Confessions of a Contest Whore…

Hi, my name is Angela, and I’m a contest whore.

It’s taken me finding an agent to finally break this habit I started  less than a year ago. I thought I’d parse what it’s been like and things I’ve learned in case it might be useful to others.

To give a little background, I entered my first contest in December (didn’t final) and have been ridiculously addicted ever since. I’ve only participated in RWA (Romance Writer’s of America) chapter contests, and for those unfamiliar with this unholy round, local and special interest chapters of the national organization hold contests whereby for a fee, you can compete with other authors in your category, get feedback from judges (usually some of them are published authors), and if you final, get your MS in front of a coveted agent or editor. Sometimes you can win things other than a certificate and kudos (money, extra pitches at contests, pendants).

So, I happily began marking my little Men of the Stacks calendar at my writing desk with deadlines and forking over the $20-$35 entry fees, nervous and excited. In the beginning, I didn’t expect to final, I was mainly doing it for the feedback and to see how I fared against other unpublished writers. I still remember my first final notification. I had just checked into my room at the hotel in New Orleans for FF&P’s Fantasy on the Bayou writer’s conference (March) and looked at my email on my phone before getting freshened up for my FIRST PITCH EVER. And there was a notice that I’d finaled in Washington, DC’s Marlene Contest. I was stunned and overjoyed and also SO GLAD of the confidence booster as I embarked that weekend on so many firsts (first writer’s conference, first time pitching to an agent, etc). It told me that I was not crazy for embarking on this writing thing.

Other finals followed, as well as many other times where I fell short (sometimes by one spot) and didn’t final. The finals told me the first one wasn’t some fluke like I’d secretly suspected. Over the summer was a day where I finaled in two, bringing the total number of contest finals to seven. I remember thinking, okay, not only were the others not a fluke, this must mean something. As of today, MUST LOVE BREECHES has finaled in ten contests (and won one of them so far), and STEAM ME UP, RAWLEY (which I’d just started entering) has finaled in one (haven’t heard back yet on the few others it entered).

So what have I learned through this madness?

Entering contests is a good trial run at receiving reviews

You will get tons of feedback, sure, but it sure as heck won’t be consistent. I’ve literally had judges in the same contest mark the same sentence as either needing to be cut, or as one of their favorite lines. I’ve had judges say they hated my heroine, and others that loved her. Same with the hero. What this has taught me is that I can’t please everyone. This has been good practice for what it’d be like if I ever get published. I can’t argue back with the judges, even when they’re wrong (yes, they can be wrong). Just like reviewers might be. I can’t get mad if they scored me low because they just don’t like time travels. Just like reviewers might not. I can’t get down every time I don’t final and/or get a low-balled score. Just like I can’t with reviewers.

One tactic that came out of this was that I realized that having a strong voice could hurt me with some judges who just didn’t like it, period. And their score would skew my final score. So then I began to only enter contests that dropped the lowest score when my goals changed from wanting feedback to wanting to final.

Entering contests is good practice for evaluating feedback

With this varied feedback, you quickly start to learn how to evaluate feedback and whether you should heed their advice or not. The absolute WORST thing you can do is make every single change that every single judge suggests. First off, it would be impossible because they can be contradicting another judge. Second, they don’t know your whole story and your characters and sometimes you have to trust your gut. Finally, they could be flat out wrong. And I don’t mean subjective, I mean literally. I had one contest where the judge gave me a 3 for grammar and punctuation (3s in contest lingo is 3 out of 5 and indicates that the entry requires major revision before sending to an agent or editor). Confused I looked at my entry and only three things were marked. Not only was it a tad excessive to give a 3 for three errors in a 50 page entry, but all three were wrong! The lady didn’t know her grammar. Being thorough, and a little insecure, I double-checked my grammar sources. Yep, she was wrong. One of them was for a sadly dwindling form of grammar–the subjunctive mood. Some of you might say, well it’s a tad formal nowadays to use it, but the part she marked was from the hero’s POV and he’s an educated man in the early 1800s, so dangit, he’d use subjunctive mood. I won’t lie, sometimes when reading feedback, I gave the computer screen the finger. But I chalked it up to toughening up my writer’s skin and as a growing experience. Many times I got invaluable feedback that really helped me see what I was or wasn’t doing.

Entering contests helps you network

Sometimes judges will leave their name, or will contact you after you send your thank you. I’ve had many who have told me they want to be notified when (and believe me I ate up this optimism as they seemed to have more faith than I on this outcome) it’s published. I duly added them to a group in GMail I created for that eventuality, if it happens. I’ve struck up email correspondence with some. I’ve had others recognize me at conferences and say nice things. Look, this journey is hard, so every positive experience you, er, experience, is something to be savored.

Entering contests builds your bio

I listed my contest finals not only on my About page, but also in my query letters to agents.

Entering contests can open doors

I got a request for a full from an e-publisher (I didn’t send it though as I was pursuing agenting first) who was judging the final round in one contest. In another, an agent was judging in the initial round and told me in the last comment in my MS that if I was still seeking representation to contact her. After a while, I started feeling the pinch financially of entering all these contests. Coupled with already getting invaluable feedback, I changed my goal to who would judge final rounds and I began to only enter those contests whose final judges I wanted to be in front of.

Entering contests can help impose discipline

Having deadlines to make cannot hurt you at all. It will help get you used to revising in a hurry to make a deadline, or to plan ahead, etc. Regardless, you work out your system in this setting rather than with an editor.

Entering contests can help train you for the submissions process

Each contest has different rules for formatting and for what to send and how. Just like agents and editors. Some contests won’t refund you the money if you don’t do it right. You learn what standard manuscript formatting looks like and to read instructions carefully. Just like you’ll need to do when querying.

Entering contests can buoy you

All of us face doubts about our writing–whether we’re good enough, whether it’s pure crap, whether it’s superficial drivel. Getting comments from judges who absolutely loved your story and your characters can give you the boost you need when you feel yourself slipping into self-doubt. I literally had last-minute, grave misgivings about querying in September. I’d done everything I needed to do and it was time to query, but I had a panic moment where I seriously worried if it was ready. I worried about sending the partial requests I’d gotten at RWA because if it wasn’t ready, I’d just blown it with those two agents. Same with any others I queried, as many nowadays ask for the first 5-10 pages. I DM’ed my writing buddy Jami Gold on Twitter and she stepped me back from the Self Doubt Cliff and reminded me of my contest finals and win. I seriously had to tell myself that yes, okay, those meant something. It gave me the confidence to go for it.

What about you? This isn’t a pure confession as I haven’t revealed how many I entered, but are you also addicted to these things? Did you learn anything I haven’t covered? Did you also get conflicting feedback? How did you handle it?

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16 Comments

  1. I think that’s fantastic! I haven’t submitted to any contests at this time, but it seems like a great learning opportunity, if nothing else. (It can also train those unused to constructive criticism to listen…and then take it with a grain of salt) :-) Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  2. Hi Angela – I wandered over here from the FF&P email. First off – I agree with everything you’ve listed in your post. Contests can be great ways to get your name out there if you’re really close to the publishing dream, and if you’re just starting out, it’s a wonderful way to get some (usually experienced) feedback on an entry. I actually met my current critique partner because we both finaled in the Golden Heart – and then a couple of months later signed with my agent, Pam V at Larsen Pomada, because of my Golden Heart win.

    And even if you don’t final – there are plenty of times I didn’t – just putting your work out there is the first step on the publishing journey. A comment made on one of my entries gave me the idea for the manuscript that won the Golden Heart. You never know what might happen!

    Reply
  3. Thanks for this. Does one have to submit an entire book for these contests? As to your remarks on grammar I have seen reviewers and writers and of course I catch them in the books I read, many people who should know better do not know grammar. My favourite instances these days are kids coming home from school with letters from their teachers that are misspelled and poor grammar. That is really scary. I can see you sitting there giving the monitor the finger – I would do more than that lol

    Reply
  4. Sue – for most of the chapter contests, you are not required to have a completed manuscript. I’ve found that these contests are great for “market testing” a new idea. The Golden Heart does require a completed manuscript to be entered to prove it’s complete, but only the first 50 pages or so are actually judged. And if an editor requests your manuscript -I did have someone request mine- they actually give you a day or so to turn in a completed copy (since the entry happens in Dec and the finalists announced in March, they assume you’ve tweaked it at least a little) :)

    Reply
  5. And just to pimp the Golden Network – the special interest RWA chapter for past Golden Heart finalists and winners – they have a contest called the Golden Pen that mimics the rules to the GH (55 pages submitted, same scoring setup), but #1 they don’t require a full manuscript and #2 they give you comments back (unlike the GH) #3 guarantee at least one of your judges is a Golden Heart finalist.

    I have to say, it’s my favorite contest, just because I’ve had a great experience with the judge comments, plus you get to enter double the amount of pages usually allowed in contests.

    Reply
  6. Oh – Congrats! I knew your name was familiar! I just assumed it was from FF&P. Alas, I did not judge the paranormal category this year. They needed judges somewhere else, so I jumped over. Can I assume it’s steampunk? I love steampunk, though I couldn’t write it if my life depended on it. Even though it’s pseudo-historical, there’s still too much I’d have to research!

    Reply
  7. Kristal Hollis

     /  October 17, 2012

    Great post, Angela. I especially liked “sometimes when reading feedback, I gave the computer screen the finger.”

    Reply
  8. I did the contest thing for a couple of months. It was awful. I only got two comments I thought were worth considering. Thankfully, I found an agent.

    Reply
  9. LOL! Love the title of this post. I *had* wondered about the number of contests you’d entered. :)

    You’re absolutely right about the potential things we can learn from contesting. Like Ella Quinn, I haven’t had as much luck as you with getting valuable feedback, but I still appreciate seeing the truth of “writing is subjective.” :)

    Reply
    • I hear ya. And I wouldn’t say I’ve overwhelmingly had valuable feedback– I guess the sheer number I’ve entered tipped the odds for me getting some. As you know, I’ve had some prove not only how ignorant they are about writing, but even about the genre they’re judging.

      But that is definitely what I meant to emphasize and forgot. That after a while, I looked on contest judges like how potential agents might react, and all I needed to do was find the agent that loved it like some judges did… and yep, that writing is subjective. I think that was the biggest lesson.

      Reply
  10. Angela, 2011 was the year of the contest slut for me and to be honest, if I hadn’t entered contests, I’m not sure I would have had enough belief to continue writing. Early feedback was harsh (and correct, I really had no clue) but I persevered and started making finals, then started getting wins, then requests to submit to editors and agents. One thing I’ll say is that I wish my ms had been further along when I entered contests. Because I got requests but had no completed ms. Requestors were usually cool when I asked them for time, but I still felt as though I was committing a major faux pas by not being ready with the whole thing. Like you, I’ve had judges wanting to know when it’ll be published – and it soon will be! No more contests for me, but the experience was invaluable.

    Reply
  11. Mary Roya

     /  October 17, 2012

    Contests sound scary adn exciting. My WIP is not ready for anyone at this time, let alone a contest. I did win a 20 page review and it was very up lifting and made me realize I need to work on my showing. Great blog! Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  12. What great observations! I was never a big fan of entering contests, but you may have just changed my mind. I have learned a lot about feedback from the reviews of my books though. One of the bigger name reviewers just didn’t get that my medieval novels are deliberately anachronistic and she held it against me. That taught me that sometimes people just won’t get what you’ve written, but not to take it personally.

    Hmm… Now I should go find some contests to enter! *wiggles eyebrows*

    Reply
  13. Angela, another great and inspirational post! I am beginning to feel like I owe you a tuition check, certainly get more out of your posts than some classes I’ve taken LOL I enter a few writing competitions each year but none that offer feedback. I can see how valuable it could be -especially for skin-thickening!

    Reply

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