Writing as a competitive sport

Oh Snark, oh Snark,

My critique group is in a tizzy while getting prepared for a local writer's contest. Perhaps I don't tizzy well, but I am not among the enthusiastic members. We seem to see the opportunity in two different lights. They seem to feel that winning will bring editors knocking, pleading for the awarded work. I sigh. I say that winning a contest simply helps sweeten the query and that's about it. It might catch the eye of an overworked editor/agent and convince them to give the work a read, but the work must stand alone. If it ain't good, no blue ribbon will make an editor send a contract.

I just attended a conference and got four requested reads (and I have no awards). I feel my time was better spent. So, are contests worth the effort? They're a bit expensive. Would a ribbon convince you to request a read?

Yikes. Do they give out ribbons for participation? Miss Snark remembers those ribbon award days well, given her innate ability to conk her compatriots in the shins with field hockey sticks...an ability not matched by the hand-eye coordination required to do anything productive like score a goal-for her own team or anyone else's.

But I digress.

Writing contests feed on the fevered hopes of writers that this will be Their One Big Chance.

If you think you're Lana Turner sitting on the bar stool at Schwabs (for those of you in the Pacific Northwest...this Schwabs is NOT the tire dealer based in Prineville) remember that Lana Turner wasn't actually discovered that way, and neither will you.

But I digress.

No, writing contests don't mean a thing (unless it's Miss Snark's Second Annual Writing Contest of course). It is, however, a way to focus on getting something finished, and having someone outside the critique group read it. It's not going to kill you to enter. It's not going to keep me from reading your stuff if you send it to me. It's also not going to be an automatic "oh dear dog I must read this incredible tone poem that won First Place in the Frangiapani, North Dakota Writer's Bar and Grill Sweepstakes". I reserve those swoons for writing that involves royalty checks.


Mark said...

It isn't just any ole body who can work both Les Schwab and Prineville into a conversation based in Brooklyn, NY.

sweet sapote said...

Wait, wait! Writing contests have their uses. Choose your target carefully and you may just get somewhere.

I was a finalist in the last two contests that I entered. Contest 'A' had a very reputable, well-known agent as final judge, who specifically enjoys the genre and sub-genre in which I write. She requested the full manuscript as a result of the contest. Yes, I could have submitted to her for free, but for the contest, she had to read past the first page, and I did not shoot myself in the foot with a bad query. She's had the full for 1 month, and I'm waiting patiently.

I chose contest 'B' because I've had a partial in the slush pile of a certain house--one for whom I always thought my book would be a great fit--for way, waaaaay over a year with no response to my inquiries (and this was requested material). My target editor was the final round judge in my category for this contest. She gave me first place. And she requested the full. Unagented, my partial was hopelessly mired in the slush. In a couple quick months, through this contest, I got what I wanted. I don't know how long she'll take to read it now, but I'm one big jump ahead of where I was before.

I would not necessarily enter a contest just for glory. But if someone has a manuscript that she's confident has a good chance of making the final round, and there is a contest judged by an agent or editor she wants to get her material in front of, I would not hesitate.

Richard Lewis said...

This is a true tale of how lightning strikes.

I wrote a short story and sent it off to the 2001 Writer's Digest. It won 3rd place -- since mail to Indonesia is so slow, I didn't even know this until this was casually mentioned at a writers' on-line community. The story was published by WD in a special winner's issue.

An agent read that issue and got in touch with WD to get in touch with me.

I sent off a just completed novel ms to said agent....well, to make it short, that novel was published, and another is coming this December, to which the film rights have already been bought.

And I never even had to write a query.

Of course, I'd like to think my work would eventually have gotten noticed via the traditional query route.

Competitions can be helpful.

Kitty said...

"It is, however, a way to focus on getting something finished ..."

I've used contests for this very purpose. The last one I entered I knew I wouldn't win because my story is commercial fiction and the mag is literary. But I entered anyway because I had been stuck trying to finish my story. It worked like a charm.

Heather Waters said...

I personally only entered contests that would provide feedback from judges. Getting my work in front of agents and editors was never the goal, only because you rarely hear that story of "I won the contest and the final judge bought the book."

I did, however, luck out and final in a contest where the final judge agent, who did not accept unpubbed authors at the time, requested to read the full ms. She rejected me, but remembered me, so when we met face to face, we hit it off and she signed me to her agency. A year later, I sold my book to Berkley.

So I think contests have their benefits : feedback and name recognition. If you're in it for any other reason, you are likely wasting valuable moola.

lizzie26 said...

I only enter contests if there is no entry fee. I'm a poor starving writer.

Anonymous said...

Writing contests will not guarantee anything, but they do sweeten your query letter, especially if you write short fiction and submit to magazines. Winning gives a boost to your confidence. After winning one contest I started submitting to professional (much better paying) magazines. I'm still not rich :) but having fun and the pay is so much better.

Anonymous said...

Arg. Les Schwab. Thanks for that stumble down memory lane. Does he still do that "free beef" promotion--buy a set of tires and get free meat? That's weirdness you can't manufacture.

Anonymous said...

One contest gave finalists a lanyard, whicn I wore at a conference (hate having to clip badges to my chest) and an agent noticed it while we were milling around waiting for lunch. She used it to strike up a conversation and ended up requesting a partial.

And at those agent appointments, where I stammer and babble, I've had more than one agent take pity and specifically ask if my manuscript has done well in contests, so some agents must think they're some kind of a sheep from goats line of demarcation.

But I agree with the others -- the BEST perk is getting that "get out of the query line" card and having pages go straight to an agent or editor, who will give feedback.

I've had two full manuscripts requested based on contest wins, and there's no way those editors would have read the pages otherwise.

The one caveat I have for anyone considering entering -- read the score sheet first. Some of them are going to force judges to score things that might not show up in the allotted page count, which really limits your chances of getting a decent score.

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

Oh! Thanks! I forgot to pay Les Schwab! And ... ummm ... you know just a bunch about Oregon and the Pacific Northwest. Let's have Chowder at Moe’s, say in Newport, and discuss the personal habits of Snarkfish.

Oh, and to Jamie Ford: Yes, they're still doing the "free beef." Say ... you wouldn't be related to a Lee Ford would you?

Unknown said...

Some contests will get you noticed--and read!--in places that you'd have a hard time getting into on your own.

I only know the romance end of things, but I can honestly say finaling in RWA's Golden Heart led--via a circuitous route--to my being published. And the American Title Contest (Romantic Times/ Dorchester) has led to multiple people I know being published.

It’s all about entering the right contests.

Cynthia Bronco said...

Wow. I enter poetry contests for 3 reasons: 1. I'm a huge fan of the judging poet, 2. There's a big cash prize and 3. There's a chance the ms will be published as part of the award.

Miss Snark, you brought back some lovely memories of high school field hockey! It isn't that often that a girl is allowed to run amok with a large wooden club :)

lizzie26 said...

When I played field hockey in college, I was so small that no one wanted to come near me for fear that their sticks would kill me. I made a lot of goals that way. ; )

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad to see the 'Anon' enabled again. Hopefully the trolls (whoever they were) have lost interest and wandered away by now, so that moderating myriad anonymous comments will not be onerous on the Stiletto-heeled Mistress of Snark.

It's clear from the comments thus far that not all contests are created equal. That fits with my experience. Contests that a) have large fees, b) promise only one big prize, or c) publish everyone who enters (World of Poetry?) are not worth the paper, much less the postage. OTOH, contests that a) expose one's prose to the public if one makes the short list, and/or b) send feedback from qualified readers, can be viewed in similar light to taking a fiction-writing seminar.... without the bother of getting dressed in the morning or coping with rush-hour traffic.

I have a few short fiction win/place entries stacked up for my eventual query letter, and have recently entered (for the pooled feedback) a synopsis/opening chapter competition. I don't expect to win, but I do anticipate receiving useful direction for the final (hah!) rewrite and for honing my partial-package. It's one intermediate stage of preparation for actively marketing my manuscript to agents and publishers, and therefore worth the quite moderate entry fee [which, btw, is a tax-deductable expense against those earlier contest winnings, because submitting and winning and being published marks me in the tax dept's keen sight as an income-producing writer]. :D


Chris said...

I am completely impressed that Miss Snark would know of Prineville, out here in the wilds of Oregon.

And MR. Schwab was actually in the news this week. His last child passed away, and he's nearly 90, so there is much speculation what will happen to the "free beef" chian when he goes.

Anonymous said...

I love to write but have never submitted anything for publication (and likely never will). I do enter a contest every now and then just to see if I can write what the judges want to read. It is a chellenge and adds to the fun of writing.

P.S. Also glad to see the anony back. I wouldn't want people to know I try to write!

Sal said...

It's also not going to be an automatic "oh dear dog I must read this incredible tone poem that won First Place in the Frangiapani, North Dakota Writer's Bar and Grill Sweepstakes".

As a girl born in the wilds of Grand Forks, N.D. (luckily, now living out my years in San Francisco), I have to tell ya, Miss Snark, there is no Frangiapani, North Dakota.

Fiction, Sal. I was making it up!, sez Miss Snark.

Anonymous said...

Contests can be beneficial.
Dont' become a contest junkie, though. I have friends who are polishing the same damn thing over and over, to place in a contest, and couldn't write themselves out of the first three chapters if they tried.

There are a handful of truly wonderful contests that could very well lead to publication, even if you aren't a winner. RWA's Golden Heart. That was how I got my start, when a judging editor at HarperCollins read it, requested the full, and bought it shortly thereafter. And I didn't win, only was a finalist. I'm on my fifth book.

I have other friends who were winners of St. Martins contest, and have gone onto long successful careers as a result in the mystery world.

Getting an agent is a bit easier once you have the book sold, and then you never have to mention the contests--

BTW, I've heard editors even say that they mean nothing to them, so for a query letter, I believe the bottom line is the work itself. As usual.

Dama Negra said...

Well, this certainly is not true. I know of an author who was rejected by many publishers because the author was a nobody. The moment she was a finalist in a contest, publishers started taking interest and many offered her contracts.