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Article, Rolling The Dice

Getting the most out of writing contests

So youíve written the opening scene to your book, and you think itís great. Maybe you donít have access to anyone to give you feedback, such as a critique group. Youíre considering sending what youíve written out into the wild world of contests. After putting more than a dozen contests under my belt, Iíve got some advice for you.

Ya pays yer money and ya takes yer chances.
Contests are a crapshoot. So many factors affect your scores and they are impossible for you to predict or control. Add to that choosing between the different contests offered by RWA chapters around the country, and you really are playing the odds.

Let me say up front that Iím in favor of contests. A win may give you the edge in your queries to some agents and editors, who consider the contest circuit to be a screening device. An evaluation from an unbiased writer can give you a new slant on your work. Contests can play an important part in a developing writerís progress ó if they are kept in perspective. Keep your goals in mind when deciding which contest to enter. (See back panel.)

Timing is everything. Pay attention to the schedule. You want to have time to prepare your entry without being rushed. Hasty preparation can result in overlooking the fact that your margins donít conform to the guidelines, or that correction of a typo caused repagination, extending the last line onto an extra page. This could disqualify you or shut you out of the finals.

Consider what else will be going on at that point in your life. If you want to use contest feedback to spruce up your entry for the Golden Heart competition, be sure the schedule will return your entry to you with enough time to make the changes. Rewrites can become complex and eat up time, especially around the holidays when we all have so little time to spare.

Make sure your entry is appropriate for the contest. If the entry is a short opening scene, youíre wasting your money if your hero and heroine donít met in those few pages. You might rewrite your opening to get them together sooner and see how you and the judges like it! Contests are a great place to try something new. The judgesí reactions will let you know how well your revisions work.

Once youíve entered a writing contest, here are some things you shouldnít lose sight of if you want your time on the contest circuit to be a positive and helpful experience.

1. Keep in mind that reading tastes differ widely. Have you ever bought a book with high hopes, only to find the writer raced through the plot at breakneck speed? Or perhaps you became impatient when the story took forever to get anywhere and you began skimming through page after page of introspection.

Do not expect every judge to share your tastes. In one contest, I was stymied by scores from two judges. On a scale of 1 to 10, the first judge had given me a 10 for Description. ďGreat! Shows, doesnít tell!Ē was her enthusiastic comment. The other judge gave me a 3 in the same section, with the admonition, ďRemember to show, donít tell.Ē Storytelling Skills had a similar split, with the first judge, who obviously appreciates the same books I do, again giving me a 10. The other gave me a 2.

The best thing to do with results like this is to look at what the second judge found wanting. Is it something that can be modified easily? In the case of my storytelling abilities, it wasnít, but after another contest, the same entry came back with numerous marks where the judge felt I should layer in more internal thoughts and feelings. I had edited the piece down from 14 pages to 10 to punch up the impact of the action hook and meet the contest requirements, and she gave me a road map for adding back in motivation and emotion. Will I add back enough to please her? Probably not, but I profited from the experience. This is what you should try to do.

2. All judges arenít necessarily as knowledgeable as you are, although I have found most to be well-qualified. Many writers also judge contests, and everyone has to start somewhere. If you get marked down for point of view in your fifth contest and itís the only time a judge has ever mentioned POV shifts as a problem, then you can pretty much ignore it. Treat your critiques from contests much as you would those from critique partners: if only one mentions a problem, you might want just to take a look at it. If they all mention something, you should seriously consider reworking it.

3. There are some judges who never give full points for anything. Sad but true. The acid test I use for this is the Manuscript Format section. If there are no marks or comments telling you what youíve done wrong and yet the judge dinged you, then ignore the scoring and look at whatever comments that judge may have written. The other giveaway for a stingy judge is that your scores are all the same number, i.e., all 4ís on a scale of 1 to 5. Consider that the luck of the draw went sour on you and try again. No one ever said life was fair. Get over it and move ahead with your career.

4. Contest judges arenít necessarily looking for the same things as editors are. The prime example of this is how many Golden Heart finalists and winners from past years still havenít sold that entry. This is a business, and many editors are looking for solid, saleable books rather than cutting-edge work.

5 A lot depends upon the judge(s) who get your entry in their packets. Your score can vary depending upon the quality of your peers. Standard practice is to group the entries in lots of anywhere from five to eight and send the group out to one to three judges. If youíre in a packet with other entries that are at least as good as yours, personal taste will play a larger role in the scores. If you get in a group where the other entries are from beginning writers who arenít as far up the learning curve as you, youíll look better in comparison.

6. I think the inclusion of a synopsis in the entry adds a wild card to the game. You can get some great feedback, but you can also get a judge who has an entirely different opinion than you of what constitutes a great synopsis. Many good books donít get anywhere because of the synopsis. There is so little agreement on how a synopsis should be written and what information it should contain that I figure Iím more likely to be struck by lightning than I am to get two (or three!) judges who like my style and see eye-to-eye with me on the synopsis in the same contest. Itís no surprise to me that the contests Iíve done best in required no synopsis.

7. A poor score and a tough critique help toughen your skin. This is a fiercely competitive business, but it is a business. Itís not personal. Thatís why entries are anonymous. A hemorrhage of red ink on your marked-up entry may send your blood pressure soaring, but look at it as an opportunity to see what someone else would do with your story. Like any critique, evaluate the suggested changes critically and keep those that make sense to you. The key to this is keeping an open mind.

Because judging is so objective, itís highly unlikely that youíll like what you read on every scoresheet. The advantage is that youíve opened it in the privacy of your home, so you neednít smile and pretend you like it. Go ahead, get the anger and hurt out of your system. Throw rocks at the fence, kick the curb, maybe type out an indignant response to the judges. Just DONíT MAIL IT! Complaining is like trying to teach a pig to sing ó it wastes your time and annoys the pig. Concentrate on getting the most out of this for yourself. Use what you can and ignore the rest.

The judges spent a lot of time on you, and it wonít kill you to write out a personal note to each judge. At the very least, thank them for taking the time to review your entry. It does take time: I spend at least an hour on each entry when I judge. You donít have to comment on the quality of their feedback. If you write more than a terse note (and be sure to identify your entry by the title and perhaps a short recap of the plot, so the judge will know which was yours), you may be surprised to get a response ó then you find out who your judges were! Iíve gotten enthusiastic encouragement from Sandra Hill and Martha Kirkland.

After all, without the volunteer judges,contests wouldn't be able to function. You want them to be there for the time you submit a great entry and are dealt a winning hand.

You paid for this! Approach the experience with the right frame of mind, and youíll get your moneyís worth out of it.

Remember, experience is what you get when you donít get what you want.

Copyright 2006 Liddy Midnight

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