Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Writing Contests-The Pleasure and The Pain

Most writers have entered a writing contest or two and writers’ feelings about writing contests seem to be mixed. I’ve read posts on chat loops from authors who’ve had bad contest experiences with critical judges and poor feedback, conversely, I’ve also heard of authors who have sold their first book after winning a contest.

The topic of writing contests is a pertinent one for me because I’m one of those authors who sold a first book through a writing contest. I won the American Title IV contest run jointly by Dorchester Publishing and RT Bookreviews magazine and a publishing contract was the prize for winning.

The American Title contest was unlike most writing contests, being based on American Idol. For five rounds, character studies, story summaries, or book excerpts were published in RT Bookreviews magazine. Each round, the writer whose book received the fewest votes was knocked out.

I also have experience of many conventional writing contests where judges, usually fellow writers, judge the first round, marking and giving feedback on a score sheet before the top three or four entries are passed on to an editor or agent for final judging. There is definitely an element of luck involved. Some judges never mark high no matter how great the entry, while others are overly critical or just plain wrong in their assessment and advice. The funniest comment I ever received from a judge was that my English character sounded too American and I needed to research British English. If only she’d known that I’m British!

Despite all their faults, I found writing contests tremendously helpful in giving me feedback on my writing and in helping me grasp the subtle differences between British English and American English. In the early days when I was new, some contest judges put a lot of time and trouble into explaining to me how to improve my writing. Those judges alone were worth the entry fee.

Later when I started to final in and win contests, the boost to my confidence helped me to forge on toward the goal of publication with renewed enthusiasm. For me the ultimate contest achievement for an unpublished romance author was to final in the Golden Heart. The experience of attending the Romance Writers of America National conference in San Francisco as a finalist was so much fun I wouldn’t have missed it for anything, and the camaraderie among the group of finalists is still important to me two years on.

My writing contest experience has generally been good, and I’d recommend unpublished romance writers to enter RWA chapter contests to gain feedback on their work and also to get in front of the agents and editors who judge the finals. My one proviso would be to check the score sheet first. It is often available on the website of the chapter running the contest. If not, the contest coordinator should let you have a copy. I also recommend that you ask if judges are required to give a reason when they knock off points. Certain contests are known for having good judges and giving good quality feedback. Two that come to mind are The Golden Gateway contest run by FTHRW, an online chapter of RWA, and another is The Golden Pen, run by The Golden Network.

I have recently entered my first book The Magic Knot in a few contests for published books, so I’m now entering a new realm of writing contests. Once again, I feel like the new kid at school!

I’d love to hear your experience of writing contests if you’re a writer. If you have entered contests, has the experience been useful or not? If you have chosen not to enter, why not?

For anyone who is interested in entering a contest similar to The American Title contest where first prize is a publishing contract, Alicia Condon is currently accepting submissions in Kensington Brava's Writing With The Stars contest.


Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

I've had both excellent comments from judges and some hateful. I don't understand why anyone would want to rip the skin off someone instead of backing away and saying they weren't impressed and be done with it. For the most part, lately I've been receiving great comments that are helpful - I am especially partial to the TARA Contest as another great judge feedback contest.

Mona Risk said...

I have entered a lot of contests before being published. At the beginning the scores were low simply because my writing was not the best. But soon I finaled and won several contests. Helen, you are so right about the thrill of winning, although I never finaled in the golden heart. When my Babies in the Bargain won 2009 Best Romance Novel at Preditors & Editors readers poll and 2009 Best Contemporary Romance at Readers Favorite I was over the moon and my sales shot up.

Like you I highly recommend entering contests.

Josie said...

Thanks for your thoughtful post about contests. I've become more selective as I polish my writing, but the thrill of winning always inspires me to keep writing. I wasn't aware of Kensingtojavascript:void(0)n's new contest. Thanks for sharing.

Dawn Marie Hamilron said...

I've received both pleasure and pain from reading contests. But I keep at it, hoping some editor or agent will see my work and like it. :)

Helen Scott Taylor said...

Paisley, I can never understand the hateful comments, either. Why someone would judge just to be nasty is beyond me.

Mona, it is definitely a lovely high to win a big contest--always mixed with an element of disbelief for me.

Joanne, I'm glad I alerted you to the Kensington contest. I think your work would be ideal for the Brava line. Good luck if you enter.

Dawn Marie, I know exactly how you feel about the hope that by entering contests you will catch the agent or editors eye. I would love to see some kind of statistic on how often this happens.


Entering contests is a scary thing. It's your baby that you are asking someone what their opinion is of your book. You're elated if they agree with you and your heart sinks when they tell you to join a critique group because you need lots of work.

But, and it's a but but, if you read over their remarks, you'll find most are very good and helpful.

It depends on how much you want learn. As a famous author once said to me, "Jaclyn, if you can't stand the heat get the hell out of the kitchen." Like everything else in life, you take the good with the bad and find a happy medium.