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A group blog featuring an international array of killer mystery, suspense, and romantic suspense writers. With premises and story lines different from your run-of-the-mill whodunits, we tend to write outside the box. We blog several times a week on all topics relating to romantic suspense and mystery, our writing, and our readers. We welcome all comments! and often have guest bloggers.

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Julie Moffet . Clare London . Cathy Perkins . Jean Harrington . Daryl Anderson . Nico Rosso . Maureen A. Miller . Marcelle Dube . Sandy Parks . Lisa Q Mathews . Sharon Calvin . Lynne Connolly . Janis Patterson

Monday, March 12, 2012

About That Contest

Are writing contests relevant? Worth the money?

Those questions surface periodically on loops and blogs, but I’ve heard from other contest coordinators that entries are down, perhaps in response to the lingering effects of a crummy economy, but maybe because people aren’t sure it’s something they should do.

Whether a contest is relevant or worth the money depends on what you’re hoping to accomplish. If you expect to get an agent or a book contract from them, you’re probably going to be disappointed. It does happen. Final judges often request full or partial manuscripts. Some people do sign with an agent or sell to an editor based upon a contest.

If you’re entering for feedback on your manuscript, then you may feel you’ve won something, regardless of your entry’s final placement. Even if you aren’t a finalist, you may receive enough positive responses to keep you encouraged.

What if your comments are less than stellar? Do the judges mention the same things? These strangers, who haven’t seen ten versions of your story like your critique partners, can tell you if what’s in your head is hitting the page. Allow for different tastes and perspectives, but if there are consistent references to… whatever, try to find a class or online workshop that can help you in those areas. Good critique partners or a good writers’ workshop can also help as you learn the craft of writing.

But let’s do the happy dance because maybe the contest coordinator just called and said your entry reached the finals. Does it really have an impact on your writing career?

Possibly.

Several years ago, one of my critique partners encouraged me to enter The Professor in an RWA contest. The first round judges pointed out spots to polish and I’m sure that helped my manuscript final in the Golden Heart. Of course the contest wins don’t guarantee a sale, but I suspect having those contest credentials in my query letter helped move the manuscript over the first set of hurdles when I sought publication. I’m happy to say Carina Press acquired The
Professor (it released in January!)

For me, those early contest finals were an affirmation by other professional and a much needed ego-boost when I wondered if I was beating my head against the proverbial brick wall. People liked the characters, the story, my voice – the encouragement I needed.

So what if things don’t go as you’d hoped? We’ve all heard the story of “that judge,” the grammar police who treat your paper as if it were part of English 101 (Side bar, I use sentence fragments. A lot. It’s fiction. Deal with it.), or the one who wants to rewrite your story the way they would write it.

They happen. Just like the rest of your life, chance is an element in contests. As the coordinator for the Daphne du Maurier mainstream category (deadline is March 15, get your entry turned in!) I can tell you most judges are trying to give back to the writing community, taking time away from their writing, family, the rest of their life, in an attempt to nurture other authors. I can also share that the overwhelming majority of our contest judges offer constructive feedback. (As the coordinator, I see all the entries) Any judge who isn’t doing so will not be invited back the next year. On the very positive side, our rate of returning judges is incredibly high.

There are numerous contests in addition to the Romance Writers of America ones I’ve mentioned. If you enter a contest, make sure you know who is actually sponsoring it, read the fine print and watch out for the scams.

With the explosive growth of self-publishing, I’ve heard people question whether contests add any value. Why try to attract an editor or agent if you plan to ‘do it yourself?’

Feedback.

Is your material ready for the harsh reality of publication? Are there still holes you need to patch in the all-important opening?

One last point. I’ve seen some concern on the loops about someone ‘stealing’ your contest material. An important thing to remember is your voice, the way you tell a story, is as unique as you are. Generally contests only cover the first 15 -25 pages. Even with a synopsis, no one is going to tell the story the same way you would. So put that worry aside and concentrate on writing the
story of your heart.

I polled a number of friends about this topic and this is the summary of their advice:

Benefits:
1) Inexpensive way to get impartial feedback
2) Learn how to work with negative feedback – protect your voice but stay open to constructive criticism
3) Compare your work/skill level to your peers

Potential drawbacks:
1) Subjective comments may not be consistent – learn to trust your voice after you acquire sufficient skills
2) Feedback can be overwhelming – and confidence shaking – to a new writer; make sure you and your manuscript are ready before entering a contest
3) Don’t turn into a contest junky – don’t endlessly polish the beginning and neglect the rest of the manuscript. You need the whole book to sell it.

What has your contest experience – as a judge, contestant or coordinator – been?

Can you add to the benefits or offer another caution?

10 comments:

Maureen A. Miller said...

I don't think I ever had a negative experience with a contest, other than the price of admission. :)

I did submit to one contest a long time ago and the valuable feedback I received was, "You have a character named Alfredo. I didn't like that. It reminded me of Alfredo sauce." LOL

Cathy Perkins said...

LOL - that's some really helpful advice.

JB Lynn said...

I recently finished judging the first round of a contest because I wanted to "give back". It was WAY more work than I'd anticipated, so my hat is off to anyone who judges on a regular basis.

Rita said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rita said...

Hey I deleted my other comment because it trippled what I posted.
Cathy,
I think we could write 1000 page book on contests. When I entered a contest in 2009 I think they were relevant. Now I'm not so sure. At the time they were a way to get your name in front of an agent or editor. These days many people feel an agent isn't necessary. And as you mentioned with the advent of self-publishing many go that route. And there are e publishers like Carina, where no story goes untold, that a good story even though it be outside the box, can reach readers.
Getting harsh feedback from a contest is training for what's to come. Agents and editors and then readers are going to be making comments about your book. We simply can't ever get away from that.
When contest I entered had three judges when gave me two points away from a perfect score. One gave me 15 points off the score in the third was less than half of the total score. One like something the other week didn't like and vice versa. It really was comical. The one that gave me that close to perfect score also made a comment this story will never get published.
I think being a finalist in a published contest can be great publicity for your book. If you are finalist the $20 or $30 entry fee is well worth getting your book splashed around a few places. I find it interesting that several contests say, "we take e-books." Yes many of them do, if you print the book up in trade size. For me that's like saying the good old boys club is now accepting women if, they shave their heads grow mustache and where a man's suit. If the book as an e-book it's an e-book. Don't ask that it be printed up.
I love judging chapter contests. But this year I won't be doing any as I don't have the time. I read each entry through at least three times more than likely five times. I judge based on the contest score sheets not what I like and don't like. When I score someone down, I give them the reason why. Frequently I can point them to research material that will help. Any personal likes or dislikes are put into the comments.

Cathy Perkins said...

Hey JB and Rita

If you have a 'different' book (or character or premise) it can be a contest no-go. Readers either really like it or they don't. That sounds like your experience, Rita.

And I agree with you on the time commitment (and it is a commitment, a way to help out other writers) involved with judging. It's one of the things that always annoyed me about on-line whining about a bad score.

As far as the self-publishing aspect, I see contests as a fairly inexpensive way to see if your book is "ready" - and just as useful on the promo circuit as it was with the great agent hunt.

My only caution there is, contest coordinators aren't dumb. We've had to disqualify one person who thought a Daphne final would make a lovely splash for her just-published story.

Elise Warner said...

I'll enter a contest if there is no fee attached. Guess I'm just old-fashioned.

Cathy Perkins said...

Hi Elise

I suspect you won't find many that don't have an entry fee. But if you do, it would probably be fun to enter.

Shirley Wells said...

I haven't entered a contest for many years. I have helped judge a few though and the work involved is unbelievably time consuming.

LOL at the feedback Maureen received. :)

Jean Harrington said...

Judging contests IS time consuming, but very worthwhile. Not only do you learn a lot about your own writing from the 'mistakes" of others, but you have the satisfaction of knowing you helped someone else polish her writing career. A happy feeling

I've never regretted participating in my RWA chapter's contests. In fact, as Maureen Miller comments, it can be fun!

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