Thursday, June 16, 2011


Cutting it as a published author takes guts, stamina, and optimism. When an agent rejects your query letter, when an editor rejects your submission, when a reader or worse a bona fide critic writes a review that feels like a knife in the heart—and we all pray that never happens—you need to know how to persevere through it.

Writing contests have great value, but an overlooked reason to enter is that they will prepare you for the abrasive parts of this industry. The hurtful parts that will either wear you down, making you reconsider writing at all or the parts that will toughen you up, testing your mettle. A contest is a good way to put yourself out there and receive feedback that will highlight your strengths as well as your weaknesses.

I go to Stephie Smith’s Contest Chart for a comprehensive overview of upcoming contests. I love that she doesn’t limit the chart to RWA contests, as there are many others available to writers.

I’ve never taken the time to count how many contests I’ve entered or how many times I’ve made the finals until doing this blog post. When I first started entering, I had no idea I’d turn into a contest crack-head. At the start of 2011, I finally created an excel spreadsheet, but I highly recommend starting one to keep track of expenses, entry requirements, region of the writing organization, name of contest, and your results.

After combing through my contest email folder, I counted up all of the contests I’ve entered and whether I made the finals. If I entered a specific contest in 2010 and 2011, I only counted it once, and the same with making the finals. For example, I entered The Crested Butte Sandy contest in 2010 and 2011 and made the finals both times for two separate entries (I withdrew as a finalist this year since the final judge is an agent and I already have one), but I only counted it once. In total, I’ve entered 34 different contests, made the finals 21 times, but only won five. I received four requests from editors (three for KINDRED, one for PARADOX), but not from a contest I actually won, only from ones I’ve finaled in oddly enough. I’m not thrilled with those numbers, but I share them in case you’re wondering what my contest experience has been like over the past 18 months.

As I look back over the various contests I’ve entered, I took the following factors into consideration as I came up with my recommended list:

• Time between entry deadline, finalist announcement, and winner determined. Shoot for contests with no more than 6-8 weeks between the entry deadline and finalist announcement. Try to avoid contests with big black holes aka no finalist or winner determination date listed, unless the final judge is a dream agent or editor. Knowing the dates will help you plan which contests to enter and keep your sanity. Stagger your entries so the timing of the feedback from one contest can help you on the first round of another. Factor in a week delay to receive finalist results. Top-notch contests are rarely late by more than a few days.

• I gave an extra point to a contest that had both an agent and an editor as final judges. If they also had a bookseller, I gave them a bonus point. You may or may not end up agented. Either way, you need an editor to be interested in your work in order to get a contract. Once published, booksellers need to be intrigued enough to stock their shelves with your product. Although I tied for third place in the West Houston Emily contest, I felt like a winner because the bookseller had ranked KINDRED OF THE FALLEN as his first place choice. Always keep the big picture or endgame in mind. Sure you want an agent, and of course you need an editor, but you’ll make more sales if booksellers like your work. Getting their feedback, before you are published, is priceless.

• There were a lot of really good contests, but if I didn’t receive any feedback from a final judge then I had to mark the contest down. If there were two final judges, an agent and editor, and I didn’t receive a single comment, then the contest did not make the list. Yes, some agents and editors are more generous with their comments than others, and contest coordinators can’t force someone to give you feedback. However, they do have some control. Every contest that had the final judge fill out a score sheet or questionnaire is on my recommended list. I don’t understand why more contests don’t do this. If you’re lucky enough to qualify for the finals over 25-100 other entrants, depending on the size of the contest, there should be some system in place to strongly encourage the final judge to provide finalists with a comment or two. Score sheets or a brief questionnaire on what they did or didn’t like seems to make the most sense in my opinion.

• Some regions/chapters tend to have a good mix of published and unpublished preliminary judges who take the time to give considerate feedback. Although the comments may not be positive, if they are constructive, then I am grateful because they truly wanted to help me improve.

• Ease of submission turned out to be pretty important to me once I crossed the double digit threshold. It is 2011, electronic submissions should be a given. I also appreciate contests with electronic forms, especially if they allow you to fill out one form for multiple entries.

• What is the prize? Personally, I like a check or a PayPal deposit. When I started to receive prize money, a light bulb went off. You’re paying $20-30 per entry. Many of these contests easily receive 35-50 entries for some of their categories, maybe a little less in some, maybe a lot more in others. Why can’t they reimburse the finalists with the amount of their entry and reward the winners with a little extra? If the smaller ones can afford to do this, I know the larger ones can. If I didn’t receive a check, did I get a quality certificate I’d actually like to keep or some other prize?

• Does the contest have a decent track record for requests from final judges? Are the winners listed in the Romance Writers Report, even better, are they named at the RWA National Conference? Contests are a way for you to buy exposure, so spend wisely.

• Did the contest give entrants an opportunity to update their pages, incorporating feedback from the first round judges, before submission to the final judge? This one knocked a lot of contests off my recommended list. A contest should be more than a fundraiser; it should help the entrants in every way possible, in my opinion. This includes allowing them to tweak their entries based on preliminary criticism, so that the final judge, an agent or editor, reads the finalists’ strongest work.

Okay, so here are the contests I recommend:

The Emily: an agent, an editor, and a bookseller for final judges. Also, the preliminary round critiques were insightful.
Windy City Four Seasons: an agent and editor are final judges. The coordinators nailed this one with detailed score sheets for the final judges. Not only did I get a numerical breakdown covering plot, characterization, hook, etc., but there was even space for additional comments, which both judges provided. And I received an engraved clock as my prize.

The MARA Fiction from the Heartland: both an agent and an editor are final judges. You get constructive feedback all around. I received an editor request and my agent found me through this contest. However, my agent was not one of the final judges who read my work, see How I Landed My Agent for more information. The coordinator, Heather Snow, was also extremely friendly, generous with sharing her experience on the contest circuit, and responsive. I have to write a testimonial for the MARA. Prize money is given to the winner.

Music City Melody of Love: there are only three categories, so competition can be stiff. The coordinator, Jody Wallace, was super sweet and if you make the finals she will offer to proofread your submission before it goes to the final judge, provided you get it to her prior to the deadline. Talk about going above and beyond. This chapter truly wants to set up their finalists for success. You receive $$ if you win and a one year free membership to their chapter. Holly Root was the final judge when I entered. She was the only final judge I’ve ever had to make handwritten notes on the manuscript pages. I was truly blown away by my experience in this contest. Testimonial coming their way.

The Crested Butte Sandy: fantastic coordinator (Theresa Rizzo), easy submission process, not a RWA contest which gives you a different perspective from the judges. If you don’t write pure romance, I can’t recommend this one highly enough. Even if you write straight romance, they have a category for it. Prize $$ for first and second place winners. My testimonial is already written, I just have to send it.

Southwest Florida Hold Me, Thrill Me: the final judge is given a score sheet, so you understand why you received your ranking, along with comments. And I received prize money.

Toronto Gold/Catherine: the final judge is asked to answer two questions about your entry, which is better than nothing. First place category winners will have their work read by both an editor and agent.

NTRWA Great Expectations: Although I didn’t get any feedback from the final judge, I’m recommending this contest. It closely mirrors the submission process to agents and will prepare you for the query gauntlet. Even if you don’t make the finals, you will receive critiques on both your query letter and opening 25 pages. Prize money and a congratulations note personally signed by the coordinator and chapter members didn’t hurt either.

Kiss of Death Daphne: I have not entered this contest. However, both an agent and editor are the final judges, and the winner is announced at Nationals. I’ve heard nothing but stellar things about this contest.

The TARA: I didn’t make the finals when I entered last year, but the submission process was the best I’ve experienced. You can enter as soon as it opens, using an electronic form. You can also update your entry until the deadline directly on the website without bothering a coordinator. Also, you will receive quality feedback.

FTHRWA Golden Gateway: you submit 50 pages plus a synopsis and finalists are named in two months. This is quite impressive, considering the amount of pages judges have to read, and you receive feedback on a larger sample of your work. In addition, this will prepare you for the Golden Heart.

The Golden Pen: I have not entered this contest, but I have heard fantastic things from other entrants about the quality of feedback. It also has a relatively quick turnaround time like the Golden Gateway.

The Golden Heart: I’m recommending this one for the prestige factor and the potential (not guaranteed) doors it can open. Judges have complained there is no training, you only receive a score with no insight from the judge, you have to mail in your submission, and wait four months to find out if you finaled, but it’s the Golden Heart.

BEST TIP: Don’t change your manuscript every time you receive contest results. Understand your characters and know your plot inside and out. Let feedback marinate for a week or two and only make changes that resonate with you. Yes, you want polished opening pages, but you don’t want to edit out your voice. And whatever you do, don’t forget to polish the rest of your manuscript.

Hope this helps some of you weed through which contests to choose and if any coordinators are reading this, please give final judges score sheets (even generic ones) and allow entrants to revise their pages before submission to an agent or editor.

On Sunday, June 19th, I will be hosting my friend Carol Ericson here. She’s a successful Romantic Suspense author for Harlequin Intrigue and has recently released her first self-published book, DEAD AIR. She’ll share her experience in the publishing industry and there’ll be some free giveaways. Hope you’ll stop by.


  1. Thanks loads for this short series and sharing this relevant information.

  2. Thanks, Isis! FYI with the Melody of Love this year, the Board opted to increase it to four categories, the new one being YA. Hope we get some great stuff!

  3. Carol - I hope it helps others. There's so many to choose from, but I've had a wonderful experience with quite a few.

    Jody - You are more than welcome. You rocked as a coordinator! I never expected so much from a contest. You really did go above and beyond.

  4. Isis,

    Thank you so much for mentioning the MARA Fiction From the Heartland contest. Though we're a small chapter, we work very hard to provide thorough and thoughtful feedback, both from our published and unpublished judges. And I LOVE that Helen found fantastic.

    Thank you for this very informative post on contests. I, too, learned much on the contest circuit, both in what worked and didn't work in my writing, and how to handle criticism. It also was instrumental in my finding an agent and getting published.

    Best of luck on submission and hopefully we'll run into each other in New York!

  5. Isis,

    Thanks for saying such nice things about our contest at MARA.

  6. Great advice! Thanks for sharing your recommended contests, Isis.

  7. Heather - You really were wonderful and so positive every step of the way. I'm grateful I learned about the MARA through GIAM. You never know where a contest can lead.

    Sandy - The critiques from the MARA really were some of the best that I have received, with constructive feedback.

    Mart - Hope it helps and hope you enter some contests!

  8. What a great list! I've been thinking about entering contests with my manuscript, but have had no idea where to start. Thanks for sharing your experiences and favorites!

  9. Thank you for mentioning my home chapter, the Toronto Romance Writers. I've judged there for five years now and we get more entries every year. Not only is our Gold Ticket judge the wonderful Kristin Nelson, the winner also gets a three-chapter critique by our awesome Kelley Armstrong. Unfortunately, judging has already begun for this year.

  10. Great post, Isis. I was a contest junky before I sold. At first I'd enter any contest, but then I became more selective. You've created a great system!