fab five 2014I’m excited to announce that my manuscript Touch of Lies has finaled in the contest of the Wisconsin Romance Writers chapter of Romance Writers of America (known as WiscRWA) for unpublished romance writers. The contest is known as the FabFive (or Fab5)—and is just the first five pages of your manuscript. Which can be scary to contemplate. There’s not a lot of back up there to let the judge get context.

Writing contests are interesting critters. There are lots of them—some more prestigious than others, some more well-known than others, some more useful than others. And (the writers will get this joke) it’s all subjective.

New writers often don’t get the “it’s subjective” part. Think about it—people don’t always like the same books. People have pet peeves and topics they hate seeing touched on in their fiction. Yes, it’s all romance…but that covers a lot of ground.

Contests try to get judges who enjoy a specific genre to judge that section—usually broken down into categories like single title, romantic suspense, paranormal, historical, series, women’s fiction, and young adult. Sometimes they break out historical and Regencies into separate categories. And yeah, sometimes there are problems—if you have a paranormal romantic suspense, which category do you put it into? What if it’s also a historical?

An entry usually gets three judges—and the low score is tossed out. This gives people a fair chance of getting a decent average.

I was chatting with a newcomer to my writers group about contests, and she mentioned she had looked at some of them but hadn’t entered, “because the prizes were kind of lame.” I had to smile; I knew what she meant. Writing groups don’t tend to have a lot of money. Unlike the Amazon contest, the prize for most contests is NOT a publishing contract. It’s not a large cash prize (as in rarely over $50, if any money at all). Usually, you get a certificate if you final…and a different certificate if you win. In a number of cases, you get something like a piece of jewelry (a crystal charm, a quill/fountain pen/other charm or a pin with the contest logo), or maybe a plaque or a paperweight. Usually, though, it’s a certificate, and a mention in the national romance writers’ association magazine when the chapter runs a congratulatory ad for the winners. Bluntly, no one enters these contests for the prizes.

There are three reasons people enter contests. In reverse order, they are:

3. To give yourself a deadline. For some of the bigger contests (the Golden Heart, for instance, the National level RWA contest), you have to have the completed manuscript to submit. If you final, you have a short window to provide a revised version for the final judge. Some people are inspired by the pressure and will use these sorts of deadlines to make sure they finish their book.

2. Feedback on your submission. Judges for contests are usually other writers. Often they are published authors. Different contests have different rules/criteria, but most clearly state what their requirements are for judges. Most chapters train judges. One thing you want to look for in a contest is getting feedback from the judges. Some contests don’t provide anything—you may not even find out your final score, just a yes/no about finaling and then yes/no about winning. Those are rarely useful contests. You want one that provides a score sheet with comment, or even better, lets the judges comment in your manuscript.

This does two things—the main thing is, you get editorial feedback on your writing from people who have already made it through the publishing gauntlet. This can be soo helpful and soo inspiring. Sometimes, judges sign their judging forms. (That’s a topic for another post.) That can also be truly inspiring.

However, commenting also lets you into the mind of the judge. I had one judge who gave me lousy scores in a contest, and through her comments, I realized she didn’t like—or understand—mystery/suspense books. I had entered in the closest category to that—Single Title—which covered everything from romantic comedies to women’s fiction. This judge had scored me low for things like not wrapping up the mystery in the first 25 pages of the book, having my hero be too “unclear and mysterious” for the first 1/3 of the book, and not being able to comprehend the purpose of my red herrings. Had I wanted to turn my book into a light-hearted comedy, her comments would have been really helpful; for a romantic suspense book…not so much. BUT, if all I had to work with was the [very low] number of the score, I would have tossed in the towel and assumed I was a terrible writer.

1. It gets your manuscript under the eyes of the Final Judge. The point of contests is to final. It may not even be to win, to be honest. The thing to look for in picking contests to enter is having the FINAL JUDGE be an editor or agent that you are interested in. Note that caveat. The point is, the final judge reads all of the finaling entries. In some cases, that’s the whole book, in others, it’s the first 25 pages and the synopsis. Editors are always looking for books to buy. Editors often buy the finalists they judge. Not always, but often…or they at least request the entire book. Agents are always looking for clients…if your book catches their fancy, even if you don’t win, you may have an agent by the end of the process.

As a contest entrant, you have to think strategically. Contests cost money…anywhere from $10 to $150+ to enter. I have looked at contests, checked out the final judge in the category I’d be entering, and skipped the contest. Either it’s someone who has already declined the manuscript or someone I know is NOT interested in ‘my type’ of book. Or, whose publishing house doesn’t publish my kind of books. That said, I have also rushed an entry to get a second manuscript into a contest when an editor I have been interested in is judging a category I don’t usually enter. That harkens back to the whole deadline motivation thing.

I don’t enter a lot of contests…and I tend not to mention when I do to many people. I don’t like the pressure. I also have a unique writing style that some people love and other people hate. My contest scores tend to be all over the map. Contest scores can be on 100 point scales, 50 point scales, or 10 point scales. I often find I miss finaling by a single point or less. I get score sheets back that are 98, 97, 30. Or 50, 48.5, 31.   Or 10, 8, 4. It gets frustrating… Who do you believe? The person giving you the perfect score, or the person giving you the equivalent of a middle school F?

What I have found is the best thing to do is try not to take it too seriously. It’s just one person’s opinion…and the next person will have an entirely different one. You can cherry pick the feedback—if it feels wrong, ignore it. If you get the same info from 9 out of 10 judges, consider it…but still with a grain of salt.

Whether or not you final, whether or not you win, you can take in all the feedback and continually improve your manuscript and your writing.

All you need is the one time for the one person in the right spot to read your book and love it to make that first sale.