Justine: Five Things I’ve Learned About Contests

1st2nd3rd ribbonsI’ve had a bit of experience with contests lately — running them, entering them, and losing them. Here are five things I’ve learned:

1. Deadlines matter

Make sure you know what day, what TIME (and time ZONE), the cutoff is, then give yourself a hefty fudge factor. As in an entire day. ‘Cause it doesn’t matter how good your manuscript is if you don’t turn it in on time.

2. Whatever the outcome, you have to keep moving forward

If you win, great. If you final, great. If you don’t, great. Each outcome gives you something. Feedback. Suggestions. Areas to improve. Things you’re doing really well.

Even if the judges completely tank your MS, there’s going to be something from all the debris that can help you. So put on your big-girl panties, grab yourself by the arse, and keep on going.

Need to have a “woe is me” party? Okay. You have five minutes to wallow in self pity. Starting now. Go!  [five minutes later]  Alright, your five minutes are over. Now get to work.

3. Just because you’re great in one contest doesn’t mean you’re great in all of them – or even in the same contest the next year

The Eight Ladies have had a wonderful discussion on our private blog about the subjectivity of contests and judges. Some of the reasons for this subjectivity include:

  • The communities of writers (particularly in specific genres) is very small and we all know someone who knows someone and we know what everyone is working on, etc.  Someone may decide “it’s so-and-so’s year” and the judge recognizes the manuscript and subconsciously gives a better score to that MS than to others that are just as good/slightly better.
  • If you write inspy but are judging paranormal, there may be an inherent bias/distaste. Same if you agree to judge erotica, but aren’t very familiar/comfortable with it. Or if you’re judging historical, but never have before and are completely lost on the Regency/medieval/old west references. Those misunderstandings/discomfort can result in a lower-than-normal score.
  • Someone who’s had a bad day/isn’t feeling well, but HAS to get their judging done because they procrastinated, may rush through the entries and not take the time required to consider it objectively. The slightest little typo or snafu will put them in a “this is crap” mindset.
  • Anyone can judge. One person’s “great book” is another person’s doorstop. We’ve seen from judging entries ourselves that one person’s best effort, what they think is amazing, is actually junk (at least we think so). So if something great comes along, but it isn’t quite how they would do it, they might score it lower.
  • There’s no magic guidance as to what constitutes a 10 versus a 5. Some judges inherently score higher than others (as the coordinator for a contest recently, I can say with authority that this is true).
  • It can simply be “luck of the draw,” meaning who got drawn as your judge.

4. When one person says something, it’s opinion. When two people do, it’s a problem

I tweeted this a few weeks ago and got quite a few favorites or retweets and it’s true. I honestly don’t remember who told ME this (I didn’t come up with it), but it’s certainly a good rule to live by. Look at the comments (good and bad) from your judges. Are there patterns? If so, pay attention. Are they mentioning the same type of thing? Perhaps your conflict is wishy-washy. Or your protagonist seems unlikable. Or you’ve done a stellar job with dialogue.

Anything that’s mentioned once is worth considering. But if it’s mentioned twice, it’s probably worth taking action (whether that’s making a fix, or in the case of something the judges like, keeping it intact).

5. Never diminish someone else’s success. They worked hard, too.

I wish I could say “this goes without saying,” but that’s not true. You have to be sincere in your happiness. Your critique partner, fellow Eight Lady, girl you met at the last RWA meeting – whatever – you have to sincerely celebrate their success. Be happy for them. Congratulate them. Hold no grudges, even if they beat you in your category.

If you feel the tiniest bit green with envy, channel that into something positive. Perhaps ask them to meet you for coffee and talk about their writing process, the books they’ve read, the craft classes they’ve taken. Learn from them. And remember that’s everyone’s trajectory to publication lies along different paths. Yet another thing to celebrate.

What things have you learned from contests, be it entering, judging, or winning?

13 thoughts on “Justine: Five Things I’ve Learned About Contests

  1. I’ve found that reading my first ten, and twenty, and twenty-five pages in isolation, almost as a short story, has been invaluable. It makes you question every word, every scene at the beginning of your book, ensure the story flows and that the pacing is snappy.

  2. Good points, Justine. My opinion of feedback: feedback from critique partners is great. Feedback from contests, I’m not that enthusiastic about. Too often it’s just asinine. If you win, contests are a good way to get your manuscript in front of an editor or agent you like. And if you win, the comments are likely to be positive. But if you lose, maybe just skip it. Surely you’re not going to rewrite your book because a person who read 15 pages said it was boring.

    As a side note, I always heard it as “One person’s a crackpot, two people are friends, three people are a movement.” 🙂

    • You do get weird stuff in the comments sometimes, but you can get really helpful input too, and unlike critique partners, judges don’t know you or your story so you get a different perspective. I’ve had useable feedback from every contest I’ve entered so far. I’ve had some brain-fryingly strange stuff too, but that’s interesting in its way – shows you how much a reader can bring to the story that you did NOT put there 😉 .

      • With my CP, there are certain things I know I’m going to get from her. Same with the Eight Ladies, because we all have the same shared background/education with Jenny (and a bit beyond that, but we all know what a conflict lock is, frex). But with a contest, you get everything, and like both you and Jilly said, it can be asinine. But the “outsider’s” perspective, the fresh view, is incredibly helpful. Even having someone like Rachel Beecroft read my ms (which I fully intend for her to do) will give me slightly jaded results, because she’s familiar with the story. I’m not saying it’s not valuable, it’s just not the same as having someone with a blank canvas (however crazy that canvas may be) read it.

        • Jaded, me?

          Just joking, but it was interesting that I only read Jllly’s DWM only when it was finished and polished. I definitely think you get different things out of that critique and I’d be interested to hear Jilly’s view on whether that was a good thing or not (feel free to say not Jilly).

        • You probably get the most out of the first read – sometimes among ourselves we opt to keep some of the Ladies as ‘fresh eyes’ for later. I got a ‘fresh eyes’ read from Rachel which was very helpful, but it was different from a contest in that, as Justine says, she’s familiar with me and with the story. A contest reader knows nothing until the pages are dropped in their in-box and they have to read and comment on it whether it’s their thing or not (and you’re never going to know their names, so they don’t have to be polite though most of them are).

    • (-: I heard it, “once is a happening, twice is coincidence, and three times is enemy action.” But of course, framing honest criticism coming from a well-meaning place as part of a battle is . . . not productive. I like this better.

  3. I recently entered a regional contest (my first with Cheyenne). The finalists will be announced in April and I’ll have more to say about what I’ve learned then. Having said that, sitting back and watching (listening) to the ladies who are actively entering, finaling and/or winning (or not) has been a learning experience. Not simply in how judging works or the potential benefits of contests, but how to win/lose them gracefully.

  4. Pingback: Kat: Contest Fever | Eight Ladies Writing

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