The Final Tally
Well, my contest career is officially over. All my scoresheets and rankings and whatnot have at long last returned, almost eight months after I sent my first entry off. In total I entered five contests. In two I did not final, in three I did. I placed everywhere from (the bottom of) the bottom third to first place.
So, what lessons did I glean from this short foray into the craziness of romance contests?
I would say I learned something about hooks. The two contests I won were the two I entered with my first 50 pages. The two contests in which I did not final were ones that asked for 25-30 pages. (the fifth contest, for those doing math, was for sexy scenes) In my manuscript, 50 pages ended with the heroine nearly drowning, then calling the hero a cold, heartless man who hadn’t the courage to love. By contrast, 25-30 pages got me somewhere into the middle of breakfast.
Lesson 1: Breakfast is not a good hook. Not even a breakfast with chocolate.
Some judges adored my heroine. Others called her TSTL. Some judges thought my hero was “perfect”. Others said he was boring and blank. Some judges thought my sense of period was smooth and believable; others found errors in every garment, furnishing, and plant I described. And in every contest, one judge – the same judge? – would complain that I did not include enough smells.
Lesson 2: I’m never, ever going to please everyone. And that’s okay.
In the end, I guess I was a “successful” contestant, because I did end up getting the real prize we’re all after – a few editor requests for the full manuscript. However, by the time I received those requests, the book was sold. Between entering my first contest in March and getting the last rankings in November, I’d gotten a dozen crits, collected some rejections, done a huge rewrite of my book, then received a few agent offers, then there was the whole submissions-auction-deal shebang. Which brings me to the final lesson I’m taking away from the experience, and the big reason I’m writing this post.
Lesson 3: Contests are not a substitute for querying.
Perhaps I could have sold my book on contests alone – who knows? I might have sent my full to the editors who requested it, and one of them might have offered me a contract. But I wouldn’t be in the same position I am now, that’s for sure. My trilogy deal would never have happened if I hadn’t found the right agent, and found her through extensive querying and networking.
So this is my Go-Team rallying cry to all of you who just sent off Golden Heart entries and heaved big sighs of relief. Congratulations! It’s a great accomplishment, and you worked hard for it. But don’t let yourselves be tempted to sit back, to just “wait and see what happens” on notification day, four months from now. Keep working. Keep revising. Keep querying. I want to see you wearing Golden Heart pins AND pink First-Sale ribbons in San Fran! Go, go, go!!
Okay, now I’m exhausted.
What lessons have you learned from contests?
Edit: I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t get any useful feedback from contests. I most certainly did. In fact, I just recently got back my Vixen entries, and two of the judges singled out the same sentence for shaky POV – they are absolutely right, and I’m going to fix that in edits. Different judges in different contests quibbled with my use of a “winterberry” bush – and even though I had done research to show that they existed in England at that time, I decided it wasn’t worth the hassle or pulling readers out of the story and just changed it to “ivy”. And some of the early judges who called my hero “blank” were kind of right – because I didn’t really know who he was when I wrote that first draft. But I also learned that trying to follow every suggestion from a contest judge would be a short road to insanity – different readers will always have different reactions to my book.