I whole-heartedly endorse writing contests. As most of you know, last year I finaled in a national contest, and the recognition helped propel my writing career forward. As a result of the final, I acquired an agent and four months later she sold my book.
I think we can all agree that writing contests offer many advantages:
• Contests are a fairly inexpensive way to get feedback.
• Contests force us to focus on our openings and make them shine.
• Contests can help us gauge where we’re at in relation to other writers in our genre.
• Sometimes contests can get our work before editors and agents who often judge the final rounds.
By all means, enter contests. When I was trying to decide whether to enter the Genesis, my mother told me, “What do you have to lose by entering this year?” I decided I had nothing to lose if I entered. In fact I had everything to gain.
But. . . I’ve also seen unpublished writers who enter contest after contest, year after year. Some of them even final in the contests. Sometimes more than one. But they don’t make much progress forward in their writing careers, or at least that I can see.
That begs the question: What good is a contest to a writer, if we don’t use it to move us forward in our writing careers?
How then, can writers make the most of writing contests?
1. Take to heart the feedback and use it to improve. Yes, the critiques are often hard to swallow. I’m a judge this year for the Genesis, and I’m giving a lot of feedback on each entry (more specifics in the next post). Overall, my goal is not to tear stories apart, but to help writers grow.
Writers shouldn’t rush to change everything based on a judge’s feedback. However, when it comes to the basics of fiction-writing, there’s really no arguing—we need to be open to the advice and let it push us to the next level.
2. Polish the first pages, but make sure the story is solid. Have an editor or critique partner read through the entry before submitting it. Make sure the first pages are as polished as can be. After all, those are the pages we’ll likely send in a query, and we want them to be able to grab the attention of an agent someday.
Don’t stop there. Make sure the rest of the novel is just as superb. In one of the entries I judged, the writer hooked me with his/her first chapter. But when I read the synopsis, I wasn’t impressed with the direction the rest of the story took. No matter how good the writing in the first chapter is, if the rest of the book doesn’t follow suit, we’ll likely have a hard time garnering interest.
3. Do everything possible to capitalize on a final. First and foremost, writers should finish their books before entering or make sure they’re well on track to finish before the final round of judging begins. I’ve seen too many finalists unable to take advantage of a prestigious final because the book wasn’t completed.
A final is a good opportunity to follow-up with agents/editors who might have the manuscript or to send out queries mentioning the final (only if the contest is a national contest that most agents/editors would recognize). After I finaled I made sure I notified Rachelle who had my full in her slush pile.
In other words, be smart, savvy, and strategic. A contest can only benefit a writer to the extent that the writer works at it.
What about you? Have you entered any contests lately? How are you trying to make the most of the contest? What other words of wisdom do you have for writers entering contests?