Monday, October 22, 2007

Write or die--why I entered contests

As a writer, I can say that contests were the best things that happened to me.

I'm not exaggerating. I learned really fast that contests are the best way to separate the Wannabe writers from the Real writers, the ones who'll stick with it for the long haul, the writers who have to write or die, the writers who can't stop making up stories in their heads even when the computer is fried and there are crayon drawings on every piece of paper in the house.

I got terrible scores in the first year I entered contests, but it was money well spent. I got feedback from several different people, cluing me in to the areas I needed the most work on.

Contests gave me realistic feedback from people who weren't only writers, but readers. I learned fast that my story needed work if it didn't immediately grab a contest judge, no matter who the judge was--a new writer, a contest winning writer, a published author, or an agent or editor.

Because in a bookstore, a book on the shelf has about 20 seconds to grab the reader. Contests told me if a story was compelling enough and interesting enough to continue working on.

Also, judges weren't my friends, who take care to put lots of happy faces and LOLs in my manuscript, who don't always see the flaws in the story. Contest judges gave me honest feedback that helped me polish my writing until it was good enough to land on an editor's desk without embarrassment.

As my writing got better, I also got terrific exposure to editors and agents judging those contests. I had several requests for manuscripts because the final round judges had liked my writing. Other editors and agents knew my name because I had finaled and won in contests.

My lowest score usually had the most useful feedback, because if a judge didn't "get" certain parts of the story, there's a good chance an editor won't "get" those parts of the story, either. When I finally did get my publishing contract, my writing had more universal appeal because I'd heeded those judges' comments.

And now, as the reviews come rolling in for my debut novel, I can thank every contest I entered for preparing me. Some people liked my story, but others didn't--but my skin is like dragonhide because of all the contests I entered, all the feedback I received.

If you are a Real writer, if you have to write because the words are screaming to be written down, then take the chance and start entering contests. It's not always pleasant, but it pays off.


  1. This post reminded me of the Jack Bickham quote I keep on my bulletin board; "Writers write; everyone else makes excuses."

    The first reason to enter contests is to simply send your baby out in the real world and see if you have prepared him properly. And if not, you bring him home and redress him. It's painful but eventually he'll be the most prepared msc in the contest, and someday...the winner.

    We write because we have to, because as storytellers we are born to entertain. But if no one ever sees our story have we fullfilled our calling?

  2. The other thing...beyond the writing...that contests do for you is teach you to follow the rules.
    Font, double spaced, lines per page, write a synopsis GET IT IN ON TIME!

    It's good to learn the rules. Learn how to follow them, and learn to meet deadlines.

    Have I ever whined to you guys about the time I got disqualified from the Golden Heart because I single spaced my synopsis? It wasn't too long, just single spaced when they'd requested double spaced.
    Or did they request it single spaced and I sent it double...ah, thank heaven's the mists of time have faded that memory!

    These are all good Rhino Hide experiences.

    And they teach you to study the rules then follow them, which is going to help you track down an editors' rules and obey.

  3. Hi! I got here via Mary's blog. I just had to tell all you guys who are writers, that people over in the 'painting column' have some of the same issues, which I find kind of amazing!
    The rhino hide, hey, I know that syndrome. Instead of synopsis (see, I'm visual, I really don't even know how to spell that word) visual artists send off jpgs. On a good day, we get ten seconds from someone with judgemental skills. Someday, may all our creations be ones of perfection!

  4. Karen!!!
    Thanks for stopping by.
    I've told all the Seekers about Karen's paintings but maybe other blog readers don't know. She does wonderful work.
    She paints many things. The ones I love most are what she calls 'The Readers Series'.
    They're great art for writers.
    Her work is at:
    She says the internet doesn't do them justice so they're even better than what you'll see online.

  5. Hey, Cooper, boy do I relate! I am married to an artist, and ANYONE in the creative fields who hopes to survive (authors, artists, musicians, dancers, etc.) and succeed at their passion pretty much lays there heart on the line. Don't like my outfit? No problem. Can't stand my political views--doesn't bother me. But tell me you don't like my writing, and my lower lip starts to quiver like a baby. Why? Because our creativity is at the heart of who we are, exposing us to the world and making us vulnerable to pain and rejection.

    Through contests I discovered that it wasn't the glowing comments that made me a better writer, but the stinging ones that made me take a closer look, forced me to be honest with myself and my craft. Yes, they hurt, but through prayer (and, yes, okay, forgiveness of some of those acid-tongued judges), I not only grew as a writer, but as a writer for Christ. And for me, it just doesn't get any better than that.

  6. Great points, Camy. And it made me smile to see that you changed the now-cliche Rhino hide to dragon hide. :-)

    You know, sometimes I wish so bad that I could quit writing. It's hard, it's painful, it's depressing. Of course, it's also fun, exhilerating, and satisfying, but my life would be easier if I was still just a scrapbooker.

  7. I’ve developed that dragon/rhino hide we’ll need as published authors, but as I read Camy’s post, it reminded me of those golden nuggets of encouragement I’ve received along the way. Encouragement from editors, agents, and my peers who didn’t know me from Adam’s house cat (btw, I don’t know Adam’s house cat either, but I digress…)

    When an editor writes on a contest entry that she’d ask to see a complete if her house published historicals, or an award winning author jots encouraging comments on my entry, it’s that little push, that little umph, that keeps me going another 6 months or 6 years even.

    Hats off to contest judges who gave a little extra or said something on a contest entry that we’ve never forgotten!

  8. Great post, Camy! And I loved reading everyone's comments. Let me throw out the other side of the coin . . . sometimes we do get a judge who seems to come from outer space. You know the one who makes red marks all over our pages, writes on the back, even staples additional papers to our submission that she's Xeroxed from writing texts. I got her once.

    What did I do? After screaming, I put her comments aside for a few days until I had time to cool off. Then I reread what she wrote. Helpful suggestions I used. The other comments I ignored.

    Bottom line, don't let a judge stop you from writing. Believe in yourself and in your work!

  9. I know one of the things my long time critique partner Christy Barritt always puts on the email of her critique of my work is, 'Use what you want and ignore the rest.'
    That's what you've got to do. Take it for what it's worth. And if you can find absolutely no true of use in a contest critique, the use it forever as a Bad Example.

  10. Thanks for the comments, guys! I think those outer space judges are still useful, if only to prepare you for the outer space reviewer who will pick up your book even though they don't normally read your genre.

    I also want to add that I've seen some writers ignore EVERYTHING a judge says, and that's another extreme to avoid. Writers like that think they don't need improvement, and that's a dangerous attitude to have in this business.

    Even that judge who completely did not get chick lit helped me, because I was able to take her way-out-there comments and make my writing more accessible to a reader like her (she happened to write straight romance).


  11. You're right, Camy. We can learn something from every judge, even the ones who don't "understand" our writing. Thankfully, there are so many good ones who give great advice and encouragement. Being on the judging end is tough and a good critique takes time. I'm very grateful for all the people who judged my writing over the years.

  12. I'm having fun getting out all those scoresheets from contests I've entered over the years. My all-time favorite judge was a published author who signed the scoresheet. She suggested I tone down the melodrama. LOL. She was so right. Under comments she said: really memorable voice. Feel that this is definitely salable. That was six years before I sold the book. I didn't final in that contest, but her encouragement meant everything.

  13. I got a really long and detailed score sheet from a judge the end of last year. It was so painful to read, but I think the reason it was so painful was because I KNEW she was probably right. If I follow her suggestions, I'll have to dramatically change the story. So far, I haven't been willing to spend the energy to do that.

    The story hasn't sold yet, and I still don't have an agent who's ready to snap it up. So I'm grateful that the judge took so much time to be honest and to make suggestions. I'm thinking that eventually, I'll have to face that scoresheet once again.

    Once I have the time and energy. :)


  14. One thing I've learned in life is that the some of the most painful things in life are the best opportunities for growth and improvement.

  15. Camy,

    You always amaze me with your wisdom and insight.



  16. Tina, that reminds me of a book I recently saw in Writer's Digest Book Club named, "Write is a Verb."

    I think that was the name anyway. You get the picture.

    Great thoughts.


  17. Jennifer,Melanie and Karen (Cooper?),

    Thanks for visiting our Seeker blog. Come back often!

    Cheryl Wyatt