Thursday, March 6, 2008



I have a love/hate relationship with contests. Perhaps that comes from being a member of Romance Writers of America for almost 25 years and having served for two years as its president. Over the years, I’ve entered a ton of contests for published books, and I’ve seen lots of unpublished writers enter their manuscripts or partials in contests for unpublished books.

This past experience has also revealed to me the downside of contests, including that they can be demoralizing to writers, published and unpublished alike. They can cause us to compare ourselves, our books, our career paths with others. That kind of comparison is never a good thing. They can lead to feelings of envy and jealousy. Also never a good thing.
So are there any good reasons to enter contests? Yes.

But before I get into those, may I first state a pet peeve that has nothing to do with my topic except that I see it come up in context with contests?

There is no such word as “pre-published” unless, perhaps, you are referring to someone who has sold her first book and is awaiting its release. While I understand the positive-thinking element behind using that term, the truth is that less than 1% of the novels written every year get published. Not all writers who aspire to be published in book length fiction will be published. Most won’t. Making up a word doesn’t change this truth, and it smacks of dishonesty and is unprofessional. In years passed, I have heard ABA editors snicker about this term (which is when it became a pet peeve, I think). They know that very few of those who call themselves “pre-published” will ever actually be published. So let’s stop using that word. There is nothing embarrassing or wrong about being unpublished. It is simply a fact.

And since I’m rattling on, I’ll say that “aspiring writer” (a term I sometimes use but shouldn’t) isn’t much better. If you are writing a novel and are trying to improve your craft and are doing the best you can and are in it for the long haul, you are a writer already. Nothing aspiring about it. What you aspire to is publication. And I hope you get there.

I also hope I haven’t discouraged anyone too much with this minor rant. Remember, if God has called you to write, then you should write, no matter the outcome. His plans are so much bigger than what we have for ourselves. Who is to say that the manuscript that is never published might not have been read by the one person who will become the next Billy Graham or who might give birth to the son or daughter who will lead the next great revival?

So keep writing and trust God with where He will use it. Persevere. Run the good race. Keep the faith.

Now back to the topic of contests.

Can a contest help you achieve your dream/goal? It’s possible. Certainly many, many first novels sell that have never been entered in contests and many, many that have been entered in and even won contests but have never sold. But there are plenty of manuscripts that have found homes because of contests.

For the unpublished, I think there are two reasons to enter contests:

The first reason is for early in your learning curve as a writer of fiction. Enter contests that will give you feedback from the judges. You want to look at those score sheets and the comments the same way a published author looks at the revision letters she gets from editors. After the initial shock that the judge didn’t find your story the best thing since [NAME OF FAVORITE NOVEL HERE], sit down and consider everything that was said. Even more, read in-between the lines. Often times when an editor points out a problem, they aren’t completely sure what the problem is or how to fix it. Or they may point out something that isn’t truly a problem, not if you fix something else in the manuscript.

And remember this. Many manuscripts have been rejected by a dozen or more editors only to sell to someone who loves it. Judging is a subjective discipline just as reading is. So a writer must learn to be open while remaining true to herself and her vision. I look back on my first books and want to gag at how poorly written they were. I had much to learn, and I have been learning for over 25 years. I learn with each new book I write.

If one judge dislikes your entry but four other have praised it, then you may have hit that one judge’s hot button. However, if three or four of your judges are pointing out the same weakness, then you probably need to take another look at your work and see if you can fix it.

Here’s an important tip: If you don’t like criticism or handle it well, you’d better find yourself another line of work. The writing life is full of criticism and rejection, and it doesn’t stop when you get published. It just widens the circle of those who can criticize and reject. Readers may reject your book or send you a scathing letter because you hit their hot button. PW and Romantic Times may tell readers to skip this book of your heart or give it a 2 rating. You may turn in your 35th book and your editor may tell you it isn’t right and you must start over. Rejection happens. Consider the criticism you get from contests as part of your learning curve and the toughening of your required rhino hide.

The second reason for an unpublished writer to enter contests is to get your work before an editor or an agent. This should be at the stage when your manuscripts have been garnering consistent praise. Not perfection. None of us will ever get there. But if contest judges and the trusted writers you let read your work are giving you mostly positive feedback, then it is time to focus on contests that have editors and agents as preliminary and/or finalist judges. This is your chance, if your work is ready, to bypass the slush pile. Just make sure it is your best work. Believe it or not, editors and agents have remarkable memories. You don’t want them associating your name with poor writing.

What about contests for published books?

I believe there is only one reason for an author to enter her book into contests, and it is this: To grow readership.
Awards are very nice to win, and they look pretty as part of your bio and on your shelf at home. But outside of the writing community, few readers pay any attention to awards. Sad but true. Therefore, since my goal in contests is to grow my readership, I seek out contests that are judged by readers rather than fellow writers. I want my books to get into the hands of readers who’ve never read my work before and I hope they will then want to read more of my books.

Two exceptions to this rule are RWA’s RITA Award and ACFW’s Book of the Year. In these two
cases, I want to be judged by my peers.

If you have been writing for any length of time at all, your “world” becomes peopled with other writers who know you and who think like you think. This narrows our world and can make our judgment a bit weak in some areas. We novelists pay attention to which publishers are publishing what books. We forget that very few readers care at all about what the name of the publisher is on the spine. But if our main readership is only other writers, we won’t last long in this business. We need tens of thousands of readers, and we must grow our readership beyond our circle of writing friends and acquaintances.

Three contests I enter every year (unless I miss the deadline as I did on one of them this year): the Booksellers Best Awards, judged by booksellers; the Inspirational Readers Choice Contest, judged by readers; and the National Readers Choice Award, judged by readers. I consider entering these contests to be marketing. If I never final or win, I have put my books in the hands of 12 to 15 readers who may have seen my work for the first time.

Well, there you have it. My uncensored thoughts on contests. I hope they prove helpful to someone.

In the grip of His grace, Robin
Robin Lee Hatcher discovered her vocation as a novelist after many years of reading everything she could put her hands on, including the backs of cereal boxes and ketchup bottles. The winner of the Christy Award for Excellence in Christian Fiction (Whispers from Yesterday), the RITA Award for Best Inspirational Romance (Patterns of Love and The Shepherd's Voice), two RT Career Achievement Awards (Americana Romance and Inspirational Fiction), and the RWA Lifetime Achievement Award, Robin is the author of over 55 novels, including Catching Katie, named one of the Best Books of 2004 by the Library Journal.
Look for her latest releases, The Perfect Life (Thomas Nelson/Women of Faith Fiction, Feb. 2008) and Wagered Heart (Zondervan, May 2008).
You’ll find her on-line at her web site (book excerpts, testimony, and more) and on her blog (where she bloviates about all sorts of things, from Bible studies to American Idol to her novel-in-progress to current events).


Mary Connealy said...

Hi, Robin, thanks for stopping by Seekerville. I love your work. I had my first book come out last year and I appreciate your comments for published author comments.

Gina Welborn said...


Thanks for sharing your insight into contests both for the published and unpublished author.

One of my CPs has been debating the worth of entering pubbed author contests, so I'm going to pass your information along.


Lorna said...

Robin, thank you so much for your insight and your comments including the reminder about God's plan for us as writers. Sometimes we forget to look at the bigger picture.

BTW, I love your books and can't wait to read the newest one!

Ruth Logan Herne said...



You put out the welcome mat but forgot to tell Robin that there's a cappuccino and warm Danish bar to her left as well as a straight coffee bar to her right, alongside our most comfy recliner.

Tsk, tsk.

Robin, help yourself to whatever looks good. I like the lemon-tinged cheese Danish myself but Mary's a big fan of the almond-crusted cheesecake with fresh raspberry drizzle.

You raised a lot of good points in your blog. One thing I've always admired about you is that you're not afraid to speak your mind (oddly, I like and respect that... Hmm... Wonder why???) and that you've given so much of yourself to the romance writing genre, both ABA and CBA, in the past twenty-five years. I think a round of thanks is in order for your strength and devotion, and for the stands you've been willing to take to upgrade writers' rights and publishing standards. Kudos to you.

Thanks so much for taking the time to join us today. Great to have you on board.


Mary Connealy said...

Oh yeah, oops, I forgot to tell Robin to have some imaginary food.

Of course she's an author, I'm sure she has a great imagination.

I went and checked out the contests, Robin. I'm too late to enter. :) Oh, well.

I did enter the IRCC. I think. And the Rita and the one sponsored by ACFW, though. That's it for me so far.

I can't quite get into the rhythm of entering my published books in contests. But I'll try and do better on the ones you liked for growing readership.

CrystalGB said...

Hi Robin. Thank you for sharing such great insight into contests.

Julie Lessman said...

Hi Robin,

It's great to have you here, and I truly appreciate hearing the names of the contests that you would enter ... uh, I guess I'll steer clear of those ... :)

Honestly, as a newly published author, I was wondering which would be the best, so thanks for your insight.


Robin Lee Hatcher said...

Hello, everyone. You're a fast bunch to have read and replied already.

LOL, to Ruthy for that comment about me speaking my mind. It isn't always a trait welcomed by others but speaking the truth (hopefully always in love) has become an important part of who I am over the years.

Thanks for the invitation to dine on the imaginary food. Imaginary is all I can afford to indulge in. I've gained weight since moving from my two-story house where I was up and down the stairs about 30 to 40 times a day and into a smaller single story.


pat jeanne said...

Greatly appreciated this interview with Robin, especially the remarks on "pre-published" and
"aspiring" writer. I'm thankful for all the writers here who freely share their experiences and observatrions. Now that i think of it I believe Mary C. told me about this blogspot a year ago. Thank you, Mary.

Missy Tippens said...

Thanks for joining us, Robin! I'm loving reading your bio--you read cereal boxes and bottles of ketchup. :) I used to read cereal boxes every single morning. The same darn cereal boxes! It was like a compulsion. And I would also read shampoo bottles while in the bathroom. I can even remember thinking to myself, I can't believe I read these same things over and over! LOL I guess I should have gotten a clue and placed books in each place.

I'm so glad I'm not alone in my strange childhood habits. :)

Thanks for the great input on contests. I'm going to check the pubbed contests out now and put the dates on my 2009 calendar so I don't miss them.

Oops. Must buy 2009 calendar first!

Missy :)

Tina M. Russo said...

Thank you for joining us in Seekerville, Robin.

I really appreciate you for taking time out of your busy schedule and sharing gems of author journey knowledge with us.

Janet Dean said...

Hi, Robin. It's great to see you here. I've read several of your books and enjoyed them all. My first book comes out in September. I'd planned to enter contests, but hadn't thought of using contests as marketing tools. Thanks for a great pointer!


Camy Tang said...

You rock, Robin! Thanks for those hard truths. The advice about published contests is especially useful to me.

Mary Connealy said...

I can find all the mistakes on the back of the Captain Crunch box in a HEARTBEAT.
So I guess I read cereal boxes too.

Since I have no young children I feel it necessary to tell you that we have a Christmas Candy recipe that uses Peanut Butter Capt'n Crunch. I do NOT eat Capt'n Crunch for breakfast.

Ausjenny said...

great article. I could understand writers associating with other writers as it happens in lots of fields. From a readers point its great to see the insite into a writers world. I know alot would like to become published but didnt realize how few acheive the goal each year. I have a couple of friends who love writing and writing short stories who one day hope to be published (in more than magazines)
Ill still to reading and imagining being in the books.

Robin Lee Hatcher said...

For those interested in published contests that are judged by readers and booksellers and librarians, I learned just after sending my article that the Gayle Wilson Award of Excellence (Birmingham RWA chapter) can be added to the three I mentioned in my blog post.

And love that I'm not alone in the cereal box reading. {{grin}}


Jeannelle said...

I found your Seeker blog through Mary C.

I, too, read cereal boxes every morning as a child (Frosted Flakes and Corn Pops), shampoo bottles, toothpaste tubes, etc., and I always looked for faces and scenes in the designs of the linoleum in our kitchen and bathroom.


I really liked when you said, "If God has called you to write, then just do it no matter what the outcome."

Missy Tippens said...

Well, If this posts twice, I apologize. The first one disappeared. I can't even remember what all I said! Oh, I do remember saying that unlike some people I know, I will admit to buying Cap'n Crunch for myself (plain, not peanut butter. :)

Also, Robin, I saw one of your books (I believe it was The Perfect Life) on an endcap at Borders last weekend along with Redeeming Love and Julie's new release, A Passion Most Pure. You each had your own shelf, and above it all was a sign that said Recommended Christian (or religious) Fiction. It was great placement! Congrats!


Jessica said...

That's so funny. I read the backs of cereal boxes too.

Sandra Leesmith said...

Hi Robin, Its been awhile since I've seen you in Phoenix area. I always enjoy your words of wisdom. Your honesty and telling us about the business is refreshing. Painful but refreshing. I know what you mean about that one reader. Sometimes I wonder if that is what is happening to some of my pieces. I can't really complain if they are serving God's purpose.

I'm glad you addressed the published contests since Seekers have several pubbed authors. Another readers choice is Desert Rose Chapter's Golden Quill contest. Those are strictly readers--no writers allowed to judge.

Thanks again for joining us. You are an inspiration to us all.

Margo Carmichael said...

Hi, Robin, thank you for once again sharing your thoughts and considerable experience with us.

One thing I'd like to see in contests is a caveat to judges to be just a little more careful.

Granted, they have a lot to do, and I appreciate the fact that they agree to judge.

My concern is, I've seen things marked off that were cleared up two lines later. But the judges did not write "Okay" or "Oh, I see." They just let the demerit stand.

I would urge them to skim the entry one more time and see if the problems they found ever solved themselves.

Again, I appreciate them for taking the time to judge.

And you for sharing today.

God bless~

Hannah said...

its neat to hear robin's thoughts! hsmuda[at]gmail[dot]com

Katherine Harms said...

I loved the rant. I hate rhetoric used to cover up an empty concept. The term "aspiring writer" falls in that category. Writers should be the last people on earth to use such terms. Thank you for making that point so well.

Myra Johnson said...

Robin, thanks so much for sharing your wisdom gained from experience. The term "pre-published" has never been a favorite of mine, either, but you really put it in perspective. Though some may find the truth discouraging, you are so right in pointing out that if God has called us to write, then the results are in His hands.

Janna said...

I just finished Robin's new book "The Perfect Life" a couple of days ago and it was really good... I have to say that out of all Robin's books that I've read my favorite book is "The Ribbon of Years" - I love that book!


Robin Lee Hatcher said...

Sandra, thanks for letting me know that the Golden Quill is among those judged by readers. I've added it to my calendar for entry next year.

I'm glad so many of you enjoyed "my visit."

And Janna, I'm so glad you enjoyed The Perfect Life. Thanks for telling me.