The Control Freak’s Guide to Contests

Contests can give your career a serious boost. They can provide feedback and credentials and raise your profile. Of course, there’s the subjectivity factor, as well as the randomness of the judging and the uncertainty of the outcome, all factors designed to make control freaks crazy. ?

Yet the benefits make contests worth entering anyway. At least, I think so. I’m an acknowledged control freak, a personality trait I usually manage to restrain in the interests of not making the people around me nuts!

All judging factors for lie beyond your control, but other issues lie squarely within it. Keeping a tight rein on those by following the guidelines below will help the manuscript make the best possible impression and give the control freak something on which to hang her hat.

Tip #1: Read the rules. This means all of them. While this suggestion may seem obvious, many contest entries face disqualification because the author overlooked something clearly stated in the rules.

Tip #2: Print the rules. Relying on memory, especially if you enter more than one contest at a time, is risky. Besides, having a list can generate a sense of control.

Tip #3: Follow the rules for generating the entry. If the contest says chapter of 30 pages and synopsis of no more than five, that doesn’t mean a two-page synopsis lets you send a 33-page chapter. Follow the rules. Extra pages are torn off and thrown away or cause the entry to be disqualified, usually without a refund. The sponsoring chapter controls the rules, but you control your entry’s form.

Tip #4: Use the printed rules as a checklist. The printout should be on the desk while you assemble your packet. Check every single aspect of your entry against it, from the division of pages between synopsis and chapter (s) to header format, margins, etc. Before mailing the packet, check every item in it, including the way the entries are bound, against the rules. Again, this reinforces a sense of control, albeit temporary.

Tip #5: Be sure all the pages are in order. Printers don’t always collate perfectly. Will a coordinator bounce your entry or a judge mark it down because a couple of pages are out of order? Probably not, but such a fixable problem doesn’t make the author look good and can subconsciously affect the judge’s subjective rating.

Tip #6: Follow the rules for mailing. If the rules say to send multiple entries separately or with separate checks, do that. Don’t send entries for multiple categories to a single coordinator and expect her to send or take them to her colleague(s). Send the entries where and how you’re supposed to, which is also good practice for submitting.

If you’ve done all of the above, you’re in control of the usual factors leading to disqualification. You’re exercised control (hooray!) and bulletproofed your entry. Having passed that hurdle, the entry faces actual, subjective judging. Again, there are matters you control that can help create a better impression.

Tip #7: Use good writing mechanics. Another “rules” issue. The occasional misplaced comma won’t kill an entry, but multiple errors in spelling and grammar can leave a subconscious impression that you don’t know what she’s doing. Avoiding that fate lies within your control.

Tip #8 Avoid ending in the middle of a sentence. This may seem obvious to you, but it isn’t to some authors. Having part of a sentence as the last thing the judge reads leads to a “huh?” reaction and looks sloppy. If you don’t have enough pages to send a whole scene, find a good place to break it. Which leads to . . .

Tip #9 End on a hook. I’ve been told this by many published authors with excellent contest credentials. When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. The hook leaves the reader wanting more, which generally leads to a higher score. As those many authors advised me, a relationship hook is best in a romance, but a plot hook will do. The author controls where the entry ends and, thus, the final impression it leaves.

Entering contests exposes your work to other people’s subjective opinions. So does submitting to editors and, after you publish, putting the book out for reviews. In all of those processes, you control very little, so it makes sense to exercise control over the parts you can to make the best possible impression.