In 2012 I entered Killer Nashville’s Claymore Award contest, but don’t bother checking the names of the finalists; I didn’t make that list. There was no trophy or bragging rights for me; I’m just one of the many Claymore losers out here.
Certainly I could be bitter about that. As it happens I am a professional author of fifty published novels; seven of my books have been New York Times bestsellers. When a writer at my level loses a contest, they generally don’t talk about it. Or if they do, it’s to be good sport and congratulate the winners, or to quietly grumble to friends about pinheaded judges and how it had to be rigged.
Winning the Claymore would have been very nice, but in the end losing it was even better for me. Before I explain why, let’s talk about competitions and how they can be valuable to all writers.
Simply entering a contest is a victory for anyone who participates. We’ll all agree that it takes a lot of nerve to put your work out there to be scrutinized and judged. For most writers the only apparent validation is winning and beating out their peers for the big prize, when in reality the true payoff is participating. For every writer who loses a contest, there are a thousand who didn’t have enough confidence in themselves or their work to even try to compete.
Winning is wonderful, but you actually learn more from failure. When you lose a contest, you’re not going to be polishing a trophy or accepting congrats from your peers. What you’ll have is an opportunity to take a hard look at your work and see how you can improve on it. With contests like the Claymore the feedback provided by the judges can be valuable in helping you do this effectively.
Using the loss as motivation can take you in a new direction. I know losing a contest can feel a bit like getting a door slammed in your face. It’s not the only door in the world, however, and losing means you can try others. There may be a door to a better opportunity right around the corner, just waiting for you to knock on it.
The Claymore award is actually the first contest I’ve ever entered as a pro. I chose it because the judging is blind, and only the work itself is evaluated, so it’s obviously not a popularity contest. I also kept my expectations realistic. What I wanted from the experience was a chance to compete on a level field with my peers, and the prospect of getting some useful feedback on my story. I’d also been sending out the proposal for my entry for two years with no luck, so the possibility of winning would provide me with an alternative shot at publication.
I knew the story I entered in the contest was rather a long shot, as it’s a 19th-century steampunk urban fantasy/mystery set in a parallel universe. America doesn’t win the War of Independence, so we’re all still British. My lady P.I. makes her living investigating crimes of magic and exposing the charlatans behind them. I was hoping the unique aspects of the story and the world-building would help it stand out from the competition.
When I didn’t win the contest, the loss motivated me to make some changes to the story, and I used the judges’ comments on my entry to guide me in the right direction. I revised the manuscript, submitted a new proposal, and immediately landed an offer from the first editor who read it — not just for the novel, but for a novel series. The story that didn’t win the Claymore is now the first book in my Disenchanted & Co. series, to be published by Pocket Star. It debuts on August 12th — almost one year to the day I lost the Claymore.
Would any of this have happened if I hadn’t entered the contest? Probably not. Without this experience it’s likely that I would have kept submitting the novel as it was until I racked up enough rejections to convince me to set it aside and move on. Losing the Claymore instead convinced me to pay attention, make some changes and try something else — which resulted in a contract offer.
I didn’t win the Claymore, but thanks to the contest I got what was most important to me: publication. As consolation prizes go, that’s the best kind.
Since 2000, Lynn Viehl has published fifty novels, including her New York Times bestselling Darkyn series. Ranked as one of the top-one-hundred female, top-fifty book, and top-ten science fiction author bloggers on the Internet, Ms. Viehl hosts Paperback Writer, a popular industry weblog with free market info, working advice, and online resources for all writers. Disenchanted & Co. series blog: http://toriana.blogspot.com
(The Killer Nashville Guest Blog series is coordinated by KN Executive Director Beth Terrell (http://www.elizabethterrell.com/). To be a part of this series, contact Beth at firstname.lastname@example.org.)