Winning! Coming Out on Top in the Contest Game
About three years ago, after completing my first manuscript, and knowing absolutely nothing about publishing, I reached out to friends in New York. Did anyone there know someone in the publishing industry?
My friend, Maggie responded. Her former neighbor’s niece worked for Harlequin and her advice was that I enter the Romance Writers of America’s contest for unpublished writers. It was the first I’d ever heard of RWA and the Golden Heart. It also marked my initiation into the world of contests for unpublished writers.
I didn’t final in the Golden Heart, but I did final a few months later in the 2009 TARA contest, the first validation that maybe I was doing something right. After that, I started entering contests on a regular basis, not only in hopes of reaching the finals – and the eyes of top editors, agents and authors – but also for the invaluable feedback. Cut down on the adverbs. Use stronger verbs. Don’t use your hero’s name too often when you’re in his point of view, it takes the reader out of the story.
It was like a crash course in writing historical romance. When the same criticisms showed up repeatedly, I knew I had to take a closer look at what the judges were saying. Sure, there were plenty of suggestions I dismissed but, on the whole, judges offered real gems of advice which I took to heart. My writing is considerably stronger for it.
As I entered more contests, I started to see a pattern. My second manuscript, Seducing Charlotte, had a particularly racy opening which some people loved, but others hated. Some RWA chapters seemed to have a more conservative aesthetic; others were more open.
In many of the competitions, two judges would love the manuscript, while the third hated it. I began to strategize which contests offered the best chance of reaching the finals. Since judging is so subjective, I entered more contests that dropped the lowest score. All the while, I edited and revised, according to feedback from contest judges.
It worked. I reached the finals in several contests and even won a few. Then came the biggest contest of all. Kensington editors Alicia Condon and Megan Records selected Seducing Charlotte as a top ten finalist in Kensington Brava’s Writing with the Stars contest. Online votes would determine the winner, whose manuscript would be published. I ended up tying for second place.
So I’ve won some and I’ve lost plenty.
However, what I’ve learned from playing the contest game is that there is more than one way to come out on top. For example, I didn’t win Writing with the Stars, but I did land an agent because of it.
And while I did win the 2010 New Jersey Romance Writers Put Your Heart in a Book contest, the biggest prize of all was meeting judge Madeline Hunter. Yes, the Madeline Hunter. She offered advice on how to improve both of my finaling entries, even suggesting alternative openings. Madeline Hunter discussing mywork. Talk about a big win.
I didn’t even final in the 2011 Washington Romance Writers Marlene contest, but I view that as a win as well. One of the judges, New York Times bestselling author Grace Burrowes, was complimentary about my writing. She responded warmly to my thank you note and we ended up exchanging a series of emails about my writing and hers. It is a friendly, professional relationship that I value. Another win in my book.
Constant feedback on improving your craft; getting your work and name in front of big-name editors and agents; meeting and interacting with bestselling authors and your fellow writers, while creating a buzz about your work – are all benefits of playing the contest game.
So yes, a win is a win. But so is a non-win.
How about you? What unexpected benefits have you gotten out of contests?
Diana Quincy is an unpublished romance author who is pursuing publication. Her three completed manuscripts have finalled 15 times in RWA-related contests. Her latest manuscript, Tempting Bella, is a current finalist in the 2011 Maggie, 2011 Put Your Heart in a Book and 2011 Golden Gateway contests. Diana blogs regularly about the publishing industry at http://dianaquincy.blogspot.com.