I’ll admit, I’ve never done Nanowrimo. I think it’s a great idea—a community of writers, coming together to encourage each other to do the hardest thing a writer faces: putting the words on paper.
The timing has never worked out for me, though. For some reason, I’m always in some stage of revision every November. And really, I’m so type-A about my writing schedule that every day of the year is Nano for me. When I’m drafting, it’s a minimum of 1000 words per day. When I’m revising, it’s tackling twenty-five page chunks, over and over and over again.
But I’m a big fan of contests! I’ve mentioned in some of my other posts my experience with Brenda Drake’s Pitch Wars contest, which is a little bit like querying agents, except you’re querying published authors and other industry insiders for a chance to work side-by-side revising your manuscript for two months, in preparation for an agent round filled with top tier agents.
There are tons of success stories from Pitch Wars—more than sixty in my 2016 class alone. And if you check out the 2017 class, there will be as many—if not more—once the dust settles. But I’m not going to talk about how great contests are. Instead, I’m going to talk about the many ways they mess with a writer’s head, and offer some advice to avoid some common pitfalls.
First, a gentle reminder: No one path to publication is the same. Writers are notorious for researching books similar to theirs, talking to writers further along the path of publication than they are, assembling nuggets of advice that they might apply to their own search for an agent or editor. How many agents did you query before you got your offer? Did you query new agents or veterans? Oh, you submitted your first chapter to Very Excellent Lit Magazine as a short story? Maybe I should try that. Writers do this—even when we know we shouldn’t—because we’re looking for some way to measure how close we are. But it never works. It’s like asking someone, “If you eat only pizza and barbecue potato chips, how much weight can I expect lose?”
Contests are great for exposure. But the biggest pitfall is how public some of the more popular online contests can be (and there are probably hundreds of online and Twitter contests geared toward connecting aspiring writers with agents and editors). In many, agent requests can be seen by anyone and everyone. Which means when your entry has ZERO requests, that can also be seen. By everyone. By your neighbor. Your grandma. Also by your ex-best-friend. You need to be ready to have all of your successes and failures on display for anyone who has access to the internet and knows how to use a basic search engine. And that can be pretty humbling.
These kinds of contests also add another layer of competition to an already competitive process. Many participants lose sight of the fact that publishing isn’t something you can “win”. I’ve seen writers get derailed, focusing on having the most words drafted in Nano, or getting the most agent requests in an online or twitter pitch party. The problem with this line of thinking is that in publishing, each achievement lands you at the bottom of another hill to climb. And after it’s all over, guess what? You have to start from the bottom again with a new book.
A good rule of thumb is to figure out if a contest will advance your skills as a writer, or build your community of writing friends. Does it allow you to interact with other writers and help each other? If so, you’ll get something out of the contest, whether or not you get the most requests or sign with an agent. The best thing I got from Pitch Wars wasn’t my agent (Sorry Mollie). It was the community of writers in my Pitch Wars class, all of us cheering the others on, helping with queries and first pages, or just venting about a notoriously slow industry. Many of my friends in my class did not get their agent through the contest. They got their agents months later, sometimes with an entirely different manuscript. But they still—to a person—would say they “won”, because of what they learned and how they grew as writers.
Online contests can be brutal, in an industry that forces you to be on a first-name basis with rejection. If that’s still hard for you, look for contests like the ones Lara talked about on Tuesday. Ones that do everything behind closed doors, only making the semi-finalists and the winners (with cash prizes!) public, and not ones that allow the world a voyeuristic view into your rejection pile.
But the most important thing is to KEEP WRITING AND SUBMITTING YOUR WORK. Whether you enter literary magazine contests, or whether you participate in online contests like Pitch Wars, getting your work out there forces you to grow. To listen to feedback. To figure out how to revise your work for an audience other than yourself.
Being a writer is like living on the edge of a cliff, wearing your pajamas. The sooner you get comfortable there, the better.
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