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Entering Writing Contests–Resisting the Dark Side

Thursday, March 6, 2008

My agent, Chip MacGregor, gives the advice that if you want to be praised and told what a wonderful writer you are, send your story to your mama. If you’re ready for critical feedback—positive, negative, and most of the time subjective—then you’re ready to enter a writing contest.

The advice I give most “young” (as in experience, not necessarily age) writers who come to me seeking advice on whether or not they should enter a writing contest is that while they may have a wonderful story, great characters, and a fantastic writing style, if they’re not emotionally ready for the feedback they’re sure to receive, they shouldn’t enter a contest. If they’ve never worked with critique partners, if they’ve never received anything but positive feedback on their writing, if they get very defensive whenever anyone offers constructive criticism, they’re not only not ready to enter a contest, they’re most likely to fall prey to the Dark Side if they do.

I was so envious when I read Erica’s story about how Carla had been praying for her and the other finalists in the contest last year. Why hadn’t I thought of doing that? What this shows is that Carla was more emotionally and, more importantly, spiritually prepared to enter the contest than I was the year before. I wanted to win. Plain and simple. I’d been working on that manuscript for three years. I’d just finished my master’s degree in creative writing. I was former vice president of the flippin’ organization! Didn’t that make me the “most likely to win,” even though the judges didn’t know it was my story they were reading? Or at least the most deserving?

Dark Side alert!

I hadn’t planned on attending the conference that year (2006), but when I found out I was one of the top five finalists in my category, I decided to fly in for the weekend to attend the public book signing and the awards banquet (added bonus of spending the weekend with my parents who live in the area). I was so proud of myself when I found out I was a finalist, I actually ended up inadvertently creating a situation in my local writing group where one of the members became so angry she left the group because she was so upset over what she felt like were the contest’s shortcomings (i.e., she didn’t final, therefore she thought the judges were ignorant/ill-trained, the contest coordinator inept, and the whole contest corrupt). That served as a wake-up call for me. My fleshly pride in being a finalist was no different than her fleshly (wounded) pride in not being a finalist.

I wish I could say that through that adversity, I changed my attitude. I did, a little. But really what happened is that my built-in pessimism kicked into high gear. After submitting the entry, as I’ve mentioned, I ended up cutting the first three or four pages of the first chapter (for a revision for grad school). So I told myself—even as I flew from Nashville to Dallas that September—that if I didn’t win, that was okay, because the story was better now than it was when I submitted it. I knew, as soon as I sat down to write down a few thoughts for my “acceptance speech”—as the coordinator had recommended—that I wasn’t going to win, that I was “jinxing” myself (no, I’m not really superstitious, just pessimistic). But that was okay, I told myself, because I really was only going to see friends and to make contact with the agent to whom I wanted to submit.

See? I was still toying with the Dark Side. I wasn’t looking at this as the opportunity for me to support the four other lovely women who were finalists along with me. I was already coming up with excuses to give people for why I hadn’t won. Not that someone else’s entry was better than mine (congrats and my most humble apologies to Glynna Sirpless), just that mine wasn’t as good when I submitted it as it now was. Not that I went to congratulate the other four women who were finalists along with me, but that I went for the networking opportunity. And it never even entered my mind to pray for the other people who entered my category.

Even though my manuscript won second place, I personally was winning no contests with my Dark Side attitudes!

Contest, Thy Name Is SUBJECTIVITY
A major area of concern for those of us who may be tempted by the Dark Side of entering contests is the fact that, even though judges try to rate manuscripts on the Platonic Ideal of the Genre, personal preference still plays a major role in the scores and comments given. Face it: tastes in fiction are subjective—from the CEO of the publishing house on down to the average reader on the street. What works well for one judge might come across as flat or unrealistic to another. I consider myself to be a relatively tough judge—mine is probably the lower score of what the entrant receives back. Yet there have been times when I’ve absolutely loved an entry that the other two judges gave middling to low scores—because subjectively I liked it and they didn’t. Having been taught how to evaluate fiction as a creative writing professor would in a classroom setting, I “grade” each entry with the letter-grade I would give it were I teaching a CW class before I even start breaking down my thoughts into the different areas for scoring. That “grade” is more of an emotional reaction—a did-I-or-didn’t-I-like-it reaction—than an objective one. Then, I go back through and use the more “empirical” standards of the score sheet to determine why I did or didn’t like it.

Not every judge is going to make an effort to try to bring objectivity to bear on their scoring. All contest entrants must be prepared to receive remarks/scores that reflect only the personal tastes or ideals of the judge. Get used to it. Though most publishing houses try to stay away from hiring folks like this, there are some acquisitions editors out there who base their acquisitions solely on their personal taste. Agents, too, look for stories that they like when considering submissions.

The Dark Side would tell us that this is a personal affront. That these people don’t like me. That when they make negative remarks (or what we construe to be negative), they’re insulting me. That every rejection my manuscript receives, every critique, is a reflection on me, on who I am as a writer, on my quality of life, on whether or not I’m really called to be a writer, on whether or not I’ll ever get published.

The truth of the matter is, even if you’re not in the least a competitive person, contests can bring out the worst in us. Mostly due to the personal nature of submitting our writing for “public” critique, and the fact that we’re all tempted by the Dark Side—by pride, which has led the the downfall of greater people that I’ll ever aspire to be; by anger; by self-doubt; by emotion; and by the nature of competition itself. Or to put it into the words of the Jedi Master, Yoda:

    Yoda: Yes, a Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware of the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice.
    Luke: Vader… Is the dark side stronger?
    Yoda: No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.
    Luke: But how am I to know the good side from the bad?
    Yoda: You will know… when you are calm, at peace, passive. A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.

What side of the “Force” are you taking with you as you enter contests? As you submit to agents and editors?

3 Comments
  1. Thursday, March 6, 2008 6:26 pm

    If anyone is feeling brave enough you can enter our Bookhabit Unpublished Competition. There is a US$5000 prize for the winning book. The competition is free to enter and open to unpublished books, of any genre, with a minimum of 50,000 words. 6 winners are chosen every week until 11 May. It’s not quite your normal writing competition, so check it out. http://www.bookhabit.com/competition/competitioninfo.php Write well! Clare

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  2. Thursday, March 6, 2008 6:50 pm

    Sage advice, Kaye, and brave of you to be so transparent in order to help others. I’ll be leaning on your to help me flee the Dark Side of the Force. šŸ™‚

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  3. Thursday, March 6, 2008 7:08 pm

    Thank you so much for exposing your “dark side” moment for our learning/benefit. Your words are incredibly raw and honest. I think for any of us who are competitive, it really is easy to fall prey.

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