I’ve read my fellow Riskies’ posts on contests with avid interest this week. I saw Diane win the Golden Heart AND the RITA at the RWA National Conference, and felt a vicarious thrill that my Beau Monde friends have done so well.
Me, I’ve never won any contest. In fact, I’ve usually ended up somewhere below the halfway mark in anything I’ve entered.
But I still believe strongly that they are helpful for unpublished writers, no matter where you place. Let me explain drawing, as always, on my own experiences.
When I entered the Beau Monde’s Royal Ascot, I thought I would final. I really did. This, despite my entry being THE FIRST THING I HAD EVER WRITTEN. This, despite knowing nothing of the caliber of writing from my fellow contestants. Shows how naive I was. I entered, I did not even come close to finaling, and I got my first taste of rejection. And then I read through the judges’ score sheets. I went through my files recently and threw out all but one of those score sheets, so I can’t quote what they said, but the judges who didn’t like my work that much had excellent feedback as to just why they didn’t like it. I listened, I edited, and I improved my manuscript and my writing knowledge. I thought those didn’t-like-it-as-much judges were dead-on in their criticism, and it was really helpful to get. (small pointer: I judge now, and I seldom receive thank you notes. I always send thank you notes to all my judges, even from the rotten scoring ones. I think that’s a courtesy that resonates.)
And then there was the judge who loved me. I got the highest score she bestowed that year, and in addition to my score sheet, she included a separate, single-spaced sheet of paper that started with this:
OK, here’s the deal. You are going to be published one day, probably soon. I feel it in my bones.
The judge went on to detail what she saw as the problems in my manuscript–again, she was dead-on (and I STILL info-dump! Megan, will you never learn?!?). And she was right! I took all the comments, sat on them in my head for awhile (and no, that’s not a visual you want to think about too much), and edited.
And then I sold the following year.
I entered a few other contests with one subsequent story, and again got excellent feedback, even though I was a mile away from finaling.
In my case, the key to finding a benefit to contests was being humble enough to realize I didn’t know everything about my story, or everything about my writing. Even if I ultimately disagreed with what a judge wrote, I had to treat it as a legitimate criticism, and think of ways to respond.
It all made my writing better.
I entered the RITA, and once again got three judges who loved my book, and a few more who were ‘meh,’ on it, and two who really disliked it. I decided not to enter my published work in anything but the RITA since those kinds of contests wouldn’t give me the feedback I wanted (the RITA I had to enter, just in case. I knew I wouldn’t final, but I had to know for sure).
So while Janet would say she entered contests to final, and Diane got hooked on the thrill of doing really well, and Elena’s a self-proclaimed contest slut (and I would be, too, if I finaled as much as she did!), I think the opportunity for someone to read your work who doesn’t know you and give you constructive feedback is incredible. Of course you’re going to get people who fuss about your margins, or tell you your hero isn’t heroic enough. If you can separate the wheat from the chaff, your writing will improve, even if your contest finaling percentage does not.
And I am so, so grateful to that one judge. And all the judges who took the time to analyze my story and my writing, and let me know what worked, and what didn’t.
When I joined RWA back in 2004 I set a goal of a contest a month. My very first contest was The Orange Rose. I didn’t final, but one of the judges (a published member, which thrilled me to death) wrote me a three page critique and told me Your voice is the perfect blend of Stephanie Laurens and Georgette Heyer. I can’t wait to read the rest of this when it’s published.
I never got such a glowing response again, but that one judge is responsible for making sure I kept at it (even through the 37s and the “loathing”).
Whoever you were, mystery PAN judge, you rock!
Ah, those lovely judges who say such wonderful things. Do they know how much it means, I wonder?
When I was trying to break into category, Suzanne Brockman judged a NJRW Put Your Heart in a Book contest and said nice things about my 2nd place entry.
I love hearing “good judge” stories!
There is that other reality – the judges who ruin the ambitions of a writer just testing the waters to see if she has what it takes. I have read some extremely problematic contest entries. Ones you want to swear over, but you just have to try to find some way to not ruin their dreams and show the way to improve.
I’ve received some scathing comments on my entries, too. Some people simply loathed my GH Winning ms which became The Mysterious Miss M (I think they did not like the heroine as a prostitute…)My favorites were the ones who corrected my historical details — and got them wrong!!
As Megan did, only listen to those criticisms if they make sense to you! Don’t change your ms only because a judge says to, because judges can also be wrong!
Honestly, the main piece of advice I ever took from a contest was to join the Beau Monde. Arrogant little snot that I am I really wasn’t looking for a critique . . . I was looking to get my stuff in front of editors and agents.
I did finally cave in on the head hopping issue, though. I happen to LIKE head hopping, and writing that way feels very natural to me. It flows. But so many judges mentioned that even though I did it extremely well, a lot of editors and readers dislike it. Then the editor at Arabella called to buy a short story I submitted, and the only change she wanted was for me to fix the head hopping. *GRUMBLE*
I’m learning to ground my scenes in one POV, but I still don’t like it.
I’m just the opposite of you, Kalen, on the POV issue — if I went with my nature, I would write each book from only one POV throughout. My first couple romances, in fact, were written that way — but then contest judges kept insisting they *had* to know what my hero was thinking. Romance readers were fine without that for decades, but I guess nowadays it’s mandatory. Sigh. 🙂
See, that’s the thing. . . I don’t know if I could take the criticisms well. LOL Which is probably why I don’t write. 🙂 LOL I think you have to have a pretty thick skin to be able to keep going and trying in the writing world — all of you guys (here at this blog or elsewhere) are amazing, that you can keep trying. 🙂
It’s the voices, Lois. They must have an outlet . . .
This might appear off-topic, but bear with me…
I make wine. I enter local contests to see what people who don’t know me (and aren’t looking me in the eye at the time) think of my wine. It’s a great feedback mechanism to understand how someone besides myself interprets what I sense, and it makes me a better winemaker in that I can sometimes make the next vintage more appreciated by “the public”. There are no great prizes (first place – pretty purple ribbon and a $25 gift certificate).
My biggest pet peeve is the judges who give very little feedback – single words, just a number. What do I do with that? How does that make me better?
Since most judges are probably writers to begin with, y’all probably get a lot better feedback anyway, but here’s kudos to all the great judges that give solid and useable feedback. And for those of you who do judge (or will in the future), don’t forget what a great benefit it is to get that great feedback.
Well put, Rob! And how interesting — I would never have guessed things were so similar for winemaking. Who knew? 🙂
I’ve had my good contest responses (there’s one published author who avoids me, I think, because I’ve thanked her so often and so profusely). But the one that stays with me was the 30 out of 100 score that was badly stapled together. When I pulled it out of the envelope the staple went right into my thumb. What a thrill, I thought, bleeding down the page, the Sylvia Plath of contests.
My favorites were the ones who corrected my historical details — and got them wrong!!
Speaking again as a spouse, rather than a writer, the entertainment value of judges who give incorrect corrections is higher than any other kind of judge. Oh, the rantings! The ravings! The hasty pulling out of reference books and pointing out, in black and white, exactly how wrong this stupid judge really is! The only sad part is that the judge is not there to benefit…after all, without feedback, how are the judges supposed to learn??
I would never have guessed things were so similar for winemaking.
I think there must be at least one difference between contests involving wine and books: even a bad wine gets you where you’re going!
The hasty pulling out of reference books and pointing out, in black and white, exactly how wrong this stupid judge really is! The only sad part is that the judge is not there to benefit…
Todd (picture me rolling my eyes), this is what HUSBANDS are for!!
Believe me there are plenty of Romance judges who put no comments at all to explain why they judged something low. Those entries then become more fodder for Todd’s entertainment!!
ie “A TWO? She gave me a TWO? Why? What’s wrong with my characterization?”….
I got some useful feedback from the Royal Ascot contest, though I didn’t do any others that gave comments. The GH doesn’t provide comments but as others have said, it’s good exposure.
In published author contests there are no comments, so there’s no way to decode the 8.2 and the 2.0 for the same book. There is still one benefit even if you don’t win or final–you get books into the hands of potential readers. I always hope the 3 out of 5 judges who love my books will buy others and tell all their friends. Word of mouth is powerful.
So Regency writers, do consider entering the GH and the RITA!
Todd, not only does my husband get to be entertained by my reaction to scoresheets, but I use him as my Reasonable Person test to judge how affronted I should be by sins against historical accuracy when I’m on the judging side of the equation. 🙂 I’ve become so immersed in certain aspects of the Regency era that I have trouble differentiating between major errors that anyone should know enough to avoid and obscure bits of military history trivia known only to me and maybe a dozen other people in the world. So my husband knows that when I’m judging historicals, at some point I’ll interrupt whatever he’s doing to give him a history quiz.
I use him [my husband] as my Reasonable Person test to judge how affronted I should be by sins against historical accuracy when I’m on the judging side of the equation. 🙂
Strangely enough, my wife never uses me as her standard for a Reasonable Person. Do you think that is significant?
Todd – you might be drinking for the wrong reason if the bad wine will get you there. I can’t drink enough bad wine to get anywhere, and I can’t afford enough good wine to get there!
I can read just enough of a bad book to put it back down, but will rarely stop reading a good book.
Rob, I was just kidding about bad wine getting you there. I actually hardly drink at all, so who am I to comment.
I will say this: good wine is probably wasted on the likes of me…