Contests: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

On Writing Contests: Over the past few days some of my writer friends who entered Harlequin’s SYTYCW this year were Tweeting while they anxiously waiting the Top 25 announcement… so I thought I’d post on the good, the bad and the ugly of contests. Full disclosure: I don’t have a lot of contest experience, but I do have some. I have entered 6 contests total with 2 different manuscripts. I finaled in 3 of those, and won 1st place in one of those finals. Which means I did not final in 3 of them. So, here is my good, bad and ugly…

The Ugly:
~ The infamous “East German Judge.” You know, the judge who shreds everything about your writing while trying to shred your confidence too. By the time she’s done commenting on your entry, you know that she hates your writing, your premise, your lack of grammar knowledge, and probably “your little dog too.” This can be devastating to read, especially for a new writer just starting out, but I imagine this is what a scathing review feels like. And some readers will leave scathing reviews. My advice if you have a run in with the EGJ, let’s call her Helga, is take a deep breath and let it go. That’s what you’ll have to do with a bad review. So Helga is really doing you a favor by helping you prepare for when you’re a published author. Danke Schoen, Helga. 😉

The Bad:
~ Contests as a crutch. When you write the opening chapters of a book, but never finish it. You polish the heck out of those chapters so they shine in a contest. And they final and sometimes win. And you keep entering it into more contests…but never finish writing the book. Or maybe you do finish writing the book, but still get caught up in the feel-good cycle of finaling and winning contests and never move on to querying, subbing or writing your next manuscript. I don’t actually know anyone like this, but have heard this happens.

~If you forget how subjective writing is. Contest judges are readers too. No one book can be adored by everyone. If you have a strong voice, you often get the yin-yang of scores. Very high + very low. And you’re thinking, did they read the same entry? Yes, it’s hard, but don’t let any contest results dim your goals. Sure you can wallow for a day or two. Then get your butt back in the saddle and get writing. Remember that not everyone will love your writing and try not to get discouraged. Write for yourself and write for the readers that do love your writing.

The Good:
~ Putting your writing out there. Sure it’s a risk, and it’s scary, but at some point, if you want to become a published writer, this is a necessary step. Contests are a way to get your feet wet.

~Unbiased feedback. This is huge. Because sometimes your sister or best friend doesn’t want to hurt your feelings or doesn’t know enough about writing to give helpful feedback. It’s wonderful to get a judge who loves, loves, loves your writing. Save those entries to pull out and read on those tough “what the heck am I doing trying to be a writer” days. Those days when you’ve gotten nothing but “R”s in your in-box? Yup, those are the perfect days to reread the comments from those judges and know that somewhere out there- there are readers just like them who will love your work.

Even better than a judge who loves your entry? A judge who doesn’t (but isn’t Helga!) I have gotten some darn good feedback from a judge or two who really didn’t connect with my writing/voice. Really good. So read through the comments from these judges carefully. Some of the comments you might disagree with, but I’m betting some of their comments are spot on.

~Exposure. Yup. Contests are a way to get your name out there. Someone will see your name on a contest finalist list or maybe even judge your entry and like it so much they end up tracking you down. When your writing is at the point that you start to final more often, you get your writing in front of Final Round judges who are agents or editors or both. Do you suck at writing query letters and does the thought of pitching makes you want to throw up? Sure, you’ll still have to learn to do those, but a contest final might be a foot in the door.

~Query Fodder. Final or win 1st place in a contest? Put it proudly in your well-written query letter.It’s a thing. It counts.

~Separating the Wheat from the Chaff. I don’t know about you, but I find a contest (or a sub) helps me really look at my writing with discerning eyes. That opening chapter I loved? It looks very different when I think about a judge, an agent or an editor reading it. When an entry is the first 5k words or an agent asks for the first 10 pages…you need every word to count. It’s easier to see the “too much backstory” or over-long descriptions, or the boring bits when you’ve got a limited space to showcase your writing. Entering a contest can also be a tool to set a deadline to finish your book. Nothing like a real deadline to light a fire under your yoga pant covered writer’s butt. I have only entered contests with completed m/s’s, but I know many who this has worked for. I have used a contest to help me get stalled revisions going.

Four Steps to Being A “Winner” Every Time: So for every writing contest you enter but don’t final in …please remember, you didn’t lose. If you look at all the good reasons to enter a contest, you’ll end up with a better manuscript. And that’s a good thing, yes?

1st: Pat yourself on the back for putting your writing out there. It isn’t easy to open yourself up to criticism. Yay, you!

2nd: Take that unbiased feedback and run with it. Use what makes sense and discard what doesn’t.

3rd: If you connected to other writers, keep that communication going. Writing is such a solitary endeavor so it helps to have other writer friends to support each other. Exposure is a double edged sword, so be smart and kind out in the www (wild wacky world) of social media.

4th: Use contests to help you see your writing from a judge’s, an agent’s or an editor’s perspective. Is your first line great? Does your 1st page draw you in? Does the first chapter leave you wanting to keep turning the pages? Did you slice and dice all the boring parts?