Monday, April 28, 2008

Writing Contests--Worth the Risk?

On the heels of the annual Romantic Times conference, here at the Diner this biweek we're going to be talking about conferences, contests and other things authors can do to put themselves out there beyond the "write it, submit it" circuit for the unpublished and the "write it, submit it, promote it" circuit for the published. Both contests and conferences are useful vehicles for authors at most stages of their careers, and since most of the authors here at the Diner are on the low end of the fame scale, I believe we're going to concentrate on the advantages for unpublished or newly published writers. But some of the staffers might surprise us, so hold on to your iced tea glasses!

For myself, I’m going to talk a little about the RWA style contests that abound and why you may want to consider them. They're the major, sometimes the only, fundraisers for a lot of RWA chapters, and there's a contest for every type of romance you can imagine, from spicy to sweet, from normal to paranormal. There are contests for first scenes, for sex scenes, for saucy scenes, for epic scenes. There are contests for query letters, for synopses, for five pages, for fifty. Most of them generate, for your money, at least two critiques from judges who are usually fellow RWA members and presumably familiar with the subgenre they are judging.

Of course, the quality of the responses you'll get varies even more wildly than the types of contests out there, but that's what happens when you release your book into the wild. It will happen when it gets published, too. The most wonderful critiquer in the world might get your manuscript, but also the most narrow-minded shrew you'd ever hope to meet. So is it worth it? That all depends on what you want to get from the contest circuit.

I started with contests after I'd joined RWA and finished my first novel. I had critique partners, but when I entered a few RWA chapter contests with A SPELL FOR SUSANNAH, I hoped to get impressions from complete strangers who knew the romance genre but did not know me. What would these people, my future audience, think about my manuscript after a cold read? Would enough of them enjoy it to confirm its market readiness? In other words, I was in it for the feedback. I felt it would be throwing money away to enter for just the off-chance I'd get in front of the final round editor or agent, although that would be a welcome shortcut should it occur.

I certainly got what I paid for. After the first few contests yielded a consensus of critiques (a rare and useful phenomenon), I revised the novel to be a romance instead of a fantasy with a romantic subplot and sent it back out. The revision finaled about 50% of the time, but when it didn't final, it inevitably received critiques from the Twilight Zone of Mean, so I retired it from the contest circuit. (And yes, as a Grammar Wench, former graduate student of creative writing, and Very Mean Person myself, I was and am capable of differentiating between "critical" and "crazy".) I then sent my second novel, SURVIVAL OF THE FAIREST, to a few favorite contests and when it finaled, I retired it too. I know it can be tempting to rack up gold stars once your manuscript begins to glimmer, but I figured as soon as a manuscript finaled a few times, I'd achieved my goal of hitting enough people's sweet spots to present it to editors and agents. Plus, I'm not made of money and postage.

After those two, I continued to write but I didn't enter contests. My interests shifted to judging and coordinating due to my spotty and fascinating experiences with the ones I chose to enter. Right now I'm coordinating my local chapter's contest for the second year, but for several years I've conducted judge training workshops for my own chapter and others. The varied and occasionally offbeat critiques I got convinced me of the need to train people what it was and was not appropriate to say to a contest entrant. For example, telling a contestant not to quit her day job (yes, I've actually seen this urban legend of a comment written directly on an entry) is not going to help the author with anything, even if it helps the judge achieve her quota of bitch for the day.

Vitriol isn't the only problem. While some judges are inarguably nasty, other judges say nothing at all. Those judges, too, need to be encouraged and taught that they have valid viewpoints of a piece of writing that they can use to help the entrant in their quest for publication (in unpublished contests--published author contests are a different can of peanuts). All this is hindered by the fact that everyone's definition of what crosses the politeness line is going to vary, with some contestants being a great deal more sensitive than others. I myself am about a 3 on the 1-10 scale of sensitive, with 1 being a boulder and 10 being you know who--because we all know at least one of those.

In the end, RWA style contests aren't for everyone, but if you write romance, I do recommend trying them a few times from both sides--judging and entering--to see what you can learn about your writing and yourself. If you enter, keep an open mind and a positive attitude, no matter what your responses are. Once you get published, you're going to get reader letters and reviews that are worse -- and a whole lot better.

And if judge, resist the urge to snark. Save that for your book. I hear it's marketable.

Jody W.
A SPELL FOR SUSANNAH--Available now from Samhain Publishing *

PS. My local chapter's Melody of Love contest is here: Accepting entries until July 2, 2008!


  1. I love your descriptions. Although my manuscripts usually receive kind and generous critiques from contest judges, I've experienced hearing from the Twilight Zone of Mean. It makes me appreciate all those helpful comments and suggestions from the big-hearted judges I’ve encountered. Anyway, good post.

  2. Contests can be addictive. While not a contest sl*t myself, I've entered a few and finaled in some (thought the GH still eludes me). It is a crap shoot and with my voice, they either love me or hate me. But there's nothing better than getting a judge who truly gets you. I even got my first fan letter from someone who judged one of my entries. *G* Got that puppy framed so I can look at it on those days when I feel like I'm writing nothing but crap.

  3. I've retired a couple of mss from the contest circuit, but am considering tossing another into the fray. Getting feedback from your crit partners is always great (ahem) but having that anonymous read and response is just as helpful. And like you, my contest funds are limited, so I choose very carefully depending on the final judges and what's required.

    As a judge, I've read pieces on the good end and the not so good end of the scale. I try to be helpful when I judge, giving the writer reasons why something worked or didn't. Maybe I actually learned something in your judge's workshop, Jody : )