Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Value of a Contest

Lessons Learned From The Frasier
by Edie Melson

Today I want to share a post about writing contests—specifically about a new contest—The Frasier. I’ve been in this business for a while and I’ve entered a bunch of contests. I’ve even won a couple. But the value of contests for me hasn’t come with winning. It’s come with learning to put myself out there, dealing with seemingly unfair critiques by judges and by not always finishing first.

Reasons to Enter
  • It’s good practice. For anyone with a desire to be published it’s necessary to take a risk. Any time we submit something we have the possibility of rejection.
  • It’s the mirror image of the REAL world of publishing. I've heard a lot of comments about various contests and the unfairness of the judges—actually I've made some of those comments. But it’s important to remember the publishing industry is a subjective world. Sometimes we don’t get the job just because they don’t like our writing. We may have followed all the rules and turned in a nearly perfect piece, but it just doesn't resonate with the powers that be. As professionals we have to learn to deal with that and move on.
  • It gives us anonymous feedback. I don’t know many people who are comfortable delivering bad news to someone they know. The same is true of critiques. Sometimes the only way we learn the hard stuff is when the person behind the red ink is covered with anonymity.

A New Contest to Consider
There are lots of good contests out there, but today I want to concentrate on a new one you might not have heard of. The Frasier is the brain child of Susan May Warren. I’ve mentioned Susie on this blog many times before—especially in conjunction with her amazing website—My Book Therapy.

When she announced a brand new fiction contest last year I knew I had to give it a try. I wasn’t disappointed. I received the most valuable feedback I’ve ever gotten through a contest. The judges didn’t just say they didn’t agree with something—they gave me concrete advice on why it didn’t work and how to fix it. They also took time to let me know what I was doing right.

None of this was by accident—Susie set it up this way. Her judges critique/score sheets ask for specific information and makes certain the judges communicate the helpful, and difficult, critiques we all need to shape us into better writers.

The Bottom Line
  • Why did I enter last year? Because I trusted Susan May Warren. This year I’m entering for the same reason AND because I received critiques that have made me a better writer.
  • What specifically did I get that affected my writing? I gained insight on how to get beyond just adding the 5 senses to a scene. Instead, to make what the character senses heighten the tension and add to the depth of the scene. I learned how to take a step back and constantly evaluate if my characters were acting in a reasonable manner. Finally I learned how to evaluate when narrative is appropriate to a scene and how to use it without stopping the action cold.
  • Where do you find the contest link? Right here!

So I encourage you to take a chance and enter a contest or two this year. Let the victories—and the defeats—strengthen you as a writer.

What are your thoughts on contests? 

Don't forget to join the conversation!


  1. I'm encouraged Edie. I've looked at it and think I'll try it. Hopefully, I learn specifics about how to improve my writing.

  2. I wouldn't have thought to enter a contest for the purpose of getting valuable feedback on a manuscript. I thought contests were about competition, not about learning. Thanks for letting us know about the Frasier.

  3. As motivation to kick off my dream of becoming a writer,today I submitted my 1st entry for a flash fiction writing contest! The experience was eye opening and am looking forward to learning from the judge's critique. I just might be hooked!

  4. Ellen, I'm so glad you're going to try it! Also tune into the Monday night chats on My Book Therapy, led by Susie. As the dead line for the Frasier gets closer she'll be teaching specifics on how to craft your entry.
    Lora, I used to only enter for the competition and it was really disheartening. Now, I leave every contest encouraged!
    Kate, I'm so excited for you! Keep us posted on how you did in the contest and especially how the feedback helped you.
    Blessings All!

  5. Thanks for the insights Edie.

    For a while I maintained a sort of Ayn Rand-ish attitude toward writing contests: 'I write, I don't pit myself against other writers so I can have someone tell me I'm better or worse than anyone.'

    But you are spot on - entering a writing contest we put ourselves out there not knowing how we'll be received, which encourages (forces?) us to try just a little harder, write just a little better.

    Question: In your experience has it been common to receive good solid constructive criticism from the judge/s? I've only ever entered two contests (one runner-up award and one goose egg), and didn't receive any writing feedback though one of them was just judged last month.

    Again, thanks for your thoughts!

  6. Kevin, I've found I have to pick and choose the contests I enter because of that issue. Now I tend to avoid contests that don't include feedback from the judges. there are exceptions - if I'm attending a conference and they have a contest for conferees I'll usually enter because even if the judges don't give written feedback I can meet the faculty member who judged.
    As far as receiving "good constructive" feedback it's a mixed bag. to be brutally honest sometimes the judge knows way less than me and comes across as an imbecile. But even then I learn something although it may only be confirmation that I'm improving in my craft because I know WHY what they said doesn't make sense.
    Kind of a long answer, I hope it helps. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  7. This may be a silly question, but I'm good at them. :) Since most of the FAQ's I've read regarding contests suggest having a completed manuscript, and since these are competitions, are we to assume that only completed, polished manuscripts should be submitted to these types of contests? I've just started on my first MS. Do most writers have multiple completed, polished manuscripts lying around to submit to contests that arise?
    I agree these are great sources of feedback as well as great experiences, and I intend to participate. But since I am just starting out, it appears it may be a year or two before I am able to do so.
    Excellent info as always, Edie!

  8. Kenneth, it's not a stupid question. But I will warn you that my answer goes against the "recommended" way to do things.
    I don't always have a completed, polished manuscript when I enter a contest. Sometimes I only have a rough draft or the start of a rough draft. I do polish the entry, though.
    The reason they recommend you have a polished manuscript is in case it wins and an editor or agent wants to see the finished product. It makes sense, but I don't always follow the rules!

  9. The Frasier is a one-of-a kind contest because you are judged on storytelling. There's no category divisions based on genre. That's one of the things I liked best about the Frasier.