Winning a Writing Contest Means You’re Perfect

on December 1, 2014 Anna Leave a reply

A mere $25-35 fee is a small price to pay for thoughtful, courteous critique from seasoned (and often published) writers. That’s how it went in my head, anyway, before I attended RWA#14 and eavesdropped on enough conversations to discover there are some horror stories out there. From what I heard (or overhead), entering a writing contest can be risky.

What if, for example, instead of getting one of those thoughtful, courteous professional judges, you end up with one who eviscerates your writing with all the finesse of a rabid dog attacking a bloody carcass? Believe me, you feel it when you’ve been a victim of the “slash and trash” method of judging. It leaves bite marks.

So, do you put your neck into that foaming mouth and hope for the best?

Well, that depends. Why did you enter the contest? What do you expect to gain from the experience? Are you focused on the win, or on the judge’s feedback? Are you a serial entrant, or do you only enter contests to gain access to specific industry professionals? If you know why you’re there, you’re more likely to get what you need and avoid the bite marks.

My First Time

The Beau Monde’s “first chapter” contest was my first. You never forget your first. The judges were firm but gentle, critical but kind, passionate but . . . well, you get the idea. Suffice it to say they gave me just what I needed. I couldn’t have asked for a better first time.

I’d love to say my entry blew everyone away and I won the contest, but it didn’t, and I didn’t. I didn’t even make it to the final round. One judge took issue with the book’s starting point because it didn’t grab the reader by the throat. I rewrote the chapter, but newbie that I was (am?) I didn’t quite comprehend a total overhaul of the first chapter often triggers an avalanche in the rest of the book. I ended up rewriting chapters 2-17, as well. Because of one judge’s comment, and almost without realizing it, I’d reached second draft status for the first 2/3 of the book.

Another Beau Monde judge said she couldn’t tell the difference between the hero’s and heroine’s voices. I remember thinking at the time, “Huh. I never thought of that.” The issue wasn’t that I couldn’t differentiate the voices; it just hadn’t occurred to me. A rookie mistake, but I was (am?) a rookie, and rookies need to be schooled.

Winning the Contest Means You’re Perfect

By the time I entered my second contest I’d finished my book. I was better prepared this time, and I won the contest. There’s no doubt about it—a win is gratifying. We writers do have our egos, after all. My entry was perfect, of course—otherwise I wouldn’t have won, right?

Wrong, rookie. One sharp-eyed judge went “track changes” crazy on my entry. Head hopping, passive voice, weak verbs? Yes, yes, and yes. I studied her critique, and lo and behold I found head hopping, passive voice and weak verbs throughout the entire manuscript, not just the contest entry. Funny how that happens. My book had issues, but thanks to a great critique I had the opportunity to address them before I sent the manuscript off to prospective agents.

My point is this: if you get a great critique, work it, and work it hard. Work it like a go-go dancer works a cage and thigh-high white boots.

Winning isn’t Everything—It’s the Only Thing

It may interest you to know the editor who crowned me queen of the contest did not request a partial from me, much less a full, and in general she seemed unimpressed with my scene, despite my win. Don’t believe me? One of her comments (verbatim) read, “. . . this is not an original or extremely interesting idea.”

It’s hardly an evisceration, but still. Ouch.

I’d entered the contest specifically to get my work in front of that particular editor—a good reason, in my humble opinion, to enter. Contests are a great way to access otherwise inaccessible people in the business. But alas, a contest win will not necessarily result in a request for a closer look at your book. Editors and agents have numerous reasons for turning down work, many of which are a mystery to writers.

If your only goal in entering is to win, you may be missing out on the most valuable part of the experience. I hate to say it, but your mother was right. It’s not about whether you win or lose. It’s about how good the judges’ critique is.

The Afterglow

I’m not going to lie to you. It feels amazing to win and to receive glowing praise from judges. Don’t hesitate to bask in that glow. Roll around in that warm fuzzy—you worked hard for it, and chances are you won’t have the opportunity to sun yourself in your own spotlight for long. Remember, there are editors and agents out there, some of whom specialize in evisceration. If a few bite marks help us grow a thicker skin, well—let’s just say a thick skin is an advantage in this industry.

The Verdict

When it comes to writing contests, enter at your own risk. You can’t choose your judges, so you may lose a finger or two. Before you decide against it, though, ask yourself this: do the benefits of a great critique outweigh the drawbacks of a bad one?

After all—what’s a few fingers?

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