I’d never thought much about contests until I became a writer and joined RWA (Romance Writers of America). Almost immediately, I started receiving notices from various RWA chapters about their contests. They had cool names and promised great things, and hey, I love receiving praise and kudos as much as the next person. So, they all looked very tempting, but I was also on a budget and they all cost money.
So, which ones did I enter???
Here’s what I figured out: I needed to know what I wanted from the contest first. Of course, my overall goal was to be a successful, published author. So I needed to figure out how the contest could contribute to that goal.
Feedback on My Writing: This is where I started my relationship with writing contests. As a newbie writer, I was desperate for some unbiased feedback on my writing. For as little as $25, I could enter the first ~5000 to 7000 words of my manuscript into a RWA chapter contest and get written feedback from several published writers. While not all judge’s feedback was in depth, in general, this was a great deal. If this is your goal, look for contests that promise good written feedback from first round judges.
Snagging an Agent’s or Editor’s Attention: Once I had a strong manuscript that I felt reasonably confident could make it to the final round, I started looking for contests with final round judges that lined up with my career goals. For instance, I wanted an agent and a traditional publishing deal. So, a contest with an editor from a small press as the final judge was not a great fit. On the other hand, if the final judge was my dream agent who normally had a 3 to 4 month response time on his/her slush pile, the contest was an opportunity to possibly snag a request for a full manuscript.
Recognition: I feel like prestige or recognition is always a factor in contests. Being a finalist in or winning a contest is something you can add to the bio paragraph in your query letter, to your website or author signature. I’m not sure how much agents pay attention to this, but if you’re querying a manuscript that’s already won two or three contests, I suspect they might take a closer look at your story. If this is a factor for you, you may want to consider the overall profile of a contest, but also the number of submissions. If a contest is low in submissions in your category, it might be a good chance to final.
Marketing and Promotion: As a debut author, my interest in contests has shifted. For the first time, I have the opportunity to submit my novel to contests for published authors. Maybe it's because it’s the first time I’ve been eligible, but I’ve gone a little crazy this year. It’s too early in the process to see if it pays off, but my goal is to increase the visibility of my book. With this is mind, I’ve focused on contests with librarians, book bloggers or book buyers as judges, as they are likely to have a wider audience and reach when it comes to book recommendations.
Increased Social Media Presence: If you’re looking to increase your presence on Twitter or Facebook than you should consider writing contests with large social media components, like “Pitch Wars”. I found Pitch Wars a few years back. It’s a contest organized by Brenda Drake where hopefuls pitch their manuscripts to potential mentors in a similar way to pitching an agent. Each mentor chooses one manuscript and has a couple of months to help polish that book and get it ready for the final agent round. So winning a spot in this contest gets you a dedicated mentor to help polish your book and increased chances of getting that manuscript in front of an interested agent. But this is only part of the benefits. Throughout the various stages of Pitch Wars, there are opportunities to interact with a larger writing community. You can find other writers, potential critique partners and authors/writers who will help support and encourage you. While I was not successful in getting a mentor through Pitch Wars, I did find my editor at Entangled Teen through Brenda Drake’s online pitch party (#pitmad). Also, I’m thrilled to say that I’ll be a Pitch Wars mentor this year! Yay!
So you may have noticed that I didn’t include validation as a reason for entering a contest. This is deliberate, because having served as a judge in several contests I can tell you thing for certain: while being a finalist or a winner in a contest means that you have likely written something really good, the opposite is NOT true.
There are so many reason why truly stellar books may not final: your judge may have been asked to judge a genre they don’t love, your judge may have had the day from hell, your judge may be a harsher judge than other judges, or your judge may have some personal reason for reacting less than favorably toward your submission (like the hero shares the same name as their ex-husband who cheated on them). None of these seem like particularly fair things to be judged on. They’re not. Judges try to be impartial, but they’re still human and placing a score on a piece of writing is a subjective exercise. Just think of all the books you’ve read and how there is often something intangible that draws you into a book, even when other friends may have disliked it.
So all of this is to say: don’t rely on contests for validation of your writing.
If you do, you’re being unfair to your own talents and you’ll be setting yourself up for heartbreak.
Instead, make contests work for you. They are an investment of time, energy and money. So, go into them with a clear idea of how they can contribute to your goal of becoming a successful author.