As the deadline for the CWA Debut Dagger looms, I was thinking about the number of people I know who entered. (Good luck to each one of you. I hope as many of you as possible get short-listed.)

Looking at the list of past winners and the success some of them have had, this high profile contest can be a stepping-stone to a good publishing deal. Louise Penny’s, for example, near win opened a number of doors for her, got her first book published and she won three awards since.

But on the other side of the discussion, J.A. Konrath made the following statement at Love is Murder 2007 “I don’t think you should enter a contest. If you wrote something that’s good enough, get it published. Don’t pay ten bucks and submit to a contest where you can win $500.”

My question to writers is: Do contests matter? Should you enter them and hope that success in the contest will help your career or take that money and submit your work to agents and publishers?

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Depends a lot on the contest. The Daggers and those run by St Martins Press and some of the conventions (I think Malice Domestic runs one) - these contests are reputable and I've heard they can certainly sway editors into picking up a book. There are, however, many contests out there and many of those just take your money and are not recognized by the field. The trick is to know which is which. I'd agree with Joe if the new writer doesn't know the contest - that is, don't enter blindly. Otherwise, contests can be a legitimate way to enter the field
I just think contests are fun. I've entered a whopping two, and only one that charged an entry fee. Do I think I'll get an agent or whatever from a contest? And that's not why I entered. I work better under an external deadline so it really makes me get off my butt and get some work done. Will I enter another one? I dunno. Maybe. Not high on my "to do" list, but I won't say never.
Well, dammit, you've pretty much said what I was going to.

Good luck to all the Dagger entrants! Got mine in with only a few hours to spare.
Yeah, the external deadline is a real factor. A few years ago I entered the three-day-novel-writing contest. I didn't win, but I got a first draft finished that was published a little later (rewritten quite a bit). I know of a few other writers who have used contest deadlines to get things finished.

The contests themselves only matter to the winners, right?
I agree, it depends on the contest. It's a good way to cut through the slush pile, especially if you haven't found an agent yet. (And as many of us have discovered, sometimes it is harder to get an agent than to sell a book.)

The best contests are those that will put the shortlist of finalists on an editor's desk, and the editor will be the final judge. It is, in essence, how I got my first break back when I was writing my first police procedural/romance/time travel. (talk about genre benders.) The contest was the Golden Heart through RWA. The five finalists were judged by five editors from five different major NY houses. As a result, one of the judges, Carolyn Marino, from HarperCollins, called me and asked to see the rest of the manuscript. (the contest called for a synopsis and first three chapters.) She liked it, bought it four days later. When I switched to Mystery, I was unagented, but that contest and one book opened doors for me that weren't open before. I sold my first mystery unagented (which I don't recommend) to HarperCollins, bypassing the slush pile, because they knew my name. (I got an agent right after that--I won't dive into the unagented waters ever again.)

And as someone else mentioned, St. Martin's has two great contests. The shortlist of finalists goes in front of an editor. A fellow criminal investigator called me (Michael Siverling), asking what was the best way to break in. He'd had agents, but no success. I told him to enter the St. Martin's, because "the cream rises to the top." A few months later, he called me to say that I give good advice. He'd won the St. Martin's PI contest, and sold his first book as a result. (And again proves the case that it is all about getting the right book in front of the right editor at the right time.)

Sometimes contests can be a good way of judging whether your manuscript is ready to be submitted to a house or agent, especially when you're not sure if your spouse, best friend or critique group isn't just being nice or not educated on what constitutes a good manuscript. If you enter a couple and you haven't gotten top scores or shortlisted, then it's a good sign that your manuscript isn't ready. What to do? One thought is to enter the contests that offer feedback, find out where you need to beef things up. I believe in our genre, Murder in the Grove is a good one, and if I'm not mistaken, SinC Guppies may very well have one. (Can't recall for sure.) Various chapters or cons might have them.

But be careful. All contests aren't created equal. The contests I'd recommend are any that those shortlisted land on a major NY editor or agent's desk. After that, respected contests that offer feedback by professionals or published authors (such as Murder in the Grove). After that, a few by respected chapters of major writing organizations.

One caveat. Don't become a contest junkie. If you find that you keep polishing the first few chapters, entering contest after contest, placing or even winning in contests that don't land you on that editor's desk, and still haven't sold a book after years and years of placing or winning, you are probably a contest junkie. At that point it is time to quit cold turkey and get back to the writing.
I agree with Robin that if you're going to enter a contest, you should be picky about which ones to enter. The St. Martin's contests don't charge a fee. I was lucky enough to enter and win the first (and last) Sara Ann Freed Memorial Award at Mysterious Press, which was part of Warner Books, which is now Grand Central Publishing. That contest didn't charge a fee, and while I had an agent at the time who was in process of trying to sell the book, his response when I asked if we should enter the book in the contest was "It wouldn't hurt." It certainly didn't, it got me a contract and a modest advance and I'm now awaiting the publication of the third book in my series.

So while you need to look at each contest carefully, it doesn't hurt to enter, and you never know if you'll get that brass ring.
As everyone else has said, it depends on the contest, and what the outcome of doing well in that contest might be. I don't know if I would enter a contest where the outcome was a nice certificate and a bit of cash. Different though if the outcome meant that you would hurdle the slush pile, and that your novel would get a closer, earlier look by agents and publishers.

For me, getting shortlisted for the Debut Dagger meant that my novel (or at least the part of it that was written at the time) attracted interest from agents much sooner than it otherwise might have done. That interest ended up in a couple of offers from agents whom I would have been submitting to anyway, which was a good position to be in, and saved me from what could have been a long submission process.

Sure, being shortlisted in itself was a nice thing to happen. But in the long run, it was a means to an end, not an end in itself, and that sums up how I think about contests. Best of luck to anyone who's entered this year.
I'm not a writer, but I do know of writers who got their start from a contest win


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