It's not-so-humble brag time... Okay, I'm really excited - this week I won a RWA writing contest! When I found out I'm not ashamed to admit I danced around the house. If you know me you know why this is funny. Picture a monkey having a seizure; that's me dancing.
Have you ever wondered why you should bother entering contests? They can be costly - especially if you're not winning. They can also be morale crushing experiences. But, get it right and the payoff can be huge!
I know countless writers that have found their agents, gotten publisher interest, or had something result from a contest/pitch-contest that has directly resulted in agenting/publication. The thing is I have not always had great luck with contests - but I have learned heaps on how to approach them!
So here are my suggestions on how to chose the contests that are right for you, avoid disappointment, not waste money, and learn where you might find them.
WHY ENTER - THE REWARDS
If you're going to enter a contest you need to figure out why you're really entering and what you want out of it. There are tons of reasons to enter aside from simply 'winning'.
Get professional feedback - BEST CRITIQUERS EVER
It takes a while to get fabulous critique partners. But nothing beats having a professional look at your work and give you feedback. Contests judges are usually industry professionals (always read contest T&C to see who is judging) and generous enough usually to give comments on their scoring and tips for improvement. I will confess right now that nothing has influenced or improved my writing so much as having those valuable insights. Reason enough for a new writer to enter, even if it's not to win.
Gage where your writing is
I found it impossible to gage my writing initially without professional insight. If you are querying sure you may be getting rejections - a good indication that something needs work. But what? How far away are you? The form letter rejections that writers usually receive do little to shed light. Writing contests (especially RWA) often have an ready-for-an-editor rating where professional judges will provide scoring in terms of how far away they believe you are from publication. Their opinion obviously but valuable. They may also give comments as to why. I once had a judge give me a great tip about the marketability of a particular concept that made me reconsider how I approached my entire MS!
Build your writing credentials
Obvious but important. If you are like me; a relatively new writer, do not have a masters in writing, do not work in the writing/publishing industry, what do you really have to put in that all important bio section of your query? I had 'diddly-squat' that's what!
The thing is thousands of people query agents/publishers and they are looking for professionals. Many don't even accept pages - they go by Query Letter alone! So you have that one page to prove you have what it takes. Having any credentials is a step forward.
Get publisher/agent interest
For me the real prize is not winning a contest. The real prize is getting work in front of the editor it was written for. I know several writers who have won their agents this way. Lots of people get picked from slush-piles but it is easy to get lost in them. Anything that puts your work in a new context or highlights it for an agent/editor to see it has to be a plus.
WHICH TO CHOSE - KNOW YOUR GOAL
Once you know your goal you will be able to make much better decisions and save yourself some time, money and heartache. These are my tips for achieving your goals.
This is what it has all been about isn't it? Getting published. Check judge details on EVERY contest you enter. They vastly vary. This is my most important criteria. Chose the contests that give you a chance to show your stuff to the publishers you want.
This is the same as above. Chose contests that give you the best opportunities. Are judges superstar agents or big six publishers? Better yet is a judge one of your dream agents who you have been too afraid to query? What if you could not only get your work in front of them but have them give you feedback?
If your goal is recognition, you may want to stick to the most credible and perhaps prestigious writing contests. For romance you cannot beat the Golden Heart, but there are other well known contests for other genres. I suggest researching this with your local writers association. There may be reputable National contests depending on where you live. (I'm an Aussie if you didn't notice)
Money can flow both ways in contests. There's the money you fork out to enter and the money that can be won. Personally, I am more concerned with not spending a fortune than winning money. My advice is to enter less but enter smarter. Some contests (readers digest being one) have large monetary prizes. If that is important to you then look at prize details before entering. Usually contest that offer large prizes are huge and competition is fierce so keep that in mind.
HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR CHANCES
Know your Genre
Some contests are open to a variety of Genre's but sway to a particular persuasion. If you want to have the best experience possible and improve your chances of winning try to focus on contests that lean in your favor. Some of the pitch ops I recommend here are fabulous, I have entered them in the past, I know people who have signed agents as a result of them, but I no longer enter. Why? Simply because I did not feel that my work fit in - in fact much of my work being of a romance/erotic nature would be inappropriate in those particular forums. But that one is more my own personal feelings.
Know your Audience
This is as per above. Know whose judging and what they like. This next bit is hard. I learnt the painful way that my 3rd person work received a much more positive reaction from romance judges than 1st. I now only enter my 3rd MS's. I'm not saying that everyone should do this or 1st can't win that is just my experience. The fact is that particular POV styles and tense rub some people the wrong way, or have prevalence in particular genres. For example in YA 1st person is very popular. Your style may sell well but not judge well. Just something to keep in mind of you enter a few contests and don't understand the reactions.
Do not enter every contest ever conceived
This is simple. It will cost a fortune (RWA contests are generally $20-30 per entry), and not all of them will benefit you. Learn to choose wisely. Another reason is it may not be the best idea to continually shove the same MS under the same group of agent/editors noses. You'll likely burn those bridges. I have noticed especially within the Pitch contest circuit it is a similar group that participate regularly. Even if winning I know I want to be a professional writer not a professional contestant - just saying.
HOW TO KEEP YOUR SANITY
There only needs to be one point here. Judges are just people and it is all completely... wait-for-it... subjective! We have all heard that word a billion times but really it's true. I have had published agented judges give me a perfect score, give the most amazing feedback of all time and miss out on finals because to another judge thinks its 'Meh'. They dont like that POV, tense, style, theme, kind of character, the list goes on but we all have personal tastes. Remember that and don't go crazy over other peoples opinion. Do however consider how negative feedback might help you improve.
- My top pick for romance is http://www.stephiesmith.com/contests.html This woman deserves a medal all of her own for maintaining this website. It is the most comprehensive list I have ever seen and is always up-to-date. The best part is most of the RW charter contests now have a YA catagory!! Yay for my Young Adult writer friends.
- The list above does not generally include competitions outside the US so Aussies and New Zealanders keep an eye on http://www.romanceaustralia.com/contests.html and http://www.romancewriters.co.nz/contests/
- SYTYCW (So you think you can write) Mills and Boon http://www.soyouthinkyoucanwrite.com/
- Readers Digest http://www.writersdigest.com/competitions/writers-digest-annual-competition
My picks for Agent Pitch Contents
- http://brenleedrake.blogspot.com.au/ you can't go past Brenda Drake for her Pitch Madness, Pitch Wars etc pitching opportunities. If you write YA or MG fiction this may be of particular interest.
- As the name suggests consider this a matchmaking service for writers and agents but with a fierce competitive element. More like the literary version of 'The Bachelor' Where writers nut it out to win their literary crush. http://cupidslitconnection.blogspot.com.au/
Now most of this boils down to my learned experiences and a dash of common sense, but I remember feeling a little lost in the beginning. Most of all I hope this helps you on your path.
I am happy to maintain this as a list of useful contests so please do comment if you have suggestions and I will add them.