The Low-down, skinny on using contests to further your career

One of the raging debates within the romance community concerns the benefits of contests to an aspiring author. I know many authors who were published directly as a result of a contest. There are good points, bad points, and ways to utilize contests to speed up your path to publication.

When choosing a contest, size does matter, but not in the way you think. There are marvelous contests out there, full of prestige, but bigger is not always what you want. I’ve been judging the Emily for several years, and the entries are always superb. The year before I sold, I entered the Emily and got an average score of 97, but I didn’t final because yes, there were three sets of scores that were higher than mine. If your goal is an editor-read, take a good hard look at the smaller contests that have editors as final-round judges. Statistically, you have a higher chance of making the finals with a field of 25 entries, than you do with a field of 100.

When you do get your scores back, and you didn’t final, do not burn your entry and condemn all judges to a slow death by roasting over burning manuscripts. Put your entry in a drawer until you can look at it objectively. Always remember that one judge’s ‘7’ is another judge’s ‘9’. It's good to remember that some judges will score higher than others, and it has nothing to do with your talent. More importantly, look at which areas the same judge scored you higher (character, dialog, romance, conflict) vs. which areas your scores were lacking. This is going to tell you that judge's opinion of your strengths and weaknesses. Take note of the comments. Some judges will (sometimes mistakenly) give you advice on how to fix a problem. However, maybe their ‘fix’ isn’t going to work for you, but it doesn’t change the fact that a problem might exist.

Is there a comment (or perhaps a page full of comments) that you don’t agree with? Don’t sweat it. Ignore it. Did all four judges make the same comment? Well, I don’t want to be the evil, talent-bashing villain, but maybe you should be listening. Your job as the author is to figure a way to fix your problems that don't compromise your voice or your story.

On the subject of judges, remember, these are authors who are trying to help you. Judging contests is timely and anonymous (usually). Are there judges who take malicious pleasure out of scudding your entry? Probably. I'm sure there’s one renegade out there, twirling her moustache and bleeding ink all over your entry. But most of the judges are not in it for nefarious purposes; most actually want to help you. Don’t forget it. A thank-you note to the judges, while not required, is a good thing. Remind the judge about the name of your entry, and the contest (I've gotten some that leave out these key pieces of information).

OK, so you’ve gotten your scores back, and they’re fabulous. In fact, one published author has raved about your entry and has signed her name. What should you do? First off, you write that published author a thank-you note – PRONTO. This woman (or man) just did you a great service that is going to help your career. Next, pick out of the best of her comments, and ask her (him) if you can use that quote and their name in your query letter. Most will be happy to oblige. Suddenly, you have validation from a published professional, who is not related to you by blood or marriage. It carries weight.

There are many aspiring authors who keep chasing the contest wins, revising the first 25 pages of their manuscript over and over until it’s perfect. However, hopefully your final goal is publication, not a contest win. Make sure you can complete a manuscript, make sure you can wrestle that sagging middle to conclusion, and make sure you can pull of an ending that will make your readers sigh. Contests can short-cut your path to publication, but use them wisely.