Thursday, October 13, 2005


Here's a guest post by author Shelley Bradley:

I'm on a few email lists where the subject of unpublished manuscript contests has come up recently - usually with a chorus of groans and complaints. I managed to stop short of asking a few people if they wanted a little cheese to go with their whine. Really, this totally confuses me. I was a total contest sl-- um, diva before I published. I still maintain that one of my first books would never have sold if I hadn't gotten some wonderful plotting advice from a contest judge once upon a time. Now, I will grant you that I haven't entered contests like this since I sold my first book nearly 8 years ago...but I don't think things have changed that much. The basic premise is, you plunck down your money, send in part of your book and get some feedback. I think everyone is clear on that part. It's the details that seem to be causing issues.

Plunking down your money - I hear complaints that contests are expensive. Yes and no. If you paid a professional editor or copyeditor to look over your book, you might pay anywhere from $1-2 per page. If the contest you're entering allows you to submit 25 pages and costs you $25 to enter, it's not a bad deal because you're often getting 3 opinions, rather than just one. Could you enter 10 contests a month without going broke? Probably not. But to get the opinions of 3 people who know about the world of romance publishing, including published authors, and potentially a shot at agent or editor feedback, it's really a pretty good deal. To try to arrange for this much feedback on your own would cost you just as much money and lots more time, which in my opinion, is one of today's soft currencies.

Sending in your book - I hear complaints that contests are living in the stone age. Why copy and snail mail everything? Why can't things be electronically submitted? I understand this frustration, really. I HATE going to the post office. But on the flip side, would you want to be accepting attachments on your computer from perfect strangers? Even if you knew they were free of viruses, how would you know the file formats are compatible? Maybe you like Word 2003, but one of your judges is sticking by her tried and true WordPerfect 5.1? You laugh, but I know these people. PDF is a pretty universal format...except that not everyone has access to the software that will PDF a document. From a judge's perspective, without the software that allows you to actually write to a PDF (which most of us don't have), then you can't comment directly on the manuscript, which means more typing for the judge when they want to comment. That said, more and more contests are moving toward an electronic format by requiring certain file formats and making sure their coordinators have heavy-duty virus protection. Then it's a matter of finding judges who will read online. Personally, I'd rather. But I think I might be in the minority at this point. And it is judges who are volunteering their time. Which brings me to the last--and most vociferous--argument.

Get some feedback - Okay, don't expect to final every time. People will tell you that they don't, but then I hear entrants blaming judges because they didn't final. Hmmm. I'm not going to say I've never had a bad judge who was completely out in left field. I totally have. I'm not going to say they aren't still out there, because I'm sure they are. What I am going to say is this: Focus on the quality of the feedback, not the outcome. Yes, we'd all like to be winners all the time. Ain't going to happen. I learned (over time, mind you--I'm not a saint), to appreciate the valuable nuggets of information and suggestions far more than the actual contest results. Why? The info you can do something with--make your book better, stronger, faster, more solid, sexier--whatever. The contest win or just an ego stroke and another thing to put on a cover letter that an agent or editor may or may not care about. Those same people will be impressed with a wonderful book every time.

I understand that you don't consistently get fabulous feedback. Do you get it every time you submit a manuscript to an agent or editor? Um, no. You expect it because you've paid for feedback in a contest, but the honest truth is, you're paying for opinions, good, bad or ugly. It's your job to develop a thick enough skin to ask if there's some merit to the comment you've received, even if it hurts to ask. Now, I do know of a few cases where the judge was apparently sarcastic and derisive. There's no need for that--ever. If the contest coordinator did not catch that before sending the entry back to you, you need to let her know so they don't use that judge again. I even know people who have been given refunds. But if we're talking the garden variety "crappy" comment, I think you need to step back and look at publishing as a whole. Contests are a good way to see how you're doing against the competition...the same competition that might be on your dream editor's desk right beside you. If the judge pointed out character flaws or grammar issues or plot confusions, why get mad at her? You entered to get feedback, right? Look at the comments and use them to make a better book so that, next time you submit and find yourself next to your competition on an editor's desk, the answer is something more positive than a flat rejection. Do all the comments from judges always make sense? Nope. Then again, do all comments in a rejection letter make sense? I won't answer that, but you know. I looked at contests as the chance to see how I was doing against the people submitting at the same time as me and to see how many potential readers/agents/editors were "getting me."

Think of your judges as a random sample of the romance reading population. Some readers will love you and others won't. That's just how it goes. You can't please everyone. What I would do, however, is to look at the type of comments, how often I got them, what sort of personal "hot button" I might be hitting. Then I'd think about the likelihood of that hot button going off in a lot of judges or readers. Or agents and editors. Because if you think about it, a sampling of judges could be an awful like a random sampling of agents and editors. Some have been in the biz longer than others. Some like to really make a lot of personal comments, while others don't. Some are very clear and can concisely tell you what's not working about the book, while others might say things like, "This middle is bothering me" and be unable to clarify beyond that. It's YOUR job to decipher the comments as the judge/agent/editor sees them. And judges, like editors and agents, have their personal likes/dislikes/pet peeves. Instead of insisting that we completely weed them out of judging, which I think is unrealistic, maybe we should do our best to ask for impartiality and just accept that, like dating, you kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince. The same is true for finding the right editor. Why not winning a contest?

Last, please remember that your judges are volunteering their time and can only give you their honest, heartfelt opinion. If they didn't like it, didn't read it as carefully as you'd like, didn't give you the kind/amount of feedback you wanted, remember they also don't have ESP. What they do have are busy lives, frequently juggling children, households, other careers, deadlines (sometimes more than one), plus other RWA volunteering, hobbies, church or school responsibilities. Personally, I have most of the above. I would say that one reason you may not be getting the amount and quality of feedback you want is because thank you notes have gone the way of the dinosaur. Who wants to put a lot of effort into something if you're never going to know that you helped or made some impact on the recipient? I know judges who have received horrifying hate mail and refused to ever judge again. Or authors who have been advised by agents not to judge because of potential lawsuits.

Contests are like anything else: You get out of them what you put into them. If you put unrealistic expectations into the mix, you're going to be disappointed every time. If you consider them a dry run for determining your publishing-readiness and take the feedback in the helpful spirit it was (usually) intended and focus less on winning, you'll be way ahead of the pack.


Blogger Shalanna Collins said...

I agree with you, Shelley. Contests are good. They're also touted as opportunities to get your work before agents and editors--but only if you do final or win, and even then, it may be quite some time before the agent gets around to glancing at it. I'd say that the frustration comes from the times when you don't get any useful feedback. But still, remember that the judges are amateurs (and that the root of "amateur" comes out of "love," and it's because they do it out of LOVE for reading and books!), and what you're getting is a cross-section of the reactions you'll get from readers.

The biggest danger I see is becoming too fixated on contests. There are many people who have polished the first three chapters and synopsis of a couple of books, and they then circulate them around the contests. They don't ever sit down and finish a book, or they DO but never send it to agents or editors. Contests aren't the only way to get noticed.

When I do find out some way to get noticed, I'll let y'all know. (*grin*)

Thursday, October 13, 2005 at 6:14:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous shelley said...

I found contests invaluable on my journey to publication. As well as getting feedback, contests gave me deadlines to work toward. IMO that's good training for later on when you sell.

I've received both good and bad comments. Some I agreed with and others made me shake my head. Contests are an excellent writing tool if used wisely :-)

I'd also agree with Shalanna. I know a lot of writers who enter contests and do well, but they haven't written more than the first three chapters. You NEED the final product in order to sell!

Thursday, October 13, 2005 at 7:41:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Shelley Bradley said...

You are both right, and it's great to keep such things in perspective. We all know the people who write three chapters to death, but never finish or really polish the rest. An agent I spoke with many moons ago told me the number 1 reason she rejected a book by a person with any decent level of writing ability was the ending. She said that, somewhere between the third turning point and the end, it would always all fall apart and lead to some lame ending that would never fly. IMO, that has a lot to do with not focusing on the end of a book. And let's face it, the end of your current book sells your next to readers...

Thursday, October 13, 2005 at 8:36:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Edie Ramer said...

When I joined RWA 3 years ago, contests were were a huge confidence builder. Although I entered less than a dozen during this time, the majority of the judges were wonderful. A few were...not so wonderful. But I'm at the point where they're a waste of time better spent on perfecting my book. I don't need them for confidence anymore, and I can find out if the editor or agent is interested much faster by sending a query.

I definitely agree with you, Shelley, about the "whine with the cheese." Even though I don't enter contests anymore, I judge them. I try to be tactful, but at the same time helpful. I tell them they can use what they agree with and disregard the rest. Judging is always subjective, and complaining will never change that.

Friday, October 14, 2005 at 10:13:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I think contests can be wonderful, but I think you have to pick and choose carefully which contests you choose to enter. The Golden Heart, the Stiletto contest (chick-lit chapter), Put Your Heart in a book are all really good contests. Don't forget the contests that are also run by publishers, such as Harlequin's Blaze and Epic contest, and Dorchester's American Title.

Friday, October 14, 2005 at 11:25:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Shelley Bradley said...

Edie, judging is subjective. Very good point! People need to remember that not everyone loves everything, and that includes books. You're not going to hit a home run with everyone, but someone will "hear" your voice.

Elizabeth, yes, I agree you should, in fact, pick contests carefully. Some have been around a long while and have great reputations. Those publisher contests are great if you think you're close. They don't usually provide a lot of feedback, but if you're lucky enough to final, you may have bright things in your immediate future!

Saturday, October 15, 2005 at 6:21:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Monique G said...

This is such great advice.

One thing I've started to notice about contests is exactly what has been mentioned... the feedback you're getting is helpful and constructive, from professionals you may not have had contact with otherwise. And having a deadline to work toward helps build that writing stamina that we all need.

Granted, not everyone will final all the time. But the experience is another to put on the list of things you've tried. And another notch on the belt of becoming a pubbed author.

Thanks for this Shelley!

Saturday, October 15, 2005 at 11:07:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Kelly said...

My number one thumbs up reason for why someone should enter contests is: you grow a *really* thick skin. I once had a judge give me near the lowest possible score on every judging item and the only comment/s made were invectives relating to the emotional maturity of my main characters. That was towards the end of my year of contest sl--/diva-hood. I skimmed that response sheet, and tossed it over my shoulder. A friend convinced me to enter that ms one more time in another contest, and while I did noticeably better than the previous time I had entered that contest with that manuscript (see, I am improving as a writer!), a judge in that contest made similar, much more constructive remarks, on what the bitter, hateful judge had remarked on. I paid attention at that point.

Thick skins are beyond important in my view for when you're published because you're now at the mercy of readers and reviewers. Yeah, it would be great if we could each write a book that would appeal to all writers. That ain't happening. Being able to respond professionally to detractors and shrug off their negative, unconstructive comments to focus on making the current manuscript the best we can is something we should all aspire to.

Sunday, October 16, 2005 at 2:49:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Theresa said...

I’ve been following this contest thread with great interest.

And while I’d agree with a lot of what’s been said, I have to disagree with a lot of it as well. There’s no question that contests can be incredibly beneficial. My crit partner sold as a result of a contest. So have several writing friends. Other friends have nabbed agents. I myself have finaled close to a dozen times, with several agent/editor requests and some great editor/agent feedback. So I do think that contests can be a valuable marketing tool.

But—I also feel that contests have two huge, built in flaws. Namely, the judges and the score sheets.

Shelley, you mentioned that you’d been a contest junkie eight years ago, before you sold. You also mentioned that you couldn’t imagine contests had changed that much since then. Well maybe the ideal of contests hasn’t changed. But in my honest opinion the quality of the judges has.

I started entering contests five years ago. And the quality of the feedback I got back then was outstanding. I was lucky enough to final repeatedly as well, and the feedback I got from agents and editors were top notch as well. I only entered for about a year, then quit to finish the manuscript I was finaling with. About this time contests became immensely popular. The entry numbers swelled to the point there weren’t enough judges to critique the entries. Other RWA chapters jumped on the contest wagon and launched their own contests. Within a year to two, there were easily twice as many contests as there had been before, and the entry numbers had swelled to the point the judging pools were immensely strained.

With almost every contest a panicked call would go out over the loops asking for help. The entries were twice as much as expected and they needed more judges. Call after call for more judges. At this point, a judge’s qualification didn’t matter.

And yes, I say qualifications. Because in my honest opinion, a reader does not make a person qualified to judge a manuscript. They don’t have the industry knowledge or technical knowledge. In many cases these were people who had never even finished a book, had never joined a critique group, never received an agent/editor request. These were people, who regardless of their good intentions had no clue what they were doing. People who didn’t truly even understand the meaning behind a lot of the questions on the score sheet, but were expected to pull a manuscript apart, or 25 pages of it, and tell the author what wasn’t working and why.

It’s been mentioned several times that judges are just readers. And that in effect, feedback from them is no different than feedback from editors/agents or published authors. But you see I don’t agree with this at all. Readers/editors/agents are reading for the overall picture. They can tell you if they like the book or not and if pressed even give a few reasons why.

Judges, on the other hand aren’t looking at the overall picture. They are working off a score sheet. And the score sheet is designed to force the judge to break the manuscript down into its different components—which assumes that the judge knows what the components actually mean and are meant to accomplish. Yet most newbie writers are pretty clueless about a lot of these aspects. Still—they struggle to fill in those questions and dispense a lot of advice that is down right bad.

Now would anyone pay twenty-five dollars per 25 pages to have their manuscript crited by an individual who good intentions aside, doesn’t really know what they are doing? Of course not.

When I started entering contests again, after finishing the manuscript that had finaled repeatedly two years earlier—I was flat out shocked by how the judge’s feedback had deteriorated. It wasn’t just the technical knowledge they were lacking. It was the industry knowledge as well. In two contests alone--that required the first three chapters-- I had four judges tell me to send my 120,000 word paranormal romantic suspense, where the hero and heroine didn’t meet until chapter three, into Harlequin Intrigue, because they’d heard that HI was open to paranormal elements. I had judge after judge take me to task for things they felt I had failed at, when I knew they were elements I’d excelled at through agent/editor comments. It’s one thing to have a judge react negatively to your voice/ or your tone/ or the subject matter. But its something else entirely to have a judge make judgements and assign values to technical aspects of the writing, when they really don’t understand what goes into making these elements work.-- for for example show don’t tell, the use of the senses, passive writing, all things scoresheets grade on.

Now—some will say that the accuracy of a judge’s critique doesn’t really matter since the author is free to take or disregard the feedback. But this is assuming that the author has been writing long enough to have developed instincts of their own. But too often new authors are the ones sending in their contest dollars. They don’t know enough about the technical aspects of good story telling to know if the judge’s comments are valid. Or—even worse, the automatically assume the judge has to know what they are talking about, they are judging a contest after all, and they automatically take the well-meant feedback to heart and change their manuscript to fit the judges input, often gutting their own voice and story to do it. Believe me, I’ve seen this happen so often I’d strongly advise new authors to avoid contests, rather than treat them as a three-for one critique.

We caution new authors to be careful in their choice of crit partners, yet encourage them to enter contests and consider the advice of strangers.

I was lucky. I finaled enough in my first foray into contests to build some instincts and get a good sense of my strengths and weaknesses. But if my second round of contests had been my only experience, it could have set me back months if not years. I’m not saying that all the judges were novice writers, but I suspect the majority of them were.

True—a lot of contest offer a pubbed author as a judge. But the need for pubbed authors became so great that I suspect the published standard didn’t mean quite what the entrants assumed. I know for a fact, that a very dear friend, who had sold to a now extinct e-book company and sold exactly two copies of her book, was considered a pubbed author and judged contests in that capacity quite often—even though her knowledge of the industry and writing techniques were no stronger than the greenest of newbies. I had another friend who had been published in the confessional market, had just made the switch to the romance genre and was asked to judge chapter contests as a published author.

Do I think that contests are worth it? If you’re trying to final. Yes. As long as your willing to gamble. As long as your willing to keep rolling the judges dice until you come up with the winning numbers. If you’re looking to build your craft, I’d suggest you save your twenty-five dollars and pursue other avenues. Take some writing courses; find yourself a good critique group.

Now I don’t know if the quality of feedback is as poor as it was when I started entering again. I gave up on them about two years back and haven’t entered another. You don’t hear the call for judges like you use to, though, so maybe the entry levels have gone down. Which could mean the quality of the judges has gone back up again. Maybe the feedback is worth the price. I really don’t know, since I don’t enter anymore.

But two years ago, the chances of getting any useful feedback was pretty darn dismal.

Just my experience.

Theresa Monsey

Sunday, October 16, 2005 at 6:18:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Nalini Singh said...

I agree with the point about the 3chapter experts who never get beyond that. But if you look carefully, there are some full ms competitions out there, and they provide great motivation for getting the book finished - that motivational factor can't be discounted in terms of the pluses of entering competitions.

Theresa, I agree with some of what you said but I don't think reader judges should be discounted because of lack of market knowledge. When I entered contests with first-round reader judges, what I was looking for was to find out if my work resonated with people in general.

So I think in the end, it's on the writer to do the research and find out what the judging structure of any particular competition is and whether that structure offers them the feedback they're looking for.

Great column Shelley.

Sunday, October 16, 2005 at 8:23:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Theresa said...


I don't discount readers in the slightest. I honestly believe they can be very beneficial. If you're looking to see how your work resonates with the reading public, they are invaluable.

I just don't think the vast majority of the scoresheets are designed with readers in mind. They are designed on the assumption the person filling them out is aware and can recognize the elements of craft.

They don't judge on overall picture, as the readers do--they break the book into dozens of individual components and ask the reader to evaluate the work on each individual component.

Some contests do have scoresheets that are designed with the overall picture in mind. Scoresheets that call for one numerical value based on how well the reader liked the entry. The Dual on the Delta and the Golden Heart come to mind.

And while you're certainly right that each entrant needs to read and judge the scoresheet based on their own needs--my guess is that the vast majority of entrants enter for two reasons. To final, or to get some feedback on how to advance their craft.

And while those who enter to final might find it incredibly frustrating to be kicked out of the running by a good-hearted, but novice judge who rated them down based on elements of style, or so called rules that they didn't actually understand --how's that for a convoluted sentence? grin-- At least these entrants go into the situation fully aware.

Novice writers, entering contests with the hope of learning from more experienced authors, don't have that luxury.


Sunday, October 16, 2005 at 10:39:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Diana Peterfreund said...

I think there are some contests that are better suited to people who are still developing their craft and others who have a pretty firm grip on the mechanics of novel writing and are just trying to break down the door. Unfortunately the entrance is not as self-selecting as it should be. Contests like hte Maggie or the Golden Heart that don't have scoresheets are better suited towards people who know what they are doing. I have always been hard pressed to score abysmal entries on the Golden Heart, because it's tough to look at the overall picture when the craft is struggling. I always feel the GH does those people a disservice, because I can't even remark upon the entry what I found so dificult about it -- was it the writing, the characterization, the voice, the writer's grasp of grammar... it's the contest equivalent of a form rejection. The contests with complicated score sheets are better suited to folks in the beginning of their writing career. In those instances, they can see with a numerical breakdown how they are doing in characterization, etc. Unfortunately, those contests often inadvertantly punish great writers with fabulous stories that don't adhere to the guidelines. I would never have entered my first contracted novel in a contest, since the first chapter would not have stood up well to the type of questions asked by these contests (sensory details and the like). But it sold quickly and well.

I am the winner of several well-respected contests (The Maggie and the Molly) and I treasure those wins. However I feel that contests as a whole are much better suited to a particular type of story and storytelling -- the kind I used in the books that won those contests -- and not so much the kind I used in the book I actually sold.

I disagree with the idea of judge qualification. I would rather experienced writers or flat out readers. Inexperienced writers who are still working on their own craft issues are the worst people to judge contests, because they are caught up in rules and guidelines rather than the story. Most of my published friends respect the published writing contests judged by READERS -- like the NRCA, more than the ones judged by other writers. I have bestselling friends who have never won any of these writing contests, but people love their books anyway.

So who is a better judge?

Monday, October 17, 2005 at 9:56:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Theresa said...


We're on the same wavelength. You expressed my feelings about contests perfectly.

I do think there is a need for the detailed scoresheets. As you mentioned, they do help newer writers hone their weak areas. But only if the person filling the score sheet out is experienced enough to understand the questions.

Likewise, readers make fine judges when it comes to overall evaluations--which a single score can provide.

Agree 100% on some manuscripts doing better in contests than others--as well as the more inexperienced judges often nitpicking or grading on how well the entry fit the *rules>*

Maybe we can start a revolution.


Monday, October 17, 2005 at 10:10:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Nonny said...

Great article, Shelley. :)

I don't usually enter contests because I'm perpetually broke. Also, most of the contests that I've noticed are specific to the Romance genre. While the majority of my fiction has a romantic plot layer that's necessary to the main plot, it's not always the primary focus. (Until recently, with authors like Laurell Hamilton, my work would have been cast as "too romantic for SFF" and "too SFF for romance." >_<)

That said, if there were such a contest for my genre, I'd probably enter. If I weren't broke. *grins*

Also, regarding .PDF files ... Open Office is a free open source office suite that converts documents to PDFs. The tools are there--most people just don't know where to find them.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005 at 9:37:00 PM EDT  

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