Everyone loves writing contests! They’re a great way to get feedback and make valuable connections, and they’re totally not stressful at all. Nope, there’s absolutely nothing anxiety-making about putting our work out there to be judged and poked at and rejected.
A really super duper fun thing about contests is how they’re extremely public. Everyone on social media knows who applied, so everyone knows who gets in and who doesn’t. If the contest has an agent round, everyone can watch the group of invited agents browse through the chosen entries and judge and poke and reject–or, hopefully, request. That means everyone knows, always, who’s winning and who’s losing.
Because we all know how it works. Nobody’s going to say it out loud, but let’s be real. If you apply for a contest and don’t get in, you’re a loser and no one is ever going to love anything you write, ever! If you do get in, and you don’t get any requests in the agent round, you’re a loser and no one is ever going to love anything you write, ever! If you do get in, and you do get requests in the agent round, but then you don’t get an offer, you’re a loser and no one is ever going to love anything you–
Hmm. Somehow, this line of thinking kind of feels like it lacks nuance. But hey, this is just how things are. Good manuscripts get into contests and get requests that turn into offers, and bad ones don’t. Right? The path to success is straightforward and if we can’t manage to get ourselves on it, we’re doomed. …Right?
Let’s take a closer look. Let’s make a study of one of these hypothetical writing contests and see exactly how this make-or-break, life-or-death game plays out. Read closely, because there will be a quiz at the end.
Meet A and B. They both wrote a YA novel and polished it to the best of their ability. (They are also both very mysterious people who only go by a single initial). They both entered the same contest and were thrilled to be chosen! They have prepared diligently for the agent round and are very excited. They are well on their way to winning at publishing.
During the agent round, A gets 4 requests and B gets none. A celebrates with her friends on Twitter! There are many gifs and many emojis. B congratulates A and then stands to the side. She wonders if she should refresh her entry one more time. She does. Nothing.
Now let’s jump forward six months.
A has sent out all her requests and none of them have panned out. The pitch was good, but it turns out that even after all her revisions, the manuscript kind of fell apart in the middle, and nobody was really grabbed.
B has sent her manuscript into the query slushpile, and it landed on the lap of an agent who loved it. She ends up with three offers!
Now let’s jump forward six more months.
A sent many more queries but ultimately decided to shelve this manuscript. She’s gripped by an amazing new idea, so she’s busy drafting.
B is busy revising for her agent. The revisions she agreed to do were pretty hefty, but she feels confident they will make the manuscript better.
Now let’s jump forward six more months.
A is finished revising, but after the way her last round of querying went, she honestly isn’t sure if she’s ready. She’s wiser now, so instead of blanketing the town, she starts with a few test queries–and lo and behold, one turns into an offer! This was so much faster than last time! Surely everything is going to be easy from now on!
B is still revising for her agent. Life happened and it’s taking longer than she thought it would.
Six more months.
A didn’t have to do many revisions, and she went on her first round of submission, but all the editors passed. They cited things like “timing” and “marketability,” the fickle masters of the publishing world.
B went on her first round of submission, and even after all her revisions, it didn’t pan out. Nobody fell completely “in love.”
Six more months.
A’s agent has decided to leave the business, and A has decided to go back into the slushpile with this same manuscript. She made some connections last time she was querying, and despite the blow of losing an agent she really liked, she feels pretty positive.
B started working on something new while she was on submission, and her agent loves it! They’re going to pursue this idea instead. B can already tell her new manuscript is going to be so much better because of what she learned last time.
Oh, I forgot to mention another writer, C. C was also in the same contest back in the day. Over the course of these two years, C has signed with an agent, gotten a book deal, and while A and B remain unpublished, the ARCs of C’s book are now coming out to good reviews.
Oh, and there’s also D. D queried her manuscript widely and got no offers. D is now querying her second manuscript and has gotten no bites on this one, either. D has learned a lot about writing, but she’s never gotten to put the words “represented by” in her bio or make exciting announcements on Twitter, and to the casual observer, she sometimes thinks, it looks like she hasn’t accomplished anything at all.
And then there’s E. E didn’t even get into that old contest, but moved on and queried through the slushpile. She found an agent, revised to go on submission, and is currently in the middle of an R&R for a great editor.
Now here’s the quiz:
The answer, of course, is that nobody won. And nobody lost, either. It’s easier to see when you lay it out like this. It’s harder when you’re in the middle of it, watching everyone else succeed and feeling like at this rate, there won’t be any success left over for you.
Getting requests, getting into a contest, getting an agent, getting a deal–these are all great things, and when they happen, they’re worth celebrating. But fixating on the numbers will kill you. The number of people who got into the contest and the number of people who didn’t. The number of requests. The number of offers. The number of days or months or years that somebody else has had an agent and you haven’t.
Letting go of the numbers is hard. We’re only human, and we like concrete things we can grab onto and stack up next to each other. But you don’t have to let go completely. Instead, you can find other numbers to focus on.
The number of words you’ve drafted on the ambitious project that scares you. The number of chapters you’ve revised this week. The number of great books you’ve read. The number of friends who are with you on this long, winding, unpredictable journey.
Jump forward three years.
A, B, C, D, and E are all on a panel together at Book Expo, celebrating the releases of their latest novels. They’ve all been friendly for a long time, but until somebody points it out, they don’t even remember that they were all involved in the same contest five years ago. It’s a nice thought, but it almost doesn’t even feel significant, because they all have something much more important in common.
They kept writing. And they’re going to keep writing.
#chillwritingtips is a series about making sure we don’t lose our love of writing in the process of trying to get it published. Other posts in the series: