One Writer’s Happy Tale of How Losing WLT’s Manuscript Competition Helped Win Major Publication
by Lynda Rutledge
Is losing a competition sometimes better than winning one? The answer just might be a Big, Fat Yes.
And therein lies the tale:
In April 2012, my novel Faith Bass Darling’s Last Garage Sale will be published by Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam. And it was a long time coming. I’ve been a freelance journalist, nonfiction book author, and adjunct college professor for 15 years in 3 different states, but I never quite shook my literary pretensions, which were still alive but not terribly well. It’s the usual literary saga strewn with serial close calls and agent misadventures complete with teeth-gnashing, self-doubt, and moments of clarity in which I vow to quit. Until, of course, I don’t. If this sounds more like kicking nicotine or crack cocaine, any serious writer knows it’s not far from it.
But then (drum roll):
In 2008, after moving back to Texas, I recalled how an Austin writer I’d befriended years before had waxed poetic about Writers League of Texas. She’d recently published her highly-acclaimed first book, and WLT’s annual conference played an important role in her acquiring a top visiting agent who finally launched her down the publishing road of her literary dreams. So I googled WLT and noticed its upcoming manuscript competition. Impressed with its design in which all entries received quality critique, a rare thing as competitions go, I entered two manuscripts, a narrative nonfiction and a languishing novel.
My narrative nonfiction manuscript won its competition category.
But my novel manuscript didn’t even make the finalist list.
And its critique told me why. The novel, then titled “Provenance,” scored low in the two areas I was already pretty sure needed revamping, including the title. The critique agreed. I did the revision. And voila! The novel attracted a remarkable agent who sold it to one of publishing’s brightest stars.
While my winning nonfiction manuscript may have its moment one day, the real story here is that sometimes losing a manuscript competition––at least one with WLT’s finely-tuned feedback structure––is sometimes better than winning. Without its quality criticism, I might have lingered much longer over the stuck novel second-guessing what to do, and I’d have missed connecting with the right agent at the right moment for the right publisher, which is, more than not, what must happen.
I teach students that selling a book essentially takes three things. At a certain point, talent is a given and neurotic-level persistence is expected. After that, success comes from equal parts of: 1) timing, 2) luck, and 3) research/networking.
Writers can’t do much about #1. And #3 can’t help a manuscript not ready for its moment. But WLT’s Manuscript Competition was a not-insignificant part of my #2. Could I have sold the book without the competition’s feedback? Maybe. But my reserves of keep-on-keeping on were running dangerously low. I’ve been a member of other writer organizations, but the difference with WLT seems to be in its big, practical heart: Everything seems to be geared toward offering both beginning and more experienced writers real tools and opportunities to find their respective ways.
So I have to say thanks, WLT, for a competition I lost that helped me actually win. You can’t beat that.