*Thank you to my fellow Golden Heart finalists for providing some of the contest links!*
If you're serious about your writing career, you've probably already realized that getting published is an uphill battle. The road to being published is littered with discarded manuscripts, worn-out ideas, rejection letters, harsh critiques, and consolation tubs of Ben & Jerry's. Or maybe that's just me.
You can be a strong, imaginative writer and never be published. Why? Well, that's the million dollar question. "Why" is different for each writer. Maybe you need some serious critiquing of your manuscript to whip it into shape. Maybe you've trotted out an old idea and littered your manuscript with cliches. Maybe your idea is original but parts of your execution are flawed. Maybe the right person has yet to see your material. Maybe you're two steps ahead or behind the market.
Whatever the reason, entering contests can be one avenue to addressing many of those issues. Before I go into the benefits to entering contests and how to use them to your advantage, let me say one thing.
Get thee to a critique group - preferably one of the junkyard dog variety - first. There's no point entering contests with an unpolished manuscript. You won't get far enough to get helpful feedback. And before you assure me that others have read (and loved!) your manuscript, allow me to inform you that your mother, you spouse, and your two best friends do not count as critique partners. Either they love you too much to be totally honest, or they lack the expertise to truly identify and coach you through your weaknesses.
That said, once you have a polished manuscript, contests can give you an edge in this industry. Contests come in all shapes and sizes, from "first chapter" contests (Enter one if you find one! Your first chapter sells or rejects your ms to an agent!), to complete manuscript contests, to hook or query writing contests on literary blogs. Deciding what you need to get from a contest helps you to narrow down your options to those that are right for you.
BENEFITS OF CONTESTS:
1. Polishing Craft: these are the contests on popular agent or writer's blogs (like fangs, fur, and fey located on my sidebar) where unpubbed authors can write hooks or queries or send in first chapters and get honest, quick feedback from the published authors who run the blogs as well as from the other writers who read the blog.
2. Manuscript Litmus Test: smaller contests (like those run by some local RWA chapters) that judge first chapters, specific scenes from your novel, prologues etc. If the contest offers specific feedback from its judges, you can learn quite a bit about the impact (or lack thereof) your manuscript has on potential readers.
3. Gaining the Attention of Editors: many of the smaller contests have some published authors and an editor or two judging them and you never know what will come of that. All of the national contests that I'm aware of have a team of acquiring editors waiting to read and judge your work. The upside of this is, of course, that even without winning you can gain the attention of an editor who wants to read more of your manuscript. The downside (not really a downside, more a word to the wise) is that in national contests like this, with hundreds of entries, your manuscript must pass a first round of judges (usually pubbed and unpubbed authors alike) to reach the judges. Like I said, get thee to a critique group.
4. Getting Your Name Out: all of these contests benefit you as you build your "brand" by getting your name into literary circles. As long as you maintain your professionalism and capitalize on any momentum gained by your contest entries, this is a good thing. The publishing world is all about networking and you can't network if you don't know anyone.
Personally, I don't enter contests that don't provide either specific feedback from editors, agents, or respected published authors or national name recognition with a shot at a publishing deal. (I'll take one without the other.)
HOW TO USE CONTESTS TO YOUR ADVANTAGE:
1. Network: I entered FFF's hook writing contest last year and was chosen as a semi-finalist. My work was posted for anyone on the site to critique and those critiques helped me as I re-worked both my hook and my first chapter. Also, by getting my work out there and by commenting on other writer's work, I met my current critique partner Katy, gained a working relationship with a published author, and garnered the interest of a stellar agent. This year I've finaled in the Golden Heart and am on a loop with the other finalists, an invaluable resource of combined experience, encouragement, and connections. Wisely entering contests and then becoming an active participant forges connections you need to succeed in publishing.
2. Feedback: I research contests before I enter so I know what type of feedback I can expect. Any viable feedback can be used to your advantage in helping you craft your novel into a marketable masterpiece. I encourage you to take any feedback you receive, let it sink in for a few days to move you beyond your first reaction, and then decide how/if to use it. It's up to you if you decide to incorporate the feedback you receive but I would say if you hear the same general idea from more than one source, you now have some very helpful critiques to use in shaping your novel.
3. Leverage: Sucess in contests or complimentary feedback from a recognizable source can be used as leverage to get your ms in front of the right people. For example, I'm currently querying DTR and I'm using results from two contests to get myself in the door. First, when I send e-queries my subject line reads "Query- Golden Heart Finalist". I want an agent looking through her inbox of 89 messages, all saying Query to see mine and think "Hey! Someone who's already passed a 'can you write a decent manuscript' test. Let's start there." In the body of my query, as part of my "stats" paragraph, I say that DTR is a GH finalist and that a critique by Publisher's Weekly (gained during my semi-finalist stage in the Amazon.com contest) said its strengths are "perfect setting, emminently likeable characters, and sharp, funny dialoge". That's taking contest results and using them to my advantage.
Where to find reputable contests:
Romance Contests Loop: lists current contests, deadlines, finalists, and winners.
Romance Writers of America: membership gets you a monthly publication listing current contests, workshops, mini-conferences, which editors are currently looking for submissions, as well as author-written articles covering all aspects of the craft.
Stephie Smith Contest Links: lists contests, eligibility, deadlines/fees, and the judges' details.
Mystery Writers of America: similar perks as RWA but for those who write crime, thrillers, suspense (with or without a romance element).
Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America: Similar perks as RWA for sci-fi and fantasy writers.
*As a note for writers with elements of romance in their novels, the most presitigious contests within the romance genre and/or those with excellent feedback (according the Contest Queens, my fellow Golden Heart finalists) are as follows: The Golden Heart, The Maggie, The Daphne du Maurier, The Molly, The Linda Howard, Put Your Heart In A book, The Sheila, American Title, The Emily, and The Laurie. I'm sure there are others as well so if you're reading this and you have a recommendation, please leave a comment!