The Gift of Objectivity

Posted: April 22, 2015 in Writing
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I recently exposed myself, publicly.

Well, my manuscript, actually. And not precisely “publicly” – it was to a select panel of judges, who kept it among themselves. But I felt just as vulnerable and naked.

The odd thing is, I’ve eagerly pressed this full manuscript into the hands of strangers many times before now, and begged for pages of harsh feedback. And this – this was literally only 285 words. Exactly. So what made this different?

This was for a pitch contest. Two contests, actually, that ran almost simultaneously. In both cases a few dozen entries were selected from among the entrants to be ultimately showcased for a group of agents. These contests historically result in a pretty high percentage of manuscript partial and full requests from those agents. But the selection process is pretty nerve-wracking. For any of these sorts of contests there are several “teams” of editors or authors and their “slushies” or assistant readers, and they all love to tweet hints and clues about what they’re reading and what they like all during the selection process. Sometimes there are several stages of these. And if you’ve sent in your 35-word pitch and fist 250 words of your manuscript, you tend to haunt the Twitter feed, hoping to catch a tweet suggesting someone has read and liked your manuscript. “This MG fantasy has a terrific voice and such an original premise! Love it!” Well, hell, there could be thirty MG fantasies entered in the contest. It doesn’t mean anything.

Except that it totally does. You crave the validation. I mean, look, you already took a huge risk putting your newborn baby out there, exposing it to judgement by strangers and the very real – very likely – possibility of utter rejection. You’re playing the lottery with your manuscript where it seems perfectly reasonable to assume your odds are way better of getting an agent to take an interest than just blindly sending out query letters. But unlike the randomness of a lottery, these contests are won or lost by the judgement of the readers.

In many ways, the selection process is harsher than blind querying. With a query, you get to write a letter where you can craft a sales pitch and talk about the highlights of your story and your writing career. In these contests, you get a pitch and a page. And the majority of entries must be passed over. The judges will tell you over and over again that not getting chosen isn’t necessarily an indication that your pitch and story are bad. There may be three other MG Fantasy entries featuring dragons, and each team is only allowed to pick five total manuscripts. They have to chose their favorites.

The word they use more often than any other to describe this process is “subjective.” The choices are based on the feeling of the judges, not on facts. This is art. You can’t weigh and measure and analyze each entry and rank them according to some formula. They either speak to the judges or they don’t. And some entries speak louder to certain judges than others.

Our manuscript was not chosen for either contest. Lots of other people’s manuscripts were chosen. Lots of other MG Fantasies, in fact. Just not ours. And you have no choice but to accept that outcome – some of these people have been polishing their pitches and manuscripts a lot longer than you have; lots of them have entered many more of these contests than you have. Lots of people are entering their second or third book. Naturally other people are going to have manuscripts with more appeal than yours. It’s all subjective, right?

It still hurts. No point in denying it. You wouldn’t be human – or much of a writer – if you were completely emotionally detached from your creation. You get over it, because you didn’t really get your hopes up, right? You didn’t expect to win, really. So it’s okay. You’ll embrace the feedback and make your 35/250 better for the next contest. Live goes on.

But then you read some of the winning entries, and it hits you: “How did that get chosen? Who thought that was better than mine? That pitch doesn’t even make sense! And the first page – mine has way cleaner dialogue and humor.” You feel betrayed, somehow. “What’s wrong with my manuscript? What’s the fatal flaw? What has this manuscript got that mine hasn’t got?” That lovely concept of “subjectivity” just bit you on your exposed ego. It works both ways.

This is where the gift of objectivity comes in. The fact is, this manuscript appealed to this judge on this day during this particular contest for any number of reasons – maybe they chose it because of one turn of phrase, or the opening line reminded them of their own writing, or they just liked the basic premise a tiny bit more than your premise. The fact is, this doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with your manuscript. It doesn’t even mean yours isn’t as good. The fact is, yours may have been number six on their list. And so it is with agents and blind queries. There are a hundred reasons why a particular agent might not fall in love with your manuscript, most of them are subjective.

It’s the gift of objectivity that ultimately lets you continue to believe – to know – that your manuscript is worthy and wonderful and destined for greatness. You will continue to tweak it, of course – apply what the winners have in common.  But you will be making a good thing even better, not fixing something that is broken. The contest didn’t change our manuscript from a winner into a loser. It just showed us what one group of judges liked this week.

  1. […] The Gift of Objectivity April 22, 2015 […]


  2. […] you for your entry” stage. I’ve written a lot here about entering these contests and not get chosen and what that feels like and what it means and how to deal with […]


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