Well, if your email inbox looks like mine, you know it’s contest season! I don’t know if other groups are the same, but the RWA and it local affiliates do a lot of successful fundraising via writing contests, and if you’re brave enough to enter, you can benefit, too.
So, should you enter a contest?
If you mean, “should I dash something off in the next few days, kind of proof it, send it in, then sit back and wait for the accolades,” then my answer is “Don’t bother.” But if you have a solid piece of writing from your WIP (“work in progress”) and would like some constructive feedback, then, by all means, format that baby and press “send.” Likewise, if your WIP is finished (or nearly so), in revisions or revised, and you’re ready to query agents, give it a go.
In the RWA, writing contests serve two valuable purposes. For the beginning writer, a good contest provides valuable feedback from (hopefully) thoughtful, conscientious judges. In the first round, many of your judges may not be published. Don’t let this bother you. They may still be more experienced writers, and even if they’re not, they ARE your future readers. If your entry doesn’t grab them, chances are it’s not going to fly off the shelves.
If you’re further along and ready to query or submit, a final or a win–particularly in a contest with a good reputation–will be a point in your favor. And let’s not forget that many of the final contest judges are editors and agents–the very people whose eyes you’re trying to catch.
Are there pitfalls to contests? Sure. One is the danger of becoming a “contest slut”; that is, a writer who enters contest after contest, never getting beyond those first 35 or 50 pages-plus-synopsis. You’ll also need to learn how to evaluate criticism. No matter how great your judges are, they’re not going to catch everything, and some of the things they do catch may not be actual problems, just matters of personal taste. One rule of thumb that helps me is to think that, if more than one judge comments on the same topic, it must be a concern. For example, I’m not someone who gets hooked on sensory detail. If it’s there, fine; if not, that’s ok–I’m more interested in the heroine’s thought processes. However, in one contest I entered, every judge commented on my lack of sensory description, and I lost points because of it; obviously my future readers wanted to know what that hospital room smelled like, or how the hero’s wool sport coat scratched….
Every once in awhile, you may get a “mean judge.” This is rare, but if you enter enough contests, it will happen. Sometimes, of course, the judge isn’t mean, just forthright. At other times, you’re right to be offended. So say it with me now: “Let it roll.” Gripe to your spouse, your friend, or your mother, but do so privately, and never in a blog, email loop, FB or twitter. Never, EVER contact the judge. As writers, we all know we need to develop thicker skins, and this is your chance. One day, that nasty comment may come from an RT review, Amazon or even PW or the Times, and there are horrible instructive examples of what happens when you take on reviewers at the professional level. Don’t bring teh crazy. It stings, but you can take it, right?
So sift through those e-mails and find a contest that fits. Polish, format, and sweat through the wait. Then let us know what happened! Got a contest story or advice? Leave it in the comments!