Please welcome the fantastic Dahlia Adler to the blog! She's been doing some great posts on her own blog so I asked her to guest post here. After a little bugging, she agreed! Thank you, Dahlia!
The reason I love Dahlia's posts is because she writes about things that pertain to so many of us and she says it straight. No fluff. Just the good stuff. Basically, all the things many of us are thinking but too afraid to say.
I gave her the option of choosing her topic, and I'd say the one she chose is just perfect. Over the last several months, there has been a bit of a contest explosion in the blog-o-sphere, which is great in many ways. But there are some things we should keep in mind.
Take it away Dahlia...
Hey guys, and thank you, Cupid, for having me! When Cupid first asked me to write a guest post, I drew a total blank as to what to write about, because I usually end up blogging off the cuff as I see issues come up. Then I realized that there actually was something I've been thinking about for a while, and there was no better time (right before Pitch Madness) or place (on the blog that hosted the contest that got me my agent) to write about it.
That subject of course, is contests, and more specifically, how to know if a certain contest is the right one for you.
I am quite the advocate of contests - I've met tons of people through them, I found my agent through one, and I've gotten to read a whole bunch of fabulous manuscripts. How can I not love them?
Not all contests are for everyone. And not all contests should be entered by everyone. Sound counter-intuitive? It might have to me too, at first. But now that I've watched about a zillion of them go down, and have participated as an entrant, a mentor, a judge, and am about to participate as a slush reader, I have some Thoughts on how you know whether a contest is really right for you, and what to take into consideration before you polish up that pitch and hit Send.
1. Is your manuscript actually finished?
This is one of those things some writers just can't seem to get down. You see a contest opening, you're alllllmost there, and sure! You'll have time to fix the fact that your character who died on page 4 gives birth on page 78, and rewrite your dual-POV as a single, and tack on that epilogue. NO BIGS. How can you pass up the contest opportunity that's right there?
By reminding yourself that there are people working really hard on the other end of this
expecting to see your best work. By reminding yourself that you owe it to yourself to provide your best work. By reminding yourself that it is unprofessional to get a request from an agent and then make them wait for weeks or months for a manuscript you never should have entered in the first place.
Do not enter a manuscript in a contest that you would not query to your dream agent as is. (Unless that is specifically the point of the contest, which is rare.) That doesn't mean your manuscript will never require any revision, but when you query, and when you enter contests, you must be submitting your work in what you genuinely consider to be its final version (as you are capable of producing after multiple rounds of revision). To do anything less will never end up being in your best interest.
2. Just how many of these have you entered this same manuscript in?
Nobody can or should be a bigger advocate of your manuscript in the querying stage than you, and as such, of course you should take advantage of opportunities to get your work in front of agents as often as possible.
You know how you hear a joke and it is hi-LAR-ious, and maybe the next time you hear it, in a different crowd, you still chuckle, but then you're in the same group and the same guy makes the same joke and you're like "WTF? Dude, that's not gonna still be funny. Get new material or a new audience!"
This doesn't mean I think that just because a manuscript has been through a few contests, it's bad or undesirable or not going to get an agent. I think none of those things. However, it's important to be realistic about a few things:
• Contests are very often judged by the same agents. It's a fact. They're the ones most interested in participating, who also possess social media savvy, and who are also actively looking to sign new clients. It's fantastic and generous that they do this, and they're certainly not taking opportunities away from other agents, but it doesn't really help you to go in front of the same people on multiple occasions. Unless you're making significant revisions to the entry (making significant revisions to the manuscript will not help; they have no way of knowing you've done this if your entry is the same), sit out contests where most of the judges have already seen you.
So, you're probably thinking, "Why? What about the three participating judges who haven't already? I want a crack at them too! What have I got to lose?"
• People get tired of seeing the same entries and over. Readers, agents, editors - everybody. You don't want to possess the first 250 that makes people's eyes glaze over. You don't want to have the title people can swear they've now seen a thousand times. Your entry is good - that's why it keeps making it in to the winning round. That part isn't a question. But if for some reason it's just not clicking with agents once they're read past your entry, putting the stuff that does work out there for public consumption isn't going to help. Revising your ms as a whole or writing something new - that's what's gonna push you forward.
• It draws attention to how long your manuscript has been available. Which in turn makes it seem like there's probably a reason it is. Don't mistake me here - the fact that you've been querying the same manuscript for three months, or six months, or nine, or whatever, doesn't mean that manuscript won't get you an agent. It's perfectly feasible that you could get an agent on query #100, provided you've actually been getting requests for material up until that point. (And if you haven't, stop and work on your query!) Agents have no way of knowing how many others have passed on your work as long as you don't tell them (or the entire world, using social media), and all it takes is one to click with your work and make an offer. However, if your work keeps going out in public, publicly getting requests, and then still publicly being available, it can start to feel to agents like your work is basically being screened for them and they shouldn't bother.
• Other writers deserve a shot too. This was one of the more unpopular opinions I've ever expressed publicly, but I stand by it - yes, you have to be an advocate for your work, but there are a limited number of spots and a whole lot of writers out there who'd really like a chance to be advocates for theirs too. If you've got a manuscript that's already made it into a contest or four, congratulations - you've got a good entry, and you know it. Go forth and be confident in your pitch or query or first 250 or whatever those entries consist of. But don't take up a spot for the fifth time while hundreds of others are still trying to get noticed for their first.
3. What's this contest really about? I hope it's obvious that not all contests are the same, but in case it's not, let me state it: Not all contests are the same. And not just because some call for tagline and some call for pitches and some call for queries. And not because some stretch out for a week and others for a month.
Different contests have different purposes, and one major difference between contests is feedback. Some contests (The Writer's Voice, PitchWars) involve getting crit and revising before putting your stuff out there; some (Blind Speed Dating, Pitch Madness) do not. Going back to point #1, if you don't feel your entry is sufficiently polished without some feedback, and you don't have time to get it from betas before the contest itself, stick to the ones that specifically polish your entry. On the flip side, if you're not interested in critique, or you're not going to take it, leave the revision contests for people who are going to put those opinions to good use. The most frustrating thing for me to hear about (or see with my own eyes) after Pitch Wars was people who got extensive notes and took none of them. Contests that give crit are for people who will use that crit. If you think you're already perfect, submit to contests that expect you to be. Don't take a great opportunity away from people who really want to work.
So, what do you think?