Ink & Insights often gets feedback from contestants as soon as they receive their score sheets. Occasionally, Catherine will share a particularly enthusiastic thank-you note with the judges. In one recent instance, the contestant was just as effusive about the low scores as the high ones – and that prompted me to think about how we, as writers, approach the whole process of refining our craft and preparing ourselves for the realities of agent and publisher reactions to our cherished manuscripts.

Contests are a microcosm of that agent/publisher reality. There’s a lot at stake for the contestant – not just the prize, but the Sally-Field moment when you can say “They really like me! They like my work.” And that self-affirmation, after all we’ve poured into our characters and our stories, is a dopamine-high we can ride for days or weeks. The flip side of the coin is the temptation to let one or two low scores drag us down into the quagmire of depression or – worse yet – blame. It’s easier to bemoan that a judge wasn’t being fair than to take a dispassionate look at the thoughts behind the score.

As I thought about contests as a surrogate for the real world of pursuing publication, another parallel came to mind. Writers critique groups. I participate in one that holds a weekly read-and-critique evening. The format is as follows:

  • Each session is 20 minutes duration
  • The reader can read their work for up to 15 minutes (that’s 8-9 pages, at best)
  • The remainder of the time is critique by the other writers in the room
  • During the critique, the reader can’t respond other than to answer a clarifying question from a critiquer

There are always different people in the room, so a reader can hear from one group of colleagues one week and an entirely different set the following week.

Among the members of this group is one writer who is multiply traditionally published (let’s call this person Chris – like the gender-neutral alias?) No matter who is reading, Chris invariably points out multiple issues, sometimes leading with the phrase “I don’t like it.” As disheartening as that may be (and I’ve had it happen to me), we all know the comments stem from hard-won experience with what it takes to get the attention of an agent or publisher. Do we always take the advice directly?

Not necessarily. As Jessica De Bruyn so clearly pointed out in her blog post on this site, it’s our job as authors to find the kernel of value in the critique we’re getting and figure out how to use it to improve our book. And we all know that Chris’s intent is never to denigrate us or our writing but only to try to help us get that “yes” from an agent.

The Ink & Insights judges are like a critique group in some ways – we have experience in the journey to publication and our overwhelming motivation is to help you get to your “yes.” Just like a critique group – or a collection of agents – some of us may perceive a manuscript differently than others do.

But we’re also different from the critique group. We get to see something on the order of 40 pages of your work and a synopsis of the whole thing into the bargain. That’s better than most agent submissions you’ll be asked for. I’ve been asked for as little as 5 pages, but 10 is more typical and sometimes they’ll request 25. So, as judges, we try to be as thorough as possible so you can really put a high polish on that bit of your work that’s the key to whether or not someone asks you for more. Or if you intend to self-publish, we don’t want any of your readers to cast your book aside after just a few pages.

The judges panel differs from a critique group in another important way. In a critique group, people generally know each other. But we judges have no idea who you are. We can’t possibly have a pre-conceived opinion of you or your work or any prejudice for or against a particular submission and where it places in the final results.

Which brings me back to that microcosm thing and Jessica’s blog post. Every writer would like to be a contest prize-winner. But isn’t the ultimate prize the agent who finally says “yes”? Or the small publisher who gives you a publication contract? Take your I&I scores and the feedback that comes with them as another step toward that ultimate prize. Find the kernels you can use from both your high- and low-scoring critiques and set aside the things that seem less helpful. Turn those kernels into a fine polish to put a sheen on your work. And celebrate yourself and your manuscript. Everyone on the judges panel wants to see every entrant move closer to that moment when you hold your published work in your hand. Now that’s a dopamine-high that will carry you for a *really* long time!

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