Monday, May 19, 2008

Everything I learned about contests I learned the hard way

Today I would like to share with you my tips on entering the myriad forms of RWA sponsored contests. Please keep in mind these are my personal impressions, thoughts, and experiences--your results may vary. :)

First of all when you enter a contest you have to meet the basics. Pay attention to the type of contest. Is it the first chapter, the first line, the first 50 pages? You need to follow the contest guidelines. If you are unsure, contact the contest coordinator for details. Like Lee Duncan, this person can answer your basic questions with kindness, care, and wonderful wit.

Money is always an issue so check the price per page. A 30 dollar entry fee for 15 pages is very high. A 30 dollar entry fee for 55 pages is a bargain if the score sheet is detailed. Remember too that you have to pay postage and this can really add up. Electronically submitted entries can save you a lot in postage, but I’ve discovered most judges make minimal comments on the manuscript because it is more time consuming.

Beside cost, the next thing to look for is at least three judges with the lowest score dropped. This is good because you will inevitably get at least one judge who doesn’t connect with your work. Some contests essentially do the same thing with a discrepancy judge stepping in if there are more than X points between the two scores.

Also, look for contests that post the score sheet they use. That can give you a good idea of the kind of feedback you’ll get.

Another thing to watch: how to format. If a contest says “standard manuscript format” that is usually: 1" margins all around, drop down 1/3 page to start a chapter, 25 lines per page, and a non-proportional font like Courier New. However, you should always follow the contest guidelines. If they say use a certain font, then use it. If you are not sure, contact the contest coordinator--she is there to help you.

The other thing to look at is the final judge. Don’t bother entering if you don’t think that judge is looking for what you write. If you are only entering for feedback, then don’t worry about the final judge.

And now for the feedback. Most people who judge are writers and readers just like us. They genuinely want to help and can offer great advice but beware the snarky judge. It happens to everyone at some point. Nasty comments have a tendency to stick with us far longer than nice ones. Take the comments in stride but if a judge has crossed a line, contact the contest coordinator. No, they won’t change the score but they won’t ask that judge back next year. Abusive judges have no place in an RWA sponsored contest.

One other thing I learned is to have more than one manuscript. Entering can be a lot of fun and it can become addictive (hence the term contest ho or contest diva) but you don’t want to stop working on new stuff.

Feel free to ask any questions about contests or share your own stories.


Evonne Wareham said...

To me this is facinating - we don't have anything like this over here in the UK! Maybe it's time I dipped a toe in the Transatlantic water? I'm going to blog on Thursday about a 'Contest' over here. Very different.

Anitra Lynn McLeod said...

Hi Evonne! As Lee discussed they started to have electronic entries for our RWA members in the UK; otherwise the postage alone would make it too expensive.

I can't wait to hear about your contest over there. :)

Helen Scott Taylor said...

Although I live in the UK I've entered a number of RWA chapter contests. When I entered my first contest in 2004 (the first story I wrote and it made the final and came third!)there were very few accepting electronic entries, so I had to mail hard copies across to the States. In 2005 I found a few more accepting electronic entries. I then stuck to just entering the contests that took e entries, apart from a few important ones like the On The Far Side contest, but even that is electronic now. I found the contests useful for feedback, and had success, but nothing came of that success until AT. I stopped entering chapter contests at the end of 2006 as I felt I'd achieved all I could from them. The only contests I entered in 2007 were American Title and the Golden Heart. I do think the chapter contests are useful to new writers wanting feedback, and I'm sure for some people garner requests that prove fruitful.

Savanna Kougar said...

Anitra, I know what you mean about becoming 'addicted'. I have a competative nature, especially when I've played sports. And I noticed toward the end of my contesting year, there was this niggling large urge to write what would win contests. Just to win them. However, since my goal was to be published, I just let it go, and concentrated on writing my stories. That was not a trail I wanted to travel down. Contests can be great, but that's not the ulitimate goal.

Anitra Lynn McLeod said...

Helen: I think you do have to consider exactly what you want out of a contest. Winning is always great but if you are looking for a request then 1st, 2nd, or 3rd doesn't matter so much.

I've entered some strictly for feedback and others just to get my work under that editor/agents nose.

Anitra Lynn McLeod said...

Sav, there are plenty of people who final a lot and I'm sure their story is good but what happens when they get the request? Well, sadly, a lot of them have a perfectly polished first chapter but haven't really spent any time on the rest of the story. So, like you, I decided not to change my work to fit the contests. And yes, they can be a real rush! But to me the goal was always to be requested and eventually published.

Lee R. Duncan said...


Great advice!

And your word to the wise about comments is so true! Those awful comments do stay with us.

I keep a contest notebook where I file all the comments/score sheets by manuscript. For me, it helps to keep these notes all in one place. And I usually summarize each judge's remarks in one or two lines, so that recurring advice pops out at me.


Anitra Lynn McLeod said...

Hi Lee! I think that is a great idea to keep track so that reoccurring themes really pop out. One judge saying something doesn't mean I'd change it but if judge after judge comments on it . . . well, it's certainly worth a look. :)

Mel Hiers said...

Anitra, you pretty much answered the rest of my contest questions with this one post! :-)

Anitra Lynn McLeod said...

Mel, I'm glad to be of service! If you have any other questions you can always email me on the loop. :)

Terry Odell said...

I've just returned from an out of town trip -- no computer, no internet. Catching up slowly.

As a 3 time contest coordinator for my RWA chapter, and many-time judge of numerous contests, I can say Lee's given some great advice.

My top two pieces of advice are 1. Look at the score sheet. If they're full of places where a judge is required to evaluate the character and relationship of h/h and you write single title and your h/h won't have appeared on the same page before the contest page limit is up, don't bother. Judges are forced to quantify the subjective, which is a daunting task. If your manuscript doesn't fit the score sheet, it won't matter how great it is, because it's going to be a really tough call for the judges.

2. Look at the final round judges if you're using the contest as a stepping stone. Lee addressed this. Also, the same agents and editors might show up in numerous contests. When I was coordinating, one final round editor said she'd seen too many repeats of the same manuscripts.

As to the electronic entries, I loved them, and as a judge, I found I gave MORE feedback because it was so easy to type my comments.

Anitra Lynn McLeod said...

Hi Terry!

I can echo the score sheet constraints on judges. If they ask that question about the H/H and they don't meet, I have no choice but to score accordingly. That's why I love contests that post the score sheet; that way I can make sure I'm touching on all those points.

Also, my comment about electronic entries was my own personal experience. I found more detailed comments on the score sheet but less on the manuscript. However, I only entered four electronic contests so my sampling is limited. :)

Terry Odell said...

My comment on electronic scoring is totally "my own experience" as a judge.

Another "pet peeve" is contest that say "First chapter Not To Exceed XX pages." I write short chapters. My very first contest, I entered my first chapter -- which was 6 pages long!

When we revised our own contest, we made the rules strictly XX page maximum, because we felt that evened the playing field and judges were looking at comparable amounts of text.

Caveat - if you're entering that kind of contest, and you write 'short' you have the option of replacing your own Chapter demarcations with *** breaks. If you're going by page length, it's always smart to end with a page-turner, although as a judge, if the contest rules say 1st 25 pages, then I won't take off points if it ends on a less-than-cliff-hanger note. I do recommend trying to find a good place to end -- and never mid-sentence. You can always send a few pages LESS than the maximum.

Anitra Lynn McLeod said...

That is another great point, Terry, about "First chapter" contests. Like you, I write short zippy chapters.

I like contests where they say the first X pages too. That way, I can get my money's worth and also give the judge enough pages to judge.

And always, always end on a good hook. Almost every score sheet I've used as a judge or an entrant asks "Would you turn the page?" and you want them to score high.

Savanna Kougar said...

Hi, Terry, good points about entering contests in this day and age. It was somewhat different when I did RWA contests. Now it's bounty of opportunities, and a more complicate process, not to mention attempting to figure out which contest would work best. I know as an author I should probably be looking at some of those contest opportunities. But, honestly, I just don't have time.
Hey, maybe we should have a blog by someone who is an expert on Author RWA contest. What do you think?

Anitra Lynn McLeod said...

Sav: I think that would be a great idea as I'm sure there are a lot of differences. (Cost would be one as you'd have to have hard copies of the book.)

I'll see if I can find an author who is interested. If you find someone, feel free to set up a blog. :)

Savanna Kougar said...

Maybe, Trish knows a good person, since she has RWA connections.

Anitra Lynn McLeod said...

I contacted one author I know who has done a lot of published author contests but I think the more the merrier! I'll let you know if my contact pans out or not.

Anitra Lynn McLeod said...

Great news! Please stop by on July 18th for a published author view of contests. The wonderful Jade Lee will be with us for the whole weekend to talk about her experiences in contests and all her wonderful books.

Hope to see you all there!