September has so far been saturated with all manner of contests, and several more results are still forthcoming. The contests I have entered can be split into two categories: brief, online contests, such as Pitch Madness, and those hosted by chapters of the Romance Writers of America.
One of the benefits of online contests is quite frankly the speed of the turnaround. On the one hand, because these contests include live teasers through Twitter or comments from blog readers, the amount of stress is exponentially higher. On the other hand, such contests are an ideal example of the strength and support of the writing community. People get together beforehand, with some offering their sites as forums, to perfect their submissions; words of encouragement are generously exchanged throughout; and new connections are forged. In my case, these contests really pushed me to focus on my pitch and first page (which has been revised many times this month).
Though RWA chapter contests tend to have a turnaround time between 6 and 10 weeks, they deal with larger portions of text and, unlike other contests of which I know, many provide detailed judges' feedback on each entry.
The juxtaposition of these many contests in such a short period of time has crystalized for me the importance of evaluating the source of a critique as much as its content. Not all criticisms are created equal. Same goes for judges, and even for the contests themselves.
The easiest way to compare may be to consider each contest individually.
- Pitch Madness: While this contest doesn't offer individual feedback beyond whether or not an entry made it into the finals, the judges filled the Twitter thread with advice based on the submissions they read. Prep sessions allowed writers to share feedback on their pitches and rework them prior to submission, which was helpful both in the context of the contest and overall.
- Secret Agent: This contest accepts entries on a first-come, first-served basis, which does make it easier for a submission to make it in front of an agent. Entries consist of the first 250 words of a manuscript. They are posted publicly on the MSFV blog, and comments from the public are encouraged. This creates quite a bit of potential for feedback from readers of various genres and preferences. The Secret Agent also left a comment on each entry, though that may very well depend on the agent him/herself.
- In my case, a few of the comments mentioned the same sentence in a negative way. Since that sentence had very little bearing on the story as a whole, I simply changed it. Other than that, many commenters had critiques for different parts. In some cases, it was apparent that the person had skimmed rather than read the entry; in others, it was a matter of personal taste.
What struck me most, however, was that the nicest comment I received was from the agent! Perhaps in an attempt to be helpful, or perhaps because we're so used to tearing our own work apart, it seems like writers are indeed much more critical of their fellow writers' work, unless that work is published. What is important to keep in mind is that each of us will write a given character differently, so it is crucial to weigh critiques against what feels true for your representation of the character or the scene.
- RWA Chapter Contest #1: Because I would like to speak frankly about my experiences, I will not be naming the specific chapter contests. That being said, the results of this contest definitely threw me for a loop.
- Partially, this is my own fault, as I had opened a judges' score sheet and skimmed it right before leaving the house. The comments there really discouraged me. One simple example was a comment stating that my entry had poor mechanics (grammar, etc.). I may be insecure about many parts of my writing, but I certainly know my mechanics, so I was trying to imagine which typos I may have accidentally missed, or what formatting snafu may have happened. When I came home, I looked more closely at the feedback I had received.
Not only had one of the judges miscalculated my score (literally, added incorrectly, which is never something we want to see), but there were also many incorrect "corrections" of my work, e.g. changing the word "wove" to "weaved," or replacing a comma after a dependent clause with a period. One of the judges was confused by a character introducing herself via a nickname, as opposed to her full name (think "Nicky" vs "Nicole").
Overall, the comments left me disheartened, predominately because these were carefully selected judges, some of whom were published authors, yet the feedback came across as though, best-case scenario, they had read the entry very late at night, while too tired to pay much attention, both to mechanics and the story itself. Because I expected the judges to be authorities on writing romance novels, my first instinct was to question the quality of my own work, rather than the credibility of their judgments and comments. Though I encourage other writers to be open to criticisms, particularly after this experience, I do not advocate that approach.
- Luckily, I heard back from RWA Chapter Contest #2 sooner than expected. Better yet, these two contests had received a similar entry, though the second one had received a larger sample.
- The difference in the feedback was immense! Not in the sense that these judges liked my book more or less than the others, but in the helpfulness and quality of the comments themselves. These judges focused on what they felt the sample was missing, in terms of motivation. Two of them had very similar feedback in a few instances, and it was actionable feedback! Some other comments came from only one judge or didn't ring true to me, so I have chosen for now not to act on them. (One did say that I shouldn't hesitate to just stick this manuscript in a desk drawer and move on to the next one. . . Uhoh.)
Besides the desire to make it into the finals, thereby getting a manuscript, as opposed to a query, in front of editors and agents, actionable feedback that resonates with the story is precisely what is so helpful about contests!
The critical moment is distinguishing the credibility of those providing feedback and therefore the value of their critiques. With only the feedback from RWA contest #1, I would have been discouraged by the knowledgeability of those judging my work and the lack of room for improvement while staying true to my characters and story. I would not consider entering this chapter's contest(s) again. With the feedback from RWA contest #2, I was able to rework and significantly improve the first chapter. Similarly, when it came to the Secret Agent contest, the agent's feedback provided a bit of perspective on the other readers' comments, as did being able to compare her feedback across entries (if she had written only positive comments, that would have been useful information when evaluating her feedback as well).
Overall, I would say contests are a very valuable way both to put your work out there and to receive feedback, or even requests. Yet, changing pieces of our writing with every critique will only result in an unrecognizable melee of other people's take on the story. While we shouldn't be automatically defensive toward feedback, we still need to remember to evaluate the comments we receive in terms of what feels right for the story, because ultimately, it is and should remain our work.