Recently, I was discussing 2011 writing goals with some of my critique partners, and several of them mentioned that they would like to enter more writing contests, but didn’t know which ones to enter.
The Golden Heart is the biggest annual contest for unpublished authors, but there are plenty of smaller chapter contests, which will give you excellent feedback and credentials to put in your query bio. Stephie Smith has a wonderful chart listing all the RWA chapter contests here.
With so many contests to choose from, here’s how I decide which ones to enter:
Decide what you want to get out of the contest. Your choices will be different depending on whether you hope to final, are just looking for unbiased feedback on a new idea, or need to have that all-important query letter/synopsis critiqued.
Cost: Writing contests are one place where you don’t always get what you pay for. Some of the most expensive contests offer the least amount of feedback. If cost is a problem, choose a less expensive contest which only looks at those all important first few pages, like The Great Beginnings contest. Or look for free contests on writers’ and publishers' websites. The Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award is a free contest that garners national attention.
Look at the Score Sheet: Most long-standing RWA chapter contests will post their score sheets on their website. Go through it line by line and make sure it’s a good match for your manuscript. Some contests have different score sheets for each category and that can work to your advantage. You don’t want to send your coming of age story to a contest that only judges sexual tension.
Categories: Make sure there’s a category that suits your work. A romantic suspense will probably do better in its own category than lumped in with all the other contemporaries. It’s all about judge’s expectations. If the judge is looking forward to a secret baby story, and you show up with a serial killer in the prologue, you’re probably not going to do well.
Your manuscript may do better in a special interest chapter contest. For example, The Hearts through History Chapter offers the Romance through the Ages contest where categories are divided by historical eras. This allows a manuscript with an unusual setting the opportunity to succeed on its own merits rather than get lost in the avalanche of regency entries, which are the mainstay of the historical category in other contests.
Prestige: Over the years, some contests have built a reputation for consistently providing tough competition and garnering requests from editors; I would put The Golden Pen, The Emily and The Daphne in this category. I’m sure our readers will tell us of other contests which are equally well-known.
Judges: The most important element in any contest is the judges. Check out the first round judges. Who are they? Are they trained? How many are there. Generally, the more first round judges, the better, especially if the lowest score is tossed out. The Winter Rose is one good example of a contest which offers four judges and consistently provides excellent feedback.
The final judge is equally important. Is it an editor who acquires what you write? Or an agent you would like to work with? You may not expect to final, but chances are, if you’ve come this far, you’re better than you think you are. Plan to win and enter accordingly.
Contests change from one year to another. If you enter enough of them, you will eventually have horror stories to tell: The one that lost your entry, the judge who gave all zero’s on a scale of one to ten, or the judge who swore she would personally make sure you were never published in the United States or Canada. But there are also those favorites you come back to year after year, looking for good feedback and hoping to catch the eye of a top notch final judge.
I would love to hear your contest stories. Which ones are your favorites? How do you decide which ones to enter?