When I first started writing, there were only a few contests for unpublished writers. There was the Romance Writers of America's Golden Heart, and perhaps two or three chapter contests. Now, in addition to the Golden Heart and the RITAs for published authors, it seems that every RWA chapter has a contest.
Which is fine for the chapters, as it's a way to raise funds so they can keep their dues low, and bring in speakers. And it can be good for writers, too, if they really want feedback. However, I'm seeing a huge downside to the proliferation of contests. It now seems as if entering contests has become not just an "extra" on the road to publication for many unpublished writers, but the focus of their efforts.
See, here's the thing: winning a contest means...you won a contest. And that's all. It doesn't automatically mean your work is saleable or publishable. It means a couple of people who may or may not know what they're doing thought it was good.
Likewise, if you lose, that could well be meaningless. Because what some judges might consider faults or problems may be the very qualities that will make your work seem unique and fresh and different to an editor. Not only might those judges be bashing your ego, they could actually be sabotaging your chances for publication.
Ah, you say, but in the final rounds, editors are often judges. Yes, and that's good -- but if you don't make it to that round, you'll be getting feedback that may or may not be what you need to hear. And even then, it could be that the editor judging your work buys for a different house or line than the one you should be targeting. The feedback you'll be getting could still be way off base.
Does that mean I think contests are a waste of time? No, but -- and this is a big "but" -- I'd think carefully before entering. Here's what I'd consider if I was unpublished and thinking about entering a contest:
1. Do I have work already prepared that fits the requirements? If so, and the fee is small, and you think you can judge the feedback accordingly, go for it.
2. Who's judging? And do they edit books similar to those you write? If not, I don't care if your work's being read by SuperEditor. If they can't make an offer, why are you wasting your time and theirs? Write and submit something to the editor who can make you an offer. You don't need a contest to do that.
3. Are you tough enough to take the criticism and are you savvy enough to know what to heed and what to disregard? I knew a writer once who found any criticism crippled her attempts to write for days. Clearly, contests were not for her.
Won't getting criticism make it easier to take rejection and/or bad reviews later? you ask. I suppose so, but if I'm going to be rejected, I'd rather it be by an editor than somebody who has never actually purchased work for publication.
As for developing a rhino hide when it comes to bad reviews, I've been at this for fifteen years, and they still sting. The only difference is, I've been selling for fifteen years, so I know in the grand scheme of sales, a bad review means pretty much diddly squat. And yet...ouch! So why set yourself up for more torment and ego bashing? Why not wait until you're published? Then at least you've got a contract to prove somebody thought your work had merit, enough that they offered you money for it.
If you really want another opinion, especially an unbiased one, and you've got work ready, by all means, enter a contest. However, I suggest writers really think about why they're entering and what they hope to achieve before they spend the time, energy and money.
An addendum to my Random Blog Giveaway post to clear up any confusion: I'll be paying the postage. It's tax deductible. *G*