Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Do Contests Really Help Your Career?

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

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


  1. I'm unagented, but agree that contests help with feedback from someone who doesn't know you and can give an unbiased opinion. It's also a form of validation. I've only entered about six contests and been a finalist twice, but the feedback from all of them were SO valuable. One even caught a MASSIVE mistake before the Golden Heart entries were due.

    Your critique partner can only read your first 50 pages so many times and I think contests help with the next level.

    But -- I agree -- YOU HAVE TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD STORY. Winning 20 contests won't help you if your story falls apart after the first 50 pages.

  2. Oh, and one more thing. Sometimes contest final judges critique the entry. THAT was a wake up call, too! To know what specifically about my first 30 pages didn't sit right with her and what she liked helped me edit my story.


  3. I think contests have both hurt and helped me, lol. I have had some lovely judges give valuable feedback, and that was great. I appreciated their unbiased thoughts and opinions and I think I improved from their feedback.

    But I also had the ego-destroying judge that gave me a score around 40% of the total points possible. That one really hurt, and drug down my confidence for a while. On the other hand, building up my immunity to readers that will just plain hate my style will surely be a good thing in the future.

    I recently received some awesome advice on how to not only improve my entry, but my manuscript as well, and I am looking forward to entering your chapter's contest in the next day or two.


  4. >>>contests let you bypass the slush-pile...it’s the writing that is going to win you that editor/agent’s heart<<<

    Amen sister! Polish, hone, make it the best it can be. Use contests to paul-vault out of the slush pile, but it still has to be a GREAT book that the editor can fall in love with.


  5. Contests have been very, very good to me. I got my agent through a contest. Yes, it always comes back to the writing, but contests can get you noticed and give you writing credits.

  6. Contests can be harsh, and I found the judges who were most helpful were published. Some unpublished judges think they know it all, but they are really still learning.

    I've always had a mixed bag of judges. Either they loved my work, or they hated it.

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  8. Blogger Gjillian said...I forgot to mention....

    The offer I received for THE SEDUCTION OF PHAETON BLACK came directly from the Heart's Through History Romance Through The Ages Contest. (The one you won everything in, including an agent, Heather.) I received a full request on PHAETON and then was called with an offer from Audrey LaFer on the way to Orlando. (I guess I had an inkling I might have won that one.)

    In retrospect, my chapters hardly finaled every time. But when they managed to make it to the final round, they often garnered excellent remarks from agents or editors. So I knew I had something, if I could get my work to the right editor.

    I will always recommend contests to aspiring romance writers, as long as you have a great book after those first chapters! What is it that James Paterson says? Write every chapter as though it was the first!

    Or was that Donald Maass? Maybe they both said it, only differently?

  9. Heather, it sounds like we've had similar paths in our writing journey. As I read your post I kept nodding and agreeing with every point you made - contests are a great form of feedback, judging certainly helps you develop more skills to help your own writing, and producing a darn good book is the ONLY solution to achieving success, no matter the arena.
    Thanks for a great post!

  10. Yes, contests help in all the ways you've pointed out. Plus, it makes you put yourself out there. Losing, getting rejections, it's all part of the business, but we have to be brave enough to take the leap or we get nowhere. Contests give us a chance to take the leap -- our friends hold out the net and say jump.

  11. Heather,
    I never did great in any contests. I finaled in a couple with two different works. So for me, it didn't open any doors with publishers or agents. However, I agree that the feedback I received was beneficial in honing my craft, not that I'm done. :)

    Contests also helped me to develop a healthier perspective on the business. Some judges loved my entries and gave them perfect scores and others hated them. I learned I can't please everyone, and if I have fun in the process of writing, that's a pretty good reward in itself.

  12. Great insight, Heather. I agree with everything you say. My experience was similar to yours. My agent had already requested the full on one story when a different one finaled in the Golden Heart. I emailed to let her know I was a GH finalist, and she read it pretty quick. I was thrilled to sign with her, and it has opened many new doors for me.
    So, yes, the GH helps, but it all begins with the story.

  13. Abigail ~ Great point about the possible critiques from the editor/agent judges! Most times, I didn't get feedback from them, but a couple of times I did and yes, it's eye-opening. You can bet I listened extra hard to those comments.

    Erin - good point. You must have tough skin. I, too, received love/hate scores (60-150 in one contest). I was told that it was actually a good sign, because I'd obviously evoked reader emotion :) Best of luck in your future contesting!

    Angi - Thanks for stoppign by. I can't wait to read your book!

    Katy - Very true, and I certainly don't mean to lessen the value that contests can have on a career. I am very appreciative of what the notice did, and am certain the contest finals helped my query hit rate, and got me read faster. I definitely encourage entering AND judging contests.

    Sandy - thanks for stopping by. I have noticed different scores from published vs. un-published judges in some contests. That's why I really like the comments, because then I can evaluate and decide whether or not I agree with/get what a judge is trying to say.

    GJillian - Wow, Jillian! That's awesome! Definitely a contest success story as far as getting noitced. I can't wait to read the AWESOME book that followed that entry and ultimately sold that editor. Good point also, about how the comments gave you validation to keep at it until you found the right editor.

    Kylie - Thanks for coming by - can't wait to see what's next from you.

    EB - Absolutely. We do our very best and then we put it out there. It is the only way to succeed, whether readers are readers, contest judges, agents, or editors.

    Samantha - Great point about how contests helped your perspective in the business. We can't please everyone, though, and as I was telling Erin, I've hear that love/hate scores are actually good to get -- shows that you're onto something. Which obviously you ARE, given your awesome sale story. Can't wait to read your books.

    Clarissa - Yes, definitely the GH final gets us read faster, which is nice. Congrats on the agent news. I look forward to seeing what doors are opening for you!

  14. Great feedback from contests can be a wonderful learning tool. You've had success with contests - well-deserved - and your writing has put you where you are today!

  15. Hi, Heather, fellow Golden Heart finalist Barbara Binns here. I agree with everything you say. Although I did land my agent as a result of a contest win, I was simultaneously in discussions with another agent who was interested as a result of a query and partial. I ended up going with the first agent because of her enthusiasm level, but I could just as easily went with the other. In fact, I happened to contact her a few weeks ago on another matter and she again mentioned that she had been watching my career and was interested in seeing the book that will be published in two months.

    So this is my long-winded way of saying write the good book, because there are multiple paths to getting an agent and finding a publisher. Contests are one path, but the good, old-fashioned query letter is another.

    Besides, having won two contest, I can now call myself an "award winning" author with a straight face. It only means something to the people in my neighborhood, but that counts too.