Monday, August 22, 2011


To enter or not to enter?

I say enter!

When I first started my writing journey, I read an article suggesting contests were a great way to build a resume. And since my resume consisted of a blank sheet of paper, I took that advice.

I found my first contest through an invaluable book called the Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market. This particular contest was sponsored by the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association; you paid a fee, were entered for the contest, and received two critiques from experienced writers. The first two times I entered a picture book, I didn’t final, but I did receive valuable critiques—one of them even suggesting that I turn my PB into a chapter book. I didn’t particularly care for that advice, but decided to keep an open mind and try it anyway. And what do you know, the next time I entered it as a chapter book (completely rewritten), I placed second! The following year, I decided to take a chance and try my hand at beginning the novel that had persistently floated around in my head for several years. I finaled that year and the enthusiastic critiques allowed me to give myself permission to explore writing the edgy YA novel I couldn’t stop thinking about.

During those years, I also discovered the Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition. You don’t receive critiques, but the contest is huge (one year there was a total of 18,000 entries over ten categories). I knew if I could get on the honorable mention list (they place 100 entries in each category) it would be a great addition to my still-skimpy resume. Eventually, I racked up a total of four honorable mentions: one for a PB and three YA short stories.

After joining a critique group a year and a half ago, my critique partner introduced me to the Romance Writer’s of America contests. Nearly every month, each chapter sponsors some type of contest and you normally receive three detailed critiques. Once again, I encountered several ups and downs before I finally earned second place in the 2010 Love and Laughter Contest.

Contests have been a valuable source for me over the years. They’ve taught me everything from goal setting and discipline, to patience and perseverance. Most of all, contests have taught me to keep an open mind! No matter how thick your skin, it’s hard to be prepared for the competitive and sometimes vicious world of writing. I couldn’t help but be surprised by the wide range of opinions—what one contest judge might see as brilliant, the other may see as total crap. I have actually received a score as low as a 65, while another judge gave it a perfect 100. A friend of mine even scored a couple of 40 somethings only to go on and sell the same book at auction two short months later.

Oddly enough, it seems the harshest criticisms have been the most helpful for me. That’s not to say that after obsessively reading the negative ones, I didn’t end up in bed with a bag of potato chips, or staring at a blank computer screen, or wonder who the hell I thought I was trying to write a novel anyway. But eventually, I discovered that if I forced myself to keep an open mind to the possibility of what the critiques said and consider them, that it usually ended up making my writing better, stronger, and richer. Though, I have reserved the right, on occasion, to allow myself to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, the judge’s opinion is the one that’s crap! And that’s the beauty of keeping an open mind: )

If you know of any great contests or have any contest stories, feel free to share!


Kristin Lenz said...

Thanks for sharing, Collette. I won my first contest for a poem I wrote in 3rd grade, and that kick-started my writing dream! SCBWI has national contests, such as the Work-in-Progress grants, as well as regional chapter contests like the Mentorship Competition we have for SCBWI-MI. And here's another good one through the esteemed Vermont College of Fine Arts:

Natalie Aguirre said...

Thanks for sharing this. I have entered contests for critiques and that has helped my writing getting better. I'll have to try some of the contests you mention but first toughen my skin. Thanks for the tip.

Colette Ballard said...

Kristen, wow, third grade--that's impressive! Thanks for sharing other contest info.

Natalie, if i can do it, anyone can! The best part about entering contests is that you're anonymous--if i had to face real live judges I would've never had the guts to enter!

Kurt Hampe said...

I haven't entered many contests, but I have won runner-up at a conference, and that entitled me to submit directly to a specific editor. For that matter, the judge was an editor too. So yeah, contests are a great way to get seen.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

What a great post! Contests are something I need to be better about. :-)

Lisa Tapp said...

Great post, Collette. I've been in the same boat. Wins, finals, losses, and critiques. The first contests I entered required lots of chocolate and intense phone therapy. But, as you said, eventually your skin toughens and the writing actually improves. Another helpful aspect of contests is judging. Still sending positive thoughts for the submission!

Tracy Bilen said...

I agree - you can get great feedback from some contests. And there's nothing like a deadline to get you writing!!

Katie McGarry said...

I'm a firm believer in entering contests. It can be a good dose of honest feedback. It is also a good lesson about how to listen to other's opinions and how to decipher which pieces of advice to take and which pieces to disregard. Great post Colette!

Colette Ballard said...

Kurt, congrats on runner-up!

Thanks, Shannon-contests have been good for me, even the ones that did nothing more than toughen me up: )

Lisa, i share your joy and pain. Thanks for the positive thoughts--i'm sending them your way as well: )

I agree, Tracy, deadlines are great motivators!

Colette Ballard said...

Totally agree with you, Katie! And the more times you have a judge criticize the same part, the more likely you are to reevaluate it. And fix it!