Are Contests Worth the Cost?

For me, contests have paid off in a big way, and I’ve become an advocate of cruising the Contest Circuit. Here’s why . . .

The first contest I entered was the 2006 Golden Heart®. I’d been writing less than a year and had produced two manuscripts. I knew better than to enter my first. I should have known better than to enter my second, but I was a naïve newbie who didn’t realize the Golden Heart was the most competitive contest of them all. I placed in the bottom half—for good reason. I was so green I glowed, and the entry advertised that fact.

Because all I received in the GH was a set of five scores, I knew I had missed the mark, but I didn’t know why.

What did I do?

Golden Heart Finalist Pins

I bought several writing craft books, studied them, and wrote three more stories in rapid succession. Eager to know if I’d improved, I began submitting up to four of the manuscripts in a number of contests. In 2007, I submitted 34 entries in eleven contests and finaled eight times, including twice in the 2008 GH.

What did I learn?

Lots!

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On the Downside ~

  • Contests cost money. A Romance Writers of America® chapter-level entry costs around $25 – $30 and a GH entry $50. The fees can quickly add up.
  • Prepping a contest entry can be time consuming. Each contest wants things done differently, and an entrant has to meet all the guidelines or risk disqualification.
  • Receiving criticism can hurt. While most judges are fair and offer constructive criticism, some feedback may not be couched in the kindest of terms.
  • There is no guarantee of a final or placement. The competition can be fierce, and only a handful of the entrants garner the top spots.

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On the Upside ~

  • An entrant learns to meet deadlines.
  • An entrant learns to properly format an entry.
  • An entrant learns to accept constructive criticism.
  • An entrant learns about the writing craft.
  • An entrant may experience the joy of a contest final, a placement, and/or a win.

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My contest judges were generous with their time and feedback. I’ve jokingly said they taught me to write, but there is a great deal of truth in that statement. It was from them I received my first lessons in Point of View, Goal, Motivation, and Conflict, and the importance of sensory detail. I cringe when I think of what I subjected them to and feel deep gratitude for the way they encouraged me in spite of my glaring weaknesses.

I also learned that I’d made some mistakes when I chose the contests I entered. The primary one was entering the wrong category. My stories are inspirational historicals. If a contest didn’t offer an inspirational category, I’d enter the historical. This didn’t work well for me.

After my GH finals, I spent the next year working on craft. Two of my stories had finaled in the GH, but I knew they weren’t at a publishable level. (I still marvel that they finaled.) I spent several months rewriting one of my stories, incorporating everything I’d learned.

In mid-2009, I prepared to enter contests again. This time, I went about things more carefully. I chose ten contests, looking for those with an inspirational category (or, in one case, an inspirational sub-category). I also checked to see who the final round judges were, which I hadn’t done in 2007. I had learned an additional benefit of entering contests since my earlier experience: a final can open doors, and I wanted to know who would be behind them.

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Benefits of a Contest Final ~

  • Your manuscript goes to the final round where the judges are agents and editors.
  • You may receive feedback from a final round judge.
  • You may receive a request for a partial or full manuscript from a final round judge.
  • You may receive an offer of representation from a requesting agent judge.
  • You may receive interest in your story from a requesting editor judge.
  • Oh, and there can be some nice prizes. I’ve received several, and they are fun!

My Maggie Medallion, Lone Star Brooch, and Emily Brooch

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Now you understand why I’m an advocate of contests. I ended up achieving more than I’d dared dream.

My experience isn’t unique. I’ve had guests here at Romance Writers on the Journey who sold because of a contest final.

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I’d be interested in hearing your contest experiences.

Where are you in the process? Have you entered contests?

Have you received helpful (or hurtful) feedback? Have you finaled?

Have you received requests from final round judges?

Have you received an offer of representation, or have you sold because of a contest judge request?

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About Keli Gwyn

I'm an award-winning author of inspirational historical romance smitten with the Victorian Era. I'm currently writing for Harlequin's Love Inspired Historical line of wholesome, faith-filled romances. My debut novel, A Bride Opens Shop in El Dorado, California, was released July 1, 2012. I'm represented by Rachelle Gardner of Book & Such Literary. I live in a Gold Rush-era town at the foot of the majestic Sierras. My favorite places to visit are my fictional worlds, other Gold Country towns and historical museums. When I'm not writing I enjoy taking walks, working out at Curves™ and reading.
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7 Responses to Are Contests Worth the Cost?

  1. sherrinda says:

    Hi Keli!!! I love your post today! What’s funny is, my blog today is about no longer being a “contest virgin”. 😉 I hit the send button this weekend and entered my first contest. Unlike you, though, I sent in my FIRST ms!!!! Silly, I know, but I am ready to toughen up my skin and learn what I am lacking. At least I hope I’m ready!!!! lol

    p.s. Your winnings are soooo pretty!!!

  2. Keli Gwyn says:

    Congratulations on sending your first contest entry, Sherrinda. I’m excited for you and hope for good results.

    I didn’t send my first manuscript because it was so poorly written. Unlike you, I had no idea what I was doing when I wrote it. The first version was over 200K words for one thing. I wrote that story in isolation and ignorance. I knew none of the rules and guidelines for what makes a strong story.

    You, on the other hand, immersed yourself in a study of craft from the beginning, have sought the assistance of critique partners and editors, and have performed a comprehensive edit. I think seeing how your work fares in a contest at this point will be helpful, and I’m proud of you for taking that step.

  3. MaryC says:

    Hi Keli and Sherrinda. Good luck, Sherrinda! How thrilling to send out your first entry; I’m excited for you.

    I love contests. I think for me, they’re beneficial because I write pretty much in isolation. Years ago I had a critique group but it was so brutal that it actually took the joy out of writing for me. I don’t currently have a critique partner either so contests fill those roles for me. I love contests like Fab5 for early feedback to see if anyone but me finds my story interesting.

    I’ve been very fortunate in contests over the years and have a lot of finals and some nice wins to show for it. For a number pf reasons, I had to pull away from writing for awhile, but those contest successes give me the confidence to jump back in even when it seems like the chances of becoming published are smaller and the competition much more talented.

    Kind, encouraging words from judges can be just the pat on the back you need, but I also find the criticisms valuable (even if hard to swallow). Judges don’t have the same difficulty as a best friend does in telling you that you’re missing the point or that you really need to work on improving your conflict.

    I’ve gone on and on, but one thing I wanted to add, Keli, is that I find tremendous value in judging contests as well. There’s so much to be learned in reading and reflecting on another author’s work.

    Great topic!

    Good luck, Sherrinda!

  4. Anne Barton says:

    Hi Keli & company! What a great summary of what contests can (and can’t!) do for you.

    Also on the upside is the chance to “meet” other writers on the contest circuit. If not for contests, I never would have met Keli (and simultaneously hit the CP jackpot.) 🙂

    Sherrinda, good luck with that entry. I’m thinking good thoughts for you!

    Mary, I like to use contests as a testing ground too. Oh, and you make a great point about judging–it really helps you see what makes some entries stand out from the crowd.

    Thanks, Keli!

    p.s.–that Emily brooch is gorgeous. I have *serious* brooch envy. 🙂

  5. Keli Gwyn says:

    Mary C,

    Congratulations on your many contest finals and wins. What wonderful confirmation of your talent and story-telling abilities.

    Contest judges have helped me immensely. I marvel at their generosity. Having served as one myself, I realize what a gift I’m given by those who sacrifice their time to serve as a judge, share their expertise and encourage others on the journey.

    I hope you’re able to find a critique partner with whom you can work well, Mary. I’ve got a wonderful one. Anne and I have been a team for close to two years and have learned how to help one another best. It takes time for a CP relationship to develop, but I highly recommend entering into one. Anne and I are able to go into far more depth than contest judges can. Plus, we critique the entire manuscript for one another, not just the opening chapters.

    Like you, Mary, I enjoy the experience of being a contest judge. I’ve been helped by so many that I’m eager to pay it forward.

  6. Keli Gwyn says:

    Anne,

    Thanks for your support–and for being my wonderful critique partner. Meeting you was definitely one of the best things I gained from entering contests. 🙂

  7. Sue Mason says:

    Speaking of contests …. Good luck tomorrow, Keli (& Anne). I’ll be looking for your names, and no matter what happens with my entry, I’m prepared to be much less disappointed this year. (or overjoyed, whichever happens).

    Sue

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