Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat: Contests are a Crapshoot

Maven Darcy BurkeOr, I could call this Confessions of a Former Contest Junkie. As a former contest junkie, I've enjoyed the thrill of finaling and even victory (w00t!) as well as the agony of soul-crushing scores and comments (boo hiss!). Thankfully, I have the Mavens to pick me up, help me sort through the feedback, and ultimately appreciate the experience. I'm a former junkie because I'm not contesting Glorious beyond the Golden Heart and I'm not ready to contest my next ms. And when I do (I say when because I'm sure I will at some point), I will specifically target contests for their reputation for feedback and excellence as well as the final round judge(s). For instance, I entered the Maggie because I knew I would get detailed feedback from experienced authors/judges. And then I finaled, so yay for that! (Stay tuned next Monday when I return with fabulous stories from the Moonlight and Magnolias conference where I will learn the fate of my Maggie final!)

The very first contest I entered (the Emily two years ago) garnered me a near perfect score. And two not-so-near-perfect scores. I entered before I even knew what a "CP" was, before I understood the rule of POV shifting, and well before I'd ever heard "show, don't tell." It was a very, very positive experience and is probably why I continued to write. I threw my first ms (what I started the month before the contest as purely a "practice book") into the contest just to see if I was even remotely on the right track and thankfully I received very constructive and encouraging feedback. Little did I know then, this is not always the case.

I recently judged my first contest and we did a training session at our chapter meeting. We were cautioned not to "destroy" anyone and I kept thinking, "wow, would anyone really do that?" I don't think so, at least not purposefully. That said, I have received contest feedback that was fairly demoralizing, and I think it actually gets harder to take, not easier. The better I get at my craft, the harder it is to get smacked down by a judge who says I don't have enough description when another judge loved my description. The key is to be constructive and to recogize preference vs. craft. Just because a judge doesn't like something, doesn't mean it isn't well-written. (Practice saying it with me!)

The important thing to remember with contests is that they are absolutely a crap shoot. One person's masterpiece is another person's wallbanger and that goes for New York Times bestselling authors and the newbie who hasn't yet finished the book. Enter them for whatever reasons you may have, take the feedback for the value it can provide, and above all, write, write, write.

Dish your stories! The highs, the lows! Why do you love contests? Why do you hate them? Tell us what contests you're in now so we can root for you!

Be sure to check in Friday when my friend and CP, Delilah Ahrendt shares the story of her road to publication and how finaling in the Golden Heart contest helped her along the way!


Lenora Bell said...

Thanks for sharing your perspective on contests. I've never entered one. But I'm getting ready to submit to the Emily and I was happy to hear you felt your feedback from it was worthwhile. Good luck at the Moonlight and Magnolias conference!

Hellie Sinclair said...

I entered one contest (I don't even remember WHICH one it was--I think I did hear later that it wasn't esteemed as being a very reputable one)--and I got high-high scores--and then like a low score without going into the negatives--on the same entry. So one judge LOVED it; one judge loathed it--and I think the split judge was "meh". But the funniest part is the one who loathed it, quoted scripture (chapter & verse) in the margins. (It was a paranormal which featured...uh...the devil...) It's just that kind of manuscript. There are no real ambivalent feelings; you either love the idea or think it's heretical and impossible.

The best contest--The Silver Quill, I believe...and it was the first three chapters, I think. Anyway, I got first place. I got the plaque. I got the EDITOR request. *coughs* And I wasn't finished with the book. In fact, by the time I won, I realized I didn't have any idea what to do with the story--and worse, I didn't want to finish it. I didn't care about the story. Nothing, nada. So what I learned is maybe I should get my feedback from contests AFTER I finished the novel.

So I have a finished novel now (not the devil one, though that too is finished)--and I will be running it through the hoops of contests. I can be quite the contest trollop.

Jackie Barbosa said...

You know I'm a sucker for contests, though I'm trying to conquer my addiction (and not doing very well, apparently, since I'm planning to send an entry to the Emily and to Launching a STAR on Monday--sigh, I'm so bad).

Our good friend CM pointed out to me a while back that contests are mostly good as market research, and I think that's part of the reason I keep doing them. Whether I final or not, I like to get a sense from fresh readers to see whether a story is working or not.

Of course, I've occasionally been led astray so I'm starting to look at the scores/comments as a whole, rather than either individually or within a single contest. That contest where I got the 100, the 93, and the 69 was particularly instructive. If two-third of readers love my book, I'm in business, even in one third HATE it :).

At the moment, I'm waiting to hear how _Unbridled_ did in the final round of Put Your Heart in a Book (announcement is expected Oct. 5, I believe) and wondering what became of my Emerald City Opener entries.

lacey kaye said...

For the last contest I entered, I entered both manuscripts. I ended up with the same score -- exactly -- for both manuscripts. But one manuscript was about 1 point away from a discrepancy judge, and the other one wasn't anywhere near earning a discrepancy judge. Which means one earned very consistent average scores and one earned very split low/high scores.

Which is just weird, and maybe a little reaffirming. Apparently, any way you cut it, I am what I am.

Tessa Dare said...

I'm with Darcy - it's a crap shoot. That doesn't mean you can't get good stuff out of contests; it just means you shouldn't let contest results a) get under your skin, or b) lull you into complacency.

In one contest I entered, I nearly made the finals. The reason I probably didn't was because I had one judge who called my entry "the best contest entry she'd ever judged" and said it was "a crime" when I didn't final - and she'd given me the lowest of my 3 scores. Oops! I never did tell her so.

Darcy Burke said...

Good luck with the Emily, Lenore (and the GH - you WILL finish!).

Ms. Hellion, trollop is a grievously underused word. Thanks for reminding me it's there!

Yes, Jacq, you are a contest trollop too! ;-)

And we love you Lacey!

Oh, Tessa, I didn't know that!!! She'd die! That's a funny story, thanks for sharing!

Jennifer Linforth said...

Contests are indeed subjective beasts. The heroine in my trilogy consistently gets perfect scores, but the overall love of the story totally depends on the taste of the reader. I have learned to stick with the bigger contests where the feedback seems to be more professional and less based on personal taste.

Currently my Austrian historical is entered in the Romance Junkies contest. First time I ever did that one. I just wanted to see what the feedback was, as I have heard good thinks about that site and the contest. Final judging is going on now and I have had some very positive signs. Maybe I will final?

I am with everyone here. Contests are a crap shoot. Enter them until you find you are ready to get the real feedback from agents and publishing houses.


Jody W. and Meankitty said...

>>We were cautioned not to "destroy" anyone and I kept thinking, "wow, would anyone really do that?" I don't think so, at least not purposefully.

Honestly? After years on the circuit in several capacities, I'm not so sure about that. Email me if you want to see some of the comments I've gotten that weren't....purposeful. Uh-huh. I also collected other destructive comments for a workshop I do and let's just say "Don't quit your day job" has actually, really, truly been written on people's manuscripts before.

Jody W.

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