Thoughts on writing for and entering romance writers contests!
Okay, I am a contest junkie. But I’m ready to quit and this is my story.
I was a closet romance reader, and writer until I joined RWA in 2003. That fateful day I walked in to a room full of women who read what I read, who laughed at the same jokes I did, and who all aspired to telling the kinds of stories I loved, and telling them well. The women in the room that day welcomed me. They talked about their WIPS, their submissions, rejections, their first sales and book reviews that glowed, or didn’t.
These women were doing what I wanted to do. They were writers. I was ready to be one, too. So, I pounded out the first chapter of my first story, packed it up and entered it into the Silicon Valley GOTCHA contest.
I had no idea about GMC, what head hopping meant, where to place a tag (a tag?), or even how to format a manuscript. But I was certain I had a winner.
Then I got my scores.
Had it not been for the gracious critiques of the judges, a couple of whom were published authors (including Carolyn Woolston, a.k.a Lynna Banning), my writing aspirations would have fizzled like a Fourth of July sparkler doused in a cold pitcher of sweet tea. Once the sizzle stopped and the smoke cleared, I realized how much I didn’t know. I was devastated. And as anyone who enters contests knows, judges’ comments can sting, even the nice ones. Especially if you’re a newbie with skin as thick as crepe paper.
Somehow I managed to pull my big girl panties up and get back on my tricycle–––and I started entering more contests. So many, I forgot about them until the score sheets arrived. How I dreaded opening those packets. Therein contained dashed hopes, foolish notions and evidence of bad grammar.
When I finally got around to reading my results, I mentally argued with the judges. What did they know? The things I valued were the misspelled words they’d found, and the typos. As for the rest of it, well, it was just their opinion. My heroine was not a bitch. My hero was not a lecher. And if his eyes rolled, well for cripes sake, readers would know what that meant. How else can I describe that facial expression?
Months passed, and my contest flops kept coming, but at some point I started reading those comments. Really reading them. It occurred to me that if the readers are griping about my story then I need to listen. I might not agree with them at first, but when the fifth, sixth, and seventh judge, errr reader, tells me that a passage doesn’t ring true , that the pacing is off, or I use the word “nearly” way too often, they must be on to something.
After a year or two, and ten or twenty more contests, I started catching on and revising (I’m slow learner). But I persevered and as I did, the utility of contests changed. Never mind the costs of entry fees and postage, and time. Never mind the scores, which started creeping up, almost without notice.
Contests went from a way to get my work line-edited to a way to get my work content edited. I started reading craft books so I could understand the acronyms the judges wrote in the margin. No longer looking for the contests with minimal page requirements, or those that didn’t want a synopsis, I graduated to scoping out those that required a synopsis, then to those that wanted fifty-five manuscript pages.
I learned to write the best hook I could, starting with the first sentence. I learned I needed to make THE FIRST MEETING between the hero and the heroine a BIG one. I learned about the difference between sensual and sexual, and GMC and yes, thank God, POV and where to put a tag, or leave one off. I don’t know everything, but I’ve much improved. Many thanks to all those argumentative contest judges who critiqued my work.
Then I started finaling and it started to matter who the final judges were–––which editor, which agent.
I was ecstatic. But I still wanted to win, not for fame or because I wanted to beat someone, but because I wanted to learn what grabs a reader and keeps her reading.
I started judging contests. I dissected the books I loved to learn how successful authors told their stories. I was amazed at how so many of them could get away with things that would make a contest judge’s pen explode. Authors doing things like starting the book with a long passage of descriptive narrative, like not having the hero and the heroine meet before page four, and yes, describing characters whose eyeballs rolled. Gasp! Don’t they know how much “New York hates that?” (A real quote from a contest judge).
But they were published authors. They had earned the right to violate contest rules. What I learned is how to write a stellar first fifty-five pages. With a zingy hook and a hero who’s a hottie in the thirteenth century or the twenty-first.
Amazingly, I won my first contest last year. Then I one another one. Even got requests from agents and editor judges to see more.
And yet those winning manuscripts have also ended up at the bottom of the heap in other contests. Go figure. The scores don’t devastate me like they used to. Now I know contests can be a crap shoot, but it’s taken me a while to figure that out (see, I really am a slow learner). Don’t get me wrong, winning makes me smile, but bombed out scores don’t make me cry anymore. They make me, well, roll my eyes.
Which brings me to the point. I no longer look at the COMPLETE LIST of contests with anticipation, nor plan for the hours I will spend reformatting a work in preparation to enter.
Nope. I’m done. It’s time to quit.
I’ve learned a lot in the last three years, and have a lot more to learn, but now I look at the editor/agent final judges’ name and think “Why not just send it to her?”
I’ve earned enough contest credentials to include in a query letter. I might end up in the slush pile and it might take a little longer for an editor to respond, but so what? I’ve had to wait on contest results almost a year in some cases. In the meantime, I can work on other stories. There are, after all, authors who made their first sale and never entered a single contest. And yes, there are authors who sold their first book to an editor who read the entry in a contest.
So, I waffle. But I want to quit. Really, I do!
Jennifer Crusie wrote in one of last year’s RWRs “Stop entering contests. Write the damn book.”
I hear you Ms. Crusie. At first I argued with you (mentally of course), but deep down I know you’re right. It’s time for me to move on, give up that driving need for a contest fix. There are only so many hours in a day I can write and at this point, I shouldn’t be spending them re-hashing the same three chapters.
So, here are my New Year’s Resolutions for 2006: Quit the Contests. Write. Finish the damn book(s). Submit to an editor or an agent. Not to a contest coordinator
The brass ring is publication, not a Golden Heart. Though I must admit, like an addict I’ll probably enter that contest, the mother of all RWA contests until, heaven help me, I am joyfully no longer eligible. But I suspect–––no, I really hope–––that someday the RITA will beckon me. And I suspect I won’t fall off my wagon. I’ll jump.