Using Writing Contests to Improve One’s Game

Long before my first book was published, I was hard at work, putting the manuscript through some very vigorous paces.

Since it was my first book, I wanted a litmus test before I started flinging it at agents. I wanted to toe the waters of publishing before plunging in. I wanted to feel my way cautiously through the dark instead of bumbling through it.

Publishing had become my sport. Was I ready to query agents? Was my manuscript ready? I ‘d be going up against some pretty tough competition. I couldn’t go out on the field unprepared so I practiced…by competing.

Confused? Don’t be. What I mean to say is I entered my manuscripts into writing contests.

Entering contests helped me to do all that and more. Besides learning the rules of formatting and preparing submissions, besides the dubious joys of preparing several synopses, I received invaluable critique, peer-based feedback, and lessons in surviving rejection. These experiences helped me to grow from an amateur hobby writer into a more polished professional who had her eyes on the prize.

Once I had completed the first draft, I decided to spend a full year entering every competition that fit my manuscript. As a result, my synopsis and first chapters were submitted to perhaps a dozen different novel writing contests. Several contests—especially those offered by writers groups whose main objective is to help writers improve their craft and get their writing up to publishable standards—returned entries with heaps of comments on the pages as well as score sheets that provided me with the litmus test I wanted. (Houston Writers Guild and our very own Pennwriters are both excellent examples.) While other contests offered critique for a fee, I was able to avoid extra cost by simply choosing the right contests.

Contests also provided great feedback. Currently, my “betas” are readers, not writers or others in the publishing business. While reader feedback is very valuable, it lacks the aspect of knowledgeable constructive criticism. Back when I was a newbie writer, I had zero access to a writer’s critique group. When I began competing, the judges became my circle of well-meaning peers. Thanks to the feedback , I made some excellent revisions. (I also ignored a lot of personal opinion, just like in a real group.)

My favorite “feedback” example: I failed one contest quite miserably because my formatting stunk. While the formatting kept me on the sidelines, I got the opportunity to be evaluated by a third judge who spent a great amount of time commenting and suggesting ways to improve. She admitted the formatting mess was too great to ignore but said I was so close—I had a real chance with this book. That encouragement was my candle in the window.

Best of all, participation in writing competitions steeled my heart against the slings and arrows of rejection. I failed to place in many of the contests. Not seeing my name on some of the results letters was a little disappointing. However, actually seeing my name on a few of the results letters was a huge boost.

I started with honorable mentions. I made recommended changes and revisions and tweaked my synopses. I earned a second place, complete with a gorgeous ribbon and—gasp!—a check. Eventually, I won first place and grand prize overall in a contest I never dreamed of winning.

Grand prize. Say it out loud. I do, whenever I need one little victory to heal the sting of a rejection. Dealing with anonymous judges is far less personal than dealing one on one with agents. Writers new to the game may find it easier to hear a “no” from a contest before they hear one from their dream agent (mine rejected my query twice. I guess once wasn’t enough?)

Perspective. That’s how I would sum up my entire contest experience. In 2007 I had much to learn about writing, and thanks to the critiques, I knew what direction to follow. I needed peer review; many writers and editors gave me the feedback and encouragement I craved. I won some, I lost some, and I learned the rules of the rejection game. It made querying a lot less abrasive.

A writer who is unsure if that manuscript is ready for an agent would do well to take a chance at entering a contest or two. If you want to play the publishing game, you need to practice first—and a writing competition may just be the perfect scrimmage for your manuscript.

Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer who resides in the heart of the Pennsylvania coal region, where she keeps the book jacket for “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” in a frame over her desk. Visit Ash’s blog at www.ash-krafton.blogspot.com for news on her newly released urban fantasy “Bleeding Hearts: Book One of the Demimonde” (Pink Narcissus Press 2012).

This article first appeared on the Query Tracker blog.

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