Friday, January 31, 2020

Conflicted About Contests by Sarah Loudin Thomas

Sarah Loudin Thomas
Have you entered writing contests—as a published or unpublished author? If not, have you considered it? Author Sarah Loudin Thomas shares her personal experiences and some insight. ~ Dawn

Conflicted About Contests

Carol, Rita, Christy, Inspy, Selah, Genesis, First Impressions, Badge of Honor . . . and those are just the ones I’m most familiar with.

Some contests are for pre-published authors, some for published, some for traditionally published, some for independent, and some mix it up. And only ONE story wins in each category. Which can leave those who DON’T win feeling . . . less than.

I coordinate a contest for pre-published authors at the Asheville Christian Writers Conference and here’s what I know about contests . . . are you ready for this? They are TOTALLY subjective. Scores can vary widely, which is why at least three judges per entry is ideal.

I entered a contest before being published. One judge gave the entry a near-perfect score while another, well, clearly thought it could have been better. MUCH better.

This past year I saw a dream come true—one of my stories was nominated for a Christy Award. I was over the moon! I adore the novel, Christy, especially since it’s set in my beloved Appalachian Mountains. Catherine Marshall even lived in my home state of West Virginia for a while. It’s the award I dreamed of when I signed the contract for that first novel.

I didn’t win, but as I watched each awardee mount the steps to the podium I turned my attention to the rest of the room. Way more authors remained in their seats than stepped on that stage. Not to mention the exceptional authors who weren’t even in the room. Goodness, I had some favorites last year that weren’t even on the list of nominations!

Which begs the question—why bother with contests?

For pre-published authors, I think it’s incredibly valuable when you get feedback and/or opportunities. Judges’ scores can point you toward weaknesses and strengths in your writing. Being a finalist or winning can sometimes get you in front of editors and/or agents. So if you’re starting out, jump into the fray! I entered multiple contests that provided invaluable input for improving my writing.

But what about the contests for published authors? What good is winning one of those?

  • For better sales? After signing my first contract I asked my editor if winning awards helped with sales. Not really. Okay, that’s probably not why.
  • For the prestige? Maybe a little bit. I mean, it IS fun to sit upfront at the ceremony and have folks congratulate you. Plus, you usually get something pretty to put on your shelf.
  • For the affirmation? Hmmm. This may be getting closer. Did I mention writing is subjective? Having a panel of judges say, “This is good,” is something of a relief. Writers are notorious for self-doubt.
  • For the credentials? Well, it’s certainly nice! If you read my bio you’ll see I mention some of the awards I’ve received or been nominated for. It’s a way of saying that someone thought my story was better than average!
  • To support organizations for writers? I love this one. Quite a few contests use entry fees for things like scholarships or to support an organization that provides services for writers. Even if you don’t final or win, you can feel good about supporting other writers.

I go back and forth on contests. I think they’re a wonderful tool for writers yet to be published, but I’m conflicted about entering now that I have some books under my belt. I guess the trick is to get real with myself about why I’m entering (or if I was nominated, why I hope to win).

So how about you? Do you think contests are valuable?

Why bother with writing contests? #seriouslywrite #encouragementforwriters via @SarahAnneThomas
Author Sarah Loudin Thomas shares reasons why writing contests may be valuable—and why they might not be helpful. #seriouslywrite #encouragementforwriters via @SarahAnneThomas

When Silence Sings
When Silence Sings

For years, Serepta McClean has towered over the coal-filled hills of West Virginia, taking more than her share of legal and illegal trade alike. She’s intent on securing the future of the McClean name, despite two unreliable sons and a long-standing feud with the Harpe clan that’s exploded once again into violence.

While many fear her, and many more despise her, few dare to stand against her. Especially not someone like Colman Harpe–a railroad man with dreams of being a preacher. And yet it’s a reluctant Colman, Serepta’s sworn enemy, who finds himself in this powerful woman’s territory, supposedly sent there by God himself to share stories of love and hope.

With the feud growing ever more dangerous, putting the entire region at risk, these two impossibly different people find themselves on a collision course. And the very lives of everyone close to them will be changed forever.

Sarah Loudin Thomas grew up on a 100-acre farm in French Creek, WV, the seventh generation to live there. Her Christian fiction is set in West Virginia and celebrates the people, the land, and the heritage of Appalachia. Sarah is a fund-raiser for a children’s ministry who has time to write because she doesn’t have children of her own. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Coastal Carolina University and is the author of the acclaimed novels The Sound of Rain and Miracle in a Dry Season–winner of the 2015 Inspy Award. Sarah has also been a finalist for the Christy Award, ACFW Carol Award and the Christian Book of the Year Award. She and her husband live near Asheville, NC.

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  1. Great post, Sarah. I had a similar experience as yours the first time I entered a contest. One judge thought the entry was fantastic (near perfect) whereas another was highly critical (also almost no constructive feedback). The third judge was somewhere in the middle (a bit like Goldilocks and the Three Bears). Because of the experience I didn't enter any contests for a couple of years. Then I realized it was a great way to get feedback. I even managed to final a couple of times. I think contests can be useful/helpful if an author does understand the subjectivity of them.

    1. Yes! I figured if one judge mentioned something I would think about it. If two or three did, I probably needed to address it! It also helps us develop that much needed thick skin . . .

  2. Sarah, thanks so much for this post. I'm at the why do I enter contests stage. I've entered and won. Entered and not won. I continue to reevaluate my reasons and go from there.

  3. Thanks for sharing your experiences and thoughts on contests, Sarah! I entered contests as an unpublished author and was confused by the difference in opinions that I received, but I tried to be discerning and learn what I could from the feedback.

    Since publishing, I've been encouraged by several readers to enter contests, but I haven't at this point. I've wondered if they were actually helpful or not - if they really mattered to readers. Your article has given me some things to consider.

  4. You addressed this topic very well. Thank you for your insight. I recently entered one of my published books in a major contest. I am also conflicted about them, but felt I wanted to try for many reasons. My experience with entering contests has been very mixed and on the negative side too often. Feedback is my issue, and who is judging the contest. In one contest I received feedback from unqualified judges, one of whom made snide correction comments about things she knew nothing about for my particular historical fiction. This made me not enter anything for a long time. I agree with you, subjectivity, risks, and motives are all something to think about.

    1. Oh, I hear you! I coordinate a small contest and always check judges' comments before passing them on. I also have AMAZING judges who understand the importance of encouraging while also pointing up areas for improvement.

  5. I've only entered a couple of contests (because entry fees add up), and I've never gotten far enough to receive any feedback. I have to ask myself. If the main reason is to receive valuable feedback, why not just hire a writing coach or join a mastermind by writers who know how to critique and give feedback in a constructive, positive manner while really wanting to help you grow?


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