Thursday, February 2, 2012

Writing Contests...Can They Help? - Writing Wednesdays

Thanks to a crazy yesterday, Writing Wednesday was delayed.  "It's always something, my little Roseanne Roseannadanna."

There are two types of contests for writers.  The first is for those writers not yet published, and the other is for published authors.  For today's purposes, I'm going to share my thoughts on contests for those writers who are working toward that oftentimes elusive contract.

If you've been writing very long, you're sure to have seen announcements of contests for writers.  Publishers use them to find new authors, while writing groups offer them to help hone writers' skills and give them a chance to get their work in front of an editor or agent.  But can they really help your writing career?

I'll be honest and admit that I'm a little biased when it come to writing contests.  It was contests and in particular winning a contest that led to my first publishing contract.  Of course I'm in favor of contests and often suggest to writers that they take advantage of them.

There's a lot to think about and learn before jumping into the pool of contests.  I was lucky to have a friend who was a master at entering contests.  She not only guided me through the process and critiqued my work, but she virtually shoved me into entering the first one in 1996.  Coming out of that with an Honorable Mention was probably what kept me entering.  And, no, I wasn't a finalist in every contest I entered.  After that fluke with the first one, it was two years and several contests later before I made it to finalist status again.

I learned a lot over those 4-5 years, and the one, basic thing I took away from it was that contests really can help if used wisely.


Know why you're entering a contest

  • Do you need an incentive to put words on paper?  Like books under contract, contests have deadlines, and there's nothing like a deadline to push a person to get something done.  The added bonus is that by working toward that contest deadline, you'll be experienced at getting things done in a specific amount of time, once you do have a contract.
  • Are you looking for feedback to discover if you're on the right track?  Whether it's plot, characters, settings, or even style and grammar, it's always good to have fresh eyes look at your work.  With contests, there will be at least 2-3 people reading your work who have never seen it and can be more objective that writing friends or critique partners/groups.
  • Hoping to get your work in front of an editor or agent?  Contests can be a fast track to getting your manuscript into the right hands.  Many authors can thank contests for their first sales, after an editor judge has requested to see the rest of the story.
Do your homework
  • Be sure to read the contest rules thoroughly.  Don't skim.  Take notes on how the contest wants to see the entry formatted and follow through with it.  If there's a 30 page limit, don't send 31 pages.  If a synopsis is required, there may be a page limit on it, too.
  • Know where your manuscript fits as far as genres and sub-genres.  Most contests have general categories.  Some of the more often used are: Contemporary, Historical, Romantic Suspense, Young Adult, Paranormal, Inspiration, and Erotic.  If there are short and long versions of any of those, use your projected word count.  This is where knowing your word and what you're targeting comes in.  Always be sure to enter the correct category.
  • Make certain you're eligible to enter.  If you've never had a book under a publisher's contract, you'll be good to go in an unpublished writers contest.  But if sometime in the past you have had a published books, there's a chance you might be able to enter as an unpublished author.  Some contests allow published writers to enter after a specific amount of time since the last book was published.  Also be sure to check on what's acceptable if you've entering a manuscript you've entered sometime in the past.  All these things are mentioned in the rules and guidelines.
  • Enter early.  Give yourself plenty of time to finish and polish your entry.  Just be sure you do finish, then send the entry prior to the deadline stated in the rules.
  • If you're entering in hope of getting your work in front of an editor (or even an agent), be aware of who the final judges will be.  If this is your goal, there's no sense in being a finalist with your Regency Paranormal Erotic Suspense if the final editor judge is from a publishing house that only buys Contemporary Christian stories.  The same is true in a sense for agents.  Do your homework and find out what agents accept what types of submissions.  Some agents have their favorite genres/sub-genres and aren't interested in others.
  • Know what you write.  With all the new sub-genres and sub-sub-genres of books out there, it may be hard to know exactly what it is you're writing.  Are you reading the types of books you're writing?  If so, look to find out how they've been categorized.  There are also places on the internet that give descriptions of the types of books available.
  • Make a note of the dates connected to the contest.  There's a date when a contest opens to enter, dates to send your entry/pages, and dates finalists and winners are announced.  I've run across a few contests that, after the first round of judging, finalists are given time to make changes and once again polish their entry before it goes to the final judge(s).
This last isn't necessarily a rule, but it can be a huge help, especially to someone newly entering contests. And it's something I urge everyone to do.  FINISH THE MANUSCRIPT BEFORE ENTERING A CONTEST.  Why?  If you become a finalist and the final judge editor or agent requests to see your finished manuscript, you want to be able to fulfill that request as soon as possible, while it's still fresh in the person's mind.  If all you have written is the first 30 pages of 300 page manuscript, you have a long, long way to go.  It takes time to write a book.  Not only the initial rough draft, but the editing to make sure you haven't changed the heroes name somewhere along the line, and a final read-through and polish.  Don't make an editor or agent wait.  What that person is looking for may change over the next few months.  Don't worry, you can take the time to make some small changes --perhaps suggested by judges-- and polish the manuscript once again, but be ready to send.  Even if you aren't a finalist, you'll have the satisfaction of knowing you can meet a deadline and finish a book!

So there you have.  Rox's Rules about entering writing contests.  Can they help?  Yes!  But be sure to keep the above things in mind.  They can help you along the way and lead you to a possible contest win and maybe even a sale!

Good luck and happy writing!

Success has a simple formula: do your best, and people may like it. - Sam Ewing

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