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Friday, March 24, 2006

The pleasures and perils of writing contests...

For many authors, published and unpublished both, today is an important day. It's the day finalists for the Golden Heart and RITA awards are announced.

For those following the finalists, here is a link to a site keeping up-to the minute lists of all finalists:

I've never won the Golden Heart. Never won the RITA either. Never entered either one.

For those who don't know, the Golden Heart is an award given by the Romance Writers of America. Only unpublished authors are allowed to enter. The RITA is the published author's equivalent.

Why I haven't entered either contest is a complicated issue. I tried entering a few RWA chapter contests and learned pretty quickly it's not easy to win if you tend to write stories that are a little "outside of the box". Finaling is largely a matter of luck--not getting one of the judges who feel they must be particularly tough for the authors' own good. My luck tended to suck in that department. The few contests I entered, I got two great scores and one horrible one. By luck of the draw, my books always landed in the hands of those judges.

Did my lack of contest wins hold me back? Heck no!

Do I think writing contests have their purpose? Perhaps, though I don't see them being a particularly effective way for unpublished authors to get manuscripts in front of editors and agents.

{Gasp!} Did I just say that? I'll say it again, I don't see writing contests as a particularly effective way for unpublished authors to get manuscripts in front of editors and agents.

I read somewhere that the percentage of manuscripts contracted among contest finalists/winners was exactly the same as manuscripts contracted from the slush pile. If that statement is true, then a unpublished author entering a contest is spending a great deal of money for *the chance* to get their manuscript to an editor... when they could spend a great deal less and get it there for sure.


What about time? Will the manuscript--assuming it is a finalist--be read quicker if it's entered in a contest?

We have to consider the time it takes for an entry to be collected, judged by first round judges, returned to contest coordinators and then shipped to the final round judge. Then the final round judge reads and ranks the finalists and requests those that seem promising...and THEN the copy that the author hurries off to the editor goes where? Into the slush pile.

The entire process will take months at the least.


So, if contests are not an effective "shortcut" around the slush pile, what good are they?

They are a good way to build your name recognition (assuming you win).
They are a good way to build a writing resume (again, assuming you win).
They are a good way to network (in the case of the American Title competition).
They are a good way to build your confidence (assuming the negative feedback you're bound to receive here and there won't completely destroy it).
They are a good way to get (somewhat biased, see below) feedback on your work.

Here's the deal with the feedback:
When you enter an RWA chapter contest you will get a feel for how your project strikes a very small population of romance readers. RWA contest judges are (generally) not your average reader, the kind who walks into a bookstore once a week to slap down twenty bucks for a week's worth of escapism. Most readers "Out There" in bookstores are not writers. They might think about writing but not seriously. They are just readers who have come to appreciate the entertainment value of a good book.

In contrast, contest judges are almost always writers, and usually unpublished writers in varying stages of learning their craft. They're familiar with "The Rules" of romance. There's the "Deep POV" rule. The "No Headhopping Rule" the "Hero and Heroine Must Meet Early" rule and the "No To-Be Rule". They nitpick contest entries, examine them and measure their worth based upon a scoresheet.

But, we're not trying to measure our book's appeal to the average reader, we're trying to measure its publishability, its potential appeal to editors and agents. Those people do care about "The Rules." Right?

Yes...and no. While it's true a poorly written book will not be published, there's no guarantee that a book that follows all The Rules will be published either. Why? Because it's not just about the writing. It's not just about those first three chapters. It's not about how well a book fits a scoresheet or a checklist. It's about The Story. Have you noticed how many manuscripts win contests over and over and over again but are never published?

I repeat: It's the Story. The beginning. The End and Everything in between. It's what makes the book unique in a marketplace stuffed to capacity with products all vying for a customer's dollar. It's the book's potential packaging.

So, what's my point in all of this?

1. Just because your book may tank in a contest does not mean it isn't the stuff of a NY Times Bestseller.

2. Enter contests with realistic expectations.

3. Don't get caught up in becoming a "contest slut", producing two, three, four or more unfinished-but-contest-winning manuscripts.

4. Spend your money on postage (submitting to agents and editors) and books.

5. Read, read, read. Find a niche, a hole in the market, and take a chance.

6. Write, write, write. Finish one book, two, three, more. Write every day.

Do these, and you just might be the next Dan Brown...or Angela Knight. Who knows, you might even with the RITA someday :)

Congratulations to the RITA and Golden Heart finalists!

posted by Tawny Taylor at 12:58 PM |


Commented by Blogger Shawn:

Great post Tawny! I have decided to forgo the contest entering route. You are so right I need to spend that time writing instead of preparing contest entries.

6:58 PM 
Commented by Anonymous Angelle Trieste:

Excellent post, Tawny. :)

9:04 PM 
Commented by Blogger Tawny Taylor:

I'm glad you ladies found some value in my ramblings :)

9:09 PM 
Commented by Blogger Tawny Taylor:

Shawn, good luck with your writing!

9:10 PM 
Commented by Blogger Vivienne King:

you know, I am sure there's someone out there who's benefited from a contest. I don't personally know of any. But I do know of several women who've won contests and are still unpubbed. When I got my agent she did ask me if I'd won any awards for the ms and when I said no, she said well...all righty then. That was it. A win would add a little icing to the ms sure, but it certainly doesn't hinder you. good post.

1:37 PM 
Commented by Blogger Tawny Taylor:

Thanks so much for sharing your experience, Vivienne! I agree. I'm sure there are a handful of writers who contests have helped. But they appear to be in the minority. I think new writers especially see contests as being more of an opportunity than they are.

Yes, like you said, it might've added a little something when you were talking to your agent, but your lack of contest wins didn't stop her from taking you as a client.

2:48 PM 

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