Overall, my own contest experiences have been wonderful.

I began my contest career with the Beau Monde’s Royal Ascot, a contest for unpublished writers of Regency era romance. After entering just to get some feedback, I won it in 1999 with what became my first book, LORD LANGDON’S KISS. Since then, my books have won or finaled in the Booksellers’ Best, the National Readers’ Choice Award, the Holt Medallion, the Award of Excellence, the Golden Quill and the Golden Leaf.

Which means that, good Risky that I am, I’m a contest slut and have done pretty well at it!

However, my results haven’t been consistent. Books that won one contest sometimes didn’t even hit the finals in others (and often the competition was the same). In the RWA contests, the Golden Heart and the RITA, I’ve had very mixed scores. With 5 judges, I usually get 3 very high scores and 2 that are low to abysmal. I once got a 8.2 and a 2.0 for the same book, out of 9 possible. (Don’t ask me why they don’t use a scale of 10, maybe to keep us from getting swollen heads?)

Taking off my contestant hat, I’m sometimes surprised that books I’ve loved haven’t always hit the finals. I mean, how could anyone not recognize Laura Kinsale’s FLOWERS FROM THE STORM as one of the best historical romances ever, not just of that year? Julia Ross’s historicals are amazing and have not hit the RITA finals either though they’ve won all sorts of accolades elsewhere. (It’s possible these books weren’t entered, though it seems unlikely.)

So how does one explain these discrepancies? I’ve got a couple of theories.

There’s the polarizing writer theory. I use it to console myself when I get the love/hate spray of scores. I’d rather be a polarizing than boring. But controversial books have sometimes won. Laura Kinsale’s SHADOWHEART is the best example I can think of.

Then there’s the category expectations theory–that a book that is well-written but doesn’t quite fit its category may also get mixed scores. I am guessing that some of my low scores have been from judges who don’t believe there should be sex in traditional Regencies. I entered LADY DEARING’S MASQUERADE as a Short Historical due to length reasons, and though it didn’t final the marks were consistently high. (I’m taking this as a Good Omen.) OTOH sexy Regencies have won, including Sophia Nash’s A PASSIONATE ENDEAVOR and our own Diane’s A REPUTABLE RAKE. So it’s not a definitive theory either.

I honestly think it comes down to a combination of a good story and luck in getting the right panel of judges who appreciate it. I’ve heard debates on how to make judging more objective, but I doubt it’s possible because reading itself is so subjective. I think it’s best for a writer not to stress too much about contests, though that’s easier to say than do.

A final thought…without the luck factor, awards ceremonies would be much less exciting, wouldn’t they? So what are your opinions on contest judging? Do your favorite books usually win or not? Any ideas why?

Elena, proud contest slut
LADY DEARING’S MASQUERADE, Desert Rose Golden Quill Best Historical Romance, 2006