Confessions of a Contest Winner

by Willa Blair

Have you ever entered a contest? No? For heaven’s sake, why not?  Where else can you get anonymous feedback on your work?

There are lots of contests available to you. It doesn’t matter if you’re pre-published or have dozens of books on the shelves; there are contests for you, all the way up to the RWA Golden Heart for pre-published authors and RWA Rita for published works.  Many RWA chapters run contests, and the contest coordinator in your category is the only one who sees your name–the judges don’t.  Check RWA’s website for lists of chapter contests and dates. Most run between June and August.

Feedback is honest (some might say blunt) but remember that it’s not coming from friends telling you what they think you want to hear or even what they think will help you. The feedback comes from strangers reacting solely to what they read on the page (or on the screen).  And being individuals, the different judges who review your work may have very different, even conflicting, opinions of it. You can learn a lot from that.

But if the judges do their job as they should, whether you win, place or barely get out of the gate, you’ll be a winner. You’ll come away with ideas, suggestions, and critique that point out the weaknesses in your story or in your writing, as well as suggestions for improvement.  You’ll also find out what works, what turns of phrase they really like, and what your strengths are.

Becoming a finalist in a contest is a professional high point, no doubt about it. I rank the phone call telling me I was a finalist in the 2011 Marlene Paranormal category right up there with the call that an actor gets who has been nominated for an Academy Award.  And the win was even better. This year, I won the SARA Merritt Paranormal category for a different book, and that process was just as thrilling. But in both cases, besides the certificates and mementos, the value that I took from the contests was the feedback from the judges and from the publishing house editors who picked the winners from among the finalists.

Some tips:

Read and understand the rules of the contest. If you don’t follow those, you can’t win. Your entry might even be refused and returned to you.

Clean up your entry.  Contest judges want clean, grammatical submissions just like editors do. And if you final, a publishing house editor will be reading your submission, so give the contest entry the same scrutiny you would give a partial- or full-manuscript submission to a publisher you hope will buy your book.

Tighten, tighten, tighten that synopsis. And then polish, polish, polish.  Most contests only allow five pages.  That’s not a lot and it’s tough to tell the story of your entire book in five pages: the romance, the stakes for the hero and heroine, and how they grow together. But you can do it if you’re ruthless in your editing.

Good luck and remember, you have to enter to win!

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3 Replies to “Confessions of a Contest Winner”

  1. Thanks for a great post Willa. Contest can be an awesome learning tool. Judging them is another way to learn and move forward in your career. Just one word of warning, judges are people too and sometimes just say inappropriate things. Don’t ever let that stop you fro writing, but dig, in learn what you can and keep writing.

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