Sunday, December 14, 2008

Writing Contests: To Enter or Not to Enter?

On a whim, I entered agent Nathan Bransford’s First Paragraph Challenge contest last week. The rules sounded simple enough. Post the first paragraph of my W.I.P. in the comments box of the contest thread. Mr. B would be the sole judge. The grand prize? A partial critique, query critique, or 15-minute phone conversation.

Why not?

By the time I got around to posting, there were already 965 entries. Hmm. The odds of winning were pretty small. Should I still enter?

Why not?

Hundreds more entries followed. By the time the contest was officially closed, a whopping 1,364 entries has been posted. There was mine, sandwiched somewhere in the lower middle. Don’t blink, Mr. B, or you’ll miss it.

To keep a short story short, I didn’t win. Hmm. Didn’t win last year’s Highlights contest either (along with about 1,500 other losers.) And I didn’t win the handful of other contests I’ve entered over the years. (I did win a journalism writing contest once, but it wasn’t children’s fiction, so it doesn’t count.)

Which makes me wonder: With such small odds, why do I bother entering?

Here’s one reason: I need the dose of reality. With Mr. B’s contest, seeing the other entries reminded me that there are lots of damn good manuscripts out there, all vying for an editor or agent’s attention, so I’d better have a damn good one too if I’m going to compete. I also critiqued the winning entries, pondering why they might have won and I didn’t.

Writing contests force me to leave the happy bubble where I work and come face to face—virtually anyway—with the competition. So much talent. So many writers. Sigh. It shocks me into working even harder on my W.I.P. My book is better for it.

So I guess, in their own annoying way, contests help me grow as a writer. And who knows, one day I might even win one.

How about you? Do you enter contests too? Have you ever won one? What was that like? If not, why do you enter them? Note: Every commenter is a guaranteed winner.


  1. I agree about contests being a dose of reality, Janice. And they can definitely spur me on to do better. A lot like a form rejection. Basically the manuscript I thought was good enough to win didn't get noticed-- and that can be a wake up call to me.

    Of course, I do think it's important to remember that contests (like any submissions) are subjective. I've often heard of manuscripts that did poorly in contests being picked up for publication (and those that did well going nowhere). I think like with any submission you have to find the right reader for your work.

    As for your ending questions, I have entered some contests and had the great fun of doing well on occasion. While I was disappointed that neither of my entries placed in the first Smartwriters W.I.N. competition, I was honored to receive fourth place for poetry in the second year of their contest. And as for what it was like, I could hardly believe it when I read my name and manuscript title on the computer screen. Then I ran down the stairs screaming, "I won W.I.N.! I won W.I.N.". (I woke my poor husband up from a nap, so it took him a bit to figure out what I was saying.) It was just such an incredible affirmation that Nikki Grimes read and liked my poems enough to comment on them. I also earned an honorable mention in the chapter book category of the next W.I.N. contest which was judged by Dori Chaconas. Another thrill! But that time an Internet friend emailed to congratulate me before I saw the results, so it wasn't as much of a surprise.

    My most fun contest win ever was probably Cynthea Liu's Red Light-Green Light Contest. She let us go page by page through our manuscripts and gave us a green light if she found it interesting enough to continue reading. It's amazing how carefully I read each page of my easy reader when I thought of it that way! When I won a free-tique, I thanked Cynthea for offering the only game of Red Light Green Light I could possibly have participated in when 7 months pregnant. And the prize was incredible! Cynthea gave me such detailed feedback on my manuscript that she helped to take it to an entirely new level. (Now I just need to get it out in the mail, so it has a chance of being accepted. :o) )

  2. I think entering contests is a good thing for all the reasons mentioned by Janice and Brianna.

    I have won a few. Lost more. But I have had a story plucked from the Highlights fiction contest pile and though not a winner, they eventually published it.

    One of my winners has been reworked as a picture book many times. Once it came close to publication. Close, but no cigar.

    I lost one contest earlier this year and when I saw the winners, I knew why. They were better. I made the mistake of adjusting an older piece to fit the contest. Like a poorly stitched quilt, my patchwork job was obvious. Won't do that again.

  3. I've entered a few, and I entered one on-line query contest for my MG when I was first getting ready to pitch it.

    I was very glad I submitted my query. It was kindly critiqued by the sponsoring agent, and I really took to heart what she suggested. It did more than improve that one particular query. It opened my eyes to how important it is to make the conflict immediately jump off the page.

  4. Congrats on all your contest wins and near-wins everyone. I got a vicarious thrill just reading about them. Brianna, I love the idea of a Red Light-Green light contest. We should try that in our critique group. Heheh.

  5. Contests can be very valuable - sometimes without even entering them! I considered entering Nathan Brandsford's first paragraph contest, but noticed that the first paragraph of my current WIP wasn't strong enough - it was the second paragraph that had the hook. So, now I'm re-thinking the first paragraph. I won without even entering!

  6. Very well put! I entered a first pages contest where people were allowed to comment. I was crushed! It was hard to swallow, but I learned a lot and feel I"m a better writer for it.

    There's a lot to be gained from entering a contest, even if you don't win.

    I love your attitude!


  7. Christy: Was it an online contest? One of our members just had a rotten experience with a first page online contest. Some commenters, who clearly had no idea how to critique, left useless or snarky comments. These virtual critiques can be tricky.

    On the other hand, I'm glad to hear you learned from it--and hopefully have a new-and-improved first page because of it.

    Thanks for sharing.

  8. I entered Nathan Bransford's first line contest last year, and though I didn't win, a couple people posted on their blog about my first line which made me feel incredibly good in a "Someone Likes Me, They really really like me!" way.

    One of them even offered to read my manuscript (for free) and gave me truly awesome advice on revising. It was all good.

  9. Tricia: Was it really a first line contest last year--instead of a first graph contest like last week's? If so, you must have written one heck of a sentence to get that kind of notice! It's so cool that someone offered to free-tique your ms. It never occurred to me that could possibly happen by entering a contest. Congrats on your free-tique win!

  10. Christy - I had an online contest experience that was not so good. I think it's hard to learn something from unproductive comments.

  11. JL, yes, it was an online contest. There were a lot of people who didn't really know what they were talking about, but there were a few that had some great points. It was hard to weed through the comments. It's a skin thickening experience, but the few that had good info really did help.

    It was also eye opening to see the different kinds of reactions. Even the people who didn't know what they were talking about are still the ones who are picking the books up in the library and the book store. IT's still good to know how people think and what they're looking for. It broadened my thinking.

  12. Christy:

    That is a great point. Even if someone cannot or does not articulate a helpful critique, just knowing that you didn't reach the reader as you hoped can help in revisions.