No Contest: How to Save RWA’s Writing Contest Circuit

Ten years ago, every romance writer I knew entered writing contests. It was the way you lowered your wheels to the ground, tested out the road, and saw how far you could go.

There was a typical pattern:

  1. You’d polish three-chapters-and-a-synopsis and toss it into a couple of local chapter contests to see if it floated or sank. This was a decent way to judge your commercial appeal and get feedback (taken with a grain of salt). Finaling regularly meant you could achieve a certain venerability on the contest circuit (like our own Kelly Fitzpatrick, for example!).
  2. Once you owned the local circuit, you’d aim for a highly competitive contest with an associated multi-day conference, like the Golden Leaf, or with a glamorous awards ceremony at RWA Nationals, like the Daphne and the Royal Ascot. Attending one of these conferences or ceremonies as a finalist was a huge networking opportunity! (Still is, honestly). 
  3. You’d shoot for the Golden Heart. Entering was expensive, but the rewards were automatic: agents would actually call you to see if you needed representation, you could attend terrifying swanky parties with Rita finalists and industry pros at Nationals. Best of all, you could count on a solid six months of glory within the romance-writing community. 

There used to be online leaderboards showing who’d earned the most finals and wins that year. Remember those? Heady days, my friends. Heady days!

Now? Just try to find a contest leaderboard. 

Go ahead; look. I tried, I failed, and frankly, I doubt any exist, because I don’t think enough people care about contests these days to keep track of who’s finaling.

In fact, many contests have folded under the twin pressures of low entries and a lack of first-round judges. For example, the Golden Network’s Golden Pen, unique because it guaranteed detailed feedback from at least one Golden Heart finalist, hasn’t run since 2014. Plenty more are struggling to keep going.

Am I wrong? Do you know of any chapter contests that are thriving?

Part of me thinks let it go!, but once a contest folds, chapters lose a major income stream. Running a contest used to mean raking in thousands of dollars. A chapter operating a prestigious mid-level contest could net about $5,500 on 200 entries. Now, chapters without contests rely mostly on membership dues to fund operations. Chapter leaders are struggling to come up with alternate methods of making money for our membership and continue offering excellent low-cost benefits.

Also, as interest in local-chapter contests has declined, so have entries into the Golden Heart, which is RWA’s international contest for unpublished writers. This ought to matter to us. The Ruby Slippered Sisterhood wouldn’t exist without the Golden Heart. 

Do we care if the contest folds?

I care! Contests develop communities and support chapters, and without chapters, membership in RWA will lose meaning. (See Liz Talley’s post from earlier this week for a discussion about why RWA and writing communities matter). I care about RWA. I care about my local and online chapters. I don’t want to see these things that helped me get to where I am just vanish!

How can we make chapter contests valuable again?

For some reason, contests aren’t as appealing to today’s unpublished romance writers. Heck, many writers are blowing right past the old gatekeepers that used to slow us down. No contests, no queries. Just straight to Amazon. The current benefits of feedback, community fame, and editor/agent networking aren’t attracting these writers. I think the benefits of contests are outweighed by the ease and excitement of self-publishing. 

What contest benefits would appeal to someone thinking about self-publishing?

Let’s brainstorm! I’ll begin with a couple of ideas that may or may not be practical:

  • cover design
  • social media graphic design development (Facebook ads, Twitter banner, etc.)
  • proofreading of first 50 pages by an editor within chapter
  • high-profile social-media blitzing (linking & sharing by the chapter’s big-league authors)
  • developmental edit from someone within chapter
  • free massage from Nora Roberts

What do you think?

Do you care?

Do contests matter?

Should we save them?

If so, how?!


68 responses to “No Contest: How to Save RWA’s Writing Contest Circuit”

  1. C.R. Grissom says:

    Confessions of a contest junkie… I’m a first-time 2017 Golden Heart finalist and still pinching myself blue over the news. Contests are vital. I’ve received contest feedback that helped my story immeasurably, and feedback that drove me straight to my liquor cabinet. It might be the need for liquor cabinet trips that damage contests most. I’ve judged many contests myself, and over the years my style has improved. It’s important to me to point out what the author did well and not solely pay attention to the sections of the story that slid off the rails. I’d like to see more training offered for first round judges to improve feedback and ensure more uniform scoring practices. Contests that offer training for first round judges appear to thrive. A writing contest should provide viable feedback to the entrant. That’s why we risk our hearts and send our stories to strangers in the first place.

    I love your suggestions, but I don’t think La Nora will be on board with the last… Perhaps if she were to lay hands on my laptop? A girl can dream…

    • Congrats on your final!!! And good luck in Orlando! 🙂

      That is an excellent point about judge training so the feedback is valuable. The reward needs to be worth the price of admission and the nerves we suffer!

    • Congratulations on your ’17 final, CR!!!

      It’s awfully hard to convince a Golden Heart finalist that “contests don’t matter,” isn’t it? Our careers are often MADE by this contest. But I think most of us would’ve gotten “here” eventually, with or without the contest. It’s like hitting the fast-forward button!

      I used to coordinate the Golden Pen. Diane Kelly did it before me, in fact. It’s a Ruby legacy, lol. We had the best judging pool out there (at least one GH finalist per entry), and we had a fabulous training manual, but I also trained the coordinators to review all judging feedback before returning it to the entrants.

      Every so often — maybe once a year — we’d get something…odd…in the feedback from a judge. Something that went against our guidelines for fair and objective judging. (Who can truly be objective? No one, but we certainly aimed to remove biases!)

      We handled it on a case-by-case basis, but it really mattered to me that the entrants didn’t get their asses handed to them by our judges. It mattered to me that no one was judged unfairly, or by a biased judge. It didn’t happen often, but we all know that it DOES happen.

      Not on my watch, though. 😉

      • C.R. Grissom says:

        Thank you for your kind words and agreed not on my entries. We can teach without demoralizing the entrant. 🙂

      • I entered a few contests when I first started. I was so excited! I didn’t know my craft very well (or at all really, I am an engineer by education so English was never my strong suit)and most of the judges were really kind about it. Giving me tips, suggestions, encouragement, books to read, etc. But unfortunately one judge was SO mean that it put me off contests. She said that she doubted that the author had English as their first language and that the author should read the genre more since she clearly had not. English is my first (and only)language and I’ve been reading the genre for about 40 years. Yes my book needed a LOT of work before it was publishable and it is slightly off mainstream romance because it’s about a married couple. I know that judge was an anomaly and I should try again, but I am extremely gun-shy now.

        • C.R. Grissom says:


          You’re not alone. I’ve received the same feedback. It’s collateral damage in that it’s offensive to both native speakers and ESL authors alike! My advice to any future contestant who receives that comment in your contest entry—feel free to treat it with the respect it deserves by feeding it to the nearest document shredder! Author may choose to celebrate the mini bonfire with an optional glass [or gallon] of wine… 🙂

  2. Seana Kelly says:

    I agree. We need contests! As CR Grissom said above, they are vital in the early stages of writing. A few years ago I read Darynda Jones’ multi-part Ruby blog on the importance and benefits of contests. I took her advice to heart and started entering. Yes, sometimes I received horrible–honestly, incorrect–advice but more often than not I was given feedback that helped me hone in on a problem. If three judges comment on a scene, even if their comments conflict, it tells me that there is something about the scene that rankles. It helps focus editing. I won local contests and am a two-time Golden Heart finalist.

    You’re right again, Jamie. Just being a part of two GH classes has given me cohorts of writers who care and root for one another, who offer advice and insight. Being able to add GH Finalist to a query allows you to jump over the slush pile. Agents actually read your queries and respond! I owe my writing contract to the GH. The final judge in my category was a senior editor at Harlequin. She loved my entry, asked to read the rest of the manuscript, and I was offered on contract to publish when I was sitting in the airport on my way to last year’s RWA.

    Without contests, I think all those unanswered agent queries would have prompted me to quit writing, or for others, self-publish.

    • Seana Kelly says:

      *or for others TO self-publish.

    • Seanna, congratulations!!! Which line are you published with? Is your debut available? I love reading books by GH finalists!! It’s like we’re not just a part of our own GH class, but of the greater GH finalist community. Are you a member of The Golden Network? They run a fabulous annual retreat the day before the RWA con.

      I agree 100% with this: “If three judges comment on a scene, even if their comments conflict, it tells me that there is something about the scene that rankles.”

      Maybe you don’t need to solve it in the way the judge suggests, or maybe the problem isn’t exactly what the judge thinks it is, but if several judges comment negatively on the same thing, you know there’s something wrong. It’s truly a gift to have this sort of blind feedback. It’s worth the price of admission.

      • Seana Kelly says:

        Jamie, I’m publishing with Harlequin SuperRomance. The book is Welcome Home, Katie Gallagher (7/1). And yep, I’ll be at the TGN retreat in Orlando. Hopefully, I’ll see you there! 🙂

  3. jbrayweber says:

    It’s a shame more people (both pubbed and unpubbed) don’t utilize contests. I whole-heartedly believe the reason is because of the shift in the business with the rise of indie publishing. While we can thumb our noses at the gatekeepers, we still need to produce quality products. Contests can help.There are many benefits to entering contests. Fresh unbiased eyes on a project can help us know if our story works, if the characters are dimensional, and if we’ve hooked our readers, to name a few. With finals and wins, there comes possible elbow-rubbing with industry pros, possible requests, an award-winning title, and prizes. Judging allows us to continue to learn the craft, too.

    My online chapter just wrapped up its entry deadline. Entries are way down. This for a contest that has been running for 15 years. We are forced to look into other income sources to subsidize the loss.

    Great post, Jamie!

    • Jenn, Well said. I always felt if you were a finalist in one contest you could just be lucky, because judging is so subjective. However, if you were a finalist in several contests you were headed in the right direction.

      I still learn by judging.

    • Doesn’t it feel like contests just aren’t publicized like they used to be? Or is that just my impression as a writer who can no longer enter most contests?

      I’m not surprised that entries are down on your chapter contest. But isn’t it also hard to get judges??!! I know of one contest that folded because coordinator at that time literally could not judge more entries herself without violating the rules of the contest. She did all she could, but it wasn’t sustainable without more involvement from the membership and the larger community.

      It feels like such a different world now…am I crazy, or is there less of a feeling of micro-community within RWA now? Maybe it’s just me. I mean, I did move across the country, leaving my community behind! But remember how everyone used to have not only their own blog but participated in several little group blogs? And the loops were livelier? PAN is pretty lively, but the rest of them feel pretty dead. Is everyone on Twitter? Instagram? WHERE ARE THE KIDS THESE DAYS, JENN!

  4. Great post, Jamie! I was a contest slut many, MANY years ago (More than the decade of which you wrote).

    In 2003, the year before two of my books were nominated for the GH in 2004, one of which won, I was a finalist in something like 15 chapter contests. I used those chapter contests to get feedback.

    My book that WON the GH in 2004, A Little Bit of Deja Vu, had been a finalist numerous times but never got better than 2nd or 3rd place. It was the judges comments that helped me realize the book needed a prologue. As soon as I added it, the book WON everything I entered it in, including a finalist spot in the Romantic Times American Title I contest, and winning RWA’s Golden Heart as well as PNWA’s Zola award, which included a $500 prize.

    So you can understand why I think contests are vital for beginning writers. I’d had critique partners, but I found they frequently pull their punches to spare my feelings, whereas anonymous judges DIDN’T.

    When anyone starting out asks me for advice about Indie-pubbing, I tell them not to even THINK about it until their work is winning high profile writing contests. It just makes sense. If a story doesn’t get a thumbs up from final-round judges who are editors and agents, it’s not likely to satisfy readers, either.

    It’s sad that writing contests have mostly died. I don’t have a suggestion for reviving them, but I think it’s an important issue within RWA. Your idea for offering editing services as a prize is a great one!

    • Laurie, you were a contest slut!! I remember well!!

      Man, but you’re so right about everything. I was just nodding my head over here with every word. I love that you USED your contest feedback to improve a manuscript and went on to win actual MONEY from a contest. I’d forgotten about the American Title contest (runs off to Google it…)

      Okay, is it still running? I don’t see any evidence of it. Yikes. That was a big one!! Many a career was made out of it!

      I wish more people could hear this: “When anyone starting out asks me for advice about Indie-pubbing, I tell them not to even THINK about it until their work is winning high profile writing contests.”

  5. Great discussion topic, Jamie.

    In my opinion, there have been and always will be different paths to publication. I know of a few authors who paid for the publication of their works, pre-KDP. Amazon and other platforms such B&N, SmashWords, D2D did make it easier to bypass the golden gate but the real test comes on the other side of that gate. Readers have always been the real judges of a work’s worth.

    Do I think unpublished writers should enter contests? Definitely! The feedback they’ll receive will be unbiased and invaluable in helping them develop their craft. I also think they should buy craft books and tapes, take on-line courses and workshops, study for hours on end, and work with critique partners before they seek publication or go the self-pub route.

    Do I think published writers should enter contest? I’m on the fence. Being a finalist could be used as a marketing tool.
    I could see the draw for some who intend to self-publish to enter contests if there were prizes like you suggested. You can add copy-editing and formatting to the prize list.

    However, by making the decision to self-pub the writer is deciding to start their own business and as such, where they spend their start-up funds is key to their success. Should they gamble their funds on possibility snagging a final in a contest or hire their own editor, copy-editor, cover artist, formatter, etc. becomes the real question. I’m not a gambler, but there are many who are.

    Again, just my opinion, the only way a contest can thrive is if it’s respected, has qualified judges, is advertised, and offers prizes writers seek.

    • Autumn, a very fair and balanced POV. I’d expect nothing less from you!

      This really made me think:

      “However, by making the decision to self-pub the writer is deciding to start their own business and as such, where they spend their start-up funds is key to their success. Should they gamble their funds on possibility snagging a final in a contest or hire their own editor, copy-editor, cover artist, formatter, etc. becomes the real question.”

      It’s true — there are limited funds available to most unpublished writers, and they have to choose carefully. Do you think that “enter a contest” is even on the modern unpublished writer’s radar? I feel like the whole circuit is just…old-school. And I don’t know how to bring it into the modern era.

      What benefits do you think might appeal to the modern writer? I am thinking mostly about unpublished writers.

      • I don’t think contests are old-school. I believe they’re just another way to gain opinions on your work, learning craft, and even reaching publication. Many writers have entered the golden gates without ever entering a contest. We all follow our own paths.

  6. Penny says:

    With romance, there seems to be a fairly good chain of action and support with well-known contests and outcomes. This doesn’t exist equally well for other genres. Yes, indie-publishing can allow people to jump past this. I have looked at entering contests – but there are so many that are scammy and spammy that it can be hard to find one worth the effort or the money. A lot of damage has been done by crappy “self-publishing” groups and crap contests. The idea of giving the judges some training for more uniform judging and feedback is huge too. I have too often heard about the extreme and random vagaries of the judging making it often less than worthless and too often damaging. It costs too much money and soul to put up with crap contests and judging- especially when you’re still looking at the costs of editing, promotions, covers, etc… The idea of winning the contests and getting help with covers, websites, & other promo help would be very appealing. I also don’t hear around that there are any of the old “instant publisher and agent” perks. That doesn’t seem to exist much anymore- it’s a unicorn. I know great writers that are winners of good, legit contests and they were still scrambling to find representation and publishing. The whole field is a different beast. Maybe contests have gone the way of the dodo because they aren’t relevant to the authors or the industry. Maybe they need to re-think their entire paradigm. Authors need good, constructive feedback, they could sure use some occasional pats on the back, and they damn sure need some help to get pushed successfully through the publishing door. If they want contests to be relevant – I think there is a great need for revamp.

    • “Bad judging” seems to be a big concern expressed here today, and I agree that I always hated getting idiotic feedback! Like, “I paid for this?” Ugh, it was the worst!!

      That’s why when I finally got my claws on a contest, I made damn sure we had extensive judges’ training, and furthermore, I made sure that the category coordinators (including lots of Rubies, thank you ladies!) sifted through the feedback to ensure that the judges were doing a good job. It was an extra layer of work, but obviously, it matters to entrants to get fair and unbiased feedback! Not someone standing on a soapbox or operating from waaaaay out in left field. 😉

      I’m on the Golden Network’s board, and we’re in a position to re-boot what was formerly one of our industry’s better contests for unpublished writers. That’s a big part of why I’ve started this discussion. I really, really REALLY want to know what we can offer to kickstart the contest into the 21st century!!

      You mentioned, Penny, that you like the idea of having benefits that would appeal to a self-published writer, like proofreading, editing, and cover design. Are there any other benefits that you think would get an unpublished writer to enter a contest? Let’s assume there is already excellent judging on offer (there always was for the contest I ran). What else do we need to offer to bring the entrants back?

      • Penny says:

        -First chapter/opening page critique.
        -Back cover blurb help/critique.
        -Hosted author website for a year.(Doesn’t have to be fancy, but a start for a newbie – especially if they don’t do/know any webbie stuff themselves.)
        -Interviews – posted interview with the winner about them and their book (exposure & something they can re-post and re-blog about- a win win for the contest hosts and the winner – promo for both)
        – opportunity to be judge for that category next year (continued promo and exposure for the author – training new people for the contest hosts as well as promo for them and a sense of family and loyalty)
        – have some reps/publishing people available to talk with/ work with winners (winners get a chance to present to them &/or authors get quality time with them to refine a pitch or blurb with them that they can use)
        – winners are promo’d on the contest host site until the next year – maybe it even comes with a perk of being able to contribute an article over the year – again cross-promo for the author & the host.
        -if/when the author has a book release for their winner – they can let the host know and get it pimped on the host site – again good cross-promo for the author/and for the contest host back on the author’s site.
        -etc… there are lots of possiblities.

  7. You’ve just said so many of the things I’ve been thinking whenever people talk about contest entries being down. The day I started entering contests was the day I decided to take my writing seriously. I got my first writing contract because of a contest – not directly, because I finaled in the Maggie, lost, but met another finalist at the Moonlight & Magnolias conference where we were all high on the honor and began emailing with her afterward and she mentioned this little thing called small press digital publishing and that her publisher had a call for submissions and I thought, “Hey! That’s a way to get my feet wet and learn this biz until I can figure out the Big Market.” And the next thing I knew I was making a living from e. But without that contest, and the Golden Heart, and all the PEOPLE I met through the contests and all I’ve learned from them, I would be nowhere. Still writing books that no one ever reads.

    I think it may be harder now, starting out after the dawn of self-publishing, because how do you check your own impatience? I remember well the frustration of a rejection – what if you never had to face that? What if you didn’t have to wait months to hear back on a submission? That sounds lovely, doesn’t it? And it’s easy to forget all the things we’d be missing by not taking the slower road. Writing contests gave me confidence. (Still do, frankly.) They gave me credentials that I could hold up and say “See? I *am* a good writer. I *can* do this. I *do* deserve to be here.” But even above the validation, they gave me a network. I met some of my best writing friends when we finaled together (and that extends beyond the Rubies to smaller contests as well). I rarely lived in an area where I had a local chapter, but I found my tribe through contests and I’m bummed to see so many of them fading away. I still judge every year and still learn something new from that every time.

    The landscape is shifting, but I, for one, am very sad to see any of those contests go. I can only hope there is something that would rise up in their place to help writers starting out find their feet. And now I’ve written a comment the length of a contest entry. 😉

    • So, I wanted to highlight and respond to basically every sentence you wrote. But I’ll try to keep it short. 😛

      I agree passionately that contests create and support communities. Not only for the entrants in all the ways you describe, but also for the chapters! When a chapter runs a contest, we all come together to DO SOMETHING and it’s like a rallying point and a badge of honor to have a successful and respected contest.

      Doesn’t it feel that way when the Rubies run a contest? And don’t we look with pride upon the winners when they go on to do great things? “I knew she was great! I could tell the moment I opened her entry and read that first line…”

      You asked, “I remember well the frustration of a rejection – what if you never had to face that?”

      I haven’t really thought of it that way. I’ve been thinking of the rush to self-publishing (and the death of contests, as I do think they’re related events) as rooted in impatience, yes. But not as avoidance.

      Yet, I think you’re onto something. It’s very self-protective to never query and never enter a contest. If you never seek feedback or ask for a judgement, you can control the entire process, protect yourself from rejection along the whole way.

      So how can we get someone afraid of rejection to enter a contest??

      • Nicole Terry says:

        If an author is afraid of the rejection in a contest, how do they handle the rejection from an agent or publisher? I see the fear as standard; it means it’s important. If I never experience it, I won’t learn something about myself or my writing.

        I like the idea of a writing competition similar to The Voice. You audition (submit your work), a “singer” picks you to be a mentee, you get mentored & learn about the biz, then there’s a competition in the end where you apply all you’ve learned to win a big prize.

        • Authors who are too afraid of rejection to enter a contest are probably also too afraid to query. So they aren’t handling it, really.

          Before self-publishing, writers who were too afraid to query anyone would probably have just shoved manuscripts under their beds. Years would go by, and if they really loved writing, they’d have kept at it and and eventually they’d get up the nerve to send something out. But by then they’d probably have gotten much better, in addition to having found more confidence.

          I love your Voice idea!! We’ve been talking about incorporating the idea of “mentorship” into our chapters, and this is a truly unique idea. This one’s going into the keeper file…

  8. Kate Parker says:

    Oh, Jamie, I think contest entry should be mandatory before self publishing the story that goes with that entry. If you can’t grab judges with the beginning of your story, you won’t grab readers, because judges are readers.

    I speak from experience. I’m one of those writers that if, back when I was starting on this road, there had been a path to instant publication, I would have taken it. I was certain my first several manuscripts would be instant RITA winners. Thank you, God, that they never saw the light of day, and never will.

    Contests made me slow down, to work harder, to study longer, to listen when all the judges were saying the same thing. I learned my strengths as well as my weaknesses. BTW, if you ever want to final in a Harlequin contest not by talent but by pure insanity, have the heroine approaching the hero’s door, planning to kill him right there in the doorway. It gained me an honorable mention for pure audacity, but it also gave me some validation to my writing and helped my ego when some other judges weren’t so kind.

    I can’t answer your question, Jamie, but I would warn those starting out that years slogging in the field will make you a better author out of the gate of self-publishing.

    You don’t really want the world to see your first born for the trash you’re going to discover with a few years of practice it really is. Enter those contests. Take those lumps. And when you’re finally ready, you’ll be glad you waited.

    • Well, I agree! I think there are a lot of tests one ought to pass for the major milestones in one’s life, but I DIGRESS.

      You noted, “…I would warn those starting out that years slogging in the field will make you a better author out of the gate of self-publishing.”

      I would warn them, too, but the thing is that it’s awfully hard to wait when it feels like one’s opportunities are slipping away.

      Did you read the article about industry bubbles in the recent RWR? I skimmed it yesterday and thought it was terrifying. I think it implied that the self-publishing bubble is about to burst. Maybe that’s a topic for another day, but OMG it’s hard enough for ME to sit on a manuscript and let it develop properly when I know that the market is about to crumble! It’s extremely tempting to try to rush and grab a piece of the pie before the pieces are all gone…

      • Liz Talley says:

        I understand because I feel this way too. I just started self-dubbing and that article scared me. Still that’s one person’s assessment. We really don’ know what is going to happen. With that in mind, I’m pursuing both opportunities in the traditional world and in the indie world. I’m also accepting the fact I probably won’t be as wildly successful as I want to be. But as I told Vivi and Kim at our writing retreat a month ago, I’m happy to be moderately successful. So I will try some things that will work and some that will fail. I’ll have to navigate it the same way I did before I was published. Embrace the highs, mourn the lows and keep on keeping’ on. That’s why I’m glad to have this blog and this community of writers. There’s something about knowing your not alone that makes it easier to weather the rain when it comes.

        • You’re a very good example of a hybrid author — you really do have your toes in every pond! And that isn’t to say you’re scooping the cream. You invested in Harlequin, you invested at Montlake, and I’m sure you’re investing in your independent works, too.

          I like the idea of being OK with moderation. I saw a nice article yesterday about the very same thing, but re: motherhood. It was about being cool with not having a perfect house, not having a perfect kid, not looking “perfect.” And furthermore, not even striving for these things. No diets. No resolutions. No guilt. Just accepting our SELVES exactly as they are can be incredibly liberating.

  9. Nicole Terry says:

    I entered my first contest a couple of years ago and it was…a disaster, to say the least. I wasn’t ready and it really brought that home.

    Fast forward to this year and I’ve really been searching some out. I’ve always been told to enter contests assuming your going to win. That the final judges should be the determing factor whether or not to enter. Using that advice has dwindled my options. I wanted to enter one contest in particular because the final judge is an agent I’d really like to work with. However…if you’ve signed a contract, you’re considered published. The published round has a different judge entirely, one that doesn’t publish in my entry’s genre. (Which, speaking of, why have judges for genres in which they don’t represent? If anyone could explain that, I’d appreciate it.) So I didn’t enter that contest.

    Another contest also had an agent I was interested in…but she was only judging this genre in particular. One I don’t write in. So I didn’t enter that one either.

    I want the feedback; I need the feedback. I don’t have a CP or a writing group. I’m a member of a local chapter of RWA but “local” is literally in the next state. I don’t often get to attend a meeting because it’s at least a four hour drive. But I feel as if the contests that would help the most aren’t available to me. And I don’t want to dish out 30$-35$ for something that’s not going to help enough. For that much money I can take a workshop and have a tangible result I can apply immediately.

    I want to enter more contests but it seems the more steps on my writer’s journey the less of an option they are for me.

    • Liz talley says:

      You need to enter ours this year – open to pubbed and iunpublished. No categories. Top six entries go before all six judges. Three contest judges do the first round and are required to comment.

      The thing is, contests have to change to meet the times. I think we did a good job on this as a chapter. Anyone can enter, everyone gets critiques and if you final, six final judges read your work. Oh, and the prize is $300 – you can use that no matter what your plans are for publication. That buys a cover or a proofread or a conference fee 🙂

      • Nicole Terry says:

        How’d I miss that one? What’s it called?

        • I think she’s probably talking about the Suzannah:

          …and the more I read about it, the more I wonder if it’s the new model that we all ought to consider.

          Nicole, thank you for your thoughtful reply! You’ve really given me a lot to consider. Your struggles to align the final-round judges with your entry are poignant. I wonder how many other entrants are faced with the same issue? Probably a lot! I never considered how the delineation of judges into specific categories makes it impossible for some entrants to enter!

          As for why a contest would have a judge in a category that she does not publish or represent…I’ll tell you that as a contest coordinator, I’ve had judges ask to move categories so that they can read more entries from categories of higher interest. That shuffle always worked for me, but it certainly could lead to some mis-alignment. It’s hard to get a big name to agree to judge, and at some point, you’re sort of committed to your panel, whether it’s perfect or not. It’s very hard to get someone new to judge — a lot of these contests have legacy panels comprised of the same agents and editors (or houses) year after year. It really sucks when one drops out, actually!

      • Liz, you ladies run a good one!

        Do you think the high monetary prize is a big attractant? I’m wondering if that should be the carrot TGN dangles for the rebooted Golden Pen…what if the prize were huge, like $1000? Seems like that would get everyone attention!

        • Liz Talley says:

          I think with so many publishing options, a cash prize works well. I also like that IF you are considering read pubbing (and why not at least consider if you’re unpubbed? You CAN say no) having six judges read your work is a good bet. I like that we changed to reflect current times. And I like anyone can enter and win.

    • Tracy Brody says:

      $30-$5 is inexpensive to get feedback from 2-4 judges. Some may not be great, but compared to paying someone to edit a manuscript that isn’t ready to publish and will need extensive rewrites, $35 is a few cups of Starbucks.

      • I agree! Seems even more valuable when you don’t already have a group of beta readers, or maybe you suspect that your readers like you too much to be honest. 🙂

  10. Rita Henuber says:

    Such a great post Jamie. And the comments! Things they are a changing. What we’ve found valuable others care less about. Instead of contests perhaps pay a fee to have pages critiqued by three writers. I don’t want to see the support and information network vanish. I’m so very glad and proud the Ruby blog does this.

    • “Instead of contests perhaps pay a fee to have pages critiqued by three writers.”

      That’s really what contests ought to be, right? It’s the opposite of the Golden Heart, where you get a blind number that tells you nearly nothing about your work, especially since the number has no scale.

  11. Liz talley says:

    So our chapter contest this year had 75 entires which is about the same as previous years. We are different in that there are no categories and every finalist (6) go before a panel of three agents and three editors. The prize is $300.

    This year our winner had four requests. I just got an pm from her this morning. She is a golden heart finalist and here’s what she told me this morning:

    “Hi! Yes, I got the trophy and it’s beautiful. Thank you so much! That contest kicked off a lot of good stuff for me, and I’m so grateful to the NOLA Stars chapter. Entering the Suzannah contest got me requests, which led to an offer of pub, which led to an agent, which led to the book deal I ultimately ended up accepting. HUGE THANKS! ❤”

    She just announced her deal this week – a two book with St. Martin’s Press.

    So, yeah, contests work.

    • Details! I love details! Thank you for sharing that information.

      The Golden Pen had a similar number of total entries in its final year, which is 100% respectable. The real problem was in finding judges. How does NOLA manage that aspect? How many total judges do you need in that no-category format? It seems like you’d need MORE judges.

      I’d be interested in learning more about how your contest is run. Who coordinates it?

      I also think that $300 must get a lot of attention! hard to say without spying on your financials, but that’s probably about 10% of NOLA’s income from that contest…

  12. Great post! Since I was “discovered” through contests (GH, GRW Maggies and the Lone Star contest), I very much want to see them continue. I’d hate to see another door for writers, wishing to work with a publisher or find an agent, close.

    I do think that those entering should be required to judge (in a different category) in order to have enough judges. Judging takes time, something in which every author is in short supply. Judges should also be required to read or view a tutorial on how to review pages with tact and positive criticism.

    Just my two cents worth : ) Great topic!

    • I was definitely “discovered” through contests, too! They’re very dear to my heart.

      “I do think that those entering should be required to judge (in a different category) in order to have enough judges.”

      The Golden Pen used to offer a $5 discount to entrants who also judged, as well as a $5 early-bird discount, for a total possible discount of $10. I think it helped a lot — I wonder how many entrants were also judges?? Hmmm….seems like I’d have put that into a spreadsheet or report somewhere along the line…(goes to files and checks)…bah, nope.

      The best contests have excellent judges’ training. I worked really hard on the Golden Pen’s, and it has since been used as a model for other contests. 🙂

  13. I’m coming at this as a relative newbie. When I entered my first contests 4 years ago, I went all in, entering every contest I was eligible for.

    And I learned as I went, until my entries were at last Finaling and winning. Some of the feedback was terrific. Not necessarily because the judges fawned over the entry, but because they pointed out the problems and gave concrete examples/solutions or suggested specific craft books. They used my mistakes as teaching moments. That’s pure gold.

    However, for every useful judge, there was also one that gave blatantly incorrect advice, was flat out mean with no feedback included in the snark, or disregarded the rules printed on the score sheet. Some never returned the paperwork to the coordinator at all or the coordinator didn’t return the scoresheets/feedback to me despite polite nudging. I had multiple judges note on my entry that they didn’t usually read or like the genre they were judging. Umm, okay?

    I’m jumping back into contests this year since I’m in a new genre where I don’t have CPs. I’m being much pickier though. Entries are pricey and it’s difficult to justify paying when you may get nothing worthwhile from first round judges. For a more polished ms or experienced writers, unless the final judge is otherwise closed to submissions, querying them directly makes more sense.

    Having said that, I’m much more willing to enter contests that have more than two first round judges so that I up the odds of getting decent feedback from at least one, that state they offer judge’s training, and that require the judge to provide comments as well as scores.

    • Janet, oh, I feel your pain!! I’ve definitely gotten some head-scratching advice from judges. And I’ve certainly wanted to give one or two judges a piece of my mind…thankfully, I refrained. 🙂

      It sounds like you’ve figured out to only enter contests “…that state they offer judge’s training, and that require the judge to provide comments as well as scores.”

      I’d like to think that ALL RWA chapters would be running tight ships and providing all of these things (and certainly returning all feedback, my gosh!!), but obviously things don’t always work out that way.

      And re: comments, I think some chapters got the idea that they were opening themselves up to liability issues if they provided feedback to entrants. This was probably around the time RWA stopped providing feedback for the Golden Heart. Rumor was that somebody sued them for having sent bad and/or hurtful feedback? That’s what I remember hearing. Anyway, I think some chapters got gun-shy about providing critiques, and went to an all-numbers model.

  14. Patty Hoffman says:

    I also am a GH finalist this year, after many years of writing. I’ve entered chapter contests and like everyone else, I’ve gotten good and bad feedback. It was mentioned above, but if I received multiple comments on the the same thing it, then it needed work. I have never judged a contest–because I didn’t have the self confidence. I was afraid of giving the wrong advice! In my critique group, there is give and take; you can explain a suggestion and work on a solution. Judge training would certainly help. I think contests are important–especially for writers without a critique group or without good chapter support.

    • Congratulations!!!

      As a Golden Heart finalist, trust that you’re 100% qualified to provide feedback via a contest. The best ones WILL train you, usually by providing you with a training manual. But remember that judges are readers — so read the entry as a READER, and simply note those areas that delight, distract, or confuse. Don’t feel like you have to fix what’s broken. It’s quite enough to point out that something’s “not quite right” with a passage and leave it to the author to sort it out.

      Many contests give the judge a form to fill out, as you may know, and that form guides the judging. As a judge, I personally don’t love that sort of paint-by-numbers approach, but it probably helps pulls feedback out of hesitant judges.

  15. This post really takes me back… I remember entering a bunch of contests back in 2006 through 2009. I received invaluable feedback from judges, things that really helped me grow in my craft and career. Lots of encouragement, too.

    As I got a little more experienced, I’d only enter contests whose final judges were someone whose eyes I wanted on my manuscript (an agent or editor I wanted to pursue). This was also helpful.

    But now that I’m published? Yeah, I’ve entered a few “published” contests over the past couple years, but there wasn’t much positive in it for me, so I haven’t entered anything for at least a year (other than the RITA). The readers don’t seem to care which contests I’ve won, and I’ll always have that “award-winning” tag to add to my name, which is nice. But it costs so much to enter each contest that I had to start weighing the costs with the ROI. Would I rather buy a new cover for my next book or take a shot at maybe having another award to list on my website, which readers might not care about? I can already put “Top Pick” from RT and “Starred review” from Library Journal, so why does it matter to have a local chapter’s name on there? (I’m not trying to be mean here, just honest. If readers don’t recognize the value of the contest, then it’s just not that valuable to me at this point in my career.)

    I do think I’d look twice at a contest that offered prizes like cash, cover designs, or editing fees.

    On a side note, there have been discussions that accessibility to the RITA fills up so quickly the past couple years that many “big names” aren’t even able to enter. Which makes me sad. I mean, if I were lucky enough to final, I’d always wonder if I was really up against the “best of the best,” you know? So every year I debate whether it’s worth the money (and that’s a huge, credible contest, normally!).

    Oh, what about if the contest could guarantee the winner (of a published book contest) a BookBub ad? That would be SO worth it. So hard to get one of those ads these days. Not sure guaranteeing something like that would be possible, but it sure would make me think about entering. 😉

    • Yes! A Bookbub add would definitely make me interested. Good suggestion, Anne.

    • Nothing like honesty–and I agree. I only put mine into the Ritas. Maybe the Thriller awards? Can’t really remember. But yes, if the win itself isn’t going to gain me much publicity, then why would I enter?

      “I do think I’d look twice at a contest that offered prizes like cash, cover designs, or editing fees.”

      CASH. Cold, hard cash. I’m thinking this might be key to appealing to today’s writers, whether published or not!! If we have a designer or editors within the chapter, we could offer those other services AND give that designer/editor some publicity for her services. Win/win?

      Re: the BookBub ad, I love that idea, but I don’t know at al how it works…isn’t it not just monetary? Don’t you have to, like, get approved or something? I wonder if that’s a contest that would have to be sponsored by BookBub…

      • Yes, for BookBub ads, you have to be approved by them, and they’re very selective. So you’d have to have someone on the inside track, or have them somehow co-sponsor, I suppose.

        I forgot to add that the only contests I’ve entered as a published author have been the ones that had readers or librarians as judges, because I figured maybe I’d at least gain a few readers out of it. 😉

  16. The original Contest Courtesan here. (Because courtesan sounds a bit more pleasant than the the truth – BIG TIME CONTEST SLUT!!) My first contest entry was in 2007. Yes, I have been entering contests for ten years. My first final, in the Royal Ascot, was also in 2007. And now, 44 unpublished finals and 1 published final later. (Shut up! I know that is borderline CRAZY!)

    I will tell you this. Entering contests made my writing better. And equally as important they helped me to learn to deal with creative criticism and not so creative criticism. Contests taught me to look at ALL criticism in a logical and dispassionate manner. From the beginning I charted my contest criticism.
    I created charts for the number scores of each and every contest. I created journals for the written criticisms and for the criticisms within the manuscripts. And then I studied it. There were patterns in those scores. And patterns in the written criticism. If a score or criticism didn’t match the patterns, I still looked at it,but most of the time I entered it in the ignore column.

    I cannot tell you how valuable all of this information was to me. It let me know which areas of my writing needed work. It enabled me to spend my workshop and craft book money wisely. I NEVER had a bad comment about my dialogue. Therefore, I didn’t take workshops or buy books on dialogue. I had trouble with sustainable conflicts. So that is what I spent my workshop and craft book money on.

    Contests are market research. Name a single business that develops a great new product and doesn’t do market research?

    Contests are learning experiences. They teach you to be a better writer. They teach you how to look at criticism with a discerning eye. They teach you how to look at your work from the point of view of a reader.

    I can tell you those unpublished finals, those unpublished contests I entered and didn’t final in, they ALL made me a better writer in some way. And they taught me the importance of polishing my work and allowing other writers to see it before I threw it out there in an e book and hoped it sells.

    You never get a second chance to make a first impression. My one published final was in the Holt Medallion Contest. And I won first place in the novella category with my debut published work.

    You want to know how I did it? With the help of all of those other finals, all of those contests I didn’t final in and all of those judges, even the bad ones.

    I don’t really know how to encourage new writers to make the investment in their careers that writing contests provide. But I do know if they are to survive the flood of books out there and rise above it to have a lasting career in this business they need to seriously consider entering contests and getting as much feedback on their work as they can before they throw it to the wolves. Because I think the crash that article in RWR is talking about is the wolves finally realizing writers are not always putting their best work out there. And the wolves are going to start throwing it back!

    • The Contest Courtesan steps in!! We bow to her beauty and knowledge.

      You are the model for how to handle feedback. I’ve never heard of someone keeping journals and charts, but what a great idea! It’s incredibly telling when you hear the same basic things over and over again…or hear crickets. It really does help you hone your attention on those areas requiring improvement, and why are we entering if not to know how to improve?

      “Because I think the crash that article in RWR is talking about is the wolves finally realizing writers are not always putting their best work out there.”

      YIKES. I agree. There’s a glut of deer in this forest now, and the wolves don’t have to eat the weak and injured anymore!

  17. Tamara Hogan says:

    I agree with Anne Marie, all the way down the line.

    About contests and the published ranks… As someone who did pretty well on the contest circuit as an unpublished writer – a number of finals, a couple of big wins, got the agent, got the contract, won a few published contests, and then…had her contract dropped – I must admit I was tickled pink when the book my former publisher chose not to publish was a named a finalist in a couple of big contests as an indie. This gave me a huge boost of confidence at a time when I desperately needed one.

    But honestly? At this point in my career, having already earned that “award-winning” prefix before my name, contest finals and wins are totally about ego for me. And yeah, having not published a book in a couple of years, I’ve missed it. I’m glad I’ll have a book in the mix next year.

    Coming at published contests as a judge, a couple of random observations:

    – Though I volunteer as a judge for the unpublished and published divisions of several major contests, I much prefer judging the unpublished ranks, in part because unpubbed takes less time (reading a few chapters vs. an entire book). I also feel as though the feedback I provide to unpublished writers comes at a time in the author’s career when it might be more useful. On that point…

    – After a book has been published, I have to wonder just how useful the feedback I provide actually is.

    And…how do I say this diplomatically…

    I just don’t know what to think when I go to Amazon and see that a book I judged as a solid 3, with what I felt were craft gaps, has seventy-ish 5-star reviews – and most of those reviews don’t review the book, but simply regurgitate the plot.

    What are we doing?!? I’ve become quite cynical, and quite concerned, about this grade inflation. I fear that in the race to high review counts (which are needed to qualify for bigger ad buys), we’re ruining the very mechanism that might help loyal readers find a book that satisfies.

    • It’s so exciting to have a pony in the race!! I wish I had something GOING just for that little sizzle you get whenever you hit “send” on a contest. It’s like…anything could happen!

      I sent a fair missive to RWA re: my thoughts on the Rita and Golden Heart contests a few weeks ago. One idea I proposed was moving to a yes/no option for judging the Ritas. Like the old notes we’d pass in elementary school, “Do you think this book deserves a Rita? Circle Yes or No.”

      I also think we shouldn’t have to read the whole damn thing. Maybe it’d improve a point or two, but when has any book ever gone from NO WAY to OMG YES after chapter 3? Especially these days, when readers lack patience and nobody does a “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…” sort of opening?

      My final suggestion was that self-published works shouldn’t be entered into the RITAs unless the author is already PAN. Not provisional PAN. Actual PAN. (It’s a pretty low bar.) Otherwise, she can enter into the Golden Heart, which doesn’t seem like a bad thing. But I’m a grump old broad who wants these whippersnappers off my lawn…

      Re: grade inflation…it’s one thing if people love something that’s poorly written. That happens all the time. (Nick Sparks, hi!). But you can usually spot a fishy review…and I really hope this isn’t a widespread thing…

    • “I just don’t know what to think when I go to Amazon and see that a book I judged as a solid 3, with what I felt were craft gaps, has seventy-ish 5-star reviews – and most of those reviews don’t review the book, but simply regurgitate the plot.

      What are we doing?!? I’ve become quite cynical, and quite concerned, about this grade inflation. I fear that in the race to high review counts (which are needed to qualify for bigger ad buys), we’re ruining the very mechanism that might help loyal readers find a book that satisfies.”

      YES!! THIS. ;D

  18. Shelly Chalmers says:

    Great discussion here! It’s taken me awhile to read all the way through the comments, since I don’t want to just repeat anyone –though I agree with so much of what’s been said!

    Here I’ll offer the perspective of someone who does not enter a lot of contests. Frequently it came down to final judges / the big prize just not worth it for me, besides the fact that feedback was often rare. Then when there was feedback, it ranged from great to beyond-usesless-terrible – and often on the same entry. No matter how hard I looked for something useful in what I was getting back (ie: some consistency in the message / issues, what the score might mean, etc) it wasn’t helpful. Too all over the place and too wide a range (from excellent scores to mediocre.) Yes, I suppose I learned more about handling criticism (just like bad reviewed) and reminded me of how subjective this business is, but that utility only lasts for so long. 🙂 I wasn’t seeing useful returns from my investment, and consequently never got super interested in the contest circuit.

    Instead, I turned to searching for critique specifically, starting with Critique Circle before finally finding some really great critique partners (after my GH final.) I wanted something more concrete, and something where I could at least ask questions. Help push my writing more – and beyond just the first fifty pages. 😉

    I’m particularly interested in the comments regarding how many other people were looking for critique / a somewhat objective opinion and connection. Other than the GH which provided incredible connection to my DWs, I didn’t find other contests created that.

    In the end, I don’t think contests themselves are for every body. BUT, I don’t think that has to spell their doom. Changing up the format and / or what the entrants get for their investment of time and money could potentially create wider appeal. Just my two cents. 🙂

    • (Shelly! HI!)

      I only entered a handful of contests myself before getting published, and like you, I was always after the big prize. I wanted my manuscript to be in front of this editor or that agent. It was a shortcut…if you could get there!

      Personally, I never wanted the feedback from first-round judges. I actively disliked hearing what other people thought about my work. It would sometimes get me down, and I didn’t want to “get down.” I wanted to feel positive and productive! Reading random criticism about my work was usually detrimental to my outlook. (Oddly, I have no problem reading my reviews, even the ones that think I suck.)

      The only comments that mattered to me were the ones I got from editors and agents — those, I studied.

      Contests are definitely not for everybody. But if they aren’t for enough people, chapters will stop running them. Maybe RWA will even stop running the Golden Heart. I don’t think any of us wants that…

  19. Melanie Macek says:

    I was actually offered two contracts because of a contest, but the main reason I’ve stayed away recently is because the feedback offered was very little or non-existent and twice I was personally attacked in the comments by the judges. I notified the contest head and it turns out I hadn’t been the only to receive attacking comment, but it put me off spending my money on contests.

    I’ve been lucky enough to amass a group of beta readers who are brutally honest and have given better feedback than most of the contest judges I’ve come in contact with. I realize they’re judging quite a few entries sometimes, but if they’re not willing to give somewhat detailed critique, it becomes a waste of money to enter. I do plan to enter one this summer, but it’s through a chapter I’m familiar with. That will be the first contest I’ve entered in over two years. Yes, indie publishing has made it easier, but I seriously doubt some of those who self publish would have entered contests at any rate.

    I will try to enter the RITA this year; I waited 4 days and entries were closed. LOL. I hope that others who have entered recently have had better experiences than I have.

  20. Jacie Floyd says:

    Great post/ discussion. I think people need contests more than ever. My local chapter contest had it”s highest number of entries this year. But gone are the times when every chapter can make their fundraising dollars with that one mega event. With self-punishing bein so prevalent tweaking the guidelines, entry requirements, and adding value is a must. Like everything else, contests go through cycles and this is a new one.

  21. Preslaysa says:

    I still enter chapter contests because it’s been a great way for me to get feedback on my work while it’s still in progress. I can tweak and make changes as I write. However, if the chapter’s big league authors were to promote the names of the finalists/winners on their social media/their readership, that would be a major factor in my deciding to enter a contest. That, and who the judges for the final round are, of course 🙂

  22. Evangeline Holland says:

    I keep seeing talk about craft and community with regards to writing contests in the comments. If that is the foundation of writing contests, then it’s easy to see why they’ve declined in usefulness. Authors don’t need a contest to learn their craft or form a community. Social media makes it easy to connect with other authors, and authors are more willing to plonk down $$$ for a developmental editor for their work. Also, the ever increasing onus of promotion means you need to connect with readers from day one–meaning, authors are taking their cues on craft, et al directly from their readers.

    I don’t know what could make writing contests attractive again. Their primary draw was getting your MS fast-tracked to an agent or editor. But with trends changing so quickly, and the industry extra sensitive to sales numbers, the slower pace of the contest circuit makes it difficult to justify waiting for an agent/editor to provide feedback. Your sweet Navy SEAL stepbrother romance might be a Hot Trend overnight and when you self-pub it sells like gangbusters, thus earning $$$$ and attracting agents/editors.

    Perhaps the contests should change to workshops a la Clarion West. Make their prestige intrinsically tied to the creme de la creme of romance craftsmanship. Because the other issue is that these contests mean nothing to romance readers. The RWA is still trying to get the word out about the RITA Awards. *shrug*

  23. Wow, I just read through all of the responses to your post, Jamie, and there is a lot of great insight here! I hope contests are here to stay. I learned a ton from the contests I’ve entered. I still learn from them as a judge!

    This was a great topic!


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