Last week I participated in the Backspace conference. During a panel, somebody asked me about WRITING CONTESTS. How do I feel about them, are they worth entering, do they make me sit up and take notice if you mention them in the query, etc. And so I told them a story.
See, also last week there was this contest you might have heard of on various blogs or all over twitter called "The Writer's Voice." A takeoff on the TV signing competition, this one got four "teams" of authors, each under a coach, pitted against one another to grab the attention of agents - who would see only a pitch and first page, no bio or anything else, and would vote to see material based on that.
Now, I wasn't one of the agents participating. But everyone in my twitter stream was talking about the contest... so I clicked. And I read. And I made a note of a few of the entries that I thought sounded appealing.
While the entries were posted anonymously, all the writers were talking on twitter. I typed something like, "there are a few entries that I really liked - too bad I'm not a judge!" And one of the writers said, "Oh... well... one of those entries might be in your query inbox right now!" So I searched for her name in my inbox... and I found STITCHING SNOW. Which was, indeed, one of the entries I had my eyes on.
So I requested the full and read it before the contest was even over, so I'd get the jump on the other agents. And I was able to offer representation to R.C. Lewis before they'd even read it. SNEEEEAKY ME! But whatever, it was IN MY MAILBOX, obviously it was meant to be.
What's the point I'm making?
OH RIGHT, CONTESTS. Yes. Contests can be a great way to get practice pitching, to sharpen your first pages, to boost your confidence, to start thickening your skin, to possibly get feedback on your work.
If you go in thinking "I'm gonna BE DISCOVERED! An agent will see this and I'll BE A STAR!" ... you'll probably be disappointed. If you go in thinking "This will be fun, and a new experience!" you'll probably be pleased. While R.C.'s is a contest success story, I suspect these are pretty rare. And as she'll tell you - she herself has entered similar contests in the past and gotten nary a nibble of interest. So yeah. Temper your expectations, is what I'm saying.
Also... be sure it is a contest you want to win, and get the details. Some big contests require you to not shop the manuscript for a certain period of time while the contest is being held, sometimes for months or even a year. Other contests give a "prize" that may actually be more limiting than helpful. The Am*zon Breakthrough Novel contest, for example, seems pretty cool. It could be great exposure. The grand prize is a publishing contract with Penguin. So look, it MIGHT be the perfect contest for you. But it might not. If you read the fine print... that contract is completely non-negotiable. If you win, that probably means you have an extremely tight, highly commercial manuscript that is publisher-ready. If that is the case, you might well be better off getting an agent and selling it for better terms, keeping more subrights and getting higher royalties. If I love the book, and a person tells me in their query they're in this contest (as many people do, including my client Ilsa J. Bick once upon a time), I'm just thinking PLEASE DON'T LET THEM WIN!
As to whether to mention contests and the like in your query? I don't really think so unless it is a MAJOR contest (ie, held by a national organization with professional judges) which you WON or were one of very few finalists. Or, if you had contact with the agent through the contest and they requested material, then obviously mention it. Other than that, it doesn't impress me personally.