To enter or not to enter, that is the question.

That question can be answered several different ways depending on whether the one you asks swears by contests or swears at them.  Nearly all RWA chapters run a yearly contest.  These can be found on the Internet or in the RWR (RWA journal).  They usually consist of the first chapter, or less, of your manuscript.  The fees are typically less than $50 and you can expect to wait two months or so for the results.  Let’s look at the arguments for and against entering these competitions.

Reasons to Enter

Reason #1- Exposure-

Those that support contests will tell you they are a very good way to get your work in front of an editor or agent.  Most contests have someone of that position as the final judge in any category.  While that is a legitimate reason to enter the contest, keep in mind that the only ones to get that read are the finalists.  Most contest will have anywhere from 25 to 60 entrants in a particular category and they will have four or fewer finalists.  If you are confident in your entry or you have already finaled with it in other contests, you stand a good chance of being one to receive that free read.  Otherwise, if that is your only reason for entering the competition, you may wish to reconsider.

Reason #2- Cheap critique from experienced writers

This is the main reason I originally entered contests.  For a minimal fee ($25-$30) you will get an in-depth critique from two to three judges.  Most contests require their judges to be either published or PRO authors.  These people know the art of writing and they are not your friends or family.  The latter groups aren’t unbiased, and the feedback they give you usually isn’t worth much.  Most contests also have a score sheet that breaks your entry into specific elements so the feedback you receive is targeted for certain essentials of writing fiction.  This allows you the opportunity to focus your work on areas that are in the most need.  Everyone does something right, and most likely, does something wrong.  If two out of three of the judges say you’re dumping back-story – you’re dumping back-story.  Fix it.

Reason #3- Supporting the industry

Contests provide the main capital for most RWA chapters.  Entering helps to support your sister organizations.

Reason #4-Bragging rights

That’s not as silly as it sounds.  Every contest you win or final in gives you a little more pull in your query letter.  This is information you put in your query (see article on writing queries) to show the agent/editor that you are not a beginner.  Winning or finaling in a contest isn’t easy, and most agents/editors are at least a little impressed by that.


Reasons Not to Enter

Reason #1- Expensive and time consuming

Some people spend a great deal of time and money entering contests, to the point that they never actually finish their manuscript.  If that becomes the case, the contests become counter productive, unless of course, your goal is to win as many contests as possible instead of getting published.

Reason #2- Contests entries must have certain elements

As stated earlier, most contests only take the first chapter or less, yet they look for many complex plot elements.  If your story would flow better with the hero being introduced in chapter two, for instance, forcing him into chapter one to hit the hero category on the score sheet, might actually weaken your manuscript.  Another self-defeating strategy.  I have heard some authors argue that contests produce cookie cutter books and are actually hurting the industry by stifling creativity.  On the other hand, contest score sheets look for the same elements that agents and editors are also looking for, and can improve your partial.

Reason #3-Can destroy confidence in your writing

Even though most judges are attune to a writer’s sensitivities about their work, you can occasionally get a judge who enjoys being ‘tough’ and rips your entry apart.   Many contest’s participants are novices who are already unsure of their abilities.  Getting a slam from a judge can shatter your self-confidence and might even keep some people from writing.  That is the worse thing you can do.  Writing is very subjective.  One of my best friends loves books I usually hate and visa-versa.  Our tastes are so different that if she likes one of my manuscripts it actually concerns me.  Remember that when you read your judge’s sheets.  If you don’t agree with her remarks, ignore them.  If both judges, however, voice similar concerns, you probably should pay attention.  But in the long run, it’s your book.  You can write it anyway you want to, as long as you don’t care about getting published.

Reason #4- Can lead to overconfidence

This may sound strange, but many writers who win contests never get published.  Why?  Because their first chapter entry really isn’t indicative of their work.  They spend so much time polishing and perfecting the first chapter for the contests that when an agent/editor asks for more, the rest of the book is a disappointment.  I heard an agent once say that she judges a book based on chapter four.  She said that most people will have a fairly strong first three chapters then everything falls apart.  There is much more to writing a manuscript than setting up the story or having a flashy hook.


My personal opinion

Now it’s time for my two cents worth.  My writing improved dramatically as a result of entering contests.  My first scores were abysmal, but the three judges were consistent with their analogy.  I took a serious look at my writing and realized they were right.  I corrected many things I was doing and entered my second book in another contest.  In that one, I finished 12th out of 70.  I was pleased.  The comments were good and I felt as though I was improving.  I entered my third book in a third contest and finaled.  I almost fainted.  It was my first draft and by this time, my goal for contests was just to enter for feedback.  I realized with that contest that I was getting closer.  All three first round judges gave me perfect scores and were sure I was going to win the finals.  They were already congratulating me on a great career.  Unfortunately the final judge was interested in dark paranormals instead of lighthearted ones and I finished third, but I still felt great and knew I was on to something.

In short, I tell all beginning authors to enter at least one contest with the understanding that they aren’t going to win.  Enter for the feedback and fun, but don’t enter with your heart on your sleeve.  This is a harsh business. Writers get much more criticism than praise and many more rejections than acceptances.  You’ve got to learn to deal with that if you’re going to survive in the world of publishing.



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