Last week, I talked about some of the ways a writer could make contact with editors. Another excellent route is to enter contests.
There are a number of reasons why contests can be extremely helpful to the beginning writer. The fresh feedback from judges can help improve your writing. You learn to meet deadlines by buckling down and finishing whatever amount of a story is needed for the entry. Contests reinforce the need for professional, neat formatting for a submission (no pink paper or elegant script!) and the importance of following submission guidelines. The judges' feedback can help you develop of tougher skin when it comes to finding out that your "baby" isn't as perfect as you think. And finaling (or placing!) helps build name recognition for you.
And when you've worked and worked at your craft, and are getting closer to being publishable, contests are a great way to make contact with any editors or agents who are serving as final round judges. If you've made that final round and they like what they read, they may request your full manuscript--which nicely side-steps the process of writing query letters. Query letters and brief synopses are an art unto themselves, so being able to get your work directly into the hands of editors and agents is a definite plus!
Before I sold, I submitted only one query "blind"--without any previous contest contact with the editor. As required, I sent a query letter and a two-page synopsis. Nine months later, I got a nice personal rejection letter, but the editor didn't encourage me to re-write and re-submit that project. She said the story wasn't suitable for their line.
In the meantime, the first chapter and synopsis of that same project finaled in a contest, and guess who, by chance, was on the final round judging panel! Now, she had to read my first chapter, and not just my lame attempt at a query letter. When I got my contest entry and scores back, she'd attached her business card to the first page and wrote: "Please send this full manuscript to me."
The query that I'd sent earlier was probably poorly done, but a contest offered a second chance with that editor. Another perk is that such a request means one is sending material to an editor who already thinks she might like it, and is asking to see more!
So..for those of you who are writing: have you entered any writing contests? What did you think? Were they useful?