Posted On December 2, 2016 by Print This Post

Contests: Stepladder to the Top or Waste of Money? by Laura Trentham

Please welcome author LAURA TRENTHAM – this is her first guest post for RU.

As a past RWA Golden Heart® finalist and with the national contest opening the first day of December, I’ve been ruminating on my history with unpublished contests and whether or not they are worth a writer’s time and money. With the relative ease of self-publishing, these contests (chapter sponsored and national) have lost some of their allure because authors can bypass the traditional gatekeepers of agents and publishing houses and put their book on all the digital platforms.

My opinion: They can be very beneficial. Or not. It depends on your expectations and how open-minded you are.

Like the way I avoided committing? Really, I can only share my path and experience, which may be different than yours. I started entering contests because I have no local RWA chapter and hadn’t met any local writers. I discovered a list of chapter contests in the back of my very first issue of the Romance Writer’s Report. Fully confident my manuscript was polished and publishable, I entered seven (7!!) chapter contests over the summer of 2012.

It turned out my work was neither polished nor publishable, but somehow, miraculously, I finaled in two of those seven contests. Which brings me to my first point…

  • Contest judges are subjective. Just like the reading public. I think this is an important takeaway if you’re entering contests to see if your work is commercially marketable. Yes, there are some wackadoodle contest judges out there. However, I can count the outliers on one hand. And, I’ve entered A LOT of contests. Like my weight, I refuse to admit the actual number, but overall, I’ve found the feedback to be surprisingly consistent. Most chapter contests drop the lowest score anyway, and the Golden Heart® drops the lowest and the highest.
  • The hard truth: (Are you sitting down?) If you have consistently scored poorly in multiple contests, the problem is most likely NOT wackadoodle contest judges, but something much closer to home. Your characters, your story, and/or your writing are not resonating, and it’s time for some soul searching.
  • (A caveat: If you have some scores on the top and some on the very bottom, it could be you have a distinctive voice/story, which is not a bad thing. It’s better to be loved or hated than to be forgettable.)

Back to me and those seven contests…my initial contest feedback was mediocre. Although I was disappointed, the three judges from my first contest all had very similar feedback. And, it resonated like an Oprah A-ha moment. So much so, I started rewriting my manuscript within the hour.

A couple of weeks later, when I got the word I finaled in one of the contests, I was thrown. Maybe my original work was fine as it was?  Yet, I intuitively knew it wasn’t. I got a couple of “easy” judges. That happens too, by the way. The ones who love everything, or maybe don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings by being critical, or maybe they’re too busy to thoroughly read your material. I didn’t deserve to final, but I vowed to make the most of my chance. I had one week to revise if I chose to. I trusted my gut and turned in the rewrite which was 90% different.

The result? The agent who judged the finalists requested the full. I thought, this is cake! My plan was to enter another round of contests with editor judges. I was sure to have many, many more full requests, because my rewrite was now ready for publication! (Spoiler alert: It *still* wasn’t anywhere close to ready for publication.)

From the many contests I entered, I got exactly ONE editor request. ONE. And, no other agent requests. Although to be fair, I ended up signing with the agent from that first contest (longer and more complicated story than it sounds here) and only targeted contests with editor judges.

Did I get discouraged? Not at all, because while I do adhere to the Ricky Bobby school of thought—if you’re not first, you’re last—I entered contests for other reasons, as well, such as…

  • It’s all anonymous. There’s no need to pussyfoot around a critique partner’s feelings. Contest judges can be brutally honest because they’re not going out to have coffee with you to discuss their comments. It makes me trust my contest critiques even more. And, because it’s anonymous, your embarrassment is lessened when you realize you entered a big pile of word poo.
  • If you can accept the fact you have room to improve, you’ll learn and get better. One judge taught me about Deep POV. Another about dangling modifiers. Another about my out-of-control adjective usage. Another about backstory info dump. Judges suggested craft books and classes in their mark-up. I took the classes, read the books. The result? I signed with a top-notch agent, finaled in the Golden Heart® in 2014, and now have nine books published with five more under contract. My success can be traced from approaching contests as learning opportunities, not just a means to get a contract.
  • Finaling is fun and motivating! Writing is a solitary game. You query and wait weeks, months for a response—if they respond at all. From contests, you are guaranteed feedback, and sometimes a pat on the back. It’s a barometer on how you’re faring.

My personal journey on the unpublished contest circuit has led me to the following conclusions.

  • If you’re entering to nab that perfect agent or get a book deal from the judging editor, you might be wasting your money. It DOES happen, but not often. (The one exception is the Golden Heart®! A final in the national contest opens many doors.)
  • If you aren’t willing to learn and edit and rewrite based on contest feedback, you’re wasting your money.
  • If your skin is so thin, the feedback crushes your spirit then…well, you might not want to pursue writing as a career. Rejection is part of the game.


  • If you don’t have critique partners or feel like they aren’t being honest, contest feedback can be useful.
  • If you are looking to test how your WIP reads to a knowledgeable audience, often multi-published authors, contests are beneficial.
  • Even if your plan is to self-publish, contests can act as a reality check on your craft. What’s the saying? You don’t know what you don’t know…
  • If you are motivated to improve your craft by reaching for that final or win, contests are fun.

If you’re debating on entering the Golden Heart®, I would highly encourage you to give it a shot! You won’t get feedback on your pages, but finaling a big deal and opens doors. Not only will you move to the top of everyone’s slush pile, but the bond you form with the other finalists is even more important long term.


What’s your take on contests? Good, bad, or ugly? Anyone nabbed an agent or publishing deal through a contest?

DAMON SUEDE returns to RU on Monday, December 5.




I was born and raised in a small town in Northwest Tennessee. Although, I loved English and reading in high school, I was convinced an English degree equated to starvation! So, I chose the next most logical major – Chemical Engineering- and worked in a hard hat and steel toed boots for several years. Now I live in South Carolina with my husband and two children. In between school and homework and soccer practices, I love to get lost in another world, whether it’s Regency England or small town Alabama.

It’s December…argh! Where has the year gone? I haven’t started thinking about Christmas presents or decorating yet. It’s been so warm in South Carolina this fall that I was wearing shorts in November. My football team (the TN volunteers) alternated between giving me heart attack and breaking my heart.

As far as book news…my novella, CANDY CANE CHRISTMAS, is out!! It features Jeremy Whitehurst aka Whitey from the Falcon Football series and Cottonbloom series and Kayla from KISS ME THAT WAY. Readers will be able to catch up with favorite characters from Cottonbloom and Falcon, Alabama.

I turned in the first book in the new Cottonbloom trilogy, LEAVE THE NIGHT ON to my editor and am waiting on her feedback. I’m halfway into writing the second book, WHEN THE STARS COME OUT and hope to have my draft done before the kids get out for Xmas break. So far I love it! The last book will be called SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE. The new trilogy is about three blue-collar brothers on the Louisiana side of Cottonbloom finding love.

And, stay tuned for news on a special gift for my newsletter subscribers! I’m super excited about it! It will be a standalone novella featuring Thaddeus Preston, the Cottonbloom, Mississippi police chief. Sign up from my homepage or here: Newsletter Signup.

For those of you who have read the Falcon Football Series (and if you haven’t, you totally should–they’re awesome:), you might already know that Jeremy Whitehurst aka Whitey grew up in Falcon, Alabama and plays a secondary role in all three Falcon books. When I wrote his character in SLOW AND STEADY RUSH, I never intended for him to hang around. In fact, he was the villain! I didn’t even like the kid for most of the book. But, by the time his life story and struggles became clear, he’d grown on me. Lo and behold, if he didn’t show up in the second book, CAUGHT UP IN THE TOUCH, and then the third, MELTING INTO YOU, too. Believe me, I was as surprised as anyone, the kid kept hanging around!

But, he wasn’t a kid anymore…he’d grown up and matured over the course of the Falcon books (they take place over three football seasons.) I got the idea for the Cottonbloom series as I was editing the final Falcon book, and on my copyedits, I slipped in the fact Jeremy was moving…to a little town in Louisiana. Not sure how many readers caught on to that fact or put two-and-two together:)

As I was writing KISS ME THAT WAY, it was obvious who Jeremy should be with. He needed a woman who wouldn’t judge him based on a few bad decisions in his past. He finds that in Kayla, who made a few a poor decisions herself in KISS ME THAT WAY. This novella jumps ahead a couple of years and the readers will get to catch up with Cade and Sawyer and Monroe in Cottonbloom and also Logan Wilde in Falcon, Alabama. I really loved visiting with all these characters and hope you will too!

(P.S. This is my first Christmas story. To be perfectly honest, I don’t find Christmas a very “romantic’ holiday, so of course I had to put my own spin on it. The original title was Christmas in the Cop Car!)




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8 Responses to “Contests: Stepladder to the Top or Waste of Money? by Laura Trentham”

  1. Laura – Thank you so much for this fabulous post! And congrats on your Golden Heart final – that’s a tough nut to crack.

    This is a topic I’ve often wondered about. When I first started writing fiction, I didn’t have critique partners and entered contests mainly for the feedback. Meeting contest deadlines and requirements was a form of discipline, too. I never “won” a contest, but I finaled in several with a variety of stories. And then there was the story that came in dead last in one contest. Oh well!

    I’ve heard horror stories – judges who hated the genre they were judging and made totally inappropriate comments. Luckily in my own case I’ve had good experiences. The comments were always useful, if sometimes embarrassing. No matter how many times I proofread, there’s always some stupid mistake I made.

    I got a lot of encouragement from contest judges, as well as good advice. (“I sense you’re holding back with this story – trust yourself, and let yourself go!” confused me at first, but when I figured out what she meant, this was a huge help.)

    After entering contests for several years, I was often asked to judge those same contests. I found that even more helpful than entering. Somehow when you read something awkward in someone else’s story, it’s a lot easier to see how it can be improved than when you’re struggling with your own story.

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | December 2, 2016, 12:29 am
    • Yes!! I love to give back and judge contests now. I find the same thing…I can see issues in someone else’s work that shines a light on something I might need to improve upon as well.

      Thanks for having me and working so hard to get this posted:)

      Posted by Laura Trentham | December 2, 2016, 10:16 am
  2. P.S. Huge thanks to Laura for persisting against difficult odds. She had a power cut yesterday due to the TORNADO that hit her house and her neighborhood. Everyone was okay, as I understand, but there was significant damage. Sending big hugs to Laura and her family!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | December 2, 2016, 12:36 am
  3. The key to contests, as you noted, is to select ones judged by the people you most need help from and then be willing to take that help. Starting out, I spent a fair amount of money on RWA contests but I only entered ones that gave constructive feedback AND were judged by either agents or editors. I never even finaled, let alone won! But I took the criticism to heart and improved my craft. That was one of my best paths to being multi-published today.

    Posted by Heather Heyford | December 2, 2016, 9:03 am
    • Yes! I didn’t mention that, but I always made sure that I entered contest where I got feedback (the Golden Heart is the one exception, but finaling really gives you a leg up in so many ways that the chance is worth it, imo). And, I entered so many, I got to the point of targeting specific editors, etc.

      I finaled in a bunch, but really didn’t get many requests. I learned *so much* from the feedback though. I don’t think I would be where I am now without it.

      Posted by Laura Trentham | December 2, 2016, 10:18 am
  4. When you’re new to contests it can be tricky deciding which one(s) to enter. Some are more prestigious than others – ask other writers for recommendations. The Golden Heart is the biggie, the Emily is a good one and the Daphne is good, too.

    If you are an RWA member, you get a monthly magazine as part of your membership. At the back of the magazine you can find a list of upcoming contests including deadlines and information on the judges, as well as a list of finalists/winners of recent RWA contests.

    When I was entering contests regularly, I noticed a couple of unpublished writers whose names frequently appeared on those lists. A lot of them are published now. I enjoy checked out their books, and I love it when I’m reading a book by a debut author and I recognize it as a book I’d judged before. It is SO exciting to feel the magic, realizing the author whose work you’re reading could become one of tomorrow’s stars!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | December 2, 2016, 10:23 am
  5. Laura – Thanks so much for this post and for hanging out with us today. How is the post-tornado clean-up going? I hope the rest of the week is less eventful for you!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | December 2, 2016, 10:20 pm


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