We all know it's inevitable: every time there is a contest, some people don't final. In fact, most people don't final.
Thing is, no one expects to be in the group that doesn't final, and sometimes it can be hard to get the news that your beloved story wasn't quite so beloved by the judges.
Recently, I entered ACFW's Genesis contest, only to find out that I didn't make the cut. Initially, I genuinely expected to get a call because I was proud of the work I submitted. However, as the days went by, I grew disappointed, realizing I was probably going to be part of the non-finaling group.
I was pretty disappointed. However, by the time I got the official e-mail with the news that I didn't final, I had already begun to adjust to the idea. In many ways, not being a finalist is a good thing because it has allowed me to get some much-needed feedback before I write any more of my work-in-progress.
So, what are some things you can do to take your disappointment about a contest, or even a meeting with a potential editor or agent, and use it to better yourself and your writing?
1) Spend time wallowing if needed. You worked hard. You had hopes about winning the contest. Perhaps you even had visions about holding a winner's plaque, and you assumed these visions must be prophetic. The reality is that it's disappointing when you pour yourself into something, only to find that the reception of your work did not match your expectations. It's ok to feel bummed out. Accept that.
2) After the appropriate wallowing time, pick yourself up, dust the rejected feeling off (is it possible to dust a feeling?), and determine to move forward. We've all heard it before: "not winning something is just an opportunity to grow from that experience." Sounds like a lame attempt to make us feel better whenever we know the real truth: we lost. Right? Well, not really. While people do say these kinds of things to make us feel better, at the same time, disappointment is one of the strongest catalysts for growth. What matters is how you allow disappointment to shape you.
3) Realize that writing is a process, not an end-point. No matter how good of a writer you are, you will face rejection at some point because rejection comes along with the nature of writing. Writing is not like math; it is about growth rather than solving the equation. For that reason, don't think of your piece as being "wrong," but rather, as being at a particular point in its growth process. Even published pieces still have the capability to improve.
4) Try to incorporate the judges' suggestions. Maybe the judges said your dialogue seemed artificial, or your setting needs further articulation. I had a judge say that my story was my weakest part. No, I am not kidding. When I first read that comment, I felt angry. But then, after I removed my emotion from getting in the way of my judgement, I realized the reviewer was right. My characterization and dialogue were interesting, but I hadn't given readers the stakes of the story, or reasons why they should care about my protagonist, until the third or fourth chapter. Because of those reviews that were hard to read, I realized that the conflict in my work-in-progress currently doesn't come in until at least twenty or thirty pages into the book, which is something I've already been working to change. I am thankful for the feedback because it allows me to see blind-spots in my writing, areas that I unconsciously ignore because I am so closely linked to my own work.
5) Remember that at the end of the day, everything is still exactly the same as it was before you found out that you didn't final. While feedback is invaluable during revision, not all judges will understand the heart of your story. Maybe they totally missed your symbolism, or just didn't get your main character's humor. Only you know the heart of your story, and you need to stay true to that, cliche as it may sound. Don't make any edits that compromise the deeper issues at stake in your work. Also, remember why you are writing. While winning contests is encouraging, if you rely on that kind of validation in order to write, you will never make it. Something inside you must be called to write, must think throughout your day "I could write that person into my book," must feel affirmed by the act of writing. If that's the case, you will soon realize that a contest does not have the power to define you or your writing.