Monday, October 29, 2007

Great Expectations

When I entered my first writing contest I had low expectations. After all, I’d been writing for less than a year. How could I possibly hope for anything beyond good, solid feedback? But hope I did—not for winning or even landing in one of the top three spots, but for a word of encouragement. I wanted (read craved) affirmation of some kind. Did I have potential, even a drop of talent I could develop through blood, sweat and tears? Or was I wasting my time scribbling when I should be doing something productive like getting a day job?

Still, my expectations were greater than I wanted to admit. Then I received the news I placed 9th out of 10, I knew there must be a mistake. No way could I be that bad. (And I thought my ego was fragile as an eggshell!) But after I read the low and mediocre scores, I realized I had a long way to go before my work was polished enough to final in a contest.

Did that devastate me? No it didn’t. I swallowed a big lump of disappointment and read the judges’ comments. No GMC. What’s that? No scene in the hero’s POV. Oh, wasn’t the heroine’s POV enough? Guess not. I learned I added too much back story and ignored emotion. But one of the judges actually liked my work and thought it had POTENTIAL! Bless her heart! That was sufficient praise to keep me at my computer.

Were my expectations too great? No. I expected helpful suggestions--positive and negative comments--and I received both. The feedback enabled me to revise my manuscript and eventually polish it enough to final in the first round in the next contest I entered. What a thrilling moment! Although I didn't make it to the second round, Dove chocolate eased my disappointment and kept me motivated.

Will a contest meet your expectations? That depends upon your expectations. If winning is the only result that counts, then you might get upset. If you hope for constructive criticsm, you'll probably be satisfied. Don't overlook the other benefits contests offer--the chance to get your name and work before an editor or agent and the satifaction of advancing one step in your journey toward publication.

In 2005, I decided to try my luck again. I hoped my writing had improved. Much to my delight and surprise I finalled in the next seven contests I entered and won three of them! This gave me the confidence and energy to keep writing and submitting to editors without fearing their rejection would stop me in my tracks.

And most of all, contests gave me friends with the same goals and interests—the Seekers. Are contests worthwhile? You bet they are.


Julie Lessman said...

Omigosh, Cara, I so relate!! Like you, I had NO clue if my writing was good or bad, and for me, the best way to find out was by entering contests. My expectations on my first contest sliced me in two like a split personality (no comments, please). One part of me thought: gosh, this isn't too bad and I might have a good shot at winning. But then the bad-twin ego would convince me that every judge would be bored to tears. So which was I? Top of the heap ... or a heap of dog do? To be honest, I was top of the heap ... of dog do! Yeah, it hurt, but boy oh boy, it helped WAY more. Today, I totally credit contests with jolting me into the realization that I had some major work to do."Great Expectations" for sure ... maybe not so much in the beginning, but definitely in the long run!

Tina M. Radcliffe said...

I vividly remember my first contest.

The multi published author Elizabeth Sinclair judged my entry.

I was stunned to see she was judging. And I was humiliated. I thought I would get my peers, not a famous author who actually signed her name.

She gave me so much encouraging feedback. And where she nailed me, uh...she was so right on.

THAT POOR WOMAN. What a chore. My hero was unlikeable, my opening a yawner and then there was the non-existent conflict.

I did my 24 hour pity party and then went on to revise and finish that manuscript.

Thank goodness for kind judges with big hearts and longsuffering natures.

ScrollSquirrel said...


SUCH a great point about getting to meet SEEKERS because of contests.


SO worth it.


Cheryl Wyatt

Pam Hillman said...

Like Tina said, hats off to the judges who have taken the time, effort, and ENERGY to judge my writing, especially in the early years I entered contests.

It takes a special kind of person to read a contest entry and know the writer has a long way to go, but instead of telling them just how steep the hill is, they point out three or four things the author can do to take her writing to the next level. It's up to the writer where she goes from there.

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Cara, you said this so well.

Well, duh, you're a writer, so I guess that's a given, but your words ring true. It's so hard to find a good critique partner or group, then to know whom to satisfy... And if your first experience being critiqued is in contest form 'cause you couldn't find someone to work with, (yup, that's me. No one in our local wanted to work with an inspirational author... Not enough, um... quick gratification, I guess we'll call it!!!) then it can be a rude awakening when that envelope comes home.

The Dove chocolate???? I'm soooooo there. I think maybe the Seekers should pool their paltry funds and take out stock in Hershey's. Or Ghiradelli, maybe, since we keep them all in business!

And then there's always Stephany's Chocolates in Denver...

Make a little cash on the side. Buy new ink and paper.

And I totally agree with Jules. When you realize you're not as good as you expected, you can either give up or try harder.

'Cause if it don't kill ya, it'll only make you stronger.

And remembering my early manuscripts makes me a good judge today, because I've been there. Done that. Failed miserably.

Then lived to tell about it, LOL!

(Though I'm sure there are some editors who still cringe at the sight of my name. God love 'em, and grant them forgiving hearts...)

And Tina I would have had to send Elizabeth something either chocolate, Starbucks or monetary. Yikes.

But how cool that the multi-pubs jump in to help on their contest. That's awesome. Totally.

Great post, Cara.


Pam Hillman said...

Oh yeah. Chocolate. My 14 yo son just returned from London, Paris and Belgium. The dear little (okay, he's 6'1") thing is a spendthrift. What did he buy?

Boxers that say "Paris" for Daddy, a t-shirt for his older brother, a cute plaque for his grandmother and 26.00 Euros worth of chocolate from Planet Chocolat for me! Yay!

Except, he decided I wasn't going to eat it (I was SAVORING it one piece at a time, thank you!) and took it to school to share with his friends.


Debby Giusti said...

Cara, great post! I can't remember the first contest I entered. Guess it was too long ago, although if I had to bet, I'd say it was the Georgia Romance Writers' Maggie, since GRW is my home chapter. Deb Smith -- very big GRW author and now editor of BelleBooks -- once wrote a comment on one of my contest entries. I still have her note . . . words of encouragement that kept me moving forward.

Thank goodness . . . no, thank God for wonderful judges who give glimmers of hope to those just starting down that long and difficult road to publication.

Pam Hillman said...

Oh, and Cara, I thought I'd mention that I placed 49 out of something like 50 in a contest once. Probably more than once, but this particular contest gave a listing of all the placements. Ouch.

That ms. had already won a few contests and went on to win the Golden Heart, so sometimes it's all in the luck of the draw.

Debby Giusti said...

Good point, Pam. It's so subjective!

Janet Dean said...

No matter how much that first contest hurt, we all lived to tell the tale. I'm grateful for contests, for judges who give their time to help a newbie writer. What a generous thing to do. And contest entry fees fund speakers and retreats or workshops for writers. A win-win situation for everyone. Great post, Cara.

Mary Connealy said...

Hi, ladies. Long, tough day. Maybe I'll tell you about it sometime.
Did you see that Myra interviewed me on her blog? Well asked for romantic advice actually.
I did my best to bring romance into Myra's life.
How's it going, Myra honey???

Sandra Leesmith said...

Cara, I'm going to have to rewrite my comments as you just said all the reasons I started entering. LOL But you're right. The contests really help give you confidence to write. There isn't anyone else patting you on the back amidst those rejection letters (not counting your friends and family) Thanks for the insights. Blessings, Sandra

Missy Tippens said...

Isn't it funny (well, not really funny) how many people on here got last place or next to last place in early contests??! Amazing that we stuck with it.

Maybe it just means we're all hard-headed. :)