Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Why I Don't Do Contests

A few years back, when I first started writing seriously, I dove into contests every other month or so. I thought, how great that I can get feedback from very wise judges on my WIP! And if I win or place, I might actually get that WIP in front of an agent or editor.

5 or 6 contests later, disillusionment set in, and here's the reason I rarely enter contests anymore: they're WAYYYYY too subjective.

By that I mean that, without fail, I get one judge who loves my entry and one who can't stand it. One says it's the best entry she read, that it's ready for publication, while the other struggles to find something positive to say at all. I've had one judge say the characters were interesting and likable, while the other said they were cold and the dialogue stilted.

After awhile, I figured I was spending too much money to get a split decision every time. And I got irritated, really. This past year, I decided to be a judge for RWA's Golden Heart contest. Figured it would be good to be on the other side, for a change. I got my 7 manuscripts in the mail, settled in for an afternoon, and read my little heart out. I'd say 4 were pretty average, in story and style, 2 were close to publishable, and 1 was below average: awkward writing, grammar problems, interesting story but too many convoluted plot twists and coincidences. I sent in my scores and waited to see the results. Of the 7 I read, one actually finaled. Guess which one?

I spent about a week questioning the whole point of writing, when the whole business is so damn subjective...and then I realized, wow! How great! The whole business is so damn subjective. That means that for every person who doesn't like my story, someone else might. There are a zillion different literary tastes out there, and from what I've seen so far, there is enough disparity in what's published these days to please a lot of them.

I'm still not sure I'll enter a contest anytime soon. But it's worthwhile to remind myself that the beauty of literature is the variety of styles, of writers and readers and publishing houses. Somewhere out there, if I work hard enough, I still believe there is a niche for me.

Remember that the next time you're feeling low about the whole business...


Marianne Arkins said...

I haven't entered a contest since one at the beginning of the year, for just that reason - I had two judges, one gave my entry 100 out of 100 (this is ready for publication!), the other gave it a 64. Good grief.

This was a good post to put things in perspective. Thanks.

Charity said...

I will still do the occasional contest. I think getting a cold read, not an objective read, not an unbiased read, but a cold one is extremely helpful. Even when I tank with this or that judge, it’s still extremely helpful to get a perspective that isn’t from a critique partner. But I don't live or die by what any one person says.

I judged an entry in the Golden Heart a few years back that had a military heroine and it was clear to me that the writer hadn’t been in the military. I even double checked a bunch of facts, thinking, gee, maybe they changed a bunch of stuff since I’d been in. Well, no, they hadn’t.

But the voice was extremely strong--not one I’d stick with, but it was one of the few entries with a voice. It was a difficult manuscript to score, but as it turns out, I don’t think my score mattered, since the entry made the finals.

I’ll definitely enter the GH this year. If you final, it is worth it, although either way, it won’t make or break your career. Plus, I’m entering YA and like to help make the category a viable one.

Pam said...

Hi Allie,

I'm not opposed to the odd contest here and there, but I'd only enter one just for the heck of it. Haven't entered one in years though. Sometimes it seems like a really cool idea, but I wait a day or two and the thought passes.

I think they have limited value, except of course if it's your lucky day and a publisher takes serious notice. Do they have statistic that show how many big contest wins result in publication?

Sometimes I wonder if they are mainly fundraisers--like the Writer's Digest one. Bet they take in a fortune...ya think?