Last week, during the Romance Writers of America’s® National Conference the RITA and Golden Heart contest rules were once again modified. From what I understand the rules have basically gone back to what they were a few years ago. Even as the conference proceeded, several members posted messages about the contest, which in turn sparked comments from other members of RWA®, some belonging the Mid-Michigan RWA chapter (which I also belong to), and those comments got me thinking about contests: entering and judging.
There are varying opinions regarding contests: whether it’s worth it to enter; how negative scores and comments can discourage/depress/devastate a writer; how it’s unfair for anyone to judge a manuscript or book in a category the judging person doesn’t write in or read; how opinions are subjective and ultimately unfair; and so on.
Is it worth it to enter a contest? I think so as long as the cost to enter isn’t too high and the contest either offers feedback or being a finalist or winner will give merit to your work. That doesn’t mean I always agree with the award. I’ve read Pulitzer Prize books that made me wonder what the judges were on when they read the book, seen movies that took home Oscars that left me blah, and skipped TV shows that won Emmys because I found them stupid. Nevertheless, I have been a finalist for the RITA a couple times, and I’m proud to say that. And I would love to win an EDGAR.
What about those negative scores and comments? I certainly don’t like getting them, and I don’t even like giving them. I prefer contests where comments can be made as well as numeric scores. If I get two great scores and one not-so-great, I’ll always focus on the Not-so-great. Most of the time I can justify that the judge simply “didn’t get it.” Still it hurts and puts me in a funk for several days. But I do think contests prepare you for the real life of publishing: the rejections from agents and editors and the negative reviews from reviewers and readers. I think unpublished writers should enter a few contests. Too often a new writer’s only critiques come from friends and family. It helps to get that outside opinion and, if possible, some helpful suggestions on how to improve the writing/story. And for unpublished or unagented writers, being a finalist or winning a contest can often lead to acquiring an agent or getting a contract.
Who am I to judge another writer’s work? Well, I’m also a reader, and I don’t just read books similar to what I write. I’m not that different from agents, editors, and reviewers. Some stories are going to grab me, some writing is going to make me envious of its beauty, and I’m going give that story or book a high score. I will say I do have certain categories I prefer not to judge, either because I don’t feel I know enough about the requirements of the genre or might be turned off by the subject. But even on the few occasions when I’ve been asked to judge work totally out of my comfort realm, I’ve been pleasantly surprised that my scores weren’t that different from the other judges. Good writing, no matter what the genre, rises to the top.
Judging is subjective. Yes, it is. Which is why writers need to remember a negative score on a contest entry, a rejection from an agent or editor, or a bad review from a reviewer or reader is simply that one person’s opinion. The next editor may love the story. That bad review might be countered by a great review. Gain what you can from a contest, be pleased if you final or win, and go on to write another story, one even better than the last.