Do you think contests are a good way for writers to get their works noticed by agents/publishers/editors? Are they worth entering if you are serious about getting published? Margay
Good question-- I think it really depends on the contest. Luck and timing matter too, and having the right subject matter at the right moment, same as always. :(
I've known writers who were "discovered" by an editor in a contest, and others who have won many contests (and are very good) and haven't caught a contract.
Since contests usually cost money (though not a lot per), if that's an issue, and it is for most of us, then it's a good idea to be judicious about choosing the right contests to enter.
So here are a few guidelines that come more from my "contest-slut-I-mean-queen" friends than from me:
1) Know what you want, and look for the contests that offer that. For example, early in your writing you might want some feedback, so look for contests that promise real critiquing (and if they promise that and don't deliver, complain to the contest coordinator). Later, however, you might be more focused on publishing, and you want to get your entry in front of an editor. In that case, choose contests which have editors judging the final rounds.
2) If there's an aspect of your story that you need help with, you might choose a contest that asks for (and critiques) that. For example, maybe you aren't sure about your synopsis. Then you might consider choosing a contest that bases a lot of the score on the synopsis, so you'll get suggestions about that. Conversely, if you're more interested in winning a contest, find a contests that will utilize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. I know some contest junkies, I mean, veterans who won't enter contests that call for a synopsis because they're not good at that, and they want to win or final.
3) If you're interested in placing or winning, look for contests that (I am so bad) have fewer entries. You'll notice that occasionally a contest's deadline is extended, or they're asking for more entries--- let me just suggest that it's possible there will be less competition in those contests. :)
4) If you want to get your work in front of an editor, see what editors are judging what. Usually it's the newer editors who are judging the finals of contests, and they're often the editors who are actively seeking new writers. But make sure they edit for a publisher you would submit to. The purpose of a contest (for you) is to bypass the submission slushpile and get the editor's close attention. So if you have, say, a chick-lit single title, what publishers would you be targeting? Look for contests where the single-title finalists are judged by an editor from that house.
5) However, don't keep contesting the same entry over and over. For one thing, judges get tired of seeing the same entry contest after contest. Be aware that many first-round judges -- being amenable to persuasion :0-- might judge 5 contests a year... and the fourth time they see your entry, it won't seem very fresh. And they might be annoyed if they'd suggested some improvements the first time they saw it, and you haven't made the changes.
6) Entries can get shopworn, just like manuscripts. If you keep entering contests and finalling and getting that entry in front of the same editor, re-think your contest strategy. If the editor didn't call you and ask for a complete manuscript the first three times, she's not going to ask for it this time. HOWEVER, if you enter another manuscript and that finals, the editor might well think that you're pretty impressive, and ask to see more, or ask to see a future project.
So yes, I think contests can help sometimes. But if you're interested in getting the book in front of an editor, you have to final first. (Editors are usual final judges.) And contests should never substitute for actually submitting to editors. It's just too random-- maybe you'll final, maybe you won't. Maybe the editor you want will be judging, or maybe in the six months from start of contest to finals judging, that editor has left the publisher. So keep on submitting.
Do editors pay attention to contest wins? I doubt many are combing the results looking for names. However, if in a query letter, you mention that this manuscript won some contest, that can't hurt. But don't say, "Tiger Lily has finalled in 18 contests so far!" The editor is likely to suspect something is wrong (like it's a great first chapter, and not so great after that), so bragging about many wins without a sale is counter-productive.