Monday, February 13, 2012


The internet is an amazing place for writers.
It's where we can find incredible critique partners, more writing forums than we have time for, the best agent-finding resources, and a ton of information on improving our craft. Heck, it's basically a DIY MFA playground, if you're willing to use it.

And then, there are the contests.

Every once in awhile, some kind-hearted, self-sacrificing individual will step up and run a contest on her blog. Writing is posted for critique and, if we're very lucky, agents flock to fight over the chance to review that work more in depth, in a (mostly) civilized and (entirely) exciting manner.

(ONE is playing in one such contest, the brand-new Cupid's Literary Connection, today. I'm so excited.)

Here are the reasons that I think contests can be a great opportunity for the querying writer.

1. It elevates my work above the slushpile.
Even if there are fifty or even one hundred entries on display for agents' perusal, that still amounts to two, ten, or a dozen agents looking at one hundred queries as opposed to one lone, hard-working, exhausted agent wading through slush to hopefully pull my manuscript out.

Plus, whether or not the contest is selective (meaning: the person running the contest somehow narrows entries down to what she has determined to be the "best" ones) the dirtiest of the slush has already been cast aside. No crazy queries, no YouTube videos of shirtless men. So when the agent gets to my query, hopefully she's not so slush-weary that she can't read it with a happy heart.

2. I've had success with contests.
Well, what I'm calling "success," anyway. Three of the full requests on my last manuscript were the result of one blog contest or another. Even though I drawered that manuscript, I did get a sense of which agents I would LOVE to query in the future, and their feedback was, in some cases, invaluable.

3. It helps me get to know agents in what I call a "soft query" environment. 
Agent Fabulous might say that she wants Young Adult Romance, for example, and then completely ignore every entry that seems to be a solid one of those. If I'm querying a Young Adult romance, I can then take that information and decide whether it's worth querying that agent. Or, more optimistically, I can see what about YA romances that agent loves, and highlight those aspects of my MS in the query I'll send to her later.

In past contests, even when I haven't gotten a request out of it, I have had agents point out their concerns about or approval of my query and first page, which let me either tweak it or leave it alone, and go forth formally querying with confidence.

4. Contests are how I found a bunch of my CPs.
Checking out the work of my fellow entrants gives me a chance to see whose work I'm absolutely head-over-heels in love with/excited about, which I think is essential to a great CP relationship.

5. I'm really not afraid of anyone stealing my work, or ideas, or whatever.
If anyone can take my query and first pages and use the ideas and voice in there to fully reconstruct my 76,000 word manuscript, I'll probably hand them a cookie and congratulate them. Not only would that be crazy freakish, but it would also free up a lot of my time and stress.

But seriously. I can give a crowd of twenty writers the idea of "half-superpowered teens" and they will write 20 completely different novels. Which would actually be kind of awesome.

Bottom line: It's ridiculously difficult to get an agent as it is. Anything that helps improve my chances can't hurt that badly, and the cheerleading and community-building possibilities are some seriously thick icing on the cake.

Now. Just like anything else, contests *do* have cons. Just some things to consider before you let my above points get you all gung-ho excited for the next contest.

1. Anonymity is tough to preserve
These contests are supposed to remain anonymous, so that they don't become a popularity contest. Obviously, though, the internet is one big web of hyperlinks, and it's pretty easy to connect most of the projects on display to an individual if you really want to. I try to stay anonymous, just because I think it's way classier, but I'm not sacrificing the information I have posted about my MS on my blog or any tweets about it for the sake of staying under the radar while I'm contesting for two weeks.

2. It's tough to keep up self-confidence while watching your work be rejected in real time. 
The point of every contest is for an agent or agents to pick their favorite entries. Sometimes, this occurs in real time, meaning that during a given period of one or several days, agents can leave comments saying, "not for me," "yes, this is good," or "YES PLEASE PUT IT IN MY INBOX NOW." It can be nervewracking and insane, but the worst is when every other entry seems to be getting comments but yours. Yes, it happens. No, it doesn't mean your MS sucks - it just means it doesn't appeal to those agents. But, again - it takes a darn chipper and mature person to remember that. (Spoiler - I'm not always that chipper or mature. I know, you're shocked.)

3. Feedback is not always positive.
One of the stated purposes for all these contests is to receive feedback from peers, but I've never really bought it. Mostly because one of the rules is usually "only submit completed and ready-to-query manuscripts." Now, I don't know about everyone else? But to me, "completed and ready-to-query" means that the MS has run the gauntlet of multiple critiques, revisions, and line edits. Not to mention much agonizing. Usually I'll contest an MS while I'm also querying it.
Now. If I'm confident enough in the MS to query the darn thing, I'm pretty much only looking for cheerleading from my peers, and maybe some gentle suggestions for minor improvement. But every once in awhile, some uppity writer will roll in and leave PARAGRAPHS of feedback, often quite critical, on everything everyone is doing wrong with their entry. This can be annoying at best and crushing at worst. Most of the time I can ignore these jerks, but if you're ultra-sensitive about the soundness of your submission, this might be a big deal.
Note: Some contests are SOLELY for the purpose of feedback, and don't involve agents, in which case the above obviously doesn't apply.

Just some things to remember about contesting:

  • It can be a great opportunity to shove your work directly in front of agents.
  • It can be an awesome community-builder and confidence booster.
  • Subjectivity is a b*tch. Let this be your contesting mantra. Not everyone loves everything. It's okay.
  • It only takes one agent to love your work and get you a book deal. There's always another contest or another query. If this contest doesn't work out, don't let it ruin future contests for you.

What about you, sweet readers? Have you participated in blogged writing contests? Do you plan to in the future? Why or why not?


  1. Hmmm, wherever did you get the idea that an agent who claims to want YA Romance would completely ignore a YA Romance entry? I can't imagine!

    1. I can't either! What I *would* imagine is that said agent would roll onto my "never query" list PDQ. ;)

  2. In some circles, I've been nicknamed "the Contest Queen" :P I kind of have a weakness for them, but in all fairness, I've entered a bajillion of them and only won one for each of the first two books I queried. It wasn't until Cyborg that I started to get some real attention. Sometimes it just takes a while until that point happens!

    I actually like the non-anonymous contests best. The ones where the entries are blog comments allow you to link to your own blog which can have benefits. Agents lurk, even if they aren't involved in the contest directly, and sometimes they visit the websites of entries they like and will request manuscripts directly. That's happened to me a few times, and it's an pretty dang awesome side benefit!

    Also, in respect to feedback, I do agree that a long drawn out crit on something you feel is query worthy can definitely be frustrating. However, I know I've personally found it eye-opening in the past because figuring out where to start can be the hardest part! Once I've gotten past the irritation, more often than not that sort of feedback has actually helped.

    Long story short - CONTESTS RULE. :)

    1. AAAAAAAAH I started Stalking you via contest, I believe. ;)

      You know, the non-anonymous contests wouldn't bug me, I guess. I just kind of don't love the ones where it's not really clear, anonymous or not...I dont' know. That part always makes me feel so shaky.

      Thanks for your perspective on the feedback. You're so sweet and cheery. :)

  3. This was an awesome post! Agree with it all!

    Contests really helped me get where I am today! And it's super fun! :D

  4. YouTube videos of shirtless men!! :D And YAYYYY, I am so excited to watch ONE kick ass in the Cupid contest! xo

  5. Contests sound pretty challenging. Hope ONE does well!!

  6. Fantastic post! I am also a contest-lover, and all the points you make are totally true, both good and bad. Hooray for the internet!

  7. I love contests too! Although feedback is my favourite part (after I get past the sting). For me, that's the main reason to join contests. I guess I'm weird that way. I'm excited to see those commenters who took the time to help. I know it's happened to me and a few friends that we thought a query was ready when it wasn't (at least the first time around).

  8. Great post! I'm all for contests. If it's another way to get an agent to see my work, why not try?