Contests have been good to me in the 2009/2010 season, most certainly. All told, I’ve finaled in 7, including the RWA Golden Heart®, and won three (Chicago North’s Fire and Ice, Kiss of Death’s Daphne du Maurier and Heart’s Through History’s Romance Through the Ages) the last of which introduced my writing to my now agent, Barbara Poelle with the Irene Goodman Agency.
I’ve been getting a few e-mails here and there from people who have noticed my finals/wins asking me how valuable I thought contesting was to launching a career, and if I felt that doing so well in contests was instrumental to getting an agent.
I must say yes. And no.
You already know my agent read my first three chapters in a contest, and went on to request the full, so you may be saying “Duh, of course contest finals were instrumental in launching her career.” But it’s not that simple. I had several agent offers to choose from, only 2 of which found me through a contest. Two more came through referrals from existing clients, and the other 4 through the good old query process. Had I chosen one of those agents instead, the answer would be very different.
Here’s the thing: getting an agent or editor to buy into your story ALL COMES DOWN TO THE WRITING, and not just in the first 25-50 pages (the average length of a contest entry). I’ve heard more than one editor and agent say that while contest finals are nice, they don’t pay a ton of attention to them (yes, even the Golden Heart) because many times they’ve read a polished, perfect first three chapters, but then the story falls apart, or the voice/story/plot/characters don’t carry through to the end of the book.
The most instrumental thing for your career then, is to WRITE A DARNED GOOD BOOK, through and through. No matter how well I’d done in contests, I wouldn’t have gotten a single offer if the entire book hadn’t stood out in some way.
That being said, I would still answer YES, as to whether contests have been instrumental to my career, and that is because of the feedback I’ve received. You see, before Sweet Enemy started doing well in contests, I entered another 5 (4 previous to my actual first finalist entry) that I did not final in at all. But what I did get was valuable feedback. I learned something from each and every one of those entries, even from those judges who hated my story or wrote pretty harsh or nitpicky things (most judges were absolutely lovely, btw, even when giving criticism). I learned what was working (thus building my confidence), what people were tripping over, what words I over-used, what images weren’t coming through as I intended, and so on and so on and so on. Taking that feedback and unbiased criticism helped hone my story, showed me areas I needed to better educate myself in on the craft, and then I would try again and enter another contest to see if what I’d changed worked.
Just as important in my growth as a writer has been JUDGING contests. It’s amazing how much you learn about your own writing, or about mistakes writers make, when you are seeing them in someone else’s work. Conversely, you learn when you see something done just right!
And remember, contest finals are great, they let you bypass the slush-pile of whichever editor/agent is judging, and that’s nothing to sneeze at, but that’s all it does. In the end, it’s the writing that is going to win you that editor/agent’s heart, so above all else, educate yourself and hone your craft. That’s what will launch your career.
For those of you who have entered contests, how would you answer this question? For those thinking about contesting, what do you hope to get from the experience?
Now, a shameless plug for my chapter’s contest, deadline of September 10th. And yes, we’re known for great feedback.
Why YOU should enter MARA’s Fiction From the Heartland Contest
• FEEDBACK, FEEDBACK, FEEDBACK
o You get TWO full page critiques, one from a published author.
o Our contest provides detailed feedback on your entire entry, including big picture story feedback from your synopsis
o You will receive your comments back in time to prepare to enter the RWA Golden Heart®
• Manuscripts that final are read by BOTH an EDITOR and an AGENT
o Check out 2010’s Fabulous Line-Up!
• Helen Breitwieser, Cornerstone Literary Agency
• Sara Megibow, Nelson Literary Agency
• Laura Bradford, Bradford Literary Agency
• Karen Solem, Spencerhill Associates
• Claudia Cross, Sterling Lord Literistic
• Category Romance - Susan Litman, Harlequin/Silhouette
• Contemporary Single Title - Danielle Poiesz, Pocket Books
• Historical - Tessa Woodward, Avon Books
• Romantic Suspense - Lauren Plude, Grand Central Publishing
• Paranormal - Meredith Giordan, Berkley Publishing Group
• Erotic Romance – Meghan Conrad, Ellora's Cave
• Young Adult - Natashya Wilson, Harlequin Teen
• Inspirational - Melissa Endlich, Steeple Hill
• Trained judges, who judge in the genre they write. No MARA members are allowed to enter our own contest.
• Overall winner receive $50 and a commemorative plaque
• Did we say FEEDBACK?
Here’s what some past entrants have said about our contest:
"I attribute my first sale to this contest." - Laura Abbot
"I had no idea when I entered the MARA Contest how it would change my life. Not only did I win the contemporary catagory and the best overall, but the judging editor requested the entire manuscript and I went on to become a published author! I can't recommend this contest enough." -Donna Delaney
And 2000 RITA® winner for Best First Book (The Maiden and the Unicorn), Isolde Martyn thanked MARA and the Fiction From the Heartland Contest in her acceptance speech
So be sure to polish up your entry and get it in today! Deadline Sept 10th, 2010. www.mararwa.com