I decided to write about entering contests since I’ve plastered all over my blog that I finaled in the biggest of all for an unpubbed author.
1. Base which contests you enter on what you expect to get out of them. If you want feedback, read the contest rules and entry information. It will always say on the particular website for the contest if they provide judges’ feedback.
The first contest I entered I did so because I am a practical sort of person and writing novels for a living wasn’t exactly a practical profession in my eyes. (Not all of us can be Nora Roberts, Danielle Steele, or Denise Hunter, or Lisa Kleypas). Which, I don’t think they were an overnight sensation. They were prolific. They wrote, and they wrote, and they grew an audience for all their stories. And now everyone recognizes their names, whether they read romance or not.
I entered my first contest as a test to see if I was nuts to think I could do this–Tammy’s fault (a whole other post to explain that). I was looking for feedback from people I didn’t know who were in the same business as me. I didn’t win, but I didn’t choke either. I got some super, terrific feedback from other writers who were kind and encouraging.
I entered the same contest the next year with the same story after A LOT of revisions and after reading craft books and just, plain out writing to apply what I had learned from the craft books and what I’d garnered from attending day workshops. Kathy Carmichael, Kim Llewellyn, Jeannie London, and Julie Leto–you guys have taught me so much and I’m still learning from you. Thank you for your time and your willingness to share your knowledge.
Second time I entered the same contest, I came in third. I was more than happy with the outcome. And better yet, I had validation. I could do this. I just had to work hard and keep at it.
2. Who will be the final round judges? This is big. If you write inspirational and there is no inspirational category, go for it if you really want to, but realize that the judges and the editor (if you final) who read your work, aren’t necessarily familiar with inspirational stories. I’m talking about the guidelines and parameters attached to an inspirational story as sold through the ABA & or the CBA. You could still final and you could still win, but the odds are pretty long because that’s what happens. BUT, if the final round judge is an agent or editor who represents or publishes stories in the same genre you write—GO FOR IT. Even if you don’t final, you are going to get some feedback on your writing. If you do final, even if you don’t take 1st, an agent or editor has seen your work and you didn’t blow a shot at them via the query method.
3. Cost. The economy isn’t great. Everybody is cutting back. Pay attention to how much the entry fee is and whether or not the contest accepts electronic entries. (These are so convenient, I can send my entry to them without having to do my hair and change out of my pj’s to go to the post office.)
4. Analyzing the feedback. You entered, you finaled/didn’t final, you have three copies of your entry with three different people’s take on your writing. Will they all agree? Only if you finaled and then took first and then, maybe not. Judges are people too. Maybe they’re reading your entry with a major head cold, or their child is sick, or they ran out of coffee, or they waited until the last day their scores are due back to the contest coordinator and they are in a hurry. Or, they could be sitting on their sofa curled up with their laptop before a fire, looking out over the mountains. Use what you can to improve your writing and forget the rest. –Think about it this way–is there a published author that is a New York Times best seller that you don’t really care for their writing style? Probably. Well you could be a future NYT best seller and your story didn’t speak to that judge. It happens. Sometimes people aren’t kind with how they say “Hated It”. The published authors that I know, who are kind enough to try and teach me how to become a better writer, say first and foremost, get a tough skin.
Rejection and criticism hurt, just like slamming your thumb in the car door. If you got nothing out of all the feedback you received from a contest, then maybe that wasn’t the ideal contest for you. Think of that the next year when you’re deciding which contests to enter. You may enter again, for the simple reason you think your writing has improved and you want to see what they say this time. You may not get the same judges as before, but the judging criteria will be the same so it could work as a benchmark.
Enter a contest because you want something to take away from the experience. It is the only way you can grow as a writer. It doesn’t mean you’ll find it in the judges’ feedback, but there will probably be one tiny nugget of useful advice that you can apply to your writing–even if it is, “I will never enter their contest again.”
5. Be kind to the judges. They donate their time and effort to judge and provide feedback. I’ve had judges who scored my entry really high and just put smiley faces in sections they liked and didn’t give much written feedback. I’ve had judges insert their comments on a page, until none of my words were left on the page. It was all theirs. Maybe I didn’t agree with what they said or they tried to rewrite my story, but if they took the time to exert that much effort in helping me see what bugged them about that part, maybe the way I wrote it didn’t express what I meant as clearly as it should have. I still don’t have to use what they suggested, but I should at least take a second look at the way I wrote the scene. Changing one sentence could make all the difference in nailing the point or emotion you were trying to convey.
6. Never give up. If you do, how will you ever achieve your goal? No one can write the story that is yours. Only you can do that. So, polish and submit. You never know when you’ll be named a Golden Heart finalist. And let me tell you, that was one phone call I was very happy to receive.
Good luck in your writing journey. We are all traveling this road to publication, maybe our paths will cross.
If you have ideas or other pieces of advice on entering writing contests, please feel free to share them in the comments section.
God’s peace to all.