Is that like starting a conversation with, “no offense, but—” which pretty much ensures whatever you say next is going to piss someone off?
Well, I don’t. Hate contests, that is. It’s possible what I have to say about them is going to piss someone off, and I do apologize for that.
I’ve been playing the fiction writing game for almost nine years, and I’ve been around writing contests a lot. I’ve judged, I’ve entered, and I’ve offered moral support to contest loving pals by drinking large quantities of wine on their behalf.
While writing contests can offer excellent things like the promise of feedback and the hope of a career jumpstart from a win, there are a few contest landmines you’d be wise to watch for:
Becoming a contest whore
Entering a contest is a bit like drinking a glass of Chianti – it’s tough to stop at just one. I’ve watched countless writers start with a tentative toe-dip in the contest pool and end up ripping off their clothes to dive headfirst into a drunken, chlorine-infused orgy. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but there’s a high risk that entering contests can become your entire focus — instead of, oh, say FINISHING A BOOK.
There’s an art to getting a contest entry just right. You make sure the synopsis is properly formatted and those first few chapters have perfect pacing. Many contest fans get it down to a science and rack up contest placements like girl scout badges. But the risk here is that you lose (or never fully develop) the ability to carry a story past those first 100 pages. If you do decide to enter contests, don’t lose sight of your ultimate goal — writing the best book possible, not just the best contest entry.
I’ll admit I’ve judged more contests than I’ve entered, which probably makes me a judgmental bitch. My one experience entering a fiction writing contest happened in 2005. I won’t name the contest, except to say that it was a well-regarded one in my genre. I submitted my entry and
stalked my mailman until he got a restraining order against me waited patiently for the results. While I waited, I got THE CALL from Harlequin/Silhouette saying they’d like to buy the book for their Bombshell line of action/adventure novels. Suffice it to say, I was thrilled. I forgot about the contest until the results arrived in the mail — incidentally, the same week my advance check showed up.
The judges were not impressed by me. One questioned my research (something I found laughable since, if anything, the book was over-researched). Another judge just didn’t fall in love with my heroine and also attempted to make a point-of-view correction that was just plain wrong. Overall, the results could best be described as lukewarm. My entry was not chosen for the final round where — ironically — it would have had the opportunity to be judged by an editor from Harlequin/Silhouette.
It behooves us all to remember that contest judges don’t know everything. I say that having been one, and knowing I’ll certainly be one again. Learning to trust yourself is one of the toughest things a new author can do, so be wary of anything with the potential to derail that learning process. Judges' comments can be useful, but they should also be taken with a grain of salt (preferably on the rim of a margarita glass).
Crushing your fragile ego
Constructive criticism is as vital to the writing process as heavy petting is to any good game of hide the salami. But there’s a time and a place for it.
A New York Times bestselling author once told me that during her early stages of any manuscript, she deliberately uses a beta reader who will do nothing but gush with praise. I laughed when she told me that, and then decided she’s the smartest person I know. She’s wise enough — and experienced enough — to realize exactly what she needs at different stages in her writing process.
I tend to prefer having trusted critique partners beat the holy living crap out of me pretty early in my drafts. Even so, I treasure their gems of positive feedback as a big part of what keeps me going. I know what I need and my author friend knows what she needs, and they aren’t the same thing.
Hurling yourself at the doors of the publishing industry is a brutal process, and it takes time to learn your own capacity for rejection and negative feedback. If there’s a chance that a savage beating from a contest judge will kill your desire to keep writing, don’t risk it. Check out books on writing craft. Join a critique group and ask them to go easy at first. While you shouldn’t shy away from constructive criticism, you also shouldn’t go chasing after it if you aren’t certain of your own ability to handle it at this stage in your process.
Are you a fan of writing contests? What sort of experiences have you had with them? Please share!
And rest assured that if you ever enter a contest I’m judging, I am a gentle lover who doles out ample praise with bits of heartfelt honesty. I also have soft hands.