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Contests, a Beginner's Guide


1) Feedback helps you improve your work
2) Finaling gives you a writing credit
3) Entering teaches you to meet deadlines
4) Entering pushes you to do your best work
5) Actually sending it gets your work out there
6) Discover how your work stacks up against others' in your area
7) Get readers' reactions
8) Entering thickens your skin.
9) You can check your critique group's/partner's effectiveness.
10) Your finals w/different mss can get an editor/agent's attention

1) Those who have thin skin and take comments personally.
2) Those who are very sensitive to negative comments to the point it adversely affects their writing. Or makes them stop writing, or switch stories, or.
3) Those who believe a contest win or final means they'll be published.
4) Those who aren't going to change their writing no matter what anyone says anyway.
5) Those who have no feel for their own writing.

Beginners should look for 2 or 3 first round judges, w/o synopsis requirement. You want lots of write-on-the-ms comments to help you improve your work, not just numbers. Your goal at this stage is to get feedback.

After you've gotten consistently good feedback, move on. Middle-stage writers should look for published authors and contests w/synopsis. Again, it's a great way to see how your work compares to others' and how readers will react to your story. You should keep an eye on final judges because you're at the stage where your work might get to them, depending on what the other entries are like. (see below)

When you think you're ready to win, aim for the contest that has the editor/agent you want to get your work in front of (or at least the target market), but don't look at finaling as a sure thing. You still need to get good feedback. Again, look for published authors as judges and contests w/synopsis. You still want to get value for your dollar in case you don't get to the final round judge.

Is the contest a good $ bargain or are you paying $30 for getting 5 pages critiqued? Winning means your writing was the best ENTERED. Make sure your hat still fits after your win. *Not all contests are equal. The most prestigious ones are (in order) Georgia Romance Writers' Maggie; West Houston RW's Emily; and Heart of Denver RW's Molly. If you final in any contest, mention it in your cover letter as a writing credential. If you final multiple times, just say "a finalist in # RWA-chapter contests." However, if it gets to be too high, you look like a contest junkie who enters rather than concentrating on writing.

You understand the Golden Heart is NOT a learning tool.
You're happy with a number score. That's all you get. A few numbers, appointed meaning by your judges. My 3 may be someone's else's 7, and vice versa. The judges are told to assign number scores, but also to decide what those 1-10 means to them. And they should use tenths of points.
You believe you're ready to compete with other works that are good enough to be bought.
You want the prestige of finaling should you actually final.
You understand you still may not get bought even if you final.

Check what you get for your entry fee. Then:
Enter the correct category. Follow the rules. Enclose your check.
If it's a "First Chapter" contest and you can enter a max of 25 pages, but your first chapter ends at 18, figure out how much more of chapter two you can put in there. Make sure you take out 'CHAPTER TWO' from the ms. Just center an * or # and space it.
End your entry with a hook, even if it's a page or so short of the maximum allowed. Do not stop at the page max in the middle of a scene or sentence.
Double check each page. Make sure your pages are all there and all readable.
Send it out, then go back and write.
Don't become an addict. Once you've entered the same ms in enough contests to get a handle on it, MOVE ON. If you want to enter another contest, you need to use a different ms.
Remember, this is a tool. You can improve your writing, get reader responses, jump over the slush pile. BUT winning doesn't = selling.

Look at your scores, skim your remarks. Then SET IT ASIDE. Time will give you some perspective. Give yourself at least 3 days to deal with your emotions. You may need longer.

The worst feedback is the NOT HELPFUL kind. The judges give you 3's out of 5, but don't really have to explain because those aren't bad marks. Remember, this is just a contest, not an emotional attack.

First, say Yippee! because 3's are respectable. Say to yourself, "Next time I'll do better."

This is a learning tool. You may not have gotten the answer you hoped for, but you did get an answer. Go back to your ms.

Another kind is positive feedback. Yea!!! However, after the first euphoria (3 days), you need to examine it. Was this a judge who just couldn't say anything mean? Was this a judge whose own skin was too thin or whose comments indicate she isn't too knowledgeable herself? Or are these genuinely awesome remarks? Yea! However, DO NOT get too full of yourself! It's just a contest, not sainthood. How you handle these (or a final or a win) will say a lot about you.

Then there are the negative remarks. DO NOT take these comments personally. Negative remarks don't mean you can't write.
1) Don't take anything personally! This is about your work.
2) You don't have to change anything you don't want to.
3) Evaluate the remarks. Are they fair and knowledgeable? Has more than one judge pointed out the same aspect of your work? These remarks need to be considered. However, if the remarks are negatively related, you may disregard them totally or in part.

BEFORE you contact the contest coordinator, however, double-check that the judge is in the wrong, not just your bruised ego. You don't want a reputation as a whiner.

There are contests for everything: synopsis, first chapter, first 60 pages, first meeting, sex scene..
Check what you get for your money.
#1 The Maggie (Georgia RW). My personal favorite. Two pubbed authors write excellent, knowledgeable, and for myself, always constructive comments on the ms. No synopsis. Deadline beginning of June. There is no number score. You either final or you don't. But the comments are WAY worth it. $35

#2 The Emily (West Houston). Two authors, usually pubbed, give excellent feedback. October

The Barclay Sterling (Lake Country RW) allows 5 pg synopsis and 60 pg total entry, which means for $30 you can get 55 pages of ms critiqued. Deadline March.

Orange Rose (Orange County RW): 55 page total with synopsis for $30 with pubbed judges. Deadline April Same amount for $35 from Golden Rose (Rose City RW) but w/o pubbed judges. Always know what you're getting.

TARA 1st Impressions contest: finalists get comments back and can revise ms before it's sent to editor/agent final judge. Other contests offer this option-it's worth doing.

There are also contests for Gothic elements, h/h first meet, first kiss, sparks/chemistry/tension, paranormal, query only, etc. There are agent final judges, editor final judges, or both. Or neither, in the case of some with a famous pubbed author as final critiquer.

Excellent websites--
Charlotte Dillon has a fabulous website on many aspects of writing, including contests.

Mia Zachary's webpage on many things, including contests.
NOTE: she now has a disclaimer at the bottom regarding the currency of the information.

Contest resources: The two sites above and the RWR

(c) Megan Kelly, 2006