This week we are talking about writing contests, which is going to be an interesting discussion for me because I’m here to represent the losers. Contests, while presumably wonderful if you win them, or at least receive some attention from them, are not the path to publication for some of us.
I’ve entered one writing contest: Pitch Wars. It describes itself this way: Pitch Wars is a contest where published/agented authors, editors, or industry interns choose one writer each, read their entire manuscript, and offer suggestions on how to make the manuscript shine for the agent showcase. The mentor also helps edit his or her writer’s pitch for the contest and his or her query letter for submitting to agents.
Basically, you send a query and a chapter to a list of mentors, in hopes that you’ll be chosen as one of the people whose materials get polished and presented to agents with near-irresistible levels of fanfare. The unpaid mentors spend an astonishing amount of energy on their selected winners and it works: the website says more than 50 authors were offered agent representation following the contest last year, with many of those snagging book deals soon thereafter.
As the contest starts there is a feverish amount of tweeting about it. If you’ve ever speculated about the number of unpublished writers out there, wonder no more. Just go on twitter and search #pitchwars. You’ll be startled at the massive number of tweets. (Along the way, you will likely suffer seizures from all the flashing GIFs people post to celebrate their progress.) I saw all this and got very excited. This was for me! I had a great, marketable book! Yes, it could benefit from some high-level polishing! Sign me up! I sent off my query with keen anticipation, and sat back to watch for a flood of tweets regarding a medically-themed upmarket women’s fiction novel.
And… nothing happened.
Pitch Wars exposed me as a dud. No one so much as requested first-round pages, let alone selected my manuscript as a winner. I didn’t get to post any glowing tweets. I read everyone else’s—especially the mentors, who tend to throw out insinuating comments about the entries every few seconds —religiously and hungrily, but also with a profound sense of loneliness. I was the only person in the universe rejected by Pitch Wars. My story sucked. No one wanted to even look at it. I failed. Again.
So yeah, I wallowed. But then I dusted myself off and reworked my lame query for the thousandth time. A few days later, I received six requests for the full manuscript. A couple weeks after that, I had an agent, and a couple of weeks after that, I had a book deal with a Big Five publisher. I’d have loved to have had a positive experience in that contest—it’s a great one, benefitting many a writer—but it didn’t affect my career. Or maybe it did, because it made me try harder.
My point, aspiring authors, is not to let a contest serve as a bellwether for the publishing world; in this case, there’s some positive predictive value (the books of the chosen ones are worthy of publication) but minimal negative predictive value (the books of the unchosen are also worthy of publication). Contest mentors receive far too many applicants to read everything they’d like, plus they may be seeking a specific content or style. If you win a contest, celebrate. If no one gives you a second glance in a contest, it isn’t indicative of your value. Celebrate anyway, because you wrote a freaking book!
I want to offer you comfort. You pour everything you have into an endeavor like writing a book—-thousands of hours of your time, your financial security, your emotional stability, your pride—and what you often receive is a resounding bitch-slap in return. It’s horrid, but trust me when I say every writer has been there, whether it’s failure to win a contest, failure to get an agent, failure to get a publisher, failure to get a good review or a mention or a sale. There’s a lot of failure involved in writing. But we keep doing it, don’t we? We stagger backwards, collect ourselves, and, with tentative hope offer our words to someone else, because writing a book is rare and difficult and valuable. We’re driven to do it by some innate quirk in our brains and to some extent, the urge to write defines us. Do not despair, my fellow contest losers. Somewhere out there, you have readers.
Now: a quick note—very quick— about NaNoWriMo, the other topic of today’s post. It is not for me. I would lose my mind trying to bang out 50,000 words in a month without extensively messing with them along the way. Plus, November is a hellish month, schedule-wise. Clearly, the month to do this would have been February, when nothing happens.* More power to the people who can do it–huge admiration–but it’s never gonna be me.
*Wrong! What am I saying? Something miraculous is happening this February…