BioBooksAwardsComing NextContactBlogFun StuffHome

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Contest Circuit

I was an unpublished contest slut.

I entered Ravyn's Flight in probably a dozen contests before it sold. I know, of course, that there are writers who've entered many more contests than that, but I sold RF fast. From first contest with the revised version to sale was slightly over four months.

I've also judged contests, although I didn't do it until after I'd sold. It was very interesting seeing it from this side of the fence. So what did I learn? Lots. And in a random fashion (ie how it pops into my head), I'm going to share some of it here.

First and most important. SEND THANK YOU NOTES. I don't care if you think the judge is a complete idiot. SEND THANK YOU NOTES. If you can't honestly thank them for their comments--and sometimes it's hard--thank them for the time they took to read your entry.

I've heard writers complain that they don't have enough time to write thank you notes. Really? You can't take 5 minutes to write a thank you note to a judge who probably spent at least two hours reading and rereading your entry? I suggest you find the time.

There are published authors judging contests. What happens if you sell and need a quote? What happens if you contact an author you really admire and ask her to give you a quote for your first book, Jane Doe's Big Adventure? What happens if this author read your entry in a contest and didn't get a thank you? And if you think published authors don't care about receiving a thank you note, think again. This topic has come up several times and every author who I've heard voice an opinion says it definitely makes a difference to them. Five minutes for a thank you note can generate a lot of good will for you later. Trust me on this one. And yes, I sent a thank you note to every judge who ever read Ravyn's Flight. Even if I was two months late, I still sent it because they deserved that courtesy.

Tip Two. Get someone to proof your entry for you. Get several someones. Yes, some typos are going to slip through--it's inevitable. I'm still finding typos in my galleys for TACV and I went over them three times and marked over a hundred items. A few mistakes aren't that big a deal, but I've seen entries that have a had a hell of a lot of errors. Missing words, extra words, misspelled words, etc. I tend not to take points for this unless it's really bad, but going by how marked up Ravyn's Flight was when it came back, I'm a lenient judge. Why give anyone a reason to take points away? This is one of the easy things to fix.

Tip Three. Don't assume the judge a) knows more than you do or b) is a complete moron who wouldn't know talent if it bit her in the ass.

I made changes that I never liked to Ravyn's Flight based on comments from judges, but I assumed they knew more than I did. After all, they were a contest judge. (This was before the time when calls went out on loop after loop for any warm body to judge a contest.) I figured they must have all kinds of experience that I didn't have. I was wrong.

The flip side of this coin is don't assume that they know nothing. Even if you get some screwball comments in the mix, take a few days, then reread them again--and be honest. Does the judge have a point? Maybe they're wrong about what they're commenting on, but could it be there is a problem that the judge can't put their finger on? Editors don't always know what isn't working either, and it's up to the author to figure out how to fix the problem even if the editor is wrong about what's causing it.

The key here is balance and being honest with yourself. If the judge's suggestion doesn't work for you, don't take it, but at the same time, don't assume there isn't room for improvement in your story. No one has written the perfect book yet and no one ever will. Try to be objective when you read comments.

Tip Four. This is another two part tip. a) Don't assume you suck if you don't final in a contest and b) don't assume you're ready to be published if you are a finalist.

I entered the first draft of Ravyn's Flight in two contests. I didn't final in the first contest. In fact, I ended up in the middle of the pack. I was sure I sucked. No, worse than sucked, I was mediocre and that seemed somehow worse than reeking.

Then I finaled in the second contest! Hurrah! I even won the second contest. Was Ravyn's Flight publishable as it was at that point in time? No way in hell, but I had judges who liked my voice, who liked my storytelling and my characters. And the final editor judge liked mine the best of the three finalists. But she didn't ask to see more. :-) RF wasn't ready. Yet.

I judged an entry in one contest a while ago that was fabulous! It had that special spark that can't be quantified, it had an interesting plot, great characters and I gave it a nearly perfect score. I couldn't wait to see the finalists because I wanted to know who wrote this story. I think I was every bit as disappointed when the entry didn't final as the writer herself must have been. I still wanted to know who wrote it, and I waited for a thank you note--which never arrived. This woman lost a possible opportunity. I'm not Nora Roberts, but I'm still a potential connection.

I've also judged an entry (different contest than the entry above) with serious problems (we're talking more than subjective stuff here) that finaled. In the same contest I judged it in. If I'd marked it down because of something completely subjective, I would just shrug and say, okay, others didn't agree with me. But this entry had huge problems with plotting and logic. Maybe it was a first draft like RF was in its first two contests, who knows, but I couldn't believe it finaled. So, in other words, judging is totally subjective, and don't get down on yourself if you don't final or dismiss the critical judge's comments if you do final.

Tip Five. Know why you're entering a contest. Is it for feedback? Or are you entering to final?

My main goal with Ravyn's Flight was to final. (With the revised version.) Yes, I made changes based on the feedback, but that wasn't my aim. My thinking was this: Futuristic romance has very few publishers willing to look at it. Did I really want to chance submitting it to an editor who I didn't click with, and close off that publisher as a potential market, when there might be another editor in the same house who would love my story enough to buy it? My choice was to enter every contest that had an editor for one of the houses that published futuristic romance and see what happened.

Earlier, with the first draft, my goal was feedback, but I lost sight of that when I finished in the middle of the pack. Instead, I should have been thrilled with the comments I got.

Tip Six. Not every story is right for the contest circuit. Ravyn's Flight happened to have a beginning that fit the romance score sheet well. Not every story does. If your story doesn't, there really isn't much point to entering a bunch of contests if you're not going to final or get helpful feedback. In this case, you're better off going right to an agent search.

And this is all I have time for today. I think I hit the highlights anyway. This advice is offered for you to accept or reject as you see fit. It's just my observations from both sides of the score sheet.

MN Weather Report: 75 degrees on our way to 94 and humid.