The Joy, and Agony, of Entering Contests

I wrote this article years ago. I’m sure you will be able to tell that simply from reading it; however, the sentiments expressed within still apply.


As I carefully slipped the required number of pages into a sturdy envelope, I heave a sigh of relief as the whole package is dropped into the mail slot.  Here we go again.  Another contest – another chance for strangers to hack at my blood, sweat and tears.  An exaggeration, maybe, but for those who have a completed manuscript, I figure the reference is fairly accurate.

For the next few months, I alternate between hopeful anticipation of getting the call that says I’m a finalist to the dread of actually getting my manuscript pages back.  Marked up, picked apart, my efforts diminished to three to four meager scores that can be as different as night and day.  And frequently are.

When, instead of the finalist call I get my pages, I take a deep breath, ease my racing heart, then carefully open the battered envelope to see the score sheets and marked manuscript pages.  For the first fifteen minutes, I quickly scan the documents, alternating between fear and anger, than put the whole kit and caboodle away.  I can’t look at it.  For a few days. Then, the pressure to look and see what was written brings the pages back into my hot little hands.

After perusing each page in minute detail–what did I do right–what did I do wrong – I hasten to my keeper book shelf to query as to why I was judged down on something everyone else does.  Then I agonize over the comments. The reasons someone didn’t like my story. And why someone did.

Contests are designed to increase your expertise in writing, give you feedback on your manuscript and hopefully, expose you to editors dying to get your work.  Additionally, for me, contests are a lesson in humility and really illustrate the differences between writers – from published to unpublished.  Between fiction writers to non-fiction writers.

Before I retired my first manuscript, it was sent to an excess of five contests per year.  Every time, I anxiously sent off the required number of pages hoping that this ONE TIME it would be worshipped like the fine piece of manuscript it was.  But that doesn’t happen.  In fact, the worship of my hard labored work ranged from:  “what in God’s name do you think you’re trying to do” to “not bad, but you need to change this, and this, and maybe this, and oh yeah, this.”

In the beginning, I took each criticism to heart.  Like a stab to the heart, actually.  But it began to dawn on me that the best thing I can do for myself is to take the suggestions and use only the ones I want.  It took a year before I could do that and at least one finalist in a contest.

I appreciate all the time and energy each judge, published and unpublished, put into judging each entry fairly.  Having judged many, many contests over the last ten years, including the Golden Heart, I can appreciate the work involved in judging.  And Golden Heart judges don’t even get to give helpful hints.

What has been the most entertaining about each contest is the very different way people think a contestants’ book should be written.  Suggestions have ranged from don’t describe the characters through the characters, too much or even too little head hopping, too much description, not enough description, grammar and the ever present conflict.  But what one judge swears by, another judge is quick to say it is wrong.

What did I learn?  I’ve learned that each judge believes in different things whether said judge is published or an aspiring author.  Judges aren’t necessarily right, but not necessarily wrong either, just different.  As a contestant, as the author, it is up to me to take their suggestions and comments and do the best I can with them.  It boils down to choice – it is my choice to use or discard their suggestions. It is my choice to know what will work in my story. And my choice to continue to enter contests. Which I will do. I learned a lot. Not only about grammar, the “rules”, show, don’t tell and my favorite, head hopping, but also about myself.

Trusting in myself – my voice, my style, my words.  A dear friend of mine likes to say, “It’s all about me.” A joke, but really, not that far from the truth. Sure, keep in mind the “rules” but in the end, only you know what is best for your voice. Your story.

Happy writing!

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