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?
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, which became my debut novel.
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 a coordinator for the Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense contest (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. Check around and you’ll find legitimate contests in every literary genre. 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?”
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 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:
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
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?