My short story, The Weight of Duty, did not make the short list for the Friends Of The Merrill Collection short story contest in the contest's first year. That sucks, but hey, I'm used to it. Who knows how many stories I'm going to need to write before I get published/win a contest. It may never happen, but it for sure won't happen if I stop trying.
However, the subtitle of this post is all about how losing can sometimes be winning. Now, I'm not going to lie, winning would have been sweet. Heck, even getting on the short list would have been a blast. But I got something out of this contest I needed even more than winning. I got something so precious to an aspiring/newbie writer that they'll pay money, take time of work, and travel across the country to get it.
I got..... FEEDBACK!
Okay, for the non-writers in the crowd let me explain. When just starting out, it can be really, really hard for someone who wants to be a writer/author to get useful feedback. Having friends and family read your work is great and all, but unless they are professional writers or editors they can only help you so far and it's likely they'll say your work is great because they don't want to lose you as a friend or make the next family gathering awkward. Friends and family can be great for boosting your self-esteem (yes I know this isn't always the case, but try and think positive) but they either can't know or won't tell you when what your writing sucks and what you can do to improve it.
So what other choices does an aspiring author have to get feedback? Well, I use Critters.org a lot, and it can be hit or miss. Sometimes I'll get a really insightful critique that helps me grow as a writer, sometimes I'll get someone who just doesn't like what I'm writing and will tell me in no uncertain terms. I do my best to filter the responses, but it can be hard and those insightful critiques can be few and far between. I've had at least one person tell me they had a horrible time with Critters and felt like they were under constant attack, so the usefulness of the site obviously varies.
Writers' Groups are another avenue, but they can be difficult to find depend upon where you are geographically. Since I'm based in the Niagara Region there isn't a lot of groups available around me, and none dedicated to science fiction/fantasy that I know of. If I lived in Toronto or Ottawa it might be a different story, but the day job determines where I live right now, and I don't want to move to Toronto unless I'm going to be making a fair deal more money. Where I live right now with the money I have coming in I'm rather comfortable. If I moved to Toronto the budget would be stretched a whole lot thinner.
Aside from location, writers' groups can be hit or miss as well, much like working with Critters. I'd need to find the right group for me, comprised of people interested in the type of fiction I want to write and well read in it so they can provide useful feedback. Also, the group would need to be at about the same skill level, with maybe a few people a bit ahead that could help pull us all forward and few a bit behind that could use the pulling. So, writers' group, difficult to get to say the least.
All of the above it what makes getting feedback from the editor for the Merrill Collection short story contest such gold. It wasn't sugar-coated; I got the bare truth exactly as I needed it. The story I submitted will be all the stronger after I go back and revise based upon what I was given, as what I was given was much better than what I got for the same story when I submitted it to Critters. The Merrill editor must have laser-beam eyes, as he targeted and zapped the flaws in my story, carved them out and plopped them on a plate for me to see. Now I can fix the story.
There was another good thing that came out of not winning, and this was because of something I did. Now, when I got the rejection letter I could have done a few things. I could have ignored it, said what the heck does that guy know, and moved on. I could have ranted and swore and sent out a nasty email in response and started a verbal attack on Twitter. What I chose to do - well there really wasn't a choice as I would have done this no matter what - was send a polite and positive email thanking the editor for the feedback and saying I would try and submit something even better for next year's contest, and I followed this up with another message on Twitter saying thank-you.
So why did I do this? Well, first off it's just common human decency. The editor may get a slew of angry responses (though I hope he doesn't) from people who got rejected. Unfortunately not everyone that's legally an adult knows how to act like one. My sending a positive and I hope friendly response proves that I can act like an adult, that I can take constructive criticism gracefully, and that I can be worked with without a huge amount of drama. It may not sound like much right now, but having a reputation as pleasant and agreeable/easy to get along with will help me in the future. Now, I may never ever see this editor or work with him in the future, but the science fiction/fantasy publishing world is small enough that if I get known or being difficult then I could close a lot of doors by being a jerk, whereas if I get a reputation as being easy to work with then editors/agents/publishers will be more inclined to give me and my work a chance.
Aside from the practical aspect of being nice, it's just in may nature to be that way. I mean, heck, the editor was just doing his job and he did me a favor. The rejection notice could just have been a single line saying "Your story didn't make it". Instead, I got great feedback that will help me grow as a writer, and that really is the golden nugget out of all of this, someone went out of their way to help me so the least I could do was say thank-you.
Now I just need to make my story for next year rock so that it makes the short list or wins the whole shebang.