Monday, August 25, 2008

Unexpected Benefits of Entering Contests

Did you know that there are a ton of unexpected benefits you get from entering contests? Actually, after several years (and several contests) I knew there was, but when I started making the list, even I was amazed at how many unforeseen benefits I came up with!

Entering contests helps you learn to deal with rejection. Aarrrghh! Who wants to learn to deal with THAT?!? But, really, we’ve all heard how hard it is to find an editor who loves our stuff. Well, it’s just as hard to find 2 or 3 or ten judges who love your stuff. The first few times a manuscript finals in two consecutive contests, then bombs in the next one, you’ll wonder just what you’ve gotten yourself into. But after a few times of this rollercoaster, you’ll be prepared for just about anything. Not that you’ll LIKE it, but at least you can learn to deal with it. And you’ll be that much better prepared to handle those same ups and downs from editors later on.

In the same vein, you know all those rollercoaster scores and critiques? Well, when judge #1 tells you they loved paragraph number three on page ten, but judge #2 tells you to cut the same paragraph … because it’s too flowery, and Judge #3 skims right over it without missing a beat, and your eyes start to cross … .

BTW, I'm not making that up. It really happened in a contest once!

Regardless, this is all good practice for the different comments you’ll get from editors. One editor will love your writing and another won’t. The only difference between them and contest judges is that they can buy your manuscript.

You learn to deal with the divergent scores. How can two different people judge the same ms and come up with a 50 or 60 point difference? The same way that I can read a book and it not do a thing for me, but you can read the same book and think it’s the best thing since Ruthy’s hazelnut Colombian coffee blend. It’s the same with editors. One will love your book, another will … not. It doesn’t mean it’s not any good. It just means it’s not what they (or their house or line) are looking for. Period.

And all those wild contest scores will help you learn to deal with it a little at a time.

And here’s something a little more tangible. You will learn to meet deadlines. If you set your heart on entering the Genesis or the Golden Heart, then you’ve figured out just how much you have to write every day to meet the deadline. You know the exact last day you can mail your entry and get it in on time. You’ve allowed yourself a few days to polish your first chapter, and you’re ready to put it in the mail. You’re learning to meet deadlines.

And hopefully, you’re learning a little about yourself in the process. I know people who polish to perfection, stick their entry in an envelope and mail it off with weeks to spare. I, on the other hand, tend to procrastinate until about two weeks before the big event, then rush around trying to get it all done. I wrote and mailed two proposals for anthologies in one month once, when I should have started a lot earlier and allowed myself more time. It would have been a lot better on my nerves and the proposals could have benefited by being completed earlier.

How are you at following directions? Can you write your way out of a paper bag, as the old saying goes? Can you enter a contest and not get disqualified for not following the rules? Or … better yet, can you send an agent or editor EXACTLY what they want to see without ruffling their feathers? Now, I realize that a lot of contests have sticky little rules that make you scratch your head in dismay, but that’s not the point. The point is to follow the rules of THAT particular contest. I bought a gazillion butterfly clips because that’s what a contest required. I’ve never used butterfly clips. I’ve always used the other ones (whatever they’re called), but for some reason this contest wanted butterfly clips, so that’s what they got.

Agents and editors have guidelines they want you to follow. If they say a one-page query, you’ll figure out how to write a one-page query. If they say email, you’re on it. If they say snail-it, you do it. If they send you a list of things or a sample to go by that makes your head spin, you will do it the way they want it done, or you risk alienating them because you didn’t follow their directions.

I double-check my submissions to my agent and to publishers just as carefully as I’ve always checked my contest submissions. All that practice entering contests has come in handy to keep me from being a complete nervous wreck when I submit to publishers.

What else? You’ll learn how to write a better synopsis by entering contests. One wants 3 pages, another 4. One asks for a 1 page overview, so that helps to encapsulate your story in a nutshell. And that’s not to mention the feedback you’ll get on your synopsis in contests that score them. It’s a win-win situation!

These are just a few of the unexpected benefits of entering contests. Thinking back over your own contest experiences, what were some of the most surprising benefits you received?


  1. I saw what time you posted this. Good heavens, woman, GO TO BED!!!

    Actually, there's been a lot of partying in Seekerville this weekend and we're all a little short on sleep because of MYRA's good news!!!

    Hey, Kimberli, we've got more room now! Pass me some mahi-mahi, 'kay? With Island Mango salsa, of course.

    Pam, the most surprising and wonderful thing I've gotten out of contests is you Seekers. Who would have thought of such a marvelous gift, the friendship, prayers and camaraderie of fourteen amazing women, strong writers all, whose love of God and life knows no bounds? Best gift ever.

    And the fact that I know JUICY secrets about each and every one of you makes bribery easy. Seriously. I get delectable chocolate payoffs on a regular basis, just to keep my silence!


    And I'm okay with that!

    Ruthy (who loved that you used a big girl SAT word like 'divergent'. Good job, Pammers!)

  2. It's the absolute truth. You learn all this stuff and hopefully you learn to deal with rejection with a good spirit.

    Or at least, if you can't be good, you can be quietly bad. :)

  3. EXCELLENT POST, Pammy, and I totally concur with every point, plus what Ruthy said -- my friendship with The Seekers is the BEST thing that came out of all the contests I ever entered -- shiny, gold binder clips notwithstanding!

    And here are a few more things that I gleaned from contests as well:

    1.) Contests taught me to stay on hormone replacement therapy.

    2.) Contests taught my husband to be wary of all thick 9 x 12 envelopes.

    3.) Contests taught me to rigidly apply Matthew 5:44 -- "pray for those (judges) who persecute you."


  4. So glad to read this post. Excellent advice for me to mull over...

  5. Oh, Julie, you're good! Hormone replacements needs, husbands wary of thick envelopes, and praying for persecutors! So funny because it's so true!!!!!!!!!!

    Yes, learning to deal with rejection and the fact that not everyone will love your story is probably the biggest thing I learned. Now I don't think I'll be stunned at all if and when I get a 1-star review on Amazon. I'm expecting it.

  6. I guess it's like the old joke -- "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?"

    "Practice, practice, practice!"

    For me part of it is trying to write 1,000 words a day in spite of everything. I've only entered a few contests (as yet) but it is definitely good practice for getting deadlines on the calendar, checking all the requirements and making the deadline.

    I had dental work this morning so can only drink out of one corner of my mouth. I don't know how I will manage mahi-mahi with mango salsa. Rats! Can I eat it with a spoon?

  7. This makes me feel better about entering a contest simply for the feedback. :)


  8. I was asleep at 1:48 PM, Ruthy. My secret! lol

    Oh, YES, Ruthy, the Seekers are the best and most unexpected thing to come out of all my years of entering contests.

    Okay, I know what divergent means, but not SAT! lol

  9. Pam, wonderful post! I'm very grateful that contests prepared me to deal with this rollercoaster business.

    Don't forget the benefit of finaling or winning contests and getting our manuscripts in front of an editor or agent. That might lead to a sale or at the very least, it'll pump up our deflated egos.


  10. Mary, that's the spirit.

    We can cry on our friend's shoulders and develop that thick skin through contests, and we'll be so much better prepared for the real world of publishing.

    Contestland is bootcamp for being published.

  11. lol Julie. Your poor hubby, but I imagine he also learned how to help you feel better!

  12. Glad you enjoyed it, Lauralee.

    Melanie, it's hard to see rejection as a benefit, but you're right. When I first started entering contests, I don't know what I expected, but I didn't expect the confusion caused by those wildly divergent (gotta stick it in again, Ruthy) contest scores and comments.

    I'm a numbers person. You know, 1+1=2. So, anything with "It's according" or "On the other hand" makes me grind my teeth.

    The longer I stay in this biz, the more weight I place on the comment that what's constituted as a good book is "subjective".

    Contests bring that home to us early and often...a much better lesson to learn than later, IMO.

  13. Probably the greatest benefit I've received from entering contests (aside from a much-needed bashing of my writerly-ego) is the friends I've met. I've garnered some dear friends who have sweated out finals with me, commiserated (quietly!) with me, and celebrated with me. Invaluable stuff.

  14. Ann, hugs on the dental work this morning. I always feel like my mouth is open the rest of the day! lol

    Yes, learning to meet deadlines has always been a huge benefit of contests. As much as we'd like to, most of us don't have our entire day to devote to writing, so we have to schedule writing time when we can with an eye on the contest...or publisher...deadline as the case may be.

    It's a huge motivator, isn't it?

  15. Patty, I try to see silver linings in everything.

    A writer friend and I were stranded in Dallas (in snowstorm, of all things!) for 36 hours in March. Instead of having a pity party, I looked on the experience as a learning tool regarding air travel.

    And I was SOOO thankful to have a friend with me so that one of us could hold our place in line while the other ran to grab us a bite to eat...or even looked for a shorter line.

    First time I'd ever flown with a friend, and first time I'd ever had any trouble. God is good, isn't he?

    I mean, there are so many LITTLE unexpected bonuses about contests that that carries over into our published lives.....

    Feedback...Gracious, just learning some of the lingo universal to writing was great.

    Delivery confirmation even without requiring a signature. Nice to know your package DID arrive at XYZ publishing house even though you haven't heard from them for 18 months.

    Oh...learning that it's not okay to email and/or call the contest coordinator every day to check on the status of the contest, just like that wouldn't be kosher with your editor either. Not that I've ever done that, you understand.

    Having a relationship with the gal behind the counter at your local the point she might open up 3 minutes after closing time for that package that MUST be postmarked TODAY.

    UPS, USPS, FedEx, DHL? Online postage for goodness sakes! Learn the mailing ropes ahead of time.

    Emailing attachments...or not? Read receipt or not?

    The list goes on and on!

  16. Janet, I didn't forget about finalling and winning, but in my mind those were expected benefits, at least after a season of entering contests. lol

    At first, I entered simply for feedback and my own placement scale. I needed a barometer to gauge my writing by.

    I don't think I really expected to final my first time out. I didn't, btw, but of course there was the glimmer of hope that I'd written something so wonderful it would rise to the top like well-seasoned dough!

    Finalling and winning are huge, huge benefits, but the others are the icing on the cake that we totally don't see coming until we've been at this awhile.

    Sheesh, what's with the food analogies?

  17. Well, the first contest I ever entered was this year's Genesis. I sent in 2 entries. Both rec'd above avg scores, but neither finaled. Yeah, I know - tell you something you don't know, eh?

    Anyway, I was surprised when one entry had 2 high scores, and a low of 41. A 41? I never ever went below 62 in school. The funny thing was, that judge had so many positive comments I kept checking to see if I'd read the score right.

    But, the benefit of entering the Genesis was that it gave me the courage to try again.

    Since June, I've entered 4 more and am working on the 5th.

    I have 3 ms's that I enter but I don't enter all of them in each contest. It depends on who's the final judge.

    BTW - my first contest result (not counting the Genesis) will be coming in any day now - yikes.

    And, a benefit of that is - I'll be getting the judges comments so I can work on my ms before the ACFW conf.

    But the most important benefit I've had in entering contests is finding a nice batch of friends here at Seekerville b/c I wouldn't have even entered the Genesis if not for you guys.

  18. Oh, it's so nice to read this post! The finalist announcements on two contests I entered just went out and I wasn't on them :-(
    Can you say "Pity Party"?
    lol, anyways, thanks for the encouragement. It's good to step back and take a logical look at things.

  19. Oh, Anita Mae, you just hit on another unexpected benefit that even I haven't thought of until now!!

    And it's a biggee!

    You said: "I have 3 ms's that I enter but I don't enter all of them in each contest. It depends on who's the final judge."

    Entering contests helps us learn to figure out which mss. will really grab certain editors. It forces us to do our detective work to know who's looking for what at each house.

    Otherwise, we'd be tempted to send our baby (which everybody will love of COURSE!) to every publishing house in Jeff Herman's Market Guide AND Sally Stuart's market Guide.

  20. Also, Anita Mae, that's about the sweetest thing anybody's ever said about the Seekers. I'm tearing up here!

    We've all got our fingers and toes crossed for you in the contest. And that's a lot of digits!

  21. Jessica, so sorry you didn't make the final cut. Have that pity party and then jump back in. You can do it!

    But I do wish you wouldn't have used the word "logical" on my watch today.

    Ruthy will have a heyday when she sees it. She's busy for the next couple of days, so maybe it'll just sliiiiide right under her radar.

    Mary, you are banned from talking about how logical I am!

  22. You are so right! I entered the TBL contest this year though I didn't have a clue why. I had no intention of entering it, but that all-to-familiar unseen nudge wouldn't leave me alone until I did. I entered a freshman Women's Fiction piece knowing it wouldn't win, but I felt that sense of satisfaction when I hit the send button for many of the reasons you stated. I did it. I met the deadline. I got my work out there.

    Genesis prepared me for the outcome, (you're right again!) and when the coordinator very kindly returned my score sheets, I smiled and very kindly sent a thank you note. It felt good and, if I do decided to revise that piece--again--I have feedback to help me along.

    Umm, Mahi. Okay, Ruthy, I'll be back on the island soon with a trunk load of the stuff. You did save a daquari for me, didn't you? Ruthy?

  23. Great post, Pam. I especially liked the fact that I was working toward a deadline. I always do better under pressure!

    Another biggie was name recognition. What's more exciting than seeing your own name in the RWR??!! :)

    And of course I kept seeing the name Pam Hillman on all the contests. :)


  24. aside from a much-needed bashing of my writerly-ego)

    Erica??? A much-needed bashing of my writerly-ego????

    Much needed? made me laugh.

    Yeah, we wouldn't want to have one single still standing stred of our egos left would we. Writing definitely fixes that.

  25. Great post Pam and a reminder of why we are in this crazy business. Yes, You are absolutely right about the contests preparing us for editors. Believe me, working with an editor is a piece of cake after my crit partners and contest scores. whew. Wish I could get a piece of that cake again soon. ha ha

    Anyway Julie, you are a scream. Your additions were priceless. My dh hates bringing me those envelops because he knows they mean rejections. He feels worse about it than I do which is soooooo sweet. He wants to get out there and fight dragons and slay me a contract. Oh if only he could. smile. But then that's why he is my hero.

    Anita Mae, thanks for your comment. We love sharing. It makes it seem easier somehow if others are commiserating with us. And celebrating. We love celebrating with you too. So let us know when good news hits. We'll all snoopy dance with you.

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  27. I think the benefits of entering a contest outweigh the drag of "not winning."

    You obtain objective feedback (depending on the contest)

    You see if your writing makes sense to anyone else. (always a good thing to know)

    Possible exposure to agents, editors, and authors.

    A lesson on how to receive objective criticism, which is all part of this writing/publishing game.

    Adds another layer of skin around your heart!!

    Great post.