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"The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we
counted our spoons."
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
"Liddy Midnight weaves spells with her words. Don't miss her!"
~ Maggie Shayne
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
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
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 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