1. I’m a halfway decent writer.
In three contests, 10 judges total, half ripped my manuscript apart and scored me extremely low. The other half ripped into my entry but scored me above average, even in the range for me to qualify as a finalist, if at least one judge didn’t tank me.
Between the three contests, my entries overlapped the same scenes from my manuscript, so really, the same material was judged in all three contests. Here’s the breakdown of my percentages from lowest to highest:
47%, 65%, 67%, 68%, 70%, 74%, 88%, 91%, 95%, 97%
Using a letter grade equivalent with a ten point spread between grades, that’s:
A = 3
B = 1
C = 2
D = 3
F = 1
The same material people. If this doesn’t indicate that judging is a very subjective action, I don’t know what does.
Another odd thing I noticed was that all the published judges scored my entry very well, while the unpublished judges account for every D and F I received. The Cs were split between pubbed and unpubbed.
I was left wondering how to interpret that, and I still don’t know. Maybe published judges could see the diamond in the rough, knowing how much a story can change in the publishing process. So the unpubbed/self-pubbed judges may have expected a nearly perfect entry and had a very low tolerance for anything less. Who knows.
2. Contest judges can be very subjective.
I mentioned this in #1, but I’m not referencing the range of scores. It was the comments.
Your heroine isn’t interesting, and I don’t know why I should care about her.
Your heroine is well fleshed out, and I want to read more about her.
Your heroine is weak and you need build her story.
You had a well-developed heroine.
You need to take a course on world-building.
I liked the world you’ve created.
This entry makes me want to read the story.
I would not be interested in reading this book.
With scores spanning the grading spectrum, and with opposing comments, I was like, how the eff am I supposed to glean anything useful from this contest business?
3. Contests can teach you a lot about writing.
Judges are awesome. Their time is as valuable as anyone else’s, but they took time for my little entry. I want to thank every judge who took the time to leave comments and even went as far as editing my entry. I can’t tell you how much I learned about proper writing and storytelling from just those few pages.
Once I took my deep breaths, gave myself a peptalk, and sat down to grit my way through the comments, trends became clear very quickly. I didn’t realize I had a POV issue. But it was pointed out by nearly every judge. I would describe an action of a secondary character, but it would seem like I was making the description from that character’s head.
Obviously - to everyone but me - I did not know my tenses. I was like, past, present, of course I know tenses. I didn’t. Then there were the passive voice comments, and me going, what the fuck is passive voice??
I’m still learning my was, have been, and had beens. I think it’s becoming instinctual, but we’ll see after I get my next manuscript edited - with a new editor. Grammatically, my work was correct, but lacked the punch I wanted from active voice. Five books and three short stories and it wasn’t mentioned once I was writing with a passive voice. Sure, she added “had” where they were needed, but when I read other books, it’s not as consistent as trad-pubbed books. Editor or not, it's something I want to know as an author.
4. Contests can teach you a lot about yourself.
I’m a people-pleasing introvert who avoids conflict. I also come from stolid Midwest stock who hate to ask for help, because *gasp* you might feel…something. God forbid you owe anyone anything for their help and feel indebted. So for me to hold my precious work that I lost sleep over, missed family time over, and ask people to give me their worst - it’s a big deal.
After a year and a half of writing, I’m finally, slowly, building a group of beta-readers. They’re not writers, so I’m not seeing the feedback I really need. Except for the former teacher-journalist who continuously asks me what a character’s motivation is, notifies me when something’s not believable, and isn’t afraid to tell me who’s weak. And that was just for my synopsis.
Contests filled that gap. I had people in the profession who weren’t afraid to tell me what I needed to hear and point out weak spots I needed to see. And guess what? I survived. Dare I say, I thrived because when I begin a story, and while I’m writing, I can see deeper into the words and actions. Is he behaving consistent to his character arc? How is this trope being made my bitch?
Criticism is a writer’s friend. Not all of it is accurate, or a good fit for the script, but part of crafting a fabulous product is to read into the comments and sift out what really needs to be done to polish the work.
5. Some people just don’t get it.
A couple of the judges constantly asked what, why, when, where, and how, about plot points in my manuscript that were meant to be obscure, to entice the reader to want to keep reading.
Whatever judge. You must not read this type of stuff normally. Hello, it’s called suspense.
Until I realized two or three judges were asking the same questions. Out of ten judges, that’s a high percentage.
Okay, maybe it was an issue. Maybe it’s me that doesn’t get it.
To me it’s obvious there’s more to the story, because I know the story. But I was missing the heightened level of mystery, of emotion, that made readers want to keep reading. The story needed more, and I needed to be a savvier writer.
6. Think and plan seriously about your career arc.
I don’t know why I want to be trad-pubbed. It’s like it’s calling to me. Maybe it’s my age, I’m naturally old school. Maybe it’s the allure of a team who’s all about making me successful. I don’t know why, because the more I learn, the more I realize nearly as much marketing, editing, and promoting fall on trad-pubbed authors as self-pubbed.
What does this have to do with contests?
So many contests are geared toward the new, or re-emerging, writer and many are starting to restrict self-pubbed writers from entry. I made many of the recommended changes and excitedly starting looking for more contests to enter because I feel winning a contest will help me gain the notice of an agent/editor. January, February, and March - no contests I could enter because I was self-pubbed.
Best First Book?
Nope. Technically, I could’ve, but I didn’t know about the contest when I self-pubbed FEVER CLAIM. I don’t know that I’d qualify if I ever trad-pub a book.
Contests aren’t critical to a writer’s career, but I believe they’re highly beneficial. Winning one, or even being a finalist, gives a little extra street cred to an indie author, and adds visibility to a writer approaching agents and editors.
I almost regret self-pubbing first, when really it’s a catch-22. I wouldn’t have written a book if I couldn’t have self-pubbed it. The time invested is too much to sit on rejection after rejection. If I didn’t start writing, I wouldn’t have learned the boatload I’ve already learned about storytelling and the mechanics of writing. I wouldn’t have stood a chance querying (not that I do now - 10 rejections and counting, with no requests for extra material). But I can polish it and self-pub it and let readers decide for themselves how they'd score my work.