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!

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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!


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