Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Why Enter Writing Contests?

My romance writer's chapter, Rose City Romance Writers, recently completed our Golden Rose Contest.  Finalists have been announced and will have their manuscripts sent on to agents and editors who have agreed to be final round judges.  In the 8 years I've been a member of the chapter, I've always judged in this contest. Many years I've also been some type of coordinator for the contest, usually a category coordinator. I can honestly say that both entering and judging are important milestones in an author's career. Today I'm talking about why an aspiring author should enter writing contests. The next blog will cover why anyone would want to judge a contest.

Before I was published, I also entered my manuscripts in the Golden Rose contest and in other RWA chapter contests.  The feedback I received from contests, along with being a part of good critique groups and attending workshops, was invaluable to my learning process and to finally getting a publishing contract.  Was all the feedback spectacular? No.  But enough of it was meaningful to make a difference in my understanding of my writing, my process, and how to improve.

I'm constantly surprised by the number of writers who tell me they have NEVER shown their novel chapters to anyone before submitting to an agent or editor. Then they are shocked when they get a rejection. Some writers choose this path because they honestly believe they know everything, particularly if they studied writing or journalism in school or have published in local papers. Others don't share their writing because they are truly afraid that someone they care about or admire will tell them it's crap.  If someone tells you your writing is worthless, don't believe them and don't give up. Find someone else to read for you.  NO WRITING IS WORTHLESS!  All writers begin somewhere and with the willingness to learn, you can improve quickly.

You absolutely MUST share your work to get objective feedback.  Only rarely can you count on your mother, sister, friend, or spouse to provide this to you--even if that person is a writer. The reality is that someone who knows you well and loves you will always give you the benefit of the doubt when looking at your book. A contest judge not only doesn't know you, but isn't even allowed to see your name. Melissa Donavon on her Writing Forward blog gives some priceless advice about gracefully accepting critique.

Contests do cost money, ranging from $15-$35 depending on the number of pages you submit, and let's face it most writers don't have a lot of extra dollars to spread around. The primary reason to enter contests is to get an unbiased view of your work from people who don't know you, people who are writing and reading in your genre.  If you are a romance writer, you have a large choice of RWA Chapter-sponsored contests to enter.  These contests judge query letters, synopses, the first ten pages, first chapters, and up to 50 pages.  Where you are in your writing process and where you feel most vulnerable should be a guide to which contest(s) to enter. Personally, I like the 50 pages and synopsis contests because it gives your book more of an opportunity to display your approach, style, and to overcome initial first chapter difficulties.  However, fewer pages are more prevalent in contest opportunities, and it is true that most novels are judged by agents and editors within the first five to ten pages. So, it is definitely important to get those exactly right in order to entice someone to read further.

Most chapter contests include both published and unpublished judges. Good chapter contests make sure all the judges receive some training in order to get some semblance of inter-rater reliability.  My experience with RWA chapter contests has been that chapters take judging and mentoring very seriously. I think it would be hard to enter a contest and have a completely horrific experience.

I've heard people say: "Why should I care what an unpublished judge says about my writing?"  I've learned just as much from unpublished writers as published writers when in comes to craft. You never know who is a talented teacher.  Though published judges have a certain knowledge of how they write and what worked best to help them sell, not all of them are great at identifying what's working and what's not working in someone else's manuscript. Having coordinated the Golden Rose in the past, I can tell you that some unpublished judges are amazing in their ability to identify and articulate problems and solutions.   In other words, listen to ALL feedback and then see which ones ring true for you. Also look for consistencies in statements across judges and act on them.  If two or more judges say similar things about your writing, it is likely that is an area for improvement. Most contests make sure that at least one published author judges each manuscript.

If you are entering contests ONLY to make it to the finals and get that read by an editor or agent, I would tell you that is not enough reason to enter. The percentage of final round judges requesting a manuscript is about the same as the percentage if you send it to them directly. The percentage of final round judges who then acquire the manuscript (or agree to represent you) after the request is also about the same percentage if you send it to them directly. In other words, if you are going to ignore feedback and spend money for a chance to get in front of the final judges, then you are wasting your money. Simply send it to them directly.  However, if you truly want to learn what is good and what needs improvement in your writing, and be reinforced that your writing is good enough to make it to the finals, then it is worthwhile. $35 is a small price to pay for two or three good people to provide direct feedback on a manuscript.

Do people ever sell from a contest? Yes. Do people ever get representation from a contest? Yes. Rose City Romance Writer Jessa Slade found her agent when she won the Golden Rose contest, and a year later sold her first book. She now has six books published and others under contract. However, Jessa's experience is not the norm, and when a contest garners a sold book to an editor or representation by an agent it is usually not the first contest that author has entered. The writer has learned from writing many manuscripts, from engaging regularly with feedback from contests and/or workshops, and from building a thick skin in relationship to accepting critiques of their work.

Like all learning, writing a good novel is a process. Some people go through that process very quickly.  Others take longer. Even though I'd successfully sold fiction short stories in SF and Romance to several literary and commercial magazines, and later published three non-fiction books at a major NY publisher, it still took me writing eight novels and six years to sell my first novel. Yes, I could write decent prose and had a good sense of story, but I had to learn more about the nuances of writing the novel and what commercial fiction requires. I had to learn about structure and description and tension and character arc and so many other things that were different for writing a good novel. In addition to the regular butt-in-the-chair-hands-on-the-keyboard discipline, it was critique groups and contest entries and lots of rewriting that garnered my first sale. As well as a well-earned thick skin for rejection letters. It wasn't until I was regularly able to final in contests and occasionally win that I then began getting more traction with submissions. But even after winning contests in 2007 and 2008, it was still late 2010 before I sold my first novel and 2011 before my first book came out.

Multi-published historical romance writer, Delilah Marvelle, shared with me that she had written over 30 novels before selling her first book. She admitted that she wrote fast and moved on, but also didn't take the time to seek good critique and learn from those early attempts. It wasn't until later when she buckled down and focused on craft and story structure that she began to write novels that could sell. Now she has 10 novels published and three more scheduled for release.

 Kristina McMorris, contest queen extraordinare and happy published author of two books with more on the way, also learned from entering contests and developing a thick skin for rejection. Here's Kristina's take on revision. "I can’t tell you how grateful I am that the first draft of my debut, Letters from Home, didn’t sell to a publisher. Looking back, I like to think I always had a worthy premise (i.e. a personal tale I wanted to put on paper), but through revision after revision, I learned how to tell that story better, ultimately with great care and consideration for its intended audience." After learning more about her craft, and editing and rewriting, Kristina began to final regularly in contests, including twice in the Golden Heart--RWA's national contest for unpublished romance writers. Even with contest finals and wins, and having agent representation (it was her third agent that finally sold the book), it took her a total of three years to sell her first book, Letters from Home. Now her second book, Bridge of Scarlett Leaves is also out and she is scheduling more amazing women's fiction for her readers.

Happy writing! With hard work, listening to critiques, getting feedback from contests in your genre, and editing as you improve your craft, these success stories could be yours too.

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