The Ups and Downs of Contests

(I'm filling in for Sharon, who is off enjoying Colorado sunshine!)

Is it ups and downs both? My opinion is, it's mostly ups, although there can be a down side to anyting and everything.

One of the perks of being an RWA member was getting the monthly "newsletter", the RWR (Romance Writers Report) because it contained a listing of all the contests being held by RWA chapters. I never reached the pinnacle of being a Contest Queen, meaning entering contest after contest, but I did more than my fair share. It paid off. Well, eventually. :)

There's a contest for just about anything remotely connected to romance writing. First chapters, opening hooks, best kiss, best synopsis, and the list goes on. A writer could have one or two manuscripts and enter them in contests for several years.

The big question is: Why enter a contest?

There are several answers.

1. It's a great way to learn about deadlines. Your entry must arrive on or before a certain date. Miss it, and you just wasted $20 or more, plus postage. Not the best use of contests or money!

2. Biting your nails while waiting for the finalists list is a great way to ruin a manicure.

3. It's good practice for learning to format correctly. If it's a synopsis contest or the entry must include a synopsis, usually short and no matter if it's being judged or not, you learn how to do one by doing.

4. You trust your critique partners, but you'd like to have a completely unbiased opinion on your work. Let's face it. Critique partners are the best, but after a while, they can become enamored with your story and/or your writing. Getting another opinion (or 3!) can make you feel better or show you that you still have some work to do. The word to remember is FEEDBACK. (More on this later.)

5. If you're lucky enough to final in a contest where the final judge is an editor for the line (if category romance) or publisher you're targeting, opportunity can come knocking. There's nothing sweeter than to have a final judge editor request a partial or full manuscript, no matter whether the book sells or doesn't sell. Either way, you know you're on the right track, and you'll usually get some great feedback from the editor.

6. Some contests, like the Golden Heart, require that the manuscript be complete. This is a fantastic opportunity for a writer to finish the book!

I've never counted how many contests I've entered. Maybe more than 20, but defiitely less than 50. I was a finalist in 8 of them with 5 different books. 4 of those books sold, mostly later, and one, The Maggie, led directly to my first sale. The one that hasn't sold needs massive changes, because that was 13 years ago and guidelines have changed. Besides, I've learned a million things since then.

When it comes to feedback, it can be invaluable. My critique partner was a Contest Queen and the one who insisted I enter my first contest. She told me that if one judge said one thing, but the two others (usually there are 3) said the opposite or didn't mention it, not to worry about it. If two judges pointed out the same problem, take a closer look at it and revise if you feel it needs it. If three judges mention the same thing and find it to be a problem, it's time to really do some work. I discovered doing what she told me was the right thing to do. I'll admit that with some judges' comments, I completely ignored them. With others, I took them to heart.

For instance, one judge once told me the premise of my story (a guy and girl win tickets at a baseball game for a trip to somewhere, but must leave within only a few hours with only 1 packed suitcase.) She said that wouldn't happen. She should have attended a Wrangler's game, because that was prize in one of their drawings each game for a while.

Then there was a comment made by author Stella Cameron on one of my entries. She marked a spot that said "This book needs to start here!" I rewrote the opening, and decided she was right, but it was several years before I submitted that manuscript. That book with the changed beginning will be a Harlequin American Romance in January next year. (Bachelor Cowboy) The moral of that? Weigh the judges' comments before completely rewriting your book. Some are good, some aren't.

Entering contests can get expensive, so do your homework. Enter one that requires what and where your writing is. Those tried and true contests that have been around for several years can be some of the best out there to enter. If you're looking for an editor to see your work, check out who the final judges will be and enter those that will help you reach that goal.

One rule of my own making that I adhered to was to have completed manuscript before I entered that story in a contest. There was only one time that I didn't, but I wrote the last three chapters while waiting to hear on the outcome. That doesn't mean everyone must do the same, but it was an excellent way to get me to finish the book!

While you're waiting to hear on one contest or many, keep writing. Don't continue to submit the same one or two entries over and over. You need fresh "stuff". Each time you write something, you'll find yourself writing better. Entering contests will probably prove that, over time.

So don't be shy. Take the leap and give contesting a try! It could someday lead to the sale of your first book. In the meantime, it definitely can't hurt. And contest entry fees, plus the postage to send and postage for return of your score sheets and entry are deductible on your taxes. ;)


Reese Mobley said...

I have to admit that the first contest I entered I was crushed by their remarks, but when I look back now at that ms., I'm embarassed by how awful it was. The last contest I entered (2008) I won. Talk about excited. I honestly think I would enter more contests if they weren't so expensive.

Roxann Delaney said...

Congratulations again on that contest win!! It can't be said enough. :)

Yes, they are expensive. That's why doing a bit of research on the contest is a must. After that first one, I was very picky. Entering came in spurts when I had the money. I could budget for them, too, if I paid attention. There were a lot more I wanted to enter but couldn't, so I picked what I thought would help me the most.

I still have every contest entry and judges' sheets and comments from the contests I entered.

Penny Rader said...

Great post, Rox!

I used to enter a lot of contest, mostly for feedback. Because of the cost, I usually try to get the most bang for my buck and enter the ones that let me send the most pages. The way I see it, if the cost is about the same, I'd prefer to get feedback on 25 or more pages vs 3-5 pages.

A couple tips I've picked up along the way:

Go online (or write to the contest coordinator) and look at the scoresheet. Why shoot yourself in the foot by entering a contest where the scoresheet doesn't fit your manuscript.

After you get your scoresheets back, set them aside for a few days. Then, go through them with a couple highlighters. Mark positive comments in one color and not-so-positive comments in another color.

Most of all, remember it's your book. Set aside the comments that don't resonate with you. Maybe they will work for you later, maybe they won't. You can't please everyone. Oh, and the fastest way to screw up your story is to do what everybody tells you to do, whether it works for your story or not.

Starla Kaye said...

Great advice, Roxann and Penny, about entering contests. I try to ener all of our group's contests, but I don't enter any others now. Once upon a time, though, they were a way I liked to get outside feedback. Now I just get feedback from my critique partners and from my editors. That's about all I can handle.