The Worth of Not Winning
Writing contests can be stressful, right?
For the authors entering, there’s the worry at the beginning about whether your work was as ready as it could have been before you hit “submit.” There’s stress about whether your formatting was correct, whether your file is going to get attacked by internet gremlins in transit, whether you actually attached the right file (even though you checked a dozen times,) and whether your synopsis made any sense.
Then you wait.
The time between submission and results is painful and hard to put out of your mind. You know strangers are reading your work—but what if they aren’t your audience? What if they miss the subtleties you’ve worked so hard to build into every scene? Can the judges really evaluate a story in just a few pages? There’s so much good stuff deeper into the book!
When the results of a contest round go public, there minority of entrants are excited to see their stories move on to the next round. They feel a bit of validation in achieving that milestone.
Inevitably, the majority of those who enter a contest will be disappointed when the long list appears, but does a contest still have value if your work doesn’t advance? Absolutely.
You practiced risking “rejection.”
We all go through a lot of rejections in the author life. When an unfinished piece doesn’t conquer a contest, it’s an opportunity to metabolize that emotion of rejection. I don’t think any author ever gets used to the feeling of their work being passed over, but we can learn how to manage the sting.
You have learned how your work stacks up, even without specific feedback.
By not moving forward in a contest, you know you still have work to do to attain the appeal of your contemporaries.
A note on scores and comments: Based on my experience with contests that reveal scores and/or judges’ comments, authors come away with at least as much frustration (if not more) than they do actionable data. Sometimes judges are brutally honest, which is hurtful to those just beginning to develop their “rhino skin.” Sometimes authors get into a spiral of wishing they could defend their work against scores they disagree with, energy that would serve them better if poured into revisions. When a book doesn’t move forward, far better to enlist critique partners or a story doctor to see where you might have missed places you can improve. What you’ve learned from the contest is you still have work to do, which is better to learn now than fifteen publisher/agent rejections down the road.
The disappointment of not winning a contest has the power to open an author up to hearing feedback from their advisors they might have previously rejected as “just one person’s opinion.” Rejection has the unique power of building humility in a heart that is soft.
Rejection is a test of character, at its core.
As trite as it may seem, contests always take me back to a prayer we used to recite before high school marching band competitions. But sometimes the simplest sentiments that state things best.
Dear Lord, in the battle that goes on through life, I ask but a field that is fair,
A chance that is equal with all in the strife, the courage to strive and to dare.
If I should win, let it be by the code, with my faith and my honor held high.
If I should lose, let me stand by the road and cheer as the winners go by.
For the contests I oversee, I pray I offer that field that is fair. And the authors around me have proven again and again that they are the staunchest supporters of those who capture high honors. It’s a privilege to watch it all unfold.