Let’s talk about this: what do you wish you had known before you entered your first contest?


Personal business first — hey, narcissism is the blogger’s privilege, right? — a quick update for those of you who were thinking (seriously, I hope) of coming to my talk this coming Saturday, January 26th, at Vericon, the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association’s annual SF convention. Admission to an entire day’s events runs from $10 – $20, depending upon when you register, and kids under 14 get in free, so I hope to see many of you there.

There will also be some pretty terrific SF, fantasy, YA, and graphic novel writers in attendance, including Orson Scott Card (the keynote speaker), M.T. Anderson, Cassandra Clare, Marie Brennan, Elizabeth Haydon, Jim Kelly, Kelly Link, Lois Lowry, Randall Munroe, Donna Jo Napoli, Sharyn November, and William Sleator. Most of them seem to e speaking/signing at several events (judging from the schedule, I don’t think you’ll be able to throw a piece of bread at the conference without hitting the aforementioned OSC), so your opportunities to ask probing questions about improving your craft should be vast. Actually, a quite good events geared for SF/fantasy writers appears to be happening during my talk — and if that’s not a recipe for convention richness, I should like to know what is.

If you’re in the area, why not stop on by? As incentive, let’s take another look at that stunning logo, shall we?


Okay, that should be enough of a dragon fix for anyone for one day. Back to business.

As I have been hinting for the last few weeks, I am going to be launching tomorrow into a fairly hefty series on contest entry preparation. As an author who landed her agent partially as a result of having won a literary contest of some repute (with an early draft of the memoir about which I shall be lecturing on Saturday, as a matter of fact), I am, as my long-time readers already know, a tireless proponent for this brand of eye-catching query letter candy.

(That deserves an acronym of its own, doesn’t it? Now and forever after, it shall be known on this site as ECQLC; pronounce it if you dare.)

To that end, I concentrated fairly hard on a single contest’s requirements last year (and if you’re interested in entering the contest sponsored by the Organization-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named, last year’s tips have been carefully preserved under the CONTEST ENTRY PREP category at right). In perhaps unrelated news, that contest’s entry pool evidently reached unprecedented proportions, thus creating greater competition for those who entered.

Great for the sponsoring organization, of course, but not necessarily a good thing for my readers who entered. Except, perhaps, for the one member of our little Author! Author! community who won, and the several others who placed and made finalist. (Toot, toot goes the horn.)

This year, I’m going to make every effort to be impartial about which contest’s rules I use for examples, to avoid even the appearance of favoring one over another. Since I know that not all of my readers are interested in entering contests, I shall also be gearing this year’s discussions of reliable contest judges’ pet peeves toward those that are also notorious agency screener pet peeves.

It’s going to be a pet peeve-a-thon! I can hardly wait.

To start us off on the right foot — and to get a better sense of what kinds of contests you’ve been considering entering — I’m going to turn the floor over to you for the day. Those of you who have entered contests in the past, what do you wish someone had told you before you entered for the first time?

For those of you who have not entered contests, but considered it: what are you looking for in a literary contest? What would you like winning it to do for you — and how difficult have you found it to track down a contest that offers those benefits?

And, as always: is there any aspect of contest entry that you find particularly puzzling, so I know to include discussion of it in posts to come?

To get the ball rolling, I’ll start: I wish that I had realized prior to my first contest entry how heavily the potential marketability of the book tends to weigh in the judging. Oh, I knew to check lists of past winners of broadly-defined categories in order to see if certain types of books had traditionally won. (In the contest where my memoir won, for instance, the nonfiction book winner has rarely been anything but a memoir, bad luck for writers of other NF books.) But it had not occurred to me before my first entry that contest judges might be using the same criteria as agencies. Or at any rate, what they believed to be the criteria used at agencies.

Instead, I had thought — possibly because the contests I was entering said as much on their promotional materials — that the only things that mattered were the beauty of the writing, how professionally it was presented, and how compelling the story was. The first time I received contest feedback that said, “Great story, well told — too bad that there isn’t a market for it,” I was crushed.

But I did learn from that experience: the next time I entered a contest, I sent not my best writing, but my most marketable idea. And I won. So I suppose I should be grateful to that curmudgeonly contest judge, in retrospect.

Your turn. As always, keep up the good work!

6 Replies to “Let’s talk about this: what do you wish you had known before you entered your first contest?”

  1. I believe EXQLC would be pronounced, “exclick.” The dragon motif in the VERICON logo reminds me of the TEMERAIRE series by Naomi Novik. I happen to be reading the fourth book of the series now. (EMPIRE OF IVORY)

  2. Had a long day! Forgot I still has “Caps Lock” selected when I “signed off” Let’s see if I can do it right this time. (Hopefully in the next couple of days I’ll have my thoughts in order and be able to comment in response to the main gist of today’s post.
    (Look better?)

  3. Here’s what I wish I’d have known before I entered a manuscript contest: My first manuscript took 4th place in the 2005 National Writers Association manuscript contest. From that, I received representation from a not-so-reputable agent. I was so star struck, I didn’t check the agent’s credientials before signing. A year later, when my manuscript had only been sent to THREE unknown editors and he’d taken me for a bunch of money, the so-called agent was involved in a plane crash. He survived, but pretty much quit doing business. I can’t say how relieved I was. Unfortunately, that lovely story is now my drawer novel. That little lesson taught me to do my homework before signing.

    Then last year, I was a finalist with my second novel in the literary/mainstream contest with the Organization-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named. I’m now experiencing the pleasure of sending blind query letters. Although I had a lot of initial interest from agents at the conference, all took a pass on it. That taught me that just being a finalist in a big time contest doesn’t mean I’ll be quickly snatched up. I still have to work hard and earn things the old-fashioned way.

    I’m now working on a third novel. It won’t be ready for anyone’s conference this year, but should be spit-shined and polished for next year. But, I’ll enter next time with eyes wide open and my heart safely tucked inside where it’s supposed to be.

    I think the biggest thing I learned was to temper hopeful expectations with the crummy reality that I don’t have a name, a pedigree, or a history. The second thing I learned was that it’s okay that I don’t have a readily recognizable name. I’m a compulsive writer, and as such, I’m betting on the come that some story … some once-upon-a-dream story … will catch fire and my true-love agent will come along.

    In the meantime, I’ll keep writing and blogging and working toward something altogether different than collecting manuscripts in my drawer. I’m also giving myself one more year. If nada by then, I’m heading toward self-publishing. (I’m older than most, so I understand the concept of time.) My second (finalist placing) novel really IS timely, worthy and as good as anything I’ve done. I believe in it … and that brings me to the most recent thing I’ve learned. I believe in my work!

    My best to all,
    Auburn McCanta

  4. Oh, I’m SO sorry to hear about your negative agent experience, Auburn — I hear stories like this all the time, unfortunately, so you’re definitely not alone. There are plenty of agents out there who lose interest after just a handful of submissions — which is downright bizarre, from a writer’s point of view.

    (PS: you should be VERY proud of making it to the finals in that category last year — word on the street is that the competition was phenomenal.)

    1. Thanks, Anne. I am proud. I was truly surprised to be selected. And, yes … during the conference, they said the competition was HUGE. As far as the first experience, it’s quite true that such disappointments only serve to make us stronger, and … I’m getting some pretty big muscles now!

  5. I was a finalist twice for mainstream fiction. The first time, I wish I knew that you should have a COMPLETE synopsis. :> It’s also important to pick the right category, which I can still get wrong.

    I find entering a good contest very rewarding and a help in being more professional. It looks good in cover letter. The greatest joy was winning the top prize in non-fiction at Surrey two years ago. An agent did a second take when I told her this. Unfortunately, I don’t have a big book on non-fiction. I just write memoir essays and non-fiction historical articles. Historic fiction is my passion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *