Friday, April 23, 2010


By Shirley Kelly

Contest season is well underway. If you’re a newbie like I was and wondering whether or not to submit or needing some advice, perhaps my experience with them will help you decide.

I’ve been reading romance novels all of my life, and have always wanted to write them. I had a few aborted attempts over the years but it wasn’t until last year that I actually completed one. Thinking I had written something wonderful I decided to enter contests listed in the national newsletter.

Some contests required me to snail mail my entry but most of them allowed for electronic submissions. Unfortunately, that made it easier for me to submit my work to one contest right after the other. I wouldn’t recommend doing this. Because while some judges thought my work was very good most of them thought it was good but needed work. Next time, I’ll submit, wait to get feedback, rework my chapters and then submit again.

I also made the mistake of entering contests that only wanted a small number of pages from a specific chapter. I had to cut and edit and cut some more just to meet their page requirement. I felt like I was butchering my work.

For each contest I was usually judged by three people. Out of all the contests I entered I received only one snarky reply - she didn’t like anything about my work and didn’t even bother to critique it in a helpful manner. So, let’s just forget about her because everyone else was wonderful! The support I received was simply amazing. The comments made about my work were insightful and really helped me grow as a writer. Each judge took the time to not only correct my work but make suggestions that would make it a better read.

A judge for one contest actually critiqued my synopsis which made me revise the last third of my book. She picked up on the fact that the main male character didn’t really save the day. I write Regencies, so while the heroine can help, it’s particularly important that the hero conquer all. Remember Mr. Darcy from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE doing what needed to be done so that he and Elizabeth Bennet could live happily ever after? I rewrote the ending and thanked the judge whole heartedly because this is a change that will affect not only my first book but all the ones that follow.

After many revisions I entered my novel into the Golden Heart Contest. I was only hoping to get helpful feedback but after I entered I found out they don’t critique the submissions - if only I had asked someone! But I must say I was happy to have a deadline to work towards and proud that I met it!

Hopefully you’ve written something wonderful, and your entry will make it to the finals or even win! That would be a nice addition to your résumé. But even if you don’t win, the feedback you get will be immeasurable. Because the judges don’t know you they’re reading your work with an objective eye.

So, if you’re debating whether or not to submit to contests I say, YES!

Do it intelligently and you will reap the rewards.♥

After years of reading romance novels, Shirley has finally realized her dream of writing one. She has recently completed her first Regency romance, TO CATCH THE WIND. Now she's working on getting it published, along with her children's book, WHEN I GROW UP, FROM A TO Z.


  1. This is a great reminder of another option that writers have to get feedback on their work and is great way to practice submitting their work. There's a lot to learn and contests can be very helpful. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Great post Shirley! I'm so glad contests have been so good for you. I've been on the other end, judging, and you never know if the writers find your feedback helpful. It's good to hear about positive stories like yours!

  3. Shirley - I think you've learned some valuable lessons from your contest experiences. I know I did during the year and a half that I went contest crazy. I have been both an entrant as well as a judge in dozens of contests and a coordinator for these contests. There is a great effort made by most RWA chapters' contests to educate their judges and to stress that these are to be helpful and productive experiences for the entrants. Unfortunately, you'll come across a snarky judge here or there, a judge who makes major errors in their criticisms, and sometimes judges who don't even know the genre they're judging. Most contests try very hard (with "emergency discrepancy" judges when they feel an entry has not been judged fairly, and with coordinator assistance to attempt to get a judge to provide more information to an entrant. Sometimes, though it is just a matter of opinion, and all you can do in the end is - as I did with one contest where 2 judges had very similar comments, very helpful and productive for me, is take it all in stride. In that contest? The 3rd judge trashed me, my dialogue, my characters and made fairly strange comments throughout without giving me any pointers (i.e., said my entry was riddled with grammatical mistakes, but didn't point them out!). So use the contest experiences with that grain of salt. Congrats on finishing your first in 2009 (me too!) and keep 'em coming!

  4. INMHO I feel contests are good only if you get helpful advice. One judge did give me good advice in between snarkiness, the other two were like yeah, great without pointing out exactly what was good and worked for them. Sure, hearing "yeah great" is wonderful, but w/o specifics it amounts to little more than a pat on the back. The effort I put into it was poorly met by the lack of effort the judges put forth. I thanked them anyway. :)

    The whole thing for me was mitigated by the fact a publisher had already requested a "full" based on my "grammatically incorrect" "weakly written" synopsis and partial that had been my contest entry. Still wating to hear back from the publisher. But I have to laugh a little at the subjectivity of it all.

    Again, just my opinion but WHY are you entering contests? If all you want is good advice and substantive critiques, there are multiple opportunities online w/o the hassle and pressure of contests. However, if what you really want is the notice of the professionals that judge the final round, then go for it. This was my reasoning anyway. Didn't pay off but o well.

  5. After reading Shirley's blog, I took a look at what contests were currently running, carved out 25 pages of one of my manuscripts, and emailed my entry along with the Paypal confirmation number and deep bows in front of my household gods. One of my goals for this year was to enter at least one we shall see. Thanks, Shirley. I know there are pros and cons to entering contests, but you motivated me to actually do it. Elizabeth Palladino