I’m about to enter one of my two finished books into a contest. And I’m nervous. Why, do you suppose, would I feel nervous about entering a contest? If you’ve been-there-done-that you know why: the sense of vulnerability, the balancing of high hopes on one hand & the anticipation of blunt criticism on the other, and the fear that one or more of the judges will find the entry as enjoyable as a scorching case of full-body boils.
Then there’s the fact that many will enter but only one can win. Dumb pesky odds.
Maybe I’m afraid that people will know that I didn’t win and will want to talk about it…out loud…in public. Maybe even in front of other writers. And then they’ll say, “Hey, you’re name starts with an L, just like the word LOSER!” Ouch.
So maybe I’m afraid that, in order to avoid the topic all together, I’m going to have to take charge of the conversations by getting their attention on something slightly less embarrassing, like the curly perm I had back in the early 80’s…or the time I was on a date and when I went to take a drink of my Dr. Pepper I forgot there was a straw in the cup until it went in my nostril…or I might have to discuss the purple parachute pants purchase and related singing/dancing activities…or the time my friend and me started his backyard on fire trying to destroy our toothpick houses we’d made in school…and, unfortunately, the list goes on and on. Yep, I’m a Dork with a capital D. But at least it doesn’t start with L.
But there’s another word that starts with L: LEARN.
I enter contests because win or lose I can learn more about writing. About the strengths and weaknesses of MY writing. Maybe someday I’ll stop being nervous every time I enter a contest. But I doubt it. But if I ever stop learning from entering contests, then–maybe then–it’s time to stop entering.
Do you get nervous about contests? Why?
For me, one of the most exhilarating experiences on my writing journey is discovering what I don’t know.
The respect of writing happens when we come to an understanding of how enormous the task is. Such awareness is liberating, not humiliating. It’s like wandering around in a huge mansion that contains room after room after room of surprises and discoveries. Each room is filled with opportunities to learn something. And I’m convinced that part of what it means to be created in God’s image is that we possess the unique ability to discover, reason, and learn in a given context. And each lesson learned is like a key that unlocks another door.
I don’t want to “just write,” I want to write with power and passion. I want to be a good steward of this calling. And good stewards are alert learners. They’re hungry and teachable.
Sometimes I learn from other writers or editors, and sometimes I learn from books on the craft/business of writing, and other times I just stumble my way into an “Aha!” moment.
While knowledge isn’t the a guarantee of skillful application, you can’t apply what you don’t know. But once you know it, you can grow it!
How man times do we cheat ourselves–and God–by not being humble enough to admit that we don’t know everything? Pride is a poor covering for ignorance. It really accomplishes nothing but self-deception. And deceived stewards can’t be good stewards.
I’m in the process of going back through my first book. Oddly enough, I can’t find the words to describe how empowering it is to look at the glaring weaknesses and be able to know that’s what they are! And then feel confident about how to fix them! It’s more than the thrill of discovery, it’s the thrill of creativity intelligently focused.
The balance to be maintained on the writer’s journey is between celebrating strength and recognizing weakness. If you know something now that you didn’t know before, than you have grown. And if you remember that there is much more yet to be learned, you can continue to grow in the future.
What has been a lesson you’ve learned as a writer in the last year?
On a great episode of The Andy Griffith Show (Season 2), a poor fella named Henry Bennett had been tagged with the reputation of being a jinx. Henry decided the only way to get on with his life was to leave Mayberry. In an attempt prove Henry wasn’t the cause of bad luck, Sheriff Andy Taylor decided to have a fixed raffle which was “guaranteed” to have only one outcome: the fella known as the Jinx would win the television set. It would prove his luck was changing.
Everyone would pull a number out of a hat–and all the slips of paper would have the same number–and when the “winning” number was called no one would answer, giving the Jinx the only opportunity to be the winner. But when the winning number was announced the Jinx didn’t respond. When asked if he had the winning number, he said, “No.” And he didn’t. His number was something like 4 7/8…he’d pulled out the tag that had the hat size!
Ever entered a writing contest and ended up feeling like you were left holding the tag with the hat size? It may leave you asking, “Why did I enter in the first place?” or “What’s the point of contests anyway?”
Contests should be seen as opportunities to grow as a writer. And if approached with the right mindset, they can be worth your time. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- For the most part, contest results don’t make you a writer. They aren’t meant to create writers, they’re meant to critique writing. If you take the results as an attack on you and your worth as a person, you’ve missed the point.
- Sometimes the best way to win a contest is to have had lost it in the past. Sounds goofy, I know, but I really believe it. Many of us are more comfortable and confident entering a contest we’ve entered before. And–like the GENESIS contest sponsored by American Christian Fiction Writers–if the contest includes feedback from judges, that returned feedback can be priceless in helping you prepare for next go around. But, more importantly, you are learning as you go.
- Contest results only have the power you decide to give them. It’s up to you to make the experience positive or negative (for you and others). How you respond to the outcome of a contest may reveal as much about you as it does about the quality of your writing. And I’m told that agents and editors notice stuff like that.
- And lastly (mostly because I wanted to use the word “lastly” :)), contests were never meant to be ends in themselves. Our desire should be the grow as faithful–skillful–stewards of story. To the extent that participating in contests help us head in that direction, they are useful. But if all a writer ever does is become a professional contest enterer, then a great calling has been wasted.
There are other benefits, but since I’ve used the word “lastly” I’ll just ask you to share your opinions and experiences. How do you feel about contests? Have you learned to be a better writer because of a contest experience?