Gearing up for the Contest Season

2012 is here! Most of the Christmas decorations have been packed away for another year, and writers all over the world have made resolutions, determined to make this year THE YEAR their book gets noticed by a editor or agent. For a lot of folks, that includes the prospect of entering writing contests like the ACFW Genesis, the RWA Golden Heart or both for the very first time. So I’d like to share some valuable advice I’ve learned after years of competition.

This sounds like a no-brainer, but you wouldn’t believe the percentage of entrants that are disqualified every year for not following a specific contest’s guidelines. I know because I’m guilty of this. The first year I entered the Golden Heart, my computer skills were non-existent so I didn’t have my margins lined up correctly and my font was suspect. But hey! I had the next great American novel, didn’t I? Once the judges read my manuscript, they would realize greatness and hand over the award without ever looking at those other manuscripts whose authors followed the rules.

So imagine my surprise when I got my manuscript back with a nice little note saying that not only had I been disqualified, but to make sure I learned my lesson, they were going to keep my entrance fee. 

A lesson learned. And one I remembered years later when as a first reader for a well known publishing house, I received a manuscript to evaluate that was single line spaced for the whole 200 plus pages. Believe me when I tell you it looked like a jumble of letters by the time I got to the fourth page!

We had something happen recently that really bought home to me how two people can have totally different opinions about the very same situation. It stemmed from a conversation about the Duggars(Nineteen Kids and Counting) and how they named the baby they recently lost Jubilee.
I thought it was a lovely name, mainly because some of my best Sunday mornings of my childhood were spent singing along with the Happy Goodman family on the Gospel Jubilee. To me, that show prepared my heart for the worship service to come.
But my husband had a very different reaction to that name choice. He hated it. When I asked him why, he told me about sneaking out of bed on Sunday mornings to watch cartoons. When the Gospel Jubilee came on, the music would drive his abusive father out of bed and into the living room for a confrontation.
Two very different viewpoints of the same show. That’s kind of the way it is with writing. No matter how hard a judge tries to stay objective, they can’t deny the experiences that color their likes and dislikes. It’s human nature. But it’s best to get used to the fact that not everyone is going to love your writing, published or not. A few years ago, I received a comment on my contest entry, telling me I was wasting my time writing World War II stories. Didn’t I know publishers weren’t buying them?
I have to admit–if I’d gotten that comment when I first started writing, it might have spooked me. But by this time in my writing journey, I knew the publishing business is fluid, changing from moment to moment–remember the big call for chick lit just a
few years ago? Write what you’re called to write, and be prepared to wait.

Writing contests not only hone your craft, they also help you develop that thick skin you’re going to need to make it to the next level. So unless you’re Stephen King or wrote the Hunger Games, those first contest results could be painful. But that’s okay–you will survive. And if it makes you feel better, kick a few cabinets. Eat a double helping of chocolate. Even sulk for a couple of days.
Then pull up your big girl/boy pants and look at the contest results with a reasonable eye. Did the judges point out a flaw in your plot? Or were your characters not as well developed as you thought? As tough as it is, be honest with yourself. It will make you a much better writer in the long haul.
Patty Smith Hall is an award winning, multi-published author. Her stories of encouragement and hope can be found in Guideposts, Journey and Chicken Soup for the Nurse’s Soul. Her next book, Hearts in Hiding, will be released by Love Inspired Historical in July, 2012. Patty resides in Georgia along with Dan, her husband of 28 years.