I received a question today that I don't think I've ever addressed on this blog: What about contests? Do they offer any value to an aspiring author?
I'm not talking about the large, prestigious literary contests; I'm talking about small, regional, genre-specific contests.
The question of contests probably applies mostly to romance writers, although there are contests for other genres such as mystery and sci-fi.
If you're not familiar with RWA, you should understand that almost every one of its 144 chapters has its own little contest. It's mostly a fund-raising event for the chapters. Each entry usually costs the entrant somewhere between $25 and $50, depending on whether s/he is a member of that chapter and depending upon the prestige of the specific contest.
I have a pretty cynical attitude toward these competitions, but I'm going to focus on the pluses and minuses for writers.
I can name four reasons why a writer might enter a contest:
4) Networking Potential
Of the four reasons I've listed above, the only one that ever mattered to me was #4, the opportunity to get my work in front of an editor or agent who was judging the competition.
There are only a couple of contests that carry substantial prestige. Many agents and editors are not particularly impressed by contest wins. Some openly admit that, when they are judging contests, it's more a question of the least bad entry rather than the best one.
If you are looking for feedback, be sure to check who will be judging the entries. At a minimum you want a judge who writes in your genre. Obviously, it is helpful if the judge is a published writer in your genre. What I've found is that many contests make no guarantees of either. Some contests promise that one of the three judges that will read your entry will be published--not necessarily in your genre.
I entered my first RWA contest in the spring of 2005 with my first erotic romance. Not having any experience, I didn't check to be sure that the judges in my category would be writers in my genre. They weren't. As the result, I got a feedback sheet from one judge who said she was "offended" by my entry.
I was fortunate in that I had already gotten very supportive feedback on that story from my mentor, Jan Springer, and from the Brazen Hussies, a group of women who had all taken a class with Jan. Otherwise, I might have packed it in and never written another erotic romance. The experience taught me a lesson.
As far as prizes go, most contests do not offer substantial rewards. A few provide conference fees or a cash prize that covers the cost of your entry. Most award a certificate.
And that brings us to the real reason for entering a contest IMHO: the opportunity to network and to get your manuscript seen.
When I see a contest notice, I ignore everything but who the final judges are. If you believe you have a good manuscript, one worthy of publication, the entrance fee may be a small price if it gets you moved out of the slush pile.
In 2005, I entered five contests (two were not RWA-sponsored). Of those five, I won first place twice and second place twice (the fifth contest was the one in which I offended one of the early round judges).
Here are my suggestions if you are considering a contest:
1) MOST IMPORTANTLY, check the final round judge. Do not even consider entering unless the judge is an agent or editor whom you would like to have read your manuscript
2) Make sure your genre is represented and make sure the early round judges write in your genre
3) Get a copy of the scoring sheet that will be used to judge the contest. If it isn't included on the contest website, email the contest coordinator for your genre and request a copy. I never had any trouble in obtaining a scoring sheet
4) Make sure your manuscript fits the parameters of the scoring sheet. As an example, if the contest calls for submitting the first five pages of your manuscript and the scoring sheet includes an emphasis on the meeting between your hero and heroine, make sure your hero and heroine actually MEET in the first five pages
5) I always preferred contests that asked for more pages--fifteen to thirty were my favorites
6) Read and follow the rules. I know this sounds simplistic, but lots of entries are bounced for not following the rules. Things like removing your name from the manuscript pages (to insure anonymity), sending the correct number of copies, and signing any waivers requested are important. Follow the rules
7) Proofread and proofread again. These contests take points off for grammatical errors and misspellings. How will you feel if you learn later that you missed first place because you typed "there" when you meant to type "their"? Have a friend proofread your entry if you must, but proofread it