RWA Chapter Contest Data

RWA Take the Lead Golden Heart certificateContests are something of a hot topic. Some writers don’t see the point of them, while others are hesitant to break out of the safety of the contest circuit. I think chapter contests can be useful if you’re clear on what you hope to get out of them. In the last year, I’ve submitted sixteen entries to twelve RWA chapter contests. For most, I had my eye on the final judges, who are often agents and editors. It worked—I received requests from a contest, which led to offers of representation and publication. For others, I wanted feedback, to see how the piece was received and if it fit the genre.

I read a blog post by Angi Morgan where she compiled the comments she’d received from various contests, and it made me curious about my own results. I’ve submitted opening pages from four unpublished manuscripts in different categories and tried to draw conclusions. Here are the stats:

Title: Take the Lead (formerly Feel the Rhythm)
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Contests entered: 6
Finals: 4
Wins: 3

Title: The Art of Loving a Duke
Genre: Historical Romance
Contests entered: 2
Finals: 1
Wins: 1

Title: Venus Rising (formerly Aphrodite’s Heart)
Genre: Paranormal Romance
Contests entered: 7 (3x as contemporary, 4x as paranormal)
Finals: 1
Wins: (Winners announced end of August)

Title: Say Please
Genre: Sci-Fi Erotic Romance novella
Contests entered: 1
Finals: 0
Wins: 0

I like crunching data, and contests offer a lot to crunch. In the interest of time, I’ve compiled the scores, averages, entry lengths, and results. In each case where I finaled, I incorporated the first round feedback before submitting for the final round. Results are included at the end, in case you want to jump right to the conclusions and takeaways.

 

CONCLUSIONS

 

Take the Lead benefits from a strong hook and heavily revised opening chapters, since it started as a proposal for a publisher’s open call. I think this helped its performance in contests and with querying, and ultimately publication. It releases October 3rd.

Venus Rising gets the widest range of scores and comments. Based on early beta reader feedback, I tried pitching it as contemporary with fantasy elements, and entered it into the contemporary category in three contests. Two docked points for it, but one didn’t mention it at all. After that, I revised the opening pages and entered it in the correct categories. Still, the scores and comments vary across the board.

The Art of Loving a Duke is an example where two judges loved it, and one judge gave extensive comments but low scores. Since the lowest score was dropped, I made it to the finals, and the first round score acted as a tie-breaker for the final round. This is why I don’t consider my results in comparison to the other entries. There are too many other factors at play, too many judges, and too many rules. Even though all the entries are being judged with the same scoresheets, the criteria are interpreted differently by each judge.

Say Please has only been sent to one contest, since it’s an erotic novella and many contests don’t allow one or the other. It’s different from everything else I’ve written, and I was curious to see how it would be received by readers who aren’t my friends. I wanted unbiased anonymous feedback, so I entered a contest specific to this type of story, which also allowed novellas. Overall, the story premise and characters were positively received, which was what I was hoping to find out.

 

TAKEAWAYS

 

  • In many cases, the judges who gave the lowest scores also took the most time to offer feedback and craft advice.
  • Contests are great exposure to how subjective the publishing industry is. On the same entry, you can have a judge who thinks the story is near perfect, and another who thinks it’s barely beyond a rough draft. 
  • If you’re just starting out, contests can also be a great way to get feedback and craft advice, but not all judges take the time to do this. Judging contests is a lot of work, and I appreciate every single one of the judges who took the time to read and score my entries.
  • Make sure you’re working on your technical skills and sending in entries that are clean of errors. A lot of contests grade on this stuff, and it’s an easy way to keep points.
  • Contests that require more pages/words give you a better chance of sweeping the reader up in the story, but you should still have a strong hook and good tension from the beginning. And if the contest requires shorter entries, get your protagonists on the page, preferably together, even if it requires some trimming just for the entry. I sometimes trim entries to get to a good stopping point within the required word/page count.
  • Contests with shorter entry requirements can let you know if a hook is working, and help you decide which WIPs to sink your efforts into.
  • My favorite contests: The Suzannah and the Golden Heart®. The GH offers a great experience and community for finalists. If you’re eligible, I highly recommend you enter. The Suzannah puts all entries in the same pool, whether you are published or unpublished, and regardless of subgenre. It’s a good way for published authors to test out a new idea, and for unpublished authors to get in front of six final round agent and editor judges.

 

On to the contest results!

 

TAKE THE LEAD

 

Suzannah contest trophy 2016 Alexis DariaContest name, chapter, year: Suzannah, NOLA Stars (Northern Louisiana), 2016
Total score: 200
Manuscript: Take the Lead (entered as Feel the Rhythm)
Result: Grand Prize Winner, 4 (out of 6) judge requests, which led to 1 offer of pub and 2 offers of rep
Entry length: 7,200 words including synopsis (25 pages)
Judge 1: 196
Judge 2: 198
Judge 3: 198
Average with lowest score dropped: 198/200
Notes: This contest led to me accepting offers when I did. It’s unique in that it’s open to published and unpublished authors and doesn’t separate by genre/category.

 

great expectations contest first place graphicContest name, chapter, year: Great Expectations, North Texas RWA, 2017
Total score: 100
Manuscript: Take the Lead, Single Title
Result: First Place
Entry length: 5,000 words (19 pages)
Judge 1: 100
Judge 2: 94
Judge 3: 86
Average: 93.3/100
Notes: I received enthusiastic feedback and good notes, although there were significant delays in announcing finalists and winners.

 

RWA golden heart finalist graphicContest name, chapter, year: Golden Heart, RWA, 2017
Total score:
Manuscript: Take the Lead, Contemporary
Result: Finalist
Entry length: 50 pages, plus synopsis
Judge 1: 9.5
Judge 2: 9.5
Judge 3: 9.3
Judge 4: 9.6
Judge 5: 9.4
Average with lowest & highest scores dropped: 9.467/10
Notes: I used the Golden Heart deadline as my date for getting the manuscript ready to query. I entered thinking that if I finaled, it would help me reach my goals (agent and book deal). Maybe it helped with the publication offers, but I have no way of knowing, since everything was already in play before the announcement. However, I truly recommend entering, because a Golden Heart final comes with a built-in community of other writers who offer encouragement, commiseration, a sounding board, and advice. I had a great time at the RWA national conference spending time with these amazing ladies. This is not a contest for feedback, but rather for a step up toward publishing. You can use CPs, beta readers, and other chapter contests to help you revise before you enter the GH. 

 

Contest name, chapter, year: California Hooker, 2017
Manuscript: Take the Lead
Result: X
Entry length: First 3 pages
Notes: “Due to the volume of entries and their short length, we do not give feedback or return scores for this contest.”

 

Take the Lead fire and ice contest first place certificateContest name, chapter, year: Fire & Ice, Chicago North RWA, 2017
Total score: 100
Manuscript: Take the Lead, Contemporary Long
Result: First Place
Entry length: 3,000 words plus query letter (10 pages)
Judge 1: 90
Judge 2: 96
Judge 3: 91
Average with lowest score dropped: 93.5/100
Notes: I removed the author paragraph from my query letter because contest entries are usually supposed to be anonymous, but one first round judge and one final round judge mentioned its absence. I found it strange that they expected it to be included, but the query wasn’t scored anyway.

 

Contest name, chapter, year: Stiletto Contest, CRW, 2017
Total score: 95
Manuscript: Take the Lead, Unpublished Contemporary Romance Long
Result: X
Entry length: First 7,000 words or first 3 chapters (26 pages), plus 500-word synopsis
Judge 1: 87.7
Judge 2: 91.1
Judge 3: 76.5
Average: 85.1/95
Notes: The first judge gave me detailed comments for every section of the scoresheet. The second judge didn’t give much in the way of notes, but the other two seemed to be in accord regarding some elements they didn’t like. It’s something I addressed in edits.

 

THE ART OF LOVING A DUKE

 

Contest name, chapter, year: Fabulous Five, Wisconsin RWA, 2017
Total score: 60
Manuscript: The Art of Loving a Duke, Historical
Result: X
Entry length: <2,500 words (9 pages)
Judge 1: 39.
Judge 2: 49.
Judge 3: 49.
Average with lowest score dropped: 49/60
Notes: This contest provides the ranking. I was 15 out of 22. The lowest scoring judge gave me very sweet feedback and included two pages of general writing craft advice. Quality feedback overall from all three judges. I also need to note that the hero isn’t even introduced in the first nine pages of this draft, and I changed this before entering the next contest.

 

The Art of Loving a Duke historical romance fire and ice contest first place certificateContest name, chapter, year: Fire & Ice, Chicago North RWA, 2017
Total score: 100
Manuscript: The Art of Loving a Duke, Historical
Result: First Place
Entry length: 3,000 words plus query letter (10 pages)
Judge 1: 99
Judge 2: 98
Judge 3: 78
Average with lowest score dropped: 98.5/100
Notes: The lowest score was dropped, but the judge who gave me a 78 also provided an incredible amount of useful feedback. In the final round: “Due to a 3-way tie among the finalists, the Preliminary Combined Score was added back in. You placed first in the preliminary round.” Unlike the previous contest which got 9 pages of this manuscript, this entry introduces the hero. For the final round, I changed the order of the scenes, which I suspected needed to be done, and contest feedback confirmed.

 

VENUS RISING

 

Contest name, chapter, year: Indiana Golden Opportunity (IGO), Indiana RWA, 2016
Total score: 260
Manuscript: Venus Rising (entered as Aphrodite’s Heart), Contemporary Romance
Result: X
Entry length: 53 pages, plus synopsis
Judge 1: 171.
Judge 2: 193.
Average: 182/260
Notes: IGO provides a ranking with the scores of all the entries. Mine was in the middle. At this point, I was trying to see if I could pitch this manuscript as “contemporary romance with light fantasy elements.” I couldn’t. Both judges noted that they docked points for entering the wrong category, but liked the story overall. The 2nd judge provided really excellent notes and guidance.

 

Contest name, chapter, year: Put Your Heart In A Book (PYHIAB), NJRW, 2016
Total score: 145
Manuscript: Venus Rising (entered as Aphrodite’s Heart), Single Title Contemporary
Result: X
Entry length: Chapter 1 (18 pages), plus synopsis
Judge 1: 136
Judge 2: 85
Judge 3: 105 (discrepancy)
Average with lowest score dropped: 120.5/145
Notes: There was a discrepancy with my entry, so I received an extra scoresheet. “Your two scores were too far apart. I dropped the lowest score and averaged the top two for the ranking.” The funny thing is, based on the comments, the lower-scoring judge seemed to like the story more than the discrepancy-breaking judge did. I entered PYHIAB at the same time as IGO, so it was also entered in the contemporary category. Lesson learned! Aside from my category blunder, comments were all over the board. For example, Judge 1 said, “The opening certainly grabs my attention.” Judge 2 said, “Opening caught my interest…” And the third judge said, “The opening is confusing.”

 

Contest name, chapter, year: Linda Howard Award of Excellence, Southern Magic (Birmingham), 2016
Total score: 100
Manuscript: Venus Rising (entered as Aphrodite’s Heart), Contemporary
Result: X
Entry length: 5,000 words (17 pages)
Judge 1: 82
Judge 2: 92
Judge 3: 90.5
Average with lowest score dropped: 91.25/100
Notes: Interestingly enough, while I also entered the contemporary category for this contest, none of the judges mentioned that it should have been paranormal. The lowest scoring judge provided the most feedback, and the highest gave no comments at all, just score numbers.

 

Contest name, chapter, year: California Hooker, (East Valley Authors, Los Angeles Romance Authors, Orange County Chapter – RWA, RWA – San Diego Chapter), 2017
Manuscript: Venus Rising (entered as Aphrodite’s Heart)
Result: X
Entry length: First 3 pages
Notes: “Due to the volume of entries and their short length, we do not give feedback or return scores for this contest.”

 

Contest name, chapter, year: Fire & Ice, Chicago North RWA, 2017
Total score: 100
Manuscript: Venus Rising, Wildcard
Result: X
Entry length: 3,000 words plus query letter (10 pages)
Judge 1: 81.
Judge 2: 91.
Judge 3: 77.
Average with lowest score dropped: 86/100
Notes: Interesting feedback. The first judge said they would ask for an R&R. The second wanted to read more. The third said they would not request, based on the query.

 

Venus Rising golden rose finalist graphicContest name, chapter, year: Golden Rose, Rose City Romance Writers, 2017
Total score: 170
Manuscript: Venus Rising, Fantasy, Futuristic, & Paranormal
Result: Finalist (results announced end of August)
Entry length: 10,000 words / 35 pages
Judge 1: 169
Judge 2: 139
Judge 3: 148
Average: 152/170
Notes: These judges provided useful comments about pacing, which I took into account when polishing the entry for the final round, although there were some differing opinions about a secondary character.

 

Contest name, chapter, year: On the Far Side, FF&P, 2017
Total score: 150
Manuscript: Venus Rising, Urban Fantasy
Result: X
Entry length: 20 pages, including synopsis
Judge 1: 85
Judge 2: 136
Judge 3: 141
Judge 4: 115
Average: 119.3/150
Notes: The judges who gave lower scores also gave more comments on the score sheets. From these judges, I got both, “for me there was too much background information,” and “would have like a little more background information.”

 

SAY PLEASE

 

Contest name, chapter, year: On the Far Side, FF&P, 2017
Total score: 150
Manuscript: Say Please, entered as Erotic but moved to Sci-Fi
Result: X
Entry length: 20 pages, including synopsis
Judge 1: 149
Judge 2: 115
Judge 3: 102
Judge 4: 132
Average: 124.5
Notes: I was worried when the erotic category was dropped and my entry moved into sci-fi, but only the third judge mentioned it. I didn’t indicate that it was a novella, but the first judge said, “The plot and conflicts have been given enough detail to show it is easily enough to sustain a full read.” The fourth judge said, however, “Although the characters and the story kept my attention, the synopsis suggests that difficulties are resolved so rapidly that there may not be enough material to sustain a full novel.”

 

If you’ve gotten this far, I salute you, and I hope this was helpful. The nice thing about most RWA chapter contests is that you’re guaranteed feedback. Again, not all first round judge comments are useful, but you know you’re getting something. And if you final, it’s a good way to stand out from the slush pile and get across an agent or editor’s desk.

What has been your experience with chapter contests? Let me know if you have any questions!

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