Whenever people hear that I sold to Harlequin as a result of a competition win they inevitably ask me my thoughts on competition. I will raise my hand to being a card-carrying competition slut. I love the whole competition mechanism as a way for new writers to expose their work and guage their craft relative to other new writers. I created a factsheet for the recent RWA Romance Roadshow (WA) which you are welcome to download in its fullness, but following is a brief summary of that document for your blogging convenience...
Romance writing comps (there's hundreds!) tend to be structured around the non-negotiable STORY ELEMENTS in the romance genre:
1. Hook First chapter/First page/Opening line. Lots of comps focus on this important tool which is designed to replicate the submission process where all you’ll get is two paragraphs/sixty seconds of an editorial assistant's time
2. First Meeting/First Kiss Sensual Tension. Can you write a H/h in a way that sizzles with tension even if they don’t touch? Not the ‘gasping for a shag’ kind, but the ‘he’s-aware-of-everything-she-does-in-the-room-even-when-he’s-not-watching-her’ kind.
3. Black Moment Emotional punch and conflict. Can you write a scene that is saturated with emotional punch? Not melodrama. Punch. As in ouch... right in the solar plexus.
Competition can be very helpful for:
Learning how to write to deadline: There is nothing as motivating as a looming deadline. A deadline can make you faster and more efficient, more ruthless.
Affordable market-research: Competition feedback can give you an idea of whether your story, characters or voice appeal to readers of the genre.
A foot in the door with an editor/agent: Again, you bypass that poor, overworked editorial assistant trying to read your work on the tube and get straight under the nose of someone with the ability to sign a cheque.
Query credit-history: Briefly mentioning competition successes tells the editor/agent that you're polished and literate and that the story has broad enough appeal to be able to score highly in a range of comp settings - and that matters to them as marketers.
Comps can be very un-helpful for:
An editing tool: excruciatingly slow, confusing and entirely frustrating way to edit your work.
Your ego: You need a tough skin and a really supportive group of writing friends to patch you up after a comp disappointment.
Thoughts on surviving competition:
Competition is enormously subjective. Be prepared to do well sometimes and bomb sometimes, even with the same manuscript.
Approach competitions with balance & detachment. Don’t give them too much importance in the greater scheme of your writing.
Watch your spending. Decide at the beginning of each year how much you are willing to spend on learning to write to deadline, affordable market research, building a query credit-history and possibly skipping the slush pile.. and then stick to it!