Contests: To enter or not to enter

I entered several contests this spring, partly because I wanted all the feedback I can get before entering the Golden Heart, and partly for the chance of getting my entry in front of agents and authors. I’ve now won two contests (Between the Sheets, and the single-title category of Ignite the Flame) and came second in the Break-up contest. I also just found out I’m a finalist in the Toronto Gold contest (single-title category).

Here’s what I’ve learned about the pros and cons:

1) Feedback is inconsistent – both in the sense that people will react completely differently to your writing and in how much feedback they give.

One of my crit partners recently came 12th in a contest with the exact same pages that have just netted her an amazing agent. Why did she get such a low score in that contest? Because a single judge took exception to her use of semicolons. Yes, the judge went so far as to suggest she take a class on semicolons and gave her a ridiculously low score, even though she said she loved the story. Now that’s a bad contest experience.

2) Negative feedback can be the most positive.

A “This entry is fantastic and I can’t wait to have it on my bookshelf” is always heartening to read, but I know my writing isn’t perfect and I’d genuinely like to know how to make it better. In my Toronto Gold feedback, I got scores from three judges – a 92, 90, and 71. The only one I printed out was the 71 because she gave fantastic, constructive feedback, almost all of which I’ve incorporated to make my opening pages stronger. Whoever you are, Toronto Gold judge, I really appreciate it.

3) You have to be able to distance yourself enough to take criticism on the chin.

If you’re insecure about your writing, contests may not be good for you. Many judges are good at giving constructive criticism, but some aren’t (I’ve even run into a judge who make compliments sound like insults). When you see consistent themes in the feedback, it’s helpful. It can also help you identify your strengths so you start your novel with those instead of your weaknesses. Been told you’re great with dialogue but not so much with action scenes? Start with dialogue to draw the reader in. But if you get precious about your work and dismiss any criticism out of hand, then you’ve wasted your money.

4) Getting your work in front of agents and editors can actually be disappointing.

I’m not complaining about editors/agents because I know they judge contests so they can find the best of the best, not so they can help me improve as a writer. Writers often enter contests thinking it’ll be great exposure and I think it can be. But if you’re hoping for notes from an editor on how you could make your work even better, or expecting that they’ll request to see more, you’ll probably be disappointed.

5) Contests give you great deadlines and something to look forward to.

As an unpubbed writer, I set my own deadlines. When they are completely self-imposed, it can be easy to ignore them. But when it’s an unmovable deadline (like: “Polish my first 30 pages and synopsis by X date so I can enter Y contest”) then it’s easier to tell myself and my husband that I have to spend time working on my writing. And whenever the deadline is approaching for a contest to announce finalists, I get really excited and keep checking my email. I’ve had a difficult summer, personally, and a rolling set of contest announcements has really kept me going.

I never meant to become a contest whore, as my crit partners jokingly call me (thought it doesn’t seem quite right since I’m the one paying). But I’ve had a great time and learned a lot from the contests I’ve entered. I’m also keeping a spreadsheet of my impressions of each contest (like: “Misspelled my name on the certificate”) so I know which ones to re-enter next year.

Assuming I’m not published, of course.

What are your thoughts on entering contests? Have you had any big wins? Any big disappointments?


  1. Great post. My thoughts: I’ve always found that unpubbed judges are much harder and pickier than pubbed judges. They tend to dwell on inconsequentials and miss the big picture (i.e that semi-colon foolishness). Also, a good contest coordinator should catch such inconsistent judging and have another read then throw out the lowest. Doesn’t always happen, however. All in all, though, most of my contest feedback was helpful, although a few went immediately into the garbage. As for getting your stuff before an agent/editor–I’ve gotten requests from both through contests, and they were incredibly slow to respond (13 months on one, and who knows on another). So that was disappointing. However, when I started querying agents, I included a list of contests finaled/won, and apparently that was a deciding factor in getting my stuff read in a timely manner. I believe the quote was…”Well, it’s won some contests, so it can’t be totally terrible.” And that’s the agency who now represents me. So in that way, the contests really benefitted me. However, if they aren’t credible contests, it might not help to list them…but anything that has a national draw could help. As for the GH, I’ve heard that the judging is very inconsistent. I know someone who has finaled twice and never sold or found an agent. I never got above the top 25%, but have sold six–so who knows? I think it didn’t help that my stuff wasn’t “traditional” romance, but was a little darker and grittier than most. So if you’re writing/plot/character are skewed at all, GH might not be a good bet–and making the finals is certainly no guarantee of sales. (It’s also an expensive contest with no feedback). But whatever works for you. That’s my two cents.

    1. I’ve found that unpubbed judges are more critical of the little things, too, Kaki. I think a lot of us unpubbed writers have The Rules engraved in our heads (never do this, never do that) so those are the things that stick out when we’re reading someone else’s writing. As with your novels, sometimes breaking, bending, twisting, or gouging those rules makes your story stronger.

  2. Hey, I just saw on Twitter that you finaled yet again (Lone Star)–you’re doing great! Now start querying so you get published and I can start pimping you!

  3. I met some wonderful people when I was a member of RWA, but I feel it’s only fair that I speak my mind about the writing contest that I entered last spring. I am a professional writer. My work has appeared in Good Housekeeping, True Story, True Confessions, and several other publications. I am new to the romance field and if a judge had told me that my story really didn’t fit romance writing, I would have been okay with it. But the feedback suggested that I couldn’t write at all. My characters were off and she went so far as to stereotype about Latinos which I found insulting. The problem was not a matter of opinion, the problem was that the judges (there were only two instead of the three promised) were unqualified to judge a contest. I lost about $65 on the deal. I might as well have thrown the money out the window. When I approached the lady who ran the contest, I was accused of cyber-bullying and so was another contestant that complained. The woman I e-mailed on the national level acted like a total bitch and that’s when I quit RWA. In my view, they don’t deserve the credibility they have. I’d rather never get a book published than put up with that baloney.

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