Wednesday, April 27, 2011

3 writing contest landmines to avoid

Let me state for the record that I don’t hate writing contests.

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.


Sarah W said...

I enter the writing contests that don't take a lot of word-count (100-word stories, first lines, first pages, etc.), where the prizes are usually free advance copies, a critique, or boasting rights.

These are just for fun, obviously, and I can quit whenever I want. No, really.

Submitting work for publication is exciting enough for me, thanks . . .

Liz Reinhardt said...

This is such a great time to read this post! Just got back my Golden Heart scores; on my YA I had a full range...from a 9 (highest) to a 3! I know they drop the lowest, but it just made me shake my head that some judges saw my work as perfect or almost so and some saw it as in grave need of attention. A lot of points are for things like mechanics and rule following, which I knew I did well, so how did I get a 3?! Since it's Golden Heart, there isn't feedback other than numbers, but it was very good to remember that some people will fall in love with your stuff and some will pretty much hate it!

LynnRush said...

Isn't that funny how the judges ripped your entry that you'd just sold? That just cracks me up.

IN the beginning, I loved contests. Entered them frequently. Got a few finals and a win here and there. I thrived on the feedback and grew a bunch during that time.

They serve their purpose for sure, but you're right when you mention the contest whore portion. It's hard to stop at one and maybe that money might be better served attending a writing conference??

Pamala Knight said...

Oh Tawna. You are as wise as you are bawdy, yet another reason to love you.

Thank you for this post which soothed my wounded soul. Like Elizabeth, I just received my Golden Heart scores, which if they're to be believed, I suck. Not that I'm disputing that possibility, but like you, I've had some early round success with the very same manuscript. So, I gave myself a day to brood, then got over it and got back to work--rewriting, editing and trying to be a better wordsmith.

Thanks again. Cheers to you!

Linda G. said...

It's all so subjective, isn't it? Yet another reason to make sure you have crit partners who are in tune with you and your process.

The only writing contest I ever entered was one for the "worst poem ever." I, um, won. ;)

Michelle Wolfson said...

Having only judged writing contests and never entered, I agree with everything Tawna said about ignoring whatever the judges said since we're clearly idiots, unless of course we loved your work, in which case we're geniuses.

You probably think I don't mean this, but I swear I do.

Also, I pay very little attention to most contests (except perhaps a Golden Heart but keep in mind I'll never know if they scored you low) in your query.

Matthew MacNish said...

Technically it wasn't a contest, but when I "won" that tandem crit from you and Cynthia in Candace's "contest" it was one of the best things to ever happen to me and my writing.

Other than that I don't get involved. I just don't have time.

Laura Maylene said...

I enjoy entering contests but recognize that they are imperfect.

Overall, though, I couldn't be happier with where contests have gotten me. By winning a collection contest last year, I will see my first book published this fall. And to think I almost didn't enter!

Caryn said...

Thank you for this. It's exactly what I needed this morning. I just got back results from a contest and, as usual, I got two spectacular scores and one abysmal one. That *always* happens, and it's so frustrating: two people loved my book, and one hated it (or just didn't get it).

I enter contests for the feedback and the chance to final (so my entry gets before an agent/editor, and I can mention my final in my query letter), but scores like the ones I get don't earn you a final, and the feedback is usually pretty spotty (many judges don't comment at all). Like you, I've also had several comments that were outright incorrect or wildly different from what every single other person has said, that it's hard to take anything that judge says seriously.

No more contests. Really. Seriously. I've spent enough time, money, and emotion on the few I've entered.

Sarah Tokeley said...

I'm just about to submit my entry for my first contest, and from the amount of time it took away from my WiP it will probably be my last.

Unless, of course, I win :)

Writer Pat Newcombe said...

Sorry but I have to say that I do indeed hate contests!I entered a few early on in my writing career but was so unimpressed by the feedback (and after reading the entries that won, unimpressed by the winners themselves!)Maybe I just entered the wrong contests or my writing just didn't fit but wasting hard earned cash on dubious feedback felt wrong. Or perhaps I'm just an old stick in the mud!

Patty Blount said...

Like Elizabeth, I just got my Golden Heart scores for SEND and the results were the same - highs and lows. I conclude judging a book is just like reading it. Some people will love it and others won't. All in all, some contests just aren't worth the effort.

tfwolfe said...

I've entered four different contests with three different manuscripts. I was a finalist three times, and won once. The judging editor (from a house that won't take queries from unagented authors) requested my manuscript. I emailed it right away. Then I heard nothing. I contacted her after eight months, and she asked me to resend because she'd lost the manuscript. Another eight months later I emailed her again. That was back on March 2 of this year and she hasn't responded. So what did I win, exactly?

Neurotic Workaholic said...

This is all great advice, and it helps me since I just started sending my stuff out to literary magazines and writing contests last year. I haven't entered as many writing contests as I would have liked, though, partly because like you said, they're a lot of work. Another reason is that a lot of them require an entry fee that I can't always afford. Sometimes you get something in return for that fee, like a subscription to a lit mag if the lit mag itself is hosting the contest. But other times you could pay money and not get anything except for the opportunity to enter the contest. That would be okay if it wasn't for the fact that I have to watch my money carefully, which is why I'm very choosy about which contests I enter.

Anonymous said...

I have entered writing contests. Not every single one, but enough. Like you say, it's hard to resist just one. In some ways, they feel more accessible to me than general submissions. I wouldn't say I'm completely guilty of your number one landmine...but I have spent more time rewriting and editing contest submissions than I have my novel.


Who am I kidding. I'm guilty of falling into all three of those landmines.

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

The only contest I've entered was an obligatory essay contest when I was in fifth or sixth grade. The topic was brotherhood, and though I didn't win, afterwards, two of the judges said they'd liked my essay the best, but couldn't vote for it because my outside-the-box approach wasn't what the contest sponsors were looking for or expected.

Mary Kate Leahy said...

Very helpful post. I've actually never entered a contest but I am interested in doing a few for experience and feedback. I think it is sometimes a good thing to go through some hard knocks but the author who told you that about her beta reader = genius :)

Anonymous said...

Let me know which contest you're judging next, Ms. Soft Hands. I'll be sure to send in an entry.

(That wasn't a pickup line, fyi. I've got better ones than that anyway.)


Debra Lynn Lazar said...

Never been a big fan, although I won one once. It was on a "famous" author's website and it made my day. Also, I got some type of honorable mention on one of Janet Reid's contests which, of course, I framed and put on the wall above my bed next to the (very) large mirror.