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:~: Wednesday, March 08, 2006 :~:

The Truth About Contests

Love them or hate them, contests are out there. Get on any writer's loop, and you'll be inundated with contest deadline announcements, calls for judges, notifications of winners. If you love contests, you search those messages looking for the final round judges - who's judging what and are they good enough to warrant you entering that particular contest? If you hate them, you may skim over the names of the winners looking for anyone you know, then shrug and tell yourself you could be on that list if you'd just entered.

Truth #1: For as long as I can remember, I have hated contests.

I know, I know, I know. Those of you who know me or read my blog are snorting into your morning coffee and calling me a hypocrite right now because I just won a contest. But the truth is I've had an aversion to contests for a long time. When I started writing I knew nothing about contests. I came across one on a loop I'd recently joined and decided to give it a go. I didn't look at the final round judges, didn't look at the prize or even the scoring sheet. I just figured I'd enter, win and prove what a great writer I was before I became published only a few short months later and turned into the next Nora.


Yeah. That happened.

What really happened is I got SLAMMED in that contest. Hard. And instead of realizing what I'd entered sucked, I figured the judges just didn't have a clue. So for a long, LONG time I refused to enter any other contests. Too many times on the loops I'd heard how fickle contest judges can be, which only added to my opinion.

But . . . then I heard about the Golden Heart. And I figured THAT was one I could definitely win. I mean, next Nora, right? Piece of cake. These would be real judges, who knew what they were doing. Not like that other contest. So I entered, and I waited, and I was absolutely convinced I'd final. And while I was waiting, I decided to enter the Daphne as well - with the same manuscript. I mean, final in two big contests? Easy.

Well, it didn't work out the way I'd planned. I didn't final in the GH. In fact, I didn't even come close. My scores were all over the map - some high, some low, some right smack in the middle. I was crushed. Until (yet again), I got on a few writers loops and read that if your scores are all over, it means you have a strong "voice". Hey! That sounded good to me. I liked that idea. Strong Voice. Yep, that was me. Plus, it has to be better than that little voice in the back of my head saying, "You really suck at this." So I ran with that idea.

Surprisingly though, I did okay in the Daphne - with the same manuscript that tanked in the GH. I only missed finaling by one spot (okay, one point!). But the reason I missed was equally heartbreaking - one judge marked me down for having a heroine that was too young. I was so upset because it felt like a personal bias toward younger heroines. Needless to say, I walked away from all three contests convinced they're all based on personal opinion and therefore, not worth my time or money to enter. (Never mind that the judges actually had some good ideas in there.)

And then I got hit with a cold hard fact:

Truth #2: Readers, like contest judges, have personal likes and dislikes.

Oh, man. How long did it take me to figure that out? For a long time, I wanted to blame contests for being, well, unreliable. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized contest judges aren't that different from readers. And along with it, they aren't that much different from agents and editors who also have their own personal likes and dislikes. It doesn't mean that all contest judges (or agents or editors) are right, it just means you have to take the comments you get with a grain of salt and dig through the feedback to find what works and what doesn't. It's the same with the feedback you get from agents and editors. Until I figured that out, there wasn't any reason for me to enter contests.

So why enter contests?

Ask this question and you'll get a multitude of answers: The chance to get your work in front of an agent or editor, the chance for recognition, the chance to meet other writers, the chance to get good feedback on your work, the chance to win a prize be it a crit from a published author or a wad of cash. They're all good reasons, but I'm going to tell you the truth about why we enter:

Truth #3: We enter contests because winning just feels good.

Let's be honest, every time you enter a contest, you're hoping you're going to win. It doesn't matter what the reason is for entering, we all want to win. And in this business, especially if you're an unpublished writer, winning feels pretty damn good. How many of us trudge through our writing with very little positives headed our way? We get rejection letters from agents and editors - form R's at that! We get comments from crit partners about what's wrong with our chapters. We struggle with our craft wondering when we're going to get it, and when someone else is going to get what we write. And when the only way to know you're doing something right is a publishing contract, life can get pretty hairy for a struggling writer. Contests are a way to receive a little praise now and then and boost your spirits.

I entered a contest last fall with absolutely no hope of winning. What drew me to the contest wasn't the final round judge, but the "grand" prize of a paid registration for the National RWA Conference in Atlanta. I have relatives in Atlanta I haven't seen in too many years to count, and I thought the conference would be a good excuse to see them. I also have two good friends in the state of Georgia I'd love to meet face to face, but I was wavering about going to the conference because of the cost to travel from the West Coast. So when I saw this contest, I thought, "Well, maybe if I win I could swing going," but I really didn't expect to even come close. I entered the WIP, which wasn't done and hadn't even been through my CPs yet, and I didn't tell them I was entering because I've jawed about the fact I hate contests to them more times than I want to remember. So, as I'm sure you can imagine, I was floored when I learned I'd finaled. And I was shocked when I discovered I'd won my category. And let me tell you, I screamed when I found out I'd won the grand prize.

For someone like me, who is struggling to find an agent, who feels like she is eons behind her writing peers who already have agents who love their voices and believe in them, winning is an amazing feeling. It's one thing for my CPs to tell me they like my work, but to hear it from someone who doesn't know me is an incredible feeling. I now get why people enter contests. I get why they enter again and again even if some of the feedback they receive isn't always helpful or they find themselves spending way too much money on contests. There's a feeling that comes from winning that is just out of this world. I can only imagine it's a fraction of what it feels like to get "The Call" and sell your first book.

Does that mean I'll turn into a contest junkie and enter a ton of contests? No. I sure hope not. (Someone smack me if I do.) Does it make me an expert on contests? No way. I've entered four. Definitely not expert material. But I have learned one thing. There are pluses and minuses that go along with entering any contest, and if you know that ahead of time, you can look at the results with a more objective eye. This year when I get my GH scores back, I'm not going to be crushed if I didn't do well. I'll know I did the best I could with my manuscript at that time, and that ultimately, everything else is out of my hands. Do I want to win? Of course. But I also want to be published. Winning the GH is one way to get your name out there to the people who do the buying. And the only way to win is to take a chance and enter.

And that, ultimately, brings me around to the only truth that really matters:

Truth #4: Anything you can do to reach your goal is the right thing.

Yeah. That sounds good to me. If I hadn't entered The Romancing The Tome Contest, I wouldn't be going to Atlanta. Contests or not, do what you can to get where you want to go.

A good article about contests (and what editors think) can be found here: http://home.comcast.net/~tracycozzens/Working/contests.htm


Blogger Joan Swan said...

Ah, yes. The contest controversy. It's a love-hate relationship for me...love when I final, hate when I don't. I've entered quite a few, still not convinced they're worth the effort or the price...I mean I've got great crit partners for feedback, so I don't need that. I guess it's more about finding out where I MIGHT rate in relation to other writers...and honestly, I have my doubts about how realistic that estimate is because it all depends...are the judges simply peers or are they published, do they go more on gut instinct and opinion or follow a more solid set of guidelines?

I swore off contests a few months ago after everyone asked me why I was entering if I already had an agent, and after I sent the same two mss to two different contests...one in which they were reamed, another in which they finalled. If that's not subjective I don't know what is.

But I recently took a closer look at contests and chose a few where the final round judges were editors, hoping that if I placed it would give my agent a little toe in the door and a more personal way to introduce the whole piece to them.

SIGH. I agree with E in that you've got to do what you have to do to get where you want to go. If that includes contests, then pick and choose the one that will give you the greatest chance at exposure and go for it.

2:28 PM  
Blogger Paty Jager said...

As you know (by my blog) I have become a contest junkie. More or less. I hate them and I love them. And I think the reason I enter is to get that pat on the back once in a while. When I final (which I have in 7 contests) I feel I am getting somewhere. I've won two. Which is a great feeling! It kind of validates that I can write something people like.

But I also get my dander up when I get really low scores and comments that don't seem rational. But then it is all in what the person likes.

3:14 PM  
Blogger Elisabeth Naughton said...

Wow, Paty. I didn't realize you'd finaled in so many. That's awesome!

(And I bow to you, contest expert. ;) )

And J, you're right. If your goal is publication, then getting your work in front of an editor through a contest is a good way to go about it.

7:53 PM  
Blogger Amie Stuart said...

LOL I saw that win and thought "Oh my God, that's Linda's Liz!"

4:53 AM  
Blogger Elisabeth Naughton said...

LOL. Thanks, Cece!

5:21 PM  

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