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Entering Writing Contests–Etiquette 101 by Erica Vetsch

Monday, March 3, 2008

As my crit partners are also veterans at this whole writing-contest thing, I’ve asked Erica to give us a few words about the etiquette that goes along with entering writing contests.

Contest Etiquette 101
by Erica Vetsch

I’ve entered several contests in the past, some RWA regional contests, and the ACFW Genesis contest. The first contest I entered was the Genesis (called the Noble Theme at the time). I had a very raw manuscript that had never really been critiqued before, but I thought it was amazingly beautiful. I was sure it would win, offers of publication would pour in, and I’d be forced to chose between two dream editors.

Oh, the naivety. That manuscript stank. Really. I look at it now and cringe. I also sent that same manuscript to two other contests at the same time, sure I would hit the trifecta and rake in the writing accolades. Needless to say, the responses were nowhere near what I expected. Shocking! I was hurt, angry, frustrated, and I did what most novice writers do. I took my battered baby manuscript to my local critique group full of novice writers to whine. They gave me props, told me the scores were unfair, and basically poured a balm on my soul. What that group didn’t do, mostly because they didn’t know any better than I, was tell me the truth. The ms needed work. A lot of work.

I put that manuscript away for awhile and focused on a new one. I read books on craft, learned from the courses on the ACFW, listened whenever someone would talk to me about the writing craft, and went to a writer’s conference. I went back after a few months and re-read the judges’ comments. And you know what? Those judges were right in all the correction they gave.

When I felt I had improved a lot, I entered another contest, this one RWA sanctioned. And I entered for the feedback, not to win. This time, the scores were much better, and I got an offer from one of the judges to give me some one-on-one tutoring because she thought the story had promise. I’d made some progress.

Last year I entered the Genesis with one manuscript. And I was a finalist! The feedback I got from the editors in the final round was invaluable. I was invited to submit to both publishing houses, and I received the nicest one-page rejection letter of my career.

This year I’ve entered the Genesis. It was a struggle whether to enter again. What if I didn’t do as well as I had last year? Would that mean last year was a fluke? Would it mean I had regressed as a writer? Fear everywhere I turned. And yet, I knew this was the best way to get impartial feedback, to get my manuscript hopefully before some editors I admire and would like to work with, and to conquer the anxiety that was holding me back. I’m hoping for the best, but I know the feedback will be the most valuable part of the contest.

So what do you do with your results when you get them? I can GUARANTEE you will get at least one comment that stings, burns, and otherwise makes you want to kick a trash can. You will be tempted to vent to all your writing buddies, your family, and the lady who works at the post office about how unfair that comment, that score, that placement was.

My advice is don’t. Not right away, not while the pain is fresh. Most of us can’t be objective about our scores right away, whether good or bad. And sometimes we say things out of hurt that we wish we could take back. And while it is true that misery loves company, it is also true that discontent breeds discontent. We may, through our grumbling, draw someone into the pity party that, before we crossed their path like a dark cloud, was quite content with their results. We don’t want to be guilty of causing someone else to stumble.

Last year the ACFW forums saw quite a bit of post-Genesis pain. I would suggest that you hold off venting in public for at least three months. It’s okay to cry some, or even pour out your frustration and confusion and disappointment to the Lord, but don’t give in to the temptation to grouse about the judges, about the unfairness of it all, especially in public. Put your work away. Get busy on the next project. In a few weeks, take out those scores and really read them through. You might find yourself feeling differently about your comments/results/scores after a time away than you did when you first got them back. You might find a lot of good things the judges said about your work that you were blinded to when you first saw your scores. And as an added bonus, you won’t have a pain-drenched (sometimes thinly-veiling anger) post on the forum for all to read.

Please remember this is a small industry. You want to be known as a gracious contestant, win, place or ‘I’m never showing anyone this manuscript ever again!’

Contest coordinators strive to find qualified judges, impartial score sheets, and experienced final round editors and agents. They answer sometimes hundreds of emails, wrangling entries, contestants, judges, and logistics, all the while never letting you see them sweat. They are assisted by category coordinators who evaluate the manuscripts for correct form before passing it along to the judges. They preserve the identity of the judges and serve as liaisons among the contest coordinators, the judges, and the contestants.

Judges give of their time willingly, and often those who are the most qualified to judge have the least amount of time to give. They have only your best interest at heart, and they understand the danger to a writer if they only give ‘atta-girls’ and ‘way-to-go’s’. They want to make you a better writer.

Final round editors and agents who judge have ZERO time to devote to contests, but they do it anyway.

It is a matter of good form and politeness to thank those who took the time to volunteer to make you a better writer. Thank your coordinators, thank your judges, and if you final, be sure to thank the editors and agents, regardless of the scores. If you are hurt to the core by your scores, I have two pieces of advice: First, pray, pray for your judges, pray for yourself. It’s awfully hard to wish ill to a person you are truly praying for. Second, send the thank you anyway. You don’t have to say something you don’t feel is true, but you can always say ‘thank you for taking the time to judge my manuscript.’

In conclusion, here’s another thing I learned from last year’s Genesis contest from a dear woman I now count as a friend. Carla Stewart, the winner of the Historical Fiction category of the 2007 Genesis Contest, both encouraged and humbled me. We ran into each other at the ACFW conference the day before the awards banquet. She read my nametag, recognized me as one of the finalists in her category, opened her arms to hug me, and told me she had been praying for me for the past four months. How amazing is that? We’ve kept in touch of the last few months, and she’s been such a blessing to me.

Look for the ways God can bless you through contests. They probably won’t be the ways you imagine, but they will be blessings nonetheless.

About the Author:
ericavetsch.jpgErica Vetsch lives with her husband and two children in Rochester, MN. She is a home-school teacher, bookkeeper, and fan of western movies. She belongs to the American Christian Fiction Writers, the Writer’s View, the Christian Fiction Blog Alliance and the Minnesota Historical Society. Erica is a 2007 Genesis Contest Finalist with her manuscript Drums of the North Star. She has recently completed her sixth novel. She holds a Bachelor’s degree from Calvary Bible College and has been a librarian and high school history teacher.

8 Comments
  1. Monday, March 3, 2008 9:14 pm

    Thanks, Kaye, for letting me guest blog. 🙂

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  2. Tuesday, March 4, 2008 1:49 am

    Thanks Erica, you made me laugh and want to read more. I sign of a good writer. Cheers, Laurel Ann

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  3. Tuesday, March 4, 2008 8:28 am

    Very wise words. Too often we have that knee jerk reaction to feeling hurt when our baby is criticized. As you said, best to set it aside and then look at it after the initial disappointment is past. After all, the judges are there to help not hinder.

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  4. Tuesday, March 4, 2008 8:54 am

    You’re so right in your observations! Good advice too 🙂

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  5. Tuesday, March 4, 2008 10:17 am

    Wonderful post, Erica and everything you said is so true. I’ve kept all my contest entries and publishing rejection slips for the past _?_ years, and no way can we read them for the first time without hurt and anger. I looked back on some of them a few weeks ago and was shocked to see there was alot of encouragement intertwined with the critiques and suggestions. The best thing we can do for ourselves is to put those comments away for a little while.

    And wow! How beautiful to learn that Carla had been praying for you. 🙂

    Wonderful, encouraging post! Thanks.

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  6. Tuesday, March 4, 2008 10:41 am

    Erica, our chance encounter at ACFW was very special to me. Your sweet words are a reminder to me that this is a tribe, and as so-journers we must hang together, encourage one another, pray for each other, and when the time is right, be honest. I wanted you to win. I wanted the other finalists to win. I wanted me to win. And in the end, I shared the honor with four wonderful writers. A fluke? Yeah, it probably was for me, and I have had the same self-doubts about entering the Gensis this time.
    I really needed your advice today and know that every contest, every critique brings us closer to the goal . . . and brings people like you in my life. I am richer because of that. Thanks, Erica!

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  7. Tuesday, March 4, 2008 11:11 am

    Excellent advice, Erica. It may sound strange, but I’m hoping for that “one [at least] comment that stings, burns, and otherwise makes you want to kick a trash can.” I want so much to improve this manuscript and am hungry for an objective eye to catch those weaknesses I know I’m missing. It’s the whole reason I entered the contest.

    I take your encouragement to pray for the judges to heart. Thank you for saying that. I’m going to print this post [if that’s ok!] and tape it next to my computer.

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  8. Tuesday, March 4, 2008 11:35 am

    I can’t imagine anyone venting on a PUBLIC forum that anyone could read! How scary is that? As you say, this is a small business.

    I’ve gotten some great advice and feedback from different contests. In one, I got an Honorable Mention and some truly helpful words from the end round jugde, an award winning historical writer. She told me what she liked and what I should change to make my ms. work better. She was right. I ended up slashing 3 chapters into one! And it’s a lot more powerful now.

    On the flip side of the coin, sometimes judges are wrong. But, I find your advice just as encouraging and right on for those times–none of us is ever ALWAYS right and if we truly believe in treating others as we’d have them treat us–wouldn’t the best course be to cover their mistakes and forget it? Instead of reacting in anger, it would be better to forgive and move on.

    Hope you do well in the contest!!

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