My opinion: They can be very beneficial. Or not. It depends on your expectations.
Like the way I pussyfooted around committing? Really, I can only share my path and experience, which may be different than yours. I started entering contests, because I had no home RWA chapter and hadn’t met any local writers yet. I discovered a list of chapter contests in the back of my very first issue of the RWR. Quite confident my manuscript was polished and publishable, I entered seven (7!) chapter contests over the summer of 2012.
It turned out my work was neither polished nor publishable, but somehow, miraculously I finaled in two of those seven contests. Which brings me to my first point…
1. Contest judges are subjective. Just like the reading public. I think this is an important takeaway if you’re entering contests to see if your work is commercially marketable. Yes, there are some wackadoodle contest judges out there. I had one so wonderfully awful critique, all I could do was laugh.
But, honestly, I can count the outliers on one hand. And, I’ve entered A LOT of contests. Like my weight, I refuse to admit the actual number, but I might need to seek addiction help:) Overall, I’ve found the feedback to be surprisingly consistent. Most chapter contests drop the lowest score anyway, and the Golden Heart drops the lowest and the highest.
2. Here’s the hard truth. Are you sitting down? If you have consistently scored poorly in multiple contests, the problem is most likely NOT wackadoodle contest judges, but something much closer to home. Your characters, your story, and/or your writing are not resonating, and it’s time for some soul searching.
If you have some scores on the top and some on the very bottom, it could be you have a distinctive voice, which is not a bad thing. It’s better to be loved or hated than to be forgettable. And, make sure you’re actually writing romances.
So, back to me, and those seven initial contests…it is my blog, after all:) My initial contest feedback was mediocre. Although I was disappointed, the three judges from my first contest all had very similar feedback. And, it resonated. So much so, I started rewriting my MS within the hour.
A few weeks later, when I got the word I finaled in one of the contests, I was thrown. Maybe my original work was fine as it was? But I intuitively knew it wasn’t. I got a couple of “easy” judges. That happens too, by the way. The ones who love everything, or maybe don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings by being critical, or maybe they’re too busy to thoroughly read your material. I honestly don’t know how I finaled. I had one week to revise and turn in my updated pages. I debated whether to turn in my original pages or my rewrite, which was 90% different. I trusted my gut and turned in the rewrite.
The result? The agent who judged the finalists requested the full. I thought, this is cake! My plan was to enter another round of contests with editor judges. I was sure to have many, many more full requests, because my rewrite was now ready for publication! Wa-hoo!
Didn’t happen. In fact, from the many contests I’ve entered, I’ve gotten exactly ONE editor request. ONE. And, no other agent requests. Although to be fair, I ended up signing with the agent from that first contest (longer and more complicated story than it sounds here) and only targeted contests with editor judges.
So, did I get discouraged? Not really, because while I do adhere to the Ricky Bobby school of thought—if you’re not first, you’re last—I enter contests for other reasons, as well, such as…
3. It’s all anonymous. There’s no need to pussyfoot around a critique partner’s feelings. (Although, I do my best to be totally honest with my CPs—nicely). Contest judges can be brutally honest because they’re not going out to have coffee with you to discuss their comments. It makes me trust my contest critiques even more. And, because it’s anonymous, your embarrassment is lessened when you realize you entered a big pile of poo.
4. If you can accept the fact you have room to improve, you’ll learn and get better. At least I did. One judge taught me about Deep POV. Another about dangling modifiers. Another about my out-of-control adjective usage. Another about backstory dump. Judges suggested craft books and classes to me in their mark-up. I took the classes, read the books. The result? After many rewrites, I finaled in the Golden Heart and sold my books.
5. And, lastly? Finaling is fun and motivating! Waiting for the results is exciting! Writing is a solitary game. You query and wait weeks, months for a response—if they respond at all. From contests, you are guaranteed feedback, sometimes a pat on the back, sometimes a kick in the pants. It’s a barometer on how you’re faring.
My personal journey on the contest circuit has led me to the following conclusions.
· If you’re entering to nab that perfect agent or get a book deal from the judging editor, you might be wasting your money. It DOES happen, but not often. (The one exception is the Golden Heart! That contest opens doors.)
· If you aren’t willing to learn and edit and rewrite based on contest feedback, you’re wasting your money.
· If your skin is so thin, the feedback crushes your spirit then…well, you might not want to pursue writing as a career. Rejection is part of the game.
· If you don’t have critique partners or feel like they aren’t being honest, contest feedback can be useful.
· If you are looking to test how your WIP reads to a knowledgeable audience, contests are beneficial.
· If you are motivated to improve your craft by reaching for that final or win, contests are fun.
A word of warning: Do not focus 100% of your energy into those first 25-50 pgs of your manuscript. Instead, take the lessons you’ve learned and apply them to your entire manuscript. Otherwise, if you do get a full request, it will be for naught.
I’ll be published this time next year. Will I enter contests for published manuscripts? You bet I will! The competition will be stiffer, and it might take me years to final-if I ever do-but it motivates me to improve.
What’s your take on contests? Good, bad, or ugly? Anyone nabbed an agent or publishing deal through a contest?