Contests – not for the faint of heart

Congratulations to Lita Harris, who is the winner of an autographed copy of one of Nancy Herkness’s backlist books. We’ll be contacting you offline, Lita, to find out what book you’d like. Thanks for visiting with the Femmes and we’re sure you’ll enjoy Nancy’s book. Thanks again, Nancy, for visiting with the Femmes and offering one of your books!

Don’t forget, anyone commenting during the month of April will be entered into our monthly drawing for a chance to win a $20 Barnes & Noble gift certificate. So, be sure to leave a comment on the Violet Femmes board this week!

Have you decided to brave the writing contest circuit yet? If so, I’m sure there’ve been times you’ve looked at your comments and scratched you head in confusion. I’ve received score sheets where one judge loved the entry and thought the book was ready for publication, while the second judge thought it needed only minor work, and yet the third judge couldn’t relate to the characters and told me to re-write all the conflict. Helpful or not so much? Hmmm…where to go next? First, let’s start at the beginning.

Where to start?

What are you looking to get out of entering a particular contest? Are you looking for constructive criticism or maybe insight into what others think of your plot? Or maybe you’re looking for the win, something you can put in a query letter with the hope it may draw the attention of that special agent.

It’s important to make sure your entry is as clean as possible before you enter a contest. Now that I have an established critique partner and group (hello, Femmes!), I start my critiquing process with them, before entering any contests. In my opinion, it’s easier to take critiquing from your friends. Not because they’ll be soft on you, either. Do you really want that? Agents and editors we pitch and query to aren’t going to be soft. They’re going to be honest, and in some cases, ruthless. They have to be. You should expect an honest evaluation of your story from whoever critiques it, even though you may not agree with what’s said.

Which contests to enter?

There are so many contests to choose from. Which do you pick? You need to go back to your goal. If you’re looking for constructive feedback, entering the Golden Heart isn’t a good idea since you don’t get any. You’ll want to choose a contest where you’ll get a detailed score sheet and, ideally, feedback directly in the entry. I find most judges do this to some extent and I, for one, greatly appreciate their comments. I also look at the final round judges and try to enter contests that will be judged by an agent or editor who I’m interested in working with.

Then, there’s the financial consideration. At anywhere from $20-$40 a pop, it can get pretty expensive to enter contests. Pick wisely. Personally, I find getting too much feedback at the same time overwhelming, so my rule of thumb is to enter one or two contests at the same time. Then, I wait until I get the results, make any changes, and then enter in one or two more contests.

Formatting your contest entry

Now that you know which contest(s) you’re going to enter, it’s time to start preparing your entry. READ ALL INSTRUCTIONS. Print them out, read them several times. Don’t get tripped up because you forgot to remove your name from the header.

Some contests have a page length total. Others only want the first chapter. Some want the synopsis at the end while others don’t require a synopsis at all. If you have a prologue, make sure that can be included. Pay attention to what they want and the order they want it (if specified). If no order is provided, I usually just follow the order it appeared in the submission format section.

If there’s a page count limit and it falls in the middle of a scene, you’ll have to make some decisions. All contest information I’ve read advises to end your entry on a hook, even if that means ending a few pages earlier or shortening part of the scene to make the word count.

Once you’ve followed the instructions, print out the entry and read it aloud. This is also a good practice for general editing and identifying any awkwardly worded sentences.

Write the contest deadline on your calendar and even set-up calendar reminders a few days before to submit it. You may not want to wait until the last possible minute to submit. Sometimes someone has to verify your payment before you receive instructions for submitting and you want to make sure there’s enough time.

Now comes the hard part…WAITING. My advice…forget about it. Move on to your next project and put the date when the finalists will be announced out of your mind.

Contest Results

As I mentioned earlier, some judges are ruthless in what they’ll say about your entry. I believe there’s always a delicate way of providing negative feedback that won’t make the author burst into tears. But, that’s not always going to happen. You’re bound to get a judge who tells you exactly what’s on their mind in a crude and uncaring way. It’s going to happen and you just have to pull up your big girl (or boy) panties and suck it up. But, realize their feedback isn’t personal.  They don’t even know who you are, right? And guess what? Their input may not be correct. Recently, I received feedback correcting the spelling of a word. I was puzzled because I remember looking up the word during editing. It turns out I was right and they weren’t. So, you really need to be careful what advice you take. Feedback is subjective to the judge’s own experiences and opinions. Of course, they may be spot on, too. How do you know which it is?

My first suggestion after reading the judge comments is to walk away. Put it aside for at least a day, when you can look at it with fresh eyes and some perspective. The bottomline is…it’s hard to take critiquing of our manuscripts. No one likes to hear what they’ve written has flaws. But remember, no one says you have to listen. It’s your manuscript. However, I would look for consistent comments across judges and even across contests. If your manuscript has been entered in multiple contests and you see similar feedback about the lack of conflict between your hero and heroine, you might want to examine your story more closely.

Regardless of whether or not you final or win a contest, you should be proud of yourself for entering. It’s not easy putting your writing out there for others to see. Regardless of your results, you are a winner.

My Experience

I entered eleven contests in 2011 across two different manuscripts. My goal this year was to final in one. Well, I’m thrilled to say I got my first contest finalist notification on March 30th for the Write Stuff Contest, which is run out of the Connecticut Chapter of RWA. It’s for my second manuscript, Love’s Second Chance, and is the first significant piece of news I’ve had about my writing since starting almost four years ago.

How about you? Are you for or against contests? What weird contest experiences or advice do you have? I’d love to hear your stories, so please share.

In the meantime, keep writing!


Leave a comment


  1. I first entered the Golden Heart, not even knowing at first it only gave a number score! But I’m glad I did, because it was the sole reason I busted my butt to finish a first revision of my completed MS.

    I then entered the Yellow Rose of TX contest, which provided valuable feedback for the first 30 pages from 4 judges. One judge, who was published, thought it was perfect and loved it. The other 2 rated it very good and the feedback was helpful. The last from an unpub author was plain MEAN. LOL it was like she had a personal vendetta against my writing- lots of ‘you don’t know what you’re doing’ type comments and exclamation points.

    It doesn’t upset me though–i just hope there’s actually something i can use from it when I get around to editing my MS again.

    • Hi Virginia,
      I’m glad to hear the GH pushed to finish your MS. It’s such a great feeling of accomplishment. Congratulations! Have you submitted for Pro yet? Thankfully, contests usually have at least 3 judges and often throw out the lowest score. It helps balance out the lower scores and hopefully gives you a better sense.

      I’m glad to hear you weren’t traumatized by the feedback. Good luck with your edits.


  2. We in the romance community are incredibly lucky to have so many contest opportunities. Thoughtful, talented and professional judges have made a huge difference in my writing. Of course, there is the occasional spiteful judge, but I’ve learned to ignore those!

    • Hi Diana,

      I agree it’s great to have a large variety contests to choose from. You can pick and choose what works for you. Some are even targeted for things like query letters. I entered my first MS in a query contest and received some valuable feedback. You win some and you lose some, but overall I think they’re a good thing and I’m glad they exist.

      Thanks for stopping by!


  3. Lori

     /  April 23, 2012

    Contests also are good subs for lack of critique partners.
    I entered Chicago’s RWA and received great feedback. It give me hope to final at NJRW. Thanks ladies for adding YA that is awesome.

    • Hi Lori,

      I agree contests can be a good way to get feedback on your story. It’s a good place to test out the waters. The Connecticut Chapter of RWA may be a good source for YA. I’m not exactly sure, but noticed when signing up for agent/editor appts that there are a lot who are looking for YA.

      Glad you’ll be entering this year’s PYHIAB contest. Thanks for stopping by.


  4. I never entered contests when I started writing romance novels. I did have a couple of critique partners though. My feeling was, since my kids were young, I had limited time and preferred to spend it marketing my books instead of entering contests. However, if they were older I might have entered some.
    I had my first romance novel bought in 2001 and since then have entered lots of contest for published authors! I’ve been a finalist in several and won one. 🙂

    • Hi Roni,

      It’s definitely a balance trying to find time to write, query/market your story, and raise a family. Through in a job and husband and, yikes! You have to pick and choose, which is probably something I need to get better at rather than trying to do everything.

      That’s great that you’ve finaled and won some published author contests. Here’s hoping for many more successes!


  5. Great post, Maria! You make a lot of excellent points. I was once what is affectionately known as a “contest junkie”. When I was trying to sell my first book A BRIDGE TO LOVE

    • Oops, my flying fingers hit the wrong key! So back to my original comment…when I was trying to sell my first book, I entered one contest every month for a year. I experienced the same mix of scores, although I was lucky to miss any truly mean judges. However, I followed Maria’s advice: reading the comments, then letting them sit awhile (so I could get over my emotional response) before I decided which ones made sense to me and which ones I thought were off-base. I revised and tried again the next month…and a lot of the comments were very helpful.

      I found I really liked getting feedback on my work, and it encouraged me to keep writing. I finaled a few times, but got no requests for full manuscripts until the last one. And ironically, I had just sold the book the week before!

      One comment of Maria’s I want to agree with and expand upon: when the contest rules say submit a certain page count, don’t just cut off your entry on that page. Shape the entry so you have an end point that makes sense (and hooks the reader). Try to edit it so you can submit the maximum allowable pages, but it’s better to end well than to get an extra page in.

      Maria, congratulations on your finalist status! That’s fabulous!

    • Hi Nancy,

      I entered so many contests for my first MS. It helped me see what I need to work on and I think write a stronger second story. Having co-chaired the Golden Leaf for the second year, I have a definite appreciation the amount of work that goes into coordinating a contest from two different perspectives.

      Thanks for sharing your contest experience with us. Doesn’t it figure about getting the request for the full after it sold? Still, I’m sure it made you feel good.


  6. Hi Maria, perfect timing on this post! Some other points to consider when entering a contest: 1) see if the lowest score is dropped or if there is a third person who reads your entry if the range of two scores is too great. 2) be selective with contests, and understand the audience who will be judging you. A sassy steampunk thriller might go over better with judges in one contest, a sweet home-style romance in another market/region. 3) Under no circumstances, rewrite and rewrite and rewrite your manuscript based on every single contest critique. Feedback is very subjective, and as you say, not always are the judges suggestions well-intended. But, do take into consideration comments that appear frequently or ones that you feel will help your novel. This is tough, as a clear, unbias head is needed – and we all know how caught up we get within our plots and with our characters. THANKS FOR THE WONDERFUL POST. Michele

    • Hi Michele,

      I agree with you to not completely rewrite your MS. Take what points make sense to you and move on. Don’t let it discourage you, which is hard because you’re characters are like your family. We can criticize our family, but heaven help it if someone else does. 🙂

      Thanks for sharing.


  7. Great post! And congratulations again on your contest final. I’m rooting for you next weekend!

    I have found contests to be extremely helpful, but they can get expensive. Also, critique partners are generally more constructive and gentle, not to mention cheaper. But Michele in right in that you can’t completely tear apart your story based on one comment from a contest judge. Six similar comments? Yes, but not one.

  8. Jaye Marie Rome

     /  April 24, 2012

    Maria, this is spot-on info and advice. Congrats to you (again!) on finaling in Fiction Fest. Wish I could be there to cheer you on. 😦 I hope you’ll post as soon as you find out that you won!


  9. RoseAnn DeFranco

     /  May 7, 2012

    Congratulations, Maria! This is great advice on contests. My experiences have been a mixed bag of inconsistencies. Since there are so many contest opportunities, I narrow the field by looking at the final round judges. If there is an industry professional that I’d like to read my work, then I’ll submit. Having said that, I haven’t submitted yet this year, but plan to do so. The final round judges lineup for PYHIAB look great…thanks to the work of the Femmes, no doubt!


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