I entered my first contest at about age sixteen and didn’t enter again until about eight years ago. Since then, I’ve made it a point to find at least one a year to enter—usually more than one, and with more than one story.
I’ve made it to first-round finals several times, but I’ve never made the top three. Still, I keep trying. Why? Is it just the thirst to win? The desire to have someone say, “Wow! I loved this story!” There’s some of that, yes. Maybe more at the beginning than now, although I’m not immune to the craving for praise by any means.
One of the things that keeps bringing me back, year after year, is the appeal of having objective feedback—a critique by someone with fresh eyes and a hopefully kind heart. I get honesty, untainted by whether or not the judge likes me personally. Sometimes I’ve gotten feedback that goes something like, you have a great story idea here, but you need more work on this or that aspect of the actual writing. Or feedback that says, your writing is good but I can’t figure out what makes your characters tick. Sometimes judges knock 2-3 points off for punctuation when they disagree with where I put my commas. I’ve also had judges who talk down to me like I’ve just gotten started at this writing thing, which is particularly frustrating when I’ve been at it for years. And I had one high-level judge accuse me of not thinking through my premise because he misunderstood a crucial aspect of my storyworld.
I keep entering again, however, because it’s reader feedback. I get to see what works and what doesn’t for people who haven’t heard me talk my story idea to death. I even get the occasional, I love your turn of phrase here! Or, your hero sounds yummy! Then there’s the one all writers love: you made me cry.
Sometimes, of course, the feedback makes me cry if I have one judge who wildly loved the story and the others shredded it. There’s the absolute terror of hitting “send” on an entry after I’ve deliberated for weeks on whether or not to enter. The waiting to hear results. All of this, as others have pointed out before, is great practice for submitting your work to agents and editors, and getting their honest opinion as well.
Through it, I’ve learned to grow a slightly thicker skin—to understand that judges and industry professionals really aren’t trying to ruin my day (or week, or month). They want me to get better! They point out the flaws so … I can improve. Even the snarky comments from judges who missed what I thought was obvious, when I took them for what they were—reader feedback—I could see them as useful. Once I saw them as useful, I could decide what changes needed to be made. And then, voila, improvement!
If you’re ready to take the plunge yourself, why not enter the NOVELWritingSite Student Writing Contest? We promise to go easy on you! 🙂