Monday, March 11, 2013

On Contests, disenfranchised writers, and commercial success


 
I don’t know if any of you witnessed the dust up over at Cupid’s Literary Connection on Friday, but it’s had me thinking about contests and writers all weekend long.

Some background: Cupid got trolled. She responded in a very professional manner. Unfortunately, the attacks were pretty personal, so she had to delete the most offensive comment. It’s really too bad, I sort of like giving people enough rope to hang themselves, but I can see where Cupid was coming from. Good on her for responding with the calm of a steely-eyed missile man (that’s a nerdy NASA compliment).

More background: It was a guest post by Dahlia about who should enter contests and why. Zang! She was spot on, and I have to sheepishly admit that I have violated her “If your novel isn’t ready, don’t submit it to a contest. You are just wasting our time.” (Hangs head in shame and considers littering up inboxes with apologies and thank you notes).

What was controversial about Dahlia’s statements was something I thought everyone knew: If your manuscript has been making the contest rounds, consider not entering every single contest. She rightly stated that many, many contests have all the same agent judges. They like contests; that’s how they play. Simple as that. Which means that if you get your stuff in front of the same agent more than once, they can see how your submission is (or is *not* changing), but pretty much, if they’ve seen it twice and passed both times, they really aren’t interested. Dahlia suggested that if you’d already put your manuscript out that you be considerate and not stick it out there again and again and again. She suggested that such a write might want to give someone else a chance to get their work in front of agents.

I totally understand why some people were upset about that idea. But she’s pretty much spot on.

So why would writers keep throwing out their trodden down manuscripts over and over so much that she would suggest that some people with tired manuscripts leave off for a while? As writers, we sometimes start to feel desperate about our work. “Will I ever get published?” “Why won’t an agent just read my manuscript?” “Why is this taking so long?” “Holy Krakatoa, am I going to have to trunk another novel and start this business over from scratch?????” “Please dear god of literary awesomeness, let THIS novel be the one. Pretty please.”

It’s easy for these thoughts to become the blackened vitriol of the disenfranchised. Perhaps you’ve heard a few:

“Agents never sign clients from the slush.”
“Agents never read query letters unless they already know you.”
“Agents are only interested in commercial drivel.”
“Agents are three horned devils who only wear Prada and Jimmy Choos.”

Okay, maybe that last one is on to something, but I can honestly say that the whole idea of the first three statements are utterly negated by a shred of logic.

Statement one “Agents never sign clients from the slush.”
This one is so laughable, I don’t even think it’s worth mentioning that the number of clients signed by a contest versus those who get signed from the slush? It’s not even a contest (see what I did there), it’s something ridiculous like 95% of clients signed come from the slush.

Statement two “Agents never read query letters unless they already know you.”
Then what is the point of being open to queries? I mean really, if they’re so busy that they only read queries from people they know, they have a mode for that. It’s called the “I’m closed to queries except for by referral.” Yeah, I know, it’s crazy the information you can find out about an agent by doing some research!

Statement three “Agents are only interested in commercial drivel.”
Sigh, internet, you make me so sad some days. Yes, agents want something commercial, and I understand if there are really popular books that have both massive fan followings and massive detractors (cough coughtwilightcough cough), but to insinuate that all commercial successes are drivel shows an incredible closed mindedness that should be educated by watching Phineas and Ferb Across the Second Dimension. No really, it’s a great movie, a commercial success, and aimed at children so the content isn’t too mentally challenging.

It’s also brilliant in a super nerdy way.

And there are lots of nerds in the world.

There are also a ton of screaming teenage girls in the world. That doesn’t mean that every boy band is untalented and incapable of singing a real song. It just doesn’t hurt their music that they’re cute and overproduced. Same with books.

My point is just because it’s commercial doesn’t mean it lacks emotional value.

As writers, when we fall into those desperate places, and those disenfranchised thoughts start to turn our heads inside out, it’s time to take a break. See the world not from your own corner, but take a look around you. I get that life isn’t the basket of roses Annie promised, but that doesn’t make it a pit of depravity either. Writing is very insular, and sometimes we need a moment or two away from the publishing scene to really create something that will knock the judges off their podiums.

Take a break. Recharge. Write what you love. And for the love of chocolate, don’t take your frustrations out on anyone, especially not the contest providers. Now, go watch The Kid President if you’re having a hard time, and get back to writing (it’s the only part that matters until you sign or decide to self publish).

Now, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m going to go offer my services to some of these bloggers who are always hosting the contests I LOVE entering. What they do is above and beyond, and I’m in awe of their paying back (or forward or sideways).


p.s. I didn't talk about people charging for contests, but that's because I don't have a deep meaningful answer for that. If you feel entering a contest is worth paying the paltry fee, then do it. If you don't, then don't enter, simple as that.

18 comments:

  1. All good points. I don't know that I'd not enter contests only because it bogs down the judge's inbox; I wouldn't fixate on any one work period. Read, learn, write...it's up to us to get better. And maybe, just maybe, when we reach our full potential, a query will stand out like a diamond in the slush and that may bring new life to all of our babies sitting unloved on a flash drive!

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    1. Ah, the entering a contest just to not bog down the judge wasn't the issue. See for contests with a limited number of spots (The Writer's Voice, Mystery Agents, etc.) it can be really annoying to get the same contestant that you've had the last three months in a row. The writing isn't there, and it hasn't changed. It's very frustrating from a contest holder stand point because you already know that the agent is going to pass. Those are the people they're trying to reach. (But it's really hard to figure out if you're one of those people...)

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  2. Very interesting and insightful post, Rena! I've often heard the same rumours about agents and I've occasionally thought, "hmmm....is this true? If so, then what's the point!?"

    You're very right about taking a break and recharging. I often give that same advice to people I know who are struggling with their writing. I just wish they would take it!!

    Great post!

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    1. Knowing you need a break is hard. I give that advice all the time, but I usually also give it with a heavy handed "The Publishing Industry called, and they said you could give yourself a writing vacation."

      It doesn't sink in all the time, but in this business, you either figure it out and give yourself the breaks you need, or you turn your wheels in the dark lands of despair before you figure it out (or burn out and quit, but not as many people take that option).

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  3. I read the article and thought everything she said was perfect. Some people are touchy I guess. I could see someone getting mad if they've been querying the same book for three years, but seriously, there's a time to give up!

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    1. The reason some people are touchy is because they've lost sight of how querying really works.

      You write a really awesome book.

      You back it up with a really awesome query letter.

      People seem to think that a writing contest will get them past the query stage instantly, and for a few lucky people, it does. That doesn't mean much of anything for the other 95% of the contestants.

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  4. I missed out on the kerfuffle but I agree with everything you said. When I was doing contests it did seem like the same manuscripts and the same judges for a while. And after participating in GUTGAA I know first hand that it takes a ton of work to do these contests so supporting those that put them on is important. ;)

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    1. A few times, I've gone through the contests I've been part of to see what worked for me and what didn't. I learned a lot, but I was also a bit concerned to see some manuscripts that had been shopping for a full year. That had to be a hard road for those writers.

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  5. Oh man - I totally missed the chaos, and I'm sad to hear that cupid got trolled. That's really too bad. Personally, I think the advice on entering contests sounds legit, so I guess people should put on their rhino armor and deal with it.

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    1. It was really personal too, so I think it was a case of the jaded writer who snapped before their brain kicked back in. I really like Cupid, she's done a really great bit of service.

      What I loved about Dahlia's post was making the distinction between contests where you're trying to get feedback, and the ones where they expect you to show up with your big girl pants on.

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  6. Funny how parts of this were exactly what I needed to read tonight. @_@ Been having another one of those difficult days, in terms of query attempts and pretty much everything else writing-related, but this helped. Thanks.

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    1. You're welcome, Mason. This business of writing ain't easy. Just find that story that lights a fire in your soul. I'm a big fan of Zen pencils, and this one because it's true.

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  7. I rarely enter contests so I wasn't aware of the points raised. I would say that those who troll because of the advice are the ones who will be ignored by the demonic agents of satan (joke). The rest of us accept advice and proceed accordingly.

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    1. If we could all be so level headed, but I do see where the writer may have gone crazy. They were feeling trapped by the fact that they have a novel that isn't good enough yet. It might even be good, that's the hard thing about these contests; you can be good, but there's a ton of excellent and spectacular out there too.

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  8. Great post! I missed ther kerfluffle on Cupid's, and i'm kind of sad because i'm all about watching the drama! But i'm right there with Dahlia. I've made it into quite a few high profile contests. But i don't enter all of them, and i only enter when i'm querying already or on the verge of querying

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    1. I caught it completely by accident! I only go on twitter when I have time to waste, like actively looking for a time waster, and I went on, and DRAMA! So I went to check it out, and the drama blew my socks off. It was crazy.

      And I usually use contests as a sort of line in the sand so that I'll get off my duffet and start the querying process (it's scawee to quewee).

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  9. I've never entered any of the contests, though I've sometimes read the entries and comments (but I missed the drama this time!) You make some really good points, and I hadn't thought about what agents might think if they see the same entries over and over, unchanged. Something I'm trying to keep in mind is to always be improving, editing, writing something new and making it better.

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  10. I always hear about these bust-ups after the event! Those myths about agents are surely spread by people who are submitting work that really isn't ready. Just because it hasn't worked for them, doesn't mean that's the case for a stunning piece of work! Great post - I hope you don't get any trolls :-)

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