More Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Take It To Heart When You Don’t Win Writing Competitions

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I previously wrote about not winning writing competitions after submitting my unpublished novel, Black Spot, to the Hardie Grant Egmont Ampersand Project in 2015, being contacted by one of the judges who seemed interested but ultimately failing to go any further than that. The three reasons I gave not to be too dejected were:

*There are a lot of people submitting to writing competitions, so it’s not small fish in a big pond, it’s a lot of fish in a small pond.
*A lot of competitions have very specific requirements, your writing might not quite fit the criteria and trying to force a square peg into a round hole is a futile exercise.
*There are so many differences of opinion on pieces of writing that getting all the judges of one writing competition to agree is a bit like getting cats to walk in formation. Or it might simply be that it isn’t your year (just ask Kimberley Starr who entered the Text Prize in 2013 with no joy and won it in 2015 with a reworked version of the same piece).

Here are a few more things that might make you feel a little better.

You Might Not Win, but You Might Get Shortlisted
Most competitions don’t just announce an outright winner; they announce a shortlist and make a big deal of several people before finally revealing who won at a gathering of industry types. As I mentioned in the final post of my Project October Writing Journal on Monday, I was lucky enough to be one of the shortlisted final five (out of a field of 297 entries) for the 2016 Text Prize for Unpublished Children’s and Young Adult Writing, a competition run by Text Publishing in Melbourne, Australia.

Although I didn’t win, I was invited to the announcement party, where I got to meet and speak with a number of other emerging writers, published writers, editors, publishers and reviewers. This event was a goldmine of networking opportunities and as I’m sure everyone knows in this (and most other) industries, it’s not usually what you know, it’s who you know.

Networking Is Hard for the Socially Awkward
And as I learned from speaking to a lot of authors at that Text Party, I’m not the only socially awkward one. Most of them confided to me that they don’t enjoy and are quite bad at the networking part of being a writer (although not as bad as they thought they were since they managed to talk to me just fine – but I did feel like a stuttering, uninteresting moron on more than one occasion).

So not winning generally means writers can avoid terrifying networking situations or at least avoid them until they feel a bit more confident. And I must admit that the older I get and the more experience I have, the better I get at it, although it’s a much slower process than I would like.

But just being a good writer isn’t enough to be a professional writer these days. You need a whole arsenal of tools at your disposal and if you don’t have them, it might be for the best if you don’t win a competition just yet.

You Might Get Some Free, Professional Feedback on Your Writing
When I was contacted by that Ampersand Project judge in 2015, she gave me some feedback on the manuscript I had submitted about ways she thought it could be improved. I considered what she said and did a rewrite (my fourth) before submitting to the Text Prize.

At the Text Prize announcement party, it became clear (although I really should have figured this out long before) that quite a few people in the room had read my book. And that they were willing to give me more feedback about things that might improve the book even further. Specifically, I was told that that there were concerns about such a big age gap between the two main characters who become romantically involved (really, really good point, especially in a book written for the young adult market) and that there was a sense that the book was setting up for a sequel (which it is but it also needs to be able to stand on its own, to be a satisfying read in its own right).

Considering that I am at a point where I’m not sure how much further I can get in refining Black Spot without the assistance of a professional editor, snippets of advice like this might be just the thing I need to get it refined enough to attract the attention of the publisher who will ultimately publish it and provide me with access to that professional editor.

A Publishing Contract Isn’t Always What It’s Cracked Up To Be
The prize on offer for the winner of the Text Prize was a publishing contract, which is what we writers think we want. But I spoke to two people at the announcement party who made me wonder if I should be careful what I’m wishing for.

The first was a writer who has been quite successful and has published a lot. But that writer also seemed very tired, almost on the verge of a burn out, because of contracts with short deadlines that had to be met no matter what. Writers without contracts can sit at home and tinker with our books for years trying to get them right without any such pressure. We bemoan the time as it ticks by without any seeming progress, but now I’m wondering if this is the simpler time we will later fondly look back on and dream of returning to.

The second person I spoke to worked at a publishing company – there were quite a few different companies represented at the party – and I mentioned that I had enjoyed a book the company had published but hadn’t liked the sequel. “Neither did we,” that person responded. “Even the author wasn’t happy with it.”

“Then why,” I asked, “was it published at all? Why wasn’t it held back until the author was happy with the final result?” I was told that there were international contracts in place with specific deadlines and that these other publishers didn’t care so much about whether it was any good, just that they could capitalise on the success of the first book by rushing out the second.

I suppose we have to remember that publishing houses are businesses, much like any other, and their main interest is in making money. For most writers, that isn’t the primary concern. We want to tell stories and we want them to be good. Making money is also nice but we’d rather have it all than have to choose between them.

*****

Maybe sometime in the future I’ll be able to write a blog post about how it’s great to win a writing competition and the many reasons why. In the meantime, with making that shortlist, ’ve taken another step towards what I think I want. Hopefully these insights will take you closer to where you want to be as well, whether that’s a publishing contract or a different frame of mind about it all.

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