Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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April 20, 2011

Constesting Contests

By Laura Drake

Whenever the subject of contests comes up on writer’s loops, it’s guaranteed to be a very lively discussion. People feel very passionately about them -- either pro OR con. And why not? I’ve experienced both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat at the hands of judges.

Up to now, it's just been a challenge to me to final in a contest (hey, I'm a writer - I like pounding my head against a wall!) Now that I've finally won one (and finaled in three-results yet to be announced), here's what I found...

The judging is so completely subjective that not placing does not mean you don't have a good book. Unfortunately, winning doesn't ensure you have a saleable one either.

Not all contests are created equal - chose a contest based on its reputation, or, better yet, if they give feedback - that's what you get to keep at the end of the day.

Unless an agent judges your entry, a win really doesn't gain you much traction in a query letter. The one exception to this is the Golden Heart Contest.

Please don't assume from the above that I don't think contests are worthwhile - I do.  But to keep your heart intact, you must go in with your eyes open, and without overblown expectations.

What I like best:

  • The feedback (also what I like the least, depending on the reviewer!) I’ve heard of writers who stopped writing for up to a year after receiving negative comments on their entry.
  • Always keep in mind – this is one person’s opinion. In most cases, you don’t even know who the judge is, to be able to gauge what value their opinion is to you. Someone told me once that one out of two doctors graduated in the bottom half of their class – it’ll help to keep in mind that the same applies to judging.
  • It gives you an idea of how your MS stacks up against the competition -- that's who you'll be fighting with for attention in the marketplace.
  • If you win, it gets your name in front of your peers (hopefully potential buyers) - win enough, and they’re recognizing your name before you're published. Be careful, I’ve found these things can be addicting!
  • Contests give you impetus to get the darned thing polished and sent out!
  • It gives you something to look forward to.  That shining announcement date reminds me that time is passing; a yardstick by which to judge my writing progress.

Love them or hate them – as long as you go into the competition wearing your titanium panties and with your eyes open, contests can be a great experience!

How do you feel about contests?

0 comments on “Constesting Contests”

  1. I like contests for feedback and deadlines. I look for well-established ones, because it seems like there are millions out there. There are also a lot of free resources, such as blog hosted contests for editor/agent critiques. Ah, to win one of those. It's important to read the contest rules, too — boring but a must as these small print details explain how the contest organization will use your work.

  2. Contests are great for putting your work out there and getting yourself known. Feedback is an added bonus sometimes... I like knowing that someone, somewhere read my work and found it good.

  3. As a former contest coordinator, I can agree with Stacey about the need to read the rules. I've had to disqualify entries for this reason, which always made me feel terrible, but I try to keep in mind that our submissions go into the trash if we don't follow query guidelines for agents and editors too.

    Contests I respect the most:
    The Golden Heart - though it's a bummer that you don't really get feedback
    The Orange Rose - OCC/RWA's contest picks ten finalists from the entire list, regardless of entry category. This means that you know if you final, that you did so because you got the highest scores in the entire contest. That's heady stuff. Plus, it's judged by only published authors who give feedback on those score sheets.

    Great blog, Laura!

  4. In terms of new writers catching an agent or editor's attention, focusing attention on the first 50 pages, polishing, re-polishing, sending it out to get new people to look...it's a good exercise and it makes a lot of sense.

    Ever since I started trying to write seriously, though, I've noticed something as a reader. I'll find a book that sounds awesome, I'll download the sample to my kindle so I can read the first couple of chapters, I'll buy the book...and then after chapter three the quality will drop by half. This makes me angry because I feel deceived, and then my impression of the book is extra negative. So I'll be sitting there, $6 the poorer, cursing all the contests which allow people to write three fantastic chapters and then ignore the rest.

    I wish there were some way for contests to judge things like saggy middles or underwhelming climaxes.

      1. I actually think it would be pretty cool if contests would judge more material as the contestants progress through the rounds. OK, you made the cut to round 2 - send 50 more pages, ok, round three, another 50.

        That wouldn't change the workload for the judges very much, I imagine, but I think the results might be interesting.

  5. Feedback is always good. And a win or even a final when you haven't been published yet is a nice little something to perk up the About Me page on your website.

  6. In a way, all submissions are like contests, except that they don't always say, "You won."

    But I like contests. They're motivational and fun. I like them best when I get to read the winning entries.

    Your post reminds me of the book, 'The Price Winner of Defiance, Ohio." The lady in it entered contests in which she had to write clever lines or jingles. She did this so frequently that she became acquainted with the likes and dislikes of the different judges from various companies. Ultimately, if she knew who was judging a contest, she'd know what she could write to improved her chances of winning. She won a lot. I think the same thing works for writing.

    1. Interesting book, Beth! Funny thing is, that person got all wrapped up in the contest, forgetting that it's a step - not the final goal!

      Although after getting way too carried away with entering this year (back away from the contest loops, Laura!) I can see how it happens!

  7. Great post, Laura. I especially appreciate your comments about the merits of making the finals: failure to make the finals doesn't mean your book is a loser and making the finals doesn't mean your book will *sell*. The first round judging is very subjective, and it's looking at the technical merit of the work (not its marketability or fit with a particular publisher).

    Before I sold, I was quite a contest junkie (and a contest actually did lead directly to me getting an agent). I think they can be great learning tools. But you absolutely have to keep them in perspective.

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