Back when I was working as a literary agent, Writer’s Digest published an article I wrote on thinking like an agent. Though I’m an acquisitions editor now, not an agent, these pointers are all still true. I wanted to update them and share them with you.
What I wrote then:
6. Contests are great except when they’re not. If you look at a typical contest score sheet, judges are asked to evaluate each manuscript based on criteria such as: does it have a strong opening hook, a consistent POV, accurate research, relevant backstory, appropriate pace, strong conflict, logical plot, correct grammar and usage. All of these are good things, but as an agent, when I receive a query or manuscript pages, the question in my mind is never “Does this writer follow the rules of writing?”
It’s entirely possible for the plot to not seem logical to me at first, and yet it could still be a great book. The conflict may not seem strong in the first five pages, but maybe it’s subtle and compelling. As for typos, well, that’s what copyeditors are for.
The question in my mind is always, “Is this a good story?” Yet that is something I never see on any of those contest checklists. I understand why this is, of course; there has to be some kind of consistency in judging, something that is spelled out, despite the whole publication process being one feat of subjectivity after another. But therein lies the problem with contests: they don’t really duplicate what happens in an agent’s (or editor’s) office.
Contests can be a great way to get impartial feedback from people who don’t know you. As a writer, I’ve entered a number of contests that have been very helpful from the perspective of getting a reader’s reaction to my work. But if you want to know if your work is ready to be published, see Thinking Like an Agent, Part 1.
What I say now:
Still true, with one caveat: I do find that people who win contests or place high in them tend to have written good work. So when someone mentions a contest win in their query letter, I find that promising. But it’s important to realize that you may have a great novel that doesn’t do well in contests, and it’s still a great (and publishable!) novel.