Tuesday, August 18, 2009

To Contest or Not To Contest

Sometime, around seven years ago, I decided to become a writer. I didn't know anything about writing or the business of being an author. I just knew I loved books and that I thought I had it in me to write them. Since, up until that time, all I'd ever been was a student (and a temp, but let's not talk about that) I did what I knew best: I researched.

One of the first resources I found was the Romance Writers of America (an amazing organization that I always recommend to any aspiring author, romance or otherwise). I quickly learned that one of the best ways to both get feedback on my writing (desperately necessary, since I'd never met another writer) and get my writing in front of agents and editors was to enter a contest.

By the Fall of 2003 I had (finally) decided on a manuscript. I had about 50 decent pages of a Regency set historical. I entered it in the West Houston RWA's (my new chapter) Emily contest and the Golden Heart, RWA's national contest for unpublished manuscripts. (The major benefit of the Golden Heart was that you had to have a complete manuscript to enter, which meant I actually had to finish my very first manuscript.

I got the results back from the Emily contest about a week after I sent off my entry into the Golden Heart. The results were mediocre at best. "Oh well," I thought. "Guess I'm not supposed to be a writer."

I quit. I stopped writing altogether. Seriously. I'd like to think I'd have come back to it eventually, but instead fate intervened. It was late March. I was sitting at my dad's computer in the living room, he was relaxing in his recliner (aka waiting for me to get off his computer) when my phone rang.

"May I speak with Tera Childs please," the caller said.

"This is Tera."

"I'm calling to let you know that Summer Sapphire has finaled in the Golden Heart."

I was speechless. I'd quit writing. Shelved it along with so many other fly-by-night dreams. But now I'd finaled in the most prestigious contest available to unpublished romance authors. Suddenly my career was back on track (and I haven't looked back since).

Now people might have differing opinions on contests, but here are the reasons I think contests are an excellent opportunity for aspiring writers:
  1. Feedback -- You'll get plenty. And, no, not all of it will be good. Anyone who's ever been on the contest circuit has some crazy judges' comments to share. But almost as important as the good feedback on your writing is learning how to differentiate between valid criticism and the kind that needs to get thrown in a blazing bonfire.
  2. Tough Skin -- As noted above, you'll get harsh comments. Some of them will be ridiculous, but some of them will be spot on. And, as hard as it may be to read about everything that's wrong with your entry, you'll get comments just as tough (or worse) from agents and editors down the line. Might as well learn how to cope now.
  3. Opportunity -- Agents and editors get hundreds (thousands?) of queries and submissions every week. Most of the time you have a few sentences to get them interested in your book. But, if you final in a contest, you have a guaranteed read of at least the first chapter or two. My own critique partner got both her agent and her first book contract thanks to contest finals, so they do work. (Although, in full disclosure, I never got a single request from a contest until after I'd sold Oh. My. Gods.)
So, are you sold on contests? If so, here are a few you might think about entering:
  • Southern Heat -- Sponsored by the East Texas RWA (and coordinated by a good friend of mine) this contest has a specific Young Adult category. And, bonus, not only am I one of the initial round judges (no, I'm not judging every entry, so it's just as likely you'll get other judges) but my fabulous editor is the final round judge. Cost: $20-$30. Deadline: September 1.
  • Emily -- This is my home chapter's contest and, although it doesn't have a specific YA category, you can enter a YA manuscript in the appropriate category. (I entered Oh. My. Gods. in the paranormal category before I sold.) The Emily has a terrific reputation and some great final round judges this year. Cost: $20-$30. Deadline: October 7.
  • Golden Heart -- Yep, that very same contest I finaled in back in 2004. It's one of those shot-in-the-dark contests (as in it's very tough to final) but if you do... then it's a pretty awesome credential to add to your query letters. Cost: ??? (not posted yet, usually $50, I think). Deadline: November 16 (entry form and fees)/December 2 (material).
Anyone know of any other good contests for aspiring Young Adult authors? Or have any tips for contest entries? (I might blog about that in the future, if y'all are interested.)


OH. MY. GODS. (now in paperback!)
Get your goddess on. Join the Ning!


Lexie said...

Delacorte Press has a contest for 'First Young Adult' every year. There's no fee. Its listed here and there's a link to the Middle Grade contest as well held by Yearling.

:D I'm gonna try to enter the Delacorte one (assuming that I don't kill myself from working to pay my bills and keeping up with my schoolwork first).

Cara King said...

Wow, Tera, you finalled in the Golden Heart with your first manuscript, first time out? Very impressive! (I will now try not to hate you.) ;-)

I would just add as an addendum to your great post that, though feedback is one of the great benefits of contests, and the Golden Heart is the top RWA contest, one gets no feedback from the Golden Heart. (Best to know that ahead of time!)


Me said...

Oop, I forgot to mention the Delacorte contest, so thanks Lexie. One word of warning though: Be very cautious about entering contests that result in a book contract. I know, Delacorte is an amazingly reputable publisher, but consider the fact that you'll be signing a contract over which you have no negotiation power whatsoever. Just food for thought.

And excellent point, Cara. With the Golden Heart you only get a set of (five?) numerical scores, ranked 1.0 through 9.0. (Please don't hate me. I never finaled again--even with the same manuscript.)

TinaFerraro said...

I entered my fair share of contests before I was published. Now I frequently judge those same contests, and try to "share the love" with others that I received myself. I'll never forget tearing the first packet of scores open, terrified they would all essentially say, "You suck." Instead, they said, in one form or another, "While this story does not resonate with me, I can see you have real talent." That was the shot in the arm that I needed, and powered me through some tougher scores down the road with other projects, until I hit on the story I'd eventually sell.

stephhale said...

Great post, TLC! I had never had that story before. I have to give a shout-out to The Heart of Denver Romance Writers who have the Molly for unpublished writers. It's closed right now though. I won the published contest The Aspen Gold last year with Revenge of the Homecoming Queen. I also won first place in the North Texas Romance writers Great Expectations contest. I'm not sure when they start accepting entries.

Jamie Michele said...

Congratulations on all your success, Tera!

My local chapter (Maryland Romance Writers) sponsors The Vixen, and this year we added a YA category. The results aren't yet in, but we're all excited to have included this popular genre.


Sara and Staci said...

I have a question about the Emily contest. I went to a BAWL meeting and a rep from your chapter was there talking about it. I looked online it said that you couldn't submit a manuscript for a category that you have been published under (or something like that). I have a YA paranormal novel under contract to be released in late 2010. Does that mean I cannot submit a different YA paranormal manuscript?

Me said...

Hi Sara and Staci,
Yes, I think that's the case with the Emily rules. Most RWA contests for unpublished authors have eligibility rules that either exclude authors published within the last five years in any subgenre from entering altogether or from entering the category in which they were published. Since we don't have a YA specific category, I'm not sure what the ruling would be in your case. Your can always email the contest coordinator to ask.