At the beginning of last month, I decided to enter the CritiqueMatch FictionFive Contest (hereafter referred to as "the contest" because boy that's a long name). It was a pretty spur-of-the-moment kinda deal, and I usually don't enter anything that comes with a fee, but hey, some of the proceeds were going to the ACLU and it's a contest with guaranteed benefits even if you don't win—all entries receive their scoresheets with feedback from five high-rated CritiqueMatch users. I received my scoresheets yesterday morning, and today the embargo lifted so I'm allowed to talk about my results!
In this post, I've decided to share an overview of my scores, the feedback I received, and my overall thoughts on the costs and benefits of the contest. Let's roll!
The basic premise of the contest was simple: submit the first five pages (about 1500 words) of your manuscript for judging. The top 3 scores in each category and the highest overall score all receive prizes. The contest has five categories for entry: fantasy, science fiction, romance, thriller, and mystery. I entered JAM in the fantasy category (it's YA contemporary fantasy with some horror influences, but the specifics aren't a big deal here).
Entries are then judged first by CritiqueMatch users and then by editors. Every entrant receives five scoresheets with written feedback and explanations for each score. The top three scores in each category get professional editorial feedback, and the grand prize winner gets a $250 gift card. Two honorable mentions from each category are listed on the website along with the winners, for a total of 25 writers getting website exposure.
Each scoresheet has a maximum point total of 40 and is split into eight sections worth five points each. The eight sections are opening, characterization, plotting, world/setting, pacing, voice, dialogue, and craft. The maximum point total of all five scoresheets was 200.
Here are the scores I got back for JAM:
Sheet #1: 35 points. On this sheet, I got very positive feedback overall with some suggestions for improvement in clarifying the setting and opening lines.
Sheet #2: 34 points. Again, pretty positive feedback but this time with specific praise for the opening and suggestions for clarifying the setting. A pattern emerges! As the old rule says, if two or more people point out the same concern, take it seriously.
Sheet #3: 25 points. A pretty big drop in score! But even though this sheet didn't give any category more than 4 points, it came with very positive feedback for the opening and craft along with generally positive feedback in most areas. The lowest-scoring section, characterization (2 points), came with feedback on the clarity of my MC's motives, which I'll take a closer look at further down.
Sheet #4: 34.5 points. Once again a pretty positive sheet, this time with different suggestions for clarification in characterization and shortening some of my sentences.
Sheet #5: 40 points. I pretty much lost my mind with this one. There's absolutely nothing better than getting glowing, across-the-board positive feedback from a complete stranger who just happens to get exactly what you're trying to do with a book. I might frame it for whenever I start doubting myself.
Total points: 168.5/200 with an average score of 33.7 per sheet.
Patterns of Feedback
There weren't any severe patterns of error that became clear to me after this, which I'm counting as a win. However, because two reviewers mentioned the setting wasn't clear, that's definitely something I'll be fixing up. Characterization was also a pattern of error, but I'm going to handle this one a little more delicately. "But why, Ness?" you may ask. "Patterns are patterns!" And you're right. But let's take a look at some of the characterization feedback and pull a direct quote:
Sheet #3 gave characterization a 2/5 and listed the following feedback: "I think by the end of the chapter, the MC is characterized and we unveil their motivation more. But up until the last two paragraphs, I was confused by their actions (I thought they were the villain, and I got the impression that this novel has themes of horror)."
Sheet #3 is right! JAM starts off with the titular character breaking into a woman's house via the plumbing, and for the first three pages or so, the reader is made to believe Jam is a malicious and possibly homicidal fish. Which she is, technically—she's an antihero and there are definite horror themes present. This tells me I might need to double-check to make sure it's 100% obvious Jam is the MC, albeit a malicious MC, but I probably won't need to make any large changes to how and when her motives present themselves.
On the positive feedback side, my opening, voice, and craft scored quite high across the board, which I'm thrilled about. The concept is definitely out there (I've described the plot as a mashup of Ponyo and Beetlejuice, replete with things like ska and pirate drag), so it was a relief to hear each scoresheet respond positively to its originality and dark comedy. But I won't pat myself on the back too much because now it's time for...
Would I recommend this contest? Totally. And I'm not too biased, because it's not like I took home the grand prize or anything—though I did snag an honorable mention for placing 4th in my category! The real benefit here is the feedback, because in a world where everyone agonizes over form rejections, FictionFive guarantees something with substance. I entered this contest for the feedback and got feedback. It's a win/win.
Writing is subjective, but the analytical part of my brain loved seeing numbered breakdowns of what I did well and what I could've done better on in addition to the more subjective commentary. I thrive on pretty much any kind of feedback, so I'll be rolling every comment I got around in my brain for the next couple months while I get JAM ready for querying (and maybe PitchWars...*crosses fingers*).
If you have $25 for the entry fee, I'd highly recommend it next time a CritiqueMatch contest rolls around. You're basically paying $5/per deep dive pass on your opening scene from highly-rated betas who are there to help you get better at what you do. I see it as less of an entry fee and more of a good deal on useful services. I mean, I'd plunk down $25 for five separate critiques even if it wasn't a contest. And this isn't just a set of critiques: CritiqueMatch has the option for you to request to become critique partners with a judge if you really liked their feedback. Finding good betas and CPs can be hard, and if you're not great at networking, this is a pretty solid option.
Mandatory disclaimer: Be wary of paying to enter contests that don't guarantee you anything in return for your entry fee. Always do your research, weigh the costs/benefits, and make sure the contest has your interests at heart. Is the contest run by a reputable organization? How many winners will there be—and how many of them will be getting prizes and/or website exposure? Do you know anyone who's participated and won? Better, do the people who participated and lost still have good things to say?
Another disclaimer: I'm not affiliated with CritiqueMatch—I just have a lot of enthusiasm.
Identity is weird. I've spent most of my life knowing identity is weird without really being able to explain how or why. I didn't know how to interrogate the weird, crushing surreality of looking at a reflection that didn't feel like my own. I didn't know how I wanted to be perceived while navigating the world, and I didn't know how to put my orientation and gender together in a way that felt cohesive.
Let's fast forward.
I know how to do that now. I know who I am, and I'm comfortable with it. I feel at home in my own skin and in the identity I've stepped into. I'm a nonbinary lesbian, which is something I figured out for myself through reading (and talking about) Leslie Feinberg's Stone Butch Blues (seriously, if you've ever found yourself wondering "but how can a lesbian use [set of pronouns other than she/her]," SBB is good reading*). It's by no means a new or unique way of approaching lesbianism or nonbinary-ism, but stepping out of my circle of friends showed me just how hard it is even for well-meaning people to grasp.
This became obvious to me as soon as I started seriously editing my first manuscript.
Coming out is something I've done little by little, because it's a constant process. My friends are completely familiar with my pronouns and identity and because we're all LGBT+, there's no doubling back and explaining the orientation/identity relationship to them. Ever. Seriously. I know so many nonbinary lesbians. When I started branching out and finding additional beta readers for my manuscript, I hit a brick wall.
My first attempt to find beta readers was on Reddit. I know. But I can honestly say the prejudice I encountered was not overt. I enlisted a couple of beta readers from the site who were kind, patient people in every respect, and they gave me reader reports that were totally fascinating and totally cemented my fears about the way my characters were perceived.
The manuscript I sent to betas (and am currently querying) features two protagonists: an older teen girl and her adoptive parent, who is nonbinary. While it didn't surprise me when my beta readers misgendered my nonbinary character (hey, we're not all used to singular they/them right out the gate), it surprised me that both my initial readers misgendered them in the same way.
I later discovered that all my Reddit beta readers and my in-person writing group beta readers (months before the pandemic) unanimously misgendered my nonbinary protagonist by using he/him. Naturally, I love dissecting why this happened, and I should note that I don't think any of the misgendering was actively malicious—I would say 70-80% of the time, my cis readers used the correct pronouns.
So, why the consensus? Why he/him? Here's where my thoughts went:
If this seems like a short list, that's because it is. Honestly, it was a surprising but enlightening experience for me to see how people referred to Bennie when they stopped consciously trying to apply singular they/them. Most of Bennie's hobbies in-text are traditionally domestic or effeminate and while that shouldn't matter, none of it should really matter, you know? Clothes, hobbies, wife, name...ideally it'd all be water under the bridge and everyone would pick up on the subtleties of gender expression.
But that's not where we're at, so instead I'm sitting here writing introspective blog posts. And I'm cool with that. I see everything I'm writing in the future coming out full of gender nuances, and I'll probably be back with an update post once my fish book starts going out to bettas (get it? like the fish? and a misspelled version of the reader?). The fish book features a drag king who goes by he/him for the duration of the manuscript, but he's still regularly referred to as a lesbian. Because he is. And so's Bennie. And so am I.
Being nonbinary is a broad experience. It's not all they/them, it's not all one singular aesthetic of white androgyny, and it overlaps across orientations. There are nonbinary lesbians and nonbinary gay men, because gender is just like that. There are nonbinary people in all facets of the trans experience. There always have been, and I love writing about it.
Happy quarantining, stay safe, and have fun.
*Stone Butch Blues is a phenomenal book and I seriously endorse it for its depiction of the age-old lesbian struggle with gender identity and expression in addition to its inclusion of trans women in the lesbian experience, but it's pretty heavy. If you plan to read it, I'd recommend researching its content warnings first, which include police brutality and sexual assault.
I participated in RevPit 2020 and...*drumroll* I didn't win! And yet life went on. Now that the winners of RevPit 2020 have finished their edits and their glimmering new materials are visible in the RevPit showcase, it feels like a great time to dig into the innumerable benefits of participating, losing, and learning something along the way.
When I entered RevPit, I set my alarm so I'd know exactly when the submission window opened. I had my materials. I'd double and triple-checked them. I'd agonized over which editors to submit to. And I still almost didn't enter. Knowing what I know now, I kind of want to go back in time and hit my hesitant self over the head. Participating and ultimately losing did so much for me, so in this post I'm going to give you my personal opinion on the many, many benefits of losing and happily taking your participation trophy.
Based on what I saw during my RevPit experience, I don't think many people will disagree with me on this one. Contests like this are a great way to meet new people, bond with your existing writing community friends, and swap chapters for feedback. Timed events have a way of getting people together and focused on one thing, and they're precious in that way. Take advantage of it! When RevPit season rolls around, pretty much everyone is jazzed about working on edits.
Seeing everyone else so motivated got me to brainstorm edit ideas for my novel before I even heard the contest results. I drafted 20k words of a new novel while waiting for the results! I had an awesome time and the outpouring of creative energy was phenomenal. Motivational tweets ahoy!
Don't make the mistake of thinking winners are the only ones getting feedback from RevPit! While I can't speak for Pitch Wars (I'll be entering for the first time this fall), RevPit editors sent personalized feedback to every writer they requested additional materials from. This is invaluable, and it'll totally give you a kickstart towards making more substantive changes. Of the two editors I submitted to for RevPit 2020, I received one request for additional materials and got excellent feedback from that editor.
In the weeks since the RevPit winners were announced, I've even seen editors offer feedback to submissions they didn't request additional materials from. Keeping up with the editors on Twitter will help you keep track of opportunities like this, so don't miss out on the chance to get free (free!) feedback from professionals.
Overcoming Your Fears
Are you afraid of submitting to contests because you're worried about getting rejected? Guess what! There's no better way to get over a fear of rejection than by actually getting rejected. If you hold out until you think you have something that can't possibly receive a rejection, you'll just end up depriving yourself of the opportunity to grow. The road to publishing is paved with rejection, and the sooner you come to terms with it and start checking the rejection letters off with a grin, the better you'll feel about your work.
Rejection can happen for so many reasons. Sometimes it has absolutely nothing to do with you. Shortly after submitting to my RevPit editors, one tweeted apologetically that she wasn't in the right space to accept stories focused on grief. This is a perfect example of the ways in which we can't control the subjectivity of the industry.
I've seen many querying writers agonizing over rejections with the standard "Remember, this industry is subjective" closing line, but it's the truth! Submitting is a long road of taking your work, bundling it up, and rolling it tentatively in the direction of people who you think might be interested in it. Rejections are part of it, and sometimes getting used to it in the context of a contest can make it easier to get used to them when it comes time to query.
So what's the bottom line here? Basically, there's no harm in submitting to contests. You think you won't win? No problem! You can still get feedback, make friends in the community, learn to cope with rejection, and think about your work in a whole new way. And who knows, right? You might win anyway!
I'm not going to say "here's how I turned a global pandemic into an OPPORTUNITY!" because that's totally asinine and not at all true. I am going to say "here's how, while coping with this new reality to the best of my ability, I've managed to stay productive." And maybe it'll be helpful! Who knows.
Despite quarantine, general isolation, and nebulous employment, I've managed to stay pretty productive by giving myself a sense of structure that flat out does not exist in a lot of other areas of my life. I'm no expert by any means (and if you need a refresher on my credentials, you're basically taking advice from someone who's published a grand total of one thing and has no formal training in this area), but it seems to me that publishing is doing okay in these uncertain times. Things are functioning remotely. Maybe they're not stellar, but they're functioning. That's more than can be said for most other industries.
Thankfully, this means publishing still employs wonderful, wonderful things like deadlines. Oh, deadlines, how I've missed you. How I've missed structure.
This strategy guide basically consists of taking existing deadlines, brute-forcing them into your life, and giving yourself month-by-month goals to stave off the burgeoning urge to creep around your yellow-wallpapered room.
As an example, here's what my notebook schedule looks like for the month of July:
July 29th: SFFPit (Pitch Book 2?)
July 31st: FictionFive Results!
Writing goals: Two shorts, Prompt 3 and Prompt 4
Editing goals: Three shorts, Prompts 2, 3, and 4
Planning goals: Book 3
Query goals: Book 1, rolling basis
Not too bad, right? I mean, it's a lot, but it's for the entire month. I've redacted the titles of my shorts and books, but I think you still get the gist. Let's break it down:
They're here to give you structure. Do some research. Find out if there are any Twitter pitch events, submission deadlines, or contest entries coming up that are relevant to you. I promise, having something to count down to makes it better. You should be able to find at least one thing per month and if you can't, plan something. Have a discussion night with your critique partners over Zoom! Put all your beta readers in one Discord server and go nuts. Bam, there's something to put on your schedule.
The writing goals are arbitrary and can be modified to fit your schedule as needed, but I know I can write at least 30k words a month if I stay accountable. Here, that 30k includes writing, editing, and planning. It all counts! Give yourself credit!
I'm going to be a little stricter about the submission goals and say that I think you should try to have at least one thing out to at least one person at all times. That's not so bad, right? Your mileage may vary depending on whether you're writing shorts or books or what have you, but waiting for emails is a valid reason to get up in the morning and keep making stuff. Right now, I have no shorts out on submission (I'm writing and editing pretty hard to get ready for a themed issue's submissions in August), but I'm querying a book I hope to one day share stats for. When I use "rolling basis" up there to describe the way I'm querying, it basically means I send out a new query every time I get a query response. I have a dozen out at a time, and so far things seem fine. Mostly.
This is all about having something to look forward to. Maybe you're looking forward to a rejection email, or the results of a contest you forgot you entered, or feedback from a beta, or a magazine opening for submissions, or a pitch party, or any of those things. The point is to find something. One or two things a month. Stack them up, give yourself some goals, and you've got the beginnings of a very solid list of reasons for not giving up.
If you give up now, you'll miss that pitch party right around the corner! If you give up now, you'll miss this magazine's themed issue submission that sounds so perfect for your writing style! If you give up now, you'll...possibly find it even harder to cope with the pandemic.
Writing helps. Making things helps. Doing stuff when you can helps. It's still hard and draining and isolating, but you've got this. We all do.