You’ve written what you consider to be something others can’t help but adore. You’ve invested time and sweat and love into your baby. You want to find out how to take it to the next level and prepare for submission.
You decide to enter a contest – a brilliant idea.
The day you email your baby off, your heart is in your mouth. You have an hysterical moment after hitting the send button, wanting nothing more than to call your baby back from the ether and cradle it against your loving breast (and believe me when I tell you after having been on the competition merry-go-round for a few years that this doesn’t change). But you do get over it and life goes on for a month or two until you realise you should be hearing back about the competition sometime soon.
Every day you check your email, heart in mouth again, and finally, there it is! An email from the lovely competition co-ordinator. Unless you are one of the lucky few, this letter will be one of encouragement, congratulating you on entering, but sympathetically telling you that you didn’t get into the finals or didn’t place. If you did win or place (congratulations!), you will still get back the judging score sheets, and you too will get the letter that encourages you to read the judge’s comments with an open mind, and despite what they might have scored your entry, to realise that these comments are just an opinion and what you choose to do with those opinions is up to you.
As a competition entrant, judge and now manager, I can’t emphasise how important this advice is. In fact, it’s probably some of the most important advice you are likely to receive in your hopefully long and illustrious writing career. There is no doubt that sitting and reading comments about your baby that are less than glowing can be hard, but the idea is to not allow them to become soul destroying or to take them personally. I can assure you the judges aren’t rubbing their hands together in evil glee, figuring out the best way to make you become a slobbering mess on the floor, swearing you’ll never put pen to paper again. Mostly, they are people who are on the same path as you, or have been on the same path as you, and are kindly giving of their time and experience to tell you what they thought of your work.
I emphasise – what they thought.
I remind myself of this every time I enter a competition. I have asked for other people’s opinions and I have received them. I might not agree, but I will get nothing out of the competition if I do not get over my anger/hurt/horror if they found fault with it, or worse, didn’t like it, and try to look at their comments with an open mind. Most judges will find some fault in your entry, given that is what they are being asked to do – judges are not reading your work like a reader would and you shouldn’t forget this. Also, don’t forget we are trying to get into a profession that is incredibly subjective – what one person loves, another person might hate with a passion. It’s why there are so many different genres and styles. Having said that though, it isn’t a good thing to completely brush aside the negative criticisms and say, ‘They just didn’t get my work. How could they not like my hero? He’s incredibly hot and lick-able (as well as likeable). They’re obviously idiots. Big raspberries to them.’ Every opinion you get can have some value, whether you act on it or not. You may completely disagree with what’s been said, but you shouldn’t allow negative feelings (either yours or someone else’s) to get in the way of trying to make your manuscript better.
I’m certainly not suggesting you take every bit of advice and mindlessly act on it. It is your work after all, with your unique voice expressing the characters and story that sparked your interest and made you want to put words to paper in the first place. You must be true to yourself overall. But that doesn’t mean ‘yourself’ can’t do with a bit of shzushzing. Sometimes I’ve found that elements of even the most negative criticism has ended up being the most helpful in moving forward with my writing. I don’t enter competitions to get a bunch of ‘I loved it’s!’ – I can get that from my family, and so far, that’s not helped me to get published. No, I enter competitions essentially to get the criticism, both negative and positive, that might help me move my manuscript that much closer to being submission-worthy and hopefully getting ‘the call’.
The best advice I was given in regards to dealing with judge’s comments I am now about to pass onto all you virgin and relative newbie competition entrants:
GIVE YOURSELF TIME.
Don’t print the score sheets out and tear them up into little tiny pieces like you desperately want to, or relegate them to the ‘bin’ on your desktop with the relish of a gunnery sergeant taking down the last of the enemy. Print out the score sheets and put them into a folder in a bottom desk draw (or copy them into a separate folder on your computer). Then – this is the important part – leave them there for at least a few weeks (a month or two is better). Work on something else if you can. Let your mind have time to gain some perspective and to mull over the things that have been suggested. Talk it over with writing friends (I find this more useful than family/friends who don’t write, as family will just get on board with the pity party and encourage me not to listen to any criticism of the negative persuasion. They do this because they love me, but it’s not at all helpful!) But most of all, take the time to realise what has been said are only suggestions. You do not have to do what the judges say. You do not have to agree with them. All you have to do is take the time to let your mind mull over their suggestions and see if what was said is actually something you should look at.
At the end of the day, you just might have hit on the thing that will turn your manuscript from a ‘no’ to a ‘yes’.
My last bit of advice in regards to dealing with criticism of any kind is: don’t let it make you give up on the thing you love doing. Think about why it was you sat down to meet the characters in your head and explore their story. Think about how much you loved them, the joy it was to write (even when it felt like passing a kidney stone!) and ultimately the cleverness of you in being one of a rare breed on this earth – someone who felt so connected to a story and characters that you just had to write it. High-five yourself for being brave enough to take an important step toward improving your writing, and relish the fact you’ve done something that many others are too nervous to try.
Entering competitions has helped my writing no end. And in the last few years, I’ve gone from getting low to average scores and feedback, to being shortlisted, getting into multiple finals, and more recently, placing and winning. So, I encourage you all to swallow those nerves, open your minds and give yourselves time.
May your writing ever flow and may the muse always be with you.