Blogger: Michelle Ule
Filling in for Mary Keeley who is traveling today.
If you’re a writer, have you entered any contests?
I spoke with some writers recently who asked about the value of contests.
One had had a bad experience with the judging–getting a high mark and a low mark–which left her confused.
I shared my experience and I’ve been thinking about what a good thing it was I got a ridiculously low mark.
Here’s the story.
I entered a well-known contest one year and was perplexed by my scores: 98, 95 and 58.
The first two loved the project:”ready for publication.”
The third noted, “you really ought to learn how to use commas.”
I saw red.
Furious doesn’t describe my feelings well enough.
Irate, horrified, insulted. Who was that judge?
After all, I have a degree in English Literature from UCLA, where I worked as a reporter and eventually and editor of the paper–which at that time had a daily circulation of 33,000 readers.
No one had ever commented on my (mis)use of commas–not even my boss who is a noted editor.
Who was this anonymous judge?
After storming around for several days, I calmed down.
I realized I was feeding the seed root of bitterness over this contest and it was damaging me more than the judge.
Besides, what if she was right?
So, I swallowed my pride and did a research project: commas.
I’m happy to report (okay, this is gloating) that I was right and the judge was wrong.
I even learned a couple more ways to use a comma.
But still. I lost the contest because of that judge.
Did I really lose anything?
“They” say you can best see God’s hand in the rear view mirror and sitting here today, I believe the judge did me a favor.
I finaled in the same contest the next year which led to my first writing contract.
The timing, for me, to earn a contract the next year was much better.
Had I won the contest and a contract the year I was comma-challenged, I would have been writing during my daughter’s stuffed full of activities senior year of high school.
We had a foreign exchange student living with us.
One of our adult children moved home.
A grandchild was born.
I spent a month in Europe.
When would I have had time to write my project, much less do all the marketing required?
Looking back, I’m relieved.
I’ve written before about God’s perfect timing with A Log Cabin Christmas Collection. You can read my astonishing story here.
In 2011 I had plenty of time to think, write and market.
A Log Cabin Christmas Collection made the New York Times best seller’s list.
None of those thing would have happened if I had not had a judge mistakenly think I knew nothing about commas.
I’m grateful, today, for the contest and the judge.
Is timing everything?
Timing plays an important role in the publishing world. Others have written about the agony of having their book released on September 11, 2001. Those books, and the ones published in the following months, had little chance of catching the world’s attention.
What if your book came out the same day as the final Harry Potter book?
As a Christian, I believe God’s hand plays an important role, perhaps the most important role, in our publishing lives.
This means, I can leave my writing career, my goals, my projects, in His hands and wait for the right time.
I’m sitting on a project right now like that–I’d love to be writing and talking about it–but the answer to prayer is “not yet.”
So yes, enter contests, but release control of your publishing life to God.
That’s the only way to ensure that contests and contracts come at the right time–for the book, but also for you.
How a contest stalled and saved a career. Click to Tweet
Is losing a contest valuable in a writing career? Click to Tweet
“In the fullness of time.”
When God says “no,” it is because he has a better plan. Michelle, your story demonstrates that. And you are absolutely right about the seed of bitterness. Grace is much more becoming.
Grace is important, as is avoiding feeding the bitterness. There can be many difficult times in the writing journey. We need to keep checking the state of our hearts to make sure they’re in the right place.
Thanks for commenting.
Wendy L Macdonald
I like this: “In the fullness of time.” Amen.
I had a similar experience: two very high scores and a very low one. It happened on the final judging round, when judges were not required to comment, only to give a numerical score, so I’ll never know what it was about my piece that offended him/her so deeply. That’s too bad, because I could probably have learned something valuable. Instead it’s kind of floating out there. “Someone hates my writing…someone hates my writing…”
That said, I think contests are valuable when judges provide feedback and the writer is willing to listen and learn. Contests can encourage you greatly and, at the same time, help you toughen your hide and receive criticism with grace. They also offer practice in preparing an entry to specifications, meeting deadlines, etc., all important skills in a writing career. After all that, the recognition it may bring is just the cherry on the sundae.
I agree, Jenny. When judges leave feedback, it can be so helpful! Even if it stings upon first read.
I have since been on the other side, Jenny, and served as a judge. It’s a challenging role–you want to give encouraging and positive feedback but sometimes it’s hard to know what to say.
I don’t know that someone hates your writing so much as “my story didn’t meet this reader’s felt need.” We’re all in different places and times in our writing and reading life. What speaks to one person doesn’t speak to another.
For example, Janet loved Dead Wake (see her post from last week). I did not. I could recognize the writing, but I got impatient with the story. We would have given that book different marks! 🙂
Michelle, I’m going to be contrary here about contests in general. I don’t like them. I don’t enter them. I rarely judge them. I hate having to choose a “writer of the year” when I serve on the faculty at writers’ conferences.
Maybe that’s because I was a high school English teacher (first career), and I read and graded so many papers that I know how subjective judging someone’s writing is (even when using a rubric and asking the writers to identify themselves by a number, rather than a name). I applaud you for judging, Michelle. It’s a tough and thankless job!
Also, I see so much hoopla surrounding the major awards ceremonies in the CBA industry. And I’ve met more than a few authors who are absolutely crushed when someone else wins the award they feel they should have won. One author told me that the winner in their category was selected for political reasons — the winning author’s publisher nominated the author for the award, and that publisher had more clout than the “losing” authors’ publishers. Don’t know whether that’s true, but it gave me a sick feeling.
There are so many fantastic writers who never receive any accolades for their writing, while less-than-stellar writers bask in the limelight. All because of some ridiculous award they received. Call me cynical. I am, when it comes to writing awards.
I participate in an informal short fiction contest every week, called #BlogBattle. If anyone wants to find out more, click on my name; my current entry’s up, along with a link to the person that coordinates the thing. The first week I entered,I won; first time my writing’s won anything!
* The benefit has been that my entries have become my WIP; carrying through the same theme and characters from week to week allowed me to ‘see’ a story that I wanted to tell, but didn’t know how. And the competitive nature of the thing, the requirement to write a scene as a stand-alone entry within a specified word count…that’s sharpened my skills, I think.
* Interestingly, this kind of dovetails with seeing God’s hand in the rearview mirror…because the story, as it’s unfolding, begins with the end, and moves forward to conclude with the beginning. And that is the way we tend to process our memories; coherency is the essence of recollection, and it’s only achievable when viewed with the eventual outcome already in hand. So, like Merlin, my characters will live their lives backwards, and will eventually depart the reader, at the end of the last chapter, as innocents on the brink of fell and glorious experience.
I clicked through, Andrew, and that #BlogBattle looks like a lot of fun. I can see how it would strengthen your writing. I’m not sure how I could manage that storyline AND a WIP, but I’m going to pray about it. Thanks!
It is a lot of fun, and there are some very good writers there.
* Telling the story backwards…not as flashbacks, but in reverse chronological sequence…might be the only was to approach something like Viet Nam, where we can only understand the beginning by seeing the results of each misstep first. When I write that it looks like a pedestrian effort as a koan, but I think it may be a valid approach.
* Put another way…in looking at a scrapbook that records your life, you can open it t the first page and proceed, or you can start with today’s date, and work backwards.
* It can turn tragedy into something of an epiphany of release, as you turn tomorrow into yesterday. You become, while on this journey, the person you were in all your yesterdays, increasingly free of today’s constraints.
* I don’t know if I said it well. It’s hard to describe, but easy to feel, when you’ve looked at it from the right perspective.
* Operatively, it’s a bit like flying…or marriage. First comes the test, then the lesson.
Excellent point, as usual, Andrew. It’s always good to have someone reading your work, whether they like it or not. If we go in holding our precious newborn lightly, I mean, with our emotions in check and ready to learn from the experience, we can find value.
I’ve found in the critique group I attended that even if I disagreed with what the women said, seeing my work from a different point of view helped.
Michelle, I’ve had similar experiences with contests. I entered one earlier this year where I received a 96, a 94, and a 76. The judge was extremely nitpicky and contradicted what the other two judges said were strengths with my entry. I was frustrated, but ultimately I had to humble myself and embrace the truth that God had a reason for the lower score and not finaling in that contest.
My first goal for entering contests is to receive feedback on my writing. When I become focused on the scores first, that’s when I can become unraveled on the inside.
I also tend to receive high and low scores, not a whole lot in between. An author friend told me it means my writing is not vanilla, which is a good thing. And sometimes, the judge is not my target audience. There are so many aspects to contests, but I do appreciate them, and I’ll keep entering them. 🙂
I love the ultimate take-away from your post, Michelle. God’s timing for our publishing life is always perfect. When I can trust this truth, I don’t get as stressed. 🙂
Thank you for sharing that wisdom from your author friend, Jeanne.
Wendy L Macdonald
Thank you for these encouraging words, Jeanne. And I prefer chocolate over vanilla any time. You’re blessed to have a wise author friend. Blessings on your next round of judging. 🙂
I love your attitude, Michelle. Trust God.
This was a powerful shot of encouragement to me. The times I’ve won contests or have had short fiction accepted for publication have seemed to come out of nowhere. Other times, when I’ve polished and strained and double-checked things–nada. I truly believe that we have to work hard, love what we do, and give it to the Lord. This is what I’m attempting to do these days. Thanks for sharing this story.
It really is all in the timing and if we believe God is in control . . . well, how can we argue?
I think it’s important, as well, to turn the prism and look at our writing from a different angle. Sometimes the writing is the minor point, what is more important may be what is happening in our life because we happen to be writing.
I don’t see writing as the be all end all of my existence. It’s what I happen to be doing right now, and today, but I live in a wider world that includes the need to experience, see, taste and deal. If I stay in my castle assuming my whole existence is the writing–well, that’s a pretty boring life in my opinion. 🙂
Kristen Joy Wilks
Yep, I’ve had that happen too. But I try to enter at least one contest every year, even thought the odds are I’m not going to win one. Why? I have found that while there is a fair bit of agony involved in entering a contest. I always learn something. Even if that something is “How to determine if a bit of advice does not fit this particular ms.” This is a vital skill. You will seek advice and receive advice your whole writing career and some of it is vital and some of it will wreck your book. How do you sift through advice? Enter contests. When you stare at three different judges and one of them says “I love your snarky character” and another says “I really hate how rude and snotty your character is” you have to pick one. Who are you writing for? What will they like? Contests are great. I’ve never one a contest, I’ve semi-finaled, but not won. Yet my writing has improved so much because of them.
I used to tell the kids, if you learned something it’s a good day. That attitude will take you far.
I’ve never won a contest since high school, and I’ve done just fine.
This is such great encouragement. It’s easy to look at contests and stress out. It’s scary to put myself out there! But if I look at the big picture, that it’s part of the process, I feel brave. Thanks for this.
Success for me! Thanks! 🙂
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
I got smacked in a contest entry for my bad spelling.
Apparently, I had very bad spelling.
So I opened the file and checked out each and every underlined word…you know, those red ones?
Yeah, well, all those “spelling mistakes” were NAMES!!!
When I opened that file and saw that judge’s comments?
Y’all know I’m a redhead, right?
My poor, sweet agent had to throw chocolate at me and wait for it to kick in.
If I got chocolate for every misspelled word (or name) . . . well, this computer chair wouldn’t fit anymore! 🙂
Latayne C Scott
What a godly, mature view of those events, Michelle.
It took me five years, Latayne! 🙂
“Feeding the seed root of bitterness …” I’ve learned this has a much more destructive force in my life than the initial incident/insult/offense to which I react. Isn’t it amazing to look back and see God’s perfect timing.
It is, Davalynn, and it makes me think of the Philippians verse about giving thanks in everything.
Just because I can’t see a reason this very moment to give thanks, doesn’t mean that God isn’t at work–and that my relieved gratitude will spill out later.
Michelle, I love what you have written! His thoughts are not our thoughts and His ways are not our ways. He loves us so much. It is hard during the waiting season before a race. Eating, sleeping and stretching are necessary to perform well on the day of the big event. The runner has to be rested and fueled up for the long fast journey ahead. . When the day comes for the race the runner has to be focused during that time, staying in their lane not looking back at who is behind them but toward the finish line. The goal to obtain the prize at the end. Writing and publishing I find is similar. Each writer is an individual with a unique voice. Sometimes the runner can be delayed, and the race postponed due to injury. The injury keeps them from participating and the journey goes in a different direction. It does not always have to be an injury though. It can be outside circumstances that keep the event from being held. A storm, an electrical outage could cancel the event. There are things beyond our control that keep us from our desires. Sometimes I think it is spiritual opposition and then there are the times when we know God is saying not yet. The control is as you have described. Allowing God to have control of every area of our lives. Allowing Him to lead. Being secure in knowing we can trust Him each step of the way to the finish line. The race is not with each other but toward the prize God has for us when we meet Him face to face. It matters not what accolades are given here in comparison to receiving His Well done thou good and faithful servant. Its all for His glory. God gives us the desires of our hearts. He is my Father and He gives good gifts to me, even in the delays. When my eyes are fixed on Him I can trust the future in His hands. Whatever the results may be. The goal is to live daily as I am directed and leave the rest to Him. There I find peace for the journey.
“As a Christian, I believe God’s hand plays an important role, perhaps the most important role, in our publishing lives.” Amen! May the Lord put judges in my path so I can focus on Him.
A wonderful illustration of God’s timing, Michelle! Like many others, I have similar stories…conflicting scores for a couple of years in a row. One judge wrote that I shouldn’t have any problem catching the eye of an agent or editor. In hindsight, I’m glad that book wasn’t my debut novel! Thank you for the encouragement today.
Wendy L Macdonald
Michelle, I appreciate your wise advice for us to focus on God’s timing concerning publishing.
It takes courage to put our work in front of others, and I suspect the ‘stings’ we experience from judges are just as valuable as the praise; because once we’re published we’d better be prepared to receive both as graciously as possible.
It floored me to receive such extreme differences in my marks; but I have made note of each and every one to guide me in my future works. Plus I pay close attention to the ‘good’ comments since it’s important to keep doing what works.
Judges have generously given of their time. Wise writers pan the gold from their critiques (with a grain of salt).
Blessings ~ Wendy
It’s a curious dance. Yes, pay attention to the positives because they’ll keep you going on the days you’re convinced you don’t know the difference between a verb and a noun.
The truth is often somewhere in between–which is why I read the 5 star and the 1 star reviews first before often settling with “my people” in the 3s!
I found contests to be invaluable so long as they offered feedback. My goal wasn’t to win, it was to pay $35 or so for fabulous feedback from writers further along in the journey than I was.Here’s how I dealt with uneven scores: If one judge mentioned something, I considered it. If two did, I took it seriously. If three did, I went to work. I highly recommend Genesis and The Frasier. I got WONDERFUL feedback from both contests.
An excellent response, Sarah. There is wisdom in a multitude of counselors. 🙂
Whether we like it or not!
I was reluctant to write this, but it may provide something for someone, a form of grace that they didn’t consider. Certainly I didn’t consider it, when it happened to me.
* If I hadn’t gotten sick…if I had kept my teaching job…if “Blessed Are The Pure Of Heart” had gone viral…if, if if…then Barbara would not be in the job she has now, meeting accounting challenges that make my head spin, and earning the deep respect of her colleagues and superiors.
* That makes me think that what happens to us may be in the service of creating the right timing for someone else. For her star to rise, mine had to fall.
* So, yes,…those passages were not and are not comfortable, but they are the best things that could have happened because they ended up benefiting my wife, and I love her very much.
You just never know.Wise way of looking at the challenging events.
Blessings to you both.
Thank you, Andrew, for the reminder that it isn’t always all about me.
Excellent post, Michelle! Thank you for both reminders—about our attitude towards contest scores and our patience with timing. While I sometimes feel like I’ve been waiting so long for a contract, I know I’m exactly where God wants me to be in the process. He knows my future better than I do. I see the process similar to the Sarah-Hagar-Abraham story in the Bible. Sarah’s impatience with God’s timing led to a lot of problems for her. But I confess, I hope God’s timing for my writing career doesn’t involve me waiting until I’m 90!
I’m sure things will fall into place for you, speedy Sarah, before you’re 90! Congrats on your latest award!
Thank you, Michelle!
Perspective. One little gem I have learned to apply during frustrating moments, especially when they don’t make sense to me, is to ask God to show me what is true about the situation and how I should view it. Asking God to highlight what is true and what is not true helps me sort the wheat from the chaff. This exercise helps me see a negative from the viewpoint of a learning construct and helps take the sting out of the rejection or difficulty. Thanks for sharing your story, the real angst, and later realization of God’s perfect timing. Bless you.
True, Norma, and we often need time to gain perspective.
This is SO true, Michelle! It’s in that rear view mirror that we see so much, and if we can remember that while looking forward, we’ll find much less frustration in life and in writing. Thanks for sharing this!
Your friends sparked the memory and I’m thankful because now I feel free and more grateful. 🙂
I was once asked to judge a contest in another industry and it had nothing to do with writing.
I was selected because of my visibility and credentials, not my knowledge on the subject I was judging. I didn’t want to judge the contest but felt I couldn’t decline. So I did my best but probably messed it up.
I wonder if your judge who didn’t know commas has a similar story.
That would be my guess, Peter, but the judge simply may not have liked the story (I can’t remember, now, which one it was), and saw one too many commas which just irked.
When I judge, I’m asked what my credentials are–so perhaps this judge also listed credentials and I don’t recall. Too busy being insulted–which was wrong on my part. 🙂
Michael Hicks Thompson
Michelle, I am in awe of your ability to express your true, inner spirit (no pretensions, no bragging) in such a way it is impossible to not like you as a person. As George McDonald said, “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”
Michael Hicks Thompson
I would also like to add this comment: This is the best blog I’ve read on Books N Such in couple of years. And read them all.
How very kind, Michael. Thank you.
I entered a contest with a story that I knew was powerful and felt let down when it didn’t win. It would have allowed me to attend an amazing workshop! When I learned the dates of that workshop, however, I knew the timing would have been terrible. It fell a week before a major move. Later that same story was published by the magazine that hosted the contest, and the timing for that was perfect, both for me and the couple that I wrote the story about!
Two years later I entered the same contest and, for the second time, did not win. This time I was relieved. I’d had some second thoughts about the story, fearing that certain friends might read it, misunderstand it, and get hurt. I am now using that story in a book, but this time I’m taking a different approach. Because it’s part of a book those I was concerned about will have a much deeper understanding. I would be shocked if they got upset.
I hold on to these experiences as reminders that God knows exactly when a story needs to be published!
Amen, Jeanette. Thanks for sharing your experience.
Curious how God can protect in spite of us!
I am gearing up to enter Pitch Wars next week. It can’t hurt – right?
I regularly do flash fiction at a well-known agent site, and have had success, but I rarely do that in my own genre, so it really doesn’t further my career.(career? what career? Ha!)
Somebody believes in me. This week my daughter bought my domain name as a gift for me.
Ah, Sheila, a relative who not only believes in you but supports your work–is a relative to prize! Good luck with the contest.
I’ve entered a few short of a dozen contests over the years. I’m slightly ahead in winnings to entry fees. But I’ll never enter another one. I’ve never once received feedback on losing entries–nor winning entries, for that matter. Of course, I’ve mainly entered general market contests, not Christian market. Perhaps that’s the difference in terms of feedback. I never expected to receive feedback.
I’m sorry to hear that, David, but understand why you’ll never enter another contest. A real shame.
It’s not the lack of feedback, Michelle. Perhaps I didn’t make that clear. My reason for not entering contests is that they seem useless. Pay an entry fee; have a minuscule chance of winning. If the contest doesn’t give feedback (which, as I say, the ones I’ve entered don’t), you learn nothing except that these judges didn’t like your entry as well as they liked other entries. You don’t know why. You don’t know how close you are. What’s the point in entering? To hope to get a minor point to add to your resume? Forget that. It’s not worth the entry fee.
Amen. Timing is everything.
Your experience = mine X 3.
Your reaction = mine, too. Yeah, all 3 X (where do they get these judges?!).
Your message–I’ll take to heart. It’s in God’s time.
I have often found that forces seem to act behind the scenes. Something will click. Something is vindicated. An answer will come, though not necessarily when I think I need it. I write horror (perhaps not your area! ) but all these little things help the good guys overcome the evil they face.