Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Lowdown on Writing Contests

One of the members of my local writers' group recently received her scores and judges' comments from a contest she'd entered, and she shared them with us.  She didn't win, but her scores were good, over all, and we discussed the pros and cons of entering writing contests.

Of course our first hope when entering a contest is to win it.  Quite often, the winner is awarded with a read by an editor or agent.  Sometimes a finalist is asked to submit to one or the other.  And sometimes we're left with scores and comments that are mixed, leaving us puzzled.

At one time, I entered quite a lot of contests, and it was a contest win that eventually led to my first published book.  In my case, that "eventually" was long and drawn out, but in the end, it was worth it, as was the entry money and the long wait for scores.

There are all kinds of contests for writers.  Some want a first chapter, others want to specific type of scene (first kiss, love scene, etc.), and others want only the first few pages aka the opening.  Some are judged by other writers, and quite often the final round is judged by an editor or agent.  There are contests for published books, both print books and ebooks, and sometimes both.

But one big question remains.  What can entering a contest do for me, the writer?  The answer is lots of things!  Let's take a look at some of them.

Working toward a deadline
Once published, a writer works on a deadline to meet a publisher's schedule.  Even self/indie-published authors do this to keep them from putting their work aside for later.  Learning to schedule your writing time and having a specific date to have a project finished is a plus for a pre-published writer.  Contest announcements are made far enough in advance to make a decision to enter or not, so it's a great way to get into the habit of working on a deadline that's other than self-imposed.

Polishing the work
Some writers write a fast first draft, then go back and add the details.  Other writers revise as they write or revise the work from the previous day, before putting moving forward.  And even others, like me, use a combination of both.  No matter which way you write, going through your work for rewording, revising and a final polish is a must.  We won't catch everything the first time, and often it helps to put the work aside for a while before that final polish.  Whatever way you choose, your writing needs polishing before sending it out into the world.  Getting something ready to send to a contest can help with that.

Having fresh eyes looking over your work is a big plus.  Having experienced fresh eyes to look it over is even better.  Friends, even fellow writers might not tend to be as honest as someone who doesn't know you and your writing.  Not that it hurts to have people you know read your "stuff" first, before entering, but you'll be more apt to gain an unbiased opinion on what you do well and what needs work when it's from a stranger.  Keep a few things in mind when entering a contest and later reading your scores and comments from judges.

  • All judging is subjective, meaning everyone has their likes and dislikes when it comes to style and content.  We're all human, and we tend to have favorites and not so favorites.  This is true with contest judges.
  • Not all judges are equal.  Some have more experience with writing than others.  Some may not have finished their first manuscript...although contest coordinators are paying more attention to that.  RWA (Romance Writers of America) has had training programs within local chapters.  This really can help.  And the majority of judges really do have a clue. ☺ And let's face it.  We all don't like the same TV shows, music, movies or books.  That's what makes life interesting.
  • A wise woman (fellow author Kathie DeNosky) once told me to think of the rule of three when reading scores and comments.  If the comments of one judge are widely different than the others, take it in stride.  It may very well be that *subjective* thing at work.  If two of the three judges find the same weaknesses (or strengths!) in your writing, pay attention.  If all three agree on something, good or bad, sit up tall and take notice.  In this case, a majority may help you "hone your craft" a little better.
  • Judges are not out to steal your work or your ideas.  Judging is a learning experience for both the person who entered the contest and the person judging.
  • Once in a blue moon, a judge will be beyond tough and maybe even almost insulting.  If you feel that's the case, put it aside and look at it later.  You may be having nothing more than a knee-jerk reaction.  If a second reading of it is as bad, put it away for good.  It isn't helpful, and that's what we're hoping to gain--helpful advice.
  • NEVER think your words are golden.  They aren't.  Mine aren't.  Even Stephen King's and Nora Roberts' aren't.  And honestly, even an editor's aren't always.  (Don't tell anyone I said that. ;) )
My usual process after receiving scores and comments were to take a look at that, hit the bottom of despair, put it away, then get it out a few days later.  I always found it was easier, once I put the emotion aside and actually paid attention to what judges had to say.  By the way, the same thing is true when I receive notes and edits from my editor.  I'm sure I can't handle them, but somehow I usually find a way.

That's the lowdown, the basic things needed to know about contests before deciding whether to enter or not...or to think about if you've entered and are going, "Huh?" and want to crawl in a corner.

It takes "growing a tough skin" to be a part of the publishing industry.  Although no on is out there to break your heart or your spirit, there may be times when it seems that way.  Don't let it get you down, and don't let it make you quit.

And one more thing:  When it's your turn to judge, remember what you've gained, and what has helped you, be it a kind word, praise for something well done, or suggestions that helped you along.  Then treat the contest entries in the same way.  You'll be glad you did.
A kind word is like a Spring day.  ~Russian Proverb

No comments: