Writing Contests

This post is sort of an update of a piece I wrote last year over on New Kids on the Writers Block, when I was in a contest frenzy. I’ve been in contest mode this spring as well, serving as a category coordinator and a backup judge for the Cleveland Rocks Romance Contest, and as a judge for another RWA chapter contest. Serving as Category Coordinator was a ton of work but both fun and instructive–I certainly have a new respect for the amount of effort that goes into organizing a quality contest, and NEORWA’s contest certainly does rock.

I have also entered three contests this spring. I sent off my last entry just last night, feverishly editing and polishing until nearly 11 pm, just an hour before the deadline (apparently I thrive on deadlines, which encourages my tendency toward procrastination more than you might think). I submitted the same work to each. The first entry was pretty weak, since no eyes but mine had ever looked at it. The judges were kind; they gave me decent scores and pointed out some “duh” moments in the manuscript.  The second entry was more polished than the first–still waiting on that one–and the third entry was better still. (I hope; my eyes were crossing near the end and I probably made some huge mistake.)  Keep your fingers crossed for me, please!

Contests are wonderful ways to get your manuscript in front of unbiased judges, although you do, admittedly, have to pay for the privilege. Most contests include some combination of published and not-yet-published authors in the first round; the best contests train their judges. The benefits of a contest are tangible–you receive objective, generally constructive criticism,  as well as pats on the back for the things you do well. If you have submitted a work you’ve just started and want to get some feedback, contests are wonderful tools. If you are a finalist, your work is reviewed by an agent or editor who is actively acquiring manuscripts. If you win, you seldom gain much in a material sense, but you receive bragging rights and sometimes even a request for a full or partial manuscript from an editor/agent. A contest win can even lead to a book contract, although I suspect that happens infrequently.

Just as an aside, if you are interested in entering a contest or two, check out Stephie Smith’s contest chart first–there is so much good information I can’t even imagine how much work it must be to maintain it.  It has a romance bent, but there are more general contests listed as well. Alexa Bourne also teaches a wonderful class on the ins and outs of contests. She has one coming up in August; check out her website. Her Killer Openings class is great too.

Before you enter, know that there are downsides to contests too, at least in my opinion. First, the costs can add up if you enter too many, and the return on investment probably isn’t that great. Second, I think that being a contest junkie can give you a fabulous first 25 pages, but the rest of your MS can suffer from a lack of attention. (This is certainly true for me. The first five chapters of my current WIP have been edited to death, but I haven’t even touched the end yet.) Finally, as with any criticism of your writing, you need to take the judges’ comments with a grain of salt. Some of them, as painful as it will be to admit it, are spot on and if you take the judge’s advice your writing will be better. Other comments will make you wonder whether the judge was commenting on the right entry. Still others will make a valid point, but you will disagree with varying degrees of outrage.

In my opinion, contests have great merit, but I tend to look at them as a bit of a gamble: it’s important to know when to quit. I am done with contests for the time being, but I am interested to hear from you. Do you enter contests? If not, why not? What have been your experiences?  And have you ever sold a book as a result?