Five Truths About Writing Competitions

I was recently honored to be a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award. I didn’t win, but it got me to thinking about contests and writing competitions and what they all mean. By nature, I’m somewhat competitive at least in academic matters. I think that at some point early in my childhood it was obvious that I was not going to win beauty contests or be the first one picked in a game of playground kickball. But I was good at spelling and science and math, and I strove to make the “best” grade in the class as often as possible. And I loved competition in areas where I was strong – everything from the spelling bee to UIL Picture Memory (a Texas thang) to coloring contests. I like to win at card games and Wii bowling although I don’t generally freak if I don’t win.

Which brings me back to writing competitions. Winning is nice, but it’s not the main thing. So I’ve drilled it down into these five truths. See if you agree.

1. Winning or being named a finalist can bring validation.

As a brand new writer, I didn’t even know there were such things as contests until I attended my first writing conference. Wow. Really? I went home and began writing a short story for the following year’s contest. I worked on it for nine months in between entering another writing contest – one my husband read about in a little magazine called Guideposts. Sent them both off, and whether it was beginner’s luck or just that I wrote straight from the heart, I’ll never know. I was one of fifteen chosen to attend the all-expense-paid Guideposts Writers Workshop in New York and my little short story won First Place the following spring at a regional conference. Validation? You bet. There was no way I was quitting now.

2. Contest feedback can provide direction.

There are many contests out there: some with a hefty entry fee, some that are nationally recognized, and some that are as small as a local writing chapter’s contest. I’ve entered several types, but the best contests to enter are those where you receive feedback on your work. It can be a general impression with just a few lines from the judge or it can address specific parts of your entry such as characterization, story hook, grammar and punctuation, or plot. It’s a mini-critique based on a few pages and sometimes a synopsis. The ACFW Genesis contest (which has changed since I entered) provided this feedback and the final judging was done by editors and agents. I submitted two entries each year for two years in a row. Both years, one of my entries won in its category, and the other two didn’t even come close to making the finals. I put them out there for the feedback, to see if I was headed in the right direction. For those that won, one of them eventually became my debut novel, Chasing Lilacs. The others have found a home in the depths of my doc files.

Shameless plug: Chasing Lilacs has a low $2.99 promo price in all ebook formats throughout the month of April. If you haven’t read it, I’d love for you to check it out.

3. Contests can bring name recognition.

This is true of contests for both published and unpublished writers. It can add writing credits as you build a resume and talk to editors and agents if you are early in your writing journey. Having a platform before you’re published is now considered essential, so think of it as one of the planks of that platform. Put a few of those planks together and it will begin to take shape and give you solid footing on which to launch your career.

Later, when a published book is named to a finalist list, it can enlarge your audience or trigger the memory of a potential reader who says, “I’ve heard of her. Maybe I should get this book.” I’m not certain whether it actually increases sales, but it doesn’t have a negative effect, either. Jim Rubart wrote about this recently on Novel Rocket. Be sure and read the comments, too.

4. If you don’t enter, you can’t win.

Whether you’re a newbie writer or a veteran, it’s hard to put yourself out there. Writers seem to have a constant struggle with being good enough. We compare ourselves to others who are further along the writing scale than we are, those who’ve written seventy-five books and made best seller lists. But here’s a truth that trumps all the others combined: EVERYTHING IS SUBJECTIVE. Not everyone will like your work. Others will adore it (Moms and Great Aunt Sally don’t count). A judge may be having “one of those days” and your story just didn’t capture them that day. But you’ll never know if you don’t enter.

5. Winning a contest doesn’t define you.

Neither does losing. I’ve lost just as many (and maybe more) contests than I’ve won or finaled in. I don’t keep a tally sheet because whether I’ve won or lost doesn’t change who I am. It doesn’t change my dreams or alter my ability to function. The glow of winning fades with time, but the words we write have the power to change lives. They’re engraved on the pages and in the hearts of those who need to read what we’ve written. That’s what matters.

I didn’t win the beautiful medallion or the bragging rights that come with the Oklahoma Book Award, but I have something more – the privilege of writing, of sharing stories. That is a truth that doesn’t fade.

A final note: Two days after the OBA awards dinner, I was tagged in a post on FaceBook with the news that Stardust made the short list for General Fiction for the INSPY Award. I’m honored and thrilled, of course. The winners won’t be announced for over two months, but in the meantime, I have another story to write, another book that I hope to be able to share with you soon.

Have you ever entered a writing contest? What benefit did you receive? And as my friend Jim Rubart asked, did knowing that a book won a contest affect whether or not you bought it? Let’s chat.