No matter what genre you write in, there will come a time when you need to get some non-biased feedback. Your friends and your writing group will only take you so far. There are several contests that can help you hone your craft, and pinpoint weaknesses in your writing. You can find them with a thorough Google search, but not all contests are equal. Make sure you understand what you’ll be getting for your entrance fee, and what is expected in your submission.
When you’re researching the type of contests to enter, understand the criteria of what’s being judged. If the contest is to show excellence in grammar, be on point with your language. If they’re looking for a dramatic scene, don’t have the characters sitting around.
When you enter a contest, it’s similar to submitting a short story to a magazine or a book to an agent or an editor. There are guidelines that need to be followed. And not following them can cause you to be disqualified or rejected without anyone having looked at your work. The guideline can be as simple as use Courier font, twelve-point size. And if you use Times New Roman, ten-point size, that can be the end of your entry. In most cases, the contest coordinators won’t let you fix that error, so you’re out the entrance fee, and the chance for some valuable feedback.
Having that fresh pair of eyes on your work can be helpful, especially if you’ve tried to submit professionally and keep getting rejected. Depending on the contest, the judges will somtimes explain why they scored a section a certain way. You generally won’t get that type of feedback from editors or agents. They simply don’t have the time. A contest judge can tell you why a section isn’t working and can possibly give you suggestions to improve it. If you enter a contest where the judge is an editor or agent, you also may get a request from them to see more of your work. It can be a quick way to bypass the slush pile and attract their attention immediately.
Even if you aren’t looking to professionally publish your work, contests can still be worthwhile. In addition to the thrill of competition, it can be very gratifying to see how your writing is received by strangers. And of course, the prizes for winning can be equally rewarding. They can range from a monetary award, a trophy of some sort, or a certificate and a banner to post on your website or social media for bragging rights.
One of the larger contests is offered every year by the Romance Writers of America (RWA). In their annual RITA contest, which is named after one of the founders, anyone is welcome to submit a novel that was published the previous year. There is a fifty-dollar fee for the first entry and then the fee goes up exponentially if you want to submit another book. If you are a member of the RWA, you must also judge a category as well. A lot of beginning writers don’t feel that they’re qualified to judge, but that’s simply not true. We’re all readers. And the highest form of criticism comes from how readable your book is to new people.
In the case of the RITA, the finalists are announced before the annual conference. The excitement builds in the months leading up to the contest where the finalists are featured on blogs and industry websites. Finally, there is a big awards ceremony during the conference that rivals the Oscars in pageantry and ceremony. In the end when the winner is called, they are brought up onto the stage and handed a golden statue. In that moment, it’s like they are facing the Academy and they are encouraged to give a thank you speech. Every contestant, however, gets emailed a numeric score ranging from 1 to 10, with a matrix of what the finalists’ scores were. That way you can see how close you came, and how your peer judges ranked your book.
Not all contests are as dramatic as that. You can search around to find local writing chapters who do annual contests to raise money for their organization. For a small fee, you can submit a chapter or a scene, depending on the theme of the contest. Your entry is usually judged by literary agents, professional editors, and/or published authors. These smaller contests tend to give you more bang for the buck because the judges can be more detailed with their feedback.
Once you get your score sheets back from the contest, keep in mind that judging is subjective. What one person loves, another may hate. That’s why it’s important to take the comments you get with a grain of salt. Only you know how to tell your story. So, take what resonates with you, and disregard the rest. However, if you keep getting told repeatedly the same feedback, it might be something to start listening to.
Once you get a few contests under your belt, and they can be addicting because of the positive encouragement or the helpful tips, you will become better at submitting and you’ll find yourself placing higher and maybe even winning the grand prize. But like the lottery, you can’t win if you don’t play. So, brush up your manuscript and send it out.
USA Today bestselling author, Jamie K. Schmidt, writes contemporary love stories and paranormal romances. Her steamy, romantic comedy, Life’s a Beach, reached #2 on Barnes & Noble and #9 on Amazon and iBooks. Her Club Inferno series from Random House’s Loveswept line has hit both the Amazon and Barnes & Noble top one hundred lists and the first book in the series, Heat, put her on the USA Today bestseller list for the first time. Her dragon paranormal romance series from Entangled Publishing, has been called “fun and quirky” and “endearing.”