Monday, May 17, 2010

Are Contests Worth the Price?

As writers, we’ve all either entered contests or been tempted to. Most contests have an entry fee, and it’s sometimes difficult to justify the expenditure. In addition to the fee, there are shipping expenses, and sometimes, if you final, you have additional expense. Most contests do not accept digital entries, which is understandable. Who wants to read from a monitor?
As an author, I’ve been on both sides of the table. I’ve judged the South Carolina Writers’ Workshop entries, and more recently, the Pikes Peak conference entries. I’ve also entered contests throughout my writing career. From the judge’s side, I’ll tell you I’d much rather sit down with a cup of tea and read through entries, than stare at the same monitor I’ve worked at all day. That said, I understand why contests ask for hard copies for an entry.
As a writer, yes, my early entries didn’t reach the mark. But after many workshops and classes on the craft of writing, I saw a sea-change in the scores.
Now on to the wisdom of entering contests. A writer, unless you’ve won the lottery, should be selective about contests.
First, do a little research to see if this is a legitimate contest or simply a scam. It’s pretty easy to find out. If the contest is sponsored by a legitimate writers’ group, like an RWA chapter or Historical Novel Society, or by a state association like Florida Writers, you know it’s legit.
Next, read the details to see who is judging. Don’t look at the prize money or the award. Except for the most prestigious awards, the prizes aren’t big. The real win, the biggest reward, is that you can use a nice win to catch the eye of an agent or editor. Most admit that contest wins get their attention.
Thirdly, look to see if the contest returns comments, or only scores. That’s one objection I have to entering the national RWA contest—no comments, just numbers, and from whom? Published? Unpublished? You have no way of knowing. On the other hand, if a contest offers feedback (which most every RWA chapter contest does), it’s like getting a mini-critique.
An aside, and one worth noting for published and unpublished writers: strangely, there are contests which do not take ARCs. Your professionally-edited book can/must be entered in unpublished, if the release date falls after the contest-entry deadline. This seems to me a bit unfair to an unpublished author who has to compete with your edited book. I don’t really understand the reasoning for not accepting an ARC.
Recently, I entered a small local contest. To my surprise, all three finalists’ entries were sent to places like HarperCollins, Medallion, etc. for final judging. Not only that, the contest offered a breakdown of genres, so that my historical wouldn’t be lost in the Mainstream category, or bunched in with SciFi.
To my delight, both my two entries finaled. One went to Medallion, the YA went to HarperCollins for final judging. After reading comments from both editors (one of whom gave me First Place for my historical, The Glass Partridge), I went to work and revised according to their suggestions. No, I didn’t get a contract, but now, in a query letter, I can say “an editor at Medallion gave this story First Place in the final round of judging”. How cool is that? Feedback from an editor, and bragging rights, all for forty-five dollars. If anyone’s interested, the contest, Do it! Write, was sponsored by the Pasco chapter of the Florida Writers Association. It was opened to non-members, too. So look at local and regional contests. I know, it’s like buying a lottery ticket, but you can’t win without trying.


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Joyce,

Good advice regarding contests! I'm a bit leery of them. But in earlier days when a good many contests were free, I did enter some and got some nice wins. However, these days, there are more scams than ever and you really have to read the fine print in the rules. Even some of the so-called free contests are not actually "free" because they will "publish" your work whether you win a prize or not. Thus to lose the right to sell first rights for pay. My advice to all writers out there is to be very careful about the contests you enter.

Anonymous said...

Hi Joyce. GREAT topic and good points all. I "came up" through contests, so this is a dear subject to me. I say ENTER THEM . . . choose wisely, submit your best work, and be prepared for whatever flies back your way. I do believe it's an excellent way to "build energy" around your writing.

Terry Odell said...

I've been on both sides. I've won and finaled in contests, and I judged for many groups.

I have no problem judging electronic entries--and if it's a hardship for a judge...well, you can always print them out. I've done a lot of judging, both on paper and digitally, as well as belonging to on-line critique groups. Since I type faster (and more legibly) than I write, I figure I'm giving much more feedback on the electronic entries.

But that's of little consequences. My advice to those who are looking for contest to enter: Read the scoresheet FIRST. If your work isn't going to fit the criteria the judges are shackled to (it's so hard to quantify the subjective), then look for another one.

Also, if you've reached the point where you're getting positive feedback and/or finaling, then look at the final round judges. Do they acquire what you write? If not, you might be wasting your entry fees.

Mary Ricksen said...

I rarely can justify the expense, but I do love to enter contests.
Just for the feed back if not alone!

Beth Groundwater said...

What about contests for published works? Or is that a whole new topic? I know a lot of them are held by RWA chapters, for instance.

Anonymous said...

Terry, I love your advice about reading the scoresheet first! Thanks for that!

Joyce Elson Moore said...

Jacqueline: That's so true. Scams abound. Authors really have to do their homework for sure. Interesting point you make, too, about losing first rights.

Joyce Elson Moore said...

Drue: I like your phrase, "build energy", because that's really what good contests can do.

Joyce Elson Moore said...

Terry: I've judged both ways, and if it's only first chapter or so, that's no problem. Also, like you, I type faster than I write, and do prefer giving critiques online, and filling out scoresheets online. Most contests do this anymore anyway, even while requiring hard copy from contestants. Most times, if digital entries are long, I print them out. Also, some contests won't make public their scoresheets (to contestants). All depends on the contest. Most I've judged for are very well run. They make it easier to do judging and to give good feedback.

Joyce Elson Moore said...

Mary: Thanks for stopping by! Yes, I think most writers enter for feedback of some kind, either comments or a scoresheet. Some are very thorough. Again, it depends on the quality of judges, too.

Joyce Elson Moore said...

Hi Beth: That really is a separate topic, you're right, although I did mention ARCs in my post. Heck, you write mysteries. No problem there finding contests. I write historicals with romantic elements, so it's harder to find contests for those. Of course they always encourage you to enter Mainstream. I have found that if I suggest that next time they have a category for Historical fiction, some have it the next year.
I'm always looking for contests to enter. There are hundreds for short stories--fewer for novels. Thanks for stopping by!

Joyce Elson Moore said...

Rebbie: Like I told Terry, some contests display the scoresheet so contestants will know exactly what they're being judged on, but others don't, they just say something generic, like "judged on pace, character development" etc. So of course if they offer a scoresheet to a contestant, I'd think anyone entering would surely look at it. A scoresheet, though, isn't going to be the deciding factor as to wheter I enter or not. It's who's judging, and where the ms. has a chance to go.

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