Tuesday, January 11, 2011

How to Choose a Writing Contest

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The Golden Heart is the biggest annual contest for unpublished authors, but there are plenty of smaller chapter contests, which will give you excellent feedback and credentials to put in your query bio.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?


Natasha Moore said...

Great post. I have a special place in my heart for FTH's contests. I won in the Golden Gateway years ago and while it didn't garner a sale, it did give me confidence at a time when I needed it. And a final in the Wallflower contest DID lead to a sale.

Dawn Marie Hamilton said...

Great post, Clarissa. At various points in a manuscript's metamorphosis, I enter contests for different reasons. Early on, I'm looking for feedback on concept. Later, I hope to get my work in front of an agent or editor. Like Natasha, I have a special place in my heart for the Golden Gateway, from which I received my first request. :)

Clarissa Southwick said...

Aaaah! How could I forget the Golden Gateway? It's a fantastic contest! When I wrote this, I was afraid I would leave out a really big one, but I didn't realize it would be my own chapter.

That's how I joined this wonderful group, finaling in the Golden Gateway. What a great prize that was :)

Donna Cummings said...

Great article, Clarissa. I decided a couple years ago to enter contests to help get my work in front of editors and agents, so that was usually the criteria I used when selecting which contest to enter.

I'm particularly fond of the Golden Gateway since I won in the Historical category in 2009. :) I also enjoyed the OKRWA Finally A Bride contest since you could only enter if you had finalled elsewhere--it really increased the competition. :)

In each contest, the feedback was helpful, and I also felt like it garnered some new fans, which is always nice!

Liz Fredericks said...

Thanks for another excellent and timely post! This listing is very useful for beginning writers. I've a 'horror story' that was an important learning experience for me. My entry was put in the wrong category. This was pure human error and the contest organizers felt badly about it. I wasn't upset as much as relieved - no wonder the judge didn't understand why I didn't have paranormal aspects. Lesson: 99.999% of the contest judges and organizers are well-intentioned, busy volunteers. I'm grateful that there are so many good contests and so many people willing to facilitate the opportunities.

Sheila Tenold said...

Clarissa, thanks for the timely post! I'm tickled so many posting here mentioned the Golden Gateway. I won the 2009 Single Title with a full manuscript request, launching me into RWA PRO status!

I'll also mention the LINDA HOWARD Award of Excellence, and not because I finaled in 2010. They offered a class for judges last year. I wish more chapters would do the same.

Stephie Smith's writing contest list is huge, thanks for providing the link.

Clarissa Southwick said...

Donna, Liz, Sheila, Thank you all for commenting. It is true there are so many wonderful contests out there. I was hesitant to mention any I hadn't actually entered, so I appreciate your taking the time to share your experiences. Keep the recommendations coming!

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

I've been sending off to three or four contests a year and the results vary from professional, well-thoughtout replies to the ridiculous. I appreciate honest opinions, but when I get something ridiculous such as 'you don't have deer in California, check your facts' and I can see six of them sitting in the snow under a tree in my backyard, I wonder why I bothered to waste my money and effort. I don't appreciate comments that are slams and make you wonder why you are even writing. The last contest I entered the judges were informative and I got more than my money's worth and let the judges know. So, I guess you take a chance and benefit from those who truly give you a great judging. :)

Kylie Griffin said...

Clarissa this was an interesting post, lots of good advice and peoples comments were informative too.

I've only been entering contests in the US for a little over a year but I liked the reputation of the WHRWA Emily - great feedback and the Best of the Best is an extra round.

The Golden Heart is a given, particularly when your ms reaches a certain stage. It's purely for the prestige as you don't get the feedback like you do in other contests.

The RWAustralia & RWNew Zealand both have a Golden Heart equivalent.

RWAustralia has the Emerald and it's split into two sections - category romance and single title. It mirrors the submission process - the first round is sending in a partial, and if you make the second round you send in the full ms.

From that finalists are chosen and the third round is the final judge (usually an editor) where places are given.

RWNew Zealand has the Clendon Award, a full manuscript contest form the get go. It's a mixed contest of category and single title, any genre. It's judged purely by readers, no writers.

The first round up to six finalists are chosen (as well as highly commended and commended rankings), the finalists are sent to a final judge, usually an editor. A Readers' Choice is also chosen from all the entrants and it's the ms that's appealed the most to all readers.

The feedback from both the Emerald and the Clendon Award are superb, very detailed (the Clendon receives 5 back to back pages of comprehensive feedback).

I'll pass on this post & its link to some of the e-loops I'm on as there will be some writers I know interested in it. Thanks again!

Bron said...

I think entering one contest and relying on that limited feedback is not always beneficial. Entering the same piece of work in several contests could be, if the feedback is consistent. Remember not everyone will love your voice or plot or characters.

For instance in one competition a judge scored my Regency historical low saying a story about opium addiction would never sell - it won the HMB online historical pitch! They were interested because it produces great CONFLICT.

BUT if you want to get published don't enter contests only. The best way to sell is by submitting! I never won a contest, finaled yes, but I'm a published author with Kensington Publishing.

I always found The Emily, The Molly, Great Expectations, and the RWNZ Strictly Single contests the best.

B. A. Binns said...

For me the scoresheet is really important. As someone who entered many contests and now does a lot of judging, I know what a difference the items on the scoresheet can make. I made sure i entered contests that would include the kind of feedback I needed, and where judges were encouraged--or even required--to give feedback. I once was frustrated to get scored both a 1 (lowest) and a 5 (highest) in the same item with neither judge telling me why they made that choice.

Mostly be sure why you entered. If you think you manuscript is already well-polished and acceptable to an agent or editor than the final judge is likely to be your number one issue. If you're trying to get to that state, then the scoresheet, judges training and number of judges is paramount (I decided to only enter contests with 3 first round judges so I always had a tiebreaker opinion.)

Final thoughts - never be afraid to ask a contest coordinator a question. You are spending your money, they should at least be willing to answer questions if you need that to help you make a final decision on whether or not to enter.

Bron said...

B. A Binns makes a great point - I always provided judges with feedback - how else will they improve! I thank them for taking the time to do this for us (they are all volunteers) and also, like B A Binns, I query issues that are not clear to me and then I point out areas in their judging that could be improved. Feedback is a two way street.

Robin Covington said...

Great post! I choose a contest based upon the score sheet (I want feedback that is helpful and useful) and ultimately who the final judge is. Since it costs money to enter, I want to spend my money where I can get access to an editor or agent that I would like to sell to. So far, my experience with contests has been really positive for the most part and it the comments helped me to improve my craft.

Becke Davis said...

Thanks for a great blog! I've entered a lot of contests since I started writing (or should I say attempting to write) fiction a few years ago.

Before I joined a local RWA chapter (I'm an RWA-PRO) and found critique partners, I entered contests to get feedback on my first story attempts.

I still use contests when I want impartial feedback, especially if I'm revising a story and I'm hesitant about the changes I've made.

Lately, I've been entering fewer contests and judging more. I've found judging even more helpful than entering. It's fun to read the entries, some of which have been fabulous. Sometimes trying to figure out why a particular entry doesn't hook me helps identify problems with my own writing.

I've never entered the Golden Heart, but I'm judging it for the first time this year. My packet of entries arrived today!

This year I judged several contests and was impressed with the overall quality of the submissions. The contests included the Golden Pen, Finally a Bride, Enchanted Words and Linda Howard.

Clarissa Southwick said...

Thank you all so much for taking the time to read and comment. We got some excellent advice from our readers. I especially appreciate our friends from Australia and New Zealand who took the time to explain their contest system. I couldn't have answered those questions. Good luck to everybody, no matter which contest you enter.

Clarissa Southwick said...

Thank you all so much for taking the time to read and comment. We got some excellent advice from our readers. I especially appreciate our friends from Australia and New Zealand who took the time to explain their contest system. I couldn't have answered those questions. Good luck to everybody, no matter which contest you enter.

Abigail Sharpe said...

I enter my chapter contest; that's a no brainer. I enter other contests as the mood strikes me. When I first started, it was solely for feedback. I think I'm beyond that now and want to answer to get my work in front of the industry professional.

Jill James said...

My first contest win was The First Kiss contest by I think the New England chapter. I thought it was unique to pick something other than the first XX amount of pages for the contest.

Nicola McKenna said...

Hi all, thanks for the wonderful article Clarissa and that valuable link of Stephie's. I learned the hard way by not checking the scoresheet to my first contest 'Between the Sheets'.

As I rely mostly on beta readers, I only enter one contest a year. I see it as a special treat, but am thinking that maybe I should spread out a little more and get that anonymous impartial feedback that is so hard to find with betas.

I must say I love judging. It is time-consuming, but I feel I'm giving something back to the chapter by partaking. Would love to see more of those judge classes that Sheila mentioned up above, and also would love if more competitors gave feedback on judges.
Best of luck to all us competitors and judges.

P.L. Parker said...

Great Post!

Joanne said...

I've found that I learn the most from contests from the judge who is "picky" and detailed. So far, my experience with contests has been very positive.

Ami said...

Great post, Clarissa! For me, it's the Maggie. I love it b/c the judges are pubbed authors. There doesn't seem to be the feeling of competition and nastiness I get sometimes with *the occasional* unpubbed judge. (I, too, am an unpubbed judge. I don't mark you down b/c you are a good writer and in my chosen category. But I digress.) When choosing a contest I look at the final judge. As a category writer, and aiming for the home and family lines, I don't enter those contests where the final judge is for the passion lines, for example. I know the editors for H/S can aquire across lines, but I'm in this for a request at the end and I think my chances are better if the judge mainly aquires my type of story. YMMV, of course. So, I don't contest often. But I've also had good luck with Great Expectations (both as a judge and as an entrant), Launching a STAR, and Southern Heat, which I don;t think went this year.

So. FWIW. :)


Laurie Faelan said...

What I look for in a contest is: at least three first round judges, electronic entries, good feedback and judges that don't focus on insignificant things like formatting. I also look for final judges that I'm interested in submitting to, especially ones that don't take unsolicited queries.

The first contest I ever entered was the Wisconsin chapter Fab Five, and I won my category that year and the feedback was wonderful.

The cost is low so they judge only the first 2500 words of the ms, each category only takes a limited number of entries so there is a better chance of finaling (and they take the top five in each category to the finals), there are seven categories, three first round judges with the lowest score dropped, the judges are trained and give excellent feedback, and the contest is professionally run. Can you tell I love it? So much that I judge now.

For a judge, the scoresheet is excellent and gives you some leeway to focus on the specific entry. And I love the training provided.

Although it's been a few years since I entered, I also liked the Heart to Heart contest and have received excellent feedback from that one too. They have four first round judges with the lowest score dropped and are focused on the hero's and heroine's first meeting. The entry fee is inexpensive.

Great post and I enjoy reading about the different contests!

Carla Swafford said...

When I enter a contest, it's for the final judge. Then next thing I look at is the cost versus number of pages. I rarely pay over $25. Then I look at how many 1st round judges. I prefer 3 with the lowest score dropped. And then I look at the score sheet.

I'm with the others, I love the Golden Gateway as I won the short series catagory in 2007 and finaled again in 2008. My other favorites are the Maggie (finaled twice too), Golden Palm and The Emily.

Of course, I absolutely LOVE the Linda Howard Award of Excellence. I believe it's one of the best but of course I'm bias as I'm the contest coordinator and can't enter. LOL!

BTW, thank you, Shelia, for mentioning the LH AoE and our judging class. We hope to do that again later this year.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Contests can be helpful if you're unsure of yourself or if you are targeting a particular final round judge. I judge for The Winter Rose and Great Expectations. Both contests are conscientious about choosing judges. Thanks for mentioning The Winter Rose in your post!