Want to know if your work is any good before you start the query process? Enter a contest. Want to boost your credibility? Enter a contest (and at least become a finalist).
I’ve always entered my works into contests. Haven’t always liked the results or some of the judges’ comments, but on the whole, I think they’re worthwhile. My first one was a killer, but even it would’ve been graded a “C.” I didn’t flunk–I just had a lot of stuff to work on.
And that’s one of the points of entering writing contests. You can discover your weaknesses and work to strengthen them. If, all this time, you’ve convinced yourself that you’re the master dialogue-crafter, and three out of three judges say “uh-uh!” then you know you have to work on that. Often you can even ask the judges after the contest is over to tell you what is wrong with your dialogue and solicit suggestions to fix it. Most judges will be happy to help.
Keep in mind that the judges are human with their own likes and dislikes. You may come across one who simply doesn’t like what you’ve written. Take whatever’s of value in their critique and move on. But do the same with the judge who thinks your work is the best thing since the World Wide Web. If they have comments of value, take ’em and move on. Well, bask in the glory for a while, then move on. Truth is, you’re probably in between somewhere. Most authors, regardless of how many books they’ve written, have room for improvement.
Especially for published and self-published authors, enter contests that mean something. Generally that means having to pay an entry fee. Pay it and deduct it from your taxes as a business expense. Or have your publisher pay it.
A lot of contests are based on popularity, and the author with the biggest list of email addresses and the most Twitter followers and Facebook fans is guaranteed to win those every time. All they need to do is to send out a note to go to “this site” and hit the “like” button by their book title. Next thing you know, they have an “award-winning” novel.
Writer’s Digest now has a contest for self-published works. If there are others, I’m not aware of them. For traditionally published authors, every genre has its ultimate award, just like every genre has its own organization. Sometimes you don’t have to belong to the organization to enter the contest, but it’s best to join organizations that specialize in your genre–the benefits are outstanding. Aside from the contests, you get to learn from the masters of your craft. How to tweek your Sci-Fi. How to add zest to your Romance. How to stupify your Mystery readers. Again, yep–there are costs involved. If you’re serious about your craft, pay them. Membership is worth it, and it’s tax deductible.
BTW: Did you know that you don’t have to be a published author to deduct your business expenses? It’s true. Talk to your CPA or favorite H&R Block expert. Believe me, nothing makes you feel more professional than telling the IRS that you’re an author. Of course, after a while, they’re gonna want to see some income to go along with all those deductibles, so you’d better be earnest about this business.
Back to the point: enter your work into serious contests and see how it does. If you’re unpublished, you can learn quite a bit from the comments the judges make, and if you win or final, that fact will look mighty pretty in your query letter. Even if you’re published, you can learn quite a bit from the comments. And if you win, your next cover can say, “Award Winning Author.” Never know. That little blurb could boost sales.