I‘ve seen lots of advice on contests. Some people won’t enter them. Some think they’re great. Others are in-between. That’s where I fall too. I think contests can be helpful but I also carefully consider what I think I get in return. For that, I have a few guidelines.
To pay or not to pay. Contests can be free or require a payment. My rule of thumb is never to spend money on a contest unless I receive some sort of value back. I’ve only entered a couple with payments but in one I received a critique (which was really helpful – see Know the Rules below) and in my first contest, I wanted to learn how to do it and go through the process, as well as help develop a thicker skin in submitting. For free contests, if I have a story that I think fits the theme or genre, then I might enter. The downside is that I am then waiting to hear back on that story and I can’t send it anywhere else.
Know the Rules. It pays to follow the rules closely. However, I’ve also found that the rules aren’t the whole story. We all know that the judging is subjective. What I didn’t realize was how some of the scoring can knock you out of a contest. That’s where the critique was helpful. I entered a contest where I dutifully read past entries, had a flash fiction story that was critiqued and carefully edited, and I signed up for the critique for an extra fee. I did very well in the subject, content and overall categories. The technical was the tricky one. I was marked down for using one style in punctuation when they were grading using a different style – and none was stated in the rules so you wouldn’t know. I was also marked down for using “extra” words. These words were in the dialogue and chosen to create a certain time and for characterization. Neither of these felt fair but I learned a lot about how contests work from that experience.
Read the Prior Winners. I hear this all the time. It’s only been a little helpful. The stories that win are really good. I can see why they win but I also try to analyze them. Are they more literary or genre driven? Is there anything in the rules or if the contest is related to a publication, are there submission guidelines that are not in the rules but provide some insights into what the judges might dislike or not judge as highly. If it is a guest judge, what is his/her writing background? As mystery writers, we write to that genre and sometimes others. Not all of them will fit any particular contest so I try to be thoughtful about what I am submitting.
Check out the reputation of the contest. I was trying to decide whether to enter a contest and had asked a few people about it. I got lukewarm answers so that was the first red flag. I tried it anyway but had issues with some of the scoring and knew that those I asked were being polite about the contest. I won’t try that one again. Others received rave reviews and I’m am trying them on a selective basis but am finding that those are a more positive experience. So it pays to ask around and get the benefit of others experience. Also, while the “big” contests would be great to win, I am finding that the smaller ones have value too if they have a good reputation. And I look for local contests that may bring me more contacts in my area – both with writers but also with local publications and editors of small presses.
So what are some of the pros and cons for entering?
- validation of your writing
- can provide you with a recognition that lends credibility in query letters, especially for unpublished writers or newer writers
- monetary rewards
- can mean publication for winning entries or an invite to submit
- spending money on something that returns no value
- ties up a story that could be placed somewhere else
- frustration at rules and process
My experience? It’s been a mix. I have learned the hard way that entering contests can be extremely frustrating when there are unwritten rules. I expect the subjectivity but I also expect my story to stand on its own. That’s not to say you can ignore the grammar – it needs to be as right but mark downs for one style vs another seems unfair to me unless its disclosed. I’ve been shortlisted and placed second. And the one contest with the critique, I didn’t make the initial cut. Overall, I learned a lot from entering. I also went back and looked at who the winners were and why my entry didn’t win. In some cases, it was a stronger story, or subjective. In others, I could see that I had a more genre piece and they were looking for literary.
Would I enter again? That would depend on the contest. I have two contests that I have been somewhat successful in and will submit again – one is paid with prize money and requires an entry fee and the other has no fee with smaller prizes. There’s also a free local contest that includes a publication but no monetary reward – but it has an excellent reputation and might have some offshoot rewards. I’ll also keep my eye out for others – either from my chat groups, on the internet or though my writers’ groups.
How about you? Have you entered any contests? Was it worthwhile? Are there any you would recommend? Where do you find about contests? Word of mouth? The internet?