I believe they offer a great deal of value to writers in multiple ways. I shared some of the benefits of contests for both published and unpublished writers in this post: Why Bother With Writing Contests?
In fact, finaling in a writing contest is what led to my big break. In 2009, I entered a contest for unpublished writers with two manuscripts. Both of the books finaled. After getting the phone call regarding the final, I emailed the agent who had my book sitting in her slush pile (she’d already requested the full of one of my manuscripts but hadn’t gotten around to reading it yet).
The contest final perked the agent’s attention. She plucked the manuscript from her slush pile. Three days later she called and offered me representation. Three months later we held a contract in our hands for a three-book deal. (Sometimes good things really do come in threes!)
So, yes, contests can be pivotal in a writer’s career. Of course, contests can also be a huge waste of time and money, especially for writers who aren’t ready in their writing skills. Or for writers who don’t take the time to prepare.
Before I entered my manuscripts in the writing contest, I spent hours honing the pages that would be a part of the entry. The books were already finished (I don’t recommend entering contests with unfinished manuscripts). I’d already self-edited the manuscripts. But I took even more time to make sure those first pages were in top-notch shape.
That extra preparation can help give our manuscripts an edge.
Here are 4 things writers can do to increase their chances of winning a writing contest:
1. Open your manuscript with a strong hook. The first line. The first paragraph. Even more than that, the first scene. Each one is extremely critical and should be crafted to bait the reader into needing to find out more. Start with the real conflict. Add tension right away. Don’t worry about setting up the story just yet.
2. Make the story read smoothly. Don’t use clichés. Pick words carefully. String sentences together seamlessly so that the reader cannot tell if you’re an amateur writer or a professional. In other words, don’t make awkward beginner mistakes, especially in the first page that may automatically influence a judge’s opinion about the rest of your manuscript.
3. Polish the entry until it sparkles. Do a big picture edit, then a line-edit. Take the time to get every detail right. Send it to a critique partner for feedback. If possible, pay a freelance editor read through your entry (preferably the first 15-30 pages).
4. Enter multiple contests. If the judges offer feedback, make sure to use their ideas as a springboard for improving your manuscript. (This will require developing a thick skin!) Then after making the changes, enter the manuscript in another contest. Don’t give up. Feedback from each judge can make the entry better for the next contest.
The practice of polishing our first chapter for contests won’t be wasted effort. Even if you never final in a contest, the work will help make the manuscript all that much better for querying and publishing.
After all, when we query or publish our manuscripts, we’ll only have those first few pages to hook our readers. If they see beginner mistakes right away in our manuscript, they’ll likely brand us as an amateur. They’ll be our harshest critics, much more so than contest judges.
So why not do the hard work of perfecting the first pages as much as we possibly can?
And if you have the chance, enter a contest or two. You never know what may happen as a result.
Side Note: For those writing romance, the Golden Heart Awards Contest through RWA (for unpublished writers) starts accepting entries sometime in September. NOW is the time to begin polishing your entries!
So what about you? Have you entered any writing contests? What efforts do you make to polish the first pages of your manuscript (whether you enter contests of not)?