Friday, June 8, 2012

To Contest, Or Not To Contest

I've been hitting the contest circuit again this year. And I'm pleased to say, my third year in the game is going much better than when I first started out. Of course, my initial attempts were more like firing a shotgun into a dark forest on a moonless night. There are a lot of things I wish I'd known--targets I didn't think to aim for. So I'd like to take a moment in hopes of sparing someone else a bit of time, money, and frustration.

I've entered a few contests outside of the RWA, but personally, I wasn't happy with those experiences. Primarily because, once you send your entry (and money) off, odds are you'll never hear from them again (unless, of course, you happen to win.) RWA contests are hugely advantageous in that you will receive feedback to help you polish up those all-important first pages/chapters, even if you don't final. So for the purposes of this post, I'll be referring to RWA sponsored contests. But worry not--many of these contests are open to non-RWA members at a slightly higher entry fee.

If you haven't heard of the site already, Stephanie Smith keeps an extensive and up-to-date list of writing competitions, both within and outside of the RWA:

Now that you can see what's out there, you may be in the same position I was when I first laid eyes on this cornucopia of options: Overwhelmed.

But when it comes to deciding which contests might be worth it to you, it all comes down to doing your homework. Let's start by considering some potential reasons for wanting to enter a contest in the first place...

*You are about to query your manuscript and want it in the best shape possible.
*You are querying your manuscript around, and have noticed one of your 'dream agents' is judging a relevant category in a certain contest. (Finaling would guarantee getting your MS in front of them.)
*You are querying, or about to start, and suspect placing in a contest would bolster your bio qualifications. (i.e. the bookworm equivalent of 'street cred.')
*You are a glutton for punishment in the form of literary criticism.
*You are just starting a manuscript, and would like some idea of how it may be received.
*You are hoping for the validation--some sign that you may be ready for publication.
*You are seeking fame and fortune. {Insert hysterical laughter here}

Whatever motivational reasons you come up with, you may want to write them down for later reference.

Now, to narrow your choices to those best suited, here's a list of questions (all of which, the contest's 'Rules & Regulations' section should answer.) You may want to design yourself a checklist.

Contest Screening Questions:

1. Does the contest have a category that fits your manuscript specifically?
(Some contests aren't large enough or simply don't have a judging pool that can support the slightly more peripheral genres like Young Adult, or Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Paranormal.)

2. How many pages does the contest call for?
You can expect a range from the first 5, up to the first 35 pages. Entry fees tend to vary accordingly. (Some contests focus on specific scenes, and can be a great tool to help you hone the impact of things like: The opening hook, The first meeting; The first kiss; The dark moment; etc.)

3. Which Editor or Agent will be judging the finalists in the genre you're targeting?
(If the judge happens to be someone who has already rejected your work, there's no sense in trying to get it in front of them again.)

4. What do they have to say about their first-round judges?
Are they trained/experienced? Can they promise at least one of them will be a published author?

5. Does the first-round scoring process involve dropping your lowest score?
(I generally recommend looking for this advantage when narrowing down your contest options. You just never know when one of your judges might have had a horrible day, and ends up inadvertently taking it out on their contest entrants. Nobody wants a fluke score to be the thing that crushes their chances.)

6. What do the formatting requirements look like?
(Mind the format requirements before you pay your entry fee: Most contests have a standard of 1-inch margins and Times New Roman/Courier, with a font size of 12 . . . but this isn't always the case. Remember, a higher font size requirement will result in less of your manuscript being read.)

7. Does the contest allow a corrections period for finalists?
(It's a tremendous bonus to be able to survey your first round judge comments and make adjustments before the final judge sees your work.)

And then there's the consideration I'll refer to as: The Swag Factor


Noun:    An ornamental festoon of flowers, fruit, and greenery: "ribbon-tied swags of flowers".

noun.  loot - booty - spoil - prey - plunder

In short: What perks does the contest you're considering have to offer its finalists and winners? The possibilities can range from a cash reward, to a frameable certificate, to a complementary badge or banner you can place on your website, to a membership/workshop discount, or even a 50-page critique by a renowned agent.

So how have contests helped (or not helped) you? Do you have any contest suggestions you'd like to pass on?