Agency Lessons: Should you enter that contest?

Agency Lessons is a weekly post that gives authors and readers an inside look into the mind of a literary agent and a peek behind the curtain of how books are made.
Seems like every week I see a new contest popping up on Twitter or Facebook. There are contests for everything from the first line only to your whole manuscript. As a writer, I can see where you might start to wonder if these contests are worth it.

Many of these contests include active agents as judges or offer them the opportunity to request manuscript from participants. Of course, this doesn't really get you anything you couldn't get from just querying. Others offer critiques from established authors. Again, this is fantastic, but not something you can't find outside of a contest.

Before you think I'm anti-contest, let me tell you why I think you should enter them.

Success breeds confidence and that often leads to more success.

Winning a contest, getting requests from agents, and even being selected for someone's team is a big victory for a writer still searching out their path to publication. Even if the contest doesn't offer something you can't get elsewhere, it's worth it to enter for the mental game.

Publishing is a long road. It's often lonely and it's chock full of people saying now. Contests are a way to get involved in the writing community and gain some successes, even if they don't directly lead you to publication.

Now...there are a few caution flags I would throw up before you enter any contest.

1. Make it fresh
Agents like to peruse these contests for fresh manuscripts, and there will be more agents looking at your work than just the ones officially listed. When I see the same manuscript submitted to the same contest in back-to-back years, it's an immediate turn off.

Why? I have to immediately wonder why this author hasn't written something new. Is this author so hung up on this manuscript that they are unable to move on? Are they so committed to it that they won't be able to accept it if an agent is unable to sell it to an editor? Have they edited it to death so now it's nothing more than a shell of other people's suggestions? Just don't do it.

2. Make sure you're ready
If you enter your first 5 pages in a contest and an agent requests the full, you had better be ready with a shiny and polished full manuscript. It can be tempting to jump into a contest when you've got something you think is great, but unless the contest specifically states unfinished manuscripts are accepted, don't do it. Trust me, there will be more contests.

3. Make it worth your time
Most contests are run by established authors or bloggers, and there are plenty of them that I would highly recommend. That said, there are also some that don't really offer you anything as a writer and some could be harmful. For example, if there is feedback make sure it comes from a respected source. Not everyone with a website knows what they are doing and I've seen some feedback that could do more harm than help. Also, check out what you can win. While gift cards are great, what you really want is the chance to get your work in front of agents or editors. Make sure the contest will help you move forward in your career.

So should you enter that contest? If you've got a fresh, fully edited manuscript and the contest gets you a solid critique and/or access to agents, go for it!