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Entering Writing Contests–It’s Personal then It’s Business

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Yesterday, I left off on the idea of contests being personal. So many people will tell you when you get your results, “It’s not personal, don’t take it personally.” And if you don’t think all authors feel the same way about our “babies” going out into the world, let me refer you to Anne Bradstreet’s poem “The Author to Her Book,” which was written in 1678.

I’m sure most people have seen the movie You’ve Got Mail with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. If so, you’ll remember this exchange when they’re talking about her specialty bookstore’s being forced out of business by his big-box bookstore:

    Joe Fox: It wasn’t . . . personal.

    Kathleen Kelly: What is that supposed to mean? I am so sick of that. All that means is that it wasn’t personal to you. But it was personal to me. It’s personal to a lot of people. And what’s so wrong with being personal, anyway?

    Joe Fox: Uh, nothing.

    Kathleen Kelly: Whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.

What I’m about to say next may be controversial, and there may be people out there who will disagree with me, but this is my advice: Let it hurt the first time you read the comments. Don’t shield your emotions; don’t pretend it doesn’t make your stomach churn, your head spin, your skin go clammy. Cry. Mourn. Get angry. Grieve. Kick cabinets. Yell to the ceiling, “These people are stupid, and they just don’t get it!” (But, please, do this in private. Do not vent these feelings publicly . . . or you may come to sincerely regret them.)

Then set it down and walk away. Let it sit there for a couple of days while you go through the seven steps of the grief process. (Shock, Guilt, Fear, Depression, Denial, Anger, Acceptance.) Once you get to the acceptance stage (you’ll know it because you won’t cringe or cry or seethe with anger whenever you see the manuscripts sitting on your desk—you’ll want to look at them), then read through the comments again, and you will be surprised by how not personal they are.

I’m not going to sit here and say “don’t take it personally” . . . especially if this is the first time you’ve ever entered a contest or gotten feedback on your writing. Take the comments personally—just not as a personal insult. Take it that there are at least two or three people out there who care enough about YOU as a writer to take the time to read your writing and give feedback on it. That is so much more than the majority of beginning authors have, those who are out there struggling, on their own, trying to figure out how to do it with no support of a writing organization like ACFW and no feedback, guidance, or mentoring from more experienced writers.

Then, once you get over the personal part, it’s time to get down to business—revisions. Rather than repeat what I’ve already expounded upon before, let me refer you to Critiquing Step 4: Putting the Crits to Work.

Be very cautious when reading your contest critiques. Not every comment you receive will be helpful or—much as I, as a judge, hate to admit it—correct. Sometimes those of us who serve as judges have been told something by someone else (another contest judge or a mentor) in complete honesty and integrity that just isn’t right, but we believe it’s true because of the source we received it from. So take every comment with a grain of salt, not as biblical truth. They are suggestions based on the judge’s knowledge and OPINION to make your piece stronger, not an editor’s mandated corrections.

Ask questions. Post them here or your writing group’s forums or e-mail your crit partners. Go to your favorite authors’ blogs or websites and contact them to see if they have the time to answer the questions for you.

Whatever you do–do not get discouraged. Keep writing. Keep studying. Keep entering contests. Learning the craft of writing is a long process, and this is just part of it. And look at it this way: not finaling/winning a contest is good practice for being rejected by agents and editors in the future. Hopefully, by going through this process, it will mean fewer of those rejections and more sales!

3 Comments
  1. Thursday, February 28, 2008 6:57 pm

    Good advice. Esp. the part about not venting publically and giving yourself some time to get over any disappointment.

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  2. Thursday, February 28, 2008 8:29 pm

    It’s so true about receiving comments on a personal level. These are our babies, but it’s a risk we take putting them out there. I suppose it’s a necessary part of growing as a writer.

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