Let me start off by saying that I LOVE contests. I’ve met many of my very favorite writer buddies from participating in writing contests.
Second: writing contests give pretty much zero indication of how good your manuscript is, or how far along in your journey you are.
Last week was the big Writer’s Voice blog hop and team picks. A very exciting time for many writers, and I joined in. I went to Every. Single. Entry. And I made notes. I ranked them all as if I were playing agent (by the way, this is a very excellent way to get better at writing, read 150 queries and their corresponding first pages; some writing just zings). And then I watched—and cried!—as the Team Coaches went through and picked. (How did they miss those beautiful gems? Oh, my pretties, I wish all my yes picks had been picked by coaches!)
If you’ve ever wanted a lesson in subjectivity, do this. Read all the entries in a contest, and just pick out your favorites. You’ll be amazed. I picked out almost 20 yeses (as in, yes, I would definitely read on to the next page to see how this one went). I had a bunch of maybes, and a bunch of nos.
And then the coaches made their picks. Out of the 32 picks, only 8 of them were my yeses (leaving 12 of my pretty yeses—one with exclamation points!—riding pine with me). Of the 32 team members, 16 were maybes from me. And the remaining 8 were all Nos in my book.
As in, Nope, there was no way I’d be reading on. None.
The thing is, and this is important when it comes to writers querying agents, it’s not enough to write a story in the genre that the agent represents. The story also has to be something she (or he) would potentially love. I don’t know why, but stuffy sci fi stories that spend too much time being technical bore me (it’s the math, as soon as I’m doing derivatives in my head to figure out if the writer has a clue what he’s talking about, I’m just not in the story anymore). If I were an agent, and someone queried me with a FTL explanation story, I would probably reject it even if the writing were really spectacular—even though I really like science fiction. This is what people mean by personal tastes and subjectivity (also, I’ve read a bazillion FTL explanation stories, so it’d have to be super special).
When an agent is sending a rejection (or a contest host), it’s not a remark on your person or even your writing. I know, that part is hard. We all feel terrible when we get rejected, even when it’s something we legitimately didn’t want. Rejection hurts, but I’m trying to say that there might be more to being rejected than a bar you have to jump over.
The query trenches are a tough place, but it’s about so much more than just having a story in the represented genre that’s “good enough.” I know you guys are probably starting to wonder when I’ll pull out my crystals and do an aura cleansing (totally valid just not my thing), but I can honestly say, there’s no magic mark you have to make like with sports. In fencing, just get more touches than the other guy. In hockey, put the biscuit in the basket more often than the other team. But in writing, you have to hit that magic mark of making someone fall in love with your work and be in a marketable category (whatever that means today!).
So, to my fellows in the query trenches: chin up. You may be closer than you think. You may be farther than you’d hoped, but wherever you are, you are in it. Play the game, and know that what you learn now will be with you longer than your querying attempt. Good luck, and if you're feeling the sting of not making the cut for the Writer's Voice, just remember that 12 people are roaming around feeling sad today, but they had YES!!!! written in my book. It only takes one (from a publishing professional, I'm afraid I'm not very helpful there). Query widely!