Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Guest Blogger: Merrillee Whren

Should You Enter Contests?

This is a question writers often ask. I answer with a hearty “Yes.” After I joined RWA and Georgia Romance Writers in the mid-1980s, I entered the “Maggie Contest” at a time when the judges for this contest actually talked in person to the contestants about their entries. My judge was Diana Palmer, a multi-published author and a very gracious lady who handled this newby with great diplomacy. She pointed out my weaknesses but gave me a reason to believe that I had some writing talent when she told me that she loved my heroine. Thankfully, this first experience as a contest entrant was a good one.

In the ensuing twenty years, (Yes, it took me 20 years to finally make that first sale.) I entered many more contests. Some experiences were good, others not so good, but I learned something from all of them. I’m going to share three things that I have learned.

1. Don’t let contest judges rewrite your story.
When I first started entering contests, I took the judge’s word as final. I was new. What did I know? I would change my entry according to their comments and enter it again in another contest. I finally realized my mistake. After I entered this particular manuscript in numerous contests, each time hoping that I had finally gotten it right, I discovered that it was no longer my story but a story dictated by a compilation of a dozen judges’ opinions. I look back on that experience and realized I had “contested” that manuscript to death. That’s not to say that you can’t get instructive criticism that will make your story better. Just be sure that you believe the change will make it better.

2. All writing contests are subjective.

When you get score sheets back from multiple judges and one of them tells you that your dialogue sparkles, but another one tells you it is stilted, which one should you believe? Sometimes, that’s a hard call, but the differing opinions made me realize that not all judges agree. Not all editors agree. Not all readers agree. We have to get used to that part of the writing business. So as a contest entrant look at all the contests you’ve entered and see where most of the comments concur. If seventy percent of the time, the judges give you high marks for dialogue, forget the ones that say your dialogue isn’t up to par. You have to make some judgments about the judging.

3. Enter contests that will give you the most for your entry fee.
In the beginning I entered contests indiscriminately. As the contests offered by RWA chapters proliferated, I started to be more selective, especially after I started to write inspirational romance. I looked for contests with inspirational categories. That isn’t to say that I never entered a manuscript in a non-inspirational category. I received a couple a very good critiques from the Indiana Romance Writers’ “Indiana’s Golden Opportunity Contest.” I entered this particular contest, even though it had no inspirational category, because I got a critique on the 55 pages I intended to enter in the “Golden Heart Contest.” These critiques helped me with the manuscript that won the Golden Heart in 2003. The other things I looked for in a contest included published, as well as unpublished judges, and an editor from the house I was targeting as a final judge.

I want to emphasize the importance of the final judge being an editor from the house you are targeting. In 2003 I entered a manuscript in the Magnolia State Romance Writers’ “Dixie First Chapter Contest.” The final judge was an editor from Steeple Hill, and she requested a full manuscript. (Just as an aside that goes back to point number 2. That same manuscript was a finalist in another contest. That editor gave me 5th place out of five finalists. Editors do not always agree.) A few months later while I was waiting to hear on that full request, I entered the first chapter of a different manuscript in another contest. I also received a request for a full manuscript from that contest. Before I sent the second manuscript, I contacted the editor and explained that I already had another manuscript at Steeple Hill and asked whether she still wanted me to send the second manuscript. She said to send it. A few weeks later, I got “the call” on the first manuscript. The second manuscript became my second sale.

Finally, I want to reiterate that you should make the most of your contest entries. It’s not always easy to interpret the judges’ comments, but try to learn something from them. Now I have a greater appreciate for contest judges, especially the published ones who took time out of their writing schedules to read my entries. Keep writing. Keep learning. Keep entering those contests.

Thanks to Glynna for inviting me to Seekerville. If you have comments or questions, I’d love to hear them.

Merrillee Whren is an award-winning author who writes for Steeple Hill Love Inspired. She is the winner of the 2003 Golden Heart Award for best inspirational romance manuscript presented by Romance Writers of America. Her second book, An Unexpected Blessing, won the RT Reviewers’ Choice Award and the Maggie Award. She is married to her own personal hero, her husband of thirty plus years, and has two grown daughters. She has lived in Atlanta, Boston, Dallas and Chicago but now makes her home on one of God’s most beautiful creations, an island off the east coast of Florida. When she’s not writing or working for her husband’s recruiting firm, she spends her free time playing tennis or walking the beach, where she does the plotting for her novels. Please visit her Web site at

Homecoming Blessings (Steeple Hill Love Inspired – April 2009): Big-city businessman Peter Dalton doesn't think he and fresh-from-the-field missionary Ashley Hiatt have anything in common. Until his boss—her father—pairs them together on a special project to help those less fortunate. Suddenly, instead of making money, Peter is making dreams come true. He's a changed man. Well, maybe not when comes to settling down. With his past, he's just not cut out for family life. But lovely Ashley seems to think otherwise...and is making it her mission to prove it for good.


Jody Hedlund said...

Thank you for such excellent advice! This is my first year entering contests, so I really appreciate hearing that we shouldn't let judges rewrite our stories for us. And that is a great idea to look for what the majority of judges see as a "problem" area before deciding whether to change it.

I'm looking forward to getting the judges' opinions, but I have to remember that's what they are: opinions.

Joanne Sher said...

This is AMAZING advice, Merrillee. I'm right now looking for contests to enter (my book is non-fiction, and they seem to be a lot fewer and farther between. ) and I will definitely keep this in mind.

Cathy Shouse said...


Where were you when I began entering contests? LOL

I do wish I had known these things going in. I've had a break from contests and when I go at it again, I'll remember your advice.



Ruth Logan Herne said...


I miss you, girl! So nice to see you here. Grab some coffee, girlfriend, let's dish!


I have loved Merrillee's writing and mindset from the first time we cyber met on FH&L (always gracious, always kind, always encouraging) and then in person at ACFW in Denver, I believe.

Cool lady with a great outlook on life. I don't know how you can read and/or meet Merrillee without going home and throwing stones at the mirror wishing you could be that nice, that genuine.

So nice to see a new book on the verge of release, Merrillee. Congrats.

And I made sausage, egg, potato, and cheese stir fry, with fresh croissants. And coffee. Always coffee.

Grab a chair, guys and gals. Let's talk with our Maggie-winning author here!


Tina M. Russo said...

Welcome to Seekerville, Merrillee.
Thanks for sharing such inspiration, which on this GH/RITA call day.

Debra E Marvin said...

Merrillee, thanks for a great post.

Boy, can I relate. I think I tweaked my story to each judge's comments the first few times myself. Still there's so much to gain from them.

I'm glad Ruthy confirmed something for me. I've seen your photo before and I must say you look like one very warm and genuine personality. I see joy there, ready to be shared.

Now, excuse me as I make my way to the food.

Tina M. Russo said...

Okay I had just stumbled out of bed so excuse my first post.

I have now had Ruthy's jet fuel and am ready to rock.

Merrillee, tell about your writing day and how you prepare to write a new book.

Janet Dean said...

Good morning, Merrillee. Welcome to Seekerville! Thanks for your excellent advice on entering contests and handling judges' feedback. You're living proof of the importance of contests and perseverance.

Love your latest cover! How many books is this for you now?

I've enjoyed the many times we've had a chance to chat the past few years. Hope to see you in D.C.


Rose said...


I like this post. I think it's important that writer's realize how extremely subjective writing can be, as in the difference of opinions between editors.

How many books did you write in the 20 years before your first sale? Were they all inspirationals?


Glynna Kaye said...

Welcome to Seekerville, Merrillee! When you told me you were a contest success story, I just HAD to invite you to join us!

I agree that being selective in the contests you enter is so important, and I see that you entered your inspirational story in non-inspy contests because of the opportunity for good feedback on a considerable number of pages. Since so many contests offering inspirational categories lump ALL genres and lengths in together (series/single title, contemporary/historical etc.), it might be that non-inspirational categories that are more specific to your story might be a wise move. (I know I've done that myself.)

If the contest also has an inspirational category and you still want to try a non-inspy category with it, check with the contest coordinator to be sure judges won't downgrade it or kick it out of "short contemporary" for being entered in the "wrong" category.

LOVE your new cover, Merrillee! How do you fill out your art fact sheet -- as "MAKE MINE HEARTWARMING & BEAUTIFUL!" ??

Julie Lessman said...

Hey Merrillee -- Welcome to Seekerville, girl! And as Tina said, what an appropriate day for an excellent blog from a GH winner!

And, WOW, like you and Debra, I SO relate to the split personality syndrome of contests -- one judge telling you one thing, another the exact opposite. My favorite was one judge giving me a 50% score because I placed too much emphasis on the subordinate characters, and then another judge in the same contest giving me a perfect score because she loved the family feel of the subordinate characters. Fortunately, like you, I had finally come to the conclusion that you have to pray about every piece of advice you get before implementing.


Patty Wysong said...

Thank you, Merrillee. I've tucked this information away for when I start getting my contest results back.

Sandra Leesmith said...

Thanks Merrillee for joining us in Seekerville today. Contests, of course, are our favorite subject. We appreciate the great advice.

Love the stir fry Ruthy. yum on this spring morning.

mareva said...

Hi Merrillee,
Thanks for such "sound" advice. We have to be true to our story or it gets diluted.My WIP isn't ready to submit, but when it is, I'll send i tout there, and remember what you said.As usual, the Seekerville Ladies have inspired me!!!!

warm hugs,

Melanie Dickerson said...

Great advice, Merrillee! And your book sounds really good! I love stories with missionaries, or former missionaries, as the hero or heroine.

And thanks for sharing your contest success story with us. Success stories give me hope!

Renee Ryan said...

Wow, Merrillee, awesome advice on contests. I especially love the first one you listed about not giving into the temptation to take every comment to heart and change your story. So TRUE!


Mary Connealy said...

Merrillee thanks so much for stopping by Seekerville.
I think the hardest part of taking criticism is the balance you need to find.
Take what is worthy from a critique and ignore the rest. One judge says too much backstory, another says I don't understand her conflict, give me some background on her.

It's just about finding that balance, enough but not too much, but enough...but not TOO much.

And that just takes practice, practice, practice.

lynnrush said...

Great post. Thanks for the advice.

Contests are so helpful, and as a newbie, myself, I've grown so much through them.


Gina Welborn said...

Thanks, Merrillee, for the encouraging post. As I typed your name, I realized it's one of those words that inherantly has a happy sound. Like lollipop.

I feel so happy...even with the web cam hubby installed last night staring me down. If I don't look at it, it won't see me.

Merrillee was a TBL judge last year. While I was only a coordinator, I still had the blessing of reading the comments the different judges gave the entries. She was utterly helpful and encouraging. I'm sure if she'd put her name on the scoresheets, the judges would have felt happy.

Ruthy, I'm going to pass on the stirfry. After all, I am a vegetarian. But do you have any homemade jam and fresh-churned butter to go on these yummy croissants? Or a steak. I saw a commerical for Applebee's (another inherantly happy-sounding word) and got a craving for a steak done right. Hmm. Maybe I'm mixing commericials.

Myra Johnson said...

Welcome to Seekerville, Merrillee! I can so relate to the 20-year wait, only mine was 25!

And I totally relate to what you said about not letting contest judges "rewrite" our manuscripts. You really have to trust your instincts, weighing what the majority of judges are saying along with your personal vision for the story.

Tina M. Russo said...


Many of the categories are already up at RWA

Merrillee said...

Wow! Thanks for the welcome, everyone. I just returned home from my CBS (Community Bible Study). I was thinking on the way home about the fact that my blog is about contests and the GH/RITA calls go out today. It's always an exciting to learn that you are a finalist. I remember when I got the call when I was a finalist in the GH. I ran around the house screaming, and my husband thought I had lost my mind. I'll read the rest of the comments, then post again.

Merrillee said...

Jody, Joanne, and Cathy,
Best wishes for you as you enter contests. I'm glad I could give you some pointers.

Merrillee said...

Ruthy is making me blush. Now I have to live up to her description. :)

Merrillee said...

I'm assuming that's not you in that picture. What an absolutely adorable baby--must be related to you. My radar is set for babies these days, as I am a rather new grandma with a 3 month old granddaughter.

Merrillee said...

No day is typical for me. I do most of my running in the morning. Evenings are a more productive writing time for me. When I was teaching school that's when I wrote. I often wrote after my kids went to bed. Maybe that's why I like to write later in the day.

When I first start writing a story, I usually have a set of characters, a situation and a setting. I am a pantser, not a plotter. However, now that I sell on proposal, I probably know a little bit more about what will take place in my story than I did before I sold on proposal.

I start each writing session by rereading and editing what I wrote the day before. Rereading gets me back into the story. I'm not a good book-in-a-week writer. I like to go slower and get most of it right the first time. When I finish a manuscript, I have a fairly good draft. I still have some edits and tweaking to do, but I don't have to go back and do major changes.

I think this is another important point for people who write. Find the process that works for you, not the one that works for other people.

Merrillee said...

This is my seventh book, and thankfully, I haven't run out of ideas. :)

Merrillee said...

You would have to ask a question that shows what a slacker I was. :)
I wrote eight books in that twenty years. Some of them I wrote and rewrote several times. That's another thing I'd like to mention. Don't spend too much time on one manuscript. Move on to something new.

Not all the books I worked on were inspirational. My first attempt was not, but my second and third books were. I didn't know much about the inspirational market of the CBA. I was only familiar with ABA books. In the mid-80s there was a fledgling inspirational romance market. Zondervan, Thomas Nelson and Silhouette published inspirational romances in series much as Love Inspired and Heartsong do today. These lines only were around a couple of years before they folded. So by the time I finished my third inspirational book, I had no place to send them. I rewrote that third book to sell to Harelquin. But my heart was always with the inspirational books. So when the Steeple Hill Love Inspired line began, I started writing my stories with that line in mind.

Merrillee said...

When I fill out my art fact sheet, I look through a lot of stock photos and send the links to my editor as well as doing all the info on the art fact sheet. For this cover, I found some photos of folks painting a house. In the story the characters are helping folks by painting and repairing their houses. I gave them the idea of having people in the picture or the same objects without the people. So we have the paint can and ladder. I also sent them photos of the front doors of houses. But they always come up with something good no matter what I give them.

Merrillee said...

Congratulations on being a Golden Heart finalist.

pat jeanne said...

Loved this interview with Merrillee and thank you for all the good advice on entering contests. I'm entering a second one this week and will apply the good info. And a big congratulations to Cara.

Sheila Deeth said...

I think I'm entering the wrong contests. Some contests give feedback? Wow. But thanks for this excellent advice, and I'll try to look for better contests instead of giving up.

Cara Slaughter said...

Merrillee, it's so true how judges' comments can contradict each other! You always have to remember you're the one writing the story, not the judges. Their comments can be really helpful, but they're not gospel.

Thanks for the blog!

Pam Hillman said...

Merrillee! Great to have you in Seekerville. Love the cover and the blurb of Homecoming Blessings.

As the 2003 inspirational Golden Heart winner, Merrillee presented me with my Golden Heart necklace in 2004. I gave her a very, very big hug!

Uh, Merri, did your ribs ever heal?

Pam Hillman said...

We had stir-fry?


Pam Hillman said...

Gina, you're also mixing up vegatarian and steakatarian, but who cares?

Come on down South and I'll take you to the best steakhouse South of the Mason-Dixon line.


Eileen Astels Watson said...

Thanks, Merrillee! I appreciate your honesty in this.

Subjectivity is prevelent in this industry, but we also need to learn from the expert opinions offered. All the more reason to enter each manuscript into several different contests, I guess. You get a better picture of what the majority are saying you need to work on, the more it is critiqued/judged.

I'll be awaiting Seekers next update on coming contest now.

Merrillee said...

If you're back on here, can you give me some suggestions about a vegetarian dish that I can serve my son-in-law when he comes for Easter. He's the only vegetarian in the family, so I hate having him feel like there's nothing special for him.

Thanks for your kind words about judging. I think judging is sometimes difficult because I want to say just the right things. Can you imagine sitting face-to-face with the person whose manuscript you were judging. I had no idea what a challenge Diana Palmer faced when she did that all those years ago.

Merrillee said...

The ribs are fine. Both times I was on stage receiving the Golden Heart and presenting yours, I think it was like an out-of-body experience. I know I was there and did it, but it almost seemed unreal.

I think I was more nervous as a presenter than as a finalist. As a presenter, I knew I had to go up on stage and read from the teleprompter. As a finalist, I didn't know until they read the name of my manuscript. I never did hear my name. I was so surprised to win. Another finalist had her manuscript requested, and I didn't so I figured she would win. What a surprise! And you were a double finalist that year.

Tina said...

This is a timely blog post for me. I'm judging a few contests right now and your comments really are true. I try to be very careful that the entrants know the comments are only from one judge's perspective!

If I were "pre" published, I would be very careful that the contests I enter are from established organizations and I would be careful of contests that charge huge fees. That money might be better spent on a writing class or conference!

Merrillee said...

You are so right about making sure contests are sponsored by established writing organizations. If you write romance, RWA has some of the best contests with great judges and great feedback.

Thanks to everyone who left a comment. I really enjoyed sharing with you all here at Seekerville, even if I did get a late start.

Tina M. Russo said...

We loved having you Merrillee. Thanks for sharing your insights with us!!!

Jessica said...

Wonderful post Merrillee! Great advice for anyone entering contests. Thank you.

Bethanne said...

I'm a day late! This is great advice on contests. I'm curious. When you first started doing contests, what was your limit? Without making any money on my work yet, I always shudder at the thought of entering multiple contests--actually, my hubby shudders!

Also, I can't ask you your age [how rude would that be?! LOL], but I know I grew up reading Christian Fiction--the Thoenes, Phillips, Morris. I guess I was blessed in my decade. My favorite books still--after moving into mainstream--are the Zion series by Brock and Bodie Thoene, and Michael Phillips' The Secret of the Rose Trilogy. So, my question: are these in the same genre/catagory/field that you speak of, the catagory of romance? Would you submit a romance to Bethany House, i guess is a good way of putting it. Again, I'm just curious, and if I totally missed you, thanks for sharing your experience with contests.

Tina M. Russo said...

Bethanne, first welcome to Seekerville. And yes, this is
Christian Inspirational romance that Merrille writes and most of the Seekers write, though not all of us.

Since you began reading it, the genre has expanded to have many types of Christian inspy fiction. In fact check out our recent post on the Genesis contest in the archives. ( or you can go to the ) This Christian Fiction Contest has many, many categories.

Merrillee said...

I don't know whether you'll check back again for the answers, but from the looks of your photo, I'd say, I'm quite a bit older than you--say at least 25 years. My photo has the miracle of photoshop--no wrinkles.:)

When I first started writing, I probably only entered 1, possibly 2 contests a year. That's why I said to pick the contests carefully. After I started to make the finals in contests, I did enter at least 2 specific contests each year and sometimes more, especially if I had more than one manuscript to send. I always looked for the contests that gave me the most for my money.

Debby Giusti said...

Hi Merrillee,
Sorry I missed you yesterday. Thanks for visiting Seekerville and for sharing your insights with us.

Missy Tippens said...

Merrillee, I'm late reading your post. I've been travelling. But you made such great points!! Thank you so much for sharing your great contest story!