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Entering Writing Contests–Why?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

There’s a lot of discussion going on these days about entering writing contests—the deadline for the ACFW Genesis contest for unpublished writers is March 1, and while entrants were encouraged to get their entries in by the beginning of this week, I know there are still some out there who are frantically trying to put those finishing touches on the fifteen pages or figure out how to write that one-page synopsis.

What sometimes gets lost in all the freneticism (is that a word?) of preparing an entry for a contest is the reason why one enters the contest in the first place.

I’ve mentioned before that I entered my first unpublished-author contest in 2002 (What Matters Most, my first complete manuscript into the Noble Theme contest at the first-ever ACRW conference). I hadn’t planned to enter, but then, the night before the postmarked-by deadline, I felt God urging me to enter. So I did. I was afraid that if I entered, I would get sick to my stomach, that I would regret it as soon as I handed that flat-rate envelope over to the postal worker. But I didn’t. I actually felt good about sending it. I received an Honorable Mention certificate that year . . . probably because there were only a few entries, so they decided to give us all something. 🙂 Because when I look back at it now, it sure wasn’t worth mentioning. But the feedback I received from the two judges was invaluable and helped me so much on certain aspects of my writing—tightening my POV, showing not telling, fully developing my characters, and making sure each scene is important to the movement of the story.

I entered two manuscripts the next year (2003): The Best Laid Plans (follow-up novel to What Matters Most) and Love Remains. Neither finaled. The feedback was a little less “honorable mention” and a little more “you can do better than this—and here’s how.” Those were a little harder to take, but, after a few weeks, I really gleaned a lot from them.

In 2004, I entered the manuscript I was sure was not only going to win the contemporary romance category, but would be chosen for the Janet Kobobel Grant award for the best overall manuscript: the first draft of Stand-In Groom, then titled Happy Endings Inc. It was the strongest story idea I’d ever had, and it got me into graduate school. And my crit partners liked it. Not only did it not final, I got some pretty harsh feedback on it in addition to middling scores. I wasn’t happy. But, after a few weeks, I was able to really see the points made by the judges (especially having served as a judge myself in the contest that year) and eat humble pie and realize my manuscript wasn’t all that.

In 2005, because I was Vice President and therefore over the contest, I wasn’t eligible to enter—but I did a ton of judging, I’ll tell ya! (More on judging in another post.)

Finally, in 2006, with three full revisions on the manuscript behind me, and thesis submission and master’s graduation ahead of me, I entered the new version of Stand-In Groom into the newly named Genesis contest. After I entered it, I ended up doing another revision of the manuscript, which included cutting almost three pages from the opening chapter—the opening chapter that was, at that moment, being judged for Genesis . . . and guess what? I came in SECOND PLACE in my category.

Monday, there was a post on the Seekerville Blog about first chapters and how some writers get caught in a hamster wheel of being a professional contest entrant instead of striving to be a published writer. They spend so much time working on their first ten, fifteen, or twenty-five pages to enter into contests, but never finish a manuscript—or if the manuscript is completed, they never spend any time revising the rest of it but just keep tweaking the first part based on contest judges’ feedback. And it really made me think about why I chose to enter HEI/SIG that second time. Here’s part of the comment I left there:

So while I did enter it twice, in two vastly different incarnations, entering it into the contest wasn’t my main focus–it was the litmus test to see if it was ready to be submitted to editors and agents.

It seems to me that one flaw, one drawback for people who are addicted to entering contests is that they’re using the contest judges’ feedback as their critique group—and as their validation as a writer. If they don’t get good feedback, if they don’t get good scores, if they don’t final, if they don’t win, if they don’t do as well in this contest as the last one, or whatever, they lose confidence in themselves as writers. Contests aren’t for personal affirmation or for summary judgment on whether or not you’re “good enough” to pursue publication. Contests are market research. Contests are great for getting anonymous feedback on your manuscript. But entering contests should not be our writing goal. Our goal in entering a contest should be to make sure that we’ve got the strongest story possible before submitting it to editors and/or agents. They’re the litmus test, not the be-all-and-end-all of becoming a writer. Two years ago, I made promise to myself that I would become ineligible to enter unpublished-author contests in 2007. And as of December 7, 2007, I am officially ineligible to enter the Genesis or any other unpublished-author contest! Make that your goal this year—to use whatever contest you choose to enter this year your springboard to becoming ineligible to enter it next year.

Finally, on another note, people will tell you that the feedback you get on your contest entries isn’t personal. I disagree. Even though as a judge, I don’t know whose manuscript I’m judging, it’s still personal for me. I know that there’s a person on the other end of that entry who’s going to read the comments I’m making, see all of the highlighting and marking I’ve done, and take it very personally (which we’ll get into more in another post). Anything having to do with someone’s writing is very personal! And even as anonymous judges, we have to keep that in mind—while still making sure that we’re giving the strongest and best feedback we can possibly give. So in the coming days, I’ll try to shed a little light on contests from my perspective as a finalist and as a judge. And my crit partners will be dropping in with words of wisdom from their experiences as contest finalists and judges as well.

Why do you enter contests? What do you hope to gain/learn? How much money do you spend in a year entering writing contests versus postage on sending out submissions to editors/agents? How much time do you spend preparing contest entries versus queries/submissions to editors/agents? Do you enter more contests than you send out queries? How has feedback from contests helped/hindered you?

7 Comments
  1. Wednesday, February 27, 2008 10:28 am

    I entered a contest long ago, with a children’s book. The second contest I’ve ever entered was a current one. I hadn’t planned on it. Had forgotten about, as a matter of fact. But I went cruising by their website and saw the deadline was coming up, so I entered my opening pages just for fun. Getting feedback will be nice. But the first draft is finished and I’m deep in revision, so it doesn’t matter much to me what the outcome of the contest is. I’m curious about the feedback, but I know–I KNOW–this manuscript needs serious reconstruction. And I’m doing it. Pray for me! *s*

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  2. Wednesday, February 27, 2008 12:14 pm

    LOL, you realized your manuscript wasn’t *all that*–sometimes it’s easy to think like that going into a contest, though. And what a bubble-burster when someone has constructive feedback. I think it’s all in how the feedback is delivered. There’s a lot to be said for tact, and I think what’s great about Genesis is that most judges really are constructive and tactful, and have the entrants’ best interest in mind.

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  3. Wednesday, February 27, 2008 12:31 pm

    For me, it’s that last part—about keeping it personal—that forces me to be nicer than I usually would be when doing something anonymously. I know I have a tendency to come across as harsh in writing (due to the dry/sarcastic sense of humor I’m blessed with), so I have to read, re-read, and re-re-read all comments I make on a contest entry to make sure that I’m not going to offend the author or crush the author’s spirit. So for me as a judge, to be tactful and constructive, I have to keep it personal.

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  4. Wednesday, February 27, 2008 2:51 pm

    I like the idea of a contest being a test of the market as much as it is a test of your skills. I do like the time-table for this year’s Genesis. Not so much time to get your entry in, but not so long to wait for first round results either.

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  5. Wednesday, February 27, 2008 8:43 pm

    Great blog entries here!

    I entered Genesis for the first time last year (2007)…my first contest, period. I did so because my crit partners said I HAD to enter. I prayed about it and entered. I looked at it as an opportunity to see if people who didn’t know me would read what I had written. I hoped for honest feedback because I want my writing to be the best it can be. When I entered my piece, I didn’t do any extra work on it since it was read by 3 others WAY before. I spent around $80 last year entering 2 contests. I definitely spent more time on query letters than contest entries, but my contest entry ended up in a request for my full manuscript…which WAS complete. This was a pleasant surprise.

    The feedback has definitely made me view parts of my manuscript and writing quirks in a positive light. I am better able to read through my entire manuscript and see things more clearly.

    Entering is a valuable tool for writers. I think keeping realistic expectations is important, and keeping a mind open to ways to improve the craft.

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  6. Wednesday, February 27, 2008 10:47 pm

    I entered Genesis mainly for the feedback. I’ve been told by every single person who’s read it that the storyline and characters are good enough to go all the way, but I don’t really care if it goes that far. Since my setting is SO not normal for historical fiction, I really want to see how it reads for people who don’t know the setting as intimately as I do. These characters have been living in my head for so many years that I really need outside feedback to make sure they’re as real to my readers as they are to me.

    This year’s Genesis is my second contest. Last year I entered Jude McCoy’s short story contest that she did on her Writer’s Toolbox website and I placed 5th. That was a real boost to my writing ego! Especially since there were over 150 entries and short stories are not my strong point.

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  7. Thursday, February 28, 2008 11:34 am

    Rachel,

    “I really want to see how it reads for people who don’t know the setting as intimately as I do. These characters have been living in my head for so many years that I really need outside feedback to make sure they’re as real to my readers as they are to me.”

    That’s exactly why I entered the current contest. I’ve worked on my WIP for four years, this April. Lived and breathed it. I need a set a fresh eyes and some honest feedback, and was willing to pay for it. 🙂

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