If you’re a writer, I’m sure you’ve entered more than your share of contests. Or if you’re a reader, maybe you’ve seen your favorite authors posting about the results of writing contests. Have you ever wondered what it takes to run a writing contest? You haven’t? Me either. Not really. But today I’m going to tell you everything you didn’t know you wanted to know about contests.
Contests for writers, especially, new writers, are so important. I remember the first one I entered…ah…sigh. I just knew I’d win it hands down, the final judges would fight over my manuscript and I’d be on the NYT best seller list in no time. Imagine my shock when I got…gulp…below average scores! And the comments! Oh the comments! The comments were filled with phrases I’d never heard. Head-hopping? Shallow POV? Abundant use of –ly adjectives? Showing not telling? What the heck were they talking about? After I got done crying, I pulled up my big girl panties and started studying the craft of writing. If I’d never entered a contest, I would’ve continued to sail along, blissfully thinking my writing was wonderful and wondering why I wasn’t getting an immediate contract on the manuscripts I’d submitted.
But I digress. I’m here to tell you about how contests work. I’m a member of the online chapter of From the Heart Romance Writers and I’ve found the chapter to be extremely valuable. When they put out a desperate plea for a contest chair for the next year, I eagerly volunteered. I’d been a category coordinator the year before and it was a piece of cake. The contest was open for submission from June 1 to June 30th and I would be out of school for the summer, so the timing couldn’t have been better.
WHAT WAS I THINKING?!? Until now, I had no idea how much work it takes for a chapter to run a writing contest. The contest wasn’t open for submissions until June 1, but my work started in January. I reviewed all the past chairman’s notes, began to email editors and agents to set up final judges, formed a contest committee to review problems from the previous year and propose changes. Once the changes were approved, it was time to recruit a coordinator for each category of the contest. The Pages From the Heart Contest is one of the few that offer separate divisions for both published and unpublished authors. With 7 categories, I needed 14 coordinators plus one for our special “Hero of Our Heart” award. Then there were spreadsheets to update, judging guidelines to review, dates to nail down for when entries had to be returned, announcement of finalists and announcement of winners. And most important, I had to remember to advertise the contest in the RWR months before the contest was set to begin. Between teaching school all day and running a tumbling business at night, I was exhausted and it wasn’t even April yet!
Finally, June arrived. Submissions began. Every entry had to be checked to verify word count before the category coordinator could assign it an entry number. During this time, I began begging for first round judges. I will say that this is where the writing community shines! Chapters passed along a request for judges and by the end, I had over 130 judges volunteer. I was planning on going to the National RWA convention in San Diego on July 13. That gave me roughly 12 days to assign 3 judges to each entry. It should be easy, right? Except that you have to make sure the entrant couldn’t be in the same critique group as a judge, the entry didn’t contain elements the judge wasn’t comfortable judging and because contestants often volunteer to judge as well, you have to make sure that you don’t put assign them entries in the same category they entered. (Truth: When I was juggling numbers, I almost assigned a judge her own entry.)
During the judging time, you still juggle entries. Sometimes a judge receives an entry that they just can’t judge fairly. Maybe they really hate secret baby stories. Or they aren’t comfortable judging stories with erotic elements. Whatever the reason, you reassign those entries to give the contestant the best shot of having their entry judged fairly. Then you get a temporary lull while waiting for the deadline for judges to return entries. Well, I say lull because the number of daily emails I received asking questions or having issues dropped from about five a day to just one or two.
There were five days from the judging deadline until the day finalists were supposed to be announced. At the end of the deadline, I had only 20 entries that hadn’t been returned. Twenty out of 534. I thought that was outstanding. Once again, the writing community came through. I put out an all call for last minute judges and got almost fifty volunteers. AMAZING! Everyone jumped in and helped out and I was able to get all the entries judged and announced the finalists on time.
It’ll be another two months before I’m done with my duties as the contest chair. The category coordinators are returning scored entries to all the contestants and sending the finalists’ entries to the final judges. Once those are returned, we announce the winner and I can wrap up by making a list of issues and successes for next year’s contest chairman. And I can get back to what contests helped me do to begin with. Be the best writer I can be.