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Friday, August 24, 2012



The other week I was clearing out old papers from my office and I came across scores from contests I’d entered when I first started writing. I decided to take a trip down my memory lane, strewn with the remnants of contest failures.

I started writing back in the Dark Ages when traditional publishers ruled and we submitted hard copies of our manuscripts by snail mail. Computers were around then; it wasn’t that dark. However, I had a word processor and not a computer. I think there were two epubs then--Hard Shell Word Factory and New Concepts Publishing. If you bought an ebook it came in snail mail as a floppy disk (remember them?).

Writing competitions were very important back in those olden days. Contest wins and finals could get an author a publisher and an agent. Two of my original critique partners, who wrote as a team, were self-proclaimed contest sluts. They entered every contest they could, and they won or finaled in most of them. They typed up a list of all the ones they’d won or finaled in, and when they pitched to editors and agents, they showed them the list. Contests worked for them. They got an agent and a multi-book contract with Kensington. I’m no longer in contact with those writers and they’ve quit writing, which is a pity, because they were good.

In those early days I was desperate to final in a contest. I would pray that I would final every time I entered one. I didn’t necessarily have to win; I just wanted to final. I didn’t even come close, not once. Every time I got my results, I was in the dumps for weeks. Sometimes I cried.

As I was going through my old papers, I decided to Google the authors who’d finaled in the contests I’d entered. Almost to a woman, those authors went onto big contracts with print publishers. Most are still writing.

Although I had no contest finals, I managed to sell the second book I wrote, “A Catered Affair,” to Avalon Books, a small print press. But I wouldn’t give up the dream of snagging a contract with one of the Big Six and hiring an agent. Chasing that elusive dream, I continued to enter unpublished manuscripts in any writing competitions I could. My first contest final (at long last!) was the now-defunct PASIC. I had two manuscripts final in that one contest. A twofer! Editors from the Big Six read both entries and passed.

One of the books that finaled in the PASIC, “Logan’s Redemption,” was eventually contracted by The Wild Rose Press. I don’t know if the contest final had anything to do with my getting a contract. Before submitting to Wild Rose, I submitted Logan to a small print publisher that usually took twelve weeks to respond. I assume it was my contest final that got me a rejection from them in two weeks and not their usual twelve. Same thing happened with my paranormal, “Cursed Mates,” now published by Noble Romance Publishing. Cursed finaled in two prestigious contests. Several top epubs and print publishers rejected it in two weeks rather than their usual twelve. So, the moral of this story: Contest finals got me rejections quicker than if I hadn’t finaled.

Are writing contests for unpublished works still relevant? Things have changed in ways we couldn’t have predicted. There are many very good epubs out there now and there’s indie publishing. Authors don’t have to scramble and beat themselves up trying to get a contract with one of the big print publishers or with an agent. I’ve seen calls go out from many RWA chapters begging for more entries for their contests. It seems not too many authors are entering their unpublished manuscripts nowadays.

I’ve been talking about competitions for unpublished manuscripts. Let’s discuss published books. I enter my published books in contests solely to increase my sales and get my name out there.

Lately I’ve had some luck. Two of my books finaled in two contests each. I use the results in my promotions. Has my contest success helped sales? Haven’t a clue. I’ve seen no bump in sales for one book, but the other has had a nice sales jump. Was it because of the contest rankings? Who knows?

How do you authors feel about contests? Love ‘em, hate ‘em, indifferent? Do you enter contests for published and/or unpublished works? I want to hear from the readers out there too. Do you buy books on the basis of contest results? Do you care if a book has won contests? Many romance authors dream of having one of their books final in the RITA, RWA’s premier competition for excellence in books. Do readers know what the RITA is, and does it make a difference to them if a book is a RITA finalist? This inquiring mind wants to know.    


Tina Donahue said...

I've read books pubbed by Avalon - they're wonderful.

I doubt if readers care about contests. When I go to see a film, I never think - "Wow, it won an Oscar - I just HAVE to see it." Never enters my mind.

I've heard that publishers and agents take note of contest winners, which is why I believe a lot of writers enter them.

Adele Dubois said...

Your post was terrific, Cara, and relevent. (Please send it to our chapter newsletter editor!)

I attended a conference this year that hosted an editor and agent panel. When asked if contest finals influence a decision whether or not to accept a ms., the unanimous reply was, "no." Needless to say, that surprised me.

However, when I thought back to how few contest finalists receive full ms. requests, followed by a sale, I realized what they said was true.

So why do editors and agents volunteer to judge contests? And why do we enter? I think it's to fulfill the hope of a lightening strike. That one opportunity that might present itself, despite the odds.

Winning a Golden Heart award or a RITA statue still holds great allure for most authors. Some contests will remain relevent.

In any case, chapter contests are a good way to measure a ms's. progress. They're also a good start to learning the art of thickening one's skin.

Congratulations on your published contest awards. Those are definitely worth crowing about.


Bellina said...
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Cara Marsi said...

Thank you, Tina and Adele. I'm on the fence about contests too. But as you said, Adele, they can be a way to polish a manuscript.

Bellina said...

I would like to win, or even final, just to say I did. An excuse to do the happy dance! I think some of the entry fees are a bit steep, but I know that's the way some groups make money. It's good to support local romance groups. Nice post.

Sharon Horton said...

Great article! I think contests can help, but they're not the only way to go either. I once entered my unpublished manuscript, JINXED, in a contest and found out I was the lowest score. A couple months later, I was offered a contract on the very same book. Not long after that, it was a finalist in a fairly big RWA contest.

Then there was the time I entered my first published book in RWA's biggest contest and got scores that ranged from 2 - 9.

The way I see it, every time a contest is entered, it gets four or five people to read your book(s). Whether you final or not, you still are getting exposure. And that's what we all need and want. As for reading books that ONLY win contests - I think that would lead to a lot of great books never being read, so I don't agree with that angle. Sorry Oprah.

Harlie Reader said...

As an unpublished author, I have only entered a couple of contests and didn't even final. I actually wasn't upset because the feedback I got was awesome.

Great post Cara.


Karyn Good said...

Great post, Cara. I'm ambivalent about writing contests. The cost is a deterrent for me, I'd rather put that money to use elsewhere. I think you have to decide what you want from the contest before you enter: feedback, exposure, or how your book ranks in comparison with other enteries, etc. Then take result with a grain of salt. Also, some types of stories and styles of writing are more compatible with the scoring format than others. So it's important that contest results not be your only feedback.

Ilona Fridl said...

Hi Cara! Fellow rose here! I did enter contests before I was published. My first ms finaled, but that was the one I never sold. I'm a judge in our local RWA chapter's contest and I enjoy reading some of the fine efforts of the unpublished authors. I think contests are a great way to see if others enjoy your work or if you are just spinning your wheels.

Maddy said...

I'm a newbie and just starting to enter competitions, more as an incentive and goal to keep me writing, but I've heard a lot of controversy on the subject. Glad to read your take on it.

Tanya Hanson said...

I think they are a good way to get critique on a Ms. from other than your partners, especially for pre-pubbed or if you haven't been pubbed in a while. But mostly I think they're fundraisers for the groups that hold them. I know of someone who won the Golden Heart and a half dozen contests with a Ms. and it still hasn't gotten published. Dunno, it's a mystery LOL,

Sandra Dailey said...

I entered a contest with a short story and won a year of free books. That was the only reason I entered. I didn't take it seriously. However, it did inspire me to write more. My debut eBook released on August 1st. I think the contest just gave me confidence...and a whole lot of books.

Susan Macatee said...

Cara, when I first started writing romance and was still honing my craft, I entered a lot of unpublished contests. I didn't always final or win, but I did get some great scores along with great comments from judges that helped me to improve my stories. But as my writing improved, I always seemed to get one judge who gave me a great score and another who'd give a terrible score. Because of the wide disparity, I couldn't final to save my life. At that point, I started submitting my work, was rejected by a few of the bigger publishers and finally found a home with an e-publisher. I was finally a published author.

I can no longer enter the unpublished contests, but have entered two of my books in published contests. One of them was a finalist, the other took first and second place in respective contests. Don't know if it helped sales, but I do use those contest finals and wins in my promo. I plan to enter my newest January release in as many contests as I can afford once it's eligible next year.

Cara Marsi said...

Thanks for posting, everyone. You do have to pick and choose your contests, and when you're just starting out, you can learn a lot from feedback. Sharon, I love your story of getting the lowest scores, then selling the book, then finaling in a big contest.

Negative feedback is sometimes more helpful than the positive kind. Cursed Mates came within a half point of finaling in a contest. The two judges who scored it high gushed over it. The third one, who caused me not to final, said the opening sounded like a thriller and was I writing a romance or a thriller. That brought me up. I was writing a romance. I completely changed the beginning to bring the hero in and to make sure readers knew it was a romance. I kept the paranormal elements of course. IMO, the new opening is much better, so that negative judge did me a favor.

LisaRayns said...

I'd love to win a contest just to have the title (award winning) on my books but I haven't taken the time to enter one yet. I forget. From a reader's standpoint, with all the thousand of new books out lately, I guess I am more apt to buy from an award winning author also.

Cara Marsi said...

Lisa, thanks for posting. I like the idea of saying "award-winning." You have a point that with so little time to read most of us would grab a book that said "award-winning."

P.L. Parker said...

Sorry late getting here was on a short vacation. My contest luck has not been good and in the few I have entered, I've only gotten comments back on one so I don't have a very good view of contests. Interesting post Cara!

Cara Marsi said...

Patsy, thanks for posting. Your books are wonderful. You didn't need to win contests.

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