Friday, May 9, 2008

To Contest or Not to Contest

Maven Jackie BarbosaBeverley Kendall, MaveFave and Avon FanLitter, contacted me via IM a couple of weeks ago with the exciting news that she'd finaled in her first RWA chapter contest for unpublished writers. I congratulated her and said I bet it was the beginning of a trend. Well, color me clairvoyant, but within a week or so, she had finaled in two more, and one of those was a double-final. She missed finaling in a third contest by ONE position.

As we were squealing with delight over this surfeit of good news, we started talking a little bit about the overall value of such contests and when/if writers should enter them. One of the things we've both noticed is that the same authors and works tend to reach the final round over and over again. It seems that once a writer reaches a certain level of skill and polish, she (or he) can pretty much count on reaching the finals in many (though by no means all) of the contests she enters. (All bets are off, of course, for those who write stories that are outside the box. Contest judges tend to be traditional/conservative, so the odds of running into one or more judges who just don't get your story are pretty high.)

As a consequence of this observation, we started wondering what motivated authors to continue entering the same manuscript in contests over and over again, especially when the pool of editors and agents reading in the final round is relatively small. Once a manuscript has reached the finals a certain number of times, the odds diminish that it will reach an editor or agent who hasn't already seen it before. And if the final round judge is one who's seen the manuscript before, but hasn't requested it, the chances the entrant will get a request this time can't be great.

Now, I can't claim any particular restraint when it comes to entering contests. I don't have an accurate count handy, but it's certainly in the neighborhood of a dozen over an 18-month period, and more than half of those were with the same manuscript. That said, I was pretty particular in that I didn't enter contests with the same final round judge more than once, and each time I entered the same manuscript, it was after I'd made some pretty significant changes that I wanted to "test-run."

Still, at this point, I didn't think there was anything that could induce me to enter another contest, at least not one for an unpublished manuscript. I just figured since I now have an agent, it's my job to write the books and hers to get them in front of the right people.

But as luck would have it, I met with my agent this week, and we discussed a story that's been taking up large amounts of real estate in my brain lately. The idea behind it is just far out enough that, even though everyone I've shared it with thinks it's fantastically creative and cool, there is some question of marketability. Kevan shared that concern and suggested writing it to the proposal stage, at which point, we'd float it out to a few editors to see what feedback we got and decide where to go from there.

That seemed like a great idea, but then it occurred to me that maybe I could get some of that feedback we were hoping for from the first round of editors by entering the manuscript in a contest. If the manuscript didn't make it to the final round, we'd have some feedback that might help us determine where to tweak to its marketability, and if I did make it to the finals with an editor we'd have targeted otherwise, we could get that editor's feedback without "blowing our wad," so to speak.

As luck would have it, I found a contest I'm eligible to enter with a due date next week with a final round editor we'd love to get the manuscript in front of. So, it looks like I will be going back on the contest circuit again, much to my chagrin.

All of this made me think harder than ever about what *I* think are valid versus invalid reasons for entering contests for unpublished manuscripts. Accordingly, here is my list of three bad reasons and three good ones (I was going to do five, but this post was getting WAY too long!):

Bad Reasons

  1. To get published

    Yes, it happens. People do occasionally get requests from editors/agents for manuscripts they entered in contests and even more rarely, they get offers for publication. But as a primary strategy for getting published, entering contests is significantly more expensive than the alternative (sending out queries, partials, and fulls) and fickle (because whether or not you get to the final round is so dependent on the subjective opinions of people who are, in many cases, just unpublished authors like you!).

    I think authors get seduced by the logic that say a contest final is better than a manuscript in the slush pile because the agent/editor has to read it. (Guilty as charged!) But honestly, that agent or editor will make up her mind about your manuscript in the same number of pages whether it's a contest entry or something that came to her via the query route.

  2. To gain "credits" for the author bio portion of your query letter

    Contrary to what we'd all like to believe, the only unpublished contest finals that really "matter" to agents/editors are the big ones. That is to say, the Golden Heart and a possibly a few other premiere contests like the Maggie. And having a lot of contest finals can actually be a negative. It raises the question, "If this author is so great, why hasn't she gotten an agent/sold yet?"

  3. Purely for the thrill of finaling

    Getting that phone call or email telling you you've made it to the final round in a contest is pretty exciting. But if that's the only reason you're in it, you could probably get that excitement cheaper at an amusement park.

Good Reasons
  1. To get feedback on a manuscript

    If this is your reason for entering, then you can't summarily dismiss the criticisms you receive as authors are sometimes wont to do. They may not all be valid, but if you really want feedback, you have to be willing to listen to what you hear. That's not always easy, especially if some of the things you hear aren't the things you want to hear.

  2. For a chance to get the manuscript in front of an agent/editor you couldn't otherwise query

    Most of the time, the agents and editors who judge the final round on unpublished contests are people you can query privately as well. But every once in a while, an editor or agent who isn't "open" for submissions judges a final round. It can definitely be worth entering a contest to get a shot at that person, especially if he is your dream editor/agent.

  3. To support your chapter

    If your chapter is running a contest, then entering your manuscript(s) is a way to add money to their coffers and get something in return. Of course, you should also judge said contest (but not in the category(ies) you entered, lol).

Of course, none of these rules apply to the Golden Heart. That contest is one you enter purely for the glory of finaling. Nothing else matters.

YOUR TURN: Can you think of other good reasons for entering contests? Bad ones? Have a contest experience you'd like to share? Come on down!


Angie Fox said...

Great post. And very true. For me, contests were a way of testing the waters. My book has kind of an unusual opening, one that an English professor friend of mine said it would never work - too quirky. I was sad when he told me that and at the same time, strangely inspired. So I entered four or five RWA contests in order to see what romance readers/writers thought.

The feedback was great, and it gave me the boost I needed to keep at that story. Well, I did get a 35 from a judge who absolutely hated it (and my voice, and who also informed me that dogs don't actually talk). I think she forgot that she was judging the paranormal category. But the rest of the the readers seemed to get the story.

And it really worked out in that an editor did notice my partial, request the full and bought the book out of the contest. So it does happen. But the real reason to enter has to be for feedback, or if you really want a certain editor or agent to read your work. Anything else is gravy.

Vicki said...

This is a great post! When I frist started entering contest, my objective was to get in front of the editor and maybe sell the book. Yeah, right, more often than not that doesn't happen.

Then I realized that it truly was to receive the comments, both good and bad and make my book better.

Not to say that it wouldn't be great to sell that way. :)

I think if a contest entry finals all over the place, gets requested by tons of editors, but then nothing happens, for me anyway, it's time to rethink the work. Change it or go to the next.

Beverley Kendall said...

LOL. What, no top 5 ways of knowing that you are a contest junkie?

With my first book, I didn't get an agent and couldn't get past the query level with Avon. That's when I decided to target May Chen in contests. It's a long shot, but a this point, I have nothing to lose.


Marnee Bailey said...

This was a great post, Jackie. I have definitely tossed the idea of entering around in my head and so far I've decided not to. I think this pretty much sums it up.

I will, of course, enter the Golden Heart. :)

Beverley Kendall said...

Here's another reason to enter, if you really suck at writing queries. Sometimes people think if they could only get them (final judges) to read it without having to query first, they would love it.

But if you suck at writing queries, you better get good real fast.

MM said...

I used to be a contest junkie, but now I've cut way back. I kept hoping to win and be discovered. Didn't happen.

I did learn a valuable, but expensive lesson. Some judges loved my work, and some hated it, but about 75% of them said my second chapter needed to be my first. Sadly I needed to enter five contests, before I believed them. I finally took their advice, and reworked my manuscript. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that this time I will have gotten it right.

Diana Peterfreund said...

jackie, it's funny, your bad reasons are the only reasons I ever entered contests, and I only entered also for one of your "good" reasons -- editor agent. Which is the same as "to get pubbed" in my mind.

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