew I was never going to do anything with that manuscript, so I learned what I could from that feedback and applied it to the manuscript I was currently writing.
The next year (2003), I entered two manuscripts—and both failed miserably. Well, maybe that’s an overstatement. They received fair to middling scores. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a lot in the way of constructive comments; for example, I had one judge who scored me a 3 (out of 5) on everything and the only comment she made on the entire entry was, “Well done.”
By the time the contest opened up for entries in 2004, I knew I had THE WINNING ENTRY! You see, just before conference in 2003, I’d come up with an idea of a romance novel involving a wedding planner who takes on a contract for a huge wedding—only to discover it’s her ex-fiancé-turned-movie star’s wedding, and she has to work with his personal assistant to get the wedding planned. When I came up with this story idea, I recognized it as the strongest idea I’d ever had and felt like God was telling me it was going to be my first published novel. I’d completed three manuscripts (those three contest entries above), so this was my year. Manuscript #4. I’d win the contest, and editors would by vying for my attention, waving contracts and money at me for the chance to publish this wonderful work of whimsy.
So imagine my surprise—my astonishment, my anger, my grief, my utter rage at the judges…and God—when I not only didn’t final, but received back scores that were even lower than the scores I’d received the year before. How was that possible? Didn’t these people know that God told me this was going to be my first published novel????? Of course, I’d already completely re-written the first ten chapters since I’d submitted it. And I was about to start on another rewrite of those ten chapters within another month—once I started graduate school (though, naturally, I didn’t know that at the time).
Talk about a game changer. Talk about having to go back to square one—no, before even square one, having to go back to sit at the foot of the throne of God to find out why the judges hated me so much, why He hadn’t told them what He’d told me. And that was when I learned that just because God gave me the story and just because God told me it would be my first published novel, He never said it was going to be easy. He never said He was going to throw success and the adulation of others into my lap. He showed me that if I really wanted to be published, it was going to be a long, hard, sometimes disappointing road. It was up to me to decide if I wanted to take that road or if I wanted to quit.
I’m no quitter.
I’d already enrolled in graduate school, so I put my head down, my nose to the grindstone, my ear to the ground (insert other meaningless cliché here). Over the next two years, I went through the ringer with this manuscript: two years of graduate school, two published-author mentors, six or seven critique partners, public critique workshops, and so on.
In 2006, I felt it was ready—this was my chance to see if “the industry” thought so, too. So I entered it in Genesis again. And then I had to prepare the manuscript for thesis review to see if I would actually be receiving a master’s degree with this manuscript. And before I submitted it, I re-read it—and realized how boring the first chapter was. I cut the first three pages and rewrote it to eliminate an unnecessary character—all the time knowing that these things were still in the version being judged in the contest. So I had my excuse ready at hand if I didn’t final. But—surprise, surprise—I did! And I came in second place in the contemporary romance category—shocker, since I knew how much work what those judges read needed.
More important than finaling in the contest, though, were the invitations to submit a proposal from the two top agents on my target list. But finaling did give me the courage to approach them and ask them if I could submit my work to them.
That was in September 2006. In January 2007, I signed with Chip MacGregor of MacGregor Literary. In December 2007, I received my first book contract for that manuscript. And in December 2008, that manuscript became my first published novel—Stand-In Groom.
But there are so many people who have never finaled in a contest who’ve gone on to get published and have successful writing careers.
And think about it this way: Look at how many writers over the centuries have gotten published before writing contests like these were ever even thought of, much less considered mainstream and “normal” for people to enter.
Unpublished writers: Do you enter contests? Why/why not? If you do, what do you do with the feedback you receive? What do you hope to accomplish by entering contests? How many do you enter each year?
Published authors: Did you enter writing contests before getting published? Did you final/win? Did your finaling/winning entries get published? What did you learn from entering unpublished-writer contests you’d like others to know?
Readers: What’s your opinion of writing contests for unpublished writers? Would you be more likely to read a debut author’s book if you knew this author had finaled in and/or won a contest with the first chapter of the book?