writing contests

Random thoughts brought on by working on entries in a contest that I agreed to judge. They may seem more disorganized than usual (or at least I think they are) because I’m in the midst of an insomnia binge. Of course, less sleeping means more time for reading. I’m currently 200pp into The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad by Minister Faust and doing serious damage to my submissions pile. Anyway…

There sure seem to be a lot more contests in the romance and women’s fiction genre — why is that?

So, I was judging the romantic suspense category. One of the things that struck me was that in five entries only one of them did not feature a member of law enforcement as one of the protagonists. Perhaps it’s an obvious thing to do in order to set up a suspense plot. If either the hero or heroine (or both) are assigned to the case then it gives them an easy motivation to be there. But it did make me want to give that one other person points for originality. Plus, easy motivations don’t always make for complex and compelling characters. Also, I’ve read many other proposals for this subgenre and keep finding a lot of projects in which the research, or rather the lack thereof, is going to contribute to making it an easy rejection. I went through a big forensic interest phase a couple years ago which included reading a book on the history of fingerprinting as well as textbooks regularly assigned in forensic courses. I know less about actual department procedures and I haven’t yet taken one of those citizen police academy tours. But one tends to notice when L&O or CSI have more realism and internal consistency.

Nearly every time I sit down to read for a contest, I remember this one time when I got a set of finalists and was just stunned that this was the best they could offer. I actually wanted to not give an award in that case because I didn’t think any of the entries were even close to publishable. People sometimes use contest wins as credits in queries. This experience made me feel a bit dubious about that prospect. And does the sheer proliferation of these contests dilute their value? This goes to that question that I have occasionally been asked about why I might agree to judge these, especially when my time for reading tends to be evenings and weekends. Of course, I would love to find something in a contest that was just so compelling that I had to ask the contest coordinator to pass on a request for more – which has happened a handful of times. Even more, I’d love to actually find a client this way. I don’t believe that’s happened yet. Then there’s the plain old issue of giving back to the writing community. If authors, in fact, get enough of a return from the experience.

8 responses to “writing contests

  1. I love L&O; one of the reasons I’ve never attempted any kind of detective/police type novel is because I was sure I wouldn’t sound as realistic as that show! Plus, I write YA, and most teens aren’t that interested.

  2. I’ve judged a large number of contests over the years, and only once found anything to be excited about (and that was more on sheer potential than anything accomplished). Maybe I’m cynical (all right, no maybe about it) but I’d rather see fewer regional/conference contests and more workshopping/mentoring to effect.
    Also, you already know my opinion about romantic suspense novels where the author neglects to do even the most basic of research (ie watching an episode of L&O or CSI). I believe the term ‘editorial smackdown’ was used…
    Hope the sleep catches up with you, without me having to come up there and issue drastic measures against the cause, speaking of smackdowns…

  3. What strikes me as an outsider to the romance genre is that ‘writing for contests’ seems to exist almost parallel with ‘writing for publication.’ As long as you can submit three chapters-and-outline people will polish those to distraction rather than writing whole books and polishing _those_.
    It seems – at least to the casual reader – as if there are people who write for contests *and nothing else*. Not ‘enter a couple of contests, get an opinion, then submit to agents or editors’ – I’ve read blog entries that made their owners sound as if their hobby was ‘entering contests’
    Which, coming from a genre that (thankfully) places little value on them, seems just plain weird.

  4. There sure seem to be a lot more contests in the romance and women’s fiction genre — why is that?
    Just as a guess, I’d say it’s because RWA focuses more on the needs and interests of unpublished writers than most other genre organizations. That, and the contests make nice chapter fundraisers.
    Also, I’ve read many other proposals for this subgenre and keep finding a lot of projects in which the research, or rather the lack thereof, is going to contribute to making it an easy rejection.
    I’ve judged quite a few first rounds of RWA contests. I usually ask for historicals, since they’re my passion as a reader and a writer, and I’m often surprised and a little depressed by the evident lack of research that went into a project. (The same is occasionally true of published historical romances, for that matter.) I’m not talking about tiny little details, either, but instead big obvious mistakes anyone who halfway paid attention in 10th grade world history class would catch, along with an utter lack of period-appropriate mindset and values among the characters. It frustrates and puzzles me, because I read historical fiction of any genre hoping for a sort of time travel experience, and I can’t imagine sitting down to write a historical without at least some research into my chosen time and place.

  5. Some contests provide valuable feedback to the entrants. The Regency chapter’s Royal Ascot contest was a good example of this. Back when I was the contest coordinator each entry was judged by at least one published Regency author, which was a real service to writers who couldn’t find experienced critiquers familiar with the genre in their own hometowns.
    But many contests are run primarily as fundraisers, which helps explain their proliferation. My local RWA chapter has periodically looked into running a contest for this very reason–there’s no burning need for yet another contest, but then, again, if other chapters are making money, why shouldn’t ours? Fortunately wiser heads have prevailed with issues of logistics and liability, so it’s been voted down.
    Of course contests couldn’t proliferate if there wasn’t a large pool of unpubs out there willing to shell out the entry fees. I wonder about the perennial contest entrants–the people who keep entering one contest after another, year after year, but never seem to do anything else to advance their career.

  6. Winners ?
    Having judged (and entered) a few RWA contests, I’ve seen a wide, wide gap of quality, both in contests (score sheest skew everything) and entries. To me, one of the interesting things is that I’ve learned more about writing by judging than I ever thought; to make intelligent comments, you have to sit down and figure out why something doesn’t work. And then when you see you’re doing that–ouch.
    The other thing that interests (but, then, I’m easily intrigued) is that some folks never learn–I’ve had the painful misfortune of seeing entires crop up over and over and there’s NO CHANGE. It’s still stinking bad. And that’s when I want to reach out and shake someone and find out what the hell–they’re doing this just to win? They don’t care about getting better.
    So, sadly, I’m afraid a good chunk of folks are about getting the kudos, not the ouch of comments back and the sweat to make it better.
    But the worst–the absolute worse–I hate those entries that are all good grammer, and spellcheked, and all the beats are there, and its just souless average. You can’t fix that, or even help someone take it apart and make it right.

  7. I was involved in some contests when I did my MFA. I saw that what was coming in looked unpracticed and cliche, and doubted big agencies were gonna go all ga-ga for some obscure pub credits that wouldn’t translate at all to a flair for commercial success.
    “There sure seem to be a lot more contests in the romance and women’s fiction genre — why is that?”
    Hell, I was hoping you could tell me. Every time I talk shop with someone in the biz about breaking in, they tell me chic lit and romance are what’s selling. When I tell them I’ve got none of the above they frown sadly for me.

  8. Last resort
    I believe many authors enter these contest just in the hopes of having someone/anyone notice them. They’ve gone the query letter route, they’ve been to conferences and while everyone is very supportive and even complimentary, the rejections just keep stacking up. Is it their query-writing capabilities? Did their synopsis sink? Friends and critiquers tell them it’s the best story ever, or at least as good as whatever they just picked up at the library, so these authors swarm to contests, desperate for recognition and hoping that the agent who is looking through everything will see the promise and the dedication it takes to get their book through the slushpile and into the pitch pile.
    Then, of course, there are those who think that’s the short cut. Slap something down on paper and push it through. Forget the hard work and focus it takes to query or summarize. Skip that whole step and go straight to the agent’s eyes.
    Contests are an excellent source of direct feedback. It removes folks from the standard rejection into the why they were rejected. And maybe on that particular day their premise will resonate with the agent looking over their work and FINALLY their hard work will pay off.
    The giving back part graduates some folks from wannabes into published authors. Thanks for your efforts!

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