Friday, January 15, 2010

Writing Contests--The Pleasure And The Pain

My guest today is British Para-Romance Author, Helen Scott-Taylor. She wrote The Magic Knot, which is where I came into contact with her and her latest book is The Phoenix Charm.

He’s Pure Temptation.

Cordelia has sworn she’ll abstain from looking into Michael’s future—particularly when the image in the gilded smoke of her divination mirror shows him half naked. Yet she can’t resist watching the sexy rascal slowly running his hand down his ribs, over his abdomen, flicking open the button on his jeans with a little flourish like a magician performing a trick.

She’s Trying To Resist.

Respectable wise woman Cordelia restrains her secret water nymph sensuality with the Celtic symbols painted on her skin. But Michael’s powerful fairy glamour leaves her breathless, off balance, struggling for control. When Gwyn ap Nudd, the Welsh King of the Underworld, steals away Michael’s infant nephew, Cordelia must work with him to save the child. But how can she trust her instincts with Michael tempting her to explore the hidden elemental depths of her nature and insisting that she believe in the power of…The Phoenix Charm.

How beneficial is writing contests for an aspiring writer? What can a a contestant do to prepare for such a contest? Helen is a veteran when it comes to contests. She sold her first book after winning the American Title IV contest. She discusses her experiences with writing contests and offers some advice:

Most writers have entered a writing contest or two and writers’ feelings about writing contests seem to be mixed. I’ve read posts on chat loops from authors who’ve had bad contest experiences with critical judges and poor feedback, conversely, I’ve also heard of authors who have sold their first book after winning a contest.

The topic of writing contests is a pertinent one for me because I’m one of those authors who sold a first book through a writing contest. I won the American Title IV contest run jointly by Dorchester Publishing and RT Bookreviews magazine and a publishing contract was the prize for winning.

The American Title contest was unlike most writing contests, being based on American Idol. For five rounds, character studies, story summaries, or book excerpts were published in RT Bookreviews magazine. Each round, the writer whose book received the fewest votes was knocked out.

I also have experience of many conventional writing contests where judges, usually fellow writers, judge the first round, marking and giving feedback on a score sheet before the top three or four entries are passed on to an editor or agent for final judging. There is definitely an element of luck involved. Some judges never mark high no matter how great the entry, while others are overly critical or just plain wrong in their assessment and advice. The funniest comment I ever received from a judge was that my English character sounded too American and I needed to research British English. If only she’d known that I’m British!

Despite all their faults, I found writing contests tremendously helpful in giving me feedback on my writing and in helping me grasp the subtle differences between British English and American English. In the early days when I was new, some contest judges put a lot of time and trouble into explaining to me how to improve my writing. Those judges alone were worth the entry fee.

Later when I started to final in and win contests, the boost to my confidence helped me to forge on toward the goal of publication with renewed enthusiasm. For me the ultimate contest achievement for an unpublished romance author was to final in the Golden Heart. The experience of attending the Romance Writers of America National conference in San Francisco as a finalist was so much fun I wouldn’t have missed it for anything, and the camaraderie among the group of finalists is still important to me two years on.

My writing contest experience has generally been good, and I’d recommend unpublished romance writers to enter RWA chapter contests to gain feedback on their work and also to get in front of the agents and editors who judge the finals. My one proviso would be to check the score sheet first. It is often available on the website of the chapter running the contest. If not, the contest coordinator should let you have a copy. I also recommend that you ask if judges are required to give a reason when they knock off points. Certain contests are known for having good judges and giving good quality feedback. Two that come to mind are The Golden Gateway contest run by FTHRW, an online chapter of RWA, and another is The Golden Pen, run by The Golden Network.

I have recently entered my first book The Magic Knot in a few contests for published books, so I’m now entering a new realm of writing contests. Once again, I feel like the new kid at school!

  • I’d love to hear your experience of writing contests if you’re a writer. If you have entered contests, has the experience been useful or not? If you have chosen not to enter, why not?

I'll be offering a signed copy of The Phoenix Charm to a commenter today.

As a child, when Helen didn’t pay attention her teachers accused her of being away with the fairies. Things haven’t changed much! Only now, the fairies are tall and sexy and they live in her stories rather than just in her head. Helen resides in South Western England near Plymouth with her husband, two teenagers, two Shih Tzus, and a cat who rules the household with a velvet paw. With the rocky cliffs of the Atlantic to the south and the windswept expanse of Dartmoor to the west, she loves to walk in the countryside while she plots her stories. She believes deep within everyone there’s a little magic.

Helen would love to hear from readers. You can find her at


Anna Campbell said...

Ha ha! Is there a Golden Rooster here for me?

Hi Sia! I'll have a decafe latte, thanks. Hi Helen! Lovely to see you here. Congratulations on all the buzz the book is getting!

Actually I'm one of those people who thinks contests have a whole heap of benefits that WAY outweigh any downsides. They get you read by people who have no vested interest in being nice to you - believe me, that's an invaluable experience. They offer you a range of reactions and that's what you'll get from editors and agents and hopefully eventually the general public. Contests get you used to writing professionally presented work to a deadline. If you final or win, it's great encouragement while you're wandering in the unpubbed wilderness. Even encouraging words from a judge can help to keep you going or might help you polish your work to publication standard. And as you say, you can sell from a contest. I didn't exactly sell out of a contest but my double Golden Heart final in 2006 certainly got editors interested in looking at my work. So count me among the contest fans!

Chelle Sandell said...

Great to hear the differing viewpoints. I've had both positive and negative experiences, and I've also heard valid reasons for the reasonings behind why or why not. With money being so tight for me, my choice comes from what the contest can do for me in the long run. Whether or not my ms fit with the final judge or pub/agent.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Helen, welcome to Over Coffee. I'm so glad you could make it. There's plenty of hot coffee, or tea, if you prefer, and breakfast goodies. I make some killer scones, if I do say so myself. :-)

Contests? Oh yes. I've entered a few. I've liked some of the feedback I've gotten. The very first one I entered as an adult brought me into contact with my fabulous writing group, which was more than worth the chanting of OMG OMGOMG as I realized just how much I needed to learn, lol! That was one that marketing/promotion came into play and you had to go through rounds. *shrugs I survived, lol!

~Sia McKye~ said...

Hey Anna, glad to see you stop by. Lovely interview, btw!

I agree, contests are beneficial. Especially some of the RWA contests.

Sherilyn Winrose said...

Entering contests can be a mixed bag, but at the end of the day I've learned more from them and the people I met than I did all by myself.

It toughened my skin too. Not such a bad thing for a writer.

Congratulations on your second novel! These look right up my alley. Must investigate.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I agree - mixed bag. I've entered two. The first book received some good feedback and high marks for characterization. The second one - wow. All I can figure is the judge was a recent, bitter divorcee - she hated the strength of my male character and judging from her comments, she read very little of the book. Guess that kinda turned me off of contests.

Judi Fennell said...

*waves hi from one ATer to another!

And I've had my share of other online contests and can say that they help even if you don't win. You never know who will see it and help out-Sue Grimshaw, buyer for Borders. She helped
e sell. I (obviously) am a HUGE proponent of contests ( The Sheila is now taking entries and we offer feedback fr at least one published author and 3 other judges).

I squeed with Helen at the Rt Convention where they crowned her-what a great moment! Congrats Helen on that win and the new release!

Mason Canyon said...

Wonderful post and an interesting topic. Thanks Sia for introducing me to a great new author. Oh, the scones are delicious. :)

Helen Scott Taylor said...

Hi Anna, do you mean there's more than one golden rooster?

I'm glad to hear you had a similar experience of contests to me. I think the secret is to look for the useful comments from contest judges. Even the few contest judges who seemed way off the mark always made a couple of comments that helped me.


Helen Scott Taylor said...

Hi Chelle, contests are certainly a topic that raises strong opinions on both sides. I didn't address the issue of cost, but that is an important consideration as well. Especially for me as I was mailing from the UK. Nowadays with many contests accepting electronic entries at least the mailing cost is reduced.


Kat Sheridan said...

Hi, Helen! Wow, I do like the sound of this book! What a fun concept! I'm going to have to add this one to my list!

Some of the best feedback I've gotten was from contests. Also, some of the worst. I think the biggest things I've learned are how to toughen up my skin, that not all judges know what they're doing, and how to separate the useful feedback from the not-so-useful.

I keep getting really, really close to finalling, but haven't quite jumped that bar yet. But I'm still in there trying!

I'll have to get that coffee and muffin to go, this morning, Sia! As it so happens, I've got a contest entry to get out the door! Wish me luck!

Helen Scott Taylor said...

Hi Sia,
Thank you for the warm welcome. I'm delighted to be here. The type of contests where you have to promote yourself and go through various rounds are definitely the toughest. The American Title contest was a once in a lifetime experience. I couldn't go through it again LOL.


Helen Scott Taylor said...

Hi Sherilyn,

You're right about contests toughening the writer up to take criticism. I discovered through contests that I have a tough hide. I'm good at seperating myself from the book, so criticism of the book doesn't get to me. I've found this valuable now I'm facing reviews of my books. Most reviews of my books have been good but it's a fact of life that you can't please everyone. There is always someone out there wanting to take a shot at your book.


Helen Scott Taylor said...

Hi Diane,
Commiserations on your bad contest experience. In a case like you describe I always think it is the judge's problem not mine and set any unreasonable negative comments aside. It is tough though, especially when you've paid good money to enter and feel it has been wasted.


Helen Scott Taylor said...

Hi Judi, my AT pal!

Lovely to see you here. You've also reminded me that contests such as American Title are valuable ways to learn about self-promotion.


Helen Scott Taylor said...

Hi Mason,
Thank you for stopping by to read my post!


Helen Scott Taylor said...

" to separate the useful feedback from the not-so-useful."

Hi Kat,
You're so right. This is crucial to get the most out of contests. Learning to discriminate between good and bad advice is a useful tool for any writer as we are bombarded with both.

Good luck with your contest entry!


VA said...

Lurking and contemplating the contest waters. Sifting through the advice, but I do think the feedback would be invaluable as would the hide toughening.

Helen your book sounds yummy and living in the Westcountry how could you not think of faeries? They wander there freely. Now missing Devon, I guess I'll console myself with Sia's scones and some clotted cream.

Helen Scott Taylor said...

Hi VA,

Did you live in Devon? I love the Westcountry. I had so many wonderful holidays in Cornwall when our kids were small it will always have a special place in my heart.


VA said...

I spent a glorious year in Pilton, five minute walk from Barnstaple and thirty minute drive from Exeter. Loved Exmoor. Loved it. The heather in bloom on the moors is etched in my mind as one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.

There was a charming pubhouse in the middle of nowhere, which in the Westcountry is not hard to find, that the drive in particular reminded me of the fey. Terrible overgrown trees and moss and peacocks! Loud buggers but gorgeous. It was called Hunter's Inn.

Cornwall has some interesting folk, the characters are charming with a gruff exterior.. When I stopped in for a pint, as they like to say, the pub is pre-America.

You talk about learning American English, well the Queen's English there is a bit different than the rest. I knew that when I could understand the farmers coming into the village to the market that I had been there a long while. Nevertheless, it is magic out there.

Helen Scott Taylor said...

VA, I tried putting some 'Cornish' English in The Magic Knot, the first in my series, but my editor changed it to 'normal' English. I didn't object, deciding it wasn't worth the battle on a first book. I didn't want to get a reputation for being difficult.

I think the Hunter's Inn might be one of our customers. Our business services many commercial premises throughout the Westcountry, and we have many pub customers.

I don't get up that way often as I live in South Devon. We walk on Dartmoor. There are beautiful little villages with quaint pubs dotted over the Dartmoor.


Margay said...

I've had mixed experiences with contests, too. I usually seem to get good feedback from readers, but don't make it into the final rounds! So basically, the public likes what I write, but the people who could help me get my writing to the public don't. I have entered many, many contests and continue to do so, hoping that I will final in at least one so I know I'm not wasting my time. The ironic thing is that i started entering contests not just to win but to test my ideas for marketability and I have found the readership is there, I just need to break through the glass ceiling! Ah, well, guess I'll keep on trying.

Helen Scott Taylor said...

Hi Margay,
It is so frustrating when all responses to a book are good, but it doesn't do anything in contests. I think sometimes it is just a matter of luck--who judges your story.

I hope your luck in contests changes in 2010!


Margay said...

Aw, Helen, that is so sweet! Well, I am continually inspired by stories such as yours.

VA said...

Lord, my daughter's aunt has a pub in Torquay, down your way. Funny how small the world is.

Anyway, your book sounds right up my alley Helen. Thanks Sia.

Dina said...

Enjoyed your post Helen. I never thought of writers entering contests but why not, it's a good way to start and get attention.


Helen Scott Taylor said...

Hi Dina,
Writing contests are part of the process of reaching publication for many writers. Glad you enjoyed the post.