Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Contest Experience- I survived!

Ok so this fall I entered a number of contests. Aside from one entry last year, this was my first foray into the world of RWA contestland.

It was interesting.

And I don’t think I’ll do it again :).

Now, it’s nothing against contests in general, or RWA in particular, I’m just not sure how much feedback I can winnow out that is not related to me not having followed established romance parameters- particularly for not introducing the “meeting of the mates” sooner.

Of course, I don’t write Romance books- so that could be the problem. But as someone who reads Romance, I would argue that many books I have enjoyed don’t have the romance build in until AFTER the first 20-25 pages (the length of a standard contest sub.) In fact I find myself very annoyed with the sudden introduction and immediate “falling for each other but fighting it” that is often found in romances.

I want it to build. Having them be “inexplicably drawn to each other on first sight” on page 12 just doesn’t work for me. So even if and when I do cross into writing Romance, I would still have this problem in terms of contests.

Now, there was some good feedback, and once I finish the rough of The Glass Gargoyle I’ll be really digging into the feedback and adding in what works.

Here’s some things that don’t work:

1) Giving a high score and NO comments. Most contests say the judges have to comment for a half or less score. Well one of the highest scores I got had no comments. Which makes me wonder- did the judge even read it? Or were they in a rush and just gave very high scores just to get it done? I was also a judge in this contest (different categories than I was entered obviously) but even on the ones I LOVED, I made comments. To anyone out there who may find themselves judging- do it right, give some feedback- or don’t do it! The high but useless score is akin to a critique where the person just says, “I loved it!” Nice to hear but useless for feedback.

2) Commenting on how well a specific aspect was done- then giving a low score for that aspect. Ok, what’s up with that? The judge forgot which number meant “good”? This happened a number of times; the comments didn’t match up with the scores. And I’m not talking about the “I’m criticizing you so now I’ll say something nice to make you feel better”- I’m talking “Loved this!” then being given a 3 (think C) for that component. SIGH. Not real helpful.

Things that did work:
1) Getting your work in front of folks who don’t know you and who you hope will be honest. Really did get a few bits of good feedback and ideas. I think for newer writers this could be a way to toughen the skin anonymously.

2) The chance to final. Ok, I didn’t think this would be a big deal- but when they announced my name it was cool. LOL. As writers we don’t get all that many kudos moments and that one rocked. And taking second in the Miss Snark’s First Victim contest REALLY rocked.

So for the fall I entered the blog Miss Snarks First Victim’s Secret Agent Contest (Sept) and came in second (with a request for a full from an agent) * I cannot recommend this blog enough- go NOW- great stuff there*.

Then entered the Golden Palm Contest with one entry- didn’t final;
the On The Far Side Contest– two didn’t final, one did;
and the Launching a Star- no word back yet.

All and all it’s been an interesting experience- both not as bad as I feared, nor as good as I hoped;).

Any of you have great ups or great downs brought on by entering contests?


  1. Okay, I'm taking this opportunity to say what I wanted to on FB and didn't. I also did the contest thing and got my scores back. Everyone did give feedback. I had a perfect score from one judge, a very high score from another judge and then there was the judge who thought I should give an info dump before the inciting incident and gave me a shitty score because I didn't. She also thought I should show his day to day activities...uh hello...did she bother to pay attention to what he was doing before the inciting incident? I did very well but didn't final. Am I a sore loser? Sounds like it. I don't know if I will bother with any more contests after that experience.

  2. I think the feedback is valuable, no matter how ridiculous it is. I got the lowest possible score, and a lot of it had to do with my refusal to put the 'meeting of mates' up front, and also the futuristic aspect was more of a hard science fiction than romantic science fiction (though the core of the story involves a romance - in the opening the female goes into male disguise, so its a little hard to introduce the romantic aspect on page 12 without having homoerotic elements to the story). One review complained of too much backstory, another review completely didn't understand what was going on. It's a little hard to sort out. Nonetheless, from my standpoint, the reader is always right.

    One consolation, that author Kresley Cole (Immortals after Dark) recently told me that she had 25 contest entries going at the same time (continually) while she was unpublished, and half the time she felt like the judges just didn't 'get' her stories. But she listened carefully to all the advice, and threw out what was not appropriate to the story she was trying to build. She was getting scores back every two weeks. I think this is a great (though costly) strategy.

    Yeah, I was disappointed that the judges didn't 'get' my story, but it's my job to create an opening that 'works'. I especially can't have readers who completely don't understand a single thing that happens (though from the other judges comments, this particular judge must have been lazy).

    Bottom line - I'm particularly thankful to the one judge who really took the time to write detailed comments (and who seemed to 'get it') That set of comments was worth the cost of admission.

  3. I've backed off contests recently now that I have an agent and am trying to rework my pieces for submission through her eyes, and I trust them. I think you have to trust your agent, even when they come up with things that challenge us as writers.
    But when you don't have that, I think contests are a good way to just find out what people think of your writing cold. My CPs are used to my style (a good reason to change them frequently), and "get" me, know a lot about me and how I've gotten here. But a "cold" reader gets confused, and although we may not agree with the "fixes" they come up with, the fact that they see a problem is something to consider.
    I've even made the mistake of editing my ms every time I got contest feedback. Not good. My villain, who wasn't enough of a "dresser" to one judge, appeared "gay" to the next judge on a later submission. Okay if I'm writing gay romance, but I'm not.
    Best advice I got on contests was from Karin Harlow: "Put on your blood spatter apron and visor and get ready for the gore."

  4. I entered some contests a couple years ago, but I had the same results. Some of the judges just didn't "get" it since I was entering an urban fantasy, which didn't fit the paranormal romance "meeting of the mates" standard. And I also had two "hero" types at the beginning, so they kept wanting to know which one was the hero. lol Ack!

    No more contests for me. Besides, I like feedback, but I'd rather have a critique partner than toss down money for the chance that the judge might not read my story well or just doesn't get it.

  5. Oh, by the way! Congrats on the final!

  6. I saw this today at Suzanne Lazaer's blog, and wanted to pass it along.
    Here's the original URL:

    No-Nos from contest entries:

    1. Not focusing (or not focusing enough) on the main character in the first chapter so that the reader never really gets a sense of the character–thus making her/him unrelatable:

    Three entries (15%) All three of these manuscripts all felt really raw, like the writer was just starting out and hadn’t gotten quite the hang of everything. (Like everything else, writing takes practice and we all suck at the beginning. It’s part of how it is. I vividly remember the feedback from first contest I ever entered.) Make me care about your characters. I don’t have to like them, but they have to be interesting enough that I want to read on and see what happens. Don’t just tell me what they’re doing–tell me why they’re doing it and how it makes them feel. Make me experience the story along with them.

    2. Introducing a love interest too soon or in the wrong way/in a clichéd way:

    One entry (5%) Only one offender–this surprised me since most of these manuscripts were romance focused.

    3. Lack of plot focus early on so the reader has no idea what the story is about or where it’s going by the 2nd, 3rd or even 4th chapter:

    Seven entries (35%) This is one of those common errors that make me talk to my laptop. What is this story going to be about? You don’t need to spell it out, but give me an idea—please. Knowing the premise is different than knowing what the story is about. For example, I might get that a story is steampunk, but that’s not the plot of the story. If they made this mistake they usually made #5 as well.

    4. Limited, forced, awkward or unnecessary dialogue and exchanges:

    Four entries (20%) These stories tended to also feel like they were from very beginning writers just learning the craft. I was actually surprised that only four fell into this category—the YA voice can be tricky. Just like a pair of brass goggles doesn’t make your story steampunk, a sixteen-year-old and a high school doesn’t make your story YA.

    5. Opening with mundane scenes usually set in equally mundane places:

    Eight entries (40%) Another common error that has me shouting at my laptop going “no, no. no….start the story here.” Unfortunately, since the entries were usually 20-25 pages, I didn’t always get to the part in the story where I felt it should start. These stories usually also fit in number #3. I’ve found that a good rule of thumb is to either start your story in the middle of the action or start your story where the MC’s life changes forever.

  7. 6. Amazing first chapter but rest of the work lacks development:

    Four entries (20%) I think we’re all guilty of this at one time or another. We obsess so badly over our first chapter that we don’t always put that care (or have the time to put that care) into the rest of it. Whatever you’re sending in, whether it’s 250 words or 250 pages, should all shine equally.

    7. The kitchen sink syndrome:

    Eleven entries (55%) The biggest offender, this, too, makes me talk to my laptop. Vary your sentence structure and length. Try not to start sentences with “and.” In first person don’t start all you sentences with “I.” Watch for word reputation. Shake it up and make things interesting.

    8. Introduction of too many characters too soon many of whom are irrelevant to the progress of the scene or story:

    Three entries (15%) I feel the pain on this one. It can be very easy to introduce too many characters at once, especially if your character is at school or a party or someplace social. Take a hard look at that scene, can it be cut? Sometimes scenes with lots of people are also the mundane scenes in mundane places or scenes that fail to move the story forward. Also, one of the hardest lessons can be to “kill the babies.” (I hate deleted characters but sometimes you have to do it for the good of the story.)

    9. Too many scenes which fail to move the story forward:

    Eight entries (40%) People who made this mistake usually made #5 & #3. Someone once told me that if you have even the barest slightest inkling that you should cut a scene—cut it. Save it, just in case, but 99% of the time you won’t miss it. I’ve found this to be very useful advice.

    10. Lack of authentic experience for the reader:

    Six entries (30%) This can be really blatant in YA. Authenticity is a must for YA. Nothing pulls me out of a story faster than this. Read. Read, read, read in your genre. Do your research. If you’re writing YA, listen to how they talk, know how their schools work, get them to beta read for you. These little details can really help enrich a story, not to mention keep teens from rolling their eyes.

    11. “And then” syndrome:

    One entry (5%) I was surprised that there wasn’t more of this. This is one of those I personally struggle with.


    Seven entries (35%) These were the ones that felt very choreographed. They also tended to violate #7. It can be very tempting to do this, believe me, I know. Don’t be afraid to leave a little bit to the reader’s imagination. If in doubt, leave it out. If several beta readers comment that they’re confused, then you know it’s safe to add in a little detail.

  8. Thanks for the comments all!
    JC- I don't think you're a sore loser at all. I think your points are very valid.

    Claudia- thanks for posting Suzanne's blog- great stuff. And yeah sometimes we do get feedback that changes everything.

    Sharon- ouch! On the editing after each contest. But it's great you don't need to deal with them anymore :).

    Sarah- Thanks! Yeah this was interesting, but I think I'm done with most contests myself. Too dang expensive for one thing!