Confessions of a Contest Slut

Virginia Kantra

I confess: When I pack for the RWA National conference, I load my name badge with enough contest ribbons and medals to create holes in my suits and a crick in my neck from the weight. I step into the conference hotel elevator with enough bling to rival the military dictator of a small Third World country.

But aside from the once-a-year pleasure of attracting glances to my otherwise negligible chest, why do I enter contests? Do contests for unpublished and published writers really do any good?

The truth is nobody needs contests to sell. Operated as fundraisers by sponsoring chapters, contests are simply opportunities to have your work evaluated by judges who don't know you. Before you pay your money and take your chances, you should understand what factors to consider in choosing contests and what contests can—and cannot—do for you at each stage of your career.

For the beginning writer, contests are primarily a learning tool. Contests give you practice getting the picky stuff right: to format correctly, to meet deadlines, to print clean copies, to mail your manuscript with a minimum of packaging.

Contests provide critiques by (mostly) qualified judges. If you work alone, this feedback can be vital to your development as a writer. If you use a critique partner or group, contests can help you assess their suggestions. At best, contests provide needed validation in a tough business. They can also teach you to respond constructively to criticism and even outright rejection. Contests won’t, however, sell your book.

Factors to consider in choosing contests:

1. Length of entry

Longer is better. Proposal length (two chapters plus synopsis) is ideal.

2. Critique by qualified judges

Enter contests with detailed score sheets or that encourage judges to write directly on the manuscript. If you want feedback from published authors, enter contests with published judges.

3. Deadline

Can you meet it? Will you get feedback in time for the Golden Heart?

4. Budget

Compared to piano lessons for the kids or the cost of graduate school, contests can be a bargain. But don't get sucked into entering more than meet your needs.

For the intermediate writer, contests are both a learning tool and a marketing tool. Be responsive if multiple judges target the same problems in your manuscript. Contests can polish your MS before it gets into the hands of editors. But don’t let the sheen of sameness extinguish the spark in your story!

Use contests to try out new story ideas before investing a full year and 400 pages on an idea that won't fly or that could fly if only your heroine weren't a six-armed lesbian telepath from another galaxy. (Caution: Next year editors may be clamoring for romances featuring multi-armed lesbian telepaths, in which case all the judges who assured you lesbian aliens were a tough sell were wrong, wrong, wrong.)

At this stage, you may final in and even win a few contests. Use these contest credentials in your query letters, and be sure to let editors know when a MS sitting on their desks is a contest finalist. Getting a final round read from an editor or agent can help identify which ones to target or avoid. (“Editor X hates stories with alien telepaths.” “Agent Y loves my voice.”)

Contest placements may result in requests or give you priority scheduling editor/agent appointments. Placing in contests with different final round judges basically allows you to submit the same manuscript to multiple publishing houses. Announcements of finalists and winners in RWR can provide you with pre-publicity and develop your name recognition. You may even win jewelry!

But contests can’t, at this stage, sell your book.

Additional factors to consider in choosing a contest:

1. Visibility in the industry

How old is the contest? How big is the sponsoring chapter? Are the finalists/winner publicized in RWR? (TIP: Once a manuscript has been in the final round of the Golden Heart, retire it from the circuit and use your contest budget to support a new project.)

2. Who is judging the final round? You want an editor you’re actually targeting, not someone who's already rejected this project.

For the published writer, contests are all about promoting yourself and your work. Winning the RITA won't catapult you on the Times list or even guarantee your next contract. But contests can be a cost-effective promotional tool. Target high-profile contests judged by book buyers and sellers who may not otherwise pick up your books.

Factors to consider:

1. Geographic area

Will this contest reach readers/buyers/judges in a fresh market?

2. Publicity

Are finalists/winners advertised (e.g., in RWR)? Do you see this contest cited on book covers or in other authors' bios? Are the books displayed/available for sale at a regional or national conference?

For a listing of contests in an easy-to-use chart format, you may want to check out Stephie Smith's Contest Guide for romance writers.

At every level, contests are a crap shoot. Only you can decide if the gamble is worth the entry fees. But by choosing and using contests wisely, you can develop your craft and promote your work. That makes you a winner in my book!

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