Contests have been in the news lately.  A Texas woman sued Harlequin after they published a novel that she believed was stolen from her after she entered it in a contest.

She lost.  Her novel wasn’t completed and only a portion had been sent into the contest where Harlequin Romance may have supplied judges.

Agents aren’t necessarily impressed with contest results either.  Literary agent Chip MacGregor, whose recent post on contests is quite enlightening, is only swayed by them when the contest is a major one – such as Paris Literary Prize.

You should know, he doesn’t appear to be a fan of contests and absolutely detests judging them.  And I think it is fair to say that as writers, we shouldn’t wait for external validation in order to know our worth.  That being said, I have found that the few I have participated in were worthwhile.

For instance, following the rules set forth by the contest guidelines is a great way to learn how to self-edit.  Cutting pieces to fit into the allowable word limit has helped me enormously.  Maya Angelou once apologized for the length of an article saying, “If I had been allowed more time, I would have used fewer words.”

It also teaches patience.  When you send a piece off to a contest, it will usually be a while before you know anything.  The first time I entered one, I put the date the winners would be announced on the calendar and didn’t look at the site again until all those long months later.

It was agonizing.  I thought I had made a mistake.  They were going to hate it, of course they were.  I barely qualified to enter so why had I put myself in that position?

Imagine my delight when it was announced that I had received an honorable mention and that my story would be published on their site!  That taught me that hearing nothing for months is sometimes a good thing. Patience is a virtue.

It has also taught me to respect criticism.  If you are new to that concept, or a fragile writer, being critiqued can be daunting.  But sending it off to people who do not know you or have an axe to grind with you can be a marvelous thing.  It is not personal.  They do not hate you and are not jealous of you.  Listen to their comments.  Learn and adjust.  It is valuable.

Know why you are entering the contest though.  This is the ultimate tip.  Do not lose sight of your reasons for putting your work out there.  Many will enter, few will win or place.

And don’t spend a lot of money on entry fees.  A reading fee can be expected from time to time.  But one that I entered simply sent: “Your entry was not chosen as a winner.”  It was from a site that also sold things, such as writing lessons.  Curiously enough, I was then offered a discount on their classes – since I had entered their contest.  Whoa!  I guess I fell into that one.  I simply paid them to put my name and address on their sales list.

Now, I am a bit more savvy about the ones I enter.  It is rare and only about once or twice a year.  And I like to stick to ones that offer feedback.

How about you?  Have you entered a contest?  If you have, how did it work out for you?  If not, would you?

Renee Johnson is the author of Acquisition, and The Haunting of William Gray.  She is currently working on a Young Adult novel, while editing a suspense novel which has international flair–an homage to her love of travel and foreign food.  She lives on a farm in North Carolina with her husband, Tony Johnson, and one very spoiled German shepherd named Gretel.