Agency Lesson: Contests

Here in Texas, the end of summer means only one thing: Friday Night Football. But in the writing community it's contest time. Here's the good, the bad and the cautionary.
The Good
I love contests. They are a great introduction to putting your work out there and a wonderful way to meet other writers and get involved in our happy little community. You don't have to look long to find a contest posted along with gleeful lists of past winners and their current successes (signing with agents, getting deals, meeting Oprah...okay maybe not that last one).

Another great aspect of contests is the mass effect. Here you have a chance to "send" one query and get it reviewed by a fair number of agents. The exact number will depend on the contest, but there is definitely a "more bang for your buck" situation here. Not only that, but occasionally agents who are closed to submissions will participate in contests, giving writers a chance to send their query to someone they might not otherwise have a chance to work with.

The Bad
Contests can be a bit of a dice roll. You have tons of entrants with maybe only a handful of agents making requests or picking winners. When the contest you enter has six participating agents, this is the odds equivalent to sending six blind queries. You don't get to hand-pick the agents or tailor your entry to their style or preferences. There's not anything inherently bad about that, but it's hard to keep that in perspective when you're in the midst of the contest frenzy. They are exciting and fun, and when you're having fun, you aren't really thinking about the logistics that only a few of the participating agents are even looking for your genre. So don't let a non-win make you think you aren't going to make it or that you're a bad writer. Contests are a bit like slot machines. You can hit it big with one pull of the handle, but this is not where most writers will find their agent.

The Cautionary
Some of the best contests, in my opinion, are those that allow entrants to get feedback on their submission. And not just from agents, but also from the writing community. There's nothing like having 20 people all say "this opening page is too slow" to show you exactly why your aren't getting manuscript requests. But be careful here. Remember that the people commenting can be anyone. I've never run across a case of a commenter being intentionally misleading, but just because someone doesn't mean to lead you astray doesn't mean that they aren't. Make sure you don't make sweeping changes to your manuscript based off a single person's feedback. And trust your gut. If you get some feedback or advice that doesn't sit right with you, either ignore it or reach out and ask others.

So are contests worth it? Yes and No. It all depends on where you are in your writing journey, what you hope to get out of the contest, and your own maturity as a writer. Overall, I think most contests are awesome and the amazing writers who give up their time each year to organize them are heroes of our industry. If you're willing to go in with realistic expectations and a healthy dose of consideration, a contest can be the magical unicorn you've been waiting for.

Because let's be honest...we all want a magical unicorn.

Have you entered any contests lately? What has your experience been like? Any advice you'd give to a writer considering their first contest?