Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Are Writing Contests Fair?

I encourage all of you to research any contest you enter before sending in your application and contest fee. Even if you think the contest is a big, reputable contest, it may not be. There may be things you are unaware of behind the scenes. First of all, if there is a fee to enter the contest, get your feelers out. These writing contests are big money makers. Even in big chapters within RWA (Romance Writers of America)you need to read between the fine lines. Find out who is judging the contest, how many rounds of judging are involved and whether or not the finalists will be judged by real editors and agents. Even if you win a contest, there is no guarantee of publication for most contests. I've met many authors who have won very well respected contests and are still unpublished. In my opinion, you're better off spending your money on postage for submissions to real editors and agents.

I decided to write this blog after judging a contest recently. This contest was held by a chapter of RWA. I agreed to judge the paranormal entries. Four entries were sent to me but after reading them, I discovered that only one entry was a paranormal. Two were fantasy and one was science fiction. I asked the contest organizer about it. I did not receive a response from my email so I asked again. I was told that paranormal was sort of a mixed bag of entries this year. Either there were too many entries, not enough judges, not enough categories or not enough editors/agents interested in the various genres. I never received a true explanation. I felt this was wrong and should have excused myself from judging right then and there, seeing that the finalists in this category would go to a editor shopping for paranormals, not fantasy and sci fi. Those three entries would be ignored, regardless of their scores. What a waste of money, time and sweat for that poor author.

Instead, I finished judging the entries, shook my head and sent them off. Days later I received an email from the contest organizer, asking me to rejudge the entries because I didn't comment on every single section. If I felt there was no need to comment on characterization for example or grammar, I did not. In addition, I have a habit of scoring each section and saving all my comments for the end, giving the author both positive and constructive feedback about his or her entry. This is how I've always judged entries. I've judged for several contests and this has never been a problem.

What bothered me the most was that the contest organizer stressed that the contest prides itself on helping other writers so I really needed to rejudge my entries. Prides itself? On what? Ripping off the writers by tossing all the entries into a mixed bag contest that benefits no one, wastes the times of the judges, editors and agents and gives the writer zero exposure to the appropriate editor/agent? This seemed ridiculous and unfair to me.

In fact, I told the contest organizer this and asked her twice if the entrants know their entries are mixed in such a way. She never responded to this question. Often new writers have no idea who the editors and agents are in this industry. They had no idea that this particular editor has no interest in buying sci fi. The writer wasted her money and all that effort but who cares, the chapter benefitted. In fact, the organizer admitted she didn't know the difference between fantasy and paranormal. Great.

The contest organizer seemed a little blown away when I used the word "ridiculous" and her response was "Wow." As if I'm such a snooty author who refuses to help others. Actually, in my opinion, this kind of contest hurts writers. I asked her to remove me from the panel of judges. I refuse to support an unfair contest that makes money off of starry eyed writers.

This kind of contest is the kind that jades writers against things that are intended to help. The organizer whined to me in her email, telling me how much time she'd spent on this contest. Who cares, lady? What about the time the writer spent on the entry and the time the volunteer judges spent reading and judging the entries. These are the people that lost.

She did assure me that this problem would be fixed in the future. I can only hope so. I urge all of you writers out there to talk to your writer friends before paying good money on a contest that may not benefit you. Also, there are many contests that are free to enter. These are generally the best, looking for new talent, not money to keep their small chapters afloat. Make sure the contest is judged by only published authors. It will surprise you that some of these are not judged by authors, editors or agents. Some are judged by reviewers and avid readers. Not to say these people don't know what is good writing and what is not, but seriously, they do not know half that the published authors and editors/agents do about the craft. It's very much a craft with rules and those that learn these rules will produce better, more marketable manuscripts. This is what the agents and editors are looking for. A certificate saying you won a contest will not get you anywhere. Good writing will. Getting your writing in front of an editor or agent interested in buying your genre will possibly help your career. Mixed bag contests are unfair and waste everyone's time. Make sure the contest you enter is judged by qualified individuals. Research, talk to your friends and spend your money wisely.

Happy Writing and Reading!


Wendy_Ely said...

Oh, Alisha, I'm sorry you had a bad experience with judging a contest. I'm a judge every year for Hot Prospect contest for Valley of the Sun chapter of the RWA and it hasn't ever been a bad experience for me. The contest is well organized and the person in charge of it makes sure the contestant are treated/judged fairly and the manuscripts where they're supposed to.

Wendy Ely

Tierney O'Malley said...

Way to go, Alisha! I've never submitted to any contests so I can't post anything on my website about winning or entering one. I don't know. Maybe because I am a penny pincher and spending money on contests doesn't sit well with me.


Alisha Paige said...

Wendy~ There are some great contests out there. I just think you have to be careful. It was disturbing to me that I found a serious flaw and they did nothing to correct it except promise to not do it next year. More categories should have been created with editors and agents for that particular genre.

Tierney~ I have to agree with you too. There are many free contests so it doesn't sit well with me either. It is also a way to make money so we have to be aware of that also.

MK Mancos/Kathleen Scott/Kate Davison said...

Hi, my name is Kate and I'm a judging whore. Yes, I love to judge contests. I can't seem to help myself. I love to get into the nitty-gritty of helping a writer learn something they maybe didn't know before. Or see some aspect of their writing they can improve.

I won the first contest I ever entered. The judge was either a well known agent or editor, I'm not sure now...this was some time ago. However, I was never asked for a copy of my story. I never heard from the judge. My disappointment was acute. My dreams dashed. Lesson learned. I think this is an important point to add to your all-too-true list-- just because an agent or editor is judging the final round doesn't necessarily mean they'll see something in your work they'll want to represent or buy. It just means you had the best entry of those available. In this business whether you win a contest or pitch at a conference and are asked for a partial or full, there are no guarantees.

Something else about contest fees. Back before electronic entries were all the rage, I could see the entry fee as a way to cover the cost of postage to send entries to judges all over the country, more so than a revenue generator. Now, however, most contests like the eletronic format, thus negating the need for a 25-35 dollar fee to help cover postage. And yet, we haven't seen the entry fees come down. The certificates or trinkets people get for win, place or show are hardly worth $25, especially if made on someone's Photoshop program or purchased in bulk. So, yeah, I'm right there with you. Though I love judging contests, I think a writer deserves more for their money than dashed hopes and empty pockets.


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