The Contest from Hell: A Reject's POV

AKA the Dorchester/Textnovel Next Best Celler Contest. I promise you here and now this isn't going to be a bitter rant. I'm calling it the contest from hell because to everyone who entered, it ripped a part of their soul out through their nostrils. No matter where they placed or have yet to place.

The golden apple that all of us hopeful writers were striving to attain? A $2,000 publishing contract and the manuscript in print by the end of 2010. I'm pretty sure no one I know was in this for the money. You see, as a struggling writer we all want one thing, for people to actually read what we write, to have readers tell us they loved our stories. It's vindication for wrestling with the demons in our heads, for all the times we tell our friends, or worse our children, "No, I can't right now, I need to write". It sounds selfish, it feels selfish, but it's what we must do, who we are.

Stage one was posting the romance manuscript on and soliciting votes. The top twenty votes would be the semi-finalists. I discovered the contest at the beginning of September and first entered River Rats. It had already been going on for a few months and since I was new to the site as well as the contest I started from zero. Took me a few days to figure out how the contest worked, a few weeks to solicit votes without pissing off other textnovel members all the while convinced I'd never gain enough votes to stand with the semi finalists. I'm not exactly a social creature, after all.

About a week after first joining, I started posting Redeeming Characters. I started with a prologue describing Dakota's life after her husband's death and how she adopted baby Kim. Reading over the 500 word chappies on textnovel, I realized how much of a downer the story started out and axed the prologue, beginning instead with Drue's snide commentary on author day. Within a week the story was selected as an editor's choice for the site. I did my best to read as many stories on textnovel as possible, to comment and invite other authors to read mine, operating under the writer's unspoken golden rule, leave the feedback I'd want to see on my own work. I posted other WIP that are not under contract to the site to demonstrate how prolific I can be. I checked in about five hundred times a day, and analyzed the profile of anyone who had voted/ subscribed to my story and sent thank you e notes. I started the Are you A Character Contest, signed up for and Twitter and began using the Facebook account I'd created many moons ago. My numbers kept climbing, but so did everyone else's. There were several times when I wanted to say, the hell with it all.

Much to my surprise, previously untapped resources rode to the rescue. Fans of Laundry Hag, friends of my father and step-mother who I talked through the registration and voting process, even people who came and voted for other contestants, stopped by and voted on mine. With two weeks to go, I made it up to the top twenty, vote wise. In the last week, I'm pretty sure some of my fellow contestants were knocking on sorority house doors with sacks of chocolate because the numbers were absolutely insane. When I first joined, the high score number for the contest was 300. By the end it was over 700. More than double in two months time.

I kept telling myself, once I got the manuscript on the table, it was a sure thing. That I had written a great story,which needed fine tuning, yes, but it was gonna get a chance to see the light. I finished Redeeming Characters, which I had been working on since early 2006, a week before the first phase ended. I made sure it was polished, that everything jived, word count was accurate according to the contest rules, left it on a pretty great hook if I do say so myself.

Then, on November 1st, we all waited anxiously for that official announcement. Which happened on November 2nd, around midday. Stinking calender didn't account for business days. The top twenty were announced, no wait it was twenty-one. A little confusion over the rules, oh well, no biggie. An extra story got thrown in the mix, a darn good one too.

We all waited anxiously to find out who would be in the top ten. Ironically, after the vote pimping ended, I felt as though I was constantly forgetting to do something. So I focused part of my energies on Stellar Timing, my nano that still isn't and the rest goofing off with fellow contestants on Twitter. Made some kick ass friends that way. Of course, I kept going over all of the things that set my story, as well as me as a contestant, apart. I'd read at least a little of all the others and I kept a mental list of who deserved to be in the top ten.

I was so bloody sure that someone just had to bitch-slap my hubris. If you've ever read any of the Greek tragedies, you know to what I am referring. Pride goes before the fall and all that jazz. The announcement came when I was out with A.J. at soccer practice. I read the list over twice, three times, to be sure, but Redeeming Characters wasn't on it.

For two days I stewed and kept asking what did I do wrong? I think a small piece of my heart broke off when I found out that editor's from Dorchester were helping the other contestants write print-worthy jacket copy. I'd already invested too much time to simply let it go, I needed to know who would walk away with that contract, and the why of it.

I offered to help a friend, who'd written an excellent story and did make top ten, edit her work for the final push. Was a double bonus for me since in doing so I got to read the whole thing as it was created, like a kickin' backstage pass. Plus, I had an excuse to justify my continuing interest with the contest. I wasn't playing favorites, I cheered on all the other finalists too, because they'd already put in the time, not just logging the hours to write and edit their own manuscripts but investing themselves in the contest.

Are you starting to see why this was the contest from hell? It was completely interactive, and each stage happened in a very public forum. This is so much different than sending in a check and a couple of pages for a judge to review, as is standard with many RWA contests. It was pretty much a public flogging and our only crime was wanting our work to be seen.

When my friend's story didn't make the final five, I commiserated with her as only one who'd experienced that pain first hand could do. She had that same grieving process to endure. Soon after, the first of five was cut with some incredibly harsh criticism tagged along with it. This past Monday, same deal, a cut with a few snarky comments which basically told the writer only that their book sucked for various reasons. Most of the criticism was extremely subjective, which gives the writer nothing to build upon.

Here's the point, rejection happens all the time. As long as there are people with opinions, my work will be summarily dismissed as trite, overzealous, unoriginal, blah blah freaking blah. If you want to be a writer, you need to get use to it. The best way, I have found to do so was to distance myself from the outcome as possible. And with this contest, it just wasn't going to happen. We were all right there in the trenches, newbie writers and old hands at the game alike. The only thing we had in common was we weren't part of the starting line up at a major publishing house and had written novels we believed in to a fault.

You want in, you gotta ride the wave to the shore, or like I've said many times and in many ways, you have to want it badly enough to put up with all the unexpected twists and turns. As a writer I enjoy controlling the world I've constructed. The one I have to live in doesn't have a joystick anymore so I gotta wing it.

Who's with me?


  1. I'm so with ya. I have to tell, ya, though, I'd rather be a reject than a quitter (me!). I'll never know how far my Muse coulda gone, but the timing was awful when they changed the deadline. No way could I deal with my son's issues and get my novel submissions ready in that amount of time.

    You're a fantastic writer. I have a feeling I'll be seeing you on a big name pubs roster in no time.

    Even better, I'm proud to call you friend!

  2. Jennifer--

    What an excellent and heartfelt post!

    Although I didn't compete in the Dorchester/Textnovel mashup I watched and was repeatedly stunned as the competition grew more heated and more brutal with each passing phase. There is no comparing this competition to the first Textnovel competition (which, though rough, wasn't as *abusive* as this one).

    As excited as I was to see a publisher join forces firsthand with Textnovel to search out new talent, I have to say that watching these most recent eliminations has made me ill.

    I am proud of each author who had the courage to put their story out for judging--that is *at least* as hard as writing a story! But I am disappointed the publisher seems to be struggling to give any constructive criticism during these late elimination rounds.

    There's so much more that could be said about all this... Ugh. Maybe I need to blog about it myself. Later this week.

    Take care!

  3. Jenn, you are on the nose with this one. Can you believe that one of the things I was upset about when I didn't make the top 10 was that I wouldn't get the critisism they promised? I am quoting from the forum here:

    "Dec. 18 - Fifth Place Announced, with criticism
    Jan. 4 - Fourth Place Announced, with criticism
    Jan. 8 - Third Place Announced, with criticism"

    So far, I haven't seen ANY criticism, unless they call using the author's work as cyber-toilet paper as criticism. I, too, helped a fellow author in the contest with edits to her novel, a novel that I really liked. Liked so much, in fact, that when I reached the end, I felt forlorn. I wanted to read more. The things they said about it were absolute crap. And useless. If this is the way they treat authors and what they consider "criticism", then I an glad I didn't make it. It also makes me think more than twice about their potential in being a publishing house I would want to work with in the future. I don't think that the final five needed or wanted a sappy "Oh, this was so good, but...", but rather "If ____ was more defined or this scene had some more action" would have been nice. Is that too much to ask?

    I think what is surprising in all of this is that the contestants, who were supposed to be competitors, were the most helpful in this whole thing. It seems that Dorchester has more to learn from us than we have to learn from them.

  4. Liane: sometimes life doesn't leave us with any choices and you aren't a quitter so much as someone who gracefully bowed out. Having had my own son's medical crisis to deal with right before Christmas, I totally understand and respect the call you made. Thanks for the kind words, I want nothing more!

    Shannon: I know what you mean. Watching from a distance is almost as bad and I felt so dirty I took a shower after reading the last round. I'm one of those writers who wanders the darkened halls going "My kingdom for honest feedback". Careful what you wish for....;-)

    Robin: totally guilty of the jealous of critique thing too. In fact, I posted on one of the finalist's blogs "No matter where you place, you will get feedback! With so many agents and publishers handing out form rejections like they were star stickers for effort, that is priceless!"

    So I feel like a total tool for that because like you said, what was given amounts to crap, not the "Here's what didn't work for us, and why this story won't be the next best celler". I feel as though we were sold a false bill of goods and services by a snake oil salesman.

    Shattered expectations make me bitchy.

  5. This was a great blog. I hope you put a few words (politely) of this where the textnovel folks could see them.

    After rooting for the "winning" authors for so long, the non-crits were a cheat for the other readers, too.

    Shannon and Robin said it well. Nothing more to add :-)

  6. Jenn,

    It seems everyone has rejection on the brain right now. I posted recently about it as well.

    As I read this post, I was shocked to realize what all of us as contestants accomplished. I knew what we'd done, but having it timelined like that - holy moly! It was a huge wake-up call for what the publishing world is all about and what it takes to make it.

    The contest was excrutiating. In a good way and a bad way! And I'm sure none of us would change the experience we gained, and the incredible friends we found along the way. I'll be forever thankful for that.

    The end result for the top five is a shock to everyone who has read the remarks thus far. I had a comment from one reader who stated:

    "I'm a bit confused by the judges verbal lashing of the contestants. I might have expected these snarky bits at the beginning of the contest, maybe when some writing that REALLY needed to be improved was being weeded out of the mix. But now, after these writers have made it to the top five - out of hundreds? And weren't the top stories chosen by editors? These judges remarks are not only hurtful and mean, but they make the editors who chose for these to go on based on their qaulity, look foolish."

    Ummm, all I can say is, from the mouths of readers.

    Contests are just that. Outcomes are never predictable. The editors we worked with were outstanding and kind, with a wealth of knowledge that I along with the other contestants soaked in like sponges. It's too bad that a few judges comments might cast a pall (at least in some readers minds) over what is a wonderful publishing house.

    Great post Jennifer!

  7. Deborah: thanks for stopping in. I have a link to this blog all over the place, twitter, facebook and on textnovel but I'd be happy to stick it right under someone's nose if you have any suggestions.

    Candi: You can thank my obsessive personality disorder for the timeline. While my memory tends to leak like a rusty seive, I saved email notices and timetables all over my poor PC and had to double check to make sure I related it correctly. And my take came in September, I can hardly believe it!

    I am not blaming anyone for the contest being this grueling--as I'm fond of saying "You can't win if you don't play!" While I don't regret entering this thing, I doubt I'll ever get in on a contest this inclusive again. Your reader has it right; the verbal beatdown after all thoes five girls went through just seems like kicking a sick puppy-- wrong on every level.

  8. Of course it was a fab post. You're my home slice, and my sister-in-snark. (I love that description, btw.)

    You're right, we're on the same wavelength.

  9. Wow. Because of you and RLB, I'm considering my entry into the textnovel world and giving this the great-glorious-push-into-the-otherworldly-blood-sweat-n-tears routine. Now your words give me pause and make me gulp. Not that I can't take criticism but it has to come from sources you respect or it means nothing and you get nothing and you go nowhere. you still recommend this for the noob who is worthy of publication and is nearly ready to present her soul?

  10. Saranna: You are made of snark and we'd all be lucky to see you win the grand prize here, 'cause I'm sure everyone who started How to Loose A Demon wants the ending!

    Sherry: This is a big part of the reason I blog the Writing Commandments, you can not under any circumstance open a vein and bleed onto a page, but if you don't write what you know--and as the fab Liane says, love-- there is no point in writing at all.
    Do what feels right for you and your story. Look at the past winners of the TN contest and figure out what genre seems to be sweeping. I noted early on in the D contest that even though all romance su genres were welcome Contemporaries and Paranormals were sweeping, with a few notable exceptions.
    What do you write? What books do you see in print, which are written in the same vein to yours? Honestly, Dorchester was a stretch for me as I write a combo light and dark and their work seems either or, for the most part. Not that I wouldn't be tickled pink to have the oldest publishing house in NY pick up one of my books, mind you;-)

    I'll leave you with my fave piece of advice-- You can't win if you don't play!

  11. Amazing post! I'm so glad I spotted your tweet about it - sorry I'm weighing in late.

    I felt strongly about the D contest as well and blogged about it twice since Monday - I think I'm the only one still in who has risked doing so. Could that knock me out today? maybe.

    The way I look at it is either they want my book or not and some of the shine has been taken off the apple with the last shocking comments up during elimination.

    Wishing you the best in your writing and I'm glad I got involved - but hindsight being what it is - would I if I had known? I'm not sure.

  12. Sherry,

    I will have to second Jenn's advice. You have to take that chance. If you don't do well, or it turns out to be something that's not for you, well, you can chalk that up to experience.

    Always look at these things as a learning experience.

    I learned a lot in the Textnovel Contest. I learned about author branding, building a forum, how to hold my tongue when I wanted to rip someone not just one, but two new buttholes...really. And I made a lot of genuine friends. Not just people I networked with that I will wave to at RT, but real friends that I would trust with my life. So... yeah. Give it a shot.

  13. CJ: I did my best to make this a neutral yet truthful post, NOT my strong suit. ;-) Honestly, if a publisher is going to brush me off as being a troublemaker because I post things like this, where I bring flaws to light under a microscope so they get reevaluated, then I don't think we'd be well suited. I've reread almost everything on here and I don't see one disparaging remark about either Textnovel or Dorchester. Part of what I love about Textnovel is that Stan and his gang are constantly reevaluating the site. Major Kudos for Dorchester for staying dynamic, for trying something new. It was an original for everyone involved a new shot to take.
    Yes, we all need to be careful about what we put out in cyber space because it will reflect back on our house,the Amazon Goddess posted a brilliant blog over at the Divas earlier this week about this same topic, but do I believe that means we should stepfordize our public profile?
    Can I get a resounding HELL NO!
    We must be true to ourselves and our craft as well as be consummate professionals, something sorely lacking from the finalist’s criticism, IMHO.


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