Friday, 19 February 2010

Competitive Spirit

I've never seen myself as particularly competitive - I was always chosen last at team sports and I lived the typical geeky kid's life of too many computer games and not enough sunshine. So far, the children's publishing industry doesn't seem to be particularly cutthroat - beyond the need to land 'The Next Harry Potter' before someone else - and that suits me just fine. So why do I feel this pressure to compete?

I guess it all started, a few scant months ago, with getting into Undiscovered Voices. Before that, my greatest achievement was receiving a personalised rejection letter, but suddenly I was thrust into the spotlight. Not a very big one, perhaps, but big enough. My first thought was "Oh My God, they really like me!" My second? "I've got to be the first one to get signed with an agent."

Ok, so I guess that impulse says a lot about my insecurity and also my continuing immaturity in the marketplace. I was not the first of the twelve to get an agent (still haven't, in fact) and given the amount of surgery my book needs, I won't be the first to get a publisher. What I did learn is that you can only be competitive if you have someone to measure yourself against. Even now, I picture the twelve winners bursting out of a starting gate on the day the results were announced. I know some of the other finalists have felt this pressure too - not so much the urge to beat someone else, as to not be left behind by the pack. I can't be the only one who heard news of Stephen Kelman's huge children's book deal this week and felt that the industry had probably blown their budget on someone else for another year.

SCBWI is - by and large - a big, happy and dysfunctional family, and I love dysfunctional families so I mean that as a compliment! We socialise, help each other, commiserate and congratulate. We are also, at some basic level, in competition to get into print or to outsell each other. But this doesn't have to be a negative thing, because I believe this competition can positively affect our own work and push us to new levels. Think of how many times you've read a book and found a plot device or character that closely mirrors your own:

Step 1 - You groan.
Step 2 - You equivocate, trying to see all of the differences between your book and theirs.
Step 3 - You make yours different and better.

It's the same thing with critique - after you've read enough manuscripts you start to see patterns emerging, overused phrases and plotlines that crop up again and again. By knowing what these are you can help the people that wrote them and to help yourself avoid them. It's competitive, yes, because you want your version to be better than theirs. But providing you are honest with your comments, you're making a positive feedback loop for everyone.

That's my theory, anyway, and I'll wager it's better than yours ;-)



  1. What a delightfully honest post Nick. Obviously I'd have written it better...;o)

    I have discovered something about myself in my journey through SCBWI, I don't think I do feel competitive with the people I like BUT, there is something about reading somebody else's excellent work that really spurs me on. Reading Candy's Tall Story actually made me request a script back from my agent that had already been accepted and had been pitched, though not yet sent out, to a publishing house.

    It was very important to me because I could see how much Candy had tightened and polished Tall Story - I admired the perfection she'd aimed for and ATTAINED. It made me think, 'I can do that, i just need to work harder.'

    It's not the first time this has happened with Scbwi members and is one of the reasons I love being involved in e-critique. The standard is so high it HAS to pull you up.

    Maybe it is competition? You have to work to keep up with the pack. It doesn't feel like it though, because when friends do well, my heart swells for them....Harriet, Sarwat, Candy, Jon M (I just know Mortlock is going to be huge), Steve H, just a few people I feel just delighted for and proud to be associated with.

    Is it competition? I don't know, but it sure is good for the writing......

  2. Although we're all competing for agents and contracts in one sense, we're not exactly in the same race. What I'm writing is nothing like what you're writing - the same agents and publishers would probably not be interested in both of us. It's more about competing against an absoloute standard and wanting to be as good as you can be. It's certainly not a bad thing unless you actually want to go out and slit the throats of the people who've got there ahead of you!

  3. I know exactly what you mean Nick. At the moment in particular, when agents and publishers are being extra cautious, it feels that there's only room for so many new writers. Add to that the fact that the 12 of us have been given this fantastic opportunity at the same time and though we probably are running different races it's difficult not to peek at the other runners and compare their progress with my own...