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?



  1. Jean and I have entered contests in the past for many of the reasons that you talk about here.

    One thing that I would caution is that when you enter contests you MUST remember that the scores are very subjective. The judges are just people who have their own opinions.

    1. Stephanie,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment! I agree with you completely.
      I volunteered to be trained as a judge for another chapter, and that experience drove the point home. Outside of the scoring on grammar and layout and a brief requirement outline, it's all up to the judge's interpretation. I try to pay close attention to consensus. If more than one judge seems to take issue with the same thing, I'll pay it more consideration.

      Even on my recent final, I had one judge who scored me oddly low and hated my hero. The other three judges, however, raved about my it was pretty easy to decide who to listen to. :)

  2. I said for years that I didn't have a competitive bone in my body. Then I entered a RWA contest. OMG! I swear my head turn around in my body. Possessed! And it can become an obsession.

    So keep in mind, finishing the book is more in important (at first) than getting those first three chapters in prime condition. I've heard too many agents and editors complain that the manuscript fell apart after the third chapter.

    Another thing to keep in mind, I had a paranormal manuscript that finaled in specifically two different contests that had the same final judge/editor. The first time she mention how she didn't like certain elements of the entry. Yes, back then the final judge actually commented. Then she came across it again in another contest, she writes that for it to final in two contests, it must have something readers like so she asked me to send it on to another editor that might like it.

    Lesson learned? Target that editor/agent in contests you want. AND FINISH THE DARN THING.

    1. Carla,

      So true. It CAN become an addicting activity. I definitely get a little rush out of reading the judge's feedback, wondering what they did and didn't like.

      And thanks for the conviction. ^_^ I'm presently guilty of not having a completed manuscript, and it's dawning on me now that I could start getting requests as a result of these contests. Obviously, they'll want to know I can deliver. It's time to get my butt in gear. >.<

  3. I've entered for many reasons--the main one was--what was the reader's reactions. They have ranged from horrified, to they loved it.

    BUT--I caution this: Know who you are as a writer--what your story is. If you change your story every time because a judge says so--that is not good at all.

    How do you know? Take craft classes...lots of them. Get good CP's and know your genre. If your doing a cross genre--be warned it will be dicey, but at the same time you'll find excellent feed back if you carefully go through the comments.

    Contests are a tool, but not the end-game. There are plenty of writers who have not finaled much or at all and are sold. One author, Sherrilyn Kenyon, apparently didn't do well in the contest circut--but is loved by her readers and extremely popular.

    Sorry Angela. I had coffee. LOL

    1. Mary,

      I, for one, am not sorry that coffee turns you into a sage. ^_^ This is exactly the kind of wisdom I'm fishing for.

      Be true to the story: I'm totally with you on that. You can't please all of the people all of the time. And if you get preoccupied with the attempt, it'll show.

      That is a fascinating little tidbit about Sherrilyn Kenyon! And, I hope, heartening to all. Thank you. ^_^

    2. As a side note--we all have contest results and comments that are amusing at the least, and horrific at the most.

      Sometimes I think this just gets us ready (Thickens skin) for the query wars. That's a whole other ball of wax...

      Note: Many of the greatest writers, like Heminginway were alcoholics...I can see why.

      See. I drank more coffee. Heaven help you. :-P

  4. Thanks for all the great tips! And all the other commenters had great things to add as well.

    1. Kellie,

      Thanks so much for stopping by! I hope the post was helpful to you in some way.

      I do have especially fantastic commenters. ^_^ And I hope they know how much I treasure their participation.

  5. Great post. I decided to enter a few RWA contests in the last six months and began getting my first results in early May. It has been a great experience for me, well worth the time and expense, especially the score sheets. But you have to have an open mind and thick skin. I wrote a bit on my blog about my experience, as well, but from the perspective of how to approach the contests and put the subjectivity of the results in context.

    The first commenter is so right about the judges and the range of opinion. My results have ranged from crazy low scores and teeth-kicking comments to perfect scores and judges wanting to read the rest. In the two contests my manuscript was chosen finalist, I won both and received full requests from each of the judges. All this from the same manuscript! The trick is to take the comments that ring true for you and help you improve YOUR story the way you want to tell it.

    The one point you list I disagree with is #3. One of those final judges requesting a full was an agent from whom I'd previously received a form rejection to my query and opening pages. The contests can be a way to have a second chance to get your work before your dream agent!

    1. S.J.,

      An open mind and a thick skin, indeed!

      I love what you said about taking to heart the comments that ring true. If you know and love your own story, you'll be able to recognize when the person giving you feedback has caught the vision for it or not.

      Interesting...I hadn't heard of anyone finding success with going after the same agent again via the contest route when the traditional querying of them had gotten a rejection. But then, I have to wonder how many queries don't make it past the screening secretary and to the agent, for one reason or another...

  6. This is a keeper post to bookmark- and the wisdom from all of the commenters here is really bonus. Thanks for such a good post here!

    1. Pamela,

      Thank YOU for taking the time to read and let me know you found the post to be valuable! That means a lot to me. ^_^