Posted On November 30, 2009 by Print This Post

Ins, Outs, Ups & Downs of Writing Contests

Today, we’re delighted to have Donnell Bell with us. She, along with many other volunteers, contributes countless hours to ensure the success of the Kiss of Death chapter’s Daphne contest each year. Without people like Donnell and other contest coordinators and judges, aspiring romance writers would find it much more difficult to gain feedback on their work and gain the attention of editors and agents. Welcome, Donnell!

Kelsey: Donnell, would you share a short overview of the Daphne contest with our readers?

DA BellDonnell:  Hi, Kelsey, I’m delighted to be here to talk about the Daphne, or more formally known, The Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense.   The contest honors legendary suspense author Daphne du Maurier, and KOD uses Dame Daphne’s name with permission of the du Maurier estate with great respect and admiration.   The goal of our contest (published and unpublished) is to further the mystery and romantic suspense genre, particularly that of the Kiss of Death Chapter members and its supporters.

Kelsey: How do you feel the Daphne, or any RWA chapter contest, benefits the contest entrants?

Donnell:   Oh, gosh, how many blog pages can I fill?  The Daphne, as well as most contests in RWA® and multi-genre competitions, help entrants on so many levels.  For aspiring authors who have honed their craft, it enables them to add a final or a win to their resumes;  perhaps to get their work in front of an agent or editor (in the Daphne’s case, both);  and, ideally, to get a request for a partial or a full.

Even if a talented writer doesn’t final or win, they are able to do the math.  They can see that they were darn close, and it’s subjective!  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a judge contact me and ask about Entry XX.  It didn’t final, she asks?  Nope, and it’s not because it didn’t deserve to.  It’s because there’s a ton of competition. (By the way, I’m not surprised in the least when I see a non-finaling entry reach publication.)

For aspiring authors starting out, or on their way up, a contest can offer feedback.  It’s a chance to get your work in front of judges, and get a glimpse of what a future editor or agent might say when that entrant finally submits his or her work.  Caution:  I remind any entrant, that judges are just that:  judges.  They are not agents or editors.  The feedback can be invaluable, though, and can set the writer on the right course.  And if a contest has training for its judges, that’s even more helpful.

 Kelsey: We don’t often think of contests benefitting the coordinators and judges. What do those involved behind the scenes gain from being involved with a writing contest?

Donnell:  In my opinion, it’s a superior networking tool.  I have met so many people thanks to the Daphne.  It forces an introvert like me to get involved in a positive way.  When someone coordinates an individual genre for the Daphne, she works with the editors and agents directly.  I get involved, if necessary, but for the most part, I’m the overseer.  Daphne coordinators are professional, competent and talented authors in their own right, and KOD, the Daphne and the entrants out there are lucky to have them.   

 Coordinating the Daphne also allows me to do something I’m passionate about — we’ve all gotten lousy contest advice, and I’m no exception.  When it happened to me, I thought, this is just wrong.  These kinds of people shouldn’t judge contests.  I guess I became a contest coordinator out of self-defense. 

Negative comments such as “Don’t quit your day job,” and/or foolish “out-there” advice can destroy a writer’s dream.  I stress that judges aren’t editors or agents for a reason.  They can’t tell an entrant, “This will never sell.”  The moment somebody makes that claim, someone in the publishing industry will prove them wrong.

In the Daphne, we encourage our judges never to say absolutely not.  We ask them to say to an entrant: I doubt what you’ve written is correct; you might want to check your facts.  Or if a judge is an expert, she might indicate why this information is wrong and cite sources.

I also send our judges comparison grids.   I want them to see how they judged in relation to their counterparts.  Most tell me they’re grateful, and want to see how they did.  As for judges, they are our contests’ lifeblood, and I can’t thank them enough.  This year KOD sent out Daphne magnets to its judges with the KOD skull and lips logo, which read “Daphne Judges have Killer Instincts.”  I think (I hope) they liked them.

Kelsey: What do you feel makes a particular contest prestigious?

Donnell:  The people who run it and their commitment to see it thrive.  Communication on all levels.  Policies and procedures that allow continuity from year to year and ethical conduct and professionalism at all costs. 

Kelsey: What mistakes do you see most in contest entries?

Donnell:  Number one:  a lack of proofreading.  If you’re submitting to a contest and you don’t have a firm grasp on the English language and/or grammar, ask someone to proofread for you.  A pair of fresh eyes on a manuscript is invaluable.   Number two:  entries that contain back story or information dumps that don’t propel the story forward.  Three:   if you’re writing a romance, not getting the hero and heroine together fast enough (in the Daphne’s case 5,000 words.)  I can’t tell you how many entries I see where the hero and heroine simply think about each other and never interact on the page.  Which leads me to a vice versa comment and number four:  entering the incorrect genre…. Say you’re writing a romance and you enter mainstream mystery, you’re not going to do very well.

Whether you enter the Daphne, or any contest out there, I advise every entrant to study the score sheet Armed with this information, it will help you immensely.

Kelsey: How do you suggest entrants make the most of their contest feedback?

Donnell:  Great question.  I suggest entrants compare feedback of that particular entry.  In the case of the Daphne (unpublished) we have four judges, the lowest score dropped.  Take a look at the feedback.  If four judges are saying the same thing, chances are they’re correct.  If only one judge says it, well, then, it’s back to that subjectivity business. 

I also suggest that an entrant, particularly if they get less then favorable scores, digest them, put the entry aside for a while.  Act, don’t react.   When we first see the comments, it hurts.  These entries are our babies, no doubt about it.  But if you can set it aside for a few days, weeks, whatever time you need, and then come back to it, you might see the judge had a good point and you might be able to look at it more objectively. 

Don’t always assume that the highest score offers the best advice.  I can’t tell you how many times my lowest score judge’s advice or comments have helped me the most.

And finally, I advise entrants, if a judge truly made an effort to help you, please thank him or her.  Good judges are solid gold to a contest coordinator, and if a judge feels his efforts are wasted, he’s likely to pass the next time.   These days in electronic, you can easily send a thank you note to your judge and your coordinator can pass it on fairly effortlessly.

daphnedumaurieraward03Kelsey: What is your biggest challenge as the overall Daphne coordinator?

Donnell:  Judges.  We need so many. 

Kelsey: Who is the unpublished Daphne contest’s greatest success story?

Donnell:   Oh, gosh.  As for the greatest success story, I’m going to plead the fifth because there are so many.  Seriously…there are so many.     

I’ll tell you one story because it happened this year and I believe the circumstances are extraordinary, and I think it does depict how much editors and agents view Daphne finalists.  Barbara Monajem’s entry Vamping the Chameleon received an Honorable Mention from Dorchester’s Christopher Keeslar a few years back.  It’s scheduled for publication in 2010 and will come out as Sunrise in the Garden of Good and Evil

I often hear people lament they received “only” an HM.  I’ll wager in Barbara’s case, she’s jumping up and down to have received one.

I’m also pleased to announce that we had two unpublished entrants go on to publish as a result of the 2009 contest:  Angi Platt for See Jane Run Category (series) and Tammy Hoganson who won the Paranormal category for her entry, Underbelly

As for success stories, I believe the Daphne, in conjunction with many fine contests out there, have helped several authors reach publication.   It’s always fun to see unpublished Daphne finalists and winners go on to publish and then enter the Daphne Published side of the contest.  They do quite well, too.  It’s also satisfying to see that when these authors do rise to the top, it isn’t a fluke.  In two instances, two published authors have taken The Daphne, (the Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense most prestigious award).  Nina Bruhns and author Kylie Brant  

Whether you’re a best selling author, e-published or self-published, the published side of the Contest levels the playing field and allows you to enter.  I’ve seen talent in all publishing venues do well in the published side of our contest.

Note:  Even though the above people are clearly talented, they should not be labeled the greatest success story.  Like all things in this business, it’s subjective.    

Kelsey: Would you like to share anything else about the Daphne with our readers?

Donnell:  After ten years in operation, both sides of this contest (published and unpublished) are well-oiled machines.  Published authors, if you’ve written a mystery or romantic suspense, consider entering the Daphne to promote your book (current year copyright).  Unpublished authors, the Daphne is an outstanding way to get your work out there.  Even if you don’t win or final, you’ll come away with knowledge that you’re ready, or you’ll have the tools in hand to make it better for the next contest. 

The Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense contest starts January 15, 2010.  And it’s now 100 percent electronic.  Check out Also, if you’re interested in judging and want to find out our judging requirements, please contact me at I’d love to talk to you. 

Thanks Romance University for allowing me to share my thoughts on what I think is an outstanding contest.

Donnell, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us about The Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense! RU crew, do you have any questions for Donnell about either this contest or writing contests in general?

Be sure to join us Wednesday when special guest Mike Schwartzmann will be back to talk about overcoming addiction.

Donnell’s bio:

Donnell Ann Bell is published in nonfiction, an award-winning writer and a 2007 Golden Heart® finalist. An avid lover of mystery and romantic suspense, she has served on the Daphne Committee for years and has held the Overall Coordinator position for several.  She is a member of two community blogs and Her website is:

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28 Responses to “Ins, Outs, Ups & Downs of Writing Contests”

  1. Donnell –

    We’re delighted to have you with us at RU!

    I know I was intimidated about judging contests early on. Do you have any recommendations on how writers can prepare themselves to become good contest judges?

    Thanks so much for doing what you do. The Daphne is a wonderfully organized and professional contest!


    Posted by KelseyBrowning | November 29, 2009, 11:35 pm
    • Good morning, Kelsey: With every contest you judge, you’re going to get better. I would say if the contest has a training, pay close attention, take into account its score sheet, and back up your remarks with comments. Again, try to be positive in every aspect, and treat the contest entry as if it were your entry. If you do all this, you’re off to a great start.

      Posted by Donnell | November 30, 2009, 9:05 am
  2. Hi Donnell,

    Thank you for the informative article!

    How strong of a mystery/suspense element does a manuscript have to have in order to be competitive in the Daphne? Also, what do you think it is about the Daphne contest that sets it apart from other lesser known contests?

    I’ve coordinated a contest category, so I have a fair idea of the time commitment involved for an overall coordinator. Keep up the fabulous job!

    Thanks again,

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | November 30, 2009, 6:35 am
  3. Tracey, for the Daphne, the suspense is pivotal. If you lack suspense or mystery in your manuscript, you’re not going to do very well if you enter this contest. That’s why the contest came to be; to support the mystery/romantic suspense author.

    Tracey, thanks for the compliment. I sure try. I’d say the success of our contest is our ability to adjust to the market. Take going electronic for instance 😉 That was a big, complicated deal for us. But this type of contest was in demand. I think the length is an acceptable format, also, and I think a yearly continuity to keep us on track. Thanks again. 😉

    Posted by Donnell | November 30, 2009, 9:11 am
  4. Morning Donnell!

    As a newbie to writing contests, I have to say the judging part of it terrifies me…lol…of course I think my work is brilliant, and am stunned when others don’t view it the same way! I’ve gotten better at the act vs react part of it – a margarita or two really helps slow down the reaction time of a bad review. =)

    Is there any type of training to be a judge? A guideline list, or do they just have to be a published author? Also, how many entrants did you have this past year?

    thanks for the informative post!


    Posted by carrie | November 30, 2009, 9:58 am
  5. Welcome to the contest world, Carrie! I’ll wager you’re going to learn a lot entering and judging. Many contests, as I’ve said have a training. The Daphne does for its first-year judges and a refresher course for anyone interested. Yes, there’s definitely a guidance list. Last year we had 358 entries. Margaritas are great, and they’re my favorite! But remember, don’t drink and judge 😉 If you write mystery or romantic suspense, I hope you’ll enter. Our web site still has the 2009 contest info up, but it starts January 15, 2010. Any questions, e-mail me at

    Posted by Donnell | November 30, 2009, 10:14 am
  6. Hi Donnell and thank you for being with us today. I have entered the Daphne the last two years and have recieved great feedback. I’ll be back again this year.

    Contests can be tough stuff, but I do believe reaching the final round of a well-known contest can garner a few reads from editors or agents. I know it has happened to me.

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | November 30, 2009, 10:42 am
    • I agree 100% with Adrienne – I think reaching the finals of a well-respected contest can really make a difference to your career – and The Daphne is one of the biggies for those of us who write mystery, suspense, and romantic suspense. Even as a newbie, I had heard about the Daphne.

      As Donnell mentioned, I recently sold my 2009 paranormal Daphne finalist, UNDERBELLY, to Deb Werksman at Sourcebooks Inc. as part of a three book deal. My story is proof positive that what you hear can happen…sometimes actually does happen: the agent who judged the Daphne paranormal final round requested a full manuscript and ultimately became my agent. The editor who judged the final round requested a full manuscript, and though she didn’t make an offer, I very much appreciated her interest and her time.

      The Daphne consistently attracts fabulous final round judges, but the most useful feedback I received on my manuscript last year came from a first round judge who left her ego at the door and clearly invested a lot of time, care and expertise in her comments. (Thank you, Judge 09-43!)

      I very much look forward to judging the contest this year.

      Posted by Tammy Hoganson | November 30, 2009, 1:59 pm
  7. Hi, Adrienne, I’m so glad you’ve received helpful feedback. That’s what the Daphne committee is shooting for. I, too, have been duly impressed by the feedback we hear from our final round judges, and when you reach your level, entering contests is a great way ideally to circumvent that submission process. See you in January! Thank you!

    Posted by Donnell | November 30, 2009, 11:26 am
  8. Donnell, one reason I enjoy judging the Daphne is the high qualities of the entries.

    Congratulations, Tammy, on your sale!

    Posted by Edie | November 30, 2009, 2:08 pm
  9. Great article, Donnell. I was a Daphne finalist in 2008 (the Honorable Mention variety, but I was just so dang PROUD to be a finalist at all!). It’s always hard to point to contests and say whether they qualify as “prestigious,” but I always tell writers of romantic suspense that a final in the Daphne is a huge gold star!

    Posted by Amy Atwell | November 30, 2009, 2:26 pm
  10. Great article. The point about the lowest judge’s score is a good one. I remember receiving some wonderful advice from a judge who scored my contest entry with a lower score and I was incredibly grateful for her comments. Thanks for the post!

    Posted by Gail Fuller | November 30, 2009, 2:47 pm
  11. Tammy, your story is incredible. I’m so pleased the Daphne *helped* bring you you such monumental success. I’m sure fantastic writing had something to do with it. Congratulations. And that’s a first LOL someone agreeing with me 100 percent 😉

    Thank you Edie for stopping by. (An American Title Finalist and stellar writer, you are always a valued Daphne judge.)

    Not only did Amy receive an Honorable Mention in the Daphne, she’s a Golden Heart finalist and multiple contest winner as well.

    Tammy, Edie and Amy — these are authors to watch for! Thanks for stopping by!

    Posted by Donnell | November 30, 2009, 2:55 pm
  12. Thanks for stopping by, Gail. Yeah, the low score stings, but in the end, although the accolades are nice, it’s about getting published. Great business head on those shoulders 😉

    Posted by Donnell | November 30, 2009, 2:57 pm
  13. Great article, Donnell! Last year was the first year that I judged the Daphne, though I’ve judged many, many contests over the years. The Daphne’s reputation demands the quality of the manuscripts to be as near perfect as possible, which makes it fun and enjoyable to read the entries, but VERY hard to judge.

    Posted by Margaret A. Golla | November 30, 2009, 3:23 pm
    • Margaret, and you are a fantastic judge. When a Daphne entrant gets you, he/she’s one lucky entrant! Thanks for commenting on our contest. You’re right we get some that are darn close to perfect it’s hard to judge, which makes it incredible to be labeled a finalist.

      Posted by Donnell | November 30, 2009, 5:57 pm
  14. Donnell is a hard worker and such a fab person. I’ll judge for her, even when I tell myself i don’t have time.

    Judging contests is good for me because it reminds me about things i need to do with my own work. While i have not sold a book yet, i read a lot of them and i have taken classes and workshops and i know what works for me as a reader. I am amazed at how many entrants haven’t studied the score sheets to see if their entries have the elements on which we are to judge. I am also concerned at how many folks don’t consider the rules of grammar and punctuations as tools.

    Posted by Mary Marvella | November 30, 2009, 3:51 pm
  15. Great observation, Mary, but then you always do! By judging, we often can see the mistakes we’re making in our own work, only they don’t look like mistakes — to us. I wish I could pay you, you’re such a valued judge. Thank you!

    Posted by Donnell | November 30, 2009, 4:11 pm
  16. Now, there you go, Donnell, being all sweet! That’s why I’ll always say yes to you. I enjoy the judging part because i enjoy teaching.

    Judges need to remember to use the score sheets and entrants need to remember it’s still a crap shoot. i try to judge gently while some folks look for things not to like.

    Posted by Mary Marvella | November 30, 2009, 4:42 pm
    • Over at the 2009 Golden Heart finalists blog at, we’ve started to refer to the judges who look for things not to like either “The East German Judge” or “Little Miss RWA.”

      I think we all quickly learn that our work may not be every readers’ cuppa tea, that there is a certain degree of subjectivity that comes into play when judging. But unfortunately a lot of us have also encountered judges whose feedback reveals a lot more about the judge’s personal issues and frustrations than the manuscript’s improvement areas. Good training definitely helps.

      Posted by Tammy Hoganson | November 30, 2009, 4:58 pm
  17. Tammy, you nailed one of the reasons I became a contest coordinator. As I mentioned, judges are like gold to us, but if a judge is going through something, or seems to have a vendetta it will definitely show in his/her work and I ask him not to judge. Oh, dear, Little Miss RWA or East German Judge 😉 not titles I aspire to. 🙂

    Posted by Donnell | November 30, 2009, 5:33 pm
  18. Just chiming in here to say Donnell has contributed soooo much to making this contest what it is. She’s to be congratulated! I’ve judged for several years and I think it has become one of the premiere contests out there. I know Harlequin thinks highly enough of it to put Daphne Award Winning Author on the front of their authors’ books (for overall winners). And I once sat at the contest with one of Silhouette’s top editors and watched her mark her program meticulously with winners and their books. H/S, at least, really thinks highly of this contest. And last summer there were more H/S editors at the ceremony than any of the other publishing houses.

    What makes it more valuable for unpublished writers is the amount of work the judges put into commenting on the manuscripts and score sheets. Judges are reminded to be generous with their feedback and I think that can be really helpful. Especially when you compare the input from all the judges and find commonalities.

    Posted by Kylie Brant | November 30, 2009, 5:34 pm
  19. Kylie, you’re very kind 😉 and how fantastic to know that Harlequin and Silhouette value our contest. We try. As for me, I have a lot of help; I’m surrounded by the most conscientious and talented bunch in the business. And the people I meet and the books I get to read. Pretty cool perk of the job. Thank you!

    Posted by Donnell | November 30, 2009, 6:03 pm
  20. Great article and the advice for contest entrants is excellent. I’ve judged quite a few and those are the issues that come up so often. The success stories are great too, always nice to hear about sales that come from contests, and HR at that. Enjoyed reading this.

    Posted by Elizabeth Stock | November 30, 2009, 6:30 pm
  21. Thanks, Elizabeth, if you write mystery or romantic suspense, I hope you’ll consider entering the Daphne. Thanks for having me Romance University!

    Posted by Donnell | December 1, 2009, 8:04 am
  22. I decided to try my hand at contests this year, and in addition to getting great feedback, I have to say it’s been nice to hear compliments!

    When a judge says, “I LOVE your character”, or “I can’t wait to buy this”, it really does make you feel like you’re headed in the right direction. (We all know that some days it feels like we’re backtracking! LOL)

    So my thanks to the judges and contest coordinators. You keep all of us going!

    Posted by Donna | December 1, 2009, 9:21 am
  23. Donna, absolutely. How else do you know if you’re on the right track? Congratulations on making that next step toward your career. You can be the little engine who can 😉 Another great thing about being a contest coordinator or a judge; it gives you a great idea of what the editors/agents are seeing on their desks.

    Posted by Donnell | December 1, 2009, 9:28 am
  24. Hi Donnell!

    Great info. Very informative! I cringe to think of my original entries into contests; those poor, poor judges. But my goodness did I learn a lot from them.

    And I agree — it’s all sooo subjective. When it comes to feedback, like a cafeteria line, I pick and choose what works for me. And I strongly believe in ALWAYS sending a thank you card/email. Even if you disagree with 95% of the judge’s comments, that person took time away from their family/writing/life in order to voluntarily review your work. So thanks for reminding us about that too!

    Posted by Kristina McMorris | December 1, 2009, 12:19 pm

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