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 ;-)