Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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June 4, 2014

Writing Contests -- Hell or Heaven?


photo credit: http://dld.bz/drB75

I don’t usually enter contests, but I decided to go all out this year. During the past two months I’ve redefined my understanding of the experience from both the judging and entrant viewpoints. I hope this post will help you consider whether entering contests is in your best interest at this point in your career. Next month I'll share perspectives of a judge.

Two years ago I submitted two entries in each of two contests. One was a first draft of a new book, and I just wanted to see how the concept was received. My goal was to final with the older entry. Well, both entries finaled in one contest, and the more polished entry finaled in the other. The feedback I got was mixed–a little helpful and a little confusing.

Last year I didn’t bother to enter anything, not because of the expense, or the time, or the waiting to see if two people really liked my writing. I simply didn’t feel a need for validation.

This year I decided I would enter, not for validation, but for feedback and to get my work in front of people who might be interested in acquiring it. I researched contest possibilities, studied score sheets and judging criteria, evaluated categories for entries, and Googled the judges. As you know, there are a lot of contests out there.

By the time I had my list, in order of entry deadlines, it was time to format, polish and send out my words. I sent off seven entries, then relaxed for two months because the deadline for the last two entries was much later.


Photo credit: http://dld.bz/drB8e

Photo credit: http://dld.bz/drB8e





Two weeks before the deadline for my final two contest entries, I opened an e-mail that said one of my entries had made the finals. Giddy would be a good word to describe how I felt for twenty-four hours. Then I got the score sheets for the other entry in the same contest. The first one was 135 of 140 points. Smiles.





photo credit: http://dld.bz/drB7P

photo credit: http://dld.bz/drB7P


The second one was 66. Really? I skimmed the comments. “Writing is hard. You need to learn how to do it,” “There is no logic to this book,” “You don’t know how to world build,” were a few. I felt like I’d been hacked with my own Claymore. And I remembered why I don't usually enter contests.

Thank goodness this contest has a third judge score the entry if the first two judges differ by more than 35 points. A 128 brought me back from the edge.

It's hard to process an anonymous critique.

Did my judge have to read this entry in a genre she dislikes or doesn't read? Are they a first-time judge? Did she think about the impact of her words on someone who put a lot of time, effort and money into the entry?

What I was looking for were suggestions to improve the partials I'm planning on sending out.

What I got felt like an ice pick in the eye.

For the next two days I debated if I really want to sell a book and be subjected to reviews and comments from people who don’t like my stories. It’s one thing to get a private rejection letter or score sheet, it’s another to have someone rail against you and your writing skill. I struggled with what I wanted at this point in my life. Do I need to subject myself to the pain, the anguish of public criticism and shame? For those two days, I seriously entertained the notion of just writing for fun, without a publishing goal. And that's fine–I was there for years. But I knew I couldn't be content with that any more.

Today, two weeks later, on the deadline for the contest I most wanted to enter, I’m not sure whether to bother. The thrill of making the finals and having an editor or an agent read my submission isn’t quite so alluring.

I’ve had time to recover from that low score and  reconsidered why I decided to enter contests this year.

  • My writing is ready for publication. Not just in my opinion, but by everyone who’s read it.
  • I want to sell a book, and making the finals is a great way to get my writing in front of agents and editors.
  • I do want constructive criticism on ways to improve my work so it can sell. The opportunity for feedback from acquiring publishing professionals is worth much more than the price of admission to a contest.

So I just sent off the final two entries. Because I have a goal. And for me, right now, a contest seems like a good stepping stone to that goal.

Do you have a contest story to tell? Have you sold because of a contest? What would you want to tell your judge about the kind of feedback that would be useful to you?


Fae RowenFae Rowen discovered the romance genre after years as a science fiction freak.   Writing futuristics and medieval paranormals, she jokes that she can live anywhere but the present.  As a mathematician, she knows life’s a lot more fun when you get to define your world and its rules then watch what happens.

Punished, oh-no, that’s published as a co-author of a math textbook, she yearns to hear personal stories about finding love from those who read her books, rather than horrors of algebra lessons gone wrong.  She is grateful for good friends who remind her to do the practical things in life like grocery shop, show up at the airport for a flight and pay bills.

Fae Rowen began writing after reading her favorite author’s entire backlist in three weeks and couldn’t bear the thought of waiting nine months for the next book.  A “hard” scientist who avoided writing classes like the plague, she now enjoys sharing her brain with characters who demand that their stories be told.  Amazing, gifted critique partners keep her on the straight and narrow. Feedback from readers keep her fingers on the keyboard.

You can find Fae at her website, on Facebook, or contact her via e-mail: fae@faerowen.com

Laura here, with a quick update - we have PRIZE WINNERS!!!!

Kym Lucas has won Jami Gold's 10 page critique

Pamela Stratton won a  Lawson Writer's Academy course

Becky Lower has won Kathryn Craft's Art of Falling

Yvonne Montgomery has won the ARC of Sweet on You, from me!

Tune in Friday morning for more PRIZES!

61 comments on “Writing Contests -- Hell or Heaven?”

  1. Hell, mostly.

    I'll probably be in the minority here, but contests just shut me down. Some of the judges have no business judging - they are way too harsh. Constructive criticism can be offered tactfully and in a way that encourages, not destroys. You would hope other writers get that -- but sometimes they do not. I've received but more valuable feedback in other ways - mentors, critique groups, beta readers, and agents and editors in the submission process.

    This year I've found myself in the position to be a judge for several prestigious contests. I'll be honest, of course, writers have gone to the expense and trouble of submitting and they deserve any suggestions I may offer for improvement. That said, I will always strive to do it in a way that encourages them on their journey.

    1. Deb - I just got done judging a contest entry, and what you wrote above, really occurred to me. The author was a beginner, and I began, giving her tons of feedback....until I realized that to her, instead of helping, it would feel like a jackhammer on her head.

      I went back and took a bunch of comments out, and added what encouragement I could. We can't speeed up the process - for ourselves, or someone else.

      Much as we want to.

      1. Yep, as a judge you walk the fine line of giving someone help they can use versus battering them with a boatload of information that may sink them.

    2. Deb, you say much what I think. I use contests to step outside of my comfort zone and get feedback from "unknowns." That can be a good and bad thing. It's probably why I "contest" then I don't for a year or two--until I've forgotten what happened the last time.

  2. Fab post, Fae! What a thorough vetting you did. I've only entered one contest and there was no scoring sheet - just some hand-written comments that, while very positive, didn't say much beyond the suggestion that I should get an agent and continue writing. Well, I already had an agent, and had no intention of giving up writing.

    After I'm finished with my current WIP, I'm considering writing short stories for a while, and thinking of perhaps a contest then. Thanks for the insight on your experience!

  3. I've entered my fair share of short fiction contests and was lucky enough to be a runner up in one and included in an anthology. It came at a time when I needed an ego boost and it also provided a vehicle for a certain type of agent (the type who read literary journals) to find me and request to see more work. That may go nowhere, but again, it was a nice compliment and now I can put my name and the name of an old, established magazine in the same sentence--a magazine that published fiction from the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Ray Bradbury, Sinclair Lewis, Jack London, and more.

  4. Good column Fae. And I did get a few chuckles. I once entered a novel in a contest, and it was ready for publication, and got back this interesting comment. "I don't like cats." That was it on a book about a cat switching bodies with his mistresses' boy friend, a serial killer. The other judge was very supportive and had a few suggestions that helped. The book went on to be epublished and received all five-star reviews, save for one four-star. So, yes, I really agree with you, there is a right way and a wrong way and a judge's personal likes and dislikes should be set aside or explained in context of remarks.
    Great blog. Thank youi.

    1. You made me laugh, Bob. I need that--just got back from a 5.6 mile hike. Congrats on all those five-star reviews. Thanks for reading!

  5. Contests aren't for the weak of heart. But then, neither is the publishing business.

    I had a similar experience, Fae, where a manuscript got one perfect score, one almost perfect score and the third judge gave it a crazy low score. Then marked that I need to do more research and be more professional because mistakes like "bat mitzvah" instead of "bar mitzvah" are inexcusable. What the judge apparently didn't notice is that the character in question was a girl which indeed makes it a bat not bar ... I found it amusing and moved on.

    The key with contest feedback or any feedback for that matter is to take it for what it is and what it can do for you. If a judge or critique partner or beta reader provides feedback that strikes an oouuuu moment, then brilliant. If the comments leave you wondering what the heck the person is talking about, then you move on. The hardest part with getting feedback - whether comments or rejection letters - is to not take it personally.

    I'm looking forward to seeing your take from a judge's point of view. 🙂

    1. Ug--that rejection as a personal issue is my Achilles' heel, Orly. But I'm working on it.

  6. Great post!

    I'd entered multiple contests with earlier manuscripts. I remember well the punch to the gut dealt by the scores and feedback on my very first MS (and first ever contest). Ouch.

    And yes, the disparity in results can also be maddening, but I would kind of ignore something unless two or more judges seemed to agree on a particular point. I used the feedback to improve, and ultimately two of my stories placed, which set me up nicely to hurdle the next obstacles (getting an agent and publishing contract).

    On the flip side of things, this year I volunteered to be a judge in my local RWA chapter contest. Again, it was an amazing learning experience. I genuinely wanted to give the entrants a ton of feedback (for whatever my opinion is worth) based on what I've learned from contests (and from agents and editorial feedback). Initially I thought, "Gee, who am I to judge X?" But then I realized that, if nothing else, I'm a voracious reader (the target market for any writer), so I have value to this person.

    Initially I felt badly about giving low marks here and there because I knew what it would feel like to be on the receiving end of those scores. But it would be unfair to the writer to whitewash a problem area if he/she is interested in getting published. Rejection and criticism is never easy, whether in critique group, contests, or, once published, negative reviews!

    So, despite the negative aspects of contests, I'm a fan of them. They prepare you for the highs and lows I suspect will continue throughout a writing career. We all need to keep things in perspective and keep doing what we love.

    Best of luck to you with your recent entries!!

    1. What a wonderful response, Jamie! Thank you for sharing your contest journey with the successful results.

  7. I've entered contests in the past and finalled 3 times, but I did receive wildly differing score sheet comments. It was hard for me not to take some of the negative comments personally. That aside, I tested the waters once again and entered both the Orange Rose and Maggie's in the last couple of weeks. I'll be working on my ultra-sensitive side when I get those score sheets back.

    1. Good luck, Barb. I'm rooting for you to final--and win! And I'm here if those comments threaten to drive you crazy.

  8. Great post, Fae. I've had the ups and downs of contest entries too, but not usually with much feedback.

    Would you share your process for researching and choosing contests? It sounds like you did a lot of work but ended up with contests that fit your goals. Thanks!

    1. Hi Jennifer,

      My selection process was fairly simple, but very time consuming. Here's an outline of what I did:
      I. Internet search for writing contests
      A. Select known writer groups
      B. Internet search of other potential groups with "interesting" contests
      II. Look at contest guidelines, categories, and judges (I don't care about prizes, so I never looked at those.)
      A. Are there enough pages to showcase my work?
      B. Is the synopsis scored? (For some people this is a big thing--not so much for me.)
      C. Will my entry be in a category to showcase it, or will it be buried in a "paranormal" catch-all?
      D. Deadline?
      E. Type of feedback (I don't enter contest where you just get a number back with no feedback, but that's my personal bias.)
      F. Internet search of judges
      1. Agent-do they represent what I write?
      2. Editor-do they acquire what I write?

      The contests that make it to this point don't have exorbitant entry fees, so I've never deleted an option because of cost, although I know that could be a major issue if I were entering several of the more expensive contests.

      Thanks for asking, Jennifer. I hope I didn't give you more than you asked for!

      1. And Jennifer, since I'm at least a manuscript and Immersion class behind Fae, here's my criteria:

        1. Do I belong to the chapter?
        2. Do they have a women's fiction/mainstream with romantic elements category?
        3. Do I get feedback?
        4. DID FAE ENTER??

        If the answers to at least three of those was "Yes," I entered. (Which means I entered three contests this year.)

        See how much more helpful HER response was?

  9. Great post. I gave up on contests when I consistently got back either perfect scores or flunking scores on the same MS. Neither one gave me constructive feedback. It got frustrating and expensive. But they are a good tool to use because they do give you a thick skin and can be a learning tool if you get a constant stream of the same comments. It is a good way to find your weaknesses.

    1. Absolutely, Karen. I'm sorry you got such wildly differing scores. It is frustrating.

  10. Fae, I've only tried once and that was a long time ago when I am sure the work wasn't very good. But the feedback was encouraging. The cost put me off, so I decided not to enter more of them until I knew the expense was worth it.

    Thanks, Fae. This year I am wanting to submit to one contest for WF and I am looking for a good place for my romantic suspense. I also want the feedback and the possibility that an agent might be interested in my work.

    So, I am sitting here with a deadline looming on my calendar, working on something I want to submit and you popped up and started walking in my head. What fun!! Heaven AND Hell is probably a good way to put it ... but then so is most of life 🙂

    1. That is our walk on this Earth, isn't it? At least there are friends like you who make me smile! Good luck on the WF contest entry. We can have a whole waiting room for those of us waiting for contest results! Another party!

  11. As a published author, I've been on both ends of a contest, judge and contestant. Neither is easy.

    As a judge I don't point out bad points without listing the good ones. Sometimes those are difficult to find but I do find them. Also as a judge if I suggest changes, I explain what I mean & how the author can accomplish those changes. I've sent upwards of three pages of ideas to help the author. It's one thing to say, "you aren't ready for prime time," but another to explain "why." You can't just say, "lady you need help," and not explain why or the contestant can't you seriously. Pointing out the whys is only fair. I've spent hours on this sort of thing.

    As contestant, like Fae, it's darn scary. Will the judges find things in my work that I found wrong in someone else's work? And believe me that's a tough one. I'd like to think that I have a tough shell but honestly I take criticism from my gang here at WITS much better than I do total strangers. So when feedback from strangers is tough to hack, I turn to them. What do you think? I'll ask. Does this judge have a point? They aren't shy when it comes to telling the truth. I'm so-o-o glad for that.

    BTW, as one of Fae's critique partners, I'd like to say: Fae Rowen is ready for prime time.

    1. You're a dear, Sharla. And you know that I turned to my "homeys" here at Writers in the Storm when my jaw dropped at those comments. Laura Drake yanked me off the ledge. Love you, Laura!

  12. I'm with Debbie, trip to hell. Judging is all over the ballpark, some of it by judges who aren't published themselves. True feedback comes from hard to find, trusted critique partners who are worth their weight in gold (and would flag my use of the cliché).

    1. You're absolutely right about trusted critique partners, DT. I wouldn't advise anyone to enter contests merely for anonymous critiques.

  13. I enter a lot of contests. And usually really enjoy the experience. I can take positive feedback; I can take negative feedback; it's no feedback what so ever that I have problems with. I recently spent fifteen dollars twice. What did this fifteen dollars get me? Nothing. Were my entries read? I'm not sure. If they were read, what did my reader think? I have no idea. The only thing I know is that I didn't win. Worth fifteen dollars? Hmm, I don't think so.

    1. That's why I go online to check the contest score sheet before I give anyone my money. I entered the Golden Heart once--a couple of years ago. Paid $50 for a number--and my stories are only borderline romance. What was I thinking?

  14. I go into contests with the same mind-set, every time. That is:

    If I have terrible scores, it may not mean I'm an awful writer
    If I win, it doesn't mean I'm a wonderful writer.

    I think if you're clear about what you want from the contest, and not going in it to win, you're better off.

    Yeah, easier said than done.

  15. Great post Fae and I love the variety of responses I have read so far. I believe contests have their value, but one should research which contests to enter and use them as a tool. Isn't there an old saying about throwing out the bath water, not the baby. So, take what you can use and throw the rest away.

  16. I entered a fiction contest last year and was over the moon when I received "the finalist" letter and a gold seal to add to my cover. The euphoria was short-lived. The comments of the judge seemed to be all about her, rather than about the story. They then mis-directed it into a YA category, and the entry fizzled.

    As an historical researcher, I recently submitted an article that was accepted for publication. I was very excited. The editor wrote back and fairly gushed about the article, accepting it for the July issue of their magazine - which is rare. A week later, she wrote a retraction and withdrew the offer citing some yet to be explained fixes they require. It seems that three of the four people who read it were impressed, but one came back with concerns, sidelining the article indefinitely. Non-fiction sometimes doesn't appeal to people, especially if it doesn't fit their paradigm of social acceptability.

    Writing for me is like breathing. But when one is sucker punched like this, it is hard to get the wind back into the sails.

    1. How frustrating is it to require 100% agreement to get something published? Heck, it's hard to get four of my friends to agree where we should go out to dinner and what movie to watch! Hang in there, Sue. I'm convinced that all the close calls are just our "set" for the Get Ready, Set, Go!

  17. This is the first year I've entered contests, at the suggestion of fellow writers. I placed in one, got nothing in the other.

    However, in this little bitty experiment thus far, some of the judges' comments were helpful, but the agent who judged the finalists gave the most beneficial feedback. I plan to enter more contests, because I did get some good comments, the agent judge's notes were helpful, and sometimes you get a manuscript request. Also, such wins can listed as credentials in any future query.

    1. All reasons why I decided "to contest" this year, Julie. Thanks for the succinct summary!

  18. Hi. Good post. I've entered more contests than I can count. In fact, I sold my first book from winning a contest. After that, for several years, I entered several contests for published authors every year. I did that mostly to get my books in front of people who might not have bought them to read otherwise. You always have to send half a dozen books and they get passed on to others.

    As for the prizes, I won some, placed in some and didn't do well in others. The side benefit was that the activity did give me the credentials to call myself an award-winning author.

    You're right about the judges. You never know what you're getting. You can't let yourself be affected by it. You have to just keep remembering that reading is subjective and so is judging a contest.

    The ones who used to get under my skin the worst, though, were the ones who would make a correction in my ms and the information they would convey would be wrong information. In other words, they knew less than I did and had no business judging my ms.

    You have to grow an alligator hide and look for the positive reasons to enter. This year I've already sent out an entry to one contest and the information I got back was less than worth it. I think I'm going to send out the same ms to other contests later this year so I can get the feedback. Sometimes a pearl comes back to you.

    As for judging contests, I haven't done that in years. In the first place, I don't feel qualified to judge someone else's work. I never do it other than in a critique setting. I also never give book reviews. It seems to me that if you're an author, it's not a good business decision to review other authors' books. I know other authors who feel the same.

    1. Thanks for sharing your wealth of information with us, Anna. I'm going to work on that alligator hide!

  19. Great post. It's encouraging to discover that you're not the only one who (from time to time) needs to be talked off the ledge.

    1. And isn't it nice that we have wonderful friends who are willing to do that for us? Thanks for your comments, Joyce.

  20. Entering because you have a goal to learn, not just to win, is a great idea. I like to enter the occasional contest just to see where I'm at when put beside others. Sure, some people will not like what I write. Some people also do not like sushi. I do like sushi. My aunt shutters at the mere mention, and turns green when she sees someone eat it. She has nearly suffered a breakdown watching me polish off two pieces (I wasn't aware she was there). You know what? Sushi still sells. My aunt can dislike it. She can cry to the heavens that it is a horrible food, or that it isn't even food at all. She can claim that a sushi chef with years of training can't cook, since sushi is mostly uncooked, but it will not make a difference. So yes, some people are going to hate what is written. Some people are going to hate sushi. That's life. Don't let it dictate your future. 😉

    1. Thanks for the sushi reference, J Lenni. When I was working for my brown belt in judo and spent all my time in Little Tokyo I ate enough sushi (made by my friends' grandmothers) for a few lifetimes. I don't eat it any more. Thank you!

  21. I never do well in writing contests. That, however, did not stop me from getting an agent and being traditionally published. I tweeted and reblogged from the other site. How am I going to reblog from this one?

    1. Thanks for adding the hope factor here, Ella. We're checking on the re-blog factor for you.

  22. You know, I was just reading the comments, and it occurred to me - maybe entering contests have one more benefit...

    They toughen your hide in preparation for bad reviews, WHEN you publish!

    Think about it - judges have prejudices and opinions, same as any reader.

  23. Thanks you for sharing. I'm preparing to enter two writing contests this month and this posting really can the extra boost I needed to keep going!!

  24. That was a great overview. When I jumped in and entered my first contest last year, I was clueless. Thankfully, the judges were helpful and tactful 🙂
    I've had a few memorable ones crop up since then though. My favorite was "This is a jumble of words" from one judge, while the other gave a perfect score.

    1. Thanks for reading, Janet. And thanks for sharing your "jumble of words" comment--opposite a perfect score! I'll be thinking of that as more score sheets land in my inbox.

  25. Thank you. I attempted to go from private writing for pleasure to contests and discovered the same blow to my self esteem that you described. What was I thinking? No more contests for me. At least not for a long while.

    I lost my motivation, my voice, my stories. Hope I find them again. Right now I am wordless. It is one thing to work so hard and to convince yourself that maybe, just maybe, someone else might find joy in what you write. But to find that you have failed, and to take rough critique from a "judge", well that is another thing entirely.

    I tell myself that often movies that I love get bad reviews. Opinions are just that. I never intended to write a novel that would reach millions and touch every heart. My stories are meant for people who think like me, who feel and see things deeply. If I cannot reach them, then I will write for myself.

    1. Hang in there, cxg. Take a little time to lick your wounds, then you can revisit the comments and see if there is anything useful there. "Useful" is the operative word. Just as you mentioned movie reviews, our writing is a personal connection with our readers, and unfortunately, not all readers will respond as we'd like. The next time you enter a contest, be very clear about what your goal is.

      The only way our writing improves is to write, write, write. And my bet is you're going to find that you can't stay away from yours for very long. After all, if we didn't have to overcome life's struggles how can be communicate that pain--and ultimate joy--to our readers?

      Best wishes with your writing. Check back in a month or so and let me know how you're doing.

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