The Pitfalls of Contests for Unpublished Manuscripts

Breakfast at Epiphany's 3I used this cartoon in an online class I’m teaching on using the sexual journey as a tool for character transformation. It cracks me up every time, so I thought I’d share here. 

The other day I finished judging some entries for an unpublished manuscript contest hosted by a writer’s organization I’m part of. I judge a number of contests each year, both for published books and these unpublished manuscripts. In fact, this year I’m coordinating one for my local RWA chapter, The Rebecca, so disclaimer there. 

I passionately believe in hosting these contests, not only because they make excellent fundraisers for programming we couldn’t otherwise afford. They give an opportunity to aspiring writers to both gain feedback on their manuscripts and potentially get them in front of agents and editors who might otherwise be difficult to access. When I was shopping my first novel, I entered a lot of these contests, and it was great to have those venues.

That said… this recent experience gave me pause.

For this contest, authors submitted the first twenty pages of a manuscript. For The Rebecca, it’s the first 5,000 words, which works out to slightly less. At any rate, of the five entries I evaluated, two showed great promise, with beguiling premises and worlds, but both crammed WAY too much into those first twenty pages. To the point that I became overwhelmed.

Contest veterans will know this, but part of what’s happening here is that the writers know they’ll be evaluated according to a score sheet. Most contests ask if the internal and external conflict is apparent – for both the hero and heroine in romance – and if character motivations are clear. These are good things to evaluate and yet – very few books lay out ALL of the conflict and character motivations in the first twenty pages. Particularly if there are two or more point-of-view (POV) characters. In fact, they really shouldn’t do that because it mucks up the pacing of the novel.

Which is exactly what happened with these entries. They became to my eye – which is admittedly one reader’s opinion – almost kaleidoscopic in the rapidity of the scene shifts and changes of POV. I understood why the authors felt they needed to do this, but I ended up scoring down for categories like pacing and clarity of various characters.

What’s most concerning is – they didn’t read like the actual openings of novels. Since a huge piece of the contest involves sending the finalists to the final judges, agents and editors, to rank and hopefully want to see more of, possibly to acquire, I worry about this tendency. As a contest coordinator, I’m wondering what we can do about it.

The upshot is, for all of you trying out your manuscripts this way – please keep this in mind. The opening of your novel should read at the pace of an actual novel, not a construct created to satisfy all the points ticked off by a contest judge.

Anyone have thoughts on this, particularly how to address it?

Stiff Competition and Being Savvy About Choosing Genres

We haven’t had a sunrise pic in a while. Sign of the season, I suppose, when my regular wake-up time now precedes the sun’s. Alas for that.

I’ve been crazy busy lately wrapping up The Rebecca Contest. This is my local chapter LERA’s contest for unpublished manuscripts. (Our finalists are listed here.) For some reason, in an era of declining contest participation, our numbers went up this last year. This is the second year I volunteered as the Contest Coordinator, so it’s given me an interesting perspective on the industry.

I shouldn’t fling that “for some reason” out there, because I do have a pretty good idea what made this contest attractive to aspiring writers. One is that we made a serious effort to have final judges who are solid industry professionals who are both actively acquiring new authors and who are not easy to access for most writers. That’s what I wanted for my work when I was entering contests, and that’s what we try to get for our contestants.

Second is that it’s noteworthy that it’s a contest for unpublished manuscripts – not unpublished authors. This means that authors who’ve already published can participate as long as the manuscript in question is not under contract when they enter the contest.

This aspect brings up an important point about our industry that I think can get overlooked. It used to be that getting published was the sinecure, the lifetime career that ended with the literary equivalent of a gold watch and a generous pension. Now, just as those days of the lifetime career with one company have given way to an average of 5-6 careers in an American’s life, getting a contract for that first book, or even that 2- to 3-book series is no longer a guarantee of anything. The market is tough, the stakes high and publishers are frequently kicking authors to the curb whose books/series don’t perform to high expectations. And it’s a sad irony that the writer is now not that enticing creature, the “debut author,” who seems to be as avidly sought as the proverbial beautiful, young virgin.

How does an author circumvent the scarlet letter of less than bestselling numbers on a previous effort? The anonymity of a contest works pretty damn well.

Of course, this means that our contest had incredibly stiff competition. In two categories, in particular, the finalists were fractions of a point apart. This is the most interesting part to me. Can anyone guess which were the two most competitive categories? The five were:

Historical Romance
Category Romance
Paranormal Romance/Science Fiction Romance/Urban Fantasy
Young Adult Romance
Contemporary Romance

Did you all make your guesses?

YA and Paranormal. Both had the most entries (though Contemporary only had three fewer entries than YA) and both had the closest finalists scores. In Paranormal, the three finalists all had perfect average scores. (Each entry is judged by three people, at least one a published author, the lowest score of the three is dropped and the two highest scores averaged.)

I think this reflects the marketplace, too. YA and the speculative fiction takes on romance continue to sell well. The competition out there is fierce.

What lesson do we extract from this? I’m curious to know what you all think. Does the savvy writer focus on those less-competitive sub-genres, hoping to stand out as a shiny fish in a smaller pond? Or does she set her sights on upping her game and hope the high tide floating all those ships in the popular sub-genres will sweep her along, too?

Of course, that’s pre-supposing that any writer really chooses what they write…